18 July 2019

Howardena Pindell: The Force in the Pattern



In Astronomy: Saturn and Neptune Howardena Pindell portrays the two planets in series of concentric circles moving through a space dotted with numbers and arrows, visitors from a secret graph.  In this ether figurative elements float in a sea of abstract brushwork. It is as though the structure of the universe was right before our eyes in a language whose key we are have yet to find.  As for the large round object at bottom, it could be Jupiter the next innermost planet to Saturn or it could be Earth representing human subjectivity The ragged edges of the image are typical of Pindell's paintings, the canvases usually unstretched and hung directly onto walls with ordinary nails.  

Like Emily Dicksinon's learn'd astronomer who saw figures in columns and charts that measured them, Howardena Pindell has explained her desire to "atomize" art down to its irreducibly smallest  parts, similar to a mathematical exercise.  Pindell recalls how, as a child, she often saw her mathematician father write numbers down in a journal divided into grids. "I saw writing and numbers as drawing."  Another, darker,  memory,  is of a  car trip with her parents through the Midwest.  While drinking from a mug of root beer in Ohio, she noticed that the bottom of the mug had a red circle drawn around its edge.  In answer to her question "why", her parents explained that in the South black people were served separately from whites with cutlery and glassware marked with red circles. 

Although we usually see pattern as decoration, Piindell explores its ideational force, using pattern to express  ideas.  She has worked mostly in an abstract style with figurative elements cleverly encoded; her preference is for details over generalities.  This has also allowed her to upend the cliched expectations of black artists to create earthbound art.

Howardena Pindell was born in Philadelphia and, in 1967, the year she earned her MFA from Yale University,  she was hired by the Museum of Modern Art.  While working at MoMA  Pindell became one of the original members of Artists in Residence, a women's gallery founded in New York in 1972 in response to the dearth of opportunities for women to show their work in museums and galleries, something she had direct experience with at work.  Pindell would return to this theme, elaborating with statistics gathered through seven years of research, with the results published in 1989 in New Art Examiner. She shook up the art world by showing how arts institutions were still deliberately  exclusionary, based on racism. 

At the age of seventy-four Pindell finally had her first career retrospective in 2017, Howardena Pindell: What Remains to be Seen, at the Museum of Contemporary art in Chicago.

Image: Howardena Pindell - Astronomy: Saturn & Neptune, 2008, ink, acrylic, and gouache on paper, courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

11 July 2019

Les Plongeurs at La Piscine

What manner of dive are these swimmers making? Have they just bounced off the diving board (rebondir sur le tramplin)?  Will this turn into a somersault (plongeon perilleux)?  Definitely not a dolphin dive!  It's summer so even the arts get to lighten up.

The divers at the swimming pool (Les Plongeurs a La Piscine), in this case a textile design now housed in a museum that was originally an indoor swimming pool, are both examples of Art Deco, a style named retrospectively in a book of that name by Bevis Hillier published in 1966.

The divers in this repeating textile pattern are a virtual synchronized swim team.  Its conical mountains and curving waves evoke Japanese art of the Taisho period (c.1912-1926) and suggest the ideational power of decoration across cultures. Synchronized swimming, also known as  water ballet,  became increasingly popular thanks to the modern revival of the Olympics and, more importantly, to the introduction of streamlined bathing suits and the sleek rubber bathing caps known as 'aviator caps' for the tough leather skullcaps worn by pilots of early single engine planes. 

La Piscine in Roubaix, France,opened as a pool in 1932 and closed in 1985.  In an inspired remodel, it reopened as a museum in 2000. Its permanent collection is large and varied, Roubaix having been the location of many textile factories since mid-19th century.

Atelier Stablo, founded in the early decades of the 20th century at Roubaix, moved to Paris for heightened visibility  but eventually fell victim to recession in the 1980s,  The atelier specialized in furniture weaving and industrial textiles as the Delerue company, a family business that had a long textile tradition. The seats for the restaurant at the Eiffel Tower were woven at their Roubaix studio, to name one prestigious commission.  They did not keep track of this and other projects in their records, sadly typical of many Art Deca projects, including Atelier Primavera, the original stand alone boutique in a department store - this at Le Printemps in Paris in 1913.  What remains of their archives is now part of the permanent collection of La Piscine

Image: Atelier Stablo - Les Plongeurs (The Divers), c.1930, a drawing for textile manufacturer Delerue, La Piscine, Roubaix.

05 July 2019

Francisco de Zurbaran: Perfectly Still


If only Francisco de Zurbaran had had a century of his own to shine in. Instead Zurbaran's life (1598-1664) overlapped that of Diego Velasquez (1599-1660), arguably the greatest painter of Spain's Golden Age.  Whether Zurbaran would have been flattered to be called the "Spanish Caravaggio" is open to question.  There is no evidence that he ever saw any of  the Italian's work, not to mention that the comparison  grounded in their similar intense use of chiaroscuro, went in the wrong direction for an unalloyed compliment.  And Zurbaran might well have taken offence; he was an ambitious man, the son of a notions seller,  who married three times to wealthy women.

Still life in the 17th century was just becoming a separate genre rather than a merely decorative addition to portraiture.  Looked down on, seen as requiring less skill and ambition than figure painting, it was the poor stepchild of painting.  Zurbaran was a typical artist of his time, painting mostly religious subjects, long  used  to educate the faithful and a fruitful source of commissions for Zurbaran.  Portraits were intended to flatter the vanity of their subjects; a clever artists could combine the two as Zurbaran did with Bishop Gonzallo de Illescas.   Of the few still life paintings that are thought to be from his hand, only this one is signed 'Zurbaran and  dated 1633.   

One painter, Francisco Pachecco, threw shade on still life  in The Art of Painting (El arte de la pintura) in 1649):  "These days there is no lack of those who enjoy this kind of painting because it is easy to do and causes delight by its variety."  "...although it does require more skill...if it is to be used in serious history painting."

Looked at in one way Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose  is a triptych. This has led some critics to guess at religious symbolism in the objects themselves. The unearthly light  does not reach  the  preternaturally dark background, sometimes referred to as Spanish-black. The objects are set on a narrow ledge which imparts a horizontal solemnity to their arrangement.   A  basket of oranges with a sprig of blossoms looks freshly plucked from the tree, an orangerie being a sure sign of luxury in the days before refrigeration. So was the pewter plate that holds four lemons, their pedicels all projecting an erotic tactility.  The cup of water with a rose on a pewter saucer may be included as a bravura display of chiaroscuro.  If we cannot know for certain what prompted Zurbaran to paint this enigmatic masterpiece we sense his pride in its perfection.
Image:
Francisco de Zurbaran - Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose, 1633, oil on canvas, 23.62 x 41.12" The Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.

