Not all those who wander are lost, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
New York is a city of extremes – its population both impatient and discursive, weather ranging from hot and humid to sleet and snow, and incredible wealth coexistent with visible poverty. The focus of my trip, to consolidate and extend my research toward a new book on the work of sculptor Donna Marcus (current resident of the Australia Council for the Arts studio in New York’s Soho), merged with an exploration of New York’s cultural offerings. It made for a jam-packed nine days – fortunate then to be in the city that never sleeps.
The morning after my arrival we headed north of New York City to the Storm King Art Centre, spending a day in the sun wandering through 500 acres of parkland dotted with monumental sculpture. The international strength of contemporary Chinese art has penetrated even New York, evidenced by the significant temporary exhibition of sculpture, both indoors and out, from Zhang Huan. “Evoking Tradition” celebrates Zhang’s major Three Legged Buddha (2007) in the Storm King permanent collection and traces his interests in cultural and religious traditions. His series of busts, displayed indoors, are highly evocative, created from ash gathered in Buddhist temples. Chinese art has an impact that no other art from elsewhere has managed in recent years, testimony to its strength and importance in exploring and mediating the massive change that continues to transform China.
Storm King also provides powerful entree to the culture of philanthropy for which the US is renowned: this public art park and collection of significant sculpture, was privately founded and funded, a vision of the Ralph E Ogden Foundation, and open to the public since 1960. Its most recent addition, Storm King Wavefield (2009) by Maya Lin, marks a change from much of the monumental steel in the collection to date. Crafted onto the landscape, sweeping wave-like forms crest the paddock, with the sensation of walking through them channelling the increasingly experiential and corporeal nature of contemporary art.
The inaugural twilight film festival on 9 August celebrated the Super Moon, a natural spectacle witnessed from ‘the knoll’, a green hillside topped with Mark di Suvero’s, Frog Legs, 2002. Artist films were screened progressively at different venues in the park, keeping all comers moving until a chilly midnight finish. Minutes after our return (on the bus) to New York, we were in Times Square at 1 am, baking under pulsating screens and up close and personal with the bustling crowds – testimony to the contrasts available in the city.
At Brooklyn Museum, we caught the last day (10 August, 2014) of Ai Weiwei’s According to What? The poignancy of Ai’s situation and the precarious nature of the individual at odds with the central administration is evidenced in this extensive survey, which includes the diorama of his 81 day detention by Chinese authorities for his dissident views. His reality, being watched 24 hours a day by prison guards, is revisited through voyeuristic audience viewing windows into his most private situations.
Also permanently housed at Brooklyn Museum is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-79). This iconic feminist artwork offers, in its ceramic rendition, an attempt to write significant female figures back into history. It is, depending on critical perspective, a masterpiece of the time or yet another set of historical inaccuracies. Either way, visiting evokes homage, reverence, and awe. (It is telling that prior to its installation in Brooklyn, it toured three continents and was seen by some 15 million people.)
The Met is a must visit, a place where you could spend nine days without feeling as though you have its multiple levels, galleries and specialties covered in any depth. A superficial tour may start with the rooftop bar – a vantage point from which to map the city. Its modern, ancient, and Egyptian collections are outstanding, objects from Africa and the Pacific intriguing, and its architectural rendition of the Frank Lloyd Wright House atmospheric. It is a lovely segue then to go on to the Guggenheim Museum, an architectural icon designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Italian Futurism provided the aerodynamic conceptual lead, the next day, into the defiance inherent in the 9/11 Memorial on the World Trade Centre site.
This public artwork is a twinned installation, occupying the enormous subterranean footprint formerly occupied by the twin towers. Each is a series of identical black elements, the coping around the square perimeters bearing the names of the 3,000 individuals who died, lettering etched in gold into the black tombstone-like base. Water cascades down all sides, rushing from a lip under the coping, to fall at least ten metres, before it travels into a central square abyss. The sound of the water is a wall of noise audible from a block away, while its misting across the square marks visitors with dampness. Part of the viewing experience is the hair-raising sensation that the consequence, for anyone who crossed the coping, would be fatal.
Viewing Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (until 19 October 2014) at the Whitney later in the week, I had a similar visceral recoil from his Aqualung, 1985. Here again is a sense of the inextricable link between life and death, joy and despair, in the rendering of Koons’s oxygen tank for diving, cast in heavy bronze. If the 9/11 Memorial includes an oblique reference to the consequences of political disenfranchisement, so does the Aqualung tie the responsibility that goes with freedom to the despair that may accompany its loss. The Whitney show makes a convincing case for Koons’s preeminence. He suggested, “Art can empower or disempower. The tightrope between is individual cultural history”. The exposure of his personal life, from the joy of the Cicciolina self-portraits to the desolation that followed after the son he had with her was abducted, is scarifying. The self-portraits offer an intense vulnerability – he is a pioneer in an “experiment in fame”, tied inextricably to risk. The ramifications of personal revelation, now commonplace in the the Facebook generation, continue to offer up unexpected twists. Interestingly, Koon’s Balloon Flower (Red), a memorial for those that survived 9/11 in front of the new One World Trade Centre, offers a joyous antidote to the sobriety of the 9/11 Memorial. His work charts the extremes in the individual and collective journey.
