New York


Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last week while J and I were in New York, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’d been to the Museum of Natural History in the morning, grabbing a quick lunch from a Central Park vendor on our walk from one museum to the other. Had I but world enough and time, I could spend days rambling in either the Museum of Natural History or the Met, but last week J and I had only a few short hours to devote to each. We didn’t, in other words, have time to ramble: instead, we made a short list of things we absolutely wanted to see, then we made a beeline to those things, leaving leisurely exploration for our next visit.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

What’s interesting about a museum like the Met, however, is how difficult it is to avoid rambling. J had two specific eras he wanted to explore—Modern and 19th century—and these were housed in sprawling galleries on different floors. It took a fair bit of wandering, in other words, to arrive to the specific sites we were making a beeline for, and once we were there, we engaged in more wandering, roaming from one gallery to another without a clearly delineated path or plan.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Appreciating art at the Metropolitan Museum is like looking for a good place to eat in Boston’s North End: you can’t make a bad choice because everything around you is excellent. By the time J and I succumbed to museum fatigue and decided to head back to our hotel, a detour to find a restroom on our way to the Museum’s main entrance led us straight into the mazy corridors of a place I swear I’ve never been before: the Museum’s visible storage area, where seemingly endless artifacts and decorative objects are meticulously arranged in glass cabinets, like a closed closet or catalogue turned inside-out.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Had I but world enough and time—had my feet not been aching from an entire day of Museum-rambles—I could have easily spent hours looking at this stunning array of objects—an embarrassment of riches—with only curiosity rather than curatorial captions to guide me. Without the narrative storyline of an curated exhibit to tell viewers what they “should” get out of these objects, museum goers are left to sift through the troves on their own, picking and choosing their own masterpieces from the aisles.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

How could I have missed on previous visits these cabinets of wonder, their shiny surfaces like a natural historian’s curio cabinet stocked with specimens: an infinite world of riches contained in glass?

Whale's tail

Last week, J and I took the train to New York City, where he attended a conference and I kept in touch online with my classes, both of us working in the mornings then exploring in the afternoons.

American Museum of Natural History

Some of the places we explored were new to us: we went to a taping of The Daily Show, for instance, and we spent an afternoon wandering around the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. But other places we visited are familiar sites that have achieved an almost ritual significance. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to the Central Park Zoo or Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance: these are places I want to re-visit no matter how many times I’ve already been, each new encounter feeling a bit like going home even though I’ve never lived in New York.

One place in New York that has an irresistible pull on my imagination–a place I visit with almost religious fervor–is the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History, where you can walk under a life-sized fiberglass replica of a full-grown female blue whale.

American Museum of Natural History

I could probably spend a week or more in the American Museum of Natural History staring at the dioramas in the Hall of Mammals, letting my imagination take me to exotic locations, each meticulously detailed set a portal into another world. But even though I brace myself, it’s always the blue whale that amazes me the most, each visit a jaw-dropping surprise. Is there any place on the planet, I wonder, that could be as awe-inspiring as the shadow beneath a blue whale?

American Museum of Natural History

Alongside

Late last December, in the quiet lull between Christmas and New Year’s, J and I made a pilgrimage to New York City, where we disembarked at Penn Station, walked to Ground Zero, and visited the 9/11 Memorial before having lunch, walking back to our train, and returning to Boston. It was a quintessential day trip: a journey there and back lasting little more than twelve hours.

Diagonal

Like any pilgrimage, it was a trip we’d planned months beforehand, as soon as we heard the 9/11 Memorial would be open to visitors on a reservation-only basis. The site was still an active construction zone, with workers raising nearby Freedom Tower; even with guest passes, we had to wend our way through a labyrinthine security line where no one complained about walking through metal detectors or passing their bags through X-ray machines.

Tower with waterfall

On a pilgrimage, you expect your travel to involve more than a bit of travail; on a pilgrimage, you’re willing to cultivate the virtues of patience and long-suffering, recognizing that life is a journey with many unforeseen twists and turns.

and her unborn child

Before we visited the 9/11 Memorial last December, J and I had seen a series of TV documentaries aired in honor of last September’s ten-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks. We’d seen interviews with construction workers building Freedom Tower, we’d learned about the design of the memorial itself with its sunken waterfalls marking the footprints of the Twin Towers, and we’d learned the logic behind the arrangement of names on the metal panels rimming those fountains.

So many names

J and I arrived with a scrap of paper upon which I’d written the locations of two names we wanted to find during our visit: Patrick J. Quigley IV, who is buried in a cemetery not far from our house, and Welles Remy Crowther, a Boston College graduate who died after saving a dozen people from the South Tower. J and I never met either man, but their stories helped us put a face on the tragedy, and it felt appropriate to seek out their names in order to pay our respects.

