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Schilderen, roken, eten

Best wishes to all for the new year. Among my resolutions: more postings.

Philip Guston, Painting, Smoking, Eating (1973; via the Guardian). I like the heap of his signature hobnailed boots behind him — I think they stand for the compulsive quality of his work. May we all contrive both to harness and indulge our compulsions, in due proportion!


The Paolo Soleri

Paolo Soleri, now 91, was born in Turin and studied architecture there. He came to the US in the 1940s to work with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West. (He recounts amusingly (The Urban Ideal, 23-4) that with the little English he commanded at the time, he found himself on a bus to Tolleson, Arizona before being set right.) After a few years back in Italy, he returned to Arizona, setting up an architectural center of his own, Arcosanti. Much of its income came from handcraft projects, such as cast metal bells; but it has also been a laboratory for his architectural ideas.

He’s a visionary, who has seen certain ecological issues very clearly — notably, that the most sustainable mode of living for billions of humans on this planet of ours is to cluster together in cities, leaving as much as possible of nature to nature. Check out the wide-ranging interview with Jerry Brown (1, 2), from back when Brown was doing his radio program We The People. There’s a paradox in Soleri’s choice of a non-urban site for the project — a spot that began as wilderness but has been swamped by the development of Scottsdale and greater Phoenix. (Brown, introducing Part 2: “a place called Arcosanti, an urban, well it isn’t an urban laboratory, but it is a desert laboratory about a type of urban space and the people are there, what I would say a very elegant, frugal and dense, and complex way of being.”)

Along with his years of advocacy and charismatic projection of green architecture, though, he has built a few very interesting practical projects outside Arcosanti. During the Italian interim, for example, he designed the Solimene ceramic factory at Vietri on the Amalfi coast. Its fluted exterior alternates between glass and columns covered with tiles and plates from the factory’s own production.

And in 1965, at the Santa Fe Indian School, he designed and built an amphitheater, known for decades as “the Paolo Soleri”. By his account, it was conceived for Native American theatrical performance, but it is also well known for graduations, community functions, and music. The school has lately been demolishing a number of its older buildings, including several of real historical interest — check out the murals in the old photo of the dining room. And now they plan to take down the amphitheater as well (the title of my post is from a report by a local TV station).

There’s a petition to urge the head of SFIS to reconsider the demolition. Please sign if you’re interested. Senators Bingaman and Udall have expressed support for the preservation of the amphitheater, if not yet promised funds. And here’s Lyle Lovett speaking on the issue.

(Via Conrad Skinner. Updated after comments.)

Sometimes this happens, out here in the west of the west, and you remember why people come, and stay.


We live in Mississippi. Or so Paramount Studios thought in 1927.

Well, on some measures we’re very close.

Have you ever noticed that bits of the West are like, really amazingly beautiful?1

This is from the base of lower Yosemite Falls—close enough to get wet, anyway.

And this is the view from the balcony of Lookout Studio. I couldn’t manage to take a picture of the Grand Canyon that didn’t look like a “picture of the Grand Canyon.”

Stuff like this goes under the awesomeness of TR category, which we really ought to actually have.2

Previously, on the grandeur of the Grand Canyon.

1Yes, I know I could have borrowed from the Eagles here, but we’re all above that, aren’t we?
2Look, I know this is a bit cliché, but it makes me happy, ok?3
3Yes, I know there are a bunch of defensively phrased rhetorical questions down here. Give me a break, will you?

Robert Arnesen’s egghead sculptures are a prominent feature of the UC Davis campus. I learned only recently that one was duplicated for an installation in San Francisco.

Reproductions of Arneson’s Yin and Yang Eggheads appear along the Embarcadero, situated together just east of the Justin Herman Plaza fountain, across from the Port of San Francisco Ferry Building. The sculpture was dedicated in mid-December. A plaque recognizes it as a reproduction of one in a series of five acrylic-on-bronze sculptures commissioned for UC Davis.

A native of Benicia, Arneson taught ceramics at UC Davis from 1962 to 1991. His Egghead sculptures were created for specific campus locations and were installed during 1991-94. The original Yin and Yang Eggheads sit outside the UC Davis fine arts complex courtyard, where they were positioned by Arneson himself shortly before his death in 1992.

The eggheads that appear in San Francicso were cast in 2002 from Arneson’s original molds. Installers positioned the two Eggheads in San Francisco, orienting them like those at UC Davis.

I don’t know what they think the word “like” in that last sentence means, but here is the San Francisco Yin and Yang, from that same page:

And here is the original Yin and Yang, as placed, according to the article, by Arnesen himself:

I meant to blog this the first time it was on This American Life, and the repeat reminded me: Chuck Klosterman on how not to do cultural studies.

