Putting the Happy in Happy Birthday
I received a wonderful birthday gift from my husband: three days in New York City. It turned out to be one of the best trips EVER! New York is a place that has everything I could ever hope for: art, poetry, music, food, people in a good mood.
What makes any trip “one of the best trips EVER?”
I never set foot in any city without making a calendar for each day. It only increases my happy anticipation. Willem De Kooning (1904-97 American, b. Netherlands) was the initial draw for this trip. The Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective, and it would close on January 8th. I had to get there. The anticipation was so palatable that on gray days, I thought: “I will see De Kooning’s work-paintings from the time he was a teenager to his final years, when dementia crept in and altered his energy and simplified his style.”
A second draw was the Elizabeth Bishop exhibit at Tibor de Nagy. While I appreciate her poetry (Judy’s Journal 2011 August) and know that she was a painter, I would get the chance to see “Elizabeth Bishop Objects & Apparitions” first hand. Coincidently, The Worcester Review had just arrived. Reading “Bishop’s Century: Her Poems and Art” on the bus heightened my anticipation! Just to see “Pansies,” which was published in the issue, seemed worth the trip!
The third draw was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which reopened its Islamic Art galleries last November. With 1200 objects exhibited from the 12,355 in the museum’s collection, it was sure to be thrilling. Patterns? My brain would be on overdrive with what I was bound to see (Judy’s Journal 2010 July, October; 2011 February, September). Even more was my desire to sit in a certain gallery because of an article I had read detailing its construction.
The fourth draw was the controversial production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. As long as they didn’t mess with the music, I could tolerate almost anything.
Keeping an Open Mind
I purposely did not look at the de Kooning: a Retrospective catalog because I wanted as many surprises as possible. Lush and wild, emotion strong enough to rip the heart out of my chest, that’s de Kooning for me. The entire 6th floor of MoMA! To see this much of his work hung together was almost overwhelming. One of the advantages to MoMA’s new wing is that they made BIG galleries, and large paintings typical of the abstract expressionists can be seen from a distance. But to walk into a gallery and see all de Kooning landscapes took my breath away. Kind of like walking up the winding staircase into the chapel at Sainte-Chapelle, only different!
Distance from his work was a way of taking in the emotional strength of his work. Up close, his process was there to see: his was one of building up and concealing. He seemed to make the painting, then obscure parts of it to make the next iteration of the painting. He allowed little masterpieces to peek out from beneath. That’s what I felt happened when I painted “Blue,” which has two iterations (Gallery Chapter 8, row 3, number 3). I recognized his joy in the build-up of paints and colors, accidental and luscious, planned and spontaneous.
What struck me was the restraint de Kooning showed in making the paintings. In fact, even though some people might see a mess, I could see where he might have gone on with TOO much of a color, but stopped. On the other hand, there were places where it looks as if he cleaned his palette on the canvas. He also used newspapers to keep his paints wet, and they left impressions in the work. Happy accident! Text and advertisements transferred in reverse, creating enticements to lean in closer. He collaged newspapers directly into some later pieces.
After de Kooning, John and I went to other floors, but I was sated. I just couldn’t walk by Max Ernst’s “Rendezvous of Friends: The Friends Become Flowers.” The title really caught my eye as much as the painting. I felt the flame of a poem ignite! I found another reason to continue my dance between easel and computer.
It’s hard to imagine that we had the energy to take in more, but Tibor de Nagy is near MoMA, so off we went, up to the 12 th floor, into the world of big-time collecting. We said, “Elizabeth Bishop?” and were directed to a small gallery. Having come from MoMA, it was serendipitous spatial perfection, if you know what I mean. It was as if a tiny secret garden had opened up. Enchanting and perfectly curated. Her watercolors beckoned. Yes, “Pansies” was a delight and hung unsold at $75,000.
Bishop traveled and lived abroad. Her homes held mementos, such as a Brazilian paddle and a birdcage. One wall label told of a visitor’s appreciation of stepping into her home to be greeted by all sorts of fascinating objects. Bishop admired artists and was inspired to construct “Anjinhos” about which Helen Vendler wrote, “…she made a collage and an assemblage out of found objects (a child’s rubber sandal), magazine cutouts [of angel faces], and purchased toys, in fond imitation of Joseph Cornell.”
I noticed that Bishop had included books in some of her paintings. Try as I might, I couldn’t make out their titles in reproductions. Looking at the original of “Pansies,” I could make out Baedeker’s Northern Italy. The wall label noted that she chose that book presumably because she and her lover had traveled there. Pansies were chosen because they are a symbol of memory and love.
Two pieces of Elizabeth Bishop’s furniture displayed more artifacts: her desk (which we gently stroked) and a side table. The exhibit catalog is exquisite and a must-have for any admirer of her visual and poetic work.
Our third day was earmarked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The 15 galleries now devoted to the art of the Middle East caused another bout of being overwhelmed because pattern-making was taken to the heights. It made me think about the central and South American galleries in the new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Thousands of years ago, people were expressing themselves using almost identical marks. Also, “Our Land: Contemporary Art from the Arctic,” an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts showed that the impulse still resides in us. I like to feel that I continue in the tradition with my “Autobiography” series.
At the Met, there was an Iranian bowl, the interior of which was painted with fish swimming around in circles; calligraphic marks played around its rim. The wall label noted that calligraphy usually is done in a language, but “the juxtaposition of fish with magical letters reinforces the idea that the bowl has talismanic properties.” I jumped (not actually, because the guards would not have appreciated that particular movement), because I have a fair number of paintings that combine those exact symbols.
And, yes, I did get to sit in the what I found is called The Patti Cadby Birch Court, a space that is based on a medieval Moroccan courtyard design and was constructed by craftsmen from the Fez. The tiny, repetitious patterns carved into the plaster have to be seen to be believed.
About Porgy and Bess? That’s another story. Mostly good! Great music, great voices, great acting.
And there you have it. My composition teachers used to say that I needed to work on my endings. But, having relived portions of three days in Nirvana, I mean, New York City, all I can muster is:
And there you have it!