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The spirits of the city

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The spirits of the city

THE NEW CRITERION, May 2019

The spirits of the city

On the new Hudson Yards development in New York.

Hudson Yards, the real estate development that opened in March on the far west side of midtown Manhattan, is an astonishing feat of American industry. This is especially true at a time of diminished industrial expectations, when American muscle often lifts little more than the latest app. Yet for all of its impressive mass, its glass, concrete, and steel, the forms that have risen at Hudson Yards are spiritually longing, oddly so, for what should be a display of towering confidence in human enterprise. Even as it stretches to the skyline, the shortcomings of Hudson Yards speak to a loss of faith and an inward turning of urban perspective.

Cut from whole cloth, the $25 billion complex of Hudson Yards, now partially completed, rises above a train yard that continues to operate as the western terminus of the Long Island Railroad, where lines of passenger cars await deployment to the platforms of Pennsylvania Station to the east. Beneath these trains run additional tracks, including the pair of North River Tunnels built by the Pennsylvania Railroad a century ago that still serves as the arterial link of the Northeast Direct service between New York and New Jersey. In total, some three hundred caissons, fourteen thousand cubic yards of concrete, and twenty-five thousand tons of steel have been built around thirty working tracks and four tunnels to form just the first ten-acre eastern platform, on which now sits the largest private real estate venture in American history. A second phase, of residential towers to rise above the rail yard to the west, will soon follow. To construct anything atop this transportation corridor without service interruption or the ability to create basement space is an achievement of engineering and manpower. To do so in a way that attracts worldwide attention while creating commercially viable real estate is a triumph of capitalism.

10 Hudson Yards. Photo: Geoff Butler / Related Oxford.

10 Hudson Yards. Photo: Geoff Butler / Related Oxford.

The popularity of Hudson Yards, apparent in the crowds that already flock to this new nexus of office, retail, and residential offerings, where upscale materials coat every surface of its multifaceted forms, is one reason its critics have been so bilious in their condemnations of the complex. “A shopping mall and a quasi-gated condo community targeted at the 0.1 percent,” is how Michael Kimmelman painted this “vast neoliberal Zion” and “architectural petting zoo” in The New York Times. “A grand gift of urban space to the global elite,” sniffed Justin Davidson in a cover story for New York magazine, which depicted the complex as an Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road that is the High Line—the astonishingly successful elevated park built a decade ago on an abandoned spur of the New York Central Railroad. “Too clean, too flat, too art-directed,” Davidson continued. “I suppose this apotheosis of blank slate affluence is someone’s fantasy of the twenty-first-century city, but it isn’t mine.”

Having just redirected the river Amazon from establishing a spillway in the borough of Queens, the critics bemoan the industrialists of The Related Companies, the real estate juggernaut founded by Stephen M. Ross, who have made it through their gauntlet of condemnation to create the twenty-eight-acre complex. Sketched out in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, approved and developed through the economic downturn of 2008, Hudson Yards emerged out of the last innovative period in New York leadership—so distinct from the current era of de Blasios and Ocasio-Cortezes—that understood what cities must do to thrive. When completed, the entire complex will boast new parkland, a new school, and twelve massive office and residential towers containing four-thousand new apartments and space for fifty-five thousand workers.

Legitimate arguments should be made, and have been leveled, against the many zoning dispensations, tax abatements, and regulatory loopholes that brought the development to fruition. The urbanist writer Kriston Capps has noted one egregious example, in which gerrymandering has permitted the developers to soak up foreign investment by offering visas through a program meant to help impoverished areas, all by linking Hudson Yards to low-income housing miles away in Harlem.

Ultimately, such criticism merely draws attention to the stultifying effects of New York’s endless zoning ordinances, taxes, and regulatory hurdles. Hudson Yards reveals the fructifying energy that can flourish when the long shadow of government gives way to the sun of human striving, if only such light could shine across all endeavors rather than a single favored project.

The technical complaints, I suspect, also mask the greater concern for most critics: that this final flowering of Hudson Yards serves as a delayed reminder of a city that was planted and tilled under two decades of Republican supervision. For them, the problem of Hudson Yards is not its failures but its many commercial successes.

And indeed, from what was once a sunken railyard there now emerges a multitude of attractions. Connected to the $2.5 billion extension of the 7 Train on one side and the pedestrian High Line park on the other, Hudson Yards has overnight become a new measure of urban orientation. In the two months since it opened, I have dined on a surprisingly expensive fish called a milokopi in a top-floor restaurant of its 720,000-square-foot shopping mall, attended an inaugural performance in its cross-disciplinary contemporary art venue called The Shed, and walked twice up the spiraling stairs of its open-air sculpture called the Vessel (the first time after its ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by the television personalities Anderson Cooper and Big Bird).

