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He Was Always Right, and Other News

January 20, 2015 | by

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James Rosenquist, Floating to the Top, 1964. Courtesy VAGA New York and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

  • Merriam-Webster has undertaken a daunting project: they’re publishing a new edition of their unabridged dictionary, which hasn’t seen a major overhaul since 1961. Their employees are already hard at work: “Emily Brewster has produced anywhere from five to twenty-five definitions a week. Twerking is ready, she tells me in December. Nutjob (which dates to 1959) and minorly are good to go. Jeggings is, too. The new sense of trolling looks promising, she says, ‘but first I have to finish hot mess.’ Brewster is very excited about hot mess. Thanks to Google Books, she found it in a machinists union trade journal from 1899: ‘If the newspaper says the sky is painted with green chalk that is what goes. Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.’ ”
  • In 1969, the curator Henry Geldzahler convinced the Met to host “New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940–1970,” a show so vast and intensely contemporary that it remains a watershed—so why not just do the whole thing again? “Henry had a fantastic eye. He wasn’t wrong about anything. He was always right.”
  • A mother from an affluent Texas town would strongly prefer her children to read Ayn Rand in school, not The Working Poor, David K. Shipler’s book about poverty. In other news, Oxfam announced yesterday that 1 percent of the global population holds half the world’s wealth.
  • George Steinmetz traveled by helicopter to take these aerial photographs of New York in winter. He and his pilot “frequently flew so low that they passed in between buildings, with Steinmetz and his camera hanging out of the open door.”
  • Remembering Alice K. Turner, who was Playboy’s fiction editor for two decades. “Fiction is kind of a nuisance,” she once said. “The ad sales guys don’t see the point. They would cut it out if they could, except for the fact that it adds a certain respectability … Playboy stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. They have a kind of general appeal. They are not experimental. They are not terribly modern or forward-reaching but they have real quality, or so I hope.”

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The Making of an American

January 1, 2015 | by

We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

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Carl Van Vechten shaped and burnished the legend of Gertrude Stein.

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Carl Van Vechten’s iconic 1935 portrait of Gertrude Stein

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Tender Buttons, Gertrude Stein’s collection of experimental still-life word portraits split into the categories of objects, food, and rooms, and which—excluding a vanity publication in 1909, which she paid for herself—was the first of Stein’s work to be published in the United States. Stein had hoped that this enigmatic little book would be her big break, the thing to convince the American people of her genius. That was not to be. Tender Buttons left critics bemused and made barely a dent on the consciousness of the wider reading public. There was no great clamor for more of her writing; Stein would have to wait another twenty years to become a household name. Nevertheless, the publication of Tender Buttons is now widely regarded as a landmark in American literary modernism, the moment when one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century first unfurled her avant-garde sensibilities before the American public.

That moment would never have arrived had it not been for the work of Stein’s most important champion, Carl Van Vechten, the man who arranged for the book’s publication. Little remembered today, Van Vechten was a pioneering arts critic, a popular author of tart, brittle novels about Manhattan’s Jazz-Age excesses, an acclaimed photographer, and a flamboyant socialite whose daring interracial cocktail parties were a defining part of Prohibition-era New York’s social scene. But his greatest legacy is as a promoter of many underappreciated American writers, artists, and performers who went on to gain canonical status. Names as diverse as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and Herman Melville all felt the effects of Van Vechten’s boost. His first great cause was Gertrude Stein. He did more than anyone else to carve her legend into the edifice of the American Century, arranging publishing deals for her, photographing her, and publicizing her work, a task he continued long after her death.

Stein knew how crucial Van Vechten was to her career—not merely in the practical aspects of getting her work into print, read, and discussed, but in helping create and disseminate the mythology that surrounds her name. “I always wanted to be historical, almost from a baby on,” Stein freely admitted toward the end of her life. “Carl was one of the earliest ones that made me be certain that I was going to be.” Van Vechten and Stein were strikingly different, led wildly different lives. Hers was rooted in the domestic stability she enjoyed with her partner Alice B. Toklas; his was an exhausting whirl of binges, parties, and pansexual escapades. But they had two crucial things in common: the conviction that Gertrude Stein was an irrefutable genius and a love of mythmaking, an obsession with re-scripting reality until they became the central actors in the fantastical scenes that unfolded in their heads. When Stein played fast and loose with the facts in her memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, many were furious over her distortions. But Van Vechten understood that telling the literal truth about her life—or anybody else’s—was never Stein’s concern. Read More >>

Behind Our Latest Cover

December 5, 2014 | by

TPR 211The cover of our new Winter issue features Stairs Building, a photograph by Marc Yankus, who’s been taking pictures of architecture since the nineties, though he doesn’t consider himself an architectural photographer. The building is in Manhattan, on Thirty-Ninth Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Marc wrote to me about it:

In Stairs Building, I was drawn to the strange design of the rectangles off the street-side facade and the discreet doors tucked away toward the back. I spotted the building from a rooftop party I’d attended—its unusual shape drew me in, and I felt compelled to come back and photograph it. 

I’m not sure what it is about some buildings that just stops me in my tracks. Everything around them vanishes. I notice that I am often attracted to older architecture and unusual, forgotten buildings. For this portrait, I faded out the surroundings in a haze, making the featured building more prominent and monolithic. 

This photograph was taken in mid-July, 2013.

In our new issue you’ll find “The Secret Life of Buildings,” a portfolio of sixteen of Yankus’s pictures with an introduction from our art editor, Charlotte Strick. Subscribe now and have a look. In the meantime, here’s a larger version of Stairs Building, plus a few additional photographs not included in the portfolio: Read More »

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When Art Got Expensive, and Other News

November 25, 2014 | by

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Diego Velázquez, Portrait of Juan de Pareja (detail), 1650.

  • Finally available, after forty-one years: Gravity’s Rainbow, the audiobook. It comprises thirty CDs and is performed by a superhumanly patient soul named George Guidall. “How on earth, I wondered as I stripped the wrapper, is poor Mr. Guidall going to render the sudden outbreaks of crazed capitals, or librettos in which stoners with guitars pastiche Rossini, the instructions helpfully stating ‘(bubububoo[oo] oo [sung to opening of Beethoven 5th, with full band])’? He turns out to do it in a slow and deep-voiced manner, beneath whose calm avuncularity you can detect anxiety, even mania, bubbling but never quite erupting.”
  • New York has fewer used bookstores than ever before, and yet the Strand continues to thrive. How? It’s certainly cheerier than it used to be, which doesn’t hurt—before it was renovated in 2003, it was pretty bleak. “Like a lot of businesses that had hung on through the FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD years, it looked broken-down and patched-up. The bathroom was even dirtier than the one in the Astor Place subway. You got the feeling that a lot of books had been on the shelves for years. The ceiling was dark with the exhalations from a million Chesterfields. There were mice. People arriving with review copies to sell received an escort to the basement after a guard’s bellow: ‘Books to go down!’ ”
  • Meghan Daum on suffering: “ ‘The culture is obsessed with the idea that if you go through a crisis, you’re going to come out of it a better person,’ Daum says, explaining her frustration with ‘the pressure we put on people ... to have epiphanies where suddenly it all makes sense.’ This ‘redemption pressure’ is sentimentality’s aggressive shadow, a way of forcing people in terrible situations to make us feel better about what they’ve been through. But as she demonstrates in her essays, ‘sometimes you don’t learn anything. It is what it is, and there is no closure.’ ”
  • On November 27, 1970, Velázquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja became the first painting to sell for more than a million pounds. “It was finally knocked down for a staggering £2,310,000, almost tripling the previous world auction record for a painting. Even the most hardened dealers sitting in the audience breathed gasps of disbelief. Then there was a spontaneous burst of applause. The auctioneer left his rostrum, the painting was hastily removed, and sheer pandemonium broke out.”
  • A new service, Deathswitch, allows you to communicate from beyond the grave: “Subscribers are prompted periodically via email to make sure they’re still alive. When they fail to respond, Deathswitch starts firing off their predrafted notes to loved ones. The company now has thousands of users and effectively runs itself. Among the perks of a premium Deathswitch account is the ability to schedule emails for delivery far in the future: to wish your wife a happy fiftieth wedding anniversary, for example, thirty years after you left her a widow.”

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The Soul of Wit

November 14, 2014 | by

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Photo: Carpe Donut NYC

While contemplating the purchase of a hot-cider doughnut at the aptly named Carpe Donut truck, one finds oneself thinking about food-truck names. Many have; it is one of the consolations of modernity that we live in the golden age of food-truck nomenclature. Or at least the first age.

Anyone who has worked in a business district or watched an episode of Street Eats knows it’s not enough to have a truck and a grill: your name should ideally be gimmicky, fun, and filled with attitude, to underlie the anarchic spirit of the whole enterprise. Sexual innuendo is of course desirable. Puns are a plus. In the words of an academic with whom I once spent a tedious dinner, “Language informs consciousness: we know this.”

But did you know that there is a food-truck-name generator? Of course there is. (I have no knack for it; my key words—scampering, spinster, maple—were apparently not sufficiently cheeky, even after I added sullen to the mix for extra attitude.) But then, I didn’t really need it; I already have the perfect name. Ogden Nosh. We’ll sell franks, but of course, they’ll be called Doggerels. The way some fast-food chains give their customers discreet Bible verses on the bottoms of cups, we’ll force-feed our patrons nonsense verses. And, naturally, on the side of the truck will be written the following: “A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.”

Cabinet of Wonder

November 10, 2014 | by

Mmuseumm revitalizes the tradition of the Wunderkammer.

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Courtesy of Mmuseumm

On a recent weekend, Manhattan’s smallest museum was bustling. A man and a woman in matching red sweaters examined a display of North Korean household products and then rows of watches emblazoned with the face of Saddam Hussein. A child squinted at a row of pool toys from Saudi Arabia in censored packaging; she frowned at the strange black shapes that had replaced the women in bathing suits. Nearby, a man was having a caricature done of himself as a Halloween zombie while a small crowd spilled out onto Cortland Alley to watch. Later, though, on a Monday afternoon, the space was quiet, closed to the public. It was just me and the Down Syndrome dolls, the display of mounted moss samples, a soft babble of speech from a little video screen on one of the higher shelves, and a question: How ought we to think of this?

The “this” in question is Mmuseumm, a single-story space converted from an old elevator shaft on the edge of Chinatown, about four paces wide and four paces deep. Each of its three walls has four rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with a red, velvety material and brightly lit: at night, the whole place shines, an island of light in the alley’s murk. On my second daytime visit, I found Alex Kalman, one of Mmuseumm’s cofounders, down on his knees lint-rolling dust from the velvet of the lowest shelf, just beside a bizarre chip-and-snack tray under glass. Over the next hour, we sat outside in two folding chairs while Kalman told me about Mmuseumm’s genesis, purpose, and current form. Then he left me, generously, to wonder at the place on my own. Read More »

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