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Saturday, April 21, 2018

Manhattan Journal: A Lost Text Recovered


Manhattan Journal: A Lost Text Recovered

I am engrossed by the scaly yellow-brick, art-deco facades of midtown and contemplate the numerous wooden rooftop water tanks. These pages will review two performances at Lincoln Center and engage my visit to the renovated Museum of Modern Art. It is Saturday, July 23, 2005.

Shen Wei Dance Arts will perform at the New York State Theater. In 2008, this group will choreograph the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. The setting of tonight’s performance promises to be luminous. The night before, I attended Patrick Ferneyhough and Charles Bernstein's Shadowtime at the Rose Theater. The review of Shadowtime in the New York Times of July 23 is hostile, that of Philadelphia Inquirer "curious." My review of Shadowtime is mixed. The production testifies to one of the kernel truths of the age, America's fatal self-immolation: overproduction, magnificent overproduction in glass, steel, and multi-story aluminum, crystal, chandelier-hung, seven and eight story foyers. Frank Gehry comes to mind as well as ribbons of interlaced eight lane freeways. Some irony attaches to the venue of the production, the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle. The designers of this tower have been commissioned to reimagine what has been lost at the World Trade Center site. My reprise of postmodern architectural clichés is not an incidental aside. The building is a catalog of jargon employing redoubled, reflective surfaces. My response, composed at a Starbucks in Columbus Circle. It is thematic to this book.

I had already suspected that an operatic, as well as a cinematic ambition, was implicit to the activities of some members of the current avant-garde, including language-centered poets who are my friends. The Gesamtkunstwerk is a vision shared by many modern artists: Wagner, the Dada circle, Russian futurists, or Jean Cocteau, even Blaise Cendrars who gave us a libretto for Darius Milhaud’a La Creation du Monde. Ezra Pound wrote three operas. My suspicions of how spectacle might deride spectacle have been confirmed. “Deriding” while “enacting” catches the appropriate ethos. My appreciation cannot detach itself from the grandiosity and grandiloquence of the production values in Shadowtime. A subversive prospectus for a Gesamtkunstwerk is in play.

The staging by Frédéric Fisbach and set design by Emmanuel Clolus provide a highly-amplified range of sensory experiences. Ferneyhough's music too has a supersaturated quality, oracular and specular. The twelve voices of the chorus appear in their various dramatic functions, robed in a workman-like blue. Stagecraft includes the turning bed or chair, pulled by silent ropes, on which a figure of Walter Benjamin or one of his avatars, has collapsed under the weight of history. A stone, in a final moment of commemoration, becomes a transcendent object, the Angel of History. The production values bring up the crucial issue of vision and its realistic or phenomenal components. To what degree can such transcendent matter be attributed in any sense to the historical Walter Benjamin? Would he allow fact to be subsumed by aura? The production a display of the fantasies of the composer and author.

The intelligence of the libretto by Charles Bernstein, with its at times insouciant irreverence, provides an element of refreshment over against what might be thought of as a sententious approach to the death of Walter Benjamin. To my ears Ferneyhough's music displays a witty deployment of too many avant-garde clichés, sometimes brilliant in the fact of performance, but also too much exactly that, a score ridden with glee and showmanship and wit. The music flirted and bubbled with ethereal woodwind notes, dissonant and muzzy images that seemed to have very little to do with the trenchant realism of the author of the Arcades. "Shadows" suggests auras and ghosts as well as a child's game of hand puppets on the wall. Folk material of this later sort informs aspects of the libretto, but I reject the notion that Benjamin sought to retrieve some form of substitute for the aura associated with religious medievalism, Jewish or Christian. For him the lack of the aura was a healthy fact of modern technological society, a freedom.

A reader familiar with Bernstein's personal iconography will note the intelligence and deep resonance with which it is deployed here, freely, in its own right (rite), clever in itself but puzzling as to the relevance of the wit displayed to Benjamin's thought or life. Bernstein’s well known invocation of the Marx brothers (Groucho, Karl, ...) is here, bathed in a red glow. Also are catches from childhood, mangled in a Wittgensteinian language-game that provides the texts for some of the choral moments in the production. For all my mixed mutterings, I want to identify two musical high points, the pivotal piano/recitative identified as a shadow play, Opus contra naturam, and the epilog, a chorale (assigned to the Angel of History) with raspy bass notes attaining a funereal and pensive somberness, providing a felt connection to Benjamin's suicide. At moments like these, the collaboration between composer and poet reaches it's highest degree of concordance, as words and music seemed independently powerful, yet correspondingly reinforcing. The theme of suicide as a form of waste is supplement by the necessary theme of bearing witness in some form to suicide. Is there a gain or profit in the willful termination of life? Desperation is an unyielding nurse to the wounds we bear.

On the following day, I explored the spaces of the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art. My notebook is full of observations about the different presences within different galleries, the conjunctions of these presences eliciting another form of work with shadows.

One of the first images on view, after darting past the surrealistic illusions of Rene Magritte, was Diego Rivera’s Zapata, with a noble white horse, a prancing mount after a Renaissance canvas by Paolo Uccello, the hero’s eyes not focused on the present moment as are the eyes of his companions. Gift of Abigail Rockefeller. In patriarchal atonement for the removal of Rivera’s mural from Radio City Center? I favor surrealistic steeds over surrealism itself. Breton recognized and critiqued the market value of the surrealistic style. Like him I value it most when it emerges in the corners of an expanding modern world. In defiance this perception, the Museum of Modern Art is, hands down, because of wealth and publicity, the center of modernism. The purpose the new hanging is to display that fact. And yet I could not turn my glance aside.

Rivera’s Zapata hangs opposite Otto Dix’s expressionistic doctor. The obesely round doctor with his head lamp, a large reflective mirror frames a head that embodies unjustified smugness. Dr. Mayer-Hermann, represents a dispassionate but well-fed genocide. If chance turns the viewer around, back to the Rivera, there is a disturbing image to its left of a head giving birth to a head by David Siqueiros. These juxtapositions suggest the curator’s  unsettling understanding of the combinations and permutations in service of both display and appreciation. The market value of sensationalism has animated these choice. A turn of the head leads from freak gynecology to screaming parthenogenesis. Other than the series by Jacob Lawrence, no other paintings by African-Americans were on offer in the tenth gallery with the exception of the necessary gesture, a collage by Romaire Beardon which has since been put in storage.

On the fifth floor are the riches of MOMA’s European collection, on the fourth are Americans of the New York School. Ferdinand Léger and Wilfredo Lam gained a new power to draw my attention: Léger because of his association with Blaise Cendrars on whom I am currently writing and Lam because his invention of a pictorial tropical forest that rhymes with other forms of the birth of négritude in the Caribbean. Lam illustrated some of Aimé Césaire’s work.

The conceptual relation between artists and books is well documented, both on the fifth floor and in the graphics gallery: the zaum poet Aleksi Kruchenykh’s suprematist books, like photo albums on blue construction paper with odd bits, squares and filaments, breaking the boundary of the page, as well as an actual copy of Rodchenko’s  design for Mayakofsky’s Pro Eto. I often wish my hand could work in my notebooks in a way that approaches the freshness of design on pages like these. Futurist books like that of Tullio d’Albisola display a raw typography. Similar to my current notebook projects, providing models for possible approaches, are examples of the integration of text with the deconstruction of the visual field in works by Cy Twombley or Joseph Beuys. In Beuy’s Eurasian-Siberian Symphony (1963), a dead rabbit is bound, cruelly to a spear, by multiple coils on the legs. The rabbit’s carcass forms the north of this cosmic-terrestrial map. Of Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, the third is text, the second is a photograph of the actual chair on display, conceptual art manifest. An important  discovery in this vein is the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

