Coit Tower and Its Murals

Workers of the WorldHere is a small detail from the great murals of Coit Tower, San Francisco.  A tribute to the firemen of the city, and designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle, or other things more phallic if one prefers, the tower would be merely a tourist attraction were it not for the murals.  Created during the Great Depression by a group of local artisits who were, for the most part, friends or students of Diego Rivera, the murals capture the harshness and diversity of American life in stunning panoramas of great proportion.

The first two images below contrast the news of the day with the information that makes fortunes, and the well-heeled who absorb it. The news isn’t happy making but the library provides little joy either, it seems.

The third below, of a family panning for gold, washing clothes and of the daughter(?) sawing an enormous log, probably for cooking, contrasts this sample salt of the earth group with the leisure bound family of gawkers above them who stand near their car taking in the “picturesque” scene, as some who stroll by the murals today still do.

Cars are less a means of transportation than a threat to human life for the masses, it seems and the fourth image–all these shots are but segments of quite large murals–captures the horror of an automobile accident and the carnage it causes.

To the right of it is a man on the dock. He sits looking off to the left, waiting, hoping, expecting? We can’t tell but the large ship behind him is clearly of less interest than something yet to be seen, and perhaps done, something that will transform this world of contrasts and contradictions, misery and privilege.  Like him, it seems we’re still waiting.

News, Dreary News in Hard Times
Boys and Their Books, away from the newspapers
Tale of Two FamiliesDeath Comes, as it must to allOn the Dock

Letters to Afar: Peter Forgacs’ New Installation

The Opening

To say that this installation, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, is amazing is to scratch the surface.

Made up of 13 screens, all large–some on scrims that let the image pass through 3 or 4 layers of cloth before finally fading into nothingness, sone on screens, some on the museum walls, some in horizontal diptyches, some in vertical ones, some with vocal accompaniment, some without–the images are both pedestrian and astounding. Shot by visitors to Poland in the 1920s and 30s, and intended as home movies, they are far from the usual cute pictures only of interest to the family they capture. The visitors are returning. They are Jewish-Polish immigrants who became Jewish-American success stories, men who could afford a camara and even, sometimes, a cameraman. They are returning to their places of origin and the extended families that dot the Polish landscape. From Krakow, Lodz and Warsaw to dozens of shtetls, they shot images of the life and people they have left and need to remember.

Their images create an archive of a lost world, though the archive itself persists at YIVO in New York city. Forgacs went through the vast inventory of home movies and selected about 6 hours of footage to organize into the installation. Most screens or clusters of screens feature footage from a single location: a major city or shtetl. People go about their daily lives; people look at the camera and often pose for it; people live their middle European lives in the period between wars as if it will go on forever. There is immense vitality and joie de vivre in what they do and how they represent themselves. Forgacs has skillfully given us a sense of a culture that possesses enormous strength, diversity, confidence and zest.

How could it disappear? How much diabolical work had to go into making that happen? This installation makes clear that no small effort would suffice. It would have to be a genuine catastrophe, a holocaust of unimaginable proportions. Such an event is nowhere to be seen in the installation but it lives in our memories and hearts and when those memories of what will happen next confronts this testament to what went before, the result is dumbfounding. Beauty and joy hover near the wings of a maelstrom that is soon to descend. We can only rejoice at this reclaimed world and mourn its horrific passing.

a Forgacs triptych with 3 viewers

Alcatraz and Ai Weiwei: The Scene of the Crime

You get the idea that this is a bad place right away.

Alcatraz with Angel Island in the background.

Alcatraz with Angel Island in the background.


Discarded, but a black and white reminder of just how stark this place can be.

Discarded, but a black and white reminder of just how stark this place can be.

Set like what should be a jewel in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz, the island, is nothing but rock and Alcatraz, the prison, nothing but misery. The free audio tour, with the voices of former guards and prisoners, recreates what it would be like to an inmate and it’s not a pretty picture. Cells are tiny, places to roam or exercise or read are miniscule to non-existent.

Ai Weiwei has been to jail. In China. For alleged tax-evasion. The two documentaries about him, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, give a vivid sense of his art, politics, humor, decency, integrity and status as a thorn in the side of a near totalitarian government. He can’t leave the country but this exhibit exploits that fact. He has created an installation of multiple works that remind us how international and relentless the pressure on political dissent is. From the colorful dragon that snakes through half of the building where prisoners were allowed to work to the Lego-based images of scores and scores of political prisoners around the world, Weiwei draws us into a world we would rather forget and reminds of just how high a price dissent, protest and militant activism often entails.