Welles Crowther

As J and I walked around both waterfalls and considered the long, low wall of names surrounding them, I kept thinking of a line from the Psalms, “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Psalm 42:7, NIV). The Psalms contain prayers of praise and thanksgiving, but they also contain poems of anguish and despair.

World Trade Center

The sunken waterfalls of the Memorial evoke the heavy-heartedness most of us associate with 9/11, with falling water that is eerily reminiscent of both falling buildings and falling bodies. But falling water cannot be wounded: in the form of vapor, falling water rises again. The day J and I visited the Memorial was brisk and breezy, and one of the waterfalls was veiled with mist and a flirtation of rainbows that hinted toward the irrepressible nature of both spirit and beauty.

Hint of rainbow

A waterfall is the opposite of a looming tower: instead of rising up, these waters fall down. The sunken nature of the 9/11 Memorial waterfalls reminded me of a sipapu, the hole inside a Pueblo Indian dwelling that represents the opening through which ancient ancestors arrived in this world.

Falling down

When so many spirits left their bodies on September 11, 2001, where did they go? Did they fall down, like water; did they rise up, like clouds; or did they remain in our midst, like mist? What exactly are the waves and breakers the poet mentions in Psalm 42? Are they the waves of loss, the breakers of despair, or the sea of loved ones who will never be forgotten, even under the shadow of a veil of tears?

Looking back

Click here for more photos of the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, taken in December, 2011.

Stacked

In response to today’s Photo Friday theme, Cars, here’s an image from my archives, from a day-trip to New York J and I took in October, 2009.

Packed

Classes at Keene State started this week, so I spent a lot of time in my car this commuting between Newton and Keene…and for the first time in the 10 years I’ve taught at KSC, I actually parked on campus rather than walking from a nearby apartment. Keene State doesn’t stack ‘n’ pack commuters’ cars, but maybe they should, given how a free parking space can be a precious commodity on a bustling campus.

Buckle

It might seem strange that J and I would hop a train to New York City with the sole intention of viewing Greg Lauren‘s latest art show, Alteration: after all, the show features an entire wardrobe of clothing fashioned from paper, and I’m not much of a fashionista. But as a writer, I love the touch of paper, and as a photographer, I love the look of mannequins…and while I might not dress fashionably, who doesn’t enjoy looking at clothes?

Trench

When J first explained to me the premise behind Greg’s show, I didn’t envision how realistic the pieces would actually be. When I heard the description “clothes made of paper,” I imagined the two-dimensional paper-doll cutouts I played with as a child, or perhaps a display of origami-like shapes that merely approximated the size and shape of clothes. I wasn’t expecting to see actual pieces of clothing sewn from paper instead of fabric and complete with buttons, zippers, and buckles, nor was I expecting to see these pieces being “worn” by mannequins and hung on clothes hangers just like the real thing.

My first impression of Alteration, in other words, was like my first impression of the famous glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. When I went to see the glass flowers, I was expecting pretty little baubles that were vaguely reminiscent of actual flowers: an approximation of the thing rather than the thing itself. What I actually saw at the Harvard Museum, though, were botanical specimens that looked so realistic, I had to repeatedly remind myself that they were made from glass.

Window shopping

Walking into Alteration offers a similar kind of mind-trick. The bright and airy exhibit space looks more like a store than a gallery, with well-dressed mannequins displayed in expansive windows and racks of clothing along several walls. When J directed us into the gallery, in fact, I thought we had the wrong address, and apparently we weren’t the first to make a similar mistake: many unsuspecting “shoppers” stroll into the gallery thinking it is an actual store and have to be told the goods on display are works on paper, not an actual clothing line intended to be worn.

As a painter, Greg has worked on paper before: his previous work includes meditations on the nature of superheroes and the iconography of wedding dresses. In this previous work, Greg has hinted toward the “paper thin” nature of costume and design: can merely donning a cape or dressing in a princess gown transform an ordinary person into someone extraordinary? If “clothes make the man,” can we mold our own identities merely by changing outfits?

Mixed media

In Alteration, Greg revisits these themes in a three-dimensional medium, as if the clothes from his earlier portraits have sprung from the containment of their painted canvases. In the corner workspace where Greg displays the sewing machine, paper sketches, and rough mock-ups he used in creating his pieces, he also displays a larger-than-life canvas of Cary Grant, a portrait in which Grant’s headless torso is clad in a suit whose wrinkles rumple beyond the confines of two dimensional space. In viewing this painting alongside his more recent projects, you realize how Greg’s work is all of a piece, the move from paintings of clothing to the construction of actual clothing being a natural next step.

Media reviews of Alteration inevitably mention that Greg Lauren is an heir to fashion royalty, as if having a famous uncle is explanation enough for Greg’s artistic interests and aspirations. Although it’s true that Greg was steeped from childhood in the fashion rhetoric of male icons such as Cary Grant and John F. Kennedy, ultimately we each choose our own style, identity, and image. Clothes may make the man, but at a certain point, each man dresses himself.

