Beware Strategizing Painters Bearing Gifts

Sure, the world was turned upside down by COVID. But as we gladly return more and more to museums and galleries and “normal,” we still gotta take the bad with the good.

Case in point: the six paintings recently gifted by Georg Baselitz to the Metropolitan Museum. For business reasons — collectors love that institutional cachet — we can guess why Baselitz gave them away. But the real question is, why did the Met accept these bland, enervating canvases?

First, some boilerplate from the Met’s website about this clumsy body of work: “Made in 1969, they are among the first works in which Georg Baselitz (b. 1938) employed the strategy of inversion, an approach that continues to be of interest to him. The paintings mark a critical moment in the artist’s career as he sought to expunge narrative content and expression — elements present in his earlier work — in order to focus on painting itself.”

Indeed, judging by the sludgy paint handling, wan colors, flabby limbs, and doughy faces on view here, Baselitz successfully jettisoned engaging “content and expression” — his “strategy” of presenting topsy-turvy figures conveys little interest in his sitters. By 1969, painting for painting’s sake was far from revelatory, and there is precious little abstract dynamism or formal innovation to be found here.

Excepting of course … he turned his figures upside down.

Maybe Baselitz should’ve taken a page from Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter and portrayed his figures at an angle. A viewer would be hard-pressed not to commune with Peter as he contemplates the spike driven through his left hand, the weight of his powerful torso beginning to bear on pierced flesh, the executioners’ faces obscured by their own heaving limbs — shadowy lackeys of murderous empire — all of their separate agonies beautifully frozen within the composition’s wrenching equipoise.

But I forget that Baselitz was not painting sitters who were actually upside down, he was painting portraits in which they appear in that position. Such a distinction may or may not flutter the conceptual pulse, but after the artist achieved his goal of expunging “narrative content and expression,” he left viewers with … what, exactly?

And to be fair, comparison to practically any of Caravaggio’s tableaux — every bit as dramatic as his compeer in the Baroque zeitgeist, Shakespeare — is a tall order for even the greatest of painters. So here’s an experiment you can perform yourself at the Met — something that wasn’t so easy to do when Baselitz’s blunt innovations were first hung: Take a cell phone shot of one of these clunkers and then rotate the image on your screen. Is it, at least, a compelling figure? A captivating portrait?

Only if you like desiccated paint surfaces, deflated patterns, and lazily proportioned figures. It doesn’t matter if Baselitz is a righty or a southpaw because he could not be more cack-handed.

But you’re at the Met, so don’t let the day go completely awry. In a nearby gallery you will find a portrait of Saint Ambrose (1465–70) by Giovanni di Paolo.

Go ahead: Click. Flip.

Whoa. No doubt this Quattrocento master had his problems — like Baselitz — with hands and faces. But he had compositional chops to spare. Start with that bowed white trim encircling his robe, bisected by the surreal knuckle-like knots of his flail, which, doing a 180, rise like bony smoke, the totality revealing an underlying awareness of the abstract marrow necessary to give any painted image a sense of life.

But perhaps it is still an unfair comparison — too many props and too much gold leaf. Well then, another gallery or two along and we come to El Greco at his most splendiferously mundane: Portrait of an Old Man (ca. 1595–1600). Do that 21st-century-phone whirl and here’s what you get:

El Greco’s “Portrait of an Old Man” given a new look

Just the racing flourishes of that ruffled collar spanning burnished wedges — a swooping matrix reminiscent of one of Ed Clark’s abstract helixes — is worth the price of admission.

But if a skeptic out there thinks this is a case of comparing Old Master apples to post-war oranges, truck on over to the Alice Neel show, which is up until August 1. After all, it was Baselitz who not long ago proclaimed that women can’t paint, so go ahead and pick one of Neel’s paintings, whip out your phone, take your shot, and hit the rotate icon. You’ve got nothing to lose.   ❖

Georg Baselitz: Pivotal Turn
The Met Fifth Avenue
Through July 18


‘American Traitor’ Shows What Happens When the Bullies are in Charge

Treason is an ugly thing — it sullies both the traitor and those betrayed. Turncoats must lie, of necessity, spreading misinformation, fanning grievances and hatred, and disguising their true intentions in order to turn citizens against one another. Of course, this man’s traitor might be that woman’s patriot, because when words are weapons, who can say which exact phrase will cause a particular person to abuse, attack, imprison, or exterminate another human being.

American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally wrestles with this conundrum by revisiting the real-life case of Mildred Gillars, a wannabe Broadway star who settled for the role of dulcet-toned Nazi propagandist and ended up being tried for treason against the United States.

The film zigzags through the years: here is bottle blond Gillars (Meadow Williams) broadcasting from a well-appointed studio in Berlin, warning Americans to stay out of Europe’s conflict because the U.S. owed nothing to Britain. Fast forward to Germany in ruins after World War II, when soldiers from the American occupation force arrest Gillars. Known by such nicknames as Axis Sally, Midge, and the Bitch of Berlin, Gillars was popular with soldiers at the front, who enjoyed her none-too-subtle come-ons; her most popular nom de broadcast came from a description of herself as “the Irish type — a real Sally — with a figure, black hair, white skin. I think I’m just an armful.” Powerful transmitters relayed her voice to the home front as well, where her reports on wounded American soldiers relieved families who had feared the worst when a husband, son, or brother went missing.

