Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Giants went 57-33 before the All Star break. They've gone 23-39 since. 

It's consternating to realize that if they'd only managed to play .500 ball, or 31-31 in the 62 games since the break, they'd be two games ahead of the Dodgers today, at 88-69. Instead, they're six games back at 80-72, with 10 games to play. They don't have a prayer of catching the Dodgers.

How did this happen? Were the injuries to Hunter Pence, Matt Duffy, Joe Panik, Sergio Romo, Matt Cain and Gregor Blanco the reason? Actually, no. Statistically, they played better without these key figures, than they have WITH them! 

Was it the pitching that fell apart? Or was it their anemic hitting? Can a team that hits fewer than 140 home runs, and drives in fewer than 675 runs, win a pennant? This year, the Cubs, who have run away with their division (they're currently 97-55), have 189 homers and 718 RBI's, and could finish with over 200 homers and 760 runs by the end of the year. 

The Giants' strategy of fielding good pitching and weak hitting offenses may have caught up with them this year. 

The team has shown problems in all key areas. Relief pitching, power hitting, situational defense, even managing. Bochy's notion of showing faith in players who are underperforming, or in long slumps, has backfired repeatedly. 

Trading Duffy for Moore was probably not a bad idea, though Moore is not a top-flight starter, despite his one near no-hitter in Los Angeles on August 26th, and he might end up elsewhere in 2017. 

Casilla's days as the closer here are almost certainly numbered. With nine blown saves--enough to sink any contending team's chances--he's thoroughly demoralized a team desperately in need of relief support in close games. 

For my money, the season's over. Even if the Giants were to qualify as a wild card, their chances of competing against the Cubs, or the Nationals, appear nil. 

It's been a wild ride this year. First half champions, second half dismal. Which is the real Giants? Has any single player reached his potential this year?

Maybe Johnny Cueto, who is 17-5, but may get only one more start this year. 

Otherwise, not a single player is having a "career year" or even close. The Giants don't have a single player this year who could qualify as a true star. Posey and Crawford and Cueto are having good, not great seasons.  

Imagine what this would have looked like had Posey and Belt and Panik and Crawford and Pagan and Span and Nunez and Samardjiza and Casilla had really good years. We would likely have run away with the prizes, even without decent power. 

For next season, some things will change. Pagan and Nunez are probably gone. Ditto with Cain, Peavy. Casilla too. Panik and Hunter Strickland don't look secure. 

We'll still have a solid starting rotation. But we need a reliable closer, someone who can come in and shut the door for one inning. Someone who can get 40 saves, with an ERA of 2.20 or less, who relishes the challenge.

Bye-bye 2016. The even-numbered year wasn't a charm this time around.

Wait until next year. 

You heard it here.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Still More Variations from the Stainless Steel Counter

In the constantly shifting round-robin of ingredients, inevitably there will be some duplication. How many permutations are possible today, given the number of different kinds of spirits, liqueuers, flavored additives, etc., which one can find on the market? 

Lately, there's been an explosion of taste enhancers, known traditionally as "bitters"--which is to say, a combination of alcoholic base, to which is added (mostly natural) flavor agents, such as various herbs and spices. Just a few years ago, about the only kinds of these products one could find were Angostura Bitters, Peychaud Bitters, and the occasional Orange Bitters. Today, there are dozens of different mixes and brands. Some of these flavors can be created using easily available spirits or "aperitifs" while others can be quite exotic. The bitters craze is partly a renewed interest in the past, when such additives were more common; but it also may be a harbinger of a new more baroque epoch in alcoholic beverages. Variety is the spice of . . . or variety is spice itself. Flavor variation. Subtlety of expression. Difference. Diversity!

Recreations of traditional recipes share billing with new concoctions by bartenders trying to generate curiosity and sales, or by retailers looking to expand their product base. This is all good, assuming you don't object to alcoholic beverages on principle. I didn't become interested in cocktails until I was well into my fifties, but I wouldn't want it thought that I was encouraging young guys in their twenties to start drinking hard early in life. Consumption of alcoholic beverages isn't an art, or a profession, but designing them can be a diverting pastime. I've never thought I wanted to be a bartender, but I respect those who take up the profession seriously, and do their best to provide decent product, unadulterated and genuine. 

In any case, here are three new concoctions from the stainless steel counter, not filched from any book or online source, invented out of my own wayward imagination. Cheers!  

Key Lime Liqueur is a specialty which I suspect few mixologists use, given its particular cream base, which tends to overshadow other ingredients. Nevertheless, I find it very cooperative in conjunction with allied flavors, such as the St. Germaine (with its elderflower base). 

4 parts gin
1 part Key Lime Liqueur
1 part fresh lime juice
3/4 part St. Germaine liqueur
(shaken with served up)

This one is a take on the aquavit-apple constellation of flavor, and it seems to work very well. The fernet branca (or amaro) is counter-intuitive, as flavors can sometimes be. 

