January 2013

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Jay Heikes, Ear of Dionysius, Collection Walker Art Center

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis will be mounting a show of paintings in February, their first group painting show in 10 years. Titled Painter Painter, the exhibit has been co-curated by Bartholomew Ryan and Eric Crosby. I was intrigued—and heartened—by their selection process, their view of the state of painting, and the easy informality of their approach. Here are a few passages from each of them, chosen because they rang true for me:

Ryan:

Painting has always been a somewhat fraught medium, and particularly so over the last 30 to 40 years. Both Eric and I avoided bringing the more trenchant dogmas associated with it into our conversations with the artists. We wanted to be more attentive to the work on its own terms and try to figure things out from there. So our earliest questions were really simple, for instance: why choose the materials of painting today, at a time when artists can work in so many other ways?

We were also interested in a question related to some of the work being made now, which one often hears from older generations of curators, historians, and even artists, which is “Where is the criticality?” There is a certain expectation today that if a painter is to continue as a painter, there has to be some basic level of self-reflexivity, some wry acknowledgment of the problematic status of continuing to paint in a postmodern era, when painting itself has been toppled from its lofty perch. I think that’s been a good thing up to a point, but it has become deadening and knee-jerk. Many of the artists in our show have consciously sidestepped that way of framing their work, and they find more interesting things to think about.

Crosby:

There’s also something about the resolute materiality of painting that continues to attract artists. These are objects that follow deeply subjective and individual ways of thinking, as expressed through specific materials. In this show you will see works that are stained, collaged, sprayed, cut up, stitched, assembled, glued, smeared, rubbed, and so on— some works are years in the making. Painting offers a frame for contact with this very physical presence. It’s a vivid contrast with our daily routine, where we experience so many images by using a cursor, linking to them, altering them, navigating away from them. Painting resists this kind of experience. A lot of artists today embrace that notion to an extreme. They go where the materials take them, not where the history of painting tells them to go.

The Walker exhibition features Matt Connors, Sarah Crowner, Fergus Feehily, Jay Heikes, Rosy Keyser, Charles Mayton, Dianna Molzan, Joseph Montgomery, Katy Moran, Alex Olson, Scott Olson, Zak Prekop, Dominik Sittig, Lesley Vance, and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung.

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Zadie Smith

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We all have our heros, and Zadie Smith is one of mine. After reading her first novel, White Teeth (written at the age of 22 no less) in 2000, I was hooked.

So of course I was in one of the front rows of very full auditorium at the MFA on Thursday night to hear her speak. Very pregnant but still her gracefully statuesque self, Smith’s lecture was titled Why Write? She said her thoughts on that topic were written as a lecture for her students at NYU. But her wisdom is ageless and timely for all of us—including creatives in other fields—and at no point is she telling anyone what to do or how to do it. “I hate the patronizing of the young,” she said at some point. That attitude, combined with her spectacularly clear intelligence, talent and presence, would suggest that she is a gifted teacher as well.

The spirit of her thinking is captured in her list of 10 rules for writers published in The Guardian last year. It is so Zadie Smith—straightforward, thoughtful, poetic, and never condescending.

1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.

5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.

7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.

8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.

10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

A few other comments she shared on Thursday night stood out for me. She sees us entering a new era that redefines the relationship between the writer and the reader. She like writing essays because the goal is to be as clear as possible. “Novels, on the other hand, are a messier prospect.” While she was raised with the “western canon” during her education in the U.K., she doesn’t believe it is a viable concept anymore.

These phrases also stood out for me:

“Writing is my way of achieving radical ambiguity.”
“Disperse yourself in language.”
White Teeth—That’s juvenilia to me now.”

When asked which authors influence her, she said her husband (Nick Laird) is the first to read what she writes because “he is in the house after all” (this was not delivered with a dismissive tone, just practical.) The only other writer she mentioned by name whose work she loves was George Saunders*. When she said his name I had to smile: There I sat, in the Remis Auditorium, listening to Zadie Smith, with Saunders’ latest book, The Tenth of December, on my lap. But then again, of course. I have a connection with her that runs deeper than a book or two.

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*My recent blog post about Saunders can be read here.

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Charles Burchfield, “Moon and Thunderhead”

There are many craftsmen who paint pleasantly the surface appearances and are very clever at it.

There are always a few who get at and feel the undercurrent, and these simply use the surface appearances selecting them and using them as tools to express the undercurrent, the real life.

If I cannot feel an undercurrent then I can only see a series of things. They may be attractive and novel at first but soon grow tiresome.

There is an undercurrent, the real life, beneath all appearances everywhere. I do not say that any master has fully comprehended it at any time, but the value of his (or her) work is in that he had sensed it and his work reports the measure of his experience.

It is this sense of the persistent life force back of things which makes the eye see and the hand move in ways that result in true masterpieces. Techniques are thus created as a need.

–Robert Henri

This is such a simple idea but one that feels so close to my sense of how things are in the studio. It is a metaphor that applies to both the making as well as the viewing of art.

It was my sense of just that—a powerful undercurrent—that knocked me out when I saw Robert Gober‘s brilliant show of Charles Burchfield‘s work that was on view a few years ago at the Hammer Museum in LA as well as the Whitney in New York. Gober’s selection of work made it so easy to enter into Burchfield’s paintings in a new and revelatory way, something I had never done before. Burchfield was a nature mystic, and he felt the life force in nature. Amazingly he also found a way to capture that undercurrent in his work. Since piercing through and into that sense of things, I cannot approach a Burchfield painting without feeling that energy. Some are better than others of course, but that undercurrent is so present and so there in his work.

(For those of you in the Boston area, I just discovered three new Burchfields. They are hanging unassumedly in rooms adjacent to the Addison Museum at Philips Academy in Andover. Just ask to see them.)

A note on Robert Henri: His book from which the above passage is taken, The Art Spirit, was foundational reading for me when I first became an artist. Henri is probably better known today from that collection of his teachings—assembled by a former student, Margery Ryerson—than from his paintings although many of his works are very memorable. He also left an extraordinary legacy as a teacher. (He taught at the Art Students League, still an ongoing institution in New York, from 1915 til 1927.) Some of his more famous students include George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

Other posts on Charles Burchfield on Slow Muse:

Burchfield on my Mind

The Artist Curator Advantage

The Intuition Deliminator

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The last page of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations

.
.
.
Life Is Not What You

expected — cows
ruminate by the highway
even in rain or bat their
ears forward and back and how
you thought the story of your life
would get told: the children you thought
you’d already have by now partially grown
books and other accomplishments — houses
owned cities seen lakes traversed — and now
we’re stuck in traffic
and it’s not even rush hour
with the hurricane storm
moving slowly north from Alabama.
How come it’s raining here already
somewhere south of Albany — just one
damned thing after another and those
injections you’ve had to give yourself and
your dad’s bypass surgery. Just look:
Evening primrose all along the roadside match
the painted line and Queen Anne’s lace
on the other side rows of young corn
joe-pye weed blurred to Scottish heather.
When you go for a walk blackberries have started
ripening you    pluck two
from each bush notice tadpoles suck air
along the fountain’s rim. Such small swishings
of joy maybe
this is it — every day puts forth a new song deer flies
dive-bombing your head when the breeze
lets up —

–Sharon Dolin

This poem brings feelings to the surface that are closely aligned with those I felt after seeing the Boston production of Moisés Kaufman‘s 33 Variations. Juxtaposing Beethoven‘s creation of the inimitable Diabelli Variations with the slow demise of a passionate but overly cerebral musicologist from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, the play is full of missed opportunities to seize the day and celebrate life, those “small swishings of joy.” As dire as the circumstances in this story are, the play’s ending is a redemptive one as the characters assemble on stage to dance a minuet to variation #33, the final from Beethoven’s masterful work. All the time we are holding the knowledge that this work, probably the greatest variation ever written, was created by Beethoven from a simple beer hall waltz during the years when he was losing his hearing. No, life is not what you expected. Yes, life is not what you expected.

Thank you to Linda Crawford for sending me Sharon Dolin‘s poem.

Note: 33 Variations, starring Boston’s own inimitable Paula Plum, is at the Lyric Stage through February 2.

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Saville Wisdom

Jenny Saville in her Oxford studio
Jenny Saville, photographed in her Oxford studio, June 2012. (Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer)

Some memorable quotes about Jenny Saville from an article in the Guardian last year, Jenny Saville: ‘I want to be a painter of modern life, and modern bodies’:

***
Painting is my natural language. I feel in my own universe when I’m painting. But, in Britain, there has been a drive in art schools to describe and to rationalise what it is that you’re making, and that is a death knell to painting. Painting doesn’t operate like that. It works on all the irrational things. If you stand in front of Willem de Kooning’s Woman, I, you can’t unravel with words how that works on you. In America, painting is embraced, perhaps because one of the last great moments of painting was in New York, with de Kooning and Pollock.”

She hesitates. “I’m not anti conceptual art. I don’t think painting must be revived, exactly. Art reflects life, and our lives are full of algorithms, so a lot of people are going to want to make art that’s like an algorithm. But my language is painting, and painting is the opposite of that. There’s something primal about it. It’s innate, the need to make marks. That’s why, when you’re a child, you scribble.”

***
Later, she was encouraged by her uncle, an art historian, to whom she remains close (he lives near her studio in Oxford; they like to eat lunch together, and talk about Prussian blue). “When I was about 11, he gave me a section of hedge, and told me to observe it for a whole year. So I did, and I learnt such a lot about how nature shifts, and the necessity to really look.”

She sees my face. “It wasn’t weird at the time! It’s only weird when I tell other people. I’m so grateful to him. Later on, he took me to Venice, and it wasn’t just that he said this is Titian, and this is Tintoretto, or whatever. At six o’clock one morning, we went to draw at the fish market at the Rialto bridge. Great art wasn’t something far away; it was part of life. We would go and drink in the same bar Rembrandt drank in; it was as fundamental as that in terms of the working life of the artist.

Once again I feel a commonality with Saville. Our work is very different, but our views often overlap.

Previous posts on Slow Muse about Jenny Saville:

Truth, Lies and Dodges

Subservient to Painting…More on Saville

Jenny Saville in Boston

Schjeldahl on Global Feminism

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Ada Louise Huxtable photographed in the 1960s (Photo: Landmarks45.org)

During my coming of age as an artist, Ada Louise Huxtable‘s architectural criticism informed so many of my ideas about buildings, cities, preservation, city life, aesthetics. One of the first books I read after moving to Manhattan in the early 70s was Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Blvd? Back then big battles raged over what to do with a badly blighted Times Square, advocacy of the then-controversial idea of historial preservation, and the deadening loss of intimacy from the rash of skyscrapers on pilotis built along 6th Avenue. She was a defender of cities and city living, with a wicked pen that spoke truth to power undaunted. Her writing and her ideas made an indelible difference to the future of New York. She was, through it all, a paragon of fierce grace.

Since her death on January 7th at the age of 91, tributes to her are showing up everywhere. I spent some time this week reading what others had to say about her and marveling at her extraordinary body of work. For those of us who pay close attention to how to do your work and do it well right until the end, she cracked the code. In the words of architecture critic Fred Bernstein, “A critic hopes to produce significant work at 31 or 51, but Ada Louise was exactly as good at 91, writing about the Public Library proposal, as when she took the reins at the New York Times in 1963.” Teach me how to do that.

Below are a few excerpts from the many remembrances of Huxtable that can be accessed in excess online. These are a few of my favorites.

***
There was no mistaking what Ms. Huxtable liked — Lever House, the Ford Foundation Building and the CBS Building in Manhattan; the landmark Bronx Grit Chamber; Boston’s City Hall; the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington; Pennzoil Place in Houston — and, even more delectably, what she did not.

“The new museum resembles a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops,” she wrote in 1964 about the Gallery of Modern Art at 2 Columbus Circle. Her description came to be synonymous with the structure itself, “the lollipop building,” and was probably more familiar to New Yorkers than the name of the architect: Edward Durell Stone.

***
“Albert Speer would have approved,” she said in 1971 about his Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, linking Mr. Stone indirectly to the Nazis’ chief architect. “The building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried.”

***
Her interest in preservation did not make her an enemy of modernity. In “The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style” (1984), Ms. Huxtable said the glass curtain-wall skyscraper, epitomized by the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, offered “a superb vernacular, probably the handsomest and most useful set of architectural conventions since the Georgian row house.”

What infuriated her were “authentic reproductions” of historical architecture and “surrogate environments” like Colonial Williamsburg and master-planned communities like the Disney Company’s Celebration, Fla. “Private preserves of theme park and supermall increasingly substitute for nature and the public realm, while nostalgia for what never was replaces the genuine urban survival,” she wrote in “The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion” (1997).

***
Ultimately, however, what animated and sustained her were not the mistakes but the triumphs. As she said of New York City in The Times in 1968:

“When it is good, this is a city of fantastic strength, sophistication and beauty. It is like no other city in time or place. Visitors and even natives rarely use the words urban character or environmental style, but that is what they are reacting to with awe in the presence of massed, concentrated, steel, stone, power and life.”

David Dunlap, New York Times

One of her last pieces was a review for the Journal of the new museum housing the Barnes Collection of art in Philadelphia. “How does it feel to have one’s core beliefs turned upside down? The ‘new’ Barnes that contains the ‘old’ Barnes shouldn’t work, but it does,” she wrote in May 2012. “And it isn’t alchemy. It’s architecture.”

Stephen Miller, Wall Street Journal

***
Marblehead is the subject of the Huxtable quote I love best. Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2011, she was commenting on the work of an architect who designs houses in imitation of the styles of the past. Huxtable wrote that the architect’s historic details were so accurate they amounted to a kind of perfection. “Full confession: I am no fan of perfection,” she wrote. She then used Marblehead to explain what she meant:

“I have spent a good part of my life in a small New England town with a priceless American heritage where such over-the-top perfectionism simply does not exist. There are offbeat and off-kilter compromises by carpenter-builders trying to follow the examples in English pattern books in the new towns of the New World, dealing with costs and shortages, substituting materials, inventing their own details. The 18th-century house built for the richest man in town is made of wood cut in blocks to simulate stone that was not available. This place is genuine; its buildings retain the hallmarks of its history, something that can never be imitated or reproduced, and there is not a perfect thing anywhere — for which I am eternally grateful.”

Writing about the world we build and inhabit doesn’t get any more eloquent than that. Not wanting things to be perfect and showoffish, but instead embracing the whole of life with its multiplicity and complication: That was Huxtable.

***
The Huxtable piece that made the most difference to New England was probably her unforgettable blast, way back in 1968, against a plan to demolish the riverfront textile mills of Manchester, N.H., and replace them with parking lots. “Lessons in Urbicide” was the title of her piece, which appeared in The New York Times. She wrote: “The story of the destruction of the Amoskeag mill complex that has formed the heart of Manchester, N.H., for over a hundred years has a terrible pertinence for the numberless cities committing blind mutilation in the name of urban renewal. . . . We are making a dull porridge of parking lots and cheap commercialism, to replace the forms and evidence of American civilization.”

“Urbicide,” “blind mutilation,” “dull porridge”: Huxtable had a delightful gift for finding nasty words to describe architectural evil. The article was an early cry for help on behalf of the monuments of America’s industrial past. The Amoskeag mills survived and acquired new uses. New England was never the same.

***
Huxtable loved whatever is real, regardless of fashion or the vagaries of taste, and she hated any kind of phoniness. She was the first to point out to me that the term “authentic reproduction” is an absurd oxymoron. Marblehead was a relief for her from the hyper-competitive, fashion-conscious culture of New York. Her house was livable but ordinary, thus fitting right in to Marblehead. I think she was secretly proud that it lacked the slightest trace of architectural finery.

Robert Campbell, Boston Globe

One of Ada Louise’s most endearing characteristics was her sharp sense of humor. In the course of the many years of architectural discussion I was fortunate enough to enjoy with her, she invariably came up with a bon mot that encapsulated her opinion. An example of this was her description to me of Lincoln Center’s 1960s architecture as “soft modernism.” That witty censure was made in 2009, just as Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s various renovations at Lincoln Center were nearing completion—renovations that I was thinking of including in a book. With her usual generosity of spirit, she suggested we visit the Juilliard School together.

Granted, in 1969 Ada Louise had been less harsh in her criticism of Eero Saarinen’s Vivian Beaumont Theater and Pietro Belluschi’s Juilliard than she was of the Center’s other buildings. But now, standing across Broadway from the school, she went so far as to pronounce the glazed façade that had replaced the school’s stolid masonary front “a miracle from the street.” As on other occasions, Ada Louise went from humor to an inspiring seriousness.

Victoria Newhouse, Architectural Record

***
If library officials thought that they could deter Ada Louise, they were mistaken. She plowed on and her excoriating analysis of the developer-driven decision of the library to flip some branches for cash came out on December 3, just about a week after her return to the city from Marblehead. As usual, with a complete grasp of the advantages, the deal-making, the reputations and the hollow promises, Ada Louise cut to the chase, writing: “A research library is a timeless repository of treasures, not a popularity contest measured by head counts, the current arbiter of success. This is already the most democratic of institutions, free and open to all. Democracy and populism seem to have become hopelessly confused.” She understood that a city is only as great as the intelligent community it fosters, and her own writings have sharpened our views and expectations of the city that she loved from near and far.

***
She infuriated the hidebound developers who otherwise felt free to inflict their lowest-denominator horrors on the city. I’m sure Times editors fielded countless enraged calls from the cadres who thought they controlled all of the levers of power. Thanks to Ada Louise, they didn’t always.

James Russell, Architectural Record

She knew, of course, that the management of the paper was not visually inclined, and that her editors often knew less about her subject than her readers. And she knew, more importantly, that she would convert them to visual literacy not by lecturing them about their ignorance about architecture and design, but through the strength and clarity of her writing. She was too urbane to be a missionary, and too subtle to be a crusader. She was a writer, and a journalist, and she knew how to trust her own eye, and how to write a good sentence. On that combination, we might say, was the whole modern profession of architecture criticism built, since all of us stand on her shoulders.

Paul Goldberger, Architectural Record

Kicked A Building Lately? Well, have you? That question, the title of the 1976 collection of Ada Louise Huxtable’s work for the New York Times, embodies her approach to criticism. It is active, it is irreverent, it is personal, it is physical, and it puts the onus simultaneously on the critic and on her public to pay attention. To kick the tires of a building you have to be present at its creation and its completion. You have to let yourself be small beside it, walk around it, walk up the steps, pick (delicately) at the the joints, run your fingers along the handrail, push open the door. You have to let yourself stand back, across the street, across the highway, across the waterfront, and assess. And then you have to go home and write exactly what you think, in simple language, marking a path through history, politics, aesthetics, and ethics that anyone can follow. I love her writing but the first lesson I teach is that attitude. Architecture is for us, the public, and it is going to get scuffed.

Alexandra Lange, Design Observer

And a few random but memorable Huxtable quotes:

“Washington is an endless series of mock palaces clearly built for clerks.”

“An excellent job with a dubious undertaking, which is like saying it would be great if it wasn’t awful.”

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Nowists United

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Joi Ito, my favorite nowist

The selection of Joi Ito as Director of the MIT Media Lab in 2011 was a departure from the norm. A former nightclub DJ and college dropout turned venture capitalist, Ito is a selfmade entrepreneur, visionary, “adventure capitalist”, tech guru. In recent interviews, Ito has shared his approach to innovation now that he is at the helm of one of the world’s top computing science labs. Reading his words is like encountering a blueprint for how I need (and want) to be and do in my studio. Creativity is creativity after all, but it is comforting—and less isolating—when science and art spill over into each other’s worlds.

Here are some excerpts from a recent post that demonstrate some of those commonalities:

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It has always been my opinion that “education” is something people do to you, whereas “learning” is something you do for yourself. Consequently, the only thing I learned in school was typing. In the old days, people like me who don’t have college degrees had a hard time thriving in society. But today, the ability to learn on your own or from your peers has become really easy. I think this change is leading to a fundamental disruption in education. Independent and lifelong learning are really starting to peak—there is an inflection point coming around how people learn.

***
I don’t believe in futurists that much anymore—they are usually wrong. I’m calling myself a “nowist,” and I’m trying to figure out how to build up the ability to react to anything. In other words, I want to create a certain agility. The biggest liability for companies now is having too many assets; you need to learn how to be fluid and agile.

It’s kind of a spiritual thing. You want to have your peripherals wide open and adapt as quickly as you can. I think that will be an important survival trait of people and companies in the future…What I’m searching for are people and things that don’t fit anywhere: The misfits of society.”

A nowist. What a great word to also describe what a “trust the process” artist strives for. The ability to react to anything. To be agile. Fluid. And a bit of a misfit.

And yes, I would agree with Ito: It IS kind of a spiritual thing.

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George Saunders (Photo:Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Joel Lovell has written the cover article for the Sunday New York Times Magazine about the writer George Saunders. Much more than just a portrait of Saunders—which is reason enough, certainly—Lovell’s article is full of interstitial wisdom, a handfull of small but meaningful vignettes, and a respectful generosity of spirit in bringing the personal to bear.

