R.I.P. Lee Breuer

January 28, 2021

Lee Breuer, the playwright, director, and co-founder of Mabou Mines who died January 3 at the age of 83, was one of the most original, uncompromising American theater artists of the last century. As a director he applied his wild imagination to classics by Beckett, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wedekind, and Tennessee Williams, on a scale from intimate (his production of Beckett’s The Lost Ones was staged in a stairwell at the Public Theater) to spectacular (The Gospel at Colonus, his adaptation of Sophocles with music by Bob Telson, enlisted two chamber ensembles and a massive institutional gospel choir). His own writing consisted of dense performance poems streaked with jive and jokes. A trio of animal-related Animations (Red Horse, B.Beaver, Shaggy Dog) led to an ever-expanding cosmic-comic mythological epic revolving around the recurring characters of Rose, a lovelorn dog, her faithless master John, and the “art martyr” Gonzo Porco. A true postmodern artist, he immersed himself in pop culture (beatnik poetry, rock and roll, Hollywood movies) while also cultivating serious scholarship in Japanese theater technique and absorbing everything he could from Bertolt Brecht as theoretician, iconoclast, and brash self-mythologizer.

Some artists labeled “downtown/experimental/avant-garde” are content to toil in a hermetically sealed aesthetic environment, but not Lee Breuer – he kept track of everything and followed all developments in regional and commercial American theater. In his own way he craved mainstream success; he got closest with The Gospel at Colonus, which became a Broadway show, a PBS special, and a Warner Bros. original cast album co-produced by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and was one of the most ecstatic performances I’ve ever witnessed. (When I first saw the show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I sat next to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, behind Leonard Bernstein, and a few rows away from Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close — everyone wanted to see this show.) His work with actors was phenomenal. No one who saw them will ever forget David Warrilow in The Lost Ones, Bill Raymond in A Prelude to Death in Venice, Karen Kandel voicing all the roles in Peter and Wendy, and Ruth Maleczech (his first wife and the mother of two of his five children) in Hajj, An Epidog, and basically anything she did. The late playwright Harry Kondoleon, who observed Breuer working with students at Yale, said, “He digs around in the back of your bottom drawer til he finds the dreadful secret part of your personality you try to keep hidden away, and he brings it out and makes it the powerful center of your performance.”

I’ve written a lot about Mabou Mines over the years and interviewed Breuer with other members of the company on several occasions – for a Soho News cover story (co-authored with Robert Coe), for an article in American Film about Hajj, for an Arts & Leisure story in the New York Times about Ecco Porco. The only time I got Lee more or less alone was when I interviewed him for an American Theatre cover story on Mabou Mines, when he was juggling multiple projects outside the company: an undercooked The Tempest for Shakespeare in the Park, a brilliant production of Wedekind’s Lulu for the American Repertory Theater in Boston, The Gospel at Colonus and a second project with Bob Telson, The Warrior Ant. When I look back at the unedited transcript (see here), it’s a characteristic slice of Lee in conversation – philosophy and practicality mixed with wide-ranging literary and musical references but delivered in a steady stream of casual, engaged, chatty conversation.

I like this picture I took of him in 2015 at the party celebrating Jim O’Quinn’s retirement as editor of American Theatre, next to Teresa Eyring (CEO of Theater Communications Group) and longtime Mabou Miner Greg Mehrten – a titan of American theater with his hand in his pocket and a sly grin on his face.


Culture Vulture: Saturday afternoon at MOMA 1-23-21

January 26, 2021

Last week’s expedition to the Metropolitan Museum was so nourishing that Andy and I decided to hit the Museum of Modern Art Saturday afternoon. The big show I had my eye on was Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented, which I understood to be largely centered on Russian Constructivism. I did my best to fill Andy in on what I could remember about Mayakovsky and Malevich, the politics of Constructivism and its aesthetic relationship to Cubism, which all turned out to be pretty accurate. But the show also includes art and artists associated with the Dada movement (the subject of my only visual art class in college), including the great Kurt Schwitters.

The MOMA show also undertook the mission of spotlighting how this movement welcomed women artists, thinkers, and creators, including the likes of Fre Cohen, a name new to me.

The atrium currently hosts a bunch of beautiful, whimsical, enormous sculptures by Korean artist Haegue Yang that look vaguely like animals and/or robots, each one on wheels and covered with tiny bells. At scheduled intervals, art handlers come out and move the sculptures around so viewers can hear them jingle-jangle-jingle. We didn’t get to hear them but I’d go back just for that.

I like how MOMA is cycling through its permanent collection, bringing out stuff that is rarely seen. I enjoyed this Martin Kippenberger piece that inevitably invites life to imitate art and a huge Seth Price wall piece whose ideal form is a PDF you can download online at home.

We sat and watched some of Cao Fei’s fascinating film Whose Utopia, a documentary about a light-bulb factory in China.

In the first-floor lobby, we enjoyed Philippe Parreno’s Echo, especially the overhead piece near the 54th Street exit.

After this visual feast, we went home, made dinner, and I found myself giving Andy a multimedia introduction to Phoebe Snow, about whom he declared, “She was the real deal!”


Photo diary: Saturday 1-16-21

January 18, 2021

Walk to the Metropolitan Museum.
Walk through the Metropolitan Museum.
European paintings. Gold figures pointing. Japanese sculpture. Islamic calligraphy.
Walk to the West Side through the Rambles.
Walk through Lincoln Center Plaza.


Culture Vulture: Christmas Eve at the Whitney Museum

December 24, 2020

A dreary overcast Christmas Eve turned out to be a perfect day for a stroll through the Whitney Museum (first time there since the onset of the pandemic). We started on the top floor with Working Together: The Photographers of the Kamoinge Workshop, a community new to me of photographers who chronicled civil rights activism, culture heroes, and everyday black life in the ’60s and ’70s — wonderful shot of Sun Ra.

Next: Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019, whose high point is Liza Lou’s beaded Kitchen, but I also loved Jordan Nassar’s mesmerizing A Lost Key (above) and Jeffrey Gibson’s Birds of a Feather (below).

We poked our heads into Cauleen Smith: Mutualities and watched some of her film Sojourner in which a group of sisters in dazzling outfits take in a recorded lecture on black feminism.

The main attraction at the Whitney these days, though, is Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925–1945, which runs through January 31. The show focuses on three artists — Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco — and the impact they had on their contemporaries. I’ve always loved Siqueiros’s paintings, which seem psychedelic to me, and I made a pilgrimage to the house in Guanajuato where Rivera lived with Frida Kahlo for a time (it’s now a museum).

I was surprised and fascinated to see a bunch of figurative (pre-drip) paintings by Jackson Pollock directly influenced by Siqueiros’ dreamy shellacked surfaces (Landscape with Steer, above) and Orozco’s death-obsessed iconography (the two images below, both called Untitled (Figure Composition).

Also intriguing to learn that Philip Guston got his start studying with Siqueiros in Los Angeles and absorbing his politically charged mural work, as in this sectional model of a piece for the University of Michoacán.

And, as dessert, Kahlo’s beautiful, tender, funny self-portrait Me and My Parrots.


Quote of the day: DEMAGOGUERY

December 7, 2020

DEMAGOGUERY

We must never forget that the spellbinders, the rabble-rousers, the potential Hitlers are always with us. We must never forget that it is very easy for such men to turn an innocent orgy into an instrument of destruction, into a savage, mindless force directed toward the overthrow of liberty. To prevent them from exploiting crowd intoxication for their own sinister purposes we must be perpetually on our guard. Whether a world inhabited by potential Hitlers on the one hand and potential herd-poison addicts on the other can ever be made completely safe for rationality and decency seems doubtful, but at least we can try to make it a little safer than it is at present. For example, we can give our children lessons in the elements of general semantics. We can tell them about the frightful dangers of intellectual sin. We can make their flesh creep by reciting to them the disastrous consequences to societies and to individuals of the rabble-rouser’s oversimplification, overgeneralization, and overabstraction. We can remind them to live in present time and to think concretely and realistically, in terms of observable fact. We can unveil the absurd and discreditable secrets of propaganda and illustrate our lectures with examples drawn from the history of politics, religion, and the advertising industry. Would such a training be effective? Perhaps – or perhaps not. Herd poison is a very powerful intoxicant. Once they get into a crowd, even upright and sensible men are apt to lose their reason and accept all the suggestions, however nonsensical or however immoral, that may be given them. All we can hope to accomplish is to make it more difficult for the rabble-rouser to do his nefarious work.

–Aldous Huxley, “History of Tension,” 1956


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