Archive for the ‘Literary – Books’ Category

PostHeaderIcon A Too Short “American Century”

At a time when the media, opinion leaders and the public are bemoaning America’s decline, it is appropriate that a book, “The Short American Century,” (Harvard University Press) should appear. Subtitled “A Postmortem,” it is a series of well-argued, provocative essays (or autopsies) by academic experts, edited by historian Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University.

The nine contributors’ analyses explain why the term, coined by Time and Life founder, Henry Luce, in February, 1941, meant to provoke America’s entry into World War II, had, by the end of the 1990s, run its abbreviated course.

To Luce’s way of thinking, as the son of missionaries raised in China, power implied obligation. And, Bacevich writes, “by 1941, one cause took precedence over all others: supporting Great Britain in its lonely struggle against Nazi Germany.” While many Americans favored assisting Britain, a large segment of Americans wanted no part of going to war in Europe again.

Luce’s essay, titled “The American Century” argued that it was time for America to assume the mantle of global leadership. While an implicit argument for the worldwide expansion of American business, Luce said that he hoped the United States might become “the Good Samaritan of the entire world.”

Luce’s phrase is an updated version of the earlier doctrine of “Manifest Destiny.”  Luce’s vision is captured by the current expression, “American exceptionalism”.  All three terms carry the connotation of a God-given mission to carry our way of life out to the entire world.

The United States, at the end of the so-called Good War, dominated the world’s landscape economically and politically. Europe and the Soviet Union lay in economic ruin, having sustained huge losses of life, while American had escaped any damage to its homeland. Yet, the fruits of American political, economic and military supremacy had run their course a short 60 years later.

The essays take stock of American achievements and failures over six crucial decades. They are more critical than celebratory in their assessment, making readers aware of our political myopia and missed opportunities. Bacevich calls it “a sort of dissenter’s guide to the American Century.” As a guide for future American policy, Luce’s vision is irrelevant for a new century.  Just don’t tell that to Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin or the Tea Party.

Beginning with the Korean War, America was soon engaged in a protracted, all-out struggle with the Soviet Union known as the Cold War. As a result of that competition, we became the world’s policeman and found ourselves engaged–mostly unilaterally–in the Vietnam War along with CIA- assisted coups and military adventures in Iran, Cuba, Chile, Granada.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, we were the world’s only superpower once again. But, rather than enjoying the fruits of a “peace dividend,” we came under attack from new enemies with the 9/11 attacks.  For the past decade, we have expended precious economic resources and human treasure fighting terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those two unfunded wars added $5 trillion to our national debt while the depression of 2008 erased $14 trillion of Americans’ wealth.  Our nation’s appetite for foreign interventions is spent. On the economic front, the advantage we enjoyed for 40 years following the war has vanished. At the end of World War II, we had the world as a huge market for our goods. The Marshall Plan and creation of the World Bank helped Europe and Japan’s devastated economies recover. By the 1980s, those vanquished nations had become our suppliers. With the advent of outsourcing for much of our manufacturing and service supply, our long-time trade surplus has become a troubling deficit.

The authors convincingly present post-war 20th Century events and historical trends in a different light. Rather than the emotional, jingoistic slogans that normally sway public debate, they put defining postwar forces under a critical microscope and reveal why Luce’s “American Century” has run its course well short of the mark.

One contributor, historian Walter LaFeber of Cornell University, goes so far as to argue that the American Century was “stillborn.” It neither united Europe under its democratic banner nor prevented China (and its Southeast Asia neighbors) from falling under communism.

Andrew J. Bacevich

Andrew J. Bacevich

Readers should pick up this highly readable, contrarian analysis of recent history. Bacevich says its intent has not been to cast blame on America for the world’s wars and persecutions but rather to fight against “old illusions of the United States presiding over and directing the course of history.”

No longer does it make sense to “pretend that the United States is promoting a special message in support of a special mission….the United States is merely attempting to cope. Prudence and common sense should oblige Americans to admit as much.” One closes this book tempted to utter a loud “Amen”.

To learn more about this and other Harvard University Press books, go to

PostHeaderIcon Independent Art Voice Revived

Derek Guthrie

Derek Guthrie

It has been 10 years since The New Art Examiner published its final issue. The monthly magazine, which called itself “Chicago’s Independent Voice of the Visual Arts,” enjoyed a rough but highly-respected run from 1973 to 2002. It was born in controversy by founding editors, Jane Addams Allen and Derek Guthrie. Besides coverage of local and regional exhibits, the publication adopted a reportorial, contrarian stance toward the value systems and practices of the art world that raised a lot of critical dust.

