Monday, March 30, 2009
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Friday, March 27, 2009
Thursday, March 26, 2009
In retrospect, Bill's work has developed in ways I couldn't have imagined in 1975. Rather than moving away from painting and abstraction, which I then believed he might do, he gravitated towards the plastic arts, and incorporated thematic elements and techniques directly from art criticism, as well as the methodology of painting, sculpture, photography, landscape design, and so forth. This was no surprise, really, since he taught art at the San Francisco Art Institute for 24 years, until 2008; indeed, having grown up inside the New York art world during the 1950's and '60's (his Mother Eleanor Lambert (Berkson) was an important figure in the New York fashion world until her death, at 100!, in 2008), he has never strayed very far from the preoccupations of art and artists. It's probably inevitable, then, that his work should be considered within the context of the history of aesthetic movements and trends, since the inception of Modernism. How one mediates between the life lived, and the expression of intention through art, seems to have been perhaps his major theme since he began writing seriously in the 1950's.
If the intersection art and life has always been the ostensible subject of Bill's work, the method and strategies by which this is addressed has undergone some changes over his career. From the start, the relation between the authorial voice and its presumed "subject" was never traditional: From the first poems in Saturday Night , there is a level of abstraction which resists specificity and referentiality, in favor of an imaginary dialectic: Fragmentation, blurring, altered states, and an amused skepticism masquerading as conviction. Nevertheless, each poem had some kind of reference point (an election day, a day in the garden, an Italian movie, swinging saloon doors, the doorman in Mother's building) to which all the language tangentially referred, if only obliquely.
The turning-point in this collection is the long prose-poem piece, entitled, significantly enough, "Start Over 1979-1980". Most all the poems published after this, completely eschew traditional occasional subject-matter, in favor of an autonomous, restless linguistic anxiety, in which every word, every phrase, every stanza is sacrificed to an expedient priority. This regime makes it difficult to get settled into a poem: What this feels like, to me, is not unlike Ashbery's method, in which a nimbus of feeling coalesces around a sequence of images and phrases meant to reassure us with familiar gestures and objects, at once bland and weird. But Berkson takes it a step further: Not only are we routinely on unfamiliar ground, we don't even have the convenience of recognizable signifiers. Taking a few couplets, at random, from the poem "Memoir Bay"--
Lap, the car talk, the Boston rat catcher, vigilance
Bones eclectic in the manor, blinkered in some slipper's cap,
A mole slide's third's tainted fab blue hoot avail,
Taint, tawny micros stippling about a ditch,
On the brain gold feed plaques
Blend, the unissued stamp.
Great British tendencies parade to scumble
For their prehensile bearing inside Arcady body's blowfish
--etc. Though the alignment, capitalization of line beginnings, and conversational syntax--the whole look and feel of the frame--is unchallenged, the level of abstraction it entertains is far beyond any descriptive eventuality: The subject of the poem is its own changes, its own peculiar, eccentric, weird, witty play. Sensations come at us, do a turn, then disappear down the rabbit-hole. It's a Dada light-show, punctuated by litter and glitter and four-dimensional dance-bands. Imagine Venice plaza with in-line skaters selling pink cotton-candy to Charles Laughton. Chihuly drowning in party-favors. Cocktails in the bank vault. Breakfast at Tiffany's, Gidget's pregnant.
Maybe an "outsourced consciousness"--rented tux that doesn't fit. Ultimately, the self trades alienation for a cell phone. Tow truck stranded on the bridge, we're due to flounder at three. So the art critic points with a muffled poker--what does he think? Search me. In an earlier poem from the 1970's, "In From the Edge" the last four lines read "Strip the night away:/there is a room somewhere//and one lies down near it--/lives, in fact, just outside." The implication is that the space the self occupies is always separate--though closely adjacent to--the art-"room" of action, creation, possibility. The poems Berkson has written since the early Eighties suggest that he's gone into that room, or at least, now has the key. But it's in a secret location.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
John Huston's Treasure of the Sierra Madre  is my favorite movie. After considering the 90 years of continuous film-making, I can't think of another example from the medium which combines the best aspects of narrative drama, cinematic editing, acting, clarity and economy of means, as well as this classic film does. It was made in black and white. I don't know if it's ever been "colorized" but that would certainly detract from its brilliant photographic qualities.
Humphrey Bogart, the de-facto star of the film, around whom the action moves, was not even nominated for Best Actor, an anomaly which seems more peculiar and baffling as each year passes. For my money, it was his best performance, better than Falcon, better than Caine Mutiny, better than the Desperate Hours, better than all the rest. In the movie he goes from small time grifter and bum, to cocky gold miner, to psychopathic killer, to pathetic victim, all in the space of 126 minutes, and there's never a wrong move. Laurence Olivier garnered Best Actor that year, for Hamlet, a pretentious Shakespearean adaptation which blew the Motion Picture Academy away with its timely British pride and passion. Tim Holt, a veteran contract Western regular, in a career-defining role as Dobbs's friend, was the third of the acting trio.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
New flat-screen watchability! That new hit single's just filled with "hearability"!
Monday, March 23, 2009
There have been increasingly worrisome reports over the last two years about the troubles in Mexico involving the growing power and violence of the Mexican Drug Cartels. Since the Mexican President announced a national policy of all-out assault against the "drug lords", open warfare has in effect broken out in towns and cities throughout the country. Officials on this side of the border believe that this new level of violence may well spill over into our border states.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
This is the second of two posts on male Gay love poetry, considering separate poems by two well-known poets of the post-War period--this, devoted to a poem, "Lexington Nocturne", by the North Carolina poet and publisher/entrepreneur Jonathan Williams [1929-2008]. This poem appeared in Williams's collection Elite/Elate: Selected Poems 1971-75, accompanied by a Portfolio of Photographs by Guy Mendes (Jargon Press: Highlands, North Carolina, 1979). It might be well to point out that this book was, as were several by the Author, self-published; he cared enough about how his work was presented to see to the matter himself. He felt a legitimate enough regard for his own efforts not to need the implied approbation and approval of having it produced by a third party.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
The demise of major urban daily newspapers, which has been foretold for over half a century--roughly since the arrival of television in the early 1950's--finally seems to be upon us. The rise of popular dailies more or less paralleled the industrial expansion beginning in the mid-19th Century (first in Europe), reached a crescendo in the 1920's and 1930's, then began its long period of decline and consolidation beginning in the 1940's. Television directly challenged print media from the Fifties onward, but major dailies held their own, increasingly relying upon ad revenue to make up the shortfall from subscription and street sales. As recently as five years ago, major newspapers were making big profits--reported to be in the neighborhood of 12-20% per annum. Under the Bush Administration, attempts were made to facilitate the consolidation of cross-media conglomerates, generating fears of political homogenization, not surprising given the wholesale elimination or downsizing of news divisions at all levels during the Eighties and Nineties.
It was clear, given the enormous pull of the World Wide Web--its speed and efficiency--that eventually some form of online media news dissemination would challenge other media (newspapers, television, radio), but no one could have predicted that it would happen so quickly. Just as Amazon and Alibris brought about the downfall of both the retail and used book "brick & mortar" businesses, online news services, many of which were maintained by the newspaper organizations themselves (!), have drawn ad attention away from print media, erasing their profit margins almost overnight.
Monday, March 16, 2009
It has always struck me as peculiar that love poems by Gay men are almost always more erotic and specific than those written by straights. There are, I know, countless exceptions, but the general rule seems to be to be generally true. I just finished going through the whole of The Faber Book of Love Poems, Edited by Geoffrey Grigson [London: Faber & Faber, 1973], and my predominant impression is that heterosexual love poetry tends towards the abstract, the merely decorative, whilst the homoerotic is more focused and direct. I'm thinking particularly of examples such as Whitman's "When I Heard at the Close of the Day" or Sir Philip Sidney's "My true love hath my heart, and I have his" which seem more specifically tender and frank than one is used to seeing in traditional (male) love poetry.
This is a graceful poem. Poetry is often about love, but it seldom rises to this level of seriousness, without seeming overly formal, or stiff. Schuyler was a master of the ordinary. He could take a daily occurrence, and turn it into the stuff of elegance and resolution. It's an unique gift.
Sunday, March 15, 2009
These photographs, which were probably made with either wide angle lenses or were cropped as "banquet" formats, are all black and white. In addition several of them are presented as layered overlays printed on milky "drafting film paper" which permits super-wide spreadsheets which suggest--though without actually being--superimpositional templates.
The various images are somewhat tongue-in-cheek--half humorous evocations of a world the artists dreamed up. To me, they also suggest Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal--the same grey, mordant visuals, the grim deprivations and depressed outlook of the Europe of the Plagues, religious intolerance, violence and superstition. The cautionary fantasy of what would happen to "civilization" if our complex interlinking of technology and social networks were suddenly removed. Not a new idea, to be sure, but a visual entertainment with all kinds of echoes and asides about how we think of peoples separated from us in time and circumstance. Ironic, because this is, in a sense, a version of where we came from, just as it might be the place to which, as a species, we return.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
Let's start at the beginning.
Friday, March 13, 2009
There is a famous photograph by the French photographer Atget, of the doorway to a Paris shop. Since the film he was using was very slow, his exposures tended to be very long, usually at least 5 seconds, and occasionally as long as several minutes. I believe he used the old lens-cap method of exposure, instead of any mechanical shutter. In this photograph, you can see the faint blurred shadow of a man in a hat walking out of the dark doorway, towards the viewer, turning left onto the street. It's just a strange blurring trail, impossible to make out any facial features or detail.