If every library is in some sense a reflection of its readers, it is also an image of that which we are not, and cannot be.
Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night
I’m here in New York specifically to visit some of the great libraries of the world to help me develop ideas for a new body of art work about our changing relationship to the book. So, on the day after our arrival, Gerard and I head off on foot up Broadway, and then 5th Avenue to visit the magnificent Stephen A. Schwarzman building, the flagship of the New York Public Library. The main entrance is accessed by two flights of steps and guarded on either side by two huge marble lions, affectionately named Patience and Fortitude and dearly beloved by the city. Until recently, they were regularly adorned with wreaths and hats and other decorations to celebrate festivities such as Christmas, graduations and special sporting events, but that practice has sadly come to an end since someone set fire to a wreath around one of the lion’s necks during last year’s Thanksgiving. The building itself is constructed in the Beaux-Arts style from solid blocks of marble, was officially opened in 1911 and houses a collection of over 15 million items ranging from medieval manuscripts to popular fiction.
Gerard and I make it just in time for the 1pm docent tour. It’s led by a very lively senior lady who is genuinely excited about every aspect of the library she shows us and illustrates her love of this wonderful institution with personal anecdotes. She is a little reminiscent of another excellent docent who gave a tour of the library back in 2002 when I last visited New York. I remember a petite, well groomed and highly articulate woman in a strikingly simple woolen dress highlighted around the waist with a skinny red belt. I also remember beautiful shoes – delicate Mary Janes fashioned in a 1920s style with a button-down strap. That particular docent was perfect and gave a perfect tour – just the right amount of information, not too much and not too little. Our current docent is just as wonderful but a little messier around the edges. She leads our group from one area of the library to another, explaining with great confidence and an infectious smile, the history of the library, the construction of the building, the significance of the various collections and so on.
I think I love this library almost as much as our docent does. I love its majestic proportions, its immense high ceilings, its long marble corridors and elaborate, gateway-like entrances into the various reading rooms and collections. I love its allegorical murals and paintings, its convincingly deceptive faux wooden ceilings (made from plaster because wood would have been to heavy), its huge candelabra-like lights and beautiful chandeliers, and the feeling, everywhere, of solidity and permanence.
The main reading room, Called the Rose, is rectangular with massive arched windows, walls like a mausoleum and a trompe l’oeil sky in the ceiling that evokes the limitlessness of the heavens and, I am sure, also suggests the endless potential of knowledge gained through reading. This summer, the building will start to undergo a massive five year renovation to bring it into the 21st century, transforming many of the book stacks into new, publicly accessible spaces for reading and borrowing. The library of the past moves into the present.
We visit another stunning library some days later – the Pierpoint Morgan – which houses one of the most extraordinary private collections in the world. I have a little trouble recognizing the entrance because, since I last visited in 2002, the building has a brand new Renzo Piano designed extension. Rather than entering what was once Pierpont Morgan’s library and home, you now enter an expansive, modern light-filled foyer which leads you to the older parts of the building as well as to brand new exhibition spaces.
We make our way past a lift constructed almost completely from glass and a very pleasant cafe area to explore Morgan’s study, oval-shaped reception room and the core of the building – the main library itself. In contrast to the new minimalism of Renzo Piano’s extension, the original Morgan is extraordinarily rich and sumptuous – rich with colour, ornament, decoration, Persian carpets, tapestries, mosaics, rare art works, marble-work, opulent furniture, more ornament, more decoration, more of everything! In the Morgan, less is not more, as the Bauhaus decreed, but less is a bore, as the architect and designer Robert Venturi proclaimed.
The library was given to the public in 1924 by Pierpont Morgan’s son. Morgan was an incredibly successful and influential financier, described on the library’s website as a ‘voracious’ collector. He had a unquenchable appetite for rare books, letters, manuscripts, ancient artefacts, drawings and prints. In the magnificent library, you can view musical notations by Beethoven, Puccini and Mozart, a Gutenberg bible, illuminated manuscripts, handwritten letters and notes by Virginia Woolf, Shelley and Steinbeck, cuneiform artefacts, ancient seals… it is a breathtaking display. I stand transfixed in front of the Beethoven manuscript, which is his tenth, and last, violin and piano sonata. It’s open at a double page and is covered with scribbles, crossings out, mistakes, corrections – evidence of Beethoven’s thinking right there in front of me, on two, simple pieces of paper. I am unable to describe the impact of this moment, of seeing something so ordinary that is simultaneously so extraordinary. The markings of Beethoven’s hand, a mapping of his mind.
Upstairs, in one of the new galleries (accessed by the rather scary glass lift) is an exhibition of Degas’ sketches, prints and paintings, all centred on a single circus performer, Miss La La of the Cirque Fernando. It is a small, intensely focused show that offers a valuable insight into the artistic process. I wish all fine art undergraduates could see because it reveals the extent to which an artist will draw, redraw and experiment with one idea to resolve a work. Back downstairs, the exhibition space is closed to the public while a series of 100 drawings by Matthew Barney, called Subliming the vessel, is being installed. In association with the exhibition I can go and see Barney in conversation at the New York Public Library on the 21st of May. This is why New York is so fabulous. There is always something amazing on the agenda.