Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Art Sightings in New York, Part 2

I went to look at some galleries in west Chelsea, New York City, last Friday. It was my first visit to the area. So many galleries, and so many I didn't even get time to see! What caught my eye was mainly abstract art, apart from this first one, a giant multi-coloured print by Kiki Smith at Pace Prints:

Ross Bleckner, at Mary Boone (below). The photo shows the size of the painting, but not the subtlety of the marks revealed underneath each dot or hole. On the way out, I heard someone saying snarkily: "Oh, Ross Bleckner is only here because some hedge fund billionaire buys all his work:"

A show of recent prints by Terry Winters:

Dead White Guy alert: a great set of paintings by Raymond Hendler (1923-1998):

And some loosey-goosey geometry by Gary Stephan. I liked this green/black/grey one a lot:

Friday, March 21, 2014

Art Sightings in New York, Part 1

I'm in New York City this week and here are some pictures of art that took my attention at MoMA and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

In order of appearance: early Marsden Hartley, late Marsden Hartley, detail of the early Hartley, an early Mark Rothko believe it or not, a new print from Jasper Johns, people taking selfies in front of a Pollock, a Gerhard Richter painting, solid clouds in a Van Gogh, a detail from Picasso's Demoiselles, a print from the amazing Gauguin print exhibition, a linocut in the Art of Civil Rights show at the Brooklyn Museum, an african carving:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Why I Reread

I recently added to a thread on Facebook about Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, during which I mentioned that I’ve read it at least four times. It got me thinking about how many other books I’ve read more than once, and what the list might say about me. Actually, I reread a lot, so for the purposes of keeping the list shorter, I’m trying to recall books I’ve read at least three times:

  • Specific plays by Shakespeare: Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth (10+)
  • Holy Sonnets, Elegies, Satires, John Donne (10+)
  • Ulysses, James Joyce (6)
  • The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, by, er, Billy Wobbledagger (5+)
  • Songs of Innocence and Experience, William Blake (5+)
  • The Iliad, Alexander Pope’s translation (4)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (4)
  • Plays and Poems, Bertolt Brecht (4)
  • The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene (4)
  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (4)
  • Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert (4)
  • Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (4)
  • Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow (3)
  • The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky (3)
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (3)
  • Smoke, Ivan Turgenev (3)

The first thing I notice about this list is that it’s easier to read poetry and plays multiple times than novels. Still, I have been drawn back to Shakespeare a lot, and Pope’s version of the Iliad, for the beauty of the language, the storytelling, and in Shakespeare’s case because it has everything. Novels predominate as a genre, and each example given led me to read almost everything else by that author. The exception is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which I fell in love with as a teenager, but which for some reason remained the only thing I read by Hemingway until a few years ago. A brilliant high school English teacher was responsible for my falling in love with Donne, Shakespeare, Twain, Dickens, and Greene. University brought me Dostoevsky, Bellow, Flaubert, and Brecht. I found my way to Joyce as a teenager because it was my first introduction to really complex writing, and also for the simple reason that it fed my personal rebellion against Catholicism. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on “Ulysses,” and turned to the Circe/Night-town chapter when making my first suite of etchings in the 90s. But I probably won’t read it again—too much of the linguistic experimentation in the later chapters, while being absolutely justified artistically, just don’t satisfy me as a reader any more. Turgenev is a recent infatuation, and is probably the candidate who will move up the rankings of rereadings in the future.

Why do I reread so often? Partly it’s the warmth of familiarity, a memory of the strong emotional response of the first reading, a desire to be pulled into the story and for it to completely enfold me and engage me again. Partly it’s because these works are touchstones: I read much more contemporary fiction that I ever did, thanks to my writer-wife’s influence, but every now and then I drift back to My List as an unconscious way of maintaining the connection between present art and past. Maybe this is the same as trying to answer the question: Why do I listen to pieces of music more than once? Because they give me the old pleasure, and because for certain pieces (of music, of literature) it’s never exactly the same on the third, fourth, or even tenth reading.

Maybe the best answer was given by Vladimir Nabokov: “One cannot read a book. One can only reread it.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lynn Saville: The Plenitude of Emptiness

West 125th Street, New York, New York. Copyright Lynn Saville.
The French writer Roland Barthes, in his book Camera Lucida, said of photography that it “can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look.” It’s a banal statement, amounting to a plain summary of the photograph as something transmitted between an object and a spectator via the camera. All that this phrase really tells us is how a photograph is made, not about the differences between one photograph and another, or one photographer and another. But in looking at Vacancy, a series of photographs by Lynn Saville on show recently at Schneider Gallery in Chicago, that phrase by Barthes came to mind, particularly the second of those verbs, “to undergo.”

Saville trained her lens on vacant storefronts on streets across the United States, at night or nearly night, so that the luminance of artificial lighting from streetside or inside determines how we see the spaces. We see warehouses, restaurants, stores, all emptied of people and commerce, but filled with the geometry of modern structures, garish neon light, reflections, shadows. There is careful attention to framing, but that’s what you’d expect of any professional photographer. Saville seems equally to be transfixed by the transition of colors from one side of the picture to another, as in West 125th St, NY, where the underwater green tone is modulated by splashes of red and blue, and Closed Restaurant, in which our eyes are drawn to the shadows of an interior room glimpsed through an open door, and the heavenly blue suggesting a corridor to the left. There are inevitable political associations in the project, to do with documenting what happens to businesses during a recession, but the closest that gets to something explicit is in Warehouse, Houston, where we see a warehouse on the left, the lights of houses on the right, and a lot of vacant space between, suggesting the separation between people and this former place of work.

Warehouse, Houston. Copyright Lynn Saville
These are not spectacular photographs. Nothing appears to be happening, but that nothing is filled with possibility, signified by all those doorways that stand half open, all those windows with light behind them, all those vacancies waiting to be filled. They are contemplative, meditative images. You see them, but you also experience them, undergoing a slow unfolding of light and time.

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