Thursday, April 19, 2007

That white metal sculpture in Milwaukee and the late blooming sculptor who made it


You don't have to know who created a work of art to find it beautiful. I've always liked this sculpture at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Although now it's enfolded by the Calatrava addition, you used to be able to see its elegant white lines from the road as you drove by, and I would always wave fondly at the graceful forms.

Recently I wondered who the sculptor was and, since the museum was closed and I didn't see the name on their website, found myself trying to Google something visual without knowing its name. Eventually I typed in the right combination of words that included "white," "sculpture," and "Milwaukee" and found this passage by Whitney Gould in the Milwaukeee Journal-Sentinel, written a couple of years ago.
The old timer is Alexander Liberman's "Argo," a sublime composition of white-painted steel cylinders and unspooling ribbon on the south lawn of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Art connoisseur Peg Bradley bought the 1974 work for the 1975 expansion of the museum.

Its strength is in its simplicity. Liberman's sleek volumes play off one another like the musical voices in a Faur Pavane. And there are no wrong notes: The piece rewards you with rhythmic solids and voids, shadow and light, straight lines and curves, all of it morphing into something new each time your vantage point changes.

Peer out at it between the Calatrava arches in the window wall of the museum's caf and "Argo" becomes a streamlined pachyderm, its flat trunk swooping up between two big, flat ears. Stroll past it along the lake walk behind the museum and those silo-like cylinders look like a Charles Scheeler painting come to life. View the work from the west, especially on a calm day, and it becomes a '30s ocean liner rising from the water, complete with foghorns.

The setting a green knoll, the raw concrete wall of the museum's David Kahler addition is off the beaten path, but it's the perfect backdrop for this celebration of pure form. Liberman (1912-'99) doesn't hit you over the head with a "message." He does what all great artists do: allow you to experience the world around you in fresh and surprising ways.
So who was Alexander Liberman? Shown with his stepdaughter and wife in this 1948 photograph by Irving Penn, the scuptor originally achieved eminence in a very different field.

The fact that the photograph was taken by Irving Penn, one of the great photographers for Vogue back in the day, says everything about Liberman's main career. Born in Kiev, educated in Paris, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1941 and started working at Vogue as an art director. The rest is history. He eventually became editorial director for all of Conde Nast, a position he held from 1962 to 1994. He was instrumental in bringing photographers like William Klein, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon to the pages of Vogue, changing the look of American fashion magazines and photography in the process. But his long life was even more fascinating than his work. He had always been interested in art, knew many of the most famous artists of his time, and did a lot to expand Vogue's coverage of the arts. He painted much of his life, and was also an accomplished photographer. But he didn't start making these large metal sculptures until he was in his sixties.

The photo is from the Washington Post review by Jonathan Yardley of stepdaughter Francine du Plessix Gray's book, Them: A Memoir of Parents. Here's how Yardley sets the stage:
The story that Francine du Plessix Gray tells in this exceedingly long family history cum biography cum memoir is exceedingly interesting, indeed at times startlingly so. The author's mother, father and stepfather were remarkable people who came from equally remarkable families that were involved in 20th-century European and American history and culture in important, sometimes intimate ways. Add to this Gray herself (a well-regarded novelist, biographer and journalist) and her late husband, Cleve Gray (an important Abstract Expressionist painter), and you have all the ingredients for a high-octane book, one filled with the names of notable and consequential people, one that will send many readers to the index before they turn to the introduction.

Gray's mother, Tatiana Yakovleva, was a member of the czarist Russian aristocracy who survived near-starvation after the Revolution, escaped to France, and in turn escaped to the United States about two steps ahead of the Nazis. Along the way she fell in love with the highly charismatic poet Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky, and he with her, and though their love was never consummated, Tatiana became the inspiration for some of his most important poems and thus a significant if peripheral figure in contemporary Russian literature. Upon decamping to New York, she made her way to the fashionable women's store Henri Bendel, and then to Saks Fifth Avenue, at both of which she became one of the world's most famous designers of women's hats. "Nothing goes to a woman's head like a hat by our own Tatiana," Saks declared in the mid-1950s. "Her magnificent creations are the delight of our most particular customers."
And that's just the beginning. All these years later, Du Plessix Grey, a distinguished writer in her own right, still has not fully come out from under the shadow of her charismatic parents, and Them is the result.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The worse it gets, the better it's working

As today's Baghdad death toll passed 178, U.S. spokesmen insisted the surge was working.
U.S. officials today insisted that the security crackdown was working, despite the recent surge in attacks. Last week, insurgents blew up a symbolic Baghdad bridge and a suicide bomber infiltrated tight Green Zone security to detonate explosives inside Parliament's cafeteria, killing one lawmaker.

