Morgan Library and Museum

“No price is too high for an object of unquestioned beauty and known authenticity.” 
J.P. Morgan

During the last 20 years of his life, John Pierpont Morgan spent almost $1 billion in today’s dollars on art. It was his intention to allow the public to view his collection after his death but felt a parental duty to leave his entire estate to his son. J P Morgan junior knew of his father’s wishes and in 1924 opened his father’s library to the public.

 
The library is one of the most intoxicating rooms in New York City. The collection housed there is staggering. There are only 50 extant copies of the Gutenberg Bible and The Morgan has three, more than any other institution. There is a rotating display of illuminated manuscripts and documents in the library, from the handwritten scores of Maher and Prokofiev to letters by Dickens and Van Gogh. If you look closely you’ll find a spiral stairway hidden behind one of the bookcases.

In addition to the permanent collection, current exhibits include two on writers: Henry James and American Painting  and This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal(both through September 10).


The analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same, their process (allowing for the different quality of the vehicle), is the same, their success is the same. They may learn from each other, they may explain and sustain each other. Their cause is the same, and the honour of one is the honour of another.”  Henry James

The Henry James exhibit concentrates on the relationship between the arts of the novelist and painter, including those painters who were friends of James. The famous portrait of James by his friend John Singer Sargent is included along with other Sargent works. You can hardly tell that the painting was attacked with a meat cleaver by suffragette Mary Wood in 1914. Although James wrote sensitive portrayals of female characters, he doesn’t necessarily look like a man who does in this painting.
 

“What is any political organization worth – when it is in the service of the Devil?” 
Henry David Thoreau

 

The Thoreau exhibit includes many volumes of his life-long journal, as well as photos and other objects including the desk he used to store his journals until he outgrew it, and the chest he kept them in after that. He didn’t lock the door to his house but the home of his writing was kept under key at all times.

The Morgan Library and Museum is on Madison Avenue between 36th and 37th Streets. It is open every day but Monday.


Twelfth Night by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival

The last time I saw Twelfth Night, Mark Rylance played both Viola and Sebastian. It’s an understatement to say that’s a tough act to follow but in the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production there is nothing missing from Kerry Warren’s Viola. This is her debut season with the HVSF and her talent is sure to shine through in all her subsequent performances. From Michael Broadhurst’s opening speech and intermittent guitar playing, to Stephen Paul Johnson’s yellow-stockinged Malvolio, to the string section of Maryn Shaw and Serena Ebony Miller who materialize whenever the food of love is required, the entire cast sparkles as individuals and ensemble. 

The performance that stuck in my head the next day was Sean McNall’s Sir Andrew. From his entrance, gesticulating like the long-lost cousin of Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin’s Festrunk Brothers, to the broad physical comedy of his sword-play and hose-play, Sean McNall’s Sir Andrew keeps the spirit of the 16th Century playwright alive while reinforcing his relevance to 21st Century audiences. Some jokes never get old. Among them are cases of mistaken identity, knocking the high-and-mighty from their pedestals, ridiculous displays of unrequited love, and the buffoonery of a man who speaks like a warrior but acts like a coward.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs this delicate but hearty work with great skill. He takes full advantage of the benefits of staging Shakespeare in an open tent where actors have the freedom of movement impossible on a stage, giving the audience a preview of each characters’ entrance as they come strolling, charging, or tumbling across the great lawn.

For New York City dwellers there is a bus from Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center leaving 4:00 on Saturdays for a round-trip fee of $28. You can also take the Metro-North from Grand Central to the Cold Spring stop and pick up an $8 round trip shuttle bus. Better yet, get there in the afternoon and take a picnic lunch and bottle of wine to the luxurious grounds overlooking the Hudson. When it’s showtime they ring a bell and have secure shelves to store your supplies while you watch the show.

For more info visit the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival website at hvshakespeare.org.

The Reveries

Contrary to popular opinion, talent is not god-given. Nothing against the supreme being but talent is the result of dedication to craft and the five members of The Reveries have obviously done the hard work it takes to become talented. Last week at Arlene’s Grocery they put those talents to good use.

The last time I was at Arlene’s Grocery I was playing bass, so I might be a little prejudiced, but for me Steve Jackson is the stabilizing force that drives the whole thing forward. The rhythm section of Jackson and drummer Nick Martire kept an impressive level of intensity from bursting into pandemonium as they veered from straightforward rock to jazzier and ska-infected rhythms. The songs were all written by the band except for a distinctive cover of the Velvet Underground tune Rock’n’Roll.