02 July 2019

Sonia Delaunay: Simultaneously


"Did the same
Car carry me away
                             I see where you came from
                             You turn your head
Midnight
On the moon
Just struck
                            At the street corner
                            Everything is turned around
I saw her face
Even her hands
                            The last star
                            Is in the garden
Just like the first
Think of tomorrow
                            Where will they be
                             The thoughtless dead
When the wall vanishes
                             The sky will fall."
"Perspective" by Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960), translated from the French by Kenneth Rexroth, New York, New Directions: 1969.

A wind rose is a graphic chart that shows the direction and speed of wind and employs colors to differentiate wind speeds.  The subject was irresistible to Sonia Delaunay, an artist who thought in graphic terms no matter what the medium at hand. When her friend the poet Tristan Tzara invited her to illustrate a series of poems he had written about La rose des vents Delaunay was delighted.    Both had a long-standing interest in illustrated books and had worked with others on similar projects, most famously Delaunay's  1913 collaboration with Blaise Cendrars on Prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France a long title for a long work printed on one continuous sheet of paper two meters long.   The resulting book, titled Juste present (La rose des vents) was published in 1961. For the covers Delaunay created a color etching that appeared right-side-up on the front and upside-down on the back just present, indeed.


"I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd: in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd."
 - excerpted from "The World" by Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), Maidstone, Crescent Moon: 2012.

It was jazz that came to mind when I saw the Sonia Delaunay retrospective at the Albright-Knox Gallery in early 1980. It was still winter and those brilliant colors seduced me;  fanciful rugs woven  rugs on the gallery floor seemed to bring the sun inside even on a gray day.



Along with  elation  I felt  the unfairness of being too late to an exhibition that opened less than two months after the artist died in December 1979.  If there was any incongruity between the brilliant rhythms in Delaunay's work and the unmovable gray marble columns holding up the Beaux Arts galleries it barely registered on me.  Originally built  to house the Fine Arts Pavilion for the 1901 World's Fair, the Albright-Knox Gallery only opened in 1905; it was celebrating its 75th anniversary in 1980.

Simultanisme, or the representation of movement through pure color, was Sonia Delaunay's contribution to the dynamic experiments that ushered in 20th century art. It has proved to be just as important as Dada and Surrealism, two better-known European movements.  Delaunay's experiments went beyond the emphatically colored landscapes by the Fauvist painters (derogatorily christened  as " Les Fauves" or " the wild beasts" by contemporary critics) just as people were getting comfortable with the beautiful daubs of the Impressionists. 

Delaunay and Tzara had known each since their early days in Paris, meeting in 1921.  Sonia Terk (1885-1979)  was born in Odessa and emigrated from Ukraine in 1905 to study art. When  she met Robert Delaunay, a French artist and became pregnant with their son,  she divorced her husband and married Delaunay.  Their marriage was also an artistic partnership that lasted until Robert Delaunay's death in 1941.   The Delaunay apartment became a meeting place for avant-garde artists and poets Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and Jean Cocteau.  While Sonia was busy decorating a Surrealist bookstore Robert painted two portraits of their friend Tzara.  Delaunay not only painted, designed clothing, furniture, and other household items but also collaborated on books with several French poets.  "I have done everything. I have lived my Art," she said.

Tzara came from Hungary by way of Zurich which is where he began to practice something he called Dada, art that expressed hostility to reason and aesthetics, two things that had proved woefully inadequate in the face of trench warfare. A performance artist at the Zurich's Cafe Voltaire, he began to produce manifestos before he wrote poetry.   By the time he met Sonia Delaunay-Terek, Tzara was already known as the "president of Dada."


Images: Sonia Delaunay-Terk, illustrations for Juste present (La rose des vents) by Tristan Tzara, Paris: 1961.  Images from the collection of the Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco.
1. illustration for page 39.
2. illustration for page 13.
3. illustration for page 21.
4. frontispiece.

26 June 2019

Play Theory



"Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teacth them their playing." - Johan Huizinga, 1955.

“The green Parc Monceau, with its soft lawns veiled in misty curtains of spray from the sprinkler, attracted me, like something good to eat.   There were fewer children there than in the Luxembourg.   It was better altogether.  But those lawns that are swept like floors!    Never mind, the trees enchanted me and the warm dampness I breathed in relaxed me….that sound of leaves, how sweet it was!” - Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, excerpt from Claudine In Paris, 1901.

The charming decorative screen (above) done in the style Nabi was made by Jean-Emile Laboureur in 1899 during the period when the recently married Colette was in the midst of writing her popular and titillating series of 'Claudine' novels.  Her visits to Parc Monceau were occasions when she escaped from the apartmen where her husband M. Willy would keep her locked up unit she produced a certain number of pages. Doubtless, Huizinga would not have been surprised to see the little brown dog sitting (in the second  panel from the right).  As to what constituted a Nabi picture, the historian of the movement  Charles Chasse said that a picture had meaning only when it possessed "style."  Elements of that style were inspired by Paul Gauguin and the contemporary discovery of Japanese wood block prints (ukiyo-e).

No less a personage than Joan of Arc camped at Monceau  during her audacious attack on Paris in the summer of 1429.   By the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV in the 17th century, the Rive Gauche was no longer an empty field, rather it had become a popular address for palaces of the aristocracy and the private mansions of the wealthy, known in French as hotels particulers.   In 1769  Philippe d'Orleans,  Duc de Chartres (1747-1793), a cousin of King Louis XVI, purchased the historic Monceau plot.  Fabulously wealthy, especially after marrying the richest woman in France, he may have felt emboldened to indulge in a bit of cousinly rivalry.  Begun in 1773, the garden he commissioned from the engineer/architect Louis Carrogis Carmontelle took six years to complete.

There Carmontelle designed a theatrical extravaganza, mixing elements including a miniature Egyptian pyramid, a Turkish minaret, a Futch windmill, and a Roman naumacchia, an artificial lake for the staging of mock naval battles whose decaying columns still stand. A model farm that included a water wheel and a windmill demonstrated the duke's interest in scientific experiments.   And Carmontelle knew exactly what he was about, writing after the garden's completion in 1779, "It is simply a fantasy, to have an extraordinary garden, a pure and not at all the desire to mimic a nation which, when it makes a "natural" garden uses a roller on the greens and spoils nature." This mixture of frivolity and earnest effort was a hallmark of Enlightenment the French way. If play is the essential human activity, as the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga claimed, then history itself played at the Parc Monceau.

