Note from New York
Mary Ann Caws
The late spring was full of peculiar adventures musical and other. Principal among these was Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, based on the play by the more than peculiar Belgian, Michel de Ghelderode. Everything of his always struck me as over the top, creepy beyond belief, very twentieth-century baroque. But this took the cookie: impossible to describe and of course, about death and noise and costuming and plays within plays and all of that. Avery Fisher Hall – big, big – was entirely filled each of the three nights it was presented, and we found seats at the very top, delightedly, and were on the edge of them for the evening. Subsequently, I can’t remember anything about it except that it was exciting. That kind of thing, in short.
What I do remember: this great idea called by its inventor’s name: Liz Sherman’s Joyrides, a sort of collective biking venture inspired by the French theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine. The bike rides are free and filled to the brim, in fact, overbooked for the remainder of this season’s
Summer Streets, and are limited to 50 people per time. You listen to music by Duncan Bridgeman, with the selection matching the landscape, but are legally bound to have only one headphone: the sound ends with a dialogue spoken by Bhagavan Das… Lunch is spread on tablecloths (checked, of course) in Central Park, with lobster rolls and fresh corn salad.. a real spectacle: a few riders move up and down as if dancing, some bob their heads, and all keep up the rhythm. The point is connection with the other riders, and Ms. Sherman is hoping now to take the idea of Joyride to San Francisco and Paris in the flal, for the Nuit Blanche festival… Last week, a man rode with his parrot clinging to him: why not?
For one of its all-time best=attended exhibitions, the Met brought out ALL its Picassos, a celebration in itself. The 1903 painting of Arlequin au café, with its background taken straight from a Van Gogh also owned by the Met, the Actor, the painting into which a visitor had fallen in January, now repaired, and a few others, were xrayed and the repaintings and retouchings shown. Among the thousands of visitors, groups would of course gather in front of his painting of Gertrude Stein (the one he said she would come to resemble, as indeed she did), which was the first Picasso given to the museum. The century’s greatest artist, she said, and the century’s greatest writer: how not? So she sits there, and rarely alone.
After the conversation/situation/performance of Tino Seghal’s This Progress at the Guggenheim (which, we interpreters who had been part of it, were notified, the museum has just purchased, but of which
there is deliberately no trace), it felt passing strange to have the next exhibition, about photography, called Ghostliness. Things with no trace, indeed. Except memories, like those of Marina Abramovic’s sitting for all those hours and days at MOMA with so many people lining up to sit across from her. All of which makes us wonder about traces and what we actually remember.
Probably we’ll remember exhibitions like the contrasting ones at the two Gagosian galleries in Chelsea, one on 21st street, and one on 24th street: you could scarcely imagine a more unlike pair than the late paintings of Monet (the water lilies and the Japanese bridge) on one hand and fifty still lifes of Roy Lichtenstein on the other. How brilliant those are, with the steam coming out of a coffee cup painted on one side, and sculpted on the other, with Cape Cod scenes of a lobster and a wave and a sailboat, or some lemons sitting happily on a saucer… Visitors to these generally walked around smiling – not the most usual expression on faces in the bustle of New York galleries or streets.
But Lichtenstein tends to awaken some kind of unexpectedness in the mind. I am thinking of Frederic Tuten’s short stories about to appear with Norton: Self-Portraits: Fictions, with a Lichtenstein on the cover, and a story dedicated to him. Just as quirky, brilliant, and radiant with irony. It’s a kind of New York spirit, not unaware of the multiple tragedies all around – good grief (what an odd expression, how is grief good?) --but very much alive.
There’s a big thing here about Mark Twain these days, and all the places he lived and worked in New York: the Players Club, at 16 Gramercy Park, founded in 1888 by Twain and the actor Edwin Booth, etc.. Most interesting for me are the writeups about the estate in Riverdale called Wave Hill,, since we go there often to sit in the deck chairs on the grass and wander through the herb garden. Twain leased it for two years at the beginning of the twentieth century, and he built there a whole writing parlor in a chestnut tree, overlooking the Hudson River. In the winter (dreaded season in New York for many of us), he wrote: “I believe we have the noblest roarin blasts here I have ever known on land; they sing their hoarse song through the big tree-tops ith a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always. “ My favorite picture of Twain is a drawing by Francis Luis Mora, in which he is seated on a park bench next to Robert Lewis Stevenson, Twain with his hands on his knees and his slouchy hat and moustache, bending forward, and Stevenson, elegant and relaxed, leaning backward with a kindly interested look on his face, clearly listening to a Twain tall story.
Not so very far off, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, there is a stunning exhibition of Degas and Picasso, organized by Elizabeth Cowling, the Picasso expert, and Richard Kendall, the Degas expert. When the contents of the Degas studio were sold after his death in 1917, Picasso became more intimately acquainted with the work of Degas, and some of the juxtapositions are revealing beyond belief. Karen Rosenberg wrote up the exhibition in the New York Times, concentrating on the most startling of the juxtapositions, for instance the nudes of 1906 in relation to the Degas bathers, the “Nude Wringing Her Hair” of 1952 looking back at the hairbrushing scenes of the older painter, Picasso’s woman ironing in 1904 after Degas’s laundress, some portraits in like poses, and various brothel scenes, with Degas to the side as an onlooker. To me the most interesting is Degas’s bronze “Little Dancer, Aged fourteen,” placed not far from Picasso’s “Stading Nude” of 1907, her hands behind her back in the same position. Every year seems to be a Picasso year these years – his prints at MOMA, all the Met’s Picassos hauled out, the Paris avant-garde exhibition in Philadelphia, more Picasso in Seattle, everywhere, all over. I’d be the last one to object…