A little over one year has gone by since I wrote a blog post, prompting several followers to wonder if I had given up on posting blogs, or even if I remained ‘of this world’. Yes, I am still alive, and, along with my sincere apologies, I offer this brief excuse for my hiatus:
I came down with COVID19 quite early–mid-March to early-April, 2020. I remained at home, nursed by my dear wife, Andrea. We would both test positive for antibodies in our Fall medical check-ups, but Andrea never had any symptoms. I’m not surprised: women are just tougher and their immune systems are stronger than men’s. I, though, even after getting through those first three, miserable, excruciating weeks, and well into recovery, found it impossible to sit down and use my desktop computer.
To enable me to work with images–something I have done most of my life as an art historian–Andrea ordered me a newer I-Phone, one which communicates with Instagram. She now has some regrets about this, as I became (and remain) a daily Instagram user and poster. Instagram is a device for instant gratification. It allows quick and easy postings of photographs and other images. My take on Instagram–referencing Homer’s Odyssey–is to be cast as one of Odysseus’ sailors, beached on the Land of the Lotus Eaters: “Blog posts? What blog posts? Here, taste this delicious flower, look at this beautiful photo I just took while walking through Central Park…”
Fortunately for me, Andrea has not yet insisted that I quit Instagram, as Odysseus did his Lotus-eating sailors. In appreciation of her tolerance (along with a good dose of shame) I re-commit myself to the more challenging task of writing blog posts.
If, however, some of you are users of Instagram and are curious about my intoxicated I-phone forays into the outside world, you may locate me as tykokdt.
Know that the following photographs are simply my personal encounters with visual reminders of COVID-19 in New York City. As such, each is accompanied by a date: the month and year of my encounter.
GLOVES: From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world made a run on PPDs (personal protective devices), and gloves became rare commodities. Medical and frontline workers–the only ones who really needed to wear gloves–were stymied by glove shortages due to hoarding, misuse and panic buying…and thoughtless discarding.
For all normal citizens not working in the field of medicine, the wearing of gloves was more likely to lead to the spread of the coronavirus through self-contamination, due both to incorrect use and to a false sense of protection.
Glove wearing, as opposed to proper hand-washing, may indeed jeopardize its wearer. The careless disposal of gloves, however, as we see above, absolutely puts most other living species at risk. Even though the virus will not survive more than four hours on this discarded glove, once it is ingested, “even biodegradable plant-derived latex can obstruct…digestive tracts and kill” birds, turtles and marine mammals.
MASKS: Masks were the other PPD element recommended to be worn in public right from the beginning of the pandemic. As with gloves, masks also soon fell into global short supply. In contrast to gloves, however, masks demand a much more sophisticated manufacturing process. This is one reason for the variety of masks that we all have seen in public, from the highest-rcommended N95 mask to medical masks, KN95 masks (many found to be fake and of lesser quality) to a variety of homemade mouth-and-nose coverings.
Even if a particular mask only offers a limited degree of protective effect, it still is useful in reducing infections and deaths for its wearer. However, the most important function of mask-wearing is containment. A mask limits the outward transmission of COVID-19 from infectious carriers. Because of this, wearing masks should remain an important social responsibility everywhere; yet, we all know how politicized mask-wearing has become. For a variety of reasons, the public wearing of masks has been shown to be higher in the Northeast and the West, lower in the Plains and much of the South.
From my own, local, observations, almost all New Yorkers wore masks in the subways. Only in the last two months of this year has subway mask-wearing fallen noticeably.
DISTANCING (Social and Physical): In the beginning, “social” distancing was interchangeable with “physical” distancing among the general public. In reality, however, “social” distancing is the practice of remaining at home and only communicating with other-than-family on-line and by telephone. “Physical” distancing was a strategy applied when venturing outside, wearing a mask, and maintaining at least six-feet of distance from all other people.