A band would lucky to have either Jack Orlando or Dave Marchant on guitar and The Reveries have both. Each has their own musical voice and the ability to either blaze their own path or to lock into each others notes and double up on a riff the the way Duane and Dicky did.

Bantering is its own talent and it’s something singer Joe Gusmano does well. His sense of excitement is infectious. When I saw only one mic stand set up before the band started I was worried that the vocals might get drowned out by the amps but the singer was up to the task without the help of harmonies. Brass makes a nice addition to any band and Gusmano’s trumpet playing kept the arrangements full when he wasn’t singing.

I got to meet the band members before the show and they were nice, down-to-earth guys. I caught Joe bumming a piece of paper from the bartender so he could write down the set list.

The Reveries released their newest song 335 yesterday. If you like what you hear you can catch them live in a couple of weeks on Sunday July 30 at Pianos in the East Village.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/track=963221213/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/transparent=true/

I know you want to be my cage tonight
But you won’t let me go
I know myself better than you do
I’ve got to break free before I
I know you found yourself on stage tonight
But you won’t let things go
I’ve been here so long that I can hardly breathe
I’ve got to break free before I re
I’ll break free fine
West Vanity City
That’s where I’ve got to be
I’ll break free fine
West Vanity City
That’s where I’ve got to go
To make ends meet
I like your morning
I like your evening please
You’ve been here so long
I can’t breathe
I want to go but you won’t let me leave
There’s no need to free
The skyline crumbles near

Collossus



In 1939, as the followers of Hitler and Mussolini were spreading their cancer across Europe, Henry Miller left his adopted home of Paris to visit a friend in Greece. He wrote The Colosssus of Maroussi in an attempt to translate his Greek experiences into words.
Tonic

Reading Henry Miller is a tonic for everything that makes me sick. It cleanses my mind and spirit the way cayenne tea washes the accumulated waste from my intestines and intoxicating liquor cleans out the accumulated drudgery of quotidian life. In a way that only a committed drunk can understand, Miller understands:

“He had drunk a lot of rezina in his time: he said it was good for one, good for the kidneys, good for the liver, good for the lungs, good for the bowels and for the mind, good for everything. Everything he took into his system was good, whether it was poison or ambrosia. He didn’t believe in moderation nor good sense nor anything that was inhibitory. He believed in going the whole hog and then taking your punishment. There were a lot of things he couldn’t do anymore – the war had bunged him up a bit. But despite the bad arm, the dislocated knee, the damaged eye, the disorganized liver, the rheumatic twinges, the arthritic disturbances, the migraine, the dizziness and God knows what, what was left of the catastrophe was alive and flourishing like a smoking dung-heap. He could galvanize the dead with his talk.”
 
Like a flash of lighting, Miller’s writing illuminates the world as far as my eye can see, but only for an instant. I re-read lines but they’re never as clarifying as they were on initial impact. The second read is like looking at a photo of a painting.
This book is loaded with transcendent insights, candles fighting the darkness like Japanese lanterns floating on water into the land of the dead. One precarious road to the salvation of our hopelessly mortal species winds its path over the paving stones of words like these:
The Colossus of Rhodes

“When you’re right with yourself if doesn’t matter what flag is flying over your head or who owns what or whether you speak English or Monongahela. The absence of newspapers, the absence of news about what men are doing in different parts of the world to make life more livable or unlivable is the greatest single boon. If we could just eliminate newspapers a great advance would be made, I am sure of it. Newspapers engender lies, hatred, greed, envy, suspicion, fear, malice. We don’t need the truth as it is dished up to us in the daily papers. We need peace and solitude and idleness. If we could all go on strike and honestly disavow all interest in what our neighbor is doing we might get a new lease of life. We might learn to do without telephones and radios and newspapers, without machines of any kind, without factories, without mills, without mines, without explosives, without battleships, without politicians, without lawyers, without canned goods, without gadgets, without razor blades even or cellophane or cigarettes or money. This is a pipe dream, I know. People only go on strike for better working conditions, better wages, better opportunities to become something other than they are.”

