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1. Excerpt: In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde



An excerpt from In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum

by Matti Bunzl



I’m sitting in the conference room on the fifth floor of the MCA, the administrative nerve center which is off limits to the public. It is late January and the temperatures have just plunged to near zero. But the museum staff is bustling with activity. With four months to go until the opening of the big Jeff Koons show, all hands are on deck. And there is a little bit of panic. Deadlines for the exhibit layout and catalogue are looming, and the artist has been hard to pin down. Everyone at the MCA knows why. Koons, who commands a studio that makes Warhol’s Factory look like a little workshop, is in colossal demand. For the MCA, the show has top priority. But for Koons, it is just one among many. In 2008 alone, he will have major exhibits in Berlin, New York, and Paris. The presentation at the Neue Nationalgalerie is pretty straightforward. Less so New York, where Koons is scheduled to take over the roof of the Metropolitan Museum, one of the city’s premiere art destinations. But it may well be the French outing that most preoccupies the artist. With an invitation to present his work at Versailles, the stakes could not be higher. Indeed, when the show opens in the fall, the photos of Koons’s work at the Rococo palace, shockingly incongruous yet oddly at home, go around the world.

But on this morning, there is good news to share. As the marketing department reports, Koons has approved the publicity strategy for the MCA show. Most everyone in the group of curators, museum educators, and development staffers breathes a sigh of relief, not unlike the response of Don Draper’s team after a successful pitch. Mad Men, which made its widely hailed debut only a few months earlier, is on my mind, in fact. Sure, there is no smoking and drinking at the MCA. But the challenge faced by the museum is a lot like that of the fictional Sterling Cooper: how to take a product and fit it with an indelible essence, a singularity of feeling. Jeff Koons is hardly as generic as floor cleaner or facial cream. But given his ubiquity across the global art scene, the MCA presentation still needs a hook, something that can give it the luster of uniqueness.

Koons has history in Chicago, and that turns out to be the key. Yes, he may have been born and raised in Pennsylvania, graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, and settled in New York, where, after working as a commodities trader, he became a professional artist. But in between, for one year in the mid‑1970s, Koons lived and studied in Chicago, taking courses at the School of the Art Institute and serving as an assistant to painter Ed Paschke. Enough to imagine the MCA show as a homecoming, and the second one at that. The first, it now appears, was the 1988 exhibit, which had paved his way to superstardom and cemented an enduring relationship between artist and city. No one in the room can be certain how Koons actually feels about his old stomping grounds. But the slogan stands: Jeff Koons Chicago.


It’s a few weeks later. The group is back on the fifth floor. The mood is determined. On the agenda for today is the ad campaign. It will be a “communications blitz,” one of the staffers on the marketing team says. It will start with postcards sent to museum members urging them to save the date of the opening. “We need to communicate that it will be a real happening!”

“Koons is like a rock star,” someone seconds, “and we need to treat him like that.” Apparently, Justin Timberlake stopped by the MCA a few weeks ago, causing pandemonium among the school groups that happened to be touring the museum at the time. “Koons is just like that!” one of the marketers enthuses. “No, he’s not,” I’m thinking to myself. But for what seems like an endless few seconds, no one has the heart to burst the bubble. Finally, someone conjectures that, Koons’s art‑star status notwithstanding, people might not know what he looks like. It is suggested that the postcard feature a face shot.

The graphics for the ad campaign and catalogue cover are central to the conversation. We look at mockups, and the marketers share their excitement about the splashy images. There is much oohing and aahing. But, then, a minor hiccup. A curator notes that one of the pieces depicted in the copy will not actually be in the show, the loan request having been refused. Another image presents an issue as well. That piece will be on display, but it belongs to another museum. Maybe it, too, should be purged. No one is overly concerned, though. Given a virtually inexhaustible inventory of snazziness, Koons’s oeuvre is certain to throw up excellent replacements.

Splashy images would also be the focal point of an advertorial the marketing department is considering for a Conde Nast publication. Such a piece, to be run in eitherVanity Fair or Architectural Digest, would be written by the MCA but laid out in the magazine’s style. It would complement the more conventional press strategies, like articles in local newspapers, and would be on message. This, as signs from the real world indicate that Koons may, in fact, truly like Chicago. He wants to attend a Bulls game with his kids while in town. From the standpoint of marketing, it’s a golden opportunity. “This artist likes Chicago sports,” one staffer gushes, something people would be “pleasantly surprised by.” The narrative that emerges is that of the local boy who made good. Indeed, when the official marketing copy arrives a few weeks later, it features sentences like these: “The kid who went to art school in Chicago and loved surrealism, dada, and Ed Paschke and the imagists—that kid made it big.”


A few weeks later still, back in the conference room on the fifth floor. Today’s topic: tie‑ins and merchandizing. Some of it is very straightforward, including a proposed relationship with Art Chicago, the local art fair. Other ideas are more outlandish, like a possible connection to The Incredible Hulk. The superhero movie, based on the Marvel Comics and starring Edward Norton, is set to open in mid‑June, and the staff member pitching the idea seems to be half joking. But as I look around the room, there are a lot of nods. The show, after all, will feature several pieces from Koons’s Hulk Elvis series, large paintings that juxtapose the cartoon character with such Americana as the Liberty Bell.

More concrete is a tie‑in with Macy’s. This past fall, a large balloon version of Koons’sRabbit made its debut in New York’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For the MCA show, it could make a trip to Chicago, where it would be displayed at the Macy’s store in the Loop. I’m wondering if that might be a risky move. After all, the company is considered something of an interloper in the city, having taken over Marshall Field’s beloved flagship store in 2006. But the marketers are ecstatic about the opportunity. “This will really leverage the promotional aspects,” one of them exclaims. The word that keeps coming up is “cross‑marketing,” and I take away that Jeff Koons stuff might soon be everywhere.

Stuff, in fact, is what really gets the group going today. Koons, it turns out, is a veritable merchandizing machine, which means that a lot of things can be sold in conjunction with the show. The list of products bearing his art ranges from the affordably populist ( beach towels from Target) to the high‑end luxurious (designs by Stella McCartney). But the news gets even better. Koons has given the MCA permission to manufacture a whole new line of T‑shirts featuring Rabbit. We pass around production samples, and everyone agrees that the baby tees, in light blue and pink, are too cute for words.

Then it’s time for the food. As early as January, I heard about plans to delight museum patrons with Koons‑themed cuisine. Initially, there was some talk of cheesecake, but more recently, the word in the hallways has been cookies. Turns out, it’s a go. Koons just approved three separate designs. We’re back to oohing and aahing, when one of the marketers suggests that some of the cookies could be signed and sold as a limited edition. Another joke, I think. But he goes on, noting that some people would choose not to eat the cookies so they could sell them at Sotheby’s in a couple of decades. The atmosphere is jocund. So when one of the curators points out that worms would be crawling out of the cookies by then, it’s all taken as part of the general levity.


The concept of marketing is quite new to contemporary art museums. In the good old days, it was simply not seen as a necessity. Giving avantgarde art a place was the objective, which meant that institutions catered to a small group of cognoscenti and worried little about attracting the general public. All this changed once the spiral of growth started churning. Larger museums required larger audiences, not just to cover ever‑increasing overhead but to validate contemporary art museums’ reinvention as major civic players.

The MCA is paradigmatic. Until the late 1970s, there was no marketing operation per se. What little advertising was done ran under the rubric of “public relations,” which was itself subsumed under “programming.” Public relations became a freestanding unit in the 1980s, and by the end of the decade marketing was officially added to its agenda. But it was not until the move into the new building in 1996 that a stand‑alone marketing department was added to the institution’s roster. The department made its presence felt immediately. Right away, its half dozen members began issuing a glossy magazine, initially called Flux and later renamed MCAMag, MCA Magazine, and eventually MCA Chicago. A few years later, a sprightly e‑news enterprise followed, keyed to the ever‑expanding website.

