“At Eternity’s Gate” review

Artist at work. Still from “At Eternity’s Gate”

“At Eternity’s Gate” (2018) is the latest film to tackle the turbulent life of Vincent van Gogh. As I reviewed “Loving Vincent,” the animated van Gogh film, a while back, and, in my old blog, discussed “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams,” in which Martin Scorsese plays van Gogh (clip here), I feel happily obliged to review this one. Is it possible to convey what Vincent went through within the limits of cinema? Perhaps, and I think this one, by taking a less-than-linear, dare I say impressionistic, view, it comes closer than any other. This isn’t the film I would start with in order to introduce someone to Vincent through film; that has to be “Lust for Life” (1956). Subsequent films have the luxury of going beyond the Hollywood biopic formula, much to the delight of us, the viewer.

Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh.

Director Julian Schnabel made his name as a painter back in the 1980s, and (in my opinion) a pretty poor painter, especially when judged against his meteoric success, but as a filmmaker he is truly in his element. What he and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme have done is to create a distinctive visual presence, which echoes van Gogh’s works without being slavish. The muted light of the early scenes, a Millet light, gives way to the increasingly intense yellows of southern France. Textures stand out: grass, earth, Vincent’s straw hat. It is a lush and heady mix, like a painting but not too much. At times the film seems to come loose from storytelling, allowing the camera to roam through fields with Vincent, caught up in his emotion and only tenuously connected to any plot thread.

Yes, Willem Dafoe is too old for van Gogh, but this is not a documentary. Dafoe’s face, wizened and sunken as a mummy’s, and his rough, aged hands call to mind the work-hardened features of the Dutch peasants van Gogh drew and painted. He is a van Gogh come to life, and deserved the Academy Award nomination he received. Dafoe inhabits the role, giving us a van Gogh who is turned and tumbled by the forces of his life, who clings to art as his only raft in the maelstrom. It’s a brilliant performance. By comparison, the other characters are thin, shadow-like. Oscar Isaac does a decent job as Paul Gauguin, but he cannot match the larger-than-life fire Anthony Quinn brought to the same role in Lust for Life – I can see I’m going to have to review that some day. The rest of the cast are adequate but forgettable.

A few paintings are shown in the works, which highlights the problems with making a film about an artist. These recreations, by Dafoe, Schnabel, and Edith Baudrand (an artist working on the film) are clearly not van Goghs. They are movie props, ersatz, but there’s little to be done about them. This is a flaw universal to all art-related biopics; ignore it and move on.

Left to right: Oscar Isaac as Paul Gauguin, and Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh

At Eternity’s Gate, while chronological, is not linear. At times moment follows moment without clear connections between them. These are incidents from van Gogh’s life, but, like much of life, they are not subordinate to an overarching narrative. Much of what we do in life is not tied to our story, but ends up becoming part of it; we are always becoming, rather than acting out a plot that is preordained. The obvious drama – Vincent cutting off part of an ear being the obvious example – is not shown; instead we see Vincent in the hospital, describing his fragmented memories of the event. This allows Schnabel to work around the accepted story: there are hints in the historical record that perhaps Vincent did not cut off his own ear, but it was accidentally cut off by Gauguin during a drunken escapade. Less successful is the opposite approach regarding Vincent’s death. While historians debate whether Vincent shot himself or was shot by a local teenager, Schnabel takes sides and presents the latter, staging it vaguely enough to leave definitive interpretation open. But, then, both stories are tragic and wrong, because we don’t want Vincent to die. Like Romeo & Juliet, Vincent’s love soars high but ends in tragedy, and is just as prone to romanticization.

I’ve seen many van Gogh biopics – Robert Altman’s 1990 film “Vincent & Theo” a notable omission – but “At Eternity’s Gate” is the best. It is the most artistic, best suited to an audience that already knows a little about the subject, and the most like a work of art – yes, even more than the rotoscoping of “Loving Vincent.” I highly recommend it.

P.S. I should also link to my letter to van Gogh, written years ago. You can read it here.

