Sunday, August 22, 2010

NY Public Library for the Performing Arts / Rose Museum

5/15/2010, Saturday

Rose Museum ……………………………………...…. 20 min

New York Public Library for the Performing Arts … Free
Rose Museum ………………………..……...………. Free

The New York Public Library (NYPL) is not like other libraries. The first difference you notice is its size. As we’ve come to expect from all things in New York, the library is really big. With 50 million items (20 million of which are books), it’s among the world’s largest libraries, ranking with the Library of Congress, Bibliothèque nationale de France, and the British Library. The second difference is its collection, consisting of more than standard library fare, with outstanding historical and research materials such as Jefferson's copy of the Declaration of Independence, ancient maps from 15th century Florence, and Columbus’s first letters back to Spain describing the new world.

It’s not just the collection that’s large; the NYPL system consists of 87 individual libraries spread out over Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. We’d highly recommend a visit to the “main branch” as a great stop on any NYC tour. It’s an impossible-to-miss landmark Beaux-Arts building on Fifth Avenue (see picture above), with huge lions on either side of the marble columned facade and an upstairs reading room as grand as any European palace. It’s iconic enough to be featured in movies from “Ghostbusters” to “Sex In the City.” However, it’s not a museum, so that’s not where we went today.

In addition to the 81 lending libraries and the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library for the blind, NYPL has 4 non-lending research libraries: the Humanities and Social Sciences Library; the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; the Science, Industry and Business Library; and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. This last library is situated in a prime location within Lincoln Center (see picture at right), between the famous Juilliard School and the home of the Metropolitan Opera. It houses one of the worlds most extensive collections of materials on the performing arts, and is particularly known for its non-book materials, such as historic recordings, videotapes, autographed manuscripts, correspondence, sheet music, stage designs, press clippings, programs, posters and photographs.

A few times a year, the librarians at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts pull a few things out of the collection and exhibit them in a small space set aside from the library stacks. We’re still not sure if it’s technically a museum, but due to the fact that most of the collection is in media format (not books), it certainly makes for some entertaining exhibits. Just finishing up now is an expose on W. C. Fields (“The Peregrinations & Pettifoggery of W. C. Fields”), featuring his comic radio broadcasts, diagrams of his famous juggling and billiards acts, numerous photos and lots of film clips. While we were visiting, the exhibit was The Jazz Loft Project,” about a more mysterious and haunting subject.

In 1957, celebrated photographer W. Eugene Smith quit his job at Life magazine, moved out of the home he shared with his wife and four children in a charming village in Westchester County, and into a dilapidated five-story loft building at 821 Sixth Avenue in New York City’s wholesale flower district. He wired the space for sound and furnished it with pianos and drum sets. For the next 8 years, this loft served as the late night haunt of NYC’s jazz scene, playing hosts to the biggest names of the age (Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk) and countless underground characters. 

Smith obsessively documented events in the loft, taking 740 reel-to-reel tape recordings (approx. 4000 hours) and nearly 40,000 photographs, but always setting himself apart. Paul felt he was the muse of the beat generation, bearing witness to the rise of New York jazz, and perhaps forming the catalyst for what elevated the scene to greatness. Major figures to minor players, all did their time in the loft and are captured forever on his tapes.

Yet the “Jazz Loft Project” isn’t about the obsession of one man, but two. Sam Stephenson of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies spent 13 years transcribing these tapes (to the tune of half a million dollars) and researching the events of the loft. His curation of the tapes and photographs made the exhibit possible. 

Walking into the gallery set the mood. The room was dimly light and all around played the haunting strains of jazz, recorded from the loft. The room’s black glass walls held stark black and white photos of late night jam sessions and conversations at dimly lit parties, everyone with a drink in their hand, a cigarette in their mouth and an instrument at the ready. It seemed as if there’s never been an era that captured cool quite like the 50’s. At the end of the room, hidden in a dim nook, was a wall of TV’s and headphones set up to listen to the interviews of the surviving musicians, the NPR broadcast about the project, or the tapes themselves. Both Paul and I found the exhibit to be a fascinating documentation of the merging of madness, obsession and music.

