20 August 2017

The Single Petal Of A Rose: Jay De Feo

"The White Rose is a fact painted somewhere on a slow curve between destinations.  This is all I remember.  This is all I know." - Jay De Feo, 1965

"I first saw the rose in De Feo's top-floor apartment on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.  It was in a bay window - the only thing in the room - and the windows on either side of it were splattered with pint, so that light came in softly.  Paint encrusted floor and walls, giving the impression of  a kid of primordial cave, in which the panting was an apparition, a flower, a great female symbol.  the power of the work was overwhelming." - Walter Hopps, curator, Pasadena Art Museum

Can all the wonder of nature, of life itself, be expressed by the single petal of a rose?  Jay De Feo thought so; that is why she made so many variants on that single theme throughout her career.

Jay De Feo (her name, so don't be confused) worked on The Rose for eight years; it was all literally touch and go, adding layers and daubs, not by chance but in search of a revelation akin to the emergence of life from the primordial soup. As a student in Florence, Italy, De Feo had spent hours  communing with the frescoes of Biblical scenes in its churches and would try, through a variety of media, to reach the transcendence she had experienced through them.   In De Feo's work, whether painted or photographed, light seems to emanate from the very petals of the rose.  She could not bear to let The Rose go, even when it was listed in the catalog for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959.  Fortunately, several other works did make it to "Sixteen American Artists" where De Feo shared a gallery  two other young artists -Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns

Her eviction from the Fillmore Street apartment forced the issue in 1965 and Hopps arranged for the painting (which by then weighed over a ton) to be transported to Pasadena, where it remained unseen and neglected for two decades,  entombed behind a wall at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Art.   Hopps recounts how, when he finally had to tell De Feo that the painting was done and she needed to return home to San Francisco, she lay down on the street next to the bus and began to cry. Thanks to Hopps, The Rose was finally rescued from behind that wall in California and sent to the Whitney Museum in New York where it has undergone three restorations.
Standing somewhat apart from her male Abstract Expressionist counterparts,  De Feo's work looks startlingly modern today.  Her use of photo-hybrids, collage, and especially her striving beyond the "thingness" of the everyday,  her "irrepressible need for spirituality" (Eileen Berkovich), all look prescient now that figuration an landscape are again acceptable subject matter for artists.
In making The Rose De Feo broke the boundaries between painting and sculpture in a way that is not unlike the dissimilar work of her female contemporary, Eva Hesse.  Hesse was fortunate to be celebrated during her brief life while De Feo is more like her contemporary, Helen Frankenthaler, in having her art reconsidered since her death. (Frankenthaler is currently the subject of two simultaneous exhibitions at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.)

Jay De Feo was born in Hanover, New Hampshire in 1929, studied art at Berkeley and lived in the Bay area for most of her adult life.  Shortly before her death in 1989, she was forced to move from her Oakland studio when it was damaged in the Loma Prieto earthquake.

For further reading:
The Dream Colony: A Life In Art by Waler Hopps, with Deborah Treisman, New York, Bloomsbury: 2017.

Visit Jay De Feo website  here.

1. Jay De Feo - untitled rose photograph - gelatin silver print - torn paper, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
2. Jay de Feo - The Rose, 1958-1966, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City.   Note that the museum has changed the title from De Feo's original White Rose.
3. unidentified photographer - Jay de Feo in front of The Rose, courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

10 August 2017

Out Of This World: Johanna Grussner

"You're clear out of this world
When I'm looking at you
I hear out of this world
The music that no mortal ever knew

You're right out of a book
The fairy tale I read when I was so high
No armored knight out of a book
Would find a more enchanted Lorelei than I

After waiting so long for the right time
After reaching so long for a star
All at once from a long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are

I'd  cry, out of this world
If you said we were through
So let me fly out of this world
And spend the next eternity or two with you

After waiting so long for the right time
After reaching so long for a star
All at once from a long and lonely night time
And despite time, here you are

I'd cry, out of this world
If you said we were through
So let me fly out of this world
And spend the next eternity or two with you" 

  - Out Of This World, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, music by Harold Arlen.

