Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Louis I. Kahn: Building a View" -Opens May 25 at Lori Bookstein

“Louis I. Kahn: Building a View” at Lori Bookstein Fine Art

 
Lori Bookstein Fine Art is presenting a show of drawings, watercolors, pastels and oil paintings by one of my favorite architects, Louis Kahn (1901-1974).  With subject matter as diverse as quaint New England churches and the rock quarries of Egypt, this exhibition examines how when Kahn traveled in the US, Canada, Europe, and Egypt, he made studies of the natural and urban landscapes he encountered.  “Louis I. Kahn: Building a View” presents sketches produced on site as well as images elaborated from memory--and includes a wonderfully playful, exuberant pen and ink drawing by Kahn that Nancy and I own (and love), his Fisherman's Camp, No. 3, Saguenay River, Quebec, Canada. 1937 (8 2/5 x 11 inches).  Nancy and I hope to see you at the opening on 25 May Wednesday, 6-8 PM.

Louis I. Kahn: Building a View

May 25 – June 25, 2011
Opening reception Wednesday, May 25, 6 – 8 pm

[image available in the online verssion: www.rickrubens.com/Kahn.htm]

Gabled Manor.  1928  Charcoal and white pastel on buff paper  15" x 14"

Lori Bookstein Fine Art

138 Tenth Avenue, NY, NY 10011 212.750.0949

From the gallery’s website:

Lori Bookstein Fine Art is pleased to present Building a View, an exhibition of the fine art of the architect Louis Kahn [1901-1974]. Drawings, watercolors, pastels and oil paintings, as diverse in subject matter as the quaint churches of New England and the rock quarries of Egypt, will be culled from Kahn's travels from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. This is the gallery's second one-person show of the artist's work, following a critically acclaimed booth at the 2008 Works on Paper fair in New York.

Wherever he traveled, Kahn made studies of the natural and urban landscapes he encountered. The exhibition will examine how Kahn, on his travels within the United States, and to Canada, Europe and Egypt explored repeating themes and motifs, creating both sketches produced on site and more polished images from memory. Ephemera, including post cards from various locations visited, will also be on display, and will give additional insight into how the artist made alternative views from a single point of departure.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"War Horse" at Lincoln Center (warning!)

Just a short note about War Horse, currently playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center.
 
First, let me say that the puppetry, done by Handspring Puppet Company, is astounding:  in a stylized way, it creates a wonderfully realistic illusion of horses.  I am glad that I got to see about five minutes or so of their wizardry.
 
But let me quickly follow by saying we were relieved to be able to escape this sad excuse for theater as soon as intermission rolled around.  It is shallow, predictable, maudlin, schlock.  I am certain that once WWI gets into full swung, the mindless pathos that began to build in the first act must rise to a tremendous crescendo of manipulative emotionality; but I am equally certain that it is safe to assume that no more meaning or substance--or good writing--enters to interfere with its exclusive hold on this play.
 
It is hard (well, maybe not so hard) to understand why so many theater goers find this empty, slick, emotionality so compelling.  Nancy and I certainly did not.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The NOGUCHI MUSEUM in Long Island City

[for a version WITH images, go to: www.rickrubens.com/Noguchi.htm]

This past Friday, after years of intending to get there, Nancy and I finally got ourselves to the Noguchi Museum in Queens.  And what an incredible treat it was!  (At the end of my description of the Museum, I have a brief note about the nearby Socrates Sculpture Park.)

The NOGUCHI MUSEUM

MUSEUM ENTRANCE: 
9-01 33rd Road
(at
Vernon Boulevard
), Long Island City

Hours:  Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: 10:00am-5:00pm
Saturday & Sunday: 11:00am-6:00pm
Monday & Tuesday: CLOSED

I first became acquainted with the work of Isamu Noguchi when I was an undergraduate at Yale.  In 1963, the year before I arrived there, Yale’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (by SOM’s Gordon Bunshaft) was completed..  The main volume of this astounding building is a windowless rectangular solid, whose shell—supported only on its four external corners—is composed of gray granite-framed panes of white Vermont marble, so thin (1¼“) that light shines through them, bathing the interior in a warm, golden, luminous glow (which is actually helpful in preserving the rare volumes housed in the museum).  One of the exterior’s most humanizing features, however, was the sunken sculpture garden in the plaza in front of the museum’s entrance.  This white marble sunken garden was created by Noguchi and was populated by three of his sculptures.  As Joan Pachner has noted, it “combined influences from Japanese temple sand mounds, Indian astronomical gardens and paved Italian plazas with Noguchi’s own artistic vocabulary: the circular sun; the cube on its point, a symbol of chance; and the pyramid, his sign for Earth.” (Oxford University Press; here quoted from MoMA’s website)  Despite the fact that it was made from rather cold, white material, it had a warmth and symbolic richness in its quiet but powerful timelessness.  From the first time I saw them, I loved these sculptures and the world created to contain them.  Later, when I spent time looking at Medieval illuminated manuscripts in the luscious, comfortable reading rooms that ringed the garden on the level below the plaza, I came to enjoy gazing at the timelessness of the garden as a kind of beautiful grounding in the modern world outside of the more ancient one I was exploring inside.  But, most of all, the experience made me aware of this fabulous artist, and I began to see examples of his works elsewhere—including in the 1968 retrospective at the Whitney.

