The trip was uneventful, I'm happy to say, since I was on an Airbus 380, the new gigantic double-decker plane which might just be the future of profitable passenger aviation. One very nice and soothing feature of this behemoth is that it has three cameras, one in the nose, one in the tail, and one facing straight down. That latter one makes for soothing ambient video, since the resolution isn't so hot, but you can see clouds or water or landscape in a sort of abstract way. I mostly read (this trip's big experiment is loading all the books and magazines I'd usually take onto the iPad, although I'm afraid I'm going to wind up buying some books as soon as I pass a bookstore), but I also watched The Artist. All I can say is, if that's the best movie of the year, I don't regret not going to movies. Was it better than the disappointing Midnight in Paris? Not really.
Thanks to Marie, I knew to take the AirTrain to the Jamaica Station and catch the LIRR in to Penn Station, and the fabulous (and inexpensive, thanks to PriceLine) New Yorker Hotel. The rooms are small, but worth it to stay in such a magnificent Art Deco pile. Turns out Marie works right next door, which is good, because she had my new phone, and handed it off to me before going back to work. I got the thing set up (yes! I now have a US phone number!) and after I tried to figure out how to use it, I went out to dinner with her at a pretty mediocre joint attached to the hotel. I was too pooped to do otherwise, and I had a full day ahead of me.
My plan was to go up to the Metropolitan Museum shortly after it opened and spend as much time as I could there. Along the way, I learned a valuable lesson: sometimes it pays to think about popular music. The A train stops just downstairs from my hotel, and seemed to be a good way to get uptown fast. Right. It is, but if I'd remembered the lyrics to the Duke Ellington classic, I would have gotten to the Museum faster: after stopping at 59th St. it rockets up to 125th St and you're in Harlem. Which is nice, but I wanted to be at 86th St., so I turned around and got a different train back. I got off, and walked through Central Park, and soon the bulk of the Museum loomed into view.
I'd worked there in the fall-winter of 1966-67, and had barely been back since. It's grown, and there are some magnificent new additions, including a greatly expanded Egyptian area (not my favorite part, but there are some excellent things there, including this guy):
When you can spend your lunch hour hanging out with artworks, you get so you have friends you visit, and he was one of them, because the employees' cafeteria was just off the Egyptian section.
The big news there was the American Wing, recently opened and supposedly state-of-the-art, and I eventually found my way back there. It's two things in one: paintings and sculpture, and "decorative arts," ie, representative rooms with furnishings, off of which there are displays of ceramics, china, and other such things. I was interested only in the paintings, since anyone who's ever visited me at home knows that interior decoration isn't exactly one of my passions -- or talents. And the paintings are spectacular, particularly because although the Museum didn't cotton to them earlier, in recent decades, it's begun to include more "naive" or "folk art" style works. This means that there's a distinctly modern feeling to a lot of the older stuff there, as paintings made by itinerant painters are hung in rooms near rooms lined with painters of the elite. Of particular interest were some "rack pictures," in which various items are painted as if they were sitting on a board, tromp l'oeil style.
This one's by John F. Peto, but the one that really impressed me was John Haberle's A Bachelor's Drawer:
The incredible skill here is hard to see in this reproduction, but suffice it to say that the black and white girly photo there in the lower right center is, like everything else in the picture, painted. These oddities are absolutely part and parcel of American art, if only as weird footnotes, and they keep the collection from grandiosity and masterpiece fatigue. Because, as everyone now knows, Washington Crossing the Delaware is in this collection, as is Singer's Madame X, a goodly selection of Winslow Homer, and it finishes up with some superb Ashcan School stuff I'd never even heard of, and want to revisit.
The other notable thing in the Museum -- but only until March 18 -- is The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, which is one of those shows I forced myself to go to because it isn't really in my sphere of interest. It convinced me. It's fascinating following the development of the actually recognizable portrait through the years. You start out with pictures which are as notable for the haircuts and clothing (and boy, did Renaissance dudes have some haircuts!) and wind up with representations you could pick out of a lineup. As a bonus, they often throw in landscapes in the background which demonstrate the growth of that art as well. Some of these artists were real cowboys: Pisanello was famous for his two-hour sittings, out of which he'd make pencil sketches and send you on your way, then get to work with the oils. If need be, he could work quicker than that. This is a fun show, believe it or not, and Berliners have already had a chance to see it. If you're in New York, you shouldn't miss it. If you do, however, there seems to be something of a virtual visit if you click the "artworks" link on the URL above.
Did I have enough culture for one day? Man, I hit the Arms and Armor, with this Colt masterpiece, recently acquired:
(click the photo and look at that decoration up close), the European Painting, the Arts of Oceania (very weird stuff, like this longboat and its prow)
and Greece and Rome, never my favorites, although this lion is a piece I have uncommon affection for because it lived very near the door where we went to pick up our paychecks.
But no, I wasn't through with culture yet. I had a 6:15 appointment downtown with Justin Kantor, one of the folks who run Le Poisson Rouge, a nightclub which often presents classical music. He's going to be on a panel I'm moderating at SXSW, and I figured I should at least see what his joint was all about. He kindly let me stay for the evening's concert, a program of French music by the chamber ensemble ACJW, made up of Juillard students and at least one instructor. They started with Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and ripped right along, finishing up with the Poulenc Sextet for Wind Quintet and Piano, a favorite of my youth, and evidently a lot trickier to play than I'd thought. It was the only piece of the evening where there were small stumbles, but the palpable energy with which they played it made up for them. Around me, people were eating, drinking, and not talking. Dang, how civilized!
After dinner at a nearby Vietnamese place on Mac Dougal St. that Justin recommended (okay, but not great: I should have hit the Indian street food place next door), I went back to the hotel and crashed. Jetlag and considerable energy did me in.
* * *
FOOD NOTES: So far, except for lunch, the food's been pretty disappointing. A nearby deli breakfast proved to be horrendous, the Vietnamese place, like I said, was so-so, but The Cafeteria, at the Metropolitan Museum, was a find: good value for money, excellent variety, and child-friendly (although the way the kids I noticed were acting, I wonder if it isn't too much for parents to wait until they ask to go, rather than force the experience on them). I had a nice tempura roll from a skilled sushi guy, but I could also have had fried chicken or various pasta things, or a salad. Today, I was wary of my agent's lunch suggestion of a place called Mà Pêche, which seemed to have too many puns in its name, and was run by a celebrity chef called David Chang. But it turned out to be just swell, kind of a progressive take on traditional Vietnamese ideas like summer rolls and banh mi sandwiches. I make a better summer roll sauce, but otherwise the ingredients were top-notch. I've got some other suggestions I'm eager to try, and I'll post when I do.