Thursday, February 15, 2018

Steak and potatoes

ST. VALENTINE has come and gone, bringing Ash Wednesday with him — a curious and perhaps ominous conjunction that I don't recall ever experiencing before. But perhaps it means nothing.

Dinner last night was superb: Cook found a fine thick rib-eye at the local meat counter, and prepared it inspired by a recent NY Time recipe by David Tanis involving salt and pepper, garlic and rosemary. The steak sweats in those flavorings half an hour or so, and is then cooked on one side in a very hot skillet, then turned and finished in the oven.

Potatoes as she often cooks them, in butter, with salt, pepper, garlic, and chopped parsley.

We did not have salad: instead, my favorite green leafy (well, one of them): Swiss chard.

     đŸ·Dolcetto, Pecchenino "San Luigi" (Dogliani), 2016: ottimo, as the Italians say, simply the best.

Best of all, there was enough left of this feast (except for the chard) to have exactly the same meal tonight!

RESTAURANTS VISITED, with information and rating: 2016      2015     2017

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

’Pataphysical Mechanisms

Charlotte Posenenske: Series D Square Tubes
Photo: Johnna Arnold
Mechanisms
on view at The Wattis Institute
through Feb. 24, 2018
Eastside Road, February 13, 2018—
MUCH CAN BE SAID — or written — about the show closing soon at the Wattis Institute, which, in the words of its curator Anthony Huberman,
test[s] existing systems with inefficient mechanisms, impossible tools, and elaborate protocols that misalign outputs from their inputs.

A precursor of the show was Pontus Hultén's memorable (and Walter Benjamin-haunted) The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age, which the lamented Henry Hopkins brought to the old San Francisco Museum of Art fifty years ago. That show, though, pondered machines, while this one ponders mechanism: the workings of machinery, whether physical machinery of substance or metaphorical machinery of concept.

(Mechanism:machine :: mind:brain)

Another ghost haunting the Wattis Instituter: Marcel Duchamp. At every turn. On entering, Charlotte Posenenske's marvelous make-to-order sculptures assembled by gallery staff, from industrial ductwork, to Posenenske's instructions. They immediately recall Duchamp's Pulled at Four Pins and Malic Molds, which I believe were inspired by Duchamp's amused liking for sheet metal installations of various kinds, particularly rooftop installations.

(Of course I'm influenced by personal biography: my father was a sheet metal worker; I grew up smelling muriatic acid and solder and contemplating, fascinated, the emergence of three-dimensional forms from two-dimensional sheets of tinplate.)

Pushing the mind-body metaphor, Posenenske's duct-sculptured is inescapably figurative. The pathetic fallacy of the Industrial Age is the equivalence of mankind and machine. Fallacy has always its humorous side, the humor of absurd inevitability; Posenenske's work is the perfect introduction to the show.

Danh Vo: Twenty- two Traps
Photo: Johnna Arnold
Further into the Wattis galleries you stumble into a sculptural installation of iron spring traps, most of them likely from the 19th century — traps whose intended prey ranged from rats to bears. Duchamp's TrĂ©buchet comes to mind: a strip of oak flooring with four ordinary coat-hooks attached to it, to be screwed down the floor to trap the unwary. One concept of conceptual art is its forcing of the viewer's mind to ponder — that word again — the continually expanding ramifications of the ideas implicit in the seen work, and rarely has "work" been a more appropriate word for it.

Has Mechanisms trapped you yet? Then perhaps it's time to consider the beautiful, pristine, contemplative, dedicated and disciplined work of the late Jay De Feo: a series of her inimitable mixed-media drawings on one wall, an installation of a grid of Xerox manipulations on another. In general De Feo worked from a real and ordinary object (a familiar readymade?), utterly divorcing it from its usual context, considering it as a three-dimensional thing valuable, for the moment, for her, as a bearer of form, defined by the curves and sheen of its surface, and above all a challenge (always successfully met) to the expressive ability of her hand and arm.