I liked the horseshoes in the Astor Place subway station platform which replaced the ubiquitous footprints placed 6-feet apart almost everyplace else as indicators of physical distancing. In the lower photograph, we encounter a creative way for a family to venture outside while using their blow-up river raft to create a social distancing environment on the grass just south of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
SOURDOUGH BREAD TAKES OVER: In the Spring of 2020, as I began to use Instagram on a daily basis with my new phone, it seemed as if every other person was posting photographs of her/his sourdough bread. Many were quite fabulous-looking, although I didn’t think of taking a screenshot of these. This is a photo I posted of one of Andrea’s many bakes. Sourdough posts began to disappear by the early Fall, but the baking continued, in our place as well as elsewhere.
The reason for this influx of sourdough bread-baking was that the entire country suffered from yeast shortages as well as shortages of flour, particularly bread flour. These shortages were due, in large part, to panic buying during lockdown. But also, because bread-baking has its peak during the December holidays, dry yeast supplies were already reduced when COVID-19 hit in the Spring. Therefore, everybody started sourdough cultures, which capture and feed on the natural yeasts in our air. Here is a simple description of this age-old process.
HOMELESS IN NEW YORK: Whatever may be the social science definition of a homeless person, all I can say is that these and many others whom I saw in 2020 were sleeping out in the open, during the day, in public places around New York City–more than I ever have seen before. It may be that some, who used public shelters in the past, now feared the spread of COVID-19 within the shelter system, so making greater use of the public streets as living rooms.
I was particularly intrigued by Edward DV Jr. and his Partner, who actually set up a bedroom on Delancey Street and make use of a LinkNYC Wi-Fi Kiosk to keep their phones charged and connect to some other electrical amenities while they live, on the grid, rent-free.
CENTRAL PARK FIELD HOSPITAL: For a month and a half, beginning on April 1, 2020, about twenty tents of various sizes appeared in this meadow in the north-east sector of Central Park. These tents were part of a 68 bed (plus 10 ICU bed) field hospital which would treat 315 COVID-19 patients. It was run by the evangelical relief group, Samaritan’s Purse and accommodated the overflow of patients from Mount Sinai hospital, located across Fifth Avenue from it. Although Samaritan’s Purse has for many years set up field hospitals in war zones and natural disaster areas around the world, this is its first deployment in America.
Here we see the hospital in the background, beyond the flowers and various notes of encouragement that well-wishers have left in the fencing at the south edge of East Meadow.
BOWERY SOUP KITCHEN: The Bowery Mission was founded in 1875 and is New York’s oldest Christian rescue mission. The devastation to people’s lives caused by COVID-19 made its services that much more essential. By April of 2020, the Mission recorded a 50% increase in meals served. Because of the need for physical distancing, the Mission began to provide what it called “‘to-go’ meals served out of the door.”
EVICTION CRISIS: Much has been written about a “COVID-19 Eviction Crisis” which may have placed 40 million Americans at risk due a combination of long-standing rental cost-burdens exacerbated by job loss. Of these three photographs, the first two may well be the results of landlord evictions. I have no recollection, in my previous decades of wandering this and other cities, of encountering household furnishings arranged to create a living space under an elevated highway, or carefully stacked and covered with protective sheets beneath the overhang of a church portal.
My third example, directly above, is not evidence of an eviction, but it is a form of household: one person’s cardboard house, carefully packed away each morning and rolled across the street to be parked in front of a boarded-up lot until dusk, when it is rolled back across the street, unpacked and opened up to to build the protective walls of a bedroom.
ABOLITION PARK: On June 23, 2020, Black Lives Matter activists began camping in City Hall Park with the intention of putting pressure by their presence on City Council for the week before it voted on the city’s 2021 budget. Their goal was to get the city to reduce the NYPD budget by at least $1 billion. This action was known as Occupy City Hall.
