This post is like a Table of Contents. It’s a meta-post of links to photojournalistic blogposts of my trip to New York six months ago, amidst the Omicron wave of Covid in Manhattan, for five days in late January. The links are in chronological order, and refer back progressively, like chapters about my trip.
I was able to film as we approached on the afternoon of January 19th, flying into New York City.
The streets were weirdly quiet and absent of crowds – like I have never seen Manhattan before, even in the heart of winter. New York was dead.
That afternoon and evening I hung out at Summit One Vanderbilt, which was exceptional. Because I purchased the afternoon Premium ticket, the sunset ticket, with access to the elevator to the summit, I was able to hang out in the bar all evening, where I was joined in conversation and fun by rotating groups of tourists (wonderful conversations atop Manhattan), and the elevator to the highest viewpoint was amazing.
had a perfect breakfast sandwich at Chez Nick in Yorkville, a place to which I returned – delicious spot over there. It was the week that people were putting their Christmas trees out for pick up. Many people and hotels instead, turned them into decorative features in front of their buildings.
January 23rd was my chance by appointment only to catch the last days of the chronological exhibition on the ramps of the Guggenheim, Kandinsky at the Gugg. That was, quite frankly, an excellent exhibition.
Five days in Manhattan: Opera. Museums. Observation Bar. Streets. and tossed out Xmas trees – Lakshmi-auntie would approve.
Everybody in my generation remembers chapter ten of the late great Greil Marcus’ book, Lipstick Traces, which came out my senior year of university (1989). Chapter ten dealt with the birth of the situationists, via the Easter Sunday performance at Notre Dame in 1950. Marcus wrote that the Surrealists, then ensconced figures in the art world in Europe and New York, claimed the act as that of their protégés, while the artists themselves rejected the notion. Surrealism was over.
The distinction between the situationists and the Surrealists and Dada was for us, an awesome thing to consider that way. The grandparents crowed about them and they rejected their successful grandparents. As a result of being educated from that perspective – a college kid looking at the 1950’s and learning from Marcus how this was a part of the birth of punk – my perception of Surrealism was, if not tainted, at least given greater contrast.
A bunch of us 20-year-olds in the early 90’s became fascinated by the situationists and DeBord. We were watching as they built the cities into grand stages for the Spectacle all throughout that decade. The Millennium was the Spectacle. Until it was 9/11. Everything DeBord foresaw was right in front of us. They even pulled down a few.
<<Flash Forward to 2022>>
If you want to call Booklyn, a fine arts collective dedicated to book arts, you dial my first number in New York. I was romantic about DeBord back then and so refused traditional entry into the group (or any group), but participated in its birth and establishment in Brooklyn in its early days. Booklyn is why many artists I know are in important collections around the country and the world. The collaboration was good and became incredibly important after September eleventh.
I called Booklyn when I dropped in to NYC and Marshall Weber called me back promptly. He chastised me for coming to town to support businesses that Booklyn would be protesting. He included the MOMA and the Met and the Opera. I didn’t bother to mention I was going to the Gugg the next day.
It is to say, the Metropolitan and MOMA have a labor problem. They have a diversity problem. They have a problem reframing the collections in the era of Black Lives Matter and MeToo and LGBTQ+ rights.
The Joseph E. Yoakum retrospective at MOMA I attended the day before and the Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibition I would be attending today were trying to address the issue: the Yoakum show was directly engaging a Black artist and the Metropolitan’s Surrealism Beyond Borders attempted to show how Surrealism was embraced by diverse groups of people around the world in various states of revolution. It sought to internationalize and radicalize visitors’ perception of Surrealism. It was closing at the end of the month. I went.
Sidenote: Again, I had to schedule a time for my visit as the museum attempted to encourage social distancing by timing the number of entrants. The temperature was in the 30’s and I was fully bundled up.
Only trouble is there was no coat check! Yet another victim of the pandemic was a coat check for all your winter gear when visiting the museums. It was hot inside and we visitors all had to lug all this winter gear around, ha!
Of particular interest to me was the area dedicated to Black Surrealists. I did not know how deeply Aime Cesaire had embraced Surrealism. Originals of his journal Tropiques (1941)
and Retorno al Pais Natal were a thrill to see.
The influence of Surrealism was apparent.
a quote from Suzanne Cesaire summarizes the cross-pollination
was also very deeply touched by this portrait of Charlie Parker by Black Canadian-American Surrealist Ted Joans, entitled Bird Lives! (1968)
But there was so much more from around the world. This shocking work, entitled Tagliche Drangsale (Daily Torments) by the oft-forgotten German Surrealist painter Richard Oelze (1900 – 1980), was painted a year after the National Socialists assumed power in Germany, (1934)
There was this brilliant Giacometti
Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian was an Ethiopian-Armenian painter and art teacher. He spent much of his life living and working in the United States. He was one of the first, and by far the most acclaimed, contemporary Black artists from the African continent to gain international attention. Here’s his Night Flight of Dread and Delight, Skundar Boghossian, (1964).