Under the helm of successive editors, it gained a large following among artists, a national readership and critical influence beyond the Midwest. It was disheartening to hear at a panel discussion last November that the history and contribution of Chicago’s only successful art magazine was virtually unknown among younger critics and art students.

Authors Terri Griffith, Kathryn Born and Janet Koplos have now stepped into the breach and assembled an enlightening anthology of articles in “The Essential New Art Examiner,” newly-published by Northern Illinois University Press. In so doing, they have resurrected this ever-lively publication and shown what was lost with its passing.

Griffith, at an all-day symposium (“Re-Examining the New Art Examiner”) last Saturday at Northern Illinois’ campus, called the Examiner “a newspaper for artists” to which each editor, over its 30-year run, brought their own views and interests. These new voices, who shared the founding editors’ commitment to an independent local outlet, not only kept the Examiner alive once Allen and Guthrie relocated to Washington, D. C. but also helped establish Chicago’s growing national recognition as a true art center.

The New Art Examiner published my first forays in art reportage. A cover story on an infamous trial of the 1980s involving the George F. Harding Museum earned me my first Examiner byline. Following that scandal, I next investigated the nationwide lack of defined ethical guidelines at major art museums.

While most institutions now have written guidelines governing staff, trustee and curatorial conduct, ethical issues around collection management still arouse controversy 30 years later.

While I hung around the Examiner’s office mainly from 1980-82, Guthrie’s introduction to the book, along with his and Jane Allen’s opening essay and Frank Pannier passionate rant opened my eyes to Chicago’s art world circa 1973.

Essential New Art Examiner

Essential New Art Examiner

Besides giving young art writers their first exposure in print, the book contains many thoughtful essays that still resonate by prominent critics and curators: Peter Schjeldahl (now at The New Yorker), Hilton Kramer (The New Criterion), Janet Koplos (Art in America), Alice Thorsen (now at Kansas City Star), Lynne Warren (MCA) and Hamza Walker (Renaissance Society). Schjeldahl’s 1985 “Chicagoization” article is a classic. The historical recaps by five former editors are a nice personal touch. Only a handful of the 27 selections were duds.

While the book does not pretend to be a complete history, which remains to be written, it is an essential primer to a colorful and contentious period in Chicago art lost to generations who came after. (NIU art historian, Barbara Jaffee, has written a highly perceptive analysis of the Examiner’s origins and history. For a copy of her catalog essay that accompanied NIU Museum’s exhibition on the New Art Examiner, write

Unfortunately, the New Art Examiner was never supported with advertising by most dealers or, especially, the city’s two major museums. Book artist, Buzz Spector, called the New Art Examiner “the chronic outsider of the art world.” An early director at the Museum of Contemporary Art banned the magazine from the museum’s gift shop.

Guthrie writes that he and Jane Allen “learned by bitter experience that there is no freedom for criticism or criticality.” Dealers at the time failed to see any reason to support a publication with an independent voice that could not be controlled.

Former NY Times reporter, Judith Dobrzynski, in her recent blog on ArtsJournal confirms that Guthrie’s complaint lives on today. She asked, “Does the visual arts world need sharper criticism? Yes….When was the last time you read a learned, thoughtful, well-argued critique of a museum or gallery exhibition that was negative?”

One would like to think that Chicago’s frosty reception toward the Examiner is a thing of the past. However, the more recent demise of Chicago Artist News in 2010 is a fresh reminder bespeaking a pattern of poor institutional support.

While blogs proliferate online, none carry the critical authority and agenda-setting power of a print publication like ArtNews or Artforum. So long as Chicago’s art community fails to support its own artists with its own editorial outlet, New York will monopolize the national art dialogue. Chicago will continue to make do with periodic scraps and its art community will remain a provincial center.

The Essential New Art Examiner is now in bookstores or from the publisher at

PostHeaderIcon When Movies Mattered

chi filmsWith the 47th edition of the Chicago Film Festival just ended, a new biography of legendary film critic, Pauline Kael, now in stores and the wave of holiday blockbusters about to break, it’s a good moment to write about movies.

As a location for movies production, Chicago has been a favored movie town since the mid-1980s. Many films, ranging from John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” and “The Untouchables” up to “Batman” and the recent “Transformers 3” used the city’s neighborhoods and landmarks as stunning visual backdrops.

