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Posts Tagged ‘James Baldwin’

Staff Picks: Stray Dogs, Stereographs, Pepsi Sex Floats

November 13, 2015 | by

Detail from one of Jim Shaw’s “Dream Objects,” on display now at the New Museum.

Sleep doesn’t always come easy for me, so I was drawn to Linda Pastan’s new collection of poems just from its title: Insomnia. Pastan muses on the daydreams the sleepless have at night, the small histories that emerge as each day wanes. Her narrators sit up wishing their gnarled skin was as beautiful as an apple tree’s, or remembering the “fascinated nightmares” the woodcut novels of Lynd Ward inspired. They think about Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve and the poet Roland Flint and the way asteroids resemble giant brains plucked from their skulls. Though the title suggests otherwise, Pastan writes oneirically, knitting gentle verse together with playful, if often somber, scenes. In “Counting Sheep,” Pastan writes of how restless the sheep are, waiting to be added up: “I notice a ram / pushing up against a soft and curly female … It’s difficult / to keep so many sheep / in line for counting ... ” In “Insomnia: 3 AM,” “Sleep has stepped out / for a smoke / and may not be back”—I just love that. —Caitlin Youngquist

Jim Shaw’s “The End Is Here” is up through January 10 at the New Museum: three floors chockablock with thrift-store paintings, extreme Christian ephemera, and Shaw’s own distinctly outré drawings, paintings, and collages. J. Hoberman is right when he notes that “although [Shaw’s] obsessive faux naïve work dares you to find it creepy, it is more often strangely cheerful, as well as enigmatic.” This holds true no matter how outrageous his images are: two aliens fucking on a UFO flight deck, Santa getting his dick bitten off. This is a world where even an exsanguinated penis is just a lark; Freudians need not apply. The collected stuff compels, too—from junk piles and yard sales, Shaw has compiled some significant American detritus, and his arrangements make it all more cohesive than you’d expect. Even the titles for his dream drawings come to seem inevitable: “I was drawing a Pepsi sex float … ” “In Reno there was a Titanic mockup where a girl … ” “I think I was half awake when I thought of this upright piano modeled after the cave monster from It Conquered the World … ” —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Is There a Doctor in the House? And Other News

October 30, 2015 | by

An ad for a show at the Grand Guignol.

  • In search of some cosmic horror, something to give you seasonally appropriate nightmares, something outside the realm of the usual Lovecraft stuff? Try William Hope Hodgson, who in the early twentieth century “envisioned the end of the Earth in the distant future: 1908’s The House on the Borderland features it in hallucinatory form, while 1912’s The Night Land is set at a point where the sun’s light has dimmed.” Or try Thomas Ligotti, in whose stories “the truths about the world that people discover are enough to tear them apart—sometimes literally. His protagonists often find themselves facing forces far beyond their ability to grapple with or comprehend. The therapist narrating ‘Dream of a Manikin’ is, ultimately, trapped in a series of collapsing realities; what begins as a simple, Twilight Zone-esque twist to the narrative gives way to a series of revelations beside which a simple ‘everything you know is a lie’ would be a comfort.”
  • Since the Tin Pan Alley era, if not earlier, pop music has been likened to an assembly line: even today people like to joke about “the hit factory,” imagining the sleek, automated, international manufacturing process that generates our Top 40. But isn’t the metaphor a bit stale, by now? “A more accurate and illuminating way to understand today’s pop might be to think of it as post-­industrial, a phenomenon not of the machine era but of the information age. Music is made today by mining the vast digital repository of recordings of the past, or by emulating or referencing them through synthesis, and then manipulating them and mashing them up—with the human fallibility and genius that have always laced popular music and probably always will. Indeed, it is accessing and processing—the methods that digitalization facilitates—rather than gearing and stamping for uniformity and mass production that distinguish twenty-first-century pop. Like machine-age plants everywhere, the song factories have closed, and the work of the day is being done electronically.”
  • And just as we’re fond of the “hit factory” metaphor, who doesn’t enjoy a casual Grand Guignol reference from time to time? And yet who among us knows a thing about the actual Grand Guignol? “The Grand Guignol was originally founded in 1895 by French playwright Oscar Méténier. He purchased an old chapel located at the end of a tight alley, leaving the gothic, religious decorations intact. Wooden angels hung from the ceiling, and towered over the orchestra … In 1897, the theater was taken over by Max Maurey, who leaned into the Grand Guignol as a space for straight-up horror. Under Maurey’s leadership, the theater ran a variety of plays, ranging from comedies to dramas … He was said to judge the success of a given play by the number of audience members who passed out. As a publicity stunt, he also hired a house doctor to administer to those who were adversely affected by the horrors on display … Under Maurey’s leadership, the plays at the Grand Guignol began focusing on tales of insanity, hallucination, and, above all, terror … involving figures like a child-killing nanny, a mad doctor who performs a vengeful lobotomy, and jealous women who stick a pair scissors in the eyes of a more beautiful woman.”
  • James Baldwin’s once splendorous home in the Cote d’Azur is in shambles now, as Thomas Chatterton Williams discovered when he broke in: He found “an extremely wide and shallow expanse of overgrown grass, orange trees, cypresses, wild lavender, and palms that gives sweeping views of the walled town above, the sun-drenched valley below, and, in the distance, the Mediterranean’s rippling sheen. The stone barrier wall had been broken a truck’s width and re-sealed with a chain-link fence that begged to be circumvented. I crouched and pulled out the cinderblock that stabilized it … I could not stop myself from attaching a deep significance to that ruined house in the foothills of the Alps, overlooking a distant sea. The thought that one of the most gifted and munificently alive writers of the twentieth century, the quintessential black American in France, would soon be rid of his only geographical footprint … struck me as unbearably sad.”
  • Ai Weiwei ordered Legos in bulk. The corporation refused to fulfill his order, claiming that they “cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.” This made Ai Weiwei upset, as one might imagine. He decided to procure Legos the old-fashioned way: through the sunroofs of BMWs. “Ai Weiwei would like to rent, borrow or buy second-hand a BMW 5S Series sedan, of which the color can vary, as a Lego container,” he wrote on his Instagram. “The vehicle must have clear windows and a sunroof that can be fixed open with a five cm opening so that people can insert Legos … The car should be parked and locked in a central location of the city that can be easily accessed by the public. The vehicle should remain in the parking space for one month or a longer period of time, preferably in a location related to arts or culture, indoor or outdoor.” Some laud his willfully bizarre effort to fight censorship. Others think it’s what Jed Perl has called “political kitsch”: “one wonders where the political dissent ends and the artsy attitudinizing begins.”

