Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Art World

Heaven on Earth

Piero della Francesca at the Frick.

by March 4, 2013

Piero’s “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels” (circa 1460-70) feels monumental and, at the same time, intimate. Photograph by Raymond Meier.

The supreme early-Renaissance master Piero della Francesca is like no other artist in my experience: not better, exactly, but loftily apart, defying comparison. Seven paintings—all but one of his works that are currently held in American collections, plus a loan from Portugal—are now on display at the Frick Collection, in the first show dedicated to works by Piero in this country. A Madonna enthroned, with angels; a small Crucifixion scene; and five individual saints glorify the Frick’s Oval Room. The Madonna, seen in an ornate interior with Corinthian columns, gazes down at a rose—a symbol of the Crucifixion—that she holds and which a naked baby Jesus reaches for. One of four standing, attendant angels looks out at us and gestures toward the child’s open hands. All the faces, while individualized, are impassive; they are not quite expressionless but preternaturally calm. The figures are rounded and sculptural. The oil colors—reds, blues, browns, whites, grays—glow in a soft, raking light. The picture has a magnetic dignity, typical of Piero. He makes a viewer’s spirit sit up straight. The work is only three and a half feet high, but it feels monumental and, at the same time, intimate, as if it were addressing you alone. It’s a kind of art that may change lives.
One hot August, when I was twenty-three, I traversed Tuscany on the back of a Vespa driven by a painter friend, George Schneeman. We had seen Piero’s magnum opus, the “Legend of the True Cross” frescoes, in Arezzo, which I found bewildering, and were headed northeast, to the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro, the site of his famous “Resurrection of Christ” (“the best picture in the world,” according to Aldous Huxley), which I also failed to make much of. Then we stopped at a tiny cemetery chapel, in the hill town of Monterchi, to see Piero’s highly unusual “Madonna del Parto.” An immensely pregnant but delicately elegant young Mary stands pensively in a bell-shaped tent, as two mirror-image angels sweep aside the flaps to reveal her. One angel wears green, the other purple. Here was the circumstantial drama of a ripeness with life in a place of death. George told me a sentimental, almost certainly untrue story that the work memorialized a secret mistress of Piero’s who had died in childbirth. This befitted the picture’s held-breath tenderness and its air of sharing a deeply felt, urgent mystery. In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic.
Piero has visited some such epiphanies on a lot of people since his rediscovery, around the turn of the twentieth century, after a long period of obscurity that was due, in part, to the fact that much of his work had been lost, and because a lot of what remained was to be found in largely untouristed towns. American collectors were notably smitten, including Isabella Stewart Gardner; Robert Sterling Clark, who bequeathed the Madonna in the Frick’s show to the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts; and Henry Clay Frick’s daughter Helen, who acquired three of the museum’s four Pieros. If money could have pried more than seven Piero works out of Europe, it would have. (Incautiously avid Americans fell for at least four forgeries that we know of.) Outside Tuscany, most of Piero’s work resides today in the National Gallery in Urbino, London’s National Gallery, and the Louvre.

    The great Renaissance expert Bernard Berenson explained the sudden, virtual cult appeal of the artist in terms of an emerging modern taste for “the ineloquent in art,” by which he meant a turn away from dramatic illustration toward the aesthetics of conceptual design and candid technique. Berenson cited Impressionism and, especially, the phlegmatic, intellectually bracing method of Cézanne as spurs to the new appreciation of Piero. That’s apposite. His style also resonates in the marmoreal figures of Picasso’s neoclassical period; and his way of seeming to capture something fundamental, once and for all, reminds me of abstract paintings by Piet Mondrian. Looking at Piero’s work may impart a sense of being steadied and elevated. You might even forget momentarily that you were ever less noble, or that any other art has held more than a passing interest for you.
    Piero was born in Borgo San Sepolcro, as it was then called, circa 1412, and died there in 1492. In between, he travelled widely in Italy, executing commissions for rulers and prelates. His father was a tradesman; his mother came from an aristocratic family. He trained locally. (An early reference has him painting decorations on candlesticks for religious processions.) By 1439, he was in Florence, listed as a collaborator on frescoes, now lost, by Domenico Veneziano. Piero’s inspirations as a young painter included a thriving late-Gothic genre of polychrome wooden sculpture—as may be seen in the medieval hall at the Metropolitan Museum and at the Cloisters—and the scientific painting theories of the Genoese polymath Leon Battista Alberti. Alberti advised using shades of color, according to their “reception of light,” to give shape to figures, though when his theories were strictly applied, as by Veneziano, they led to a static, decorative effect. (I take this analysis from a great little book, “The Piero della Francesca Trail,” by the late art historian John Pope-Hennessy; it includes Huxley’s essay, from 1925, “The Best Picture.”) Piero, who wrote his own treatises on mathematics and perspective, leavened Alberti with an apparent inspiration from Masaccio’s slightly earlier depiction of figures in breathing space, with an appearance of air around them. “Luminous and rational,” the art historian Machtelt Israëls, writing in the show’s catalogue, finely terms Piero’s style, which remained consistent throughout his career. It projects both a formal rigor, like that of geometry theorems, and a religious devotion so serene that it seems common sense.
    Piero was strikingly original in his emphasis on physical weight. His figures stand plunk on the ground. The bare feet of the Frick’s own “St. John the Evangelist” (1454-69) hug a marble floor. He has gathered up his red cloak, across his body, to help support the massive book that he is reading. You feel the downward drag. The effect is a bodily identification: the saint and you, both strenuously upright on earth. Piero’s characters are sometimes described as remote, without personality. But he simply combs out the qualities that are incidental to the fact of being a human creature, in solid flesh. I am reminded of the title of Simone Weil’s profound collection of spiritual reflections, “Gravity and Grace.” The central Christian enigma—a God incarnate, as a man who lived, suffered, and died—plays like a bass line beneath every passage of Piero’s art.
    The show’s Crucifixion scene and the five saints—John, Augustine, Monica, Apollonia, and, perhaps, Leonard (his identity is uncertain)—all belonged to an otherwise lost, grand altarpiece in Borgo San Sepolcro. A photographic montage, on one wall, documents how they may have been arrayed. In the view of Calvary, a crowd of people and horses around the Cross looks random at first glance but, upon scrutiny, reveals an exquisitely worked-out pictorial structure of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal alignments. The smallest saint panels—Monica with a scroll, Apollonia presenting a tooth, held with tongs, in token of a martyrdom that involved her teeth being yanked out or broken—are stark and almost perfunctory but intense. They are building blocks of piety. The large St. Augustine, from Lisbon, which is new to me, is among the most glamorous of all Pieros. The church father stands grasping a red book and a crystal staff in bejewelled white gloves. His cope is lined with pictures narrating the life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion, with its later, miraculous episodes concealed in a fold of the cloth. Augustine’s face is grim—he looks burdened by responsibility and by a knowledge of things past and to come. His mood strikes a balance of austere seriousness with the temporal splendor of the ecclesiastical costume.
    Certainly, Piero was devout, but in a manner that, as Berenson noticed, segues easily into a modern, secular reverence for art. The art historian Nathaniel Silver, who organized the show, tells in the catalogue of how the artist embraced the local legend of Borgo San Sepolcro: two pilgrims returning from Jerusalem with shards from the Holy Sepulchre awoke in a walnut wood to see the relics perched high in a tree and, thereupon, founded the city on that spot. (The Borghese of Piero’s time deemed their town the New Jerusalem.) Piero left bequests to religious confraternities in the region that maintained holy relics and cult images—representations of saints and the like which served as insignia of the orders and as objects of worship themselves. But there is no forcing of dogma in his art, which points toward the thoroughly urbane religiosity of his younger contemporary Giovanni Bellini, in Venice, whose Madonnas are as personal as young women you might know. A civilized spiritual poise marks that moment of transition to the Renaissance, which, through Botticelli to Leonardo, gave way to worldly mystiques of artistic genius, with Christian sentiments becoming merely conventional. Piero’s achievement stands for an aspiration that has no sect or date: getting something—anything—of ultimate, universal importance exactly right.

