Thursday, January 5, 2017

Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim

A couple of days ago, I went with a friend to see the Agnes Martin show at the Guggenheim in New York, which originated at the Tate Modern in London. I've been to both of these museums often enough to guess that the latter was probably a better place for Martin's gentle squares, grids, stripes and luminous colors, which demand quiet contemplation, solitude if possible and natural light (not the CFL/fluorescence that washes out everyone and everything). There are places that do justice to Martin's work; the Guggenheim is not one of them. I am not alone in this thought: even Peggy Guggenheim, the founder Solomon's niece, referred to the building as " uncle's garage." Although Peggy didn't collect Agnes Martin, Martin's works would have benefited enormously by being shown at Peggy's Venice Museum - a lovelier setting would be hard to find (more water, more light), except perhaps for one venue I describe below.

I've long felt that the Guggenheimin New York is a good place to visit for the "building itself" experience. Frank Lloyd Wright - its architect - would have agreed: he maintained that the spiraling bricks and mortar were/should be the highlight and not the art. It is hard for the art to hold its own in this structure; perhaps the best way is to embrace its oddity, not fight with it and don't affix square-framed art to the sloping walls. I agree with a friend who commented that it always appeared as though the art was "clinging to the walls." I have seen great shows there, though: the James Turrell show was fantastic, other-worldly; filling the entire space with ever-changing and magical light. Another good exhibition was the Cai Guo-Qiang show, featuring hanging cars and stuffed snarling tigers. In both cases, the building didn't fight with the art.

In January 2016, I eagerly showed up at the doors of the new Whitney, but it was closed that day. From what I have seen online and been told by friends who have visited, it is quite magnificent, lots of natural light, views of the Hudson River. I think that Agnes Martin - a former resident of the artists' colony on Coenties Slip on the East River - might have preferred this place for this retrospective of her work.

I loved the obsessive gentleness of all of the pieces in the Agnes Martin show, but one painting stood out for me: Gratitude, both the beautiful composition of it and the intention behind it. Nancy Princenthal's excellent biography of Agnes Martin, Mary Lance's documentary, Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, and Agnes and Me, the memoir of one of Martin's confidants, all shed light on the enigmatic artist. To really see her, though, you need to get close to the works, breathe them in, and then step back to fully appreciate her greater vision.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Walking Along, Singing a Song

Throughout this year - and especially lately - I've been thinking that what the world needs is more musicals, or rather, the world of the musical in which unfettered happiness and joy (not hate and rage) burst forth naturally from ordinary conversations or walks in the park. The characters may be heartbroken, overjoyed, or rhapsodic all in quick succession, but the one thing they are not is malevolent.

I confess here to disliking most musicals, though there are exceptions: Cabaret, The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, West Side Story, Funny Face - the last three I think because of the dancing (more on that later).

Recently, a friend and I went to the Oriental Theater to see Fun Home, a Broadway musical performed on stage in a beautiful, historic venue in Chicago. I enjoyed it, but it did not move me like the ones mentioned above. Why not? Though the story was good and the music, too, I couldn't relate to it on the emotional level that was required.

Yesterday, another friend and I saw the new film La La Land at a different historical venue. This time, I WAS moved and enchanted by the Cinemascope, the color, the singing, the dancing, the story. All in one package. In a similar fashion, Zadie Smith's latest novel, Swing Time, grabbed me and wouldn't let go until I reluctantly finished. It's about the power of dance, but a lot more, too.

Naive yes, but I want to enter and live in these worlds of song and dance - at least for a couple of hours at a time - after the soul-killing events and deaths of 2016. I want the opportunity to believe that everything will work out fine if you can just sing and dance your way to the lovely resolution of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in that beautiful Central Park scene in The Bandwagon (1953), where the troubles of the world finally disappear and what remains is the sublime joy of being alive.

                       Happy Holidays and here's to a peaceful 2017~

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Neutrinos in a New Light - Art at Fermilab

The proof that mysterious, invisible neutrinos exist lies in the "aftermath" of their collisions with other particles and substances. Ghost-like, neutrinos can pass through objects, leaving a mark that the naked eye cannot see, thus inspiring both scientists and artists. Things we cannot see leave the most indelible impression.