Like a lot of great writers, Miller’s books blur into each other and an isolated passage in one could have come from any of them. His numerous stories are pieces of one transcendent tale: his attempt to make sense of a confounding world. For those of us who are just as confused but nowhere near as eloquent it is a great relief to find words capable of expressing both our bewilderment and our belief in a better way forward.
 “We must abandon the hard-fought trenches we have dug ourselves into and come out into the open, surrender our arms, our possessions, our rights as individuals, classes, nations, peoples. A billion men seeking peace cannot be enslaved. We have enslaved ourselves, by our own petty, circumscribed view of life.”
It’s hard to imagine the sensation of the undertow that pulled the human race into the second world war but I sometimes get the feeling I’m living in a time that is becoming so primitive that if I engage too closely with it I risk being sucked backwards – toward violence, toward anger and hate, toward the caveman – and every minute I spend on things like working a meaningless job to pay a pile of worthless bills is an obstruction, a hurdle to overcome that stands between me and reality.
“There is every reason to be sad at this moment: all the premonitions which I have had for ten years are coming true. This is one of the lowest moments in the history of the human race. There is no sign of hope on the horizon. The whole world is involved in slaughter and bloodshed.”
Murdered carcasses


“Such was Europe before the present debacle. Such is America to-day. And such will it be to-morrow when the smoke has cleared away. And as long as human beings can sit and watch with hands folded while their fellow men are tortured and butchered so long will civilization be a hollow mockery, a wordy phantom suspended like a mirage above a swelling sea of murdered carcasses.”

“The present way of life, which is America’s, is doomed as surely as is that of Europe. No nation on earth can possibly give birth to a new order of life until a world view is established. We have learned through bitter mistakes that all the peoples of the earth are vitally connected, but we have not made use of that knowledge in an intelligent way.”
Henry Miller found something in Greece that he carried around with him everywhere he travelled, the way a lover carries his yearning. The war that was roiling the world as he wrote Collussus came to an end as all wars do. If the vision of Miller, and the others who share his dream, is ever realized, one fortunate generation will see the end not of a war but of war.
“No people in the world are as in need of what Greece has to offer as the American people. Greece is not merely the antithesis of America, but more, the solution to the ills which plague us. Economically it may seem unimportant, but spiritually Greece is still the mother of nations, the fountainhead of wisdom and inspiration.”
 

Peace is not the opposite of war

“Peace is not the opposite of war any more than death is the opposite of life. The poverty of language, which is to say the poverty of man’s imagination or the poverty of his inner life, has created an ambivalence which is absolutely false. I am talking of course of the peace which passeth all understanding. There is no other kind. The peace which most of us know is merely a cessation of hostilities, a truce, an interregnum, a lull, a respite, which is negative. The peace of the heart is positive and invincible, demanding no conditions, requiring no protection. It just is. If it is a victory it is a peculiar one because it is based on surrender, a voluntary surrender, to be sure.”

“To be free, as I then knew myself to be, is to realize that all conquest is in vain, even the conquest of self, which is the last act of egotism. To be joyous is to carry the ego to its last summit and to delivery it triumphantly. To know peace is total: it is the moment after, when the surrender is complete, when there is no longer even the consciousness of surrender. Peace is at the center and when it is attained the voice issues forth in praise and benediction. Then the voice carries far and wide, to the outermost limits of the universe. Then it heals, because it brings light and the warmth of compassion.”

Review: What’s So Great About Art Anyway?

 

If teaching is an art form, then teaching art must be its masterpiece. Rachel Branham makes a compelling case for the benefits of art education in her graphic memoir, What’s So Great About Art Anyway?.

Choosing the graphic novel format to tell the story of her “Teacher’s Odyssey,” Branham perfectly illustrates the benefits of visual art in the communication of ideas. One of the ideas she champions is the liberating effect of art education on young and impressionable minds. She writes, “Art education is fundamentally based on play, on discovery and investigation – and having meaningful experiences!” 

In ways that have both advantages and disadvantages, there are no right answers in art.




Concepts like success and development are hard to quantify in the arts but childhood development has been studied extensively and the place of the arts in human growth is well documented in these pages. The section on cognitive science and Viktor Lowenfeld’s definition of developmental stages as reflected in children’s drawings, is fascinating and, due to Branham’s illustrations, fun to read.




Although most of the book is devoted to art education, Branham also addresses education in general: its history, evolution, and place in society. While the value of good teachers is generally appreciated, support and understanding of their role in society is often overlooked.



What’s So Great About Art Anyway does a great job of showcasing the ways art education benefit cognitive and social development, but it also sheds light on what it feels like to be a teacher in America today. Here is Branham’s description of the school as workplace: “The atmosphere feels fraught with anxiety and body odor. The same tensions tug at the students, and the same concerns poke at the teachers. It’s the same everywhere. The institution of formal education has hardly changed since its inception.”






