The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.
New York does nothing for those of us who are inclined to love her except implant in our hearts a homesickness that baffles us until we go away from her, and then we realize why we are restless. At home or away, we are homesick for New York not because New York used to be better and not because she used to be worse but because the city holds us and we don’t know why.
There is no question that there is an unseen world. The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?
My last post for New York, which I write from my air conditioned room at the Victory Services Club in London, still jet-lagged and wondering what I’m doing here when such a big part of me is still back in Greene Street, dealing with the heatwave – cursing the heat wave – planning where to go and what to do to stay cool. I miss New York badly at the moment. London seems so awkward in comparison – conservative, reserved and far too well-mannered. I miss the conversations with strangers that you can only have in New York. I miss the edgy madness of life on the streets. I miss the subway. And the fire escapes on the front of buildings. And the water towers on the top of buildings. And I miss the feeling that I am always missing out on something better because I’m doing something else. I will get over this, I guess, but I’m not sure how long it will take…
When I return from my trip to Boston, I only have two weeks left in New York and they fly by far too quickly, partly because I spend quite a bit of that time with friends from Tasmania – Jeff and Anita, who won Green Cards in an annual lottery and are trying their luck in the big city – and Claire Krouzecky, who just finished her MFA at the Tasmanian College of the Arts and is working here for three months under the Australia Council Jump Mentoring Program as an art assistant for Paul Ramirez Jonas. Jonas’s partner is Janine Antoni who created the very famous Lick and Lather work I saw at the New Museum when I first arrived here. To top off the Tasmanian contingent, my partner and trusty travel companion, Gerard, decides to fly back over and join me for the last 10 days of my residency. And so the scene is set for the countdown to my leaving.
Before Gerard arrives, I visit Jeff and Anita in their Alphabet City apartment and we have lunch together at the infamous Katz’s Deli on East Houston. This is where Meg Ryan fakes an orgasm in the movie When Harry Met Sally. It’s a big place, with lots of neat rows of tables, hundreds of framed photos of well-known and not-so-well-known patrons on the walls, and a strange ticketing system for customers, the logic of which I can’t quite work out. We order one pastrami on rye, a huge sandwich that arrives cut into three so we can share it. About half way through our meal, one of the server’s asks us if we are enjoying ourselves. Yes we are, we reply. And then he points to the ceiling to a sign dangling from the ceiling straight above our heads. It says: Where Harry met Sally… hope you have what she had! Enjoy! And then we realise we are sitting at THE table where the movie scene with Meg Ryan was shot. We had no idea. We had originally wanted to sit somewhere along the far wall, but all the tables were taken, so we just sat down at this one because it was the closest available.
Our next eating adventure is on Jeff’s birthday, just a few days after his arrival. He invites us all to a birthday lunch at Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint on the upper west side, not far from the Museum of Natural History. It’s a crazy place that feels like it’s been here forever. There’s not a spare inch of space anywhere and you walk directly from the street into the kitchen, a team of cooks sizzling burgers on the grill, orders being shouted left to right, servers juggling plates of food, all of which we have to navigate through to reach the seating areas out back. There must be 100 different burgers on the menu and it is almost impossible to decide what to choose, but everything we order is delicious – in a very meaty, greasy kind of way. The waffle chips are particularly excellent. Afterwards, we laze about in Central Park watching a baseball game, and then make our way to Strawberry Fields, to see the Imagine memorial for John Lennon that is just across the road from the Dakota, the building where Lennon lived and was so tragically shot by Mark David Chapman on December 8, 1980. We rest on benches in the shade, watching the endless stream of visitors, some of whom leave flowers on the memorial. These are gathered up and carefully arranged into symmetrical patterns by a self-appointed Lennon memorial guard, an ageing, weathered hippy who also tells people off if they step too far into the circumference of the Imagine mosaic.
Later, we head to Printed Matter on 22nd Street, a book store specialising in limited edition artist books where we meet Rob O’Connor, yet another Tasmanian in New York. Claire and Rob stay for an artist talk/performance (Claire nearly faints from the heat in there) while Anita, Jeff and Gerard and I head for the Sunshine Cinema on East Houston to escape the heat and see the new Almodovar movie, I’m so excited. It promises to be fabulous, as so many of Almodovar’s films are, but it is woefully woefully bad. But at least we escaped from the heat for a while.
