Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bleeping Blizzards!

As I write this, New York City is in the early hours of a blizzard. The sun has just set and the snowflakes are creating temporary constellations in the sky. The image above is what the flashbulb revealed when I tried to take a photo. The forecasters say we could get 10 to 15 inches, which would make this a substantial but not paralyzing storm. Then again, wetness, wind and the vagaries of nature have the power change every detail. We'll just have to see what's out there in the morning.

Strange sights tend to pop up before one's eyes in a New York City blizzard. I've certainly seen my share of them. I wish I could show you photos, but I'll just have to describe a few for you. At least I've found some photos other people have taken during New York blizzards in the past.

Snowbound in Harlem, 1899.

One night in 1978 a blizzard blew through the Northeast and left 18 inches of fresh snow on top of snow already on the ground in New York City. The next morning I walked to the subway, which was running, and came upon a Cadillac so new it probably still had its showroom smell when it was abandoned in a snowdrift; the driver's door was left wide open and snow had drifted into the car and onto the seat. In Manhattan, people were cross-country skiing down the middle of the streets while those of us on the sidewalk walked uptown backwards because of the lashing winds.

Strolling past the shoveled snow, 1905.

The blizzard most New Yorkers remember best is the one that dropped over 20 inches of snow on the city in February 1996. Two sights I will never forget:
  • The city straps huge snow blades on the front of sanitation trucks and sends them out to plow. While passing by a side street in the East 50s, I saw something I've never seen before or since: a sanitation truck-snowplow wedged in a drift and abandoned.
  • On East 48th Street at the corner of Second Avenue, a huge mass of plowed snow — it was at least 10 feet high — was piled on the corner at a bus stop. On top of the snow pile was an armchair. In the armchair was a man. He was reading the New York Times, presumably waiting for a bus.
1969, the year of the miniskirt.

Don't you love this photo? It was taken in midtown Manhattan by an unnamed photographer working for the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) "in the course of an employee's official duties." That must have been some job description.

One last photo and a poem by Wallace Stevens.

Trinity Church, 2006.

The Snow Man     

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Want to see more New York City snow? Have a look at Life magazine's photos of the storm we had last February.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

For Those Who Are Not So Merry

Christmas has a way of getting complicated as we grow older. The colorful lights and beaming faces of children increasingly compete with memories of people and times that once were and are no more. Forced cheerfulness wears on a person. Today's blog is a soundtrack for all the people who want to sneak off into a corner and grieve a little while. (Note: I have not included Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" because, frankly, it's a pretty bouncy tune.)

For me, Joni Mitchell's "River" says everything you need to know about holiday loneliness and regrets.

When I was young, "O Holy Night" always had a special meaning in our house. Whenever the choir came to the line "Fall on your knees," my mother would cry. We lost our mother 24 years ago, and now my sisters and I cry when we hear it. This version by the King's Singers is not the one my mother cried to, but I think she would have liked it.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a song that pretends to be happy. If you listen to this lovely version by Frank Sinatra, you almost miss the underlying sadness. The original version by Judy Garland makes it obvious. Go here for the video.

Bonus: Go here to listen to Tony Bennett's great version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" over scenes of Cary Grant and Loretta Young in The Bishop's Wife.

One last tune, and it's not about Christmas. It's "Kind of Blue" — the Miles Davis classic performed here with John Coltrane. It's the music I write to, so while it is a bit blue, to me it ultimately represents creation and life.

Have yourself as merry a Christmas as you can muster.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Beginning of the End (of My View)

It's almost black and white out today. The clouds are so low and the rain is so steady, the sun's rays are muted and wan. The weather and my pre-coffee grogginess largely explain why, when I looked out my kitchen window this morning, at first I didn't understand what I was seeing.

