National September 11 Museum

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 133 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A special exhibition of New Yorker covers that featured the Twin Towers both before and after Sept. 11. My favorite of all is probably this one from 2003, showing New York’s iconic buildings twinned.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum

Particularly timely exhibition now that Condé Nast’s headquarters are in One World Trade Center.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum bills itself as a single, unified whole.  And indeed, the museum is integrally part of the plaza, a cavernous underground space that extends all around– and under– the footprints of the World Trade Center towers.  However, for my purposes I’m thinking about them separately.  

National September 11 Memorial and Museum
The WTC Memorial

The September 11 Memorial, with its somber square fountains and all the names, is one thing:  well worth a visit even as the Trade Center has gone from being a giant hole in the ground to being a thriving center for commerce and commuting once again.

The September 11 Museum I don’t recommend so heartily.

National September 11 Memorial and Museum
Eerie architecture evokes a knocked over tower

Continue reading “National September 11 Museum”

Living Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 62 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned John Tursi’s prolific, colorful, abstractions, en masse, amazed me.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, Queens
John Tursi, Abstract Paintings

A friend accompanied me to the Living Museum, and when Tursi asked her opinion of them, she replied unthinkingly, “This is crazy.”

I don’t believe in psychic powers. If they existed, we would have proved it by now.  And yet, I can’t deny that some places have an inexplicable aura about them — a feeling indelibly embedded in the stones and bricks.   Ellis Island, full of hopes and dreams from long ago.  The library at Columbia, resonant with over a century of stress and study.  

I mention this to set up my initial reaction to visiting the campus of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center.  Even just driving by Creedmoor’s forbidding deco-institutional buildings along the Grand Central Parkway, it commands attention.  You may not know what it is or what goes on there, but it has a hulking presence.  For lack of a better word, it’s creepy.  It comes as no surprise that it is a mental hospital.

The Living Museum, Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital, QueensCreedmoor dates back to 1912, when an abandoned National Guard barracks was used to house a few dozen patients.  At its peak in 1959, the sprawling facility housed an inconceivable 7,000 patients.  Since then, the inpatient population has fallen, leading it to sell the farm (literally), and also to abandon some buildings, adding to the creepiness of the campus today.  And at Creedmoor’s heart, in the ginormous former inmate cafeteria, lies the Living Museum.

Continue reading “Living Museum”

Museum of Modern Art

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 221 minutes (3 hours, 41 minutes)
Best thing I saw or learned 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. 

Museum of Modern Art, New York

UPDATE APRIL 2021: This review is obsolete, as it was written before MoMA opened its most recent expansion (which I talk about a bit in the review below). I will hopefully publish an updated review…soon. A lot of my take from a few years ago is still pertinent.

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.

More mundanely, I also wonder whether (and how) they dust all those wall-floor cracks. Continue reading “Museum of Modern Art”

Judd Foundation


Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 104 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Donald Judd’s dining table looks exactly like Donald Judd designed a dining table.

Utterly simple wood with chairs that seamlessly, create a box when its 14 chairs were pushed in. It reminded me of one of those wooden cube puzzles where you remove one piece and the whole thing falls apart— symmetric perfection broken.

And it is the exact size of the windows in the huge, open, “eating” level of the building.

In 1968 the artist Donald Judd bought a building in then-dilapidated SoHo. Five stories high, the building was used for light industry — small factories that my guide did not call “sweatshops” but that probably were.  Indeed, to this day some of the floors retain holes that show where an apparel manufacturer bolted down sewing machines.

Donald Judd Foundation

Judd, his wife Julie Finch, and their newborn son Flavin moved into the place, and Judd proceeded to remake the four upstairs floors to his own design. Judd changed floors and ceilings, installed fittings and fixtures, and designed both art and furniture specifically for the place. He also installed art from his friends and fellow SoHo Bohemians. He made the place their home, but he also made their home a work of art. Continue reading “Judd Foundation”

Lower East Side Tenement Museum


Edification value 4/5
Entertainment value
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 109 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned 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.

Tenement Museum

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.

Like how non-New Yorkers imagine New Yorkers live today, only even worse. Continue reading “Lower East Side Tenement Museum”

Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

Edification value  
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 58 minutes (most recently)
Best thing I saw or learned 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.  

Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
Above the ceiling…

To balance that buttressing, there’s literally tons of lead above the ceiling vaults, pushing down and out as the buttresses push in.

Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

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”

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 38 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned This case of Tibetan figurines.  The story is a spoiler, so I tell it in the review below.Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

Oh, this one hurts me a little.  I really, really wanted the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art to be a diamond of enlightenment in the heart of Staten Island.  An amazing, secret Shangri-La in the midst of Shao-Lin.  I really did.

But it’s not to be.

Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art
This Way to Shangri-La?

Near the geographic heart of Staten Island, high on a hill, there’s a lighthouse.  Climb the road up that hillside.  Pass the lighthouse and enter a well-to-do neighborhood of big houses. Eventually, you will reach a large stone wall, festooned on one end with distinctive Tibetan prayer flags.  Stairs lead you down to a library, exhibit hall, and a small, steep, garden.  Perched on the hill like a miniature Potala Palace, you’ve found the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan ArtJacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art Continue reading “Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art”

New Museum


Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 96 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj’s “Ru,” a room-sized installation of reproductions of Neolithic artifacts from Kosovo mounted on metal bird legs and perched in habitats of sticks and water, installed in a large white room.  

New Museum
Petrit Halilaj, “Ru” (detail)

It’s odd and obsessive and a little creepy and cute at the same time — like a Miyazaki movie come to life.

New Museum
Petrit Halilaj, “Ru” (detail)

New MuseumThe New Museum, devoted to cutting-edge contemporary art, turned forty years old this year.  I know because one of the exhibits on currently celebrates its history, with a timeline and select ephemera from past shows.

New Museum

Having turned 40 myself some years ago, I think it starts to feel a little ironic calling oneself “New” at that age.

Marcia Tucker, a curator at the Whitney in the 1970s, felt that new and emerging artists didn’t get a fair shake at “established” museums (this despite the Whitney Biennial).  She therefore set out to create an institution specifically for, well, the new.  And thus was yet another art museum born.

The New Museum moved into its current building on the Bowery in 2007, making that aspect of it still actually pretty new.  More on the building in a moment. Continue reading “New Museum”


Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 114 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned “Meeting,” an installation by light artist James Turrell.  One of Turrell’s Skyspaces, it is a moderately sized, square room, featuring dark wood paneled seating, white walls and ceiling, and a square cutout open to the sky.  

Turrell at MoMA PS1, Queens

All you do is sit there and look at the sky thus framed, and the light  patterns it casts on the walls.  It shouldn’t work. I should find it boring. And yet…it’s beautiful.

MoMA PS1, QueensThe Museum of Modern Art’s satellite branch, MoMA PS1, presents contemporary art in a unique setting in booming Long Island City.

PS1 started out as the “Instute for Art and Urban Resources, Inc.” in 1971.  Originally nomadic, it settled permanently in its current building in 1976.  And MoMA absorbed it into its empire in 2000.

School’s In Session

MoMA PS1, QueensHoused in a school building that dates to 1892 (“PS” in NewYork City parlance stands for “public school”) PS1 is another of New York’s examples of a masterful adaptation of an old structure to new, museum-y purposes. It’s the second schoolhouse-turned-museum I’ve visited, along with the City Island Nautical Museum.

I’m very fond of PS1’s building.  A new, concrete structure houses the admissions desk and a small shop, and the concrete stretches around a courtyard with a couple of outdoor spaces, leading to the stairs into the old brick schoolhouse itself.

PS1’s interiors retain a great deal of scholastic charm, including floorplans on blackboards, institutional stairs, sections of ancient linoleum and wood floors, and desk seating in the cafe (run by trendy Brooklyn restaurant M. Wells).  And light fixtures that almost certainly come from a company called, appropriately enough, Schoolhouse Electric.

MoMA PS1, Queens
The Cafe at PS1

Thanks to the cafe, a tantalizing bacony smell permeated much of the ground floor.  Delicious if slightly distracting. I always like a building that retains enough of its original purpose that you can still feel it, at least assuming its spaces for art work well as well.

MoMA PS1, Queens

Some Permanent Art

MoMA PS1, Queens
Ernesto Caivano, “In the Woods,” MoMA PS1, 2004.

