Monday, June 02, 2008

The Most Lavish Book Debut in History (and almost the book) (By Elisabetta Povoledo, the New York Times)

Image Presentation

Michelangelo for Readers With Deep Pockets

Published: May 31, 2008

BOLOGNA, Italy — The gala presentation of “Michelangelo: La Dotta Mano” (“Michelangelo: The Wise Hand”), a volume of photographs of this Renaissance master’s sculptures, may well have been the most lavish book debut in history.

With Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s main square, as the backdrop, a short video depiction of the volume, which can be seen on, was followed on Thursday night by an hourlong spectacle that included dozens of costumed dancers, a string quartet playing from a stage suspended in midair, suckling pigs roasted over a pit, a fake snowfall and a foppishly dressed acrobat walking Spiderman-style up the facade of San Petronio, the city’s cathedral.

But then, this is no ordinary book, starting with its retail price of 100,000 euros, or around $155,000, at Friday’s exchange rate.

Included in the price of what its publishers are calling “the most beautiful book in the world” is a sleek black case, its own stand and a 500-year guarantee.

“This isn’t an appliance,” Marilena Ferrari, chairman of the book’s publisher, Gruppo FMR, told Bologna’s mayor and guests at the book’s official presentation in a grand salon in City Hall on Thursday morning. “That’s the amount of time we feel we can guarantee the materials we used to craft it.”

Using the high standards of the privately published books in the 19th century — an ideal known as the “book beautiful” — as a starting point, FMR sought expert artisans from various fields to create something Ms. Ferrari described as “a work of art in itself.”

Aurelio Amendola’s black-and-white photographs were printed on paper made exclusively for the project. There are detachable reproductions of Michelangelo drawings on handmade folios created according to centuries-old traditions. And then there’s the cover: a scale reproduction in marble of the “Madonna della Scala” (“Madonna of the Steps”), a bas-relief of the Virgin and Child sculptured by Michelangelo when he was still in his teens. The original is housed in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence.

It took two white-gloved attendants to lug around the 46.2-pound book at its City Hall debut.

The marble cover was the trickiest aspect of production.

“It was difficult to find the right depth,” said Nanni Tamar, the project’s production manager. Six sculptors of marble are working on the first 33 copies in a limited edition of 99. “We broke a lot of slabs along the way,” Mr. Tamar said.

This isn’t the most expensive book ever made. There are books incorporating precious metals or gemstones that increase the price, like that of the entrepreneur Roger Shashoua, whose memoir, “Dancing With the Bear,” according to its Web site,, comes in a diamond-encrusted “special oligarch” edition that ranges in price from $1 million to $6 million.

Luxury publishing in general seems to be on the upswing. “From my experience, it’s growing,” said Ovais Naqvi, chief executive of Gloria, a new luxury publisher that this year came out with a book about New York City that sells at $2,500 to $15,000.

“There are a certain amount of people who are testing how far the market can be pushed,” Mr. Naqvi said.

Because production of the Michelangelo book is so labor-intensive (Ms. Ferrari likened the process to a Renaissance workshop), aspiring buyers can expect a six-month wait, the same as for a Ferrari (the car), said Pietro Tomassini, FMR’s commercial director.

“We think it will sell out in a very short time,” he said. Customers in the United States, Europe and Russia have already reserved copies, he added, though he declined to say how many.

Cristiano Collari, the book specialist for Christie’s auction house in Milan, was a little taken aback by the price, which he said was comparable to that of good copies of rare ancient texts like the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (1499), which he described as the “bibliophile’s prime fetish.” But even contemporary art books can turn out to be good investments, Mr. Collari said, though the market is always hard to predict.

For this first title in its “Book Wonderful” series — apart from a forthcoming book about Catherine de Medici, the rest are top secret — FMR chose to pay homage to Michelangelo and to time its publication to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the first painted stroke on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican, which took place in May 1508.

The question remains, who would pay so much for such a book?

Franco Negretto, a financial consultant here who was awed by Thursday night’s spectacle — “I’ve seen a lot of shows in this square, but this was one of the best” — said he’d been sold by FMR’s pitch, despite the price tag.

“I’ll do everything I can to buy it,” he said solemnly.

The on-line page designed for the book is one not to miss for sure.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Bertelsmann Appoints Outsider to Head Random House (by Motoko Rich and Mark Landler, the New York Times)

Published: May 21, 2008

On the day that Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate, quelled weeks of speculation by announcing that Markus Dohle, head of the company’s printing unit, would take over as chief executive of Random House, industry executives were largely reserving judgment on what it would mean to have a relative outsider in charge of the world’s largest publisher of consumer books.

Mr. Dohle, 39, will succeed Peter W. Olson, Random House’s current chief executive, on June 1. Mr. Olson, 58, who led the publishing division for the last decade, is in negotiations for a senior faculty position at Harvard Business School, according to a person knowledgeable about his plans. Mr. Olson declined to comment.

The appointment of Mr. Dohle, one of the youngest people to lead Random House, is the first significant executive shake-up since Hartmut Ostrowski took over as chief executive of Bertelsmann in January. Mr. Ostrowski previously was chief of Arvato, the company’s printing and services division. In Mr. Dohle, head of Arvato’s print unit since 2006, Mr. Ostrowski clearly picked his own man.

Mr. Dohle, who is described as charming by those who know him, speaks fluent English and will move to New York this summer. He takes over a division with an author stable that includes Toni Morrison, Dan Brown, John Grisham and Salman Rushdie. Along with other important players in the industry, Random House has recently suffered a slowdown, despite best sellers like Mr. Grisham’s “Playing for Pizza” and “Women and Money” by Suze Orman.

Mr. Ostrowski acknowledged that Mr. Dohle, who has been with Bertelsmann since he graduated with a degree in economics and industrial engineering in 1994, did not have direct experience running a book publisher, although Arvato Print has many publishing clients.

Mr. Ostrowski said in an interview Tuesday that he could have appointed a traditional publisher to succeed Mr. Olson, but he said he wanted someone to bring a fresh perspective to the book division, which is steeped in tradition. “Markus is a proven entrepreneur within the organization,” Mr. Ostrowski said. He “has shown he has been able to turn a mature business into a growing business.”

Separately, Bertelsmann announced that Richard Sarnoff, the president of the company’s digital media investments group, had been appointed co-chairman of Bertelsmann Inc., where he would play a critical role in directing strategy in the United States.

In a memo to staff Tuesday, Mr. Ostrowski said that Mr. Olson was leaving “of his own initiative.”

Last fall, Mr. Olson was out of the office for two months with double pneumonia, contracted on a business trip to China. Mr. Ostrowski said that Mr. Olson had approached him about leaving in January. “From our perspective, it was not the right time to replace him,” Mr. Ostrowski said. “But we could accept that he wants to pursue other life plans.”

A senior Bertelsmann executive, however, said the factors behind Mr. Olson’s departure were more complex. This executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because it was an internal personnel issue, said that Mr. Olson’s split with the German management began last September, when he proposed dismissing Gail Rebuck, the chief executive of the Random House Group in Britain. This was vetoed by Mr. Ostrowski and Thomas Rabe, Bertelsmann’s chief financial officer.

Ms. Rebuck did not return a call seeking comment. Stuart Applebaum, a Random House spokesman, said: “I wouldn’t dignify it with a comment. I would just label it as gossip.”

With pressure mounting, the Bertelsmann executive said, Mr. Olson began to look for an exit strategy. He hired a lawyer to negotiate a severance package. The company agreed to a deal, but it left some hard feelings, according to this person.

Mr. Olson, a former banker and lawyer and a voracious reader, also had no direct experience in the publishing industry prior to 1992, when he took over as chief financial officer of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Group, a book division owned by Bertelsmann that was merged with Random House in 1998. Mr. Olson took over as chief executive and became the first American to join Bertelsmann's executive board in 2001.

Although Random House produced more than 4,000 best sellers in 19 countries during Mr. Olson’s tenure, he had a mixed reputation because he often showed a zealous focus on the bottom line. Yet last year, sales at Random House fell by 5.6 percent, and operating profits declined 4.9 percent.

Mr. Ostrowski said that one year’s results did not affect his thinking. “If someone has a proven record and he only misses his numbers once, you don’t get fired for that,” he said.

In a letter to employees, Mr. Ostrowski wrote, “Let me state very clearly: we want to see Random House grow.” He said in the interview that he wanted the entire company to achieve 4 percent organic growth in revenue each year.

According to a senior executive at Bertelsmann, the decision to change the leadership of Random House reached the uppermost levels of the company, which is controlled by the family of Reinhard Mohn. Liz Mohn, Mr. Mohn’s wife and a powerful influence, was consulted, according to the executive. She had sometimes tense relations with Mr. Olson, this executive said, and was a champion of Mr. Dohle. Gunter Thielen, chairman of Bertelsmann’s supervisory board, was also involved, the executive said.

