‘Lingotto’ By Mario Merz

I have no idea who Mario Merz is (though I suppose I could look him), but I loved this piece. Maybe I couldn’t even tell you why.

I finally visited the fully renovated East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. They added a lot of useful gallery space and I give whole thing an unreserved thumbs on for practical improvements. For some reason, though, I was in a mood to see paintings by the time I got there. Not just paintings, but traditional paintings. Nineteenth century landscapes with ruins and picturesque peasants. You know the type.

But was making a good faith effort to walk through the galleries and I came out of one space and into another and Lingotto was directly opposite the doorway I passed through and I was instantly struck by a my own little Stendahl episode. There was just something about it. Maybe the ritualistic aspect, the shrine-like quality. But I was just amazed.

I’m Back, I’m Not Back

I’ve been away, first thinking only about the election and then contemplating the aftermath.

It’s not a happy aftermath. My wife is an immigrant and a person of color. I have low income family members who depend on Obamacare. All reasons to fear for the well being of people I love.

So, in what do we take solace?

I’ve been reading Cicero’s De Officiis in a lovely little miniature hardback edition. I love those books, on a tactile level, like the original Modern Library editions from the teens, twenties and thirties. This isn’t one of those, but the same principle. Also, just reading a literate account of how to be decent person in society. While some is specific to the society of the late Republican/early Imperial Rome, most is not. And in a post-Trump world, it seems both relevant and terribly sad. But perhaps Cicero, who wrote this after being forced into a sort of exile for his support for the norms of the Republic would relate. Though I still don’t see this as the end of democracy in America. A touch of class, too, in Cicero. Not that kind of class (though he’s very classy), but socio-economic class. And jealousy. On my part. Cicero can retire to his villa, send his son to study abroad (he’s learning from a Greek philosopher in Athens), and spend his days writing awesome things like De Officiis.

I was in my study the other day. Actually, if I’m being honest, I was video chatting my way through a Dungeons & Dragons game (thankfully, we’re meeting in person next week; sometimes, technology is a hindrance to play, a statement that you should take several ways). While waiting for technology to right itself or else during lulls in the action, I found my eyes wandering around to all my books. Honestly, I’ve got some pretty awesome books.

Among them, James Lasdun’s The Horned Man, I book that I read many years and deeply enjoyed and I felt compelled to reread upon seeing it on my shelf. Like Cicero, maybe I’m looking for parallels. In this case, an unreliable narrator who quickly constructs a strange and inexplicable conspiracy. So how does this relate? Trump, the unreliable narrator spinning his improbable narratives? Me, trapped in a world created by people who see conspiracies in the quotidià of modern life? Or am I the narrator, feeling a strange noose tighten for reasons I can’t understand (bear to understand?)?

Wordworth’s The Prelude which is one of the highlights of western civilization, but which, thankfully, has nothing to with Trump. Or does it? I just called it one of the highlights of western civilization and doesn’t that relate to Trump making his closest presidential adviser a man tied to a racist, separatist, apartheidist, ethno-european nationalist movement? That doesn’t make Wordsworth particularly racist (though I’m sure he was, being a man of his erea), but am I merely taking a more highbrow kind of comfort in the same white mythologies as Trump’s supporters?

I picked up Kenneth Rexroth and Ikoko Atsumi’s translated text, Women Poets of Japan and found myself less enthralled than I remember. While waiting in line to vote, I was reading The Book Genji and the titular Prince Genji and the beau monde in which moved frequently communicated via poems, but a quick, returning glance at that once favored collection of Japanese poetry left me itchy for something else. If that something else was a white, male poet (Wordsworth), does it make my reaction more fraught?



Emmanuel Ax, Beethoven, Shakespeare

Last week, I cashed in one of my birthday presents – two tickets to see Emmanuel Ax play Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto at the Kennedy Center, followed by a Shakespearean themed program.

This was my second time hearing Ax play and, of course, he’s good; and he really seemed to enjoy playing such a youthful piece. I’m not a music expert and can’t even play the triangle, but it did seem to me that he had some rough moments during the first movement, but then really hit his stride, especially of the middle movement.

When they have stars like this, I wish they wouldn’t put them first, because, after hearing a great pianist play Beethoven, pretty much whatever follows is going to disappoint. I like Berlioz, but if one of his pieces immediately follows Bach’s Passion of Saint Matthew, well… it’s going to be a bit of a letdown, isn’t it?

The three pieces that followed were Erich Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Richard Strauss’ Macbeth, and Antonin Dvorak’s Othello Overture. I liked Dvorak the best, but the Korngold was fun. Also, I found out that Korngold wrote the scores to two of my favorite Errol Flynn swashbucklers: Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood!

One of the cool things they did was have two actors who feature a lot locally come out and perform bits from the relevant Shakespeare. I lost the paper that told me who they were, but the man was someone I had seen in many, many plays at the Folger Shakespeare Library (off the top of my head, I’ve seen him in District MerchantsTwevlth NightRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Mary Stuart. He got a great presence and a delicate comic touch that works even better, because he himself is such a big guy.

Contemporary North Korean Art: The Evolution Of Socialist Realism

On the very last day of the exhibit, my better half and I went to the Katzen Gallery (the art museum of American University) to see a visiting selection of North Korean. There was also an exhibit of contemporary South Korean but, as interesting as that was, the real driver of our desire was not the autocratic society’s democratic neighbors.

At the end of this, I’ll include links to an article about the exhibit, as well as the gallery’s page on it.

My own thoughts…

I really liked it. A lot.

I didn’t go in expecting certain things. Formal innovation, for example. Deep subtext. I went open to enjoying what I was likely to encounter (and did also encounter some stuff that surprised me).

The large scenes of heroic military and industrial figures, but despite the size, focusing on a small number of relatively nondescript people, so that the otherwise quotidian individual becomes the focus – the hero of the painting.

I expected that. I did not expect the small ink paintings (actually, they were all ink wash on rice paper in a style/technique called chosonhwa) of dismembodied flowers/branches/flora framing some rough calligraphy (I really wish they had translated the calligraphy for us; were they poems? paeans to the Korean people or leaders? mapquest instructions to reach a nearby gas station?).

My favorite was an unfinished painting of people waiting at a bus stop. It was so marvelously prosaic and contemporary looking. While obviously a painting of Korean people, it was not otherwise culturally distinct, which made it weirdly wonderful. Little touches, like a young man who seemed like he might have been glancing at a pretty young woman who was at the comparative center of the painting.

As an art lover and, more importantly, someone who believes in public support for the arts, North Korea’s massive investment in artistic production and support for the artist as a professional is enheartening… but this North Korea. You can’t say anything good about the regime, can you? It’s brutal, totalitarian, and directly responsible for so many deaths.

Artsy editorial on the exhibit.

Katzen’s page on it.


I had seen this painting before; I think it is relatively famous; the title is “Farewell” by Park Ryong

And Yet…

9781476772066The most recent (though probably not last) of the posthumously published collections of Christopher Hitchen’s essays lends itself to a sort of narrative arc, as the pieces inch closer to his terminal diagnosis with esophageal cancer and the reader’s mind naturally tends to see relationships (prophecy?) between his death and the chronologically later essays.

As someone who spent the first five years of the new millennium as a professional political campaign professional, the political essays around the 2004 election and shenanigans in Ohio were a painful reminder of a time that, until my memory was sparked, felt very long ago. Pleasingly, those and other discussions of then current events from the middle of that decade did not feel as dated as they could have.

His book reviews – at their best, excuses for lengthy rambles that show off, but provide the best platform for Hitchens ‘holding court’ – are the highlights, especially the long ones on biographies of Che Guevera and V.S. Naipul (Hitchens shows off his Britishness by referring to him as Sir Vidia).

It’s no secret that Orwell was a touchstone for Hitchens. As an essayist, he is often compared to Orwell; and I have often heard Orwell described as the great English essayist of the twentieth century.

But what have you read by Orwell? I’ll wager, gentle reader, that it doesn’t extend beyond his best known novels, 1984 and Animal Farm. And if you have read an essay, it was probably that short one he penned on the proper way to make tea. While an admirable tidbit, hardly what reviewers are referring to when they praise Orwell the essayist.

My point is related to a question that came to me when Hitchens died: how long will be remembered?

Having not written a pair of timeless novels, who will read his essays, beyond a handful of academic scholars, in twenty years? His reach will be less than that Edmund Wilson wields today (which, let’s not kid ourselves, isn’t much). His book length works are too timely, methinks. Maybe Letters to a Young Contrarian will be read, but it feels to self congratulatory to me to be the source of long lasting, posthumous relevance.

Another Bookstore Gone…

cq5dam.resized.270x180!While DC has been good about adding bookstores (like my neighborhood’s recent addition, East City Books), we do seem to be taking two steps back for every step forward (we lost Books for America and the downtown Barnes & Noble over the last year).

This time, it’s the only in DC World Bank Group InfoShop Bookstore.

That’s right. If you didn’t live in DC, you would never know such a thing existed. But it did. And it was super awesome.

In addition to World Bank publications, it had a fantastic array of very specialized books on economics and global development. I bought my copy of Tony Judt’s Ill Fares the Land from that particular bookshop.

And just… what a cool thing to have in your hometown?

Ugh. Another one bits the dust.

Robert Irwin Exhibit At The Hirshorn Museum

After opening with one of his later, convex disc sculptures, the exhibit moved on to a series of thickly painted, mannered pieces, with a three dimensional effect caused by the thickness of the layers of paint and the areas carved out of the three dimensional layers (some seemingly carved with a palette knife). The appearance, then, of his classic, geometrical, and spare line paintings was like a Stendahlian explosion (as in the syndrome). In some, the lines were so narrow and precise that I had to look closely to convince myself that they weren’t glued on. The dot paintings that followed, though, left me cold. Even though close examination allowed me to see the diffusion. shapes, and patterns, they felt contemptful of the viewer. Likewise, his ‘light and space’ sculptures – mostly convex discs (like the first item) and a couple of columns only made me want to walk back and see the line paintings again. At the end was a massive, site specific trompe l’oeil installation that has to be seen to be understood, so I won’t try to describe it. If you can’t get here to see it, well that doesn’t feel much like a ‘me’ problem, now does it?