Born in Los Angeles in 1904 to an American writer mother and a Japanese poet father, Noguchi lived in Japan until he was thirteen.  While a pre-med student at Columbia, he began taking sculpture classes, and he soon abandoned his academic studies to pursue a career as a sculptor.  He was profoundly influenced by Brancusi, and worked in his studio in Paris from 1927-9.  While he traveled to China, Europe, and Mexico, Noguchi spent most of his time in NYC.  After the War he began spending much of his time in Japan, and, by 1960, he began splitting his time between Japan and NYC.  As the Noguchi Museum’s website summarizes it,

Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was one of the twentieth century’s most important and critically acclaimed sculptors.  Through a lifetime of artistic experimentation, he created sculptures, gardens, furniture and lighting designs, ceramics, architecture, and set designs.  His work, at once subtle and bold, traditional and modern, set a new standard for the reintegration of the arts.

In  1961, Noguchi moved his studio and residence to an industrial building in Long Island City from the Greenwich Village location he had occupied for twenty years.  In 1985, the artist personally designed and created the Noguchi Museum, just across the street from his studio; and it is itself considered to be one of his greatest works:

Opened in 1985, the Museum is housed in a converted industrial building…  Noguchi designed the Museum complex as an open-air sculpture garden ensconced within a building that houses ten galleries. As a whole, the Museum provides an intimate, reflective space in which to experience Noguchi’s sculpture and design, fulfilling a vision that the artist deemed essential to his life’s work. Visitors enter the two-story, approximately 27,000-square-foot Museum through the celebrated sculpture garden. While the ground-floor galleries and garden contain a permanent presentation of work by the artist, selected from his own collection, since 2004, the Museum regularly presents temporary exhibitions that offer a rich, contextualized view of Noguchi’s work in the upper galleries.

The Museum is an incredible experience.  After paying one’s admission, one enters into the first, huge gallery—a vast space that opens out at some of its corners to the outside world.  This space is filled with the beautiful abstract forms of his sculptures from the 1980s:


Many of the sculptures have shapes that evoke that of natural rocks—and especially the marvelous “river rocks” that are so highly-prized in Japanese garden design; but all are carefully shaped and formed by the artist, and then "colored" by his texturing and polishing—creating an interplay between the form and the color (texture), between nature and the clearly artist-created, e.g., his 1982 The Stone Within (basalt):


Noguchi highlights this interplay by placing an actual river rock in the room juxtaposed with these sculptures: Spin-off #3, from the Chase Manhattan Plaza (1961-4), naturally formed granite from the Uji River:


There is something almost human in the monumental, vertical presences of these sculptures (not unlike the looming, Druid presences of the monumental rocks of Stonehenge) This next piece, Brilliance (1982), basalt, is particularly satisfying-and I show two images of it, so you can get some appreciation of its three-dimensional splendor:




Toward the end of the first gallery, there is Noguchi’s 1984 Mountain Breaking Theater, basalt, a large natural stone, cloven in two, with obviously artist-created carvings and polished area contrasting with the hulking natural bulk of the original rock:


From here one exits into the splendid outside garden which Noguchi has created.  It is contemplative, a quiet, filled with grasses, shrubs, bamboo, and trees—feeling ever so much like a Japanese temple garden, right down to some of the carefully manicured pines, yet also unmistakably existing in a western environment.  At the entrance is another of the natural stones that Noguchi has included by way of stating his theme, in this case Spin-off #1, from the Chase Manhattan Garden, naturally formed basalt stone.


Another particularly satisfying piece in his 1982-3 Practice Rocks in Placement, Aji granite:


Next, Core (Cored Sculpture), 1978, basalt, is a pieced that has been bored down through its center from above, and is penetrated into its central core by two borings, one from the front and a lower one from behind:


An absolutely lovely piece, The Well (variation on a Tsukubai), 1982, basalt, has water that flows up out of a semi-spherical depression in its top surface and spreads out across the top and evenly down over every side of the sculpture, covering every surface with a glistening sense of subtle movement and life.  (Seeing it for the first time, I was reminded of Maya Lin’s wonderful 1993 sculpture, The Women’s Table, in front of the Sterling Library at Yale: it similarly has water flowing up from a well, over the flat top surface, and down over all of its sides.  I do not know that Lin acknowledges Noguchi as one of her major influence—but it is clear from this comparison that he must have been.)


