There is Still Hope

January 7, 2018

In spite of the severe downward turn in our culture — especially evident in our “modern” tastes in art — it is still my privilege to continue meeting artists who refuse to follow the latest trend in ‘isms’ and carry on the struggle with those elusive and inscrutable Muses that guide the hand in producing, not commodities, but genuine “art” that enhances life. (What an idea! Buying and/or collecting ’’art” for enhancement rather than investment!)

I know I use terms that several of my readers deem pompous and I must admit that many of my ideas come from extensive traveling and reading; I’m the product of lower-class, poverty-threatened folks from Brooklyn and my “culture” was largely gleaned from the streets of our neighborhood and, later (at the age of 12) on a dead-end road in the woodlands of the Catskills. Trips to museums, libraries, etc. were never on my parent’s calendar, nor were books a part of our lifestyle. Art was not on the curriculum of any of the schools I attended, so I had a great deal to learn. My first “awakening” occurred when I was drafted into the US Military and discovered that not all people were raised as I was raised or learned what I learned. Stationed a full year in Germany, and all I ever visited were popular beer halls! Later, and still in the Service, I discovered a library on the Canadian base up in the arctic (Fort Churchill) that I was assigned to for one year. As we were “guests” of the Canadian Air Force, we were closely monitored — so no alcohol (or women) — ergo, plenty of time for the well-stocked library available to all of us on “isolated duty.” Never having been much of a library-goer, it took me some time to learn my way around. Previously an occasional “Mickey Spillane” follower (when and if I picked up a book), I had no idea what treasures awaited me once I got used to turning pages. Having 365 “isolated duty” days on the tundra sans alcohol and women looking me in my oft frost-bitten face left me literally little choice — but once started, I voraciously ‘ate’ my way through, first the art history section, quickly followed by ancient history, world literature and philosophy.

Although rather haphazardly read at the time (I thought that Plato and Dostoevsky were contemporaries), all would be organized, expanded and clarified when I finally started college in my early 30s, concentrating on those very fields of study and finally receiving my B.A and M.A. in Liberal Arts. I taught English in Public School and a short stint at College over a period of about 14 years, then co-founded ART TIMES with my partner, Cornelia Seckel, putting my full concentration on art — writing Artist Profiles, and either reviews or critiques of art exhibitions. Although I never ‘took’ an art class, I was drawn to the subject since the only “talent” that survived my Brooklyn upbringing was being able to draw, sketching on the living-room floor long before I started school. So, already familiar with pen and pencil, after absorbing some art history I was drawn to learning about other mediums and the creators behind the work; hence ART TIMES and my profiling of artists. Living near Woodstock, New York, I had a veritable plethora of artists nearby to visit and started writing about artists some years before we founded ART TIMES in 1984, freelancing my work to various local newspapers and eventually, with ART TIMES as a base, broadening my scope to profile over 200 artists from the U.S. as well as from abroad — Germany, Italy, China, and so on. Supplemented by my critiques, reviews, traveling, lecturing and further reading, yes it is probably true that I sometimes come across as “pompous.” And yes, I am “set in my ways” — or passé, to many “modernists” — still quoting Bernard Berenson (as above) and his theory of “life enhancing” art, still inclined to agree with Oscar Wilde and his claim that America went from Primitivism to Barbarism without having passed through “Civilization.”

Yet, the real truth is that in spite of my last 40 years dabbling in “art”, the only inconvertible ‘truth’ I have discovered is that opinion rules and that no one has yet discovered an authoritative definition of “art” — me included since my “knowledge” is only based on endless page-turning and tramping around the world. Some, in fact, have even declared that “art” is dead! Not even my picking up of brush and palette knife some 20 years ago to paint landscapes, all I am “sure” of is that I try to “reproduce” three-dimensional Nature on a two-dimensional flat surface. So the “pomposity” is probably nothing more than a smoke-screen trying to obscure my ignorance. All that said, however, does not nullify my opening remarks, namely that I still have the privilege of meeting “artists” — who, more often than not, are struggling to come up with their own definition of what it is that they are doing — (I try to avoid the glib ones, who sound too much like salesmen and bloviating agents. Art, already a communicative language in and of itself, is largely un-translatable and meant to ‘speak’ for itself (humans were making pictures on walls long before they made words and sentences). In the opinion of Edgar Degas, literature ((i.e. words)) only did “harm” to art, and readily agreed with his friend, the writer Jules Renard, who wrote, “When I am in front of a picture, it speaks better than I do.”* So, to all of you still fighting the good fight, I urge you to continue ignoring all the gobbledygook. I wish you warm and pleasant Holidays and a continuing success in your struggle — you have certainly enriched (and enhanced) my life for a long, long time.

 *Cf. Julian Barnes “Humph, He, Ha”, London Review of Times, Vol. 40, No. 1., Jan 4 2018.

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#17 Hinton-St George, Ellis Island, Roman Empire & Europe

December 12, 2017

Originally intended as a small book, “Glimpses: In which a Casual Traveler Ruminates on Passing Scenes—1989-2011″, I should like to share it with my readers in a more informal manner as a series of Blogs. 

church-Hinton-St-GeorgeEngland: Hinton-St. George: Visited with the Cannings (Jo and Rick), a hardy couple that seemed to love taking us to “sights” — Winchester, Bath, Avebury (a miniature Stonehenge, which we visited at a later time when we were off on our own), etc. They had their hiking shoes stashed permanently in the “boot” of their car, ready at a moment’s notice to hop out to show us something (most often something up some hill, until I blurted out — when I caught my breath — “Don’t you have any downhill sites?”). Spent an afternoon with Jo Canning’s parents who lived nearby; they took us to lunch where we had the most delicious bread-pudding we’d ever tasted. Later, they took us to a small church to show us its stain-glass windows and told us one of the most charming “WWII” stories about them. Seems a German pilot had been shot down and held prisoner on a local farm. Pleased with how good the townspeople had treated him, he promised that if he ever got back home, he’d have his father — an accomplished worker in stained-glass — send them a window for their church after the war. More than good to his word, the townsfolk were delighted when, not one, but six beautiful windows arrived some time after the war ended — all of which still grace their charming little church.

trunks-ellis-islandUSA: Ellis Island: It was the wicker traveling “trunks” that got to me. Imagine placing your valuables in such a fragile container and striking out on a voyage to a new country! What faith our forebears must have had in the promise of America!

Europe: I’m referring to the whole European scene here: In pretty nearly every country in Europe we were constantly coming across remains and footsteps of the Roman Empire — walls, roads, buildings, artifacts, ruins, traces, sites, amphitheaters, etc.,, etc., etc.

roman-road-cologne-germany

Roman Road in Cologne Germany

Amazing to see and learn of just how far the Empire extended its footprint (and left it!) almost all over the continent. Better than in any book or classroom, a vast sense of history is there for the curious onlooker! Wow!


#16 Barbados and Wupperthal, Germany

November 24, 2017

Originally intended as a small book, “Glimpses: In which a Casual Traveler Ruminates on Passing Scenes—1989-2011″, I should like to share it with my readers in a more informal manner as a series of Blogs. 

Barbados: Woodstock sculptor Anthony Krauss suggested we introduce ourselves to the former Prime Minister of Barbados who had commissioned a piece from him some years before and, doing so, were invited to an afternoon “tea” at his home. The Prime Minister was away in Europe, but his wife had warmly welcomed us and, for the occasion, had invited several others to the “do”. It was a lovely day, and lawn chairs and tables were scattered about the pleasant garden with small groups gathered at each. At one point we were joined at our table by an English couple and it was only after a few moments that the gentleman said that he understood we were from New York. We acknowledged that fact, whereupon he turned to me and asked in his very British manner what I thought about the fact that New York State had been recently reconsidering bringing back the death penalty. Sipping at my teacup, I looked up at him and said, “Well, for myself, I’m all in favor of introducing the electric couch — that way we could get three at once.” For the rest of the afternoon, the gentleman and his wife kept as much of the exquisitely manicured lawn between us as was possible.

Germany: Wupperthal: Took a ride on their overhead tram, a train that was suspended over the Wupper River (“thal” means valley), sinuously following the meandering course of the flowing water beneath. A new experience! While in Wupperthal (Wupper Valley), I learned that nearby in “Neander thal” — the valley of the Neander River) — our pre-human ancestors, the Neanderthals. settled there.


