Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Münter-Haus in Murnau

Wassily Kandinsky's folk traditions flourished first in the house he shared with Gabrielle Münter.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

On Herbert's Opinion

Mind my words: the billionaire boom is the first, longest, and final step into chaos. Blacks, Browns, Reds and Poorer and Poorer Whites are really slaves. They will rebel. Our Gaddafhi is the Koch Brothers. They witlessly killed Our Dream. Damn their ilk who should be behind bars in any just society.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

100 Years of Duluth

Duluth as a tourist destination? You’ve got to be joking! That would have been my snooty attitude, had not Greyhound dumped me for a five-hour break between its St. Paul-Duluth run and the Duluth-Detroit overnight.

I decided to foot it downtown from West Duluth, Minn., where the big G has plopped its station.

Those blocks up Superior Street were an ambulatory seminar in how economic cycles deform the American cityscape. Lots of Salvation Army and Goodwill outlets, until Summit Square, a new Yuppie enclave on the best hill approaching town and overlooking St. Louis Bay.

A friendly old geezer on the bus who used to be part of a huge U.S. Steel workforce up on the Mesabi Range told me sadly how Venezuelan and Korean steel had dropped the bottom out of the taconite mines and the lake freighter business. Those city fathers are hard-bitten types, however, who aren’t going to whine through their centennial. Their indomitable spirit is itself fit for cheers.

I dropped by the News-Herald and Tribune in their new building kitty korner from the Daniel Burnham generated Civic Center, where a friendly travel editor gave me the weekly “Bulletin Board” that lists all the town’s attractions and told me that the best fish restaurant in town was the Jolly Fisher on Superior.

The fried wall-eyed pike was superior all right, but the french fries might have been fresh for the town’s namesake when he disobeyed Louis XIV by going after furs on his own hook in 1679. No matter, the view of the St. Louis Riverfront was superb, and I flipped through the cache of local blurbery I had picked up at the splendid new public library on the main drag.

There, out their window, beckoning like it always had on a farther horizon of my summers as a kid on Lake Huron, was the S.S. William Erwin, flagship of the U.S. Steel fleet at the peak of its power, and a year short of its 50th anniversary, already a museum. I would finally get to see it, from inside.

Sated with walleye, I cruised Lake Street on the way to the Corps of Engineers Canal Park (they had to penetrate Minnesota Point to reach St. Louis Bay and make it the largest interior sea in the world). I checked out Harbor Inn, facing Lake Superior, where a family should stay, close to the water, with a friendly mix of people. Canal Park has a Marine Museum which is world-class. (I even forgive the C of E for the miserable summer of 1949 when they had me stripping dirty paint with lye off the crew quarters of one of their tugs in the Detroit River.)

There are great physiographic maps which show you the relative depths of the Great Lakes, and a disaster map of the 300-plus ships that have succumbed to the Lake’s unpredictable furies—especially the mysterious fate of the Edmund Fitzgerald which went down in 1975 with all hands in a winter storm.

The Erwin is also a fascinating internal ramble, even the adversarial union politics being evident in lifeboats that didn’t work on a ship with fancy cabins for larking brass and their friends.

But the centerpiece of Duluth’s phoenix act is the recycled train station / cultural center right behind the library. It’s a joy, especially after reading the 3,000 circulation Zenith City Arts, a free monthly full of the spritz of a stricken city striking back.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, August 12, 1987

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Noodling in Norfolk

One of the serendipities of taking a Greyhound Ameripass is finding a way to end your ramble with a bang rather than a whimper. So when I boarded my bus in Detroit on the second to last day, I was pleased to see that it said “Norfolk” on the destination slot.

Norfolk! I had planned to pitstop in D.C. and see the Helga pictures at the National Gallery, which I had passed by the month before when I went to the opening of the Wyeth at the Corcoran, on the grounds that it is dangerous to your intellectual health to see too much Wyeth in one day.

Norfolk! Almost two decades ago I had pitstopped there when visiting Hampton Institute and the splendid Maritime Museum at Newport News. Then it had seemed tacky and unworthy a visit. But ten years ago, word of the Art Deco and Art Nouveau holdings, as well as the Garbisch American folk art collection had tempted me down.

The Deco was dandy (what would you expect form the man who commissioned the Chrysler Building?) and the folk art as good as the Williamsburg stuff (Mrs. G. was Chrysler’s sister). Besides, the bus arrived in D.C. at 5:30 a.m. and the toilets were chained until 7 a.m., making you question the security of the station in general. So Norfolk it was.

Alas, because the Chrysler is in the throes of building expansion, I didn’t get another ogle at the Deco or the folk art, but a show on the second stage of Impressionism from the Indianapolis Museum was more than consolation. Norfolk’s other attractions were the real bonuses.

Take the MacArthur Memorial. I’ve never been the Big Mac booster (I had relished Truman’s comeuppancing him), at least until Japanese journalists explained their current egalitarianism as a gift from Their Occupier. But there is the gleaming black Chrysler Imperial (license plate USA 1!) with a caption that explains that every time Mac stepped into it, all the red lights between SHQ and his residence were hand-turned to green. Perks.

I didn’t know either that his grandfather made a name for himself as a Civil War general. General’s genes. In short, the Mac Mem is memorable and should be visited. Why Norfolk? His ma was born and bred there.

At the Visitor’s and Convention Center, they told me Phillips Waterside was my best bet for a good seafood feed. Were they right. For 20 bucks I chomped lazily through a huge mound of shrimps, mussels and hard-shell crabs, capping my gluttonous act with an ice-cold slab of watermelon. Port Folio is the name of the weekly alternative paper that tells you what is going on.

There’s a fine view of the waterside, where tourists were taking ferry rides across the water (instead of bumper to bumper through the tunnels, which are an aggravation to be avoided at peak drive time). There’s a free trolley bus that will take you through downtown, hassle-free. It took me to two places I urge you to visit. D’Art Centre is a year-old arts co-op (they’ve patterned after a successful rehab in Alexandria). It’s set up so you can watch and palaver with the artists. Gemutlich. Wander around.

And don’t miss Freemason Lane, full of 19th Century architecture. Nice folks in Norfolk.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 2, 1987

Monday, 23 May 2011

Culture and Rail Lockers

Every fall now, my memory turns to Lausanne, where I had my first vendage (the cutting of the grapes) at my friend’s place in Lutry, two short stops east of Lausanne’s main train station. And I quaffed mout, the frothy stuff that heralds the first pressing of the year’s grapes.

Their condo rests smack in the vineyards on a rise overlooking Lac Leman, itself a ten-minute walk away through a medieval village. And the man whom you’ve seen tending the grapes all summer brings you a ritual basketful still warm from the fall sun. heady stuff, the vendage.

Lausanne itself is a cultural cornucopia, with something for every interest. If you walk five minutes up the street facing the outdoor buffet at the station, you arrive at the Museum of the Olympics. I’m no sports nut, but the swatch of posters they have adorned their exhibition rooms walls is a fine romp, especially rich in the Art Deco era but covering all their do’s, winter and summer. Upstairs is a library, if your mind runs to records.

Lausanne seems built on a ten-degree slope, and there is a boppy funicular that takes you from the medieval down to the rivage, where one of Byron’s favorite inns is still at your disposal. Try first the Fine Arts Museum, which really runs up a slope, with fine art on one floor, natural history on another, a kind of progression of the humanities and sciences. It’s actually a recycled university, the new digs for which are prize-winning architecture in the suburbs.

The cathedral has its own mini-museum, and since there’s been a lot of ebb and flow in the religious life of the region, it too is a must stop for the intellectually curious. The last time I dropped by, there was a fascinating exhibit on the 400th anniversary of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Sent me scrambling to a history book.

It was a big deal in Lausanne because much of the economic energy of the Swiss came form those Huguenot refugees from France, which shot itself in the foot fiscally by throwing the freethinkers out. Later, down the road in Geneva, Voltaire took refuge.

One of the newest museums there is the Elysee’ Photography Museum. Last spring and summer, it showed no fewer than five concurrent exhibitions on the theme of India, which followed up its USA art-as-tourism extravaganza of 1985 with a similar one all over Switzerland. The museum itself is a recycled stately house with a spectacular view of the downside of the city and the lake.

Like the Hotel de Sale Grasai in Venice, the Elysee’ tells us what we ought to be doing with our Fairmount Park mansions if our money went where our values say they are.

The Elysee’ is also notable for its sales room of postcards, posters and prints of photography. Its offerings are among the broadest and deepest in Europe—and that from a dead start! It also has the friendliest gramp of a concierge, who is almost a show on his own.

There is also a singular museum of so-called Art Brut, that genre of art by the disturbed, or insane, or merely obsessive. Their permanent collection is a nightmare of wonders. Sometimes their temporary exhibitions seem to me to be merely quirky folk art, but it’s definitely one of a kind stuff. The museum has a somber tea room to wind down in as well, a short walk through park grounds.

But aside from the Museum of Applied Art—which staged a succulent Art Deco exhibit of objects manufactured in plastic two summers ago and is always worth a visit—the main attraction in Lausanne is the annual retrospective of the Hermitage Foundation.

This year (through November 14) it has been Magritte’s turn. I’ve grown tired of many of the moderns, but never of Magritte. At first it was the Belgian’s spooky surreal night-light pieces. And those still give me the shivers. But now it’s his transformational pieces, in which stones become trees, and trees become flesh, and clouds become earthly.

The Hermitage has them all, as well as a first-class catalog, in which I was amused to learn that the two important things that most interested Magritte on his only visit to New York City were Edgar Allan Poe and cop thrillers of the kind he battened on at home. Very surreal.

Another great thing about Lausanne is its railway station lockers. For two Swiss francs, you can park your gear and wander up in one direction to Geneva, down in the other to Zurich. It’s a good entrepot for exploring Switzerland by Eurail pass. The last day I spent at the Basel Air Fair, having scooped up my gear between trains.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 4, 1987

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Photo Shows, Way Out West

SAN FRANCISCO: Who says senile is necessarily gross? Taking my first trip to San Francisco since I got my Medicare card, SamTrans 7F bus whizzed me from SFO to Timothy Pfleuger’s grand Transbay Terminal in a half hour—for two bits! There I hopped the MUNI 38 bus out to Richmond for 15 cents! And the MUNI gives you a free transfer with two hours’ worth of bopping around on two more buses.

