Fantastically interesting and smartly plotted New Yorker profile of filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and his new Gerhard Richter-related project.
Following a tradition I’ve held since 2000, I’m pleased to wrap up the year I had, primarily in terms of my favorite cultural experiences. A more personal note is saved for the bottom.
Sight, Jessie Greengrass
Design and Content, Abbott Miller
Reading Between the Wines, Terry Theise
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates
My Struggle: Book 6, Karl Ove Knausgård
The Odyssey, Homer (Emily Wilson, translator)
Paula Scher: Works
Feel Free: Essays, Zadie Smith
Lost Property: Memoirs and Confessions of a Bad Boy, Ben Sonnenberg (repeat)
Medardo Rosso: Experiments in Light and Form (Pulitzer Arts Foundation)
The World As It Is, Ben Rhodes
Obama: An Intimate Portrait, Pete Souza
Architecture's Odd Couple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson, Hugh Howard
Yes We (Still) Can, Dan Pfeiffer
Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business, Ken Auletta
Happiness: Ten Years of n+1
Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma, Michelle White (The Menil Collection)
The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror, Garrett M. Graff
Magnitude: The Scale of the Universe, Kimberly K. Arcand
A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir, Ian Buruma
Saving Central Park: A History and a Memoir, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
An Equation for Every Occasion, John M. Henshaw
Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces, Michael Chabon
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath
Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Noah J. Goldstein
Books I didn’t connect with: Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord; Aaker on Branding: 20 Principles That Drive Success by David A. Aaker; Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (though I enjoyed the author on Ezra Klein’s podcast); and Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgård (I suppose he can do wrong in my book).
The 900-page William H. Gass Reader is not listed in my book list above, since I’ve already read everything in it. But as a new release in 2018 — and a brilliant one — it needs to be called out.
Two of my all-time favorite novels are William Gaddis’s The Recognitions and JR, both giant hills to climb. Throughout 2018, I listened to parts of the complete audio recordings in the car. If you’ve read these novels, you know how difficult narrating them might be. Nick Sullivan does an incredible job, particularly with JR, which is basically non-stop, almost-always-interrupted dialogue for 900 pages.
A Ghost Story
The Death of Stalin
The End of the Tour
The Big Sick
Meh: Baby Driver; Chris Rock: Tamborine
The Americans (Final Season!)
Atlanta, Season 1
Succession, Season 1
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 3
Bojack Horseman, Season 1
Silicon Valley, Seasons 1-3
Beyond the many hours of classical music I listened to at work through the headphones, the the albums I most enjoyed this year were Jonny Greenwood’s sublime soundtrack for Phantom Thread (nearly a daily listen for me), as well as new/newish records from Julien Baker, Boygenius, Jeff Tweedy, Pusha T, Earl Sweatshirt, Cat Power, Damien Jurado and Lomelda, whose song “From Here” has a final third that lifts off in a way that always makes me smile and sing along.
Close to home:
Ruth Asawa: Life’s Work at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (curated by my wife and called “the year’s most beautiful exhibition” by the Washington Post)
Mona Hatoum: Terra Infirma at the Pulitzer
Lola Álvarez Bravo: Picturing Mexico at the Pulitzer
Amy Sherald at Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
Kehinde Wiley: Saint Louis at the Saint Louis Art Museum
During a wedding trip to Chicago, I enjoyed diving back into the permanent collection of the Art Institute Chicago and doing quick cruise through the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
While attending and speaking at a conference in D.C., museum highlights included:
Watching “Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death,” an unforgettable, gut-wrenching video work by Arthur Jafa at the Hirshorn
Baselitz: Six Decades at the Hirshorn
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
A trip back to The Phillips Collection
Less happy note: Excitedly took a morning cab to the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, but there were no tickets to be had. Great for the institution, though I was bummed.