Once City Council failed to make any cuts in the city’s police budget, most of the activists left. However, some remained and were joined by other social activists as well as the homeless, to create what then became known as Abolition Park. Its goal was broader. It embraced not merely abolishing the police department but abolishing slavery and “de-colonizing” housing, education and the healthcare systems. It put forward a statement of purpose that talked of “building a world free of oppression, abolishing white supremacy, normalizing a system of mutual aid and solidarity, and giving all power to all people…”
As with the much earlier, 2011, OWS occupations of Lower Manhattan [see one of my early posts on this], Abolition Park operated as a village community with a library, a bodega, a medical tent, a shower, and food and clothing stations. Also, as with OWS, its occupiers held daily readings, screenings and political discussions about ways to create a better future for everybody. This little “utopia,” if one might call it that, survived for over three weeks. Then, “On July 23rd, in a pre-dawn raid without warning, police in riot gear ambushed Abolition Park, demolished the tent city and removed the infrastructure along with hopes and dreams of a better world.” So wrote En Foco photographer, Lisa DuBois.
TEST & TRACE BOOTHS: Although New York City created its Test & Trace Corps for the testing and contact tracing of COVID-19 on June 1, 2020, I don’t believe that mobile testing booths such as this made an appearance until December of 2021. This would coincide with President Biden’s decision to set up federal COVID-19 testing sites nationwide. Still now, at least in New York City, one can encounter them in every neighborhood.
OPEN RESTAURANTS: New York City introduced its Open Restaurants Program in June of 2020 as a response to COVID-19 restrictions on indoor dining. The program became a flourishing success, very likely saving over 10,000 restaurants from closing permanently and well over 150,000 jobs in the industry. The New York State Comptroller deemed restaurants “essential to New York City’s social and economic fabric and key to the future.” By the end of its first year, the program saw the number of outdoor dining spots increase ten-fold from pre-pandemic times.
Some city residents bemoaned the loss of street parking, but an apparent loss of some 8,550 parking spots is a minuscule price to pay for rescuing a business so essential to the greatness of this city.
PUBLIC ART: TRISTAN EATON: In collaboration with Montefiore Health System, the Los Angeles-based mural artist, graphic designer and illustrator, Tristan Eaton, created this mural on 8th Avenue and 34th Street in celebration of the heroism of healthcare workers, nationwide and worldwide.
This giant mural is titled Now and Forever, and it can be seen in conjunction with two short videos put out by Montefiore. One video [YouTube, 1:01], titled Canyon of Heroes: A Tribute to Our Brave Healthcare Heroes, is accompanied by Alicia Keys and Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” a song the hospital plays as its “happy code” whenever a COVID-19 patient is discharged.
The other video [YouTube, 1:01] celebrates the mural itself and its production.
PUBLIC ART: LINCOLN PROJECT BILLBOARDS: The one billboard depicts Ivanka Trump gesturing (as if holding something invisible) to the number of deaths of New Yorkers and American to COVID-19. The other billboard shows Jared Kushner accompanied by body bags beneath a callous quotation of his that blames New Yorkers for their suffering under COVID-19. The billboards were put up for the month prior to the 2020 Presidential election by the Lincoln Project, a PAC (political action committee) formed in December of 2019 by Republicans for the purpose of preventing the re-election of Donald Trump.
The image of Ivanka was taken from a July Tweet of hers in which she posed, holding a can of Goya black beans and saying “If it’s Goya, it has to be good.” This was in response to Goya CEO, Robert Inanue, praising President Trump the week before in a Hispanic event at the White House. In the billboard, dead New Yorkers and Americans replace the now-disappeared can of beans.
In the other billboard, Senior White House advisor Jared Kushner presides, as he actually did on March 20, 2020 at the offices of FEMA to discuss how best to replenish the depleted reserves of PPE. Kushner told the group that the federal government has no role in this issue, that “free markets will solve this,” and–in the case of New York–“Cuomo didn’t pound the phones hard enough to get PPE for his state….His people are going to suffer and that’s their problem.”
A lawyer for the Kushner couple demanded immediate removal of the billboards or face a lawsuit for “enormous compensatory and punitive damages.” The Lincoln Project responded with “Nuts!” and stated “the billboards will stay up,” which they did until after the election.