The dragon's head wlecomes us to the former prisoners' "work" area.

The dragon’s head wlecomes us to the former prisoners’ “work” area.

A reminder of  the thin line between in and out, free and captive, liberty and oppression.

A reminder of the thin line between in and out, free and captive, liberty and oppression.

The Lego images are of far more people than most of us have heard of; Weiwei has culled them from around the world. The small pieces of interlocking tessera reassemble people whose lives have been torn apart, whose existence has been minimized and whose identities have been demonized. Some are prisoners no longer such as Nelson Mandela, while others, like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden occupy liminal spaces within or beyond prison walls. Weiwei gives them a vivid, fractured presence that we must actively reassemble and integrate in our own minds as we wander in this desolate workspace, a void in the spirit world of life.

One of the large arrays of images in the work space. There are five such arrays in all.

One of the large arrays of images in the work space. There are five such arrays in all.


Chelsea as she might be seen today were she not in prison for helping expose the secret acts of our government's war on civil liberties and privacy in the name of a war that seems to perpetuate the very thing it seeks to eliminate: terrorism.

Chelsea as she might be seen today were she not in prison for helping expose the secret acts of our government’s war on civil liberties and privacy in the name of a war that seems to perpetuate the very thing it seeks to eliminate: terrorism.

Alcatraz: Nowhere To Go

Alcatraz: Nowhere To Go

Keith Haring at the de Young

The de Young museum has a powerful collection of Keith Haring’s more political work. His familiar style can sometimes mislead one into thinking it’s a “one look fits all” type of work but these images grab the viewer by the lapels more often than not.

One of the best known of Haring's political images

One of the best known of Haring’s political images

Striking is their scale and simplicity. Often made on tarpolins with store bought paint, and many dashed onto vacant advertising panels on New York subway trains, the images are stark and mesmerizing. Like the Aboriginal dream paintings that his repetitive use of symbols and icons resemble, the images transport us to a dream, or nightmare, world where ordinary humans are sujected to endless tortures, dismemberments and death at the hands of large, looming figures that are animalistic or machine-like more often than not.

The TV monster and the helpless man. The injunction to Kill your Television has come too late. Haring's figures are captives and victims of forces they may have created but no longer control.

The TV monster and the helpless man. The injunction to Kill your Television has come too late. Haring’s figures are captives and victims of forces they may have created but no longer control.

It can be easy to think of Haring as an “easy” artist: easy on the eyes, easy on the mind, easy, sometimes, on the pocketbook with his accessories, knockoffs and mass produced items, but a political motif runs vividly through this show, if not his oeuvre. He clearly finds little solace in the Great Society or the war in Vietnam, or Reagonomics or the continuing, and still continuing, racism, exploitation and media circus that surrounds him and that he both cultivated and subverted.

Elsewhere he associated the crown with Basquiat and here it seems to crown the central figure who leaps between a bleeding heart and headless body.

Elsewhere he associated the crown with Basquiat and here it seems to crown the central figure who leaps between a bleeding heart and headless body.

The museum gift shop is chock full of Haring-abelia for the acquisition minded, but the real gift is in the work itself. It haunts and moves and provokes and reminds us that there is a dignity in the gesture of resistance, of a great refusal of that which is everywhere celebrated and normalized… until it isn’t.

Some images are dense with iconic doodles and some have the starkness of a Philip Guston anti-KKK painting or Guernica. This is one of them.

Some images are dense with iconic doodles and some have the starkness of a Philip Guston anti-KKK painting or Guernica. This is one of them.

Palm Springs Museum of Art

The sculpture captures the feel of a waterfall, in metal, which seems apt for a desert setting

The sculpture captures the feel of a waterfall, in metal, which seems apt for a desert setting

I stayed in Palm Springs to go to the Indian Wells tennis tournament and see the top players in action so wandering over to this museum was an afterthought but an inspiring one at that.

The museum reminds me of how much good to great art is outside the hallowed walls of our uber-institutions, our cultural meccas like the Louvre or the Met. PSMOA, to abbreviate, has an excellent collection of modern/contemporary art with not just examples from Anselm Keifer and Henri Matisse, or from Mona Hatoun and Deborah Butterfield, but they have situated in a site that is supremely well designed for its display.

