Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism by Paul Youngquist

One of my favorite moments of personal cognitive dissonance goes back to my time at Michigan State in the mid-1970s when at brunch at IHOP one Sunday morning I looked over to see John Gilmore, June Tyson, and Marshall Allen seated a couple of tables over from me. They were dressed in what might be termed astronaut duty fatigues as they worked on breakfast. Gilmore was the trio's fashion plate in a skull cap resembling a model of subatomic particles circling the nucleus of his cranium. The night before, this troupe, along with the other members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, paraded around The Stables bar in full intergalactic regalia, transporting the audience into deep space, with Ra himself embracing everybody individually, exhorting them with: "Anyone can give up their life, a bird or tree; give up your death for me." I was an art student then, making paintings that referenced celestial phenomena, a white wannabe Afrofuturist, avant la lettre.

I don't know if he was inspired by a similar experience, but University of Colorado-Boulder English Professor Paul Youngquist has published an excellent critical take on Sun Ra's creation myth and its relation to broader currents of America's postwar social imaginary. Simply put, Sun Ra's nearly eight-decade sojourn on planet Earth was a model of self-determination and emancipation through the sheer transformative power of relentless creativity.

Sun Ra's outlandish public persona and stage performances, and seemingly esoteric output in music, poetry, and film, might suggest the profile of a serious eccentric. Instead, Youngquist shows Ra as a highly focused autodidact from his earliest days in the Deep South to his final years in Philadelphia before having to return to his familial home in Birmingham, Alabama, after suffering from the prolonged complications of a stroke. His lifestyle and his multifaceted art were a deeply considered response to the repressiveness of a segregated America.

The narrative of A Polar Solar World is basically chronological, but it is organized around key concepts that explain the sources of Ra's aesthetic philosophy and demonstrate the range of his influence. Youngquist wisely doesn't try to replay or substantially revise the story told by John F. Szwed in his definitive biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Rather, he leverages those details to serve as the foundation for higher flights of critical analysis and cultural observation. What he does do is expand upon and significantly deepen the basic thesis of Graham Lock's book Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Anthony Braxton. 

Youngquist provides specifics to flesh out Lock's take that Sun Ra represents the opposing pole from Ellington within the dialectic of the Emancipation Narrative in African American cultural history, between separatism on the one hand and assimilationism on the other. The latter, which is the earlier current, dates back to the anti-slavery Abolition movement and takes up the millenarianism of Christianity to claim African Americans' rightful place among God's children. The former charts a path for black liberation that is separate but equal, as it were. Ideologically, it marks the difference between, among others, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Lock, Youngquist understands Ra's interest in Egyptology—a re-visioning of a glorious Nubian past—in separatist's terms, harkening back to a utopian ideal prior to the birth of Christianity, which even in its emancipatory aspect is still the religion of the white Master. (Szwed observes that Ra, born Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount, came to believe in later years that he may have been distantly related to another Poole, first name Elijah, who changed his surname to Muhammad and founded the Nation of Islam.) Youngquist adds to both Lock and Szwed in his discussion of Ra's involvement in the early 1950s with the secret society of black activists on Chicago's South Side named after Thmei, the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice.

In addition to Egyptology, the black intellectuals of Thmei investigated a range of esoterica, from ancient numerology to theosophy to occult religion in search of hidden wisdom that would counter the abject condition of African Americans under the dominance of white society. The members of Thmei Research published broadsides and leaflets to spread their ideas of black self-determination and took their place alongside other black activists in the public square of Washington Park on the South Side in order to foment change, if not materially in the present then at least in mindset for the future. This chapter, as with the rest of the book, draws heavily on the Alton Abraham Collection of Sun Ra now housed in the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago. This vast trove of primary source documents and ephemera once owned by Ra's longtime business partner, who died in 1999, only became available to researchers several years after both Szwed and Lock published their books.

