Fortunato Depero, Skyscrapers and Tunnels (Gratticieli e tunnel), 1930

Back to the Futurists

The Guggenheim is a machine for viewing art… and as luck would have it, the swirling, whirling lines of the Italian Futurists coincided nicely with the building’s aspiring spiral. But alas, the happy accident went downhill faster than the sloping floor. It was amazing that Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) outpaced the younger Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) and his avant garde dilettantes on the speedway of time.

My interest in these vogue rogues was the drawings of utopian visionaries Antonio Sant’Elia and Mario Chiattone. Many of the others I remembered from The Machine exhibit at MoMA back in 1968 and I can tell you the second time around left me feeling that Futurist art is best suited for costume dummies and their manifestoes were as frivolous as the fads of fashion. Their art parroted every contemporary movement of the time in affectations that could be called Kubisim, Tubeism and Dude Descending a Staircase.

There is nothing futurist about these fascists phonies. Railing against museums and libraries without offering alternatives is just plain backward. And as I wondered the meaning of it all, I came across a book in a side gallery off the ramp which had a picture of the group dressed in formal attire.  Suddenly it occurred to me, these guys were a band of brash young gynophobes lacking in sexual prowess. Ah-ha! That explains the guns, cars and violence. It never got much deeper than that.

The Guggenheim is a machine for making money…and they make a lot of it. But the more they make the more they take. Students are gouged $18.00 and the pay-as-you-wish day is now down to two hours, from 5:30 to 7:30 on Saturdays. Get there early because the end of the line may not make it inside before closing. With such riches, why be so petty? Art makes you smart but the machine is not taking any questions…just cash or credit.

The Italian Futurists share the same dislike of museums and libraries as the Guggenheim and other “iconic” art palaces. Guards suck the joy out of enjoyment and they smother any ferment or conversation, no matter how interesting. But children can be loud and run rampant because there is a price on everything past, present and Futurist. Damn the starving artists…full steam ahead.

Guggenheim

Guggenheim

Boston City Hall

BRUTALISM AND BEAUTY

Wikipedia defines Bru-tal-ism as: An architectural style of the mid-20th century characterized by massive or monolithic forms, usually of poured concrete and typically unrelieved by exterior decoration.
(Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Architecture) an austere style of architecture characterized by emphasis on such structural materials as undressed concrete and unconcealed service pipes Also called new brutalism

Webster’s abridged definition of Bru-tal-ism: A style in art and esp. architecture using exaggeration and distortion to create its effect (as of massiveness or power)

Brutalism, in a nutshell, is a celebration of the naked.

In architecture, when structure and finish are one and the same, it is TRUTH made manifest. There are only three materials that can do that and reinforced concrete is one of them. It is on par with stone and brick but gets little respect with a past in bunkers, low-income projects and a name like “Brutalism”. If Truth is Beauty then Brutalist buildings should be attractive and popular, but they rarely are.

We are surrounded by steel skyscrapers although what meets the eye is is a metal veneer reiterating the encased steel structure. Amazingly, steel is less resistant to flames than timber and must be covered. For example, if the Eiffel Tower were to be residential the steel lattice would be fire proofed. There are coatings that would allow steel to read true but no one has dared.

Exposed reinforced concrete needs no such treatment and that is the attribute that typifies Brutalist aesthetics. The Whitney Museum (1966) by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue in NYC would have been an excellent example if not for its exterior stone cladding…but the interior is textbook.

The chemical admixture that is concrete requires great care every step of the way from pouring to curing—that attention should be apparent on the skin. It is similar to a cake that skips the icing to show the imprint of the pan as part of the presentation. Once the formwork is removed the work is done.

Unfortunately, concrete’s affordability over steel is often more curse than blessing because the rough and ready appearance encourages sloppy formwork and the public is none the wiser. Adding to the financial gain with cheap formwork is penny wise and pound foolish but in the business of maximum profits penny wise is often the shareholders choice.

The use of carpenters unaware of the nuances of following the flow of forces is the biggest assault on the aesthetics of concrete. Veneer treatments can hide the sloppy workmanship but the cover-up will cost more in long-term maintenance than any initial savings. In naked Brutalism, without a fake skin to probe and patch, repairs can be spotted and nipped in the bud.