Like the Mareographic Zero measurement on Venice’s Punta della Salute or the Prime Meridian line that runs through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, Hudson Yards lays claim to its own central marker. This is the Vessel, or at least that’s the temporary name of the bauble dreamed up by the new-age British designer Thomas Heatherwick that rises fifteen stories in the middle of Hudson Yards, looming over its quasi-pedestrian plaza with 154 flights of 2,500 steps and eighty landings. The shiny, copper-colored object was a secret fancy of Ross, who kept the model locked in his office and paid for the Italian fabrication of its elaborate steel latticework.

The Vessel’s designer, Thomas Heatherwick, speaks at its grand opening on March 15, 2019. Photo: Dia Dipasupil / Getty.

The Vessel’s designer, Thomas Heatherwick, speaks at its grand opening on March 15, 2019. Photo: Dia Dipasupil / Getty.

The Vessel is the quintessence of the complex. Meant to reference an Indian stepwell used to walk down to varying levels of well water, here the staircase leads up to dry nowhere. The higher you go, the less fulfilling the experience becomes, at least for the views looking outward. As the Vessel is hemmed in to a greater and greater extent by the surrounding buildings, what mainly comes into focus is the Neiman Marcus sign outside the top floors of the mall. While the surrounding buildings each boast a different architectural pedigree, from above they cross-breed into smoky-glass mutts.

One building known as the Equinox Tower—designed by David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—still lays claim to a few distinguishing characteristics. In its limestone pinstripes, we can see the bespoke tailoring you only get from som. And the Shed building, a combined tower and concert hall designed independently of The Related Companies by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects of the High Line, boasts a novel rolling shell developed around an industrial gantry. On the outside, the building resembles a shopping cart return, while the drafty space within could be a zeppelin hangar. The skin of this structure is made of inflated mylar, which reduces its rolling weight and gives its outer surface the sensuous appearance of a quilted handbag or a designer puffer jacket. It remains to be seen if this venue on city land, a Kunsthalle that has put the Halle before the Kunst, will “redeem” Hudson Yards, as many have promised. So far, its anti-elite elitism seems like mere puffery, with the usual high-flying art world suspects, including Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the über-curator hatched in a Swiss free port, and the Park Avenue Armory’s Alex Poots tapped to run the show. “Let’s get away from this crazy high-art, low-art concept,” Poots announced at the opening. “Why do we need to create a false hierarchy?”

15 Hudson Yards and The Shed. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

15 Hudson Yards and The Shed. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

If you have to ask, you will never know. The self importance of The Shed, which cost $400 million just to build, not to mention the price of sustaining it, underscores a what-if that I have been asking since the city first set this parcel aside for a cultural venue. What if a world-class museum, namely, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, had moved here? With the Whitney Museum of American Art now anchoring the southern terminus of the High Line, having relocated from the Upper East Side, just think of the genuine cultural corridor that might have been created with moma at its northern end. The museum’s present location, straddling Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth Streets in midtown, is a product of historical circumstance, not strategic planning. It just happened that the Rockefeller family owned their townhouses there, and donated the parcels to become the first kernels of the experimental modern museum. Indeed, there was a time when midtown was residential. No longer. For the past fifty years the museum has been buckling under the pressures of its surrounding real estate, profiting along the way, save for the museum experience that has resulted. It should have been time for a fresh start.

The Shed may surprise everyone and fulfill its many promises, but for now the Vessel remains the main attraction at Hudson Yards, even though as a walkable sculpture it provides lackluster views, at least looking out. Its orientation is, rather, directed in and down to its own emptiness. When Ross unveiled its design two years ago, he declared he wanted the equivalent of the famous Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, but with an attraction that would stay up all year. Such comparisons between Rockefeller Center and Hudson Yards may be numerous, but they work mostly as comparisons in contrast. Created by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and designed by Raymond Hood at the height of the Great Depression, that other complex is imbued with spiritual meaning. An Art Deco Roman temple dedicated to American industry, Rockefeller Center reflected the family’s belief in John Wesley’s evangelical economics—to “gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” As an open-air cathedral, that complex terminates in an altar of Paul Manship’s golden Prometheus. Every Christmas season, with the tree, its pagan idolatry is redeemed through a pageant of conversion.

Hudson Yards conveys no such meaning. Its Vessel is an empty basket. Its towers stretch uneasily to nowhere. At street level, its sightlines are also nonexistent. One of the most consequential decisions at Hudson Yards was to obstruct any sense of the street grid. The way the mall turns its back to Tenth Avenue is an affront to the city. The avenues and cross-streets of New York are the open naves of a great urban church, all stretching up and out to the infinite. By deliberately blocking their view, Hudson Yards takes the straight lines of the city and curves them in, with an orientation that is circular and inward, rather than straight and out. The Vessel is the vortex of this overall scheme, one that speaks to themes of regression and surveillance rather than motifs of aspiration and uplift. At its center, instead of inspiring thoughts of others, the Vessel is the Christmas tree to the self.