Youngquist, of course, spends considerable time dissecting the music of Sun Ra and its inspiration not only in black separatism but postwar American popular culture more broadly. The 1950s when Ra first began recording with the Intergalactic Arkestra was the time of the Space Race and its vision, on the positive side, of an American manifest destiny of a new cosmic variety. It was the time of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and its suburban expression of cosmopolitanism on Earth termed "exotica," named after the 1957 Martin Denny album of the same title. These passages of the book are not only insightful on Ra's aesthetic but constitute an astute mapping of America's social imaginary during the period.

There is also Ra's influence on several generations of musicians in jazz, obviously, but rock, R&B, hip-hop, and electronica as well. That progeny ranges from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock to the MC5, NRBQ, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and George Clinton to the DJs of Detroit Techno and Chicago House and even to Lady Gaga. Ra was an early adopter of the electric piano, the Moog Synthesizer, and other electronic keyboards. He was also a pioneer of incorporating non-Western musical instruments and compositional forms, particularly of Africa, into American music.

An area where Youngquist makes an important contribution is in bringing Ra's writing, and in particular his poetry, to occupy a more prominent place in his body of work. Published mostly in obscure DIY formats and appearing here and there on record jackets, Ra's writing articulates his beliefs as a conscientious objector to the world as it is and sets out a vision for a world as it might be, freed from exploitation in all its forms. It is the storyline, essentially, for which the music is the soundtrack, brought to life first and foremost in performance. The significance of Ra's poetry was recognized initially by Imamu Amiri Baraka, who published it in important Black Arts Movement anthologies such as Black Umbra (1967-1968), Black Fire (1968), and The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century (1973). A comparative literature scholar, Youngquist is at his best drawing connections between one of his areas of expertise, Romanticism, and close readings of Ra's literary production in order to tease out the aspirational aspects of Ra's Afrofuturism (which he invented in music, at least, decades before Mark Dery coined the term in 1993) and its tropes as the fount of his 60-year output in various media.

The are a couple of misses worth noting. One is more curious than anything else. Youngquist does an excellent job of contemporaneously situating Ra's early forays into outer space music with the spate of science fiction films that began to appear in the postwar era. But, he fails to draw a similar connection with the obvious influence of the sights and sounds of Hollywood epic spectacles set in whole or in part in Egypt, such as The Egyptian (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Cleopatra (1963), whose depictions of Pharaohs also influenced the stage persona of another musician who has acknowledged inspiration in part from Sun Ra, namely, Iggy Pop.

The other is quite surprising in this otherwise exhaustively researched book: jazz musician Ravi Coltrane is Alice Coltrane's son not her grandson. That makes him the son of tenor saxophone colossus John Coltrane, as well, a fact that seems pretty important to get wrong or not think to verify.

Another slightly sour note is struck by Yougquist's reference to Ra as a "confirmed bachelor," an anachronistic euphemism for homosexual, in discussing the hiring of the Arkestra's first female member, vocalist June Tyson, who joined the band in 1968 and performed with the ensemble until her death from cancer in 1992 at age 56. There are a number of writers and musicians who afffirm Ra's apparent gay sexual orientation, even if he wasn't quite "out" about it, as a reason for his diffidence at assigning women permanent spots in the Arkestra's line up over the years. There doesn't seem to be a need to be obscure about it.

Sun Ra left the planet in 1993, but the Arkestra continues to travel the spaceways with nonegenarian Marshall Allen at the helm. With a Pure Solar World, Paul Youngquist provides additional fuel to help boost the spaceship along in its exploration of the sonic cosmos, an all-important mission with America in retrograde under Donald Trump.


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America

The decline of American manufacturing and what to do about it has been a key topic in the current election cycle. The demise of the nation's industrial plant, and its implications for manufacturing cities such as Detroit, Akron, and Pittsburgh, has often been seen as inevitable, a result of blind market forces under globalization. While the broad economic forces at work were and continue to be undeniably daunting, how local municipalities responded to the turbulence was not a foregone conclusion. Wayne State University historian Tracy Neumann tells a more nuanced story about the decisions made by governments, businesses, and communities in Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America.