For filmgoers who want to see serious films (made for adults rather than 14 year-olds), however, the situation is not as rosy. Compared  to New York and Los Angeles, the country’s two film capitals, Chicago remains an also-ran. The Chicago Film Festival in October and the Siskel Film Center’s European Film Festival each March are indispensable for staying in touch with new and established international filmmakers. The Music Box, Century Landmark and Facets Multimedia do a fine job screening the cream of the foreign and indie crop but many worthy films languish lacking distribution and never reach the Midwest.

Chicago excels, however, in its long roster of top-flight film critics; one, Roger Ebert, enjoys a reputation that spans the globe. Over the past year, The University of Chicago Press, in a gesture worthy of a publishing Oscar, has issued books honoring three of the finest—Ebert, Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

David Kehr's book

David Kehr's book

Kehr and Rosenbaum’s books collect a generous sample of past reviews and essays in hardcover, according them a well-deserved second life. These two critics revisit an era (roughly 1980 to 2005) radically different from the present, providing Chicago moviegoers, especially those born after 1980, with valuable historical insight on that period’s directors and cinematic high points.

My own awakening to film with foreign films by now-iconic directors occurred in the 1960s. That was a period many consider cinema’s “Golden Age.”  From the age of 17 to 35, I spent countless hours in the dark at Greenwich Village and Upper West Side movie houses in NY and at the American Film Institute theater in D.C. catching each new release by Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. This was also the period when a new generation of daring American filmmakers—Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Jonathan Demme—made groundbreaking films. Movies then seemed more important. We went to see them, argued over them and formed personal opinions about their worth, a rarer feat nowadays.

A Changed World

Kehr and Rosenbaum pick up the action one generation removed from that cinematic renaissance. Reading their books makes one aware how much film culture has changed in the interval since my youth. Both critics spill much ink analyzing movies from the director’s perspective (according to French auteur theory at the time, the director is a film’s most important player)

Today, the focus turns on the opening weekend’s box-office receipts. In place of once lengthy essays, many critics now dash off capsule reviews or cast thumbs in judgment. And the internet has produced what Rosenbaum says is not two versions (paper vs. online) of criticism but two separate enterprises.

During earlier times, critics at major papers and magazines enjoyed wide sway with readers and studio execs. Ebert began his career at the Sun-Times while the appearance of alternative weeklies (like The Reader) opened the process to newcomers like Kehr and Rosenbaum at The Village Voice in New York and abroad.

Kehr, the Reader’s first film critic from 1974 to 1986, enjoyed the luxury of editorial space, allowing him to write long-form essays, a practice Rosenbaum, his successor, carried on until 2008.


Jonathan Rosenbaum

Only specialized film journals carry lengthy critiques today. Kehr laments that more than words have been lost. “When a format disappears, sometimes a way of thinking disappears with it.” Rosenbaum thinks that while cinema, meaning the viewing of films in movie houses, is dying, the current explosion of movies and criticism on the internet or in DVD form (“cinephilia”) can be a welcome development.

While the two critics wrote for The Reader, I often found their choice of films too esoteric and their writing too insider for my taste. Yet, as I read both Kehr and Rosenbaum decades later, I realized that the fault lay mainly with my less-advanced  knowledge of film figures and technique back then.

Some of the most satisfying moments came when I discovered my highly favorable opinion of the 1977 film, “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000” was shared by Kehr or my admiration for four prominent directors, Jean Renoir, Alain Tanner, Wim Wenders and Jonathan Demme was reinforced.

Rosenbaum’s writing is the more challenging writer. However, essays such as “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia”, “The American Cinema Revisited” and “Film Writing on the Web” contained many cogent observations. To be fair, I’ll let Ebert have the last word. He calls Rosenbaum “a great film critic and I’ve learned so much over the years from his wise writing.”

An Inspiring Cinephile

Roger Ebert_a_p

Roger Ebert

Ebert has long been recognized as one of America’s top film critics. Unfortunately, his health travails have dominated news in recent years. In his new anthology, “The Big Movies 3,” the qualities that earned him a Pulitzer Prize are on full display: a love for movies of every stripe, an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, an amazing ability for visual detail combined with articulate writing delivered in a conversational tone.

For this volume, as with the two earlier titles in the series, Ebert, every two weeks, sat at his table and crafted 100 new essays, all while undergoing chemotherapy treatments; a true profile in courage. I’m sure viewing the DVDs of these favorites a second or third time energized him.

These 100 are not the greatest films of all time, he claims, since he finds such lists “foolish.” Rather, they are movies to which he reacted passionately. He brings each film to life, casting his net as far back as the 1936 “My Man Godfrey” and up to the recent “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006).