But marketing is much more pervasive in the contemporary art museum. Just before I arrive at the MCA, for example, its marketing department spearheads the museum’s fortieth‑anniversary celebration, a forty‑day extravaganza with numerous events and free admission. Some of the first meetings I attend at the institution are the postmortems, where the marketers take a lead in tallying the successes and failures of the initiative. There is much talk of “incentivizing membership.” Branding, too, is emphasized, particularly the ongoing need to “establish the museum’s point of view” by defining the contemporary. The latter is especially pressing in light of the imminent opening of the Art Institute’s Modern Wing. But the key word that recurs is gateway. The MCA, the marketers consistently argue, needs shows that appeal to “new and broader audiences” and signal that all Chicagoans are “welcome at the museum.”

Jeff Koons is their big hope for 2008. In a handout prepared for a meeting in February, they explain why: “Jeff Koons is by far one of the (if not the) most well known living artists today.” With the recent sale of Hanging Heart making “news even in InTouch Weekly” and his participation in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, he “is doing what no artist has done since Andy Warhol.” He is becoming part of the “mainstream.” Even more importantly, “the art itself helps to make this a gateway.” The “images of pop culture icons and infl atable children’s toys democratize the art experience. Even the most novice of art viewers feel entitled to react to his work.”

With this, the marketing department takes a leading role in the preparations for the Koons show. Its members help organize and run the weekly meetings coordinating the museum‑wide efforts and rally the troops when morale is down. This is done corporate‑style, as in an exercise in which staffers go around the table to share what excites them personally about Jeff Koons. The curators can be conspicuously silent when marketing talk dominates the agenda. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any tensions.


I’m having lunch with one of the curators. We’re sitting on the cafeteria side of Puck’s at the MCA, the vast, high‑ceilinged restaurant on the museum’s main exhibition floor. The conversation circles around a loaded topic, the frustrations with the marketing department. “I understand where they’re coming from,” she tells me, only to add that they may not “believe in the same things I do.” I ask for specifics and get a torrent that boils down to this: The curator sees the MCA as a space for adventure and experimentation where visitors encounter a contemporary culture they don’t already know. What marketing wants to do, she says, is to give people a pleasant experience amidst items they already like. “If they had their way, it would be Warhol all the time.” Individual viewpoints vary, of course. But I’m hearing similar things from other members of the curatorial department. Marketing, they tell me, can be fecklessly populist and insufficiently attuned to the intricacies of contemporary art and artists.

The feelings are mutual, or, to be more accurate, inverted. To the marketers, the curatorial department sometimes comes off as elitist and quixotic. When its members talk about some of the art they want to show, one of them tells me, it can “just sound crazy.” “Sometimes,” she continues, “I don’t even know what they are doing.” Even more exasperating, however, is the curators’ seeming disinterest in growing the museum’s audience. “They never think about how to attract more viewers” is a complaint I hear on more than one occasion.

If there is a convergence of views, it is only that the other side has too much power and influence.


For a while, I think that the fretting might be personal. Every institution, after all, breeds animosities, petty and otherwise, and the ever‑receptive anthropologist would seem to be the perfect outlet. But I am struck that the grievances are never ad hominem. The MCA’s employees, in fact, seem to genuinely like and respect one another. This is not surprising. The museum, after all, is a nonprofit whose staffers, no matter how “corporate” in orientation, could pursue eminently more lucrative careers elsewhere. The resulting feeling is that “we are all in this together,” a sentiment I hear expressed with equal regularity and conviction.

What, then, is it between curation and marketing? Over time, I come to see the tensions as intrinsic to the quest of bringing contemporary art to ever‑larger audiences. The issue, in other words, is structural.


