Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bill Cunningham’s New York

Originally appeared in the 5/8/11

"Bill Cunningham’s New York"

This is the story of a fashion fetishist, his camera, and NYC.

Bill Cunningham is a nimble, birdlike bicyclist — now an octogenarian, still biking and shooting and famed throughout the fashion world for his work. Starting in 1978, his fashion verité photos for The New York Times gave him steady employment, aesthetic freedom, and complete license to shoot.

It should be stressed that Cunningham loves clothes — not the celebrities nor the wealth associated with them. He's primordially blasé about all that. And maybe it's not even clothes per se that he enjoys: it's individualization and inventiveness through couture, presentation of personhood by means of dress. He's just as quick to see and appreciate it on a bag lady as on a billionaire.

Book review: Paul Berman "The Flight of the Intellectuals"

Originally appeared in the

Paul Berman  "The Flight of the Intellectuals"
Melvillehouse, 2010.
224 pages $26.00

Paul Berman hates poetry or doesn't understand it — or both. That may seem like a peculiar thing to seize on about a book that purports, as the author says, to enter into a "central debate of our moment — the debate over Islamist ideas in the Western countries, and over the reluctance of journalists and intellectuals from Western backgrounds to grapple seriously with the Islamist ideas." This is tantalizing, urgent material, to be sure. And yet Berman's incomprehension cum scapegoating of "avant garde" literature intrudes recurrently and stridently enough into his argument to sow doubts not only about some of his finer points but about the basics.

Beijing Coma: Art Review

Originally appeared in the 7/8/08

"Beijing Coma"

Though it does not originate in the Kuiper Belt, the Beijing summer Olympics (8/8/08-8/24/08) is bearing down upon us like an outsized asteroid, bringing China out of feudal/communist distance into full twenty-first century relief. Sports, at this point, remain secondary: before we get to ping-pong, swimming, the shot-put and gymnastics, Americans have unprecedented amounts of trend-setting Chinese art and culture to ponder.

Last spring, for example, New York's Guggenheim Museum featured "I Want to Believe", a one man show by the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qianq who works with an age-old Chinese, medium -- gun powder. Guo-Qianq draws with gunpowder, detonating lines of it in pursuit of charred, ghostly, sometimes Shroud of Turin-like imagery. In Europe, Guo-Qianq has been invited to create fireworks monsters that race through host art institutions, threatening obliteration but leaving them unscathed. Currently, he's is working on fireworks displays for the Olympics that are bound to set new standards for peacetime pyrotechnics.

Book Review: Russell Banks, “Dreaming up America”

Originally appeared in the 10/6/08

Russell Banks, “Dreaming up America,”
Seven Stories Press,
176 pages, $21.95

TThis books of essays by novelist and short story writer Russell Banks was published before our country’s financial crisis reached the acute stage from which it may or may not be recovering, or the author would surely have voiced bracing opinions and commentaries veering toward prophecy in accord with the tonality of this slim volume, which grows ever darker and more dire as it proceeds. “Dreaming up America” began as a series of talks the writer was asked to give on French television with the aim of correcting impressions of American history conveyed by Hollywood. Banks, it should be said, knows Hollywood first hand: his novel, “Affliction”, filmed in 1998, earned Nick Nolte, its star, an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. His 2004 book, “The Darling” is currently being filmed by Martin Scorcese with Cate Blanchette in the lead.

Short Fuse: The Baader Meinhof Gang as Action Film

Originally appeared in the 9/18/09

"The Baader Meinhof Complex"

There are some things the German Red Army Faction -- the RAF, or Baader Meinhof Gang -- had in common with ultra-militant elements of the American New Left, as I knew and participated in it in the '60s and '70s. As presented in  German director's Uli Edel's, "The Baader Meinhof Complex", they smoked incessantly, as if Che had written: "Let me say, at the risk of being ridiculous, that the true task of a revolutionary is to assimilate tar and nicotine." Or Mao: "Revolution is not a dinner party, not an essay, nor a painting, nor a piece of embroidery, yet reeks hugely of cigarettes."

Baader Meinhof gang members curse a lot, as we did, though, at least in translation, they lack for colorful expressions, such as "Far Fucking Out!" which were springing out of all corners of the American counter-culture, political or not. These Germans settle for the routine expletive, "Scheiss!" Can a movement so dull in expletives be truly inventive -- except by being more murderous?

American Folk Art Museum

Originally appeared in the 5/13/13

The American Folk Art Museum: destroying it as vandalism.

It's notable and heartening when informed critical opinion manages to stop a juggernaut in its tracks. It's too soon to say for sure, but that seems to be exactly what's happening on W. 53 St. in Manhattan, where the Museum of Modern Art is suddenly reconsidering its plan to demolish the adjacent American Folk Art Museum because a chorus of prominent writers and critics are denouncing the move.

A bit of history is in order: the Folk Art Museum was long housed in a modest gallery space opposite Lincoln Center. In 2001, the collection expanded into a W. 53 St. structure designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien (who likewise designed Philadelphia’s new Barnes Museum), that was praised, by Michael Kimmelman, the NY Times critic, as "a striking sliver of building." A bit of personal history might be in order as well: I was often drawn to the W. 53 St. space, whether or not I also visited MoMA next door.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

Originally appeared in the 8/11/12

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

This fine documentary opens with shots of the many cats with whom Ai Weiwei, China's best-known artist/activist, shares his Beijing studio. One feline has learned to open a door by leaping up to release the lever, after which it saunters out. Ai Weiwei observes that having opened the door, the cat never returns to close it.

Point nicely taken about activism and art.

This is followed by an orange tabby getting willfully tangled up in a small wood model Ai Weiwei is assembling. He opines that the cat won't destroy it. He's completely mistaken, and chuckles when kitty does.

Book review: The King of Trees by Ah Cheng

Originally appeared in the 7/26/10

The King of Trees by Ah Cheng. Translated from the Chinese by Bonnie S. McDougall, New Directions, 208 pages, $14.95.

Chess has been of service to Western art and literature for a thousand years, mined, since it arrived in Europe about a millennium ago, for sport, psychology/psychopathology, and a capacity to reflect changes in cultural style. (There is such a thing as romantic chess, for example, parallel to romanticism in poetry and music. Is there such a thing as romantic poker, cribbage, blackjack or rummy?)

Mao Madness

Originally appeared in the 7/2/09

Mao Madness

Qiu Xiaolong, "The Mao Case", St. Martins, 2009

Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police force, the main character of "The Mao Case" (and of five previous mystery novels by Qiu Xiaolong), is not your average cop. He moonlights as a translator of American mystery novels, writes poetry, and, if given a choice, would rather puzzle over the collected works of T.S. Eliot than chase criminals.

T.S. Eliot might at first seem like an unlikely Western favorite for a Shanghai policeman, but there is a kind of sense to it. Eliot is commonly referred to as the most Mandarin, as in high-toned, of twentieth-century English language poets. On a deeper level, Eliot imposed upon himself what can be conceived of as an essentially Confucian duty, namely to put his tradition’s texts in order, to define and maintain its canon. (Eliot's buddy Ezra Pound went so far as to make Kung -- aka Confucius -- a major voice in his Cantos). That Chen can be moved to quote Prufrock one moment and Tang Dynasty poetry the next makes him intriguing to stick with during China's recent economic boom, which provides the setting for these novels.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

9/11 Art

Originally appeared on the


Short fuse: 9/11

The New York Historical Society is currently hosting a show marking the sixth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center ("Here Is New York: Remembering 9/11," The York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, Manhattan).

Consisting mostly of emotionally wrenching photographs taken during or immediately after the attacks, the show also includes several objects worth pondering. Two that held my attention were "World Trade Center I-Beam Fragment," and "World Trade Center Aluminum Facade Fragment."

Short Fuse: Jeremy Lin — Chess Fantasy

Originally appeared in the 2/24/12

Jeremy Lin and I played a few games. Let me say, so far as Xiangqi goes, he wasn’t an all-star. Then again, neither am I.

Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lin: the name sounded familiar. The face was for sure familiar. I couldn’t quite recall the details when he was outplaying Kobe Bryant. But today, when he was shooting a three pointer over seven foot Dirk Nowitzki, leading the Knicks to a win against Dallas, last year's NBA champs, it came back in a flash: Jeremy Lin was the Harvard kid I played Chinese chess (Xiangqi) with in Harvard sq. couple of summers ago.

Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame

Originally appeared in the 12/13/12

By Harvey Blume.

In his book about their relationship — Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend — Bill Russell recounts a conversation he had with Red Auerbach that might have served as the opener for this enjoyable and informative collection of essays about Jews in a range of sports or sport related activities, including baseball, ping-pong, basketball, boxing, competitive eating, martial arts, football, point fixing, and chess.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Originally appeared in the 5/26/13

Star Trek Into Darkness

After a bit of thought, I realized why Star Trek: Into Darkness is such a yawn: the Borg have won. The franchise has been assimilated, sucked in by a big $$$ tractor beam and reduced to special effects digital inanity.

Go "Where no man has gone before"?

That was Star Trek, pre-assimilation, and not a bad motto.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

André Aciman, Harvard Square.

Originally appeared in the 5/2/13

André Aciman, Harvard Square.

Of course it's not good literary policy to judge a book by its cover, and not much more sophisticated to judge it by its title, but that's just what I was prepared to do with André Aciman's novel, Harvard Square. Harvard Square holds little appeal for me, except for the squirrely chess scene in Holyoke Center, where on warm days devotees tolerate the pigeons on the boughs above who favor the area as a toilet; the debris  building up and swirling around their feet; and, for lack of a better word, the crazy people who always gather around chess scenes as if to represent an aspect of the game the players themselves prefer to deny.