Saturday, March 3, 2012


I was fortunate enough to have a seat reserved for me at the bar at the Café Carlyle last night, to hear Herb Alpert and Lani Hall play their music.

(Poor image, sorry. And I didn't get Lani...)

I heard them first in Los Angeles, a few months ago, and seem to remember that I described the event as a love fest. It is. It was, again last night. A delightful spectacle of two human beings still celebrating their love for each other after forty-five years. That’s just a couple of years longer than Ellie and I have known each other. And celebrating, too, the love of music, the love of song. Alpert even seems to be making love to his trumpet each time he brings it to his lips. They played a lot of old favorites, sentimental favorites, many of them—Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach—but with only just enough sentiment to fall short of sentimentality. There’s discipline involved in that, too. And practice. The things I’m here in New York to talk about at the National Art Education. I speak tomorrow, at the end of the conference—and hopefully before everyone has left!

It’s always good to hear people talk about those things that engage their passion. The best of speakers do just that, and manage to convey the passion. There are also those, sadly, who get lost in the verbiage, in their perceived need to follow the rules of academic correctness. It’s possible, as I witnessed yesterday, to make even the most exciting of topics boring. Like art collectors. What a fascinating subject for “research”! But the talk yesterday made scant mention of the psychological and emotional compulsion that drives the passion, the addiction that keeps real collectors buying long after all the walls in their house are filled and stuff keeps accumulating in the basement, or what my in-laws, avid collectors, cheerfully called the “chamber of horrors.”

But there were highlights. I’ll mention a couple. I wish I’d noted down names, but in some cases I did not. Such was the case with the marvelous presentation about the use of graphics to make statistical information accessible to the mind that boggles at the mention of statistics—my own included. The speaker’s visuals included a beautiful nineteenth century graph that tracked the dreadful consequences of Napoleon’s march on Moscow—the advance and the retreat—and the slow deterioration of his army, the deaths proportionate to the falling temperatures and the length and hardship of the march; the familiar map of the London tube; the contemporary political scene in the United States—all graphics that at once appeal to the eye and allow it to grasp factual information at a glance. Fascinating. Narrated with a vast range of knowledge and a passion for the subject.

The keynote speech by the President of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), John Maeda, was, I thought, brilliant. Speaking with the practiced ease of one who knows what he is talking about, has done it a hundred times, and still manages to engage his audience with his own conviction and delight, Maeda addressed our current culture’s need to add an A (Art) to the resources we devote to innovation in the form of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.) Power Point gets out of hand at a lot of these presentations, substituting too often for the ability to speak with the kind of spontaneity that makes it human. Madea’s presentation was itself a multi-media art performance, in which still images, video, sound and speech coalesced into a single, smooth, thoroughly entertaining narrative, as filled with charm and intellectual play as with solid factual information. I have heard few people put across and important message so well.

And lastly I want to mention the presentation by Michael J. Emme and Robert Dalton (this time I got the names!) of the University of Victoria, “Creating an Art Life: Studies of Studio Research and Reflective Practice”—why do we have to come up with these dreadful titles, so different from the engaging reality of the material presented? Never mind. This pair’s program at UV invites a relatively small number of teachers who are practicing studio artists for a three-year (I believe I have that right) sequential summer’s practicum in which they are encouraged to find ways to integrate those two parts of their lives. It’s what they call “a degree in self-definition”, promoting mindfulness and self-awareness as the means to a fulfilling life. They showed short (and, of necessity, edited) videos showing how the program worked for a number of their students. Unfortunately, I was able to see only a couple of them before having to leave for an appointment, but I found them to be beautifully, richly textured accounts of their process. Fine examples of that principle I so often speak about—and practice: Tell me who you are.

There was much more to the day than I can include in this single entry. I’m hoping that I’ll be able, Sunday when I speak, to avoid boredom and emulate the passion of the best of the speakers I have been listening to.

(Oh, I forgot to mention in all this that I did find time to stop by for a couple of hours at the Whitney Museum of American Art to see the biennial there. I must disqualify myself from writing about it with any authority: as you can read in Friday’s New York Times, this year’s version is rich with dance, performance, video, film, sound, some of it time-sensitive and presented over a period of months, so to spend a couple of hours wandering through the galleries is to get no sense of it at all. I’ll just mention the luscious, small paintings of Andrew Masullo...

(This and the following are cell phone snapshots, permitted by the Whitney.)

... whose work I find enormously appealing; and an artist I have never heard of, Forrest Bess...

... presented by the artist Robert Gober. I’ll have to find time at a later date to find out more about this singular, visionary painter whose work is barely known except to a few initiates… I’ll try to get to some other, rather random thoughts about the Biennial when I have more time.)

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