Monthly Archives: October 2014

Thanks for the Memories: The Whitney and The Breuer Building Years

Today the Whitney Museum is ending its 48 years in its Marcel Breuer building on 75th and Madison with a 36 hours marathon. The building was open through the night last night and will close tonight October 19 at 11PM.

I had thought about going at midnight but decided that I had said my goodbyes earlier in the month when I was one of the last people in the New York art world to see the Jeff Koons show.

Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that every New York artist has a deep relationship of a kind of ownership of the Whitney in that building, which is the only place where most of us knew the Whitney Museum. Perhaps because it felt like family, we often have been angry at it, the Biennials rather like Thanksgiving dinners, something where you’re disappointed by some of the food, you have a lot of resentment about who was there, you feel it’s gone downhill but you’ve learned a lot from it, and you look forward to the next one. There have been so many exhibitions of note in this building and it has been such a quirky idiosyncratic but intimate place to experience art! I have not yet seen the new building, all the way on the west side, huge, filled, we are told, with the requisite large performance spaces for a more spectacular culture, and not near any public transportation, which marks it as another kind of place entirely than the cosmopolitan urban space and the kind of urban life that marked the New York of the modernist era.

On my last visit, ostensibly to see the Jeff Koons show, I also felt I was saying goodbye to the building, even though that is irrational since the building will remain as a space in which contemporary art will be exhibited. The Metropolitan Museum has deep pockets and takes good care of its properties, and also they have a limited multiyear lease only, until 2023, not ownership, but the Met, as much as I dearly love it, also has a tendency to tart things up with little extra luxuries that might be in the wrong taste in Breuer’s austere though warm building, so a lot depends on how much of the building’s interior is landmarked and how much the Met is interested in respecting the building’s interior as a modernist art work. The size and proportion of the rooms, the elegant brut nature of the stone floors and concrete ceilings, the inset lightbulb fixtures, and the relaxed configuration of the small lobby, the quiet of the stairwell, are as much part of the experience as the art seen, and confer dignity to the visitor to the museum. The art’s adaptation to that space, and the fact that the museum was just not that big also contributed to the possibility of an intimate experience, something that is now considered undesirable by most museums because it relies on art and the individual experience of the viewer with the artwork, rather than on a contemporary social network experience writ large and targeted for iPhone documentation rather than contemplation and private thought.

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Even the Koons exhibition benefited from its interaction with this space. I had seen the blue balls works at Zwirner a couple of years ago and the chill of the white plaster in the large white space, clean bright white on clean bright white–which I somehow imagine will be the temperature of style of the new Whitney’s interior–was synergistically antipathetic to the human whereas at the Breuer Whitney, the concrete ceiling with its service ducts bare, created a useful counterpoint to the chill of these particular works by Koons, just as the sculptural ceiling of the 4th floor provided a counterpoint of some helpful gravitas to Koons’ Play-Doh  sculpture.

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I started my last visit at the top on the 5th floor, where some of the museum’s permanent collection was on view arranged along the theme of gifts to the museum. I was particularly struck and moved by the fortuitous juxtaposition of two large square paintings, one by Helen Frankenthaler, the other by Grace Hartigan. Hartigan has never struck me as the strongest of the three major women artists of the Abstract Expressionist New York School era, the third being Joan Mitchell, and Frankenthaler’s mid-late career works could get very rote and boring, but this was a very strong Frankenthaler and a complex Hartigan which seemed to gain strength from its neighbor’s bold clarity.

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Like everyone else I took lots of pictures of Koons’ shiny objects. I happen to like some of Koons work very much, while despising other works and the show was equally distributed among the ghastly vulgar sexist, and the sublimely mirrored iconic. I particularly enjoyed taking a picture of myself in the purple balloon tondo that reflected the entire room it was exhibited in, including the great asymmetrical window.

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I also noted on a trip to the ladies’ room on the second floor that the Whitney was acting like anyone who is moving out of a place: there were empty shelves where exhibition displays normally would be, the utility closet was gaping open in the bathroom, and why repair loose fixtures, let the next tenant take care of it.