When marketers look at contemporary art, they see a formidable challenge. Here is a product the general public knows little about, finds largely incomprehensible, and, occasionally, experiences as outright scary. This is as far as one can be from, say, introducing a new kind of soap. There, the relevance and purpose of the generic product are already well established, leaving marketers to work the magic of brand association. Maybe the campaign is all about fragrance or vitality or sex appeal—what it won’t be about is how soap itself is good for you.

Much of the marketing in the domain of high culture works in this very manner. When Chicago’s Lyric Opera advertises its new season, for example, it can safely assume that folks have a pretty accurate sense of the genre. What’s more, there is little need to justify the basic merits of the undertaking. Most people don’t go to the opera. But even those who find it boring or tedious are likely to accede to its edifying nature.

The same holds true for universal museums. In Chicago, that would be the Art Institute, whose holdings span the globe and reach from antiquity to the present. Marketing has relevance there, too. But much like at the Lyric, the value of the product is readily understood. So is its basic nature, particularly when it can take the form of such widely recognized icons as Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte or Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

At its most elemental, the marketing of a museum is orchestrated on the marquees at its entrance. With this in mind, the Art Institute’s advertising strategy is clear. It is the uncontested classics that get top billing, whether they are culled from the museum’s unparalleled collection or make an appearance as part of a traveling show. Mounted between the ornate columns at the majestic Michigan Avenue entrance, a typical tripartite display, as the one from April 2007, looks like this: In the middle, bright red type on a blue banner advertises Cézanne to Picasso, a major show on the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, co‑organized by the Art Institute and fresh from its stop at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. On the left, a bisected flag adds to the theme with apples by Cézanne and Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, one of the museum’s best‑loved treasures. On the right, finally, a streamer with an ornately decorated plate—horse, rider, birds, and plants—publicizes Perpetual Glory, an exhibit of medieval Islamic ceramics. A couple of months down the road, the billboards announce a show of prints and drawings collected by prominent Chicago families, an exhibit on courtly art from West Africa, and free evening admission on Thursdays and Fridays. A little later still, it is an exhibit of sixteenth‑and seventeenth‑century drawings, a display of European tapestries, and the Art Institute’s logo.

What’s not on the Art Institute marquees is contemporary art. Sure, a canonized living master like my good friend Jasper Johns can make an occasional appearance. But the edgy fare served up by the museum’s contemporary department is absent. Nothing announces William Pope.L in 2007, Mario Ybarra Jr. in 2008, or Monica Bonvicini in 2009. The contemporary art market may be booming, but the Art Institute’s marketers assume that the general public cares only so much.

Their colleagues at the MCA don’t have that option. Tasked with marketing a contemporary art museum to an ever‑expanding audience, they have to find ways to engage the general public in their rarefied institution. It is an act of identification. “Often I, myself, don’t understand the art in the museum at first,” one marketer tells me, “but that gives me an advantage. I get where our audience is coming from.”

The issue goes far beyond marquees, then, although they are its perfect representation. For what’s at stake is the public imaginary of contemporary art. This is where marketing and curation are at loggerheads. The two departments ultimately seek to tell fundamentally different stories about the MCA and its contents. For the curators, the museum is a space for the new and therefore potentially difficult. For the marketers, that is precisely the problem. “People tend to spend leisure time doing something that is guaranteed to be a good use of their time,” they implore their colleagues. “That often means sticking with the familiar.” And so the stage is set for an uneasy dance, a perpetual pas de deux in which the partners are chained together while wearing repelling magnets.


To read more about In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde, click here.

