NYC: April 2009 Archives

untitled (sea moss) 2009

No, it's not Ireland, Cornwall, Nova Scotia or Iceland. It's the Brooklyn shore of the East River just below the Manhattan Bridge. I took this picture late Saturday afternoon while Barry and I had stopped for lunch just inside the northern entrance to Brooklyn Bridge Park before we went on to visit the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation open studios.

The mud, the rocks, and the sea moss were photographed as the water was still receding with the power of the tide. While we were munching on our sandwiches, sitting on some rocks only a few feet away from the water, I realized we were at almost exactly the same spot where I stood in the mid-80's to capture an image of a burned-out car heavily-camouflaged by tons of other dumped metal. There appeared to have been a protracted battle with some pretty aggressive weed types, but by the time I got to the site, the trash had clearly gained the field.

The Brooklyn shore environment is very different now, infinitely less romantic of course, as I suppose is all of New York. The Minox 35 print was black & white (as was everything I was doing then) and today even in my memory the entire under-the-bridges landscape is pretty noir. In my mind's eye it all looks like something inside a Jarmusch film, maybe "Permanent Vacation".

untitled (springs) ca.1985 silver print 13.25" x 8.5" [digital photograph of installation (minus mat and frame) of 35mm print behind plexi, showing flash hot spot]

untitled (blue ties) 2009

Waiting for the #7 train at the 74 Street - Broadway station in Queens this afternoon, scorning the more obvious idea of going for a shot of the complex Manhattan skyline visible off to the west, I looked around for some simple patterns and found these lines.

deleting the offense: first the white paint, then the message, in a classic font of course

Sometimes it seems that the canker of commercial advertising won't stop until it's succeeded in plastering every surface in New York, but now we learn that we don't really have to put up with all of it. Thanks to the alert folks at the Municipal Landscape Control Committee of New York City [MLCCNYC] (with the help of Eastern District, as I understand it) hundreds of illegal billboards put up all over the city by City Outdoor and NPA Wildposting have been spotted and are being rendered faceless by skilled, activist artists even as I write this.

Progress at just one of the sites is documented above, in a picture taken earlier this evening. The wall shown is on the west side of Eldridge Street, just below Houston. The letter attached to the frame of the illegal billboard is copied below.


While doing some searching on line just now I found this spot-on paragraph posted by Jordan Seiler on the "Public Ad Campaign" site, outlining the proper concern of any New Yorker who is not personally a business or corporation:

Outdoor advertising in public spaces transforms those locations into environments intended for commerce and thus for private agendas. Maybe the subway was once a transportation system, but today it is a carefully crafted advertising distribution system with a controlled target audience. These NPA City Outdoor ads turn our city streets into private messaging boards sold off to the highest bidder. In the process, my interest in painting political messages about the failure of our city government is criminalized and my public voice silenced.

ADDENDA: The image I'm adding below shows what the wall looked like when it was completed. It's from the artist's own site. Ji Lee is seen painting in the picture at the top. Also, it now looks like the proper acronym for the project is to be NYSAT [New York Street Advertising Takeover], Eastern District wasn't really part of the project itself, and a concise description of the action can be found on the Wooster Collective site.


[third image from]

the fire this time: the towers are are forever collapsing up above 116th Street

Each time I head uptown for something going on at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, almost always with friends who haven't been there before, I look for this capital above one of the massed columns surrounding one of the formal entrances on the West Front. I had come to assume that almost everyone had probably heard about this treasure, and its various companions, but after a look around Google-land just now, I found that they may not be as well known or photographed as I had thought.

Barry and I went up to Harlem once again last week with friends from the East Bay area on the other side of the country. They were former New Yorkers, visiting the city for the first time after an absence of seven years. We had decided we were all interested in a concert of ancient and modern Spanish choral music being offered that afternoon inside the cathedral's crossing.

