Arts & Culture
September 4, 2014 | by Daniel Genis
This weekend, an intersection in Queens will be renamed Sergei Dovlatov Way.
Sergei Dovlatov gave me a pistol when I was a child. It was just an air gun, it turned out, but my mother couldn’t tell the difference, and she was justifiably horrified to see me running around with a semiautomatic. It did not have a red plastic tip and it was nicely chromed, from somewhere in Eastern Europe. With enough pressure pumped into it, its little steel pellets could really hurt someone. Dovlatov found this very funny. Now we New Yorkers are naming a street after him.
And I’m thrilled. That street in Forest Hills, Queens, is the same one where his widow lives; it’s where his daughter, who recently translated Dovlatov’s great novel Pushkin Hills, grew up; and it’s where I grew up, too. At least eighteen thousand people share in my enthusiasm—that’s the number of petitioners it took to make this happen. That it’s such a formidable number should come as no surprise. Even if Joseph Brodsky was the greatest member of the so-called Third Wave of Russian immigrants—he won the Nobel and married an Italian woman—it’s Dovlatov whom readers love viscerally, unconditionally. How can we help it? When Matt Taibbi showed up to inaugurate Katherine Dovlatov’s translation a few months ago, I asked why he came: it was because Dovlatov was the one Russian author who made him laugh out loud. And suddenly we understood one another. Dovlatov made me laugh out loud, too, first in person, and then when I grew up, through his literature.
During the height of his fame, Dovlatov’s works were read universally. Solzhenitsyn, a dour man in his Vermont stronghold who wished to have nothing to do with the Third Wave “sausage immigrants,” read his entire three-volume collected works. The pieces translate easily because of their inherent humanity, and their humor, remarkably, translates as well. In Russia, where his work was retyped at night for samizdat, his secret readership grew, making many a fan. Half of Russia sat in jail, the other half stuck around to be with the first, and Dovlatov had been in both positions—and wrote about it, and still made it funny. The KGB, of course, was not a fan; they even destroyed typeset plates that had been prepared for publication. Dovlatov took the dissident-lite approach of simply not taking the Soviet Union seriously, and for this he was beloved. Read More »
August 28, 2014 | by Mark Chiusano
The dashed ambitions of Brooklyn’s Marine Park.
There is a proud park on the watery edge of Brooklyn. It contains a pool, a little sandy beach, canoes and kayaks, new sporting fields of all kinds, gardens, an open-air theater, and a playground; nearby subway stops draw people from the extremes of the five boroughs. Today, this sounds more or less like Brooklyn Bridge Park, the enchanting construction facing downtown Manhattan and built through public-private partnership, as is the way of city planning these days. But almost ninety years ago, these were just the lesser diversions in the grand plans for Brooklyn’s Marine Park.
Take the B or Q train down, down, down to Kings Highway—bring a book or music, because it’s a ride. Get off there, find the B2 or B100 bus on Quentin Avenue, and ride that another fifteen minutes east, and you’ll find the modern Marine Park. (You can also ride the 2 or 5 to the end of the line, which requires two bus transfers, but you’ll get there.) Almost ten miles from City Hall, you’ll have reached the greatest graveyard of a mighty park that New York City has ever seen.
It started in 1911, when the famed designer of the Chicago Columbian Exposition, Daniel Burnham, was invited to Brooklyn with his partner Edward Bennett to design a blueprint for the borough’s expansion. They set aside a large area far and away to the southeast by Jamaica Bay, as “a littoral counterpoint to Prospect Park,” as Thomas Campanella, Marine Park’s assiduous (and perhaps only) historian writes. As Campanella has documented, this suggestion became a reality through the philanthropy of two prominent Brooklynites, Frederic B. Pratt and Alfred T. White. They bought up and gave to the city about a hundred acres of land for the park’s creation. The city was leery even then—there were murmurs that a park would do little more than increase real-estate value for homeowners in the region. The philanthropists sweetened the deal to include $72,000 dollars to pay for costs. “The donors owned no other land in the vicinity and did not expect to profit in any way from the gift,” promised the chairman of the League for the Improvement of Marine Park, which throughout its history would have its work cut out for it. In 1925, the City at last made a formal announcement, and Marine Park was born. Read More »
August 27, 2014 | by Gary Panter
Remembering Ray Johnson through his pioneering correspondence art.
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 »
August 25, 2014 | by Robert Pranzatelli
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 »
August 22, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
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 »
August 21, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
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.