Saturday, December 23, 2006

Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden

Just twenty-odd minutes from Grand Central, the New York Botanical Garden is a lush wonderland smack in the center of the Bronx. And each winter the conservatory there hosts the Holiday Train Show, a seasonal paean to the city.

Model trains travel along 1,200 feet of track near and through miniature replicas of mostly well-known New York buildings, all constructed with botanicals, including twigs, leaves, seeds, stems, berries, and other plant parts. Our favorites ranged from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty to St. Patrick's Cathedral to the Guggenheim (with shellacked mushrooms standing in for the concrete circles) and the Washington Square Park Arch to the Met and Central Park's Angel of the Fountain.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"Welcome to Greenwich Village"

. . . said the lights on Bleeker at Macdougal. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Wooster on Spring

11 Spring Street has a reputation: built in the nineteenth century as a stable and carriage house, in recent years its facade has become a must-hit for practitioners of graffiti art and a must-see for those who prefer the term “street” or “ephemeral” art.

Recognizing its importance to a subset of the art world, the real estate developers who recently purchased the building decided to work with the excellent Wooster Collective to organize a free installation of work by some significant street artists. After three days, the art will be torn up or torn down to make way for expensive condos only a subset of the city can afford.

A small piece near the entrance summed the show up best: "What a beautiful crime."

Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo

On Saturday night, we made our annual pilgrimage to the Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo. Each year, the zoo is decorated in roughly 500,000 lights, music is pumped in, and the hours are extended to 9 pm. People come from all over the tri-state area to walk the paths lit up with colorful animal shapes and see the actual animals, including reindeer (photo: ©WCS/J.Maher).

Unfortunately this year we didn’t get to hear our favorite zoo-holiday song, “Hanukkah linda está aquí” (Beautiful Hanukkah is here), but we did get to spend an awfully long time feeding hungry goats and sheep at the Children’s Zoo.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Wainwright Family & Friends Christmas at Carnegie Hall

Ah, Rufus. The toast of the town. The cat’s meow. The “greatest songwriter in the world,” according to Elton John. We could listen to him sing jingles in Finnish. Really.

But luckily we didn’t have to. Along with his sister Martha, Rufus hosted several friends for a night of holiday favorites at Carnegie Hall. The musical genres ranged from pop to rock to jazz; languages from English to Hebrew to French; guests from performance artists like Antony and Laurie Anderson to Jimmy Fallon to Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

Rufus and Lou Reed did a stunning duet of Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” which featured Rufus almost yodeling the line “Ay-ay-ay-m dreaming.”

Martha and Fallon did a duet of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and Fallon brought the microphone down to his feet at one point to capture the sounds of his soft-shoeing moves. Later, Anderson played something eerie on an instrument she called a “hurdy gurdy.”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (star of teenage-noir “Brick” and the TV show “Third Rock from the Sun”) and Rufus sang “Avinu Malkaynu” to appease the Jewish portion of the audience (there were some complaints last year, apparently, that the show didn't include any songs about Hanukah; Rufus explained that there are no good songs about Hanukah, then played the Hebrew hymn to compensate).

Another highlight: Camilla Thompson, sister of Teddy Thompson, doing a beautiful cover of the usually annoying George Michael song “Last Christmas.”

The evening constantly threatened to devolve into total chaos, with singers dropping their sheet music and switching mic stands, missing their cues and losing their places, although our seats were so high up that we might have been watching finely choreographed folk dancing.

A long time ago we looked at a tiny, ugly apartment in the Gramercy building in which Rufus lives. Last night, seeing Rufus sing live for the first time, made us almost regret not trading our place for that one, with its crumbling loft bed and bar sink in lieu of a kitchen, just to be close to him.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Our Mini Christmas Tree

After Thanksgiving, they begin popping up everywhere, imported from upstate and ready to be decorated for the holidays. Bodegas sell tiny trees perfect for even tinier apartments; make-shift stands, manned all-night by guys listening to carols, sell small-, medium-, and full-size firs, which they'll help you load into a cab.

We bought ours on Saturday, from a stand at the Union Square Greenmarket. It's a little less lopsided with the ornaments, isn't it?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Art of the Book: Behind the Covers with Eggers, Kidd, and Glaser

Last night more than 900 other people and I headed to the 92nd St. Y to hear Milton Glaser, Chip Kidd, and Dave Eggers speak about their adventures in graphic design. I mention the audience amount only because the high turnout seemed to shock both Glaser and Kidd, who quipped, “We were certain we were going to outnumber you.” Not surprisingly, given his mega-popularity, Eggers was unfazed by the crowd.

