"Skepticism, Cynicism, Stoicism, Optimism"
THREE WEEKS, VOLUME 1 ISSUE 13 - JULY 6, 2002
"If you sound your trumpets, then we shall ring our bells."
A Survey of Decisions, by Alexander Swartwout
Another Item from Mr. Tyree, of Astoria: Rise Up, You Metropolitans, by J.M. Tyree, Esq.
Pictures at an Exhibition
The Weather, by Eliza Anne Bonney
Return to Three Weeks Issues
A SURVEY OF DECISIONS
AN EDITORIAL REGARDING THE RECENT EFFORTS OF THE JUDICIAL BRANCH
What Little Progress There Is, Nullified
by Alexander Swartwout
The American judiciary has had its first lucid moment in perhaps thirty years, in the body of a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. And to thank them for their service, America, left and right en masse, has leveled unprecedented vitriol at the judges, bullying them into staying their decision pending inevitable appeal. This is no mean feat their decision, by its very nature, is not binding until appeal, so their sudden circumspection is certainly spurred by intimidation and not legal strategy. Indeed, the judges, for their good sense, have been abandoned by every presumable ally. Even Senator Daschle, who has demonstrated, as majority leader, that he is little more than a weaselly opportunist free from the constraints of conviction, has called the judges ‘nuts.’ And for what?
It was the Pledge of Allegiance the court slung their arrows at, and with cunning aim plunked the clause ‘one nation under God’ as unconstitutional, a breach of the separation of church and state, so long as it is read by public schoolchildren. Until this hullabaloo erupted, it was little-known that the God-clause was added by Congress in only 1954, in a haze of white-bred theocratic Cold War pettiness; the Congress thinking themselves holier than the Marxist minister who penned the secular oath in the 19th century, and sager than Jefferson, who hadn’t foreseen the godless Soviet menace when he devised the structure that would keep the church out of the state, and the state out of the church. Already, in 1943, the Supreme Court had decided that the Pledge was a sniveling trifle, and that its reading could not be made mandatory in American public schools. Nevertheless, it has remained ‘heavily recommended’ in forty-odd states even until this year, and now a new troop of born-again patriots have infested the state legislatures, and are pushing to make the Pledge requisite once more. It has taken fifty years and our newly reactionary political climate to instigate some clear-headed constitutionalist to stand up and point out this breach of the Framer’s intent. And having finally done so, even the New York Times has run screaming the other way.
For if the court’s decision against the Pledge comes as something of a surprise, it is only outdone by the total absence of defenders sticking up for it in the aftermath. The U.S. Senate stopped their heavy lifting to draft a meaningless, but unanimous, resolution condemning the Ninth Circuit to the depths of fiery hell. The Times’ editors convoluted some rationale about how the fifty-year old God-clause was a harmless ‘tradition,’ which has lost its religious significance through repetition, and they recommend impressionable children of every faith continue to be subjected to it for just this derriere-forward reason. If it is meaningless, then why retain it? And does the Times really think so lowly of the American student body, that they will never crack the theocratic code they are asked to recite, and made to listen to, every day of their school-going lives?
Naturally the religious right wing is utterly a-seethe, as well, though that is more or less the idea behind the whole endeavor. Offending that contingent shall forever be as difficult as a one-foot putt. But it is notable because they have the President himself in their pocket, firmly enough to persuade him to denounce the court, and praise Christ, even while sitting across a negotiating table from the leaders of several heathen African nations with complaints about the American farm-subsidy program just launched. The younger reader is asked to envision a time when the President was not an evangelical, and didn’t rotely spout off about his deep faith in the Almighty for there was in fact such a time, only forty years gone. President Carter was the first, and every chief since has followed suit; the devout President, like the God-clause in the Pledge, is a modern invention, and proof that there is an increasing religious influence on political life in this country, and anyone who doubts the import of the court’s revelation should investigate how often even straight-shooting Eisenhower talked up Jehovah. It simply hasn’t always been so.
And we maintain that it should not continue. We refuse to be persuaded by the cowardice of the left. In the court’s ruling we see common sense and true devotion to the American ideal, even if in its stay we see their knees trembling. American schoolchildren have persisted through five decades of decidedly un-Jeffersonian indoctrination into a seemingly hypocritical society that they can neither understand, nor develop their own opinions about. It is preposterous to believe that the Pledge of Allegiance is not still the centerpiece of the American school-lad’s morning, whether he mutters it for lack of a clearer understanding, or just has to listen; and it is downright hot air to suppose that fifty years of repetition makes a Christian insertion into the presumably secular public school routine any less of a crime against the freedom of thought. The same argument would have maintained the Berlin Wall as a monument, and might excuse the continued hunting of bald eagles as a long-practiced custom.
Children ought to be in school so that they are shielded from the dumb ideologies of grown-ups until they are dumb enough to concoct their own. The Cold War Pledge of Allegiance boils down to a conspiracy against the right of the young to grow their own beliefs.
The Times also suggest that this was a wasted decision, an unnecessary incitement of the theocrats and the proto-fascists. We counter that this is the very purpose of the judicial system: to check the progress of injustice and irrationality, and not to yield ground towards some indistinct future compromise. We are frankly surprised to learn that the Times - that anybody - thinks the First Amendment is an issue on which we must choose our battles. Rather, if there is any turf worth going to fight for at every turn, it is this. This is the place where the liberty of an individual’s self-determination is made, where his dependence on his parent’s opinion is dissolved, and where more free-thinkers like the rogues of the Ninth Circuit will be born. We can’t tell which direction the American left is running, and we can’t figure why but its clear that they are aflight, and that is enough for us to throw the tomatoes of our Righteousness, and the peaches of our Reason, at their yellow backs. Standing where we are, with the dispirited judges of the Ninth Circuit, we remain fairly pledged to one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; and not much more.
And as if further proof were needed that the religionists are craving inroads into American secular society, consider the next day’s Supreme Court decision, which allows for the legality of vouchers redeemable against public schools for use at private and religious ones. This Supreme Court has long ago merited a second, unprintable modifier in its title, and now they have gone on to establish themselves as the most un-American, partisan and political bench to ever preside in that office. School vouchers have been defeated in every public referendum they have ever been proposed in, but if anybody decides now to follow the inept example of the Justices, it might spell the end of American public education which, for its shortfalls, is also the best expression of this country’s innate desire to fulfill the promise of the Enlightenment. A public education for all is, historically, unheard of, but marvelous once you hear it, and the Court’s decision to slowly dismantle that ideal really makes one wonder who they are working for. It is not the citizens of this country, to be certain.
The school voucher, if you have been too nauseated to read any of the articles on the matter, is a coupon which a greedy parent can cash in at their local public school, and be given public money to spend on their precious child at a private or religious school. The public money, of course, is tax revenue, and is removed from the coffers of the public schools, which means that for every student withdrawn from the schools on vouchers, the less money remains for the school to spend on those students who remain.
