R.I.P. Saul Leiter (1923-2013)
Color is in the mainstream of photographic practice now. It is essential to the inspired street work of Gueorgui Pinkhassov and Joel Meyerowitz, the large-format portraits of Rineke Dijkstra, the architectural views of Candida Höfer, the personal journalism of Nan Goldin, and the stately landscapes of Thomas Struth. But for a long time, it was considered superficial and suspect. Henri Cartier-Bresson was firmly against it on the grounds that it interfered with formal priorities. John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, dismissed most color photography before he began championing William Eggleston’s in the nineteen-seventies. This was the milieu—which, if not hostile, was not exactly encouraging—out of which Saul Leiter created a series of breathtaking, almost miraculous, photographs. He shot Kodachrome slides, and many of them were not printed until decades after they were exposed.
One of the most effective gestures in Leiter’s work is to have great fields of undifferentiated dark or light, an overhanging canopy, say, or a snow drift, interrupted by gashes of color. He returned again and again to a small constellation of subjects: mirrors and glass, shadows and silhouettes, reflection, blur, fog, rain, snow, doors, buses, cars, fedoras. He was a virtuoso of shallow depth of field: certain sections of some of the photographs look as if they have been applied with a quick brush. It will come as no surprise to a viewer of his work that Leiter was also a painter, that his heroes were Degas, Vuillard, and Bonnard, and that he knew the work of Rothko and de Kooning well. There are points of contact between his work and that of the photographers like Louis Faurer and Robert Frank, the so-called New York School; but Leiter was an original. He loved beauty. To make a living, he photographed fashion spreads for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and the levity of his commercial ventures seeped into his personal work.
But the overriding emotion in his work is a stillness, tenderness, and grace that is at odds with the mad rush of New York street life.
In July of 1954, [Nelson] sent Kirkpatrick an enthusiastic note: “We have completed some preliminary sketches and are beginning to get rather steamed up about some of the possibilities.” The letter describes elements of the plan, including “a private 2-story apartment which can be completely closed off from the rest of the house.” This he describes in greater detail: “To get some fun into the house we have set up the living room end as a 2-story cage using a lot of glass, with your bedroom sitting on a kind of bridge above part of it. Obviously, there is no sound barrier between living room and master bedroom, but it was assumed that if the bedroom was being used, the living room would be out of action. The feeling of open space one would get this way could be kind of wonderful.”
Indeed. The good news—and this isn’t always the case—is that the Kirkpatrick House is still wonderful, nearly 60 years later:
A long-time collector of vintage Herman Miller furniture, the present-day owner, Dave Corner, found the home nine years ago, after coming to see the owner about possibly buying a set of rosewood dressers in the master bedroom. “I asked him point blank to call me first if he was ever considering selling the house,” Corner recalls. “A year later I got the call.” Now after almost a decade of dedicated research and work, Corner has fully restored the Kirkpatrick House, even down to Nelson’s original color scheme.
There’s a lovely article about the Kirkpatrick House over at the Herman Miller blog. Click through to read the whole thing.
In one of Kirkpatrick’s early letters to Nelson a comment stands out for its clarity: “We are not so much concerned about the appearance of the outside,” he writes, “as we are about the livability of the inside.” In many ways, “livability” is one of the words that best sums up Nelson’s work. To Nelson, design wasn’t some kind of theoretical, intellectual exercise—it was a way of seeing solutions to problems people faced. It was a service. Throughout his career, Nelson advocated solutions—from seating to city plans—that would improve the way people lived. He constantly searched for a better way to do things—and spared no contempt for the thoughtlessness and failures he identified in the world around him. Ultimately, Nelson may be better remembered for quirky clocks than practicing architecture, but on a wooded lot in Kalamazoo, powerful evidence of his vision lives on.
Van Dyke Parks philosophizes about the Beatles and Dennis Wilson in the parking lot of Tower Records (1976)
R.M. Schindler’s Van Dekker House in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Built in 1940, this strange, beautiful residence deteriorated along with the health of its previous owner, noir screenwriter and novelist A.I. Bezzerides, who died at the age of 98 in 2007.
Earlier this year, I dropped in and discovered something distressing: the restoration that started in 2009 had stalled out.
