Rewards of the return visit

Friends, those kooks, occasionally wonder why I often return to places I’ve already traveled to instead of going somewhere new and horizon-expanding. The answers are simple and numerous. One, obviously, is that I’ve fallen for a city or country and the days I visited were but a tantalizing taste. I want more. To really get under the skin of a place. So I go back.

(It should be said that last week I was enjoying my first journey to Buenos Aires — my first time in South America — so I still seek the exotic and uncharted.)

To return to a destination is also to refresh the original experiences that made it special and to caulk the holes of crumbling memory. Right now I’m considering a revisit to Madrid, Spain, where I went like 20 years ago. That trip is a fond haze.

Besides Picasso’s gobsmacking “Guernica” and the gems of the Prado Museum — I’m specially partial to the wackadoodle Bosch triptych — I remember only a convivial Irish pub where I met some fun locals and a whiplashing green rollercoaster on the city outskirts. It didn’t even seem to be part of an amusement park, just this stand-alone adrenaline machine amid the trees. Anyway, it was a blast. 

So I’m mulling Madrid for my fall trip, with a three-day excursion north to Bilbao, which is famous mainly for its warped and woozy Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim art museum but has, since the museum’s opening in 1997, blossomed with attractions and an arty, edgy personality all its own.

Guggenheim Bilbao

I’ve yearned to go to Bilbao for at least 15 years, but you don’t just go directly to the city, you typically go through a hub like Barcelona or Madrid then trek north by train to Spain’s autonomous and beautiful Basque Country.

Thus I’m piggybacking a new place with a place I’ve been before, but both should be rejuvenating and illuminating, since, as I said, my memories of Madrid are a scintillating smudge. 

This happens. I went to Rome in March and even though I had been there twice before, it was changed as much as I’d changed in the intervening years. Same with my January visit to Lisbon. I recognized much of the city, but it was also strikingly novel, a whole new world. It’s about layers: each visit peels back exciting ones, those you didn’t see or didn’t have time for the first go around. Discovery is fathomless.

And this is from someone who journals copiously and snaps photos like a paparazzo. But those mementos are static, mere documents, like a map or a postcard. Throbbing, breathing life is the aim, so, yeah, it’s time to go back.

The profundity of art. Or not.

I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. … The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”

— from the novel “Leaving the Atocha Station” by Ben Lerner

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Human figures, so creepy, so astonishing

For many, Easter Sunday is a time to reflect on one very important body, the one that rose from the dead to make thunderous proclamations and upend the world forever.

For me, Easter Sunday, a few days ago, was a time to reflect on scores of bodies congregated in a Manhattan museum, a reflection that furnished its own transcendence, its own religious experience, if you will.

These bodies — from the gorgeous to the gruesome; the hyper-realistic to the freakily figurative — comprise the knockout exhibit “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300-Now)” at The Met Breuer, through July 22.

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The old and the new, juxtaposed.

“Like Life” nimbly and epically presents some 120 works spanning 700 years, from classical Greek to contemporary bad boy Jeff Koons, and oodles in between: Donatello, El Greco, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Rodin, Degas, Louise Bourgeois, Meret Oppenheim, Isa Genzken, Charles Ray, and so many more.

The show’s thrills (and chills) include an awesome array of wax effigies, reliquaries, mannequins and anatomical models — including graphic autopsy depictions — plus tiny-scale sculptures from the Renaissance and beyond. There is lots of nakedness.

My visit was a promenade amid faces and bodies, hands and limbs and heads, some bloody, some immaculate. Many of the life-size bodies, often made of wax, are so realistic I practically did double-takes. Once in a while I flinched and muttered, “Christ.

Juxtapositions with ancient and new figures are clever and provocative, almost none of them without wit and wonder. Throughout, spellbound, I contemplated mortality and deformity, the genius of art and the supremacy of the visionary. Gladly, I was just as often captivated as creeped-out. It’s a sweet and savory affair.

Below is part of the population crowding the best show I’ve seen since the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met last summer:

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Detail from “The Whistlers” (2005), a sculpture by Tip Toland. Jarringly realistic, profound and whimsical. Just look at that face.