It will boil down to a contest of selfishness, and this is worrisome, because the sport-utility generation has proven itself exceptionally selfish. Parents who would deprive their community of funding for public education, so that their child can receive a private or religious one, will be set off against those civic-minded parents, who believe that society will be better served by an educated public, rather than a specially-educated elite. Public education supporters will be rightly incensed at their neighbors, who are funneling thousands of dollars out of the community’s education for their own children’s benefit. Perhaps some will resort to old-fashioned feuding, and clan fighting, until the public moneys are restored to the public. But it is unlikely. Just as millions of individuals are content to idle in their oversized gas-burning light-trucks, oblivious to their impact on society and the troposphere, so probably will the voucher users ignore the complaints of the samaritans.
And to punctuate the degradation the Court has bestowed upon the Constitution, the whole voucher arrangement will allow, for the first time in this nation’s history, the near-direct channeling of government tax revenues into unabashedly religious institutions. Sister Mary’s can look forward to thousands of dollars of taxpayer money, regardless of the overall Catholicism of the constituency so long as a few parents want their little pumpkins to get a good, holy education, in place of a troublesome public one. Never before has this kind of money been available to such institutions, whether they are convents, madras’, or orthodox synagogues and for the Supreme Court’s hard work, these institutions will get it without giving the government, or the public, anything in return. The boundary built two hundred and twenty-five years ago to keep the churches and the state from intermixing has been converted by the sinister Mr. Rehnquist into a one-way valve, the flow going wholly to the holy.
A GIANT, FELLED
The news came out just too late to make it into the last number, and we frankly think that it happened that way on purpose. The great telephone company, Verizon, simply did not want to give this humble pamphlet the opportunity to gloat over our victory - at least not until a few weeks had passed, and the public had possibly forgotten the whole affair.
The fact is, old or new, that subsequent to this paper’s publication in issue 11 of Mr. Tyree’s “Open Letter to Verizon,” which concerned the conglomerate’s dastardly plan to increase pay-telephone rates, the phone company relented, and with its thorned tail between its legs, went about the city and reset fourteen thousand telephones to accept a quarter, and not two. There can not be a glimmer of doubt what caused Verizon’s about-face; it was the potency of Mr. Tyree’s rhetoric, set against the backdrop of this publication’s well-known ferocity and persistence.
We give full credit to Mr. Tyree, our Astorian correspondent. Now and then he files a report, and when the thing seems to have some teeth, we print it for the public. His letter to Verizon required hardly any consideration from these offices - our man was clearly incensed, and had the sound to him like a cornered varmint, so we let him be and ran the missive. Not a few days later, and the telephone giant puts out a whisper of a press release. Without a squeal of resistance from the diabolical Verizon, New Yorkers have been spared their precious quarters.
Mr. Tyree had raised the point that we aren’t the sort of cosmopolis that requires the unlimited telephone call Verizon was offering us for our extra two bits. It so happens that the conglomerate’s only acknowledgment of THREE WEEKS’ contribution to their decision was the reiteration of this good point in their surrender. It was a sly nod to our righteousness, and yet one we aren’t about to do the company the favor of not mentioning. Everything about this success merits mention, and when the reader is dialing his mother with his last quarter, desperate for her sweet unconditional consolations, let him whisper a thanks in this periodical’s direction, too.
We have been tagged by the Justice Department, chastised by the Rightists, and given the cruel silent treatment by the Leftists, for all our efforts at bringing Reason back into the American dialogue. Well, now we have scored a first victory, and we expect the credit due us, exactly because winning these things has turned out to be much harder than we envisioned at the outset, and we aren’t sure when the next one will come along.
But let the budding optimist among the readership take home the appropriate lesson. Mr. Tyree is but a crank in the heights of Queens County, and we are four more like him - but the lot of us recognized a wrong, and focused the full force of our only armament, Sense, against it. Lo and behold, this time around, it was adequate. Let it be heard by the militiamen on the Continental Divide, who think they can only have a say from their sniper positions atop their bulletproof log cabins. And let it be heard by the disaffected young urbanite, so that he might stop slouching and quitting everything difficult, and see that what we have done here is not so different from what any devoted-enough windbag could do, given equally lofty talent.
That said, THREE WEEKS goes on about our business, and Mr. Tyree reports again, though with likely less effect, as the reader will shortly understand. There is nothing to be done but to persist; and let it also be known that even a great victory tastes a little bittersweet afterward.
ANOTHER ITEM FROM MR. TYREE, OF ASTORIA
Fresh from his victory over the phone company, our associate Mr. Tyree has flown in a new correspondence from his Northern aerie. Apparently, his home team is doing poorly at four-bases, and he has some thoughts as to the deeper significance of their failing. It seemed to us anyway more interesting than a congratulatory essay delineating all the noble traits of a winner, and so we offer it to the readers, who, if they have come this far with us, are surely more inclined to favor the doomed than to root for the blessed. For just such instinctive masochists, here is
RISE UP, YOU METROPOLITANS
by J. M. Tyree, Esq.
As an individual drawn to lost causes and mental self-flagellation, I am naturally inclined to that religion known as the New York Mets, whose tattered blue cathedral stands in Flushing, Queens, and whose phylactery is the skyline of the metropolis itself. As the reader is doubtless aware, purchasing Mets tickets this season is no more a guarantee of seeing fine baseball than papal indulgences are of seeing Heaven, unless, that is, the display of talent is offered by the opposing team. Those of us who continue loyally in the faith know that a visit to Shea may well prove worthless, but we are too tempted by hope to resist giving in to one last desperate chance.
“Always believe,” says the official Mets slogan on our subway platforms. This season, the phrase has taken on an unintentional double-meaning, a conciliatory subtext suggesting an eternal delay of gratification. The Mets fan does indeed live by faith alone, in the absence of any empirically verifiable sign of managerial omniscience, tormented by doubt that can only be described as Kierkegaardian. The Mets fan is in the same predicament as the early church father Tertullian, who, when asked to explain the irrationality of his faith in Christianity, famously said, “I believe because it is absurd.”
It tasks one to see again the triumphs of our inter-Borough rival, whose black caps now rule the very blocks of Long Island, the stalls and the markets of Astoria. But how can we concerned citizens prevent this scourge, Yankeeism, from penetrating into the heart of Queens when things in Flushing are going so poorly? How are we to warn our youth, our sons and daughters, against the seductions of the all-embracing Yankee heresy, which offers the subjunctive populace the Gnostic certainty of a post-season appearance?
Watching in disbelief the 10th-inning game-winning home run of Mr. Robin Ventura against his former team in the recent Yankees-Mets Inter-League play, I began to get the sense of a curse, as will any religious fellow when his dogma is subverted. What is it about the Mets uniform that the man who ceases wearing it feels an immediate improvement in his hitting, whereas the man who puts it on as often as not is plunged into a slump? Is it a natural state of affairs when the mercurial Mr. Timo Perez must go down to the minor leagues for instruction in batting, in which his uneven talent was always obvious? Granted that I am merely a single inexpert amateur observer, I cannot but help perceiving a perennial hitting problem that may also be a perennial coaching problem.
