Return to Articles


PETER FRANK


LETTER TO
NEW YORK


Ahoy!

No, I'm not going nautical on you; that's how Czechs greet one another. So, from one Bohemian community to another. . .

I was looking for your shining faces on the TV when the live broadcast came from Times Square. Were you able to get within a mile of the ball? Looked like fun--for once. In my day New Yorkers avoided Times Square on New Years' Eve, unless you wanted to be amidst crowds of people barfing on each other as they got their pockets picked. Now that Times Square is a theme park, has that changed too? Or was the millennial spirit simply stronger than common sense?

And you can stop the ribbing about L.A.'s pooping out on the big celeb. Look, you know what happens in this town when it rains. Especially when it rains on New Year's--the first time that's happened in several decades. Rose Bowl touts always make a big deal about how warm and sunny it is for the Big Event. Well, the millennium has come: it rained on their parade. Of course, we've had near-zero precipitation the whole rest of the fall and winter, courtesy of La Niña. Besides, we'd been home all day watching the rest of the world party like it was 2000, and by time it was our turn, we had a contact hangover. Anyway, the other 364 days of the year--or 99 years of the century, if you would--Los Angeles provides the spectacle you watch on your screens. You can give us one night off.

Speaking of spectacle, has the dust yet settled from Sensation? The show ended at the beginning of January, but the dung still seems to be hittin' the fan. Of course, the election year has come but not gone. When I saw you in November I said I was headed out to Brooklyn to see the show, right? Never got there. Came down with a stomach flu, and the trek out to Prospect Park and back just seemed too daunting; you know what it's like to take a long subway ride with a rebellious intestine. Besides, I'd read so much about the damned show, it felt as if I'd already seen it (maybe that’s where the gut reaction came from). Well, I've since read some more, notably the commentaries in the December Art in America by Linda Nochlin, Eleanor Heartney, and Marshall Berman, all of whom aver that the show was worth seeing for the art. They make the art sound even yuckier, but they make it sound vital, too, and even surprising, not merely shocking. So I'm kicking myself for not girding my loins (or thereabouts) and heading out to cop a few sensations.

I'd actually been looking forward to going out to the Brooklyn Museum, which has long been one of my favorite places in New York. Giuliani's threats, ironically enough, made a lot more people aware of what an amazing cultural resource it is. It's kind of a poor man's Metropolitan. The way the Brooklyn Academy of Music is a poor man's Lincoln Center. The way Brooklyn is a poor man's Manhattan.

Had Brooklyn on my mind anyway. I stayed with an old college chum who now lives in Long Island City, near P.S.1 (which I did see, happily--boy, they've really knocked that place into shape since I was organizing shows there 20 years ago; it's hardly even drafty anymore!). I know, Long Island City is Queens, not Brooklyn, but we tooled into Williamsburgh next door. Yep, finally cruised the `burgh. You'd been telling me for years that the scene there was lively, but I always seemed to run out of time in my visits--one more afternoon in SoHo, a return to Chelsea to see something somebody urged me to see, even an extra day spent with my parents, and there went the Williamsburgh experience. Now I know what you've been talking about. It's sort of like an East Village with less drugs and more brownstones--very hip and yet very cozy. A poor man's East Village? A not-so-poor man's?

Also, I've been getting these great e-mails (as have other Angeleni) from Barbara Elwood, who'd been a fixture in the L.A. scene until she moved to New York this year. Barb had been department secretary at the USC School of Fine Arts, left the school for a few years, then came back to do the honors for the Department of Art History, which had broken away from Fine Arts and needed somebody who knew, shall we say, where the keys were. But this summer Barb was recruited east by John Gordon, former USC Fine Arts dean and now provost at Brooklyn’s venerable Pratt Institute. Barb had visited New York a few times, but had never spent more than a few days in the Big A. So where does she wind up living? Chelsea? The Upper West Side? Brooklyn Heights? Nah, she's out in the vicinity of Bay Ridge--that's right, way-the-hell-and-gone, might-as-well-be-Staten-Island Bay Ridge. But, she insists, it's a simple, and rather safe, subway ride to work, and, although a bit long, even to Manhattan.