Hudson Yards. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

Hudson Yards. Photo: Timothy Schenck / Related Oxford.

Like its Vessel, Hudson Yards will leave you feeling hollow, with an emptiness that will never quite be sated by expensive fish or quilted handbags, despite the many suggestions to the contrary proposed here by its hundred shops and restaurants. Hudson Yards is advertised as a “new way of living,” filled with self-serving and often infantile adult distractions, but the result is unfulfilled and unfulfilling. By having us face ourselves in an infinite reflection of polished metal and darkened glass, Hudson Yards ultimately turns its back to the unbought grace of life in the big city.

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Music for young and old

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Music for young and old

THE NEW CRITERION, April 9, 2019

Music for young and old

On the Very Young People’s Concerts by the New York Philharmonic.

If you ever worry about the future of classical music, just attend a children’s concert. They are filled with eager audiences. And not just parents eager for student enrichment outside of the test-boxes formerly known as our schools. It’s the children who are most eager to be there as they commune through the ageless language of music, through sounds that are made without a battery in sight. As one youngster asked the bassoonist at a children’s concert I recently attended, “How do you turn it on and off?” The wondrous answer should be a tagline for orchestras everywhere: Classical music has no switch.

This sweet exchange occurred at a Very Young People’s Concert produced by the New York Philharmonic. Now in its fourteenth season, the series is pitched to children aged three through six. Very Young distinguishes these performances from the Philharmonic’s legendary Young People’s Concerts, made famous through Leonard Bernstein’s television appearances. I wrote about the phenomenon of those culture-changing performances, which are now available on dvd. In their seriousness of purpose and whimsy of presentation, Bernstein’s concerts continue to serve as touchstones for children’s music programming today.

It comes as welcome news that the Very Young People’s Concerts draw their inspiration from Bernstein’s legacy. It also explains why this series is so successful. The Philharmonic violist Rebecca Young hosts these performances. Born in New Jersey, Young grew up with Bernstein as her music teacher—through his children’s concerts. She attended her first Bernstein Young People’s Concert at age two and a half. She says it is her earliest musical memory. “I used to roll up the programs, put one under my chin, and use the other as a bow,” she recalls. “Not only did I always know I would be a musician—except for a short flirtation with the idea of medical school—I always knew I would be in the New York Philharmonic.”

She was right. Young not only joined the orchestra as its youngest member in 1986, but also became the host of her own children’s series. The Very Young People’s Concerts are very much about Young. She is a superb performer for children, with a comedic presence that fills the stage with her joy for music. She is joined by a quintet of Philharmonic musicians, several props, and an animated penguin named Philippe, who is occasionally projected on a screen, giving children another welcome object of focus.

The performances are made up of three half-hour sessions. The first gets the children in the door with small groups of musicians playing throughout the lobby and auditorium. Children sit on the floor or the performance stage as they acclimate to the hall. The second session is the concert itself, with the audience now well settled in their assigned seats (while also allowing for late arrivals). The third segment offers a chance for the children to see the musicians and instruments up close again in breakout groups.

The programs come with a lesson structured around musical vocabulary. The first concert this season was “Allegro and Adagio.” The terms “accelerando” and “ritardando” also made appearances here, along with homespun props in this concert about tempo, as the performers played Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda, selections from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Rebecca Young’s very ably delivered rendition of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

The second concert in the series introduced “Forte and Piano,” again through “Dance of the Hours,” here followed by an interactive arrangement called “The Forte and Piano Song,” where the forte players get called out one by one, and ending with selections from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46. In this concert about musical dynamics, “pizzicato” and “crescendo” were introduced, along with such mnemonic jingles as “Right near Lincoln Center, just behind the Apple Store, live a piano and a forte and the best musicians four.” As with the concert on allegro and adagio, the children were each given two cards with the thematic words—piano and forte—and encouraged to hold them up at the right times.

A small quibble: the color coding of these cards did not always align with the matching signs on the stage. In at least one case they were reversed. And in a concert called “allegro and adagio” or “forte and piano,” if the words appear onstage, they should be arranged in the same order, left to right. For an age group that in most cases cannot read, such visual alignments can be crucial.

The series’s venue, Merkin Hall, just a few blocks from the Philharmonic’s home at David Geffen Hall, also remains a detraction. With frayed carpet and peeling paint, this downtrodden auditorium does little to elevate young audiences or prepare them for the visual delights of a great music hall.

