Monthly Archives: April 2010

How Fair Is That?

The New York Times is reporting:

The Oklahoma Legislature voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to override vetoes of two highly restrictive abortion measures, one making it a law that women undergo an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the fetus before having an abortion.

Strict Abortion Measures Enacted in Oklahoma | New York TImes

In the interest of fairness, Pawn feels we should have similar requirements for prescribing certain erectile dysfunction treatments.  Perhaps mandate that all men be required to listen to tapes of crying babies and change a few diapers before getting those little blue pills…

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New York – 18 April 2010 – Creditors

This post is late, but what the heck.  The subject is the Sunday matinée of The Creditors, the August Strindberg psychodrama at BAM’s Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn.  Directed by Alan Rickman, this Donmar Warehouse production has just come over from London, where it was warmly received.  Rickman, in a New York Times article referred to the show as “Three characters dragged through a hedge backwards in 90 minutes,” and that is indeed an apt description.

Set in a seaside resort in Norway, this tense drama focuses on one woman, Tekla, and two men, Adolph, her younger husband and Gustav, a mysterious stranger also staying at the resort.  At the open of this roughly 90 minute show (no intermission, although it feels like 3 acts) we find Adolph, a self absorbed man who fancies himself an artist.  He is in conversation with Gustav, a new acquaintance whom he has just met at the resort — the same resort where, some years past, he met the older, married Tekla, who threw over her first husband for the young and bright Adolph.  The Adolph we meet now seems neither bright nor to possess any self assurance.  He prevails upon the older, and quite self-assured Gustav for advice.

Gustav claims to have diagnosed in Adolph incipient epilepsy and prescribes abstinence as the only treatment.  Though at first protesting, Adolph accepts this once Gustav succeeds in making him question both the love of his wife and the solidity of his marriage.  Gustav is vicious and hateful in his views on women, and we can only imagine that he has had a bad time of it with the fairer sex, or, as Gustav would have it, “A fat boy with overdeveloped breasts, that’s what you see. Basically, a badly made youth. A child who’s somehow managed to shoot up to adult height without growing any muscle—a chronic anaemic who haemorrhages regularly thirteen times a year.”

Gustav seems quite certain that Tekla is flirting with younger men — on the ferry, in town, at the resort — he seems to know exactly what is going on even though he admits to not having left the resort where they all are staying.  It isn’t long before we in the audience start to suspect the true motivation behind Gustav’s actions, but I shan’t spill that here.

By the end of this first scene, Gustav has convinced Adolph that Tekla is playing him for the fool, and that he need only lay in wait for proof.  This Adolph does, as Tekla returns from her outing.  Soon she is engaged in a familiar pas da duex with Gustav, unaware that Adolph is right outside the door listening to it all.

“Creditors” the title is explained a couple of times in a sort of massive transactional-analysis manner by both Gustav and Tekla in separate scenes.  We owe those we have wronged, and they may sometime collect from us.  This show takes this idea to the extreme as we see three players, or are they three pieces, push each other’s buttons and pull each other’s strings in fits and outbursts of painful jealousy and retribution.  The final scene, tho the most contrived of the script, is none-the-less believable, and most painful indeed.

The cast, Anna Chancellor as Tekla, Tom Burke as Adolph and Owen Teale as Gustav, are all as fine as one could wish for in this taught production.  Rickman’s direction is spot-on, the dialog utterly natural and unforced, no matter how banal or vicious it may be.  The set, by Ben Stones, is light and airy and feels just right for the action and setting.  I’ve seen Donmar in their London home, and can tell that this set was built for that thrust stage.  Plopped down here, in the Harvey’s deeper proscenium, it still works just fine.  Costumes by Fotini Dimou, lighting by Howard Harrison and music and sound by Adam Cork round out the technical credits.  And to their credit, in the finest tradition of current London standards, their pure naturalism and adherence to history serve to make them fall from view.  We see the characters and the story, not the trappings of theatre.

This was a great day at the theatre, and Rickman has succeeded in his goal of not just getting out of the way of his performers, but of getting them out of their own way.  This not only lets the script shine through, but more importantly lets it do so as compellingly believably as possible.


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New York – 17 April 2010 – Closings and Ovations

Last night took Pawn to the Vineyard Theatre for The Scottsboro Boys, the latest John Kander & Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret, Zorba) musical, a collaboration between that famous music & lyrics team with David Thompson’s (Steel Pier, Chicago) book and Susan Stroman’s (The Producers, Contact, Young Frankenstein) direction and choreography. This is a full blown Broadway musical in a 125 seat Off-Broadway house, so the dance numbers are a little smaller and tighter, the orchestra is more of a band and the set is more of a suggestion than a imperative. This is all good – it is very, very good.

