Sunday, January 17, 2016

David Bowie: Invisible New Yorker

by Steven Kurutz

New York Times

January 16, 2016

About 10 years ago, the playwright John Guare got a call asking if he wanted to meet David Bowie to discuss a theater project.

As Mr. Guare remembered it, Mr. Bowie was “in a very dark place” (it was shortly after he had had a heart attack onstage in Berlin), and a mutual friend, the English producer Robert Fox, was trying to coax him back to a creative life. Mr. Guare immediately said yes.

He and Mr. Bowie met at each other’s homes in New York to throw around ideas, and sometimes they went out. “We would take walks around the East Village,” Mr. Guare said. “And I was always praying somebody would run into us so I could say, ‘Do you know my friend David Bowie?’”

It never happened.

Mr. Guare was at first puzzled and then amazed at how Mr. Bowie — the stage creature, the persona, the guy he saw command an audience at Radio City Music Hall in 1973 with his spiky orange hair and snow-white tan — could walk the city streets unrecognized.

“He traveled with this cloak of invisibility — nobody saw him,” Mr. Guare said. “He just eradicated himself.”

People often forgot, but up until his death, on Sunday at age 69, Mr. Bowie was a New Yorker. He said so himself, emphatically. “I’m a New Yorker!” he declared to SOMA magazine in 2003, after he’d been here a decade.


Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Floating Studio

by Colin B. Bailey

New York Review of Books

April 23, 2015

Online articles and blogs, and the streaming of lectures, have placed the last nails into the coffin of the small art book devoted to an illustrated talk by an eminent scholar, accessible to specialists and general readers alike. The Walter Neurath Memorial Lectures and the Council of the Frick Lecture Series are two such casualties (the former’s demise in 2000 preceded the Internet Age). And so the Getty Research Institute is to be commended for commissioning David Dollenmayer’s fine translation of Willibald Sauerländer’s Manet Malt Monet: Ein Sommer in Argenteuil, a lecture given in Munich in the summer of 2004, published by Verlag C.H. Beck of that city in 2012, and now—over a decade later—appearing in a handsomely designed English edition.

Now aged ninety, Sauerländer—a contributor to The New York Review for over thirty years—is a medievalist recognized above all for his work on Gothic and Romanesque sculpture and architecture. His interests have ranged widely to embrace Poussin, Rubens, Houdon, and Fragonard, but only very recently has he chosen to write on nineteenth-century topics (as in reviews in 2012 of exhibitions devoted to Corot and Renoir). “Trained in looking at things in a very intense way,” he has noted that the art historian needs to “absorb the emotional process in front of a work of art” and then “undergo the critical task of asking ourselves whether the emotional impact of the art is identical with the historical, or original, mission of the object.”


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tennessee Williams on His Women, His Writer’s Block, and Whether It All Mattered

Tennessee Williams tasked James Grissom with seeking out each of the women (and few men) who had inspired his work—Maureen Stapleton, Lillian Gish, Marlon Brando and others—so that he could ask them a question: had Tennessee Williams, or his work, ever mattered?

Below is an excerpt from the book Follies of God, by James Grissom, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. Dana writes:

James Grissom wrote a letter to Tennessee Williams in 1982, when he was only 20 years old, asking for advice. Tennessee unexpectedly responded, ‘Perhaps you can be of some help to me.’ Ultimately he tasked Grissom with seeking out each of the women (and few men) who had inspired his work—among them Maureen Stapleton, Lillian Gish, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Marlon Brando—so that he could ask them a question: had Tennessee Williams, or his work, ever mattered? This is Grissom’s account of their intense first encounters, in which Tennessee explains his thoughts on writing, writer’s block, and the women he wrote.

“Perhaps you can be of some help to me.”

These were the first words Tennessee Williams spoke to me in that initial phone call to my parents’ home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was September of 1982, a fact I noted in a small blue book. The book was new and had been purchased for an upcoming test in World History that I would not be taking because Tennessee invited me to lunch in New Orleans, and I accepted.

