Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Three Bored Twosomes

Saturday, September 2nd, 2017

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WONDER at the Renwick Gallery

Monday, September 5th, 2016

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The reopening of the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, was celebrated over a period of 8 months with an exhibition featuring the work of nine contemporary artists. Five women and four men created site-specific installations that occupied and transformed the museum’s refurbished gallery spaces. Visitors such as myself found themselves immersed in wonders indeed.

Official photographs of the event can seen at the online gallery, here.  To add to the record, below are scenes of three of the rooms that I captured during a visit in April.

[Note: Descriptions of the artists’ works quoted below are taken from the Renwick Gallery’s text found here.]

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Maya Lin, Folding the Chesapeake (installation, 2015)

 
“Growing up in Ohio in the 1960s, Lin watched her father participate in the fledgling studio glass movement then gathering steam in nearby Toledo. The marbles used in this installation are the same industrial fiberglass product Henry Huan Lin and other glass-blowing pioneers experimented with then, which were soon abandoned by artists as technical knowledge matured. Folding the Chesapeake marks their first use by Maya Lin and a new chapter in her decades-long investigation of natural wonders. By shaping rivers, fields, canyons, and mountains within the museum, Lin shifts our attention to their outdoor counterparts, sharpening our focus on the need for their conservation.”

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Do you see Philadelphia?

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Gabriel Dawe, Plexus A1 (installation, 2015)

“Dawe’s architecturally scaled weavings are often mistaken for fleeting rays of light. It is an appropriate trick of the eye, as the artist was inspired to use thread in this fashion by memories of the skies above Mexico City and East Texas, his childhood and current homes, respectively. The material and vivid colors also recall the embroideries everywhere in production during Dawe’s upbringing.”

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Tara Donovan, Untitled , 2014, © Tara Donovan, courtesy of Pace Gallery

“Employing mundane materials such as toothpicks, straws, Styrofoam cups, scotch tape, and index cards, Donovan gathers up the things we think we know, transforming the familiar into the unrecognizable through overwhelming accumulation. The resulting enigmatic landscapes force us to wonder just what it is we are looking at and how to respond. The mystery, and the potential for any material in her hands to capture it, prompts us to pay better attention to our surroundings, permitting the everyday to catch us up again.”

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Paintings from the defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art integrated into National Gallery of Art Collection

Sunday, December 20th, 2015

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Earlier this evening while visiting the National Gallery of Art I saw how smartly the museum has integrated a few of the thousands of American works of art it acquired last year from the defunct Corcoran Gallery of Art (founded 1869, dissolved 2014).

For example, the pinnacle of the Corcoran’s collection of Hudson River School paintings, Niagara (1857) by Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900), has been given pride of place in this room at the National Gallery of Art — where it has become the painting people invariably stop to admire:

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"Niagara" (1857) by Frederic Church, now at National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

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"Niagara" by Frederick Church, now at National Gallery of Art

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(For a memento of how the painting looked when it used to hang at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, click here.)

A strength of the Corcoran museum, and an element that in my personal experience over the years turned that institution into an enlightening museum of American history as well as a fine museum of American art, was its collection of genre paintings — depictions of everyday life in our nation. Here are four gems belonging to that category, newly huddled in a corner where they are adding vitality to visitors’ experience of the National Gallery of Art.

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Four American genre paintings, Corcoran/NGA Collection: RIchard Norris Brooke, William Sidney Mount, Richard Caton Woodville, Frank Blackwell Mayer

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The large canvas on the left is a picture I made certain to pay my respects to on dozens of visits (starting in the 1970s) to its former home. Titled A Pastoral Visit, it was painted in 1881 by Richard Norris Brooke (1847-1920). A powerful narrative executed with controlled sentimentality, the painting succeeds in a way that Norman Rockwell — our most beloved genre artist — all too often does not.

On the right side of the photo, the three other paintings that came to the NGA from the Corcoran share Brooke’s ambition and achievement. But these are scenes of more modest scale, with a tone unique to each artist. From left to right: The Tough Story–Scene in a Country Tavern (1837) by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868); Waiting for the Stage (1851) by Richard Caton Woodville (1825-1855); and Leisure and Labor (1858) by Frank Blackwell Mayer (1827-1899), an early political commentary conveyed via posture and dress (while beautifully composed and painted, too).

Now I look forward to the NGA hanging on its walls additional, equally bold works from the Corcoran trove. Two suggestions, if I may: The Longshoreman’s Noon (1879) by John George Brown, and Nearing the Issue at the Cockpit (1879) by Horace Bonham.

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Visual Literacy – 3

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

The so-called War on Christmas may be a fiction, but there is no doubting that contemporary Americans, even those you would expect to know better, are much less familiar with Christian iconography than in the past. I previously posted an idle observation on this subject, here.

