Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Dancing Between the Towers

Philippe Petit, the Man on Wire

Today I’d like to mark the anniversary of 9/11 with a look at Man on Wire, the documentary film that celebrates the feat of an acrobatic young man who walked on a cable stretched between the two towers. 

The event took place shortly after dawn on August 7, 1974.

Philippe Petit, a Parisian street performer, took six years and numerous trans-Atlantic flights to prepare for the event. During that time the aptly named Petit also walked a wire strung between the two towers of Notre Dame and between the supports of the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia. In both instances, the rigging was set up surreptitiously with the help of friends. These same friends would help him smuggle— with the assistance of an “inside man,” an insurance executive with an office in the South Tower—the hundreds of pounds of cable, clamps and other rigging that was needed to secure not only the inch-diameter walking cable but the two sets of guy wires that would support it.

The fine-lined geometry of the wires, Petit’s balance pole, and Petit himself--a speck dressed in black--against the vertical lattice of the buildings' facade, is a visual haiku about the possibility of the impossible.
All photographs in my original post are by Jean-Louis Blondeau

The documentary by James Marsh, based on Petit’s memoir, To Reach the Clouds, shows the planning that went into Petit’s astonishing performance. Although the chronology sometimes gets confusingly Tarantino-esque as it moves between the late 1960s/early 1970s planning, the 1974 event, and the present, it’s set up like a heist movie, with both actual footage of the planning and reenactments of key events.
Posing as journalists, Petit, shown here, and his crew reconnoitered the best places to secure cables
Photo from the internet

In a building not fully completed and largely still unrented, there are real scenes from the early Seventies where Petit is shown interviewing the construction workers, ostensibly for a French magazine, while his photographer is shooting the best places to anchor cables and a videographer records it all; reenactments show close calls with guards on the 104th floor and the rigging sequences that took place overnight, illuminated by the red warning beacon on the roof.

My favorite scene, also real, takes place in a field somewhere in or near Paris, where a practice wire has been set up about six feet off the ground. Having realized that the winds at the top of the towers can be strong and unpredictable, Petit asks his friends to pull on the wire to simulate the effects of shear and torque. "Make it dance," he instructs as he bobs wildly.

Scenes like the wire surfing are joyful, but Petit and his friends were well aware that they would be breaking the law. And intended or not, there’s a distinct parallel between the planning that went into the taking of the towers by aerialist as the buildings were nearing completion, and the aerial assault that brought the buildings down 27 years later. That second event is never mentioned in the movie. It doesn’t need to be. However there is one telephoto image, shot from below that eerily presages what would come: Framed by the two towers, Petit is performing on the wire, and in the upper left corner, a jet is heading, it appears, straight for that tower at that side. The footage of Petit on the wire is breathtaking; but that image with the plane sucked the air right out of my lungs.

Petit traversed the wire repeatedly, sometimes jumping, other times lying down

Petit remained on the wire for a death-defying 45 minutes, crossing back and forth eight times. During that time he didn't just walk. He lay down on the wire, and he also jumped so that his feet left the wire completely. There was no net, but the look on his face was joyful and relaxed. The towers are simply suppporting players (though it is their height, at the time the world’s tallest buildings, that he said “called” to him. The audience laughed when the footage panned from Petit to two policeman standing at the edge of the building. He taunted them, staying ever out of their reach. When those officers told his best friend Jean-Louis Blondeau, the chief wire rigger (as well as photographer of the pictures you see here, unless otherwise noted) that they would send a police helicopter to pluck Petit from the wire, Blondeau called him in, knowing that the wind from the chopper would knock him off.

It’s incomprehensible to me that someone would want to perform on a wire a quarter of a mile off the ground with no safety precautions save his balance pole and his own physical prowess. It seems impossible that Petit could have gathered willing accomplices (as one said, "I didn't want to be responsible for a friend's death"); that their caper, planned though it was, could actually have set everything in place, particularly the rigging; that it wouldn't rain; that the wind wouldn't be too strong; and that, miraculously, the young man who worked through the night to to finalize every aspect of his plan would not be too exhausted to pull off the performance without losing his balance--and his life.
Man on Wire is a testament to and document of that reckless, transgressive, illegal, dangerous, poetic, balletic and crazily uplifting achievement.
.A decade after the crossing, a writer friend of mine interviewed Petit at his loft downtown and reported that he kept a wire strung overhead so that he could practice. Two decades after that, the film shows a still elfin Petit on the wire in his back yard (somewhere in the Catskills). Just slightly fuller of form than the androgynous young man of the pictures, he's still dancing, still defying gravity.
Oh, it’s lovely to know that some things haven't changed.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

I did it! I wrote a memoir

"A personal pleasure and a professional revelation." 

