Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Library matters

Eastside Road, April 27, 2015—
I returned yesterday from a five-day trip to Oregon, there on a sad assignment: assessing the library of my friend Bhishma Xenotechnites, also known as Douglas Leedy, who died just over a month ago.

A composer, performer, scholar, writer, traveler, and in his last years recluse, Bhishma lived in a pleasant two-bedroom house in the college town Corvallis, to whose Oregon State University he intended his books to be given. I thought it important to have at least a catalog of his collection before it is distributed, and if possible some kind of inventory of its marginalia, because, as I say, Bhishma was among other things a scholar: his reading was extensive, intensive, and careful; and many of his books, I thought, would contain evidence of both the range of his interests and the development, perhaps, of the major themes preoccupying his fine creative mind. I was not prepared for the extent of the assignment: two weeks would hardly have sufficed.

In the meantime, another volunteer, younger, more diligent, and better trained than I, was going through the papers, separating and sorting correspondence, manuscripts, fair copies of completed work, and beginning what promises to be a considerable but clearly organized catalogue of the literary bequest. For that catalogue I prepared the following

Note on Leedy's Library

Leedy was a dedicated but careful reader with a relatively small library, whose books were generally shelved in rooms in which they were used. The largest number were displayed in the large sitting-room bookcase, five vertical arrays of eight shelves each, two by eight feet: Here were many books of Greek and Latin writers — more of the former — in the Loeb editions as well as others; here too were many books and sections of books he had photocopied, folded and stapled for his own purposes.

Here too is a small but imposing collection of facsimile editions; some of music; others of texts. Reference books include two editions of Grove's Dictionary, the compact edition of the OED, and a number of foreign-language dictionaries.

There are perhaps four feet of musical scores in this room, which had also housed his harpsichord; and a few biographies of composers, Will and Ariel Durant's eleven-volume world history, and some miscellaneous literary works, including six volumes of the Library of America (Thoreau, three volumes of Melville, one each of Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein).

The kitchen contained four two-foot shelves of cookbooks, many of them devoted to Indian cuisine, many others to baking; and another shelf divided between books on gardening and on home maintenance.

In the study were a number of scores, in particular many of choral music, as well as ten or twelve feet of books on various subjects — architecture, mathematics, history, medicine, philosophy, popular philosophy. In the bedroom, perhaps thirty books, apparently mostly recently acquired, on a variety of subjects, many having to do with classical antiquity; and three shelves of videotapes and DVDs, again on a variety of themes, again many related to the Hellenic world.

Many of these books are annotated. There are three usual kinds of annotation, nearly always in very faint pencil, in a very small hand, resisting reproduction. Often there is a kind of index of page numbers on issues of interest, pencilled onto a flyleaf. At other times marginalia are written directly into the book's pages; and often these express either disagreement with or an amplification of a statement the author has made.

At other times, though, slips are inserted between the pages, with more extended comments, or memos to himself. In rare cases such slips bear notes having nothing to do with the book: perhaps his reading was interrupted, he made a quick note and used it as a bookmark. In a number of cases pages are apparently saved with such slips, or with blank bookmarks, or by tucking the flap of the dust-jacket between pages. One can't always be sure the reading was interrupted at those points. A blank slip or bookmark seems often to have been placed in a newly acquired book, presumably against the time it would be wanted. Pages of particular significance to the reader were generally noted in pencil on a flyleaf.

Until some time in the last few years it had been Leedy's habit to inscribe hi name on the cover, inside the front cover, or on a flyleaf. Over the years the form changed from "douglas leedy" to "d.leedy", sometimes with a date but usually not. (Capital letters never appeared in these inscriptions.) Books acquired on travels frequently bear the place of purchase: Bergen; Warsaw; Madras.

Leedy read in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Polish, Latin, and (ancient) Greek, but except for facsimile editions and books by Latin and (especially) Greek-writing authors, very nearly all the books are in English. In recent years many seem to have been bought as remainders. It is surprising that the majority of the books appear not to have been read: bindings are tight; dust jackets when present unchipped and bright -- yet in many cases faint pencil annotations appear throughout.

coffeetable.jpgLet me suggest the nature of his interests by noting the contents of the coffee table by his sofa, where I believe he did a fair amount of his reading when not at the worktable in his office. The coffee table was left apparently as it was on March 13 when he left his home for he last time:

Two blank notepads.

Manual for a Scenario scientific calculator.