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Finally I sat in the lobby. The museum bookstore, in recent days reduced to last bits and pieces, was once one of the really useful art bookstores of New York, it had no special room, just shelving in a smallish area near the coat check–hey guys I know many of your faces and you’ve been nice and I hope you all keep your jobs– and in addition to the requisite museum-branded chatchkes, there was a great selection of art books including art theory and criticism, selected by people who cared about books (I was honored to have my books there, or maybe just Wet, not sure now but anyway, honored because the selection was thoughtful and the space limited). In recent years there were fewer books and a less diverse and critical selection. The Met has a talent for proliferating gift shops, I don’t mind so long as they leave that open casual feeling that made the lobby of the building seem like a living room of a family you knew.

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I thought of all the exhibitions I had seen in this building through the years. I decided to look back through the Museum’s website of past exhibitions to recall some great shows but their current website only goes back to 2006. I won’t go hunting through my notes over the years, but will just select a few from over the years that have stayed in my memory.

Starting from the top of my head, some of the memories have not been substantiated by factual research: I distinctly remember a work by Richard Tuttle that was simply a white wall that one gradually realized had inset into its flat surface a rotating disk, white on white. The wall turned. I think I did see such a piece but I don’t think or haven’t been able to prove that it was a Tuttle, so I did see this but now I’m not sure whose work it was (this goes back to the 1970s I think). An early reader of this post tells me it was most likely Rotating Circle by Charles Ray from 1988, must be, and most likely then in a Biennial from that era, interesting how the memory shifts information from one place to another.

In a Biennial before 1974 or 75, or in a group show at any rate, I noticed little oval steelwool-like pads installed in spaces that normally would not contain art–above a red exit sign, outside the building–but that called attention to themselves with a strange intensity that marked them as art. Some time later later Richard Artschwager gave a lecture at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and I discovered that these mysterious piece were his blps which also appeared in other media in other exhibition/non-exhibition spaces over the years.

In a Marsden Hartley retrospective at the Museum in 1980 curated by Barbara Haskell, an early Hartley painting of Mount Katahdin in Maine, from the early 20th century, its forms abstracted and the surface painted in a late pointillist Signac-inspired manner, was hung at the beginning of the exhibition in a large room to the right side of the elevator, and as you stood in front of it, you could see from across the floor to the last room, to the left of the elevator, one of his last group of paintings of the same subject, from the early 1940s, the forms even more abstracted with a flatter surface, with bolder, less sugary colors, and a more extreme sense of emotional definition. Thus one could see embodied the meaning of a lifetime of work as an artist.

In a Biennial in the early 1980s, from across a very large space, I spot a very small painting, the first time I recall seeing a painting by Bill Jensen, when his surfaces were thick, scraped, much more intense and dense than his most recent work. In that period I was beginning to consider painting with oil and both Jensen’s scraped, palette knifed surfaces and the surfaces of Hartley’s late works, painterly and sculptural also, even when relatively thin, were both helpful mentors in my transition to this difficult rich medium.

An mid-career retrospective of Elizabeth Murray: at the opening I seem to remember that Elizabeth is carrying one of her young daughters in her arms, a powerful image for people to see. A painting I have never been able to see or find an image of since remains in my memory: a large work though made of relatively small shaped fragmented parts arranged in the shape like a giant abstracted question mark. Did I see this? Have I reshaped it in memory the way I did the Tuttle? Possibly.

More recently, at the 2013 exhibition Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, sitting alone in a room, trying to outwit the guards by just getting my iPhone enough out of my bag to surreptitiously snap a picture of works by DeFeo from the early eighties which I had never seen and whose greatness left me feeling crushed because I had never seen them before, because they needed to be in the history of American painting from their period, not an addition after the fact.