Sally’s meandering singing voice dovetailed with the flatlined German jazz that provided musical breaks between her monologues ridiculing the leader of the country she was born in: “This is Berlin calling. Berlin calling the American mothers and wives. It’s a disgrace to the American public that they don’t wake up to the fact of what Franklin Roosevelt is doing to the gentiles of your country and my country.” She read dialogue that was always written by others, sometimes by the minister of propaganda himself, Joseph Goebbels. When Sally goes off script and substitutes “unbeatable” for “invincible” to describe the German army and how it will slaughter any invaders, the Nazi overlord rapes her for overstepping, while musicians and her own boyfriend avert their eyes from the crime unfolding behind the recording booth’s glass.

In the American trial, Sally was represented by the flamboyant James J. Laughlin, a lawyer known for antagonizing prosecutors and judges alike. Al Pacino is no stranger to courtroom dramas (And Justice for All, The Devil’s Advocate), but here, disheveled and hunched, he tells his assistant, “I cannot stand that damn Gillars broad. Did you see the way she walked in, like she was Betty Davis or something? I don’t want anything to do with her for the rest of the trial.” Laughlin, we learn later, has lost a son in the war, but that does not stop him from ultimately defending his unsympathetic client. His aversion to the then 48-year-old Gillars was shared by many Americans. Reporting on the trial, in early 1949, Richard Rovere had this to say in his “Letter From Washington” column for The New Yorker: “In all this weird collection of war surplus, the weirdest item by far, and most incongruous, is Miss Gillars herself.” He goes on to describe her “Miami Beach tan, the cosmetic nature of which is given away by the prison pallor of her hands.” As Gillars, Meadows conveys a woman who lunged for the brass ring of stardom but found herself spouting the nasty dross written for her by the likes of Goebbels, a writer rejected by publishers until the Nazi party’s own presses printed his novel, Michael, which sold well as his star in the regime rose. Likewise an artistic mediocrity, Sally found herself in a land where innovation, imagination, or any form of veering from the official dictates was dangerous. When the bullies and thugs rule, art serves only their purposes and only at their pleasure.

In an article written in 1943, for Harper’s magazine, when Sally and others such as Tokyo Rose and Lord Haw-Haw were world-famous, future chronicler of the Third Reich William L. Shirer wrote, “Between the two wars, Fascism and Nazism attracted human derelicts as a flame attracts a moth. Most of the Nazi hierarchy consisted of derelicts from the First War, who could not find a place in the Germany of the [Weimar] Republic. Nazism offered them, as it offered our American traitors, a chance to become somebody. It offered them a career and it offered them something ready-made on which to vent their hates.”

Axis Sally at the mic

With expository montages of headlines and a palette weighted to grays and browns, American Traitor feels like it might have been made in the historical moment it is portraying. Michael Polish’s workmanlike direction keeps the focus on the words; in his summation for the defense, Pacino, like Spencer Tracy, Gregory Peck, and Orson Welles before him, demands that laws, not passions, prevail: “Who is really responsible for those words? It was the ugly propaganda machine of the Third Reich — Goebbels and Hitler’s words, not Miss Mildred Gillars’.… I have to say it. This feels like vengeance. We must not sacrifice this woman at the holy altar of patriotism, a patriotism, which very easily could be covering up a lynch mob! Then the tyranny, which we fought against for years, will become us.”

Gillars was born in Portland, Maine, in 1900, the dawn of the 20th century. An abusive childhood sharpened her desire to escape, and theater was one way out. But in New York, rather than Broadway stardom she found a professor at Hunter College, a German national who embraced both Gillars and Nazism and would eventually return to his homeland. Gillars followed him, and returned to America only to stand trial for her life.

World War II left enduring scars and many loose ends — even for the winners. A search of the New York Times morgue from March 11, 1949, reports on the conclusion of Gillars’ trial as well as the history of executions for treason in the U.S., and notes one notorious Nazi sympathizer who beat the rap: “Ezra Pound, adjudged insane, got a prize the other day for his poetry.”    ❖

ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Two Artists Invite Us Into a Clearinghouse of Dreams

After a year-plus of stubborn isolation, More Pain’s dual exhibition of works by Larissa De Jesús Negrón and Marc Librizzi conveys the sense that not only our bodies but also our ids are finally getting out and about.

In the four-by-five-foot canvas Romantic Routines (2020), Negrón drives us into a dream: Dresser drawers might be the dashboard and glove compartment of a boxy vehicle, its windshield surveying a sandy path through scrub while the sunroof opens on clouds scudding across a blue sky. Eyes and a sweating forehead in the rear-view mirror imply that this is no time to primp at the dressing table, because that dark, glistening snake may be inside — but whether it has entered the jalopy, someone’s nightmare, or the driver’s psyche is all up for grabs.

Larissa de Jesús Negrón, ‘Rutinas Románticas’ (‘Romantic Routines’) (2020)

The focus pull of Winter in Forest Hills (2021) is the contrast between a blurry face in the mirror and sharply delineated water droplets on the glass, which hang like pendants of anxious perspiration on the hazy, grimacing reflection. Is the woman’s stress from seeing her unkempt lockdown ’do, or is it caused by the twig-like brown strands colonizing her medicine cabinet and encroaching on a purple bottle of “Anti Friz” and other hair-care products?

