In front by a nose

New York is grubby at this time of year. The street cleaners (those super-sized, four-wheeled Hoovers) have given up trying to suck up debris from around the mounds of dirty snow lining the roads. And it’s still cold: though the cyclists have already raced a few legs of the annual “spring” series in Central Park, kitted out as though they are on an expedition to the North Pole.

It really is still winter (poor sods), but the grimy end of it when New Yorkers have abandoned all hope of warm weather arriving and are now just grimly resigned. The dog runs are dotted with lumps of frozen pooh, the parks are muddy and grassless, the subways are fuggy with the damp smell of winter coats worn for too long without cleaning.

But hell, it is still New York. And notwithstanding the suspicion that spring may never come, there is plenty happening. Try actually spotting a painting or a sculpture through the crowds at the Museum of Modern Art in the middle of the day. Where do all these art lovers come from, I wonder when I first try to get into the Kentridge retrospective. I abandon the Museum and go shopping.

I return the following day, after a whirl through the Armory Show, to see the Kentridge and have to fight my way through a crowd gathered around a cordoned-off area the size of a volleyball court where the artist Marina Abramovic is engaged in a three-day face-off. Bystanders are invited to sit across from her at a table and stare at her for as long as they care to without speaking. I assume it brings about an epiphany because there is no shortage of volunteers willing to engage in this oddly compelling show of aesthetic brinkmanship.

It is a strangely appropriate counterpoint to the sprawling Kentridge retrospective that has had good reviews in the city papers. I spend some time re-watching the early films and am, as always, deeply moved by their stark simplicity. It’s ironic perhaps, but they seem more political than ever, despite our having moved on in so many ways. Felix Teitlebaum and Soho Eckstein have become larger than life and outgrown their South African context to assume more universal proportions. Then there are the big drawings, many from The Magic Flute and The Nose, the latter accompanied by the—in this context—diminutive but exquisite Nose etchings.

And that’s another reason for the buzz in New York. It is hard to turn anywhere without seeing the name Kentridge or the familiar face—from posters on subway platforms to the pages of the New York Times—and there’s a Kentridge event every second night, it seems. Roberta Smith, the indomitable, long-time critic for The Times is still luke-warm in her response to Kentridge, though this time there is more than a hint of approval for the Museum of Modern Art show, particularly in her appraisal of the films. She can’t but be grudgingly respectful of the range and depth of his work, even if she still can’t bring herself to like his draughtsmanship.

Smith’s review was made up for by the standing ovations Kentridge received on both nights I saw The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera. The Met audience is famously conservative, but it was delighted. A common thread in the reviews is the feeling that the visual elements of the production—projections, film clips, moving stage machinery, a giant nose—overwhelm the music.

I couldn’t judge from the performance on opening night, since I was suffering from severe jet lag that hit me about 10 minutes in. But seeing it twice helped, as on night two the fascination with the look of the show had subsided so that I could really listen to Shostakovich’s wonderful and difficult music, to its unexpected and very modern noises that make it seem as though he heard John Cage before John Cage heard him.

I got over my jet lag on night one at around midnight and fell in with a bunch of Italians who talked their way past the enormous bouncers at the door of a club called Bagatelle in the meat-packing district. That’s another thing about New York—the nightclubs are coming back after Guiliani’s purges of the Nineties.

And then there’s still Chelsea, minus quite a few galleries that have fallen prey to the recession. It’s imperative to pick a few shows otherwise it all becomes a blur. I saw a good Joseph Beuys exhibition at PaceWildenstein—which included the extraordinary Aktion piece in which Beuys, wrapped in a blanket and clutching a cane, locked himself in a cage for three days with a wild coyote. (That work comes full circle in the Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art.)

There was El Anatsui’s spectacular bottle-top cloths at Jack Shainman and, best of all, a superb show of new paintings by the American Bill Jensen at Cheim & Read—one room of small, exquisitely executed coloured oils and another of monochromatic works, calligraphic strokes of black paint on white.

I had only 10 days in the grubby city and about halfway through I almost wished I had one of those great NYPD horses to get me from one thing to the next.