Book Review: Bill Cunningham: On The Street

Fashion photographers, being perforce behind the camera, rarely become icons themselves. Bill Cunningham (1929-2016) was a rarity; an unassuming man, not stylish himself, who nevertheless became a barometer of fashion on the streets of New York City. His work at major fashion shows earned him praise, but his fame arose from the outdoors, capturing people wearing their best and hoping to be noticed – hoping, indeed, that Cunningham himself would notice them. To be photographed by Bill Cunningham was a badge of honor among the fashion-conscious.

I suppose I began seeing Cunningham’s iconic New York Times column, On The Street, when it began in 1978, though I was in high school at the time and distinctly un-fashion conscious. I remember skimming it, briefly noticing whatever theme Cunningham had discerned among the Big Apple’s fashionable folk. Perhaps it was a color coming into dominance in Eastertime fashions, or a new application of an old look or technique. Whatever it was, it showed what people were wearing, not the industry-dominated predictions of what would be hot in the coming months, or fashion so forward it becomes wearable, but not practical, art. He preferred photographing people in clothes that they owned, rather than rentals – for fashion shows, of course, other rules apply, but Cunningham was more democratic than most fashionistas.

Bill Cunningham: On The Street, a coffee-table book drawn from Cunningham’s years of On The Street columns makes a welcome diversion, a blast from the past and the comparatively recent present. How good the selection is can only be guessed at; Cunningham’s archive is vast, and will likely be re-examined many times. All I can say is that I have repeatedly gone back to this book since I got it last Christmas, and it continues to delight and instruct me.

The editors (primarily Tiina Loite, former photography editor at the New York Times Style section, collected a selection of photographs from his decades of close observation, with the changing face of the city itself – or unchanging, take your pick – as its backdrop. What can you say about one photo from the 1980s in which a stylish woman has turned away from the camera because a man is being mugged behind her (p. 57)? That’s NYC for you.

Classic Cunningham: blue jacket, bicycle, camera.

There are celebrities, of course, though they are few and stand out less than their status would have you imagine. Andy Warhol is there, well-dressed but not especially stylish; the dynamic duo of Vogue magazine, Anna Wintour and Andre Leon Talley, are naturally present. But most of these well-dressed folk are anonymous, their errands and concerns of the day forgotten. They dressed to be noticed, and Bill Cunningham noticed them.

Art does not solely exist in dedicated spaces; it thrives in the channels of everyday life. As I have grown older I have come to realize that every moment can have art in it, either in the process of creation or in its realization. As a result I have become fashion-conscious, and a Bill Cunningham fan. I see Cunningham as a successor to Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose interest in the decisive moment shapes all street photography. Cunningham’s subjects are going somewhere; waiting cross the street provides a perfect opportunity for a photograph; the shifting currents of weather provide settings for quotidian drama. Trends are defines not by what designers think will be trendy, but by what people wear.

If this post has a moral to it, perhaps it is this: you never know who might be looking at you, or how you affect them. So many of Cunningham’s subject are looking away, toward their destination, some obstacle, or simply enwrapped in the motions of ordinary life. They went on, but a little bit of them was preserved, and may yet serve to inspire others. Put on the hat, wear the daring combination – the next Bill Cunningham might see you, and add you to posterity.

Book Review: Emerson’s Nature and the Artists: Idea as Landscape, Landscape as Idea by Tyler Green

I have finally dug down into my to-be-read pile far enough to immerse myself in critic/historian/podcaster Tyler Green‘s book, Emerson and the Artists: Idea as Landscape, Landscape as Idea. Good things come to those who wait, it is said, and in this case I was well rewarded. My own connection with the Hudson River School painters goes way back, as I was born in Hartford, CT, home to the Wadsworth Atheneum, which holds an excellent collection of that school. (This is not merely hometown pride: I worked at the Atheneum for a time, and worked with curator Betsy Kornhauser, who is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and to whom Green gives credit for helping inspire the book. I wear my heart on my sleeve.)

