Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

“The Civil War and American Art” by Eleanor Jones Harvey

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

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This book is published in connection with the museum exhibition of the same name, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, from November 16, 2012 through April 28, 2013. The show will travel to New York City where it will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of American Art from May 21, 2013 to September 2, 2013. Both the book and the museum exhibition are experiences of such quality that they will appeal to persons beyond the camps of Civil War buffs and lovers of American Art. For me the exhibition is a must-see. The book? It is a must-have.

What impresses is how successfully all elements of the book converge.

First and foremost is the text. Eleanor Jones Harvey’s thesis is a simple one: “The Civil War had a profound and lasting impact on American Art, as it did on American culture. Both genre painting and landscape painting were fundamentally altered by the war and its aftermath.” As well, she demonstrates how photography–the third of her areas of interest–was newly empowered as an art form.

Harvey’s writing occupies pages 1 through 241 of this large book. Each generous page measures 12 1/2 by 9 15/16 inches, allowing double-column formatting of the text and providing a broad field for its many illustrations, most prominently the 77 paintings and photographs that form the exhibition. Harvey’s prose is wonderfully clear, a pleasure to dip into, blessedly free of academic jargon and devoid of esoteric pleading. She unleashes a seemingly inexhaustible supply of essential facts and observations without halting the forward momentum of her narrative and argument. This is no mean feat.

It is a pleasure to follow the author as she conscientiously uncovers layers of meaning in each of the featured paintings and photographs. Among the pieces closely analyzed are thirteen Civil War related paintings by Winslow Homer, an artist who will grow larger in your estimation thanks to the findings of Harvey’s eye and mind. She unfurls a mini-essay on each of these works, and her enthusiasm cannot help but inspire your own looking at art. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to the exhibition, as I was, this book is an enlightening spur to engagement.

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During my tour of the exhibition at the Smithsonian I spent several reflective minutes in front of Homer’s Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave, a small work (just 16 1/8 by 8 inches) that Harvey discusses on page 167.

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While standing before it at the Smithsonian, I noticed two aspects of the painting not touched upon by Harvey — two understated features that will slowly surrender meaning to the patient viewer. The first is Homer’s treatment of the trooper’s stance. The artist’s depiction of feet or shoes, the natural terminus of the long-legged figure, is ambiguous, replaced with brushstrokes that create a seamless transition between the human body and the field of the dead. The vector of this transition is uncertain. Is the figure emerging from the earth . . . or subsiding into it? The second stunning detail is the trooper’s jacket whose middle buttons are opened. To a viewer this initially reads as a split in an otherwise closed seam, a way for the proudly uniformed trooper to cool himself on a warm day. Then the literal reading gives way to an alternative view, seeing a gash in his torso that opens up to reveal darkness. Homer renders this void in pure black pigment, blacker than any other application of black elsewhere on the canvas. Call it an exposure of the darkness of the heart, or the heart of darkness. We see a figure, eyeless, hollow, soulless: Death.

Each new encounter I have with Homer reinforces my belief that transition is the essential theme of his work. And how could it be otherwise for a contemplative artist whose career was birthed by the Civil War? If the vicissitudes of transition are encoded in Homer’s best work, the complementary theme of connections is of nearly equal importance. Not the least of the linkages Homer carefully constructs is that of viewer to painting. Consider this:

In a museum I stand in quiet reflection before a painting that depicts a man standing in quiet reflection before a grave. The grave is marked by a simple wooden cross. From the soldier’s perspective that cross is tilted back, as if responding directly to his gaze. It is easy for me, the viewer, to imagine the unseen face of the cross as a mirror, reflecting back to the man his own face. It is a face I study, with trepidation, for revelation.

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The book, “The Civil War and American Art,” contains a feast of documentation. This includes a section of Notes (32 pages); a Bibliography of over 300 sources and references (20 pages); a Catalog listing the 77 works featured in the Exhibition; and a list of the 123 Figure Illustrations found throughout this beautifully designed book. A helpful Index rounds out the volume.

If I have any quibble it is that its reproductions sometimes fall short. Especially is this so with the many images captured by the early photographers Alexander Gardner, Matthew Brady, George N. Barnard and others which are reproduced in the chapter devoted to The Art of Wartime Photography. They have a denatured look on the page, in contrast to the original source albumin prints in the exhibition which possess a life and death immediacy.

A similar deficiency-of-the-derivative occurs in the reproduction of Homer’s The Veteran in a New Field (1865). Harvey’s discussion of the painting (at pp. 225-229) mentions its “autobiographical quality,” and she specifically focuses on the former soldier’s war-issued canteen and jacket resting on the ground in the lower right corner. Here is a photo I took of page 227 on which the painting is reproduced.

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A close-up shot of the lower right corner is unrevealing.

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What’s not visible because of the book’s low-resolution reproduction, is a critical detail: the initials “WH” inscribed on the veteran’s canteen. This detail is best appreciated, of course, if you are in the presence of the painting itself and are able to move in for a closer look. At the end of the exhibition’s tour, The Veteran in a New Field will return to its permanent home as a treasure of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently renovated wing devoted to American Art. In the meantime, you can catch a glimpse of  the “WH” inscription thanks to the Met’s online image of the painting (click on the “fullscreen” option and zoom in). Here’s a screen capture of the jacket and canteen.

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Unlike Richard Estes (or, in a different medium, Alfred Hitchcock) who plants his name (or himself) in his work as an act of whimsy, Homer sometimes does so for a meaningful reason. Most poignantly this occurs in my favorite Homer painting, The Fox Hunt, 1893 (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), where in the lower left corner of the painting his signature is immobilized by the drifting snow, echoing the pose and plight of the fox. Note also how the fox, just as the war veteran three decades before, turns his body to face away from us as he confronts a new kind of challenge on a potentially exhausting field.

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On a playful note, another example of Homer’s look-at-me urge is to be found in a wood engraving, The Beach at Long Branch, published in Appleton’s Journal, August 21, 1869 (click on the image to enlarge). Here three young women stand wondering, Who is WH? What I myself wonder is whether Homer is alluding to the Judgement of Paris episode in Greek myth. Is he pulling a tongue-in-cheek reversal on that story, assigning to the most comely of the three young women the role of selecting . . . Mr. W.H. himself ?

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“The Civil War and American Art” is a publication of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in association with Yale University Press. To get a sense of the book’s design, you can view the first 18 pages on Scribd.com. Some additional photos of my copy prove the values that guided its production.

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NOTES and further observations

1.  An abbreviated version of this book review appears on Amazon.com, here.

2. The photograph of Trooper Meditating Beside a Grave in this post is the Announcement Image for a 2009 exhibition at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens (Memphis) and the Katonah Museum of Art, “Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era,” a show organized by Kevin Sharp which explored ground similar to that of “The Civil War and American Art.”  Additional information about that exhibit is available herehere and here.

3. Faith Barrett, in her recently published “To Fight Aloud is Very Brave,” argues that poetry also had an important role in defining national identity: “Civil War poetry changed the way Americans understand their relationship to the nation.”  A November 2012 interview with Barrett can be read on the Poetry Foundation’s website , here.

