May 11 – I finally got around to checking out the 2012 Whitney Biennial. I arrived before the museum opened, though, so I had half an hour to kill, which motivated me to bicycle over to the Met to see another show on my must-see list: “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde.” Gertrude Stein has been a lifelong culture hero of mine, and I’ve read all the major biographies, yet this show succinctly and powerfully made me understand certain crucial things about her and her family (above) for the first time. For one thing, they were rich kids whose European adventures were bankrolled by their family’s successful real estate and manufacturing businesses. I just recently watched the fascinating documentary Herb and Dorothy, which depicts the Vogels, a retired librarian and postal worker who have spent their entire adult lives and earnings buying contemporary art from emerging artists they’d befriended, one $100 piece after another, carrying them in their hands or in taxis to their rent-controlled Upper East Side one-bedroom apartment. They amassed a collection of pieces which they have now donated – not sold – to the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Gertrude and Leo were a little like those two. They had more money to start with but not vast fortunes, so they started buying work by artists of their generation and inviting friends and strangers to their apartment in Paris to view work that was not otherwise on display. Ten of the first 19 paintings they bought circa 1904 pictured naked women, which tells me that Leo, unmarried at age 32, was a horny lad. When Leo moved out of the apartment – largely because he couldn’t stand Gertrude’s grandiosity, ambition, or writing (he thought she and Picasso were frauds) – they divvied up the artists they loved: Leo got Renoir and Gertrude got Picasso. Meanwhile, their older financially savvy banker brother Mike and his wife Sarah (called Sally) cultivated Matisse. How these personalities meshed is beautifully and clearly articulated in this terrific exhibition, full of great familiar and unfamiliar paintings (such as Picasso’s Melancholy Woman, below) as well as tons of family photos. Kudos to curator Rebecca Rabinow!
I went back to the Whitney, where I found the Biennial somewhat less exciting than I thought it would be. There is a large performance element to this Biennial – the entire fourth floor is given over to Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran’s mini-festival BLEED. When I walked through, though, the performance happening was a demonstration of Alexander technique on massage tables at either end of the room (with the Morans serving as demo models for practitioners Gwen Ellison and Jessica Wolf — see below), not especially interesting to observe. There was an installation elsewhere on the fourth floor with a recorded text by Dennis Cooper that I would like to have heard, but it was switched off during the performances.
I had heard about Dawn Kasper’s installation, This Could Be Something if I Let It, which consists of everything in her home/studio packed up and moved to a gallery at the Whitney. She wasn’t on the premises when I walked by, but I got a kick out of having permission to peer at her stuff.
Otherwise, I was surprised at how little of the work grabbed me. I peeked into the screening room on the second floor, where Wu Tsang’s Wildness was just beginning. At first glance, I took it to be an ethnographic documentary about Latino neighborhoods and I was about to leave when the narrator said something about having being involved in the queer punk scene in Chicago before moving to L.A. That piqued my interest enough to sit down and watch, and it turned out to be a phenomenally engrossing film.
Wu Tsang (above) is a 30-year-old Chinese-American transgendered artist who stumbled upon the Silver Platter, a historic gay bar in the predominantly Latino community of MacArthur Park. The bar was owned by Gonzalo Rodriguez and his sister Rosa, who inherited it from their brother Rogelio, who founded the bar and then died (AIDS is implied), and they ran the place with help from Gonzalo’s ex-boyfriend Koky and his current boyfriend Javier. The Silver Platter mostly catered to discreetly gay Latino guys in Tejano hats and work boots but Friday nights was a drag show that made the bar a haven for trans gals, many of them immigrants. Wu and several club-kid/DJ friends proposed a Tuesday night party called Wildness that caught on and quickly became a dynamic crossroads and de facto community center for transpeople. (It reminded me of San Francisco’s legendary Trannyshack, of which this film makes no mention.) The film, shot over the course of two years, traces the excitement and challenges that met this kind of collaboration/clash of races, cultures, and classes in a very smart and self-questioning way. (Among the lessons learned: for all the club’s efforts to create “safe space” for transpeople, the biggest danger came from the straight white hipster who wrote up the club for the L.A. Weekly as if it were a sleazy south-of-the-border stand-up brothel.)
The film is formally inventive and very honest. You can watch the trailer online (above), but it only hints at the complexity and quality of the overall film, which I highly recommend. It screened three times a day for one week during the Biennial; there may be a theatrical run at some point and the inevitable DVD release. This was the highlight of the Biennial for me, though I intend to go back and revisit. There’s also a recreation of the Silver Platter upstairs on the fourth floor with two-channel video of excerpts from the film.
May 12 — Andy sings with the Dessoff Choirs, who gave their annual spring concert at the Church of the Epiphany on the Upper East Side. The program of music for choir and organ (well-played by guest artist Sean Jackson), titled “Lux Aeterna,” included two works by that name, Elgar’s and Morten Lauridsen’s, as well as five anthems by Henry Purcell and three pieces by Frank Lewin. The concert was beautifully sung. My single favorite piece was the a cappella hymn “O nata Lux” from Lauridsen’s suite, but I also loved the three Benjamin Britten pieces they performed: the gorgeous “Jubilate Deo” and “Festival Te Deum” and the weird, exhilarating “Rejoice in the Lamb.” The latter was a 1943 setting of a poem written by Christopher Smart (1722-71, pictured below) in an insane asylum. As music director Christopher Shepard understates in his program note, “The text is brilliant though fantastic; it is a song of praise to God that relies heavily on animal imagery.” You can read the whole poem here – refreshingly nutty.