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A little bit of Writing New York liveblogging here: Cyrus is, as I type, lecturing on Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which we situate in our course by taking seriously its subtitle, “A Story of Wall-street.” Today’s he’s added new material, inspired by a visit to the Hopper show at the Whitney (thru April 10). The connection, as I take it, is loneliness, but perhaps also voyeurism and the difficulty imagining the interiority of other urban dwellers.

Here’s one of the images he’s put on screen, Hopper’s painting “Night Windows” (1928):

Cyrus suggests this is a view from the El, which reminds me of one of my favorite passages from W. D. Howells’ New York novel A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890), which I’ve quoted on this blog before. Here’s the bulk of the description, from the perspective of upper-middle-class train-riding voyeurs Mr. and Mrs. March, who think

the night transit was even more interesting than the day, and that the fleeting intimacy you formed with people in second and third floor interiors, while all the usual street life went on underneath, had a domestic intensity mixed with a perfect repose. [The train allows one] to see those people through the windows: a family part of work-folks at a late tea,  some of the men in their shirt sleeves; a woman sewing by a lamp; a mother laying her child in its cradle; a man with his head fallen on his hands upon a table; a girl and her lover leaning over the window sill together. What suggestion! what drama! what infinite interest!

The couple thinks these views — better than attending the theater — offer ideal material for modern painters. Hopper appears to have taken them up on that point.

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Yesterday my J-Term class visited The Big Picture: Abstract Expressionist New York, an exhibition at MoMA that is on display through April 25. One of the pieces that particularly caught my eye was a small photo by Minor White (1908-1976) entitled Peeled Paint on Store Window, San Francisco . Taken in 1951, the photograph resembles the kind of abstraction created in paint by Willem de Kooning in Painting (1948), shown below:

Painting (1948) by Willem de Kooning. Enamel and oil on canvas, 42 5/8 x 56 1/8" (108.3 x 142.5 cm). Purchase. © 2010 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy moma.org

White’s photo is displayed in a room devoted to demonstrating that photographers were inspired by the same goals — defiance of expectations, playing with scale, expression through abstraction — that motivated painters like de Kooning. At first glance, it isn’t entirely clear what the photograph depicts, but once you see the title, you return to the photograph and begin to make out referential details that tell you that what you are seeing is indeed peeling paint. The relationship between title and image brings to mind the dynamics of titling in Abstract Expressionism more generally: some titles — like White’s or like or Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-5) suggest the continuing referentiality of the image: the image is depicting something. Unless it isn’t and the title is a joke. Which is the case with Newman’s painting, shown below?

1950-51. Oil on canvas, 7' 11 3/8" x 17' 9 1/4" (242.2 x 541.7 cm). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller. © 2010 Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy moma.org.

Others, like de Kooning’s, don’t seem to invoke referentiality: his Painting is just a painting. Unless it’s actually referential: look, the title tells us, you’re looking at paint.

Looking at the large paintings in the other rooms of the exhibition tells you something about how to understood White’s photograph, but White’s photograph can also get us to think about the paintings in a different way. Thought experiment: White uses the camera to render the real abstract. We can think, very concretely, about how that result is accomplished. So what if the painter’s “camera” is his or her head?

And, of course, when a photographer takes a picture of peeling paint is he inevitably “commenting” on the ephemerality of paint, perhaps uncannily predicting the fate of Mark Rothko’s mural for Harvard University’s Holyoke Center?

The photograph of White’s photograph, snapped with an iPhone and shown below, doesn’t nearly do justice to the beauty of the image. You’ll just have to go to MoMA and see it for yourself.

Peeled Paint on Store Window, San Francisco by Minor White. 1951. Gelatin silver print.

For the second year running we’ve teamed up with a group of NYC-based bloggers to provide an eclectic holiday guide. Our entry follows. Check out our other participants’ entries as well:

Manhattan User’s Guide: The Gift Guide: 21 Over $21
Markets of New York:
Festive Food at New York’s Holiday Markets

_______________________________________________

Since I don’t read right-wing blogs or the L.A. Times with any regularity, I missed last winter’s most pressing political news story: Ornamentgate.