Central Park is known for its huge green space in the middle of the city – the outside track thick with bikers, walkers, runners, prams and the occasional car. Dinner at The Boathouse feels both familiar and thrilling before you have had it – given its use in films like The Parent Trap. Yet it is also, I think, the most beautiful setting I have ever eaten in – with its views over the lake, rocky headlands, and the sense of moving air and dappled light fading with the day. What surprises me constantly in New York is the level of physicality possible in one of the world’s most densely populated cities – testimony to the vision of its architectural planners.
Lygia Clark: The Abandonment of Art 1948-1988 at MoMA is an in-depth survey of the work of this Brazilian artist (1920-1988), an exploration of the way in which art may harness movement and the body. She suggested, “I began with geometry but I was looking for an organic space where one could enter the painting” (quoted in Véja magazine, 1986). This significant survey describes her artistic journey through sculpture, conceptual involvement of the viewer in the fabric of the work, and finally as a therapist who abandoned art for healing. Yet her contribution, seen in totality, is immense.
DIA Beacon, up the Hudson River, tells another story about the power of philanthropy. A large converted Nabisco biscuit factory, surrounded by acres of garden, focuses on minimal art and included a major survey of the work of Carl Andre (Sculpture as Place 1958-2010, until March 2, 2015). Significant works on permanent display by Louise Bourgeois are housed in the ‘attic’, an intimate space for these works about physical realities housed in a setting that, while not small, capture the viewer and hone the corporeal nature of the experience.
The Highline is an impressive use of public space with its vista to the architecture and gritty graffiti of the city. Apart from Ed Ruscha’s HONEY I WAS CAUGHT IN THE TRAFFIC which relates to the informality of the non-commissioned text around it and the ubiquitous queuing to be had in New York, the commissioned Highline sculptures are a fairly minor part of the experience. (Watching one of the guides facilitate a tour group, her pause for a sculpture was a stumble, and her insight simply: “Here’s another piece of art”.)
Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany (until September 1, 2014) at the Neue Galerie, a smaller scale and charming house museum also privately founded, is powerful in its portrayal of the driving nature of politics and compelling viewing for the paintings by Klimt, Kandinsky and Klee.
An interview on another project led me to think about the diminishing power of identity that drives the individual experience and these works. In the internet age, where travel and communication is seamless, will we see less of identity created through country of origin? Is it possible that cultural difference will vanish – and would that be positive? The power in contemporary Chinese art, and the German and Austrian paintings from the turn of the century visible in the Neue Galerie collection, owe at least part of their strength to harsh national realities – however unpalatable. Which is not to say that art is aided by repression – simply that change continues to reshape the cultural landscape across the globe.
There was more: the New Museum and the intriguing approach of Director of Exhibitions Massilimiano Gioni in Here and Elsewhere, until 28 September. (Gioni also curated The Encyclopaedic Palace for the 2013 Biennale di Venezia which also explored art from outside the usual parameters.) The slick style of the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), and the view from the top floor café is memorable, as is the genteel generosity of the Frick. Most overwhelming and engaging was the sheer barrage of sensory overload that is New York: the rubbish truck grinding the ‘trash’ throughout the night, reverberating sounds of tyres, voices and music on cobbled streets, the humidity early in the week easing to jeans and jacket weather a week later, loudness of conversations up close and personal in the street, the condensed attitude channelled into mobile phones, sculpted bodies with “junk in the trunk”, endless queues of patient individuals, friendly assistance from locals, great food, casual attire and effortless positive energy.
Departing New York, the queue of aircraft awaiting take off at JFK remind me of the local individual realities in the Ruscha text on the Highline. It has been a powerful immersion in New York – in equal parts a foray into a city of immense cultural power and the artistry of Donna Marcus – both chaotic at times, but purposeful, focused and ambitious. Even the shopping relates the increasing international situation:
Global is local, local is global, UNIQLO motto (2014)
Thanks to Donna Marcus, current resident of the Australia Council of the Arts Greene Street Studio, for facilitating, guiding and informing my first trip to New York. And grateful appreciation to The Australia Council for the Arts for the New Work (Established) Grant to facilitate new research on Marcus.