The Madonna and Mr. Klinghoffer

I recently visited the New Museum in New York, which has a multi-floor exhibit called “Chris Ofili: Night and Day” with the colorful and at times massive paintings of the British artist, who has strong African influences. One of the works looked very familiar to me, something I had seen or heard about, if not viewed up close and personal. The piece must have had some significance, since it had its own jocular security guard standing next to it.

After I read a caption for the painting, I remembered the painting. I was in the presence of the notorious 1996 work titled “The Holy Virgin Mary.” It had caused massive controversy when displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, when Rudy Giuliani was the Mayor of New York and part-time art critic. One description of the the piece states,

The central Black Madonna is surrounded by many collaged images that resemble butterflies at first sight, but on closer inspection are photographs of female genitalia; an ironic reference to the putti that appear in traditional religious art. A lump of dried, varnished elephant dung forms one bared breast, and the painting is displayed leaning against the gallery wall, supported by two other lumps of elephant dung, decorated with coloured pins: the pins on the left are arranged to spell out “Virgin” and the one on the right “Mary.”

The art-critic/mayor went bats over the “sick” painting. He tried to withdraw the City’s $7 million grant to the museum and kick it out of its venerable building on Eastern Parkway. He raged against the elephant poop angle and insults against the Virgin. Others took up the case and the painting was defaced with white paint during the exhibit. The Brooklyn Museum fought back and kept its site and the exhibit.

Fast-forward 15 years. Giuliani has long since moved to the private sector but retains his distinctive aesthetic sense. He gave his views another airing this fall when the Metropolitan Opera performed “The Death of Klinghoffer.” First performed in 1991, the opera still makes waves with protests, impassioned letters and all the social media required to launch a high-profile controversial event in New York. I haven’t it or heard the music, so I’ll withhold jOfili-Madonna-smallerudgment on its artistic merits.

Giuliani, opera buff, wrote a piece in the Daily Beast, “Why I Protested ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,'” that took a different tone from what he did as mayor. He made clear the Met Opera had the First Amendment right to perform Klinghoffer, just as protesters had a right to speak out. He even appeared at public demonstrations against it. His analysis of the opera balanced the positive and the negative:

As an opera fan of some 57 years, I find the opera and view the music as a significant achievement. I own a CD, have heard it, and have read the libretto three or four times.

As an opera, the music and choruses are quite excellent. John Adams is one of America’s greatest composers, and I admire and enjoy his music.

However, as a story attempting to recount the appalling terrorist murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a man who was thrown into the Mediterranean Sea simply because he was Jewish, the opera is factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging to an appropriate description of the problems in Israel and Palestine, and of terrorism in general.

Giuliani’s tone and thoughtfulness won the praise of Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Forward newspaper. Through gritted teeth, she wrote an editorial piece titled, “How Rudy Giuliani Got ‘Klinghoffer’ Right.” Both his writing and his style of civil protest worked for her, showing that the lion really can lie down with the lamb under the right circumstances.

Giuliani’s changed approach–from the mayoral menace against Madonna to the reasonable First Amendment views on Klinghoffer–showed a welcome evolution. Unable to pull the levers of mayoral power, Giuliani opted for an approach I like. Let the public speak out, weigh the situation, and decide. If only he had taken that stance with The Holy Virgin Mary,  I might have never heard of or remembered Ofili’s work..

But remember I did, and when I finally stood face to face with The Holy Virgin Mary, I liked it, along with Ofili’s other works. He has a great stylistic range, from the small to the huge. A fan of more representational art like me can appreciate his work. Not being Catholic, I lacked the visceral anger that Giuliani and others felt. Still, I’m sensitive to issues of faith and I didn’t see the work as disrespectful, but coming from a specific cultural context. Not every Madonna need resemble 15th century Italian paintings. It hung there as one more large of piece of art in a major retrospective, with nobody bent out of shape about the style or message..

I did feel some surprise that some feminists didn’t protest the art. Besides the Madonna and a clump of dung (which Ofili uses in many other of his works), the piece has dozens of cut-outs from photos of female genitalia (think Kim Kardashian without the inhibitions) floating like fleshy butterflies on the canvas. In today’s superheated atmosphere of microaggressions, that aspect of the painting must count as off-putting. But I never found any complaints.

People and their perceptions can change. Giuliani grew from the Scourge of Eastern Parkway to the Champion of the First Amendment. The Holy Virgin Mary went from transgressive to acceptable (to most people, anyway). Apart from the security guard, it hangs peacefully and unobtrusively in the New Museum. Perhaps those so upset in 1999 have moved on to other issues, or they came to understand what Ofili was aiming for, or they just didn’t want to raise a ruckus.

Will Klinghoffer ever reach that status? I doubt the opera will have an impact one way or another on anti-semitism or sympathy for Klinghoffer’s killers. With time, however, the protests in New York may move more in the Holy Virgin Mary direction. If I were the team behind the opera, however, I would never want the pot to completely stop bubbling — a little rage goes a long way toward putting fannies in the theater seats. After writing about the opera, I may even try to get my hands on a recording and see what all the fuss is about.

 

A Retro-New Look for the Rocketman

All the distracting uproar over the colorful beach shirt worn by Matt Taylor, the Rosetta project scientist for the European Space Agency’s successful effort to put a probe on a comet, sent me to my bookshelves, pawing for a paperback my father gave me 40 years ago as I (or rather, he) planned my post-college corporate life: “Dress for Success“, by John T. Molloy.

I couldn’t find it, but from reading the Amazon comments on the book I could recall its advice on suits, shirts, shoes and how clothes should fit. It served me well in the years when I had jobs that required wearing a more corporate look. When I started in the firmwide communications department at blue-chip accounting firm Price Waterhouse in 1996, everybody wore suits, with a casual Friday. Then that morphed into casual summer and by the the time I left in 1999, casual 24/7. And so the code remains with even more looseness in the corporate circles I’ve encountered. I thought, too bad that Taylor didn’t read it before he appeared in all his tattooed slacker glory on the world media scene. His haircut and beard trim looked quite presentable, at least. Somebody cleaned him up a bit.

Molloy’s ideas continue to influence how I dress. Every business shirt in my closet is a button-down, either blue or yellow or pink. My ties are silky with deep rich colors (my favorites are my Jerry Garcia ties). My suits, some still hanging around from the late 90s, are dark blue or charcoal and either plain or slightly pinstriped. My fashion-forward late-80s Hugo Boss suit, shimmering grey with the chunky shoulders, hit the racks at Goodwill years ago. On the spectrum of male work clothes, I’m far more Malloy than nerdy-techy, in theory if not practice.

Taylor’s shirt makes me wonder not so much about the latest social-media rage spiral, but the space agency’s media relations department and Taylor’s own common sense. Having worked as the back-up press spokesman for a New York law firm, I know you want to think about every contingency before an interview, especially one for TV. Media trainers should have spent serious time with Taylor drilling him on what he was going to say and also the impression he would make after the landing.

The uproar doesn’t reflect poorly on Taylor, who probably lives on an intellectual-technological level far beyond the dreary concerns of dress codes. Instead, the fault lies with the people who put him in front of a camera, like a lamb before the wolves. Somebody in PR was asleep or on heavy medication. Taylor may not have much in the way of a corporate sartorial sense, but the communications pros at the European Space Agency should.

If Taylor and the European Space Agency wanted to fire up enthusiasm for intergalactic exploration, might I suggest a retro-modern look? Take the conservative sensibility of John Molloy and cross-pollinate it with the practical, authentic, cool-in-the-clutch look so common at Mission Control during the space race of the 1960s and visible in “The Right Stuff.” Short bristly hair, black plastic glasses, pocket protectors — they all screamed “competence” in a way that can’t be duplicated so easily with the unkept look. With some long sleeves and sensible haircuts, the Taylors of the world world would look a bit more presentable. And, I might venture, warm feelings based on the great era of space exploration could come back and public interest in space might blossom (and that translates enthusiasm for increased funding, if you want to be a cold-blooeded realist about the impact).

