Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Nightmare on 53rd St.

Art as backdrop.....
Today, I decided to pay one more visit to the de Kooning retrospective at the MoMA before it closes for good next week.  Having lived here for over 20 years, I know that the MoMA has become almost impossible to visit except on Tuesdays when it is closed to the public and various art educator events go on.  I have been to crowded museums in many places, but what I witnessed today was unprecedented--artwork being manhandled by adults and children and guards letting it happen.

Apparently the MoMA has no limits on how many people can be jammed into their $25 carnival of Modern Art. Yankee fucking Stadium has a seating capacity. Does the MoMA have a limitless capacity?  Are there no fire marshals?  The world's greatest collection of Modern Art is being presented in the most crass, disgusting anti-art atmosphere I have ever seen. The noise level is unbearable, the screaming children omnipresent and every artwork a mere photo op. The trustees and directors of this museum should be ashamed of themselves.  This museum is a shithole.  Period.  

Problem number one is that they place no limits on the amount of visitors because all they care about is making that $25 dollars, not making sure that the kind of care and time and talent that went into producing many of the works on view deserves some kind of reciprocal respect.  I'm sure Ronald Lauder is never around when the rabble is present.  How much money does the museum have to generate?  Is all the money going to the poorly paid clerks and guards?

Problem number two is that the Museum thinks that its good for business to have every tourist snapping pictures instead of looking at the art.  It's not even that they are taking pictures so much as taking pictures of themselves with the artwork. Every artwork is a photo op. The great Pollock painting above was just a backdrop for a slew of pretty girls to pose and mug and post the pic on Facebook asap.  This is the culture we live in.  Technology giveth but it taketh awayeth a lot.  Pity the poor soul who trekked in from Sydney on his first trip to the United States to view his favorite artist Jackson Pollock.... All photography should be banned at the museum.  Take a picture of yourself outside the museum in front of the MoMA sign.

Worse than anything I have described was the rampant touching of the artwork by museum visitors.  I verbally castigated a guard who was asleep at the wheel as usual as a Judd brass box was finger pawed by several children. That work always looks like its been treated like shit and the Judd Foundation should have it removed from the museum. A Lee Bontecu relief became the source for much amusement and was banged several times by visitors posing in front of it.  The worst treatment of all was reserved for a recent acquisition, a De Wain Valentine 1966 fiberglass/polyester sculpture and gift from Marie Josee and Henry Kravis last year (see photo above).  Unfortunately, the museum doesn't think too much of that gift since it lets passerby after passerby cop a feel.  I saw at least 5 people in 15 minutes touch it as they walked by.  One hapless guard can't see everything.  Eventually this beautiful gleaming example of West Coast Minimalism brought to the New York art world's attention by Tim Nye will look as shabby as the Judd does. 

That's why Donald Judd left for Marfa.  He knew that museum people didn't ultimately care about the preservation of artworks so much as the preservation of their careers.  I will be writing at length about Judd's vision in Marfa in the coming weeks but the man cared more about art than the trustees of the MoMA and the people who run the museum.  I used to lament that Dia:Beacon was 90 minutes from the City, but now I see that as one of its great strengths.  Keep the art as far away from the people as possible.  That's the only way it will physically survive unless a whole new set of policies are put in place.

I was amused by how the the curators decided to mix things up a bit and so I saw LOTS of work by Marcel Broodthaers and Daniel Buren from the newly acquired Daled Collection. This dreary assortment particularly by the supremely overrated French hack Daniel Buren was the one empty gallery in the entire museum.  Yes, it was those tarps of stripes that the Octoberists masturbate to.  Lots of snickers at the sublime Ryman painting Twin 1966, though.   That one had people wondering WTF.  But it's easily one of the 10 best works in the entire museum.  I can also say that I finally saw a Lawrence Weiner work that was great--a drywall cutout and a Robert Barry piece from 1968 that looked a little too much like a Fred Sandback for comfort.  It's too bad that we can't see work here in New York by the only great artist produced by the whole Institutional Critique genre--Michael Asher, instead we get  Broodthaers and Buren who are like double doses of chemotherapy.  

Willem de Kooning at MoMA

I made my second visit to the Willem de Kooning retrospective because the exhibition closes in a few days and I had not yet written about it.   The gushing reviews by critics like Barry Schwabsky in The Nation and Howard Halle in TONY seemed to capture my general feeling. However I don't agree that there wasn't a bad painting in the show.  There were quite a few crummy ones, particularly from the 50s throughout the late 70s.  