Recently, I attended to a wine-tasting party (think Tupperware party for drunks) where the rep from the winery was a teacher who, like 60% of American teachers, has a hard time making ends meet on that salary alone. Branham points out that in Finland “teachers’ wages are comparable to other prestigious occupations, like lawyers, doctors, and engineers” and that “there’s no shortage of teachers in countries who have invested in their training and ongoing support.” In America, teachers’ salaries have been declining since the 1990s and they now earn about 20% less than other college graduates who are similarly educated. The attrition rate of teachers in America is double that of countries like Finland, Singapore, or Canada.
 


The elephant in this book’s room is our nation’s current civil cold war. Teachers are on the “liberal” side of this war just as cops are on the “conservative” side, regardless of the individual beliefs of members of those professions. As long as both houses of Congress, the White House, and most governorships and state legislatures, are in the hands of Republicans, teachers will be seen as the enemy. De-regulation of the private sector, removing oversight of police departments, and a steadfast refusal to even audit the Pentagon are will be offset by draconian federal government involvement in classrooms and wombs.

Art, like teaching, is a suspect profession to the party in power today. As Eve L. Ewing points out in the New York Times, President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts has more to do with authoritarian politics than with economic concerns, as the money saved would equal 0.004 percent of the federal budget. Not for nothing does our presi
dent “love the uneducated.”



In dark days, like the ones we’re living through, art is often seen as frivolous, but wise people understand that these are the times when art serves its highest purpose. Leaders from across the centuries and the political spectrum have added their voices in support of the arts:

“The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.” Winston Churchill

“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test to the quality of a nation’s civilization.” John F. Kennedy 

“The Arts and Sciences, essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life, have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.” George Washington

Get your copy of What’s So Great About Art Anyway? from Teachers College Press, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble.

And don’t forget to tip your bartender and waitstaff. They might be teachers.

Review: The Nicholas Roerich Museum

“When humanity is possessed by the devils of malice and mutual destruction, every token of affirmativeness and mutual help is especially valuable.” Nicholas Roerich.



On the north side of 107th Street, one building east of Riverside Park, stands the Nicholas Roerich Museum. The house is its own work of art. Paintings and artifacts decorate the walls and stairways of the three floors that are open to the public.

Roerich was a painter, philosopher, writer, archeologist, stage designer, and firm believer in the power of art and spirituality to cure the plagues that have infected humanity, in his time and ours. His spiritual curiosity was sufficiently diverse that subjects of his paintings include Mohammed, Elijah, The Mother of the World, The Spirit of the Himalayas, and St. Francis of Assisi. The building was once home to his Master Institute of United Arts and now serves as a gallery for over 150 of his paintings as well as hosting a regular schedule of concerts and poetry readings. It also includes a small bookshop where I picked up a copy of his book The Invincible for $4.

With his wife Helena, he founded the Agni Yoga school of mysticism in 1920. They also traveled extensively through Asia, including a 1934-35 expedition through Manchuria, sponsored by the US Dept. of Agriculture which was headed by Henry Wallace who would go on to become FDR’s vice-president. The purpose of the expedition was to collect seeds and they collected over 300 species, as well as uncovering important ancient manuscripts. 

A view up the stairwell


Roerich’s belief in the power of art led him to develop the Treaty on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments, also known as The Roerich Pact. From Wikipedia:

The most important idea of the Roerich Pact is the legal recognition that the defense of cultural objects is more important than the use or destruction of that culture for military purposes, and the protection of culture always has precedence over any military necessity.


He was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize in 1929, 1932, and 1935.

As the man’s art, both paintings and writings, can speak eloquently for themselves, the following are examples of both. 


 

Tibetan Lakes

A bird flying over the water lightly touches the calm surface, and long afterward the forms which before had been beautifully reflected will be atremble.

Lord of the Night

On the physical plane everything can be exhausted, but on the spiritual plane at the base of everything lies inexhaustibility. And it is by this measure that the two planes are primarily divided.
Mother of the World

In addition to many other kinds of contagions, epidemics of madness frequently appeared upon various continents. Whole countries suffered from the intrusion of malicious ideas into various domains of life. Naturally, these epidemics broke out especially frequently in the spheres of religion, superstition, and within the bounds of official suspiciousness.