4. A new installation of American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts “explores the themes of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery.” The works in the small exhibition are part of the permanent collection galleries in the Richard A.Manoogian Wing of American art. Among the paintings is this 1861 still life, Patriotic Bouquet, by George Henry Hall.

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5.  On the subject of communication by metaphor, in a previous blog post I argued that still life paintings — no less than landscape and genre paintings — may encode responses to the Civil War.

6.  Three years after he painted The Veteran in a New Field, Homer once again included himself in Artists Sketching in the White Mountains. The renewed artist has returned to his natural field. Homer’s back is turned away from us; he is intent on work. In a corner of the canvas, instead of finding a discarded canteen or jacket we now see a large case for the tools of the artist’s trade (visible in the detail, below). That is where Homer proudly affixes his signature.

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“Manet and the Object of Painting” by Michel Foucault

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

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The text of this thin volume is a translation from French to English of a transcript of a recording of a lecture Michel Foucault delivered in 1971 at the Tahar Haddad Cultural Club in Tunis. Foucault’s words, in print, occupy 40 pages.

While multiple factors (time, place, language, the reduction of voice to print) conspire to keep Foucault’s lecture from fully engaging the American reader of today, what Foucault still manages to communicate are insights that, I believe, will interest the typical museum-goer.

Foucault illustrated his lecture with 13 slides. The book includes reproductions of each of those paintings, from “Music in the Tuileries” (1862) to “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” (1881-82). Unfortunately, the illustrations are so tiny (for example, the 81.9 inches by 104.5 inches of “Luncheon on the Grass” (1862-63) are shrunk to a Lilliputian 3.2 by 4.2 inches) and so blandly reproduced (details are lost, colors misplaced, and the punch of Manet’s blacks absent) as to make them nearly worthless. Until a future e-publisher energizes Foucault’s text with interactive content, consider bringing to your reading spot both this book and a tablet on which to access the illustrations in fuller detail, such as the set of 13 gathered on one page on this site.

Additional editorial content includes an excellent introductory essay by Nicolas Bourriaud (11 pages), a very brief Translator’s Introduction by Matthew Barr, and a one-page index.

At the beginning of his lecture Foucault notes: “I am not a Manet specialist; nor am I a painting specialist, so it is as a layman that I would speak to you about Manet.” His focus is on formal analysis, and he organizes his thoughts under three rubrics: (1) the space of the canvas; (2) lighting; and (3) the place of the viewer. It is with these strategies, Foucault argues, that Manet succeeded at “inventing, if you like, the ‘picture-object’, the ‘painting-object’” — a move that made possible all of modern art.

Reading “Manet and the Object of Painting” provided me a new set of deciphering tools to use when standing before a Manet. More broadly, Foucault taught me new ways to look at representational art of all kinds.

Consider, for example, the first of his themes — Manet’s adoption of a radical approach to space that eschews traditional depth into the picture plane. Pointing to his first slide, the painting “Music in the Tuileries” (1862), Foucault notes how “there is not much depth, the figures in front are in a way masking almost completely what happens behind, from which derives this effect of a frieze.” In his second illustration, “The Masked Ball at the Opera” (1873-1874), he again points to how “the whole spatial balance is modified … Not only is the effect of depth erased, but the distance between the [front] edge of the picture and the back is relatively short, such that all the figures find themselves projected forward; far from there being depth, you have on the contrary a sort of phenomenon of relief.”

Similarly, in “The Execution of Maximilien” (1868), Manet employs “the same procedures, that is to say a violently marked and compressed closing of space by the presence of a large wall, a large wall which is no more than the repetition of the canvas itself; whereby, as you can see, all the figures are placed on a narrow band of earth.”

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Armed with Foucault’s observations, I looked anew at the work of Norman Rockwell. This may seem an odd choice for a compare-and-contrast exercise. Yet I would argue that in many of his immediately memorable compositions Rockwell effectively reforms space in ways reminiscent of Manet. Recall Foucault’s descriptions in the preceding paragraphs: not much depth … the presence of a wall … a violently marked and compressed closing of space … the effect of a frieze. See how fittingly those strategies attach to “The Problem We All Live With” (1964):

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Citing Normal Rockwell serves a secondary purpose, which is to suggest the constraints on Foucault’s perspective. First, his interest is limited to painting. Other forms of representation such as sculpture, drawing, printmaking and illustration, are ignored. More importantly, the revolt whose success Foucault convincingly attributes to Manet ended what we now are able to appreciate was merely a brief interregnum, a mode that triumphed but a few hundred years (from, say, the early 15th to the late 19th centuries) before receding into the broad flow of European artistic output. Also, non-European art — the bulk of mankind’s imaginative achievements — is not within Foucault’s ken.

You may be disappointed too if you expect Foucault to stray much beyond formal analysis into the realm of philosophy. Fortunately, that task is taken up by Nicolas Bourriaud whose superb essay I recommend be read both before, and after, reading the main text — especially if, like me, you’ve had no previous exposure to Foucault’s works of philosophy.

“Manet and the Object of Painting” is a handsomely produced book; I was pleased by Tate Publishing’s surprising use, in a paperback binding, of stitch-sewn signatures (click on the photos to enlarge them).

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NOTES

1.  Available online are the initial minutes of Foucault’s Lecture on Manet, in Tunis (I estimate the entire lecture occupied an hour). The audio recording can be accessed from the right side of this French language pagehttp://michel-foucault-archives.org/?Manet. The site introduces the audio excerpt with this explanation: ”En marge du Cahier de l’Herne Foucault qui reproduit deux versions des conférences de Foucault sur Manet, nous mettons en ligne quelques minutes de la conférence que Foucault donna le 20 mai 1971 au Club Haddad, conférence intitulée « La Peinture de Manet ». Foucault avait en effet le projet d’un ouvrage sur Manet, entrepris à partir de 1966, et qui était promis aux éditions de Minuit. Ces recherches donnèrent lieu à plusieurs conférences : à Milan en 1967 où il fit la rencontre d’Umberto Eco, à la Albright-Knox Art Gallery de Buffalo le 8 avril 1970 sur “Le Bar des Folies Bergères” ainsi qu’à Florence en novembre 1970, à Tokyo durant l’automne de la même année, et enfin à Tunis en 1971.”

2.  Here’s a mystery calling for a solution: The present volume (on page 27, footnote 1) indicates this lecture was part of a regular Tuesday evening series at the Haddad Center. Yet all the scholarship I’ve found cite Foucault’s Manet lecture date as May 20, 1971, which was a Thursday.

Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens – An Appreciation

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

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A few days ago I saw Lincoln, the new Steven Spielberg film. I will see it again. When I do I want to pay close attention to a brief scene that, in my memory, shows the quiet side of the booming brilliance of Tommy Lee Jones’ depiction of Thaddeus Stevens.

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Jones portrays Stevens, long-term Representative from Pennsylvania and abolitionist leader of the Radical Republicans, as a man in motion. Born with a club foot, Stevens relies on a walking cane. The handle of that cane — made of brass or, more likely, carved ivory — appeared to me to be in the shape of a dog’s head. The dog quite possibly is a greyhound, similar to this one:

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Greyhounds are known for their prey-drive. They are bred for coursing: the pursuit of game, which they catch by virtue of their speed, running by sight not by scent.

