The 42nd Street Ballroom by George Rhoads has been in the NY/NJ Port Authority Bus Terminal since the late 1980s. I recall it from its earliest days when it ran nearly continuously, activated by a light driven motion sensor. It’s thumping and clanging always drew a few spectators to stand and watch it run for more than a passing second or two. It figures in pop culture now and then, and as I recall, one of Madison Smartt Bell’s early stories mentioned it. A few years ago, it was sent out for an extensive renovation job.
Yesterday, when I ventured into Manhattan, after being disgorged from this quasi birth canal into the station, I went to see the thing run.
It was the middle of the day, so there were not a lot of people around: the glass box stood deserted. Great, I’ll have it all to myself! I pressed the silver button on the box frame that activates the mechanism now that the motion sensors are gone. (The idea is to let the machine rest at times so that it wears out more slowly.) Alas, no dice.
I could see the main hoist mechanism working, slowly rotating the gears that move the vertical chain to raise the buckets with billiard balls to the starting point of their downward, gravitationally driven ride. (It’s just the same as a roller coaster), but after a minute or two of no action, I knew something was wrong with the mechanical beast. No balls were being hoisted up and dumped off at the starting point!
For some reason, the ball could not completely roll onto the hoisting forks that would be brought into place by the moving chain: it would just bounce off the tips of them instead of rolling on in, and being carried upwards on its merry journey. Time after time…
Eventually, the staff will learn of it and fix it. This thing probably takes a lot of care and feeding.
On Fifth Avenue at 53rd, around the corner from MoMA, is the Saint Thomas Presbyterian Church, once, if not still, among the richest congregations in the country. In many of the online descriptions (but not the Daytonian one I linked) it is described as designed in the French High Gothic style, aka flamboyant. I believe that this is because of the ornamented stained glass rose window that is similar in treatment to the one on the Rheims Cathedral, and also because of the stunning reredos that you can see in the shot of the altar, at the top of this post. But the interior, to me, is more akin to early gothic: The heavy columns remind me of Notre Dame of Paris.
As you can see, the pillars are plain cylinders, not articulated into the multiple small columns, bunched together, that you see in late gothic. And the English stained glass is beautiful!
A glorious day today, so I walked from the 42nd Street Bus Terminal to Washington Square Park. Along the way, a few buildings caught my eye.
Of course, I’m always sentimental about The Empire State Building. Happy to see that the memory of Kong is kept alive.
Some might see the pairing of the spires below, reaching to transcendent spirits or mammon, as ironic, but I don’t. This city always worshipped money.
Across the street, I was intrigued by this Art Deco facade, so I went around to check out the lobby.
There was a only a security woman sitting at a desk, alone in this golden lobby/coffin. It seems like an Egyptian burial chambers. Maybe the idea is that all the workers in the buildings are dead and are being transported to a realm of gold.
A few weeks ago, I went to see the Charles Ray show at the Met. The image below on the left is of the piece, “Family romance.” This image on the right is from a favorite store of mine that, besides being a great bookstore, has all sorts of Japanese merchandise. These figures, which I thought of when I was at the Ray show, are “blind box” figures. I believe they are sold from vending machines primarily, a rage across China and Japapn. You don’t know which of the six or eight item series you will get in the box, and there is always one super rare item in the series that only a very few will get. I prefer these to the Charles Ray sculptures.
I don’t get nostalgic about my working days; normally they appear in my nightmares. But reading the obituary of the graphic designer, Bob Gill, in the NYTimes yesterday, did prompt a little fond remembering. When I was an engineer for a specialty computer modeling firm, and deep into the then new technology of geographic information systems (GIS, just think Google Maps), I started a marketing outfit called Community Cartography with a friend. We took public digital data and formatted it for easy use by the masses. Bob Gill designed the venture’s logo, displayed above, courtesy of the Wayback Machine. The simple idea of using a scale bar as the logo of an outfit dedicated to making maps was, well…brilliant, and pure Gill, in that the image conveyed the idea with elegance and clarity. Not only that, usually, the logo was incorporated into the map so that it was correctly sized and functional, as in this detail from a map that was included in a National Geographic atlas:
I remember showing one of the partners at my employer firm the calling cards he designed for us, with a simple black and white design and text. Predictably he said, “I could have done that! All that money for this?” I explained that, of course, we were not paying him for the amount of ink he expended, but for his imaginative work and ideas, but that did not go over well. When the firm decided to rework its branding, this was the logo they selected. We employees referred to it as “the boob in the cube.”
