The Cabin in The Woods

FALLINGWATER world-famous masterwork by Frank Lloyd Wright, designed in 1936 for Lilaine S. and Edgar J. Kaufmann. Endowed and given in their memory to Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, 204 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, Pa 15222. Please call or write: admission by reservation only.
South Elevation/Summer

Despite its aged appearance and style, this is postcard from no later than 1993; nearer 1991, I think, purchased by me and my now wife during one of our road-trips across country when she was at Brown, Rhode Island and needing to get back to Minnesota for the summer. I’m not sure that there’s much more to be said about the insanely ambitious (and largely just insane) Falling Water. It’s actually only a late-period Wright, but for me marks a point where he could have persisted to become a true modernist master rather than dissolving into the twiddlely world-building of the 1950’s. Those two crossed slabs suspended over the water fall in the woods; taking the ‘prairie style’ from out of Chicago and off the prairie and placing it deep in the Pennsylvania woods created a shocking and abstract clash of form and intention that has never been (and possibly) couldn’t be equaled.

Inside, the building’s a mess, dark (especially, I suppose, in the summer), small, cramped and pretty uncomfortable (just like a real cabin!). Outside it’s a surrealist/modernist sublime. Thinking about Albert Speer and his Ruinenwerttheorie, (this is the 30’s after all), one can hardly wait to return one day and see the whole thing collapsed into the rushing water, blocks strewn with weed, amongst a cloud of dragonflies and kingfishers.

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Coverley Cathedral

12th Century Norman, Romanesque Parish Church.

A double header for today. I was at Oxford University, in the mid 1980’s, but I never visited Iffley in the East of the city. I knew the Iffley Road well, and of course the Cowley Road, where all the interesting shops, pubs and restaurants were. The Cape of Good Hope pub, The Rat’s Hole Irish bar, Rainbow’s End comic shop, the Penultimate Picture Palace with the giant Paul Robson hands (where I slowly went through all the movies in Danny Peary’s books), that one Jamaican restaurant where, apparently, they only charged you what they thought you could afford (try that one on for size, David Cameron and Boris Johnson). Churches weren’t so high on the agenda, but when I was at The Courtauld, I went with my two very good University friends Caroline and Andrew one autumn day, when we fancied playing at being grown-ups. St Mary’s is wonderful; high Romanesque, built around 1170. It’s quite unusual in that it is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin; that Anglo-Catholic specificity speaks to the high church traditions of Oxford, dating back to the Civil War, when the city was an important base for the King’s forces.

St Mary The Virgin, IFFLEY, OXFORD.
12th Century Norman, Romanesque Parish Church.

Interior is similarly high quality, with Victorian pews ranged beneath an astounding Romanesque semi-circular vaulted roof with typical Norman zig-zag decoration; a motif that extends to the treatment in the interior and exterior of the great round-wheeled west window. I love the Romanesque style; there’s a marvelous element of Brutalist purity to the architecture, a sense that the use of the semi-circle and circle was how buildings should be, rather than the more efficient and safer fudge of the pointed arch that marks the debased Gothic style. My tutor at The Courtauld, Peter Kitson, delighted in telling us about the numerous earthquakes that struck English church buildings throughout the early middle ages; unusual natural phenomena, perhaps more attributable to the application of biblical knowledge to the collapse of inherently unstable stone buildings, rather than actual geological activity. And of course, the church also marks the place of the mighty Coverley Cathedral, erected at the site of the final defeat of the usurper Henry of York and conclusion of the War of English Succession, and the acclaimation of Stephen II as the rightful king of a Holy Roman England in 1526.

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White Jazz

New look from Hollywood Freeway with Los Angeles’ tallest structure, the City Hall 464 ft high, with the Federal Building and the Hall of Justice.
Color photo by Orville Logan Snider C5089
Allard Novelty & Postcard Co. 4626 W Wash Blvd, Los Angeles 16

Another post card to the Bartsch’s in Mankato. Sent Jan 6 1963 from Las Vegas from Kurt, Vi, Gladys, Wally and Hilda. Written in very faint and spidery capitals: HI: WE ARE HAVING A VERY ENJOYABLE TIME. WEATHER IS IDEAL. SAW THE WELK SHOW LAST NIGHT AND ALSO WENT TO THE PALLADIUM BALLROOM. NOW ON OUR WAY TO LAS VEGAS. Links for my non-US readers; fans of mine from the US will already know about the Welk show and North Dakota’s most famous son…

Cars race down the freeway past the LA Civic Center; you almost hear the theme tune to Dragnet. Not much to say about this one, only to observe that America is the country where modernity arrived first. They blazed the trail for all of our futures…and the lesson is that that, no matter how awesome, every present will become a past.