I further suspect the existence of a vicious symbiosis between the Mets and their fans. At the risk of putting forward an indefensible generalization, I observe a similar syndrome of fickleness, scorn, and disloyalty among more than a few Mets fans of my acquaintance. The National League Championship of 2000 something other teams coveted unrequitedly for decades was forgotten, both by the fans and the players, it would seem, with an astonishing rapidity bordering on amnesia. Mets fans have the patience of cab-drivers at a yellow light, and a tendency to turn against good hitters in slumps within a New York minute. A considerable sect of Mets fans actually seem to relish despising their own team, a kind of strict baseball Lutheranism, possibly. Like an abusive husband who revels in the enumeration of his wife’s flaws and heaps scorn on every small mistake she makes, they reinforce the worthlessness doubtlessly felt on the field and probably contribute to further nervousness, bumbling, and lack of self-confidence. After a recent outing to Shea, I have been convinced that some Mets fans, like harsh and manipulative parents who set their children up to fail, harbor a perverse and secret desire for their team to lose. While the Yankee fan escapes to a land of reverie and bliss through baseball, this cultish Mets fan relives the traumas of his own life through the team the squandered talents, the missed opportunities, the fumbles, boots, and blown saves of existence, if you will. The Pavlovians evolved a term “learned helplessness” for caged dogs that have received so many shocks and disappointments that they expect nothing good. As to the pressing, puzzling, and unwittingly prescient question of 2000 “Who let the dogs out?” it was in part a crowd that stopped complaining long enough to believe during the dry spells.
The relentless pessimism of Mets fans drove me to speculate on whether the very soul of New York might be divided into two aspects, represented by the Yankees and the Mets, respectively. The Yankees have their Sinatra tune, endless pennants, and a Bronx shrine home to legends of the national pastime. The Mets meanwhile have Mr. Met; their history’s most talented players’ reputations tarnished by drug addiction, tragedy, and unrealized potential; and a ballpark on the site of the perversely idealistic 1964 World’s Fair, which insisted that personal hovercraft were the certainty of tomorrow, and disease was to be obliterated by a pill. The Yankees are as flashy and sure-fire as a Broadway Show, the lights of Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, and dinner at Babbo all rolled into twenty-five no-nonsense professional ballplayers and an infallible coaching staff. In recent years, the life of the Yankees fan has been one of pure unadulterated wish-fulfillment. In fact, rooting for the Yankees is so uncomplicated that their very success, to the thinking Mets fan, appears slightly vulgar, naïve, childish, and excessive. The 2002 Mets, by contrast, bear an increasingly eerie resemblance to the city’s public schools, roads, bureaucracies, and transportation systems. They are a group of millionaire athletes who would rather under-perform, nurse minor injuries, commit atrocious fielding errors, and generally fill Shea with a malodorous perfume of boos than play decent baseball. Pour however many millions you like into them. The money disappears down a black hole without an iota of actual improvement resulting, as gapes the pothole out my window.
But, such analogies aside, it would be the height of absurdity to suggest that this group of effetes could be made to represent this city’s downtrodden, any more than the administration in Washington could be said to represent America’s political conscience. The Mets instead remind me of a bunch of spoiled college students from wealthy homes who have constant trouble motivating themselves to study because they do not feel grateful to be there. Indeed, it is Yankee Stadium that still offers a window on the Bronx, seats under ten dollars, and the prospect of an evening’s entertainment with the brawling classes in the bleachers. For all of their astronomical salaries, the Yankees appear to be the team of the ceaseless work-ethic, dogged persistence, rehabilitated aging players given a second chance at redemption.
Yet it is Queens that is home-base to all that is delightfully immigrant, unacknowledged, ignored, and peripheral about the city. Like Brooklyn and The Bronx, the Mets’ Queens is caught in orbit around the economic gravity of Manhattan, but arguably without the same measure of respect accorded King’s County or the fear projected into the wilds of Mott Haven. The planners of the absurdly solitary Citibank Tower obviously did not fully reckon up the deeper psychological rift formed by the East River, whose tides chime with broken glass. Queens is a vast patch-work puzzle that has never been entirely solved, an intriguing footnote larger than the text from which it has sprung, but it has never received even a modicum of acclaim. I am here not simply referring to the Afghans of Flushing with their kite-sporting in the Meadows, the ambrosia of Subcontinental cooking in Jackson Heights, or the divine inhalations of apple tobacco scented from hookahs near the mosque on Steinway Street. One must also consider the Sunnyside Train Yards, the power plants along the East River, the former garbage dump that is now LaGuardia Airport, the bus depots, the uninsured freelance laborers who gather in the mornings near the Broadway Branch Library, the havens and repair-shops of yellow cabs found in the early hours in Long Island City, without which the city could not hope to function.
I digress, but if the Mets are to mean anything positive thus far in the season, it might be discovered through their topographical association with the forgotten borough. For the Manhattanite, a journey to Shea Stadium - even if it does not resemble the revelatory experience so laughably imagined by Mr. John Rocker - may prove a puncturing jab through the mirages the bejeweled isle uses as a moral sleep tonic. Manhattan believes itself to be the center, but the truth of how the city works is hidden in Queens, just as the faith of the peasant defines the form of the religion, more than the doctrine of the pope. I believe it is telling, and worthy of the unglamorous dignity of Queens, that while President Bush threw out the first pitch at rambunctious Yankee Stadium in the 2001 World Series, ten miles East, Shea Stadium quietly served the World Trade Center recovery effort by performing as a parking lot, a staging ground, a storage area.
PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION
WHAT GOES FOR ART THESE DAYS
A Day Trip for Your Editors
It is precisely because we are devotees of Art that we are so concerned about its condition. There are plenty of Muses with the ague in this age, but we have from experience formed a stronger bond with Art than with the rest, so it is she we inquisitively take flowers to.
As a matter of assessing her condition, and also breaking the inertial bonds of these claustrophobic offices, the editors were dispatched to those most fashionable districts of the city where art is displayed. Galleries and museums were chosen by a mixed augury of chance, recommendation, convenience, and instinct though the jealous sorts involved in the field will no doubt suspect nepotism as well. We would be foolish to presume a total survey of the artistic moment in this city, and we hardly make any such claim. We only intend to sample the waters along the shore, and a glass of the stuff if it is brought to us by a helpful attendant. If the reader wants to think himself knowledgeable after our exceedingly brief survey, that is his mistake to make. For us, it is an opportunity only to see a little of what we haven’t seen before, and to weigh in on it not in the manner of critics, but sages.
