Friday, October 8, 2021

"The Realest Sin"

 From David Hayward, "The Naked Pastor":

More Teaching From Home


My classroom these days. 

It looks like it will be a while before I go back on campus to teach.  Our department buildings need new HVAC systems with virus filters, and the college has no other suitable spaces for studio classes in painting and drawing, or for basic design classes and illustration.  I'm told to expect to be teaching from home again in the coming Spring semester.
Columbia U and NYU already have such HVAC systems in place and are wide open to students, staff, and faculty; but then, they each have multi-billion dollar endowments.  They can afford it.

Here are some samples of this semester's demo paintings so far.  I paint these for my students live online.
They are all acrylic on canvas panels, 11 inches by 14 inches.

Friday, October 1, 2021

The Triumph of Death

Bruegel's Triumph of Death in the Prado Museum in Madrid

Today the death toll in the USA from the covid pandemic officially exceeded the death toll from the 1918 - 1920 Spanish flu epidemic.  The catastrophe we are living though now is the deadliest in American history.  The Spanish flu epidemic claimed 675,000 lives in the USA from 1918 to 1920.  My great grandmother Bertha Klitzing died of the Spanish flu in 1920, among the last casualties.  And now, my mother died of covid in the current epidemic in January.  We are not yet through the second year of our epidemic and the death toll stands at 700,000 close to the death toll at the end of the Civil War that lasted four years.  The USA leads the world in total deaths from the pandemic, and this despite superior medicine to that of a century ago, not one but several very effective vaccines, and bottomless pockets to finance the response to so massive a public health catastrophe.  

Why is this outcome so bad despite advantages that are the envy of the world?  I can only conclude that the response to the epidemic got caught up in the tribal politics and perverse incentives of the 21st century USA.  We genuinely do not care if our neighbors live or die, and we proved it in our confused and conflicted response to a major catastrophe. Even with the world crashing down around our heads, we are too selfish and self-absorbed to be bothered.

Around 1562, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted this powerful, angry, and deeply frightening painting of the Triumph of Death.  He combined the tradition of the Dance of Death that appeared in northern Europe with the Triumph of Death created in Italy, both in the wake of the Black Death in the mid 14th century, the deadliest catastrophe in the history of the world perhaps claiming almost half the world's population.
Bruegel's painting is no Last Judgment.  There is no final settling of accounts.  There is no restoration of a primeval goodness to the world.  God and His agents are conspicuously absent in this painting.  The painting is not a view of hell, but is set on earth.  All life on earth is simply nullified.  The mighty and the humble, the innocent and the guilty, the good and the bad all are cruelly destroyed together by the irresistible agents of death.  The dead rise up not for resurrection and salvation, but to make war on the living and destroy all life on earth.  

Bruegel almost certainly found his inspiration witnessing atrocities in the decades of sectarian warfare that ravaged a once prosperous Flanders.  Pious people turned on each other with savage fury convinced that their souls were at stake.  Famine and plague followed in the wake of warfare killing thousands more.  It must have seemed that all life was simply exterminated right before the artist's eyes.  Cities lay in ruins.  The countryside was laid waste.  Forests burned to ashes.  Corpses from war, plague, and famine lay everywhere.  We may be on the cusp of another such savage age of annihilation as a third of our population appears determined to wage war on the remaining two thirds.  Plague continues to ravage our cities and countryside.  The climate catastrophe dries out and burns one end of the world while flooding another.

The complete painting

The car of Death in the center of the painting with a figure of Death on a skeletal horse charging through with a scythe, perhaps as one of the Apocalyptic Horsemen.  An army of skeletons charges and slaughters the living.

The armies of the dead chase the living into a huge trap that is part coffin and part grave.

