Not to be missed: The Cod goes to Mr. and Mrs. Smith (though not in Washington). Hide your squalling children.
Archives for June 14, 2005
The Washington Post recently asked its arts writers to recommend “favorite books about favorite subjects.” Our recommendations appeared in Sunday’s paper, and you’ll find them here. (Each one is separately linked.)
Alec Wilder, who died in 1980, was one of the least classifiable human beings who ever lived. A sort-of-classical composer who doubled as a sort-of-popular songwriter, he wrote a few hits (“I’ll Be Around,” “While We’re Young”) and a medium-size stack of not-quite-standard ballads (“I See It Now,” “South to a Warmer Place,” “Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden’s?”) sung and adored by such stellar vocalists as Frank Sinatra and Mabel Mercer. Late in life, Wilder was persuaded to set down his thoughts on the great popular songwriters of the 20th century, and despite his well-deserved reputation as a chronic procrastinator, he finally managed to produce a full-length book (written in collaboration with the popular-music scholar James Maher, who served as his patient amanuensis).
Though published by an academic press, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 (Oxford University, 1990 reissue, $45) is about as scholarly as a late-afternoon chat in a dark, oak-paneled bar. Holding forth in an informal, unabashedly opinionated style, Wilder offers a guided tour of the collected works of Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and a sprinkling of lesser but still important lights, writing both as a connoisseur and as an important songwriter in his own right. The results border at times on thinly disguised autobiography….
Read the whole thing here.
I had grand plans for this evening. Yesterday I wrote half of a post responding to Chip McGrath’s New York Times piece on class in American fiction, but I couldn’t finish it before bedtime arrived. Tonight was the night I was going to unearth my copy of “In the Cage” and wrap that up. Also, it’s developed over just the last week that I am going to be moving in six weeks, and I need to make my apartment showable ASAP. So I was going to drag the laptop into the bedroom, where both the window unit and the critical mass of clutter are, bask in the coolth, and alternately write my post and put things away. Two birds with one air conditioner. Now here it is 10:07 and I’ve neither written a word nor stashed a sock. I’m also in the hot and sticky living room for some reason, feeling like I’m going to drop off two hours ahead of schedule. So something, perhaps both things, are going to give.
My mistake? Taking to the bike path as soon as I got home from work, out of my modified pantsuit, and into some workout clothes. After a year of inexplicably neglecting my bike and the glorious lakefront bike path just steps from my door, I got around to having the poor creaky thing tuned up last week. (South Siders: patronize this establishment. Yuvie’s your man.) I’ve now had three outings, tonight being the longest and possibly the most breathtaking, in more ways than one. Nowhere else I’ve ever lived has brought exercise in such close and easy proximity with gorgeousness. Chicago has pretty much spoiled me for working out in gyms, other than lifting weights, an activity that seems to be actually enhanced by an ugly, grubby, smelly setting.
Anyway. Despite the many possible moods of Lake Michigan, which I have been known to find inspiring, some days it’s not moody or interesting or sublime but perfectly, insipidly pretty, torn straight from a travel brochure. That was the deal tonight, the water merrily rippling and vacationland-blue–and what’s more, the path was amazingly free of jackasses. Somebody actually apologized for getting in my way at one point, an unheard-of nicety that practically made me fall off my bike and crack my skull.
I rode from 57th Street to the boat launch just north of the museum campus. They keep improving the bike path, and one of the best developments, dating back maybe five or six years, was to route it around the back of the Shedd Aquarium in a half-circle. Biking this stretch, you’ve got the oceanarium on one side of you–though you can’t, alas, see the belugas–and the lake on the other. You have to slow way down, though–it’s as narrow as possible, and a popular stretch of the path for pedestrians of the sightseeing variety: leisurely, benignly clueless, disinclined to stay on their side of the yellow line. That in itself doesn’t bother me, except that the racer boys–and yes, they’re nearly always boys–don’t believe in slowing down even in the interest of life and limb, their own or anyone else’s. So they bully their way through, frightening small children and benefiting from the forbearance of those around them; in the event of a crash, their speed and height make them odds-on favorites to scramble their brains on the pavement, helmets or no. But they survive by the good graces of those they weave around perilously, and they don’t entirely manage to spoil a good thing.
The whole ride long I was thinking how sad it was that I don’t have a camera in my phone and that we don’t have images on the blog, and so I couldn’t share the glories of the lakefront with all of you. But I knew, too, that this was a kind of beauty that wouldn’t translate well, being so bland. You’ve seen a thousand pretty pictures of a sparkling body of water on a brilliantly sunny day–even one dotted with white sails, I daresay–and another one would have made your eyes glaze over, or roll. There wasn’t anything all that remarkable about it. In fact, had I not been sweating and thirsting and fighting the wind, I may not even have found it so beautiful. I did, and it was, but it didn’t matter or last. In 24 hours or less, I’ll have forgotten all about it. Sometimes, though, it strikes me as completely insane that I can forget with impunity, that there’s essentially an endless supply of this. I like the lake best when it surprises me, which it does, often. But even when it doesn’t–or especially when it doesn’t–it’s pretty reliably stunning. Less beautiful, more interesting. Less interesting, more beautiful. You never lose with this lake.
To stop making a short story tremendously long, I’ll fast-forward and say that I got home and gave in to watching the premiere of TNT’s The Closer, which the network has been hyping for what seems like six months and I think actually is. It wasn’t bad. I liked how Kyra Sedgwick was constantly eating doughnuts and such. One scene had her deliberating carefully among ice-cream confections, a tad too easy a way of investing a tough-as-nails character with girlish vulnerability, but still and all, one that winningly features ice-cream confections. Although the obvious precursor for the show is Prime Suspect, to which it will never live up, the opening scene was ripped straight out of Silence of the Lambs (and then tweaked). I’ll probably watch again, but then, my TV standards are not “high.”
