Age is Abstract

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Linear perfection: a canvas from the “Blanco y Verde” series (1959-1971)

She sold her first painting at the tender age of 89. She turned 101 years old in May. And now, Carmen Herrera, born in Havana, Cuba in 1915, finds herself with a career retrospective at the fabled Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Who says perseverance doesn’t pay off?

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“I work, and I work, and I work”: Carmen Herrera, shown here on her 94th birthday

Herrera’s works, now recognized as seminal pieces in the development of abstract minimalism, were long kept largely private by the artist, who was a bit overshadowed by her great Cuban-born contemporary Wifredo Lam. Celebrated for her perspicacious use of lines, shapes, and colors, Herrera is often  mentioned with another master of the abstract, Barnett Newman (who, coincidentally, was a neighbor in 1950s New York — they often shared breakfasts together), as well as that other magical juggler of lines and color, Ellsworth Kelly.

The recently opened exhibition at the Whitney, entitled Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight, makes clear the artist’s lifelong obsession with precepts of architecture (which she studied at the University of Havana); her artworks are drawn with the geometric precision of a draftsman in search of linear perfection. In fact, Herrera once said that, “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going.”

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Precise geometry: “Green and Orange” (1958)

She continues to create, albeit when she’s up to it, as even she is not immune from the mundane maladies of aging. More involved now in conception rather than execution, Herrera sketches out ideas for new paintings that are then transferred to grid paper and which her assistant subsequently finishes.

“I work, and I work, and I work,” Herrera recently told the Wall Street Journal  (which praised her “intense visual power”). And there’s no fear of the future. Also known for her acerbic sense of humor, she wryly quips: “When death happens it will happen – it can’t be that bad if everyone is doing it.”

Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through January 2, 2017.

Pop Culture Musing for a Wednesday 8/31/16

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Winona Ryder in the Netflix series, “Stranger Things”

Inside the Upside Down: Called “the show of the summer” by the New York Times, Stranger Things, airing on Netfilix, is not ordinarily my type of fare, but with a window open on the binge front, and with all the plaudits it has received – and the fact that Winona Ryder is back in the spotlight in her role as a mother whose young son disappears under mysterious circumstances – well, that sealed the deal.

Pitch-perfect in its depiction of a small midwestern town in early-Eighties America, the series, created by the thirty-something Duffer Brothers (themselves born in 1984), also borrows liberally from such defining films of the era as E.T., Poltergeist, and Stand By Me, as well as assorted offerings by Stephen King. (The font for the title looks straight from a King novel.)

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Millie Bobby Brown as “Eleven”

Horror and fantasy not particularly being my cup of tea, I was most surprised by the emotional connection that Stranger Things was able to wield via the terrific child actors at the heart of the story. They wrap themselves around your psyche in all sorts of peculiar ways, none more so than the astonishing Millie Bobby Brown, the young British actress who plays the telekinetically enabled and unusually named “Eleven.” Suffice to say this little girl has quite the remarkable powers; she hooks up with the three boys searching for Winona’s missing son, and is on the lam from a laboratory where government agents used her as a guinea pig and potential weapon in the fight against the Russians (remember the Cold War?)

Anyway, her performance is really something to watch; she has limited dialogue, so expressions must convey all she feels, and every one of them cuts to the quick. Stranger Things is worth seeing just for the joy of encountering such a great new talent.

Oh, and back to Winona. How perfectly appropriate that she would be cast in a project that takes place in the decade which saw her emergence as one of the iconic actresses (Heathers, Beetlejuice) of her generation. Here, her acting has just the right amount of jitteriness required for a character who’s borderline nutso (due to the circumstances, of course). And just the necessary number of “Winona-isms” without which the occasion would not be complete.

So welcome back to Winona, goodbye to the summer…and here’s to a season two (just announced!)

Scent of the Strawberry

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Detail from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hiëronymus Bosch

Whither the power of the strawberry? A closer look at one of the most analyzed paintings in history may provide a clue or two. The artwork, of course, is the center panel of the famous triptych by Hiëronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights; it’s also part of the most comprehensive exhibition of the Dutch master’s work (timed with his fifth centenary), on view at Madrid’s Prado Museum through September.

The symbolism of that incongruously chaotic middle panel (it should be noted that Bosch is now widely considered the art world’s first Surrealist), has been forever debated. Does it depict the insanity of hell, or the pleasures of an eternally sybaritic life? And, alongside the discussion, the liberal use of fruit — in particular, berries — that sprouted from the artist’s imagination.

In 1605, the historian and poet José de Sigüenza wrote about the “short-lived taste earthly delights strawberryof the strawberry, and its scent that one barely appreciates before it has passed,” in his description of the ubiquitous fruits at the heart of the masterpiece. Many believe that the message of Earthly Delights was that humanity must push back against the temporal temptations of the flesh, amongst which the strawberry – with its metaphorical connections to sex and lust – could serve as a substitute for the apple of Adam and Eve.