I know that pleasantries were exchanged, and he laughed a lot—a deep, guttural, silly theatrical laugh—but the first quotation attributable to Tennessee Williams to me was the one I wrote in my small blue book.

Perhaps you can be of some help to me.

How could I be of help to Tennessee Williams? How, when in fact I had written to him, several months before, seeking his help? From a battered paperback copy of Who’s Who in the American Theatre, I had found the address of his agent (Audrey Wood, c/o International Famous Agency, 1301 Avenue of the Americas), and had written a letter—lengthy and containing a photograph, and, I’m thankful, lost to us forever—asking for his advice on a writing career. I wrote that his work had meant the most to me; that I was considering a career in the theater. I also enclosed two short stories, both written for a class taken at Louisiana State University. It was a time I recall as happy: I was writing, and exploiting the reserves of the school’s library and its liberal sharing policy with other schools. I was poring over books and papers that related to Tennessee and other writers I admired.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

John Steinbeck’s Pen: How the Joy of Handwriting Helps Us Draft the Meaning of Life

by Maria Popova

Brain Pickings

April 9, 2015

Edgar Allan Poe believed that handwriting is an indication of character, revealing our “mental qualities.” Mary Gordon saw in its “flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper” a reminder that “however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.” Indeed, the marks we leave on the paper are our most human trails of thought. Few things exercise — and exorcise — the not always seamless collaboration between brain and body like that direct line between the tip of the pen and the tip of the neuron. To be particular about one’s writing instrument is, then, to be particular about thought itself — one can’t afford to be careless about the corporeal transmitter of creative flow.

John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) captures this curious role of the pen as a negotiator between brain and body in a series of disarming observations in Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — that remarkable volume that gave us a glimpse of how the great writer used the diary as a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt when he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life, the masterwork that earned him the Pulitzer Prize and paved the way for his Nobel Prize.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Window Into the Real Lauren Bacall

by Alexandra Jacobsmarch

New York Times

March 27, 2015

She loved animals. And piecework quilts. And Louis Vuitton suitcases.

So exalted was Lauren Bacall’s affair and subsequent ménage with Humphrey Bogart, it threatened at times to overshadow her acting career, as well as her other passions: for politics, literature and, yes, material possessions. Mr. Bogart died on Jan. 14, 1957; Ms. Bacall on Aug. 12, 2014, and against the title of the movie on whose set they first fell in love, her credo during the intervening years seems to have been “To Have, and Have a Lot.”

“Literally every tabletop had things on it,” said Jon King, a vice president and the director of business development at the auction house Bonhams New York, describing the 4,000-square-foot apartment in the Dakota building on 72nd Street in Manhattan that Ms. Bacall bought for tens of thousands of dollars in 1961 and crammed with art and antiques including (and this is but a small sample) Henry Moore and Robert Graham sculptures, David Hockney photographs, Picasso pottery, Chinese bronze figures, Congolese head rests, Louis XV bureaus, Edwardian bamboo, Victorian needlework and Majolica china — notably two nut dishes presided over by nibbling squirrels.

“Her taste was really eclectic,” Mr. King said with a note of understatement, describing a panoply for her many visitors and friends, who included Anjelica Huston, Mr. Graham’s widow; Barbra Streisand; and Ted Kennedy, who gave “Betty,” as Ms. Bacall was called by almost all, a signed lithograph of a daffodil painting he did for his wife Victoria. “Every time they turned, something caught their eye.”


