July 18, 2012
Everyone knows what to see at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado: the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people who occupied the Four Corners region from A.D. 600 to 1300. Soon, though, there will be good reason to stop at the entrance because the park is building a new Visitor and Research Center, scheduled to open late this year, that will give a state-of-the-art museum to its remarkable collection of archaeological artifacts, ethnographic material on the Native Americans of the Southwest and Santa Fe Indian School painting. Considered as a whole, it’s one of the oldest and biggest museums in the national park system.
Another one of its treasures is a collection of jewelry and ceramics given to Mesa Verde in the 1940s by architect Mary Jane Colter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1869, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, then went to create and decorate buildings for the Fred Harvey Company which ran shops, restaurants and hotels along the Sante Fe Railway. Among her masterworks are Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Hermit’s Rest and the Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, all stunning examples of the American Arts and Crafts movement that take their inspiration from Hopi, Zuni and Navajo design, as well as Spanish-Mexican hacienda architecture. Between 1900 and 1940 Colter also worked on landmark train stations in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Los Angeles.
At a time when women spent their time in the kitchen and parlor, Colter made her way in a man’s world, striding over construction sites and seeking artifacts all over the old Southwest, her hair in an untidy French roll, her radio tuned to a Mexican music station. On forays around the Four Corners region she collected baskets, jewelry and pots, while getting to know the Native American craftspeople who made them. She used most of the treasures she found to decorate Harvey Company buildings, but kept some for herself, eventually retiring to Santa Fe where she died in 1958.
Colter was a close friend of the archaeologist Jesse L. Nusbaum, who excavated Mesa Verde’s Balcony House and served as the park’s superintendent from 1921 to 1946. So the museum there seemed to Colter a suitable home for her art.
But she never wanted the 530 pieces of jewelry she bequeathed to Mesa Verde to be known as the Mary Colter Collection. “I think she didn’t want it to be about her. She wanted it to be about the artists,” said curator Tara Travis. Later some of Colter’s ceramics were added from the old Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.
When the new Visitor and Research Center opens at Mesa Verde, 30 Colter pieces will be on display, including a silver Navajo pin shaped like a biplane, heishi necklaces made of delicately strung shells, and tie slides carved from the vertebrae of cows and goats—all showing, as Travis explained, that “Colter had an interest in how artists used materials—shells, stones, turquoise and silver—and everyday objects to create works of art.”
The mastery of the Native Americans who made them should be overwhelmingly apparent. But I can’t think of it as anything other than the Mary Jane Colter Collection.
July 11, 2012
It’s fascinating to watch the focus of interest move from one gentrifying neighborhood to another in greater metropolitan New York. Once upon a time it was SoHo and Park Slope, Brooklyn; today it’s DUMBO, which stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and the Lower East Side, where hip shops, stylish new hotels and restaurants have replaced garment workshops and pushcarts selling fruit and vegetables.
Days gone by in that neighborhood—east of the Bowery and south of Houston Street—come alive at the Tenement Museum in an Orchard Street apartment house where a long chain of German Jewish, Irish and Italian immigrants tried to make good in America. Tours of the building reveal how they lived from 1863 to 1935 with no electric lights, heating or indoor plumbing. Some made it out of the Lower East Side, while others who couldn’t manage to pay the rent moved to even worse neighborhoods.
The Tenement Museum also offers walking tours, one of which I recently joined. The first question I asked the guide on the pavement outside was what exactly is a tenement? I wanted to know because I live in what I assume was a West Village tenement building, characterized by its layout—two apartments in back, two in the front, on each floor—a fire escape climbing the facade and a tight, narrow internal staircase. The guide elaborated on the definition, describing a tenement as a building housing three or more unrelated families, originally with exterior wooden steps linking the floors, where housewives dried the laundry.
In the 1860s the Lower East Side was deluged by a wave of immigrants from Germany; known as Klein Deutschland, it had the fifth-largest German-speaking population among cities in the world at the time. The garment industry provided jobs, along with cigar factories and pushcarts. At 86 Orchard Street, a sign that says Max Feinberg identifies a brick building that now hosts a chichi Mexican restaurant as the former home of Majestic Hosiery.
Around the corner at 133 Allen Street, where there was once an elevated train and the city is building a bike lane—back to the future, as they say—we stopped in front of the Church of Grace to Fujianese. It’s a Christian worship place for fairly recent immigrants from China’s Fujian Province, but before that the building served as a bathhouse for the district’s great unwashed.
More characteristic of the Lower East Side in the late 19th century are the myriad synagogues tucked between storefronts like the Kehila Kedosha Janina temple at 280 Broome Street, home to a small, obscure sect of Judaism that grew up in Greece during the Roman era, and the former Congregation Poel Zedek Anshe Ileya, now a Seventh-Day Adventist church at the corner of Forsyth and Delancey streets, which actually began its long life as a German Presbyterian Church complete with a rose window around 1890.
Across the street Sara Roosevelt Park, named for FDR’s mother and opened in 1934, runs in a narrow strip between East Houston and Canal streets. The city established the park at a time when it hoped to provide one acre of green space for every 600 people. Now the ratio is more like one acre for every 12,000 in the densely packed neighborhood, and the park has welcomed serendipitous new enterprises like the Wah Mei bird garden and the M’Finda Kalunga community garden, opened in 1982 partly to commemorate an abandoned nearby African cemetery and partly to stem drug dealing that was rampant in the area.
