Don’t Look Now (or, Watching Horror Movies About Venice, While in Venice)

Don’t Look Now, 1973, directed by Nicolas Roeg, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie

Going from US Pacific time zone to Venice, Italy was a nine-hour time difference, and I was struggling. My journal states, in a mix of Italian and Spanish: “Io sono en una guerra contra il jet lag!” This meant sleeping half the day (not my style, but I simply couldn’t help it!) and staying awake until 4:00, 5:00 or 6:00 am.

I quickly ran out of guidebooks and other things to read. Italian TV (lots of game shows) is OK only in small doses. After a light skim through news from home (I tread lightly these days) and ruing the lack of activity by the Red Sox in the offseason, I was looking for ways to pass the long nighttime hours.

I remembered an old horror movie I’d watched once, Don’t Look Now, that took place in Venice in the winter. I had vague memories of Donald Sutherland, walking through foggy streets and catching glimpses of a red-coated figure who may or may not have been following him. I found it on YouTube (full version!) and proceeded to watch it on my phone in all its cropped, tinny-sounding glory.

Here’s the thing: I really liked it. Some flourishes feel a little over-the-top in the way that only a film from the 1970s can be (clothing and Sutherland’s facial hair, naturally; the volume of the score, and a sometimes overwrought cutting back and forth to red ink stains symbolizing blood). But the things it gets right are wonderful: tension, grief, scenes of art conservation within the church.

The best part was watching the city of Venice take the stage as an important character. Venice is a city of narrow alleys and canals; it’s entirely for boats and pedestrians, and it’s made up of glances. Indoors, yes, you can stand in a church and stare at artwork as long as you want, but outside…You catch glimpses of people before they turn down another alley…they cross your path up ahead and are visible for just a second before the wall blocks them from your view again…a boat passes by and then you’re looking at its stern as it heads away from you. That kind of looking is foreign to Americans, where country roads provide an approach and city blocks are long. We’re used to having the time to visually consider our surroundings. The movie really captures the sense of how things move in Venice – and capitalizes on it to generate confusion and tension – things floating by your periphery and they’re gone…on the water, passing by in alleys…you turn around and it’s just gone. Blinks, moments. Which is funny in a place that’s essentially not changed in 500 years.

Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent, 2017

Some thoughts on the movie Loving Vincent

It is both spectacular and maddening.

The plot is ridiculous: Armand Roulin, twenty-something son of the bushy-bearded postmaster whom Van Gogh painted so memorably, is tasked by his father with traveling to Paris in order to deliver Vincent’s final letter (to his brother, Theo). Armand has reservations about doing this, and ponders his obligations while drinking too much, but eventually goes to Paris, where he discovers that Theo has also died. Armand quickly decides that he must travel to Auvers, where Vincent died, in order to deliver the letter to a friend with whom Vincent was close in his final months (Dr. Gachet, also memorably painted by Van Gogh).

First plot objection: Why didn’t Armand even consider locating Theo’s widow, Joanna, in Paris? If I were her, and I found out this drunken punk decided to give my spouse’s final letter to a friend of approximately one year’s standing, I’d be furious! [But of course, if he’d attempted to find Joanna in Paris, this would be a different movie].

Here’s what I loved about the movie:

The most engaging moments were the first ones of the moon, and of Arles, and then late in film when Dr. Gachet appears. I actually caught my breath when I saw him leaning on that famous table, with his head propped in his hand.

The film correctly and nicely recreated the flatness of many of Vincent’s paintings, particularly the portraits, with little depth between the figure and the wall behind.

It was probably at its best depicting landscapes.

It was visually stunning in many ways. I caught my breath several times. It was clearly an accomplishment, but that being said, it was clear that the original paintings were the real triumph here.

The opening credit sequence was magical; I could have watched that moon shapeshifting all night.

The film recreated 74 Van Gogh paintings, and it was a complete thrill to recognize them.