3 parts aged aquavit
2 parts apple liqueur
1/3 part fernet branca
1/3 part simple syrup
1 part sweet lime
(shaken and served up)

Here too the kirsch and St. Germaine are not familiar companions in mixed drinks I've seen, but they seem happily conversant. 

2 parts terroir St. George gin
2 part Italian dry vermouth
1 part kirsch
1/2 part St. Germaine liqueur
maraschino cherry
(shaken and served up)

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Massey's Second Collection

William Carlos Williams famously declared "no ideas but in things"--by which he meant that poetry should be constructed out of references to actual objects, events, people. This was a reaction to the cloud of abstractions which poets often employed to make traditional verse. Williams believed that the material world constituted truth, a foundation upon which to make a literature of relevance to life as it is really lived. 

Of course, Williams didn't always follow his own dictum. Most of his poems--even those most "material" in their substance--are in fact a means to achieving a certain abstraction--a feeling, or a conviction, or a thought. Things as things is only a beginning, not an end in itself.

George Starbuck, who headed the University of Iowa's Poetry Workshop when I attended it in the early 1970's, sarcastically reframed the Williams motto as "no ideas but the in thing." Starbuck was officially a poet opposed to Williams's American Language program, free verse, humble themes and down home subject matter. But he acknowledged the value of material data, and incorporated it in his own highly structured poems. 

Williams wasn't alone in advocating a foundation of real things in literature. Leftist thought places emphasis upon the importance of acknowledging real conditions, the "material reality" of existence, "scientific" knowledge, empirical verifications, etc. The Objectivists, of whom Williams was a card-carrying member, believed, as Zukofsky summarized, in "sincerity and objectification" in poetry. Which is to say, that objectified reality, perceived honestly, portrayed accurately, employed with a commitment to truth (sincerity), was the goal. The Objectivist message was shoved aside by the Second World War, and the McCarthy Era's paranoia. But it resurfaced in the 1960's, and has had its share of adherents over the decades. 

One of its most avid followers is the young poet Joseph Massey, about whom I wrote previously here in Minimalism Part VII - Joseph Massey & the Collateral Tradition, on August 25th, 2010. The irony for me is that I endorse Zukofsky's dictum, and have tried to follow it myself in the poetry I've written over the last quarter century. I fully accept the notion that you begin with facts, and things, and aspire to achieve a synthesis of objective reality and higher purpose, instead of beginning with ideas and looking for evidence to support them. 

A poetry which relies on observation and description risks becoming mired in the physical detritus, in the same way a religious poet, say, becomes tangled up in the conundra of divinity. I've always preferred to read about the imaginative qualities of actual things, which confirm, to a lesser or greater degree, my own confidence and pleasure in appreciating the world of my senses. Any poetry which evokes the sights and sounds and tastes and scents and touch, effectively, will always seem more vivid and tactile and satisfying to me, than a poetry which doesn't. Which would suggest, on its face, that I would be drawn to the poetry of a poet, like Massey, whose poems live in that realm. 

Unfortunately, however, I'm put off by Massey's poems, for reasons that I'll try to make clear here, not because I bear Mr. Massey any enmity, but as an objective case to demonstrate what I think can go wrong with the Williams/Zukofsky injunction, when misapplied or misapprehended, or slavishly followed without care.  

Mr. Massey lives up on the Northwest Coast of California, south of Eureka. It's rainy, foggy country, the kind of place conducive to quiet meditation and morose moods. The first thing to note about him is that he spends a good deal of time, apparently, watching the weather, and idly studying piles of trash, beach detritus, weedy edges, birdshit, dogshit, garbage, litter, rubble, driftwood, rust, dirt, etc. Certainly, you can't complain about a poet's choice of subject matter, since the challenge in making art is in turning this kind of stuff into meaning. Cormac McCarthy wrote a whole novel, Suttree, about the intricate life of a river-bum, enmeshed in the squalor and degradation of every kind of filth imaginable. Suttree is a wonderful book, and by the end of it (if you make it that far), you know you've been in the hands of a master. So if a poet like Massey chooses to think about junk and garbage, that's his privilege as an artist. The first question to raise in that case is: Are we raised above the level of a curious five-year old who wanders through the waste, enchanted by the exotic items, the casual variety of cast-off materials? 

As a boy, I spent most of my time focused on the ground in front of me. I was fascinated by rocks, and all the things people and animals leave on the ground. Money, keys, small toys, keepsakes, rabbit feet, seeds, bits of glass and fibre and paper and metal. I probably was some kind of archeologist of the mundane as a child. But it wouldn't have occurred to me then, that a taxonomy or catalogue of my findings would ever constitute the stuff of artistic expression. Massey, for reasons that are not clear, seems to have determined to devote himself to the minute exploration of the deposits and rubble which he finds in his environment, and recording his thoughts and feelings through the registration. 

At the Point [Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011; 91pp.] is Massey's second full collection of poems. It's fully consistent with his first [Areas of Fog, 2009], and confirms the preoccupations and tendencies of his debut volume. 


Cut grass, gasoline,
mound of rotted
weeds in a vacant lot

--the scent cast,
dense, with
each breeze--in

flustered shade.
What's in a day's
name: its slowly

summoned rhythms
looped through
the music-

less field--after-
noon's clamor:

cars, deflated
bass lines
at a red light,

an argument 
rattling the blue
aluminum trailer.   

This is typical of Massey's work. Narrow lines, brief stanzas. Line-breaks, dashes and hyphenations split the process of our reading up into segmented apprehensions, as if this were a method designed to delay and control the progression of discovery, as in an incremental revelation of content. I have trouble with poets who seem to believe that line-breaks and word-breaks are evidence of some kind of wit, or as if breaking up phrases and sentences somehow made more sense than simply writing it out as prose. And make no mistake, Massey is no syntactic experimenter; his poems use regular grammar and punctuation, there are no made-up words, and abstraction is held at bay with a determined focus on image and immediate object. These images and objects are linked, but usually with a verbal violence that is many times more intense than the occasion might demand. My assumption is that Massey thinks that this intensifies the effect of the emotion, and makes a stronger poem. Constructions--such as "flustered shade" or "huddled cars" or "rattled . . . trailer"--would suggest that the poet wants us to read more into inert matter than is there, and that his doing this increases our appreciation of his ingenious sensibility. 

The Process

outside sounds
double the day's

indoor confusion.
How to untwine
noise, to see.

There's the bay,
highway slashed
beneath; water

a weaker shade
of gray than this
momentary sky's

widening bruise.
The page turns
on the table, bare

despite all
I thought was
written there.

I have a number of problems with poetry like this. First, I have trouble reading it as plain sense. What does "cross-stitched outside sounds" actually mean, and how do these sounds "double the day's . . . confusion"? There's a straining after effect with the highway "slashed." A landscape might be "slashed" to make way for a road, or the sound of traffic on a freeway might sound like "flash" or "shushing"; but "slashed beneath" is not only literally inaccurate, it's a pretentious attempt at dramatic description, which doesn't convince. Or, the "sky's widening bruise" which I suspect is an attempt to describe an overcast color or occluding cloud front. But bruises are usually pink, or red, or brown, only occasionally grey or dull blue, which I suspect is the tint being evoked. The conclusion is a weak attempt at irony. If the speaker was actually writing this poem in a notebook, the words would be written on the page on the table. Why we should be either surprised or moved by their blankness is not explained. In the end, we are more apt to regard the poet's "confusion" in line four as the poem's essential, though unintended, message. The overall effect of a descriptive sequence such as this is that the writer is a watcher, recording detail and event, and attempting to draw philosophical or meditative conclusions. But the crudity and exaggeration and inexpressive means fail to accomplish this. 

The Lack Of


Sunset's requisite sparrows
clamor in the shrubbery.
How the room falls, falls

further into formlessness,
around itself,
and memory--

cast to the moon's
glassed transmissions. 

What are "requisite sparrows"? Is "clamor" the right verb to describe the sound birds make in a bush? In what sense is the room "falling" and where is it falling to? How is "memory cast" to the moon? What are "glassed transmissions"? Since Massey is such a stickler for material reality, exactly what kinds of impressions, or direct observations are these? My guess is that "requisite" is an attempt to inject a trite irony into the initial setting. "Clamor" wants to be more emphatic than another, more accurate descriptive for the bird flutter. The room "falling into formlessness" is an attempt to . . . what?. . . describe someone fainting, or nodding off? Isn't "glassed transmissions" just a naive way of saying the moon is seen through a window? What other poetic qualities are summoned by "glassed"?

The use of overkill language is rife in Massey's verse. The "highway" is "slashed"; "shadows carve the room"; words are "plunged into hunger"; "haze blots"; "light" is "gashed"; "nasturtiums lurch"; "leaves" are "lathed"; "hedges dredged"; "halved by haze";  "ocean's drone drones"; "things throb"; "clouds" are "warped"and so on. There are, too, a number of whoppers strewn about on the pile: "spring singes the sky's organized incisions." Ooh, that one stings! "Traffic's sustained sibilance grows louder later." "Through the bone of a stutter." "Gibbous moon splinters." "Wind pinched." "Where the jetty juts." "Moss-cleaved crags absorb." "Stone reflecting stone." "Knocks the walls into sleep." "This severed gestation." "Thorax throws off." "An echo gathering more and more silence." The more I read of Massey's work, the convinced I become that he's futilely trying to reach for statements and effects that he seems unable to achieve. He mistakes hyperbole and oxymoron and malapropism for poetic successes, apparently believing that this makes his work vivid and immediate and pungent. A construction such as "hedges dredged" looks like a pathetic attempt at onomatopoeia, but the actual effect is a tinny clank. Hedges bear no useful relation to dredging, so though their shared sounds intersect, forcing them together is not a happy convergence. It's simply a mistake. 

Mr. Massey wants his poems to sound as if they have conviction, and this frequently leads him into dead-end structures. 

The hills

with clouds

with the 


The view of hills and clouds through a window does in no sense suggest that they, or the speaker, or the viewer (reader) are in any sense "levitating." What is supposed to be rising? The clouds? The window-sill? The poet? Or does the simple iteration of the "Return" bar signal the rising of the earlier stanzas?  

In the work of George Oppen, or John Taggart, or Ronald Johnson, say, description succeeds both because the means report or interpret reality validly--that is to say, accurately--and the thought is profound enough to give us pause. Joe Massey seems a nice enough fellow--though his character seems more obscured than revealed in his poetry--but he's neither profound nor sensitive enough to write interesting poems. There are references to excessive drinking here, which I suspect is no accident. The overall impression is one of bored silences, of aimless drifting along streets or seaside outlines. The poems show effort, but not the delight we feel in happy combinations of sense, sound and phenomena. Massey has a tinny ear. He thinks "a dream's drowsy disassembly" is a "poetic expression," a struggling towards articulation. But it's just a stupid alliteration that summons amusement, not confirmation. 

This book is dedicated "to Humboldt County" where Massey lives. California has been the dramatic inspiration for a number of good writers. Robinson Jeffers along the Big Sur Coast. Gary Snyder in the Sierra Mountains and along the seashore. John Steinbeck. Robert Hass. Yvor Winters. Our forests and mountains and plains and rivers and rocky coast-lines have inspired a lot of interesting writing. We are still creating a regional literature that will stand for generations to come. I wish I could say that Massey's work is likely to rise to that level,  but I can't. If he hasn't read his Thoreau and Emerson and Dickinson and Whitman, he needs to start. If he hasn't read Pound and Stevens and Williams and Zukofsky, he needs to do so, and soon. Because if he continues along the path he's chosen, he will end up like Cid Corman, conjuring pathetic flash-card haikus. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Downstream from Richard Brautigan

As a book trader, it's my experience to encounter tens of thousands of books all the time, sifting through them for sleepers, sorting and discriminating at will. As a dealer in "modern first editions" (that is, collectible books published since circa 1900), I routinely consider the works of Richard Brautigan, usually the popular trade editions of his later novels (The Hawklike Monster, Willard and His Bowling Trophies, Sombrero Fallout, The Tokyo-Montana Express, etc.), and just as routinely reject them as unsalable material.  Like most people, I first became aware of Brautigan during the late 1960's and early 1970's, when his notorious hip novel Trout Fishing in America appeared. Copies of the first true edition published by Donald Allen's Four Seasons Foundation have become almost unobtainable on the market. Early in his career, Brautigan himself published a number of slim little chapbooks of verse, some of which were given away--and all of which, today, are very valuable.  

Like most people, I suspect, my feelings reading Brautigan's work tended towards skepticism. His narratives are not really stories, but surrealistic snapshots of events and people which are not tied to reality, except tangentially. The point of his work seemed to be to make very hip metaphysical jokes or ironic equations about life. Their spirit was unlike Beat literature. They were much more fatalistic and peculiar. As a kid who'd been raised by a man who worshipped the sport of fly-fishing, I was disappointed to learn that the book had nothing really to do with fly-fishing as such. 

It seemed to me then that Brautigan the author was probably a very shrewd sort of hustler who'd managed to put one over on the literary world. That would seem to have been the official verdict at the time, that its author was a clever "naif"--an inventor of quips and wise-cracks designed to impress teenagers and hipsters. In short, Brautigan had enterprised the counterculture trends of the 1960's into a full-blown literary spoof, complete with photos of himself and his girlfriends on the book covers, made out to look like fringe vagabonds. 

Brautigan's life was a mess, from beginning to end. A difficult childhood was followed by a period of struggle, trying to scratch out an existence while writing. Trouble with the law, incarceration in a mental facility (including shock treatments), and a period spent cruising North Beach in San Francisco, sleeping around with lots of groupies, a number of failed relationships. With fame and success and money, his escapades became more bizarre. An alcoholic all his life, and a sufferer of depression (much of it related to his tormented childhood), he eventually committed suicide in an old house he owned in Bolinas. 

Since I had never been much interested in the world Brautigan lived in, or in his fiction (though his poetry I found intriguing), I didn't mourn his death. His reputation had declined, and his last published books looked like exploitation. 

Recently, I came across a nice copy of Keith Abbott's memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing in America [Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1989], published five years after Brautigan's suicide. Abbott's account is a rambling, though consistent, portrait of his friendship with the late writer, covering their early years in San Francisco during the Sixties, with a few snapshots in the years following, and a short critical take on his literary style. What I found fascinating was the revelation that Brautigan was so much like the figure he wanted to project in his work. In other words, he was every bit as enigmatic and confused as his peculiar sentences and metaphors and narratives suggested or implied. Ordinarily, I think of authors as being "smarter" than their work, which is to say they design or craft their writing like clay, to make an object that bears their intention, with greater or lesser success. Abbott emphasizes how meticulous Brautigan was about his work, slaving over it, revising it, worrying it. But for a man without a college education--in effect, a self-taught writer--whose experience was limited, his sense of his purpose or mission as a writer was very close to the sort of man he was. In that sense, his work is a version of roman à clef--in which real people or events appear barely concealed with invented names or dates or places. In the 1960's, French and German existentialism was very big, and you can read this quality in Brautigan's fiction. But he also was able to convey a sense of American free-spiritedness, which is more like the Beats. It's hard to imagine Trout Fishing in America without On the Road.  

Ken Kesey, almost his exact contemporary (both were born in 1935, and Kesey's novels were published in 1962 [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] and 1964 [Sometimes a Great Notion]), shares with Brautigan the position of inventor and defender of an attitude towards life and conduct that we now recognize as familiar to a whole generation. The Flower Generation

Ken Kesey

As Abbott makes clear, Brautigan was probably clinically abnormal, and much of his behavior and thought was irrational. His literary skill was in transforming his troubled visions into form and content, which pleased his admirers and frustrated his detractors. He didn't grow as a writer, and seemed held by his demons in a permanent creative stasis. The underlying subtext of his work is of characters who suffer from a difficulty in enduring reality, and who invent imaginary strategies for fending it off. It may be that he lived his own life in much this way, fantasizing alternative versions of himself, which he projected in his fiction. Interestingly, Kesey's masterpiece, Cuckoo's Nest, posits just such a position for its protagonist, that of misunderstood outsider McMurphy. McMurphy could fit right into a Brautigan narrative. 

Today, Brautigan's reputation is tarnished, primarily in my view as a result of the second-rate work that he published after 1970, work which suggested he was rehashing the same material, or was unsuccessfully attempting to refashion himself into a straight novelist. His talent was a small one, but genuine and precious (in both senses). The pretense in his work is that you will and will not (simultaneously) take him seriously. The driver of his work may have been pain and frustration, but he turned those feelings into wit and irony. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Wright's Hanna - The "Honeycomb House"

Frank Lloyd Wright's career was a long one, and it divides chronologically into distinct periods. 

Born in the middle of the Victorian 19th Century, he lived to be 91, and even at the end, he was still actively producing works which would be among his most noteworthy. The impressive early works can still be seen on Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He developed a design principle which he called his "Prairie Style"--which emphasized strong horizontal lines, inspired by the flat, gently undulating Midwest countryside. All of his work demonstrates, as well, a strong geometric feeling, often credited to his childhood play with Froebel blocks, a kind of toy used in kindergartens of the day. 

During the 1930's, Wright designed a series of residential structures which came to be known as the Usonian Houses. Unlike the earlier Prairie structures, these designs had no basements or attics, were primarily single-story buildings; they continued his focus on long, horizontal sight lines, with banks of horizontal windows, and also exploited open plan layouts; and were always well-integrated (fitted) into the landscape where they stood. Among the most successful and satisfying of his Usonian houses, was the Hanna House in Stanford, California, begun in 1937, which employs the application of the 30-60 degree angle--roughly, the angular dimensional arc of the honeycomb. 

Once, during my class-work for the Landscape Architecture degree studies, I had an encounter with a TA about a project we had been assigned. Remembering how much I liked Wright's Hanna House, I remarked that one very good way to make an interesting design, was to select a strong visual or structural principle, and apply it to a specific site. The TA looked at me quizzically, and replied that "that isn't what design is about at all!" and proceeded to tell me that only through inductive, incremental consideration of each feature and limitation of the site, along with the functional requirements of the structure, could one arrive at a successful design. I said, in reply, that such an approach would produce something that had no character, since it would be nothing more than a hodgepodge of adaptations to a host of unintegrated aspects. In other words, I felt that taking her approach would yield results that had no inherent beauty, only functional parts somehow pieced together like a puzzle. 

If we follow this dialectic too far, we end up in a theoretical quagmire. No two individual designs are ever completely equivalent--though if they are, they're row houses or "tract" houses, cookie-cutter structures with no variety, and without a specific response to site. Of course, architecture is not a "pure art" branch of aesthetics. Every building is a combination of form and function, and involves the compromised intersection of the two principles. Nevertheless, remembering the Hanna House, it's possible to appreciate how "forcing" oneself to appropriate a strict geometric figure onto an "organic" locus is one way to generate creative solutions. One limitation may be the shape of the land, another may be the "artificial" structural principle brought to bear upon the given context. Here is a schematic of the project--

The "germ" of the design is visible in the hexagonal terrace tiles, which fit perfectly into the perimeter wall angles. This visual queue is probably not initially obvious to a visitor to the site, but it becomes more and more confirming as you move around, and inside the structure. The idea of imposing a design principle onto a site, while maintaining the functional organization of space, is like the golden section. It makes the existence of such a house almost a natural expression of the land itself, almost "inevitable" in its realization of possible form(s). 

There are, of course, many other aspects to the structure. By contemporary standards, the house possesses a luxurious consumption of area, and would be beyond the means of most clients. It's a demonstration of the possibilities of an ideal single family dwelling, exploited without regard for a more limited budget, or the surrounding real estate. When the house was originally commissioned, it literally stood alone in the landscape, but was eventually surrounded by the Stanford University campus, and it eventually became the property of the institution, now open to the public as an historic landmark, and used occasionally for official functions. 


Is there anything "logical" about 30-60 degree angles? In other words, are corners and edges and intersections at that angle less "efficient" in terms of spatial use? 

These interiors seem filled with light, largely as a result of making most of the exterior walls glazed with clear glass. There are disadvantages to having this much transparency, not least of which is you need sufficient insulation (or distance) from your neighbors. But it also brings the outside inside, an interpenetration that is inviting, or disquieting, depending on your temperament. 

Another aspect of the odd angles is tight corners. Philip Johnson believed in what he called the "processional" quality of architectural design, by which he meant the incremental unfolding of views and proprioceptive awareness of space, as in a procession. As we move through a space, our sense of how we feel, is a process, i.e., not a static, fixed point of reference, but a constantly shifting perspective. Transitions from one point to another allow a structure to be perceived kinetically. In the Hanna house, our movement through the house presents a constantly changing view of the outside, such that there's a continuing conversation between external and internal areas. There's an insistence upon this exposed quality, which some might find intrusive. The whole house itself is an escape, but once within its limits, there seems almost no privacy.     

In most Wright houses, landscape plays a crucial part. The contrast between the hard-edged man-made materials and the softer, twisted, gnarled, fluffy, gaunt shapes of trees, leaves, shrubbery and ground-cover makes a very pleasing effect. In any Wright house, you're likely to feel alternately as if you're in a kind of cave, or up among tree limbs, or floating in a water-way. This interpenetration of wild and built, nature and made precinct is now one of the hallmarks of modern design, though as recently as the 19th Century, inner and outer worlds were considered discrete, and nature was something to be pushed away from the ordered, safe interior of artificial space. 

In scenes from this property, it's clear that the natural and human spaces have been integrated into a symbiotic whole, where both are meant to belong. 

It's an architecture of conviction, but Wright's projects were not without their problems. Builders and owners nearly always had issues with his structures. They were almost always considered "beautiful" but not always completely thought through. Roofs leaked, walls cracked, rooms might seem too narrow or cramped, sometimes the heating didn't work, and too much sunlight might fade furniture and furnishings. Like most prima-donna designers, Wright sometimes seemed more interested in how his structures would be perceived in magazine layouts, than in how well they worked as homes. And some of them have not held up well over the decades. 

But how much do we care about the comfort of the inhabitants? Mies van der Rohe said that women didn't wear high heels because they were comfortable, but because they thought they looked beautiful. Which sounds like a smart retort to pretentious design critiques, unless you acknowledge that women are unlikely to wear high heels at home to wash the dishes or read a book. Home isn't for show, it's for daily living. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Arsenic / Absinthe in the Limelight - Green in the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec [1864-1901] seems almost like a figure from mythology. You couldn't make up a person like that, except perhaps as a figure in a French fairy tale. Physically deformed from an early age--legs stunted so that he never exceeded 4' 8" in height--he managed to create an unique body of stunning work in just a few short years, before succumbing to the effects of alcoholism and syphilis.     

As a painter, Lautrec occupies a crucial position in the history of art, just after the ascendancy of Impressionism, but before the great iconoclastic convulsions of Modernism (pointillism, cubism, futurism, Dada, constructivism, etc.). His work is frankly representational, but infused with special qualities and innovative effects. His subject was Paris night-life, the garish watering holes of the well-to-do, as well as the brothels and circuses and bohemian quarter. 

Though high-born, with means, his physical deformity meant that the social circles of respectable class were closed to him, so he fell in with the lower elements with which he came to identify. 

