Monday, November 3, 2014

No Man is a Curatorial Island


There’s been a lot of confounding diatribes in the news these days and I wouldn’t touch them for fear of being labeled an Islamophobe by Hollywood persons. A safer controversy is to do with a new book on how real art curators have been neutered by our curatorial culture. What occurs to me (within my limited purview in discussing our culture, national and world) is that this may be an illusion blown out of proportion. What gives me this privilege? I have an MFA. So there! If artist, Barbara Kruger can go on intelligent, BBC talk shows and discuss art –– I can too. Well, she didn’t really talk about art so much as where the art world is now as opposed to her heyday in the Eighties and Nineties. She did mention her favorite typeface, Futura Condensed Italic. Her encapsulization of the new-money enriched art world, she didn’t want to talk about. Don’t bite the hand that feeds? Isn’t that one of her text pieces? What felt odd about her performance (aside avoiding a gritty discussion of her work) was that she admitted casually that all art is now outside consideration by anyone but elites. How can this be? I thought she was of the school that skewered the “genius” and “patriarchal” myths. She admitted that her cultural surveys are mostly pop cultural. So why are her comments any better than mine or yours? Is it because we are trained in deconstruction and (though we aren’t allowed to admit it) we see the world more clearly than CNN and butch guys in baseball caps driving Dodge Rams.
We should treasure the outdated focus of art and criticism (where oranges are in another basket than lemons) because without the scrutiny every ninny with a smart phone is a so-called encyclopedia and curator. That isn’t much of a claim I know, but still any overview about art (with a big-A) is important, especially at dinner parties. Perhaps, there is a sleight of hand in the way our technology gives us the belief that we are all current, up to date and full of progressive ideas and understanding. Of course, I disagree. We are college educated, middle class people who have no status anymore – I can hear the echoes of Islamophobism heading my way – and this troubles me. This distinguishes us from others who work for a living instead of scribbling flippant, on-line essays! Yet, artists aren’t the only ones who imagine being “un-plugged” or “off the grid.” There are loads of philosophical crazies planning to survive after the balloon goes up, whatever that balloon may be. There are lots of TV shows about it. It makes people nervous but I am not bothered. No one can track me down except the NSA and they couldn’t care less.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Eulogy for Henry Frank Rosenthal (1923-2014)