In the mid-1830s, with the Civil War as yet in embryonic form, Ralph Waldo Emerson penned a landmark essay, in which he argued that a distinctly American identity could be fashioned using the nation’s landscape as inspiration. At the same time, and in the decades that followed, artists took this idea – or came to it independently – and expressed the country through its physical spaces, creating poems in paint. Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, John Kensett, and many others sought to bring distinctly American scenes, mindful of, and struggling with, European landscape traditions.

This confluence and synchronicity is well documented and explained by Green, who wisely reprints Nature in its entirety, providing artworks that deliberately or not illustrate Emerson’s ideas. Cogent without being pedantic, and punctuated by the paintings themselves, Green captures a time when a thought took root between disciplines, leaving us with the country’s first distinctly American art movement.

Writing this, I also have to tip my hat to Emerson’s vocabulary. I’m indebted to him for the word “micrify” which, as you might guess, is the opposite of “magnify.” It’s a pleasure to read a thinker who is not afraid to think without dumbing down or condescension. Green’s prose, while not Emersonian, holds up nicely in such company. The illustrations capture the grandeur and skill of Hudson River School art.

One last note, and a wag of the finger to my former employer: Green thanks the many museums that have instituted open-access policies, allowing scholars access to images of artworks in their collections free of charge. I couldn’t help but notice that not a single work from the Wadsworth Atheneum’s collection is included. Perhaps this is coincidental, but I’m betting not. The amount raised by charging fees to reproduce images of art is tiny, and, assuming it’s not a coincidence, I urge the Atheneum’s leadership to join the open-access movement. Money is not always your friend.

Definition in progress

Georges Seurat, Artist at Work, 1884. Collection: Philadelphia Museum of Art

I have been thinking throughout many years about a definition of art, one that would encapsulate without confining, yet speak to the universality of experiencing art. My initial effort, “Art is that which delights the eye and excites the mind,” is useful but too limited – it refers only to visual art, for example.

I am rather fond of artist/teacher Frederick Franck’s definition, “Art is that which, despite all, gives hope,*” but that speaks to the emotional impact, and feels too small. I’d hate to think that there is art which denies or negates hope, but I can’t rule such art out either. Some artists are gloomy cusses.

The common element in every artistic endeavor, for the artist and the public, is experience, but not unmediated experience. A maker creates, an audience experiences, but the medium between them is what we call art. So let me offer, “Art is the shared experience(s) between a creator and an audience.”

This sounds as though the experiences were universal, which, of course, it isn’t. Part of our individuality is the variation in our loves and hates; save us from a world where everyone feels the same way about everything! An artist by nature experiences their work in ways that an audience does not, simply from their differing perspectives. The creator sees the roads not taken, whereas the audience must speculate about them. It’s fine for, say, a viewer to look at an abstract painting and be reminded of something from nature, even though there may be no connection to the artist’s inspirations or thought processes. Artists need to let go and let the audience make their own judgements; an audience needs to be an interpreter and not just a student. What happens to each doesn’t have to relate exactly to what the other is experiencing – it may even be better if they have different experiences.

Art is work and play together. Some people approach art as a knotty problem to be unraveled, and take pleasure in the unraveling. Others delight in the emotional impact. Neither is right or wrong, and neither is more important than the other, even when the artist wants a specific response.

I just changed my second definition while writing this, adding the parenthesis and plural s to experience. It’s unlikely that any art, be it music, visual, experiential, etc., will produce a single response. Life is more complex than that. You might have noticed that this definition is not limited to art alone. Isn’t love shared experience between two individuals? A religious person could argue that life as a whole fits that definition. I won’t argue. It is pointless, and even detrimental, to try and put art in a box. History is full of ruptured boxes that were thought to contain art, only to be shattered by some artist(s) exploring new directions. Perhaps “Art is Life” might serve, though it fails to be specific enough, I think.

But are these experiences shared? You might have a response well outside the life and experience of the creator; certainly, for example, a viewer looking at a medieval illuminated manuscript is having a very different experience from the creators, just through changes in society and the passage of history. Time is almost its own participant in the process; it changes the context through which we experience things.

It’s a new year, and many fine experiences lie ahead, and some not so fine. Thank you for reading, and may 2023 bring you new things to experience, and new experiences for the things you already know.

