Big cat crossing sign at the Bronx Zoo 😸
Big cat crossing sign at the Bronx Zoo 😸
The Bronx County Courthouse in the Bronx in New York City. It’s an imposing structure, but with lots of Art Deco details that align it with many of the nearby apartment buildings along the Grand Concourse.
I make a point of dropping in the Bronx Museum of the Arts when I’m back in New York. This most recent visit did not disappoint, with three strong exhibitions of arts with connections to the borough and New York City at large.
Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect turns familiar notions of architecture upside-down with many projects featuring cuts, holes, and other modifications to derelict and abandoned buildings in New York and beyond. The Bronx of the 1970s was one of his main canvases and the point of departure for his practice. His series featuring the iconic graffiti of the borough’s subway trains and facades leads the exploration, with Matta-Clark observing the built environment as it is.
The next level of his work modifies the built environment by adding his own elements, or rather removing parts of existing architecture. In his Bronx Floor series, Matta-Clark removes a section of the floor of an abandoned building on Boston Road. This serves as a setting for installations and photography.
[Gordon Matta-Clark. Bronx Floor]
Like Matta-Clark, I find these spaces of the Bronx of the 1970s quite inspiring on an aesthetic level. My enjoyment of this often overlooked aesthetic is a bit tempered by the notion that these buildings ended up this way through a variety of bad circumstances: neglect (sometimes deliberate), poor city planning, rising inequality, etc.
From the foment of the South Bronx, Matta-Clark took his concept to Manhattan. In his 1975 project Day’s End, he cut large holes into the abandoned Pier 52 along the Hudson River (I remember the derelict piers that used to line the lower West Side all to well from the 1970s and 1980s).
[Gordon Matta-Clark. Day’s End (Pier 52 in Manhattan)]
This served both as a sculpture and installation in its own right, but also as a performance an exhibition space. Interestingly, the authorities did not notice the initial work cutting out a piece of the building, but they did find out about the performances and happenings, and were none too pleased by this. Eventually, the city dropped charges while he was working on a project in Paris.
[Gordon Matta-Clark. Conical Intersection (Paris)]
Conical Intersect cuts out a section of a partially demolished mansion in the Les Halles district, adjacent to the still-under-construction Centre Georges Pompidou. This was the setting for film and still photography projects, as well as performances and happenings (including “including roasting 750 pounds of beef for passersby on the Pompidou plaza” [
[Susannah Ray. Hutchison River and Co-Op City, 2015.]
Seeing Ray and Matta-Clarks photographs in the same visit shows the evolution of the Bronx, and in particular how the natural spaces have improved since their nadirs in the early 1980s. The lower Bronx River was once a disaster but is returning to new natural-urban balance in recent years.
[Susannah Ray. Canoes, The Bronx River, 2013]
You can read more about the revitalization of the lower Bronx River in this 2016 article. Again, we find beauty in these spaces and admire the work that Ray and others are doing to share it.
The final exhibition takes a decidedly inward turn compared to the explorations of Ray and Matta-Clark. In Elegies, artist Angel Otero explores the long history of painting. His large “deconstructed” paintings bring together traditional practice, abstraction, and collage.
[Angel Otero. The Day We Became People, 2017]
The exhibition is organized in relation to Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic series and includes stark black-and-white pieces from Motherwell, sometimes with statements on art and painting.
Otero’s work stands apart from Motherwell’s in its vibrant colors and relation to space, as well as its unique use of material. Although titled Elegies, the paintings are not really elegies at all – or at least not in the typical sense. There is an optimism in his work.
The paintings were all created specifically for this Bronx Museum exhibition.
Our visit to the Bronx Museum was also the subject of a recent CatSynth TV episode, which also took us a little further south to visit our friends at the Bronx Brewery in Port Morris.
This fall and winter in New York featured an ambitious citywide art project by Ai Weiwei called Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. Through fences, cages, netting and other forms of “barrier”, Ai Weiwei well-known landmarks as well as quintessentially “New York” locations into expressions of global migration – a complex phenomenon that includes refugee crises around the world as well as the fights for and against immigration in our own country. While the large installations at Washington Square and Central Park perhaps get the most attention, they are also scattered in smaller locations that are part of daily life in the city. We at CatSynth attempted to track down all the major installations and compiled our experiences into this video.
The large sculptural pieces in Washington Square Park and Grand Army Plaza at the corner of Central Park were the most impressive as iconic.
