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Harbor December (1956) To the Harborbormaster (1957) The Baltimore Museum of Art had to wait two, long, pandemic-years to open its Joan Mitchell retrospective. But finally, Harbor December and To the Harbormaster’s jittery wine-dark reds and cold-water greens are lapping the walls in Gallery 1, while the joyously mercurial La Vie en Rose and the exuberant Salut Tom warm the walls deeper in the exhibition. Mitchell was born to old-school wealth in watery, windy Chicago in 1925, spent some early obligatory years on the East Coast, and was a contemporary of the abstract expressionists who broke painting’s rules and assured the triumph of the New York School. But Mitchell was of that scene, not in it. Or in it but not of it. She began traveling to Paris starting in the mid-fifties, after successfully showing with the East Village heavy hitters at the Ninth Street Show, and ultimately bought a property in Vétheuil, northwest of Paris, where she, her paints, and her army of German shepherds lived until her death in 1992. Her paintings are a dynamic blend of Abstract Expressionism’ hardscrabble muscularity and France’s vibrant Post-Impressionist affair with life and color. As a synesthete, color was the lens through which Mitchell felt and saw the world. She was also an athlete, and her physical engagement with her canvases is evident. The intense verve of her work surprises over and over, and to walk through the galleries at BMA is to be awestruck. Never mind the violent darkness of some of them, nor what you may know about her prickly personality, her turbulent relationships, her fraught romance with scotch. Though she could be, at times, angry and bitter, her expressions in paint, even of her darker or more confused feelings, are rife with her urgent love of life. With many of the pieces on loan from private collections, and so rarely seen in public, the chronologically arranged show presents some small early pieces of figurative work along with photos, books of poetry by friends, and a looped video interview with the painter in her Vétheuil studio. There’s also a supplemental soundscape of letters, music, and poetry guiding the viewer through the galleries. The listener is privy to a personal tour of Mitchell’s thoughts and inspirations, from her early pieces that experiment with cubist obfuscation on through the creation of her masterworks and late paintings, including an homage to one of Van Gogh’s final paintings, Wheat Fields with Crows. Mitchell’s painting, an eight-foot-long diptych of wind-whipped evergreen and gold blowing across a mostly white ground is slyly titled No Birds. No omens, no doom, just the dark swirling wheat beneath a weather-heavy sky interspersed with… Wait. Is that pink!? Is the weather breaking? La Vie en Rose, indeed. No Birds (1987) Speaking of La Vie, if you’re lucky enough to live in New York City, that painting is usually on display at the Metropolitan Museum in their Modern and Contemporary Art wing. Ironically, (or perhaps not), this quintessential Joan Mitchell work... Continue reading
Posted Jul 5, 2022 at The Best American Poetry
The East Village of New York City in 1966 was a bohemian paradise. You could rent a decent sized apartment for about $200 a month; Saint Mark’s Church on East 10th and Second Avenue, one of the oldest churches in the city, was hosting rock bands, experimental theater, and poetry readings; and the 1960’s sense of “anything goes” was in full swing. Just two blocks down the avenue from the church was the Gem Spa newsstand and its famous Egg Creams, on the corner of Saint Mark’s Place and Second, and within a stone’s throw or two of that lived a good chunk of the second generation New York School Poets: Ted Berrigan, Alice Notely, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Bill Berkson, Dick Gallup. This community of poets, all in their 20s and early 30s, often hung out at each others’ apartments, cooked and ate dinners together, and riffed off each other for inspiration and collaboration. Enter the artist George Schneeman. Ron Padgett had met Schneeman several years before where he had been living in Italy, and Schneeman – with his affable openness, good humor, and background in poetry – fit right in with the group when he and his wife Katie decided to move into the ‘hood that year. Schneeman had already worked collaboratively with other American writers who had visited in Italy, but here in New York he would find a lifelong home and a cadre of friends for whom and with whom he would create some of the most warm and joyful works of their respective careers. A Painter and His Poets, on view at Poets House in Battery Park City, New York, until September 20, 2014, collects almost 100 of Schneeman’s works that involve these, and other, poets – book covers, posters for readings, artist/poet collaborations, and portraits of the poets themselves – in the largest retrospective of Schneeman’s collaborative works to date (the artist passed away in 2009). What stands out as the viewer wends her way through the poetry stacks to view the many pieces of the show is the sheer sense of fun these friends had creating art with each other. If there had been a group credo, which of course there wasn’t because this was an anti-credo kind of group, it might have been “Making art is serious work, but the work doesn’t have to look so serious.” If there was no sense of joy in the end creation, or in the process itself, then what was the purpose of making it? The works are characterized by the happy accidents that happen when collaborators have no plan for the outcome and no real aesthetic agenda. Most of the pieces are on simple poster board or paper, and Schneeman’s contributions are often found-images from old magazines, books, and newspapers. A typical work session might start out with George gluing one of these images – the front grill of an old car, a stylish fedora, a snippet of sheet music – onto the... Continue reading
Posted May 14, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
On September 12 in 2008, on a sunny Southern California day, Karen Green came home from a short errand to find her husband, who had been fighting severe depression, had hanged himself on their patio. On July 25, 2007, Francisco Goldman’s wife body-surfed for the first time while on vacation in Mexico, floated to the surface of the water immobilized after tumbling through a wave, and died the next day of complications from a severely damaged spinal cord. On December 30, 2003, as Joan Didion prepared dinner in the kitchen of her home in New York City, her husband slumped over in his armchair in the next room and died during cardiac arrest. The heart aches for the survivors of these sudden losses. The inexplicable tragedy, the depthless hole that’s left behind after the death of a life partner. If we, as mere observers, can imagine the pain of having to move forward through the days and weeks and months after such a cataclysm, the actual experience of it must be exponentially more wrenching. How do people get through such experiences? In the case of Karen Green, Francisco Goldman, and Joan Didion, part of their process is to write books: Bough Down, Say Her Name, and The Year of Magical Thinking. These three vastly different books chronicle certain commonalities of life after the sudden death of a partner – the disbelief, the self-blame, the numb reckoning. Beyond these commonalities, though, each book explores a very personal journey of grief – that monumental and volatile emotion that rushes through the hole of loss leaving the survivor confused, bereft, immobilized. Karen Green’s Bough Down (Siglio Press 2013) -- a series of prose poems, interspersed with the writers own small-scale collages -- opens with a snapshot review of the months before her husband’s suicide as if looking for evidence of what was to happen or a way to find the loophole that will allow a different outcome. It’s June, summertime, with shining moments of work in the garden, things being tended to assure their thrive and bloom, as a wife tends her sick husband so that he might, too. “I bake and you eat, digest. Vanish. I pray you back to me and there you are.” Menace, though, lurks, and there’s no way to unknow it: “(But) here my prayers are called prayers and are answered. Here I still see in color.” The first collage interrupts the narrative at page 15: a small note on which typed phrases have been affixed and partly rubbed out: September, and so it It has now Why the fu__ would anyone send me a pin I can’t even I miss And it’s p_______al His face His teeth In the last Why did ­_e The second collage follows on the next page, more broken lines and unanswered questions. And from here the timeline shifts, the story blurs. Minutes no longer follow their logical tick from one to the next. The husband’s there. He isn’t. There are people “offer[ing]... Continue reading
Posted Aug 20, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
We’ll never get to the bottom of who ripped the first T-shirt and wore it as an anti-fashion statement. Or who first pierced flesh with a safety pin and claimed it as an accessory of opposition. Or who first spiked his hair in defiance to wearing it “straight.” Truth is, in the Punk movement none of this matters anyway. Sure, there is something identifiable as “Punk Fashion,” but one’s manner of dressing is only an external marker for an internal attitude, a way of living that might best be summed up like this: “Fuck The Establishment.” And so the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current show “Punk: Chaos to Couture” is a bit of a conundrum. Couture is about as far away in its sensibilities from Punk as Luciano Pavarotti is from Joey Ramone. Punk is subversive, it’s about turning the world on its head. Punk is born of rebellion and the sheer creative joy of fucking up the norm. Couture, well…. Couture is the absolute highest end of fashion and elitism – it’s exclusive, it’s expensive, it caters to la crème de la crème, and it is, for all its finery and particularity, consumer fashion. It is The Establishment to the nth degree. It is not, nor will it ever be, Punk. That being said, the Couture clothing on display until August 14 is beautiful and provocative and clearly owes an extensive debt to the influential rips and tears and hardware and edgy de/re/con/struction of Punk. After three small introductory galleries attempt to tell the history of Punk -- mostly through looped film and soundtracks of the era’s seminal bands along with reconstructions of New York’s CBGB men’s room and London’s protopunk clothing store Sex -- the several galleries of the show are divided into various aesthetic categories: DIY Hardware; DIY Bricolage; DIY Graffiti and Agitprop; and DIY Destroy. DIY, of course, means Do It Yourself, and here’s the conundrum again: no single person who ever donned one of these outfits did anything about it him/herself except wear it, if anyone beside a model wore any of this clothing at all. Punks create their clothing themselves to be worn in everyday settings, they do it themselves for themselves and for purposes equally utilitarian as aesthetic. Would I wear any of the clothing on display? You betcha, in a heartbeat. There are leather jackets with crazily inlaid zippers; shirts made of interlocking gold-tone chain and safety pins; luxe organza and tulle ballgowns hand painted with swaths of rich jewel-tones; dresses and pants and skirts and tops adorned with staples and studs and spikes. Would I consider myself Punk if I ever got to slip into one of these wonders? No, I’d consider myself rich and lucky. Punk is a look that you earn and create, not a look that you purchase. The most intriguing of the galleries is the third portion of the introduction. On the center dais are fashions created by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren for Sex in the... Continue reading
Posted Aug 6, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
You are one lucky dog if you are in Iowa City, Iowa, tonight July 9, or in St. Paul, Minnesota, tomorrow July 10. You’ll get to go checkout the Graywolf poetry tour at either Prairie Lights Books or Common Good Books. I and about 50 other audience members were at the kick-off reading last night at BookCourt here in New York City, and what a yummy treat it was! Now, I’ve been to a lot of poetry readings, to which I sometimes say Ho-hum. I mean really, I love poetry – always have and always will, but sometimes: Poetry Reading: Ho-hum. Right? Not so last night. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something new in the air, something different. Something more than the usual lilting enunciation with the careful hold and lift at the linebreak. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – it’s the way so many of us have read poetry outloud for years. And I’m not saying we should all become masters of the art of the poetry slam – the sometimes in-your-face rapid fire of the rap and rant. But there’s something Sophie Cabot Black, Stephen Burt, and Brian Russell offered last night that’s in-between, something where the words were allowed to carry their meaning without so much “meaning” being emphasized. Sort of like we do in speaking. Yes, speaking. The words were allowed to carry their meaning in the same way they do when we speak, so that for the most part the poems last night were “spoken” rather than “read” outloud. How utterly refreshing! How full of fun and personality and conversation this reading was. The audience wasn’t being done unto, we were being talked to, engaged. Now, that doesn’t mean that the poetry was all light and funny and without depth and power. On the contrary. Many of the poems Sophie Cabot Black read, for instance, were about a dying friend. Her poems engaged, she said, in a kind of call-and-response to the poems the friend was writing in his final months. And so the conversational tone of them, the sense of discussion between the two poets, and the ongoing search for answers and meaning was able to shine through in the reading of “It Never Goes Away.” …We never know How much it takes, this business Of departure; you stare into the ocean Outdone by all you want. Enough Of what continues. Here it comes again, The turning of dark and dirt, unable to stop: Love, even with everything to be sad about. Likewise, the poems in Brian Russell’s book The Year of What Now create a narrative from a husband’s point-of-view of a wife’s serious medical diagnosis, her subsequent treatment, and the husband’s response. In his “speaking” of the poems Russell recited from memory, not looking at the page but rather telling the story directly to the audience. There was an element of good theater in his delivery, “good” meaning that Russell allowed the poems rather than the speaker to tell the story.... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
June 5 was the 115th anniversary of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s birth. Happy birthday, Freddy! LIVE from the New York Public Library threw a fine celebration for him on June 4, with readings of his work, readings of work he influenced, a dramatic performance of a lecture he gave expounding on his experience in the U.S. and the creation of Poet in New York, and a grand finale performance by Patti Smith, who recited two Lorca poems and sang a couple songs. It is Lorca who is credited with advancing the concept of duende as an aesthetic mode and artistic ideal. Literally speaking, a duende is a mythological creature –a goblin or a sprite – that causes mischief and disruption. The word is derived from the Spanish word for “owner” (dueno), and the implication is that the uncontrollable and out-of-hand is the true ruler of the world. Lorca’s vision of duende is that the artist needs to surrender to danger and disruption in order to get to the heart of his art. From the opening lines of his lecture: Well then, before reading poems aloud to so many people, the first thing one must do is invoke the duende. This is the only way all of you will succeed at the hard task of understanding metaphors as soon as they arise, without depending on intelligence or on a critical apparatus… Poems like these are not likely to be understood without the cordial help of the duende. The poets on hand this evening to pay tribute to Lorca – Philip Levine, Tracey K. Smith, Paul Muldoon, John Giorno – remarked on the danger of the duende, the risk involved in letting go of rational thought in surrender to deeper, darker forces. “The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible…The duende wounds. In the healing of that wound, which never closes, lies a man’s work,” Muldoon quoted from Lorca’s lecture “Theory and Play of the Duende.” The poet and musician Patti Smith has been surrendering to the duende for all 40 or so years of her remarkable career. Though her poetry hero is Arthur Rimbaud, certainly Lorca’s work is progeny of Rimbaud’s poetic call to disrupt the senses in order to find true meaning. Anyone who’s seen her perform knows that Smith channels forces from beyond and surrenders to wherever those forces take her through her performance. Likewise, the actor Will Keen, who interpreted selections from Lorca’s Poet in New York lecture, which is interspersed with poems from the book, gave a riveting performance that I’m sure convinced those new in the audience to Lorca’s work that he was worth getting to know better. An additional treat to the evening was Lorca scholar Christopher Maurer’s invitation to Lorca’s niece, Laura Garcia Lorca, to the stage to read several poems in their original Spanish. “Lorca had no wish to see his poems dead on the page,” said the evening’s host, Paul Holdengraber. As the celebration of... Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Tuesday, May 28, would have been May Swenson’s 100th birthday. In her lifetime Swenson was a playwright, a professor, a lesbian, a Mormon, a translator, a lover of nature, a feminist, a critic, and a poet. On the evening of her birthday this week, Poets House, Poetry Society of America and The Library of America got together in Poets House Kray Hall to celebrate the quiet beauty and integrity of Swenson’s life and work with a reading of selections from the recently published Collected Poems, a handsome edition designed for posterity by The Library of America. To be honored with publication by The Library of America is no small thing. The mission of this organization, founded 34 years ago and funded in part by seed money from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is to help “preserve our nation’s literary heritage by publishing…America’s best and most significant writing.” And yet, as several of this evening’s participants mentioned, Swenson’s sometimes deceptively simple poems are now often taught more in middle school than in graduate school. This definitive collection of her wider body of work, including some of her writings about poetry, will reintroduce readers to “the linguistic density, sonic intensity, and erotic charge” of the greater portion of Swenson’s work, as poet Sharon Dolon pointed out during her portion of the evening’s talk. It’s true, Swenson’s poems can be a little “sweet:” several of the poems read by the eleven poets, critics, and editors who participated in the evening elicited from the audience happy laughs and surprised exclamations of joy in their closing lines, as opposed to the solemn hums and grunts that “important” poems often receive. But what’s wrong with a little levity and delight in poetry from time to time? As the editor of the new book, Langdon Hammer, pointed out, “Swenson was popular and accessible in a century known for poetic difficulty.” For poetry to stay alive in the hearts and minds of the general public, every era must have a poet or two whose work, on the surface anyway, is simple and straightforward. Think Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Billy Collins. Every beginning reader of poetry will, if she’s so inclined, find her way to greater levels of difficulty and sophistication in poems only by starting with work that is more simple and straightforward. Very few of us started a love of poetry by reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Charles Olson’s Maximus poems, or Gertrude Stein’s “Sacred Emily” (“Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose.”) And yet, there is an underlying complexity to Swenson’s poems that presents itself variously as metaphor and double-entendre, economic exactitude of language, pinpoint line and word placement, and formal choices that are as pertinent to the poem as the words themselves. There is nothing wasted in Swenson’s poems, but the layers of even her simplest work reveal themselves to careful readers like the petals of an opening blossom. Here is “Four-Word Lines” in its entirety: Your eyes are just... Continue reading
Posted May 29, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Natasha Trethewey is the perfect poet for the 21st Century Obama-era United States. Her work embodies much that is current and important in today’s America as the country is being forced in so many ways to move out of its selfish childhood and into a more mature adult place in the world. To claim she is the most contemporary of poets may be a bit odd to say of someone whose poetry is so much steeped in the historical past. But as she examines history via her precise poetic dissections of paintings, photos and texts, and works to untangle her own story of her American heritage, she lays bare our country’s complex and often troublesome saga of race relations, white superiority, and hubris with all its lingering prejudices and bias. In 2007, Trethewey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her Native Guard, a series of poems that swings between the Civil War-, Ante-bellum-, and 20th Century-era South. Tretheway’s own parents (he white, she black) met in the early 1960s at Frankfort State College in Kentucky, and, as Trethewey writes in “Miscegention,” In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi; they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi. They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong – mis in Mississippi. Two poems later, in “Southern History,” she weaves herself into the story: Before the war, they were happy, he said, quoting our textbook. (This was senior-year history class.) The slaves were clothed, fed, and better off under a master’s care. I watched the words blur on the page. No one raised a hand, disagreed. Not even me. This would have been about 1984. It’s shocking that even then, the real story’s not being told. Trethewey’s most recent book of poems, Thrall, published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, traces the origins of the story back even further. At a recent reading at New York City’s Cosmopolitan Club, co-hosted by the University of Georgia, of which Trethewey is an alumna, she read exclusively from this book and talked a bit about her work. Thrall is an amazing book, the language leading the reader so gently into the brutal world of colonial dominion that we are smack in the middle of it, forced to look into the mirror of history before we can pull the cloak of denial over our eyes. Even the word “Thrall,” so close to “thrill” or “trill” and moving from the whispering “th” through its cascading “all,” does not imply the imprisonment of slave or captive that it actually denotes. In the four-part poem “Taxonomy,” the poet describes a series of 18th Century portraits that could, at quick glance, look like simple familial paintings or ones of a master and his slaves. But these are casta paintings, and they were created to codify the equations of mixed race families. Trethewey deftly incorporates lilting phrases like “crown of lace,” “soft curl of her hair,”... Continue reading
Posted May 24, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
(This is the fourth and last installment in a short series about the PEN World Voices Festival.) Every spring, for nine years running, the PEN World Voices Festival brings an astounding array of writers from all over the globe to New York City for a weeklong exchange of ideas and celebration of matters of literary exigence. Next year, even if you can get to only a few of the myriad events scheduled, you’ll get to be part of a remarkable conversation about life and literature that you won’t soon forget. Burma: Sunday, May 5, 2013. Burma’s Poetry Scene is active and vibrant. And so is its poetry scene. The former is sanctioned by The State and includes Heroic Verse about the Official History of the Country. It can be studied in schools and can be recited without fear of recrimination. The latter has sometimes been outlawed. It makes a distinction between The Glorious History of the State and personal history, between the sanctioned experience of The Citizens of the State, and the personal experience of the individual people who comprise Burma’s cities and countryside. Burma’s poetry, with a small “p,” glorifies language and learning and openness, and it has often been read and shared in only small teahouses and private homes. In its past it’s been fed carefully and secretively from the few scant volumes of international poetry that have been translated into Burmese from other languages. And though the Official Government does not accept the latter as Burma’s Official Poetry, it is celebrated for its bravery both here in the US and abroad. On the final day of PEN World Voices, the well-known Burmese poets Zeyer Lynn and Khin Aung Aye joined anthologist James Byrne to present a discussion and reading of modern and contemporary Burmese poetry as it is practiced by this dedicated and thriving community. Byrne, who lives in the UK, is the editor of the international poetry magazine, The Wolf, and he recently helped co-translate and co-edit a book newly available in the US, Bones Will Crow: An Anthology of Burmese Poetry. The three writers spent the afternoon choosing poems to read in both Burmese and English and discussing the fraught history of poetry in a country shackled by a military dictatorship that has had limited communication and interaction with the outside world and has all but quashed forms of expression not sanctioned by the state. Most notions of the modern world in general and of Modernism in art had to be carefully smuggled back in to Burma by students who studied abroad in the 1930s. Books and ideas were translated and traded clandestinely, while the approved channels of education remained woefully behind the times. As late as 1968, even forward leaning Burmese poets were deliberating the value of poetic devices like free verse and colloquial speech, devices that, while in common use in other poetries around the world, were still little used by contemporary poets of Burma. The poems read on this day, though, were... Continue reading
Posted May 19, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
(This is the third installment in a short series. Stay tuned for more about the PEN World Voices Festival.) Every spring, for nine years running, the PEN World Voices Festival brings an astounding array of writers from all over the globe to New York City for a weeklong exchange of ideas and celebration of matters of literary exigence. Next year, even if you can get to only a few of the myriad events scheduled, you’ll get to be part of a remarkable conversation about life and literature that you won’t soon forget. Obsession: Joy Harjo on Time: Friday, May, 3 2013. Imagine that Time is not merely the linear ticking off of seconds, one following the other in the ever-progressing movement of this moment to the next. Imagine instead that it is fluid, immense, infinite, and that you could dive in and out of it at any point you choose. Imagine that your daydreams and déjà vus, your waking thoughts of other places – even places you’ve never been too – are not merely idle wanderings or fluke tricks of the mind, but are actually travels to and knowledge of other realms. Imagine not dismissing these daydreams and sensations, but developing them, allowing them to flower as full experiences in their own right, and honoring them as real travels through and with Time, not just flights of fancy. Such is Joy Harjo’s experience with Time. For her, Time is a being that can be bent, one that can be worked with, altered, conjoined, entered into or exited from at various points other than the here and now. Time is Harjo’s “Obesession,” and her talk on Friday night was one of a new PEN mini-series that heard Lewis Lapham expound on Smoking, Andrew Solomon explore Sleep, Simon Critchley discuss Memory Theater, and Naomi Wolf muse on Truth. I suspect not a single one of these other intellects brought the audience to the mystical territory that Harjo reached in her travel through Time. In her recent memoir, Crazy Brave, Harjo opens with a very early childhood memory. “[S]omething happened that changed my relationship to the spin of the world. It changed even the way that I looked at the sun,” she writes. She then describes her first experience with “this suspended integer of time.” As she and her father are driving down the road on a hot Oklahoma summer day, the radio plays a jazz tune: I wonder what signaled this moment, a loop of time that on first glance could be any place in time. I became acutely aware of the line the jazz trumpeter was playing…I don’t know how to say it, with what sound or words…I followed that sound to the beginning, to the birth of sound. I was suspended in the whirling stars. I grieved my parents’ failings, my own life, which I saw stretching the length of that rhapsody. Is it possible for a human being to stand so far out from the fabric of Time she... Continue reading
Posted May 16, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
(This is the second installment in a short series. Stay tuned for more about the PEN World Voices Festival.) Every spring, for nine years running, the PEN World Voices Festival brings an astounding array of writers from all over the globe to New York City for a weeklong exchange of ideas and celebration of matters of literary exigence. This year’s theme was Bravery, and audiences were privy to diverse happenings that occupied 24 venues, included almost 120 writers, and brought to the public seventy-plus events. It would be impossible to attend everything on every day, but, next year, even if you can get to only a few, you’ll get to be part of a remarkable conversation about life and literature that you won’t soon forget. Resonances: Contemporary Writers on the Classics: Thursday, May, 2 2013. This is one of my perennial favorites of the Festival, always full of revelations and surprises. Four international writers each discuss the influence of a particular “classic” writer on his/her work, alongside brief readings from that writer’s work and his/her own. This year opened with the Glaswegian author James Kelman, who traced his palpable iconoclasm to Rene Descartes. Kelman’s “primary influence is not in the Anglo-American literary tradition,” and he finds blessings in his limited early education: “Fortunately I didn’t go through higher education, so I was not subject to writers I hated.” “I am sensitive to ideas of language, imperialism, identity,” he continued in lauding Descartes. The “Meditations,” in particular, are characterized by “the primacy of the individual’s vision,” an underlying anti-authoritarianism, and the emphasis of the unbreakable union of mind and body. Kelman’s latest US publication is the novel Mo Said She was Quirky, which Kirkus calls “A bracing stream-of-consciousness tale of life on London's lower rungs...a gritty and wise snapshot of urban life.” Descartes’s Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings is available as a Penguin Classic. Nadeem Aslam, whose family fled from Pakistan to the UK in 1980 for political protection, has a boyish soft-spokenness that neatly disguises his own devout politicism. “I vote every time I write a sentence,” Aslam stated, and invoked the Polish writer Bruno Schulz as his classic hero. “It’s almost as though a color of the spectrum would be missing if Bruno Schulz and not been alive and writing,” Aslam said, and read a passage from “The Street of Crocodiles,” a short story from the 1934 collection of the same name. Though clearly Schulz’s lush prose and “mythologized reality” has had its influence on Aslam’s own work, it is perhaps more the fearlessness of his life that has left the greatest impression on Aslam. Schulz, a Polish-Jew with great intellectual prowess, worked in the first half of the 20th century, a dangerous age for the author on many, many levels. He was 50 years old when was gunned down by a Gestapo officer on a street in his hometown in 1942. Nadeem Aslam’s latest novel is The Blind Man’s Garden, the second of his novels to explore the... Continue reading
Posted May 15, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
(This is the first installment in a short series. Stay tuned for more about the PEN World Voices Festival!) Every spring, for nine years running, the PEN World Voices Festival brings an astounding array of writers from all over the globe to New York City for a weeklong exchange of ideas and celebration of matters of literary exigence. This year’s theme was Bravery, and audiences were privy to diverse happenings that occupied 24 venues, included almost 120 writers, and brought to the public seventy-plus events. On Monday, April 29, you could hear Russian, Palestinian, Native American, Trinidadian, French, and American novelists, poets, playwrights, and journalists read from their work at the opening-night kick-off at Cooper Union’s Great Hall. On Tuesday you could choose from a gala honoring American novelist Philip Roth; a workshop with Caribbean writer Earl Lovelace; a talk with exiled Iranian non-fiction writer and novelist Shahrnuch Parispur; or a discussion of Memory Theater with British philosopher Simon Critchley. And that’s merely a sample of Tuesday’s events. It would be impossible to attend everything on every day, but, next year, even if you can get to only a few, you’ll get to be part of a remarkable conversation about life and literature that you won’t soon forget. Bravery in Poetry: Wednesday, May, 1 2013. The current executive director of the Poetry Society of America, Alice Quinn, introduced seven contemporary poets who, in turn, each discussed a poet whom he or she admired and felt brought bravery to their work. Particularly powerful were Yusef Komunyakaa’s veneration of Muriel Rukeyser, Eileen Myles’s ode to Akilah Oliver, and Hilton Als’s homage to Brenda Shaughnessy. Of the seven poets honored, Shaughnessy is the only living poet, and Als, justifiably, finds a great open courage in her newest collection Our Andromeda. He read her “I Wish I Had More Sisters,” which appeared in the September 20, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, where Als is a writer. On the surface, the poem is a perky ode to sisterhood – the closeness, the separateness, the camaraderie, the jealousy that so many sisters share. But lurking in this taut, sometimes funny, quickly-moving lyric, is the desire, the lack. The poem, which on the surface seems to be about the wonders of intimacy, hovers above the black hole of want, the emptiness of what isn’t there. Komunyakaa cited a “lack of hesitation” in Rukeyser’s work that moved her closer to “learning the so-called other,” and read “St. Roach” from her ultimate book The Gates, a collection of poems that were birthed by her experience as the president of the PEN America Center in the 1970s. The poem’s repetition of the phrase “For that,” which opens most of the lines, serves as a multilayered condemnation, first for the things the you of the poem is accused of, but also for the speaker of the poem for her received contempt of the other, for her willful ignorance and her prejudice. As the accusations reach their climax and the speaker... Continue reading
Posted May 13, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
The Lorca extravaganza continues! Don’t worry if you’ve missed some of the early events that have already happened New-York-City-wide in celebration of this poet of mystery and intrigue. There is plenty more to come. Happenings including film screenings, readings, talks, concerts, and exhibits of Lorca’s art, manuscripts, and personal possessions span through July 21. Plus, there is a beautifully re-packaged, newly released, updated version of Poet in New York available in stores now (FSG, $17) with reproductions and inclusions of some of the material that’s currently on view in the “Back Tomorrow” exhibit at the Wachenhiem Gallery in the Schwarzman Building of the NYPublic Library. If you are a Lorca fan, the new book and the exhibit are musts, and if you’re curious or ambivalent about his work, as I have been, this is a superb opportunity to explore why Poet in New York issuch a revered collection and why eighty-three years after Lorca’s fated visit to our fair city, his darkly conflicted vision of Gotham is as relevant as ever. My problem when I first tried reading Poet in New York in 2008, when the Grove edition of the poems came out, was a twofold mix of confusion: I wasn’t able to let my logical mind wander through the surreal images of the poems, compounded by the fact that I couldn’t grasp that someone would write a book about how much he hated New York. The first stanza of the book, from the poem “Back from a Walk,” is: Murdered by the sky. Among the forms that move toward the snake and the forms searching for crystal I will let my hair grow. The poem continues with four couplets of similarly quixotic and frankly negative images – limbless trees, broken-headed animals, a butterfly drowned in an inkwell – culminating with the repetition of the first line, “Murdered by the sky.” What was I, a lover of reason, beauty, and logic, not to mention a lover of New York City, to make of this opening poem? Since then, I’ve not only read the introduction to the poems – a practice I usually eschew until after I’ve read the entire book (I don’t want my experience to be tainted by someone else’s, but in this case it was immensely helpful) – but I’ve come to appreciate, if not entirely agree with, Lorca’s point of view. Lorca came to New York from Granada in 1929, when he was 31 years old, and was already known as a playwright and poet in his home country. His purpose in coming to the U.S. was not to seek fame and fortune, but to nurse a broken heart and have a new experience. He suspected he would dislike the city, but he needed a rearrangement of his senses, at least so said Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, former friends who panned his latest book, the popularly acclaimed Gypsy Ballads, as being dull and predictable. It’s fair to say that New York duly rearranged his senses and... Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Ai’s single poetic form was the dramatic monologue. Her seven books published between 1973 and 2010, collected in a hefty Norton edition released in February of this year, comprise almost two hundred pieces – monologues all – written in voices as various, profound, and quixotic as JFK, James Dean, General Custer’s wife, and her own family ancestors. Rarely does she repeat a character, and her rich imaginings of their individual lives, thoughts, and speech sustained her entire poetic career. Her earliest book, Cruelty, was published in 1973 when she was 26 and still fresh out of U Cal Irvine’s MFA program. The poems of this book are short, tight stanzas of concentrated hardscrabble, where labor, marriage, blood, dirt, loneliness and frustration, whirl themselves into evocative episodes of hard-luck and hard-living. These flint-like chips of poems, mostly hovering around 15-20 lines or so, have none of the well-known narrators or scenes that the future poems were to so famously develop over multiple pages, but their sharp scenes of spite, brutality, and despair sparked the fires of Ai’s following six volumes. Here is the title poem in its entirety: The hoof-marks on the dead wildcat gleam in the dark. You are naked, as you drag it up on the porch. That won’t work either. Drinking ice water hasn’t, nor having the bedsprings snap fingers to help us keep rhythm. I’ve never once felt anything that might get close. Can’t you see? The thing I want most is hard, running toward my own teeth and it bites back. Killing Floor, published in 1979, opens with the title poem, a three-part narrative that follows Leon Trotsky through Ai’s imaginings of his exile and nightmares of betrayal and assassination, from the Soviet Union into Mexico. The book establishes Ai’s movement toward appropriating the voices of known characters and the longer monologues that became her trademark. Not all her characters are known figures, in this or any of her subsequent volumes, but Killing Floor opens the door. From the Japanese writers Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata discoursing on their work, their loves, their inner lives, to Lope de Aquirre, a 16th century conquistador who dreams of El Dorado in the Amazon Basin but whose life ends in a familial murder/suicide in Venezuela, the stories are inspired and vivid. Ai’s gift is not so much as ventriloquist. While her vocabulary and diction do change some from poem to poem, the depth and strength of the poems derive from her ability to enter the heads and lives of her characters and articulate their thoughts and actions in intense and richly colored ways. Her two-part poem for Ira Hayes, the Native American Marine immortalized with six others in the iconic photo of the Iwo Jima flag-raising but who died an alcoholic death ten years later, finds him lying in a ditch, drunk on a Friday night, looking up to a moon, “the night hen’s yellow egg,” just before “a huge combat boot/punches a hole in the sky/and falls toward... Continue reading
