The Sublime Kate

If you are a Katharine Hepburn fan like I am, then get thee to NYPL’s Performing Arts Library exhibit in the Lincoln Center complex.   Love the Playbills, over-the-top movie posters, photos (my favorite was Hepburn in trousers standing on her hands), and other ephemera, but it’s the objects that bring Kate to life.

Seeing Hepburn’s makeup kit led into a conversation with a diminutive woman, stabilizing on her walker.  “She kept everything, you know,” the woman told me.  “A lock of her baby hair, her first school books.  She was an eccentric.”  While the woman didn’t know Kate personally, she saw her on the streets of the Upper East Side and went to the auction held after Hepburn passed away.  I think many New Yorkers feel ownership about Kate, even though she seemed to identify with charming Old Saybrook, CT.

You know how much I love hats, and to see the tiny, tiny hat she wore for Alice Adams, well, it didn’t look small on her.  That powerhouse on screen was teensy.  Of course, she always looked slim on celloid, but really.  The size of the pants and dresses make me feel hugely dinosauric.  Even in the late 1940s, when she was in her 40s, she had a waist size of 20 inches, and the gowns look even smaller than that.

Check out the Madwoman of Chaillot boa, and more, in the slideshow below.





Roasted Fava Beans

Finally, I made it to Kalustyan’s for an early morning visit.  This is the kind of place that makes New York New York.  International, local, expensive, narrow aisles crowded with stuff you see everywhere and stuff you see nowhere else. 

It has the requisite Mediterranean sweets, sometimes with a twist,  spinach pies and homemade, seeded zaatar bread.  Hello breakfast!

I imagine I’ll love those cumin wafers and mini papadam when I’m out and about with not time for a meal.

They have all kinds of spices you know and never heard of, in huge quantities, a nice selection of honey and grains.  And I bought an Indian soap with several essential oils and rose water that I plan to make into a room freshener.

But what really caught my heart are the roasted, salted fava beans.  Oh my!


House made of glass

Philip Johnson said, “You can only approach a house on an angle.”  Eccentric, perhaps.  But his architectural eye knew that approaching at a 45 degree angle shows the depth of the structure.  Each of the eight structures on his grounds in New Canaan, CT are connected–visually, in repeated motifs, and through an angled, promenade approach.

The Glass House, from 1949, is only one of the phenomenons to see.  Johnson, who proclaimed himself his own best client, considered the property a “50 year diary” in which he could experiment with new ideas.  As one of the great innovators of the International Style, Johnson broke free from the mid-century restrictions of glass and steel.

Look at how as late as 1995, Johnson explores architecture as sculpture.  The Frank Stella/Frank Gehry inspired Da Monsta is an organic red and black sculpture plopped at the entrance, near the Post-Modern gate (depicted in the slide show below).  He said windows and doors could always be added later.  Inside, there are no straight lines.  The walls and ceiling are all angles and curves.

Corbusier, Ronchamp Chapel

The dimly lit interior is womb-like, with a sacred feeling, reminiscent of Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp.  Both Corbusier and Johnson move beyond the International Box to this sensual, textural, anti-glass-and-steel feel to something much more of the earth, spiritual in its essence.  Perhaps the wisdom of age overcomes their youthful, masculine attempts to assert themselves against/over nature.

Johnson never lost the International-Style love of circles and squares, and the motifs are found all over the grounds.  He imposed geometry on the terrain clearing out trees (he said, “In Connecticut, you can’t see the trees for the trees,” and never felt guilty for taking some out), sculpting the sight-lines he wanted.  He had the grass cut in stripes.  The trimmed the branches of the pine trees, so the needles would fall just the way he liked them.

Like an Earth artist, he constructed a tumulus, or burial mound, over his art gallery, when he decided he had added enough architecture.  But not before Donald Judd contributed his circular sculpture as part of the promenade to the Glass House.  Across from the Glass House, you see the yang to its yin–the Brick House.  Heavy. solid, private, the Brick House was ostensibly the guest house, but Johnson said “that’s where you have to go to ‘ball,’ if you remember that euphemism.”  With guests like Andy Warhol, you can imagine what kind of love nest the Brick House must have been.

The interior of the glass house gives you the stunning connection with nature you might expect, reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water.  But there were surprises in the interior as well.  Not the Mies Van der Rohe furniture, not the Richard Kelly lighting, not the Ken Price sculpture (all fabulous), but the Nicholas Poussin neoclassical architectural landscape, freestanding on an easel in the full sunlight, really was unexpected.  Johnson lined the painting up so its horizon line acted as a continuation of nature’s horizon.

