Stop, and Be

ONan Book May 2019

I could excuse my lapse in writing here by saying, hey, I was busy just living my life, and that would be true. Or refer you to the third book in the series being written about the mishaps that seem to characterize my life in New York City, “Capturing the High Priestess,” which should be available on soon. That explains a lot about the crap that’s rained down since readers were left hanging after the shootout in New York Harbor on New Year’s Eve; I find that kind of “cliff-hanger” writing unconscionable, by the way; just a cheap ploy to make readers rise up and demand the next episode. (I suppose it worked for Dickens, but I digress.)

I am instead going to recommend this lovely book, by a lovely writer, Stewart O’Nan, late of Pittsburgh after quite a few years living in the Constitution State. (Wow, can we get to that later? The restoration and protection of our Constitution? Ooops, another digression. I seem to be having trouble focusing.)

Anyway, Mr. O’Nan writes these lovely, almost plot-less books that are slow and quiet but reveal so much about the truly important things in life. It make a reader want to stop and take a breath. Like, maybe a garden does contain the secret to happiness, and I’ve been missing it all this time. His books contain familiar characters (there are three in this group now: Henry and his wife Emily are each featured in their own way in “Emily, Alone” and “Wish You Were Here.”

Being alone is hard, yes. But the dance of a relationship is harder, I think. And working out the terms of a marriage, especially one that lasts for decades, is the ultimate challenge. Who you are at the beginning and how you change is inextricably meshed with your partner…for better or worse. Struggle, joy, stagnation, peace, compromise: so many words. But it’s the little things you do every day, together and apart, that make it add up to life.

I’m placing this piece in my “Art” category despite the fact that my colleagues will protest. But if we don’t consider literature as one of the arts, then there’s something wrong with the definition. So, here is a work of art, by Stewart O’Nan. Engineer by training, storyteller by vocation.


Close, and Closer


I’m interested in the art of Chuck Close. His early portraits are disarming, closely detailed examinations of individuals faces at such painstaking depth that nothing is left to the imagination. In fact, they are called “photorealism.” And then, in his later work, the grids take over, in which the faces are dissected into small pieces, almost as if they are viewed through water droplets: get too close, and they are just boxes of color; step away, and the face is there, with its unique detail and expression. How does he do that?

And why? Why a lifetime of dissecting faces, many of them over and over? Indeed, he spends a great deal of time painting his own face, over the years, as it changes and ages. It’s interesting to read that Close suffers from the neurological condition prosopagnosia, or face-blindness, which prevents him from recognizing faces. Irony.

There’s a much to study about the artist who spends his days painting parts of faces. He employs others to set up his grids, to do some of the painting: does that make the work any less his own? What about the other things people say about him, that he takes advantage of his students, perhaps harasses the assistants in his studio? Should we not look full-on at his work when these things have been said? If he sees one of his subjects on the street, does he recognize her? Does he “see” his subject at all, or just the inch he is painting at each moment?

Is it Art?

And now for something completely different.

Purists would argue that architecture is not art. I suppose that’s technically true, and most architects are technicians, not artists. But there are some, rare and special, who change the landscape with their visions. Who change the very way we see what a building can be, and what the word “construction” can mean.

And of course many people hate these buildings.

But to me, they are endlessly fascinating. They dance.

gehry dancing house prague

This is Frank Gehry’s “Dancing House,” built in 1996 in Prague. It is fondly known as Fred and Ginger, for those two fine dancers who are represented by the structures on the corner (Ginger Rogers on the left, wearing the dress and, naturally, dancing backwards on heels). The modern apartment house is in the historic part of Prague and has become an international destination, as have most of Mr. Gehry’s iconic buildings.

Many of his large structures, for example the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain, are twisting curves of shiny steel, soaring overhead in impossible shapes. They are whimsical, playful, and yet, workable spaces for the activities that take place inside the shell. They are magical; moving as light changes, colors shift across the surface and emanate from within, disappearing at one moment only to reappear, massive, the next.

New York by Gehry, a 76-story apartment building on Spruce Street, appears almost like a wrinkled piece of foil at first glance, almost delicate and subtle compared to his usual attention-seeking designs. Look closer: the actual design is so clever that the scope of its effect is the magic part. Ta-da!

We need more of these “fun” buildings in a city that has become far too vertical and boring; I want Fred and Ginger to take a turn down Broadway and perhaps bring us a swirling concert hall, or even a wacky medical venue such as the Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic Las Vegas.  How about seducing people’s with some “street art” that will get their toes tapping, their synapses crackling, and their hearts filled with love for a new New York?

Architecture. It’s art, with a new vision for urban life… and the science to make it real.

(To see these buildings, and others, by Frank Gehry, click here.)

Modern Life, Modern Art

NOR Skrik, ENG The Scream

“The Scream” by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1893) is one of the most well known paintings in the world. The artist painted four versions of it, but it has been reproduced and recreated for many other purposes throughout its long life. What did it mean to the artist, and perhaps more importantly, what does it mean to the millions of people who respond to it so strongly?

