Posts Tagged ‘jean-michel basquiat’

Culture Vulture: Sunday afternoon at the Guggenheim Museum

November 4, 2019

A big rich cultural week — Faure’s Requiem sung by the Dessoff Choirs; for colored girls at the Public Theater; smart/sexy singer-songwriter Dane Terry at Joe’s Pub; “Howard’s End” on Netflix; Bong Joon-Ho’s crazy, creepy Korean Almodoviarian “Parasite” in the movie theater; John Cameron Mitchell’s amazing podcast/radio series “Anthem: Homunculus” on Luminary; Ira Sachs’s Chekhovian drama Frankie, starring Isabelle Huppert and exquisitely shot on location in Sintra, Portugal; David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway, all good stuff — wound up at the Guggenheim Museum on NYC Marathon Sunday.

I was determined to see “Defacement: The Untold Story,” the exhibition of a rare Jean-Michel Basquiat painting and other artifacts from the time period (early 1980s), before it closes November 6. So I moseyed up the ramp, strolling through the major show in the rotunda — “Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection” — and ducking into the side gallery showing “Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now.” When I got to level 4, I noticed a long line snaking down the ramp — turned out it was all people waiting to get in to the tiny gallery showing the Basquiat, and the wait time was an hour…by which time the museum would be closing. Aaargh! I took a deep breath and resolved to come back when it was likely to be less crowded.

Nevertheless, I had a fantastic time with the other two shows, which both operate on the premise of asking contemporary artists to dialogue with a body of artwork. For “Artistic License,” six artists who’ve had solo shows at the Guggenheim — Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince, and Carrie Mae Weems — got a free pass to run through the museum’s collection and choose as many works to display as would fill one floor of the building’s famous spiral.

Meanwhile, for “Implicit Tensions,” associate curators Lauren Hinkson and Susan Thompson chose a selection of works from six other queer photographers — Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Lyle Ashton Harris, Glenn Ligon, Zanele Muholi, Catherine Opie, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya  — to create a kind of dialogue with the vast array of Mapplethorpe works that the artist’s foundation recently gifted to the museum and that were shown in part one of the exhibition earlier this year.

Along the way I encountered a treasure trove of fascinating work, much of it by artists I’d never heard of — the best possible benefit of seeing group shows like this. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Cai Guo-Quiang’s contribution to “Artistic License” came with the label “Non-Brand,” meaning that he picked work by well-known artists that didn’t look like what you expected, such as these decidedly non-Rothko-looking Mark Rothkos, “Brighton Beach” from the mid-30s and “Untitled” from 1942:

And this perverse blurry titillating untitled 1960 painting by Lucas Samaras, more known for his photography:

Jenny Holzer’s section focused on works by women, Paul Chan sorted for images related to water and bathing, and Carrie Mae Weems chose works primarily in black-and-white. Most of the work that grabbed my attention, though, came from the galleries curated by Julie Mehretu and Richard Prince.

I’d never heard of Corneille but he sounds like a character, and there are elements in this striking painting that foreshadow Basquiat:

Loved these canvases by Georges Mathieu, “Untitled” and “Black and White Abstract”:

There’s a lovely Pollack (“Number 18”) and an intriguing faux-Pollack that’s just too on-the-nose.

Here’s a name I didn’t expect to see in this show: Stuart Sutcliffe. Famous for being the Beatles’ first bass player, also an artist, who died young.

The Mapplethorpe show is engrossing, dominated by Glenn Ligon’s detailed dialogue with Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, in the form of quotes from a variety of literary figures and gay bar habitues. I always love seeing work by Zanele Muholi, but Rotimi Fani-Kayoda is a name new to me. (That he died in London in 1989 at the age of 34 says a lot to me.)

Hungarian Simon Hantaï also new to me.

This textile piece by Alan Shields was beautiful and also has a hilarious name.

Mary Bauermeister is apparently still alive, but who knows if she’s still making this kind of wacky beautiful quirky objects.

Hello, Joseph Beuys!

Hello, Giacometti! (This piece is called “Le Nez (The Nose”).)

I did go back the next morning when the museum opened and was able to tour the Basquiat exhibit with only a few people around.

It’s a beautiful sobering show, a reminder of how long this violent abuse of black men has been embedded in our culture.

Basquiat’s “The Death of Michael Stewart” (originally painted on a wall in Keith Haring’s loft, eventually cut out of the wall and placed by Keith in a gilded frame) bounces off a David Wojnarowicz drawing for a political flyer.

But Haring’s own tribute, “Michael Stewart — USA for Africa” in the adjacent room, is overpowering.

Great to see Basquiat’s “Self-Portrait”

Also “Tuxedo,” both huge and monumental.

I rode my bicycle home down Fifth Avenue listening to the Spotify playlist created by Jon Baptiste to accompany the Basquiat show — a mix of early hip-hop and the classic jazz so frequently referenced in Basquiat’s paintings.



