Yearly Archives: 2010

Anselm Kiefer@Larry Gagosian: Last Century in Berlin

News flash: either the staff of Gagosian Gallery hasn’t been keeping up with the recent controversy over the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video Fire in My Belly from the exhibition Hide/Seek at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, including the spectacle of another peaceful art activist being ejected and “banned for life” from the Smithsonian for quietly showing David Wojnarowicz’s video on his ipad [this story has since been amended to his being banned for 12 months only], or the Nostalgie de la Third Reich atmosphere of Anselm Kiefer’s show “Next Year in Jerusalem” had rubbed off on them when on December 18th they reacted to a few activists whose activism consisted of standing around in black T-shirts with “Next Year in Jerusalem” printed on them in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, taking pictures of themselves in front of the work, & quietly answering questions by to the harmlessly peaceful protest by having NYPD officers forcibly eject them from the gallery.

Protest at Gagosian Gallery, photo contained in an email by Laurie Arbeiter

I had wavered about whether I wanted to bother writing about the Kiefer show. The show closed last week and that would have been that until this morning when I read an email forwarded to me by artist Joyce Kozloff from one of the protesters, anti-war activist Laurie Arbeiter.

From her email:

In response to the title of the exhibition and the content of the work a small group of artists and activists decided to view the show wearing a shirt with the words Next Year In Jerusalem in the three languages Arabic, Hebrew and English. We spent about one to two hours looking at the exhibition, mainly individually, silently and respectfully with full consideration of others viewing the exhibition. We simply wore the words on our shirts and did not engage with anyone unless they struck up a conversation with us. A number of people asked some of us about the meaning of the message, gave positive feedback, showed interest, asked where they could get the shirts or occasionally questioned our political attitude toward Israel and Palestine. … We never had an incident, raised our voices, disrupted anyone, and were not approached by the multitudes of guards that were there. … We thought we were in an arena of ideas and that words on a t-shirt without any other provocation would be an acceptable method of free expression in response to Kiefer’s work. We were so very wrong.

After about one and a half hours, half of our group left and four of us remained to continue to view the show. …  Suddenly, out of nowhere, two representatives from the gallery approached us. One of them asked who our leader was. It was an odd question and I responded that we had no leader. … She then said that she had to ask us to leave the gallery. … At that point, the gallery employee ordered the guards, the same ones that had observed us for close to two hours with no incident, to surround us and escort us out. I told her that there was no reason to have us removed. The gallery employee explained that they had received complaints about the words on our shirt, which were causing confusion, and therefore we would have to leave. We then decided to cover the language even though it was very disturbing to do so and we did this reluctantly, understanding the profound irony against the back-drop of the Kiefer exhibition which embodies a life’s work supposedly concerned with the horrors of state-sponsored repression, the brutality of occupation,  racism, abuse of power, fascism and the consequences of forgetting history, not allowing for keen reflection in regard to current strains of unchecked power. I mentioned to the gallery employees that I thought we were in the realm of ideas inside the gallery space to which she replied that it was a private gallery in the business of selling art and that they wanted us to leave. On principle, something no longer that valued or defended in the public or private sector, we stayed, acting again in no way that could be deemed disruptive. The guards went back to their corners and we went back to our conversation. We thought that the incident was over. To all our shock, several minutes later the police arrived and completely disrupting the calm atmosphere in the gallery began to order us to leave and threatened us with arrest for trespassing.

Within minutes after the police arrived an incident unfolded that could only be described as brutal. Upon reflection, it was like a staged scene, depicting what happens when the very forces Kiefer warns us about go unchecked. The police came on very strong and at first directed their warning at us, overseen by the gallery personnel, who pointed us out to them. … The police officer was very rude and belligerent to her.  All this unfolded rather quickly, within seconds and suddenly I saw him grab her forcefully, pinching the muscle of her arm as he began to drag her from the gallery. It was shocking as she was screaming that she was being hurt and yet he wouldn’t remove his grip. I heard her cry in pain all the way out as she was being removed to the entrance. …. She was badly bruised and needed medical attention and was taken to a hospital emergency room.

These are the facts of my experience as it unfolded. It was and still is traumatizing to recount and to attempt to grapple with all the implications of these events unfolding against the backdrop of the Anselm Kiefer exhibition. … Our peaceful engagement with the Kiefer exhibition was not a demonstration that day in the gallery but the gallery deserves now to be shown what a real demonstration looks like in response to what it did.

Incredibly, Renée Monrose, an artist who recently received a Masters in Divinity from the The Union Theological Seminary last spring and is now in the Seminary’s Master of Sacred Theology program, witnessed a similar incident at the gallery later the same day, December 18, and tried at some risk to intervene. It seems like Larry Gagosian’s minions are wearing brown shirts these days. They’ve lost all sense of proportion, common sense, and humanity. As Bradley Rubenstein aptly titled his critical review of the exhibition,  “Achtung, Baby.”

