Tuesday, February 17, 2009

pinsky, as in sat-guru

-jeffery mcnary

“In the presence of the sat guru; knowledge flourishes; sorrow diminishes; joy wells up without any reason; abundance dawns; all talents manifest.”
-The Upanishads

Before a rapt audience, Robert Pinsky recently stepped to the podium in the Fullerton Room of the venerable Art Institute of Chicago. He acknowledged the richness of the place and the works therein. He acknowledged the art itself 21st century Chicago has become as an architectural Mecca. And with his understated grace and his usual dignity, the former Poet Laureate of the United States pauses, looks around the filled to capacity auditorium, and checks in,

I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned
In the river of not having you, we lived
Together for hours in a house of a thousand rooms
And we were parted for a thousand years.
Ten minutes ago we raised our children who cover
The earth and have forgotten that we existed

It was not maya, it was not a ladder to perfection,
It was this cold sunlight falling on this warm earth.

When I turned you went to Hell. When your ship
Fled the battle I followed you and lost the world
Without regret but with stormy recriminations.
Someday far down that corridor of horror the future
Someone who buys this picture of you for the frame
At a stall in a dwindled city will study your face
And decide to harbor it for a little while longer
From the waters of anonymity, the acids of breath

Then silence. Captive in my seat by the crashes of his verse, I heard Pinsky say, “ ‘Antique’, from Gulf Music. It’s the second to last poem in the book.” Almost whimsically he continued, “I was angry at the time I wrote it. I was angry with, with Bush, and Cheney, and Gonzales, and our foreign policy. Then it just became something else. It evolved into something else.” More silence. And from what I could tell, no one exhaled.

Robert Pinsky is a poet, a professor, a writer who shares communion with those absent, those seen and unseen. He writes for the dead. He writes of the maimed, and of fools who sit with their anger, and of celebrations, and of those unable to put crayons down, and of those poised in their wretched existence, and of course, if that is not enough, he forces you, against your wishes to hang there between righteousness and revenge. Those familiar with his work, can only sit, or stand and mouth the words. Robert Pinsky is a gem…who has fallen into American hands.

In his, Poem of Disconnected Parts, also from 'Gulf Music', he even asks:

Who do you write for? I write for dead people:
For Emily Dickinson, for my grandfather

I met the laureate almost two years to the day of the Chicago session. At that time he’d stopped by the Bartos Theatre at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a snowy night to join a cadre of friends and associates knocking about poetry, democracy and his collaboration with Tod Machover, a composer and professor of media arts and sciences at the Institute. The synergy, ‘Death and the Powers’, Dr. Pinsky said at that time, is the tale of a man who “creates a kind of immortality by converting himself into software. He decides to have his consciousness ported into a computer. This creates complications with his family, as well as the international economy.” It was a broad reach, and it remains so. I seek an update each time I see the poet.

“The character in ‘Death and the Powers’ doesn’t see himself as becoming a robot, but becoming pure spirit. He’s seeking to escape the machine of the flesh”, Pinsky had said. “‘Robot’” comes from a Czech word meaning “worker”, and in that sense, we all aspire to be robots. I’m interested in artificial intelligence, and wanted the story to have some complexity. I didn’t just want to write another Frankenstein story about technological hubris.

The ‘opera’ remains under development and production at the MIT Media Lab and is scheduled for a premier in Monte-Carlo, under the patronage of Prince Albert of Monaco, come September, 2009. It’s rumored, however, the production may open in Cambridge’s American Reparatory Theatre. “If it does open in Monte Carlo”, Pinsky said with a chuckle, “I’ll tell you to get your tux and head over.” I am anxious with this work. I am convinced this will be his close-up for those still compressed and unacquainted.

Time, it appears, is significant to ‘the laureate’ in thought and writing, and he pulls us through it with his craft. “Deciding to remember, and what to remember is how we decide who we are,” he’s written. He often refers to Homer, and he speaks of the Zulu in South Africa. “The Sangomo”, he repeated to the Fullerton Hall gathered, “says in our Zulu culture we do not worship our ancestors, we consult them.” And as if by nature, rather than design, Pinsky reflects on his father, of whom he’s written, and provided an unshaven portrait of his hometown, Long Branch, New Jersey. “Six presidents visited Long Branch”, he’s fond of saying. “My father was a famous athlete there, at Long Branch High School. He played football, basketball, hard-ball. His father, my grandfather, owned a bar, across from City Hall and the police station, so all the cops would drink there. In the 20’s, during prohibition”, he continued, “he was a bootlegger, and my grandmother used to say, ‘Oh Robert, he was in the liquor business, and it happened to be prohibition.’ In school, I had the same homeroom as my dad. I had the same homeroom teacher as my dad, Ms. Scott.” The place is not quite frozen in time and place, Mr. Pinsky revealed. “Change is gradual. In a place like that are stories, and the stories are alive.”

Paying visit to his father some years ago, the two got lost while looking to visit nearby Pleasure Bay. Stopping and asking for directions, one of the locals asked him, “What do you wanna go there for?” Then, Pinsky said laughing, “He says, ‘What’s your name’?” “Why?”, the poet said, “Because it was New Jersey. It was like in the Odyssey.” At Pleasure Bay, from his Pulitzer nominated, ‘The Figured Wheel’, nails a snapshot of the haunts of his coming of age:

In the willows along the river at Pleasure Bay
A catbird singing, never the same phrase twice.
Here under the pines a little off the road
In 1927 the Chief of Police
And Mrs. W. killed themselves together,
Sitting in a roadster. Ancient unshaken pilings
And underwater chunks of still-mortared brick
In shapes like bits of puzzle strew the bottom
Where the landing was for Price’s Hotel and Theater.
And here’s where boats blew two blasts for the keeper
To shunt the iron swing-bridge. He leaned on
the gears
Like a skipper in the hut that housed the works
And the bridge moaned and turned on its middle pier
To let them through. In the middle of the summer
Two or three cars might wait for the iron trusswork
Winching aside, with maybe a child to notice
A name on the stern in black-and-gold on white,
Sandpiper, Patsy Ann, Do Not Disturb,
The Idler. If a boat was running whisky,
The bridge clanged shut behind it as it passed
And opened up again for the Coast Guard cutter
Slowly as a sundial, and always jammed halfway.
The roadbed whole, but opened like a switch,
The river pulling and coursing between the piers.
Never the same phrase twice, the catbird filing
The humid August evening near the inlet

With borrowed music that he melds and changes.
Dragonflies and sandflies, frogs in the rushes, two bodies

Not moving in the open car among the pines,
A sliver of story. The tenor at Price’s Hotel,
In clown costume, unfurls the sorrow gathered
In ruffles at his throat and cuffs, high quavers
That hold like splashes of light on the dark water,
The aria’s closing phrases, changed and fading.

And after a gap of quiet, cheers and applause
Audible in the houses across the river,
Some in the audience weeping as if they had melted
Inside the music. Never the same. In Berlin
The daughter of an English lord, in love
With Adolph Hitler, whom she has met. She is taking
Possession of the apartment of a couple,
Elderly well-off Jews. They survived the war
To settle herein the Bay, the old lady
Teaches piano, but the whole world swivels

And gapes at their feet as the girl and a high-up Nazi
Examine the furniture, the glass, the pictures,
The elegant story that was theirs and now
Is part of hers. A few months later the English
Enter the war and she shoots herself in a park,
An addled, upper-class girl, in her life that passes
Into the lives of others or into a place.
The taking of lives—the Chief and Mrs. W.
Took theirs to stay together, as local ghosts.
Last flurries of kisses, the revolver’s barrel,
Shivers of a story that a child might hear
And half remember, voices in the rushes

A singing in the willows. From across the river,
Faint quavers of music, the same phrase twice and again,
Ranging and building. Over the high new bridge
The flashing of traffic homeward from the racetrack
With one boat chugging under the arches, outward
Unnoticed through Pleasure Bay to the open sea.
Here’s where the people stood to watch the theater
Burn on the water. All that night the fireboats
Kept playing their spouts of water into the blaze.
In the morning, smoking pilasters and beams.
Black smell of char for weeks, the ruin already
Soaking back into the river. After you die

You hover near the ceiling above your body
And watch the mourners awhile. A few days more
You float above the heads of the ones you knew
And watch them through a twilight. As it grows darker
You wander off and find your way to the river
And wade across. On the other side, night air,
Willows, the smell of the river, and a mass
Of sleeping bodies all along the bank,
A kind of singing from among the rushes
Calling you further forward in the dark.
You lie down and embrace one body, the limbs

Heavy with sleep reach eagerly up around you
And you make love until your soul brims up
And burns free out of you and shifts and spills
Down over into that other body, and you
Forget the life you had and begin again
On the same crossing—maybe as a child who passes
Through the same place. But never the same way twice.
Here in the daylight, the catbird in the willows,
The new café, with a terrace and a landing,
Frogs in the cattails where the swing-bridge was--
Here’s where you might have slipped across the water
When you were only a presence, at Pleasure Bay.

