Can one single object encapsulate the dense knot of energy that is New York City? An exhibition is trying with 62 objects, selected by 62 people who all dwell in its diverse, sprawling bounds.
These New Yorkers are all faculty members at the New School, and Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story in the university’s Sheila C. Johnson Designer Center shows just how different, yet oddly unified, the city experience can be. From the ubiquitous water towers soaring above to the bagel carts parked below, to the ever-present noise of downstairs, upstairs, and wall-sharing neighbors, to the Met museum buttons (RIP), to even the dismembered bicycles that haunt the racks of all boroughs, there are these things that represent New York City’s transience, constant movement, and compact living.
The exhibition isn’t a beautiful one — the label text is stuck up on the wall with blue painter’s tape and the objects include coffee cups and the dish of free condoms you might find at a bar. However, the stories are great to read. The poor broken umbrellas, storm casualties tossed in gutters or haphazardly jamming the tops of trash cans, are eulogized as “Death and Life of the Urban Umbrella” by Peter Wheelwright, associate professor of constructed environments, with a selection from King Lear: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!” There’s also Jeffrey Goldfarb, a professor of sociology, writing on the 9/11 memorial in the Union Square subway station with its worn, industrial labels over the bricks, where he restores his friend Mike’s name with a pen.
And there are those things that emphasize how each street or building can have some sudden change. For example, Wendy Scheir, the director of archives and special collections, writes about the “Shadowman” paintings by Richard Hambleton that used to lurk as dark silhouettes on the street walls in the 1980s: “You’d turn a corner and suddenly someone was right there next to you, too close. It pulled you up short, made your breath catch. Then you realized: it was a ragged silhouette painted on the wall.” Yet the most important note of her story is that: “You didn’t notice when they went away.”
Because if there’s something defining about the city as a whole it’s temporality, both of place and ourselves. Neil Greenberg, a professor of choreography and chair of the arts, has the votives from the Tompkins Square funeral of his brother Jon Greenberg who died of AIDS in 1993, one of the many memorials that are embedded always on the streets. He writes: “I offer these objects for this exhibition as an example of how the streets of New York can be alive with intensely personal memories for each of us. We don’t just reside here. We live here. The quotidian can change to the emotionally charged with the turn of a corner.”
The exhibition made me think about what I would pick as the one object to capture my experience in this city, which is coming up on the five-year mark next month. Would it be something that gave the most powerful initial impact like the framed view of the Empire State Building I could see from the stoop of my first apartment or the surprising breadth of the rivers that coil around the islands? Or would it be something less monumental, like the oldest tombstone in the city at Trinity Churchyard that goes back to the 17th century, a small reminder of how much history and how many people have been here, or even just the sounds of the night that I can hear from my window, from the subway rumbling below to the cars with their music prowling out into the air to the distant sounds of ships out on the harbor? Or would it just be the mottled color of the pavement from all those people who never stop moving? In a way, it would be all of these things, along with many of the objects in the Masterpieces of Everyday New York exhibition, as somehow even though this city is all about the life in it there are these objects of connection between us.
Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story is at the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (2 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) at Parsons The New School through September 4