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f 8

Nordenfalk’s handwriting again, but well known enough (?) not to have a caption. This is from La Somme la Roi, written in 1279 by a Dominican friar Lawrence for Phillip III the Bold of France. Translation would be the ‘Royal Summation’, but it’s more accurately a book of instructional virtues and vices. The book sets out a set of pre-existing texts as a canon of secular religious knowledge: the Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Beatitudes and Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Known in more than 80 copies this was very influential book on lay religious thinking and practice towards the end of the middle ages, and set much of what we still understand to be the central tenants of Christianity. This copy, in the Library of Cardinal Mazarin in Paris (note the stamp), was copied in 1295 and illuminated in the style of Maitre Honore.

So what do we have here? Well, it’s the Seven-headed Beast of the Apocalypse, replete with ten horns and ten crowns. Regardimg us with a testy frown, he crushes a Saint beneath his horrible paws, while a hypocrite bows down before him: Revelation 13.1 – 10. describes the monster. He’s included because of his seven heads, which could correspond to the Seven Deadly Sins; hence the crushed saint and the fawning hypocrite. The British Library’s copy of this book, MS Add 54180 is generally held to be a more well finished edition, with our plate here being nearer a studio of Maitre Honore rather than the mater himself, though the composition is very similar. Perhaps Carl wanted this image to compare with the more readily accessible BL copy? I prefer this more austere version myself, but then again, I’m not a late Medieval nobleman.

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Adventures In Time And Space

LUCIO FONTANA. Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’ 1960
Canvas, 93x73cm
Tate (T00694)
Purchased 1964
5032495-015516 1.5M1201

This is a birthday card from my mum for my 4oth birthday. I know next to nothing about Lucio Fontana, and what I do know you can know out too, by searching ‘Lucio Fontana’ on Google. He was Argentinian. He lived in Italy and the US. He invented an artistic movement that he called ‘Spatialism’. He died in 1968, and was born in 1899. He was a precursor to Arte Povera.Born, like me in 1the 1960’s,  Spatial Concept ‘Waiting’, entered the Tate collection in 1964.

I was taken to the Tate, the old Tate Gallery at Millbank, before all the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Oil Tanks etc, often when a child, and when at boarding school, and when at college in Oxford and London, I went a lot on my own. Though I knew then even less about Fontana than I know now (how did we really know anything before the internet?), this enigmatic image, dour and dun, with the vertical slash of black, was one of my favourites. It seemed to be always on display in some amorphous modern gallery or whatever, and thus, in the days before education departments and audio tours, it hung un-connected, without explanation or argument, silent and solitary. While we were taught art history at school, with varying degrees of success, Lucio Fontana, buried in the complexities of post WWII Europe, beyond the trajectory of A Level Art History, was on his own, a artwork without history or meaning.

Fontana wrote (taking from the Tate catalogue note): ‘The picture “Spatial Concept” WAITING was based on my researches….to be precise a new dimension beyond the canvas, time and space, the freedom to produce a work of art, liberating myself from the traditional canons of painting and sculpture’. The sculpture (painting? It’s in a frame) seemed to promise a world beyond, behind or between; that a simple act (an act of violence? Not necessarily) could result in something never seen, something genuinely new. I still prefer my art experience to be unadorned and unmediated; and in those days one could directly confront an artwork without needing know about its means or method. And that seems to be appropriate for this work, which speaks only of possibility and challenge. Perhaps the browning canvas reminded my of the hessian wall coverings and carpets in my parent’s modernist home; that one could strike beyond the veil of the normal to wild adventures in dimensions unknown. I think Fontana was striking a blow for art; for the boy watching for worlds beyond even that.

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Four Saints

Additional 24686 F2v
Marburg (Lann

From the Courtauld stash, stamped with Kunsthist.Seminar on the verso, with the British Library call number again in Karl Nordenfalk’s handwriting. What was he researching, I wonder? In this case, it’s the Alphonso (previously) Tenison Psatler dated to c 1284. From the collection of the C17th Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Tenison (1636 – 1715), the psalter was recognised as having been commissoined for the marriage of Alphonso, Earl of Chester, the 10 year old son of Edward I to Margaret of Flanders, daughter of Count Florent V. The offspring of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, and first in line to the throne, Alphonso died in 1284, just 2 weeks before the wedding. This luxurious piece was put in hold, until being restarted for the wedding Alphonso’s sister, Elisabeth, Edward’s eighth daughter to to John I, the son of Florent in 1285. John died in 1299, while his father as killed on the orders of Edward 1 in 1296. It was subsequently added to by various owners at various later dates.

So who do we have here? St Catherine and her wheel and sword are pretty clear, as is St Margaret of Antioch, besting the lusty dragon from whose belly she burst. Both younger women, we have two older ladies in full headdress. One is St Anne, teaching her daughter, the virgin Mary, to read. The final saint is named below (cut off in Nordenfalk’s image; he was looking at style, not content) the image as St Barbara, with her lamp. These female saints might seem to be appropriate for the second use of the psalter, given the relative rarity of St Margaret in English illumination, and the ‘Barbara’, who might have been particular to Margaret. In any case, all are most suitable for exemplifying female virtue, constance and family life.

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Antiques Village

Antiques Village, Metro Centre, Gateshead. G.022007L
Photograph by E.Storey. A Dennis Postcard

In the spirit of the boring postcard, here’s lovely one of the sadly defunct Antiques Village from the Metro Centre in Gateshead, Britain’s first shopping mall/centre. I can’t remember when or where I bought this, but, I suppose, given the specialised nature of the image, it must have been in Gateshead (Newcastle Central Station, WHSmiths?). The card is a classic of its type, with subject of the photograph in darkness, while the expanse of brown-tiled flooring takes up 1/3 of the picture.

I spent a lot of time in Newcastle in the 90’s, working on a lot of arts funding projects; both Newcastle, and especially Gateshead, who were very prescient in their arts infrastructure decisions.  Gateshead suffers from being ‘on-the-way-to’ Newcastle, and I’ve never been to the Metro Centre, but it looks wonderfully eighties. The nearest I got to the Metro was the Gateshead Garden Festival in 1990, part funded by my then employer. Pre-the John Major National Lottery, the Garden Festivals were a Thatcher-era boondoggle to assist in the regeneration of post-industrial Britain. The Gateshead festival had a pretty forward looking  arts commissioning programme, that has provided me with many happy hours of identifying where all that art ended up (some, weirdly, in the pre-YBA collection of Lord Palumbo: whatever happened to him?). I was going to try and come up with something on the awesomeness of Edward Thomas West Dennis & Sons Ltd., Scarborough, postcards, but I see that the internet has beaten me to it.

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In the Time of the Rockets

Overall Aerial View of MISSILE ROW Looking North.
Launch site of American Astronauts.
NASA TOURS conducted by TWA, P.O. Box 21222, Kennedy Space Center, Fla.106486

This one seems appropriate for the month that Neil Armstrong and Ray Bradbury died. Bradbury used the rocket as an exuberant metaphor to get both his characters and his stories way from Earth, where both narrative and character could be free. Armstrong, a real actor in the drama of the space race was more prosaic and quite clear about his place in history: “I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer, and I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.” While we like to talk about Armstrong as hero, he displayed few of the attributes that one might expect of a hero; indeed he was better exemplified the super-attenuated nullities that crewed the space craft in Kubrick’s 2001, a film where the villainous computer, the spaceship itself, displays more emotion than its victimised human passengers. Armstrong revealed the race to put a man on the moon for what it was; the engineered delivery of the organic guidance system of a three-stage missile to the surface of the moon. Armstrong was simply the tip of the nose-cone of a vast project that had only one goal, like a bullet has only one goal; to deliver itself to its final destination.

The moon landing was a ‘professional achievement’, not an epoch defining miricle, not the beginning of a new age, but an end in itself. The existential nature of the project places it more in the realm of, of course, one of my favourite writer, JG Ballard. In his Memories of The Space Age, astronauts wander confused amongst the deserted 60’s ramblers, swimming pools and abandoned launch gantries of a future Cape Canaveral, where the dream of space, of civilisation itself, has collapsed into a fugue state of languid meaninglessness. When asked about his favourite books, Ballard replied that the LA Phone directory would be all that he would need; the perfect amalgam of obsession, boredom, precision and C20 technology that both exemplifies Armstrong and Missile Row.

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All About Eve’s

Tony and Eve welcome you to Hector, Minnesota. Located on Main St (Highway 4), just 3 blocks north of US Highway 212, Tony and Eve’s Place offers the traveler a refreshing rest in his journey. 1969.