Back inside in galleries 3 & 6, there are numerous other magnificent works.  The huge The Roar, 1966, white Arni marble, is fabulous from every angle:


There are whole sections of these galleries that have a kind of Noguchi sculpture I do not like:  mostly from the early 1970s, these highly polished, extreme, often “Arp-like”  shapes are far too stylized and “slick” for my taste—heavily hearkening back to the era in which Noguchi did rather Surrealist sculptures.  The Bow, 1970-73, yellow Sienna marble, black Petit Granit marble, is one such example (which I include only for illustration):


There are a few from this period I actually did enjoy, like his The Spirit’s Flight, 1969, green and pink serpentine, Carrara marble, a thin, slightly twisting rectangular column of alternating colored marble:


Toward the end of the first floor exhibits, there was one piece from this same period, but that was far more like the ones we loved from the next decade.  To Intrude on Nature’s Way, 1971, basalt, was a gorgeous, raw, powerful, monumental vertical piece—less worked over than his similar pieces from the 80s, but similar in aesthetic, and beautiful in its natural coloration:


There are galleries on the second floor which are used for temporary exhibitions, but they were closed the day of our visit, as a new installation is currently being mounted.  The Museum only charged half because of the closure; but there was no need for the reduction—the true value and glory of this place lies in its regular collection on the first floor and in the garden.

The Noguchi Museum is just a hop skip and a jump from Manhattan via the N or Q trains to the Broadway stop in the heart of Astoria.  (For directions, go online to www.noguchi.org/visitor-info/getting-here.)  The neighborhood is one of the richest ethnic mixes in all NYC, and there are restaurants and stores of every imaginable variety.  It is well worth the ten-block walk from the station toward the East River, near where the Museum is situated.

And just a couple of blocks from the Noguchi Museum, at Broadway, between
Vernon Blvd.
and the East River, is the NYC Parks Department’s Socrates Sculpture Park.  As described on its website,

Socrates Sculpture Park is the only site in the New York Metropolitan area specifically dedicated to providing artists with opportunities to create and exhibit large-scale sculpture and multi-media installations in a unique outdoor environment that encourages strong interaction between artists, artworks and the public. The Park's existence is based on the belief that reclamation, revitalization and creative expression are essential to the survival, humanity and improvement of our urban environment.

Socrates Sculpture Park was an abandoned riverside landfill and illegal dumpsite until 1986 when a coalition of artists and community members, under the leadership of sculptor Mark di Suvero, transformed it into an open studio and exhibition space for artists and a neighborhood park for local residents. Today it is an internationally renowned outdoor museum and artist residency program that also serves as a vital New York City park offering a wide variety of free public programs.

The current show, VISTA, is on until 7 August 2011.

Curated by Alyson Baker, with Lars Fisk and Elissa Goldstone, the show will explore the interplay between methods of viewing and the interpretation of the physical world. Vista includes eleven new works by artists: Ivan Argote, Jillian Conrad, Priscila De Carvalho, Blane De St. Croix, Michael Clyde Johnson, Leif Low-beer, Steven Millar, Slinko, Howie Sneider, Rob Swainston, and Jason Tomme.

Our favorite piece was a 36’ long work by Blane De St. Croix, Mountain Views, 2011, Fabricated from recycled foam from the World Trade Center site initial foundation construction for Freedom Tower in 2003, as well as steel, wood, paint, dirt, concrete, stucco, and other materials (13’ x 36’ x 6’).  “From selected vantage points, Mountain Views obstructs the skyline and reclaims the city with a conglomerate of transported extinct mountains.  The mountains act as memorials to their own destruction from out of state coal mining and mountain top removal, -the destructive method which provides much of the energy for New York City.”



Socrates is open 365 days a year from 10am until sunset
Click here for sunset times: www.timeanddate.com
Admission is FREE.

SOCRATES SCULPTURE PARK

Long Island City (Queens), NY 11106
Tel: 718-956-1819
32-01 Vernon Boulevard
at Broadway

From there, we strolled back into Astoria, stopping at an Italian bakery to have a more than passably good espresso, and then climbed up to the elevated platform of the 30th Avenue Station of the N & Q train (once upon a time I should have called it the “BMT Astoria Line”…).  The view of the tracks of the “El” looking northward was quite entrancingly beautiful, so I close with an image we took of it:

Schwitters at Princeton through 26 June - wonderful!

[for version WITH images, go to: www.rickrubens.com/Schwitter.htm]

There is a fabulous and extensive exhibition of the art of Kurt Schwitters currently on display until 26 June 2011 at the Princeton University Art Museum (after that, it moves to UC Berkeley):

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage

OPEN Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.,
Thursday, 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and Sunday, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m
.

Organized by the Menil Collection in Houston (and exhibited there from 22 October 2010 to 30 January 2011) under the direction of Josef Helfenstein and guest curator Isabel Schulz, Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage is the first major U.S. retrospective of his work since the 1968 show at MoMA.   The show contains an impressive array of important works from museums and private collections in America and Europe, concentrating on the abstract assemblages, collages, and sculptures related to his Merz concept—and including a full-scale reproduction of Schwitters’ Merzbau.  It is in Princeton 26 March-26 June 2011, after which it moves to the University of California, Berkeley, 3 August-27 November 2011.

