Four years ago when I moved to San Francisco, I would have never predicted that one day I would be interviewing Glen Helfand. In 2009, when I asked a classmate of mine at San Francisco Art Institute, “do you know Glen Helfand,” she responded, “oh my God, no, I wish, he’s like the only relevant art writer in the city”. I kept up with Glen’s writing for a couple years until I finally introduced myself to him at an art opening last summer. Since then, we’ve run into each other a thousand times and this year, Glen has included me in a group exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco titled Proximities. I sat down with Glen prior to the opening of Part 1 of 3 of the exhibition, and by the time this blog post is published, Part 1 of the exhibition will have opened.
Jeff: So you’re not used to being interviewed, are you?
Glen: I don’t think that’s such an interesting question. I have been interviewed before and I was literally interviewed ten minutes ago. I guess one of the interesting things is being on both sides of the equation. Having interviewed people before, I know what the experience is like. Another way to start that is – I do projects. I have on occasion been interviewed. Not often, but enough to know what the experience is like and to be careful of what I say.
J: Okay, good. Well part of this interview process is that you get to look at the document as we compose it.
G: That’s generous of you.
J: What were you being interviewed about ten minutes ago?
G: For the opening of Proximities that I curated. One of the artists, Andrew Witrak, is collaborating with Daniel Hyatt, to create a signature artisanal cocktail for the opening reception. The museum was videotaping it and I got to kibbitz.
J: What’s kibbitz?
G: It’s a Yiddish thing.
J: What does it mean?
G: To give my two cents. Jewish people giving my two cents. There’s a great bar called the Kibbitz Room in LA at Kantor’s Deli. I love that name.
J: Is it normal to have “signature artisanal cocktails” at an opening reception? That sounds so Miami.
G: You could also say it sounds so San Francisco. Isn’t this town such a major mixology center? But it’s also in a sense part of the show because it’s dealing a lot with notions of travel and leisure and the getaway – we want people to imagine being on a tropical beach, though the drink is more complicated in concept.
J: So describe what Proximities is.
G: I like to talk about the show from the standpoint of it being a challenge to solve. The Asian Art Museum has been interested in opening up its audience and to embrace more contemporary work. I had to start with the idea of why I didn’t feel so connected to the institution. I’ve always felt a bit of intimidation, not knowing a whole lot about Asian art, not knowing how to pronounce the names of various contemporary Chinese artists. I figure that people probably feel the same about the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Kibbitz. My initial premise was to highlight how artists have some kind of connection to Asia even if it wasn’t the expected connection.
J: Did you say this in your last interview ten minutes ago?
G: Elements. That is one thing I’ve learned in doing interviews, people always say the same things over and over again. It’s difficult to constantly be original.
J: And just to clarify: you identify as White, right?
J: Your ethnicity. You’re curating a show at the Asian Art Museum but you’re White, correct?
G: Correct. It was the last thing I ever thought I would be doing.
J: Have there been any moments of awkwardness during the curation process regarding your ethnicity?
G: Not from the museum, though part of me expects to get some kind of criticism for it. In a way, the show is kind of about this issue. Am I or the artists allowed to enter into this dialog? I don’t know if that was a question the museum was asking, but it seemed like it was a rich enough question to frame the exhibition. But to answer your question, it hasn’t been an issue with the museum. There was an interesting experience of meeting with the in-house curators, the specialists, who weighed in on the possibility for controversy. Those curators are not necessarily Asian either. That experience was really exciting, and we’ll have those curators in dialog with the artists during the opening reception.
J: When I shared the exhibition website with my artist friends, they immediately pointed out that certain artists that you selected weren’t Asian. So, immediately they were confused. My friends are also White, and so it felt like they were wondering, “well, why wasn’t I selected?” So how did you get about selecting your artists?
G: That’s a hefty question. I don’t think this is a show about race, it’s one about ideas of place, of various artists’ relations to what we think of as Asia. I selected artists based on that connection. For example, I knew that Tucker Nichols has studied Asian art history at a high level and yet his work is not seen in that context. Lisa Blatt had traveled to Shanghai to photograph while on a residency. If the museum was interested in expanding its audience, it seemed that it would make sense to open up ideas about demographics. I chose James Gobel because he was the last person you’d expect to see at the Asian, and yet his work recently has included images of sailors, of wanderlust and ports of call. I hope that your artist friends are more intrigued by the confusion—it’s a fairly small show, and the first part happened pretty quickly, so I couldn’t include everyone.