  • in Franck’s book, Art as a Way, Crossroad Press, New York, 1981

Some thoughts about death

I had a birthday recently – I seem to have one every year – and went to MASS MoCA as part of the festivities. I continue to be impressed and moved by the shows there, and, despite the title of this post, I have come to love the museum. Death is a constant in human expression, and art is no exception, so let’s look at some of my favorite works from this visit and how they deal with death and life, that inextricable pair.

Linda Sormin‘s gargantuan ceramic, iron, video, and etc., piece Stream (2021) is an immediate eye-grabber, a seemingly random collection of ceramic pieces, held up or held in place by pipes, with video screens providing motion to the implied motion of all the other bits. It towers overhead, and at places sinks into the floor. No photograph can capture it adequately; to understand it, you must stand inside, and let it spread around and over you.

Even this wide shot, which only shows a portion of the piece, fails to capture it. It’s a testament to the other works in the show (Ceramics in the Expanded Field, which runs to April 10, 2023) that they are not wholly overwhelmed by the sheer scale and attraction of Stream. An installation of considerable power (I might offer Sol LeWitt’s term, “Structure” as preferable to “installation” and I guess I am) it was the first piece to grab me on my arrival at the museum.

This work, though made deliberately, suggests collapse and decay, with repurposed elements – including a Chinese dragon costume – speaking to the passage of time and the inevitability of death. The video images are distorted, abstract, suggesting corruption, and the beauty therein.

Marc Swanson’s “A Memorial to Ice at the Dead Deer Disco” (on view through August 2023) is about death, past or imminent. Swanson draws from the loss of friends who used to party at discos back in the day, before the AIDS epidemic, and the apocalypse of climate change, creating an eerie glamor that is enhanced by the dark galleries and pinpoint lighting. Animal carcasses, bare tree branches, and draped fabrics evocative of hooded, cloaked figures, are paired with glittering surfaces, lights, and, in one case, a mirrored floor to bring stark beauty to the passing of life.

This piece, based on Michelangelo’s Pieta, is the finest of them all. Instead of Mary cradling the dead Jesus we get an empty suit of rags, perhaps grave cloth (Dickens’s the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, perhaps?) holding a dead animal. Mary’s hand is now an antler, horrifying and tender at the same time. Two attendant figures stand to the sides, their emptiness suggestive of helplessness in the face of death. Do I see affinities between the naked trees here and the jumble of pipes in Linda Sormin’s Stream? Yes, I do.

One more Marc Swanson piece, just to show its beauty: the antlers are all a-glitter, while the colored light changes from blue, to red, and green.

Here are two shots of Joe Wardwell‘s massive mural, “Hello America: 40 Hits from the 50 States” because it is dizzying and speaks to the way we commit ourselves to trivial things – and I don’t entirely mean that as criticism. Life it transitory, and there is no reason for us to devote ourselves wholly to permanent things. Having fun in the moment matters, too.

Some artists seem to belong in a setting like this – MASS MoCA is a campus of former factory buildings, being repurposed one by one – and one of those is Laurie Anderson. Her show (on view “at least through 2023”) includes text, video, two virtual reality rooms, and gives us slivers of her creativity that only make me want more.

The above is just a portion of one of her wall texts; I read them more than once in my short visit. The passage of time is a recurring theme in all art – even the so-called “timeless” is about loss – and Anderson is very much of her time, yet she stands above it while being in it. The show could be twice as large without becoming too much, and I could write twice as much without gushing. Included are two selections from Scroll (2021), in which an AI was fed English translations of the Bible plus Anderson’s own writings, which led to a Bible written in an approximation of Anderson’s style. I want to read more of that, much more.

This still from Sidewalk (2012) utterly fails to capture the riveting flow of images. You are looking at the floor, wherein is a rectangular pool filled with shredded paper. Video is projected onto the paper, sometimes in color, sometimes black and white. The images are not always comprehensible; some appear to have decayed. The loose texture of the shredded paper adds to this. You could see this as the degradation of memory, or history being lost as the people who experienced it die away. It is evocative of storytelling without being a story itself.

I had a good birthday and, despite seeming to encounter hints of mortality at every turn, did not sink into gloom. Art, even when based on morbid or tragic ideas, never fails to uplift me. It glimmers like the flutter of birthday candles, and I am grateful and infatuated with it. With the darkest part of Winter still to come, I will look again to art to bring me light while the sun hides.