During a day-and-a-half trip to NYC, I was able to see a remarkable amount of world-class art, including:
The stunning Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim
Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts at MoMA
Charles White: A Retrospective at MoMA
Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 at MoMA
Delacroix at the Met
Jewelry: The Body Transformed at the Met
Relative Values: The Cost of Art in the Northern Renaissance at the Met
Martha Rosler: Irrespective at The Jewish Museum (plus the permanent collection)
Odds & Ends:
During that same short NYC trip, Tamara and I were able to get rush tickets to Kenneth Lonergan's play “The Waverly Gallery,” starring Lucas Hedges, Michael Cera, Joan Allen and Elaine May. Small theater. What a treat.
For our living room we bought a used piano from the wonderful folks at STL’s Jackson Pianos. Leo’s starting lessons in 2019, and I hope to get back to it after several decades away.
Amid lots of technology, Mac OS Mojave’s new screenshot feature — where you can drag a just-taken shot into use without it being saved to your computer — is something I’m grateful for daily.
While I still read Twitter, I didn’t post much this year, particularly the last six months. I tried to spend a bit more time posting what I would have shared there on my website, which had previously grown very quiet.
Speaking of web publishing, I spent a few months trying Micro.blog, which I found to be a wonderful, light-weight micro-blogging service. I was tempted to move entirely to the system, since so many of my posts are short links to content of note, but I’m going to stay with the system I have. I’m not much interested in the social/timeline aspect. But I’m keeping an eye on it.
It’s been inspiring and humbling to be part of the 2018-19 Leadership St. Louis class, the 43rd since this program began. I hope to post some reflections on the program when it ends this coming spring.
For whatever goodness 2018 brought, it’s been a sad year for our family. This summer, my father-in-law, Omer Huremović, died after battling cancer for several years.
Tajkic, as I called him, was perhaps the bravest, most resourceful and resilient man I’ll know.
He was also an artist. Little made him happier than hand-making and shipping off one of his wire-tree sculptures — some massive, others that could lay in the palm of your hand — to buyers around the country, improving their lives one sculpture at a time.
We miss him daily. We live with his art, and all that he taught us.
An inspiring profile by Rebecca Mead.
The official flag for The Refugee Nation, a team of ten refugees currently competing in the Rio Olympics, draws its colour scheme and design from lifejackets. Designed by Syrian artist and refugee Yara Said, the flag is a vivid orange with a single black stripe.
Learn more about this beautiful effort.
Watching Ragnar Kjartansson’s “S.S. Hangover,” part of “Drifting in Daylight: Art in Central Park” from Creative Time.
“Artist’s wire trees free the mind, shape the future,” written by Doug Moore and published in this past Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch. With some nice photos to boot.
To view (and buy?) his work, visit H-Omer.com.
Gerhard Richter, quoted in Atlas:
Do you know what was just great? — To notice that such a stupid, absurd little act like copying a postcard can result in a painting. And then the freedom to be able to paint what’s fun. Deer, aeroplanes, kings, secretaries. Not having to invent anything any longer, forgetting everything one understands by the concept of painting: colour, composition, spatial depth; and everything else that one knew and thought. That was suddenly no longer a prerequisite for art.
Above: My own snapshots of a photograph in Atlas (partial) and Richter’s resulting painting, “Sekretärin” (partial), which we saw in Dresden in 2010.
Following up on my previous post about this extraordinary 900-page book — I finished it last night — here are a few more remarkable passages around which I drew my customary lines, stars, and exclamation marks:
Paris, February 1905:
With [Théodore] Duret to Mademoiselle Courbet, Courbet’s sister. Works of Courbet from all periods, especially interesting the Demoiselles de la Seine (around ‘66) and quite early pictures from Courbet’s childhood when he was fifteen to seventeen. In the Demoiselles, although later than Manet’s and Monet’s Déjeuner, no "plain air,“ no colored shadows on the dresses (perhaps a little blue in the face of one). In the quite early pictures astonishingly there is already Courbet’s unique, completely new application of color with which he started modern painting. So Courbet achieved this revolutionary new way of painting himself. His sister confirms that he received no instruction in painting in Ornans. Everything was genial intuition. With that a major problem in modern painting is solved.