A new example came to my attention this week, in an auction catalog posted online by an auction house in Connecticut. In the listings for the sale there is an item labeled, “TOMAS PENNING (1905-1982) CARVED CROSS.” It’s accompanied by several photos and the following description:

“Carved slate, marked NR above figure, Dimensions: H 36″ x W 22.5″ Condition: good”

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Here’s one of the photos showing the segment above the figure:

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One can suppose the cataloguer mentioned that two letters, NR, appear above the figure for some reason beyond mere diligence (it’s standard cataloguing practice to indicate for the benefit of remote bidders who can’t examine the object in person, all of the marks, initials, dates and other inscriptions found on it). But why mention just the N and the R?  Did the cataloguer not see within the rectangle the “I” before and the “I” after the letters NR? Was he or she not familiar with the four letter inscription, INRI, that appears in representations of the crucified Jesus? Was there no one around who knew the significance of the acronym INRI? That it comes from the Latin phrase ‘Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum’ — ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’?  That according to the crucifixion story in the Bible (John 19:19), this was a notice Pontius Pilate posted over the head of Jesus as he lay dying on the cross? That this imagery has been a part of our cultural conversation spanning centuries?

Two unforgettable examples:

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Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), The Crucifixion, 1459 (detail)

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Emile Nolde (1867-1956), Crucifixion, 1912

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The New Whitney Museum – In the Galleries

Monday, September 21st, 2015

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In New York at the Whitney Museum this afternoon.

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Whitney Museum, 9-21-2015, Paintings by Cy Twombly and Alma Thomas

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Whitney Museum - Jeff Koons, Jasper Johns, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring

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Feminist Graffiti: “We Are In Charge”

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Stencil graffiti spotted at 17th & R Sts., NW, Washington DC, April 30, 2015, 5:51 PM.

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Note: In a search of Google Images I could find only one other example of this particular stencil graffiti, here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alexiares/2449433511/. The uploader of that photo didn’t indicate its location.

Atlas and Patience in NYC

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

A gray afternoon in Manhattan on Wednesday.

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Atlas at Rockefeller Center, 04/08/2015 at 4:00:13 PM

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Patience the Lion at New York Public Library, 04-08-2015 (first at 4:12:00 PM; second at 4:12:12 PM)

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Visual Literacy – 2

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

When an unsympathetic viewer confronts an abstract painting, an easy jest for him to declare is: “I can’t tell whether it’s hanging upside down or right side up!”

Uncertainty of that kind rarely arises when the art being looked at comes from the realist school. There are enough cues in a figurative piece to set the image aright.

Last month, while looking through a catalog of paintings, drawings and prints up for auction at a local auction house, I found an exception.  It was a case of someone — most likely the cataloguer who handled the photos of the art and arranged them on the catalog page — literally turning the artist’s intention upside down. The cause of the snafu is beyond my knowing; it may well have been a simple mistake by someone otherwise familiar with our visual heritage. But whatever the cause, in both the printed catalog and auction house’s online presentation, an eighteenth-century pencil drawing of a male figure was shown this way:

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(Screenshot of online catalog, cropped)

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It’s a fine drawing. The artist, a French engraver named Bernard Picart (1673-1733), demonstrates himself to be a skilled draftsman. Picart well qualifies for his own Wikipedia page, here. He is renowned for the book illustrations he produced for editions of the Bible, and Ovid’s fables for which he depicted scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.

What interested me in the drawing is the clues it reveals about Picart’s working methods. Here, I thought, is evidence that Picart used a live model as the source for initial studies that would ultimately become his final engravings. This was an example of the preliminary drawings he likely relied on to generate insights and solutions when composing a final picture.

But before speculating further there was another matter to address. Picart’s drawing was arranged on the catalog page in a way that placed the figure in a head up, feet down position, To me this looked, well, mighty awkward. There was something not right about the configuration of the man’s limbs, something strange in the outbound spray of his hair. Why, I wondered, wouldn’t the artist establish what his model’s feet are resting upon? What’s prompting the inexplicable sense of weightlessness to his stance? Surely the artist did not mean for the man to look as if he were pinned to the ceiling, wriggling like Spiderman. I suspected others who looked at the catalog also were momentarily confounded, unable to make sense of this human figure, uncertain of the purpose he was meant to serve.

What is the figure’s raison d’être?

Ah! Might it look different if the figure were turned . . . upside down, head-over-heals, like this? —

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Now we understand intuitively what’s happening. The figure is meant to signify a man in free fall, falling through space, unmoored from his body’s natural protections against gravity. His implied trajectory is as dramatic and as horrible as one can imagine. His arms splayed out like helpless wings, he will come to a terrible end. That is what Picart wanted to capture.

