Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Trip East

In late August, I flew to New York to begin a 10-day trip that also took me to New Haven, Philadelphia, and Charlottesville. The occasions for it were my 50th high-school reunion, which I ended up skipping (long story), and a family wedding, which of course I attended. 

In New York, I had dinner with the architect and Columbia Professor Michael Bell, who I know from Berkeley. I also visited the new Whitney with my family friend Christine Van Lenten, and spent a day at the Met, where I had lunch with the curator Philip Hu of the St. Louis Art Museum. The Met had a retrospective of John Singer Sargent (shown above), and a hugely popular fashion exhibit (shown below). Besides all the famous portraits (of Henry James, for example), Sargent's late work, painted outdoors, was the most interesting. The exhibit conveyed the mounting price Sargent paid for being an in-demand portrait painter. The fashion show, parsed out across the Asian galleries, focused on how fashion designers used Asian and Asian-influenced films as inspiration. It was quite spectacular (and crowded, as it was the last weekend).

Thanks to my brother-in-law, Michael Opalak (shown below), who drove me back and forth to New Haven from Fairfield, I visited the Yale Art Center, with its small but quite good, studiously representative collection. Returning to Manhattan, I had dinner with the writer Cathy Lang Ho, the publicist Monica Schaffer, and Monica's husband Kevin at Les Enfants de Bohème, the Lower East Side restaurant that Cathy recently opened with her husband, Stefan Jonot. (It's their second in the neighborhood. Google Maps tried to take me to the old one.)

I really like the new Whitney, which seems for once to have been designed for its budget. It takes full advantage of its location, making constant reference to it without distracting from the art. The collection, which will be rotated through the galleries every three months, has some good things. As MoMA was between exhibits for the most part, I was glad to see it. The Whitney compensated for the Guggenheim, a disappointment this time despite an exhibit of new work by Doris Salcedo, and also for the Neue, which was between exhibits. I just missed the new Picasso sculpture show at MoMA. (Several friends subsequently extolled Salcedo, who won an important sculpture prize after I visited the Guggenheim. It's possible that I missed the details that one person noted as an aspect of her work, a case of failing to see the trees for the woods.)

In Philadelphia, I saw an Impressionist show and most of the rest of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, always worth a visit. I also saw the new Barnes (above), a very dialed-down, beautifully crafted building housing Barnes's personal collection, the placement of which is frozen in time. (He apparently altered it constantly.) The comparison I ended up making was to the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. I think Duncan Phillips had the better eye, but Barnes did well in many respects, and his museum has some real surprises, like Van Gogh's postman. I didn't know it was there. Thanks to a friend, Vanessa Lew, who now lives in the city, I had dinner at two excellent local restaurants she suggested, Zahav and Vedge. The central core of Philadelphia is relatively compact, so I was able to walk from my hotel near Rittenhouse Square to one place or another.

Then I took a train down to Charlottesville, where my wife had rented two big houses - one for the senior members of the family and the other for the kids. The senior house (above), backed up against a hillside pasture, was a pleasure to stay in. Even the books on its shelves were well-chosen. After a week spent mostly in hotels, it was a relief to be back in a house.

The rehearsal dinner was at C&O, a restaurant downtown, while the ceremony was at a farm at the town edge, with a big barn for the reception. The weather cooperated, even turning a bit cooler. This was a big gathering for both families, united in their happiness for the bride, Alison Powers (above, dancing with my grandniece Marguerite), and groom, my third son Ross Parman (with Alison, below, at the rehearsal dinner). 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Some Days in Portugal