R.I.P. Wayne Thiebaud

How do I write this without sounding patronizing or worse? Let’s try: Wayne Thiebaud (1920-2021), who died at age 101, is a perfect starter artist. You see my dilemma. A phrase like “starter artist” seems condescending, but I really mean it: he is a perfect artist to use to introduce neophytes into the world of contemporary art. Let me explain.

Wayne Thiebaud, Three Half Cakes, 1966.

Thiebaud’s paintings delight at first look. The richness of the impasto, paint applied like frosting on a cake (and he painted many cakes), the surety of his touch and color (those blue shadows always catch my eye), and the knowledge of art history that underlies his work made him an all-around talent. No wonder he was popular, not just with the public but also with the art intellectuals, for decades. While not a Pop artist, his work was Pop-friendly while simultaneously being outside the movement.

A smoke of Thiebaud’s comic strip, “Aleck” from 1944.

In his youth he had worked as an animator at Disney, until he was fired in 1936 for union activities; later he drew comics while serving in the military during the Second World War. The clarity of composition and pose informed his work ever after. Look at Thiebaud’s painting of Mickey Mouse, once owned by Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney’s daughter. Ostensibly a straightforward work, it has a little more beneath its thick surface. The shadow is curiously shaped, giving Mickey a rounder stomach than Mickey’s physique suggests. I see echoes of George Herriman’s classic comic, Krazy Kat, in the shadow; it seems to incorporate bits of Krazy’s profile, and perhaps that of Offisa Pupp, another character from the strip. At any rate, the shadow does not immediately suggest Mickey.

Mickey Mouse by Thiebaud, 1988

But there is much more to Thiebaud than the Pop elements. His landscapes, particularly those of the streets of San Francisco, show his command of art history. These are contemporary landscapes that are well informed by centuries of other artists. Far more details than his cakes and portraits, the cityscapes show without doubt that Thiebaud was equally at home with complexity or simplicity. Far different from the clear, poster-like compositions of his most famous works, the landscapes show how adept and comfortable he was with shifting perspectives.

Wayne Thiebaud, ‘Valley Streets,’ 2003; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Doris and Donald Fisher Collection; © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York.

People new to art can drink in the paint’s texture and color, and return to see how sophisticated Thiebaud’s skill in composition was. His work does not grow stale.

Wayne Thiebaud, Student, 1968, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Doris and Donald Fisher Collection Copyright© Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York

For his paintings of people, let’s look at Student, from 1968, which uses simple and complex elements so beautifully. Her red socks are flat patches of color, while the shadow of the desk on her left leg brilliantly gives roundness to her form. The desk’s shadow is a gesture – the desk’s legs seem to float in it rather than sit on the floor. She sits with a blank pad of paper on the desk, and something in her left hand that might be a pen or pencil (?). Too much detail would tip the painting into narrative, whereas this is a portrait, not a story. Just look at how the shape of her head is defined by the colors of her hair, even more so than the small patches of color in her face. It is a rock-solid pose, statue-like, against a background so simple as to be abstract, and photographic in its directness.

Too often, death is a tragedy. Either it comes too soon or after a long decline as painful for the survivors as it was for the deceased. Wayne Thiebaud was not the deepest or most varied artist, but his work consistently rewards close and repeated viewing. He had an enviable career. May he rest in peace.

I yam what I yam and that’s all what I yam

Robert Rauschenberg
This Is a Portrait of Iris Clert if I Say So, 1961
Telegram 4 5/8 x 5 1/8 inches (11.6 x 12.9 cm)
Ahrenberg Family, Switzerland RRF 61.029

The story is famous in the art world, but for any newcomers, here it is: in 1961, art gallery owner and curator Iris Clert was to be featured in a show at her gallery in Paris. Artists were invited to create a portrait of Clert for inclusion in the show. Robert Rauschenberg, short on time and cash, came up with a brilliant conceptual notion, and decreed the above telegram as a portrait. It was included, and is without doubt the only famous work from that exhibition.

But this raises the question: did Rauschenberg ever say so? He expresses intent, but left the final stage ambiguous in the work itself. Clert and her associates provided the implicit validation by including it; art historians have echoed that judgement. It is a portrait of Iris Clert, whatever Rauschenberg might have thought, and it is to this day.

Definitions depend on the one defining. “That’s not art,” is sometimes said (or said to have been said – have you ever heard someone use that cliche?), but history, like fame, is the aggregate of other people’s opinions. Had Rauschenberg changed his mind, or failed to provide that last bit of certainty, the world did it for him.

Panel from Thimble Theater by Elzie Segar

We never know what final judgements await. Ask a dozen people what some artist’s finest work is, and you could get a dozen different answers. As if someone is kind, or smart, and you get the same variety. Popeye’s self-definition, while a step away from a phrase I hate, “It is what it is,” captures that ambiguity nicely. You’ll notice the dialog in the cartoon is slightly different from how I remembered it – see the title of this post – but memory rewrites history also. Perhaps I’m remembering a variant.

Has anyone taken the next step? Sent a telegram (are there still telegrams?) that reads, “This is not a portrait of Iris Clert, and nothing you say can change that!”

What do I look like?

David Whyte. (credit to come)

This post began with a random thought from this morning. I was reading a poem by David Whyte, and my brain thought “Now that is what a poet looks like.”

I then thought, “What?”

Apparently poets have a distinct appearance in my imagination, and that thought did not sit well with me. I thought of what a poet looked like, and some rather obvious candidates came forward:

W. S. Merwin, photo by Douglas Kent Hall

Definitely a type here: face slightly lined, hair ruffled by the breeze, outdoor setting.

Walt Whitman, New York, 1887, by George C. Cox (Library of Congress)

And, of course, the great-granddaddy of them all, Walt Whitman. Apparently, poetry begins with Whitman in my mind; earlier poets are fantasy figures, without faces. Or is photography the difference?

I was a bit embarrassed to find that my stereotype of “poet” was exclusively white and male, so I asked the natural question, “What does a woman poet look like?”

I couldn’t get an answer – or rather, I got all the answers:

Marianne Moore, poet. Photo by Leonard Mccombe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images
Amanda Gorman, poet, January 2021. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
Reverie, aka In the Days of Sappho by John William Godward (1904), J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. While this might not be Sappho (who knows?) it will do.

I discovered that my definition of male poet was limited, the opposite was true of women. Show me a photo of any woman, especially one I do not recognize, say “She’s a poet,” and I will believe you.

It’s a strange, bumpy set of notions, and what it says about my biases is something I am still pondering. Apparently, every woman is a poet in some way, and only some kinds of men are. But now that I am aware of this state of affairs, I expect to make some changes. My apologies to all you male poets of color, and all white men who don’t resemble poets – whatever that means. Life is one long first draft, forever undergoing revision. I’m going to tweak those ideas and write a better version.

And a final question: when people look at me (I’m not going to post a photo; suffice to say I look more like Whitman than anyone else in this post – it’s the beard) what do they see? I had a friend say, before she first met me, that I gave off “writer vibes.” I like that. I want to go ask her what it means, and see if her gallery of faces is as quirky as mine.

Fleet Foxes

I’m a dedicated fan of Fleet Foxes ever since I heard their first full album many years ago. What caught me early on were the odd animated videos by Sean Pecknold, brother of FF’s resident genius, Robin Pecknold. No nepotism here, though: Sean’s videos are evocative, elusive and allusive, and well suited to Robin’s equally elliptical lyrics. I’m not going to deal with Sean’s live-action videos, as they have their own vocabulary and visual style(s).

Still from Fleet Foxes, Mykonos, 2009

Let’s dive in with the video that drew me in, for one of my favorite FF songs, Mykonos, off their debut EP, Sun Giant. The challenging melody (Robin has said it is a hard song to sing) and supportive without being subservient backing set me humming it to this day. The video establishes the model for FF’s animated videos: a world not our own, movements that seem unrelated to the song, a fascination with falling. While it does not illustrate the song (does it? How could I tell?) it makes a complementary world of its own.

Still from White Winter Hymnal, 2008

Sean’s second video is anomalous, and so I won’t deal with it much: White Winter Hymnal (2008) off their first full-length record. Here Fleet Foxes are depicted as clay figures, playing with time. This is unique among their animated films. The song is baffling and borderline scary, a ghost story of sorts; the video, while not directly addressing the lyrics, keeps a parallel course.

Image from The Shrine/An Argument, 2011

Fleet Foxes second album, Helplessness Blues, is challenging. The band was going through some stresses, and the songs are knotty and some are linked together into mini-suites that challenge the listener. The songs The Shrine/An Argument brings out the full-throated expression of these videos. Again, a world vastly different, populated by unearthly creatures (though a pair of human-is hands appear), and actions that have no direct connection to the song.

Another still from The Shrine/An Argument

Again, creatures and objects fall, slower than in real life. The soft focus and bright color emphasize the dreamlike qualities. This is not our world, but it is full of conflict and strangeness, just like ours. The aural equivalent has to be the atonal, bizarre saxophone solo at about the 6:45 mark.

Still from I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar (2017)

After a long hiatus, during which Robin went to college and got a degree, Fleet Foxes regrouped to produce Crack-Up. As this video, for the medley I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar is live action I won’t write much about it, but it does turn rather abstract – with falling – around the 4:40 mark.

Gustav Dore, Lucifer descending, from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, 1866

The significance of falling has yet to be explored – by me, anyway. From Lucifer’s expulsion from Heaven, to Alice falling down the rabbit hole, to Little Nemo falling out of bed at the end of his dreams, falling is a significant alteration in the state of reality. Whether entering into a better world or leaving one, it always marks a transition.

Winsor McCay, panel from Little Nemo in Slumberland

I’m going to pass over another video off Crack-Up, this one for Third of May/Odaigahara, which is just playing with paints. Pure abstraction, pretty as it is, is outside my topic here.

Still from Featherweight, 2021

This brings us to their 2021 record, Shore, and the song Featherweight. While slightly more rooted in our reality rather than the FF fantasy world, it is a beautifully animated piece that tells a story which is not quite the story of the song. A bird struggles to live; a three-legged fox is an unexpected ally; there’s a car under water – I’d like to think this is the same car seen at the end of a live-action video off Crack-Up, Fool’s Errand – but no other sign of human involvement. The design work, by Sean Lewis, is particularly lovely.

Still from Featherweight (2021)

The image of the exhausted bird brought to mind the Andrew Wyeth below:

Andrew Wyeth, Winter Fields 1942 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Benno C. Schmidt, in memory of Mr. Josiah Marvel, first owner of this picture
Rights and reproductions
© Andrew Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

If you’d like to know more about the Featherweight video, there’s also a making-of video which is quite informative. It’s great to see a multiplane camera setup, such as was used back in the glory days of theatrical animation.

While I enjoy ordinary music videos – watch people try to lip-synch, and question their choices in terms of imagery and so on – animation brings a different skillset to the field. I love it that I often don’t know what Robin Pecknold is singing about; neither do I understand the connection to Sean Pecknold’s imagery. But I know that both are beautiful, at times moving, and they take me out of the daily grind. That’s all I can hope for in a song.

Amateurs at work

I’ve been trying to write this all day, but I’m feeling somewhat logy and the ideas just weren’t coming. Before I start – how great a word is “logy”? Four letters to sum up a mental and emotional malaise. In English, at least, many of the biggest concepts come in small words: life, death, God, love. Logy isn’t in their league, but it is a fine word, and too rarely used.

I confess, I am something of a dilettante, passing myself off as a critic – not a scholar, that would be presumptuous – when I really a guy who’s crazy about art and squeezes as much as possible into the time not taken up by my day job. Movies, music, painting, they are what make living worthwhile.

You don’t have to be an expert to succeed, though it sometimes helps. Look at art museums: they stumble along, often unsure of how to do things, or sure in ways that are very wrong, sometimes disastrously so. There is no school for museum Trustees (is there?). They frequently misunderstand what being in trust means, or the charitable status (beyond the financial definition) of their institutions. Yet Trustees are where the buck stops, however much they might try to pass it to someone else. This week sees two developments in museum management that can be laid, at least in part, to putting amateurs in the top seats.

LA MOCA

The announcement that Klaus Biesenbach, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, is leaving to take a job at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie came as a surprise to many, including some of LA MOCA’s own Trustees, yet it should not be a surprise. Biesenbach is leaving a museum known more for its recent dysfunction than its art. In only 3 years on the job he has lost several important staff members, and was essentially demoted to Artistic Director in an unusual restructuring of museum management. Think what you will of his management or his work at LA MOCA in particular, it’s no surprise that he was open to other offers. Only the speed at which the news broke took people by surprise. He will stay in LA until January, but he’s a lame duck at this point. Exhibitions are sure to have been scheduled through the next year; he might be able to make a few more acquisitions.

Yep, this place again

Closer to my new home in Massachusetts, the news that Jeff Rodgers has left the Directorship of the Berkshire Museum came out after he left, which is never a good sign. Rodgers stayed even less time than Biesenbach – 2 1/2 years only. He informed the Board of his departure which, according to an interview with Board President Ethan Klepetar, “was his decision,” on September 2, yet no public announcement was made until Sept. 13, four days after his last day on the job. Rodgers gave no indication what his future plans were. His sudden departure and lack of timely announcement from the museum looks suspicious. Let me reiterate some points I have made before:

Museum Directors are rarely publicly fired. A story is agreed upon, whether it be retirement or “moving on to explore new opportunities” or the like. For a Director to be publicly fired, something major must be wrong. The decision is always framed as the Director’s choice, as evident dysfunction could harm the search for a successor. The public are kept in the dark as much as possible; prospective candidates are also given limited knowledge of what they could be getting into. Is it any wonder things go wrong?

Museum Trustees may love art, or see a museum as a way to practice public philanthropy without too much effort. Their role is primarily financial, yet they are the ones who choose the professional staff, all of whom – let’s be kind and say “most of whom” – are better trained in choosing art and mounting exhibitions. In a functional museum, they leave the staffing to the Director, but the Director is chosen by the Board. Amateurs at the top can hamper the work of the professionals lower down – a trickle-down theory that sadly has not been disproved.

In the case of the Berkshire Museum, Rodgers’s predecessor, Van Shields, upset the museum world by selling off some of the museum’s best art to fund renovations (I blogged about this years ago), and then retired after the sales went ahead. Rodgers is leaving shortly after the reopening of the second floor after the renovations were completed; the first floor is not yet done. A sudden exit, with the job unfinished, no advance notice…all these sound ominous. Rodgers inherited a messy situation, and left before it was done. The Board, who must bear the responsibility, is still there.

I have not seen the renovated Berkshire Museum, but I intend to tour it and give you my opinions here.

A MidSummer Night’s Dream in Pittsfield

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N02686

It’s been a few years since I last saw live Shakespeare, and the dearth has been keenly felt, but my girlfriend and I managed to catch the penultimate performance of A MidSummer Night’s Dream on Pittsfield (Massachusetts) Common, brought to us by Pittsfield Shakespeare in the Park. This is their seventh show since the group was founded, and the second production of MidSummer, the first being their debut show back in 2014.

The playbill for the show is viewable here. A selection of photos from the show, taken by the director, Enrico Spada, can be seen here. They are far preferable to the awkward attempts I made to photograph it during the performance. Mr. Spada’s photos are uncaptioned, but use your imagination and you can make some fair guesses – others might baffle you. I’m including some images of artworks inspired by the play for your entertainment; the play we saw looked nothing like these scenes.

Lysander and Puck by John Gilbert, 1865

To start with, I had a very good time. The clowning brought plentiful laughter, Glenn Barrett, who played both Snug the Joiner and Egius, Hermia’s father, got some of the best gags in his ‘rude mechanical’ role. This Snug is simple to the point of having to be reminded of his own name – twice. The dramatic elements were well served also, with Emma Foley (Hermia) and Joslyn Eaddy Melendez (Helena) delivering their lines with an ease that made their characters readily sympathetic. The show’s partially gender-blind casting (Demetrius, Lysander, Oberon, and Puck were all played by women) was never obtrusive or off-putting. Unusual is the whimsical manner in which Oberon (Olivia Sblendorio) was played; usually a stern or forbidding King, Oberon is here played as a flitting, ebullient character, more in line with Puck (Kyra Fitzgerald) or Titania’s fairy retinue. I’m not enamored of this approach, but it was a welcome novelty. If you’ve ever wanted to see Oberon and Puck turn cartwheels onstage, this was the production to see. Kyra Fitzgerald’s Puck is everything you could want, and her enjoyment of her own mischief was a pleasure to see. Demetrius (Julie Castagna) and Lysander (Zoe Wohlfeld) held echoes of ‘trouser roles‘ in opera, neither hiding nor emphasizing actresses playing male roles.

Marc Chagall, MidSummer Night’s Dream, 1939, Private Collection

The costumes, by Peggy Walsh, might best be described as eclectic, calling to mind no single era or locality. Theseus (Brandon Lee) wears what appears to be a Japanese yukata along with his crown, but it works well enough. The music, by Jacob Kerzner, adequately supports the story without being especially memorable. This production was presented in the round, with the most minimal set and only such props as were necessary.

At the end of the workmen’s comedic version of Pyramus and Thisbe, toward the very end of the play, Bottom offers a choice:

“No assure you; the wall is down that
parted their fathers. Will it please you to see the
epilogue, or to hear a Bergomask dance between two
of our company?”

The company wisely eschew the epilogue, but this production reaches back to true-life Shakespearean history, as the whole company of tradesmen join in the dance. This is how it was in the Bard’s time: theater-goers might see a couple of plays, but the performance ended with ‘the jig,’ in which all the players came out to dance merrily, stopping occasionally to ad-lib jokes, most often bad and quite dirty. This way, no matter how grim the play the audience had just seen, everyone went away happy, energized by the joyous dancing and wincing at the jokes. The play, coming swiftly to its end, did not present a wholly authentic period jig (which, being unscripted, do not survive to our time – besides, it would have dragged out the end of the show terribly) but it gave us a taste. We walked home through the cool night air with a slightly lighter step, having one foot still in that mythical Athens of Shakespeare’s imagination.

Excursions

Some time back I dreamt of curating a show of sculpture entitled “Raised Structures Ahead”, which someday might come about. Since that dream I have come across sculpture by accident, always with some other intent in mind, and so I will share them with you.

I went to the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, but I didn’t take any photos of his art, or of his studio, which is on the grounds close by the museum. Both are very enjoyable; Rockwell’s art is iconic, for its visual storytelling and, when he could get free of the Saturday Evening Post’s conservative editorial policies, full of a love of all humanity.

I also didn’t take any photos in a special exhibition, Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration, though there were many fine works, including some by my favorite pulp-era artists: Hannes Bok, Virgil Finlay, and J. Allen St. John. The show itself was rather erratically curated, arranged thematically, but more suggesting a random assortment rather than a careful planned lineup. A larger show might have made for a more comprehensive survey, but the Rockwell is not large, and there was plenty to look at and enjoy.

Out on the grounds, under a heavy sky as tropical storm Henri drew near, was a semi-related, juried show, Land of Enchantment: a Fantastical Outdoor Sculpture Exhibition. The lowering sky added an extra frisson of the otherworldly to this collection and gave interest to the summer greens of the lawn. I did snap a few shots of some of them:

“Phoenix” by Robin Tost, undated
“Galaxy Cat” by Erik Johnsen, n. d.
A side view, with my brother scrutinizing it. Even in the muted light this piece shone.
“Effervescent” by Harold Grinspoon, who spent much of his life as a businessman and philanthropist, only turning to art in his later years. He’s 92 now, and still at it.
Not a part of the Rockwell show, Grinspoon also created this sculpture, situated in downtown Lee, Mass., which I saw a few months earlier. Several more family members lurk behind it.

The show was enjoyable, and it was good to see less figurative art so near to Rockwell’s realism. The museum as a whole is very well run, and, while it is small, is worth a long look.

Now, the unexpected. While walking downtown to run some errands, I came across Kellogg Park, a tiny little square of land at the corner of Lincoln and Wellington streets in Pittsfield, MA. The name honors Veronica and Kenneth Kellogg, who lived on the site for 40 years. In its gravel surface are sculpted letters of the alphabet, designed by second-grade students from a local school in collaboration with The Mastheads, a public arts and humanities project.

Now, I am wary of involving schoolchildren in public art projects. In my museum days I remember much grumbling about the price tag associated with redesigning a museum’s logo; the professional level of pay conflicted with the Trustee’s innate stinginess. A suggestion “can’t we have kids design it?” was met with silent scorn. Not only was this not a children’s museum, but the idea conflicted with the idea of a museum as a home for art.

As you can see, the park does not really fit the neighborhood, which is both good and bad.

I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve seen far larger, yet lesser quality, works from professionals, and I suspect The Mastheads had curatorial input where the kids enthusiasm ran out of hand. The gravel is a bit inhospitable, but I suppose a grassy lawn would make the sculpted letters look too much like gravestones. This is only bad if you dislike cemeteries – I happen to love them.

Explanatory text is cut into the wooden fencing, where it is darn hard to photograph, and only slightly easier to read. There isn’t much else that can be done with such a minuscule urban lot, so I applaud the powers that be for making the attempt. The park is very new – as I was photographing it, a car slowed down and someone asked me what it was. I wasn’t much help. Who can explain art in a few sentences, especially art one has never seen before?

A great big *

SFMoMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [SFMOMA] has responded to the pandemic in a variety of ways, none of which are likely to please its supporters. Furloughs announced in August of 2020 were understandable; the museum, like all arts institutions, had to close as Covid-related lockdowns spread. This followed the laying off of 131 on-call employees a few months earlier. Now that the end of the pandemic is possible, and the museum re-opened, you would expect them to gear up to rebuild and renew audience engagement – preparing to make a big splash, as it were.

However, as this report from the SF Chronicle shows, SFMOMA marches backward instead of ahead. The museum’s “Raw Material” podcast is to be re-imagined, transformed into an online and in-gallery program about current exhibitions. That in itself is lamentable, but not too bad. The museum’s “Open Space” online publication, which concentrates on interdisciplinary works by artists, is shutting down completely in the Fall.

Less understandable is the ending of the Modern Art Council, a volunteer group concerned with fundraising and social events, particularly the Contemporary Vision Awards dinner. I admit I know little about this group but, in the straitened economic climate of the pandemic, is ending a fundraising group a good idea? I thought money was the root of the museum’s problems. If the Council needs new blood, or changes to its operations, fine, but closing it completely reduces opportunities for museum supporters to get involved.

Worst of all are the long-running programs that are ending solely for economic reasons. The Artist’s Gallery at Fort Mason Center has been around since 1946, and has connected businesses, individuals, and Northern California artists through sales, rentals, and loans, the kind of synergy the corporate world would fetishize decades later. The Gallery will close at the end of the year, probably to catch potential Christmas shoppers before they pull the plug. How exactly does this closure benefit the museum, which exists to serve its audience?

SFMOMA’s film program began in 1937, only two years after MoMA in New York City began its ground-breaking program. It is scheduled to close at the end of Fall 2021. Inexplicable. That’s all I can say.

SFMoMA sent a statement to the Chronicle which included this sentence: “In order for SFMOMA to sustain a healthy institution for our community, we must shift our approach to make these goals more actionable and successful in today’s dramatically changed environment.” I have a few questions. Does this mean that new forms of these programs might arise, more actionable (?) forms, a la the “Raw Materials” podcast? If so, why shut down the old ones with no successor ready for public scrutiny?

Let me reassert a truth about museums that museums often hide: attendance does not drive income. Donors contribute the most, and, as news reports have shown, many wealthy people and corporations actually got richer during the pandemic. I went to SFMOMA’s website to look up their financial reports, although 2020s figures might not be available yet, but all I found was the Annual Report for the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years. It’s been a while since I worked at a museum, but back in my day museums were required to make their reports publicly available. Because of the unique conditions of the pandemic, every datum should be marked with a great big *, and not be considered as a foretaste of the future.

Museums are charitable, educational institutions, and transparency is crucial. These cutbacks will result in seven jobs lost – minor in the museum’s big picture – but the loss to its supporters is far greater. A museum’s core duty is to the community; it is not a profit-making enterprise. SFMOMA ought, but isn’t likely, to show what efforts it made to boost contributions from its donors and what efforts were made to save these programs.

UPDATE: A petition has been started on change.org asking SFMOMA to reconsider. You can sign it here.

Rising Appalachia: The Lost Mystique of being in the Know

Something in me has been drawn to musical improvisation recently. Perhaps it’s the pandemic, the vicarious thrill of hearing people in close proximity sharing their thoughts and skills. Perhaps it’s fatigue from too many programmed, pre-determined pop songs. Just cut loose already!

A few months ago I listened through the entire discography of King Crimson, the important yet under appreciated progressive rock group. They frequently built up songs from improvisations, aided and abetted by their prodigious technical skills. Having run through their works (favorite albums: their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King [1969], of course; Red, [1974], and Beat [1982]) I began to search around for something with its roots in improvisation, yet not just more prog.

Then I saw the announcement of a new album by Rising Appalachia, the hard-to-describe group consisting of sisters Chloe Smith and Leah Song, with several other musicians in support. Just as King Crimson is always Robert Fripp, the sisters are Rising Appalachia, regardless of whoever else plays with them. (And yes, until recently I had never considered these two groups analogous, though both like to draw from a variety of musical styles to create their distinctive sounds. Should I call Rising Appalachia “progressive folk”?)

Their album, entitled The Lost Mystique of being in the Know, is an outburst of energy prompted by the hoped-for dwindling of the pandemic. Reunited after a long stretch of enforced separation – here, in their words: ‘We went into the studio during covid after not seeing one another for 10 months and just “pressed record”.’ It’s a peaceful, loving reunion, joyful in the thrill of collaboration. No one hogs the spotlight; no one seems left out. I always believe that the best records are those you can listen to again and again, concentrating on a different band member each time, and not get bored. A lot of pop music, pretty as it is, does not reward close listening. Rising Appalachia does.

Chloe and Leah are in good form vocally, especially Leah, whose voice in recent years has sometimes shown a little roughness, the toll of touring. The fiddle work, from fiddler/bassist Duncan Wickel (and perhaps the sisters also) brought the comparisons to King Crimson into my head: the fiddle work on Tempest and Clay sounds unworldly, and the fiddle hovering in the background at the start of Lost Girl reminded me of the mellotron so often used by King Crimson. The Appalachian folk influence, combined with bits of jazz and hip-hop, are always as part of their musical melange, but here they seem to reach beyond those, comfortably and effectively. The Celtic melody of Catalyst, the African influence of newest band member Arouna Diarra on Ngoni (which is not just the song title, but the name of the instrument Diarra plays), the mixture of soul and jazz on Top Shelf – whose idea was it to play the fiddle through a Leslie speaker (or an effects box to mimic a Leslie)? – all combine to make an album that is not a reflection of our lockdown past or present, but more an introduction to the good days to come. I should also mention multi-instrumentalist David Brown and percussionist Biko Casini, whose contributions support and enliven the mix.

To continue the prog comparisons for a moment, we come to the final song, Depth, which runs over 9 minutes without seeming overlong, their epic for the album and contains another signature Rising Appalachia element, a rap by Leah Song. As the last notes pass, we are left savoring the sounds of some other place, a world outside our temporary confinement, a place that sounds like home – the home few of us have, but many wish for, where music is not boxed into categories, but all mingle and play together. Most of us imagine this place to be imaginary, but the evidence is plain: Rising Appalachia have been there.