Considering the warm reception her Naxos release No More Blues received from both the critics and listeners, Johanna Grussber should need no introduction to jazz fans.  A native of Finland, Grussner   lived  in the U.S for eight years,  attended the Berklee School of Music on scholarship and then earned a Master's degree in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music in 1998.   She then taught at Public School 86 in the Bronx where she developed a program of vocal and instrumental instruction and music theory.  Oh, and she was born on the Aland Islands, off the east coast of Finland in 1972.  She returned  home in May 2001 when she brought a group of fifth grade students to perform gospel concerts in Helsinki.  Since 2001 Grüssner has lived in Stockholm, Sweden.

Her musical ambitions are expansive.  As a child, Grussner and her sisters Ella and Isabella formed a folk group  Daughters Of The Wolf.   The year before graduating from Berklee she recorded her first cd; the year after she formed her own nineteen piece jazz orchestra which toured Scandinavia, performing at jazz festivals and clubs, sometimes joined by the New York Voices.   Since moving to Sweden, Grussner has recorded not only jazz but Swedish and Finnish folk songs and even a record of  songs for children based on the popular  characters created by Tove Jansson.

Out Of This World is usually classified as a ballad, because it is deemed to lack a pronounced rhythm.  Grussner turns this received wisdom upside down.   Her agile vocal technique and near perfect command of English paired with  work on both six and twelve-string guitars by her accompanist Ulf Karlsson, is impeccable.  Together they  give a rhythm to the song that it has not had before, something between a walking blues  and a bossa nova-ish lilt.  Unlike some singers with crystal clears voices, Grussner is also capable of adding colors to her phrasing.  Thanks to her version, I will never think of Out Of This World as a standard again.  It lives.

As to its mechanics, the song is structured  without a verse; it has four sections – A, a variation of A, B, and back to the A variation in conclusion.  The elegance of the lyrical conceit demands it:   the Lorelei of Germanic legend was a beautiful maiden who threw herself into the Rhine River in despair over a faithless lover.   In recompense, the gods turned her into a siren whose voice was irresistible to all who heard it.  Alec Wilder (in his History Of American Popular Song, 1972)  claimed that he heard   echoes of the mixolydian mode of Gregorian chant in Arlen's melody.   (Mixolydian was the seventh of eight modes, similar to modern key signatures, in  medieval church music.)  Arlen also used  melisma in Out Of This World, as when he scored two notes for the word “knew.”  

Melisma is a technique familiar from  its use in gospel music;  its use originated in early Christian plainsong.  Unlike  syllabic singing where  each syllable is accorded one note,  when a singer moves from one note to another on a single syllable, that’s melisma.  When Johnny Mercer came to write  the lyric to Out Of This World in 1944, he had been working in Hollywood for almost ten years and it shows in its style; this was no Tin Pan Alley show tune to be belted to the rafters for applause.  Rather, it existed on an altogether more  intimate emotional plane.   Wilder was certainly right to describe Out Of This World as not being typical of Harold  Arlen's songs, but then it is not typical of anyone else's that I can think of either.  Sui generis, anyone?

P.S. Other standouts on No More Blues are a sultry version of Hallelujah, I Love Him So and Desafinado.

Listen to Johanna Grussner sing Out Of This World
Visit Johanna Grussner's website
No More Blues, a recording by Johanna Grussner, Naxos Jazz: 2005.

Photograph of Johanna Grussner, 2010, courtesy of Allaboutjazz.com.

28 July 2017

Writing The Book On Love

"The thread
runs thin.
The need
runs hard.
  - "Fate And Necessity" by Alkman, from Lyra Graeca, Vol. I, # 142.

"Not Aphrodite, no.  But like a child,
Wild, Love comes down,
Almost as though walking on flowers -
But should not touch them,
Should not,
 - "Not Aphrodite, No" by Alkman from Lyra Graeca, Vol. I, #6

     excerpted from Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments, translated by Burton Raffel, New York, The Modern Library: 2005

Most of us were taught in school that Ovid's Art Of Love, published near the beginning of the Common Era,  was the first major treatment of humankind's favorite subject but that, like some other pieces of received wisdom, turns out not to be  the case.  Six centuries before Ovid (43BCE-17CE) composed what seem to be the first surviving love manuals, a poet from the unlikely Greek city-state of Sparta  was the author of love poetry so admired that it was mandatory at public celebrations. 

