Thursday, March 30, 2017

New York 2017 - Brooklyn

After three previous visits to "New York City", Rich and I really have only explored Manhattan, so on this trip our plan was to check out Queens and Brooklyn.  The Queens itinerary fell by the wayside on our last day when torrential rains induced us to hunker down instead and rest for the trip home.  We did manage to go on day trips to Brooklyn and got a good taste of this borough, although by no means did we see it all.  Along with our friends Yim and Murray, we booked a 3 hour walking tour covering the neighbourhoods of Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights, and in particular, the fascinating story behind the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Our tour started on the Manhattan side at the City Hall Park where we got a brief introduction on the history of Brooklyn and a glimpse of the bridge, before actually walking across it while we learned about how it was built.  Taking 14 years to build and completed in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge is the oldest cable-stayed suspension bridge in the United States and the first one constructed using steel wires.

We learned about the impetus to build the bridge, driven by the need for people and goods to cross the East River and connect Brooklyn and Manhattan.  Back in the 1600s, crossings were made by rowboat.  Later, horse powered ferry boats and then steamship ferries made the trip but were disrupted whenever the river froze.  Bridge architect John Augustus Roebling championed the construction of the bridge and designed it himself.  Unfortunately John Roebling met an untimely accident right after the construction started, when his foot was crushed by a boat while he was standing on the Bolton Pier surveying the building progress.  As was often the case in those times, it was not the accident that killed him but the subsequent medical treatment which led to the amputation of his foot and eventual death from a tetanus infection.  His work was taken over by his son Washington Roebling who also met with tragedy the next year when he along with other workers developed “decompression sickness”  from descending too quickly and for too long into the water while working on the base of the bridge.  This led to paralysis, leaving him an invalid confined to his home for the bulk of the construction.  It fell upon Washington’s wife Emily Warren Roebling to take over as chief foreman, spending the next 12 years interacting with the workers on her husband’s behalf as he supervised from his bedroom window.  To succeed at this daunting challenge, Emily studied higher mathematics, strengths of materials, bridge specifications and the intricacies of cable construction.  This was quite an incredible feat to be accomplished by a woman in the late 1800s and as was typical of attitudes toward female roles in those days, the first plaque erected for the bridge honoured John and Washington but left her out.  This was eventually rectified with a second plaque with the words “Emily Warren Roebling .. whose faith and courage helped her stricken husband Washington Roebling complete the construction of this bridge from the plans of his father John Roebling”.  While this severely understated Emily’s contributions, at least it was something.  She also had the honour of being the first person to walk across the bridge, holding a rooster as a symbol of triumph.  When misinformed rumours of the bridge collapsing led to people avoiding its use, the Barnum circus boldly marched 21 elephants and 17 camels across to prove its strength.

As we were walking along the Brooklyn Bridge, our tour guide warned us to stay to the right as the cyclists are rather aggressive if you wander into their lane to the left.  It was chilly when we started the tour, but once we got on the bridge, the winds really picked out and it was freezing!  Luckily, it was not pouring rain like it had been the day before, so we did get some nice views of both the Manhattan and the Brooklyn skylines as well as the pretty blue Manhattan Bridge which was completed 26 years after the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Exiting the Brooklyn Bridge on the other side, we arrived into the neighbourhood called Dumbo and learned some interesting facts about the area.  DUMBO stands for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”, referring to the area’s location relative to Manhattan.  Originally they were just going to call it “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge” but someone realized that the acronym “DUMB” might not be the most flattering and added the word “Overpass”.  I’m not sure sharing the name of your neighbourhood with a Walt Disney cartoon elephant is that much better, but that is how is how it ended up.  We learned that Dumbo became an industrial hub for manufacturing because of the proximity to water transportation.  It is known for inventions such as the cardboard box, Brillo soap pad, water meter, and eskimo pie.  Eventually as water transportation became less important, the warehouses turned into artist communities.  The Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was named after the reputation of Brooklyn residents for being skilled at dodging and evading being hit by streetcar trolleys.  Less than 10 years ago, Dumbo was used as the dumping ground for mafia hits but the area has since gentrified and is now a desirable neighbourhood to live and work in.   Walking through the streets of Dumbo and across the Brooklyn Bridge Park, we saw some great views of both the Manhattan Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, more of the Manhattan skyline, and even the Statue of Liberty.

