Clean Slate Metaphor/Happy New Year!

Robert Ryman, white painting, 9 1/2" x 10"

I’m not crazy about Robert Ryman’s work, but when it comes to thinking about a clean slate, these white surfaces make for a pretty decent New Year’s metaphor.

For me, looking ahead to 2014 means my Italian painting class this summer (check it out–there’s still room!). And, a new project: starting tomorrow, I’ll be posting about a famous event from art history that happened each day of the year.

By the way, I kept my promise and blogged every day since November 15.

Stay tuned and Happy New Year!

McGurk’s Suicide Hall

From Note McGurk's at left.

In keeping with some recent posts about New York City’s Lower East Side, here’s a special one on my namesake, McGurk’s tavern.

I first learned about it when I was at a Moonlighters show a few years ago. I heard my name in a lyric (believe me, when your name is McGurk, that’s unusual) and snapped to attention. The lyric was: “McGurk’s is too gay for my final display”.

They mean gay in the old-fashioned sense, by the way, or this would be another kind of post. So, basically the song says that McGurk’s was too cheerful to kill yourself there. I was intrigued, especially when I found out it was the most despicable place in a despicable neighborhood. That must’ve been some melancholy suicide who wouldn’t even kill themselves in a place like McGurk’s.

It was located at 295 Bowery in New York City’s Lower East Side, which was a tough, tough neighborhood around the turn of 20th century: it was an immigrant neighborhood with con men preying on those who had just arrived and didn’t know the ropes yet; it was home to lots of dives, flophouses, and featured a high mortality rate, the constant danger of fire, and raw sewage running in the street. In this environment, McGurk’s still stood out.

It started out innocently enough, built in 1863 as a hotel. Its clientele were mostly soldiers returning home from the Civil War, but by the 1890s, it had become a brothel, a place of business for both male and female prostitutes.

There were many saloons on the Bowery that posed as hotels so they could serve alcohol on Sundays, but the upper rooms were used exclusively for prostitution. McGurk’s was the best known of these.

It was legitimately famous for lots of reasons. For one, Al Jolson supposedly got his first singing gig there. Secondly, the world’s first recorded bouncer, “Eat ‘Em Up Jack” McManus, worked there. In 1899, a fifteen-year-old prostitute named Emma Hartig attempted suicide on the premises and was called to testify about it in front of an investigatory committee. McGurk’s was popularized again in the 1920s, when Mae West wrote about it; she adapted a play called Diamond Lil into a novel of the same name. One of these sources inspired the film called She Done Him Wrong starring Mae West and Cary Grant.

But what was so bad about it, really?

The NY Herald, on Sunday March 12, 1899, said:

“McGurk’s is a little more inviting than an undertaker’s shop, not so comfortable as a Bowery lodging house, and less pleasant than the saloon known as the dead house, where a drink is a hearse”.

Two additional headlines from the same day’s paper: “‘Better Dead’ Is Written on the Lintel of McGurk’s Suicide Hall” and “Three Suicides Attempted There in One Week”.

According to Mae West’s recollections from the era, McGurk’s was also called The Plague, The Hell Hole, The Fleabag, The Bucket of Blood, and Paresis Hall, named after a form of paralysis thought to be transmitted by gay sex. But by far, the most famous name for McGurk’s tavern was McGurk’s Suicide Hall, which, the owner boasted, was because more prostitutes killed themselves there than at any other spot in the world. At least ten suicides via carbolic acid, which was commonly used as a disinfectant at that time, occurred on the premises.

The New York Herald, in the particularly melodramatic prose of the era also says:

“McGurk’s is the resort of the better dead. “Suicide Hall” the Bowery calls it now, for the reasons that occasionally a young girl comes out from the ill lighted and gloomy dance hall reeling under the effects of self-administered poison. Often she takes her carbolic acid or paris green on the sidewalk in front of the place. In any event those who seek to end mortal ills at McGurk’s are lugged to the corner of the Bowery and First Street, supported by attendants, there to await the coming of the ambulance. Hence “Suicide Corner”.