I.  Alcman, or Alkman,  was a lyric poet who lived during the 7th century BCE.  That he was a native of Sparta was something the ancients found hard to believe and so did scholars for most of the intervening centuries until now. His light touch and amorous nature did not harmonize readily with the dominant image of the  battle-hardened warrior, although, as you can see from the verses printed above, for Alcman, love was a serious business needing little introduction.
Contained in a 10th century Byyzantine lexicon is this description  of Alcman as a man "of an extremely amorous disposition and the inventor of love poems."     His longest and most famous poem is the Partheneion, a choral song to be sung by young girls as a rite of passage into womanhood.  (Only fragments of his works have survived; three stanzas describing the initiation of a girl named Agido, are contained in a papyrus cataloged as e 3320 at the Louvre.)  From Aristotle we learn that Alcman died of pediculosis, a contamination of the skin by lice that caused lesions, an ignominious death but  not uncommon at the time.
Alcman's poetry was, and should be still,  appreciated for its grace and simplicity; it doubtless benefited from technological advances then taking place in the Greek language.  Its clean-cut syllables and  efficient graphing of sound  celebrated by the Canadian classicist Anne Carson in  Eros the Bittersweetmade it a supple vehicle for conveying emotion.

 *      *      *      *      *      *      *       *        *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

"When my love decides to go and then is gone,
I can still taste him, bitter in the throat; I still
feel the weight of his body as he fights sleep.
I do not fight it: on the contrary, I live there,
and what you see in me that you think is grief
is the refusal to wake, that is to say, is pleasure:
qui donne du Plaisir en a, and so it was
when he couldn't sleep in that long still night
you sensed it and woke to show him how
to unfasten each and every button, then it is
promised you, even when he goes -
   - excerpt from "The Right To Pleasure" by Jessica Fisher, from Frail-Craft, New Haven, Yale University Press: 2007

II. Jessica Fisher (b. 1974) is an American poet who teaches at Williams College in western Massachusetts but her connection to the ancient Greeks, particularly to Alcman, is more than fanciful.  In her first collection Frail-Craft (2007) the poems resemble choral songs from an unknown Greek tragedy: pure, absolute, unbowed by the violence of the world, asserting the right to pleasure.

When the subject is love, especially eros, the millennia just melt away.  Time collapses in the face of fervor. 

For further reading:
1. Philippe Brunet, La Naissance de la littérature dans la Grèce ancienne, Paris, Le Livre de Poche:
2. Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, Champaign, Dalkey Archive Press: 1998.

Anonymous artist, Women In The Orchard (titled ascribed), no date, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

06 July 2017

"They Told Me I Should Go To Rehab....."

...so that is where I will be for now, not on vacation but more like out for repairs.    In recent months my gait has been less of a walk and more like an old Tuscan dance, the saltarello, a dance whose name means "hopping step."
While I'm away from the keyboard, I hope you will browse through the archives here and, if you find something that interests you, please comment and I promise to respond to each one as soon as I am able.

In the meantime, for summer reading I can recommend nothing funnier than American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis.   Ellis is a southern transplant to New York City who, when her writing career stalled after the publication of a novel some fifteen years ago,  became a housewife/ professional poker player.   Beginning with "The Wainscoting War," a tale of decorative mayhem in an upper East Side  Manhattan co-op, to "Dumpster Diving With The Stars," a reality show run amok in the Hudson Valley's antiques alley, and ending with  a woman who rescues pre-pubescent beauty contestants in "Pageant Protection,"  the fun never flags.  Published by Doubleday & Company: 2016.

Original photograph by Peter Librizzi, restoration by Renee Ing Akana at 28moons

03 July 2017

Luigi Ghirri: An Anthropologist Of The Metaphysical

It is the kind of tromp l'oeil picture that many an amateur has accidentally produced, but in this instance the result  is so perfectly achieved that you want to know who the photographer is - and where exactly is he in relation to the other elements in the picture?  Has he risen like Neptune from some watery deep just beyond the frame?  And when you learn that his name is Luigi Ghirri, do you wonder why  that name is not more familiar?