Portugal's ancient, place-rooted families, remnants of the aristocracy, were a target of the 1975 revolution, which initially went after the big landowners. The smaller ones escaped. One thinks of an aristocracy as a regressive force, but its innate appreciation for the land and its willingness to keep and cultivate it for the next generation are admirable. The place pictured here, Casa de Sezim, has been in the same family since 1376. The current owner is a worldly, cultured man whose father was a diplomat and whose daughter hopes to become a hotelier. Dependent on tourism and the wine market, he keeps his estate going, employing 14 people to run its different parts. The recession was tough, he said, but things are improving.
He was luckier than a woman we encountered the day before in Lemego, at the top of the Duoro Valley. Her family lost its much larger holding in the 1975 revolution, but she managed to buy it back from Seagram. The main house was in ruins, she said, and she had to restore and refurnish it. Today, it serves mainly as a wedding venue and destination for touring clubs. (A dozen Citroen DS21s were parked outside when we arrived - a club from Porto.)
My favorite of the towns and cities we visited was Coimbra, site of Portugal's oldest university. It remains the most prestigious, we heard later. Its heart, a large plaza defined by the oldest buildings, is nearly at the city's top - only the cathedral is higher up, but without the view. We stayed across the river at a palatial hotel with extensive, walled-in grounds and the best restaurant in town, according to Michelin. 
A close second was Porto, a more compact city than Lisbon, where we also stayed at the city's edge, in a former palace on the Duoro River, and had our best meal. Foz, which means mouth in Portuguese, is a district that borders the Atlantic coast. We rode along it in the cab, headed for one restaurant, but the best one was closer in. Within the core of the city, we found a famous bookstore, housed in a small, white art-nouveau building and organized around a winding stair. Like another bookstore I visited in Lisbon, the focus was on Portugal's voluminous literature, domestic and imported. The book covers alone are worth a careful look. Like Lisbon, too, Porto is a hilly city. We did better in Lisbon at making sense of the transit system, a combination of buses, trams, and a metro. Kathy took a bus from the center to Foz that was a very inexpensive, pleasant way to see the sights in that direction, she said.
We started in Lisbon and ended up there. It's a larger, more sprawling city than Porto, looking out at the large bay or estuary that forms its harbor off the Atlantic. The major buildings are on a grander scale, but the city still has its medieval castle, a staple dating back to the need to protect the city from the Moors. Next visit, we'll give it more time. We stayed at York House, near the antiquities museum overlooking the harbor - a former convent organized around a small, elevated terrace that provides a true respite from the city around it. As Michelin advises, don't sleep in the front rooms, as there's a loud nightclub just down the street. The first night, jet lagged anyway, we hardly slept, despite double-pane windows, until the last revelers drifted away.
Baroque is a theme in Portugal, especially in the churches. Often it's layered onto older buildings, expressing a new-found largesse. It gives the country the appearance of having been developed in spurts, brief moments when the money was flowing and the patrons' pockets were open. There's modern architecture here and there, but it's not abundant and relatively little of it is within the core of Lisbon and Porto. (This isn't true of the smaller cities, whose historic cores are typically much smaller.) It's part of what makes Portugal feel different. Italian cities are laden with history, but they're also inundated with tourism, sometimes seeming like museums. That's not true of Portugal.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Diary: Into Spring

In late autumn, contemplating winter, a heightened sense of the mortality of all living things strikes me. The corollary is also true: the appearance of spring reminds me of life's fecundity. In late March, at a wedding in the country, I heard the bridegroom voice aloud his desire to have children with his bride. These are our animal spirits, shared with our planetary cousins. Among humans, this urging now takes in every pairing - perhaps it always has, whether through "chemistry" or simply the love that extends across the generations. 

In his Thatcher-era political diary, Alan Clark sometimes interrupted his accounts of the goings-on of his fellow ministers to note a recurring desire to "start again," despite his expressed love for his wife. Leaving this in was of a piece with the frankness of the diary as a whole, but it pointed usefully to a propellant of our species that has its own imperatives, detached from reason and often from context. 

Americans are careless about birth control, I read. This is reflected in our rate of teenage pregnancies and a higher birth rate overall. Yes, I thought, that volatile combination of volition and fecundity. As a nation, we make no real provision for our carelessness, disregarding our demographic luck and making the aftermath as hard as possible. The Pro-Life movement is remarkably silent about doing much to help the children whose embryonic lives it sanctifies or the women it presses to carry them to full term. What about their raising?

Pope Francis, imperfect as he is, has proved to be emblematic of what we could think of as the Spirit of Spring, setting the dead quarrels aside to point to the obvious truths about our human condition. As an agrarian cult with a Dionysian god at its center, the Church has a superstitious, crops-may-fail attitude toward fecundity, but its instincts about life's preservation and cultivation - the Good Shepherd aspect of its godhead, reinforced by the mother goddess it worked in, with her own cult of forgiveness and intercession - are sound. Among those leading or proposing to lead us, this Spirit is otherwise absent. We are mostly in the grip of a wintry negligence, justifying its penury by citing its wars, its biases, and its books of accounts. In place of generosity, we get austerity.