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Goya: Order and Disorder

by Colm Tóibín

New York Review of Books

January 21, 2015

“There are two ways, perhaps, of looking at Francisco Goya,” writes Colm Tóibín in the Review’s December 18, 2014 issue. In the first version, Goya, who was born near Zaragoza in 1746 and died in exile in France in 1828, “was almost innocent, a serious and ambitious artist interested in mortality and beauty, but also playful and mischievous, until politics and history darkened his imagination…. In the second version, it is as though a war was going on within Goya’s psyche from the very start…. His imagination was ripe for horror.” We present below a series of prints and paintings from the show under review—the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s “Goya: Order and Disorder,” now closed—along with commentary on the images drawn from Tóibín’s piece. (The Editors)

Francisco Goya: Self-Portrait While Painting, circa 1795
Although Goya’s costume makes him appear the painter as performer, his face has nothing of the actor about it; he is almost comically ordinary as he sets about his work. His button nose lacks appeal. His hat, which has candleholders embedded in it, is too large. It is clear from the composition that he has no time for dullness. As you look at the eyes, the frank and pitying gaze, you get an effect that is quietly unsettling and disturbing.

Francisco Goya: Self-Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820
This sombre self-portrait has elements of a Pietà, in which the stricken Goya, his left hand gripping the sheet in pain, is held in the tender arms of his doctor, with ghostly figures behind them. Goya’s instinct for theatricality, so apparent in the self-portrait made in the studio, returns now as an image of dark and unsparing self-exposure.

Francisco Goya: Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, circa 1788
Light comes from the right of the painting above the cage; it appears as a gray-green glow and then as greenish shadow, leading to darkness on the left of the painting above the cats, becoming a sandy yellow at the boy’s feet and then a shadowy brown at the very front of the painting. The drama within this picture arises from an image of innocence and the sense of a great still artificiality that the boy exudes appearing to dominate the space and then slowly being undermined not only by the birds and the cats, but also by the background colors, which are ambiguous, uneasy, and almost ominous.


Friday, January 16, 2015

Van Gogh: The Courage & the Cunning

by Michael Kimmelman

New York Book Review

February 5, 2015

“Don’t be cross with me that I’ve come all of a sudden,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother. He instructed Theo to meet him under the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. It was late February 1886. Vincent was about to turn thirty-three. He arrived in Paris to complete an artistic education that had so far yielded no financial returns for his long-suffering sibling paymaster; nor did Vincent’s career promise the slightest profit in future. Now Theo, a dealer at the art gallery Goupil & Cie, was expected to put him up.

As Julian Bell reminds us in a splendid new biography, Vincent had dabbled as a self-appointed preacher in the grimy coalfields and pit villages of the Belgian Borinage. He had mostly taught himself art on the margins of Antwerp, Brussels, and The Hague. Now he was just catching up with the Impressionists in Paris when the movement was nearly exhausted.

Mostly unimpressed, van Gogh saw the future of modernism in figures like Adolphe Monticelli, a mediocrity in multiple genres whose work he came across at a gallery run by a friend of Theo’s. Along with Seurat and Signac, Hiroshige and Hokusai, Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec, Monticelli would help point Vincent away from potato eaters and gray, wintry landscapes toward sunshine and the south. It turned out that Vincent’s obstinacy and sheer otherness, much as they pained friends and family and alienated strangers, bought him the perspective he needed to reach this juncture, where he could pick and choose his sources and stake out a path for himself.


Friday, July 19, 2013

Giacomo Puccini, "Madama Butterfly" (Greek National Opera)

Greek National Opera
July 18, 2013

Open-air rehearsal of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly on the pedestrian street of Dionysiou Areopagitou, outside the premises of Meropeio Foundation, adjacent to the south slope of the Acropolis. "Madama Butterfly" will stage at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus on July 27, 28, 30 & 31, 2013.

The initiative was part of the GNO's new open-door policy, which aims at educating the residents, passers-by and visitors of the city in the complex process that is creating a grand opera production. The rehearsal ran for one hour, allowing the public on Dionysiou Areopagitou the unique opportunity to enjoy the melodies of Puccini, to hear the conductor directing his musicians and soloists, and also to experience the magical and electrifying atmosphere of a large orchestra preparing an emblematic piece of the opera repertory.