I have dreaded this day my entire life and thought it would never come. That was of course wishful thinking. Our dad was a generous spirit. Anyone who knew him, knew that. Most people thought him a demure, kind man, certainly a punster and a straight arrow, quite fastidious. This would make him the butt of jokes that he would weather with good humor. He could dish out but with a kind wit, never malicious. If you went as far as to hurt his feelings, he would say in a vulnerable voice, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.” He was so right about that. Oh, he could be fussy. His sense of order and decorum we had to respect if nothing else. Hank was slow to anger but he would yell if annoyed, “No trash in the living room,” and the classic, “Turn that damn noise down!” We’d learned to remember to turn the stove off and then neurotically return five times to check again. The seed never falls far from the tree.
As he grew older, I thought about his youth a lot. Not just the war stories that were common and genuinely remarkable, but the fact that he was a great athlete, could ice skate like a demon (I saw this a few times), played lacrosse and was an expert marksman. He followed his alma mater Hobart College his entire life and was annoyed for years afterwards when the New York Times dropped publishing the scores. It is easy to say he was a lousy golfer and a worse driver. The latter he would never admit to. It is amazing we survived long holiday trips up the East Coast from Atlanta as kids. I will always remember the day he drove a motorcyclist off the road on route 46 in New Jersey. The poor schlub managed to survive on the hilly verge by the seat of his pants, finally made in back onto the road and overtook our Pontiac sedan. He cursed out the whole family. You didn’t have to read lips. He flipped us the bird and took off. What a great memory.
Dad had one minor dilemma the most of his married life and I’m here to settle the argument. To be or not to be Episcopalian. I suppose the fact that we are here at St. Peter’s might make the matter seem irrelevant and you might think it’s enough to warrant honorary Christian-hood for my dad. But that isn’t the point. He was a hybrid character, like many of us, sitting on a cultural fence. He could never fully explain this but I have recently read his wish list in which he tries in 1993. I will quote here: “I never went to a Jewish social occasion or… but I seem to attend most of those on Episcopal side...” He missed the point. It is easy to do.  
Today, I have the official duty to amend his statement for the record. He did attend my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah later, possibly looking a little uncomfortable in Synagogue. I’m not sure why. Up in Pittsfield, Mass., little bits of German slash Yiddish peppered the elder Rosenthal conversation. I was called Hymie by Aunt Anne for years. Dad was Heiny, short for Heinrich. “Oy Vey” was heard as well. It was amusing but I believe this is why I found myself completely comfortable in a temple setting. My name alone got me through the door and my sense of humor clinched the deal. Same with dad though he wasn’t aware of it. As for myself I believe I have been doubly blessed to feel the love from both sides of the Judeo-Christian divide. Henry, inadvertently, paved the way. He goes on the say in his statement: “I try to live by the moral code of the Commandments acceptable in both of the above.” So it is moot whether he considered himself Jewish or not. Secular or “cultural” Jews are Jewish even if they drink martinis, play golf and dress up for church for the odd wedding or funeral. Let’s face it; that is what makes America great. One high point was the concert at St. Thomas’s in New York where Grandson Hank slayed the crowd on piano with the First Movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. A standing ovation followed including a proud grandfather or two. If you can make it there.  For what its worth, he faced down a Panzer division in December, 1944 while wearing dog tags that bore a Star of David. Nuff said.
The point I’d really like to make today is that the traditions of both sides honor those who have passed and pass that responsibility on to the next generation. Hence all the candle lighting in Jewish tradition which we will try to abide by in Philadelphia. This is why brother, William’s work on Ancestry.com is so valuable. He has filled in gaps in both family trees that could never have been made without complex, interwoven algorithms. For a while we thought there was a direct blood link with Pope Gregory the Ninth. (laughs) Here, I must make special thanks to William, Emily and Max for taking the brunt of these difficult last few weeks that was nothing short of surreal. They have shared a lot of Martinis in the last few years.
Dad was the rare bird who could tie a bow tie in an emergency. He could cook a perfect poached egg. Hank pursued any activities, devoted husband and father, gin, golf and backing into parking spaces, driven by his own personality and timed to the minute. I will not mention his single-handed campaign against squirrels bordering on instability. One day he was nearly arrested by a Park Ranger for spray-painting the little rodents. I once found a one dead in the rain barrel at Skyline. Not a pretty sight. This mania has been passed down to his sons who are still devising humane ways to kill these damn creatures. I dispatched a squirrel myself by forgetting I’d caught one in a trap when the temperature outside was 10 degrees.
Our golden years may have been on Skyline Drive in this very town of Morris. Collective hours were spent with Grandpa McEwen (a real Englishman) and Julie watching Masterpiece Theatre and Fawlty Towers. Those really were the days. Strangers to the household were often in awe of the Skyline Drive rituals, tea and toast, followed by drinky-poos. Later life became a pop cultural mash-up of Seinfeldom, Simpsonasia, antics of seven beloved grandchildren and Will’s funny and never ending Bill Clinton impression. Mom and Dad watched each episode of Seinfeld about twenty times.
Dad married an English Major, Barbara McEwen. She still beats me at scrabble! This union was unassailable and affected everyone. Under Mom’s guidance, Dad continued a keen deconstructor of language and we’d all compete for a final Malaprop. His humor will be remembered. It made life more lively and live-able. He’d never fail to goof on waitresses. Once at a restaurant in Philly, he pretended he was Dr. Rosenthal with a straight face. It’s a good trick. Though puns will continue to be thought of as the lowest form of humor by stuffy librarians and schoolmarms, they get the wrong end of the shtick.
Never mind, for tomorrow we rise at dawn to battle the French at Agincourt. Or, in our case, set the snooze button for 7:30, maybe 8-ish. We’ll have toast with strawberry jam and listen to classical music on WQXR. Our cook will brew the finest ground coffee from the A & P (purchased with saved coupons) in an ancient stovetop percolator.  The women folk will have a pot of tea.
I’d like to end with a nod to the bard, oft mis-quoted in the Rosenthal household. We’d try to brush up our Shakespeare and start quoting him now, appropriately from Henry the V:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