Be that as it may, Elwood has been blessing her friends and former neighbors with "Barb's Adventures in Brooklyn," more-or-less bi-weekly reports on her new life. A lot of that life does take place on Manhattan Island rather than Long. A recent missive, for instance, went into a lengthy disquisition about the convoluted mathematics required to figure out the location of Manhattan addresses--drop the last digit, divide by two, then add some mysterious number that differs according to each avenue. But Brooklyn does loom large in Barb's decidedly un-parochial experience. Her New Year's report told about the head of buildings and grounds at Pratt constructing (as is his wont on special occasions) a huge makeshift steam organ out of the school's heating system--a real damn-I-wish-I-coulda-been-there tale. But my favorite is still her description of the gift shop at Sensation. I know you told me it was the best part of the show, but her description was transcendent--and hilarious in its sly naïveté. Barb's been around art, and life, a bit too long to shock easily, but she knows a good source of bemusement when she finds it.

It's stuff like that that makes me want--well, not to move back for good so much as to keep coming back for more. My hometown tempts me more than ever. Now there's even that special Metrocard you can buy (with a credit card!) for $17 and ride unlimited times on buses and subways for a week. If they'd had that when I was living there, I mightn't have left. L.A. still tempts me, too--although I still have yet to ride the blue or green light-rail lines here, with all their art installations. And the blue line stops right by the Watts Towers. Last summer I checked out the red line, the one true subway, when it was extended up to Hollywood. There are installations in all the stations. I'm not sure how successful they are, one and all, but they earn As for ambition.
Well, one doesn't live here, much less move here, for the public transportation. For all our mass transit projects--which are proving more successful than a lot of us expected--it's still a BYOB town. As in "bring your own bus". I think, in fact, that a lot of Back Easters move here to live the living-in-the-car life. For every displaced New Yorker who grumbles at all the gas stations or shrieks at the thought of driving on the freeways, there's one who is dying to hit the open road, to soar through a landscape with actual vistas, to drive like a NY cabbie and get there faster than anyone else (save for those maniacs driving pick-up trucks). We may miss being able to read in the subway (reading in traffic has a different sort of frisson), but the opportunity to listen to the radio all day every day--to talk shows, hip hop, chamber music, jazz, classic rock, NPR news, and, of course, traffic reports--is just too delicious to forego.

Of course, most of us transplants, not least us New Yorkers, move here for the same reasons we move anywhere--employment, or hopes of same. Those of us who move here, however, look forward to it more than those who move to, say, Bismarck North Dakota. Ann Philbin certainly moved here with high hopes. Lord knows, she gave up a catbird seat in SoHo to come here. You remember Annie, erstwhile Directrix of the Drawing Center. Been wondering why you haven't seen her around quite as much? Cuz we got her. And we need her even more than you do. She's taken over the UCLA Hammer Museum, which--now that the Norton Simon has been dusted off, remodeled, and reactivated its exhibition schedule--remains this region's biggest potential, but as yet unrealized, museum resource. The Hammer has had nifty shows since it opened, and its store, refreshingly light on the chachkes, is one of the best art bookstores in town. But there's so much more that could be done with the space, and the programming. Henry Hopkins got the ball rolling, but he had to be dragged out of semi-retirement to do so, and after a few years he wanted his life back, so UCLA, which took over Armand Hammer's monument to himself (who else would erect one to him?) from Occidental Petroleum, went looking for younger talent.

