It’s nigh impossible to pick a “best” at MoMA. But I feel a special love for Mark Rothko’s melancholy, soothing No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black) from 1958.
The walls at the Museum of Modern Art don’t meet the floors. It’s a minuscule detail. I feel certain many visitors don’t even consciously notice it. I’m not sure why the architect did that. But think about the words that describe the collection: “groundbreaking,” “earth-shattering.” I like to think they decided MoMA’s treasures are too wonderful to touch something as mundane as a floor. So the art, and the walls on which the art is hung, don’t.
Wyckoff family members lived in the Wyckoff House right through the start of the 1900s. 250 years of family history in a single domicile boggles my mind.
Before starting my project, I never realized how many historic houses exist in modern New York. Some surprisingly old. Manhattan’s oldest, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, dates from the 1760s. The Van Cortlandt House in the Bronx was built in 1748. Bowne House in Queens dates to the 1660s. But in any city, there can be only one oldest house. In New York that is the Wyckoff House, located in the prosaically named Flatlands, a nondescript part of Brooklyn far from any subway line.
And so, on the first snowy day of the year, I made my trek, over the river and through the woods, half-metaphorically and half-literally, to the Wyckoffs’ ancestral home. Continue reading “Wyckoff House Museum”
My favorite fun fact from the tour is that the Lower East Side got the moniker “Klein Deutschland” before there even was a unified “Deutschland.”
There are certain combinations of places and architecture that just go together. Paris+garret; Newport+mansion; San Francisco+Victorian ; Brooklyn+brownstone. And “Lower East Side+tenement.” It’s almost redundant to call a place the “Lower East Side Tenement Museum.” But New York has one of those, and redundant or not, it is a fantastic, unforgettable recreation of a slice of life in this city.
How the Other Half Lived
The word “tenement” originally referred to any multiple dwelling building, what we’d call an “apartment” today. Very quickly, however, “tenement” came to mean a very particular type of multiple dwelling building. One aimed at the working class and recent immigrants, crammed with people and with very limited light, ventilation, and amenities.
A vertical tour brings you up close to the engineering of an old-school cathedral. The building is buttressed to support the weight of an enormous tower that was never built.
To balance that buttressing, there’s literally tons of lead above the ceiling vaults, pushing down and out as the buttresses push in.
Although I have rarely attended a service there, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has figured large in my life in New York City.
Shortly after I arrived as a freshman at Columbia, I attended an event at the Cathedral. The Dalai Lama spoke, as did the daughter of Desmond Tutu. I vividly remember it was right around Rosh Hashanah, and a group of monks offered a chant in honor of the High Holy Days. Tibetan Buddhist monks singing in honor of the Jewish new year in the largest Christian cathedral in the world. To this day, that stands as one of my quintessential New York experiences. Continue reading “Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine”
Rather than the grounds or the view I decided to limit myself to the “Call and Response” exhibit. Steven Millar’s “Many-Eyed Object,” 2017, is wood and glass, constructed and organic, and all about changing vistas and views.
In that, it neatly summarizes Wave Hill as a whole.
For the first time since I started this project, I feel the need for absolution.
“Forgive me, City, for I have sinned.”
“My son, how long has it been since your last confession?”
“Well, Bloomberg was in office, so it’s been a while…”
“What did you do?”
“It’s not a sin of commission, but a sin of omission. I confess that it has been twenty-three years since I last paid a visit to Wave Hill.”
What the Heck is Wave Hill?
Wave Hill is difficult to describe.
I mean, partly it’s easy:
Two fancy old mansions and associated outbuildings and landscaping across 28 acres of surrounding land, on a bluff in Riverdale in the Bronx, overlooking the Hudson and the majestic cliffs of the Palisades in New Jersey, now used as a venue for contemporary art.
So it’s a hybrid art museum, botanic garden, and historic home. Cut and dried.
150 minutes, including 26 queued to get in. I could easily have spent more (inside, that is).
Best thing I saw or learned
For all those who think technology progresses in only one direction, Intrepid offers a few counterfactuals, but none better than Concorde. From 1976 until 2003, people (very few, and very rich to be sure) jetted across the Atlantic in under 3.5 hours. I hope we see supersonic travel again in my lifetime. But I doubt it.
Driving up the west side of Manhattan helps New Yorkers exercise our jadedness. Here’s my routine with out-of-towners.