J: Well, I’m Asian and I’ve told you in the past when we were talking about the show that I don’t have any relation to Asia except for the way I look. I’m sure Tucker knows way more about Asia than I ever will. Aside from my Asian looks, why did you choose me for your show?
G: I thought of you for this project because your work seems more skewed towards an American vernacular. I think that aspect will add a compelling piece of the dialog. The show that you are part of, Import/Export, also includes Imin Yeh, whose project was inspired by a residency in India, a place that she probably didn’t know much about before her visit. I like the idea of thwarting expectations, of looking at the issues from different angles. I think that you do that, using your own perspectives.
J: So I’m in the third show. When this post is published, the first show will have just opened. What’s the structure of the exhibition like?
G: It’s organized along the routes that many of us know Asia, from the perspective of the Bay Area. The first show is about place, the idea that it is a distant land, as I was asked to have the show address the full concept of “Asia” which is unwieldy and impossible to shoehorn into a small gallery. The title of the first one, What Time Is It There?, which comes from a great Taiwanese film, sets up the equation of imagining somewhere else, it suggests a here and there. It’s the landscape show. The second, in a sense deals with portraiture, people. It’s called Knowing Me, Knowing You, after an ABBA song.
J: I love ABBA!
G: The Nordic connection also seemed like a wonderful irony, as they were such a groundbreaking international pop sensation. Barry McGee is in that show, as is Michael Jang, who has a show up now at Wirtz Gallery— they’re photos of his extended family in the 1970s. The third show is the still life show, Import/Export and it deals with notions of commerce. I like your piece’s reference to yoga and Eastern religion as an Eastern commodity. It’s really quite simple, the shows deal with places, people and things.
J: How long is the entire three-part exhibition?
G: The first one is up now, and then there will be a break. The second is in October. The third is in December. The museum initially wanted three solo shows, but my thought is if they want to bring more people in the door, mounting group exhibitions was the way to go. I like the idea of each of the presentations adding different artists, each of whom will bring in their audience. There will be a very different flavor to each of the shows—the first is very colorful, the last will be much more monochromatic. How is this all sounding to you?
J: I like the idea of colorful and I like the idea of monochromatic. For some reason, I’m still fixated on race and ethnicity, so when I hear those two words, I think of the body, skin color, and the flavors and colors of Asia. I’m obsessed! I can’t get past the surface stuff.
G: You are hinting at huge questions, and it’s my hope that the shows really generate a dialog. I noted this earlier, but the entire project is rooted in my own sense of identity, and the shows being about bringing in various shades, to riff on your color comment. Kota Ezawa’s animation in the second show is concerned with his meeting a Japanese television commentator with his same name. He met the guy while in residence in Kyoto. That project deals with the complexity of identity. We’re all obsessed! That said, I hope the shows are aesthetically appealing. I have to admit, when I left during installation today, I thought it was pretty good looking.
Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? is on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco until July 21. Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You and Proximities 3: Import/Export will be on view later this year. For more information visit www.asianart.org.
Guest Post by Faye Kahn¹
While social evidence that the rich is dividing farther away from the poor becomes more & more unavoidable, it seems that at the same time the art world is inversely nudging the them closer together. Traditional distinctions between “high” & “low” art are fading. In his essay “Comrades of Time,” discussing the definition of the term “contemporary,” Boris Groys states that “…at the turn of the twenty-first century, art entered a new era-one of mass artistic production, & not only mass art consumption.” Art-making is no longer restricted to a higher, educated or professional class. With the encouragement of advancing technologies from the ball point pen to the smartphone & increased visibility of the individual creative practice via the internet has reified this notion of art as “mass-cultural practice” ad infinitum (probably to some ad nauseum). To track the currency of art between upper & lower economic & academic classes & attempt to elucidate the creation of connecting middle classes of art, for instance independent comics & publication as well as social media experiments, it may be helpful to recognize the presence of commercial aesthetics in all classes. By following this reciprocal currency of consumerist media to high art & back, there are many significant signs pointing to a possible future of a classless art world.