But I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something just a bit passive-aggressive about taking a Poussin, which hung in his office at MoMA, and placing it in conservation-destroying, direct sunlight.  The painting’s colors are dimmed, with paint flecking off to this day.  His art collection, in the bunker, only seen in artificial life, features modernist and post-modernist friends and colleagues–Frank Stella, Julian Schnabel, Robert Rauschenberg, Michael Heiser, Cindy Sherman, you get the idea.  Not a single artist working before 1945, except that poor, over-exposed Poussin.

What I most resonated with in Johnson’s personality and themes is the idea of “Safe-Danger.”  He built an eyebrow bridge that shakes slightly when we walk over it.  He liked to think of the buildings as pods, each with its own purpose.  But then he built a classically-inspired Folly (how Post Modern!), too small to stand up in comfortably, for picnics and such.  In honor of his friend Lincoln Kirstein, he built a stairway to nowhere.  A staffer climbed it, no handrails, for a video shown in the Visitor’s Center.  Not for the faint of heart!  See it, vertical sculpture-like, above the Folly?


In 1967, Johnson hosted a “Country Happening” with Merce Cunningham and John Cage.  I wonder if George Segal was there.  In his sculpture gallery, Johnson has one of the Segal Lovers in Bed, a series of his more beautiful works.  But before all this modern and post-modern art collection, Johnson was a mid-century man.  He moved to New Canaan to be near friends from his Harvard years, architects who shaped the town with 120 mid-century modernist homes.  Ninety still survive today and are open for the occasional home tour.  But that, alas, is for another day.  The sun was setting, and tired girls had to board the train back to New York City.









The Well-Dressed Fella

"ivy style" raccoon fur MFIT "museumat fit"

Raccoon fur coat worn by Joseph Verner Reed, Yale Class of 1926

A meeting took me to the Fashion Institute of Technology this morning, and I do love their exhibitions.  Ivy Style is no exception.  Whether your guy is a Yalie in a racoon coat, on the crew team, or on the football field, there’s something of great good taste for everyone.

The installation is adorable.  You can peruse not one, but two closets of the well-dressed men.  Ah the shoes.  Don’t get me started on the hats!  Then there’s the dorm room, The Club, and the office.

Apparently, men’s sense of fashion is coming back, and I hope to see more good taste on our streets any day!

Dimly Lit Charm

After being closed for code updates, the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, a wee national park, has reopened, and I have finally gotten there for a tour.  The guide was not a park ranger, but a very knowledgeable volunteer guide.

What I loved about the house also makes it hard to show you what it’s like.  It’s as dimly lit as it was in 1865, with no electricity or running water.  Typical of New York, the original house was converted to industrial and commercial use, then rentals, before being torn down.  The house is a re-creation., although happily, it is furnished with Roosevelt family furniture and objects, with moldings, wallpaper, and carpeting replicated based on family memories and photos.  So it is worth a trip.

Besides the obvious stories, like where the Teddy Bear comes from, you know I love the trivia.  Did you know that TDR did taxidermy as a child, grossing out the servants, and later wrote a book on it?  Bully!

Did you know that TDR went west for the first time, after his wife and mother died on the same day?

Theodate Pope Riddle

And the architect for the house was Theodate Pope Riddle, the first woman architect in the state of New York and a survivor of the Lusitania.

I guess TDR was surrounded by strong women, not only his beloved niece Eleanor and outspoken daughter Alice, but also his maternal grandmother, who instilled the sense of societal obligation in her family.  She did quite a job!

TDR Birthplace Pocket Door



The family made its money in land speculation, banking, and interestingly, imported glass.  This door gives you a sense of how glorious that glass was.

And those Roosevelt’s trace their arrival in New York to the Dutch in the 1650s.  Roosevelt means ‘field of roses’ in Dutch and so appears on their family crest, as you can sorta see in this original plate.

TDR Birthplace, Family Crest











Pertinent to nothing, I just liked this little lamp and its charming shade.  You can see how dark the room is, and I was on the 11 a.m. tour!  Hard on the eyes of the reader Teddy Roosevelt, but evocative for us visitors.

TDR Birthplace, Charming Lampshade


Heroines of the Lower East Side, a walking tour with the LES Jewish Conservancy, comes right out of Joyce Mendelsohn’s book.  Joyce inspired us with stories  of women you know–Emma Goldman, Louise Nevelson, Lillian D. Wald, and Belle Moskowitz–and those you probably don’t.