The heat in New York during these last weeks is searing, with maximum temperatures in the 30s every single day. And as each day passes, it builds up in the city and becomes more and more oppressive. The studio is particularly bad because it is poorly insulated and there are times when it feels almost like a sauna in there. When Claire comes to Greene Street for dinner one night, joined by Kathy and Sardi, we eat on the roof where it’s much cooler and where we can enjoy great view across the city. The sky has looked threatening for most of the evening and sure enough it starts to rain while we’re still eating. I go downstairs and fetch umbrellas which we bob up and down during our meal as the rain stops and starts. Unfortunately, it brings only brief respite and the next day the sun just keeps on beating down relentlessly. I will miss many things about New York, but the heat will not be one of them.
Gerard and I plan activities to escape the heat of the apartment and the street. We go to the Angelika Movie Theatre and watch a far too intense movie called Before Midnight about a couple whose relationship is threatening to collapse. We visit the Guggenheim to see the beautiful James Turrell light installation in the rotunda again. We also go to the Museum of the City of New York, where it is actually too cold for comfort, and we have to escape into Central Park to warm up. We go to MoMa to watch a free movie called Enchanted Island, directed by Allen Dwan in 1956, about a man who falls in love with a cannibal princess. (In the theatre, we’re joined by many others also looking for relief from the heat. I sit next to a petite elderly lady with a severe stoop. She wears oversized men’s sneakers, a faded floral peasant dress and a scarf over her head and looks as though she just emerged from the depths of a forest in Latvia. Nearby is a man with a hunchback and long grey hair that almost reaches his waist. He wears a bright yellow polo shirt and bright yellow socks with sandals. These are just some of New York’s fascinating characters.) After the movie, we stay for a fabulous free concert by the New Juilliard Ensemble who perform in the Sculpture Courtyard. It’s still very warm outside, but it is a magic evening as dusk becomes twilight and then turns to darkness while we listen to four contemporary compositions, one of them by the Australian Nigel Westlake. My favourite is a work by the English composer Joe Duddell, called Grace under pressure. Back at the studio, the ceiling fans go non-stop and we put big wind machines near the windows and in the fire-escape doorway to try to get the air moving. There’s also a big old rattly exhaust fan in the ceiling that we turn on at regular intervals. When everything is going, it’s so noisy it feels like we’re living in a factory. When I work at the desk, I sit with my feet in a big pan of cold water and point a wind machine directly towards my legs. It is hard to believe that when we first arrived in April, the boiler was still going, hissing and chugging like a mechanical beast to keep us warm.
Of course, I almost forgot the 4th of July, American Independence Day! Jeff, Anita and Gerard and I catch a cab to West 23rd Street near the Hudson to join throngs of people all marching northward to find a viewing spot for the annual Macy’s fireworks. Many of the streets have been closed off and we have to walk to 27th before we find a way down towards the water. It’s incredibly hot and incredibly crowded, but the display is fabulous and we ooh and ah along with the crowd. We all remark on the level of nationalism we witness in crowd – there is one point where everyone starts chanting ‘USA USA USA…’. Afterwards, it is so crowded in the entrances to the subway that we walk all the way back to Greene Street – that’s a lot of blocks!
In my last week, Jeff, Anita, Gerard and I meet up in Washington Square, where Claire is helping with a project called Što Te Nema? (Why are you not there?), a nomadic monument developed by the artist Aida Sehovic. She organizes the project every year on 11 July to commemorate the thousands of Bosnians who were killed in the Srebrenica Genocide in 1995. The work is created collectively by the public who are asked to participate by pouring Bosnian coffee into small traditional coffee cups that have been laid out on the ground in a tight circular pattern. Each cup represents a Bosnian whose remains have been recovered since the massacre; so every year, as more remains are found, the circle of cups grows. It is a simple but very moving work. Claire has to help gather the cups at the end of the day. She says that while the circle may look small, there are actually about 3,000 cups used in the work. This just adds to the poignancy of the work.