Larissa de Jesús Negrón, ‘Invierno en Forest Hills’ (‘Winter in Forest Hills’) (2021)

Librizzi similarly lets surrealism reign. In Lifting Folds, Making Creases; Soon to be (2021) tiny cranes shift the folds of the comforter on an unmade bed. Paper cutouts of a smiling sun and frowny clouds are taped to the walls or drift floorward; Venetian blinds part like a diamond orifice to reveal an exterior cityscape at an even tinier scale. Flowers burst from beneath the bed, their bright colors in the mostly white composition seeming at first cheerier than the expected monsters of childhood terrors. But closer examination reveals wilting berries and snaking leaves, like something from the Addams family’s greenhouse.

Marc Librizzi, ‘Lifting Folds, Making Creases; Soon to be’ (2021)

The shifts in scale and perspective continue in the aptly titled A Space Between Eyes (2020). There is no way to measure the images a human mind remembers, but Librizzi stuffs his three-foot-wide canvas with all manner of anthropomorphic beings, which, like people, have their differences. In one segment of the composition, a gesticulating tree manipulates a drawbridge on a bed, while in another vignette a creature of flame hoists a butterfly net. Eyes and noses hover in smoggy clouds or can be seen in a hand mirror, roughly at a scale and angle that implies the viewer is participating in this clearinghouse of dreams.

Marc Librizzi, ‘A Space Between Eyes’ (2020)

With her airbrushed, garish colors, Negrón’s paintings recall Peter Saul’s fluid, uninhibited figures; Librizzi’s compressed psychodynamics ride a wavelength blazed by Hilary Harkness. But with these new works from the plague year, both artists are channeling our moment, when we are figuratively (or in some cases, literally) stepping back out into the sun — perhaps wincing and twisting away, but open to weirdness as the new normal.    ❖

More Pain
30 Orchard St
Through May 30


Art’s Dominion

As lockdown dragged on and art lovers couldn’t go to galleries or museums, we sent images to friends: Check out this artist’s take on these crazy days; did you see that virtual show? Being an artist can be a tough life, so maybe perspectives skew a bit to, if not always optimism, then at least doggedness. Artists reacted to the past year in myriad ways, but they never stopped capturing the zeitgeist on canvas, paper, and fabric. These are some of the visions I bookmarked on my computer, to always remember this strange and distorting year.   

Instead of just one Day of the Dead, 2020 at times felt like 365 of them, so of course the buskers on the subway with James Borges were all skeletons.

Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about art made during the corona virus COVID 19 pandemic
James Borges, “Untitled”

And what do we do when claustrophobia becomes the national malaise? We look to break on through to the other side, as in Birdie Hall’s Cracked Egg Girl.

Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about art made during the corona virus COVID 19 pandemic
Birdie Hall, “Cracked Egg Girl”

Or, like Patricia Rush, you could escape to the naturally socially distanced beauty of Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx — after all, the inhabitants there are always at least six feet away.

Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about art made during the corona virus COVID 19 pandemic
Patricia Rush, “Woodlawn Cemetery, No. 10”

Joanna Beall Westermann died in 1997, but I could not get enough of wandering through Venus Over Manhattan’s virtual exhibition this past January. The world was going mad around then, but her phantasmagoric landscapes were an escape I allowed myself over and over again.

Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about art made during the corona virus COVID 19 pandemic
Joanna Beall Westermann, “Seascape” (1967)

Madness? Did somebody mention our former president? When I came across Gerald Collings’s scabrous rendition of Donald Trump, I first burst out laughing and then, as I delved into the nooks and crannies of his hallucinogenic colors, I thought, This is the perfect portrait for the future Trump library.

Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about art made during the corona virus COVID 19 pandemic
Gerald Collings, 

Cheryl Gross’s masks captured the surreal drudgery of having to wrap our faces every time we went out into the world. On her website, she echoed something every one of us said at some point: “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought we would be living in a sci-fi film.”

Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about art made during the corona virus COVID 19 pandemic
Cheryl Gross, eight drawings from her “MASKS 2020” series

David Kramer took us on a tropical vacation instead, but his sentiment chimed with what most of us were feeling.

Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about art made during the corona virus COVID 19 pandemic
David Kramer, “Until Tomorrow”

It was a year when many of us took to reading The Plague, by Camus, or maybe the Decameron, wallowing in tales of previous pestilences.

As Edgar Allan Poe put it at the end of one of his short stories, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

Well, as persevering artists demonstrated this past year, not this time.  ❖   


Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about art made during the corona virus COVID 19 pandemic


[Correction: In the print edition we misspelled Edgar Allan Poe’s name. The Voice regrets adding to the vast tranches of misinformation on the internet.]


From the Village Voice 2021 Spring print edition




Restarting the Presses

Hello. Back in September 2017, I announced on these pages that we were closing up shop on the Village Voice print edition. It was a shame, I told our then owner, because the Voice had been calling BS on Donald Trump since the late ’70s—our historical insights might’ve helped the nation better understand the 45th president’s grifter instincts.