The early works are stunning in their utter virtuosity with both drawing and painting.  From the portraits to the pink angels of the early 40s to the black and white paintings to the titanic achievements of Attic and Excavation in 1950 it was a singular march towards greatness.  Then came the Women.  The Women suck.  They are gimmicky and dumb.  It was a bad lapse.  I now have to say once again that Greenberg was correct.  The abstract paintings that immediately followed in '53-'55 (using the same palette as the Women) were very good--Gotham News and Interchange among them.  But then decades of mediocrity follow. The big brash abstract paintings like Merrit Parkway don't hold up. Few of these do except for 1960's Door to the River.  I know this will be heretical to some, but second generation de Kooning acolytes like Michael Goldberg and Al Leslie were arguably making better paintings than Bill at this point.  

The 1960s were not a good decade for de Kooning witness the Sag Harbor stuff.  It's only in the late 70s that his paintings appear to become more focused and not so forced.  And then seemingly out of nowhere in the 1980s we get the astonishing late paintings. These are his greatest works and among the greatest paintings in Modern Art. The effortless flow of line, the white light that animates the entire surface, the lack of clutter and abex bravado (the letting go of a certain weightiness).  These are timeless works.  They are familiar yet look like nothing that had come before.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Helen The Bridge Dead at 83

Few artists in the New York School of the past 70 years have had as privileged a life and background as Helen Frankenthaler, the painter who died yesterday at the age of 83 after a long illness.  She was a glamourous figure in the New York art world and was lovers for some years of Clement Greenberg and then married painter Robert Motherwell years later. She painted some very beautiful paintings.  A few were even great.

But there is a tragic dimension to her that rests on the general consensus that she wasn't a great artist.  Despite getting all the official plaudits and medals this country could bestow on an artist, Frankenthaler never got what she probably most wanted--the recognition of the art world as to her centrality to the evolution of painting after  Abstract Expressionism.

Her main problem was this:  the two most important critical champions of Color Field painting (Greenberg and Freid) rated her below the boys. In Greenberg's canon--after Pollock and Newman came Louis, Noland and then the painter he considered the greatest since Pollock, Jules Olitski.  For Fried, the canon ran from Pollock to Louis, Noland, Stella, Olitski and Caro.   In neither man's writings do we ever get anything about the greatness of Helen Frankenthaler.  She will forever be the bridge-- the bridge from Pollock to the D.C. boys--Louis and Noland. 
And truth be told, she didn't consistently paint anything as good or original as  Louis' Veils or as perfect as Noland's Circles or Chevrons, or as novel as Olitski's controversial spray paintings. 

When the Color Field movement ebbed in the late 60s, abstract painting had entered into the  more reductive anti-color strictures of Ryman, Martin, Baer and Mangold. Louis had died, Noland would eventually become irrelevant and Olitski reinvented himself as the impasto king (eschewing color for surface) and bringing all the other former Color Fielders with him--Poons, Bannard and others.  Helen was left all alone. She never abandoned the basic vocabulary she established with Mountains and Seas 60 years ago.

I'm no believer in the necessity of the romantic idea of the impoverished or tormented artist, but she could have been much better. Louis painted in the tiny living room of his little house.  He had to figure out how to make large works in that space.  With little ventilation, he sucked on the paint vapors for years until they gave him lung cancer and he died.  Helen's studio was bigger than Louis' house.  She could have anything she wanted.  Perhaps her life was too easy and her work became too easy.   

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Texas Trip UPDATE

My recent trip to the Lone Star state over Thanksgiving allowed me to check out Marfa and Houston and lots of art--mostly stuff made here in New York.  Many have been asking me for a full report, but it will take some time.  In the meantime, above are unauthorized photos from the Menil Collection, Barnett Newman's titanic Ulysses, 1952,  and directly above from the Judd Foundation tour some early Judd wall and floor  pieces.