--Sharon Butler, Two Coats of Paint

Update: I finally got into Harvard!
Among the many wonderful notes I have been receiving 
from (mostly artists) who have read the book, came this note
from Philip Gerstein: "The Harvard University Libraries now
own your book, in the collection of the Fine Arts Library."

Like many people I have lived with a lifetime of personal stories that have replayed occasionally, and somewhat out of focus, in my mind's eye. I never expected to share them, but when I published a blog post about my  Italian family--an emotional response to the presidential demonization of immigrants--I unwittingly opened the floodgates of more specific recollection. I then spent six months at the keyboard pulling everything out of myself, remembering long-forgotten details and grappling with the sometimes long-buried feelings that accompanied them. I've probably revealed too much, but what's the point of censoring a life freely lived? The book is published by Well-Fed Artist Press (that would be me) and is available in print and in digital format.

Two Lovely Reviews

Sharon Butler, writing in Two Coats of Paint, has said some very nice things about Vita: A Memoir. You can read the full review on her blog, but here's an excerpt:

"Artists tend to remember their early years hazily, as a mix of crazy optimism, financial uncertainty, and an unquestioning faith in the importance of making art. But Mattera is precise, laser-focused, and unusually candid. Her stories are not only colorful and endearing; they also explain the directions she has taken in the studio, and plumb her preoccupation with color, surface, and minimalist seriality. As she demonstrates so vividly, these phenomena are rooted in lived experiences. Powered by a native passion for truth and art, hers have been fascinating and fulfilling."

. . . . . . . .

Robert Whitcomb, writing in GoLocalProvidence offers a short and more local take. I've posted the screen grab below. I particularly like this line: "Her story, often told with hilarious deadpan humor, displays her drive and growing confidence as a painter and writer and, well, person."

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Mothers of Invention: Frida Kahlo

Nickolas Muray, Frida on White Bench, 1939

Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón (1907-1954) was a larger-than-life figure—even if she appeared diminutive in photographs—who wore, quite literally, a multitude of identities: mesclada with European and Tehuana roots, artist, reluctant Surrealist, fervent communist. She lived with debilitating pain and limited movement, the result of childhood polio and a trolley accident in adolescence that sent a handrail through her lower torso; had a messy but enduring relationship with a much-older, and initially more famous, husband; and had numerous affairs with women and men. All of that is reflected, like the flowers she intertwined into the braids of her hair, in the current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Plus there are some very fine paintings.  


This is the second exhibition mounted by the Brooklyn Museum that focuses on the accoutrements of a woman artist’s life. Whereas the Georgia O’Keefe show seemed infuriatingly like a W magazine feature (I saw it at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, not in Brooklyn), this one did not. While in principle I'd prefer that museums focus exclusively on the art, in Frida Kahlo: Appearances can be Deceiving, you experience her compelling story as well as her art. Moreover, many of the artifacts on exhibition have not been seen before. From her death in 1954 until 2004, some 15 years after Diego Rivera’s death, they had been locked away in Casa Azul at the direction of her chubby hubby. You have to wonder: Was he feeling overshadowed?

Let me take you around.

The exhibition opens with digitized films of Frida at her blue-painted home in Mexico City, Casa Azul. Throughout the exhibition are additional films that include views of Mexico City in the early years of the 20th Century and a tour of Casa Azul, with its gardened courtyard and interior with art and artifacts. Mexicanidad, the Mexican identity that included indigenous roots on her mother’s side, loomed large, as did her relationship with her husband, Diego Rivera

 There were many such installations of photos, drawings, and letters. These are photographs of the young Frida taken by her father, Guillermo, who made his living as a photographer. The adolescent Frida often helped him in the studio. The idea has been advanced that Frida was well aware of  the kinds kinds of poses that were the most dramatic. She certainly played well to the camera

 In the first gallery we are greeted with this Tehuana costume, with its dramatic resplandor, a lace or starched cotton headdress that frames the face

Self Portrait as a Tehuana (Diego in My Thoughts), 1943

Moving around the gallery, we see the portrait accompanied by photographs of Tehuana women  wearing the resplandor. Film clips in the exhibition suggest that this traditional headdress was worn only for ceremonial occasions

Entrance to the next gallery with Frida's Self Portrait with Monkeys, 1943, shown larger below

Self Portrait, 1941

Las aparencias engañan, the drawing that gave the exhibition its name: Appearances Can Be Deceiving

Beneath the loose huipiles were casts or corsets; the flowing skirts drew attention away from Frida's shorter right leg, her limp, and eventually the prosthetic she wore after the amputation

Two corsets with the self portrait and drawing shown above

Below: A painted plaster cast depicting a broken column. After Frida's many surgeries, when she was lying in bed, a mirror affixed overhead allowed her to paint. Like Ginger Rogers, who famously danced "backwards in high heels," Frida painted in reverse and upside down

Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940

Wearing a too-large suit, perhaps Diego's, Frida depicts the aftermath of a self-inflicted haircut. This likely followed a breakup with Diego. The superscript comes from the words of a song popular at the time: Look, if I loved you, it was because of your hair. Now that you're bald, I do not love you anymore

Self Portrait with Braid, 1942

Lucienne Bloch, Frida at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel, 1933

Many photographers captured Frida over the years, including Bloch, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Tina Modotti, and Nickolas Muray. Here Frida sits beneath a self portrait that is posted below

Self Portrait, 1933

 Two views of the  gallery in which Frida's costumes are displayed.
Above, the view as you enter; below the view looking toward the front

 Coming around to the front of the figure shown above, we have a better view of the costume, as well as of the photographs in which she is shown wearing a similar garment

Nickolas Muray, Frida in New York, 1946; printed 2006
Frida called the United States "Gringolandia," but she loved New York City and San Francisco

In 1953 Frida's right leg was amputated, the result of gangrene from childhood polio

Below: Her right leg was shorter, so her shoes were built up to compensate

Nickolas Muray, Frida Kahlo with Olmec Figurine, 1939

Frida Kahlo died on July 13, 1954.  Hayden Herrera, in  her brilliant monograph,  Frida Kahlo: The Paintings (Harper Collins, 1991), closes with this story about the artist: "Eight days before she died, she added a finishing touch to her last painting, a still life that pits the crimson pulp of chopped and sliced watermelon against the life/death duality of a half dark, half light sky. The painting both welcomes death and defies it with alegria.  One last time Frida dipped her brush into red paint and inscribed her name . . . on the foremost slice. Then in large capital letters, she wrote the motto whose invocatory force makes both her art and legend live: VIVA LA VIDA, she said, LONG LIVE LIFE."

Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving is at the Brooklyn Museum through May 11. Entry is by timed ticket, and tickets are largely sold out. Check the museum's website for more information.

All photos courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Women of American Abstract Artists

Opening of Blurring Boundaries at the Ewing Gallery, University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
The exhibition is up through December 10

"While American abstraction today is well acknowledged and recorded in critical and academic circles, what remains relatively absent is a conversation regarding the contribution of female artists who took part in its founding and continuing evolution."    --Rebecca DiGiovanna, curator, Blurring Boundaries

The exhibition, Blurring Boundaries: The Women of American Abstract Artists, 1936-Present, curated by Rebecca DiGiovanna, includes 62 works by 49 past and current members of American Abstract Artists, a group founded in 1936 to bring attention to contemporary American abstraction at a time when figuration and representation held sway.  Blurring Boundaries is a traveling exhibition, currently at its second venue in Knoxville, Tennessee. The installation images here are from its first incarnation at the Clara M. Eagle Gallery at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, September 27-November 1. (Click here for a slideshow.)

We begin with the founders, Esphyr Slobodkina, Gertrude Greene, and Alice Trumbull Mason, and several past presidents, including Merrill Wagner, Beatrice Reise, and Charmion von Weigand. As Di Giovanna wrote in her early notes about the exhibition, "Evidence of women’s presence and participation have long played a significant role in the American Abstract Artists. Among the 40 founding members of AAA, eight were women; of the group’s 15 
presidents, six have been female. The group’s current gender makeup is a nearly even split — forty-five percent are female — still statistically unheard of in the broader art world."

Esphyr Slobodkina, The Red L Abstraction, c. 1940, gouache on paperboard, 7 11/16 x 9 1/8 inches
You'll see this and the other works here in situ as we proceed to installation views

Gertrude Greene, Related Forms, 1947, oil on canvas, 32 x 24 inches
Courtesy of Berry Campbell Gallery, New York City

Alice Trumbull Mason, Magnitude of Memory, 1962, oil on canvas, 36 x 26 inches
Courtesy of Joan Washburn Gallery

 Merrill Wagner, Untitled, 1976, masking tape on paper, 12.5 x 29 inches

Beatrice Reise, Kufa, 2003, ink on paper, 31 x 22.25 inches

Charmion von Weigand, Luminous Lattice, 1958, collage on paper, 16 x 16 inches

Individual artwork images courtesy of AAA and the artists; installation views courtesy of the Clara M. Eagle Gallery, Murray State University, Kentucky

 We begin our tour here, moving counterclockwise around the gallery
 Artists are identified from left to right
Susan Bonfils, Esphyr Slobodkina, Marthe Keller, Lisa Nanni Judith Murray

Marthe Keller, Pre-Op, 1994, oil and mixed media on linen

 Judith Murray, Tribe, oil on linen, 50 x 54 inches

 Kim Uchiyama; Bonfils and Irene Rice Perriera (at oblique angle); Claire Seidl, Joanne Mattera, Judith Murray, Mary Schiliro, Li Trincere; on standing wall: von Wiegand, Slobodkina, Keller; far wall: Gabriele Evertz, Jane Logemann, Rhia Hurt, Susan Smith, Lynne Harlow

Kim Uchiyama, Archeo, 2010, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

Installation view, with standing wall foreground as a navigation marker

 Laurie Fendrich, #18 2016, 2016, conté on Arches (top) and #8 2015, 2015, conté on Arches; Irene Rousseau, Stretching the Space, 2015, oil, pen, and ink on canvas

 We peek behind the standing wall to get a sense of the space. Work will be identified as we continue.
On floor: Vera Vasek, August 24, 2007 from Tidal Relief Series, 2007; plaster, acrylic, sand, glass fiber, aluminum, with scene from video, below

 Uchiyama, Bonfils, Perriera, Seidl, Mattera

 Emily Berger, AAA outgoing vice president, with Susan Bonfils, Opening #1, 2017, mixed media; and . . .

. . . Irene Rice Perriera, Untitled, c. 1955, gouache on paper

Raquel Rabinovich; corner: Patricia Zarate; Trumbull Mason, Sharon Brant, Joanne Freeman, Lorenza Sannai, Liz Ainslie; foreground: Vasek 

Liz AinslieWay You Could Tell, 2017, oil on canvas

Lorenza Sannai, clockwise from above left: Certe Volte, 2017, acrylic on board; Preparatory drawing for Ordine Sparso and Certe Volte, 2017, digital enlargement; Ordine Sparso, 2017, acrylic on board 

Joanne Freeman, Sweet Spot, 2012, oil on shaped canvas, 30 x 33 inches

 Trumbull Mason, Sharon Brant, Freeman

Sharon Brant, Pink and Red #2, 2017, acrylic on linen, 15 x 30 inches

Mara Held, Clover Vail, Phillis Ideal, Rabinovich, Zarate, Trumbull Mason, Brant, Freeman; foregound, Vasek

Mara Held, Ostinato, 2007, egg tempera on panel, 32 x 48 inches

Clover Vail, #14, 2015, ballpoint on wood panel, 10 x 8 inches

 Ideal, Rabinovich, Zarate, Trumbull Mason

Phillis Ideal, Blue Borrowed, 201`6; acrylic, collage, resin, spray paint on canvas; 40 x 30 inches framed

Raquel Rabinovich, River Library 421 with Rivermaps, 2013; Nile River mud, pencil and glue on Essendia paper;  25 x 33 inches framed

Patricia Zarate, Sweet Spot, 2014, acrylic on wood, 48 x 2.5 x .50 inches

 Katinka Mann, Held, Vail, Ideal, Rabinovich, Zarate, Brant, Freeman; Vasek, foreground

 Ce Roser, Siri Berg, Anne Russinof, Perle Fine

Perle Fine, an early member of AAA, Arriving, 1952, oil on canvas, 50 x 49.5 inches
Courtesy of Berry Campbell Gallery, New York City

Anne Russinof, Inside Out, 2017, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 inches

Siri Berg, Bars (triptych), 1999, oil on linen, each 12 x 12 inches

Ce Roser, Fanfare, 1986, oil on linen, 23 x 36 inches

 Installation view

Lynn Umlauf, Emily Berger, Karen Schifano

Lynn Umlauf, 3.6.14,  2014; pastel, acrylic, canvas, frame; 20.25 x 18 inches

Emily Berger, Breathe In, 2017, oil on wood, 36 x 28 inches

Karen Schifano, It's Curtains for You, Kid, 2017, flashe on canvas, 22 x 28 inches

 Installation view with Fine, Nanni, Nola Zirin, Melissa Staiger

Nola Zirin, Hide and Seek, 2017, oil and glitter on wood panel, 24 x 36 inches

Lisa Nanni, Opposing Forest Green and Blaze Orange Waves, 2016; chromate aluminum, art glass, acrylic, 13.50 x 12 x 4 inches
Melissa Staiger, Connection 2 Ways, 2017; assemblage on panel with marble, subway tiles, acrylic paint; 24 x 12 inches

 Jeanne Wilkinson, Beatrice Reise, Gertrude Greene, Gabriele Evertz, Jane Logemann, Rhia Hurt, Susan Smith, Lynne Harlow

Jeanne Wilkinson, Beatrice Reise

Below: Still from Wilkinson's Animated Abstraction 4, 2016, video

Greene, Evertz, Logemann, Hurt, Cecily Kahn, Nancy Manter, Smith

Gabriele Evertz, Toward Light, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 42 x 42 inches

Jane Logemann, Plum-Korean, 2008-9; ink, oil, varnish, on muslin; 36 x 26.50 inches

Rhia Hurt, Pretty in Peach, Reflecting Pool Series, 2018, acrylic and watercolor on paper, 15 x 12 inches

 Cecily Kahn, Laughter and Forgetting, 2017, oil on canvas, 24 20 inches
Nancy Manter, Remembering to Turn . . ., 2017, flashe and charcoal collage on Yupo, 40 x 26 inches

 Susan Smith, SCT 200 Irregular Grid, 2012; collage with found french fry container, watercolor, pencil, framed 14 x 14 inches; and 2 1/2 lb. Irregular Grid, 2012, collage with found french fry container, watercolor, pencil, framed 14 x 14 inches

Lynne Harlow, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, 2018; vinyl curtain and acrylic paint; 6 x 8 x 18 feet

Iona Kleinhut, Mare Nostrum: Casalabate, 2017, oil on linen, 30 x 32 inches

 Mary Schiliro, Li Trincere, Charmion von Weigand, Slobodkina, Keller, Evertz, Logemann, Hurt, Smith, Harlow

 Murray in far wall; Schiliro, Li Trincere
On pedestal: Alice Adams, White Corner Cast, 1969, silastic resin, 10 x 4 inches coiled

Mary Schiliro, Drip-dry, 1995; acrylic paint, mylar, clothespins; 60 x 36 inches

Li Trincere, Green 1, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 34 x 1.50 inches

 Seidl, Mattera, Murray

Claire Seidl, Neither Here Nor There, 2016, oil on linen, 30 x 39 inches

Joanne Mattera, Swipe 11, 2016, oil and wax on 300-lb. Fabriano Hot Press,  34 x 26 inches framed

Gail Gregg, Scored, 2012, encaustic on cardboard, 15 x 12 inches

More information about American Abstract Artists and the exhibition
. Website
. Facebook page 
. Curator's essay 
. Images from the second venue, University of Tennessee, Knoxville   
. Review by D. Dominick Lombardi in Artes Magazine

About the curator
Rebecca DiGiovanna is an independent curator from Memphis, Tennessee. She holds a BFA in Museum Studies from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her art historical interests center on artistic identity and themes of migration and diaspora, constructions of gender and “otherness,” and modes of collecting and preservation. While pursuing her undergraduate degree, DiGiovanna worked in the Ewing and Downtown Galleries at UT, Knoxville, where she helped to curate and install exhibitions featuring both regional and international artists. Exhibition highlights include Dutch colorist Fransje Killaars, Color at the Center; architect Richard Meier, Collage Works; and printmaker Ruth Weisberg, Time and Again. She authored essays for Larry Brown—Science and Nature (2016) and Encore(2016). She also co-edited the exhibition catalog for Pinkney Herbert,Distilled: The Narrative Transformed (2015). Her essay, Neither Here nor There: Borrowed Bodies, Third Space, and the Museum, was published in Pursuit: The Journal of Undergraduate Research, 2015. DiGiovanna currently lives and works in New York City, where she is pursuing an MA in Art History at Hunter College.