We also visit the Swiss Institute one day, which is not far from Greene Street. It’s an impressive gallery, designed like a big garage, with a roller door as the entrance. The show is called A Sunday in the Mountains, and features the work of about ten artists, including Roman Signer, Jean Tinguely and Andreas Zust. I am most intrigued by a moody, surreal black and white video piece by Philip Sauber that collages together a strange series of events. In one scene, two men smoke in a dimly lit room, staring blankly ahead while someone outside bangs frenetically on the various doors to their home. The two men seem completely oblivious to the desperate call for help. The the video cuts to the outside of the house, to a mansion in the countryside. A lone figure – it is hard to tell if it is male or female – runs from door to door around the building, banging more and more frenetically, trying to get in. There is no response. The work seems to challenge the concept of Switzerland as a safe haven for those seeking refuge.
Our biggest adventure as a group in these final days is a trip to Long Island. It’s a big adventure because we actually hire a car, from the Dollar Car Hire place on Charles Street, and the intrepid Jeff takes charge behind the wheel and drives us from the madness of Manhattan streets all the way to the Hamptons – but not without plenty of horn honking and a few scary moments in the attempt to find the Midtown tunnel. Our destination is The Springs, to visit the house that Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner bought back in 1945, with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, and where they created some of the most famous abstract paintings in the history of modern art. It’s a long drive – about three hours in reasonable traffic, but it takes us four to get there because sections of the road are completely jammed with traffic, and because we also decide to digress from the main freeway and take a more scenic route. We also stop for an extended tea break in a small town called Pachogue, where Jeff and Gerard befriend a group of middle aged women selling scones and cakes in a parking lot. These ladies advise us that the very best place to eat in South Hampton is a restaurant called the Driver’s Seat. We take note and press on towards the Springs.
Our time at the Pollock Krasner House is special in a way I can’t quite describe. It feels as though we have arrived at the sacred destination of a pilgrimage. The house itself is just behind some trees and almost right on the road, which surprises me – I had always imagined it at the end of a long driveway. Lee Krasner still used the house until her death in 1984, and it is very much as she left it then. When she and Pollock first moved in, it had no running water or heating, but they made improvements that enabled them to live and work there more comfortably. It is a modest house, but it is alive with an energy that you can sense as you walk about its various rooms. Downstairs the space has been opened up to create a large open living area. Upstairs, the rooms seem tiny. Krasner’s bedroom was once Pollock’s studio, before he moved out into the barn to paint.
The barn, which is a short walk from the house, nestled amongst lush green trees, is extraordinary. We have to take off our shoes and wear special spongy slippers before we are allowed to enter. For many years, the floor was covered over to protect it, but the covering has been removed to reveal all the marks and splashes and stains of Pollock painting in action. And we are allowed to walk all over it, walk all over the giant ground on which Pollock created Blue Poles, Lavender Mist and Autumn Rhythm, amongst many other famous works. It really does feel like walking on sacred ground. Krasner tacked her canvases to the walls of this studio, creating works such as Cobalt night, Celebration and Portrait in green.
Outside, the grounds lead down to a waterway. Krasner has donated funds to protect the wildlife in the area.
As we leave the property, Jeff stops the car in the driveway and has a conversation with a man walking two beautiful young American Eskimo dogs. Before we know it, Randy and his dogs are in the back of the car with us as we give them a lift to the Springs General Store which is where we are going to have lunch. So it’s a slightly mad situation in the middle back seat, with two very friendly animals leaping about until they feel settled. (Our car has seating for eight, so there is actually plenty of room.)
The Springs General Store is where Pollock and Krasner used to buy their groceries and often ate a meal, so it seems a fitting place for us to have our lunch. We have toasted sandwiches, salads and ice creams, sitting on the porch in big wooden outdoor chairs. Randy joins us and says we can come and visit his place any time.