The Southern California artist, Helen Lundeberg, often credited for movement to Post-Surrealist work, was represented here in a Surrealist painting – Plant and Animal Analogies, (1934 -35).
And an early Surrealist work by the American painter, printmaker, sculptor and writer, Dorothea Tanning – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, (1943).
Roger Penrose was included with this sculpture, entitled The Last Voyage of Captain Cook, (1936-7)
It was my first time seeing the Exquisite Corpse in person.
And this great Magritte, I was born the year he died, you know.
But one piece stood out amongst the many I saw in my first visit to museums since the coronavirus pandemic struck. It was an obscure sculpture made of nails and sponge by French artist Joyce Mansour and it was entitled Objet Mechant, which means Nasty Object. It looks shockingly like the nastiest respiratory virus in human history. Yet it was made 50 years before Covid-19 struck.
I cannot disclose why I went to New York in late January as I’m constrained willingly by the contract I signed the day I left from La Guardia just hours before the city was hit by a snowstorm carried on winds of the la niña winter polar jet stream, and snowbound.
I can say it’s an NFT play, signed between me and my former neighbor in Brooklyn, Tom.
“Either you go tomorrow,” Tom agreed,”or you ain’t leavin’ til next week.”
My flight of escapees had mostly bought their tickets within the last 48 hours, with a weather eye on the polar jet stream. We were routed to Denver. The storm shut the city down while we were in the air. I had been in New York City and out in Long Island for two weeks.
Double-dose Pfizer-vaccinated in May of ‘21 and boosted in November, I decided in December of last year that 2022 was going to be different. I was going to travel. I would help the economies of some places I haven’t been in a while. I’d spend some money in some places in our country that I respect and love for cultural and intellectual richness.
I made a new year’s resolution to spend more days of 2022 out of the house where I have been for the last five years than in it. Unlike most of you, for whom the ‘quarantine’ was at most a year and a half of house-boundedness, at that point, I had been bound for several years in a house, in another state from my beloved NorCal, as I cared for my father until he died, allowing him to pass the way he wished, in his home. I was eager to get back on the road, and eventually, home.
I set aside money from my small inheritance for this purpose. I granted myself a year of me-time, to travel, write, read and consider places to live, in the wake of my father’s death.
I chose New York first, and landed on the nineteenth day of the new year, amidst the Omicron wave. I was a New Yorker for five years at the turn of the millennium, so I’m prepared with specific goals when I visit Manhattan. It’s a habit learned from my Lakshmi-auntie, who lived in Parsippany for five decades and used the island, and indeed the whole city, with precision and elegance. She still drove into town herself in her 70’s.
I watched her use Goings-On-About-Town in The New Yorker, and Time Out and the Sunday NYT and the Voice, to be fresh, and even avant-garde, to her last days. She showed me the fastest ways to get in and out of the city, down-low parking spots, old-school joints. When I moved to the waterfront in Greenpoint, it was from her place, where I had been staying in the wake of the passing of her husband, my Surya-uncle, back in ‘97. It snowed in Brooklyn that winter.
Now, it was a clear, sunny Wednesday afternoon as I flew into La Guardia. It was in fact the warmest day of the year thus far in the city – 44° F, almost no wind, great visibility. The pilots swung wide to allow us a vantage of the cityscape – the bridges, high-rises and skyscrapers, just a few thousand feet below.
There’s the east river. Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg bridge.
Where I used to live in Greenpoint no longer has a cityscape view because there are massive condominiums there that can be seen in this shot. That bright, shining white skyscraper in lower Manhattan is One Manhattan Square. Extell Development Company sold 100 units there last year. They also sold 100 units at Brooklyn Point, which is the tallest residential building in Brooklyn.
One Manhattan Square and Brooklyn Point, each sold over 100 units in 2021 for a total of more than $400 million in sales. Extell claims it’s the only developer in New York to sell more than 100 units at two separate buildings in a calendar year. The units sell for between $850k – $3m.
When I was a New Yorker, the city taught me how to move through it. I didn’t know what I was going to find now, though, amidst the Omicron wave of Covid-19. New York was a city that had been ravaged in the first Spring of the nastiest respiratory virus in human history, because of its density and diversity – a global city, with international reach.
I came prepared, with my vaccine card showing two shots and the six-month booster, and my matching i.d., with N95 masks. Temperatures were expected to drop later that evening. The forecast was for highs in the teens and low 20’s for the rest of the week. I brought thermals, wool scarf, an overcoat and a fur hat – all of which were useful.
But I made a tight, localized agenda that had me entirely in Upper Manhattan. On my last day, I planned to walk to the Guggenheim to see the chronological exhibition of Kandinsky on the ramps at the Guggenheim, so I rented a hotel a few blocks away on the Upper East side – 92nd street and 1st Ave, near Yorkville. I landed, cruised through baggage, caught a cab to my hotel within 20 minutes, snagged a couple-hour nap, then showered, shaved and suited up for the opera.