The only risk is that the rage spiral would then focus on regressive exclusionist male privilege styles–you know how that drill goes. Still, the European Space Agency should boldly go where fashion had gone before. Think of it as “Mad Men in Space.”

 

 

Art for Art’s Sake

Everybody’s agog at the Christie’s auction this week where Andy Warhol’s “Triple Elvis (Ferus Type)” sold for $81.9 million and his “Four Marlons” brought in $69.6 million. Impressive numbers, but the art didn’t do much for me. What has impressed me lately, however, was art from two creators who had no interest in selling their art or even displaying it.

The Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective of pieces by Judith Scott, “Bound and Unbound,” runs through March 29. The Rye (New York) Arts Center just extended its densely packed exhibit “Irving Harper: A Mid-Century Mind at Play.” Both exhibits show art created purely for art’s sake, expressions of personal passion unconcerned with commercial success. I highly recommend both exhibits.

This marks the second time I’ve seen an exhibit of Scott’s work. She takes the concept of “outsider art” to the level of the platonic ideal. Scott was born with Down’s syndrome, and lost her hearing as a child. The museum’s description of the exhibit says,

Scott was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1943 with Down Syndrome. In 1987, after many years of living in isolation within an institutional setting, Scott was introduced to Creative Growth—a visionary studio art program founded thirty-five years ago in Oakland, California, to foster and serve a community of artists with developmental, mental, and physical disabilities. For the last eighteen years of her life, Scott created extraordinary and idiosyncratic objects—fastidiously assembled, fragile structures of found and scavenged materials that radically challenge and resist our attempts to define or rationalize them as sculpture.

The description is exactly right about Scott’s works. They defy explanation and, to me, exist in a space beyond understanding. Something clicked in her–think Helen Keller holding her hand under a water pump–and she created sculptures in her own style. Where did the style come from, what does it mean? Does it mean anything? Scott left no notes,no interviews, no artist’s statements, no insights into what influenced her, no instructions on how her works should be displayed. They are more mysterious than 30,000 year old cave drawings, or art delivered by a UFO. Instead of coming from “outer space,” they come from Scott’s inner space.

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A blog post can’t do justice to Scott’s art or life; she was a twin, and her sister Joyce became her legal guardian when they were in their 40s to move her from an institution to a more humane and creative environment. Joyce’s website gives a wonderful overview of their relationship and Judith’s career, including family photos. Joyce nurtured her sister’s artistic talents and they reconnected with the loving relationship they had as children. Judith Scott died in 2005, but her legacy continues through books, videos and major art exhibits.

P1190506-editIrving Harper, meanwhile, didn’t quite use scavenged materials in his artwork, but simple materials that could be found in any grade-school art class — paper, cutters, glue, string. He began creating complex paper sculptures in the 1950s as a diversion from his work at a designer in New York. Tinkering in his spare moments, he did sculptures in a huge range of styles and influences. The exhibit at the Rye Arts Center, his first, shows influences by African masks, Picasso and even, to my eye, the beloved 1960s drawing toy, the Spirograph. Taylor, now 98 years old and retired, never wanted to exhibit his works, but he finally agreed and the public is all the richer for that. The pieces are as amazing in their own way as Judith Scott’s. The exhibit website says,

This solo retrospective debuts the private works of design genius Irving Harper at The Rye Arts Center. Known professionally for his iconic contributions to the George Nelson Office, including the 1949 Ball Clock, Herman Miller logo and the 1956 Marshmallow sofa, Harper’s personal creations have never before been shared publicly.

Harper’s works, which he houses in a barn and the top level of his home, are complex and yet use materials anybody can relate to. They’re so effortless, playful and unassuming, I could instantly connect to them as both art and artful constructions.

Coming from very different life circumstances, Scott and Harper showed the unquenchable human drive for self-expression. Some inner force compelled them to create with no interest in being seen or sold. Art was an itch they had to scratch. They did it for their own reasons and the world finally had a chance to enjoy their visions. I’d like to think Judith Scott and Irving Harper would greatly enjoy each other’s art as kindred spirits.