Howard Halle Rips New Museum & Gugg A New One

While catching up on my reading, I noticed Howard Halle's complete evisceration of both big contemporary shows in town--Cattelan at the Guggenheim and Holler at the New Museum in the November 30 issue of TIMEOUT NY.  I bashed the Holler show weeks ago,  but Halle (one of NY's most sober and respected critics) went even further.  The money quote is very clear:  "Why would any self-respecting institution mount either of these shows?"  writes Halle.  
Then he goes for the kill.  And it's an indictment of the entire art world especially the Anglo-American one based in New York City and London: 

However you want to frame it--the bridging of high-cultural and low, the mining of the gap between art and life—the ostensibly democratic conceit underlying much of  the big-name art being produced today has been co-opted by the powerful and ossified through incessant repetition, it's become meaningless.   Little more than  populism for  plutocrats, the notion is treated by the art world as an article of faith to be tithed with bids at the auction  house and admissions at the museum door.  But that is all the idea really is now: a belief.  Aping it doesn't  make an artist interesting or important any more than jumping out of a window makes you able to fly.

Unfortunately, Lisa Phillips has spent the better part of two decades implementing that very program--first at the Whitney and now at the New Museum.  

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Marfa, Texas

On Thanksgiving morning last Thursday, I embarked on a 5 day trip the state of Texas in order to finally visit the Chinati Foundation and Judd Foundations in Marfa as well as the Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel in Houston.  I am in Houston now, ready to leave the hotel for the Menil.

The trip has been one of the most fascinating I've ever been on--there is nothing both good and bad in the world quite like what Donald Judd and his heirs have wrought in the Texas desert.  I have many, many things to say about what I have witnessed.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Death In Vegas

The shocking accident that took the life of Indy Racer Dan Wheldon on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday is already being called one of the most spectacular crashes in the history of motor sports.  The 15 car smash-up caused little human damage except of course to Dan Wheldon.  The coroner's report released yesterday stated what was obvious: Wheldon died of massive blunt force injuries to the head. These no doubt occurred when he hit the catch fence.

I haven't followed auto racing closely since I was a child growing up in the 70s watching ABC televise the big races and watching the Speed Racer cartoon series. Then it was all about the Indy racers--Foyt, Unser, Allison, Andretti, and Rutherford.  Nascar was still pretty much of a regional phenomenon and one would hear a lot about Richard Petty and that was it. But then as now, the death crashes were always a source of incredible fascination for people.

The first I can remember was the 1973 Indianapolis 500, which was  was marred by 3 deaths--Art Pollard and the young Californian Swede Savage.  He was an up and coming racer who was very different than the rednecks who dominated American motor sports.  He looked more like a movie star.  At Indy,  on lap 58, turn number 4, what many longtime Indy observers still call the single most spectacular crash in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway transpired as Savage's car exploded after hitting an angled wall head-on. Savage's injuries were serious but he was expected to survive, however a bad plasma transfusion gave him hepatitis B and he died 33 days later of liver failure.   A young crew member of a teammate rushed onto the track but was struck and killed instantly by a fire truck.

Hemmingway said famously "Auto racing, bull fighting and mountain climbing are the only real sports...all others are games."  That is what makes auto racing so different than all the others.  After Savage there was Gordon Smiley,  Senna, Earnhardt  and tens of others.  It is why so many are fascinated.  Nascar is the second most popular spectator sport in the United States.  But most casual sports fans don't follow auto racing and only take notice of the sport when tragedy strikes.  The last time I watched a lot of auto racing coverage was when Earnhardt crashed into the wall at Daytona in 2001.   

When I was changing channels on Sunday I noticed the race on ABC because the announcers were speaking in hushed tones,  so I knew something bad had happened.  It wasn't until about 35 minutes later that they announced that Wheldon had died and ABC started to show what exactly had happened.  The wonder of it all is that no one else was seriously injured. Sunday night I spent about an hour and a half on you tube watching as many final crashes as i could.  Race car drivers are a different lot.  They are not the same as most of us.  I know you are supposed to feel a little sullied to watch these things.  But to me, they are heroic.  These men (and now women)  who live to race and in the process risk everything.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Execution of Troy Davis

Last night, the state of Georgia executed convicted killer, Troy Davis.  Everyone knows the story by now and with so much controversy surrounding this case--witness recantations, no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, it seems that the arrogance of Georgia officials from the corrections' officials, to the prosectors to the Governor himself prevented them from even considering a thorough examination of the new circumstances.

What was it about Mr. Davis that made his execution so necessary last night?  Not much it seems.  I have had my own conflicted feelings about the death penalty but I come out on the side that it should be the people's right to hold it in reserve for particularly heinous crimes.  The murder of off-duty officer MacPhail though cowardly and cold-blooded was not a pre-meditated act of hours and weeks of planning.   It does not meet the heinous criteria.  