#15 Cologne Germany, Marseilles, France, Brighton, England, Tokyo, Japan

November 17, 2017

Originally intended as a small book, “Glimpses: In which a Casual Traveler Ruminates on Passing Scenes—1989-2011″, I should like to share it with my readers in a more informal manner as a series of Blogs. 

Konstanze Jarczyk

Germany: Cologne, Buttermarkt: Konstanze Jarczyk (Heinz’s daughter) invited us to her small apartment in the old section of Cologne known as the “butter market”, only steps away from the remains of the old Roman road still visible to today’s visitors. A light lunch and then a special performance: Konstanze, a professional harpist with worldwide performances to her credit, giving us an intimate concert meant only for our ears! Unforgettable. Touching.

France: Marseilles: Just one day, but bouillabaisse of course! And, a bottle of local white wine to wash it all down. Amazing to think that this town on the coast was founded by the Greeks around 600B.C.!

England: Brighton: Stopping in at a small “antique” shop, I spied a tiny metal bell, gaily painted with flowers. The owner told me it was a sheep bell (I had seen cowbells but this was the first of these I had seen) and its dainty size and hand-painted surface appealed to me. As the man wrapped it for me, he asked me why I wanted it. Noticing Cornelia nearby, I said with a smile, “Now when I want my coffee in the morning, all I have to do is tinkle this little bell.” The look I got from her warned me that I might try it once, but chances were that instead of getting coffee I’d have it tied around my own neck! Anyway, it sits on a shelf above our kitchen sink where it still appeals to me…and every so often (when no one’s around) I shake it to hear the little tinkle.

Raymond J. Steiner and Marti Kerton at Narita Airport, Tokyo

Japan: Tokyo, Narita Airport: Huge crowd of hundreds of travelers, many lines, in airport on way to Beijing. As we stand at the end of a long line, we strike up conversation with a young woman behind us. Her name: Marti Kerton, a Honolulu native. During our talk we discover that she is the daughter of Sudjana Kerton, one of the over 200 artists to send me anecdotes for my book, The Art Students League of New York: A History. Small world indeed!


#14 Ritten, Switzerland

November 1, 2017

Originally intended as a small book, “Glimpses: In which a Casual Traveler Ruminates on Passing Scenes—1989-2011″, I should like to share it with my readers in a more informal manner as a series of Blogs. 

Switzerland: Ritten, in the Tyrolean Alps: On our way to Munich from Verona, our hosts (Gabi and Norbert Witmer) ask us if we would like to take a brief side-trip tovisit one of the small villages nestled at the top of a mountain. We of course quickly agree and soon find ourselves winding through one horseshoe curve after another as we slowly ascend. At one lookout point, we look down far below at the Italian city of Bolzano that we had passed through earlier that morning. Grapevines covered the steep sides of the mountain, each vine meticulously pruned and cared for, prompting our wonder at how the workers could work on such a precipitous slope.

Finally we reach the top and park in a small lot in front of a restaurant. The village has a handful of houses, a church abutting a cemetery. The restaurant seems to be the only visible business establishment. As our waitress brought us a light lunch (excellent soup!), I remarked on the striking likeness of the young woman with my sister Rita — or at least as she looked when she was also young. After lunch, we strolled the little village, seeking better views of the Dolomites looming through a lowering sky. At one point we stepped into the small church — it might have held thirty people — and stood silently in the rear as a sole occupant, an elderly woman, knelt at the altar. It was as we waited for the woman to leave that I began to have the feeling that I had been in this church before and, as the sense of déjà vu deepened, it began occurring to me that a good bit of the town had also seemed familiar to me. Strangely, I was convinced that I had been there — yet, I knew that I had never before traveled to this part of the world, had no connection whatsoever with this German village called Ritten. Months later, in thinking about the odd experience, I began to wonder how it connected with my studies of ancient history shortly before we left for Europe. I had recently completed the 8 volumes of The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire by Thomas Hodgkin, a good deal of my curiosity centered on my own “barbarian”, Teutonic roots. I had come to the conclusion that my forebears came from the Allamani tribe, the very tribe that eventually settled in the Alps after they left the northern part of Europe. When I related this ‘adventure’ to Christiane Jarczyk, she immediately said, “Of Course. That is where your grandfather’s people lived!” So, had I been in tune with some lingering vibe from an ancestor who lived atop this mountain? An ancestor whose progeny included that waitress who resembled my sister? Nonsense, undoubtedly — but still?

 


#13 Prague, Bonn, Wicklow, the Loire

October 25, 2017

Originally intended as a small book, “Glimpses: In which a Casual Traveler Ruminates on Passing Scenes—1989-2011″, I should like to share it with my readers in a more informal manner as a series of Blogs. 

Czech Republic: Prague: While wandering this beautiful city — called by many the “City of Spires” — we came upon the Jewish quarter and its cemetery. Talking about it with Jacky and Jörg later in the day over coffee, both Cornelia and Jacky shared sad memories of lost relatives. It was here that we learned of Jacky’s father, a Czech, killed by his townspeople because they believed he had supported the Nazis. We are never very far from deeply hidden poignant memories.

Germany (Musicians): Visited Beethoven’s home in Bonn (his ear trumpet a persistent memory); Mendelssohn’s home in Leipzig (his watercolors, lovely, sensitive, a surprise!) and a nearby church where Bach once taught; Mozart’s home in Salzburg and his father’s, Leopold, in Augsburg. Always an aura seems to hover in and around the places where genius once resided — a similar feeling while visiting the tavern near Leipzig’s rathaus square where Goethe wrote.

Ireland: Wicklow: Found a lovely waterfall (Powerscourt) on our way through Wicklow (south of Dublin)…had paints with me but had already run out of canvases capturing hills and hedgerows along our way…soooo, used my palette (which is now hanging in my study) and painted waterfall! Nice souvenir from our trip with a rented car through Ireland.

France: Loire Valley: Visited a stone-age tomb that, for the size of its stone slabs alone, boggles the mind as to how these primitives built it. Stepped inside the room-size space; cool, dampish. Cornelia had strong sense of not “belonging” there, could not wait to get outside its stony embrace. (Odd, that she did not have the same sensation when we visited Newgrange in Ireland, another ancient tomb).


Blog # 12 Rome, Beijing, Cologne, Swindon Wiltshire – England

October 18, 2017

Originally intended as a small book, “Glimpses: In which a Casual Traveler Ruminates on Passing Scenes—1989-2011″, I should like to share it with my readers in a more informal manner as a series of Blogs. 

Italy: Rome: Standing in the center of St. Peter’s, I have, perhaps for the first time, an inkling of eternity.

China: Beijing, Tianlun Dynasty Hotel, 50 Wangfujing Ave.: From my room in this luxurious hotel, I look down many floors below to where construction on the street is taking place. Workmen in what appear to be dress black suits, sockless and in tennis shoes, handling jackhammers, shoveling dirt. I am told that every day many thousands come from the provinces to work in the city. Where are the hard hats? The work boots? From the same window, I look down into a nearby hu tong. A different world! Hard to reconcile my hotel room with such squalor and cramped living quarters. I am told that many of these community compounds have been destroyed to make way for new prosperity. A way of life perhaps best gone. But how do they feel?

img_8321Germany: Cologne: During dinner at the Jarczyk’s, Heinz asked me if I liked opera. He was amazed when I told him that I had never been to one. He immediately rose from the table and went to the phone; I understood enough German to know he was asking about what was on and getting tickets for the four of us. That weekend, I saw Carmen at the Köln Opera Haus: a story about a Spanish woman written by a Frenchman with German “sub-titles” moving across the bottom of the stage. (At one point I had to smile at the running translation when, at the point Carmen is ridiculing Don Carlos for attending to duty rather than running into the mountains with her, it incongruously read “Don Carlos, du bist ein Dummkopf!”). At intermission, sharing champagne, I said to Heinz that I was still trying to get it together that here I was, a kid from Brooklyn, attending an opera in such plush surroundings. When we returned to our seats, he handed me the playbill with his finger indicating where I should look. There I read that the actor playing Don Carlos was from Brooklyn, and that the second female role was played by a young woman from Staten Island!

Magic-Roundabout-AAIR_Devizes-002-6c7tt0ub1i8rt8hbwfk5l9lpy827ey9q6904ptvngji

England: Swindon Wiltshire: Came upon a “round-about” (traffic circle) that was a maze of entries and exits, so many that we circumnavigated it several times before we finally got off — of course, it was the wrong one. Told later that Swindon was the town where the roundabout inventor was born! I wonder if they ran him off!