Bay Area Rapid Transit sells senior a card for $1.60 that’s good for up to ten rides across the Bay. It used to cost me more than that just to get to the Oakland Museum.

The place was popping with delectable photo shows, beginning with a splendid look at Ansel Adams’ first book, Parmelian Prints, at (where else?) the Ansel Adams Center. What an odd name, I thought to myself. It seems that the publisher of these Ur-Sierra shots thought a book of photos wouldn’t sell, so Adams concocted the fake rubric from the Latin for Alpine lichen. The dear man anguished over this little peccadillo for years because it meant pretending about the art form he wanted to be entirely without pretense.

Next door was James Balog’s “Survivors.” For two years and 80,000 miles, Balog tracked down 233 animals from 96 species in danger of extinction and fabricated a new environment for each shoot. It’s a curiously successful deconstruction of falsely romanticized Nature photography.

By photographing these animals—not against a sunset, but against the visual grain, so to speak—he aims to “separate the truly priceless” from the meaningless. “One of the cherished illusions of our culture is that animals will always live contentedly in idyllic wildness.” For Balog, the “unspeakable tragedy is that our philosophical evolution will be too slow to save them all.”

But the real discovery for me was Michal Rovner’s suite of six images from Desert Storm called “Decoy” (through March 1). Until you ruminate over chief curator Andy Grundberg’s brilliant wall label, they appear to be just badly shot / framed war pictures. Not so fast.

Israeli artist Rovner “experienced” the Persian Gulf war in New York where, like everyone else, she glued herself to CNN’s tsunami of images. Grundberg explains that “her pictures are about the inadequacies of photographic information as well as what she calls the disparity between visual and emotional experience.

“To her, television hides more than it reveals; its images are, like a decoy, a form of visual deception. By freezing these images with a Polaroid camera, and refashioning them as large color prints, she hopes to reveal their fractures and falsehoods. She describes herself as ‘an artist interested in the limitations of what the eye can see’.”

Bingo. “Decoy” deflates all the self-deluding rhetoric about “standing tall,” about proving we’re still Number One (was there ever a more infantile ideology?), about purging the Vietnam Syndrome (when actually we put into practice what General Curtis LeMay merely threatened: “We’ll bomb them back to the Stone Age.”).

The over to SF / MOMA, understandably euphoric because they’re breaking ground in April for Mario Botta’s new Yerba Buena building. “Helen Levitt” (through March 15) displays a grand swatch of 50 years of that street shooter’s work. She loved kids playing.

In 1936, she bought a second-hand Leica and started cruising the New York streets, especially in the ethnically diverse sections of the city. I don’t relish Levitt’s later color work as much as I always have the black and white. Strangely, she seems now to be more interested in dignified older women sitting on their stoops. Watch for this marvelous retrospective when it plays New York’s Met (April 1-June 28).

Then over to Kevin Roche’s Oakland Museum (in my opinion, the best piece of museum architecture in the 20th Century) to relish the Peter Stackpole double show. The Hollywood stuff is satisfying enough. He was a marvelous schmoozer and could get a wide range of solipsistic stars to drop their pseudo-personae for his lens.

But the peak experience is his stuff on the Bay Area during the ‘30s and ‘40s. it had never clicked before that Peter was Ralph’s son, the premiere local sculptor of the era whose 80-foot “Pacifica” was the ikon of the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island.

Peter sweet-talked his way onto the construction site of the Oakland Bay bridge (and later the Golden Gate—have two grander bridges ever been raised within two short years anywhere else in the world?), where the foreman was so shocked by his teenage chutzpah that he chewed him out—by telling him to come back with a hard hat next time! He could only afford 400 feet of film, but the enchanting movie in which he talks about those titanic creations reveals that he didn’t waste a frame in his scrupulous shooting.

Then I was off to Golden Gate Park to see “The Circle of Life: Pictures from the Human Family Album” (through May 1) at the California Academy of Science. It was an unsentimental update of MOMA’s 1957 show, “The Family of Man,” in which Edward Steichen juxtaposed scores of shots by unconnected photographers to establish a grander theme.

Birth / Initiation / Marriage / Death is the circle, and the 20-minute slide show makes its point very effectively. We’re all in this circle together, but we’ve devised umpteen ways of going the route. Harper / San Francisco has published a substantial book of these photos if you can’t make the trip.

And this isn’t all of it. Waiting for USAir to fly me back to Philly ($99, standby, with senile coupons), I discovered that SFO has gone into the museum biz in a big way. In one area, the Maritime Museum was displaying a few tasty slices of the sourdough waterfront. It put me in a good mood—which I needed in my paranoid choice of a seat at the very back of the 737. Two humongous Pakistani ladies squeezed me in.

I mention their ethnic identity only because our elbow disposition traditions differed radically. Before we were over Yosemite, I had a scheme: “Wouldn’t you ladies like to look at the Rocky Mountains?” They would, indeed. Whew.

That gave me the aisle, where I compensated for the marginal cuisine by chatting up a Princeton 30something whose job is to check on the doctors testing a new asthma medicine around the country. Such a job would itself give me terminal wheezes, but she seemed to like it.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, February 19, 1992

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Fecundity of Slanguage

I’m no touter of slang. But then I don’t cringe at it either. The “Urban Dictionary”, however, casts a new and interesting light of social media on this sometimes cranky (for English teachers)subject. It’s the brainstorm of one Aaron Peckham, thunk up in 1999 in his freshman year at Cal Poly.

The genre itself is not new. The “Dictionary of the Canting Crew” (about the street patois of professional rogues) appeared in 1699. Nor is it the only such small “b” bible. Jonathan Green’s three volume slang dictionary has 6000 entries, 997 of them slang for penis.

It’s the dirty words that bug the genteel. “Fuck” didn’t make the OED until 1927. (Sir David Frost got in a Tizzy Fit after a “That Was The Week That Was” broadcast in New York at the Modern Language annual convention in 1972 when we had 9 (for the Muses) MLA satire specialists throw an afterparty in General David Sarnoff’s suite in the RCA Building for the TW3 talent. Frost snarled at Philip A. Gove, the editor of Webster III for putting dirty words in his Dick-Shun-Airie. Later that year, when I was teaching in London, Frost took me to lunch at his club and apologized afterI explained the distinction between descriptive (Gove) and prescriptive (Old Frost) grammar!

But Peacham’s UD is to slang what the OED is to regular language. The OED made the Guinness Book of Records with 600,000 entries. The UD has 5.7 million! It on-line site gets a million unique visits a month.80% of them are under 25. Its 3500 volunteer editors field 2000 suggestions a day. In the past 60 days, they wrote 76,000 definitions. Some of them are funny! Take “Unsult”, an insult disguised as a compliment: “You’re much smarter than you look!” But I really relish “Neolorgasm”:”The intensely pleasurable sensation generated by using, hearing, or coining a new word or phrase(that doesn’t suck!).”

Sometimes the UD can be politically useful. For example, when Italy’s randy Prime Minister tried to falsely define “Bunga Bunga” as just “fooling around”, Peacham’s cops nailed the Bullionaire Liar with the real UD definition:”erotic ritual in which a powerful leader plays with several naked women.”

Heh, the OED folks are not worried. They slog along with their long anticipated third edition. (First, 1928. Second, 1989. Third, 2037.) It has taken 300 scholars 22 years (and 34 million pounds) to get from M to Ryvita. Haste makes Waists.

Friday, 20 May 2011

George Ault in Trenton

You’ve been given a rare opportunity at the State Museum in Trenton (until June 11, 1989) to see the work of the most neglected of the American Precisionists, George C. Ault (1891-1948). I’ve been picking up on this obscure figure for the past 20 years—a canvas at the DeYoung in San Francisco, another at the Sheldon Memorial Gallery at the University of Nebraska, one at the Walker in Minneapolis, one at the Newark.
I grew inordinately fond of Ault—dribs here, drabs there. So I was thrilled to learn that a satellite of the Whitney had, without fanfare, been circulating a substantial gathering of his canvases and drawings for display in New York, Memphis, Omaha and now, and finally, Trenton.

Because so many are from private collections, this may be the last time in our generation that we can get a good look at Ault’s strangely different brand of Precisionism.

His sad life history, neatly interleaved with excellent criticism in a bargain of a catalog ($19), accounts for those differences. He was born into a wealthy Cleveland family, and his bent for the arts led him to the Slade School when his father moved the family to London.

In 1911, his father moved the family back to New Jersey to set up a plant for making printer’s ink, and for a time he tried to persuade George to go into the business.

His pressuring George had the perverse effect of transforming the stiff British version of impressionism he had picked up at the Slade into an interest in the industrial shapes that were to attract Futurists and Cubists in Europe and the Precisionists in America.

But George’s quirkiness skewed him more toward De Chirico for bleak urban landscapes and Albert Pinkham Ryder for his spooky moonscapes. One of the evident achievements of the Trenton exhibition is that it captures Ault teetering back and forth from the received agenda of Precisionism to his own idiosyncratic style.

“Dory Abstractions” reminds you of Lionel Feininger, “Smoke Stacks” of Demuth, “Shipboard” of Sheeler. Sometimes he seems off on a different track entirely, as in “Festus Yayple and His Oxen,” a weird blend of John Kane and Lauren Harris. Or “Provincetown #1,” which could be a Stuart Davis. And “Early America” is 90% Grant Wood. The volatility of his life is echoed in the vagaries of his oeuvre.

My, what a mess that became. When his father’s business failed in the Depression, George’s brothers committed suicide. His mother died in a mental institution. During the ‘20s he had gloried in the friendships and ambience of Greenwich Village. At the disappearance of parental stipends, however, he declined into alcoholism, moved to Woodstock, and at the age of 57 died an apparent suicide, drowning in a creek by his house.

Out of this torment nonetheless emerged the night paintings—mysterious nightscapes centering on Russell’s Corners in Woodstock. A suite of four of them will please the discerning eye, and a handful more make Ault our lunar laureate: “Construction Night,” “January Full Moon,” New Moon, New York,” even “Factory Chimney” form the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The most stunning piece in the show, itself worth a trek to Trenton, is the sweetly minimalist “The Pianist,” in which we view the back of the performer’s head, front-lit by the lamp on her music stand. It’s a resonant masterpiece.

