A most generous and unexpected gift from our two children gave us five days in the Big Apple. In that time we viewed seven great art collections, took in an Off Broadway show and did a bit of the tourist stuff – marvelled from the top of the Empire State Building, exhilarated across Brooklyn Bridge and wondered at Harlem, Soho and Greenwich Village, where in Washington Square, we saw an outdoor performance, by students of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Were they from the nearby New York University, fees 56 million dollars per year?
The propaganda that New York is now a very safe city would seem to be true. I certainly felt more relaxed on the subway there than in a Paris metro carriage covered in graffiti, floor, windows and ceiling, with dubious youths parading up and down. It was striking how often we were aided by African-American ladies, middle-aged and middle-class, proud of their city and ready to help visitors.
If I had come to New York as a young man, I would have been most anxious to see more work by Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky, the two Abstract Expressionists I loved. Today, I think of them much as I regard the Bop jazz musicians that I listened to at the time: with respect but with less passion. The painters still represent for me the peak of American Modernism and I was pleased to see more of their work. At the Whitney we started at the top of the building and wandered past much so-what sort of works, greedy of space but not notably inventive, down to the first floor (second floor in American parlance) where there was an exhibition of Hopper and his contemporaries. Hopper was certainly the most consistent of the bunch but there was very worthy stuff from others. I would have dearly loved to get a reproduction of a figure piece in watercolour by Delmuth.
Thanks to the wealth of America’s great industrial barons, New York has a vast collection of European art. It is not seeing the iconic pieces which is so enjoyable for me, but those that I have never seen reproduced. In the Metropolitan Museum there is room after room of paintings from most schools. Among the masses of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work there are pieces that seem better than those often seen in monographs. Is it just that the works are new to me? We barely touched the galleries devoted to early civilizations. In the shop (store to Americans), I picked up one of the few postcards on sale, a drawing of a horse’s head, taken from a Chinese scroll attributed to Hans Gan (Tan Dynasty). It is a wonderful, incisive piece of draughtsmanship but I didn’t see the complete scroll, if indeed it was on show.
The Guggenheim was showing an exhibition of early Modernism. Two new-to-me paintings I remember fondly were a wonderfully economical snow scene by Van Gogh and a Malevitch peasant painting also in snow.
Manhattan, as everybody knows, is an island dramatically crammed with skyscrapers, of every style from gothic fantasies to the latest that technology and human ingenuity can devise. It is ironic, therefore, that the buildings that housed two of the most enjoyable art collections were distinctly European in style. The Frick Collection in the steel magnate’s former mansion, has so many outstanding examples of the major European artists that it is easier to say what it doesn’t have – no Frans Hals, I think. The Cloisters which is actually built from bits of ecclesiastical masonry brought from France, houses the magnificent Unicorn Tapestries. Its site at the upper tip of Manhattan almost feels like countryside. Rockefeller, who was behind the project, bought the cliffed shore of New Jersey across the water so that it couldn’t be developed.
On our final morning it was raining heavily and we decided to take shelter in the Neue Galerie, with its re-created Viennese café. The decorative paintings of Klimt and Schiele are not great favourites of mine. I actually dislike Klimt’s portraits where the ladies gowns are made up of coloured shapes and gold leaf. But there is another aspect to him. Male visitors viewing a whole wall of his very explicit drawings of women masturbating may wish they had not hung their overcoats in the cloakroom.