Fred Ebb has passed away, but Scottsboro Boys is one of several projects he and Kander completed to some degree. With Thompson’s script this show has been brought successfully to the stage fully formed. This is no workshop piece, it is a proper show, and one fully expects that it will see it’s way to Broadway at some point, as many other Vineyard productions have done (such as [title of show], the last show Pawn saw here).

Scottsboro Boys is a show within a show. We start with a woman sitting at a bus stop, and then suddenly a squadron of singing, dancing minstrels enter through the audience, sweeping her up in their song and quickly arranging the sole set decoration – a dozen chairs – into various configurations. Then enters John Cullum (Northern Exposure, Mad Men) as Interlocutor. [In this age of gratuitous applause, he of course receives a raucous welcome from the audience. Pawn finds this new tendency of New York audiences to applaud the performers for simply showing up to be most annoying, and hopes it is short lived.] Cullum’s character is a Southern grandee, imagine Colonel Sanders, who leads this merry minstrel band. He introduces us to the Scottsboro Boys, a minstrel act, and as the show within the show starts, the performers ask if this time they can tell the truth in their performance. He agrees, and we’re off.

The Scottsboro Boys are 9 black men, ranging from 13 to mid-twenties in age, who are riding a freight train from Chattanooga, Tennessee through Alabama when it is stopped by rail inspectors. A pair of white hookers are working the train, and when caught they claim to have been Shanghaied and raped by these 9 men. Of course this being the deep south in the 1930s, the men are soon on death row for this fabricated offense. The musical tells their whole story, in all its regrettable twists and turns, with all the characters, other than Interlocutor, played by black men. The whores, for example, are played by two of the nine suspects, the various guards, attorneys and police are played by two other black men. This turns out to be an incredibly effective device.

I won’t go into all of the details of the show, except to say that Kander & Ebb, as is their wont, do not shy away in the least from the delicate subject matter. We witness the invasion of Northern meddlers, in the person of a carpetbag carrying Jewish attorney from New York, funded by the Communist Party, who is held up by the Alabama Attorney General as proof that these “boys” must be guilty and should be used as an example to those meddling Yids and Yanks to keep their (hooked) noses out of Southern business.

The production is fantastic, the songs are sharp and tight, and unmistakably Kander and Ebb. Fans of Chicago, for example, will hear strains of Mister Cellophane in this show’s Nothin’. The set, by Beowulf Boritt, with it’s ingenious interlocking chairs which form so many clever arrangements, is otherwise more of a suggestion of what might be realized once the show makes it to Broadway. Kevin Adams’ lighting thus ends up pulling more weight, which it does wonderfully. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are absolutely stunning, and serve to punch-up a show which may otherwise strain under the constraints of the smaller venue.

As for Stroman, she has shown a deft hand with this difficult material. It is hard to guide this magnificent ensemble of actors through the roller coaster storyline, keeping their emotions at just the right level at all times while still keeping their motivation believable and the entire piece moving along. The cast is outstanding, with special kudos to Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson and especially to Derrick Cobey as Andy Wright, whose emotional confrontation with a recalcitrant and manipulative Forrest McClendon as Atty. Samuel Leibowitz (one of many roles-within-a-role he takes on as Mr. Tambo) has the audience gripped and silent near the end of the show.

Scottsboro Boys closes tomorrow, but I am sure that we will see it reappear in a larger venue soon.

This afternoon took Pawn and X to the final matinée of Love Is My Sin at Theatre For A New Audience at the Duke Theater. Theatre For A New Audience seems to have failed its name in this case, as this collection of 31 of Shakespeare’s sonnets are over 400 years old; the performers, Natasha Parry and Michael Pennington are well past 60 and the audience? Let’s just say the average age of the audience is recently deceased. It is worth noting that even though the company offers a $25 ticket for anyone 30 and younger, it would appear from today’s crowd that only one or two such tickets were used.

Love Is My Sin is a recital more than a performance, with Parry and Pennington taking turns (mostly) reading or reciting the sonnets. The collection, edited by Parry’s husband of 60 years, Peter Brook, is lovely. He has grouped it into 4 sections: Devouring Time, Separation, Jealousy and Time Defied. This is a great way to bring the sonnets to the attention of a wider audience and make them accessible. Truly, this could have been theatre for a new audience. Alas, it was not today.

