Pre-used images

I’d not meant to walk down 52nd Street, but I’m pretty happy I did. For one, I got to find out first hand what kind of food “The Halal Guys” at the corner of 6th Avenue serve up. I can understand why this has become such a hit in recent years. As I dug into their famous Basmati and lamb, I gazed at Venus de Milo remade into a 7 meter tall bronze statue. The two smaller companion pieces, all by Jim Dine, were a block down. These pieces by the famous pop artist have been a godsend to roosting pigeons for over 27 years.

New York City: art on sale outside MoMA

Just before coming to this corner I’d walked past MoMA and found a few artists trying to sell their work on the pavement outside. I stopped to talk to Kurt, who said he is part of a collective called Fabrika Ouch. They seem to be doing roughly the same thing as Jim Dine or Roy Lichtenstein. Like them they are collecting pop-culture images, and reusing them in various ways.

Ndew York City: art on sale outside MoMA

I thought some of the pieces were quite witty. Kurt seemed happy to hear this, and tried to make a sale. He wasn’t very pushy about it, and after a couple of sentences told me that I could also order on the website. I assume that pop art has a market, and the pavement in front of MoMA gives a bit of visibility to their effort.

Ndew York City: art on sale outside MoMA

Nearby Nikita was arranging the display of his silk-screen work. Good workmanship, I noticed. Nikita hesitated a little when I asked whether I could photograph him with his work, but then agreed. My guess is that he sells to a market segment close to Kurt’s, and is a rival in the business sense. I can relate these youngsters to the artists who sit outside the galleries in Mumbai, hoping to make a sale. Life is tough for the little artists in Mumbai, and I imagine that it cannot be easier in New York.

Untitled and Untitled

Between a meeting and flying back home, I decided to spend a weekend in New York meeting friends and walking about streets looking at public art. I had a list of a few things I wanted to look at, but the rest was serendipity. One of the first lucky surprises were these two delightfully simple figures dancing with linked hands. They stood in front of the marvellous building called 17 State Street. Walking on along State Street, on the other side of the building was this equally simple piece of a person riding a howling dog.

New York City: Keith Haring, Untitled

The website of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council told me that they are untitled pieces by Keith Haring made in 1989 and 1986 respectively. Haring was something of a superstar in the art world, but I was completely ignorant of his life and work until I started looking for the artist who made these two pieces of painted aluminium. I must have been living in a cardboard box for the last forty years. But that’s serendipity, and better-late-than-never for you.

15th Century In New York

I stood on the corner of 7th Avenue and 58th Street and gawked at dragons. Were they really dragons spewing fire? They were a little too awkward for that (featured photo). And what was that crown doing on top of their heads?Detail from Chateau Chenonceau, France Eventually I remembered where I’d seen this before. It was the salamander, the symbol of Francis I of France. I had seen it before in Chateau de Chenonceau, in France. That’s in the left half of the picture on the right. The fleur-de-lis, flowers of lily, pattern behind the salamander were meant to evoke French royalty as well. This repurposing of the 15th and 16th century France was the key in the fantastic facade of the New York landmark that I was looking at.

New York City: Alwyn Court Acanthus

Alwyn Court now houses the famous caviar restaurant Petrossian. But when it opened in 1908, it tried to be the most lavish apartment building of its time. The New York Times of the day noted that these 14 room, 5 bathroom apartments, which cost USD 10,000 a year, could be “just as palatial as private houses, but needed half as many servants.” Today, an advertisement says, a two room apartment is available here for USD 3,150,000. At the posted cost per square foot, one of these two room apartments would have an area of a bit more than 1500 square feet.. The change happened in the 1938, when a bank bought the building and partitioned it to create 75 apartments where there had been 14 earlier.

New York City: Alwyn Court Cherubs

I walked around the entrance peering at various details of the terra cotta decorations which make up the facade. The corner on 58th street is now a landing place for rickshaws. There were three parked there, and as I took my photos, two more arrived to let off tourists. When Walter Russell and Alwyn Ball bought this plot in 1907, 7th Avenue was already a posh address. The brief given to the architects, Harde and Short (yes, really!), was to build a “studio palace”.

New York City: Alwyn Court Faces

The idea was to project this as a cheaper alternative for the rich (less servants, for example). The terra cotta facade was part of this drive. The motifs are repeated throughout the 12 story facade. One mold would give as many salamanders as necessary. At the same time, terra cotta could be easily worked into beautiful shapes: the curling leaves and wonderfully moulded figures that you can see in the photo here. Fire safety was another corner snipped out of the design, and nearly led to a disaster in two years.