    Akhnaten: Prelude, Philip Glass

    Philip Glass - Einstein on the Beach [full album]

    Sunday, February 24, 2013

    Haim Steinbach

    Beautiful Painting

    rothko 1964

    j.m.w. turner, ‘three seascapes’, 1827

    Reasons to be cheerful

    Saturday, February 23, 2013

    The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History

    Bernard Bailyn, one of our greatest historians, shines his light on the nation’s Dark Ages

    The ”peaceful” Pilgrims massacred the Pequots and destroyed their fort near Stonington Connecticut in 1637. A 19th-century wood engraving (above) depicts the slaughter.
    The ”peaceful” Pilgrims massacred the Pequots and destroyed their fort near Stonington, Connecticut, in 1637. A 19th-century wood engraving (above) depicts the slaughter. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

    It’s all a bit of a blur, isn’t it? That little-remembered century—1600 to 1700—that began with the founding (and foundering) of the first permanent English settlement in America, the one called Jamestown, whose endemic perils portended failure for the dream of a New World. The century that saw all the disease-ridden, barely civilized successors to Jamestown slaughtering and getting slaughtered by the Original Inhabitants, hanging on by their fingernails to some fetid coastal swampland until Pocahontas saved Thanksgiving. No, that’s not right, is it? I said it was a blur.
    Enter Bernard Bailyn, the greatest historian of early America alive today. Now over 90 and ensconced at Harvard for more than six decades, Bailyn has recently published another one of his epoch-making grand narrative syntheses, The Barbarous Years, casting a light on the darkness, filling in the blank canvas with what he’s gleaned from what seems like every last scrap of crumbling diary page, every surviving chattel slave receipt and ship’s passenger manifest of the living and dead, every fearful sermon about the Antichrist that survived in the blackened embers of the burned-out churches.
    Bailyn has not painted a pretty picture. Little wonder he calls it The Barbarous Years and spares us no details of the terror, desperation, degradation and widespread torture—do you really know what being “flayed alive” means? (The skin is torn from the face and head and the prisoner is disemboweled while still alive.) And yet somehow amid the merciless massacres were elements that gave birth to the rudiments of civilization—or in Bailyn’s evocative phrase, the fragile “integument of civility”—that would evolve 100 years later into a virtual Renaissance culture, a bustling string of self-governing, self-sufficient, defiantly expansionist colonies alive with an increasingly sophisticated and literate political and intellectual culture that would coalesce into the rationale for the birth of American independence. All the while shaping, and sometimes misshaping, the American character. It’s a grand drama in which the glimmers of enlightenment barely survive the savagery, what Yeats called “the blood-dimmed tide,” the brutal establishment of slavery, the race wars with the original inhabitants that Bailyn is not afraid to call “genocidal,” the full, horrifying details of which have virtually been erased.
    “In truth, I didn’t think anyone sat around erasing it,” Bailyn tells me when I visit him in his spacious, document-stuffed study in Harvard’s Widener Library. He’s a wiry, remarkably fit-looking fellow, energetically jumping out of his chair to open up a file drawer and show me copies of one of his most-prized documentary finds: the handwritten British government survey records of America-bound colonists made in the 1770s, which lists the name, origin, occupation and age of the departing, one of the few islands of hard data about who the early Americans were.
    “Nobody sat around erasing this history,” he says in an even tone, “but it’s forgotten.”
    “Conveniently?” I ask.
    “Yes,” he agrees. “Look at the ‘peaceful’ Pilgrims. Our William Bradford. He goes to see the Pequot War battlefield and he is appalled. He said, ‘The stink’ [of heaps of dead bodies] was too much.”
    Bailyn is speaking of one of the early and bloodiest encounters, between our peaceful pumpkin pie-eating Pilgrims and the original inhabitants of the land they wanted to seize, the Pequots. But for Bailyn, the mercenary motive is less salient than the theological.
    “The ferocity of that little war is just unbelievable,” Bailyn says. “The butchering that went on cannot be explained by trying to get hold of a piece of land. They were really struggling with this central issue for them, of the advent of the Antichrist.”
    Suddenly, I felt a chill from the wintry New England air outside enter into the warmth of his study.
    The Antichrist. The haunting figure presaging the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation plays an important part in Bailyn’s explanation of the European settlers’ descent into unrestrained savagery. The key passage on this question comes late in his new book when Bailyn makes explicit a connection I had not seen before: between the physical savagery the radical dissenting Protestant settlers of America wreaked on the original inhabitants, and the intellectual savagery of their polemical attacks on the church and state authorities they fled from in Europe—and the savagery of vicious insult and vile denunciation they wreaked upon each other as well.
    “The savagery of the [theological] struggle, the bitterness of the main contenders and the deep stain it left on the region’s collective memory” were driven by “elemental fears peculiar to what was experienced as a barbarous environment—fears of what could happen to civilized people in an unimaginable which God’s children [as they thought of themselves] were fated to struggle with pitiless agents of Satan, pagan Antichrists swarming in the world around them. The two [kinds of struggle, physical and metaphysical] were one: threats from within [to the soul] merged with threats from without to form a heated atmosphere of apocalyptic danger.”
    Bernard Bailyn made his reputation when he took upon himself the leviathan task off cataloging the store of pre-Revolutionary War-era pamphlets, the denunciations and speculations and accusations privately published by surprisingly literate gentlemen farmers, Greek- and Roman-quoting tradesmen—“the Ebenezers,” as I think of them—most of whose colorful and thoughtful works had not been read for two centuries. He drew on that knowledge base to write The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which won him the first of his two Pulitzers after it was published in 1967.
    Bailyn could have coasted on that success, researching and publishing on the multitude of controversies still raging over the meaning of the Revolution and the Declaration and the Constitution. Going forward, the way most historians have done.
    But instead, he did something unusual: He stepped backward, not just in time but in spatial perspective. He had what he would call his “cosmic eye” on a grand vision of the massive westward movement from Europe and Africa to North and South America that began before 1492, and he chronicled it in his subsequent book, Voyagers to the West. In examining the interactions of four continents bordering the Atlantic, and seeing them as a single, mutually interacting whole, he reshaped the modern history profession and helped create what is now known as “Atlantic history.”
    “From 1500,” he wrote in an earlier book, “it has involved the displacement and resettlement of over fifty million people and it has affected indirectly the lives of uncountable millions more.”
    But Bailyn’s “cosmic eye” saw even deeper. He wanted to capture not just physical movements but also “the interior experiences, the quality of their culture, the capacity of their minds, the patterns of their emotions.” He wanted to look inside heads and read minds. Bailyn’s voyage was a monumentally ambitious project, a voyage through unmapped oceans of data analo­gous to the Columbus-era explorers setting out on a vast uncharted ocean.
    The opening section of his new book stands out for his profoundly sensitive appreciation of the sensibility of the original inhabitants whom he introduces simply as “Americans” rather than “Native Americans.”
    He captures that sensibility as well as any attempt I’ve read: “Their world was multitudinous, densely populated by active, sentient and sensitive spirits, spirits with consciences, memories and purposes, that surround them, instructed them, impinged on their lives at every turn. No less real for being invisible...the whole of life was a spiritual enterprise...the universe in all its movements and animations and nature was suffused with spiritual potency.”
    In person, Bailyn expresses an almost poetic admiration for this sort of spirituality.
    “All the world was alive!” he exclaims. “And the wind is alive! The mountains are alive!”
    Then, he adds: “But it’s not a terribly peaceful world. They were always involved in warfare, partly because life would become imbalanced in a way that needed justification and response and reprisal. And reprisals, within their lives, are very important. But partly the onus is on the threats that they’re under.”
    “Would both civilizations have been better off had they not been forced into contact,” I ask, “or if all the colonies on the verge of failing had, in fact, failed and the two civilizations continued separately, merely as trading partners?”
    “Well, the Indians were not genocidal on the whole. Their effort, even the 1622 massacre [which he calls “genocidal” in his book], was not to wipe the Europeans off the face of the map. It’s the English after the massacre who write these letters saying ‘wipe them off the map.’
    “But the Indians had the view they wanted to use them [the Europeans]. They wanted the English there on the fringe so they would have the benefit of their treasure, their goods, even their advanced weapons. They wanted that, but under their control.” It didn’t exactly work out that way.
    Bailyn does not let either of the two adversary cultures off the hook. He recounts little vignettes of the original inhabitants’ behavior such as this: Following the ambush of four Dutch traders, Bailyn quotes a report, one “had been eaten after having [been] well roasted. The [other two] they burnt. The Indians carried a leg and an arm home to be divided amongst their families.”
    And, on the other side, consider that fixture of grade school Thanksgiving pageants, Miles Standish, an upstanding, godly Pilgrim stalwart who does not at all seem the sort of man who would have cut off the head of a chief and “brought it back to Plymouth in triumph [where] it was displayed on the blockhouse together with a flag made of a cloth soaked in the victim’s blood.” (Happy Thanksgiving!)
    “What happened,” Bailyn continues, “is a legacy of brutality in intercultural relations developed through this period of which, of course, the overwhelming legacy was slavery.” Bailyn points out that although there were only “a few thousand” slaves in the colonies toward the end of King Philip’s War in the 1670s, when he concludes The Barbarous Years, “The rules for chattel slavery were set.”
    And so the legacy of the barbarous years continued beyond the white male liberation of the Revolution.
    Bailyn is fascinating when he speaks of questions of value. The day we talked was the peak of the fevered notion that the American government should settle its national debt by minting a platinum coin arbitrarily given a “trillion dollar” valuation. And it made me think of wampum, the original inhabitants’ currency. I’d always wondered how you could found an entire centuries-long economics on beads and shells as these “Americans” did. And yet, isn’t that what we’ve done since, basing our economics on shiny metal objects that have a declared, consensus value unrelated to their worth as a metal?
    So I asked Bailyn why wampum was accepted in exchange for an obviously more highly valuable commodity, such as furs.
    Bailyn: “They’re little shells.”
    Me: But why should people massacre each other over these little shells?
    Bailyn: Because they had great value.
    Me: Because of their beauty?
    Bailyn: No, because they’re hard to make and they don’t exist everywhere. You ever see how this was done?
    Me: No.
    He picks up an imaginary shell from his desk and says:
    “OK, they have a shell like this and then they have to bore a hole all the way down through the middle of the thing in order to hitch it to the next one and do it with certain color regularities. It’s hard to do! And it becomes of value.”
    Me (thinking of home-beading kits my mother had): Doesn’t it seem arbitrary?
    Bailyn concedes he’s not up on “wampum literature.”
    “There’s wampum literature?” I asked. “You think I’m kidding. There are wampum experts and they don’t fool around!”
    Our wampum discussion leads to the fascinating “fair price” controversy in the Puritan communities, the argument over how much profit a pious person should make on a given transaction.
    Free market theory dictates there should be only one motive in economic culture: getting the max. But early colonists integrated piety and humility into their economic lives. Spiritual considerations. One of his favorite stories is about the English merchant who couldn’t stop confessing the sin of overcharging.
    “Robert Keayne,” he recalls, “was a very, very proper Puritan tradesman from London who made it big and set up trade here and then got caught for overpricing.”
    “The guy who made a big apology?” I ask, recalling the peculiar episode from his book.
    “He wrote endlessly, compulsively,” of his remorse, Bailyn replies.
    “50,000 words or so, right?”
    “Unbelievable!,” he exclaims, “A 50,000-word will which explores the whole business of revaluing, of cheating and so forth. And I published his will, the whole thing, 158 pages in the original. And the question is whether you could be a proper Christian and make money. See, they were caught in a double bind. Max Weber started all this out [with The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism].”
    Weber argued that Protestants were driven to make money and create urban centers of wealth to display it because these were an external sign that one had been saved, chosen by God to enter into his grace and be redeemed. But in fact most of the Protestant heretics who settled America believed that salvation was a matter between God and the individual, no matter what their bank balance—and that too much wealth could signify the exact opposite of sanctification: greed and spiritual degradation. Thus the “fair price” controversy and what British economic historian R. H. Tawney called the Puritan “double bind,” a theory Bailyn has adopted. “They were against exhibitionism,” Bailyn tells me. “There were moral prohibitions against making as much as you possibly could—that’s not good! You have to do it within constraints. There’s a big literature about this.”
    It makes you think of the con­trast with our hedge fund wealth-worshiping culture, our conflicted attitude toward the “1 percent”—envy and moral disapproval. Perhaps judges should sentence insider traders to write 50,000-word apologies while in prison.
    Speaking of price made me think of the overarching question of early America: whether the barbarism, torture, murder, massacre—the ethnic cleansing—that Bailyn describes in The Barbarous Years was the inevitable price we had to pay for the civilization that followed.
    When I ask the question of whether there could have been another way for the races to interact than mutual massacre, he brings up one of the few figures who emerges with honor from his chronicle of this savage period: Roger Williams.
    “There were people who tried to have amicable race relations,” he says, “but it broke down again and again.”
    I had always admired Roger Williams for his belief in religious toleration, which was realized in his Rhode Island colony, a place where all the dissenters and the dissenters from the dissenters could find a home to worship the way they wanted. And I’d admired him for standing as a reminder to certain contemporary zealots that America was a refuge for people who believed there should be a separation between church and state—and that both church and state were better off for it, sentiments that entered into the First Amendment.
    But in Bailyn’s account, Williams becomes a great American character as well. Not only was he close to the original inhabitants, he could speak some of their languages and had the humility to recognize he could learn from them.
    I told Bailyn what an admirable character his Williams came across as.
    “Well, the people at the time didn’t think he was. He was a perfectionist. And no form of Christianity was good enough for him. He started out in the Church of England. He was a very strange man. He was a zealot.
    ” “But didn’t his zealotry lead to tolerance?”
    “It did, but this was not the big issue for him. He was trying to find out the proper form of Christianity. He started with the Church of England and that was full of trouble. Then he became a Baptist and that was no good. He kept taking off all the clothes of organized Christianity till nothing was left. And he ended up in a church of his own with his wife and a few Indians. He’s a zealot who went all the way!”
    “But he wasn’t a zealot who persecuted others.”
    “No, he was not. That’s why they hated him...he was complicated. He was well educated, he was a gentleman—but he was a nut case! They didn’t know what to do with him. Among his views, first of all, was that you do not seize Indian land. You don’t own it, you don’t take it. And you treat people civilly and there is no purity in any stage of Christianity, hence toleration.”
    “What’s nutty about that?” I asked
    “You don’t live in the 17th century.”
    “So you’re not saying he’s a nut case from the perspective of the 21st century?”
    “No, certainly not. He became properly famous for all this—later. At the time people hated him. Because he was breaking up the unity of Christianity. One of his contemporaries had a wonderful phrase for him. Namely, he is ‘unlamb-like.’ No lamb, this guy. He sure wasn’t. But he got close to the Indians, knew them well, lived with them.”
    Bailyn’s description of the many contradictory aspects of Williams’ character stayed with me. A zealot, but tolerant. An outcast, but a self-outcast. Willing to be seen as a “nut case” in his time. A visionary sense of the way to a better future in that dark century. So much of the American character, like Williams, emerges from the barbarous years. And that century has left its stamp on us. Not the “zealous nut case” part, though that’s there. I’m thinking of that compound word Bailyn likes about Williams: “unlamb-like.” That’s us.

    Read more:
    Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter

    Friday, February 22, 2013

    Supremely great painting

    Albert Pinkham Ryder:  Moonlit Cove,  1880s

    Jackson Pollock:  Number 1A   (1948)

    Pearl Jam - Ten 1992 [Full Album]

    AC/DC Back in Black [Full Album]

    Thursday, February 21, 2013

    Alice [Neco z Alenky] (1988) HD

    When I walk in my house I see pictures,
    bought long ago, framed and hanging
    — de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore —
    that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,
    yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
    of the trivial — a white stone perfectly round,
    tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
    a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,
    a dead dog’s toy — valueless, unforgettable
    detritus that my children will throw away
    as I did my mother’s souvenirs of trips
    with my dead father. Kodaks of kittens,
    and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.

    Donald Hall:

    The Things
    Philip Guston:  Drawing 1954

    Wednesday, February 20, 2013


    In theory: the unread and the unreadable

    We measure our lives with unread books – and 'difficult' works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?
    James Joyce pictured in 1934
    Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake … 'It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.' Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images
    There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is "no end" to "making many books" – as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age – the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to "great" novels "you always meant to read". We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.
    The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if "unappreciated genius" was not simply "the daydream of those who are not geniuses", and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O'Connell's Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer's Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler's Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry's Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs – (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads – devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have "achieved some measure of literary failure". The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train – at Reading, of all places: "Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction's homonym, that it is a writer's fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?"
    When Kenneth Goldsmith published a year's worth of transcribed weather reports, he certainly did not fear anyone would read his book from cover to cover – or even at all. That was not the point. With conceptual writing, the idea takes precedence over the product. This is an extreme example of a trend that began with the advent of modernity. Walter Benjamin famously described the "birthplace of the novel" – and hence that of modern literature – as "the solitary individual": an individual now free from tradition, but also one whose sole legitimacy derived from him or herself, rather than religion or society.
    In theory, the novel could thus be anything, everything, the novelist wanted it to be. The problem, as Kierkegaard observed, is that "more and more becomes possible" when "nothing becomes actual". Literature was a blank canvas that increasingly dreamed of remaining blank. "The most beautiful and perfect book in the world," according to Ulises Carrión, "is a book with only blank pages." Such books had featured in eastern legends for centuries (echoed by the blank map in "The Hunting of the Snark" or the blank scroll in Kung Fu Panda), but they only really appeared on bookshelves in the 20th century. They come in the wake of Rimbaud's decision to stop writing, the silence of Lord Chandos; they are contemporaneous with the Dada suicides, Wittgenstein's coda to the Tractatus, the white paintings of Malevich and Rauschenberg, as well as John Cage's 4'33".
    Michael Gibbs, who published an anthology of blank books entitled All Or Nothing, points out that going to all the trouble of producing these workless works "testifies to a faith in the ineffable". This very same faith prompts Borges to claim that "for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible" and George Steiner to sense that "A book unwritten is more than a void." For Maurice Blanchot, Joseph Joubert was "one of the first entirely modern writers" because he saw literature as the "locus of a secret that should be preferred to the glory of making books".
    If literature cannot be reduced to the production of books, neither can it be reduced to the production of meaning. Unreadability may even be a deliberate compositional strategy. In his influential essay on "The Metaphysical Poets", TS Eliot draws the conclusion that modern poetry must become increasingly "difficult" in order "to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning". The need to breathe life back into a moribund language corrupted by overuse, chimes with Stéphane Mallarmé's endeavour to "purify the words of the tribe". The French writer was very much influenced by Hegel, according to whom language negates things and beings in their singularity, replacing them with concepts. Words give us the world by taking it away. This is why the young Beckett's ambition was to "drill one hole after another" into language "until that which lurks behind, be it something or nothing, starts seeping through".
    Literature (for the likes of Mallarmé and Blanchot) takes linguistic negation one step further, by negating both the real thing and its surrogate concept. As a result, words no longer refer primarily to ideas, but to other words; they become present like the things they negated in the first place. When critics objected that Joyce's Finnegans Wake was unreadable, Beckett responded: "It is not to be read – or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself." Unlike ordinary language, which is a means of communication, literary language resists easy, and even complete, comprehension. Words become visible; the bloody things keep getting in the way. From this perspective, the literary is what can never be taken as read. In a recent article, David Huntsperger gives an interesting contemporary twist to this debate. He views the opacity of some contemporary novels as a healthy corrective to our "clickthrough culture, where the goal of writing is to get you from one place to another as effortlessly as possible, so that (let's be honest here) you can buy something".

    Tuesday, February 19, 2013

    Kiyohiko Senba & The Haniwa All-Stars + Jun Togawa - リボンの騎士

    Soft Machine - Six(1973) - Full Album

    Soft Machine - Fifth(1972) - Full Album


    A  Byzantine  depiction  of  Greek  fire  in  a  miniature  from  the  manuscript  of  Skylitzes.
    The  “Greek  fire”  or  “sea  fire”  or  “liquid  fire”  (as  it  was  usually  called  by  the  Byzantines  themselves)  or  “Median  fire”  was  one  of  the  strongest  and  most  mysterious  weapons  of  the  Byzantine  Empire  (considering  their  composition).  The  Arabs  called  “naphtha”  (‘naft’)  their  own  corresponding  incendiary  substance  for  military  purposes,  a  term  which  usually  means  the  natural  unrefined  oil  or  the  refined  products  of  its  distillation.  The  use  of  flammable  substances  in  military  operations  on  land  and  sea,  was  known  to  the  Greeks  as  early  as  the  Classical  Period,  who  developed  it  especially  during  the  Hellenistic  Period.  The  term  “Median/Medic  fire”  which  was  synonymous  to  the  “Greek  fire”  in  the  Byzantine  written  sources,  indicates  that  the  Southern  Iranians  (Medes  and  Persians)  used  an  early  form  of  it  (already  from  the  pre-Achamenid  Median  period  according  to  literary  evidence).  The  Chinese  of  the  same  period  also  used  their  own  corresponding  incendiary  substances.  Moreover,  the  burning  of  the  enemy  fortifications,  troops,  ships,  etc.,  was  one  of  the  main  military  pursuits  already  from  the  high  antiquity.  Concerning  the  Iranian  peoples,  the  development  of  inflammatory  substances  as  weapons  of  war,  was  aided  by  the  presence  of  abundant  reserves  of  crude  oil  in  Iran,  Mesopotamia  and  the  North  Arabian  Peninsula,  areas  which  were  under  the  control  or  the  political  influence  of  the  Medes  and  the  Persians.

    The  reliable  Arabic  “Book  of  Sources”  quotes  that  the  Muslims  used  since  674  AD  a  substance  which  seems  to  have  been  an  early  form  of  “liquid  fire”.  The  Persian  chronicler  Rashid  al-Din  mentions  the  use  of  incendiary  machines  by  the  Arab  and  Iranian  Muslims  who  invaded  the  Indus  valley  in  710  AD.  Nevertheless,  the  Byzantine  chronicler  Theophanes  (9th  c.)  and  other  Byzantine  sources  report  that  Callinicos  –  a  Greek  engineer  from  Heliopolis  in  Syria  (a  descendant  of  the  Greek  Hellenistic  settlers  in  Syria)  –  invented  the  ‘liquid  fire’,  which  was  first  used  by  the  Byzantines  during  the  first  Arab  siege  of  Constantinople  (674-678 AD).  Because  of  its  origins  and  its  use  by  the  Byzantine  Greeks,  the  liquid  fire  became  known  in  Europe  and  then  worldwide,  as  the  “Greek  Fire”.
    A  modern  depiction  of  a  Byzantine  flamethrowing  warship,  using  Greek  Fire  against  an  enemy  ship  (probably  Arabian).  In  the  foreground:  the  mechanism  and  the  siphon  of  ejection  of    Greek  fire  in  the  interior  of  a  Byzantine  Dromon  (artwork  by  Giorgio  Albertini,  copyright:  Concord  publications  &  G.  Albertini)
    The  imperial  forces  used  the  new  weapon  several  times  in  the  future,  a  weapon  that  seems  to  have  caused  terror  to  their  Arab  opponents,  although  the  later  also  used  some  powerful  inflammatory  substances  as  early  as  674  AD.  It  should  be  noted  that  after  the  destruction  of  the  Arab-Egyptian  fleet  by  the  Byzantine  navy  in  Cyprus  using  Greek  fire  (747  AD),  there  is  no  mention  in  Greek  or  Muslim  sources  of  any  aggressive  action  of  the  Egyptian  navy  against  the  Byzantine  Empire  for  a  century.  Nor  does  the  same  sources  quote  any  aggressive  action  of  the  fleet  of  the  Arabo-Syrians  for  about  60  years  after  the  destruction  of  their  Egyptian  comrades  in  Cyprus.  This  long  inertia  of  the  two  most  powerful  Islamic  fleets  probably  indicates  their  fear  of  the  Greek  fire.  It  should  also  be  noted  that  the  numerous  Egyptian  losses  in  Cyprus  is  not  the  reason  for  this  inaction,  because  as  it  has  been  demonstrated  by  the  aggressive  action  and  particularly  by  the  great  feasibility  of  shipbuilding  and  manning  of  the  Egyptian  and  the  Syrian  navy,  these  losses  (in  ships  and  men)  could  be  replaced  in  a  short  time.
    The  conclusion  of  the  aforementioned  references  and  observations,  is  that  the  Muslim  armies  and  fleets  had  sufficient  incendiary  substances,  but  not  of  the  validity  and  effectiveness  of  the  Byzantine  Greek  fire.  Chances  are  that  Callinicos  perfected  an  inflammatory  weapon  that  existed  since  ancient  times  in  Greece  and  the  Middle  East,  producing  an  improved  incendiary  mixture  which  was  decisively  superior  to  those  of  the  Arabs  and  Iranians  and  in  general  the  peoples  of  Asia.  Callinicos  obviously  used  largely  the  Greek/Hellenistic  technology  of  his  Syrian  homeland,  one  of  the  most  outstanding  centers  of  culture  and  power  in  the  Hellenistic  Age.  Syria  remained  a  center  of  the  Greek  culture  also  after  its  conquest  by  the  Arabs  (7th  c.  AD).  Callinicos’  family  were  Greek  refugees  from conquered  Syria  who  found  shelter  probably  in  Constantinople or  in  a  Byzantine  province.
    A  Byzantine  soldier  armed  with  a  siphon  of  ejection  of  some  incendiary  substance  (a  “flamethrower”)  in  a  high  platform  of  siege  of  an  enemy  city.  Byzantine  miniature.
    The  Greek  fire  consisted  at  least  of  crude  oil,  sulfur  and  a  few  other  known  substances.  But  there  were  several  unknown  substances/components.  Equally  unknown  is  the  composition  in  which  the  various  components  of  the  Greek  fire  were  mixed  to  produce  the  weapon.  As  it  is  evidenced  by  the  sources,  some  of  the  qualities  that  made  the  Greek  fire  superior  to  the  Muslim  incendiary  substances,  were  that  it  was  highly  resistant  to  extinction  (some  kind  of  ‘waterproof’)  and  it  could  be  burned  for  hours  in  the  surface  of  the  sea.  Probably  these  were  its  main  advantages.  In  some  cases,  the  Greek  fire  was  bestrewn  in  the  sea  around  the  enemy  ship  and  then  it  was  ignited  thus  rapping  the  ship  in  flames,  according  to  an  Islamic  reference.  Another  evidence  of  its  superiority,  is  that  while  the  Arab  sources  mention  many  details  about  the  composition  and  preparation  of  their  ‘naphtha’,  the  Byzantine  sources  are  silent  concerning  these  issues  about  the  Greek  fire.  It  is  considered  that  there  was  an  imperial  ban  on  manufacturers of  the  liquid  fire,  not  to  disclose  the  secrets  of  its  composition  and  preparation.  For  this  reason,  its  exact  composition  remains  a  mystery  to  this  day.  The  Byzantine  Empire  was  able  to  protect  effectively  its  strongest  and  most  secret  weapon,  so  it  is  likely  that  we  will  never  know  its  composition,  despite  several  diligent  experimental  attempts  made  by  historians  and  researchers.  The  Byzantines  took  forever  with  them  the  secret,  when  Constantinople  succumbed  to  the  Ottoman  hordes  on  May  29,  1453.
    Periklis  Deligiannis
    greek fire
    An  impressive  reconstruction  of  the  disaster  caused  by  the  Greek  Fire  (Late  Byzantine  period)  .  Greek  Fire  was  essentially  an  early  weapon  of  mass  destruction.

