Thanks to the wise suggestion of my visiting Canadian friend Fran Cherry, we saw a wonderful exhibit of work by the painter, Ad Reinhardt (1913-1966). On display are his satire, cartoons, photography, social and art criticism, and glorious paintings. You can visit the website (click here for that site).
Better though would be to go the show and see things up close.
Learning more about the period in which he worked is always a good thing. I am fascinated by how postwar and through the 1960s, New York grew into an international art capital. It's now hard to believe that early in Reinhardt's career, there was only small group of painters, most of them working in the village, and just a handful of galleries. That, however, drastically changed. It is easy both to yearn for the "good old days" of a recognizable community and reasonable art prices, and be impressed by how American artists came so quickly to center stage. Reinhardt was there for it all. He left a remarkable record of the change and his strong feelings and thoughts about it.
Also appealing about this visit was the chance it gave me to see links between Ad Reinhardt and the late painter Saul Lambert in whose East Village studio I now work. Reinhardt was one of Saul's teachers when Saul was a student at Brooklyn College.
The exhibition at Zwirner takes up three rooms. The first large room that you enter is chock full of his graphic work, on the walls and in two large cases. It includes political and art historical satire and commentary (with biting critique of both European fascism and American capitalism), essentially all of it presented as cartoons and a little collage. There are his marvelous drawings of trees through which he shows us "How to Look at Modern Art in America." Each leaf represents a contemporary painter, the many varied clusters of leaves are all supported by the roots and trunks that Reinhardt also labels. He graciously leaves viewers some blank leaves on which they might tag and locate their own favorite painters. Here is one of those trees.
In the second room, a side room, one finds a large screen on which is projected a slide show made of a set of Reinhardt's collection of 12,000 slides. Most of these images are photographs that he took, often during his world travels (a smaller number are reproductions from magazines and museums). These are not your typical tourist photos. Actually, you get a hint of their uniqueness in a case from the first room, in a sketch book that Reinhardt kept while traveling in Italy. It is open to two pages filled with the tops of telephone poles. Yes, telephone poles; not the usual cathedrals and landscapes. The poles like all the other things that captured Reinhardt's unique eye are beautiful forms. What you see on the screen are all sorts of forms. For example, one will see a long series of roof tops. Then there is a series of faces with prominent eyes that suddenly shifts to a series of pairs of windows. The slides move through and back and forth across centuries and geographical locations. He projected these slides on any surface available in his classes and for discussion of art with his friends. Watching them come onto the screen, one after another in quick succession, is a delight. I became so aware of his distinctive way of seeing the world; and I also could feel how his perception was shaping my own. I can say that I will never look at a pair of windows in the same way again. And I am glad for it. It is impossible adequately to describe these slides. Go see them.
The third and final room contains a set of Reinhardt's famous black paintings. These are magnificient. In each, Reinhardt has a special way of capturing light in the darkness and using various colors to create what we call black.
After all the busyness and crush of the marks in the first room's graphic work and the extraordinarily varied and complex images of the second room, there is a welcome peace and expansiveness in these paintings. In looking at them, I saw an artist who simply loved paint and the act of painting. I will go back and just sit in the room to have his company.
Now what about the links between Ad Reinhardt's work and that of Saul Lambert, whose spirit keeps me company in the studio? I would love to find a notebook in which Saul recorded his class notes and the painting ideas he was inspired to have by Reinhardt. Missing that, I can only make a couple of observations.
First, there are the words. In Saul's studio, one wall is covered by words that Saul composed or that he quoted from others. They include lists of names, not unlike the lists of names in several of Reinhardt's pieces.
And then, there is the blackness. Many of Saul's paintings are also filled with black. Most have black grounds on which Saul paints abstract forms that often represent grand celestial spheres. I wish I could ask him both about the black and why he chose to add to it.
And wouldn't it be wonderful to know what Reinhardt would say about the work of his former student, another true lover of painting. My image of heaven is of a place where there is lots of talk about painting.
But in the meantime, please make your comments here. All will be appreciated.
Last Friday evening, I attended a special event at The National Arts Club at 15 Gramercy Park South. A large enthusiastic group of people gathered. They listened to talks about a new social science publication, heard marvelous tango music, and watched wonderful examples of tango dancing by a pair of stunning dancers. They also got to do some tangoing of their own at the end of the evening. All of this activity went on within walls chock full of contemporary paintings. So many different elements that one wouldn't normally think to mix together. But it worked.
