Category Archives: Art

Basquiat – The Radiant Child

Last night I watched a DVD documentary on the 1980s artist Jean Michel Basquiat, called “The Radiant Child”, which included footage from an interview done in 1985 in LA.  The picture above is from another interview, I’d guess around 1982, and I just liked it cause he’s unexpectedly wearing the Wesleyan shirt (my alma mater).

In recent years I’ve come to appreciate his work more and more.  He grew up in Brooklyn in relatively well-off circumstance, but apparently had quite a complicated relationship with his businessman father, and ran away from home several times.  He ran away for good at age 17 in 1978 to Manhattan, and his initial efforts were doing graffiti with a friend under the name SAMO.  This was not standard graffiti – SAMO had messages for the world which were legibly written on building walls in block letters.  Despite being mostly homeless, he had a strong desire for fame and seemed to find his way into it remarkably quickly.

His painting shares similarities with the SAMO work – it’s mostly flat, often features words and lettering, and is frequently covered over with various layers of paint – almost like a building wall that’s been partially painted over and then more graffiti applied later.  The colors and images are stark and striking.  The last one I remember seeing in person was at the Pompidou in Paris, and it nearly jumped off the wall in comparison with most of what was in the gallery.

His work dealt with many aspects of art and racial awareness and his black heroes.  Unfortunately in life he was apparently derailed by the sudden fame and money and hangers-on.  By 1988 when he died, he was feeling almost washed up already, though some of the late work is just as strong as ever.

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Duchamp on change

Last time I was in San Francisco, I paid a ritual visit to City Lights bookstore, where I am usually able to find something I’ve not seen before.  On this occasion it was a book titled “Duchamp and the Aesthetics of Chance” by Herbert Molderings (2010).  This short work focuses on a single work by Marcel Duchamp, “3 Standard Stoppages” which was initially created in 1913 but not really exhibited until 1936, and by that time he had changed the format of the initial work considerably.  The basic idea of it is that he took a string one meter long and dropped it from a height of one meter, and captured the random curve formed when it landed.

While the book takes a variety of interesting tangents and alleys in describing the work, and Duchamp’s various comments about the work, I particularly liked this simple quote from Duchamp:

“Change and life are synonymous. We must realize this and accept it.  Change is what makes life interesting.  There is no progress, change is all we know.” (p. 114)

And here’s one more:

“My work has been an attempt to show that reason is less fruitful than we think. We think we find solutions through this function of rational thought but we do not. The mind is much freer than this type of thought would indicate.”

An interesting book that challenges many opinions of what Duchamp was up to.

Sigmar Polke, 1941-2010

Saw the news yesterday that German artist Sigmar Polke passed at age 69.  Polke was an interesting character, whose work kind of took off from pop and spun out in many directions.  Here are a couple bits of interest from the NYT obit by Roberta Smith:

Tall, with a commanding presence and caustic wit, Mr. Polke was often fittingly called an alchemist. He had a long face that seemed to call out for a sorcerer’s pointed hat. In photographs, he often appeared to be on the verge of laughter; small, gleaming eyes behind wire-framed glasses and a sharp V of eyebrows added a sardonic if not demonic note.

For much of his life Mr. Polke made extensive use of recreational drugs. Mushrooms were a frequent motif in his paintings and photographs. Unpredictable behavior was his norm, elusiveness his everyday mode, and provocative answers a matter of course.

But in the 1980s Mr. Polke, along with painters like Mr. Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Jörg Immendorff, signaled a resurgence of painting that was heard around the art world. The experience bred into Mr. Polke a preference for the margins over the mainstream and a relatively modest lifestyle despite his success. He worked without an assistant and lived in Cologne in a warehouse surrounded by his books and his paintings.

Just Kids – Patti Smith (2010)

A few nights ago I made it to Patti’s appearance at the Bagdad Theater here in Portland, for the release of her memoir ‘Just Kids’, and this morning I finished the book.  It’s a good one.  Centered on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, whom she met in 1967, it tells of their bohemian artsy ways in New York City in the late sixties and early seventies.  Perhaps it’s to be expected, but in those times neither of them had yet really hit on what would turn out to be their strongest talents.  Patti was doing poetry and drawing, while working at a bookstore, and Robert was doing jewelry and sculptures made from bric-a-brac found and treasured (he resisted photography for a long time, only in part because it was expensive).  The book really does put you there with them, in an NYC that doesn’t exist anymore.

Here’s the word from Tom Carson’s NYTBR review:

“Just Kids” is the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of funky-but-chic New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s that any alumnus has committed to print. The tone is at once flinty and hilarious, which figures: she’s always been both tough and funny, two real saving graces in an artist this prone to excess. What’s sure to make her account a cornucopia for cultural historians, however, is that the atmosphere, personalities and mores of the time are so astutely observed.

I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon) – Richard Polsky (2009)

“I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon)” is a follow up to Richard Polsky’s 2003 book “I Bought Andy Warhol” and it continues his stories of the pop art market through the 2006-2008 period of sky-high prices.  It’s a quick, fun read, starting with the sale of his Warhol “Fright Wig” piece, and following several other ongoing stories, such as another collector’s quest to buy one of those same pieces soon afterwards, as prices continued to soar.  Polsky turns himself into an ‘art financial advisor’ and he discusses some of the unlikely twists and turns of art collecting, such as the story of Leon Kraushar, who began filling his suburban Long Island home in the mid-sixties with now astronomical pop art work from the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rosenquist. While a few folks get lucky, just as with stocks, by buying low and selling high, it’s generally very hard to truly treat art as an investment.

An excerpt from the book can be found here at artnet.

Nudie suits!

I’ve long heard about ‘Nudie suits’ but never really knew the story behind the term.  Today I was reading a book on the Flying Burrito Brothers 1969 album ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’ by Bob Proehl, and in one chapter he tells the story.  I can’t resist posting it here:

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in the highly anti-Semitic Russia of 1902, little Nutya Kotlyrenko was shipped off to America at the age of eleven, as soon as the family’s finances allowed.  At Ellis Island, he took the Americanized surname his brother and cousins had already adopted, Cohn, and unable to write or spell his first name, he left Ellis Island with a botched version of it: Nudie.

“I guess that man never knew what a favor he did by giving me that name,” Nudie wrote later in his life, “but it’s been a trademark for years.  People are always impressed by an unusual name, and Nudie has suited me just fine.”

Nudie Cohn grew up poor in New York City’s garment district, apprenticing under tailors and dressmakers while dreaming of a career in music or the movies. After years of traveling the United States working odd jobs, he wound up back in New York City making g-strings and burlesque costumes for the strippers in Times Square at a shop called Nudie’s for the Ladies.

After a number of business ventures and financial hardships, the Russian immigrant who dreamed of being a singin’ cowboy moved out to the San Fernando Valley along with his wife, Bobbie, operating a small tailoring business out of their garage. Unable to afford a decent sewing machine or fabric to work on his own designs, Nudie decided in 1947 that country vocalist Tex Williams would be his springboard into the burgeoning field of cowboy costuming.

The story goes on through the fifties, when Nudie makes the shining gold suit for Elvis, and many country stars wear his suits.  Then things take a dive in the sixties until Gram Parsons, shown above second from the right, engages Nudie to make him and the band a very special set of  suits in 1969.  A new era dawned.  Nudie passed away in 1984.

Here are the backs of the suits for the band:

My green painting

I’m taking a beginning class in oil painting this fall.  Above is the first actual painting I’ve produced.  The assignment here was to stay essentially monochromatic, and I was working in greens, with a bit of blue-ish gray thrown in.  Obviously my depiction is a little off, and that’s just one factor you have to keep in mind – there’s also the light-dark tone, and the saturation of the color, and lots of other things!  I’m finding the most interesting things happen when you don’t try to completely control things, and go with a somewhat impressionistic approach.

'Orphee' by Philip Glass

Yesterday I made it to the Portland Opera’s production of the Philip Glass opera ‘Orphee’ based on the 1949 film by Jean Cocteau (and of course much further back into the myth of Orpheus).  I was mostly interested in hearing the music played live, but enjoyed the show.  The stage set was a modernist apartment, the singing was in French, much taken directly from the film script apparently.

Here’s a bit of the review by David Stabler from the Oregonian:

If you think all Philip Glass music sounds the same – rush-hour traffic for the ear – Portland Opera would like you to meet “Orphée,” a French twist on the Orpheus myth.

Glass’ operatic riff opened at the Keller Auditorium, Friday, in a stylish production that will almost make you take back those awful things you said about him.

I found the music quite nice – the opening incorporates many sounds from early silent film scores, and I liked the ebb and flow of his rhythms.  (I actually like Glass music, though I can understand the feeling that he repeats many patterns.)  They were recording the show, and so a commercial release of the opera should be available next year sometime.

Odds and Ends

I spent a few days in San Francisco this week, for work meetings.  Nice to catch up with a number of old colleagues, some of whom I had last seen both years ago and continents away!  Not much time to do ‘fun’ stuff, but I did stop by the SF MOMA store, and found a new book of work by Neo Rauch, German artist (which I picked up and then proceeded to leave in my hotel room! so I hope it gets successfully sent up to me here).

Something I had been waiting for from the library came in while I was away – Herbie Hancock’s Blue Note Sixties Sessions, a 6 CD set.  I have just started to delve into it.

Then today I popped into the annual Wordstock festival here in Portland.  I was not terribly interested in any of the visiting authors, but I did enjoy seeing some of the small press offerings.  One press from Seattle had a number of nice works available – they have two areas of interest: Japan and New Orleans.  They’re called Chin Music Press, and they do really nice production quality books (the old-fashioned kind – they have a t-shirt that says they’re Seattle’s alternative to the Kindle!).  I picked up a title called ‘Goodbye Madame Butterfly’ by Sumie Kawakami.

'Pig 05049' by Christien Meindertsma

While over in the Netherlands last year, I came across a book at a museum in Rotterdam that I couldn’t put down.  The book is called ‘Pig 05049‘ and it is a photographic documentation of all the commercial products that are made from various parts of a pig.  Here’s a description:

Christien Meindertsma has spent three years researching all the products made from a single pig. Amongst some of the more unexpected results were: Ammunition, medicine, photo paper, heart valves, brakes, chewing gum, porcelain, cosmetics, cigarettes, conditioner and even bio diesel.

Meindertsma makes the subject more approachable by reducing everything to the scale of one animal. After it’s death, Pig number 05049 was shipped in parts throughout the world. Some products remain close to their original form and function while others diverge dramatically. In an almost surgical way a pig is dissected in the pages of the book – resulting in a startling photo book where all the products are shown at their true scale (1:1).

Just today I came across news that this book has won a 2009 Index prize, and I can’t say I’m surprised.  It’s a remarkable view of how our world actually operates, showing connections most of us have no awareness of.