Arts & Culture
December 5, 2013 | by Susannah Jacob
Some memory of Rose Williams underpins all of Tennessee Williams’s plays, but it was with the 1944 premiere of The Glass Menagerie that he both immortalized his sister and launched his Broadway career. Rose is the basis for Laura Wingfield, the withdrawn high school dropout who passes her days listening to old phonograph records and caring for her collection of glass animals while the world closes in around her. Williams based Tom Wingfield, Laura’s brother, on himself. The play depicts real events, up to a point; years before he wrote Menagerie, now in a successful run on Broadway, Williams left home to pursue his own writing ambitions. During that time, Rose descended into violent insanity. “To escape from a trap,” Williams wrote in Menagerie’s production notes about Tom Wingfield, “he has to act without pity.”
The Williams family moved from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1918. Prior to that, Rose and Tom lived “agreeable children’s lives under garden hoses in the hot summer,” according to Williams’s 1975 Memoirs. Nine-year-old Rose and seven-year-old Tom danced in the living room to music playing on the Victrola. The records were gifts from Cornelius Williams, their itinerant father, who was, like Laura and Tom’s father in Menagerie, a traveling salesman.
When Edwina Williams, Tennessee’s mother, became pregnant with her third child, Dakin, Cornelius accepted an office job at International Shoe’s St. Louis branch. The family moved into a small house, not nearly as squalid as the tenement apartment the Wingfields occupy onstage, but the tension between Williams’ parents made the atmosphere even more explosive. Cornelius, like the character of Tom and Laura’s father, was restless, alcoholic, and abusive. After the family moved to St. Louis, he was, however, not absent. Edwina and Cornelius’s marriage reeked of dysfunction; she withheld sex to punish his infidelity and abrasive presence. Williams recalled hearing his mother’s screams, futile protestations as his father cornered her in their bedroom. Tom, Rose, and Dakin would run out of the house and to the neighbors’ to escape. Read More »
December 5, 2013 | by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Vahap Avşar’s “Black Album,” currently on view at Istanbul’s lovely Rampa Gallery, is a marvelous show. Its quiet, metaphorical registers are a departure from Avşar’s previous style, which found its strength in more overtly political statements and deft manipulation of popular iconography. On the other hand, “Black Album,” curated by Esra Sagiredik, has the subtle touch of great poetry. As one walks through the three rooms, spread across two separate but adjacent sites, the accumulative effect of Avşar’s vision is powerful: the artworks peak between each other in rich rhymes and deeply felt themes and variations, fusing into a moving vision full of quiet but firm political engagement and profound metaphysical thought.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the eponymous Black Album (2013), a series of twelve 76" x 40" paintings of metallic silver paint on tar felt. The silver paint spreads and folds freely over the tar, creating different studies of chiaroscuro, texture, and perspective. Their inspiration was the vast and dangerous mountainous landscape of eastern Turkey that Avşar traveled through by bus at night as a young man. The rich visual complexity of these paintings, however, challenges the primacy of the artist’s personal perspective, as they distinctly resemble the primordial tumbling of lava down cliffs and the roiling rivers of the Earth during its creation. The fact that the paintings simultaneously are both things is the point and the root of the poignancy of the works.
Meanwhile, Disguise Paintings (2013), an oil and print on canvas diptych, presents two separately framed works of isolated men seated, completely by happenstance, in almost identical postures, their faces pixelated and those pixels painted over in thick layers of paint. One man is dressed army fatigues and sitting on the bottom bunk of an army installation. The other is in a Bob Marley T-shirt, preparing tea in a colorful apartment walled with numerous portraits of Abraham Lincoln. The details of the paintings reveal much about these men, and their erased faces infuse the two paintings with a hard-earned allegorical mood.
The 20th Century As We Knew It (2011–2012), composed of four bronze busts on wooden pedestals, is a clever variation on the idea of artistic idolatry and influence. The busts—of Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Cengiz Çekil, and Avşar himself—form a circle of admiration and are arranged in circular fashion, their gazes trained on each other, standing on their heads, the base of the pedestals occupying the positions where their faces would be. That viewers must stoop—or, if they’re up to it, stand on their heads—to take in the details is a marvelously playful and intelligent statement on how we admire and are admired.
Other standouts include The Road to Arguvan (2013), a short, single-channel video shot in the artist’s native Malatya Province. It follows a road devastated by an unknown force, leaving a long jagged chasm and rendering the road—once a major artery to the east—useless. The camera is handheld and jumpy. Near the end of the video a discarded television monitor appears nestled deep in the crack in the road, and stares back at the now-still camera. Another is the looped four-channel HD video, two-channel audio Shoot Out (2011), which surrounds you in a room: on opposite walls a man with a high-powered assault rifle lies on the floor, his focus trained on his gun’s sight; projected on each of the other two walls is a can of Coca-Cola on a stump of wood. The men load, aim, and fire at the cans; the viewer, deciding where to stand, is uncomfortably stuck in the middle.
While “Black Album” is not a retrospective, the exhibition includes earlier work such as the prints Night Shift (1988) and Negatives (1990), as well as the site-specific installation piece Final Warning, all perfect additions as they unearth and recontextualize some of the roots of Avşar’s newer work.