Imagine this daisy in an advertisement for a department store chain. Now imagine it in a comic made by a peer. Lastly, imagine (or remember) this daisy in a contemporary art museum, as a part of a painting, a 300-editioned print of which is sold for more than $1,000. Of course this image is fairly well known- it was designed by artist Takashi Murakami in the mid-late 90s & repeated throughout his career in various incarnations (in carnations……….). What is unique about this daisy, however, is that to the unfamiliar eye its origins & environment could believably be in any of these three locations, or strata of art. It is difficult to say this of other contemporary arts images- a Jeff Koons sculpture, a performance piece by Marina Abramović, a photo by Wolfgang Tillmans (although this might be grounds for an interesting project). Most can’t be conceived in the commercial sphere-until the work becomes safely art-historical, when they can be reproduced on consumer goods & sold to a nostalgic or young audience-until then they are works intentionally too “conceptual” or “difficult” to be at home in a consumer setting where expediency of communication is paramount.
Murakami was/is famously aware of this & was actively attempting to collapse gaps between high & lowbrow art communities. Naturally, other internationally renowned pop artists like Lichtenstein & Warhol & more recently Philip Guston & Yoshimoto Nara have exercized a similar style. I stop at Murakami, not because I’m particularly fond of his work, but because his conceptual “Superflat” agenda is well articulated & aware of the collapse of economic boundaries. “When comparing a half a million dollars to ‘free,’” says Murakami, comparing to his blind-assortment collectible figure series (‘free’ with a purchase of candy) to his life-size statues of the same characters residing in contemporary arts institutions, “there’s an overwhelmingly different sense of values, almost a confusion of values.”² This “confusion of values” intellectualized by Murakami in the art scene in the late 90s/early ’00s is a significant checkpoint in the travel of commercial aesthetics, but this consciousness not exclusive to artists of highly educated stature (according to Wikipedia, Murakami has a Ph.D. from the Tokyo University of the Arts) but also in artists in so-called lower, consumer target-market classes.
Before I continue, here’s quick review these “levels of art” as crookedly defined for the purpose of this essay:
1) High Art (elite)
2) “DIY” or “Low” Art
3) Commercial Art (consumerist)
“High Art” referring to work usually made by career artists & found in the gallery, museum, & similarly institutionalized art biennials, fairs, etc., with a prestigious milieu of critics, buyers, curators & so on. For level 2, I’m wont to trade in the negative term “low” (granted this negativity is a badge of pride for some) for “DIY,” which as an adjective has come to encompass the “mass practice” of unprofessional quotidian participation in the making of art (“unprofessional” or “quotidian” not as pejoratives, but as neutral descriptors)-including student work. Level 3 is one populated by masters of an aesthetic practice but whose products are intended to be consumed by an unassuming hoi polloi. Although this stratum by nature lacks the conceptual, self-aware qualities arguably integral to defining something as “art,” certainly artistic techniques are employed (& exploited). Not only this, but it is common for early-career artists to hold jobs in this industry for obvious financial reasons, allowing them to coexist on both levels, while to varying degrees keeping their personal work separate.
This commercial universe, simultaneously seductive & repulsive, has provided us a strange key to a universalized art practice. It consists of a language instantly readable & in turn available to all to appropriate (throw legality into the wind). The visual toolbox of late capitalist propaganda is one of monumental typography, drop shadows, heavy outlines, over-emotive caricatures, light reflecting textures, shining sparkling neons, pastels, & primaries, & supreme cleanliness, (even when portraying something dirty). Whether you want simple geometrics or complex mechanics there is a commercial toolset for you. Anyone born in a first world country (& to a lesser degree, beyond) in the past 50 years has come to age in a society increasingly saturated by this imagery & fast motion. Having been the target market of any number of advertising campaigns at every given moment of a lifetime, a significant number of artists, whose headcount increases with the approach of the contemporary period, have co-opted this style in more radical ways than simple parody. Take for example (moving beyond the household names of 60s pop artists) Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats collage series, the gradients (among many other things) of Cory Archangel or the clusterfuck of American commercialism in Ryan Trecartin videos. All of this work is, while certainly of high conceptual &/or critical value, speaking with a language that is, though perverted, immediately legible or familiar to anyone who has experienced pop culture.
