Inspiring art in New York

by Rob Tiller

This week I had a conference in New York on patents and patent trolls. I stayed in the conference hotel, the Times Square Sheraton. I was on the 32nd floor. Though there were minor glitches — no way to raise the window shade, wi-fi that required a long tech services call, slow elevator service — it was a reasonably nice hotel, and conveniently located.

After the conference, I took a vacation day to make a long weekend, and saw some old friends and some art. NPR had a story recently on the sale of the art collection of David Bowie. Asked to describe the collection, an art person said the works were mainly bold, and seemed to be things Bowie bought because they spoke to him, rather than as investments. He bought art for inspiration. That seemed to me a good criterion for deciding what art to spend time with, and so I made a point of looking for work that might inspire me.

On Thursday evening, I met up with Jocelyn in Chelsea, and got my introduction to gallery opening night, which happens every Thursday. We looked into four or five galleries, sipped cheap Chardonnay, and checked out the new work. Although I didn’t see anything life changing, there was work worth talking about, and we had fun talking.

On Friday morning, I spent some time at the Metropolitan Museum. I focused on the Greco-Roman collection and art of ancient Near Eastern civilizations. These very old objects (some several thousand years old) are powerful, but also somehow calming. Civilizations rise and fall, but as far back as we can look, humans have a drive to make things of beauty.

In the afternoon, I went to the Met Breuer and saw In the Beginning, photographs of Diane Arbus. I’d thought of Arbus as being mainly about pictures of sideshow freaks and other oddities. This turned out to be not completely untrue, but still really wrong. Her portraits take their subjects completely seriously, regarding them as specific individuals with dignity. Arbus somehow got them to open up, and we find ourselves connecting with them. It’s a strange feeling, a new domain of human experience. Afterwards, looking around at ordinary people, I felt more curious, and noticed fleeting expressions and feelings.

Jocelyn and I had a pre-theater dinner at the Robert, where we had a table by the window looking out from the 9th floor on Columbus Circle, Central Park, and Broadway. J had requested this particular spot, and it was truly a spectacular panorama. The couple ahead of us must have liked it, too, because they sat for forty minutes longer than expected, and caused us to get started on dinner behind schedule. The staff comped our cocktails, and sped service up to help us get out in time for our show. It was a hot struggling walk through the Times Square tourist crowd to get to the Minskoff theater, but we made it, with about ninety seconds to spare.

We saw The Lion King. It was, of course, wonderful. There’s a reason that it’s a huge long-running success, with a sweet story of coming of age, soaring melodies and exciting drumming, and those fantastic puppet costumes. I’m normally more of an opera person, and felt slightly out of place joining the LK crowd. But as Jocelyn noted, it would be too bad if you couldn’t enjoy something when they main thing it does is make you smile. We were definitely smiling.

On Saturday, I had lunch with my old friend Bob Dunn, who gave me a copy of his new novel Savage Joy. He had news of several former colleagues from our New Yorker days, and caught me up on his writing, photography, teaching, and other career developments. We also discussed Trump.

The other art exhibit I saw that particularly affected me was by Danny Lyon, titled Message to the Future, at the Whitney. Lyon’s photography was highly socially engaged, including stints photographing the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, migrant farm workers, prisoners, and other outsiders. Like Arbus, his subjects are particular individuals, rather than symbols. He’s adept at telling their stories. I was also intrigued by his montages, which combine photos and other materials in a way that suggests a multiplicity of connections. I watched a chunk of his film on a tattoo artist, which was painfully intimate.