People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
This post was going to report on just three good things, but by the time I got to the end of the week, the three had expanded to five – more, actually, if I count everything. I feel a bit exhausted, to be honest, from the constant exposure to new and wonderful experiences, but then that is what I am here for!
It was a very exciting start to the week with an opening at Ralph Pucci’s midtown showrooms on Monday evening. Ralph Pucci runs an international design company that has a reputation for exclusive furniture, lighting, ceramics, textiles and other design objects that are shown in tandem with photographic works. He is also a highly innovative designer and supplier of mannequins, a business he inherited from his parents in the 1950s. Of course, back then, mannequins were made realistically and wore wigs, makeup and false eyelashes but today, they are much more conceptual in design and Pucci’s mannequins are particularly renowned for their experimentation with form and style. His exhibition openings are apparently often accompanied by musical and dance performances that are choreographed to complement his new collections.
The Pucci showrooms are huge, occupying the 9th floor and the penthouse on the 12th floor of 44 West 18th Street. I wait in the lobby for Kathy (the manager of the Greene Street Studio) and her partner Sardi to arrive. Sardi is a photographer and it is courtesy of her that I am going to the event. I’m a bit early but I don’t mind the wait because I get to watch the other guests arrive and line up for the elevator. This is no ordinary people watching exercise – this is a parade of some of the coolest, hippest, most fashionable and eccentric people I have ever seen. They greet each other with self-conscious, over-exaggerated gestures – arms outstretched, fake kisses in the air, look at me, look at me! One woman stands out in particular – she’s wearing emerald green skinny trousers, lime green pointy-toed high heels, an elaborate brocade jacket and a very striking pale green hat. She greets a man with a pencil-lined moustache, and slim fitting suit who looks like he’s straight out of Mad Men. I wish I was bold enough to take out my camera and start snapping! Of course, not everyone is dressed quite so exotically – there are also people who look quite business-like or casual, but so many of them are truly walking works of art.
When Kathy and Sardi arrive, we head for the penthouse. It’s huge and fantastic with magnificent views across the city and the Empire State Building. The beautiful people are milling about a wonderful collection of modernist inspired chairs, sofas, cabinets, tables, rugs, glassware and lighting, all interspersed with black and white photography or graphic imagery. At one end of the space, a musician sits crossed-legged on a large table, playing a bamboo flute. I wander about in a state of overexcitement. I’m not actually very interested in the furniture – I’m much more fascinated by the people. I do have my camera with me, but I just don’t have the confidence to start taking photos with it so I use my iPhone instead. As I move in amongst the crowds, I discover three women performing in elaborate bronze and gold costumes that feature gloves with long, tendril-like fingers. They move about the showroom individually, slowly and deliberately, striking dramatic poses every now and then, and later, accompanied by funky jazz, they perform a dance as a trio. I move from one end of the showroom to the other, iPhone at the ready in camera mode, trying to find the woman in the emerald green trousers but she is nowhere to be seen! Kathy introduces me to Collette, dressed in a completely white costume with matching hat, and wearing dramatic makeup to match. Kathy got to know Collete in the 70s, when Collecte developed a reputation as a performance artist, assuming different personas inspired by art, fashion and music.
We move down to the 9th floor. It’s whiter and brighter down here, and also much hotter. I throw all caution to the wind and take out my camera, pretending to photograph the furniture, but actually trying to photograph the crowd. Kathy and Sardi introduce me to various people they know, some looking exceedingly thin and pale and interesting. A very handsome young African American, dressed in plus-fours, wanders about with a unicycle. There are large photographic portraits of Andy Warhol on the walls, and some beautiful images of Russian ballerinas. I also spot the woman with the emerald green trousers but it’s hard to get a good photo of her. I feel like I’m in a movie.
When we leave, we head off into a hot and balmy night, making our way downtown through Washington Square which is filled with people escaping the heat of their apartments. Back in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the park was a burial ground for the poor, and it was also the site for public executions. But more recently, and particularly in the 60s and 70s, it has become known as a gathering place for artists and bohemians. It is dominated by a huge archway that commemorates George Washington. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp broke into the arch with the poet Gertrude Drick and fellow artist John Sloan. They had a picnic on the roof and read out a proclamation declaring the freedom of Greenwich Village.
On Tuesday night I have my second interesting experience when I go to the New York Public Library to hear Matthew Barney in conversation with Paul Holdengräber, Director of the NYPL’s public events program called LIVE. I arrive early – again – and while I’m waiting on line at the 42nd Street entrance to the Celeste Bartos Forum where these talks are held, I start chatting with the woman next to me. Her name is Francoise Grossen and she is a regular patron of the NYPL conversations. She tells me how wonderful they are, especially because the interviewer, Holdengräber, is so charming and makes his guests feel so much at ease. He is extraordinarily well read, is fluent in five languages and has an extremely impressive academic cv. I feel I am in for a real treat.