Criticism, after all, is not allowed through our doors. It is the province of the incapable, a gift of utility bestowed by society on those who were not graced at birth with coordination, temperance, or social skill. The critic does not improve what he criticizes, he only hangs his ugly rhetoric on its lowest boughs. Our project, however, is to humbly reflect what we see in our crystalline mirror, and allow the reclusive reader to taste a glimmer of what the world is brimming with. As yet, we do not know if that will be a sweet draught or a sour one, if it is laced with arsenic, or something better, or something worse. Naturally, we come with doubts, but are not averse to disposing of them for good cause.
Toward this noble aim, Mr. Brownejohns and Mr. Swartwout ventured West to Chelsea; Ms. Bonney attempted the front lines of bohemia, in Brooklyn; and Mr. Underhill went North to more revered shrines, to seek a point of reference.
“GROTTO,” JESSICA MURRAY PROJECTS, NORTH 6th STREET, BROOKLYN.
JUNE 28 - AUGUST 4, 2002
I am not too convinced that the much-discussed Cultural Moment occurring in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn is anything more than a real-estate phenomenon. My suspicions are aroused by the state of the culture itself: the galleries are well-hidden and widely spaced, and most of the art on display is upon the walls of coffee shops serving gourmet brews to young professionals only feigning bohemianism. I offer this not so much as an indictment as an observation, and would qualify it by pointing out that there are at least a number of true galleries and some unmistakable gestures of cultural activity, even if they are obligatory and of inconsistent quality. It was this Williamsburg, anyway, that my travels brought me to, and with a little effort I was able at last to locate one of the venues allegedly redefining the place as the heart of the modern moment.
This was the Jessica Murray Projects, currently hanging a show called “Grotto,” in a space on North 6th street that is nothing less than a converted garage, the conversion as subtle as could be. But the idea is an admirable one: that the great door should be slung open all through the summer, the heat outside mounting, the striplings along this particular side street offering little shelter from the sun, and the garage that cool concrete haven of the suburban summer inviting the uninvited into its shady cavern, where is hanging, salon-style, the efforts of forty-odd artists. Shelter is the priority of the place; that the walls and floor, and ceiling - of the shelter are littered with trifles for the eye is only a generous benefit granted the pedestrian by the curators. It is a populist concept, a characteristic which is all too absent from the high arts.
The salon-style show is notoriously self-destructive, a willful aesthetic suicide. There is every certainty that the majority of the artists included will underperform, and only by sheer volume and variety does the display have any hope of success. This self-destructive spirit is one this paper is well sympathetic to, and it would not offend us a bit if the salon show were brought back into currency, to replace the ubiquitous yet rarely merited solo show. The former is driven by a kind of resigned egalitarianism, the latter commercialism and elitism; and there is no evidence that either one is responsible for better or worse artworks. So between the two, the politics of the salon are preferable, if not the art.
And the art in “Grotto” is generally perfectly benign. Nothing assaulted this viewer in particular, for ill or good. The show is attractive overall, the gallery and its strategy transcending the material hung. It is a far cry from the nineteenth century salon show where a hundred artists might execute a hundred variations on a theme, if it were the popular theme of the day, or likely to be bought and hung in a parlor. Those shows were fraught with landscapes, nudes, and religious or allegorical scenes, and the celebrities who emerged from that era did so simply by excelling at the style of their day, or presenting a novelty into the formula, such as Manet or the better Impressionists.
In contrast, the “Grotto” show is typically modern. The artists would differentiate themselves at almost any cost, aiming not for the most refined take of a traditional formula, but the absolute ownership of a unique style and subject. It is another of the strengths of the salon format that the modern artist is constricted from flights of self-indulgence by the fact that he is only showing one example of his work. For a landscape painter, this is not much trouble observe the style, the sense of color, the technique of composition. For the modern bachelor of fine arts, or his molted form, the master of fine arts, one work could never describe the entire oeuvre. These types are too preoccupied with experimentation, uncertainty, and indulgent variation to present their vision in a single piece. Thus the “Grotto” might not give us every artist at their best, but it could well teach them a valuable lesson about efficiency of expression, or consistency of vision.
There are a few successes here, even with the artist’s modernism in conflict with the gallery’s old-fashioned technique. Mr. Alejandro Diaz presents an uncomplicated canvas encrusted with crystal glitter, of birdcages in crude silhouette. It is not “Olympia,” but secure in the shade from the July sun, it is easy to look at. Mr. Barton Lidice Benes offers a sort of cabinet of curiosities, in the Cornellian tradition of ‘artist’s boxes,’ but this one is distinctive enough, and engaging enough, to achieve the wunderkammer-like effect that most of that tradition sadly obscured behind the disembodied heads of baby-dolls. Here, Mr. Benes displays small objects and vials ostensibly containing artifacts from famous fires the theme, and title, being “Pyromania.” Whether this is indeed a nail from Mr. Koresh’s Waco compound, real ash from Mt. St. Helen’s, an actual fragment of Sean Penn’s house, a true relic from Lizzie Borden’s chimney, or actual debris from the World Trade Center (though why shouldn’t it be?), is up for debate. In any case, the viewer is persuaded enough to sate a summer afternoon’s curiosity, and look upon the objects as if they were real (and the price for the piece, admittedly, suggests they must be), and derives due pleasure from the act.
Mr. Rob Conger has up one of his carpet-portraits, an object well worth seeing, if not here, then somewhere (they occur frequently, it seems, in New York group shows, like Duchamp’s ready-mades probably once did hell, they do still - though Mr. Conger’s rugs are preferable both for craft and for visual interest). He is a sort of impressionist in one-inch pile, and the work is as admirable on the wall as it might be on the living room floor, where the deadpan headshot of one “Doctor Lotto” would be of less interest than the thick, cozy softness of the rug he is portrayed in.
Small, careful cartoons involving melting sticks of butter and ambiguously organic body-parts, and the floor-plan of a butter-walled apartment are the samples of Mr. Scott Teplin, and in this he succeeds in suggesting with his limited wall space what his entire body of work might be. Again, here is a nice diversion from the swelter, and perhaps this is the ideal serving of such fare a whole gallery of it would quickly become numbing.
Perhaps not so with the taffy-forms of Mr. Ben Beaudoin, drawn center-page upon soft sprays of lavender and pink. These would have likely been overlooked if a glance at the gallery notes didn’t reveal that they were executed in ball-point pen the modern quill of the populist, indeed though they show no evidence of any of the roughness or crudity of that tool. Perhaps a wider survey of these might reveal an abstract virtuoso with the Bic, even if there is little provocation in the pictures.
These eyes are perfectly willing to be wooed for a change, free from the half-packed baggage of an artist’s cerebrum.
On the floor, Mr. Mark Dean Veca has left an acrylic painting to pose as a Savonnerie carpet. Where Mr. Conger has hung a true carpet on the wall, here is a mock one strewn upon the floor, its decorative flora replaced by intestinal and anemone-like forms, its crests and insignias removed and the Borden cow and a number of other cartoon heads, light-bulbs, and pies inserted. The style is pop-art competently, if uninterestingly, done, and no doubt it is the sort of thing that somebody out there will find to their taste, if not this author assume somebody with a black-light in his den. The piece does not lack for effort, and it, too, is preferable to the bubbling tar in the street outside.
Dangling above is Mr. Dennis Oppenheim’s cast fiberglass angel, with sawblades in her wings. It occupies the space, and does the duty of filling the ceiling, and capturing the light from a skylight above. But it falls in among the majority of the work in the show, the mediocrity of which is surpassed by the overall impression of the group. The entirety of the display in the salon-garage does a great favor to the lesser work by concealing it among a mass of stimulation; while it also elevates its successes by hiding their flaws similarly.
It may be more difficult than advertised to discover what Williamsburg has to offer the wanderer, but if one’s expectations are less than the mercury in the thermometer, they may find something worth ogling for a bit in this carefully cluttered garage. Your author has not brought home any ornately framed Rococo idyll in oils, but neither have I brought home a heat-stroke.
MELISSA BROWN, KRAVETS/ WEHBY GALLERY, WEST 21st STREET, CHELSEA.
JUNE 15 - JULY 13, 2002.
Well across that peculiar Western boundary of Tenth Avenue can be found a number of tiny, obsessively maintained, white-walled, track-lit closets with names like, well, Kravets/Wehby painted on their windows, scattered between warehouses being loaded with indistinct boxed goods and oily brick garages dispatching taxi cabs. These tidy cubicles are the Manhattan beachhead of modern art, known to Those Who Know as the Chelsea scene, and it was in one of these that this editor went to consider the paintings of one Ms. Brown, by way of sniffing out the progress of art in America, and otherwise dodging the glare of the sun in this treeless neighborhood.
The humble scale of the gallery is a merciful conceit, in fact, helping the artist to avoid both the pitfall of diluting her efforts across more wall-space than is necessary, or possible; and that of overwhelming the notoriously temperamental artistic ego, enabling oversized or overwrought works.
Instead, Ms. Brown is confined to five paintings, none larger than might fit reasonably over the hearth of a log cabin. They are all of them, however, painted not on the tried and true surface of linen canvas, but on planks of aluminum, as if the painter feared for the mortality of her work, through some unmentionable imminent apocalypse. Perhaps, if the pictures last a thousand years, and through countless infernos, it will have been worth the effort of carrying the hundred-pounders into their place in the canon.
Such profound trouble indeed seems to be on Ms. Brown’s mind. She is something of a landscape painter, though one with little love of empirical observation. Clouds and trees appear as the artist thinks they should, which is far from how Nature has concluded. Her vistas are doomy and weird, leaving the impression that all the people on the earth have just recently been evaporated by some instantaneous armageddon. A campfire burns in a cave being evacuated of simplistic bat-shapes, but no campers are to be found. The sky, though, is pink and cheerful, ridiculous bun-shaped clouds scud across it, and paradisiacal gems stick out of the sand. It would be a lovely spot, if it seemed humanity were at all welcome, but we don’t seem to be.
It is possibly an unintentional irony that such a naturalist composes scenes so unnatural. A field of four-leaf clovers, overarched by a more perfect rainbow, and occupied by a few attentive praying mantises and oblivious ladybugs, is at once as crudely colored and as ideal as any fourth-grader’s daydream, and as ominous as a modern Thoreau’s worst-case scenario. Adjacent to this picture is another similar composition, four-leaf clovers replaced by monotone gravestones, inquisitive insects replaced with tiny, hand-painted flags, flowers, and shrines, left by unseen hands. The colors in the one: green, pink, purple; in the other: deep maroon, grey, and black suggesting possibly a diptych representing life and death, but more likely two increasingly pensive attitudes towards existence. Ms. Brown seems not sure whether the world would be better off without us, but she is adamant about paying tribute to her ambivalence with the labors of her own humanity.
The pictures are made not with brushes and knives, but with printmaker’s rollers leaving little evidence of personable brushstrokes or the artist’s calculus of coloration. They somehow resemble crepe-paper collages, Matisse-like, but on a level of elaboration more akin to an Uccello battle scene. Every geometric shape is colored either monochromatically or with a mechanical gradation of tone yet the shapes themselves are nothing any self-respecting machine would render. They are the stylishly naïve sketches of the artist working from the head rather than the eye and they relieve the viewer from too-hefty questions of integrity. The whole scattered nature of the artist’s intent makes for less material upon which to speculate like the joyless critic, than to simply appreciate as one would the colorful musings of a precocious, if troubled, grade-schooler stuck upon the refrigerator door - the Frigidaire in this case a nifty Chelsea art gallery.
Indeed, the smaller works, titled respectively “Weasel Crossing the Road” and “Chic-a-Dee,” seem to salve the humanist’s fear of eradication built up in the three large landscapes. Each presents its eponymous animal, large in the foreground, as blocky and bright as a healthy child would make them. The chickadee seems a little ambiguous he is possibly exploding, or losing his feathers, but his concern is with an inchworm on a branch, and life in the tiny log cabins in the background seems better than we have been groomed to hope. And the weasel, looking blankly at us, is in the midst of a veritable celebration of human calamity road-flares burn around him like footlights at a Broadway extravaganza, and minute fire-trucks and helicopters converge behind him, ensuring that at least people still exist, and are spryly at work upon the problems we have unwittingly caused ourselves. The weasel paint-by-numbers geometric, and not like any weasel I’ve seen at the zoo will go about his business whatever happens behind him. But Ms. Brown has painted the helicopters and emergency vehicles more naturalistically, if with a little of Canalotti’s gloppy pastiche-style in painting the miniscule; and so it finally seems apparent that these attractive, intriguing pictures are made not by an apologist for our species, but by a reluctant sympathizer. Henry Wllm. Brownejohns
“FANTASYLAND,” D’AMELIO TERRAS GALLERY, WEST 22nd STREET, CHELSEA.
MAY 30 - JULY 26, 2002.
Looking for something else entirely, I came to rest in the D’Amelio Terras gallery of 22nd street, where a showing of several young artist’s efforts is currently hung, and is being called “Fantasyland.” Though it is a tiresome practice, I am obliged to name them: Laylah Ali, Susan Arena, John Bankston, Marcel Dzama, Kojo Griffin, Yun-Fei Ji, Konstantin Kakanias, and Jon Pylypchuk. In addition to being unanimously unheard-of, the reader will notice that the artists are likely engaged in the only profession which might tolerate the success of such singularly-named persons. The arts, if little else can be said for them, are at least more open to the uniquely-named than athletics, entertainment, business, and politics.
“Fantasyland” represents an overpopulation of artists, barely constrained within the spacious rooms of the D’Amelio Terras lobby. Thankfully, one of the curatorial motivations is that the work must be of the so-called works-on-paper sort, which means the artists are bounded at least by the available sizes of industrially-produced paper. I have noticed in the past that works-on-paper shows are routinely less disappointing, if not necessarily more inspiring, than displays without such a descriptive, and it may be because of this very constraint. It may also be partly due to this author’s own preference for drawings, which naturally occur on paper, and which are a more honest and more direct form of expression than most of the higher arts. From Rubens to Monet, the painters the men themselves - frankly become lost beneath their globs of pigment; even Michelangelo is concealed. But in their chalks and pencil sketches, the individual is recovered, the evidence of their humanity more abundant and I say the same goes for even the most lowly picture-maker. His drawings will at the least prove to me he is a human being, even if his paintings or sculptures suggest he is more a badly-built machine or a lucky pasture animal.
Considering the work within this gallery more particularly, it is a uniform array of flights of fancy. While it is arguably a show of drawings, none of the academic rigor of the draftsman is apparent, but rather the restless activity of middle-school doodlers or shut-ins with active imaginations. These artists may as well not have windows in their studios, but instead comic books and television sets, and of course their cerebrums from which it seems much of the creative inclinations here arise. There is no crime, of course, in working solely from one’s mind. Of some remark, however, is how similar many of these artist’s fantasies tend to be. Circulating once through the show, a lucid viewer could conceive that the whole thing was a chronicle of just one clever artist’s many moods, and not eight individual’s separate ventures and the viewer’s misconception would be aided by the lack of labels or signatures on most of the work.
One sees first a few large illustrations looking torn from an obscure coloring book, and crudely scratched in with a tot’s wayward crayon. They are, however, originals, drawn to appear as such by Mr. Bankston, and carefully aged and miscolored to assist the impression of being found artifacts, from a netherworld attic. The most memorable image is of an eye-patched man standing above another fellow in a dog costume, the scene unfolding beneath an unexpressive line-drawn sunset. The imaginary child in question has neglected to give much color at all to this page, and one is left with the old task of concluding the nonexistent narrative out of which this page has been torn. I was not up for it, and moved on.
Here is a large montage, by Ms. Yun-Fei Ji, made of ink and mineral pigment, a concatenation of shapes and tableaus which call to mind an oriental watercolor landscape as rendered by an overstimulated Van Gogh. This one too seems to strive for something of the added luster of being a pseudo-artifact, but by sheer execution, it is a more engaging piece of artwork, and is able to please the eye beyond whatever tickle it gives to the intellect a trait too rare in these galleries, where nearly every artist strains more to create faux tchotchke without regard to aesthetic merit, than to merely create works focused upon such merit. It is unclear whether the whole group is persuaded that their work will somehow wind up on the ocean floor, after an apocalyptic interruption in culture, and be retrieved and misinterpreted by future scavengers. In any case, there is a strong current of desire to trick the future into absurd sociological misconceptions, rather than to impress them with technical virtuosity.
Ten small collages, mainly of glitter and glue, follow, and seem a variation on the work of Mr. Bankston’s nonexistent two-year old. The only evidence of mature sensibility (other than the reverse-reverse ironic strategy of not doing one’s best that is so pervasive that it must be understood to understand our moment in history) is a series of small cummingsesque utterances by the characters in the pictures: “one day of no thoughts,” or “i can’t quit this.” I sense raw literary aspirations leaking out around the seams here, and no doubt the death of poetry has left a few stragglers behind in the other expressive arts. Such half-coherent exclamations are the chicken-pox of modern visual arts self-proclaimed polymathic bachelors of fine arts dabbling on one canvas with all of their ambitions, and thus two-thirds of contemporary visual art is scarred by ominously meaningless words. I have read too many paintings to take the practice seriously anymore, and so when I am in the mood to look, and not read, I will only look, and let the lost intentions of the painter be damned if ever they existed to begin with.
I glanced uncomprehendingly at a pair of small, blue gouaches studded with cartoony, dismembered, sneakered feet which didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t perfectly inoffensive. But I was making my way to Mr. Dzama’s segment of the wall, which was hung with twelve pictures in ink and muted watercolor. While they were like to the other’s work in their detachment from observation and concentrated draftsmanship, they were more engaging by virtue solely of Mr. Dzama’s slightly more eccentric capacity for fantasy. Semi-humanoid figures danced and chatted with normal folks, in a mercifully limited palette of khakis, browns, and olive drabs. Again, something of the constructed artifact was evident, though these little pictures, rather than emerging from a search of a grandmother’s attic, more likely would have come from a series of rejected Cold War military-issue public service brochures. A row of green boys are shown a gun by a kind, matronly woman, perhaps a WAC. A tree with an expressive face appears in a couple of pictures, once coping with an octopus in its branches, again pondering the car that has crashed into it, and the investigating police. Mr. Dzama is rightly more concerned with the absurd subjects of his pictures than with their potential archeological significance, and so the pictures also earn more consideration from the viewer. They are populated by creatures unlike the animal-human hybrids that seem to be the other artists’ extreme conception of outrageous here there are cactus-people, a cloud-man, a city of anxious snowmen, and ordinary people with detachable parts, among others. Elsewhere in the show, the artists, asked to fantasize, arrive almost entirely at people with animal heads, or humanoid animals altogether, not unlike what Walter Disney daydreamed eighty years ago, only more wholesomely.
Indeed, adjacent to Mr. Dzama’s satisfying drawings are eight collages by Ms. Arena wherein a photograph of a human body is glued to canvas, and adorned with a painted-on animal head. The scenes themselves offer little more in the way of fancy and even the variety of animalia chosen is constrained by the typical fascinations of the young educated demographic: rabbits and monkeys. Monkey-men have made their way into so may modern fantasies that it begins to be arguable whether they are fantasies anymore at all, or an acquired part of our mass-cultural reality.
Two large drawings by Kojo Griffin are moderately more fantastic, though hardly more so than “Steamboat Willie” was, where a mouse navigated his boat down the Mississippi, whistling popular tunes of the day all along. Here, similarly anthropomorphized animals ducks, pigs, bears, and possibly a pig engage in a couple of Tennessee Williamsesque domestic tableaus. The draftsmanship is pleasantly less careful, though not unskilled. Still, the scenery asks questions of the viewer that the viewer would just as soon not have to answer. It was the artists whose fantasies were asked to be revealed, and yet most of them don’t seem to be sure what their imaginations are telling them. They allow ambiguity to carry more philosophical weight than it is capable of as in the recurrent half-poetic phrases that carefully explain nothing. The viewer lacking confidence leaves thinking he has been outwitted by the ethereal intelligence of academy-trained artists; the viewer in the know is just exhausted because he is doing the artist’s intellectual work for them.
Mr. Kakanias occupies his own wall, with a bevy of familiarly childish drawings, of small children decorated with real tufts of hair. More words litter the pictures, straining to lend them meaning where otherwise they would have none. The pictures are hasty and derivative, and the conceit of using real hair provides nothing visually or substantially. Tiny schoolchildren prance about naked and clothed, saying various things about their sense of style and their blasé lives, displaying their naïvely doodled bodies and of course, the hair, borrowed from whomever. The work seems intended to be cumulative the whole wall to work on the viewer at once but unfortunately the artist is multiplying by zero. “Today I really don’t feel like going to school,” and “We lived by night,” exclaim the crudely provocative children. These may be lines from Mr. Kakanias’ own store of memories, or things he has actually heard in his meanderings but it is hard to see how any of it might reside in his fantasies; and so though his effort sets itself apart from the even variety of the other artists’ pipe-dreams, it doesn’t seem likely that it would stand out in a show of stifled memories, or mixed-media gimcrackery.
THOMAS EAKINS, THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, 1000 FIFTH AVENUE.
UNTIL SEPTEMBER 15, 2002.
In case the reader is wondering where all the pushy old women with submissive husbands whose noses whistle when they breathe are, I can satisfy your curiosity and assure you that every one of them is stuffed into the labyrinthine galleries of the Thomas Eakins exhibition at the hoary old Metropolitan, tagging along behind a sentimental tour guide (“this one is especially dear to my heart”) who must shout to be heard, and can be from three rooms away. It is a far cry from the quaintly controversial exhibitions Mr. Eakins held during his lifetime excepting his last retrospective at the Met in 1917, by which time the motley doodlings of Picasso and the Cubists had rendered the mere fact that he had dared to paint nude women tame.
But the Met stresses Eakins’ controversy, perhaps exactly because doing so draws out titillated old ladies without showing them anything that could conceivably offend even the most conservative modern sensibility. The gallery notes point out how startling was Eakins’ decision to make pictures of rowers and athletes and fishermen, instead of mythical figures or portraits of society’s best men. His ‘realism’ is drummed into the viewers conscience, even though he was hardly a realistic painter, either visually or socially. Eakins masterfully fibbed about light, to add drama and please his compositions, and he flagrantly glorified his subjects when he could otherwise he made them secondary to the paint. For a realist, I found a lot of his figures lacked even a face, and for some kind of social commentator, I question his well-known techniques of compositing figures into one painting who had never stood next to each other in life, using antiquated photographic projectors.
Nobody should attend the show if they are seeking relics from a century-old political maelstrom. This is just a peculiar angle the Museum is attempting to strike, fearing possibly that art-lovers won’t go to see paintings that are self-sustaining, competent, often beautiful, and not especially morally repugnant. In truth, contrary to all the huffing and puffing of the Met’s wall placards, by the time Mr. Eakins had dared to show female nudes or the surgeon Dr. Gross high-falutinly posed like an ascending saint out of Raphael, across the Atlantic the Nude had already long ago Descended the Staircase, in fractured time and space, and it was only the most behind-the-times Victorian matrons who were still outraged by Eakins’ relatively academic experiments. Granted, at the time, America was still easily startled, and perhaps Picasso wasn’t threatening yet because he was so utterly unfathomable, but to dwell on Eakins as a revolutionary firebrand is to overlook his true qualities. He was fired from his post at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for lifting the loincloth of a male model in the presence of fainting ladies and this might suggest he was a provocateur. But we have met academics who have met worse fates in this century for far lesser crimes, and think that such an anecdote is really typical of the pattern of a truly capable man. There are always stuffed shirts in his sphere who would bring him down, just because he makes them look bad. Mr. Eakins, indeed, had spent the decade previous to that incident taking nude photographs of his teenaged students, and posing for them also, all for the sake of legitimate anatomy lessons and figure studies and got away with it because, for a time, his enemies were outnumbered by his allies. Envision a tweedy scholar trying out a similar curriculum today. He would need an epoch of tenure to hold off the hordes, and if he was reputable to begin with, as Eakins was, the opposition would be infinitely greater. It is not the standards that have changed, only the circumstances.
The way to appreciate Mr. Eakins is to clear one’s mind of all the notes and the anecdotes being shouted about the gallery by the guide, and to study the pictures as pictures. It is a refreshing variation on art-watching, to be free of footnotes and references. Mr. Eakins is an academic painter, but an exceptional one, and he would cringe to find that a modern audience was more infatuated with gossip about his commercial success and his changeable health than his brush strokes and light effects. This is why he is up at the Met in the first place.
The first room gives us his early pictures of scull rowers, which, considering the publicity for the show, might seem like blowing the climax of the exhibit right at the start - but is far from it. One sees here Mr. Eakins fudging his landscapes to get to what interests him, the figures, sure but the boats and bridges, which get as much attention in the deep background as the rower gets in the fore. In every case, the eye is drawn to those foci by the use of a clear, bright, defining light, which will become more refined as the painter’s career is followed.
But not before he embarked on “The Gross Clinic,” in the next room. The operating room and lecture hall here pictured is suffused with a dramatic light that any realist would rightfully sneeze at, but which a dramatist such as Eakins or Raphael, whose light was a little warmer, but often equally preposterous and always marvelous - would admire. Adjacent is hung “Baby at Play,” which in contrast is a simple pleasure, complete with a full display of the artist’s every capability, plus a relaxation of the youthful need for a certain extravagance, or intricacy. It seems more American than “The Gross Clinic,” precisely because the latter is an enormous and purposeful derivation of European tradition, aimed at the portrayal of American themes progress, science, curiosity. The baby, meanwhile, pretends to nothing, and this is the quality that makes Eakins’ best work. He can be a Western-tradition virtuoso when he wishes it, as in “The Gross Clinic,” but he is called an American master for reasons evident in the humble tableau of the infant.
The viewer is then subjected to a maze of rooms devoted to the artist’s innovations, which are mainly photographic. Photography was brand new in Eakins’ day, and so these provide at least the fascination of relics. Here are his nude studies and some portraits in platinum prints, and a series of paintings on Gloucester, New Jersey, fishermen which are scenes that never took place. These are the composites made from numerous photographic studies, and projected together using a magic lantern. The results are three intriguing vistas, complete with the brilliant optical effects of the earlier boating scenes, but with an added creepiness, brought about by the evidence of mechanical assistance: slight shifts of focus from foreground to back, which are just inconsistent enough from all of the sources to give the pictures, to the modern eye, a kind of eerie three-dimensionality.
The adjoining rooms, though of interest to that spectator seeking a saucy narrative about Eakins’ life, or the casual technical enthusiast, have the feel of an exhibition winding down, and when the viewer realizes they are actually less than half way through, one questions the wisdom of the curators, and doubts the stamina of the gallery-goer. For the better rooms are at the end, and they are full with large canvases deserving long study, but find mostly exhausted eyes, spent from studying the intermediate memorabilia.
Anyway, these small rooms are a chronicle of Mr. Eakins and his students lolling about in the woods with their clothes off, without a concern in the world about posterity’s considerations of propriety. Mr. Eakins is seen in a few playing the pipes, a pose mirrored in the two bucolic oils here, “Arcadia” and “Swimmers.” There is something about these Victorians with their pants proudly down, posing as nymphs and satyrs that I was not able to place my finger on, until in the next room - a gallery of considerable portraits I arrived at Mr. Eakins’ painting of Walt Whitman, looking like a soused St. Nicholas in plainclothes, happy it is the 26th. Apparently, Mr. Whitman felt this was the best portrait ever done of him, and that is exactly what is to be loved about Mr. Whitman.
And that is exactly where Mr. Eakins was leading my suspicions towards a recognition that he was a frolicking, naturalist epicure, doing in oils what Whitman was doing in verse. Both of them were as happy in the nude, and felt it as dignified, as Mr. Eakins’ portrait sitters felt in their vests and ascots. Both of them were reveling in the body’s relationship to Nature, and doing so without any of the stigma that has since been attached to such a stance. Even speaking of Mr. Whitman in the wrong company today earns funny glances is he a proto-hippie, a creepy molester, a homosexual Benedict Arnold? He is of course none of these, nor was Mr. Eakins, but their almost childish, or animal, connection to the surrounding world, their sensitivity to it, is still an uncomfortably raw position to put the contemporary sensibility into, without qualification. There were no politics in Mr. Whitman’s and Mr. Eakins’ naturalism they wanted nothing legalized, they wished to secede from no state. Their kinship lay simply in their utter frank honesty about Homo Sapiens’ place in the world.
And while Mr. Whitman turned his revelation into a broad tome of deliciously naughty free-verse, Mr. Eakins began composing larger and larger paintings, proving that his insight into both the human form and the behavior of light and shape was growing proportionally. The last galleries of the Met’s exhibition are occupied by full-size, head to toe portraits, in which every subject cuts a figure as cleanly and truthfully as the Grey Poet’s Adam, though they are more conservatively dressed. Mr. Eakins has refined his light into a characteristic pale blaze that routinely makes the viewer suspect he is somehow cheating, and using luminous pigments. His figures, or some part of them, always leap forth from the folds of their clothing, or the dull hues of the objects they are set against, by the action of a beautiful field of light. The Mr. Agnew of “The Agnew Clinic” seems more a mortal than Dr. Gross was, because the other figures are more carefully considered, but the whole scene is closer to a martyr’s ascendance from the Renaissance because the light and form are more maturely handled.
Mr. Eakins thus remained devoted to the Western academic tradition, but did so with Mr. Whitman’s absolutely American clarity, humility, and ingenuousness. In the final room, he shows us a series of portraits these ones busts - which are reconsiderations of subjects he handled earlier in his life. These are the most thoughtful pictures in the show he has mastered his science, his technique, and now he is applying his pathos. They are reminiscent of Rembrandts, with the light turned up to its brightest, palest, most revealing pitch. Everything the Dutchman would have concealed in stylish browns, Mr. Eakins lays bare with his pale luster. His wife is shown looking direct at the viewer, the most expressive face in the gallery, and one of the first to address us, as if at last all the technique can be laid aside, all the studies and experiments packed away, and certainly all the gossip being whispered by the old ladies shushed for once in an Eakins, everything the viewer could wish to know about the artist and his companion is evident in the face on the canvas.
The Furies, or oceanic air currents whichever you prefer to believe is responsible for the weather have hardly waited for the solstice before blanketing our metropolis in the sultry air of midsummer. Already that unmistakable pale particulate obscures the skyline, and magnifies the efforts of the sun. After a half-hearted winter, and an ambivalent spring, the hopeful would not have been irrational in expecting less than the full force of summer until mid-July, or even August.
But that proves exactly how futile is faith in the weather. The populace is called on to promptly begin persevering, which is the best word for what we do during these months. The heat is the greatest sparring partner for the chronic complainer, and there is no place on Earth where the natives have refined that art more highly than here. Even as the thermometers began to register into the eighties, the groans were being let loose from every soul, all of whom, admittedly, have got it tough enough already. The New Yorker typically operates under the supposition that his life is already as hard as it can be, and that if there is goodness anywhere, then at least Nature will treat him kindly. And then she turns it to ninety-five.
It is too rarely acknowledged that the jet stream flees North during these months, and that New York, as it has for three hundred years now at least, shares its summer air-mass with the sultry South. One will be as well-off in Memphis as Manhattan, contrary to the meteorological Civil War that still seems to linger in the prejudices of Northerners. Knowing this, complaining about the summer heat begins to seem like griping about deciduous trees. They will do what they do, every year, and a fellow is better off reconciling himself with it, than trying to hold the leaves on the branches by the sheer force of his whining.
There can be some pleasure in that perseverance, after all. Shady spots can be cherished as they can’t any other time of year, and a pedestrian can quickly become a connoisseur of such havens. Around here, there are a handful of unfrequented such bowers, with different attributes perfect for different circumstances. Of course there are the morning arbors, and the afternoon arbors; there are the ones good for sitting and ones good for just a momentary lean; and there are those preferable for eating in private, and those ideal for sipping a lime rickey and watching the tapestry slink by.
And if the sufferer can persuade himself to accomplish less than he might in more temperate weather, there is the pleasure of the two- or three-shower day, which provides the sense of having lived through three humid mornings, but never having suffered into a sticky afternoon. With a dearth of water and what-not, of course I can not condone excess bathing but for my own part I fancy myself not much superior to a savanna ruminant on days like these, and insist on multiple trips to the watering-hole, under the elephant’s spray. Otherwise four o’clock would find me incorrigible and grime-soaked, and likely to have a complaint to make, to someone who doesn’t need to hear another.
This is not to imply that the heat is not to be scowled at. In these offices, the heaviest cargo to be lifted is clear thought, and the most critical equipment are the brains charged with producing it. But it is a well-known law of thermodynamics that a heat-engine works most efficiently when the exterior temperature is significantly lower than the engine’s, and the brain is no different. The mind is most effective when it has some thermal potential between itself and the outside world, and as the outside temperature rises, the efficiency of the neurons diminishes. There is a bucket of cold water outside Mr. Brownejohns’ door, in deference to exactly this principle. Lacking a good idea, or a sensible judgement, we are encouraged to dunk our noggins into the bucket until something worthwhile is sprouted. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. The bucket, frankly, requires a contortion of the back which is less than conducive to proper meditation but the physics is sound. Sometimes it is a cold, dark place we need, and a shady patch of grass, for all its pleasures, is not enough to spin the dynamo of cerebral invention. So until the city is once again that cold, dark place, we shall have to seek those qualities wherever they can be found, and try to complain only when our capacity for tranquil appreciation is utterly burned out.