While the museum is shut down and people are shuttered at home, the Art Institute of Chicago is creating short "video tours" of some of their exhibits. As a member, I get their email updates, and figured that I should pass them along. This first is a brief, 2-minute exploration of the exhibition El Greco: Ambition and Defiance, led by curator Rebecca Long and research associate Jena Carvana. "Follow along as they lead you through the galleries and share some of the reasons El Greco and his work continue to fascinate us."
I've written here in the past about what a terrific artist my cousin Diana Leviton Gondek is, who works out of the Zhou B Art Center in Chicago, where she's an artist-in-residence. I'm biased, of course, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong. (Among other things, she was commissioned to make life-size fiberglass horses to honor fallen Chicago police officers, of which one work was displayed at Mayor Rahm Emmanuel's office. And she was commissioned to do the artiwork for the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics, which got its start in Chicago.) You can see much of her work here, in case you want to see some actual visual evidence.
It was therefore a treat to read an absolutely wonderful article about Diana -- described as "Famed American artist" (which admittedly may come as a surprise to Jackson Pollock, though it allowed her to write me back, addressed as "Dear Cousin of Famed Artist") -- for an international women's magazine, eShe Magazine, published out of New Delhi, India.
The article is detailed, but not terribly long, and I heartily recommend it -- biased as I am -- for the stories she tells about how she got from there to here. What stood out most to me was talking about her mother, my Aunt Iris, who was an inspiration and so supportive of her. It couldn't have been otherwise, since Aunt Iris was as close to being the living incarnation of 'Auntie Mame' as anyone I've ever come across -- though in fairness, that's help by her being my actual aunt. Something not even Diana can claim.
You can read the full article here.
Unrelated to the article, but part of the whole "This is Diana" picture, she mentioned to me a wonderful-sounding workshop she's putting together for an Art of Epilepsy Exhibition, done with young artists who have epilepsy. After they finish their paintings on what life story they wish to tell, Diana will then create a sort of montage, "our version of the Chagall’s American Windows," is how she puts it, with the hope being to have it all come together at the Epilepsy Conference this fall. The Neurologist in charge of the overall project, Dr. Julie Thompson-Dobkin, said she wants to use Diana's idea in other states where the exhibition is shown.
(If you don't know the Chagall American Windows, they're a mosaic he did for the Chicago Art Institute. Here's a photo I took of it, which is three large panels together.)
And just so we end on Diana, and not that Chagall fellow -- who, great and famed as he is, he is not American, nor Diana, here is one of her horses, this the one outside then-Mayor Emmanuel's office.
(Side note: After I took the photo at City Hall, I spent a while there typing away on my cell phone. As this whole process took a while -- including quite a few attempts trying to find the best angle to get the horse, door and Mayor's sign in the frame. with the cordoned-off area in the way -- it eventually caught the attention of some official people there who politely but pointedly asked me, "Er, sir, what are you doing??" I explained that my cousin designed the horses and I was trying to write an email to her, tapping letter-by-letter with my thumbs, not one of my top skills, and figuring out how to send the picture. That satisfied their concern, and since they all expressed how much they liked the horse, I even got bonus points for being Cousin of Famed Artist, a title I am now considering putting on my business cards)
Okay, so this isn't particularly unknown, given that it's Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. But what the heck, it's a great, uncommon video that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus made only a few years ago under the baton of Riccardo Muti. (They pretty much never release full videos, but this was funded as a special memorial tribute, which the video explains.)
The whole thing is glorious, but If you only want to celebrate the season with the Ode to Joy section, that comes in at the 52:12 mark, and you can just jump directly to it.
Classical musical station KUSC in Los Angeles has done some weird things over the years, mostly during the last five or so. This concerns one of my bugaboos. It's not anything major, just personal. But then, that's the point of a bugaboo. The underlying theme behind all of them at KUSC is that the station has been dumbing down its programming. It's still quite respectable. Just less so than before. And if such things are needed to keep classical music on the radio dial, I get it. I know we're lucky to have a classical musical station in Los Angeles unlike many cities. Though I've heard classical music stations in some of the other cities that still do have theirs, and the level of weirdness is less. Then again, in fairness, this is Los Angeles. Though in equal fairness, because this is Los Angeles, the entertainment center of the U.S., if you're going to do shtick, you'd better do it really well because the competition is strong.