The artist could not very well ask his live model to remain freely suspended, head pointed downward, from the ceiling of the artist’s studio. Cleverly, like a modern-day photographer who place a model on an evenly lit stage, to stand on and in front of a stark white, smoothly-papered, shadow-free backdrop, Picart discovered an expedient. He would place his model in a supine position, his torso on a low stand, with his feet pressed up against a wall. He may well have used white drapery to make disappear these supports. This was a pose his model could assume with minimal discomfort. It allowed for easy changes in positions, various shifts to the head, arms, torso and legs, as the artist might choose to visualize. It well served the artist’s goal of capturing the falling look he needed.

Needed for what?

To reenact a narrative of a man’s fall that his contemporary audience would immediately recognize as the Fall of Icarus.

Below is Picart’s engraving, The Fall of Icarus, for which I believe the auctioned drawing was a preliminary study. The engraving is one of the illustrations Picart contributed to an edition of the Metamorphosis of Ovid published in 1733.

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Note: The auction house correctly hung the framed drawing during the exhibition held during the week prior to the auction:

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The Sorry State of Visual Literacy?

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

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This small painting is among the items up for auction next month at a prominent West Coast auction house. The catalog description identifies the work as a “religious painting (18th/19th century)” depicting a “man with tail carrying child and globe with cross.”

Really? This is just some unknown guy? With a tail? Carrying some unknown child on his back? The scene is some unfathomable concoction by a quirky artist?

Make that, artists (plural).

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“Three Early Stories” by J.D. Salinger

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

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“See if you can’t get something better on the radio! I mean who can dance to that stuff?”

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The years from 1940, when he was 21, to 1948, when he was 29, were spent by J.D. Salinger as a novice writer on the make. He knocked out about two dozen short stories and was able to sell most of them, for good money, to popular magazines of the day. He dismissively referred to those magazines as “the slicks,” and he regarded his writings as apprentice work. Forgotten is what he wanted them to be. When an unauthorized edition of 22 of his early stories was released in book form in 1974, Salinger broke his long-standing silence. He called the New York Times to complain, saying, “I wrote them a long time ago, and I never had any intention of publishing them. I wanted them to die a perfectly natural death.” He was frank in self-judgment: “I’m not trying to hide the gaucheries of my youth. I just don’t think they’re worthy of publishing.”

Literary critics consider the early stories as preludes to Salinger’s mature output. The shift to a higher mastery — the emergence of that unmistakable Salinger voice — occurred in 1948. That was the year he entered into a committed, regular and productive relationship with The New Yorker. It lasted until 1965 and witnessed the creation of most all of the short stories the author later judged worthy for preservation in book form, in a volume titled Nine Stories. This period also produced four longer works chronicling the Glass family; these were collected in Franny and Zooey in 1961 and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963.

Until recently, the uncollected early stories have been available only in bootlegged or otherwise inconvenient forms. For example, there is set of online texts, in a format that not easy on the eyes, here.

But now  comes a slim, comfortable-in-the-hand volume of Three Early Stories issued, in apparent accord with copyright law, by the Devault-Graves Agency, Memphis, Tennessee (74 pages, published June 1, 2014). Like a minor spill escaping the pressured confines of a dam, this is a harbinger of a larger flow of uncollected and unpublished material we Salinger fans are eager to see released over the next few years.

A Small Sampling of Apprentice Work

The book opens with the author’s remarkably self-assured first published story, “The Young Folks” (1940). It recounts a minor episode in which two young adults fail to connect — something that was to become a signature Salinger interest. Next is “Go See Eddie” (also from 1940), an augury of the writer’s later fetishization of secrets. The book closes with a demonstration of Salinger’s sentimental edge, in “Once a Week Won’t Kill You” (1943), whose protagonist is about to leave his young wife for service in World War II. It addresses a condition described by Saul Bellow as being a “dangling man.” It happens to describe Salinger’s own status at the time that he wrote it.

Each of these three early stories is surprisingly brief, occupying on average a mere 11 pages in length. This is about one-third the length of the average story in Nine Stories. In fact, the shortest story in Nine Stories is twice the length of the longest of the Three Early Stories. To put this even more starkly, Nine Stories gives the reader nine times as much material as the combined word count of Three Early Stories. The slimness of the book is not evident at first glance. But when you hold the book open, you see that the text is printed on the right side only. Except for the ten full-page illustrations by Anna Rose Yoken, the pages on the left side of the opened book are blank.

What you get in Three Early Stories is a trio of sketches. Or think of them as hors d’oeuvres, never intended to be a fulfilling meal. Because of the modesty of their scope and their detachment from a major enterprise, these tales naturally encourage the reader to focus on their atmosphere and immediate effects.