You see this in the mixed-media drawings, of course, whose beauty and truth led me to this installation in the first place; but also in the wonderful Xerox manipulations which, again, reduce three dimensions to two, another challenge to the mind's comprehension of what the eye sees.

Louise Lawler: Formica
(adjusted to fit, distorted for the times,
slippery slope 1)

Photo: Johnna Arnold
Now we're ready for Louise Lawler, who prints her photographs specifically for the site displaying them. Formica (adjusted to fit, distorted for the times, slippery slope 1) is perhaps an extreme example of this: normally she stretches her photograph in one dimension or the other in order to make it fit the dimensions of the exhibition space; in this case she also distorts it, partly to mimic the curvature of the roof above, partly (no doubt) to refer to the distorting manifolds of the intellectual subject of the exhibition. And, the artist specifies, to reflect the distortion of the res publica since the most recent presidential election.

(It should be noted that the subjects of Lawler's photographs are themselves works of art, photographed as they are installed in galleries, that their display in other settings will be a kind of transplanting, thus a function within a cultural and societal mechanism.)

Another side of De Feo's example is explored in the elegant small sculptures of Zarouhie Abdalian, who chooses small metal hand tools, refines and nickel-plates them, and then assembles them into compositions without in any way attaching them to one another. You're forgiven for recalling a chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table. If you bump the sculpture stand (please don't) the assemblage is likely to fall apart and gallery staff will have to reassemble it (recalling their assembly, though with bolts and nuts, of the sections of Posenenske's ductwork). Another trap.

There seem to be endless discoveries in this installation. One more: Aaron Flint Jamison's Greaser, a slab of purpleheart (hardwood) formed of invisibly joined pieces, nearly twelve feet tall and perhaps half an inch thick, with a machine attached to its midsection causing it to vibrate nervously to a resonant frequency. The elegance of anxiety, or of excitation.

Mechanisms is accompanied by a catalog whose abstraction and intricacy requires more concentrated attention than I have had time to give until now; I hope to remedy this. There is also an extremely helpful guide to the exhibition with floor plans and detailed descriptions. The entire affair — exhibition, concept, catalog, individual works — can be exhausting, invigorating, meaningful, or overwhelming, depending on your mood and state of mind. So are we ever victims of our surroundings.

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, 360 Kansas Street, San Francisco; (415) 355-9670

Monday, February 12, 2018

Ideal geometry

l-r: East-West (diptych), 48 × 88 in, 1968; Sunstrut, 108 × 48 in, 1981; San Francisco Spring (Sweet Rain), 108 × 114 in, 1974
As installed in the Brian Gross Gallery, San Francisco, January 2018

Eastside Road, February 12, 2017—
Paintings by Leo Valledor
Brian Gross Gallery,
   San Francisco
through Feb. 24 2018
AMONG THE HEROS, as I see them, the truest of the great painters of the San Francisco Bay Area in the great years of the second half of the last century, none produced purer work than Leo Valledor (1936–1989). Essentially self-taught, as I understand it, he exhibited early, at 19, in the pathbreaking Six Gallery in San Francisco.

He left town in 1961 to establish a career in New York City, where he joined five other California artists — including the sculptors Mark di Suvero and Peter Forakis, also emigrĂ©s from the Bay Area — in the founding of the legendary Park Place, where a new, formalist art emerged to succeed postwar Abstract Expressionism.

Perhaps Park Place was inspired by the Six Gallery; certainly in must have represented the breathing of new energy into the New York scene. There are various uses of geometry, however, and Valledor’s painting has always suggested the purity and idealism of geometry as a conceptual meditation on proportion, where other artists seem to explore more strictly visual expressions. Valledor’s work is often compared to Frank Stella’s, for example: but Stella’s use of shape and color seems to me to be what Duchamp dismissed as “retinal,” relying on purely sensual effect.