Giacomo Puccini, Madama Butterfly

Conductor: Myron Michailidis


  • Cio-Cio San: Cellia Costea
  • B.F. Pinkerton: Luciano Ganci
  • Sharpless: Dionyssis Sourbis
  • Suzuki: Ines Zikou
  • Bonzo: Tassos Apostolou

with the Orchestra of the Greek National Opera

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Game Theory: Jane Austen Had It First

Michael Chwe
by Jennifer Schuessler

New York Times

April 22, 2013

It’s not every day that someone stumbles upon a major new strategic thinker during family movie night. But that’s what happened to Michael Chwe, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, when he sat down with his children some eight years ago to watch Clueless, the 1995 romantic comedy based on Jane Austen’s Emma.

Mr. Chwe (pronounced CHEH), the author of papers like “Farsighted Coalitional Stability” and “Anonymous Procedures for Condorcet’s Model: Robustness, Nonmonotonicity and Optimality,” had never cracked Emma or Pride and Prejudice. But on screen, he saw glimmers of a strategic intelligence that would make Henry Kissinger blush.

“This movie was all about manipulation,” Mr. Chwe, a practitioner of the hard-nosed science of game theory, said recently by telephone. “I had always been taught that game theory was a mathematical thing. But when you think about it, people have been thinking about strategic action for a long time.”

Mr. Chwe set to doing his English homework, and now his assignment is in. Jane Austen, Game Theorist, just published by Princeton University Press, is more than the larky scholarly equivalent of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In 230 diagram-heavy pages, Mr. Chwe argues that Austen isn’t merely fodder for game-theoretical analysis, but an unacknowledged founder of the discipline itself: a kind of Empire-waisted version of the mathematician and cold war thinker John von Neumann, ruthlessly breaking down the stratagems of 18th-century social warfare.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Charles Dickens

by George Orwell

Inside the Whale and Other Essays
London: Victor Gollancz, 1940

Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing. Even the burial of his body in Westminster Abbey was a species of theft, if you come to think of it.

When Chesterton wrote his introductions to the Everyman Edition of Dickens's works, it seemed quite natural to him to credit Dickens with his own highly individual brand of medievalism, and more recently a Marxist writer, Mr. T. A. Jackson, has made spirited efforts to turn Dickens into a blood-thirsty revolutionary. The Marxist claims him as ‘almost’ a Marxist, the Catholic claims him as ‘almost’ a Catholic, and both claim him as a champion of the proletariat (or ‘the poor’, as Chesterton would have put it). On the other hand, Nadezhda Krupskaya, in her little book on Lenin, relates that towards the end of his life Lenin went to see a dramatized version of The Cricket on the Hearth, and found Dickens's ‘middle-class sentimentality’ so intolerable that he walked out in the middle of a scene.

Taking ‘middle-class’ to mean what Krupskaya might be expected to mean by it, this was probably a truer judgement than those of Chesterton and Jackson. But it is worth noticing that the dislike of Dickens implied in this remark is something unusual. Plenty of people have found him unreadable, but very few seem to have felt any hostility towards the general spirit of his work. Some years later Mr. Bechhofer Roberts published a full-length attack on Dickens in the form of a novel (This Side Idolatry), but it was a merely personal attack, concerned for the most part with Dickens's treatment of his wife. It dealt with incidents which not one in a thousand of Dickens's readers would ever hear about, and which no more invalidates his work than the second-best bed invalidates Hamlet. All that the book really demonstrated was that a writer's literary personality has little or nothing to do with his private character. It is quite possible that in private life Dickens was just the kind of insensitive egoist that Mr. Bechhofer Roberts makes him appear. But in his published work there is implied a personality quite different from this, a personality which has won him far more friends than enemies. It might well have been otherwise, for even if Dickens was a bourgeois, he was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel. Everyone who has read widely in his work has felt this. Gissing, for instance, the best of the writers on Dickens, was anything but a radical himself, and he disapproved of this strain in Dickens and wished it were not there, but it never occurred to him to deny it. In Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached. Yet he managed to do it without making himself hated, and, more than this, the very people he attacked have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself. In its attitude towards Dickens the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling. Before I was ten years old I was having Dickens ladled down my throat by schoolmasters in whom even at that age I could see a strong resemblance to Mr. Creakle, and one knows without needing to be told that lawyers delight in Sergeant Buzfuz and that Little Dorrit is a favourite in the Home Office. Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody. Naturally this makes one wonder whether after all there was something unreal in his attack upon society. Where exactly does he stand, socially, morally, and politically? As usual, one can define his position more easily if one starts by deciding what he was not.