Nearly everyone is familiar with his raffish poster designs, the nudes and dancers and candid vignettes. They recreate a fin-de-siecle Paris world, decadent, dilettantish, gestural, piquant, forsaken,  sad, vicarious, naughty.   

There are many ways to approach Lautrec's art. In it are aspects of exhibitionism, degeneracy, burlesque, casual malignity--all of which Lautrec portrays with a directness which belies his shrewd sympathetic regard. The figures in his art, though often seemingly lost to virtue, are interesting, intriguing, enmeshed in a closed world of sexual longing, frustration, and occasional bacchanalian abandon. Indulgence seems its underlying motive-force, with the predictable aftermath of boredom, fatigue and shame. 

One of the chief aspects of this transgressive atmosphere in Lautrec's use of color to shade meaning and spin aura is the subtle application of the color green. The more I've looked at Lautrec's work lately, the more noticeable this aspect seems. 

Lautrec was known to favor absinthe, the spirit liqueur which was once thought to generate hallucinations and visions, but which recent science has proven to be a myth. Nevertheless, artists and bohemians in late 19th Century Europe popularized the notion that the "green fairy" could seduce imbibers into a deadly addiction. Absinthe became a late romantic indulgence, hence its appearance in Lautrec's paintings of Paris cabaret and bistro culture. 

Absinthe appears frequently in the paintings, and its potent green color acquires a symbolic reference, a code for the dissolution and decadence of the epoch. The more you look at Lautrec's work, the more you notice this green tint, not just in representations of clothing, or decor, but around the edges of things, in the shadows, or in the outlines of figures or objects. 

The more you look, the more you see that many of Lautrec's paintings are virtually immersed in a shimmering, evanescent pale, lurid green numinosity, which signals the influence of mortality and cultivated decay. Sometimes it's obvious, other times more subtle.

One of the revolutionary elements of Modern Art is its counter-intuitive use of color, an aspect that became like a signature of the new style at the turn of the last century. We would expect that Lautrec, like Cezanne or Matisse or Monet, would use combinations and contrasts that challenge our assumptions about the actual appearance of hue; but in many of Lautrec's paintings, green doesn't just appear, innocently, as a delight and titillation to the eye. It has an explicit, subconscious presence. 

Ask yourself, looking at the painting above, what the purpose of all that green on the sheets and faces and pillows is? It almost seems a kind of ethereal plasm which covers everything in the scene. 

Ordinarily, we would say that the use of convergent, even clashing colors in a modernist composition is evidence of the panchromatic argument about the complexity of our apprehension of light, and how painters will play with that notion to achieve various effects. But in these works, it seems more an intention--conscious or not--

If a color can acquire a metaphorical connection beyond its initial associations, then anyone's version of the significance of an association is no better or worse than another's. Lautrec seems to have become habituated to using green the same way Morandi uses grey, or Ingres uses carmine, or de Kooning uses yellow. 

Does green have a moral quality for Lautrec? Does it symbolize elegance, richness, serenity? Or is it a code for corruption, depravity or obscenity? 

Historically, the color green itself seems to have had a kind of furtive, baleful association, since its chemical combination once included arsenic, a notorious poison. In the 19th Century, arsenic was used in wallpaper, women's clothing, and soaps, as well as artists' paint-boxes. Its dangers, though not well understood, were known to be harmful. 

In my mind, these qualities of green are conflated, in ways I suspect might well have occurred to Lautrec.     



Limelight, the type of theatre-lighting once used in the 19th Century, to illuminate performance, might seem like another planet in this constellation of associations, though it's not really green--employing an oxide of calcium (lime) to produce an intense flame light when subjected to an oxyhydrogen flame. 

This detail, from the first image shown at the top, is like a mask, a dream image conjured out of the fantasy of the unconscious. It shows an upturned woman's face, with unreal cream and lurid green features, corn-yellow hair, and orange-y red lips. It's both hypnotically strange, but also unexpressive and doll-like. A face that's been transformed by the glare of artificial light into an icon of modernity--not unlike those courtesans in Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon

That green cast overshadows much of the "scenic" background in Lautrec's work, and for me it's the underlying meaning and affectation of his aesthetic, suggesting both the attraction of the sensual, and the jeopardy of mortality. 

Lautrec stands somewhat apart from these things. As a participant, he drank his absinthe cocktail (the combination of equal parts absinthe (or pernod) and cognac) to excess, and slept with prostitutes, whom he used as models. He lived hard, and produced great art, documenting a segment of society which today strikes us as supremely decadent and over-indulgent. And he only lived 36 years. To paraphrase, are we as full of life as life was full in him? 


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Growth - Who Needs It?

In yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, the lead Editorial was devoted to California Governor Jerrys Brown's proposal to "streamline the approval process for certain kinds of new housing development." His plan "would make it easier and faster to build new housing in California . . . [and] would ease [my emphasis] the state housing crisis." (Predictably, the editorial praised Brown for his practicality and good sense.) 

