A Day in Manhattan: There's No Comparison
Remember the first time you saw the Manhattan skyline without the twin towers? For drivers on the Newark Bay Extension approaching the Holland Tunnel exit of the Turnpike, the effect was particularly shocking. It seemed another city, even to people who preferred the view before there was a World Trade Center. Without losing sight of the human tragedy of September 11 (not to mention the ongoing tragedy of the catastrophic aftershocks), some of us eventually began to think New York looked more like itself again. Before 9/11, the towers had seemed too large and too impersonal; they upset the balance of the skyline. But once the former balance had been restored you could feel for the fallen towers as you never had when they were standing; the loss of life had humanized them, given them their own character and poignance, so that images of them, like the one on a Chock Full O' Nuts label, acquired a kind of melancholy charisma.
In the spring of 2002 drivers following the same Holland Tunnel approach saw a new tower swiftly, improbably establishing itself in the altered skyline. If you hadn't known better, your first thought might have been that somehow the masterbuilders of the city had already defiantly erected the first of another pair of towers. The new structure looked big and impersonal enough and it seemed remarkably close to the site everyone by then knew as Ground Zero. Again, you may have found yourself comparing before and after, past and present. The skyline was like a work in progress. What makes it appropriate to a review focused on comparisons is that the new addition, the Goldman Sachs tower, wasn't even in Manhattan. It was in Jersey City. This intrusion of good old New Jersey on the image of the metropolis bears out the belief some of us share that in terms of look and spirit and energy, Manhattan is a New Jersey town. Compare us with Manhattan, you're talking about two of a kind; compare New York State with Manhattan and it's like apples and oranges.
Comparing the skylines before and after September 11 is one way to approach the Cézanne-Pissarro exhibit currently at the newly expanded Museum of Modern Art, where crowds of visitors have been busy making comparative assessments among a dizzying assortment of paired paintings displayed side by side.
For a start, you can compare ways to get there, the obvious choice being the train except that Jersey Transit just hiked the fares, parking is a problem, and Penn Station is some 20 blocks south of the museum.
The bus? Does anyone still ride the bus? Between Palmer Square and East Brunswick it seems to stop as often as a schoolbus picking up or dropping off kids, but it still gets you to midtown in under an hour and a half, it's much cheaper, the seats are more comfortable, with more leg room, and you can park in the shopping center, or just hop on enroute as we did after driving to Kendall Park and parking free in a big lot adjacent to a sheltered bus stop.
Compare Manhattan-bound busses and trains and you're talking about two different aesthetic experiences. On the train you see every track-side backyard and back alley and back street between Princeton Junction and Penn Station. The shabbier aspects of urban New Jersey may not be pretty, but any painter or student of painting will probably find more visual excitement in the flow of complexly detailed decreptitude than they would on the bus, which gives you an eyeful of Route 27 and New Brunswick; once you hit the turnpike, however, you might as well be flying in to Port Authority on a 747. On the train you get a mix of styles, Ash Can school to abstract expressionist, Reginald Marsh and Jackson Pollock, thus further encouraging the impression that Manhattan evolves out of New Jersey rather than New York. On the bus, which is less like a 747 if you have a window seat, you could compare the view to a photorealism show with lots of fuming oil refineries, close-up shots of chrome, wheel bases, hood ornaments, and logos of juggernaut diesels.
The most significant advantage of bussing in if you're headed to MOMA is the location. 30th and Eighth Avenue may be only ten blocks south, but from Port Authority, all you have to do is walk east on 40th and in a few minutes you're at Bryant Park having lunch outdoors with sandwiches from the Wichcraft kiosk (there's also a kiosk for ice cream); if you can afford it, you could dine more expensively, but besides helping offset the $20 museum admission, eating in the park is so New York. You can get your eyes in shape for the exhibit by watching sparrows, squirrels, chipmunks (I think I saw one) and, most of all, people. Ask photographers who can't get enough of New York where the art is and they'll say in the people, but probably not before reminding you that all you have to do is look up at almost any building on any street and you'll see art in the form of tiles or mosaics or carvings. From a bench right there in Bryant Park you can see a wonderful old skyscraper right out of Batman's Gotham, the American Standard Building with its burnt-sienna Gothic tower and gold terra-cotta trim: the first Manhattan skyscraper to be declared a landmark.