Just east of the park at the intersection of Rivington and Eldridge streets, we stood in front of the University Settlement, a welfare organization founded by wealthy, educated New Yorkers in 1886 to aid immigrants by providing education and social services. It continues to do so now, though the clientele has changed since the neighborhood’s German immigrant days.
The Tenement Museum walking tour lasts for two hours and covers much more ground than this. I was exhausted by the time I finished. Fortunately, places for refreshment abound in the neighborhood, from cool cafés like 88 Orchard to Yonah Schimmel’s knishery at 137 East Houston, which has been baking authentic knishes filled with potato, cabbage and spinach since 1910.
July 5, 2012
The thing is, there’s just too much art in the Louvre Museum—35,000 pieces, and that’s just what’s on display. There are also too many people, some eight million a year tromping past the Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory.
Enter the Louvre-Lens, an outpost of the great Paris museum, scheduled to open in December. Other landmark museums have already opened satellites: the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain; the Pompidou Center in Metz, capital of the Lorraine; even a baby Hermitage in Amsterdam. But the rising Lens museum marks the Louvre’s first foray outside the City of Light.
Strictly speaking, overcrowding is not the reason why the Louvre is building a $200 million facility in the Pas-de-Calais region of France. It has more to do with the accessibility of the town of Lens—which can be reached by train in two to three hours from Paris, London and Brussels—and a deep need for urban renewal in an old coal industry center that lost its last mine in 1986, pushing unemployment to 15 percent.
Also driving the museum’s creation is an effort to attract French people to the Louvre; as it stands now, foreign tourists chiefly flow through the I. M. Pei Pyramid at the threshold of the Louvre in Paris, so it’s hoped to attract les Français at an offshoot outside the capital.
The infant Louvre in Lens was designed by the award-winning Japanese architectural firm SANAA with a long, low entrance building lined in glass, underground display areas where visitors can see behind-the-scenes conservation and storage, and a Gallerie du Temps housing a regularly changing collection of 250 masterworks ranging across 5,000 years of art history (including at the time of opening Eugène Delacroix’s La Liberté, a French national icon). The side by side arrangement is a vastly different approach from that at the Louvre Paris, where you’d have to walk six miles to visit every room. Having worked off several pounds in past visits to the Paris mother ship, I welcome a more compact experience in art appreciation at Lens. Don’t tell the curator, but I think of it as Louvre Lite.
May 7, 2012
Just around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a much smaller suite of galleries is showing something special: “Nomads and Networks: The Ancient Art and Culture of Kazakhstan,” an exhibition mounted by New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Founded half a dozen years ago and occupying a dignified building just off upper Fifth Avenue, the ISAW is a research and education center devoted to the study of ancient cultures that grew up beyond the Mediterranean basin in some of the most far-flung corners of the globe.
“Nomads and Networks” (open through June 3) focuses on Central Asia’s four corners region where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet. For travelers, it is a storied place of ever-frozen mountains and steppes where it’s thought horses were first domesticated sometime around 3500 B.C. Bridled and saddled, they became not just a means of transportation but a cultural icon for the nomadic people of eastern Kazakhstan’s Altai and Tianshan regions, who left no written record, though they were mentioned in “The Histories” of Herodotus.
It’s a small exhibition composed of just two rooms of 250 objects borrowed from four museums in Kazakhstan, displayed for the first time in the U.S. They come from single finds and archaeological digs into burial mounds known as kurgans now being excavated in Kazakhstan. One gallery is devoted to a kurgan that is thought to have held the remains of a chieftain, buried with 13 horses, sacrificed in formal regalia. The animals’ tack, carved of deer horn, ornamented with gold foil and cinnabar, testifies to the artistic sophistication of the nomads. A piece of a saddle made of felt and wood occupies a showcase nearby, preserved across millennia by permafrost, which served as a sort of refrigerator for organic material that would have otherwise decayed. The analysis of human remains also preserved by permafrost has revealed that nomads of the Asian four corners region wore full-body tattoos and knew the secrets of embalming, carrying mummified corpses with them through frozen winters until the ice melted and the bodies of the dead could be interred.
A second room displays a collection of 23-karat gold ornaments, highlighted by what is known as the Kurgan Diadem, a hammered gold band with imagery common in neighboring China, suggesting the reach of nomadic contact and trading. Just as stunning are four tray-like objects, mounted on conical stands, bearing creatures out of an ancient box of Animal Crackers: horses, deer, ravens, two-humped Bactrian camels and snow leopards.
Though the function of many of these objects remains unknown, the exhibition’s objective—to show that the nomadic people of the Central Asian steppe were anything but the biker guys of the ancient world, that they lived in coherent communities and had their own understanding of this life, as well as the next—is evocatively fulfilled. Only, now I’ve got to add another place to my travel list: Kazakhstan, hopefully on horseback.
April 6, 2012
Procida is less well-known than Capri and other islands in the glorious Bay of Naples, chiefly favored by Italians, a scant 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland and barely a half square mile in size. On Easter weekend, though, the ferries are full because Procida’s Mysteries of the Dead Christ processional—begun in 1754 as a macabre march of flagellants—is one of the most colorful in Italy.
I was there to see it a few years ago and brought back pictures: