Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Tale of Two Exhibitions: The 2019 Whitney Biennial

Earlier this summer, I had the immense pleasure of viewing the 2019 Whitney Biennial, which is still running, for a few more weeks (until September 22, 2019), at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It was not only a better show than the 2017 installment, I thought, but in essence two different exhibits in one, I ultimately argued, in a review now out for Art in America. The second of the two exhibits became possible, however, only after the Whitney resolved a festering crisis that had underpinned the exhibit--and the institution itself as a whole. In fact, the revolt that occurred, creating the new exhibition, necessitated that I rewrite the laudatory first review I'd drafted.

The qualitative differences between the two exhibits, whether visually evident or not, resonate throughout the work on display, throughout the museum's spaces itself, as a shift in ethos and an aura, however temporary. I won't replay my entire essay, which underwent a great deal of editorial distilling (so many thanks to Will Ratik and his editorial team at Art in America), so here is the link to the full essay, "The Whitney Biennial: A Tale of Two Exhibitions," and a paragraph from it, in which I argue for further action by the exhibits artists and, I would assert, artists working in all media, including literature.

I believe we are at the moment when the artists should be encouraged to actively trouble the “circuits of valorization,” as prior generations of artists have done. I say trouble rather than disrupt, since the latter term has taken on particular connotations in the language of neoliberal capitalism, particularly in Silicon Valley and Wall Street. But what might the effects be of such a troubling on the lives and careers of today’s artists, especially those who, like many of this year’s biennial participants, come from groups, intersectionally understood, that have been traditionally excluded from participation in exhibitions such as this, as well as from elite art schools and institutions, and from the global gallery, art fair, and auction networks? What would more extensive rethinking, dismantling, and transformation of those circuits look like? How much energy and effort can and ought they expend in understanding and critiquing the ecosystem in which they are working? From an ethical standpoint, can they forgo such an undertaking, whatever the cost?
If you can, please see the exhibit before it goes, and do leave your thoughts on the Biennial and my review in the comments section if you'd like.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

American Academy of Arts & Letters Ceremonial 2019 & Award

Six years ago, back in 2013, I blogged about attending the American Academy of Arts & Letters' annual Ceremonial award celebration. I was the guest of a friend and colleague, Dorothy Wang, who was a guest of an award-winner, the poet Joanna Klink, and though I had seen some of its award winners and awards I'd seen listed over the years, I had no idea about the organization or where it headquarters were located, let alone about its awards. In fact, I often mistook it for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which is located in Cambridge, not New York; they are two similar but distinct organizations. The latter encompasses the sciences and is more of a scholarly honors organization, while the latter primarily focuses, as its name suggests, on arts and letters.

Aububon Terrace (photo by C)
In my previous post, I gave a potted history of the AAAL:
It's an august institution too: a closed honor society of 250 members selected and elected by standing members without outside nomination, it grew out of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, founded in 1898, consisting eventually of 200 members, from which the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a smaller and more elite sub-organization of 50 of the most eminent figures in their fields, emerged in 1904. US President William Howard Taft signed a Congressional act that incorporated the Institute of Arts and Letters in 1907, and the Academy in 1916. In 1976 the two organizations merged, and in 1993, all 250 members merged into one entity now known as the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I also mentioned some of its members and the day's award-winners, a few like my former graduate school professor and thesis advisor E. L. Doctorow no longer with us, so won't recapitulate that earlier blog post, but I will say that uncanny pleasure of once again attending a Ceremonial up at Audubon Terrace in Washington Heights, this year, as a recipient, having received the Harold T. Vursell Award in Fiction. This award is given to a writer specifically based on the quality of their prose. (!) J's Theater readers will note my often baroque stylings (and typos, forgive me) here, and perhaps ponder why I was designated a recipient of this prize, but it was primarily for Counternarratives, in which my rhetorical and syntactic play was, I think it fair to say, at its most daring, and so I took the honor as an affirmation of what I attempted in that book, though I also think it's probably not wrong to suggest that all of my published books have in them some sort of experimentation when it comes to prose or verse, and that when it works, it is at least distinctive if nothing else.

As an award recipient, I was invited to a pre-Ceremonial reception and luncheon, which C attended with me, as did my New Directions editor and publisher, Barbara Epler, and I had the opportunity there to tell Jamaica Kincaid once again how much of a fan I was and am. Her prose, as well as her inventiveness as a storyteller and novelist, have been among many powerful influences on my own work. I also had the opportunity to chat with a few fellow award winners or new members, including poets Aracelis Girmay, fellow former Dark Room member Natasha TretheweyMarilyn Chin, Claudia Rankine, and Grace Schulman, and fiction writers Alice Hoffman, Lorrie Moore and my collegue Jayne Anne Phillips, who was elected to the AAAL a few years ago. After the luncheon, as before it, C and I viewed some of the art and literary materials, by members and recipients on display.

One of the more fascinating rooms featured the photos of all the prior and present members, lined up in rows in stall-like spaces. The original members were, unsurprisingly, all white men, a great many of them legendary names in American culture, which got me wondering who had not been a member yet produced work that today we hold in high esteem (F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name one, Ernest Hemingway to name another); on the other hand, many of the names would not register at all to contemporary sensibilities. At a certain point, a few white women's faces pop up, and then, slowly, the further we progressed into the 20th century, there were more white women, a few black writers, like W. E. B. DuBois (was he the first?) and Langston Hughes, and then black classical composers and jazz musicians, Asian American, Latinx, and Native American writers' portraits appear (see the photos below). The Academy's members still strongly reflect the upper reaches of the preponderantly New York-and-northeastern based world of architecture, visual arts, literature, and European-American art music, but the awardees have begun to diversify somewhat more, or so I was told. Certainly this year's winners were more racially and generationally diverse than I recall from 2013.

In one of the rooms featuring paintings
bequeathed by American Impressionist
F. Childe Hassam (photo by C)
One of the rooms in the American Academy
 headquarters  (photo by C)
Members and honorees assembling on stage
 (photo by C)
Once the Ceremonial began, I took my numbered seat on the stage, between Jamaica Kincaid and poet D. A. Powell, also a prize recipient; to his left sat our presenter and a member of the committee that selected us, poet Henri Cole. A row behind me sat Eileen Myles, among others. A number of illustrious members, like sculptors Martin Puryear and Richard Hunt, whom I mentioned in my prior post, and honorees like Meredith Monk and Thelma Golden, were seated in the front row.  This year's recipient of the Gold Medal for Literature, the Academy's highest honor, Toni Morrison, and the Gold Medal for Art, Lee Bontecou, were unable to attend, and so were fulsomely lauded by their presenters. One highlight of this year was the Blashfield Lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici, once a controversial figure in the American classical music world and now a venerable and venerated elder. Del Tredici's lecture, "The Task of Gayness," explored his coming into his own in his field, and out as a gay man, with humor and concision. Were he to write a memoir, I'd most certainly buy it.

A photo of me walking to receive
my award from Henri Cole (photo by C)
Receiving my award from Henri Cole
(Photo by C)
At the conclusion of the awards ceremony, which ran roughly an hour, another reception unfolded, on a bright and sunny but thankfully not hot afternoon, which afforded us an opportunity to speak with more writers, editors, artists, and others in attendance. It was, all in all, a lovely afternoon, and many thanks to the Academy jury for the award!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

My Appearance on State of the Arts NJ

Last fall, Susan Wallner of the wonderful TV program State of the Arts New Jersey contacted me about possibly producing a short clip about my work and me. I am always a bit wary about such efforts, as I would always rather have my work do the speaking for me, but since there was a possibility that SOANJ would feature my students, teaching and Rutgers-Newark, I thought I'd go along with it. The filming occurred in early November, and again in late February, and I can say without hesitation that Susan and her crew were a pleasure to work with, from start to finish.

Many, many thanks to them and everyone at State of the Arts New Jersey who made this possible. Many thanks also to superb critic and writer Julian Lucas, and to Poet Laureate of the US, Princeton professor, poet extraordinaire, and my former Dark Room Collective compatriot Tracy K. Smith for their kind, insightful comments on my work and me. Also a very hearty thank you to my MFA students, who agreed to be filmed, and sparkled (as they always do) on camera, and to everyone at Rutgers-Newark who greenlighted the filming. 

I am so shy and self-conscious I could not initially bear to look at it (I needed but did not get a haircut before the February filming), but C told me it came out very well, and pointed out that Susan and her team had even threaded a Bob Cole tune through the video, a lovely touch, of course, and tribute to one of the artistic figures I explore in Counternarratives. The show aired last week, and though we've been DVRing the episodes and keeping an eye out for it, we also missed its debut airing! Here, for those who do not regularly watch State of the Arts New Jersey, is the short video. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

14th Blogiversary

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Fourteen years ago, on February 27, 2005, I began blogging at J's Theater. I was regularly reading the blogs of friends and writers, artists, political commentators, and others I'd never met but felt a desire to be in conversation with, and so I started this blog. I viewed it as a creative and cultural space, with far less emphasis on politics and responsive to the news cycle--which has sped up incalculably more these days now that Facebook and Twitter have taken off--than it has assumed at various points. More than anything, however I wanted it to be a site where I could try thoughts and ideas out, imperfect as they might be, without the usual concern of perfection or even the struggle, customary as well, to get them into print. (My entire writing career has entailed a struggle to get my work into print.)

From writing about poetry and poets, like Jay Wright, as I did in my first post, to my life and experiences at the university (which has become a new university over the years I've blogged), to reviews of books and films, to snippets about Black history, art and culture, and history, art and culture over all, to translations from Portuguese, Spanish, French, and, I sometimes am amazed to admit, Dutch and German, to posts about rugby, track and field and other less popular (in the US imagination, at least) sports, my iPhone and iPad sketches, and on and on, J's Theater has provided an ideal space for me to explore, (mostly--haha!) pressure-free, as I see fit. It also has served as a site of documentation at times for cultural activities, and especially was so during my decade in Chicago, which wasn't even a decade ago but feels like a lifetime has passed between then and now.

I've repeatedly debated whether to keep blogging or to quit. One great frustration after the earliest years (2005-2008 or so) was the sharp drop off in comments, which were for a while replaced by spam, which disappeared (thanks, Blogger?), only to reappear in recent years with a vengeance. It thankfully is very easy to delete these days, but that requires its own dedicated attention. Far more pressing were my academic responsibilities, which have grown to include 12-month administrative duties that devour more mental space and energy than I ever imagined. I don't think it's any surprise that before this year, 2014, the first year I became a department chair (acting during that year) and 2017, just before my last sabbatical, saw the fewest posts. It was not for lack of interest, but time and vigor.

Not so long ago, we were told that blogging was dead. No one blogged, everyone had moved to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. And Tumblr, which was and is a blogging platform that in essence mostly deprioritized words. (It also has banned not just pornography, but nudity in general, that's another matter.) And Instagram, which is all pictures (for the most part). And Snapchat, of course. Now there's Tiktok, and other walled gardens. One thing I loved and still do about blogging (though to its credit, Twitter also is almost fully public) via Blogger, WordPress and similar sites is that whatever you published was and remains visible to all; a private company does own this platform, but the blog remains more a public square-style venue than many other options out there. For good and ill, of course. The dazzlingly brilliant Kegur'o M, who continues to blog at Gukira: Without Predicates, is a stellar example of the good that can come from a blogger at the top of their game.

But that public aspect is one that I cherish, and one reason I hope to continue blogging. I also wish some of my old blogging friends, many listed on the blogroll to the right, and other bloggers I never interacted with but who've given up blogging, would start up again. No shade against Medium, but before ideas are fully polished, why not bounce them off readers on a blog? You can always--well, so far--revise as you go.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Random Photos

It has been a while since I posted anything beyond holiday greetings; the end of last year was particularly busy and the new one is turning out to be even more so. Nevertheless, here are some photos from the end of 2018, and, I hope, a sign of more new posts to come.

"Little Favela": Graffiti on a construction barrier
 surrounding part of NYU's campus,
Silver Towers in the background
In the downstairs sanctum (I got permission before taking the photos)
at James Laughlin's home in Norfolk, CT, with first
editions of countless New Directions Books
(Daniel Javitch, a longtime NYU professor and Laughlin's
son-in-law, is the on the right)
"All Those Ships That Never Sailed," one of
my favorite Bob Kaufman poems, which I recited
many years ago at a remarkable tribute to Kaufman
that the Dark Room Collective held for him in
Cambridge; this was the first poem he recited
after ending his multiyear vow of silence
"My heart is in my / pocket
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy,
from Frank O'Hara, "A Step Away
from Them," Lunch Poem (New
Directions, 1954)--probably the
edition depicted here
The beautiful Norfolk, CT public library's interior
The Richardsonian Romanesque exterior of the
Norfolk Public Library
Construction in Jersey City, or Can They
Fit Yet Another Glass Tower into a Tiny Footprint?
At Newark Airport (when the metaphor
becomes the objective correlative, just saying)
On the campus of the University of Virginia,
where I read in the fall, and where I spent
two eventful years in the early 1990s
Workers spiffing up the walkway
on the Lawn dorms, University of Virginia
Updating the Lawn walkways to make them
The walkway into my former workplace
building at U.Va., Bryant Hall (the English
Department has since moved to a newer,
larger building)
The rear of Bryant Hall, where, on my first day back in 1993,
the professor in the office next to mine learned I was
the new employee and loudly proclaimed, "It's Hell!"
There are signs and warnings that we should always
pay attention to, and that most certainly is one....
A fascinating exhibit on a historical homesite owned by
free African Americans in the very area near where
part of U.Va.'s campus now sits
More images from the exhibit about this
free Black family
Artifacts from the era
More about the history of the area,
racial relations, and the University of
Virginia in the exhibit, U.Va.
Sculpture in front of the New Orleans
Museum of Art
Mercer Street, West Village
Workers, at night
The fields and treeline near
Meadow House, James Laughlin's
estate, in Norfolk, CT
through a windowscreen
At the new World Trade Center
 stop on the 1 (I think), with its graphic
white wall
A talk at the New Orleans Museum of Art,
during the ASAP/10 Conference, New Orleans
One of the striking art works on exhibit,
"Eleventh," 2018, by Lina Iris Viktor, 24 carat gold,
acrylic, ink, gouache, copolymer resin,
print on matte canvas,
New Orleans Museum of Art
With my formers Northwestern colleagues, Brian
Edwards, now a dean at LSU, and Andrew Leong,
now at the University of California-Berkeley
Some of the books on display at the
ASAP Conference
Daphne Brooks delivering her keynote
at the ASAP Conference in New Orleans
In Brooklyn, near Pratt Institiute
C, in Manhattan
Outside the Leslie-Lohman Gallery,
The Trump balloon sculpture at the Downtown for
Democracy Protest Factory event, at
Jeffrey Deitch in SoHo

Dale Peck, reading at the Downtown for
Democracy Protest Factory event he organized, at
Jeffrey Deitch in SoHo
The deflated Trump balloon
Remember the 2018 elections?
They turned out pretty well,
all things considered.
Tisa Bryant, delivering the Leslie Scalapino Lecture
in Innovative Poetics, "In Search of a Free
State: Black Womanhood in the Archive
of Dreams," at Pratt Institute

At the University of Iowa, participating
in a conversation on translation with Bruna
Dantas Lobato and Katrina Dodson
(amazing translators!)
So bizarre; New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was on
my flight to Newark but it turned out she was headed
to Anaheim (or somewhere near there in southern California),
yet for some strange reason she was allowed to
board our plane, and had to be escorted off when
she realized she was headed in the wrong,
completely opposition direction
Eric M. B. Becker of Words Without Borders
in conversation with Brazilian journalist Isabel Lucas
on her multi-genre book Journey to the Heart
of the American Dream: America By the Book
at the Pessoa International Festival, NYC
Signing the Swedish contract for
Counternarratives (the translation
will soon be done!)
At the Fire Ball 2018: "Wakanda Forever," in Newark

On the 1 Train, with a "Respect" sign
honoring Aretha Franklin, at Franklin Street
With the fellows in the 2018-19 Lower Manhattan
Cultural Council program, where I gave a talk
on the Emotional Outreach Project
In the studio of the one of the artists
n the Lower Manhattan
Cultural Council's fellowship program
The Oculus and atrium,
at the World Trade Center, NYC
Lower Manhattan, with One World Trade Center,
with seagulls in the foreground, in Hoboken
Robert DeNiro, introducing Angie
Thomas's The Hate U Give
People feeding the gulls and other seabirds,
at the Hoboken Station

A homeless encampment (under that black
cloth), downtown Jersey City
(luxury towers are just steps away)
Late winter Washington Square Park
piano performance
Scrumptious homemade butternut
squash soup (with lots of grated cheese!)
for cold December
C making pasta at home (it
was absolutely delicious)