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Dreams from a Glass House: An Interview with Josiah McElheny

February 9, 2015 | by

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Phillip Kester’s portrait of Paul Scheerbart, 1910. Münchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Fotografie, Archiv Kester

Paul Scheerbart doesn’t figure very prominently in modern German belles lettres—nor, more regrettably, on the drafting tables of venerated Berliner architects and urban planners. Scheerbart, an eccentric, Danzig-born poet and architectural theorist, is best remembered through obscure citations from Walter Benjamin, Walter Gropius, and Bruno Taut. But in the spirited era of Berlin’s café culture, he was a popular serialist, publisher, and proto-surrealist. From the late 1880s to his premature death in 1915, he wrote prolifically on science, urban planning and design, space travel, and gender politics, often in the course of a single text. His most celebrated treatise, Glass Architecture (Glasarchitektur, 1914) foretold of a sublime, technocratic civilization whose peaceful world-order was borne from the proliferation of crystal cities and floating continents of chromatic glass, a vision summed up in his aphorism: “Colored glass destroys all hatred at last.”

Taut, an architect and devoted disciple, dedicated his 1914 Werkbund Exhibition building, the Glass House, to Scheerbart—his so-called “Glass Papa.” Like his French contemporaries Camille Flammarion, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Raymond Roussel, and Alfred Jarry, Scheerbart’s prophetic oeuvre oscillated between themes of technology and aesthetics in a genre known in the Francophone world as fantastique.

Translations of Scheerbart texts have trickled into the English-speaking realm; Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader, edited by Josiah McElheny and Christine Burgin, is the first attempt at an English-language collection. Assembled from his fiction and critical works, drawings and photographs, and secondary texts from friends and acolytes, the book’s publication hopes to inspire what McElheny calls a new generation of “Scheerbartians.”

I recently spoke to McElheny by phone from his studio in Brooklyn, where we discussed Scheerbart’s belated American reception, the cultural amnesia of World War I, and our mutual fascination with Utopian literature.

How did you first come across Scheerbart’s writing?

The first major publication of his work in translation was Glass Architecture in 1972. I read that sometime around 1988, and I didn’t really know what to make of it. I came to it as though it were an architecture book, but it read to me like a piece of literature. I found it to be captivating and somewhat Borges-like—not in structure but in its spirit. Then around 2001, there was the publication of The Gray Cloth with Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel. I was struck by its very unusual literary style—very sparse, thematic, and highly evocative—and fascinated by the entire novel, which is about people struggling over the political and spiritual meaning of aesthetics. I had never encountered anything like it in historical literature—the way it speaks in a proto-feminist voice but also with the deep undertone of misogyny that one associates with that era. It was a very disturbing book and it really bothered me—the way in which he demonstrates how aesthetics can have this implication about sexuality. I had so many questions about the translation itself. Later I learned that much of the strangeness of the language lay in the original German. Read More »

All in One: An Interview with Tomi Ungerer

January 30, 2015 | by

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Tomi Ungerer. © Luc Bérujeau

At the opening for the Drawing Center’s “All in One,” Tomi Ungerer’s first U.S. retrospective, swarms of visitors obscured the art on the walls. The crowd bent toward the artist, who was holding court and a glass of red wine, though none was being served. Ungerer, who is eighty-three, was in his element. For him, this retrospective is a kind of homecoming. After more than forty years in exile, his career is finding its rightful place in the New York art world.

The Drawing Center exhibition, curated by Claire Gilman, begins with Ungerer’s earliest doodles as a child growing up in Nazi-occupied Alsace, where under the nationalistic duress of war he first learned to be an outlaw. Delicately subversive, they are inscribed with a mature, swaggering humor that takes a subject as terrifying as Hitler and renders him a fool.

In 1956, Ungerer was lured to New York City at the height of print, when publications offered vast opportunities for creative illustrators. Without contacts or even a high school diploma, Ungerer impressed art directors with his idiosyncratic drawing style and witty candor. He became sought after for advertising and editorial work, and most prominently, his unconventional children’s books, which featured society’s most repulsive characters—robbers, snakes, pigs, beggars—as compassionate protagonists.

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Untitled, 1966 (drawing for The Party, first published by Paragraphic Books, Grossman Publishers, New York), ink and ink wash on paper, 18" x 18". Collection Musée Tomi Ungerer/Centre international de l’Illustration, Strasbourg. © Tomi Ungerer/Diogenes Verlag AG, Zürich. Photo courtesy Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg/Mathieu Bertola.

While working professionally in these PG-rated circles, he remained a deeply political artist, self-publishing bold posters against the Vietnam War, a book of harsh satire called The Underground Sketchbook, and sadomasochistic erotic drawings. But upon discovering his erotic work, the children’s-book community was scandalized. His books were removed from public libraries and his reputation tarnished. Dejected and unable to find work, he left New York in 1971, moving to Nova Scotia with his wife before finding a permanent home in Cork, Ireland.

