Scratch the E!

letter-e-scratched outTalk about a writing challenge: I’d say constructing a 300-page novel without the most commonly used letter in the English language would definitely rank right up there. For two relatively obscure novelists, Georges Perec (1936-1982) and Ernest Vincent Wright (1872-1939), it was the ultimate word game, with the added demands of forging a plot and a story as well.

Perec and Wright were both masters of the lipogram, an aspect of language known as “constrained” writing, where the use of a letter – often “e” — or a series of letters, is not allowed. (As if writing weren’t hard work enough.) The self-imposed rules force a limiting of literary possibilities, and conjures the metaphorical example of a runner attempting a marathon without the use of a leg.perec la disparition

Perec’s book, La Disparition, originally published in French, was later released in English with the title, A Void, and its translation also held to the lipogramic standard. In a postscript to the English version, Perec remembers his mind traversing “down so many intriguing linguistic highways and byways.” Rather than restrictive, he found the trip a creatively liberating experience.

Ernest Vincent Wright preceded Perec (whose Void was published in 1969), with a novel called Gadsby ( yes, that’s with a “d”) from 1939, a 50,000-word tome that he wrote in about six months — with the letter “e” tied down on his typewriter. (A feat that would have taken most of us six years.) Now viewed as an oddity, the book is rarely found these days, and the few copies still floating around can be worth in the thousands.

Gadsby is more than just a curio piece, however, and actually rather remarkable. (The complete book is archived for the public gadsby novelhere.) In the introduction, Wright makes an intriguing point about the difficulties of attempting a story without the use of that invaluable vowel: “The greatest of these is met in the past tense of verbs, all of which end with ‘_ed,’” he wrote. “Therefore substitutes must be found; and they are very few,” he emphasized.

And in a quaint nod to the innocence – or shall we say provincialism – of the times:

“The numerals also cause plenty of trouble, for none between six and thirty are available. When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty?”

A quick perusal brings home Gadsby‘s sleight-of-hand. If you weren’t aware of their absence, you’d never notice that a “whole army of little E’s all eagerly expected to be called upon,” as Wright called them, were missing in action.

I’ll finish by stating my distinct fascination with this highly idiosyncratic form of linguistic wordplay. (Look, no E’s!)

Play it Again, Andy

progressive piano warhol coverLest one forget how Andy Warhol’s influence pervaded just about every nook and cranny of popular culture, a new exhibit, Warhol on Vinyl: The Record Covers 1949-1987+ reminds how the pop-art genius left his indelible mark on the musical landscape as well.warhol count basie

Actually, that fabled icon of jazz, Count Basie, is considered Warhol’s first celebrity portrait, via an ink-washed rendition featured on an album cover from 1955. Cover art was a niche that the artist repeatedly returned to (the exhibit features more than 100 works) until his death in 1987, coincidentally at the same time that the golden era of original art for vinyl releases was coming to an end with the advent of the CD.

“What [Warhol] really saw for the potential of the record cover was for it to be collected by the masses,” the exhibition’s curator, Laura Mott,warhol sticky fingers recently told The Washington Post.

As a child, I had no idea I was in possession of a small piece of the art universe via my copy of The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, though I found its real-life zipper design pretty darn clever, and more than risqué for its time. It was preceded by the Velvet Underground’s “banana” cover from 1967 (bottom), which, yes, could actually be “peeled,” as noted at the top corner; Warhol also produced the album, which sees his name – and not the band’s – on the cover.

Lesser known was a work for an album by the pianist John Wallowitch from 1964, where Warhol recreates thewarhol wallowitch multiple-image effect of pictures taken in a photo booth, and also captures a technique replicated in many of his paintings. The impressionistic “Progressive Piano,” from 1952 (shown top) is interesting in that the jazz compilation was not released at the time, though its design is conserved in a lithograph at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

And in the ‘80s came the silk-screen stylings for albums by Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin, as well as another hitmaker of the era, Billy Squier, all in the style perhaps now most associated with Warhol.banana cover warhol

“This is [also] a story about him loving music,” Mott told the Post. “These record covers are the only medium he worked in throughout his entire career.”