    Dina Martina - The President's Day Song


    Inside the GIF-Industrial Complex How the animated image file took over the Internet

    One weekend afternoon in September, Mike Konczal sat down at his computer to research a blog post. Another miserable jobs report had restarted the debate about what, if anything, the Federal Reserve should do to help unemployed Americans find a job. Konczal, a Roosevelt Institute think tanker specializing in economics, wanted to write about it.
    But he knew he couldn’t do it the way the rest of the media had, a stultifying mix of acronyms and technical terms. “Even the people who wanted to learn about it could just not learn that way,” Konczal told me. The most important news is almost always the most arcane. Like anyone who’s ever tried to write about the economy for a mass audience, Konczal was frustrated with that paradox. How do you make something impossibly confusing entirely comprehensible?
    He had an idea: You explain it with GIFs.
    GIFs, for the uninitiated, are animated image files that play from beginning to end, then snap back to the beginning and begin anew, ad infinitum. Sometimes they’re art, sometimes they’re clips of TV shows, sometimes they’re ads, but they’re always entrancing. Especially when explaining economic policy.
    Konczal spent that weekend afternoon researching GIFs. Pages and pages of them scrolled by. “I had a mental outline of what I wanted to cover,” Konczal says. “I’d find one for unemployment,” and block it off, and say, “Yeah, that’s perfect.”
    What he assembled was an economic treatise unlike any other. Guiding the reader through the history of the Fed’s monetary policy, and its potential future actions, Konczal uses GIFs taken from Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video, "Game of Thrones," "Napoleon Dynamite," "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "Parks and Recreation," "the Jerry Springer Show," "Glee," "Saturday Night Live," "30 Rock," Titanic, a Kardashian show (unclear which), Harry Potter, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video, "Full House," Anchorman, Mean Girls, Bridesmaids, several famous YouTube videos, and a handful of other places. The GIFs punctuated the piece instead of wonky charts, and they shaped Konczal’s writing. One moment he’s talking about Ben Bernanke, the next he’s showing his reader an animated loop of Ron Burgundy. “Is Bernanke all like this inside his heart?:,” Konczal wrote. And then came this GIF:
    The post, like nearly everything involving GIFs these days, proved remarkably successful. More than 56,000 people clicked on “The Complete Guide To America's Jobs Crisis And The Failure Of Monetary Policy Using Animated Gifs” at Business Insider, where Konczal originally posted it. When combined with the traffic at Konczal’s personal site, he says more than 100,000 people saw it in total. Not bad for a post that includes the term “nominal gross domestic product.”
    “I rarely get offers to pitch a specific story outside my narrow field of science and economics,” Konczal told me. But within 36 hours of the monetary policy piece, an email arrived asking if Konczal would do another GIF post, about energy subsidies, for an environmental site. “I was like, I don’t want to do more of these, but it’s kind of free money.”
    What started as an Internet trifle had become a marketable skill. Hypnotizing amidst a Web of distraction, the GIF has evolved from an obscure file format to an art movement to a pageview crutch. What was once a retro rebuke to the busy commercialization of the Web has in some ways become a part of it. The GIF renaissance was beautiful until it wasn’t.

    Why GIFs, and why now? How did a humble file format that had been largely forgotten reemerge as the web’s definitive aesthetic? The Oxford American Dictionary named GIF its 2012 word of the year; a GIF art competition was held at Miami Art Week, and it’s being judged by Michael Stipe; the Guardian live-GIFed the presidential debates, as if that’s a thing. Across a web filled with ephemera, content creators are turning to a medium that’s infinite: they’re turning to the GIF.
    The GIF started as a solution to a problem: how best to share images online? In 1987, Steve Wilhite created an image file format, the 87a (later renamed the Graphical Interchange Format) that could compress data to help it squeak through narrowband modems.1 Over the next few years, the format would evolve to the one to have the capabilities of the one we know now: an endless loop, a limited color palate, and a file that would just work—no plugins required.
    With all that in place, the GIF quickly became known for its best feature: it could move. The GIF allowed for multiple frames to be packed into the same file, and then those frames could be played in sequence. This created a sense of something permanent within the file; something that seemed to go on even after the file was closed. It was a Schrodinger’s Cat for the Web era. It didn’t matter whether you were looking at it or not: the GIF was always moving, even when it wasn’t.
    By the mid-90’s, GIFs littered the Internet. They were largely trash. The images were rudimentary, just a few frames of animation so the screechy modems that were loading them wouldn’t become overwhelmed.
    Three hundred and twenty-two of these GIFs are currently on display at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, where Assistant Curator of Digital Media Jason Eppink mounted an installation to rescue the proto-GIFs from the dustbin of history. All of the GIFs are versions of the “Under Construction” warnings that were strewn across in-development Geocities pages.2 But as the installation says, “Eventually, though, these images littered so many abandoned websites that their presence became something of a joke.” Next to that write-up, a pot-bellied man in a construction hat holds a pickaxe. His crotch bulges over, and over, and over again.
    I couldn’t stop staring.