And Valledor is compared to Ellsworth Kelly; but Kelly’s hard-edged paintings are abstractions and (especially) croppings of realistically reproduced natural objects — often floral — whereas Valledor finds his imagery, apparently, purely within an intellectual imagination.

Providently Valledor (like Forakis) returned to the Bay Area in 1968, showing at the San Francisco Museum of Art and the San Francisco Art Institute, and teaching there, at Lone Mountain College and as a guest at UC. Berkeley.

There have been other Bay Area geometrical painters, of course: Thomas Akawie and David Simpson represent two poles bracketing others. Centered between them, I suppose, Hassel Smith, whose Search for the Source of the Nile was a truly great canvas, one of the finest of its period. (But clearly a representational landscape.) But one tends to site hard-edge abstraction within the Los Angeles area, when thinking of California, not within the Bay Area. In the south many, probably most of them were dedicated to substance and finish. But there too there is an Idealist: Robert Irwin.

I think of Valledor and Irwin as semblables, brothers in spirit. In their maturest work they appeal to the retina not simply to fascinate or please it but to engage its collaboration in an appeal to the mind. They are not illusionists: there work doesn't in any way trick the mind. (Though in the later paintings here, the "new slant" enjoys a degree of playfulness.) They are idealists, not abstracting away from anything but approaching pure abstraction on its own terms.

I am most moved, in this exhibition, by a magnificent series of three paintings from Valledor's middle period. And paticularly by the 1974 San Francisco Spring, whose perfection eludes verbal commentary — you simply have to stand in front of it, look at it with one eye and then the other, back away, reapproach, quit it and quickly turn your head to gaze at it again.

The current exhibition of Valledor’s canvases at Brian Gross is very beautifully installed and lit. Isolated respectfully on the end wall, San Francisco Spring reflects some of the color of Sunstrut, around the corner, separating the chaste silver rectangles in San Francisco Spring from the 1968 diptych East-West. Nothing I write can express Valledor’s brushwork, which is far from flat and featureless, but whose animation energizes the painting through capture of the light that falls on it, not through the dynamic substance of the acrylic paint itself. These surfaces are perhaps calculated, a bit self-assertive, appearing when closely inspected as if to confess proudly that, yes, an artist's hand has achieved this near-ideal refinement.

I suppose no artist could long remain in the rarified air of San Francisco Spring: the sudden yellow and more playful shapes of Sunstrut suggested the path that was to follow. The later paintings — sad to refer to the work of a gifted artist just fifty as "late" — retain the sobriety and elegance of the middle-period ones, but bring in a new instability. I suppose my favorite here is Ezistance (1986), a truncated equilateral triangle divided into three strips of near-value violet, purple and red (to grossly simplify color descriptions). The shapes of these strips — two elongated triangles flanking a rhombus — cause the canvas to vibrate between flat and folded, and the weight of the colors, the unease of the illusion, and the size (96 by 34 inches) make this a very imposing piece, gaining stability, even a kind of majesty, from its authority.

The gallery featured Valledor in a one-man show two years ago; I hope it continues this cycle in the future. The Neri show at Stanford's Anderson Center that closed recently and the Robert Hudson-Richard Shaw show (with Jack Stuppin) in Santa Rosa give me hope the glories of 1960s Bay Area painting are being revived for a generation not fully aware of the significance of its inheritance.

•Brian Gross Fine Art, 248 Utah Street, San Francisco, California 94103; (415) 788-1050

Monday, December 11, 2017

A TOUR OF NETHERLANDS AND ITALY: 1

A TOUR OF NETHERLANDS AND ITALY October-November 2017
Prinseneiland
I: Amsterdam
1: Arrival; October 27, 2017
We landed at Schiphol at 8:30 in the morning, flying from San Francisco with layover in Philadelphia. We know Schiphol well, but still the first order of business is going Dutch: getting the sound of the language in the ears (and to an extent in the mouth), getting SIM cards for our iPhones, reminding ourselves about the “chipcard” good for all trains and trams in The Netherlands, getting a couple of cappuccinos, and getting a haircut. Then we took the train to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, where we splurged for a taxi to our home for the next few days, on Prinseneiland, a 15-minute walk from the station but we’re tired from the flight and we have these suitcases…

