January 30, 2010

A Visit to the International Center of Photography

The International Center of Photography was founded in 1974 as an institution to keep the legacy of "Concerned Photography" alive. As the popularity of photography grew among both practitioners and collectors, the Center's mission broadened and their charming historic mansion on Fifth Avenue and 94th Street was no longer sufficient to handle either the growing collection or the increase in students. In the fall of 2000 a brand new state-of-the-art exhibition space was opened in Midtown Manhattan and an expansion of the School was opened across Sixth Avenue the following year.

This week, the International Center of Photography presented four new exhibitions at once in its two story museum space. At first I thought this was going to be a little too much of a good thing, but after attending the opening on Thursday evening I changed my mind to too much was not enough!

On view in the street level gallery is the work of Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy. Not exactly a household name (even in the world of photography) Tichy began taking pictures in the 1950s under Communist rule, often working surreptitiously with a home made cardboard camera. Now 80 years old and a recluse, his photos of women and landscapes - often mysterious and haunting - have only recently become noticed. This is the first American museum show of his work and I don't think it will be the last.

Moving downstairs into the larger, lower galleries we come to the major exhibition "Twilight Visions: Surrealism, Photography, and Paris" a superb assembly of 150 photographs, books, films, periodicals and ephemera curated by Dr. Therese Lichtenstein. Regular readers of my blog know that Paris is one of my passions and anything Paris related is like a magnet for me! This show did not disappoint.

Brassaï "Paris From Notre Dame", circa 1933

Although photography had been invented in 1839 it was not until the 1900s that its value as an art form, rather than simple documentation, was explored. It was the perfect medium of expression for the Surrealists who experimented with lenses, lighting, montage, distortions and other methods to create fanciful images that were otherworldly and very avant garde. Artists such as Eugène Atget, Ilse Bing, Brassaï, Josef Breitenbach, Claude Cahun, Raoul Ubac, André Kertész, Germaine Krull and Man Ray portrayed the City of Paris and its inhabitants in a state of metamorphosis, a "twilight" state, that evinced the very real social and cultural changes that were going on post-World War I. "Twilight Visions" was organized by the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN, and will travel to the Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, GA, in June.

Though compact, the presentation "Atget, Archivist of Paris" in an adjacent gallery was a perfect complement to the larger show. Comprising 31 vintage prints from the ICP's own collection, the depictions of historic Paris landmarks and artifacts in Atget's dreamlike style, fit right in with the Surrealist theme.

Finally, "Alan B. Stone and the Senses of Place" had really nothing to do with Paris or Surrealism, but was an excellent counterpart anyway. This assembly of black and white photographs by Montreal native Alan Stone was organized on the premise that one "knows one's past through pictures" and explores his past through his depictions of male pin-ups/beefcake shots, views of Montreal and newspaper articles to pinpoint specific moments in time, history, memory and imagination.

So if you're looking for an escape from this bitter winter weather, visit the International Center of Photography and warm up with visions of Paris that will take you back to an era of magic and possibility!

January 22, 2010

56th Annual Winter Antiques Show

It's an antique lover's favorite time of year again! It's time for the 56th Annual Winter Antiques Show now on at the Seventh Regiment Armory, Park Avenue. Until January 31st, casual visitors and serious collectors alike can stroll the aisles and enjoy the splendid displays of antiques and collectibles from across the centuries and around the world.

This is always a marvelous show with elegant stands and a plethora of unusual and precious objects. Every item is vetted for authenticity and dealers are usually quite happy to discuss a piece and answer questions even with incidental observers like me.

Some of the more fabulous works for sale included an ebony box carved in the form of a crab on the stand of Peter Petrou, London. Created in India or Ceylon circa 1870, this harmless crustacean measured 16" across and was priced at $24,500. The booth of Gerald Peters Gallery, New York, was dominated by a massive pink marble vase carved with a relief sculpture of American Indians on horseback by the artist Paul Howard Manship. When I say massive, I'm not kidding - the overall height, including stand, was 110" with a diameter of 51"! Also monumental in scale were two glass lamps at the entry to the stand of Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York. Created at the Sandwich Massachusetts glassworks in 1865, one example was white overlay cut to cranberry and the second cut to green, both measured 28" in height and carried price tags of $125,000 and $145,000 respectively. Smaller but charming was a 19th Century set of 33 pieces of velvet fruit and vegetables in a wire compote at Frank & Barbara Pollack American Antiques, Illinois, and an 1850 brass mounted campaign bed converted for use as a coffee table base that made for an interesting conversation piece at Associated Artists, Connecticut. My very favorite work of art was an easy choice - an exquisite painting by James Tissot entitled "Les Emigrants", 1879, at The Fine Art Society, London. However, the price of $375,000 means that unless I win the lottery, I will be sticking with Tissot etchings rather than oils!