    GIFs went to ground for several years as the Web became a more buttoned-up place, dominated by startups, social networks, and web video. GIFs weren’t entirely gone—MySpace’s brief ascendance proved as much—but they were insulated in niche corners of the web, where artists and message-board power users talked amongst themselves, reminiscing of a Web gone by. GIFs and their choppy frame rates were a nostalgic totem. But nostalgia is only palatable once enough years have slipped by from the heyday. For a while, GIFs were only passé.
    In 2007, Tumblr changed all that. “I don’t think Tumblr owes its success to GIFs,” Christopher Price, Tumblr’s editorial director, says. But GIFs certainly owe their recent success to Tumblr.3 Tumblr’s mix of blog and social network made GIFs easy to share, and surrounded them with clean designs that made those old GeoCities pages look like the sties they were. It helped that in the world at large, retro became chic and downmarket became upmarket. Things didn’t have to be fancy to be popular, they just needed to be cool. Increasingly, cool, just meant homespun.
    Thus began the artisan GIF movement. As Tumblr grew—it now has over 83 million blogs, and, according to Quantcast, is one of the top-10 visited sites in the country—so did the GIF community inside of it. Gone were the jerky, cartoonish animations of Geocities. In their place were illustrations, photographs, and visualizations that were as complex as they were beautiful.4

    There are the demented collages of zbags, the abstracted psychadelica of ozneo, the 8-bit stylings of lulinternet, the throbbing mathematical models of patakk and intothecontinuum, the post-modern ouroboros of rrrrrrrroll, among many, many others.
    Then there’s Mr. GIF, a hugely popular text- and photo-GIF Tumblr. The domain of Jimmy Repeat and Mark Portillo, two buddies who used to work together at MTV, Mr. GIF is home to original GIFs that are shimmering, flexing photographs, as if the user, sitting at his computer, is tilting a holograph back and forth.5 They look like this:
    There’s a depth that can’t be had from traditional photographs; it feels both familiar and different. The eye stares at it, trying to make sense of what’s going on—how could there be depth in a two-dimensional image? And then the GIF just keeps going and going and going, drawing the onlooker away from whatever else awaits in that Twitter stream and the twenty other tabs beside it. “You have to watch it play out. When it plays out you can watch it again. It takes care of that click for you,” Repeat says. GIFs, unlike much of the rest of the visual Web, are opt-out, not opt-in.
    The high-art world has begun to take notice. Aside from the Museum of the Moving Image installation, there was also an exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, Born in 1987: The Animated GIF. Its curator, Katrina Sluis, told me that “the arrival of the image as a hybrid bastardized remix-appropriated image shared over networks is a really interesting part of what photography has become.”
    But why go to a museum when you could see all of these GIFs at home? “What does a museum do?” Sluis asked rhetorically. “It bestows cultural authority on things.” 6 The GIF, as an art form, is no longer under construction.

    But GIFs aren’t always original art. Sometimes they’re the bastardized remix-appropriated image shared over networks that Sluis was talking about. Sometimes they’re mash-ups of video clips, and sometimes they’re not even mash-ups—they’re just repackaged video.
    Giampaolo Bianconi, writing in Rhizome, calls this last category “frame-grab GIFs” because they’re little more than stolen video frames. “Unlike other GIF types, frame-capture GIFs plainly collect and endlessly repeat a single pop cultural moment from movies, TV shows, sporting events, political occasions, newscasts, cartoons, or even video games,” writes Bianconi. This is the kind of GIF that Mike Konczal used for his monetary policy post.
    Frame-grab GIFs are the Web’s cotton candy—light, fluffy, never filling, but leaving the consumer feeling a bit ill if consumed in too large a quantity. Increasingly, media organizations are adopting the frame-grab GIF as a way to cater to the lowest common denominator of reader. Everybody likes moving images, and, as TV recaps have proved, everybody likes reliving things they’ve already watched.
    These GIFs are strewn across the web the way “under construction” GIFs used to sprout in Geocities. Except this time being a GIF-maker is a job. Buzzfeed can sometimes seem like it is GIFs and little else; Vulture just started GIF-capping television shows; Columbia Journalism Review runs an ask-the-editor advice column laden with frame-grab GIFs; Deadspin recaps NFL games with a GIF highlight reel; the Atlantic Wire covered the Olympics with GIF breakdowns of the various athletic feats.7 After Marco Rubio’s gulping State of the Union response, there was a chorus among the Web obsessed: Somebody GIF that.
    Belinda Butar Butar is one of these frame-grab GIF-makers. A 22 year-old Texan, she works for Grantland, ESPN’s literate sports and pop culture site, on a part-time basis, pumping out GIFs most often for Grantland’s staff roundtables. Depending on the requests, she’ll find a video feed of whatever it is she needs, use a program to scrape the frames, assemble the GIF in Photoshop, and then pass the GIF on to Grantland. “People would rather wait to see a GIF load than an actual video,” Butar Butar says. Her job is a simple one, but increasingly a necessary one.
    But it’s far from the GIF artist’s technique. Jimmy Repeat, part of the Mr. GIF duo, says, “A lot of people don’t understand the beauty,” adding, in the voice of the cynical frame-grabber: “Oh, I’ll just chop up the video and put it online and people will eat it up because GIFs are hot.”
    As media organizations scramble to figure out how to attract eyes and keep them on the page, they’ve turned to a medium from which readers can’t look away. Its adoption amongst journalists was, in retrospect, inevitable. As journalism just becomes another piece of content on the web—no different, really, than a Tumblr post or an amateur YouTube video—the habits of the successful amateur have been annexed by the professional. GIFs = virality; virality = traffic; traffic = monetization. The GIF, long a bastion of innocence, has been industrialized.

