Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Quartet: Chamberlain / Frankenthaler / Rivers / Havel

Last Wednesday, the sculptor and plastic artist John Chamberlain passed away. He was 84. I always think of him as Mr. Crushed Cars, though he worked in media other than, well, crushed scrap metal from cars. But what he could do with car parts! I often perceive a physical lightness (akin to the wittiness of their names) in his sculptures that is quite at odds with the weightiness of their materials and materiality.  Interstellar flowers, often brightly, crazily colored, gracing our world. Here are a few images of his sculptures.
BIG E (© 2001 John Chamberlain / Artists Rights Society (ARS))
Taffeta Coupé (© PaceWildenstein, 1999)
Imagescrimmage, 2007 (image courtesy of:
Untitled, c. 1961 (image courtesy of:
Also leaving the world was Helen Frankenthaler, one of the New York School's major figures, an adept of Clement Greenbergian formalism, whose career spanned the entire second half of the 20th century. She was 83, and a pioneer in "stain painting" untreated canvas. I had no  idea that she was conservative in her leanings and even participated, as a friend's email relayed, in helping to shut down the National Endowment of the Arts's grants for visual arts when she went on record criticizing several of the grantees, including Andrés Serrano. Bad politics, to my mind, yet there is, however, the art.  I have seen some of the paintings in person, and find them quite beautiful, lyrical, enchanting.  To reframe a point made by another artist in a forwarded email, does Frankenthaler's formalism provoke thoughts about the politics of form, and if so, what politics (and ideology) does her formalism suggest?  Some images:

The Bay, 1963 (© Detroit Institute of Arts via Detroit Free Press)
Nature Abhors a Vacuum, 1973 (© National Gallery of Art, Washington)
Bacchus, 2002 (© Knoedler and Company, New York)
Driving East, 2002 (© Knoedler and Company, New York)
 Mauve Bag, 1979 (© Helen Frankenthaler, Morgan Library, NY)

Geoffrey J. noted that another figure who passed recently was the saxophonist Sam Rivers, one of the brightest lights in New York's loft jazz scene of the 1970s. His Studio Rivbea, on Bond Street in the East Village, open from 1970 till 1979, was one of the major sites places to catch him and others during this period.  A native of Oklahoma who grew up in Chicago, Rivers was 88, and began playing free improvisations in the late 1950s, eventually working in combos with Miles Davis, Cecil Taylor, Dave Holland, Dizzy Gillespie, and many other greats.  He could turn his tenor saxophone inside out, offering dazzling improvisations that the videos below give hints of, but he also could make music on a range of instruments, and could set the pace in a variety of styles. he In recent years he was living in Florida, and revived his Rivbea Orchestra.  Now, those videos:

Sam Rivers and Dave Holland, Pisa, 1980

Sam Rivers Quartet 1989 - Beatrice

Sam Rivers Trio, 1979 - Germany

Sam Rivers and the Rivbea All-Star Orchestra, rehearsing, 1998

Sam Rivers and the Orlando Rivbea Orchestra, 2010

Jazz at Lincoln Center, JazzStories podcast, 2011


Lastly, an artist who put his career on hold in the service of freedom, others' and his own, Václav Havel (1936-2011), the playwright and former president of what was then the new post-Soviet Czechoslovakia, and what is now the Czech Republic, has passed away. He was 75. The scion of a wealthy family that was targeted by the post-World War II Czech Communist regime, Havel was denied the opportunity initially to study the humanities, yet later took a correspondence course and trained in the theater, developing his skills as a playwright in the early 1960s before becoming, after the Prague Spring period in 1968 one of his country's leading dissidents, ending up in jail and continually persecuted until the winter of 1989 and the fall of the old order. With his country's transition to democracy, he became its leader.  His tenure was rocky, through no fault of his ideas or ideals; politics, he knew and relearned, are difficult and often complicated, and with an opponent as dogmatic and deadset as Václav Klaus, he had a battle on his hands.  As a playwright he had often captured this difficulty, this complexity, ad absurdum: now he was living it. His tenure ended finally in 2003; he wrote an autobiography, and returned to dramaturgy as well.

One of Havel's greatest and most enduring works is his 1978 essay, "The power of the powerless," in which he says, in words prefiguring the transformations his own nation witnessed nearly two and a half decades ago, and that we are again seeing across the globe over the last few years:

 For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?

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