Apparently the noted art critic Andrew Breitbart pointed out last December that one of the White House Christmas trees included an ornament bearing the face of Chairman Mao. Taking this as hard evidence of the President’s deepest political sympathies, Fox news commentators and Tea Party wackos from sea to shining sea pounced like rabid wolves on a wounded reindeer. In response, The L.A. Times’s Culture Monster blog suggested that the whole kerfuffle just proved that Republican pundits make bad art critics: The image on the ornament wasn’t exactly Mao; it was “Andy Warhol’s ‘Mao,'” of course, in which Warhol parodically

transformed the leader of the world’s most populous nation into a vapid superstar — the most famous of the famous. The portrait photo from Mao’s Little Red Book is tarted up with lipstick, eye-shadow and other Marilyn Monroe-style flourishes.Where did the Christmas decoration come from?

“We took about 800 ornaments left over from previous administrations,” First Lady Michelle Obama explained in an earlier press release about getting the White House ready for the holidays, “we sent them to 60 local community groups throughout the country, and asked them to decorate them to pay tribute to a favorite local landmark and then send them back to us for display here at the White House.”

The precise source of the Warhol ornament is not known. But Warhol’s Maos are in art museum collections from coast to coast, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago (whose painting most resembles the ornament image) and both the County Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum has several.

Oh, and at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, the National Gallery of Art has 21 different versions of Warhol’s “Mao.” Twenty-one. Wait until Big Government bloggers find out about the Communist takeover of the National Gallery.

Newsworthy? Probably not, though Fox’s Sean Hannity has already this year presented his astute fans with a poll about whether the Mao ornament is likely to be on display again. (Don’t click that link unless you want to tumble down a right-wing rabbit hole filled with bile and used tea bags.)

I discovered this most important of national holiday stories while poking around the Web the other day investigating a trend I’ve noted in recent years: the proliferation of Warhol-designed Christmas paraphernalia. It started with Christmas cards.

You’ve probably seen dozens of cards by Warhol around this season (and in recent years) at hip little book and paper shops without realizing they were Warhol’s.

The site art.com has dozens of Warhol holiday designs available, not only on cards, but also prints suitable for framing, which I suppose you’d store away somewhere for the rest of the year when they’re less seasonably appropriate for your wall space. In New York? Really?

I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that such items exist. After all, the man was somewhat religious–he went to Mass, especially on big holidays, and he probably had a Catholic sense of wanting nice holiday images around when the season called for it. Plus he worked in advertising, which is where most of these designs appear to have originated. (They date by and large to the late 50s.)

Some of them are fairly traditional, such as “Angel, 1957 (with holly)”; others seem to be cheeky nods at the holiday’s commercial excess, if not at the consumer origins of Warhol’s images themselves. I hope WikiLeaks is on top of this issue: we have the right to know if our elected representatives are sending out holiday greetings using subversive Warhol shoe designs, which could suggest that religion has been supplanted by capitalist commodity fetishism. Imagine!

It turns out that the right-wingers need to chill a little: Warhol’s Christmas designs have been deemed safe by kids-crafts bloggers. I was relieved to find that someone at artprojectsforkids.org was selling do-it-yourself Warhol Christmas tree murals, though I’m not sure how the Warhol Foundation would feel about the copyright issues involved. Grinches.

Then there are efforts that go overboard in the opposite direction, trying to make Warhol into Saint Andy, a Santa Claus for our post-postmodern world. The Guardian‘s design blog, reviewing Warhol’s reissued Christmas images a few years ago, went a little too far down that path:

People who knew Warhol testify to his punctilious generosity in giving well-chosen Christmas gifts. He believed in the American Christmas, just as he believed in Elvis and Marilyn. He knew a collective dream when he saw one. In his 1981 painting Myths, he portrays 10 American icons of the supernatural and the superhuman. Together with the Wicked Witch of the West, Uncle Sam, Dracula and Mickey Mouse, there is a slightly disreputable Santa Claus. It is Rockwell’s Christmas deity who held the boy in his hand, made seedily real. A man dressed up, a store Santa.

In his last years, Warhol’s art suddenly became more personal — although at the time no one recognised it. It seemed logical that he should start a series of paintings based on a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper — in the 60s he had done a Mona Lisa. In fact, by making his own religious art, Warhol was expressing himself. It became public knowledge only after his death that he had been a regular church-goer who remained loyal to the piety of his immigrant mother. He habitually did charity work with homeless New Yorkers at the Church of Heavenly Rest, whose rector recalled that Warhol served food and cleaned up at communal meals — you think again of those lonely soup cans, those generous Christmas cards.

