Postcard from New York

2nd April 2024

John Wyver writes: On the way to New Haven for a screening and panel at Yale (so, yes, look out for another Postcard from there), I spent a busy day and a half in New York. These was a time when I travelled across the Atlantic a lot, but I hadn’t been to Manhattan since 2014. Not that it seems to have changed a great deal, although I was disconcerted to discover that arriving visitors do not need to fill in immigration and customs’ forms at the airport.

Cannabis shops appear to be everywhere, as are citibikes, and there are cycle lanes on the main north-south avenues. The subway is as strange and surreal a world as ever, peopled by the homeless and the troubled, and blighted by decades of under-investment, and yet a marvel of modernity that is cheaper and more democratic (a single fare to anywhere) than the Underground.

There was, of course, a great diner just by my hotel, and my ham and eggs, large OJ, and limitless coffee was as glorious a treat as ever. And there are still many of the greatest museums and galleries in the world, a handful of which was my excuse for stopping over.

The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism

I especially wanted to see this exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (until 28 July), the reviews and associated podcast for which I have trailed in editions of the Sunday Dozen (here and here). Full of beautiful and surprising paintings, it did not disappoint, but I found its scholarly presentation comparatively low-key, even polite. The design was elegant but lacking, for example, blown-up photographs which are such a feature of exhibitions elsewhere, and there was no jazz playing in the galleries. Film was present, but only playing silently on two back-to-back screens hung above visitors’ heads.

Highlights of this engrossing show included Horace Pippin’s haunting Self-Portrait II, 1944, paired with his The Artist’s Wife, 1936; Aaron Douglas’ study for his mural Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction, 1934, and his extraordinarily vivid and poignant pastel of two Scottsboro Boys, c.1935; and especially the paintings of Archibald Motley, like Blues, 1929, and The Octoroon Girl, 1925.

There were delightful surprises too, including Roland Penrose’s photograph Four Women Asleep, 1937, and Henri Matisse’s 1917 canvas, Aisha and Lorette.

As a coda, the show includes Romare Bearden’s magnificent The Block, 1971, the artist’s tribute to Harlem as he knew it in the 1940s, which references so much from the years of the Harlem Renaissance.

MoMA: 1940s-1970s

Sunday afternoon I spent in the peerless Collections galleries of the Museum of Modern Art, and especially in the mid-twentieth-century world. And if New York has hardly changed in a decade, MoMA most certainly has. As you walk into Gallery 401, Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950, 1950, faces you in all its magnificence.

Flanking it, on the wall to the left, is Clifford Still’s 1951-T No.3, 1951, much as you might expect in a display of abstract expressionism giving form, as these galleries previously did, to the triumph of American painting. Not so now, for to the right of the Pollock is Judit Reigl’s Guano-Round, 1958-64.

Elsewhere in the same gallery, organised under the heading ‘New World Stage’, are works by Manolo Millares, Alberto Burri, Pierre Soulages and Norman Lewis. The suite of rooms mixes up mid-century in a wonderfully refreshing way, with far more artists from beyond the United States than would have been here before (although Richard Hamilton was the only Brit that I noticed), and far more women artists, Black artists, and artists from India, Japan and beyond. This makes you look differently, refreshes and challenges your understandings, and introduces you to works that can stop you in your tracks, like Kazuo Shiraga’s Untitled, 1964:

Elsewhere, I’ve hymned the late Richard Serra’s Equal, 2015, which I also encountered during this visit, and I have thoughts about Joan Mitchell and Ken Jacobs’ works, but those will have to wait for another post.

Trisha Brown Dance Company

Saturday night I saw the final performance of this year’s season at The Joyce by the company that has continued to preserve and extend Trisha Brown’s legacy since the choreographer’s death in 2017. This was a triple bill with a 2023 commission from Noé Soulier, In the Fall, as the central work. Performed by eight dancers of extraordinary grace and focus and strength, it had an abstract beauty in which groupings of figures came together and broke apart to the accompaniment of a minimal soundscape by Florian Hecker. The company image below is by Delphine Perrin.

