Richard Avedon’s Family Affairs at the National Museum of American Jewish History

Subway poster advertising the Avedon exhibit photograph 2015 by jpbohannon

Subway poster advertising the Avedon exhibit.
Jerry Brown, Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan and George H. W. Bush
photograph 2015 by jpbohannon

In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather, the film version of Mario Puzo’s blockbuster novel from three years earlier. Four years later he released The Godfather II. Both the novel and the films were more than just extraordinary successes, they became part of America’s cultural weltgiest. They were widely honored and celebrated and they spawned scores of imitations–some good, some not so good.

And for a while there, when one heard the word “the Family,” one reference came immediately to mind: organized crime.

So it was with not a little irony that Rolling Stone published sixty-nine Richard Avedon photos under the umbrella title “The Family.” The issue was published on October 21,1976–just before the 1976 election and little after the Bicentennial celebration that summer. The mood of the country was neither particularly joyous nor overly patriotic. It had been a rough eight years.  And Avedon’s portraits were of the U.S’s elite–the most powerful men (and a few woman) in the United States. Several would later move into even more powerful and influential roles

Avedon’s portraits are stark in their simplicity. The subjects stand before a white screen. There are no props (although Katherine Graham does hold her eye-glasses in her hands.) Most are straight-on, some slightly turned. And most stare straight into the camera.

They are revealing portraits.

So it was great fun strolling through these portraits on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History and thinking of what have become of some these powerful figures. (The exhibit ran until August 2.) More than a few of the subjects have had large effects on American life since these photos were taken in 1976.  There is George H. W. Bush, head of the CIA; Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense for Gerald Ford; Ralph Nader, described simply as a “Consumer Advocate”; Ronald Reagan, at the time simply the “Former Governor of California”; W. Mark Felt, a former Associate Director of the FBI (and whom we know now was the infamous “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame); and Jerry Brown, in 1976 the youngest governor in California history. Thirty-five years later, Brown was again elected and became the oldest governor in California history.

Avedon who started out as I.D. photographer for the Merchant Marines, entered the world of fashion photography (he is the model for Fred Astaire’s character in Funny Face) and shot for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life. While still immersed in fashion photography, he began taking portraits of those involved in political dissidence and

Avedon--Self-Portrait 2 2006

Avedon–Self-Portrait 2 © Richard Avedon 2006

social issues, celebrities and workers, the demi-monde and the hard-scrabble. While his fashion photography may be timeless, it is these “social” portraits that are the most powerful and unforgettable

Such was Avedon’s reputation, that after “The Family” shoots, George H. W. Bush–America’s chief spy-master at the time–wrote the following to Rolling Stone:

It was a pleasure having Mr. Avedon out here at CIA… .  I don’t know if he was as scared to come out here as I was in posing for the great Avedon, but he sure has a neat way of putting his victims at ease and I enjoyed our short time together.

George H. W. Bush and Katherine Graham. Promotional photo for

George H. W. Bush and Katherine Graham. Promotional photo for “Family Affairs” at NMAJH.

THE FAMILY

The following are the list of subjects of Rolling Stone’s photo-essay “The Family”. These photos were part of the National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit, Avedon: Family Affairs.

Bella Abzug             Carl Albert              James Angleton              Walter Annenberg
J. Paul Austin           Benjamin Bailar      Roger Baldwin                Daniel Boorstin
Jerry Brown              Gen. George Brown     Arthur Burns             George H. W. Bush
Earl Butz                    Joseph Califano       Jimmy Carter                 Emanuel Celler
César Chávez           Shirley Chisholm        Frank Church                Clark Clifford
John DeButts            Thomas Eagleton       W. Mark Felt               Frank Fitzsimmons
Gerald Ford               Thomas Gleason        Katherine Graham      F. Edward Hérbert
Adm. James Holloway     Hubert Humphrey     Daniel Inouye         Lady Bird Johnson
Gen. David Jones         Barbara Jordan          Edward “Ted” Kennedy
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy    Henry Kissinger     Richard Kleindienst    Melvin Laird
Mike Mansfield            Eugene McCarthy      George McGovern          George Meany
Arnold Miller            Herbert J. Miller, Jr.    Daniel Patrick Moynihan   Edmund Muskie
Ralph Nader           Thomas “Tip” O’Neill         William Paley          A. Philip Randolph
Ronald Reagan      Elliot Richardson    Admiral Hyman Rickover   Nelson Rockefeller
Peter Rodino            Felix Rohatyn          A.M.Rosenthal          Pete Rozelle
Donald Rumsfeld      Charles Shaffer         William Simon         Jules Stein
I. F. Stone                  Cyrus Vance             George Wallace      Gen. Fred C. Weyand
Edward Wilson           Gen. Louis Wilson      Leonard Woodcock    Rose Mary Woods
James Skelly Wright   Andrew Young

