Friday 30 March 2012


Stuart Davis: Art & Theory
an exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
through 15 December 2002

Stuart Davis: Art and Theory, 1920-31
by Diane Kelder
Pierpont Morgan Library, $7.95 ISBN 0875981380

NOTE: Searching my floppy files today, I stopped to reread this article, which was published in the TLS ten years ago. It brought back a very pleasant memory of the exhibition at the Morgan, which I came across because I liked to use their cloak room as a left luggage facility while passing between the airports and Grand Central Station (whose storage was closed at the time, for security concerns) and also because their cafe was so nice. I hadn't really appreciated Stuart Davis before, and this exhibition was one of those excellent ones that shows you something in a way you've never seen it, nor thought about it, before.

One of the effects of the modern art explosion that came from America just after the Second World War has been to overshadow the work of artists who bridge the gap in the tradition between the realists, like Thomas Eakins or John Sloan, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, and the abstract expressionists and pop artists from that century’s middle. Stuart Davis was one of the most important of those artists, and Diane Kelder, in her sharply written monograph which accompanied a small but revealing exhibition of his work at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, has taken a large step toward placing Davis firmly in the context of a continuum in modern American art.

Davis was a realist prodigy, not yet 21, when five of his watercolours were displayed in 1913 at the International Exhibition of Modern Art, at the 69th Regiment’s Armory, the famed Armory Show which introduced America to European modern art. He came by his talent naturally. His mother was a sculptor, his father an artist who served as art director of a Philadelphia newspaper, where many of the group of realist painters known as "The Eight" supported themselves doing illustrations.

One of them, John Sloan, later served as art director of the influential socialist magazine, ‘The Masses’; he bought illustrations from the teenaged Davis, who was already in New York studying with the best-known of the group, Robert Henri, whose work led to their being re-named ‘The Ashcan School’. They brought a gritty but vivid new realism to the straining loftiness of American art, a concern with the everyday life of cities, particularly working class pleasures and bohemian life ‘downtown’. They loved the music halls and boxing rings, and the young Davis. a piano player himself, haunted the clubs in the black sections of Newark and Hoboken, seeking out the music which, brought from the south to the urban centres of the north evolved into jazz.
The music makes a interesting parallel for the art, because what Kelder’s penetrating study shows is how Davis, like so many other American artists, whose view of the world was already being changed by the heady enticements of the new modern popular culture, had his idea of art transformed at the Armory show. changed the way they saw art. Kelder shows how Davis absorbed and adapted the influences of European modernism, turning them into something different, unique, and particularly American. In the process of seeking out his own artistic amalgam, Davis in many ways laid the foundation for much of what followed, and in fact might lay claim to being the hidden father of Pop Art.

For Davis, the link with music was particularly clear. At the Armory he was dazzled by the Fauvists’ use of non-realistic colour to make emotional impact, something for which he had been striving in his own work. "It gave me the same kind of excitement I got from the numerical precisions of Negro piano players…and I resolved I would quite definitely have to become a "modern" artist’, he recalled in 1945.

Of all the artists on display at the Armory, Van Gogh remained the biggest influence. In 1919 Davis painted a self-portrait which at once used bright colours, a yellow face with red lips, a shining blue shirt, and a deep red background, to pay hommage to Van Gogh while already hinting at a move to a style more abstract. That was because Davis was also, like his contemporaries, profoundly affected by Cubism, the other shocking highlight of the Armory show. Although the impact for Davis was immediate, in his case the gestation of the style was slow. As early as 1917, in his painting ‘Garage’, Davis was blending a working-class, realist subject with the unreal colours of a Fauvist palette, and experimenting with planes which overlapped. He summered among the fishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and his 1918 work, ‘Multiple Views’ (below right) is just what its title implies, an attempt to paint various scenes of life in that port (including the recurring garage) simultaneously. The mix of styles results in a painting with a curious feel more medieval than modern.