"...it was not my object to define the place of play among all other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play."  - Johan Huizinga, from the forward to Homo Ludens, 1938.

His closeness with the king led to Philippe's execution during the French Revolution and his properties were confiscated by the state.   Parc Monceau went untended until Napoleon III hired Baron Haussmann to make a modern city of Paris.  The renovated park became Haussman's first green space in1861. It is usually described as the prettiest park created during Haussmann's tenure, for its splendid entry rotunda, golden  gates, and Enlgish-style curving walkways (seen in countess paintings ever since).

Another engineer, Adolphe Alphand (1817-1891) was put in charge of promenades and he laid out a refurbished Parc Monceau that opened in 1861. Some of the old follies were kept, and new features added, including a stream crossed by a bridge, a cascade and a grotto. Moving water was used to evoke cleanliness, a quality sorely lacking in the dark, dirty streets of the old Paris.  The public was enchanted by the refurbished Parc Monceau, and artists flocked there to paint:  Raffaele Ragione, Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte,  Henri Lebasque and  even an American, Childe Hassam.



Today people walk their dogs and children play among the decaying pre-Revolutionary relics just as they did in Colette's day.  Only their clothes have changed. The modern world may impinge on the edges of the park more than it used to but this  little fantasy world is a monument to the primacy of play in human life.  The  hoops and pails and shovels the children play with in Jean-Emile Laboureur's decorative screen could be the forerunners of wheels and steam shovels.

For further reading: Homo Ludens: A Sudy of the Play Element in Culture  by Johan Huizanga, translated from the Dutch, Kettering, Ohio, Angelico Press: 2016 (reprint of 1955 edition, Boston, Beacon Press).

Images:
1. Jean-Emile Laboureur - Paravent a quatre feuilles (Standing screen with four leaves),  1899, felt glued on painted burlap, 128,5 x 180cm.,  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
2, Gustave Caillebotte - Le Parc Monceau, 1878,  private collection, France.


20 June 2019

At Sea In The Desert


"In the desert you see, there is everything and nothing."
 - Honore de Balzac, from A Passion In The Desert, (1830) translated from the French by Ernest Dowson.

In 1964 when Michelangelo Antonioni filmed Red Desert he may have made the first movie whose subject was the environment.   In the U.S. Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring in September 1962 and the controversy sparked by its claims of chemicals poisoning the natural world were something new in the giddy world of post-war expansion.  An unspoken character in the film is the Po River, the longest river in Italy, rising in the Alps and winding its way across several provinces to empty in the Adriatic Sea.  One of the most complex rivers in Europe,  its sprawling delta makes the Po a barometer of the increasing sedimentation and rising waters that pollution has brought.

And why call it Red Desert?  For the chemical-swollen air that collapsed all distinctions between there and nowhere and, specifically, for the red sulfur particles that fell like rain, coating everything. 

Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, two giants of post-World War II cinema, both died on July 30, 2007. Antonioni who was ninety-five and Bergman who was eighty-nine had seen almost two centuries between, but not the same ones; Bergman's the past and Antonioni's the present.  Bergman in his autobiography The Magic Lantern, dismissed the Italian director as an amateur immobilized by boredom.  He was only a bit more gallant in his assessment of Antonioni's collaborator Monica Vitti.  Antonioni could have responded that Bergman was a man immobilized by depression but he contented himself by telling the London Telegraph  that Bergman was a man searching for God for answers, whereas he was content to explore metaphysical questions without offering answers. "You wonder what to look at.  I wonder how to live.  It's the same thing." (words he put in the mouth of a character in Red Desert) Bergman the moralist admitted to his Nazi past only in 1999; possibly it slipped his mind for half a century as he searched for certainty.  As for the timing of their deaths, Bergman went first.

Antonioni, the son of a prosperous family in northern Italy, was nevertheless keenly aware of the region's poverty and the seemingly miraculous prosperity that resulted from the booming petrochemical industry in the decades following World War II.   The scale and futuristic look of the structures erected, conical furnaces and rows of red radio towers raised like beaks of giant birds towards the sky, inspired awe and uneasiness in those who watched the Po Valley landscape altered almost beyond recognition.  All this would be included in the mis-en-scene for Antonioni's 1964 film Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso).

In 1964 Antonioni and his partner the actor Monica Vitti has just completed a trio of much admired films titled retroactively "Alienation Trilogy." L'aventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L'eclisse (19620 had been filmed in black and white.  Red Desert, their first color film would be awarded the coveted Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1964. When asked why he had turned to color film after such great successes with black and white, Antonioni pointed out that black and white photography is not pure; it too alters reality. 

What he realized was that he needed color to show the deadening effect of pollution on this historic landscape, one that had survived millennia of human settlement yet now seemed imperiled with mere years of industrialization.  Although Antonioni denied being influenced by particular painters, he employed painterly images and techniques throughout Red Desert.  To get the effects he had in mind, Antonioni had buildings, trees, and even grass painted.  The crew spent a long night spraying trees with gray paint to mimic the effects of air pollution.  Even the clouds of sulfur that give the film its title are muted by the thick air. Whenever a bright blue stripe appears on the screen, viewers are alerted that the scene will shift and to pay close attention.  The character Giuliana (played by Vitti) plans to opena gallery where she will sell ceramics, paints the  interior walls with blocks of soft, luminous color that looks like the work of a cheerful Mark Rothko.



In the opening shot factories are obscured by mist rising from the Po River or, so we assume, until the camera pulls back to reveal the steam clouds are belching from smokestacks.  Nearby, striking workers listen to a man shouting through a megaphone that conditions at the factory are so bad that the owner's wife would be ashamed to show her face.  Again the camera pulls back and we see the owner's wife Giuliana walking through this hellish landscape with her little boy Valerio. Prosperity has not brought an end to exploitation.



Giuliana is damaged like her surroundings, recovering from a near miss automobile accident but unable to connect with her old life, she wanders aimlessly.  For a time it seems that Zeller, a sensitive colleague of her husband may be able to help her but, in a manner reminiscent of Lawrence Selden in Edith Wharton's novel  The House of Mirth his offer of rescue is a mirage.

