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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Just Kids: Reaching for the Divine

Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids is a love story that could take place only in New York in the 1970s. A love story about a woman that links poetry, prayer, God, and love in surprising ways. A love story about a man fighting to get out from under a Catholic childhood.

Smith’s plain language captures the time when she and her young lover and soul mate Robert Mapplethorpe were not yet famous. Except for a few pages about his last days, the memoir mostly covers the period before she made records, before he got a good camera from Sam Wagstaff . Walking down Eighth Street in 1978, Mapplethorpe says, “Patti, you got famous before me.” There are several lessons in this memoir. If you want to be famous, be sure you pick a good lobby to hang out in. Back then it was the Chelsea Hotel’s.

Patti Smith

Platinum print, ed. 1/3

10 x 8 inches, 25.4 x 20.3 cm (SMIH-0798 - A)
courtesy Robert Miller Gallery

More important are the lessons about fluid sexuality and the artists’ practice. Both Mapplethorpe and Smith became famous for art forms that were not their first endeavors. Smith was drawing and writing private poetry while Mapplethorpe was creating collages in the manner if not spirit of Joseph Cornell and Joe Brainard. On the cover of the memoir and within its pages, there are lots of photos of the gentle hippie Mapplethorpe. Long wispy air, a sly grin, and huarache sandals. A sweet man in the afterglow of the 1960s.

In that era, it was easier for a person to have relationships with both men and women. Even in the last year of high school, I remember chanting to my friends, “bisexual in the Bicentennial.” Moving along the continuum of sexuality grows more difficult as you get older and have an identity to project and later protect.

Before he became really famous, I heard Mapplethorpe lecture (if you could call it at that) at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was the only time I ever saw him in person. I remember he wore a khaki shirt and had his hair coiffed, not flowing the way it did in the photos with Patti Smith. He resembled a brownshirt from 1930s Germany, which I found more than a little disturbing. His photos of flowers were knife sharp, still new. If I remember correctly, he interspersed them with his sexual imagery. He showed some images that were even more brazen that the ones that later toured the country and caused all the outrage from the right wing. One of them was so daring that at first I didn’t know what I was looking at. The black and white image had the same perfect arrangement of forms as all his other still lifes. Then there was audible gasp in the audience as it dawned on them what they were looking at. With perfect timing, the image moved forward to that of an innocent child. A few people laughed, not because the next image was humorous, but because of the tension. Afterwards I think people challenged him, but he was imperturbable, untouchable.

After I finished Patti Smith’s memoir, I found Mapplethorpe’s exhibition catalog, The Perfect Moment, on the bookshelf. I think he used that phrase in his lecture. As if that search for some pure aesthetic moment gave all the images an equally emotional content of heightened experience. When I think of Mapplethorpe, I think of lost innocence racing towards the light.

On the one side, Armistead Maupin’s serialized Tales of the City captured the camp hilarity of the era, and on the other, people told tales of dumpster divers, dark dens South of Market, and three days running high. Mapplethorpe’s kinkier photos were like beautifully framed flashes into that underworld, photos that happened to end up in art school auditoriums and art galleries. The flowers, celebrity and fashion portraits, and kinks were all connected, but not in any obvious way. Despite his perfectionism, Mapplethorpe was an intuitive artist. He was following a search for the divine moment.

Perhaps Just Kids reminds us of an era when two artists were struggling with ambition and talent but without money or food, without strong sexual identities or images; when they were more like dancers, plotting, drawing, writing, and moving freely.

Patti Smith


Platinum print, ed. 1/3

10 x 8 inches, 25.4 x 20.3 cm
(SMIH-0798 - B)
courtesy Robert Miller Gallery

Patti Smith


Oil, pencil and gauze on canvas
mounted on board
91 1/2 x 92 1/4 inches, 232.4 x 234.3 cm
courtesy Robert Miller Gallery

Note: You can see some of Patti Smith’s photo and drawings at www.robertmillergallery.com. She also has her own website at www.pattismith.net

You can hear a recent interview with Patti Smith at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122722618

Robert Mapplethorpe’s images can be seen at his foundation’s site, www.mapplethorpe.org and at the Sean Kelly Gallery, www.skny.com

Monday, February 15, 2010

Interview with Kristina Hagman

Kristina Hagman grew up in New York and Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco to attend college in the late 1970s. Since then, she has lived in New York, Southern California, Tokyo, Santa Fe, and most recently Seattle. Her paintings and prints have been exhibited throughout the United States and Europe. For the last several years, she has focused on a single project: “36 Views of Mount Rainier.” These woodblock prints are an homage to Hokusai’s “36 views of Mount Fuji.” The prints can be seen at the Cullom Gallery in Seattle (www.cullomgallery.com) and on www.kristinahagman.com.

