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August 27, 2014 | by

Remembering Ray Johnson through his pioneering correspondence art.

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Detail of a work from Not Nothing: Selected Writings, 1954–1994, published by Siglio.

Ray Johnson thought he was ugly, but I thought he looked cool—just like Ray Johnson.

Being a teenage modern-art fan in Texas in the sixties, I was excited to learn of the New York Correspondence School from Eye magazine, or maybe it was Artforum or Print. Ray, whose early abstracted celebrity photos and painted collages I had seen featured in the pages of many histories of Pop, was encouraging artists all over the world to make and trade mail as an art activity, an idea readily appreciated in the midcentury’s burst of experimental and novel art approaches. Thousands of people began to send art objects to each other through the postal service.

My notion was that Ray didn’t make the first piece of mail art, but his creation of a school around that activity was the benediction for a folk-art movement in motion. Some of these letters were finished statements or handmade objects; others were exquisite corpses conducted by mail, objects that traveled and accumulated the mojo of human touch and attention as they were ever modified. The latter was the kind of thing Ray did: he mailed objects and letters and asked the recipients to add to them and then return them, or send them along to other destinations. Ray’s handmade work, cryptic and rarely seen, was striking, sure, but humorous, too, a quality I really like in art. It had a purposive childishness, but also a readily appreciable design rigor—a controlled looseness, beautiful color, shape and textural sense, a mastery of a private hieroglyphics of bunnies and goo-goo eyes. Read More »

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Les Combats Modernes

August 25, 2014 | by

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“Ce sont les cadets de la France!” (“These are the cadets of France!”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, No. 1, Nov. 21, 1914.

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“La consigne” (“The Order”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, January 2, 1915.

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“Les combats modernes” (“Modern Combat”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, January 30, 1915.

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“Bulletin de victoire” (“Forecast of Victory”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, May 22, 1915.

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“Jour de l’an” (“New Year’s Day”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, January 1, 1916.

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“Cartes de guerre” (“War Maps/War Cards”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, February 10, 1917. The phrase “cartes de guerre” means “war maps” but here it has a double meaning because “carte” is also the word for “card” (including the kind used in card games).

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“Échec au roi rouge!” (“Check to the Red King!”), Lucien Métivet, centerspread from La Baïonnette, August 16, 1917.

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“Le retour du prisonnier” (“The Return of the Prisoner”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire Rouge, December 14, 1918.

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“L’ébauche” (“First Draft”), Lucien Métivet, from Le Rire, January 4, 1919.

Given the recent centennial of the beginning of the Great War (as it was then known), I’ve found myself thinking again of Lucien Métivet, the French artist I wrote about here last year, best known for his works from the 1890s. The advent of the war brought an abrupt halt to the publication of Le Rire (Laughter), the weekly journal of humor to which Métivet was a regular contributor, but its publisher, Félix Juven, soon relaunched it with a small but significant change of title: now it was Le Rire Rouge (The Red Laugh), presumably in recognition of the blood of France’s soldiers and the dark nature of the times.

It had become customary for Le Rire to start each issue with Métivet’s drawings up front, and in the journal’s first new issue, of November 21, 1914, his was the opening image: an energetic, optimistic young conscript. The picture’s cheerleading join-the-war-effort ambience is given a discreetly poignant touch by a telling detail just outside the frame: to the upper right we see the typeset words “Au conscrit Maurice Juven”—a dedication to a young conscript whose surname suggests a close relationship to the magazine’s publisher, a longtime friend of the artist. Clearly this dedicatee was, like all soldiers, carrying with him into danger the hearts of those who loved him. With this single, seemingly exuberant image, the very personal stakes for the creators of Le Rire Rouge, and indeed for all of France, were acknowledged. Read More »

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So Vivid You Can’t Get Free of Them

August 22, 2014 | by

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Ray Bradbury

Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story.
—Ray Bradbury, the Art of Fiction No. 203, 2010

Ray Bradbury would be ninety-four today—for more on his Art of Fiction interview, be sure to read “Fact-checking Ray Bradbury,” by our own Stephen Andrew Hiltner. And for proof of Bradbury’s metaphorical gifts, check out “All Summer in a Day,” a 1954 story published in the commonsensically named The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It’s conceptually unforgettable and, among the stories of his I’ve read, uniquely haunting.