This defection cost Ungerer the renown he deserves. It wasn’t until 1998 that he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest achievement for children’s-book authors, and a sign of the recent reappraisal of his career. Recent years have seen reissues of his children’s books in English and a large catalogue of his erotic drawings. In Strasbourg, he has a museum dedicated to his work, and in 2012, his life was the subject of a documentary film. Read More »

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Panties Inferno: An Interview with Peter Larkin

January 15, 2015 | by

Making a pop-up book about burlesque.

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Peter Larkin

My mother Racelle, a painter, met the production designer Peter Larkin in the midsixties when she went to work for him as a scenic artist. After my parents divorced, Peter and Racelle became an item, eventually marrying. Peter had a long, Tony Award–winning Broadway career and then moved into film, designing pictures like Tootsie and Get Shorty. He’s a brilliant illustrator, as well—Ralph Allen, who’d conceived the musical Sugar Babies, collaborated with Peter on his book The Best Burlesque.

Burlesque, it turns out, is one of Peter’s great obsessions. Over the past twenty years, he’s created a mass of drawings, mock-ups, and maquettes for Panties Inferno, a pop-up book on the subject. Now eighty-eight, he continues to refine the work, though publishers have told him the book is too expensive to manufacture and publish—something about the glue points. But his pop-ups and drawings are wonderful, a testament to his comprehensive knowledge of the old burlesque scene. I called him to talk about his process and the basis of his fascination with burlesque as well as its history, which he feels has been mischaracterized since burlesque began to die out in the late fifties and early sixties.

Where does burlesque begin, for you?

The word burla is some kind of antique Italian. It means “joke,” and the first burlesque was imitations of what went on uptown. It was a family affair. People brought their lunches and stuff. Florenz Ziegfeld had The Ziegfeld Follies, which probably cost a lot of money—that show had nude ladies in tableaux, but they were forbidden to move. The curtain opened on Aladdin’s cave, say, or an artist’s studio, and all the ladies were still.

But in the early twentieth century, forward-thinking people like the Minsky brothers, of Minsky’s Burlesque, made it so that for a lot less money you could go and see the women moving. It changed tremendously through the years. These acts started out with a preponderance of acts and comics and maybe one or two strippers, and as it went on, more and more time was given over to strippers. The comics were furious. They started to use bluer material, to get even. Read More »

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Inventing Situations: An Interview with Thomas Pierce

January 8, 2015 | by

Thomas Pierce author photo (c) Andrew Owen

Photo © Andrew Owen

What’s immediately striking about Thomas Pierce’s debut story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, are its wild, unforgettable conceits. In “Shirley Temple Three,” a long-extinct dwarf mammoth is cloned for a TV show, then dumped off in a small Southern town with Mawmaw, the show host’s mother. In “More Soon,” the body of a man’s brother is shipped all over the world because of worries over a mysterious contagion. In “Videos of People Falling Down,” the lives of a host of characters—a local-news reporter, a right-wing Listserv manager, a cheesy pop singer—converge and intertwine through the shared humiliation of having been filmed while falling. But Pierce’s characters never feel secondary to his plots. They are resoundingly human, with their bundles of worries, joys, dreams, and burdens, their beliefs, theories, and suspicions, their wanderings and wonderings.

Pierce and I first met in 2000, as students in a high school summer program in South Carolina, our shared home state. Even then I was impressed by his charm and intelligence, and his lively, slightly askew sense of humor. In 2013, my magazine, Gigantic, published his story “Time to Get Radical,” a funny and unexpectedly moving catchphrase-driven monologue that in around twelve hundred words manages to capture the highs, lows, and in-betweens in the life of one semi-religious auto-parts salesman someplace down South.

This interview took place over a series of e-mails and a shared Google Doc, along with two in-person meetings—in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he now lives.

You worked for five years at NPR as a blogger, reporter, and producer. How has this experience informed your work?

In radio, you’re always aware that you have to win the listener’s attention. You’re wrestling them away from their breakfast or their drive or kids. So lesson one is to be interesting and engaging. You also learn quickly that the best sentence to read over the air is usually the simplest one—complex ideas don’t necessarily require complex sentences. Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful, confusing sentences, too, but I also value clarity—and radio helped me in that regard.

You may only have ninety seconds to tell a story on the radio. When you write a radio script, there’s software you can use with a little clock in the upper right-hand corner that tells you the piece’s length in terms of time. This helps you to remember that what you’re creating will occupy a portion of a person’s day. One of my short stories might steal forty-two minutes from your life. I want to use your time wisely. Read More »

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Scare Tactics: Michel Houellebecq Defends His Controversial New Book

January 2, 2015 | by

Photo by Sylvain Bourmeau

Photo by Sylvain Bourmeau

It’s 2022, and France is living in fear. The country is roiled by mysterious troubles. Regular episodes of urban violence are deliberately obscured by the media. Everything is covered up, the public is in the dark ... and in a few months the leader of a newly created Muslim party will be elected president. On the evening of June 5, in a second general election—the first having been anulled after widespread voter fraud—Mohammed Ben Abbes handily beats Marine Le Pen with support from both socialists and the right.