The publishers and editors of Random House’s imprints, rarely shy about expressing their opinions, were uncharacteristically reserved about the appointment of Mr. Dohle. Several said they would take Mr. Ostrowski at face value when he said that Mr. Dohle would continue to give publishers independence. “There’s every indication that Markus Dohle is looking forward to doing that with a lot of energy and business experience,” said Irwyn Applebaum, president and publisher of the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, whose authors include Danielle Steel and Dean Koontz.

Some publishers and agents outside Random House said it was not a good sign that someone without intimate knowledge of the book industry was taking over the venerable house.

But others said they were open-minded about Mr. Dohle, especially as he was young and might bring new ideas about digital initiatives and other matters. “I hope that this man will be a very strong competitor,” said Jane Friedman, chairman and chief executive of HarperCollins. “Time will tell.”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, American Artist, Dies at 82 (from vaious press sources)

Robert Rauschenberg
October 22, 1925 — May 12, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, the irrepressibly prolific American artist who time and again reshaped art in the 20th century, died May 12, 2008. He was 82.

Mr. Rauschenberg’s work gave new meaning to sculpture. “Canyon,” for instance, consisted of a stuffed bald eagle attached to a canvas. “Monogram” was a stuffed Angora goat girdled by a tire atop a painted panel. “Bed” entailed a quilt, sheet and pillow, slathered with paint, as if soaked in blood, framed on the wall. They all became icons of postwar modernism.

A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style. He pushed, prodded and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which he worked.

Building on the legacies of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and others, he thereby helped to obscure the lines between painting and sculpture, painting and photography, photography and printmaking, sculpture and photography, sculpture and dance, sculpture and technology, technology and performance art — not to mention between art and life.

Mr. Rauschenberg was also instrumental in pushing American art onward from Abstract Expressionism, the dominant movement when he emerged during the early 1950s. He became a transformative link between artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and those who came next, artists identified with Pop, Conceptualism, Happenings, Process Art and other new kinds of art in which he played a signal role.

No American artist, Jasper Johns once said, invented more than Mr. Rauschenberg. Mr. Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mr. Rauschenberg, without sharing exactly the same point of view, collectively defined this new era of experimentation in American culture. Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, Cage once said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.”

Note to the Capture: Robert Rauschenberg at his home and studio in Captiva, Fla., in 2005.(Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

Rauschenberg Got a Lot From the City and Left a Lot Behind

Robert Rauschenberg, who died Monday at age 82, is part of the cultural mythos of postwar New York. He regularly exhibited new work here for more than 56 years, which must be some kind of record. It extended from his first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951 to the debut of his 2007 “Runts” series at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea in January. Mr. Rauschenberg was there, amid throngs of admirers, for the opening.

Many of the materials for Mr. Rauschenberg’s found-object wizardry came directly from the sidewalks, gutters and trash bins of New York. Most of the images he used were lifted from its magazines and newspapers and mirrored the look and pulse of urban life. It is fitting that so much of his art made its way into the permanent collections of the city’s museums.

These works number more than 500. True, many are prints, but printmaking, mixed with other mediums, was perhaps the central strategy of his art, with found photographs (or his own) functioning as his signature brushstroke. His penchant for overlapping and clustering transparent images constituted an indelible style.

New York’s Rauschenbergs summarize his most influential innovations as well as his volcanic, sometimes compulsive productivity. There are examples of the multimedia hybrids he called combines and the transfer drawings that used solvent to fuse the mechanically reproduced and the handmade. And there are demonstrations of his distinctive seen-from-above spatial tilt, christened by the art historian Leo Steinberg “the flatbed picture plane.” It redefined pictorial space as radically as one-point perspective.

These works, and their credit lines, also say a thing or two about the collecting habits and histories of the museums themselves. Little-known fact: The Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim are co-owners of an early 1950s gold leaf Rauschenberg, bequeathed to them in 1974. Here’s what’s on view right now, as well as a sense of what’s in the vaults and what will be brought out of storage or rearranged to honor the artist in the coming weeks.

Museum of Modern Art

In New York, MoMA is Rauschenberg Central. It owns nearly 300 works, many of them prints, and usually has at least a dozen major efforts on view. The current ones include several recently acquired masterpieces from the 1950s that subvert the very concept of masterpiece. The homey proto-combine that is “Bed” uses real sheets, pillow and quilt as canvas and defines the flatbed picture plane as something you can sleep in. “Rebus” builds a narrative from seemingly nonsensical sequences of found images and abstract elements. “Factum II,” by being a near-copy of “Factum I” (in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), challenges the notion of the unique, inspired artistic touch.

Eight drawings from “Thirty-Four Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno” (1959-60) are also on display. Mr. Rauschenberg’s first full-on exploration of the transfer technique, they recast Dante’s journey in shadowy contemporary terms. The compositional finesse of these works is writ large in “First Landing Jump,” a majestic 1961 combine painting that has one wheel — a car tire — planted firmly on the ground.

The Modern plans to mark Mr. Rauschenberg’s death by consolidating these and other works into a single gallery sometime next week.

Whitney Museum

of American Art

Like the Modern, the Whitney began collecting Rauschenbergs in the early 1960s; by now it owns nearly 60. Its first acquisition, in 1961, was “Summer Rental + 2,” a collage painting from 1960 and third in a series of four very similar works that loosely extend the conceit of the “Factum” pair. Ten years later Mr. Rauschenberg gave the museum “Yoicks,” from 1953, one of his most irresistibly exuberant works and one of his first to use fabric as a bold visual element. Green polka dots on yellow alternate with or succumb to slathered bands of red and yellow paint, paying irreverent homage to Abstract Expressionism while presaging works by Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Larry Poons and Joan Snyder.

“Yoicks” is often on view; it has been joined by the 1955 “Satellite,” a dense, almost claustrophobic combine painting with a stuffed pheasant patrolling its top edge, and “Blue Eagle,” another combine.

Guggenheim Museum of Art

None of the Guggenheim’s Rauschenbergs are on view right now, but the museum plans to mount a selection soon. Although there are only slightly more than 30, about half of which have been acquired since 1990, they form an idiosyncratic but often choice group.

To one extreme are several examples of the artist’s “Cardbird” multiples, the exacting, editioned trompe l’oeil-like copies of cardboard assemblages that seem antithetical to his interest in the cheap, the found and the improvised. To the other are slight but rare works given by Mr. Rauschenberg’s foundation around the time of his 1997 Guggenheim retrospective.

One is the appropriately titled “Untitled (Hotel Bilbao),” an early “Shirtboard” collage, made from materials gathered in North Africa, where Mr. Rauschenberg traveled with Cy Twombly in 1952. Another is a small untitled transfer drawing from 1952, made six years before Mr. Rauschenberg is thought to have taken up the technique, albeit without solvent. This puts a new chronological wrinkle in his pervasive interest in simple, direct, one-on-one printing processes and in basing his art on things found rather than made.

The Guggenheim also owns half of what must be considered an apotheosis of these interests, Mr. Rauschenberg’s 32-foot-long silkscreen painting “Barge.” Sadly for New Yorkers, it is currently on view at the Guggenheim Bilbao, which owns the other half.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met is a latecomer to the New York Rauschenberg sweepstakes. Although it owns more than 60 prints, it did not acquire anything bulkier until the combine painting “Winter Pool,” from 1959, entered the collection. This ever-startling work consists of two narrow but rather colorful canvases flanking an old wood ladder, suggestive of a weathered swimming dock. The arrangement warps space in several ways, creating a feeling of submersion while bringing an arctic slice of white wall into the picture.

The museum reeled in this work just in time for its opening of “Robert Rauschenberg Combines” in December 2005. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, that exhibition was among the greatest devoted to Mr. Rauschenberg’s work during his lifetime.

Robert Rauschenberg, American Artist, Dies at 82

Published: May 16, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, the irrepressibly prolific American artist who time and again reshaped art in the 20th century, died on Monday night at his home on Captiva Island, Fla. He was 82.

The cause was heart failure, said Arne Glimcher, chairman of PaceWildenstein, the Manhattan gallery that represents Mr. Rauschenberg.

Mr. Rauschenberg’s work gave new meaning to sculpture. “Canyon,” for instance, consisted of a stuffed bald eagle attached to a canvas. “Monogram” was a stuffed goat girdled by a tire atop a painted panel. “Bed” entailed a quilt, sheet and pillow, slathered with paint, as if soaked in blood, framed on the wall. All became icons of postwar modernism.

A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style. He pushed, prodded and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which he worked.

