Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Thaw

If there’s anything more pleasurable than making it into New York City just under the wire before a massive blizzard, it’s being snowed safely into New York on arrival. If anything is more pleasurable than getting snowed into New York, it’s watching the city dig out in bright afternoon sun two days later, the runoff sheeting down the facades of buildings and over shop awnings like an endless cascade of diamonds, the resilience and toughened joy that’s the birthright of New Yorkers pulsing at every intersection on the Upper West Side.

If anything is more pleasurable than watching New York dig out, it’s making the trip up Amsterdam Avenue to look at Keith Haring’s 1990 altarpiece at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

I don’t share the love of many for the building. It’s a hulking barn, utterly out of human scale, the jumped-up emulation of medieval Europe that you’d expect of New York’s Episcopalian plutocracy in the Gilded Age of industrial rape and pillage. If you’re butch enough, you could pass a football down the length of the choir. From the back of the nave, you need binoculars to see the celebrant at the altar. But it’s home to a remarkable, welcoming community and the repository of vast treasures–-cultural, social, and human--Haring’s altarpiece being for me among its greatest.

Deeply incised in the triptych’s luminous matte surface, you can spot Haring’s unmistakable compositional vocabulary down the length of the dimly lit chapel where it stands. Spanning the lower third of all three panels, a tangle of figures gyrate over what can only be the dance floor of a crowded downtown club. Above them, angels hover in the side panels--one taking a dive to the viewer’s left. At center, an impossible multi-limbed composite figure pulsates, an enfant cradled in its two lowest arms below a heart radiating energy and a cross superimposed over this loopy Trinity’s head. Oversize droplets rain down from this figure on the dancers below. To one side, the sun bursts out over the crowd. (The artist made a second version of the altarpiece for San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.)

Haring would die of AIDS just after he completed this last sculptural piece of his brief, joyous career, a fag saint whose faith in life never failed, for whom loving, celebratory promiscuity was a path to the community of the beloved; whose playfulness in everything he touched was itself his prayer; whose littering of New York’s streets and subways with random acts of whimsical delight and incitements to hope was his expression of love. Seeing his triptych, here in this glacial yet vastly inclusive cavern of a building, is the best New Year’s thaw of all.

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