Red Desert ends with a mere whisper of hope when Valerio asks his mother if the birds know the poison spewing from the factory, she assures him that they must know by now.  An admission of puzzlement tinged with dread from Antonioni, a man enthralled by modern technologies.

Images:
1. Osvaldo Babieri Bot (1895-1958)  -  Construction, no date given, Galeria d'Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, Plaisance, Italy.
2. Red Desert film still - trees seen through a fog of pollution.
3. Red Desert film still - Giuliana and Zoller walk near radio towers.
4. Red Desert film still - Giuliana and Valerio watch the strikers.

15 June 2019

Georges Braque: Eole, or a Lesser God


"The poem's tempo
failed to keep up,
despite a following wind:

with the young storks
flying across the sky
pure and effortless.

and could only attempt
to mimic their beat

But the sluggish pace
of the poem
stalled and stopped:

the lagging engine,
fingers beneath the wing - 
the underside

tearing, with tearing,
the supple air
of the leaf - "
  - "Fleeting thought" by Ana Luisa Amaral,  from What's In A Name translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, New York, New Directions: 2019.

"I have always been very much engaged and preoccupied by the material, because there is as much sensibility in the technique as in the rest of the picture." - Georges Braque

"Their flight is knowledge, space is their alienation." - St. John Perse, from "Birds"

Aeolus (Eole in French) was such a minor god in the Greek pantheon that it is unclear whether he had one guise or three.  The four winds were the children of Aeolus, keeper of the winds and Eos, the goddess of the dawn, daughter of Hyperion and Theia so, combined, they may have formed Aeolus.  In Greek the word denotes one who is nimble.  Aeolus, who guarded the four winds, lived on a rocky island off the coast of Sicily where he the four winds imprisoned in a cave.  He only loosed them when ordered to by a greater god. 

Braque created his Eole as a sequence of forms: a triangular form is the neck, topped by a spherical head with a crescent (moon) for the god's face in profile at the end of an elongated neck. Hair flows out to the right, as though wind-blown.  Stars in the lower left hand corner also suggest that Aeolus is airborne.  Enclosed forms (triangle, crescent,etc.) surge to the left, creating streams of air in their wake.

Portuguese poet Ana Luisa Amaral is known for reinventing familiar stories in mythology and religion.  Lot's Wife wonders about her namelessness in a bible abounding in names; Amaral's  Ariadne would rather sit in a cafe on the island of Crete chatting with a dinosaur than spinning the thread that will allow Theseus to return to safety after slaying the Minotaur.

Ana Luisa Amaral was born in Lisbon in 1956.  Her first book of poetry  Minha Senhora de Que (Mistress of What) was published in 1990. She has published ten more volumes since and has been included in several anthologies of international poetry and translated into Spanish, Castilian, French, Dutch, Bulgarian, and Croatian.  What's In A Name translated by Margaret Jull Costa is her second collection to appear in English.  Amaral is herself a translator, having translated Emily Dickinson into Portuguese: she received her PhD. in literature on Dickinson's poems.

For further reading: What's In A Name by Ana Luisa Amaral, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, New York, New Directions: 2019.

Image: Georges Braque - Eole, 1939, bronze relief, Munson Williams Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

06 June 2019

The Double-Goers: Zachary Schomburg


"I would become, say, Lake Michigan and she, Ontario.  Huron was scoffed at.  Any lake but Huron, she said.  As we threw it around a bit, I changed my answer.  Lake Michigan was clearly the wrong choice for me.  It's a bit too urban, I said, perhaps too likely a choice.

A little later she described our dialogue about Great Lakes as futile and a bit nauseating.  She became upset, knowing we'd probably never become Great Lakes.  She was right, but weeks later I did become a forest somewhere near Saginaw and she became a lovely washer-dryer combination."
  "If Great Lakes" by Zachary Schomburg, from The Man Suit,  Boston, Black Ocean: 2007

A bad aura sometimes attaches to Surrealism: there are those who assert that the writers are incapable of making sense and the artists can't draw.  In general, surrealism works best when it suggests previously un-imagined connections.  Nonsense has a short shelf life for humans; we are designed to search for meaning.   Schomburg has been called  "a sincere surrealist" and praised by James Tate (1943-2015) who was himself a comic absurdist in verse with serious intent.

A doppelganger is the double of a living person, maybe a ghost, and in Zachary Schomberg's poems there are doubles in the most unlikely guises.  A girl dressed as a wedding cake meets her match in a man dressed as an avocado.

Just as Dante had his Beatrice and Petrarch had his Laura so Schomburg's man has Marlene - muse, sometime companion, and always oddly evasive, evasion being part of the charm of a muse for the sort of man who writes poetry.  There is even a poem "Far From Marlene" including with a character with a bird's nest in his hair that seems to have wandered in from a neighboring fairy tale.

From the first poem  "The Monster House" death is present, often as a non sequitur or an absurd joke.   The monster  tells jokes but wants to kill the audience - literally. When he refuses to reform he is replaced by a gorilla dressed as a man who plays a Wurlitzer organ. Schomburg hints subversively that strange things happen whenever one puts on a man suit.

"Black Telephone, White Telephone" is a sequence of poems charting the parallel adventures of two telephones; they may be commenting on each other's exploits or maybe not, but their juxtapositions are suggestive in unexpected ways.  Maybe ordinary life is mysterious after all.

In two poems, both titled "What I Found In The Forest," there are mythic surprises, hollowed trees and handsome woodsmen.

"I found a group
of inappropriately dressed
women inside

a hollowed-out tree.
They all had hidden agendas"

and again from the second poem:

"I found a group
of sharply dressed lumberjacks
hollowing-out

a large section of trees.
They were all singing Italian opera."

There is something new in Schomburg's surrealism, an acknowledgement of loneliness and a sense of history that looks back to "Abraham Lincoln's Death SCene" and forward to an emerging ecological consciousness.

Image:
Arthur Dove - Lake Afternoon, 1935, oil on canvas, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

31 May 2019

Eva Besnyo: Photojournalism as Art


What is it about Budapest and photographers?  For most of his life, the Budapest native Andre Kertesz (1894-1981), now lauded as the father of photojournalism, was known as "the unknown soldier" of modern photography even though he was the first to receive  a solo exhibition of his work (at Galerie au Sacre du Printemps, Paris) in 1927.  And then there is Eva Besnyo (1910-2003).  It was not until 2012 that her work was the subject of a retrospective in Paris at Jeu de Paume (L'image sensible).  One of the few times Besnyo's work has been shown in the United States was when a single picture was included in the hugely successful exhibition (and accompanying book) The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in  1955.  Curated by Edward Steichen, it was sentimental mishmash and brought little attention to the Hungarian/Dutch Besnyo which was a missed opportunity for American viewers.