The event was a celebration of the publication of More than Two to Tango: Argentine Tango Immigrants in New York City by Professor Anahi Viladrich, a faculty member in the Departments of Sociology and Anthropology at Queens College, and in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Professor Viladrich studies the causes of health and social disparities. Her primary research focus is on immigrants' health and human rights.
She writes a special book on tango. It is not just about wonderfully appealing dancing, fancy clothes, and the extraordinarily popular milonga (tango salon) scene in New York. Professor Viladrich understands tango as a complicated set of phenomena that involve immigration, history, globalization, race, ethnicity, and national identity. For example, she shows us how tango provides a special social niche for Argentinian tango performers and instructors. This is a niche that enables some (but not all) Argentine immigrants to resolve many of the formidable challenges of transition to their new land.
Her data come from her involvement in the tango communities of New York and the extensive interviews she has done with tango performers and teachers. Her book is filled with the stories of the trajectories of their lives.
The event on Friday began with comments by two of Professor Viladrich's research and teaching colleagues from Queens College who praised the scholarly merits of the book. Then, Professor Viladrich herself took us on a journey through her research. She was accompanied by an amazing trio of tango musicians, a famous bandoneon player, Tito Castro, a violinist, and bass player.
Tito, shown at left, is very well known in New York and that was demonstrated at the event. He had many, many fans in the audience.
The trio played a wonderful selection of tango pieces. Many of them were danced to by the stunning dancers pictured above on the book cover.
The tango pieces were from different time periods, presented in an almost chronological order. I was captivated through the entire program. I love this music. I was most intrigued, however, by the very first piece of music in the program that came from a recording. It was a delightfully peppy and playful arrangement that included drums. It was a very early piece from the late 19th century when tango was still a dance of Black and Creole people. Professor Viladrich explained that this link between tango and Black and Creole communities ended early in tango's history. It ended when the Europeans who came to Argentina decided that tango would be theirs. They made it white, we lost the drums, and I would expect much more.
As I watched a New York City Center performance of Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty ballet, I wished my eyes were bigger so I could take in more of what was on stage. I wanted more of that phenomenally glorious dancing,
and more of those inventive, breathtaking sets.
Given Bourne's skill at making dance not only serve but enhance the music, seeing more would have meant hearing more of Tschiakovsky's magnificent music. Given Bourne's ability to tell a good tale through dance, music, and staging, seeing more would have meant learning more from his new version of the Sleeping Beauty story. Sitting in my audience seat, I was happily with all senses open in the hands of a master.
There is lots to say about how unique Bourne's treatment of this ballet is (this is definitely not the Sleeping Beauty you know). Let's just focus here on one narrative twist: the one that involves a Count Lilac who is King of the fairies. He is also a vampire. In the original ballet, this central rescuer role is played by a queen fairy-no vampire). Count Lilac is the one on the right in the first photo.
This change in character allows Bourne to bridge what is often a confusing gap in story line (i.e., how can sleeping beauty's young lover whom she met before the curse takes effect still be around after all those 100 years that she has been sleeping?). Well, if that young lover has become a vampire through his contact with Count Lilac, then ... I think you can fill in the blanks. Vampires are not Bourne's only choice of the gothic, dark, and creepy over the classical, light-filled, and hopeful in Petipa's original 1890 choreography. With lots of wit and comedy, there are several visits in this performance to the evil side. As I watched, I wondered if vampires and amazingly louche downtown club goers were, in 2013, our major romantic choices. I fear I have some cultural catching up to do. I might have missed a lot by letting the recent vampire craze escape me.
Reviewing the images I have posted here, I need to add that although there is lots of darkness (one reviewer noted that instead of pink tutus in this production, we get fairies wearing costumes that are the color of bruises), there is also lots of light. The ending is upbeat and then there is that amazing Baby Aurora (Baby Sleeping Beauty) played by an absolutely charming puppet, controlled as in Bunraku puppetry. She is filled with light and hope and gumption. There is a theatrical saying that if you dare go onstage with a child or a dog, you are sure to be upstaged. This puppet in her cuteness and responsiveness upstages even the most awesome dancing.