Georger Brookshaw: Pomona Britannica, the complete plates. Taschen. 

Aeeschylus: The Oresteia.  tr. Robert Fagles. At p 144, slip with note: "Scarcely reflects [[[illeg] in 30 yrs / DIVIDINES ?SPRING"

Simon Blackburn: Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. 2005. bookmark at p. 40.

ed. Tamara Levitz: Stravinsky and his world. Princeton. bookmark at p. 142.

Howard Zinn: A People's History of the United States 1492-Present. Revised and updated ed. 1995. At p. 200, note on slip: "symphonycast.org / Org. / b'cast 21 Apr / Carnegie Dec 1/2 concert / Chavez/Orbón/Revueltas / [horiz. line] [upside-down:] 789 June"

R.K. Narayan: Under the Banyan Tree & Other Stories. Viking. Flap tucked in at p. 82.

Namita Devidayal: The Music Room: a memoir. St. Martin's Press. Flap tucked in at ch. 2.

Arthur A. Macdonell: A Vedic Reader for Students. Madras: Oxford U.P., 1972. note on flyleaf: "meter xvii". bookmark 98/9. swn p. 164: "Vedic Meters in Macdonell" [hor. line] [list of 6 entries with page numbers]"; also, on nine of ten staves on scrap of paper, "TWO VERSIONS OF USHA (Macdonell USAS, p. 93-9) / started ca. 1987-8   8/2009 

Cassell's New Latin Dictionary. Funk & Wagnalls, 1959. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Letters in Gold: Ottoman calligraphy from the Sakip Sabanci collection, Istanbul. 1998.

La Libia Antigua: Ciudades perdidas del Imperio Romano. Photographs by Robert Polidori; text by Antonino DeVita, Ginette DeVita-Evrard, Lidiano Bacchielli.  Paris: Editions Mengès, 1998.

A green pencil; a red crayon-pencil; a glue stick; a fingernail scissors; a tuning fork; a plastic soprano recorder; a tin whistle; a thumb-piano; a round lens on a handle; a small black plastic Grundig radio (YB-305) with case; a transparent plastic 12-inch ruler (also metric); a Scenario calculator (Model SC-110); the remote control for the Heat-N-Glo automatic gas fireplace; a rubber band; three braided-straw coasters.

And, on the floor at the coffee table:

Michael Grant: Atlas of Classical History. NY: OXford UP, 1994.  No marginalia, but Index of proper names considerably annotated, corrected, and expanded. At p. 22/3, slip: "HUDOR / OL 685-91 / [in list form:] Cities Thebes Athens Corinth Mytilene Sardis Susa Acroyas Syracuse Taras Cyrenee Jerusalem Miletus Crete

Atlas of Oregon. Univ Oregon Pr, 1976

Finally, for the moment, I note the few items on a very short shelf intended for horizontal books, apparently used as a through-the-door depository, and containing items he had with him at the end:

Sibelius: Symphony no. 6. W Hansen. Score. Inscribed on cover, "dleedy"

flyleaf.jpgGildersleeve and Lodge: Latin Grammar. Macmillan. At p. 52/3, on "Peace" postcard, note: “QVID AVTEM ALIVD IN NOSTRIS LEGIONIBVS CORNVA AC TVBÆ FACIVNT? QVORUVM CONCENTVS QVANTO EST VEHEMENTIOR, TANTVM ROMANA IN BELLIS GLORIA CETERIS PRÆSTAT. / Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 1.10.14 / And what else is the function of the horns and trumpets in our legions? The more assertive their sound, the more does Roman military glory dominate the world. / tr. D.A. Fussell, Loeb edition”.

Атлас Мира [World Atlas]. Inscribed inside front cover: "dhleedy / Warszawa V/66 / Miedzynasodowy Targ / Ksiaiek"

Pindar: Nemean Odes; Isthmian Odes; Fragments (Loeb). Notes on flyleaf: NB / ext. music ref N.9.1-10 / youths’ voices N.3.65-6 / immortality in song N.6.28-38 / also 53-4 / N.7 12-3 / N.9 48-0 + / bad singing N.7.71 / (!) χρὔςόν Ν.7.78 / wer fr 110 p342 .

Stravinsky: Apollon Musagète. Revised 1947 edition. Score: Boosey & Hawkes. Inscribed on cover: "doug leedy 1960".

Coqt, Jean: Skagen.

Coqt, Jean: Tarifa.

Mary Renault: The Praise Singer.