“All Summer” takes place in a school on Venus, or rather, the Venus of the future—humans have colonized the planet. Problem is, Venus is rainy. All the time. “A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again.” The sun shines for only two hours (consecutive, fortunately) every seven years. And in this drenched Venusian schoolhouse, where all the descendants of the rocket men and women presumably suffer from constant Seasonal Affective Disorder and severe vitamin D deficiencies, there’s one girl, Margot, who remembers the glories of sunshine: Read More »

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Recognition

August 21, 2014 | by

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From the poster to Art and Craft.

In The Recognitions, his brilliant novel about an art forger, William Gaddis wrote, “Originality is a device that untalented people use to impress other untalented people to protect themselves from talented people … Most original people are forced to devote all their time to plagiarizing. Their only difficulty is that if they have a spark of wit or wisdom themselves, they’re given no credit. The curse of cleverness.”

Art and Craft, a new documentary, is a similarly vexed study of authenticity and creativity: it tells the story of Mark Landis, an art forger who is, as the design site Colossal puts it,

arguably one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history, having tricked over sixty museums in twenty states into believing his masterfully created replicas are authentic artworks. The catch: so far, it appears Landis, who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, has yet to commit a crime. While he’s caused headaches, confusion, and multi-year investigations, he has never sought to benefit or profit from his forgeries in any way. Instead, he enjoys the performative act of pretending to be a philanthropist who makes donations of obscure artwork to art institutions, many of which unknowingly exhibited the fakes, allowing Landis the secret thrill of seeing his work on display.

On the other end of the spectrum is Matthew Leininger, a righteous curator whom the Times calls “a kind of Javert to Mr. Landis’s Valjean.” Leininger has made it his mission to put a halt to Landis’s ruse; he “maintains a database of all known contacts with Mr. Landis, sightings of him and works he has copied … he uses a dry-erase marker to update a laminated map in his office.”

But has the man really done anything wrong—is he really a kind of failure? Certainly Gaddis would say so—“I tried to make clear,” he says of The Recognitions in his Art of Fiction interview, “that Wyatt [the forger] was the very height of a talent but not a genius—quite a different thing. Which is why he shrinks from going ahead in, say, works of originality. He shrinks from this and takes refuge in what is already there, which he can handle, manipulate. He can do quite perfect forgeries, because the parameters of perfection are already there.”

Maybe the same could be said of Landis, but that seems to give short shrift to his project. A 2012 article elaborates on the remarkable scope of his talents (or, if you remain skeptical of the validity of such things, his “talents”):

Landis creates works in oil, watercolor, pastels, chalk, ink and pencil, making most of his copies from museum or auction catalogs that provide dimensions and information on the originals.

He sometimes bestows gifts under different names, such as the Father Arthur Scott alias used at Hilliard. In that case, he told officials that his dead mother had left works including Curran’s oil-on-wood painting “Three Women” and that he was donating it in her memory … To convince museums he is a philanthropist, he also concocts elaborate stories about health concerns, said Cincinnati exhibit co-curator Matthew Leininger.

“He has been having heart surgery for almost thirty years,” Leininger said with a frustrated laugh. “This is the strangest case the museum realm has known in years.”

Landis, fifty-seven, acknowledges what he’s up to. He told The Associated Press in a phone interview from his home in Laurel, Miss., that he made his first forgery donation to a California museum in 1985.

“They were so nice. I just got used to that, and one thing led to another,” he said. “It never occurred to me that anyone would think it was wrong.”

There’s no release date for Art and Craft yet, but you can see the trailer, which brings to life Landis’s eccentricities, here. “The art world is a very strange place,” says one of its interviewees, in what may be the understatement of the year.

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Dead Authors’ Homes

August 20, 2014 | by

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Salinger’s old house. Photo: Jim Mauchly / Mountain Graphics Photography

The literary real-estate market is booming. In May, Ray Bradbury’s house was for sale (Los Angeles, California; 2,500 square feet; $1.495 million). Then, in July, John Cheever’s house was for sale (Ossining, New York; 2,688 square feet; $525,000). At the time, you may have kicked yourself for failing to act on those—maybe you couldn’t scrape together the funds in time, or maybe you thought, Well, surely some other Dead Author’s Home will come along soon enough, and that will be the Dead Author’s Home for me.

You’re in luck: as reported by the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, Page Six, and others, J. D. Salinger’s house is for sale, and it’s the most capacious authorial domicile yet (Cornish, New Hampshire; 2,900 square feet; $679,000).

