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Old Paintings in a New Light

A number of years ago I took this photo of a woman painting a painting of a woman painting a painting in the European paintings wing of the Metropolitan Museum.

I thought of her yesterday morning when I had the great joy of attending the Met’s press preview in advance of the re-opening of the European Paintings Galleries, which the museum’s director, Max Hollein, described as “a completely new re-hang,” in which the curators “gave renewed attention to women artists” and took into account histories of class, gender, race, and religion. The goal of the show “Look Again: European Paintings 1300-1800″ was to create new cultural and artistic dialogs outside the more traditional focus of national schools of art and geographic distinctions. The galleries have been closed, for the most part, over the past 5 years as the Met renovated the many skylights — they embrace a total of 30,000 square feet — that make this wing so distinct. It was a beautiful, sunny morning and every space was filled with natural light. I had to lie on a bench to get this shot (you can see my left sneaker peeking out…) and the security nicely ignored me as I made myself comfortable. This is a place I’ve loved since childhood.

You need a lifetime to appreciate the nearly 800 works in these 45 galleries, many of which have been restored or borrowed from other departments in the Met. (According to curator Stephan Wolohojian, they extend over 2 acres and represent 9,000 gallons of paint.) My favorite gallery is “The Artist’s Studio,” which features ten paintings made between 1538 and 1955 showing the creative work in process. The featured work is Kerry James Marshall’s monumental “Untitled (Studio),” and also includes a few works by women, including a wonderful self-portrait by Elaine de Kooning (from 1946).

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Studio), 1956
Elaine de Kooning, Self-Portrait, 1946

Most striking about this new wing is the adjacencies the Met’s curators achieved, which feel surprising and modern in a space that also feels unequivocally timeless. There are too many to mention, but a stunning example is Picasso’s “The Blind Man’s Meal” from 1903, which hangs next to El Greco’s “The Vision of St. John.” Another pairing, on the same wall, puts Picasso’s “The Actor” (1904-05) next to El Greco’s “Saint Jerome as Scholar” (1610).

Gallery 619. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

In another gallery, Max Beckman’s modern triptych, “The Beginning” (1946-49) hangs side-by-side with Jean Bellegambe’s “The Cellier Altarpiece” from 1509.

Max Beckmann, The Beginning, 1946-49 and Jean Bellegambe, The Cellier Altarpiece, 1509

The new galleries, filled with old favorites and new surprises, open on November 20th.


Public Art + Public Beach

Looking west, David Hammons' "Day's End" and the public beach. Photo: Annik LaFarge, author of On the High Line
Looking west, David Hammons’ “Day’s End” and the public beach

This week the newest park in the Hudson River Park system, Gansevoort Peninsula, opened on the former Pier 52, just south of Little Island and across the highway from the Whitney Museum. I will be writing more about this place, and its long, strange, history, but for now I offer some pictures and a few thoughts.

If you’ve lived in New York City for your entire life, as I have, the idea of a beach in Manhattan is pretty outrageous. I was dubious about this one from the moment it was announced several years ago, but going there on a hot, sunny day and seeing the happiness abounding — in folks of all ages — had a softening effect. This place is a little miracle.

A little girl plays in the sand at Gansevoort Peninsula. Photo: Annik LaFarge, author of On the High Line
A little girl plays in the sand at Gansevoort Peninsula

The best part of Gansevoort Peninsula can’t be experienced through photographs: it’s the sound of the waves of the Hudson River lapping against the rip-rap. Yes, there’s garbage and all kinds of junky stuff washing up with the water, but this is New York City. We expect that. Soon there will be droves of kayakers, paddle boarders and kite surfers stepping off the broad, smooth stones that were placed here for easy launching into the river.

Another thing I love about this park is the way David Hammons’ “Day’s End” sculpture, a work that memorializes the history of the piers in West Chelsea, casts its long shadow across the beach. It’s here, but not here, just like the pier it replaced. And lest you forget you’re in New York City, the park’s designers have helpfully placed a manhole cover at the western edge of the beach, in the boardwalk. See photo below and, as always, click to enlarge the image.

Looking east on Gansevoort Peninsula, with the shadow of "Day's End" crossing the sand. Photo: Annik LaFarge, author of On the High Line
Looking east, with the shadow of “Day’s End” crossing the sand

But my favorite part of Gansevoort Peninsula is its history. Soon I’ll be sharing more photographs, including some rare images I found in the Municipal Archives, and telling the fascinating and truly strange history of Thirteenth Avenue. This park occupies the last patch of the lost avenue, and its history is truly remarkable. More soon.


Frederic Church’s SkyCam

The Olana Historic Site, home to Hudson Valley School painter Frederic Church, just published my article about why this landscape matters so much in the American story. As readers of this blog know, I mostly write about urban landscapes here, primarily the High Line. But 120 miles north, just up the Hudson River, is another beloved landscape, one that has been a second home to me for many decades. This is the link to my article on Olana’s website, where you’ll also find — here — the addictive and marvelous “SkyCam,” a live-streaming camera placed on a stanchion outside Church’s studio by the folks who manage this glorious place.

