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Touch Each Other, Not the Art: Yoko Ono at MoMA

John Lennon first met Yoko Ono in November 1966 at London’s Indica Gallery, the night before a show of hers opened. Despite the fast approaching deadline, the gallery space still appeared bare and unfinished, with installation equipment strewn about—but then again, for a show called Unfinished Paintings and Objects, who could really tell what was art and what was incidental? Lennon approached a whitewashed ladder in the middle of the room and took a hard, close look. He began to climb it. At the top he found a magnifying glass and, training it on the ceiling, he read a tiny printed word: YES. He was in love. That ladder of legend can now be found in a Yoko Ono retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, along with more than a hundred other works Ono produced from 1960 to 1971. The closing year in that range, 1971, is significant: That was the previous time Ono had a show at MoMA. The circumstances of that exhibit, however, were less honest. Although Ono had heavily advertised her “one-woman show” in The Village Voice, she had never applied for the museum’s permission. When visitors arrived, they were informed by a man outside, wearing a sandwich board, that Ono had released dozens of flies she had scented with her favorite perfume, Ma Griffe, inside the museum’s sculpture garden—could they find them? MoMA’s ticket clerks became so tired of telling museumgoers that Ono’s exhibit didn’t actually exist, they hung a sign in their booth, next to a cutout of Ono’s Village Voice ad, reading, “This is not here.” (If you’re wondering what part of that experience was art, Ono would answer, “All of it.”) More than four decades later, not only has MoMA welcomed Ono back with all forgiven, but the museum has paid her homage: Referencing the title of her renegade performance, MoMA has called its new exhibit Yoko Ono: One Woman Show. The retrospective covers Ono’s first decade as a burgeoning artist, beginning with her early years as a major force among the New York avant-garde, continuing with her first taste of fame (and infamy) with Lennon, and ending with her return to New York as Mrs. Ono-Lennon. Beatles fans may remember those years, 1960 to 1971, for another reason: In 1960, Lennon dropped out of art school and formally launched the Beatles, and in the winter of 1970–’71, he officially kicked off his solo career. The exhibition could justly be titled Yoko Ono: The Beatle Years. But that, of course, would be a grave disservice to Ono. Although she has always welcomed her association with the Fab Four—and it has indeed propelled her celebrity—it has also held her back considerably as an artist. For four decades, the world has refused to take her seriously. If this exhibition proves anything to the Beatlemaniacal naysayers, it’s that her art deserves to stand on its own, without the support, or the burden, of her husband and his mates. That’s a ceiling she has been trying to bust through for a long time. Lennon said that if the word on the ceiling in London had been NO, he would have turned around and left the gallery. He stayed because it was a message of positivity. The message wasn’t the art. The ladder wasn’t the art. The magnifying glass wasn’t the art. The art was the moment Lennon decided to stay. That’s why Ono called her 1966 show Unfinished Paintings and Objects: The observer completes the artwork by observing it. I was disappointed, then, to find that Ono’s ladder piece at MoMA has one crucial difference from its original installation: Its base reads, “Please do not touch.” The artistic affirmation that so captivated Lennon is now paradoxically out of reach, too high to read. Another piece, Hammer a Nail—a hammer attached to a wooden board, which viewers had been invited to drive a nail into—bears the same message: “Please do not touch.” What do you do when the sign on the ceiling says “YES” but the sign on the floor says “NO”? Which directive do you obey? The exhibit luckily makes up for this disconnect with other interactive artworks: There’s White Chess Set, a white vs. white chess game set up in MoMA’s sculpture garden for visitors to play, as long as they can keep track of their pieces; there’s Bag Piece, a black bag on a gallery floor that visitors are invited to climb inside and move around in (deep down, presumably, we all yearn to be anonymous, amorphous blobs); and then there’s Touch Poem for Group of People, a room-size work composed of one straightforward instruction: “Touch each other.” Being the Beatles fan I am, I tacitly learned to resent Ono without ever questioning that opinion. I knew nothing about her, except that she represented some kind of indistinct adversary to the greatest band in the world. She was a stranger to me. But not anymore. I finally feel able to collapse the breach, forge a connection—read the message. Photo courtesy of Mirrorpix/Everett Yoko_Ono_connects_bottom

by Gabriel Rosenberg

Aug 3, 2015

Grogged by Noon: Get Ready for Black Tot Day

“Drunk as a sailor” may be a cliché, but for those serving in the English Royal Navy it was also a reality—a government subsidized reality, in fact—until this day in 1970. That’s right, mateys: A mere 45 years ago today the Royal Navy stopped giving sailors rum rations known as daily tots. Needless to say, Her Majesty’s seamen did not go quietly into this new order. For the final tot, sailors called out “Up spirits!”—the signal it was time for the pre-noon shot of rum—and, wearing black armbands, held funerals for their fallen comrade. “Up spirits!” was not the only tot-related parlance hurrahed on the high seas. A sailor whose mate was having a birthday, for example, often shared his rum, cheering “sippers,” “gulpers” or “sandy bottoms,” this last meaning said mate could down the entire ration. But free booze never lasts, and this particular provision was likely doomed from the start. Centuries before Black Tot Day, English sailors enjoyed daily beer rations. On longer journeys, however, the beer spoiled and took up too much space, and so what began as a gallon of suds a day dwindled to an eighth of a pint of rum, and even that was watered down. Sailors put off by the taste of grog—weak rum flavored with lemon, sugar and sometimes cinnamon—often hoarded their rations, saving them up in order to catch a better buzz. Black_Tot_Day_connects_sideObviously discipline was also a problem. In 1969 the Admiralty Board declared, if awkwardly, that the “rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual’s tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people’s lives may depend.” It’s uncertain whether the soaks sitting on the board were themselves drunk as they wrote this. Nevertheless, the Great Rum Debate commenced the following year in the House of Commons, and the aptly named James Wellbeloved argued in favor of upholding tradition. A former wartime seadog himself, Wellbeloved claimed a nice rum tot emboldened sailors “to face the coming action with greater strength and greater determination.” He lost, and the new law went into effect three days later. Other Commonwealth countries followed suit, with New Zealand holding out the longest, until 1990. These days sailors still get their rum on, but they have to come by it like the rest of us—with their own money. That’s why the seaman responsible for doling out rum, among other onboard necessities, is called the purser. Eventually this title became “pusser” because, well, sailors have salty tongues. The point is, midday drinking is no longer just for the watery part of the world. Anyone doing battle in today’s urban jungles knows the need for celebration and comfort remains relevant to this day. So right around noon, take a break and enjoy a shot of rum. You know, Up spirits! Just don’t act, spend or curse like a drunken sailor afterward. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

by Emily Burns Morgan

Jul 31, 2015

Thomas Hart Benton Today

In 1934, Thomas Hart Benton was the first artist to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. But by 1959, when broadcaster Edward R. Murrow introduced him as “America’s best known contemporary painter,” the artist’s reputation was already in decline. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood, the first major exhibition of Benton’s work in 25 years, is now touring the country. It’s time for America to rediscover Benton! Austen Barron Bailly, curator of American art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, one of the museums collaborating on American Epics, was saddened that “only about one in four people coming through the door had ever heard of Benton.” The show is a revelation even to a Benton fan like myself. I was amazed by one of his earliest murals, American Historical Epic—14 immense canvases bursting with creative energy. Benton did some work for Hollywood, but overall his art is uniquely cinematic. He used lighting, character and dramatic narrative to paint his vision of the American story. [caption id="attachment_8262" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Achelous and Hercules, 1941. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia. Achelous and Hercules, 1947. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.[/caption] Benton was born in 1889 to a political family in Neosho, Missouri. Against the objections of his father (who, Benton recounted, saw artists as “pimps” who “lisped a silly jargon about grace and beauty”), Benton studied art in Chicago and Paris. In a letter home, Benton wrote, “As each day goes by I become more and more conscious that in me lies some unexplainable power,” a power he felt would help him “rise above the level of the ordinary mortal.” But, also in his own words, Benton “floundered, without a compass, in every direction”—until he read an article on the Renaissance painter Tintoretto. He embraced Tintoretto’s process of creating preparatory sculptures as models for his paintings, saying this allowed him to “feel my paintings in my hands” and to develop his signature style of narratives rendered in giant panels and murals. In a review of the “wonderfully theatrical (and even cinematic)” recent exhibit Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The New York Times wondered if the show “might even convince a few anti-Bentonites to look anew at this cantankerous and controversial figure.” Benton created the mural’s 10 panels to fit the boardroom of a new building at the New School of Social Research, in Manhattan. The sensory overload of Benton’s life-size images of stockbrokers, burlesque queens, cotton pickers, farmers and cowboys in 1920s America is an overwhelming, magical experience. And Benton was paid in eggs to paint it! He received no fee for his work but demanded the New School supply the eggs he needed to make his tempera paint. But America Today (1930–31) thrust Benton into the limelight. [caption id="attachment_8260" align="aligncenter" width="600"]SteelInset America Today: Steel, 1930–31. Photo courtesy of garrettziegler/Flickr.[/caption] Around this time, Benton became the only art teacher Jackson Pollock would ever have—though Benton famously joked that the only thing he taught Pollock was “how to drink a fifth a day.” As Henry Adams writes in Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock, “Pollock was the sort of person that Thomas Hart Benton pretended to be: the child of poor, working-class drifters, with little education and few prospects.” Benton and his wife, Rita (shown together in this post’s feature image), treated Pollock like a surrogate son. Pollock not only posed as a model for America Today (see the large figure in the foreground, above), he also helped deliver and install it. In 1935, after Benton announced he was “sick of New York” and moved back to Missouri, Pollock began drinking heavily. Benton later wrote to his protégé, “You’re a damned fool if you don’t cut out the monkey business and get to work.” By 1947, Time magazine was calling Pollock the “greatest American painter of the 20th century,” his drip paintings ushering in a new age of abstract expressionism. Benton never trashed Pollock but said wistfully, “Jack never made a painting that wasn’t beautiful.” Pollock, however, was not as gallant, spreading the oedipal lie “I used to fuck Rita Benton.” As biographer Justin Wolff explains, Benton was “infamously pugnacious” and “had a reputation for making outlandish comments about modern art, museums and homosexuals.” The equally opinionated architect Frank Lloyd Wright once dismissed Benton’s tough-guy persona and theories on art by asking, “Mr. Benton, isn’t that the attitude of an unregenerate bad boy?” This bad boy who wanted to paint “the people” wore everyone out. In the 1980s, renewed interest in Benton shocked and dismayed former New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, who said with a sigh, “Twenty-five years ago, one never dreamed there would be a revival of Benton.” But Benton best understood his own appeal: “I am a very fortunate artist. A lot of people have disliked my art intensely enough to keep it under continuous attention.” Americans have long embraced Benton’s follow regionalist painter Norman Rockwell and his sugarcoated version of the U.S., yet Benton’s sweeping, complicated vision of the country more closely mirrors its messy reality. Thomas Hart Benton was Norman Rockwell with balls. American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood is at the Peabody Essex Museum through September 7. Feature image courtesy of Wikimedia Thomas_Benton_connects_bottom

by Colin J. Warnock

Jul 30, 2015

Listening to Marlon

For a good chunk of his life, Marlon Brando kept an audio journal, and in the excellent new documentary Listen to Me Marlon, the public gets to hear it for the first time. In the journal’s bulk form, musing on the vagaries of existence, its hundreds of hours would overwhelm most consumers. But the patient professional, in this instance British documentary director Stevan Riley, sifts out the shining moments and arranges them to speak of their source—the storied and enigmatic Brando, unquestionably among the very best actors of his generation. Also including a bevy of clips from his many films, behind-the-scenes footage and press coverage, this movie is pure, uncontaminated Brando. His are almost the only words we hear. Through these, Brando’s significant intellect becomes clear; more than merely eloquent, his ramblings are philosophical. Accompanying his words are familiar images of his often heartbreakingly handsome face and, strangely, a holographic simulation of an older Brando’s head. Generated from 3-D scans taken during his lifetime, this floating, white-eyed visage utters things like “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.…” It’s creepy (especially when silently screaming) but fascinating. The disembodied head even comments on itself, musing that someday this is how all acting will be rendered in films—a prediction that may prove true (see the unusual 2013 film The Congress). In pleasingly rough chronological order, the doc moves through Brando’s life, starting with his early career, his extreme fondness for his mother and his issues with his hard-edged father. His feelings about his father were a well of potent emotion for Brando to draw from in his Method acting, as taught to him by the great Stella Adler, of whom we see some good footage. The Method, they both say, is about “always finding the truth of it,” and we increasingly see how deeply Brando applied this principle to his own life. Riley (Fire in Babylon, Everything or Nothing) appropriately seems to embrace the Method in his filmmaking, showing us raw but carefully curated chunks of Brando at his most personal and vulnerable. [caption id="attachment_8199" align="aligncenter" width="600"]DB3WN8 A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE Warner Bros., 1951. Directed by Elia Kazan With Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951. Photo from Alamy/courtesy of SHOWTIME.[/caption] It’s remarkable how voluptuous Brando is with himself in these journals, or perhaps, since they were private, how profoundly Brando thought about his life. The widespread perception of Brando as a difficult actor to work with, and at times a pretentious and reclusive weirdo, begins to dissolve. His sending a Native American woman to accept one of his Oscars, for example, appears more genuine as we discover his passion for the civil rights movement and the Pacific island peoples among whom he later found a home. He respected what he saw as the purity of their lives, something his own increasingly lacked, and he speaks of “waking to the nightmare that the white man lives in, the nightmare of the want of things.” Brando reflects particularly on the nature of fame and how it removes one from reality: Admiration becomes a protection from insignificance, and, in the eye of fame, if you aren’t “somebody,” you’ve committed a crime. Brando admits he was too sensitive, a naturally shy man who liked to study strangers’ faces and try to intuit what they didn’t know about themselves. This invites us to do the same with his holographic head, but it offers little. The burden of wisdom weighs heavy in his voice. For Brando, the cost of fame and his own capacity for emotional complexity was great. Adler said, “It is against the nature of human life to withdraw,” yet that’s what the older Brando ultimately did. Haunted by tragedies involving his children, he equates himself to a fighter who has taken too many punches. Of all his roles, Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now seems to me the most germane—perpetually half in light, half in shadow, a weary genius mumbling about “the horror.” It turns out Brando wrote much of his own dialogue for that part (another habit he was criticized for), and as this documentary proves, Kurtz’s ponderous, broken musings could have been lifted straight from Brando’s journals. Also in the journals are Brando’s attempts at self-hypnosis. Calmly urging himself not to eat so many sweets and unhealthy foods is perhaps the most vulnerable thing we hear him say. Listen to Me Marlon is a rare, strikingly intimate look into a man most everyone already knows a little bit. The way the film broadens those limited impressions is a beautiful exercise, offering a complete (or near as can be) picture of Brando’s life, revisiting the most important themes but never lingering too long. There’s no fat in its 95 minutes. It’s something of a masterpiece and may just be Brando’s finest performance. Feature photo by Mike Gilman/courtesy of SHOWTIME Listen_Marlon_connects_bottom

by Jonathan E. Roche

Jul 29, 2015




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