The tradition of the Dance of Death began in northern Europe both as a memento mori, and a kind of protest literature.  People who lived on the receiving end of the arrogance of high and mighty could console themselves with the prospect of sharing the grave with them as equals.  Bruegel shows the agents of death claiming the high and mighty together with the humble in this part of the painting.  Skeletal corpses claim a king and a cardinal and loot the treasure they both piled up in life.  Skeletons drive a cart full of bones over the bodies of peasants.  One woman is about to be crushed under the cart as she cuts a thread, another lies dead holding a distaff while a starving dog eats her baby.  Another skeleton on the right cuts the throat of a religious pilgrim as though robbing him.

Soldiers for all their courage and bravado are no match for the legions of death.  Skeletons intrude on a party, upset a game of backgammon, and spill chilled wine on the ground.  Others disguised as jesters and servants serve up death to their horrified customers.  A pair of lovers lost in their mutual affection ignore the havoc all around them while a skeleton joins their concert and adds his discordant tune.

A corpse beats out the doom of the world on a pair of kettle drums while others work the trap.  Another grabs a young man who tried to escape.

Corpses murder and execute the living around a brackish pond with floating corpses and dead fish, parodies of human institutions.

The glow of distant fires lights the horizon while ships sink in the sea and the legions of death denude the earth of all life.  On the left, skeletons ring the death knell.

A barren landscape forested with the remnants of executions in gallows and breaking wheels.  Shipwrecks burn in the distance on a becalmed and lifeless sea.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Solitude, Loneliness, and Manet

Edouard Manet, Bar at the Folies Begere, 1881 - 1882

There are a lot of articles and essays out there now extoling the redemptive qualities of quiet and solitude. They fall like a thud on me after almost 2 years of pandemic isolation. After so much quiet and solitude over the last 2 years, I’m as messed up as I’ve always been. My always abiding depression is through the floor these days. I’m back in therapy to handle it. The solitude of monks and hermits is one thing. The solitude of quarantine and enforced confinement is quite another. From what I can see here in my corner of New York, people – especially young people – crave noise, crowds, and going out after being confined for so long. The bars and cafes in Williamsburg and Greenwich Village are full and noisy again on the weekends (and some weeknights) even with pandemic cautions still in place.

Poster for the Folies Bergere showing a bar maid and the layout of the vast dinner theater.  On two floors of the theater we see large mirrors along the wall so people could eat and drink without missing the show. Manet's bar maid poses in front of one of them.  

The whole issue of solitude in pandemic stifled New York makes me think less about Caspar David Friedrich’s solitary wanderers than Manet’s last great painting, The Bar at the Folies Bergere completed in 1882 a year before he died. In that painting, a solitary bar maid stands leaning forward on the bar, the lavish excitement and entertainment of the Folies all around her. Gas light globes glow. Massive chandeliers sparkle. People dressed to the teeth watch each other as much as they watch the show. We get a glimpse of the entertainment in the legs of an acrobat hanging down from the top of the painting on the left. All of that appears in a large mirror behind the bar. On the right reflected in the mirror, a gentleman looks at her searchingly for another kind of sale. She seems as engaged with him in the mirror as she appears detached in front of us. Much has been said about the off-perspective reflection in the mirror. The still life objects on the bar are as off perspective as she is. Manet did this deliberately, perhaps to highlight the contrast between what customers and her employer expect from the bar maid and what she actually experiences. She stands amidst the Bass Ale, champagne, crème de menthe, liqueurs, mandarin oranges, and flowers for boutonnieres that she sells. She wears a revealing lowcut dress with a corsage, herself available for sale just like all the other items around her. For all the lavish sparkling excitement around her, she stands alone and unmoved.

The bar maid and the man reflected in the mirror.  He is clearly intent on much more than champagne.  She is every bit as obliging in her reflection as she is remote and inscrutable facing us.

Flowers for sale, mandarin oranges in a crystal bowl, a bottle of creme de menthe, liqueur, and Bass Ale.

Flowers for sale as boutonnieres.

Liqueur, Bass Ale, and bottles of champagne on a marble top bar.

The crowd at the Folies watching each other as much as watching the show.