For her work as a pioneer of photojournalism recognition was long in coming.  In the Depression days of the 1930s when Besnyo was starting her career, her nearest American counterpart, Dorothea Lange, was up to something entirely different.  Besnyo's objectivity and lack of romanticism in images do not manipulate the viewer's emotions as Lange intended hers to do.  Taken on vacation in the summer of 1931, Besnyo's little gypsy boy, an outcast in Hungarian society, carries the battered cello that earns his subsistence across his back (note the diagonals, a ptominent feature in Besnyo's work).  We may interpret his carrying a burden larger than he is as a commentary on his prospects in life but that is our interpretation.  Besnyo observes.

The Besnyos of Budapest changed their name from Blumengrund to make it easier for the father, a lawyer, to succeed professionally in the anti-Semitic climate of Hungary.  Her father gave Eva her first camera, a Kodak Brownie, when the girl was fifteen.  It was Eva who encouraged the boy next store to try photography; he did and went on to become famous under his new name - Robert Capa.  Both would raise photojournalism to an art form: neither were attracted to the pictorialism  popularized through Alfred Stieglitz's journal Camera Work.

Rather than attend university like her sisters as their father wished, Eva apprenticed herself to photographer Josef Pecsi.   At his studio from 1928 to 1930 she learned about micro-photography (see the work of French photographer Laure-Albin Guillot). But it was the gift of a book from her friend Gyorgy Kepes that changed her life, she later said.  The book was The World is Beautiful (Die Welt ist Schon) by a German avant-garde photographer Albert Renger-Patszch and it introduced her to the movement New Objectivity that influenced her future course.

Bela Besnyo would have preferred his daughter move to Paris than to the Sodom-and-Gomorrah that was Weimar Berlin.  "Paris is romantic," Eva admitted, "but you can learn so much in Berlin."  So Berlin it would be and when Besnyo arrived there in 1930 with her new Rolliflex she found work at Rene Ahrle's advertising agency and then a job as a photojournalist with Neofot, a picture agency similar to the Bonney Agency in Paris..   In a further bid for independence Besnyo opened her own studio the next year, becoming part of a generation of women who achieved economic and personal freedom through photojournalism.  Making street life their subject they legitimized their presence in public life.

When Hitler came to power in 1932 life in Germany became stressful for Jews.  Nazi brown-shirts roamed the streets, attacking people with impunity.  Besnyo was early to recognize the need to plan for a way out. She eventually married John Fernhout, a Dutch cameraman who was the son of a well known artist Charley Toorop.  Even when the relationship ended Besnyo remained close to her mother-in-law who helped her find her way professionally in her adopted country.  After the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940 Besnyo was forbidden to work openly so she subsisted on the few private commissions she was able to scrape.  Eventually she went underground, using forged identity papers.  Her beloved father was killed at Auschwitz in 1944 while the rest of her family survived.  Her photographic archives were destroyed by aerial bombing.

Giving birth to a son in 1945 and a daughter in 1948, Besnyo had experienced the difficulties of working and being a parent and so was immediately sympathetic to the Dutch feminist movement, Dolle Mina in the 1970s.   Her work at this time became more socially engaged and her wit and humor,  previously in the background of her work came to the forefront. You get an inkling of it from her photograph of a garage sale in 1950s Amsterdam; a jumble sale does resemble the layers of an onion opening to the viewer/buyer.
Besnyo's great strength as a photographer may work against her visibility, it is that she has no signature style. From Budapest to Berlin to the Netherlands where her works have been memorialized in a series of stamps there is always another revelation around the corner. 

Images: Eva Besnyo, photographs courtesy of Maria Arthuria Instituut, Amsterdam.
1. Eva with Rene Ahrle, Berlin, 1931.
2, Roma boy with cello at Lake Balaton, summer of 1931.
3. Interior of Dutch Haka consumer cooperative at Jutphaas, 1934.
4. Yard sale at Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, 1950s.

23 May 2019

"It's Good to be Modern if You Can Stand it"




She was born in Brooklyn in 1924 and died in downtown Manhattan in 2014.  He was born in Rochester New York in 1927 and died in Hudson, New York in 1917.  She painted witty and subtly approachable pictures, beginning her career at the high tide of the heroic phase of post-war abstract expressionism.  He wrote poetry that garnered many awards beginning with the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1956 even as he acquired a reputation for being difficult to understand.

When they met in the early summer of 1949, Ashbery, a recent Harvard graduate had reluctantly moved to the city where Columbia University had accepted him for graduate school.  His friend Kenneth Kochput him up in his shabby loft on Third Avenue at Sixteenth Street.  Freilicher, who had earned her Master's the year before at Columbia under Meyer Schapiro, was living and painting in downtown Manhattan.  Koch often amused himself by  donning a rubber gorilla mask and staring ut his window at the trains passing on the El (short for elevated, New York's overhead railroad).  Both were about to change their methods radically in the coming decade. Freilicher was forthright and satirical where Ashbery was shy and diffident.  He changed more over the decades than she did: writing about painting as his fellow poets (and friends) Kennoch Koch, and Frank O'Hara did increased his confidence in his opinions.  Freilicher was chided for being accessible in contrast to abstraction in her early works and Ashbery has often been taken to task for hermeticism.  Anyone with a basic knowledge of art history can tussle with claims Ashbery makes in :commotion of the Birds."
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The Painter's Table (1954) shows a metal table that Freilicher used in her cold-water flat in the east Village.  Ashbery tells us that little in the apartment was eye-catching, that the pictures were animated by potted plants, cut flowers, and the occasional Persian print bedspread although the walls were nondescript. But painter makes use of what is at hand and invents the rest as need be. Ashbery called her style "rumpled realism."  In another picture  a vase of iris  on a windowsill at night shows the belching smokestacks of a Con Ed plant in the background.  The metal tabletop slants in a Cezanne-ish way and we make of that what we can. Side by side a gold tin from the 17th century Dutch and a large blue turpentine can marinates her brush  in its resins.  A smile seems to emanate from the artist's brush.