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In “The Digger” (1857), is this skinless man shoveling his own grave? In the background, an especially grisly crucifixion from medieval Germany.

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Faces from the ages: Center is the ethereal “Mask of Hanako, Type E” by Auguste Rodin (1911). At right is “Self,” a frozen-blood self-portrait by Marc Quinn (2006).

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“Housewife” (1969-1970) by Duane Hanson. Commentary that is both witty and withering, this snapshot of quotidian, housebound tedium is a diorama of depression.

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“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons. A porcelain monstrosity that’s actually pretty hilarious depending on your mood and/or critical perspective. (I think the consensus is that it’s hideous.)

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“To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll” (2016) by Goshka Macuga, a speaking, moving android that pontificates with chilling verisimilitude about life, death and global concerns for 38 minutes. Eerie and mouth-agape mesmerizing, he’s the spiky, intellectual counterpoint to Disney’s anodyne animatronics.

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“Self-Portrait with Sculpture” by John De Andrea, 1980. These are not real people. The frontal view is firmly R-rated, the tableau slightly disturbing and thought-stirring and so true-to-life, it makes you start. (Can you name the extremely famous painting in the background, left? It’s a beautiful juxtaposition with the sculpture. Answer: “Pygmalion and Galatea.)

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I don’t know who this is, or who made him. But he emanates a special brand of banal magnificence.

Coruscating culture quotations of the day

These are a few quotes about the arts that I’ve carried around for a while. I believe they’re intellectual gold:

On art:

“Art, love and God — they’re dumb words, and probably the dumbest is art. I don’t know what it is, art. But I believe in it, so far.” — Damien Hirst

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 “The last hope is that art may transmute the disappointments of life into something more radiant and stable; the lasting bitterness is that although art may guide ‘what pangs there be/Into a bearable choreography,’ it does not repair the original life-rift.” — Helen Vendler, with excerpts from poet James Merrill

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On theater and art:

“The new generation of theatergoers are suburban know-nothings dumbed down to the point of expecting art to be some kind of inclusive, fraudulently life-affirming group-grope, instead of what it is: arrogant, autocratic, and potentially monstrous!” — David Hirson, “Wrong Mountain”

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On acting:

“If you intend to follow the truth you feel in yourself — to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity — you will subject  yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And if you persevere, the Theatre, which you are learning to serve, will grace you, now and again, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know.” — David Mamet

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On writing:

“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.” — Hart Crane

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“What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.” — Louis Menand

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“More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.” — Katie Roiphe

The playful elegance of Irving Penn’s photos

I’ve recently done some traveling to Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal and London, art-encrusted metropolises boasting drop-dead, world-class museums, from D.C.’s National Gallery to London’s twin Tates and the mighty Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was spun around (picture Mary Tyler Moore giddy and agape in the big city) by the sheer voluminous quality around almost every corner, be it the say-what size of the magnificent Turner collections in London or the rare “Chagall: Colour and Music” show in Montreal.

Yet, for all that sublime perambulation, meandering among masterpieces, the best art show I’ve seen in a spell, hands-down, is the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met in New York. “Irving Penn: Centennial” features over 200 photos — glamorous portraits of writers, artists, actors, dancers and other outsize personalities; insane food still lifes; leonine fashion divas; and worlds more. It’s an exhilarating joy.

Avers the show catalog: It’s the “most comprehensive retrospective to date of the work of the great American photographer,” who, after a sensational stint at Vogue, died in 2009. “Penn mastered a pared-down aesthetic of studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance, and detail.”

Yes, but there’s so much more than that clinical description suggests, and you can see it in the work itself. (Time is of the essence: the exhibit closes July 30. The Met has posted a nice video preview of the show here.) A smoky elegance and playful naturalism imbue the hugely influential pictures — hello, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz — whose complexity and sophistication are on full display, if rarely peacocky.

Below are a few of Penn’s famous black and white celebrity portraits — some of my favorites — lucid, lush, deceptively simple images that pierce into the personalities to become indelibly iconic. (Try and identify the subjects.)

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