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Art Exhibits

Lehigh Valley No. 79: The Aerial Shot

Hoboken Terminal from the 8th Floor of the Whitney Museum

Hoboken Terminal from the 8th Floor of the Whitney Museum

Yesterday I posted two ideas for shooting the Lehigh Valley No. 79 as it sails north on the Hudson River later this week to a Coast Guard-mandated drydock inspection in Waterford, NY. [Follow @museumbarge on Twitter for schedule details.]

Here’s another suggestion for those who like the aerial perspective: the 8th floor terrace of the new Whitney Museum. If you point your camera west you’ll get a shot of this historic barge, a rare monument to the Lighterage Era and currently a floating museum based Red Hook, as it passes the grand old Hoboken Terminal.

Hoboken Terminal at night. Photo by Scott Mlyn.

Hoboken Terminal at night. Photo by Scott Mlyn.

Designed by architect Kenneth Murchison, the Beaux Arts Terminal greeted passengers in a grand style by allowing the sun to stream through stained-glass windows made by Louis Tiffany. It opened as a rail and ferry terminal in 1907, just seven years before the Lehigh Valley No. 79 was built in Perth Amboy.  At night, the big red letters on the eastern facade of the Hoboken Terminal light up to read ERIE LACKAWANNA, and the recently restored clock tower marks time for vessels passing by.

There are a million other reasons to visit the Whitney (see my piece here about the history of the site the new building occupies), but on my mind today is Louis Lozowick, an Art Deco-era painter who emigrated from Russia the year before the Hoboken Terminal opened. I first discovered his work in the WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939 with the intent to “indicate the human character of the city, to point out the evidence of achievements and shortcomings, urban glamor as well as urban sordidness.” The editors selected Lozowick’s  wonderful drawing of a railroad barge being pulled by a tugboat to illustrate Lower Manhattan in the 1930s.

Lower Manhattan, 1936. Lithograph by Louis Lozowick. US National Archives.

Lower Manhattan, 1936. Lithograph by Louis Lozowick. US National Archives.

After seeing that evocation of the lighterage system I embarked on a hunt for more of Lozowick’s work, found a giant archive on the Smithsonian’s website, and got lost for hours. He was devoted to bridges, buildings, river traffic — particularly tugboats — and the industrial iconography of cities: gantries, factories, smokestacks, water tanks: many of the elements folks love about the historic landscape of the High Line.  Most of Lozowick’s work was in black & white, which contributes a kind of moodiness and authenticity to his scenes.

It’s easy to fall in love with Louis Lozowick, and as I clicked through the pages of the archive I was amazed at the range of subjects he painted. His wife told the New York Times that “He always did what he wanted to do, he didn’t care about prevalent styles, nor about the market. He was doing abstractions when others were doing realist work, and when others were doing abstract things, he was doing realist pieces.”

What took my breath away at the Whitney Museum was Lozowick’s drawing of a lynching, which is part of a powerful collection of prints made to support a 1930s anti-lynching bill in Congress. It’s completely unlike the rest of his work, in part because it evokes a force of such raw humanity. There are a few other Lozowick’s in the Whitney’s inaugural show, “America is Hard to See,” including some of his abstractions; you can see all of the museum’s holdings here, including “Lynching” (1936).

And: if you’re there to watch the Lehigh Valley No. 79 sail by later this week, be sure to check out Victoria Hutson Huntley’s 1934 depiction of “Lower New York,” which includes an elevated railroad and a couple of tugboats; it’ll put you in just the right mood. The Whitney kindly allowed me to reproduce Huntley’s lithograph here. [As always, click an image to enlarge it.]

Victoria Hutson Huntley, Lower New York, 1934. Lithograph. Whitney museum of American Art, NY

Victoria Hutson Huntley, “Lower New York, 1934.” Lithograph. Whitney Museum of American Art, currently on view in the inaugural exhibition “America is Hard to See” (May 1 – Sept. 27, 2015). Used with permission.

Okay, I confess this post digressed from its original purpose: to identify the best aerial spot in Manhattan to photograph the Lehigh Valley No. 79 as it begins its northerly voyage in a few days. But this is what happens when you start thinking about railroads, tugboats, the Hudson River and Manhattan’s edge. Everything around us is connected to the past, and the Whitney is both glorious museum and grand, public parapet that puts so much of our cultural and industrial history on display. It’s what the WPA writers considered “urban glamor.”


Putin and the High Line

One doesn’t naturally associate Vladimir Putin with the High Line, but once upon a time he was a stakeholder here. Back in 2000 Lukoil, the giant Russian oil conglomerate, purchased Getty Oil and its 1,300 gas stations, including a small one on 24th Street and Tenth Avenue. Putin himself attended the grand opening, and it was widely reported that he enjoyed a Krispy Creme donut under the shadow of the still-abandoned High Line.

