21 IV 2013
St Mark’s Place 46
We are living in the furnished apartment KS rented at St Marks Place 46; fourth floor, reached by an onerous marble staircase. The two rooms are lighted by windows on the street but, as they face the north, never receive the full blast of sunlight. The most remarkable features of the sitting room are two pillars carrying three arches, on slim twisted stems and Corinthian cornices , like Venetian windows. Behind this incongruous palatial screen lies the kitchen and the bathroom.
Both the sitting and the bedrooms are furnished with good Biedermeyer style chairs and cupboards plus a bed in warm chestnut colour. So is the table on which I write, which has a black leather top fringed with golden flower fringe. On it two wooden obelisks are standing for purely ornamental reasons whilst a classical brass table lamp, with a decent black shade, lights it.
An enormous black marble presse-papier with four pillars and copper trimmings rounds this off – it must have had a long-forgotten function; cutting of cigars or calling a servant.
The walls of the bedroom are tinged a very pale lemon yellow and hung with well framed prints. In front of me are four: Les jongleurs Indiens; Le bon genre no.20: Une soirée de Coblentz; no.28 Atelier des Modistes ; and 79 : Les Oublies, where two embracing maidens appear to turn the hands of a sundial. Everybody is clothed in a manner from somewhere around the French revolution. The gravures seem intended to teach girls, in the remoteness of Middle European wilderness, how to behave.
To my left is a colored Chinese landscape depicting a cliff overhanging a lake, with a ship rounding a corner. And a villa in the armpit of a mountain. It shows no human figures but carries nice spindly Chinese characters and some lacquer seals. The whole effect is hazy.
Behind me is an oil-painting of a Carpathian landscape made in 1988 by Mr. Lachowicz, in a vague style of dappled autumnal colors. To complete the round I look at a metal framed black and white photograph seeming to show an orthodox church in a park, called Spring Rain. Signed Johnny Connell. Could be an American.
There also figures a lovely mirror, probably fake, crested with a bundle of arrows, a torch and several ribbons in gold. Opposite, the bed, broad and imposing, has a bed-stand with a white ceramic lamp like a melting Brancusi.
On the wooden floor two carpets, one from the Caucasus and one from Afghanistan.
It all carries a faint flavor of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. The owner of the house is a relatively young (50-ish) Ukrainian, who owns several buildings in this street , also uptown, and rents them out.
I lack the zest to describe the decoration of the sitting room, with another melted Brancusi, a reproduction of The Holy Family by Picasso and an ambitious French landscape in a style associated with Cézanne and signed by Hervin. There is also a bad sketch of female buttocks in artistic swirl. The embroidered curtains are extremely heavy.
23 IV 2013
I revert to this blank page for adding a description I omitted though its object had in first instance caused the idea of describing the rooms we stayed and lived in.
The missed element is the ventilator, or rather the two propellers that hang like enormous presences above our heads in the bed and sitting rooms. They may be the only truly American leftovers from before the Ukrainians moved in and are totally un-European (if one excludes the colonial experience).
Each one has 4 blades of about half a meter in length, which would make the span of the whole some 1.5 meters. The blades are paddle shaped with a probing little point at the end, like a petal,
They are set in a Jugendstil holder, more or less like the receptacle of a flower. The four stems curve inwards to the motor mechanism that rotates invisibly inside a round and perforated box, again evoking the thorus of a flower. In the bedrooms the whole contraption is affixed directly to the ceiling but in the sitting room there is a stem which brings it a little lower. Off it dangles a simple string, to activate the thing. I touched the blades and they rotated without effort for a while.
It is most appropriate that the ventilators are thickly coated in broken white paint to render them less visible as they are visually much in the way. They always remind me of the suffocating temperatures of summer in New York. For the last few days the sun has been bright but the winds from the north Atlantic have had people hurrying around with upturned coats. On the 14th of April 1902 Edith Wharton in a letter complained of the selfsame weather having stopped nature growing for weeks on end but later on she expressed optimism about the approach of spring.
PS Under one ventilator an outsized bulb had been fitted, presumably for lighting purposes.
24 IV 2013
It is hardly worth noticing, but looking out of the window I saw a curved old woman pushing a supermarket cart alongside the pavement of this busy street between the traffic and the flow of youthful pedestrians. I followed her doings for ten minutes.
She would park her cart, filled with plastic bags, along the curb and abandon it. She would scuffle towards the entrance of a house, a shop and many times go behind a railing. There she would lift the black tops of garbage bins to look for bottles. If found, she would put the bottles in a plastic bag, return to her cart and trundle on.