Building on the legacies of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and others, he helped obscure the lines between painting and sculpture, painting and photography, photography and printmaking, sculpture and photography, sculpture and dance, sculpture and technology, technology and performance art — not to mention between art and life.

Mr. Rauschenberg was also instrumental in pushing American art onward from Abstract Expressionism, the dominant movement when he emerged, during the early 1950s. He became a transformative link between artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and those who came next, artists identified with Pop, Conceptualism, Happenings, Process Art and other new kinds of art in which he played a signal role.

No American artist, Jasper Johns once said, invented more than Mr. Rauschenberg. Mr. Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mr. Rauschenberg, without sharing exactly the same point of view, collectively defined this new era of experimentation in American culture.

Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, Cage once said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” Cage meant that people had come to see, through Mr. Rauschenberg’s efforts, not just that anything, including junk on the street, could be the stuff of art (this wasn’t itself new), but that it could be the stuff of an art aspiring to be beautiful — that there was a potential poetics even in consumer glut, which Mr. Rauschenberg celebrated.

“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” he once said, “because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.”

The remark reflected the optimism and generosity of spirit that Mr. Rauschenberg became known for. His work was likened to a St. Bernard: uninhibited and mostly good-natured. He could be the same way in person. When he became rich, he gave millions of dollars to charities for women, children, medical research, other artists and Democratic politicians.

A brash, garrulous, hard-drinking, open-faced Southerner, he had a charm and peculiar Delphic felicity with language that masked a complex personality and an equally multilayered emotional approach to art, which evolved as his stature did. Having begun by making quirky, small-scale assemblages out of junk he found on the street in downtown Manhattan, he spent increasing time in his later years, after he had become successful and famous, on vast international, ambassadorial-like projects and collaborations.

Conceived in his immense studio on the island of Captiva, off southwest Florida, these projects were of enormous size and ambition; for many years he worked on one that grew literally to exceed the length of its title, “The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece.” They generally did not live up to his earlier achievements. Even so, he maintained an equanimity toward the results. Protean productivity went along with risk, he felt, and risk sometimes meant failure.

The process — an improvisatory, counterintuitive way of doing things — was always what mattered most to him. “Screwing things up is a virtue,” he said when he was 74. “Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my punctuation, I can’t read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”

This attitude also inclined him, as the painter Jack Tworkov once said, “to see beyond what others have decided should be the limits of art.”

He “keeps asking the question — and it’s a terrific question philosophically, whether or not the results are great art,” Mr. Tworkov said, “and his asking it has influenced a whole generation of artists.”

A Wry, Respectful Departure

That generation was the one that broke from Pollock and company. Mr. Rauschenberg maintained a deep but mischievous respect for Abstract Expressionist heroes like de Kooning and Barnett Newman. Famously, he once painstakingly erased a drawing by de Kooning, an act both of destruction and devotion. Critics regarded the all-black paintings and all-red paintings he made in the early 1950s as spoofs of de Kooning and Pollock. The paintings had roiling, bubbled surfaces made from scraps of newspapers embedded in paint.

But these were just as much homages as they were parodies. De Kooning, himself a parodist, had incorporated bits of newspapers in pictures, and Pollock stuck cigarette butts to canvases.

Mr. Rauschenberg’s “Automobile Tire Print,” from the early 1950s — resulting from Cage’s driving an inked tire of a Model A Ford over 20 sheets of white paper — poked fun at Newman’s famous “zip” paintings.

At the same time, Mr. Rauschenberg was expanding on Newman’s art. The tire print transformed Newman’s zip — an abstract line against a monochrome backdrop with spiritual pretensions — into an artifact of everyday culture, which for Mr. Rauschenberg had its own transcendent dimension.

Mr. Rauschenberg frequently alluded to cars and spaceships, even incorporating real tires and bicycles into his art. This partly reflected his own restless, peripatetic imagination. The idea of movement was logically extended when he took up dance and performance.

There was, beneath this, a darkness to many of his works, notwithstanding their irreverence. “Bed” (1955) was gothic. The all-black paintings were solemn and shuttered. The red paintings looked charred, with strips of fabric akin to bandages, from which paint dripped like blood. “Interview” (1955), which resembled a cabinet or closet with a door, enclosing photos of bullfighters, a pinup, a Michelangelo nude, a fork and a softball, suggested some black-humored encoded erotic message.

There were many other images of downtrodden and lonely people, rapt in thought; pictures of ancient frescoes, out of focus as if half remembered; photographs of forlorn, neglected sites; bits and pieces of faraway places conveying a kind of nostalgia or remoteness. In bringing these things together, the art implied consolation.

Mr. Rauschenberg, who knew that not everybody found it easy to grasp the open-endedness of his work, once described to the writer Calvin Tomkins an encounter with a woman who had reacted skeptically to “Monogram” (1955-59) and “Bed” in his 1963 retrospective at the Jewish Museum, one of the events that secured Mr. Rauschenberg’s reputation: “To her, all my decisions seemed absolutely arbitrary — as though I could just as well have selected anything at all — and therefore there was no meaning, and that made it ugly.

“So I told her that if I were to describe the way she was dressed, it might sound very much like what she’d been saying. For instance, she had feathers on her head. And she had this enamel brooch with a picture of ‘The Blue Boy’ on it pinned to her breast. And around her neck she had on what she would call mink but what could also be described as the skin of a dead animal. Well, at first she was a little offended by this, I think, but then later she came back and said she was beginning to understand.”

Growing Up With Scraps

Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born on Oct. 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Tex., a small refinery town where “it was very easy to grow up without ever seeing a painting,” he said. (In adulthood he renamed himself Robert.) His grandfather, a doctor who emigrated from Germany, had settled in Texas and married a Cherokee. His father, Ernest, worked for a local utility company. The family lived so frugally that his mother, Dora, made him shirts out of scraps of fabric. Once she made herself a skirt out of the back of the suit that her younger brother was buried in. She didn’t want the material to go to waste.

For his high school graduation present, Mr. Rauschenberg wanted a ready-made shirt, his first. All this shaped his art eventually. A decade or so later he made history with his own assemblages of scraps and ready-mades: sculptures and music boxes made of packing crates, rocks and rope; and paintings like “Yoicks,” sewn from fabric strips. He loved making something out of nothing.

Mr. Rauschenberg studied pharmacology briefly at the University of Texas at Austin before he was drafted during World War II. He saw his first paintings at the Huntington Art Gallery in California while he was stationed in San Diego as a medical technician in the Navy Hospital Corps. It occurred to him that it was possible to become a painter.

He attended the Kansas City Art Institute on the G.I. Bill, traveled to Paris and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he met Susan Weil, a young painter from New York who was to enter Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Having read about and come to admire Josef Albers, then the head of fine arts at Black Mountain, Mr. Rauschenberg saved enough money to join her.

Mr. Albers was a disciplinarian and strict modernist who, shocked by his student, later disavowed ever even knowing Mr. Rauschenberg. He was, on the other hand, recalled by Mr. Rauschenberg as “a beautiful teacher and an impossible person.”

“He wasn’t easy to talk to, and I found his criticism so excruciating and so devastating that I never asked for it,” Mr. Rauschenberg added. “Years later, though, I’m still learning what he taught me.”

Among other things, he learned to maintain an open mind toward materials and new mediums, which Mr. Albers endorsed. Mr. Rauschenberg also gained a respect for the grid as an essential compositional organizing tool.

For a while, he moved between New York, where he studied at the Art Students League with Vaclav Vytlacil and Morris Kantor, and Black Mountain. During the spring of 1950 he and Ms. Weil married. The marriage lasted two years, during which they had a son, Christopher, who survives him, along with Mr. Rauschenberg’s companion, Darryl Pottorf.

Being John Cage’s Guest

Mr. Rauschenberg experimented at the time with blueprint paper to produce silhouette negatives. The pictures were published in Life magazine in 1951; after that Mr. Rauschenberg was given his first solo show, at the influential Betty Parsons Gallery.

“Everyone was trying to give up European aesthetics,” he recalled, meaning Picasso, the Surrealists and Matisse. “That was the struggle, and it was reflected in the fear of collectors and critics. John Cage said that fear in life is the fear of change. If I may add to that: nothing can avoid changing. It’s the only thing you can count on. Because life doesn’t have any other possibility, everyone can be measured by his adaptability to change.”

Cage acquired a painting from the Betty Parsons show. Aside from that, Mr. Rauschenberg sold absolutely nothing. Grateful, he agreed to host Cage at his loft. As Mr. Rauschenberg liked to tell the story, the only place to sit was on a mattress. Cage started to itch. He called Mr. Rauschenberg afterward to tell him that his mattress must have bedbugs and that, since Cage was going away for a while, Mr. Rauschenberg could stay at his place. Mr. Rauschenberg accepted the offer. In return, he decided he would touch up the painting Cage had acquired, as a kind of thank you, painting it all black, being in the midst of his new, all-black period. When Cage returned, he was not amused.