My only negative notes on this able performance, with music by Frank Krawczyk, is that the sound sucked. That these able actors were miked at all is more a testament to the age of their audience (many wearing audio assist headphones) than any need to fill a cavernous space (the Duke is only a bit over 200 seats). Parry’s mike was distorting for the last half of the 50 minute show, and the whole system teetered on the edge of feedback, with a faint ringing around every sibilance. This put a fatiguing finish on an otherwise delightful time.

Tonight, to cap of this trio of reviews, was Michael Moschen at NYU’s Skirball Center, a part of their Big Red Chair family series. Moschen (a MacArthur Genius grantee) is a juggler who has developed witty and beautiful extensions to the art, which find him sometimes simply playing with geometrical shapes in ways which make for great visuals, but are not strictly juggling. That’s fine with us! Coupled with careful and effective lighting the result is truly beautiful stage images, and not a little fun. Moschen talks to the audience at times, explaining how he does what he does, or why he does it one way or another. He shares some interesting observations with us. And then other times he is silent, and just gives us the stunning scenes, with his props and tools.

It was a fairly short show, weighing in at a little over an hour, and yet again, no intermission. In an interesting twist, not a single show I’ve seen on this trip has had one.

Tomorrow we will venture to Brooklyn Academy of Music for Alan Rickman’s production of Strindberg’s The Creditors. No intermission there either, in a piece Rickman described to the Times as “Three people being pulled backwards through a hedge for ninety minutes.” Yippie!

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We got off to a late start this morning. Well, more correctly, X got off to a late start. I was up at the crack of 6:30, as per usual, and writing until X got up at the more leisurely crack of 9:30 [twas 8 a.m.-X]or so. We trekked uptown to 103rd Street and the Museum of the City of New York which is currently hopping aboard the Addams Family fueled Hype extravaganza by presenting Charles Addams in New York. This retrospective showcases about 60 of the cartoonist’s original drawings and paintings made for the New Yorker, Collier’s and others. It is a lovely little show, well displayed (although some of the large reproduction pieces were peeling at the corners) with thoughtful background information and artifacts from the artist’s work room and personal collections.

One endearing feature is the inclusion of several rogue characters from the cartoons, excised from their original homes and now peering around corners, traipsing along the baseboards or otherwise interfering with the exhibit. We exited through the gift store, where X picked up a Chas Addams address book to replace her worn, George Costanza-esque model.

Up next? A short bus ride downtown, a quick bite of street food, and then into the Guggenheim. We chose to jet our way to the top and then amble down, side tracking into the annex galleries along the way. There is an exhibit of Paris and the Avant-Garde currently in the annex, which is nothing too exceptional, but seems to have drawn every French visitor in town. Cursing in foreign languages – that’s what these shows are good for. Miro this and Modigliani that. Here a Picasso, there a Picasso… You get the idea. Someone thought it would be a good idea to display nearly identical Picasso and Braques next to each other, which seems only to make them each look unoriginal.

The main gallery featured Haunted, Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance. To be quite honest, a lot of what was here either didn’t move me, or I have already seen elsewhere. There was a piece by Marina Abramovic, oddly enough, which is also on display over at MoMA right now. There were some pieces by Roni Horn, but just one or two, which I have already seen in the company of their brethren in last year’s stunning exhibit at Tate Modern. Likewise a single Annette Messager, which seemed lonely all by itself.

The one image which really stood out for us both was Self Portrait at 3 Years Old by Gillian Wearing. This is a truly haunted image, and was selected as the show image for banners, etc. Wearing takes an image, in this case of herself at 3, and cuts out the eyes. She then poses behind that image as tho it were a mask, and photographs herself. The result is quite lovely and yet decidedly unsettling. Here is a detail:

Once down the ramp, we rolled back onto the street and trudged on downtown to 79th St. and the Aquavella Gallery, which is currently hosting Robert & Ethel Scull: Portrait of a Collection. This exquisite show of modern American pop art is a stunner. Featuring Warhol, Oldenburg, De Suvero, Rosenquist and more Jasper Johns than you can shake a stick at. Magnifique! There is even a lovely sculpture of the couple, Robert and Ethyl Scull, by George Segal. Her in Jackie O giant sunglasses -X

This show is worth seeing if just for the Jasper Johns. Throw in everything else and it is fantastic. It’s wonderful that private galleries are mounting shows of this scale, as reported in the Times recently.