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Some more personal memories: of the night my mother dressed up to go to the opening public reception for the 1966 inauguration of the new Breuer building as the guest of a friend who taught architecture at Harvard and I think was friends with Breuer. She fussed over the right dress and to find the best dress she could afford, and then I remember hearing about the crush of people. The last art exhibition I took her to see was Picasso and American Art, in the fall of 2006, forty years later. The rooms were very crowded, she felt unwell and had to sit down while I looked at the second half of the show. In a further concession to the frailty of her great age, we took a cab home across the park instead of the bus as we once would have done. Nevertheless, sitting in the cab, she said firmly, “it’s the kind of exhibition that makes you want to go home and work.” I should add that my mother Resia Schor was an artist. She was 94 and died a few weeks later, just before her 95th birthday.

Another memory: someone gave me an invitation they couldn’t use, to the opening of Jasper Johns’ retrospective at the Whitney in October 1977. I floated around, young and solitary. At that point in my life, at 27, despite personal ambition, I could look at art world events and careers with a sense of impersonal distance, or rather, I had ambitions certainly but no expectations in that moment, I could watch the scene with interest but not personal jealousy. At one point I found myself in a small room off  the main hall, from which I could see Jasper Johns, surrounded by admirers, magnetically elegant in an impeccable tuxedo. I happened to be alone in the room with Richard Serra, who, surly and probably sweltering in the heavy wool brown tweed jacket he was wearing, seemed like a working class character at an upper-class gathering in a 1920s British novel. I didn’t know him of course, but I did know it was him. I was struck by the discomfort of his jacket, and I sensed his fury at being at an event glorifying another artist–Why not him? When him?–and why was that artist such a James Bond like character, damn him, so handsome and so beautifully dressed!

The 2005 exhibition of Edward Ruscha’s series of paintings, Course of Empire, his contribution to the 51st Venice Bienale, was one of the most unusual exhibitions at the museum in recent years and the most strikingly effective uses of the space. This exhibition as I recall was an opportunistic event, arranged in a relatively short time frame, and taking advantage of all the walls from a recent Biennial (or perhaps some other major exhibition) having just been taken down to create an unusually broad open space for a very interesting installation of the paintings in a kind of foreshortened vista, an avenue bordered by paintings with a small room to the side a few versions or the complete cycle of The Course of Empire by the nineteenth century American artist Thomas Cole. The contrast between Ruscha’s flat portrayals of American commercial architecture and Cole’s bizarre imaginings of the rise and fall of ancient Rome was very curious and thought provoking. When I saw this show I was practically alone with the work and the space, one of my favorite experiences.

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Many many more memories of so much art, thanks for the memories, and goodbye Whitney Museum of American Art at the Marcel Breuer Building, it’s been swell, and I hope the Whitney comes to regret its decision to leave it, and returns when the Met’s lease is up, to have a second, more intimate and experimental space for its collection and special exhibitions.

 

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Letter from a schoolgirl c.1960

In a documentary about 2014 Nobel Prize for literature author Patrick Modiano, historian Henry Rousso says, “Il a..interiorisé quelque chose qu’il na pas vécu”–“he interiorized something he did not live through.” This is the story of the way in which trauma, here the historical trauma of the German Occupation of France during the Second World War, filters through generations and shapes creativity and thought.

The texture of the world at every given moment is riven with traumas, personal, political, historical and at times they compete in ways that compound the psychic damage.

For my sister Naomi and me, my father’s Hasidic background, our parents’ experience of the Second World War, their massive personal losses in the Shoah and their miraculous survival were the past we had not lived but that we lived with, that we interiorized.

Today October 10, 2014 would have been my sister’s seventy-first birthday. She died in 2001 at the age of 58, which seems very young, particularly since I was the younger sister but am now older than that age, so I like to mark her birthday each year in some way.

Ilya Schor, The Tzadik, 1950s, wood engraving

Ilya Schor, The Tzadik, 1950s, wood engraving

A few weeks ago I found a torn scrap of paper among a box of her things: it is the draft of a letter she wrote to André Schwartz-Bart, the author of the 1959 novel Le Dernier des Justes (The Last of the Just). I have not read the novel but perhaps because of Schwartz-Bart’s book and the discussions that took place around it in my childhood, and in particular because the theme of the novel and its title was the theme of a major work from 1956 by my father Ilya Schor, I am haunted by the Talmudic notion of the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, the thirty-six “”hidden righteous ones,” whose existence redeems and preserves the world, their identities hidden to others and even, perhaps most especially, to themselves.