Lovell seems to have a singular gift for connecting with a particular kind of artist/writer. Best exemplified by the iconic work of David Foster Wallace, these are creatives who do their work while carrying a fully loaded viewfinder of how life is being lived in this complex, paradoxical, unjust and baffling world. To create while holding that burdensome reality is taxing and exhausting. It is also at the opposite end of the spectrum from the intentional isolation I seek in my studio. But I have great respect (and frankly, awe) for anyone who can hold that position. It produces work with a deep moral center that has the gravitational weight to hold the heavy, harsher truths as well as those fleeting bosons of redemption.

Saunders is such a writer, and so is Kenny Lonergan who Lovell also wrote about here in the Times Magazine a few months ago. Lovell has an unselfconscious ease with these kinds of people. That Saunders is a practicing Buddhist is mentioned in passing, but Saunders’ Buddhist detachment—deep caring about the world but not attached—is respectfully represented in this portrait.

Here are a few passages from the piece on Saunders that capture some of that quality.

Saunders shares his experience of being on a commercial flight when a serious malfunction had everyone on board sure that a crash was inevitable.

“For three or four days after that,” [Saunders] said, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.”

You could call this desire — to really have that awareness, to be as open as possible, all the time, to beauty and cruelty and stupid human fallibility and unexpected grace — the George Saunders Experiment. It’s the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is “the writer for our time.” Still, if we were to define “our time” as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness — if we define “our time” in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.

This is an elegiac yet painful description of real life:

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”

And lastly, this metaphor for art making which I found so memorable:

“I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut. “He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . In fact, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ seemed to be saying that our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

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Rehearsing for Pippin at A.R.T. (Photo: Dina Rudick/Boston Globe)

In my previous post I wrote about how surprising it was to find such striking beauty in the overstated, extremist interior of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. It brings to mind one of my art professor’s words to me from so long ago, “To make a great painting you have to push it to the edge where it almost doesn’t work.” That has been a very useful insight that applies to many things in life, not just for my own art making.

Case in point, Diane Paulus‘ latest production of Pippin at A.R.T. A big hit on Broadway 40 years ago, Pippin was an unexpected inclusion (IMHO) for the 2012-13 season. Having seen it on Broadway in 1973, I had cataloged it away as musical comedy light (as opposed to the musical comedy dark of Sweeney Todd) that was saved from vapidity by Ben Vereen‘s spectacular performance as the Leading Player.

And yet now that I have seen it I see that it is a perfect fit for Paulus’ well known mission for A.R.T. to “expand the boundaries of theater by experimenting with a new physical vocabulary of musical theater storytelling.” Fresh from her critical success with an updated adaption of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and her work with the Cirque du Soleil on their latest creation, Amaluna, Paulus is on a roll. For a play that questions the viability of our desire to be exceptional, she is just that. Exceptional.

This new Pippin feels smart, sharp and utterly beguiling. Paulus cooks up a wild concoction of disparate memes to make this feel very fresh—the musical theater tradition of the 50′s, Bob Fosse-esque swivel hipping (he actually was the choreographer for the original production), Cirque du Soleil circus acrobatics by way of Montreal’s Gypsy Snider and Les 7 doigts de la main, and the structure of a morality play that traces with sincerity the journey for self-knowledge. With that armature in place, add the best of the best creative team (since Paulus has connections with just about everybody doing great work in theater these days)—hot shot Tony award winning designer Scott Pask (Book of Mormon, Coast of Utopia); Dominique Lemieux, one of of the original Cirque du Soleil costume designers; choreographer Chet Walker, heir apparent to Bob Fosse; lighting designer Kenneth Posner; music supervisor Nadia DiGiallonardo, among many others.

Then there is the cast. Pattina Miller is toweringly terrific as the Leading Player (sorry Ben Vereen, you don’t own that role any more my friend). Matthew James Thomas combines a strong stage presence with the necessary innocence of a jejune Pippin. Hell, everyone is good—singing, dancing, interacting, entertaining, working as a well oiled ensemble. Is this production ready for Broadway? Lock, stock and barrel.

And while all the pieces come together so well, Paulus doesn’t lose connection with the substance of the story.

In Paulus’ words:

Pippin deals with an incredibly serious subject: how far would you go to be extraordinary? Will you burn yourself alive to be extraordinary?…This question is deeply relevant to our lives today. It can be relevant to anyone, from an eighteen-year-old trying to figure out the meaning of their life, to a middle-aged person trying to assess what they’ve achieved in their life. What are the choices we make to pursue a life that is “extraordinary”?