The quiet scene that so struck my fancy is the one in which we find Stevens sitting in a chair on the floor of the House of Representatives. He is there to participate in the debate over the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that will abolish slavery. The proposed Amendment is a political test and for Stevens, above all, a moral necessity. The prize of the Amendment’s passage in the House is uncertain.

As captured in Spielberg’s lens, Stevens sits alone with his thoughts while other Congressmen mill about. In one hand he clutches his cane, as if for added support. His blocky head turns and scans the chamber left and right. We follow his eyes which, the director wants us to understand, are the eyes of a wily politician surveying friend and foe, hungrily sizing up prospects.

And then comes a playful, comic detail, a gesture I strongly suspect was Tommy Lee Jones’ idea. It is simply this: Stevens slowly rotates his cane. What we see moving, of course, is the cane handle, the greyhound. Jones, the ventriloquist, covertly moves his dummy. Follow it now — an alert animal head, eyeing one side of the room and then the other. Is the run for the prize about to begin?

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It usually takes me a second look to discover all that a great actor delivers. Today I was able to revisit a bit of Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, as found in one of the official video clips from Lincoln. It is the only one that focuses on Jones. It lasts only 32 seconds and is available on YouTube, here.

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In this scene Stevens, in the very center of the floor debate, is in high dudgeon mode. Notice how the actor seizes the opportunity to marry oratory with physicality. In a subtle move (at the 0:22 mark), just as the stream of invective he directs at his opponent (George H. Pendleton) reaches a climax, Jones attempts to move forward, first glancing downward to guide his wayward foot. This seems an inconsequential gesture, the precaution of a 72-year-old man who’s unsteady on his feet. But it is more than that. It sets up the next beat. Only seconds later, Jones re-creates his awkward gait in service to his speech. This time he stamps his foot audibly on the wooden floor (“the foot of man,” he dubs this action) — pounding his words with a final exclamation point.

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Update (11/25/2012 at 5:30 pm): Folks at the greyhound forum believe the cane Stevens carries is a greyhound cane, as does the blogger Shannon.

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An Apple that was America

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

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Recently I acquired a small still life painting by the 19th century American artist Edward Chalmers Leavitt (1842-1904):

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Still Life with Apple on a Marbletop
Oil on canvas, signed lower right and dated 1862.
6.5 x 8.75 inches

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Depictions of apples are very common in nineteenth century American art, and it’s not hard to understand why.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the apple had achieved a status approaching that of a national symbol. Twice in his journals (in 1848 and 1851) Ralph Waldo Emerson declared “the apple is our national fruit,” and he voiced that conclusion without fear of contradiction in a lecture devoted to “Country Life” delivered to audiences in Boston and Worcester (1858) as well as in Brooklyn (1859).

The apple’s renown can be traced to years of widespread cultivation of apple trees throughout the growing nation. Abundant and flavorful table fruit was only one result of successful crops. The growing harvest of apples also yielded millions of gallons of hard cider, and thirsty Americans consumed it with abandon.

For a young nation still in the process of defining itself, the apple was an object poised to take on symbolic importance. The natural stages of apple production — seeds, saplings, trees, new blossoms, nourishing fruit — furnished metaphors for nation-building. And when the new nation was in need of home-grown myths, there was Johnny Appleseed, whose legend is rooted in fact.

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Johnny Appleseed became a legend of a quintessentially American kind, as his story blends both moral and practical lessons. So, too, was there something especially American about the apple. In the apple Americans saw an object they were temperamentally inclined to invest with representational authority.

This background adds to our understanding of Still Life with Apple on a Marbletop and the artist who painted it.

In 1862, Edward Chalmers Leavitt, a young man eager to extend his artistic reach beyond an early talent for drawing, decided to capture an apple’s essence in oil paint on canvas. This small painting may be the earliest surviving work by him, according to my research. Indeed not much is known with certainty about Leavitt’s training and early career as an artist. His first participation in an art exhibition occurred five years after Still Life with Apple on a Marbletop, when a work labeled “Fruit Piece (painting)” appeared at an exhibition sponsored by the Rhode Island Society for Domestic Industry. In his later years Leavitt achieved local prominence as the premier still life painter in Providence, churning out grandiose and meticulously detailed compositions reflecting America’s material prosperity at the end of the century. These later commercial works, designed for an upper middle class market, are a long way away from his early apple.

A single apple on a shelf: what could be simpler, more humble, more innocent?

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But look closer. Doesn’t this begin to look like more than the commonly encountered image of an apple? I think the answer is yes. Many a curious thing is to be found in Leavitt’s depiction of America’s fruit. Some things extraneous. Some things pointing beyond the literal, beyond the space the artist constructed to house his apple. Perhaps something with a personal meaning.

What I see in the painting now set before me is this:

Here, in a simple depiction of an apple on a marble shelf, the artist has encoded the state of the nation in 1862.

I interpret the painting as a representation of the country as seen through the eyes of a young man during the eventful year of 1862. Yes, I’m engaging in some speculation here. I may never find confirmation of my premise. But what I do have in hand already are two things: a tantalizing biographical fact, and the evidence of the painting itself.

Here is the interesting fact: Edward Chalmers Leavitt, born and educated in Providence, Rhode Island, decided at the age of 19, at the outbreak of the Civil War, to volunteer to serve the Union cause. Exactly when in 1862 he painted Apple on a Marble Tabletop may never be determined. But there is little doubt in my mind that throughout the months of 1862, Leavitt, like other young men of his time and place, followed assiduously every scrap of news and rumor that came his way about the campaigns and battles of the war. That second year of the Civil War saw the further terrible sundering of our nation. Blood was spilled on the battlefield; tears were spilled on the homefront.

The painting itself — its iconography — is intriguing. My reason to believe Leavitt had a higher aspiration for his apple, that he intended this apple as a commentary on events, is grounded in three elements of the painting. These details telegraph a message.

1.   The geography of battle

First there is the matter of how Leavitt depicts the physical setting the apple occupies. Within a very small format (just 6 1/2 by 8 3/4 inches) the artist has created a narrow and shallow display space. On reflection, however, this space broadens out to encompass a larger space. This in turn allows the apple to assume a larger meaning. What did Leavitt do to transform the space?

I find it significant that instead of attempting to replicate the look of marble as would other painters of the period, Leavitt purposely designs the stone’s signature mineral veins to achieve something other than mere verisimilitude. I’ve never before seen an American still life artist paint marble in this way. The veins, as ordered by Leavitt, are like meandering rivers that spread out across a wide territory. More broadly still, these lines suggest geographical markers or boundaries of territory. Some of these geographical cues refer to natural formations (we think of rivers) while others are man-made (notice the straight east-west line marking the meeting of the interlocked planes — the north and south portions of the painting).

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Both the flat backdrop slab of marble and the flat shelf that projects outward toward the viewer are of equal prominence. While we perceive these as two separate surfaces, they can also be read as sections of one partially unfolded but not yet fully flattened map, thanks in part to the implied continuation of veins from one plane to the other. Indeed, on the left side of the picture we seem to be able to observe a river, formed in the north, grow as it wends its way south. The web of arteries, while mysterious, strongly suggests this decipherment. But what, in a larger sense, is the meaning of this eerie feature of Leavitt’s composition? What does it signify in the American context of 1862?