Accounts of the postindustrial turn generally start with the late 1960s/early 1970s. (See, for example, The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation by Michel Aglietta, and The Long Twentieth Century by Giovanni Arrighi, also Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society.) In the case of Detroit, historian Thomas Sugrue has shown that the process actually began sooner, right after the Second World War with the movement of automobile manufacturing out of the central city into the suburbs, the southern United States, then Mexico, and ultimately overseas. Neumann tells a similar story about Pittsburgh and its core economic driver, the steel industry, whose transformation began in the 1950s and was in a sense a harbinger of postindustrialism for the rest of what came to be known as the Rust Belt. Neumann traces that history back into the 1950s and then surveys the period from the 1970s to 1990s, when the most active and apparent transformations took place. She sets her analysis alongside another case study from north of the border in the Canadian milltown of Hamilton, Ontario.

Both cities had to deal with the rapid decline of their core industries, along with the impact of that decline on the urban environment as a whole, including population loss, a diminishing tax base, and an increasingly frayed social fabric. Decision makers in government and business embraced the vision of a postindustrial economic environment starting as early as the 1950s, decades before the term was popularized by Daniel Bell, and actively sought to move their metropolises to a more service- and consumer-oriented model. The changes they implemented altered the urban landscape physically, economically, socially, and politically.

These changes were facilitated by financial incentives for business development and a focus on corporate command center, culture, and entertainment functions, effectively sidelining the needs of the working class and others in the lower economic strata that had been the cities' historic residents and who had shared in their economic, social, and political benefits, however meagerly for some. The broader trend was to reinforce all aspects of inequality and accelerate the hollowing out of the middle class in the US and Canada. While new job opportunities were created in the rise of the postindustrial economy in Pittsburgh and Hamilton, a great many other workers and local citizens were relegated to navigating on their own the risks of the gig economy and other realities of the life of the precariat.

Although many of the practices and outcomes in Pittsburgh and Hamilton were the same, there were differences. Importantly, city officials in Pittsburgh were much more successful in developing partnerships with corporate leaders to promote urban revitalization than those in Hamilton, where business was more resistant. (In truth, it was the business sector that was actually the more proactive force in Pittsburgh whereas Hamilton's corporate sector relied more on local government to take the lead.) Pittsburgh also enjoyed more financial support from state and federal government than Hamilton received from the Province of Ontario or the national capital in Ottawa.

Both cities had their share of protests over the impending transformation of their localities, primarily from union members and community groups. Those in Pittsburgh were better organized, more effective, and sustained than those in Hamilton. However, neither cohort could stop the remaking of their respective urban landscapes in the end.

Remaking the Rust Belt is assiduously researched, drawing on contemporary newspaper reports, as well as the archives and papers of individuals and organizations in the US and Canada directly involved with setting the agendas and making decisions that led to the transformation of Pittsburgh and Hamilton from centers of industrial production to centers for service and consumer recreation. Neumann originally wanted to be a journalist, and her reporting is a model for what is too often missing these days in the mainstream media. Where Sugrue's 1996 study, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, lays out factors—racial discrimination in jobs and housing, along with capital flight—that hastened the precipitous fall of another Rust Belt icon, Neumann shows how the powers that were back in the day responded to remake two former industrial cities into what we know today.

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There is an excellent interview with Tracy Neumann conducted by the Toynbee Prize Foundation Global History Forum that is worth checking out.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Art of Detroit in the Abstract

Detroit artist Rick Vian was asked to curate a show at Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. Rick asked if I would write something about the show for distribution at the gallery. Below is the essay I wrote for the exhibition whose title is "Detroit Abstraction." The show is on view until December 8.