I have read accounts of people who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, and who rate it one of the high points of their lives despite his craziness. Well, working with Bob Gill was not a pinnacle of my life, but it certainly was fun, and it definitely was a high point of my career. He was a character, and clearly a creative genius. And he was dedicated to his clients, even if they were relatively unimportant and feebly bankrolled as we were. His office was his apartment in One Fifth Avenue, where we sat on twin Eames lounge chairs, and he spun out ideas and amusing stories.
I sought him out again to do the graphics for a big proposal I worked on to win the job to create a computer map of the NYC sewer system. I wanted our proposal to be something different, from top to bottom. Filled with media gimmicks and suggestive imagery, including a Powerpoint presentation referencing Victor Hugo and Napoleon. Bob christened our proposal team The Datum Group, a wonderful idea as the problem of the datum was central to the execution of the project. We lost big time…what was I thinking? The selection committee didn’t have the slightest grasp of the technical issues involved, although I did get credit for “the most literary” proposal offered. A few years later, I bumped into the fellow who was leading the team that won the job. He congratulated me on my loss; the project was shortening his life.
Bob kept in touch for a while, sending me copies of his latest memorandum book and a book on graphic design that featured the logo he created for us. The obituary in The Times does a good job at capturing his sense of humor and creative drive. I do think that working with him gave me a greater insight into what it is like to be an artist, a person gripped by and driven by their talent. Fortunately for him, he was able to channel it in a way that made him a good living and gave him a lot of fun and fulfillment.
I took a look at the new addition to the Hudson River waterfront, the Little Island, and it set me off on an extended internal riff about illusions and the artificial. Coincidentally, I finished up my little foray into the Chelsea district of Manhattan by visiting the Museum of Illusions, a sort of “chain museum,” in that it has sites in many cities. It was very well done, and a lot of fun.
As for the new park, it is certainly in the grand tradition of 18th garden follies, as the review in the NYTimes commented. The planting is lush, the views are spectacular, the engineering is amazing (although I have had a hard time finding out just exactly how those “tulip” buckets were constructed), but the whole thing is just a little bit…weird and kooky. There is a strong Disneyland feeling, and maybe that’s intentional, but the place feels like a an expensive bauble strung to the waterfront necklace of NYC. Good thing that Diller is footing the bill for maintenance for the next twenty years, because as the Times noted, it’s likely to cost a “king’s ransom.”
I suppose you could say Little Island is more E.A. Poe “Garden at Arnheim than Disneyland, but in any case, we’re firmly in the realm of the artificial. Not fake, mind you, but the product of artifice. And that’s art, with a capital, or maybe lower-case ‘A’. If it were a a little bit on the perverse side, it might have pleased Huysman’s Des Esseintes in A Rebours, but it’s definitely a family place. And after all, it’s no more ‘naturalistic’ than this favorite space for tourists the world over:
Olmsted gave us a little bit of rus in urbe, nature in the city, but in this more European section of Central Park, he leaned Continental and gave us a little bit of the (Italianate) city in nature, in the nature in the city… Yeah, it’s all how you look at it.
Not too far from this spot is what may be the most visited location in the park, Strawberry Fields, a mosaic in the pathway memorializing John Lennon, near the street entrance across from The Dakota (home of Rosemary’s Baby) where he was murdered. And we know what John Lennon said about reality…and was he just echoing something he’d read?
As I rode public transit across the GWB and downtown on the A-train, I was reading this book from the 1970s that I picked up from the NYRB:
This book is one sustained illusion, a piece of artifice that is amazing to contemplate. It is the story of an empire that existed somewhere in the near east, somewhat contemporaneously with the Roman Empire, except that the Roman Empire is never mentioned, and it seems to be the Roman Empire, except not. Maybe it’s the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the geography seems to match that better, but it really doesn’t matter, because it’s all entirely invented.
The book is a novel, an elaborate historical invention that parallels historical reality, or what we think of as historical reality, or what writers tell us, or have told us, is historical reality, and so on, and on. It is deeply and delightfully ironic and satiric, includes a raft of footnotes that are either completely invented, with authors, sources, journals, and books cited, or sometimes partially invented, and often somewhere in between, requiring a bit of research to determine just where they stand on the line between reality and illusion.