A site specific work in the sculpture garden

A site specific work in the sculpture garden

Located just a block away from a vastly touristic main street the museum invites a return to something more enduring and engaging than the routine souvenires and predictable snack foods. A full-blown commentary on many of the works are needed to do justice to the museum’s achievements, but this post is merely a whet-the-appetite sort of thing so that if you happen to be in the Coachella Valley you can see for yourself what a treat this museum is.

Positioned at the top of the staircase to the second floor, this work causes a lot of double takes and creepy feelings.

Positioned at the top of the staircase to the second floor, this work causes a lot of double takes and creepy feelings.

Deborah Butterfield creates  animal figures from driftwood

Deborah Butterfield creates animal figures from driftwood

Part of a large set of panels, this is one of my favorites

Part of a large set of panels, this is one of my favorites

Richard Diebenkorn

The retrospective of Diebenkorn’s work at the de Young museum in San Francisco offers an expansive view of his work during his Berkeley years in the 50s and 60s. What the de Young displays from its permanent collection is poor preparation for the diversity of work on display. We see his transition from abstraction to figuration vividly, with even the most clear cut of landscapes and portraits retaining the flatness and band-like qualities of his more abstract work. His palette is more subtle than I’d imagined as well, with great use of blue, blue-grey, yellow, and golden yellows in particular. His portraits evoke a powerful sense of Hopper’s alienated urban citizens and deserted scenes, but without the depth of field and realism of Hopper so that a tension with a more abstract rendering of space (the space of the canvas) contends with the rendering of social space. They also evoke, pointedly, Matisse, in color, form, composition and subject matter, but a similar avoidance of realism and an emphasis on tone or mood.
Most striking, to me, about his portraits is the absence of facial detai. Very few render faces in a recognizable way. Some have no features at all. The absence of this traditional focal point again pushes consideration toward the plane of the canvas and to the overall, haunting mood of the piece rather than evoke comparison/constrast with actual people or a model. There are exceptions but Diebenkorn manages to be both radical and traditional at the same time: offering what appear to be familiar scenes and compositions and then decomposing the familiarity into something more surprising, disconcerting, arresting and even disturbing. It is a show well worth seeing.

Impressions of New York City

I grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island, 30 miles from the great city and came to consider its size and energy the norm for urban centers, only to learn, slowly, it is more unique than typical.  I now live in San Francisco and hadn’t been back in 10 years, although it’s seemed as if I’ve been to just above every other major city on the planet.  In 2013 it was time to make up for lost time.

I’ve made a separate post on the differences between the cold, crowded, dull MOMA and the warm, inviting, innovative Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was a total surprise since MOMA had been ground zero for my discovery of art as an expressive medium in the 1960s.  I don’t know if it can ever recover from the disastrous architectural monstrosity of its grandiose but repellent addition.

At the Met I discovered the photography of Julie Margaret Cameron, an early 19th C photographer who captured likenesses with amazing insight.  She used the camera not for its crisp focus and generous depth of field but as a foggy mirror in which she saw the inner spirit of those she photographed. The images are haunting.  A lengthy, quite sensitive discuss of them is in a recent (August 2013) New Yorker by Anthony Lane. He manages to reflect on her work without any of the wit (clever but basically diminishing of him and his subjects) that is a sad staple of his film reviews; it was like reading a different Anthony Lane. Although the show is tucked into just a couple of rooms and could easily be missed, it alone makes a visit worth while. She saw with a distinct, against-the-grain eye that remains both stunning and intriguing today.

Thomas Carlyle by J Cameron

The same could be said for the more highly publicized exhibition on art and photography related to the Civil War.  Found in three different locations, without the cross-referencing that there might be, it is an awesome survey of what photographers and painters saw and captured of that fearsome war. Like the paintings, the photos are almost always after the battles have ended and the photographers can enter the killing fields with time to set up their bulky cameras and wait out their length exposure times but the results are harrowing and precise, unvarnished with the rhetoric of victory and defeat. That the Met draped canvas over the walls of the galleries housing the photographs is a stroke of genius: it effectively transports us back in time and acts as a modest iconic reminder of the rough and tumble world from which these photos arose.