Other headlines of the day were:

“M’Gurk [sic] Girl Suicides”

“Jennie Kellar Visited the Bowery Dive and Then Took Carbolic Acid”

“Another name has been added to the long list of victims of McGurk’s suicide dive on Bowery”

“Another victim of the wrecking life in McGurk’s…”

Once, a McGurk’s waiter was arrested for homicide with a shotgun, and the same man was found to keep chloral hydrate on him in order to drug patrons. Anecdotally, the owner’s daughter was denied entrance to Catholic school after the nuns found out where her dad worked.

My favorite article about McGurk’s comes from The Evening World:

Complaint has been made about the number of marines from the Brooklyn Navy Yard who have recently been robbed of their clothing in McGurk’s resort on the Bowery. The result of the robberies is a large increase in the desertions from the Marine Corps.

Those poor naked Marines!

At some point in 1902, McGurk’s closed, allegedly because police “had watched the place so carefully that it had been impossible for the place to make any money recently.” Later, the first floor of the building became a restaurant and eventually artist studios. So this post is about art in a roundabout way after all.

Here’s a postscript from The New York Press in 1905, when we learn about the death of McGurk’s old bouncer:

“He hated to go, did “Eat ‘Em Up Jack” McManus, but when a section of lead pipe was wrapped around his head from the base of the skull to his bulldog chin, cracking the cranium all the way, he laid himself down in the gutter and talked about his wife, Gertrude.

He didn’t have much to say after that, did “Eat ‘Em Up”, until he died in Bellevue Hospital yesterday morning. He only thought he was a young fellow again, and not the toughest of Bowery roughs, and talked like a kid about Gertrude, as if she also were 16 and not 40, and with a face he had scarred and battered because she was his wife, wasn’t she, and a man could do what he pleased with his own.”


That sure was a different era.

In 2000, a pop-up museum was established on the premises of 295 Bowery to draw attention to the women who took their lives there, and also in an attempt to grant historical status to the structure. The bid failed, and the building was torn down shortly thereafter, replaced by pricy co-op apartments.

A great history of the Bowery and McGurk’s can be read here and here. Many thanks to Bowery Boogie for shedding light on my name’s colorful past!

The Most Christmas of Christmases

Christmas Boat Parade Finale, Seattle

The Boat Parade in Seattle is an informal collection of boats–commercial, private, even kayaks–that come together every night from December 1 through December 23rd to celebrate Christmas. They are completely decked out with lights, ornaments, wreaths, you name it. One of the boats brings a choir and at various stops along the parade route, the choir is broadcast through speakers to the other boats and to those watching on the shore. The route changes every night, and once it went by our house. We thought the neighbors were having a party but when we looked out the window, we saw two boats chugging by that looked like ornaments and blasted Perry Como. About an hour later, they came by again.

On the night of the finale, there must have been hundreds of boats. We even saw about a dozen kayaks, many of them with paddles draped in Christmas lights. It’s beautiful and festive and I think we found a new tradition in our family. It’s just about the most Christmasy thing I’ve ever done.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

Original illustration from Clement Moore's poem, by Jessie Wilcox Smith, public domain, via

Here are most of the original illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith that accompanied the Clement C. Moore poem, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” when it was published in 1912. They’re gorgeous! Merry Christmas!

Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith
Jessie Wilcox Smith

Art + Celebrity Gossip = My Favorite Thing

copyright Andy Warhol, 1980, 40 in x 40 in

Ryan O’Neal won custody of a painting that hung over his bed for almost 20 years. A jury decided that the Andy Warhol portrait of Farrah Fawcett belonged to O’Neal and not the University of Texas.

Long story short, Warhol was a friend to O’Neal and Fawcett and painted two slightly different versions of the painting, in the Pop Art style of his signature celebrity portraits like those of Marilyn Monroe. It was in 1980, when Farrah was the star of Charlie’s Angels, the number-one rated TV show. A pop culture sensation, Farrah’s portrait sitting was covered on TV by 20/20. Warhol gave one finished painting to Ryan, and one to Farrah. He was also friendly enough with them that he once decorated a tablecloth with doodles of their names.

The couple never married but were together for years. Even after breaking up in 1997, they co-parented their son fairly amicably. When Farrah died in 2009, Ryan was by her side and had been since she received the diagnosis.

