The day after Thanksgiving I took the red-eye to New York, and with hardly two hours of sleep, plunged into the festive madness of Manhattan giddily rushing toward Christmas. The first order of the day was a long walk -- about 40 blocks -- to the Metropolitan Museum to catch a couple small, jewel-like exhibitions before they closed the next day. I started with a few dozen paintings and drawings by 18th century French Master Antoine Watteau, and then proceeded to a precious cluster of five Vermeer paintings belonging to the Metropolitan. His works had been moved temporarily to a new gallery where they surrounded "Milkmaid," a spellbinding work by this 17th century Dutch Master on a rare loan from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. The exhibition was jam-packed.
When visiting an encyclopedic museum like the Metropolitan, I love to move back and forth between centuries and countries; it keeps things fresh. The new American Wing, which opened only a few months ago after a lengthy and dramatic renovation, was flooded that afternoon with sunlight and crowded with visitors clearly enjoying what is now probably one of the most festive public spaces in Manhattan. I've never seen the Metropolitan in better shape or in better spirits; perhaps it has something to do with its new director. Especially surprising was seeing the galleries of 20th century art – a new installation which really rocks. I wish I could say the same about my visit to MOMA, where every exhibition seems slightly detached, attempting to convey the importance of the art and curatorial ambitions at the price of spontaneity and bohemian mischief.
The stately Frick Collection shook things up recently as well, and did it to a very welcome effect, with newly refurbished and reinstalled main galleries. Everyone is justifiably raving about the just-restored portrait of Spain's King Philip IV by Velazquez, and it indeed steals the show. With newly revealed details of composition and with the glow of brightened colors, the King looks like he has awakened after a long sleep. You bet I made a beeline for the Man Ray exhibition at the Jewish Museum and then to the Neue Galerie to have the double pleasure of Viennese art as well as – truth be told – delicious pastries in their famous café.
One afternoon I followed my good friend, architectural critic Joseph Giovannini, on a tour of Manhattan's much talked about new buildings by big-name architects: the very interesting, idiosyncratic condominium by Herzog & de Meuron; the relentlessly busy, almost fussy building by Jean Nouvel; the attention-grabbing, angular, and very macho building for Cooper Union College by our own Thom Mayne; and the best of them all, the headquarters for Barry Diller's media and Internet empire designed by Frank Gehry who, at age 81, is still capable of tapping into a renewed supply of youthful energy.
And talking about architecture; it's almost embarrassing to see the freshly restored building of the Guggenheim Museum whose galleries are not so much hosting a superb exhibition of Wassily Kandinsky but rather making love to his paintings and drawings. For me, this is the best marriage of great art and outstanding architecture that I've witnessed in god knows how many years.
Of course I felt duty-bound to go to the Lower East Side to see for the first time the New Museum, which has been in the news quite a lot lately, and found myself actually liking it much more than I had anticipated. Clearly built on a budget, it infuses the neighborhood with welcome energy and serves as a no-nonsense showcase for cutting-edge exhibitions.
Currently on display there are the works of Swiss artist Urs Fischer, a darling of the international art scene and a sculptor whom I had never taken seriously until I saw this show, which made me giggle and scratch my head at the sight of his tongue-in-cheek, sometimes ugly, but always challenging and irresistibly appealing sculptures.
Banner image: composite of (L) Architect Thom Mayne's new building for Cooper Union, a college in Manhattan's East Village, and (R) Frank Gehry's IAC building, New York