Monday, December 28, 2009

Kronos reunites with former cellist in Berkeley

In December 1998, Joan Jeanrenaud played her last concert as cellist of the Kronos Quartet and left the ensemble early the next year. After 20 years, the Kronos without Jeanrenaud seemed unthinkable. The only woman in the group, she was not only a captivating, eloquent musician -- as well as a willowy beauty -- but she also provided the ensemble its casual, avant-garde fashion sense, which revolutionized the look of classical music.

Jeanrenaud, however, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and maintaining the Kronos’ extensive travel schedule was no longer possible. For those who knew of her illness (she didn’t make it public at the time), the specter of Jacqueline du Pré, the brilliant young British cellist whose career was tragically ended by MS in the ‘70s, seemed ominous.

But the news hasn’t been nearly so bad. Jeanrenaud has been able to continue performing, and many composers with whom she became friends during her Kronos years have lined up to write new pieces for her. She has also found her own creative spark and become a composer of note in her own right. Now she is being asked to write pieces for a new generation of hip, young string quartets. Last year, her CD “Strange Toys” was nominated for a Grammy.

And Sunday night here at Hertz Hall, as part of UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, she reunited with Kronos for the first time in 11 years. A new string quintet by the controversial Russian composer Vladimir Martynov was commissioned for the occasion.

She walked on stage with a cane, but the moment the cellist sat down with her old colleagues (violinist David Harrington and John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt) she seemed at home. She also appeared slightly the mother hen to the ensemble’s young cellist, Jeffrey Zeigler, who was born in 1973, the same month that the original (pre-Jeanrenaud) Kronos was formed in Seattle.

Still, since this was a classic Kronos concert, there was little room for sentimentality. The evening began with two quartets by feisty young composers from the Brooklyn scene, where the distinction between classical music and pop has all but vanished, just as Kronos prophesied it eventually would more than three decades ago. The program ended with a recent work by Terry Riley using weird homemade instruments.

But the premiere of Martynov’s “String-Quintet (Unfinished)” was the big event. The 63-year-old Muscovite is a Kronos favorite, but he is otherwise little appreciated in the West. His extraordinary opera “Vita Nova,” premiered this year, was, I thought, unfairly trounced by British and New York critics who disapprove of his nihilist appropriations of other composers.

In the new quintet he turned his attention to Schubert’s C-Major String Quintet, noting in his program note that its so-called “heavenly lengths” are no longer long enough for the 21st century. An obstinate composer if ever there was one, he proposes they be prolonged forever.

Although only 21 minutes long, “Schubert-Quintet” is a start. He gives the impression of time stopping by haltingly reconstructing the C-Major Quintet with original Schubert fragments that repeat over and over, as if Martynov simply can’t let go.

There are major rewards for the patient listener, especially in the delirious lushness of string textures. Jeanrenaud and Ziegler played throughout as one rich, super-cello, coddling the quintet in the lap of sonic luxury.

The two works that began the concert – Bryce Dessner’s beaming post-Minimalist “Aheym (Homeward)” and Missy Mazzoli’s entrancingly soulful “Harp and Alter” – were commissioned for an outdoor concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last summer. Both use electronics, and Mazzoli’s includes gorgeous sampled vocals by Gabriel Kahane.

Riley’s “Transylvanian Horn Courtship,” which was written last year and received its West Coast premiere Sunday, is nearly as curious as its title. It was written for new instruments based on the principle of the Stroh violin, or horn-violin, patented in 1899. A brass bell, instead of the normal wood resonating chamber, was employed to produce a louder volume of sound.

For Riley’s new work, the artist Walter Kitundu created a string-quartet set of Stroh-type instruments, applying the principle to the viola and cello for the first time. Riley then tuned them down half an octave, creating a mournful, raw sound from the slack strings.

The experiment didn’t completely work, since the lowered instruments have a limited tone range. They were appropriately atmospheric for Riley’s Indian-inspired drones. But for the livelier sections he relied on the ensemble’s standard instruments, which were further enhanced by electronic looping effects.

The quartet ends with a moment entitled “Keep Hands Up Close to the Face Before the Knockout Punch,” and that is what happened. Harrington broke a string just as it began. Riley’s was apparently one knockout punch too many in a memorable occasion that had already produced several.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Vic Chestnutt dies, a tragic loss

Vic Chesnutt, a singer-songwriter whose music dealt with mortality and black humor, died on Friday in a hospital in Athens, Ga., a spokesman for his family said. He was 45 and lived in Athens.

He had been in a coma after taking an overdose of muscle relaxants earlier this week, said the family spokesman, Jem Cohen.

In a two-decade career, Mr. Chesnutt sang darkly comic and often disarmingly candid songs about death, vulnerability, and life’s simple joys. A car accident when he was 18 left him a quadriplegic, but he has said that the accident focused him as a musician and a poet.

“It was only after I broke my neck and even like maybe a year later that I really started realizing that I had something to say,” he said in a recent radio interview with Terry Gross.

Discovered in the late 1980s by Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who produced his first two albums, Mr. Chesnutt has been a mainstay in independent music, collaborating with the bands Lambchop and Widespread Panic.

In 1996 his songs were performed by Madonna, the Indigo Girls, Smashing Pumpkins, R.E.M. and others for “Sweet Relief II: The Gravity of the Situation,” an album that benefited the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, a nonprofit group that offers medical support for musicians.

His survivors include his wife, Tina Whatley Chesnutt; a sister, Lorinda Crane; and nine nieces and nephews.

Recently Mr. Chesnutt had had a burst of creativity, releasing two 2009 albums, “At the Cut” and “Skitter on Take-Off.” In the song, “Flirted With You All My Life,” from “At the Cut,” Mr. Chesnutt sings about suicide, which he had attempted several times. Written as a breakup song with death, it expresses a wish to live:

“When you touched a friend of mine I thought I would lose my mind

But I found out with time that really, I was not ready, no no, cold death

Oh death, I’m really not ready.”


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Documentary is Just a Feature Film In Disguise: An Interview with Werner Herzog

Above: Werner Herzog looks into the camera's mouth of madness while Nicholas Cage contemplates insanity on the set of The Bad Lieutenant

Around the time Tom Waits simultaneously released his albums Alice and Blood Money, he was regularly asked why he was putting out two titles at once? His common reply: “If yer gonna fire up the griddle, you might as well make more than one pancake.”

Werner Herzog seems to have taken a cue from Waits (it’s not hard to imagine the two getting along) with the release of his first two productions in the United States since 1978’s Stroszek. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a madman’s delusional romp and bayou fever-dream that revolves, reeling, around Nicolas Cage’s highly entertaining—even genius—performance, came out last month. It was followed yesterday by the release of My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, based on the true story of an adult son who kills his aged mother, running her through with a sword at the neighbor’s house before retreating back home across the street where a day-long stand-off with the police ensues. Among its distinctions? A creepy and creeping American suburban surrealism spun by a cast including Michael Shannon, Chloë Sevigny, Willem Defoe, Grace Zabriskie, Udo Kier, and Brad Dourif (who puts in noteworthy performances in both of the new movies)…not to mention David Lynch as executive producer. Both films feature Peter Zeitlinger’s virtuoso hand-held camerawork which comes across, as pointed out by a friend, like its own character, a documentary filmmaker who has inserted himself invisibly inside the shooting of a feature.

A lot of discussion leading up to the release of The Bad Lieutenant focused on the legitimacy of a “remake” of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 classic of a similar name. However, a quick look at Herzog’s version confirms his repeated assertion that the two movies are connected by name alone. Herzog has different fish to fry than remaking another auteur’s work, and viewing The Bad Lieutenant alongside My Son suggests a committed subversion of the American police procedural. At the center of The Bad Lieutenant is Cage, Extreme Actor. His performance is so incrementally demented and even appears so physically pained that it could challenge a tag-team of Ann Savage’s outer-space femme-fatale in Detour and Max Schreck’s still-blood-curdling portrayal of the vampire Count Orlok in the original Nosferatu. Cage has successfully created a monster. Yet at the same time, he’s also yielded an iconic figure of schizoid frontier “justice” while wading through Herzog’s flotsam-and-jetsam location choices. In a keenly chosen theatrical gest, whenever Cage opens his jacket ostensibly to display his badge of authority, all he’s really flashing is his gun, his force. It's a repeated physical encapsulation of the character's true motivations that seems both funny and chilling every time.

Madness is more mundane in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, and leaves more questions unanswered. Less frantic, but ultimately more unsettling, the film opens as Willem Defoe’s character, a homicide detective, reports for duty to a fresh crime scene only to realize too late that he’s already talked with the murderer (Michael Shannon) in the gathering crowd before letting him slip away. As the fiancé and another friend of Shannon’s appear at the crime scene to lend their assistance to the case, we are filled in on contextual information about Shannon’s madness through numerous flashbacks that depict unmistakable warning signs, as well as unmistakably Herzogian staged shots. Yet from these set-pieces, with their ecstatic imagery, we always return to the standoff in the streets of suburban San Diego, waiting for Shannon's next move. Cage’s performance is a fireworks show, always surprising. Shannon, we know more convincingly after each flashback, is a bomb still waiting to go off.

In spite of The Bad Lieutenant being unequivocally and self-consciously more hard-boiled, wearing its neo-noir status on its sleeve, My Son is the first Herzog film I can think of to use this film noir staple: a flashback structure itself emphasizing a world out of order and a mind out of sorts. The apparatus itself is disoriented and decadent having taken on the burden of standing solitary witness to Shannon’s deterioration while all other characters surrounding him appear oblivious to the very clear warning signs he regularly displays. The man is undeniably plagued by visions. “It was dreamed unto me…,” Kaspar Hauser would say. But My Son seems even more closely linked to Herzog's 1976 Heart of Glass, a film I’d wager as commonly agreed upon by fans and foes alike as Herzog’s most ornery feature (more Ordet than Aguirre), a film about seers and the visions that haunt them, regularly cutting away from the already static action of the film’s narrative to obsessively contemplate panoramas of time-lapsed landscapes. Or in the case of My Son, a lingering dessert-table tableau spontaneously struck around a bowl of unnaturally black jello. Or a crowded marketplace in central Asia. Or a woodland cabin inhabited by a midget in a tuxedo with no further explanation. The Auteurs spoke to Herzog over the phone to try to get some answers.


Werner Herzog: Where are you physically?

Ben Simington: I'm in New York, in Brooklyn.

Herzog: Oh yeah, okay, I'm in Los Angeles.

Simington: There are a lot of aspects of the two new films that seem like they might be new to you—they are the first screenplays, I believe, that you are not the sole author of, they're your first features in the U.S. in 30 years, since Stroszek, and they both seem to be the first explicit American genre films that you've done, the film noir and the police procedural.

Herzog: Film noir I've done before, with Even Dwarfs Started Smaller (sic), Nosferatu, whatever. But of course much of it is new terrain, I'm always out for new horizons, new alliances, new actors, the collaboration with people, for example, who are from the stable of David Lynch, new actors like Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny...the screenplay of The Bad Lieutenant, a good amount was written by me, or changed, modified. It's not that I'd just take a screenplay from someone. And My Son, My Son was a screenplay co-writer with a friend of mine.

Simington: My Son, My Son feels more like an ensemble piece, and The Bad Lieutenant seems really driven by a single performance by Nicolas Cage.

Herzog: No I disagree! Nicolas Cage would be no man's land without the very strong chemistry and texture of the supporting cast, he would be nowhere! It's the same as with Humphrey Bogart, who'd be in no man's land without Ingrid Bergman.

Simington: Both films deal with characters who are going mad; in The Bad Lieutenant we know from the get-go what has motivated Cage's madness, while in My Son, My Son we see the flip side of the coin where there's no concrete explanation of Shannon's mental illness. How did you go about structuring two films that show different sides of insanity?

Herzog: I wouldn't emphasize the mental illness so strongly. Sure, in My Son, My Son there is an element of mental illness, but there is also something else, something other, something inexplicably scary about the story. If it's all explained by mental illness I wouldn't care very much for a story like that. I met the real man who committed the murder, who will spend 8 1/2 years in a maximum-security mental institution for the criminally insane. I met him and he was really…you could tell he was not right in his head. There were things like he wanted to be crucified on national television live, and he was upset that it wouldn't happen. There was real madness there, and I don't harp on it. I do not want to play with it too strongly, then all explanations come down to "it was insanity, period," which is not the case.

Simington: You mentioned working with David Lynch, who executive produced My Son, My Son. Beyond working with Grace Zabriskie, who has been in several of Daivd Lynch’s films, what sort of involvement with Lynch did you have?

Herzog: Not much, you shouldn't overdo it. We somehow plotted to make films with fairly low budgets but with great stories and the best of the best of actors, almost like putting out a manifesto, that's how filmmaking should be done responsibly, where you would be in profitable terrain fairly early on. As we liked each other and respected each other's work very deeply we were talking about projects and he said do you have a story and I said yes, and David asked "when can you start?" and I said "tomorrow!." [Laughing] So he said it would be great if he could protect the film and he could have a look at the production, but he never interfered, he never showed up on the set or was there during editing or anything. It's something else, some sort of a spark that ignited a project that was long dormant. His main role was throwing a match onto a powder keg.

Simington: What attracted you to the characters played by Cage and Shannon?

Herzog: There are two sides. One side is the character as they exist in the screenplay, in the story. In both stories, for me, something that I felt was familiar. And second, the caliber of actors. Michael Shannon is an extraordinary talent, and you can tell right away. I saw that long before he got the Oscar nomination, I even invited him to join me on the set of The Bad Lieutenant. I didn’t have anything big to offer him, he was there for two or three days; I asked him to look at how I work and how I function, that I'd like to warm up with him as he would have to carry the central role of my new film on his shoulders. I think it was good that we had at least a few days time to warm up with each other. Five months later he got the Academy Award nomination and I really felt proud for him.

Simington: Do you think these two characters inhabit a similar world?

Herzog: I think they're quite different, otherwise Nicolas Cage would have played both parts; or Michael Shannon would have played the bad lieutenant as well. I'm always good in casting; or, let's put more solidly (it sounds like being conceited)—I think I've not made major mistakes in casting throughout my life as a filmmaker.