December 2, 2013 | by Alexander Aciman
A coarse, heavy rain pattered against the side of my cap, echoing like the sound of a rhythmic hailstorm pelting the skulls of sinners. The fumes from a black bog forming around the storm drain, not too subtle and very close behind us, obscured everything. I must have had a bewildered sort of look on my face, which my partner—standing just a few feet in front of me—mistook for fear. An instant later he was on his way over, cigarette floating right above his lip like a perfumed bird working the counter at Macy’s, elbows propped up against the etched glass surface.
The job had an attractive ticket, more than twice what we had ever made and with the promise of a nice bonus if we managed to expedite it. I asked Virgil if it would be possible to get into the municipal building at all. He didn’t answer my question and I didn’t press it; soon enough I would have it figured out on my own. Virgil was the only person to have ever made his way past the two secretaries guarding the county clerk’s files, and at the time he must have been new to the job and under the influence of a particular sort of luck that on occasion comes to the assistance of an ill-equipped dick.
November 29, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
While most of us know Black Friday as the nightmarish commerce-fest following Thanksgiving—a term coined in Philadelphia in 1961—in fact the nom de guerre dates back to the nineteenth century. In 1869, robber-barons Jay Gould and James Fisk attempted to corner the gold market, resulting in financial crisis and scandal.
E. C. Stedman, a poet and broker (!), wrote the following:
One Hundred and Sixty! Can’t be true!
What will the bears-at-forty do?
How will the merchants pay their dues?
How will the country stand the news?
What’ll the banks—but listen! hold!
In screwing up the price of gold
To that dangerous, last, particular peg,
They had killed their Goose with the Golden Egg!
I spent too many minutes trying to transform this into a piece of doggerel that incorporated door-buster sales, accidental deaths, Best Buy vigils, and rampant modern consumerism, but it was a losing battle. Some things are beyond parody. Not to mention, poetry.
One more note on Stedman, via Wikipedia: “In 1879, he proposed a rigid airship inspired by the anatomy of a fish, with a framework of steel, brass, or copper tubing and a tractor propeller mounted on the craft's bow, later changed to an engine with two propellers suspended beneath the framework. The airship never was built, but its design foreshadowed that of the dirigibles of the early decades of the twentieth century.”
November 29, 2013 | by Matt Weinstock
“If I had any visual talent, I would have loved to be a filmmaker,” Stephen Sondheim told me in a recent phone interview. “But I didn’t. So this is what I became.” It’s jarring to think that the legendary composer-lyricist of Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods only resorted to musical theater out of an inability to compose a wide shot. In the 1950s Sondheim directed amateur horror movies (“The photography is like a five-year-old’s”) and he later co-wrote the enjoyably chilly mystery film The Last of Sheila, but he has made a relatively piddling contribution to the art form that is deepest in his bones. As he told Frank Rich in 2000, “Movies were, and still are, my basic language.”
It’s the language he used to write Follies, the sumptuous 1971 Broadway musical about middle-aged showgirls gathering for a boozy, confrontational reunion on the eve of their old theater’s destruction. While critics have treated the show as an elegy to the theater, Hollywood seems to have been the headiest influence on Follies’ creative team. Sondheim has said that during the writing process, he “could only imagine the spectacle of a Ziegfeldian ‘Loveland’ in terms of movie musicals,” and co-director Harold Prince’s concept for Follies as a story about “rubble in the daylight” grew out of a Life magazine photo of Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of the Roxy movie palace. Prince insisted that the libretto be rewritten to include cinematic techniques like dissolves, close-ups, and black-and-white flashbacks, and the orchestrations were deliberately rigged with MGM-isms (like the thrilling piano-to-orchestra swell midway through “Beautiful Girls”). Even the casting of old vaudevillians in many of the roles was inspired by Billy Wilder’s casting of silent movie actors in Sunset Boulevard. “We just kept hoovering up people who were close to the story,” Prince explained to me in a phone call. “That’s what Billy Wilder did: he put Swanson in the part so you thought, ‘Hey, she’s playing herself.’ She wasn’t, of course, but you made that connection.”
Was the fabled original production of Follies always pining away to be a movie? I called Sondheim and Prince after learning that they actually had cooked up a scheme to make a film version in the early 1970s, featuring dozens of faded stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age congregating on a studio backlot about to be torn down. It is intoxicating to imagine such a film, with archival footage of the stars sewn into the plot, and each cut functioning like an electric restoration of youth.Read More »
November 26, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
For all humanity’s technological achievements, no one in the history of the world has ever succeeded in producing a realistic-looking miniature suit for a male doll. Any father doll who works a white-collar job looks instantly ridiculous: lumpen, clownish, stripped of all authority. The only play scenarios in which a miniature male doll’s suits make any sense is that in which he has just gotten out of prison and hasn’t had a chance to get new clothes, or if the dollhouse paterfamilias is David Byrne. I need not say that neither plotline is popular.
In his 1913 essay “On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel,” Rilke wrote, “Sexless as the dolls of childhood were, [the doll-souls] can find no decease in their stagnant ecstasy, which has neither inflow nor outflow.”
Which is all very well, but seriously, doll men have terrible-looking suits. Read More »