The Skycam offers a 24/7/365 view of a particular “bend in the river” that was important to Church and also played a key and unprecedented role in the fight to stop a nuclear power plant that would have been built in Olana’s viewshed. I became somewhat obsessed with the SkyCam during the pandemic, and collected more than 400 screenshots that show the same, fixed, view in different light, times of day, seasons, and weather conditions. During those days the camera captured the essence of those first months of lockdown: the fact that we were fixed in place but everything was constantly changing around us. Olana graciously gave me permission to share some of them here. I’ve assembled them in collages to make it easy to see the dramatic shifts that occur as time goes by.

Views from the OLANA EYE Skycam, OLANA.org/OLANAEYE 
Views from the OLANA EYE Skycam, OLANA.org/OLANAEYE 
Views from the OLANA EYE Skycam, OLANA.org/OLANAEYE 
Views from the OLANA EYE Skycam, OLANA.org/OLANAEYE 
Views from the OLANA EYE Skycam, OLANA.org/OLANAEYE 
Views from the OLANA EYE Skycam, OLANA.org/OLANAEYE 

The Resilience of Trees

There’s been a ton of talk lately about “New York Strong,” triumphant words from urban bipeds who are more than ready to move on from the latest crisis. Members of our species talk a lot about themselves — all day long on social media and TV, in op-ed articles and opinion pieces, books, magazine articles, or just the old-fashioned soap box on the nearest street corner. We always talk about how strong we are, how resilient, how innovative.

Walking around my neighborhood in West Chelsea I’ve been observing another form of resilience that’s much quieter, humbler, and so much more powerful. Take a look at this tree….

Plane tree on West 22nd Street
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Ghost Pier

Pier 54, August 2012

In a landscape so dominated by verticals and horizontals, the arched steel entryway to Pier 54 (at the foot of 13th Street) stands out along the Hudson River and makes a handsome contrast. Perhaps no other pier in America has so much history attached to it. Completed in 1910, it was designed by Warren & Wetmore, the architectural firm that co-designed Grand Central Terminal; two years later the Cunard ship Carpathia docked here to discharge survivors of the RMS Titanic, which had been heading for Pier 59, today the golfing range of the Chelsea Piers fitness club. In January 2012 I was thrilled to witness the Queen Elizabeth of the Cunard line sailing by the remnants of this once grand pier.

January 2012, the Queen Elizabeth passes the old Cunard pier
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Little Island on the Wrong Side of Town

The thing that most surprised me on my first visit to “Little Island,” Manhattan’s newest flashy park, was how much I wished I were somewhere else.

It’s not that I wasn’t brimming with anticipation about the opening of this place. I had been watching and photographing the development of this riverine park for years; studied designs that were published online; followed the legal controversy as it unfolded, like a metropolitan opera, in the pages of newspapers and websites. Little Island is a strikingly unusual outdoor space, one that rises improbably “atop a bouquet of tulip-shaped columns,” as Michael Kimmelman so perfectly described it in the Times. Its undulating pathways open up views no New Yorker has ever seen before, and along the way they treat us to a quite stunning mix of materials, colors, and shapes. It’s the experience of juxtaposed elements — hard & soft, high & low, bright & monochrome, historical & contemporary, intimate & expansive, industrial & high-tech — that you expect to encounter in a great art museum.

But as I walked, climbed and gazed around me, both at the people and the landscape, the same thought that has been dogging me since I first heard about Barry Diller’s fantasy island came back to haunt me. Stunning, original, improbable, innovative as it is — and Diller Island is all those things — how extraordinary it would be — how breathtaking and awesome and inspiring — if it were in the South Bronx, or some other part of New York City that’s underserved by world-class parks. And how stunning it would have been if such a park had opened in this of all years, after the ravages of a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement made it impossible to un-see the many inequities that are stitched through the landscape of our city.

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Field of Green

For those of you wondering what the High Line looks like these days during the extended Coronavirus lockdown, well, it looks like all the rest of us: disheveled, unruly, a bit wild, and gorgeous as ever. Long ago and far […] Read more

A Great Day in a Great Park

Clement Clarke Moore Park, named in honor of the West Chelsea pioneer whose massive estate once stood on this ground, re-opened yesterday afternoon after a thoughtful and much-needed $1.5 million renovation. It’s not common these days to love politicians, but […] Read more

At Last, The Thirtieth Street Depot

After years of searching, finally I’ve located a photograph of the Hudson River Railroad’s Thirtieth Street Depot. This is the station that once occupied part of the area where the Morgan General Mail Facility now stands on Tenth Avenue. It’s […] Read more

President Lincoln on a Dangerous Day in Manhattan

I’ve written about Abraham Lincoln many times on this blog, always identifying as sacred ground the spot where the Morgan General Mail Facility now stands. This is because Lincoln passed through the area twice in the 1860s when it was […] Read more

Let’s all raise a glass…

On the 10th anniversary of the opening of the High Line, here’s a tribute to the real leading man in this drama, the West Side Cowboy. Dave Goddess wrote his song last year, inspired by the story of George Hayde, […] Read more

The Spur and the Hallowed Ground it Crosses

Tomorrow the Tenth Avenue Spur opens, marking the completion of the High Line after twenty years of labor and love. There will be much to say about this new space once the public is welcome, but first, perhaps, let’s linger […] Read more