Lukoil gas station on 24th Street & Tenth Avenue, February 2012

Lukoil gas station on 24th Street & Tenth Avenue, February 2012

[click to continue…]

Jonas Wood, "Shelf Still Life," on the High Line

Jonas Wood, “Shelf Still Life,” on the High Line

This month’s installation on the 18th Street billboard is a perfect example of how a piece of public art can enliven and complement its environs. Jonas Wood’s “Shelf Still Life” has joined us in the midst of a bracing cold snap, and into this historic, arctic air sets before us a lovely view of plants in full bloom. It almost makes you want to unzip your jacket. These are house plants, so the work portrays an indoor scene, but as you walk by it the dead stalks of Compass plants and Prairie dock rise up to remind you that you’re in a real garden. The High Line is a place that’s filled with juxtapositions, and this work fits right in. It’s a playful seduction: colorful, blooming plants almost within reach, in the midst of a Polar Vortex. [click to continue…]


Billy Collins Poem at the New York Botanical Garden

“It is possible to be struck by a meteor
or a single-engine plane
while reading in a chair at home….”

Those are the opening lines of Billy Collins’ poem “Picnic, Lightning,” part of an exhibition of public literature at the New York Botanical Garden. Throughout the garden this holiday season one finds Collins’ evocative poems, printed on large signs that also include an etching of a locomotive from New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, bellowing smoke as it chuffs along. I went there yesterday to see the famous holiday train show and the new Native Plant Garden, which opened in May. Trains and gardens: my favorite combination. With a heavy heart after Sunday’s devastating derailment on the Hudson Line, the visit was comforting in surprising ways.

Last week I wrote about the El Anatsui’s magical artwork on the High Line, Broken Bridge II, a site-specific piece that inspired not just because it was beautiful but because it so perfectly belonged in — and to — its landscape. In the Bronx today there is literature in the garden, and it brightens and informs everything you see around you. Another poem on the winding path, “Winter Syntax,” equates the mechanics of language — its units of grammar and sound — to the elements found in nature: “Bare branches in winter are a form of writing….Every lake is a vowel, every island a noun.” [click to continue…]


El Anatsui’s Magical Bridge


El Anatsui’s “Broken Bridge II” reflecting the West Chelsea landscape and the High Line

Last week, men in helmets attached to climbing ropes rappelled up and down the east wall of 510 West 22nd Street, once a parking garage owned by Time Warner Cable and, for the past year, temporary home to the magisterial artwork Broken Bridge II by West African artist El Anatsui. Of all the many superb works that Friends of the High Line has installed in and around the park, this one — among the first curated by the new head of High Line Art, Cecilia Alemani — has become my favorite.

I’ve lamented the loss of inspiring artworks many times on this blog — most especially Stephen Vitiello’s unforgettable sound piece, A Bell for Every Minute, and Sarah Sze’s architectural magnet for wildlife, Still Life With Landscape (Model for a Habitat) — but this one was different. In part that’s because Broken Bridge II was such a perfectly site-specific piece, and it so brilliantly inhabited and reflected — simultaneously — the landscape it occupied for twelve months. El Anatsui’s tapestry of pressed, rusting tin and mirrored panels fit in perfectly with the steel and glass buildings that are going up all around the High Line, but its mirrors also caught the 19th century water towers around it, those “silent sentries” that define the New York City landscape. [click to continue…]


Painters in the Sky

Painters from Colossal Media at 20th Street

Painters from Colossal Media above the High Line at 20th Street

An amazing creative act is taking place right now on the High Line. If ever there was a reason to leave your desk and head out to the park, this is it. But go now, because it’ll be over soon.

Painters from a company called Colossal Media are working on a scaffold at 20th Street to paint a large ad for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I took a walk in the park yesterday, starting at 30th Street, where I immediately encountered a perfectly gorgeous mural on the side of an apartment building. This is the same wall where the artist JR did a huge pasting of Brandon Many Ribs from the Lakota Tribe as part of the Inside Out Project a year ago.

What’s so unusual about this Met ad is its richness and texture. I wanted to crawl over the railing and touch it, to see if it was real. It’s mesmerizing because it looks it like an actual painting, but it’s not hanging in a museum: it’s outdoors, painted on brick, concrete and a bit of glass (the windows of the building). You can see brushstrokes. It’s downright painterly. I stood there wondering: in this day and age, would anyone really paint an ad on a building?

Farther south I found my answer. Colossal Media — which includes its logo in the work — is painting a second piece for the Met, this time a beautiful seascape that looks like a Hokusai. They’re still at it this morning, but they’re about halfway through.