Weimar, June 1906:
Opening of the Artists League Exhibition… The most interesting thing in the exhibition the painting by quite a young artist who is exhibiting for the first time: Max Beckmann, Naked Boy on the Beach. Like Signorelli and with qualities of Courbet and Cézanne, but nevertheless strongly original in the rhythm of its accents and in its tonality, which has a marvelous unity. I introduced myself to Beckmann and congratulated him.
Berlin, two days later:
Beckmann lunched with me in the Carlton. He spoke of the romance of life that he feels so keenly, the romance of the quite common, everyday life. Poe-Whistler… He is through and through a painter, which is seldom the case with Germans.
Berlin, December 1907:
In the evening the Rilkes came to dinner. She has something great and simple, willful, almost masculine. He appears to be the more feminine of the two. When he sits, while speaking, crunched up in his chair, his legs and arms crossed, you get the impression from his thin body and his soft voice, that sounds as if were the pleading, of an ugly young girl. He spoke of Prague, Russia, Paris, always in quite long, soft, somewhat precious sentences.
Berlin, February 1910:
Met the writer Sternheim at the Meier-Graefes’ in the evening. He has a rather elegant wife off of whose money he lives. He was introduced to me yesterday by Cassirer and immediately laid out a plan for a writer’s trust. Today he launched into obscure theories about tragedy. In a tragedy, the hero is not tragic, but the world around his hero, his milieu. That’s why Hamlet for example should actually be called "the world around Hamlet,” Lear, “the world around Lear,” etc… I asked Sternheim what then was the difference between the hero and a madman? Clearly he couldn’t answer for he employed all sorts of metaphysical expressions. Meier-Graefe asked me, while I was leaving, what I thought of Sternheim. I said, “Crazy.” As Meier-Graefe later told me, Sternheim said to him, when he went back to his guests, “How happy I am to have met Count K. Finally a man who understands me!”
Paris, June 1911:
After breakfast went to the exhibition of the Henry Bernstein collection: Cézannes, Renoirs, Bonnards, Vuillards, etc. There I met Rilke, who was completely taken by the Cézannes. He is now so totally obsessed with Cézanne that he is blind to everything else. Of the mountain in the House in Provence he says, “Since Moses no one has seen a mountain thus.”
Paris, July 1911:
My attention today was fixed almost the entire time on Rilke’s enormously fat lips (especially the lower lip) and on the smell of fruit, which dominates his rooms like in the apple room of an old country house, and circulates in the fresh, warm air from outside, old-fashioned and a little old-maid like. This mouth in this atmosphere, a mixture of the old maid and sensuality.
Paris, May 1912:
In the evening the premiere of The Rite of Spring. A completely new choreography and music… A thoroughly new vision, something never before seen, enthralling, persuasive, is suddenly there, a new kind of wildness, both un-art and art at the same time. All forms laid waste and new ones emerging suddenly from the chaos.
Budapest, February 1915:
Sat alone in the Hungaria in the evening and during this first respite from the immediate presence of the war in seven months, I reflected on it. War is a situation to which you become accustomed, alas. You form bonds in war with an intensity and naiveté such as you only do in youth (Schoeler, Below). We are fearful in normal life and only under fire, confronting death, do we ask ourselves why, like the child when the curtain falls in the theater. This “why,” this somewhat naive problem of the fear of death, becomes gradually clear to you in a war. Gradually you grow numb to shrapnel and death. Paradoxically you live life then all the more intensely: friends, nature, all beauty. War has taught me to love and admire man infinitely more, whom it has revealed to me in all of this horror, baseness, greatness, and sweetness. I have seen him as an animal and as a god.
I’ll end there, though the diaries have another few hundred (compelling, sad) pages to go. Much more of the war. A life in Switzerland. The Epilogue, by the book’s editor and translator, Laird M. Easton, is perfect.