Our next stop is the Green River Cemetery, where Pollock and Krasner are buried – another sacred site on this pilgrimage. It is a small, charming U-shaped cemetery dotted with lots of trees. Many of the gravestones are large simple rocks, following the example of Pollock’s and Krasner’s headstones. We wander about quietly. There are many famous people buried here, including Harold Rosenberg, who helped define Abstract Expressionism in the seminal essay The American Action Painters (1952); Ad Reinhardt, who is known for his minimal approach to art and who painted exclusively black paintings for the last eleven years of his life, and Hannah Wilke, the feminist artist who is perhaps best know for sticking vagina shaped blobs of chewing gum over her naked body back in the early 70s.
The weather is getting cooler and the sky a little threatening but we head for the beach anyway. We had hoped to go for a swim, but when we arrive, the wind is up, the sky is getting darker, the waves are looking pretty wild and swimming is not permitted after 5pm. We stay until it starts raining and then all head back to the car for the journey home. We do make one more stop, in South Hampton, for dinner at the Driver’s Seat, the restaurant recommended by the ladies Jeff and Gerard had met in Pachogue. It turns out to be the worst meal we have ever had.
The drive home is punctuated by traffic jams, but Jeff does an amazing job as our driver and we are all incredibly impressed with his skills on the streets of New York and beyond – surely he can now drive anywhere in the world! He drops Claire off at her share house in Brooklyn, then Gerard and me in Soho, and he and Anita return the car to the Dollar Car Hire place. It is after midnight by the time we get home. It has been a great adventure and one of the most memorable of my time in New York.
There are a few other things that I need to record in this final posting that I have not yet included anywhere else.
Just before I leave for Boston, I visit the Scottish born artist Gwen Hardie in her fabulous studio in downtown Brooklyn. I introduced Gwen in my posting on Shiny Happy People, but back then I had not seen her extraordinary paintings of the flesh in the flesh. Gwen manages a small studio complex for eight artists and where she works every day, creating meticulous representations of the surface of skin. It was a great treat to see her work space and to view some of her subtle, multilayered paintings in person.
Another artist I also refer to in an earlier post is Francoise Grossen. We first met at the New York Public Library’s LIVE event early in my residency, but we meet again when Francoise returns from a trip to Europe and invites me to her home and studio. As with Gwen, it is such an honour to see this artist’s remarkable textile work in person. Francoise herself is quite slight in build, but her projects are very grand in scale – large, thick, rope-like structures that almost seem alive and bring to mind both Giacometti and Louise Bourgeois.
I also meet with the artist Mary Lum, who teaches at Bennington College in Vermont, and who I first met in Paris, in the Cite Internationale des Arts, when we both had residencies there eleven years ago. Mary creates stunning, abstract works that reference urban space using a combination of collage, painting, photography and wall-drawing. She has had numerous residencies, including fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, and Oxford University.
And I have the pleasure of meeting Simon Harsent, an English photographer and director who has been living in New York for sixteen years and who has worked with my son, Simon Ozolins on a number of projects. Simon comes to Greene Street and photographs me in the studio – it is a bit daunting to have the camera pointing at me for so long and from so many different angles, but also a great privilege. I do feel somewhat experienced though, because I was also photographed the week before by Sardi Klein, Kathy’s partner, who teaches at the School of Visual Arts.
Finally, the studio gets a new resident just a few nights before I leave – a huge fan palm that Kathy finds on the street, left out by a shop over the road that is closing down. Gerard and I help transport this fabulous plant along the cobblestones, up the steps, into the lift and into the studio. And there it is, looking so happy and so right in its new home.
There are, of course, so many other special moments I could talk about but it is not possible to write about everything and everyone. The one thing I am conscious I have not written about is the art work I have been developing in the studio, but I have decided that I am not quite ready to share those ideas yet. I still have a number of months of study leave ahead of me, so more time to consider and reconsider what I have started. I will say that I did cover those two big daunting white studio walls, creating a type of stage-set and printing some very big images. I also spent time wearing clothes far too warm for the New York heat while Gerard filmed me performing. I have a lot of material to work with and many ideas to sift through. I also have a lot of reading ahead of me because I have found some really pertinent texts over the last three months.
So, I end with my final night in New York, which also happens to be my birthday, so it is a double celebration, but one tinged with sadness because I find it so very hard to say goodbye to Greene Street, New York, where I have had the most extraordinary time and met the most extraordinary people.