Reading "Commotion of the Birds" we come in on history already in progress; Ashbery plans to exclude  art before the global expansion of trade that brought new art objects to an insular Europe.  The Europeans themselves were stimulated into a heightened sense of movement and light,  a phenomenon that became known as the Baroque.  Ashbery skates past the political and religious ferment roiling the continent but takes the measure of the decadence attending the monarchy's power grab at the expense of the Church and the ascendant middle class.  Ashbery browses among ideas, like a rabbit nibbling on tasty green shoots. ("Often it's a question of seeming rather than being modern.Seeming is almost as good as being, sometimes, and occasionally just as good")
Yes, It's good to be modern if you can stand it.

We're moving right along through the seventeenth century.
The latter part is fine, much more modern
than the earlier part,  Now we have Restoration comedy.
Webster and Corneille and Shakespeare were fine
for their time but not modern enough,
though an improvement over the sixteenth century,
of Henry VIII, Lassus and Petrus Christus, who, paradoxically,
seem more modern than their immediate successors,
Tynedale, Moroni, and Luca Marenzio among them.
Often it's a question of seeming rather than being modern.
Seeming is almost as good as being, sometimes,
and occasionally just as good.  Whether it can ever be better
is a question best left to the philosophers
and others of their ilk, who know things
in a way others cannot, even though the things
are often almost the same as the things we know.
We know, for instance, how Carissmi influenced Charpentier,
measured propensities with a loop at the end of them
that brings things back to the beginning, only a little
higher up.  The loop is Italian,
imported to the court of France and first despised,
then accepted without any acknowledgement of where
it came from, as the French are wont to do.
It may be that some recognize it
in its new guise - that can be put off
till another century, when historians
will claim it all happened normally, as a result of history.
(The baroque has a way of tumbling out at us
when we though it had been safely stowed away.
The classical ignores it, or doesn't mind too much.
It has other things on its mind, of lesser import,
it turns out.) Still, we are right to grow with it,
looking forward impatiently to modernism, when
everything will work out for the better, somehow.
Until then it's better to indulge our tastes
in whatever feels right for them: this shoe,
hat strap, will come to seem useful one day
when modernism's thoughtful prescience is installed
all around, like the remnants of a construction project.
It's good to be modern if you can stand it.
It's like being left out in the rain, and coming
to understand that you were always this way: modern,
wet, abandoned, though with that special intuition
that makes you realize you weren't meant to be
somebody else, for whom the makers
of modernism will stand inspection
even as they wither and fade in today's glare.
 - "Commotion of the Birds"  by John Ashbery, New York, Ecco Press: 2017

Image Jane Freilicher - The Painter's Table, 1954, oil on canvas, collection of John Ashbery, courtesy of Fischbach Gallery, NYC.

16 May 2019

A New Theory of Light


"...the sun instead of revealing things would hide them with light..."
     - Clarice Lispector, from The Besieged City, translated from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz, New York, New Directions:  2019 (1949).

There have been many ingenious and even fanciful ideas about the source and significance of light.  I like this one from Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) who drew on Jewish Kabbaleh and mysticism more generally in her work of receptive illumination.  Light does conceal sometimes, a  phenomenon that frustrated early critics of French Impressionist paintings who wanted final answers.  What were those disconnected daubs of color doing there ?  Introducing the aspect of light seen through frozen water only intensifies the headache of uncertainty.  And this particular uncertainty has a long history.

Light can be both wave and particle as we now know thanks to the synthesis known as quantum theory put forward by Max Planck in 1900.  Technically, Planks' theorum posited that light is an electromagnetic wave that is emitted in quanta (packets) of radiation.  A few years later Planck delivered the opinion that "science proceeds one funeral at a time."  Given the circuitous path that detoured some of the greatest thinkers of earlier times and their sometimes diffidence toward each other, Planck knew what he was talking about.  Pythagorus, Empedocles, Epicurus, and Euclid, to drop a few names, all got entangled in thickets of their own making

Other theories of light, even if superseded, have their charms. Although ancient Greeks are credited for the ray theory of light  mostly they got themselves hung up on the mechanisms of the eye as the source of light. It was Ibn-al-Haytham, (born in what is now modern Basra, Iraq)  who in 1038 correctly defined vision as the passive reflection of light rays.  For this achievement  the title of "father of modern optics" was bestowed on him.

The year 1690 saw the publication of competing theories, from the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens whose theory that light traveled in long waves was parried by Isaac Newton 's that light was emitted from its source as small particles. Newton argued that light could not be a wave because we can heard sound originating from behind an object but we cannot see it. Since light can travel through a vacuum as sound cannot Huygens then asserted that light traveled through a substance he called "aether."


Image: Vittorio Gianella - Glacon gelee (Frozen Ice, color positive print, circa 2010-2014, Alinari Archives, Florence.

08 May 2019

Artists of Souls: Peter Altenberg & Oskar Kokoschka

"There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that's already three things and there are a lot more."

Say "urban flaneur" and think of Charles Baudelaire stalking life through the streets of Paris. Baudelaire, the inveterate walker, and Peter Altenberg who preferred to watch the world go by from a table in a Viennese cafe were compatriots of the pen.

Prone to melancholy as he was, Altenberg became dependent on alcohol and a variety of other drugs. He also suffered from insomnia, having no reason to keep regular hours.  After being committed to mental institutions four times  during the period 1909-13, his pessimism only increased with the outbreak of the Great War. At a time when many regarded Austria as a charming asylum, Altenberg actually ended his days in one, dying there of pneumonia in 1919.
"Do you recognize that stack of empty slivovitz bottles?!?  Indeed I know, they're mine - " In ebullient punctuation and succinctness,  Altenberg is our contemporary.  As does his gimlet eye for social cruelties and his unseemly relishing of pretty young girls.

 Altenberg reveals himself to be conflicted in ways familiar to us.  A man who praises the pastoral life, yet  never deserts cafes  and their creature comforts, a Nietschean believer in the primacy of the aesthetic, yet a  champion of the rights of  working people who finds beauty in humble things disdained by his peers. Unusually for a man of his time and place, Altenberg displays empathy for  women, children and servants.  In The People Don't Always Feel Altogether Social Democratic we find him arguing for equality as his carriage driver upholds class distinctions. He brushed the extreme social stratification of his time aside like a annoying cobweb.  If this contradicts what I just wrote in the previous paragraph, well, that's Peter Altenberg for you.

