Thursday, October 19, 2017

Saul Steinberg (1967)

"I start sometimes making a hand, holding a pen and making a drawing. This gives me time to think of what drawing this pen is going to do. I also want these moments to lose the responsibility of the drawing. It's not I who makes this drawing, it's that hand I drew who makes it.... But this way I have a certain freedom, a certain lack of responsibility."

I hadn't seen this 1967 interview with Saul Steinberg by Adrienne Clarkson. Steinberg is a fascinating thinker about how and why art works; his memoir, Reflections and Shadows (written with Aldo Buzzi), is a treasure trove of insights. The section where Steinberg discusses surrealist painter Magritte has stuck with me. "I liked some of his things," Steinberg says in the book, "but in general I thought he worked too hard at painting just to explain a joke" (Steinberg 57).

Deirdre Blair's 2012 biography of Steinberg notes that, "When Sidney Janis owed [Steinberg] $400, Steinberg asked for a Magritte instead." I don't have Blair's book in front of me now, so I can't check her sources, but I bet she got this tidbit from Reflections and Shadows. There, Steinberg says that "I have one of the earlier Magrittes, from 1926, one of his best, I think, and well painted with that famous patience.... I bought it from my dealer, Sidney Janis, who owed me four hundred dollars." He continues:
It's a double portrait of André Breton: two profiles, one saying "Le piano" and the other answering "La violette." The speech balloons coming out of the two mouths are of a dense and opaque salmon-violet color, and are fairly elongated in shape. Maybe in choosing this color, Magritte meant to show a continuation of the two tongues. It's probably a joke on the comic strips. (58)
Steinberg's tone implies that he doesn't think Magritte's jokes are very funny, however well painted they are!

But the part of Steinberg's Magritte discussion that I've remembered best is his description of "Empire of Light," a series of three paintings Magritte painted from 1949 to 1954.
Magritte discovered the three sources of light (and maybe a few more). In a painting of which he did several variants, you see the sky illuminated by the last reflections of the sunset, while the other elements of the landscape, a tree, a house, are dark silhouettes against the sky. On the street there's a streetlamp, already on, which illuminates part of the street and part of the house. In the house the electric light is on, illuminating the interior and shining through to the outside: three lights. There's a moon, I think, which is already starting to cast a little light. And I'm almost certain that he also painted a light reflected in a puddle, or maybe one sees a little bit of the sea. (58-59) 

Magritte's "Empire of Light"
There's no moon in "Empire of Light" - the sky is as light as day. And only this version of the painting includes the puddle of water (or perhaps even a river or a canal?) in front of the house. It's one of my favorite Magritte paintings, precisely because it doesn't seem to try as hard as many other Magrittes. Its use of light is quietly surprising, like a good magic trick. "The idea of painting is a good one," continues Steinberg, "because it makes the artist a magician, someone who is able to create light with paint alone. But, of course, that's not the function of a painting; Magritte spoke less as an artist than as a scientist or, more modestly, a technician" (59-60).

Brutal! Steinberg himself drew jokes, and sometimes was even known to play tricks:

So why do I respond so much more to Steinberg's drawings than to Magritte's paintings? Why do I consider Steinberg an artist of vibrant drawings, while I see his point about the somewhat soulless Magritte? There is something about that "lack of responsibility," the "certain freedom" Steinberg allows himself, that makes his jokes seem very relaxed, very natural, very un-self-regarding. When all is said and done, Magritte's jokes don't want to give up being Art. And while Steinberg's work is given "art status," the drawings themselves couldn't care less. I think it has something to do with a certain freedom - a certain lack of responsibility.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Night Life (1981)

This New Yorker cover, by Arthur Getz, first hit newsstands thirty-six years ago. It's a beautiful fall scene, with bright foliage, a picturesque covered bridge and steeple, and tourists - perhaps from the city - taking in the view. It's peaceful. In the bustle of New York, this cover sitting on a rack provides a quiet moment of reflection, and perhaps helps that businessman in a rush notice the fall colors in Central Park or take a little more pleasure in chillier air.

These moments of reflection, what I see as the hallmark of New Yorker covers, are growing rarer and rarer. It is more possible now for covers to reflect what is happening mere days before the newest edition hits the streets, and covers have gotten more and more topical. I could classify almost all new covers in two categories: first, topical news covers reacting to gun violence, national tragedies, or politics that tap into feelings of sympathy, outrage, sadness, or inspiration; and second, topical humor that uses technology, public figures, or current news items to get a laugh of recognition (many in this category seem to feature hipsters).

I'm not saying that representing current events is wrong, and I think it's important for artists, whether they hang in galleries or create New Yorker covers, to stand up for their principles and draw attention to important issues. But I think that in this world, a world where sadness, outrage, violence and confusion is shouted from every screen every hour of the day and night, it's too bad that we have less quiet moments of peace like the 1981 cover above on our newsstands; less moments when we can step out of the noise and just breathe in some fall air.


I've decided to add a little bit of commentary to these Night Life posts. In the traditional narrative of jazz history, the 1970s and early 1980s were a dead period for jazz, when clubs closed and audiences shrank. These New Yorker listings, though, show an incredible diversity of jazz on offer. Anthony Davis, Tommy Flanagan, Teddy Wilson and Sy Oliver, all playing in the same week. The amount of living legends playing regularly in the city during these years is absolutely astounding. Jaki Byard and Major Holley at the Angry Squire - they both appeared on Rahsaan Roland Kirk's Here Comes The Whistleman in 1965. Must have been quite a show.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Night Life (1987)

From The New Yorker, October 12, 1987:

Freiburger Barockorchester (2000)

The Freiburger Barockorchester plays Johann Sebastian Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F major (BWV 1047). This concerto is the source of the theme music for William F. Buckley's Firing Line - it appears around 8:53, in the allegro assai movement.

For a long time, I thought that opening harpsichord of the allegro assai was merely a pretentious companion to Buckley's own plummy voice, an indicator of elite credentials, a kind of sophisticated muzak. Of course, I was wrong. Buckley loved Bach; a 1978 episode of Firing Line featured Bach champion Rosalyn Tureck, complete with harpsichord. A 1992 article in the New York Times quoted one of Buckley's former teachers describing "the devotion to Bach Mr. Buckley is willing to share with his listeners." Buckley himself said that "I hoped to be [a professional musician] up until about the age of 15 when I was precocious enough to recognize that I didn't have the talent to become one."