In the meantime, serial killers, child killers and mass murderers escape the gallows.  In California, the all-time champion of serial murder, Randy Kraft  has been on death row since 1989.  He is part of a bridge club on California's death row with other serial murderers including Lawrence Bittaker (death row class of 1981) and Doug Clark (death row class of 1983).  Kraft himself  is responsible for perhaps 60 or more murders of boys and young men. This is the problem with the death penalty.  States have it on the books yet wield it in such random and arbitrary ways.

The reason I believe that the death penalty should be held in reserve is that sometimes death is the only reasonable punishment.   The only reasonable punishment for the Connecticut atrocity perpetrated by Steven Hayes on the Petit family is death.  Anything else is an insult to the victims, their families and society.    There is no justice to be meted out in any kind of fantasy afterlife.  This is it.  I hold no special sanctity for the life of vermin like Steven Hayes or Randy Kraft.  I wouldn't mind strapping them into the gurney myself.  But these are rare cases.   

The smugness of Rick Perry talking about the execution of Todd Willingham is repugnant.  Somewhere between the Troy Davis case and the laughable practices of the California penal system is common  sense and a sober realization that reform is needed.  And even though the United States is in the company of China, India, Iran etc. as far as Death Penalty states, it doesn't give me the willies that some Americans get.  

I like the fact that for violent crime the United States doesn't mess around.   We have a vast prison industrial complex because we have many more violent criminals than Europe.  I am all for rethinking the stupid and costly war on drugs and the hundreds of thousands of wasted lives serving time for non-violent drug offenses.  But as far as violent offenders I have no sympathy.  The era of mid-century era rehabilitation and early release culminated in the 
1970s and 80s crime wave that only ended with the changing demographics produced by factors such as the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973.  

The United States is one of the few countries in the world where a life sentence means a life sentence.  European and  Latin American countries frequently release murderers after 20 years because of cost and because anything after 20 years is regarded as cruel.   In the United States we now throw away the key.  That's fine by me, and in today's political climate why the last two Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama both support the death penalty.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Glass House

A few weeks ago, I finally made it to see Phiillip Johnson's famed "Glass House" in New Canaan, Ct.  The tour of the house begins at the Glass House visitor center across the street from the Metro North stop and then a 10 minute van ride to the Johnson estate.  The complex houses about 7 structures including his famed painting and sculpture galleries.  The house itself is a simple 1700 square foot open plan with little more than the timeless furnishings of Mies and some eccentric artworks about. The verdict on Johnson's career, life and work are all still points of great controversy.

His early politics seem unforgivable, his chameleon-like stylistic proclivities opportunistic but as a patron of important art he was as instrumental as anyone in the promotion of the New York School. But no one can hold the Glass House against him. It is modest, beautiful and  poetic and along with  Mies' Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, the Glass House demonstrated that after the horrors of world war, modernism could provide the  underpinning of a new way to conceive of shelter and home.
All of the blue-chip paintings have been liquidated from the Johnson painting galleries in order to fund the complex, but Frank Stella's paintings (reportedly Johnson's favorite painter)
were not sold at auction.  They would have fetched millions but much less than the more expensive  Pop paintings that were sold did.  One Warhol remains, however, Andy's 1972 portrait of Phillip Johnson himself.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


                                 Summer in Bushwick
                          (Photo by Max Estenger all rights reserved)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tragedy at Trader Joe's

Yesterday I witnessed a horrific scene on 6th Avenue and 20th Street.  In front of the Trader Joe's, three bags of newly purchased groceries were run over by a tan livery cab.  Strewn throughout the asphalt was an assortment of TJ's groceries--broken beer bottles, smashed soda cans, squashed Butter Chicken frozen dinners and chicken enchiladas.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Right-Wing Revisionism and Imagine For A Moment....

The killing of Osama Bin Laden has been the worst week for American Conservatives since Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008.  It was painful to watch the Sean Hannity Show on the Fox News Channel with Rudolph Giuiliani as his guest.  It took nearly 3 minutes into his interview to hear Giuliani utter the words President Obama.  Before that we heard about how President Bush was to be commended for all his work on the War on Terror. 
And they all got the memo:  mention Bush's resilience, mention (without evidence) that torture had provided the intelligence to get Bin Laden. The resilience of Bush?   The same Bush who in an embarrassing rambling March 2002 press conference on Bin Laden all of a sudden was proclaiming his lack of interest in Bin Laden?  That  Bush? 
Of course, if Bin Laden had been captured or killed a week later Bush would have been preening like a teenage girl on prom night over Bin Laden's corpse and calling himself the Terror Conquerer. The Bush presidency was what Conservative governance looks like. Now, the Right runs away from Bush as some sort of apostate.  But what exactly wasn't conservative about Bush?  Tax cuts for the wealthy?  Check.  Anti-abortion, anti-stem cell  research, anti-Gay,  anti-Science?  Check.  Preemptive wrong headed war?  Big check.
Pack the Supreme Court with right-wing ideologues? Double check.  Deficits as far as the eye can see?  Check.  Bush and Cheney ran the most conservative administration since Calvin Coolidge.  It was a disaster for the United States and if you happened to live in Iraq and found yourself on the wrong end of a bomb or bullet, lethal. 