Well, it turns out that, like Joe Biden, we just needed a few years off—and at 66 years old, we’re still a decade younger than the 46th commander in chief. Besides, we never completely left—we’ve been showcasing highlights from the Voice archives on our website all along, and will continue doing so.

But print? In 2021?

Sure—why not? This is New York, a town where few pleasures are sweeter than sitting in a café or on a park bench with a cup of king-hell coffee and a sheaf of prose that sets the mind to musing—and also rubs off on your fingers.

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition

In January of 1955, before this paper even existed, one of its most prominent future contributors wrote a letter to a one-year-old men’s magazine: “As a writer, I peruse some fifty odd magazines each month and Playboy is one of the finest. I read every single story. [Signed] Fred W. McDarrah, NY, NY.”

Even then, Playboy—that pioneering arbiter of all things sybaritic—had a penchant for pulling the pipe out of its editorial “we” mouth to deliver a bit of snark: “Didn’t know there were that many odd magazines being published, Fred.” But what neither slick publication nor hopeful writer knew then was that a sui generis newspaper was coalescing from the free spirits of Greenwich Village. This new tabloid would certainly have its odd aspects, but it would ultimately be more like another great American creation: jazz. There might not be a lot of profit in this new venture, but it was going to be adventurous, original, soaring—when not guttural—and the province of highly dedicated, skilled, innovative, and provocative practitioners. Three World War II vets bankrolled it—novelist Norman Mailer, psychotherapist Ed Fancher, and a struggling writer named Dan Wolf, who divined the zeitgeist of the Eisenhower years in a phrase that still resonates today: “The vulgarities of McCarthyism had withered the possibilities of a true dialogue between people.”

Indeed, the Voice would begin a dialogue with America that has never abated. Typically pugnacious, Mailer’s byline first appeared in 1956, in “QUICKLY—a column for slow readers.” A writer at the New York Daily News drolly responded, “In his new column in the Village Voice, Norman Mailer calls Hemingway a ‘windy’ writer. Mailer’s first novel was almost 700 pages.”

Chicago-based Playboy couldn’t get enough of what it termed, in the late 1950s, “the unofficial organ of Greenwich Village,” noting with approval that it was read by “the beatnik set.” And although he wasn’t yet on the masthead, by early 1960 McDarrah was placing ads in the Voice for his venture capitalizing on the county’s alternating fascination with and revulsion at a nascent counterculture:  His “Rent Genuine Beatniks” service promised “Badly Groomed But Brilliant” raconteurs of either sex.

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
From the February 10, 1960, Voice.

McDarrah would eventually appear on the masthead in 1962, as “Staff Photographer.” Over the decades, it would become more accurate to say, “world-famous photographer.”

But there was someone unknown on that first masthead who was destined for fame: Nell Blaine, listed as “Art and Production.” Blaine began a mutually beneficial tradition at the paper: artists of all stripes doing paste-up as their day job. It was Blaine who designed the elegant logo gracing the first issue, one that appeared on newsstands across the city (and eventually around the world) every week until a more modern, sans-serif logo replaced it in 1969. Blaine was a committed artist, and in 1959 she traveled to Greece to paint, where she contracted polio on the island of Mykonos. After months in an iron lung and years of recuperation, she taught herself to paint with her left hand, creating dynamic canvases that are now in the Met, the Whitney, and other major museums.

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
Nell Blaine photographed by Fred McDarrah; from the February 10, 1960, Voice.

Digging into numerous newspaper archives from before 1955 reveals no hits on the search term “Village Voice.” But later in the decade, its alliterative moniker, if not its ethos, could be found in America’s heartland. In 1957, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, daily reported that a local trailer park had its own newspaper, The Village Voice. By 1966, a women’s club’s newsletter in Cincinnati had also taken up the name. Where was a slick New York copyright lawyer when you needed one? In the 1960s and ’70s, singing groups also took notice, such as the “Village Voices,” 12 students from Utah State University who were “ready to share their bright, springy style with the soldiers stationed around the Caribbean.”

“Bright” and “springy” were perhaps not the first notions that leapt to the minds of Voice readers back in its hometown. A cocktail, though…. In 1963, Esquire magazine came up with “All the News That’s Fit to Drink,” imagining potables for newspapers ranging from the Chicago Sun-Times to the Atlanta Constitution. For the Voice, they envisioned “a Martini with gin and dry vermouth, but make it seven to one. Add a dash of Scotch. Chill, drink, then put out several more editions.”

Once the Sixties shifted into high gear, the Voice was known as much by its readership as by its writers. In 1965, photographer Bob Adelman followed Andy Warhol around town, snapping the Pop maestro buying a Voice from an overflowing newsstand and later reading it on the fire escape of his Silver Factory. (When we printed the photo as a spread in the February 22, 2012, issue, we got the date wrong in the caption. Warhol was actually reading the June 24, 1965, edition of the paper.)

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
In the ’60s you could judge a paper by who read it: Andy Warhol peruses the June 24, 1965, issue of the Voice. This spread is from the February, 22, 2012, issue, which featured an overview of Andy’s life and achievements 25 years after his death.