Loving Vincent was first shot as a live-action film on sets recreated from Van Gogh paintings. The film was then broken down by frame and painted, each painting (65,000 of them) was then photographed, then painted over for the next frame. Eventually, all of the frames were animated. This way of working reminded me of William Kentridge’s charcoal drawings that turn into films. In both types of films, you can see the results of this way of working in images like the windmill turning – you can see the track of the blades in the impasto of the oil paint.

Here’s what bothered me about the movie (in addition to the overarching plot):

I questioned sub-plots too, finding it hard to believe the suggestion that Vincent may have been romantically involved with not only the young Marguerite, but also flirting and chatting with several women by the riverbank. Vincent was way too awkward, and that just wasn’t his style.

The accents were off-putting. Both Roulins, father and son, have two wildly different accents.

The film’s title is a little much…it becomes more palatable when you realize that was the way Vincent signed all his letters (“Your loving Vincent”). But still. Too literal and cloying for my taste.

Sometimes the film felt a little CGI (related to the figures), and a little slick…and Van Gogh was the antithesis of slick.

The end credits reveal that some characters were not real people, but rather “inspired by” people in Vincent’s paintings. Vincent’s life was dramatic enough; I’m not sure the film needed to invent additional “characters”.

No one loves a good mystery more than me…but if I heard this correctly, the final analysis is that the bullying teenager basically committed manslaughter by fooling around with a gun…while Vincent committed a suicide of sorts, by stoically not accusing the teenager, and letting it be assumed the gunshot was self-inflicted…meanwhile, Dr. Gachet, who acted as Vincent’s confessor and entertained his deathbed laments that he was a financial and emotional burden on Theo, essentially granted Vincent’s suicide wish by not removing the bullet and allowing Vincent to die (slowly)…sounds like murder!…especially since, as another character points out, Gachet had been a military doctor in a war zone; he should have been able to easily remove the bullet, particularly since it wasn’t immediately fatal. Physician, do no harm!! Would a doctor really have allowed a healthy man in his thirties to slowly and painfully expire like that?

The murder theory comes from a biography by Naifeh and White. Maybe there is a case for that, but knowing that the filmmakers have invented some (silly) aspects of the story and smoothed over others to make for a tighter film, I feel like I need to research for myself before I can believe this.

Final analysis:

The film is beautiful in many places. Not many films can make you catch your breath – and not just once, but over and over.

I want to keep watching it…but maybe with the sound off? Yes, I’d like to see it again. There is real magic in this movie, even though you are also a little too aware of how hard the magician is working to produce the rabbits.


Tess Martin, Ginevra

This fantastic, animated cut-paper film at Bellevue Arts Museum has very neatly intersected two trains of thought that have occupied my mind recently.

One is the issue of domestic and other violence against women. #MeToo; Harvey Weinstein and all the others who were unmasked after him, not to mention before him.

The other is, very simply: what happens after death? I’ve been thinking about the energy and physics of life quite a bit recently. As an off-and-on atheist/agnostic, I have been fairly certain (and then again, not certain at all) that nothing happens after you die. I’ve begun to change my mind recently, to consider other, energetic, possibilities. Where does the energy go? What does physics say about energy? And then with the recent death of my father-in-law, this question has recently shifted from a philosophical to a personal one.

This film by Tess Martin is based on an unfinished Percy Bysshe Shelley poem (which was based on a legend of an Italian woman of the Middle Ages, who allegedly woke up a day after she died).

I had to arrive at the end before I truly appreciated the film. At first, I was overly critical of the animation, thinking it too primitive (South Park viewers would see similarities in production values), but by the end, I came to believe that the simplicity actually enhanced the magic and feeling of the story. (Later, when I saw the set, which was approximately 18 inches square, I found myself amazed by how expansive the film actually felt. Beyond impressive).

Tess Martin, Ginevra

The action unfolds slowly, detail by quiet detail. We see a woman murdered in her bedroom, presumably by her husband, and then watch her mother pacing the quiet house with grief. These scenes aren’t played for drama, but with maximum feeling. The mother mourns with the body, which lays in state on a canopy bed, near floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a balcony, and then, the countryside. The mother is surprised to see the body rise, cross the room, climb the balcony railing, and surprisingly, sprout feathers with which to fly away. Which she does, with a sense of utmost grace and freedom. The last we see of Ginevra, she has joined a community of owls and other large birds who slowly circle the countryside, alternately flapping their wings and resting in the draft.

