Left the hotel early on Friday morning and walked slowly uptown, got a coffee at one of the two million Starbucks along Broadway, and went to sit in Union Square for awhile watching dogs and people, mostly dogs. Bright, cool morning & everyone — canine & human — looked frisky. Went to the Strand and looked around, but didn’t buy anything because I didn’t want to carry a bag of books with me all day. As I was scouting the poetry section, I asked one of the store employees who was busy with her cart putting books on shelves if she ever got tired of books. “Nope, never,” she said, an answer I found lovely & heartening. “Me neither,” I said.
Then I headed slowly back uptown, taking my time. Eventually I got to the Asia Society, where I spent an hour with The Arts of Ancient Vietnam. It was a beautiful exhibition with exquisite objects arranged so as to tell a coherent story, though a story different from the standard cultural narrative one might hear in Hanoi. The standard narrative involves the emergence of a distinctively Vietnamese culture in the Red River Delta about 1000 BCE that then slowly extends its hegemony southward into territory that, while not exactly presented as empty, is conceived of as being in need of settlement — by the Vietnamese, of course. Like the way many Americans thought about “settling” the west in the 19th century. What the Asia Society exhibition shows, by filling in the reality of the Cham, Fu Nan, and Sa Huyen cultures, is that the standard picture is incomplete. The narrative of Vietnamese history is composed of several lines that move forward in time from different geographical areas in what is now the modern state of Vietnam, interacting and shifting and dying out and perhaps reemerging genetically in different regions of modern Vietnam.
Upstairs from the Vietnam exhibit was a newly installed show of Buddhist art and artifacts related loosely to the idea of pilgrimage. The images of the historical Buddha are deeply moving despite the fact that they are completely imaginary: no one knows what that ancient prince of the Shakyas looked like. There is a profound stillness in the best of the images. The other Buddhas — future & past, etc. — move me to the extent that they resemble Shakyamuni, though the images of the bodhisattvas are often wonderful as symbolic art.
After the Asia Society, I walked over to the Met, which is impressive in any number of ways, but which I found both overwhelming & disappointing. The American painting wing was closed for renovation & I found the acres & acres of European painting oppressive. (I’m just speaking personally here I know there are good reasons to collect and study and even love this tradition and there was a time when I studied it, to some extent, happily enough; but at this point in my life I take no solace in it.) I wandered through the Greek & Roman statuary — saw a lovely Three Graces among the emperors — and went to sit and rest in a huge hall exhibiting artifacts from Oceania, things completely foreign to me. I didn’t make any attempt to understand any of the objects, just sat resting on a bench for twenty minutes; the light was strangely muted and there weren’t so many people there.
Left the Met and got a deli sandwich and sat in Central Park to eat, watching the kids and the musicians, hearing fragments of conversations. Perhaps it’s me, perhaps its the weather, but people have seemed preternaturally mellow on this trip. And walking around the city I have had the sense that, looking at people and the images they project of themselves, I am looking through tiny openings into their lives.
My final stop uptown was the Whitney. In my younger days I tried very hard to be a painter and I try to keep up at least a little with what is going on in the visual arts. The Whitney Biennial is one of those art world institutions I’d always wanted to see and this was my chance come round at last. It was wonderful & terrible, as I suspect most biennials must be. The most interesting work was in video and sculpture, with not much going on in traditional painting. I’m going to write more about the show when I have the catalog in front of me to refresh my memory, but I do one to mention one fascinating (an brave) aspect of the show: On the fifth (top) floor of the museum, the Biennial curators had installed examples of work from the entire history of the Whitney. Emerging from the elevator, one was confronted with a large red & black painting by Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red. (It reminded me of a monumental Buddha / I wear my fascinations on my sleeve, obviously.) And then there was a white encaustic target by Jasper Johns, a figurative work by Richard Diebenkorn — and so on all the way back to Edward Hopper. These artists, of course, were among the heroes of my young manhood & I still love them deeply.
I walked back down to Tribeca along Broadway and stopped at The Strand where I bought a couple of books, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, by David Markson, and Wake Up, a life of the historical Buddha by, no shit, Jack Kerouac. Walking along, I saw up ahead of me a collection of emergency vehicles, lights flashing & speakers popping; as I got closer I overheard someone say there had been a gas leak, but no one was redirecting traffic so I figured it couldn’t be too dangerous and kept walking. As I got closer I could see that several Con Edison guys had dug a hole in the street, exposing some old rusty pipes that looked like nothing so much as veins in an arm. Looking closer, the analogy persisted — the pavement peeled away in layers looked like skin — and the whole city seen this way is a kind of pulsating body without a solid surface.
This is obvious when you think about it, of course, the subway whooshing past beneath your feet, which are separated from the speeding train by only a few feet of earth, some concrete, or maybe just a metal grate. The whole city vibrates with light and noise and breathes, inhaling and exhaling all sorts of currents carrying odors that range from the sublime to the noxious. That’s the joy of the place, but also one of the reasons a quiet museum, especially a small one, seems so hallowed. And I had a small museum in mind for the next day, after I’d rested my tired feet and eaten a pastrami sandwich in my hotel room and had a good night’s sleep. As it turned out, I didn’t sleep that well (typical when I’m away from home), but I did get to the museum the next day . . .