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warhol in iran

Friends of our too-long moribund Writing New York site, I hope you’ll come say hello while I’m in town, briefly, to participate in the following event, which draws on a new research project I’ve undertaken re: New York in the Age of Warhol.

Andy Warhol in Tehran
A lecture at NYU, open to the public

Thursday, October 23, 2014


19 Washington Square North, New York

In 1976, Warhol visited Tehran to take photos for a portrait of Empress Farah Pahlavi. In 1978 he painted the Shah and his twin sister Princess Ashraf as well, though the Revolution prevented these portraits from being publicly displayed in Iran. This lecture considers Warhol’s Iranian portraits in multiple contexts: the OPEC oil crisis; Warhol’s celebrity portraits of the ’70s; and today’s global art market, in which these paintings help pose key questions about American Pop’s global legacies.


Bryan Waterman, Associate Professor of English, NYU; Visiting Associate Professor of Literature and Program Head for Literature, NYUAD


Joe Brainard at work. My office is perilously close to looking like this right now.

p.s. You know about this, right?


Earlier this week, we at NYU Abu Dhabi were treated to a visit by the artist Christo, who spoke about one of his signature projects — The Gates — which took place in Central Park in February 2005. The project was conceived in the late 1970s by Christo and his wife and artistic partner, Jeanne-Claude, who passed away two years ago tomorrow. The city repeatedly refused Christo and Jeanne-Claude permission to mount the project, until Michael Bloomberg became mayor. He gave it the go-ahead immediately, once the pair reapplied for a permit.

I fell in love with the Gates project and went to see it — no, experience it, immerse myself in it — as many times as I could. I made sure to see every bit of the park during the sixteen days it was up and reintroduced myself to areas I had visited since my childhood. The Gates transformed the Park’s bleak midwinter with its explosion of color; it compelled many New Yorkers who had become blase about this jewel in the midst of Manhattan to see the Park afresh. On one visit to the Northwest corner of the Park, I was lucky enough to coincide with a visit to the area by Jeanne-Claude and Christo themselves and was able to watch them — from afar — enjoy their creation. Both of them refer in the film to the works of art as their children, and it was a parent’s joy that they seemed to exude as they looked at what they had done.

The process by which the project was conceived, planned, and ultimately mounted is beautifully documented in a film called The Gates (2005) made by Antonio Ferrera and Albert Maysles and originally shown on HBO. Christo and Jeanne-Claude were meticulous about documenting their work, not only by preserving drawings and other artifacts, but also by having the process of approval and construction filmed. The documentary work on The Gates was begun by the legendary documentary team of Albert Maysles and David Maysles, who first became famous for their legendary film  Gimme Shelter (1970), an account of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour, which ended infamously at Altamont Speedway in California at a free concert during which Hells Angels killed a concertgoer. Christo and Jeanne-Claude became close friends with the Maysle brothers, who would document five of their projects.

Christo joined us at Sama Tower for a showing of the documentary, which was completed by Antonio Ferrara (who was also present) and includes early footage shot by the Maysles. Watching this footage is a little like watching outtakes from Woody Allen’s great films of the 1970s,  Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). Jeanne-Claude and Christo take pains to remind — or, perhaps, simply inform — the culture vultures moaning about defiling the sacrosanct space of the Park of something that all Writing New York students realize by the end of our account of Alger and the Park: that it is a man-made space, domesticated nature, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to create a particular kind of pastoral experience. The Gates is a beautifully made documentary that is sadly out of print at the moment. Find it at a library or a used DVD store and watch it: it’s a wonderful slice of New York history and will remind those lucky enough to experience the gates six years ago of the wonder of the experience.

Christo gave a second presentation during his visit to NYUAD, speaking at the NYUAD Institute about his latest project, “Over the River,” which was approved just last week! Christo will cover a length of the Arkansas River with white fabric. Like The Gates, the project will be mounted for about two weeks. I’m going to start honing my white-water-rafting skills.