Anyway, back to the show. And what follows is nothing especially substation -- just another one of my occasional personal bugaboo tales --
Between 7-8 in the morning, which is generally when I get up, the station started two features about 10-15 years ago. The first of these features, which comes on at 7:15 is the "Off to School" request selection. I wrote about it here at great length, so I will spare you and not repeat it all again. The very short version is that it's a perfectly fine idea in theory -- letting kids request a classical music selection in the morning -- but is dismal in practice. Not only because they eventually realized that not enough kids were requesting classical music, so they've had to expand the "Off to School" concept to the point of meaningless, by now allowing requests from just about anyone in the world who has children regardless of age or has grandchildren or students, or who knows someone who may have once been a child -- but also because when an actual child does request something, it's almost always a movie theme (which isn't classical music) and usually the theme from Harry Potter.
The other feature comes along around 7:45 in the morning, the Great Composer Quiz. Again, in theory it's a perfectly nice idea. The host who created the idea at least put in the time to come up with thoughtful clues before playing a piece of music by the Great Composer who you were supposed to guess. He was a bit overly-pedantic in presenting the quiz, making it seem Oh-So-Important ("...and so...who IS...today's -- GREAT...COMPOSER??!") but it was handled fine, and an okay guessing game.
When a new host came in, though, his heart was never in it. And worse, he didn't want to risk any listening not possibly missing the right answer, so it came across like he didn't try to come up with clues until five minutes before, and his clues would be things like, "Okay, today's Great Composer was German, and famous for writing operas like The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, and a movie was made about his life that won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and he was considered a child prodigy who had a rival name Antonio Salieri and his name rhymed with "oat-zart." And here's a piece of music he wrote -- and would then play "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." But what made it worst of all is that after all these clues, he'd say, "Okay, I think after all of that you should really be able to get it now!!" which not only is not the point of a quiz, but it only served to make listeners feel really terrible if after all those easy clues they couldn't guess it.
I only bring this up today because this morning they went from the ridiculous to the sublime There was a new host today -- I don't know if this is temporary or permanent, though she did a nice job -- and it doesn't seem like she has quite grasped the best way to handle the Great Composer Quiz yet. It was actually sort of funny. From "You will probably be able to guess this even if you have never listened to classical music in your life and accidentally just landed on this station today", we now are at "You probably won't be able to guess this unless you have a PhD in musical composition and a Ouija board."
I am not exaggerating today's Great Composer Quiz. The clues were basically -- "Today's composer was born in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. He only ate fish. He was a bachelor. And he was part of a group known as 'The Five.' So, who is today's Great Composer?" Okay, on three, all together, one -- two...wait, the looks on your faces suggest that those clues didn't help much. Not to worry, I'm not too big to admit I didn't have a clue either. But then I thought, well, maybe, the piece of music will ring a bell with me. No, it didn't. Not the slightest idea.
So, I waited to hear who the Great Composer was. I know there are a lot of well-regarded classical composers whose names I recognize, but don't know all that well. People like Scriabin, Monteverdi, Purcell, Donizetti, Messiaen, and such, composers I've heard of but know very little about and would have a hard time recognizing their music. Though I know that experts would know them well.
And so, who was today's Great Composer who likes fish, is a bachelor and was born in Nizhny Novgorod? It was none other than -- Mily Balakirev!!
And I hear the collective "Ahhhhhhhhh, of course!! It was Balakirev!" from all of you.
I suppose that KUSC will continue to run these features for a while -- probably a long while. And that's okay. At heart, the idea behind them is fine. And I am certain that there are many many who loooove the. Fair enough. (And fair enough, too, that there are those who don't.) It is just my fondest wish that if the station is going to have Fun Features that they actually figure out how to make them fun. And make them work properly. And not just be time fillers to seem clever and audience-involving when instead they handle them like afterthoughts.