A beautiful ode to mystery, and freedom.

Debut – Isolier as Knight

Isolier as Knight, Acrylic on wood, 8″ x 10″

This painting is inspired by the character Isolier in the opera Count Ory by Rossini (the recent production by Seattle Opera was called The Wicked Adventures of County Ory).

Isolier is what is known as a “trouser role”, meaning that the conventions of opera dictate that the audience is supposed to assume that the character is a young man, when it is in fact played by a woman. [Back in the day, the roles were played by castrati – yes, young men who were castrated before puberty to retain their higher vocal range. That practice thankfully became illegal, and the roles then went to women, usually mezzo-sopranos (not too high in the vocal range)].

In 1828, when Rossini wrote this opera, Isolier would have been understood, absolutely, as a young male. But, to our 21st century understanding, the role can perhaps best be described as “gender fluid”.

Recent productions have used costumes to suggest a rabble-rousing – and dare we say *butch* – side to the character, dressing Isolier in clothing inspired by 1970s rock androgyny (think Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones), as well as punk, and female rockers like Joan Jett and Chrissy Hynde. The costumes use tight-hugging leather and popped collars, mixed with tall boots and well-placed spikes. Isolier sports an enormous codpiece, yet the tight costumes show off female curves. Isolier’s hair is long, tending toward the layered and shaggy. In short, there is something bad-ass and butch about Isolier that is worn right there on the sleeve.

Isolier is in love with a woman, Countess Adele, and in fact ends up in bed with her. Shortly after, Isolier ends up in the same bed with both Adele and Isolier’s own boss, Count Ory. (This scene is played for comedy, and in the opera, no one cares one way or another).

This work was also inspired by my recent trip to the Met…and someone asked me if my currently bald head had anything to do with this depiction…am I Isolier???

I don’t know where this work is going…all I can say right now is that this character intrigues me.

Accumulations, Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, Phalli’s Field

“Accumulations” are what Yayoi Kusama called these multiple soft sculpture phalluses that she patiently sewed and placed in rooms, in platforms mounted on floors and walls, and even in two rowboats. Kusama made these pillow-esque, polka-dotted, cartoon-like, engorged phalluses as a way to get over her fear of sex – and one vintage 1960s photo depicts her lying uncomfortably on top of a patch of them. Much of the wall text at Seattle Art Museum quaintly names them as “tubers”.

By the artist’s request, each installation room was accessible for a timed period, from about 20 – 30 seconds depending on the room. It was fairly disorienting and completely trippy to enter the room, and try to visually make sense of the lights and mirror reflections – literally, the smoke-and-mirrors of it all. The infinity-ness created by multiple mirrors, reflecting yourself in an endless field of phalluses (Phalli’s Field) was reminiscent of being at the Tulip Festival for example…phalluses as far as the eye could see. But I was more interested in the actual sculptures, rather than their reflections. These funny, bumbling things, with their red polka dots scream out as physical comedy. And there was certainly something funny about a lesbian being locked in a room with many dozens of them…

I knew someone once who also made soft sculptures of phalluses. Those were bigger, and more obvious, and clearly were stylized self-portraits of some kind. It was so personal that I was often embarrassed to hear this person talk about his work, because it was essentially like hearing him talk about his own penis. Cringe. (You too, Master of None, bringing your penis’s “gregarious” personality into conversation with women. I wanted to give up watching the show just for that). Kusama’s work was actually smaller (per each phallus), but felt bigger. As flashy as it was, it came from a humble, exploratory place, that was willing to laugh at itself, not a sling-it-around place that needs to stake some kind of claim.

