31 December 2016

Happy New Year

Stir up some fun, and economically, too, for the New Year.  In the frugal spirit of old Cape Cod living, the local red berry overwhelms any pretensions the vodka may have, so go for the cheap stuff.  The red  color is reliably deep and gorgeous.  Cocktail mixing doesn't get any easier than the Cape Codder.  I was introduced to the non-alcoholic version as a little girl living in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  Trying to pick out which stirrer would make the drink taste better is the kind of decision that can occupy a child for quite some time.  These stirrers, appropriately for a New Year's celebration, came with a glass holder in the shape of a stork.

The basic Cape Codder recipe is as follows:
2 ounces vodka
3 ounces cranberry juice
1/4 lime perched on the rim of the glass, to be squeezed
club soda to taste

The children's version substitutes ginger ale for the vodka and club soda.
Czechoslovakia - Glass cocktail stirrers, c.1920-1930, blown glass, Geffrye Museum, London.

29 December 2016

Remembering William Christenberry

A star for the new millennium and a landscape cut out by a star, this photograph was taken on New Year's Day in the year 2000. 
While the world was preoccupied with the deaths of other, more famous artists, William Christenberry slipped quietly away on November 28, 2016.   Christenberry was, by turns, a painter, a sculptor of miniature 'dream buildings, and a photographer,  and it is for his photography that he will be remembered.  What attracted him to photography, he said,  was a spiritual dimension that enabled him "to come to grips with my feelings about the landscape and what was in it."  Through his lens,  worn clapboards and dilapidated buildings  appeared more perfectly themselves in rich color than they had in  black and white.  Christenberry, raised under the southern sun, had no prejudice against the use of color film. That landscape also included the Ku Klux Klan and a hooded man at the Tuscaloosa County Court House in 1960, an encounter that shook Christenberry deeply.
William Christenberry was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1936, the year that Walker Evans and James Agee spent a month with tenant farmers in nearby Hale County.  The two men hoped to publish an article but it failed to materialize;  instead, their book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published five years later, became a masterpiece of social documentary.  
Alabama was home to some of the poorest areas in the south  and it signifies that Christenberry acquired his first camera as a joint Christmas present with his sister in 1944.  After attending college, Christenberry thought he would become a painter but in New York he met Walker Evans who encouraged him to take his photography seriously.   Christenberry taught painting at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.,  where he lived until his death from Alzheimer's disease last month. 

See photographs by William Christenberry in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
William Christenberry - Christmas Star Near Akron Alabama, January 1, 2000, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

23 December 2016

"I love this. You will love this." A Joseph Cornell Christmas Card

"We all live in his enchanted forest." - John Ashbery, American poet, writing about Joseph Cornell. 

An unidentified person wrote "I love this.  You will love this." in the margin of a poster showing a Joseph Cornell shadow box.  A brilliant artist who created most of his work as gifts for friends or simply as offerings to people he admired, Joseph Cornell was the embodiment of that sentiment.

Joseph Cornell was born on Christmas Eve in 1903.  Although Cornell led a humdrum, even constrained life, and rarely traveled, he was fortunate to live in New York City, a place where ordinary life offers intimations of magic around any corner.    He described the small objects he collected and used to compose his shadow boxes as "exquisite surprises."   These jewel-like boxes are now treasures to the museums lucky enough to have them and once you have seen one  you will seek them out wherever you go. 

The shadow box itself has theatrical ancestors, from the wunderkammer (chamber of wonders) of  Renaissance courts and street fairs to the penny arcades that Cornell himself saw at amusement parks as a child.  In Cornell's imagination the idea of a miniature world as entertainment is deepened by memories and personal associations that mesmerize viewers.   So many of his boxes contain pictures of birds that critics have liked to speculate on their symbolism: caged bird of free spirit?  The caged bird appeals to those who concentrate on the artist's loneliness and  shyness with women but Cornell's birds seem to me closer in spirit to the poet Shelley's skylark, who can teach him "half the gladness" it knows.

Some have wanted to claim Cornell's art for surrealism but the artist said not, and I am inclined to agree.  The Surrealist impulse to mix up dreams and reality was often aimed at unnerving the viewer with a pile-up of illogical elements; Cornell was a romantic, bent on revealing magic in our surroundings.  White magic, he said. 

To read more:
1. A Convergence of Birds: Fiction and poetry Inspired by the works of Joseph Cornell, various authors, New York, Distributed Art Publishers: 2009.

1. Joseph Cornell - A Christmas Card Project, 1953, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.
2. Jospeh Cornell - untitled shadow box, title attributed Hotel de la Duchesse Anne, 1957, Art Institute of Chicago.

13 December 2016

A Burro, A Donkey

Burro is the Spanish word for donkey and when the American artist Frederic Edwin Church visited Colombia in 1853, he named this watercolor of a donkey, Burro.   The little animals have been domestic servants and, for children, special domestic companions.  When I was a child I was  often taken aback by the vigor and unpredictability of dogs but had no hesitation in stroking a burro or feeding it a carrot.  And burros come to mind at this time of year, their gentleness and dignity a remembered element of the Christmas story.  Among  world religions, Christianity gives  the donkey a special place; it was on a donkey that Jesus entered Jerusalem, (in  Robert Bresson's 1966 film Au Hasard Balthasar the relationship between the young girl Marie and the donkey Balthasar is a parable of the Christ story, from birth to death..)
My first encounter with a donkey in literature was Dapple, the donkey in Cervantes' Don Quixote.  Dapple is a loyal, peaceful, humble companion to humans who admire their virtues, even as they fail to emulate these in themselves.  Dapple's owner, Sancho Panza, loves the animal dearly, a love that Cervantes must have shared because Dapple is the most memorable character in the book after Sancho and Don Quixote, in spite of having a non-speaking part.   At a time when we think of animal farming in terms of food stuffs, it is good to remember that donkeys were among the most common domestic animals, and not only in Spain in the 16th century.

Back to Church and his burro now.   The career of Frederic Edwin Church (1900-1826) fits our contemporary concerns about the  relationship  between aesthetics and money somewhat uneasily.    Church's interest in traveling to the tropics came from his reading of the naturalist Alexander von Homboldt, whose descriptions of 'exotic' landscapes contained the explicit call for artists to come paint "the living image of manifold  beauty and grandeur in (its) humid mountain valleys..."   The English aesthete John Ruskin had also called for art to join in "the teaching of nature" in a heroic way.   Church's most famous painting Heart of the Andes (1859) did just that.  It was commissioned by  wealthy businessman Cyrus Field,  a founder of the Atlantic Telegraph Company which laid the first undersea cable.   Field,  a man with a financial interest in stimulating public appetite for faraway places was well-matched with the equally ambitious Church.
From its first exhibition in New York City, Heart of the Andes caused a popular sensation  as people waited in line for hours to pay admission for the chance to view a giant (five feet high by ten feet wide) landscape that was largely imaginary although constructed from realistic bits of South American scenery.  Church was a wealthy man himself but he had few qualms about making more money or its effects on his work.  I just happen to find more charm in his realistic drawing of this little burro, made on his first trip to South America.

To read my translation of Jacques Prevert's poem "The Little Donkey" go here.

Frederic Edwin Church - A Donkey - Barranquilla Colombia,  May 1853, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, NYC.

05 December 2016

Henry James, Meet Walt Whitman!

"Their being finely aware - as Hamlet and Lear, say, are finely aware - makes absolutely the intensity of their adventure, gives the maximum of sense to what befalls them.  We care, our curiosity and sympathy care, comparatively little for the stupid, the coarse, and the blind;care for it, and for the effects of it, at the most as helping  to precipitate what happens to the more deeply wondering, to the really sentient." -  Henry James, excerpt from the Preface to the 1908 edition  of The Princess Casamassima.

"Do you know so much  that you call the slave or the dullfaced
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight.... and he or
      she has no right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together  from its diffused
      float, and the soil is on the surface and water runs and veg-
      etation sprouts from you...and not for him and her?" - Walt Whitman, excerpt from Leaves Of Grass, 1892.

I. - If ever two writers were meant for the scholastic exercise of "compare and contrast" it would be these two:  Henry James (1843-1916) the aesthete and Walt Whitman (1819-1892) the free spirit.  But that is not why I put them together here.   Rather,  their  views of the relationship between aesthetics and moral worth seem designed for our current moment.
Whitman's poetry was as distinctive as that of his contemporary Emily Dickinson; where Dickinson's poems arrived as briefings from an alternative reality, Whitman's embodied his  experiences in an expansive, generous, and  democratic epics, as in Leaves Of Grass.  Although  admired by the Transcendentalists on its initial publication, Leaves of Grass was more typically derided as "trashy, profane, & obscene."    In our time, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b.1919) and Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), descendants of Whitman, also write themselves into the larger social narrative.  Their poetry is personal but not solipsistic.

II. - Another sort of embodied or concrete poetry can be found in Scotland.  There is a garden where Whitman-esque 'garden poems' are carved, one word at a time into stones, a plentiful substance in the rocky Alban soil.  Little Sparta, as the garden is now known, was the brainchild of Sue Finlay and Ian Hamilton-Finlay, artist and poet living near Edinburgh.  The original garden,  accurately named  Stonypath, was planted in 1966 and has been elaborated on several times since. These lines from "Integrity" by Adrienne Rich would be a fine candidate for a walking poem.  For Whitman, like Rich, patience would have to be an active virtue.

" A wild patience has taken me this far
as if I had to bring to shore
a boat with a spasmodic outboard motor
old sweaters, nets, spray-mottled books
tossed in the prow
some kind of sun burning my shoulder-blades.
Splashing the oarlocks.  Burning through.
Your fore-arms can get scalded, licked with pain
in a sun blotted like unspoken anger
behind a casual mist." - excerpt from "Integrity" from A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far by Adrienne Rich, 1981

To read more:
Lawrence Ferlinghetti - Starting From San Francisco, New York, New Directions: 1961.
Adrienne Rich - A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far,  New York, W.W. Norton: 1981.

Daniel Boudinet - Little Sparta, the garden of Ian Hamilton-Finlay and Sue Finlay, at Stonypath,  1987, Dunysre, Scotland.

28 November 2016

William McVey: Waiting Woman

For a stone figure to emanate the humanity of breath  and consciousness is no small achievement; no wonder that statues have  long been subjects of veneration in places of worship.  Unlike the standing figures in medieval Christian cathedrals, modern sculptural figures are seldom didactic, although their meaning is enhanced by extended contemplation.  In the singular figure of Waiting Woman the American sculptor William McVey has  created a figure of outward withdrawal and inward attentiveness; this is a source of her attraction.  

William Mozart McVey is one of those artists whose works are more familiar today than their maker.  McVey's most famous public public work is a statue of Winston Churchill (nine feet tall, bronze, 1966) that stands in front of the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.    He was born in Boston and educated in Cleveland but McVey found himself incompatible with his teacher so he practiced sculpting by carving tombstones for a local cemetery.

Thanks to a small grant,  McVey was able to study in Paris from 1929 to 1932, but he  needed the money he earned as a tour guide at the Louvre.  In Paris, McVey was more fortunate in his teachers, Charles Despiau and Marcel Gimond.  Both men had worked in the atelier of Auguste Rodin and Gimond had also studied with Aristide Maillol. Indirectly then, McVey gained access to  the two greatest living French sculptors of the day.   Where Rodin's figures were the epitome of naturalism, it would be Maillol's style that would influence younger sculptors.     McVey incorporated elements of Cubism and abstraction in  Waiting Woman; the resulting vocabulary made the full humanity of his subject visible. He creates a sense of intimacy for the viewer without intrusion on his subject,  a fine and subtle achievement.

Another example of McVey's work is The Good Samaritan from 1952, also located in Cleveland.

William McVey (1905-1995) - Waiting Woman,  1954, stone, 23.75 x12.96 inches, Cleveland Museum of Art.

22 November 2016

Norman Lewis: Heroic Evening

"That's white of you, Thomas Hoving"  read the sandwich-board  sign Norman Lewis wore.  It was the year 1969, when Lewis and others walked the picket  line outside the Metropolitan Museum to protest the absence of black artists in the the museum's documentary exhibition Harlem On My Mind.   Hoving, the Met's director,   was just two years into his tumultuous tenure; his name was about to  become shorthand for the commercial exploitation of art but this demonstration was an event of a totally different kind. The idea to show the flowering of black arts  through the eyes of white artists was  bad in so many ways that it seems to have been dreamed up by sleepwalkers.  Norman Lewis was an African-American artist whose work, both figurative and abstract, combined spiritual elements and political consciousness in uncommon ways.  Only now, decades after his death are we beginning to appreciate his achievements.

At the time Lewis was the only one of the picketing black artists  whose work had been shown at the Met, albeit only in  group exhibitions, in 1933, 1942, and in 1953 when  two of his drawings were included in an exhibition of works from the private collection of Edward Wales Root.  Root  was an art instructor at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY and, when he died in 1956,  he  bequeathed his collection (227 paintings by 80 American artists) to the Munson-Williams Proctor Art Institute in nearby Utica.  When a new museum building, designed by Philip Johnson, opened in 1960, its sculpture court was named in honor of Root.  And that is where I had my first encounter with Heroic Evening.
That an African-American artist at mid-century was possessed of a painfully split consciousness is not surprising.   After making the transition from realism to abstraction, Lewis offered some thoughts on the matter, like this: "(O)ne of the discouraging things in my own self-education, was the fact that painting pictures didn't bring about any social change."

Measuring about six feet tall by four feet wide, Heroic Evening has the scale its title suggests. It is an especially optimistic version of forms that Lewis often used in his paintings.  For Lewis,  flickering lights or procession could represent lynch mobs or Ku Klux Klansman on the march but here the wave-like layers of blue seem benign, reminding us that we too are water.    I can never finally decide whether I think I see birds  soaring above clouds or fish  darting near the ocean floor or an abstract  vision of human emotions. The little dab of red among the waves may be a reflection of the setting sun. Even without its title, this is a visionary work, a picture to spend time with, and be immersed in.

Revised 11/23/2016.
Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis is a traveling retrospective now on vie at the Chicago Cultural Center until January 8, 2017.

Image: Norman Lewis (1909-1979)  - Heroic Evening, 1963, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

16 November 2016

Utica, New York: Art Lives Here

This is the scene across the street from the Mohawk Valley Refugee Resettlement Center.   You can see a bit of the Tudor-style Art School (once upon a time it used to be a stable) at the left, behind  a corner of the Munson-Willaims-Proctor Art Institute; in the is foreground Alexander Calder's Three Arches, a representation of the museum's three founding families, installed three years after Philip Johnson's Museum building opened in 1960. 

Sculpture is arguably the closest medium to the human in all of art.   At the center of Philip Johnson's museum design is a large two story sculpture court beneath a skylight.  I find this suggestive of a deeper meaning than the arbitrary creation of space, especially when thinking about what happened to European museums during World War II.   Paris, Rome, Cologne, all cities whose museums evacuated their artworks, as much as possible, to safe havens in the countryside, away from bombs and pillage.  Take the Louvre, where thousands of paintings were removed from their frames and hidden in old stone castles, leaving behind shadows on gallery walls and frames littering the floors.  What was left were sculptures, too large or too heavy to move,  ghostly witnesses in waiting.  And sculpture survived the depredations of time, giving us a window into ancient societies.  Even the city's name - Utica - is the namesake survivor of a Phoenician  colony on the north shore of Africa that no longer exists.

Viewed from any angle, Meeting Again by Ernst Barlach is a moment in history.  Two  figures raise each other up as they embrace,  the power of their mutual gaze levitates them, we feel, the wounds of time and separation painfully present in their reunion.  In Barlach's works there are  elements of the figures that line the walls of Gothic cathedrals, elongated and stark, yet expressive.  