Obviously, Journey to the Abyss is a book I highly recommend. I wish Alex Ross’ terrific essay-review, which prompted me to buy it, was by now in front of the pay wall, but it’s not. I’ve just found another long piece about the book, this time from James Fenton in The Atlantic. It’s titled, appropriately, “Everywhere Man.” About to dig in.
Last April, I read an extraordinary review-essay by New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross about the following book: Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918. Ross, one of my favorite cultural writers, told a vivid story of someone with seemingly unlimited reach in European cultural circles, someone who might have breakfast with Rilke, discuss art with Rodin over lunch, spend an early evening looking after a deteriorating Nietzsche, and look ahead to a weekend with Vuillard. Or Degas. Or Monet. A man who kept note of it all — not just logging it, but commenting, analyzing, thinking on the page.
Ross’ piece is still subscription-only (11/23/12 update; he’s posted it his on site), but Amazon’s page for the diaries offers this bit from his New Yorker review:
A document of novelistic breadth and depth, showing the spiritual development of a lavishly cultured man who grapples with the violent energies of the twentieth century…also a staggering feat of reportage. The war fever infected Kessler…[he] does not hide the grimness of the scene. For the reader, it is a shock to be deposited in such hellish landscapes several pages after watching the antics of Diaghilev and company; few books capture so acutely the world-historical whiplash of the summer of 1914…The supreme memoir of the grand European fin de siècle.
Within about 10 minutes of reading Ross’ review, I’d put the book on my Must Buy list, and by the time my birthday rolled around in June, a loved one had gifted it to me. I’m only 330 pages into the 850 total, but I can say that it is indeed extraordinary.
Here is Kessler in his early 20s, in 1891, writing to himself from Paris:
Went with Papa in the evening to the Folies-Dramatiques. On the way home spoke to him about my project of a trip around the world, and he gave his consent. If everything goes well then from November until next October over Egypt, India, Indochina, Java to Australia, then New Zealand and North America.
That’s how Kessler rolled.
Berlin, February 1895:
For my part the way in which a girl places her feet while dancing or how a young officer holds his horse with his thigh gives me a joy that, in this way, none of the so-called orthodox works of art can. I find in such movements, of which a drawing, for example — even done by the Japanese — can only provide a snapshot, a secret beauty, an unconscious style, which enchants me more than all the perfect of fixed forms.
Paris, July 1895, amid a visit to Paul Verlaine:
Finally he promised me to draw a portrait of Rimbaud as well as he could from memory, the existing ones, with the exception of the Fantin-Latour, are all bad. He also spoke again today more than was necessary about earning money, but he is so naive in this that his grasping had actually nothing repellent about it. It resembled more the fondness for sweets of a child than the usual greed.
Yesterday and today I read for the second time, after four years, Schopenhauer’s Principle of Sufficient Reason. It is notable how many new voices books, which like this one are deeply thought, acquire over time, and how difficult it is — I notice this in my marginal notes — to recover the old impressions and thoughts. Such a work, read for the second time — and this is even more true for literature — is like a yardstick against which you can measure the change in your self over time. And there are also works, the most powerful and the deepest, that you must read over and over again throughout your life, which, like medieval cathedrals at different times of the day, in the morning light, in the glow of the afternoon, and in the cool gray of evening, are always changing and becoming new. You cannot waste time when you’re young, otherwise it is too late, and you have missed forever the morning light of the masterpieces, perhaps their most splendid lighting.
When it comes to art, what the idiot looks for in an artwork is the confirmation of his way of viewing, thus the satisfaction of his vanity. The artist is supposed to prove to him what a fine observer of nature he — the eternally complacent, the good citizen, the Sunday art connoisseur — is. True art demands, however, renunciation temporarily so that afterward you can walk away all the richer. All art that does not enter the nerves and senses of those who enjoy it, so that they who have experienced it see or feel the world from then on with something of the genius of the artist who has moved them, is, in the end, not worth being produced.