This artistic momentum is surprisingly well represented by the current proliferation of amateur comic artists, many of whom are vocally & visibly aware of the high art world. It’s safe to say that comics, originally a consumer product, have become widely accepted as an outlet for personal expression, like photography, that has become recently emancipated from its irreproducible commercial status to the disposal creatives of all ages & classes. The beginnings of this can be attributed in significant part to movements like the underground comix scene in the 60s & 70s with artists like Rick Griffin & R. Crumb (among many others) carrying through to cartoonists of the 80s & 90s such as Gary Panter & Raymond Pettibon. These cartoonists, along with experimental anthologies like RAW & Weirdo expanded comics into experimental territory, communicating more with high art logics than their syndicated predecessors/counterparts (psychedelics are a shortcut to philosophy!?). Counterintuitively, while extending the medium into traditionally elitist domains (psychedelics are a shortcut to the philosophical!?), they simultaneously introduced comic-making to a wider, younger, & unprofessional bracket. Now, comics were not only an art to be consumed, but an art practice to actively participate in, as much or as little as one consumed them.
The alternative comics community today is expansive to say the least. Contemporary DIY comics anthologies like Mould Map, Sonatina Comics, & Happiness (to name just a tiny fraction of those existing today), tumblrs, & conventions (Brooklyn Comix & Graphics Fest (although recently discontinued!), CAKE, TCAF, etc.) document hundreds of artists per year. Comics have gradually become another near-neutral visual alphabet or option for people to represent themselves with: similar to how everyone with a camera can now be a photographer/self documentarian, anyone with a writing tool can now be a comics artists/self documentarian.
Despite this hyperactivitity & close relationship to the art world, independent comics remain largely ignored by institutionalized critical artistic discourse. While there’s no shortage of books, journals, & blogs dedicated to dissecting comics culture & composition, they remain intended for readers interested in comics specifically & lack a serious concern for communicating with the larger contemporary art world. In other words, while the artwork straddles all strata of art, the reception does not (or does so very disproportionately). When consulting with a few active comic artists about this, many of them responded with reference to a class-related animosity between the comics & high art world in one direction or another, or rather, to the anti-intellectual/elitist (respectively) attitude either of the two fosters. On the one hand, comic artist & editor of the Happiness comic anthology series, Leah Wishnia states, “…art/alt/underground comics are a rejection of the elitism propagated by the fine art market, and the institution behind the fine art market may resent this and therefore, continues to label the majority of comics as ‘low art.’” At the same time, comic artist Blaise Larmee expressed a disillusion at the contemporary alt-comics sphere for its perceived blandness to outside audiences & Austin English admitted to looking to fine art for more inspired organization of text, characters & figure drawing. Unsurprisingly, the comics blog “Comets Comets” (the name a riff on the popular “Comics Comics Mag” (now also defunct) ran by Dan Nadel of Picturebox Publishing, Tim Holder, & Frank Santoro) maintained by Larmee, English, & comics artists Jason Overby & Carrie Bren was one of the only (if not the only) sources of writing that started to look at comics in a conceptually analytical way.
“Where does form end and content begin?
American comics came from newspapers and manga from ukiyo-e. There was no preciousness about the drawings that led to the printed matter until more recently. Original art can be beautiful to look at, but it’s beside the point: comics are perfect objects that have been formed by combining the raw material of an individual’s (or group of them) vision with the machines of mass production (computers, these days). They’re able to (like other modern media) lack the Bodhidharma-style transmission of artistic consciousness “Art” traffics in and allow many people to have and enjoy the same content cheaply.”