Luigi Ghirri began his career with a sense that everything that could be done with photography had already been accomplished.  He spoke often of how deeply he was moved by the view of Earth photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft.  "It was not only the image of the entire world, but the image that contained all other images of the world."   From this, Ghirri extrapolated the idea of the image-within-image, a framing technique that became a signature of his photographs.  He brought the eye of an anthropologist to bear on the seemingly unremarkable sights that surround us everyday but with an intensity that has been described as metaphysical, a word often applied to artists of his native Emilia-Romagna region, like Giorgio de Chirico and Giorgio Morandi.    Ghirri called these works  his "sentimental geography" but that does not exhaust the interest of, say,  those yellow traffic lights bobbing in the fog

Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992) grew up in northern Italy, a temperate area of broad fertile plains fed by the Po River, created millennia ago  when the sea retreated, leaving  marshlands behind.  The aspiring artist moved to Modena, a small city but no  backwater, located near Bologna, the regional capitol and proud home to the oldest university in the world.   His studies in surveying and graphic design coalesced in a new hobby -  taking pictures - that quickly became his chosen work.

Conceiving his photographs mostly in series, Ghirri presented them in books more often than in exhibitions which may have limited their  impact on the public.  His first book Kodachrome, published in 1978,  featured the tightly cropped images that would become his signature.
Ghirri's last home was at Roncosesi, not  far from where he was born.  Although he traveled,  he found all that he needed for his work there.   Formal, cerebral, witty, Ghirri always intended his photographs to explore rather than  represent what he saw  before him.

 “Everything has a blighted, faded quality about it now. Still, if you look at it for a long time, the old charm reemerges. And that is why I can see that I will lose absolutely nothing by staying where I am, even by contenting myself with watching things go by, like a spider in its web waiting for flies. You need to look at things for a long time…” – Vincent van Gogh 
 Ghirri copied this quotation from a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo in his own journal.  

Although admired during his lifetime, Ghirri's work has only grown in importance since his untimely death from a heart attack at the age of forty-nine.  "...(N)ow, in their faded and aging present state, Ghirri’s prints from the 1970s and ’80s signal themselves as relics of the first wave of the then-new colour photography, carrying with them both prescience and nostalgia.." Christy Lange wrote for Frieze in 2011.
In 2009, the Aperture Gallery in Manhattan hosted the retrospective It's Beautiful Here, Isn't It?, devoted to the work of the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992).  Then, in 2013,  Matthew Marks Gallery, also in New York, devoted an exhibition  to Luigi Ghirri: Kodachrome.  This exhibition coincides with the republication of Ghirri's much admired book Kodachrome, by MACK, London, UK: 2012., a book he originally published himself in 1978.

Images: The estate of Luigi Ghirri is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery, NYC.
1. Paris (self-portrait in reflection), 1976, reprinted from Kodachrome, 1978, reprinted London: 2012.
2. Valli Grandi - Veronese, undated.
3. Fagnano Olona - elementary school designed by Aldo Rossi, 1985, Pompidou Center, Paris.
4. Reggio Emilia, 1973, Pompidou Center, Paris.

20 June 2017

The Prodigious Michele Cascella

He was a prodigy, there was no doubt; certainly his father believed in him from the beginning.  He did poorly in school, being the kind of student that teachers described as being adrift with the clouds.  When one of his art teachers humiliated him in class, Michele Cascella stopped going to school entirely.  This caused a crisis in the family;  the boy's mother wanted him to make a religious vocation but the father, who supported the boy's artistic ambitions, won out. 

As an adult, Michele Cascella (1892-1989) credited Vincent van Gogh and Raoul Dufy as his artistic influences and, while it makes a good parlor game to tease out the visual bits he took from each of them, no influence is sufficient to explain his skills in painting, drawing, lithography, and ceramics.   When I look at Orangerie, painted when Cascella was just eighteen, I see the lines used to describe the girl's skirt as coming straight out of Dufy, the lines and the colors working together but not in the usual academic way.  Cascella is fearless in using bright colors (his debt to Van Gogh) without ever letting them overwhelm this tranquil, workday scene.  The house in Abruzzo,  clad in stucco, is shown here in stark white, probably an indication of the midday sun.  The country house and the orange grove were often Cascella's subject but seldom more effectively than in Orangerie.  He usually depicts orchards as pure landscape, absent their human gardeners.   Here he shifts the focus to a young girl at work, staking and pruning, his subject, underlining the domestic element that makes a  landscape out of nature. Her pose appears, appropriately,  reverential in this Edenic setting. 