Munch painted my portrait.
My reading continues.
What a year it’s been for seeing artist documentaries — first the Richter, then the Abramović, and now, tonight, the Ai Weiwei. The third is not quite as well crafted and structurally mature as the others, but what an utterly fascinating and brave subject. And how incredibly that this young American just showed up in China and ended up documenting this incredible life. Recommended.
Art in America reports on this very interesting project:
On June 21, Brooklyn-based online magazine Triple Canopy will begin a two-week residency called Perfect Strangers, in Sarajevo. While in the Bosnian capital, where several of the country’s national cultural institutions were closed earlier this year due to inadequate government support, Triple Canopy will initiate a program of workshops, site-specific visual and textual works, lectures, and publishing. Artworks and other project components will examine Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fraught history and national identity.
The lack of funding, as well as tensions between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, has thwarted the development of cultural infrastructure since the Bosnian War. Triple Canopy deputy editor Molly Kleiman spoke to A.i.A. about the residency as an opportunity to share Triple Canopy’s resources and practices with artists in Sarajevo: “I wanted to bring the working method that we’ve used in New York to Sarajevo.”
“Light is my medium to be investigated,” says the Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, who spent years chasing bands of prismatic color around his studio in Tokyo and capturing them, with what was for him rapid-fire succession, using a Polaroid camera. In collaboration with Hermès, 20 of the artist’s abstract color studies have been translated into silk scarves in signed, limited editions of seven each. “Couleurs de L’Ombre” (Colors of Shadow), as the collection is called, is a moving tribute to the lowly Polaroid, which faces imminent extinction.
Hey, that’s my father-in-law. Well done, Omer!
My post for the “Artful Travels” series at the TOKY Blog.
Peter Watson's The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century is an extraordinary 1,000-page book. It is immensely ambitious, rich in ideas and evidence of the German-speaking peoples’ world-changing achievements in music, literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis, biology, geology, bioethics, archeology, art history, and on and on. (On music, to take just one subject: “The standard ‘backbone’ of classical music consists today of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms — all German.”)
Watson, an intellectual historian and former journalist, is a confident, resourceful, learned guide. He succeeds not just in illustrating how Germany was the leading force in the world of ideas until 1933, but also in helping the reader consider the country since it was ever-changed by the Führer and the Nazi Party (“Hitler still makes history but he also distorts it”). As a writer and historian, Watson is sharp and entertaining, as evidenced by these well-drawn, memorable sketches and assessments of just some of the book’s key figures:
Prickly, oversensitive, cynical, and bad-tempered, he was as much feared and disliked as Hans von Bülow, who was notorious for his tempers and antagonisms. At one party in Vienna, it is said, Brahms left in a huff, grumbling, “If there is anyone here I have not insulted, I apologize.”
Paradoxically, Strauss was himself a solid bourgeois, with a sober — even staid — private life. Alma Mahler was at the rehearsal of Feuersnot in 1901 and confided to her diary: “Strauss thought of nothing but money. The whole time he had a pencil in hand and was calculating the profits to the last penny.” His wife, Pauline, was a grasping woman, once a singer, who would scream at her husband, when he was relaxing at cards, “Richard, go compose!” Their house at Garmisch had three separate doormats, on each of which Pauline insisted that the composer wipe his feet.“
Richard Strauss was ambivalent about Arnold Schoenberg. He thought he would be better off "shoveling show” [!] than composing, yet recommended him for a Liszt scholarship.“ … A small, wiry man, "easily unimpressed,” who went bald early on, Schoenberg was strikingly inventive — he carved his own chessmen, bound his own books, painted (Wassily Kandinsky was a fan), and built a typewriter for music.