Simington: A question about the look of your movies...Peter Zeitlinger's cinematography really shines in both The Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son. He's been a major collaborator of yours for years now, shooting with you since Gesualdo. How do you communicate with him about what you want in your frames?

Herzog: Well, I have a sort of short hand communication with him by now, but it has always been quite brief and clear because I have such a clear vision of what I want to do. I start to work out a scene with him first, the kind of movement, the kind of camera position and things like that, and it goes very quickly. I think my footprint is very strong in all my films with him, but it was the same with Thomas Mauch who did Aguirre and Schmidt-Reitwein who did many others like Nosferatu. You can tell there's always a certain handwriting in it.

Simington: Has your relationship with Zeitlinger changed over the years as you've moved to larger or different productions?

Herzog: I've made much larger productions before, for example Nosferatu and Fitzcarraldo, so these two recent films, The Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son are much smaller productions as a matter of fact. But—how can I say? We have a very physical approach to cinematography. There's a clear understanding between him and me. He actually got into filmmaking because he had seen The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, which was such a strong experience for him that he decided to become a cinematographer. He would be, for example, the only one who, when we are shooting and something doesn't feel right, he'd put the camera down and say, "Werner, this scene doesn't have a rhythm." He's the first cinematographer to tell me that, and he's totally right because he senses it physically. I think he's a wonderful collaborator, physically very strong, I mean strong like an ox!

Simington: You've said before that you "direct landscapes," that you direct spaces. New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole are cast very well in The Bad Lieutenant, and San Diego has a very real sense of place in My Son, My Son. What was it like shooting in both locations?

Herzog: New Orleans, I mean New Orleans after Katrina, has a big role; it is obvious it would play a bigger role than just the backdrop. San Diego isn't that essential to the film [My Son, My Son], it could have happened in Minneapolis or Boise, Idaho, but a kind of suburbia close to the Mexican border is something that translates into the film, and when you speak of directing landscapes I have some wide locations in Peru on the Rio Urubamba, and I also shot in Central Asia, a very, very strange dream sequence, a very essential piece in the film.

Simington: Speaking of dream sequences and subjective camerawork, those scenes you speak of in My Son, My Son remind me of Kausper Hauser’s dreams, both somehow are related, too, to Nicolas Cage's hallucinations with the iguanas.

Herzog: That is all stuff I filmed myself. I wouldn't allow a cinematographer to do that in such a case, I'd do it myself. Central Asia, for example, I did myself, in My Son, My Son. The iguanas had to be a completely demented way of seeing the world, that only the bad lieutenant full of drugs would see, that no one else would see, so in cases like that I take over the camera.

Simington: In The Bad Lieutenant press kit Nicolas Cage mentions a Cortez project you brought to him several years ago.

Herzog: There are sometimes projects that are not really doable; in this case it was a production that would cost around $100 million, and you make a film like that only if your last film has made domestic growth, box office growth, of $250 million, then you can make a film like that. It was 14 years ago or so, but it was very clear early on that the film was not going to be made, and I can live easily with that.

Simington: Do you have any other projects that are in the pipeline right now?

Herzog: About 5 feature film projects and 3 documentaries. It's not that I am working on them, but that they are pushing me. I never search around for projects, they come to me like burglars in the night.

Simington: So you don't necessarily feel a different impulse to make a documentary or a feature?

Herzog: No, I don't care, it's all movies for me. And besides, when you say documentaries, in my case, in most of these cases, means "feature film" in disguise.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting

Under a skylight in her tin-ceilinged loft near Union Square in Manhattan, the abstract painter Carmen Herrera, 94, nursed a flute of Champagne last week, sitting regally in the wheelchair she resents.

After six decades of very private painting, Ms. Herrera sold her first artwork five years ago, at 89. Now, at a small ceremony in her honor, she was basking in the realization that her career had finally, undeniably, taken off. As cameras flashed, she extended long, Giacomettiesque fingers to accept an art foundation’s lifetime achievement award from the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Her good friend, the painter Tony Bechara, raised a glass. “We have a saying in Puerto Rico,” he said. “The bus — la guagua — always comes for those who wait.”

And the Cuban-born Ms. Herrera, laughing gustily, responded, “Well, Tony, I’ve been at the bus stop for 94 years!”

Since that first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued Ms. Herrera, and her radiantly ascetic paintings have entered the permanent collections of institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Tate Modern. Last year, MoMA included her in a pantheon of Latin American artists on exhibition. And this summer, during a retrospective show in England, The Observer of London called Ms. Herrera the discovery of the decade, asking, “How can we have missed these beautiful compositions?”

In a word, Ms. Herrera, a nonagenarian homebound painter with arthritis, is hot. In an era when the art world idolizes, and often richly rewards, the young and the new, she embodies a different, much rarer kind of success, that of the artist long overlooked by the market, and by history, who persevered because she had no choice.

“I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure,” she said of painting. “I never in my life had any idea of money and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I’m getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually.”

Julián Zugazagoitia, the director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, called Ms. Herrera “a quiet warrior of her art.”

“To bloom into full glory at 94 — whatever Carmen Herrera’s slow rise might say about the difficulties of being a woman artist, an immigrant artist or an artist ahead of her time, it is clearly a story of personal strength,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said.

A minimalist whose canvases are geometric distillations of form and color, Ms. Herrera has slowly come to the attention of a subset of art historians over the last decade. . Now she is increasingly considered an important figure by those who study her “remarkably monumental, iconic paintings,” said Edward J. Sullivan, a professor of art history at New York University.

“Those of us with a passion for either geometric art or Latin American Modernist painting now realize what a pivotal role” Ms. Herrera has played in “the development of geometric abstraction in the Americas,” Mr. Sullivan said.

Painting in relative solitude since the late 1930s, with only the occasional exhibition, Ms. Herrera was sustained, she said, by the unflinching support of her husband of 61 years, Jesse Loewenthal. An English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, Mr. Loewenthal was portrayed by the memoirist Frank McCourt, a colleague, as an old-world scholar in an “elegant, three-piece suit, the gold watch chain looping across his waistcoat front.”

Recognition for Ms. Herrera came a few years after her husband’s death, at 98, in 2000. “Everybody says Jesse must have orchestrated this from above,” Ms. Herrera said, shaking her head. “Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud.” She added: “I worked really hard. Maybe it was me.”

In a series of interviews in her sparsely but artfully furnished apartment, Ms. Herrera always offered an afternoon cocktail — “Oh, don’t be abstemious!” — and an outpouring of stories about prerevolutionary Cuba, postwar Paris and the many artists she has known, from Wifredo Lam to Yves Klein to Barnett Newman.

“Ah, Wifredo,” she said, referring to Lam, the Cuban-born French painter. “All the girls were crazy about him. When we were in Havana, my phone would begin ringing: ‘Is Wifredo in town?’ I mean, come on, I wasn’t his social secretary.”

But Ms. Herrera is less expansive about her own art, discussing it with a minimalism redolent of the work. “Paintings speak for themselves,” she said. Geometry and color have been the head and the heart of her work, she added, describing a lifelong quest to pare down her paintings to their essence, like visual haiku.

Asked how she would describe to a student a painting like “Blanco y Verde” (1966) — a canvas of white interrupted by an inverted green triangle — she said, “I wouldn’t have a student.” To a sweet, inquiring child, then? “I’d give him some candy so he’d rot his teeth.”

When pressed about what looks to some like a sensual female shape in the painting, she said: “Look, to me it was white, beautiful white, and then the white was shrieking for the green, and the little triangle created a force field. People see very sexy things — dirty minds! — but to me sex is sex, and triangles are triangles.”

Born in 1915 in Havana, where her father was the founding editor of the daily newspaper El Mundo, and her mother a reporter, Ms. Herrera took art lessons as a child, attended finishing school in Paris and embarked on a Cuban university degree in architecture. In 1939, midway through her studies, she married Mr. Loewenthal and moved to New York. (They had no children.)

Carmen Herrera at work. She has painted for six decades, and since her first sale in 2004, collectors have avidly pursued her.

Although she studied at the Art Students League of New York, Ms. Herrera did not discover her artistic identity until she and her husband settled in Paris for a few years after World War II. There she joined a group of abstract artists, based at the influential Salon of New Realities, which exhibited her work along with that of Josef Albers, Jean Arp, Sonia Delaunay and others.

“I was looking for a pictorial vocabulary and I found it there,” she said. “But when we moved back to New York, this type of art” — her less-is-more formalism — “was not acceptable. Abstract Expressionism was in fashion. I couldn’t get a gallery.”

Ms. Herrera said that she also accepted, “as a handicap,” the barriers she faced as a Hispanic female artist. Beyond that, though, “her art was not easily digestible at the time,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said. “She was not doing Cuban landscapes or flowers of the tropics, the art you might have expected from a Cuban émigré who spent time in Paris. She was ahead of her time.”

Over the decades, Ms. Herrera had a solo show here and there, including a couple at museums (the Alternative Museum in 1984, El Museo del Barrio in 1998). But she never sold anything, and never needed, or aggressively sought, the affirmation of the market. “It would have been nice, but maybe corrupting,” she said.

Mr. Bechara, who befriended her in the early 1970s and is now chairman of El Museo del Barrio, said that he regularly tried to push her into the public eye, even though she “found a kind of solace in being alone.”

One day in 2004, Mr. Bechara attended a dinner with Frederico Sève, the owner of the Latin Collector Gallery in Manhattan, who was dealing with the withdrawal of an artist from a much-publicized show of female geometric painters. “Tony said to me: ‘Geometry and ladies? You need Carmen Herrera,’ ” Mr. Sève recounted. “And I said, ‘Who the hell is Carmen Herrera?’ ”

The next morning, Mr. Sève arrived at his gallery to find several paintings, just delivered, that he took to be the work of the well-known Brazilian artist Lygia Clark but were in fact by Ms. Herrera. Turning over the canvases, he saw that they predated by a decade paintings in a similar style by Ms. Clark. “Wow, wow, wow,” he recalled saying. “We got a pioneer here.”

Mr. Sève quickly called Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, a collector who has an art foundation in Miami. She bought five of Ms. Herrera’s paintings. Estrellita Brodsky, another prominent collector, bought another five. Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, also bought several, and with Mr. Bechara, donated one of Ms. Herrera’s black-and-white paintings to MoMA.

The recent exhibition in England, which is now heading to Germany, came about by happenstance after a curator stumbled across Ms. Herrera’s paintings on the Internet. Last week The Observer named that retrospective one of the year’s 10 best exhibitions, alongside a Picasso show and one devoted to the American Pop artist Ed Ruscha.

Ms. Herrera’s late-in-life success has stunned her in many ways. Her larger works now sell for $30,000, and one painting commanded $44,000 — sums unimaginable when she was, say, in her 80s. “I have more money now than I ever had in my life,” she said.

Not that she is succumbing to a life of leisure. At a long table where she peers out over East 19th Street “like a French concierge,” Ms. Herrera, because she must, continues to draw and paint. “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going,” she said.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jim Harrison: The Masculine Mystique

Don’t be fooled by the trout, the dogs, the pickup trucks, the whiskey, the cowboys and Indians, and the war stories. Beneath the rugged trappings of Jim Harrison’s manly fiction hides the tensile, scorch-proof frame of the red-hot romance, whose heroes are totems of an idealized, brute masculinity. In the feminine version of the genre, the heroines typically possess awesome powers of desirability. In Harrison’s spin, the male leads aren’t much to look at (usually), yet they possess awesome powers of desire. Whether a whippersnapper of 12 or a “geezer rancher” in his 70s, the Harrison hero unfailingly sparks the ardor of any girl or woman he encounters, even when he’s sick, drunk and drugged, having his teeth pulled, passing kidney stones or dying. He doesn’t mind if a woman is a few decades older than he is or half a century younger; whether she’s a king-size Lakota divorcée pushing 60 or a “miniature” young nurse with a boyfriend. Nor does he care if she’s cruel or kind, married or single, straight or gay. Whoever she is, if she’ll have him, he’s up for the job.

Harrison’s new collection, “The Farmer’s Daughter” — a title redolent of Merle Haggard or off-color barroom jokes or both, depending on your referents — contains three stories that feature, among their sprawling casts, several lusty adolescent boys (including one with a clubfoot and one who’s a werewolf); an aged rancher, who, at 73, on his “last conscious day” of life, gingerly gropes a 14-year-old girl who curtseys in thanks; and a handful of men in their prime, including a depraved country fiddler, a vegetable farmer, a piano-playing Mexican botanist and the author’s best-known character, a hapless, oft-jailed, half-Indian “kindly fool” named Brown Dog (B.D. for short).

B.D.’s picaresque adventures first appeared in 1990 in Harrison’s “Woman Lit by Fireflies,” re-emerged in several later collections and here resurface in the story “Brown Dog Redux,” which finds B.D. as benighted and bold as ever. He regards himself as a champion of womankind because he’s “greatly drawn to women with none of the hesitancy of his more modern counterparts who tiptoed in and out of women’s lives wearing blindfolds, nose plugs, ear plugs and fluttering ironic hearts.” Also, when contemplating what he reverently calls the “sacred muffin,” B.D. is capable of “clapping in hearty applause.” Fair enough — but when he jokes to a lesbian whom he’s got in his sights that “they used to say that if a girl is big enough she’s old enough,” he loses some crossover appeal. Harrison’s Montana and Upper Peninsula Michigan make fine playgrounds for old men, but the terrain isn’t terribly hospitable to women of any age.

Nevertheless, Harrison, like Brown Dog, seems to worship the female sex, in his way. In the title story of this new book, he chivalrously seeks both vigilante and poetic justice for his precocious heroine, a tall, busty teenager named Sarah, who grows up in the 1980s in rural Montana, “where the passage between girl and woman is a short voyage.” Neglected by her taciturn father and abandoned by her “inane” mother, Sarah hunts antelope; plays Liszt like a prodigy; reads Dickinson, Faulkner and Henry Miller; daydreams of a career in metallurgy; and sunbathes semi-nude to turn on her “best friend,” a septuagenarian codger with a heart of gold. She feels a little sheepish about it, but then, there aren’t any high school heartthrobs within lassoing distance, and a girl’s got to whet her allure on someone.

“Sarah wasn’t mentally comfortable with the biological aspects of life,” Harrison writes reproachfully but kindly, like a literary Euell Gibbons. Still, after joining 4-H to pad her teenage-friend base, she soon finds grounds for her mental discomfort. After spending an innocent afternoon boozing and skinny-dipping with new pals, she drops by a rodeo where an evil horse hauler dopes and abuses her. After the attack, Harrison depicts her in a canyon, on a boulder, privately mourning her woes. “She began inevitably to look at males as another species,” he writes. “Not that she could summon up any special admiration for women.”

However well-motivated the author’s pity, however imaginative his ventriloquism of Sarah’s inner monologue, the portrait that emerges doesn’t feel age-appropriate; it recalls those medieval paintings in which the artist painted the child as a diminutive adult, with eerily progeriatric features. In a spirit of self-preservation, Sarah decides she has “no choice but to become prematurely older and austere,” and devises a scheme for vengeance. In 100 pages, the farm-girl Lolita turns Clint Eastwood — two fantasies in one. But when chance throws her in the path of an amorous 35-year-old aesthete, she gets another crack at Lolita. “I’m older than you in most ways,” she tells the man. However many ways there are, none of them are legal.

“Brown Dog Redux,” still bawdy but more believable, continues the quest of B.D. — the Upper Peninsula’s Chippewa Odysseus — to find a humane living environment for his stepdaughter, Berry, who suffers from the double burdens of fetal alcohol syndrome and encroaching adolescence. Berry can’t speak, but she communes with nature, cooing like a dove, calling crows and bonding with snakes and other wild creatures — she’s a child of the forest. In a previous story, B.D. transported her illegally from Michigan to Canada to keep her out of an institution for the disabled in Lansing. In Toronto, enlisting the help of a Lakota social worker called the Director, B.D. indulges his customary lip-smacking appetites as he looks after Berry’s welfare, chowing down on corned tongue and brisket, pork steak, fried T-bone, fatty rib steaks (“his favorite cut”) and a hearty menu of feminine flesh — Deidre, Nora, Gretchen and the Director, among others.

As he rides the bus back to the United States, confusing the “roar of the bus engine with that of a female bear he used to feed his extra fish when he was reroofing a deer cabin,” B.D. dreams of the engrossing exertions of fishing, of dancing at powwows (“a state of being carried away that reminded him of the pleasure of being half-drunk rather than fully drunk”) and of the “landscape he called home, dense forests of pine, hemlock, tamarack and aspen surrounding great swamps and small lakes.” When he’s not on the bus, he lives in the moment, caught up in the meat of the day and the heat of the night. He “felt lucky,” Harrison writes, “that he could resolve his own problems with a couple of beers and a half dozen hours of trout fishing and if a female crossed his path whether fat or thin, older or younger, it was a testament that heaven was on earth rather than somewhere up in the remote and hostile sky.” Flush with the uncomplicated enjoyment of his physical being, Harrison’s hero fills three dimensions and more — on occasion exceeding the confines of his character to recite Longfellow to wow a lady or take in a National Geographic special on Siberia, flatteringly reflecting his creator’s interests.

In the third story, “The Games of Night,” Harrison employs magical elements to make his themes more palatable. When the unnamed 12-year-old protagonist is seduced by a lubricious seventh-grade classmate, the author tenderly records their underage play. A little later, during a bird-watching expedition to Mexico with his ornithologist father, the boy is bitten by both a wolf and a hummingbird. Through a mysterious transformation — like the one in which Peter Parker turns into Spider-Man — he becomes a demon lover, and satisfies his new cravings posthaste with a sensual, willing, older, married woman. After their tussle, he fortifies himself by feasting on a bowl of tripe. Not that long before, the boy, like the farmer’s daughter in Montana, had felt oppressed by the demands of physicality. “I was getting my nose rubbed in the animality of people,” he fretted. But if there’s one thing Harrison knows, it’s how to teach his characters to share his sensual hunger and relish their role in his supernaturally charged natural world. Whether his readers can tuck in with similar gusto is a question of taste — and perhaps of glands.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Back From Vacation

Advice from the Editor: When on vacation, never play Chess on a glacier with a sherpa that knows the only trail back and is a little bit sensitive about his knight and rook. Also, when inhaling the morning air at 14,000 feet always, always make sure...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Schubert and Beckett: Footsteps in Snow

MAPPING the no man’s land between poetry and music may be impossible, but exploring it is not. “One Evening,” at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College from Wednesday through Friday, tries to do just that, weaving poems and prose of Samuel Beckett into Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise” (“Winter Journey”). The songs are performed by the tenor Mark Padmore and the pianist Andrew West, the Beckett text by the actor Stephen Dillane.