Conservative commentator William F. Buckley was also keeping an eye on his ideological opposite. In one of his syndicated columns, from February 1968, he quipped, “The Village Voice is a little New York journal which energetically does its iconoclastic push-ups….” He went on to dismiss it as “the critic did Thomas Hardy, commenting that his work was the village atheist talking to the village idiot.” And yet Buckley, who began publishing his own National Review a month after that inaugural Voice in 1955, couldn’t resist expounding on a Jack Newfield essay in the Voice that took a deep dive into the political calculations of Robert F. Kennedy, speculating on whether RFK, certainly one of Buckley’s last choices, would be able to ride the rising youth vote into the White House in November. Or would a Voice endorsement instead land Kennedy in the “Freak House”?   

No one can ever know, since a few months later Bobby Kennedy, along with Martin Luther King Jr., was fresh in his grave, and the Voice printed a McDarrah photo of RFK that captured the pathos of a nation losing its way.

That same year, four chums in director Sidney Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman set out to attend the Brooklyn funeral of a writer friend. They circle Sheridan Square in a red Volkswagen Bug, twice passing the huge sign, mimicking Blaine’s logo, for the Voice’s offices. The quartet squabbles among themselves, gets lost, and ends up attending the wrong funeral. Lumet, who grew up on the Lower East Side, was a fan of his local paper, featuring it in a number of his films. Was this a metaphor for the well-known infighting among Voice writers?

A few years later, John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote an expletive-not-deleted missive to the editor in answer to a letter published in the Voice a week earlier, in which a reader dismissed Yoko as a “semi-failed and rather incompetent ‘avant-garde’ artist who married a man rich enough to afford her expensive filming equipment.”

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
In the ’60s you could judge a paper by who read it: Andy Warhol peruses the June 24, 1965, issue of the Voice. This spread is from the February, 22, 2012, issue, which featured an overview of Andy’s life and achievements 25 years after his death.

Over the next month, letters appeared in the paper by turns decrying and defending the star couple, and the contretemps spilled onto a Dick Cavett episode in September 1971. An audience member queried guests John and Yoko: “You wrote a letter to the Voice in defense of Yoko as an artist … It was a rather strong letter, and I wondered if you’ve regretted it since, especially in the light of the strong reaction that it has provoked.”

John leapt to his wife’s defense again: “I don’t mind if a few fat liberals got excited about my letter.… One of the replies to the letter I wrote was, ‘It’s nice to see how well John and Yoko take to criticism.’ The letter wasn’t criticism.… He’s never seen her work, read her books, or seen any of our films.… I’m not an intellectual. I’m not articulate. I’m working class, and I use few words. I use the words that the people around me used when I was a child. I talk like that. So if somebody’s going to say a lot of [deleted by broadcasters], I’ll say a lot of [deleted]. It’s as simple as that.” [Applause.]

A year later, the blaxploitation hit Superfly employed a copy of the Voice to more pragmatic ends. During the stylish montage sequence of drug dealers processing and then delivering their wares to their ever-higher clients—set to Curtis Mayfield’s bopping “Pusherman”—one dealer, striding up the subway steps, uses a folded Village Voice to conceal his key of cocaine from prying eyes. Sharp viewers might’ve spied one cover subject—that happiest of hookers, Xaviera Hollander.

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
As seen in Superfly: the March 9, 1972, issue of the Voice.

In occasional issues ranging from September 1973 through February 1975, artist Adrian Piper bought ad space in the Voice as a component of her “Mythic Being” project, in which she asked, in part, “What would happen if there was a being who had exactly my history, only a completely different visual appearance to the rest of society?” Seventeen tearsheets from the Voice have found their way into the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, yellowed newsprint capturing an art world in constant flux.

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
Adrian Piper’s ads in the Voice are now part of MoMA’s permanent collection. From the December 2, 1974, issue.

In 1975, Sidney Lumet again turned to the Voice for inspiration, this time not to get exterior shots of the offices but as background fodder for Dog Day Afternoon, which was based on a real-life event. As investigative journalist Arthur Bell wrote in the August 30, 1972, issue of the Voice, he had received a message the week before that “a couple of homosexuals are holding up a bank in Brooklyn and they’re holding people hostages.” He wrote that he tracked down the Chase branch’s phone number, and called: “‘Hello, this is Arthur Bell from The Village Voice. Can you tell me what’s happening?’ The voice at the other end replied, ‘Arthur, am I glad it’s you. This is Littlejohn.’ ‘Littlejohn, what the hell are you doing down there?’ ‘I’m one of the robbers.’ ‘Jesus Christ!’” Bell knew the perp from meetings of the Gay Activists Alliance and, a dogged reporter, he covered all the angles: Was it a heist to pay for a sex change operation for John “Littlejohn Basso” Wojtowicz’s lover, or just a standard-issue mob heist? Bell chose the mob angle, pinning it on the Gambino crime family. Lumet, though, knew which would make for a better screenplay.

In the spring of 1976, the Voice made headlines across the nation when we published the Pike Papers, an exposé of “dangerous government adventures.” Leaked by journalist Daniel Schorr, the disclosures recalled the battle between the federal government and whistle-blowers during the Pentagon Papers controversy a few years earlier. Needless to say, the Voice did not endear itself to the powers that be.

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
From the February 16, 1976, Voice. The President was not amused.