This is the restoration that is promised by the Right in 2012.   The Right's fealty is not to this country or Constitution but to Conservatism.  There are no American triumphs unless they are Right Wing triumphs.  They are consumed by ideology.  They love money and pretend to love Jesus.  They are chauvinists of the worst kind.   

Imagine  that between 1993-2001 George W. Bush had been President and turned over the reins in January 2001 to a Democrat named Barack Obama.  Imagine also that he had handed over the same country that Bill Clinton had really handed him.

Imagine then that within 9 months of peace and prosperity, President Obama had been out reading to children in school and the United States was attacked on 9/11/01 and thousands had died? And this after the smoking gun of an August memo warning of planes crashing into buildings?   Would Republicans have given President Obama a pass and said we are all with you now?  Sure, maybe on the way to his execution.

But George W. Bush got a pass. He had the special pass that is called straight white male privilege.  He could then even invade a country on the pretext of weapons of mass destruction,  kill thousands, waste trillions, find NO weapons and still get reelected.  If that had been Obama some wingnut  would have been calling for a repeal of the 13th Amendment. 

Do I wish President Barack Obama was more pugnacious with his enemies and with Wall Street?  Yes.  But in 2011 America, Barack Obama is about the best we can do.  And since we have to judge Presidents versus other Presidents, this one is the best we have had in a long, long time.  Only the LBJ of 1964-1966 was better, and that was only in the extraordinary circumstances of assassination.   And then he threw it all away.   But greatness has eluded all but a tiny few,  let's see when this one decides to roll back the empire before that's even in the equation. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

High and Low

Today was Lower East Side Gallery day for me and so I headed south and east to check out the latest from the other end of the earth. But first just a mere block away from my home was Exit Art's "Geometric Days."  The clear standouts were Paul Pagk's paintings. Pagk has been at it for over two decades and the paintings in this show are both sensuous and smart.    
Paul Pagk at Exit Art thru April 30
Meanwhile the Lower East Side scene was quiet with some interesting shows at Miguel Abreau, Leslie Heller and Invisible-Exports.  The latter had a group show based on Susan Sontag's famous essay, "Notes on Camp."  This show was titled "Notes on Notes on Camp."

The king of camp in all media is John Waters and he did not disappoint with his big oversized "Rush"  bottle of poppers.  It deploys the Oldenburg, Gober  "make it big" formula but the 
spill and crinkly yellow wrapper are too creepy for comfort and just looking at the thing gave me a headache and made me dizzy.  Rather effective I would say.
John Waters at Invisible-Exports thru May 8

Christopher St. & Bleecker St. (Wed., 5:15 PM)

       Sometimes an old truck is just an old truck.....

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Rehabilitation of Kenneth Noland

Kenneth Noland at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NYC thru April 30

Over the past 4 years, both Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland have died.  At the time of their deaths the critical reputations of both had rebounded very little since the pummeling they received in the early 70s at the hands of former critical champions such as Rosalind Krauss.  For Krauss and her followers such as Yves Alain Bois the revised painting canon went from Pollock, Newman, Kelly, to Ryman and Martin.  Written out were those that had been associated with the late-Modernist formulations of Greenberg and Fried.

This meant that Stella, Louis and especially Noland and Olitski were relegated to being shills for  a debased ideology.  They were the purged Gang of Four while Greenberg was Mao. In the case of  Noland, this had disastrous consequences for his career and his work. The paintings on view here constitute his greatest years as an artist 1958-1968.  His run during these years rank with any other American painter in the post-war period--they encompass the pre-Circle paintings, the Circle paintings, the Chevrons, the Diamond paintings and the horizontal color band paintings.  No one since Matisse had done more with color than Noland but by the early 70s he was pretty much lost.  

