Friday, September 29, 2006

Remembering Scavullo

Last evening, Liz Derringer arranged a party for Sean Byrnes at New World Stages to launch Francesco Scavullo - A Photographic Retrospective, which I gather is the biggest exhibition of his work to date. This follows on the benefit auction of originals at Sotheby's last April. The former movie theater provided a suitably stark backdrop for several series of limited edition, comprising eighty hand-developed silver gelatin prints made from unretouched negatives, under Sean Byrnes' supervision. Togeher, these presented a tour de force of the iconography of the sixties, seventies and eighties, with everyone caught in full bloom at the height of their extremely personal beauty. Of course, every image was arresting, but a few in particular caught my attention downstairs: one of David Hockney's head, another of Andy Warhol with Jed Johnson, a strikingly positioned picture of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth, and another of Carmen Dell'Orefice taken in 1948. Upstairs, people exclaimed softly over the Hollywood Women and Song portfolios, where Lena Horne's smile and Ravi Shankar's eyebrow and the very young and bewigged Liza Minelli shone along with a carefree Susam Sarandon, Goth Deborah Harry, a tidy young Pavarotti, a fresh, laughing Janis Joplin and a very Elizabethan Bette Midler-- all styled with what looks like a light touch today. Of course, it was a really, really good party, and it is remarkable that all of these and many more are available for purchase online.

This portrait of Oriana Fallaci wasn't in the exhibition; it certainly doesn't belong in any of the portfolios -- but it is on, and is of the moment in its way, so I thought I'd put it in here for that and all the other reasons that might come to mind.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

John Van Alstine Outdoors (sort of)

Last Saturday I was exactly where I planned to be and that proved to be very lucky indeed. I don't go to Hudson every
weekend, although I should, but John Van Alstine had sent word of an opening on September 16, at the John Davis Gallery on Warren Street, where some of his life-size (as opposed to indoor) sculptures would be shown. I had missed an "open studio" he held at Wells earlier this summer, with Caroline Ramersdorfer, so although this was not quite the same as seeing the works in an open setting, it was nearby, which made it easier.

When I last saw the John Davis Gallery, it was in the throes of restoration. It is complete, with the carriage house area turned into galleries at three levels. The rope pulleys for the elevator once used to move whatever was manufactured there is now apparently functional, although nobody is sure what it was originally used for.
In the top floor gallery that evening there hung Robert Reitzfeld's sinister B2 Bomber quilts and watercolors, a single silhouette motif variously interpreted, including a series ominously named "Sleep Safe America." and an especially alarming a baby quilt.

Below, Ben Butler's cedar "Beast"
lay coiled at the back,

but the graveled courtyard, or sculpture garden, was otherwise dominated by JVA's works.

There was a soaring "Chalice" rising firmly at an impossible angle, with an elegant small loop at its base denoting a handle-- one of a long series (another "Chalice" seen here is in the park at Wells). John said some people tend to see the vessel inverted, as weaponry landing headfirst. This is not entirely surprising, as an act of recognition, since the cup of the chalice is made from the nose of a fuselage -- in any event, the chalice is not so figurative as to be taken literally either. It was meant to be seen in changing light, impossible after six p.m. in that charming setting, and particularly at this time of year, so I saw little of the effect of the textured surface of the vessel. Certainly, it was interesting to be able to amble around each piece, noticing the precision of composition and accuracy of the alignment of various elements. One guest became fixated on the meaning of the word "Cudgel," as another series is named, and was happy to report eventually that John said the word meant "blunt instrument." Blunt or not, this particular cudgel, weapon, was attractively poised in mid-flght (bang bang JVA's flying slate cudgel came down upon 'is 'ead....) There was another piece, possibly of a new series, that I heard John describe as "Hula," which certainly had a notable swiveling element in its midsection.

With so much poetry of violence and anti-violence in the air, I was perhaps not entirely taken by surprise to be only the second to discover a terrible burglary that same weekend. However, the spirit of violence seemed to move on like the shadow of a cloud across mountains by Monday, as I worked together with two friends, who had been not just Good but also Extremely Clever Samaritans when they caught the burglar red-handed, and not only gotten the necessary information out of him but written it down as well. I did some other stuff, and the New York State Police (as opposed to the Sheriff's Office) valiantly set forth and caught the burglar, threw him in the slammer (aka House of In-Laws in my mother tongue) -- for at least a couple of days before he was out again on bond, but with the stolen items recovered, antique dealers on Warren Street put on notice, and the burglar looking forward to plea bargaining ... This seems truly magical to me, the art of catching burglars. Although I do have a history of catching thieves, once letting a fellow go after giving him the fright of his life, I know I can never do it alone, especially when it comes to burglars, and I would not even have been able to play my part were it not for JVA sending me a post about the opening that particular day at John Davis' gallery!

On Monday, too, my friend Fortuna called to say she was off to see HH the Fourteenth, who, after his travels to Ulan Bator and Ottowa, had landed in the fairy mountains across the river and
driven down to Woodstock to address the peaceful, and was now back at the KTD Monastery in the Catskills. More on this later...