The idea of an unfinished finish is a radical innovation that brings enormous savings to the owner but it comes with the understanding that “naked” has an obligation to be pleasing especially because concrete is enduring. It is not that hard to do. Beauty is in the formwork just as it is on a Grecian Urn.

Beauty follows formwork but talent means a lot. Even the best workmanship is no guarantee of eloquence. For instance, Boston City Hall (1968) spared no expense in its formwork but compared to Carpenter Center (1964) on the Harvard campus, it is a looming hulk. Perhaps it’s Corbusier’s ease with nudity which enabled him to master the medium. His rendition of Brutalism is the antithesis of the ponderous affectation by the architects of the City Hall who were his ardent followers but bashful to a fault.

Materials determine styles…and all styles are variants of two prototypical systems: Trabeation (a.k.a. post and lintel, unique to stone slabs and perfected in the Parthenon, 447 BC) and Arcuation (a.k.a. arches, unique to brick and celebrated in the Pantheon, 126 AD). Both systems predate the Greeks and Romans but were refined by them to suit their philosophy and cultural status. Trabeation with its elemental purity, embodies the philosophical notion that Truth is Beauty…and Arcuation, invaluable to the legion engineers, is another manifestation of Truth echoing the power and span of the Roman empire.

It remained that way for trabeation and arcuation until the 20th century when they were joined by “plastuation” to form a divine trinity. Concrete at the apex for its plasticity and ability to assume the potters hand (as such, it should also be evaluated in the vocabulary of ceramics). Brutalism is but a variant of plastuation and there will be other periods to come for the system of unpolished refinement that speaks to truth and is exemplified by The TWA Flight Center (1962) by Saarinen.

Reinforced concrete is in the throes of establishing an identity. It was not until 1904 that the first concrete skyscraper went up in Cincinnati (15 floors) and to this day the Ingalls Building by Ernest Ransome waits for Father Time to strip away its robe of European tradition and reveal its true identity…the CBS (1965) and Trump World Towers (2001) in NYC will have to get in line. Not to mention the World’s tallest Building (2004) 165 floors above the desserts of Dubai. Who would believe that 100 years after the Ingalls building, architects would still be masquerading concrete as steel? When does the Ugly Duckling become a Swan?

Brutalist fundamentals, it should be noted, can extend to other materials and events but I discounted wood because it is perishable. The Ise Shrine is as old as the Parthenon due to a ritual that rebuilds it every 20 years, nevertheless, the bare wood evokes a Brutalist pragmatism similar to wearing clothes inside out when comfort trumps appearance. Glass too can be made to exhibit Brutalist transparencies and reflections. Puritanical disavowal of decoration is somewhat brutal in spirit and the boredom of prefabrication along with anything dark and gloomy, brings Brutalism to the fore.

Concrete is germane to walls. Hoover Dam’s massive concrete wall (1936, and still in the process of curing) divides a once raging river into a struggling stream on one side and a lake to excess on the other. Vegas is a product of that wall and Gaza could learn from that.

Every dreadful concrete wall is a potential to be exploited. Walls not only separate they can also unite. Concrete has shown its versatility from Roosevelt Island Soviet, to NYU’s Sylvette (Picasso, 1968) and if Gothic Architecture can overcome its barbaric name, then someday Brutalism will be beautiful.

…to be continued.

Corbusier Nude

A MOBIUS EXPERIENCE
My Take on the Travon Martin Case

It became clear to me when Travon’s lawyers said “this case has nothing to do with race.” I thought, Holy Moly!!! They’re washing their hands of it. Caught between the Devil and the NRA, the prosecution went through the motions in a charade that spun loopholes for Zimmerman to skip through and for Florida State Attorney, Angela Corey, to say she tried. They did not stand the ground that Travon was entitled to as much as they covered their ass. This case was all about race.

The pundits say “I respect the decision” and then go on to give a hundred reasons why the prosecution lost the case. There was only one reason. It doesn’t matter what they say because the jurors were predetermined to find “George” innocent. They lied to get on that jury and lied when they said “race was never a factor.” Their lawless conduct showed utter contempt for the legal system and I do not feel obliged to respect their decision. For crying out loud man, there’s enough evidence here to convict them of perjury and dereliction of duty.

Hillary Clinton, whose husband was declared the first black President by a prominent black woman, declared that the solution to this injustice lies in the sisterhood. Is she not aware that it was a jury of six women that let the killer go free? That it was a female judge who returned his gun to him? Did she not know that Angela Corey is a woman? And was the divine intercessor portrayed by that woman (more Mary than the Virgin herself), sitting next to George Zimmerman, too sublime for her? And why are men to blame? Do I smell 2016?

If it weren’t for the term post-racial, this would not have happened. No prejudice or addiction is ever post. After every advance, complacency sets in but the evil of ignorance and hate is always lurking around. The Martin family sought refuge in church and Morgan Freeman narrated a TV series about a future where computers can hack into the human mind. I couldn’t help wondering, what if he was also thinking of all the people throughout history hacked from the pulpit and converted into slaves. The mental chains are said to be unbreakable and to see the real first black President struggle to free himself is truly a Mobius experience. There is no way out…but some have broken free.

Ping Pong serve

Ping Pong Utopia

Ping-Pong is the name of the greatest game in the world but contrary to popular opinion, it is not onomatopoetic. The name does not suggest the sound it imitates…nor does it hint at the eloquence of the game. But it’s a much catchier moniker than wiff-waff (the sound of parchment paddles in 1882). It’s hard to imagine the moment Nixon met Mao 100 years later, as pad-dap pad-dap diplomacy but that’s the sound of the game.

In 1920 long after the name Ping-Pong was already in popular use, Parker Brothers bought it. Establishments avoided paying royalties by coming up with an abundance of puns, paronomasias and nick names such as King Pong, Paddle Pong, Ball Ping Hammer and so on. To the official body, Table Tennis implied a Wimbledon pedigree. Protocol was the intent but the implication that ping pong players would rather be playing tennis was the message.

There are those who believe ping pong is named after a Chinese man and the proprietary pride Asians have for the game adds substance to that notion. At present, the Chinese dominate and that’s a big deal because the whole world plays it. Expense is no excuse (as in skiing, sailing and golf). Dedication (as in running, soccer and basketball) is what it takes to own a game that has more to do with merit than money.

America has to own pong pong if only because it’s chock full of democratic principles. The ping pong culture in the USA numbers 20 million and that’s a lot of tables–even with half of them folded up…or used to fold laundry. Which leaves us with a lot of roly-polies, sitting idle, who would really rather duce-to-reduce than sweat-to-the-oldies. The two overused outdoor tables, installed in Bryant Park in 2009, are testament to this awakened desire. Additional tables would be greatly appreciated but the Department of Parks can’t stand success.

A simple name that belies its significance is as gratifying as getting what you paid for…and ping pong is both. In the same space as a pool table, ping pong burns a thousand times more calories than looking down the shaft of a cue stick. The paddle induces a trance that speeds up time and all things become equal. Anyone can play anyone. Old vs. young. Women vs. men. There is hardly a favor to age, sex or size. Vegas does do venues for the faithful but it’s a hard sell commercially without the blood and guts risk to life and limb.

The milky homogeneity of the NHL is profitable mostly because of violence. Ping pong is more colorfully diverse and the extent of violence is limited to the irascible Tahl Leibovitz breaking his paddle for not keeping pace with his AngryBird genius. He does have a following…but see the game performed with tempo and style, and it becomes a dance spectacular. When infused with hot sweaty passion, it becomes sex. And sex, as we all know, sells.

Spin (the upscale Club on 23rd Street) has spun ping pong into gold. They know there is nothing more provocative than a damsel, paddle in hand, teetering perilously on high heels. A primitive hero-impulse kicks in…but rescuing her is a lot harder than it looks. With such loud music, the courageous suitor must operate without his trusty lingual ploy–and the mouth, when denied the delivery of a smooth line, takes solace in food and wine. And that’s the golden genius of it. Brilliant!

To the aficionado, Spin is more glamour than game–it brings in fresh faces and celebrities–and ping pong is all that. But the serious player can escape the noise and novelty at the more affordable and well-appointed Westchester Table Tennis Center owned by puzzlemaster Will Shortz, 47 minutes from Grand Central and a short walk from the Pleasantville Station. Opening times correspond to after-school hours but the market for early-risers, seniors, and off-peak commuters goes untapped as if there were no disposable income to be had or as if there were a prohibition on ping pong before 3:30pm.

It might be taboo to play ping pong in the mornings but it’s a crime not to play it at all. There’s much more than meets the eye here–and if you are lucky enough to have a punctual partner–it is your civic duty to play. No other game is as green, sustainable or efficient. The bubble that is the ball, recalls the classical, fleeting and ephemeral metaphor for life. Keep your eye on it, stroke it squarely and you’ll never be friendless… or fat.

My ideal Utopia is based on a ping pong module. This concept might have saved those failed communities of 19th century America that were patterned after Charles Fourier’s phalanxes. He advocated the benefits of a cooperative society and coined the word feminism. If only his disciple, Godin, had used the central court of his Familistere for ping pong instead of a lecture hall for his inspirational speeches the movement could have realized its earthly paradise.

The Department of Parks should take note. Many of the games they provide do promote a measure of goodwill but none come close to the healing power that brought Nixon and Mao together. Ping-Pong Diplomacy can also work for Homies and Preppies–and all other disparate groups in society. Perhaps, someday my Utopian dream will become a reality and pad-dap pad-dap will be the sound of peace.

PryorWilder

ART MAKES YOU SMART

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Art Makes You Smart. The dictionary defines art as works produced by human creative skill and imagination. Nature does not make art, it inspires art. And although there is no shortage of inspiration, the bluebird of paradise will frustrate any attempt to surpass the hand of nature. Nevertheless, we keep trying, driven by an impulse that is in fact, art itself. Imagination is nature’s masterpiece.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
– Albert Einstein.

To think is to create, but free thought is a dangerous thing. Too many questions will get you kicked out of the group and if you value your dental plan you will put your creative impulses in the vault and throw away the key. If on the other hand, you cannot resist exploring the deep recesses of your mind you may need to befriend talented dental students down at the clinic because you’ll be left on your own.

The capacity to discern truth and beauty sets one apart from the group and the Church knew that when they took John 1,1-14 as their mandate to enforce illiteracy on the public. To paraphrase the scriptural passage, “In the beginning was the word and the word was God”. The interpretation was that God is all one needs to know. Toss your books, recite your Hail Mary’s and your reward will be in heaven.

Reading the Bible was punishable by death. The faithful prayed before grim and forbidding icons that were instruments of propaganda and not art for art’s sake. Any deviation from their strict formula and uniformity could land the painter in jail or on a bon fire in the public square where heretics and books were burned along with graven images by iconoclast who associated art with idolatry.

It would not be too much of a stretch to say “All art is religious”. Even the effigies in the African galleries that were made to erode naturally, contained an ephemeral immanence aimed at a specific purpose. They, like the Byzantine icons, were not created as art per se, but even as we look at them in their out-of-context setting, they continue to inspire because they were created to express abstract ideas

Art decrypts the abstract. Abstract Expressionism is an abstruseness antithetical to clarity: an oxymoron. It’s a hermetic concept much like masturbation that is wholly dependent on the voyeur (also in a state of isolation) to make something of it. There are no parameters and it’s interpretation is wide open. Also, the self-gratifying aspect is appealing to those that see art as a facile and spontaneous act anyone can do alla prima. O Clyfford B Still.

Long before Socrates said it, people believed that truth is beauty. Thus, aesthetic pursuits require the same attention to truth as scientific observation. Nowhere is that more apparent than in a comparative visit to New York’s two great museums to science and art. The experience at New York’s Natural History Museum confirms life is a happy accident. And at the Metropolitan Museum of Art it says make the most of it. Truth is beauty.

I can find no record of it, but Gene Wilder once told a story on TV about taking Richard Pryor to MOMA for the very first time. When they got to Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night he was stunned by Pryor’s immediate grasp of the painting and listened intently to his insights that revealed things Wilder had not seen after years of being on intimate terms with the masterpiece. Art makes you smart.