Two years later, it seemed that Lou Reed was no happier with the Voice than ex-president Gerald Ford had been. On his Take No Prisoners live album, the acerbic rocker launched into a rant about the Consumer Guide feature: “Critics—what does Robert Christgau do in bed? You know, is he a toe fucker? Man … Christgau’s like an anal retentive. Nice little boxes. B+. Can you imagine workin’ for a fucking year and you got a B+ [for Street Hassle] from an asshole in the Village Voice?” [Audience cheering and applause]

Shortly thereafter, Christgau rated Prisoners— “essentially a comedy album”—a C+, and graciously thanked Lou “for pronouncing my name right.”

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
Lou Reed sold out the Bottom Line and recorded a live album back in May 1978. Robert Christgau didn’t think much of the disc. From the May 22, 1978, Voice.

Perhaps channeling Reed’s sardonicism, the Voice was voted #67 in a “BOTTOM 100” readers’ poll in the June 1979 issue of Punk magazine. For the record, “Disco” topped that particular chart.

Also that year, the Voice was there firstest with the mostest to cover the scion of an outer-borough real-estate-empire family who already had a rep for shady dealings and mendacious boasting.

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
January 1979: Wayne Barrett was already digging into the Trump family’s sleazy real estate dealings. It only got worse.

In 1981, the Voice was again in national news, this time for coming in second—but then, first—for the Pulitzer Prize. Papers across the country initially reported on the Washington Post winning for a feature on an 8-year-old heroin addict—a tale that turned out to be fabricated. Once informed, the Pulitzer committee awarded the prize to Teresa Carpenter, for her compelling story on the life and death of Playmate and budding actress Dorothy Stratten. (In 1983, Bob Fosse adapted Carpenter’s feature for his movie Star 80.)

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
November 5, 1980: A tragic story leads to a Pulitzer Prize for the Voice.

Lumet was back on the Voice beat again with his 1982 Deathtrap. Christopher Reeve, looking to avoid the typecasting that doomed an earlier actor too closely identified with Superman, plays a conniving, murderous wannabe playwright who tells his lover, portrayed by Michael Caine, that it is basically greed, lust, duplicitousness, and power that make life—and Broadway plays—go around: “Come on, don’t be such an old Nellie. I mean just look around you, Jesus Christ, you don’t have to read Hustler, you know, just read, uh, Village Voice.”

Such cynicism was simpatico with Reagan’s dominance of a decade that would prove a forerunner of our current “own the libs” moment. In 1983, Bloom County cartoonist Berke Breathed sent Milo and his grandfather, The Major, out to hunt liberals: “Whadya use for bait?” “A back issue of the Village Voice.” In the last panel they carry away their bound quarry, who pleads, “Couldn’t I just read the ‘Feiffer’ cartoon?”

In that same year’s iconic film The Big Chill, Jeff Goldblum sports a Voice T-shirt as he despairs over a journalistic profession he feels cares most about sensationalism, dieting recommendations, and self-promotion: “Don’t knock rationalization—where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone that doesn’t get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”

Of course by the ’80s, many people were saying that the Voice was losing influence (as others had already said in the ’60s and ’70s). But U2 frontman Bono was having none of it. In 1987, as he accepted the Album of the Year Grammy for The Joshua Tree, the singer intoned, “Soul music, that’s what U2 wanted to make,” adding that without soul, performers “like Bruce Springsteen would be nothing more than a great storyteller, but he’s much more than that. Without it, U2 would probably be getting better reviews in the Village Voice. [Audience laughter] That’s a joke. Sometimes they don’t understand.”

Sashaying into the ’90s, Madonna was causing outrage with her metal-bound Sex book. Gossip columnist Michael Musto was a Madonna fan, and decided to go full monty for the sincerest form of flattery.

A year later, Esquire magazine tapped Musto to demystify “the strange circumstances that catapult mere non-achieving humans into overweening celebrities.” The Voice veteran put it succinctly, “Standing naked in public is probably the easiest way to become famous.”

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
A shortcut to fame: Michael Musto does not let it all hang out in the November 10, 1992,
issue of the Voice.

And there was Playboy again, in its Baseball preview special, singling out the Voice for the Best Headline award, one which assessed both local teams’ chances in 1992: THEY’RE HERE, THEY SUCK, GET USED TO IT. (The Mets ended that benighted year 70–92, and, like the Yanks at 76–86, landed fifth in their division.)

The ’90s was just another decade that the Voice had plenty of detractors. Even Mystery Science Theater 3000 took a shot at the paper, when the crew deconstructed the 1964 Ann-Margaret vehicle, Kitten With a Whip. As the camera pans across newspapers scattered over a suburban front lawn, Crow T. Robot quips, “Ah, nobody reads the Voice anymore.”

Seinfeld, too, was questioning the Voice’s point of view. In one episode, the gang separately attends a screening of Rochelle, Rochelle (a recurring joke in the series, an unseen movie reminiscent of the soft-core porn flick Emmanuelle), each not knowing the other is there until they hear each other groaning about the movie, with Elaine summing it up—“Does this movie stink or what?”—and Jerry concluding, “Let’s get outta here.” The voiceover for the trailer before the movie had declaimed, “The Village Voice called the film a masterpiece.”