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Jim Chatelain, And the Cries Behind the Door, 2015. (Oil on canvas. All images courtesy of the artists and Janice Charach Gallery.)
In his 1989 book, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor identifies two legacies that have come down from the Enlightenment: scientific positivism and expressive individualism. The first, Taylor notes, deals with the universal—objectivity, rationality, and what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” The second deals with the particular—subjectivity, intuition, and generally embedded in a specific time and place.

In Western art, the division can be traced back to the Renaissance, to Leonardo di Vinci on the one hand, who thought of art as a branch of science, and Michelangelo Buonarroti on the other, who thought of art first and foremost as a means of artistic expression. Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin in his 1915 The Principles of Art History traces the fault line in the distinction between linear and painterly, what he terms the “absolute” clarity of pictorial representation in the Renaissance and the “relative” clarity of the Baroque.

Tracing the lineage further in both the representational and abstract in Western art, one can continue to parse out the distinction, between, to name just a few examples, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism, Constructivism and Dada, De Stijl and Surrealism.

Since the days of the Cass Corridor, Detroit art has traditionally been placed on the side of expressive individualism, arguably a response to the failure of the apparatus of mechanical reproduction, and the mass-industrial technocracy that oversaw it, to continue delivering the goods to the city and its residents. (As Taylor notes, the emergence of Romanticism in the mid-eighteenth century, and its championing of expressive individualism, is the obverse dialectic to the positivism of radical Enlightenment and its embodiment in the First Industrial Revolution.) That spirit is certainly there in the work of certain artists of the Cass Corridor generation such as Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs, Bradley Jones, Brenda Goodman, and Nancy Mitchnick. And indeed, the term “urban expressionism” was evoked at the time in the major statement of that period, the Detroit Institute of Art’s 1980 exhibition, “Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977.” But also at work at the same time were artists, such as Georg Ettl, Aris Koutrolis, Shelden Iden, David Barr, and Stanley Dolega, who could just as easily be placed on the other side of the line.

This exhibition of 41 artists demonstrates the diversity of approaches to abstract art in Detroit, from some of the earlier artists of the Cass Corridor generation to several emerging in the present day.
Curtis Rhodes, Copan/Yaddo Eccentric Flint, n.d. (Charcoal, oil bar, watercolor, colored chalk.)
True to form, the painters are generally, in a word, painterly, from Cass Corridor-generation artists Brenda Goodman, Jim Chatelain, and Allie McGhee to inheritors of that tradition, Gilda Snowden, Anita Bates, Curtis Rhodes, Nancy Thayer, et. al.
Lois Teicher, Endless, 2016. (Aluminum.)
The sculptors go against the traditional expressionist grain—Ray Katz, John Piet, Douglas Semivan, and Lois Teicher, for example—embracing the Constructivist impulse, a function of the industrial materials and processes with which they work. (Though the same is not true for Cass Corridor original Robert Sestok, who takes industrial castoffs and fashions them into a range of expressive forms.) However, even in this instance it can be argued that the use of an industrial aesthetic is not to accept its conditions completely, but to subvert them by directing their techniques to non-utilitarian ends.

The sculpture of Todd Erickson, whose bronze castings of bent and twisted tree branches are tours-de-force of foundry art, might seem out of place in this exhibition. Yet they make the point that all art is essentially abstraction, even in its most representational forms, as a signifier of a thing and not the thing itself. (An artwork is, of course, at the same its own reality as a thing in and of itself.)
Todd Erickson, Hold Free River, 2013. (Cast bronze.)
Besides painting and sculpture, “Detroit Abstraction” presents work by artists working in other media, such as ceramics, fiber, and assemblage, further demonstrating the diversity of work being created in the abstract vein in Detroit.

In all, this survey of recent work is evidence that the practice of abstract art in Detroit continues to be alive and well.