Our European travels always involve visits with friends — friends so intimate you might well call them family. Writing about these travels is therefore complicated. There are so many stories, so much history, much of it personal. I find it all endlessly fascinating and often suggestive of Big Themes, and so I ache to write — but how to protect the privacy of people I love like my own family? But I can describe Cynthia’s apartment, I think. You enter the lobby of a former warehouse — every building on this island is a former warehouse — and go up three flights of stairs (8, 11, 13 steps), out onto a rooftop, then up another storey on a spiral steel staircase (14 steps).

The apartment
There is one big highceilinged room with kitchen, kitchen table, desk, shelves, chairs, a sofas. There is one bedroom (hers; now ours) big enough for a big bed, a four-foot rack for hanging clothes, perhaps a chest. Above, there’s a cozy sleeping loft, temporarily hers. It has a doorway out onto another roof for her use as patio, drying-yard, etc. Her apartment (and another, similar, at other end with its own matching spiral stairway) are new additions on ancient brick warehouse like many others on the island, about which more later.

The apartment is all white with one black half-wall above the kitchen wall. There are black very steep stairs to the sleeping loft. Cesar the tortoiseshell cat is the very happy lord of all he surveys, scrambling up the ladder-stairs when he wants to visit the roof; he reminds me of Carl Van Vechten’s book Lord of the Housetops.

We have a simple lunch of bread and cheese and much conversation; then leave Cynthia and walk the short distance — ten minutes at most, two bridges — to the restaurant Marius for dinner with Tom and Judith. I immediately asked after her father, a world-famous neurologist, still hard at work — he published a new book only last year. He turned ninety last June. His work left time, his family thought, for few friends. It turned out, though, that he was fast friends with a number of professional acquaintances, though in touch with them only through correspondence.

They arranged for a congratulatory symposium to be held in Amsterdam. It was attended by friends from around the world. Many gave papers in his honor. You couldn’t understand half of what they said, the daughter told me; and then Father gave his talk, and it was completely understandable and often funny, all about his work over the years with all this community. It was all in English; hardly anyone there spoke Dutch. The symposium was held in Bondsgebouw ANDB (General Dutch Diamond Cutters’ Union), a fine old Amsterdam School building, a Berlage building from 1900.

For her gift, Judith had learned Bach’s chorale-prelude Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and played it for him, in public. This was a great effort for her; she wanted to play it as well as possible. At the end, thanking her, he said (again publicly) that he had wanted to ask her to do that, but didn’t, fearing it too much an imposition. Years ago he and I met at a party where we disputed, slightly in jest, the merits of Bach and Mozart. That’s not music, I said of Bach, it’s numbers. Mozart’s not music, he said, it’s sentiment. And so on.

He is a very serious, very droll man. At another party a couple of years ago we were conversing when another man approached. Excuse me, Judith’s father said, somewhat resignedly, I have to talk to this man, I’ll get back to you. I watched them converse rather earnestly; then the other fellow left and I returned to the neurologist. He excused himself: I had to talk to him; he’s a very important psycholoog, I’ve never met him, but we’ve collaborated on books together.

Yes, I said, and what exactly is a psycholoog? Interesting question, he replied. I am a scientist; I know about physically existing things. My field is the brain: I can tell you what it is, how it works. The psycholoog talks about a mind. No one has ever seen one.

Kees, in front of his Marius
Dinner was delicious, of course. Marius was packed. The chef is Tom’s brother and also my daughter’s brother; she lived with his family for a year as an exchange student, forty years ago. We have nearly merged, our two families, one Dutch, one as I always say Californian — the United States having become too complicated to discuss.

I write about these dinners elsewhere so won't describe them here. Here, in the next few installments, which I hope to upload roughly once a week, you're going to encounter ruminations on place, people, and their intersections. This is what usuually happens when I travel, and observe, and speculate, and write. Most recently it resulted in a little book written last April in Rome: Where to Dig, and how far down. You can buy a copy here. It's cheap (but mind the postage rates!), and makes a nice holiday present…

Next: Strolling the Western Islands

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Small Concerto for piano and orchestra (1964)

(reposted, with edits, from January 28, 2010)

THE EARLIEST PIECES of mine that I still like to think of, Three Pieces for Piano, were written in October and November, 1963, and February 1964. At the time we were living on a small grant from Edith Fitzell, a gentle, enthusiastic widow who took recorder lessons from me, and who volunteered at KPFA, the listener-supported radio station in Berkeley. She sensed my need to devote an unbroken year to musical study, and enabled me to quite my day job. (I was then a laborer for the City of Berkeley, working mostly on the sidewalk crew, breaking up old sidewalks and laying new ones.)

I spent that year studying composition with Robert Erickson and conducting with Gerhard Samuel, and listening to as much music as possible — much of it on the radio, for KPFA broadcast a great deal of new music in those days.

The first and last of the three pieces were written slowly and intuitively, at the piano. They are centered on soft dynamic levels and smoothly phrase lines, and meant to be played very softly. The middle piece was added later, for contrast, pitched on a much louder level, and alternates violent and rapid gestures with ringing sonorities. It uses only pitches omitted in the outer movements; otherwise the composition follows only intuitive principles of structure, not conventional tonal or serial concepts.

Much of the music in the outer movements is essentially unmeasured and meant to be played quite freely, and the third movement ends with a performer's choice between two possible approaches to the close.

In 1964 I orchestrated the music as a Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. No new material was added; I simply assigned some of the notes to rather large orchestra, including a harmonium in the wings, a pair of Wagner tubas, and alto flute among the more usual instrumentation. In this form the music was premiered in August 1965 at the Cabrillo Music Festival, with Nathan Schwartz as soloist and Gerhard Samuel conducting. It was the first time I heard my music played by an orchestra: a very delightful experience.

(The solo pieces waited for their premiere until March 1993, when the late Rae Imamura played them at Annie’s Hall, Berkeley, on an instrument tuned not in equal temperament but to Kirnberger 3.)

The orchestral score of the Small Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is available now, either in print (8.5x11, 8 pages, saddle-stapled) for $12 or as an e-book, at Lulu.com. The Three Pieces for Piano are available at Frog Peak Music.

Sound files of the three movements of the Small Concerto are available online:

First movement (2:02; 3.5 MB)

Second movement (2:33; 41.1 MB)

Third movement (1:56; 3.4 MB)

A PDF of the score can be downloaded here (10 pages; 600 kb)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Pasadena Theater

In flight, October 26, 2017—
Dickens, adapted by Mike Poulton: A Tale of Two Cities, directed by Geoff Elliott & Julia Rodriguez-Elliott
Giraudoux, tr. by Maurice Valency: The Madwoman of Chaillot, directed by Stephanie Shroyer
Shaw: Mrs. Warren's Profession, directed by Michael Michetti
  Seen in Pasadena at A Noise Within, Oct. 19-22, 2017
REVOLUTION IN THE AIR in Pasadena, through the canny programming of this thoughtful, enterprising, estimable repertory theater company. I think we were lucky to see these plays in the order listed, describing an intelligent sequence: in Stephen Dedalus's formulation, they were epic, then lyric, finally dramatic. A Noise Within — the company took its name from a stage direction in Hamlet — is a fully professional company, now a quarter-century old, I think, characteristically producing three plays in the fall season, another three in spring, in revolving repertory to the extent actors' schedules make it possible. (Most of them are veteran professionals, gainfully employed in film and television; I suspect they engage in legitimate theater out of love for the art.)

The repertory tends to the classical, including classical 20th-century theater. You don't subscribe to this company to see new plays. There's a Shakespeare play nearly every year; there's usually a French play (in translation, of course); there's a survey of the significant American repertory. We like to visit Pasadena for four days, fall and spring, when we manage to catch three plays. (And catch up on botanical gardens, favorite restaurants, and old friends.)

Lately the seasons have illustrated themes of one kind or another: this year, social revolution. It's in the air. I've written here before of my theory that theater was born with a social responsibility: in early societies, it was through public performance that social problems — ethical, moral, religious, political — were pondered. Theater offers a unique merging of intensely personal and intrinsically public introspection and expression, and the rituals theater has evolved over the years offer a kind of adjustment, a tuning, an alignment of turbulent events with the human norms needed for stable social life, whether on the small scale (couples, families) or the large.

IT IS SIXTY YEARS and more since I read Charles Dickens's novel A Tale of Two Cities as a required text in the ninth grade, and I thought I remembered of it only the opening and closing lines and the description of Mme Lafarge knitting as the tumbrels go rumbling by. Watching this adaptation, however, brought the characters, the situation, even the dialogue out of some long-closed chamber into active memory. The play is compressed, of course; parallel sub-plots and minor characters are gone — two acts across two and a half hours, on a relatively bare stage, can only accommodate so much. But the result is, as I've suggested, epic theater: it was impossible to attend to it without thinking of Bertolt Brecht. Who knew Dickens was a forerunner? (Probably lots of graduate students.)

Dickens's plot rests on the possibly confused identities of two men, a young French nobleman whose ideals and empathy lead him to renounce his title and a similarly young English barrister utterly devoid of moral discipline yet dedicated, ultimately, to similar humane ideals. They are human counterparts of the "two cities," London and Paris; and Dickens's larger purpose is, through narrating their individual human predicaments, to investigate the commonalities of privileged and tradition-bound English legal society and resentful and erupting French rebellion against a thousand years of monarchy.

I was surprised — still am, a week later — at how detailed, profound, and often subtle this undertaking was: the novel, the adaptation, the production, the performance. This in not unusual: these theater trips to Pasadena usually leave me mulling over the productions for days afterward; it's one of the rewards of the visit. But, perhaps because I was expecting Dickens to exaggerate sentiment at the cost of insight, I was particularly impressed with the evening. I won't detail the cast and crew; I haven't the program at hand; you can always find the credits at the company's fine website. Everything about this production was strong and affecting.


JEAN GIRAUDOUX wrote his lyric fantasy The Madwoman of Chaillot in Nazi-occupied Paris in the dark days of the early 1940s, perhaps to take his mind off the daily unpleasantnesses. The play is utterly French, set in the Chaillot quarter of Paris, whose denizens are ordinary workers: café waitress, barman, ragpicker, shoelace peddler. Well, there's a deafmute, too, because mimes have to make a living.

Into this charming world enter a group of Important Men — a miner, a chief executive, an investor; that sort of crew. They are convinced there's oil under the Paris streets, precisely here at this corner, and they plan enthusiastically to drill for it, to install derricks partout, with no regard at all for the charm of the place, so necessary to pleasant, stable everyday life.

The play centers on la Folle — "madwoman" seems not quite the right translation — who confronts the threat, organizing les habitants du quartier (and two other equally dotty crazy-ladies) to send the capitalists packing. (One of the subtexts of the play, of course, is that they may themselves be victims of their own confidence games.)

Chaillot is sentimental and frothy, and its Paris is not that of 1789. The social protest it describes is far from the stormers of the Bastille. Its resonance with the environmental politics of our own time, however, is inescapable. In the context of the two plays flanking it one sees this thin upper crust of capitalist investors for what they are, a threat to social order ultimately able to achieve a new aristocracy, oppressing ordinary men and women and spoiling the world to satisfy nothing more important than their own insatiable greed.