The exhibit contains a score of tasty daylight architectural studies of the kind we associate with Niles Spencer and Ralston Crawford. But Ault really satisfies us in his darkest moods. Occasionally, this love of the dark tempts him into engaging abstract compositions in which intense colors in the nightscape literally and symbolically illumine the scene.

“Sullivan Street Abstraction” and “New Moon, New York” are the most successful. “Greenwich Village Nocturne” is the most experimental, playing around with an analytical cubism in reflective planes. It doesn’t quite do it for my eye, but it makes you rue the grief that hobbled Ault as he tried to express his idiosyncratic vision.

As I schmoozed with curator Paula Foley, she proudly announced that the following exhibit—on Oscar Bluemner—had already arrived from the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.

Not a bad showing for the undervalued State Museum: Retrieving two substantial New Jersey modernists in one season. Bluemner, like Ault, fled what he came to regard as the hothouse of New York for more bucolic precincts.

But more of that in August. Now’s the time not to miss Ault.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, June 7, 1989

Thursday, 19 May 2011


Yippee! Kenneth Price of the University of Nebraska/Lincoln has with some slick sleuthing discovered almost 3,000 documents hand written by Walt Whitman whilst he was a scribe in the U.S. Attorney General’s Office. Ed Folsom of the University of Iowa predicts these documents will be most valuable in deepening our understanding of Walt’s greatest prose piece, “Democratic Vistas” (1871), But they will also give us more access to his work during Reconstruction.

Price promises the first 2,000 will be free online by September 2011, the balance next year. This is all very exciting to me personally since my first Am Lit professor, C.Carroll Hollis, University of Detroit (1949) made a literary career of his friendship with Detroit businessman Charles Feinberg, arguably the greatest ever Whitman collector.

Carroll wangled that collection (and himself) into the Library of Congress, proceeding after to a great career at the University of North Carolina, then the hottest spot in American Studies. (In 1983, I honored my mentor by reviewing his then new classic interpretation of WW’s rhetorical style in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat: I had just fled Academe to freelance.)

And of course the Philly connections are numerous. Walt had a stroke in 1873 which had him move to Camden where he spent the rest of his life with his mother and brother George Washington Whitman. Alas, a century later, after a painful divorce in 1970 I was courting a certain Alice for her birthday (the day before Walt’s on 31 May) in Cape May. Driving back home she casually asked me if I had ever visited his mausoleum in Harleigh Cemetery, Camden.

I shamefully blushed NOT YET. (She was a sociology major!) Overcoming my embarrassment I made the most dangerous U turn in American history on the ramp to the Walt Whitman Bridge—taking her directly and humbly to Harleigh. We were stunned to see the 1891 construction was falling apart. (Cruel critics chide Walt for ranting too loudly to the masons during this least creative phase of his muse.)

But all was not lost. By a remarkable American Providence, the National Council of English was holding its moveable annual convention in Philly. I begged the Executive Committee to let me prowl the convention aisles with billboard ads (Front: Save Walt’s Vault; Back: A Buck for the Bard’s Bones). They gave me a skeptical GO FOR IT, if I promised to drop that horrible rhetoric. I collected almost $900 from the normally tight-fisted English teachers, and the masons got back to work

On the dedication of his renewed grave in 1974, we held a Graveyard Party with local poets like Daniel Hoffman and C.K.Williams airing their muses in his honor. The day before the Party I was addressing Emily Dickinson postcards to persuade the poets to gather while Buckminster Fuller was delivering the Beaver College commencement speech. As we marched off the dais together, he asked me what I’d been doing while he orated!

I flashed an Emilygram at him. He sighed lovingly at her image and the next day in my faculty mailbox there was a $100 Fuller check with an apology for not coming. I immediately went out and bought nine (for the Muses) bottles of Great Western champagne (no French stuff today!) And our live broadcast on “All Things Considered” was enlivened further by Beaver Music Chair Bill Fabrizio’s original jazz suite, “Perhaps Luckier” (Walt’s guess about Death!). Carmen Gaspero’s guitar was never hotter!

There was more Whitmania: I published for all the Beaver students 1974 a “Wake Up To Whitman” pictorial calendar which was my first essay in International English—getting fond permissions from foreign Whitman buffs like Chinua Acheba and John Betjeman. The Whitman boom continues unabated: Just out is former Philly C.K. Williams’s “On Whitman” (Princeton,2010.) Reading it reminded me of that surge in Whitmania powered by Stephen Berg’s “American Poetry Review”. I was pleased to observe that he’s now a U of the Arts faculty member, along with Bruce Schimmel tutoring students on audiovisual ploys. Walt would be proud, and, increasingly, very lucky.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Russians Jazzily Bong the Liberty Bell

My first contact with Russian jazz, in 1977, was a cultural disaster.
A self-assigned sabbatical for the achievement of reaching 50 had led me to the Black Star ferry for a ride between Alexandria and Larnaca, Cyprus. During the trip, a Russian quartet beguiled passengers with jazz so arthritic I decided it must have been a KGB-inspired plot to undermine America’s unique contribution to modern music in one overnight ferry trip.
Imagine my surprise, when, on a trip to Russia in 1981, I discovered truly swinging sounds at the Intourist Hotel in Samarkand, Central Asia.
Under a harvest moon, surrounded by trellised vines that conjured up a veritable Garden of Eden, we discovered a world-class quartet dominated by a Joe Venuti-style jazz violinist who was a dead ringer—down to the handlebar mustache—for Joseph Stalin!
We clapped so loudly at the end of the first set that the pianist jumped off the stand and brought us a cold bottle of vodka with a wordless flourish.
A few years later, in a Petropavlosk hotel room, my languorous mood evaporated as I zeroed in on some jazzy sounds coming out of a storage room!
Yet another fine jazz quartet, practicing for an upcoming Saturday night gig.
My Russian was on the “da, nyet” level; their English was limited to “Duke,” “Miles,” “Stan,” (as in Getz), and “Zoot,” (as in Sims). No matter, we communicated, our ears and tapping toes the signs of fraternity.
These days, a trip to Russia is no longer a prerequisite for hearing Russian jazz. The Ganelin trio, the first jazz combo to tour the U.S. from the U.S.S.R., recently made a stop at Philadelphia’s Painted Bride, playing a brand of music that is definitely swinging, not subversive.
Pianist / composer Vyacheslav Ganelin describes his group as “polystylistic.” Joining Ganelin are Vladimir Chekasin on saxophone and Vladimir Tarasov on drums.
It’s jazz like you’ve never heard it before, as the full house at the Painted Bride’s July 9 concert discovered.
The first set was 45 minutes of intense contrapuntal innovation, followed by a 20-minute rest that both audience and band needed.
The Russian musicians bring an element of theatricality to their performances. Example: when Mayor Wilson Goode’s representative Oliver Franklin presented the trio with a replica of the Liberty Bell, drummer Tarasov added the “instrument” to his bizarre collection of dingable items. The trio’s tuning up became an effort to integrate this new sound into their scheme of things harmonic.
And while we are used to a few American jazz soloists blowing two reed at the same time, saxophonist Chekasin upped the polyphonic ante by scraping on a violin while wailing away on several different reed instruments.
To sample the cerebral music of this and other Russian jazz combos, contact East Wind, 3325 17th Street NW, Washington D.C. 20010. Among the offerings is the Ganelin trio’s award-winning “Poi Segue.”
East Wind founder Stephen Boulay, 25, made this way into the musical détente business during a trip to Russia following his graduation from Colgate University.
He and his companion taped several Soviet jazz concerts, which he later had mixed and refined—at an expense of $25,000 of his own money—into five LP’s which are also available through East Wind.
The Ganelin trip tour resulted from the persistent efforts of Wilson, Wyoming resident John Ballard and his Space Agency Inc., which usually books acts in the West and Pacific Northwest.
Four trips to Moscow convinced the skeptical Russian concert bureau, Gaskontsert, that Ballard, Wilson, Wyoming and the Space Agency were for real. “They move slowly but surely,” Ballard recently recalled.
Ballard has been accompanying the Ganelin trio on their 14-stop tour. Los Angeles was the only bad site so far, and even that was followed the next two nights with sold-out concerts in San Francisco.
For the Philly stop, local organizer Lenny Seidman added a nice touch with a stage backdrop of a Buckminster Fuller Mercator’s projection, as seen by a polar bear, of the U.S.S.R. stage left, and the U.S.A. stage right. Beat ICBMs, we all agreed.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Ch-chi-ch-cheap, at 45 below

When I told my children I was spending January in Canada, they shot nervous glances at each other. When I said on the national railways, they sighed resignedly—the old man was really losing his judgment.

They gave me thermal underwear and woolen socks for Christmas and hoped I’d chicken out. Well, having survived “my experiment in hypothermia,” I’m prepared to tell the world there is no greater travel buy in North America than the Canadian Rail Pass. It cost me $420 Canadian for 30 days unlimited travel on their VIA system.

By using the Greyhound $59 anywhere fare, I could leave Philadelphia, review art shows in Chicago and Milwaukee, visit my granddaughter in St. Paul and trek overland to the last port-of-exit to Vancouver (Blaine, Washington, a $9 add-on fare). I even saw a great exhibition on the history of Montana underground mines at the Yellowstone Heritage Center, while my bus was refreshing itself in Billings, Montana.

It wasn’t even raining in Vancouver when I hopped off Greyhound and found, next to the B.C. tourist information center, a YWCA that has just begun renting rooms to men. I schmoozed with girls from Taipei, Stuttgart and Tokyo and a matron from Victoria while watching the CBC evening news.

The next morning I checked out the Skytrain subway across the street for how to get to Union Station on time, then I took a good look at the Vancouver Art Gallery, watched a self-styled “bubbleologist’ mesmerize a swatch of moppets at the new Science and Technology Centre in downtown V, and ate a lousy cafeteria meal of pork chops and roof-of-the-mouth clabbering mashed potatoes at Union Station.

That crummy dinner forecast the only fly in the peripatetic ointment. Solve the eating problem on Canadian Rail, and you’ve got yourself one heck of a travel buy. My only other real reservation: Don’t wait until the last minute to ask for space or to change plans—unlike the Eurail or Brit Rail passes, you can’t just wander onto even an empty train—they check your reservation at the gate.