Naturally while we were there I showed them one of my favorite things, this stone capital, which had been completed well before September 11, 2001. It and several others were carved by workers who were a part of an apprenticeship program proposed in 1978 to serve urban youth but also intended to preserve the stone mason's craft. During its existence one of St. John's own twin towers managed to grow fifty feet (still 100 feet short of the height intended for both). The money ran out in the early 1990's, and both structural and decorative work on the Cathedral was once more discontinued, for the third time in that last, very messy century of ours.

For more images of the stones, and more on the church and its Close, see Tom Fletcher's New York architecture site, or that of the church itself.


Forsythia on 24th Street, down the street from our apartment and behind the Visual Arts Theatre, which opened as the RKO 23rd Street in 1963.

Untitled (Pan Am) 2009

ghosts in the night: the Pan Am Building kisses the Commodore Hotel

I had originally intended to post this virtually abstract shot as an image alone, with no commentary, like I do with many of my photographs, but then I got to thinking about some of the follies that these two barely-seen structures (the Met Life Building* reflected in the windows of the Grand Hyatt Hotel) represent, and what they continue to tell us about New York's past. Finally, during a long-anticipated visit to the new Hearst Tower last Wednesday I looked out a window in the northeast corner of one of the higher floors and I realized that some of us haven't learned a thing. I now knew how I was going to finish this post.

Almost 30 years ago the Hyatt Hotel group demonstrated that there really are second acts in New York, but they may not always be worth staying for, or even bearable. The early twentieth-century "skyscraper" which stood on the Hyatt site, adjacent to Grand Central, was until 1980 known as the Commodore Hotel. Not surprisingly, it had been named for "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad entrepreneur who built the first Grand Central Terminal in 1871.

The Hyatt corporation's architects retained the shape of its mass, and left most of the exterior bricks of the old hotel in place, merely covering everything with a highly-reflective glass skin.

Anyone who thinks this kind of philistine rape is a thing of the past might be advised to take a walk across town. An equal or even greater abomination is being committed between Eighth Avenue and Broadway in the upper fifties. I'm referring to what owner/developer Joseph Moinian calls "3 Columbus Circle". Originally known as "Columbus Tower"**, when it was finished in 1928 (Shreve & Lamb, architects), the building occupies the entire block, between 57th and 58th Streets. Some will remember It once sheltered the much-missed Coliseum Books inside its southeast corner.

Last week I saw huge sections of masonry gouged out of finely-laid brick walls every few feet of the building's surface, all destined to hold brackets for a totally-redundant glass curtain wall. I couldn't keep looking, and, inexplicably, didn't take any pictures. Maybe I couldn't imagine looking at them once I got home. For those with the stomach, here's the website devoted to the building's transformation and marketing.

The site of this commercial-developmental obscenity is cater-corner from the bold, newly-topped-out Norman Foster Hearst Tower, which shoots out of the cast-stone facade of the six completed floors of the landmark 1928 Joseph Urban-designed New York Hearst headquarters. But it will bear a dramatically closer affinity to the new facade tacked onto 2 Columbus Circle, one block north of it, a monstrous work of destruction commissioned by the institution which I mischievously continue to refer to by its original name, the "American Craft Museum" (and not just on account of its notorious architectural crime).

The Pan Am Building may not be anyone's favorite New York skyscraper, but at least it's still permitted to represent something other than a shiny siding job.

(1963) architects: Emery Roth & Sons, with Walter Gropius and Pietro Belluschi

New York Times architecture critic David Dunlap has dug back even further. In a board post [with interesting pictures] on Wired New York, he writes: "For now, a palisade of three-story Ionic columns, supporting a neo-Classical entablature, surrounds the base of the structure. This is a visible vestige of the Colonnade Building, designed by William Welles Bosworth . . . .

Shreve & Lamb’s brown-brick facade was far simpler than the monumental colonnade. That incongruous combination of ornate base and spartan tower still speaks subtly — to anyone patient enough to listen — about the rise of Automobile Row in the early 20th century. But in a few months, it will be gone; another quirky corner of Manhattan that has been scrubbed, smoothed, polished, branded and lost."