Staff Picks: Local News, Livid Librarians, Loving It All

July 31, 2015 | by


A still from James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket

When Ingrid Sischy died last week, most obituaries remembered her primarily as the editor of Interview, which she was, for eighteen years. But I’ve always thought of her as an ex-editor of Artforum, which she ran for most of the eighties. That decade saw a profound change in what was considered art, how it would be exhibited, and how it would be discussed in, among other places, the most important art magazine of the day—and Sischy, the first woman editor of Artforum, was the right man for the job. I’m grateful to our publisher, Susannah Hunnewell, for sending me Janet Malcolm’s magnificent “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” a two-part article on Sischy and Artforum and the art world that appeared in The New Yorker in 1986. In the process of profiling Sischy, Malcolm provides generous sketches of the magazine’s earlier years as well as the concerns of Sischy’s day, including the “trial” of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc and the “Primitivism” show at MoMA. Sischy’s fair-mindedness and originality as an art editor come to the fore, but so does the silliness of art-world kerfuffles and the startling differences between generations and modes of thought. Malcolm, for instance, reproduces a very pissy response by the critic Barbara Rose in which she decries Sischy’s Artforum as a “media magazine” and pits her cohorts, who were “all very impressed by Wittgenstein and by Anglo-American philosophy,” against Sontagian cultural permissiveness, in which “you could just love everything that was going on, you could be positive and optimistic and just love it all.” —Nicole Rudick

k10442One of the many perceptive essays in The Meaning of the Library (it doesn’t beg to be taken to the beach, I know) is Laura Marcus’s “The Library in Film: Order and Mystery,” which finds compelling motifs in movie scenes set in libraries. On film, it seems, our libraries are presented with curious regularity as mazes (Hitchcock’s Blackmail), haunted repositories of secrets (Ghostbusters, James Bridges’s The Paper Chase), dusty Egyptological tombs (Alain Resnais’s Toute la mémoire du monde), or utopias of knowledge (Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire). “It is striking,” Marcus writes, “how so many films have taken up these questions of order and of mystery or confusion, as well as ideas of haunting in relationship to the book and the library.” She finds intriguing outliers, too, such as 1932’s Forbidden, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s bitter small-town librarian, having endured insults from local children, says, “I wish I owned this library … I’d get an axe and smash it to a million pieces, then I’d set fire to the whole town and play a ukulele while it burned.” —Dan Piepenbring
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Addy Walker, American Girl

May 28, 2015 | by

The role of black dolls in American culture.


From the cover of Meet Addy.

In 1864, a nine-year-old slave girl was punished for daydreaming. Distracted by rumors that her brother and father would be sold, she failed to remove worms from the tobacco leaves she was picking. The overseer didn’t whip her. Instead, he pried her mouth open, stuffed a worm inside, and forced her to eat it.

This girl is not real. Her name is Addy Walker; she is an American Girl doll, one of eight historical dolls produced by the Pleasant Company who arrive with dresses, accessories, and a series of books about their lives. Of all the harrowing scenes I’ve encountered in slave narratives, I remember this scene from Meet Addy, her origin story, most vividly. How the worm—green, fat, and juicy—burst inside Addy’s mouth. At eight years old, I understood that slavery was cruel—I knew about hard labor and whippings—but the idea of a little girl being forced to eat a worm stunned me. I did not yet understand that violence is an art. There’s creativity to cruelty. What did I know of its boundaries and edges? Read More »

Today’s Defacement Is Tomorrow’s Artifact, and Other News

February 23, 2015 | by


Mark Twain’s annotations to translations by John Dryden. Photo via NYRB

  • The FBI kept a file on James Baldwin that ran to 1,884 pages. What was in it? Reasonably adept criticism, among other things: “The mixed bag of memos, letters, and clippings that composed the typical FBI author file included more than espionage reports … It also included outbursts of literary critical prose, a type of writing judgmental in nature, but always indebted to the prior writing it describes. FBI author files thus qualify as recognizable works of literary commentary, as state-subsidized assessments and interpretations quietly warring with those produced by English professors and less stuffy book reviewers.”
  • A new exhibition at the New York Society Library, “Readers Make Their Mark,” collected annotated books from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, thus continuing the culture’s growing fascination with marginalia. “Sometimes they are making proclamations about their own books: George Bernard Shaw identifies a printed text of his Too True to be Good as a ‘Provisional Prompt Copy’ for a particular production and calls it ‘Frightfully Private. No Press Agent to be let near it.’ And sometimes—as in the case of an early woman reader who judges the characters in Emma, one by one—they respond to their books in ways that still seem familiar.”
  • “Let’s get out of here” is one of the most common lines in film—people in movies just love to leave places. “It confers agency on whoever says it. It draws a line under what’s gone before. It propels action. It justifies a change of scene, no matter how abrupt.” But in more contemporary movies, “getting out of here” faces stiff competition from its longtime nemesis, “staying put.” “This emphasis on staying suits our times: The people writing and watching these movies are all part of an introspective, if not isolationist, culture that’s still licking its wounds after plotless wars and a traumatic recession.”
  • Is there anything more insufferable than our current predilection for all things twee? “Twee is a symptom of profound cultural exhaustion, a pop-cultural response to the death of grand narratives and radical politics: too weary to fight the corporate capitalist machine, the twee instead create hyper-stylized alternative worlds in which kittens play, ukuleles sound and childhood is eternal. Their basic disposition is melancholy rather than angry, and they will always opt for owl-print wallpaper over kicking against the pricks.”
  • I’ve always dreamed of winning an Oscar—I could put it up for auction, I thought, and make a lot of money, and that would be cool. But it turns out that selling your Oscar trophy is a great way to get sued by the Academy. In fact, the Academy thrills to a good lawsuit; they’ve also brought suits against “television shows that use the name ‘Oscar’ (i.e., ‘The Wine Oscars’); a website that predicts Oscar winners; and a chocolate-maker who produced Oscar-shaped candies.” Next up: people named Oscar, or people related to those people.

Regarding Mystery: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez

September 9, 2014 | by


Photo: Timothy Archibald

In San Francisco earlier this spring, I’d hoped to meet the essayist Richard Rodriguez, the author of The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and, most recently, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, which has just been published in paperback. Though he’s largely associated with his early stances against affirmative action and bilingual education, not to mention his regular appearances on the PBS NewsHour, Rodriguez, who turned seventy in July, has had a wide-ranging career, and I wanted to discuss the shift of his work from cultural identity to religion. But our schedules were tricky to coordinate, and then I lost my wallet. “Pray to St. Anthony!” Rodriguez immediately wrote. (The wallet was recovered by one of the famous bellmen at Sir Francis Drake Hotel. “St. Anthony dressed as a beefeater,” as Rodriguez put it.) Instead, we corresponded for several weeks.

I was excited and surprised by Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. I had seen you referred to as a Mexican-American writer, a Californian writer, and a gay writer, but never, until recently, as a religious writer. Have you always considered yourself a religious writer? 

Of course, I haven’t, until lately, considered myself a “writer”—in the grand sense. For most of my writing life, I have stood truly, if uneasily, on American bookstore shelves as a sociological sample—shelved “Latino” between a gangbanger’s book of poetry and the biography of a Colombian drug lord. Only in recent years, as it has become clear to me that so few people I know read books, have I been struck by the fact that I am a writer.

My sense of being religious is older. From boyhood, particularly my lower-middle-class childhood in Sacramento, I was transported by religion into the realm of mystery. Consider this: The Irish nun excused me from arithmetic class so that I could serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass. Along with the priest and the other altar boy, I would welcome Death at the doors of the church. We escorted Death up the main aisle. I later went with the cortege to the cemetery. There was a fresh pile of soil piled high at the edge of the grave site, discreetly, if unsuccessfully, covered by an AstroTurf rug that was as unconvincing a denial of the hardness of time as a cheap toupee. I wondered at the mourners’ faces—the melting grief, the hard stoicism. Thirty minutes from the grave, I was back within the soft green walls of Sacred Heart Parish School. It was almost lunchtime. I resumed my impersonation of an American kid. Read More »