Speaking of private galleries, our next stop was just a couple of blocks away, on 77th & Madison for Gogosian‘s Ed Paschke retrospective.

More than 40 of Paschke’s large, stellar, nearly photographic oil paintings in their deeply saturated psychedelic tones are featured. Paschke’s work at times presages computer and video art in it’s look, but decades before anyone was making such art. Look at his 1970 Pink Lady, for instance, Marilyn Monroe’s head superimposed onto an accordion player’s body, and contrast that with what Warhol was doing. Then consider that Warhol was working with screen printing and photography whereas Paschke was working in oils. I don’t mean to take anything away from Warhol, but I think that Paschke’s work deserves more attention than it has sometimes received. This show, expansive and complete, is the best that I have ever seen, and certainly took the prize of all the museums and galleries we attended today. Showing many of the artist’s early works, with frequent use of masks, makes the path to his later works, almost totally abstracted faces with few features left, clearer than ever.

It is at this point that X abandoned me to head home for a well earned nap while I went to explore the Tichý show at the International Center of Photography. Miroslav Tichý was a non-conformist photographer working in a small town in Czechoslovakia, doing most of his work in the 60s and 70s. That was a tough time to be a non-conformist in Eastern Europe, and Tichý paid the price for his insolence.

He made very personal photographs with a very singular purpose. He focused almost entirely on women, and was almost totally informal in his work, shooting about 100 pictures a day using home built cameras with hand ground lenses and his own home built darkroom equipment. His reliance upon these unconventional means was all a part of his method, a sort of silent protest against progress and modernity. I love the gentleness in his images, their rough quality, inherently soft focus. It helps that he seems to be at least a little bit of a letch, as well. That works for me.

ICP’s exhibit includes several dozen of Tichý’s small photographs, as well as samples of his equipment – cameras, enlarger, lenses (Plexiglas ground with toothpaste and ash) etc. I was quite pleased with the entire exhibit. This is the one exhibit I’ve seen on this trip which I wished was larger, but that’s okay – leave me wanting more, I can take it.

Finally, I trekked over to Times Square to see if I could fetch a cheap ticket for a show tonight. I have tried repeatedly to get seats for the Scottsboro Boys, the latest from Susan Strohman, but to no avail. This limited run show (closing Sunday) was sold out in a heartbeat. At the TKTS booth, I found long lines and a tote board which promised a large selection of shows which I didn’t really feel like seeing, let alone standing in line for. Off to the side I saw a barker waving tickets over his head. As I approached he was chatting with someone, and I couldn’t tell which shows he was selling.

“What have you got?” I inquired. “Scottsboro Boys!” came his reply. Bingo! I got a “single in stalls” as the British would say, 3rd row in the tiny 100 seat Vineyard theater, for ½ price. I couldn’t be happier.

So I am off to the theatre tonight, and X is off to dinner with another old chum. More news later.

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A Pick-Pocketing on Broadway

Tonight took Pawn and X to the Schoenfeld theater for A Behanding In Spokane, the latest from playwright Martin McDonagh, marking his return to the theatre following his foray into film with In Bruges. I insisted that we book this show before coming to town, since I love Christopher Walken, who leads, and Martin McDonagh, and figure this would be a great show. Alas, I was wrong, sorely wrong.

Where to start… The script is weak, it is based upon a premise so fragile and absurd that it hamstrings the entire production. The performances, starting with Mr. Walken and continuing on to the rest of the cast – Sam Rockwell, Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan – seem smug and often hammy. The set, the set by Scott Pask, is the star of the show.

Admittedly, I fell for one of the curses currently afflicting both the London and New York stages – star productions. As was commented in a piece in the Times recently:

Other writers shared similar frustrations about mounting productions in New York nowadays. Israel Horovitz (“Line,” “The Indian Wants the Bronx”) said that two Tony Award-winning Broadway producers recently attended the Florida Stage production of his new play, “Sins of the Mother,” and told him that the only way to move it to New York would be to cast stars.

“The play had great reviews, from The Wall Street Journal and others, but these producers said we needed stars so the play could be critic-proof,” said Mr. Horovitz, 71, who has had 50 plays produced in New York (two on Broadway) by his count.

Such thinking is prevalent on Broadway right now. In another recent piece, the Times noted:

The new Broadway musical “The Addams Family” opened Thursday to the sort of scathing reviews that would bury most shows in the graveyard next to the Addamses’ forbidding mansion.

The result: The show sold $851,000 in tickets last weekend on top of a $15 million sales advance, huge figures for a new Broadway run, and all but guaranteeing that it will be hard to snag a pair of good orchestra seats until fall. After five months of well-publicized creative difficulties for the show, this seeming paradox amounts to a theater world version of the golden fleece: the critic-proof smash.

(emphasis mine)

What these articles attest to is the, some would say cynical, tendency of Broadway producers these days (and the West End, to a similar degree) to load the cast with popular stars from film and T.V. to help offset the weaknesses in their scripts, concepts or direction.

A sure sign of the impact of such cynicism was evident from the first at last night’s show. Upon the curtain, a tattered affair running right to left on an exposed traveler, whipping off stage to reveal Mr. Walken sitting on a disheveled bed in an even more disheveled hotel room, the audience roared with applause, as if they had just witnessed a show stopping performance on American Idol. I knew right then that I was going to have problems with this audience, if not the show.

Almost immediately, Walken was playing to the house, not his fellow actors. At times patently mugging, his hammy performance set the pace for the rest of the cast, especially Mr. Rockwell, whose cartoon-ish take on the hotel night auditor sets the low water mark for this piece. Making this all worse was Walken’s peripatetic accent which seemed to wander around the country the way his focus wandered around the theater.

I won’t spend too much time on the rest of this train wreck but to say that McDonagh should lose the awkward and outright distracting middle interval, in which the drape is closed and Rockwell performs a vaudevillian stand-up bit about his personal desire to have a monkey companion, and trim some of the other abundant fat in this 90 minute one-act, and he might end up with a 50 minute bon-mot to serve up on television. He could add a laugh track and judiciously placed commercials, and then no one would need to pay their good money to see four actors amuse themselves.

[X weighs in]

I pretty much agree with Nic’s overly generous review, but I think the thin broth of a ‘plot’ could be further reduced to a typical Walken skit on SNL or a scene or two in another dark comedy like “In Bruges”. I was really shocked by the audience. Several nearly inaudible ushers had stalked up and down the aisles before the show reciting a list of demands: power down cell phones, if you leave your seat you won’t get the same on back upon return, don’t jump to a better, empty seat, etc. I was perplexed by this, but when a phone rang minutes into the show I started to see some wisdom in it. Our friends, C and R, seated farther back had the back-of-the-seat kickers [justifiable homicide to me]; texters, talkers and general fidgeters around them. The tattered set was fantastic – the footlights were a rummage sale hodge podge of rusty gooseneck lamps, bathroom fixtures and other odd little lamps.

[X over and out]

Lest the reader think this night was a disaster, fear not. We started the evening with a lovely dinner with X’s old friends at Joe Allen’s on West 46th. Following the show, a simple navigational error on the way to the subway turned into a fortuitous turn when, wandering past the International Center of Photography, I spied the trademarked large, sepia, dogeared photography of Miroslav Tichy, a Czech photographer with a solo show inside. I love his work, and will certainly venture back this way before this visit is over.

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New York – 15 April 2010 – Quadraphenia

Abramović, Kentridge, Cartier-Bresson, Burton. Those four faces of artistic expression lay in waiting for us at MoMA as we polished off our street-corner gyro, X and I, and dodged slow moving taxi cabs and ducked into the portico.

Oddly enough, it was Tim Burton, the exhibition of his sketchbooks, models, props and ephemera, which triggered this particular foray into New York. I wanted to see the show, and it closes on the 26th. The rest, Martina Abromovic, Henri Cartier-Bresson and William Kentridge, were icing on the cake, as it were. Or, in the case of Abramović, flesh upon the wall.

William Kentridge creates images and animations which are familiar to me, but I will confess a complete ignorance of his work, or the volume of it. Kentridge makes large drawings, typically charcoal and chalk on gauche and paper, sometimes segmented and articulated, and then films these pieces frame by frame to animate short films. Several of these films were exhibited here, in William Kentridge: Five Themes, which covers his entire career of 30 years. The show is expansive, but many of the films were hard for me to watch; the jittery nature of his animation, splayed across such large screens bothered my eyes, so I mostly focused on the drawings hung in the central galleries.

My favorite part of the exhibit was Kentridge’s animated theaters. These are complete theaters, typically about 6 feet wide and 4 or 5 feet tall, with carefully arranged and assembled tracks and guides and flats and frames and… very hard to explain here. Small automatonic figures enter and exit a stage defined by framing flats which are illuminated by projected set decoration. Again, too hard to describe with any grace here, but they were lovely.

Martina Abramović is a performance artist whose work tests the extremes of public acceptability. Over her long career she has produced many installations, pieces in which she creates a setting, sometimes grand, sometimes banal, in which she places herself or other “performers” and compels us to look on as some strange part of the human experience is put to the test within the little diorama she has wrought. “Martina Abramović: The Artist is Present,” is both a new piece and a retrospective of her career.

The titular piece is an installation in the Marron Atrium, a high ceilinged large open room on the museum’s second level. The artist is seated in a straight-back chair with a simple table in front of her. Across the table is a matching chair, in which visitors may sit, confronting the stoic, silent, artist. She sits thusly for the entire day (with careful proviso that she will not be present during late exhibit hours) from before the museum opens till after it closes. There are carefully arrayed hash marks on the wall which keep track of how many days she has been doing this (the show runs for about 10 weeks).

The sixth floor galleries bring us the retrospective of her work, covering her over 40 year career, with more than 50 pieces. Some are presented as films or videos, some as still photographs. The real import of the show, however, comes in the reënactments of many of her most important installation pieces, with a cast of performers taking on the roles that were always only filled by Abramović or her onetime partner, Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen). Here you may find a man and a woman, seated with their backs to each other, their hair braided together. Or facing each other, each pointing an accusatory finger at the other, for hours on end. A woman lays upon a plinth naked, a skeleton draped across her. Two women stand naked on either side of a doorway, challenging the visitor to pass between them.

It goes on and on, example after example of self indulgent, “let me offend you” work. The same theme seems to repeat in endless variations until the audience is numbed to it. The very in-you-face nature of the work seems in tension with the shear volume of it in this exhibition, which suffers the fate that so many retrospectives do at MoMA – over saturation. We just get bombarded with so much of these images that we become desensitized to them. One of Abramovićs works would have the desired effect upon most visitors (those who aren’t just offended and turn away) but 50 of them simply turn pale by repetition.

Okay, so I didn’t really like that show. What can I say. Time to move on to Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century. I am quite a fan of Cartier-Bresson, whose work is well featured in the current Street Scene at MAM. In this exhaustive, and exhausting, retrospective over 300 of his photographs, spanning the globe and many decades, covers his entire career. Three hundred photographs in a labyrinthine gallery packed with about 800 visitors at a time, many of them reeling from the Abramović experience as I was. Yeesh!

My complaint about curatorial under-selectiveness stands here as well. The trend at these shows seems to be that of quantity and completeness without any regard for how the visitor will appreciate the works and for the physical reality of getting through the show. The galleries sprawl, and while there are thematic groupings – Encounters; Beauty; Old Worlds, India; New Worlds, USA – these groupings themselves may be so large that one has a hard time discerning their start or end.

The work is fantastic, and where I would cut, I cannot say. Cartier-Bresson, as much as anyone, established the formal rules of editorial photo-journalism, and then routinely broke them. He practiced journalism but also portraiture. He had an eye for the moment, but also a mastery of composition.

The show is overwhelming, but worthwhile. A visit to MoMA just to see this one exhibit could take an entire afternoon, just to do it justice.

A respite in the sculpture garden was in order after the outright saturation of the past three exhibitions. We found a couple of chairs out of the sun, near the fountain, and just enjoyed the lovely weather. Ahh…

Okay, back to work! Tim Burton has had an interesting career spanning several decades. Popping onto the pop-culture scene with 1985’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and 1988’s Beetle Juice and continuing to the recently released Alice in Wonderland. I love his twisted imagery and wild imagination, as reflected in such masterpiece films as Mars Attacks, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. This exhibition brings together ephemera from his films – the angora sweater worn by Johnny Depp in Ed Wood, the cat suit worn by Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, fifty or so Jack Skellington puppet heads from Nightmare – and his artwork, sketchbooks, student films, etc. going back to his childhood in Burbank, CA.

This is a popular exhibit, one requiring timed admissions with pre-purchased tickets (good luck getting one day of show) and it is thronged. The show itself was a lot of fun. It was quite entertaining to hear young people, teens or tweens, explain to their parents who some of the characters from the recent films were – Corpse Bride, for example – while then hearing a parent explain who Beetle Juice is a moment later.

This was well worth the visit, and it was wonderful to get a peek into the work and vision behind the stunning visuals which make up so much of Burton’s work.

All in all a great day at MoMA. In many ways I have only myself to blame for the excesses of today’s visit. To be fair to the artists and their work, today’s visit should really have been broken into two or three visits. But, for a traveler, time is of the essence! Move on, more to do, and too little time!

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New York – Ides of April Edition, 2010

Sun shapes on stairway

“Are you an artist too man?”

The question came innocently enough. That was James, our erstwhile bartender, after learning that I once knew Carri Skoczek, yesterday at Clem’s.

“Was, I was an artist.”

“What you mean, ‘was’? You don’t just stop being an artist. Maybe you aren’t making any art, but if you’re an artist, you’re an artist.”

“I was a lighting designer,” I told him. “You can’t just pick that up and do it anywhere, you know. You need a stage, and performers, and lights, and…”

“Ooh, I get it. Yeah, you kinda need a lotta help to get that done, doncha.”

“Yeah, you need a lot of help. I make art that needs a lot of help, so I don’t make art anymore.”

“That sucks, man. Shit.”

Okay, that was yesterday, and doesn’t really belong in today’s gazette, but it’s here for a reason. To whit: today we went to the American Museum of Folk Art. This lovely little institution, tucked in next to MoMA and The Modern, hosts one of the nicest collections of naïve, folk and self-taught art around, and although they have precious little space to show it in, they do so in a loving yet erudite manner.

When I look at this kind of art, I find myself always pondering the question of motivation, drive, inspiration… This seems inadequate to my point. Let’s try this; when someone grows up and goes to art school and starts to make art and exhibit it, or perform or what have you, it seems that there is a path, a trajectory, that gets them there. The motivation and drive are clear. For the self taught, the naïve, there is no such path. These are just normal work-a-day people who feel some compulsion to, at the end of a long day laboring over a plow or a broom or a stove, they decide to pick up a paint brush, embroidery needle, or what have you, and start making art.

I never “made art” in the sense of making a durable thing – painting, print, etc. – which one could take away from the experience and hang on a wall. I made art which was of its very nature ephemeral, transient, fleeting. My art was formal, in that it sprang from formalized structures and norms, it followed rules, to some extent, and it had a place in history in so far as it was informed by those who came before me, and was crafted with the tools and instruments available to me in my time. The naïve artist, on the contrary, is working out of time. Their work is singular and apart. Or, at least to my uneducated and impressionable eyes, it seems so.

It was thus that I gazed upon the self-made personal art collection of Henry Darger, on display at AMFA, which shows over 80 pieces of this significant 20th century self-taught artist’s own works which had hung on the walls of his tiny hovel in Chicago for the 40 years he lived there. It is a departure of a show for this museum, which holds the largest collection of Darger’s work in the world. I am used to coming here and being confronted with rooms of his mural sized hallucinatory fantastical ramblings, paint and tracery works, filling the whole of one or two floors of the museum. Not today, now it is these small, 16” x 20” average, pieces. Why? I wonder. What led this man, who worked 10 hour days in Catholic hospitals, sweeping and mopping, to then return home and write 4, four, 15,000 page epics about his fantasy world, backed by thousands and thousands of paintings?

Anyway, I don’t mean to dwell on this anymore than I already have. I just wanted to share that I realize that there are many reasons people make art. I know that people will probably chide me about this post, like, “Duh? Don’t you get it man, people want to make art!?!?” Yes, I get that. It is just the scale, sometimes, which causes me to ponder this. I guess. Whatever.

I can’t make my art, or I gave up on doing so, in the face of the challenges I faced. These people, these people whose work fills AMFA, likely never even felt that challenge, they just knew they wanted to make art, and they did so. They likely would have regarded me and said, “Huh? What of it, get off yer arse and express yourself!” The thing is that I do, of course. I express myself, now, in words rather than stage paintings. I use the tools of metaphor and simile instead of lekos and fresnels. I use a word processor instead of a light palette. I still make art, I guess, but I paint my pictures in words rather than those fields of light and shadow and color and smoke.

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New York – 14 April 2010

New York – 14 April 2010

“New York, I love it. New York and me.  I was born here, you know.  I left, moved away, when I was in high school.  But I came back, man, four years later.  You can leave New York, you know, but you can’t really.  There’s that thing, that bond.  You can’t leave that.

“New York, you love it and it loves you right back.  It’ll hold you tight and be all nice to you, treat you real good.  Then one day; you are down on your luck; you’re layin’ in the street, and New York?  New York’ll come up and kick you when you are down.  Kick you right in the balls.  It’ll taunt you and shit.

“Man!  New York; it can be like a woman.  All cuddly and close one minute and then all up in your face about shit the next.  It be all lovin’ you and helpful and accepting and then, BAM!, it’s kicking you in the ding-dong again.  Yellin’ and screamin’ and all down on you like you’re some piece of trash the dog dragged in.


