Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Patricia Albers' "Joan Mitchell: Lady Painter"

"Hudson River Day Line," Joan Mitchell

An informative biography, full of details about Mitchell's family background (Chicago steel heiress), love affairs and artistic struggles. Her competitive desire to be "one of the boys" of the New York School. Her fear of abandonment and death. Her steadfast love of van Gogh. She painted from the memory of a landscape, until she abstracted it in the idiom of Abstract Expressionism. The writing of the biography is in places too breezy and purple for my taste. The biographer clearly admires her subject, but does not hide her flaws.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

"A new kind of cine-love"

TLS June 7 2013

from John Ridpath's review of Jonathan Sterne's MP3: The meaning of a format, Gabriele Pedulla's In Broad Daylight: Movies and spectators after the cinema, and J. Hoberman's Film After Film: or, what became of 21st century cinema:

AT&T's groundbreaking psychoacoustic research was designed with a commercial imperative in mind: to maximize bandwidth on telephone lines. By only reproducing sounds that were audible to human hearing, the company managed to quadruple its capacity by 1920s. As the twentieth century progressed, various psychoacoustic researchers turned their attention to exploiting gaps within the audible spectrum, such as those caused when one sound is rendered inaudible by a similar one that is louder (a phenomenon known as masking). 
Such research contributed directly to the creation of "perceptual coders": algorithms designed to compress audio by removing inaudible sounds. As part of a drive by ISO and IEC to create standards for audio and video compression, the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) was established in 1988. In order to overcome political differences between members the MPEG Phase 1 standard defined three protocols (or "layers") for defining audio. Of those layers the third only rose to prominence when the Fraunhofer Institute, who had led the technology's development, branded it the "MP3" and released its encoding software. By 1997, MP3 had become the most popular format for online file sharing, cementing its notoriety but ultimately leading to its prominent place in the legitimate digital audio market. Today, MP3 remains the most common format in which recorded sound circulates. 
MPEG's standard was developed from listening tests that saw a panel of "experts" rank compressed recordings alongside CD-quality counterparts. Each version was judged on a fifty-point scale that hinged, somewhat curiously, on the listener's stated level of irritation: very annoying; annoying; slightly annoying; perceptible, but not annoying; imperceptible. From these deeply subjective tests, fascinating qustions emerge. Are we to assume that the CD, another digital format, provides the "ideal" of audio quality? Who is held to be an "expert listener"? What genres or audio recording are tested? As Sterne puts it, "a whole praxeology of listening was written into the cord of an MP3, where particular kinds of listening subjects and orientation towards listening shaped the format". 
. . . In "The Myth of Total Cinema", the French film critic Andre Bazin identified the art form's desire to recreate "the world in its own image"--borne out in each technological development to the medium, such as full colour, synchronous sound and 3D. For Hoberman, digital photographic techniques--from Photoshop to CGI--negate the necessity of having the world before a camera, or even having a camera at all: "With the advent of CGI, the history of motion pictures was now, in effect, the history of animation". The technology launched a wave of "cyborg cinema", stretching back to Disney's Tron (1982), continuing during the 1990s with works such as Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), and culminating in 1999 with The Matrix. For Hoberman, "in the universe of The Matrix, Bazin's dream arrived as a nightmare, in the form of a virtual cyber existence. Total Cinemas as a total disassociation from reality". 
After 9/11, the director Robert Altman told the press that the terrorists "have copied the movies. . . . I just believed we created this atmosphere and taught them how to do it". Hoberman believes that the event was taken by some filmmakers as "a challenge to the notion of the movies as a medium with a privileged relationship to the real", and encouraged a "New Realness" among certain directors. Spielberg has said that his War of the Worlds (2005) deliberately allegorized 9/11 and was "as ultra-realistic as I've ever attempted to make a movie". Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), meanwhile, seemingly stands opposed to all entertainment values, with a crucifixion sequence that depicts near continuous violence with shocking realness.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Meaning of Style