Roma Torre in her television review of this production advises all New Yorkers who missed it to catch the Amtrak train to Washington D.C. The ballet begins its run at the Kennedy Center on November 12th and goes through the 17th. Roma is right.
Comments to this and all posts are much appreciated.
On Sunday, Lou Reed died.
On early Monday morning, a young man in our building's elevator listened to Lou Reed's music through his ear buds. The sound was up high. All of us with him on the elevator could hear it, but no one of the five people on the ride complained. It was our own private ceremony to honor Lou Reed's passing.
"A bit of magic in everything and then some loss to even things out."
Lou Reed, from Magic and Loss
Later that Monday morning, I used my ear buds on the train to listen, start to finish, to Lou Reed's Magic and Loss album. A wonderful collection of songs said to be his response to the deaths of two friends, it seemed the best of his work to listen to now. Attending as carefully as I could to all the words and all the marvelous sounds, I mourned our loss of Lou Reed. As a piece of art, his album also helped me to to do more. As I listened, I grieved for all those others I have lost, thought about my own mortality, and tried to engage the impossible idea of death itself. Thank you, Lou.
Since his death, many New Yorkers have shared their favorite Lou Reed stories. Here is mine. Several years ago, buying a coffee in lovely funky cafe on Hudson Street, I spotted Lou Reed at a table eating his breakfast. Seeing him wasn't such a surprise. He lived in the West Village and was often on the street. It was what he was eating that stopped me in my tracks: Scrambled eggs. I had been certain that Lou Reed was a fried eggs kind of guy --- and not the over easy eggs, but the two large bright orange yolks staring you right in the eye eggs. I had been wrong. Lou Reed ate fluffy, very pale yellow eggs with his toast.
Having misjudged the kind of eggs to connect with Lou Reed, maybe I could do better with a painting analogy. Actually, I need to try out two. Twenty-five years ago, no question, I would have linked Lou Reed with an Egon Schiele self-portrait, actually several Egon Schiele self-portraits, but here is just one.
But today, given his long productive life and what many have written about that, it's a Picasso painting that best represents for me the spirit of Lou Reed. It's Picasso's Boy in Blue from 1905. There is a celebration of the person, seriousness, strength, quiet, and glory in this painting. Meyer Schapiro writes that this is Picasso's depiction of his own transforming artist-self. I think the painting is big enough for us to see in it the celebration of other artists, artists like Lou Reed.
By Special Guest Blogger, Ula Ula's favorite wall, also home to many chipmunks
Hey, Hey, Hey (human for barking),
Suzanne is busy with the move of the studio from the country to the city. She is fretting about what to take to New York City and what to leave in the country. While she is so occupied, I can write.
Because I am a dog, you may think I can't write. You would be wrong. Suzanne got a new app called DogPress. With that, and a keyboard specially outfitted for my paws and my new reading glasses, I am good to go as blogger. I can give you the real scoop on these past several months in the Pine Plains studio. Hey, Hey, Hey, don't get me wrong. I love that space in the city. The East Village is a great place to paint in the fall and winter months. But there is something very special about helping Suzanne in the country.
First, the smells. They are much better here in the country. Sure, there are many smells on the city sidewalks (mostly food of the beer and pizza variety). Hey, Hey, Hey, they are nothing compared to all the smelly stuff in the country. I can sniff all kinds of animals. My favorites are chipmunks, squirrels, deer, woodchuck, and Sam, the cat who belongs to our neighbor, Ralph. I also get to smell all of those plants in the garden. I am very careful in the beds, so Suzanne lets me wander through them. I breathe in all kinds of flowers and leaves, and my favorite, that deep rich smell of mulch.
At this time of the year, things in the garden are drying out and dying. While I am sniffing, my lovely white coat picks up lots of stuff, thorn like stuff. Hey, Hey, Hey, I like that. Suzanne and David fuss over me as they carefully pull out each piece. And Suzanne is sure to worry and ask: "David, are you sure that isn't a tick?" That's when I lower my chin and look up at them sadly with my big eyes, give them what Suzanne calls my "Lady Diana look," and let out a little sigh. The look and the sigh always get to them, right in their hearts (Suzanne says her heart has gotten bigger since I arrived). Then, they give me a treat. Oh, how I love those dried cod skins. Hey, Hey, Hey, dried cod skins are to dogs what potato chips are to people.