I found the booths of Elle Shushan Fine Portrait Miniatures, Philadelphia, Les Enluminures Illuminated Manuscripts, Paris, and Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz Antique Wallpapers, New York and Paris, to be exceptional in their overall presentations. I also very much enjoyed the special exhibit by Historic New England who presented a selection of treasures culled from the 36 historic properties the organization manages, from the 1693 Arnold House, Lincoln, Rhode Island to the 1938 Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

So if the January blues are getting you down, I would suggest a trip to another time and place, right here in New York City, with a visit to the Winter Antiques Show!

January 15, 2010

The End of an Era - Farewell to Tavern on the Green

The party is truly over at the Central Park landmark Tavern on the Green. After 34 years under the direction of Warner and Jennifer LeRoy this famous eatery, scene of countless weddings, parties, holiday dinners and banquets has closed its doors and the marvelous collection of over-the-top decorations and fixtures dispersed at public auction. While its future remains unclear, let's take a look back at the history of this New York institution.

When Central Park was developed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the mid 1800s, they planned a green oasis for the thousands of city inhabitants living in over-crowded and unhealthy conditions. Part of the design called for a dairy to provide fresh milk and a meadow where 200 South Down sheep grazed. The sheep were housed across the street in a Victorian Gothic structure built in 1870 by Jacob Whey Mould. The building served as a sheepfold until 1934 when Parks Commissioner Robert Moses saw an opportunity to capitalize on this prime location, moved the sheep to Brooklyn and hired WPA workers to re-vamp the building as a restaurant. The first Tavern on the Green was a huge success and New Yorkers flocked to enjoy this unique dining experience.

Over the years Tavern on the Green had been managed by a series of operators each with his own vision of how to make the facility viable. In 1974 the restaurant was deemed "out of date" and the operation ceased. Enter Hollywood progeny and restaurant entrepreneur Warner LeRoy, a larger-than-life figure whose credits included the wildly popular Maxwell's Plum. Mr. LeRoy assumed the lease and invested an astonishing $10 million to renovate and decorate Tavern on the Green. The new version, which opened in 1976, was a spectacular fantasy of stained glass, crystal, brass, mirrors and paintings and was an immediate triumph. This glittering palace in the heart of Central Park quickly became the hottest address for benefits, functions, openings and premiers, and it was a destination for tourists and locals alike.

In 2001 Warner LeRoy succumbed to lymphoma and responsibility for the restaurant was assumed by his daughter, Jennifer, who maintained her father's flair and penchant for theatricality. Tavern on the Green continued to host huge events such as the pre-New York Marathon pasta party in a tent installed over the parking lot and smaller private affairs in the magical Crystal Room or rustic Chestnut Room.

Here's where the fairy tale starts to turn sour. The LeRoy lease on the premises expired on January 1, 2010 and bidding on the license was opened by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in the Spring of 2009. Jennifer LeRoy's tender was not successful and the Parks Dept tentatively accepted the bid of Dean Poll, operator of another Central Park restaurant, The Boathouse. Shortly afterward Miss LeRoy filed for bankruptcy protection. She also went one step further and claimed ownership of the name, the trademark of which she would part with for $19 million. This case is still in the courts and the operators license is not formally signed.

Last week the final curtain came down on this incarnation of the Tavern on the Green. In an effort to satisfy creditors and to clean out the premises, Guernsey's Auction House was enlisted to conduct an on-site liquidation sale. I took the opportunity to say goodbye to this once shimmering establishment and attended the auction preview along with dozens of other viewers most with a personal attachment to the place. It was sad to see the elegant dining rooms emptied of tables and chairs and with tags attached to every fixture. Everything was for sale - dishes, uniforms, garden furniture, topiary, paintings, Christmas decorations, weather vanes, stained glass panels, the magnificent chandeliers and Tiffany windows - even the sign that hung on Central Park West. While I was not a regular patron, I am sorry to see the Tavern go. Its lit-up trees and colorful Japanese lanterns were cheery sights as one passed by on the West Drive and the parade of horse drawn carriages and limousines (and lately Pedi-cabs) dropping off elegantly dressed customers made one feel that something really special was always going on.

No one knows what the future holds for this celebrated dining room, but one thing is for sure -- the fabulous fanciful confection of color and light and sparkle is gone and will not come back. It is truly the end of an era, but we hope the beginning of something new and wonderful too - a fresh setting for the next generation of magic and memories.

