Leonard Quart: Exploring the arts in the city


NEW YORK >> It's autumn, and the city's arts scene is burgeoning — museum exhibits, film festivals, theater openings, etc. There is no way I can encompass it all, but I can provide a taste for what's going on.

My wife and I have just visited the Whitney for the second time. The Whitney has had four different homes in its 84-year-old history, the most recent one being the grandest and largest, replacing its cramped (most of the Whitney's 21,000 works remained in permanent storage), though architecturally distinctive and art-friendly home on Madison Avenue.

The new Renzo Piano designed Whitney is located in the hot nightclub and boutique-filled Meatpacking District and looks out on the High Line to the east and the Hudson River, piers, and park to the west, and also lies a few blocks away from the West Chelsea art scene with its hundreds of galleries.

Even if its $422 million asymmetrical glass-and-steel construction with its cantilevered entrance and 8,500 foot plaza weren't so distinctive, it would be a tourist magnet.

On the way there we walk across the Village on a sunny weekday, crossing streets like Bleecker that despite its ubiquitous upscale boutiques still emanates bohemian charm. Reaching the museum we see the restaurants are filled and crowds are lining up to get into the museum, while many others merely mill about socializing. At the old modernist Whitney designed by Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus trained architect, the art was always the central attraction, so that rarely occurred. The museum could always draw lines of people to Hopper and Sargent but it was never one of the city's prime tourist attractions.

However, the new Whitney has become as much a lure as the paintings. And some critics say the building is a distraction, pulling the viewer towards the outside world and the city and overwhelming the art being displayed. It's true that when we go up to eat in the handsome cafĂ© on the 8th floor, one is drawn to the huge glass windows and the terrace that look out over a cityscape which includes stunning views of the Empire State Building, a gleaming Hudson, the new One World Trade Center — the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere — and innumerable luxury buildings emerging in the immediate area.

But when we proceed to the seventh floor, where some of the best known paintings in the Whitney American art collection — works by Pollock, Rothko, Hopper, Mitchell, Marsh, Bellows et al. are hanging — a number of the museum-goers look at the paintings with care. And the galleries with their handsome wooden floors, track lighting, flowing space, and radiant natural light are a perfect place to look at art.

On another day I visit the much less heralded and crowded Museum of the City of New York (located on upper Fifth Avenue) to take a quick look at their Folk City exhibit. This museum lacks the money the Met or the Whitney have to mount grand exhibitions. However, it shrewdly uses film and video clips depicting folk singers in the 1950s Village strumming guitars in Washington Square, and others clips that capture the '60s hootenannys (a number which I attended), evoking the atmosphere of that period. There are also photos and clips of folk luminaries like Pete Seeger, Odetta, Bob Dylan, concert posters, original instruments, and a discussion of folk music's impact on American politics and culture during the '60s.

For me the exhibit's main appeal is that it arouses nostalgia for simpler, more innocent times when I could fantasize that merely marching and singing "We Shall Overcome" or "I Ain't Marching Any More" would simply undermine the government's Vietnam policies. I am still stirred by the folk songs I have collected on Youtube, but I can no longer indulge in those political dreams. Clearly, age has made me more skeptical and tough-minded.

I am great admirer of David Simon, feeling that "The Wire" was the best television series I have ever seen. It was a series comparable to the best American urban novels by Dreiser, Wright, and Dos Passos. This summer I watched Simon's new miniseries, "Some Kind of Hero," dealing with the lengthy struggle to build 200 units of scatter site public housing in Yonkers for black and Hispanic residents despite the antagonism and racism of the lower middle class whites who lived in that section.

The series lacks both the feeling for a city and its institutions, and the many complex characters that populate "The Wire." But though it's clearly on the side of housing integration, Simon usually avoids caricaturing the housing's opponents, or sentimentalizing its beneficiaries. The series is especially on target when dealing with the dynamics of municipal politics. But while it is generally solid, it somehow is much more pedestrian than luminous.

Lastly, I want to recommend a film I saw at the redoubtable 53rd New York Film Festival. "Son of Saul" is a harrowing Hungarian film about a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz (they prepare the transports for the gas chambers, and then dispose of their ashes), a man with a single-minded drive for personal redemption. The film is uncompromising, relentless, and one of the most original Holocaust films about that overworked subject.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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