In his writing as in hs life, Altenberg elided the contradictions between bourgeois respectability and sexual expression, frequently consorting with prostitutes and demimondaines while maintaining a Romantic's attitude to women.  When a young woman he was wooing protested that his interest in her was only sexual, he replied "What's so only?" Persecution Complex is Altenberg's argument with Sigmund Freud and the radical new "science" of psychoanalysis.  Altenberg  himself had been diagnosed with "over-excitation of the nervous system", resulting in an "incapacity for gainful employment," a diagnosis  that left him free to pursue the bohemian life he preferred. This did not prevent him from portraying his psychiatrist as a humorless stuffed shirt in Sanitorium for the Mentally Imbalanced

He may  not  be well known to non-German readers, but Altenberg has always been a favorite of other writers. Thomas Mann  recalled his reading of Altenberg as "love at first sound." His friend, the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, dubbed Altenberg a "professional neurotic" but was eager to steal his ideas. Franz Kafka described Altenberg's talent for  "finding the splendours of the world like cigarette butts in the ashtrays of coffee houses."   Altenberg and Schnitzler were nominated to be co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1914 but no prize was awarded that year.

Who was Peter Altenberg?  Born in 1859 to a prosperous Jewish family that supported him throughout his life, Altenberg's finances were also supplemented through the patronage of admiring friends.  Altenberg showed no inclination to pursue a career as motivation was never a strong point with him; he failed his high school composition examinations even though he was a talented writer. Nevertheless, Altenberg published eleven books whilet never managing a living from them;  Camping out in a series of cheap hotel rooms, Altenberg's real life was lived in the cafes where he spent most of his time, absorbing atmosphere, intuiting the psychic states of those around him, and writing everything down. He was a self-described "little pocket mirror" that reflected the world as he found it  "(I) loathe and revile people yet can;t live without them." 

Altenberg also wrote poetry on the backs of the postcards he collected, postcards having been a  recent Austrian invention (1869).  This habit inspired his friend Alban Berg to compose Five Songs On Postcards with lyrics by Altenberg.  Berg was a composer of the Second Viennese School, meaning he combined romantic lyricism with the arbitrary rigor of the twelve-tone row. When the piece premiered in 1913, the audience rioted and the piece was withdrawn, not to be performed again until 1952. At the time, people said that within a week, half the audience had taken themselves to the couch of Dr. Freud.

Altenberg's "telegrams" written on the fly and published in newspapers. They belong to a genre called the feuilleton,  a term  from French suggesting at once sheets of paper and the flutter of little leaves.  They appeared in such popular publications of the day as Ver SacrumSimplississmus, PanJugendWendingen  and Die Bombe (The Bomb). He also wrote poetry on the backs of the postcards he collected, postcards being a recent Austian invention (1869).  This habit inspired his friend Alban Berg to compose Five Songs On Postcards with lyrics by Altenberg. When the music premiered in 1913, the audience rioted and the piece was withdrawn, not to be performed again until 1952. At the time, people said that within a week, half the audience had taken themselves to the couch of Dr. Freud!



As the  Habsburg Empire slid ever closer to political instability, Vienna remained a charming place to escape the exigencies of daily life. The educated class had come to regard political activity as futile, so narcissism was a ready escape. The writer Theodore Herzl, only nineteen 1879, identified the neurotic personality of his time as one "falling in love with his own spirit, and thus of losing any standard of judgment." If this sounds to our own preoccupations, then reason enough to pay attention to Altenberg now

Oskar Koksochka (1886-1980) wrote poetry and plays but his portraits and landscapes are the embodiment of expressionist. Kokoschka said that when he painted portraits he painted the soul of his sitter and not their likeness or, as he wrote in his autobiography, "the distillation of a human being that would survive in my memory."  Kokoschka's Altenberg, balding and mustachioed,  reveals angst in every fiber of his face and hands. One sitter, Adolf Loos, was so taken with the artist's version of himself that he said "This picture is more like me than I am."

In Telegrams of the Soul Peter Altenberg is well-served by his translator Peter Wortsman (Brooklyn, Archipelago Books: 2005).

Images:
1. Oskar Kokoschka - Portrait of Peter Altenberg, 1909, oil on canvas,  private collection, New York.
2. Ludwig von Zumbach  - cover art for Jugend magazine, 1896, Albertina Museum, Vienna.

30 April 2019

Equinox Bracelets


It's a spring tradition in Utica, New York.  Every class of  sculpture students at the Munson-Williams-Proctor  Institute Art School gets to participate in the making of the Equinox Bracelets, following a style of work laid down at the Bauhaus in 1920s Germany.  The students begin work on the project while they are freshmen and complete the fabrication during their sophomore year. The project is a joyful yet serious meditation on the recurring cycle of the seasons  and the symbiotic relationship between darkness and light.  The Equinox Bracelets will be on exhibit on the grounds of the Munson-Williams- Proctor Art Museum for two months following the vernal equinox.

The circles are constructed out of bent plywood left over from another project and stand ten feet high.  The colored lights are set inside  holes drilled into the wood.  The geodesic dome which holds the sculpture together was also built by the students.  Part of the frisson of working on the project comes from students working on discrete parts and then watching the work take shape as they put them together.

I have more about the city of Utica and the Munson-Williams Proctor Art Institute and some of their artworks by Arthur CarlesNorman Lewis, Henry Lee McFee,  and Bob Thompson

Participating artists: Colette Bernard, Carolina de Pontes,Claus Dicovskiy, Diana Kichuk, Rebecca Johnson, Natalie van Oyen, and MWP Sculpture Technician Erik Nilson.

Image: unidentified photographer - Equinox Bracelets, 2019, mixed media,  courtesy of Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institue, Utica, NY.

27 April 2019

Joan of Arc: Juana Romani & Anna Hyatt Huntington


This Joan of Arc is not the thirteen year old peasant girl who heard angelic voices urging her to lead an army in battle during the Hundred Years' War.  Yet she is magnificent and possessed of a sense of  her destiny as Joan certainly was.

