New York in paintings, photos

Friday September 14, 2012


I've recently attended a couple of gallery shows that offered very different ways of viewing New York. One at the Leica Gallery on Bond and Broadway in New York exhibited photos of what the Central Park Conservancy has done to reclaim the park. They were the work of Sara Cedar Miller, the Conserv ancy's official photographer and historian.

The photos of the gleaming, luxuriant green Great Lawn after its 1995 restoration bring back memories of my passionately playing competitive touch football and softball on its once bleak muddy ground in the '60s and '70s. I loved the aggressive physicality of football, and the languid grace of softball, but I was conscious that the park seemed to be crumbling around me.

It was a time when the park's deterioration was uncontrolled: shattered lights and broken benches, grass overrun with soda and beer cans and plastic bags, trees that were never pruned, cracked asphalt walks, lakes clotted with algae and garbage, the Victorian Belve dere Castle closed and covered with graffiti, rampant drug dealing; and no park workers or police in sight. Despairing over the park's decay, which I couldn't help but feel was a sign of my city's breakdown, I compulsively began to pick up cans and litter. It was a quixotic gesture that I knew would have no effect on the giant refuse bin the park had turned into.


However, the Central Park Conservancy succeeded in restoring many of the park's architects' (Olmstead and Vaux) creations: returning a number of the park's bridges to their former grandeur; reseeding the gently rolling Cedar Hill near the 79th St. and Fifth Avenue entrance, and the 15 acre Sheep Mea dow that had seen many political demonstrations; and cleaning and renewing the Bethesda Terrace and the stunning Bethesda Fountain, with its neoclassical sculpture (Angel of Waters, the Ter race's centerpiece). In fact the repair liberated the Foun tain from the swarm of whispering drug dealers and their avid, well-heeled customers, who, for a time, made it a place to avoid.

Miller's photos provide glowing images of these iconic places, and of a transformed park that today is never less than welcoming and on sunny days can be a radiant experience. That's especially true for anyone who walks its full length from the pond on its southern tip at 59th St. to the Harlem Meer at its northern end, and is attentive to both what Olmstead and Vaux had wrought and what the Con servancy has brought back to life.

I walked over on the same day to Ameringer| McEnery| Yohe gallery in Chelsea on West 22nd St. to see an exhibition of paintings by Wolf Kahn, "The City As Land scape." Kahn is a German-born painter whose family fled the Nazis and arrived in New York at the last possible moment in 1940. He studied with Hans Hoffman, and working in oils and pastels produced a striking body of landscape painting -- barns, houses, fields, and trees -- that were uniquely personal, and never mimetic in their use of light and high-key color.

Kahn, who lives in both Vermont and Manhattan, captures in this exhibit his experience of walking the city, or looking out of his Chelsea studio window. He writes: "In spir ation comes from the changes in seasons, the hours in the day, and one's available enthusiasm. Such stimulation offers a catalog of visual pleasures, a catalog that is so richly provided by New York, the city of cities."

His walks result in his paintings of Stuyvesant Park and Gramercy Park, and the buildings that surround them. Little is specific in these paintings, or in Kahn's depiction of a silvery Empire State Building, looking like a "monumental apparition around which the city recedes slowly into a blue haze." Kahn's cityscapes merge streets, buildings and trees and grass into blocks and tendrils of color. His best paintings are exquisite expressions of light and color-providing memorably evocative images of Manhattan.


Though I have genuine feeling for visual art, I have a more passionate commitment to theater. I attend about 20 to maybe 25 plays a year. This summer there were two plays in the Berkshires that gave me particular pleasure. One play, "A Class Act," a work I knew nothing about, was given a first-rate production at the Unicorn in Stockbridge by an animated and very young non-equity cast. It's a musical bio about the lyricist of "A Chorus Line," a neurotic, abrasive, driven, extremely talented, and ultimately unsuccessful Ed Kleban. It needed some cutting, but it was at times profoundly moving; and many of Kleban's songs like "The Next Best Thing to Love" are psychologically penetrating and unforgettable.

The other play, Shake speare's great poetic "The Tempest," I have seen a number of times. But in this production, Shakespeare and Company turns the magician Prospero into a furious woman, Pros pera (the formidable Olym pia Dukakis). I can't say that the gender switch makes that much difference.

Dukakis does stumble a bit over her lines, and the lyricism of passages like "We are such stuff as dreams are made on," is given a more earthbound rendition than one might wish. But this is accessible Shake speare, maintaining enough eloquence and imagination to still stir one's soul.

Leonard Quart can be reached at


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