I believe the landscape-like element of this still life represents the geography of the American Civil War.

For Leavitt to use his painter’s brush to conjure up rivers, creeks and runs in the year 1862 was inevitably to awaken the names of skirmishes and battles lately entering people’s consciousness and speech: Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, Middle Creek, Shiloh. Even if it was the convention of one side of the conflict (the Confederacy) to name battles after the nearest river or run, those names and the names of other battle creeks and rivers would have been in the minds of everyone following war news, north and south, reading newspaper accounts and pouring over illustrated maps. I cannot claim the lines Leavitt etched into his unfolded stone map correspond to actual geographical boundaries or actual waterways met in the path of war. They don’t have to. It served Leavitt’s purpose to create a general schematic of the water-carved fields of battle. What Leavitt intended has been successfully evoked.

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Notice also what happens to us, as viewers, when we entertain the notion, even if only for a moment, that this apple is resting on a huge expanse of territory. In our mind’s eye the apple balloons in size. Our sense of scale goes kerflooey, as happens when we look at a surrealistically large apple in a painting by Magritte.

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At the very least, our sense of the meaning of the apple expands to include new possibilities.

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2.   The inflicted wound

The apple has suffered a bruise. It is a distinctive wound.

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For centuries still life artists have used the trope of imperfections in the skin of a piece of fruit to signify the impermanence of beauty, illustrating the poet’s observation, “everything that grows holds in perfection but a little moment.” Yet this is almost always conveyed through depictions of naturally occurring flaws, inherent decay rising to the surface, or the natural decomposition of skin post-ripeness. Apples, for example, may be shown with lesions of apple scab disease, as in David Johnson’s circa 1857 painting of Apples and Quinces.

In contrast, the bruise Leavitt painted has a different look and meaning. It clearly was imposed by some irregular action, by some unnatural external source. A possible reading, and one that I believe is most likely, is that the wound is meant to be seen as one inflicted by an opposing human hand, from the violent pressure of a finger and nail whose ghostly outline remains all too discernible on the skin.

This wound occupies the southwest quadrant of the face of the apple the artist presents to us. From the vantage point of Leavitt’s New England roots and his Providence, Rhode Island, home base, the southwest is the very direction to which we would look to witness the depredations of the major Civil War engagements of 1862. Think of Shiloh (Tennessee); Gaine’s Mill (Virginia); 2nd Battle of Bull Run (Virginia); Battle of Richmond, Kentucky; Antietam (Maryland); and Fredericksburg (Virginia).

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3.   The blood of battle

One aspect of the apple delights the eye at first glance — or at least delights the eye of a viewer who assumes this to be an innocent representation of an apple. Two drops magically cling to the apple’s skin. These two drops belong to the tradition of trompe l’oeil still life, whose practitioners applied embellishments of this sort to impart a reality to the painted object (depicting a fly alighting on the fruit is another off-used trick). Later in his career Leavitt himself would return to the practice, in one instance dotting a cabbage leaf with drops of water, and on another occasion affixing raindrops to the yellow roses and leaves in a painting from 1885:

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But note that in these later examples the drops of moisture are of an entirely different character. We understand the drops on the cabbage leaf were applied externally (from refreshing rain or from being washed by man) as were those on the rose (again, from rain). In contrast, the drops on the apple appear to come from inside the apple. Just as a matter of gravity it’s hard to fathom how a drop of water could be placed on the shear side of the apple and retain its globular form. Instead we must imagine a puncture, a hole in the skin from which a vital essence slowly is escaping. The top drop appears to have just emerged. We imagine it will grow larger. The heavy bottom drop falls like a tear.

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It does not matter that science can explain why the drops are red, can assure us the drops are only behaving as lenses relaying the red color of the apple skin. No. Despite such knowledge we are seized by one terrible thought: this is blood.

The apple is bleeding.

This apple was America.

If you also admit the possibility of seeing the apple as a human torso, then what Leavitt depicted is a consequential image. It is the scene that follows in temporal sequence the triggering scene drawn by Winslow Homer and published in Harper’s Weekly, November 15, 1862 (The Army of the Potomac–A Sharp-Shooter on Picket Duty). Homer called the actions of the sharp-shooter “near murder.”

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War’s lethal logic pierced the heart of America.

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Notes and additional observations

1.  As I write and post this piece, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is preparing to open an exhibition, The Civil War and American Art, that will be on view from November 16, 2012, through April 28, 2013. Later the exhibition will travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, May 21 through September 3, 2013. Although the accompanying scholarly catalogue, authored by Eleanor Jones Harvey, is not yet available to me (Amazon currently lists a future release date of November 27, 2012), I’ve just read an illustrated essay, apparently an excerpt from the catalog, in American Art Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 6, 2012 (November-December), pp. 80-85. In it the author reveals her thesis that the Civil War had a profound effect on the mission, content, and uses of art in America. She focuses her analysis on landscape painting and photography as well as postwar genre painting. While those are the most obvious arenas, let me suggest the investigation into signifiers should not stop there. Still life may also respond to a war’s wounds. In the hands of an engaged artist, even a mere apple can be a nation.

2.  Here is a quarter plate tintype of John Egler, a Civil War soldier. He would later be wounded at Spotsylvania and die 19 days later. Why does he hold an apple in his hand? Why was the apple tinted red?

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3.  I’ve mentioned that the web of veins in the marble platform have a mysterious aura, a mystery that activates a viewer’s desire for decipherment. In this way they remind me of the puzzling lines in the backgound of some Jasper Johns works from the 1980s and ’90s (lines whose source and meaning art scholars have scurried to uncover):

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4.  With respect to my supposition that Leavitt set his apple upon a map of America, it seems almost unnecessary to call attention to the shadow — of death? of mourning? — that has fallen upon the land. Save an unthinkable suicidal plunge, the apple has no escape from the narrow shelf. Fate awaits. Three years later, ruminating on the spilling of every drop of blood, Lincoln sadly recalled:

. . . AND THE WAR CAME

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One New Acquisition (and two discoveries)

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

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This spring I added a piece to my collection of mid-19th-century oil sketches by American artists. The painting, by William Hart (1823-1894), comes from the May 15, 2012 sale at Heritage Auctions. The work is an oil on canvas, 12 by 19 1/2 inches, titled “Rocks on the Shore.”

Here is the photo included in the auction catalog.

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It sometimes takes time for a work of art to reveal its value, secrets, and beauty. This painting is a good example of a slow reveal.

So far I’ve been led to two revelations.

The first discovery came about when I decided to uncover the work’s original appearance. A century and a half of accumulated dirt and time-yellowed varnish had obscured its glow. For this assignment I relied on the technical skills of an experienced painting conservator. His principal task was to remove dirt and varnish (what turned out to be two separate layers of varnish) that veiled the artist’s accomplishment.

Here is a photo taken during an early stage of conservation treatment (note the upper left quadrant).

