Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fly Up, Drive Back: a NEW YORK CITY/Atlanta Driveby

Monday, Day One: newly merged Southwest Air/Air Tran offered the best price, $144 one way Atlanta/New York City. The sore butt that kicked in about halfway, and lingered, suggests one of the reasons - but the thrifty, I’ve learned, endure the affordable. The relief of wheels thumping good ol’ runway quickly faded, replaced by the stress of navigating around outside my current comfort zone. Once the new terrain becomes familiar, the zone expands and that’s when the fun starts. 

Walking from 14th street to the East Village, where that happened this trip. I was there to reclaim a loaned Saturn, no longer needed as my daughter’s circumstances shifted. Manhattan is a city of superb public transportation but vexation and/or expense for those with automobiles but who are not, like so many on that island, independently wealthy. Since my time was somewhat flexible I, naturally, padded a few days on the timeline for a little museum-hopping. In newly-wed’s tiny but expensive apartment I spotted Neil Young’s memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, and dug in, finishing it before leaving town, supplemented by excursions into a text on addiction from daughter’s professional shelf. While there, both daughter and son-in-law received certificates marking their progress towards PhD in Clinical Psychology and fully residenced MD respectively.

Next day, Tuesday: the efficient, if cacophonous MTA delivers me (and daughter who has taken a sick day) north to 86th street and feet carry us west to the visually lavish Metropolitan Museum of Art. There Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso sing in blazing color, along with the moody Abstract Expressionists and the marvelous Rembrandt contemplative self-portraits, possibly the greatest paintings ever made. The candid photography of Gary Winograd was also featured, some of which the artist never saw, found in his cameras and studio, undeveloped, at his death. Gary actualized something I’ve been shy of, only dabbled in, photographing people on the streets, catching them in public activity-performance, sort of in their face, no other way short of hidden cameras to get’em. My New York visits these days always seem to include some evening Netflix at my daughter’s apartment, this time Walter Mitty, a Hollywoodized rendition of the hapless James Thurber character and The Iceman, a respectable gangster flik. Also take-out Thai with some nice red.

Third day, Wednesday: the Guggenheim’s Futurist Exhibit. Starting at the bottom, as I’m wont to do, instead of taking the easy way, elevator to the top and walk down, I encountered the Futurist Manifesto writ large on a wall. Odd that I had not previously realized that the movement was Fascist, glorifying war, violence and aggression. It was described in Art History classes I had as celebrating the machine and speed. This was hopefully not operant in every artist but it certainly colored my reception of the work. The manifesto dismissed the aesthetic, meditative qualities of many of their Cubist and Modernist contemporaries, much as the Tea Party (or the Taliban for that matter) today denigrates sensitive or thoughtful expression. Much of the art I encountered on those curved and spiraled walls fully lived up to the anti-art, manifesto’s values, visually uninteresting and pompous (I’ve already confessed how the Manifesto prepped my reception, so yeah). Exceptions by Boccioni and Severini, and a few others either slipped past the censors or were tolerated for the prestige of the artists. 

Some of the architectural drawings also committed the bad taste of good taste. The theatrical work of Fortunato Depero, stage props and paintings of same, gave me pause in my condemnation of the movement as these works embraced modernist, experimental aesthetics and celebrated the imagination. The whole idea of the movement excitedly pumping out magazines, posters and pamphlets impressed me though the content may have distressed, were I fluent in Italian. This could be said also of the video of Futurist cartoons, drawings that were quite good but presumably promoting a hateful ideology. Fortunately there were side exhibits to relieve the relentless machismo, a selection from the permanent collection of Cezanne, Picasso etc; and an early, pre-abstract Kandinsky show, a prelude to the art in the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, or art nouveau-influenced illustration. Kind of cartoonish, they pre-figure the later abstraction though the color is noticeably less refined.

Day Four, Thursday, Jeff Koons at the Whitney: last year at MOMA I stood in line for free-Friday and bore the crowds to re-visit my favorite painters. When I got to the most contemporary stuff I felt like an old fuddy-duddy, impatient with the video and conceptual nature of so much of that work. The same “reactionary” stance raised its ugly head when I walked into the Jeff Koons exhibit. Huge, framed, unaltered advertisements commercial products put me off indeed, feeling like I’m surrounded by this stuff, do I really need to see it in a museum, even if you call it a “readymade”? 

