First We Take Manhattan

My previous visit to New York had seen it wrapped in fog while the sun shone for the English spring. This time, the sun burned in the sky while the English autumn took place beneath grey skies. On the High Line, the grasses have withered, berries are ripe on the bushes and the leaves are beginning to brown on the trees. Birds flock to a feeder and ignore the people standing next to it. The High Line is an odd experience; whereas Central Park creates an immersive illusion of a managed form of nature that is only periodically interrupted, The High Line never allows you to forget the surrounding buildings and traffic although it can probably be counted as the nearest thing new York has to an area of countryside.

New York is a city that is in most respects best viewed from outside rather than from inside it; down in the artificial canyons between the skyscrapers there’s little to be seen. Walking back into Manhattan from across the Brooklyn bridge is a case in point. The symmetry of the bridge’s cabling seems almost contrived to create the perfect framing for the skyscrapers beyond. From here, the financial district is a dense jungle of towers from Gehry’s Beekman Tower and the merging stump of the Freedom Tower to the art deco of the Woolworth and Municipal Buildings with Liberty Island off in the far distance. Once I’ve crossed over the bridge and am beneath the towers, you notice how many of the smaller buildings they dwarf are cast permanently into shadow by them, as with churches like Holy Trinity and St Paul’s. Of all the buildings in New York, these two are the only ones that remind me of London, one a gothic revival building the other resembling St Martin in the Fields. Unlike London, both retain their original churchyards. New York’s Financial District does resemble London in other ways; the city’s rational grid dissolves into a winding morass of sidestreets with the spaces around Battery Park and Clinton Castle that look out over to Liberty Island being the only open area. I walk past Zuccotti Park where the Occupy Wall Street protest is in force; odd that a country whose culture is almost predicated on a denial of inequality as a social issue should end up being more successful than Spain or Britain in protesting against it; probably for the same reason that a country that has remained far more conservative and religiose than anywhere in Western Europe gave rise to the Stonewall riots.

I then take the subway back up to Central Park. The New York subway is a mass of adverts for pawnbrokers, college educations, public sector training programmes, apartments and Broadway shows; it does at least spare you the lapdancing club adverts that appear ubiquitous on new York cabs. Having arrived, I walk through the park to the Guggenheim, most of which disappointingly turns out to be shut for renovation. What is open is a set of Kandinsky paintings from his Bauhaus period, a set of pop art paintings (including an especially spectral green self portrait by Warhol) and a collection of works by Picasso, Cezanne, Manet, Pissarro and Gauguin. It doesn’t take too long to get round these three rooms, so I walk down to the Frick Collection. Still presented as Henry Clay Frick’s personal collection in his former mansion, the Frick eschews chronology in favour of his eclectic tastes. Frick seems to have liked Watteau, Gainsborough and Constable rather more than I do, but it’s easy to forgive someone whose walls were lined by Vermeer, Whistler, Veronese, Monet, Titian, El Greco, Turner and Holbein.

The following day I walk to the Museum of Modern Art, noticing that Johnson’s postmodern ‘lipstick’ building is just a few blocks away from Rohe’s Seagram Building. I briefly have a look around the sculpture garden with its Giacometti and Miro sculptures before going up to the upper floors. The uppermost floor is a wonderful whirl of works by Seurat, Picasso, Popova, Rodchenko, Mondrian, Nagy, Brancusi, Duchamp, Picabia, Arp, Ernst, Schwitters, Gauguin, Derain, Matisse, Dali, Tanguy, Chagall, Kahlo, Rivera, O’Keefe, Leger, Boccioni, Malevich, Severini, Braque, Munch, Bacon, Rousseau and Cezanne with Van Gogh’s The Starry Night being my clear favourite. Monet’s cloud reflections on water lilies takes up an entire wall of the gallery; looking up close as its details it almost resembles some of the Pollock paintings nearby. Some works by Hopper and Wyeth are stuck out of the way near the lifts. The next floor down concentrates on American art, with works by Barnett Newman, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Johns and Cy Twombly. The last section I visit is photography, with works by Atget, Brassai, Evans, Fox Talbot and Weegee.

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