Douglas Leedy: A Venerable temperament rediscovered. Perspectives of New Music, 29/2 (reprint)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Theater that touches the heart

Marcel Pagnol: Fanny
Translated, from the French,
and directed by Roland David Valayre
Generation Theatre, San Francisco
seen 16 April 2015

Berkeley, 17 April, 2015—

WE SEE SO MUCH professional theater — probably ten or twelve productions a year — that we too easily fall into the trap of dismissing local and community theater as substandard, when of course that's not at all the point.  What is the point, I think, is the earnest and effective celebration of the literature of theater in a manner that approaches what seems to me to be its fundamental purpose, which is to investigate the human condition as the human animal makes its uneasy triangulation of self, society, and Nature.

Few playwrights manage that better than the Provençal Marcel Pagnol. As Roland Valayre notes in the program to this production, one of he "many talents as a playwright is his ability to create characters that can be both funny and moving within the same action, sometimes within the same sentence." Among his many successes in that direction is the Marseilles trilogy Marius, Fanny, and César, reasonably well known to American aficionados through the memorable film productions Pagnol made soon after the advent of talking motion pictures, but all too rarely given as legitimate theater in English.

Pagnol seems to me to be particularly appropriate to semiprofessional or amateur performers, whose own amiable weaknesses when compared (as they should not be) to seasoned professionals seem to underscore the frailties of Pagnol's characters — who represent, of course, you and me; certainly me.

Two years ago this Generations Theater presented the first play of the trilogy, and now, for a short time, they're back with the second, and it is welcome and worth seeing. There are problems, God knows, but those concerned with production were probably opening-night glitches — sound cues far too loud, scene-ending fades too slow, uncertain curtains. 

Overcoming those drawbacks was the undoubted good will and earnest affection for the text. Fannny opens with the concluding scene from the first play, Marius, recapitulating Marius's stormy departure from his father's bar and Fanny, the love of his life, for the more urgent call from maritime adventure, and then quickly we're presented with the engaging quartet César (bar-owner, Marius's father), Panisse (prosperous sailmaker), Escartefigue (ferryboat skipper), and that gentleman from Lyon M. Brun. All in their fifties or thereabout, they function as a sort of Greek chorus — Pagnol knew his classics well — representing the common man confronted with social and technological change in the period just after World War I.

I think the direction of the opening quartet, revealing the time passed since Marius's departure and Cesar's impatience at the lack of news from him, and expressing perhaps a characteristically Provençal cunning and irony, was too slow, threatening to sap the energy needed to grab the audience and move the play — a vehicle spending too much time in lower gears. I hope this changes in later performances. 

The  characterization seemed nicely done, though. A number of these actors are in fact French, though perfectly at ease in English; they have an advantage in being familiar with the Pagnol stock characters, and recreate them readily.

With the appearance of the female actors Pagnol's play moves from badinage and bonhomie to domestic tragedy. Marius has left Fanny pregnant; her mother Honorine is furious; her simpleminded aunt Claudine sympathetic. The play continues through its predictable course; it is its humanity and sympathy in dealing with the complex layers of morality and responsibility that maintain the audience's interest, not simply turns of plot.

Fanny is funny and warm-hearted and utterly humane, but it is also a serious play. The trick to success with Pagnol is the balance of these elements: and gradually, through the duration of the performance last night, opening night, that balance was struck. The goofy and — let's face it — rather labored practical joking of the opening scene moved, through the second act, and particularly the third, toward dramatic exposition of poignant, complex, quite engaging explorations of basic human quandary. Frailty of cast and direction met frailty of human character and motivation; in a sense, human issues, and Pagnol's art in investigating them, and the company's adequacies in bringing them to the audience, all began to converge.

Fanny is clearly the middle play of a trilogy. This production deals quite well with the problem of the missing "prequel," if you don't know it; but it definitely left me wanting to see the resolution. M. Panisse, assured me, as we were leaving, that the final play, César, would appear next year. In the meantime, and to prepare for its delights, I recommend you drop in on Fanny. The  production runs through April 26.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Figaro qua, Figaro là…

•Charles Morey: Figaro.
  adapted from Le mariage de Figaro,
  by Pierre de Beaumarchais.
  Directed by Michael Michetti.
  Seen at A Noise Within, Pasadena, California,
  10 April 2015

•Mozart and da Ponte: Le nozze di Figaro.
  Conducted by James Conlon; directed by Ian Judge.
  Seen at Los Angeles Opera, 9 April 2015
Eastside Road, April 13, 2015—
LAST WEEK ENDED in a flurry of theater: two versions of the great Marriage of Figaro; a production of Julius Caesar; a production of The Threepenny Opera. Let's begin with Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, 1732-1799, whose article in Wikipedia introduces him as "a French playwright, watchmaker, inventor, musician, diplomat, fugitive, spy, publisher, horticulturalist, arms dealer, satirist, financier, and revolutionary (both French and American)." I take the following three paragraphs from the Wikipedia entry:

Born simply Pierre-Augustin Caron, the son of a watchmaker from the provinces who had apparently settled in Paris, he took early to music, but was apprenticed as a matter of course to his father. At twenty-one he invented a refinement of the escapement mechanism which greatly improved the reliability and lessened the size of watches, which brought him to the notice of the king. Two years later he married a widow with money and land, and took the name "Beaumarchais," but she died with a year, and he fell into debt.

His fortunes turned quickly, though, and he became music=teacher to the four daughters of Louis XV. (He taught them harp.) He met an older entrepreneur, Joseph Paris Duverney, who helped him in a number of business ventures, by which he became rich and gained further access to French nobility.

In 1764 Beaumarchais spent ten months in Madrid, helping a sister who had married there. His bid for consulship to Spain was rejected, and he turned increasingly to business ventures while beginning to experiment with writing plays; his first drama, Eugénie, premiered at the Comédie Française in 1767.

Beaumarchais is best known nowadays, and especially outside of France, through the first two plays of his trilogy centered on recurring characters at court of Count Almaviva, grand corrégidor of Andalusia: Le Barbier de Séville, premiered in 1775; Le Mariage de Figaro (1784), and La Mère coupable (1792).

Anyone who knows The Barber of Seville (Rossini and Sterbini) and The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart and da Ponte), the great operatic settings of the first two plays, will recognize autobiographical elements in the plots. Music teacher to nobility; factotum from the lower orders; lawsuits (Beaumarchais was engaged in several); marriages (ditto)… it has even been suggested that Figaro's name is a thin disguise of the playwright's, who was fils Caron, son of Caron.

Figaro is of course a memorable character, thanks primarily to Lorenzo da Ponte's adaptation of the second play. Da Ponte himself was a Beaumarchais-like character; the decade 1776-1786 was a heady time; the intersection of literature, populism, entrepreneurship, greatly increased travel and the sophistication that naturally follows, and of course the age of revolution all participate in the brilliance and edginess of Figaro's character. (And yet my first memory of Figaro is of the black cat hungrily gazing at the goldfish Cleo in the 1940 Disney adaptation of Pinocchio.)

ALL THAT SAID, what was to be learned from last week's exposure to The Marriage of Figaro in both its original theatrical form and da Ponte and Mozart's operatic setting? First, of course, the power of music (and particularly of Mozart's); second, the brilliance of da Ponte's libretto; but a close third, the surprising depth and richness of the play. A quick disclaimer: I don't know the original; I've never seen the play before in any language, and I haven't read the original. (Yet: the entire text is readily available at Wikisource.)

As adapted by Charles Morey and directed, wonderfully, by Michael Michetti, Figaro is completely within the tradition ranging from Commedia dell'arte through 19th-century French farce to the Marx Brothers and even, as the actors pointed out in a post-performance talkback with the audience, to such standard television fare as Seinfeld. I suspect Morey studied da Ponte carefully and did a similar job of streamlining. A couple of minor characters have been dropped (Grippe-soleil, a young shepherd; Pédrille, a message-boy to the count; and with them, probably a sub-plot or two, not to be missed in this already complicated comedy.

Now that I look at the pivotal resolution, which Mozart and da Ponte render so magnificent — the Count's plea for perdono, Contessa — I wonder at the changes Beaumarchais may have made in the original text to get it past Louis XV, who at first banned its public performance. The plot hinges on unmasking the Count's sexual immorality and exploitation; he finally has to beg forgiveness of the Countess, who of course grants it. Clearly a sitting king will not countenance such a plot, and in the text as we have it the moment is underplayed. Two years after the Paris premiere, da Ponte and Mozart elevate that moment to something exalted, transcendent. Even so, the play is clearly political, subversive, revolutionary.