    No better proof of that than in the way corporations have adopted the GIF. HBO started a Tumblr to promote the Season 2 premiere of Girls, and filled it with the kind of frame-grab GIFs that Girls fans were already making on their own. It’s a crowd-sourced GIF Tumblr: Fans make the GIFs, and HBO’s team makes the headline to go along with it. That’s how we get this post, “When Girls Get Paid,” which is nothing more than a GIF of Hannah Horvath dancing, originally uploaded by Tumblr user arniewest. (Copyrights are not exactly a concern for GIF makers.)
    Nine West, Calvin Klein, and American Apparel have all integrated GIFs into their Tumblr pages as well. For them the GIF’s purpose is twofold. First, they get to speak the lingua franca of Tumblr, proving to customers they know what’s what. And two, the hypnotic quality GIF serves to make customers stare at the product (and the writhing models) for more than just a second. A static image would slide on by, but a GIF? A GIF demands attention.
    Elsewhere, the fashion industry has begat a whole new type of GIF: the cinemagraph, named after Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg’s company of the same name. Cinemagraph GIFs are as composed and gauzy as any other fashion photograph, but there’s a seamless piece of movement somewhere in the frame while the rest of the image stays motionless. In one, a model’s hair blows. In another, a high heel stubs out a cigarette.8 It is art masquerading as an ad masquerading as a GIF.
    Mark Portillo, the other Mr. GIF partner, is concerned. “These people in suits are maybe using it for money and that’s it. I don’t know if it’s going to be the death of it.”
    But the death of what, exactly? The GIF as an art form has never had one set purpose. Its flexibility has always been its greatest attribute. “I love mentioning that the GIF as a technology is 25 years old,” Christopher Price, the Tumblr editorial director, told me. “How much of the technology do we even use today that’s 25 years old, especially on the Internet?” The GIF is far too infinite to just up and die.
    So, what’s next?  “Last year was the year of the GIF. This year is the year where more and more civilians make GIFs,” Price says. And he’s right: GIF programs are now legion. There’s Cinemagram, GIFBoom, GIF Brewery, GIF Animator, and others. They all try and democratize the GIF-making process, circumventing the somewhat complicated process that the pros use by dumbing down the controls. The GIF is now open for all.
    Perhaps the most high profile GIF-making app is Vine, a new program that lets people record six seconds worth of video on their phones, but doesn’t force those six seconds to be contiguous. The vines load automatically, play infinitely, and are mute by default. The catch? Vine doesn’t make GIFs. It makes repeating video files that happen to look just like them.9 In an industrialized economy, there’s no greater confirmation of a product’s dominance than when it has its own knock-offs.
    Oh, and Vine’s creator? A company with over 1,400 employees and a near-$10 billion valuation: Twitter. The GIF, long a shelter from the cacophony of the Web, is now a tangential part of it. On the Internet, purity doesn’t last long—25 years is impressive enough.

    Monday, February 18, 2013

    Larry Poons- A now and forever painter

    The Painterly Cravings of Larry Poons

    Larry Poons, "Giordano Bruno" (2011) and "Untitled (012D-5)" (2012) (Image courtesy Jason Andrew)
    Larry Poons, “Giordano Bruno” (2011) and “Untitled (012D-5)” (2012) (Image courtesy Jason Andrew)
    Larry Poons might be considered one of the top painters working today, and he knows it. Over his five-decade career he has painted seminal works that have been shown and owned by an illustrious list of prominent private and museum collections all over the world. Critics and historians have written about his work for decades, with pages upon pages chronicling his modes and methods.
    With so much history behind him, and considering that the artist is reaching nearly 80 years old, one might anticipate a lull in his creative output. But Poons remains one of our greatest painters. Like Mario Andretti lives for speed, Poons craves after paint. An exhibition of his most recent work, organized in tandem by the Loretta Howard Gallery and Danese gallery, is chock-full of the best painting on view in New York. Can you tell I’m a fan?
    Poons’s work is about color. It’s been about color since his history-making dot paintings of the ’60s. And it’s been about color since his vigorous throw paintings of the ’70s. In the ’80s and ’90s, as surface and texture became prominent in his work, color, while it may seem to have taken a back seat to the physicality of the painting, still remained constant. And in recent years we’ve seen a welcome return to the brush.
    Larry Poons, "The Flying Blue Cat" (2011) and "The Venetian" (2012) (Image courtesy the artist and Loretta Howard Gallery)
    Larry Poons, “The Flying Blue Cat” (2011) and “The Venetian” (2012) (Image courtesy the artist and Loretta Howard Gallery)
    “The Flying Blue Cat,” “Tycho Brahe,” and “Barreling” have expansive landscaped horizons and color staccatoed across the canvas in an all-over rhythm. They and the others in the show allude to a narrative but offer no wholly recognizable forms. Maelstroms of line and color tell a story more complicated than your typical “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” But Poons isn’t a history painter by any means. “Spend some time with them,” he tells me. “It’s about the eye; it’s always been about the eye.”
    In “She Turns,” I see a Dubuffet-like personage staring out through fields of color. And in “Giordano Burno,” named after the Italian philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer, I see the old ridge I used to hike when I was a kid growing up in Utah. When I tell Poons what I see, he fires back, saying, “Why? There is no point, it’s just paint.
    “There is a piece of everything in everything, you know,” he adds. “A rock looks just like a tree and tree just like a rock. It all depends on how you see it. They are, we are, all made up of the same stuff. And in the end, it’s just paint.”
    It takes me a minute, but then I get it. I take a step back from the frame and then focus on the surface. Each painting, every one, radiates a Dionysian surge of color against color, paint against paint. If my observations seem general it’s because Poons wants us to see rather than contextualize. He wants us to feel rather than interpret.
    Larry Poons, "She Turns" (2012) (Image courtesy Jason Andrew)
    Larry Poons, “She Turns” (2012) (Image courtesy Jason Andrew)
    In pure painting terms, it’s the essence of these paintings that comes out and bowls you over. They originate from chromatic worlds of music and color, creating along the way a visual and emotional sensation ripe with gesture, raw energy, and improvisation.
    In the catalogue for the exhibition, Robert Pincus-Witten writes of a “constant shift” in experiencing the paintings as they “oscillate back and forth from the local to the universal.”
    When Poons talks about his paintings he sounds a hell of a lot like Cézanne. And actually, he’s starting to look like him, too, minus the beard. Anthea Callen, in her book The Art of Impressionism: Painting Technique and the Making of Modernity, writes:
    Cézanne described seeing nature as patches or stains of color, similar to the colored tachés Monet advised Lilla Cabot Perry to look for in the landscape […] ‘Pure retinal sensation’ was thought by the philosopher Hippolyte Taine to be the basis of naïve vision and apparently Cézanne subscribed to Taine’s idea of vision as per sensation, primitive in character, unaffected by interpretations based on memory and experience.
    Larry Poons, "Untitled (012D-5)," (2012), "Untitled (012C-2)," (2012) (Image courtesy the artist and Loretta Howard Gallery)
    Larry Poons, “Untitled (012D-5),” (2012), “Untitled (012C-2),” (2012) (Image courtesy the artist and Loretta Howard Gallery)
    This is exactly how Poons describes his paintings. It’s a philosophy in freedom and approach. Poons’s taché technique informs the work just as Cézanne described it to Émile Bernard: “The effect is what constitutes a picture. It unifies the picture and concentrates it.” Like Cézanne, Poons’s artworks parallel rather than copy nature. Which is why they look “like everything and nothing,” Poons tells me. “They are all in the nature of the thing … of anything … of everything.”
    Though he would argue about it, the recent paintings by Poons are paeans to Cézanne. Yet they stretch beyond subtlety — they are exuberant and impulsive, opulent and nuanced. Moreover, they tell us more about how really seeing, truly looking at painting, is a thing of the past. Poons carries the torch, heralds the song, then asks us to abandon all knowledge as we stand in rapture. Empty. What other contemporary artist demands this?
    Larry Poons: New Paintings runs at Loretta Howard Gallery (525-531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 2.