What I love about Pippin is that all of this is expressed through a theatrical metaphor. The show is a play within a play. It’s about a troupe of players who are enacting this ritualized performance. In the world of the play, to be extraordinary is to perform “the Grand Finale.” It uses theater as a metaphor for examining one’s own life.

Friends who know me will be shocked that I am advocating for a musical comedy. But like the Sagrada Familia, this wild concoction takes it to the extreme but finds that sweet spot where it works. While Gaudi may have to intercede from across the veil to get his beloved cathedral in Barcelona completed, Paulus is very much among the living and applying her prodigious skills to a steady stream of inventive and ingenious productions.

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The first time I went to Barcelona, Franco was still in power. Catalan, like the rest of Spain, was cautious and dark, well aware of the harsh boot of his repressive regime. That was 1970.

My photos from that visit are buried in a box somewhere in my basement, but I remember making a pilgrimage to the infamous Sagrada Familia. Described by some as Gaudi‘s Sacred Monster, its outrageousness was astounding even in its legendary incompleteness. Its over the top, kitschy extremism was in strong opposition to the supremicist vision of the sleek internationalist style being built all over the world. This strange structure, purportedly based on the intentions of its primary architect who died in a tram accident in 1926, was a massively retro and anachronistic project. The interior was indecipherable to me above the obfuscating net of scaffolding, and the facades were in various stages of “not sure where this is going” confusion. I wasn’t moved so much as I was amazed by its eccentricity. But memorable. That it was that for sure.

Over the next 40 years I passed through Barcelona 4 more times. Franco died in 1975. Catalan began reclaiming its extraordinary heritage and pride. Barcelona became one of Europe’s top tourist cities, and the 1992 Olympics catapulted its reputation even further. Every stopover in Barcelona included the obligatory visit to Sagrada Familia. I began a relationship with that structure when I was 18 years old, and watching it evolve became something of a marker of time that had a personal twist. The story was that this massive project would never actually be finished. Don’t we feel that way about our own work as well?

This last visit to Barcelona was my first since Sagrada Familia was completed enough to be consecrated by Pope Benedict two years ago. Construction continues of course, with the building of additional towers and the construction of a new Glory facade. But for the first time in my life, the interior is scaffolding free. Even though I had been to the site many times before, I was unprepared for what that space has become. No longer just a Guadi creation, this is an assemblage of multiple architectural visions and convoluted variations of outrageous overstatement. But Sagrada Familia has become, for me, a place of overwhelmingly beauty and inspiration.

I did an early morning visit (the line for entry is long every day) with the family art historians, my daughter Kellin and her husband Sean. A great set of eyes combined with a staggering knowledge of Christian symbolism made them the best Sagrada Familia companions ever. We spent hours examining every element and sightline. (Kellin took the rest of our crew back for their visit the next day, putting together an iPhone-based presentation overnight to enrich their experience.) None of us is sure just why this overstated outrageousness works, but it does.

I get why architects dismiss it. It isn’t Gaudi’s creation any longer (In the 1960s, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto signed a petition requesting that it be left unfinished in its pure Gaudi-ness or turned over to a living architect to redesign.) But there is something in its essentially non-pedigreed architecture that captures the eye and the imagination.

From Rowan Moore’s 2011 review in the Guardian:

His building is dense with his fervour. It strives to compress all of earth and heaven into its structure – endless saints, biblical scenes, symbols, inscriptions, seashells, reptiles, birds, flowers and fruit. Time was captured through images of the seasons and holy dates. It was not just a thing of sight – the spires are designed for peals of bells, the nave for a choir of up to 1,500.

With its avoidance of straight lines and right angles, and its tree-like columns, it embodies Gaudí’s belief that he should follow nature. Above all, it has the property of fusion: on the Facade of the Nativity, the most significant part built in Gaudí’s lifetime, columns and arches melt into a viscous jism that foams, drips and procreates foliage, beasts and people. It then becomes the geological eruption that is the building itself, in whose spires and portals you can, without difficulty and should you wish, read further sexual images. No other architect has made stone look so fluid, so dissolving. It is not pretty, but that is not the point. As Salvador Dalí, an early fan, put it: “Those who have not tasted his superbly creative bad taste are traitors.”

Superbly creative sometimes carries the day.

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