Hector is a small town to west of Minneapolis off, as the card says, Highway 212. Population 1151, according to the 2010 census, a considerable drop from 1969, even from 2000. No point in giving much more detail about Hector, since that’s all pretty easy to find if you’re thinking about moving there. So what to say about the card? The decline of the Mom and Pop lunch place and general store? The vernacluar architecture of rural Minnesota; yellow brick, glass block, and simple rebuilding of the wood fronted general store that we know from cowboy films? 1960’s advertising and how little this has changed, really, in these remote outposts; RC Cola, Coca Cola, Hamms’s beer? The RC Cola machine on the street; how all these services, as was predicted, has now gravitated to the gas station instead? The understated sexism of the male traveler, perhaps purchasing a card to mail to the family back home? Al these dull things, I suppose, but mainly what came to mind is the sub-genre of the Martin Parr boring postcard, of which this must surely rate highly. This is patronising in both a metropolitan and temporal way;  what exactly would be an interesting postcard, anyway? As images have now ceased to be physical, and can be taken and deleted at will, the boring postcard (of which, if i keep it up, there will be many on this blog), is often the only record of a place and a time. Tony and Eve’s is long gone, yet we still know them, their store, their town, and the series of decisions that lead them to purchase a small postcard of their business enterprise in 1969, published by the Hector Mirror. Point being is that everything is interesting: something can be drawn from seeming nothing.

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Talking Heads

Gabriel Orozco, Black Kites 1997. Philadelphia Museum of Art: gift (by exchange) of Mr. and Mrs. James P Magill.

Another card purchased at this year’s Documenta 13. Black Kites by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco.

You have to qualify Orozco with ‘Mexican’, for the first point of contact with this piece is always the decorated skulls of pre-Cortes Mexico, the ghoulish remnants of the Aztec death cult, or the crystal skulls of Arthur C Clark (and, sadly, Indiana Jones), the ones that you pick up in Glastonbury for a hundred quid or so, and that are always fakes (notwithstanding what your flatmate’s crazy tour manager might say).

Black Kite might also remind the reader of the Cheel Gaar of the Indian Parsi and Dakhma of  the ancient Persian Zoroastrians, the sky burials of Tibetan Buddhism, where kites and other birds of prey wheel over the towers of silence. All these things a skull can tell us: so far, so Damien.

But of this sculpture, produced by Orozco for Catherine David’s curation of Documenta X in 1997, is explicitly none of those things. If the skull is the ultimate ready-made, the structure that lurks, a la Ray Bradbury, below the skin, then Orozco’s intimate encounter with the skull is his attempt to understand and map that inner geography. Pencil, ink, bone; these are the tools for our understanding for millennia. The black inked squares do not decorate the skull, they map it, the distorting into kites as the graphite pencil diamonds fall across the complex surface of the skull. The Chuck Close distortion in the postcard image reads this an object that cannot be mapped in 2 dimensions, I am a sculpture that can only be experienced as real, the skull smiles grimly.  Black Kites operates in the most effective mode of artistic expression; ambiguity. While the work speaks to me of the gothic and the memento mori of the decorated skull, it also tells of art’s attempt to map and understand what it is to be human: the desperation of Patrick Bateman as he plunges his hands into the corpse of another hooker, the childish decoration of found bone, or the waving checkered flag that signals the end of the final race. As a child, my parents once bought me a gift from Italy, a small bag of crudely decorated coloured balls, painted in modeling enamels with the colours of the Sienese Palio, basic, simple, tourist knick-knack, yet each marked with hand of the artist. Black Kites connects these impulses, producing a folk-art digital map of the structure that lies below all humans; simple, direct and supremely subtle.

The obvious connect, exactly tens from Black Kites years on, would be with Damien Hirst’s For The Love Of God (2007); and again, the comparison between the works can only be instructive. The usefulness of Hirst as a visual culture construct is that he is a truly bad artist, trite, un-imaginative, deeply conservative, and so his incredible success is both unsurprising and an illumination of the poverty of creative expression of our times. His genius is his approach to mirroring those times. Hirst’s diamond encrusted platinum gee jaw tells us how we live now, but contrasting his carbon gemstones with the graphite diamonds of Black Kites (and how can we say that one work did not influence the other? I can imagine Hirst standing in front of Orozco’s work and thinking, surely I can say this better?), we can see how Orozco asks how we live at all. If you want to know understand the visual culture of the early C21 (a noble and usual impulse, but easily satisfied) look at Hirst, if you want seek to consider our human existence, look at Gabriel Orozco. One is temporal, the other eternal.

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