More self-promotion, with thoughts

ME: No man can illustrate my story!

IT: (doffs helmet) I am no man!

(with no apologies whatever to Peter Jackson)

I am very pleased to be included in the 2022 issue of Startling Stories, with my story “Just Like You and Me.” This is the second issue of Startling since Wildside Press revived it last year, and makes me 2-for-2, as my story “Mothership” ran in the first issue. If you’d like to learn more about Startling’s history, click here.

While I’m happy to be in Startling – my father read the original magazine during his teenage years, circa 1940-45 – this new story has an unusual distinction. The illustrations to “Just Like You and Me” are not by a human being, but by Midjourney AI, an artificial intelligence – Midjourney’s Wikipedia entry is here. Midjourney AI is not wholly independent, but takes material and parameters and interprets them, which, when you think of it, is what an artist does. Startling’s publisher, John Gregory Betancourt, did the honors and worked with Midjourney to produce the illustrations. To the best of the staff’s knowledge, and mine also, this is the first time an AI has produced illustrations for a science fiction magazine. The other illustrators in this issue are all humans, including Vincent Di Fate, a grandmaster of sci-fi illustration.

Some SF writers are prophets, warning the world about what could happen, extrapolating their best- or (usually) worst-case scenarios about where we are headed. Other writers, myself included, use the future as a means of combining speculation with entertainment. I don’t believe the future of “Just Like You and Me” will happen, neither am I warning you about what might happen when…oh, that way leads to spoilers.

There’s a lot of speculation going on in the real world as well, about what AIs might mean for the future of art and illustration. I’m not a pessimist: the machines aren’t taking over, and I don’t think they will unless we let them. After all, aren’t we the ones who set the parameters, small-time Gods who grant our creations what we choose? Replacement theory, which is in reality paranoia and bigotry given a bland name, is nonsense, whether it is about racial or ethnic groups or machines. Change is likely – illustrations might become more collaborative, with artists or non-artists engaging with AIs to produce works – but that has as much potential to good as to harm. It’s the sense of control that is key: the more people feel things are out of their hands, the more they fear. And fear rarely leads to good decisions.

Without giving too much away, my story is set in a future world where the human population is augmented with holograms, robots, and AIs, among others, so the choice of Midjourney AI to illustrate it was particularly appropriate. But suppose I had written about an entirely alien culture – would I have to wait for first contact to find an illustrator? The editors at Better Homes & Gardens never have this sort of problem.

Damaged Groceries as Abstract Sculpture

Diptych: Milk

When the pandemic hit my girlfriend and I decided it was time to move back East, to be closer to family. I took a job at a grocery store to pay some of the bills while we got settled in our new home. Working behind the scenes I got to see the side grocers try to hide from the public, and the sight of damaged items being sorted out for disposal caught my eye. I began to imagine them not as ruined commercial products, but as accidental art.

Diptych: Milk

Milk jugs that have leaked or been incompletely filled are obvious choices, like a Claes Oldenburg sculpture somehow gone awry.

Chocolate: still tastes good (I assume)

But other items are farther removed from their ideal forms. What could have happened to a Hershey’s chocolate bar (with almonds) to put it in this condition? Melted, then set in shape – it was found in a refrigerated case, cold and hard – with no conscious input from the “sculptor”, or so I assume.

And these are two packs of cheese slices, now transformed.

A Cheesy Pair

There might be future installments in this series. Stay tuned.

Whitney Biennial 2022, the catalog

Front cover of the book.

Be sure and see my review of the exhibition, here.

A catalog is a strange beast, at times incomprehensible unless you have seen the show first, other times shining light on what you missed. I always buy the Whitney Biennial catalog – here’s my review of the 2019 catalog – and post my impressions.

At first glance I had flashbacks to 2019: the simple, one-color cover is an odd choice for a show that barely glanced at anything minimalist. Thankfully, it avoids the terrible design choices of 2019, worst of which was the silver-grey color of the text*. 2022 has nice black print on white paper (with one exception – more about that later) and a decent font size. My aging eyes are grateful. The cover is uninteresting, listing the artists in the show, the curators, and guest writers, and comes in orange, blue, or green. The day I was there, late in the show’s run (it closed in early September) there were far more green covers than blue or orange – a reflection on sales, accident, coincidence? For the record, I bought a green. The pages are tabbed, like a reference book, which is okay, and a more interesting design choice than the cover.