Due to the internet visibility of artists at all moments in their careers, we are more aware of this in-between group of young artists, concurrently existing in all levels of art, & in turn the levels are more connected, regardless of said existing tensions. Artists emerging from the 90s Providence Fort Thunder junk-art-music-noise-space-universe like Brian Chippendale, Matt Brinkman, & arts collective Forcefield are a few examples using this new form of commercial art inspired neo(n)materialism in a way that has caught the eye of institutions such as the Whitney Biennial & new galleries. Vancouver-based artist Chris Von Szombathy utilizes cartoon, illustration & commercial vernacular to communicate severe & conceptual topics beyond what’s normally associated with their style. Austin English put together a show at Baltimore Open Space exhibiting young artists with comic-influence such as James Ulmer & Leif Low-Beer. Strange (reciprocal?) lateral appropriation (to borrow a term from Sean Joseph Patrick Carney) is happening between artists inside & outside of the comics world not only in places conducive to such activity like tumblr but also in the gallery space. All of these instances are notable because they are garnering attention while they are happening, while they are “contemporary” rather than after they have become art historical (the art world is not lacking in Gary Panter & R. Crumb shows).
There is much more to say & countless more artists to consider in the economy of aesthetics between the different classes of art. It brings to mind for example the many lives of anime character AnnLee traded between artists Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno (her latest incarnation by Tino Seghal at the 2013 Frieze Art Fair, discussed here & many other places), the universe of fan art (recently considered here in Hyperallergic), “designer” vinyl toys & statues, & the time-based worlds of animation, photography, & film. The entirety of DisMagazine seems to be dedicated to promoting alternative use of commercial aesthetics.
I recently walked into a new-ish local gallery space called Beginnings in Brooklyn to find a show exhibiting 3 artists: a painter, a photographer, & a writer. The painter, Jamian Juliano-Villani immediately caught my eye as her work subscribed to a neon(n)materialist agenda, reappropriating known graphics like animation smear-frames & 70s illustrations by Moscoso with updated dayglo color schemes. The photographs, initially seeming unrelated, were by Jan Kempenaers & documented the abandoned Yugoslavian monuments to the socialist republic. This visual work was punctuated by framed essays referring to the rise & fall of democratic capitalism, written by Wolfgang Streeck, director of the Max Planck Institue for the Study of Societies (MPIfG), based in Cologne, Germany. The sheer variety of this show, while on second look (& after discussion with curator Matt Giordano) managing to be cohesive through the themes of ideological criticism, along with the newness of the gallery I think attests to novel locations in which commercial aesthetics can now comfortably exist & will appear more frequently in the future. Sternberg press, who published the original “What is Contemporary Art” e-flux edition from which I extracted the Boris Groys article quoted in the introductory paragraph recently posted on their tumblr an upcoming volume on “Altcomics.” All of this, while egos will never completely allow a true socialist art world, is evidence that surprising juxtapositions & convalescence of all three classes of art are becoming more possible & will bring artistic practice & hopefully also criticism to more audiences without losing conceptual value or legibility.
H. FAYE KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC & a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.
1. Many thanks to Matt Giordano of Beginnings Gallery, Blaise Larmee, Jason Overby, Austin English, & Leah Wishnia for taking time to chat with me about these subjects & providing important examples. Thanks also to Chris Von Szombathy who discussed this with me about this at length in 2011.
2.© Murakami, Takashi Murakami: Company Man, by Scott Rothkopf pg. 137
Way to represent Sister! ALSO, AMANDA WAS IN THE GOD DAMN TIMES. (This is the second time. She is killing it.)
This week has been like a road trip through midwest; halfway through the week, I felt like I was taking a drive from Chicago, to Cleveland, arriving in Kansas City, and then Indianapolis — so many stops over such a vast (and flat) distance in a magical and illogical order; additional posts on more abstract ideas — performance archives, or The Cremaster Cycle, or even what the best size of a book might be — those seemed to mark the longer distances between destinations. Times when the radio wasn’t on particularly loud, and perhaps all of us passengers had emerged from a musing lull into dialogue.
It all began with a podcast interview with Chicago’s own William Pope.L, who’s show is currently on view at the Renaissance Society until June 23rd. The interview, conducted at the Three Arts Club discusses Pope.L’s RS exhibit and the performance — Pull: ”Non-stop from June 7-9, hundreds of Clevelanders will manually pull a truck across the city. Images collected from people across Cleveland– hopefully you included! — about the meaning of work in our lives will be projected from the truck as it is pulled through North Collinwood, Glenville, University Circle, Hough, AsiaTown and downtown; to West Park, Clark-Fulton and Ohio City.”
Jereiah Hildewine writes about watching the entire Cremaster Cycle, comparing it to other noteworthy cultural keystones including Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction:
Just as nobody can remember that Star Trek 4 is called The Voyage Home (and consequently everyone calls it “The One With The Whales”), the weird sequencing and semi-narrative structure of the Cremaster films makes it hard to remember which one was which. The above-linked synopses will give you a long-form breakdown of what’s in each film, but if you’ve seen them and are having a hard time remembering which was which, here’s a quick guide in the form of suggested subtitles:
“There is not one way to know a performance work, there are many, and it is for that reason that the quality of performance is brought to light through the normalizing tendency of the archive.” Anthony Romero mulls over the authority that archives impose over collective experience, especially as it applies to performance:
The archives is a technology of bureaucracy. They are way stations for data and accumulated temporality, flattened proofs of the “official” experience. The system of the archive itself is responsible for this kind of alienation. Categories, decimal numbers, and white gloves are methods of sanitation that work to preserve the individual’s experience/state requirement. Once cataloged, memories of childhood, legal forms, receipts, and other accouterments are neatly laid beneath layers of fabric and cardboard. So precious are these relics that the archive must continually migrate them from one outmoded media to the next. The performance relic, however, subverts the safety of the archive.
Indianapolis is in the house. Which is to say poet and former resident of Chicago, Wendy Lee Spacek, is going to be posting about art events in her fine city over the course of the summer. This particular issue describes a number of cultural happenings, from poetry readings, to Mucca Pazza, to surreptitiously painted mail boxes. She also describes what sounds like an incredible show wherein a group of artists installed work in a long since abandoned Old Indianapolis City Hall:
The show was curated by graduation Herron Seniors Taryn Cassella, Anna Martinez and Andrea Townsend. Where TURF was an exhibition of installation art, VACANT included work across mediums. I especially enjoyed Jordan Ryan’s section off the main library detailing the history of the building.
Kansas City resident, Carolyn Okomo, started her guest series this week, publishing an interview she conducted with graphic novelist Jeffrey Brown. In her words:
Since self-publishing his wildly successful first novel Clumsy in 2002, he’s created numerous other painfully funny autobiographical comics, co-written the 2012 star-studded film Save the Date (starring Party Down’s Lizzy Caplan and Mad Men’sAlison Brie) and penned a hilarious series of graphic novels that explore the challenges of being both Darth Vader–ruler of the evil Sith empire–and a single dad.
Brown’s newest Star Wars-themed book Jedi Academy (out on Aug. 27), is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Roan and his adventures mastering the Force while juggling all the issues that come with being a middle schooler.
Jamilee Polson Lacy also writes from Kansas City, discussing her final project as Curator-in-Residence at the Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City. That project, rises Zora, is ”a multi-venue visual and performing arts exhibition, [that] explores Kansas City as an urban labyrinth” through a plethora of various artists and multi-media, multi-durational art works:
Theories of the labyrinth—and there are many which span the ages of Greek and Roman mythology to early Christianity, Karl Marx to Umberto Eco, Cervantes to Borges and Calvino—demonstrate the thing as both concept and literal form that ultimately represents time. The labyrinth is an infinite series of choices to be made through time and space, and we get to decide whether to be conscious of those choices or not. I think the city, which quite obviously mimics a literal labyrinth, presents a plethora of choices—some exciting and dangerous, some banal and commonplace—so it’s nearly impossible not to think of it as a conceptual labyrinth as well.
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Terri Griffith set out to write a book review of Hilton Kramer’s Abstraction and Utopia, and found herself discussing her appreciation for small-sized, intimate edition, including book in the 33 1/3 series:
Their smaller than average 5×7 size is cute as pie. The 33 1/3 series is published by Continuum and started in 2003 with Warren Zanes’ treatment of the 1969 classicDusty in Memphis, by Dusty Springfield. A few other notable recordings that undergo inspection are Aja, by Steely Dan; Swordfishtrombone, by Tom Waits; Marquee Moon, by Television. Seriously though, there are as of this writing 86 titles, so certainly there is something for everyone. Don’t expect a “making of.” These little gems are more essayistic and idiosyncratic than that. Check out Phillip Shaw’s treatment of Patty Smith’sHorses. It’s the first book of the series that I read, and it’s a delight.
Unlike visual art, when it comes to books there is something unseemly about discussing form. We are taught that books are solely their content and we should not judge them by their cover. The paper may be nice, but it isn’t indicative of the quality of the writing. Or the cover photo is lovely, but the plot has gaping holes. When I was little, I loved little books. Sometimes I loved them just because they were little. I had the whole Beatrix Potter mini-book collection going on in my room. I mean who could forget the adorable Tale of Squirrel Nutkin? My favorite of all the books was Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library, which is a collection of five tiny books united in a diminutive box. The stories were fun to read and they rhymed, which made them easy to memorize, but what made me come back to them time and again was their itty-bittyness.
As an adult, I am surprised to find this sort of preciousness still effective. It seems as if I should have outgrown this sort of thing by now. Currently, I’m reading my way through (in no particular order) the 33 1/3 series. In case you haven’t had a chance to pick one of these up, they’re slim, mostly fewer than 100 pages, meditations on a single album. Their smaller than average 5×7 size is cute as pie. The 33 1/3 series is published by Continuum and started in 2003 with Warren Zanes’ treatment of the 1969 classic Dusty in Memphis, by Dusty Springfield. A few other notable recordings that undergo inspection are Aja, by Steely Dan; Swordfishtrombone, by Tom Waits; Marquee Moon, by Television. Seriously though, there are as of this writing 86 titles, so certainly there is something for everyone. Don’t expect a “making of.” These little gems are more essayistic and idiosyncratic than that. Check out Phillip Shaw’s treatment of Patty Smith’s Horses. It’s the first book of the series that I read, and it’s a delight.
Melville House is home of the novella. The novella is perhaps the most perfect of forms. Longer than a short story, shorter than a novel, the novella is best described why what it isn’t than what it is. Melville House does the novella well. I just finished reading The Death of the Author, by Gilbert Adair, a mere 150 pages. Turns out this was just the right length for this little mystery-like satire addressing the ridiculousness academia and the sometimes foolishness of theory. Any longer and I think I might have taken the literary theory too seriously. Besides contemporary novellas, they also have a line of novellas by classic authors. You’ll find short works by lots of your favorite authors: Chekov, Proust, Cather, Wharton, Tolstoy, and of course Melville.
Originally, the plan for this month’s post was to write a book review, which I started a bunch of times. Somehow, I couldn’t quite get excited about it. There is nothing wrong with the “book” I was reading, Hilton Kramer’s Abstraction and Utopia. For a while, I thought it was because I had picked the wrong text, but it turns out that what I really wanted to talk about was the unseemly subject of form. Abstraction and Utopia is published by e-publisher Now & Then, and at only 16 pages, this work seems unlikely to have been published as a stand-alone print book. In fact, this essay is actually reprint from The New Criterion. A 16-page book may seem like no bargain, but I bought it because of its brevity. It also had an abbreviated price tag. At the same time I also purchased The Story of a Photograph: Walker Evans, Ellie Mae Burroughs, and the Great Depression, Jerry L. Thompson. I had a four-hour plane ride ahead of me and I wanted something I could finish in one sitting. For the first time, I really understood the flexibility that e-books offer. Until that point, I considered them a way to, let’s say, carry the entirety of In Search of Lost Time around in my purse, a feat impossible in the pre-digital age. But the possibility of digital publishing allowing short works to exist on their own, as opposed to being stuffed into an anthology is extraordinarily freeing both as a reader and as a writer. Perhaps e-publishing will give small works a home, and maybe even start a renaissance of the short form.
Lastly, as a random bit of book-related information, check out this video of Seattle Public Library’s world record setting domino book chain.