Period Pieces with Undertones

I you’re like me you’ll quickly be reminded that the pre-war world Salinger depicts is a peculiar one, filled with quaint manners and voices, as different from our lives in the 21st century as are the diaphanous conversations and characters found in The Great Gatsby. Salinger’s characters often describe other people “swell” and “grand.” All too often they speak in italics. Their lives transpire indoors, which lends a “staginess” to the action. It occurred to me that what Salinger did was transfer to the written page the rhythms and gestures, both vocal and physical, of Broadway drawing-room comedies and dramas of the period.

I was struck by two things specially. One is that none of the three stories contains children. To a reader versed in Salinger’s world, their absence will may be keenly felt as a disappointment. The other surprise occurred when, in “The Young Folks,” I came across a sentence whose oddness seemed un-Salinger like. It’s at the point in the story when a young man and woman who have just met and are are getting to know each other get up from their chairs. Salinger writes: “They arose simultaneously. Edna was taller than Jameson and Jameson was shorter than Edna.” This threw me for a loop. Is this reciprocal statement just a clever way of underscoring the pair’s sort-of-unusual height relationship? Is it a flashy way of shifting perspective, allowing Edna to notice she is taller than the young man she’s been introduced to, while also allowing Jameson to notice he is shorter than the young woman? Is this edging toward being a bit “meta”?

On a darker note, each reader must decide for themselves whether to forgive some off-putting elements such as a languorous air of privilege among the dramatis personæ, and the author’s focus on male leads who are moody and irritable. If you’re familiar with Salinger’s biography you know he was not particularly kind to women, and your may detect in these early stories a foul odor of misogyny in the treatment of the female leads. Salinger delights in dissecting characters who are snobbish, phony, petty, none-to-bright, and of dubious morals.

That Salinger Style

The reader familiar with the arc of Salinger’s writing will recognize in Three Early Stories other elements of his style that will reappear, in glorious form, in his later works. Three Early Stories, small though it may be, provides an opportunity to confirm what Ian Hamilton wrote in In Search of J.D. Salinger, A Biography about the importance of these early exercises: “[They] had taught him to handle the mechanics of narrative with a technician’s self-assurance.”

Sure enough, from the very start the guy had the goods. You may be taken with the wizardly way Salinger propels his narratives through dialog — arch, well-honed, slangy and character-defining. The most radical honing occurs when Salinger chooses to withhold from the reader one-half of the conversation — is there another author who can match Salinger’s clever presentations of just one side of a telephone cal (a structure not coincidentally exploited by stand-up comics from Bob Newhart to Ellen DeGeneres)? (The “reveals” in the plot are carefully placed (so don’t drop your attention; when reading “The Young Folks,” for example, remember to count the cigarettes). His use of “misdirection” means you may be surprised in a good way.

Then there are the habits and idiosyncrasies we’re used to if we’ve devoured the books from Catcher in the Rye through to Seymour: An Introduction. Here they are in their earliest incarnations. Characters yawn in each of the three early stories. They bite their fingernails. Everyone smokes cigarettes pretty much all the time, and the many rituals tied to that habit are meticulously observed. Relationships, whether they are between young singles on the prowl (The Young Folks), or between brother and sister (Go See Eddie), or between a young married couple (Once a Week Won’t Kill You), are fraught with insincerities and disappointments. Human beings are “bored or apprehensive, annoyed or resigned.” Their typical reaction is . . . to try to get something better on the radio. Yet in the final story, written at the time when World War II was intensifying its brutal course, Salinger introduces more consequential themes: irretrievable loss, remembrance, caring.

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Final note: Salinger never liked the illustrations magazine editors sometimes attached to his early stories in the slicks. It was shabby interference with his work, he felt, and it was one more reason he yearned for the respectful editorial hand at The New Yorker. One wonders what he would have thought of the illustrations by Anna Rose Yoken found in Three Early Stories. Ron Charles, editor of the Washington Post’s Book World, doesn’t seem concerned about this disrespect. I don’t see any value in the illustrations, several of which are too cutesy for my taste, others tone-deaf to the text. A striking error appears in her picture of the standing figures of Edna and Jameson on page 14 of “The Young Folks.” Yoken shows Edna as several inches shorter than Jameson, subscribing to the conventional girl-boy relationship. The question is, what parts of Salinger’s description on page 13 — “Edna was taller than Jameson and Jameson was shorter than Edna”  — did Yoken fail to understand? Or was this an act of willful defiance on the part of the artist against the author? Or a simple oversight and “oops”-worthy mistake we all make? And why was this error not caught by the editors prior to publication?

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