The Art of Rick Vian in Retrospect

Detroit artist Rick Vian was invited to mount a retrospective show of his work at Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. Rick asked if I would write something about the show for distribution at the gallery. Below is the essay I wrote for the exhibition whose title is "Rick Vian: Keeping a Wet Edge." The show is on view until December 8.

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Among the famous quotes of influential artist and teacher Hans Hofmann is: “I bring the landscape home with me.” Nature is the origin of art, Hofmann maintains, as articulated in the connection between the world-as-experienced and its expression in even the most abstract forms of line, shape, and color. The phenomenology of perception—the embodied process of seeing, its translation from retina through the brain to the hand, and from there onto canvas—is the foundation of Rick Vian’s evolution as artist.

Perception, as the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty notes, is an interactive process. As much as the mind is a receptor of visual phenomena, it is at the same time the organizer of it. Through his observations over the four-plus decades of his career as an artist, Vian has discerned patterns—in particular as he notes in his personal statement—of “networks that underlie and organize perception, and are inherent in the structure of the world we perceive.”

Rick Vian, The Vastness, 1977. Oil on canvas (All images courtesy of the artist.)
This is evident from the very beginning in works of the 1970s, such as those of the “Ellipses” and “Grid Projections” series and more obviously in the “Grid Landscapes.” In each case, the grid, rooted as it were in Vian’s observation of the growth and intertwining of tree limbs, provides an underlying structure from which patterns, shapes, and colors emerge, keyed to source inspiration in water, sky, and fauna.

How structures derived from nature find their way into the built environment can be seen in the series of abstract works completed in 1990s, many inspired by Vian’s experience as a commercial painter in industrial facilities. Spectator Sox (1999) uses colors derived from industrial code conventions for signifying things such as danger, safety hazards, and boundary demarcations, conventions that in many cases have been derived from the study of human psychology.

Spectactor Sox, 1999.
Vian has noted that he has embraced abstraction to allow for freedom of expression but that it needs to be grounded in visual reality. As part of maintaining that connection over the past twenty years, Vian has executed a number of highly representational paintings of the natural environs of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. These paintings are highly finished and accomplished works of art in and of themselves that also serve as phenomenological investigations into nature that inform the more abstract works especially of the last decade. (It should also be noted that however “realistic” the representational paintings seem to be, they are in fact constructions with the sky observed on one day often appearing in a painting of a tree observed on another.)
Gigantess, 2004.
In these mature paintings of the 2000s, Vian most fully realizes Hofmann’s aesthetic notion of nature embodied in the artist’s very being. “The Gitche Gumee” series inspired by the sublime force of Lake Superior and landscape-derived paintings such as the magisterial Poplar Trees in Fall (2013) and Sky in the Water II (2015) are tours-de-force of the painter’s art.

Through a lifetime of observation, reflection, and response, Rick Vian has given us new ways of seeing and understanding the world. 

Poplar Trees in Fall, 2013.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate?

Jeff Goldfarb, editor of The New School for Social Research's online journal  Public Seminar, asked me to do a post on Bob Dylan receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. I could think of better people around The New School to do this, for example, computer whiz/philosopher Michael Quirk or my MA thesis advisor Jim Miller, who was an original contributor to Rolling Stone magazine and the former pop critic for Newsweek. But I did have a meeting get cancelled on Thursday afternoon, so I was able to bat something out. Below is the text of the post with a couple of edits now that the deadline has passed:
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I can’t say that I am a huge Bob Dylan fan. I may have been born just a little too late to have been caught up in the folk craze, though I do remember singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” along with “This Land is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer” during chorus in elementary school. I get his significance as a cultural producer and have my share of Dylan, of course. Some of it is on vinyl, some on CD, covering all periods from the early “protest” stuff to the mid- and late-1960s electric period and onto more recent back-to-the-roots material with Love and Theft being a particular favorite. (There are also those I should have but don't, like Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.) I was surprised, though not unpleasantly, to get the news of Robert Allen Zimmerman receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

I personally have been rooting for Thomas Pynchon to get the nod, though somehow I don’t think he would be begrudge The Bard, as he’s often been called, for acing him out. For one thing there’s the fact that Pynchon was friends with Richard Farina who hung with Dylan in the early days, married the sister of his one-time squeeze Joan Baez, and was one of the four figures profiled in David Hajdu's bestseller Positively 4th Street. Gravity’s Rainbow is dedicated to Farina who died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, the same year Dylan survived his. (Read Pynchon's appreciation of Farina here.) For another there is the fact that Pynchon no doubt would acknowledge Dylan's significance, not only to the 1960s counterculture whose failed utopia he has lamented in novels from Gravity's Rainbow on down, but to the world at large.

Dylan legitimized being hip, more so than the Beats who came before him or the Beatles who came after. By the time I entered undergraduate school in the 1970s, English professors talked in terms of Dylan's "poetry" whereas other pop icons had to settle for mere "lyrics." Indeed, Dylan's best songs dig deeply into America's social imaginary (the love) and refashion it for contemporary mass-market consumption on a global scale (the theft).

As with any major prize, there has been no dearth of controversy since the announcement broke. There's the matter of personal taste (again for me Pynchon; for others Phillip Roth, and so on.). But for readers of Public Seminar, more significant conversations are bound up with notions of culture, especially in terms of "Culture" with a capital "C." And the reactions in that regard were immediate, pro and con, typically along the lines of cultural hierarchies that continue to be resilient even in these days of supposed cultural omnivorism.

I'm on the side of the omnivores, understanding culture in the most pluralistic sense. Clifford Geertz once defined culture as "the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves." Bob Dylan is a storyteller par excellence. And that's at the root of literature from the epics of the ancient rhapsodes (from the Greek meaning literally "to sew songs together") to their postmodern inheritor Dimitri Lyacos.

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Update October 17, 2016: Public Seminar did run a piece by Michael Quirk. It's a good one on the the flap over Dylan's Nobel as a form of "category anxiety." There's another one by Zachary Sunderman, also good.

Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959-1971, by Jonas Mekas

Back in the day when I was an aspiring young artist, one of my bibles was a well-worn copy (gotten at the late-great independent bookstore Paperbacks Unlimited) of Movie Journal, a collection of columns by filmmaker/impresario Jonas Mekas that had originally appeared in the Village Voice from 1959 to 1971, trumpeting the rise of something called a "new American cinema." The working-class suburb northeast of Detroit where I grew up was hardly a hot bed of avant-garde culture, and Mekas's compendium of rants and raves introduced me to a creative  world I could only imagine via the descriptions he provided. The roll call of names—Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Barbara Rubin, Carolee Schneeman, and dozens of others—was an elite group of underground luminaries to search out and from which to learn, not an easy task in the days before VCRs and DVDs, much less YouTube and Vimeo. First published in 1972 and long out of print, Movie Journal has now been reissued by Columbia University Press in a second edition with a forward by director Peter Bogdanovich, an introductory essay by Logos managing editor Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker, and a new afterword by the author.

Mekas, who has taught film classes at The New School, is one of the true seminal figures of modern American cinema. In addition to creating some 75 experimental films over the past six decades, Mekas, along with his brother Adolphas, founded the pioneering magazine Film Culture in 1954. He also co-founded the nonprofit Film-Makers Cooperative distribution service in 1962, and perhaps most significant the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, one of the largest and most important collections of avant-garde film in the world, currently housed at 32 Second Avenue in Manhattan's East Village. He has also written poetry in his native Lithuanian and published several of his personal journals and diaries.

Mekas began writing for the Voice when in November of 1958 he went to the alt-weekly's Associate Editor Jerry Talmer (who also created the OBIE Award) to ask why there wasn't a regular movie column. According to the story Mekas tells in the original introduction to Movie Journal, Talmer said, "Why don't you do one?" And so Mekas handed his first piece in the next day.