There’s a photograph of Warhol serving charity meals at his New York church. There are no decorations up, but still I see Christmas in it. “It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad …” says the spirit of Marley in A Christmas Carol: walk abroad and touch other souls. Andy Warhol’s does, more than most.

Thanks, but I prefer a Warhol that can be snarky, even at Christmas Mass, one who can poke fun at Americans’ commercial excesses even as he profits from them. Can’t we revive some holiday traditions that preserve a little authentic Warholian spirit (if the idea of an “authentic Warhol” isn’t too much of an oxymoron)? How about annual screenings in Union Square of “****” (otherwise known as the “25-Hour Film”), which includes a 33-minute segment of a 1966-67 Greenwich Village production of A Christmas Carol, staged at Caffe Cino, with Warhol hanger-on Ondine as Scrooge.

Or perhaps we can gather nearby at the site of the Factory or Max’s Kansas City and read Christmas entries from The Andy Warhol Diaries (a great gift idea, by the way). My favorite? Christmas dinner 1976, at Mick and Bianca Jagger’s place on 66th Street, where Mick dished out liberal amounts of holiday snow to guests:

Mick sat down next to Bob Colacello and put his arm around him and offered him a pick-me-up, and Bob said, “Why yes, I am rather tied,” and just as he was about to get it, Yoko and John Lennon walked in and Mick was so excited to see them that he ran over with the spoon that he was about to put under Bob’s nose and put it under John Lennon’s.

Halston and Loulou de la Falaise put a lot of the pick-me-up in a covered dish on the coffee table and when someone they liked would sit down they’d tell them, “Lift it up and get a surprise.” Paloma Picasso was there. Jay Johnson brought Delia Doherty. The dinner was terrific. Mick and Bianca forgot to bring out the dessert, though.

Then again, maybe conservatives should be a little unsettled by Warhol. Let them rail. Do we really want to live in a world where Warhol’s joined forces with Walmart?

p.s. Dear Andy Claus, I wouldn’t complain to find this in my stocking either. But I’d rather you buy it from McNally Jackson than some online megachain.

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Our current obsession with the 70s continues on PWHNY. Judging from a quick Google search, it appears this clip made the rounds in the blogosphere a couple years back. I guess I’m arriving late. In any case, here’s a 20-year-old Koons being interviewed by a 23-year-old David Byrne, who had just made his debut with Talking Heads at CBGB’s that summer. Conversation ranges from The Bob Newhart Show to middle-class bars and strip clubs in small towns to what sets New York apart for aspiring artists. Koons says he came here from Chicago largely in response to the underground music scene after he’d heard the Patti Smith Group on the radio. Have at it:

A couple other Byrne conversations turn up from the same period. Were they part of a larger project? Or just kids sitting around, getting high and shooting the shit?

At least a partial transcription of the conversation here.

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In today’s mail, the new biography of John Cage, by our emeritus colleague Kenneth Silverman. Very eager to dig into this life of one of NYC’s great cultural figures, and a presiding spirit over the downtown scene for half a century and more. Is anyone but Duchamp more important to avant-garde art in the last century?

Alex Ross’s review essay here. [New Yorker subscription required for full text.]

And though we’ve posted it before, we’ll always take an excuse to return to this clip:

And one of my favorite clips of the older Cage, talking about silence and the sounds of Sixth Avenue:

Previously.

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Hey, kids. As previously reported on Bowery Boogie and tweeted by everyone who’s walked up Elizabeth Street in the last month, the Polish artist Olek, best known for knitcovered [make that crochet-covered] bikes outside Essex Market and elsewhere, has a show up at Christopher Henry Gallery (Elizabeth below Broome). The show, “Knitting is for Pus****,” closes this Sunday.

*Asterisks in the original.

**UPDATED with a slightly altered title, because obviously I didn’t get the joke in the show’s title, and clearly I don’t know the difference between crocheting and knitting.