Of the latter, my favorite was “The Red Yiddish Cinderella,” Rose Pastor Stokes.  Rose was so poor that as a child, she was sent to work in a cigar factory.  Writing about working conditions, she became a journalist, and then interviewed one of the Phelps-Stokes who was working in a settlement house, so called because the volunteers settled in the neighborhood or building they were serving.  The two fell in love, overcame family prejudices of their inter-religious marriage, and enjoyed their wedding gift of an island off Connecticut.  Yes, seriously.  They divorced after 20 years, but it was a real life Cinderella story, and she continued to serve the LES all her life.

My favorite building was the “Forward” Building, where the Yiddish socialist paper was published for over 40 years.  Perhaps one of the most memorable parts of the paper, which advocated for workers’ rights, social reform, and the importance of education, was the Letters to the Editor section called A Bintel Brief.  Joyce told us ethical conundrums and heart-wrenching dilemmas of those asking for advice.  The response generally was to rally the community to support the their struggling neighbors–an ongoing theme on the LES.  I look forward to reading the book of letters.

The ‘Forward’ building is now luxury condos, of course, and we all wondered if residents would get the irony each day as they exit and enter their building.  Just overhead, on the protected facade of the building, are the carved faces of Marx and Engels.

Right across from the building is Strauss Square, originally Rutgers Square, where we stood on the ubiquitous Belgian blocks (not cobblestones, which are rounded), the site of soapbox mass meetings.  Here, the 1917 riot of housewives took place.  That year, the pushcart sellers raised the price of onions, a symbol of good luck, from 3 cents per pound to 10 cents per pound.  One housewife became irate, and because the peddler couldn’t hit a woman, he instead enlisted his wife, who wasn’t shy.

The riot ensued, and then housewives met at Rutgers Square and organized.  They decided to boycott all food except for milk, bread, eggs, and butter, and then marched to City Hall.  Guess what?  They won!  Heroines indeed.

One other special stop was the Henry Street Settlement House.  Image, we got to sit in the dining room, a beautiful Federal style room with a piano, where Lillian Wald and others worked to introduce just the most basic sanitary and health care needs of LES residents.

I didn’t know that the Settlement House still operates, serving about 60,000 people per year, in all five boroughs.  They’ve expanded beyond health care and early Wald  innovations like advocating for the first playground in New York, revolutionizing public schools with special education and school nurses, and creating the Visiting Nurses concept.  Now they also provide counseling, day care, elder care, college counseling, and even music, art, and dance lessons.

What was so good about Joyce’s tour was her stories of how ordinary women become heroines, with compassionate hearts and courage to enact their beliefs–a timely reminder in this time of ongoing challenges.  Everywhere on the tour were signs of Hurricane Sandy.  Volunteers were clearing away debris and broken tree limbs, as life limps back to normal.  There are heroines, and heroes, everywhere we look.

To the Circus

Although I found the circus frightening as a child, and I still don’t like huge crowds and big spectacles, I just loved the Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010 exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center.

I’ve never even been a fan of elephants, although I would have loved to have seen this sight!

Animal menageries have been part of the circus from its colonial  beginnings.   In 1728, you could go to the fair and see a lion!  In 1796, the first elephants came to New York.

But the circus as we know it started as equestrian exhibits, with daredevil riding–the first in New York was in 1793. The banners demonstrate amazing feats, indeed.

By the 1820s, New York had several semi-permanent circuses, as well as touring shows.  Pantomime, acrobatics, and melodramas were added to the animal events.

In the 1840s, we get P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb.  The exhibit shows just how tiny he was, with his clothes, boots, and toy-sized violin.

This picture doesn’t provide any sense of scale, but to give you a sense, the boots are doll-sized.

The exhibit also had daguerreotypes of Tom Thumb dressed as the various characters he made famous.

Barnum was the ultimate marketer, adding posters and parades, as well as the “freak show” concept, turning the circus into spectacle.  By the time the Hippodrome was built in 1853 (and oh, how even I wish I could have seen that place, located where quiet Madison Square is now), the circus was the most popular form of entertainment in New York City.

You know the phrase ‘three-ring-circus’?  That came about after the merger of Barnum with Bailey, the two largest spectacle managers.  Bailey was a business man, while Barnum was the showman.  Bailey added electric lighting to the circus, so that three spectacles, or rings, could be staged simultaneously.