Next we walked to the affluent neighbourhood of Brooklyn Heights which is known as America’s first suburb.  We passed by some beautiful brownstone rowhouses and learned of the many notable residents who have lived or still live in this area including Matthew Broderick, Paul Giamatti, Penelope Cruz, Lena Dunham, and Norman Mailer.  We walked by the house at 155 Willow Ave. where Arthur Miller wrote the Crucible while married to Marilyn Monroe, as well as a home that Truman Capote stayed at when he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  We learned that Brooklyn Heights was heavily involved in the Underground Railroad during the US Civil War.  We saw a home that was used as a hiding spot which still had a “window” built into the ground leading to secret tunnels.  Finally we came to the Plymouth Church which was a major stop for the Underground Railroad, where its first Calvinist preacher Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin) pledged to help all slaves and even held an auction to bid on the freedom of slaves and asked his parishioners for donations.  A statue of Beecher stands in front of the church today.

As part of our walking tour, the guide had pointed out two pizza parlours sitting side by side under the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo.  It was like a David and Goliath situation with the giant white Grimaldi’s Pizza towering over the tiny green and red building containing Juliana’s Pizza.  Apparently Grimaldi’s was originally a small family owned pizza parlour that resided in Julianna’s current spot, but due to popularity, it was bought up in the 1990s and turned into a chain of international restaurants.  When the lease expired on the original small Grimaldi location, the chain owner moved the restaurant to the big white bank building next door.  Unfortunately the expansion and franchising of Grimaldi's led to a marked decline in quality, much to the dismay of the original owner and founder Patsy Grimaldi.  In 2012, Patsy decided to come out of retirement and was able to relocate back in his original spot, naming the new restaurant Juliana’s and restoring the original taste and quality.  Our tour guide strongly advised us to go to Juliana’s instead of Grimaldi’s if we were planning on having Brooklyn pizza for lunch and this is exactly what we did.  We rushed over to Julianna’s right after the tour and it was a good thing we did since we snagged what was almost the last available table.  Yim and I ran ahead and arrived first while the guys sauntered leisurely.  The restaurant would not seat us until everyone had arrived so we were impatiently waving for the men to hurry up.   The first thing that we noticed when we walked into the restaurant was the shrine to Frank Sinatra who was a frequent patron of the original Grimaldi's.

We decided to order two of the specialty pizzas.  We chose the #1 which was a white pizza, made with mozzarella, scarmorza affumicata (an Italian cow’s milk cheese), pancetta, scallions and white truffles in olive oil.  Our second choice was the #6, which also happened to be a white pizza but sounded so good that we could not resist.  It had grilled chicken, mozzarella, Monterrey Jack, white cheddar, house-made guacamole and cilantro.  Both pizzas were delicious and we ate them with gusto.  They were also really filling so although we were tempted by the dessert specialty called a “Brookie Bridge” (brownie ice cream sandwich), we could not find the room and showing unexpected restraint, we passed on the opportunity.  While waiting in line for the very few washrooms on the premises, we had fun watching the chefs prepare the pizzas.  I chatted with someone else in line and found out that she had also been on the tour and came to Julianna’s (instead of Grimaldi’s).  I wonder if the tour group gets a commission.

After lunch, we went on a self-guided tour in Bushwick, another neighbourhood in Brooklyn north-east of Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights.  There was another guided walking tour available, but since all four of us had already taken graffiti tours in Toronto and knew all about the vocabulary, slangs and rules of engagement, we thought we would do it on our own.  To get to Bushwick from Dumbo, we had to take a metro that went back to the Manhattan side and then crossed again to Brooklyn.  As soon as we got off the metro and looked around, we realized that we were not in  affluent areas like Dumbo or Brooklyn Heights anymore but rather in a working class neighbourhood.  We wandered around for a while looking for areas of graffiti concentration and were a bit disappointed with what we found.  There were a few streets with some good street art, but nowhere near what we have seen in other cities including Toronto where we live.  Maybe we missed some streets that would have been shown to us if we had taken a tour.
It was interesting to see a grittier side of Brooklyn including one building covered with barbed wire.  One dramatic piece painted under the barbed wired building was a mirror image of a woman covering her face with her hand.  On the left side are the words “Some Things” and the right continues the message “Never Change”.  I liked the Andy-Warhol soup can reference in the mural by the artist Angela China who goes by the nickname “Gumshoeart” since all of her works include shoes (usually stilettos) and stepping on chewing gum! 

