June 23, 2011 | by Nicole Rudick
In 1985, Jamey Gambrell took her first trip to the Soviet Union as a reporter for Art and America. Her dispatches brought fresh news of the underground art scene to the United States and introduced her to a wealth of artists in Russia, including Moscow Conceptualists Ilya Kabakov, Erik Bulatov, and Andrei Monastyrsky. Among that group was writer Vladimir Sorokin, whose first stories were published that same year in the Russian-English art magazine, A-Ya.
Since then, Gambrell has translated work by some of twentieth-century Russia’s most significant writers: Marina Tsvetaeva’s Moscow diaries, fiction by Tatyana Tolstaya, and Alexander Rodchenko’s essays. More recently, she took on four highly stylized novels by Sorokin: Day of the Oprichnik, a dystopic satire of modern Russia, and Ice Trilogy, three books that span the twentieth century and describe the strange tale of a group called the Brotherhood. In a café near her apartment on the Upper West Side in New York, Gambrell and I discussed the particular challenges Sorokin presents.
When did you first meet Sorokin?
I met him in ’88. I had become a familiar face in Russia, and I became friends with artists I knew in New York—Komar and Melamid, Alexander Kosolapov, Leonid Sokov. Once you meet one Russian, you meet hundreds. And the art world in Russia was pretty small, so an American from Art in America who spoke Russian? I was a very unusual creature, and everyone introduced me to everybody they possibly could. The first time I met Sorokin was at a kind of picnic/boat ride organized by some of the formally unofficial artists after the Sotheby’s auction. But I didn’t know him very well. And then, for the first time, a lot of people were allowed to go out of the country; a group of German artists invited them to do a show in West Berlin. It was so cool that I could get on a plane and go visit all of these people that I knew, with no visas and nobody tapping the telephones. It was exciting. And that’s when I really met him, really talked to him for the first time.
May 10, 2011 | by Nicole Rudick
Join Geoff Dyer as he discusses his new book, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, with Lorin Stein, at Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton Street, in Brooklyn. The event begins at 7:30 PM.
May 10, 2011 | by Nicole Rudick
April 27, 2011 | by Nicole Rudick
After moving from Tambov, Russia, to Egypt with her Armenian parents in 1921, Ida Kar spent five years in Paris. She had been educated at the prestigious Lycée Français in Alexandra, but her stint on the Left Bank, at age twenty, formed the foundation of her education as an artist. André Breton had written the first Surrealist manifesto there four years earlier, and the city was a hotbed of artistic experimentation. In the studio of a young German photographer named Heinrich Heidersberger, Kar made her first foray into photography. She returned to Egypt in 1933, just as that nation’s artists began developing their own iteration of surrealism (André Breton famously wrote to poet Georges Henelin, in 1936, “The imp of the perverse, as he deigns to appear to me, seems to have one wing here, the other in Egypt”), and dedicated herself to the medium.
When the newly married Kar moved to London in 1945, she wasted little time in initiating her photographic career and cultivating the kind of artistic community she had known in Cairo. She began making high-contrast, tightly cropped commercial portraits of theater actors in 1947; by the end of fifties, her roster of sitters had come to include many of the era’s most significant painters, sculptors, authors, poets, playwrights, and composers, among them T. S. Eliot, Noël Coward, L. S. Lowry, and Somerset Maugham in London; Le Corbusier, Man Ray, Marie Laurencin, and Alberto Giacometti in Paris; and Dmitry Shostakovich, Leonid Leonov, Ernst Neizvestny, and Ilya Ehrenberg in the Soviet Union.
In 1960, Kar mounted a groundbreaking solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London; hers was the first retrospective show of a photographer at a London gallery. Of it, she boasted, “We are going to make this show the most exciting photographic event since ‘The Family of Man.’” The comparison with Edward Steichen’s thorough 1955 survey of documentary photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was apt. The Whitechapel show solidified Kar’s reputation as documentarian of cultural life, while rousing critics to debate photography’s aspirations to the level of high art. “I don’t think it is an art,” insisted David Sylvester, a fan of Kar’s work, “because the essence of art is that the artist creates his forms and does not select them: photography reproduces the form.”
Kar proved unmoved by the debate. Until her death in 1974, she continued her work, making sensitive portraits of the St. Ives artistic community, of Fidel Castro and Cuban writers, and of any number of intrepid, purposeful women artists.
Click on the images below to open a gallery of Kar’s photography.
“Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, 1908–1974” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, through June 19.
All images © National Portrait Gallery, London
February 3, 2011 | by Nicole Rudick
Swamplandia! is twenty-nine-year-old Karen Russell’s first novel. But the Miami native is already well known in literary circles for her debut story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006). The overlapping themes in St. Lucy’s—the pitfalls and wonders of childhood, reality’s spectral double, and the changeable mood of the Florida swamp—resurface, with equal deftness and wit, in the novel, which also borrows the Bigtrees, a family of alligator wrestlers. In Swamplandia!, the Bigtrees operate the titular theme park on a small island in Florida’s archipelago, and Ava, the youngest daughter, traces the park’s and the family’s demise—the “Beginning of the End” she calls it—after the death of her mother.
Were there theme parks on islands in the Florida you grew up in, as there are in the novel?
There were definitely a lot of these little Diane Arbus-y–constructed realities everywhere. We had Monkey Jungle, Parrot Jungle, a serpentarium off I-60, zoos, and the Miami seaquarium. It was this seamless, whole cloth thing: There is the seaquarium, now we go to the grocery store. It doesn’t really interrupt reality.
We had a little boat when I was really young, and we would go tool around the islands near Pristine Bay, and I loved that. I was reading YA novels where kids are always shucking their parents and living for months on an island, so that was exciting. There’s a whole genre of YA novels where some kid is stranded by a plane, or stuck on an island, or lost in the woods, and they use their kid resources to survive through sheer luck. That was always my favorite trajectory. I was an anxious kid, and these books seemed like the best invention ever: here is a door I can carry with me wherever I go; I could just open a book in any situation.
December 23, 2010 | by Nicole Rudick
In 1939, Neiman Marcus published their first Christmas book, a catalogue of extravagant, humorous, astonishing, and often jewel-encrusted gifts. Over the Top: 50 Years of Fantasy Gifts from the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, recently published by Assouline, celebrates the Chinese junks, minisubs, urban windmills, bags of diamonds, sailplanes, animal-shaped desks, Warhol portraits, and Jack Nicklaus custom backyard golf courses that only the top 1 percent could comfortably afford.
The first cover, in 1951, featured artwork by Saul Steinberg, with subsequent covers created by a host of notables, such as Robert Indiana, Ludwig Bemelmans, Al Hirschfeld, Victor Vassarely, Chuck Jones, and Ben Shahn. His & Hers gifts became a frequent staple of outrageous indulgence beginning in 1960 with His & Hers Beechcraft Airplanes ($176,000). Ensuing examples rivaled for the title of most ostentatious: His & Hers Camels (1967; $4,125), His & Hers Hot Air Balloons (1964; $6,850 each), His & Hers Authentic Mummy Cases (1971; $16,000), His & Hers Robots (2003; $400,000), and His & Hers Name Your Own Jewels (1985; $2,000,000).