Other accumulations (of memories and associations):

The demand for this exhibition exceeded the open hours of the museum, so we saw this show at about 11:00 PM one evening, when the museum extended their hours. The lines for each viewing room snaked around the larger room of the museum, and because of the wait time and repetitive nature of seeing the same people over and over again as the lines wound around, we found ourselves in lots of friendly conversations. While people had their phones out for photos, it seemed like folks were more engaged with other people in the line, not with staring at their phones. A companion wondered if this was part of the artist’s plan. Maybe it was the festive atmosphere of being in the museum at night. I don’t know why, just an observation.

The comment that maybe Kusama wanted to foster connections among the viewers as they waited to enter her environments made me think of the architect Paul Rudolph, who designed the buildings on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. They are not attractive or stately; in fact, I’d consider them visually harsh. But I felt my heart soften toward them a bit when I learned that Rudolph deliberately created hidden or off-kilter building entrances and approaches, the better to engage the then-commuter students in dialogue with each other as they tried to make their way around.

We waited in line for several hours, sitting on the floor. Some people brought special stadium chairs and food, ready to camp out for the duration. I haven’t waited in line like that since sleeping overnight in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk in Washington, DC about 20 years ago. My friend Tribs and I went to see the Van Gogh show at the National Gallery. I’ll never forget the police officers kicking us through our sleeping bags to wake us up in the morning and get us vertical again to clear the sidewalk.

So I left this show feeling like I’d been to Infinity, the Tulip Festival, a carnival funhouse, my grad school days, a sidewalk in Washington, DC, and more. I visited in my mind with a couple of old friends (and foes). I made new acquaintances, not friends for life, but friends for an evening, friends I was happy to see again elsewhere in the exhibition. Were these just ultra-personal dots I was connecting, the criss-crossing of random stories that tell me I’m rambling as I’m getting older? Was there something more going on that I was tapping into?

In one of the films, Kusama discussed her desire to add peace and love to the world, saying that each day is a “test for how much I can contribute to society”. If that’s the measuring stick, I believe that all these connections forged that night embody that desire, and prove it true.

The Homely Protestant

Robert Motherwell, The Homely Protestant

I love Robert Motherwell because of his smarts. While so many of his (male) contemporaries were making fools of themselves in bars, he was making poetic work – about poetry – and other big themes, and writing intelligently about it too. I read the wall text for this painting at the Met and was reminded again of why I love him.

To paraphrase, Motherwell was struggling with naming this painting, and finally remembered a Surrealist technique of engaging with chance. He opened a book (Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce), blindly pointed his finger at the text, and upon opening his eyes, saw that his finger was resting on the phrase “the homely protestant”. “Of course!” Motherwell said. “It is a self-portrait”.

It’s amusing to me to imagine the emphasis on different words. Of course, it is a self-portrait. Of course, it is a self-portrait.

Interesting musical footnote #1:

I believe the Beatles used this same technique for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, but they did it the other way around by choosing the phrase first, and constructing the song around it.

Interesting musical footnote #2:

I just learned that Motherwell was from Aberdeen, Washington. Safe to say that he was the most famous native until Kurt Cobain came along?

365 Days of Art: December 11 – Stolen Mona Lisa Recovered in Hotel Room, Séraphine Dies

La Gioconda (popularly known as The Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517
La Gioconda (popularly known as The Mona Lisa), Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1517

December 11, 1913

By appointment, antiques dealer Signor Geri and director of the Uffizi Gallery Signor Poggi arrive at Leonardo Vincenzo’s Florence hotel room to inspect what Leonardo claims is the stolen Mona Lisa. Leonardo removes underwear, shoes, a shirt, and a false bottom from a trunk, to reveal the Mona Lisa.

Geri and Poggi are convinced the painting is the original because of the Louvre seal on the back. Poggi bluffs that he needs to authenticate the painting by comparing it with other da Vincis in the Uffizi’s collection. Incredibly, Vincenzo allows the men to walk out with the painting.

Geri and Poggi send the police in to arrest Vincenzo, whose real name is Vincenzo Peruggia.