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The result of the cleaning was striking. Revealed was a fresh, high-keyed painting that engages the viewer’s eye. The scene Hart depicts has an immediate impact. This reaction is a sign of a fine plein air sketch — a painting completed, or at least begun, in the open air, in a face-to-face encounter with the natural environment.

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Some of the details that emerged brightly:

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The signature in the lower right corner

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Pencil outlines now clearly visible

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Hart’s joyful facility in handling a colorful, paint-laden brush

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Hart’s attention to the smallest phenomenon, such as grasses rooted in the boulder’s crevices

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The second discovery I made was the location Hart chose to capture in paint. As I’ll explain, the path to the correct site was not smooth: the search was first waylaid by a false positive.

Unfortunately, other than the artist’s signature, no inscriptions appear on the canvas verso or recto, nor on its original stretcher. Determining the scene’s location and the date Hart painted it would have to depend on external sources linking back to the powerful view right before my eyes.

The auction catalog’s description of the piece contained a bit of speculation:

“This fine example of the subject [of a rocky shoreline] by Hudson River landscapist William M. Hart, a Scottish emigre who settled with his family near Albany, New York, [...] probably records a spot of coast in Maine, near Grand Manan where he frequently painted.”

I, too, thought Maine was a good guess. But exactly where in Maine? Surely such a dramatically wrought promontory, whose every cut and curve, plane and shadow, was meticulously traced by Hart’s eye and hand, must be some familiar spot. Most likely it would have have been known and appreciated by Hart’s fellow artists who traveled up and down the coast in search of scenes picturesque and sublime. Was there at least one other artist drawn to record this vista?

Surfing online for answers, I found other examples of Hart’s own paintings of rock cliffs meeting the sea:

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But these paintings were of different formations and none of the information connected to them pointed to the location of my painting.

Then, a Eureka moment.

(Or so I thought at the time.)

Paging through John Wilmerding’s “The Artist’s Mount Desert: American Painters on the Maine Coast” (1994) (currently out of print), I came to the chapter devoted to William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900). Haseltine, like Hart, was a member of the second generation of the Hudson River School, America’s first native school of landscape painting. He is best known for his precise renderings of the rocky coast of New England. Starting in the late 1850′s and continuing well into the next decade, Haseltine traveled from Maine’s Mount Desert Island to Rhode Island’s Point Judith, executing along the way drawings and sketches that he used as source material for larger studio works. Bold rock formations of particular locales were his inspiration and his forte.

On page 112 of Wilmerding’s book there is an illustration of one of Haseltine’s beautifully rendered drawings from 1859: “Thunder Hole, Mount Desert Island” (pencil and grey wash on paper, 15 1/8 x 21 9/16 inches, private collection):

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Look at the monolith at the end of our line of sight. Yes, it is a match.

When Haseltine recorded this view of the cliffs overlooking the sea, it appears he stood further back from the water than did Hart. He also positioned himself a bit to the right. This means slightly less of the left face of the huge cubic mass at the apex of the composition is visible compared to the view recorded by Hart. Regarding that central craggy monolith, there’s no mistaking the fact that it revealed all its interesting facets to Haseltine and Hart in identical fashion. I’m hard pressed to find any significant differences.

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Both artists recorded the site at about the same time of day; the sun casts shadows of similar direction and depth. Yet I sense Haseltine was the more faithful transcriber of the position and shape of the flanking structures on the left and right. Beyond the focal point that intrigued him, Hart may have taken some liberties. This is understandable when you realize Haseltine’s aesthetic approach entailed creating an interesting black, grey and white design that floats upon the white expanse of a flat sheet of paper. To the extent Haseltine wanted to reformulate the actual scene in front of him, he could accomplish that not by rearranging the physical matter before him, but via modulation of tone — assigning various shades of grey to each stationary component in service to his two dimensional design. Hart, in contrast, enjoyed the added resource of color. While beholden to the spatial imperatives of mid-19th century painting, he would allow his composition to stray from the actual. He felt free to rearrange matter at the behest of superior values.

In a later chapter in “The Artist’s Mount Desert” Wilmerding grants only passing mention to William Hart, though he does say records show Hart was painting at Mount Desert from 1857 to 1860.

With these bits of evidence falling into place (and with Wilmerding’s supportive scholarship in hand) I was fully prepared to re-title this William Hart painting, “Thunder Hole, Mount Desert” (ca. 1859).

And yet there was one question that bothered me. A lingering question that birthed doubt. It was this:

Why does Thunder Hole look so different today?

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Today, Thunder Hole is a tourist stop for visitors to Acadia National Park on Mount Desert:

Nothing symbolizes the power of Acadia National Park as much as Thunder Hole does. When the right size wave rolls into the naturally formed inlet, a deep thunderous sound emanates. The cause is a small cavern formed low, just beneath the surface of the water. When the wave pulls back just before lunging forward, it dips the water just below the ceiling of the cavern allowing air to enter. When the wave arrives full force, it collides with the air, forcing it out, resulting in a sound like distant thunder. Water may splash into the air as high as 40 feet with a roar!

Videos of the phenomenon are available here and here.

Thunder Hole is on the east side of the Island, south of Sand Beach and just north of Otter Cliff:

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Changes in light and moisture can modify the color of the cliffs from grey to pink to yellow to orange to red:

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Change defined the site. But still I wondered, did the passage of time and the carving of wind and water so alter the shape of these structures since the time William Hart preserved them in paint on canvas that the distinctive central rock formation was transformed into . . . this?

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To cut to the chase: my doubt was justified.

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Nearly two hundred miles to the southwest of Mount Desert Island, on a peninsula called Nahant on the coast of Massachusetts, there long existed a geological formation known familiarly as Pulpit Rock. Destroyed in a fierce winter storm in February, 1957, it, along with a Natural Bridge that connected nearby rocky features, had been attracting tourists and artists for more than a century. Among the earliest of those artists was Haseltine. In 1865 he finished a major painting that depicted the scene with reverential awe, setting the principal rock in divine illumination (Pulpit Rock, Nahant, 1865, oil on canvas, signed and dated ‘W.S.Haseltine/1865′ (lower right), 28 by 49 3/4 inches; the basis for the title is discussed in the Overview and Lot Notes sections of the auction listing, here):

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Several photographic views of the striking scenes at Nahant’s Natural Bridge and Pulpit Rock were published during the post-Civil War craze for stereoviews. Here are a few found on Google Images:

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The first of the twinned photographs, above, captured the scene in 1868 from virtually the same perspective as Haseltine did a decade earlier when he drew his pencil and grey wash drawing:

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It’s quite likely Haseltine used his drawing as a template when, a few years later, he began to compose a studio painting of Pulpit Rock, one that would strip away all but the central monolith, re-staging the site for dramatic effect.

Other American landscape and seascape artists were lured to the site. In 1876, for example, William Trost Richards positioned himself on a different vantage point to create this small watercolor (Pulpit Rock, Nahant, signed with initials ‘W.T.R’ and dated ’76′ (lower right), inscribed with title (lower left), 6 x 5 inches):

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Souvenir postcards spread the renown of Pulpit Rock and the Natural Bridge into the twentieth century:

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Plainly, Wilmerding was wrong in believing the Haseltine drawing reproduced on page 112 of his book, “The Artist’s Mount Desert: American Painters on the Maine Coast,” depicted Thunder Hole on Mount Desert Island, Maine. Regrettably, in his text (pages 118-119) Wilmerding offers a lengthy narrative and commentary on the piece, entirely premised on that erroneous notion. He concludes, “this drawing achieves a particularly powerful sense of location, capturing the face and personality of Thunder Hole.”