Aside from the couch potato routine, I spent the evening downing a lot of my own personal summertime nectar and eating a crudely constructed, you might say jerry-rigged, dinner, then sat down to excuse myself from blogging, and here we are. I probably won’t get to the McGrath thing until Wednesday now, and I’ll have to live with the mortification of imagining strangers tracking through here tomorrow getting an eyeful of clothes out of drawers and books off of shelves as far as the eye can see. But hey, I posted!
On Sunday I hung the newest addition to the Teachout Museum, Kenneth Noland’s Circle I (II-3). Published in 1978 by Tyler Graphics as part of Noland’s Handmade Paper Project, it consists of three layers of colored, pressed paper pulp with three lithographic monoprint impressions, floated on a white, cloth-covered board and sealed in a plexiglass box. Go here and here to see four pieces from the Handmade Paper Project. Mine is the one in the center of the bottom row of the first page. The photo isn’t very good, but it’ll give you a rough idea of what Circle I (II-3) looks like.
Noland, who was born in 1924, had been painting concentric circles for two decades when he made Circle I (II-3). These “Circle” paintings, the ones for which he’s best known today, are widely regarded as studies in pure color, but his own view is more nuanced: “People talk about color in the ‘Circles,’ but they are also about scales and juxtapositions. Making them taught me everything about scale.” In addition, the “Circle” prints in the Handmade Paper Series are also “about” the rough, unpredictably complex surfaces and textures of the paper out of which they are made. My print actually has something of the effect of a sculpture: it exists in space, not merely as a flattened-out image.
The experience of making the “Circle” prints left its mark on Noland’s later work, as Karen Wilkin explains in an invaluable 1990 monograph on the artist:
For all their declarative, legible structure, his [pre-1980] pictures were as disembodied as “something that you heard.” Their astonishing color appeared to have magically fallen into place; as though in order to appeal directly to the sense of sight, Noland had banished all sense of touch. Yet early in the 1980s, he began to explore media that depended utterly on touch…Cast paper proved especially fascinating to him. Working with colored paper pulp forced him literally to move color around as a tactile substance, instead of applying it as a skin on a flat surface. (He once described the process as “making a picture out of colored cottage cheese.”) It was a stimulating sensation. When he began to paint again soon after this experience, he found that he wanted the physicality of the cast paper works in his canvases. “I wanted to get expressive possibilities back into picture through the use of my hands or touch,” Noland says.
Though Noland and his fellow color-field painter Jules Olitski have been out of fashion for a long time now, I continue to admire their work, which speaks to me in much the same way as do music and plotless dance. I’ve been looking for an affordable Noland handmade-paper monoprint for the better part of two years, and I tracked one down last week (this is where I found it). Circle I (II-3) now hangs below the second most recent addition to the Teachout Museum, Olitski’s Forward Edge. The two pieces share the northwest corner of my living room with Grey Fireworks, a screenprint by Helen Frankenthaler, whose poured paintings of the Fifties were a major influence on Noland, Olitski, and their colleague Morris Louis (who called Frankenthaler “a bridge between [Jackson] Pollock and what was possible”).
That’s the good news. The bad news is that with the arrival of Circle I (II-3), I’ve finally run out of wall space. I spent a half-hour rehanging five other prints in order to make a place for it. Even with three pieces relocated to my loft, I no longer have room for anything much larger than a small etching. To be sure, the piece of art I most covet is a small etching, but I let it get away from me at an auction a year and a half ago, and it’s likely to be a long, long time (i.e., a cold day in hell) before I track down another copy at a price I can even pretend to afford. The other pieces for which I’m looking, a color lithograph by Hans Hofmann and a pastel by Arnold Friedman, are both larger than any of the remaining gaps on my walls.
What to do? I know a connoisseur in Chicago who bought a second apartment to house his collection, but he’s rich and I’m not. Nor would I consider moving to a larger place, even if I could afford to do so: I love my cozy little home, and I’ve fussed over it too long to let it go now. Several friends have suggested that I start rotating my collection, and one or two have even offered to serve as the recipients of long-term loans. I’m not entirely averse to the idea–in fact, I rather like it–but I’m not sure I could bring myself to go through with it, at least for the moment. (Sorry, Ali!) Part of the pleasure of owning art, after all, is being able to see it whenever you want. As of this morning, 34 pieces hang on the walls of my apartment, each one beautiful in its own right and all of them additionally beautiful as part of the larger totality that is the Teachout Museum. How could I possibly give one away, even temporarily? It’d be like shipping one of your kids off to a foster home.
Be that as it may, something’s got to give, so I probably won’t be buying anything else anytime soon–unless, of course, I change my mind, which I probably will. I guess I might as well face it: my name is Terry, and I’m a small-time art junkie. It’s not the worst addiction in the world.
UPDATE: A fellow New Yorker writes:
“Until Abstract Expressionism, you had to have something to paint about, some kind of subject matter. Even though Kandinsky and Arthur Dove were improvising earlier, it didn’t take. They had to have symbols, suggested natural images or geometry, which was something real structurally. That gave them something to paint about. What was new was the idea that something you looked at could be like something you heard.”
Kenneth Noland (quoted in Karen Wilkin, Kenneth Noland)
For those of you who were waiting with bated breath, my home phone is now functional once more. You may call with impunity. I might even answer!