[Grand Army Plaza / Central Park]
The cage at Grand Army Plaza is quite literal, an easily identified barrier between those in the cage and the rest of the city going about its business outside. Of course, one can freely enter and exit this cage at will. The mirrored piece that fills the Washington Square Arch is more abstract, with the silhouettes of human figures forming a welcoming portal in the midst of an imposing fence. This one was the most aesthetically beautiful for me, with its play on reflections and light from the surrounding city.
[Washington Square Arch]
Many smaller installations were scattered around the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a neighborhood long associated with immigration and new arrivals to the United States. Indeed, the European Jewish side of my family settled in this neighborhood in the early 20th century, so it holds particular significance.
One could be forgiven for overlooking some of these (though the Essex Street Market installation is quite large). In fact, one at East 7th Street was just a narrow fence in the space between two apartment buildings. It took me a couple of minutes to locate it. And business at the boutiques and cafes at ground level went ahead seemingly oblivious.
We also made it to some of the installations in other boroughs, including the one surrounding the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.
[Unisphere – Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens]
The Unisphere is one of the remaining ruins from the 1968 Worlds Fair and with its positive (albeit cynical) message of global and international solidarity, its an apt setting for reflecting on the current migration crises and increasing nationalism worldwide. The borough of Queens has also involved since 1968 to become one of the most diverse places in the world.
And no artistic journey through the would be complete without Brooklyn. Fulton Mall – a section of Fulton Street closed to form a pedestrian mall and bus corridor – was the site of a series of installations adding fencing to some of the bus stops.
[Fulton Mall, Brooklyn]
Downtown Brooklyn has become an important part of my own experience of New York in the past decade, and it seems fitting to end here, where older discount stores and new high-rise condo buildings collide. We will have to see how this ultimately plays out…
We end in the Bronx, where this billboard on the Deegan Expressway may not be part of the official presentation, but it made for a fitting conclusion.
[Deegan Expressway (I-87), The Bronx]
Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors will be on display through February 18, 2018. You can read more about the project and its many locations here.
Wordless Wednesday returns! Today we have a photo from our recent excursion in the South Bronx.
The South Bronx still gets a bad rap. And I do remember what it was in the late 1970s and 1980s. But for us at CatSynth, it has become a place of great curiosity and surprising forms of beauty. A few years ago, I noticed some changes along the southern stretch of the Bronx River in Google Maps. In particular, there was a brand new park.
Concrete Plant Park is literally that, a park built around the ruins of an old concrete plant along the river’s edge. I had to see this for myself. And since 2013, I have gone to see it several times.
To get there via subway from Riverdale is a bit of a challenge. There have never been east-west subway lines traversing the borough, only north-south to and from Manhattan. So a subway trip from the western end of the Bronx to the southeast requires a trip into Manhattan and a few transfers (there is no crosstown subway in Harlem, either). Finally, one reaches the 6 IRT, which heads north into the south and east Bronx. It’s a long ride underground eventually emerging onto an elevated structure over Westchester Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares through the South Bronx. I alight at the Whitlock Avenue stop.
Between the station and the park is the Sheridan Expressway (I-895). This is a strange little highway that hugs the western edge of the Bronx River from the Bruckner Expressway (I-278) north to East Tremont Avenue with connections to the Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95) and the Bronx River Parkway.
It is sort of a connector from the Bronx Zoo to the Triborough Bridge, though one that isn’t really needed given the other larger freeways in the vicinity. It only has one exit between its termini: Westchester Avenue near the Whitlock station and Concrete Plant Park. One can see the entry ramps leading down to the highway while walking towards the park.
Another ramp leads down from the street level to the park itself. It’s a flat piece of land with grass concrete paths dotted by the refurbished structures from the former concrete plant.
Although it seems to be a trend to incorporate reclaimed industrial elements into public spaces, the structures are still fairly unique for an urban park, and quite photogenic. Here are just a few of the photos I have taken.
The Bronx River itself is an important element of the park’s identity and landscape. The section south of Bronx Park has long been more industrial, and the river and its banks still bear the visuals of that past. A major effort to clean up and restore the river has been underway for a while. And it is much cleaner than it was in the 1980s, though one can still see a lot of detritus collecting along the berms.
Looking north alongs the river towards the 6 Elevated and Westchester Avenue is quite beautiful with filtered lighting.
Although I visit this park for its visuals and geographical placement, it is a local park enjoyed by the local community. On a summertime visit, I saw a lot of families and individuals there, playing sports, relaxing along the river, and even barbecuing. It seems that this park is a successful one, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I visit again.