Again, cast, crew, production were all exemplary. Even the musical cues were impertinently effective, in my opinion, and the musical dimension is often the least effective in this company's productions. (I do find it odd, though, that while various attempts at British accents seem always to disfigure plays here by English authors, no attempt is made — grace Ă  Dieu — to put on French ones in plays like this.)


AS DICKENS IS too sentimental, says my stupid prejudice, so George Bernard Shaw is too talky. I was looking forward to seeing Mrs. Warren's Profession as a duty owed to my intellectual curiosity, not an enjoyable entertainment. I was wrong. Her profession is that of Madame: Mrs. Warren saves herself from the poverty of the lower classes by turning not to factory work, poorly paid, long of hours, and beset by terribly unhealthy conditions, but to prostitution. A canny woman, she quickly realizes the money and position is to be gained through management, not labor, and she hooks up with a cynical member of minor nobility to develop a richly rewarding empire of houses in Ostend, Brussels, Vienna, and Budapest.

In the meantime she has educated a daughter of uncertain paternity through the English boarding-school system, rarely seeing her until she too attains maturity and casts about for her own way into presentable modern (Victorian) society. The meat of the play is the intricate dialectic between generations — not only of mother and daughter, of course, but of socially evolved, tolerated, and depended upon methods by which the female sex can take its place with in a male-dominated system.

Interestingly, and as is often the case chez Shaw, the males who dominate this action are pretty hapless — a young cynic who'd romance mother or daughter, whichever is handy; a minor ecclesiastic beset by regret, the Marquis (or whatever he is) who profits from Mrs Warren's profession, a likable architect who stands for Art and Free Spirit.

In the performance, the two women were particularly strong, easily, imperceptibly moving from early expository presentation — almost type-casting — to final detail and complexity. There are no solutions to the social problems which are Shaw's quandaries, precisely because there can not be an ideal stable society. There can only be relatively calm periods within the turbulent succession of human history. I suppose the analogy is ultimately with the vicissitudes of daily life, with the successions of hunger and satiety, desire and fulfillment, individualism and responsibility.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Tradition and the avant garde, as seen in 1968

Eastside Road, October 5, 2017—
jUST FOR FUN, and because I've just run across it, a transcription made by I know not who of remarks ad-libbed on Critic's Circle, a review show on the arts I used to participate in at KQED, back when this sort of thing was possible.
It's long.
Charles Shere - CRITICS CIRCLE
April 3, 1968
[transcription of unscripted remarks]