WetLand

In 1968, J. G. Ballard wrote a novel called The Drowned World. It is a science fiction where London is underwater and all the famous landmarks peek out above the famed city. Londoners have always feared the Thames. This sort of dystopian future may have been with us since Noah and the Flood. The Dutch have lived with rising tides and floodplains forever. In 1953, the dykes failed. Holland was inundated by a massive storm surge. That is why they stay well ahead in planned protection of their “coastline.” New York City had no such mindset in 2012. Then along came Sandy, a hurricane that may have been (for many) the first indicator of significant climate change.
From my comfortable perch in the Independence Seaport Museum library (where I have been researching naval battles of the Great War) I watched artist, Mary Mattingly and friends’ six week Fringe project develop. Eventually, it dawned on me that the off-kilter shack growing on a small house-boat (circa 1971) was sculpture. What else could it be? Unless it was a project from the This Old House crew on acid.  The Do It Yourself ethic is definitely there. The use of salvaged and re-cycled material is there. Self-sufficiency is the watchword. In this case, the builders were living on site!
Admittedly, my activist beginnings are benign. As they say, if you lived through the Seventies you probably can’t remember most of it. As a member of the original Save The Planet crew, I do recall the first Earth Day. It was nearby. Future Shock was on my reading list as was Orwell’s 1984. Atom bombs were expected any minute aimed at the Empire State Building. Smog, acid rain and nuclear winter were terms used a lot. The Clean Air Act passed unanimously in 1970! No squabbling. How things change. Other things not so much. Many years onwards the problems are more pressing and contentious. History itself seems to have paused. Similarly, the end of civilization is now more ubiquitous. So commonplace are disaster scenarios that whole generations are formed by them. This spectacle encompasses several familiar tropes: zombies, viral plagues, radiation beasts (my favorite), demon hackers, transformed computer droids. Flying sharks now jump themselves.
But seriously, we are in deep shit. We just don’t know from what. Perhaps they will work it out today at the United Nations. Lighting the top of the Empire State Building with green light will undoubtedly help. Technically speaking, apocalyptic futures and climate change may not amount to the same thing at all. For some, petrol engines, coal use and greenhouse gases are the main culprits. For others running out of crude is the problem. I’m in the middle on this because I would like to drive my ‘73 Pontiac Lemans into the last hurrah (whether fiery comet or tidal wave) blasting Ozzy Osbourne on eight track. Is that old school or what? My main worry (beyond climate disaster) is the Singularity given character by writer, William Gibson in his cyber-punk phase; he gave it up when all his prophecies came true. Putting micro-chips in our heads and linking human kind with machine? Haven’t proponents of this future prospect seen Terminator? The acting isn’t much better in Gibson’s Johnny Neumonic!
In my favor, I compost and recycle. I don’t own a clothes’ dryer and I wear unlaundered, worn out jeans because it looks more Ramoney. Still, who am I to decry dedicated artists who live to educate the public about eco-systems and co-operative work. Some use homemade bread, brew and beards for style. I am envious because I wouldn’t last a day without my television. Still, I want to believe. The series of questions raised by WetLand as experimental sculpture, performance and sustainable living space are vital and the interaction with Penn’s Landing crucial. Each visitor will leave with a different message. Subsistence on this crowded lump spinning in space is key whatever the danger. This link between ‘Earth Art’ of the near past is re-assuring; Smithson’s obsessions derived from post-industrial wastelands of New Jersey in particular. We see echoes of that tradition in Mattingly’s work. She also stress’s the burgeoning local businesses going green together in a positive way.
Millennials do this efficiently armed with charts, graphs and wiki-facts. Mary Mattingly has done this before on the Hudson River aiming somewhere between Buckminster Fuller and Robert Smithson. Mattingly’s Waterpod  (2009) is much more retro-futuristic. Geodesic domes and such. Life on Earth as art? Why not? On the Delaware, the house boat’s mismatched wood (think Philadelphia’s Dumpster Divers) is downright charming. Inside the cabin, on loan from a dismantled vintage gym floor in Iowa, these panels have a lovely pentimento echoing thousands of Converse All Stars; a conservation of past events. Always way ahead, artists are natural re-cyclers. The solar panel on the roof updates the whole thing, while the chickens at the back keep a rooted barnyard feel. Did I mention the bees? Fresh honey from Hives in the City and eggs! Sounds like heaven. Dinner on board was delightful, made with local produce by visiting artist, Mollie McKinley. The yoga teacher brought the local shrimp and I brought a South American Pinot Noir. Fresh herbs filled the air. They came from the floating farm. The experience was not like a Viking River Cruise. Occasionally, the wake of a passing ship would rock the boat reminding us all we were on a river. The Delaware is not the cleanest of waterways so drinking/cooking water was carefully collected rain or carried on board. A hose was set up for the vegetable farming. On hot sweaty days, the crew resorted to showers on Admiral Dewey’s historic cruiser, Olympia docked nearby! Edwardian comfort on a coal-eating monster!
The project’s proximity to warships (USS New Jersey guarding Camden) and frivolous riverfront entertainment was intriguing. Initially, from my vantage point in the Seaport museum (in the shadow of the Hyatt) I couldn’t quite make out the shape of a sinking house, Mattingly’s fine metaphor for the state of the world both lyrically and in reality. The shape developed slowly into a distinct wedge reminding me of a chunk of organic gouda with a bay window.
Social awareness of both art and ecology is oddly similar. Broadly speaking, the ‘public’ doesn’t seem to have a clue about future or past and the crucial connection between them. Can you have one without the other? The WetLand, floating art installation stood out in the excellent 2014 Fringe Festival and presented the city with a great conversation piece about environmental issues. I am told the environment may find another home soon. Possibly at another hidden refuge, Bartram’s Gardens – John Bartram was America’s first Botanist – on the Schuykill River in South West Philly. That would give the autonomous living system a different sort of historical and popular resonance sorely needed these days. Failing that, the East River by the United Nations would be appropriate. WetLand will successfully address all that and give a distinct, personal touch to fundamental issues relating to World’s End or a new start.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Good Riddens: SUMMER 2014