My numerous mental excursions today have included a visit to Matisse’s The Red Room, the tonality, a blood burgundy, not a luminescent red. Cézanne’s swatch like brush strokes become Mondrian’s flakes of dried tidal mud from parched and eroded riverbeds. The art of the fragment adjusted for shades of illumination descends from the use of tesserae by Greek muralists. In a similar vein, some of Klee’s work has a quality of rough shingled squares adjacent to other similar squares, for instance, Fire in the Evening (1929). This art of scaling forms with rough textures is my private idiom for nightmares. Joaquin Torres-Garcia from Uruguay uses a similar language. Jesus Rafael-Soto (1923-2005), more stark than any of those mentioned, aesthetically disturbing rather than balanced and proportioned, is his construction of chicken wire, rusted, looped freely like numerous broken musical strings, attached to the rightmost of two vertically disposed beams of aged and worn wood, raspy, unyielding surfaces, all wobbly on little bent nail legs. Balance in overlay here yields to the ephemeral support for an extremely disproportioned super structure. Untitled. 1959-60. Wood, painted wood, metal and nails.

At lunch in the museum, I wrote: “To continue with the theme of overproduction in the USA, the answer I often assume relates to the outsized wealth of the country, a reverential showiness. A museum like MoMA is largely a means for displaying wealth on a suitably outsized, aggrandizing scale. The walls, an unending hit parade, establish market value in the process of selection and rejection. MoMA is thorough in its identification of the state of legal arrangements relative to items of suspect provenance, those involving confiscation by Nazis, for instance. The place of Malevich’s Suprematist Composition is secured by such an evidentiary notice. One can neither censure nor avoid the richness of these acquisition. These riches are more than a supplement to artistic achievement. Apart from individual expressivity these images are all of art that I know. They function as my vocabulary. I learn through engagement all the while suspicious of the road map.

After lunch I choose to  return to view Picasso’s Ma Jolie. I had forgotten that it  is housed at MoMA, surely his most private and most abstract image. It’s scale is far more modest than digitalized projections of its mysteries might suggest. That reassured me. The scale almost homey, but also only a part of the generalized wash of spectacular items on display. The open quadrants or cubes of this paining in their charcoal grays and luminescent creams intersect with my primary nightmare or preconscious imaginary, weathered shakes or shingles in endless, destabilizing overlap.

Somewhere in the raw observations of my notebook is a mediation on slices in a surface. Mieke Bal comments on the baroque fold that is the slit representing the spear wound penetrating Christ’s skin in Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1601-1602). I had to wonder if the encrusted opening in Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Comment 1960 were not an allusion to the way in which issues of flatness and abstraction fuse throughout the history modern art. Donald Judd’s Relief 1961 forms another wry commentary on the subject, an ordinary bread pan embedded in a thick, rough black square.

Deleuze had commented that Lucio Fontana’s. Spatial Concept: Expectations. 1959 makes space visible by magnifying the very topography of the slit. How space flows through the slices in the canvas. Picasso had sensed even this potentiality. There is a dart of blue that I never before noticed outlining the right thigh and crotch of the woman, second from, the left in Demoiselles d’Avignon. The boy who leads the horse of 1906 has had his penis brushed out. I had assumed there was a loincloth there. The breasts of the pregnant Francois Gilot in Woman Looking in a Mirror, actually seem to swell. The Seated Bather, so skeleton-like, castrating mother image that she is, also has a bit of seashell carapace on the upper part of her spine. It never fails, in the case of  Picasso, that a new observation sets my mind to a skewed spinning. Impossible to order the still persistent impressions, conflated, dissonant. Some reviewers have found the new MOMA to be dully utilitarian. They miss the intimacy provided by niches in the former layout. I found the large spaces elegant, and the contradictions embraced in the passage from object to object to be revelatory.

The sky tonight is the most resplendent blue and the air crisp but also baking hot, a surreal desert air in the city. The performance by Shen Wei Dance Arts consisted of two unrelated pieces. The first, Near the Terrace, Part 1 presents a remarkable series of visual tableaux, modeled on paintings by Paul Delvaux, all dancers seeming to float in a chalky mesmerizing atmosphere of coiled tensions. Only at moments is there a darting release when a body flies, parallel to the floor into the outstretched arms of another. Otherwise motion is extreme slow motion, as if underwater, requiring impossible to imagine levels of athleticism for the dancers to maintain the required poise. The human form, as often in Delvaux’s case is bare breasted, male or female, with long skirts, creating an androgynous rather than an individualized identity. The music was from Fur Alina by Alvo Pärt. Eight, ten, or twelve dancers, in different patterns, crossed the floor or scaled a wall, imperceptible steps or leg-over-leg scuttles. Changing patterns of support (Deleuzian machines) allowed a body to rest on or crawl over or be carried by another, but there was no communication, other than touch, no sense of looking at one another, no sense of a message or urgency, only a trance of graceful forms, hallucinatory coordination in an atmosphere both dense and translucent.