Inside the beautiful Forum, Francoise and I sit next to each other and discover that we are both artists. She works with textiles and was at the height of her career a few decades ago. Francoise instructs me to go and talk to a woman who is setting up a drawing table towards the back of the room. Go on, she says, I will mind your seat. I feel a bit shy about approaching a total stranger, but Francoise is very insistent and assures me that the woman is extremely friendly and happy to talk to guests. So I do as I am told and I get to meet the wonderful Flash Rosenberg, artist in residence at the NYPL. She greets me so very warmly and openly and explains that she attends all these conversations and draws throughout them, creating small, often comic sketches inspired by what she hears. Her finished images are then usually projected on screens on either side of the stage area as the audience waits for the conversation to start. This evening, however, there are no projections.
Holdengräber comes on stage, welcomes everyone to the evening, and then introduces the star of the evening, Matthew Barney. Barney is a sculptor, installation artist and film maker who creates highly contemporary works that often feature large quantities of Vaseline. He is probably best known for his series of films called the Cremaster Cycle, which I refer to in my post on Salt Lake City as one of the films is set in Utah and features the Mormon Tabernacle. Barney’s partner is the Icelandic singer Bjork (when I Google them, I note that the celebrity press is speculating about the demise of their relationship). Barney is taking part in the LIVE at the NYPL program because he currently has an exhibition of around 100 drawings at the Pierpoint Morgan Library.
Well, everything starts very promisingly. Barney says hello and then treats us to a preview of a new film he is working on, showing about 20 minutes of work in progress, which is such a special treat. The film is typically Barney and features a range of dramatic scenes that include what looks like a chemical factory, a large warehouse in which an elaborately decorated car is being forensically tested and a blindfolded man who sleeps in a room covered in gold leaf.
After the film, the conversation starts and it’s a little different from what I had expected – but then I didn’t really know what to expect anyway. Holdengräber starts by making reference to a list of limitations Barney had imposed on the way the talk would be conducted and asks Barney to explain his reasons for them. Barney doesn’t answer directly but skirts around the question. In fact, he speaks rather cryptically throughout the evening, making it quite difficult to follow his line of thinking. And so the tone is set. For the next hour, it feels as though the two on stage are locked in a type of battle, where one refuses to concede to the other. Holdengräber tries incredibly hard to get Barney to elaborate on some of the concepts and visual tropes used in his work, but Barney either doesn’t understand the questions, or is just being wilful by not responding as expected. At one point, when Holdengräber reads out a lengthy quote from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness about the nature of slime, I feel that the whole conversation has descended into one-upmanship. Barney seems incapable of responding, and remarks that he had specifically requested that the talk should not focus on literature because he wasn’t really much of a reader. And yet, earlier in the conversation, Barney had identified specific passages from a Norman Mailer novel that were particularly significant to his practice. Holdengräber makes a comment that seems like an ironical dig at the fact that Barney is currently exhibiting in a library, rather than in a gallery. Some people start to leave, and I have to admit, I too, am getting a little weary of the conversation because it really doesn’t seem to be heading anywhere and I don’t feel as though I’m learning anything more about Barney’s work.
At the end of the talk, Francoise tells me how disappointed she is that this conversation was not typical and that she is surprised how uncomfortable it was to witness. She thinks Holdengräber was too tough on Barney. We agree that there was a tension in the air and then visit Flash at the back of the room, to see what she has drawn. Flash, too, picked up on the tension between Holdengräber and Barney. She says that Barney just didn’t listen and refused to answer the questions he was asked and this is reflected in her drawings. Interestingly, another woman joins us and remarks that she got a lot from the session. She was very familiar with Barney’s work and so knew just what he was trying to say.
Francoise and I exchange contact details and promise to meet up again. In a couple of weeks time I’m coming back to hear another LIVE talk, a panel discussion celebrating the work of the Frederico Garcia Lorca who is currently featured in an exhibition in the NYPL. I’m very excited because one of the guests is Patti Smith, the poet and singer who is also the author of the award winning Just kids, a moving memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York in the 60s and 70s.
The third (or maybe it is already the fourth or fifth) good thing to happen in the week is going to Broadway to see the multi-award award winning musical The Book of Morman, which is by the creators of South Park and has been showing at the Eugene O’Neill theatre since 2011. It is notoriously difficult to get tickets which you normally need to book months in advance unless you are happy to pay through the nose (over $400!). Well, I am extremely lucky – my son, Simon, who is here in New York on holiday with his partner Bec (which is another excellent thing to add to my list) has bought us tickets and we have excellent seats in the second row of the balcony.