The home’s current owner, Joan Littlefield, told the Valley News, a New Hampshire paper, that “she had been considering advertising the house, which she bought in the 1980s, in The New Yorker, in the hopes of attracting literary types.” To go by the coverage the property’s received, she has the right idea. But what does it mean to want to live in a dead writer’s house? When does fandom devolve into idolatry? 

You might suppose that an ardent admirer of Salinger’s would have much to gain by inhabiting his private space—writerly inspiration, maybe, or a deeper connection to the work, or even just a constant, salubrious mental patter. (It’s another fine morning in J. D.’s kitchen, the satisfied homeowner thought.) Read More »

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The Case of the Arabic Noirs

August 20, 2014 | by

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Pocket Novels: The Exile, J. Kessel, 1940. “A Novel of Human Untruths, about a Russian woman and her princesses, in exile, from the pen of the great French writer J. Kissel,” presumably the French novelist and journalist Joseph Kessel (1898-1979).

Pocket Novels: The Corpse, Georges Simenon, 1946. “A quirky police tale,” according to the inside. Many popular fiction books were messily translated and repackaged, without bothering to credit the original text, author, or publisher. The artist of this cover, for instance, is not credited.

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Pocket Novels: Secret of Radium, Albert Dewar Nashton, 1943. “A police story of fantastic events written by the Briton, Albert Dewar Nashton.”

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Charmer of Women, Agatha Christie, 1979 pocket book edition.

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Mystery of a Woman, Agatha Christie, sold for thirty piasters, though undated.

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Crime in Iraq, Agatha Christie, undated. (Arabic version of Murder in Mesopotamia, with a different title). Christie’s husband, an archaeologist, took her on digs across the Middle East and the scenes frequently appear in her prose.

7.floozy

Floozy from Paris, R. Leonard (French), artist: Gasoor. From the back cover: “In this book: The life of a French prostitute…” Undated; set in 1942.

8.Sherlock

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Devilish Dog, undated. A translation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

9.Bond

Dr. No: The Adventures of James Bond, drawings by Shawky Matooly, 1989. Ian Fleming gets no acknowledgment in this pocket edition for young adults, complete with simple line drawings of action scenes.

10.fugitive

The Fugitive: Lust for Murder, Dr. Richard Campbell, undated.

11.malicious intent

Malicious Intent, Rashad Mohamed El-Essawy, undated. “Arabic stories from a new genre,” reads the inside cover.

12.Shackles

The Shackles of Sin, Georges Simenon, 1959. The backcover says the story is from the book, Four Days in a Lifetime, originally published in English in 1953.

13.Charade

Charade, Peter Stone, #346 in imprint/series “Novels of the World,” undated.

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Policeman’s Dread, John Creasey, “Novels of the World” #399, undated. Creasey (1908-1973) wrote some six hundred books under twenty-eight different noms de plume; at one stage he wrote thirty to forty books annually. There were hundreds of books from the “Novels of the World” series and myriad copies are gathering dust in Cairo archives and bookstands.

15.Impossible Man

The Impossible Man: The Black River, Nabeel Farouk, undated, likely from the eighties. Inside cover reads: “Police stories for youths, replete with sensational events.”

Cairo: the metal detector beeps. The security man wears a crisp white uniform. He nods and leans back in his chair. The lobby’s red oriental carpet, so worn it’s barely red, leads upstairs to the hotel tavern. Enter the glass doors, where a cat in a smart bow tie and vest reaches for a lonely bottle behind the bar. He takes his time; he’s been polishing glasses at the Windsor Hotel for thirty-eight years. Out the window, a motorcycle speeds through the dark alley. In 1893, this joint was ritzy—home to the royal baths, steps from the original Cairo Opera House. Tonight it’s dingy enough that Philip Marlowe might come here to tip a few back after clobbering some hoods. A fine joint in which to pore over pulp from the secondhand book market down the street.

It’s tempting to ponder the relevance of crime novels in contemporary Egypt. The 2011 revolution began on National Police Day as a revolt against the fuzz. When President Hosni Mubarak breezed off eighteen days later, the police dusted, too, leaving behind a Wild West. Gun sales skyrocketed, matched by holdups and carjackings. In the following two years, thugs ran Cairo’s streets. Ever since General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi ousted former President Mohammed Morsi last summer, the coppers have been back in full force. White uniformed police operate checkpoints littered throughout the capital like discarded Coke cans. Cabbies are so scared that they’ve started wearing seat belts. And now, as authorities attempt to restore law and order, the crime genre is making a comeback. Read More »

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