After covering Calgary, I got back on VIA for my next ambition—to see Ottawa, a capital that has never been sexy enough to detour me from a Toronto or a Montreal trip. That’s when you begin to get the sense of Canada’s size—29 hours to traverse Ontario, For Mulrooney’s sake, along the northern edge of Lake Superior, stark and ????? in its winter beauty. And I also discovered Constantine’s general store across the street from the Thunder Bay station. It sells bananas and bags of peanuts in shucks and reasonably recent newspapers and quarts of real orange juice.

Ottawa is a great city in spite of all the canards—the Safdie National Gallery is idiosyncratically sited on a river bluff between a cathedral and the Parliament buildings, and it proudly but humbly places itself in this context.

And where else can you hostel in a converted jail? Soaking serenely in its Victorian bath tub, I’m startled by the sight of a peep hole in the middle of its thick security door—until I see that the no-longer-necessary hole has been taped over.

See a great Yosef Karsh photography retrospective at the National Archives. I like Ottawa. Decide I will definitely come back for the Degas retrospective next fall.

Actually I didn’t get off in Ottawa the first pass by it. The train was five hours late—so instead of getting into Montreal at a reasonable 10 p.m. to look for a hotel, we were dumped into the station at 3:00 a.m. and told to scram! Any civilized train service would have let us bunk out in our sleeping car until daybreak. Instead, I parried street people’s cigarette entreaties all night.

How different from the treatment three weeks later, when 45 below Celsius weather broke a rail east of Edmonton, making us five hours later and therefore unable to let us link up with the Continental in Winnipeg.

They took five of us out at Saskatoon and flew us to Thunder Bay to catch up with our train to Toronto. Now that’s class, VIA.

By now, I was getting the hang of it. I took a day trip up to Gaspe, where the regional museum is as sweet as it could be, and the wooden cedar cathedral of Christ the King rivals Ronchamps in its beauty. On the way back, I got off at Levis to take the ferry across the Saint Lawrence to Quebec City.

I fantasized having breakfast in style at the Chateau Frontenac. I did, buy only after climbing the wooden stairway, step by frozen step—the closest I came to freezing to death. As I gasped in the 60-below cold at the top, I saw the man opening the funicular. Rats!

The old chateau, nonetheless, was worth the frost, and I fueled up for a hard day of savoring old buildings in Quebec City and Montreal.

The main train station in Quebec City is a marvel of urbane rehabbing, the old structure having been spruced up whilst the train shed parts have been high-teched. It’s an exemplary blending of old and new, a compulsory visit to which would humanize our Post-Mod-architecture school students South of the Border, down Venturi’s way.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large

Monday, 16 May 2011

Relishing the New and the Old of Tokyo

The review of Peter Popham’s extraordinary essay on the Japanese style(s) of life, Tokyo: The City at the End of the World ($15.95), had led me to believe it was just another guidebook to the city’s remarkably diverse architecture. A bit better and more thoughtful, but a guidebook nonetheless, with all the intellectual limitations inherent in that genre.

Imagine my delight to discover that Leeds-educated lit major Popham has looked with a gaijin’s friendly eye at the chaos and exuberance of Tokyo’s built environment and “read” what is quite evident—once you have Popham for your tutor.

His eye is ecumenical too, as befits a man who took a one-year contract to teach English conversation because of a badly staged but still luminous Noh play by Yukio Mishima.

Now married to a Japanese reporter, he got up to speed in Nihongo in fewer than four years and now represents that curious phenomenon of the foreigner who is more interested in Japanese culture—and perhaps is a better guide—than most natives.

The book has a stunning framing device: It begins with the most explicit and harrowing analysis of the Tokyo region as seismic turf, “The City Abolished,” a 21-page marrow-chiller that only the bravest will dare attend to carefully, setting the stage for his thesis that Japan’s architecture is unique precisely because of its cherishing of ephemerality.

Prepared for the worst, Japanese architects are never hesitant to build something new in place of even the meritorious “ancient and revered.” While cultural energy in Europe and America focuses on saving and embellishing the older, better stock of buildings, Japanese architects feel a zing about doing well what might disappear tomorrow, giving them, paradoxically, a fresh chance to build anew.

Popham even derides the plight of young British architects, reducing their creativity to patching up old country houses while their counterparts in Japan literally shoot for the moon.

Perhaps the intellectual core of the book is a little morality play, featuring on the one hand the octogenarian speculator and super-builder Taikichiro Mori, whose dreary megablocks are fast effacing the funky little neighborhoods that give Tokyo the tastiness that Popham relishes here.

He’s an implausible “heavy” who has gone ever more traditional in dress and religious habits, the higher his profits and buildings have pushed up Tokyo’s skylines. Even he has to deal delicately with the realities of Tokyo residents’ rootedness, giving and taking, making deals with displaced store owners, keeping municipal government officials happy.

The everyman “hero” is actually a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Yoshitaro Muramatsu, who have lived in their two-story wooden house “in a formerly plebeian section of town, now called Minami-Aoyama 5-chome, ever since their marriage n 1941.”

Muramatsu started a tire business in front of his house when he got back from the war in Shanghai. Developers (not Mori) proposed to rear a housing development which would include Muramatsu’s plot.

But he wouldn’t budge: so now his rickety wooden house is eclipsed by the kind of superblock Popham despises. (See Ben Simmons’ fine photograph, one of over a score of brilliant pictures which illumine Popham’s prose in an exemplary way.)

Popham’s book is also sociologically astute, tracing the connections between the excruciatingly longer and longer commutes Tokyo’s moiling millions seem willing to put up with. Those with enough money are filling up the honeycombs in town.

There are humorous essays as well on the love hotels and capsule hotels—two ingenious, if offbeat, results of Tokyo’s crowdedness. And architecture proper, in the classic modern works like Kenzo Tange’s National Gymnasium at Yoyogi, are examined with loving, if skeptical, care: Tange’s 1960 dream plan (for extending a network of high-rises out over Tokyo Bay) comes in for some Jane Jacobs-type ridicule.

Corbusier’s grandiosity never found a fertile ground in Tokyo, where, instead, they ran the expressways in the air over the built-up city.

Popham ends his essay with an earthquake coda, his family’s reactions to the shuddering of September, 1984.

“Our kids snored through the whole performance. I turned off the light and went back to sleep.”

You won’t, when you read this original, fascinating probe of the most interesting city on earth. But it may generate some seismic shakings in your assumptions about what architecture should be and do. It did mine.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, March 16, 1988

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Rethinking Human Slavery

Until today, I have been less than pleased by Piers Morgan’s replacing Larry King on CNN. His smarmy sucking up to entertainer types was too similar to King’s royal reticence to never ask a tough question to please me. His program on April 17, 2011 interviewing Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher about their campaign against contemporary sex slaves was a really luminous exploration of the increasingly pervasive global horror of sex slaves, especially the abominable datum that 13 is the average age of current recruitment.

Demi Moore and Ashton Klutcher three years ago founded their DNA Foundation to fight this horror. (That name DNA combines their first initials with their tactical conviction that no man with real DNA would ever stoop to such deplorably tacky sexual behavior as becoming such a john.) They have just devised celebrity-using mini-mockumentaries shaming Johns and pimps for their dastardly behavior.

The facts are indeed terrifying to all of US, basking complacently in the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s rejecting black slavery. Depending on definition, 100-300,000 girls are so enslaved. Demi and Ashton do not expect an early solution, contending it almost as their fourth child, in terms of commitment. Family problems create the context for the scandal. Morgan interviewed on camera Nicole, an early DNA informant.

An abusive father and drug-addicted mother prompted her to leave home pregnant, and a “friendly” future pimp treated her humanely at McDonalds and a shopping mall to gain her compliance. She wanted to return home, but her pimp incarcerated her, beat her so that she lost her baby and was pimped to three johns. The terms became $1500 a night, and short falls had to be made up. The economics of this exploitation of human beings is simple. Pimps can purchase a slave for $2000 who produces $29,000 a year of income. Women who leave their own countries even more become dependent. Demi sadly reported that her investigation of this malaise in Nepal reveals the processes are similar. DNA Foundation estimate that 1-2 million sex slaves in America brought their masters $39 billion in 2010.

How does law confront this terror? Feebly. Only 4 states have laws punishing johns for abusing underage prostitutes. And many johns claim they didn’t "know” their victims were underage. A few pay the $200 john fine and go away unincarcerated. Not so lucky their victims. They are criminalized and frequently jailed. Alas, police spend 300-350 times on non-violent drug convictions than pimp and john punishment. There is now a free telephone for the exploited and those who would help them: 1-888-373-7888. One tactic is to blueline Craig List for abusive clients. Tina Rosenberg’s new book, “Join the Club”, describes the use of social media to cut back successfully on teenage smoking. It is hoped that such needling by your peers can reduce exploitative sexual behavior more effectively than, say, political or religious hectoring.

Finally, as we consider the long range defects of Casino Capitalism, let us not forget their contempt for the working classes and a resultant exploitability of their beleaguered condition. Dysfunctional families are the fertile breeding grounds of sexual slavery. Let the bonus barons put that truism in their empty heads and ice-cold hearts. The same moral flabbiness in our exploitative upper classes that still delays the total freedom of black and brown minorities in America exacerbates the disgrace of sexual slavery.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Lisbon: Culture Capital ‘94