Michetti's direction and the Noise Within cast conveyed all the urgency, the sharp political satire, and the philosophical complexity of the play in a fast, sometimes zany, often touching performance. In the title role, Jeremy Guskin was perfectly brilliant, easily switching from broad comedy to darker, intelligent brooding — the great monologue in Act Five, only a little revised in Morey's adaptation, was marvelous. Angela Sauer's Suzanne was up to that challenge; and if Count Almaviva is costumed ludicrously and made foolish and foppish, Andrew Ross Wynn made the concept work. Elyse Mirto was an affecting Countess, and Will Bradley was utterly persuasive as Cherubin in spite of his tall, lean stature. The rest of the cast were remarkably even, flexible, and resourceful: every nuance of the play seemed perfectly interpreted; there was never a slow moment; even the complex second-act ensemble, with characters hiding in closets and jumping out of windows, worked like, well, clockwork. The production continues in repertory through May 10, 2015, and it should certainly not be missed.

Alas, the same could not be said of Los Angeles Opera's production, or its young cast's performance, of the opera. Seen from too far away, in too big an opera house, in a musical performance that was too weighty and strove too earnestly for greatness, this Nozze di Figaro was laborious. There were some pretty voices and some successful portrayals, but I left with the feeling I'd seen an awkward attempt by a provincial company.
•William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar.
  Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott

•Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera.
  Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott
  Both seen at A Noise Within, Pasadena, California,
  11 April 2015
FOR YEARS NOW we have subscribed to the plays performed by A Noise Within, the repertory theater company based formerly in Glendale and now in its own building in Pasadena. Founded by actors who had been with ACT in San Francisco, the company mounts seven productions each year: three plays in the fall, three in the spring, and a Christmas special.

The repertory has always included Shakespeare, usually two plays each season, set next to American classics by such playwrights as William Inge and Tennessee Williams, frequent trips into the French repertory, and occasional looks at the classic avant-garde (Ionesco; Beckett). The schedule works out in such a way that we can nearly always see all three plays of each half-season within three or four days, making it a convenient run-out from home. Every year we make this trip twice, just as every year we travel once or twice to Ashland for performances by the much wealthier Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I won't engage in comparisons here.

This year's Noise Within season had as its theme "Revolution": last November we saw three plays revolutionary in their time for style: Shakespeare'sThe Tempest , Oscar Wilde'sThe Importance of Being Earnest , and August Strindberg's The Dance of Death. Last week's plays were not only revolutionary in the style of their concept and expression, they were in fact about revolution. In addition to Figaro they were Julius Caesar and The Threepenny Opera , both shows directed by the same team and performed in the same stage design — and seen, as it turned out, on the same day.

This is the kind of intellectual and theatrical exercise A Noise Within often attempts, nearly as often successfully. The pairing of these two very different vehicles underscored profundities which are latent in the scripts and which should be obvious to any reader or onlooker, whatever the success of the production; in this event, the result was really quite powerful, really moving. I thought Threepenny suffered a bit from slow tempi, which tended to hamper the drive and bite of the play; but that flaw could be forgiven in the face of the detail, the passion, and the total authenticity of the performances.

Both plays were staged in a relatively unspecified early-twentieth-century setting, the stage occupied by stark industrial scaffolding. Both brought the audience into the piece: in Julius Caesar one felt included within the Roman rabble irresolute between Caesar's attackers and his defenders; in Threepenny one was directly confronted by the cast, intent on alienating its audience with fine Brechtian nastiness.

I thought it appropriate that we were seeing these productions in the week of Judith Malina's death — The Living Theatre, which she and Julian Beck co-founded in the 1950s to such and artistic triumph and controversy, has surely influenced these directors in these productions; and Malina would have appreciated the result, I think, though perhaps with a sardonic observation that it was high time the commercial theater fall into line.

That Living Theatre connection came to me at the beginning of The Threepenny Opera, which began indistinctly, with the cast roaming through the audience, moodily repeating isolated lines of dialogue from various moments in the play. We were eased into the play, you might say, albeit in quite an uneasy manner; there was a deliciously menacing quality to the moment, and though this was the evening performance that moment instantly threw the afternoon's Julius Caesar into yet another layer of ironic meaning.

A Noise Within has a fine website from which you'll get notes on the productions and cast lists; I won't attempt a detailed review here. I do have to mention, though, the strong Brutus of Robertson Dean; the eloquent Mark Antony of Rafael Goldstein; the engaging, complex clarity of Freddy Douglas's Cassius; which requires that I also mention Patrick O'Connell's successfully ambivalent, tragically aging Caesar. Other roles were as well conceived and performed.