Caseclla was born in  Ortona, a city on the Adriatic Sea,  in 1892.  His father Basilio, a polymath, was an engraver, ceramist, lithographer and illustrator, was the boy's first teacher.  Basilio's career was given a boost when he given  a plot of municipal land to build a laboratory and art studio for his lithography business.  Michele's first job at his father's business was the painstaking task of filling in backgrounds on lithographic stones.  But his father also gave him more traditional art projects such as copying  drawings of the old masters.  Unable to draw well himself from nature, Basilio sent Michele and his brother outdoors, supplied with a box of pastels, chocolate and cheese, to paint.  That Michele far outstripped his younger brother appears to have caused not too much rancor.
When Basilio judged that the boy was ready to exhibit in public, he arranged a show  in Milan for the fifteen year old (this was in 1902), followed by a show in Paris the next year where Michele sold his first painting.    At eighteen Michele Cascella was ready to take his place among the cultural set in the city.   

In another prodigious move, the twenty year old artist began an affair with thirty-eight year old Sibilla Aleramo, one of Italy's most famous writers and already the author of the feminist classic A Woman (1906). (I read the novel in college but confess to only a vague memory of it at this point.) 

Cascella's career would be long and varied, not a footnote to youthful achievement as are those of some who succeed early. He won a gold medal for painting at the 1937 Paris Exposition Universelle, where Raoul Dufy created a sensation with his multi-panel mural La fee electricitee.  Cascella made his first visit to the United States in 1959 and thereafter spent six month of each year at Palo Alto, California. In 1977 the City of Ortuna re- dedicated their art museum  to Cascella; more than five hundred works by three generations of the family are included in its collection.  When he died at age ninety-seven in Milan, he was buried in his hometown of Ortona.

Image: Michele Cascella -Orangerie, 1912, Cascella Museum, Ortona.

09 June 2017

The Cottagers: Camillo Inocenti

Poor Camillo Inoocenti (1871-1961).  Unlike some of his fellow painters, Innocenti gets no entry in the Grove Dictionary of Art, even in the wake of the ground-breaking 2008 exhibition Radical Light: Italy's Divisionist Painters, 1891-1910 at London's National Gallery.   One reason often given for the neglect of the Italian painters is their lack of group cohesion, sometimes also know as self-promotion.  Of course, some of the cohesion attributed to other  groups of artists has been applied from the outside by critics, the artists themselves being busy with more pressing concerns like where to apply the paint brush.

In The Cottagers Innocenti painted something he had seen frequently while growing up.  Before air-conditioning,  it was the custom among the bourgeoisie for the wives, children - and even pets - to decamp during the heat of the summer months in the cities to the countryside in search of  cool air  and relaxation. Still,  women and girls  were careful to shield their skin from the effects of the sun, hence the hats and stockings; relaxed though their postures may be as they lounge on lawn chairs, to our eyes they are dressed for company more than for  an intimate family tete-a-tete.  Innocente  was known for his  portrayals of women,  turning from the conventional female figure in elegant déshabillé, to more sensitive and nuanced images.  The Cottagers, an inter-generational gathering, is one of Innocenti's finest meditations on the stages of women's lives, captured in the doldrums between  the defining seasons of education and marriage.  An element of that fineness is how the artist managed to rise above his own rather conventional ideas about women with his brush: " ...woman is  mysterious,  fragile,  mutable,  impassioned and also artificial ."(translation by JL).

Like innumerable other aspiring artists, the young Innocentei was encouraged to pursue a less uncertain career.  His father thought the classics would be a more suitable field for the son of successful architect but,  at age twenty-four, Camillo realized that he preferred drawing while working as an assistant  to  the decorator of the Candelabra Gallery at the Vatican. Three years later he was admitted to the Rome Institute of Fine Arts.   Disappointed by his academic studies, he began searching for a fresher style.  In 1901 in Spain, he encountered the paintings of Goya and Velazquez,  but it was as much  popular scenes and landscapes that attracted him as the old masters.

Back home in 1903, Innocenti gravitated to the divisionist painters, their youth and their sense of liberty from the old academic rules.   Following World War I, he did set decoration in the up and coming Italian film industry on such projects as Cyrano de Bergerac and Ben Hur.  Had he not detoured to Cairo for a fifteen year stint as director of its School of Fine Arts (from 1925 to 1940), he might not have been so easily forgotten by his countrymen.  His work is the collection of   the National Gallery of Modern Art, and in several other Italian museums. 