Rich and I spent the second day in Brooklyn by ourselves since our friends had returned to Toronto by then.  Our main goal for the second trip to Brooklyn was to visit the Brooklyn Museum, which we could get into for free due to our reciprocal privileges with our Art Gallery of Ontario membership.  Prior to going to the museum, we checked out a couple of sights in the vicinity.  We took a photo of the Soldiers and Sailors Arch in the Grand Army Plaza, which was the battleground for one of the first battles of the American Revolution.  It towers over the main entrance to the 585 acre Prospect Park, the largest public park in Brooklyn.  Finally we admired the magnificent door and entryway to the Brooklyn Public Library.  The massive 50-foot high entrance features bronze doors flanked by two limestone pillars with gilded relief carvings depicting science, arts, classical gods like Athena and Zeus and modern day figures including a miner and an electrician.  Fifteen bronze panels on the doors depict heroes of American literature, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Edgar Allen Poe’s Raven, and Brooklyn’s own Walt Whitman.  It really is a sight to behold and is quite unexpected for what is otherwise a modest-looking library.

Founded in 1895 and located in a beautiful Beaux-Arts building, the Brooklyn Art Museum is the 3rd largest museum in New York City.  Its collection includes American art starting from the Colonial period, as well as Egyptian, African and Asian art.  Featured prominently in the lobby is an impressive marble sculpture called “Fallen Angels (1893)” carved by Italian sculptor Salvator Albano.  Also in the lobby are a set of eclectic benches all of different shapes, curvatures, materials and designs.  They are produced by students in Pratt Institute’s Department of Industrial Design, possibly as school assignments.  There is a replica of the Statute of Liberty sitting in the back parking lot which can be seen from the windows of the upper stairwells.  Since we did not have that much time to spend in the museum, we decided to skip the Egyptian exhibits and the Asian/Middle East floor was temporarily closed.  We also decided not to pay an extra fee to see the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit since a similar exhibit would be coming to the Art Gallery of Ontario in May and we could see her works for free once we return home.  This left the temporary exhibits and the American art collection for us to explore.

The main exhibit on the first floor is called “Infinite Blue”, exploring the use of different shades of the colour blue over different time periods, by different ethnicities or cultures, featuring various mediums and subject matters.  The colour blue has often been associated with spirituality, the skies and heavens.  Some of the objects on display included an 18th Century ceremonial wine vessel on a wheeled phoenix and a early 19th Century Chinese Lion-Dog made of white porcelain mixed with a blue/green celadon glaze which is surprisingly from Japan.  There was also a beautiful blue Art Deco/Art Moderne table radio made by Walter Dorwin Teague (circa 1936) featuring striking blue mirrored glass.  In addition to objects and decorative arts, the exhibit also included lines of poetry displayed in blue neon lights, manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, prints and fabrics.

A fascinating and slightly disturbing exhibition features the work of Marilyn Minter, an American artist, feminist and provocateur who incorporates imagery of sex and eroticism in her works.  Minter’s art both provides critique and commentary on the standard male portrayal of female sexuality, and acts as a way of empowering the gender by reclaiming such images and reinterpreting them from a female artist’s perspective.  Her first works, created as undergraduate art assignment in 1969, are frank and unsettling black and white photos of her narcissistic, drug-addled mother who primps and vamps for the camera.  In the 1980s, Minter produced sexualized interpretations of pop-culture images.  Later on, she began a series of closeup photographs of isolated body parts that highlighted physical flaws including blemishes and freckles traditionally hidden by typical images of female “beauty”.

Minter also created a series of paintings that she termed “Food Porn” in which she depicts the manipulation of food as erotic acts, exploring “visual pleasure and appetites”.  The paintings combine pop-art inspired images with dripping paint that brings to mind bodily fluids.  In 1990, she created her first video titled “Food Porn 100” which she displayed as a 30 seconds commercial shown during late night TV shows, as a means of promoting her exhibition in a New York gallery.  This ad can be seen on Youtube and was aired during shows like Nightline, Arsenio Hall and David Letterman.

In a more recent 2009 video titled “Green Pink Caviar”, Minter films close-up images of a model’s mouth, lips and tongue, which lap up a variety of slimy and bubbly substances including vodka-infused and liquefied candy and cake decorations.  She used vodka as a binding agent for the metallic powdered food colouring to give it the desired thick, sticky, and semi-fluid consistency.  The filming viewpoint capturing sucking and licking motions are clearly influenced by techniques used in porn films.  Madonna cleverly used excerpts from this video as the backdrop for her opening song in her Sweet and Sticky tour.  Minter also created some of these images as large-scaled paintings, applying enamel paint and silver liquid on metal sheets, producing photographic-like effects.