Sorry, I have been away time traveling to great new solar systems where they played cassette tapes of one hit wonders from the early seventies. I was in heaven. The chord struck by Guardians of the Galaxy was perfectly timed and became the high point of my summer. The music ideal for road trips, it reminded me of a time when we were all on the same planet listening to the same FM station. Most of us anyway. My daughter loved the music by the way if you think this is an old dude flashback. While the Earth struggled with the same infighting and demographic disasters, it was encouraging to realize someone at the Military-Entertainment Complex (Marvel/Hollywood) still knows how to divert us and deliver a first rate spoof that resonates.

Friday, July 11, 2014

My Forgeries?

A few weeks ago I found an ancient half finished painting on an old panel in the basement. It was from my MFA course way back before Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This bugged me because the series of WW2 tanks and planes were good. There just wasn't very many of them. I'd never painted over it because I ceased using oil paint. If I paint now, it is with acrylic or ink and found materials. So, I bought three tubes of oil and started to re-work the picture. It was already a limited palette. Soon after starting, I was rather pleased with the results and how I felt. "Like riding a bike," I thought. And a little bit of what people now refer to as time travel. The painting (when begun) resembled 1930's modernist work (New Image was in, baby) so re-working it now is a double blast from the past. It is also full of irony since I have spent so much time to escape the noose of painting. I plan on selling it when it is finished as a forgery of my own work.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

THE BREAKS?

Where have I been all my life? Trying to work out a problem of my own creation? Yeah, well, maybe but some things clear up with experience. I have returned to my novel with renewed interest since there is a convention coming up in town next weekend. I needed to review the elevator speech for WORK SHY which I'd nearly forgotten: Artist dies then becomes famous with an old friend working as a glorified PR man. The project goes to Hollywood and implodes. It is a solid premise. In the meantime, I sell cool records in yard sales. I have a lot of cool records. Last week I found a Kurtis Blow 12 inch single "The Breaks" in my neighbors trash.



Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fountain Art Fair, New York, March 2014


My first visit to the sixth annual Fountain Art Fair this March was overdue – sorry about that. Not only was it held at the original 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington surrounded by cool army trucks and humvies, inside was a super varied collection of art by young emerging artists and galleries of all types. These people wanted to talk about their work to an unassuming critic from Philadelphia. I felt like royalty, something I’m not used to at larger fairs where gallerists figure courting some shady on-line review is like pissing in the wind. Enough said. I was not planning to review the show but after a few conversations I changed my mind.