Camillo Innocenti - The Cottagers, 1912, National Gallery of San Luca, Rome.

23 May 2017

How To Be Lazy - Even In Translation

 "I could have a job, but I'm too lazy to choose it;
I have got land, but I'm too lazy to farm it.
My house leaks; I'm too lazy to mend it.
My clothes are torn; I'm too lazy to darn them.
I have got wine, but I'm too lazy to drink;
So it's just the same as if my cup were empty.
I have got a lute, but I'm too lazy to play;
So it's just the same as if it had no strings.
My family tells me there is no more steamed rice;
I want to cook, but I'm too lazy to grind.
My friends and relatives write me long letters;
I should like to to read them, but they're such a bother to open.
I have always been told that Hsi Shu-yeh
Passed his whole life in absolute idleness.
But he played his lute and sometimes worked at his forge;
So even he was not as lazy as me."
- Po Chu-I, 811 C.E., from The Importance Of Being Idle by Stephen Robins, Prion Books, Ltd., London: 2000
Laziness (La Paresse) by Felix Vallotton, 1896.

Neil Philip of Idbury Prints comments: "This is great, isn't it? The translation is by Arthur Waley, though the last line has been altered, to its detriment. Waley's line reads as follows, with the "he" in italics which I can't do:

So even he was not so lazy as I.

Hsi Shu-yeh is the Taoist poet Hsi K'ang (223-262 C.E.). No doubt the transliteration of all these names has changed since Waley's day. "

And I replied:  "The editor of the anthology didn't include any source credits, but I was so taken with the poem that I hoped the spirit of Po Chu-I wouldn't mind."

Image: Vincinzo Balocchi  - Young Girl Sleeping In A Chaise Lounge, 1960, Museum of the Story of Photography, Florence.

09 May 2017

Alice Coltrane's Spirit Eternal

I first heard the music of  Alice Coltrane when I was a student, doing my homework by the radio; she had recorded several times before and I had certainly heard the music of her (by then) late husband, saxophonist John Coltrane, but until I heard her album Eternity I had no idea what Alice did.  As varied and impressive as the music was - from the Afro-Cuban percussion propelling Los Caballos, Coltrane's musical tribute to the elegance and playfulness of a horse's movements, to Spring Rounds, her orchestral version of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring  with   shimmering washes of harmony - nothing affected me like the opening piece Spiritual Eternal.  
Here Coltrane  plays the Wurlitzer organ, an instrument that, until she adopted  it, got even less respect from  jazz musicians than the Hammond B-3 does.  The music begins with a series of modal arpeggios that move seemingly at random until they are resolved by a large orchestral entrance whereupon they all join in playing a jazz waltz.  No Dixieland band this, the orchestra's  blend of brass and strings takes some inspiration from the Society Orchestra of James Reese Europe (1891-1919), the man Eubie Blake christened "the Martin Luther King of jazz."   Coltrane's solo playing soars with the jagged drive of bebop, a music she heard growing up in Detroit, deployed in her quest to make  universal music, along the way incorporating  Indian classical raga, blues, and the occasional Viennese twelve-tone row.   This is definitely not dance music but by the time  the last glorious long-drawn out note fades, I am never sitting, I am standing in awe and joy.
I never wanted to miss the Wednesday evening  program on WAER-FM,  the  Syracuse University radio station.  Hosted by a woman, something unusual in 1976, the hour was crammed with music I still love:  harpist Dorothy Ashby, (heard on Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life), pianist and composer Jessica Williams (then in her San Francisco phase recording as Jessica Jennifer Williams), and vocalists Esther Satterfield (The Land Of Make Believe with Chuck Mangione) and from Brazil, Flora Purim (Open Your Eyes, You Can Fly, Nothing Will Be As It Was Tomorrow).

From Spiritual Eternal, I worked my way backward to Alice Coltrane's first recording as a leader, A Monastic Trio (1968) and the transcendental Journey In Satchidananda (1970), discovering along the way her other instruments, the harp played with feather-weight glissandi (remember those arpeggios), so different from the strong and straight melodic lines of Dorothy Ashby, and the piano.  Coltrane, I learned, had replaced the titanic McCoy Tyner in John Coltrane's quartet  the year before his death, something that certain Coltrane fans equated with the snake in the garden. For this, and for her experiments with the note-bending capabilities of modular synthesizers, she remained outside the jazz mainstream for the rest of her life.  That Alice Coltrane needed to become a leader in order to have a group to play with after her husband's death in 1967, seemed unworthy of comment at the time.  It makes me think of an exchange between contemporary trio leader Michele Rosewoman and a an unnamed male musician: who he asked her  "What's with this all-woman thing?" as her group was setting up for a performance.   Rosewoman turned and gestured toward his band with the reply "What's with this all-man thing?". 