I would like to talk about the PBL [Public Broadcast Laboratory] broadcast of last Sunday night because for the first time PBL give its two hours over entirely to a cultural program — and it gave those two hours to the avant-garde — which is very much, of course, in controversy these days, being only some thirty or forty years old. PBL's program was called Who's Afraid Of The Avant-Garde?: an excessively coy title which I think established PBL's stance toward the subject of its program.
It was never quite sure what its stance was going to be. Television can either act as a recorder, the kind of television that says "let's pretend you're at the Buffalo museum or let's pretend you're at the ball game and we will take you electronically there and you can carry it from there,” or television can act as a participant — and PBL attempted this a couple of times in Sunday night's broadcast.
When it did make this attempt, and when it succeeded, it came up with the most exciting things that it did the entire evening. I'm thinking, for example, of their coverage of Cecil Taylor's jazz group. I'm thinking also of the first coverage of Merce Cunningham's Dance Company, when the television entered and participated in Cunningham's dance and did considerably more than taking you out of your living room and putting you down in the auditorium.
By and large, however, PBL's attitude toward the avant-garde was very much conditioned by what I guess it feared was a recalcitrant audience nationwide; and perhaps that audience is more recalcitrant than we would think, living as we do in the San Francisco Bay Area, an area which is by no means representative of the country as a whole. For example, there were frequent statements on the part of the narrator that the difference between the avant-garde art and normal art was that avant-garde art does not care at all about any kind of representationalism. Taylor's music, for example, it was stressed, had no beat and no recognizable melody. When some underground films were shown, specifically Jonas Mekas’s film Circus, the narrator made a great point of saying that underground.films share the avant-garde prejudice against heroes, against plots, against stories, just as the avant-garde paintings and sculpture is non-representatlonal. It seems to me that there is a reason for this and that this is symptomatic, rather than the end result, of an attitude of the avant-garde artist. I was looking at a copy of a new book which came out recently published by Walker and Company, a book about the French sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, who died in 1918, and in looking through this book it struck me that his career sums up the difficult time in western art which took place at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was a critical turning point, I think, in European history, certainly in the history of European civilization.
It was the transition between the teleological representational attitude of art until then and the new art which is the art of the 20th Century, representing homo ludens, man who plays games, man who is more concerned with the experience and with the integrity of what he is doing, of his activity, than he is with the pre-conceived concept of what kind of goal he is going to find at the end of his activity. In other words, where the nineteenth century and earlier thought of art as being a search with a goal at the end of the search, today's artists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jonas Mekas, all of the people who were touched upon by PBL, are not concerned with what they are going to find at the end of their search… if you can call it a search. They seem to be considerably more concerned with what it is they’re doing while they’re filling the time ….
And I think that there is probably a lesson for all of us in this. I think that civilization gets the art that it gets because it is the civilization that it is. I think that our avant-garde art partakes of this quality partly because today the artist and intellectual, when he realizes it, is a little bit tired of the civilization which is founded upon things, upon works of art which have commercial value, upon having as late a model of car as your neighbor, and this whole sort of thing.
It's still very difficult to talk about avant-garde art and about Dada, its progenitor, because like PBL we tend to lump all of this activity into one bag. To think, for example, of Buckminister Fuller as being avant-garde, to think of Mary Quant, the fashion designer in England of being avant-garde, the same way as John Cage and Merce Cunningham are avant-garde. Of course this is perfectly absurd. There is a great difference between an industrial architect and an avantgarde fashion designer on the one hand and a painter and a musician on the other. And as John Calder says in his introduction to a new book about English happeners, talking about surrealism. "It will quickly lose its sense of identity as an art movement and become a technique to be used to a greater or a lesser extent by dramatists and artists of the future.”
I think this is true of the avant-garde and it’s true of Dada, and I think that programs like last Sunday's PBL, excellent in places and pedestrian in others, will help to accelerate this feeling, will help to accelerate the possibility of all of these phenomena, with the avant-garde being assimilated not only by the artists themselves but also by we the audience, the people whom the artists serve, the people who in the last analysis feed upon and, in turn, nourish the artistic activity itself.

Well, all of this said, I went out to Mills College Sunday night to see what was supposed to be an evening of Dada and about the only Dada on the evening's program were two films, a marvelous film by Hans Richter called Ghosts Before Breakfast, a film made in 1927, and Ferdinand Leger's Ballet Mechanique, a film made in 1924. I think that its greatly to television's credit that things like PBL are doing programs like that of the avant-garde. Certainly television should be reviving these early films, early experimental films and the recent experimental films as well. Television is the perfect medium of making these films an accepted part of our inheritance, just as the Mona Lisa is, for example, or September Morn was fifty years ago. And until this has become a common part of the culture, the importance and vitality of Dada and the avant-garde will be lost on most of us.
At Mills College there were also some musical performances, notably of the Three Miniatures for violin and piano by Krzysztof Penderecki and, before that, the Four Pieces for violin and piano by Anton Webern. These were very sensitively played by Nathan Rubin who was accompanied by Naomi Sparrow (who played, incidentally, the best I've heard her yet). The Webern could not he heard too well because of a marvelous crotchety woman who was in the audience banging her cane on the floor and barking like a dog from time to time. She was, I suppose, the most Dada of them all at Mills College.