“We both thought, ‘Here was somebody crazier than I am,’  ” Mr. Rauschenberg recalled. In 1952 Mr. Rauschenberg switched to all-white paintings which were, in retrospect, spiritually akin to Cage’s famous silent piece of music, during which a pianist sits for 4 minutes and 33 seconds at the keyboard without making a sound. Mr. Rauschenberg’s paintings, like the music, in a sense became both Rorschachs and backdrops for ambient, random events, like passing shadows.

“I always thought of the white paintings as being not passive but very — well — hypersensitive,” he told an interviewer in 1963. “So that people could look at them and almost see how many people were in the room by the shadows cast, or what time of day it was.”

Kicking around Europe and North Africa with the artist Cy Twombly for a few months after that, Mr. Rauschenberg began to collect and assemble objects — bits of rope, stones, sticks, bones — which he showed to a dealer in Rome who exhibited them under the title “scatole contemplative,” or thought boxes. They were shown in Florence, where an outraged critic suggested that Mr. Rauschenberg toss them in the river. He thought that sounded like a good idea. So, saving a few scatole for himself and friends, he found a secluded spot on the Arno. “‘I took your advice,” he wrote to the critic.

Yet the scatole were crucial to his development, setting the stage for bigger, more elaborate assemblages, like ‘“Monogram.” Back in New York, Mr. Rauschenberg showed his all-black and all-white paintings, then his erased de Kooning, which de Kooning had given to him to erase, a gesture that Mr. Rauschenberg found astonishingly generous, all of which enhanced his reputation as the new enfant terrible of the art world.

Around that time he also met Mr. Johns, then unknown, who had a studio in the same building on Pearl Street where Mr. Rauschenberg had a loft. The intimacy of their relationship over the next years, a consuming subject for later biographers and historians, coincided with the production by the two of them of some of the most groundbreaking works of postwar art.

In Mr. Rauschenberg’s famous words, they gave each other “permission to do what we wanted.” Living together in a series of lofts in Lower Manhattan until the 1960s, they exchanged ideas and supported themselves designing window displays for Tiffany & Company and Bonwit Teller under the collaborative pseudonym Matson Jones.

Along with the combines like “Monogram” and “Canyon” (1959), Mr. Rauschenberg in that period developed a transfer drawing technique, dissolving printed images from newspapers and magazines with a solvent and then rubbing them onto paper with a pencil. The process, used for works like “34 Drawings for Dante’s Inferno,” created the impression of something fugitive, exquisite and secret. Perhaps there was an autobiographical and sensual aspect to this. It let him blend images on a surface to a kind of surreal effect, which became the basis for works he made throughout his later career, when he adapted the transfer method to canvas.

Instrumental in this technical evolution back then was Tatyana Grossman, who encouraged and guided him as he made prints at her workshop, Universal Limited Art Editions, on Long Island; he also began a long relationship with the Gemini G.E.L. workshop in Los Angeles, producing lithographs like the 1970 “Stoned Moon” series, with its references to the moon landing.

His association with theater and dance had already begun by the 1950s, when he began designing sets and costumes for Mr. Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown and for his own productions. In 1963 he choreographed “Pelican,” in which he performed on roller skates while wearing a parachute and helmet of his design to the accompaniment of a taped collage of sound. This fascination with collaboration and with mixing art and technologies dovetailed with yet another endeavor. With Billy Klüver, an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, and others, he started Experiments in Art and Technology, a nonprofit foundation to foster joint projects by artists and scientists.

A World of Praise

In 1964 he toured Europe and Asia with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the same year he exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the Venice Biennale as the United States representative. That sealed his international renown. The Sunday Telegraph in London hailed him as “the most important American artist since Jackson Pollock.” He walked off with the international grand prize in Venice, the first modern American to win it. Mr. Rauschenberg had, almost despite himself, become an institution.

Major exhibitions followed every decade after that, including one at the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1981, another at the Guggenheim in 1997 and yet another at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art that landed at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005.

When he wasn’t traveling in later years, he was on Captiva, living at first in a modest beach house and working out of a small studio. In time he became that Gulf Coast island’s biggest residential landowner while also maintaining a town house in Greenwich Village in New York. He acquired the land in Captiva by buying adjacent properties from elderly neighbors whom he let live rent-free in their houses, which he maintained for them. He accumulated 35 acres, 1,000 feet of beach front and nine houses and studios, including a 17,000-square-foot two-story studio overlooking a swimming pool. He owned almost all that remained of tropical jungle on the island.

After a stroke in 2002 that left his right side paralyzed, Mr. Rauschenberg learned to work more with his left hand and, with a troupe of assistants, remained prolific for several years in his giant studio.

“I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop,” he said in an interview there. “At the time that I am bored or understand — I use those words interchangeably — another appetite has formed. A lot of people try to think up ideas. I’m not one. I’d rather accept the irresistible possibilities of what I can’t ignore.”

He added: “Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics. I think you’re born an artist or not. I couldn’t have learned it. And I hope I never do because knowing more only encourages your limitations.”

May 14, 2008
Rauschenberg and Dance, Partners for Life


Something inherently theatrical about Robert Rauschenberg’s talent — always evident in his radical feeling for color, light, composition and new ingredients and juxtapositions —prompted him to his boldest and freshest conceptions when he worked onstage. From the early 1950s until 2007 he designed for dance. And in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when he first came to fame, he was recurrently (at times constantly) occupied in dance theater.

When he won the international grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964, he said he regarded the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as his biggest canvas. Although the remark offended some in Cunningham circles (primarily the composer John Cage, who seems to have felt it sounded too proprietorial), it was completely justified. At that time there was no better place to see the range of Mr. Rauschenberg’s inventiveness than the Cunningham repertory.

Mr. Rauschenberg wasn’t just the designer of most pieces Mr. Cunningham had choreographed in the previous 10 years; he was also a permanent colleague. He toured America and, in 1964, the world as stage manager to the Cunningham company, adjusting the lighting and costumes, making several of the dancers into his long-term friends, helping turn the itinerary of a dance company into a fulcrum of ideas.

In 1954 Mr. Rauschenberg was the first stage designer to follow the principle of artistic independence already established by Mr. Cunningham and Cage. All he needed to know was which dancer to design costumes for, and if Mr. Cunningham had any further specifications. So when Mr. Cunningham asked (in 1954) for décor around which the dancers could move, Mr. Rauschenberg placed a large red free-standing combine center stage in “Minutiae”; though the choreography has not survived, the décor is still used in some Cunningham Events.

Sometimes Mr. Cunningham gave not specifications but poetic clues. For example, for “Winterbranch” (1964) he said to Mr. Rauschenberg, “Think of the night as if it were day.” Mr. Rauschenberg’s response was to think of images like being caught in the headlights of a car, and he made all-black costumes and lighting that sometimes threw the stage into darkness while viewers were shielding their eyes from the light.

When Mr. Cunningham was experimenting with new definitions of stage space in “Summerspace” (1958), suggesting both that the stage was just a section of a vaster landscape and that the mood was that of a summer idyll, Mr. Rauschenberg responded with impressionistic pointillism. The costumes of the dancers matched the backdrop view in near camouflage, and the work evoked scenes by Monet and Seurat while also suggesting a wildlife documentary.

In “Crises” (1960) the dancers wore single-color all-over tights that glowed fiercely against the surrounding blackness. In such works Mr. Rauschenberg also became one of the all-time masters of theatrical lighting.

Mr. Rauschenberg had come to know the young Paul Taylor in 1953, while Mr. Taylor was a Cunningham dancer. When Mr. Taylor began to choreograph in the succeeding years, Mr. Rauschenberg was his designer; works like “Three Epitaphs” (1956, all-black costumes again) survive in Taylor repertory today. In the 1960s Mr. Rauschenberg was involved in the radical dance-theater experiments at and around Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and was close to Cunningham-connected experimentalists like Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber and Steve Paxton; he even choreographed himself.

Mr. Rauschenberg’s full-time connection to the Cunningham company ended with its 1964 world tour. Though he and Cage had stimulated each other profoundly and were in many ways like-minded, their egos had clashed; Mr. Rauschenberg’s “my biggest canvas” remark sounded like colonization in a dance theater where the point was independence.

But others led him back to dance theater, nobody more beautifully than Trisha Brown. Her “Set and Reset” (1983) was an instant masterpiece, largely thanks to Mr. Rauschenberg’s astonishingly imaginative designs. Three screens simultaneously broadcast separate video collages in black and white (more than 20 years before a video component became the norm in new choreography), while the dancers rippled around the stage in part-translucent costumes marked with gray and black figures that resembled newsprint.

