The New York art scene continually gravitates toward downtown, whether it is in Chelsea galleries or Lower East Side cafes. However, the art scene should venture Uptown in order to grasp the history and art that represent the city itself. Located on Museum Mile, Museum of the City of New York exhibits the classical art of painting, but also displays the contemporary art of street photography. As its website explains “The Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City, and serves the people of the city as well as visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections.”
Upon entering the grand lobby, I was amazed by the museum’s attention to contemporary issues in the art world. In the city that never sleeps, there is an overabundance of images, whether it is on dormitory walls, Facebook pages or Instagram websites. Every New Yorker thinks that they are the newest street photographer. And yet, most do not even know the roots of this popular art form. The London Street Photography and City Scenes: Highlights of New York Street Photography, open through December 2nd, addresses the history of street photography in London (with the use of hundreds of photographs) and displays infamous photographs taken in New York. The timeline of how street photography began, when cameras needed its subject to stand still for hours in order to capture a sharp photograph, until Kodak created the first camera that simply needed to have someone push its button, and “they would do the rest”, would astonish the common tourist with a camera. Continuously, the museum balances between the past and the present life of the medium. With its Paul Strand and Lee Friedlander photographs, the collection holds infamous photographs that epitomize New York as it was once seen by the pioneers of art photography. Additionally, the museum displays photographs taken in the past decade that will make every New Yorker do a double take the next time they see a pigeon walking down the street. This exhibit succeeded to impress the viewer by enabling the museum-goer to better appreciate today’s street photography by learning about the past.
Another exhibit, Stone Roberts: New York City Paintings, brilliantly connects the past with the present. Roberts’ paintings look like photographs with their sharp precision to detail, attention to light and glossy finish. In fact, seventeenth-century Dutch masters and early nineteenth-century French academic painters inspired these rich realist paintings. Roberts’ utilization of tromp l’oeil, a visual illusion in art used to trick the eye into perceiving a painted detail as a three-dimensional object, to paint the fleeting moments in the busiest city flawlessly captured the essence of New York. Susan Henshaw Jones, Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum said, “These paintings provide a true slice of New York City. With his classic technique and exquisite use of color, Stone Roberts crafts scenes that explore different aspects of city life.”
Before leaving the Museum, do not miss Timescapes: A Multimedia Portrait of New York. This video delves into the history and growth of New York City from a settlement of hundreds of immigrants into the metropolis city it is today. The timeline is fascinating, especially with the utilization of photographs and maps. Before Macy’s took up an entire city block and kosher restaurants opened on every corner, the city of dreams looked a lot less dreamy, however, its cultivation and urbanization prove the strength of each of its resilient residents. The twenty-two minute multimedia experience concludes with September 11, 2001, and highlights that the city stood together when everything else fell apart. As any true art historian knows, the key to understanding the future is by learning the past, and Museum of the City of New York epitomizes the bridge between the downtown and uptown art scenes in a neat history lesson.