Saturday, April 21, 2018

Manhattan Journal: A Lost Text Recovered

I am looking out on the scaly yellow brick art-deco facades of midtown and contemplating the numerous wooden roof top 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.

One (see below), Shen Wei Dance Arts at the New York State Theater. In 2008, this group will choreograph the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The setting promises to be luminous, according to the publicity for the Lincoln Center performance. The night before, I attended Patrick Ferneyhough and Charles Bernstein's Shadowtime at the Rose Theater. The reviews for these performances were not good and they were not. The review of Shadowtime in the New York Times of July 23 is hostile, that of Philadelphia Inquirer was "curious."

New York Times Review:

My review of Shadowtime is mixed. To me the production testified to one of the kernel truths of this age of America's fatal self-immolation: overproduction, magnificent overproduction in glass, steel, and multi-story aluminum and crystal foyers: Frank Gehry comes to mind as well as ribbons of interlaced eight lane freeways. The venue for the production of Shadowtime, the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle. The designers of this futuristic nightmare and seven-story mall have been commission to reimagine what has been lost at the World Trade Center site. This reprise of postmodern architecture is not an incidental aside. It is thematic.

For all my indirection then, I have always suspected an operatic as well as a cinematic scale to be implicit to the activities of some members of the current avant-garde, a vision shared in the past by artists by modern artists: the Dada circle or the 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. I have now had my suspicions of how spectacle might deride spectacle confirmed. “Deriding” while “enacting” catches the appropriate postmodern ethos. My appreciation cannot detach itself from the grandiosity and grandiloquence of the scale of the production values in Shadowtime.

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 in their various dramatic functions, usually robed in a workman-like blue, the turning bed or chair, pulled by silent ropes, on which a collapsed figure of Walter Benjamin or one of his avatars, lies collapsed under the weight of history. A stone, in a final moment of commemoration, becomes a transcendent object. The production values bring up the crucial issue of vision. 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? To what degree then is the production a display of the fantasies of the composer and author? The answer is highly mixed, unsatisfactory in some respects.

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 Brian Ferneyhough's music was a witty deployment of too many avant-garde clichés, sometimes brilliant in the fact of performance, but also too much exactly that, a score to be 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 shadows on the wall. Folk material of this later sort inform 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 was deployed here, freely, in its own right (rite), again leaving a puzzle as to the relevance of the work to Benjamin's thought or life. The famous Marx brothers (Groucho, Karl, ...) are here, bathed in a red glow, and catches from childhood, mangled in a Wittgensteinian language-game provide the texts for some 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 choral (assigned to the Angel of History) with raspy bass notes attaining a funereal and pensive somberness, providing in this instance a felt connection to the tragedy of Benjamin's suicide. At moments like these, the collaboration between composer and poet reached it's highest degree of concordance, as words and music seemed independently powerful, yet correspondingly reinforcing.
A version of the above text was posted to the Electronic Poetry Center, Poetics List, on the night of the 22nd. During 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 strangely exciting to me.

One of the first images that I came upon, after darting through the surrealistic illusions of Rene Magritte: Diego Rivera’s Zapata, with a noble white horse, a prancing mount from 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?

To find this amazing image, opposite Otto Dix’s fat doctor, one of the more unsettling images from the repertoire of German Expressionism, a representation of unjustified smugness: Dr. Mayer-Hermann. Berlin 1926. Dix’s doctor has always functioned, to my imagination, as an evil gynecologist maybe because of the reflective lamp on his forehead. 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. Here is how the curator understands the combinations in this gallery:

In the tenth gallery, paintings by the politically engaged Social Realists are on view; these works by German, American, and Mexican artists address the dramatically shifting socio-political climate of the interwar period. Highlights include large-scale paintings by Max Beckmann and the Mexican muralist painters Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, as well as selections from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-41).

The turn is from freak gynecology to screaming freak parthenogenesis. Other than the set 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.

On the fifth floor are the riches of MOMA’s European collection, on the fourth, mostly 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 fascinate me with their raw typography. Similar to my current notebooks 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.

Joseph Beuys. Untitled (Sun State). (1974). Chalk on painted board with wood frame, 47 1/2 x 71 1/8" (120.7 x 180.7 cm). Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (by exchange) and acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (by exchange). © 2005 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In Beuy’s Eurasian-Siberian Symphony (1963), a dead rabit is bound, cruelly to a spear, by multiple coils on the legs. His 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. An important  discovery in this vein is the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (next page).

"Untitled" (Death by Gun). 1990. Stack of photolithographs, STACK: 9 x 44 15/16 x 32 15/16" (22.9 x 114.1 x 83.6 cm) at ideal height. Edition: endless copies. Printer: variable (to date Register Litho, New York). Publisher: unpublished. Purchased in part with funds from Arthur Fleischer, Jr. and Linda Barth Goldstein. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. 

Reflections and mental excursions: too numerous include 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, also Delaunay’s prismatic ribbons. Klee 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, presents a construction of fine 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.

Jesús Rafael Soto. Untitled. 1959-60. Wood, painted wood, metal and nails, 35 3/8 x 11 3/4 x 13 3/8" (89.9 x 29.8 x 34 cm). Committee on Painting and Sculpture Funds. © 2005 Jesús Rafael Soto

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. I had forgotten that Picasso’s Ma Jolie is housed here, 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 the 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.

Lucio Fontana. Spatial Concept: Expectations. 1959. Oil on slashed canvas, 16 1/2 x 25 3/4" (41.9 x 65.4 cm). The Riklis Collection of McCrory Corporation. © 2005 Fondation Lucio Fontana

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 the most 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, further adding to the impression of an American idiom. The piece, according to the programs notes, 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 truly 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, 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 Chio 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, possibly a collaboration, the more 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 describes previously non-existent interspaces.