Marilyn Minter's 2014 video called “Smash” was created as part of a fashion exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum featuring high-heeled shoes.  Minter’s video depicts a woman with painted toenails strutting around in a pair of bejeweled open-toed stilettos which she uses to kick through plates of glass.  The video is set to erotic music and lighting and is once again shot as a close-up featuring only the woman’s feet.  While all of Minter’s work at least flirts with or hints at the concepts of pornography, in 1989 she created a series of works that she called “Porn Grid”, based on hard-core images of pornographic acts which she embellished with suggestive paint splashes and drips.  These pieces caused great controversy and debate over whether or not they were exploitive and misogynistic when appropriated by a female artist.  In 2014, Playboy Magazine commissioned Minter to create a collage of photographs depicting close-ups of women shaving or touching their pubic areas.  While she created some fairly explicit shots, only the tamer ones were published.  Minter published the unedited versions in a book called “Plush” and some of those photos (again probably the tamer ones) were on display in this exhibition.  I had to break the news to our friend Murray who had returned to Toronto that he missed seeing the “Porn Art” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum.

After seeing all this eroticism and blatant pornography, it did not shock us at all when we came across nude sketches of the rock musician Iggy Pop, who posed for 22 artists of varying backgrounds in the New York area, resulting in the works shown in the exhibition “In Iggy Pop Life Class”.  The session was held as a performance art event led by British artist Jeremy Deller, who chose Pop because of his fame in popular culture, his importance to the rock world, and all that he has “witnessed and endured a lot”.  It was rather interesting to be viewing actual art (the sketches) that resulted from performance art (the event that led to the sketches).

In addition to these temporary exhibitions, we also toured part of the museum's permanent collection including a survey of the Decorative Arts collection.  We saw examples of furniture and decorative art pieces from a variety of time periods and styles including Rococo, Gothic Revival and Italian Post WWII designs.  As always, we were drawn to the Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces including a gorgeous French wrought iron gate circa 1900 rendered by hand in curvilinear Art Nouveau style with a butterfly motif. 

The most striking work in the American Art section is a large mural painted with acrylic, enamel and rhinestones onto a wooden panel.  Titled “A Little Taste Outside of Love” (2007) by Mickalene Thomas, an African American woman is depicted in the archetypical pose of the sexualized reclining nude that historically is rendered as a white woman, as in Edouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863.   Where Manet’s painting depicts the black maidservant, Thomas’ work as usurps the position of the “leading lady” in her painting, casting the black character in that role.

The most impressive part of the permanent collection is an installation called “The Dinner Party” which is housed in its own wing in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art on the 4th Floor.  Taking 5 years to complete in 1979, the Dinner Table is considered a milestone in feminist art which celebrates the achievements of 1038 real and mythical female figures, as a representation of all women whose stories have been lost to history.  Created by Judy Chicago in collaboration with hundreds of other artists, the massive work consists of three long tables forming an equilateral triangle (the symbol of equality) where 13 place settings are displayed on each side.  Each setting commemorates a "guest of honour" and is designed through the embroidered table runners, napkins, utensils and painted china porcelain plates in the style reflecting the honoree.   The names of another 999 women are inscribed in gold on the floor below the table.

Each side of the triangular table represents a separate grouping of women in a period of history.  The first “wing” encompasses ancient goddesses to the Greeks and Romans, including characters like “Amazon” representing powerful women warriors in Greek mythology.  The second wing spans from start of Christianity through to the Reformation and is represented by figures like Marcella who founded the first Christian convent providing safe haven for women and Queen Elizabeth I who retained her independence by refusing to marry.  The last wing contains representation of women from the American Revolution through to the Suffrage Movement and the “women’s revolution”, including Virginia Wolfe, Emily Dickinson, and Georgia OKeefe.  A flip-card booklet gave descriptions for each of the 39 place settings, explaining the relevance and accomplishments of the honorees.  Judy Chicago’s masterpiece caused a bit of an uproar due to the vagina and vulva motifs found in most of the plates and dishes.  This was an incredible exhibit to see and a great way to end our visit to the Brooklyn Museum.

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