The more I get to know and love Lisbon (I’ve just returned from my tenth visit), the more I divide it in my mind into three parts: downtown, the cultural center in Belem, and the Cascais / Estoril vacation spots. Each sector has its special charms, but all of them are of particular interest during 1994, while Lisbon is the cultural capital of Europe.
It got partly up to speed in 1992 when, as the site of the European Community’s rolling presidency, it inaugurated its EC-funded cultural center in Belem. Across the street are the already rich cultural treasures of the Maritime Museum (the Portuguese never let you forget they are the country of Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama, who opened the Orient and Africa up to Europe as early as the 15th Century); the stunning Archaeological Museum which picks up the story in its prehistory and Roman era and never stops digging; and the St. Jerome Monastery and Church, which Manuel II built to thank God for Vasco da Gama.
And a five minute walk away on the Tagus River waterfront is the astonishing Electricity Museum, where in 1989 they converted a disused power plant into a walk-through description of the way electricity has powered Lisbon and Portugal over the past century. It’s only rivaled in it brilliance by the Water Museum near Santa Apollonia train station, where in 1986 the centrality of water to an advanced civilization is explored in a disused 18th-Century reservoir and pumping station. Those Portuguese are waste not-want not paragons.
The first two major exhibitions at the Belem Cultural Center are devoted to the second greatest architect and the premiere painter of the 20th-Century Portugal, Fernando Tavora and Almada Negreiros. To call Tavora the second best is no insult, since it was his student at the University of Porto, Siza Alvaro, who won the Pritzker Prize in 1992: Together, the two make Porto the most formidable architectural facility in Europe.
Actually, the Belem show is a jubilee celebration: Tavora is retiring at 70, after 40 years of teaching. He is a remarkable man, and the show reveals his wide-ranging sensibility. A letter home from him as a 13-year-old in 1937 shows Salazar’s head in the upper left, Hitler’s in the lower left, Mussolini’s in the lower right and Franco’s in the upper right. Nice role models!
Fernando is a world-class pack rat, and the exhibition contains what he drew in architecture school, what he has collected (Portuguese painters, including a wide range of delectable folk art), and of course his architecture. Tavora is not only a great architect and fabulous schmoozer, but a thoughtful humanist, as I found out when I visited him in his office in Porto.
His account of how he cried tears of joy in 1960 when he made an extensive trip to the United States and first saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin East is as moving as his allegation that Walt Whitman turned him on to his egalitarian vision—not a handy view to entertain during Salazar’s reign.
Indeed, in 1940, the dictator convened the architects of Portugal to plan rebuilding the country but was so miffed at the endemic leftism among them that he turned over the reconstruction to civil engineers! Tavora taught hard during this interregnum, training a cadre of first-class architects who now make almost every village and city street a source of visual joy today.
I know of no country in Europe with a higher median of good design than Portugal. A young professor at the University, Luis Soares Carneiro, who has sat at the feet of both Tavora and Siza, claims that the poverty of Portugal not only kept it construction-industry crafts people alive and performing beautifully, but that scarcities of materials and money forced architects to make an austere elegance that I find utterly ravishing.
And to call Almada a painter is absurdly narrow, although that work gained him his major reputation. But he was a caricaturist, a muralist and a stained glass artist—in short, a polymath who makes Picasso look like a punk. (I’m not kidding; serious revisionism is imminent as this man’s work becomes known outside Portugal.)
I first became aware of his brilliance when I got lost walking from the Sheraton to the offices of Architecti, the principal design magazine in Portugal which I write for. The Art Deco Church of Our Lady of Fatima caught my eye. The outside is fine enough—by the same architect who designed the Cap Soudre train station and the great Maritime Station on the waterfront. But the interior is simply gorgeous; from the holy water font in the baptistery to the major stained glass windows, it is a world-class masterpiece. The Tavora / Almeda double header is reason enough for you to book a plane for Lisbon.
The green #90 bus will whisk you for a few escudos from the airport past the Marquis do Pombal Square down the Avenida do Liberdade to Rossio Square (where trains to the interior originate) and eventually to Santa Apollonia station, which serves international routes like Madrid and Paris.
At the Cap do Sodre train / bus station you can buy a cheap pack of tickets and a bus guide that tells you how and when to go anywhere in the city. By the way, seniors ride the rails half fare (any photo I.D. will do). Get out at M. do Pombal Square and ramble down the Avenida. It is replete with Art Deco masterpieces by Cassiano Branca—the big movie theaters for example, and strangely enough, Communist Party Headquarters in the former Hotel Victoria.
The Communists were so powerful a bloc during the 1974 revolution which overthrew Salazar that they had the pick of the litter when it came to settling into the best buildings. I did all my souvenir shopping in its marvelous gift shop—mainly folk crafts, but also an ecumenical collection of books. You’ll probably want to stay downtown until you get oriented. You have many different kinds of lodgings to choose from on the Avenida and the streets jutting out from it: the $200-a-night Pullman, or right across the street at the Residencia Avenida for $20.
Central Lisbon is full of wonders, like the Gustav Eiffel lift that whisks you up to the top level of the city near Rossio. (Wear comfortable, sturdy shoes when you visit Lisbon. It’s full of ups and downs, and hard cobbly surfaces.) Or the Chiaga district, ravaged by fire a few years back, whose rehabilitation is the major project of Siza Alvaro. Or the falsely attributed to Eiffel garage near the national legislature, which has automotive stained glass windows of the greatest charm.
The Palacio Foz is the headquarters both for tourism in general (on the street level) and LISBOA 94 in particular (on the third floor). If you want a handsome free catalog outlining the year’s festivities, write to Lisboa 94, Palacio Foz, 1000 Lisbon, Portugal. Or drop in after you’ve arrived.
Another venue full of surprises is the Forum across the street from the Sheraton Hotel. On my last visit, the Patrimony Fair was in full progress. This is essentially a concerted effort to keep folk crafts and cuisine alive and well. It was a great two hours.
The time before, it was the Post Office premiering a new book on the history of Portuguese painting culled from the zillions of stamps of classic Portuguese paintings they commission. There is a pocket-sized weekly Lisbon Agenda that clues you in on the passing parade, and a weekly Anglo-Portuguese News aimed at British expatriates will keep you even more current.
And at least try to read Publico, the first independent daily newspaper in the country’s history. Portuguese are justly proud of its success because it’s an emblem of their successfully converting from dictatorship to full-fledged democracy. (Read the ads if nothing else!)
Cascais / Estoril:
The Cap do Sodre train station leads to Belem (although you may want to try the pokey little street cars at least once) and on to Cascais. I recommend you have at least one meal at Michel’s in the old Gara Maritima at the Alacantara stop. Michel is the Julia Child of Portugal and has recently started teaching groups of visiting American women how he does it.
The seafood dinner I had there for $40 (a delicious vinho verde included) was memorable. I have tried everything from working-class lunch places to the most elegant hotel dining rooms, and I can honestly say I’ve never met a Portuguese meal I didn’t like. Especially the sea food.
The Cascais and Estoril Coast:
Cascais and Estoril, once the playgrounds of European royalty, are now reduced to package tours and daytrippers. Estoril is more upper upper and gambling-oriented; Cascais is a family affair.
I have stayed over the years at the Village Cascais, the Citadella, and the Baia. They range, depending on time of year, from $50 to $100 a night, phone haggling from the airport or train station possible.
Stay at the Baia if you love sea views. Room 407 had me mesmerized at dusk and at dawn (and most of the hours in between, if you want to know the truth!). The gaily painted fishing boats are a bit of performance art of their own as they head out to sea or return laden home. Don’t miss the recently rehabbed Maritime Museum behind the glorious public garden.
Next to the Village Cascais is a spooky old folly of a castle with an erratic exhibition program and almost no curating I’ve ever been able to track down. But the architect was pleasantly nuts, and you’ll savor rooms like the one with the shamrock tiled ceiling, a homage to the owner’s native Ireland.
From Welcomat: Summer Guide ’94, May 25, 1994

Friday, 13 May 2011

Globalizing American Studies

Fifty years ago, Marshall Fishwick asked me to write a chapter for his upcoming anthology, “American Studies in Transition” (Penn, 1968). I complied with an essay entitled “America as an Underdeveloped Country” in which I posited the paradox that our main intellectual problem as a country was that we were overdeveloped technologically which left US out of whack with our own underdeveloped median culture. (By “median” I meant we had a flourishing clerisy, crippled by a minuscule audience.) I argued that the best way to encourage our needed maturing was to see how other cultures responded to our ex parte pleas for better understanding. In short, destroy our narcissism by trying to comprehend our interactions with “less gifted” parts of humanity.

Two years of courses: US and Europe (where the most dangerous relations existed --and where it was metastasizing), US and Russia (where we were fatuously fumbling with McCarthyite maneuvers), US and Latin America ( which we had totally ignored—when we weren’t stealing their territory.) Second year: US and Asia, US and Africa, US and Us, as in our ignored minorities. In short, a future-oriented humanism, not the useless whimpering about nineteen century Scots who jeered, “who reads an American book?. . . “ The painful answer then was hardly anyone, Americans included. Not long after I left Academe to transform myself, a professor of American Studies into a Euromensch, having sold my Louis Kahn house in Greenbelt Knoll in 2010 for the top flat of a 178ß villa at Seifengasse 10, Weimar,Germany in 2011—Goethe lived at Seifengasse 1, when this villa was first built!

In this mood of transformation,imagine my pleasant, if stunned, surprise to discover Brian T. Edwards and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, eds. "Globalizing American Studies” (The University of Chicago Press, 2010)! And to find that I had missed the first Congress of the International American Studies Association(IASA!), convened in 2004 in by one Djelal Kadir (Professor of comparative literature at Penn State) cannily held in Leiden, Netherlands, from whence a small band of British Puritans sailed to Plymouth Rock, thereby hanging John Winthrop’s City on the Hill theological madness on our national neck for almost ever.

And Kadir’s inaugural address, ”Defending America against Its Devotees” got right down to business by indicting George W. Bush’s response to 9/11 as a program for planetary dominance “that ratified a version of American exceptionalism.”He denounced Bush’s two new “epochal documents”, viz.,”The National Security Strategy of the United States and the declaration of a “Global War on Terror.” (“Globalizing”, p. 47.) They transformed global dominance into American Exceptionalism’s new raison d’etre. “He explained that the combined operations of these doctrines had resulted in the installation of the United States as a State of Exception in the international order, which showed little interest in seeing itself through the eyes of the world it sought to dominate. He pleaded for open-minded research into all the imperial colonies contemporaneous with our own U.S. blind imperialism.

The book also analyzes the original formation of our indigenous American Studies as implicitly political both in the Cold War and after. One thinks of the State Department sending poets and jazz orchestras abroad to buff our image—instead,say, of teaching American high school students to love their neglected education in real music compared,say, with Elvis Presley. And one remembers CIA funding for “thoughtful” monthlies like “Encounter” rather than bring the best American media into our common schools. The great black journalist Carl Rowan while he served as our Ambassador to Finland, chided US for PR politics abroad rather than solving the contradictions of our real lives at home.

This book opens new dialogue over such neglected fields of research as our commercial media abroad which often contradict our better selves at home. There’s a groundbreaking essay on the Nixon/Khruschev Kitchen debate in Moscow which points to more fruitful exegeses of our true values at home and abroad.