Tom and the Opera
Tom and I hadn’t seen each other in almost 20 years. He is an energetic, native Long Islander, who has lived and worked in the city for years. He is as comfortable in the city as any of the boroughs or out on Long Island. He was my neighbor in Brooklyn 20 years ago, when he worked in commodities, on the floor at the exchange on Wall Street. He was there that fateful morning, besuited, running and hustling others away from the crumbling concrete and drifting ash and dust. We saw each other a few days later.
Tom and I caught up last year and I learned he had been through some rough times. But he told me something else that shocked me, personally. He said that nearly 20 years before, I had given him a carved stone or wood necklace and had told him it was powerful. He wasn’t sure if he did something wrong or if it was just the object itself, but he felt that it had cursed him.
That’s no joke. You don’t see someone for years and you are catching them amidst heavy difficulties all around and they tell you that you gave them a totem that may have cursed them – have to take that seriously.
When I looked at the schedule for the Met Opera, I knew immediately I had to take Tom. They were performing Rigoletto. It’s a tragedy about a hunch-backed jester, a pathetic figure, who, upon being cursed by a courtier, believes in and fears the curse, then unwittingly aids in the accursed events which befall him.
The last line of the opera is Rigoletto’s bewildered wail as he cradles the body of his dead child, “La Maladizione!” – which means, “The Curse!”
The first time I went to the Metropolitan Opera it was February of 1998. Two dozen years later, I decided to splurge. I purchased Parterre Center Box seats. I had previously only ever sat in the balconies. This was special.
To enter we had to show ID that matched a proof of vaccination card and if the last dose had been over six months, a stamp for a booster. Masks were mandated. Before the curtain rose, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, masked, came out on stage with a microphone and said, with a sigh of relief, “everyone in your program is performing tonight,” the confirmation that we would be seeing Quinn Kelsey and Rosa Feola . There was resounding applause.
The Metropolitan Opera has suffered, like every arts institution, during the pandemic.
This production received great reviews for Conductor Daniele Rustioni and promotional material all featured the open throated face of Quinn Kelsey in clown makeup. The baritone has made a name for himself performing Verdi, and in particular, portraying the beleaguered Rigoletto. The program read: “Quinn Kelsey, a commanding artist at the height of his powers, brings his searing portrayal of the title role to the Met for the first time,” but Kelsey had been unavailable for performances on the 9th and 14th. There was a buzz from the hope we would get to see him with the soprano Rosa Feola, a pairing about whom much had been written.
The set was unique. Though the original opera was based on a story by Victor Hugo set in the mid 16th century, the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, was set in pre-Revolutionary 19th century France. The current staging at the Met uses the Weimar Republic as the context, contending the times were comparably beset by careless inequity.
Production is directed by (Tony-award winning director) Bartlett Sher – the New York Times has described him as “one of the most original and exciting directors, not only in the American theater but also in the international world of opera” – and Set Designer Michael Yeargan. The costumes, designed by Catherine Zuber, were thus 20th c. German.
The set had a massive revolving structure upstage that allowed for feature performances downstage, nearer the audience, for greater intimacy. There was a full apartment above a bar in one set, and Donald Holder’s lighting was agile, an active element of the production, spotlighting soloists seamlessly as they employed the entire stage.
Piotr Beczala, charged with the most famous role, Duke Mantua, was good. But a standout performance, in addition to Feola and Kelsey, belonged to Andrea Mastroni, the bass singing the part of the murderous blaggard Sparafucile.
What always amazes and delights me about the opera is that there are no microphones. The orchestra is not amplified, neither are the singers. We all sit quietly, no cell-phones or beeps or bells or whistles to bother us, and we focus for two and a half hours on these live performers making music in an extravagant production – entranced. People try not to even cough during the acts. I love that.
Kelsey was masterful.
Tom and I dined at The Smith, across the street from Lincoln Center and shared a blunt as we sauntered to the performance – it’s legal now to smoke a joint on the street in New York. It wasn’t when we were neighbors – not that it stopped us much then, we were just furtive.
Now we just stood by the fountain on the plaza, in front of the big Chagalls and the other patrons and the cops and shared a blunt. Tom is a blunt smoker, which is not my style, but when I am with him I partake.
He went to Fordham, which is just next door to Lincoln Center. He pointed out his old dormitory building, as we smoked. We shared a blunt before going in, and again at the intermission. To be clear, quality marijuana doesn’t attack my memory of the opera, it enhances it.
We left singing:
La donna è mobile/ Qual piuma al vento,
muta d’accento/ e di pensiero.
Sempre un amabile / leggiadro viso,
in pianto o in riso / è menzognero
**END Wednesday January 19th**
Ten days later, I checked the tide tables and took the accursed totem that I gave Tom twenty years before out to Lido Beach at just past high tide, recited the gayatri mantram, and chucked the thing out to be taken away by the sea.