Now to solve the mystery: it’s far easier than anyone has imagined. Peruggia’s only goal has been to return the painting to Italy. He becomes obsessed with this Robin Hoodesque idea while working at the Louvre five years before. Because many of the guards know and recognize him still, he’s able to walk into the Louvre easily. He takes the painting when he see the Salon Carré is empty. He brings it into a secluded staircase, removes it from its frame, hides it under his painter’s smock, and walks out of the museum.

Art lovers everywhere are overjoyed to hear the Mona Lisa is found. She goes on a celebratory tour of Italy before being returned to France at the end of the month.

December 11, 1942

Séraphine Louis, known as “Séraphine de Senlis”, a self-taught painter of flowers, patterns, and religious imagery, dies in a mental hospital. The movie inspired by her life and work (Séraphine) is incredible.

365 Days of Art: September 24 – Barnes Foundation Announces Plans to Move

The original Barnes Foundation with its eclectic hanging and groupings of works.
The original Barnes Foundation with its eclectic hanging and groupings of works.

September 24, 2002

The Barnes Foundation, possibly the best collection of Post-Impressionist works in the world, announces a petition to move from Merion, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia.

The need for a petition, and the reason this request rocks the art world so thoroughly, is because collector Albert C. Barnes has left his collection of personal favorites in a trust, the terms of which specifically state that the works cannot tour, and that the collection cannot be moved.

The Barnes Foundation has lived in suburban Philadelphia since 1922. Interestingly, Barnes makes his fortune by developing an anti-gonorrhea drug in the days before antibiotics. He deliberately sees the Foundation as more of a school than a museum, and operates it accordingly. For example, the Foundation is open to the public only two days per week to allow for student study; it does not loan work out of the collection, nor does it exhibit touring exhibitions from other institutions. The groupings of paintings, called “wall ensembles” are placed to allow for comparison between different time periods and cultures and are not to be rearranged. For this attention to the study of art above other considerations, Matisse is said to have called the school the only sane place in America to view art. These and other requirements are kept up by Mr. Barnes for many years and written into a trust overseen by Lincoln University, to be carried out in perpetuity.

For oft-cited financial reasons, and a less-cited desire to place Barnes’ treasures where tourists can more easily access them, some prefer to move to a prime Philadelphia location. The petition is polemicizing; no one is on the fence.

The Foundation appeals to the Montgomery County Orphans’ Court, which oversees the Foundations operations. The Court grants exceptions for a tour, violating the trust, then approves the move, again violating terms of the trust. The Foundation moves in 2012.

All of this is chronicled in the movie The Art of the Steal.

I’m not sure that Albert C. would have approved of the move, even if it means more people will now see the collection. Regardless, here’s a story I really enjoy about him. He is known to be a passionate art lover, who wears his enthusiasm on his sleeve. He’s also incredibly knowledgeable and becomes an educator as well as a collector. A well-known, unnamed art dealer who used to study with him, recalls being at the Foundation discussing art with the class. To illustrate a point, Albert tells him to go into the next room, take a Renoir off the wall and bring it back so that the class can see it up close. The dealer recalls how star struck he was to hold a Renoir and to so casually pull it off the wall, as if it were nothing. He remembers his hands shaking as he tried not to drop the painting. More than that, he remembers Albert C. brusquely making fun of him in front of the whole class for his nervousness.

365 Days of Art: January 20 – Julia Morgan Born

Hearst Castle, courtesy of
January 20, 1872

Julia Morgan, brilliant architect at a time when women weren’t allowed to do that, and feminist pioneer, was born on this day in San Francisco.

She always wanted to be an architect, but had to study civil engineering at UC Berkeley (my alma mater) because there was no architecture major there. She was the only female in her class. She was a student of Bernard Maybeck, who encouraged her to apply to his alma mater: the architecture program at l’École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She was initially denied entrance because they had a no-female policy.

She was the first female graduate there, and the first female architect ever licensed in California. Employed in John Galen Howard’s firm, she worked on several buildings on the UC Berkeley campus. Howard once told a colleague that Morgan was “an excellent draftsman whom I have to pay almost nothing, as it is a woman.”