Those of you who— like Nancy (who excitedly discovered Schwitters’s collages when she was already years into doing collages of her own) and me (who, years earlier, had had the great fortune to go to the 1968 MoMA retrospective of his work)—already know and love Schwitters, will immediately recognize what a rare and wonderful opportunity this is.  (We took the easy, one hour drive down to Princeton this past Saturday morning; but the Museum is also easily reachable by train: one takes NJ Transit from NYC’s Penn Station to Princeton Junction, transfers to the shuttle [the “Dinky”] to the Princeton Station, and does the short walk to The Art Museum from the station.)  Those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, now have the chance to experience an extraordinary introduction to wondrous works of an incredibly important artist.  Here is a description from the exhibit’s catalogue (Isabel Schulz, ed., Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage, Menil Foundation, Houston, TX):

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was one of the outstanding figures in European modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century, and together with Marcel Duchamp one of the “father figures” for the generation of the avant-garde after the Second World War.  Equally gifted as artist and writer, he began working in 1918 at the periphery of Dada and Constructivism on the realization of his “Merz—a Total Vision of the World,” which to him was nothing less than the integration of all forms of art.  The syllable “Merz,” from Kommerz (meaning commerce), which in 1919 he cut out of an advertisement for a bank and used for a label for his own unique position, became synonymous with Schwitters himself, as applied to his entire oeuvre and ultimately to himself.

Schwitters’s Merz works exploded the boundaries of traditional genres and radically expanded the possible ways of making art through the determined use of found materials… (p. 7)

As the great Clement Greenberg wrote in 1959,

Collage was a major turning point in the evolution of Cubism, and therefore a major turning point in the whole evolution of modernist art in this century. Who invented collage--Braque or Picasso--and when is still not settled.  Both artists left most of the work they did between 1907 and 1914 undated as well as unsigned; and each claims, or implies the claim, that his was the first collage of all. (in Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Beacon Press, Boston, 1961.  p. 70)

According to Isabel Schulz in the catalogue for the exhibition, “In addition to Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Greenberg included only Arp and Schwitters among the ‘few great masters of collage…’” (p. 8)  Schulz writes,

After 1918, Kurt Schwitters contributed greatly to the establishment of the collage—the “most revolutionary” pictorial practice of modernism… …Schwitters never stopped thinking of painting as central to his work.  To him, the two techniques were not mutually exclusive but rather formed an integral whole.  (Ibid., p. 51)

There is an elegance and subtlety to the collages of Schwitters—and this applies to their colors as well as to their composition.  I am particularly drawn to his earlier collages, in part because of their simplicity and purity, but also because for me they achieve something quite sublime in their overall effect.  (Fortunately for me, this show is particularly rich in collages from this early stage of his work.)  I shall present below some examples of my favorites from Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage.,  Since I find that many people are not that familiar with Schwitters’s work, I am going to present them here sequentially rather than interspersed with text so as to allow for somewhat larger format images, so as to maximize your ability to get some sense of how marvelous they are.  Of course, to get a true sense of them, you need to see them in person—so, please consider a trip to see this amazing exhibition.  (There are several museums that have extensive and significant examples of his work in their permanent collections [e.g., MoMA in NYC, the Tate Modern in London, the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, et al.], so there are other places you can experience his work first-hand;  but having so many works assembled in one place is an incomparable treat.)

The first one I present—one of his earliest collages, and the earliest in this show—is one of my very favorites due to its subtle, dark, muted richness—juxtaposed to the brilliant blue form it contains, partly painted, partly collaged:

Zeichnung A 3 (Drawing A 3), 1918
Collage: paper on paper (5 ¼ x 4 ¼ )
Sprengel Museum, Hanover

Next, another simple but beautiful little masterpiece from 1920, with a gorgeous, resonant shade of blue:


Mz. 88. Rostrich. (Mz. 88. Red Stroke.), 1920
.Collage; printed paper and crayon on paper, (5 3/8 x 4)
Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Another beauty from 1921,


Mz. 302 Linden, 1921
Collage; pen and paper on paper.  (7 1/8 x 5 5/8)
Private Collection, Houston

This particularly strong collage reminded me very much of some of Nancy’s works from an earlier period:


Mz 371 bacco, 1922
Collage; paper on paperboard. (6 ¼ x 4 7/8)
Menil Collection, Houston

One of the things that distinguishes the collages of Schwitters which I love from those that I do not like all that much is their underlying compositional vision.  It is my contention that many (and most of his earlier works) are based on what Heinrich Wölfflin would have described as a classical (with a closed, balanced, vertical and horizontal [or sometimes pyramidal]) composition, rather than baroque one (with an open, swirling, mannered, non-linear composition)—and my preference always tends strongly toward the classical end of the spectrum.  To be clear, even his most classical compositions have dynamic tensions distorting the classical balance, but those tensions play against a strongly structured, static foundation.  These tensions are very visibly at work in the otherwise highly structured Mz. 601 below:


Mz. 601, 1923
Collage; paint and paper on cardboard. (17 x 15)
Sprengel Museum, Hanover

In what I consider to be one of Schwitters’s best large assemblages (many others of this type I find too confused and clunky)—and one that I liked enormously—I see the other, more baroque compositional vision.  Even though in this particular example I find the overall effect to be amazingly compelling, it will serve as an example of the sort of vision I like much less in Schwitters.  (Since I am only presenting here examples from the exhibition of ones I truly loved, I shall not show the type I do not feel to work so well.)


Ja-was? –Bild (Yes-what? Picture), 1920
Assemblage; oil, pasteboard, cardboard, and wood on cardboard.  (38 5/8 x 25 7/8)
Private Collection

While in general I am far less impressed with most of Schwitters’s sculpture, some of them are quite exquisite, as is the elegant construction below:


Untitled (Merz Construction, Top), ca. 1923-26
Relief; painted wood, wire mesh, cardboard, and paper nailed on wood. (15 x 18 ¼ x 2 ½)
Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Nazis considered Schwitters’s modernism to be a “degenerate” for of art; and, in January 1937, Schwitters fled Hanover, Germany for Norway.  He worked in Norway until 1940, when the Nazis invaded.  From there, he fled to Scotland, and thence to England, where he eventually died in 1948.

I have already hinted that I do not like his later work nearly as much as his earlier, but there are many wonderful exceptions.  One unusual and entrancing  collage—one of the few in the show from his Norway sojourn—that date from this period is Untitled (Silvery) from 1939:


Untitled (Silvery), 1939
Collage; silver paint and cardboard on paper on tracing paper.

There are many other forms of art Schwitters engaged in represented in the show, from poetry to the “sound poetry” of his Ursonate (1922-32); but I do not find these forms to my taste.  The one project he created that I do find fascinating, however, is his Merzbau.  Starting in 1923, Schwitters began transforming some of the rooms of his family home in Hanover.  This transformation of his environment, which was still in the process of growth and evolution when he fled Germany in 1939, he called his Merzbau.  (He made two further version, one in Norway, and a last in England.)  All three of the Merzbau were destroyed.  There are some remaining photographic records, but only of the original one in Hanover.

A reconstruction of one room of the original Hanover version is included in Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage.  It is q quite fantastic space:  Nancy said it felt like being inside it was like “living within a collage.”  Here is a photograph:



Seeing reproductions of art is always a far cry from experiencing the real thing, but hopefully these images will have provided a little taste of the wondrous experience of Schwitters’s work.  Get thee to Princeton!  Or, at least, discover the richness of his work in one of the great museums that has a few good examples of his collages.

Here is a review of the show that appeared in the New York Times of 31 March 2011 (www.nytimes.com/2011/04/01/arts/design/kurt-schwitters-exhibition-at-princeton-museum-review.html

Monday, May 9, 2011

"King Lear" at BAM, starring Derek Jacobi

    King Lear

    Part of the BAM  2011 Spring Season

    Apr 28—Jun 5, 2011: Tue—Sat at 7:30pm; Sat at 2pm (Apr 30 and Jun 4 only); Sun at 3pm

    US Premiere

    Presented by the Donmar Warehouse and BAM

    By William Shakespeare
    Directed by Michael Grandage
   
Let me begin by saying that this Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear at BAM directed by Michael Grandage and starring Derek Jacobi, made for a completely absorbing and successful evening of theater:  it was far better than most Shakespeare we have seen in recent years, and we felt very good about having seen it.  The production moved us along through the rich intensity of its own experience for three hours (including one intermission),  maintaining our rapt attention and active interest.  The acting was quite credible, and the set design and lighting superb.  So, the short answer is that this production, at BAM through 4 July, is well worth seeing.
 
But let me continue by saying that Lear is the play that most convinces me that Harold Bloom may be correct in his contention that Shakespeare should primarily be read, rather than performed.    At best, there is always a difficulty in bringing the power and subtlety of Shakespeare to a staged production.  Lear has some particular difficulties that make this even more true than with his other plays, and all productions of it invariably fall somewhat short. To begin with, Lear lacks any clear center:  despite Lear's commanding emotional presence, there are several other monumentally important characters in the play, all of which require adequate weight and expression if the play is to succeed;  according to Bloom,
There are four great roles in The Tragedy of King Lear, though you might not know it from most stagings of the play.  Cordelia's, for all her pathos, is not one of them, nor are Goneril's and Regan's of the same order of dramatic eminence as the roles of Lear and the Fool.  Edmund and Edgar, antithetical half brothers, require actors as skilled and powerful as do Lear and the Fool.  I have seen a few appropriate Edmunds, best of all Joseph Wiseman many years ago in New York, saving an otherwise ghastly performance in which Louis Calhern, as Lear, reminded me only of how much more adequate he had been as Ambassador Trentino in the Marx Bothers' Duck Soup.  Wiseman played Edmund as an amalgam of Leon Trotsky and Don Giovanni, but it worked quite brilliantly, and there is much in the text to sustain that curious blend.  (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, pp.479f.)
In addition, productions must contend with the fact that parallel to the painful tale of Lear and his daughters there is the story line about Gloucester and his sons.   Furthermore, there is no a single, defining theme in Lear, but rather a complex tapestry of painful threads, woven on a loom of nihilism and suffering.  Moreover, Lear himself is an extremely demanding character, in part because, as Bloom puts it, he is
beyond grandeur...outrageously hyperbolic, insanely eloquent...always demand[ing] more love than can be given..and so he can scarcely speak without crossing into the realms of the unsayable...
 
Lear's verbal force almost always preempts all spontaneity of speech in others.  The exception is his Fool, the uncanniest character in Shakespeare...  One function of Lear's Fool is precisely that of Hamlet's Horatio:  to mediate, for the audience, a personage otherwise beyond our knowing, Hamlet being too far beyond us, and Lear being blindingly close.  Much of what we know in Hamlet we receive from Horatio, just as the Fool humanizes Lear, and makes the dreadful king accessible to us.  ...You could remove the Fool and Horatio and not alter much in the way of plot structures, but you would remove our surrogates from the plays, for the Fool and Horatio are the true voices of our feelings.  ...Horatio is a comfort to us, but the Fool drives us a little mad as he pushes Lear further into madness, so as to punish the king for his great folly. (Ibid., pp.493ff.)
It is not easy for a  production to create a Lear whose stature, grandeur, and authority the audience appreciates, whose failings and suffering the audience recognizes, and to whom the audience can personally relate--and  yet this is precisely what is necessary, if the play is to succeed.
 
This brings me to the greatest of this production's shortcomings.  At the risk of being misunderstood, allow me to put it this way:  Michael Grandage 's production is more a comedy than a tragedy.  I mean this in two separate ways, although I fear the latter is rather generated by the former.  Most profoundly, I refer to the distinction that has been drawn between the essential perspectives of comedy and tragedy (I believe by Northrop Frye):  in comedy we view the characters from the outside, watching what occurs to them as observers; whereas in tragedy we identify with the main character and participate in his drama, feeling what is going on from within his perspective.  Richard Sewall pointed out "the undeniable truth that comedy gains its power from its sense of tragic possibility. (The Vision of Tragedy, p.1.); the subject matter of these two forms can be the same--it is the perspective that differentiates them.  For all the reasons I have said, it is most difficult to create onstage a Lear that both maintains his stature and allows us to feel inside his humanity; and, if one is allowed an escape, it is incredibly seductive to be able to distance oneself from Lear's experience.  This Lear succeeds neither in conveying the majesty of the king nor in allowing us into his personhood.  As a (I believe) secondary consequence, the production evokes far too many laughs to be appropriate to this great tragedy.  To be sure, there are moments in the play design to have some humorous intent...but not nearly so many as in this production (to be fair, some--albeit not all--of this laughter may be attributable to some lack of sophistication in the audience)--and definitely not in some of the places they occur.  Even in what Bloom has termed "the poetic..center to the tragedy...the meeting of the mad king and the blind Gloucester" [Ibid., p.481], there is laughter evoked from the audience, rather than a sense of sublime pathos; and Lear's expression of revulsion at female sexuality in his tormented attack on womankind is clearly intentionally treated as a bawdy joke, rather than anguish at the fact that his relationship with his daughters has usurped and unhinged him.
 
In truth, there are many aspects of this Lear  that seem to miss or trivialize some of the more profound themes and moments in Shakespeare's play.  The Fool, one of the play's great characters, although extremely well-played by Ron Cook, seems to have been denied some of the profoundness of the role:  at very least, too much of his interaction with Lear is played more as comic than meaningful--so as to make it difficult to realize that it is driving Lear further into madness, although he clearly loves him; and, although I am not completely sure, I actually think the production may have omitted the incredible speech of prophecy the Fool is supposed to make ("The prophecy of Merlin shall I make; for I live before his time." [III.ii.79-95]) as Gloucester leads him and Lear off stage out of the storm--and, if I am wrong and it was there, it must have been woefully underplayed.  The casting of Gwilym Lee as Edgar--or perhaps the direction of him--seems unfortunate:  while he does fine with the feigned madness of Tom of Bedlam, we are not really prepared for him to have the stature that the character requires--and this production does not give any preparation or hint that would make sense of the fact he is to be the one who in the end will become king.
 
There are some quite wonderful performances.  Michael Hadley was excellent as Kent.  Gina McKee as Goneril and Justine Mitchell as Regan both acquitted themselves well in their convincing portrayals of Lear's evil daughters.  Alec Newman was particularly wonderful in his portrayal of Edmund:  he was, perhaps, the most fully-effective of anyone in the production in capturing the full range of the complexity and emotion of this most important of characters, much in the way I imagine Shakespeare would have intended.
 
Which brings me to Derek Jacobi as Lear.  His doing the role was, in fact, what made me want to be sure to see this performance in the first place.  Nevertheless, I am somewhat mixed about his performance.  On the one hand, it was quite splendid:  Jacobi is a commanding presence on stage (I was amazed to learn that he is actually quite slight in his actual physical stature, as that was not at all the impression he created on stage); he appropriately seethed with amazing emotional energy; he was incredibly riveting to watch--and the fact that we were in the third row center intensified what was already an incredibly intense experience.  On the other hand, his performance had some serious flaws:  most importantly, when he was expressing emotional agitation (which is for a great percentage of his role), his elocution was not always adequately good to permit me to understand all of the words he was speaking--even though I am quite familiar with most of Lear's speeches.  Most of the other flaws I rather think are more attributable to directorial decisions than to his acting decisions, but it is, of course, hard to know for sure:  while his incredible presence and energy did lend stature to the role, the interplay of the anguished and the furious, the mad and the comic, and the regal and the haughty did not play out to maximum effect--he was a character more confused than tragic.  (I wish I could create a better allusion to "More sinn'd against than sinning"...)  Still, it was an incredible performance, if a somewhat disappointing portrayal of Lear.
 
The actual physical staging of the play was completely successful, and totally to my personal taste:  it was done most simply (as I believe Lear always need to be), on a bare stage, without any scenery, save for the incredibly interesting backdrop of a semicircle of  floor-to-ceiling, vertical panels, painted in a thickly-applied, abstract, Pollock-like pattern in grays and white.  This excellent set design was by Christopher Oram (who also dis the simple but effective costumes).  Almost all of the remaining effects were created by the fabulous lighting by Neil Austin: again done in the most understatedly effective way--mostly with varying intensity and hue of basically white light (ranging in color/temperature from warm yellow whites to brilliantly cold blue ones).
 
Despite the fact that, on the deepest levels, this production fails sustain the tensions that are necessary fully to create the profound tragic depth that lies at the heart of Shakespeare's incredible play, it is nevertheless a wonderful evening of theater.  See it, if you can.
 
Note: Very limited availability remains. Call Ticket Services at 718.636.4100 for inquiries.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

LONDON: St Philips Hospital - "Students, Patients, Paupers" - now through 13 May

My Urban Age friend Adam Kaase (at the LSE) has curated Students, Patients, Paupers, a show at the old St Philips Hospital in London that is about to be demolished.  St Philips – an Edwardian block dating to 1904 – is a former workhouse, venereal disease hospital, and refugee facility.  In the weeks before the building's demolition, Students, Patients, Paupers engages the building’s history, as well as critical debates about destruction and creativity in the city.  The show has over 20 new commissioned art works, and this coming week there us a public program of film screenings and public lectures.  Participants include: Gus Casely-Hayford, curator and cultural historian; Sir Richard McCormac, founder, MJP Architects; Josephine Berry Slater, editor, Mute Magazine, and author of 'No Room to Move: Radical Art And The Regenerate City'; and the artists Tom Hunter, Christian Kerrigan, Post-Works, Dominic Wilcox and Stephen Nelson.
St. Philips exhibition: Students, Patients, Paupers

Sheffield Street, London WC2A 2EX
6 – 13 May 2011

Mon – Thu:     12 – 8pm
Fri:                   12 – 6pm

Exhibition and events are free.
Check out the details online at http://www.stphilips.tumblr.com/, or here, from the press release:
http://www.stphilips.tumblr.com/                                                                                 stphilips.exhibition@gmail.com

The St Philips Exhibition, Students, Patients, Paupers, runs from 5 – 13 May, featuring new works and performances by 20 artists and a week-long public programme of film screenings, receptions and lectures.
St Philips – an Edwardian block dating to 1904 – is a former workhouse, venereal disease hospital and refugee facility. In the weeks before its demolition, we have moved in as the building’s sole residents. Seizing a unique liminal moment in the process of regeneration, Students, Patients, Paupers engages the building’s history, as well as critical debates about destruction and creativity in the city. 
Participants include: Gus Casely-Hayford, curator and cultural historian; Sir Richard McCormac, founder, MJP Architects; Josephine Berry Slater, editor, Mute Magazine, and author of 'No Room to Move: Radical Art And The Regenerate City'; and the artists Tom Hunter, Christian Kerrigan, Post-Works, Dominic Wilcox and Stephen Nelson.


NEW WORKS BY

Christian Kerrigan, Still Life (installation)In a darkened room of the old St Philip hospital Christian Kerrigan has created an embracing installation that blends the spectre of the modern ruin with the painterly domain of the traditional still life. A square grid of a hundred peonies representing the building’s century-long history has been planted into the concrete floor. As the flowers open and wilt throughout the course of the exhibition, their life span becomes tied to the building’s fate. Rain falls from the ceiling as if it were building itself that was sustaining this subtle balance between life and death. Resting on the widow sill, a secondary still life of slowly fading petals and leaves is captured live by video camera and projected as a magnified, abstract composition.

Vasco Alves, Performance for 6 radios and 6 (found) tapes (sound piece)Vasco Alves presents the recording of an improvised sound performance, which took place at the exhibition’s opening night. Using 6 cassettes gleaned from the St Philips building and handmade electronic radio-instruments, Alves weaves live FM/AM broadcasts with samples of recorded sound, creating an audio landscape intricately linked to the building’s history and character.

Miranda Iossifidis, Ridiculous Urbanism (visual and sound collage)Using slides found in a former studio space within St Philips, Miranda Iossifidis creates collages out of images that you’re not supposed to tamper with. Le Corbusier, Koolhaas, Rome, all there. The accompanying audio collage is comprised of the most ridiculous, dramatic and grand statements from the architecture and urbanism world, taken from recent lectures, some having taking place in London very close to where St Philips stands.

Dominic Wilcox, Waiting Room, installationThe last office in St Philips, left abandoned by its owner, sits quietly, as if waiting to die.

Post Works, 10 plans for an institution, digital prints
The design practice, Post Works, presents ten plans drafted from an historical study of the pavilion asylums and hospitals so ubiquitous during the nineteenth century. In their abstracted forms, the architecture echoes the pattern of synaptic diagrams and cellular drawings.

PLUS

Stephen Nelson, Pipes, & Lazzaroni (mixed media sculptures)Stephen Nelson makes strange, fragile and makeshift constructions in ‘found’ objects, fabric and paint. His works are hard to classify; they are nothing but themselves. They defy a critical context by representing something that is otherwise indescribable, which is the point — his practice is conceived around the idea of producing ‘possible objects’.

AND MANY MORE


PUBLIC EVENTS

Tue10 May, 7pm
Films Screening: A Palace for Us (2010). With drinks and discussion with the director Tom Hunter. Followed by a ‘Best of Britain’ show reel of hospital films from the archive, courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Wed 11 May, 6:30 – 8pm
Public Symposium: ‘Modern Ruin: Destruction & Creativity in the City’. Followed by a wine reception. Speakers: Gus Casely-Hayford, curator and cultural historian; Richard Barnett, author of Medical London: City of diseases, city of cures; Ben Campkin, Co-Director, UCL Urban Laboratory, The Bartlett and author of Dirt; Leslie Topp, Senior Lecturer in History of Architecture, Birkbeck, and Curator of 'Madness and Modernity' at the Wellcome Collection; Josephine Berry Slater, Editor, Mute Magazine, and author of No Room to Move: Radical Art And The Regenerate City; and Richard McCormac, founder, MJP Architects.

Thu 12 May, 7:30pm Film Screening: Under the Cranes (2011). With drinks and discussion with the director Emma-Louise Williams and the writer Michael Rosen, whose poetry and prose accompanies the film.
Exhibition and all events are free and open to all.

Events take place in the intimate setting of one of the old wards of the St Philips Hospital and are free and open to all. Seats are limited for symposium and film screenings. Please arrive early to avoid disappointment.


HISTORICAL CONTEXT

St Philips began its service in 1903 as a Poor Law workhouse, replacing a similar institution which was levelled to make way for the passage of the Kingsway boulevard. During World War I, the building served as an observational facility for refugees. And in 1919, under the auspices of the Metropolitan Asylum board, St Philips became the Sheffield Street Hospital for woman and girls with venereal disease.
During the 1930s and 40s the hospital was converted into a facility for the study and treatment of urology and nephrology. After being amalgamated into the newly formed NHS, the hospital was renamed St Philips but continued as a specialist hospital until the 1990s when it was acquired by the London School of Economics and Political Science. Many lingering elements still speak of St Philips as an educational facility of classrooms, study spaces and closed-door offices. Before long, however, a newly built student centre will occupy this site.
In line with the sanitary ideals of the era, St Philips was designed to allow an abundance of light and the free circulation of air. It boasted an innovative ventilation system and the wards were designed with what might seem, in comparison to today’s hospitals, to be a generous amount of space per bed. In many of the wards, the number of large windows equals the amount of beds. And the building’s plan reveals the architect’s attempt to maximize the surface area of the external walls.
The history of the St Philips building evokes images of what are perhaps the most poignant archetypes of passivity – the student, the patient and the pauper. Traditionally, these characters receive and absorb from more active agents in society, the teacher, the doctor, and the philanthropist. While the residents of St Philips were beneficiaries of air and light, they were also the subjects of a particular architectural arrogance. As one Poor Law inspector put it in 1866, ‘for the purpose of ventilation, windows should be so fixed that they cannot be shut.’
Today, students, the sick and even the poor are discussed less as passive recipients than they are as a brand new kind of consumer. The accompanying architecture, in turn, reflects a new kind of circulation. The ebb and flow of the ambiguous substances in-between – the air, the light – has given way to arenas of networking, customer choice and knowledge exchange. The space in-between the student, patient and pauper is perhaps less consequential than the idea of contact. This time around, the windows are so fixed that they cannot be opened.