He also spoke about an as-yet-unapproved project, conceived around the same time as The Gates, which he hopes to mount in the Liwa desert here in the UAE: “The Mastaba,” a work of art made of approximately 410,000 horizontally stacked oil barrels secured to an inner structure. Unlike The Gates and “Over the River,” “The Mastaba” would be a permanent installation.

Christo began his question-and-answer period at the NYUAD Institute presentation by remembering Jeanne-Claude, whom he met in Paris in 1958. “We immigrated to the United States in 1964,” Christo recalled, before correcting himself: “No, not immigrated to the United States in 1964 … we immigrated to Manhattan, New York City, in 1964.” After letting the audience chuckle at that remark, he explained it: “She was very proud of that. She insisted all the time to say that from 1964 to 1967, we were three years illegal aliens in Manhattan. We came as tourists and we disappeared in the crowd. Only many months and years later, we became residents.”

[Photo Credits: I took the photos of The Gates that accompany this post. Thanks to the NYUAD Institute for providing the video from which the still of Christo is taken.]

Downtown Body

Ward Shelley, “Downtown Body,” 2008. View an enlarged image here.

More on the Downtown Body Project here.

Thanks to Hannah Smith for pointing me in the direction of this print.

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Both of my seminars this summer have read Calvin Tomkins’s profile of John Cage, published in The New Yorker in 1964 and collected the following year in his volume The Bride and the Bachelors, which also contained long reads on Jean Tinguely, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham. The anchor of that volume wasn’t Cage, but Marcel Duchamp, who was enjoying a renewed popularity among younger artists, including Cage and his followers.

One early manifestation of the Duchamp revival came in Robert Motherwell’s 1951 anthology The Dada Painters and Poets, which included a 1922 appreciation of Duchamp by Andre Breton, followed by several reproductions from New York Dada, edited by Duchamp and Man Ray in 1921. “For Marcel Duchamp the question of art and life, as well as any other question capable of dividing us at the present moment, does not arise.”

Tomkins stresses this impulse as the premise for Pop Art and all forms of conceptualism emerging from New York’s downtown arts scenes, though he notes that this strain of contemporary art was still confined to the underground:

While it may sometimes appear that everything Duchamp did or said in the past is being mined as source material by a new generation, not many artists even today share the intellectual attitude that motivated his countless inventions. “I wasnted to put painting once again at the service of the mind,” Duchamp once said. As early as 1910 he placed himself in opposition to what he considered the dominant trend of painting in his time, which he traced back to Courbet and described as ‘retinal’ art — art whose appeal is to the eye alone. Until the time of Courbet almost all European painting was literary or religious, Duchamp maintained. Courbet introduced the retinal emphasis, or what Duchamp sometimes called the ‘olfactory’ art of painters who were in love with the smell of paint and had no interest in re-creating ideas on canvas; and this retinal, olfactory, anti-intellectual bias was accepted by the Impressionists and subsequent schools. “All through the last half of the nineteenth century in France there was an expression, bete comme une peintre,” Duchamp as said. “And it was true; that kind of painter who just puts down what he sees is stupid. In my case I was thinking a little too much, maybe, but I don’t care, that’s what I thought.”

WNYC’s art blogger Carolina Miranda writes today about Ken Johnson’s new book on art and drugs in the 60s. Certainly illicit substances were motivating factors in the production of psychedelic, minimalist, and conceptual art, but lurking beneath all these is the man who forced us to ask what it would mean to draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa. We remain, in our most playful and intellectually alive moments, Duchampians.

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Happening from Django's Ghost on Vimeo.

From Ubuweb: “An irreverent portrait of America of the 60s seen through the experiences of artists of the Beat Generation and Pop Art. The America of the Vietnam war, ploughed by contradictions and explosive social tensions but potentially saturated with expectations for the future. With: Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Gregory Corso, Marie Benois and Leon Kraushar.”