*I was so turned off by the grey text that it colored my memories; re-reading my review, I had forgotten that I liked the writing, just not the printing. Presentation is important.

The contributors are presented in alphabetical order, with the curators and guest essayists included, which feels nicely democratic. Biennials are often a strange mixture of styles and media, appropriate for an art world that long since ceased to be monolithic, and catalogs try to impose order without judgement. The artists in this Biennial contributed their own bios/statements, which range from basic museum boilerplate style (I won’t cite examples; not all artists are writers) to deeply intellectual (Terence Nance, who goes deep without falling into jargon). While I miss the how-we-put-this-together aspect found in some catalogs, there are elements in essays by curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards, which seems sufficient. Since the artists say little about the show (how could they? The show was forming around them as they wrote) a sense of focus is hard to grasp.

One oddity is the contribution by EJ Hill, who is known for performance/durational work, with sidelights in installation and painting, takes the Biennial’s title, “Quiet As It’s Kept”, to heart. He did not show or perform any work, and his contribution to the catalog consists of a blank, pink page – pp. 135-6, if you’re interested. If the page is an artwork, visitors who didn’t buy the catalog missed out. As it is, this is unique in Hill’s work to date, and dodges passive-aggression through its hermetic nature. Whatever it is, it got me thinking, and isn’t that one of the purposes of art?

I’ll throw two quotes from the book that stuck in my head, the first from Alex Da Corte, whose video ROY G BIV was a highlight for me: “It is Friday but time does not exist here anymore. (p.90)” A little surrealism is always welcome.

Second, from painter Jane Dickson: “Everyone lives in a double helix of then and now, new experience entwining with the past. (p. 96)” A statement that could be applied to many exhibitions, especially surveys like a Biennial.

In all, an average catalog, with only a few standouts, but reading so many artists writing about themselves gives a peek into the broad spectrum of artistic expression. The book is hardcover and, at $50 feels a bit pricey, but with plentiful color illustrations and such a lineup, it’s worth it.

Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept

Installation view, Alex Da Corte’s video ROY G BIV. Photos by Stephen Persing unless otherwise credited

In his introduction to the 2022 Whitney Biennial’s catalog (I’ll review the catalog separately, as I have previously) Director Adam D. Weinberg unwittingly sums up my own attitude toward each new Biennial: “…for all the advance knowledge I have, I must admit I never truly know. (pg. 3)” I share this delightful and trepidatious realization. Each Whitney Biennial somehow comes as a mystery, a set of surprises delightful and disappointing by turns. I walk through the galleries, alternating among “I want to see nothing but this artist’s work”, “I never want to see this artist again”, and “That was…okay.”

I sum, after the largely underwhelming 2019 Biennial (reviewed here) this year’s model was a pleasant surprise, the highs surpassing the lows, and, two days later, my brain is still percolating through what I saw and thought; by contrast, in three years, I have given the 2019 show very little thought.

The title of the show “Quiet as It’s Kept,” is derived from a colloquial phrase, according to curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards, something “typically said prior to something that should be kept in secret”, which is new to me but sparks my imagination – like the Biennial itself, there is implied meaning beyond any simple assumption. The other inspiration comes from experimental poet N. H. Pritchard, who used inverted parentheses – )( – in a 1968 poem, included in the catalog. Again, I like this: a symbol that suggests inclusion, in defiance of the usual use of parentheses, which wall off an idea into its own enclave. Pritchard’s parentheses open up, and include a slim space between them for anything else to slip in. So it is that the 2022 Whitney Biennial spreads a wide net, realism, abstraction, and more under one roof. Biennials do this all the time, but here it is highlighted just a bit more, and subtly.

Should you be unable to see the show, Artnet contributor Ben Davis photographed almost every piece, so at least you’ll have some idea. It’s not like being there, of course, but this is being written at the end of August, and the Biennial itself runs until September 5th.

I am not generally a fan of works heavily based on sociology and history, works which could easily pass as documentaries (these are usually videos), but there are some here. Raven Chacon‘s Three Songs (2021) is one of the best, simply recording Native American songs with simplicity and grace. Other video works include Coco Fusco‘s lovely Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word (2021), a meditation on death and isolation involving Hart Island, America’s largest mass grave, and Alex Da Corte‘s ROY G BIV (2022), which includes Marcel Duchamp, the museum posted a video about Da Corte and the work here. I particularly liked Da Corte as Duchamp; though his heavy makeup is obvious, it does not detract from the performance in any way.

Artist collective Moved by the Motion provide a rich video work, Moby Dick, which draws not merely on Melville’s novel, but moves free-form into dance and staged melodrama. The use of color and movement is rich and intoxicating. As the first piece I saw, being installed in a first-floor gallery accessible even if you haven’t bought a ticket, it set a high standard for the rest of the show.

Kandis Williams‘s Death of A (2022) also riffed on a classic, in this case Arthur Miller‘s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman. Williams uses this as a springboard for dance and acting and, much to my surprise, a few clips from the 1942 film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. It was a good year for taking well-known works and expanding them into something new and wonderful.

Rebecca Belmore, iskode (fire), in the rear, works by Guadalupe Rosales

In sculpture, Rebecca Belmore‘s iskode (fire) (2021) is arresting, especially as it is set in a gallery painted black, a challenging and brilliant decision. A clay figure, molded from a sleeping bag draped around a figure, is surrounded by a moat of shotgun shells – or are they the train of an unholy dress? It has a red carpet quality rendered disturbing by the bullets, glamor and terror combined.

Charles Ray continues to be one of the country’s finest representational sculptors, and his contributions to the Biennial are well up to standard. No more needs to be said.

Installation works are a mixed bag: Nayland Blake’s Rear Entry: Service Entrance for a Haunted House (1976-2022) is just what it sounds like but, because it is installed on the exterior of the building, you could walk right by and not notice. In short, it’s so believable as to risk invisibility. (Disclosure: I follow Nayland Blake on Twitter, and was delighted to see him included in the Biennial, so I might be biased.) If you want to read more, this New Yorker piece helps, including the performance works Blake did during the show. Alia Farid‘s Palm Orchard (2022), a grove of artificial palm trees whose fronds echo bursting fireworks to the point of lighting up at night, is amusing but dark, echoing the devastation of southern Iraq’s date palms during the Gulf War and after. The plastic and lightshow elements undermine the sense of loss, and you end up with a pretty but shallow result. The trees are a good backdrop for tourist photos, though.

Rose Salane‘s 64,000 Attempts at Circulation (2022), consists of several tables covered with coins, slugs, and medals all used to get around paying bus fare from 2017-2019. I want to know who tried to pay with a Fender guitar pick, and whether they succeeded.

I haven’t mentioned painting, because there wasn’t a lot to talk about. Adam Gordon’s She throws children into the world (2022) is well-painted but so low-key it has trouble holding its own with the other art in the gallery. Perhaps a different location would have helped. Awilda Sterling-Duprey‘s series ...blindfolded (2020-ongoing) sounds like a good idea (she paints while blindfolded, letting improvised jazz inspire her movements) but the results shown are second-rate abstraction.

After viewing Alex Da Corte’s video, I walked over to where my girlfriend Heather was examine a painting. She had me shut my eyes and listen. The sounds from several videos blurred together with those of visitors and a little ambient city noise, into a subtle, constant murmur. This, she said, was the uncredited work in the show, a John Cage-esque melange of accidental and intentional sound combined anew into its own symphony, without author or knowing performers. Our conversation, too, became part of that evanescent work, unrecorded and unremarked except here.


For the last 50 years (approximately), artist Michael Heizer has been working on his magnum opus, a huge sculptural installation known as City. In September 2022, City will open to the public, though Heizer himself says it is not finished. Whether it will ever be finished is uncertain; $40 million (also approximately) has been spent on it so far. The work, a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, is likely to become a touchstone for the devout art lover: the Triple Aught Foundation, which owns and runs the work, has limited visitors to six a day, with advance reservations and a $150 admission fee.