In Threepenny we were impressed, my companion and I, by the quality of the singing. As Polly Peachum and Lucy Brown, Marisa Duchowny and Maegan McConnell had clear, accurate, expressive, well-focussed soprano voices; Andrew Ableson was a pleasantly reedy, sardonic, nasty Mâcheath; Stasha Surdyke captured Jenny Diver's complexity well. Geoff Elliott makes an all too credible Peachum, and Deborah Strang was quite marvelous as his Mrs., drawing the first row of the audience into the Ballad of Sexual Dependency with sarcasm and good humor that somehow coexist.

Speaking of that Ballad, though, reminds me that it was hard to get used to this translation, by Michael Feingold. It works, but seems a little stiff. I was steeped in Eric Bentley's translation, back in the middle 1950s; it seemed to me to have bite and efficiency lacking here — Bentley's "First feed the belly, then feed the mind" (as I recall it) works better than Feingold's "First comes the feeding, then the moral code." I don't know the original text; perhaps Bentley sacrificed literal accuracy to theatrical effect — but isn't that what Brecht and Weill were after?

Julius Caesar continues in repertory through May 8, 2015; The Threepenny Opera through May 9.
Details online at A Noise Within.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Sinfonia muta

•Charles Shere: Sinfonia muta,
for voice, violin, and percussion; duration ca. 1:30.
Healdsburg: Ear Press, 2015
Full study score, 5.5x8.5, 2 pages
s muta.png

Eastside Road, April 7, 2015—

WE WERE IN MILAN in late November, 2008, having dinner in a trattoria a day or two before flying home — I've looked at my notes, but I can't identify the restaurant.

Doesn't matter: the only thing memorable at the place was the waiter, an engaging fellow, in his fifties I'd say, who eyed me closely, then asked what I did. Pittore? Scrittore? Yes, scrivo un po' , I write a little, I said, and I compose a little music.

I thought it was something of the sort, he said. I'm a poet: and he handed me a little poem printed on a slip of paper. Here's something to make a song, he said:
Sinfonia Muta

il silenzio sta come un orco enorme
pronto ad ingoiarmi
non gli doretta e lo strangolo
col mio canto d'amore per te

I set it aside but glanced at it from time to time during dinner, and with my postprandial grappa sketched out a setting for voice, violin, and percussion on the menu, leaving it behind as a little gift for the waiter.

Here's the translation, as far as I can supply it — there's a word in the fourth line makes no sense to me. "Doretta" may have been my misreading, or it may be dialect…
Mute Symphony

Silence stands, an enormous whale
ready to swallow me up
don't… and I'll strangle it
with the lovesong I've made for you
On returning home I quickly transcribed my sketch at the computer, but the photo has since been mislaid, so I can no longer verify the text…

If you can supply a better translation, leave it as a comment, and I'll send you a print copy of the score.

(A few days later:) As I hoped, my luddite friend Stimato Fabbrò, who does not like to leave comments, sent me another kind of message, clearing up the mystery. In the fourth line two words had been run together: it should read non gli do retta e lo strangolo, meaning "I pay [him] no heed and I'll strangle him…". So the poem translates, roughly,
There's Silence, an enormous whale
ready to swallow me up
he doesn't scare me
i'll strangle him with the lovesong I've made
for you

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Art as social commentary

sun boat.jpgLawrence Ferlinghetti: Provincetown  (1995)

Legends of the Bay Area:
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Marin Museum of Contemporary Art
500 Palm Drive, Novato, California
tel. 415-506—0137
W-F 11-4; Sa-Su 11-5; closes April 5
Mildred Howard: Spirit and Matter.
Richmond Art Center
2540 Barrett Avenue, Richmond, California
tel. 510-620-6772
Tu-Sa 10-5; Su 12-5; closes May 24
Eastside Road, April 4, 2015—
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI is locally famous — as poet, personality, and bookseller. His City Lights Books has been a nexus of literacy since the days of the Beat Poets: he counted Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Michael McClure among his friends.

I knew that he painted, but always assumed that his painting amounted to something of a hobby. Hobby: terrible word. The French have a better expression, violon d'Ingres , referring to the music Ingres turned to when he wasn't concentrating on his primary art, painting and drawing. It's not uncommon for artists to work at two quite dissimilar genres, often one of them time-based — music, theater, poetry — and the other primarily visual: painting, sculpture.

The exhibition of Ferlinghetti's visual work, primarily painting but including also a few prints, suggests that he often confronts his work quite seriously, though he's quoted as saying "Painting is more like play than work." He began painting in Paris in the late 1940s, when he was studying literature at the Sorbonne, and has maintained a studio ever since coming to San Francisco sixty-odd years ago. (He is still painting, at 96.) The earliest work in this exhibition, Deux , recalls Cocteau; though a canvas, it's essentially a line drawing of two profiled male faces confronting one another, one upside-down, like the figures at the corner of a playing card.

Though he admired the abstract expressionism of the Beats, he found himself unable to resist representation, especially of the figure. (He dislikes the term "abstract expressionism," finding it a contradiction in terms.) His best paintings bear the scrubbed light of Ab Ex painters: Elmer Bischoff and Hassel Smith come to mind. The calligraphy of the framing inside the hull of the boat in Provincetown makes me think of Franz Kline, whose influence shows up elsewhere. But, staying with Provincetown , the two figures inside the hull again recall school-of-Paris painters; it's not a stretch to relate them back to the profiled faces in Deux.

The boat is a recurring motif in Ferlinghetti's painting; perhaps a memory of his own transatlantic crossing.
sun boat 2.jpgIMG_8845.jpg
Sun Boat 2 (2009)

In Sun Boat 2 the boat is little more than counterweight to the brilliant energy of the upper half of the canvas; in an untitled print (made at Crown Point Press in San Francisco) it forms part of a narrative, in a small piece whose elegance and wit is hard to resist. (The male figure reaching up out of the water will remind some of us of both Picasso and Picabia, but the piece is fully Ferlinghetti's.)

Mother Russia.jpgA number of the works here make comments of a social or political nature, and they seem to me the weakest work — rushed, blatant, obvious; more slogan than painting — though the 1999 Mother Russia , whose expressive face is defined with an artfully drawn hammer-and-sickle, and whose posture and tone recall the Russian qualities of Chagall and (Arshile) Gorky, is exceptional in this respect, quiet yet rather deep, "poetic" in its juxtaposition of signs (woman, bird), telling it the downward motion of the street.

At 96, Ferlinghetti is free from anxieties concerning position; his painting, like his poetry, stands on its own, a good member of a rich and vibrant society of artists, poets, writers, activists. This is a retrospective in more ways than one: the viewer can't help recalling the work of previous decades, can't help noting the inevitable vitiation of their movements, platforms, and insights. Yet the human spirit persists, and expression is the inevitable result. To Ferlinghetti's credit there's a fair amount of joy and beauty as well as occasional impatience with the social human condition.
The Painter (1989)

Installation, Mildred Howard: Spirit and Matter , Richmond Art Center

MILDRED HOWARD is an artist of considerable standing in an area — Northern California — not exactly hurting for powerful, mature artists. She has worked in collage, painting, assemblage, and sculpture for decades, always bringing to her work intellectual energy drawn from a sober, serious contemplation of self and society. I don't know any artist who excels her in treating the significance of being African-American in contemporary American society, or in treating the history of that situation, without bogging down in mere politics-of-the-moment. A "white," I can't of course speak from within that "situation": but it does seem to me the significance, the meaning, the roots and the reach of Howard's work must be the same to a black viewer as to a white.

It's curious: her work is intensely personal, sometimes using her own face and hand as the visual center of the work; yet the result transcends self. That wonderful critic R.H. Blyth writes, in his Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics , of four types of expression: from top to bottom, as you might say, "the object treated objectively", "the object treated subjectively," "the subject treated objectively," "the subject treated subjectively." (His examples range from "almost all of Chaucer; Shakespeare's songs…" at the top to the "Chamber of Horrors" at the bottom: "The larger part of Byron, a great deal of Shelley and Keats… the pièce de résistance is Yeats' Had I the heaven's embroidered cloths/… Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.)

In this formula Mildred Howard often works, I think, with the subject the "black" presence in the American scheme) treated objectively. I have generally preferred objective objects, and this is why I like Puryear and Guston; but if you're going to make a career as an artist contemplating the significance latent in the intersection of self and society, you can't do that any more objectively than Howard does. She never complains or shouts or cajoles. She contemplates, as I say, and presents the material of her contemplation, and expresses its complexity and reality — its objectivity — as a matter of social fact.

skillet.jpgShe also contemplates Art. One of the best pieces here, I think, and one of the best pieces of its type I've seen anywhere, is a tall four-legged unpainted wooden stool out of whose seat has risen a long-handled cast iron skillet. Skillet to the Frying Pan: Sitting Black , it's called — Howard's titles, often small poems themselves, are never to be neglected; they lead the viewer's mind into unspecified richnesses associated with the visual "meaning" of the pieces they name.

