Sunday, November 04, 2007

A week in Manhattan

A few impressions

During a trip back east in June, I managed to spend a few days in New York City (where I lived many years ago). It was frustrating not to have more time, but at least I was able to see some friends and spend a full day at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). My latest visit of a full week, from which I just returned, was much more satisfying. A few impressions:
European, Japanese and Indian tourists were even more numerous than they were last summer, thanks to the weakened dollar. In midtown and the museums especially, English seemed like a minority language. It's just a matter of time before Chinese tourists become more common in the U.S. New York is a "world city" more than ever.

Traffic remains awful in midtown, where the only rule is: if you can get away with it, it must be legal. Cross traffic doesn't hesitate to block major intersections, causing hopeless (and mindless) gridlock. Drastic action seems necessary—and not just "congestion pricing" below 59th Street or 110th Street or whatever, since its effect would be to impose a regressive form of taxation. New York should follow Portland's example and establish fareless transit zones where private vehicles are banned entirely during the business day. (I rode the M10 bus from 59th Street to Battery Park, a trip of less than five miles that took over an hour.)

As in the rest of the country, public infrastructure continues to deteriorate despite the almost-inconceivable wealth generated in New York (whose private reserves of gold bullion vastly exceed the amount stored at Fort Knox). The subway stations are decrepit, though relatively free of debris and graffiti, and many need basic repairs (leaky ceilings are common). Many of the streets are potholed to the extent that axles are in jeopardy. The two exceptions are Central Park, which is superbly maintained and heavily used even on a rainy day, and the Staten Island Ferry, which has been upgraded and is now free.

After the second warmest October on record, the trees in the parks were shockingly (and somewhat disappointingly) green.

My old neighborhood on West 83rd (at Columbus) seemed eerily the same, decades after I moved away. The areas closest to Central and Riverside parks were gentrified long ago, but it was refreshing to see that the old block retains much of its former ethnic and economic diversity.
New York remains a paradox: the quintessential American city that bears little resemblance to any other urban area in the country. Compared to places like Portland and Seattle, Manhattan seems to be a third-world city in two respects: its ethnic diversity and extreme disparities in wealth. While there's a substantial African American middle class, most of the low-wage and menial work in Manhattan is still performed by black and Hispanic workers. I saw little evidence of racial or ethnic hostility, though it certainly exists near the surface, but the class and socioeconomic distinctions are clear and disturbing.

As just one small illustration of this reality, hardly any white people were visible on the packed subway to Jamaica, Queens, as I rode back to JFK for my flight home (see below). At least 95% of the commuters were black or Hispanic. Once in Jamaica, I transferred to the AirTrain, and suddenly the equation was reversed: 95% of the passengers were white. Though black and Hispanic travelers are hardly rare in airports, I was again reminded that there's a vast underclass, both white and nonwhite, that is nearly invisible in the debased political conversation in this country.

Wandering the museums

Returning to Oregon after strolling through the major museums of New York City, a few images emerged from the hundreds of paintings we saw: Vermeer's haunting Study of a Young Woman (c. 1665-67) at the Met's exhibition entitled "The Age of Rembrandt;" Rembrandt's self-portrait from 1660, which oozes so much self-confidence that it could've been painted with pure testosterone; MOMA's stunning new exhibition of luminous drawings by Georges Seurat, and its familiar galleries of important works by Cézanne, Van Gogh and Pollock.

But there were also disappointments [1]. Minor works by great artists can be worth a look, but a depressing number of the pieces in these museums are either mediocre or downright bad. They shouldn't be taking up valuable gallery space, so move them to the basement where they can be examined by future generations of art historians and specialists. Picasso and Matisse, for example, are overrepresented at MOMA. Many of Picasso's early works are splendid, and his long career displays endless versatility, but some of his paintings would've barely paid for his lunch in a Paris café. And, after Guernica, he seemingly became what he so often condemned: a connoisseur of his own works.

But the biggest disappointment was in what was absent from these collections. Between them, the Met, MOMA and the Guggenheim display just five paintings by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, the great postwar British figurative artists. And not a single work by their fellow Brit (born in Austria) Frank Auerbach. The limited selection of five works is impressive enough, but the curators would be well-advised to take down some of the Picassos and Matisses to make room for these worthy painters.

Equally disturbing is the underrepresentation of the post-World War I German and Austrian expressionists, including Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, Auguste Macke, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Pechstein and—above all—the great Egon Schiele. Sadly, many of their works are apparently gathering dust in the basements of the great New York museums.

The Neue Gallerie, located on 5th Avenue between the Met and Guggenheim, is the one New York collection that specializes in the postwar Austro-German expressionists. Yet every square inch of wall space is currently devoted to a special exhibition of Gustav Klimt's works. Compared to the edgy and challenging work of Schiele, who died of the Spanish flu in 1918 at the age of 28, Klimt's works seem decorative and sentimental. It's understandable why the Neue Gallerie would focus on Klimt, since owner Ronald Lauder spent $135 million last year to purchase his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I—the highest price ever paid for a painting until then (since surpassed by two paintings by Pollock and de Kooning). Still, I regretted spending $15 to gain admission to galleries full of paintings by an artist whose continuing popularity remains puzzling to me. I kept looking for the door to the basement, which houses some real treasures.

A tip to travelers

My friend and I shared the $50 (without tip) cost of a "limo" (actually an SUV) ride from JFK to midtown Manhattan. Taxis, without tip, cost $5 less but you may have to wait in line to get one. Returning by myself to JFK, I didn't want to spend that kind of money. So I took the E train from midtown to the Jamaica stop, where I paid $5 more for the AirTrain to JFK. The subway ride is long, even though the E train is an express, and crowded at rush hour. But it's very cheap (especially if you buy a 7-day Metrocard when you arrive), and the AirTrain quickly transports you (on elevated tracks) to all the terminals at JFK. So the cost was about one-tenth of what I would've paid for a limo/taxi, and I didn't have to sit in heavy traffic and breathe exhaust for an hour. I did have to wheel my luggage a few blocks from my hotel to the subway, but that proved to be quite bearable.


[1] Bias alert: as an amateur painter and drawer, I have a preference for portraiture and other figurative works. This certainly does not mean that I disrespect abstraction, landscapes or any other kind of visual art. It's simply a preference.

PHOTOS: Central Park near 59th Street (taken with a Sony digital camera).

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