My leash. The other big difference between the country and the city has to do with my leash. This summer, Suzanne finally lightened up. She now lets me walk on my own, off leash, to and from the house and the studio. Actually, I don't walk. I run. I love to run and bound over tall ground cover. Hey, Hey, Hey, you know my breed (Havanese) is famous for circus tricks. I get to do tricks here in the country.
No such playing on the streets of New York City. No more letting Suzanne get ahead of me so that I can make a mad dash to catch up with her. No more rushing out the door so I can run over to the stone wall and terrorize the chipmunks who live in it.
No more jumping over the stonewall and down the hillside to find that woodchuck hole. While I do this last trick, Suzanne's heart moves closer to her throat and she runs inside to get the whistle. After just one lesson, I learned to rush right back to the house when they blow the whistle. I learned quickly because I didn't want to risk their putting that leash back on me. But in the city, it is the leash all the time. Thank goodness, I have some cute outfits to wear with my leashes.
Uh oh, Suzanne is moving from fretting to obsessing. She is asking me, the dog, things like: "Can I leave this big brush here, Ula, or will I miss it too much in the city?" This woman has a hundred brushes but she loves each and every one of them. Time for me to start hopping on my two back legs, bark a little, and do my dance in front of the studio door. That always works as a signal that I need to do something outside. She will put down the brushes, even the ones she loves the most. She will open the door and come outside with me. That will give her a break and hopefully restore her senses.
So, I need to stop writing and go help Suzanne. But I will be back online again soon. Hey, Hey, Hey, this blogging is fun.
The Countess of Ulanado (small island off coast of Cuba)
This is our garden in its last stages. After a spring and summer filled with color, we have settled into lots of browns and greys with occasional yellows and oranges from decaying leaves. This is clearly the time to take out the rake and the pruning shears and to cart away what were once lively, growing things. But wait. I love the garden when it looks just this way. It is subtle and mysterious. It draws me in to appreciate things that are spent and on their way out of their earlier way of being. Every year, without fail, I take out the pruning shears only to put them away again. I say to myself, "This perennial plant can stay a little longer. I like the way it looks now." This year it was the plant with yellow branches in the middle of the first slide that led me to take out and put away the shears. Simply put, I love these dying things. Maybe Freud wasn't all wrong about the death instinct.
So, what do I do if I am not doing those fall clean up chores? I let the garden stay the way it is and do a sketch.
At each of the stages of the painting process, it is good to take a photograph of the work. It helps a lot to look at the photo in between sessions, when I am away from the studio and before I take up the painting again. I sometimes see things in the photograph that I missed when I was in the studio. I also need to confess that although there is something special about the product of the final painting session, I become very attached to and like to look at each of the stages. In fact, unless I fall in love with what happens in those very early stages, especially the very first, I am not going to like what happens later. If love doesn't happen in the drawing, the message is to start a new painting.
This slideshow presents five stages of a painting I am calling Pears and Shapes. I am hoping it will be the first in a series of paintings that let viewers see painting as a kind of meditation. I will keep you posted on how that goes.
Painting helps you open your eyes very wide and really, really look at something. You can catch something amazing with your eyes wide open like that. It happens anywhere. Wonderful recent examples of great seeing in the theatre happened for me in the puppeteer Basil Twist's recreation of his piece Dogugaeshi
at the Japan Society, and the director Robert Lepage's Blue Dragon
Twist stretches the definition of a puppet. In his hands, common objects like window frames and countless rectangular panels of beautifully patterned and painted paper become puppets. He creates living collages. In Dogugaeshi,
Twist builds upon a stage mechanism that commonly provides background for traditional Japanese puppet theater. The audience views a succession of intricately painted screens. Each pair of screens opens to reveal yet another pair. My favorite part of Dogugaeshi
comes near the very end. Here, pairs of screens snap open in a very long and very rapid sequence. Twist draws the viewer speedily into his theatrical space. I felt like I had been taken miles away from my seat by the time we reached a pair of screens that opened to reveal a strip of very bright white light. That strip grew to become a full rectangle of light. As if that wasn't enough magic, I was stunned again when the puppeteers entered the scene. I knew that the final rectangle had to be small. After all, it was miles away. Nonetheless, I was shocked to see how in relationship to the puppeteers, it was minuscule. The puppeteers loomed so large. So, the screen had to be very, very, very small; or maybe, the puppetters are giants after all.