PUBLIC ART: BOARDED-UP STOREFRONTS BECOME TEMPORARY SUPPORTS: In the field of art, the word “support” refers to whatever backing a painter or printmaker is using, whether paper, canvas, board, or plastered wall. In the summer of 2020, much of New York City was in lockdown because of the pandemic. This meant the closure of some businesses as well as fewer people on the streets. Many businesses began to board-up as a protection from robbery, from possible demonstration violence, and from fear of violence in the wake of the up-coming November elections. These boards offered an ideal support for street artists everywhere.
PUBLIC ART: BOARDED-UP STOREFRONTS (a Footnote on Anthony Fauci): Here we see masked magician delicately holding a Coronavirus spike protein cell, and just beneath it a note of thanks (most likely by a different artist) to ‘Dr. Faucy’.
Anthony Fauci has been the director of NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) since 1984 and has advised every American President on medical issues since Ronald Reagan. Only under Donald Trump and a Republican Party long-dedicated to denigrating science has someone of Fauci’s status been second-guessed, ignored, and even threatened with death.
With this single pasted page, one artist stated what over 120 major scientists and public health doctors finally would write in January of this year: “We deplore the personal attacks on Dr. Fauci. The criticism is inaccurate, unscientific, ill-founded in the facts….We are grateful for Dr. Fauci’s dedication and tireless efforts to help the country through this pandemic and other health crises.”
Indeed, we all should be thankful to Dr. Fauci for his professional dedication and his tenacity. Let it be noted that we also encounter here two artists working in June 2020, one building on the other, whose combined work links Fauci with a magician. What delightful serendipidy to the fact that, ten months later, the columnist Frank Bruni wrote this of Fauci in the New York Times:
“He managed somehow to correct Trump and yet not be replaced with a sycophant who would have fed the former president’s delusions and further endangered Americans’ lives. That’s more than public service. That’s magic.”
PUBLIC ART: BANDITA by SOLUS: To the best of my knowledge, this mural of a young, masked person in a cowboy hat made its appearance sometime in 2020. The original, small-scale version of Bandita dates from 2019. I am assuming that, because of the mask, Solus chose to enlarge this particular work for its obvious connection to the introduction of public masking in 2020. I am seeking more information about this mural, but Solus, who is based in Dublin, has yet to respond to my questions.
PUBLIC ART: FOR THE LOVE OF ART: AN APPROPRIATED INTENTIONS EXHIBITION: In response to the closing of museums and galleries due to COVID-19, nineteen artists from Northern Manhattan and the Bronx divided up heavy canvas advertising banner material (obtained from Lincoln Hospital) into equal 7 x 9 foot sections and hung what has been called Northern Manhattan’s largest open-air art show in November of 2020.
Although curator and fellow artist, Alexis Mendoza stated that the show had no specific theme, he told a Manhattan Times reporter that most of the art covered the major social issues of “the past four years…immigration, racism, the breaking up of families at borders…”
All nineteen pieces made for compelling art, but Naivy Pérez’s masked skull is the perfect symbol of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly for the opening month of the exhibition. In November 2020, 25 states set weekly death records; the U.S. averaged over 1,200 COVID-19 deaths every day; COVID-19 killed more Americans that month than the combined death toll for Australia, Canada, China, Japan and Germany–37,172 dead.
PUBLIC ART: FREEDOM FROM FEAR BY ANDRÉ TRENIER: This mural, too, appeared in the same block of Alexander Avenue in 2020 as Solus’ painting. A mother pulls the bed sheets over her two, sleeping children. The father, holding a newspaper, looks on. Standing in the foreground, he provides a protective barrier for the children in bed. The immediate fear is defined by the newspaper’s headline: “Another Day, Another Unarmed Black Person Killed by the Police.”
So, the implicit subject of this painting is the intrinsic fear of police among Black Americans. The commonly defined mission of policing may be to “protect and serve,” but a majority of Black Americans fear that they have no protection from the police. When they feel the need for protection, police are the last people they would call. These two children will soon have–if they have not already had–The Talk: the cautionary talk about how to deal with police whenever they venture outside.
But “Freedom from Fear” is also a fundamental human right. The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines it as such in 1948. This right, in turn, came from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as his Four Freedoms Speech. In Roosevelt’s words, “The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.”
