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.