Original cover of Movie Journal.
The first entry in the book is from two months later, February 4, 1959, titled "Call for a Derangement of Cinematic Sense." In it, Mekas proposes "breaking away from the conventional, dead, official cinema," and exhorts a new generation of filmmakers to be "completely loose, out of themselves, wildly, anarchically!" From the beginning, Mekas made no bones about his agenda to advocate in the most passionate way possible for the cadre of emerging filmmakers of the time who were upsetting conventions in terms of subject matter, narrative form, and cinematic technique.

He was among the first to champion groundbreaking indie-film director John Cassavettes, as well as the extreme cinema verite of Andy Warhol, whose pathbreaking films, such Eat (1963), Empire (1964), and Taylor Mead's Ass (1965), are said to have been inspired by a 1962 performance of Trio with Strings by composer LaMonte Young, which the legendary pop artist had attended in Mekas's company. One of Warhol's earliest films, the 1963 Sleep, featuring poet John Giorno (the artist's lover at the time) nude and asleep on a couch for five and a half hours, was originally suppposed to be set to music by Young. Mekas presented the film, which he called "monumental," at Gramercy Arts Theater in January 1964, theoretically a fundraising event that attracted all of nine people, two of whom left after the first hour. Mekas wrote about the screening and chided the audience's response to it in his column of January 30, 1964.

In the afterword to the new edition, Mekas congratulates himself, at age 93 and with 50 years of hindsight, on the overall soundness of his critical judgement. And by and large he is right. Time and again the filmmakers he praised have come to be regarded as masters of the cinematic avant-garde, which he termed "poetic" cinema to differentiate it from the conventional Hollywood narrative form. This is not to say that Mekas was unilaterally against traditional film—he writes incisively and admiringly about many of Hollywood's top directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Douglas Sirk, and Vincent Minelli, among others. His beef was more with the studio system that "created an image in the minds of people that cinema is only entertainment and business" (as opposed to art) than those creative spirits who were caught up in its web.

The highly personal, expressive style Mekas brought to his Movie Journal columns is perfectly suited to the poetic form of cinema he set out to champion. In a column from September 19, 1963 titled "The Function of Film Criticism," he notes: "The film critic should not explain what a movie is all about, surely an impossible task; he should help to create the right attitude for looking at movies. That's what my rambling is all about, nothing more." And one might add, nothing less. The directness of Mekas's prose reads as fresh today as when it was first written. It is a marked contrast to Smulewicz-Zucker's introduction to the second edition, which is more academic, assiduously annotated, and seeks to position Mekas in the history of the American avant-garde in the second half of the 20th century. The essay is an important contribution nonetheless that also addresses Mekas's significance as a filmmaker and poet in addition to establishing his critical bona fides. Dive into the main text first, then read Smulewicz-Zucker's introduction for the broader context.

In an entry from September 23, 1965, Mekas offers a one-sentence take down of what in his estimation prominent film critic Pauline Kael lost, as her most famous book title has it, at the movies: "her taste for cinema." Jonas Mekas, on the other hand, found his in the pages of Movie Journal, and he helped countless others, including me, find it as well, lo those many years ago. With this new edition, another generation now has that opportunity.

Below: Jonas Mekas, The Brig, 1963. (Black & white 16mm film, 2:17.)


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Interview with Sarah Thornton


Two years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing sociologist Sarah Thornton, whose book Seven Days in Art World was named one of the best art books of 2008 by The New York Times. The interview was conducted in November as part of the Detroit Institute of Arts Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art Annual Meeting. The interview covered Thornton's follow-up to Seven Days in the Art World, 33 Artists in Three Acts. I recently came across a video of the interview and share it below for those who weren't able to attend. It was a great experience, and I thank the DIA and especially former Associate Curator of Contemporary Art (now at the Denver Museum) Becky Hart for the opportunity. I also thank Sarah for the opportunity to work with her.