PS1 has several permanent pieces, things that are part of the infrastructure.  There’s the aforementioned Turrell Skyspace.  Also multiple works in stairways, making traveling within the building a more artistic experience.  I’m particularly taken with spooky tree silhouettes by Ernesto Caivano.

There’s a mysterious hole in one wall which may or may not align with astronomical phenomena.  And Saul Melman gilded most of the school building’s massive original boilers, like blinged up steampunk.

MoMA PS1, Queens
Saul Melman, “Central Governor,” MoMA PS1, 2010.

Mostly, however, PS1 hosts temporary shows that MoMA doesn’t want or can’t fit in the mothership in midtown Manhattan.

Art, Angry and Baffling

MoMA PS1, Queens
Carolee Schneemann at MoMA PS1

The big show at PS1 currently is “Kinetic Painting,” a Carolee Schneemann retrospective.  Schneeman hit it big in the 1960s as a multi-threat, with an oeuvre combining painting, sculpture (and hybrids thereof) and aggressively challenging performance pieces. Her work reminded me of lots of different things.  I have in my notes:

  • An extremely angry Joseph Cornell
  • A deranged Cindy Sherman
  • An insane Marina Abramovic

Among other things.  Not to accuse her of being derivative —  Schneemann was definitely not copying anyone.

Possibly Schneemann’s most infamous piece is something called “Meat Joy.”  A performance from 1964 involving several men and women in their skivvies, along with gallons of paint and assorted raw meat — fish, plucked chickens, and such.  PS1 has a video. I’m not sure how much of the piece is choreographed versus improvised, but either way, it is funny, gross, and uncomfortable.

Which three words sum up my reaction to much of Schneemann’s work.  I liked some of it, don’t get me wrong.  But if you go, do not bring the kiddies.

The other large exhibit at PS1 currently is the work of Cathy Wilkes, which I found incomprehensible.  I realize the line between “art” and “trash” hasn’t been the same since Duchamp’s famous fountain.  But still.

MoMA PS1, Queens
Cathy Wilkes at PS1

PS1, I Love You?

Contemporary art is almost by definition challenging.  I like PS1 mainly because I find the space very friendly.  I guess if I’m going to be challenged by art, I’d rather be challenged in a nice, comfy place rather than someplace cool and sterile and purpose-built. (More on that when I review the New Museum.)

PS1 provides awesome spaces to display art, with a nice variety of sizes and scales to the rooms, many of which retain windows that let in tons of natural light.  Visiting PS1 takes a reasonable amount of time — despite three floors plus some work in the basement, it won’t exhaust you.  The cafe and bookstore there are both terrific too.

MoMA PS1, Queens
The door to the sky

For some people, even art lovers, contemporary art can be a bridge too far.  That’s perhaps why MoMA keeps this place safely across the river in Queens.  Still, if you’re willing to take the plunge and have your buttons pushed, MoMA PS1 is a fantastic place to do it.

Worst case scenario, you might find something you like.  And if nothing else, there’s always James Turrell’s eternal sky.


For Reference:

22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens
Cost  General Admission:  $10, but free in 2017 for all New York City residents
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Woodlawn Cemetery

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 120 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned My favorite monument at Woodlawn is the Straus family mausoleum.  Three mini-tombs form a complex for the sons of Isidor and Ida Straus, plus a memorial to their parents, famously lost on the Titanic.  

Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, New York  It’s a unique hybrid of art deco and Egyptian Revival, complete with an awesome, streamlined, funeral barge.

Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, New York
Woolworth Chapel

I need to preface this review with a disclosure.  I have been visiting Woodlawn Cemetery for almost 20 years.  Also, I’m a member of, and volunteer with, the Woodlawn Conservancy, and help out with guided tours there.

So I have a strong bias. I love this place.

Cemeteries as Museums

In my review of Green-Wood Cemetery (New York’s other masterpiece cemetery, in Brooklyn) I explain why I think great historic cemeteries merit consideration as museums. In short, their unique combination of history, art, architecture and nature makes them both edifying and, for some definition of the word, entertaining.  And definitely inspiring.

Continue reading “Woodlawn Cemetery”