Off the rack

Viewing the wide range of sartorial styles included in Alteration–suit jackets, coats, dress shirts, and even a straitjacket–it’s apparent how many choices we have when it comes to crafting our own identities, even if image is ultimately paper-thin. In addition to the paper clothing that constitutes most of Greg’s show, also featured are one-of-a-kind cloth jackets he fashioned in a range of styles from a ragtag assortment of materials. One suit-coat, for instance, sports scraps from a Superman comic book, and another is stitched with mementos from a trip to Paris, including candy wrappers, Euros, and a page from Greg’s journal sewn into the lining. These pieces from Greg’s own wardrobe (SoHo’s largest walk-in closet!) point to the ways our clothes, like our cars, can be an expression of our deeper selves, at least after we’ve worn them long enough that they become suited to the shape of our character.

Buckled

Clothing can be a cookie-cutter expression of our desire to conform, or it can be an expression of our one-of-kind selves…but only if we are brave enough to bare not just our hearts but also our thoughts on our sleeves. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau critiques the conformist nature of fashion, complaining about a tailor in town who refuses to alter a garment to Thoreau’s specifications because “They do not make them so now.” Is fashion so tight a straitjacket that we all must fit ourselves to the expectations of “They”?

Thoreau responds to his tailor with characteristic tartness: “It is true, they did not make them so recently, but they do now.” Whether Thoreau was a fashion maverick or simply a clueless curmudgeon, he begins Walden with a metaphoric nod to the human tendency to copy the style (and lifestyles) of others when he admonishes readers to “accept such portions” of his philosophy “as apply to them,” trusting that “none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.” Neither life nor lifestyle is one size fits all.

Tuxedos

Both fashion and identity may be paper-thin; as Thoreau suggests, “We don garment after garment, as if we grew like exogenous plants by addition without.” But isn’t it possible, as these paper garments suggest, for our outer style to reflect our inner style, growing outward from within so a bold and independent-minded man might make his clothes just as surely as his clothes make him?

There are, after all, plenty of worthwhile things in life that are but paper-thin: money is merely ink on paper, and so is poetry, and neither Thoreau’s words nor my own are printed on anything more substantial. If we have neither a personality nor a mind of our own, our clothes hang limp and empty as if on coat racks; if we have both a mind and a style of our own, we fill our suits with an undeniable substance that enlivens their style.

Vertical journal

After looking at so many mannequins decked in so many paper duds, J finally asked the inevitable question: would it be possible for us to touch the “fabric” we’d been admiring, politely, with our eyes alone? Near a cluttered workspace where a sewing machine sits surrounded by a motley assortment of art supplies, we’d examined a wall tacked with scribbles and scraps, a kind of vertical journal with sketches, notes, magazine clippings, and an occasional collar or cuff: the usual junk. One of the items pinned to this wall was a paper sleeve, and whether it was a prototype for a future work or a reject from previous one wasn’t entirely clear. With permission, first J then I gingerly touched its crinkled surface, as if to reassure ourselves that it was indeed paper, and not cloth masquerading as such.

We found it to be substantial stuff, with the fibrous durability of vellum and the satin sheen of rice paper. Even something as thin as paper can be tough and enduring, assuming a wide variety of shapes and textures while remaining true to its essential self.

Click here for my complete photo-set of images from Greg Lauren’s Alteration, which is on view in SoHo through November 1st.

New York Magazine produced a short video in which Greg highlights several pieces from the show, which you can view here (after a short commercial). Enjoy!

Stacked

Leave it to a parking lot in SoHo to figure out the best way to pack as many cars (and graffiti) into a small space as possible.

Packed

J and I took a whirlwind day-trip to Manhattan on Saturday, arriving by train at Penn Station just in time to walk to SoHo, check out Greg Lauren‘s latest art show, grab lunch in Little Italy, and then walk back for our return train. Although we were in Manhattan for only about five intermittently rainy hours, we each took hundreds of pictures, New York being the kind of place where you can completely submerge yourself in sensory stimulation. Even in five hours–only about 300 New York minutes–you can absorb a month’s worth of color, movement, and shape: sights to savor on a quiet day.

I’ll have more photos to share, along with impressions of Greg Lauren’s show, later in the week. In the meantime, I have several stacks of papers (and the usual schedule of classes) between me and a Tuesday night grading deadline. I’ll see you on the other side, after I’ve (metaphorically) unpacked.

Even cowgirls get Jasper Johns

Happy Independence Day to you all, regardless of where in this colorful country you hang your hat.

Veterans' Memorial

Today’s image of two art-appreciating cowgirls comes from my 2007 visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which I’ve previously blogged. If you’re in the mood for some more conventional patriotic images on this July 4th holiday, check out my Memorial Day photo-set. Enjoy!

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