I do not know whether Wilmerding’s mistake stems from his unfamiliarity with Pulpit Rock, or from the unfamiliarity of the site to the book’s editor and its pre-publication reviewers, or from misdirection by an inscription on the drawing itself — or from some unfortunate blend of all three factors. In any event, the error needs to be corrected.

Is there an inscription on the drawing itself? What’s frustrating is the incomplete information Wilmerding chose to provide to interested readers of “The Artist’s Mount Desert.” Here is the description of the piece found in the list of Illustrations (p. 188, ill. 110):

110. William Stanley Haseltine, Thunder Hole, Mount Desert Island, 1859. Pencil and grey wash on paper, 15 1/8 x 21 9/16 in. Private collection.

That description presumes to assign a definitive title to the work (Thunder Hole, Mount Desert Island). Yet, here within an ostensibly scholarly narrative, one finds no information justifying the title given to the object — none of the data that, nowadays, even commercial auction houses routinely provide. Such data include whether the piece itself is inscribed and, if so, where the title appears on the piece (none is visible in the reproduction of the drawing on page 112); what medium was used in making the inscription (pencil, ink, other); whether the inscription appears to have been made contemporaneously with the drawing’s completion, or is there something to suggest (or establish) that the inscription was added years later; and whether the inscription is by the hand of the artist, or by another hand. This information is essential to provide a base for subsequent scholarship. Attention to these points is not an exercise in minutiae; it is critical to the avoidance of factual error.

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I have retitled my William Hart painting, Pulpit Rock, Nahant, ca. 1859.

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NOTE: This essay, originally posted on September 9, 2012, was revised on December 1, 2012.

On Seeing “Death of a Salesman” in NYC

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

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Yesterday afternoon I attended a performance of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at the Barrymore Theatre. The cast of 14, directed by Mike Nichols, was headlined by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Willy Loman), Linda Emond (Linda Loman) and Andrew Garfield (Biff Loman).

The anticipation of a crowd of eager theatre-goers as they entered the theater is something I tried to capture in a video, uploaded here. What I cannot adequately capture is the general force and impact of the production we saw.

Instead, here are particular things that struck me:

Numbers.  Someone could write an entire essay on the use and meaning of numbers in “Death of a Salesman.”  Years, ages, dimensions, limits, prices and payments — the script is chock-full of them. The characters measure their lives with numbers. From the early flashback scene in which Linda recites the household bills needing to be paid (16 dollars on the refrigerator, nine-sixty for the washing machine, three and a half on the vacuum), to the later scene when Willy’s neighbor Charley lends him support (the usual 50 dollars plus, this time, 110 to pay for insurance), all the way through to an ending where we find Willy wondering over his life “ringing up a zero,”  you can hardly catch your breath before some new numbers are announced, debated, corrected, and chewed over some more. There are the sinking salary requests made by Willy as he pleads with Howard to keep him on the payroll after he’s “put 34 years into this firm.”  Willy starts at 65 dollars a week (“I don’t need much any more”), then lowers himself to 50 (“all I need to set my table”), then bottoms out at a beggarly 40 (“that’s all I’d need”). There are Linda’s imprecise references to Willy’s age (is he 60 or 63?); Ben repeating the limits of his jungle adventure (17 when he walked in, 21 when he walked out); and Willy’s precise recollection of lumber stolen for a home improvement project (those beautiful 2-by-10s). We hear of Biff’s failing math grade of 61, just 4 points way from passing — those 4 points something Willy declares he’ll gain for his son. Then a circular debate over how much of a loan Biff should request from Bill Oliver (10 thousand? 15 thousand?). There’s Linda’s mention of their 25-year home mortgage (she’s compelled to note that Biff was just 9 when they bought the house). Amid this onslaught of figures, our apprehension grows. Are numbers for Americans the preferred way to follow and ultimately judge a life?

Insurance. When, in order to aid his elder son, Willy strikes a bargain with death — twenty thousand dollars from an insurance policy (those numbers again!) — there is an echo of the climactic plot device in Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing,” in which a no longer useful man similarly chooses a disguised suicide to bankroll the future of his grandson.

Athletics. How fine and assuring it was to be an audience member watching Hoffman, Garfield and Finn Wittrock (who played Hap Loman) in an early flashback scene as they tossed a football around, between stage left and stage right, in a precise, easy manner.

Comedy 1. There were some awkward bursts of laughter from the audience, as when Willy repeatedly berates Linda when she tries to join in the family conversations. His bullying putdowns got laughs that were scarily undeserved. I wonder whether this was simply embarrassed laughter from otherwise psychologically astute adults who were already on to (and forgiving of) Willy’s gross and contradictory ways? I’m not sure. I think another factor might be our collective exposure to years of TV situation comedies where belittling is a staple, where similar putdowns are accompanied by canned laughter. The two times when Hap interjected his inapposite news — “I’m getting married, Pop!” — the audience roared with laughter. Were some among us hearing the voice of TV’s womanizing Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), interrupting the banter of his Friends with yet another impossible statement?

Comedy 2. Yet how truly funny Miller can be, funny intentionally and on his terms, as in the restaurant scene in which the headwaiter, Stanley (Glenn Fleshler), tosses out  a handful of lines that anticipate Neil Simon.

Blocking. For this production Nichols resurrected the set designed by Jo Mielziner for the original 1949 production. His direction featured blocking that places an emphasis on the actors’ profiles, from our viewing perspective. I’m guessing this was dictated by the set design, but I wonder whether it also is a borrowing from Nichols’ film direction. There are superb details. The last time we see Willy he is in his hoped-for garden. Centered down-stage, he looks straight ahead into the audience, talking not to himself (remember Miller conceived of the play as taking place in Willy’s skull) but in these final moments to us. This I thought was a perfect thing.

The lines we all know, still new. How right it was for Linda Emond not to specially deliver, not to call special attention to, her  attention must be paid lines. How right a choice it was for her to allow those words to emerge as a seamless part of her argument for loyalty.  How right her decision to permit those words to appear new, just as they were received as new by audiences attending the original production. The same sureness was evident during her speech at the funeral scene, done so quietly, a simple “I can’t cry . . .”.

Delayed catharsis. Then something occurred I’d never seen before at a staged performance of a tragedy. When the tragedy is ended and the curtain falls and then rises to reveal the cast, by convention the magic is broken and we return to our lives. But at the end of this “Death of a Salesman,” the full cast of 14 appeared linked hand-in-hand, and the entire troupe was dour faced. The four principals stood before us in the middle of the line with faces frozen in the very same shock, sorrow, and grief of the funeral scene. They remained so. Our loud standing ovation could not break the cast’s concentration, could not entice them to adopt the ecstatic mood of our side of the proscenium. Catharsis would not be shared just yet. It was as if a spell had taken hold of the actors and would end only if we sufficiently witnessed their pain. And so, after what felt like minutes, the focus resolved on Hoffman, who moved ever so slightly forward. The burden lifted when he smiled with pride.