Handel. Now, if that was the Great Composer, I might have been able to guess it...
Though I'm a member of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I'm not a big fan of the place. I find the collection and presentation a bit stale and pedestrian, more "folk art" and artifacts than I personally care for. (In fairness, LACMA is under a major renovation, so it seems likely that the presentation will change, and we'll see if there is any addition to the core collection.) However, it's certainly an important organization, has a respectable foundation of works, and often they have very good traveling exhibitions.
I went there a few weeks back, and the day was a combination of both. On the one hand, they had two exhibitions that did little for me. One was one the Art of Korean Writing, which was largely big displays of calligraphy in Korean. Another was a photography exhibition by Thomas Joshua Cooper. For me, I love good photography and have some framed in my home, but when presented in an exhibition, or at an art museum what I want is for it to be at another level, using the camera not just for making beautiful pictures, but to create imagery that brings insight to the human condition or natural world that we wouldn't see otherwise.
This what I mean. I can't do what Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Chagall and other painters do. They operate on another level from most people. Even artists who work at a more accessible style, they bring their own sensibility to their work -- the perspective they choose, the materials they use, the use of their brush, the twisting of reality or the pointed observation. But most people can take a good photograph, even lucking out with something special if the light and perspective are just right totally by chance. I have some really nice photos that I've taken. They aren't remotely as good or artistic as what a professional photographer does, taking and manipulating the image, but even just being point-and-shoot they're in the range of where you can compare them. You can't, however, compare my stick-figure drawings to Renoir or even "dogs playing poker." To be clear, when a photographer like Ansel Adams or Gordon Parks or Richard Avedon transcend beautiful pictures and bring out visions of humanity, then (to me) those reach the level where artistry is their core. But for my personal taste, you need that, not just taking beautiful, interesting images. I can take beautiful, interesting images-- not nearly as well, but I can do it. Most people can do it. And sometimes, yes, even as well.
Here are two color photos in the Cooper exhibit from his visit to Antarctica. The one on the left is "Whiteout." The picture on the right is titled "South Pole Winter Solstice."
I can do that. Both of them. I can do it by accident, screwing up. I just have to leave to cap on the lens. Or simply accidentally overexpose the shot as much as possible. Or take a picture of the sun.
My point isn't that these are bad or good. Some people may love them. Fair enough. My point is just that I can do that. I can't do what Salvador Dali did. (Yes, I know there is some modern art like these two photos. Forgetting for the moment that I don't care for that in paintings either, at least those have texture in the brush work and the choice of oils or water color. These are just white and black. I got up close and looked. There was no texture. It's just a white photograph. And a black one. And again, maybe he did it in a technique that make these work in a way that I couldn't. But -- I could take two pictures like this and come close. I can't come close to Michelangelo.)
To be fair, not all of Cooper's photos were like this. Some were extremely nice. But even at that -- and again, this is just personal taste -- I want more than "extremely nice photographs" when I'm taking my time to visit a museum. I want Henri-Cartier Bresson and Annie Liebowitz. I want Dorthea Lange's faces of the Great Depression.
On the other hand, there was a very interesting exhibit called "The Allure of Matter: Material Art from China." It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but eventually I did -- all the art work used material other than the traditional sources we expect of paintings. No oil, no water color. Instead, they all used everyday objects to create their art. It worked on two levels: they were rich and interesting as standalone pieces, whatever the material, but they were also fascinating to view up close for how the everyday world was manipulated into art.
Here are two examples.
The first by Zhang Huan is hard to do justice because there is a dimensional texture to painting (especially one using a the kind of material Zhang works with), and any online graphic will flatten them out. But this was his, I guess you'd call it, painting.
I found it very rich, moody and textured with interesting detail. Only when I walked closer, read the description and looked at it up close did I realize that that was made entirely with ashes. With his assistants, he separated piles of ash into different piles depending on their shade. And from that, he created the work. This below is a close-up of one of the people shoveling, so you can perhaps get a hint of what I'm describing.