The visual reference includes Duchamp, of course; if like me you live with a copy of his famous Bicycle Wheel you'll greet Sitting Black with familiar pleasure. But at the center of the bottom of this skillet, angled up toward you as you lean in to look at it, is an old-time photographic portrait of an African-American woman, unnamed, unknown most likely unless a member of the artist's own family. Suddenly the gap, the gulf between everything Duchamp was concerned with and the history of the African-American presence in American society hits you like, well, a black iron frying pan.

Resonance; resonance. Yet the sculpture — and sculpture it is, there's no denying that — is beautiful, elegant, and aloof in its elegant beauty. If its size and proportions suggest a standing figure, it's a figure Joan Mirò might have conjured, with Giacometti somewhere in his mind. Howard treats this object of her own devising subjectively, to judge by the title, but she's reaching toward objectivity, and her work — her skill, patience, sophistication, and above all intelligence — permits us to follow her in completely resolving the subjective component to achieve a fully objective state of mind, contemplating the object without an agenda, without straining at a specific (let alone a socially charged) meaning.

Howard has been well known for a series of pieces referring to House; two are present here. In the installation photo you can see one playing domesticity and edge: the empty geometry of the house is made of channels of aluminum, I believe, completely covered on every surface with table knives. The floor is littered with an amazing collection of silver — candlesticks, compotes, candy-dishes, trays, pitchers — ultimately forming a path leaving the house toward the gallery wall, covered with white wallboard into which dozens of knives — sharp knives, not tableware — have apparently been stabbed, perhaps thrown, in gestures which can be interpreted as either violently aggressive or merely — merely ! — futile and frustrated. It's a big, complex, finally irresolute piece, I think: objectively subjective, perhaps.

bottle house.jpgIn an adjacent hallway there's a small example of Howard's bottle houses, cabins made almost exclusively of bottles. This one is small, made of dozens of identical brown glass bottles each holding only an ounce or two of… I don't know what, originally: the label mentions beer, but these look more like vanilla-extract bottles. Whatever they are, they are of course as beautiful as glass: perfectly uniform in color and texture and size, with the inert regularity of manufactured components — brick, tile. Lean into the open end of this bottle house and admire the light it admits.

This is a big show, a very important one; a mid-career retrospective presenting an artist who has quietly staked out for herself an uncommonly intelligent, probing, thoughtful position on art, self, and society, and expressed that position with unusually prolific, clear, consistently elegant, and often joyous work. I looked at this show thinking of great Richmond Art Center shows of the past, of Tom Marioni's direction in the 1960s, for example. Everyone involved with the show, its installation, and its curation is to be congratulated.
NO VISIT TO THE Richmond Art Center should overlook the marvelous folk sculpture tucked away, almost unnoticeably, in the shrubbery of the courtyard. They make a particularly poignant counterpoise to Mildred Howard's retrospective. I'm embarrassed and ashamed that I don't know who made them, and it's late Saturday night, I can't call to find out before putting up this blog Sunday morning — I'll try to rectify this in a later correction.

benvenuto.jpgThere's one other piece of sculpture in that courtyard, and I'm really unhappy about its treatment. It's a beautiful, formal, abstractly geometrical work in marble by the Italian-American San Francisco sculptor Elio Benvenuto. I knew him, casually, back in the 1950s I think: a tall, slender, elegant, courtly man with a fine eye and hand, a true heir to the Italian sculptural tradition.

This piece should be indoors, on a stand lifting it well off the floor, where the viewer can take his time with it, on its terms, letting light play across its polished surfaces, bounce off its edges and details. Instead it's on the ground on raw dirt, in shadow, at the edge of a concrete pavement, for all the world as if has been rejected, abandoned with no thought at all to its beauty, let alone the skill and dedication of the artist who made it.

Come to think of it, Benvenuto's position, seventy years ago, as an Italian immigrant bringing the artistic values of his society to the San Francisco Bay Area, is somewhat analogous to Mildred Howard's. And to that of the temporarily anonymous maker of the charming yet poignant cement sculptures nearby. An exhibition presenting work by the three artists together would be a fascinating depiction and examination of the urges and preoccupations they hold in common.