But then I knew: It's the crane that will erect the 46-story building that will obliterate the skyline view that drew me to this apartment almost 30 years ago. I won't pretend I didn't know it was coming. I've watched the preparations for years — soil decontamination started when George W. Bush was still in the White House under enormous white tents that bore the AIG logo. But when the recession deepened and AIG collapsed, the tents came down and everything stopped. Although I knew it was false, I indulged the hope that the real estate barons would write off this monstrously out-of-scale building as a bad idea.

The vaguely greenish rectangle to the left of the crane is the UN tower. Immediately to the right, with its fantastic crown hidden in the mist, is the Chrysler building. Further to the left — out of the frame and obscured by clouds — are the top few floors and mast of the Empire State building; about five years ago the rest of it disappeared behind another new building only half the size of the one this crane will erect.

The lights and towers of the New York skyline have cheered me through happy times and comforted me at some of lowest moments of my life. On so many July 4ths, we watched the fireworks through that window. When my mother died, I stood at the window imagining her young and laughing, out on the town with my dad. Since 9/12/2001, I have said goodnight to the New York skyline every evening — a small ritual, but one that has become important to me. So I've decided to chart the progress of the new building, as well as my grief for my disappearing view, in occasional posts here.


I wonder what the terns will think.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Let the Holiday Parties Commence!

It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace

~ Joni Mitchell, "River"

This hasn't been an easy year for the New York Public Library; more than once, the city's budget-balancers threatened draconian cuts — the worst of which were avoided thanks to great upwellings of outrage from the citizenry. Our library needs all the friends it can get; so on Sunday, when it hosted its annual open house for friends and supporters at the main branch on 42nd Street, it was good to see the place was mobbed.

We waited first in the cold in a line that snaked around and finally inside, followed by more lines to climb stairs, travel down hallways and eventually wend our way to the main entrance. At last we stood in a room filled with light and cheer and the music of the Brooklyn Waterfront Dixieland Band.

When my eyes finally focused, I realized they were resting on Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter, a strikingly tall presence with intellectual-length hair and beautifully tailored clothing. He was just one of many fancy-dress characters — some of them a good bit taller.

Dancing soldiers on stilts

Patience and Fortitude, the library lions

Of course Mother Goose

A Grinch that seemed less mean than lonely

Old Scrooge, evidently before the ghostly visits

The West Point Glee Club in fine voice

A very proud Christmas tree

The party wasn't all photo-ops. There was food and drink and entertainment for all: music from the Rock & Klezmer Holiday Consortium and the Ari Ambrose trio; enchantments for children including the Galapagos Puppet Company, the Duncan and Grins Circus, origami lessons, face-painting and storytelling; and exhibitions of some of the library's wonders, including its outstanding photography collection and the hand-marked copy of A Christmas Carol that Charles Dickens used for his public readings. You could almost hear him say, "There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour."

A man is at his finest towards the finish of the year;
He is almost what he should be when the Christmas season's here;
Then he's thinking more of others than he's thought the months before,
And the laughter of his children is a joy worth toiling for.
He is less a selfish creature than at any other time;
When the Christmas spirit rules him he comes close to the sublime...

~ Edgar Guest, "At Christmas"

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sorry, Just Looking

Today was the day after Black Friday, and the city's shopping districts were undoubtedly crammed corner to corner with bargain-hunters. The great news for non-shoppers was, the streets in other areas were nearly empty. It was a glorious, sunny, late autumn day with the temperature hovering a few degrees above freezing and the wind making it feel even chillier. Walking through Chelsea from Eighth Avenue to Tenth, the loudest sounds were the scratchy rustling of dry leaves on the trees and the harsh, hollow clatter of leaves blowing end-over-end on the ground.

The Sean Kelly gallery on West 29th Street transported me to an imaginary and strangely beautiful neighborhood — James Casebere's photos of his intricate handmade landscapes.

Casebere makes architectural objects — houses, trash cans, even a tiny orange tube in an above-ground swimming pool — and builds neighborhoods with them.

The effect is surreal and dreamlike and yet, more than realistic. Another room in the gallery has black-and-white photos. The mad angles and Tim Burtonesque feel of this one appealed to me.