I have to record this glorious passage from The Open Mind by J. Robert Oppenheimer, which I found quoted in American Prometheus, the biography of Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin that I have been reading:

The problem of doing justice to the implicit, the imponderable, and the unknown is of course not unique in politics. It is always with us in science, it is with us in the most trivial of personal affairs, and it is one of the great problems of writing and of all forms of art. The means by which it is solved is sometimes called style. It is style which complements affirmation with limitation and with humility; it is style which makes it possible to act effectively, but not absolutely; it is style which, in the domain of foreign policy, enables us to find a harmony between the pursuit of ends essential to us, and the regard for the views, the sensibilities, the aspirations of those to whom the problem may appear in another light; it is style which is the deference that actions pays to uncertainty; it is above all style through which power defers to reason.

What is profound in the quote is that Oppenheimer appraises the ethical dimensions of what is too often treated as a merely aesthetic term. And sees its relevance across such diverse fields as politics, science, personal affairs and the arts.

This is a thoroughly researched, rigorously argued biography about this one-time controversial titan of American history. The biographers, a newspaper editor and a history professor, focused on the politics of the Life. I wish there were more about the science. The prose is actually serviceable, but surrounding as it does the eloquent words of Oppenheimer himself, the lover of Baudelaire and the Bhavagad Gita, it looks as wooden as the frame around an oil painting.

El Museo’s Bienal 2013: HERE IS WHERE WE JUMP

Detail from A Dios (2012) by Edgar Serrano

PL and I visited El Museo del Barrio yesterday to see its 7th biennal show. I've been to the museum before, to see a show about the artistic connections between Puerto Rico and New York, but hadn't seen a biennal there. 37 emerging Latino and Latin Americans who live and work in the New York metropolitan area contributed works. As expected, video works and installation pieces dominated, most of which were thin in conception and casual in execution. To display one's process does not necessarily make a successful artwork. The aesthetics by and large felt derivative. But how does one surmount the problem of coming late to the scene?

One exceptional installation was that of Hector Arce-Espasas, who is Puerto Rican. On top of haphazardly stacked crates stood ceramic jugs made in the shape of pineapples. On the wall was a blown-up reproduction of George I presented with a pineapple by his gardener. Most of the jugs were cracked or broken, showing the effect of their overseas transportation. The installation looked authoritative as a meditation on colonialism and migration. I thought that the crates should look as worn-out as the jugs. They were too clean and looked new. Nevertheless, through the discriminating choice and informed arrangement of symbolic objects, Arce-Espasas created a piece that repaid looking and thinking. The sweat and smell of the dock  had been transformed into a work of art.

Another piece works by capturing a small but significant gesture. Chilean artist Julia San Martin painted  a number of small canvases in which a little girl peered fearfully around the corner of the house. The action, so familiar, even domestic, spoke powerfully of living with violence and terror under a dictatorship. The figures and the houses were never detailed, but quick brushstrokes of single colors gave them a psychological acuity and an emotional impact.

The third approach was to create an anthology of all earlier styles. Edgar Serrano did that successfully in his nostalgic farewell A Dios (2012). The work comprised 24 (?) squarish paintings of the same size, but they evoked earlier styles--figurative and abstract, baroque and minimalist, realist and surrealist--in depicting family, love, sex and art. It was an approach designed to show that one has come of age, but it does not hint at where one may go next.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

This Assignment Is So Gay

Just received my contributor's copy of This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ poets on the art of teaching. Proud to be out with Gregory Woods, Cyril Wong, Timothy Liu, Benjamin Grossberg and Garth Greenwell. Megan Volpert edited and Sibling Rivalry Press published this important anthology. It will be launched at the Decatur Book Festival in Decatur, Georgia, in September. I will be reading and speaking on the panel with Megan, Bryan Broland and other contributors.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Andrew Delbanco's Melville

There are two major challenges facing any biographer of Melville, as Delbanco frankly admits. The first is the paucity of surviving documentation such as correspondence and notebooks. Delbanco overcomes this deficit to some extent by sketching in the historical picture, with some nice descriptions of New York City in the 19th century, for instance, and by delineating the debate over slavery in the lead-up to civil war.