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An extracurricular undergraduate book club I’ve run since 2004 met this week to set our fall schedule. Our first selection will be Eric Drooker’s illustrated edition of Ginsberg’s Howl, released just a month or so ago. Drooker’s drawings are the basis for the animated segments of the current feature film starring James Franco. He worked with Ginsberg in the late 1990s on a volume called Illuminated Poems, obviously operating on a Blakean model.  In that volume Howl and “Footnote to Howl” scored a total of nine illustrations, ranging from woodcuts to an image of two bums huddled over a trash can fire beneath the Brooklyn Bridge — one of Drooker’s best known New Yorker covers.

Drooker’s more recent engagement with Ginsberg’s poem, weighing in at close to 225 pages, is subtitled “A Graphic Novel.” The images have the feel of film stills to some degree — at least if you’ve already seen the film — and like the movie it forwards, by its very nature of offering supplemental images, a particular reading of the text. But it’s an extraordinary volume in any case and I look forward to spending some time with it over the coming weeks and hearing students’ reactions. When I placed the order for my book club I took the opportunity to poke around Drooker’s website, where I discovered the artist’s bio Ginsberg had written about Drooker for their earlier volume. The artist’s roots are more East Village/Lower East Side than his work for the New Yorker would have led me to believe. As Ginsberg tells it, he

first glimpsed Eric Drooker’s odd name on posters pasted on fire-alarm sides, construction walls checkered with advertisements, & lamppost junction boxes in the vortex of Lower East Side Avenues leading to Tompkins Square Park, where radical social dislocation mixed homeless plastic tents with Wigstock transvestite dress-up anniversaries, Rastas sitting on benches sharing spliff, kids with purple Mohawks, rings in their noses ears eyebrows and bellybuttons, adorable or nasty skinheads, wives with dogs & husbands with children strolling past jobless outcasts, garbage, and a bandshell used weekly for folk-grunge concerts, anti-war rallies, squatters’ rights protests, shelter for blanket-wrapped junkies & winos and political thunder music by Missing Foundation, commune-rockers whose logo, an overturned champagne glass with slogan “The Party’s Over,” was spray-painted on sidewalks, apartments, brownstone and brick walled streets.

Eric Drooker’s numerous block-print-like posters announced much local action, especially squatters’ struggles and various mayoral-police attempts to destroy the bandshell & close the Park at night, driving the homeless into notoriously violence-corrupted city shelters. Tompkins Park had a long history of political protest going back before Civil War anti-draft mob violence, memorialized as “. . . a mixed surf of muffled sound, the atheist roar of riot,” in Herman Melville’s The Housetop: A Night Piece (July 1863).

He began collecting Drooker’s posters and eventually befriended him, learning he had trained at Henry Street Settlement and Cooper Union. Drooker proposed the idea of an illustrated volume of Ginsberg’s poems, and Ginsberg readily agreed to let him have his way with them. The posthumous collaborations seem all the more fitting with the earlier collaborations in mind.

Readers interested in learning more about Drooker may be pleased to find out that he’s offering a few illustrated lectures in the near future:

Saturday, Oct. 23rd 7:00pm (w/artist Zina Saunders), Bluestockings Books
172 Allen St. (btwn. Stanton & Rivington)

Sunday, Oct. 24th 7:00pm, 6th Street Community Center, 638 E. 6th St. (btwn. Aves. B & C)

Sunday, Oct. 31st (Halloween) 6:00pm, The Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery (btwn. Bleecker & Houston)

According to his website the lectures include “hundreds of his provocative images,” through which he “explores his years as a street artist in New York City, the creation of graphic novels, paintings, and his infiltration of the mainstream.” Sounds like a good time.

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SCENES FROM THE CITY

Two of my favorite things mashed up on East Houston Street.

Star Trek

and Soccer …

Street art, courtesy of some black spray paint, some super glue, and (I imagine) a ladder. And a lot of ingenuity.

Over the last several weeks, as Cyrus and I have both been in and out of town — mostly out — and under multiple writing deadlines, we’ve let the blog languish. With luck, now that a new semester is upon us and we’ll be looking for relief from workaday woes, we’ll be back in action.

I really regretted not being able to write sooner about a recent street art installation/performance/”Happening” commemorating the Battle of Brooklyn — and raising our consciousness about the invisible but very real presence of wars, historical and contemporary, in our daily lives.