Ann Philbin is no spring chicken; but she's still on the green side of middle age, and is one of those boomers (or, if you would, Generation Ws) who never forgot that our coming-of-age motto was "never trust anyone over 30." How that translates these days is, never trust anyone who doesn't still dream. Of course, you don't get to run a classy downtown alternate space, much less a potentially powerhouse westside museum, just by dreaming. Annie dreams of possibilities that are within reach. She's at least as much a realizer as a theorizer. She took the Drawing Center and turned it from a pleasant place to see new work on paper to one of the world's foremost media-specialized small museums, emphasizing its role as a documenter and preserver of historical phenomena (and her legacy evidently lives on, to judge from what I've seen there recently--as well as the couple of shows she's already brought with her).

Annie has biiiig plans for the Hammer, but they're not pie-in-the-sky. The Hammer facilities are more varied and capacious than we know. She plans to reformulate the galleries, move the bookstore downstairs so it's more accessible to street traffic (which is increasing in adjacent Westwood Village), move a restaurant in alongside, and even open up an auditorium that has gone unused from day one. As I said, the programming is already pretty hip, but she plans to up that ante by opening a downstairs gallery devoted entirely to contemporary art. She's even brought in her Drawing Center right-hand man, James Elaine, as the new gallery's curator.

All these projects, exciting but for the most part eminently practical (a restaurant is always risky business), have captured the local art world's imagination, and Philbin is the woman of the hour, getting interviewed everywhere from the L.A. Times to the new, fashion-hip Angeleno magazine. Making that kind of splash is impressive, especially because the splash keeps rippling. In this town, it's easy to make an impact, but almost impossible to sustain one. And it's not so much that other stuff quickly steals your thunder (like in New York), or that sources of communication and even geography are too attenuated and spread out to maintain the energy of a good idea or even hot rumor, but that people's attention spans here resemble that of rabbits. The whole town runs on Attention Deficit Disorder. Gotham's psyche is one of neurotic competitiveness and hostility bordering on paranoid schizophrenia. For all its distractions, New Yorkers pay attention--if only to dis you, hiss you, kiss you off, and rip off your ideas in the next breath. Here, they simply forget who you are, what you do, and why they were listening to you. To sell your idea to someone in New York you have to battle a barricade of rejection. Here, you slog through a fog of distraction. If "no" is the death-word in your neck of the woods, here it's "huh?"

So you can see how New York transplants are at a certain advantage, at least once they ratchet down their mental blenders from purée to dice. The persistence we learned in the street and the office, in the classroom and the subway, serves us well here (and not only on the freeway). And what we find is that the Los Angeles audience--in particular the audience for art--is hungrier, more open, and less (pre-)judgmental than New York's. Smaller, to be sure, and perhaps more prone to arrive late at and talk during a lecture; but less prone to leave early or pepper the lecturer with hostile, self-involved non-questions during the Q&A. I remember certain panel discussions at places like Artists' Space and the School for Visual Arts which turned into instant Congressional subcommittee hearings. People just don't grandstand like that here.

Does that mean that we wouldn't have a mayor (or other politician) who would try to run roughshod over artists or art institutions for stepping out of line? Well, L.A. tried that back in the days of the Red Scare, when painters got hauled up in front of the City Council to answer accusations that their abstractions were secret communiqués to the Commies. And in the later `50s and `60s there were some supposedly racy artworks that got artists and dealers, galleries and museums alike in hot water. But that was then. Sensation is now. Or was.

So what else is now? Whaddya you think? Is 2000 the first year of the new millennium, or the last of the old? To my mind, Ken Friedman has the answer. The founder of Fluxus West (once based in the Bay Area and San Diego but now living in Sweden and teaching in Norway) e-mailed me on New Year's Eve, realizing a performance of his Flux-event wherein (at least) two performers in different time zones communicate with each other once one (but not the other) passes into the new year. Ken observed that all the hoo-ha about this year belonging to the 20th century because there was no year 0 is so much pedantry. After all, he points out, there was no year 1 or year 2 either; there was no fixed year until 526, when the current dating system was established. So, in case you were (still) wondering, that's why 2K.

Happy New Millennium! Many more!
Peter