Lepage's revisiting of the painter character from his famous Dragon's Trilogy, after a twenty year absence, is also visually stunning and unique. Lepage, like Twist, provides us with gorgeous screens that open and close, come and go; and there is that same blue whirlwind in which the viewer feels caught. Given my interests in portraits and ideas about self and identity, especially the idea of a dialogical self, I would have to pick as my favorite moments in this piece those about and when the young Chinese painter snaps a photograph of herself with her iphone immediately after a phone conversation. She captures an image of herself at emotionally charged moments that she then transforms into large self portraits. We see these portraits as they hang in an exhibition that Lepage presents as one of his many extraordinary scenes on his two level stage. But there are so many more favorite moments. Lepage tells a simple story about three people: the middle age male painter who is now running a gallery in Shanghai, his long estranged wife who has come to China to adopt a child, and the young woman painter who is represented by the gallery owner and is his girlfriend. He tells their simple story by using very high tech stage mechanisms and setting it the midst of currently high stake geopolitical realities. While leaving the theatre, I overheard another audience member say, "It's banal, the story is banal." It don't think her word is right, given the importance of the big questions Lepage raises through his close look at three lives. I wish I could have quoted Lepage's own words to her: My main preoccupation is what are we about right now ? With simple, everyday life stories, there are hints of the big picture. How do you make that resound?
Words are never enough. For images and more words on Basil Twist, click here to visit his website, www.basiltwist.com.
There is a great deal of information about Robert Lepage on the internet, click here for a site, http://lacaserne.net/index2.php/robertlepage/
that is a good place to start.
Picasso is quoted to have said: One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite - that particular peach is but a detail.
Indeed, a peach is all one needs. This whole painting for a peach (or better, a bunch of peaches taken one at a time) is in its final stages on my easel.
When I recently looked at my studio wall, I saw an awful lot of grey in the paintings displayed. As prior blogs note, grey is very important; but suddenly it seemed there was a little too much and some color was in order. Luckily, we were still in the midst of local peach season and a house guest had recently given us a beautiful French tea towel from her trip to the south of France. What more color could a painter ask for. Picasso was right, just the peach would have done it.
At left is a reproduction of the oil painting, Still Life with Fruits and Bread
, 1641 by the Dutch painter, Pieter Claesz. I saw it up close at the wonderful Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. The image may be clearer if you click on and visit the Center's website: (http://fllac.vassar.edu/collections/medieval_renaissance_baroque.html).
Claesz is a master of still life painting. He presents a highly naturalistic scene yet his work is filled with symbolic references. His objects reflect the grand and glamorous but also remind us of the inevitable passing of time (the watch in this painting and the nuts cracked open), and its link to human mortality (many of his paintings include a human skull). When I saw this painting at Vassar's gallery, I was struck by the extraordinary technique, the amazing use of light and dark, and of course the reflections seen on the metal and glass surfaces. I am fascinated by what we see both "on its own" and through something else.
This reproduction of Claesz's painting has hung in my studio for nearly three years. One recent day, it made it's way off the wall and came to pay a visit by my easel. I set up a new still life and enjoyed how Claesz's work inspired my choices.
Letting Claesz be my guide felt easy in many ways, like a simple matching process. The white cloth, some of it smooth, some of it bunched up, easily fell into the foreground. The bunched up part provided a nice painting opportunity. I could capture folds and creases through contrast of lights and darks and subtle variations in color. I set up the middle and back ground to be darker in tone. I filled the middle ground with lots of objects, many many more than I typically include. With those, I aimed to capture the same spirit of hospitality that Claesz invoked, welcoming guests to a party with food and drink almost ready for consumption.
But then, the connection with Claesz began to weaken. Try as I might, I couldn't put in as many objects as he had without the painting becoming oppressive. And I couldn't make it as dark as he had. Three hundred plus years have done a lot for lighting. Our eyes are not accustomed to seeing things in such a dark space as his. And then there are those specific objects. I couldn't imagine serving and or painting Claesz's roasted bird, with lumps of fat under the crispy skin and head and feet still attached. Also, the symbolic value of many of his items would escape most current viewers. I doubt that anyone looking at my pistachio nuts (right lower side of painting) would think of the passage of time and mortality.
So, along with the many links across the long sweep of the history of still life painting, there are differences. I think we can celebrate both.