The result of  Ellen Sandor and (art)n's year-long artist residency at Fermilab is a fascinating exhibition entitled Neutrinos in a New Light, on view now through March 17, 2017. Art and science collide gently to form elegant PHSColograms - Sandor's term for the synthesis of photography, holography, sculpture, and computer graphics. The works in this show the AIDS and Ebola viruses as well as the brain of an autistic person; some pieces highlight the influence artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Jackson Pollock, and David Smith have had on Sandor and her collaborators. A friend of the artist commented that the art captured the "tragic beauty" of life. Perhaps my favorite piece was The Magnificent Micelle, 2013

Physicists and art lovers, young and old enthusiastically engaged with the virtual reality component of the show in order to create their own 3D art. I was excited by the way art once again enters into everything, everywhere if you let it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Things I've Enjoyed This Week

Despite recent personal sadnesses and the general Weltschmerz, these things have made me smile this week:

1. The super moon.

2. The Nollywood portrait exhibition at Columbia College's Museum of Contemporary Photography.

3. Beautiful, atypical Chicago weather.

4. The lunch special at Thai Spoon.

5. The Norman Lewis painting exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center.

6. Michelle Dockery in Good Behavior (because where else will you see Lady Mary toting a stainless steel shotgun, grifting with glee, and smoking meth from a hand-fashioned pipe?)

7. Jo Malone's new fall fragrance, Basil and Neroli.

8. Being immersed in Diana Thater's hypnotic animal world at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

9. Going behind the scenes at Susanin's Auction House.

10. Discovering Open Books, a non-profit bookstore promoting literacy.

11. Being tempted to visit Los Angeles (finally) by the lovely portrait food critic Jonathan Gold paints in City of Gold.

12. Being reminded of the delight that is Buenos Aires, one of my favorite cities, in the moving documentary Our Last Tango.

13. Thinking about going to see Morrissey on the 27th.

14. Ha Jin's The Boat Rocker.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Vanishing Streets

Admirers of W.G. Sebald will believe he has come back to life in the melancholy, beautiful book called Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London by J.M. Tyree. Reading this book may lead you (as it did me) down a delightful rabbit hole that included watching all of the British Film Institute and Ford Motor Company-funded Free Cinema films as well as reading Tyree's Our Secret Life in the Movies, written in collaboration with Michael McGriff. And I will likely soon re-read Austerlitz and The Emgirants, two of my favorite Sebald masterpieces.

The Free Cinema Films were conceived, filmed, and produced in the black-and-white 1950s of post-war London and other parts of Britain. Unlike the more traditional films of the time, the credo of the Free Cinema directors called for a celebration of ordinary citizens enjoying themselves, living life, working. Downton Abbey/E.M. Forster/Merchant Ivory stories these are not, but for me, they are all the more exciting and fresh for it. You are really there at that time in history, observing people speak, move, live. You are taken into worlds that lie beyond the static, still (though beautiful) black-and-white images of photographers like Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, and Diane Arbus.

Watching the Free Cinema films gave me the same thrill I got when I entered the black-and-white 1950s Rome of Roberto Rosellini and Vittorio Seca. Ditto the French New Wave films of Francois Truffault, Agnes Varda, Chris Marker, and Eric Rohmer. Antonioni captured 1972 China in La Chine; Wim Wenders did the same with Berlin, pre-Wall fall, in the magnificent Wings of Desire. And Kieslowski documented 1960s-1980s life in Poland in his masterful black and white films of the era before making the permanent shift to fiction, starting with his splendid Dekalog, newly released by Criterion.

In Vanishing Streets, Tyree pays homage to Robert Vas's 1962 Free Cinema film, The Vanishing Street. We spend 20 minutes among the inhabitants of London's Jewish East End, specifically Hessel Street, just before the buildings there are razed to make way for "improvements." Like Vas, Tyree depicts the inevitability of the constant cycle of destruction and construction, lamenting what is lost, never (or poorly) to be replaced. Like fellow author Sebald, Tyree illustrates the disconnection and loss felt by many in the modern world by juxtaposing odd, haunting photos within the text. Some worlds can only be seen second-hand now (via books, photos, films) rather than with our own eyes. But at least we have that.