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2. Launch: Baronova and Baryshnikov


Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo chronicles one of the most acclaimed touring ballet companies of the twentieth century, along with its prima ballerina and muse, the incomparable Irina Baronova. Along the way, it expands upon the rise of modern ballet as a medium, through an unprecedented archive of letters (over 2,000 of them), photographs, oral histories, and interviews conducted by Victoria Tennant, the book’s author and Baronova’s daughter. Earlier this month, the book was feted at a launch by none other than Mikhail Baryshnikov at his eponymous Arts Center in New York City. Although less sumptuous than those collected in the book, below follow some candid photos from the event:


Victoria Tennant and ballerina Wendy Whelan


Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tennant, and Blythe Danner (L to R)


Bebe Neuwirth, Tennant, and Chris Calkins (L to R)


To read more about Irina Baronova and the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, click here.

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3. Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence


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 Innocencewhich 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.


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4. “Never have empty bedrooms looked so full.”

gilbertson_bedrooms cover

The Fourth of July will be marked tomorrow, as usual, with barbecues and fireworks and displays of patriotic fervor.

This year, it will also be marked by the publication of a book that honors patriotism–and counts its costs–in a more somber way: Ashley Gilbertson’s Bedrooms of the Fallen. The book presents photographs of the bedrooms of forty soldiers–the number in a platoon–who died while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The bedrooms, preserved by the families as memorials in honor of their lost loved ones, are a stark, heartbreaking reminder of the real pain and loss that war brings. As NPR’s The Two-Way put it, “Never have empty bedrooms looked so full.”


Gilbertson_Bedrooms Scherer, page 62

{Marine Corporal Christopher G. Scherer, 21, was killed by a sniper on July 21, 2007, in Karmah, Iraq. He was from East Northport, New York. His bedroom was photographed in February 2009.}

A moving essay by Gilbertson tells the story of his work on the project, of how he came to it after photographing the Iraq War, and about the experience of working with grieving families, gaining their trust and working to honor it. As Philip Gourevitch writes in his foreword, “The need to see America’s twenty-first-century war dead, and to make them seen–to give their absence presence–has consumed Ashley Gilbertson for much of the past decade.” With Bedrooms of the Fallen, he has made their loss visible, undeniable.

More images from the book are available on Time‘s Lightbox blog, and you can read Gourevitch’s essay on the New Yorker‘s site. Independence Day finds the United States near the end of its decade-plus engagement in Afghanistan, but even as the men and women serving there come home, thousands of others continue to serve all over the world. To quote Abraham Lincoln, “it is altogether fitting and proper” that we take a moment to honor them, and respect their service, on this holiday.

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5. Terror and Wonder: our free ebook for September


For nearly twenty years now, Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune has explored how architecture captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism and writer of the widely read Cityscapes blog, Kamin treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. Terror and Wonder gathers the best of Kamin’s writings from the past decade along with new reflections on an era framed by the destruction of the World Trade Center and the opening of the world’s tallest skyscraper.

Assessing ordinary commercial structures as well as head-turning designs by some of the world’s leading architects, Kamin paints a sweeping but finely textured portrait of a tumultuous age torn between the conflicting mandates of architectural spectacle and sustainability. For Kamin, the story of our built environment over the past ten years is, in tangible ways, the story of the decade itself. Terror and Wonder considers how architecture has been central to the main events and crosscurrents in American life since 2001: the devastating and debilitating consequences of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina; the real estate boom and bust; the use of over-the-top cultural designs as engines of civic renewal; new challenges in saving old buildings; the unlikely rise of energy-saving, green architecture; and growing concern over our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

A prominent cast of players—including Santiago Calatrava, Frank Gehry, Helmut Jahn, Daniel Libeskind, Barack Obama, Renzo Piano, and Donald Trump—fills the pages of this eye-opening look at the astounding and extraordinary ways that architecture mirrors our values—and shapes our everyday lives.


“Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, thoughtfully and provocatively defines the emotional and cultural dimensions of architecture. He is one of the nation’s leading voices for design that uplifts and enhances life as well as the environment. His new book, Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, assembles some of his best writing from the past ten years.”—Huffington Post
Download your free copy of Terror and Wonder here.

