D R O W N   M E   I N   B E A U T Y



D e s i g n   A r c h i t e c t u r e   A r t   F a s h i o n






Aug 1
PRETTY UGLY
Sigmar Polke said, “The unforseeable is what turns out to be interesting.”  He might have added, There is no telling what the unforseeable is going to look like; it could be very ugly.    As I walked through the Polke exhibit at MoMA I was bowled over by the passion and energy in the work.  There’s a vitality to every sketch, canvas and collage, every page of every notebook, on display.  Polke generated ideas feverishly and implemented them with startling immediacy.  Each piece, however small in scale or ambition, looks as if it absolutely had to be made, as if, in it, the artist is searching for something essential.
Of course there’s no covenant that art must be pretty, but it’s something I expect.  In addition to being  powerful (i.e. carrying indelible emotional impact), and surprising (i.e. exposing something unseen) I expect a great painting or sculpture to be complexly internally balanced, judiciously composed, possessing a deep order, a formal beauty, that stills and silences.
Polke’s work, which is substantial, has something altogether different: an untidy, over-ripe physicality.  He makes collages cluttered with roughly cut magazine clippings, and paintings with arrays of images running across patchworks of printed fabrics.  His is a strange, unglamorous style.  He leaves audacious stretches of a canvas bare, he draws by filling the margins of a page with cartoons, he studs plywood and wire sculptures with little baby potatoes.  The uncensored aesthetic gives his work a highly personal, expressive character.  It’s not ugly, really, because it’s unconcerned with what is beautiful.
Image courtesy of the Estate of Sigmar Polke.

PRETTY UGLY

Sigmar Polke said, “The unforseeable is what turns out to be interesting.”  He might have added, There is no telling what the unforseeable is going to look like; it could be very ugly.    As I walked through the Polke exhibit at MoMA I was bowled over by the passion and energy in the work.  There’s a vitality to every sketch, canvas and collage, every page of every notebook, on display.  Polke generated ideas feverishly and implemented them with startling immediacy.  Each piece, however small in scale or ambition, looks as if it absolutely had to be made, as if, in it, the artist is searching for something essential.

Of course there’s no covenant that art must be pretty, but it’s something I expect.  In addition to being  powerful (i.e. carrying indelible emotional impact), and surprising (i.e. exposing something unseen) I expect a great painting or sculpture to be complexly internally balanced, judiciously composed, possessing a deep order, a formal beauty, that stills and silences.

Polke’s work, which is substantial, has something altogether different: an untidy, over-ripe physicality.  He makes collages cluttered with roughly cut magazine clippings, and paintings with arrays of images running across patchworks of printed fabrics.  His is a strange, unglamorous style.  He leaves audacious stretches of a canvas bare, he draws by filling the margins of a page with cartoons, he studs plywood and wire sculptures with little baby potatoes.  The uncensored aesthetic gives his work a highly personal, expressive character.  It’s not ugly, really, because it’s unconcerned with what is beautiful.

Image courtesy of the Estate of Sigmar Polke.


Jul 30
DOTTY
German artist Sigmar Polke, who was active from the early 1960’s right up until his death in 2012, was all over the place.  He started out as a painter, and then moved between that medium and collage, photography, installation, performance, film and even xerox.  His current  restrospective at MoMA honors this eclecticism. At the heart of the exhibit, there are two small rooms that display paintings completed on bedsheets, framed collages, and films projected in endless loops on the walls while their soundtracks (featuring artists like Captain Beefheart) get mixed up with one another.  The work makes a joyful clutter.
Still, there’s something special about Polke’s most restrained work, the dot paintings he completed early in his career.  These canvases reproduce newspaper and magazine images with the benday dot technique, in which our eyes “mix” individually colored dots optically, using dots enlarged to the size of quarters.  Polke’s dot pictures are not slickly graphic, as Lichtenstein’s are.  And they do not  critique representation, as Gerhard Richter’s paintings of newspaper images do.  They are, for the most part, untroubling fantasy images (babes, tropical beaches, portraits of heroic men), set at slightly-off-plumb angles, with strips of canvas left bare, and layered with additional fields of dots that obscure the image without rendering it entirely illegible.
Polke’s dot canvases, which fill one of the exhibit’s first galleries, possess a reassuring rationalism.  Though gritty in execution — rendered with unnatural hues, a grainy surface, and artful smearing — they are highly elegant in their concept and structure.  What follows, the work we see in the remaining galleries, can be understood as a monumental unwinding of this rigor.
Image courtesy of the MoMA and the Estate of Sigmar Polke.

DOTTY

German artist Sigmar Polke, who was active from the early 1960’s right up until his death in 2012, was all over the place.  He started out as a painter, and then moved between that medium and collage, photography, installation, performance, film and even xerox.  His current  restrospective at MoMA honors this eclecticism. At the heart of the exhibit, there are two small rooms that display paintings completed on bedsheets, framed collages, and films projected in endless loops on the walls while their soundtracks (featuring artists like Captain Beefheart) get mixed up with one another.  The work makes a joyful clutter.

Still, there’s something special about Polke’s most restrained work, the dot paintings he completed early in his career.  These canvases reproduce newspaper and magazine images with the benday dot technique, in which our eyes “mix” individually colored dots optically, using dots enlarged to the size of quarters.  Polke’s dot pictures are not slickly graphic, as Lichtenstein’s are.  And they do not  critique representation, as Gerhard Richter’s paintings of newspaper images do.  They are, for the most part, untroubling fantasy images (babes, tropical beaches, portraits of heroic men), set at slightly-off-plumb angles, with strips of canvas left bare, and layered with additional fields of dots that obscure the image without rendering it entirely illegible.

Polke’s dot canvases, which fill one of the exhibit’s first galleries, possess a reassuring rationalism.  Though gritty in execution — rendered with unnatural hues, a grainy surface, and artful smearing — they are highly elegant in their concept and structure.  What follows, the work we see in the remaining galleries, can be understood as a monumental unwinding of this rigor.

Image courtesy of the MoMA and the Estate of Sigmar Polke.


Jul 20
PAINT INTO SPIRIT
As I read a review of the new biography of James MacNeill Whistler, A Life for Art’s Sake, I learned that he was 5’-3” tall, a dear friend of Oscar Wilde’s, and, basically, a cad and a profligate.  These final revelations sat oddly with the gorgeous delicacy of his paintings, particularly the nocturnes, which flicker between abstraction and depiction before settling, gloriously, into abstraction.
So I hunted down the Whistler paintings at the Met.  There are two of them in the main galleries: a formal portrait of French art critic Theodore Duret, and a nighttime view of Cremorne Gardens in London.  The portrait is lovely, and exactly what one expects: a flattering depiction of a fop in a tuxedo, top hat and pince nez posed against a plain white backdrop.  It’s executed in feathery, fluid brushtrokes that give the entire image, even the tiniest details, a tone of dreamy indecision.
The painting of Cremorne Gardens is a revelation.  While it depicts a complex, vivid scene, of fashionable men and women seated in the garden at night, it stays close to abstraction.   A few broad strokes from left to right, across the top of the narrow, horizontal canvas, make a line of tree tops.  Some strokes across the bottom of the canvas make a sandy, open ground.  And a dark slash in the between them opens the middle distance, giving depth to the canvas and life to the illusion.  On the left-hand side, one vertical stroke — a flick of the wrist, a smear of blue paint — is a woman in a fancy dress and hat standing and taking in the scene.
After looking at the canvas for a few seconds the brushstrokes, ethereal, come to the forefront, and it is they, not the scene, that linger in memory.  The paint has no substance; it seems to hover above the canvas like smoke.
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.

PAINT INTO SPIRIT

As I read a review of the new biography of James MacNeill Whistler, A Life for Art’s Sake, I learned that he was 5’-3” tall, a dear friend of Oscar Wilde’s, and, basically, a cad and a profligate.  These final revelations sat oddly with the gorgeous delicacy of his paintings, particularly the nocturnes, which flicker between abstraction and depiction before settling, gloriously, into abstraction.

So I hunted down the Whistler paintings at the Met.  There are two of them in the main galleries: a formal portrait of French art critic Theodore Duret, and a nighttime view of Cremorne Gardens in London.  The portrait is lovely, and exactly what one expects: a flattering depiction of a fop in a tuxedo, top hat and pince nez posed against a plain white backdrop.  It’s executed in feathery, fluid brushtrokes that give the entire image, even the tiniest details, a tone of dreamy indecision.

