nyc art itinerary: Museum of the City of New York

It’s been over a month since I wrote a list of NYC art places I aim to visit in 2013. Today I ticked off my first of seven sites when I visited the Museum of the City of New York for the Designing Tomorrow exhibition on the 1939 World’s Fair.

The exhibition was a good overview for the World’s Fairs in the 1930s, spanning San Francisco, San Diego, Cleveland, Chicago, and of course, Queens. I came away with some interesting info:

  • Robert Moses’ initiative to convert the area that is now Flushing-Corona Meadows Park from marsh and dumping ground into a World’s Fair site and park was the largest reclamation project ever undertaken.
  •  The Panorama, now housed at the Queens Museum of Art, is over 9,000 square feet, and is the result of the labor of 100 people working for three years.
  • ConEdison commissioned a diorama that showed the lights of NYC going on and off in a 12-minute cycle. It was three stories high and a block long.

But, overall, I was a little let down. The artifacts seemed outnumbered by tiled photos and didactic texts. I missed the awe,  excitement, and interactivity that all these inert things were trying so hard to convey. Further, many photos were reproduced, either as part of the signage, or in digital slideshows. For example, rare color photos were projected on a standard-definition projector in a too-bright hallway, while photos of illuminated pavilions were shown on a monitor with annoyingly long crossfade transitions. While the graphic designers made chronologically consistent typographic choices, the photos were presented in 21st century means, and the precision and luminosity of the original prints or slides were lost. The exhibition also seemed soft on social history; I would have loved to hear more about how Depression-era audiences, NYC’s disparate communities or the US’ progressive movement engaged the Fairs.

The main things I enjoyed were:

1. Loads of examples of lovely typography—off-set printed on brochures, as well as hand-painted in proposal drawings.

2. Some of the original proposal drawings were truly stunning. This one, in particular, is fantastic in real life:

Micromegas proprosal drawing by Frank Paul.
Micromegas proprosal drawing by Frank Paul.
Art & Development

Happiness and pathology

My art has concerned happiness for the past two years, so I was fascinated to learn about a man who is forced to avoid joy and pleasure.

Neurologist Matt Frerking suffers from narcolepsy with catoplexy, a disease that results in momentarily losing the ability to move one’s muscles. In his case, the attacks are triggered by strong positive emotions. As Chris Higgins, the storyteller, narrated on This American Life (Episode #409, “Held Hostage”, originally aired June 4, 2010):

When Matt gets really happy—when he feels the warm fuzzy stuff—he becomes paralyzed by his emotions. Literally. Paralyzed.

Since I’m also interested in knickknacks and decorations, and how important and valuable they are, it was fascinating to hear this:


It can be a triggering condition just to discuss [looking at a wedding photo.]


At this moment, Matt is having an attack… Think about this: Matt had this attack while he was talking about a photo he has never seen. If just talking about a picture can cause this, imagine the other things Matt has to avoid.

It’s this kind of deep personal meaning invested in personal effects that fascinates me. How can an object can be invested with such strong memory, emotion and meaning, and yet be distinguished from art?

Higgins goes on to describe further negative impacts of the disease on Frerking’s life:

After living with this disease for four years, with being punished every time he experiences happiness, Matt’s adapted, though the way he has adapted is sad: He tries to enjoy things less. He told me he tries to think of himself as a robot, and not engage too emotionally. He’s told me he even has to be careful how he speaks, not to get too enthusiastic or worked up.

I find this tremendously tragic—and ironic, considering how much some of my past work advocated for modest pleasure. Certainly I was not talking about moderation in lieu of irrational exuberance, nor for the hostages of such diseases. If you are in good health, be grateful. It allows you the ability to feel as much happiness and express as much exuberance as you like.

Higgins ends on an optimistic note:

But it’s important to point out, even though Matt is being trained by his brain everyday not to feel these emotions, he still has them…. Although Matt tries to avoid happiness, it’s still part of his life. He’s proof that you can’t avoid happiness, it’ll still find you no matter what.