Now the Van Dekker House is for sale again. It’s probably my favorite Schindler—modernism at its most soulful.
If anybody has $799,00 to buy her and another, oh, $500,000+ to fix her up, let’s talk.
"Like Dreamers Do," The Beatles (1962)
This might be the most important song the Beatles ever recorded.
Malcolm Gladwell once theorized that “before [the Beatles] went to Hamburg they were just not a good band. It was as a result of being forced to play in this extraordinary environment that they mastered what it took to be the greatest rock band of all time.” In short, that practice—thousands of hours of live performance—made perfect.
In a new essay for The Daily Beast, I explain why Gladwell is wrong—and my account hinges, in part, on “Like Dreamers Do.”
The Beatles’ “excellence at performing” is not “what it took” for them to become the greatest rock band of all time. In fact, the Beatles were stuck in a rut even after they returned from Hamburg in 1961—and their live expertise was not enough to get them out of it. …
If the Beatles hadn’t started to play “Like Dreamers Do” at the end of 1961, they never would have recorded it at their Decca audition. As a result, they never would have met George Martin or had the perfect career they wound up having. None of that, meanwhile, would have happened if McCartney hadn’t written the song in the first place, and McCartney probably wouldn’t have written it if he and Lennon hadn’t gotten into the habit of going “eyeball to eyeball” in the front parlor of 20 Forthlin Road.
The thing that got John and Paul writing songs together at the ages of 17 and 15, respectively, is, I think, the same thing that ultimately made the Beatles the Beatles. It’s there in Lennon’s remark about Buddy Holly’s three-chord compositions—“why not write your own?” It’s there in the capital letters—ANOTHER LENNON-MCCARTNEY ORIGINAL—that McCartney scrawled above each set of new lyrics. “Teenagers all over Britain liked Buddy Holly and rock and roll, but of that large number only a fraction picked up a guitar and tried playing it, and fewer still—in fact hardly anyone—used it as the inspiration to write songs themselves,” Lewisohn writes. “John and Paul didn’t know anyone else who did, no one from school or college, no relative or friend.”
The Beatles’ secret ingredient was arrogance. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Arrogance—a kind of foolish, adolescent self-belief; an ignorant, intuitive certainty that your way is the right way—is the root of all great art. Without it, talent and timing aren’t enough. We all have a dash of it when we’re young. In middle school we write Whitmanesque poems; in high school we start a Beatlesque band. But then we weigh the odds and consider our options, and reality sets in. Sometime around 18 we begin to assess ourselves more accurately—to find our proper rank in humanity’s big talent show. Our ambition stops outstripping our ability. And then we stall out and settle down.
The Beatles never did that.
For more on the artistic value of arrogance—and how “Like Dreamers Do” changed the Beatles’ lives—click here.
Today in Beautiful Things I Will Never Be Able to Afford: An extensive collection of custom George Nakashima furniture is coming to LAMA in February:
In 1962, Edmund J. Bennett, self-taught residential builder and community planner, opened the Carderock Springs subdivision in Bethesda, Maryland, a housing development that promised community and modern living. Ahead of its time, the Carderock Springs subdivision featured homes with 4- and 5-bedroom houses, which were “modeled to cause as little alteration to the natural landscape as possible.”
In addition to his modern housing designs, Bennett was a savvy marketer. In September 1963, to publicize a newly developed section in the subdivision, Bennett with the help of architect-designer Doris Harris, commissioned George Nakashima to completely furnish the Valleyview model home to attract the attention of contemporary buyers.
Bennett’s marketing strategy paid off. On November 16, 1963, The Washington Post published an article about George Nakashima, his designs, and the Carderock Springs subdivision, bringing over 1,000 people to the model home that week alone.
The collection includes a Conoid bench, a hanging wall case, a Slab II coffee table, a set of 12 Conoid chairs, hanging wall mirrors, a Frenchman’s Cove II dining table and extension, a Q Bench, a double sliding door cabinet, table lamps, a Conoid storage headboard, two daybeds, a “New” lounge rocking chair, and many other expertly crafted designs.
"Deep As Your Pocket" by Loretta Lynn (1970). From Writes ‘Em and Sings ‘Em, which indeed she did. Christgau nails it:
Owen Bradley steals a trick from Andrew Loog Oldham here even if he never heard of the fella—like Flowers, this is a “concept album” conceived largely to recycle old material, and like Flowers it works anyway. No cover filler or publishing tie-ins, just the continuing saga of a strong-willed woman committed to a male-defined world. In most of these pungently colloquial songs (punch line of “You Wanna Give Me a Lift”: “But this ole gal ain’t goin’ that far”), Lynn is either boasting or telling somebody off, and even when she’s addressing herself to a woman, what’s got her excited is a man—her man, for better or (usually) worse. A-
The band is crackerjack too. Sounds like James Burton on guitar to me.
IN-62 Table by Isamu Noguchi (1948). Richard Wright explains its appeal:
This table illustrates what I love about Herman Miller—their willingness to be experimental. … Each of the three tables I’ve handled had different stone tops, but on each the quality of the finish and handcraft was superb. But then all this work is done on a very quirky three-legged table that absolutely straddles the line of sublime and ugly. When you take the marble top off, which is beautifully finished, the quality of the wood legs is not that great. Then there is this stainless steel bowl, some kind of a planter that you can float a flower in. For all the world it looks like a dog bowl that has had phalanges welded onto it. They literally adapted some sort of off-the-shelf bowl. On all three tables the construction detail is the same. Ultimately, for me, this is Herman Miller at its best.
One of these tables sold in 2005 for $630,000. More Herman Miller castoffs and curiosities here.
Forget the Allmans. The Best Live Album Ever is by The Band—and it’s not The Last Waltz. From my official nomination letter:
There was always something generous about The Band. The vocals, for starters: few other acts have ever had three lead singers. The Beatles had three, and so did the Beach Boys; they harmonized damn well, too. But what made The Beatles and The Beach Boys so spectacular vocally was that they could vanish into each other with their voices. They blended because they were consonant.
The Band was different. Levon Helm’s voice was a throaty Delta burr. Richard Manuel’s was a black-coffee moan. Rick Danko’s was a high, clear sob. They didn’t sound anything alike. When they sang, they stumbled in and out and over and under each other, Appalachian-style, making no attempt to neatly align every note. And yet the effect was at least as potent as Lennon-McCartney-Harrison or the Wilson-Love clan.
Usually with harmony, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But with The Band you can hear always hear the parts and the whole at the same time, and the force and beauty of each is undiminished. A seamless blend is breathtaking, but you get more music for your money with The Band—more lines and phrasings and shadings per second, more to discover and delight in and return to. No other group is like that.
Read the rest here.
New in house: David Hockney, The Boy Hidden in an Egg. Signed offset lithographic poster from Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, Galerie Der Spiegel, Cologne (1970)
How did I never know about Hockney and Grimm before?
Hockney began working on etchings for Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the late sixties. He had made some experimental prints inspired by ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ in 1961 and 1962 and now wanted to make a whole book. He loved the stories and had read all 220 of them over the years. He eventually chose twelve stories but only did engravings for six. …
The work of engraving the copper plates was carried out by Hockney with his assistant Maurice Payne on special tables set up in the Powys Terrace studio. The acid baths were kept on the balcony outside, because otherwise the fumes would have filled the whole flat. The finished etchings formed a more complex project than anything he had attempted before. His new technique of cross-hatching instead of using aquatint achieves a much richer range of tones.
In 1969, Hockney published his version of Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm as an artist’s book:
In each book edition, the unit is a volume with closed bolt pages handsewn and bound, and a sleeve containing loose etchings, in a single slipcase. Each portfolio is in a box with the cover hinged on the longer side. The books, sleeves, slipcases and portfolios have been bound in full leather, each edition in a different blue. All bindings and boxes have been made up by hand by Rudolf Reiser in Cologne.
The book has been printed in four editions of 100 with 15 artist’s proofs, each including the six fairy tales and 39 etchings; they are signed and numbered on this page. Each volume is accompanied by six loose etchings in a sleeve selected from the book, signed by the artist on the face and numbered on the reverse; the editions each having a different set of loose etchings as listed below.
I’d love to get my hands on one of those, but they’re a bit too pricey for my blood.
For now we’ll have to make to do with our exhibition poster—and the beautiful images below.
A recent review nails their appeal (for me at least):
For the most part the illustrations are allusive, not so much off-topic as off-action, looking for moments of stillness that freeze the characters and their quizzical psyches in space. Simplified and cut close to the bone, they suggest the strange ritualistic timelessness and eerie hyperrealism that make the worlds of fairy tale and magic so potent and memorable. The tales, and Hockney’s illustrations, reside in that enthralling, floating, slightly frightening space where childhood glimpses adulthood, and adulthood slips back into childhood. “They’re fascinating little stories,” Hockney wrote, “told in a very very simple, direct and straightforward language and style; it was their simplicity that attracted me. They cover quite a strange range of experience from the magical to the moral.”
If you’re in Los Angeles tonight, stop by See Line Gallery between 6:00 and 8:30 for the opening of Elizabeth McCord Paintings.
Elizabeth McCord was an influential California modernist painter who was pretty much forgotten after the 1950s but really deserves to be remembered. I’m hoping this little show will help kickstart a revival.
I discovered McCord’s work through (surprise, surprise) Alvin Lustig. Turns out that in 1950 Julius Shulman photographed the home that Lustig designed for the artist June Wayne. And guess whose painting was hanging over Wayne’s sofa? Elizabeth McCord’s:
Here’s more information on McCord from the release I wrote to accompany the exhibition:
“Our own body processes are accessible to the direct experience of painting and this is the ‘message’… Painting is a balance of paint energy.”- Elizabeth McCord, 1981
See Line Gallery is pleased to present Elizabeth McCord Paintings, an exhibition of rarely seen and newly discovered paintings from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s by groundbreaking California modernist artist Elizabeth McCord (1914 -2008). It is the most in-depth examination of McCord’s work in nearly 20 years.
Elizabeth McCord was born in 1914 in Dayton, Ohio. From 1932 to 1934, she studied at the Art Institute of Chicago; after graduation, she taught at the Hull House, Chicago’s first social settlement. While participating in the Work Progress Administration (WPA) between 1939 and 1943, McCord created her first mature works, several of which were exhibited in 1940 at the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C.
In 1945 McCord moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. Her paintings—colorful biomorphic and architectural abstractions that helped to shape California’s hard-edge movement of 1950s—were greeted with widespread acclaim, frequently appearing in shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Art Museum, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Art Association, and the Art Center School of Design alongside works by Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundeberg, Josef Albers, June Wayne, and Knud Merrild, among others.
McCord’s paintings were uniquely poised at the intersection of Southern California’s thriving mid-century art, design, and architecture scenes. In 1951, McCord’s work was featured in LACMA’s cutting-edge exhibition Painting in the USA; the same year, she participated in Six Portable Murals, a group show organized by the Los Angeles Art Association that advertised itself as a collection of paintings “designed especially for mid-century architecture.” “Painting,” a large McCord abstraction acquired by June Wayne and prominently displayed in Wayne’s Alvin Lustig-designed home, appeared on the cover of the Nov. 11, 1951 issue of The Los Angeles Times Home magazine in a color photograph by Julius Shulman. Leading architectural critic Esther McCoy wrote the accompanying article.
In 2011, the seeds of a McCord revival were planted when her Big Pink (1951) was the only painting chosen to appear in Living in a Modern Way, LACMA’s sweeping, celebrated survey of mid-century California design, which is currently traveling internationally.
Now, with a wide selection of rare and unseen paintings handpicked from family archives by curator Janet Levy, Elizabeth McCord Paintings both deepens and expands upon the ongoing—and long overdue—rediscovery and reevaluation of this seminal modernist’s work. The biomorphic, hard-edge forms of the 1950s give way, in the 1960s and 1970s, to paintings that blend looser brushstrokes with tighter geometrical masses yet continue McCord’s intensely personal, near-architectural exploration of “light and form”—a style she described in 1981 as “a pulsating surface superimposed over a cubist architecture with transparencies, arabesques and rectangular parches.”
“[I] mov[e] around over the canvas with color until something speaks to me, some discovery is made,” said McCord. “Then begins a long process of adjusting and destroying, adding and subtracting until the surface falls into place with a balance of movement and peace.”