Glaser, best known for not only doing the “I love NY” logo in the 1970s but also for giving the city the logo (and its trademark) for free, gave a rousing overview of some career highlights, including the Shakespeare covers he did for Signet way back. He also founded "New York" magazine. Spry and charming at 77, he spoke about once receiving a two-page letter from Nabokov that explained, in great detail, including sample drawings, how Glaser should design the cover for “Pnin.”

Kidd is probably the most famous graphic designer working in book publishing today. He likened book jackets to nametags at singles events: both let you see immediately if you’d like to take the thing home. Looking like a dolled up Robin Williams in tweed and pompadour, Kidd entertained the crowd with tales from the Knopf trenches by showing successful covers designed by himself and others (a nice, modest touch). He did a great impression too of Cormac McCarthy’s agent as they went back and forth on designs for “The Road,” and Kidd claimed to disregard Haruki Murakami’s advice by asking that author, “Are you using again?”

A self-proclaimed 21st-cetury Luddite, Eggers explained that most of his design decisions have been based on what his dial up– and Quark 4.1–using computer could handle. Seriously. Like his predecessors, he showed some slides, as well as the latest edition of “McSweeney’s,” held together by magnets. However he has done or is doing it, he continues to revolutionize desktop publishing. While he rushed through his presentation and forgot the name of his favorite designer, Eggers did give an apt description of good book design: it’s a way to “enhance the keepability of the words within.” How true, how true.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"A Photographer's Life" at the Brooklyn Museum

Much has been made of the exhibition of Annie Leibovitz’s photographs at the Brooklyn Museum—and rightly so. After all, the retrospective exhibit juxtaposes public and private images from 1990–2005, so a photograph of Jamie Foxx cupping his crotch is hung (no pun intended) catty-corner to one of Susan Sontag’s corpse. Most of the public images—all of celebrities and politicians—have already become iconographic, including several first seen in “Vanity Fair.” The private shots detail intimate family scenes: images of Leibovitz’s kids and parents, snapshots of Sontag at the beach or getting chemo. The consensus seems to be that Sontag would have hated the way Leibovitz put Sontag’s most private moments on show, and that the snapshots aren’t nearly of the same caliber as the commercial work. (Plus, there’s an argument to be made here about how Leibovitz co-opted Sontag’s illness to use as a metaphor / artistic object vs. how Sontag did so herself way back when she published “Illness as Metaphor” in 1978.)

In her notes to the book that accompanies the show, Leibovitz explains that she liked the juxtaposition of public and private, because it felt like life to have disparate images on a single page (or, as in the museum, wall). That she was privy to Sontag’s last moments was her privilege as Sontag’s long-term partner, and that she photographed them was certainly her prerogative. I didn’t want to look at those shots of Sontag, but they were there and I did. I just wish we could have had some type of respectful separation between the personal and the public.

But we were in for an unexpected treat—well, two actually: mixed-media work by Rob Mueck and paintings by Walton Ford elsewhere in the museum. Mueck does ultra-realistic sculptures of people (the curators compared him to Rodin). His work literally fills the space: a cowering, anatomically accurate naked man measures 80 x 47 1/2 x 80 1/2 in. (see below).

A sculpture of a just-born baby hangs like Jesus crucified on the wall, while a huge woman—his mother perhaps?—lies in a 21-foot-long bed and stares out the door. At first glance, his sculptures horrify—they’re just so large—but, upon further examination, they’re strangely calming. The closer we get to the giants, the easier it is to see that they’re only us, bigger.

Ford’s show, “Tigers of Wrath,” features watercolors of animals done in the style of Audubon (Ford even writes on his paintings in pencil). But what looks pretty and silly at first glance, like something out of a children’s book, gets more disturbing in the second. Flies swirl around a tiger’s tail (see top photo), a crocodile gets ready to eat a monkey, a volcano erupts as a monkey in a toga dies. These are scenes of violence about to happen or happening. Unlike Mueck’s work, Ford’s work gets scarier and eerier the longer we look.

Origami Safari

We kicked off the holiday season with a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, specifically to the origami holiday tree. Each year approximately 40 volunteers fold the various shapes used to decorate the huge evergreen. As the title would suggest, this year’s theme involved roughly 500 animals, including herds of elephants, upside-down chameleons, gorillas, giraffes, koalas, bears, tigers, zebras, and tapirs. Pictured, the 2004 tree.

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