The next day, women abandon Western dress. Most begin wearing long cotton smocks over their trousers; encouraged by government subsidies, they leave the workplace in droves. Male unemployment drops overnight. In formerly rough neighborhoods, crime all but disappears. Universities become Islamic. Non-Muslim teachers are forced into early retirement unless they convert and submit to the new regime.

This is the world imagined by Michel Houellebecq in his sixth novel, Soumission (Submission), which will appear next week. Should it be read as a bad Op-Ed, as pulp fiction for an election year, or as the attempt of a great writer to air a social critique through farce? In an exclusive interview—the first he's given about this novel—Houellebecq explains what led him to write a book that has already created a scandal in France, even before its publication.

Why did you do it? 

For several reasons, I’d say. First of all, I think, it’s my job, though I don’t care for that word. I noticed some big changes when I moved back to France, though these changes are not specifically French, but rather Western. As an exile you don’t take much of an interest in anything, really, neither your society of origin nor the place you live—and besides, Ireland is a slightly odd case. I think the second reason is that my atheism hasn’t quite survived all the deaths I’ve had to deal with. In fact, it came to seem unsustainable to me.

The death of your dog, of your parents?

Yes, it was a lot in a short period of time. Part of it may be that, contrary to what I thought, I never was quite an atheist. I was an agnostic. Usually that word serves as a screen for atheism but not, I think, in my case. When, in the light of what I know, I reexamine the question whether there is a creator, a cosmic order, that kind of thing, I realize that I don’t actually have an answer.

Whereas before you felt

I thought I was an atheist, yes. Now I really don’t know. So those are the two reasons I wrote the book, the second reason probably outweighing the first.

How would you characterize this book?

The phrase political fiction isn’t bad. I don’t think I’ve read many similar examples, but at any rate I’ve read some, more in English literature than in French. Read More »

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The Designed Landscape: An Interview with Carol Betsch

December 15, 2014 | by

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Carol Betsch, View from Mountain Avenue, below Washington Tower, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts, 2005.

100 Years of Design on the Land,” a photography show opening here in New York this evening at 1285 Avenue of the Americas Art Gallery, explores ten historic American landscapes, from Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston, created in 1831, to the Camden Public Library Amphitheatre in Maine, created in 1931. The show presents contemporary photographs by Carol Betsch and Andy Olenick that have been commissioned for books published by the Library of American Landscape History (LALH). Robin Karson, the executive director and founder of LALH, curated the exhibition. As she says in an introductory statement in the show’s catalogue, “each of these places was shaped by a deliberate design process, and each has an individual story to tell. Taken together, they tell a much larger story of a nation’s beliefs and aspirations—who we are, where we long to go or what we want to get back to.”

The Library of American Landscape History, based in Amherst, Massachusetts, is defining the field of landscape history through its books about significant American landscape practitioners and places. LALH also organizes exhibitions that reflect the subjects of its publications, and, in partnership with Hott Productions of Florentine Films, produces a series of short films, North America by Design. Carol Betsch’s photographs have appeared in eleven LALH books (two are forthcoming). For the 2013 title The Best Planned City in the World, the author Frank Kowsky worked with Andy Olenick, an architectural photographer based in Buffalo, to document the key elements of the park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for that city. This includes three large parks and a series of parkways to connect them, as well as Niagara Falls, which Olmsted helped to preserve from the destruction of local industries.

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Andy Olenick, Delaware Park Meadow, Buffalo Parks, Buffalo, New York, 2013.

I first encountered Carol Betsch’s photographs at the exhibition “A Genius for Place,” at the PaineWebber Art Gallery in the fall of 2000. I was struck by the remarkable elegance and stateliness of her images. The landscapes pictured were stunning, with grand homes nestled among ancient trees, vast lawns, formal gardens, pools, ponds, and follies. I found the feeling of serenity in these places, the evocative light and space, tremendously appealing. Looking at these photographs felt like walking through these wonderful American landscapes and gardens, having just the right guide to take me to the best views, the most significant perspectives, and to create the opportunity for understanding some of the ideas behind the landscapes unfolding before me. The photographs looked like they could be the work of an artist from the late nineteenth century, but they had all been made during the last decade. Who was this photographer? And where were these places?

“A Genius for Place,” both the show and the book that followed, presented seven estates of the country-place era, roughly the 1890s to the 1930s, created by some of the most important landscape architects of the time. Written by Robin Karson, the chapters alternate between biographies of the practitioners and exploration of the places from the perspective of an art historian, looking at the landscape designs as works of art. Selecting the best of the sites that retained the integrity of the original design, and discussing them in chronological order, Karson reveals the trajectory and evolution of American landscape design, and the ways these designs expressed ideas in the larger culture.

In anticipation of this new show, I spoke with Betsch about her photography, and the process of working in these landscapes. Read More »

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