Thankfully, through the music of the Philharmonic and the dynamic presence of Rebecca Young, the young audience still rose to the occasion—and so did the older audience members. The New York Philharmonic Very Young People’s Concerts convey not only the joy of music but also the music of joy. The final concerts in the series, on “Treble and Bass,” will take place on June 2 and 3.


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Finger Painting with a Broad Brush

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Finger Painting with a Broad Brush

THE NEW CRITERION, February 22, 2019

Finger Painting with a Broad Brush

On Dana Schutz’s “Imagine Me and You” at Petzel Gallery.

If you are looking for a controversial artist, you wouldn’t necessarily point the finger at Dana Schutz. Nevertheless, and rather surprisingly, controversy pointed at this painter and sculptor at the last Whitney Biennial. In an exhibition that was asking for trouble with far more “controversial” work, Open Casket, Schutz’s memorial portrait of Emmett Till, the black boy who was infamously murdered and mutilated in Mississippi in 1956, took top prize for consternation and column inches. A British agitator named Hannah Black published an open letter to the museum’s curators and staff, co-signed by some fifty other writers and artists, “with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum.” Aspiring censors the world over came together to declare that “white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.” A Twitter mob even materialized to form a human chain to block the painting from public view.

Schutz took refuge in the studio. Nearly two years on, the Michigan-born, Brooklyn-based painter has reemerged with a pointed exhibition of new work at Petzel that is impressed with personal experience. “Pointing” and “pressing” are the operative works. In this show called “Imagine Me and You,” on view through February 23, the finger appears throughout as both the instrument of accusation and creation.

Dana Schutz , Painting in an Earthquake,  2019 ,  Oil on canvas ,  Petzel Gallery.

Dana Schutz, Painting in an Earthquake, 2019, Oil on canvas, Petzel Gallery.

Schutz is a facile artist. In the past her paint handling has often seemed confectionary, easily digestible and saccharine sweet. Her rich colors and cartoonish forms have been the icing on a cake that is only half-baked. The Whitney experience has now added heat to the oven.Painting in an Earthquake (2019), the show’s introductory painting, is but the first of its many self-portraits. With paint brushes in her left hand, a figure smears paint on a shattering brick wall with the fingers of the right.

The exhibition then leads on to a room not of more paintings, but of figural sculptures in bronze. As these grisaille forms contrast with the colorful oils, they also illustrate the sculptural qualities of Schultz’s heavily impastoed canvases, which are often paintings in sculptural relief. The sculptures also give further form to some of the figures that later appear on canvas, such as in Washing Monsters (2018).
 

Dana Schutz , Washing Monsters,  2018 ,  Bronze ,  Petzel Gallery.

Dana Schutz, Washing Monsters, 2018, Bronze, Petzel Gallery.

Schutz comes out of the Brooklyn school of casual figuration. Whether in two dimensions or three, in their faux naivete, some of her cartoonish figures can seem overly mannered. At the same time, the surface expression of these bronzed objects, created first in soft molding compound, conveys personal meaning through their pressed forms. Schutz’s fingerprints are all over these crude displays.

Dana Schutz , Washing Monsters,  2018 ,  Oil on canvas ,  Petzel Gallery.

Dana Schutz, Washing Monsters, 2018, Oil on canvas, Petzel Gallery.

The personal nature of these expressive surfaces is then carried over to Schutz’s paintings in the next room. Touched (2018) is both a subject and object of self-portraiture. A female figure faces out with a carved frown as Schutz gouges out the breasts of thick paint with two fingers.

Dana Schutz , Touched,  2018 ,  Oil on canvas ,  Petzel Gallery.

Dana Schutz, Touched, 2018, Oil on canvas, Petzel Gallery.

Fingers appear as symbols throughout this body of work. The naked shipwrecked female figure in The Visible World (2018) dips one digit in the forbidding water. Another points to a gull with a berry in its beak and a daubs of paint across its wings. In Presenter (2018) the fingers of a disembodied hand muzzle a female figure with underpants pulled down around the ankles. Meanwhile, in Mountain Group (2018), at ten feet wide the largest painting of the exhibition, an ensemble cast of finger-pointers on ladders obscures the mountain landscape that a female painter in the foreground, with canvas and brushes, is trying to depict.

Dana Schutz , Treadmill,  2018 ,  Oil on canvas ,  Petzel Gallery.

Dana Schutz, Treadmill, 2018, Oil on canvas, Petzel Gallery.

Turn around and the last painting you see is Treadmill (2018), with a figure trying to keep up on a fast-moving paint-splattered ground. At a time when anyone may be called out for deviations from the party doctrine of race politics, this exhibition points the finger at a new censorious age.

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