Denver Bar Association
July 2004
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New York: One City, Two Museums, Three Drinks

by Greg Rawlings

A recent trip to upstate New York gave me the excuse to mosey down to the Big Apple for a couple days of museum-hopping. It was time well spent, although the juxtapositions of the trip still bug me.

David Heald, The Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum, New York, 1992. © The Solomon
R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

First, there was the drive from Newark up through the Poconos to my brother’s graduation from Cornell Law. From urban hell to rustic mountain charm, to put it mildly. I had never visited Ithaca before and am now forever jealous of anyone who studied at Cornell: great school, idyllic setting, tasty local wines. The campus is elegant yet understated, with jewels at every turn, from the graceful old chapel to the I.M. Pei-designed museum. As my father noted during the ceremony, "This is a long way from our humble beginnings," he having grown up on a dairy and tobacco farm in rural Kentucky, in the area our relatives settled over 220 years ago.

Then back to the City. Monday was the Guggenheim, Frank Lloyd Wright’s decaying monument to modern art and his own ego. The show I wanted to see was entitled, "Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art from 1951 to the Present." I cannot imagine
forgetting this splendid exhibit—truly my idea of a blockbuster. Thoughtfully curated, well-structured, and jumping with great art. My favorites were Robert Ryman’s white paintings, so pure and unadorned that they could have been paintings of the prayers of children, little glimpses of heaven; the works perfectly at ease in the spiraling rotunda of the museum, where you always seem to be looking upward. They made Robert Rauschenberg’s more famous white paintings appear too constructed, too painterly. Primarily black works from Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella were nearly as moving as the Rymans.

On a more playful, colorful note, Brice Marden’s large multi-hued works, simple as they appear on first glance, evinced a real dedication to aesthetic adventurousness, the colors themselves always a tone away from what the other painters in the show would have used. The colors in Ellsworth Kelly’s grand works didn’t veer from the primary like Marden’s; instead, they gleefully hinted back at the Crayola boxes of early youth.

Agnes Martin and Cy Twombly were also well represented, with busier works than those of the painters noted above, but works that showed how sly and witty minimalism really was.

As the date on the works crawled past the late-60s, the quality dropped sharply—a golden age had passed. So there I was, spent on great art, eyes exhausted, when I stepped into a gallery off the rotunda. What was there? Nothing but masterpiece after masterpiece of French late 19th and early 20th century art; you name the master and he was on the walls. It about split my little brain in two. From the restraint of the recent past to the ebullience of the impressionists and beyond. I saw what I could see then hustled out into Central Park to rest my aching mind.

Frank Stella, Harran II, 1967. © 2003 Frank
Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

So what happens on Tuesday? Very nearly the same thing but this time across the street at the Met. Ah, yes, the museum art lovers love to hate. It’s too, well, museum-y. But goodness what a museum it is! My goals there were twofold—look at the artifacts from a certain Egyptian temple city and then see the Paul Klee exhibit on the other end of that massive cultural fortress.

First, the Klee. Slowly but surely he has become my favorite 20th century painter. His greater paintings best reflect the somber beauties and extreme agonies of that awful time. Nobody, not even Picasso, portrayed as great a range of emotion and confusion as did Klee. As his health failed and WWII loomed over the near horizon, he constructed dark works on burlap and paper that hinted at the horror to come; yet he did so with such delicacy, such a true color sense, that the Nazi shadow never completely obliterated the light emanating from the painter’s own soul.

Of course, to get to the Klee show in the Met I had to cut through its enormous collection of Pop Art. Boy, did it seem meaningless on the way back down. The Klee show reminded me of the flat abstractions of Egyptian art, of the panels from the ruins of Amarna, ancient and powerful and true. He’d cut through centuries of art to find something a step beyond.

As always, I hated to leave New York. I’d missed McCoy Tyner playing Coltrane at Iridium; missed the Whitney Biennial. I did nearly run over Matt Lauer and did find an Irish pub (from which I accidentally dialed the President of ABC TV’s office, trying to say Happy B-Day to my other brother in LA) that felt like a home away from home. But there is never enough time to do New York right, much less enough money. Maybe that’s how someone in Nice thinks of Paris. Or someone in Naples thinks of Rome. Oh, well, until the next time, I guess. Until the next time.

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