Still, people-watching has to be one of the supreme pleasures of New York. On and on they come, passing before you, displaying this or that element of male or female beauty, or attitude, or personal style, or simple outright quirkiness because people in the city, including people from Jersey, somehow know they are part of the show. New York brings out the closeted actor in all of us, and we become, for a day at least, characters in the city's story.
To experience the elegance of old New York, all you have to do is go into the New York Public Library, the Beaux Arts masterpiece that Bryant Park adjoins. Here is one of the great essential Manhattan spaces, comparable to the concourse at Grand Central, with marble stairways and spacious walls that seem to give off a mellow light. On the third floor, outside the Main Reading Room, you find yourself gazing up at the massive group of murals by Edward Laning depicting the story of the recorded word. On the ceiling of the rotunda Prometheus is stealing the fire of the gods against a blue-sky vision of pagan heaven. Looming below are four immense panels showing the progress of the word: first Moses on Mt. Sinai about to heave the Ten Commandments at us; then a monk copying a manuscript while evil rages in the world outside the monastery; then Gutenberg displaying a proof sheet of his bible; and finally, the twentieth century, Mergenthaler and his linotype machine, the editor of the New York Tribune holding the page he's just printed while a newspaper boy sells papers in the street.
Eleven blocks up Fifth Avenue at MOMA, the contrast is enormous. No surprise. You just changed centuries, going from a hush to a civilized roar in a space that, while it looks and feels and sounds many times larger than the library's dignified interior, actually seems asthetically smaller. At the same time, you inevitably find yourself comparing the expanded, renovated museum with its predecessor. In Princeton you probably had the same reaction when you first walked into the new library. There is no doubt that the new MOMA is an impressive and necessary spatial improvement on its former site, but riding the escalators up and up and up to the 6th floor, it's hard to dismiss the notion that you're in the most exalted of malls, the epitome, the great mall of art. Once inside the brilliantly arranged exhibit, however, the Mall analogy becomes irrelevant. Nothing matters but Cézanne and Pissarro and all the people talking, comparing, judging, responding. "I don't want any of your spiritual values," I heard one woman say. "I just want a pair of glasses that work." Good thought, because this is a show where you feel like putting your nose in the art. Watch people watching and it's like a tennis match: back and forth from Cézanne to Pissarro. But watch long enough and you'll notice people spending more time in front of the Cézannes. The heads might move once or twice but then the match is over. It's all Cézanne. Maybe you thought you might be out in time to do something else downtown. Cézanne makes you adjust your priorities. As others have noted, Pissarro's most significant contribution here, as fine as his work may be, is to make us appreciate the greatness of Cézanne. Thanks to the dynamic of comparison, Pissarro becomes a light illuminating his friend's mastery. Spend half a minute in front of a Pissarro landscape and you get it all, at least you think you do. Move to Cézanne applying himself to a similar scene, and you find yourself still standing in front of it five minutes later. Someone has to tug your arm to get you moving again, and even when you do move away, you know you still don't have it; it's still working, still mysterious. A man standing next to me staring at the same Cézanne spoke to me (something that rarely happens, one stranger to another). "It starts to come apart the more I look at it," he said. He was right. The Cézannes seem to be in flux, composed of moving parts, coming to life before our eyes the way characters come to life in a great novel.
The two paintings that held me the longest were both later works, Pines and Rocks from 1897 and Forest (Sous-Bois) from 1894, which was the painting it was the hardest to leave. Wherever this forest was, you felt that no one had ever been there before. I don't remember which of the Pissarros it was paired with, but, as the saying goes, there was no comparison.
After the exhibit, it was pleasant strolling around the new sculpture garden, but, like everything at MOMA, the ice cream they were selling was expensive. A few blocks south at Rockefeller Center, on the south side of the plaza, they have installed a small grassy area of picnic tables where you can enjoy the iced coffee or iced tea you bought next door at Dean and Deluca and think how great New York is: next to most other cities on the planet, there's no comparison.