This is the first official exhibition at Mitchell-Innes & Nash presented by his estate.  The paintings look as fresh as they must have 50 years ago.  The Chelsea gallery aesthetic personified by the gorgeous Mitchell-Innes space is a perfect antidote to years of abuse
suffered by Noland's work at the Andre Emmerich Gallery on 57th Street where he showed for decades.

Everything about that space was wrong--the corporate patina was stultifying.  The  jewelry mart feel of the building hallways were further exacerbated by Emmerich's grey carpet.  How this grey carpet came to exemplify Modernism is puzzling as even the MoMA itself adopted the same carpet in the early 80s.  Worst of all was what Greenberg himself did to his artists in the 1960s when he decided that Louis, Noland, Olitski would all look better with a shiny gold metallic striped frame.  Tacky, cheap, gaudy.  It was Greenberg's worst lapse in taste.  

The new Noland in Chelsea is in a concrete floored gallery and the aforementioned frames have been replaced by more elegant white shadow box frames.  Noland never looked better and some of the paintings are as good as painting gets--particularly Morning Span and Epigram (both pictured above).   One hopes that this is the beginning of many great shows from the vaults.  

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Thousand Words

I took this photo last fall at an anti-Tea Party demo in Washington, D.C.  I brought it out today in light of President Obama's overtures to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Happy Birthday Gipper!
Here's a look back at some of the shining accomplishments....
1) Increased the National Debt by 189% ($998 billion to $2.6 trillion) no one else comes close.
2) Converted millions of highpaying union jobs into low paying nonunion jobs.
3) Cut spending on healthcare leaving exservicemen, disabled people, and the old without any support and left to rot on the streets.
4) Doubled the number of poor in the country.
5) Turned the US from the major exporter of manufactured goods in the world to the major importer of manufactured goods.
6) Turned the US from a net importer of raw natural resources into a nation that exported raw natural resources (just like a third-world country).
7) Funded terrorists and tried to trade arms for hostages.
8) Funded and added Saddam with his WMD.
9) Reagan encouraged corruption, allowing companies to sell $25 toilet seats to the military for $360 and $8 hammers for $120.
10) Reagan cut income taxes on the working class but increased payroll taxes and the mandated contributions to Medicare and Social Security but did so in such a way that the top 1% paid 15% less than they did before by limiting their deductions on the first $61,000 but the working poorest had theirs increased 15%.
11) Reagan took a staggering 436 vacation days at his ranch in 8 yrs. 

12) Allowed Rupert Murdoch to circumvent the immigration laws to purchase American media sources.
13) No mention of AIDS until 1987---after 21,000 Americans had already died
Let's not forget Ronny made it impossible for any future president to actually speak the truth to at least half of the American electorate--the infantilized right for whom fairy tales and lies became the modus operandi. (Hat tip to freethinkergirl for the above list)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Milton Babbitt and the End of High Modernism

When Milton Babbitt died last Saturday in Princeton at the age of 94,
one of the world’s last great living mid-century artists had died. In the music and artworlds, there are very few left. Elliot Carter and Pierre Boulez come to mind in music, as well as Jasper Johns, Robert Ryman, Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly and Cy Twombly in the visual arts. They were all born in 1930 or before.

Babbitt was the father of Serial music in the United States which was being developed simultaneously in Europe in the late 40s and early 50s, by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Unlike Boulez, Babbitt would remain loyal to Serialism to the end of his life. His infamous essay for High Fidelity magazine in 1958, “Who Cares if You Listen?” (not his title) was viewed by many as an elitist disdain for the mass audience. But it was actually an impassioned statement that some music needed the same kind of expert ears to listen to it as the latest advances in physics or mathematics would. He stated that both the average man on the street and even the typical Lincoln Center concert goer already had their music but that his job as a composer was to raise the standards of music, not make it accessible to everyone. Babbitt was the high priest of the monastery of modernism.

I have been fascinated by Babbitt for decades. His music is as inscrutable to a laymen like myself as any could be. He was the last Serialist which is like being the last Stalinist. But he was no Kim Jong Il, but instead a charming man with many passions. This is evident in a brand new posthumously released documentary on Babbitt by the late Robert Hilferty and completed by a former Babbitt student UCLA professor Laura Kaupman. I have watched it two times in the last few days. See the link below to watch this extraordinary film which hopefully will be picked up by the American Masters series.