Our Exceptionalist postures have always in my judgment been instances of “me thinks he protests too much.” Most Americans don’t realize that the rhetoric of “the American Dream” was invented by a historian of the 30’s Depression, a callow whistling in the dark passing by the cemetery. Our PR problems will deepen as BRIC cultures refuse to be intimidated by our big (deficit) budget bluster. As we wallow more and more in the Plundocracy (in which greedy bankers just pocketed $150 billions in “bonuses”) thatword used to mean “good,the very white collar criminals who crippled and may have ultimately destroyed an economy that once gave the world’s hardworking poor a ladder to moderate success,as our “privatizing” and offshoring the economy have given GE and other monoliths a tax free ride.

Our Exceptionalist rhetoric which this collection lays bare from the outside as fatuous special pleading may kill the Golden Goose soon if not already. ISAS has its hands full to teach US to join the rest at our best. We began by lying about the Red Indian and Black African. We may end for good,lying to ourselves. This collection makes it possible if not plausible to avoid collapse, encouraging US to change before it’s too late. At the very least, looking at how other Empires withered and died might squelch the American hubris which has been our endemic weakness. Join the best at IASA!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Shay it again, Duffin

When’s the last time you got a free stein of Budweiser plopped on the table at an after-dinner theater? That’s the sweet shtick with which Dublin-born-and-beered Shay Duffin opens his world-premiere, one-person, two-hour meander through the Chicago newspaper philosophizing of turn-of-the-century pundit Finley Peter Dunne.
According to Mr. Dooley at Barnard Sackett’s On Stage Theatre (2020 Sansom Street) is a steal of an evening’s entertainment even if you’re not at the front-room tables which get the free Buds.

The 50-year-old Duffin is well-known throughout the country for his almost 3,000 performances of his Confessions of an Irish Rebel, a one-person stagger through the short and intermittently happy life of his Dublin buddy, Brendan Behan.

It was during one Behan blast of his in Chicago several years ago that a retired educator asked him backstage if he had ever heard of Dunne, the newspaper humorist. “Never,” Duffin had to reply, gladly accepting an anthology of Mr. Dooley’s fictional philosophizings, delivered from behind a mythical South Chicago bar.

Duffin soon went on a Dooley roll, haunting used book stores across the country as he Behanized, amassing 277 sententious utterances of the amiable barkeep. He winnowed these down to 40 topics, as timely as the latest traffic report on KYW, some 14 of which he pastiches together as he searches for optimum audience impact.

Since the world premiere, February 9, for example, he has added songs to the taped player-piano simulation that honkytonks the segues between Dooley’s extemporaneous asides to Hennessey, the barkeep’s indefatigable (and entirely tacit!) straight man.

I’ve been a Dooley nut for a quarter of a century, ever since the best student I ever had at Penn, a 21-year-old Stakhovanite named Stephen Harmelin (he’s now a partner in Dilworth, Paxson etc.) dumped a 75-page monster term paper on the humorist in the introductory American Civilization course.

No matter that the paper was so good it anticlimacted the remaining 20 years of my teaching. (“It’s good,” I’d ruminate later over outstanding papers, “but it’s not nearly as good as Harmelin’s.”) Thus did he and Mr. Dooley make a widely despised hard grader out of me.

So I thought it would only be poetic justice to have him accompany me in case the play was lousy. After all, how can a native Hibernian like Duffin get at the heart of a Chicago Mick’s shtick? Duffin was so diffident about this issue that he commissioned eight different Americans, in a vain search for a viable mosaic. Finally, he demurred to the wisdom of his “sainted mother”: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” So he did.

Well, Mrs. Duffin surely did it right when she conceived this multi-talented Mick. He sings, he plays many parts, he sweeps the stage floor—like a pigs-in-the-pantry Irishman. His casual shuffling off of the duet he has very meticulously swept up off the barroom floor in the opening scene gets the first laugh.

Harmelin is no fool. He knows how punitive old professors can be under the guise of favors. So he brought along his dazzling blonde Lithuanian of a wife, Terry—as boredom insurance. He, she committed the first guffaw. And immediately started to quaff off her free Bud. Harmelin has good taste in tarts as well as term papers.

I’m not going to try to simulate the timing and skill of Duffin from behind the proscenium arch of this Czech portable. He’s too mercurial, too full of sly winks and other mannerisms, too theatrical in short. Dooley has to be seen to be lip-smacking savored. But you’ll be amazed at how undated his bits are on jogging and weight losing, the perils of being nominated vice president, the high cost of medicine.

Let me just lay a Dooleyism on you: “I don’t think we injoy other people’s sufferin’, Hennessy. It isn’t acshally injoyment. But we fell better f’r it.” And how. And so will you feel better for not having to slash your way through the orthographical jungle which tingled Dunne’s newly literate immigrant readers (Look, Ma, I recognize misspellings).

Duffin told me he considers this performance an annuity for his old age. He’s going to retired rich, famous and the Hal Holbrook of Finley Peter Dunne. Nice going, Shay.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Let Down By Africans In Dallas

On the way to Mexico, I tarried a day in Dallas to check out the city’s highly-publicized Arts District and to savour a fine Berenice Abbott exhibition at the Museum of Fine Art. A local couple has given the museum a swatch of Abbott’s New York City images, where that marvelous spirit (who recently died in her 90s) tried to do for her adopted metropolis what her intellectual mentor Atget did for Paris.
I noticed during my visit that there was soon to open an exhibition exploring the state of contemporary African art. I’ve had a hanker for that sector ever since my son Michael and I attended the First World Negro Arts Festival in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966. A splendid Cote d’Ivoire cotton appliqué tapestry has graced the main wall of my living room ever since.
So I stopped over again on my way back from Mexico to check out “Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art,” which closed recently.
Alas, it was a great disappointment. The catalog—especially the essays by Susan Vogel, curator of New York’s Center for African Art (which originates the show)—was so much better than the art displayed as to pose a paradox: Critics who are so eager not to appear Eurocentric run the graver risk of legitimizing kitsch, even trashy art.
The traditional objects displayed to establish an historical ground for the new work were so much stronger aesthetically as to highlight the crudeness of the current work in an embarrassing way.
The essays attempt to exorcise false ideas about African Art. “Traditional art today,” Vogel argues convincingly, “cannot be seen as corrupted, for it was never pure, never homogeneous, never isolated.” Agreed. And: “As the 20th Century reaches a close, African artists, like their forebears before them, have chosen to renew useful old forms, to take on new ones, and to cast off others in an ongoing process of organic decay and renewal.” Right.
Except there was very little connection between this rigorous thinking and the objects on display. It’s high time we unshackled the agenda of African art from the covert primitivism trip that most Westerners bring to their expectations. I still think the sculpture that expat Scot Frank McHugh triggered in Rhodesia puts this stuff to shame.
There were a few refreshing departures in the show from this run-of-the-mill lousy. For example, Ghanaian wood artist Kane Kwei (b. 1924) fetched himself a beguiling schtick in symbolic coffins—illustrated in his Mercedes Benz-shaped coffin (1989), from Rotterdam’s Museum for Folk Art. “When people die,” he suggests, “they like to travel to heaven in different ways—some by land, some by sea, and some by air.” (Yes, Virginia, there is a Pan Am 727 coffin!)
Zairian painter Cheri Samba (b. 1956) has an attractively insolent independence. When critics harangued her for inserting painted __________ on her canvases, she snarled: Heh, I’m the artist. If my public doesn’t dig it, I’m the loser.
“Lutte Contres Les Moustiques” is a canvas on which a couple has arisen from their marital bed to flail away at a midnight flight of mosquitoes. “Dear, you kill those on the right while I’ll fight with the leftists.” A nice pun. I wonder if Mobutu got it. I could samba to Cheri’s tunes, but it’s very minor stuff as painting.
Nigerian S.J. Akpan (b. 1940) seems to have cast a niche in realistic concrete figures—probably an outgrowth of trade sign icons. Neat, but compared with a nearby Nimba female dance headdress by an unknown early 20th-Century Baga artist, bush-league stuff.
Ivorian Koff Kouakou (b. 1962) has carved “Gentleman’s Suit,” “Portable Computer” and “Pair of Shoes.” It’s the kind of stuff the better students in high school shop class might do. “Art”? Only in the most strained of definitions.
There were even two “happening” sculptures by Sokari Douglas Camp. “Alali Aru” (“Festival Boat”) has an electric motor that makes the oars pull and the waves rock. I like it, but I don’t love it.
Strangely, the African-derived jackets and vests on sale in the shop were among the strongest pieces “in the show.” And even more strangely, they bore the couture label of Cassowary / Philadelphia!
The highly touted I.M. Pei Symphony Hall in Dallas looks better on the inside than from the outside. It’s about as far from the sleekly successful integration of his triangle at the Louvre as it’s visually possible to be.
The Dallas complex is a congeries of ungainly angles and uncompromising vistas working at cross-purposes. It has budget cuts written over every stone—where there isn’t a donor plaque. (No such thing as an anonymous donor in Dallas.) I can’t speak for its acoustics because I had to sweet-talk an affable guard into letting me take an off-hours peek.
The street furniture in the Arts District is patina-less and uninspired. NeoDeco echoes emptily down a little patch of tree planting trying bravely but unsuccessfully to look arboreal.
The Texas Sculptors Association and the Texas Visual Arts Association enjoy free access to the streetside exhibition rooms that flank the LTV skyscraper. I popped into a sculpture exhibition, and in a warehouse full of what I call MFA / Interstate Art, I found two sweet pieces—one a rattlesnake cannily constructed from welded bits of barbed wire, the other a wire-mesh concave nude worthy of Gaston Lachaise.
The engaging Texan who was holding down the fort groused that Symphony Hall marked the second time Dallas had Pei’d I.M. The wildly-disliked City Hall was also designed by the Sino-American minimalist.
Calloused in Dallas, a battered town accustomed to being beat. And I hope I won’t sound condescending when I say the Museum of Fine Art has the best museum lunchroom in America. I had beef all thymed up with wild rice mini-pancakes. Slurp. And chocolate chip pie: What a way to clog a heart.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 20, 1992

Monday, 9 May 2011

Maine Chances

I’d Greyhound 600 miles to taste a swatch of Carolyn Brady’s luminous megawatercolors. So I did. And Greyhound schedules being looser and looser, I sweated out two dire pre-midnight hours at the increasingly infernal Port of New York Authority Terminal (as in End), took two delightful early morning hours to ramble up Boston’s Boylston Street and back on Newbury—as fine a gaggle of yupped-up 19th Century stuff, beginning with H.H. Richardson’s world-class Trinity Church (1877), as ever you’ll find near a Greyhound bus station—and two hours to sample the Skowhegan, Maine, art colony retrospective at the Portland Art Museum (a stunner by I.M. Pei)—they have great cooling gobs of Winslow Homer on display as well.
Then Carolyn’s stuff at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine (the home town of Louise Nevelson). Okie Brady is real down-home still, even though five-by-eight-foot paintings which ten years ago sold for $500 now fetch (I hate that snooty verb) as high as 25 Gs—so fast an escalation that only the largest corporations can now afford her.