The so-called "housing crisis" is a well-identified phenomenon. It occurs whenever there are more people looking for a place to live, than there are places to live, in a given region. One of the consequences of rapid growth, is housing shortages. Its manifestations are various: Rising prices for homes, rentals, and also homelessness. It affects society at all levels. 

In California, we've been dealing with growth for over a century and a half. Indeed, "growth" has become the sacred cow, the holy grail, the third rail, the untouchable concept. Like "diversity," it's become politically dangerous to address, even to mention. Questioning the wisdom of uncontrolled, chaotic "growth" has become as politically incorrect as questioning the value of "multi-cultural diversity." 

California Bay Area satellite image, showing urbanization as grey color

Who benefits from growth, and what are the relative advantages or disadvantages of buying in to the campaigns for future growth?

On the Eastern Seaboard, or in the Midwest, "mature" settlement has largely moderated, except in Florida. But in the Greater West, we're still experiencing the "open range" mentality, with constant calls for expansion and encroachment, upgrades and enhancements. We're admonished for not building and adding-on and accommodating further additional growth. 

After a century and a half of this, we've become inured to the message. Most people don't even question the need for growth, the ever-demanding and insistent cry for "more!" Always more: More people, more roads and freeways, more schools, more police, more sewage treatment, more water, more parks, more jobs--it almost seems at times that it doesn't matter what it is, if it's "more" then we should need it. 

But more growth has consequences. More growth means more government, more crowding, more noise, more pollution, more ecological devastation, and--over time--higher prices for everything, as well as shortages of some things that are finite, limited, or irreplaceable. Politicians, contractors, developers, entrepreneurs, and minority advocates all love growth, because it expands their territory, and lines their pockets. 

I once had a friend who said, "everyone wants to live in California," and it's true. There's an overwhelming urge to migrate to the Golden State. We have space, good weather, and relative prosperity. 

The debate over uncontrolled growth in California will continue, and we can expect to hear the same tired arguments trotted out with predictable passion and persistence, in favor of more housing, more transportation infrastructure, more jobs, more, more, more, more.  

But the plain and obvious fact is that California has become--is, in fact, already--a mature region, occupied, filled-up, full. The high price of housing, and the scarce rental market, are symptoms of a disease, the disease of excess growth, and excess population. Ironically, the very things which people think they'll enjoy once they migrate here, are destroyed by this process. 

We've all heard about the "flight to the suburbs" which occurred after World War II. There's also the flight to new developing regions, such as the Southwest, where suburban sprawl has been spreading like wildfire.

Scottsdale, Arizona

Henderson, Nevada

The plain and obvious fact about our regional population abstract is that quality of life is compromised whenever "growth" is pursued and designed without regard for the real consequences. 

We know that the earth isn't--never was, really--just a playground for human exploitation. There may be no inherent ethical quality about ecological balance, of moderate habitation; but we know what the consequences are when a species explodes. Our instincts tell us that birth is good, that the pursuit of happiness is a human "right" and that democracy is about letting people chase their dreams. But our dreams cannot dictate how we approach common sense problems in the real world. 

How crowded do we want our cities to be? How much suburban growth is "enough"? How much blacktop and concrete do we want to spread over the earth? How much natural resource can we justify exploiting for our own convenience? How many species must be sacrificed to extinction to feed our bottomless rapacity? 

Jerry Brown says he wants to "ease" the housing crisis by making it more easy to build new houses and apartments. He wants to "include" "affordable" housing in the equation. How noble. 

And how corrupt! 

The bottom line is that as housing prices and scarcity rise, the desirability of migration declines. That arithmetic is easy to understand. We can "encourage" means by which the continuing influx of newcomers can be "accommodated," or we can celebrate the arrival of limits and barriers which moderate growth. 

Growth can be a very bad thing, and trying to facilitate additional growth by "helping" the housing market isn't a smart response to the problem. The intelligent response is to acknowledge the underlying causes of "shortages" and address the causes, not the symptoms. The cause of high prices and scarcity is growth itself, not some logistical problem with permits or environmental obstructionists. Because those too are symptoms--symptoms of the outer limits of our tolerance, and the region's natural holding capacity. Our recent "drought"--which may have been brought on by global warming--is another symptom of the finite limits of the region. There's no reason to think that short-term, short-sighted "fixes" will ultimately solve the problems of excess growth.

Jerry Brown, who once stood for reasonable intelligent public policy, now advocates unlimited growth. Speed trains along our coast, more "canals" to divert water, and now, streamlined housing construction. He no longer questions the growth paradigm. He says he wants to address global warming, but his solutions actually will exacerbate the problem, by directly stimulating the underlying causes of climate change. 

He's been body-snatched, and now marches to the old music.