The painting of Cremorne Gardens is a revelation.  While it depicts a complex, vivid scene, of fashionable men and women seated in the garden at night, it stays close to abstraction.   A few broad strokes from left to right, across the top of the narrow, horizontal canvas, make a line of tree tops.  Some strokes across the bottom of the canvas make a sandy, open ground.  And a dark slash in the between them opens the middle distance, giving depth to the canvas and life to the illusion.  On the left-hand side, one vertical stroke — a flick of the wrist, a smear of blue paint — is a woman in a fancy dress and hat standing and taking in the scene.

After looking at the canvas for a few seconds the brushstrokes, ethereal, come to the forefront, and it is they, not the scene, that linger in memory.  The paint has no substance; it seems to hover above the canvas like smoke.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.


Jul 19
SCREEN CAPTURE
Does it make artists crazy when architects make art?  Because it makes me crazy when artists make architecture.  Too often, when artists use architectural forms they fashion structures that are unintentionally naive.  That’s as it is with the current installation on the roof of the Met, a collaboration between artist Dan Graham and landscape architect Christian Vogt.
The roof is covered in padded green astroturf, which gives it the hyper-real intensity of a manicured suburban lawn.  Right at the center there’s a paved stone pad about the size of a two-car garage.  This pad is bound on its east and west sides by eight-foot-high green walls, lush with vines. Between these green walls, connecting their far corners, is an “S”-shaped screen made of two-way mirror glass, set in a heavy steel frame.  As one looks at the screen one is met with reflections of oneself, the rooftop lawn, the foliage in Central Park , and the Manhattan skyline, all collapsed onto views of what one sees through the glass.
It’s a rich effect, executed with details that are, when considered architecturally, awkward.  Why isn’t the glass a single piece, rather than two separate ones that meet with a gap right at the critical point where the two curves meet and turn?  Why isn’t the frame made from a polished metal with a clean, narrow profile, to heighten the barely-there nature of the glass?  Why isn’t the screen freestanding, pulled away from the green walls, so that visitors can circle it and take in more fully its shifting, cinematic views?  And why doesn’t the whole screen sit directly on the lawn, so that it rises from it like an apparition? 
Rather than an instrument that reorients visitors within the roofscape and the city, the screen ends up being an object on the lawn, not so different from a traditional sculpture.  One sees it, walks towards it, catches the web of reflections on its surface, and then turns around to lose oneself in the magnificent, unobstructed views of Central Park all around.  Those views, while static, are immediate, and stirring.
Photograph by Nalina Moses.

SCREEN CAPTURE

Does it make artists crazy when architects make art?  Because it makes me crazy when artists make architecture.  Too often, when artists use architectural forms they fashion structures that are unintentionally naive.  That’s as it is with the current installation on the roof of the Met, a collaboration between artist Dan Graham and landscape architect Christian Vogt.

The roof is covered in padded green astroturf, which gives it the hyper-real intensity of a manicured suburban lawn.  Right at the center there’s a paved stone pad about the size of a two-car garage.  This pad is bound on its east and west sides by eight-foot-high green walls, lush with vines. Between these green walls, connecting their far corners, is an “S”-shaped screen made of two-way mirror glass, set in a heavy steel frame.  As one looks at the screen one is met with reflections of oneself, the rooftop lawn, the foliage in Central Park , and the Manhattan skyline, all collapsed onto views of what one sees through the glass.

It’s a rich effect, executed with details that are, when considered architecturally, awkward.  Why isn’t the glass a single piece, rather than two separate ones that meet with a gap right at the critical point where the two curves meet and turn?  Why isn’t the frame made from a polished metal with a clean, narrow profile, to heighten the barely-there nature of the glass?  Why isn’t the screen freestanding, pulled away from the green walls, so that visitors can circle it and take in more fully its shifting, cinematic views?  And why doesn’t the whole screen sit directly on the lawn, so that it rises from it like an apparition? 

Rather than an instrument that reorients visitors within the roofscape and the city, the screen ends up being an object on the lawn, not so different from a traditional sculpture.  One sees it, walks towards it, catches the web of reflections on its surface, and then turns around to lose oneself in the magnificent, unobstructed views of Central Park all around.  Those views, while static, are immediate, and stirring.

Photograph by Nalina Moses.


Jul 18
OH!  CALCUTTA!
Sandwiched between other designers who showed Bollywood-style getups on models strutting to booming film music, Joy Mitra’s presentation at the Splendid India Closet event was memorable for its restraint.  That’s not a quality one typically associates with Indian fashion.
The designer took inspiration from Devdas, a novel set in nineteenth-century Calcutta that has spawned several well-known film adaptations, most recently a  blockbuster starring Aishwarya Rai and Shahrukh Khan.  The models wore billowing ankle-length skirts and pantaloons with short, fitted blouses that buttoned up the back, and sheer draped shawls.  Each piece was in a strong, saturated hue with subdued, coppery undertones, and was mixed with pieces in contrasting colors.  The combinations were unforgettable: tangerine orange with peacock blue, mustard yellow with burgundy, teal with chocolate brown.   The fabrics were embellished with gold seed beads and lines of embroidery in delicate, traditional motifs.  But this ornament didn’t have the bright yellow shine of typical zari.  Insted it reminded me of gold jewelry that has been worn for decades — dull, mottled, with all the polish worn away.
The models carried cloth purses, puckered like dumplings, on colored cords from their wrists, wore little embroidered patches in their hair, and held their heads high, staring somberly into the distance.  They looked like they were on their way to the market or to school; they were not simply swanning about.  The modesty in cut (there were a few exposed bellies, but no ankles or cleavage) and decoration, coupled with the richness in the palette, set a somber, nostalgic mood.  The garments evoked another time and place, one with its own unchanging codes of dress and behavior.  The friend I was with remarked that the clothing was “very old Calcutta.”  I’ve never visited that city, but after seeing Mitra’s clothes I have a full fantasy of it.
Image courtesy of JOY Designs.

OH!  CALCUTTA!

Sandwiched between other designers who showed Bollywood-style getups on models strutting to booming film music, Joy Mitra’s presentation at the Splendid India Closet event was memorable for its restraint.  That’s not a quality one typically associates with Indian fashion.

The designer took inspiration from Devdas, a novel set in nineteenth-century Calcutta that has spawned several well-known film adaptations, most recently a  blockbuster starring Aishwarya Rai and Shahrukh Khan.  The models wore billowing ankle-length skirts and pantaloons with short, fitted blouses that buttoned up the back, and sheer draped shawls.  Each piece was in a strong, saturated hue with subdued, coppery undertones, and was mixed with pieces in contrasting colors.  The combinations were unforgettable: tangerine orange with peacock blue, mustard yellow with burgundy, teal with chocolate brown.   The fabrics were embellished with gold seed beads and lines of embroidery in delicate, traditional motifs.  But this ornament didn’t have the bright yellow shine of typical zari.  Insted it reminded me of gold jewelry that has been worn for decades — dull, mottled, with all the polish worn away.

The models carried cloth purses, puckered like dumplings, on colored cords from their wrists, wore little embroidered patches in their hair, and held their heads high, staring somberly into the distance.  They looked like they were on their way to the market or to school; they were not simply swanning about.  The modesty in cut (there were a few exposed bellies, but no ankles or cleavage) and decoration, coupled with the richness in the palette, set a somber, nostalgic mood.  The garments evoked another time and place, one with its own unchanging codes of dress and behavior.  The friend I was with remarked that the clothing was “very old Calcutta.”  I’ve never visited that city, but after seeing Mitra’s clothes I have a full fantasy of it.

Image courtesy of JOY Designs.


Jul 17
MAKING THE OLD BOLD
I nearly fell off my chair when a cluster of models wearing saris designed by Masaba Gupta for Satya Paul hit the runway at the Splendid India Closet show.  I’ve never seen anything like them.  They use large-scale contemporary graphics to highlight the garment’s classically fluid, draped form.  Masaba’s most recent collection takes pop imagery including road maps, phone booths, and lipstick tubes and smears, and prints them on gauzy silk chiffon.  I can only imagine the drama that erupts when a woman wearing a lipstick sari walks into a cocktail party in Mumbai.  Surely she makes it clear that she is the wittiest, most modern, and elegantly appointed woman in the room.
A sari is, very simply, a six-yard length of 44”-wide fabric.  It’s the way it’s draped and folded and tucked that gives it its dynamic, graceful shape.  So to incorporate a sizeable graphic, rather than a small, all-over pattern, it’s necessary to plot out where every bit of fabric will land on the figure, how it will fall, and how it will move as a women walks in it.  Masaba plays with ombre, incorporating long stretches of dove grey, bubble gum pink and electric yellow that accentuate, in turn, hips, legs and shoulders.  She adds contrasting hot pink and cherry red borders to set off stark black and white motifs.  And she sets the boldest graphics on the length that winds across the front of the torso rather than saving it for the pulloo, the end that falls freely over the shoulder and that, typically, receives the most specialized decoration.  The graphics she selects are bold and loaded with pop cultural references (Warhol, Picasso, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist), but they don’t distract from the garment’s traditional silhouette. Masaba is executing centuries-old draping, masterfully, in a style that’s audaciously contemporary.
Ombre Grey Digital-Print Lipstick Saree by Masaba Gupta, 2014.  Image courtesy of Satya Paul.

MAKING THE OLD BOLD

I nearly fell off my chair when a cluster of models wearing saris designed by Masaba Gupta for Satya Paul hit the runway at the Splendid India Closet show.  I’ve never seen anything like them.  They use large-scale contemporary graphics to highlight the garment’s classically fluid, draped form.  Masaba’s most recent collection takes pop imagery including road maps, phone booths, and lipstick tubes and smears, and prints them on gauzy silk chiffon.  I can only imagine the drama that erupts when a woman wearing a lipstick sari walks into a cocktail party in Mumbai.  Surely she makes it clear that she is the wittiest, most modern, and elegantly appointed woman in the room.

A sari is, very simply, a six-yard length of 44”-wide fabric.  It’s the way it’s draped and folded and tucked that gives it its dynamic, graceful shape.  So to incorporate a sizeable graphic, rather than a small, all-over pattern, it’s necessary to plot out where every bit of fabric will land on the figure, how it will fall, and how it will move as a women walks in it.  Masaba plays with ombre, incorporating long stretches of dove grey, bubble gum pink and electric yellow that accentuate, in turn, hips, legs and shoulders.  She adds contrasting hot pink and cherry red borders to set off stark black and white motifs.  And she sets the boldest graphics on the length that winds across the front of the torso rather than saving it for the pulloo, the end that falls freely over the shoulder and that, typically, receives the most specialized decoration.  The graphics she selects are bold and loaded with pop cultural references (Warhol, Picasso, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist), but they don’t distract from the garment’s traditional silhouette. Masaba is executing centuries-old draping, masterfully, in a style that’s audaciously contemporary.

Ombre Grey Digital-Print Lipstick Saree by Masaba Gupta, 2014.  Image courtesy of Satya Paul.


Jul 15
DECORATIVE ARTS
I recently spent a day hiding out inside the Pierre Hotel, at the Splendid Indian Closet, a trunk show where twelve celebrated Indian-based designers showed their current collections.  As I watched the presentations I was struck by the persistence of tradition.  Virtually all of the clothes shown that day were traditional garment types (sari, lengha, kurta, salwar kameez), executed in traditional palettes (fuschia with red, saffron with burgundy, sea foam with navy) and with traditional embellishments (embroidery, lace, zari, beads).  The one designer who succeeded in taking these conventions and elevating them to dazzling, supernatural effect was Suneet Varma.
This designer’s work has a sense of refinement that’s not always evident in Indian fashion, which can be over-embellished without being purposefully so.  In many of the garments from this recent show, the ornament is so lavish that not much fabric is left bare.  But each ensemble remains monochromatic, built from layers of gauzy chiffons and slithering silks in a single glowing hue (pale peach, bright lime, berry red, sky blue).   And the ornament, while over-the-top, is carefully structured, repetitive, rhyming, pulling the entire garment together.
Varma worked as in intern in Paris, with a stint at Yves Saint Laurent, and there is a very French sense of exoticism (India!) and theatricality to his work.  The models moved down the runway slowly, self-consciously and regally.  They held enormous jewel-trimmed veils over their heads, rolled their hips like Jessica Rabbit, and took dramatic pauses in the middle of the runway.  They were styled with elaborate knights-of-arabia turbans, hooker-high gold heels, and glittering, shoulder-grazing chandelier earrings.  Like John Galliano’s gowns, Varma’s lenghas and saris are costume-like, magically transformative.  They turn the women wearing them into courtesans and movie stars, vamps and queens. 
Photograph courtesy of Suneet Varma.

DECORATIVE ARTS

I recently spent a day hiding out inside the Pierre Hotel, at the Splendid Indian Closet, a trunk show where twelve celebrated Indian-based designers showed their current collections.  As I watched the presentations I was struck by the persistence of tradition.  Virtually all of the clothes shown that day were traditional garment types (sari, lengha, kurta, salwar kameez), executed in traditional palettes (fuschia with red, saffron with burgundy, sea foam with navy) and with traditional embellishments (embroidery, lace, zari, beads).  The one designer who succeeded in taking these conventions and elevating them to dazzling, supernatural effect was Suneet Varma.

This designer’s work has a sense of refinement that’s not always evident in Indian fashion, which can be over-embellished without being purposefully so.  In many of the garments from this recent show, the ornament is so lavish that not much fabric is left bare.  But each ensemble remains monochromatic, built from layers of gauzy chiffons and slithering silks in a single glowing hue (pale peach, bright lime, berry red, sky blue).   And the ornament, while over-the-top, is carefully structured, repetitive, rhyming, pulling the entire garment together.

Varma worked as in intern in Paris, with a stint at Yves Saint Laurent, and there is a very French sense of exoticism (India!) and theatricality to his work.  The models moved down the runway slowly, self-consciously and regally.  They held enormous jewel-trimmed veils over their heads, rolled their hips like Jessica Rabbit, and took dramatic pauses in the middle of the runway.  They were styled with elaborate knights-of-arabia turbans, hooker-high gold heels, and glittering, shoulder-grazing chandelier earrings.  Like John Galliano’s gowns, Varma’s lenghas and saris are costume-like, magically transformative.  They turn the women wearing them into courtesans and movie stars, vamps and queens. 

Photograph courtesy of Suneet Varma.


Jul 12
INTERIOR LIFE
While the rest of America is reading (and bickering about) The Goldfinch, I’m finishing Donna Tartt’s 1992 book The Secret History, a murder mystery set at a small, exclusive liberal arts college in Vermont.  It follows a coterie of six students studying ancient Greek with a lunatic-renegade professor named Julian Morrow.  Each morning they gather in his classroom for lessons in grammar and translation.
The book’s plot is well-paced, its language glorious.  But what’s most enchanting is Tartt’s evocation of college life.  The types of students (California girl, old money scion, prep school jock, working class transplant, rich kid drug dealer) are cataloged with devastating precision.  And so are the details of campus life, circa 1992: stealing a slice of cheesecake from the communal  fridge, decorating a dorm room door with a naked Barbie doll, listening to rap from a boombox on the roof, playing Hackey Sack at night on the lawn.  It’s all bringing me back, not without some nostalgia, to my own college days.
In the first chapter there’s a stunning description of Morrow’s office, where the students sit sequestered from the rest of the college most of the week.  Here there was “… a big round table littered with teapots and Greek books, and there were flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones, on his desk, on the table, in the windowsills.  The roses were especially fragrant: their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot, and black China tea, and a faint inky smell of camphor.  Breathing deep, I felt intoxicated.  Everywhere I looked there was something beautiful — Oriental rugs, porcelains, tiny paintings like jewels — a dazzle of fractured color… .”
That passage reminded me of Edouard Vuillard’s interiors, that convey the same sense of refined, hothouse sensuality.  Like Morrow’s classroom, Vuillard’s interiors have dappled light, still air, and uninterrupted quiet.  They’re stuffed full of exquisite decorations, overripe blossoms, books and papers.  The students in The Secret History drink from mismatched china cups and read from tattered, cloth-bound books.  The women in Vuillard’s interiors lounge with novels, cut flowers, and embroidery in their laps.  In these small rooms, in contemplation and discipline, they find freedom.
L’Intimité by Edouard Vuillard, 1896.  Courtesy of Petit Palais.

INTERIOR LIFE

While the rest of America is reading (and bickering about) The Goldfinch, I’m finishing Donna Tartt’s 1992 book The Secret History, a murder mystery set at a small, exclusive liberal arts college in Vermont.  It follows a coterie of six students studying ancient Greek with a lunatic-renegade professor named Julian Morrow.  Each morning they gather in his classroom for lessons in grammar and translation.

The book’s plot is well-paced, its language glorious.  But what’s most enchanting is Tartt’s evocation of college life.  The types of students (California girl, old money scion, prep school jock, working class transplant, rich kid drug dealer) are cataloged with devastating precision.  And so are the details of campus life, circa 1992: stealing a slice of cheesecake from the communal  fridge, decorating a dorm room door with a naked Barbie doll, listening to rap from a boombox on the roof, playing Hackey Sack at night on the lawn.  It’s all bringing me back, not without some nostalgia, to my own college days.

In the first chapter there’s a stunning description of Morrow’s office, where the students sit sequestered from the rest of the college most of the week.  Here there was “… a big round table littered with teapots and Greek books, and there were flowers everywhere, roses and carnations and anemones, on his desk, on the table, in the windowsills.  The roses were especially fragrant: their smell hung rich and heavy in the air, mingled with the smell of bergamot, and black China tea, and a faint inky smell of camphor.  Breathing deep, I felt intoxicated.  Everywhere I looked there was something beautiful — Oriental rugs, porcelains, tiny paintings like jewels — a dazzle of fractured color… .”

That passage reminded me of Edouard Vuillard’s interiors, that convey the same sense of refined, hothouse sensuality.  Like Morrow’s classroom, Vuillard’s interiors have dappled light, still air, and uninterrupted quiet.  They’re stuffed full of exquisite decorations, overripe blossoms, books and papers.  The students in The Secret History drink from mismatched china cups and read from tattered, cloth-bound books.  The women in Vuillard’s interiors lounge with novels, cut flowers, and embroidery in their laps.  In these small rooms, in contemplation and discipline, they find freedom.

L’Intimité by Edouard Vuillard, 1896.  Courtesy of Petit Palais.


Jul 11
AND VENUS WAS HER NAME
In a 2012 Times Magazine profile of Venus and Serena Williams, acclaimed essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote this about meeting Venus for the first time: “it’s easy to find yourself unprepared for her sheer prettiness.”  Reading that made me want to scream.  Grown men have never been shy about admiring the looks of female tennis professionals.  Virtually all of the women on the WTA tour acquire sex symbol status, and for some it even eclipses their game.  So why the surprise that Venus is pretty?  Is it her ferocious, unfeminine sportsmanship?  Our narrow ideals of beauty?  Or that she’s rarely photographed with the intention of making her pretty?
Right now Venus is on the cover of ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue, naked, perched tastefully and somewhat ridiculously against chalky white hills and a cloudy blue sky.  The photos show off her enviable, classical proportions; she’s long and lean, almost like a Botticelli figure.  Her body is lithe, curvy and muscular all at once.  She’s smiling easily, entirely comfortable in herself.  Typically when we see her she’s sporting a warrior-like grimace, on court, or extravagant hair and makeup, at public appearances.  Here she’s flat-out pretty.
Photograph by Williams+Hirakawa, courtesy of ESPN.

AND VENUS WAS HER NAME

In a 2012 Times Magazine profile of Venus and Serena Williams, acclaimed essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote this about meeting Venus for the first time: “it’s easy to find yourself unprepared for her sheer prettiness.”  Reading that made me want to scream.  Grown men have never been shy about admiring the looks of female tennis professionals.  Virtually all of the women on the WTA tour acquire sex symbol status, and for some it even eclipses their game.  So why the surprise that Venus is pretty?  Is it her ferocious, unfeminine sportsmanship?  Our narrow ideals of beauty?  Or that she’s rarely photographed with the intention of making her pretty?

Right now Venus is on the cover of ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue, naked, perched tastefully and somewhat ridiculously against chalky white hills and a cloudy blue sky.  The photos show off her enviable, classical proportions; she’s long and lean, almost like a Botticelli figure.  Her body is lithe, curvy and muscular all at once.  She’s smiling easily, entirely comfortable in herself.  Typically when we see her she’s sporting a warrior-like grimace, on court, or extravagant hair and makeup, at public appearances.  Here she’s flat-out pretty.

Photograph by Williams+Hirakawa, courtesy of ESPN.


Jul 10
LOOKING AT LUPITA
There’s something a bit disingenuous about America’s love fest for starlet Lupita Nyong’o.  Yes, she is gorgeous and talented and intelligent and accomplished.  This Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised, Yale-educated actress, barely thirty, has won an Academy Award, was named People Magazine's Most Beautiful Person 2014, and now graces her first American Vogue cover.  The press she receives is unanimously glowing, so much so that I sense, lurking underneath, undertones that are self-congratulatory (in acknowledging the physical beauty of a black woman), exoticizing (in adopting her as a symbol for all our notions about “Africa”), and aspirational (in assuming that she’ll receive the same opportunities as a white actress of her caliber).
The Vogue spread is tasteful and predictable.  The text, by Hamish Bowles, says she’s “as beautiful and hieratic as an ancient Egyptian statue of a cat goddess.”  The locations are, of course, in Africa, though nowhere near Kenya.  Most of the shots were taken inside the Ksar Char-Bagh resort in Marrakech, and two were taken outside at the local market.  Lupita is styled in two distinct ways: in clothes that are minimalist and earth-toned  — non-fashion — and in clothes that are hyper-embellished — ethnic.  In the first photograph she’s standing in a stiff Martha Graham-like position, with both arms and one leg raised.  In other shots she’s reclining, on a lounge and then on a big blue exercise ball.  Except for a single picture of her in the market, wearing a cartoonishly oversized hat and grinning straight at the camera, she seems passive, a lovely ornament.  And, aside from a pair of fringed, baubled, thin-strapped Casadei stilettos she’s wearing throughout, there’s nothing bold, nothing high fashion, about the images.
Now take a look at Lupita’s spread from February’s Vogue Italia.  Here she’s wearing separates from St. Laurent by Heidi Slimane, and photographed by Tom Munro against an inky blue backdrop.  The shots have a metallic finish that gives her skin a cool glimmer, and highlights the silky, sequined, form-fitting clothes.  In these shots she’s energetic: striding, shrieking, vamping, smoldering, leaping in the air.  She’s styled simply, without jewelry, and with a blood-red enamel on her lips.  The images are strongly graphic, and in them her presence is assertive, sexual, and emotional.  The difference in tone says something about the editorial policies of these two editions of Vogue.  Does it also say something about the way Americans see Lupita?
Photo by Tom Munro.  Lupita Nyong’o from Vogue Italia, February 2014.

LOOKING AT LUPITA

There’s something a bit disingenuous about America’s love fest for starlet Lupita Nyong’o.  Yes, she is gorgeous and talented and intelligent and accomplished.  This Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised, Yale-educated actress, barely thirty, has won an Academy Award, was named People Magazine's Most Beautiful Person 2014, and now graces her first American Vogue cover.  The press she receives is unanimously glowing, so much so that I sense, lurking underneath, undertones that are self-congratulatory (in acknowledging the physical beauty of a black woman), exoticizing (in adopting her as a symbol for all our notions about “Africa”), and aspirational (in assuming that she’ll receive the same opportunities as a white actress of her caliber).

The Vogue spread is tasteful and predictable.  The text, by Hamish Bowles, says she’s “as beautiful and hieratic as an ancient Egyptian statue of a cat goddess.”  The locations are, of course, in Africa, though nowhere near Kenya.  Most of the shots were taken inside the Ksar Char-Bagh resort in Marrakech, and two were taken outside at the local market.  Lupita is styled in two distinct ways: in clothes that are minimalist and earth-toned  — non-fashion — and in clothes that are hyper-embellished — ethnic.  In the first photograph she’s standing in a stiff Martha Graham-like position, with both arms and one leg raised.  In other shots she’s reclining, on a lounge and then on a big blue exercise ball.  Except for a single picture of her in the market, wearing a cartoonishly oversized hat and grinning straight at the camera, she seems passive, a lovely ornament.  And, aside from a pair of fringed, baubled, thin-strapped Casadei stilettos she’s wearing throughout, there’s nothing bold, nothing high fashion, about the images.

Now take a look at Lupita’s spread from February’s Vogue Italia.  Here she’s wearing separates from St. Laurent by Heidi Slimane, and photographed by Tom Munro against an inky blue backdrop.  The shots have a metallic finish that gives her skin a cool glimmer, and highlights the silky, sequined, form-fitting clothes.  In these shots she’s energetic: striding, shrieking, vamping, smoldering, leaping in the air.  She’s styled simply, without jewelry, and with a blood-red enamel on her lips.  The images are strongly graphic, and in them her presence is assertive, sexual, and emotional.  The difference in tone says something about the editorial policies of these two editions of Vogue.  Does it also say something about the way Americans see Lupita?

Photo by Tom Munro.  Lupita Nyong’o from Vogue Italia, February 2014.


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