Not everyone, however, felt the Voice was off the mark. In 1994, Quentin Tarantino, still basking in Pulp Fiction’s win at Cannes, told Charlie Rose that, contrary to press speculation, his youthful job at a video store had not been his “… film school. It was kind of—a closer equivalent would be—it was like my Village Voice. And I got to be J. Hoberman. I got to be Andrew Sarris at the store … putting films in people’s hands and arguing my points of why this movie was good or why that movie was bad.”

J. Hoberman’s review of “Pulp Fiction in the October 11, 1994, Voice. Quentin Tarantino was a long-time fan of Hoberman’s writing.

Another behemoth of pop culture, Sex and the City, was one TV series that couldn’t avoid its hometown paper. In a 1998 episode, “Three’s a Crowd,” Carrie opens a red Voice box and pulls out a paper while the voiceover intones, “But the bigger question remained, if Charlotte was actually considering a threesome, who wasn’t? The Village Voice had more ads looking for threesomes than it did for small rat-infested studios running for $1,000 a month. But who actually answered these ads?”

The Aughts brought The Devil Wears Prada, in which Anne Hathaway’s character shucks fashion world sophistry in favor of resolute journalism at a downtown paper. As the Wall Street Journal put it in their review, “Andy wants to write about serious things, and she is dressed for success—but success as a journalist at, say, the Village Voice; her sensible shoes, skirt and sweater bespeak her cluelessness about haute couture.”

When Julie Delpy directed and starred in 2 Days in New York, her search for accurate locations brought the film crew to the Voice’s offices, which were then at 36 Cooper Square. As the paper’s review of the movie points out, Delpy and her co-star, Chris Rock, “meet cute in the offices of the Village Voice.” Despite the onscreen love, Nick Pinkerton’s coverage pulled no punches in assessing Delpy’s attempt to evoke life’s innate messiness: “If life is a jumble, that doesn’t mean art necessarily should be.”

In 2017, Zoey, on Blackish, is wondering if she should go to NYU; her father tries to discourage her from leaving L.A. with a homemade snowball, warning, “They throw snowballs at your face. If this was Brooklyn it would have been tires.” However, little sis Diane (a precocious fan of SATC), pumps for the big Apple: “There’s a magic in New York. Like, walking out of your building in a strappy Manolo, hailing a cab, covering your hair from the rain with the Village Voice.”

Well, 2017 hadn’t exactly been magical for the Voice. In fact, WBAI’s Peter Bochan included the paper in the obit section of his annual aural mashup, Short Cuts. Halfway through, we hear Lenny Bruce telling an audience, “This is a newspaper I’m reading. It’s brilliant. It’s called the Village Voice, and it has a very brilliant editorial staff, plus some very erudite contributors. Let’s see, we’ve got Nat Hentoff.…” You can just picture the legendary comic turning the pages of one of those early Voice editions.

It’s a bit of serendipity that local radio fixture Bochan found a clip of Bruce to bid the Voice farewell, since, over the past few years, actor Luke Kirby has been nigh-resurrecting the outlaw comedian on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Fans of the wildly successful Amazon comedy/drama/occasional Busby-Berkley-like phantasmagoria are probably aware that Abe Weissman, father of rising stand-up star Mrs. Maisel, will have a new job in Season 4. His upcoming gig was foreshadowed late in Season 3 when, after a midlife crisis has driven him from academia to search for his youthful activist roots, he writes a freelance article for The New York Times and later discovers that his daughter is supplementing her comedy income by doing commercials, rehearsing one for right-wing, anti-Semitic demagogue Phyllis Schafly. Midge has no idea who Schafly is—“It’s a paycheck.” Abe sighs, and responds, “If you’re going to have a voice, you better be careful what that voice says.”

Fast-forward to the season finale: In one scene, Abe, strolling through the theater district, is pelted with tomatoes by the irate subject of his Times piece. Back home, still in his splattered suit, Abe tells his wife, Rose, how thrilled he was at the reaction—“My words incited theater people—people who make a living sitting down. It incited them to get up and commit an act of physical violence…. The written word—it’s going to change the world.”

Indeed, in the season’s penultimate scene, Abe gets a phone call in a house full of family: “Hello? Yeah from where? The village what? I can’t hear you—I live in a lunatic asylum.” Cut to the foyer, where Midge is preparing to leave for a European tour. Abe strides in as if across cloud nine: “That was someone from the Village Voice.” Rose: “What?” Abe: “It’s a newspaper.” Rose: “We don’t need a subscription.” Abe: “They were not selling subscriptions! They want me to be their theater critic!”

For the Maisel bunch, it’s 1960—they don’t know the triumphs and tragedies yet to come.

Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition
The June 13, 1968, Voice.

For us, it’s 2021, and although Donald Trump has been demoted from POTUS to poster boy for white supremacy, he and his most extreme followers remain a clear and present danger to democracy. And I still have faith in the Voice to fight on the side of our better angels. In fact, I never lost it, and although my education in Catholicism has come mostly through art history studies, I know from proofing decades of Voice Bulletin Board pages that St. Jude can bring the heavy intercession just when you need it most. So in that “last” issue, back in 2017, I bought a classified ad similar to so many I’d seen over the years:
Article by R.C. Baker about the history of the Village Voice, from the Spring, 2021, print edition

The wording lets you know that I just knew the paper would have a second act.