The other challenge stems directly from Melville's own writing. After the popular success of Typee and Omoo, Melville wrote his masterpiece Moby Dick in his mid-thirties. Thereafter, his writing went into a steep decline, as beset by financial worries and resenftful of the lukewarm critical reception, he turned out inconsistent puzzling books and magazine hackwork. With the exception of a few short stories like "Bartleby the Scrivener,""Benito Cereno" and "The Encantadas" and the final spurt of inspiration that gave him "Billy Budd" near the end of his life, Melville wrote nothing else that came close to the genius of Moby Dick.

Since he lived, or rather, survived, to the age of 72, the decline lasted some thirty years. Delbanco's biography, accordingly, lost interest for me in the later chapters. It was agonizing to see the creator of Ahab losing his way, as if the writer went down with his creation after the white whale struck.

Monday, June 03, 2013

The Internet Ideology

TLS May 24, 2013

from Michael Saler's review of Evgeny Morozov's To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don't exist, and Jason Lanier's Who Owns the Future?:

The internet ideology provides a quasi-religious vision of how human relationships will be transformed, material abundance created, and transcendence attained through human-machine interactions. Its prophets cite its decentralized and open strucutre as the model for a free, egalitarian and transparent world order. Their holy writ is Moore's Law, which suggests that computers will "evolve" exponentially, doubling their prowess every two years or so. Their eschatology is the Singularity, which predicts that machines will outstrip humans in the near future, and benevolently uplift (or simply upload) mere mortals to nerd Nirvana. In the interim, the messy stuff of ordinary existence will be tamed by quantifying it into the bits and butes of Information Theory, and transformed into "Big Data" for the Information Economy. . . . 
The internet ideology is difficult to dislodge because it is not simply an immaterial ideal; it is materially embedded in a global infrastructure made up of machines, software, private businesses and public institutions. This infrastructure influences how we think and behave, and once locked in may be difficult to change. 

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Materials for Art


I loved the show of Richard Serra's early work at David Zwirner. It is full of feeling for material, volume and balance, the hallmarks of his mature achievements. My favorite work at the show was a lead plate made in the form of a canvas sheet that has been folded into four quarters and then unfolded. On the second floor were Blinky Palermo's works on paper, which he did near the end of his all-too-short life. Many of the drawings were composed in series, a feature that emphasizes his constant experimentation with color, geometric shapes and brushstroke. Even though they allude so familiarly to abstraction, Minimalism and Conceptual art, they retain an irresistible freshness.

Anselm Kiefer's Morgenthau Plan at Gagosian was a very different kind of show. Monumental, serious, intense, the paintings, which cover completely with thick impasto the blown-up photographs of fields of flowers, brood on the-then US Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau's plan to transform post-war Germany to a pre-industrial, agricultural nation, in order to defang the country. The paintings showed flowers blooming in a landscape of devastation. Some I found overly literal and bombastic, but there was at least one very powerful work, in which the blasted field holds up a body of black water.

GH liked very much Nancy Lorenz's work at Morgan Lehman. Inspired by the landscape of South West County Kerry, Ireland, during her Cill Rialaig artist residency, she made scratches on metal plates, which she then filled with mother-of-pearl. The effect was shimmering. The plates showed the effect of Japanese aesthetics, with which Lorenz was familiar, having spent her adolescence in Japan. The Japanese sensitivity to beauty was also exhibited at the Anton Kern show of Los Angeles-based ceramicist Shio Kusaka. Her pots were not classically regular or rounded, but often achieved a peculiar autonomy of their own. I especially liked the vase and pot with a hole in their side; they are beautifully useless.

We made the trek from Chelsea to Midtown to see Maya Lin's new work with drawing pins, recycled silver and marble. I was underwhelmed. Beyond their ecological significance, the works themselves seemed rather thin.