A strong spiritual element of one sort or another had been in Alice's musical life from childhood.  Born Alice McLeod in Alabama in 1937, she joined  her mother in playing pinao and organ for their church choir after the family moved to Detroit.  At the same time,  Alice  played jazz dates in local clubs.  Sister  Marilyn McLeod became a songwriter for Motown Records; her hits have included Love Hangover for Diana Ross and Same Ole' Love for Anita Baker.  

When Alice met John Coltrane, the two joined together in searching  for  transcendence in non-Western religious books such as  the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, and in writings on Zen Buddhism Alice would ultimately find a home in Hinduism and founded a Vedantic Ccnter in California, where she lived until her death in 2007.   Musicians Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra pursued a similar quest for a system of belief that could free black people from the oppression they were subjected to in America.  This is what Su Ra meant when he declared, "Space is the place."

After 1978, and the move to Los Angeles, Alice Coltrane seldom recorded but, thanks to the encouragement of her son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, she recorded one final album, Transilinear Light.

Listen to Alice Coltrane - Spiritual Eternal from Eternity, 1976. 
World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda 2017,  has just been released  by Luaka Bop Records

1, unidentified photographer - Alice Coltrane, from Journey In Satchidananda, 1970, Impulse Records.
2. Jeff Dunas, photographer - Alice Coltrane, from Translinear Light, 2004, Impulse Records.

01 May 2017

Marisol, Our Contemporary

When the current Whitney Biennial opened on March 17 in Manhattan after three years of preparation, its theme  "(the) creation of the self" seemed  hermetic and out of touch, especially coming from people who think of themselves and their preoccupations as driving the culture.   This moment, as it turns out, calls for engagement with the world.
A month before, the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood had asked  What Art Under Trump? in The Nation, reopening an old debate.  Artists, she pointed out,  have often been lectured on their moral duty.  Atwood didn't invoke The Metamorphosis Of The Gods by Andre Malraux, but she could have.   Malraux traced the path taken by the divine aura from the ancient world to art museums as our relationship to the divine has been transformed into a a veneration of objects. And so, the sacralization of contemporary art is about money.   Paintings, books, theater, and films, are not inherently sacred, no matter what price  they command in the marketplace, although they have in the past served religious  functions, in ancient Greek theater and medieval cathedrals, to name two instances.  

A recent bequest to the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo seems like a more telling response to the moment.   When Marisol Escobar died last year, she left  more than 100 of her sculptures, some 150 works on paper, thousands of photographs and slides, and a small group of works by other artists that she collected to the Albright-Knox. The bequest also includes the artist’s archive, library, tools, and the artist's New York City loft apartment. The sale of the apartment, worth an estimated $4 million to $5 million, will bolster the art gallery's operating endowment.
Why the Albright-Knox Gallery, located some 450 miles from New York City, the place where Marisol lived for decades?  It was the first museum to acquire Marisol's work for its collection when Seymour Knox purchased The Generals in 1962.  The artist and the museum director became  friends, with Marisol making frequent appearances at  openings and events there. "She was incredibly grateful to Mr. Knox for his purchase of The Generals and Baby Girl" said Carlos Brillembourg, Marisol's longtime friend and co-executor of her estate with Mimi Trujillo.  Baby Girl  also  became an instant hit when the museum purchased it in 1964.  The little girl (who is very big) dwarfs her tiny doll-like mother.  And Marisol had another link with the Queen City: throughout her career,  Marisol was represented by the gallery of Sidney Janis, a Buffalo native.

I have had to crane my neck to get a good look at Simon Bolivar and George Washington  whenever I visited The Generals;  it stands seven feet three inches tall.  The brightly painted wooden sculpture evokes a smile and memories of toy soldiers, but there is serious business going on here.  Washington and Bolivar were both leaders of independence movements in the Americas, but their imagined appearance together suggests a  satirical viewpoint; these mounted leaders with their feet hanging in air may be out of touch with reality.  A Marisol sculpture, I soon recognized, is always about more than one thing at a time.