And so, Freedom from Fear embraces multiple meanings, whether understood narrowly as long-standing racial divide that pits law enforcement against a specific group of American citizens, or understood globally as a protection of all the citizens of this world from all forms of political violence. It is a freedom still desperately in need of attainment.
PUBLIC ART REPLACES THEATER ON WEST 42nd STREET: Forced by COVID-19 to shut down on March 12, 2020, Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director, Adam Greenfield, writer/activist Avram Finklestein, and a few others brainstormed about new ways to stay relevant and engage New York audiences. Their solution was to transform the theater’s sidewalk and storefront into a stage–not one for theatrical productions but for visual art–an art which, like much theater, focuses on social transformation, on life’s contradictions, on questioning basic assumptions.
The texts on the doors of the second photograph are explanatory. Greenfield (on the left door) states that through a series of rotating street-front exhibitions, “we aim to extend to our city street what theater, what art, does best: to disrupt routine traffic; to imagine alternate realities and offer new perspectives; to make the world a little less knowable.”
Finkelstein and co-curator David Zinn (on the right door) expand on this idea: “We want to give this shared public space a voice…meditate on the larger meanings of survival and community….create a series of public projects in these sleeping hubs of social commerce, a transient Street Museum to remind New York of its buoyancy and originality, and to help us flex our imaginations as we re-engage with our future.”
Jilly Ballistic’s With Great Power Comes No Accountability became the first in this Public Art Series. She came up with the wording on January 31, 2020, during the first Impeachment Trial. As she recollects, “with no removal” of Trump, we lose accountability. She wrote these title words with a black marker on a subway platform, but the lockdown gave her no way to enlarge her idea. But soon thereafter, Donald Trump’s “lethal mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis” enabled Ballistic to further expand on the concept of No Accountability. In May, she wrote the number of COVID-19 deaths on a dollar bill with the words, “now imagine they’re bodies” and posted it on Instagram.
With the Playwrights Horizons commission, she finally had a venue to develop this idea in large scale and bring it to the public, along with two up-datings of the number of deaths.
PUBLIC ART: LIBERTY RECLINING: Zaq Landsberg had conceived and fabricated this sculpture before COVID-19, but the general shutdown delayed its date of installation until May, 2021. Even though its inspiration comes from giant Asian statues of the reclining Buddha, Liberty at rest is not about to enter Parinirvana, salvation after death, as was Buddha. Instead, let’s just imagine that Liberty needs time to recharge. She is taking time off from inspiring immigrants arriving from overseas, from the increasingly challenging job of protecting American democracy, from her chief task of “enlightening the world” while the least enlightened President, ever, was presiding in Washington.
COLLABORATIVE ART DURING COVID: IMAGES FROM LOCKDOWN: While New Yorkers were in lockdown and mainly viewing the city from their windows, Michelle Brody asked several of her friends to send her a photograph of their neighborhood, as seen from their window. Her only request was that the photograph included some element of their window or building to serve as a foreground framing device. Michelle then made her own art, based on these photos, and later exhibited them in a show titled What We Were left To See.
The resulting art is neither photography nor painting, because Michelle “paints” with pigmented paper pulp. She first makes her own paper. Then, while her handmade paper support is still wet, she lays on top of it pigmented paper pulp which, of course, bonds with its paper support. She applies no liquid pigments, no oil or acrylic paint from tubes. Much of Michelle’s imagery is inspired by the vernacular architecture of her neighborhood, and she sees her process of building an image through layering of paper pulp as a parallel to the building of the architecture of that neighborhood.
Because these recent images of Brody’s are at a scale close to life-sized and incorporate some aspect an apartment interior–window sill, fire escape, a pet dog–they connect the neighborhood seen in the background to a named but unseen neighbor who implicitly occupies the foreground. The viewer, then, becomes the occupant, that neighbor in lockdown, absorbing the warm familiarity of a particular urban neighborhood beyond the frame. More directly than any other artistic response to COVID-19, these works by Brody bring the viewer’s experience of the pandemic lockdown “up close and personal.”