NOTE: The image is of the west wall of the Grand Hyatt, showing a few white-ish rectangular windows; the smaller, more numerous blue-ish shapes are the lighted windows in [what I normally call] the Pan Am Building, reflected on the Hyatt glass. The photo was taken from the sidewalk on the south side of 42nd Street.

gods, demigods, heroes and zombies, running into and through each other, for a very fine evening

It's the most brilliant performance (theater and/or music) I've seen and heard in ages. The Wooster Group's current miracle, "La Didone", is an incredibly-inspired conflation of two relatively obscure Italian dramas, a 1960's space adventure film and an early seventeenth-century opera.

The result is a magnificent burlesque (or let's say, burlesco) which "rockets" past Mario Bava's 1965 cult movie "Terrore nello spazio", and could on its own great merits restore Francesco Cavalli's early baroque opera "La Didone" [libretto by Giovan Francesco Busenello] to the canon of Western music. It's a seemingly impossible creation, a moving jumble of exquisite beauty and low comedy.

It's unlike anything I've ever seen or heard, and I'm a veteran Wooster Group-ie.

We saw the work last night in the St. Ann's Warehouse space in DUMBO. Performances will continue through April 26, for the very, very lucky. And, yes, there are [very discreet] supertitles.

Sanya of the Argos (Kate Valk) encounters dying boar of Carthage (Scott Shepherd)

The entire company, both individually and as an ensemble, was superb, but mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn as Dido, and bass-baritone and countertenor [sic] Andrew Nolen (Neptune, Jarbas, Ilioneus, Jove, Ghost Chorus, and Kir) were absolutely amazing. Also, the primary three instrumentalists, who worked with a synthesizer keyboard, a Theorbo alternating with a Baroque guitar, and an electric guitar, were augmented on and off throughout the evening by the accordian and tambourine of Kamala Sankaram when this voluptuous and engaging performer wasn't called on to sing Juno, Mercury, Dido's sister Anna or the voice of Cupid, representing, if I can remember correctly, just about every female vocal range.

When we returned to the apartment last night and sat down to dinner, Barry chose to play some more unconventional music. His choice was perfectly in sync with what we had just heard in Brooklyn: Luc Ferrari's "Cycle des Souvenirs". Just a little night music.

[video from St. Ann's; still image by Paula Court from Performance Club]

these portraits of León Ferrari and Mira Schendel introduce "Tangled Alphabets"

Schedule complications kept Barry and me from MoMA's Tuesday press preview of "Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel", so I missed my only chance to photograph anything in this wonderful show. The only part of the exhibition free to cameras on our visit the next day, during one of the members' previews, were these two handsome blown-up photographs mounted outside the entrance to the galleries, taken when these South American artists were young. Schendel died in her late sixties, in 1988; Ferrari, almost 90 now, is still working - and still making righteous mischief.

I am very, very sorry I didn't have a chance to capture and share here some images of Ferrari's metal sculptures and Schendel's hanging filaments or transparent papers.

I really recommend the show, and the museum itself has to be commended for mounting a serious exhibition which is, as Barry said when we left the museum on Wednesday, hardly designed as a money-making tourist magnet; being virtually entirely monochromatic, it almost seems to be discouraging traffic.

I was ignorant of both of these artists until I found myself marveling over and over at the beauty, the audacity and the conscience of the works by Ferrari which I saw displayed by several galleries participating in PINTA last November, and before I spotted some stunning drawings by Schendel at Eleven Rivington two months earlier.

The brilliance of the art scene in New York can easily turn us all into provincials. Until visiting "The Geometry of Hope: Latin American Abstract Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection" at the Grey Art Gallery in the fall of 2007 I had probably operated under the assumption that if there were anything to know and value about South American abstraction, as New York sophisticates most likely we already knew it and knew its merits: Any exhibition devoted to the subject would probably be largely a kindness or an exercise in recondite art history.

The Cisneros collection was an eye opener for me, and a lesson for avoiding similar surprises, embarrassments really, in the future.


  • Roberta Smith works her magic in a review of the show which appeared in today's New York Times.

  • This chronology from the Cecilia de Torres gallery includes some great images of Ferrari's life and his work.

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