It’s not coincidence that the unruly abandon that pervades the piece is mirrored in the fact that the strawberry is noteworthy for its tendency to grow uncontrollably. An oversized specimen (shown above) is seen hoisted in almost pagan adoration; if you look closely at the image shown at the top of this page, you’ll see one of the figures hugging a strawberry rather possessively, as if in fear of losing something highly cherished – reluctant to let go of the ephemeral joys of life and love.

Another detail, my favorite, is the one shown at bottom, of the owl perched with omniscient eyes as it observes the frolicsome proceedings. Another portentous symbol in an artwork already ripe with them (excuse the pun), the owl has long been viewed as representing learning and wisdom. I can’t help but think that his place in the tableau, along with the all-knowing gaze, foreshadows Shakespeare’s immortal lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

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Bosch: The 5th Centenary Exhibition runs through September 11 at Madrid’s Prado Museum.

Light Touch

light painting hibbertIn the finding-wonderful-art-in-unexpected-places department, I ran across the work of a French photographer, Christopher Hibbert, as a backdrop image from Google Open Gallery on my streaming device one evening. It sparked my curiosity enough to search for more of his pieces, two of which are shown here. A spectral blend of soft whimsy and technical prowess, the “light paintings” as they’re called, harbor a lingering quality, bringing a dash of the preternatural to settings that would ordinarily be typical, if lovely, landscapes. A process in which exposures are created, usually at night, by manipulating light sources or by the movement of the camera, the end result transcends technique; or, as the artist says, “Light is life.”
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Photos: ©2016 Christopher Hibbert

‘String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis’

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WITH WIMBLEDON, that most venerated of competitions now in full swing at London’s All-England Club, those with a love for literature as well as tennis can feast on a compilation that combines some of the most magnificent writing on the subject from one of the greatest writers of his generation. String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis by David Foster Wallace is important enough that the Library of America recently published it as a special edition, which in physical form looks and feels like a classic textbook – appropriate, as there’s so much to learn within its pages.

David Foster Wallace (who left us far too early, at the age of 46 in 2008) was best known for his novel, Infinite Jest, which sparked an uproar when it failed to be nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1996. It was a tour-de-force opus (1,100 pages long) that cemented his reputation as a fresh and consummately creative voice in the literary stratosphere.

Infinite Jest, not surprisingly, involved tennis amongst its several themes. Since his days as a junior player in the heart of the Midwest, Wallace’s relationship with the sport was deep and all-involving, and led to some of the most insightful essays ever produced on the topic, with the New York Times ultimately calling him “The greatest tennis writer ever.”

For Wallace, tennis was somewhat akin to a trigonometric puzzle that he spent his whole life trying to figure out. “I submit that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is, and also the most demanding,” he writes. Both the physics and geometry of what takes place within the 78’x27’ confines of a tennis court long consumed his astonishingly analytical eye. Consider the following, from “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” describing his early years in the junior leagues:

“We were doing butterfly drills – my crosscourt forehand is transferred back down the line to [his] backhand, he crosscourts it to my backhand, I send it down the line to his forehand, four 45° angles, though the intersection of just his crosscourts make an X, which is four 90°s and also a crucifix rotated the same quarter-turn that a swastika (which involves eight 90° angles) is rotated on Hitlerian bunting. This was the sort of stuff that went through my head when I drilled.”

Whew. Definitely not the “sort of stuff” that would cross the mind of the average weekend player. In an excellent foreword, writer John Jeremiah Sullivan notes that tennis “draws the obsessive and brooding. It is perhaps the most isolating of games…[and] the perfect game for Wallace.” That obsessive quality is very much on display here, and Wallace’s dissections of what would be considered minutiae by a casual observer are turned into stream-of-consciousness discourses of razor-sharp perception. Brilliant throwaway lines like “he rushes the net like it owes him money” are peppered throughout. (This extends, also, to the book’s voluminous footnotes, a technique that Wallace was known for ubiquitously employing in his fiction as well; I found it best to read those after finishing with the main text.)

book cover string theoryWallace’s exalted views about the essence of the sport – “There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man” – were sometimes challenged, and his disappointment is nowhere more keenly expressed than in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” In the piece written about the tennis prodigy’s autobiography released in 1992, Austin, who won the U.S. Open at the tender age of 16, and whom Wallace had placed on a pedestal, came quickly back down to earth as he realized that, “Great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination.”

In wickedly incisive form, he writes that “This is for me, the real mystery – whether such a person is an idiot or a mystic or both and/or neither. The only certainty seems to be that such a person does not produce a very good prose memoir.” Elsewhere, he describes the brash and grungy Andres Agassi — “whom I loathe with a passion” – as “amazingly devoid of finesse, with movements that look more like a Heavy Metal musician’s than an athlete’s.” Ouch!

But there was a certain icon about whom Wallace harbored no qualms. In an essay that has since reached near mythic proportions and was originally published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times in 2006, Wallace’s sublime observations reached a zenith of perfection. Reprinted here as “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” it’s a must-read for even those with just a passing interest in tennis, a heady amalgamation of both intellectual pyrotechnics and plain fan-boy praise from a clearly besotted Wallace:

“Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men’s tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

Even more to the point is Wallace’s uncanny analysis of what constituted the maestro’s greatness:

There’s also his intelligence, his occult anticipation, his court sense, his ability to read and manipulate opponents, to mix spins and speeds, to misdirect and disguise, to use tactical foresight and peripheral vision and kinesthetic range instead of just rote pace — all this has exposed the limits, and possibilities, of men’s tennis as it’s now played.