The essays’ value lies not only in helping us relive our own memories but in supplying a handy Netflix list of memorable films we missed on the first go-round.

My shopping list contains Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole”, Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, Orson Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight”, Renoir’s “The River”, Kenzi Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” and Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life” and “Me and Orson Welles”.

While I intend to catch some holiday releases in the Cineplex over the next six weeks, staying home with a good bottle of wine or champagne watching those classics work their magic may be the better choice.

Check these out:

Roger Ebert—The Great Movies III

Dave Kehr—When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade

Jonathan Rosenbaum—Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition

All published by University of Chicago Press,

Note: Readers can rent these titles from the publisher in e-book format for 30 days viewing for just $7.

PostHeaderIcon Two Bound Works Of Art

Matisse - radical invention

Bathers by the River

In the last six months, the Art Institute of Chicago has mounted three extraordinary exhibitions—“Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917”, “Henri-Cartier Bresson—The Modern Century” and the recently-opened “Gray Collection: Seven Centuries of Art.”

When writing on exhibitions, the focus, properly, is what’s on the walls.  Yet, in this instance, I found the catalogues to the Matisse and Gray shows as impressive. Both are richly informative additions to our knowledge of two persons at the top of their game: one a major artist of the 20th Century (as protean as Picasso and productive of more personally satisfying creations) and the other a premier mid to late 20th Century art dealer and his wife whose private collection is on public view for the first time.

The Matisse and Gray shows have resulted in two visually striking catalogues published by Yale University Press. The Matisse exhibition was a five-year curatorial collaboration between the museum’s Stephanie D’Alessandro and the Museum of Modern Art’s John Elderfield, the reigning authority on Matisse’s work.

Matisse has become the new Monet, an artist whose name brings out the masses. Yet a mere 87 years ago, Matisse was burned in effigy by students at the School of the Art Institute when his work appeared in the infamous 1913 Armory Show. And, as late as mid-century, he was viewed as an accomplished colorist and decorative artist but not one worthy of admission to the pantheon of 20th century giants.

I found the show (which closes at MoMA next weekend) when it was shown in Chicago earlier this year to be a grand sweep of masterworks prior to 1913 followed by the more austere and radically reworked portraits and drawings from the World War I period.

The curators probably reasoned that just showing the severe black and white drawings of the transformative period would have been deadly. Thus, they chose to accent the contrast with pre-1913 works. They opened with paintings bursting with color and sculptures such as the busts of Jeannette and the initial “Back” studies in bronze.

I learned a great deal about Matisse’s methods and psychological frame of mind during this time but found the show’s heavy emphasis on new x-ray evidence to be more of a curators’ obsession and too didactic in pressing how radical a shift Matisse’s art underwent.

Matisse - dancers

The dancers

Just seeing “The Dance” and “The Moroccans” can often be enough to make us to marvel at the creative act that produced it.  The one exception was “Bathers by the River” (fourth state) in which the curators opened my eyes and helped unravel its mystery for me.

Sometimes the catalogue can be more successful in making one’s case than a museum exhibition where the act of seeing and our more

instinctual appreciation usually takes precedence.  If you are a fan of Matisse, as I am, and want to go inside his painstaking step-by-step artistic process, I urge you to buy the book and read its expert investigations.

Gray collection

Richard Gray

Mary & Richard Gray

Just last week, I viewed Richard Gray’s collection in the museum’s Richard and Mary Gray Galleries for prints and drawings (quite a stroke of symmetry). I can only describe my wanderings through the galleries as a sensual viewing delight as well as one of admiration for the keen eye that assembled this rich assemblage.

I cannot recommend seeing this superb collection too highly (on display through January 3, 2011). I think you will be enchanted and possibly transported by the virtuosity on display. And to marvel that such drawings were not collected as avidly until several decades ago.

I have known Richard Gray in passing over three decades and admired his strong taste in artists and, more recently, his and his wife’s philanthropic generosity to many Chicago institutions from the Smart Museum of Art, the Chicago Symphony, Chicago Humanities Festival and WFMT.  It is testimony to his solid integrity as an art dealer (not generally the most ethical profession) that he was invited to the board of the Art Institute.

The catalogue to the show offers a greater appreciation of the over 100 works on display and gave me a glimpse into how the collection was formed.  A great addition to the catalogue, besides analyses of the exhibit’s 115 drawings by over 50 international experts, is the interview with the Grays conducted by Lawrence Wechsler.

