October 2011


Museum Piece

                  for Kalila

In my sheepskin-lined corduroy coat—collar up,
I'm fighting the elements when we meet at the door.
It was all winter and white walls and wantonly young.


Your opening as icy and bold as the season itself:
"Young man I can pay my own way," you say.
And this in the caterpillar days of the movement.


You were the smelling salts under a nose
of a kid knocked out cold to what held no punches.
My head now turned upward, my eyes transfixed


the walls of MoMA at first echoed one more church.
But this one gloried in the works of man—
masters burning holes in other realms with their paints.


Like the macabre quietude of Guernica shrieking.
Flesh and spirit swirling through cakes of oils
as if in defiance of the almighty God—


first encountered in my Catechism class:
Who is God? God is the creator
of heaven and earth and of all things.


You seek to teach of other creators.
I'm about probing beneath the brush strokes
in search of a whole from disparate parts.


All filtered through a head steeped in anticipation
of what later that night was to come.
Had not the day itself been so ripe with discovery?


The rest is history. We have a history.
The chapters on distance and drifting apart
are so inevitable, they get read and reread.


You took me to places I had never been
then left me atop a mountain from which
I had no other option but to learn how to fly.


                             —Ron Vazzano







de Kooning



Meanwhile back at the museum, a retrospective spanning seven decades of the work of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), opened at MoMA last month on the 18th. It will close January 9, 2012. If you are in town ("town" for us always meaning New York if you will forgive the geographic chauvinism) run, don't walk, to see it.


It runs the gamut from a couple of traditional still life paintings he did as a young man, to the those completed while in the throes of advanced Alzheimer's toward the end of his life— his last artistic effort coming in 1989.


While he comes from the Abstract Expressionism school of painting, he is also a figurative painter. And both of these forms come into play in his signature "Woman" series, in which the figure seems to fight its way through the abstraction, leaving a good deal of chaos and ruin (?) in its wake. And as these bountiful amazon-like, teeth baring (man-eating?) depictions of women are not exactly a paean to the female form or femininity, it was no surprise that they caused such a sensation when they were first displayed in 1953.


He was roundly criticized at the time by many, as being a misogynist. One can only imagine what hell would have broken loose if these had been introduced during the white hot period of the feminist movement, that was to come some fifteen years later.


In de Kooning: An American Master, an excellent biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (2004; Alfred A.Knopf), they have captioned his "Woman I" (1950-52) as: An iconic work and still one of the most disturbing images of a woman in the history of art.





But what also amazes us beyond de Kooning's blatant disregard for political correctness, is how much planning and development went into these works. His representation of "woman" was hardly impulsive, but rather much considered. One wall of the exhibit demonstrates by way of full scale black & white illustrations, six stages of development and iterations, of what "Woman I" went through for two years, before it finally hit the canvas as shown above.


De Kooning is also described as being an "action painter." That is, one given to broad brush strokes that seem to suggest movement (if not collision?) and give the viewer a sense of the very physical act of painting itself. Jackson Pollack —in not even bothering to use a brush but actually throwing paint from can to canvas—might be considered to epitomize this form. But in "Ruth's Zowie," for one, (no this one did not take two years in planning), de Kooning shows his action "stripes".





De Kooning and Pollack had more in common than that of being abstract impressionists or action painters. The Ruth of this eponymous painting above, was Ruth Klingman, the only survivor in the car crash that killed Jackson Pollack and her friend Edith Metzger. She was Pollack's mistress, while he had been married to his painter wife Lee Krasner. She would then become de Kooning's mistress, while he was married to his painter wife Elaine. As the world turns.


And as we have frequently posed the question, what is art? we might now pose the question of what is madness? And why does it seem to be so inherent in so many artists and their creations?


De Kooning, like Pollack, was a flaming alcoholic (they drank at the same place, the Cedar Tavern) and a philanderer. Both were indulgent beyond words—poster boys for over-the-top and embarrassing behavior. Yet both are now considered masters. Both hang on walls…both are revered. De Kooning was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson in 1964. And of course, someone like Van Gogh could take this question to a whole other level.


None of this is relevant to this wonderful exhibit, except perhaps for this: check your left brain along with your coat when you enter the museum. Then go for a joyride on the brush of de Kooning, through the 200 works on display. Feel their wild wind of energy and unbridled spirit—don't ponder their meaning. And take that back out with you through the revolving door. Oh yeah, don't forget your coat.








