A few months ago in the New Yorker, essayist John McPhee recalled an exchange with his editor at Playboy in 1970, Arthur Kretchmer, about whether to remove a certain reference in a draft he’d submitted.
The title of Fred Moten’s latest collection, The Little Edges, pinpoints the border country where his poetry unfolds.
When I recall the poet Harvey Shapiro, who died not long before his eighty-ninth birthday in January 2013, I remember having lunch with him on a sweltering August afternoon in 2001, New York City’s hottest day in twenty-five years, or so the radio said.
The life of French photographer Charles Marville, the subject of a retrospective currently at the Metropolitan Museum, comes down to us hazy in its contours. Born Charles-François Bossu in 1813 to a family of artisans and tradesmen, Marville rid himself of “Bossu” (hunchback) after being teased about it at school, but the import of his chosen pseudonym is unknown.
“At the height of my career covering conflicts,” reflects American photojournalist David Leeson (b. 1957), “I truly believed, deeply and passionately, that there existed a series of photographs, or a single photograph, that could end war. I wanted to find that one photo.”
In its first iteration in London, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, the survey now on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, bore the edgier title Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. We may not customarily think of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) — founded in secret in September 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and soon attracting other artists — as an avant-garde, but the label does seem apt. The PRB painters and their affiliated artists were an embattled band of refuseniks, rejecting the standard practices of modern painting, and with it modernity itself, as corrupt and unsustainable.
For a call for help, it packs a punch: an outsized yellow fist, raised in salute, all but leaps out of the blue background of Joan Miró’s color stencil “Aidez l’Espagne” (“Help Spain,” 1937). Open-mouthed, the stylized Catalan peasant who dominates the image is an emblem of strength and energy — a rooster crowing, a poet singing. In his paintings of the 1920s and 1930s, Miró achieved an unsettling power by delving into the unconscious, creating yawning expanses suggestive of colorful abysses and symbol-laden dreamscapes strewn with biomorphic forms. But in “Aidez l’Espagne,” he opted for the direct simplicity of graphic propaganda.
Beginning in 1968, in an act of governmental largesse unlikely to be repeated any time soon, the Bureau of Reclamation of the U.S. Department of the Interior invited forty artists, all expenses paid, to create works documenting its water reclamation efforts in the West. Among those asked to participate was Richard Diebenkorn, who traveled in 1970 to the Columbia River valley and Salt River in Arizona for five days of expansive looking, taking in landscape views from a promontory and making several overhead passes in a helicopter. Long fascinated by aerial perspective, he found himself “boggled” by what he saw. “Whenever there was agriculture going on,” he later recalled, “you could see process — ghosts of former tilled fields, patches of land being eroded.”
Poems often groan beneath their encumbrances: weighty metaphors, top-heavy conceits. Which is why I like it when Michael O’Brien, in his most recent book Avenue (FloodEditions), writes of a poem being merely “certain words in / a certain order.” This stripped-down formulation courts a charge of banality or even absurdity — after all, even email spam is made up of words in a specific arrangement — but here it evokes O’Brien’s abiding concern with verbal exactness, even out of the depths of dreaming.
Although Kathleen Fraser has long divided her time between San Francisco and Rome, her most recent collection, movable TYYPE (Nightboat Books), reminds us of her poetry’s New York roots. She glosses the title of the volume’s first poem, “Orologic,” as proposing “a particular time frame for entering memory-life, NYC mid ‘60s / Lower East Side,” and recalls the intoxication of “new push-back urban energies delivered via paint, dance and music specifically American-made as in John Coltrane, John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, Joe Brainard, Joan Mitchell…. Sentences dangled in one’s ear of such surprise you could only seek the solitude of your journal and try to break the code.” What Fraser has taken to transcribing in her poetry is not emotion recollected in tranquility but rather a particular fluttering of the nerves, carried over into the act of writing.
It’s unlikely, half a century from now, that a shadow oeuvre will appear among the personal effects of many contemporary artists, a secret body of work that parallels or even exceeds their public output. This is what happened with the Dutch painter George Hendrik Breitner (1857–1923), whose several thousand photographs emerged from obscurity only in 1961 and might plausibly have been lost forever.
The Spanish artists Patricia Gómez and María Jesús González, who exhibit under the moniker Gómez + González, fashion works from the vestiges of soon-to-be-demolished places. In these architectural spaces, they put their training as printmakers to use, creating monoprints of walls and doorways, using a modified version of strappo, a technique used in the conservation of frescoes. Instead of a copper plate or lithography stone, the matrix for the print is provided by the building itself, whose outer skin is transferred to a thin, transparent fabric. The prints are complemented by photographs and video documenting the process and the sites.