The legs of an acrobat high in the ceiling.

The bar maid.  An actual bar maid from the Folies Bergere posed for this painting in Manet's studio.  Her name is recorded only as Suzon.

The corsage on Suzon's dress.  A spectacular passage of painting.

The bar maid Suzon returning our gaze, but looking just past us.  So different from other women in Manet's work who meet our gaze confidently such as Victorine Meurent in Manet's Olympia painted almost 20 years earlier.

The bar maid’s blank expression at the center of the painting launched a thousand ships full of text over the past century. But anyone who has spent time in the service industry will recognize that expression immediately. It’s the poker face stare just slightly past the gaze of the annoying customer trying to get their attention. It’s the natural reaction of people forced into a servile role by the need to pay the rent. It may be that Manet identified with the bar maid, an actual bar maid from the Folies Bergere named Suzon. He spent much of his maturity in the public eye, a celebrity in Paris. As was the custom of the day, guests would always drop by his studio to watch him work. The audience became so large at one point that he hired a waiter to serve them drinks. Manet was always in the public eye. He cultivated his public image very carefully. His work always provoked discussion and argument. And yet, for all that time in the limelight, Manet sold very little work. He lived off a comfortable inheritance. Even so, by this point of his life in the years before his death, those obligations of celebrity came to feel very obligatory. Manet may have come to feel like Suzon catering to his audience no matter how and what he felt.

The Bench, 1881, Manet's painting of his garden in Versailles behind the house he rented.  The shabby garden, the decrepit bench, and the discarded bonnet speak eloquently of Manet's declining health and his sense of his own passing.

In those last years of his life Manet mostly felt pain. He suffered the effects of tertiary syphilis. He could barely walk. The pain in his legs was excruciating. The cost of medical treatments consumed most of the inheritance he depended on. He had to raise money to keep paying for his treatment. He painted several small magnificent flower still lives to make money. We can see some echoes of those splendid flowers and still lives from his last years in this painting. Still life always played a large role in Manet’s paintings, and so here at the end of his life. Suzon the bar maid shares the stage with superbly painted lavish still life items, and places herself as one more beguiling item among the others for sale. Manet rented a small shabby house with a shabby garden in Versailles to save money and to have a place to work. Even so, many people came to visit as he painted the Bar at the Folies Bergere in the winter of 1881-1882. Manet apologized that he was unable to rise from his seat to greet them. Suzon was there in the studio too on many occasions posed in a mock-up of the bar complete with a marble top table, champagne bottles, and bottles of Bass Ale as in the painting.

Manet’s last major painting of his life is one of the great paintings of the 19th century, and one for the ages speaking to us as vividly now as it did to the Parisian public of 1882. This magnificent painting captures for us as it did for the late 19th century Paris public those tragic ambivalences of modern life that even now, we must live with. 

The Plum Brandy, c.1877.  A painting of an exhausted young woman, possibly a shop girl after a long day of work, enjoying a drink and a cigarette.  She seems to be taking a break before going out on the town.  I've always loved this painting.

 Manet always painted the working girls of Paris with a certain sympathy, the bar maids, waitresses, shop clerks, secretaries, prostitutes, etc. all those who came into the city to make their own lives rather than play the roles of concubine, house servant, and breeding chattel assigned to them by tradition and religion. Those struggles for independence and success frequently depended on humiliating compromises and ended in exhaustion and sometimes failure. Rarely did those young dreams of fame and fortune come true for this still new population of working women in Paris. It is not hard to imagine Suzon in Manet’s painting as one of them. Her story could be that of thousands even now in cities like New York, London, Mexico City, Shanghai, Lagos, etc.

