Thursday, October 21, 2010


In addition to gorging on the performing arts in London last week, we also partook of the visual kind.  Here's how we spent one afternoon, at the Turner Prize exhibition:
Turner Prize 2010
Since 1984, the Turner Prize has been Britain's most prestigious arts competition.  The prize is awarded to an artist under 50, born, living or working in Britain, for an outstanding exhibition in the year through April.  Beginning in October, the finalists, as picked by a jury, have their work exhibited at Tate Britain. (That's the Tate with neither the smokestack nor the 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds.) Then, in December -- drumroll -- a winner will be picked.

It's a big deal in Britain. Like the Whitney Biennial, the reviewers usually have a field day with their criticism. But also like the Biennial, the Turner Prize gets press coverage and is fiercely argued about in art circles.  Even Ladbrokes and William Hill, the British betting shops, post odds on the Turner Prize contestants.

In earlier years, some of the prizewinners have gone on to fame, fortune, and, in some cases, notoriety, including Howard Hodgkin (1985), Gilbert & George (1986), Anish Kapoor  (1991), Rachel Whiteread (1993), Antony Gormley  (1994), and Damien Hirst (1995).

Four artists were short-listed this year and have their work on display now at Tate Britain.  That is, three rooms have art on display; one room is totally empty. There is absolutely nothing to see in this room, because it's exhibiting an aural piece of art.  Yes, you can actually look at this artwork with your eyes closed. Or you can stare at the bare walls and listen to recordings of the "artist," Susan Philipsz, singing folk songs over loudspeakers.  The program describes these songs as "aural interventions."  Well, as Samuel Goldwyn said, include me out. Susan is on my really really short list. Yet, weirdly enough, The Guardian lists Philipsz in second place in the betting. Go figure.

Dexter Dalwood: Burroughs in Tangiers
Dexter Dalwood: Death of David Kelly
Leading the betting is the painter Dexter Dalwood, former member of a punk rock band. Well, maybe not an oil-on-canvas painter, but a painter-collagist.  In any event, and this is radical among Turner Prize finalists, there are images in frames that can be hung on a wall. How radical!  Not only that, but I actually liked some of them.

More evocative of my perception of a leading-edge art contestant is The Otolith Group. Their entries are long, pretentious videos that are explained in the catalog, but both the videos and the explanations left me struggling.  It was here that I started to appreciate aural interventions. Otolith is in last place among the oddsmakers.
Angela de la Cruz: Clutter I

Finally, there is Angela de la Cruz.  What she is doing is worth discussing. Her point of departure, according to the program notes, is that she 

"breaks the stretchers of her canvases...she becomes occupied with liberating painting from the sacred boundaries of its support, allowing it to expand from the flat picture plane into a third dimension."

Angela de la Cruz: Deflated IV
As is so frequent in the arts today, what seems innovative has often been done before.  In literature, in its most blatant form, this is called plagiarism. (Tom Lehrer: Let no one else's work evade your eyes, plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize.)

In the visual arts, it's considered less as copying and more as flattering:  building, if you will, on the shoulders on giants. Appropriation, it's called.  And what Angela de la Cruz has done is to build on, to emulate, to pay tribute to, or to appropriate what American artist Sam Gilliam did more than a generation earlier. In the 1960s, Gilliam became the first painter to introduce the idea of an unsupported canvas. From his WikiPedia entry:
Sam Gilliam: Double Fashion

He works on stretched, draped, and wrapped canvas, and adds sculptural 3D elements. He is recognized as the first artist to introduce the idea of a painted canvas hanging without stretcher bars ...Around 1965 Gilliam became the first painter to introduce the idea of the unsupported canvas. He was inspired to do this by observing laundry hanging outside his Washington studio. This was the first of its kind and was of huge influence throughout the art world. His drape paintings were suspended from ceilings, arranged on walls or floors, and they represent a sculptural, third dimension in painting.
Sam Gilliam

The two italicized passages are remarkably similar. In both: removing the canvas from the stretcher and adding a third dimension.

Angela is doing something imaginative, and does it OK.  But Sam imagined it first, and does it brilliantly.

There you have it.  In December we'll know who wins -- the aural artist, the painter-collagist, the videographer, or the emulator.  Here's the betting from Oct. 7 poll in The Guardian:

And you thought the Super Bowl was big.

Letter from London -- A Little Art

In addition to gorging on the performing arts, we also partook of the visual kind.  Some impressions:

TURNER PRIZE   Since 1984, the Turner Prize has been awarded to an artist under 50, born, living or working in Britain, for an outstanding exhibition in the year through April.  Beginning in October, the finalists, as picked by a jury, have their work exhibited at Tate Britain. (That's the Tate with neither the smokestack nor the 100 porcelain million sunflower seeds.) Then, in December -- drumroll -- a winner is picked.

It's a big deal in Britain. Like the Whitney Biennial, the reviewers usually have a field day with their criticism. But also like the Biennial, the Turner Prize gets covered and fiercely argued about in art circles.  Even the .