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6. For Mark Rothko on his birthday


James E. B. Breslin’s book on the life of painter Mark Rothko helped redefine the field of the artist’s biography and, in its day, was praised by outlets such as the New York Times Book Review (on the front cover, no less), where critic Hilton Kramer ascribed it as, “the best life of an American painter that has yet been written.” On what would have been the artist’s 111th birthday, Biographile revisted Breslin’s work:

In Breslin’s book, we follow Rothko’s search for the approach that would become such a significant contribution to art and painting in the twentieth century. He was in his forties before he started making his “multiforms,” and even after he started painting them in his studio, he didn’t show them right away. Breslin dissects and details the techniques Rothko developed upon creating his greatest works. He rotated the canvas as he worked, so that the painting wouldn’t be weighted in any one direction. He spent much more time in the studio figuring out a painting than actually painting it, and he filled a canvas as many as twenty times before feeling it was done. Maybe most important, he worked tirelessly to eliminate any recognizable shapes from the multiforms. They needed to come into the world fully formed, not as interpretations of any real-life objects, but meaningful visions in and of themselves.

Nathan Gelgud, the author behind the Biographile piece, accompanied his writing with a couple of illustrated riffs on the artist, one of which we feature below, and the other you can seek out (and read the review in full) at Biographile.


Mark Rothko by Nathan Gelgud, 2014. Image via Gelgud’s Biographile review.

To read more about Mark Rothko: A Biography, click here.

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7. Consider Our New Home (Tribute to Edith)

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 [...]

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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.”

As critic Andrew Solomon writes in a 1997 Artforum profile of Kusama:

[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.

In Kusama’s autobiography <

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9. Announcing the 2012 Guggenheim Fellows

  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: [...]

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10. Five questions for Jules Feiffer

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

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11. RETROSPECTIVE: Our (Un)Adorable Yayoi Kusama

Gabrielle Plucknette/New York Times

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 Net might 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

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12. Great feuds from the annals of culture: Jack Flam vs. James E. B. Breslin

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:

From Jack Flam’s review, “The Agonies of Success,” published in the December 2, 1993 issue:

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.


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13. Disneyland Dream and utopian home movies

“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.”

—Craig Calhoun, The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements

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 Dream was 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

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14. 2012: A Year in Books

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—


A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava


A World in One Cubic Foot: Portraits of Biodiversity by David Liittschwager            


Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Chekhov by Kirin Narayan


And Bid Him Sing: A Biography of Countée Cullen by Charles Molesworth


The Art of Medicine: 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination by Julie Anderson, Emm Barnes, and Emma Shackleton


Bewilderment by David Ferry


Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times by Andrew Piper


Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure by Arthur Conan Doyle

  • named one of the best books of the year by Philip Hoare at the Sunday Telegraph


Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis


The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives by Jessica Pierce


Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art by Leo Steinberg

  • announced as a book of the year by the Art Newspaper (originally published in 2007: TIME WARP)


The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology after Napoleon by John Tresch


The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century by D. Graham Burnett


The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition by Thomas S. Kuhn

  • made Nature magazine’s Top Twelve of 2012 list


The Timeline of Presidential Elections: How Campaigns Do (And Do Not) Matter by Robert S. Erikson and Christopher Wlezian


Vegetables: A Biography by Evelyne Bloch-Dano

included as one of the best books of 2012 by Audubon magazine


You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band by Bob Gluck





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15. Gerhard Richter's Life in Painting now in video

Mark Heineke's narration of the artistic life of German painter Gerhard Richter is now in video form as well. From YouiTube and, for higher quality, in a Quicktime version. Enjoy.

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16. Blair Kamin, out and about

With his much-anticipated new book, Terror and Wonder: Architecture in a Tumultuous Age, finally here, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin is making the rounds, in Chicago and beyond.

jacket image

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.

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