Mr. Rauschenberg and Mr. Cunningham did collaborate again — though collaboration may have always been too tight a word for the freedom they gave each other — on several pieces over the decades. The last of these was only last October, “XOVER”(pronounced “Crossover”), which had its premiere at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. (It has yet to be seen in New York or most other cities.) The white costumes against a largely white backdrop recall the all-white paintings of 50 years before; the nonwhite parts of the backdrop, combining silk-screen photography and painting, connect isolated images (a bicycle, a fence, an industrial view) with beautiful color and details of light.

More glorious yet — the most marvelous Rauschenberg stage designs I have seen, and supremely theatrical — were what he made for Mr. Cunningham’s “Interscape” (2000). This work begins with a black-and-white curtain that is already a classic Rauschenberg collage of eclectic images: it proves translucent, and lighting allows the dancers to be seen warming up onstage.

When that curtain lifts, however, the backdrop is a full-color version of the same collage, so that we seem to have gone from a shadow realm to a new plane of more intense being, in which the main choreography occurs. Each costume was individual (Mr. Cunningham said he knew the dancers were happy from the noises he could hear them making as they returned from their fittings) and demonstrated Mr. Rauschenberg’s extraordinary feeling for color combinations. (One stinging green hangs in the memory.)

Impresarios have occasionally assembled programs that illustrate “Picasso and the Dance,” but Mr. Rauschenberg’s work for dance was far more prolific than Picasso’s, as a whole season could be presented to demonstrate. If only that could happen, its range of designs — from “Three Epitaphs” to “Summerspace,” from “Set and Reset” to “Interscape,” from “Crises” to “Glacial Decoy” (another Trisha Brown collaboration) — would easily establish his place in the forefront of architects of theater.

Robert Rauschenberg
Pop art pioneer whose wide-ranging work evoked the spirit of the old frontier

Michael McNay
Tuesday May 13, 2008

The American artist Robert Rauschenberg, a man of few words, made one famous statement. He said that his ambition was to fill the gap between art and life. Even these few words were not original. His friend John Cage had already said that this should be the aim of the modern artist. Similarly, Rauschenberg's art was not especially original; it could scarcely have existed without cubist collage and the work of Kurt Schwitters. And yet he created a body of unmistakably American work that threw down a challenge to the abstract expressionism of Pollock and de Kooning; work of a similar scale and ease, metropolitan art that evoked the spirit of the old frontier so dear to the late 20th century American public.

Rauschenberg, who has died aged 82, was born of mixed German and Cherokee descent in Port Arthur, Texas. He had a good war, "that is, practically no war at all" as a neuropsychiatric technician in naval hospitals in California. Like many Americans, he had never seen a real painting, and when he did in a California exhibition, he was none too impressed: Reynolds's portrait of Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse was, he remarked, "an enormous brown thing". But it was his first inkling that being an artist might constitute a career, and as he wasn't much good at anything else, when he was demobbed he signed up at the Kansas city art institute under the GI bill of rights.

From there he saved up to go to Paris but learned very little from the Académie Julian ("the criticism was once a week in French, and I didn't understand any French"), painted a few desultory cityscapes, fell in love with Sue Weil, a New York art student whom he was to marry, and joined her at Black Mountain college in North Carolina to study under Joseph Albers.

On the face of it, Albers's Bauhaus aesthetics were not ideal for the scruffy and undirected work that Rauschenberg was producing, but Rauschenberg needed and wanted the discipline, and it is possible to see in the delicate discrimination with which he placed the elements of his collages the influence of Albers's elegant control.

But it was Rauschenberg's fellow student, John Cage, who had the major influence on him. Cage's 4 min 33 sec, the work which starts when the pianist raises the lid of the piano and finishes, without him having played a note, four minutes and 33 seconds later, has its parallel in Rauschenberg's white paintings. Not White On White like Malevich earlier in the century, but white, so that its only surface interest would be the shadows of passers by falling upon it, just as Cage's work was a collage of sounds from outside the concert hall (and, presumably, coughs within).

From Black Mountain he went to New York, where he had his first show in 1951, at the Betty Parsons Gallery, the prime mover and shaker in Manhattan. It attracted withering reviews - "stylish doodles," said the New York Times - and no sales. About now, too, he used an eraser to bring a drawing by de Kooning back to the faint indentations that pencil had made on paper. This was construed as a radical attack by a younger painter on the values of the abstract expressionist, who were by now regarded as world leaders of the avant garde.

It was compared with Duchamp drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Leaving aside that de Kooning was hardly Leonardo, Rauschenberg's act was condoned by de Kooning, who, indeed, dug a drawing out of his portfoliofor that express purpose.

Undaunted by unpopularity, though he was never to make much money until he and Jasper Johns began to decorate the windows of Bonwit Teller and Tiffany under a joint pseudonym in the mid 50s, Rauschenberg pressed on with theatre designs for another Black Mountain friend, Merce Cunningham, and for Paul Taylor. Meanwhile, he developed his collages, reaching some kind of summation in 1955 when, apparently short of a surface to work on, he decided to paint the quilt on his own bed, hanging it vertically to do so. The quilt's pattern of orange squares was too dominating, so he added the pillow on top, splashed on some more paint, and, with some logic, called the resulting work Bed.

Simultaneously, he was developing his so-called combines, which were paintings with objects mounted on the surface, and his constructions, which were paintings with bigger objects mounted on the surface. Part of the New York legend is that these caused great consternation. It is hard, after Dada, to see how. When Monogram, his painted construction with an amiable stuffed angora goat encircled by a tyre, was exhibited in the Tate Gallery exhibition, Painting and Sculpture of a Decade 1954-64 (he had a one-man Whitechapel show the same year), it looked absolutely right, the subject of nice judgment, and totally unshocking. As well it might: it had taken Rauschenberg months to hit on the right arrangement. And by now he was regarded as one of the leading lights of New York art.

The contradictions mounted. No great thinker, Rauschenberg had instinctively allied himself with the post-Duchamp vanguard; a slosher of paint without much regard for the colour, he came to be an artist of fine discrimination; not much of a reader, he embarked on a series of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy (now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York), involving the silkscreened mass media images he was by now deploying in all his work combined with non-representational marks in paint or pencil.

Rauschenberg created the 38 Inferno drawings as a modern counterpoint to Dante and Virgil's journey through hell, replacing Dante's characters with his own heroes, American figures like Pollock and de Kooning. It is clear that non-representational are the key words. Even during his anti-Vietnam war period the serigraphed images did not amount to a political declaration. Their drama was inherent in the image itself, mediated by the other marks on the canvas; if a viewer wished to attribute political intent then that, one feels, was fine by Rauschenberg. He himself refrained from overt comment.

In the 1990s he embarked on a series of collaged images called Anagrams (collages after all amount to visual anagrams). They included political processions, buildings, sculpture, vegetables, table lamps, jetties, beach scenes, flags, posters from all parts of the world, the images recurring in different works and in different combinations. They still rely on a flattened cubist spatial structure but on a much larger scale and with light flooding the canvases and brush marks recalling American art of the heroic post-war days; recalling, in fact, his own heroic days, for despite an increasingly sure technique, these later works are quieter, blander even, than the assertive and clamorous combines of his early maturity.

As Rauschenberg found acclaim (including the grand prize at the Venice Biennale of 1964) and financial security, he never forgot the earlier struggles and in 1970 he helped to found Change, an organisation devoted to providing emergency funds for artists.

· Robert Rauschenberg, artist, born October 22 1925; died May 12 2008

Remembering Rauschenberg
Greatness and golden slippers.
By Jim Lewis
Posted Wednesday, May 14, 2008, at 6:57 PM ET

I once asked Robert Rauschenberg if he was afraid of dying. It was not as rude or unseemly a question as it might at first appear. At the time, he was elderly but in fine health; I had spent the previous three or four days visiting with him at the large but somehow modest compound he owned on Captiva Island, Fla., and in the course of our conversations, he'd spoken about his past and his work with unusual frankness and great wit.

Moreover, it seemed to me that he'd lived something very close to a perfect life. He'd been in on the origin of the great aesthetic movements of his time, and his place in history was pretty much guaranteed; he took enormous pleasure in making art and continued to make it long after many artists retire; he had traveled the world and made a great deal of money, much of which he donated to causes he believed in. To be sure, there were dark patches; for many years he was a ferocious alcoholic—he could put away a fifth of bourbon a day—but by the time I met him, he had put all that behind him, and he seemed to have mastered the eudaemonistic life. I was curious to know how he felt about leaving it, so I asked him.