Every one of her paintings (which take three to six weeks to execute, using 11-by-14-inch color photos for guidance on her largely floral still lifes) are spoken for before they’re finished for shipment to the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York.

For Carolyn, seeing 18 months of her most recent production together is motivation enough for such an exhibition (viewable through this summer). And as she told Larry Ouellette of the Portland Press Herald, “Selling is different from being taken seriously. Even when your paintings sell for a goodly amount of money, it is not a secure life.”

She summers on Vinalhaven with her sculptor husband Billy Epton (his Coke-brandishing Statue of Liberty, devised by green patina-ing a local log, is already a landmark) and precocious moppet Alexander. I accepted their invitation to crash on their island and took the 15-mile, hour-and-a-half ferry ride on a chartered Lively Lady, which lost its liveliness ten minutes into Penobscot Bay when it chewed up its fan belt. We bobbled closer and closer to the breakwater in pea soup fog as Cap’n Ambrose—who talked remarkably like a man playing a Maine retired Navy captain in a Frank Capra movie—showed us how they make do in adversity “down east.”

The island (winter population, 1,200) is an exhibition in itself: Robert Indiana, that odd LOVE fellow, bought the 1885 Odd Fellows hall and now withdraws sullenly behind its Gofer Baroque façade, a warning to future realtors to be more Maine canny.

A granite eagle from New York’s razed Penn Station sits astride two slabs of Vinalhaven granite, a testament to the mistaken belief that the icon was carved from the stone that made the island famous and moderately rich when architects had enough sense to use local stone—the eagle’s actually made of Indiana limestone.

The great slabs of Vinalhaven were carted around on galamanders, Martian looking wagons, a splendid example of which stands grandly in front of the Carnegie Library, whose Romanesque arch of a door is made of that stern stuff. Wow, Maine, finally.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, August 5, 1987

Sunday, 8 May 2011

David Parton

Another noisome disturber of the peace.

Solitude and Leadership

Anti/twitter wisdom.

What If Museums Became Intellectual Centers?

Good, Hazardous stuff! DOWN WITH STUFFINESS!

Building Architects

Who will do an architect film for kids: HH Richardson, Louie Sullivan, Frank, Bertrand Goldberg, Charles Goodman (Dewitt house), Louis Kahn, Rickie Wurman?

All Things Shining

I stink, therefore I whoosh.

Saintless Christopher

Not even his last worst hitch confounds him.

Is That A Poem In Your Pocket, Or Is It Something Even Verse?

Well, which is it?

Radical Grafitti Cheek


Prize Eyes

It has just dawned on me I can write a solid article on "Pitting the Pritzkers"!. Watch how I start with Kenzo Tange!

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Russians Have Come

The Russians are indeed coming, in droves, as a result of the cultural exchange agreement signed by Reagan and Gorbachev in Geneva three years ago. The Brandywine River Museum sent Moscow’s Pushkin and Leningrad’s Hermitage three generations of Wyeths, and you can go out to Chadds Ford to see three artists the U.S.S.R. has sent in exchange.
I don’t know how to put this diplomatically, but the three are decidedly underwhelming. (To see the leading edge of contemporary Russian art, paradoxically, you have to go to Jersey City, N.J., where a Wall Street stock broker did a mitzvah starting in 1979 by giving Russian émigré artists a brownstone to show their art in.
What’s the problem? Judging from the press conference, I’d guess that Boris Ugarov, president of the Academy of the Arts of the U.S.S.R. since 1983, is as good a place to hypothesize from as any. He’s (mercifully) no Happy Stakhovanite or a tractor-type Socialist Realist.
Indeed, his themes and styles (plural) remind you of second-rank American Impressionists after the movement had lost its verve. His oil, “Spring: The End of April,” (1965) has the spritz of Milton Avery’s palette, and “Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter and Grandson” (1986) could be Mary Cassatt, if they had showed nursing babies and bare breasts in her Mainline time. When I asked him through an interpreter which American painters influenced Russian art, he cited Wyeth, Cassatt and John Singer Sargent.
But Ugarov’s “style” is all over the lot. There’s no firm signature; he even has a clone of N.C. Wyeth dated 1957, too early to be a copy. In short, if the Sabbath were honored in the Soviet Union, I’d characterize him as being a whisker above a Sunday painter.
Judging from the press conference, he’s a schmoozer—witty, vague, full of bromides. In short, he’s the quintessential apparatchik, parlaying his hero of the Siege of Leningrad status into the top art post in the country. Even Socialist Realism can be a controversial row to hoe, given the ups and downs, ins and outs of the Soviet aesthetic line over time. But genial landscapes and Pushkin pushing are perfectly safe.
Ugarov’s the head man, so he used his droit de seigneur to bring himself the two 60ish cronies along for the ride. He should be ashamed. You need only look at the invitation card reproduction from Oleg Tselkov’s recent show in Manhattan to know why Joseph Brodsky calls him “the most remarkable Russian painter of the postwar period” (beside whom Ugarov is a congenial nothing—accent on the “con”).
His colleagues are not much better. Tair Salakhov is a little more substantial. At first I was struck by how much he recalls the American Precisionists—ones of the second rank like Niles Spencer and Ralston Crawford—until I read in a caption that Rockwell Kent was his role model!
But there is a certain agreeable exoticism in the imagery of this native of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. “Old Bath House, Aspheron” (1978) reminded me of my visit to the southern Islamic republics in the summer of 1981, a sand storm diversion that I endured as a price of getting to Moscow to see the only exhibition of their revolutionary avant garde since 1930.
His painterly sculptural surfaces are a neat objective correlative of those sand-blown precincts. But when he attempts the Empire State Building or Chicago, you see how minor-league he is.
Unless you’re booted out of the Soviet Union, like the Jersey City refuse-niks, you get to travel a lot—a perk of self-subjugation.
The third artist is interesting and skillful enough to make the trip to Brandywine a good investment of time. Dmitri Bisti is a 63-year-old book illustrator born in Sebastopol. His woodcuts for Homer’s Iliad (1978) are superbly quirky, sort of a meld of the long-ago suppressed constructivists and the recently booted-out Surrealists.
His illustration for Irving Stone’s Lust for Life (1961) teeters on the brink of Socialist Realist bathos, but it works. On a fourth or fifth perusal, however, his stuff begins to lose its fizz. One paradox of Russian totalitarian culture is that translators and illustrators live in a no man’s land where politics doesn’t pinch.
You render a work out of another language—someone else’s ideas—or you illustrate classics or contemporary best sellers that someone else has risked putting into print. There’s a certain impunity that shows in his freedom to develop a firm signature, something neither of the other two has.
Should we quit and go home? Of course not. No one ever said exchanging anything with the Russians would be easy. Until glasnost unleashes the talented to create great art, we’ll probably be stuck with the hacks who kept themselves out of the gulag. Just as we’ll, doubtless, send them nonentities that have been templated out of our museum / industrial / art school / gallery complex. Heh, ars longa, vita brevis, baby.
So it looks to me that the first inning for the Russkies delivered us one hit (Bisti), one almost run (Salakhov) and one error (Urgarov). Come to think of it, that’s about the same way I’d score the Wyeths we sent them: Andrew, Jamie and N.C.
Spend an afternoon at Brandywine (its physical ambience is perhaps the most delicious in all of North America), but save a weekend for ogling the Russians in Jersey City and at any of Manhattan refugee art dealer Nakhamin’s five U.S. galleries (three in New York as well as outposts in L.A. and San Francisco).
And read, image by image, word by word, the catalog for the 1981 George Costakis’s collection of avant garde Russian art at the Guggenheim, or the one for the very show that enticed me to Moscow, the Centre Pompidou’s Paris-Moscow.
I was pestered throughout my visits to the Pushkin by Russians who weren’t permitted to buy a catalog; indeed, so hungry are Russian for truths, my Intourist guide in Leningrad stayed up all night reading my copy. That’s the kind of crap Ugarov had to compromise with to get to his own personal summit
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, March 30, 1988

Friday, 6 May 2011


No heir to the late, great Walter Kerr shall be ignored!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Man of Science

Please pray for Rickdiculous Perry, who puts Tex at risk by his silliness. Let Us Prey.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Go-go To Glasgow, Unlikely City of the Year

For a start, Glasgow doesn’t rhyme with “cow.” It goes with “go,” as in “go go.” This year, the Cinderella of Scottish cities beat out its tony sibling to the East—Edinburgh—to emerge from its chrysalis as the Council of Europe’s City of the Year.
And don’t think Glaswegians aren’t exulting in their temporary TKO of the Svelte E. They’re also trying very hard to kill the city’s old image as a dreary blue-collar pit. It hasn’t been that for two decades (during my first visit in 1965, it was already popping culturally), but skuzzy images don’t die or fade away; they persist to the frustration and consternation of the city fathers stuck with a bad rep.

Indeed, the passport control officer at Dover Dock asked me why I was visiting Britain. And when I replied, “To write articles about Glasgow’s day in the sun,” he growled (in accents I have recognized as Belfastian ever since meeting and revering Seamus Heaney), “You’ve got your work cut out for you, mister.”

Au contraire, that lout from Northern Ireland was decades behind in his homework, talking rot about one of the loveliest cities in Europe.

Even though my overnight train from London / Euston was three hours late (winter storms had wiped out the track from Carlisle to Glasgow), I resumed my love affair with this once gritty city that’s always had its eye on the real nitty as soon as I entered the refurbed Central Station.

Some cretins under the rubric “urban planners” had suggested that the marvelous wooden shopfronts inside the station be swept away (presumably to “improve” it into something like the men’s-urinal modern of London’s Euston). Their ignorant counsel, happily, did not prevail.