The show wins me over completely, even though I am not really a fan of musicals. It is an extremely funny religious satire that tells the story of Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are sent to Uganda to for their compulsory Mormon mission work. The singing, the acting, the choreography, the stage sets, the irreverent humour, are just superb, and the early scenes, set in Salt Lake City, perfectly evoke my own my experiences there about 6 weeks ago. I feel I have an extra special insight into the whole play.
After the show, Simon and Bec and I wander through the craziness of Times Square before taking the Subway downtown. It is such a treat to spend time here with two of my very favourite people. They’ve been holidaying in Mexico, lying around on beaches, swimming in Ceynotes, visiting the Mayan ruins in Tulum… After New York they head for LA for a week before returning to their home in Sydney.
Bec and her friend Anna join me to experience the fourth good thing that happens this week – a visit to the recently installed Rain Room at MOMA, which is part of a larger exhibition showing at their satellite Gallery, PS1. As I have a membership card, I get free entry and I can also buy cheap passes for my guests. The three of us join the special members’ queue at around 10:40am, but it is after 12:30pm when we finally get in! We do a lot of talking in those 2 hours and, ironically, we also experience a huge downpour of rain. None of us thought to bring an umbrella and so we huddle pathetically under Bec’s little cardigan, getting wetter and wetter. We are saved by a group of very kind girls, who each have umbrellas and let us borrow one for the rest of the wait.
The rain room itself is completely black except for a very bright light at the far end of the space. And it’s raining in there, the whole centre of the room filled with a gentle downpour. There are people wandering about in it, but clearly, they are not getting wet. An attendant tells us to just walk into the rain, but to take it slowly. If you run or move about too quickly, you will get wet. Apparently that is exactly what children do in there and then leave completely sodden with their disgruntled parents.
Bec and Anna and I take the plunge and walk gently into the rain, which immediately stops around us. It’s a magical experience and brings big smiles to our faces. As I’m wandering about, not getting wet, someone calls out my name and taps me on the shoulder. It’s Daphane, who visited me not long after I had arrived in New York and took Gerard and I along the High Line and into some of the Chelsea Galleries. Daphane is there with Natalie, who has played a major role in bringing the Rain Room to MOMA, and after we finish playing in the dry wetness, she takes us behind the scenes, and shows us all the machinery that makes the Rain Room happen.
The Rain Room is a wonderful experience, but in terms of its merit as art, I feel that something is missing. I would love to see it with a sound track, or with projections on the walls, or just some other element that would extend the idea a little further.
And the fifth good that happened this week is my rather crazy visit to the Museum of Natural History. I arrange to meet a Scottish artist who lives in New York for coffee one morning (which is yet another good thing!) and, because the café is not far from the Natural History Museum, I decide to pay a visit there afterwards. (The artist is the lovely Gwen Hardie, who paints incredibly fine, translucent images of skin. I met her at an opening at Garis & Hahn, a new gallery on Bowery which is currently featuring the work of Australian artists – but that is another story altogether.) Well, the Natural History Museum is both wonderful and totally confusing. I enter through the back and buy a ticket from a machine, and then wander about the Escher-like hallways and staircases, getting totally lost. I am unsure of when I am actually in an area of the museum that requires an entry fee because, with the exception of my planetarium visit, no-one checks my ticket. Many of the hallways seem to be neutral areas, but I never really work out the system.
The Museum is the location for the movie A night at the museum, and is renowned for it hundreds of beautifully maintained dioramas of wildlife from all over the world as well as people from different cultures. The dioramas feature stuffed animals and birds and mannequins dressed in traditional clothing. Each one is a stunning three dimensional art work. I love the bears and the deer, and the scenes in the Asian Cultures section, but as with most of my museum experiences, I am overwhelmed by how much there is to see. If I had grown up in New York, I think this would have been one of my favourite places to visit. Each diorama is like a page in an encyclopaedia that has come to life.
The Museum also has what is without any doubt the best planetarium show I have every experienced. The planetarium itself is a huge orb suspended over the science section of the museum. The show tells the story of the sun and is narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. It is so compelling, with such stunning visual effects that I almost want to stay and watch it all over again.
I realise now that I am probably never going to catch up to the present in this blog. The experiences just keep coming, thick and fast, and I will always be chasing my tail, wishing I could write just that much faster.
Soon, I might tell you about the art work I’ve been making…