About Marisol there is the lingering sense that her successes as an artist were never commensurate with her achievements.  Born in Paris to Venezuelan parents, growing up privileged on three continents, possessed of   unusual talent  and great beauty, she arrived in New York to study with Hans Hofmann in 1951.  Sizing up the male art world of Abstract Expressionism, she learned to navigate its prejudices, her determination to create undeterred.  At age twenty-seven, Marisol created a series of wooden sculptures she named The Hungarians; when it was featured in Life magazine, the  artist sitting surrounded by the wooden figures struck a nerve.    At her left was a family on a wheeled platform that could have been a train or perhaps a bus.  An image of attempted escape is implied; a mother cradles an infant while the father stands behind a toddler, but where will they go?  The Soviet Army had recently invaded Hungary and  the world  watched in horror but failed to respond to tanks rolling through the capital city Budapest, crushing bodies and spirits as they went.  Surely it is no accident that in Marisol's work, the people who are trapped are looking at us.
Because the art world caught up with Marisol in the 1960s, her work has often been pigeon-holed with pop Art - and left there when styles changed - but her work has not dated.  Her astute mimicry of human behavior was much deeper than any silk screen of a soup can.   Dubbed a "Latin Garbo" for her beauty, the feminist nature of her social critique has  become clearer with time. 
“Marisol was an important figure, subtly affecting change by her silence and the particularity of her position … She was the female artist star of pop art, [but] she dramatized it in a very subdued way, through her intensely quiet manner.” – Carolee Schneeman
“Marisol was among the most highly respected artists of the 1960s. As the decades passed, she was inappropriately written out of that history. My aim was to return her to the prominence she so rightly deserves.” – Marina Pacini, curator, Memphis Brooks Museum

In 2014, the Museo del Barrio was the first New York museum to present a solo  exhibition of Marisol’s work.

1.  unidentified photographer - Marisol touches up The Generals at the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, 1963, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
2. unidentified photographer -  Marisol and a guest with The Generals, November 18, 1963,  courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
3. unidentified photographer, Marisol - The Generals, c.1961-62, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.
4. unidentified photographer -  Marisol - Baby Girl, 1963, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery.

25 April 2017

Chaud Lapin !

"To the carrot, the rabbit is the perfect incarnation of Evil."  - Robert Sheckley. 

Add marigolds to that thought and start a list.  When I was little I was taken aback by my mother's frustration at finding her newly planted marigolds serving as lunch for the neighborhood rabbits.  "Why can't they eat the dandelions instead?" she wailed to no one in particular, certainly not the rabbits who continued nibbling contentedly until she chased them away.  The rabbits would often  hide under the family sedan parked in the driveway and stare up at us with what, to my six year old eyes, looked like mingled sorrow and reproach.   Why else plant those luscious, low-growing flowers, if not for them?   I was so upset by this early encounter with adult insensitivity and importuned so loudly that eventually my mother promised to plant more marigolds in spite of the predictable results.   And there were other little adversaries in the garden.  From my mother I learned that squirrels dig up spring bulbs; they eat the sweet tulip bulbs but disdain the bitter taste of  daffodils,  replanting the bulbs in incongruous locations.  My mother was so attached to her gardens that each time we moved we had to drive by houses where we had once lived just for her to see how the flowers were being cared for.

Chaud lapin translates literally from the French as 'hot rabbit' but its meaning is metaphorical, something along the lines of 'randy devil.'

The late Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) was that rare exception among science fiction writers, one who had a sense of humor, albeit sometimes a dark one.  He gave one of his books the title Bring Me The Head Of Prince Charming;  I can imagine the outrage if a woman dared to use that title.

A detail from The Lady And The Unicorn, wool and silk tapestry, c.1495-1505, (Musee nationale du Moyen Age) Musee de Cluny, Paris.
The tapestries were deisgned in Paris and woven in Flanders.  They disappeared from puiblic view, only to be found by Prosper Merimiee, author of the novel Carmen, in 1841.  Merimee, it should be noted was an archeologist, among other things, when he discovered the tapestries moldering in a castle in central France.  Three years later, after George Sand saw them she began to publicize their existence.