The Morgan Library
One of the gems of the city is the Morgan Library located on Madison and 36th Street, literally just around the corner and down the block. I fell in love with the place 26 years ago and I have never stopped loving it. To me it is the one of the most intimate spots in the city, more so before the Renzo Piano reconstruction but still really wonderful.
I like it for a couple reasons: first because the shows are never big; they can’t be. It is always a one-room experience and that is just about right for my eyes. Secondly, to see the actual personal rooms of Morgan never fails to completely humble me to the extent of what great, great wealth can accomplish. Morgan’s rooms take my breath away. If a room had a sound, Morgan’s library would be a cacophony of noise, screaming a beautiful symphony of sound, moving forth in all directions, mingling and mixing and highly organized, nothing left to chance. There is a sparkling brilliance to the library; it is rich in colors, design and textures. You can take it in generally and simply let its beauty surround you or study the detail of this glorious and complex room. It’s all there and never should be missed.
Morgan’s study is a different matter all together. Awash in vermilion and wood, it is serene in comparison, warm and inviting. Despite its grandiose quality, Morgan must have spent many an hour in this room talking about the world with his guests. He is everywhere in the room, you feel him and see him twice on the wall in big handsome portraits. To my surprise, you can now see Belle de Costa Green’s office, Morgan’s first librarian and then longtime director of the Morgan Library. Her room is the smallest but no less elegant. All the rooms are rich and sumptuous, constructed with the finest materials in the world and attest to the power of the man who amassed a fortune and then created one of the premier institutions in the country if not the world. Yeah Morgan!
The current show at the Morgan is Michelangelo, Vasari, and Their Contemporaries: Drawings from the Uffizi
I decided to go opening night. Normally attending a show on the day it opens would be out of the question, but on Fridays after 7:00 PM The Morgan is free. I decided to give it a shot. I often like to go see an exhibit twice. This is akin to reading a passage a few times over to truly savor its magic and artistry. I was a bit weary when I entered, there was a fairly long line at the coat check and I thought the evening to be doomed. I sidled up to a guard and asked if I needed to check my coat and two bags. He looked at me and my two bags and thought for a minute then said “nah, you can go on in.” Happily I pushed through the big glass door that takes you to the gallery and then to my delight I entered the gallery and it was not crowded. I could view the exhibition unfettered–always a plus.
I am not an expert in drawing, I don’t understand the traditions and could not tell you about the influences. What I will say is that drawing often allows you to see the inner workings of the artist and it always reveals the subtle yet extremely powerful skill of the artist; it can be the draftsmanship or the emotion or feeling the artist was able to impart to the picture. Drawing is spare but the level of complexity that can be achieved with very few materials always astounds me. In any show there are always favorites and for me there were a few.
Giovanni Stradanus’ The Allegory of the Immortality of Poetry. The theme is wonderful and the description card nicely lays out what is happening in this involved little gem. Compositionally it is triangular and there are nice elements that help guide your eye from left to right. A beautiful classical arch is in the middle ground, steering you to focus on The Three Fates. In the foreground is the winged figure of Time, an extraordinary figure completely unaware of the otiose task he has taken up. According to the description card Time is tossing papers inscribed with names into the river. Geese save them as quickly as he tosses them, ferrying the allegorical pieces of papyrus up a meandering river to the background where nymphs attach the saved papers to columns in the Temple of Immortality. It is an intricate piece, with a fairy tale quality to it, very detailed though not wrought. It is lovely to look at again and again.
In the show were also wonderful battle scenes and triumphal march scenes, all detailed and complex in composition. Lastly, a couple flawless studies kept my eyes busy for good long while. Baccio Bandinelli Studies of Heads and Poppi Francisvo Vandini’s Four Heads.
Finally, for those of you who want to read a really excellent stand out biography of Morgan, Jean Strouse’s Morgan: An American Financier is the one. (NY Times review)
Last year a biography of Bella de Costa Green (it’s on my list to read!) by Heidi Ardizzone was published: An Illuminated Life: Belle da Costa Green’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege.