Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Holiday intermission

Roberto's windows, December 2008

I’ve been writing an end-of-the-year manifesto, which I’ll finish and post as soon as I get “Jingle Bell Rock” out of my head, the result of an untimely visit to Radio Shack. It’s worse than Billy Joel. I’ve finally realized that I was born with a condition, shared by untold others, where I absorbed—and remember indelibly—the words and music to all of the songs to which I was exposed, up to and during adolescence. This is a serious deficit for someone born pre-Beatles and positively treacherous around Christmastime (yes, Mike, I really do know what comes after “ten lords a-leaping,” although I’m not proud of it). Some of my most intimate friends aren’t aware that I, who loathe musical theater, could, if pressed or paid enough, sing all of Oklahoma including the more obscure ditties such as The Farmer and the Cowman can be Friends. This should date me, except when I look on YouTube, I discover that, even in this age of Twilight and Kanye West, high school music teachers are STILL making bewildered-looking students perform this thing. C’mon, guys, get over it! You don’t want to be responsible for any part of the population in 2050 (when everyone really will be wearing silver Lycra tights to work as in Logan’s Run) going around with “The Farmer and the Cowman” in their heads. You don’t!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Nixon in Iceland

This morning at breakfast, with my houseguests Einar and Manuela, the conversation turned to elections, Nixon, and then Nixon‘s summit meeting with Pompidou in Reykjavik in 1973. At the time Einar and other young Icelandic architects were concerned that the city’s early timber houses were being destroyed in that era’s international craze for “urban renewal,” the excuse being that the buildings were derelict. To demonstrate that their shabbiness was only superficial, Einar and 60 to 80 friends went to work on a row of houses scheduled for demolition, painting facades and replacing windows. It just so happened that soon after, Nixon came to Reykjavik for the summit, and wanted to take a stroll around the city. As they walked down this street of newly pristine houses Nixon said to his host, “I see that you take good care of your traditional architecture here in Iceland”—and after that, of course, there could be no talk of demolishing them. The buildings stand to this day.

When Buckminster Fuller visited Reykjavik two years later, Einar told him this story. “I’m happy to know this,” Bucky said, “because I like to think that everyone has some good in them and I’ve never heard anything positive about Nixon.”

Einar writes about this, his first visit with Fuller, in his upcoming book about his 40-year quest to find what he has named the “Fang,” which is, in geometric terms “a space-filler for five-fold symmetry space.” Below, Einar’s geometry at work in one of Olafur Eliasson’s installations, Your spiral view (2002), which I photographed at the Kunstmuseum in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 2004, and is now part of the Beyeler Foundation collection.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The changing speed of change

My houseguest, Einar, happened to find in a pile of magazines, an issue of TIME I’d saved for him, the Mind and Body Special Issue: The Brain, a User’s Guide of January, 2007. Looking through it he commented that not only were some of the ideas out-of-date, the entire magazine, from typeface to illustrations to advertisements, looked as if it was not two years but two decades old—a startling example how quickly things are changing. He also found this prescient article by historian Richard Brookhiser entitled “What’s a Resume Got to Do with It?” about one Barack Obama, the then “freshest face in the early lineup of presidential candidates,” which concludes:

Statesmanship is an art, which means that there is always room for inspiration, and for grace. We are right to look for a record of pre-eminent ability when we can find it. But the basic doctrine of republican government, that all men are created equal, can be a surprise bonus for some leaders, as well as a guarantee of rights for all of us. Sometimes greatness appears in unlikely places, even in ordinary pols from Illinois.

My friend, Valerye, sent me this:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Blah blah Blagojevich

Via my fellow former Chicagoans at The Daily Swarm. And hey, how about a bailout for the Tribune? This Minneapolis editorial makes a case for newspapers' continuing relevance as necessary watchdogs. Just as the automobile manufacturers need to change their products to keep up, so does the print media. If only they realized their job is not to compete with the Internet, but concentrate on those things print does best: in-depth reporting and investigative journalism--photo journalism, too, while we're at it. Ironically, the antique format The New Yorker has clung to all these years (while simultaneously keeping up a big Web presence) turns out to be the most pertinent. There's no question art looks better in art magazines than on the Web, and if we're going to read criticism (which has a responsibility now more than ever to define art for our times) we shouldn't be sitting in front of the computer, but on the couch with a glass of wine. Art in America's redesign takes this into account, and Marcia Vetrocq, in her January editor's letter, promises to bring the magazine up-to-date on the Web with "market reports, updates on exhibitions and events, interactive features, reviews and more." Hopefully this will ultimately include what would be most valuable: an archive.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Einar and Manuela's house

Einar and Manuela are coming to visit next week, and in their honor I’m posting the pictures of their home that I took in October. I met Einar—mathematician, architect, artist, and all round visionary—on my first visit to Olafur Eliasson’s studio in 2004 and a couple of years later he and his wife Manuela, a jewelry designer, took me on a tour of “alternative” Iceland (or so Einar called it—I thought all of Iceland was alternative). Their small house outside Berlin fairly bursts with the results of their combined creativity, and being in it you just want to make things. Now that I’m posting the Art Vent House Report #3, I’m noticing that the homes that interest me most are chock full o’ stuff, while in my own domicile I'm manically minimal. I’m also aware that although I’m a painter, I tend to write most about installation and sculpture. Hmmm. Let’s not make that mean anything.

Einar's studio:

The office:

The living room:

The dining area:

Einar at work:

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Even if you think you wouldn’t be inclined, don’t miss "Twilight", (as Scott asked, “When was there a teenage vampire movie that wasn’t cheesy?”) if only for the kids, who are natural, normal, and totally charming (I kept waiting for the cliché bitchy girl but she never appeared, thank you!). Everything about it—from the acting to the sets to the music—is superb and worthy of the Oscar if would get if it weren’t a teenage vampire movie. A friend’s octogenarian mom pronounced it “The most romantic love story ever.”

(I’m not linking to the trailer because that would ruin it.)

Giorgio Morandi at the Met is up for another week (through the 14th). I liked it, but would have loved it more if everyone in my world hadn’t been raving about it for months. As Roberto said, “It’s a quiet show, so doesn’t lend itself to hype.” What I really loved was Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints 1914-1939, which is up only through Sunday. There’s an accompanying book, and although the prints’ subtlety and texture doesn’t entirely translate in photographs, if you are intrigued it would be worth getting.

Sybil Andrews (1898-1992) Racing.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Born to run?

Born to Run? Little Ones Get Test for Sports Gene on the front page of yesterday’s Times is an article about how Atlas Sports Genetics, in Boulder, CO “is playing into the obsessions of parents by offering a $149 test that aims to predict a child’s natural athletic strengths…The test’s goal is to determine whether a person would be best at speed and power sports like sprinting or football, or endurance sports like distance running, or a combination of the two.” One mother said, “I think it would relieve a lot of parental frustration.”

In our rush to control our children’s experience, we forget that people sometimes learn most from attempting to do those things for which they’re not naturally gifted.

As a child, my most obvious talents were musical, and although I studied classical piano for 20 years, I turned out to be an artist—no doubt because, not in spite of, of the challenges art continues to present.

I don’t practice yoga because I’m naturally flexible, but because I’m not.

In Lawrence Wechsler’s biography of Robert Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Irwin says:

In my years…as a teacher, I’ve seen it over and over again. It’s the kids with the greatest facility who can run up against the biggest problems. You are the best in your class without even trying, which is the best way to learn nothing…The not-so-facile kid just plugs along, every step is a working step, and he comes to the twentieth step and it’s just another step. But facility is a funny thing—it takes you way up, you soar, and you look like you’re really doing something—but at a certain point you go as far as you can with facility, and then you hit the big questions. And for you, who’ve never been pressed, that can present a huge roadblock. I’ve seen a lot of kids get waylaid at this point…

I’m convinced children are best served when the quality of their effort is applauded, rather than their success. ("The process is the reality," as Samuel Johnson said.) And because there’s a Times article to back up every opinion, here’s Praise Children for Effort, Not Intelligence, Study Says, from 1998.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Downtown 81

I’ve never been one to indulge in nostalgia—never understood people who thought that the best music just happened to exist at the very moment they were in college—however, when Roberto got Downtown 81, from Netflix, I allowed myself to wallow just a bit. Especially after listening to the 9/2/08 NPR: All Songs Considered podcast (a good way to keep up if you’re past college age) entitled “The 80s: Were they really that bad?” Funny, I’ve never lived in a time when I thought the music was bad—and especially not the 80s—but then I didn’t listen to radio. Anyway, “Downtown 81” is an Andy Warhol-ish film written by an Andy Warhol-ish guy, Glenn O’Brien, and not so much a story as an excuse to follow the adorable Jean-Michel Basquiat around for a day. (Best line: “You can sleep in my car. It’s a Coupe de Ville.”) There’s an unintentional layer of unreality in that the voices sound dubbed—and that’s because they are dubbed, the original audio for the film having been lost long ago. However the best parts are the performance segments (see? It wasn’t the drugs; the music really was great): Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and James White and the Blacks (a.k.a. James Chance and the Contortions).

Here’s the trailer for the film (as it was recreated in 2000):

And the best Kid Creole video I found, from a concert in Cologne (the clip in the film is even better):

And sound, no visual, for James White/Chance (you gotta see him in the film):

In these over-stimulated times "Downtown 81" isn’t a film to watch, exactly, but—as Roberto suggested—have on while you’re doing something else. The one to sit down with, of course, is Julian Schnabel’s 1996 Basquiat, the only film I can think of (outside of High Fidelity) that captures the spirit of a time and place I lived in as I remember it.

Meanwhile the free-wheeling uninhibited nature of the music isn't totally confined to reminiscence but lives on in current bands such as The Rapture, whose exuberant live show is one of the best yet.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Catching up

No, I have not fallen down a rabbit hole, just swamped with work while fighting off the early winter blahs. I did attend some art-related events, though, one being David Cohen’s review panel at the National Academy Museum where, once a month (I’ll be on the one in March), he invites three critics to comment on current exhibitions. Like performance art, I regard most art panels as opportunities to catch up on my eye exercises but this one—with Mario Naves, Ana Finel Honigman, and Joe Fyfe, talking about current exhibitions by Sue Coe, Elizabeth Peyton, Lothar Baumgarten, and Ron Gorchov—was short, sweet, and engaging, with a question and answer session at the end where the audience members revealed themselves to be as knowledgeable and thoughtful as the panelists. Future review panels:

January 30, 2009: Ken Johnson, Elizabeth Schambelan, Joan Waltemath
February 20, 2009: Johanna Burton, Mark Stevens, Sarah Valdez
March 20, 2009: Michael Brenson, Carol Diehl, David Ebony
Aptil 24, 2009: Deborah Garwood, Blake Gopnik, Alexi Worth

All at 6:45 p.m. at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street ($5).

On the way I caught Jenny Holzer’s projections at the Guggenheim,.which illuminate the exterior of the building every Friday evening through December 31, 2008, with a special additional showing on New Year’s Eve:

And finally there was the opening at Mass MoCA for the Sol Lewitt retrospective of 105 wall drawings. I didn't take any pictures, but will have plenty of opportunity as it will be up for the next 25 years.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gallery confidential

Last week I donned yet another hat, that of art advisor, and took collectors from out of town on a daylong tour of galleries in Chelsea and Uptown—and into a world that seems completely unschooled in normal business practices. I was left with the feeling that if anyone sells any art at all it’s by accident, or because a collector wants something so much s/he is willing to overcome any obstacle to obtain it. I’m grateful to the galleries who treated us with warmth and professionalism—they do exist, and at least one will be rewarded with sales—but others were dysfunctional in the extreme, a situation of special concern to me as I’m also an artist with an interest in finding the next gallery to represent me. Highlights: waiting for more than 20 minutes while gallery assistants looked for someone who could give us a price (all the pieces in the exhibition were priced the same—$200,000). The impeccably dressed young woman who rattled off a canned speech about the artist’s political intentions for the work without regard to the glazed-over look of her audience. The gallery associate who referred to my clients as “You guys” and told us the price was “like $75,000.” The dealer who joked about the price of a painting and another who asked my clients how they felt about the elections. And finally, in a gallery rife with assistants, asking to see work by a particular artist and being told that anyone who could show it was “in a meeting.”

In addition, there seems to be a paucity of proper viewing areas. We saw paintings (priced in the tens of thousands) propped on blocks, held up by assistants, in their cartons (this after calling ahead), leaning against other paintings.

So if anyone wants to know why art fairs (and auctions) are overcoming galleries, it’s because at an art fair you can immediately see the work, the price is out in the open, and you can talk to someone who acts like a grown-up and who may actually know something. There was a time when galleries served a valuable purpose in developing artists’ careers while educating and advising collectors, and kudos to those who still take this role seriously. However the interface that used to be helpful is now often an impediment—as well as a missed opportunity.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Proud to be an American

Shepard Fairey for MoveOn

Growing up in the fifties in a family who Liked Ike, what it meant to be an American was clear to me. America’s history was my family’s history—our forbears came to this country to escape religious persecution in France and England, my Quaker ancestors overcame their pacifism to fight against slavery in the Civil War, my grandfather’s first cousin led the U.S. Naval forces during the Normandy invasion in World War II. Americans were the good guys, the liberators, defenders of human rights. When I said the Pledge of Allegiance every day in my public school, there was a little stir in my childish heart, a pride that came of believing my country was different because the Constitution guaranteed basic freedoms of speech and religion, of being innocent until proven guilty, of one man [sic], one vote. Torture, racial and religious discrimination, a wide disparity between rich and poor, countries who invaded and occupied other countries, the use of mercenaries, large numbers of people in prison, blind nationalism, funny elections—these we associated with the totalitarian regimes America opposed, then characterized by the Russians and Nikita “I will bury you” Khrushchev. However I came of political age during the Vietnam War, and from then on became increasingly disillusioned as the distinctions became more and more blurred, until I found myself living in a world that more resembled them than us. Neither political party spoke for me, as neither took a firm stand against the Iraq war, against torture, against Guantanamo.

Until now. I didn’t realize how much it was getting to me. When I'd wake up in the morning, it was as if every day was gray. However since last Tuesday, the sun has been out. There’s warmth, possibility. My fellow Americans are my fellow Americans, not thoughtless automatons cowed by fear. I’m not on the outside but part of something huge. We did it together. We not only sent the Bush administration down the tubes, we elected a black president. How cool is that? And further, a thinking, literate, intelligent, poetic person who sees himself as accountable, who holds a press conference and actually solicits and answers questions from journalists. Who has such confidence that, at the Democratic Convention, he allowed his young daughters to go on international television miked and unscripted (a small detail, but I still haven’t gotten over it). I’m moved to tears now, and often, such as this morning when I read Frank Rich’s column.

But I realize this is just a beginning, that we are entering the “Reconstruction” phase. Last night a friend was asking herself how was it that she was so numb for eight years, why wasn’t she out battling? I asked myself the same thing. But I think a big reason was because we felt alone, that nothing we did could make a difference. Now that we know “We Can” there’s no limit to what else we can do. I’m going to start by pledging $20 a month to MoveOn, as I already do with The Hunger Project (they take it out of your bank or credit card account automatically every month, which I like—perhaps MoveOn will follow suit). It’s a small gesture, but meaningful if we all do it. Perhaps that’s the best lesson we’ve learned.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Happy Obama Day!

I can’t say it better than Michael Moore:

We may, just possibly, also see a time of refreshing openness, enlightenment and creativity. The arts and the artists will not be seen as the enemy. Perhaps art will be explored in order to discover the greater truths. When FDR was ushered in with his landslide in 1932, what followed was Frank Capra and Preston Sturgis, Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange and Orson Welles. All week long I have been inundated with media asking me, "gee, Mike, what will you do now that Bush is gone?" Are they kidding? What will it be like to work and create in an environment that nurtures and supports film and the arts, science and invention, and the freedom to be whatever you want to be? Watch a thousand flowers bloom! We've entered a new era, and if I could sum up our collective first thought of this new era, it is this: Anything Is Possible.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

And the winner is.....

With three hours to go, today I was voter number 741 in a village where the average turnout is around 300-350. And this in Massachusetts, where a Democratic victory is virtually assured. I’m taking this as a good sign. Ours was a paper ballot, recorded by machine, quite a simple process, although there were a lot of boxes to tick off, including those for school board candidates and three propositions: 1) to abolish the state income tax [NO], 2) to decriminalize the possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana [YES] and 3) to abolish dog racing [This is an issue on which I wish I were better informed, but I voted yes because I couldn’t think of one reason why dog racing should be necessary]. So there. Done. Now we wait.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Back from Berlin

I arrived home Friday night to a New York that was one giant Halloween party, with exceptionally warm weather that led to a certain sartorial minimalism; I’m guessing there’s not a single pair of fishnet hose left to buy in the city. By contrast Chelsea yesterday was like a ghost town. The galleries were manned by skeleton crews, and I wasn’t surprised when one dealer admitted to me that nothing was selling. In my overfilled inbox, however, was a press release from Sperone Westwater announcing their move in December to a nine-story, 20,000 SF. Norman Foster-designed gallery one block north of the New Museum on the Bowery, so someone’s optimistic.

I’d hoped that my ten days away just before the election would provide some much-needed respite from agonizing over it every single moment, but instead I found the Europeans equally obsessed. To judge by the amount of coverage the election is getting in the British press, you’d think it was a local event. And the international members of Olafur Eliasson’s staff, who I joined for lunch in his Berlin studio, were as up-to-date on Joe the Plumber and the price of Sarah Palin’s wardrobe as anyone. It feels as if the whole world is holding its breath.

There’s even a Web site started by three Icelanders, If the World Could Vote, which (as of this writing) has collected 666,246 symbolic votes from 210 countries: 578,461 (86.8%) for Obama, 87,780 (13.2%) for McCain. I’d feel better if the polls reflected a similar disparity.

Our purpose in going to Olafur’s studio was to shoot footage for a short documentary focusing on his collaboration with mathematician, architect, and all-around visionary Einar Thorsteinn, who previously worked with Buckminster Fuller and Linus Pauling. Olafur and Einar have been working together since they met in Iceland 12 years ago, when Olafur, then 29, was looking for someone to help him build a geodesic dome-type structure, and one project led to another. The two-hour shoot couldn’t have gone better. We had some anxiety when, in the morning, city workers suddenly appeared with deafeningly noisy equipment to spend several hours pounding gravel into the cobblestone courtyard outside, but miraculously they finished just as we were about begin. I barely had to refer to my list of prepared questions; Olafur and Einar addressed each point in order as methodically as if they’d been clued in by a secret spy (I believe in never sharing questions with interviewees in advance, lest I get a canned response).

Despite requests by collectors and institutions to buy individual models and even the whole, Olafur and Einar’s Model Room, much of which was at PS 1 for the MoMA show, has been reinstalled in the conference room of the new studio and spills out into the hallway, where it continues to grow and serve as inspiration for new projects. The attitude toward it is hardly precious—this is a workshop, Einar said—and he told us, while we were filming it, to feel free to move things around as we liked. While Terry and Erica were setting up, I had time to spend with these quirky geometric gems, which led me to think about the relationship between harmony and chaos and how, to be fully engaging, an artwork requires certain degrees of each. It was also energizing to be around the 30 or 40 members of Olafur’s busy team, who he sees as working with rather than for him, acknowledged co-creators, an attitude which results in a palpable enthusiasm all around. He also feeds them well. Every day the cook (working in the studio kitchen, which is not walled off, so that she’s part of the creative bustle around her) prepares a simple, healthy lunch—the day I was there it was pumpkin risotto with a green salad and great bread. The food is is laid out buffet style and eaten on long trestle tables in the cavernous dining area, which has walls and high ceilings faced with the remnants of beautiful old tiles and tall, arched windows. As well as making sure everyone gets proper nutrition, the communal meal has its practical reasons for being—no one wastes time going out for food, and it provides a daily opportunity for cross-communication that would be unlikely otherwise.

The 30,000 SF building, which the studio only recently moved in to, is a red brick fortress-like former brewery, and when Einar told me about it last year, referring to it as Olafur’s “castle in the center of Berlin,” I didn’t know that he was being so literal. The first floor is the kitchen, workshop and showroom (in the old studio, one worker told me, there was no room even to set things up and see how they looked), the second is the conference room and studio, and the top floor will house a school for 15-20 students (best described in this article from Frieze). There is a basement as well as a sub-basement, with more workshops and storage areas, some yet to be developed. One room houses a carpentry shop where much of the furniture and simple plywood shelving, which also serves as room dividers, was made. Ultimately Olafur is planning to build an apartment for himself and his family on the roof and the staff is gently agitating for a nursery (among them they have 20 small children, including Olafur’s two) and a gym.

That experience, coupled with a visit to Einar and Manuela’s home in the Berlin outskirts, a house which nearly bursts with the results of their combined creativity (the subject of the next Art Vent House Report), made me want to just come home and work. The best possible outcome.

I didn’t see much to mention in London, other than Frank Gehry’s pavilion at the Serpentine, which looked as if he’d handed the project over to an intern. Or perhaps it would have been better if he had. Terry deemed it “over-built and under-designed.” While the press release described it as “seemingly random,” I—a Gehry fan in general—couldn’t discern any over-arching concept, but saw it as an example of chaos that could have benefited from a little mediating harmony. I think we’ve had enough random for one century, thank you. While we were there an English girl and her Indian boy friend—art students, no doubt—were in the middle of an argument about their relationship when the guy became distracted and, looking over at the pavilion, muttered, “That thing is a pile of shit.”

I did, however, get to spend quality time with the Upholstery Eater and am pleased to report that she’s thriving despite (or maybe because of) her inherited proclivity.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

England is different

Erica, who has come with me on this trip to England, is of the opinion that Art Vent should be about art and not silly penis jokes. But I couldn't resist posting this photo from my walk today.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Yesterday I drove my “Obamamobile” as a friend calls it—blue car + bumper sticker + magnet—to Boston and back, as well as a bit around Waltham and Framingham, and was surprised to note hardly any—actually no—other sign that there’s a major heated political campaign going on. Maybe no one bothers because Massachusetts is considered a foregone conclusion. However here in the Berkshires—the third bluest county in the nation after Manhattan and Brooklyn—we take every opportunity to show support.

And I’m off to Europe early Tuesday morning for almost two weeks—to England and then Berlin to work (with Terry Perk and Erica Spizz) on a short film about Olafur Eliasson and Einar Thorsteinn’s collaborative process, funded by the University for the Creative Arts in the U.K. I don’t know if the trip will prompt more posts, fewer posts, or no posts, so bear with me. Cheerio!

Olafur Eliasson and Einar Thorsteinn, details from The Model Room, as installed at PS 1 last spring,.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Critic etiquette

Mark Tambella, Maduros, 2008, oil on linen, 28" x 32", part of his exhibition at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, November 6-30.

When Roberto invited me over for dinner the other night, he mentioned that our friend, Mark, had hung his paintings in the studio in anticipation of a visit from his dealer—and that he’d asked Roberto to pass on the message that I was simply coming to dinner, and not expected to say anything about the work. I'd not been concerned, but appreciated Mark’s remarkable sensitivity to any possible discomfort. (That said, I liked the paintings, and found myself naturally drawn to spend time with them).

People often ask me if being a critic is socially difficult, if it leads to awkwardness with other artists, but it’s not nearly as complicated as they imagine. Most artists and dealers are normal and pleasant. It tends to be the unaccustomed gallery goers (such as the artist’s parents), who ask the dreaded question, “So what do you think?”—unaware of how complicated it would be for me—work, actually—to give a candid answer.

Only once has someone asked me outright to review a show, and especially because this is an experienced artist and someone I considered an old friend, I was astonished—not the least because I hadn’t even seen the work, nor any of his work for some time. Did he really believe that’s how review subjects are chosen, on the basis of friendship? (Or maybe they are, and I’m the one who’s naïve. Regardless, it’s not my m.o.) And what about that friendship? Was it really one after all? Further, even if it was something I was inclined to write about, by asking he created a conflict of interest that made it impossible.

Then there’s the oft-expressed belief that review choices are driven by advertising, yet this is something I’ve never observed in my years of working for Art in America, ARTnews, and Artforum. While editors will suggest specific shows they’d like to see covered—usually because they think they’re interesting, or provide a certain diversity—I’ve never felt any pressure to write, or write positively, about any artist or gallery. In fact the opposite—I’ve had ideas turned down because the gallery had recently gotten a string of reviews and the magazine didn’t want to be seen as favoring it. Once I was paid $25 (by a publication I no longer write for) to go to an advertiser’s gallery and sign my name in the book—an action I didn't feel at all compromised by—but that’s the extent of it. Sorry, I have no juicy tales to tell.

Writing about art is a labor of love—there’s no chance of buying a McMansion with the proceeds—I do it because it’s my way of expanding my understanding of art, a process that feeds my own work in the studio. Therefore, my only question when deciding what or what not to write about is: how much can I learn from analyzing this work?

So, then, how does an artist get the critic’s attention? —this is one of the inevitable questions graduate students ask when I lecture, whether or not my subject touches on the business of art. I tell them it’s no different from the way an actor becomes noted by a drama critic: by doing a great job. There's a lot of art out there, a lot of art. To get anyone's attention whatever it is has to be pretty special. In the end everything comes down to the work, which will speak for itself.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It's your money

Photo: courtesy Time Magazine

When I got an email on Monday with a video about John McCain’s complicity in the Savings and Loan crisis, it was like seeing a ghost. The Savings and Loan crisis? If you weren’t of age in the late 1980s/early 1990s, chances are you never heard of it—and not because it was a small event. One of the biggest financial meltdowns this country has experienced, involving wrongdoing by Republican and Democratic congressmen alike and requiring a multi-billion dollar “bailout” comparable to the current one, the S & L crisis slipped through a black hole in history, never to be mentioned in the news nor brought up in political campaigns (ever hear of Neil Bush, brother of Jeb and George W? I didn’t think so)—until now. I’ve always been acutely aware of its absence, because I was present at the exact moment the story died.

It was January, 1991, and I was working (as I occasionally still do) as a consultant at TIME. The magazine has a history of commissioning gallery artists to create its covers, and my job has been to match artist with subject—such as Christo, whose globe wrapped in plastic and twine, we commissioned for “The Planet of the Year” in 1989. This time it was the S & L crisis, and the story, which up to that point had never been the subject of a cover feature in a major news magazine, had been building for several years. When I asked the art director at the time, Rudy Hoglund, why this massive issue hadn’t yet been addressed in this way, he said, rightly or not, that he thought it was because it was almost too complicated to be adequately explained in a mere article. But now we were doing it, and I tapped New York artist Barton Benes, who had made many pieces with genuine paper money, to create the cover image: a gold-plated meat grinder with sheets of money going in one end and shredded money coming out the other. The headline was “It’s your money.”

Like all the artists we've worked with, Barton was thrilled at the opportunity, and as we sat going over the details in Rudy’s corner office on the 24th floor of the Time-Life Building, he asked, “Is there any reason this cover wouldn’t run?”—and Rudy, being somewhat facetious in order to underscore its importance, said, “Only if there’s a war.”

Well there was a war, and as U.S. forces bombed Baghdad, the cover of the next week’s issue featured the face of Saddam Hussein. The S & L story appeared in the back, as a three-part “Special Report: Crisis in Banking” in the Business section. Barton’s artwork was relegated to the storeroom, and after that it was as if the S & L debacle, which we’re probably still paying for, never happened.

No one has ever been able to convince me that the two incidents were not related.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Monday morning

You know you’re going bats from being inside too long when you find yourself taking pictures of your back porch floor. This cold is into its sixth day, and along with trying to avoid watching the vice-presidential debates, I’ve washed every launderable item in the house, and when not dozing in bed, have been noodling around on the Web. What have I learned? Well, I spent a couple of profitable hours perusing and copying various computer tips from over 800 commenters on David Pogue’s New York Times blog. I also found out that the reason I lost weight this week might not be because my cold zapped my appetite, but because I wasn’t thinking. According to the Times, thinking, solving problems, causes us to eat 25% more than if we were just sitting around doing nothing (but does thinking also burn calories? This question was not addressed). Even though it was one of those studies with a sample size of only 14 subjects that makes you wonder how anyone would have the chutzpah to publish it, it’s clearly accurate: I’ve been downstairs to the refrigerator three times just since starting to write this. I also read a piece by Michael Kimmelman about an adult education school in England that seemed to be written simply as an excuse to cite another study—this time with only12 subjects—which sought to prove that pain can mitigated by beauty. The finding was a “reduced response to pain when the subject looked at the beautiful [rather than a selection of “ugly”] paintings.” Hardly a surprise to those of us who spend time pounding the pavements of Chelsea and are therefore familiar with the ratio of foot pain to good and bad art.

It makes me wonder why our culture so resolutely refuses to acknowledge that, like clean air, water, and food, beauty is a human need (and I’d even go even further to say that it is —along with chocolate, or as perhaps exemplified by chocolate—a reason for existence). Society does, however, recognize its importance in a backwards way because the first thing it does to punish criminals is deprive them of beauty. The public would scream if anyone attempted to paint prison walls yellow—or for that matter, nursery school walls gray. Jails would not be jails if they looked like Versailles and inmates were served French food by cute guys in knee-length pants. But rather than admit the obvious, we have this oxymoron of an Italian academic trying to prove the efficacy of beauty by inflicting pain on his subjects (who now may flinch every time they see a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Starry Night). Assessing all of this has caused me to take Arthur Danto’s thought-provoking The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art off the shelf again—a sign that I must be getting better—but I’m afraid to start re-reading it because it could make me fat.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Watching the debates, sort of

In the olden days, people didn’t know much about events outside their particular village, and I think it’s too much to ask of the human brain to have to take in every horrific, or even semi-horrific thing that happens on the globe. Therefore it behooves us to moderate our intake of news carefully—especially a sensitive flower like me, and one who has a cold yet. So I gave a lot of thought to how I might keep up with last night’s debate while avoiding emotional overload. In the end I chose not to watch, but read the blow-by-blow blog posts on Daily Kos and when it was over called Deedee in Chicago, banking on the knowledge that we have agreed on absolutely everything since we were 14, to find out what we thought of it all. Having established its relative safety, this morning I watched it on my new iPhone over breakfast, and discovered that if the protagonists are teeny weeny, as they must be on an iPhone screen, current events are much more palatable. It helped, of course, that I already knew that Biden acquitted himself admirably, and that Palin, while proving that she could be coached for a debate, was still appalling (what was with all that winking? And “Joe Six-pack” is going to help solve the economic crisis? Was she trying for the alcoholic vote?) My favorite line of the evening, however, came not from the debaters but a commenter on Daily Kos, one Walt Starr, who wrote: “Palin needs to be reminded that Jesus Christ was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Nature or nurture?

Upholstery eater (photo by Aunt Nicola)
Terry and Traer tell me they found big chunks of upholstery gone from the back seat of the car, only to discover that their 16-month-old daughter, Nya, had been eating it. Interestingly, when they told Terry’s mum, she said that Terry and his twin brother also used to eat car upholstery. Then the other day I had a conversation with Sherry, the mother of a 17-month old who CANNOT STAND to eat two foods of different textures together. It turns out that Sherry’s in-laws are almost phobic about not eating sauces or condiments, separating the food on their plates so that it doesn’t touch, and making sure they consume each serving fully before going on to the next. No spaghetti and meatballs for them, or pizza, or....It makes me wonder if there's anything to the nurture part, if we're as original as we think we are, or just walking bundles of endlessly reshuffled genetic traits--and if Nya would tolerate a little ketchup with her upholstery.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Built to Spill

Unattributed photo from the Web

Yawn. I’m trying to stay awake until I can go to sleep, after a late evening last night, when Maria and I went to see Built to Spill (an alt rock band, if you don’t know them, which my friend, Larry Gipe, turned me on to years ago, one of my favorites) at Pearl Street in Northampton. I’d hoped Dinosaur Jr. would also be on the bill (as they are in the upcoming New York shows) but no…which is hard to understand because J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. lives in Northampton. Oh well. It was great anyway. First of all I love Northampton and I love Pearl Street, which is your quintessential rock club. When I came to New York at the height of the punk scene in 1976, I lived on the Bowery across from CBGB’s and my orientation was the East Village, then full of clubs that looked and felt the way Pearl Street does now (but, with no cigarettes, doesn’t smell the same, thank God)—an ambiance where I’m at home. Plus Pearl Street is a small venue where major bands play, so you get to see them up close and personal—and you couldn’t find a better audience. Let me rant on a bit about fidgety New York audiences who make it hard to get into the groove when they’re constantly going in and out for drinks, texting, taking pictures of themselves and their friends, and TALKING AS LOUD AS THEY CAN SO THEY CAN BE HEARD OVER THE MUSIC. I sense that most of them aren’t into music at all, just there so they can say they went—while Northampton audiences are clearly hardcore fans who, with single-minded concentration that can’t help but contribute to the energy of the performers, are soaking up every moment. They even dance.

Whew! Glad I got that off my chest.

So, Built to Spill. Wow. Unlike most rock songs that are made up of vocal lines supported by guitar riffs, Doug Marsch’s unlikely Neil Young-ish voice veers in and out of epic, sprawling jams (and I’m not a jam fan, per se) that create loud soaring layers of shifting noise so dense that, although you can see guitars, a keyboard, bass, and cello up there on the stage, it’s almost impossible to attribute what you’re hearing to any recognizable instruments—except for the powerful beat that holds it all together (despite drummer jokes I really am going to be a rock drummer in my next life). It’s a sound that envelops you, takes you over, soaks into every pore. After “Velvet Waltz” I leaned over to Maria and said, “That was like having sex” to which she answered, “Yeah, if you’re tripping.” And they weren't even half way into the set. Olafur Eliasson talks about making people aware of themselves—“seeing yourself seeing”—as an intention in his art—well, this is about “feeling yourself hearing.”

So I took the day off from reading Sarah Palin emails (you want to read them but you don’t want to read them), and while I’m tired, I also feel psychically cleansed and ready for…whatever.
(When I checked there were still Built to Spill tickets available for Thursday 9/25 at Terminal 5 in New York, but Friday is sold out. And this is Jeremy Goodwin's informative article about BTS in the Berkshire Eagle. We're lucky to have a good music writer here. At one of our open mics, Jeremy read my Billy Joel post with me—taking the part of BJ, of course— and it was hilarious).

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Alaska Women Reject Palin

I spent yesterday trying to write a blog post about art (art? what’s that?) when I, like everyone else, was obsessed with what Sarah Palin’s candidacy has revealed about this country. I’m wondering why (except for a mention in a column by Maureen Dowd, who happened to be in Alaska when it took place), the allegedly biggest protest rally in Alaskan history was not covered in the mainstream press. 1500 people showing up in Anchorage (pop.128,000) is, percentage-wise, like over 700,00 people gathering in New York City (pop. 8 million plus). The rally was totally grassroots, dreamed up by two women over coffee, and despite some rather extreme attempts at sabotage, succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. You can read about it here and here. I hope (if people find out about it--pass it on!) it will spur similar rallies in cities the press can’t ignore. I’m poised to go to Washington, and have been ruminating on possible acronyms such a movement could inspire, such as Feminist Women Against Palin, or FWAP!

Given Palin's supposed popularity rating in Alaska, it's also enlightening to read the editorials in The Anchorage Daily News: Questions for Palin and one suggesting that the "Governor takes executive privilege too far."

Meanwhile, cleaning and reorganizing my painting storage this summer rekindled my interest in making more “journal” paintings—a series I did for ten years where I noted, in oil paint on canvas, words and symbols that represented the emotions and events of my daily life. The paintings were born of frustration—with my painting (what was I doing and why was I doing it? who was I doing it for?) and with a life circumscribed by illness, work, and no time for a studio practice—even if I wanted one, which I wasn’t sure I did. Eight years before I had “dropped out” at a moment of success, made the decision not to show my work, and from then on when I did do something in the studio, I did my best to make it unsalable—by painting over old paintings or using those crappy pre-stretched canvases (a decision I regret, because I like those paintings now). I also gave much of it away. When I did my first journal painting, choosing to use personal details as content was also an act born of perversity—who would care? (And ten years after that, when the art world was awash in intimate minutiae, seemed like a good time to give the journal paintings up).

Forty Days, 1992, oil on canvas, 80" x 48"

My decision now to make another journal painting has turned out to be weirdly synchronistic. I started the first with an old painting, 80” x 48,” which I ruled off in two-inch segments so that each represented a day, and added up to the exactly 40 days (a Biblical number) between my birthday and Election Day, 1992—when Bill Clinton became president, winning out over George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot. In each two-inch strip I noted what I did that day (on my birthday the art director at TIME, for whom I was working, took me to lunch at the Palio Bar—those were the days!—and son Matt took me to see a private concert by Soul Asylum, remember them?) and I ended it with figures derived from the election polls. That was, of course, before cell phones, when the polls were pretty accurate. The numbers started out Clinton 57-Bush 37 and ended with Clinton 44-Perot 17-Bush 39, while Clinton won 43-17-37. This time there are 42 days between my birthday and the election so I have to reconfigure a bit. Also the polls are now wildly inaccurate—but at least it gives me something to do other than bite my nails.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Cape delight

White Crest Beach, Wellfleet, MA

When I was a kid growing up in Chicagoland (they actually call it that) every summer we spent two weeks at Hanson’s Cottages on Plum Lake in Sayner, Wisconsin, way up above Eagle River. Every morning my father got up early to catch sunfish, and my mother cooked them for breakfast. We kids rowed, swam, and occasionally fished, but the big event was when Mr. Hanson let us go with him on the Jeep to the dump where we sometimes saw bears. This is making my childhood sound more interesting than it really was. It did, however, form my idea of what a vacation should be: lots of reading, hanging out, and eating, somewhere near water. No air travel, nothing deductible.

This vacation at the Cape, the first like it in years, definitely qualified. After three lobsters, three crème brulees, an evening of manic living room karaoke, early morning pond swims, outdoor showers, too much sun, perfect surf, and haddock every morning for breakfast, I was refreshed and renewed. I didn’t read anything heavier than Spin and didn’t go near a computer. (I have to admit that there was a moment when I was tempted to post, but my friends restrained me. Friends don’t let friends blog on vacation.) The only downsides were mosquito bites and Sarah Palin’s speech accepting her candidacy for vice-president of the PTA, which we felt compelled to watch. However the next night, instead of listening to McCain, we went to a lecture by Thomas Nozkowski at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which proved to be a more worthwhile use of our time. An artist who makes only about twelve small paintings a year, Nozkowski’s down-to-earth presentation made me itch to get back into the studio.

The September Spin I was reading had an interview in which Patti Smith, after stating that she's neither analytical nor philosophical, is nothing but philosophical. Resisting categorization, she addresses her multiple roles:

…my goal in life was never to become a musician. I’m not a musician. I drew and wrote poetry for ten years before I wrote Horses. I published books. Why do people want to know exactly who I am? Am I a poet? Am I this or that? I’ve always made people wary. First they called me a rock poet. Then I was a poet who dabbled in rock. Then I was a rock person who dabbled in art. But for me, working in different forms seemed like a very organic process. From an early age I studied people like DaVinci and William Blake and Jean Cocteau. They all did a lot of things. But if you want to call me anything, call me a worker. I do work.

The next time someone asks me if I consider myself more of a painter than a writer or vice versa, I’m going to say, “I do work.”

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-96), 2007, oil on linen on panel, courtesy of PaceWildenstein.

Monday, September 1, 2008

They're overreacting; it's not that bad

Route 20, Pittsfield, MA
* * * *

I'm off on vacation, sans computer, to see if it's possible to go without having an opinion for the next ten days. If so, see you mid-September.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

I never did believe the story that there were legions of embittered Hillary supporters out there, poised to vote for McCain. In today’s Times, Frank Rich addresses media myths—“The disconnect between the reality of this campaign and how it is perceived and presented by the mainstream media is now a major part of the year’s story.” Rich doesn’t quite explain how these myths arise, but no doubt part of it has to do with the media’s need for conflict—so that even when there isn’t any, they have to make it up—and also with the “fair and balanced” bullshit that may have started out with the right intentions but has made it so that no one can be wholehearted about anything--and provided a platform for fringe groups (who may otherwise have been too small to be noticed) because reporters feel obliged to quote from the other side. And they continue to rely on poll results even though by now everyone knows (because the pollsters can only reach landlines and not cell phones) that the polls are no longer good indicators.

(And why, I wonder is hardly anyone mentioning the fact that Sarah Palin is under investigation for an ethics breach, or questioning the wisdom of a candidate who would choose a running mate under such circumstances?)

It looks as if the media is as confused as the Republicans as to what their role is in this new era. I was heartened to see that CNN’s straight coverage of the campaign won out over the other networks’ gabble of talking heads. It wasn’t just rhetoric when, in his acceptance speech, Obama said that it wasn’t about him. What the media hasn’t gotten yet, is that it’s not about them, either.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Did anyone else notice the subtle racism in the Times this morning? This was the blurb for, and a paragraph from, “The TV Watch: On the Small Screen, Intimacy and Welcome Silence for Obama’s Big Rally” by Alessandra Stanley:

Wearing a flag pin and a confident mien, Barack Obama looked like a presidential candidate accepting the nomination of the Democratic party.

Well, excuse me, but what else should he look like?

And then there was David Brooks’ infantile response to Obama's historic speech, which serves as an indication of Republican desperation. I can’t believe the Times actually prints this stuff. On a par with McCain’s Paris Hilton video, Brooks insults “a new generation of Americans, a generation that came of age amid iced chai and mocha strawberry Frappucinos, a generation with a historical memory that doesn’t extend past Coke Zero.” Brooks, who was once responsible for an inane rail against hipster parents, of all things, must be feeling the pain of encroaching old fartdom.

Customer @#$%!!vice

I’m online after another weekend of hell with Verizon DSL Customer Service, clearly a misnomer. Please, please bring back the era of public utilities, because what we have here is the worst of both worlds—a private, profit-making company with a monopoly. For some reason, I only have trouble on the weekends, when getting through to tech support is possible only after over an hour (and I’m not exaggerating) of continually calling and yelling “repair” into their voice prompt system (a repair guy also told me to punch in “1” five times—this also worked once, after half hour of trying and calling back, etc. but then didn’t work again). I’ve been this route before, so therefore knew there were willing tech support people amassed in Calcutta just waiting to talk to me if I could just get past the supercilious voice prompt that kept telling me the offices were closed and to call back on Monday. So after that hour of hysterics I did finally get through to “Abby” who (after asking me such questions as “do you have a dial tone on that line?” which I hardly knew how to answer since I was talking to her on that line and she had the number in front of her) made an appointment for a repair person to come to my “premise” on Monday. I’ve been trying to get people to come to my “premise” my whole life. It’s gratifying to learn my point of view is finally taking hold.

So Monday came, and after several hours of panting up and down the three flights from the basement to my studio and back again, the very nice repair guy fixed everything—for now. After all, the last guy thought he fixed everything, too.

Tuesday I got a voice message from Debbie, at the local company that provides me with propane, telling me that even though I’d signed up for their “budget” plan, where they deduct a predetermined amount every month from my credit card, the number of which they have on file, I would still need to call her each month to “remind” her. I did not make this up—however the delivery guy, who came the next day, was able to go back and set her straight (I get my tank filled 3 or so times a year, for a total of $2200 to heat about the same number of square feet. He told me he has a client he goes to every week. “It’s a big house.” OMG.)

Wednesday it was Design Within Reach. I’d phoned ten days before to say that the replacement bulbs they sent me for my Cortina Table Lamp didn’t work, yet hadn’t heard from their tech department as promised, nor did I get an answer to my “Contact Us” email—so tried Customer Service again this afternoon where I got J., whose only proposed “solution,” which she repeated over and over, consisted of sending me another set of the same bulbs, because those were the only ones they had listed for that lamp. After hearing that one more time than I could stand, I hung up.

Let me digress a bit to say that I believe (or did believe) in designer lighting—to the point that it’s been something of an obsession. I think crappy lighting makes even the most expensive furniture look crappy, whereas a designer lamp (like this Artemide Tizio lamp I have on my desk) brings everything else (scarred library table bought off the back of a truck at Broome and Greene, Ikea bookshelves and Kmart computer stand) up to its level.

Although expensive to begin with, I saw my designer lamps as mini-investments that would hold their value, which I could sell if I moved or changed my mind. I’m not so sure anymore. Although I’ve had great luck with Artemide (I sent a lamp, broken by a visiting child, back to the factory for repair and they turned it around as quickly as if it were a computer), a very expensive B.Lux lamp went kaput because a fuse burned out—a fuse that’s now unavailable. The company’s solution was to offer me a new lamp at half price—still a hefty amount—but I did it because I’d designed part of my house around it. Now the Cortina Lamp, which I’ve had for about six years, is out-of-date and needs (according to the manufacturer who I looked up online and called myself, thank you very much, DWR) for me to send back my old base for a new dimmer that will accommodate the new bulbs ($25 plus $13 shipping each way)—or buy a completely new base for $70. (Update: I called the manufacturer again yesterday and got someone else who offered to send me bulbs she thought would work. Customer service tip: keep calling until you get someone who tells you what you want to hear).

So while I’m not quite ready to entirely give up on designer lighting, I’d advise anyone who’s willing to shell out that much money for it to be aware of the possible pitfalls—and stock up on lots of replacement bulbs.

I know, I know, these should be the only problems I have in life. But it may be an extremely long-winded way of addressing the national situation of economic depression (or maybe just depression), which I think may be happening because we simply no longer know how to conduct ourselves in business. How different my week (and their profits, no doubt) would have been if the people I dealt with had been actually trained in customer relations and there was some incentive for them to think rather than just go through the motions (at least the simulated person manning the phones at Verizon is making no bones about it).

For those in customer service, or just life, I recommend a small book: Bullies, Tyrants, and Impossible People: How to Beat Them Without Joining Them by Ronald M. Shapiro and Mark A. Jankowski. The authors tell you how to identify the type of difficult person you’re up against, and suggest methods to handle them accordingly. These are the “Situationally Difficult Person” – a normally reasonable human being who simply has been pushed to the max, the “Strategically Difficult Person”—someone who’s employing certain learned strategies to get what they want, and the “Simply Difficult Person” –a person who you can’t predict or negotiate with, who’s reacting to all kinds of emotional triggers.

Most people who call customer service, including me, are among the “Situationally Difficult”—people who are irritated because something isn’t working, for whom an apology and a little empathy would go a long way. Suppose J. at DWR, instead of insisting over and over that they sent the right bulbs so therefore they should work, end of story, had said: “I am so sorry no one called you back; I’d be very frustrated too. Let me see what I can do to help.” And then, of course, she’d actually have to call the manufacturer, as I ultimately did, but is that really too much effort to keep a loyal customer?

When he came to fix my line, the Verizon guy was empathetic. “No one should have to go through that,” he said, referring to the voice prompt system. A friend, who had had the same experience, likened it to the Bush administration, and after a couple of days of thinking about it, I see what means—people who say they care when they don’t really give a shit—as with Katrina, or the returning injured from Iraq. When the people at the top are insincere and unaccountable, it has a trickle-down effect. What a difference it could make—will make—to have a president who could actually be a role model.

Wow, I had no idea where this was going; it’s turned out to be my longest post ever when, really, I was just sounding off about Verizon. But you know what? I just tried to publish it and discovered that the DSL light is blinking again, and I can’t go online….

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Last week I went to see “Vicky Christina Barcelona” with my friend, Maria. Clearly Woody Allen was trying to make an Almodovar film, and he completely succeeds—Almodovar’s muse, Penelope Cruz, obviously works Spanish magic for him, as well. In most films about Americans abroad, the emphasis is on the Americans while the natives provide background, color and texture. Here, while the film is still about Americans, they’re seen through Spanish eyes—it could be a Spanish film—and the view isn’t always flattering. Allen is a master at nailing the self-satisfied torpor of the American WASP male—Vicky’s husband, Doug, for instance, looks attractive enough, doesn’t do or say anything particularly bad, yet comes off as simply awful. The women—Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson)—are more carefully and sympathetically drawn as they make choices (the men seem unaware that there even are choices) about art, love, and experience that will determine the course of their lives. Then there’s the Penelope Cruz character—Maria Elena—who has been endowed with more natural gifts than all the other people in the film put together—but who can’t make use of them because she’s at the mercy of such out-of-control emotions that it’s best that guns and knives stay out of reach. Afterwards Maria and I went out for a drink, and during the conversation she asked me which woman I identified with. Certainly not the staid Vicky, I thought, her choices were those I’d rejected, so it had to be Christina, with her determination to plumb life’s experience to the max. Then, of course, I asked Maria, “What about you?”—and she, dedicated museum administrator and conscientious single mom that she is, answered without hesitation: “Maria Elena. I work really hard to keep that under wraps.”

Penelope Cruz in "Vicky Maria Barcelona".

P.S. Researching this I found that Pedro Almodovar has a blog, where I read about his migraines and opinion on Penelope Cruz's hairstyle in Allen's film. Also that we share the same birthday.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Lost Puppy