"We have seen both inspiring progress and too much evidence that we still face many grave challenges," said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq. "We've always said that security in Baghdad will not be easy (Insurgents) showed that as Iraq builds, they will try and destroy."
Where is Orwell when we need him? "The surge is working" seems destined to become the the greatest example of newspeak ever. Meanwhile, Iraqis keep dying.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reconsidering the art and reputation of Madison native Thornton Wilder on his 110th birthday

Why not take a moment on the birthday of playwright Thornton Wilder, who was born on this day 110 years ago, to take a fresh look at the Madison native's life and career? A good starting point is the Library of America and its new edition of his collected plays and writing on theater. You might find that Wilder's reputation as the Norman Rockwell of American theater is undeserved -- a produuct of his interpreters' sentimental misunderstanding of his work.

That's what Jeremy McCarter contends in a recent NYT Book Review essay keyed to the publication of the new Library of America volume. Members of the literary establishment often have either dismissed Wilder or apologized for enjoying Wilder, as McCarter describes.
Mary McCarthy liked Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” more than she cared to admit. It was 1938, and the theater of social protest — of Odets and Blitzstein — was at its zenith: an inconvenient time for a politically minded critic to fall for this homespun tale of life in Grover’s Corners. In enjoying this Broadway hit, she later remembered wondering, “was I starting to sell out?”
McCarter goes on to talk about Wilder's wry humor and "infinite tolerance of human folly."
These qualities find their fullest expression in “Our Town,” a show you might recall, if your high school had a drama club. For all the play’s ubiquity, though, how well do we really understand it? Everyone remembers the folksy Stage Manager leading us through the story, as pretty Emily Webb grows up in picturesque Grover’s Corners in Act I, marries the local baseball star George Gibbs in Act II, and is buried in Act III. You may remember, too, how she decides to relive one day of her life, and sums up the play’s cosmic gospel as she returns to her grave: “Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

Frequently lost in the sentimental haze that most revivals inflict upon the play is the contrary voice of Simon Stimson, the town drunk and suicide. “That’s what it was to be alive,” he snarls. “To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those ... of those about you.” He makes a good point. Grover’s Corners is, in retrospect, an unbearable place: quite content to be homogeneous, conformist, anti-intellectual and lacking “any culture or love of beauty.” When staged properly, the play doesn’t let us to feel simple nostalgia. We ought to weep at Emily’s famous line not because she finds earth wonderful, but because she was unable to find it so during her close-minded life in her close-minded town — which is, of course, our town. Wilder makes a profound statement about the limits of human understanding here, one that requires delicacy and a little steel to convey. “ ‘Our Town’ is one of the toughest, saddest plays ever written,” Edward Albee has said. “Why is it always produced as hearts and flowers?”
McCarter lauds the Library of America for reprinting Wilder's prefaces and other writing on theater, which demonstrate how sophisticated his views on theater really were.
For Wilder, theater’s ability to present the universal and eternal made it “the greatest of all the arts,” but the 19th-century vogue for box sets and realistic props had reduced it to “a minor art and an inconsequential diversion.” He realized that for theater to regain its old pre-eminence, it would need to abandon naturalism and rediscover the tools of Shakespeare and the Greeks: stage conventions that convey — a marvelous distinction — “not verisimilitude but reality.” Thus Wilder’s lack of scenery and other brazenly theatrical devices are all ways of escaping the literal and picayune, of stretching theater as far as an engaged audience’s imagination can take it. The uncanny result is plays that pursue the emotional aims of Chekhov with the adventurous theatricality of Brecht.
It would be great to see a production that brought out those qualities.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Is Tommy ready for prime time? Not at this rate.

With coverage like this in Haaretz, Tommy Thompson's race for the Republican presidential nomination is getting off to a bit of a bumbling start. Never apologize, never explain, they say, but sometimes you have to try to put out the fire before it spreads.
WASHINGTON - Former Wisconsin governor and Republican presidential hopeful Tommy Thompson told Jewish activists Monday that making money is "part of the Jewish tradition," and something that he applauded.

Speaking to an audience at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington D.C., Thompson said that, "I'm in the private sector and for the first time in my life I'm earning money. You know that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that."

Thompson later apologized for the comments that had caused a stir in the audience, saying that he had meant it as a compliment, and had only wanted to highlight the "accomplishments" of the Jewish religion.
Back in his days as governor of Wisconsin, Tommy was known as a canny pol who cultivated an image as a lovable bumbler -- and who was certainly no anti-Semite. But his questionable way with words probably played better in his home state than it will to a national audience. If he keeps screwing up like this, his opponents won't even have to stoop so low as to bring up the issue of his alleged mistresses.

Here in Madison Sunday, everything looked like a still from a movie I haven't seen yet

Maybe it was the influence of the Wisconsin Film Festival, but everything seemed a bit unreal and mysterious around town on a sunny Sunday -- like stills from a movie I haven't seen.

They seemed to be rehearsing for some kind of martial arts movie in Camp Randall.

Why was this couple kicking their bike? I have no idea. Just something glimpsed in the rear view mirror.

With the end of the film festival, it was time to head back to reality -- and go home to finish up the taxes.

Sunday, April 15, 2007