By integrating objects into planes, Davis was able to create a vibrant sort of cubism, and the nature of the objects he chose, beyond his self-portrait, with echoes of his populist realism, let him indulge that Fauvist palette that had so excited him. Bottles of Odol mouthwash, Lucky Strike cigarette packs, Bull Durham tobacco and Zig-Zag papers, even the literary magazine The Dial feature in his paintings, deconstructed decades before deconstruction. The interaction with poetry was particularly strong, especially the influence of William Carlos Williams. It's instructive to compare Williams' influence on Davis with, say, his effect on Charles Demuth, whose work shares similar concerns with integrating the planes of cubism into realistic settings, but in Demuth's case becomes refined into powerful and bleak industrial landscapes.

Williams used a Davis painting for the frontspiece of ‘Kora In Hell’ and found in Davis’ work the suggestion ‘of development of word against word, without any impediments of story, poetic beauty, or anything at all except word clash and sequence’. Words formed the basis of a mural Davis painted for Gar Sparks’ Nut Shop, an infamous Newark bar.

Davis’ own cubist experiments became refined in the ‘Egg Beater’ series of 1927-28 (below right) Here he nailed an electric fan, rubber glove, and egg beater to a table, and produced an extraordinary sequence of works dealing with the shapes and spatial relationships of the objects. In an early watercolour collage, Davis had added the letters ITLKSEZ: ‘it looks easy’…but the final part of Kelder’s study reveals that his artistic growth was anything but. Throughout his life, Davis kept notebooks, into which he entered, alongside sketches and experiments, his own thoughts on artistic theory and practice. Seeing the pages on exhibition, or reading them in Kelder’s study, one is struck with the single-minded aggression with which Davis pursued modernism, was entranced with the possibilities of a new way of seeing, and a better way of transforming that sight into art. Kelder has done a service not just to Davis, but to an entire era in American art by showing how this was done.

Note: This essay also appears at Untitled: Perspectives, my extremely irregular blog about art....

Friday 9 March 2012


Forty years ago, in my last semester at Wesleyan, I took a seminar in Hamlet with Prof. Sherman Hawkins—what I remember best about it is that I also got paid, in my capacity as a university building & grounds employee, to drive the class down to the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven to see the play, with a young Stacy Keach playing the lead. But we also covered a lot of the revenge tragedies that were so popular in Shakespeare's time, putting the play into a genre context to see how it transcended that genre, as it were.

I was reminded of that when I saw Pan Pan's production of The Rehearsal at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington last week. I have to say I was attracted as much by the poster, which played up the play's subtitle: Playing The Dane with a picture of a great dane wearing a huge Ruff collar. It suggested a certain playfulness with Hamlet, a promise which was only partially delivered. In their efforts to deconstruct Hamlet play, Pan Pan have created something that's more interesting than entertaining, often thought-provoking, but often failing to follow up on its own provocations.

The Rehearsal deconstructs Hamlet in two parts. In the first, three actors vie to play the lead role: they are put through audition paces by the director, a casting director, and an academic who has opened the play by reading an essay. The opening essay was delivered by Prof. Harry Ricketts of Wellington's Victoria University and presumably written by him—though the original Dublin production apparently used Trinity College prof Amanda Piese as the lecturer (and what may be a part of her lecture was included in the programme). It was so much not a part of the play itself that the theatre's 'no mobiles' and festival's promotional announcements came over the PA system after he'd finished, as if to cue that now the play itself would begin. It reminded me of Brecht, who liked the didactic because he didn't trust his audience to get what he was trying to say unless he laid it out for them—I'd argue that's because Brecht's plays don't always do what he wants to think they're doing, but that's a different essay. But if such a comparison, of Pan Pan's Shakespeare to Brecht, were intentional, it's not taken that much farther.

At the end of the act, the audience is invited to come on stage and vote for their preferred Hamlet by standing behind him. This is a little bit of theatrical fun which sadly doesn't continue into the second act—and doesn't really tell us much about whether the audience is sympathetic to the various prejudices exhibited by the director, the perceived talent of each actor, or indeed some deep insight into which approach might best suit the character of the brooding prince. But it does give a hint as to where The Rehearsal is going. Particularly when one of the aspiring Hamlets is asked to perform as if it were a play by Beckett.

