To pick one picture that encapsulates New York is too hard. This great, overwhelming, ever changing, invigorating, magical metropolis was my home for two years and the place where art got into my blood.
Memories and the art that lives on the tiny island of Manhattan go hand in hand. I’ll never forget having Picasso’s colossal Les Demoiselles d’Avignon all to myself afterhours in MoMA, thanks to the kindness of a guard. Or debating Matisse’s Joie de Vivre high up on the top floor of a midtown classroom – surrounded by art students and that sultry, enveloping August evening heat, the lights of the city flickering below. Then there’s the Constable at the Frick, a quick and surefire cure for homesickness, and the Metropolitan’s Manets, unfailingly enigmatic and so constant and comforting they are still the first things I want to see when I go back.
But beyond the walls of these revered institutions, the chaotic, vital, noisy city exudes an arresting urban beauty that is completely unique. This is the place that inspired Pollock and gave birth to Basquiat, where Warhol reigned supreme. Peeling posters, scrawled graffiti, totemic sky scrapers, and the mass of people, united, despite their disparate origins, by the same thrill of simply being there – all of this has served as boundless subject matter for those who have come to make their way in this city.
There are also hundreds of my own pictures – fleeting moments forever ingrained. Looking uptown from home, the Chrysler building sparkling in the distance. My first snowstorm, the once buzzing frenetic city shrouded by quiet and dark. Park Avenue at dusk, the sky powder pink; Washington Square Park at night. Coming across the Williamsburg Bridge – that skyline – nothing can compare; birthday supper on our roof, watching someone propose to his girlfriend on their fire escape across the street. And my favourite, walking down Madison Avenue in the sweltering summer heat with that feeling you’re all sharing in one brilliant secret: you’re living in the greatest city on earth. In this city of transplants, where all the clichés and stereotypes really are true, everyone’s a New Yorker, even if just for a while. So one picture? It’s just too hard to choose.
For a taste of New York in the 80s, go and see the Barbican’s brilliant Basquiat: Boom for Real. And if you happen to be in Paris this winter, don’t miss the highlights of MoMA which are on view at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. The FT’s Jackie Wullschlager reviewed it here. And for the best explanations of New York’s indefinable allure, read Joan Didion’s Goodbye to All That and E.B. White’s Here Is New York.
Words by Annabel Matterson. The Iris Letter December 2017.