“The medium for poetry is one person’s voice”, Pinsky has said. “It’s the human body. Breath.” He jests about never being good enough at anything else, and ergo became a poet, resulting from an attraction to rhythms and was obsessed with the sound of words dating to his early childhood, sharing “I gave myself to poetry when I began to talk”.
At some point it rooted deeper. “I’m discussed by complacent writing”, he confesses, “The works I like the best are jagged, Old English. I like Raleigh, Shakespeare, Yeats.”

That belief appears to have followed Prof. Pinsky, as is clearly reflected in his recitations, with their breathtaking sweeps into exhortations. This can best be found in his gripping, 'Gulf Music', from the book of the same title, is perhaps his most political to this point. Here, with its brilliant, bizarre, buddhist-esque cover of dancing skeletons, he guides us through the Persian gulf, through Katrina , through the Galveston hurricane of 1900, and bits of our personal ‘gulfs’…

Mallah walla tellabella. Trahmah trah-la, la-la-la,
Mah la belle. Ippa Fano wanna bella, wella-wah.

The hurricane of September 8, 1900 devastated
Galveston, Texas. Some 8,000 people died.

The PearlCity almost obliterated. Still the worst natural
Calamity in American history, Who mallah-walla.

Eight years later Morris Eisenberg sailing from Lubeck
Entered the States through the still-wounded port of Galveston.

1908, eeloo hotesy, hotesy-ahnoo, hotsey ahnoo mi-Mizriam
Or you could say “Morris” was his name. A Moshe.

Ippa fano wanna bella who. The New Orleans musician called
Professor Longhair was named Henry Roeland Byrd.

Not heroic not nostalgic not learned. Made-up names:
Hum a few bars and we’ll home-la-la. Who ohma-dallah.

Longhair or Henry and his wife Alice joined the Civil Defense
Special Forces 714. Alice was a Colonel, he a Lieutenant.

Here they are in uniforms and caps, pistols in holsters.
Hotesy anno, Ippa Fano trah ma dollah, tra la la.

Morris took the name “Eisenberg” after the rich man from
His shtetl who in 1908 owned a town in Arkansas.

Most of this is made up, but the immigration papers did
Require him to renounce all loyalty to Czar Nicholas.

As he signed to that, he must have thought to himself
The Yiddish equivalent of NO PROBLEM, Mah la belle

Hotsey hotsey-ahno. Wella-mallah widda dallah,
Mah fanna-well. A townful of people named Eisenberg.

The past is not decent or orderly, it is made-up and devious.
The man was correct when he said it’s not even past.

Look up at the waters from the causeway where you stand:
Lime causeway made of grunts and halfway-forgettings

On a foundation of crushed oyster shells. Roadbed
Paved with abandonments, shored up by haunts.

Becky was a teenager married to an older man. After she
Met Morris, in 1910 or so, she swapped Eisenbergs.

They rode out of Arkansas on his motorcycle, well-ah-way.
Wed-away. “Mizaim” is Egypt, I remember that much.

The storm bulldozed Galveston with a great rake of debris.
In the September heat the smell of the dead was unbearable.

Hotesy hotsey ahnoo. “Professor”the New Orleans title
For any piano player. He had a Caribbean left hand,

A boogie-woogie right. Civil Defense Special Forces 714
Organized for disasters, mainly hurricanes. Floods.

New Orleans style borrowing this and that, ah wail-ah-way la-la,
They probably got “714” from Joe Friday’s badge number

On Dragnet. Jack Webb chose the number in memory
Of Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, the old record.

As living memory of the great hurricanes of the thirties
And the fifties dissolved, Civil Defense Forces 714

Also dissolved, washed away for well or ill – yet nothing
Ever entirely abandoned through generations forget, and ah

Well the partial forgetting embellishes everything all the more:
Alla-malla, mi-Mizraim, try my try-la, hotesy-totesy.

Dollars, dolors. Callings and contrivances. King Zulu. Comus.
Sephardic ju-ju and verses. Voodoo mojo, Special Forces.

Henry formed a group named Professor Longhair and his
Shuffling Hungarians. After so much renunciation

And invention, is this the image of the promised end?
All music haunted by all the music of dead forever.

Becky haunted forever by Pearl the daughter she abandoned
For love, O try my tra-la-la, ma la belle, mah walla-woe.

The Chicago reading took on the form of many of the poet’s readings. It held many layers through which one is required to navigate like a drift dive. There’s a buoy out there in that ocean waiting to meet you, somewhere. In route the playful meets the electro-intense. There the political converges with the personal. There the subplots, fraught with both social and aesthetic matter, require repeating, re-listening, re-hearing. There is an absence of ambiguity in Professor Pinsky’s crafting. There are bridges, linkages, colliding worlds, and it is far from safe and predictable to observe as the poet consistently pulls fragments together, while operating on the meta-level transition.

With Ginza Samba, from ‘The Figured Wheel’, Prof. Pinsky involves the audience with this labyrinthine work through an object dear to him, the saxophone. Early in life, Pinsky played the sax and is known to joke that he’d become a poet because of his failure as a musician. The work also expresses his “patriotisim”. He’s patriotic about how the nation’s people cohere, “the pluralistic quality of our country. We are not one people via race or religion. The saxophone is an important symbol of our culture,” he says. “It was invented in Paris in the 19th century by a Belgian guy named Sax. Therefore one would say it is a European instrument. It isn’t. It’s an American instrument. An African-American, a black American instrument, because it was made so by geniuses. Geniuses named Johnny Hodges, Sonny Rollins, and Lester Young, and Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, and Dexter Gordon. They made it their instrument.”

A monosyllabic European called Sax
Invents a horn, walla whirledy wah, a kind of twisted
Brazen clarinet, but with its column of vibrating
Air shaped not in a cylinder but in a cone

Widening ever outward and bawaah spouting
Infinetely upward through an upturned
Swollen golden bell rimmed
Like a gloxinia flowering
In sax’s Belgian imagination

And in the unfathomable matrix
Of mothers and fathers as a genius graven
Humming into the cells of the body
Or cupped in the resonating grail
Of memory changed and exchanged
As in the trading of brasses,
Pearls, and ivory, calicos and slaves,
Laborers and girls, two

Cousins in a royal family
Of Niger known as the Birds or Hawks.
In Christendom one cousin’s child
Becomes a “favorite negro” ennobled
By decree of the Czar and fonds
A great family, a line of generals,
Dandies and courtiers including the poet
Pushkin, killed in a duel concerning
His wife’s honor, while the other cousin sails

In the belly of a slaveship to the port
Of Baltimore where she is raped
And dies in childbirth, but the infant
Will marry a Seminole and in the next
Chorus of time their child fathers
A great Hawk or Bird, with many followers
Among them this great-grandchild of the Jewish
Manager of a Pushkin estate, blowing

His American breath out into the wiggly
Tune uncurling its triplets and sixteenths—the Ginza
Samba of breath and brass, the reed
Vibrating as a valve, the aether, the unimaginable
Wires and circuits of an ingenious box
Here in my room in this house built
A hundred years ago while I was elsewhere:

It is like falling in love, the atavistic
Imperative of some one
Voice or face—the skill, the copper filament,
The golden bellyful of notes twirling through
Their invisible element from
Rio to Tokyo and back again gathering
Speed in the variations as they tunnel
The twin haunted labyrinths of stirrup
And anvil echoing here in the hearkening
Instrument of my skull.

His prose book, ‘The Life of David’, takes on David, the “one who is beloved”, the shepherd boy who took over the kingship of Israel, who pushed back the Philistines and established the capital in Jerusalem. “He’s partially imagined. But we’re all imagined in the minds of those we know,” says Pinsky. “He was both horrible and beautiful. Artist, leader, killer. He was of mixed blood, and he could have been a warrior chieftain, a big shot.” He continues, “I was gonna concentrate on the story, not his poems. Some are part of the story. I opted to tell the story. There might have even been more than one David. There are historical explanations for them. A lot of Samuel was written a few generations after David.” He views David as a ‘magnet’ of history, pulling thing into, like the six pointed star which emerged out of the late middle ages, and like the book itself, peering back through 3,000 years.

Pinsky also visited, Samurai Song, from ‘Jersey Rain’ , a piece which, “In my mind, doesn’t seem to fit my social, cultural past. It’s said like a tough guy”, he adds. He fades back and forth to his elegy, Poem of Disconnected Parts;

At Robben Island the political prisoners studied.
They coined the motto EACH ONE TEACH ONE.

In Argentina the torturers demanded the prisoners
Address them always as “Profesor.”

It is as though he holds a teachable moment,

The first year at Guantanamo, Abdul Rahim Dost
Incised his Pashto poems into Styrofoam cups.

And then,

Becky is abandoned in 1902 and Rose dies giving
Birth in 1924 and Sylvia falls in 1951.

There were other works including ABC from ‘Jersey Rain’ and The Shirt, with its;

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

“It’s hard to write a good poem.” Pinsky has said. You never know if you did it right. Unlike a pilot or surgeon. There you have objective measures of success. Poetry is vulnerable.”

One would think Prof. Pinsky would be comfortable with his craft. Over the years he’s cracked open an unprecedented three terms as Poet Laureate, a Pulitzer nomination, the Roethke, the Saginaw, the William Carlos Williams Award, the L.A. Times Book Award, The Academy of American Poets Translation Award, and other things. Of his Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Harvard’s Orlando Patterson has written, “This is perhaps the most important discourse on cultural analysis by a major poet since Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.”

Despite his general acclaim, Pinsky holds, “When applauded it’s part of art you’ll never know. When critics say nice things about you it doesn’t insure it. It’s not measured in money. God can’t give you an ‘A’. It’s done, and one try’s to do it well.” Continuing, “You write with your voice, not a pen and paper. Your mind’s voice, and ears. It’s a bodily art. You’re trying to make something. And there are those who do this that are both exalted and tormented.”

Long before there were musical instruments, there was the human voice. There were sounds, poetry. I’ve listened to Pinsky’s electrified and inspiring work for sometime now, and found it writ large as if on canvas. These are structures we would find in the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, in the Washington National Opera, or in Ghana’s Elmira Castle, or any remote Himalayan monastery. And with his crafts kindly glow, we would do well to dig deeper, and like the ancients, foist our helmets and stare into his parables.

take a peek at Death and the Powers

Sunday, February 15, 2009


A Gentleman Does Something Ugly, Again
PAUL TAYLOR gets peevish about interviews. He knows they are “part of the job,” as he puts it, but until he gets into the groove, he tends to rely on a tactic he also employs in his dances: a mixture of the dark and the light.
“I see you have your pen,” he said, twinkling his blue eyes in a kindly manner, his tone mocking.
Mr. Taylor, at 78, is a Southern gentleman, a sarcastic New Yorker, a playful conversationalist, a vivid writer and, most of all, a revered choreographer who for more than half a century has rigorously explored the light and dark sides of human nature. As part of the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s annual New York City Center season beginning on Feb. 25, one of his oldest, most haunting gems, “Scudorama,” will be revived through an American Masterpieces grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“Well, I’ll tell you the truth,” he said with a wicked laugh in the parlor floor of his SoHo town house. “The reason we’re doing it is money. We get a grant to revive real oldies. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. But it turned out O.K. I like watching the present cast, and I’m particularly pleased with Sean” — Sean Mahoney, a company member — “who’s doing my part. I like his energy. His presence. And his height. That helps.”
Created in 1963 and not performed since 1973, “Scudorama” reveals Mr. Taylor in a bleak mood. The dance was choreographed a year after “Aureole,” his acclaimed lyrical work set to Handel that left experimental dancegoers reeling but cemented his reputation as a bold choreographer not scared of beauty for its own sake. While some criticized “Aureole” as being easy, it was actually a daring move that challenged the trends of the dance world. “Scudorama” was even more audacious. “ ‘Aureole’ was so pretty,” Mr. Taylor said. “I wanted to do something ugly.”
At the time Mr. Taylor resented the popular success of “Aureole” and wanted to create its opposite, in terms of movement and temperament. “I wanted the steps to be very different,” he said. “As I remember, we worked very quickly on ‘Aureole.’ After that there were other dances that I really slaved over and didn’t get the attention that ‘Aureole’ did.”
In his 1987 autobiography, “Private Domain,” Mr. Taylor recalled, while on tour with his company, passing a trapped dog on a highway median. The mongrel, he wrote, was “rearing, spinning and pawing the air.” His attempt to choreograph the anarchy and chaos that defines “Scudorama” stemmed partly from that image.
In “Scudorama” eight dancers, wearing street clothes and bright leotards and using beach towels as shrouds (with sets and costumes designed by the artist Alex Katz), disintegrate into ravaged forms. Like shifting shadows they crawl across the floor in jagged bursts of bewilderment, emptiness and rage. The dance’s accompanying program note, from Dante, begins with “What souls are these who run through this black haze?” For Mr. Taylor, those words refer to the “lost souls in purgatory, because they hadn’t done anything good and they hadn’t done anything bad.”
Mr. Taylor named the work in two parts. “Scud,” he said, refers to fast-moving clouds. “And ‘-orama’ because I thought it was sort of unpleasantly tacky,” Mr. Taylor added. “In those days everything was ‘-orama’ this and ‘-orama’ that. And the ‘scud’ is a reference, perhaps, to the people in the dance. They’re like scuds — just wisps of humanity.”
Dan Wagoner, a former company member who had injured his calf a few days before the work’s premiere at Connecticut College, split his role with Mr. Taylor. “Twyla Tharp was in the company then, and I remember I had to teach her how to get out of the wings,” Mr. Wagoner said in an interview. “She was standing blatantly ready for her entrance, and I said, ‘Can you see the audience?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Then they can see you, so back up.’ ”
To bring the dance back to life, the cast and the rehearsal director, Bettie de Jong, watched an archival video of the piece, which had been performed in silence. (The music, by Clarence Jackson, didn’t arrive on time.)
“Well, you make do,” Mr. Taylor said. “I couldn’t cancel. I was younger then, you know, but it was a killer.”
For the revival the dancers relied on an audio recording that was matched, as closely as possible, to the original performance. “We had two blueprints to work on that sometimes contradicted each other,” Mr. Mahoney said. “It seemed like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ on crack.”
Once the dance was reconstructed, three former members of Mr. Taylor’s company — Mr. Wagoner, Sharon Kinney and Elizabeth Walton — assisted in coaching. “It is movement that’s kind of pushed to a distortion or contortion that they don’t do as much today,” Mr. Wagoner said. “It seemed soft and rounded to me when I first saw it, so we worked first on some of the mechanics, and then I talked to them about what was going on in New York at the time. Now I really feel like I’m seeing the dance that I remember being in.”
Mr. Taylor’s City Center season also includes two New York premieres: “Changes,” a 1960s-flavored piece featuring music by the Mamas and the Papas, and “Beloved Renegade,” inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, who is quoted in the program notes: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
Before choreographing the work, which is set to Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” Mr. Taylor immersed himself in writings by and about Whitman. “The thing that made me know that I really wanted to make a dance about Whitman was that he believed the body and the soul were the absolutely same thing,” Mr. Taylor said. “You know, he talks about himself a lot, but he is really talking about mankind. He wasn’t egotistical.”
Mr. Taylor is working on a new dance, though he is reticent to reveal much about it. “It’s opera ballet music, and I picked it because of the challenge it presents,” he said. “There are 15 very short pieces, which” — he paused for an anguished laugh — “is a structural problem. None of them last very long. You never know if anything’s going to turn out well. Not everything does.”
As someone who has led a dance company since 1954, Mr. Taylor would know. But the opposite was true of his company’s recent space problems. After rent increases forced the group to vacate its lower Broadway studio, the East River Housing Corporation stepped in to offer the company a 20-year lease at 551 Grand Street. As soon as construction is completed next fall on what is now the Ralph Lippman Auditorium, the company will move to its new home. (It is currently renting space from American Ballet Theater.) Mr. Taylor plans to move as well, to an apartment closer to the studio.
“I like to walk to work, and I like to be near where I work,” he said. “It’s a big luxury, I know. In the early days I lived in my studios, and then I got this house. I love this old house. But there’s no point in keeping this place if I’m going to work somewhere else. It’s too big for me, really. I’ll find something, hopefully with a view of the East River. See the sun come up.”
Mr. Taylor’s reluctance to leave Manhattan fueled the decision to relocate to the Lower East Side. “There are nice places in Brooklyn, but there’s something about Manhattan,” he said. “All of these dancers that come from everywhere come to New York, and New York is Manhattan. Of course now they all live in Brooklyn and Queens, because they can’t afford Manhattan, but it’s where we’ve always performed, and it’s home. I’ve lived here longer than anyplace. But I’ve never felt like a New Yorker. It’s true. I always feel a little like an outsider. My background is Virginia. And my mother raised her children to be Virginians.”
His dances, he said, still stem from those childhood memories and impressions, especially his connection to the natural world. “As a little boy I spent summers at Edgewater Beach — a saltwater river — and I remember wading and looking at all the minnows and soft-shell crabs under the water, and how the water seemed to magnify them when looking from above,” he said. “Also watching insects and birds: animals have always interested me. Early on they were like playmates because there weren’t other children around.”
He has retained that fascination with observation. “I watch people,” he said. “You can tell a lot about people from the way they move and the things they do, especially when they don’t know they’re being watched.” He smiled broadly, a secret smile full of pleasure, and added, “I always dreamed of being a spy.”

Thursday, February 12, 2009

never too much pablo

The many faces of Pablo Picasso
Picasso was the first rock-star artist, whose wild visions gripped the public imagination and changed 20th-century art for ever. But his flamboyant personality divided opinion. Was he a playful genius, as some suggest, or a capricious and cruel misanthrope who left battered lives in his wake? On the eve of a new show in London, we speak to his closest friends and family in a bid to unravel the enigma
Peter Conrad
The Observer, Sunday 8 February 2009
"Picasso," the surrealist poet Paul Eluard said, "paints like God or the devil." Picasso favoured the first option. "I am God," he was once heard telling himself. He muttered the mantra three times, boasting of his power to animate and enliven the visible world. Any line drawn by his hand pulsed with vitality; when he looked at it, a bicycle seat and its handlebar could suddenly turn into the horned head of a bull. But he also took a diabolical pleasure in warping appearances, deforming faces and twisting bodies, subjecting reality to a tormenting inquisition.
Picasso's behaviour was equally dualistic. In my recent conversations with people who knew him, I heard him compared to a saint, and was startled when a former model took him at his word and equated him with God. His biographer John Richardson, who lived near him in Provence during the 1950s, told me about the warmth and rollicking conviviality of the man: the genius was also genial. Others described a predator who gobbled up visual stimuli and wolfed down friends, employees and lovers.
The Swiss dealer and collector Angela Rosengart, whose own Picassos are on display at her museum in Lucerne, remembered presenting him with some handmade drawing paper. He licked his lips as he appraised its possibilities: "I'm a paper-eater, you know!" he said. "People were happy to be consumed by him," his daughter, Paloma, remarked. "They thought it was a privilege. If you get too close to the Sun, it burns you. But the Sun can't help being the Sun."
"Reality must be torn apart," Picasso told Françoise Gilot, the young painter who met him in 1943 and, obeying his brusque instruction to prove her fertility, bore him two children, Paloma and her brother, Claude. After 10 years with him, Gilot wondered whether she, too, had been torn apart. As a painter and a sculptor, Picasso magically metamorphosed the things he saw; Gilot, in her book about their vexed partnership, felt that he had forced "a metamorphosis in my nature". He remade her to suit himself, then looked elsewhere when she had served her purpose, which was to fuel his creativity and cosset his ego.
Unlike the rest of the many women in Picasso's life, Gilot took the initiative by leaving him. She survived; others, less lucky, were, as Richardson says in his biography, "incinerated in the furnace of Picasso's psyche". His neurotically jangled mistress Dora Maar, the weeping woman in the paintings of the late 1930s, was skewered by his cruelty. At lunch, Richardson recalled, Picasso might praise a painting by Maar and liken it to Cézanne, giddily elating her; at dinner, he would casually remark that Cézanne was shit and drop her back into self-doubt.
Even after being replaced by Gilot, Maar was expected to remain available, forbidden to accept evening invitations in case Picasso whimsically decided to dine with her. She was not allowed to get over Picasso; his second wife, Jacqueline, a submissive helpmate but also a jealously protective guardian, could not forgive herself for surviving him. After his death in 1973, Jacqueline lapsed into an alcoholic fog, woozily communing with the spirit of the lord and master she addressed as "Monseigneur". Richardson remembered her in the mid-1980s stubbornly asserting: "Pablo is not dead." A year later, she shot herself.
The suffering has persisted into the second and third generations, as the miserable end of Picasso's grandson Pablito demonstrates. The young man's father, Paulo, was born during Picasso's marriage to a Russian ballerina; emasculated and shiftless, Paulo served for a while as Picasso's chauffeur. Pablito, whose name marked him as a further diminutive of the glowering paterfamilias, tried to pay homage to Picasso the day after his death; the monopolistic Jacqueline had him expelled from the villa and decreed that he and the rest of Picasso's motley brood could not attend the funeral. Heartbroken by this rejection, Pablito downed a bottle of bleach. His sister, Marina, who has published a memoir denouncing their distant, coldly manipulative grandfather, found Pablito haemorrhaging his corroded intestines: talk about reality being torn apart!
Jacqueline nudged Richardson to begin a biography, counting on him, as he said when we met in New York, to be "discreet". The undertaking has been a devotional act. Richardson began to worship Picasso when he first saw reproductions of his work in art magazines during his schooldays in the late 1930s. "From the age of 13 to 15, I was obsessed by Picasso - and 10 years later I became his friend!"
They met while Richardson was living with collector Douglas Cooper in a chateau they elaborately restored; the two men belonged to what Richardson calls Picasso's "tertulia". "That's the word Spaniards use to describe a group of guys who meet in the cafe to discuss politics, women, sport. We didn't exactly do that. Most often, Douglas and I cooked dinners for Picasso and his entourage on their way home from the bullfights in Arles. Picasso often repaid our hospitality by bringing us drawings, though later he gave us caviar instead; he joked that now the prices for his art had risen so high, caviar was cheaper!"
What Picasso demanded from his gang of companions was, as Richardson put it, "fealty". It is a revealingly antiquated word, remembering the vassal's obligation of fidelity to his feudal overlord. But can a biographer be so subservient?
"I'm sure Picasso would have hated my books about him," said Richardson. "He was secretive, he didn't want everything to be known. His affairs were the source for his work. Once, when he was showing me some portraits, he said, 'It must be awful for a woman to look at the way I paint her and see that she's about to be replaced.'
"He did everything in his power to block the publication of Gilot's book in 1964 and when he failed he banished Paloma and Claude as revenge on their mother. Sometimes, the truth is unpleasant, but I don't hold with the way he's been demonised by feminist academics - denounced as a wife-beater and all the rest." It was only too easy for Merchant and Ivory to cast Anthony Hopkins in Surviving Picasso, their slushy film about his relationship with Gilot; they relied on Hopkins to bring to the character the gloating, carnivorous guile he found in Hannibal Lecter.
"Picasso could be ferocious," said Richardson, "but he was also gentle, sweet, child-like. Dora Maar used to talk about his persecution of her, but when she had a breakdown and got religion, she took to calling him the apostle who regenerated art. After all, she'd been the mistress of Georges Bataille, the most way-out of the surrealists, a real satanist, in love with evil and erotic pain. So life with Picasso must have been a bed of roses after the bed of thistles she shared with Bataille!"
Richardson has likened Picasso to Frankenstein, who, defying God's creative primacy, soldered corpses together; his portrait of Gertrude Stein, for instance, grafts on to her mask-like head the face of a nonagenarian smuggler Picasso met during a Spanish holiday. "He had a Dracula side as well," Richardson told me. "He fed on those around him, like a vampire sucking life out of his victims. He once said something very telling about the fans, stalkers, autograph-seekers, dealers, collectors and paparazzi: 'These people cut me up like a chicken on the dinner table. I nourish them, but who nourishes me?'
"We all donated our energy, if not our blood. If there were six or eight people for lunch, he'd get every single one - he'd seize control of you, turn you inside out. The pretty girls he'd flatter and flirt with. If there were kids present, he'd make toys for them or do drawings. Even animals weren't immune - he'd entice them to come to him. Everyone had to be seduced. You ended the day completely drained. But he'd imbibe all that stolen energy and stride off into the studio and work all night. I can't imagine the hell of being married to him!"
Douglas Cooper fell from grace after he presumed to plead the cause of the excommunicated Paloma and her brother. "That was absurd," said Richardson, who re-enacted the scene for me with a satirical glee. "Nothing could have infuriated Picasso more than trying to get him to recognise his illegitimate children as heirs - not for financial reasons, but because any mention of a will reminded him of death, which his art was so determined to deny. Douglas was thrown out, but wouldn't give up. There was a steep flight of stairs leading down from Picasso's villa to the front gate and poor Douglas paused on every step, kneeling and weeping and grovelling and begging to be forgiven! It did him no good at all."
Richardson felt Picasso's muffled annoyance only indirectly. "It was because of something I wrote for the Observer, which he read in the French equivalent of the Reader's Digest. It was about his friendship with Braque and I mentioned that Picasso had offered him studio space at his place in Cannes, which Braque refused. Trivial enough, but it made him cross because he didn't want it known that anyone could say no to him! He never referred to it; Jacqueline ticked me off on his behalf. I did once see him being mean, when he turned up with Cocteau and all the hangers-on for dinner after a bullfight. Jacqueline looked ill, collapsed and I carried her upstairs. Picasso just shrugged and said, 'I seem to have a corpse on my hands.' She told me that she needed an operation - a hysterectomy, I suppose, though she was too ashamed to use the word - but couldn't have it because, 'Pablo doesn't want to live with a eunuch'."
The remark poignantly acknowledged Jacqueline's sense of her duty (and of her failure to fulfil it, since she did not add to Picasso's eclectic crop of children). He was a creator; his women had a lowlier responsibility, serving as reproductive vehicles. "Of course," Richardson added, "it was just the idea of having offspring that appealed to him. In practice, he expected the current woman in his life to be at his beck and call, so he begrudged time spent on maternal chores. He could be a doting father. He loved devising games, teaching them to draw, romping on the beach. But his work had priority and then he didn't want to be bothered."
The purpose of women was clearly defined. What, I wondered, was the role of male admirers like Richardson? Did the master expect his companions to be slaves or, at least, feudal vassals? I asked about Picasso's assertion that "to like my paintings, people really have to be masochists". "He probably said that for effect," Richardson retaliated. "A day later he'd have been saying the opposite." But another anecdote made me wonder about the psychodynamics of their association. Picasso often showed the young man sets of drawings, asking him to choose the best - significantly "le plus fort", never "le plus beau" - and always accepting his judgment.
"I was so amazed by his interest in what I felt that I got teary-eyed! When it happened more than once, I began to suspect he was playing a trick on me, so I asked, 'Hey, Pablo, what's up?' He said, 'There was only one other person I could make cry like that.' I badgered him to tell me who it was and then he changed the subject because he'd given away too much."
The other lachrymose acolyte was Georges Bemberg, the unstable son of a brewing tycoon, who claimed to be Picasso's protegé. When he went mad, his family covered its embarrassment by pretending that he was dead. Almost 50 years later, Picasso was asked to sign some drawings that Bemberg had owned. He reacted to the imitative doodles with horror and superstitious alarm, yelling: "Don't touch them, they're the drawings of a madman!" Picasso enjoyed adoration, but reviled followers who drew too close to the sacred fire.
Richardson has so far survived Picasso, but the race is not yet over. He has spent almost 40 years on the biography, though the three volumes published so far have only reached the middle of Picasso's life. "I'm 85 and I don't have all that much time. The biography grew at its own pace, which is why it has taken so long. There has to be a fourth volume, maybe a fifth - who knows? I suffer from wet macular degeneration and I need an injection in my eyeball once a month. I'm fine in front of paintings, but I have a problem with print, so research is hard."
The contrast with Picasso's ebullient, often riotously obscene, old age is clear enough. Angela Rosengart told me, with some genteel euphemisms, about a conversation she overheard between Picasso and the equally ancient pianist Artur Rubinstein. She at first described the talk as "boyish"; when I pressed her for details, she said: "Oh dear, they were telling their dreams and they were so indecent!"
Genius, for Picasso, was lecherous adolescence recovered at will. Richardson is less frisky, but keeps going with a gallant, generous stoicism. He is currently preparing a New York exhibition of Picasso's last works - paintings of a muddled rabble of musketeers, whores, thieves and beggars, with faces scavenged from Rembrandt, Velázquez and Goya. "By the end of his life, he knew he couldn't compete with the avant-garde. Americans had taken over, bringing back the abstraction that he always despised. But he turned the studio in his last house into a microcosm, projected slides sent from the Louvre on the walls, and shut himself away to cannibalise the entire history of art. It was a triumphant end to his career, not a falling-off."
I couldn't help comparing the clutter of Picasso's working space, strewn with relics, fetishes, props for his dressing-up games and the dung of his pet goat, with the gilded trophies and pedestalled neoclassical busts in Richardson's princely pad at the bottom end of Fifth Avenue. The artist, working like a cyclone, throve in chaos; his biographer, with a tidier mind, is slowly imposing order on Picasso's rackety life and refuses to rush to judgment before his knowledge of the subject is complete. I hope the tortoise catches up with the hare at the finishing line.
When we met in Lausanne, Paloma Picasso told me about being present, as a quiet and unobtrusive child, during sessions of almost frenetic creativity in the studio. "He was 67 when I was born, but I never thought of him as old. He was so vital, so playful. Perhaps he thought of me as a contemporary, even though I was only four when my mother took my brother and me away to live in Paris in 1953. He was proud to draw like a child, not someone with an academic training.
"One day, I got a pair of white espadrilles. I was so happy, they looked so cute, I'd wanted them so much. And the moment my father saw them he covered the canvas with red and blue designs. They looked fabulous, they'd become an art object, but it was a little sad too; I realised I'd never ever be able to have white espadrilles like the other girls!"
Even when taking a rest or pausing to entertain his daughter, Picasso could not help littering the world with more art. "All day long while he worked, he smoked - first Gauloises, then Gitanes. The cigarettes came in little cardboard cartons and whenever he finished a packet, which was three or four times a day, he'd cut it up to make me a doll or a finger puppet or scribble a pencil drawing on it. He couldn't stop himself."
Angela Rosengart remembers a similar overflow of inventiveness. Arranging for her to visit him next day with her father, Picasso drew them two tickets of admission, decorated with a sketch of Rembrandt and a scribbled signature. They gained entry to Picasso's presence by showing these little Picassos (which they were allowed to keep).
Jean Cocteau thought that Picasso had "terrible eyes that pierced like gimlets"; Richardson thinks of him as a witch doctor with the gift of x-ray vision that Andalusians call the mirada fuerte - a strong gaze that penetrates objects. The black eyes inherited by Paloma are less baleful and they shone with delight as she remembered a world in which daily reality consisted of dreams and games.
"We had a menagerie in the house. My father was like St Francis of Assisi - animals couldn't resist his aura. A goat called Esmeralda had the run of the villa, it lived upstairs with us. My mother gave away an earlier Esmeralda to some gypsies because she hated its smell and the mess it made; my father was outraged and said he loved the goat like a child. He even sculpted it, with cardboard ears, a basket for its belly, udders made of terracotta milk jugs and a metal pipe sticking out for its anus. This one was the second Esmeralda and it was lonely. It cried at night and I'd go and goat-sit to comfort it. Often, I fell asleep beside it.
"One summer, a frog hopped out of the pond and came and sat with us on the steps in the evening when it was cool. My father constructed a little ladder so it could climb up and get into the house. We gave it a bowl to live in, but it couldn't feed itself in there. My father collected flies for it; he had a way of gently sweeping the air with his open hand and then closing it on the insects. Even the flies weren't afraid of him!"
Paloma illustrated the gesture for me, but the clatter of her gold-bangled wrist and the flash of her jewel-studded fingers would have scared off any swarms. Even so, I saw what trust her father must have had in the strength and stealth of his hand, which he relied on to make instantaneous decisions about marking canvas or modelling clay.
During the 1950s, Paloma and Claude travelled down from Paris to the Midi to spend their holidays with Picasso. "He played the role of father when he met the train and asked us about school. But he really didn't care and admitted that he'd been a bad student himself. His father was a colombophile who allowed him to take his doves to school and you can imagine how that disrupted lessons! By the end of the day, our games would resume."
The idyll ended with the publication of Gilot's Life With Picasso in 1964. Rosengart remembered his reaction when he read the French translation. "He gripped my shoulder and said, 'How could a woman do such a thing?' That shows, you see, what respect he had for women!"
I begged to differ; the remark called Gilot a disgrace to her gender because of her independence. When Picasso first met Gilot, he'd proposed keeping her captive in an attic, swaddled like a Muslim woman, until he was ready to unwrap her for delectation; early in his friendship with Rosengart, he said that he fancied detaining her on the premises as a perpetually available model.
"The book was not harmful," Paloma insisted. "The art world deified my father and my mother wrote about him as a human being - about his little quirks and superstitions, but also about his attempts to control her. Anyway, Jacqueline used the book as the excuse for a breach with us. From now on, we officially didn't exist, we couldn't be mentioned, we were bad. But how evil can you be when you're only 14? Maybe Jacqueline resented us because she gave him no children.
"Once, during the time we were banned, I saw my father in Cannes. I rushed up to him, we embraced as if nothing had ever happened. Should I have told him that I'd been to the house every day that week, but was not allowed in? I didn't want to ruin the moment with accusations. Then Jacqueline bustled up and bundled him into the car. She must have been very insecure, which is maybe why she couldn't survive him."
Picasso died intestate, forcing Paloma and Claude to apply to the French courts for recognition as his descendants and heirs; eventually, a legal ruling allowed them to adopt the surname Ruíz-Picasso. The hyphen ironically disinterred the conflicts of previous generations. Ruíz was their father's patronymic, which he spurned as a means of separation from his own father, a tamely realistic painter; he called himself Picasso after his mother's family.
But the famous name that Paloma coveted carried its own burden. "Both my parents were artists, so what else could I be? When the estate was settled, each of us - me, my brother and the step-siblings from other relationships - was allowed to choose a group of his works, within certain financial limits. And then we were involved in setting up the Musée Picasso in the Marais, which took care of the death duties. After you've been looking at Picassos all day, you don't want to come home and pick up a pen or a brush! Although I started to design jewellery before he passed away, for a long while I felt inhibited. How could I measure up?"
She soon found an independent way to merchandise the family brand, and, following the example of the ceramics her father turned out in multiple editions in the 1950s, supplied the market with her own relatively affordable Picassos: jewellery, cosmetics, leather goods, sunglasses, china, tiles, furniture covers and wallpaper. Her father, to keep from being idle, sometimes manufactured such accessories. A couple of years before his death, he spotted a brass pendant dangling from Angela Rosengart's belt. He asked to borrow it and kept it for months. Long after she'd resolved to forget about it, he returned it gilded and engraved with the head of a baroque cavalier and personally dedicated to Rosengart.
Paloma's cheekiest allusion to Picasso's legacy is the men's fragrance she called Minotaure, launched in 1992. The randy bull was one of his self-images and he often drew the horned Minotaur trampling sacrificial virgins beneath its hooves. Paloma's imaginary beast is sweeter-smelling, less rapacious: "I was thinking of the Mediterranean and of that scented darkness when I chose the name. It's an indirect allusion to my father, but it shows how inescapable he is!" Richardson's biography argues that the purpose of Picasso's art is exorcism, the casting-out of evil, achieved by the black magic of his deformations. Paloma's perfume manages a milder exorcism of her father's influence, transforming the musky odour of rut into a gentler, more fetching olfactory aura.
Psychologically, Paloma also learnt from his example. Paparazzi besieged the hospital in which she was born and dispatched nurses to bribe her mother; her infancy and childhood were remorselessly documented, since Picasso, as Richardson said, was "as famous as a rock star".
Richardson regretted Picasso's antics for the camera. "He played the fool, dressed up, performed little mimes, though often it was his only way of communicating with people. After the war, it was compulsory for Americans visiting Paris to call on him. They spoke no French, he spoke no English, so he had to put on these foolish dumb shows with silly hats or Indian head-dresses, like the one Gary Cooper gave him."
Paloma took a different, wilier view. "My father didn't deny his celebrity. He treated the press the way you would do a dog - if you run away, it will chase you and bite you, but if you play with it, it may lick your hand." Paloma developed her own sly version of this tactic and, like her friend Andy Warhol, she became socially and commercially ubiquitous while remaining unknowable.
"I was so timid," she sighed. "That's why I played the part of that lustful lesbian Hungarian countess in the film Immoral Tales; I thought that would cure my shyness! When I began designing, I diverted attention to my persona, to the extravagant way I dressed or the fire-engine-red lipstick I wore. The look was a mask like those my father collected and I hid behind it."
Her current disguise is an immaculate anonymity. Sitting opposite me on a sofa in the Lausanne hotel, she could have been any prosperous, well-tended Swiss matron, except when the gold hoops rattled on her wrists and her father's eyes scorched me like a pair of black suns. More than 50 years after she first posed for Picasso, Angela Rosengart recalled with an excited shudder the raking scrutiny of those eyes. "They burned," she said. "He ate me with his eyes; you could feel him swallowing whatever he looked at. It was terrifying, exhausting, to sit there for two hours being looked at in that way, as if he were shooting arrows into me. I only really understood it much later when I read in John Richardson's book about the mirada fuerte."
Richardson, I noted, calls that unblinking gaze "an ocular rape". "No, I never felt threatened," said Rosengart. "Picasso was always so kind to me, so tender. And my father took photographs throughout the sessions, though he had to do so from the next room. First, Picasso made a pencil drawing, then next time a linocut, later a lithograph and aquatint - the same face, but always in a different medium, which shows how he liked to change people as he worked on them.
"I would never have asked him for a portrait. Helena Rubinstein did that. She annoyed him so much that finally he gave in and did a whole series of drawings. They made her look so horrible that he never showed them to her."
Rubinstein, the magnate who invented anti-wrinkle creams, appears in Picasso's sketches as a cadaverous crone with gnarled, bejewelled knuckles; Angela Rosengart, so deferential and undemanding, looks wide-eyed with joy and gratitude in his portraits of her. "A Spanish art critic told me that Picasso's first little girlfriend was called Angela and I remember once when he introduced me to someone he said, 'Elle s'appelle Angela' and repeated the name as if he was caressing me. Perhaps I was a souvenir of that first love - an innocent one, I hope! Anyway, that's how I crept into immortality through the back door."
Another young woman inadvertently immortalised by her brief contact with Picasso was 19-year-old Sylvette David, who posed for him in the summer of 1953. She caught his eye when her boyfriend tried to sell him some shakily assembled cubist chairs; soon she was visiting the studio every day.
David - today called Lydia Corbett after a failed second marriage to an Englishman and a rebaptism following her religious conversion - lives in rural Devon. Stark trees in mucky fields creaked as gales lashed them, ragged clouds hurtled across the sky and rooks screeched imprecations. "Provence is nicer, non?" said the erstwhile Sylvette as she surveyed the unmeridional weather.
Picasso fancied Sylvette because she had a ponytail. "He was fascinated by that. It was my father's idea; he liked the way ballerinas pulled their hair back. And no one ever had such a high ponytail as mine! Even Brigitte Bardot decided to copy my hair when she saw me on the Croisette in Cannes. Of course, she wasn't naturally blonde, like me!"
Sylvette's fetishistic handful of hair has gone, replaced by Lydia's long yellow bangs. As a remembrance of the ponytail, however, she had twined a few strands into braids, with red wisps of ribbon knotted around them. "It is the colour of the passion of Christ," she told me, fingering the ribbon. Then, less mystically solemn, she added: "My grand-daughter likes to pull my braids." Was this, I wondered, a dare?
Françoise Gilot, preparing to walk out on Picasso in 1953, thought he was using Sylvette to make her jealous and scoffed at his claim that the girl had "very pictorial features". My view is that the ponytail lifted her face, pulled the skin taut and revealed sculptural planes.
Picasso began with delicately accurate sketches of her, then in the next few months experimentally racked and twisted her body, finally remaking her in folded metal or casting her in bronze as his Woman With a Key, a statue originally pieced together from fire-clay bricks and other implements from a potter's kiln.
A monolithic Sylvette, with her adamantine ponytail set in concrete, stands in the grounds of New York University, inflated from Picasso's original by Norwegian sculptor Carl Nesjar. "Ah," said Lydia, showing me a dogeared photo album, "I have never seen it, no one invites me to New York! Could you write that I would like to go?" If my hair had been braided, I'm sure I would have felt a persuasive tweak.
Lydia looked back with a teasing grin on the erotic imbroglio that surrounded Sylvette. "I was in the middle of two women - Françoise and Jacqueline - and they didn't like me being there. Oh là là, it was difficult! Picasso often painted me in a rocking chair. You see it again in his portraits of Jacqueline, but I sat in it first! After a while, she made sure I wasn't welcome. Finally, she presented me with a book about his art, which he inscribed to me. That was her way of saying, 'It's over, go.' She had no need to worry; I was very pudique, not like the girls today.
"Later I heard that the statue of me as the woman with the key was called The Brothel-Keeper and I was so offended. Who would say that about me? Maybe Jacqueline! Once he did offer me money to pose, but I refused. I thought, what if he wants me to be nude? He was 73 then, he wore slippers. But he was clean, he had no whiskers and he smelled nice, not of wine and garlic! He went back to his youth through me. He gave me a cuddle sometimes, like a good old dad."
I was not so sure, listening to Lydia's account of Sylvette's induction, that Picasso's intentions were paternal. He took her to his bedroom and bounced encouragingly on the bed. Instead of following his example, she marvelled at the agility of his ageing limbs. Then he led her to the stables, where his favourite Hispano-Suiza limousine was housed.
"He opened the back door of the car and said, 'Come in.' I thought, 'That's a bit funny', but all we did was sit there, with an imaginary chauffeur in the front. We just talked." About what? I asked. "Oh, he told me that creativity was happiness, other things like that. His Spanish accent was so strong, often I couldn't understand what he was saying!"
Despite Jacqueline's rebuff, Sylvette survived Picasso. Indeed he subsidised her after-life by presenting her with one of his 40 paintings of her, which she sold to buy an apartment in Paris.
An illustrated children's book by her friend Laurence Anholt narrates her story as a fable of rebirth: Sylvette, surveying the Eiffel Tower from an eyrie paid for with a Picasso, embarks on an artistic career with the old master's encouragement and also manages, thanks to his avuncular ministrations, to overcome the trauma of abuse in childhood by her mother's bullying lover.
Divine intervention also did its bit. "After my first husband betrayed me, I was so hurt, so destroyed. But suddenly I was surrounded by a light, I felt happy, and I started singing in Latin about the pure in heart. That was God's gift to me!" Another exorcism had occurred, this time with the aid of celestial grace, not Picasso's demonic conjuring.
It is fitting that Picasso's place in Sylvette's life was taken by the only creative force he viewed as an equal. "Ah oui," said Lydia, fingering the ribbon that was her memento of Christ's blood, "perhaps God sent me to Picasso to cheer him up and sent him to me to heal my hurt. God is in everybody. Those dark eyes Picasso had - that was God looking at me!"
She showed me one of her recent watercolours, influenced more by Chagall than by Picasso. Against a gold background like that of a religious icon, Sylvette floats among a collection of Picasso's props - owls, masks, statuettes - with a cowled monk representing his better self; the painter's round face is lunar and those omniscient eyes keep protective watch on the world. "He's so big he envelops us all," said Lydia, as if he were about to materialise in the room.
I wondered, however, why she had given Picasso three arms, which reach out to pinion the airborne Sylvette. His extra, exploratory hand seemed bent on mischief. Was Picasso a deity or a randy old devil? Or perhaps, as Eluard suggested, both at once? According to John Richardson: "The man was a paradox. Whatever you say about him, the reverse is also true." His lovers, friends, models and children know that he metamorphosed them. Whether they were recreated or destroyed, even they can't be sure.
• Picasso: Challenging the Past is at the National Gallery, London, 25 February-7 June, sponsored by Credit Suisse.
• John Richardson's A Life of Picasso, Volume III: The Triumphant Years 1917-1932 was published in paperback last week.
The master's circleThe family and friends we spoke to
Paloma PIcassoFashion designer, businesswoman and the youngest of Picasso's four children, born in 1949 to the artist/writer Françoise Gilot when Picasso was 67 years old. Paloma means "dove" in Spanish and her name refers to the dove symbol designed by Picasso for the International Peace Conference in Paris the year she was born. Has been depicted in many of her father's works including Paloma with an Orange and Paloma in Blue. In 2001, Paloma Picasso moved to Switzerland and founded the Lausanne-based Paloma Picasso Foundation to promote the work of her parents.
John RichardsonBiographer and friend to Picasso, born in 1924. Richardson was obsessed with the artist as a teenager and a decade later, when he began restoring a chateau in Provence in the 1950s with the collector Douglas Cooper, he became a member of Picasso's inner circle. Over the course of their long friendship Richardson kept a diary of their meetings and, when Picasso died, his widow, Jacqueline Roque, gave him access to the artist's studio and papers. In 1992 he published the first volume of A Life of Picasso, his critically acclaimed biography of the artist. He now lives in New York where he is working on the fourth volume of the biography.
Lydia Corbett (nee Sylvette David)Artist and Picasso's muse, born in Paris, 1934. The shy young woman first visited Picasso's French studio in Vallauris with her boyfriend in the summer of 1953. Picasso, attracted by her ponytail and pretty features, created 40 paintings and drawings of her. One of them Girl with a Ponytail became one of his most famous paintings. Sylvette David first came to live in England in 1968, changing her name when she married an Englishman. She now lives and paints in Devon, believing Picasso to have inspired her own artistic career, which began when she was in her forties.
Angela RosengartSwiss art dealer, collector and friend, born in 1932. First met Picasso when she was 17 in Paris with her father, Siegfried, one of the 20th century's most important art dealers with whom she worked for more than 40 years. By the age of 25, she was part-owner of her father's gallery which held eight Picasso shows between 1956 and 1971. For her, meeting Picasso was "the event of my life"; he in turn made five portraits of the young woman, which he gave to her. She now runs a gallery in Lucerne, Switzerland, the Rosengart Collection, which houses 50 Picasso paintings and many other modernist works.Imogen Carter
Anything they can do ...How Picasso took on the old masters
Christopher Riopelle is co-curator of the National Gallery's exhibition Picasso: Challenging the Past.
From infancy Picasso was exposed to traditional European art; it was like his mother's milk. Because he was so revolutionary as a painter we tend to forget that he had a very academic art education but he spent a long time looking at the old masters, taking their juice out of them, and developing his encyclopaedic knowledge of painting. He also had extraordinary self-confidence and started taking on these artists from a very early age, in an almost arrogant way, saying to Goya or Velazquez "I can do what you can do". This exhibition offers a chance to see Picasso's interpretations of the old masters and then visit many of the originals in the National Gallery's permanent collection. We're used to thinking of Picasso as someone who broke with the past but, as this exhibition shows, he used his knowledge of the past to push his own art forward.
With his 1969 Reclining Nude , for example, Picasso addresses one of the constant themes of European painting. He has this great repository of Reclining Nudes from art history in his mind - Goya, Manet and of course Velazquez's Rokeby Venus - but he throws the reticence and prudery of the older tradition out of the window and brings the form into the 20th century. His nude is no beauty, with her huge nose and come-hither look, but she still manages to be voluptuous. Equally, when he created Seated Woman in 1920, he had a range of artists who worked in the classical style in his mind, including Ingres (for example, Madame Moitessier, 1856) but he took the symbol of the hand raised to the brow, which dates back to antiquity to signify someone who is lost in thought, to create something which is almost a female version of Rodin's Thinker. With its solid enlarged features, it's like a classical sculpture. Picasso's take on the old masters can also be comic. Man With a Straw Hat and an Ice Cream Cone (1938) is a hoot. With his irrepressible wit he deliberately took on the sober tradition of portraiture, exemplified by artists such as Van Eyck (see his Portrait of a Man, 1433), to push its possibilities further. Here with the addition of a tongue he adds an extra dimension, a sense of taste. He was always reinventing, it's like no subject for him ever died.
A life of women and work
1881 Born on 25 October in Málaga, Spain, the first child of Don José Ruiz Blasco, a painter and professor at the city's School of Crafts, and María Picasso López. They later have two daughters, Lola (1884) and Conchita (1887). Recieves formal artistic training from his father aged seven.1895 Conchita dies of diphtheria. The family moves to Barcelona. Picasso studies at its School of Fine Arts.1897 Attends Madrid's Royal Academy. Regularly visits the Prado Museum.1900 Opens a studio in Paris. Gets his first art contract. 1901 An artist friend's suicide marks the start of his Blue Period.1904 First long-term mistress, artists' model Fernande Olivier. Start of Rose Period.1907 Paints Les demoiselles d'Avignon, a seminal cubist work. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler becomes his dealer.1918 Marries ballerina Olga Khokhlova. Their son, Paulo, is born in 1921.1927 Affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter who bears him a daughter, Maya, in 1935. 1937 Creates Guernica, which depicts the Basque town's bombing in the civil war. 1944 Leaves his lover Dora Maar for art student Françoise Gilot. Two children, Claude (1947) and Paloma (1949).1957 Creates a series of 58 interpretations of Velazquez's Las Meninas1953 Gilot leaves Picasso because of his adultery and abuse.1961 Marries Jacqueline Roque. 1973 Dies intestate on 8 April in Mougins in France, during a dinner party. Jacqueline prevents Claude and Paloma from attending the funeral.2004 Boy With a Pipe (1905) sells for £58m, making it the world's most expensive painting at the time. Imogen Carter

Friday, February 6, 2009


jeffery mcnary

ah, there you are

i’ve been
you’d come soon

superstition, after all, held tricks
in its need to fumble
in processions and powers and pretense
and purposes and so forth…now you

courting comes slow for me
its rituals and grandly imperfect episodes

dearest you…scolding my being surprised
give me a minute…i’ll come around
i’ve waited
i’ve earned this rare payoff

like foreign films
full of smile and giggle
there’s you wrapped in elegant simplicity
from delhi to here…skipping along
in shining scenes all your own

it was out of my hands for a moment
me, caught in the corners
nervously afraid of all the straight lines
till i learned your ballads and kissed your nose
new and permitting

ah, there you are,
uncommon season
with my love all about you as a saffron metaphor
on sunlit autumn days

fresh and permanent…you and me…accompanied,
refined and marked
and as comprehensible and as
fragile and as gentle
…as naked trees in a warm rain

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

poster boy lives!

Poster Boy Is Caught,
or Is It a Stand-In?
If you’ve been half-awake in the subway sometime in the last year or so and thought you noticed two guys drowning in a glass of beer in a Michelob ad, or saw an ad for a television program about the Drug Enforcement Administration altered to say, “Iran: Every Deal Can Turn Deadly,” or that familiar subway door sign reworded to read, “Do Not Lean on Poor,” you have most likely seen the work of Poster Boy.
While most other street or graffiti artists concentrate on adding their own imagery, illegally, to parts of the subway system, Poster Boy, a kind of anti-consumerist Zorro with a razor blade, a sense of humor and a talent for collage, has made his outlaw presence known all over the city by cutting and pasting the images that are already there in the form of ads.
But his stealth campaign, which has entertained thousands of normally glassy-eyed commuters and infuriated the police and the companies whose costly ads he has chopped up and scrambled, will probably get a lot harder now. At an art event in SoHo on Saturday, a group of plainclothes New York City police officers finally caught up to and unmasked, at least metaphorically, the man they say is Poster Boy.
He is Henry Matyjewicz, a 27-year-old who lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and he was found after a tip from someone who saw the name Poster Boy on a flier for the event, the police said.
Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said that Mr. Matyjewicz (pronounced Mat-ee-YAY-veetch), who was also being sought on a warrant for a petty larceny charge from last year, was arrested in the art space, at Broadway and Howard Street in SoHo, and charged with two misdemeanor counts of criminal mischief.
“The officers had information that he was, in fact, going to be at that gallery that night,” Mr. Browne said, adding that he believed that the department had evidence of Mr. Matyjewicz at work scrambling parts of subway posters. (Although his face is obscured, there is also plentiful video of Poster Boy doing his thing at friendswelove.com and on YouTube.)
But a man identifying himself as “Henry,” who called The New York Times on Tuesday in response to messages for Poster Boy sent through friends, cast some existential doubt on whether Mr. Matyjewicz was, in fact, the man the police were after.
“Henry is one of many individuals who believe in the Poster Boy ‘movement,’ ” the man wrote later on Tuesday in an e-mail message, referring to Mr. Matyjewicz in the third person. “Henry’s part is to do legal artwork while propagating the ideas behind Poster Boy. That’s why it was O.K. for him to take the fall the other night.”
He added, “Henry Matyjewicz is innocent.”
Moni Pineda, a co-creator and producer for Friends We Love, a New York documentary video series that profiles young artists, said that she and the series’s other creator, Mike Vargas, had just begun a benefit event in the SoHo space on Saturday evening when they noticed a commotion involving a person Ms. Pineda would identify only as “a friend,” adding, “Poster Boy could be anybody.”
“The police came into a private event,” Ms. Pineda said. “They didn’t show a warrant to me or anybody. And the next thing we know, our friend is walking out with a bunch of guys we didn’t know.”
Ms. Pineda said she and others came up with bail for their friend, but not before he had been transferred to Rikers Island, where he stayed before being released in the wee hours of Monday morning.
In one of his YouTube videos, Poster Boy says that he started rearranging subway ads because he wanted to make art but could not afford materials. “I mean, a razor pretty much anybody can afford,” he says.
His work grows out of a wave of remix culture that has inspired many young artists and musicians over the last decade, though in Poster Boy’s case it is decidedly analog. And he would like to see the idea spread, he wrote on Tuesday in a series of answers to e-mailed questions.
“Socially, I’d like people to understand that there is a difference between what is right and what is just,” he said. “If there is a law that is outdated, impractical, and/or immoral, people should have the right to challenge it. Remember, slavery was considered legal at one point. I consider the world’s current modus operandi a modern slave system. I intend to challenge it in any way I can.”
In a recent interview with Gothamist.com, Poster Boy bragged that the police vandal squad officers had been “hounding” him for his autograph. He added that he had begun moving on to more ambitious — and, legally, probably riskier — projects involving whole billboards and, mysteriously, “something planned that, if successful, will make the poster and billboard stuff look trivial.”
On Tuesday Poster Boy said that Mr. Matyjewicz’s arrest meant only good things for Poster Boy. “More awareness,” he wrote in the e-mail interview . “More support. Outdoor advertising, a blight that can’t be ignored, will become illegal.”
Yet Ms. Pineda, who said she had seen her friend on Monday after his release from jail, said he might have to reassess his plans in light of his looming legal problems.
“He believes in what he’s doing,” she said. “He still has a lot to say. But I don’t think even he knows how things are going to shape up.”
“And again,” she made a point to add, “Poster Boy can be anybody.”

not long at all

'Well, That Certainly Didn't Take Long': 'It took Daschle's resignation to shake the president out of his arrogant attitude that his charmed circle doesn't have to abide by the lofty standards he lectured the rest of us about for two years. ... The Democratic president has been spending so much time trying - and failing - to win over Republicans that he may not have noticed the disillusionment in his own ranks. Betrayed by their bankers and leaders, Americans were desperate to trust someone when they made Barack Obama president. His debut has left them skeptical about his willingness to smack down those who would flout his high standards or waste our money.'

Monday, February 2, 2009

picasso's parisian party

"Picasso fever keeps Parisians up all night"
Art fans queue in freezing temperatures as museum stays open to satisfy demand
By John Lichfield in ParisMonday, 2 February 2009
Parisians, who are legendarily allergic to queuing, waited patiently into the early hours over the weekend to see the final, all-night sessions of a triumphantly successful exhibition of Picasso paintings.
Despite sub-zero temperatures, crowds besieged the Grand Palais, just off the Champs Elysées, until 3am on Friday and Saturday nights – part of a recessionary boom in demand for cultural activities which is puzzling, and delighting, the French arts industry.
There has been a similar surge in ticket sales for musical events, ranging from a high-brow Bach festival in Nantes to a low-brow, all-singing and dancing pop musical based on the life of Cleopatra.
Sociologists explain the cultural boom as partly a search for distraction from the miseries of the headlines, and partly a tribute to the fact that art exhibitions and concerts are cheaper than eating out.
The French political guru and writer Jacques Attali offered a more existential explanation. "Periods of crisis encourage people to consider the meaning of life," he told the Journal du Dimanche. "We are torn, at present, between despair, anguish and rebellion but we also yearn for the beauty which comes only from works of art."
By the time it closes at 8pm tonight, over 750,000 people will have seen Picasso et les Maîtres at the Grand Palais. The show, which opened four months ago, is the first to exhibit a large number of Picasso paintings alongside canvasses by painters who influenced him, from Velasquez and Poussin to the Impressionists.
The show has become one of the most fashionable events, not just in Paris, but in the world. Visitors who managed to book tickets in the final weeks have included Nicole Kidman, Woody Allen and – on the same day – Mick Jagger and Jacques Chirac.
To satisfy those who failed to buy the limited number of reserved places, the French national museum service extended the show and opened the Grand Palais all night for the last three nights. Queues were expected to form once again for last night's final all-night session. "We didn't want to miss out," said Eric Bonsergent, who queued into the early hours of Sunday. "They say people don't go to museums, but for a wonderful exhibition like this there is huge demand. It was a brilliant idea to open all night."
Others admitted that they were there against their will. "We booked for 2.30am, thinking that they meant 2.30pm," Gerard Sainton, a 59-year-old computer expert, said ruefully.
The runaway triumph of the Picasso exhibition has been mirrored by the success of other cultural events in France in recent months. A new Cleopatra musical, which began last Thursday, is already a sellout and has been extended for two weeks. An exhibition on the life of the pop musician Serge Gainsbourg, due to end last month, has also been prolonged until 15 March.
The Folle Journée de Nantes, a music festival which has run for the past 15 years and is devoted to Bach this year, has sold 96 per cent of its tickets.