The exhibit featured charming paintings by Milton Avery (Three Ring Circus) and Walt Kuhn (no, not one of his scary clowns, but The Lancer), both from 1939.  But my favorite was the work by A. Logan from 1874, on loan from the Whitney Collection.



The slide show below features toys, games, costumes, and even a wagon wheel, all part of the exhibit.  The exhibit is just the right size for a little mental health break–to my taste, much easier to take in and be delighted by than the real thing.



Queen of Versailles

If ever there were an indictment of big money run amok, it’s the film Queen of Versailles, especially poignant on the eve of this election.  Woe for all of us if Romney is elected.  We’ll have legitimized ruthlessness, lying, and oblivious cold-heartedness, epitomized by and ultimately victimizing to David and Jackie Siegel, laid open in this film.  Chilling.

Trick the Eye

On a sprarkly blue-skied, crisp day, I put on my jacket for the first time this season and ventured beyond my block for the first time post-Sandy.  After taking care of a few errands in a very quiet Fed Ex, library, bank and grocery store, I decided to catch up on my museum visits.

Well that’s certainly where all the people were.  The Guggenheim apparently has a blockbuster on its ramps with the Picasso Black and White show.  As you know, I’m not a huge Picasso fan.  Not only do I find his work cool and calculated, qualities which don’t attract me in any artist, I don’t like his sexist biography.

And this show has a bit of the slap dash about it.  Not all works are equally good, and there’s just too many of them, a Guggenheim disease, diffusing the overall effect.  One thing though, the works show off the Guggenheim’s architecture beautifully, which I hope you understand isn’t a compliment about the art.

I did walk away with one surprise–a small side room of Picasso’s sculptures, which were hidden away in his studio.  Such is the price of fame that objects he never wanted in public now are featured in a major museum exhibition in a room of their own.  But they were a bit of a revelation.  I found them to be the most approachable works in the show.  The monumental heads of two important women in his life reveal a relational quality between Picasso and his mistresses, missing for me when he dices them into cubist bits.

Much more fun was the Richard Artschwager show at the Whitney.  While Wade Guyton at the Whitney has gotten all the press (a retrospective for a man in his 30s , who produces blah minimalist work that he prints on a large printer, Is rather ridiculous).  Artschwager works with non-traditional materials, often harkening back to an old trick-the-eye tradition.  Several galleries featured his black and white work–yes, it’s one theme for the day–which fools the eye into thinking the depicted interiors are photographs.

This free hanging exclamation point from 2008, made out of plastic bristles painted with latex, is a wonderfully colorful relief after all that monochrome, as is the diner booth, my favorite work in the show.  It’s made from Formica and green, rubberized hair–yeah, really.  The yuck factor is part of what he’s going for, but in the gallery, it’s just fun.  I heard three women debating whether they would fit in it (they wouldn’t; it’s clearly child sized).  For me, it’s the show stopper.  Other galleries feature his furniture as well, some coming with the invitation to sit.

I’m so glad I saw this show before going to the Met for the new Roentgen Brothers Rococo furniture exhibit.  They make Artschwager look like an amateur.

Where did they get the idea to have hidden drawers that open not only one, but two or three different ways?  With the “harlequin action,” pieces move up and down on the so-named Harlequin table or desk.  Where the harlequin elements go in the down position, I can’t tell you.

The exhibit has several videos that show all the ways the pieces open and work.  Remarkable.  The wall text also demonstrates how marquetry is done.  One writing desk uses 14 different woods in the intricate inlaid patterns of musical notations and instruments, art easels and paint brushes, plus patterning.  Watch this video to see the hidden reliquary and the easel and mirror that emerge from seemingly nowhere.

Other pieces had complete, inlaid Neo-Classical or Chinoiserie scenes, modeled on preparatory paintings, also in the exhibit.  Really, these pieces are unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere, including at Winterthur, that repository of every kind of American furniture.  Check out this inlaid scene and how the piece works.  Wowza!

I also liked the game table that covered all the bases.  It could be opened one way to play backgammon, another for chess or checkers, and yet a different way for cards.  Then it folds up, compact, so we can just push it against the wall until our next evening’s entertainments.

My favorite label text: “restrained Rococo.”  Well, I don’t think these works are terribly restrained, but I admit to not being a Rococo furniture expert.

My favorite piece, from the whole day, the automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette playing the clavichord per the object label, and the dulcimer in this video, which shows her playing and how the automaton works.  Any musicians want to clear up this instrument conundrum?

Every piece made me smile and sigh and wonder.  My eye got tricked, my mind got full of fancy.  A perfect post-Sandy tonic.