 

Most Sacred (Treasure of the Mountains)

Great faith is laid into creativity. Since ancient times the paths of art have been sanctified. On these paths mutual understanding and friendship remain steadfast.

 

Repentence

Precisely now, when the contemporary way of life strives toward brevity, abruptness, and chance, it is especially essential to aspire to evaluations based upon the entire oeuvre.

 

Star of the Hero

The great elders, hermits, and dwellers in caves knew unerringly where the heart is, how to treat it, and how to evoke its benevolent action. What a wonderful word – Benevolence!

One final note on these paintings – photography does not do them justice. They should be seen on the walls of the museum, among themselves. The Nicholas Roerich Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 12-5 and on the weekends from 2-5. Closed Mondays. Admission is free, donations accepted. 

Review: Regina Spektor at Radio City Music Hall

“This is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
You love until you don’t
You try until you can’t
You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath” 
– Regina Spektor

 
Regina Spektor’s show at Radio City Music Hall last Saturday was unique in a number of ways. For one thing, she didn’t use the ubiquitous screens to magnify her performance the way every act I’ve seen at venues of that size for the past ten years has. She also had no other singers to supplement her vocals. She didn’t need them. Except for one song, she had no guitarist. She was accompanied by two violins, a viola, a cello, drums, and another keyboard in addition to the grand piano she played. But what made the show stand out the most for me, other than the songs and her performance of them, was its intimacy. I’d never before seen an artist have a phone call with her mother from the stage.



The song selection leaned heavily on last year’s Remember Us to Life and the 2006 collection Begin to Hope. She opened with On the Radio, quoted above, and had the crowd eating out of the palm of her hand from the first note. Four of the next five songs were from the new album before she launched into a touching cover of Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2. All the new songs sounded as polished as if she had been playing them live for many years, except for one gaffe. After a false start she stopped to say she was going to pretend she wasn’t performing at “Radio Fucking City” but was just playing a gig in a bar. As it was Purim, she talked about how she used to pass around bags of candy to the audience during previous shows on the holiday but couldn’t do it in a venue of that size. Her sweetness was enough.

About that phone call: This was her first home-town show that her mother had missed, due to illness. It turns out Mrs. Spektor is public school music teacher and had caught something from the children who like her so much that they hug her. So the dutiful daughter called to check in on her mother whose Russian words echoed off the venue’s scalloped walls. Regina translated her mother’s words to her “little kitten.” On cue, the 6,000 in the crowd yelled “Feel Better Mrs. Spektor!” like school children. Later, when a man in the crowd yelled, “You’re amazing!” She answered, “It’s a very kind and reassuring voice you have, sir.” And it was. Without mentioning Trump and all the specific ugliness unleashed and marauding in this country, she spoke of resisting the forces of darkness with positive forces like music. The whole show was kind and reassuring. At times like these, that may be the most valuable gift anyone can give.

Here is her video for The Trapper and the Furrier, one of the most powerful songs from her new album:



The trapper and the furrier went walking through paradise
And all the animals lay clawless and toothless before them
And all the mothers stepped away from their babies
Leaving them open and easy to handle
The trapper and the furrier went walking through paradise
They took some for now and they got some for later
And they marveled at the pelts, not a bullet hole in them
And they filled up the cages with pets for their children

What a strange, strange world we live in
Where the good are damned and the wicked forgiven
What a strange, strange world we live in
Those who don’t have lose, those who got get given
More, more, more, more

The owner and the manager went walking through paradise
And all the shelves were filled with awards and achievements
And on every corner, a power presentation
And on every floor, an army of workers
The owner and the manager went walking through paradise
And all their charts showed so much promise and progress
No sick days, no snow days, no unions, no taxes
And they wandered towards home, kings of their castles

What a strange, strange world we live in
Where the good are damned and the wicked forgiven
What a strange, strange world we live in
Those who don’t have lose, those who got get given
More, more, more, more

The lawyer and the phar
macist went walking through paradise

And all the sick were around with fevers unbreaking
Crying and bleeding and coughing and shaking
And arms outstretched, prescription collecting
The lawyer and the pharmacist went walking through paradise
Pressed suits in a courtroom, aroma of chloroform
And they smiled at the judge, disposition so sunny
‘Cause they didn’t have the cure but sure needed the money

What a strange, strange world we live in
Where the good are damned and the wicked forgiven
What a strange, strange world we live in
Those who don’t have lose, those who got get given
More, more, more, more

More, more, more, more
More, more, more, more
More, more, more, more
More, more, more, more