The Sculptors Guild from Brooklyn has been a stalwart institution since 1938. Included was an ex-MFA student of mine from Moore College of Art, Laura Petrovich-Cheney. It is always wonderful to see artist’s work and career develop. Her carefully constructed wood assemblages of found objects have a complex role. The piece, Washed Up, was part puzzle, part environmental comment and something re-utilized. Subtly arranged blue cast-offs formed a larger field of color, a perfect mix of painter’s eye and weight of sculpture. I wanted to own it but agreed to keep a look out for derelict doors for her in the meantime. No effort for a scavenger like me! Chuck Glicksman’s and Ginger Andro’s lumiscope, Jumping Hurdles was a carnival-like take on Eadweard Muybridge’s jumping horse. That crazy Muybridge was trying to prove horses fly! The piece was a reverse carousel where the moving images were projected on the outside rather than glimpsed through spinning old-time arcade amusements. The result was a reflective merry go round or “optical” flipbook, we all agreed, “Was it Vermeer, Plato or prehistoric man who’d first thought of the camera obscura?” Our discussion of optics continued with the bar staff at Molly Malone’s on Third Avenue after the show.

Around the corner, I ran into Dave Tree of the Murder Lounge, a Boston art collective. Fantastic and fitting title for a pop-up gallery or anything for that matter. He was responsible for hanging the entire center aisle of several cubicles with his cohorts. His own work was at the entrance and so was he. We had an interesting conversation while he summoned his inner salesperson. I asked if he’d sold anything after three days in New York and was stunned by his answer. “No? That wooden cut-out print of diseased, hormone-rife corn is only 150!” I said, “New Yorkers smoke cigars that cost more.” He suggested slyly that I might start the ball rolling and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Not just a pretty face. Another artist joined us, David Hollier from the McCraig+Welles gallery booth nearby. His work was right up my alley: paintings of celebrities (new and old) from a series called ‘Imago Verbosa.’ The portraits were formed entirely from verse or prose, the words carefully painted, some even typed on an old Smith–Corona. Most of the celebs were from the “27 club,” pop-stars whose lives ended at 27. Jim Morrison was opposite Kurt Cobain completing a not so serious history of rock. Jimi Hendrix was missing, as was Janis Joplin, thank goodness. They both get overplayed, don’t you think? A dark, smaller picture of Amy Winehouse snuck up on me, a super creative stick of self-destruction. It almost made me cry. There is, no doubt, something inherently dangerous about being 27. Mr. Hollier, a charming, bearded man originally from Wolverhampton, England lightened the theme by adding Gandhi and Rodney Dangerfield. Quite a sensible contrast. 

With a similar pop zeitgeist, artist, Marianne Hasenoehrl-Obsieger of Vienna had a whole booth to herself and was thrilled to have finally secured representation in America. It is possible with the right sort of perseverance! I asked about her interest in old film stars. I had mistaken Grace Kelly for Ingrid Bergman – I should know better! These accessible graphic design-ish, paintings reminded me of eighties Warhol. That re-assured me. The best lessons of Pop & POMO weren’t completely dismissed after 6 or 8 years of heyday. Emotional, we hugged goodbye, wishing each other success. I thought of Andy’s oft over-used adage about fifteen minutes of fame. It used to mean just that. Now, it seems to refer to a cultural flattening where everything and anything is of equal import; the bar both lowered and raised. What’s the diff: temporary high profile or low level permanent obscurity for fifteen seconds on social networks? There is nothing left but to proceed, success or no.

Judy Mauer’s beautiful photography also impressed me. At first they appear to be large collages or Photoshoped city-scapes with figures but on closer inspection reveal themselves to be reflections in shop windows with reality depicted in front and behind the photographer all taken in a single moment. This created an uncanny sense of multiple trompe-l’oeil where the models and buildings fused to create ambivalence. Before I left, I noticed a Baroque-ish painting in an ironic and gaudy frame by a young artist, Michael Hurt. It showed a young Asian woman lit by an incongruous 18th century lantern. Clearly there was a personal rather than mythic tale being represented in this series. Lost lovers? It was here my review began to solidify. The street art angle of Fountain was merging seamlessly with an academic sense of art history, twisting every which way. The picture had just the right amount of irony and apprentice-like panache. Had it been better crafted it would have lost all pathos and meaning. At first, I thought he was referencing George De La Tour because of the dramatic internal candlelight. My Baroque is a little rusty. We discussed Caravaggio as major rock star. Did he die at 27 too? No, but Basquiat did.  Everyone began packing up. I’d forgotten the dreaded time change had occurred the night before. Klutz! The impulsive Dave Tree thought he’d go out with a bang: an impromptu suicide on the floor with one of his hilarious gun constructions, half flintlock, half semi-automatic pistol. As I departed, they were drawing a chalk outline around his body.