In the same performing arts theme, Paul and I also saw the Rose Museum today, the museum chronicling the history of Carnegie Hall (see picture at left). The Rose Museum is a tiny place, tucked up a narrow stairway in a hard to find corner of the great hall. It exhibits a small collection of brochures and memorabilia from the famous musicians and tenants of the hall. On one wall, a flat screen TV shows a live broadcast of whatever is happening on the main stage. While we were there it played a rehearsal of what appeared to be a Chinese opera/dramatic musical, all done in plain clothes with scripts in hand and the actors stopping frequently to try a scene in different ways. I hadn’t seen a rehearsal since grade school and it was fun to watch, despite the fact that I don’t speak Chinese.

Our favorite parts of the Rose Museum were about the history of this iconic place, including the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891 with the American debut of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. “Tchaikovsky’s opening-night appearance set an auspicious precedent for the array of classical musicians and conductors for whom the Hall would become the essential venue in the United States. Henceforth, a success at Carnegie Hall would be the litmus test of greatness.” We also learned about how the hall was nearly destroyed in 1960 by developers, but saved at the eleventh hour by a cadre of musicians and politicians headed by Isaac Stern. From this story and others, it was clear that many of the musicians who play here develop a deep love of this American icon, and this love has saved Carnegie Hall more than once.

Our take on things: Both the New York Library of the Performing Arts and the Rose Museum delve into the history and culture of performing arts in NYC and both are free, but otherwise they have little resemblance. The New York Library of the Performing Arts features well-researched and atmospheric multi-media exhibits that are well worth the time.  However, definitely check into what’s showing before you go, as subjects vary widely, and you might not find all of them equally fascinating (i.e. past exhibit “The New York Choral Society: The First 50 Years”). The Rose Museum was a much less meaty museum, but this hidden corner of Carnegie Hall might be worth exploring, particularly for lovers of classical music.

Images in this post, from the top: Arthur Taylor, by W. Eugene Smith from the Jazz Loft Project; the facade of the New York Public Library main branch on 5th Avenue; section of Lincoln Center; four photographs by W. Eugene Smith from the Jazz Loft Project (Vic Dickenson and Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk and Town Hall band, Zoot Sims on saxophone, and David X. Younng's canvases and Jimmey Raney on guitar) exterior of Carnegie Hall; self portrait caricature of the tenor Enrico Caruso from the Rose Museum collection; Isadora Duncan's scarf from the Rose Museum collection; Untitled, by W. Eugene Smith from the Jazz Loft Project.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Whtney Museum of American Art

5/21/2010, Friday (continued)
TIME: 2.5 hrs
COST: Normally $18, but we went Friday after 6 for "pay what you wish" admission.

The Whitney Museum of American Art (a.k.a. the Whitney) is the “other” modern art museum in New York.  Mind you, there are a number of modern art museums in this city, but the Whitney is the only one that even tries to compete with the big guns, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art (a.k.a the MOMA).

It doesn’t succeed, mind you.  How can you compete with a 150,000 work collection from the likes of van Gogh, Picasso and Salvador Dali?  Instead, the Whitney seems like a plucky younger sister museum: younger and smaller, but bolder and more brazen.  It doesn’t have the classics like van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, but instead manages to carve out a niche for itself in the newest art movements and most current artists.  100 years from now, the people exhibited in the Whitney might be the Picasso’s of their age, or forgotten has-beens.  The greatness of any given work is still to be decided and that makes the Whitney’s collection excitingly edgy, perhaps the one area where it trumps MOMA, just a little. 

The Whitney was founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (see painting at right by Robert Henri), heiress of both the great Vanderbilt and Whitney (Standard Oil) fortunes. But even with so great a patroness, the Whitney has struggled for respect throughout its history.  In Gertrude’s time, the focus of the art world was on Europe, yet she valued art from her own country and collected only under recognized modern American artists.  When her 700 work collection outgrew her Greenwich Village house, Gertrude tried to donate it to first the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then MOMA, but neither museum wanted the collection.  Consequently, in 1931, she founded her own museum, and the Whitney has celebrated the American avant garde ever since, persevering through thousands of controversial reviews and attempting to win over a very skeptical public. 

We were lucky to visit during the Whitney Biennial, a prominent and much-debated event in the art world that takes over the museum every two years and attracts long lines of visitors.  The Biennial exhibits current works from living, generally young American artists.  All works are sold to collectors after the show, with the Whitney selecting favorites to enter its collection.  It’s considered very prestigious for an artist to get a work into the show and it’s a great launcher of careers.  However, the biennial is probably better known for the smackdown it takes from critics, artists and the public alike.