The second piece, Map (2005) is very ambitious, breaking down the choreographers unique vocabulary in six different parts before re-assembling the whole in the seventh segment. Shen Wei is from China and has worked in the USA for ten years now, presenting for each of the last three years at the Lincoln Center Festival. The music for Map (2005) was Steve Reich’s Desert Music, a composition that in turn uses words from William Carlos Williams’ poem The Desert Music. The score in its minimalist insistence on the relation between volume and repetition has only an abstract relation to Williams’s lyrics, the poetry standing at a barely perceptible third degree of correspondence to the choreography. Still, whether Williams’s presence could be felt or not, there is a palpably American idiom in play throughout Map (2005). To a degree the setting and some of the gestures were reminiscent of Westside Story, the felt presence of Leonard Bernstein’s genius, further adding to the impression of an American idiom. According to the programs notes, Desert Music is conceived in a conscious relation to the choreographer’s signature bounces and unwinding spiral forms. Two specific motions that seem distinctive of Shen Wei’s style are a leg over scuttle of the figure prone on the floor, fast here as opposed to ethereally slow in Near the Terrace, Part 1. A second movement makes the body into a very floppy coil. Figures in some early street scenes by John Sloan have a similarly exaggerated plastic feel. Still Map (2005)is relatively uninspired, possibly unoriginal in comparison to Near the Terrace, Part I. Yet rewardingly, for all the opacity of the work, its bouncing and spiraling parts come together in the seventh and final section, which is kaleidoscopic and gritty.

One lovely aspect of my experiences this weekend were random conversations with people that started up when exiting the theater and continued onto the streets, both nights. After Shadowtime I found myself exchanging views with a male dancer from the Netherlands, remarkable the consensus of feeling that we shared. After the performance by Shen Wei Dance Arts, I found myself in conversation with a woman who works in one of the offices at Lincoln Center. Even though she said that she was hard-pressed to get home and feed her infant son, as she wheeled her bicycle with infant carrier down the sidewalks past the garish Time-Warner complex, possibly the new heart of NYC, Trump Tower being diagonally across Broadway, she could not stop expostulating with passion on the subject of the skill of the Shen Wei Dance Arts dancers. My feelings only partially match hers, remarkable though that she would share her passion for this subject with me, a huge orange moon overhead.

Preparing for bed, at home in New Hampshire now, two memories come back from the museum: Rauschenberg’s brilliant colors. Solid primary tones, baroque lighting, tracing the edges in the areas of saturated color in the figurative areas while a more suffused light makes a ghostly wash over the collaged posters. His overpainting transforms collage into a way of painting, distinct from the tectonics of assembling found materials (in Schwitters for instance, who comes closest to the same effect). Each work is a studied and painterly composition. The second impression, detaching itself from the visual wash in my forebrain: Creeley gazes from R. B. Kitaj’s The Ohio Gang (1964), his eye like a light source, follows his green arm and hand, falling on a man in a panama hat who interviews a nude woman whom he holds on his lap as another weaves a yellow ribbon, a second hint of color, into her hair. A red-eyed ghoul pushes a baby carriage. The motion recursive to the matter most central to these pages: words in transformation: Bernstein’s by Ferneyhough,  Williams’s by Reich’s music as interpreted by Shen Wei, and now, thanks to Kitaj, an inscrutable novel, referencing Creeley, in comic, serio-scary collage. The more the poet’s words are dissociated from the schemes that animate the visual artist or choreographer with whom a form of correspondence has come to be  a collaboration, the more then dissociation allows freedom in composition. A similar species of connection between motion and music was the heart of the Cage-Cunningham collaborations. Functioning like a motor at the heart of a crowded New York City intersection, people surge together and filter away, a pursuit of values that emerges in previously non-existent interspaces.