Culture Vulture: Nicky Paraiso, Amanda Palmer, WHITE NOISE, Basquiat, and more

April 29, 2019

April has been a cultural smorgasbord!

April 6 – Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton (at the Golden Theatre) feels weirdly similar to his previous play, A Doll’s House Part 2: an extremely unlikely Broadway show starring the great Laurie Metcalf as a powerful woman in a showdown with the husband she has very mixed feelings about, with two ancillary characters to add dramatic tension and comic relief. Set on the eve of the New Hampshire primary in 2008, loosely based on real-life happenings, the play pivots on an invented encounter with Barack Obama, who shows up to offer Hillary the vice presidential slot if she’ll drop out of the race, but really exists as an extended meditation on the power of the imagination to invent multiple parallel universes. On Broadway it serves the purpose of giving New Yorkers devastated by the results of the 2016 election some liminal space to gain strength and hope from the idea of possibility and change. I enjoyed the framing device, in which we watch Laurie Metcalf come out as herself and with no more than the power of suggestion transform into Hillary Clinton; I admired the performances and the simple staging by Joe Mantello. But, like Doll’s House Part 2, it struck me as an exercise and left no lasting impression.

April 7 – In 1986 I wrote a piece for the Village Voice that began: “What becomes a legend last? Surely it’s the Off-Off-Broadway star, the performer who devotes the best part of a career to toiling for no money in the back alleys of lower Manhattan. The machinery exists to turn film and television performers into international celebrities quicker than you can say Live at Five, but some of the most original and creative actors in America continue to work year after year in basements and lofts, in semi-obscurity and near-poverty, resisting embitterment while clinging to whatever environment will allow them to become more and more themselves. Though you won’t find them in Broadway’s Theater Hall of Fame, actors such as Ruth Maleczech, Kate Manheim, Ron Vawter, Jeff Weiss, and Crystal Field are nonetheless national treasures, and any ranking of them must include the Ridiculous Theatrical Company’s leading lady Black-Eyed Susan.”

photo by Albie Mitchell for the New York Times

Nicky Paraiso belongs in that pantheon as well. Even among the colorful creatures of the downtown theater world, there is no one else like Nicky – multitalented, vivacious, ubiquitous, universally beloved by and unstintingly generous to his fellow artists. Since I moved to NYC at the tail end of 1979, Nicky has always been a fixture on the scene. He was a key collaborator for decades with Meredith Monk, Yoshiko Chuma, and especially Jeff Weiss – none of whom provide the financial security that collaborators named Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy would. In middle age Nicky was barely scraping by waiting tables at McBell’s when Ellen Stewart, with her super-power for genius-spotting, zeroed in on his networking skills and made him resident curator, booking music, theater, performance art, spoken word, and miscellaneous events for The Club at La Mama and eventually becoming coordinator of the annual La Mama Moves! dance festival. All this and much more childhood and family history got folded into now my hand is ready for my heart: intimate histories at the La Mama Annex. Because Nicky is Nicky, he got John Jesurun to direct and design the show, and he corralled four respected downtown choreographers (Irene Hultman, Jon Kinzel, Vicky Shick, and Paz Tanjuaquio) to improvise onstage alongside his autobiographical monologue, in addition to a fun video appearance by two other high-powered Filipino-American downtown legends, Jessica Hagedorn and Ching Valdes-Aran. The show amounted to a kind of life review (not unlike John Kelly’s Time No Line, which played in the same space last year), an impressionistic chronology from growing up in Queens to the present moment. Touching, funny, and honest, the show among other things showcased Nicky’s wizardry as a musician. Every so often he’d wander over the piano and bang out some brief brilliant burst of music (pop, classical, cabaret, show tune) before leaping up and moving on to something else. Weirdly, he never so much as mentioned the Laura Nyro song from which he borrowed the title of his show. But I enjoyed imagining Nicky encountering Nyro’s wildly passionate original musicianship as a queer kid and using that inspiration to launch his own artistic spirit.

April 10 – I’m a big fan of Taylor Mac, but his play Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (another highly unlikely Broadway mounting) left me cold. The performances by Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen, and a vocally overtaxed Julie White amount to an exhausting mugfest. And George C. Wolfe’s busy busy busy staging reminded me of his production of Shuffle Along: all footnotes, no show.

April 19 – I was psyched to see Camille Vidal-Naquet’s Sauvage at Film Forum because it promised to be a sexy, gritty portrait of French gay male sex workers. In some ways it provides a fascinating glimpse of Eastern European gay-for-pay street hustlers gathering in packs for survival and scrambling to make it work under crummy circumstances. The depiction of older schlumpy customers (one in a wheelchair, one recently widowed) is honest and compassionate. But the story revolves around a wildly unbelievable main character who is a manifestation of a curiously French attachment to the notion of the noble savage, lurching from touching moments to scenes that are ugly and sensational.