Sunday, September 19, 2021



Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child, c.1480 - 1490

I've always loved the Magnificat and as I get older is gets more meaningful, especially in this frightened and cruel age.  Our Lady reveals herself to be a "socialist" (according to the current American usage) by placing herself squarely on the side of the poor and downtrodden.  She announces what kind of Messiah the child she carries will be.  He won't be the one we always wanted then and now, an irresistible force that fixes everything, rights all the wrongs, levels everything, and renders us powerless to resist obedience to his command.  Instead, her Son will be Our Friend, always with us and for us no matter what, and will always be there at our ends waiting to welcome us home.  He wants from us the one thing He cannot command, our love.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Minoru Yamasaki

The World Trade Center in 1999

The World Trade Center photographed by Peter Hujar

I never liked the twin towers of the old World Trade Center much, nor did I really hate them much either. They were big incommunicative presences over the city. They were huge but had nothing to say. They didn’t really dominate because they never commanded. They just took up a lot of space on the ground and in the skyline. Kids loved them because they were so simple and memorable in form. Advertisers and logo designers loved them for the same reason. I saw them daily, especially during the two years I worked in the World Trade Center Borders. Like a lot of New Yorkers, I miss them now that they are gone. I’m not sure if it’s the buildings I miss or the memories of a less angry and traumatized city. Or maybe I just miss being younger. It’s probably all those things, and like most other long-time residents in New York, those personal losses are wrapped up with the loss of the buildings. And so, on September 11 we remember the Twin Towers like we recall old friends and family on anniversaries of their passing. They were big presences, neither friendly nor hostile looming above the city visible from everywhere. 

 From 1996 to 1998 I knew the towers up close when I worked in the magazines department of the Borders store. I’d travel through the complex every morning with a two-wheeler to pick up the day’s shipments of magazines and newspapers. The Towers and the WTC complex around them looked a lot better up close than they did from a distance. That’s the opposite of the Empire State Building that still has one of the most stirring building profiles ever. I never get tired of seeing the Empire State Building towering over midtown. Up close, it’s a little disappointing. The detailing is rather dull and repetitive, in part because so much of it was machine made and stamped out. That’s such a contrast to the amazing detailing on other Art Deco monuments like the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center. And it’s a contrast to the old World Trade Center. The up-close detailing of the building was still machine-made and stamped out like that on the Empire State Building, but it was certainly not dull. In fact, it was elegant and in the smaller buildings worked well with the street traffic around the buildings. The detailing and street level design saved the World Trade Center from its own brutal self. These vastly out-of-scale buildings should have been soul-crushingly brutal, but they were not. What should have been a barren empty plaza in front of the buildings I remember as being always crowded with tourists and employees on break. That the buildings up close did not crush all who approached them and that the central plaza seemed so welcoming is entirely the work of the World Trade Center’s architect, Minoru Yamasaki.

The ground floor of the World Trade Center with Fritz Koenig's The Sphere from 1971.  It is now very battered, but still on display in Liberty Park near its original site.

Detail from the ground floor articulation of the World Trade Center towers.

Ground floor lobby

Ground floor lobby

Some of the steel and chrome tracery at the top of the North Tower during the final stages of construction in 1973 with two construction workers in the foreground.

The former #5 World Trade Center where the Borders Books was located where I worked for 2 years.

The former #4 World Trade Center

A proposed design by Skidmore Owings and Merrill from 1960 for the first planned site of the WTC on the lower East Side near the South Street Seaport.
The idea of a world trade center in New York City was first proposed and then legislated by the state government in 1943.  David and Nelson Rockefeller were the driving forces behind its creation and construction.  The Port Authority was to own and manage the complex.
The state government of New Jersey objected to this site.  They pointed out that the Port Authority belongs to the governors of both New York and New Jersey and said that their tax payers would rightfully object to paying for a big project that benefitted only New York.  The Port Authority decided to move the site to the lower West Side and combine it with a commuter rail hub serving New Jersey.

Berenice Abbott's photo of Radio Row from 1936

The World Trade Center construction destroyed a large part of the original lower West Side.  Radio Row was a large district full of small scale electronics dealerships and repair shops dating back to 1920.  The businesses in Radio Row resisted the eminent domain decree, but ultimately lost in court.