“But you know, like that woman, you just can’t leave it.  You just can’t let it go even though you both know it would be for the best.  No, like the sick, poor, lovesick fool that you are you just keep trying and you keep getting back up after each indignity and you try to pretend.  The next time it shows you some lovin’, you just try to begin again.  Begin anew and…

“Yeah, you start all over.  Each time; each time you think that this time the city, it won’t let you down.  You’ll do what you set out for:  You’ll make that next audition, you’ll pass that interview, you’ll win that bet and you’ll win that woman back, and… You know what?  You know what?  I… Well, what can I say man.  I’ve had a rough ride with this bitch, but I’m not done yet.  Neither of us is done.”

James was our bartender at Clem’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and he had just explained his relationship to the city, and we did the only thing we could; we looked down at the bar, took a sip of our cocktails, and tried desperately to change the subject.

Actually, we sat back in awe, congratulated James on his flow, and recommended he reconsider the stage.

Ah, to be back in New York City again.  Pawn was last here almost exactly five years ago, and that is just too long.  Why are we, X and I, in Brooklyn?  Pawn has a well known predisposition towards Manhattan, so why Brooklyn?  Simple, we were waiting, killing time, between our inbound flight and our key pick up for the flat we’ve rented in Greenwich Village.  We had 3 hours to kill, so we started out with a prime rib lunch at Peter Luger’s.  Then came a long meandering through the Esplanade, the Lubavitcher realm, etc.  We were frankly getting a little parched when we crossed over into the more hipster zone, and finally to this innocent looking corner with an innocent looking corner bar, and we saw this nice young gentleman bring out chairs to place on the sidewalk.

“Are you open yet?” queried X.  “Yeah, go right on in, I’ll be right with you.” he replied.  “Hold on!” I exclaimed, spotting a familiar looking drawing on a chalkboard propped up in the window.  It was a chalkboard sketch titled “drunk girl has to pee” signed by one Carri Skoczek, 2009.  I know Carri Skoczek, I worked with Carri Skoczek, and this is indeed a genuine Carri Skoczek!


drunk girl has to pee

drunk girl has to pee - carri skoczek 2009

Carri did costumes and props for various shows Pawn lit, back in the olden days of doing lighting design in Milwaukee’s theatre scene.  She moved to Brooklyn about 10 or 15 years back, but what are the odds that the first bar we walk into is her old haunt.  “We all love her here.  We don’t see her so much anymore, but yeah, she used to come in here a lot.” James tells us.

Before the visit is over, James has bought us a drink and we have absorbed countless interesting bon-mot from Thomas, a visiting artist who just needs to take a little of the edge off before returning to his commission for the last few strokes of work.

We finally drag ourselves out of Clem’s and head back to the management office for our keys, and a black car ride into the city, into Greenwich Village, to commence our visit to Manhattan.  To our “Greenwich Village Love Nest” as the hosts chose to promote this two bedroom flat on Macdougal Street.

[X chimes in]
Our “love nest” is quite cozy – the beds divided by a new age frosted glass ‘bundling board’ and the toilet divided from the shower and sink in two separate rooms.  Accouterments carefully accounted for…i.e. 2 forks per bed; 2 wine glasses per bed.  How do they KNOW???  Went out to pick up the basics – fat, sugar and salt for me; wholesome items for Nic and booze for the both of us, then off to Kettle of Fish, Nic’s local here.  Met up with MKE Library colleague for drinks and 3-D movies of the Mermaid Parade at Coney Island, the Blessing of the Animals at Cathedral of St. John the Devine and ‘Return to the World’s Fair’ all dutifully watched with goofy glasses and full glasses of libations of choice.  The owner, Patrick, is from MKE and his wife Adrian indulges his foibles regarding the Packers, Brewers, and, apparently, thirsty visitors from the Heartland. Back to Macdougal abode and soon to bed – big day tomorrow!
[X drops back out]

It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that James Dean and Jack Kerouac used to drown their sorrows at the same bar where we bent many an elbow this evening past.  We met new friends tonight, and introduced old friends to even older ones.  The films were a blast, and a very studious audience was very glad that a venue exists which will show the New York Stereoscopic Society productions, all made by Messrs. Meredith and Smith, a careful duo with a canny eye and a dry editorial sensibility.  We all appreciated their efforts, and their keen eye for pathos in the otherwise banal events they covered.

Oh, and nudity, adds X.

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