In a very good New York Times review of the show, Gia Kourlas wrote:

The dancers aren’t outwardly showy, yet they are dramatic, with matter-of-fact, glacial clarity. In contrast with the willowy fluidity of Brown’s movement, which brushes and tickles the air with seemingly unrestrained looseness, Soulier organizes bodies carefully, segment by segment. His idea of a fall is one of everlasting motion; it trickles out of the body not as much to collapse as to crumble, leaving behind pools of flesh…

While movement has a way of melting off bodies in Brown’s work, Soulier, in his way of slowing things down, demonstrates an order and logic that echoes the structure binding Brown’s ribbonlike flow.

(I wish I could write about performance with that precision.)

Trisha Brown’s own works opened and closed the show, with Glacial Decoy, 1979, coming first [the link takes you to a page with a video extract filmed in 2009]. At the back of the wide stage were four portrait-mode screens that were taller than the human figures, and on which Robert Rauschenberg had sequenced largely anonymous black-and-white photographs: fragments of industrial detritus, bleak landscapes, natural forms that lacked any sense of conventional beauty. Before these, four (or was it five?) female dancers, in bare feet and flowing white shifts, explored the choreographer’s angular body language.

Did the complex patterns of the bodies reflect or respond to the changing images, or were the echoing juxtapositions simply a matter of chance? This was a work of singular precision and clarity, created forty-five years ago that felt both classic(al) and at the same time contemporary. Working Title, 1985, is far more playful, with a warmth in its child-like movements that derives from its colourful costuming, Peter Zummo’s gorgeous rhythmic score, and eight dancers that flap and flip and flop with fierce control. The packed house gave the company a great reception, and rightly so.

An Atlas of Es Devlin

To the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum for an exhibition devoted to the exceptional artist and stage designer Es Devlin. I’m uncertain why it should be this American institution that has lavished such care and resource on a wonderfully imaginative show about this British creative, but I’m very glad they have done so. It’s a remarkable and delightful journey through Devlin’s mind, and with its projections and soundscape (often featuring her own voice), it’s unlike any gallery show I’ve experienced before.

You start in a mock-up of Devlin’s studio, with projected images on the table in front of you and on a wall, above, which opens to admit you a cave of wonders. There are conventional elements that you might expect to find, like an archival wall of drawings and sketches and models from her many performances. But there is a quirky theatre and a cinema too, and throughout there’s the strongest sense of Devlin’s process and her inspirations.

Much of all this can be explored online through an exceptional digital version of the show.

Whitney Biennial

Sunday morning, I spent at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in its Renzo Piano’s building on the Hudson River that was new to me. Three floors are occupied until 11 August by the Biennial, Even Better Than the Real Thing, a survey show that’s not really a survey, curated this time round by Chrissie Iles (late of these shores) and Meg Onli, with Min Sun Jeon and Beatriz Cifuentes. Perhaps inevitably, there are a few great things, together with quite a lot of good things, and then the rest.

Two works that stood out for me were Isaac Julien’s five-screen Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die), 2022, about the life and thought of Alain Locke (1885–1954), a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and Lotus L. Kang’s In Cascades, 2023, as well as Nikita Gale’s modified player piano, TEMPO RUBATO (STOLEN TIME), 2023-24.

Gale’s player piano silences the instrument’s musical function at the same time as amplifying the sounds of the mechanisms. I was much taken with the description of the artist’s interests:

Gale worked with an attorney, the licensing organization ASCAP, and a team of technologists to create an instance where the performance of a musical work without the original sound retains traces of the instrument being played. This circumstance considers whether or not the performance still constitutes the work and is therefore considered legal property, ultimately asking if it is possible to locate authorship through the mechanical gesture alone.

Not part of the show, but simply great is David Smith’s Lectern Sentinel, 1961, installed from the collection on one of the upper terraces, with an urban scene of glorious variety beyond.

Leaving the museum, I encountered the trio of street musicians pictured above, who were playing exceptional jazz just for the love of it (and the odd dollar donation). Sitting in the sunshine, I thought, not for the first time, I love New York.

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