New York City: Alwyn Court niche

As I admired a facade which had been called one of highest excellence “if made by a pastry cook”, other tourists joined me. Many were more knowledgeable; one of them pointed out the completely useless niche (which you can see in the photo above) as a weak point in the decoration, since rain water could collect there and drip down slowly over the rest of the frontage. The building does not seem notable for any architectural advance. The sheer exuberance of the facade is enough to have earned it a place in the list of notable buildings in New York City. I thought my walk was not wasted.


I took the F train to the Lexington Avenue-63rd Street Station and came out on the 3rd Avenue exit. As I took the elevator up to the street I passed several mosaics, the last of which you can see in the photo below. The mosaics are by Jean Shin, a Seoul-born New York City artist. I hadn’t seen her work before, but after seeing these mosaics, I will make an effort to see more works by her.

New York City: mosaic at the Lexington Avenuw-63 Street station

My impression on seeing this mosaic was that it shows the nearby Queensboro Bridge (see featured photo) which connects Manhattan to Queens. The visual resemblance is striking, but I was wrong. It turns out that Shin captures an older elevated train station which was replaced by the subway line. The girders shown here held up the elevated track. This is a part of New York I hadn’t seen before, and I had no idea that there were elevated tracks in the city. One lives and learns, sometimes too late.

The longest road

My youngest niece asked me, "Which is the longest road in New York?" Having crossed paths with it from Bowling Green to Columbus Circle, I knew the answer. It starts from the little park where, the story goes, the island of Manhattan was purchased from native Americans by the Dutch. I don’t know whether the story is true, but the Avenue starts from Bowling Green, which you can see behind the bull mobbed by tourists here.

New York City: Flatiron building

A little further north, the iconic Flatiron Building stands at a corner on this road. Built in 1902, it was then one of the tallest buildings in the city, and the only 22 story building north of 14th Street. Interestingly, this steel-framed, limestone and terra-cotta clad building was an incursion of the Chicago style into New York. As I stood and admired the building, I was joined by a succession of people who had come there specially to photograph one of the icons of New York City.

New York City: Times square

Perhaps one of the most well-known landmarks on the longest road in New York is Times Square. I’ve known locals who give it a wide berth, but every visitor needs to walk through this place. Why not? Where else would you have photo-ops with Spiderman, or both Batman and the Joker, or Captain America? This square has all the oddities that you would love New York for.

New York City: reflection of the Hearst tower

About the furthest uptown that I crossed this road was on 57th street. You can see the iconic Hearst Tower reflected in the mirrorshades of the building just across the crossing. Randolph Hearst spent 2 million 1928 dollars to build the bottom 6 stories. The weirdly shaped tower atop it was completed in 2006, and was the first green building in New York. I walked up to it specifically to see the water sculpture in the lobby which humidifies the building.

Broadway, the longest street in New York, continues well beyond this. By not following it to Lincoln Center I missed out on the dancing Hippo sculpture that friends recommended. It continues past that into parts of New York I know little about.

A Sign of the Times Square

I could have guessed: the entrance to this station was as lit up as the doors to one of the shows on Broadway around it. I’d dodged photo ops with Batman and Captain America before ducking into this shelter. I should have known that this cave would not be just another little hole in the wall. It was a full scale museum. I’d browsed a full catalogue of art works in the subway, but had forgotten to count how many there were in the subway station at Times Square and 42nd Street. Since I did not have a floor plan, I would miss several, but the ones I saw were marvellous.

I came face to face with a wonderful mural by Roy Lichtenstein as soon as I entered. It shows an Art Deco future from a Buck Rogers comic book, so different from the reality of that future around it. Lichtenstein made the Times Square Mural on a commission from the MTA, so the juxtaposition is deliberate. Very often that future is talked of as an utopia never found. But this was the weekend of Charlottesburg, and I could not help thinking how much more vibrant the New York above ground is than the future of these musty old imaginations.

Apart from Roy Lichtenstein, one person who called out that Buck Rogers future is the science fiction writer William Gibson in a great story called The Gernsback Continuum. I had it in mind as I walked along the 16 meter long mural, admiring the bright colours and the last gathering of all of Lichtenstein’s life’s themes. The mural was installed in 2002, a couple of years after my few months in New York. This was the first time I’d seen it. Lichtenstein died in 1997, and this work from 1994 was one of his last major pieces.