The former St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, a tenement church that was the sole remnant of a Greek and Syrian neighborhood on the site.  Until it was destroyed on 9/11, it stood alone in the middle of the WTC parking lot.
Now, that destroyed tenement church of St. Nicholas is replaced by a much larger and grander church designed by Santiago Calatrava and due to be open sometime this year.

Minoru Yamasaki with a huge construction model of the World Trade Center, about 1964

A woman looking at a smaller display model in 1964.

Excavation of the World Trade Center site in 1968.  The WTC was built partly on original Manhattan bedrock and partly on old landfill from numerous extensions of the land into the Hudson River down through history. 

The great slurry wall known as "the bathtub" on the right.  It kept river water from seeping into the construction site.  It is the sole survivor of the original WTC construction still doing its original job of holding back the river.
On the left is the South Tower under construction.

Construction in 1969.

Construction in 1971

Minoru Yamasaki used architectural history to serve an optimistic vision of the future, an American future. The ribbed vaulting and tracery of Islamic and Gothic architecture influenced Yamasaki continuously throughout his career. He adapted its design and structural ideas to new materials such as steel and reinforced concrete, and certainly to new uses. He used past forms to create an architecture that looked forward to the future. Louis Kahn used ancient Roman building forms and materials to create an architecture for the ages, to be timeless. Yamasaki designed buildings to encourage people to imagine the future. Visions of the future never age well, and a lot of Yamasaki’s buildings have a quaintness that comes with long past imaginings of the World of Tomorrow. It’s no accident that the current fashion for what is now called Mid-Century Modern drives a revival of interest in Yamasaki’s work. Like much of Mid-Century Modern design, his buildings have the nostalgic cachet of the American Empire in its glowing sunset on the eve of the Vietnam War.

Other buildings by Minoru Yamasaki:

One Woodward Avenue 
(formerly Michigan Consolidated Gas Building), 
Detroit, 1962

One of his best office buildings in my opinion.

I think this glass entrance lobby is outstanding.   Yamasaki had a great feel for the transition from the street to the building interior.

Pacific Science Center, Seattle, 1962

A great centerpiece, an unexpected re-use of a historic building unit, a four arch bay with a lattice vault, something out of both Islamic and Gothic architecture.  The medieval past remade to point to a promised future.

Lambert-St.Louis International Airport, St. Louis, 1956

Another great remaking of a traditional building form -- a groined vault -- to anticipate the future.

A photo taken during construction in 1955.

North Shore Congregation Israel, Glencoe, Illinois, 1964

I don't know, but I doubt Yamasaki was a very religious man.  Yet he designed some beautiful religious buildings.  Among the best is this synagogue.

Minoru Yamasaki on the cover of Time magazine, January 28, 1963
illustration by Boris Artzybasheff

Minoru Yamasaki was an extraordinary man who overcame many hardships including racism and poverty to make a very successful career as an architect. He was born in Seattle in 1912 to Isei Japanese immigrant parents. He first studied architecture at the University of Washington where his talents were recognized. He worked five summers in a salmon cannery in Alaska to help pay for his education. He traveled east to New York hoping to find opportunity and some relief from the pervasive anti-Asian racism in the American west at the time. He packed dishes for an import/export company making a small and precarious living while pursuing a master’s degree in architecture at New York University. He went to work for the firm of Shreve and Lamb that designed the Empire State Building, very notable since he would design the first buildings to top out that once celebrated Tallest Building In The World. It’s also notable that this architect of a Tallest Building in the World had a fear of heights. Some speculate that acrophobia may have played a role in the design of the World Trade Center towers. It was Shreve and Lamb that protected Yamasaki and his parents from deportation during World War II. After the war, Yamasaki became internationally famous and in demand as an architect. Not all his buildings were successes. He designed the Pruitt Igoe houses in St. Louis, a notorious fiasco. Most of his projects however were successes with lasting reputations. He died of cancer in 1986 in Detroit.