From the Ginsberg Project:

“The prophecies of Marinetti are coming true some of them, the wilder, more poetic ones”, so, gleefully, declares Allen in this quintessentially 1967 documentary film by Antonello Branca, What’s Happening? What, indeed, is happening? Poets and painters and a brash New York City just for that moment in time and space come together. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg candidly speak (Andy speaks!). Allen appears first (around six and a half minutes in) being interviewed as he walks along the street and then (circa 3o minutes in) is seen holding forth at a street cafe. Gregory Corso makes a cameo appearance right at the very end (with a baby!). He gets the punch line. “War makes people crazy”.

“We have all come here together. Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, poet Gerard Malanga, over here, if you move your camera, poet Ed Sanders of a rock n roll group called The Fugs [unfortunately mis-translated on the screen by the Italian translator as The Fags!]..over (t)here, Tuli Kuperfberg, a poet and singer in The Fugs, over there, writing at the table. Peter Orlovsky with the long hair, who is a poet and also a singer, behind him, his brother, who was in a madhouse for 14 years. He’s a superstar of the Underground. Oh, and Jonas Mekas, Jonas Mekas, head of the Filmmakers Cooperative. He’s the one who puts together films like Flaming Creatures and The Brig and sends them around Europe and in America, the impresario. He also makes films, which he’s doing now.”

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My undergrad course (Downtown Scenes) is reading material on and from Yoko Ono, John Cage, and others for this afternoon. We’ll be talking about conceptualism, minimalism, Fluxus, Happenings, and the like. Here’s the hillbilly minimalist and philosopher Henry Flynt recalling his introduction to the proto-Fluxus performances at Yoko Ono’s loft, a series curated by the composer La Monte Young. He has quite a bit to say about Young, John Cage, Nam June Paik, the downtown scene in general, and the place of the avant garde in the late 20th century.

You’ll find several other “Henry Flynt in New York” pieces on YouTube. Flynt pops up later in our course when Arthur Russell invites him to perform at the Kitchen in the ’70s.

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Previously on PWHNY. Also. And.

A few people and/or pieces mentioned in this morning’s lecture on Downtown Scenes from 1950 to 67 or so.

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One of the questions that I asked in today’s lecture was what we should make of this passage from the third chapter of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence (1920):

Wandering on to the bouton d’or drawing-room (where Beaufort had had the audacity to hang “Love Victorious,” the much-discussed nude of Bouguereau) Archer found Mrs. Welland and her daughter standing near the ball-room door. Couples were already gliding over the floor beyond: the light of the wax candles fell on revolving tulle skirts, on girlish heads wreathed with modest blossoms, on the dashing aigrettes and ornaments of the young married women’s coiffures, and on the glitter of highly glazed shirt-fronts and fresh glace gloves.

The notes to the Penguin edition that we’re using (edited by Cynthia Griffin Wolff and available for Kindle) tell us that “Adolphe-William Bouguereau (1825-1905), a French painter who won the Prix de Rome in 1850, was well known for us nudes.” What they don’t tell us is what I learned from T. J. Clark many years ago in an art history class: that Bouguereau was an “Academic” painter, a traditionalist who was popular in his day and consistently exhibit in the annual Paris Salon during his career.

Bouguereau never painted a painting called Love Victorious, but it’s thought that Wharton may have had this one in mind, Le Printemps (The Return of Spring), painted in 1886 and currently on display at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska:

Martin Scorsese used this picture to depict “Love Victorious” in his film adaptation of The Age of Innocence. Like many of Bouguereau’s nudes, it aspires to what we would think of now as photo-realism — except for the, er, putti. I talk about this painting in class as part of a larger discussion of the novel’s relation to the idea of realism: how can a novel compete (in terms of “realism”) with forms like visual forms like painting, photography, and film?

