Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 68 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A set of prints by Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin titled “Struggling With Words That Count, 2014-2016.” Less abstract than I’m used to from Mehretu, they combined mostly serene and spacey images with obscure texts in a way I really liked.

Julie Mehretu, Wallach Art Gallery

I started this project a bit over a year ago fully aware that things would change — I’d discover new museums to add to my list, and remove ones that didn’t fit my evolving definition of “museum.” Sure enough, one museum I’ve reviewed, the terrific Fisher-Landau Center in Queens, has shut down.

And another museum, Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, has moved to spiffy new digs.  I recently edited my review of the Jewish Museum, based on the terrific reinstallation of its permanent collection.  That makes this my second re-review of an institution.  (Check out my review of Wallach 1.0 here.)

Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia
Wallach 2.0’s Sweeping Hudson Views

Continue reading “Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University”

Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University

Note:  Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery was the second place I reviewed on this epic quest.  I published the review below on March 5, 2017.  The Wallach Gallery subsequently moved to spiffy new space in Columbia’s new arts center, and I’ve created a re-review of it. Read that here.

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go? 2/5
Time spent 24 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A postcard rack with postcards based on a large-scale photograph Carissa Rodriguez took of a photograph by Trevor Paglen (of a secret military base), hanging in the home of Bay Area art collectors Mike and Kaitlyn Krieger.  I am a sucker for meta.

My second entry and already I’m in trouble.  Am I reviewing spaces, or exhibits?  The Wallach Gallery, on the 8th floor of Schermerhorn Hall at Columbia, has no permanent collection.  It is just a space for temporary shows.  I started writing this about “Finesse,” the current show there, and realized that’s not quite right. Continue reading “Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University”

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”

Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 36 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The publisher Harper Brothers proposed to  seal Mark Twain’s memoirs until 2000.  Then they would be published by subscription (quoting the exhibit’s text) “in whatever mode should then be prevalent, that is by printing as at present, or by use of phonographic cylinders, or by electrical methods or by any other method which may then be in use.”  The show has Twain’s 1900 letter agreeing to these terms. No doubt he didn’t want his meeting with the crew of the Starship Enterprise to mess with the timeline too much.

I’m not sure I should review the exhibition space at the Columbia Rare Book Library.  It isn’t readily accessible to the public — you can’t just drop by.  But I have an alumni library pass, and I was in the vicinity recently, and it is in my database.  So I figured, why not?

Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library resides in a surprisingly airy, skylit, and pastel space at the top of the university’s Butler Library.  It features two exhibit spaces:  a wall’s length of cases for general purposes, and an octagonal space that typically features items from Columbia’s own history.

Although a small space, the show I saw there indicates they use it well. That show celebrated the bicentennial of HarperCollins publishers, which started out as Harper & Brothers in 1817.

The Harper brothers started out as printers, but with their 1817 publication of an edition of Seneca’s Morals, they launched one of the most famous publishing concerns in American history.

The exhibit has some of their early ledger books, handwritten lists of works for which they held the copyright.

Harper & Brothers 1850s Era Ledger

It features old books galore, including a first American edition of Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick First Edition
Thar She Blows!

It also covers multivolume editions Harper did especially for schools and libraries, edifying or stultifying generations.  It spends time on their periodicals, which naturally helped promote the books.  And it turns out Harper published some of the most beloved books from my (and everyone’s) childhood.

Finally, E. B. White also published with Harper, making them responsible for my favorite book about New York City.

Here is New York

Harper & Brothers Bond Certificate
$500 Harper & Brothers Bond

In addition to many neat, nostalgic books, the show covers the history of the business. News Corp eventually bought it, merging Harper with Collins in 1989.  I liked a $500 Harper & Brothers bond certificate, and the curators called out the use of the  picture of the dog at the bottom as highly unusual.  However, I saw that same dog at the Grolier Club‘s currency engraving show not that long ago.  Small world.



The octagonal gallery had an exhibit documenting the history of gay student life at Columbia, from the time when homosexuality violated the law, through the AIDS crisis, to today.  I’m proud to say Columbia was home to the first gay student group on a college campus — the Student Homophile League — dating to 1967. Second most interesting thing I learned there.

Any bibliophile would find a visit the Columbia Rare Book Library worthwhile.  And maybe others would too. If the Harper exhibit is any indication, they can make even seemingly dry topics interesting and fun.  That said, it’s a small space in a college library, devoted to abstruse and obscure bookish topics.  So probably not a place to which everyone must rush immediately.