Word of the Month



David Alpaugh, for whom we had had the pleasure of being a featured poet at a reading he hosted in Northern California a couple of years ago, sent us an essay he wrote entitled "Götterdämmerung for American Poetry." ( As he is very knowledgable on literary matters, we were inclined to shout "right on!" And then we thought…uh, what exactly is a Götterdämmerung? Doesn't sound all that good.


And therein lies our word-of-the month:


Götterdämmerung [got-er-dam-uh-roong, -ruhng; Ger. gœt-uhr-dem-uh-roong]


While it literally translates to twilight of the gods, it means a collapse (as of a society or a regime) marked by a catastrophic violence and disorder (Webster's 2002). We call that here, "The Sixties." Or…a God-awful Götterdämmerung gone Gomorrah, good God!


And as often happens when you run across a word for the first time, it seems as if you see it almost immediately thereafter for a second time. And there is was that very day in a poster up by Lincoln Center: Wagner's Götterdämmerung. No doubt an operatic excursion into despair. Think we'll pass on this.






That Breakfast…That Opening…That Song



October 5th will mark the 50th anniversary of the release of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's.


Has there ever been a more captivating treatment of opening credits in a movie?


A sylphlike woman, dressed in Givenchy and decked out in pearls, stepping out of a cab at dawn? Eyes hidden behind oversized shades? On a deserted Fifth Avenue? Standing statuesque for a moment before Tiffany's majestic door? Then inching on to the window displays? Tilting her head just so at one piece that captivates her? Sipping coffee… eating a danish? Who is she? Where has she been? Where is she going?


And then there's that song.


Has there ever been a more sentimental, bordering on schmaltzy song, that yet was so right for capturing the spirit of such a poetic cinematic moment?


It turns out that the woman is on her way to her apartment at 169 East 71st St. (which is right around the corner from our barber shop on Lexington Avenue), and that song, Moon River, would win Oscars for composer Henri Mancini and lyricist Johnny Mercer. It's all worth another look.


Of course the very presence of Audrey Hepburn, elevates not only that scene—which establishes an inner life for Holly Golightly, the character she is playing—but she carries the entire movie on her slender shoulders. It is difficult to imagine any other actress in this role.


It is legendary now, that Truman Capote who wrote the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's on which movie is very loosely based, wanted the studio to cast Marilyn Monroe in the role. Marilyn stepping out of that cab? Well, then you've got a whole different movie on your hands.


And yet, Hepburn had great reservations about accepting the role. According to Sam Wasson, who wrote a very entertaining book on the making of the movie, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. with a subtitle that won't quit, Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, in speaking about those reservations, had this to report:


" 'She kept fighting to have the character softened...' "

"…the part frightened her, and not just because of what Holly did in the powder room, but because of what the role demanded of her as an actress. Were she to accept, Audrey knew that this time she couldn't trade in on charm alone, nor could she sing…"

"…playing an extended drunk scene, getting into absolute rage, and evincing a a deep depression…were simply out of her range."


She would go on to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, (though it would go to Sophia Loren for Two Women) and she would turn Holly Golightly into a classic fictional character, in a way Capote's book never would nor could. Many film critics thought this was her best work as an actress.





Truth be told, it is a flawed film. Mickey Rooney (the only one still alive of all the principles connected to the film) played an upstairs neighbor Mr. Yunioshi, in the manner of a buck-toothed caricature of a Japanese man, that was an embarrassment then and is ever more so now. Not to mention that it was totally out of whack with the rest of the film.


The party scene, so seemingly hip in a late 50's/early sixties sort of way, with all the cigarette smoking, whoop-de-doo and excessive drinking—wherein a tall woman, dead drunk, is about to fall flat on her face and a path is cleared for her to do so, as Holly shouts "Timber!"— all now seem a bit sophomoric. Yet it is very imaginative and well directed. And who knows. With all the "retro" fitting going on about that period popping up all over TV—Mad Men, Pan Am, The Playboy Club to cite some prime examples—there might just be an audience for such jolly good old times. One would not be surprised to see them take another shot at this as a TV series. "They" apparently once considered it, and it went nowhere.


But all that aside, Audrey Hepburn's performance is brilliant in a very understated way. And since they don't make Audrey Hepburns any more, and romance never goes out of style, the film is worth another viewing.


The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Paramount Home Entertainment hosted a 50th Anniversary Party complete with a Q & A with Julie Andrews, acting as a surrogate for her late husband Blake Edwards who directed the film. This was prior to the movie's re-issuance on High Definition Blu-ray Disc(TM) on September 20th. If only there was a way to edit Mickey Ruin-y out of the film.


As a parting homage to that breakfast, that opening, that song, we reprise something we "photo-shopped" and referred to in our JUNE, 2007 MUSE-LETTER as "…the visual equivalent of mixed metaphors. Or…might we suggest incongruous icons?"








9/11 and Oklahoma City




In response to our reflections on 9/11 last month, in prose, poetry and video, we received a rather impassioned point of view which stated in part:


"I'm a bit disappointed at the extent of the 9/11 commemoration, relative to other events. Timothy McVeigh killed 167 people, and injured nearly 700 more. But as a nation, we do not commemorate those casualties (granted, only a fraction of the WTC toll, but victims of terrorism nonetheless)...


"It's got to be part of that "NY is the center of the universe" thing."


It should be noted that this individual is a lifelong New Yorker, so there certainly is no regional bias in his take on the matter.


As it would happen, we were in Tulsa last month. And as it's just an hour and a half drive to Oklahoma City from there, we got to visit the National Memorial & Museum, which is dedicated to the remembrance of that tragedy sixteen years ago. The focus, in the main of course, is on those lives lost at the hands of a home grown blond-haired terrorist— Timothy McVeigh


Walk through a portal…go down the steps…find 168 empty chairs on the grounds of where the Murrah Building once stood and was destroyed that April 19, 1995. Each chair is inscribed with the name of a victim. The nineteen smaller ones each representing a child who was killed that day.






But also, there are more than 600 names of those who survived the blast, engraved in the salvaged pieces of granite from the lobby of the bombed out building. It suggested to us, a statement along the lines of... even in the face of terrorism, we will survive. We cannot be defeated. If the 9/11 museum due to open next year, turns out to be anything like that of the Memorial Museum in Oklahoma City, we are in for a rather chilling experience.


The interesting thing we have come to discover, is that even if— as has been suggested—we have forgotten those Oklahomans, they have not forgotten us. It started with the service we attended on this past 10th anniversary of 9/11, in St. Paul's Church at Ground Zero. This is the banner that hung from the rafters.





And while in Oklahoma, we noted that 9/11 is repeatedly referenced; on its museum walls and on the lips of its people passing through. As is the similarities in the humanitarian efforts and heroism, that were made in response to both tragedies.


Finally, if that is not indicative that we have been on the minds of Oklahomans throughout these last ten years, how can those who pass through downtown Tulsa ever forget? For there sits Oklahoma's tallest building (52 stories), the BOK Tower (Bank of Oklahoma). It is an exact replica of a World Trade Center Tower, and it too was designed by the American architect Minoru Yamasaki. And both were built within five years of each other. We found it almost eerie when we first came upon it and snapped this picture:





But the question raised is still a valid one. While they remember "us," do we remember "them"? Maybe not as we should. But perhaps the reason lies in the fact that, the attack on the WTC was deemed an act of war. Acts of war are never forgotten. Acts of terror on the other hand, have tended to fade from the collective consciousness over time.


When was the last time any of us heard of the Wall St. bombing? It took place on September 16, 1920…killed 38 and serious injured 143 (400 overall).


We would doubt if many have ever known that the Los Angeles Times Building was dynamited on October 1, 1910, killing 21 and injuring 100.


Yes of course, these happened long before we were born.


But many of us had to be reminded of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 killing six people, and according to Wikipedia, injured 1,000?! And that happened just eighteen years ago. (Those six names thankfully, have been included at the site of the two WTC memorial fountains just opened to the public last month on the 12th.)


What tragedies resonate and which tend to fade, probably does have something to do with numbers. We remember the Titanic… not the Andrea Doria. (AUGUST, 2006 MUSE-LETTER)


That of course doesn't make it right. But it doesn't make it wrong either. Our remembrances about tragedies are not matters of governmental dictate. With a possible exception of Remember the Maine! Though we have forgotten why we are supposed to remember it.


November 22nd goes by each year with nary a mention in the press, or by any institutions, governmental or otherwise.


We don't know the answer to the question posed by our reader. But given history's lessons, we doubt that it lies in the fact that this tragedy, was in the main, "New York" based. That said, our regrets do go out to those in Oklahoma for perhaps not keeping you more top of mind.







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