Farrah’s will left her artwork to her alma mater, the University of Texas. After her death, Farrah’s Warhol was duly given to the school and the trustee of the estate also returned Ryan’s Warhol to him. The University didn’t know about the existence of the second Warhol, Ryan’s, until it was glimpsed in the background of a documentary about Farrah’s battle with cancer. The University sued him for it, saying that her property was willed to them and that they had no legal choice in the matter but to make sure her wishes were carried out. Fair enough.

At the trial, her inner circle of friends testified that it was common knowledge that the second Warhol was Ryan’s. On the other side, the University’s suit was driven by three men with an axe to grind: Farrah’s college boyfriend, a reality show producer who was miffed at having his participation in the above-mentioned reality show reduced, and a personal assistant of Farrah’s who had been fired. The producer will face defamation charges in the spring for, among other things, saying that Ryan stole the painting, and feeding rumors to the tabloids. Besides the tabloid nastiness, there was additional star power as well: Jaclyn Smith, one of Farrah’s Charlie’s Angels co-stars, appeared in court and on the courthouse steps to support Ryan.

Much of the suit turned on the reliability and motives of these witnesses, and also on Ryan’s own testimony. One holdout juror changed her mind after praying about the case at a nearby church during a lunch break. She returned believing that Warhol had gifted one painting to Farrah and one to Ryan. It was the same church where Farrah’s funeral was held.

I think this will become a Lifetime movie in less than three years.

Artwork Goes to Outerspace

Salyut 7 space station in 1982, image courtesy of

Now don’t ask me why, but in 1982, 154 serigraphs (or fine art screenprints) were taken into space. Yes, outerspace.

The prints were created by Victor Vasarely, who worked in Op Art, creating a sense of movement by employing optical illusions and color tricks. The prints were brought on board the French-Soviet spacecraft Salyut 7, a French and Soviet project, and I can’t figure out why! I mean, look at how tight that space is. Why they would want 154 of anything is beyond me. I don’t see how the work could have been displayed, since every inch needs to be functional, not serve as an art gallery. Not only is there no space to hang the work, but if you couldn’t look at it, why bother? This whole thing really made me chuckle.

I Dig This Painting

The Child, William Cumming

This painting is currently hanging at Tacoma Art Museum and is part of their permanent collection.

The child seems curious and engaged with the world, even though he’s bundled up against it. He’s pigeon-toed and a little odd, but I like that. I’m not sure what to make of the dog, hovering over him in this compressed space. It seems a little menacing on the one hand, possibly in a metaphorical way, but I’m also willing to think of it as just another odd item in this odd little painting.

My First Conservation


One of my paintings is part of the Corporate Loan Program at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. It was slightly damaged on its way to a client in the Boston area. Nothing major, and the Museum will take care of reattaching a piece of paint to the surface. Looking on the bright side, I guess it means that my work has been around long enough to need conservation.

By the way, this painting was inspired by the textures and colors of Italy. There are pieces of Italian wall posters and other Italian papers collaged within the paint. I’m returning to Italy this summer to teach a class and am looking for ten students. You can paint your own Italian painting that may or may not need conservation!

Agoraphobia as Graphic Design

Agoraphobia, graphic poster by Patrick Smith

Graphic designer Patrick Smith makes work about mental disorders. In this one, the visual language succinctly conveys, with just three shapes and two colors, the limits of an agoraphobe’s self-contained space and the vastness of the outside world. Like Cuban posters, Smith’s works are beautiful in their simplicity, and powerful in their minimalism.

Snowflakes That Look Like Sculptures

Electron Microscope image of a snowflake, courtesy of

It’s wintertime, so this native New Englander’s thoughts turn to snow. There’s no snow here in Seattle, and I miss it: the heaviness in the air that comes before the storm, the muffled sound while it comes down. The clarity of the whole world after the sky has cleared, and the way the snow piles on the thin twigs at the treetops and looks like three-dimensional lace. And of course, the beautiful, untouched surface.

These photos of snowflakes are amazing to me because they show not only the individuality of each flake, but also how geometrically solid each one is. They almost look human-made, out of armatures and plaster.

Electron Microscope image of a snowflake, courtesy of
Electron Microscope image of a snowflake, courtesy of
Electron Microscope image of a snowflake, courtesy of
Electron Microscope image of a snowflake, courtesy of