Then there is Times Square, a spectacle or inferno, depending on your point of view, but not the tawdry and beloved place of old.  Now it swarms with visitors (New Yorkers avoid it like the plague) who can even seat in bleachers to absorb the billboards and crowds that stretch from 45th to 42nd Street. Run-down movie theaters and men in raincoats have long since disappeared.

Central Park remains a vital place of green, a haven of calm, a summer’s delight. More roads are now devoted to cyclists and pedestrians.  A stroll from the west to the east side remains one of the simple pleasures of city life, especially when it takes you from the Museum of Natural History to the Met in less than 15 minutes.

Cars stop at stop signs and yield, patiently for pedestrians, far more so than in edgy, gotta get where I’m going and get out of my way San Francisco or slow me up and I’ll honk you into oblivion Lost Angeles (sic).  The number of bikes is surprising, as if Beijing of 20 years ago had arranged a trade with New York.

Four African-American enter the C train subway I’m on from 86th St back down to 59th on the west side. The car is fairly full and they huddle at one end. Then they burst into song–a barber shop quartet–and slowly make their way through the car.  My hands are full of packages and an umbrella and by the time I can dig into my pocket they’ve passed.

The World Trade Center memorial is still little more than a giant construction site but the towers that have been completed truly tower, soaring into the sky with majestic reach.  This will be an awesome thing when it’s finally completed but now it is a busy, congested, crowded melange of commuters and tourists.

Phillip William’s poster shop is just a short walk away.  A cigar style store (much longer than wide), it’s crammed with 1000s and 1000s of posters of all kinds from all countries as well as photographs, publicity stills, postcards and other memorabilia, including some impressive pieces of outsider and African art. It’s one of the little treasures that make cities what they are.

The Neue Gallerie and its amazing collection of secessionist furniture, paintings by Kokoschka, Schiele and Klimt, and interior design artifacts is another gem.   The cafe prepares classic Austrian cuisine and some of the patrons even manage to find art nouveau and secessionist style clothing for their visit. Small but sharply focused it is a jewel of a museum. I almost don’t mind paying $6 for a cup of coffee to go with my apfelstrudel.

It’s a day later and the same four men get on the subway again!  This time I move more quickly and have some money to give them as they pass.  I wonder if all the others giving  money are visitors like myself, on the one hand, and if I gave enough for their lively, engaging music, on the other.

A man comes alongside on the street.  I’ve left MOMA and he’s just waved at a man selling gyros and falafels from a street cart.  “He’s from Pakistan and he’s playing reggae from Jamaica,” he remarks. We start a conversation. He’s worked nearby for 45 years and points to building site after site, recounting how the street has changed. Up ahead is a large office building.  “There,” he points, ” they tore down an old apartment building.  1949.  But the safety wasn’t good. Scaffolding collapsed and the entire crew,over 20 men, died, right there.” I ask if there’s any memorial and he says “No, there’s nothing, just my memory.”

Memories keep people, places and things alive.  These are some of mine from a visit to New York in August, 2013.

A Terrific Film on an Impressive Artist: Breaking the Frame (on Carolee Schneemann)

Most film people know Carolee Schneemann as the creator of a pioneering piece of avant-garde filmmaking: Fuses (1967).  She used a hand held camera, striking color effects, expressive editing, evocative sound and her own naked body to celebrate sexuality in a direct, sensous way.  Throughout the short film she and her partner (the composer, James Tenney) make love.  Far from pornographic, it is a loving, engaging tribute to the body, the act of making love and to cinema.

Beyond that Carolee Schneemann is not very well known but now we have Marielle Nitoslawska’s Breaking the Frame ) (2012), a feature length profile of Schneemann and her massive achievements as a performance artist, painter, and filmmaker over five decades.  Schneemann proves a highly articulate guide to her own work and life.  It’s a fascinating life, based on a farm from which she simply went further, more often and more daringly than many of those in the hot house climate of the great art cities of New York, Berlin, and Paris.  Perhaps too far and too fast.  A close friend of Stan Brakhage and a generation behind Maya Deren she has been a true pioneer since the 1960s  but remains overshadowed by both of them and by the wry, far more ironic film work of someone like Andy Warhol.  Unlike Warhol, Schneemann lacked a savy business sense and clearly was drawn far more to her art than her celebrity.  She never gained the recognition she was clearly due.  But the film is far less a  lament than a celebration. Still active, the film serves as a superb introduction to her work and life on its multiple, complex levels.

MOMA meet the Met: Reversals of Fortune

2013-08-20 10.09.27I may be the last person to compare the new MOMA and the expanded Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Much ballyhoo attended MOMA’s big expansion while the Met was adding here and there over the years and now, in 2013, the difference is spectacular: what was once a crusty, dingy, rather dark and dreary place, the Met, is the place to be and what was once the cutting edge of the provocative and new is now a disaster. A strong word for a great musuem but, in this case, deserving.

Ironically, my belated visit to MOMA coincided with a show on the work of Le Corbusier, one of the major pioneers of the modernist style of stripped down, no nonsense architecture.  Watching a video of him presenting his vision of a city of pencil like high rises separated by little more than lawns, I thought how sad it is that this notion has taken root so often: big, anonymous buildings with no distinctive character, access or amenties at ground level surrounded by a vast green desert of barren space.  His vision seemed demonic and one that came to fruition more from his own charismatic persuasiveness than the human scale and emotional appeal of his designs.  He must have mesmerized, if not intimidated, his clients into submission.

But did that happen to MOMA with Yoshio Taniguchi, the architect of the new monstrosity of its massive expansion? The space is grey, cheap in the small touches like flooring and signage, lifeless, vastly overcrowded with both vistors and objects, and without respite.  It is modernism architecture that has not learned from the postmodern upheavals that have, with playful and inventive turns, revitalized the field and given us buildings of grace, wit and elegance.  Taniguchi’s space has a monotonous, propulsive energy, sending the visitor onward in search of a moment of unhurried calm that never arrives. And where it is expansive, as in the passages that look down on the great atrium or the windows that look out on the sculpture garden and original MOMA buildings, it is entirely solipsistic: it looks at only itself. The rest of the city stands outside the gates.

And outside the gates but nestled securely in Central Park, stands the Metropolitan Museum of New York.  It has expanded mightily in the last decade or more but always with taste and subtlety. The enormous glass enclosed addition housing the remains of the Temple of Dendur is worth the price of admission alone (which is whatever one wishes to pay, above or below the recommended amounts!) and yet it is but one of the enormous number of special exhibitions and spectacular spaces we’re invited to take in.  Despite a crush at the entrance no less daunting than at MOMA’s, once inside the museum absorbs its guests into a calm serenity. Even the best attended exhibitions such as the current “Photography and the American Civil War” and the complementary “The Civil War and American Art” lack the propulsive move-along, don’t-linger, get-out-of-here energy of MOMA. And the standard gallery shows, such as the fabulous atelier-like space devoted to  contemporary art, take the breath away with their hospitality, audacity and beauty.  The image at the top of the Post is of Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum V, fills the entire wall of gallery 925.  And it is obvious from the photo that the energy is habitational, contemplative and serene compared to the frenzied pace of MOMA.  It’s possible to linger, ponder and absorb the magic of this simple but subtle work that simply could not be shown without a space of the kind the Met has created.

Enough said. I’m late to the show but it’s worth keeping thought, dialogue and recommendations of where to go and what to see, alive.

Geographies of Detention in Riverside

This is an exhibition at the California Museum of Photographyin Riverside CA on the theme of incarceration, linking the “detention center” at Guantanamo with the 33 prisons spread across the remote regions of California.  A featured element of the show is the “Prisonation” series of painting by Sandow Birk. He did an oil painting of each prison in the Romantic landscape style of Bierstadt, Church and others.  At first glance we see an idyllic world of nature.  On second glance we see its conversion to a space of incarceration. What pioneers traversed, prisoners don’t. They are out of sight, hidden behind the prison walls and surrounding landscape.  Most of the paintings appear inside 19C frames that Birk found at flea markets and they are 24 – 36″ across, give or take, but a very large painting of San Quentin is on the second floor of the de Young museum in San Francisco where most visitors pass it by as just another example of idyllic landscapes, like so many of the other paintings with which it shares the floor but which are detonated from the inside as Birk undercuts the enchantment with the wary eye of one who sees a modern truth beneath a old delusion.

Geographies of Detention_panel 060113

The accompanying flyer annouces their panel discussion on the show and presents one of the most haunting paintings in the series: Pelican Bay.  The blue tones and ghostly absences give it a deeply disturbing edge.  I’ve had to put it in my study, behind my desk where I can see it readily but not constantly.  it is far too strong for the living room in its phantasmatic portrayal of incarceration behind watch towers, chain link fence, water sprinklers and the verdant world of green.