In the first place he was not, as Messrs. Chesterton and Jackson seem to imply, a ‘proletarian’ writer. To begin with, he does not write about the proletariat, in which he merely resembles the overwhelming majority of novelists, past and present. If you look for the working classes in fiction, and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole. This statement needs qualifying, perhaps. For reasons that are easy enough to see, the agricultural labourer (in England a proletarian) gets a fairly good showing in fiction, and a great deal has been written about criminals, derelicts and, more recently, the working-class intelligentsia. But the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the wheels go round, have always been ignored by novelists. When they do find their way between the covers of a book, it is nearly always as objects of pity or as comic relief. The central action of Dickens's stories almost invariably takes place in middle-class surroundings. If one examines his novels in detail one finds that his real subject-matter is the London commercial bourgeoisie and their hangers-on — lawyers, clerks, tradesmen, innkeepers, small craftsmen, and servants. He has no portrait of an agricultural worker, and only one (Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times) of an industrial worker. The Plornishes in Little Dorrit are probably his best picture of a working-class family — the Peggottys, for instance, hardly belong to the working class — but on the whole he is not successful with this type of character. If you ask any ordinary reader which of Dickens's proletarian characters he can remember, the three he is almost certain to mention are Bill Sykes, Sam Weller, and Mrs. Gamp. A burglar, a valet, and a drunken midwife — not exactly a representative cross-section of the English working class.

Secondly, in the ordinarily accepted sense of the word, Dickens is not a ‘revolutionary’ writer. But his position here needs some defining.


Friday, October 12, 2012

‘Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective’ at the National Gallery

Washington Post
October 12, 2012

Roy Lichtenstein. The painter’s name is linked with his signature comic-book images of women, their thoughts rising in text bubbles above tentacles of tousled hair, mounds of tears leaking from their eyes. In 1993, a blockbuster Lichtenstein retrospective at the Guggenheim, some 200 pieces strong, sealed the painter’s reputation as a prime instigator of Pop art. This week, another major Lichtenstein show (“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective”) arrives at the National Gallery, fresh from the Art Institute of Chicago where it opened earlier this year, with a slightly different take. In the 15,000 square feet that the National Gallery has devoted to the exhibit, the comic-book women from the 1960s occupy exactly one room.

Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was so prolific that there are a lot of ways to slice and dice his output. (It’s notable how relatively little overlap there is between the Guggenheim show and the 135 works exhibited at the National Gallery.) His signature style, of course, remains constant from the early 1960s, when he began exploring mass-media conventions of rendering three-dimensional objects, with three-color printing and screens of Benday dots. He started out with images taken from phone books and newspaper ads and comic books — a golf ball, a spray can, Mickey Mouse — and over the years broadened his range of recognizable cultural icons to include canonical works of art history: Matisse still lifes, Picasso nudes, Chinese landscapes. All were part of an ongoing exploration of how objects are rendered in two dimensions, and how images become iconic or meaningless, or both, when processed through a mass-market filter. And most resorted at least in places to the trademark dots.

But the dots were less depersonalizing than you might initially think. One frequent misapprehension about Pop art, and Lichtenstein’s work, is that because the painter adopted the language of mechanical reproduction, his works are essentially mass-producible themselves. I certainly espoused this view after seeing the 1990s retrospective.