Posted Apr 7, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Wunderkind/High school drop-out. Gifted artist/Street scribbler. Incredibly successful in his early 20’s/Heroin addict dead at 27. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life was a study in warring forces, forces that fueled both his painting and his addiction, forces that likely did him in in the end. He favored large, rough, cartoonish depictions of his subjects (mostly people), often painted on backgrounds of emphatic primary colors or garish aquas and oranges, finished with crayon and graffiti-like text. The paintings sold to elite collectors in the 1980s for astronomical prices, and they still do today. The Gagosian show is an excellent opportunity to look at the work again and consider it anew. Hung in the spacious 24th Street gallery, with ample natural light coming in from the windowed tops of the 20-foot walls, the paintings are as thrilling and as enigmatic as ever. The artist’s trademark faces are, for example, on the one hand grotesque and vulgar, more skulls than faces, with their grid-like teeth and wide empty circles for eyes. Yet they are also not only obvious homages to African masks and primitive paintings, many of them are essentially self-portraits. Then there are paintings like “Eyes and Eggs,” a fairly straightforward portrait of a line cook that one could view as a respectful depiction of the ordinary working man, yet the artist has imprinted the canvas with the tread of his sneakers as he walked all over it. The paintings themselves on first glance can seem slap-dash and crude, but a closer looks reveals the artist's many layers of working and reworking the image and its components. Was Basquiat a high artist intentionally looking to make cultural commentary with his raw form, or was he a merely a talented kid overly exalted by the art establishment who couldn’t quite pin down what he was trying to say after all? While many of the paintings can be read as a certain thumbing of his nose to the world of high art – while incorporating those very elements – one can also see a certain thumbing of his nose to himself and his work. Basquiat rode into the galleries on the wave of street graffiti artists who were being “discovered” in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, a world that essentially consisted of clandestine criminal activity that became oddly intertwined with the world of high art. Unlike most of the other street artists showing their work at the time, Basquiat didn’t paint subway cars or use spay paint for his work. Under the name Samo (Same-oh, as in Same Old), he markered short, pithy phrases and sentences on the buildings of lower Manhattan, a kind of street poetry whose remnants turn up in the later canvases. In 1980 Basquiat participated in an exhibit put on, in part, by Fashion Moda, a South Bronx artist space and collective that encouraged outsider and untrained artists. He also met the artist Andy Warhol that year. Most of the graffiti-artist darlings had very brief moments in the spotlight, but Basquiat... Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Matisse was part of the Fauvist movement – the “wild beasts” – a group of early 20th century artists known for their brash use of color and their emphasis on manipulation of paint as equal to, or more important than, true representation of form. The main members were Matisse himself and Andre Derain, whose vibrant portraits and landscapes are often comprised of multiple brushstrokes of startling and counter-intuitive hue. (Andre Derain, "Charring Cross Bridge," 1906, pictured above) The current Matisse exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reveals something utterly surprising about the master’s work: it is not so much his use of color that gives the paintings their depth and vividness. In actuality, the vast majority of his work comes alive the way it does because of his distinctive and forceful use of black. The exhibit is not your typical collection or retrospective of work. Rather, what we have are various incarnations of the same painting or subject hanging side by side. Typically, one or more of the pieces are painted with a nod to other contemporary painters’ style: We see Matisse using pointillism, for instance, in one of his depictions of the Gulf of Saint Tropez (top), then switching over to a more impressionistic stroke in another painting of the same scene (bottom). In the two portraits of the Young Sailor, he first painted with a more obvious, shorter brush stroke, then painted the next version in the flatter, overall-paint style that became part of his signature. According to the text of the exhibit, he didn’t necessarily consider these painting studies or think of one being more finished than the other. He often hung them side-by-side in exhibits, both as completed works. Apparently, people found it interesting for a while, but sometime in the 1920’s, viewers got bored with the repetition and Matisse fell out of favor. All the while, though, he was honing his mature technique, the flat swaths of saturated color juxtaposed with strong lines of texture and pattern. Almost all of those lines are bold black strokes, so bold, in fact, that they belie their simplicity and provide such vibrancy that the paintings become much, much greater than the sum of their parts. Look closely, for instance, at “Interior in Yellow and Blue.” Reduced to its components, it is merely two flat planes of blue in opposing corners bisected by an equally flat yellow. The objects – table, vase, chair, melons, lemons – are actually quite vague and abstracted. It’s the elegant lines of the wrought iron chair and table base; the squiggle on the melon rinds; the interlocking diamonds of the vase; the weighty outline of the lemons; and the leafy pattern of the background curtain that make the painting what it is. And yet, the lines are all quite simple. The effect of the flat angular plains, rich color, and all those black strokes give the paintings a deep dimentionality, an illusion of depth and texture, a lush richness that breaths life into... Continue reading
Posted Mar 1, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