When war broke out, Thomas Mann — as we have seen — was as nationalistic as many others. He was not yet one of the giants of European literature but he did have a growing reputation. He volunteered for the Landsturm, or reserve army, but the doctor who examined him was familiar with his work and, reasoning that he would make a greater contribution to the war effort as a writer rather than as a soldier, failed him physically for active service.
Kafka is best known for three works of fiction … But he also kept a diary for fourteen years and wrote copious letters. These reveal him to have been a deeply paradoxical and enigmatic man. He was engaged to the same woman for five years, yet saw her fewer than a dozen times in that period; he wrote ninety letters to one woman in the two months after he met her, including several between twenty and thirty pages, and to another he wrote 130 letters in five months. He wrote a famous forty-five-page typed letter to his father when he was thirty-six, explaining why he was still afraid of him.
Along with his fellow German-speaker, Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx probably had a more direct effect on the recently completed twentieth century, and the shape of the contemporary world, than any other single individual. Without him there would have been no Lenin, no Stalin, no Mao Zedong, and few if any of the other dictators who disfigured those times. Without him there would have been no Russian Revolution, and without World War II (or Max Planck and Albert Einstein), would there — could there — have been a Cold War, a divided Germany? Would decolonization have occurred in the way that it did, would there have been an Israel where it is, the Middle East problem that there is? Would there have been a 9/11? Ideas don’t come any more consequential than Marxism.
Sigmund Freud’s influence was less catastrophic than Marx’s, but no less consequential…. Alfred Kazin, the American critic, maintained in an essay he published in 1956 to mark the one hundredth anniversary of Freud’s birth that “Freud has influenced even people who have never heard of him.” Kazin thought that, at mid-century in America, “to those who have no belief, Freudianism sometimes serves as a philosophy of life.” He thought that at “every hour of every day now,” people could not forget a name, feel depressed, or end a marriage without wondering what the “Freudian” reason might be. He thought that the novel and painting (Thomas Mann, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstraction) had been reinvigorated by the Freudian knowledge that “personal passion is a stronger force in people’s lives that socially accepted morality” and that the “most beautiful effect” of Freudianism was the increasing awareness of childhood “as the most important single influence on personal development.” He thought the insistence on personal happiness — the goal of psychoanalytic therapy — was the most revolutionary force in modern times, a modern form of self-realization.
Nietzsche’s most well-known — some might say notorious — aphorism is “God is dead.” One of his most important achievements, along with Max Weber, was to think through and confront the implications of that sentiment, to work out in what he saw as terrifying detail the consequences of modernity, a world of vast populous cities, mass transport, and mass communications, in which the old certainties had been dissolved, where the comforts and consolations of religion had disappeared for many people, and in which science had acquired an authority that was, in his view, as arid and empty as it was impersonal and impressive. It is in this sense that Martin Heidegger called Nietzsche the “culmination” of modernity — i.e., Nietzsche felt the loss of whatever had gone before more keenly than anyone else, and he described that loss in more vivid hues.
All this was overshadowed by the advent of Joseph Beuys, who stands apart (and, for many people, above) all else in German postwar art. Beuys, born in Krefeld in 1921, never deviated from his conviction that his artistic aim was to find a new visual language that would come to terms with the war and at the same time find a way forward that did not ignore all that had happened.
The work of art, Beuys believed, exists in “eternal time, historical time, and personal time.” Having himself been shot down over Russia as a Luftwaffe pilot in the Second Wold War, he was treated for frostbite by his Russian captors, who used felt and fat, which became the materials Beuys used in (some of) his art, fused with other, less personal substances. He felt the spectator should be aware of what these materials meant to the artist, adding a level of consciousness to the aesthetic experience (as a boy he used a tram stop near an important monument), with the national past, featuring railway lines to remind the viewer what railways were used for in Nazi Germany. But, his lines were slightly curved, to hint at progress, a way forward, and up. In experiencing the present-day beauty of his sculptures, Beuys is saying, we must relive past events — this is his dialogue with time.
Congrats to Watson for completing such a tremendous volume of history. I recommend it highly.