Colossal Media is an advertising company that specializes in hand-painted work. I found a short film by Malcolm Murray (watch it here on Vimeo) in which an old-timer and a few current employees talk about the unusual craft they practice. One guy gives a perfect explanation for why the effect is so startling. Regular advertisers, with their printed billboards, “can’t print what we paint,” he says. “They print in pixels, they mix colors optically, little dots. You know, blue and yellow together makes green. But we paint green, so we can make it a lot richer.”

The men speak about the apprenticeship behind the craft, a two-year process in which the young painters are commanded to watch and absorb. One describes how he wasn’t allowed to paint for two full years. Today, he aspires to become both a good painter and a good teacher.

They talk about how difficult it can be, when the wind blows hard and the entire rig sways 30 feet to one side. “It takes so much work that it’s kind of ridiculous,” one guy comments. But “It’s the way Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel: he made patterns, used charcoal, mixed his own paint. There’s no easy way to do it, it’s just the way it is.”

The Met's Painted Billboard at 29th Street

The Met’s Painted Billboard at 29th Street, by Colossal Media

So right now you — I mean, really, right now — you have the opportunity to see this act of creation live. It’s just fascinating; they stand on the rickety scaffold, brush in one hand and an image of the work they are copying in the other. Perhaps this was a common sight in another century. Look up as you walk through the city streets and you’ll see the faded lettering of old hand-painted signs everywhere. In this neighborhood, around the High Line, you tend to see a lot of ads for printing and lumber companies, which were once prevalent here. A building on the north corner of 11th Avenue and 20th Street was recently torn down and above the rubble what suddenly appeared? An old hand-lettered sign. They are everywhere, hiding in plain sight.

Watching these men at work yesterday made me think the world would really be a better place if every advertisement were hand-painted. As I’ve said before: Run, don’t walk.


Colossal Media Painter at Work, 20th Street

Colossal Media Painter at Work, 20th Street




Rooftop Artists

“So atop the city that taught the world what modern cities ought to be, there they are, the hoops and staves of the Middle Ages.” — Charles Kuralt

Broken Bridge II + Water Tower

This blog is no danger of becoming LivinTheWaterTower.com, Scout’s honor, but I’ve had such an interesting response to recent pieces about New York’s water towers that I wanted to share what fellow tank enthusiasts have passed along.

I had no idea, until I learned about the Water Tank Project and started paying closer attention, that New York’s water towers have for many years been a source of artistic expression for a wide variety of artists. When the Water Tank Project opens next Spring New Yorkers will have the pleasure of seeing hundreds of tank-inspired works of art on display all over the city, by both established and emerging artists. Until then, here’s a few earlier works to enjoy. I’ll continue to update this list. If you have a work you’d like to tell me about, please email me using the contact form.

My photo captures the reflection of the beautiful brick structures that house the water tanks of the London Terrace apartments in the pressed tin and mirrors of El Anatsui’s installation-in-progress on 21st Street. The work is called Broken Bridge II and is part of the High Line’s excellent public art program. Read more about it here. I walked the High Line today and, to my delight, noticed this natural, impromptu blending of art + water towers. As always, click the image to enlarge it.

“Silent Sentries,” a short film by Jane Martin

“Silent Sentries,” a short documentary by Jane Martin. The person who wrote to me about this film, which originally aired on PBS about 20 years ago, remembered a Greek chorus of New Yorkers who, when asked what the water tanks were, came up with a host of perfectly ridiculous but often marvelous (in that Only-in-New York kind of way…) answers and speculations. I found Jane Martin on the web and and she very kindly mailed me a DVD of the film. Yes, the comments from our fellow citizens are amusing, but what I loved about this film is the narrative that Martin un-spools. Somehow she managed to find and film the renovation of one water tank — it’s on the West Side, somewhere in the 50s, I think, but it’s hard to know for sure — and her film roughly documents the removal of the existing tank and its replacement with a brand new one. Her shots of the men at work are wonderful — often they seem completely unaware of the camera — and best of all you get the vivid (and sometimes vertiginous) sensation of actually being on the roof of a New York building and seeing the city from the point of view of a water tower. You also get a deep understanding of how these things are constructed. I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was fascinated to realize that the water tanks have to be built on-site, they can’t simply be lifted up by a crane and installed ready-made. So while the modern city hums below, these beefy, expert guys practice a centuries-old art on the rooftops above. It’s a vivid and surprising film, and while it’s not currently available for streaming you can contact Jane via this email address about purchasing a copy: SilentSentries@janemartinart.com. For more about the film, visit JaneMartinArt.com.  I hope that PBS will re-air the film next year when the Water Tank Project goes up.

“The Water Tower Player” (“Le Joueur de Citernes”) a film made by French filmmaker Emmanuel Gorinstein. Read my blog post about the film here, or go directly to Vimeo to watch it. Be ready for magic.