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Also in attendance. At play’s end, after exiting the row, I noticed the actor John Turturro walking up the aisle behind me, and though I tried my best to overhear the conversation he was having with others about the performance, I was not close enough to hear particulars. Drat. A compensatory thrill came earlier.  Sitting in seat K-115, the aisle seat, was an elderly gentleman who, I learned, was 97 years old. His caretaker, a young woman, sat between us. After he cracked a joke about hoping to see at least three more years’ worth of  plays, I asked if he had seen this play before. Yes, he replied, he saw it during its first Broadway run. (That would have been in 1949 or 1950!)  I wanted to ask if he would tell me more of what he remembered, but the show was about to start and he had turned his attention to the stage.

Trivial questions I have.  What is Linda’s backstory? Was Willy eligible for Social Security benefits? What are the odds the insurance company will successful rebuff the family’s claim? Viewing the Loman house as a character, were Miller and Mielziner familiar with the illustrations Virginia Lee Burton created for her 1942 children’s book, “The Little House“?

Why did this production succeed? A revealing, hour-long interview with Nichols and his three leads, conducted when the when the play was still in rehearsal, can be found here.

Time for effusiveness.  The topmost quotation in the sign posted next to the stage door is right on the money. Hell, the whole sign is right on the money:

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“The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard”

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

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A Special Publication of the Library of America, this is a generous volume. It contains a three-page preface by the book’s editor Ron Padgett (a poet whose friendship with the author dates back to their high school days in Tulsa, Oklahoma); a ten-page Introduction by novelist Paul Auster; followed by over 500 pages of writings interspersed with the author’s own drawings and cartoons. Rounding out the book are pages of helpful editorial content: a Chronology; a Note on the Texts; and a Glossary of Names. The names belong to fellow artists, writers, dancers, musicians and associates mentioned by the shy-but-gregarious, serious-but-gossipy, frivolous-but-solemn, Joe Brainard.

The volume leads off with I REMEMBER, the autobiographical book Edmund White once labelled “a completely original book” and Paul Auster calls “a modest little gem.” There is an undeniable charm and relentless spell to it. Baby Boomer readers especially will be nodding their heads non-stop in recognition:

“I remember putting on sun tan oil and having the sun go away.”

“I remember catching lightning bugs and putting them in a jar with holes in the lid and then letting them out the next day”

“I remember Christmas cards coming from people my parents forgot to send Christmas cards to.”

“I remember red rubber coin purses that opened like a pair of lips, with a squeeze.”

“I remember wax paper.”

Over the years the simple template of I REMEMBER has influenced thousands of students in American creative writing classes, jump-starting imagination. Foreign writers too have followed its trail. One is Édouard Levé, whose Autoportrait is a pour of thousands of self-contained, self-referential declarative sentences — chips off the Brainard block.

And yet I REMEMBER fills only the first quarter (pages 3-134) of this Collected Writings volume. The bulk of the book falls into the category of Miscellany. To get a sense of the scope of these nearly 100 pieces, see the book’s Table of Contents on the Library of America site, here. Truth to tell, these pieces, which cover the hunt for love to the hunt for cigarettes and everything in between, include many misses among the hits. Take for example the illustrated piece on page 391 entitled “Matches.” It reads in its entirety: “If I strike say 60 matches a day (and I do) in a year’s time that would be — let me see — that would be — I hate math.” But the prevailing tone is a winning youthful energy, casual, humorous, miniaturistic. In his 1971 “Bolinas Journal” (reprinted at pages 285-333), he revealed his credo as simply “trying to be honest.”

Without doubt this book will appeal to Brainard “completists” — readers so taken by the delights of “I Remember” that from this intimately personal raconteur, from this easy sharer of confidences, they demand to hear more, more, and more.

The critic Michael Dirda recently observed that while THE COLLECTED WRITINGS “may not be a fully canonical Library of America title,” it is still “a superbly engaging bedside book.”  I agree. After the opening section devoted to the minimalist yet somehow magisterial “I Remember,” this becomes a book to be dipped into at leisure.

A note to readers who care about books as objects, especially the matter of their binding: Unlike volumes in the main Library of America series which are Smyth sewn (allowing you to open the book wide and bend back the covers without “breaking” or otherwise harming the binding), THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOE BRAINARD is a “Special Publication” that features a different design and production. The trim size is larger (good), but notch binding is used here, a disappointment as it renders the book less elegant than regular LOA volumes.

I see I’ve used a lot of numbers in this review. A final one is 52. That is the age of this still-young author at the time of his death in 1994. The coldness of numbers masks the warm effect of THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF JOE BRAINARD. In its pages you meet a big-hearted guy.

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[A version of this review appears on Amazon, here.]

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04-07-2012: This morning I came across an adoring review by Alberto Mobilio in the April/May 2012 online issue of Bookforum, here. Mobilio argues, convincingly, that “I Remember” is best read as an incantatory poem, one that epitomizes “that peculiarly American aspiration to self-mythologize in the face of an otherwise relentlessly quotidian world.”

“Spring and All” by William Carlos Williams

Friday, November 25th, 2011

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Spring and All was first published in France in 1923 in an edition of 300 copies. Years later Wallace reflected on the book’s nonchalant, playful debut:”‘Nobody ever saw it — it had no circulation at all — but I had a bit of fun with it … Chapter headings are printed upside down on purpose, the chapters are numbered all out of order, sometimes with Roman numerals, sometimes with Arabic, anything that came in handy” (I Wanted to Write a Poem, pp. 36-37).

If you covet a one of those first edition copies, in fine condition, be prepared to shell out a thousand dollars or more.

The book’s contents have reappeared in subsequent Williams compendiums, but for those of you with a book collector’s sensibility, and for poetry readers who seek transport back to an earlier cultural era via the objects of that era (test: were you wide-eyed drinking in the set designs in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”?), this facsimile edition is the next best thing to holding the original.

In the decades since its original publication there’s been no shortage of sophisticated critical analysis of the meaning and significance of SPRING AND ALL. My amateur thoughts include a belief that the book’s once unorthodox mixture of prose and poetry sections has less power to bother readers of today. In the prose sections I grew to appreciate the gaps, the churn, the elisions, the introduction and abandonment of thoughts: we are witnessing a mind doing its work. When Williams delivers fully formed thoughts his breathing is apparent: I heard not the nervous, arhythmic and shallow breaths of today but the inhalations and exhalations of an earlier America, deep and full and sufficient to the ideas whose communication they carry.

I happen to like his use of commas.

There are stretches that have a dated feel (remember, the freshest cataclysm infecting Williams’ world view was The Great War) and some of his affections are now obscure (how many know who Dora Marsden was; or Alfred Kreymborg, whose writing Williams declares “still has value and will tomorrow have more”?). But hail the author’s ready audacity, as when he draws a broad conclusion about modern art trends by looking at a reproduction of a single painting by Juan Gris — and that reproduction not in color but in black and white! Especially in its epigrammatic statements on art and life, there is an affinity between Spring and All and Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit.