He wasn't bothered by the question at all. He seemed to find it interesting, he had obviously thought about it before, and he reflected for a while before he answered. "There are moments in the day when I find it terrifying," he said at last. "I don't ever want to go. I don't have a sense of great reality about the next world." Then, referencing an old spiritual, he said, "My feet are too ugly to wear those golden slippers." He paused again. "I'm working on my fear of it," he continued. "And my fear is that after I'm gone, something interesting is going to happen, and I'm going to miss it."

Rauschenberg died Monday, at home in Captiva; I hope the terror left him before the time came. As for missing something interesting, he rarely did while he was alive, in large part because he was something interesting, and the world will miss him as much as he might miss the world. He was, quite simply, as charming and delightful as any man I've ever met. But he'll be remembered as a great artist, certainly one of the greatest of the last half-century.

He was one of those people—quick as a comedian, deft and knowing—who seem to be effortlessly inventive, spinning off ideas and techniques like droplets of water from a lawn sprinkler, and there is hardly an artist working today who doesn't owe him something. To Rauschenberg, almost anything could be art, and art could be almost anything; he crossed media and created new ones as often as other artists clean their brushes. Consider the following gesture, simple, ingenious, daring, and true: One day in 1953, when Rauschenberg was in his late 20s, he stopped by Willem de Kooning's studio with a request. At the time, de Kooning was emerging as one of the giants of Abstract Expressionism, and Rauschenberg admired him enormously. He asked the older artist if he could have a drawing, not to hang it on his wall but to make into another artwork: He intended, he made clear, to erase it. De Kooning, to his great credit, complied, and Rauschenberg spent the next few weeks and, according to legend, went through 15 erasers trying to get the marks off the paper (he never entirely succeeded; some ghost of the image remains).

Erased de Kooning was the first major work of Rauschenberg's career, and it showed many of the qualities for which he would eventually become known: a paradoxical originality (or perhaps an original paradoxicalness), energy, iconoclasm, unerring instinct. There have been a lot of artists who have used art to assault art's own verities, but few of them did so as gracefully and cheerfully as Rauschenberg. He was often joking, in a peculiar Zen-ish way that he shared with his friend John Cage, and he was almost always having fun, but he was never bullshitting.

It would take me another 10 pages to begin to describe everything else that Rauschenberg came up with: the combines (painter-ish, sculpture-ish assemblies of found materials), photo-transfer drawings, sets and costumes for Merce Cunningham's dance company, and the famous "9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering" of 1966, a wildly experimental performance festival that Rauschenberg put together with an engineer from Bell Labs named Billy Kluver, and which, with only a little stretching, can be seen as a precursor of everything from video art to Nintendo's Wii.

Rauschenberg was wildly prolific; the drops from the sprinkler landed where they would. Even he couldn't keep track of them all. At one point I asked him how many artworks he'd made in his lifetime. "Maybe 3,000," he answered. "Maybe 5,000. Maybe many more." But if you were to challenge anyone with a reasonable grasp of 20th-century art history to name some, I doubt they'd be able to come up with more than five or six. He was a very rare thing: the great artist who made few great artworks.

I don't think he would mind the characterization: He always preferred the process to the result, the inventiveness to the invention, the gesture to the meaning. There was a wall in one room of his house in Captiva where he kept his own collection of other people's artworks. It was almost all ephemera—little scraps of paper with passing marks made on them, mostly by his friends. But what friends and what ephemera: There was a small drawing by Cy Twombly, a round cardboard coaster from the Cedar Bar upon which de Kooning had doodled one night, and, loveliest of all, a sheet of lined school notebook paper that Jasper Johns had used to sketch an American flag, an early study for one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century. ("Jasper never could draw a straight line freehand," Rauschenberg told me.) It was clear that he'd rather have had those fugitive pieces than their corresponding masterpieces. He thought of art not as a monument but as the record of a passing moment. I suspect he knew, too, how melancholy an idea that can be. That's the thing about moments: They pass. And now Rauschenberg has as well, and there's that much more to miss.

Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.

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PBS American Series featuring video

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Classical music's twentieth-century tragedy (by Ian Bostridge, the Times)

From The Times Literary Supplement
April 30, 2008
Classical music's twentieth-century tragedy
How music and politics combined to devastating effect in Germany and the USSR
Ian Bostridge

Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise tells the story of what happened to Western classical music in the twentieth century. We all know that the invention of recorded sound around 1900 made possible an extraordinary dissemination of the riches of the classical repertoire – largely composed for the rich and powerful – to the mass of ordinary people. On the gramophone, the radio, television and, subliminally and hence more powerfully, through the movies, the classical sound in all its variants (even the supposedly rebarbative confections of the Second Viennese School) has insinuated itself into the culture at large. Never before have so many people listened to, or liked, so-called classical music. Yet this extraordinary triumph has culminated in a malaise, a feeling, widespread in the musical profession and elsewhere, that classical music is in crisis and that things have never been so bad. Classical music feels abandoned, left behind as history has moved on, sulking in its tent as the real cultural action happens somewhere else.

Ross’s book – which, in a two-pronged attack, puts the history back into music and music back into history – offers many answers to this paradox. In a book packed full of well-chosen and depicted vignettes and anecdotes, two stand out.

In 1904, Richard Strauss, the “anarch of art” as one American critic described him, visited the United States. He was received at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt. He was invited onto the floor of the Senate. How comforting this is for us besieged elitists, who grasp at such contemporary straws as the opera-loving Gordon Brown succeeding the Fender Stratocaster-wielding Blair. Once upon a time, serious music was given its due. Music does of course still have a political platform, a bully pulpit even; but it is pop musicians now who are wooed by political leaders, and classical musicians, with a very few exceptions (Daniel Barenboim springs to mind), who inhabit the margins. Whether political leverage, or cultural influence, were really good for classical music – tempting as it is to want to see the best of art appreciated and deferred to – is another question.

Thirty-eight years after Strauss’s American apotheosis (and some years after his shameful but complex accommodation with the Nazi regime in Germany, masterfully unpicked by Ross), in the midst of the Great Patriotic War, the score of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad”, was flown into that besieged city by Soviet military aircraft. Musicians were recalled from more straightforwardly martial duties on the front line to perform it. German commanders planning to disrupt the performance found themselves pre-empted by “Operation Squall”, a Soviet diversionary manoeuvre. The symphony was relayed over loudspeakers into no man’s land. As Ross puts it, “never in history had a musical composition entered the thick of battle in quite this way: the symphony became a tactical strike against German morale”.

If we were to ask why, at the opening of the twentieth century, and through the horrors of its first five decades, classical music retained such importance, the answer would have to be: Germany. Classical music, music which was more than entertainment, music which demanded reverent attention, and which even made metaphysical claims, was written into the very DNA of German culture. The German question, the political and diplomatic issue of how the German nation fitted into the world, dominated international affairs in the century between the 1848 revolutions and the Second World War. This was reflected in the philosophical and cultural preoccupations of the European elites, rooted as they were in German philosophical conceits and German political anxieties. Hegelianism, Marxism, nationalism, Wagnerism – love them or hate them, they all came from Germany and they framed the terms of debate in philosophy, political theory and music. If Schopenhauer put music at the centre of his philosophy as the most important art, one which uniquely traced the movements of the noumenal will, Wagner responded with music that fascinated and horrified artists in all disciplines. When it came to the great contest of the 1914–18 war, German propagandists like Thomas Mann characterized it as a conflict between the Kultur of Germans and the Zivilisation of their French-led opponents; between, in musical terms, the deep, metaphysical character of the German tradition, and the superficial joie de vivre of the French.

The price paid for classical music’s proximity to power was heavy, and the central chapters of Ross’s book lay bare the moral somersaults composers turned, the degradation into which they sank. The cultural theory which the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century had inherited from the nineteenth gave artists a dangerous potency, the all too useful capacity to become, in Stalin’s words, “engineers of human souls”. Stalin’s amateur interest in classical music – he reputedly owned ninety-three opera recordings, writing critical remarks on his record sleeves – did nothing to protect composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich from the cultural policy of a regime which saw no role for anything that smacked of autonomous art. Shostakovich’s output veered between the cryptic privacy of his chamber music, the crassness of his patriotic cantatas and songs, and the still-contested “irony” of the major public works. Ross’s analysis of the possibility of irony in music is at one and the same time sceptical and appreciative. “To talk about musical irony”, he writes, “we first have to agree what the music appears to be saying, and then we have to agree on what the music is really saying. This is invariably difficult to do.” His concluding advice is that one should “stay alert to multiple levels of meaning”, making Shostakovich’s symphonies, the Fifth or even the supposedly propagandistic Seventh, “rich experience[s]”. The consequence of Ross’s superbly nuanced historical accounts of both Prokofiev’s and Shostakovich’s music is to send one back to the music with new ears.

In any aspirant totalitarian regime, cultural producers like musicians have to be overseen, goaded, persecuted and petted. Hitler’s Germany was different only in that a musical vision of politics was uniquely central to the nightmare that was played out in the Reich between 1933 and 1945. It wasn’t that music was too important not to be politicized, more that politics was music in another form; “Politics aspired to the condition of music, not vice versa”, as Ross puts it. The threatening rhetoric of Hitler’s coded language about the Jews from the Kroll Opera speech of 1939 on the eve of war, and the speeches from the period of the exterminations themselves, are drenched in Wagner, and Ross acutely picks out the references to Parsifal in the Führer’s tirades. Hitler’s very rise to power, his acquisition of the respectability which eased his accession, were eased by the musical culture he shared with the Wagner clan, which supported him from the early 1920s on, and whose fads and tastes – vegetarianism, animal rights, dabbling in Eastern mysticism – he enthusiastically adopted.

For Ross, the Nazi infatuation with music is the crux of his story. If nineteenth-century German politics and philosophy and musical endeavour made classical music unprecedentedly momentous, its implication in the near-annihilation of European civilization by the mid-century robbed it of moral authority, a collapse with which classical music still lives, sixty years on. As Ross points out, trivially but accurately, “when any self-respecting Hollywood archcriminal sets out to enslave mankind, he listens to a little classical music to get in the mood”.

It is Ross’s dissection of the career of Richard Strauss which most tellingly encapsulates classical music’s twentieth-century tragedy. The book opens with the Graz premiere of Salomé in 1906 (it had had its very first performance earlier the previous year in Dresden), conducted by the composer, and attended by Puccini, Schoenberg, Berg, Zemlinsky and Johann Strauss’s widow, but also very probably by a little-known Austrian teenager called Adolf Hitler. By the mid-1930s, Strauss is enthusiastically hailing the new regime: “Thank God, finally a Reich Chancellor who is interested in art!”. By 1942, he is, at once brave and pathetic, demanding entrance at Theresienstadt – “I am the composer Richard Strauss” – to try and rescue his Jewish daughter-in-law’s grandmother. By 1945, he is writing the profoundly disillusioned Metamorphosen and trying to trade on his American fame – “I am the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salomé” – to gain preferential treatment from the occupying American forces. As with Shostakovich, the moral and historical complexities lead one back to the music.

Ross’s broad historical argument, and his moral tale about music and power, occupy the central chapters of the book and inform much of the rest of it. His engagement with Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Sibelius and Britten is infectious; his accounts of New Deal arts policy, US Army sponsorship of Darmstadt Modernism, or 1960s interactions between art and pop music, are revelatory. As for the music itself, Alex Ross’s brave avoidance of musical notation and brilliant use of metaphorical and descriptive language, means that The Rest is Noise grapples with the actual stuff of music as few other books have done. And if you want to hear the sounds themselves, you can always go to his website at, and listen.

Alex Ross


Listening to the twentieth century

624pp. Fourth Estate. £20.

978 1 84115 475 6

Ian Bostridge's numerous recordings include works by Schubert, Britten
and Handel.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Lost Art of Writing About Art (by Eric Gibson, the Wall Street Journal)

Note to the Caption: Olaf Breuning’s installation, “The Army” (2008), is on view at the Park Avenue Armory. (Ruby Washington/The New York Times)

Note to the Caption: The installation for "Cheese" (2008), a multichannel video piece by Mika Rottenberg, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Librado Romero/The New York Times)

The Lost Art of Writing About Art

April 18, 2008; Page W13

In certain circles, the Whitney Museum's Biennial exhibition of contemporary art is known as "the show everybody loves to hate." Usually the criticism comes in the form of negative reviews. But this year it's different, with the brickbats directed at the exhibition's accompanying commentary instead of the art itself. Texts written by the Whitney's curators and outside contributors are being widely (and accurately) dismissed as unalloyed gibberish.

What makes this complaint particularly significant is that it comes not from the public, whom the museum might privately dismiss as benighted philistines, but from insiders -- artists and critics who know their stuff and are generally well-disposed toward the museum and its efforts.

When the show opened last month, artist and critic Carol Diehl blogged about the "impenetrable prose from the Whitney Biennial." As examples, she offered "random quotes" about individual artists and their work taken from the exhibition's wall texts and catalog. Among the gems:

 ". . . invents puzzles out of nonsequiturs to seek congruence in seemingly incongruous situations, whether visual or spatial . . . inhabits those interstitial spaces between understanding and confusion."

 "Bove's 'settings' draw on the style, and substance, of certain time-specific materials to resuscitate their referential possibilities, to pull them out of historical stasis and return them to active symbolic duty, where new adjacencies might reactivate latent meanings."

Ms. Diehl's complaint was quickly taken up by others. Richard Lacayo, on a Time magazine blog, likened reading the show's introductory wall text ("Many of the projects . . . explore fluid communication structures and systems of exchange") to "being smacked in the face with a spitball." To combat such verbiage, he recommended banning five words long popular with critics that nonetheless say nothing: "interrogates," "problematizes," "references" (as a verb), "transgressive" and "inverts."

On his Modern Art Notes blog, Tyler Green dismissed the Whitney prose as an "embarrassment" and suggested that every candidate for a contemporary-art curatorship be required to pass a writing test. And an art blogger known only as C-Monster pleaded simply for "smart writing that is precise and unmuddled," adding plaintively: "Making it enjoyable to read wouldn't hurt."

Once upon a time, art writing was all those things. Critics of an earlier age, such as John Ruskin, had no problem making themselves understood, and they are still read today. The same is true of the great art historians of the postwar era, such as Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich. Panofsky, among whose books was the definitive study of Albrecht Dürer, was a supremely elegant prose stylist. Gombrich's 1950 survey, "The Story of Art," has sold six million copies and been translated into 23 languages. By the way, English was the second language for both men. And Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, wrote catalogs on topics ranging from Matisse to Surrealism that made the mysteries of modern art accessible to the American public.

It was Marcel Duchamp who unwittingly launched art criticism on its current path of willful obscurantism. His "Readymade" art -- mass-produced commercial objects (most famously a urinal) that the artist removed from everyday utilitarian contexts and displayed in a museum -- almost required this development.

Until Duchamp, criticism was aesthetically based. The critic talked about a painting's subject, the way the artist handled color, drawing, composition and the like. With Readymades, the object's appearance and beauty were no longer the issue -- indeed, they were irrelevant. What mattered was the idea behind the work -- the point the artist was trying to make. So art criticism moved from the realm of visual experience to that of philosophy. The writer no longer had to base his critical observations on a close scrutiny of the work of art. He could simply riff.

Conceptual art like Duchamp's took a while to catch on, but by the 1980s it had become mainstream. Around that time, academics and critics drove another nail into the coffin of accessible writing. They turned to areas outside of art and aesthetics -- disciplines such as linguistics and ideologies such as Marxism and feminism -- to interpret art.

From the late 19th century to just after World War II, writing about modern art was clear. It had to be. Critics from Émile Zola to Clement Greenberg were trying to explain new and strange art forms to a public that was often hostile to the avant-garde. To have a hope of making their case, these writers couldn't afford to obfuscate. Today, when curators and critics can count on a large audience willing to embrace new art simply because it is new, they don't have to try as hard.

Still, there is no excuse for a museum letting nonsense of the sort quoted above out in the open, particularly an institution whose mission includes educating the public. If the Whitney continues to snub this public -- its core audience -- by "explaining" art with incomprehensible drivel, it shouldn't be surprised if people decide to return the favor and walk away.

Mr. Gibson is the Journal's Leisure & Arts features editor. Write to Eric Gibson at

Note to the Caption:M K Guth’s “Ties of Protection and Safekeeping” (2007-8). (Ruby Washington/The New York Times)

Note to the Caption: Olaf Breuning’s installation, “The Army” (2008), is on view at the Park Avenue Armory. (Ruby Washington/The New York Times)

March 7, 2008
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Advertisements for the 2008 Whitney Biennial promise a show that will tell us “where American art stands today,” although we basically already know. A lot of new art stands in the booths of international art fairs, where styles change fast, and one high-polish item instantly replaces another. The turnover is great for business, but it has made time-lag surveys like the biennial irrelevant as news.

Maybe this is changing with the iffy economy. Several fairs, including Pulse in London, have recently suspended operation. And this year we have a Whitney show that takes lowered expectations — lessness, slowness, ephemerality, failure (in the words of its young curators, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin) — as its theme.

A biennial for a recession-bound time? That’s one impression it gives. With more than 80 artists, this is the smallest edition of the show in a while, and it feels that way, sparsely populated, even as it fills three floors and more of the museum and continues at the Park Avenue Armory, that moldering pile at 67th Street, with an ambitious program of performance art (through March 23).

Past biennials have had a festive, party-time air. The 2004 show was all bright, pop fizz; the one two years ago exuded a sexy, punk perfume. The 2008 edition is, by contrast, an unglamorous, even prosaic affair. The installation is plain and focused, with many artists given niches of their own. The catalog is modest in design, with a long, idea-filled essay by Ms. Momin, hard-working, but with hardly a stylistic grace note in sight. A lot of the art is like this too: uncharismatic surfaces, complicated back stories.

There are certainly dynamic elements. A saggy, elephantine black vinyl sculpture by the Los Angeles artist Rodney McMillian is one. Phoebe Washburn’s floral ecosystem is another. Spike Lee’s enthralling, appalling HBO film about Katrina-wrecked New Orleans is a third. In addition, certain armory performances — a 40-part vocal performance organized by Marina Rosenfeld; Kembra Pfahler and her group, the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black commandeering the Drill Hall — should make a splash.

But again, the overall tenor of the show is low-key, with work that seems to be in a transitional, questioning mode, art as conversation rather than as statement, testing this, trying that. Assemblage and collage are popular. Collaboration is common. So are down-market materials — plastic, plywood, plexiglass — and all kinds of found and recycled ingredients, otherwise known as trash.

Jedediah Caesar, one of the show’s 29 West Coast artists, encases studio refuse — wood scraps, disposable coffee cups, old socks — in blocks of resin for display. Charles Long makes spidery, Giacometti-esque sculptures — the shapes are based on traces of bird droppings — from plaster-covered debris. Cheyney Thompson cannibalizes his own gallery shows to make new work. With thread and a box of nails Ry Rocklen transforms an abandoned box spring into a bejeweled thing, iridescent if the light is right.

Devotees of painting will be on a near-starvation diet, with the work of only Joe Bradley, Mary Heilmann, Karen Kilimnik, Olivier Mosset and (maybe) Mr. Thompson to sustain them. Hard-line believers in art as visual pleasure will have, poor things, a bitter slog. But if the show is heedless of traditional beauty, it is also firm in its faith in artists as thinkers and makers rather than production-line workers meeting market demands.

Not so long ago, Whitney biennials were little more than edited recaps of gallery seasons. Much of the art in them had already been exhibited in galleries and commercially preapproved. By contrast, the Whitney commissioned the bulk of what appears in the 2008 biennial expressly for the occasion. If some artists failed to meet curatorial hopes, others seized the chance to push in new directions. Whatever the outcome, the demonstration of institutional faith was important. It means that, for better or worse, the new art in this show is genuinely new.

And new comes out of old. Almost every biennial includes a contingent of influential elders. This one does. Ms. Heilmann is one. Her pop-inflected, rigorously casual abstraction is a natural reference point for Ms. Kilimnik’s brushy historical fantasies, for Frances Stark’s free-associative collages, and for a very Heilmann-esque Rachel Harrison piece that includes a harlequin-patterned sculpture and the film “Pirates of the Caribbean” projected on the gallery wall. (Work by Ms. Harrison is also in the New Museum’s “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century,” a show that overlaps the biennial’s sensibility.)

The California Conceptualist John Baldessari — born in 1931 and deeply networked into the art world — generates another, even wider sphere of influence. His hybrid forms — not painting, not sculpture, not photography, but some of each — offer a permissive model for a lot of new art, from Mr. Bradley’s figure-shaped abstract paintings to Patrick Hill’s tie-dyed sculptures to a multimedia installation by Mika Tajima who, with Howie Chen, goes by the collaborative moniker New Humans.

Mr. Baldessari’s use of fragmented Hollywood film stills in his work has opened new paths for artists exploring narrative. And there’s a wealth of narrative in this biennial, much of it in film.

The video called “Can’t Swallow It, Can’t Spit It Out” by Harry (Harriet) Dodge and Stanya Kahn, is a kind of lunatic’s tour of an abject and empty Los Angeles. Amy Granat and Drew Heitzler turn Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther” into an Earth Art road trip. In a multichannel video piece called “Cheese,” with an elaborate, barnlike setting, Mika Rottenberg updates a 19th-century story of seven sisters who turned their freakishly long hair to enterprising ends.

And there’s a beautiful new film by Javier Téllez, produced by Creative Time, that dramatizes an old Indian parable about the uncertainties of perception. In the film the artist introduces six blind New Yorkers to a live elephant and records their impressions, derived through touch. The encounters take place in what looks like the open, empty plaza in front of a temple or church, though the building is actually the vacant Depression-era bathhouse of the McCarren Park swimming pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Architecture and design form a subcategory of motifs in the biennial, partly as a sendup of the luxe environments that much new art is destined to inhabit, but also in line with the show’s concern with transience and ruin. Alice Könitz’s faux-modernist furniture sculpture, Matthew Brannon’s wraparound graphics display, and Amanda Ross-Ho’s fiercely busy domestic ensembles all mine this critical vein.

But William Cordova’s “House That Frank Lloyd Wright Built 4 Fred Hampton and Mark Clark” makes a specific historical reference. An openwork maze of wood risers, it may look unfinished, but it’s as complete as it needs to be: its basic outline replicates the footprint of the Chicago apartment where two Black Panthers were ambushed and killed in a predawn police raid in 1969. Here the scene of a stealth attack is open for the world to see.

The passing of baldly political art from market fashion has been much noted during the past decade. But the 2008 Biennial is a political show, at least if you define politics, as Ms. Huldisch and Ms. Momin do, in terms of indirection, ambiguity; questions asked, not answered; truth that is and is not true.

An assemblage by Adler Guerrier impressionistically documents an explosion of racial violence that scarred Miami Beach, near his home, in 1968. While Mr. Guerrier attributes the piece to a fictional collective of African-American artists active around Miami at the time, the collective, like the piece itself, is entirely his invention.

Omer Fast weaves together sex, lies, and a civilian shooting in Iraq in a film-within-a-film based on actor-improvised memories. William E. Jones takes a very personal tack on the subject of civilian surveillance by recycling an old police video of illicit homosexual activity shot in an Ohio men’s room. The video dates from 1962, the year the artist, who is gay, was born, and the police sting triggered a wave of antigay sentiment in the town where he grew up.

There’s more: videos by Natalia Almada and Robert Fenz dramatize, in utterly different ways, the border politics of Mexican-United States immigration. One of the show’s largest pieces, “Divine Violence,” by Daniel Joseph Martinez, fills a substantial room with hundreds of gilded plaques carrying the names of what Mr. Martinez labels terrorist organizations, from Al Qaeda to tiny nationalist and religious groups.

Mr. Martinez, an extremely interesting artist, is making a return biennial appearance. He contributed metal museum-admission tags reading “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting to Be White” to the famously political biennial in 1993. (One of that show’s curators, Thelma Golden, now director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, is an adviser to the current exhibition, along with Bill Horrigan of the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University and Linda Norden, an independent curator.)

For a total immersion in the political and the personal, there’s nothing quite like Mr. Lee’s television film “When the Levees Broke,” which is on continuous view in the show, though for me Coco Fusco’s hourlong video “Operation Atropos” is almost as powerful. For this exercise in creative nonfiction, Ms. Fusco and six other women submitted to a “prisoner-of-war interrogation-resistance program” conducted by former United States military personnel. Technically, the whole program is a species of docudrama performance, a highly specialized endurance challenge. Even knowing that, the sight of men making women gradually break down under pressure is hair-raising, as is a follow-up scene of the women being briefed on how they can do the same to others.

The growing presence of women as military interrogators will be the subject of a live performance by Ms. Fusco at the armory, the ideal setting for it. And under the auspices of the nonprofit Art Production Fund, several other biennial artists have made site-specific works in the building’s outsize, baronial, wood-paneled halls.

In one Olaf Breuning has mustered a cute army of teapots with lava-lamp heads. Mario Ybarra Jr.’s “Scarface Museum,” composed entirely of memorabilia related to Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of that 1932 gangster film, is in another. In a third M K Guth, an artist from Portland, Ore., invites visitors to participate in therapeutic hair-braiding sessions, the hair being fake, the psychological benefits presumably not.

Ms. Guth’s project has a sweet, New Agey expansiveness that is atypical for this year’s hermetic, uningratiating show. Ms. Pfahler and the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, with their teased wigs, low-budget props and friends-of-friends underground roots are firmly in the 2008 picture. Ms. Pfahler’s Biennial stint will include a seminar on an art movement she recently founded. Based on the idea of the attraction of abjection, it is called “Beautalism,” and a fair amount of what is in the Whitney show qualifies for inclusion.