And then there's one other that struck my fancy. When I walked into the large room, I again didn't know what the work was, just that it seemed like a very effective piece of impressionism. Perhaps a big rug. But again, when I got close up to it, on my knees, in fact, that's where I saw how it was made. And almost burst out laughing. Why the artist Xu Bing chose the material, who knows? But he got a wonderful result. A photo won't get any of this across, so I took a video. Watch it all the way through -- it's only about a half-minute.
It's not just that this was a clever use of material, but even if it was made of wool or some fabric it was an interesting design on its own merits.
But made with cigarettes?? By the way, when I walked in the room, there was an odd aroma permeating the place. I couldn't quite place it, but then realized that there must have been people in there smoking, which was contrary to being in an art museum and likely against all the rules. Of course, I eventually figured out it was the overwhelming smell of tobacco.
One last tale.
Another exhibit was called "Sound Stories" by Christian Marclay. It was a collection of dark rooms that each used sound in a different way. I won't say whether I found it good or bad, but it was at least interesting and sort of fun to wander through. I say "sort of" for the reason of the tale. As I said, the area was all dark, with only the exhibits offering some light, along with exit signs. There also was a low bench -- painted (for some reason, perhaps because they wanted it to blend in) black. And I have a condition that's called night blindness. So, as you might imagine, a low black bench in a darkened room is not the ideal situation for folks, especially thems with night blindness. The good news is that I didn't have to go to the gift shop because I still have a memento of the visit with me on my shin, three weeks later. Additionally good news is that I am no longer hobbling...
I love the Art Institute of Chicago. In fact, I still am a member and try to make a visit there on every visit to the city. I've periodically posted here photos of some of their great collection -- like Grant Wood's American Gothic and Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. Or Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette, and...okay, you get the idea. Well, as it turns out, today is the 125th anniversary of the place. (And by "today," I mean yesterday when I meant to post this...) And this is a very nice, short minute-and-a-half video they made for the occasion -- The Art Institute of Chicago: The First 125 Years.
I figured that I really should have a bit of Leonard Bernstein's own music on the 100th anniversary of his birth yesterday. So, here's a successful, but lesser-known piece of his work, Fancy Free. This was a ballet that ended up being the basis for a longer work, the musical On the Town, about three sailors on shore leave in New York City. (Later made into a movie.)
This is the full ballet, written in 1944 and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. performed here by the New York City Ballet in 1986,
I went to downtown Chicago today for a concert, but first wandered through the Loop a bit. It was a Day of Art since the city has a wonderful tradition of outdoor artwork from renowned artists. It began in 1967 when Pablo Picasso designed a terrific, fascinating, albeit odd sculpture when Richard J. Daley was mayor, and it resides in what is now Daley Plaza.
When I walked by today, it was in a setting unlike any I had every seen. Because it was the early part of lunch hour, the plaza (and, in turn, the sculpture) was ringed by food trucks. I had two reactions: the first was what a shame to have such a magnificent piece of hour off-set by this mass of half-a-dozen big vehicles. The second though was to note how accepted this great work is as a daily part of the city (no pun intended), and there was something almost charming to have it blend in to it all
Continuing my walk, I passed by what is probably my favorite of the outdoor "world-class" artwork. Much as I really like The Picasso (as it's known in town), I love the piece designed by Marc Chagall for the city in 1977. I believe it's called "The Four Seasons," and is a gorgeous, joyful mosaic that presents each season on a side of a large rectangular block. It's pretty in photographs, but they don't come close to doing it justice, because only up close can you see that it's not a painting, focus on the tens of thousands of little colored stones that make up the work, and walk around all four sides.
The work sits on the east side of what was originally the First National Bank of Chicago Plaza, but is now called Exelon Plaza.
There's a good deal of other outdoor art by world-famous artists throughout the downtown, including another one I particular like that's of a 53-foot tall flamingo by Alexander Calder. However, I didn't pass by it on this trip.
But it was one other piece of art that was really the destination of my walk, and why I took the El in early. For as much as I love the Chagall and Picasso (and Calder), this one sculpture stands out tall above them all. It's the second of the three fiberglass horses that my cousin Diana Leviton Gondek designed for the city. I wrote about one yesterday, down the block from Wrigley Field, and this one sits outside the Office of the Mayor in City Hall.
That's two horses down, one to go. After taking a picture of the horse, I set about writing about it for a posting on Facebook. I'm not the fastest typist on a mobile phone, so it took a while. During all this, a few people came out of Mayor Emmanuel's office (I made sure to get the sign in my photo) and noticed me there, taking pictures and doing something on my phone that was taking forever. They politely, but warily asked what I was doing. "I am the cousin of the artiste!" I explained. (Okay, I didn't say "artiste," but that was the subtext.) They took that well, since they all like the horse. As well they should
The end of my Day of Art took me took Symphony Hall for a concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I had lunch first with one of the executives of the CSO on the top floor of Symphony Hall, which was a treat -- it's a very old building with great architecture. And the concert was great. Their music director Riccardo Muti was in town, so he conducted. A couple of pieces by Debussy and two by Tchaikowsky. And it sounded as rich and vibrant and meticulous as I've heard them.
But the horse. That was the treat...
This is for opera lovers. The great classical radio station WFMT will be streaming the current Lyric Opera of Chicago live production of Turandot tonight (Tuesday) at 7:15 PM Chicago time. That's 5:15 PM in Los Angeles. You people overseas have to spin the dial and figure it out on your own.
I'm not a huge opera fan, though I'm okay listening to it. But I haven't attended all that many. However, Puccini'sTurandot is one that I've seen several times. (It's "big hit" is the famous aria "Nessun Dorma. But lots of fine music in it.
Just click here for the live stream.
Over the weekend, I saw three movies and an opera. Here are some brief reactions.
Lady Bird – Written and directed by actress Greta Gerwig, who's has other screenplays to her credit. I liked it all the way through, and loved much of it. But I didn’t “loooove” it as much as many reviewers because (for my taste) it was more episodic than I prefer, and for a character study, the characters don't change much. But one doesn’t have to “looove” something to still like it a lot and admire it. And I enjoyed it very much. And though Saorise Ronan is getting the deserved star attention, Laurie Metcalf in particular is great.
Geostorm – Utterly popcorn silliness, but well-produced, great effects, and to its credit only about 90 minutes, not a long, drawn-out epic like so many of these try to do to give themselves more "heft." This accepts that it's just light-hearted folderol and so it zips through without being overbearing and pretentious. And as a result I thought it was fun to watch and then move on.
Roman J. Israel, Esq. – Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, who also made the well-crafted and eerie, Nightcrawler. Very good, though it is a little slow for a while to get going, taking about an hour for the first substantive plot turn, being largely character-driven up to that point. But (and this is critical) it’s never boring during this first hour because Denzel Washington is so utterly terrific. I was absolutely fascinated by the character that's being developed, so going along for the ride until things turn was a pleasure.
And then I went to the L.A. Opera on Sunday to see Verdi’s Nabucco because Placido Domingo was in it. I’m not a big opera fan (though oddly I’m okay listening to it), but this was enjoyable, and this Domingo guy has a future in him. Mark my words. I think it was also the first opera I've seen with super-titles, which I know have been around for a while. But that's how few operas I go to. Though a little distracting, they certainly make a big difference for following things. Combined with reading the plot beforehand, it sure helps. Anyway, I'll be curious to see what this Domingo fellow does next.
By the way, back to Roman J. Israel, Esq., there's a terrific trailer that gets across much of why Denzel Washington is to tremendous in the role -- but it also gives away some of the big plot twists, so I'm not going to post it here. This short clip doesn't do his full work justice, but it does give a sense of it. The scene comes near the beginning, where he has been working as the hard-working grunt in a three-person law office for a great many years, doing the research and court filings for the firm's owner, whose daughter has just told Roman he had a massive heart attack.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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