A Week in Culture: Jonathan Lippincott, Designer


The Culture Diaries


I have decided to resurrect my “walking to work” photo project. I was a reluctant New Yorker when I first moved to the city in the early 1990s, but immediately loved being able to walk everywhere. I would take long walks on the weekends, in part to learn my way around the city, and in part to get out of my squalid apartment. There was so much to see! One of the things that always struck me was the sheer quantity of stone carving on so many of the buildings. The combination of great craftsmanship and brute strength required to carve all these ornaments is remarkable, and all around Manhattan there are gargoyles and goddesses to rival any in Paris or Rome. And while all these cities have remarkable troves of artwork in their museums, walking down the street provides endless sights of beauties as well—these architectural details are another facet of the city’s public art. The photos this week are all taken between 34th and 14th, on Madison or Fifth Avenue. You have to look up (and watch your step when you do). Most street-level spaces on these avenues are stores or restaurants with little detail. For the most part, the detailing becomes more elaborate further up. I should probably remember why this is the case from my art history classes; maybe it was simply to celebrate the colossal height of these buildings. (Click the images to enlarge.)

9:30 A.M. Arrive at the office to find a sample of the box set of Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems and Prose, which I designed (it’s coming out in February). To my delight and great relief, it looks marvelous. The color is an excellent match to the jacket of Bishop’s The Complete Poems, from 1969, which was the inspiration for the design of the new box and books. Nice way to start the new year. Spend the morning going through endless e-mail and other post-vacation office tidying. Finish work on the interior design for the Vargas Llosa Nobel lecture, due out ASAP.

1:30 P.M. Go out to get lunch. It’s nice walking through Union Square in the sun and checking out the arts and crafts on display. Come back to read The New Yorker, which I am two or three issues behind, as usual. Start reading Joyce Carol Oates’s essay about the last week of her marriage, but it makes me so sad I have to stop; it’s beautifully written but too heartbreaking for an office read. Instead go to the other extreme and read Michael Musto’s year-end wrap-up in the Village Voice online, and then look at his always entertaining blog.

3:30 P.M. My friend Anna calls to catch up from the holidays, and to tell me about the review of an Alice Neel biography in The New York Times. Her favorite line: “If male artists from Picasso on down were judged on the basis of their parenting skills, the child welfare office would have no choice but to permanently outlaw the practice of art.”

We discuss Neel’s tumultuous romantic and family life, and I mention the Neel documentary, which is tough to watch (because of her children), but fascinating for the interviews and discussion of her paintings. Perhaps it is better not to know the artist and just appreciate the work? I mention seeing Neel’s portrait of Frank O’Hara in the National Portrait Gallery in D.C., and she tells me that she bought three O’Hara books at a used bookstore recently; now the whole family is reading them. I have been rereading Joe LeSueur’s Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, which is great once again, and bits of O’Hara’s poetry often float into mind as I am walking around the city. I’m sure I am over-romancing New York in the ’50s and ’60s, but it certainly sounds like fun.

7:00 P.M. Dinner at Le Singe Vert with Chris, his old friend Steve, and a friend of Steve’s named Ricardo, who works in public art. Ricardo and I dive into a quick talk about the work he does in Boston, places that might be interested my lecture about sculpture, and magazines that might review my book. Chris arrives; we order drinks and food. Ricardo also likes to cook, and we tease Steve about not eating beets or lamb, which seem to be two common non-favorites for many people. Discussion about how long the restaurant has been around (at least ten years) leads to the conversation of what used to be where: That condo used to be a parking lot, that restaurant used to be that other restaurant. Chris imagines a Web site that allows you to scroll though what businesses used to be at each address in New York.

10:00 P.M. Brisk walk home in the cold. Sit on the couch with Chris and go through a week’s worth of mail: Christmas cards, more New Yorkers, New York Magazine, catalogues, etc.


Today’s photos:

9:30 A.M. Another day of relative quiet at the office (post-holiday lull), and I spend most of the morning typesetting the Vargas Llosa Nobel lecture.

1:00 P.M. Start reading Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which I expected to be in the noir vein of Nobody Move, but turns out to be a much more meditative story, set in the West in the early part of the twentieth century.

3:00 P.M. Try to track down photographs to use on the next Bishop book, a collection of her journals. Nothing to read on this yet, but sketching out a few ideas.


Today’s photos:

9:30 A.M. More work on Bishop journals jacket. Looking forward to reading the book when it arrives. One Art is still one of my favorite FSG books (Habit of Being—Flannery O’Connor’s letters—is another). Letters and journals seem to offer a behind-the-scenes look at someone’s life that I find very intriguing. These almost always seem much more interesting than biography, or even autobiography. I am sure some authors have an eye on publication even in these formats, but they feel intimate and unguarded. What are they thinking about? What do they tell their friends? It’s all there.

10:30 A.M. E-mailing with Robert Murray about the talk I am giving with him at the New York Public Library at the end of the month. He has e-mailed a few photos, and we arrange to meet Monday for lunch.

1:00 P.M. At the Strand to look at several art books. Paul Thek: Diver is on the table at the top of the stairs. Looks like an amazing show that I won’t get to before it closes. (It always sounds like forever when I first read about a show, and then suddenly it’s ending and I have missed it.) Thek seems to be one of those artists who are not generally well known but whose work clearly influenced many people. According to the catalogue, Thek had “an artistic, intimate, and at times erotic collaboration” with the photographer Peter Hujar, someone whose work I discovered during a trip to New York in 1991, while I was in grad school, at an art show about AIDS. I look for a book of Hujar’s photographs (no luck) and David Wojnarowicz’s Tongues of Flame. (I have this catalogue somewhere but can’t find it at home at the moment. Turns out I can’t find it here either.) Wojnarowicz collaborated with Hujar, too, and I first saw his work on that same trip.

Wander around a bit and see the memorial volume for Frank O’Hara, In Memory of My Feelings, an homage to the poet after his death, with artists creating work to accompany his poems. I had seen a set of the original prints once at the Old Print Shop, which were rather stark and beautiful. Had the grand idea of framing all the prints and installing them together on a wall but couldn’t afford the prints, let alone the framing.

Last stop is Lynda Barry’s new book, Picture This, which I buy. I have just about all her books, going way back, and still read them from time to time. The scratchy drawings are very inviting, even when the stories are not happy ones.

2:00 P.M. Hope to finish reading Johnson while eating lunch at my desk, but alas the post-vacation lull is over, and a great pile of stuff has turned up in my in-box while I was out. Spend the rest of the day clearing it all out again.

8:00 P.M. A Little Night Music at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Pack ourselves into the tiny, tiny seats, lights go down—I immediately begin choking on a peppermint. Claustrophobia sets in, but I manage to rally and not disrupt the theatergoers packed around me. Our friends Jeff and John had mentioned wanting to see this show, and I was game but didn’t know the story, or all that much about Sondheim. Chris and I saw Sondheim on Sondheim last year, and that didn’t really knock me out, but Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch certainly promised an entertaining evening. Fortunately, its incredible. Much sexier, much darker than other musicals I have seen, and the cast is all quite strong, especially Leigh Ann Larkin playing Petra. Bernadette Peters is amazing, seems to be channeling Madeline Kahn in What’s Up, Doc?. There are some touching moments, though, and to my surprise “Send in the Clowns” is one. This song doesn’t really make any sense out of context (and most renditions are hopelessly schmaltzy) but sung by one older, sadder-but-wiser lover to another, it is actually quite moving. Elaine Stritch as the wild grandmother is almost cinema verité: She forgets her lines a few times and gives an all-too-real feeling that she might go off in any direction at any time. Quite a remarkable evening.

Jonathan Lippincott is the design manager at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the author of Large Scale: Fabricating Sculpture in the 1960s and 1970s. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of his diary.