A New York Odyssey:
Day tripping from the Whitney Museum’s Biennial to a sublime experience on Roosevelt Island with a stop at the Met Breuer on the way
I know that some readers of Antiques value it as a haven in the high stakes world of contemporary art. That’s understandable, though I don’t quite see the magazine that way and I don’t think Greg Cerio, its editor, does either. The fact is that the present cultural moment needs the art of the past and that is is why he and I weave them together when we can … and when we should.
The Whitney Biennial
So take this trip with the past in mind. Begin downtown at the Whitney Museum’s Biennial. The museum’s new building, permanent collection, and location along the High Line are easy to like. I am an enthusiastic member. The Biennial of some 63 artists working today may be more challenging which is why I suggest visiting. (It closes June 11.) You may find yourself a stranger in a strange land confronting, for instance, an exercise in virtual reality on the theme of violence (I skated through it), an agitprop bulletin on censorship (I admired it), a jazz and video art room committed to social cohesion (I loved it) and, yes, even paintings (many of them wonderful). Most people will feel disoriented from time to time, though few will admit it. Not admitting stuff like that is part of the current scene.
I don’t want to curate your experience of the Biennial. Just begin at the beginning, or begin wherever you like. There is much to admire here and, of course, too much to respond to. There is a difference between responding to art and consuming it, but confusing the two is also part of the current scene. Interestingly, the Whitney is not guilty of that. It has simply gathered all these flowers and let them bloom until the end of Spring.
People used to ask the following question of the Biennials: how many of these works is the world better off for having? That’s not an easy question to answer, but what distinguishes this Biennial from its predecessors is that most of these artists want their work to improve our world. That is what makes the experience of traveling through these two floors a moving one even if there is, understandably, too much art about ART.
So go, but when you do you will not be able to see Dana Shutz’s painting Open Casket without the accompaniment of demonstrators who consider its subject matter, the mutilated body of Emmet Till, off limits to white artists. This controversy could be the start of an important dialogue on how we deal with our racial past and present. Could be. Isn’t yet. The outrage, outcry, fake letters, and so forth should be the opening moment in a keen consideration of the uses of history—but we are not there yet. We are stuck in a closed off present.
I wrote those words and woke up the next morning to find that Coco Fusco, a writer and artist I have long admired, had improved on my wishes and gone beyond them in addressing every aspect of this matter that could and should be considered.
Marsden Hartley at the Met Breuer
When I went uptown to the Met Breuer a week later I thought back to the Biennial. There, the Occupy Museums artists’ collective had displayed the following wisdom about art and commerce—it’s a recent quote attributed to a banker—on the museum’s wall:
“The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today [are] contemporary art […and] apartments in Manhattan”
I laughed when I thought back to that sassy gesture. The world of Marsden Hartley on view at the Met Breuer might as well be another country. For much of his life the emotionally strange Hartley (1877-1943) lived on four dollars a week. After he left his native Maine he wandered the world staying no more than ten months in any one place. Marsden Hartley’s Maine is certainly the greatest solo show for this artist since the Whitney’s 1980 retrospective. It is also revelatory. Artistically speaking, Hartley arrived where he started, returning to Maine in his final years to create the works that perfect the brooding Expressionism of his early ones: visionary portraits of Mount Katahdin, sea and surf, log jams, and so forth. By leaving out the artist’s intermediary phases, the Cubist, Fauvist, and other work, you see straight through from his beginnings to his best and final paintings.
This is an ideal exhibition, even if I do not see quite see the point of putting a grand Winslow Homer marine painting next to one of Hartley’s clenched seascapes. Yes, Homer was an influence, but nothing like the work of Albert Pinkham Ryder, also shown here, whose dark and eerie sense of estrangement in nature really is echoed pungently in Hartley.
Roosevelt Island and Louis Kahn’s Four Freedoms Park
From the Met Breuer it is an easy walk over to the F train at 63rd and Lexington. Only one stop on the uptown line and you will be on Roosevelt Island, something of a surprise to me. I’d never been there before, didn’t know it was such an easy jaunt. The Four Freedoms Park at the tip of the island was designed by Louis Kahn in 1973, a year before he died, and is his last work. Four decades of New York mishigas later (the city’s fiscal crisis; political dilly-dallying; difficulties with constructing this deceptively simple design) it finally opened in 2012.
That was more than four years ago and around then Eleanor Gustafson and I promised one another that if we ever left our desk jobs at Antiques we’d celebrate with a weekday trip to Four Freedoms Park. We did that last week on the first day of spring when there were still drifts of crusted snow carved with lovers’ hearts along the allee of little leaf lindens that lead to the fine point of it all—Kahn’s triangular garden room with its views of Manhattan and the cube carved with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedom’s speech as the base of the isosceles. Only Louis Kahn could have created something so consequential in such a serene and simple space.
“… we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want … everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear … everywhere in the world.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, January 6, 1941
We are uptown and mid river but still not so far from the Biennial, where so many young artists are struggling to realize the truths FDR hoped would be self-evident.