Oh, the Renzo Piano Whitney building. I was just there the other day.
Hmph, High Line. Too crowded with tourists.
Frank Gehry’s IAC Building is really showing its age, isn’t it?
I can sometimes be bothered to look up from my smartphone at midtown’s forest of skyscrapers.
Hudson Yards, a whole new city within the city, is an inconvenient and messy construction zone.
And that over there? Oh, that’s just our aircraft carrier.
I can act the part. But, oh, the Intrepid. I’m still a kid at heart. I love boats and planes and exploding things. And the Intrepid has all of that, including a Concorde, a nuclear submarine, and even a (sort of) space shuttle. I love that we’ve got an aircraft carrier, just parked next to Manhattan like its crew dropped by to see a show or go shopping on Canal Street.
This place feels so real. It’s like Louis and Lucille Armstrong just left the room to get you an iced tea, and they’ll be back in a jiffy. Nothing is labeled, no velvet ropes. The Armstrongs’ iron (or very good facsimile) still sits in their closet. I strongly suspect their air conditioners cool some of the rooms. More than any other house museum I’ve visited so far, this place still feels like a home.
A riddle: If Louis Armstrong were a superhero (and I’m not saying he wasn’t), what would he call his souped up vehicle for patrolling the streets of Gotham?
A: The SATCHMOBILE.
Actually the Satchmobile is the name of the official van of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Louis Armstrong practically invented jazz. He played all over the world, made a bajillion records, sang songs that everyone knows. And when he wasn’t doing all that, from 1943 until the day he died he and his wife Lucille lived in a modest three-story brick house in the Corona area of Queens. They entertained generations of neighborhood kids, Louis made tape recordings of himself (he was sort of a tape diarist), and generally lived far more quietly than you’d expect from a jazz superhero.
Louis Armstrong died in 1971. Lucille lived for another 12 years, until 1983. They never had kids. And the house, pretty much exactly as it was when Lucille died, passed into the hands of the city. Queens College manages the place, and they lovingly restored and opened it in 2003 as the best house museum I’ve seen so far.
You can only enter the house on guided tours, but my gods, it feels just like you’re visiting the Armstrongs. The group (nine people joined my tour on a random Saturday afternoon) goes right up the front steps, rings the musical door chime, and proceeds on their visit, which explores every room in the house, down to the breakfast nook.
The management frowns on photos. I cheated once, to take a picture of Louis Armstrong’s infinitely mirrored bathroom. I wondered if Yayoi Kusama ever visited the Armstrongs. Or took this tour…
Here are some of the things I managed to resist photographing:
Louis’s wood paneled den with its fabulous bar (there is still alcohol in his bar. Drambuie.) and fabulous reel-to-reel tape recorders.
The Armstrongs’ bedroom with its wild silver wallpaper.
The amazing 50s kitchen. Bright blue, enameled, curvy cabinetry, custom sub-zero fridge, everything built in. Paper towels stored in their own wall cubby. They even had a blender built into their countertop. Lucille and her kitchen designer were geniuses!
Their white upright piano, which neither of them could play, but looked good in the living room.
Four green ashtrays shaped like the suits from a deck of cards.
Art from a lifetime of world travels.
Okay, I wanted to take pictures of everything.
But I could not resist the bathroom. I apologize, Louis Armstrong House Museum folks.
The Louis Armstrong House uses sound, but unexpectedly it doesn’t play a lot of music. Rather, during the tour, the guide periodically plays bits of recordings of Armstrong talking about the house and his life. In his den, there’s a portrait of him by Tony Bennett (!), and Louis talks about that–how he signed it “Benedetto.” Letting the man speak for himself in his own home works incredibly well.
A Few Other Things
The entry to the Louis Armstrong House and its gift shop is in their former garage.
From the garage you proceed to a small exhibit area, in what used to be his rec room. Where he played poker with Dizzy Gillespie. (His poker table is on display upstairs.) I like to think of it as the Satch-cave.
Look at these stairs! And the wallpaper!
Currently there’s a display commemorating the 50th anniversary of the inescapable, somewhat saccharin (to my taste) “What a Wonderful World.” Not a hit when first released, the film “Good Morning Vietnam” rediscovered the song and set it on its path toward ubiquity. But Louis said whenever he sang it, it reminded him of Corona.