It is interesting that the world of serious music is not comparable to the artworld in terms of monetary rewards. All the aforementioned visual artists are wealthy whereas Babbitt was a university professor for nearly 50 years. Millions more have seen a Johns than have ever heard a Babbitt work. Yet his contribution to the field of music is probably larger than any of those visual artists made to art. Babbitt saw his own music as the continuation of a certain Germanic tradition which began with Brahms and continued through Schoenberg, Webern and himself.

Watching the new documentary I noticed at times the filmmakers used examples of abstract painting (Hoffman, Kline) to illustrate Babbitt's music. But an abstract painting can never be as difficult for an audience as music like Babbitt's. One can always spend as little time as they want in front of a painting or sculpture and move on. Music, however, is temporal. It demands one's time and if the payoff is not evident at some point, most people check out. The closer analogy is to experimental/abstract film and here the documentary sets some of the music to the films of Harry Smith who created abstract animations. Here the temporal aspect of film echoes the one in music.

Another interesting point about the new Babbitt film is that Babbitt calls himself a "maximalist." He wanted no repetition in his music and every sound was to be a new musical landscape. This is where it gets difficult for the listener. When there is no repetition it becomes hard to follow, just as if there's too much repetition some may lose interest as composer John Corigliano explains.

One of the most telling moments in the film is when Babbitt briefly discusses mortality and references his most famous student, and unlikeliest, Stephen Sondheim. Babbitt repeats that for Sondheim it doesn't matter what will happen to his own music once he dies because Sondheim says he won't be there to see the reaction on people's faces to his music. Babbitt takes a different more pragmatic tack and for him, he won't care about his music after he's gone since he himself won't be there to hear it.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Alan Uglow Update

I have been swamped with emails regarding my post on the death of Alan Uglow who died on January 20.  There is a lot of news to report.   I have been informed that a memorial is being planned for April in New York.  Also, Roberta Smith's Times obit article should be appearing in tomorrow's paper according to an email I received from Milco Onrust who is the owner  of  Galerie Onrust in Amsterdam where Alan's last show closed on January 22.    Their website has an extensive survey of  Uglow's  past 20 years of artmaking.  Click on the link below and take the 50 image tour.  

  (from Galerie Onrust website)

Monday, January 31, 2011

Tom, Do You Really Want to Go There?

I know that Tom Brokaw is a near icon in the history of broadcast news in the United States. No one has been a more dogged audio stenographer for official Washington than Tom. And besides, how else would any of us have ever heard of the greatest generation until Tom introduced them to us?

But Tom, please do not say a word about Keith Olbermann, unless it is to say that he was a more effective journalist these past 10 years than you.  Because while you were giving fawning and sycophantic interviews to George W. Bush on Air Force One days after the Iraq invasion, Keith was beginning his assault on our criminal regime in Washington.

"where it got sticky is when our commentators were anchoring political coverage," he said, in a clear reference to Olbermann. Brokaw was widely known to have complained about Olbermann's anchoring of campaign coverage during the 2008 race. "Those are, in some  ways, incompatible roles," Brokaw continued.  "We worked our way through that."

You see, when Tom was breaking out his pompons for Bush/Cheney he was being an objective anchorman,  because for Tom Brokaw being objective means serving power each and every time.  I'm glad I get it now.
(The full transcript of the Bush interview April 25, 2003)

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Death of A Rebel: Alan Uglow Dead at 69

Last week I learned of the death of Alan Uglow, the British-born, New York-based painter. Alan was not just any painter. It is quite arguable that he was for the past 25 years, the best painter in the world. I remember how startling it was in the mid-80s seeing his work for the first time. This was at the ebbing of Neo-Ex and the beginning of Simulationism. Alan's work was as far from those two styles as one could be.

Despite belonging to the 1960s generation,  Alan was a punk rocker. Upon moving to New York in the late 80s, I immediately sought him out and went to his studio many times where I met his wonderful wife Elena Alexander (whose milieu was the dance world). Alan's paintings are as subtle and delicate as he was brash and emphatic. He had little patience for bullshit of any kind.

There are two tragedies here.  First,  is the fact that Uglow died while still at the height of his powers (imagine what he would have done in his 70s).  Secondly, it has been over a week since he died and no obituary in the paper of record or any other major NYC publications. This is the city that he lived in for over 40 years.  Yet, with very few exceptions (Robert Nickas and Saul Ostrow) Uglow had almost no critical champions in the United States.   One wonders if he was just too unfashionable for the hedge funders and the critics who cater to them in the Times and weeklies.

