My weekend in New York

by Rob Tiller

I took a trip to New York City last weekend to see some old and new friends, take in some art, eat, and hear some opera.  And that’s what I did.

Saks Fifth Avenue, at Christmas

New York gets dressed up for the December holidays, and I enjoyed the decorations at Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue.  The windows at Saks were decadent and sumptuous

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Rockefeller Center skaters

On the art front, I visited several museums and galleries, and the following five particularly struck me.  

Eugene Richards at the International Center for Photography.   Richards’s subjects are mostly people in dire circumstances (poverty, war, mental illness, drug addiction).  He gets so close to them it’s unsettling, but he seem empathetic, rather than exploitative. Some of the work is very painful and poignant.

Sarah Lucas at the New Museum.    Lucas is a British artist born in 1962.  The title of the show, Au Naturel, is both fitting and ironic; since it’s both accepting human sexuality and making it the subject of fantasies that are sometimes humorous and sometimes disturbing.  She seems to like cigarettes, though she knows they’re not good for you, and she puts them in places they ought never to go. This is not a show for young children.

Sarah Lucas sculptures

Andy Warhol at the Whitney Museum.    This is a big retrospective.  My take on Warhol back in the 80s was that he was completely superficial and embodied the worst, most materialistic aspects of American art and and culture.  I’ve been reconsidering that view in recent years, and this show made me drop it completely. He’s not my favorite artist, but a lot of his work is eye-catchingly fun to look at, and thought-provoking on multiple levels.  His silk screen work made me think about photography from new angles, as he transformed mediocre celebrity head shots into world-famous icons. Work that at first seemed all on the surface turns out to be surprisingly tricky and elusive.  I found myself thinking about thinking about what made art art.

Edward Burtynsky at the Bryce Wolkowitz (505 W. 24th St.).  These large-scale photographs cover industrial agriculture, mining, logging, and other large-scale activities around the globe.  The aerial views are weirdly beautiful, drawing you in and repelling at the same time.

Edward Burtynski, Russian potash mine

Anna Atkins at the New York Public Library.  In 1847, Atkins published the first printed book to be illustrated with photography.  The title was Photographs of British Algae, Cyanotype Impressions. The images are spare blue and white seaweed shapes, reminding us how the simplest, commonest things in nature can be beautiful.  I was moved by Atkins’s story — her passionate devotion to plants and to her project with brand new photographic technology. It must have been lonely out there for her, a woman in Victorian England, on the frontiers of knowledge.  

I stayed at the Mansfield Hotel on 44th at 5th Avenue.  The location was super-convenient. The room was really small, and there were no delightful little touches, or even little touches.  No view, no pads, no pens, no cups. But the bed was very comfortable, and the shower was great.

On Friday after I’d checked out the Anna Atkins exhibit, I started walking down to Chelsea.  I had some trouble with my Nikon camera. B&H Photo, my favorite non-local photo equipment place, which sold me my D850, was on the way, so I decided to stop in and ask for help.  The store is crammed full of every kind of photographic and electronic gadgetry, and crowds of people. But I found a young guy who knew Nikon and who quickly solved the problem without making me feel bad about not buying something.  Of course, since I was there, I looked about, and eventually found myself talking with the friendly sales guy about small audio recording devices, which I’d been thinking about for a while. I told him my budget was $200.  He sold me a little Zoom recorder for $79.95. I don’t know how they make it work, downselling rather than upselling, but I like B&H!