Tom Fruin’s Watertower, Dumbo, Brooklyn. Installed June 2012. This sculpture sits on the rooftop of 20 Jay Street and is visible from the Dumbo section of Brooklyn as well as the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, the FDR Drive, and points in Lower Manhattan. The piece is made from reclaimed materials: steel plus roughly 1,000 scraps of salvaged plexiglass in every color of the rainbow, and is part of series of works that pay tribute to architectural icons around the world. The sun lights the piece by day, and at night it’s lit by Arduino-controlled light sequences designed by Ryan Holsopple. Read more about it and see gorgeous photos — shot in daylight and at night — on TomFruin.com.

Rachel Whiteread’s Water Tower, SoHo, New York. According to the Museum of Modern Art’s website, British artist Whiteread was commissioned by the Public Art Fund in 1998 to create this work of public art, and she “scoured the city in search of a quintessentially New York subject.” Like many artists, she looked up and saw water towers, and conceived this sculpture, which is a resin cast of the interior of a once-functioning cedar water tank. According the MoMA website, “The translucent resin captures the qualities of the surrounding sky; the sculpture’s color and brightness change throughout the day and it becomes a near-invisible whisper at night.” Whiteread has called the work “a jewel on the skyline of Manhattan.” The sculpture now sits on the roof of MoMA, so you can check it out yourself next time you’re there. Read more and see a photograph on MoMA.org.


Magical Water Towers

Water towers are as much a part of the New York City landscape as skyscrapers, and many people find as much art in the rooftop “hoops and staves of the Middle Ages” as they do in the city’s modern architecture. That’s a quote from Charles Kuralt, the great CBS newsman, who also loved the city’s water tanks and appreciated their place in our urban landscape as well as the ancient crafstmanship that produced them.

Today I got an email from a reader of this blog who pointed me to a short film that Kuralt would have loved, “The Water Tower Player” (or, its original French title, “Le Joueur de Citernes”). It’s a brief love poem to New York City’s water towers made by a French filmmaker named Emmanuel Gorinstein.  This film is a magical imagining that takes you into a realm that Maurice Sendak, Tim Burton and Hugh Ferris would recognize and feel happy in. It also brought to mind the characterization of another landscape icon that Marcel’s grandmother recalls in Proust’s Swann’s Way. Of the cathedral spire in Combray she says: “My dears, laugh at me if you like; it is not conventionally beautiful, but there is something in its quaint old face that pleases me. If it could play the piano, I’m sure it would play.” For his film about water towers, Gorinstein dispatches a violinist, and mon dieu, can he he play.

I won’t even attempt to describe the film here, I’ll just give you a link. It’s only fourteen minutes long, but find a time when you’re ready to be astounded, and moved, and then click. And when you’re done, here’s a link to Gorinstein’s blog, where you’ll find his marvelous, moody, often other-worldly artwork.

The upcoming Water Tank Project in Spring 2013 will provide countless new opportunities for artists to conjure with the city’s water towers. Lucky us.


The Art of the Water Tower

The “zebra” water towers atop the Starrett-Lehigh Building

Readers of this blog know that I love New York’s water towers. One of the most-read posts in the archive is a piece about Charles Kuralt, the great CBS newsman who also adored the “hoops and staves of the Middle Ages” that define our city skyline.

Next spring a new public art project will pay tribute to our water towers, sponsored by a group called Word Above the Street, a non-profit that uses art to advocate for social justice and sustainability. The idea for the water tower project followed a 2007 trip to Ethiopia by filmmaker Mary Jordan, who realized that one of the severest problems in Africa is that water might be abundant but “it was never in the right place.” The people of Ethiopia lacked containers — buckets, bottles — to transport the water from its source to their homes.  She returned determined to launch a campaign about the scarcity of water, and in time, the Water Tank Project was conceived.

For six weeks in Spring 2013 hundreds of water towers all over New York City will be transformed by established and emerging figures in art, music and science. A contingent of students from the city’s public schools will also be involved. [click to continue…]


Still Life With Landscape in packing crate, from 22nd Street

Sarah Sze’s marvelous and hugely popular Still Life With Landscape (Model for a Habitat) has moved from the spot it occupied for the past year (near 20th Street), but it hasn’t left the High Line yet. And in fact this piece continues to dazzle, even as it sits in packing mode in a temporary holding place just above 22nd Street. This is surely the mark of a true work of art: no matter where it sits, it draws us in and gives us the pleasure of its company.

Today, Still Life With Landscape offered a new framing device for the water towers atop the Spears Building. Always beautiful, these towers are now downright sculptural, framed by Sze’s steel lines. Early this morning light glinted off the metal, and the sculpture — now in many pieces — invited the viewer to peek and peer from every angle possible.

Check it out quickly, because this piece is leaving soon for good. But how nice to get a second look before it goes.

Water tower on the Spears Building