In preparation for re-reading The Iliad and The Odyssey with a few friends, I’ve been taking in The Cambridge Companion to Homer and M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus. And I’ve enjoyed the insight, the speculation, the scholarship involved in parsing the puzzle of the pre-Homeric world. But sometimes, it seems to me, the scholars are taking this all a little too seriously. Consider this: Imagine, if you will, that the world as we know it is completely wiped out – all humankind, all buildings, cars, libraries, computers, animal life, plant life, all our daily accoutrements, all record that we ever existed. There’s not even any rubble with which to piece together the facts of our civilization. Everything, everyone is dust. Except for one thing, one thing remains as a document of our existence, a record that we were here. That one thing is a DVD of Oliver Stone’s most recent movie Savages. Now suppose that some marauding alien spaceship lands on our decimated earth and finds that one thing left of our entire history and civilization, they find that last existent copy of Savages. Naturally, said aliens pop the DVD into their playing device (go along with me here) and conclude that life, indeed, had existed on this earth, and they watch the DVD over and over and over again trying to figure out who we were, what our world was like, what happened to us and why. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve seen Savages or not to continue the scenario. It could be any action movie, any form of heroic popular entertainment. Think Jason Bourne of the Bourne Series, Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies, Tom Cruise of Mission Impossible. In Savages, the plot line is essentially this: Two highly successful Californian pot growers and distributors, Dan and Chon, are being pressured by the Tijuana drug cartel to give the cartel a cut of their business. The Californians are the heroes, essentially nice guys who just want to be left alone to do their thing. The Mexicans are violent, underhanded, moral-less. When the threat of violence isn’t enough to convince Dan and Chon to partner with the Mexicans, the Mexicans kidnap the girlfriend they share, Ophelia, the one thing they both care about most in the world. The rest of the movie centers around the various plots the two enact to get Ophelia back. There’s also a dirty DEA agent who works on the down-low with all the parties involved to further his own interests; there’s the head of the cartel, Lorena Elena Sanchez, who inherited the drug empire after her husband and sons were assassinated; there’s Elena’s Mexican henchmen who perpetrate horrific violence on anyone who stands in the way of their plans; there’s Elena’s daughter who attends college in the US and who tries to keep her distance from her mother’s world but ends up getting dragged in anyway. For us, understanding the plot is simple enough. What are our aliens to make of... Continue reading
Posted Feb 17, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
There were such nice responses both here and on my Facebook page last week when I published my farewell to Mobile Libris, I thought you might enjoy a poem I wrote a few years ago in celebration of our fall 2010 season, one of our busiest. I read the poem at our annual ML holiday party, and it was a huge hit. There are, of course, some inside jokes, but I hope readers here enjoy it, too. The poem includes book titles that we sold during the season, along with excerpts of blurbs and reviews from the books, a bunch of real subtitles (oh, the subtitles!), and some imagined email correspondence with clients and staff. Hope you get a laugh out of it, too. The book industry is full of weird quirks, enough to make you cry sometimes. Fall 2010, From the Desk of Mobile Libris It is 12:30 on Monday, September 13 and the former chair of the FDIC is throwing down the gauntlet at the New York Palace Hotel. “It’s a Senseless Panic, we’re having a meltdown, there are thirty-five hundred guests, we should have 150 books, we can sell 40-50 a day, we need a fix, a bailout, fix our broken system.” Mobile Libris is given a blunt indictment… We sold one book. It’s 6 o’clock pm and we’re sending Half the Sky to Women in Communications It’s 6:30pm and The New York Public Library is traveling an American Passage: The History of Ellis Island. The Women’s Republican Club hosts Great Negotiations: Agreements That Changed the Modern World. The New School presents the season’s first non-fiction forum: Geoffrey O’Brien and The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America, a Downward Spiral of Festering Insanity and murderous mentality. Darkly Mesmerizing. It’s 7pm at Alliance Fancaise: Happiness!: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. It’s a brilliant synthesis, a revolutionary look, tremendously engaging. Compelling. Inspirational. Revelatory. Eloquent. It’s Fordham University, Poets Out Loud Eleventh Street Bar: Triptych Readings It’s emerging and established writers brought together for brief and luminous readings in New York City’s East Village. It’s 7:30pm on the West Side Highway across from Chelsea Piers, and Nancy Brinker is sharing how her sister’s struggle and death led her to raise money for scientific research in the hopes of one day finding a cure. It’s KGB Poetry on East 4th St, after a bit of rain, and Rita Ann Higgins is Throwing in the Vowels while Cohorting with Philip Fried. And at the 92nd Street Y, in the Warburg Lounge, in the corner to my left, wearing the red and white striped trunks -- Eliza Griswold with her Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam – the Tenth Parallel!! She’s a courageous reporter, a gifted writer. The book is deeply impressive and immensely rewarding. Her talent is like a blinding light! She gives us a rare look and a riveting investigation of the triumph of the... Continue reading
Posted Feb 7, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Last night, after a long look at my empty office space, I left Mobile Libris for the last time. It’s been a good run, these past seven years of selling books. It’s a tough business – margins are slim, prices are fixed, book-buying habits are changing – but we made a good go of things, even in this sluggish economy. Mobile Libris is a success story even though it is no more. For those of you not familiar with Mobile Libris, we sold books here in New York City exclusively at author events. We had no brick-and-mortar store; rather, we had a fleet of booksellers who traveled off-site to all manner of author talks, conferences, book parties, readings, panels, discussions – pretty much wherever we were asked to go – to sell books. Our one requirement: the author had to be there to sign. We were known by our black, wheeled suitcases. Event organizers would look out for one rolling into her space, spot it, and know the books had arrived. I came up with the idea for a mobile book-seller while I was managing a Barbara’s Books in LaGuardia Airport. How I ended up there is a bit of a story in itself, but suffice to say I took what I expected to be a throw-away job selling books between semesters of teaching freshman comp and fell in love with bookselling. I was there for almost five years. Occasionally we were asked to handle off-site events, but usually the logistics of getting books from the airport to the event location was much too complicated. One time, though, I accepted, and sold copies of Susan Fales-Hill’s Always Wear Joy at a charity fundraiser where the author was the keynote speaker. It was magic – the book, the author, the audience: all were perfectly matched. They listened to her with rapt attention and lined-up to buy books and catch a few words with Susan after her talk. This, I thought, is the way to sell books. Each book became a precious memento of the evening, a souvenir with a personal signature that would evoke that event every time it was read or even looked at on the shelf. There must be a way for me to sell books in this manner on a regular basis. So I gathered the few resources I had – a book about how to start a business in New York, a few connections in the publishing industry, an idea of a reading series or two where I could start, a good friend at the New School writing program (thank you, David), and good personal credit – and started a book business. At first I worked out of my home in Astoria, Queens, with a UPS post-box that would accept packages for me in Manhattan, centrally located by Macy’s in Herald Square, so I could get to any location in the city easily. I’d pick up my books, put them in my suitcase, and be off. And... Continue reading