For today’s photo, we went into the archives. Usually, one of the pictures will speak to me that today is its day. This was that photo. It features a scene from Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx.
This winter the Bronx Museum of the Arts has three exhibitions to bring forth different aspects of life and art in New York City: a gritty and intimate solo exhibition, reflections on the urban landscape from the permanent landscape, and a view of a little understood country through the camera lens.
Martin Wong: Human Instamatic is a large posthumous retrospective of Chinese-American painter Martin Wong. There have been several exhibitions highlighting his role as collector and muse for contemporary artists, but this one is the first to bring together his work as a painter since his death in 1999. It starts with his early works as a street artist in Eureka, CA but mostly focuses on his time in New York, especially his years on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s.
The Lower East Side of that era was a notoriously gritty neighborhood, as exemplified in the painting above. But there was a vibrant multi-ethnic community of artists and musicians living among the dilapidated buildings. Wong’s work documents the artistic and daily life of the area, but does so in a way the is deeply personal and internal at the same time.
[“Attorney Street (Handball Court With Autobiographical Poem by Piñero),” dated 1982-84.]
Sign language abounds in his work along with urban scenes. The sign language in the piece shown above, Attorney Street, Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero, features a short poem by Miguel Piñero, the playwright and actor who was co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café. The piece and its subject also show the immersion of Wong, a Chinese American, in the Latino culture of the neighborhood, and his expression of his identity as a homosexual man – Piñero was both his collaborator and lover. The latter theme repeats frequency is works – most prominently in images of firemen – along with the sign language.
In contrast to his depictions of the Lower East Side, his paintings of Chinese American people and culture have a more quaint and nostalgic quality, whether illustrating Manhattan’s Chinatown or San Francisco. In these works, we see women for the first time. One particularly prominent piece featured a cheongsam-clad woman reminiscent of the sexually charged images of Asian women from the early 20th century. He did, however, marry his heritage to the contemporary urban world. In the piece shown below (and a much larger companion), the Chinese symbolism and astrology are combined with the brick facade of the urban landscape and an ominous black hole, perhaps a nod to the rising AIDS epidemic that eventually took his life.
(DE) (RE) CONSTRUCT brings together pieces from the museum’s permanent collection around the topic of design. Design covers a lot of territory, and there are pieces that explore both its small and large aspects. Liliana Porter’s Bird, Drawing, Model, Painting, Rip, Hand, 1982 deals with small objects and figures. The start white background gives it a somewhat lonely but simultaneously tender quality.
[Liliana Porter. Bird, Drawing, Model, Painting, Rip, Hand, 1982. Acrylic, pencil, silkscreen, collage. Gift of the artist]
Vito Acconci’s Building Blocks for a Doorway, goes in the other direction by focusing on architecture. The lettering is a fun detail, though, and I leave its interpretation as an exercise to the ready.
[Vito Acconci. Building Blocks for a Doorway, 1983-85. Five color etching. Each half 93 7/8″ x 47 1/4″. Edition of 8]
Acconci’s architectural spoke to me on a personal level, as did the far more minimalist Black Road by Glen Goldberg. Fun with highways…
[Glen Goldberg. Black Road]
And the most minimal of all was Elizabeth Jobim’s Red.
[Elizabeth Jobim. Red]
Transitions: New Photography from Bangladesh brings together works from nine Bangladeshi and Bangladeshi-American photographs to interpret a country that is rapidly changing country that defies many long-held stereotypes. The Bronx happens to be home to a large community of Bangladeshi Americans. Many of the photographs were just portraits and landscapes, as well as some striking similarities with India. On the subcontinent, pointing out the similarities between the two countries would be politically charged, but as South Asian Americans we can freely observe them. Most of the portraits were relatively prosaic, but one that I particularly liked was Arfun Ahmed’s Olympia Burka which featured the artists’ wife and a relative is Muslim does. It a very timely statement given the conversation we are having in this country around Muslim-American identity and prejudice. Plus, it features a cat!
[Arfun Ahmed. Olympia Burka, 2014]
Debashish Chakrabarty’s photographs featuring streaks of light are abstract and energetic. The figures, when visible at all, are very much obscured in the dark background.
The Bronx Museum of Arts has become a regular stop on my visits to New York, and I’m proud to see this institution grow and thrive in the borough to which I am most deeply connected. I look forward to more exhibitions in the future. Dare I even hope to play a show there someday?