As usual, Andy rocked it – in more ways than one.

[Warhol on Vinyl: The Record Covers 1949-1987+ is on view at the
Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan through March of next year.]

Brilliant Disguise

stoetter body paintingI’ve never thought of body painting as being in the realm of fine art, but it’s definitely elevated to a sublime level by a wizard of the craft, Johannes Stötter, an Italian artist whose works depicting the human form in seamless assimilation with nature are both imaginatively evocative, as in the photos shown left and below, and stunningly eye-stumping, as in the “frog” shown at bottom. (The latter became a bit of an Internet sensation, as did a faux parrot, which was similarly striking.)
stoetter body painting wood


Champion at the World Bodypainting Festival in 2012 (this year’s event is currently in full swing in Austria), Stötter is among the more than 1,000 artists, including other celebrated body-art practitioners such as Craig Tracy and Gesine Marwedel, who have begun to upload photographs of their work to the website I Love Body Art, a centralized showcase for the myriad varieties of an art form that has come into its own.

“In body painting, you create unity between an image and a person. I observe the world, nature, colours, and shapes with very clear eyes and an open heart,” Stötter told London’s Daily Mail last year. His sharply creative eye has resulted in some amazing trompe l’oeil — and yes — some fine art, too.

stoetter body painting frog

Models provided the body parts for Stötter’s stunning recreation of a frog.

(Photos: Johannes Stötter)

Pop Culture Musing for a Thursday 6/26/14

playing house life once removed Family to Go: If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well make ‘em up. Such was the case with Suzanne Heintz, a Colorado-based art director who got fed up with the when-are-you-going-to-get-married question 14 years ago, and opted for a ready-made family of her own. Voila! Two mannequins — a husband she named “Chauncey” and a daughter she dubbed “Mary Margaret” — fit the bill, and one of the quirkier artistic endeavors I’ve run across was born.

Heintz’s photo series, Life Once Removed, which kind of evokes Cindy Sherman landing in Stepford territory, is still going strong: Chauncey and Suzanne “renewed” their wedding vows earlier this month (though with a twist) and their adventures have traversed the globe, as Heintz schleps the dolls along for photographs taken around the world. Theplaying house wedding whole point is to satirize images of what we’ve all come to view as “perfect lives” and women’s stereotypical roles within that framework, as well as documenting the everyday routines of familial relationships, fake or not.

Is this taking the pursuit of art a bit too far? Perhaps, but actually, some might be a little jealous. Chauncey’s not bad-looking (and he’ll never develop a paunch), and many parents would probably be delighted to have a kid who can’t talk back at them. (Of course, Mary Margaret won’t ever grow up and leave the nest, either.)

Somewhere, there’s an unreality show in the making.

(Photos: © Suzanne Heintz)

In a Summer Place

coney island beach 1960sconey island beach 1960sConey Island is synonymous with nostalgia, and the images by  photographer Aaron Rose, taken along the beach and boardwalk between 1961-1963, and now on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, also spark remembrances of summers past that extend well beyond the shores of that storied locale.

On view for the first time, the prints are awash in both languor and bustle as they depict the crowds converged on the seaside resort more famous for its amusement parks, in a time just before the ‘60s embarked on their tumultuous trajectory. Rose, who’s been described as a “photographer’s photographer,” recently told American Photo magazine that “to be amongst people in the flesh, with such an array of shapes and styles, I just felt it was the best way for me to get into my work with humanity.”

coney island beachWith their vaporous yet burnished tones, and assemblage of colorful characters, the pictures reminded me of many an old photo or two taken during childhood along my own nearby seashores of Miami Beach. They also recalled some lines from a poem inspired by that experience which I wrote many years ago:

Songs of the current nostalgia
Blaze in the seafood air
[Sky-floating bubble of iron welcomes you]
Skins, hotter than carrots
Droop in the summery indolence
Of the southern vein

A summery indolence now remembered with more than a touch of wistfulness… for a time, a place, and a season. (In A World of Their Own: Coney Island Photographs by Aaron Rose, 1961-1963 runs through August 3.)

Photos: © Aaron Rose, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Music: Love as Legend

Ah, love… it burns, it falters, it fizzles. But it rarely does so with the ethereality of Love Fail, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, now released on CD, and featuring the out-of-this-world female voices of Anonymous 4, the acclaimed a cappella quartet so responsible for raising awareness of medieval music to new levels.

david lang love fail coverInspired by the tale of the mythical star-crossed lovers Tristan and Isolde, the madrigal-like sounds of Love Fail are devoid of instrumentation (with the exception of hand bells used sporadically to good effect, as well as some scant percussion). It’s constructed of passages both arcane and modern that Lang fashions into a libretto of emotion that explores the theme of love in all its complexity – from desire to obsession, sorrow to irony. (The album’s cover photo, left, is ironic in itself; dating from 1908, its title is “Love’s Reward.”)

Originally conceived for the stage, Love Fail had its premiere at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut in 2012, followed by subsequent performances in venues from New York to Los Angeles. Its appearance at UCLA’s Royce Hall was unique for the fact that concertgoers were separated by empty seats, in order to ensure a “rich personal acoustic space,” according to the presenters.

Lang, whose The Little Match Girl Passion composition won the 2008 Pulitzer for music, is well-known for experimentation, and he’s been labeled everything from a minimalist to post-minimalist to conceptualist. His Whisper Opera, which debuted last year, is typical of his unorthodoxy. “What if a piece is just so quiet, it can’t be recorded?” he asked in one interview.

Here, Lang adapts obscure text selections, distilled from the Tristan and Isolde legend, alongside vignettes by the short-story writer Lydia Davis, whom The New Yorker recently called “one of the most original minds in American fiction today.” Davis provides the contemporary sensibility in striking micro-narratives like “The Outing” and especially the wry “Forbidden Subjects,” with its rendering of some of the more quotidian aspects of modern love.

Ultimately, it’s the heavenly voices of the members of Anonymous 4 (Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Ruth Cunningham, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek), that make Love Fail an enveloping experience. I expect the hypnotic repetitions and overlapping harmonics of “He Was and She Was,” which sets the stage as the work’s opening piece, will linger long for many.

tristan and isolde painting

Rogelio de Egusquiza, “Tristan and Isolde” (1910)

Lang ends with “Mild, Light,” a variation on lyrics from the dramatic “Liebestod” aria that concludes Richard Wagner’s opera of Tristan and Isolde, as the heroine faces eternity with her beloved:

Will we just fade?
Buried in the raging storm?
Buried beneath the ringing sound?
So sweet

Just maybe, love isn’t such a fail after all.

[First published as Music Review: David Lang - Love Fail on]

Degas, Beyond the Dance

forest in the mountains edgar degas

Edgar Degas, “Forest in the Mountains” (1890)

Serendipitous discoveries seem to happen a lot in the context of supreme talent, and I encountered that again in a little-known facet of the work of French Impressionist Edgar Degas (1834-1917) as I read about the new exhibition, Degas/Cassatt, which recently opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Degas, that master of the human form so renowned for his sculptures and paintings of dancers, also had a wonderfully interpretative eye for landscape, strikingly represented in a series of monotypes that were inspired by several trips to the French countryside in the early 1890s.

When I saw his Forest in the Mountains, top, it was hard to believe that it was created by the same artist whose many images of ballerinas (and equines) secured a singular place in art history. The monotype technique, which consists of applying oil paint directly on a metal plate or glass, was somewhat of an obsession for Degas; a contemporary called it his “fixed idea.”

landscape monotype degas

A Degas landscape from 1892

Degas described the pieces as “imaginary landscapes,” and one is struck by both their elusiveness and untypical sense of abstraction. (The New York Times once wrote that “the works are startling even today in their looseness and ghostliness.”) They’re startling, also, for their illusory shapes and the Rothko-like tinges of darkness amidst the pastels.

It’s always wondrous to find unexpected dimensions in the work of great artists such as Degas, who are frequently typecast as far as style or subject matter. It’s also a theme I often return to in the pages of this blog, and which never ceases to surprise: how the creative mind is inexorably pulled outside its safety net to find challenge in the unexplored.