This year, in an attempt to respond to that criticism, the Whitney devoted an entire floor to a special exhibit called “Collecting Biennials,” consisting of works the Whitney kept from past biennials.  This turned out to be our favorite part of the museum, as it featured a great range of art, from dated one-hit wonders to familiar modern classics.  There were many artists that Paul and I recognized, even with our limited knowledge, such as Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Georgia O'Keeffe, clearly making the point that the Whitney exhibited these great American artists when they were still young and struggling for acceptance.  Attached to the exhibit, there was a room of newspapers and magazines collecting every review of the 75 Whitney Biennials, so you could look back and see who really turned out to be right: the Whitney or the critics.

My favorite part of the museum was the section spotlighting Edward Hooper (see picture above), an artist in the 30’s and 40’s who participated in the first-ever Whitney annual (later to become the biennial) in 1932 as an unknown.  Soon after, his career began a meteoric rise that has continued after his death, with the Whitney holding the largest collection of his works in the world.  I enjoyed his quiet but tense paintings of the streets of New York and Brooklyn, somehow capturing the loneliness of modern city life in streetscapes and faceless figures.  Other works that caught my eye (and made me laugh) were the life-sized squishy toilet  (“Soft Toilet” by Claes Oldenburg) and the huge sculpture made of hair that looked like a cross between dreadlocks and an exploding spider (“Untitled” by David Hammons).

The rest of the biennial was a dizzying mix of sculpture, photography, painting, mixed media, and a large amount of filmed performance art.  The latter made for a lot of movie watching.  We went during a pay-what-you-wish time (Friday evening), so the museum was full, but unlike MOMA’s free night, many Whitney visitors at this time seemed to be students, with tightly held clipboards, busy pencils and very serious expressions.  We guessed that it must be part of an end-of-term project at some of NYC’s many art schools.  The students were much more uptight and pushier than your average museum patron, giving us hard looks and impatient gestures if we did anything that could be interpreted as disruptive, like standing in front of a sign (me) or whispering during a movie (Paul).  It felt like the place was full of very young, very pretentious, very bossy librarians. 

The meaning of some of the art was clear, like the series of photographs depicting the wedding of a young Marine who lost an arm, his face, and much of his skull in a suicide bombing (“Marine Wedding” by Nina Berman).  Yet most of the Whitney’s collection was much more puzzling, like the 50 foot picture of smoke ("Smoke Knows" by Pae White), the gigantic macramé wallhanging ("Untitled; The Year We Make Contact" by Piotr Uklanski), or the ceramic couch covered in newspaper clippings (“Couch For a Long Time” by Jessica Jackson Hutchins).

Paul particularly liked the performance pieces with a psychological bent, such as the movie of men performing bizarrely rigid calisthenics, reenactments of a set of gymnastic exercises prescribed by German physician Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber in the 1850’s (“Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik”, by Jesse Aron Green).  One of Schreber’s sons committed suicide, and another had several infamous bouts with mental illness, giving the performance a decidedly sinister air.  Another of Paul’s favorites was the documentary-style movie of H. M., a man who, after experimental surgery to cure epilepsy in the 1950s, lost the ability to remember any new information beyond a 20-second span (“H. M.” by Kerry Tribe).  Psychology plays a big part in Paul's life, and after years of hearing about H. M.'s condition, Paul found it awe inspiring to actually see it portrayed. The same film was shown on two screens, with one being 20 seconds behind the other to highlight that interval, and the fragile nature of human perception.  Paul also thought the tiny gnome village in the Whitney stairwell was a nice touch.  It made him smile after a long day of museum hopping.

In conclusion, Paul and I where somewhat overwhelmed by the Whitney’s collection.  It felt disjointed and, as is common with modern art, we often felt like we missed the point, or that the point needed far too much explanation.  However, we found many pieces that we liked, that made us think, or squirm, or even smile, and we loved the Whitney’s devotion to the young artists of this country (it felt very patriotic), and its fierce independent spirit.  Thus we would recommend this museum to the open minded museum goer.  We promise that you’ll at least be entertained, even if you hate everything.

Images in this post: Vertical Red White Light, by Josh Brand, 2009; exterior of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Gertrude Vanderbuilt Whitney, by Robert Henri, 1916; Summer Days, by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1936; Early Sunday Morning, by Edward Hopper, 1930; Soft Toilet, by Claes Oldenburg, 1966; Untitled by David Hammons, 1992; Smoke Knows, by Pae White, 2009; Untitled (The Year We Make Contact), by Piotr Uklanski, 2010; Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik, by Jesse Aron Green, 2008; Baby, by Thomas Houseago, 2010.