You reach page 74, Chapter XXII. You pause. It’s as if you’ve been meandering down a museum’s long corridor of displays of things interesting and things not so interesting and then you’re directed into an intimate side-room and brought face to face with a solitary object that hits you, your eye, your mind, with unexpected force: a sixteen-word poem about a red wheel barrow whose haiku economy proceeds to gestate in your presence.

To speak of the book itself, as physical object: it is sure to please. More meaty than the proverbial slim volume of poetry (it’s over 100 pages), this facsimile is finely constructed with clearly printed text on cream paper, wrapped in powder blue-gray covers that have a mysterious, sensuous, suede-like feel.

Williams writes: “The better work men do is always done under stress and at great personal cost.”

Let this better work be your pleasure.

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A version of this review appears on Amazon, here.

Rilke on Rodin

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

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Here is a volume smartly conceived by its small press publisher, Archipelago Books. The book is nearly square in size to accommodate long-lined text printed on quality paper. It is sturdily bound in a partial cloth binding. This has the look and feel of a gift book, and one with the surprise of sophisticated content. If the editor’s plan was to see what happens when you assemble in one package the work of three powerful communicators — a living master essayist on matters literary, a titanic sculptor who ushered in new forms, and a poet striving to understand and explicate the invisible — that plan succeeds in sparking insights.

The book opens with an Introduction by William Gass, a long-time Rilke maven and an unsparing arbiter of things cultural. Gass stylishly fulfills his setting-the-stage duty. Using multiple perspectives (historical, aesthetic, biographical, psychological) he helps the reader understand why the young poet developed an awed appreciation for Rodin (the man and his work). We learn how Rilke absorbed the sculptor’s personal and aesthetic credo (“il faut travailler, rien de travailler”) with lasting effect on his mature poetic output.

All that Rilke learned from Rodin he expressed to the world in two significant pieces which make up the bulk of this book: an essay written at the very start of his personal association with the elder artist in 1902; and a public lecture written at the end of their relationship in 1907. Daniel Slager provides fine new translations from the German of both of these texts. Also found tucked within the pages of this book are four groups of eight glossy color photographs by Michael Eastman: a total of 32 close-up images of major pieces by Rodin that Rilke (and Gass) discuss.

The book contains 88 pages of text; this modest nominal count is misleading since in fact the material is the equivalent of about 150 pages in a standard-sized book. As a reading experience the book feels large thanks to the breadth of Professor Gass’ encyclopedic observations, paragraph after paragraph, and thanks to the seemingly unstoppable eruption of Rilke’s insights, sentence after sentence. Rilke reconnoiters the mountain of Rodin, tossing off witticisms (“Fame is no more than the sum of all the misunderstandings that gather around a new name”), evocative imagery (on The Burgher of Calais: “The figures withdraw within themselves, curling up like burning paper”), and grand judgments (“The artist’s task consists of making a world from the smallest part of a thing”). There are extended passages, describing pieces of art and art making, in which Rilke’s prose itself achieves a mountainous beauty.

True, the pieces that make up this assemblage are available elsewhere: Rilke’s essays are available in other volumes (for example, Where Silence Reigns: Selected Prose); Gass’s Introduction is reprinted in his book of essays, A Temple of Texts (American Literature Series); and there are many illustrated art books devoted to Rodin’s work. But as a package, I consider this particular book to be a fine and rewarding enterprise.

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“Lunch Poems” by Frank O’Hara

Friday, August 5th, 2011

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Frank O’Hara’s reputation seems caught in a holding period, an awkward stage preliminary to his work becoming universal and timeless. Consider, for example, the final scene in the opening episode in the second season of “Mad Men,” the cable TV series set in the world of advertising as practiced in New York in the early ’60s. We see the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, picking up a slim volume of O’Hara’s poems (“Meditations in an Emergency,” 1957). He recites the final lines from “Mayakovsky.” There is an ambivalence to the scene. Was O’Hara chosen less for the intrinsic merit of the poetry than to set an easy marker for a zeitgeist, the same thing the producers accomplish by highlighting the period-specific cut of Draper’s suit and hair? With friends like these, will O’Hara ever escape the mannerist ghetto of the “New York School“?

And so some readers may pick up “Lunch Poems” (first published in 1964) after seeing it praised as an emblematic cultural document of mid-twentieth century America. Yet even if the time-bound aura of O’Hara is the come-on, what makes you stay enthralled in his circle is his voice — a “thinking” voice as vitally American as Whitman or Frost.

There are 37 poems in “Lunch Poems” and their quality as well as their accessibility varies. The poems span a period from 1953 to 1964. This book is not a “best of” O’Hara collection, yet it does contain what may be his most durable poem.

A few of these short pieces are so recondite that they lose me. In a few others O’Hara raises an opaque scrim to suggest beauty beckoning from the other side, and these poems begin to “click” only after multiple readings. But the majority of the poems are freshly-minted coins granting immediate access to a lively, urbane worldview. While general knowledge of the New York cultural scene in the ’50s and early ’60s is helpful, these poems, at their best, easily communicate to us in a way undimmed by the passage of time.

Here is an endless succession of the poet’s friends, lovers, artists, musicians, and the parties, meals and conversation they create. Here are O’Hara’s travel experiences and his love of foreign languages (you could write an essay on the myriad uses of French in O’Hara’s poetry). The man wears his erudition lightly on his sleeve. He’s enamored by both the high and the low in American culture: “I am ashamed of my century for being so entertaining but I have to smile” (Naphtha, 1959). Another poem from the same year, Rhapsody, contains a premonition of his early death (at age 40) a few years later: “I historically belong to the enormous bliss of American death.”

Most delightful are his street-level ruminations, spinning in all sorts of directions, nurtured during mid-day breaks away from his curatorial duties at the Museum of Modern Art. A typical flight occurs in A Step Away From Them, which begins: “It’s my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored cabs.”

A new survey ranking the most walkable cities in America placed New York on top. Teju Cole’s recently published novel, “Open City,” set in contemporary Manhattan, is a current example of a continuing tradition of perambulating literary protagonists. A half century ago, O’Hara was walking these same streets, looking, speculating, daydreaming about the city. A fragment in an untitled poem from 1959 asks, “Where does the evil go when September takes New York and turns it into ozone stalagmites deposits of light?”

The cityscape serves as a platform for accessible philosophizing, as found in one of his best works: “The Day Lady Died”. Is there another poem where so much meaning resides in its title? At first glance the title rattled me, threw me off stride. In it I heard a rhythm, but an uncertain one. Then came the answer hit me: simply reverse “Day Lady” to reveal “Lady Day” — the nickname of blues singer Billy Holiday, whose dark night of the soul ended in 1959. The displaced “day,” her missing “day,” had to be displaced, it had to go missing from O’Hara’s page. The text of the poem recounts the day the poet walked the streets and avenues of Manhattan attending to errands. These everday events end when he spies a tabloid newspaper’s front page announcing Holiday’s death. It is the day after death, the first of many days denied her.

In the poem’s final stanza — in which O’Hara recalls hearing Holiday perform at the Five Spot Café — he accomplishes a wonder. He turns death into something other than displacement and omission. Memory overpowers death, converging time present and time past.

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(An abbreviated version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.)