She opened her own firm in 1904, and designed more than 700 buildings. She specialized in California buildings for institutions serving women and girls like the YWCA, Berkeley Womens City Club, and Mills College.

At Mills, Morgan’s designs included El Campanil, believed to be the first bell tower on a United States college campus. Morgan became fairly famous when the tower was not damaged in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It also demonstrated her knowledge (which was rare then) of steel-reinforced concrete, which held up well in quakes.

She practiced in the Arts and Crafts style and is probably best known for her 30+ years of work on Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. This compound is notable for being excessive and also gorgeous. It was the first zoo in the country, at a time when zoos weren’t organized yet; it was really just a private collection of exotic animals. It featured a private movie theater, before that was de rigeur. There is a movable ceiling that can be dropped down to change the look and feel of the room. It was the inspiration for the home in Citizen Kane. If you’re on California’s Central Coast, this is the best thing you can see. Make it a road trip! I absolutely love it.

We were very proud of Julia Morgan on the campus and in the city of Berkeley, although she was probably underrecognized outside of the Bay Area until recently. Not only was she an accomplished architect with an elegant eye, she was a pioneer for women. Julia Morgan is the first woman to receive the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, which she received posthumously in 2014.

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.

The Renoir Girl Scandal

Pierre August Renoir, On the Shore of the Seine

The art world is full of scandals. Here’s one that’s playing out in federal court right now.

A woman who identified herself as the “Renoir Girl” said she’d bought a box of junk at a flea market in West Virginia in 2009 for $7. Though originally drawn to the box at the sight of a Paul Bunyan doll and a plastic cow (I love those kitschy details), she discovered later that the box also contained a Renoir painting. Unlike another famous flea market find, the disputed Jackson Pollock painting that was the subject of the movie Who the $%*! is Jackson Pollock?, this painting is a legitimate Renoir. It’s an Impressionist landscape from 1879, painted on a linen napkin that measures 5 1/2 x 9 inches.

The Renoir Girl couldn’t believe her good luck, especially since she’d recently filed for bankruptcy. An auction was scheduled in fall 2012, with an estimated high bid of up to $100,000. But, the auction was called off when the Baltimore Museum of Art heard about it. They came forward to say that the painting had been stolen from them in 1951, and the FBI took possession of the stolen property.

Renoir Girl filed court papers seeking legal ownership of the painting and was then publicly identified as Martha Fuqua. Here’s where it gets really interesting.

Fuqua’s brother publicly disputed her claim that she had bought the painting at a flea market in 2009. He says that his girlfriend found the painting while cleaning out his elderly mother’s painting studio in 2011. Since then, various tenants and friends have testified that they saw the painting hanging in the family home in the 1950s and 60s.

The mother, Margaret Fouquet, was an art student in Baltimore in 1951. She has since died, so no one can ask her how a stolen Renoir painting ended up in her possession.

A judge will decide in January who is the rightful owner of the painting. Since the Museum received an insurance payout for the theft in 1952, could it even belong to the insurance company?

The Immigrant

The Immigrant, George Luks, Tacoma Art Museum

Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming series called “The Knick”, which takes place in New York City in 1900, has got me thinking about the Lower East Side.

At that time, the neighborhood was a working-class neighborhood with a strong Irish, Italian, and Eastern European flavor. Recent immigrants began their American life here because they could join ethnic enclaves of people from “the old country”, and find work at nearby garment factories. We have a tendency to romanticize the past by thinking of it as a “simpler time”, and while the Lower East Side was desirable to immigrants because of the shared culture, faith, and contacts, we often don’t realize it was actually an uncomfortable place.

There was no such thing as privacy; tenements were crowded with multiple generations and boarders. Twenty people in three rooms was not uncommon; they slept on piles of half-made clothes on the floor. It was also dangerous: sewage ran in the streets, fire was a real risk, disease was prevalent, and mortality rates were high.