April 20 – Amanda Palmer started out as a street performer in Boston and played with Brian Viglione as the punk cabaret duo Dresden Dolls for years before launching her solo career. She recorded and toured behind her 2012 album Theatre Is Evil thanks to an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign; a memoir and a TED talk detailed her road to success via her knack for The Art of Asking, and along the way she acquired a famous husband, the fantasy author Neil Gaiman. The social media savvy that made her a DIY cult figure Rockstar also generated a lot of nasty blowback that got so ferocious that Palmer had to take a break. Now, after four years, she’s back with a new album, There Will Be No Intermission, and an 18-month international solo tour, just her and her piano and her ukulele. Andy’s a diehard fan and got tickets for her show at the Beacon Theater as soon as they went on sale. The day of the concert, an email arrived announcing that the show would start promptly at 7:30 and be over at…11:30. We’d seen her in concert three times before, and I liked her fine, but I wasn’t sure I had the stamina for four hours of Amanda Palmer solo. We gave ourselves permission to bail when we’d had enough, but we stayed for the whole thing. Palmer referenced both Springsteen on Broadway and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette (both Netflix specials), and they clearly influenced her decision to undertake the brave notion of a solo concert that combines music and storytelling (a LOT of talking) with a very specific political agenda. She’s had three abortions in her life, she’s been raped twice, and she’s had a miscarriage, and as she says in the show after those upsetting experiences she looked around for some art work (movies, books, plays, songs, albums) that reflected the range and depth of emotions she was feeling and didn’t find any. So in this moment when access to abortion is again politically under assault, she resolved to fill in the gap and Talk About It herself. It makes for a bold, challenging show that alternates between songs from her new album, selections from her back catalogue, and fun covers. For all the ways she teeters on the verge of insufferable self-indulgence – let’s just say she needs a lot of attention – she does have an extraordinary ability to read the room and disarm an audience. Early on she warned the Beacon crowd what was coming and established a rule: at any time, anyone in the audience could call out “Amanda, I’m feeling so sad!” and she would immediately respond with the jaunty opening of her song “Coin-Operated Boy.” And that did happen several times during the concert. And it made a 2000-seat theater feel like a pretty cozy living room.

April 21 – “I can’t sleep” is the first line of Suzan-Lori Parks’s White Noise (at the Public Theater), which addresses the mixed blessing of being #woke – it’s both empowering and exhausting. Leo (Daveed Diggs) is a black artist; his white girlfriend Dawn (Zoe Winters) is a lawyer. Their best friends (and former significant others) are Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), a white English professor, and Misha (Sheria Irving), a performer who hosts an edgy podcast called “Ask a Black.” The set-up feels rom-commy, but as usual Suzan-Lori Parks can’t help coloring outside the genre-lines – as staged by Oskar Eustis, the play unpredictably veers into pockets of farce, tragedy, melodrama, soliloquy, and performance-art weirdness. After Leo is roughed up on the street by cops, he conceives of a provocative art project for his own healing: he talks Ralph (who comes from a rich family) into buying him for 40 days of slavery. Being owned settles Leo down emotionally and energetically; he’s finally able to sleep. Meanwhile, Ralph surprises even himself by how much he gets into ownership, and the two women resume their on-again off-again love affair, which has its own kinky aspects. For all the elements that land as contrived and preposterous, the mood of the play matches the feeling of the American zeitgeist over the last two years, with the shredding of the social contract, white supremacist bullying fully emboldened, and (as Dawn asserts in her monologue – each character gets one) doing good is seen as suspect activity by clueless libtards.

What is Parks saying, that blacks should give up and that White Makes Right is manifest destiny? Even as my friend Jay and I stood in the lobby of the Public having a juicy conversation about the play and our quibbles with certain plot points (yeah, right, an unpublished author can write a story and get it published in the New Yorker in less than six weeks), I received the play in the Brechtian sense I believe it is intended. Brecht was no fan of dramatic naturalism and emotional plausibility. His fantasy was that critical thinking — that is, imagining how things could be different than they are now — acquired through theatergoing could spur critical thinking on political and social issues. Critical thinking means being alive and alert at the theater rather than dozing through a pleasant entertainment.

At a typical play, according to Brecht, most people say to themselves: “Yes, I have felt like that too — Just like me — It’s only natural — It’ll never change — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable — That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world — I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.” He wanted spectators at his theater to say: “I’d never have thought it — That’s not the way — That’s extraordinary, hardly believable — It’s got to stop — The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary — That’s great art: nothing obvious in it — I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.”

April 26 – What can I say about the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the newly renovated Brant Foundation Art Study Center in the East Village? Being in the presence of almost 70 Basquiat paintings over the four floors of the gallery made me absolutely crazy with joy. I don’t know how to explain it, because normally I live with a distinct aversion to chaos. But when I look at Basquiat’s work, especially the gigantic paintings busy with lists and icons and as many overlapping narratives as a medieval tapestry, I don’t see chaos but feel privileged to be viewing the inner workings of…not just a mind but a heart and a sensibility super-alive to child-like playfulness and sophisticated art-music-life references.

The Brant Foundation show is running for another couple of weeks, through May 15. Tickets are required, it is ostensibly sold out, but the waitlist shifts all the time; be patient with the confusing and arduous process and you might well end up in the door after all. The show includes some famous Basquiat works (Hollywood Africans, on loan from the Whitney, and the untitled skull painting that sold for a record-breaking $110.5 million) but also lots of stuff I’d never seen before, some stuff that hasn’t been exhibited in New York before. (The show was put together by Dieter Buchhart for the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.) My friend Clint described me as looking like St. Teresa de Avila in a state of rapture. There is, of course, the gift shop on your way out the door that sells among other things a Basquiat yoga mat. I didn’t get one, but you know, I have a birthday coming up….

Speaking of my birthday, if anyone wanted to gift me with a pair of tickets to see Lizzo at Brooklyn Steel on Sunday May 12, I wouldn’t say no. Her single “Juice” has already established itself as candidate for The Song You’re Going To Be Hearing All Summer Long. Her video featuring stars from RuPaul’s Drag Race is hilarious:

April 27 – Curse of the Starving Class was the first in a sequence of five semi-autobigraphical family dramas that represent the single strongest period of Sam Shepard’s long, anything but homogenous playwriting career. Set in the semi-rural Southern California of Shepard’s adolescence, it portrays an almost cartoony family of Mom, Dad, Brother, and Sister just on the verge of combustion from a flammable combination of dreams, despair, hormones, addiction, financial distress, and genetic predisposition for self-destruction. Julian Crouch’s set for Terry Kinney’s revival at Signature Theatre captures the fragility of the environment spectacularly well, and the zeitgeist ensures that Shepard’s fable of family life as metaphor for American life and/or Western capitalism stays pertinent. Having studied and written about Shepard for 35 years (the first edition of my biography was completed in 1984, the revised edition in 1997), I view productions of his work from so many different angles. I had mixed feelings about this one, mostly because of quibbles with the casting. Gilles Geary gives a one-note dead-eyed performance as Wesley, the poetic-souled son, and both Maggie Siff as his mother and Lizzy DeClement as his sister were too perky and clean-cut for my taste. Meanwhile, David Warshofsky as the dissolute, mercurial dad was just about perfect. I somehow hadn’t realized how consistent this string of family plays returns to the concept of role reversal – it shows up most clearly in act two of True West but it starts with Curse, continues in Buried Child, and returns in A Lie of the Mind (and beyond, in The Late Henry Moss). The pleasures of a Sam Shepard play almost always include boldly visceral real-time theatricality: a nude body, a live animal, the smell of breakfast cooking.

April 28 – Thaddeus Phillips (above) is a travelling man, and his solo performance 17 Border Crossings at New York Theater Workshop does what it says on the tin. With the simplest of means, and in close collaboration with lighting designer David Todaro and sound designer Robert Kaplowitz, Phillips recollects a globe-sprawling array of encounters (most but not all his own) with customs and immigration officials, some of them uneventful if humorous, others hair-raising. It’s a sweet short (90-minute) exercise in theatrical storytelling that starts with a burst of Shakespeare, segues into a succinct history of passports, and carries on unpredictably from there. My plus-one was Laurie Anderson, who introduced me to Arto Lindsay (they’d just had a meeting with some cutting-edge sound designers). I in turn introduced Laurie to Jackie Rudin (see below), who had just seen Laurie at the Kitchen in Anohni’s performance She Who Saw Beautiful Things. After the show, Laurie and I had a delicious dinner at Piccolo Strada, the minuscule trattoria a few doors down from the theater.


Culture Vulture: Jackson Pollack, Kiki and Herb, A Fish Called Wanda, and more

May 2, 2016

My unusually culture-crammed weekend started Saturday afternoon with a spin through MOMA. I walked through the Degas show and the Marcel Broodthaers retrospective, which didn’t interest me, on my way down to the Jackson Pollack show finishing its run. I was surprised at how small the show was but I got a lot out of it. Never having seen early pre-drip work, I was fascinated to bear witness to Pollack’s very particular version of exploring the overlap of abstraction and representation. Some paintings and drawings clearly look back at Picasso; others intriguingly look like precursors of Basquiat, both in the scribbly drawing (see “Untitled (Animals and Figures)” below, and below that a detail from Basquiat’s “Glenn”) and in the sense of large-scale performance across the canvas.

4-30 pollack untitled
4-30 untitled animals and figures
4-30 glenn detail 2

I’m similarly mesmerized and bowled over by Pollack’s masterpiece “Number 1A” (detail below top) and the Basquiat masterpiece “Glenn” (below bottom) which has been hanging on the second floor of MOMA for a while (I never get tired of seeing it).

4-30 number 1A detail
4-30 most of glenn

It’s so strange how not every Pollack canvas leaps out at me, but certain ones do – in this show, “Full Fathom Five” knocked me out with its depth and texture.

4-30 full fathom five

I also checked out Rachel Harrison’s show Perth Amboy, a strange installation with a lot of cardboard and enigmatic tableaux, including this one featuring a Becky Friend of Barbie doll:

4-30 becky friend of barbie.JPG

I spent the late afternoon revisiting A Fish Called Wanda, a movie I saw at a screening when it came out in 1988. Andy has watched it so many times that he has certain speeches memorized, most notably when Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) goes off on Otto (Kevin Kline):

“To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs.” Seeing it again was fun. Kline absolutely earned his Academy Award for this audaciously gigantic comic performance as a handsome, sexy scoundrel. Curtis is hardly the world’s greatest actress but she’s good and game and never looked more beautiful than she does in this movie, which was directed (Andy reminded me, mining IMDB for all the trivia he could find, since the DVD came without a commentary track) by Charles Crichton, famous for British comedies such as The Lavender Hill Mob.

kiki and herb poster

Saturday night we headed to Joe’s Pub for the long-awaited reunion of Kiki and Herb, tickets for which Andy had snapped up last September in the half-hour they were on sale before they sold out. Their show, Seeking Asylum!, was a blast from the get-go, when the offstage announcer introduced them by saying, “Please be aware that these performers are in their eighties, and they’re doing their best, considering…” In the years since Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman took a break from their legendary gig, Bond has embraced a transgender identity and really stepped into the role of artist-as-activist, which has only upped her game as Kiki DuRane. Behind the mask of superannuated chanteuse and clown, she delivers depth-charge commentary on everything that must be said today from a sharp, queer point of view. Kiki narrates her travels since the day of President Obama’s inauguration, which took her from one turbulent political hotspot to another where she delivers her own brand of savage love. “What the world needs is less othering, more mothering!”

kiki and herb cropped

As usual, the setlist constantly surprises with savvy semi-obscure singer-songwriter selections (Suzanne Vega’s “The World Before Columbus,” Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine”) and crazy hilarious medley-mashups (“Make Yourself Comfortable/When Doves Cry,” “Seasons of Love/The Rainbow Connection/Edelweiss/Tomorrow Belongs to Me”). The indisputable highlight of the generously long show kicked Kiki into shamanic mode, channeling the fury and frustration of Nina Simone on “Mississippi Goddam,” no longer a relic of bygone civil-rights movements: “Everybody knows about Carolina/Everybody knows about Alabama/Everybody knows about Tennessee/Everybody knows about Mississippi/Goddam!” We laughed, we cried, we peed in the Public Theater’s trans-friendly bathroom.

gender neutral bathroom

Sunday afternoon we found ourselves clicking around HBO and landed on Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary The Out List. Along with what might be considered the usual suspects (Neil Patrick Harris, Cynthia Nixon, Ellen DeGeneres, Wanda Sykes, Larry Kramer), I dug encountering a few LGBT heroes not previously on my radar, including Janet Mock (below, center), Dallas County sheriff Lupe Valdez, Wade Davis (below, left), and Twiggy Pucci Garçon (below, right).


Then I ran off to the second rehearsal in three days with Gamelan Kusuma Laras gearing up for our gig at Asia Society May 14 and 15 performing a wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play) with renowned Javanese dhalang (storyteller) Ki Midiyanto. Afterwards I met Andy and several friends at Mystery Room NY, one of several venues operating in a genre popularized by Escape the Room that combines immersive theater with group puzzle-solving. We were locked into a laboratory for 60 minutes charged with the task of solving the mysterious disappearance of a veterinarian engaged in high-level research involving dogs. Besides being fiercely competitive, Andy turns out to be ferocious when it comes to puzzle-solving – he went into total “Doctor Who” mode leading our team through a series of fun discoveries, although we didn’t manage to free ourselves before the hour was up. (The cheerful Kiwi gal who checked us in and fed us cues throughout the hour informed us that only 15% manage to solve all the puzzles in the given time.) It’s a fun party activity for people who have had their fill of karaoke.

escape the room

Andy went off to watch Game of Thrones with a bunch of fanboys while I hunkered down with a bowl of popcorn and Andre Téchiné’s Unforgivable, an absorbing novelistic pansexual romantic drama set among the crumbling villas of Venice with a good cast that included Carole Bouquet as a bisexual French real estate agent, André Dussollier as her much older, highly impulsive, somewhat paranoid novelist husband, Adriana Asti as her ex-girlfriend who’s now an alcoholic semi-retired private investigator, and handsome Andrea Pergolesi as a cash-poor aristocrat turned drug dealer.


Also this weekend I read Samuel R. Delany’s graphic memoir Bread & Wine, a collaboration with artist Mia Wolff, which tells the remarkable story of how the great pioneering gay black sci-fi/fantasy writer met his partner Dennis Rickert when the latter was homeless, selling books on a blanket at Broadway and 72nd Street and sleeping in a doorway on the Upper East Side. His pungent description of the first night they spent at the Skyline Hotel – the smell that emerged when Dennis took off his shoes, the color of the water after the two baths he took, the powerful sex they enjoyed – charts new territories of erotic intimacy measured in poetic language and evocative black-and-white drawings.

CULTURE VULTURE, part 3: Zanele Muholi and Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Brooklyn Museum

August 17, 2015

8.16.15 I never knew how hungry I was for images of African lesbians until I walked into South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s show Isibonelo/Evidence at the Brooklyn Museum and stood riveted for half an hour watching the digital slideshow of the 250+ portraits in her series Faces and Phases. Eighty-seven of the photos are framed and displayed along one wall of the gallery in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art (next-door to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party), along with one wall of testimonials by the subjects and another wall with a timeline of the violence (beatings, murders, and “corrective” rapes) committed against lesbians and trans persons in South Africa. But nothing beats the power of standing in front of the digital slideshow and drinking in these striking larger-than-life black-and-white projections of one unsmiling face after another, each of them making deep calm direct eye contact with…the camera, the artist, and the viewer.

muholi sisipho ndzuzo VUYELWA-MAKUBETSE-facebook Zanele-Muholi-selfie
Shot simply against often textured backgrounds, they nod with respect toward the late Malian photographer Seydou Keita’s famous and beautiful portraits of African men and women. But I was knocked out and grateful to Muholi (above) for undertaking the project of documenting her LGBTI community in South Africa, a project that is not only ambitious and politically valuable but dangerous. Three years ago, her apartment was burglarized. She lost her laptop and over 20 primary and back-up external hard drives containing five years’ worth of photos and video, including records of the funerals of three Black South African lesbians murdered in hate crimes. Nothing else was stolen. The Brooklyn Museum show is up until November 1. I encourage you not to miss it.

I made my pilgrimage specifically to see the Muholi show but I was also mildly curious to see Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks. I’m a huge fan of Basquiat; his work excites me more than almost any other artist of the last half century. Hearing that this show basically consisted of eight Marble Composition Books taken apart and displayed page by page, I assumed this would be a minor little show of marginal dribs and drabs. Not at all.
8-16 crocodile as pirateIt spotlights the prolific fertile young artist’s use of language – both words as a key element in his paintings (especially lists) but also the poetry that flowed from his deep immersion in literature and music. The individual pages from notebooks leap out as ideas for paintings or art projects but sometimes just as great images complete in themselves (above).
8-16 cube2 8-16 cube1
I also wasn’t expecting that the show would include so many big Basquiat works, including a bunch of dazzling stuff I hadn’t seen before – a beautiful little wooden cube painted on every side (above), a couple of free-standing double-sided wooden pieces that look like advertisements for restaurants or stores (below).
8-16 basquiat famous front 8-16 famous back 8-16 all beef
A major piece calls “Untitled 1982-83” pastes together 28 separate notebook pages into one giant canvas; every panel is its own intriguing abstract poem – my favorite is the list that includes: FAITH HEALER, ROASTING BOAR, TURKISH TWELVE, and PRAGMATIC SANCTION.

8-16 untitled full 8-16 untitled detail

Culture Vulture: Stockhausen, two Marys, Andre Gregory, and more

April 30, 2013

Several weeks’ worth of cultural events backed up….


3.23.13 I love the new role that Park Avenue Armory has taken on as a venue for large-scale avant-garde performance art. On the heels of Ann Hamilton’s fun installation The anatomy of a thread, artistic director Alex Poots has planned an extraordinary diverse calendar of events between now and the end of the year. Oktophonie is typical of the programming. This Karlheinz Stockhausen piece is a bombastic, bracingly modern (i.e., unmelodic, unbeautiful) electronic composition that exists on tape, never played live. The score is as much sound design as notes for musicians to play.

oktophonie score oktophonie sound design

Concerts usually involve audiences sitting in a dark auditorium watching a projection of a full moon. For this event, the Armory invited Thailand-born visual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija to design a special environment, and he wittily put the moon on the floor in the form of a round platform.

OKTOPHONIE pic by stephanie berger
All white — the carpeting, the backjacks, and the audience members, who were encouraged to wear white clothing and were also handed a white smock upon arrival.

3-23 oktophonie finale
The show was a little bit of a light show, a little bit of sensuround sound demonstration, a little bit like being on a simulated spaceship at a planetarium show. Also, since we were sitting on the floor looking toward the center of the circle where a blissed-out-looking woman sat operating two consoles (Stockhausen’s longtime colleague Kathink Pasveer, below), there was an odd feeling of being at an ashram or a cult meeting.

3-23 oktaphonie after
Although ultimately not much about the concert stuck with me, it was a beautifully produced event — the Armory gives out a deluxe program booklet (including the score, which is as much sound design as notes for musicians) and maintains an active online presence, both of which provide great educational materials for kids, students, and adults alike.


3.27.13 The Gospel According to the Other Mary, John Adams’ oratorio depicting the death of Christ from Mary Magdalene’s point of view, is a companion piece to El Nino, his composition about the birth of Christ as witnessed by women. Both feature texts, compiled by director and longtime Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, taken partly from the Bible, partly from an array of interesting poets (Louise Erdrich, Rosario Castellanos). Mary Magdalene seems to be a butch lesbian political activist whose girlfriend is a former drug addict she met in jail; when Mary M washes Jesus’s feet, it’s the girlfriend who dries them with her long hair. Jesus is played alternately by three countertenor Narrators (theirs is the most haunting music and presence in the semi-staged show) and the guy who also plays Lazarus. Not Adams’ most beautiful score ever but I’m glad to have witnessed the performance at Avery Fisher Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Respectful reception. Composer and director took bows. The conductor was the wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel, who did a fine job.


4.6.13 Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Passion got a beautiful intimate staging at Classic Stage Company by John Doyle. The intense intermissionless musical is the closest thing to a through-composed opera Sondheim’s ever done – no pause for applause anywhere, which I liked very much. I saw the opening night performance of the original 1994 Broadway production, with its fantastic performances by Donna Murphy as the melancholic un-beauty Fosca, Jere Shea (whatever happened to him?) as Giorgio, the handsome soldier she becomes fixated on, and Marin Mazzie as Clara, the beautiful young married woman he has been attached to. (That show is available on DVD – an excellent live broadcast for Great Performances, much of which you can find on YouTube.)

This smaller production was musically and theatrically very sound, although having both pair of lovers cavort on a hard cold marble floor sacrificed some sensuality (I’ll never forget the lushness of topless Mazzie in the show’s opening number, “Happiness.”) Judy Kuhn made a compelling Fosca, and Ryan Silverman was a fine Giorgio. Melissa Errico, the production’s Clara, was out – her understudy, Amy Justman, sang beautifully but her acting didn’t register much. Many people (including Andy, who came with me) have a hard time buying the plot, believing that Giorgio would ultimately choose to love the woman who’s been stalking him, but I’ve always been able to go along with it. Although Fosca’s obsession seems crazy, she doesn’t demand more of Giorgio than he offers, and it makes sense to me when the purity of her love breaks through to his heart, especially in contrast to the limited conditions of his affair with Clara, who is steadfastly married and not really available.

4.13.13 Bunty Berman Presents… – we took a gamble checking out an early preview of the musical at the New Group, a Bollywood spoof by Ayub Khan Din and Paul Bogaev, directed by Scott Elliott. We loved the New Group’s musical of Dan Savage’s The Kid, and I thought Elliott did a terrific job with Khan Din’s play East Is East years ago. But this was a pathetically lame show in every way, and we left at intermission. Since then, the lead actor, who was clearly floundering, has been replaced by the author, which can only be an improvement.

testament of mary handout
Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary gives us the mother’s account of a martyr’s death, which is somewhat at odds with the narrative constructed by historians, advocates, and media types. There are, shall we say, discrepancies. (I guess we could say this phenomenon is timeless – cf. the press conference given by the mother of the Boston Marathon bombers.)

4-21 mary from the balcony

The best part of Deborah Warner’s theatrical adaptation of Toibin’s monologue is the pre-show interactive art installation. The audience is invited onstage to inspect props and artifacts from the life of Mary, played by Fiona Shaw, who sits inside a Plexiglas cubicle surrounded by votive candles, while a few feet away a live vulture is chained to a tree stump.

4-21 testament vulture
A window in the floor reveals a crypt underneath the stage, as you see in many Italian churches housing relics of saints. The audience is invited, nay encouraged to snap photos with their smartphones, locating the theater piece in our world of nonstop citizen documentation of everything. I enjoyed touring the exhibition, taking pictures, and then standing in the aisle making Mary jokes with Ben Cameron.

4-21 mary crypt
At showtime, audience members take their seats, some of the props get whisked away (the cubicle, the vulture), and Shaw goes into her act. She is a fine actress, I have respect for her, but this performance is so busy and fussy that it becomes bothersome and … I was doing to say distracting from the storytelling, but I have to assume that it’s a choice on the part of Shaw and her director (and longtime collaborator and former love partner) to tell the story this way, as if Mary is traumatized and manic, can’t sit still, has to move and create some active moment on Every Single Line. She’s always moving furniture around, picking up a ladder, putting it down, bringing out a raw fish and cleaning it then throwing it away, getting naked and disappearing into an onstage pool for a minute, for no ostensible reason except to be showy (“I’ll show you, Mark Rylance!”). We walked away pretty nonplussed. Some reviewers loved it; Ben Brantley’s review in the Times echoed my feelings pretty much, though I have to say I didn’t disagree with Michael Feingold’s unremittingly negative commentary in the Village Voice.


4.6.13  I didn’t get around to seeing the blockbuster Jean-Michel Basquiat show at Gagosian Gallery until the very last day. It was great.
basquiat in italian 1983
I so admire the freedom Basquiat took for himself and how he used absolutely everything in his environment, in his mind, in his heart, in his eyes, in his ears to make work.

basquiat la hara 1981
There were constructions I’d never seen before – a fence he’d painted, two six-panel paintings hinged together, collages.

basquiat frogmen 6-panel 1983
Although smaller than the retrospective at Brooklyn Museum a few years ago, this was an impressive representation of Basquiat’s work.

basquiat installation 2 basquiat installation 1
These images make me crazy with joy.

basquiat untitled two heads on gold 1982

I’m delighted that Uniqlo has suddenly embraced Basquiat and Keith Haring as stars of the season, selling some very cool T-shirts based on their work and turning some kids onto these fertile creators who died way too young.

4-29 basquiat label


Spirit Matters by Matt Pallamary is a riveting memoir. Pallamary grew up among criminals and bad boys in Dorchester, a rough white working-class suburb of Boston, and spent his adolescence and early adulthood crashing through all kinds of self-destructive behavior before finding a life for himself as a writer. The prose is clean, clear, spare, honest, and astonishingly free of bullshit. He writes with extraordinary articulateness about subjects that are difficult to address cogently. His digest of Terrence McKenna’s teachings on indigenous North and South American plant medicine is something I’ve been craving for years, and his description of his first ayahuasca retreat in Peru is just fantastic — moved me to tears, cracked me up, and at times had me squirming in my seat with intense identification.


Enlightened – favorable opinions from people I trust led to sample the first five episodes of this HBO series created by Mike White and Laura Dern but I didn’t care for it. Dern’s character is just too fucked-up to be believable – we watch it and can only feel superior to her, which I think is unfair and separates bad/lazy TV from good stuff (in which category I place Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham).


RenoirGilles Bourdos’ new film portrays the French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir at the end of his life welcoming into his harem a beautiful young model who eventually falls in love with the painter’s son, a soldier who returns wounded from the front lines of World War I (and later goes on to become the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir). Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous. So sensual and beautiful and colorful, and without any of the stale cliches from such biopics (in which artists are repeatedly told how great they are). Superb performances by Michel Bouquet as the old man (who’s so arthritic that his paintbrushes have to be tied to his hands every day), Vincent Rottiers as Renoir fils, and Christa Theret as the mesmerizing Andree.

4-13 renoir still
Preparing to watch the new documentary about Andre Gregory – Before and After Dinner, made by Gregory’s wife Cindy Kleine – I went back and watched My Dinner with Andre with Andy, who’d never seen it before. I hadn’t seen it since it was made 30 (?!?) years ago, and there was a lot of stuff I hadn’t remembered. I loved the movie all over again. I find Andre Gregory to be a compelling figure, even with all his craziness and grandiosity, the shots of New York City in the early 1980s (especially the filthy subway cars) are fantastic, and the conversation that he and Wally Shawn have over dinner is an extraordinarily deep, fast-paced, far-ranging one. Of course the characters are constructions. I’ve gotten to know Wally over the years – I spent several months just after My Dinner with Andre interviewing him for a profile in Esquire magazine, and I’ve followed his work as a playwright closely with much admiration. In every way, he is an enigmatic figure himself, seemingly open and extremely available and yet quite mysterious.

my dinner with andre jpeg

It’s great to view the bonus disc of additional material that comes with the Criterion Collection DVD package. There are lengthy separate interviews with Wally and Andre conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach that contain lots of little revelations. The restaurant in which the film takes place, ostensibly somewhere in Soho, turns out to be in Richmond, West Virginia. Andre and Wally each tell their own version of how they met, via Renata Adler. Andre: “Men tend to hide. In the movie, Wally is hiding behind silence, and I’m hiding behind words.” Wally: “I’ve always been a fearful person. I was afraid of practically everything. [In My Dinner with Andre] I wanted to destroy that guy in myself who is totally motivated by fear.” Wally also talks about how stubborn and intransigent he was with director Louis Malle when they were trying to whittle the script down to two hours from three hours. “I was very difficult, quite pedantic,” Wally says. “He never said to me, Look, you’re luck that a guy like me is even talking to you. Don’t you get it?

The new documentary about Andre is a mixed bag. I love that Cindy Kleine wanted to make a film highlighting the amazing and influential theater work her husband has done, so he’s not just seen as a kooky character actor. To my taste, though, she inserts herself into the movie too much. She barely mentions Gregory’s first wife and the mother of his two grown children. And judging from the film, she and Wally Shawn can’t stand one another. Nevertheless, she captures some beautiful passages of Andre and Wally’s theater company rehearsing their living-room production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and there are any number of fascinating stories that emerge about Andre’s family life and his career in film and theater.

Later this year, the Public Theater and Theatre for a New Audience will present “The Wallace Shawn-Andre Gregory Project,” full-scale productions of two of Wally’s plays directed by Andre: The Designated Mourner and Grasses of a Thousand Colours.

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