Last week, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Mr. Dillane appeared in the theater piece “Four Quartets,” which juxtaposed the set of poems T. S. Eliot considered his masterpiece with Beethoven’s Opus 132 String Quartet, Eliot’s acknowledged model. Though most of the links in “One Evening” seem more intuitive than direct, “Winterreise” is known to have haunted Beckett throughout his life.

Like “Four Quartets,” “One Evening” is a presentation of Lincoln Center’s experimental New Visions series and was shaped by Katie Mitchell, a director renowned for symbiotic fusions of live performance and video. Examples include her chamber adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel “The Waves” (at the National Theater in London and at Lincoln Center) and a titanic staging of Luigi Nono’s opera-cum-Communist manifesto “Al Gran Sole Carico d’Amore” (Salzburg Festival).

In the New Visions pieces Ms. Mitchell is operating on a more intimate scale, with technology at a minimum. “Four Quartets” did without electronics completely, and the architecture of the piece was simplicity itself: first the words, then the music, all connections to be established in the ear of the beholder. “One Evening,” though it, too, forgoes Ms. Mitchell’s signature video trappings, is predicated on an all-encompassing sound design.

“There are just some microphones,” Ms. Mitchell said recently from London. “The idea in ‘One Evening’ is for the audience to imagine a young man walking through the snow across a changing landscape. That’s the basic aural experience. You literally hear footsteps, breathing. The songs and the poems are the thoughts in his head.” (This scenario is precisely that of Schubert’s song cycle.)

Mr. Padmore likens this project to a radio play. “In Katie’s work there’s always an emphasis on making things,” he said recently from his home in London. “You see us creating this sound world, using quite a range of objects: wind machines, twigs, leaves, a thunder sheet. All three of us onstage take turns. The soundscape is the thread that runs through the whole piece.”

Wrapped in that envelope of naturalistic sound the Beckett material drops into the sequence of “Winterreise” at irregular intervals, much as Schubert’s songs may be presumed to have drifted through Beckett’s mind. The biographer James Knowlson has shown in “Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett” that Beckett alluded to the songs often, in ways both overt and oblique.

Wisps of Schubert’s song “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden”) are heard in the radio play “All That Fall” (first broadcast in 1957). Beckett’s last television play, the evanescent “Nacht und Träume” (“Night and Dreams,” first broadcast in 1983), takes its name from another Schubert song and incorporates a snatch of the melody, first hummed, then sung to its nostalgic German text.

The literary critic Miron Grindea once wrote that the notoriously morose Beckett considered Schubert “a friend in suffering.” Yet the affinity goes only so far. Beckett would have found nothing in Schubert’s melancholy to feed the gallows humor that was as integral to his art as his misanthropy and gloom. There are few laughs, if any, in Schubert. In Beckett there are many of all kinds, from howls to snickers.

Schubert’s contemporaries were baffled by “Winterreise,” but he predicted they would come to love these songs more than any of his others. Whether or not the prophecy came true in his lifetime, it was borne out in Beckett, who listened to the cycle over and over in a recording by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, “shivering,” as he once wrote, “through the grim journey again.” Today he would have had hundreds of other interpretations to choose from, including a new one from Harmonia Mundi by Mr. Padmore and the top-flight Schubertian Paul Lewis.

That embarrassment of riches has Mr. Padmore concerned. As a noted lieder specialist, he has often sung the Schubert cycles in conventional fashion. This time his aim is to reach out to the vibrant, intellectually curious crowd he encounters when he attends the theater.

“One great spur to me was Beckett’s play ‘Eh Joe,’ with the camera on Michael Gambon’s face as he simply listened to a woman speaking in voice-over,” Mr. Padmore said. “That was the kind of world we wanted to explore. We wanted to take ‘Winterreise’ away from the Rolls-Royce quality of the recital hall and put it into the rougher theater environment.”

Hence a slightly battered upright piano in place of the expected concert grand. What’s more, with British and American audiences in mind, Mr. Padmore insisted on singing in English rather than the original German. He is relying on diction, microphones and sound design to put the words across. There will be no titles.

Purists will bridle at some of these innovations. More scandalous still, certain songs have been dropped, and others will be spoken rather than sung, without accompaniment. Though the settings in question show Schubert at his sparest (surely a mode Beckett would have found congenial), Ms. Mitchell did not sanction such depredations lightly.

“The idea came from Mark,” she said. “I thought that if he, who knows the music so intimately, wanted to try it, it was something we should consider, for balance, as part of the overall structure.”

In London, Mr. Padmore reported, there were walkouts and a review in The Times that wrote off the approach as dangerous and silly. “I know as well as anyone that ‘Winterreise’ needs nothing added,” he said. “But we’re coming to the end of an era. Without new motivations for listening and performing, the point comes when we’re just hearing different performances of the same thing. This version of ours won’t please everybody. For me, and I hope for new audiences, it’s very exciting.”