The tone of the book is familiar to anyone who has read a lot of history of the Middle Ages or the Roman and Greek periods of Western Civ that is now slightly old fashioned, that is, stuff written before 1970, say. The cover of the NYRB paperback features an engraving by Piranesi, that consumate re-inventor of the imperial past: his painstaking historical accuracy sometimes gave way to incredible flights of fancy, as in this image, and sometimes it’s not easy to tell if he is giving us reality or fancy, but of course, the reality crumbled to dust long ago.
Reading this book, I had a vague sense that I had heard it all before, and not from the history that I had read, but I didn’t identify the source of this feeling until today. It’s Star Wars! That inexhaustible film franchise is another form taken by the lure of the artificial.
In Star Wars, we have a totalized artificial history that is the mirror of The Glory of the Empire. The novel looks back in time and creates an artificial empire, the movie series looks forward. The novel creates an artificial history that mimics and borrows from actual historical reality and seems as if it could have happened just as the author wrote it. (Of course, the conceit of the novel is that he is writing it as other authors, chronicleers, wrote it, so we have texts written on top of texts…all quite in the manner of J. L. Borges.) In Star Wars, we have a fantastical future realm that lifts all the historical cliches wholesale into an imagined sci-fi future that nobody could believe is real, and that the creators don’t intend anyone to take as real: it’s fantasy for fun.
Star Wars begins from a hazily imagined pas and present, and projects into the phantastical future. What’s so disconcerting about The Glory of the Empire, is that it starts from a perfectly observed present, and imagines a past that we almost feel must have existed given what does exist now. One passage that uses this technique so well is a description of the reunion of the Emperor to-be Alexis with his mother, from whom he has been separated for twenty years. We are told of frescoes by Piero della Francesca that depict this scene – and we can almost believe they exist, especially when we read the footnotes! – and given the paintings by the master that do exist, shouldn’t these be among them? Not to mention the fact that the text goes on to tell us of the immense influence of this narrated/imagined scene on the subsequent history of western art. The passage concludes with a “quotation” from one of Proust’s novels in which a character dies on viewing the frescoe by Piero.
Personally, I have no taste for Star Wars. I prefer my fantasy, my illusions, my artifices with a heavy does of irony and satire. Why would I want to see all the cliches of politics and human folly simply reenacted with high-tech impossible gizmos? But that’s me.
Speaking of artificial islands sculpted into paradisaical gardens, is there ever anything new?
With all the talk in the City about the poor and overcrowded state of the subways, I thought it would be a nice time to revisit this video of mine – 40 years old! – made as an homage to the trains. It is followed by a clip paying homage to 2001 which uses some of the same visual themes.
I made the piece during a summer class in video at NYU. The camera was about the size of a very large dictionary, and the the recording mechanism was slung over your shoulder and weighed a ton! I converted the video from 3/4″ tape to DVD several years ago at a video restoration lab in San Francisco.
The late sequence of the train moving through the tunnel as the Saint-Saëns music builds to a climax links the piece to the following bit inspired by 2001 and my night driving on the NJ turnpike. I have always been a time-space traveler! 🙂
These videos, and others I have made, are available on my MUNDO VIDEO!! page at this blog.
We take a break now from our finger gazing to talk about Jorge Palacios, a sculptor in wood who is now being shown at the Noguchi Museum, a favorite spot of mine. I read about his big piece, Link, in the Flatiron Plaza, and went to see it.
When I got there on a beautiful day like the one in the images above, there was a man scrubbing the piece clean.
I talked to him a bit in halting English and my halting Spanish. He remarked that the piece gets lots of scuff marks from people’s shoes! I asked him if it is hollow, it is, and if I could bang on it, I did. When I got home, I did some reading about the artist and the exhibit at the Noguchi and it seemed to me that the guy looked a little like the artist, didn’t he? He was a lot more friendly than his picture makes him seem!
Yesterday, I went to the Noguchi to see the exhibit of his work, including this one:
Wandering about the exhibit, examining the installations and putting in more lights, was the same “workman” I’d seen cleaning the piece in Manhattan. It dawned on me that this unassuming man was the artist, and I had a pleasant chat with him – I reminded him of our previous encounter. An amusing bit of serendipity, and I had him sign a copy of a monograph that I bought in the museum shop. 🙂
When I was leaving the museum, I chatted with the admissions person about my encounters, and he chuckled: “Yes, he’s a very hands-on type of guy.”