Kristina working

Q: When did you first call yourself an artist?

I spent my young childhood in New York. When I was still small, we moved to the West Coast—away from everything that was familiar. I had terrible dyslexia and failed an important test. I was chubby and unhappy. In the second grade, I won an art competition with some stitchery and the work traveled around the state. Then I knew art was good for me and good to me. But I don’t think I had the presence then to say I was an artist.

Later as an adult, when I studied painting and printmaking, I found it so comfortable that I didn’t think to name myself in that way. After I had children, making art became much more difficult. That’s probably when I really thought of myself as an artist—when it got hard.

Predawn Silver

Q: Whose works were you drawn to? What were some of your early experiences with art?

In Manhattan, I had a nanny who took me to the Museum of Modern Art. I spent a lot of time with Henri Rousseau. I remember the sleeping gypsy with the lion and water lilies. I loved MoMA, especially the courtyard with the modernist chairs and the oversized female nude sculptures.

We had a big coffee table book at home, and I copied Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. As a romantic teenager, I was in love with Whistler and the Impressionists. Then when we were in college, I remember seeing abstract Rothkos and Diebenkorns in San Francisco. At John Berggruen’s gallery, I was drawn to Wayne Thiebaud and Nathan Oliveira. Living in Santa Fe, O’Keeffe’s influence, not to mention her subjects, her colors, were all around . Santa Fe drew everybody, and I was able to study with three of those influences, Diebenkorn, Thiebaud, and Oliveira. I also got to know Agnes Martin, who had a great quirky sense of humor.

Rainier from Seward Park

Q: These prints are rooted in the Japanese artist Hokusai and his “36 Views of Mount Fuji.” How did that come to you?

When you live in Seattle, you see Mount Rainier almost every day, in and out of the mist. You know it’s there. Like O’Keeffe and the mountains in New Mexico. In preparation for doing this project, I went to the National Gallery to see Cezanne’s paintings of Mt. St. Victoire. And I studied every book I could get on Hokusai. They have some beautiful prints of his at the Portland Art Museum. I also studied the work of Gustave Baumann, who, interestingly enough, lived and worked in Santa Fe.

View from the South

Q: Santa Fe is known to be hospitable to artists, other than the high cost of living. Which places have been important to you?

I get something from every town I live in. Santa Fe was great because of the beauty, but also because you could apprentice with older artists. You could get a sense of the life of an artist. For an urban center, Seattle has proximity to spectacular open spaces. It is also a city that is a very nurturing town in that all kinds of people buy art. There is not a fixed scene like in New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco. A lot of people who never bought art before are comfortable with what I am doing. My neighbors buy my work. Local businesses have been supportive. Friends help me photograph the work and build a website. People here want to help each other. Being off the well-trod art path has been good for my work.

Outside Natches

Q: Were you trying to show the modern condition while using this ancient form of woodblock?

With painting, you are often stuck in a critical debate about content. Craft becomes far less important than the comment on contemporary society. In printmaking, craft frames some of those questions. You have to know how to work the block before you utter a visual sentence. I like the discipline it imposes.

In the Pacific Northwest, there is a lot of wood. It has been used for commerce, and, of course, the trees are all around us. It has history, a resonance. There is also a lot of water, which can impede travel, but also gives the city so much of its character. And wood grain looks like water.

Georgetown Autumn

Q: Were you drawn to Japanese culture?

When I started dating my husband, he lived there, and I spent time with him in Tokyo. I couldn’t speak the language, but I could see how western culture influenced Japan and vice versa. This project came about in part because a friend of mine who lived in Tokyo wanted to organize a show planned at the American Club. Naively, I thought it could be done in a year. Three years later, my friend has moved away from Tokyo, the idea of that exhibit has passed, but the prints are done. I have discovered a process and a medium that feels right.

Dianne's View

Chinook Pass

Q: Now that the “36 Views” are done, what you going to do next?

I have been traveling a lot to Los Angeles recently as my parents are aging. I think I am going to do a series of prints based on Highway One. The windshield is a good frame to start with.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Postcard from New York

Our home away from home. West 86th Street.

I’ve been to New York twice in two months for industry events. Christmas is always a magical time because of the lights, ice skating, and window displays. My favorite windows are Bergdorf’s; one of those rare moments where creativity and commerce come together to create delight.

Windows at Bergdorf's

It often rains at that time of year, and we did get drenched after the Interior Design Hall of Fame gala. Because of this event, I associate the Waldorf with Christmas. The food isn’t very good, but the work of the Hall of Fame designers is always interesting, and it’s good to see old friends. Annie Block was in Norma Kamali (her high school prom dress, natch), and we spied Edie Cohen the next night at the Guggenheim Best of Year Awards event in an exquisite Balenciaga. We never made it into the round auditorium, because we were too busy catching up with writer Raul Barreneche, who we haven’t seen in a few years. He has branched out into design. (Nothing to see on his website just yet.)

Back in late January for the other big event, the Contract Interiors Breakfast at Cipriani. A lot of the same people attend both events, but the two always feel different. Perhaps people are less guarded at 7:30 in the morning. The good schmoozing takes place early, so it’s not a good idea to be late. Despite the wretched economy, over 500 folks showed up. Contract Editor in Chief Jennifer Busch looked great in her custom outfit by Jean Lin (www.dressedinyellow.com). This year’s Designer of the Year was Graft from Los Angeles, which provided an excellent contrast to the legacy award recipient, Art Gensler. Old Global and New Global. Thankfully, Art knows how to be brief. The award-winning design projects were fantastic, but the music on the video was just weird. One commentator said it reminded him of high holy days. Former Designers of the Year showing their SF roots included Mark Harbick and last year’s recipients, John Peterson and John Cary of Public Architecture.

Ms Busch at the Contract Breakfast

Industry Leaders gather at the Contract Breakfast including (l to r) Cheryl Durst, ED of IIDA, Katie Weeks, Editor in Chief of EcoStructure and former Designer of the Year and Man About Town Mark Harbick

Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander gossiping with Katie Weeks at 8:00 am!

What does Diana Mosher have in that handbag?

Steven Betts Art Director Extraordinare, Katie Weeks, and Yosh Asato

Favored restaurants are still packed. We tried Danny Meyer’s new place in the Gramercy Park Hotel, Maialino.

Gramercy Park

The breads at Maialino

Inside Maialino

The first venture in the renovated hotel failed, but this one seems likely to succeed. The understated design (Rockwell has taken a more minimal turn!) is the right backdrop for excellent fresh Italian cuisine. The servings are not large, but the quality of the ingredients is fantastic. The bar looks out to the park and is a great spot if you want to dine solo or don’t have a reservation. Danny Meyer was walking around greeting guests and keeping an eye on things, including adjusting our curtain when the sun got too bright. See ArchNewsNow (www.ArchNewsNow.com) editor Kristen Richards in sunglasses.

Kristen before the shades went down

Of course, everybody is asking about Architectural Record and the AIA contract, which was transferred to Architect (and its publisher Hanley Wood). We chatted with Record editor Bob Ivy, who feels genuinely confident that the magazine’s circulation numbers will stay up. Given what I’ve heard about declining membership at the AIA, this makes sense. I actually think the change means that we may have two stronger architecture-oriented magazines. On top of this, of course, The Architect’s Newspaper has just started a Midwest edition, in addition to its East Coast and West Coast ones.

Everybody seems to agree that the future depends on how print publications embrace the Web, but I’m not sure anybody’s got it figured out. Young freelancer (and former I.D. staffer) William Bostwick has been recruited to begin writing for a regular online design publication for Fast Company. Former Metropolis Web Maven Randi Greenberg is writing about design for AOL and Anne Guiney, alumnus of Metropolis, Architecture, and The Architect’s Newspaper, has taken over the Institute for Urban Design. And of course Katie Weeks moved to Washington to take over eco-structure. A lot of changes!