On its face, so to speak, it is the symbol of the anxiety we all feel in the modern world. Yes? Can you relate to the look of horror, fear, and “screaming mimis” that you see here? Is the subject an escapee from an asylum, or some kind of hospital? The swirling waters – echoed in the curving body and skeletal face – are offset by the brilliant sunset which also has its warning of threatening weather coming. Contrast those roiling features with the straight-laced couple approaching from the rear: thin, unbent, dark, they are unaffected by the chaotic sky and sea as well as the keening creature just ahead. What a contrast!

Which do we identify with? The calm pair having their evening constitutional, or the kook having a breakdown on the pier? To read all the interesting theories about why Munch chose the site, the colors, the subject, etc., there are plenty of articles on the Internet including some credible basic information on Wikipedia.

I’m interested in your thoughts about the reason this painting became an icon. I can see the Mona Lisa, but the Scream? To put this in a little perspective, one of the versions, a pastel done in 1895, sold at Sotheby’s for $120 million in 2012. Is it really one of the most important pieces of modern art ever painted?

Gender and Art

So if a person were to count up the number of male versus female nudes depicted in museum-quality art, what percentage would you think are female? Aside from naked male statues, and the many depictions of a baby Jesus in all his unclothed glory, male genitalia really gets the short shrift in the art world. Could be because the overwhelmingly male population of painters has more interest in depicting breasts that penises, and who could blame them? Even female painters tend to stay away from them. Some statues were so upsetting to the men in charge that they had to be covered with fig leaves or codpieces or drapery. Pretty drastic.

Giant-Louise-Bourgeois-sp-010There’s one artist, the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who primarily did gigantic spiders and creepy things like that – but she also did a few penis sculptures that are really something to see. I’m not going to put a photo of one of those in this blog, although it is tempting. Instead, this is a giant spider called “Maman” that was shown all over the world and stands more than nine meters tall. Bourgeois also sculpted figures with multiple breasts (common in ancient sculpture as well), some that look like intestines wrapped outside the body, and lots of eyes peering from within solid structures.

So, what does it all mean? Damned if I know. It’s just messing with the students trying to do their assignments for my class, “Boobs and Dicks All Over the Place.” Turns out, you can spot plenty of boobs in NYC, but a good dick is hard to find.


Glamour, Anyone?

Andy Warhol Marilyn Monroe 1967

One thing about Andy Warhol, the guy sure liked repetition. And bright colors. He was like an advertising executive without a specific product to sell. Or maybe he was just selling “Cool.”  How a Campbell’s soup can is cool, I don’t know, but Warhol’s art is instantly recognizable, so obviously he made an impact on the collective consciousness. But it was not painted, it was art created through the manipulation of color on photographs. Photoshop, anyone?

First Stabbing, Now Stealing

Klimt 1912 closeup

This lovely, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, was painted in 1912 by Gustav Klimt. I’m sure it was appreciated by the owners. It’s different from his usual gold-infused portraits, and for that reason it seems to have a whimsical feeling.

And then there were Nazis. This painting was one of thousands of pieces of art that were taken and enjoyed by German officers and their families, and then hidden when the war was coming to an end.

When I was a graduate student in the discipline of Art History, I became obsessed with these stolen paintings. To the extent that I ran around some Eastern European countries late at night, dressed in black, jumping on stranger’s motorcycles and at times, even carrying a gun. My dissertation was killer, because I found a stolen painting, restored it, and returned it to its rightful owner. Not all of the stories associated with the rescue of these paintings end so well. More about that in “Embracing the Fool.”

Anywho, a lot of legal fights have been held over who really owns this painting. All I think you need to know is that it was recently sold at auction by Oprah Winfrey to a Chinese collector for a ginormous amount of money. I sincerely hope he’s enjoying it. But more than that, I hope the rightful owners see the news and show up at his door to claim it as theirs.

Art is in the Details


Margaret Bourke-White, one of the most well-known photographers of the 20th century, spent her life documenting not just the construction of America’s most fantastic structures, but also some of the most significant events that occurred during that century. Whether you believe that photography is “art” or not, you have to admire the composition and clarity of her photographs, ranging from destitute farmers during the depression to peasant workers in Russia after World War II. She was there to witness the liberation of the concentration camps in Germany, and her photographs of the survivors are stunning in the humanity they bring to that horror. Her photographs for Life magazine enabled Ms. Bourke-White to travel the globe, with access to places few Americans had gone before. This photo of the Chrysler Building in New York is less well known than the one taken of the photographer herself, perched on the back of an eagle-shaped gargoyle, getting ready to shoot pictures. It’s inspiring, and exciting, and the legacy of a very productive life.

Art Stuff: Who Decides?

frida kahlo self-portrait with monkey 1940_0

So, who decides what is “pretty” and if that’s even relevant when looking at art? Most of the time, poor Frida Khalo painted to show her pain, if not through her exposed heart, then like this, with ribbon almost choking her and a literal monkey on her back. But all of her work was filled with lush color and imagery that captured the time and place in which she lived, and there are some who believe her work is “better” than her husband’s, Diego Rivera. Her yes command you: Look at me. Never mind the uni-brow and the mustache, the circles under my eyes. See me, and see my talent. See my gift, how I rise above and paint my life for you. Do you see it?