Next stop: David Vestal's wonderful photos of New York City in the 1940s, 50s and 60s at the Robert Mann gallery, whose website offers a great slideshow of the work. Here's one sample of what there is to see.

Passing by Lohin Geduld Gallery on West 25th Street I noticed the work of Laura Battle. She is a painter of intimate geometry and delicately dense patterns.

As I looked at her paintings, the patterns began to remind me of migraine hallucinations. As it happened, the artist was there, sitting on a bench chatting with another visitor when I passed through. So I asked her. The answer is no, she does not suffer from migraines.

Still on 25th Street, I came to Gallery Henoch and was dazzled by the work of Max Ferguson, a photorealist painter with masterly technical skills and a phenomenal eye for composition and light.

Almost all of Ferguson's work celebrates the parts of New York City that he believes are in danger of dying, so in a sense he is a documentary painter.

But sometimes he transcends the photorealist form altogether, as in this extraordinary painting of the Fulton Fish Market.

My final stop was the Gagosian Gallery, which has a new Robert Rauschenberg retrospective. It was mobbed, as if a Black Friday sale was in progress. I'll go back on a less-crowded day, but meanwhile you can read about the show on the gallery's website.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

The New York City skyline awoke in appropriately autumnal colors today, and I was thankful I was there to see it.

This poem, Thanks, is by our poet laureate W.S. Merwin. It may seem a bit somber. Okay, it is somber. In fact, perhaps you should read it tomorrow. I chose it for today because it reminds me to mean it when I say "thank you," and to be grateful when someone says "thank you" to me.

by W.S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

Monday, November 22, 2010

Isamu Noguchi: Grace

"Appreciate the moment."
~ Isamu Noguchi

I have this idea that Isamu Noguchi lived his life in an artistic state of grace. Sculpture, painting, landscape design, sets and costumes for dance and theater, furniture design and more — his story is chapter after chapter of invention and creation. Whatever he took on, he did with stunning originality. He was also a very beautiful man, as is evident in this photo of the artist in his youth by Berenice Abbott.

The Noguchi Museum is located in a former photo-engraving plant across the street from Costco in Long Island City, Queens. It was designed by Noguchi toward the end of his life and opened three years before his death in 1988. Its out-of-the way location — a nine- or ten-block walk from the nearest subway station (the Broadway stop on the N or Q) — makes it a place most tourists and even most New Yorkers never visit. And that is a shame.

As you walk through its cool stone interior, where the primary lighting is often just the sun filtering through a window or an opening in the ceiling, you feel the artist's guiding hand everywhere. It is tranquil, natural, graceful.

"On Becoming an Artist: Isamu Noguchi and His Contemporaries 1922-1960," is a revelatory exhibition that opened last week and runs through April 2011. Through photographs, letters,  designs, sculptures and paintings, the show documents Noguchi's interactions and collaborations with an astonishing diversity of artists. There are painters and sculptors (e.g., Gutzon Borglum, Constantin Brancusi, Stuart Davis, Willem De Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera); photographers (e.g., Berenice Abbott, Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz); dancers and choreographers (e.g., George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, Michio Ito, Ruth Page);  designers and architects (Marcel Breuer, Buckminster Fuller, Louis Kahn, Shoji Sadao, Edward Durell Stone); and miscellaneous others from composer John Cage to actress Ginger Rodgers.

As I walked through the exhibition, a docent led a tour group a few steps ahead of me. She caught my attention when she began to talk about Noguchi's restlessness — whenever his career reached a new peak, he would move on to a different place and a different challenge. Restless, curious, prolific.

Photos are off-limits in the special exhibition, but allowed in the permanent galleries. Here's a small sample of what there is to see.

