On a gleaming New York Sunday, all pure blue skies and brilliant sunlight, my wife and I decide to take off for the Breuer, the Met’s adventurous outpost for modern art located at the old Whitney. We travel there to see the late Brazilian artist Lygia Pape’s first career survey in the United States. She is a prolific experimental artist using varied media–woodcuts, sculpture, prints, painting, installation and film. For me the highlights are projected videos of vast, white cloth cut with holes through which many smiling and unsmiling faces can be seen. I respect Pape’s fecund imagination but I’m unable to respond to most of the rest her austere, conceptually oriented art. Except the video images which evoke a sense of community – children and adults trapped and struggling but still able to feel joy.
In fact, I must not be the only one who has trouble taking pleasure in her work. For on a Sunday, the museum is almost deserted. But my wife and I go downstairs to its new, sleek café/bar/restaurant where we had breakfast for many years when it wasn’t state-of-the-art but a comfortable part of the old Whitney experience. There are a few people sitting near us, all of them reading books. While drinking my iced latte, I start a desultory brief conversation with one of them about the rarity of seeing people read in public and then sit silently watching myself, taking pleasure in this very sophisticated, archetypal New York experience. It even includes an exchange with the restaurant’s lovely warm young manager, who talks to us about living in Harlem near my old college, CCNY, and about the Museum’s forthcoming shows including an Edvard Munch exhibit in November (that one is sure to bring in the crowds). I actually begin to compose sentences in my mind about watching myself sitting there – an exercise in literary self-consciousness. And I see the language – just the use of words – transforming what is essentially a mundane experience into something grander than it is.
It’s a much better use of my tendency to be self-conscious than the kind that often emotionally messed me up in my teens and 20s. That was a time when I anxiously observed my every body movement and every conversation I had, and nothing ever quite came easily. I was then an awkward nest of insecurities, but now, at 77, though never quite free of insecurity, I’m comparatively confident and at home in my interactions with other people.
Our Sunday ends in Central Park sitting on a bench near the 79th Street and Fifth Avenue entrance, where Met visitors, tourists and even some Upper East Side residents who failed to go away for the weekend pass by. We sit and look up at Cedar Hill, a steep hillside that ends in a shallow green valley. Whenever there is snow, neighborhood children gather to sleigh down it, but now couples and families are lying happily on blankets reading or picnicking. The Hill – one of the more striking of the Park’s vistas – offers a lovely play of light and shadow, which my wife notices and photographs. Hopefully, she’ll turn it into an urban landscape painting.
A perfect New York day, even if the Breuer exhibit disappoints. It’s also a way of spending some hours not thinking or talking about the monstrous narcissist and sleaze who offers us a compulsive lie and vicious tweet almost every day.