Urbanities

Richard Brookhiser
Miles From Museum Mile
Summer 1991

Great cities display their cultural treasures in serried ranks, as on Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile: the Frick, the Met, the Cooper-Hewitt, the Guggenheim, all strung out like divisions in one of General Schwarzkopf’s envelopments. But a truly great city also tucks some of its treasures away in odd corners, for odd reasons, as if to indicate the supply is endless.

The Hispanic Society stands on Audubon Terrace, at 155th Street and Broadway, the centerpiece of a complex of museums and learned societies. The Museum of the American Indian and the American Numismatic Society flank it, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters is a stroll away. The buildings make an odd group. Individually, they are impressive structures, with Corinthian capitals and imposing Renaissance doorways. But they have been huddled together along a narrow, claustrophobic courtyard, giving the effect of a limestone subway platform. The grandiose equestrian statue of El Cid, which stands in front of the Hispanic Society, looks as if it has just missed the local.

The complex was a family project. Collis Potter Huntington, a nineteenth-century railroad magnate (Central Pacific, Southern Pacific, Chesapeake and Ohio) generated the cash. Archer Milton Huntington, his son, spent it. Charles Pratt Huntington, a nephew of Archer’s, was the architect, and Anna Hyatt Huntington, Archer’s wife, sculpted El Cid. Spain was not an obvious object of interest for a family of Anglo-Saxon millionaires. For several centuries, what an English-speaking person thought of when he thought of Spain was, at best, Gypsies, bandits, and Don Quixote; at worst, the Armada, the Inquisition, and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The Columbus quatercentenary in 1892 would have improved Spain’s image in America. The Spanish American War, six years later, annihilated Spain’s last remnant of world power, and hence, its ability to scandalize. Whatever the reasons, the Hispanic Society, devoted to the advancement of the study of Spanish and Portuguese culture, opened its doors in 1904.

These doors are guarded by a pair of stone lions, haughtier than those at the New York Public Library. Inside, you may feel that they have done their work too well, for the place is as empty of milling visitors as a cave in Tales from the Alhambra. The guards seem roused from enchanted slumbers. The day I went, the guard on the gallery level switched on the spotlights for my benefit.

The Society’s collection includes artifacts—tiles, tombs, carpets. There are several paintings by Velásquez, as well as eight by El Greco or his school. Three of the best paintings focus on clothes—a Duke of Alba, by Antonio Moro, encased in armor so brilliant you can almost see your own reflection in it, Goya’s famous portrait of the Duchess of Alba, and his man named Pedro Mocarte. Moro’s Duke can stand up to his own wardrobe, but Goya’s subjects are simply outshone by their garments—so much that one suspects they must have been conscious of their own insignificance. Murillo, Zubarán, Degas, Morales, and the murals of Sorolla are also represented in the collection.

The best piece in the entire museum, however, is a sculpture, a thirteenth-century Mater Dolorosa from north central Spain. Here are no games of appearance and reality, no play of irony. This Virgin, evidently taken from a church wall, leans forward into the room, hands over her breast. There is pain and sorrow, and maybe anger, in her look; but what strikes you is her concentrated attention. Here is the energy that propelled the Spaniards from the condition of truculent barbarians, about as important in the world as Scottish Highlanders, to the shores of California and the Philippines, or to sainthood.

The Hispanic Society suffers from a bad location. Clearly, the Huntingtons expected the mainstream of city life to keep flowing north. What flowed north instead were the poor, or the suburbs. “North,” thinks a John Updike character being taken by his mother to the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, “was nothing but Grant’s Tomb, and Harlem, and Yankee Stadium.... North of that yawned the foreign vastness.” Yet people do manage to get to Audubon Terrace. The day I got there, the Museum of the American Indian, whose collection has been slated to be parceled out between the old Customs House and the Smithsonian in Washington, was full and bustling.

The Hispanic Society has been sideswiped by changes in attitude as well as urban geography. Today, it would be assumed that a group calling itself Hispanic was devoted to affirmative action or the redrawing of City Council districts. If it had anything to do with art, it would be the art of the Aztecs and Frida Kahlo. Spain, imperial and Catholic, is as unlovable to us as it once was to Elizabeth I (albeit for different reasons). Even Columbus, coming up on his fifth centenary strikes some Americans as a genocidal ecoterrorist, slaughtering Arawaks and destroying habitats: In an era when we feel guilty about our Spanish discoverer, we are unlikely to be interested in discovering Spanish civilization.

The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum is even more thoroughly hidden, in a converted warehouse on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City. You can take the R to its Broadway stop and walk west, or ride a special bus that shuttles from the headquarters of the Asia Society on Park Avenue. If you take the bus, you can see Manhattanites carrying themselves with the self-conscious venturesomeness of nineteenth-century Englishmen going east of Suez.

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1989), son of a Japanese father and an American mother, was raised in Japan and Indiana. His first teacher, Gutzun Borglum, the man who sculpted Mount Rushmore, told him he would never be an artist. Fortunately, Constantin Brancusi was more encouraging. Several of Noguchi’s subsequent creations are on view in Manhattan: an early relief, in the Socialist/Art Deco style, over the door of the Associated Press building in Rockefeller Center; a huge red cube, balancing on a point, in front of the Marine Midland building downtown (just the kind of sculpture about which Tom Wolfe would be witty). But his work is best seen here, in a collection of a hundred-odd pieces, which he opened four years before his death.

The outside walls of the museum present a blank to the neighborhood, which is all right since the neighborhood, except for a few houses, presents a blank to the museum. Inside, the space has a calculatedly unfinished look, as if the art might be forklifted out at any moment and replaced with a shipment of TV sets. Through the small windows of the second floor come glimpses of unconverted warehouses and the Manhattan skyline, remote and glittering, as the Kramdens might have seen it. One corner of the site yields a very different view. It has been turned into a modern version of a Japanese garden, leafy but austere, with sculptures looming or lying on their sides, and a hypnotic fountain.

One of the first pieces past the entrance, “The Stone Within,” helps give you the hang of what follows. It is a thick cylinder of basalt, standing on end. The top and the bottom have been roughly broken off, and show a brown color, as if rusted. Moving inward, there are two bands of white spots, chisel marks. The center of the column is a smooth and polished blackness. Noguchi wrote of this piece that he had found “beneath the skin, the brilliance of matter.” But the dark core also looks like space-a starless night sky. Noguchi’s sculptures demand, and induce, meditation. The more you ponder, the more you see.

Sometimes you see something surprisingly representational. “Planet in Transit #1” looks just like one of those Times Science Section diagrams of the latest theory of how new universes are created. “Night Wind,” a strip of black granite set on a wooden base, does suggest wind rushing through trees. Most of the pieces, though, leave the meaning up to you -and to the stones.

The seclusion of Noguchi’s museum, unlike that of the Hispanic Society, is deliberate. The Goyas and the El Grecos, gathered by collectors, were marooned by fashion. The Noguchis were assembled by the artist, who willed their isolation. In the nineteenth century, he would have fled up the Hudson to a landscaped hilltop, like Frederick Edwin Church. The aesthetic, and the art market, of this century keep artists in the city, and romantic bohemians choose warehouses in Queens. Perhaps one day a century hence the Noguchi collection will be scooped up and plunked in the Met. One hopes not. New York would lose thereby some of the carelessness of abundance.

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