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

Sunday, November 14, 2010

New York City Nightlight

I've been looking out my kitchen window at the New York City skyline since 1981. Over the decades more and more buildings have installed decorative lighting, creating a wondrous nighttime view.

Normally the lights switch off some time after midnight, but lately I've noticed an exception: My favorite skyscraper, the spectacular and wildly ornate Chrysler building, has been leaving its lights on until dawn. I've started to think of it as New York City's version of a nightlight.

That got me wondering: Had anyone in the wide world of knickknacks actually created a Chrysler building nightlight? Apparently someone has. The Chrysler building is included in a set of souvenir nightlights on a New York City souvenir site, but it seems to be out of stock. However, if you so desire, you can acquire a set of Chrysler and Empire State Building salt and pepper shakers from a different souvenir site.

I think I'll just listen to this old Jimmy Reed song.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


On Thursday this poem arrived in my mailbox, another daily gift from (get yours here). But Thursday was all rain and gloom in New York. And then so was Friday. Finally, finally, we have a day worthy of this little poem. True, you wouldn't really want to walk without a jacket today — but just let it go.

by Jeffrey Harrison

It's a gift, this cloudless November morning
warm enough for you to walk without a jacket
along your favorite path. The rhythmic shushing
of your feet through fallen leaves should be
enough to quiet the mind, so it surprises you
when you catch yourself telling off your boss
for a decade of accumulated injustices,
all the things you've never said circling inside you.

It's the rising wind that pulls you out of it,
and you look up to see a cloud of leaves
swirling in sunlight, flickering against the blue
and rising above the treetops, as if the whole day
were sighing, Let it go, let it go,
for this moment at least, let it all go.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Autumn Rain

I took this photo a year ago. It reminds me of today. I'm not sure why — it's raining much harder now. Perhaps it's just the memory of that chilly, damp day.

"I was in love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms."
~ Louise Erdrich

Monday, November 1, 2010

What is it about November?

It's November and nature knows it. My office windows look out on the tops of trees a block away; some are turning fiery red and others have already lost their leaves. Squirrels have been squirreling away their acorns for weeks. The song birds have flown off to sing in warmer places, leaving behind hardy pigeons and gulls, sparrows and starlings, red-tailed hawks and Canada geese. The days, meanwhile, are racing toward the winter solstice; last week I was startled to find myself in darkness when I emerged from the subway just after 6 p.m. The days are also getting colder: this morning it was 38 degrees at 7 a.m. 

I decided to look for a November quotation or poem to mark the new month and found myself wrapped in relentless gloom relieved only by brief flashes of mordant humor. This is Melville:
"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off — then I account it high time to get to the sea as soon as I can."
And T. S. Eliot — we all know he said April was the cruelest month, but this excerpt from Murder in the Cathedral makes it clear he wasn't too wild about November, either:
"Since golden October declined into sombre Novembre / And the apples were gathered and stored, and the land became brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud."
Maybe my soul just isn't black enough. When I think of November, it's not about death and despair — it's about taking a break from our overstuffed, 24/7 lives. Hibernating creatures find their burrows, and in a way, so do we. Those of us who choose to live in cold climates find ourselves drawn to the scents of fir trees and firewood and bayberry candles and to the warmth of soups and stews and winter vegetables. It is also the start of the holiday season with its fancy lights and fun. Before long, there will be snow. It's the time to settle down with a good book.

But there's something else, too. For me, one of November's blessings is the way it slowly reveals the beauty that remains when things are subtracted. 

With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crop'd, break from the trees
And fall.
~ Adelaide Crapsey, "November Night"