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


We've just returned from London. Eight days of theater, art, dining, and enjoying some of the best eight days of London weather in memory–pleasant temperatures, not a drop of rain. Were we really in London? Is this what climate change is all about -- extreme pleasantness? The eight days included six theater performances, a dinner at the British Museum with trustees, dignitaries, and American friends of the Museum, and a 35th wedding anniversary party at Annabel's.  It was my first time back to Annabel's in a couple of decades, and little has changed. Well, one thing had changed. Men no longer need neckties.

Getting to London from New York wasn't half the fun, as the old Cunard ad used to promise, but it wasn't bad.  In fact, I'm about to do something unusual -- praise an airline other than one that flies to an emirate or to Singapore. We took a relatively new service of British Airways that has made flying to Europe about as painless as it gets nowadays. It was on a 32-passenger, all business-class, fully-flat-seat Airbus 318 that lands at London City Airport. Much closer to center of town, London City Airport is the un-Heathrow. No crowds, no waits, no unpleasantness – it's almost like flying into a private airport.

But the most unusual aspect of the round-trip was the return flight, which left from London City Airport. An hour after departure, the aircraft stops in Shannon, Ireland, for a 45-minute refueling (the departing runway is too short to allow the aircraft to take off with a full fuel load). Now that sounds like a downer, doesn't it --  landing just after you take off? However, there's a silver lining. During the interval on the ground, passengers go through US customs, thus permitting landing at JFK at the domestic terminal.  No unpleasant the JFK customs experience, and no long waits for baggage (with only 32 passengers).

Passion -- Donmar Warehouse -- 2010
PASSION  Though we went to the theater six times, we saw just five different shows. The theatrical highlight of the trip, and the show we had to see again, was Passion. First produced on Broadway in 1994, this musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James LaPine (book and direction) won Tony awards that year for best musical, score, book, and actress (Donna Murphy). It was based on an 1869 book, "Fosca," by the Italian writer Uginio Ugo Tarchetti, and a 1981 movie,"Passione d'Amore," by Ettore Scola.

Taking place in mid-19th-century Italy, Passion traces Giorgio as he gradually and improbably shifts his love from Clara, his gorgeous, voluptuous, married mistress, to the sepulchral, sick and obsessive Fosca.  Unlikely?  Absolutely.  But through the magic of the music, lyrics and book, the improbable becomes possible.  Giorgio realizes that the only true love is one that is unconditional. Thus he breaks off his romance with the beautiful Clara, who has put conditions on continuing their relationship. Georgio asks Clara

You think that this is love?
Love isn't so convenient.
Love isn't something scheduled in advance,
Not something guaranteed you need
For fear it may pass you by.
You have to take a chance,
You can't just try it out.
What's love unless it's unconditional?

And Fosca asks Georgio

Would Clara give her life for you?
...I would live,
And I would die for you.

And Giorgio, in realization of Fosca's love, tells her

No one has ever loved me
As deeply as you.
No one has truly shown me
What love could be like until now.

We and the rest of the audience watch for an uninterrupted hour forty-five minutes in rapt concentration. No one stirs.

In addition to the terrific cast (Elena Roger, David Thaxton and  Scarlett Strallen) and direction (Jamie Lloyd), the emotional impact of the evening is heightened by the fact that this small musical is being performed in the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse, in effect a chamber show in a chamber theater. A perfect match. Sitting a few feet away from the actors, who perform with no microphones and no amplification, the viewer gets a completely different experience from that in the typical large theater, sitting a distance from the stage, and listening to voices emanate from loudspeakers.

Seeing it once just wasn't enough. We changed our plans. Five days later we returned, enjoying it even more the second time.

DEATHTRAP  This comedy thriller was written by Ira Levin, a New Yorker whose previous works included the films Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives. On Broadway, Deathtrap ran for 1,793 performances and starred Michael Caine in the leading role. It was also a successful movie.  Our main reason for seeing this otherwise modest show was to marvel in the performance of one of the consummate stage actors of our time, Simon Russell Beale. He is a force of nature.

HOUSE OF GAMES  Originally a movie by David Mamet, one of our favorite playwrights, screenwriters and directors, this stage version at the Almeida Theatre was only moderately entertaining. But I happen to like plays and movies that involve cons and stings, so I probably enjoyed this more than the work itself or the acting would merit.

LOWER NINTH  A short, three-person drama that is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Played in a tiny theater off-off-West End, the entire action takes place on the roof of a flooded house in the lower ninth ward just days after the storm. It had a short run in New York off-off-Broadway a couple of years ago. Fine acting, emotional, worth seeing.  

YES, PRIME MINISTER  Based on the very funny 1980s television series, this spoof on British governance was amusing. Yet an hour later, it was out of mind.  A pleasant trifle. Perhaps it works better as a half-hour British television series than as a two-hour-plus West End production.

What we didn't catch and wish we had:  We saw Hamlet on Broadway last year with Jude Law, and recently re-watched both the Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh films.  As a result, we're Hamlet-satiated.  So we passed on seeing this new National Theatre modern-dress production of the melancholy Dane. But what we heard from a friend in the theater who saw it last week: "The first act was the finest theater I've seen in 50 years.” Next trip, perhaps.

Monday, October 11, 2010