I think the problem is that we really don't have many good working art critics so much as art journalists who cover the scene here.  They have developed quite the ear for art, but not the eyes.  An artist like Uglow demanded real eyes and was too hard to explain unless one really took  the time to look and write.  That's a difficult task with so many parties to go to.   His work was celebrated in Europe, however, and we will soon start to see the American necrophiliacs (curators, collectors, museums. critics, auction houses) rushing in to cash in .  It will happen. Trust me.  Better late than never and good for dear Elena.

But the critical neglect of such a great artist is a scandal and serves as a concise metaphor for the vapidness of the New York art scene--ALL OF IT.  Perhaps this city is officially dead as the center of production of new culture but as the center of consumption and kitsch things have never been better.   Uglow didn't really care about these things and just made what he called "the work."  The problem with "the work" is that to have elevated it to any prominence would have made most everything else seem trivial and worthless.


In this season of right-wing reaction, the notion of American Exceptionalism has become  yet another issue of conservative grievance.  Most particularly  Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have talked of the pre-eminent grace with which our country has been bestowed.  They have railed at anyone who deems to question this central tenet of the right-wing mind.
When I think of American Exceptionalism I do not only think about some of our founders (who were so utterly NOT like their Tea Party appropriators)  but  I’m also inclined to think of figures that I’m sure wouldn’t quite figure that highly in the minds of a Gingrich or Palin.  To me American Exceptionalism means Whitman, Melville, Faulkner, Ginsburg, Graham, Cunningham,  Pollock, Newman, Judd, Berry, Brown, Dylan, Davis,  Ives, Reich, Riley, Wright,  and Kahn to name just a few.  
In the realm of the visual arts, America’s grand contribution to western culture continues to center on Abstract Expressionism.   At New York’s MoMA, the temple of high modernism, the museum was able to mount a hefty show of large paintings  and drawings  soley from the museum’s holdings.  As a whole, the exhibition contains some wonderful paintings and is worth the visit just for these, but it also reveals the foibles of museum collecting and the establishment of a canon.
One thing that leaps out on first viewing this exhibition is that Jackson Pollock was a great painter even before his breakthrough drip paintings.  The big Pollock retrospective of 1998 was perhaps too big a survey, too overwhelming, whereas this informal survey of about 18 paintings testifies to Pollock’s rightful preeminence in American art.  The same can be said for his fellow radical painter, Barnett Newman who also gets his own gallery at MoMA.  It is exhiliarating to see Vir Heroicus Sublimis next to The Wild (1950).  The former  an 18 foot wide painting while the latter is about 1 5/8 inches wide by 83 inches tall.  That no one had ever dared to make a painting like The Wild  before would mean nothing if the painting itself were not  so stunning in its simplicity,  power and beauty. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


When filmmaker Stan Brakhage died a few years ago his obituary in Artforum stated that “(his) death marks the end of the most astonishing career in the 108 year history of the cinema.”  Stan Brakhage towered over the cloistered world of avant-garde film as perhaps no other artist has towered over their own field.

And yet Brakhage is a virtual unknown even amongst film buffs. I have been thinking about Brakhage lately because despite the fact that Bob Dylan has been world famous for nearly 50 years, it is not an exaggeration to say that his career and position in the world of popular music for nearly half a century is nothing short of astonishing. His oeuvre is rivaled only by the Beatles in its scope and influence.

There is no doubt that his remarkable "comeback" in the past 13 years--the trilogy of critically acclaimed studio albums, his book Chronicles, Scorcese's briiliant No Direction Home documentary, the never ending gems from the bootleg series especially the Live 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert, his acclaimed Sirius radio program, and of course the Never Ending Tour--have helped contribute to his
exalted status today.

The recent release of “Bob Dylan: The Complete Mono Set” comprises the foundation upon which his reputation is built. Before I get to the music, however, Dylan fans will appreciate the entire packaging which is absolutely perfect. Each of his first 8 studio albums are reproduced exactly as mini-lps. Holding the majestic double album Blonde on Blonde with its gatefold is like holding one of Vitra’s beautiful mini-reproductions of the greatest hits in modern furniture. The ubiquitous clunky plastic cd cases are nowhere to be found. Surprisingly, the only weak link is the accompanying booklet’s skimpy essay by Greil Marcus, one of Dylan’s most perceptive chroniclers. But the rare pics mostly from the mid-60s are gems.