After being saluted by bright banners hanging from the delicious 19th-Century glass-and-iron train shed, I entered the main waiting hall, where modern amenities had to subordinate themselves to the High Victorian wooden interiors. Yummy.

I headed for the tourist bureau, where I was received by no less an informant than the music critic of the Evening News, Kenneth Walton. He prepared a cultural CARE packet for me, stood by while I bought two marvelous black Charles Rennie MacIntosh T-shirts, then insisted I look with him at Glasgow’s latest architectural marvel, Prince’s Square (he flinched when I inadvertently called it Prince’s Street, the main drag of a conurbantion 40 miles away which begins with “E” but shall remain nameless).

Prince’s Square, a brilliant Neo-Mackintosh shopping and lolling precinct that used to be an eyesore, is a metaphor for the transfiguration of the city from workshop to yuppieland.

Then on to the Scottish Civic Trust (something like our National Trust for Historic Preservation), where the managing directress, one Sadie Douglas, put her considerable matronly enthusiasm behind explaining how the city got to be so sweet from having been so sour.

Glasgow has a history getting itself up from the mat of economic knockout to start swinging successfully in a new direction. It used to be the tobacco capital of Europe—until our Revolution wiped out the Virginia sources of its wealth. (The old tobacco wharfs in High Street are in the latest stages of condofication.) Then cotton was King in Glasgow—until our Civil War wiped out that wealth machine.

Then Glasgow turned to shipbuilding with a flourish. Most of the great ocean liners we nostalgically revere—the Queen Mary and the QEII, for a start—are products of its marine engineers. When Taiwan and Korea and Singapore blitzed that business, Glaswegians didn’t whimper. They moved on to what they’re up to now, a high-tech service and financial center with plenty of culture and entertainment to attract the money-bearing tourist.

One thing that impressed me about Douglas’s presentation was her insistence that the rehabbing go far beyond the downtown—to the most distant, dismal neighborhood. And that is why the Scottish Civic Trust amenities award this year has a neighborhood section. “It’s no good to have the downtown showy if most of the people live in surroundings that are depressing and dehumanizing.”

She also touted the recently retired head of the Park District, who refused to capitulate to the graffiti goons. “If they spray five times, we’ll paint them over a sixth. Six, a seventh.” The amazing result was that after each graffiti obliteration campaign, the next wave was smaller and weaker, until now there is none. He later applied the same formula to public plantings of flowers, with equal success.

So go go to Glasgow—this year especially, but any old time from now on will do. There’s art, music, theater, pop entertainment all year long. There are accommodations from youth hostels on up to five-star hotels. And it’s easier and easier to get there. It has its own airport now. Go. Go.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, August 8, 1990

Tuesday, 3 May 2011


Just as I suspected. This French blather derives from feelings of intellectual inferiority to solid scientists. Blatherama. It's false seriousness. Polysyllabic piffle.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Up the Creek, Fishing

The Philadelphia Maritime Museum’s “Gone Fishing! A History of Fishing in River, Bay and Shore” (cast your line before October 5th) is beguiling enough to arrest this professional non-fisher (who formally abandoned the sport at age 17 from terminal boredom before the perch abandoned his summer Lake Huron from terminal pollution.)

It’s the quayside sociology of it that intrigues me. To judge from Susan A. Popkin and Roger B. Allen’s curatorial manual (It’s less a catalogue than a compendium, a fine browse if not a steady read), fishing is the most demotic of American sports. In an icthyological variation on “everybody can grow up to be president” in the new republic, every boy more realistically can get a lot of cheek tanning himself down by the old mill stream, river, bay or sea.

And that’s not the best of it either, for there emerged the corollary of the kid with borrowed string and bent safety pin who wipes out the dude with the fancy gear. Ha! Talk about upwardly mobile louts! There’s also present the allegation that fishing is the least class-conscious sport in the new country. Poor and rich mix their lines--and their lives--peaceably.

But that didn’t keep the Schuylkill Fishing Company of the State in Schuylkill (I found no explanation for the amiably redundant name) from being the first sports club (and now the oldest in the country). It is a paradigm of a country which loves to flee to Nature while simultaneously destroying its pith that the SFCOSIS had to flee its first location because of noxious industrial wastes and then flee its second base near Essington for cleaner waters upriver near Andalusia.

I read in David Iams that Society will be visiting the Biddle Estate this fall, including the Fish House, where the formidable local potion, Fish House Punch, was devised. For the less elegant, the recipe is in the exhibition’s manual, as well as instructions for concocting State in Schuylkill Cream of Clam Soup.

The metaphor of bigness is rampant as well in the short and unnecessarily curbed natural history of fishy hordes in these parts. Each spring, before the piscine holocaust, armadas of spawning shad cruised up the river, and in fall flotillas of eels wangled seaward. The overkills that then ensued remind you of the pouter pigeons and buffalo.

I know, I know. The fish are coming back, slowly if not entirely surely. But his summer’s season of dolphin deaths at the shore, with the hateful flotsam of syringes, tampons and other nonbiodegradable petrochemical success stories, reminds us of how far our several commonwealths are from a mature ecology. We’re still kicking the holy shit out of Nature, poor benighted Eden we have made of it. Fishin’ for an apocalypse.

I told you fishing made me ill. But there is an upside to the mayhem we have made of it. Take that Eastonian who had the wit to see that bamboo, with its natural sectioning, cried out to be an improved, detachable rod. And the boats are wonders of function as well.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Musing in Oakland by the Bay

J.B. Blunk

I’ve gotten into the habit of chiding San Francisco snobs by telling them that if they miss a visit to the Oakland Museum on a trip through the Bay Area, they’ve missed the main show. Occasionally this enthusiasm precipitates itself into the allegation that “architecturally, the Oakland Museum is the greatest in the world.” Thinking back on such hyperbole, I’m often abashed by my abuse of the superlative, reluctant as I am to add any scintilla to our hype-and-hustle culture.
Except that every time I stop by (it’s minutes from the Lake Merritt stop on BART / Fremont), I realize that I haven’t been guilty of exaggeration. I used to fake-mock this Kevin Roche masterpiece during the Symbionese Liberation Army bad daze as the Huey P. Newton Hanging Babylonian Gardens, so massively repulsive of vandalism were its concrete walls.
No matter, as fortress-like as its massed bunkers look from the outside, the internal spaces are three levels of exhibition spaces softened by gardens and sculptures that never fail to turn me on, from the fondleable Bennie Bufano bear and cub at the main entrance (heh, the bear is California’s state beast, so they’re very bullish about putting it everywhere) to some constructivist abstractions.
Not that OM is paradise. Julien Euwell, the Smithsonian-trained first black director, has just succumbed to burnout after five years of penury and pressure. Nonetheless, the institution continues to thrive on its austerity budgets. Its vitality was most recently attested to by the transformation of its good butcher-paper bimonthly into a brilliant slick-paper, four-color job.
I’ve decided to drop my California magazine sub next year in favor of the OM mag. The assignment of the museum is to explain the entire culture of California, past and present, and does it cover the bases: from open air needlepoint extravaganzas to roundups by black cowboys.
To get into this anthropological spirit of the place, enter the shop area. Just in front of it you will find Californians of all ages lolling on what, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a humongous redwood burl sculptural settee. It’s by the luminous Inverness sculptor J.B. Blunk , and it is an emblem of the museum’s program—first floor the Nature of the state, the second floor its History, and the top, its Art.
The redwood burl began as a work of nature, felled by railroad development on the North California coast, transformed by the fine eye of Blunk into a permanent reminder of the museum’s mission.
Look at how it’s exercising its charge this holiday season with three shows running through January 3. Under Nature, they are saluting the 6,000 varieties of reptiles with funky banners separating the slimy gangs into their varied categories—turtles, (240), crocodiles (25), lizards (2,000) and snakes (2,700).
The miracles of their adaptations, their protective colorations of blending or warning (including the sly cases of mimicry, which simulated danger) are worthy of a Whitman.
Esoteric trivia, like as many as 10,000 Canadian garter snakes warming each other in hibernation, vie with gloomy data like ship captains savaging one third of a million Galapagos tortoises as cheap shipboard provender. I’m not a bio freak, but I always regret my ignorance after such a ramble.
History, this time, is exemplified in Harry Fonseca’s very sophisticated fiddling with the legends of Coyote, the designated trickster of the Maidu of Northern California. “I make him do all kinds of things I wouldn’t have him do if my face were up there,” the part Portuguese, part Nisenan Maidu artist explains.
The superficial would assign this to the third floor, but OM curators properly perceive that the artist is making his own history accessible to himself and to the country by his artful toying with his Amerind past.
Analogously, the Art exhibit might be sited by the unimaginative as “history.” All of us have seen the photograph of the golden spike completing the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, May 1869. Well, a satisfied patron gave the Museum the entire collection of that photographer, who raised documentary to such a finely focused art.
And here is that photo in the fullest context—a painting of the same event, a golden spike, a section of track, and scads of photos illuminating all aspects of life in late 19th-Century California. Alfred Leslie would be pleased, and so will you.
It may seem like a minor point, but the cafeteria at the museum has the greatest bargain in frozen fruit bars anywhere—35 cents a suck. Since it was a fine Indian summer day, I gorged myself to the point of embarrassment (asking for my fourth!) as I soaked up the ambient sun in an outdoor garden, assessing the newly rejuvenated Art Deco Alameda County Court House next door, a stunning rehab job.
Then, as I always do, I walked four blocks west on Oak Street to the public library, whose Oakland History Room is run by a guy who makes photo-caption display cases into low-tech marvels. The theme this stop was Oakland’s waterfront, from Jack London’s seafaring days to its pre-eminence as a containerized port.
And I caught up, finally, with Milton Pflueger’s memoir of his brother Timothy’s architectural achievements, a book that appeared just after I left the Bay. Pflueger is one of the unrecognized geniuses of American architecture—the Transbay Terminal is his, Pacific Telesis (just renewed beautifully), 455 Sutter (a medical / dental block that pioneered having its own garage), Union Square (the first underground parking garage in America), and so on and so on.
Never finished high school. Autodidact in the Edison / Ford / Burbank mode. And his brother’s book is a sweetly reminiscent tribute to a revered elder sibling who died prematurely at age 51 in 1946.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 16, 1987