Noon Beneath the Underdog

I had too little time in New York to listen to new music. I passed by the New York Public Library, but it may require prior arrangement to look at the papers of Charles Mingus which it holds. I did not think of this until I passed the stone lions guarding, among other things, the life’s work of a musical genius (photo below). I do not really think of Mingus and his music in terms of geography, but if I had to, I would associate 42nd street with it. Sure enough, I met up with Charles and Sue Mingus outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminus (featured photo).

New York City: public library

The low curved roof at this junction of passageways is held up by four pillars, some of which you can see here. They form a whispering gallery. I found travellers pausing to try this out: one of a couple would stand at one of the pillars, and the other would go to another and whisper something. It works, because they would then go off laughing together.

It is said that Charles Mingus proposed to Sue through this elaborate long-distance method. I haven’t found this story in Beneath the Underdog his rambling book which we have to count as his autobiography. Perhaps it is there in Sue Mingus’ memoirs, Tonight at Noon. I should read it.

Just for that I walked up to 10th Avenue on 42nd Street. Another block north, and I could have gone to stand at the address where Charles Mingus last lived. I did not have the heart to do that.

Squirrels of New York

Squirrels shut down NASDAQ in 1987 and 1994. One of them became a squatter in Bloomberg Tower even before it was completed. Even the occupation in Zuccotti Park seems to have been directed by one. You would think that New York City would have a secret squad assigned to track and detain squirrels who could pose a danger to the city again. This seemed to be sadly lacking.

In order to flush these terrors from their hiding, I stalked through Battery Park, camera in hand, and found a chestnut coated one hanging on to a tree. It was bold, and held its place even as I extended a lens at it. There was little I could do except record it and report it to the public at large. That’s the pesky creature in the featured photo.

New York City: squirrel in City Hall Park

The Sciuridae family have their network. As I roamed City Hall Park later in the day, looking for the black squirrels which are supposed to have taken over the park, I saw the one in the photo above. It sat there bold as brass as I took photos. I noticed that there was a little chestnut colouring on its largely grey coat? Was this a chestnut, or a black? It was a master of disguise. I couldn’t decide one way or another. It had chosen its colour to cause maximum disruption. But I still had my camera, so that I could warn the public. Watch out for the one in the photo above.

The City’s department of Parks and Recreation (notice that: PR!) is clever enough not to fall for the artifice of these masters of disguise. They note blandly that all squirrels of New York are Eastern Grey Squirrels, also known as Sciurus carolinensis. Maybe these guys are good, maybe they manage to track the menaces, and I just did not see them doing their job in secret.

Essential New York

Never Google "quintessential New York", because you’ll be immediately sent to Forbes, or Conde Nast. If you are to believe Forbes, then the iconic New York snack is delicate sandwiches in the Star Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton. For the one-percent, maybe. But as my friend Mike would say, "Get outta here!" And if I wanted to get something back for The Family, I would not take the advice of Conde Nast and go shopping at A Détacher on Mulberry Street either. Mark Twain may as well have said quintessential is nothing but essential with a college education. Googling "essential New York" does not do much better.

New York City: breakfast at a diner

I turned to my favourite oracle: the wisdom of the crowd, and messaged all my nieces. The clear winners were an I-love-NY t-shirt (the kind which you can also buy on the streets of Mumbai or Delhi) and a hot dog from a street stall. I’d run this question past Mike a few years ago, and he told me to go to a diner. Other favourites included lox, bagels, pizza, doughnuts, pastrami, and cheesecake. There’s just so many calories you can take in a day. So I stuck to the phone-a-friend suggestions, hot dog on the street (featured photo, outside the Grand Central Terminus) and a diner for breakfast (photo above, on the East 60th Street). These were wonderful things to do.

Art in the open

It has clearly been a very long time since I was in New York City. One lovely new thing that has happened is that there is more art in the subway. The example you see in the featured photo is from the Lexington Avenue and 59th Street station. Quite a stunner; it is called Blooming, and the artist is Elizabeth Murray.

New York City: City Hall Park

A beautifully quirky set includes the example above. The whole set together is called Earth Potential. The temporary installation in the city hall park is by Katja Noviskova. It blends beautifully with the surroundings, as you can see. As one walks around Manhattan now one sees a lot of interesting outdoor art.