This from Matt Freedman:
I was pleased to see the Lost Puppy pop up on your blog (below), Carol, especially in the context of a post about art storage, self respect, and need for artists to devise schemes to defend their art. The Lost Puppy's only reason for being, as a matter of fact, is to address all those issues. That you snagged it off the Internet on a whim speaks volumes about either the power of chance or your supernatural curatorial eye. Perhaps both. The Puppy was made for artist Adam Simon's Fine Art Adoption Network (FAAN), which he created in cooperation with Art In General. It's a website designed to put artists together with art lovers who lack the means to buy art. Basically the artist posts an image of a piece he or she is interested in giving away. Visitors to the site who like the piece can write the artist and enter into an online conversation with them. If the artist deems the potential collector worthy, they work out a mutually agreeable means of transferring the piece from the artist to the collector. The idea for the project began when Adam realized he could no longer afford to keep a large old painting in storage. It was a good painting, but there was no one around to buy it. Why not find a collector who had the same interest in art that a "regular collector" does, except without the money? The work would be saved, a person who loved art would have a piece they liked, the art world would grow in size and diversity, and the artist would have one less headache in the studio. Everything would be ideal, except of course, the artist would still be broke. Nothing is perfect. Anyway the idea caught on and now FAAN is a pretty thriving operation. It's a brilliant project, I think, and I was eager to join, but my own contribution, the Lost Puppy, was not kicking around the studio taking up space. In fact, it was made specifically to be given away. No one ever said I was practical. I liked the idea of giving work away, but it was the relationship between the giver and the taker that fascinated me more than the opportunity to unload stuff. One of the half-joking objections made to Adam as he was organizing FAAN was that he was simply giving artists the opportunity to learn that they couldn't even give their work away, and I too was drawn to the idea that at its bottom what was really being conducted was a test of the desirability of the work itself. Putting a monetary value on a piece changes it into a commodity—with all the market-driven forces at work outside of its pure appeal coming into effect in determining whether or not someone decides to acquire it. Taking away any monetary value laid it bare, so I felt I had to make a piece that literally begged to be taken in. What could be more desirable than a lost puppy, with big eyes, floppy ears and a crooked tail? Nature designed them to be adorable as a survival mechanism after all. At any rate, it worked and the Puppy was wooed by many suitors, finally ending up with a class of fifth graders in Canada, whose own cuteness worked as a kind of reverse lever on me, prying loose the Puppy after much backing and forthing. It's in a case at the school now, I hear, with a broken ear that the teacher repaired. As long as a work of art resides with the artist, it can be protected; after it leaves the studio it has to fend for itself. I remember back in 1999 Santiago Calatrava was asked to design a time capsule for the Museum of Natural History that would not be opened for 1,000 years. Various schemes where considered to ensure that it fulfilled its function; should the capsule be so big and strong it could never break? Should it be buried deep in the ground to protect it with the hope it would someday be rediscovered? As I recall, in the end Calatrava said the best defense the capsule could have against its own destruction would be that people would value it and take care of it for the 1,000 years of its life, and the best way to ensure that was to make it as beautiful as possible: beauty as survival mechanism. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course—sleek swoopy time capsule or lumpy Puppy, take your pick. In the end, we can only defend our art for so long; sooner or later, somebody else has to care too. c

I think it was Lost Puppy’s innate appeal that prompted me to choose it to represent Matt’s art when writing about the care of artworks. A fine example of purpose inherent in the work—hurrah! Needs no explanation. What I didn’t realize until now is that the article I chose to link to when mentioning Louise Bourgeois—one I wrote for Art & Antiques years ago—about the garden sculpture her father collected, is on the same theme. Protected by their value as art, the sculptures survived only until their material—lead—became worth even more when melted down to make bullets for World War II.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Storage II

Yesterday my team of teenage assistants, led by the industrious Leah, helped me to complete the cleaning and reorganization of my painting storage, and it feels as if the studio can finally breathe—although now that everything’s so tidy it hardly looks like a project that would take weeks to do. I found it interesting that when, at Joanne Mattera’s suggestion, I wrote my first post about it, people were moved to comment, underscoring what an issue storage is for artists. Then, as I was sharing my elation at putting this task behind me with my friend, sculptor Matt Freedman, he commented that, “taking care of your work is a way of acknowledging your commitment to it, of being respectful toward it”—something I’d never thought about—and that “conservatorship is the final act of assessing a work’s value.” He was reminded of an anecdote I told him many years ago, about Louise Bourgeois pounding a table and saying, “We must defend our art!” That was in a different context completely—after I’d told her how I’d managed to keep a sexist contributor’s blurb about me from being published—but it works here as well. Yes, we must defend our work. Because if we don’t, who will?
Matt Freedman, Lost Puppy, 2006.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Travel blue$

It took all of yesterday to buy plane tickets to Berlin for the end of October: one hour to book the reservation and nine more to get over the fact that air fares to Europe have doubled, and because of taxes. The tax on the $480 flight was $560. Figure that one out. Being a Virgin Atlantic fan who’s just finished reading Richard Branson’s energizing autobiography, I felt disloyal doing business with British Air, but we’re stopping over in England and Virgin doesn’t go to Berlin. The agents at BA were much grumpier than the ones I’m used to at Virgin, but maybe everyone’s grumpy now. The good news (it pales next to the bad news, but at least there is some) is that England has lifted its carry-on restriction so that you can now take two bags on board (a handbag or computer case in addition to a suitcase). I’ve decided to cheat and bought a travel vest into which I can tuck even more stuff.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Kronos, etc.

Last week I saw the Kronos Quartet perform at Tanglewood, part of wanting to support the festival in going beyond their classical-music-as-usual format, which is treated with such annoying reverence here in the Berkshires. It was the first time I’d been in Seiji Ozawa Hall, which was built in 1994 for $8.7 million and designed by William Rawn Associates in Boston in a manner aptly described by my friend, Scott, as “I. M. Pei channeling Charles Rennie Macintosh.” The relentless woodwork is gorgeous, veering close but thankfully avoiding association with the cheesy faux-Mission look that’s become so ubiquitous in furniture and design in the years since the hall was built. The entire back of the building opens up to include picnickers on the lawn, and exterior stairways contribute to a pleasant indoor/outdoor ambiance. My only complaint is with the decidedly un-ergonomic wooden chairs which, with thin cushions on the seats and none on the backs, are much more uncomfortable than they need to be—especially when listening to challenging music. I was familiar with much of the Kronos’s aggressively adventuresome repertoire, but didn't realize that they’d commissioned over 600 pieces in their 35-year history. While some of their choices push the limits of my tolerance for cacophony—a sound I associate, rightly or wrongly, with contemporary academic composition—there were moments that were completely transporting, among them Flugufreisarinn by Icelanders Sigur Ros (rightly described in the program as “at the forefront of invention in today’s international post-rock scene”), of whom I’m a fervent fan, and Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet.

The Kronos, like many contemporary musicians, make free use of pre-recorded audio, the only part that, for me, was disconcerting. I don’t mind sampling because it’s clear what it is, but I found it distracting to sit there and wonder what was live and what wasn't. This is one of the things I value in—and have learned from—the visual work of Robert Irwin and Olafur Eliasson, who make a point of keeping their means obvious so that the experience is the experience, and not marred by conjecture about how it’s done. One of my companions at the concert, Gregory, suggested that the Kronos might be better off having someone behind the computer up there on the stage with them, just to acknowledge the source of the sounds. But in general I don’t love the combination of canned music with live performance (even with dance)—it reminds me too much of lip-syncing (how about those Chinese?), or the violinists in the subway whose backup orchestra is a CD in a boombox.

I found a YouTube version of the Kronos playing Flugufreisarinn, which hardly does it justice, but can give you a taste. And finally the stunning new Sigur Ros video, Gobbledigook, has been posted, so I can include it here rather than make you go to their site to download it. It was done in collaboration with Ryan McGinley (Scott asked, “Does this mean that now I have to like Ryan McGinley?” and the answer is, "Yes."). Of course this is exactly what it’s like to be in Iceland, but with more trees.

The Kronos Quartet playing Sigur Ros:

Sigur Ros video Gobbledigook

I neglected to bring my camera, so Gregory took these pics of Ozawa hall with his iPhone: