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Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: The Life and Work of Norman Rockwell takes on the touted icon of American normalcy with a bit of a charge—paralleling the illustrator’s rise at the Saturday Evening Post with the unraveling of his marriages (some occasioned by loss) and his close friendships with other men. By the time the artist was invited to dinner with the Eisenhowers, he was deeply engaged in therapy with Erik Erikson. There are lots more anecdotes from Solomon over at the Smithsonian Magazine, including a bit about Andy Warhol’s fascination with and attendance at Rockwell’s first, late-in-life gallery show.
Before there was Solomon’s biography, there was Richard Halpern’s Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, which argues that that the sense of innocence we locate in Rockwell’s work arises from our reluctance—and also Rockwell’s—to acknowledge its often disturbing dimensions (lust, desire, voyeurism, perversion), even though these acts remain more or less hidden in plain sight. As Halpern notes:
“To lay my cards on the table right away: the kinds of material that Rockwell’s work both exposes and disavows are to no small degree sexual in nature. The claim that forms of sexuality, often perverse, find a place in so wholesome and apparently innocent a figure as Rockwell maybe prove shocking and repellant to some of this more traditionally minded fans. It may be tempting to defend against the idea by chalking it up to the perversity of the interpreter, namely me, or to certain obsessions inherent in Freudian thinking itself. I counsel only patience and an open mind while I make my case. Individual readers may then decide whether, and to what degree, the case is convincing. This is not, in any event, an exercise in orthodox Freudianism, since I often criticize or modify Freud’s thinking. Freud offers nothing more than an initial way into Rockwell—a useful starting point for thought, not its goal. My argument relies not on psychoanalytic dogma bu ton a careful attention lavished upon the images themselves. My reading of Rockwell aims to be, in the end, a Rockwellian rather than a Freudian one. At the same time I feel that Rockwell and Freud are, in certain respects, kindred spirits—unrelenting analysis of the self and culture who often pose similar kinds of questions.”
Halpern’s book is worth a look if you’re interested in exploring this deviously brilliant artist and want to further consider the complexities of his treatment of young boys and women, the displacement of guilt and humiliation found in his portrayal of courtship and marriage, and the “repudiated underbelly” of his happy, painted world.
In wrapping of the year’s best-of-2012 lists, we couldn’t help but single out the University of Chicago Press titles that made the cut as reads worth remembering. With that in mind, here’s a list of our books that earned praise as cream of the crop here and abroad, from scholarly journals, literary blogs, metropolitan newspapers, and the like. If you’re looking, might we (and others) recommend—
Jules Feiffer, cartoonist-raconteur born in an era when caricature could be scathing, indicative, deeply personal, and most definitely not post-irony, is the author of Backing into Forward: A Memoir. The cult of Feiffer, which hinges on two of the versatile writer-artist’s best-known personas—illustrator of the beloved children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth and the man behind a much more adult-oriented series of comics, often penned for the Village Voice—revs up in Chicago this weekend in preparation for Feiffer’s conversation with Christopher Borrelli at the Printer’s Row. On the heels of this event, as Feiffer finishes up work on his graphic novel Kill My Mother, our own Miranda Sklaroff asked him a few questions about his process, inspirations, and the decision to make zillions by penning a work of pot-boiled realism:
MS: What made you decide to do an original graphic novel now?
JF: Pure avarice. About a year and a half ago, having made all sorts of changes in my life, I decided it might be a really good idea to make a lot of money fast. Therefore I was going to write a pot-boiler. It was going to be an action thriller, full of all the noir touches that I had grown up reading, adoring in Chandler, Hammett, et. al., and the movie versions thereof. Having written many of the scripts for Will Eisner’s The Spirit from 1949 to 1951, I thought it would be fun to return to an old form, this time strictly in prose, and that I could probably knock it out in a couple of months, sell it for a zillion, not to mention the movie sale, and after that, sit back and relax into my dotage. As it turned out, my pot-boiler never started to even simmer, and in rethinking what I could do about this, and still make zillions, it occurred to me that it might go faster (and be truer to the spirit of Eisner) if I turned it into a graphic novel. But, of course, get someone besides me to illustrate it. Because that sort of realism was not my style. And besides it would take much too much time—a couple of years at least—for me to draw, while there were all these other things that I would much rather do, like lie back and enjoy my dotage.
As it turned out, what I first envisioned as a hack job got more and more interesting, and I became more and more serious about it as I got further and further into the complexities of character and story. And by the time I had finished the first draft of the book that I had named Kill My Mother from the beginning, without a clue as to what the title meant, I had spanned a ten-year period from 1933 and the Great Depression to 1943 and the war in the South Pacific. And I had a cast of characters, larger than life, intricately involved, and most of them women. None of this was planned, it just decided to happen on its own. What happened after that is that WW Norton (and Bob Weil, my editor) loved the manuscript, and took it for granted that, of course, I was going to be the illustrator. I tried to explain to them that I would be 102 before I finished the book, but no one was listening to me, so I went home and started drawing pages that demanded a style that I had serious doubts that I could handle. I had, since early childhood, loved the a
The NYT’s 6th Floor blog ran a post yesterday by Amy Kellner about the installation of Yayoi Kusama’s career-spanning retrospective, which opens this July at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The show, the first to present a hearty selection of Kusama’s work to the West since LACMA’s Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama 1958–1968 (1998), was curated by Frances Morris, head of collections at the Tate Britain, where the show originated. Along with some excellent behind-the-scenes shots of “Fireflies on the Water,” originally installed for the Whitney’s 2004 Biennial and now a part of the Museum’s permanent collection, the post included an introduction to Kusama as an “adorable, polka-dot-obsessed Japanese artist.”
No one would argue with the obvious presence of dots, minimalist pop-blobs, flickering lights, and the omnipresence of concentric circles in Kusama’s oeuvre. But the use of the world “adorable”—in regards to an artist who has openly struggled with psychiatric problems, including obsessive and suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and the decision to voluntarily commit herself to the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she has lived since the mid-1970s—seems a bit more problematic. Or is it? Is it problematic to label Kusama, cloaked in art-pop attire, sometimes hippie-robed, other times blending in with the haute-chic female artists of her day—sometimes appearing slight, other times ferocious—adorable? Is it a problem to label anyone whose illness intertwines with their public and private persona—as descriptively as their curiosity-drenched art, seemingly as much and a little a part of them as any other set of atoms triggering their chemical reactions—adorable? I don’t know. Maybe the argument is against “adorable” in general, for any artist. Because it strips away the complexity of the person behind the work, and because we catch ourselves in a creator’s grand narrative and lose focus on the intricacies and complications of the work (and Kusama’s work was nothing if not primed for all kinds of human experience).
The Whitney’s official press release calls Kusama “legendary, semi-reclusive, and still vibrant,” and a quick Google search adds a strand of adjectives to that short list: prolific, incessant, avant-garde, significant, influential, important, controversial, suffering, celebrated.
Reading Kusama’s autobiography Infinity Netmight shed some light on the issue of her appearance, and our own tendency to focus on her signature component:
By covering my entire body with polka dots, and then covering the background with polka dots as well, I find self-obliteration. Or I stick polka dots all over a horse standing before a polka-dot background, and the form of the horse disappears, assimilated into the dots. The mass that is “horse” is absorbed into something timeless. And when that happens, I too am obliterated.
So, yes, sensorially: Kusama is dotty. And in terms of word choice, she is worthy of admiration, as evidenced by the gesture of “adorable.” But the langua
Welcome to a new era of Mark Rothko–fixation. This presupposes, of course, the longstanding cultural caché of what has come to be known as the Rothko Case, from its late 1960s origins to the more recent insider piece “A Matter of Rothko,” penned by David Levine for Triple Canopy. We note Bert Cooper’s office-befuddling investment in an early Rothko abstraction during an episode of Mad Men (which viewers would see give way to Hokusai’s The Dream Of The Fisherman’s Wife); we watch Alfred Molina’s star-turn in John Logan’s play Red (2009), which fictionalized Rothko’s creation of a series of murals for the tony (no pun intended) Four Seasons restaurant in Midtown Manhattan’s Seagram Building; we narrate along with Simon Schama‘s Power of Art television documentary, which profiled the murals project as one of eight masterworks by eight artists with Schama’s occasionally unrestrained literary flair (“Just how powerful is art? Can it feel like love or grief?”).
And next month, we’ll reprint James E. B. Breslin’s Mark Rothko: A Biography, a 707 pp. (“a book of heroic dimensions,” reads the marketing copy) tome originally published in 1993 by the author of a previously acclaimed biography of William Carlos Williams:
When the book was first published, scholar and critic (and Guggenheim Fellow and Dedalus Foundation president) Jack Flam took it to task on several points in a #longreads review published by the New York Review of Books. What follows are snippets from the review and its resultant letters to the editor, in which Flam and Breslin, along with curator Sam Hunter, responded to each other’s points of address:
Sometimes, however, Breslin displays a lack of familiarity with other works of art. In his discussion of an early watercolor landscape, for example, he becomes involved in a rather more complicated analysis than this essentially derivative picture warrants, relating it to Cézanne’s watercolors, apparently without seeming to realize that the subject, composition, and rendering of Rothko’s painting are clearly similar to the watercolors of John Marin. Moreover, Breslin sometimes gives verbose and repetitive descriptions of Rothko’s paintings (as well as of many of the people Rothko knew), and he supplies biographical interpretations that can strain one’s credulity as well as patience. For example, Breslin unconvincingly relates Number 10, 1950 to Rothko’s memory of being constricted by swaddling clothes as an infant. Rothko himself, like the painting, is said to be “also soft-edged and sensitive,” and the structure of the picture is said to be an attempt to recover “a lost relationship” after the death of his mother. These seem more like free associations based on Breslin’s biographical research than comments about painting.
“Put another way, tradition and community are not mere inheritances passively received form the past and certainly not merely fetters on human freedom. Tradition, to early nineteenth-century workers, included both their craft skills and the rights they claimed for this “human capital” against the incursions of inhuman capital. Tradition is in part the process by which successful claims to rights are reproduced in each generation. Some of these rights may be encoded in formal law; all are underpinned by transmissions of culture and understanding. Not only does the reproduction of tradition require action (and therefore always involves the production of new culture at the same time). It may also require struggle, when the claims posed within tradition—to justice, for example, or fairness or food when hungry—are attacked by other ideas—say of efficiency or one-sided revisions of property rights. Likewise, community is both an achievement and a capacity. It constitutes a field of action within which people can pursue the objects of their lives. It may be more or less egalitarian but usually empowers some more than others. It constrains more than enables. But is also incorporates investments made—sometimes over generations—in building it. It is not only a ground for individual and family projects but also the basis for much collective action. And communities were basic to the struggles of nineteenth-century workers against the incursions of capitalism, perhaps more basic than class, though the two are not contradictory.”
Robbins Barstow was a pioneering maker of home movies—Disneyland Dream (1956), which you see above, is one of literally hundreds of films he completed from 1929 (when he first received a camera) until his death in 2010, many of which star his immediate family. Disneyland Dreamwas named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2008, with the following citation:
The Barstow family films a memorable home movie of their trip to Disneyland. Robbins and Meg Barstow, along with their children Mary, David and Daniel were among 25 families who won a free trip to the newly opened Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., as part of a “Scotch Brand Cellophane Tape” contest sponsored by 3M. Through vivid color and droll narration (“The landscape was very different from back home in Connecticut”), we see a fantastic historical snapshot of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Catalina Island, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios and Disneyland in mid-1956. Home movies have assumed a rapidly increasing importance in American cultural studies as they provide a priceless and authentic record of time and place.
I watched the 35-minute film (which features a cameo by a very young Steve Martin at the 20:20 mark, wearing a top hat and hawking guidebooks) for the first time yesterday and was struck by its seeming perversion of techniques later perfected by the experimental video artists of the 1970s—or highbrow art in general, in this most quotidian form of hamming-it-up for the camera. Part of that is probably triggered by the instant nostalgia now, more or less obviously, shopped around by our contemporary culture—indeed, there’s a lot to say about Barstow’s 16mm-amateur outtakes that lines up with issues of public vs. private intimacy, the ubiquity of the non-place (Marc Augé’s ever determinate/indeterminate anthropological positioning), and the secular pilgrimage. But there are also moments in the film that directly echo the verité techniques of filmmakers like Shirley Clarke
Kamin appeared on Fox Chicago News last night to talk about the book, which explores architecture both here in Chicago and throughout the world. You can watch that appearance at the Fox site. And Kamin will also be making a slew of public appearances in the coming weeks, speaking about the book and meeting readers. He's got full details on those events at his Cityscapes blog (which, if you're at all interested in architecture or Chicago, you should already be reading anyway!).
Come out and see him—find out what he thinks of green architecture, the housing boom and bust, the Trump Tower, the legacy of Daley, and much, much more.
Consider the house. The good doctor (a nephrologist!) Edith Farnsworth first commissioned architect Mies van der Rohe to construct her one-room weekend retreat adjacent to the Fox River at a dinner party in 1945. Farnsworth had earlier purchased the land that became the lot that became the Farnsworth House from Colonel Robert R. McCormick, then-publisher of the Chicago Tribune (heralded by political cartoonists of the day as Colonel McCosmic—a Commie-chasing, New Deal-loathing, socialism-fearing, World-of-Nations-knocking isolationist unlikely to syndicate Eleanor Roosevelt’s column “My Day” anytime soon). Is there an adage about dinner parties? Things between Edith and Mies didn’t really work out. It’s a complicated story involving malpractice suits; transparency in the client-architect relationship; escalating construction costs due to scarcity of materials, fueled by the Korean War; and the larger, nationally staged social dramas of the McCarthy era, in one case manifesting in vitriol from House Beautiful magazine. Prior to the clamor, previous to the house’s completion in 1951, and before dear Edith sold the house to Lord Peter Palumbo, took off to Italy, and began working with Eugenio Montale, a model version of the Farnsworth House was included in the 1947 MOMA exhibition (#356) “Mies van der Rohe,” organized [...]
In the mid-to-late 1960s, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama staged a series of happenings. Situated someplace between the physically participatory (be-in) space of protest culture and an Art Brut magick ceremony, Kusama’s polka-dot drenched performances saturated the conventional landscape with an extraordinary reality. By 1968, Kusama had begun to formalize these happenings under the name The Anatomic Explosion, accompanying each performance with a series of manifestos-qua-press-releases whose tone echoed the wild conviction of her art.
“Burn Wall Street. Wall Street men must become farmers and fisherman. Wall Street men must stop all of this fake ‘business.’ OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA DOTS. OBLITERATE WALL STREET MEN WITH POLKA DOTS ON THEIR NAKED BODIES. BE IN … BE NAKED, NAKED, NAKED.”
[Kusama] began issuing hundreds of press releases, and her performances became steadily wilder. In the first of her Anatomic Explosion series, Tomii and Karia write, “across from the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street, four nude dancers gyrated to the rhythm of bongo drummers, while Kusama, accompanied by her lawyer, spray painted blue polka dots on their naked bodies.” The police closed it down fast. A second such performance took place at the Statue of Liberty; a third one happened at the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, with Kusama declaring that she was the “modern Alice in Wonderland.” The performances came thick and fast after that.
What seems striking in our own moment—in a year already marked by the presence and legacy of the Occupy movement and the inspired, occasionally insipid fantasia of Mayan End Times, is Kusama’s archive: a primal and technicolored futureworld that literally danced on the grave of (capital) establishment politics. The theatrical—again, conviction—that another world is possible.
The 2012 class of Guggenheim Fellows was announced this week by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, inciting some exuberant responses on the part of several winners (check out Terry Teachout’s Twitter feed). The Guggenheim has long been hailed as the “mid-career award,” honoring scholars, scientists, poets, artists, and writers, who have likely published a book or three, professed a fair amount of research, and are actively engaged in projects of significant scope. The fellowship possesses some tortured origins—(John) Simon Guggenheim, who served as president of the American Smelting and Refining Company and Republican senator from Colorado, seeded the award (1925) following the death of this son John (1922) from mastoiditis (Guggenheim’s second son George later committed suicide, and more infamously his older brother Benjamin went down with the Titanic). Among this year’s crop (we dare say more forward-leaning than previous years?) is a roster of standout “professionals who have demonstrated exceptional ability by publishing a significant body of work in the fields of natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and the creative arts,” affiliated with the University of Chicago Press: Creative Arts Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine and author of three poetry collections, coeditor of The Open Door: [...]