The Other Families

Besides the portraits from the Rolling Stone piece, the exhibit “Avedon: Family Affairs” also contained several large scale murals of other different “families.”  His portrait of the Chicago Seven is notable because of the absence of Bobby Seale, who had been jailed the day before the group shot was to be taken. There is a large mural of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” denizens, notable here for containing two portraits of Joe Dallesandro–one nude, one clothed. And there is a wonderful portrait, the largest of all of them, of Allen Ginsberg’s family. The family–celebrating the publication of Ginsberg’s father’s collection of poems–is a wonderful group, disparate like all families, but very much connected. Some hold plates with cake, some hold coffee cups, one sits, the rest stand, some stare at the camera, some look away.

It is a honest family shot of an American icon.

Richard Avedon, Allen Ginsberg's Family, Paterson, New Jersey, May 3, 1970 (1970).  Photo: courtesy of NMAJH

Richard Avedon, Allen Ginsberg’s Family, Paterson, New Jersey, May 3, 1970 (1970).
Photo: courtesy of NMAJH

Photography, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” and blogging again

It’s been a while since I posted something on this site.  There have been several reasons:  I’ve had to write for another blog for work but that really didn’t take that much time; I was working hard with painting and drawing; and it was a very busy summer with many short bursts of travel.  I have also become obsessed with blipfoto, a photography site that challenges a person to post just one photo every day.  Sometimes, I am very pleased with my photos (I live in a very interesting neighborhood in a very interesting city) and sometimes I am just rushing to get one posted before the day is through.

Blipfoto for September 4, 2014

Blipfoto for September 4, 2014

I posted this photo on line last week of my turntable playing a Joni Mitchell album. Sardonically, I called it a “vintage music delivery device.” A lovely woman from Ireland (and you should see the photographs she takes!) wrote to me and asked if the song playing was “A Case of You.”  It wasn’t but I wrote back to her and told her how that song and the album it appeared on Blue are among my very favorites. And like all great music,  it is somehow emotionally and viscerally connected to us through memories.

The cover of Joni Mitchell's Blue

The cover of Joni Mitchell’s Blue

In the song “California,” for example, my good friend Jim had misheard the lyric from “they were reading Rolling Stone, they were reading Vogue” as “they were reading Rolling Stone, they were reading Boll,” so he checked out the writer Heinrich Boll to see what everyone was talking about. Twenty years later, when I first met him, he was still reading Boll. Fair play to him there!  I remember one friend–who was living with a guy who had been drafted but who went AWOL at least three times that summer to materialize in the same beach-bar–singing “My Old Man.”  I don’t know why but her singing “We don’t need a piece of paper from the city hall” has always stuck in my head.

Blue was the soundtrack (there were many soundtracks) to that young summer in a beach town that was free and happy and exciting. It seemed no matter what apartment or hovel you found yourself in, it was playing on the stereo. It…or Moondance …or After the Gold Rush.  It was a good summer to be alive.

So thanks soletrader for bringing up “A Case of You.”  Somehow, I have lost the vinyl album but I do have it on CD. In the days when I used to drive more often, I would pop it into the player and would  skip forward to “A Case of You,” playing it over and over again and singing along the entire time.  (Unless, that is, if it were Christmas time. Than I would select “The River.” And play that over and over again.)

But to be honest, every song on Blue is masterful, not a bad one in the bunch. From “My Old Man” to “Carey” to “The Last Time I saw Richard.”  Perhaps what makes this so is the honesty of both the words and the performance. There is pain in her voice. There is wisdom. There is experience.

Male or female, we have all been there.

So here she is, herself, singing “A Case of You.” Enjoy. (Excuse the pop up info-bytes about Joni Mitchell)

 

 

Emerson, the Transparent Eye, and photos on my iPhone

 

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Illustration of Emerson’s “Transparent Eyeball” that accompanied the essay “Nature”

In his essay “Nature,” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said:

“I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.”

I know of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” and his essay “Nature,” but it is not my area of expertise.  (Although I confess, it is the illustration that accompanied the “transparent eyeball” passage in Emerson’s  essay “Nature”  that I recall most readily. It is a wonderful illustration.)

If I remember correctly, in “Nature,” Emerson is propounding a way of looking at the Universe in general and Nature in particular. It is Emerson’s “transcendental” way of finding communion with a divine being through observing the “scripture” that is Nature.

But lately I have been thinking of the “transparent eyeball” in a different way.

On a Monday in mid-April, I was reading a piece by a woman named Yoon Soo Lim.  In it, she mentioned that she had taken up a challenge of keeping a photo journal , in which one photograph was uploaded each  day of the year. The site was called blipfoto.

I didn’t think much of it, until my walk home through the city.  I started seeing possible “photo ops” everywhere: a funky display in an art gallery, a shadowy alley with a latticework of fire-escapes, a graphic advertisement for a boxing studio.  I had become an “eye” and had begun seeing things that I passed every single day and had never seen, or at least never paid much attention to.

Fog Rolling In 2014 jpbohannon

Fog Rolling In
2014 jpbohannon

 

I took up the photo challenge myself.  And it has changed the way I look at things.

Doors on N. 4th Street 2014 jpbohannon

Doors on N. 4th Street
2014 jpbohannon

No longer do I walk aimlessly from the bus to my door, from the street to the train station, from my desk to the cafeteria.  I walk now with a purpose…the purpose of seeing.

 

Sculpture at Market East Train Station 2014 jpbohannon

Sculpture at Market East Train Station
2014 jpbohannon

I am not sure why, but this leaves me feeling very alive.  I feel that I am “seeing deliberately”—a term that echoes Emerson’s disciple Thoreau who advised us all to “live deliberately.”  I am excited to see things, to find things, to re-discover things that had been invisible for so long, behind the cloak of daily routine.

And I am having fun with it.

 

The Getty Museum, Los Angeles– “a work of art with a museum inside”

20130716-223355.jpgWhen I think of art museums, I think of urban spaces. In my experience, most large cities ensconce their major museums within the city landscape itself.  And often times, the buildings themselves are as impressive as the art they house: the majesty of the Louvre, the edgy hipness of the MOMA, the serenity of the capital’s Hirschhorn, the classical grandeur of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art, the modernity of the Tate. Yet, again, each is an urban creation, set upon city streets.

The Getty Center of Los Angeles, however, is something wonderfully different. To get there one must drive–as one always must in Los Angeles–along some congested stretch of highway ( the 405) and pull into a car park. From there you take a tram car 900 feet up a mountain and when you disembark at the mountaintop, you feel you have arrived on Olympus itself.

A sculpture "running" next to the tram car

A sculpture “running” next to the tram car

The museum is open-aired. As you move from wing to wing, from gallery to gallery, you walk into the California sunlight–the San Bernadino and San Gabriel Mountains stretching out to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the blue sky all around you. The buildings are constructed in beautiful white block with striated stone quarried in Israel and Italy that mutates in color from brown to gold to sandstone in the changing light. Large panels of glass and open-air passageways further blur the distinction between outside and in. As one museum docent said, “People come here with the idea that they’re going to a museum with works of art on the inside, but they’re really visiting a work of art with a museum inside.”

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“Air” by Aristide Maillol

Sculptures both modern and contemporary are scattered throughout the grounds, so as you move from a special exhibition on Renaissance gardens to the Getty’s renowned permanent photography collection you must walk past Giocometti and Magritte and Henry Moore as well as Barbara Hepworth, Aristide Maillol and Charles Day.

Boy with a Frog, by Alexander Day

“Boy with a Frog” by Charles Day

Torso of a woman by Rene Magritte

“Delusions of Grandeur” by Rene Magritte

The holdings –and the special exhibits–that the Getty museum houses are world-class and extraordinary. From Van Gogh’s Irises to Mapplethorpe’s photos, from Titian to Rembrandt to Monet, the Getty is a magnificent collection.

But I could spend the entire day there and never walk inside.

by the way…

In case I didn’t say, there is also extraordinary art inside:

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“Specimen (after Durer)” by John Baldessari

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Book Review: Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz–“learning what I do not know”

Standard Station, 1966, Ed Ruscha. (Park West Gallery)

Standard Station, 1966, Ed Ruscha. (Park West Gallery)

RuschasLAMITI received a book about six months ago as a gift: Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz.  At first I thought it was a travel guide, for I was headed to L.A. a few weeks later and I just assumed it was a book detailing the more out-of-the-way spaces to see.  Except that it was much too nice a book for a mere travel guide: small and compact with fine paper, hard-board covers and peppered with illustrations. I put it aside to read it at another time. (I have since spilled an entire cup of coffee on it in a place where food and drink was forbidden. Deserved bad karma!)

Anyway, boy was I wrong about the travel guide…and ignorant of an artist and a whole school of painting.

I had been completely unaware of Ed Ruscha–and of Los Angeles art.  And I was not alone. In fact, much of the book’s focus is how the Los Angeles’ school of Pop Art has always played the poor sister to New York’s more celebrated school.  And yet, unlike many cultural movements in which a western migration can honestly be traced, Pop Art in America seems not to have originated on the East Coast and worked its way across to California. Apparently, according to Schwartz, Pop Art seems to have arisen simultaneously in various parts of the country, reacting to and inspired by the same cultural influences.

In 1962, the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles mounted an exhibit entitled “The New Painting of Common Objects.” The British critic, Lawrence Alloway–the man who coined the term “Pop Art”–cites it as being the first exhibit of American Pop Art.  In fact, the gallery–and its curator Walter Hopps–was the first to exhibit Warhol’s iconic Campbell Soup Can–arguably, the defining image of Pop Art–two months before it was shown in New York.  The list of artists at “The New Painting of Common Objects” exhibit included Lichtenstein, Dine and Warhol from the East Coast, Phillip Hefferton and Robert Dowd from the Mid-West, and Edward Ruscha, Joseph Goode and Wayne Thiebaud from the West. It was the nation’s introduction to Pop and a major stroke for the establishment of Pop Art in the country. This, and the fact that the respected art magazine ArtForum had its offices above the Ferus Gallery where the show was staged, would seem enough to move the spotlight onto the Los Angeles’ art world, but it wasn’t.  But New York is much too big a player. (Ultimately ArtForum moved there, as well.)

Ed Ruscha in front of Noise, 1966. Photo: CHRISTINA KOCI HERNANDEZ for San Francisco Chronicle

Ed Ruscha in front of Noise, 1966.
Photo: 2004 CHRISTINA KOCI HERNANDEZ for San Francisco Chronicle

Ruscha hit the L.A. scene young, having hitchhiked in from Oklahoma at the age of nineteen. He enrolled in what is now the California Institute of Arts and afterwards worked–like his contemporary Warhol–in advertising.   And like Warhol, his collages, his word-art, the signage and everyday objects, and his photographs greatly showed the influenced that advertising had on him.

Ruscha’s work is vibrant and fun, enigmatic and engaging, uncluttered and beguiling. Besides his artwork, he has created numerous books and films, and often collaborates with artists, writers and publishing houses on lay-out and cover designs. He still works and lives in Southern California.

To be truthful, the book, Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles itself, however is a bit heavy going and academic at times. (It was published by MIT and was originally Schwartz’s doctoral dissertation). But nevertheless, it is a wonderful introduction to Ruscha’s art.

At least for me, for whom he was a completely new name. And one that I am enjoying discovering.

“Always learning, even if it’s simply that I do not know.”

Movie Review: Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe 

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Maplethorpe

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Maplethorpe

I discovered a documentary the other night called Black, White + Gray by James Crumb (2007). The blurb calls it a study of the relationship between the curator/collector Sam Wagstaff, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and the poet/singer Patti Smith. To be honest, however, it is really the story of Wagstaff, that touches greatly on his relationship with Mapplethorpe and to a much smaller degree with Smith, both for whom he was mentor and patron and friend. (In Mapplethorpe’s case lover and companion.) Consequently, it also deals with art, the business of art, the demimonde of gay life in the 1970s and 80s, and, of course, the scourge of AIDS.

patti smith robert mapplethorpe

patti smith robert mapplethorpe

Moving chronologically through Wagstaff’s life–and anchored by Patti Smith’s intelligent and honest and fond recollections–the film follows Wagstaff from his schooldays through his loathed time spent in advertising to his prominence in the art worlds of New York, Paris and London. Along the way, there are appearances on the Dick Cavett Show, press conferences, interviews with his friends and colleagues, and countless photographs, many taken by him or Mapplethorpe and many part of his historic collection.

Wagstaff was strikingly handsome, aristocratic, and intelligent. (Dominick Dunne called him one of the most handsome men he ever saw.) He was also gay, but closeted himself for much of the oppressive fifties and early part of his life. Not until his meeting with Mapplethorpe did it seem he grew comfortable with his homosexuality. As a curator, he embraced and pushed forward those artists and art forms that were still on the fringe, Minimalism, Earth Works, Conceptual Art, and, most importantly, photography. Wagstaff believed that photography was an ignored art and deserved to be elevated to the pantheon of “Fine Arts.”

Indeed, it is because of Wagstaff that photography holds the status that it does today. His relentless collecting, the exorbitant sums he paid, the continual praise and comments in the press, single-handedly hauled photography onto the main stage.

A few years before he died, Wagstaff sold his private collection of photographs to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for the then unheard-of price of $5-million. It was testimony to how far he had brought photography to the forefront.

The interviews within the film are honest and intelligent. Many deal with his collecting, with his curating, and with his “vision.” Many deal (some negatively, some positively) with his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Dominick Dunne, particularly, gets much air time, and talks about Wagstaff in two of the worlds that he lived in–the socialite world and the gay world. And all is brought together by the reminiscences of Smith.

“Compartmentalized” is a word that often came up, and it seemed that Wagstaff was very good in ordering his life into separate and distinct components. But in the end, it was the gay world that did him–and so many others–in. It is easy to forget that at one point, AIDS was a scourge that was decimating much of the art world. The film ends with Wagstaff’s death, and then with Mapplethorpe’s, and then with a list of the many artists who have died of AIDS complications since.

It is a sobering ending. But then the credits role and are intersperse with clips from the many interviewees and once again we are reminded of the life, of the visionary man who rose so high in the world of art–and brought others with him .

We know much about Mapplethorpe’s life, and Patti Smith’s, greatly due to her wonderful memoir, Just Kids. James Crumb’s film Black, White + Gray adds greatly to our knowledge of that time and that world and the people who populated it. It’s worth while finding and fascinating viewing.

By the way…

The title of the film, Black, White + Gray not only refers to the B&W Photography that Sam Wagstaff collected, cataloged, and often curated, or the shades of distinctions in the compartmentalized life that he constructed, but also to the momentous exhibited he staged at the Hartford Wadsworth Atheneum entitled “Black, White and Gray.” The exhibit, considered the first minimalist show, featured the work of Stella, Johns, Kelly, and Lichtenstein, among others. It was an extraordinary success, influencing fashion, Hollywood, advertising, and, of course, Truman Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow arriving at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow arriving at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.

https://i1.wp.com/media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/192x/85/cf/f1/85cff11fb5bb99780ab77c77af4861d9.jpg

Andy Warhol at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball without a mask.