Posted Feb 1, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Dee and I are about to wrap up Paradise. It’s been a long journey, through Hell, Purgatory, and now, The Ultimate: in these last few cantos we are about to meet God. That in itself will make this 18-month endeavor worthwhile, but, boy, am I walking away from this project with a lot more than a little imaginary face-time with the Creator of All Things, a lot more than I expected, and Dee is too. I’d been wanting to reread the poems for a while, ever since a friend who taught a kind of spiritual-inquiry course based on The Divine Comedy gave me a copy of the text he used for the course. It sounded intriguing. Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy, written by Helen Luke, a Jungian psychologist, follows Dante’s travels and encounters as an archetypical journey that humans on the path toward “individuation” – Jung’s term for self-actualization or wholeness – take. It seemed so intriguing, in fact, that I grouped the book along with the various translations of The Comedy that I’d read in college and sat them on a special shelf, just waiting for the project to begin. That was in 1996. The books sat on that shelf for about 15 years. At last, in the summer of 2011, the time was right. I was beginning to suspect after these 15 years that I wasn’t going to undertake the project on my own, and so I took a leap and asked Dee. She is intelligent, well-read, open to new ideas. Would she be game? No timeline, no agenda, just read and discuss, just the two of us, flying blind through the afterlife with no one but the unknown Helen Luke to guide us. Yes, she’d be game. After leafing through multiple translations, we settled on Dorothy Sayers’s. What a treat! She cleaves to the original terza rima, and her poetry is a delight. Most importantly, as it turned out for our reading, she has a clear sense of the “divine” in The Divine Comedy. One gets the sense from comparing her translation and notes to others such as John Ciardi, Mark Musa, or John Sinclair, that she, like Helen Luke, was interested in the application of Dante’s journey to living souls, and that one could read the poems as guides to living well in this life as opposed to reading them merely as a narrative of who Dante saw, where, and why in the afterlife. Dante, after all, will return to his life on earth with a clear directive to tell the story of what he experienced on his journey. The poems are meant to be more than a strong and illustrative warning to those whose fate hangs in the balance. It’s clear the poems are meant as a guide for good living and right thinking in the here and now. It’s especially easy to miss that point if you stop with the Inferno, which, unfortunately, not only a lot... Continue reading
Posted Jan 25, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I suppose my viewing companion and I approached it all wrong. At the Guggenheim, I like to start on thetop floor and work my way down. But the exhibit was arranged chronologically and worked its way up, -- bottom floor early paintings, top floor the later ones, with the studies for Guernica (1937) around the thirdor fourth floor. But we started with the late paintings first, with his portraits of women out-of-joint, animal-headed, grotesque, and had to make sense of where he ended up – misogynistic, misanthropic, the cubist abstraction looking painful and hateful – without the softening of watching the master’s progression over time. To start on the ground floor and work up would have shown the calm line of the neoclassic portraits, the faces of his muses rendered with a mostly gentler hand. You could say there was even something like love between the painter and subject, between the painter and painting. But boy, did something happen, and it wasn’t just cubist experimentation or the horrors of war. To read the paintings, particularly the portraits, biographically, when the wives, mistresses, and muses became all a-jumble, the paintings of women began to change. Certainly this is not an entire overview of his oeuvre – he created close to 50,000 works of art over his 60-something-year career – but in this exhibit, the turning point of his depiction of women is dramatic. A portrait from the early 1930s of Olga Khohklova, Picasso’s first wife, is grossly misshapen and has a slit of a vagina dentata for a mouth. This is the spot where many of the portraits turn ugly. Of course, not all the paintings in this show are quite so jarring. Much of it is evocative and brilliant. “The Maids of Honor” is typical of Picasso’s genius for deconstructing a figure and a scene and reconstructing it into something altogether new. The flow and folds of a woman’s gown become a chock-a-block of clashing geometries and fields of hue. And “The Charnel House,” a mangle of bodies and parts sprawled beneath a table, powerfully and aptly alludes to the scenes of horror that were breaking across Europe at the end of World War II. Though the show is called “Black and White,” the palette is mostly gray, with subtle shadings that have the effect of almost obfuscating the content of the paintings and soothing the eye. Overall, it’s a magnificent exhibit, with many of the paintings coming from private collections, being shown in public for the first time. But start from the bottom and work your way up the Guggenheim climb. Perhaps by the time you reach the top you’ll be wowed enough and tired enough not to notice what I did. Continue reading
Posted Jan 17, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I first fell in love with Cy Twombly’s paintings when I saw Fifty Days at Iliam at the Philadelphia Museum of Art about 15 years ago. The ten large starkly white canvases flame with a narrative of the Trojan War, mixing abstracted image, brilliant swaths of color, and scribblings of text. “Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It” (pictured left) remains one of my favorite paintings, and I’ve had the privilege of spending a good deal of time with Twombly’s work on two trips to the DeMenil gallery in Houston that houses a permanent collection of his canvases and sculptures, as well several exhibits that have hung here in New York. I was not, however, hot to see the exhibit of his paintings that Gagosian Gallery had this past November and December. Perhaps because the show was called Last Paintings, and it’s hard for me to bear the thought there will be no new work now, no more brilliant surprises from this singular artist, but moreover because the image used on the gallery website to announce the show seemed such a disappointment. The reds and greens seemed muted and dull – not at all the vibrancy I’ve come to love in Twombly’s work. And the painting itself seemed a sort of regression back to his early days of his signature repeated squiggle -- a row of constantly looping eeeeeeeeee that reminds me of grammar school cursive writing practice. Not my favorite work from him. Yes, I see these works as part of the magic cryptography of sign and symbol that draws me to most of his other work, and yes, I see the abstraction of… well, something. But what generally blows me away about Twombly is that amazing use of color -- especially because it is so carefully and sparingly doled out -- and his abstracted allusions to recognizable objects – flowers, boats, the shore, the sea. I did want to see the photographs, though, so off to the gallery to pay my last respects on one of the last weekends of the show. So many flowers! And so lovely to see how he how he used the photos – often blurred tight shots – as studies for the images in his previous paintings, whether they remained as flowers or explosions or just beautiful blobs of paint. The photos did not disappoint. I’m not sure what process or lens or filter he used to achieve the muted colors and soft edges displayed on the prints, but the muting promts the viewer to understand that these are not necessarily rows and rows of tulips we are looking at, but an inconsistent and lovely repetition of shape and coloring that Twombly clearly found more compelling than the idea of “flower” itself. And so, after looking at these lovely forms with their soft coloring that lulls the viewer into blissful reverence, on to the paintings in the gallery above. But wait, what’s this? These six large canvases with their repeating eeeeeeeeee are... Continue reading
Posted Jan 11, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Sharon Preiss is now following The Typepad Team
Jan 11, 2013