I was delighted to get to know Richard’s life story and to read that, as a dealer and collector, Gray has always trusted his eye and his gut, not as I assumed, some superior knowledge of art and artists.

Gray Collection Seven Centuries Cover

Gray Collection Seven Centuries

Gray began collecting modern and contemporary artists, many of whom his gallery represented. Over time, with his wife’s art history expertise, he took his collecting addiction back in time so that the collection now spans seven centuries.

The book has been lovingly produced from the range and expertise of the contributors, the book’s renowned designer and its paper and reproductive quality. You will learn a lot about one man’s passion and how it led to the assembling of this museum-quality collection.

Since Gray started his collecting journey and moved backwards, it might be fun to start with two of his earliest acquisitions on pages 103 and 129. Then savor it, starting at page 170 all the way back to the arresting late 15th Century “Portrait of an Old Man” drawing that graces the front cover. It might be enough to start your own collecting juices racing.

PostHeaderIcon Abstract Art Made Clear

20011211_151953_VARNEDOE .JPGLast month, Mary Ann Miller, Sterling Professor of Art History at Yale, finished delivering the 59th annual Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art (her talks will be available online this Fall). This renowned lecture series invites a noted art scholar to speak on their area of expertise and bears the name of Andrew W. Mellon, the museum’s initial benefactor.

When I lived in Washington some 35 years ago, I remember walking into the National Gallery for the first time and knowing, moments after entering, that I had found a kindred place.  The spacious grand lobby and rotunda gave off a feeling of old-fashioned grandeur mingled with serenity that one rarely finds now in museums.

The West Building is a museum of its time (1941), a place for quiet encounter with and reflection on art.  We owe Mellon our gratitude for his enlightened gift of art and architecture (John Russell Pope designed it) to the nation. Today, we thank him for this annual series of enlightening lectures.

This year’s Mellon talks brought to mind the 52nd Mellon Lectures, given in 2003 by the late Kirk Varnedoe, former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art.  It sent me back to his talks, captured in book form in 2006, titled Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art After Pollock” (Yale University Press).

Varnedoe was a gifted curator, engaging writer and speaker, a fearless tackler of complex issues of art theory and practice. His provocative and endlessly original insights never fail to convey his appreciation and zest to artistic peers and plain fans like myself. Lane Faison, his mentor at Williams College, once told me that Varnedoe was the best student he had ever taught. His death at an early age robbed us of a great scholar and communicator; perhaps America’s closest counterpart to England’s Sir Kenneth Clark.

Varnedoe worked on the lectures while he was dying. He knew they would be his last testament. Three months after delivering these six talks, he passed away. His aim for the lectures was daunting: to make us see by the sheer power of his words (delivered extemporaneously solely from notes!!) that abstraction or imageless works of art were not about “nothing” but something, even about representation, if only in opposition. He intended to also offer a logic for abstract art of as much “a valid and valuable aspect of liberal society” as the eminent art historian E.H. Gombrich did for representational art’s ideal of “illusionism”. (Delivered as the 1956 Mellon Lectures and published as Art and Illusion”. You need to read the book to see what Varnedoe is talking about.)

My intent, at first, was to summarize his main points, starting with the revolutionary nature of Abstract Expressionism and the outsize influence of Jackson Pollock and action painting. But I soon realized the impossibility of doing justice to such a goal in a blog post. It also would deprive you of meeting this charming tour guide and enjoying the richness of his intellect.

The pleasure of this book is that you will learn a great deal about contemporary art painlessly. Varnedoe’s playful personality is captured on the page. His tone throughout is not stuffy or academic but conversational.

Varnedoe filled these talks with a lifetime’s worth of insights based on intent study of the works. He teases out influences between artists, makes distinctions within movements (particularly with minimalism), adds references to philosophy, literature and art history. He asks probing questions like, “What is abstract art good for?” and offers an observation like, “Abstract art, while seeming insistently to reject and destroy representation, in fact steadily expands its possibilities.”

The book ends with a two-page profession of faith in Art and artists, a testament much like an NPR This I Believe” essay. His words are stirring. “Abstract art is a symbolic game, and it is akin to all human games: you have to get into it, risk and all, and this takes a certain act of faith. But what kind of faith? Not faith in absolutes, not a religious kind of faith. A faith in possibility, a faith not that we will know something finally, but a faith in not knowing, a faith in our ignorance, a faith in our being confounded and dumbfounded, a faith fertile with possible meaning and growth.”