Ernst Barlach (1870-1938) was  the outstanding German Expressionist sculptor between the two world wars.  He could make bronze take on the rough hand-worked quality of  old wooden  figures.   Barlach was widely admired in the 1920s but, in  the 1930s,  his works were confiscated by the authorities and removed from museums, his figures rightly understood as reminders of the dire consequences of war and, so, dangerous to the Nazi cause.   As an infantryman during World War I, Barlach had been sickened by what he saw in the trenches; he spent the rest of his life embodying  his terrible knowledge in  figures of powerful emotion and when he could no longer  sculpt, he turned to making prints.

Another embrace,  Affection, is  one of the most loved pieces in the Munson-Williams-Proctor collection, and the sculpture court always seems empty when it is put away.   The girl and the dog lean into each other with a shared bliss that is evanescent; by the time we understand such emotion, it has gone.  That it is exactly life-size makes its effect that much more poignant.  Through Zorach's touch, black marble appears to breathe; its sleekness owes something in style to Art Deco but its effect is embraceable, though not allowed by the amiable guards. For the Lithuanian-born American William  Zorach (1887-1966), sculpture was a language like music or speech, to be used for "the things one does in seeking for the inner rhythms  of nature and life." - excerpt from  Art Is My Life by William Zorach, 1967, p.167.

Like the city of  Utica, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute welcomes everyone.  And, unlike other major museums in the Northeast, you don't need $ to walk through its doors.

1. unidentified photographer -  MWP School of Art, 2016, courtesy Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
2. unidentified photographer - Alexander Calder - Three Arches, 1963, courtesy Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
3. Ernst Barlach - Meeting Again (also known as Reunion), 1926, bronze, Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.
4. William Zorach - Affection, 1933,  black marble,  Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, Utica.

08 November 2016

Hope Lives Here: Utica, New York

When I feel low, I often spend a day in Utica.  A once-forsaken rust-belt city in the Mohawk Valley may not seem like a cure for depression, but it is and I have taken its welcome for granted for too long. My first summer away from home was spent stranded in Utica.  I worked in a garment factory until my ineptitude at the sewing machine put an end to the checks.  Without a way home, I spent as much time as I could at the Art Institute, day after day.   In those days the original grass cloth wall coverings designed by the architect Phillip Johnson were still intact and their delicate texture and creamy color  set off the paintings as he must have hoped.  I could even mesmerize myself walking up and down the stairs to the second floor, looking at Johnson's stainless steel parallax stair railings. That was how I learned what a parallax was: an angle or inclination that shifts the relationship between two discrete lines.
The three girls standing on the south side of Genesee Street,   ready to welcome new comers on a cold night in December, look like girls I have met at the library, at the Refugee Center, or in Proctor's Park.  This street is an important one, now as it was in the past; facing each other across its width are the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees and the Public Library and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute.  Right here is the big heart of the city.

Utica became a city because of the Erie Canal. Formally incorporated in 1832,   railroads arrived the next year, and eventually  the New York State Thruway cut through the north end of the city; all routes followed  the path known as the Mohawk Trail.   Utica built an impressive industrial economy from its natural resources - furniture, textiles, machinery, lumber (from the nearby Adirondacks) - and immigrants.   Its history is not simple; the textile industry fed on the cotton imported from southern slave states, yet the city also became a major station on the Underground Railway during the 1850s. 
The jobs that left upstate New York for the South  in the decades following World War II, are the jobs that are now leaving there for other countries.  A once proud city of 100,000, Utica shrank  to 60,000 by the year 2000.   If there is one thing most people have heard about Utica's struggles it is the bumper sticker that read "Last One Out Of Utica, Please Turn Out The Lights."  The original version of  the familiar song we know as "Red River Valley" was originally about their river: "The Mohawk River Valley."