For Reference:

Address Butler Library, 6th Floor, Columbia University Campus. 535 W. 114th Street, Manhattan
Website columbia.edu
Cost Free, but Columbia Library ID or equivalent required for entry
Other Relevant Links
  • NPR on University of California Press publishing of a “true” version of Twain’s autobiography in 2010.

Nicholas Roerich Museum

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 69 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Nicholas Roerich was a major collaborator with Stravinsky on “The Rite of Spring,” helping him sketch out the plot and designing the costumes and scenery. He did a ton of other things, too, but for me, this notable contribution to the most scandalous classical music event of the 20th century is  huge.

Nicholas Roerich and his wife were Russians by birth (he was born in 1874), seekers and spiritualists by inclination.  He had a varied education and early career, but started painting based on Russia’s long and mystical past.

nicholas roerich museumAnd for reasons that I have yet to quite figure out, a brownstone tucked away on a side street in Morningside Heights is home to a museum of his art, along with works he collected in his journeys.

Architecturally, the Nicholas Roerich Museum is a place after my own heart.  It’s a beautifully intact rowhouse, three stories of which are open to the public, with lots of period detail–fancy fireplaces, beautiful ceiling moldings, a terrific staircase–that in most similar New York buildings was lost during apartment conversions long ago.  The big windows on the parlor floor are blocked out, so that the former living room functions better as a gallery space.  But the museum conversion was very gentle and you can clearly see the house’s past in its present.

nicholas roerich museumRoerich’s early paintings led to him working on stage design for operas and ballets for the many of the great late 19th/early 20th century Russian composers, including Stravinsky as mentioned above.  His stage work extended to Wagner and designs for plays by playwrights outside Russia as well. Even his later paintings often have a sort of backdroppy, set designish look to me.  His landscapes are very still and serene, often distant mountains. It’s easy to imagine great events unfolding in some unpainted foreground.

Nicolas Roerich, “Star of the Hero,” 1936. Tempera on canvas.

There’s also something Georgia O’Keefe-light about some of his works, which sounds somewhat like a criticism, and I guess it is that, although I also mean it as a compliment as well.  Both worked to convey in paint a sense of place distilled down to its essence in color and form.

nicholas roerich museum
Roerich himself, painted by his son, in the land he loved

But my favorite thing about the way the museum is curated is the mix of objects from the Roerich’s travels alongside his work.   Buddhas, Native American ceramics, Russian Orthodox icons, and a gigantic geode all happily and serenely coexist in the syncretic world Roerich’s paintings create.  A painting of St. Francis right above one of Kuan-Yin makes perfect sense.

nicholas roerich museumThe Roerichs moved around a lot during the tumultuous 20th century.  They got into yoga and developed their own brand of theosophy, creating a group called the Agni Yoga Society, which was (quoting from the museum brochure) “dedicated to the recording and dissemination of a living ethic that would encompass and synthesize the philosophies and religious teachings of all ages.”  Small dreams…

Eventually their wanderings took them from New York to India, where they lived in the Himalayas and studied and explored the region, and, judging by the number of mountainous paintings, thoroughly loved the place.  Roerich died there in 1947 and the museum was founded in New York in 1949.

nicholas roerich museumI’m amazed it’s taken me this long to go to the Nicholas Roerich Museum.  I live literally three blocks from it, I have no excuses. Is it mind boggling?  Does everyone have to go?  No, and no.  But it’s a perfect example of how this city hides treasures behind anonymous rowhouse facades on anonymous streets in random neighborhoods.  If you’re nearby and feeling stressed, take 30 minutes and drop in.  I wager you will leave feeling better for it.

For Reference:

Address 319 West 107th Street, Manhattan
Website roerich.org
Cost  Free
Other Relevant Links

General Grant National Memorial

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 53 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned New York City fielded a volunteer army force called the Mozart Regiment.  I hoped that all city army units had classical composer nicknames, but alas, it’s because the regiment was financed by the Democratic National Committee of Mozart Hall.

“Let us have peace.”  So reads the inscription on the last resting place of America’s greatest military hero of the 19th century.

At one point, Grant’s Tomb was the most visited tourist destination in New York City.  And to this day it is the largest tomb in North America. Built when the city didn’t extend that far north, it was a prominent marble landmark on a hill, attracting visitors in droves, by boat and train, coach and bus, to pay their respects. Continue reading “General Grant National Memorial”