You can also see Armstrong’s bathrobe and slippers, life mask, and suitcases. And one of his trumpets. And three pages he wrote about his joy living in the neighborhood. I got the sense that even if someone had offered them, say, Andrew Carnegie’s mansion, he and Lucille would’ve stayed right where they were.
The most unexpected thing about the house is the Armstrongs bought the lot next door and made it into an expansive garden, with pine trees, a little lawn, a tiny koi pond, and a bar and barbecue. In this one place, I felt a legendary musician exerting some star power. They only built the garden in 1970, so just a year before Armstrong died. Better late than never.
I sat there for a while playing in my head what I’ll get to say when someone asks me what I was up to today. “Oh, not much. Sat in Louis Armstrong’s garden reading a magazine for a bit.”
The Louis Armstrong House experience will soon change significantly. A vacant lot across the street (where they currently park the Satchmobile) is going to get a spiffy new building that will greatly increase the museum’s ability to tell Louis and Lucille’s story. I think that’s wonderful — though I wonder if the neighbors on this quiet block agree.
But even as they’re able to show off more of their collection, I sincerely hope that the house stays just exactly the way it is. It is an amazing monument to the talent, humility, and soul of one of the great figures in the history of music.
You can build museums to jazz (not saying you can succeed, but you can try). You can memorialize great concert performances in museum form. You can digitize music and tell its story through touchscreens and headphones. But nothing you can possibly do will bring you closer to Louis Armstrong than visiting his house in Corona, Queens.
Meanwhile, somebody please write a Justice League-style comic book featuring the Superheroes of Jazz battling the forces of squareness.
Tibetan Buddhism has a macabre streak a mile wide, and I find it deeply endearing. They make bowls out of skulls and trumpets out of human leg bones. Perhaps not for everyone, but I consider that a healthy attitude toward mortality. What goth (or goth sympathizer) wouldn’t love the idea of dancing in the charnel fields with the Lords of the Cremation Grounds?
But I believe only one museum in the city exists in a former department store. The old Barney’s, on 17th Street near Seventh Avenue, is now the home of the Rubin Museum of Art. It’s audacious that a former home of high-end fashion retail now teaches people about Tibetan Buddhism and related Himalayan cultures. Both rarefied atmospheres in their own ways, but that’s the only thing they have in common.
The Rubin, though, stands as a supremely successful museum conversion. It offers seven floors of exhibit space, a far better restaurant than you’d expect, and (hearkening back to the DNA of the building) a lovely little gift shop full of Buddhist and New Agey treasures (but sadly no leg bone trumpets).
A juxtaposition of two pieces: My Egypt, by Charles Demuth, and Pittsburgh, by Elsie Driggs. Both from 1927, they present similar and yet extremely divergent visions of industrialized landscapes. One is clearly prettier than the other, and yet, as Driggs said of her grey smokestacks and pipes, “This shouldn’t be beautiful. But it is.”
The Met’s Worst Mistake?
The Whitney Museum of American Art. Yet another art museum in our saturated city. Why does it exist? Mainly because the Met in the late 1920s didn’t care to own a vast collection of work by living American artists. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had offered the Met her collection, with an endowment, even. Yes, the Met’s Board wouldn’t take the art even though they stood to get paid to do so.
It reminds me of the scene in the movie “Pretty Woman” where Julia Roberts gets treated miserably by the snooty store lady on Rodeo Drive, only to return later looking fabulous to point out what a humongous mistake said snooty lady had made. Which raises the question, which museum is Richard Gere?
Anyway, I will say that if any member of the Whitney family now or in the future offers to pay me to take, say, a Hopper or a Rothko, I will gladly accept that offer.
Kaisik Wong’s spacey, glam 1970s fashions look like costumes from a very trippy sci-fi film. The opposite of most of the counterculture fashion on display, and yet they fit in somehow, too.
New York City is lucky to boast not one but two extremely fine design museums — the Museum of Arts and Design and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Augmented by the estimable design collections at MoMA and The Met.
Does it really need two design museums, though? I think it does. The Cooper Hewitt and the Museum of Arts and Design (“MAD”) feel extremely different. MAD’s collection starts at midcentury, shaping its outlook and sensibilities. Cooper goes deeper and can do more with historical context. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to say that the one is like MoMA and the other is like The Met. But it’s not necessarily unfair to make that comparison, either.