I then compare this painting with a painting by Gustave Courbet (a “Realist” with a capital R), entitled L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World), painted in 1866 and currently hanging in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Courbet once said, “I cannot paint an angel, because I have never seen one,” a remark that seems to be a deliberate swipe at Academic painters like Bouguereau. Here’s Courbet’s rendition of the origin of the world:

Bouguereau’s approach is idealized, mythological, allegorical; Courbet’s is amusingly literal.

So what should we make of Wharton’s use of Bouguereau? What does the reference signify? Is it a subtle way of indicating that Newland Archer’s Old New York, which thinks of itself as so cosmopolitan and worldly, is in fact quite provincial. Bouguereau may be scandalous in New York, but in Paris — well, he’s an Academic, not a provocateur like Courbet.

Or does the novel really “believe” that Bouguereau is scandalous? Is it unaware of the way in which Courbet and other Realists are upping the ante when it comes to nudes? Is the novel just as provincial as the New York it depicts?

I tend to think not, but the question I pose to the class is: What kind of evidence would you need to make an argument either way?

This invocation of Bouguereau is what I would call an exemplary moment in the text. But what does it exemplify? Let me suggest that the two questions I’ve just posed only scratch the surface of the complexity of this moment.



Today from 12:30-1:30 I’ll be tweeting about Andy Warhol’s 1964 film Empire from the Museum of Modern Art at the invitation of WNYC. The film’s entire 8 hours will be accompanied by commentary from a series of guest tweeters, along with participation from readers worldwide. If you don’t use Twitter, no worries: the entire conversation will be funneled into a scrolling text window at

The line-up:

10:30am: WNYC’s Carolina Miranda (@cmonstah) and Liz Arnold (@lizarnold or @wnycculture) kick off the chatter.
11:00 am to noon (and throughout the day): @MuseumModernArt (aka Victor Samra), will discuss MoMA’s exhibit, Warhol in the collection, etc.
12:30pm – 1:30pm: @_waterman (yours truly) will discuss the building and New York City in literature.
2:30pm – 3:30pm: @marklamster (Mark Lamster) will talk architecture, etc.
4:30pm – 5:30pm: @ARTnewsmag (Robin Cembalest) and @Hyperallergic (Hrag Vartanian) will talk about Warhol’s artistic legacy.

I’m probably going to show up a little early: I want to be there to applaud when the sun starts to set and the observation deck lights go on.

What I’ll tweet about depends largely on what kind of conversation emerges from the interaction on Twitter (follow the hashtag #empirefilm). But I’ve been thinking in terms of recent work by Reva Wolf, Daniel Kane, and others about Warhol’s relationship to New York’s poetry and downtown arts scenes in the 1960s. Warhol was one of the unifying threads when I taught a course on the Downtown Scene, 1960-1980 last summer. I’m teaching it again this year, along with a graduate seminar on New York writing in the Age of Warhol.

Here’s a great poem, for instance, inspired not by Empire, but by the earlier Warhol film, Sleep, featuring the poet John Giorno. It’s written by Ron Padgett, one of my favorite figures from the the “second generation” New York School poets:

Sonnet for Andy Warhol



I think the poem applies to Empire equally as well as it does to Sleep, and though on first glance it may appear the poem endorses the commonplace criticism that Warhol’s epic films (in which not much happens) are boring, I think neither the film nor the poem is boring, nor is either of them about boredom. Rather, both crackle like a freshly struck lightning rod. Look again.

For a useful overview of Empire, see the entry at Gary Comenas’s excellent Warhol Stars site. At, Liz Arnold has an interview up with Jonas Mekas, the legendary underground filmmaker who served as cinematographer for Empire, and Carolina Miranda’s been scouring the archives for Warhol- and ESB-related bits. You’ll find annotations, links, and parallel content at WNYC’s Tumblr through the day. For historical peeps at the ESB, start with a series of posts over at The Bowery Boys.

Meantime, here’s a taste of the action:

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