The future can never be found behind us so once again Utica opened its doors  to refugees.  Beginning in the 1970s  Roberta Douglas and Catholic Charities made the city a haven for Amerasian children exiled  as a result of the Vietnam War.  Then in the 1990s, refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina were welcomed,  and then came Somali Bantus, Sudanese, Burmese Karens,  Bhutanese, Nepalis, Russians, and now Latinos. All their journeys were long and difficult.  Today,  fully a quarter of the population is made up of refugees and their children.  People came seeking sanctuary and stayed to make homes, rehabilitating run-down buildings, and starting businesses.   This, too, has not been simple but it is good.  As the man holding a hand-lettered sign on a cold December night last year bears witness: "Refugees Welcomed In Utica."

To  read  more:.
Starting Over: Bhutanese-Nepali Refugees in Utica, NY by Kathryn Stamm, et al in Himalaya Journal, Hanover, New Hampshire..
 - Office of the State Comptroller of New York, Honorable Thomas DiNapoli, Albany.

1. Refugees can play soccer with me - Love and Rage Media Collective, Utica, NY.
2. Bhutanese-Nepali residents of Utica, NY, Himalaya Journal, Hanover, New Hampshire.
3. Refugees Welcomed In Utica,  Love And Rage Media Collective, Utica, NY.
4. Tina Russell for the Utica Observer-Dispatch -  Fadumo Ali, age 15 and Rica Akimeli at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Museum for the exhibition Portraits of Hope: Faces of Refugee Resettlement in Central New York , August 12, 2016.
5. Utica In Winter - courtesy of State of the Reunion.

01 November 2016

Brocade Dore: Leaves of Gold

Imagine receiving a package wrapped  in leaves of gold like these.  It could have happened if you had been  a French aristocrat living  during the 18th century.   

Something about the vivid colors that come with autumn here in the northeastern United States reminded me of brocade dore (gold brocade).   The French have a name for these papers - feuillets à vernis doré -  which translates roughly to 'leaves painted with gold' and it was from French that I first learned about them, and then that they  were a German creation.   First manufactured in the city of Augsburg around the end of the seventeenth century, the papers were used by  bookbinders to decorate special editions.   The French were quick to borrow the custom but it took decades for them to master the creative process, so that when the philosopher Diderot used them to wrap the volumes of his monumental Encyclopedia in the 1750s, the papers he used were still imported from Germany.  

There were two types of gold papers, varnished or embossed.    To make a varnished paper (Bronzefirnispapiere) a paste of shellac mixed with bronze powder, copper, tin or brass was used to coat the paper.  The paper was then passed through a press, after being stenciled with a design. Varnished papers were gradually superseded by embossed papers (Brokatpapiere), sometime between 1720-1730.  Embossed papers, as their name implies, had a raised surface and the additional dimension. The papers were primed with a metal alloy and then pressed with heated metal plates.   Any residue of metal was dusted off.  

Styles varied too.   German  prints  were designed with human characters or animals scattered among the flowers, fruits, and foliage whereas the French taste leaned toward more rational arrangements based on  small geometric patterns of stars, circles, etc. Here  very autumnal colors appear in an early French gold leaf print, dated 1710, by Jean-Rene Jouenne,  a chevalier in the King's army.   If you look  through the colors, you see a symmetrical arrangement around a central axis, suggesting a tree trunk.

For more go to Conde Library at Chateau de Chantilly.
The exhibition Papiers de garde dores at the Conde Library  in 2005 was the first major display of the gold leaf papers in France.
And for an entirely different and amazing version of packaging as art, read How To Wrap Five Eggs by Hideyuki Oka, New York, Weatherhill: 2008.

1. apricot and gold paper, German State Library (Staatsbibliothek), Berlin.
2. green on copper, German State Library, Berlin.
3. Jean- Rene Jouenne (or Jouanne) comte d'Esgrigny, Mesnil, and Hervilly,  Paris, 1710,  University Library (Bibiotheque universitaire), Poitiers.
Giovanni Francesco Maria de Pretis of Urbino, 1706, University Library, Poitiers.
Stepahnus Salagius - animal print, 1778,   University Library, Poitiers.
bronze relief on varnished gold paper