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My sister’s handwriting was distinctive and sometimes hard to decipher, this letter for some reason more so than usual: here it is in French and then in English, with cross outs left intact to show the process of writing and certain passages marked […] as undecipherable by me.

Cher Mr. Schwartz-Bart,

Je voudrais, tout simplement, vous remercier d’avoir écrit “Le Dernier des Justes,” Je voudrais vous remercier d’avoir raconté avec tant de poésie et de simplicité cette triste histoire de la famille Lévy, et par extension de tout notre peuple. Je voudrais vous remercie d’avoir exprimé ce que nous sentons tous.

Je me demande […]  si d’autres que nous peuvent sentir ce que nous sentons. Le succès de votre livre en France et ici en Amérique semble indiquer que oui. J’espère que grace à vous et d’autres comme vous qui auront pu lutter contre notre sort – non les […], les cris, la résignation, mais l’art des moyens artistiques, les générations futures de notre peuples pourront vivre, inutile de le dire, en paix.

Je suis une jeune étudiante (17 ans) au Lycée Français de New York. Mes parents, des artistes d’origine Polonaise, ont fui Paris la veille de l’arrivée de Hitler, ont traversé la France, passe deux ans à Marseille et sont enfin venu en Amérique.  Eux, ils ont échappé mais toute leur famille, leur amis ont péri. Mon père peint son petit village polonaise avec sa synagogue, ses hommes, ses femmes: je connais bien le visage de mes ancêtres et confrères disparus et je ne peus dire le vide que je ressens à ne pouvoir jamais jamais connaitre les modèles dont s’inspire mon père.

Mon père travaille aussi fait aussi des objets religieux et décoratifs en argent,  parmi eux il a fait une porte pour une synagogue dont le thème était les Lahmed Vov, les 36…

J’essaye seulement de vous dire que je suis sure que partout où un cœur juif bat votre livre sera chéri et pleure là-dessus.

Respectueusement

Naomi Schor

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Ilya Schor, 1950s, Steps to Women's Gallery of Synagogue at Zloczow. Gouache.

Ilya Schor, 1950s, Steps to Women’s Gallery of Synagogue at Zloczow. Gouache.

Catalogue for Ilya Schor, 1956, The Doors of the 36, Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, NY

Catalogue for Ilya Schor, 1956, The Doors of the 36, Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, NY

Dear Mr. Schwartz-Bart,

I would very simply like to thank you for having written “The Last of the Just”, I would like to thank you for having told with so much poetry and simplicity this sad story of the family Levy and, by extension, that of our whole people. I would like to thank you for expressing what we all feel.

I wonder if others can feel what we feel. The success of your book in France and in America seems to indicate yes. I hope that thanks to you and others like you who have been able to fight against our fate, not the …, not the cries, the resignation, but [through] artistic means future generations of our people will be able to live, needless to say, in peace.

I am a young schoolgirl (17 years old) at the Lycée Français de New York. My parents, artists of Polish origin, fled Paris just before the arrival of Hitler, they crossed France, spent two years in Marseille and finally arrived in America. They survived but their whole families, their friends perished. My father paints his small Polish village with its synagogue, its men, its women: I know well the face of my lost ancestors and brethren and I cannot express the emptiness I feel to never never be able to know the models that inspire my father.

My father also makes religious and decorative objects out of silver, among these he made a door for a synagogue, whose theme was the Lahmed Vov, the 36…

I just want to tell you that I am sure that everywhere a Jewish heart beats your book will be cherished and wept over.

Respectfully

Naomi Schor

I don’t know if my sister sent the letter. Based on its contents it was written between her seventeenth birthday October 10, 1960 and my father’s death in June 1961, because in the letter she refers to my father as living.

Ilya Schor and Naomi Schor, Provincetown, Summer 1960, Photo: Ryszard Horowitz

Ilya Schor and Naomi Schor, Provincetown, Summer 1960, Photo: Ryszard Horowitz

 

 

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