The weather forecast forced us to cancel a hike, so GH and I went round the Chelsea galleries instead yesterday. We both loved Erin Shirreff's show of Arm's Length at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.. Relief consisted of photographs of "handmade sculptural maquettes and assembled composite images." I loved Drop (no. 12) and Drop (no. 13), "hand-cut paper scraps [that] are translated into large sheets of hot-rolled, cold-rolled or Cor-ten steel, and hang in simple layered arrangements on steel rods. Also absorbing were the four new sculptures titled Catalogue (Object Lesson). They are composed of "shaped blocks of graphite-pigmented plaster balanced atop one another and along and underneath flat plants." The large-scale cyanotype photograms showed geometric forms and arrangements that echoed other works in the show. Born in BC, Canada, Shirreff now lives and works in NYC.
We also liked British painter Chantal Joffe's Night Self-Portraits at Cheim & Read. The women in the portraits were not conventionally beautiful, but their awkwardness and lack of proportion compelled attention. The coloring of chairs and fabrics reminded me of Matisse. Figure Ground, at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc., revisited a show that the gallery put up when it was in Soho 20 years ago. The current exhibition grouped together color lithographs, a charcoal-on-paper work, and a painting by Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning's lithographs, and Raoul Hogue's wood sculptures for an interesting meditation on the relationship of figure to ground. Over at Lori Bookstein, Henry Rothman's collages, using found scraps, displayed a keen eye for pleasing juxtaposition of colors, shapes and edges. GH liked Robert Motherwell's Opens paintings at Andrea Rosen Gallery, but I thought they did not give enough to the eye or mind.
On hearing that I am working on a book of essays, WL lent me Freeman Dyson's Disturbing the Universe. He was a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. "Born in England," the biographical note continues, " he came over to Cornell University in 1947 as a Commonwealth Fellow and settled permanently in the U.S. in 1951." A summary of his career, the next paragraph also indicates the topics of his essays: "Professor Dyson is not only a theoretical physicist; his career has spanned a large variety of practical concerns. His is a unique career inspired by direct involvement with the most pressing concerns of human life, minimizing loss of life in war, to disarmament, to thought experiments on the expansion of our frontiers into the galaxies."
From his essays, it is clear that Dyson is that rare thing, a man deeply passionate about both science and literature. His essays make reference to Goethe's Faust, Auden and Isherwood's The Ascent of F6, H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, John Milton's great defense of press freedom Areopagitica. The title of the book comes from T. S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The first essay "The Magic City," my favorite of the book, is a meditation on the frightening pertinence of Edith Nesbit's children's story of the same name to the abuse of science in our contemporary world. Dyson himself is a very good writer, lucid and graceful.
The force of the writing comes not only from style, however, but also from the moral discrimination that Dyson wields in confronting his life and the world's problems. He blamed himself for not taking any action though he knew as a civilian statistician in Research Division that the Allies' strategic bombing of German cities in the last years of WWII was not only unconscionable but also ineffective and lethal only to the lives of RAF pilots. He made the interesting argument that it was the Americans' success at firebombing Tokyo that paved the way to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Having built up a Strategic Bombing Command at great cost, the Allies were almost bound to use it.
In another fine essay, "The Blood of a Poet," Dyson paid a heartfelt tribute to his Winchester schoolfriend Frank Thompson whose intelligence and liveliness marked him out as a leader of men. He was a poet too. He joined the Communist Party and enlisted in the war from the start in 1939. While playing the dangerous role of the Allies' liaison with Bulgarian partisans, he was captured and executed by the Fascists, but not before giving his audience their common sign of liberty, a salute with a clenched fist, and thus inspiring the men captured with him to do the same and march to their deaths with heads held high.
The other portraits in this book are of his fellow physicists at Cornell and Princeton. Dick Feynman and his intuitions. His opposite, Julian Schwinger and his mathematical equations. The mercurial arrogance of Robert Oppenheimer. The humanity of Hans Bethe. Dyson contrasts the egotism of the physicists with the cooperative spirit of the engineers. He also astutely observes how all the Los Alamos alumni spoke nostalgically of the A-bomb project as a time of thrilling camaraderie. He is clear about the constant temptation facing scientists of treating all questions, even those with vast moral consequences, as merely technical questions. He humanizes the public perception of Edward Teller, who spoke against Oppenheimer at the latter's security hearings. The scientists, all intellectual giants, are shown to be human and fallible. The portraits, however, are not malicious. They are suffused with affection and admiration. Dyson is not therefore blind to faults.
The last section of the book, which takes up the subjects of space exploration and extra-terrestrials, is less interesting to me than the two earlier sections, "England" and "America." Someone of a more speculative cast of mind will enjoy these essays. When Dyson shades into mysticism in the last essay, finding a Mind behind the mind at work in making quantum observations, and the mind beyond brain cells and synapses, he loses me.
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