The second act takes place on a gorgeous set lit by candles and filled with gleaming dustbins. The desk behind which those who cast the play sat is moved to the rear, and none of those characters play any part in the rest of the play, until the academic delivers a smaller essay to close it out. Their presence is hardly noticeable, unless you're expecting something from them, in which case you'll be disappointed. The set, with huge mirrors on each side, to a great extent overpowers the performance—at times it is far more interesting than what the actors are doing, as when they perform Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' soliloquy as a round. It makes its point: that it is not only Hamlet who faces such existential dilemmas, very well, but once made, the point is lost amidst the dustbins.

But like those giant mirrors, the scene reflects the uncertainties around the character, the way Shakespeare plays with language, and has Hamlet himself play with language; the way he deliberately renders insights into his nature uncertain. At one point there is reference to Hamlet in terms of the 'instability of being', and surely Shakespeare's point is that all being is unstable. Pan Pan's point may be more that all interpretation is unstable; in the second act there are a number of reflections on legendary performances, particularly Irish ones. It may be post modern commentary of our perception of the play through its adaptations, but it's also something that suggests the academic essay, or the pub debate, is somehow more memorable than the performance itself.

That the two failed Hamlets play Laertes and Horatio adds a sense of reflection to their characters as well—highlighting the parallels which Shakespeare has drawn into the play. When the traveling players arrive, they segue from playing The Murder Of Gonzago, the famous play-within-a-play, to doing Hamlet itself, thus making a play within a play within a play. This is acted out by local schoolboys, who were quite good in their roles but left me wondering if this device, like that of the local academic, was intended to show that anyone could perform Hamlet (in which case, why Pan Pan?) or maybe to providee a sort of local relevance with which to sell the play more easily to festival programmers around the world?

The one element of the play that becomes more certain is its treatment of Ophelia. Judith Roddy's sassy interpretation steals the show—the production leaves you in no doubt of the strength of Ophelia's character, and the way that strength is ignored, indeed repressed, by a particularly misogynistic set of attitudes from virtually all the male characters, including her brother, her father, and her lover. Given that Gertrude's presence is diminished greatly, this seems to me the most straightforward of the play's reinterpretations.

The least straightforward element is the play's failure to engage fully with the Beckett references it litters through its various Hamlets. That they are there shouldn't surprise coming from an Irish production, and given the other Irish references in the performance (aside: isn't it fascinating how the greatest 'English' novelist, poet, and playwright of the past century were all Irish?). But it was disappointing they weren't taken further, because once it started my thinking down those lines, seeing Clove and Hamlet together at last, the potential for re-evaluation seemed overpowering.

Because Hamlet is as much a prototype of Theatre of the Absurd as an apotheosis of revenge tragedy. In the Absurd, characters tend to be trapped by their neuroses, which are usually traceable to things buried in childhood, as in Freudian psychology. They are able to cope only by re-enacting rituals, often of a nature that seems ridiculous when we watch. It is not a perfect fit, but given that the undercurrent of the incest theme (as I mentioned, played down by Gertrude's diminshed role), and given Hamlet's almost ritualistic see-sawing, it makes a lot of sense (think too of the extreme Freudian interpretations many famous Hamlet productions have put forward). So when you have highlights from Hamlet performed on a giant Endgame garbage-can set, you'd expect the connection to be exploited more fully. And that, in the end, is the problem with The Rehearsal—it is indeed a rehearsal for ideas about Shakespeare's play, more than a working out of those ideas. It is content to end with another footnote from a professor, and leave us thinking. This is not a bad thing, it would just be so much more satisfying if the literal great dane on set had actually done something, if the play itself had finally come down somewhere, instead of all over the critical place.

Wednesday 7 March 2012


Almost four decades ago, John Jakes, a writer best-known for his Brak the Barbarian series, which was arguably the best of the sword and sorcery series that followed the 1960s Conan revival, hit the big-time with his 'American Bicentennial' series of historical novels. The family at the centre of that saga were called Kent, and that came back to me as I read The Kents, because this comic-book historical saga, which I encountered in a library in Waikanae New Zealand, tells how family who adopted Superman came to settle in Smallville, Kansas before their strange visitor from another planet fell to earth, and very much follows that historical framework.

These Kents move out to Kansas before the Civil War, part of the effort to keep the territory free of slavery. The focus is on the two sons, Nate, who remains true to their father's dream, and Jeb, who falls in with the pro-slavery Missourians. As such, the focus of the saga remains tight, which is an advantage over the multi-volume sprawl of Jakes' original, but much of it follows the same pattern: intra-family conflict, an unresolved love story between antagonistic groups (Nate loves a woman who's half-Indian), and of course the addition of famous historical figures, in both meaningful roles (for example, Nate's woman is originally partnered with his friend Bill Hickock, and Jeb rides with Quantrill, Anderson, and the James gang) and as walk-ons (John Wilkes Booth has a meaningful one). The Kansas-Missouri border conflicts, stretching on both sides of the Civil War, have been fruitful territory for any number of novels, and there is plenty of material on which to draw.

The story is framed by a manuscript device -- Pa Kent has found letters and journals buried on the Kent property—which is clunky at times. In fact, the framing echoes the story itself, which sometimes lumbers along as if ticking the boxes, with neither the historical sweep of Jakes nor his dynamism. There are a number of Superman references dropped in, not least the 'S' symbol being something handed down from his Iroquois ancestors. Writer John Ostrander eventually resolves his stories in a moment of high but successful melodrama, which works even better as we learn at that point that none of Jeb's letters to his sister back in Ohio, through which we have been following him, were never sent. It's a nice touch to what becomes a compulsive story. I've enjoyed other Tim Truman projects in the same vein more than this one; here Michael Bair's inking gives a hint of Frank Robbins to Truman's usually more defined pencils. His Jonah Hex (another cameo player in the story), seems strangely one-dimensional. Tom Mandrake picked up the final four issues from Truman and is just as interesting.

Published in 1999 and collected as a book in 2000, this might be seen as DC's millennial answer to Jakes' bi-centennial series. But if a western about Superman's family's origins seems a slight idea, its execution makes it an impressive mini-series.

The Kents, written by John Ostrander,
pencils by Tim Truman and Tom Mandrake, inks by Michael Bair
DC, 2000 $19.95 ISBN 1563895137

Thursday 1 March 2012


In Contraband, Mark Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a smuggler who was the best in the business, but has now given up the family trade (his father was a smuggling legend, now in prison) and gone legit with a home security business and a wife Kate (played by Kate Beckinsale, with the names the same so she wouldn't miss her cues) and two cute kids. He's also got a dumbnuts brother-in-law who has to dump a shipment of cocaine he's smuggling, and now has the bad guys coming after him. Unless Farraday agrees to come out of retirement and make one last run to Panama.

Stop me if you've all this before. You could hardly not, because there is very little in Contraband that isn't well-worn, including a wholesale rip-off of Once Upon A Time In America that is so unimaginative it needs to be called 'hommage'. But this shouldn't be surprising, because the film is itself a remake of an Icelandic movie directed by Oskar Jonasson and co-written by him and the crime novelist Arnauldur Indridason. What makes it interesting is that the Icelandic version, 'Reykjavik-Rotterdam', starred Baltasar Kormakur (director of the Indridason adaptation Jar City, as well as 101 Reykjavik), as a far less-glamorous smuggler, and it's Kormakur who directs this film, and directs it well.

Kormakur is excellent at cross-cutting between stories to emphasise both suspense and parallel sturctures, and visually he's good at finding establishing and transition shots, particularly of the highways and lights of New Orleans and the canals and backstreets of Panama, that play on what's happening in the story. Which needs some playing, because the story is where the main problems lie, as it gets more and more complicated, with Farraday winding up smuggling counterfeit money, cocaine, and a Jackson Pollock. Part of it is that it is, shall we say, playing homage to different parts of the genre at the same time: sometimes taut caper movie, sometimes family crime drama, sometimes claustrophic on-ship mystery, sometimes comic thriller. In the mix, a few things get lost, like logic: for example, why would the captain who dislikes and is suspicious of Farraday allow him free reign of the ship, particularly when it has trouble in the canal. And why, after getting a tip of what he is smuggling, would he not simply lock him in his cabin, rather than giving him a few hours to take care of business. We don't see how Farraday does that, but when we see the results we know it had to have been a complicated process. Similarly, it's hard to believe that in the denouement someone, especially the ship's obsessive-compulsive about cleanliness Captain Camp, (really, and he's played by JK Simmons) wouldn't simply give Farraday up. It's also really obvious from the start that Farraday's best friend (Ben Foster) is setting him up--perhaps Foster is just too creepy to be believed as a hero?

The cast in general is good: highlights are very indulgent bad guy turns from Diego Luna and Giovanni Ribisi as bad guys. Ribisi, interestingly, is the only one of the major actors who tries to put on a New Orleans accent: one of the anomalies of Hollywood's New Orleans is that the city is filled with nasty southern gentlemen, redneck crackers, Cajuns, and blacks who all speak with the drawl, but the stars, particularly Wahlberg never do (think of Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy or Nicholas Cage in Bad Lieutenant). Sometimes it's as if the slums of New Orleans were Southie in Boston, and then David O'Hara wanders in from a Scottish gangster film. It's good to see a part for Lukas (Witness) Haas, and there is Shannon Maris, a native New Orleans actress, in a small role playing straightperson to Wahlberg.

The highlight is, as ever, watching Kate Beckinsale try to act: her finest moment comes when, having just been killed, she's being wrapped in a plastic curtain, and in extreme close up, we see her finger move. It is a perfectly executed piece of existential theatre in the most meaningful sense. Otherwise she mostly plays good wife scenes like 'don't go to the underground meeting tonight, Victor,' and makes a dozen frantic calls into her mobile, as if she's left her Ipad in her agent's office. Wahlberg ought to be worried; he seemed headed in a Bruce Willis-style career path, but too many parts alongside Beckinsale and he could find himself cast as the thinking man's Jason Statham.

But it's all a lot of fun, and Kormakur handles it as such. It's always good to find a film where a Jackson Pollock painting is a throwaway, literally--but apparently that's in the original too. You might say the film is a load of Pollocks, but it's too much fun for that. I saw it in Paraparaumu, where I was one of five in the cinema--apparently even Mark Wahlberg can't smuggle a film into New Zealand.


There is a connection between Irresistible Targets and Davy Jones of The Monkees, who has died aged 66. And not just to remind me that I am growing old at a pace that seems sometimes to be accelerating geometrically. The name of this page comes from a song by John Stewart, and it was Stewart who wrote 'Daydream Believer', which became a huge hit for the Pre-Fabricated Four.

In concert, Stewart would often tell the story of how, having taken the song, he got a call from the band's producer, Chip Douglas (who'd been the bassist for the Turtles), saying he'd changed one of the lines. The song as written went: 'You once thought of me as a white knight on a steed/but now you know how funky I can be', but as Chip put it, the record company (or maybe it was the network) didn't want Davy saying 'funky', and ruining his clean-cut image. So, much to John's chagrin, they changed it to 'how happy I can be'.

A few weeks later, with the song at number one and the royalty checks starting to appear, Stewart rang Douglas to tell him 'happy works for me, Chip.'

I was never a fan of The Monkees--the shows, while sometimes clever, seemed to be repeating Richard Lester's Help without much of the edginess. Thinking of the films Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider made that may seem odd, but Rafelson's previous stop before the Monkees was Wackiest Ship In The Army (haw haw). On the other hand, you might consider his Monkee version of Help, called Head, which you could consider a precursor for Being John Malkovich.

The Monkees did record a number of decent, catchy pop songs, with a good deal of help from Douglas. Some had a country influence--'Last Train To Clarksville' in particular. The odd thing about the group was that Mickey Dolenz was probably the best singer (and never had played drums), Jones was a decent drummer but too short to be seen behind the kit, and Peter Tork was probably a better guitarist than Mike Nesmith (who was the only one to have a decent solo career, with the First National Band, before becoming a movie producer). They all paid a price for their success with made-for-TV band (today, the Monkees would have been cast through a 'reality show. I seem to recall Steve Stills failing his audition for the group--not cute enough, probably, but think how different his career might have been, in contrast to Nesmith or Tork's, had he been chosen. Jones was there for the cuteness, and he did bring in the teenage girls. In that, he was precursor of a sort too.