The pristine “antiquated” vacuum cleaners mounted in plexiglass boxes bottom-lit by fluorescent tubes were also unconvincing, and I’m thinking, I’m getting old here. Basketballs floating in glass boxes of hardened liquid were more interesting and as the work progressed to monstrous-sized enlargements of knicknacks and blown-up children’s cartoon animals, I could appreciate the technical accomplishment… what looked for all the world like fool-the-eye balloons was actually highly refined, cast metal… but still, doubt nags. In my youth I recall snickering at similar fuddy-duddy responses to Warhol and Duchamp, artists Koons certainly was influenced by. I excuse the artist’s farming out the actual work to technicians by remembering that movie directors do the same. But the objects that stand at the end of the process will be judged, just as does the final cut of a film, and here I flounder. I talk with artist friends who dismiss Koons as a clever charlatan, bilking gullible collectors and curators, and others who compare him reverently to predecessor giants in the field. Me, I’m of both minds, in different moods, as I walk from room to room. 

As at the Guggenheim, there is pleasant relief in the form of side-show paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, himself the object of disdain in his day, Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler, wonderful Abstract Expressionists, Agnes Martin mystic minimalist and her kissing cousin, Brice Marden. Reaching my saturation point for taking in this stuff, much earlier than in past years I confess, I jump the train south and wander around Washington Square and the Village for a bit, taking some photos, soaking it up. Back for farewell Chinese take-out that night with more red and hugs all around, they to bed, me to journaling. I wrote a song for daughter's June wedding, which was a great party ( Their decision to live in Manhattan has made the great city accessible once again for me, for which I’m grateful.

Day Five, Friday: so I tidy up and head for the car, hoping it’s still where she parked it. It is. I head south intending to turn right, as daughter has instructed, on Houston. But it’s not marked and there’s construction. When I get to Canal Street I know I’ve missed it, but Canal takes one to the Holland Tunnel too, right? Wrong. I’m forced to turn off and get totally bogged and lost. Forty minutes later I have found Houston and the Tunnel and am heading west, New Jersey then Pennsylvania, Kutztown to be exact. It’s only 109 miles so I’m there by late afternoon. I miss a turn and drive up main street, shoot some photos and swing back. I notice a coffee house and I need to pee and look at my directions. Twenty minutes later I’m standing on Dan’s porch, no response to my knock. The screen door is not locked but I hesitate to just walk in so I hang out and journal on a two seat deck chair. Ten minutes later Professor Talley pokes his head out the door, surprised to see me. Non-stop catchup commences. I get the house tour, walls laden with exciting art, even one of mine, and we go eat Mexican, quite good. Dan knows the proprietor. Dan seems to know everybody in this small-ish town. After a tour of the art department, literally a stone’s throw from the apartment, with all its seductive technical equipment, computers, printers, film processors,… even easels, we grab a couple of fine guitars and run through songs until the carnival a couple blocks away, which we’ve declined to go to in favor of music, begins a sudden barrage of concussive fireworks. Can’t but think of the current nightmare in Gaza. Impossible to keep playing and besides, it’s late.

Day Six, Saturday: In the morning a diner with actual juke box access at every booth, lots of carbs and coffee to accompany the conversation, predictably plentiful for old friends who haven’t talked face-to-face in years. Eventually, in Dan’s Prius, we ride some rural terrain, hilly with stone barns and winding roads. We find ourselves sitting in the yard of the University’s drawing instructor. Ed is manager of many projects Dan says, the ever-expanding building he lives in, right on a creek, and a collection of milk trucks, two of which sit in the yard. Yes, milk trucks, full size real milk trucks from, as they say, a bygone era. Fond farewells, delayed by a seductive telecaster, are meted out and the reunion recedes, into that place where dwell the days between, and the events of, our earlier friendship in Atlanta.

A long drive west to Fredericksburg is made longer by maddening road construction that has first eastbound, then westbound lanes, inexplicably clogged, actually parked. I keep my camera on the seat next to me, shooting anything that interests me, invariably it seems blocked by a road sign, tree or marred by hanging power lines or reflections of the camera in the window. Finally to Fredericksburg, and south on Interstate 81. Sleepy, I exit and find a quick, typically bad cup of road coffee. My goal this day is 250 miles according to mapquest, fortyfive miles off 81 to the west and south, West Virginia in fact. Just as the terrain becomes the most dramatic so far, crossing the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley, my camera batteries give out. The spares are dead too and I attribute my neglect to the stress of navigating lower Manhattan. Gotta blame something!

The terrain though is ruggedly beautiful, impressive mounds of what’s left of mountains once greater than the Rockies, if I remember my geology. Soon I’m in the Lost River Valley, following the directions emailed with my invitation to visit a writer I’ve never met. We both publish essays at and have expressed an interest in each other’s scribbling. Dave is retired-from-another-life steeped in mystery(?). And what a place to retire to, at the end of a narrow, winding, petering out road, a charming house among the trees, and deer,… and bear. With the energy my host displays it’s a retirement unlike the stereotype – the guy writes, yeah, and publishes and brews ale of varieties I knew not existed, along with wine and a meticulously kept grounds and home and he’s in a band playing horn along with his retired horn and piano playing partner. Said partner has waiting a feast far beyond the grilled cheese this vegetarian had suggested as ample sustenance. We have to try the home-brew before switching to a nice white. Pilot son and his companion engineer are also present and civilized, humanitarian dinner conversation escorts us well into the enchanting night. Just before retiring we are gifted a short, live piano recital by the woman of the house, Jody be her name. The luxury of a near-by guest house accommodates the journaling last hour of that day for me.

Day Seven: waffles, hash browns and fine coffee with bowls of fruit at hand follow a good walk with the dogs and a tour of the property. My generous, talented and affable hosts are one family in a development with a property covenant, most of the other owners more or less weekend visitors. Their agenda for the day includes an hour’s drive to some live Shakespeare. Camera batteries charged over night, I must on, 350 miles to drive this Sunday, to eastern Tennessee. Attempts to document the incredible terrain are on-going, out the window, even of the second delay of this trip, an hour sitting in bumper-to-bumper L.A.-style traffic out on 81. You always wonder, when you get to the bottleneck, why this took so long. Nurturing wakefulness with the usual desperately bad coffee, I
arrive early evening, feeling a bit sheepish that I am so tardy.

William and Carol lived across the street from us in Atlanta, young music lovers and party animals. Eventually they actualized a long-time fantasy to return to their roots, buying a sizable tract of farmland, with barns and horses. We visited them in the early 90s when daughter wasn’t yet ten and they barely had one child. That’s a lot of sparkling water under the bridge, 20+ years. We haven’t changed abit. Their dogs are replaced by new ones and the now two chilluns have flown the coop, well, they’ve matured, been to college, are remarkably different from each other, one a musician, songwriter the other a new mom, making my hosts, of course, grandpa and grandma. I get only the one photo of Carol. The rest of my lovely hosts I have failed to capture, due to dead batteries or Saturn-lagged forgetfulness.

The house has changed too, a new living-room addition now claiming favorite place for the music lovers to indulge their passion. Both are teaching in the public schools. The rigors of that occupation lead them to curtail the party life but not to forget it. A mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey and one such pregnant donkey gave birth and abandoned one such mule on their property. This they rescued, bottle-feeding the necessary months and now find themselves “saddled” with a permanent guest, whom they of course love, but whom takes to wandering across sparsely traveled yet still dangerous country roads like an outdoor cat. They also have inherited a caged bird from daughter, loud and raucous, disrespectful as the proverbial sailor. Diligently guarding the property during teaching hours, their St. Bernard roams free, intimidating UPS drivers and chewing up their leavings. 

The beautiful rolling hills and aging barns and fences set off the place, declaring it William and Carol country. The horses, alas, have passed on. When the non-conforming couple go to vote in the presidential season, they cause the attendants a fit of cognitive dissonance, having to dust off, as they do, the little-used democratic ballots. This news always reminds me of the Gore Vidal quote I ran across after one particularly depressing election, “To get people to always and relentlessly vote against their own interests, is manipulation of the highest order.” With that parting wisdom on my mind, I drove the last hilly 250 miles to Atlanta and began the several day Saturn-Lag recovery.