… the creators of “I Like America” had made one critical error: While they had not necessarily misunderstood the historical relationship between Americans and cowboy iconography, they totally misinterpreted its magnitude. With the possible exception of Jon Bon Jovi, I can’t think of any modern American who gives a shit about cowboys, even metaphorically. Dramatic op-ed writers are wont to criticize warhawk politicians by comparing them to John Wayne, but no one really believes that Hondo affects policy; it’s just a shorthand way to describe something we already understand. But European intellectuals use cowboy culture to understand American sociology, and that’s a specious relationship (even during moments when it almost makes sense). As it turns out, Germans care about cowboys way more than we do …

As I rode the train from Munich to Dresden to Hamburg, I started jotting down anything I noticed that could prompt me to project larger truths about Germany.

An abbreviated version is as follows:
1. The water here is less refreshing than American water.
2. Instead of laughing, people tend to say, “That is funny.”
3. Most of the rural fields are plowed catawampus.
4. Late-night German TV broadcasts an inordinate amount of Caucasian boxing.
5. No matter how much they drink, nobody here acts drunk.
6. Germans remain fixated on the divide between “high culture” and “low culture,” and the term “popular culture” is pejorative.
7. Heavy metal is still huge in this country. As proof, there’s astonishingly high interest in the most recent Paul Stanley solo record.
8. Prostitution is legal and prominent.
9. When addressing customers, waiters and waitresses sometimes hold their hands behind their backs, military style.
10. It’s normal to sit in the front seat of a taxi, even if you are the only passenger.

I suppose I could use these details to extrapolate various ideas about life in Germany. I suppose I could create allegorical value for many of these factoids, and some of my conclusions might prove true. But I am choosing not to do this. Because– now–I can’t help but recognize all the things Americans do that a) have no real significance, yet b) define the perception of our nature…

When I returned from my tour, many people asked me what Germany was like. I said I had no idea. “But weren’t you just there?” they inevitably asked. “Yes,” I told them. “I was just there. And I don’t know what it’s like at all.”

Football Players

On November 30th, 1899, at Sixteenth and Folsom Streets in San Francisco, Berkeley defeated Stanford 30-0 in the Big Game. The most famous trophy of the game was the Axe, which had been introduced in the baseball Big Game that spring. But with this victory, the second in a row for Cal football, Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco also awarded Berkeley a finer and more substantial trophy, a lifesize bronze statue called “The Football Players”, which stands today in a grove toward the west side of campus, on the way up into the university from downtown Berkeley.

Douglas Tilden was born in 1860, and attended the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley. He went to New York and then to Paris for further studies. He finished “The Football Players” at the end of seven years in Paris — note that, apart from being French, the players are dressed for rugby rather than American football. He did several other public sculptures in the Bay Area, including the “Baseball Player” in Golden Gate Park, the Mechanics’ Monument on Market Street downtown, and the California Volunteers’ Memorial at Market and Dolores. The monuments are bombastic in the style of the day, and hard to look at seriously now. (My daughter likes the Volunteers’ Memorial, not because she’s passionate about the Philippines War but because the horse has wings.) But the “Football Players” does something quite different than any of these, turning the conservative academic style to recognizably human ends — the composition, angles of the limbs, etc, harmonize with the gazes and the points of contact between the bodies, making a vivid if prettified image of male friendship and physical intimacy.

Photo by Flickr user marymactavish used under a Creative Commons license.

Man with Small Beard

Would it surprise you to learn that in rural Wisconsin, at the end of the 19th century, there was poverty, failure, vandalism, arson, domestic violence, disease, depression, alcoholism, insanity, suicide, and murder? Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973, reissued 2000) is built on the assumption that it will. The book consists largely of clippings from the Badger State Banner, of Black River Falls, Jackson County, WI, and images by Charles Van Schaick, a local commercial photographer. After some 200 pages of grim citation, Lesy steps in to comment directly:

Pause now. Draw back from it. There will be time again to experience and remember. For a minute, wait, and then set your mind to consider a different set of circumstances….

The book certainly made a strong impression on me when I saw it as a boy. Reading it now, I have to wonder what the fuss was. The people in the pictures look…pretty much OK. You can see that they lived tough lives (there are some awesome farmer’s tans), but there are hardly any whose faces I now find scary, not even the tendentiously blurred ones Lesy enlarged from group photos. Real people can in fact look pretty strange — take a good look at your fellow passengers on the bus, or in the mirror (or, not to put too fine a point on it, at Lesy today). And in the 1890s, many of us were still new to having our pictures taken. (The nakedness of Julia Margaret Cameron‘s portraits is even stranger, though from a different place and a more privileged social world.)

Similarly, I’m unconvinced that the objective difficulties in Jackson County at that time were historically unusual. (There was an economic depression, certainly, but that was national.) Lesy tries to argue statistically that the area was worse off than its neighbors, considering the suicide rate, economic growth, etc., but his figures are inconclusive. (The suicide rates he cites, for example, are close to that for the US today.) Warren Susman, the Rutgers historian who introduces the book (he was Lesy’s thesis advisor) writes that “Many historians have become convinced that there was a major crisis in American life during the 1890s; some have gone so far as to call it a ‘psychic crisis’…”, but does not explain or offer citations.

The credibility of Lesy’s vision of rural hell is not strengthened by his handling of the text. What he excerpts from the newspaper is principally police-blotter items, briefly recounting murders, deaths, the commitment of the insane to the Mendota asylum, etc.  Beyond that, he uses no other primary or secondary sources (until the epilogue). Instead, he interpolates invented material — passages attributed to  a “Town Gossip” and a “Local Historian”, and excerpts from fiction (Hamlin Garland, Glenway Westcott, and apparently Lesy himself).

What bothers me most about the book now is its treatment of Van Schaick, the photographer. First, the book’s atmosphere of doom severely constrains one’s reading of the photos — it overwhelms the normal liveliness and humanity of such pictures as the young couple laughing, the woman bathing a baby; the handsome young man in a turtleneck, and the men clowning in an office. (OK, I’ll relent — to read that they’re doctors, clowning with electrical shock equipment, makes that last one legitimately ghoulish.) But worse, I think, is Lesy’s strange uncharity toward the man who supplied the meat of the book. In the introduction, Lesy dismisses him as merely conventional, and in the text he gives an anecdote (unsourced, and presumably made up) of Van Schaick’s poor hygiene in old age.

Thirty years after, Lesy gave an interview to Identity Theory, which is quite a bit more gracious and humane. Now he gives Schaick his due, making an apt comparison to August Sander — clearly a stronger image-maker, but likewise an example of how meaning and value in documentary photography are built by serial accumulation. So if I’m ungracious to Lesy now, perhaps I should reflect that my equanimity in the face of the images he assembled is partly owed to the shock they gave, to me and many others, back in the day.

Photos from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Death Trip Flickr set, used under a Creative Commons license. See also the large Charles Van Schaick archive at the WHS’s own site.

[Updated with some minor corrections.]

America’s first composer died on this day in 1800. William Billings was born in 1746 in Boston, and lived there all his life. He was described as “somewhat deformed in person, blind in one eye, one leg shorter than the other, one arm somewhat withered.” He was a tanner by trade, and self-taught in music. In 1770, he published The New England Psalm-Singer, a collection of his own compositions. (Above is the frontispiece, by Paul Revere.) He would go on to publish five more such books; his music was widely reprinted; and he taught singing frequently. Yet this was not a living, and he spent the last decade of his life in penury. He was buried in an unmarked grave.

Billings’ music is almost all four-part vocal harmony, the prevailing form of religious music in his day. It’s essentially diatonic, with little modulation or use of secondary dominants. The technique is crude in a distinctive way, at once rougher and more cautious than the European style of the same period. It’s rough mainly in its disregard for contrapuntal rules, such as the prohibition on parallel fifths and octaves. But it’s cautious in its treatment of dissonance — indeed there’s hardly any, except for passing tones off the beat. (Thus he did without one of the principal expressive tools of classical music — there’s never a suspension, or a 6/4 to prepare a cadence.) He was criticized for this by the cognoscenti of Boston, and he responded with bravado, writing a satirical address “To the Goddess of Discord”, and a short composition, “Jargon”, made up entirely of dissonances. (You can hear it sung here.)

Yet within its narrow limits, the music still has real strength. The secret is in its fresh and vigorous rhythm. He knows how to sustain the pulse for line after line — it must have been satisfying to belt out those closely rhyming texts in their hearty meters. His greatest hit, and the one with the greatest resonance for history — even military history — is the patriotic hymn Chester. He printed this in his first book, and again with more verses in The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778). It became one of the most popular songs of the Revolution, second only, they say, to “Yankee Doodle”. (You can hear it at the same site.) In its stirring words,

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.
Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.
When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.
The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys.
What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

If you’re curious, here’s Wikipedia’s score of Chester marked up, with the fifths and unisons in red. (I’ve also highlighted spots where he doubled one of the tones in a tritone.)  For more scores, see the William Billings page at ChoralWiki. And for more information, see McKay and Crawford, William Billings of Boston (Princeton, 1975).

Of her tumultuous, nomadic life, Tina Modotti spent only eight years in the United States. She was born in Friuli, northern Italy, in 1896, and spent her earliest years in Austria. Her father emigrated to San Francisco, and in 1913 she followed him. She worked as a seamstress, but soon began acting, rising to stardom in the local Italian theater. In 1918, she married a bohemian aspiring artist named Roubaix de l’Abrie (“Robo”) Richey, and they moved to Los Angeles. They had some success in crafts (e.g. batik), and Modotti made some first steps in a film career, appearing most notably in The Tiger’s Coat (1920). But in the same period, she met Edward Weston, and they began an intense relationship, both a love affair and an apprenticeship, which turned her toward the work for which she is now remembered.

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