We stopped by the relatively new Ace Hotel, which has a NY funk attitude, but unlike most hotels, it has loads of room to hang out in the lobby, which feels a bit like an old library with bar service. There’s the requisite photo booth. The hotel’s restaurant, Breslin, is popular because it’s dark and serves the best French fries. (Since the vibe is faux English, they call them chips.)

The Ace Hotel

The Ace Hotel

The library table in the lobby of the Ace Hotel

Ralph Pucci had an opening for most of the design commune (www.ralphpucci.net) at his enormous gallery. In the penthouse were the blue chippers with the Jens Risom furniture and the Deborah Turbeville prints. But down on the ninth floor, furniture designer and architect Rob Bristow and his wife Pilar Proffitt held forth. Their custom pieces aren’t cheap, but you won’t ever want to replace them—they are timeless. They have branched out beyond wood and made some exquisite metal pieces. They even got covered in the New York Times last week. We ran into Susan Victoria, formerly of Metropolitan Home, Fred Bernstein, PR maven Liz Kubany, and the young gallery duo Jay Horowitz and Sally Oberbeck of Morgan Lehman (www.morganlehmangallery.com). (Rob and Pilar designed their gallery in Chelsea.) The designers responsible for Facebook’s new offices, Primo Orpilla and Verda Alexander (www.o-plus-a.com), found their way to East 18th Street all the way from San Francisco. Pucci’s old-fashioned PR lady kept telling everybody there were no photos allowed, and all the bloggers looked at her like she was mad and went on taking pictures. It was a great party.

Jay Horowitz and Sally Oberbeck at Ralph Pucci

Rob Bristow and Pilar Proffitt being interviewed at their Ralph Pucci opening

After the opening, we ventured out to Brooklyn to see Andrew Blum. Seems like nobody lives in Manhattan anymore. Most of the writers, editors, and architects live in Brooklyn these days! Andrew is writing a book about the actual bricks and mortar of the Internet (advance and everything!) and is making a film with his wife Davina based on the Princeton Architectural Press book entitled Minka. Check out the trailer at www.vimeo.com/5394397.

Snow began falling on Thursday. Children were mesmerized. They refused to ride in their strollers and stood up on the backs instead, sticking their tongues out trying to catch snowflakes. The garbage at the curb was covered in an even pale frosting. Despite the traffic, the city seemed much quieter, as if a moment of reflection fell over the metropolis. Like another chance.

Snow makes even the garbage look better

One of my favorite subway murals (Roy Lichtenstein)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Remains of Religion: Fenton Johnson and Miscellaneous Notes on Faith

Last year, my sister converted to Judaism. We grew up nominally Unitarian. The other day, I was on the phone with my friend Al, and we talked a little about why so many local Buddhists still identify as Jewish. I mentioned that it might be because there was room for both to coexist in the same person. The theme of multiple faiths keeps coming up.

One of the holiday letters we received in December came from a former Episcopal priest condemning organized religion. Given the continuous news of bombings and betrayals, I understand how he got there. But still, I was a bit surprised. With all the violence rooted in religious advocacy, it is hard to argue for religion as a basis for faith and peace. Did Jesus even intend for an organized religion to follow him? Did Buddha? I have witnessed people gain strength from faith, but where does faith begin? Does it need organized religion? A place to hold and practice it? Apparently, the architecture of the churches of Rome initially drew Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, to Catholicism. Given the way I look at the world, perhaps the best thing that religions give us are the buildings. Nobody knows your silent prayer in a cathedral, temple, or zendo. That’s part of the beauty. You own your own moment.

Over the holidays while we were traveling, I had the chance to read Fenton Johnson’s book Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey among Christian and Buddhist Monks, published in 2003. I had sat next to the author at a San Francisco Public Library dinner in the late 1990s. I remember the date because my mother had just been placed in assisted living and I was struggling with what I thought was best for her. Often I found myself asking for guidance—I wouldn’t have thought to characterize it as prayer.

Fenton Johnson

I had read one of Johnson’s novels and his memoir and enjoyed his work. I must have asked him about his next book, because we got to talking about Thomas Merton and his monastery and the local Buddhist monasteries. Merton died by accident in 1968 in Bangkok following a lecture; he never saw his gesture to the East come to fruition. Johnson spoke about growing up near Merton’s monastery, Gethsemani Abbey, in rural Kentucky, and how the monks came to his home, drank, and danced on the table. We also chatted about the San Francisco Zen Center, a different kind of religious retreat a few blocks away. At the time, I was interested in Zen Buddhism. I had sat zazen at the Berkeley Zen Center and Green Gulch. I had read about Merton but understood very little of his tradition or that of the Buddhists. I just liked my imagined aesthetic idea of them. But I was very interested that someone was going to try and write about these two monastic traditions together and perhaps fulfill some aspect of Merton’s reach.

After our dinner, I forgot to stay on the lookout for the finished work. Last fall, during one of those moments at the end of the workday when I look for old high school friends on the Internet, I thought of that chance meeting and found that Johnson had finished his book six years ago.

My passing interest in both Merton and Zen was rooted in aesthetics and frustration. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to Japanese structures and simple emotional answers to impossible questions. As a kid, I didn’t know that the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park was kitschy. It felt like a calm place where my mother and I could share cups of tea and unusual snacks overlooking a little pond and forget troubles at home. I would walk around the gift shop and imagine what it would be like to live there.

Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park

I must have first heard about Merton when I was a teenager. He looked like an authentic seeker who had some handle on truth. When I saw a photo of his concrete block hermitage many years later, I was disappointed that it wasn’t more beautifully designed. I liked my fantasy of a place to contemplate, not the reality. That was some of the baggage I brought to Johnson’s book. Maybe he could reconcile my ill-informed fantasies.

Johnson’s book begins in 1996, when there was a meeting at Gethsemani Abbey that the Dalai Lama attended. Reading the book requires work; it’s not an easy read. There are three strands: his experiences as a guest at Gethsemani and the San Francisco Zen Center monasteries; a history of monasticism, mostly Christian; and his own journey of faith. Interestingly, the two religious traditions he explores share a similar design aesthetic – at least in their sanctuaries. The chapel at Gethsemani is spare, almost Japanese, as Johnson notes. Of course, the various zendos at Green Gulch and Tassajara are informed by the temples in Japan. This was my own attraction to Buddhism, through the aesthetic door, as it were. My most memorable sitting was in a small zendo in Santa Fe where a friend took me for a two-hour meditation one evening. The structure combined the local adobe building style with Japanese traditions. You don’t begin to see what goes into adobe until you look at a piece of it for two hours. I never saw the night sky so clearly as when we emerged, as if a giant bamboo tea whisk had cleared out my head.

Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in central Kentucky

Gethsemani sanctuary

Gethsemani hermitage

Green Gulch zendo

Tassajara zendo

Johnson excels at the personal narrative (this is true in his memoir, Geography of the Heart, as well). At times his well-researched history of monasticism drags a bit. But his own struggle with faith and how Buddhism and Catholicism conflict and eventually refract each other is earnest, at times stumbling, and finally illuminating. The Dalai Lama has said that there is no need for people to convert to Buddhism; they should meditate within the context of their own religion. In that way, the Dalai Lama offers a path when the original religion, in the case of Johnson and millions of other Catholics, damns you and no longer offers faith. Combined traditions can mean a way forward, and Johnson follows that path. In sitting with the Buddhists, Johnson is able to return to the core of his Christian faith. He writes about Jesus’s teachings and begins to let go of his considerable anger at the oppression coming from Rome. He favors drama, art, and the pursuit of the divine, and reminds us that each individual has to find a path that makes sense. Indeed, it is often the institution and its tendency to perpetuate itself that gets in the way.

Any journey towards faith is difficult to document. If it delves into arcane details of doctrine, it will feel academic and impersonal. But too much of the personal can feel self indulgent or solipsistic. Johnson should be recognized for his courage to reveal a deeply personal journey in a balanced and engaging way. He can be forgiven for the tedious bits – after all, he did a lot of historic research. As he tells us, faith is not the endpoint, it is a process. Although he is keenly sensitive to the environments and what they offer, his search transcends the physical reality of stone and timber. The building can shelter the searcher, even inspire a quest for faith, but it is not really faith itself.

Gesthemani: www.monks.org
SF Zen Center: www.sfzc.org
Fenton Johnson's website: www.fentonjohnson.com
Fenton Johnson's talk on you tube