Michael Heizer, City (detail)

Though Heizer has stated that he was inspired by ruins his father, an archaeologist, visited, there is much more than that. These are not ruins, but clean-edged, imposing structures and walkways that suggest a city yet to be inhabited, caught in a moment before humanity begins to compromise the artist’s intent. I’d work this comparison further, but it would wander into Ayn Rand territory, and I detest her writing. Michael Heizer is capable of creating such a thing; John Galt is not.

Michael Heizer, City, aerial view (detail)

From ground level (judging from photographs) the emptiness speaks to art history as well as the archaeological; Giorgio de Chirico springs to mind, though de Chirico’s cities show limited signs of habitation, occasional people and more traditional statuary among the hard-edged buildings.

Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia, 1964. Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Toronto, Canada

(I am trying hard not to bring Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities into this, but it plays such a prominent role in the overlap of fiction and art – including an incomplete discussion of some Calvino-inspired art here, and my own homage [upcoming] – that it is inevitable.)

Krell city, Forbidden Planet (1956), MGM.

Another, perhaps less likely, inspiration is the 1956 sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet, which featured an underground alien city built by creatures called the Krell. The broad avenue and imposing scale seem reminiscent, though it would be the other way round. As it is, I think Heizer took what he saw as a 12 year-old boy when he took a trip to Mexico with his father. Inspiration is not art, though, but some of the building blocks of art. City is both an echo of ruins without context and a future city without inhabitants, an architectural crop circle dropped into America’s in-between space. A mall that was never finished, a landing pad for our alien overlords, or the country’s least accessible skate park – it could be any or all of these. Or, perhaps, it’s just a sculpture, beautiful for its shapes and without underlying context.

It’s unlikely I’ll get to see City in person any time soon, if at all, but I can dream of walking through it, seeing it as a city waiting to be born or a city dying, or a sculpture meant to remind you of one. There’s too much risk of reading narratives into the work. As Heizer says, “I am not here to tell people what it all means. You can figure it out for yourself.”

Claes Oldenburg

“I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.
I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.
I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.
I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.
I am for all art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”
— Claes Oldenburg, 1961

A classic Oldenburg in situ.

The death of Claes Oldenburg (obituary here) should come as no surprise; he was 93 years old, after all. The sculptures he created with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, are instantly recognizable: giant everyday objects – a handsaw, clothespin, ice cream cone – exemplify Pop Art and transform the places they are installed in. Oldenburg and van Bruggen were a team, he designing the works, she overseeing their execution. Oldeburg’s soft sculptures, outsize everyday things rendered in kapok and other squishy materials, make viewers aware of texture and the power of touch while being fun to look at.

An Oldenburg soft sculpture – what more needs to be said?

Pop Art is often seen as the intersection of so-called fine art and its lower kindred, comic strips, advertising, and the like. It is sometimes presented as a rowdy storming of the staid and stodgy castles of the art world. Humor in museums? Gasp! But art has included jokes, from mild whimsy to scatalogical humor, since time immemorial. How else do you explain the homicidal rabbits that appear in medieval manuscripts, or the strains of often harsh satire in artists like Daumier and Grosz?

No, Monty Python did not invent the killer rabbit.

Through Pop, the art world found a way to lighten up, to present spectacle without too much seriousness, yet not too flippantly. Look at the clothespin above – have you ever noticed how well designed a clothespin is? Elegant, efficient, and eminently practical, and a good landmark for a city.

While the high art/low art confluence might have been everemphasized by critics, it is a valid and essential element of Pop’s presentation. Consider a precursor, below: A Winsor McCay Little Nemo in Slumberland strip, in which a giant, Oldenburg-ian hat proves troublesome.

The term “Whiffenpoof” seems to have originated in the early 1900s, possibly as an ad-lib by actor Joseph Cawthorn, then playing Dr. Pill in a musical adaptation of Little Nemo.

No one since has mastered the lighthearted beauty of outsize objects as sculpture as Oldenburg/van Bruggen did. For examples, a gallery from The Guardian here. Their works make us laugh and think, and leaven the allegedly deadly seriousness of fine art. Enjoy!