A street artist and high school art teacher living in Brooklyn, General Howe has spent the last two years installing street art that recalls New York City’s place in the American Revolution. In the most recent wave of work, he was accompanied by social networking guru and self-described Art Evangelist Kianga Ellis, who live-tweeted Howe’s progress installing miniature figurines and wheat-paste posters, rain or shine, and Jaime Rojo of the blog Brooklyn Street Art, who captured the work in breathtaking photos. I have more I’d like to write about the whole conceptual structure of the work and event, but no time now. With luck I’ll get to come back to it. Meanwhile, if you weren’t following along, you can see General Howe’s retrospective on the event at his Flickr stream; Brooklyn Street Art interviewed General Howe for the Huffington Post. For more on the Battle of Brooklyn, see the useful site for Barnet Shecter’s The Battle for New York.

Photo Copyright All rights reserved by General Howe

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I’m still on vacation out West and Cyrus, I believe, has been in Europe in his capacity as an associate dean of humanities for NYU Abu Dhabi. I’ve meant to post more often than I have but really, I’m on vacation, my summer’s short this year, and I just haven’t found the extra energy required.

Still, for those four or five people who haven’t written us off completely yet, I thought I’d at least direct you to recurring features on two blogs I quite admire — both of which are ideas I’d had without being fast enough on the draw to execute.

Both features in question fall into the TV after-show blogging department. The first has to do with Work of Art, Bravo’s New York art world answer to Project Runway, whose formula it shamelessly mimics. Most people I know who have an interest in contemporary art watch the show, though they almost universally despise the contestants, the host, the challenges, and the end results. If it seemed a stretch to expect fashion designers to turn out something worthwhile in the 24-hour period allotted most Project Runway challenges, the task seems even steeper here. The bottom line seems to be: Can artists make anything interesting or even coherent under the circumstances of reality TV competition? Even if the answer, in most cases, has clearly been no, it’s been more than entertaining to watch them try, and it’s also been entertaining to watch critics, artists, and gallerists who are well respected become TV characters themselves. (My own experience with the art world is marginal, I admit: I own a little art, including work by someone formerly represented by one of the judges, and I was for a single show a member of a performance art Patsy Cline covers band with someone who served as a guest judge early on. I have friends who are artists and collectors, though, and at least feel conversant enough to know that Jerry is married to Roberta and to get the ways in which the show both magnifies and distorts the art world’s idiosyncrasies.)

Seriously, though, this show would be much less interesting than I find it if it weren’t for some intelligent and bitingly funny Twitterers (including some of the show’s contestants) and the aftershow posts on the blog Art Fag City. Not only is the main commentary there usually spot on, but the comments threads tend to attract art insiders, including eliminated contestants, and TV insiders who have smart things to say about the way Bravo’s producers are shaping the narrative that emerges over the course of the season. For instance, this week someone in comments introduced us to the Reality TV insider term “Frankenbite,” a set of spliced-together comments from a contestant offered in voice-over to introduce or manipulate a particular narrative thread the show wants to foreground. For the most recent episode this problem emerged when Miles, the OCD (faux-CD?) Machiavellian manipulator and darling of the judges, apparently plotted to get his challenge-mate naked and masturbating as they prepared their piece. (The show comes with a Parental Advisory.) However, as one AFC commentator explained: “if you notice he is not on camera saying those things and the inflection of his voice is different between the parts.” AFC, reviewing the tape, agreed. Do I recommend Work of Art? Yes, especially if you have more than a passing interest in new art. But I wouldn’t recommend the show without the new and social media commentary it occasions.

The same shouldn’t be said for Mad Men, which is, simply, terrific TV all on its own. Knowing that Cyrus was also a die hard fan, I suggested before the current season that we should start a series of Monday morning posts in which we tease out some interesting historical allusions or contexts from the prior night’s episode. The new season seems to have coincided with our summer travel, however, and it doesn’t look likely we’ll pull off this feature, at least not this season. But I’m thrilled to note that the intrepid and indefatigable Bowery Boys, among our favorite NYC history bloggers, have taken up the same idea and are offering post-show history lessons of their own. This morning’s post has to do with an allusion to the Ziegfeld Theater: “I’m not sure if Don Draper would have actually met anybody at the Ziegfeld in December 1964,” the Boys write, “as there were no shows running. Although perhaps NBC was still using it at this time as a soundstage; certainly Don might latch onto a script girl or production assistant while visiting a client filming a commercial.” If you’re into Mad Men, this talk-back feature over at BBs looks like a great way to start your week this season.

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