Monday, June 25, 2007

Five New Sights & Thoughts

Writing a decent essay is exhausting. I outline it, hammer out a first draft, shuffle its paragraphs, edit it, reduce it back to an outline, completely restructure it. I read it front to back and back to front, and then do line editing until I'm cross-eyed, trying to ensure that the words do indeed say exactly what I want to say, clearly and in the proper sequence. By the time all that's done, I've read the thrice-accursed (that's an Aeschylean adjective) essay at least two dozen times. It has all the appeal of a month-old piece of bread. How can I possibly look at it yet again?

In an effort to regain my energy for editing, I gave myself a visual rather than verbal assignment. On the 4 blocks from the library to the subway (which I've walked hundreds of times), could I find 5 things to photograph that I hadn't ever noticed before? Could I think 5 thoughts about them that I hadn't thought before? For an art critic/historian this is good exercise. It makes me observe what's around me, rather than focusing on what's ricocheting about in my head. Here are the results.

East 79th St., between Park and Lexington. Love the cobalt blue glass.

Hanging gardens of Park Ave., southeast corner of 79th St.

Cartouche bearing a house number on East 78th St. (ca. 1900?). Love the grillwork and the proportions.

One of a row of 5 oil lamps (Aladdin's lamps?), just above the first floor of 132 East 78th St. Charming, but ... why? The AIA Guide to NYC does not explain.

A couple weeks ago, architectural historian Matt Postal (who lectures for the Municipal Art Society, and is currently giving a 10- or 12-lecture course on the history of the skyscraper in NYC) pointed out that the "Chippendale" top of Philip Johnson's AT&T Building on Madison Avenue made it acceptable to include historical references on buildings again, after decades of glass boxes. The architects of the two buildings here obviously embraced Post-Modernism: this one has a vaguely gothic top, and the following one is reminiscent of a turreted castle. I've probably walked past both at ground level (3rd Avenue in the 70s?) and thought they were perfectly normal and boring.

Friday, June 22, 2007

New & old at 42nd St., and the Columbus Monument

This building is rising on the northwest corner of 42nd St. and 6th Ave. The shapes of the corners look intriguing, particularly compared to the standard boxy International Style skyscrapers that line 6th Ave. in Midtown.

Arched ceiling and lamp (ca. 1900-1910) over the stairs inside New York Public Library's research branch at 42nd St. and Fifth Ave.

Columbus Monument viewed from inside the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, intersection of 8th Ave., Central Park South and Broadway. The dark lines are the window mullions. Too bad the TWC was finished too late for me to include a photo like this in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan.

Portrait painting, the Monitor & DDT

Since doing the final edit of a long article for The Objective Standard is taking most of my energy, I decided that rather than writing a blog entry I'd refer you to three excellent articles I've recently read: 1. Zinsser, William. 'Two Men and a Portrait." Smithsonian Magazine, April 2007. Unlike many artists, portrait-painter Buechner can describe with clarity and precision what he is doing and why. Of course, in this article he has the able assistance of his subject, William Zinsser, author of the indispensable handbook On Writing Well. From Buechner's comments while deciding on a pose: "The shape of the head and the way we carry it on our shoulders are the essential elements in recognizability. You'd recognize me from the back, a block away, by my silhouette." In the printed Smithsonian, six photos show the progress of the painting from compositional sketch to finished portrait; unfortunately they're not included in the online version (copyright issues?). 2. Harold Holzer, "The Monitor Makes Port," American Heritage 58:2 (April/May 2007). Describes the significance of the Battle of the Ironclads and the raising of Ericsson's Monitor in more detail than I was able to fit into Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan, Essay 2. Parts of the Monitor are now on display in Newport News, near the site of the Monitor-Merrimac battle. The article ends with a list of important American ships that are open to tourists. 3. Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink and The Tipping Point), "Annals of Public Health: The Mosquito Killer," The New Yorker 7/2/2001. An excellent 10-page survey of the discovery and history of DDT (1930s to 1960s), focusing on Fred Soper and his public health initiatives. Excerpts: "In 1946, before the campaign started, there were seventy-five thousand malaria cases on the island [of Sardinia]. In 1951, after the campaign finished, there were nine." "All the things that we find sinister about DDT today - the fact that it killed everything it touched, and kept on killing everything it touched - was precisely what made it so inspiring at the time." "To Soper the world was neither perfect nor beautiful, and the question of what man could do to nature was less critical than what nature, unimpeded, could do to man." Toward the end of the article is a brief mention of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring; her comments on the absence of birdsong are tellingly contrasted with the description of a silent Egyptian village ravaged by malaria.