27 IV 2013
I should perhaps first study the philosopher Pep Subirós, who curated the show of Jane Alexander, sculptor from Mandela-land, in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, before writing down my impressions. In due course I promise to do that, but this is a diary of first impressions.
The Cathedral Church, as it calls itself with self-consciousness, is an impressive fake, a successful piece of make believe, an empty shell of ambitious emotions. It is incredibly ambiguous, vain and careful, humble and outrageous. It is very American.
At the end of a street, let us say coming up from Riverside Park, one is suddenly confronted with a Super Chartres. With its endless nave and its limitless series of limitless chapels behind the altar and around the choir, it seems to take away the idea of effort and danger that accompanied the building of the French Gothic, once a new, nearly modernist extravaganza of invention. Here the effort is canonized, sure of its effects on the tiny customer that visits. It is the ghost of a cathedral, a resurrection of a dead body. It is the power of money and technical prowess in search of a soul. It is the Cloisters Problem on a big scale. I would like to know what Henry Adams, the foremost cathedral- lover in America of the nineteenth century, would have thought of it. Perhaps he would have been proud of it.
For me it was like a divine blessing that some inconceivable conflagration had cut a great hole in the rump of this outsize church. It seemed impossible that a great fireball would wreck such a dream of artificial perfection in solid stone and concrete. What could it feed on? Yet there were the unkempt ruins of the transept, the walls roofless, and even solitary plants colonizing the skyline. The sun and the breeze entered from the blue sky. It meant instant patina. As a ruin this church became real.
And in the pointed oval of a windowless gothic frame a monkey stares over your head, like transfixed by some hidden secret, its gaze both intense and spellbound. It is no gargoyle, no quaint resurrection of former nightmares. It is there, contemporary, thoughtful, alive. It is made by Jane Alexander.
This South African lady is improbably, perhaps consciously, naïve. She fixes canine heads on the well-shaped bodies of a platoon of naked executioners of orders, and lets them march by in parade steps. Looking with fanatical fervor out of their beady eyes. These eyes are just beads, the soldiers puppets, but the effect is uncanny, menacing, real like a dream.
I call her naïve in the sense of primordial. Her sculptures are completely legible, like primitive masks. They rise out of the primary symbolism of nature, the hawks beak is menacing, the street-dog is fierce, the street urchin with his ears of a rabbit is frightened, alarmed and unbelieving, yet watchful and ready for the stratagem of flight. In a sense there is no depth in her art which flies directly to your imagination.
Perhaps one should not call this art in the modern sense. Because it does not speak for and of itself, as a concept, a world per se, an emotion. These primitive puppets, these strangely real counterfeits of animals and human beings and even clothes, these red rubber industrial gloves, these machetes and barbed wires, are not art works, they are messengers. They speak of a reality that is not in the works themselves, but in the world outside which we cannot ignore. They are gripping, bringing the world outside inside us, not as art, but as a primary experience.
It is therefore completely logical for her to place her sculptures in street scenes, among slum- dwellers, in landscapes, along canals or ditches, because they are not more or less real than the slum-dwellers or street-dogs or wild birds themselves. They stand out as another striking invention of evolution, of struggle for life, not as an elevation, a higher refuge, but as part of life itself. It is therefore remarkable how tender she shapes male genitals.
They seem to be cradling hope in a world destined to cruelty and entropy. They seem to promise a tenderness at the beginning of life, and it gives her work the innocence of puberty.
One can only have so much of this work, especially in the context of a cathedral like this, which intends to lift you out of reality, like a crane. Yes, I know this reality is here, or rather outside, and all this around us is fake, but one cannot always listen to the songs of witches, announcing the death of Macbeth and all of us. We want to do something, not only be captured.
So I decided to look for the alter-pieces in bronze by a graffiti artist, that is, made by Keith Haring just before he died of AIDS. His work is well known, mainly through museums. The chapel, the altar is there, perfectly ready to be given meaning by the sufferings of the artist. In his graphic and simple idiom he suggests masses of suffering souls looking for deliverance. From the cauldron of despair rises, or rather floats up a baby, like the image of the one safe, untouchable birth in a world of doom, supported by the longings of the unseen damned. It moved me deeply, as I wanted to escape too, but it was only art as the mirror of religion.
We, KS and I , returned to the nave, where a symphony orchestra was rehearsing passages of an opera recounting the moral horrors of Theresienstadt, where shiploads of Jewish children and adults had been prepared for the final sacrifice of Auschwitz. One can only admire the courage of a composer trying to render into sound the silence of the world.