20 Mar 2023
What a 'monstrous, brilliant,' terrifying, wonderful, beautiful little book. Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease To Understand The World.
19 Feb 2023
I’m a huge David Bowie fan and consider him quite possibly the most important figure in pop music of the 20th century. What he didn’t invent, he re-invented. What he didn’t do, he influenced. And, almost impossibly, he was popular—despite output that only rarely veered towards the demands of a mainstream audience. He was smart and serious about art and an artist’s responsibility as a creator, qualities too rarely seen in mega-pop stars. But while I love Bowie, I didn’t love the Oscar-nominated (sort of) documentary Moonage Daydream.
I admired its ambition and an approach that defies the conventions of the biopic, but in the end it’s just too much of X and not enough of Y. Not all Bowie eras are of equal value, as the man himself would have readily admitted (and no one needs to see footage from the Glass Spiders tour ever again). Too little time is spent on critically important inflection points and key collaborators, totally missing are sections on the Thin White Duke or the Young Americans soul-infused years, too much of just being David Bowie and cruising around a Japanese mall. Not nearly enough of the brilliant closing effort Blackstar and the philosophies inside it. Far too little of the best music and why this man who sold the world ultimately changed the world. An A for effort, but a disappointment.
17 Feb 2023
Late in 2022, I had the pleasure and challenge of taking on an unusual job: copy-editing—or more precisely, doing a really close reading and making very detailed suggestions re: tweaks to an actual editor, Alan Felsenthal. I stumbled into this assignment after contacting Michael Silverblatt, the creator of the Lannan Foundation/KCRW-FM radio program, Bookworm. Michael’s interviews are deeply personal conversations, and his discussions with renowned authors, essayists and poets are legendary for their breadth, depth and insight. I had asked Michael for permission to transcribe several, with the intention to include them in a very limited artists’ book. Michael surprised me by saying a collection of transcribed Bookworm shows was a big project already in the works, and that he was sure the editors would welcome close readers who were familiar with the shows, and that I should contact the Brooklyn-based publisher, The Song Cave.
Bookworm: Conversations with Michael Silverblatt, is now complete, and due to be published on March 31st. The book gathers interviews with some of the most influential literary luminaries of the last 50 years: John Ashbery, John Berger, Octavia Butler, Joan Didion, Carlos Fuentes, William H. Gass, Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, W.G. Sebald, Susan Sontag, and David Foster Wallace. Gathered together for the first time in print, these conversations reveal not only the quality and character of the writers, but the special relationships that Silverblatt developed with them. The conversations reveal why so many consider Michael to be our greatest reader. He allows us to hear these writers in their own voices, at their most animated, engaged and understood.
16 Dec 2022
Here's to defying genre expectations. Jet Black (1938-2022) was a musician "before rock and roll was invented"—and grew up learning violin before becoming a Jazz drummer. But it was in 1974 that he met the mates that would form a dark-hued, proggish, bizarrely successful group named The Guildford Stranglers (later shortened). Their first album in 1977 was an immediate hit, and somehow—no doubt due to attitude and leather jackets—they were considered punk, despite frilly keyboards, complex song arrangements and virtuoso musicianship. In any good rock'n'roll outfit, the drummer drives the train—and in Jet Black, the Stranglers had found a locomotive. This band's discography is so deep, so diverse, and so consistently good that it's truly difficult to summarize adequately. So go listen. The first LP, Rattus Norvegicus, remains stingingly potent. Their biggest, oddest record, The Gospel According to the Meninblack, was "cursed, after we summoned the occult," (according to Black). It was, of course, his favorite. At sundown, I think I'll put on Dreamtime.
1 Nov 2022
It reads like a novel and feels like a film, but Hugh Eakin's Picasso's War is non-fiction. It is the largely unknown tale of how the earliest modern art aficionados in America passionately fought to evolve parochial tastes and unite a new land, a new century and the new art. A fascinating between-the-wars history of the nascent Met and MoMA institutions, interwoven with a behind the scenes look at the early New York gallery world—with Picasso cast as catalyst, combatant and conquest. A ton of detail that I did not know that I didn't know. And fun. Recommended.
29 Oct 2022
I’m lucky that a lifetime around bands and music people means I still discover music the old fashioned way—from a recommendation by a friend. I might be getting on, but I’m still thrilled to find a recording artist that excites me. IDLES aren’t exactly new. They formed in 2009 but (curiously) didn’t release a recording until 2017. I discovered them thanks to long-time collaborator Michael Moroney sharing their NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Then I watched their From The Basement video set and wasn’t even sure that I was watching the same band. Singer Joe Talbot would tell you they are NOT punk rock, but hard music for softies. I can confirm they are bracing, caustic and relentless (says Pop Matters), and authors of songs full of urgency, wit and the shattering of complacency (or so says Uncut). Consider me an old friend passing on an insider tip: check out IDLES and crank it up.
27 Oct 2022
“Plus les moyens sont limités, plus l’expression est forte.” Thank you, Pierre Soulages, the "master of black," who has now left us, aged 102. Soulages, and his fellow devotee of darkness, Ad Reinhardt, explored 'the end of painting'—working exclusively in shades of black for the last decades of their careers. Soulage's paintings are almost impossible to capture photographically (like all noteworthy painting), so see them in person when you can. They are incredibly varied, visually rich and deeply immersive. Musée Soulages in Rodez, south central France, just might be the place if you happen to be in the neighborhood.
21 Oct 2022
Cate Blanchett is "incandescent" as Lydia Tár (says Anthony Lane in The New Yorker), and there's not too much more one can really say about this film without being a spoiler—so go see it. It's tense, it's awful, it's wonderful. AO Scott accurately describes Todd Field's direction as echoing Kubrick and Polanski. Blanchett, her generation's leading actor, transforms herself, bringing to mind her brilliant personifications in Julian Rosenfeldt's amazing multi-channel video installation, Manifesto (2015). As one might guess with a film set in the world of classical concert music, Hildur Gunadóttir's score becomes a character in the film—the cinema audio experience is recommended.
20 Oct 2022
David Sylvian is best known as a musician, founder of the seminal 70's band Japan (aka Rain Tree Crow), a frequent collaborator with grandmaster Ryuichi Sakamoto, and a resident on the plane of art-pop that is occupied by rare names like Bowie, Reed, Eno, and Ferry. But Sylvian has always made more than music. ERR is his recent coffee table book, a "photographic essay" shot on a pandemic-era road trip across America. ERR features accompanying texts by Shinya Fujiwara and poetry by Daisy Lafarge. It's published in a limited edition of 500 signed and numbered copies. You can find out more—the artist's notes on his journey and process are a great read—and order it here.
13 Oct 2022
Joan Didion is of unquestioned importance as an author, a uniquely American voice, a chronicler of the California zeitgeist. But what about as muse for a museum exhibition of visual art?
The Hammer makes a noteworthy attempt at this leap, with the audaciously titled, Joan Didion: What She Means—a broad, wide-ranging show that includes movie posters (of films made from Didion screenplays), wall-sized blowups of Hells' Angels at Altamont (because, California, 60s), sensitive photo-real watercolors (quite nice actually) and Liz Larner ceramic wall pieces (I'm a big LL fan but still unsure how these works connect to JD). The Hammer's own blurb for the show uses the word "meandering"—and perhaps that's a tell.
Sometimes ambitious is worth it, even if it's not a bullseye. But sometimes a sought after tone remains elusive, despite copious amounts of material. But interesting details do happen in exhibits that are trying to do interesting things. Go see.
12 Oct 2022
I was lucky enough to attend Art Center when it was only one campus, without the architectural addition that would come later. Almost every modern architecture buff knows the hillside campus was designed by Craig Ellwood Associates, commissioned by Don Kubly, for whom CEA had earlier completed a mid-70's Pasadena residence.
But the real story of who designed the iconic Mies-inspired masterpiece is more complex. Ellwood never actually designed the Art Center College. Because, in strict terms Craig Ellwood was a fiction, and it was CEA partner Alfred Caldwell who designed and completed the project. As reported in Elle Decor:
"According to records, 'Craig Ellwood' was born on February 2, 1922, in Clarendon, Texas, under the name John Burke. Moving with his mother and brother to California after the death of his father, the young creative completed his studies and began work at a luxury clothing store, where he modeled. In 1947, we find out that Burke had served in the military, that his first wife was an actress, and that in 1947, he married another actress, Gloria Henry. Alongside his brother and two other friends from the war, Burke founded the Craig Ellwood construction company, named after the Lords and Elwood liquor store. It would only last two years, but Burke would keep the name, legally changing his in 1951. Working as a cost estimator for the contracting firm Lamport Cofer Salzman, he helped out on the Case Study Houses. It was there that he would meet the Case Study project director John Entenza and begin an adventure as an uncertified architect, drawing about as much attention for his buildings as for his lifestyle. Ellwood collected Ferraris and Lamborghinis, spent the studio’s money and as the years went on, showed up for work less and less. Exiled and pushed aside by CEA, he was forced to leave the studio in 1977, when he escaped to Italy to become a painter. Years later, when Art Center would require an expansion, Ellwood attempted to claim credit for the structure, but was quickly denied by other members of his former studio."
9 Oct 2022
Rachel Hunter Himes, in the essay Museum Pessimism, in n+1 #43, attempts, interestingly, to chronicle the (new) history of the art museum as a preferred site of political protest:
"Recent years have seen the museum, and especially the art museum, highlighted as a key site for protest and a critical space for political struggle. Actors within and beyond the art world have challenged the museum on the grounds that arts institutions perpetrate harm — not just in the galleries, and not only in the workplace, but on local, national, and even global scales."
Great, long, unpredictable, well-thought out piece. Go to your nearest good newsstand and grab an issue of n+1, one of the best issue-oriented periodicals still made out of paper.