"The essence of sculpture is for me the perception of space, the continuum of our existence."
~ Isamu Noguchi

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why Leaves Turn Red, Among Other Things

Every leaf speaks bliss to me
fluttering from the autumn tree.
~ Emily Brontë

Today was "Leaf Fest" day along the Long Island City waterfront — not that I knew that when I decided to take the two-mile walk down Vernon Boulevard to the Noguchi Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park.

Compost Day in Rainey Park
Rainey Park is a small but pleasant patch of green that overlooks the East River in Astoria. When my daughter was in the early years of elementary school, it was her school's go-to destination for outdoor class trips. Today an exceptionally friendly woman named Shirley (at left) was greeting all passers-by. She and her colleague Stephanos are volunteers with an organization called the Western Queens Compost Initiative (WQCI), and as the name suggests, they are all about composting leaves. Today was Leaf Fest, an occasion that united the WQCI with three other organizations — the Partnership for Parks, Green Shores NYC and Million Trees NYC — to create leaf drop-off and composting events.

A block or two farther along trees were talking to me again. Have a look at this strange arboreal configuration. I think of it as the horseshoe tree.

Defiant Angels at Socrates Sculpture Park
Socrates Sculpture Park is a local institution that allows sculptors to create and display large-scale work in a riverfront park. Among the sites right now is Fort Defiance North by sculptor Scott Andresen, which seems to be named after the Fort Defiance that stood in Red Hook, Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War.

At least that's what I thought until I looked inside.

Now I think it may really be named after the Red Hook bar Fort Defiance (which of course was named after the Revolutionary era fort). Also on display in Socrates Sculpture Park:

It's one of sculptor Dan Steinhilber's cast-concrete snow angels, part of a sculptural array he calls "Casting Angels."

You can see a video about how they were made here.

As I walked the two miles back home, leaves were on my mind. They were everywhere. These leaves in particular got me wondering about color. Why should leaves take on the color of dried blood or animal organs in autumn? What advantage could those deep colors give to a tree?

Why Leaves Turn Red
So I looked it up on Wikipedia (I know, I know). The red and purple colors of autumn leaves are the result of pigments called anthocyanins that are only produced after the growing season ends. Bright cool days and chilly nights bring them out. Why do leaves do this? Nobody really knows, but there are three theories.
  1. Photoprotection: The idea here is that anthrocyanins "protect the leaf against the harmful effects of light at low temperatures" and allow the trees to reabsorb nutrients such as nitrogen more efficiently.
  2. Coevolution: This theory says the colors scare off insects that might otherwise use the trees as hosts for the winter.
  3. Allelopathy: According to a study of maple trees by researchers at Colgate University, "anthocyanins, which create the visual red hues, have been found to aid in interspecific competition by stunting the growth of nearby saplings in what is known as allelopathy." If I understand that sentence, then the red color may somehow give maples an advantage over nearby trees.
I'll leave that to the scientists. Let's have a listen to the late Eva Cassidy's version of "Autumn Leaves."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Arts & Crafts: Color by Nature

When we were children, we would arrange autumn leaves and Crayola shavings between sheets of wax paper. Then we would iron the wax paper until the Crayola shavings melted and the sheets held together. When we were done, we would bring our waxy autumn leaf montages to school and hang them on the wall. It was a homework assignment.

Now I have a scanner, and I've begun to use it as a new, technological version of wax paper, leaves and Crayola shavings. Added benefit: Scans last longer.

This is only my second year of leaf-scanning, but I've already discovered that things can change a lot from year to year. I'm sure weather is at the bottom of it, but I want to know what the changes mean and why they happen.

These leaves are a good example. They have a yellow and brown palette this year. Two have faint markings in the center that remind me of DNA test stains.

These are leaves from the same tree in 2009. The colors are so much deeper, and each seems to have a small, imagined version of itself in the center. Benoit Mandelbrot would have seen this phenomenon as a kindred spirit, I think.

Now, my favorite leaf of 2010 (so far). As I hold it in my hand, it looks unreal, like an idea of an autumn leaf rendered in psychedelic pastels.

 Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is like a flower.
~ Albert Camus