The Immigrant shows a child from this time and place, the place I hope Soderbergh shows without glorifying or prettying up. The artist, George Luks (pronounced Lewks), focused on scenes and individuals from New York’s Lower East Side around the turn of the 20th century. A very serious child, looking as if he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, gazes out guardedly at the world while simultaneously seeming to focus inward on his own worries. He is bundled against the cold and probably will soon be put to work in order to earn money for the family. His burning eyes, firmly closed mouth, and set of his shoulders show an unchildlike fierceness.

This painting has the ability to grab you from across the room. It’s deceptively simple, but so human and heart-breaking.

The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History

Professional Jealousies by Carmine Santaniello

I’m still thinking about the recent show at Leslie Lohman Gay Art Foundation–which by the way, was just transformed into the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art–congratulations to them!

The exhibition was The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, in its second incarnation. Earlier in 2011, it popped up in a Brooklyn location, and it has plans to go to Bloomington, Indiana in October.

So what is it?

The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History is a grassroots organization that transforms spaces into temporary installations celebrating the rich, long, and largely unknown histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. We believe that our community – and especially our youth – deserve to know our history. If you don’t know you have a past, how can you believe you have a future?

About 30 artists were represented in the show; maybe that was a few too many for the space, and the quality was up and down. But as the nursery rhyme goes, the ones that were good were very, very good.

Among them were the contemporary ex-votos which use the Mexican tradition of offering thanks to a saint. Carmine Santaniello had a couple of earnestly humorous prints such as Professional Jealousies, which features two beefy, masked Mexican wrestlers. The text within the print says:

I pray to the Virgen de Guadalupe, thanking her for bringing me and Jose together in Mexico and I am begging her for mercy to stay as a couple in spite of our professional jealousies in the ring.

Or another by Carmine, which says: “I bring my everlasting love to my husband’s grave on the Day of the Dead-Festival of the Skulls, the way he liked me–naked and strong.”

These pieces are typical of the blend of private and public, domestic and political that make up gay art. There is a special vulnerability to same-sex declarations of love, because one doesn’t know the reception they will receive by the greater public. Will being out lead to acceptance? A hate crime? An uneasy truce? These very private feelings become public and open for judgment, discussion, and political posturing.

The ex-votos take a confident stance at blending the public and private; they are out and thankful; there is nothing to hide from even their saints.

Sip-In by Tim McMath was another that took the direct approach: it was a diorama that recreated the day in 1966 that a group of gays entered a bar in New York City. At that time, it was illegal to serve alcohol to gays; one restaurant in the East Village sported a sign that stated “If you are gay, please go away.” The men could have stayed in the closet, drank their drinks undercover, and left, but they challenged the law by announcing: “We are homosexuals. We are orderly, and intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.” This “sip-in” led to the legal challenge in court that eventually gave gays the right to peacefully assemble.

Morgan Hart’s Seeing Femme installation consisted of memory boxes which were glittered up and collaged with book covers, photos, magnets and pins featuring fictional and real women from all time periods and walks of life: Jo March, the Virgin Mary, Jean Harlow, Nancy Drew. These women all served as answers to the question: “Who are your femme icons and influences?” There was a suggestion box for viewers to add their own (I offered up Mary Tyler Moore).

A movie called Paradise Lost, which interviewed Trinidadian LGBT folks about their status and lives in a society where being gay is still illegal, was especially poignant, as was an installation from Sasha Wortzel, which memorialized her longtime partner who had died.

I walked away with a list of books to read (Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Tales of the Lavender Menace) and armed with new knowledge:

  • The Lavender Menace group formed in response to a remark from the President of NOW that gay women were a “lavender menace to the women’s movement”. With the word “feminist” being equated with “liberal”, it’s hard to imagine that comment ever being uttered. But it was.
  • The pulp novel Women Without Men was one of the Top 10 paperbacks in 1957 (love it)
  • Nancy Drew, Saint Sebastian, Naomi and Ruth are all gay icons (puts a new spin on my Nancy Drew collection).

Road Trip: Sedona and Abstract Expressionism

Rocks at Palatki ruins, Sedona

In Sedona, it was easy to see the birth of Abstract Expressionism all around us. That sounds strange, even as I write it, because the movement is so closely associated with New York. But many of the painters were actually from, or lived in, the American West, (including Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko), and it’s easy to see echoes of the look and feel of Abstract Expressionism everywhere.