From an email from Monrose:

I witnessed a very disturbing police incident tonight at Gagosian Gallery on W. 24th Street. It was about 5PM and a woman who was apparently being followed by guards–I don’t know why–suddenly turned on one and yelled, “Leave me alone! I just want to see the show.” I was about 10 feet away from her. She lost it and made a scene for a minute or so and then stormed out of the room. I thought she had left but when I went the reception area a few minutes later to get a catalog, she was down on the floor in the hallway, handcuffed and surrounded by at least 5 policemen. I protested and asked why in the world they need to handcuff and surround a 100lb woman who was obviously distraught (I don’t know that she was “disturbed” only that she was angry and, at that point, terrified.) They blew me off and told me to get away. I then went to the reception and complained to them. I was told by one of the young women “We have had other incidents” as if that explained the treatment of this women who was handcuffed on the floor about 20 feet away from her. The police then took the handcuffed woman into the vestibule near the front door, put her up against the wall and stood in a huddle around her. She was crying and shaking. Again, four or five of them were standing around her in a semi-circle. When I walked up to the police she recognized me from earlier and asked me to help her. I again protested and demanded to know why they were treating her this way. I was told, “She refused to leave.” … Eventually EMS came and strapped her to a gurney. She was put in the ambulance with 4 police officers standing in the doorway of the ambulance as if she were Son of Sam. When I asked an officer why they needed an army to deal with an emotionally upset women who was already handcuffed and strapped down, he told me “She might have boyfriends with guns in cars.” (this was after about 15 minutes-or more– of them having her on the floor or against the wall.) When I asked why, if they were concerned about men in cars with guns, they were all huddled around the back door of the ambulance. He said, “We have to protect the EMS guys.”!!! … The gallery was about to close and the only people on the street were the ones coming out of Gagosian. … I was the only one who confronted the police, although an elderly German man said to me as they were pulling out, “They were outrageous!” As the show inside was the Anselm Kiefer exhibit, the irony and scariness of the incident were impossible to ignore.

I filed a complaint online with the police but didn’t have any badge numbers. I haven’t received any confirmation.

I’ve never felt I needed to write about Anselm Kiefer’s work. His paintings always struck me as glum in terms of color and stolidly competent yet strangely inert in terms of composition. I found their hugeness and sheer weight oppressive physically and ideologically. If anything I found the fact that MoMA had to reinforce its walls for the 1988-89 exhibition Anselm Kiefer to support the weight of huge, often lead-covered canvases more significant than the paintings themselves.

My writing is propelled by my need to express views I hold but that I find are not being expressed elsewhere. So I didn’t need to write about Kiefer because he was so effectively critiqued by art historians such as Benjamin Buchloh, in the service of  the privileging of Gerhardt Richter’s address of German history and of an overarching critique of Neo-Expressionist painting and painting itself (in the by now familiar ongoing counterpoint to his support of Richter):

On that level, the question of the possibility of the representation of German history is already infinitely more complicated in Richter’s work than in Kiefer’s since, unlike Kiefer, Richter questions even painting’s access t0 and capacity for representing historical experience). Secondly, mediation occurs at the level of painterly execution, since Kiefer’s work claims access to German Expressionist painting as the means of executing his own project of historical representation. Richter, on the other hand, emphasizes both the degree to which history, if it is accessible at all, is mediated by photographic images, and also how not just the construction of historical memory but its very conception are dependent on photographic representation. … (Buchloh, Art Since 1900, p.614).

Anselm Kiefer is only the most prominent of the German artists who have modeled themselves on concepts that Habermas has defined as “traditional identity.” In the course of their restoration of these concepts, these artists have produced a type of work…that can best be described as polit-kitsch. (Buchloh, “A Note on Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977,” October, Vol.48, Spring 1989, 100, n. 5)

But this recent show really bugged me, from the minute I walked through the gallery’s outer doors.

Above the entrance of a vast space occupied by a German were letters written in black script. In transliterated Hebrew and English, they spelled out “Next Year in Jerusalem,” the concluding line of the Passover Haggadah.

Next Year in Jerusalem? My hackles were officially raised even before I turned the corner and entered the occupied territory of Gagosian Gallery.

I still don’t really want to write about Kiefer, so here is just a précis. The installation reminded me of nothing so much as Bloomingdales’s cosmetics floor if its Christmas decorations had a Holocaust theme. The vast gallery space was packed to the gills and to the ceiling with huge lead-cased glass vitrines filled with burnt out WWII-era jet engines, Joseph Beuys-like oversized grey garments, a life-size wedding dress stabbed by shards of glass — a feminist art trope, long-since appropriated by male artists like Robert Gober — tree branches painted white which artist Joy Garnett described perfectly as being “worthy of the decor at an Anthropologie chain.” The installation also included a full-sized lead bunker containing among other things one of Kiefer’s early Nazi salute performance /photo-documentation works cited by some as examplary of the anti-monumentalism considered most suitably expressive of his post-war generation’s critique of Germany’s past, now set into a great big clunky monumental anti-monument.” Through the vitrines one could see the crowds of other visitors to the gallery milling about while strangely obscured from view were characteristically enormous paintings so that these appeared almost as afterthoughts to the installation.

I thought about what title I’d give an essay about this show. “Arbeit Macht Gelt” seemed appropriate, in keeping with the association between the text at the entry of the show with the text on the metal entry gate to Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” and in keeping also with the price of the work. Overheard at the show: a youngish woman “gallerina” in mini-skirted business suit with high heels and information in hand about the work was shepherding an apparently potential buyer around. Fixing my eye away from them as if in deep contemplation of the work, I leaned into the conversation: gallerina to woman taping info into a purple Blackberry (looked as if they were talking about one of the vitrines): “$600,000.”

But maybe “Gelt Macht Arbeit” might be more correct. The work was a broadcast for how much it cost to produce it.

My friend Susan Bee had overheard the first part of their conversation, where the woman with Blackberry was apparently just learning about Kiefer and asked if he was Jewish — a reasonable inference from a show titled “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

It was in fact the nexus of aesthetic cliches in the work, its scale, size, & the obvious expense of production, shipping, and installation, with the arrogation of Judaism that I found outrageous. Big boring art, OK; incredibly expensive to produce art, whatever; huge prices, well, good work if you can get it, but the underlying positioning of Kiefer as the greatest Jewish artist of the Holocaust? That’s too much. (Though I do think it’s Mel Brooks funny that the gallery website for the exhibition has a glossary of terms including many related to Jewish religion and folklore: Gagosian Gallery as the source of a definition for Shekinah is pretty much like Madonna as a source for the Kabbalah). Thus my reasons for being incensed by the show were not exactly the same as those of the protesters, that is, Israel as a Jewish state itself engaged in political oppression, they were aesthetic and also based in my long-standing interest, rooted in my family experience (see my essay “Blurring Richter”), in how some post-War German artists (whether Richter on one side of an aesthetic/ideological divide or Kiefer on the other) somehow managed to finally win the war of eradication of Jewish subjectivity left unfinished by the Nazis.

This morning, in a kind of creepy serendipity, I noticed a link to color photographs of a Christmas celebration hosted by Adolf Hitler December 18, 1941, sixty-nine years ago to the day from the events at Gagosian. Seen in color we are so familiar with from our own experience, the Christmas decorations, albeit at Nuremberg rally scale, are more foreboding and the intense color shatters the distancing effect created by the many generations of “grey” representations that have shaped our image of the Second World War, from the accident of history that made black and white film more easily accessible and affordable than color well into the 1960s, to the reliance by Richter on grey as the emblematic color for an anti-ideological position, morally ambiguous yet also imbued by a kind of moral authenticity. In these color pictures, by klieg and candlelight, Hitler if anything looks more like his own Madame Tusseaud’s waxwork than he does in black and film still photography and film. The color both highlights a kind of artifice and reveals undercurrents of terror within the hearts of even Hitler’s most faithful soldiers.

Kiefer and Gagosian Gallery end up more Last Century in Berlin than Next Year in Jerusalem, while the color photographs of a Nazi Christmas Party in 1941 seem eerily like Today in the World.


This Past Week in Activism: Three Modest Gestures

Three modest political gestures have deeply touched me this past week:

Thursday, December 9th, in London, there was a teach-in at The National Gallery in conjunction with the street demonstrations of students protesting the tripling of educational fees by David Cameron’s government.

Teach-in about the raise in tuition fees, National Gallery, London, December 9, 2010

There is a general impression, which I often encounter among my students, that activism of the 1960s variety, including demonstrations in front of public institutions, occupations of educational and other institutions, are not effective. I am not sure that is true, but of one thing I am sure: any small engagement with the kind of political activism that brings people into a room or a public space, including the street, changes the life of the individual who participates, even if that individual does not further pursue a life of activism. You are in a room with other people, people who may think like you, people who may know more than you, people who feel passionately about things you dared not admit that you did. For a moment you are not alone. It can be stressful and confusing: you can experience some of this in play in the video clip I’ve included below, lots of people talking at the same time, a contingent atmosphere, but generally polite, good-natured, and modest, even including the behavior of the museum staff (they let it happen instead of banning everyone for life). No one on this particular clip is a great speaker, that actually makes doing something like that easier to imagine. For anyone who participated, something memorable has happened. And when I look at the picture of these people joined together in the same room with one of Manet’s four versions of The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, 1868, I am so so envious.

Edouard Manet, The Execution of Maximilian, 1867-68. Oil on canvas, 6'4"x9' 3 13/16", Collection of The National Gallery, London

The painting in the National Gallery that served as the backdrop for this week’s teach-in is the second in Manet’s series (see information about the history of the postmodern fragmentation of this work here). All the paintings of this series are big and they appear monumental, I’ve rarely been so struck and impressed by the size of art works. The modest scale of the exhibition space only enhanced this effect because the works were both monumental and intensely intimate in relation to the scale of each viewer.

This painting was included in Manet and the Execution of Maximilian, one of the best exhibitions held at MoMA. This small but intense, visually powerful, historically informative, wonderfully researched 2006 exhibition brought together Manet’s four paintings of this subject along with subsidiary paintings he painted during of the same year including his small but memorable painting of Charles Baudelaire’s funeral, along with a series of contemporaneous photographs of the execution and its aftermath, which were sources for Manet’s rendering and which included recreations, alterations, and falsifications of the actual, undocumented event, many of these by the ingenuity and dexterity of their photographic tricks and politically driven imagination anticipating Photoshop by over a hundred years. The exhibition also included a timeline of the events of the year Manet devoted to this work. Strangely relevant to ongoing discussions about political art (what is it? can art with overt political content be good art? does any so-called political art have any effect politically?) is also the fact that these works were not exhibited in Manet’s lifetime. So when I look at this picture of teh teach-in in London, with the painting providing a backdrop and visual anchor, I feel that the painting is fulfilling the role of a political art work in a way that Manet perhaps could not have anticipated when he painted it or when he put it away out of public view (in a gesture of pre-emptive self-censorship).

Meanwhile back in the States, this week saw a revival of the “culture wars” of the late 1980s, with the removal from the National Portrait Gallery of the video clip of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video “A Fire in My Belly.” There has been excellent coverage and commentary on this, including by Holland Cotter and Frank Rich of The New York Times, Blake Gopnik of The Washington Post, and Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times, as well as on art blogs such as Hyperallergic, and by Stephen Colbert on a must-see full show on art and censorship including a piece de resistance art critical analysis of Republican right wing Rep. Eric Cantor, totally brilliant because it could only be done with full knowledge and understanding of and ability to correctly use “The Language” or “Theory” but also devastatingly on target about the cliches that go with that knowledge and its vocabulary! & on Comedy Central!!!

But the gesture that most touched me was the quietest, a two-person protest that took place November 30 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington:

This protest by Mike Blasenstein and the friend who filmed him Mike Iacovone was so simple: Blasenstein just stood there, with an ipad tied around his neck running the censored clip (best comment to this story on Hyperallergic, by Coco Lopes: “best use of an ipad ever.”) Blasenstein had explanatory flyers in his hand for anyone who might want one, which the museum security guards forced people to give back to him. Ben Davis published an interview with Blasenstein which foregrounds the spontaneity and modesty of his impulse to do this: “I just felt this is an important issue. I’m not really an artist or an activist, but when I heard that they took it down, it just seemed to send such a clear negative message. So I thought to myself, I would send my own message and bring this art back into the museum.” Could an instance of activism be any simpler?

The week ended with Senator Bernie Sander’s nearly 8 hour filibuster-like speech Friday December 10th, explaining and lambating the tax cut deal arrived at by President Obama and the Republican Party.

The speech can be seen on Senator Sander’s website as well as on C-Span. Here is a clip:

I only found out the speech was happening late in the day through comments on Facebook, I would have loved to watch it live but I watched about an hour and a half later that evening. I kept on trying to change the channel, thinking well , this is very interesting but let’s see if there’s something else on, but then going back to it: it was in its own plain spoken way, riveting. Sanders reminded me of the kind of politician I grew up witnessing: contrary to today’s cookie cutter hairdos with pre-fab talking points, you could count on a greater number of stalwart liberal figures, often speaking with emphatic local accents — Sanders is the Senator from Vermont but he’s from New York and sounds a lot like Bella Abzug to me — and they weren’t “Socialists” in those days, they weren’t “Independents,” they were in the Democratic Party, one of the reasons I’ve stated for being a “yellow dog Democrat.” It was fun and inspiring then, it was inspiring and a welcome respite now. I couldn’t help but think of what might happen if just one other Senator did this, and then one other one and then one other one, maybe pretty soon the cautious, craven and cowardly would begin to see a group to blend into and next thing you know you’d begin to have yourself a movement.

One can dream: each of these events is a drop of water in the worldwide tsunami of reactionary activism (tsunami, uh oh, cliche alert, but I’m thinking not only of the big crashing wave type of tsunami, but also the slowly inexorably rising water type that seems to have us suddenly clinging to lamp posts as our feet unexpectedly get wetter and wetter), seemingly, maybe even surely, futile for the moment, but still, are we not better off that a group of students and teachers occupied the National Gallery in front of Manet’s wonderful painting, and that two guys just decided to show up at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and use an ipad for peacful protest, and that a United States Senator had the guts and stamina to give a speech that if people could hear it, they would be persuaded by it? Let’s say they are all dreamers and what they did won’t change any immediate policy. OK. But what a greater nightmare we’d be in if such people did not do such small gestures of activism.


“I Love You With All My Hearth”

Today, December 5, 2010, would have been my mother Resia Schor’s 100th birthday. This is not just a nostalgic realization looking back at a deep past, as it was for me in 2004 which was my father Ilya Schor‘s centennial: he had died in 1961 so forty-three years separated his death from his centennial. My mother died only four years ago, nine days before her 96th birthday. So 100 wasn’t such a stretch.  But she had no wish to make it to this landmark. “God forbid!” she said when at one point I explained to her that if she lived to but also died in 2010 I wouldn’t have to pay any estate taxes (an amusing conversation in the light of this week’s disgraceful actions in Congress!). She had retained her excellent memory, her very left politics,  her judgment of people unblurred by sentiment, and her courage intact, but when the encroachments of age threatened her independence and her ability to work, she had had enough. When my friend Tom Knechtel said goodbye to her after a visit to Provincetown in the summer of 2006, he said, “I hope I see you here next summer.” “I hope not,” she answered, flashing a beautiful smile.

When I began A Year of Positive Thinking I said that it posed the challenge to myself to find contemporary art that I love but that I would also write about significant artworks, films, and political actions and speech from the near and the deep past that have given me the courage to become and continue to be an artist and an activist. No artists are as important to that personal history as my parents Ilya Schor and Resia Schor.

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1985, silver, c.5″x4″x1″

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1985, detail, doors open: gouache and gold leaf on paper

When I was a teenager, my mother and I mostly lived alone together. My father had died and my sister Naomi was living away from home, at graduate school and then in Paris. Whatever the tensions that my adolescence and the grief and loss we both held inside our individual hearts imposed on us were tempered among other things by how much I loved the work in silver and gold that she had turned to in order to support my sister and me. I was a fan of her work, and I now sometimes think that if I gave her one thing it was that enthusiastic support.

In the 1950s in New York, she painted and exhibited abstract gouaches in a style reminiscent of Philip Guston. When my father died, she was fifty years old and had two daughters, eleven and seventeen years old. She had no other family. It never occurred to her to look for another man to help her support her children although it was the logical or the more traditional solution to her perilous situation. Instead, figuring that she couldn’t make a living from painting, she took up the tools of my father’s trade as a silversmith, jeweler, and creator of Judaica, transferring her abstract, modernist aesthetic from the soft medium of paint (and the arena of “high art”) to the hard medium of precious metal that challenged her forms in a more powerfully creative direction (though in the area of “craft” as defined by American art at the time).

Resia Schor, Mezuzah, 1983. White metal, Plexiglass, gouache on paper, 12″x9″

My mother was  a modernist through and through, unlike my father for whom modernist abstraction was a visual language he could speak articulately but it was not his mother tongue: he had deep roots in the philosophical but also the visual traditions of Hasidic folk culture going back to the Middle Ages and it was his unusual gift to carry these into the twentieth century.

Some of my aesthetic and political point of view was formed in these early experiences of art in my home. The curious and problematic thing was that the essence of modernist abstraction was conveyed by her work, but in a form that was generally considered a lesser modality: that of small scale and craft. Yet each piece was so obviously a sculpture.

Resia Schor, Fragmented Mezuzah, 21976. Brass, Plexiglass, gouache on pape with Mezuzah text, c. 12″x6.5.” In a radical and iconoclastic geture, my mother took the mezuzah and turned it inside out, revealing and cutting into small fragments the samll talismanic text that had always been hidden and not to be touched by a woman.

That my mother as a person had sought economic survival through her own aesthetic labor was already a lesson in feminism for me and my sister. And, as she developed her own style and techniques in her new medium, it became intriguingly clear that my parents’ work embodied a strangely crossed gender art message that in itself contributed to my sister Naomi and my involvement with feminism and perhaps too to the slightly unusual flavor of our feminist outlook. Inasmuch as art movements are gender coded, my father’s work — folkloric, figurative, narrative, Jewish, delicate, light in weight — carried a feminine code. My mother’s work, abstract, muscularly sculptural although still relatively small in scale but heavy in weight carried a code that would seem to be masculine, as those terms are used.

Resia Schor, The Moon, 1967. Pendant, silver, gold, precious and semi-precious stones, c.3″x2.5″

Resia Schor, The Moon, back

When potential customers came to visit, there would be the ritual of showing the work: she would gradually open one case and soft pouch after another, unwrap little tissue paper packets, laying out gold and silver pendants and pins studded with sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, heavily sculpted silver Mezuzahs, chains whose silver and gold links and  blue African blue glass beads made from ground lapis lazuli tinkled softly, and earrings made with ancient beads from “Roman excawations.” At the end of the unveiling, a profusion of treasures would cover the coffee table in our living room. I never tired of seeing the work and better yet of handling it, wearing it, sculptural, glowing, deeply satisfying as an aesthetic experience that was tactile as well as visual. Her rings in particular became part of my identity.

Resia Schor, silver and gold rings from the 1980s to the 2000s

I also loved to watch my parents at work, in the small “maid’s room” of our Upper West Side apartment. When my father was a teenager, before he went to The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, he had been apprenticed in a kind of medieval guild practice as an engraver and goldsmith, and his gestures at work, with metal as with gouache and brush, were light and deft. My mother had watched him work, she claimed he had taught her some basic skills. After he died she took one course in soldering, but basically she taught herself to make her own work. But her body language at her work was different than his, more determined, she radiated an intense and physical absorption.

Resia Schor, soldering, summer 2002. Video still from Mira Schor, “The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor,” 2003

When my mother was about 8 years old, spending the summer at her grandparents’ house in a small village near Lublin, in Poland, there was a fire next door, always a dangerous event, but all the more so in a small rural community of wooden houses in the early years of the twentieth century. Left alone, as the aunt who was in charge of her ran out with her own small children, my mother decided to save the bedding, so she tied all the pillows up into a sheet, and got her bundle and herself out of the house. Later they could not untie her knot.

This story always seemed metaphoric and predictive of my mother’s strengths and abilities. She was courageous and had presence of mind: when, as she sat with my father and friends in a café in Paris in May 1940 and saw French peasants from the East pushing their belongings and their elderly relatives in wheel-barrows through the streets of Paris, with their livestock in tow, she understood that she, my father, and their friends, poor Jewish émigrés, must leave at once and so, early the next morning, they fled, with only a few lumps of sugar and a change of underwear, a day ahead of Hitler’s army.

English was the fifth language she learned, after Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and French: when I was at summer camp, she once wrote to me “I love you with all my hearth.” One of the important images of my adolescence is of my always very elegant little mother wearing goggles, hair covered in a dirty bandana, face blackened by metal dust, carbon, and red metal polish, wielding a gas-powered torch over a gas burner on our kitchen stove to solder her large silver mezuzahs. Vulcan’s sister at a domestic forge.

The heat of that unquenchable fire inhabits a recurrent dream I have had for many years that the burners on my stove spontaneously alight and like the burning bush, the flame cannot be extinguished and the bush is not consumed.

Video still, “The Tale of the Goldsmith’s Floor.”

In a 1974 letter to his sister Janice, Jack Tworkov wrote about my mother “[…] alone in the house, always fighting loneliness, but better off than most because she has a work in hand and makes a living from it. ” (from The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov). “A work in hand,” those are powerfully meaningful words to describe her and to describe what I feel I learned from her – the importance of dedication to a self-created aesthetic task pursued in daily practice. To have a work in hand gave meaning to her life and to mine and my sister’s.

Resia Schor, c.1928

Resia and Ilya Schor, under the Magnolia tree on the grounds of the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, c.1935

Resia Schor, Student ID, Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, 1930

Resia Schor, Carte d”Eleve, Louvre Museum, 1938

Resia Schor, Provincetown, 1960, photo: Ryszard Horowitz

Resia Schor with Naomi and Mira, from top 1965, 1982, 1985

Richard Howard, “Jewelry by Resia Schor,” Craft Horizons, July/August, 1966

Resia Schor, Gold Pin, c. 1970

Resia Schor, 2005. Photo: Chie Nishio


In Memoriam: Rozsika Parker, Feminist Art Historian and activist

The sad news of the death of British psychotherapist and feminist art historian Rozsika Parker provides the opportunity to bring her work to the attention of anyone interested in feminism, art, and women artists. Parker was a pioneer feminist art theorist and activist from the early 70s to the 90s, often collaborating with the art historian Griselda Pollock.

I consider Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, which Parker and Pollock co-authored, one of the most important books of feminist art theory and history that I ever read: Parker and Pollock examined how art history as a discipline had misogyny at its core, almost as one of its foundational purposes, with all its terms of value strongly gendered to condemn anything that smacked of the so-called feminine, although of course behind the naturalized frame of universalist neutrality. Their second collaboration, Framing Feminism: Art and the Women’s Movement 1970-1985 was and is a great source of information about the feminist art movement in Britain, which sometimes got overwhelmed by the American Women’s Liberation Movement’s belief in its own unique importance. Parker’s The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine is also a very influential and still relevant book, considering how much we now may take for granted that knitting or embroidering or weaving are acceptable media for high art, instead of being seen as crafts or as the hobby of well brought up girls or domestic servants.

Parker was a bit of a mysterious figure for all of us in the United States who admired these books because Griselda Pollock was the public figure of the two in the context of the art world and academia, speaking at many art history symposia here in the US, while Parker continued her feminist activism working as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in Britain. Because it has been possible to follow the development of Pollock’s feminist ideology and aesthetic views in the books she wrote without Parker, I always have been curious about Parker’s role and voice in their collaboration and have tried to intuit it in the way one measures a black star, almost by negation, by what was not Griselda Pollock. I formed an image of a fierce feminism tempered by a compassionate focus on the work and the cultural issues affecting women, in life and in history, rather than the approach which won out in the 1980s, one that negated the “theoretical” existence of the (biologically determined) category “Woman” in favor of an interest in (socially constructed and non-biology specific) gender.

Sadly Old Mistresses and Framing Feminism have long been out of print. I hope that they can be re-issued because the passion and clarity and sheer historical data in these books would be of great interest to young women artists now.


Confessions of a Yellow Dog Democrat

These are not the most positive feeling days, as we contemplate the possibility of an imminent Republican/Tea Party take-over of Congress.

But I can understand why many Obama voters are disappointed. I am too. I think he would have been much more successful with what are now termed/tarred as “liberal” policies. I was depressed that in his October 27 appearance on The Daily Show, he came across dry as dust, he seemed to have forgotten who his target audience was in that context. If this was the chance to energize the youth vote, they may have gone to sleep the earliest since grade school. Not one political comment on how stupid it would be to vote back into power the “folks” most responsible for getting us into this mess (and by the way, Mr. President, PLEASE retire the word “folks,” it was a Bushie expression, time to reinstate “people” as the word to talk about people). And since September 11 in particular I’ve continually been annoyed at how much Democrats have been running scared.

But I’m what’s called a “Yellow Dog Democrat.” In a nutshell, that means I’d vote for a yellow dog before I’d vote for a Republican (see contrast to so-called “Blue Dog Democrats,” officials elected as Democrats but who support policies that are increasingly in line with Republican ideology even as Republicans are being pushed further to the right by the minute — if you check the Wikipedia definition of the “Blue Dogs” scroll down enough to see the link to the Dixiecrats, Southern Democrats who blocked Civil Rights legislation in the ’40s and ’50s).

In recent years my primary contact with people in their twenties and thirties has been as a teacher of MFA students. I’ve grappled with their seeming disaffection from politics, except for the blip of excitement over the election of Barack Obama. Gradually it’s occurred to me that the kind of interest that I have in politics may be as hard for them to relate to, having bought into the idea of the failed 1960s revolutionary left and seeing more and more of the cowardice of the so-called left and the Democratic Party, as it is for them as artists to really be able to inhabit the meaning and languages of painting when they are relentlessly exposed to and told they are in an irreversibly post-medium and trans-disciplinary world. Meanwhile the entropy of too much information (as in art the entropy of too many choices of potential styles and media) has affected their ability to filter and trust sources or dedicate themselves to one belief position. It would seem that my yellow dog views are as quaint as my love of painting.

Some background on my Yellow Dog Politics: my first political memories go back to the Army McCarthy Hearings. We didn’t have a TV so my parents borrowed one in order to watch the hearings. (Refugee parents who had seen what ordinary political repression and fascism could lead to, who cared about history and politics, with family friends affected by the black list). For more on this time period, see Emile de Antonio‘s news-footage only documentary Point of Order, (1964), (available here) and also Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney’s excellent movie on this time period, seen through the lens of the courage of Edward R Murrow. One of my first sharp political memories is from the beginning of the 1960 campaign: watching TV at the home of a neighbor, a sharply witty lady, elegant, well-mannered. When Richard Nixon appeared on the screen, she hissed at the screen image, “I hate you.” That got my attention.

The summer I was fourteen, I watched both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party conventions, gavel to gavel. Republicans: white guys, boring yet scary, racist, super anti-Communist: Barry Goldwater’s campaign Motto: In your heart you know he’s right.” Democratic comeback, “In your guts you know he’s nuts.” Democrats: fascinating characters, the Shakespearean tragedy of Robert F. Kennedy’s tribute to his brother, and down and dirty confrontation about civil rights between racist Southern Democrats and civil rights pioneers, including Fannie Lou Hamer’s testimony before the Credentials Committee , a riveting moment of poignant political courage.

Other childhood memories included the reverence that my parents’ generation held for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Wikipedia isn’t enough to get a sense of the incredible accomplishments and scope of Roosevelt’s career. Wonderful sources of information about Franklin and Elanor Roosevelt are Eleanor and Franklin and Eleanor: The Years Alone, by Joseph Lash and Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933 and Vol 2. The Defining Years: 1933-1938, by Blanche Wiesen Cook, as well as the excellent PBS American Experience documentary, F.D.R. When people voice the need in our time for someone like F.D.R., these sources give you an idea of what that means.

When you listen to F.D.R.’s fireside chats (text only for subject of each one) or his famous speeches, you can’t help but ask, Why can’t this guy be President? What we need now, and for my younger friends, one of the reasons why when I got the chance to vote I registered as a Democrat and proud of it. Please listen and don’t think about this as the past, but as inspiration for the present.
FDR on his foes: “I Welcome Their Hatred”: “We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”

Isn’t this what we’ve wanted to hear Obama say to his enemies and to Wall Street? The election would be a breeze for him and Democrats if he had. Alas, to explain to my friends who are valiantly unwilling to listen to the slightest criticism of Obama, it is against the ground of F.D.R.’s clear, lucid, simply instructive, and yet upbeat voice, that I myself find Barack Obama surprisingly underwhelming as a communicator and as an educator, which would be so important right now. And even in this wacko atmosphere we’re in, I think such a voice could still be effective. It is the change that we so desired.

The F.D.R. clip is one of a group of political speeches that have been as important to my development as a person in the world, therefore not just to my party politics, but to my work and my approach to writing, as any art work.In recent months, I’ve been collecting links to some of these moments of bravery, clarity, and eloquence in the sphere of American politics. There are many more.

For example, as an antidote to today’s most disgusting idiocies, I really recommend listening to Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which he delivered at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, a year exactly before his assassination. It is brilliant, intellectual, historic, piercing.

& Hubert Humphrey’s speech at the 1948 Democratic Party Convention in support of Civil Rights. One should never let the turmoil and tragedy of the 1968 Presidential election obscure Humphrey’s fundamental decency and immense accomplishments for the public good.

Or listen to JFK’s September 12, 1960 Speech on Religion and Politics Part 1: Separation of Church and State .

Or more extraordinary, Robert F. Kennedy’s speech in Indianapolis the night Martin Luther King was assassinated. The most extraordinary thing about this speech, other than the precarious modesty and danger of the physical situation, as well as Kennedy’s courage and presence of mind in a hauntingly shocking moment, comes at the end:

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget/falls drop by drop upon the heart,/until, in our own despair,/against our will,/comes wisdom/through the awful grace of God.”…. Let us dedicate to ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

What politician today would either be able to quote Aeschylus or would respect their (inner-city African-American) audience enough to think they could appreciate and respond to poetry? It is frequently noted that Indianapolis was one of the few cities in the US that did not experience rioting that night.

And Teddy, let ’em have it, on Healthcare in 1978 and in 2008. “UNIVERSAL COMPREHENSIVE COVERAGE”

And it’s not only historical figures in the good old days:  Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) on Health Reform, in 2009

So I’m still for the party of FDR, JFK, RFK, LBJ, of Ted Kennedy, and also of Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Sam Ervin, and Barbara Jordan. All dead you say? Well then I’m for the party of Senators Al Franken, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and of Russ Feingold of Wisconsin (fingers crossed he wins on Tuesday). I asked my Facebook friends to name some current Democratic Senators, Representatives, or candidates that they admire or that they just think are decent and doing as good a job as they can, and I am grateful for their responses which so far include Senator Feingold, and also Senators Bernie Sanders (OK, Independent but votes with the Democratic Caucus) and Patrick Leahy, both of Vermont, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Representatives Ed Markey of the 7th District of Massachusetts, John Lewis of the 5th Congressional District, Georgia, and 1st District CT Congressman John Larson. I’m not saying they’re perfect, but they are pretty damn decent, are more likely to vote for civil rights and for the interests of the middle class and poor than for corporations despite the necessicity of corporate money, they are even occasionally courageous, and generally not bats#!t crazy. Even if I say that I think Obama was as dry as dust on The Daily Show given the audience he was trying to reach, I’ll still take dry as dust, intelligent, thoughtful, professorial about policy and committed to some concept of political cooperation and politeness even to the point of timidity any day over lying, race-baiting, drown the government in a bathtub, super-money fueled bats#!t crazy (see incredible rogues’ gallery of Republican Tea Party candidates).

I hope you will take a look at my recent posts here and on Huffington Post, Lowering the Bar on Activism and Corroding Infrastructure 2010/Robert Smithson’s Writings on Entropy, 1966-67.