Art in New York

By Melvyn Kohn
October 26, 2009

I'm still hanging out in New York, catching up with friends and contemplating my next move. For now, I've got a place in Chelsea, which is where quite a few galleries are located. There seems to be more of them now than in the '90s, with over two dozen in the area, the same on the Lower East Side, and quite a few artist studios midtown as part of an arts initiative by the city.

The midtown artists put on a show earlier this month in the Port Authority Building, where I went to see the work of Marla Mossman, a friend of my sister. Marla is a photographer and chose to hang images of her work in Afghanistan, which really caught the eye. It was a multi-artist exhibit, so I got to see the works of 30 other artists, it was a show of many colours. Cecile Brunswick, Deborah Freedman, Eric Holzman, Mel Pekarsky and Margaret Zox Brown were among those who shared wall space for the event.

A single artist exhibit the next day at the NY Studio Gallery brought me to the Lower East Side, where I grew up in the '60s. It was then a very Jewish neighbourhood, or parts of it were I ought to say; one could hear on certain streets Hebrew and Yiddish along with a splattering of Slavic languages; and of course, even back then, Spanish quite ubiquitously. This area became fashionable with hippies and beat poets, gentrification followed in the '80s and '90s, and now there is a mosaic melting pot such as can only be found in NY. I once came across a Chinese restaurant in this southern part of the island, and went in for a meal; it was like stepping into a bar mitzvah party; the staff all wore kippot, or yarmulkes as they are wont to call them here, and matzoh ball soup appeared on the menu along with spring rolls. It was founded by Chinese Jews and is not far from Chinatown.

All of which kaleidoscoping lends itself well to the bohemian atmosphere of the gallery hoppers. I do not usually venture this far south, but my friend Joel Block invited me out to this as he knew the owner, with whom we joined in admiration of the artist's work. Usually when I go to these I am more inclined to admire the wine; so many artists seem to be trying to earn an easy living with quick, sloppy work. But Charlotta Janssen was a real painter. She put soul into her work, a collection of canvasses titled "Can't Live the Commonest Way on Six Bits a Day". It featured Americans in the Great Depression era. All were executed in melancholy shades of blue, contrasted with iron oxide browns, along with darker browns which gave strength and support. Her rendering of the eyes was very poignant.

The large, cosmopolitan environment in NY is still part of a small world, and so no wonder Joel and I ran into someone who knew people in common. A man named Smith, who told us he sold stones on 47th Street, entertained us with his amusing tales of his eventful life, which included hanging out with Adrian Dannat, also a friend of Joel's. Adrian I do not know but by name, as he is a journalists and writes on occasion for the Independent. Smith, I might add, was an exception to a rule here, and it seemed a bit strange that on Friday night I would meet anyone who worked in the Diamond District, let alone with the name Smith; that crowd is the frum crowd. Step onto 47th between 6th and 7th and you are in Jerusalem.

He invited me to another opening the next night, this one featuring paintings by John Lourie of the Lounge Lizards, friends of whom I had known long time ago in the late '80s when they lived in Alphabet City and ran Cave Canum (beware of dog, in Latin). Everyone seemed to know someone from that time and that place, so the evening was a bit of a time warp.

Days later I made the rounds again, this time visiting the studios of Cecile Brunswick and Margaret Zox Brown at 315 W 39, a building dedicated to providing loft space for artists. Art has been supported very visually these last few years, and the public exhibits add a grace note to the bustling metropolis. At the subway station on 8th Avenue and 14th Street, there are very eye-catching bronze figures of roly-poly men going about their business. Tom Otterness is the sculptor, and his work is a delight. He has them acting out comic scenes, one of which is of them trying to saw away at one of the I beams supporting the tracks.

So, if you don't have time to go to exhibits at galleries, dive underground and ride around on the subway. And if you want to see the Otterness figures, take the A train.


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