The Sculpture Garden show at John Davis Gallery runs through October 8th.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Anish Kapoor's NYC Sky Mirror

I saw it yesterday by chance, a lucky accident, as I had forgotten it was coming, so it was not in my plans, but I was stopped short on its Fifth Avenue side --which is convex and tilted towards the street, both factors making this its inclusive face. Caught unawares, I was compelled along with many others to stare at it, and at myself and others in it, observing ourselves as never before, all members of the midtown street scene viewed from above. (The windows at Saks, Bendel and Bergdorf don't count; one looks through them, not at them.) The Sky Mirror is a seemingly weightless yet obviously hefty object with extremely fine edges to the segments, which comprise an abstraction of a primitive representation of the sun. It has perfect looking contours, and is set on a friendly, low platform. There is of course no part of the sky reflected on the street side-- those views are seen from its other, concave, and possibly therefore exclusive, private and quirky, upside-down side, with a view of the reversed reflections of Rockefeller Center pointing downward. The raised concave surface gives most people below a miss, eliminating them from the reflection and enabling a more abstracted image for the interior view. The moving sky above or behind appears and changes in surprising ways as one walks around the plaza, because the Sky Mirror itself is variously reflected in shop windows along the promenade, its reflection bright enough to keep one's focus on the surface of the plate glass. One aspect of the Mirror that the stills on this page can't convey is that the reflection is in constant motion, so one is never fooled into thinking that one's eye has captured and held a moment.

I think it's a stretch to say that there is irony involved in seeing the top of 30 Rockfeller Center pointing towards the ground, after 9/11. On the other hand, it does make the top of the building accesible to people on the ground, and is certainly very pretty in its magnification and exploration of symmetry.
It is 33 feet across and weighs 23 tons, as is widely reported, and looks more like a huge blob of mercury than steel, even having been rained on at its unveiling. Will New Yorkers get enough of looking at themselves by October 24?

Strangely, Anirudh Bhattacharyya of CNN-IBN describes this installation as "Indian reaches for Manhattan Skyline," but I could not see any evidence of this, despite Anish Kapoor being a Dosco who took a slightly alternative path. Sky Mirror is but one of a series and if anything, it serves as a preview for the sculpture Anish Kapoor will create for the World Trade Center Memorial.

Click here for a view of AK's 'Cloud Gate' in Chicago.
Pictures from artnet and Architectural Record

Friday, September 08, 2006

Ritu Kumar's Royal India

Cover: Princess Indira Raje Gaekwad of Baroda in 1905

a look inside the book

Kumar opened her first boutique in Kolkata,
off Park Street, in what was then called The Burlington Arcade, what she was doing seemed both obviously patriotic and exceptionally clever. I have a ghagra outfit from those days with a choli and odhni block printed to match in a motif and colors nobody had seen before, yet the fact that it was ready to wear took a lot of attention away from the fact that she was working to keep the art of block printing in future business. As Ritu's reach grew, she drew in many more traditions of fine workmanship into her design fold, and led the way for a new generation of designers to use the vast resources of extraordinary textile work still available from master craftsmen in India -- for new purposes, directly descended from their original use. Until then, the only new application of these arts had been occasional use in European couture, for which leadng designers would occasionally co-opt the craftsmanship for use in Western ornament made to order for non-Indian taste and then only when India happened to be "in." Now, these arts are regaining their vitality as the lifeblood of modern Indian design, which is a very different situation.

Costumes and Textiles of Royal India- When Ritu published this lavish present-
ation of her decades of study
through Christie's Books
in 1999, and shared the depth of her scholarly, historicist expertise so succinctly, this offering sparked and spurred a new movement to revive the development of Indian fashion. Since then, some of the images in this book have become iconic, and several are seen in other contexts online. One online journal,, shows the photograph from the book of Nawab Mansur Ali Khan and Begum Ayesha Sultan of Pataudi, or, if you will, Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore, as if it were their wedding picture. It is not; they were well into their glamorous middle age when it was taken, and she is wearing her mother-in-law's wedding outfit, not her own.

That first edition of Ritu's book went out of print too soon. Now republished by Antique Collectors' Club, this first American edition makes a veritable feast of scholarship readily available again. If I recall corectly, the first edition was so exorbitantly priced as to make one keel over as if hit with a coffee table; this edition is just very expensive, but needs a coffee table underneath anyway, for true convenience of handling and the slightest touch of ease in reading it.

Read the foreword by Martand Singh
Referencing everything from archaeological artefacts to family collections of clothing, as well as minatures of many schools, and oils by a plethora of portraitists, this book delivers a depth of perception rarely seen in any culture, and a range of understanding that should belong to all cultures. It is also beautiful to look at, and there are helpful diagramatic line drawings at the end that show the cut of traditional items of stitched clothing that are customarily worn with additional items of unstitched clothing. This tome is to scarf tying manuals as bobbin lace making is to macrame.

There is too, the presentation of highly worked and ornamented fabric and the use of pattern as an integral part of design and style, not simply decoration. A full text about textile techniques mastered in different parts of India explores seven kinds of resist dyeing, four traditons of print and cloth painting, embroideries and appliques (my aigu key isn't working), finishes, motifs, traditional buttons and fastenings, edgings, facings and types of texturing. As all this goes forward again, Indian fashion is reawakening to resume its place as the oldest, most complex and varied source of textiles and traditional apparel in the world.

Not unexpectedly, the glazed and haunted look of nineteenth and early twentieth century Indian royalty in the many painted portraits is replaced with cheerful vigor and unabashed grace and panache in the contemporary portrait photographs. This, regardless of the loss of privy purses and a multitude of privileges that must have come at a heavy price in lost self-determination.

Ritu deep in thought

Yasho Rajya Lakshmi of Jammu and Kashmir as seen in the book and now on the family web site has less exalted but very attractive offerings available online at incredible prices.
"For centuries India's royalty promoted the skills of spinners, weavers, dyers, printers and embroiderers, commissioning textiles from renowned centres of excellence across the subcontinent. Delicate muslins from Dacca, fine silk brocades from Varanasi, complex woollen weaves from Kashmir – all were transformed into costumes fit for kings.
Acclaimed designer Ritu Kumar's celebration of thousands and years of craft and fashion is one of the most attractive books and a testimony to India‘s astoundingly rich cultural heritage." --ROYALTY MAGAZINE

more about Ritu from