Walking through the red rocks of Sedona, seeing their textures, their edgy contours, the rich color combinations of rocks, dust, and sky–it’s easy to see how sights like these could have influenced them. The open spaces, the color and shapes point me towards abstract paintings I’ve seen, as well as others I’ve seen only in my mind. But I can also feel a rugged pioneering spirit, the mythology of the West, that also seems to make itself known in many paintings, especially in form and technique: bigger-than-life canvases, the invention of Pollock’s drip-paintings, the unconventional use of non-precious materials such as housepaint or whatever was on hand.

The idea of “the monumental”, of universal ideas and mythologies, rather than the personal or a specific narrative; surface; color (especially a field of color); process; and the relationship that existed between creator and artwork: I see evidence of all of this, as a small human walking in a beautiful but sometimes stark land, that has been shaped by rushing water, thrusting rock formations, and blowing wind. Those rough edges and reminders of strong natural forces made the landscape feel very masculine (despite what we were told about the feminine energy of the vortices in and around Sedona), which was also another essence of Abstract Expressionism. And, while we’re on that topic, I was also reminded many times of the movie Thelma and Louise, with its testosterone-rich visual images (oil wells driving into the land, crop dusters spraying fertilizer or pesticides, etc) that served as visual foils for the two women on the run.

Here are some side-by-side comparisons of my photos of Sedona, along with Abstract Expressionist paintings–see for yourself!

Barnett Newman

One of Barnett Newman's "zip" paintings
Rock wall with natural formations, at Palatki ruins, Sedona


Clyfford Still
Still was noted for his use of impasto and texture, based on rock formations and natural forms.

Rock at Palatki ruins, Sedona
Clyfford Still painting


Jackson Pollock

The mineral deposits, left by dripping water, have created many patterns on the ceiling of this rock overhang at the Palatki ruins site in Sedona…

Mineral deposits on cave ceiling, Palatki ruins, Sedona

…which resemble the “all-over” paint application, made by dripping paint, of Jackson Pollock’s best-known works.

Close-up of Jackson Pollock painting


Pictographs (paintings on cave walls) seem to echo aspects of early work by painters like Mark Rothko and Pollock, whose early paintings took their imagery from sources like mythology, dreams and Jungian philosophy, and Surrealism. The pictographs in Sedona, made by either the Sinagua people (approx 650 AD) or an Archaic people who inhabited Sedona from 3000-6000 years ago, seem to share a creative impulse with some of these early paintings.

Jackson Pollock, The She-Wolf, detail
Symbols and pictographs, Palatki ruins

I’ve enjoyed Abstract Expressionism for a long time, but it was a wonderful thing to actually feel it around me. Next up is a trip to MoMA, to see if the paintings feel different now in that familiar, but domesticated, environment.

Rock wall at Palatki ruins


Marisa Tomei and Josh Lucas present Prop 8 testimony

Marisa Tomei and Cheyenne Jackson put their money where their mouth is. A year ago, when the Prop 8 trial in California wasn’t allowed to be televised, they re-enacted scenes themselves in parks, Marisa in LA, Cheyenne in NYC. Watch Marisa’s video here and Cheyenne’s here.

Marisa’s involvement inspired me to produce an afternoon of testimony in Washington Square Park last August. Extremely talented actors took on the roles of gay plaintiffs who had sued for the right to marry, as well as lawyers, witnesses, and Judge Vaughn Walker, who ultimately ruled Prop 8 unconstitutional because it denied gays the equal right to marry.

Marisa and Cheyenne were among the very first celebrities to support this endeavor by filming testimony. Now, they’re taking the show to Broadway, and bringing Morgan Freeman, Anthony Edwards, Christine Lahti, Yeardley Smith, and Rob Reiner with them.

The play is written by Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the Oscar-winning movie, Milk.

The Broadway premiere and benefit reading will be Monday, September 19, 8 p.m. at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

To purchase tickets and for more information visit: