“I want to keep the images on a precipice but it’s not one I can easily explain with words.” So says Laura Letinsky, the Chicago-based photographer with exhibitions now on view at the Denver Art Museum and the Photographers’ Gallery in London. I interviewed her for aperture.org; the conversation can be found here.
Several weeks ago I interviewed curator Okwui Enwezor about “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” an exhibition he organized with Rory Smith for the International Center of Photography in New York. The show remains on view through Sunday, January 6. We discussed the exhibition, the relationship between the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States, and about how this exhibition aligns with other shows he has presented in New York institutions. Click here to read the edited transcript.
I was saddened to learn last weekend of the death of Canadian photographer Arnaud Maggs at age eighty-six. Though not much appreciated in New York, where his last solo exhibition was presented in 1989, Maggs’s conceptually inflected portraiture was widely praised in his native country. He received numerous awards and prizes, among them the Governor General’s Award in 2006. He was active as a photographer from the mid-1970s up until the end of his life; his most recent solo exhibition, at Susan Hobbs Gallery in Toronto, was on view last spring. Click here for an obituary in the Globe & Mail and here for an interview with Maggs conducted last May.
The writer Mark Lamster interviewed me about “The Permanent Way” for Design Observer. We discuss revisionist histories of Gilded Age America, the difficulty of choosing photographs for an exhibition, and the “visual rhetoric” of westward expansion, among other topics. Click here to read the transcript of our discussion. The exhibition remains on view at apexart in New York until July 28.
While in Chicago last week, I visited the exhibition “Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964-77” at the Art Institute. It’s a remarkable show. Although its argument about the role of Conceptual Art in bringing the photography “definitively into the mainstream of contemporary art” is debatable, it succeeds in several other arenas: first, as an exhibition of conceptually oriented objects that is neither dry nor didactic; second, as a sketch of the precedents available to the artists included in Douglas Eklund’s 2009 exhibition “The Pictures Generation”; third, as an eloquent testimonial to the importance of southern and eastern European art to the histories of Conceptualism (a reclamation project spurred on a decade ago by Jane Farer’s wonderful “Global Conceptualism” exhibition). “Light Years,” curated by Matthew S. Witkovsky, is on view in Chicago until March 11, and I highly recommend it. The catalogue, too, is well done, and available for more than forty percent off at Amazon. For those who can’t visit, Witkovsky published a reconsideration of photographic abstraction in the March 2010 Artforum, the text of which is available here.
Brandon Stosuy’s roundup of the best metal albums of 2011 alerted me to the London-based band 40 Watt Sun, now also one of my favorite discoveries of this year. Other reviewers were sharply divided on the record’s merits, something Stosuy acknowledges when he notes that the “sweeping hooks, painful, introspective lyrics, and [Patrick] Walker’s clear, soaring voice” are “elements that could be cheesy if not handled with such delicacy or well-earned confidence.” Four of the album’s five tracks stretch over nine minutes each, and their consistency means you’ll know very quickly know whether you’ll like the whole record. Imagine a British Eddie Vedder singing over the top of Jesu, or Isis covering Red House Painters, or a 45 RPM record by mid-1990s emo band Mineral played at 33 RPM. The songs are crunchy, drawn out, and so sluggish as to seem static—perfect for late-night cross-country drives, as I discovered last night. Find out more and listen to samples here.
By coincidence I’ve just read two sharp analyses of Arizona politics in separate publications. At The New Inquiry, Alex Aums and James Broulard discuss the #OccupyWallStreet-influenced protests in Phoenix, and meditate in the process upon geography, demography, and “symbolic politics.” Meanwhile, in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding reports on the state’s transformation into a “militarized desert principality.” His thoughtful presentation of first-person accounts from both sides of the border is well worth the time it takes to read his 11,000-word essay.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, journalist Simon Kuper, coauthor of the acclaimed 2009 book Soccernomics, claims that he thinks “people are almost as interesting as numbers.” His new collection of soccer profiles, titled Soccer Men, gave me a chance to test that claim; having done so, I think the emphasis in his statement should be placed on the word almost. To read my review of the book, head to Bookforum.com. “Kuper’s admiring portraits of an earlier generation of great talkers—from Johann Cruijff to Lothar Matthaüs to Jorge Valdano—reveal that his irritation with today’s players is due as much to broader developments in the game as it is to their individual traits.”
Last week, during the friendly match between Manchester United and the New England Revolution, the ESPN commentators said that United’s coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, is a Civil War buff, and that during last summer’s tour of the United States he made a pilgrimage to Gettysburg. Today the Telegraph presents a slide show of the English club’s “extra-curricular” activities on this year’s tour, including a visit to Harvard University. Does Ferguson know that Harvard’s President, Drew Gilpin Faust, who is standing next to him in this photo, is a world-renowned Civil War scholar? Has he read her most recent book, This Republic of Suffering? This could be a Missed Connection of epic proportions.
Today I received a copy of American History Now, a brand-new collection of historiographical essays edited by Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr. Published for the American Historical Association by Temple University Press, the book supplants The New American History, which came out in 1990 and was revised in 1997. The new volume is an imaginative overhauling of the invaluable sourcebook of essays on recent developments in American history, increasing the total number of texts and dividing them roughly evenly between accounts ordered chronologically and those ordered thematically. If you have the earlier edition—I do, and it was very useful for my comprehensive exam—you’ll want this one, too, as the editors have invited a new generation of scholars to weigh in with fresh surveys of their particular fields of expertise. A few examples will suffice: Alan Taylor on the colonial era; Kim Phillips-Fein on the last four decades; Erez Manela on “The United States in the World”; Sven Beckert on the history of American capitalism; Mae Ngai on immigration and ethnic history.
I’d like to point you to the Los Angeles Review of Books, a new and ambitious book-review publication. A temporary site was launched last spring, and despite its interim nature it boasts some wonderful review-essays. I’ve been reading it since April, and scanning its Table of Contents reminds me of some thoughtful and sharply written pieces, including Kathryn Schulz on Sarah Bakewell’s life of Montaigne; Barbara Ehrenreich on human-animal relationships; Chris Kraus on Simone Weil; and Mark McGurl’s controversial response to Elif Batuman’s controversial review of his book on MFA fiction-writing programs. I eagerly await the unveiling of the full LARB site, and hope its funding (from UC Riverside and other places) creates a sustainable platform for such writing for a long time to come.
For those whose thirst for commentary on the 1970s wasn’t quenched by Rick Perlstein’s recent summary of a dozen or so books on the topic, the December/January issue of Bookforum features another such round-up, this time by historian Kim Phillips-Fein. For assessment of another side of life during that decade, consider the discussion taking place at the US Intellectual History blog concerning Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s paper, delivered at the group’s recent conference, on Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Lastly there the recently published anthology The Shock of the Global, edited by four eminent historians, which I mentioned in passing here.
Several years ago, when Robert Silvers spoke at 192 Books, the New York Review of Books editor was asked what subject he felt was the most difficult to write about. “Contemporary art” was his answer, and he said that he was hoping to cover more recent art in the pages of his journal. While I haven’t seen much that qualifies as discussion of contemporary art from the likes of Sanford Schwartz, Luc Sante visits the New Museum exhibition “The Last Newspaper” and reports back for the NYRBlog. He doesn’t like what he finds: “For all that numerous artists and curators genuinely believe themselves to be engaged, the art world is too rich, too hermetic, and too pleased with itself to have any more rapport with what is happening ‘on the street’ than did the art establishment Hans Haacke and cohorts were trying to overturn circa 1968. But then, in taking on the lame-duck medium that is the newspaper, the show is even further insulated from actuality.”
In recent weeks I’ve found myself thinking frequently about Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, an experimental 2008 documentary by filmmaker John Gianvito. I saw it that summer at Anthology Film Archives, and was happy to learn that this hour-long plaintive meditation on radical American history—and how it has been encoded in the country’s landscape—is available as a free online stream at SnagFilms. As A.O. Scott noted in the New York Times, “The calling of birds and the rustle of trees provide most of the commentary, and the effect is somehow to make history more mysteriously distant and more concrete—a matter of stone and weathered plaques inscribed with the records of half-forgotten deeds.” Here is a longer meditation on two of Gianvito’s films by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who compares the film to those by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Rosenbaum says, “Gianvito’s various ways of approaching the graves, memorials, and shrines through the surrounding landscapes that nestle and sometimes hide these largely unremarked sites is every bit as important as their inscriptions.” I highly recommend the film.
Huge fanfare surrounded the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in February 2009—and occasioned a flood of books on our sixteenth president. (Here is Sean Wilentz’s controversial take on seven of them.) The ruckus has hardly died down, yet historians of nineteenth-century America are once again being tapped by newspaper opinion pages, this time to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The Washington Post has already launched Civil War 150, a site that has incorporated A House Divided, a blog about the war run for two years about Linda Wheeler. In recent weeks it has featured posts from the eminent historians Joan Waugh, David W. Blight, Kate Masur, and others. The New York Times is getting in on the act, too, with Disunion, a subset of its Opinionator blog mostly written by Adam Goodheart (though already featuring a few guest posts by Ted Widmer). The torrent of writing will only increase in the coming weeks: South Carolina seceded on December 24.
Urban Omnibus has published an interview with Stanley Greenberg, whose “photography explores hidden systems, infrastructures and technologies, both state-of-the-art and antiquated. New York City’s unseen workings, the region’s complex water systems, architecture mid-construction, physics labs, telescopes and a decommissioned dam have all been the subject of Greenberg’s careful eye.” A slideshow of Greenberg’s photographs accompanies the text; to see more, click here for a page on the Gitterman Gallery website and here for a selection published at the site of the Architect’s Newspaper.
Why not spend this election day, in which the modern Tea Party figures so largely, reading Benjamin L. Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America (Yale University Press)? The well-timed book is not only a lucid, detailed explanation of what took place in Boston from the mid-1760s to that fateful December night in 1773. It also sets those events into a global context, with a chapter on the East India Company and “Great Britain’s struggle to manage its expanding empire”; highlights women’s roles in the related boycotts and non-importation agreements; and builds on the nexus between the urban environment and political mobilization that Carp laid out so clearly in Rebels Rising, his first book. Carp offered a brief summary of “the real history of the Tea Party” in the Wall Street Journal, and spoke about the book in this podcast.
This summer I caught World Cup fever, which has morphed into an obsession with European soccer. I’ve been watching a game or two a week, as well as watching highlights from dozens of others and reading blogs and newspapers’ sports sections. There are a handful of intersections between the sport and contemporary art—another of my interests—most notably Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s 2006 film Zidane: A 21st-century Portrait. Now I’ve come across Pied La Biche, an artists’ collective that has riffed on soccer several times. Their video Refait re-creates, on the streets of Villeurbanne, France, the final fifteen minutes of the 1982 World Cup match between France and Spain. The group has also realized artist Asger Jorn’s 1964 proposal for a three-sided football match, which was played in Vénissieux, France, in October 2009 during the Lyon Biennale. Learn more about the group at their French-language website. (Via soccer blog From a Left Wing. Also, if you’re wondering, I’m rooting for Arsenal.)
My friend Alan Gilbert recently conducted a lengthy and fascinating interview with Jace Clayton (aka DJ/Rupture) for Bomb Magazine. Clayton is behind the consistently great blog mudd up!; is the creator of stunning DJ mixes that incorporate music from around the globe; is the author of insightful articles (one, two) on changes in music culture; and lives, I think, down the block from me. Clayton’s Gold Teeth Thief Mix, released in 2001, opened up my ears to musical cultures with which I was unfamiliar, and was a large part of the reason why, when his 2008 album Uproot was released, I was not surprised to discover I was familiar with many of the “obscure” musicians it samples, including Ekkehard Ehlers, whose 12″s under the collective title Plays (later released as a CD on Staubgold) remain favorites of mine. In the interview, Clayton discusses “friction as a process,” the computer as the “folk instrument of composition,” and the economics of DJing. And really—if you haven’t yet heard Gold Teeth Thief, go download it. It’s free.
For several months I have read, in a fugitive manner, Michael Greenberg’s essay collection Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life. A compilation of roughly thousand-word essays he has published in the Times Literary Supplement, the book, so far as I can tell, amounts to a haphazard index of New York, a careful and sympathetic accounting of its odd places and characters. I peruse it standing up. I read in a West Village bookstore about a longtime fixer in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Greenberg grew up, and in an Upper West Side indie about Hart Island, a potter’s field where thousands of New York’s anonymous dead lie buried. Now I’m pleased to discover that Greenberg has inaugurated a new column, “The Accidentalist,” in the new issue of Bookforum. Read his first entry, about a “strange fever,” here.