Could he have imagined that here we would be, a decade later, with Federer playing at his 17th Wimbledon, after already winning seven titles there? One is struck by a simple phrase that Wallace used to describe his idol, but which can be just as much said about his chronicler: “Genius is not replicable.”

[First published as Book Review: ‘String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis’ by David Foster Wallace at]

Christo Connections

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“The Floating Piers” (2016)

Way back in 1983 (when I was just a toddler of course), the excitement was palpable in the summery Florida air when the wildly creative conceptual artist, Christo, unveiled his and wife Jeanne-Claude’s now-iconic “Surrounded Islands.” Eleven small oases skirted in glistening pink polypropylene along Miami’s Biscayne Bay, they gave the impression of a “trail of giant flowers on the water’s surface,” as the New York Times then described it, and the event put the city, just beginning its own flowering into a cultural mecca, very much in the arts spotlight.

I remember venturing out with my dad in our tiny speedboat to see the “installations” up close, feeling it was all a bit of history, which it was. But the spectacle wasn’t designed to be viewed at eye level; the scope of the project could only be appreciated, of course, from the sky.

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“Surrounded Islands” (1983)

And there was so much more to follow from Christo in the coming years, including the “Wrapped Reichstag,” Berlin’s parliament building enveloped in aluminum and described at the time (1995) as a “symbol of the new Germany”; as well as “The Gates” in New York City (all 7,500 of them) along the walkways of Central Park, which four years after 9/11 “reminded the world that our city’s artistic spirit was alive and well,” in the words of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Fast forward now to 2016, and this weekend specifically, when the legendary artist, now 81, debuts his latest adventure — again aquatically themed — “The Floating Piers” in the northern lake region of Italy. This time (sans collaborator Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009), he picked the tranquil waters of Lake Iseo for his 23rd large-scale installation.  It will connect the town of Sulzano to the small island of Monte Isola via a two-mile oscillating runway, created with nearly a quarter of a million floating cubes covered in sunshine yellow fabric, whose hue will adjust depending on the time of day.

Numerous volunteers, including lifeguards, have been engaged to ensure safety for the 16 days the installation is in place. Coinciding with the conclusion of Art Basel (a couple of hundred miles away), the event is expected to draw about half a million visitors. “They will feel the movement of the water under foot,” Christo told the Times last year. “It will be very sexy, a bit like walking on a water bed.”

It also “creates an incredible urgency,” Christo said, “because it will never take place again.”

In a tradition begun with Jeanne-Claude early in his career, he also plans to provide visitors with mementoes of sorts, even possibly actual pieces of fabric from the installation. “Normally it’s a postcard you bring home,” said Germano Celant, project director for “Floating Piers.” “A bit of fabric becomes a part of history.”

Oh for a little piece of pink from one of those islands so many years ago…

Photos: Wolfgang Volz


Cindy’s (Ageless) Allure

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Untitled (2016)

One of the most celebrated stars in the photography firmament, Cindy Sherman is back with her first series of images in five years – and she’s playing a few old-time Hollywood “stars” herself.

In an exhibit of 16 life-sized color portraits that opened May 5 at the Metro Pictures gallery in New York City, Sherman (who, as her followers know, utilizes her own lights and cameras, as well as costumes and make-up), conjures the ghosts of such cinematic legends as Swanson and Garbo in later years. “I relate so much to these women,” she told the New York Times in April. “They look like they’ve been through a lot, and they’re survivors. And you can see some of the pain in there, but they’re looking forward and moving on.”

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Untitled Film Still #21 (1978)

Sherman, whose works have commanded as much as $6 million at auction, shot to fame in the early 1980s with her now legendary Untitled Film Stills, a set of 69 black-and-white photographs, one of which is shown left, depicting herself as an imaginary actress in a series of cliché moments that symbolized notions of homogenized femininity. Iconoclastic and trailblazing, the Film Stills launched a career that in a way comes full circle with the Stills now on view in New York.

In other words, the fresh-faced ingénue has morphed into middle-age amidst a culture obsessed with youth. Sherman, now 62, also told the Times that, “I, as an older woman, am struggling with the idea of being an older woman.” She says that the new photos are “the most sincere things that I’ve done — that aren’t full of irony, or caricature, or cartooniness — since the Film Stills.”

Next month, the new Broad Museum in Los Angeles will launch its first special exhibition with a lifetime retrospective of Sherman’s work, which the artist has perfectly titled Imitation of Life. The name comes from a 1959 Technicolor melodrama by director Douglas Sirk, whom Sherman has cited as an influence. It’s said that the wardrobe for the movie’s star, another Hollywood glam queen, Lana Turner, cost in the neighborhood of a million dollars at the time.

Something any one of Sherman’s memorable leading ladies would definitely appreciate.