January 07, 2010

"Traveling the Silk Road" at the American Museum of Natural History

The mythical Silk Road was actually not a road at all but an ancient system of trade routes that connected China in the East to Arabia in the West and up into Southern Europe. Traveling by camel, caravan or ship, merchants and traders transported goods from one end of Asia to the other and though this was primarily a commercial enterprise the unofficial exchange of languages, religions, cultures and ideas brought benefits that last to this day.

Now on view at The American Museum of Natural History, that castle-like building covering four entire city blocks on Central Park West, is "Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World". While this exhibition focus' on just one of the many routes used, overland from Xi'an to Baghdad, it is an interesting look at that part of the world about 1,000 years ago.

At that time Xi'an was one of the world's largest cities and the capitol of China. The production and weaving of silk was a major industry and with their invention of paper, information could be spread via the written word. Camels loaded with hundreds of pounds of merchandise traveled across the Gobi Desert to Turfan, the next major stop and a lush oasis with a thriving night market. Here, exotic goods such as furs, gems, ceramics, fruits, spices, medicines, aromatic oils and textiles were traded and loaded back onto camels to continue the journey through the desert and mountains to Samarkand. The Sogdian people were masters of trade and earned a reputation as great entertainers to the visiting merchants. Samarkand served as a center for services required for travelers including camel drivers, guides and guest houses and the region became very prosperous. The final stop on our journey is Baghdad, the heart of the Islamic world and a meeting place for scholars, scientists and philosophers. As well as amazing scientific instruments and mechanical devices, Persia was a producer of glass which was traded to China where it was valued as a rare jewel. The journey of 4,600 miles over six months was complete.

Beside the transportation and trade of goods and objects the Silk Route provided a conduit for the practices, beliefs and artistic expressions of the many cultures along the way. Religions crossed regional lines as tradesmen practiced their faiths in the various temples and shrines that sprang up to accommodate the travelers. Ideas and inventions from the Far to Middle East expanded and spread along paths and maritime routes carried by camels, both one-humped and two, and ships blown by the trade winds through the South China and Bengal Seas.

While this current exhibition is by no means comprehensive, it does give the visitor an appreciation for the history and importance of the Silk Routes - how this ancient transcontinental trading system was actually the original global economy and lay the groundwork for our Modern civilization. A fascinating tale indeed!

January 01, 2010

A New Year's Day Walk on The High Line

The first day of 2010 has arrived with mild temperatures and sunny skies! What better way to clear the cobwebs from last night's celebrations than to take advantage of a break in the weather and go exploring in New York's newest park - The High Line.

A visit to The High Line has been on my to-do list since it opened to the public in June of 2009 but the idea of battling huge crowds just to go for a walk was a little off-putting. Better to wait until the novelty had worn off and truly enjoy this very special addition to the already marvelous New York City Parks system.

Located on Manhattan's West Side, The High Line began as an elevated railway intended to remove dangerous freight trains from the streets of the city by lifting them 30 feet into the air. From 1930 until 1980 these trains hauled everything from food to manufactured goods from Spring Street to 34th Street. What was unique about this track was that it ran through the center of blocks, rather than above an avenue, and cars could roll right into warehouses and factories in this industrial district. By the 1970's rail freight was being replaced by trucking and in 1980 The High Line was closed. It quickly became an eyesore and neighbors lobbied for total demolition to make way for new construction below.

Fortunately their petition was not granted and in 1999 the group "Friends of The High Line" was founded to explore the possibility of re-opening the structure as a public space. Fast forward to April 2006, when, in a remarkable cooperative effort between New York City and private parties, the first railroad tie was hoisted as the official groundbreaking of the new High Line.

Today one can walk The High Line from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 20th Street in West Chelsea with an extension to 30th Street forecast for 2010 and the final stretch to 34th Street anticipated but with no definitive date as of now. Although the railroad tracks are very much in evidence, the natural landscaping and the commodious benches make one almost forget the fact that this was indeed a working railway. Until you look at the base of a wooden lounge chair and realize that it is on iron wheels and can be rolled up and down the track!

With panoramic views of the Hudson River and New Jersey to the West and Chelsea and Midtown Manhattan to the East, not to mention the strange sensation of walking underneath buildings that straddle the structure, a visit to The High Line is marvelous. Although only a limited section is complete and open to the public, it is enough to make you want to urge the builders to hurry up and finish the next part! It is a testament to the foresight of a few concerned "Friends" that we have this extraordinary new attraction made out of an industrial relic that had fallen into decay. Thank you, and we look forward to the next installment!

The (present) end of The High Line, looking North

P.S. This is my 200th Blog post and the beginning of my fifth year of sharing art and adventures with my readers. I could never have imagined how much fun and how rewarding it would be! Thank you for your support and encouragement and I wish all of you the very Happiest of New Years!