Land in the Sky: The Course of Empire

Cole_Thomas_The_Course_of_Empire_Desolation_1836In 2014 I spent a day at the New-York Historical Society. I used to visit there a lot, but it’s been a while since the last time. This museum has one of the largest collections of Hudson River School paintings anywhere, which is why I liked going there back in the day. On the outside, the building—despite a recent facelift to provide “more street presence”—still looks more like a federal bank than a museum, but walk through the doors and you’ll find everything has been improved utterly. Not a happy prospect for a connoisseur of decrepitude such as myself.

Formerly, the interior of the New-York Historical Society had the look and smell of a moldered fallout shelter. That was another reason I liked the place so much. It was so unwelcoming, in a good old fashioned gritty New York in the seventies kind of way. The main gallery used to occupy the whole front of the building along Central Park West. There you would walk in and be confronted with hundreds of landscapes hung in a haphazard salon-type display, one on top of another, right up to the adumbral heights of the ceiling. It made no sense, at least by today’s curatorial standards, but I didn’t mind. Often I would be the only visitor in that haunted house of painterly visions. I didn’t go there so much to inspect the art as to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere, as one might when sitting against an old hemlock in a Catskill clove all but inaccessible to light.

Everything’s different now. In the last decade, the New-York Historical Society has undergone major renovations. All for the better, I’m sad to report. The old gallery has been transformed into a shiny, state of the art lobby where George Lucas would be happy to display his Star Wars memorabilia. Maybe he already has. The old auditorium has been replaced with a swank new one. Here you can have “a multimedia film experience exploring New York’s rise from a remote outpost to a city at the center of the world”—and not come out smelling like you spent the afternoon in a grindhouse theater. Which is probably a good thing if you plan on visiting the new children’s museum downstairs in the basement. There you can “explore 300 years of New York and American history through the eyes and lives of children of the past!” Ah history—now there’s one place where children still play.

I must confess to having enjoyed my time up on the fourth floor, which is where the museum’s “open storage” facility is located. Here you get to “interact” with some of time’s more austere and lonely artifacts, some of which may even be your own. And lucky me, I was the only living soul in open storage that day. It was like stumbling upon a little piece of the old New-York Historical Society, only climate-controlled and the paint wasn’t peeling off the walls. First thing you encounter when you walk in there is a mid-nineteenth century tombstone. Don’t worry it’s under protective glass. Get past that and you can browse through all kinds of antique sculpture, furniture, textiles, Tiffany lamps, and rusty old metal Band-Aid boxes, just like the one I still have in my bathroom cabinet.

The most unsettling installation—for me anyway—was an endlessly looping video of Madonna singing “Dress You Up.” Her voice drifted like the ghost of 1985 into every dim corner of the exhibition space. Including the one where I found one of my all-time favorite works of art, the series of paintings by Thomas Cole called The Course of Empire. All five of them were there, decked out in their glass sarcophagi. The individual painting titles telegraph the full story: “The Savage State”; “The Arcadian or Pastoral State”; “The Consummation of Empire”; “Destruction”; and “Desolation.” Official art history signage explains what it all means: “The Course of Empire is notable for reflecting popular American sentiments of the 19th century, when many saw pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, fearing that empire would lead to gluttony and inevitable decay.” Et in arcadia ego. Maybe that’s why I have always been drawn to the final painting in the series, where the human world lies in the rank and necrophilic arms of Dame Nature.

And never more so for me than right at that moment, standing in front of “Desolation” as the ghost of 1985 was crooning softly in my ear: “Gonna dress you up in my love, all over, all over.” Presumably this would go on forever and ever. Or until the power runs out, the TV goes dark, and history comes to end.