Superficially  then,  a typical Academic portrait of a historical figure in the tradition that brought us  George Washington as a toga-clad Roman figure wreathed in a crown of laurels.  Her heart-shaped face and sloe-eyed stare, the sumptuous gilt and velvet robe, are the stuff of Pre-Raphaelite fancy.  Her dark cloud of hair blends into an amorphous background punctuated by bits of religious symbols. But look closer at the robe she wears, painted with a hint of japonisme by way of French Impressionism.  Gilt at collar and cuff is set off by equally brilliant turquoise, separated from the third primary color, (here blood) red by inky thick blackness. Through her virtuoso display of textures Romani reveals her encounters with the early Impressionist techniques. Romani's style also harmonized elements of Aestheticism with her classical academic training.  A medieval- looking robe of red velvet   scored with designs of tiny flowers and fleur de lys (flower of lily) is both a symbol of French royalty and was also worn by Catholic saints.



Juana Romani wat born Carolina Giovanna  Carlesimo in Velletri, Italy in 1867.  When her mother's affair with a prominent local landowner, Temistocle Romani, was discovered, Carolina's father burnt down one of Romani's stables and was found dead under mysterious circumstances.  Taking the girl, the lovers  fled to Paris, settling in the Latin Quarter in 1877.  In time the little family was impoverished and young Carrolina began to model for many of the artists in the quarter.  In 1882 she posed for Alexandre Falguiere, a friend of Ana Hyatt Huntington about Huntington, more below).  ONe was Jean-Jacques Henner with whom she had  a brief affair.  At nineteen having seen enough of the art world, Carolina decided to become an artist herself and changed her name to Juana, the Spanish equivalent of her middle name.  Filippo Colarossi Founder invited her to study at Academie Colarossi, one of the few schools at the to admit women.  When she exhibited at the International Exposition of 1889 in Paris, Romani was awarded a silver medal.

Romani became friends with Antoine Lumiere when she taught him to paint, an his sons, Auguste and Louis accompanied her when she visited Velletri in 1901.  The brothers generously donated one of their movie projectors to the city, which returned the compliment by naming their first cinema Cinematograpgo Lumiere in honor of the pioneering movie camera the brothers had patented in 1895. On this same visit Romani donated a sum of 5,000 lire to the art school to support an annual prize for a deserving student.  The school was renamed  the Juana Romani School of Art in 1905.

From artistic success, Romani's life began a downward slide, prejudice against female artists, savage reviews, and her mental frailties led to her commitment to an asylum in Pars where she died in 1924.

Around the corner in the Shaffer Art Galley from Juana Romani's portrait of Joan of Arc stands Anna Hyatt Huntington's bronze statue of the little warrior saint.  The original has stood at the intersection of Riverside Drive and Ninety-Third Street in Manhattan since its dedication in 1915.  The marble pedestal contains fragments from the cell in Rouen where Joan awaited her execution in 1431.

Huuntington's Joan is an austere, prayerful figure, with cropped hair.  Much closer to what the historical record suggests and certainly familiar to viewers of  Renee Jeanne Falconetti's mesmerizing performance as Joan in the 1928  film by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a landmark in film, silent or otherwise.  Falconetti was filmed from the neck up only, a sculptural gesture intensifying our sense of her spiritual struggle.  Huntington's bronze captures something of that in stop-time.  Whether we  think that restoring Charles VII of the House of Valois to the throne of France was a mission from God or worth the life of a remarkable young woman we can admire her for staring down the destiny she chose.
Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973) was one of the foremost sculptors of her day, recognized internationally, with a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor from France and the Grand Cross of Alfonso XII in Spain to her credit.  Anna Hyatt married Archer Milton Huntington, poet. philanthropist and translator of the medieval  Spanish epic El Cid Campeador in 1923. Huntington had founded the Hispanic Museum of New York City and the couple made its expansion their joint adventure.

Images:
1. Juana Romani  - Joan of Arc, circa 1900, oil on panel, 39.5 x 31.5 inches, Shaffer Art Gallery, Syracuse University.
2. Elihu Vedder  - View at Velletri - circa 1868, oil on canvas, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica, NY.
3. Anna Hyatt Huntington - Joan of Arc, 1922, bronze, 63 inches, Shaffer Art Gallery, Syracuse University.

23 April 2019

I Have the Room Above Her: Oscar Hammerstein II & Jerome Kern





















I have the room above her
She doesn't know I love her
How could she know I love her

Sitting in her room below?
Sitting in her room below
How could she know
How far a dream could go?

Sometimes she meets we smile
And oh, her smile's divine
It's such a treat to hear her say
Hasn't the weather been fine?"

I blush and stammer badly
My heart is beating madly
The she goes into her room
And I go sadly up to mine

A lover more impetuous than I
Would say his say and know the reason why
when I get my chance
I let my chance go by.
 - lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II, to music by Jerome Kern


I. Appraising the 1993 revival of Showboat, John Lahr wrote in the New Yorker that it had been nothing less than a revelation of just how "a radical departure in musical storytelling, marrying spectacle with seriousness" it had been when it debuted in 1927, how unlike the romantic comedies, operettas, and variety shows that were the usual Broadway fare then.  Based on a best-selling novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber, Showboat was a musical that delved deeply into the lives of the denizens of a Mississippi river boat, their loves and their tragedies, even taking aim at  the taboo subject of racial prejudice.  Critics of the time recognized the transformative affect this would have on American musical theater.

When Universal Pictures commenced shooting  a film version in 1936 they asked Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, II  to provide three new songs; in the event  only one - I Have the Room Above Her -  was used. An utterly lovely ballad, it was undeservedly overshadowed by well known songs from the original Broadway production including Ol' Man River, Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, and Bill.

I Have the Room Above Her received its due in 2004  as the title track on Paul Motian's ECM release of that name.  The drummer was joined by guitarist Bill Frissell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano. Recorded with neither a piano nor a bass, the melody is at the forefront with Motian's cymbals underline each change.

II. Gail Albert Halaban is a photographer who was born in Washington, D.C. in 1970.  She received her MFA in Photography from Yale University School of Art.  After living in Los Angeles she moved to New York City in 2007 and began the series Out My Window.   The project was inspired by something that happened on the day of her daughter's first birthday; she received a gist of balloons and flowers from someone she did not know who lived nearby and had seen the party through the apartment window. ... series represented the ordinary daily routines of  urban apartment living against a background that appears cinematic in comparison. While it might seem voyeuristic, Halaban  obtains permission from her subjects before photographing them.  From the neighborhoods of New York City, Halaban then extended the series to Paris, Istanbul, Buenos Aires  and other cities between.
I saw Gail Albert Halaban: Out My Window, the exhibition, at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York in August 2018.

Image: Gail Albert Halaban, photographer - from the series Out My Window (New York City), 2007, courtesy of George Eastman House, Rochester.