Spring invites us to take life up again, not as a struggle, but as a productive outlet for our creative energies, so that we have something to harvest when inevitably the seasons change and life is again hemmed in. When the possibility of renewal that spring promises is cut off, those energies go elsewhere, usually with dire consequences. Here as elsewhere, renewal is too often perverted into fear and retribution, with whole communities tainted or blamed as "other." 

Spring makes me long for this to lift, and for humanity to return to its senses.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Diary: Into Winter

I always forget, heading east in February, how cold it gets. I did a quick inventory in Berkeley, bringing my warmest coat, a cap, scarf, and gloves. In Washington, D.C., where I went first, it was already obvious, walking a few blocks to "the best Indian restaurant on the planet," that I was inadequately equipped, but then it warmed up and I was mostly indoors or shuttled around on a bus. As I was leaving, the temperature rose to 50 degrees.

Surely, I thought, this is also happening in New York City? Somewhere in New Jersey, homing in on Newark, it became clear that I was on the express train into winter, leaving D.C.'s sunnier climes behind. 

Dutiful urban sort that I am, I took the 1 train from Penn Station and made my way to the hotel, a block west of the station at W. 79th Street. Later, I walked north on Broadway to a restaurant on W. 83rd Street, not a great distance, and found I was frozen solid, as the expression has it, and then frozen again on the return trip. The next morning, I could barely stir, but I managed to rouse myself. owing to noontime and afternoon obligations. Luckily, I remembered the hat - a black watch cap, as thin as the wool lining in my stupid coat, but just thick enough to stanch the vast flow of bodily of heat from the top of my head. (The night before, in 10-degree weather, a heat-sensitive photo would have revealed me as something like Vesuvius, floating up Broadway.)

Getting to MoMA involved a six-block walk from the 50th-Street station on Broadway. By then, it was spitting rain in icy pellets - snow, in reality, which lent a Breughel-like atmosphere to MoMA's garden courtyard. 

Once there, I made my way to 6 to see the Late Matisse show again, making two passes through it, as before. There were only two paintings on display that I really loved: a tall blue, green, and yellow nude; and a large painting toward the end, "Memory of Oceania," that inspired a sonnet when I first saw it. This is not to say that everything else isn't splendid, but it's not breathtaking owing to the constant exposure of the work, even on cards and stamps. This isn't Matisse's fault, of course, and MoMA can't really be blamed, either, for cashing in. The visual impression it gave is mostly decorative: if I had a whopping big house on the Riviera, late Matisse would fill the bill.

Some years ago - prior to the Taniguchi expansion - MoMA mounted a huge Matisse retrospective, drawing on its own and other collections. It was a stunner, revealing how great a painter Matisse was. Some of these paintings are on display in the Barr galleries on 5. a collection that recaps the MoMA of my youth, long before Glenn Lowry embarked on his scheme to occupy the entire block. 
Adjacent to "Late Matisse" on 6 was a new exhibit of contemporary art, some of which I liked. On 3, I believe, there was a new show of someone's collection of classical modern photographs - a master class, in essence. As the owner of a recently acquired Leica M-6 film camera, this was timely inspiration. These forays were accomplished before and after a lunch with a friend and colleague at The Modern, the swankiest of MoMA's restaurants. The menu was eclectic, I noted. "It's even odder upstairs," she said. On my own at MoMA, I eat at the café on 5, overlooking the sculpture garden. Compared to it, The Modern is uncrowded and unhurried, the sort of place you could get used to if you had cash to burn and a penthouse nearby. 

In theory, I'm angry with MoMA for destroying the Folk Art Museum - a gratuitous and unnecessary act. In reality, MoMA is MoMA, an unavoidable destination, much though I deplore its real estate ambitions and overall banality. It feels now precisely what certain moguls would aspire to for the cultured masses, a destination in a quasi-commercial sense - crowded with eye candy and onlookers. But for people-watching and social-media snaps, it can't be beat. And then there's the art. Let's face it, this is modernist heaven.