The National Gallery show, however, in going beyond the stereotypical image of Lichtenstein, shows that the painter was in many ways a traditionalist: His paintings are old-fashioned representations in paint, on canvas, with a physicality that can’t fully be communicated in reproductions. Even the dots have a presence (as a catalogue essay by Harry Cooper, the National Gallery’s contemporary art curator, illuminates). The first three works you see as you enter the show emphasize this physicality, from the painterly surface of the ceiling in “Artist’s Studio ‘Look Mickey’ ” (1973) to the textured, slightly scored silver panel in “Entablature” (1975) to the vivid corporeality of “Galatea,” (1990) a three-dimensional sculpture cutting the artist’s signature sensuous black lines through the gallery air.


More info

"Look Mickey" (1961)
"Brushstroke with Spatter" (1966)
"Nude with Bust" (1995)
"The Ring (Engagement)" (1962)
"Hot Dog with Mustard" (1963)

Saturday, September 29, 2012

National Gallery’s ‘Serial Portrait’ show reveals more than faces

Nikki S. Lee, "The Hip Hop Project (2)" (2001)
Washington Post
September 29, 2012

One senses mortality throughout “The Serial Portrait: Photograph and Identity in the Last One Hundred Years.” The National Gallery of Art exhibition traces a practice mostly peculiar to photography: the creation of multiple images of the same person, often self-portraits, tracing changes in identity that occur naturally over time or through manipulation of self-expression. In the first room of the show, male photographers focus on the female form, often their wives or paramours, producing visual essays that inevitably track the effects of aging. In later rooms, the serial photography project grows more experimental, more a question of identity, manipulations of gender and class. But death is always around the corner.

Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters” dominates an entire wall, and, although full of life, the work leaves one with a shudder. An ongoing project, this collection of 37 prints documents the photographer’s wife and her three sisters in photographs made each year since 1975. Displayed in a grid of four rows, the photographs offer without comment what seems a miracle: a sustained communion among four sisters over almost four decades. But the lowest row, only seven photographs long, is terrifying. Will it be completed? When will this group of four be a group of three, then two, then one? What is the end of this project?

There’s only one end, and it’s a certitude, of course. The Nixon series, presented with three missing photographs on the lowest row, projects death into the present, into the midst of life, reminding one of Roland Barthes’s observation: “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

As you prepare to leave the exhibit, death returns in the form of an image that seems to be a giant reproduction of Robert Mapplethorpe’s last self-portrait, made a year before the photographer’s death from complications arising from AIDS in 1989.


Nicholas Nixon, "The Brown Sisters" (1975)
Gillian Wearing, "Me as Mapplethorpe" (2009)
Alfred Stieglitz, “Georgia O’Keeffe” (1918)
Milton Rogovin, "Samuel P. 'Pee Wee' West (Lower West Side series)" (1974)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Expressionist Ecstasy: Remembering 20th Century Art's Color Revolution

September 28, 2012

The Folkwang Museum is hosting a show of work that juxtaposes French Fauvism with similar movements across Europe. Politically, the Continent might have been deeply divided in the early 20th century, but the exhibition in Essen provides ample evidence that its artists had much in common.

A new exhibition in Germany pays tribute to modern artists who revolutionized the use of color.

The show marks the first time the Folkwang Museum in Essen has focused on Fauvism and exploring its impact on subsequent art movements, such as German and Russian Expressionism.

The Fauves ("wild beasts") were named by critic Louis Vauxcelles, who was impressed by the revolutionary use of color and vivid brushstrokes on display in a 1905 exhibition of work by Henri Matisse and André Derain.

Led by Matisse, the Fauvists' work marked a break with Impressionism and more traditional approaches to painting, emphasizing painterly qualities and strong color over representational or realistic values.


Das Museum Folkwang in Essen

André Derain (1905)
Erich Henkel (1910)
Franz Marc (1910)
Henri Matisse (1907)
Max Pechstein (1907)