You’re holding it in your hands.  ❖


From the Village Voice 2021 Spring print edition





From The Archives News 2021 NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Remembering When Presidential Candidate Walter Mondale Came to the Voice Offices

Here at the Voice we are wary of political endorsements because our track record hasn’t exactly been stellar. Case in point: 1984, when Walter Mondale was challenging President Ronald Reagan’s re-election bid.

In the October 30, 1984, issue, we gave Mondale an earnest, accurate — and in a more just world, what should’ve been successful — blessing. Reagan’s “supply-side” tax cuts for the rich (or “voodoo economics,” in a prescient observation from the Gipper’s own vice president) were already comforting the wealthiest and afflicting generations to come with an ever-increasing national debt. Indeed, the endorsement’s exposé of Reagan’s policies reveals the deep historical roots of the current GOP’s tactic of inflaming racial and class divisions.

Mondale, trailing in the polls, came to the Voice offices to be interrogated by the editors and have his portrait taken by the always sharp photographer James Hamilton. While Mondale was there, somebody snapped a candid shot of the former vice president holding up one of the denim aprons that some of us wore when the Voice still had a print production department. The photo ended up in a promotional binder sent out to prospective advertisers. Some wag stamped onto it NO COMMENT, in regards to the efficacy of a Voice endorsement — Reagan won 49 states in 1984, the most lopsided victory since FDR beat Alf Landon like a gong in 1936.

Despite that landslide loss, the work apron was as good a symbol as any for Mondale — a straight-talking Man of the People.

Walter “Fritz” Mondale, 1928 – 2021


G. Gordon Liddy and the Fall Guys of Yore

In June 1972, G. Gordon Liddy supervised the covert operation to break into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex and bug the telephones, a botched caper that eventually brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

As the conspiracy to hide this criminal act unraveled in the early days of Tricky Dick’s second term, Liddy offered to take the blame, saying to Nixon’s White House Counsel, John Dean, “I was the captain of the ship when she hit the reef and I’m prepared to go down with it. If someone wants to shoot me just tell me what corner to stand on and I’ll be there.”

Although the taint of corruption and criminality that has surrounded President Trump since his earliest days as a New York real estate mogul is a leviathan that cannot be contained in a single fall guy, there is no doubt that the presidential candidate who once proclaimed, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” probably wishes he had a Gordon Liddy handy. No doubt they would have a salutary meeting of the minds.    ❖

G. Gordon Liddy, November 30, 1930 – March 30, 2021

[related_posts post_id_1=”630141″ /]



The Art of Niki de Saint Phalle: Gardens, Guns, and Gila Monsters

When she was in her sixties, the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, looking back on her decades-long career, wrote to a curator, “I wanted the world and the world belonged to MEN. . . . Very early I got the message that MEN HAD POWER AND I WANTED IT. YES, I WOULD STEAL THEIR FIRE FROM THEM. . . .  Men’s roles seem to give them a great deal more freedom, and I WAS RESOLVED THAT FREEDOM WOULD BE MINE.”

“Niki de Saint Phalle: Structures for Life” is an apt title for PS1’s survey of the multimedia artist, who was born in France in 1930, spent much of her childhood in New York, worked as a model, married young, had children and later a nervous breakdown, created her own brand of perfume, bath gels, and jewelry, worked with a spectrum of collaborators, and used a broad range of materials to create the tiniest of objects and the largest of environments.

Niki de Saint Phalle, ‘Last Night I Had a Dream,’ 1968–88 multi-piece work of 17 elements
Niki de Saint Phalle, interior view of Empress, Tarot Garden, Garavicchio, Italy

Saint Phalle was not exaggerating when she spoke of “power” in terms as grand as “the world.” From 1979 until her death, in 2002, she worked at the scale of land art, collaborating with teams of artists and craftspeople on Tarot Garden, a sprawling landscape of sculpture and playful architecture in the Tuscan countryside. The High Priestess, the Magician, the Empress, and other denizens of the tarot realm join fanciful sculptures of sorcerers, dragons, and fairy-tale beings conjured from colorful mosaics, mirror tiles, lush plantings, concrete walkways scribed with texts, and other tactile concoctions.

Niki de Saint Phalle, ‘What is now known was once only imagined,’ 1979

Before embarking on this magnum opus, Saint Phalle had cast a wide net through the turbulent social and cultural streams of the 1960s, at one point using firearms to blast away at plaster reliefs studded with pots of paint, photos of such world leaders as John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the occasional crucifix, and other provocative objects. Saint Phalle’s DIY instructions for a 1964 version of one of her Tirs (Shooting Paintings) performances read, “Shoot the color pouches which are embedded in the plaster until they have ‘bled’ (or until you like the picture).”

Niki de Saint Phalle, ‘Tarot Garden,’ 1991

But even as she surveyed a world of mayhem — America’s savage war in Vietnam, violent struggles in Africa to throw off Europe’s colonial yoke — Saint Phalle’s Tirs happenings channeled her own contradictions: “WHO was the painting? Daddy? All Men? Small Men? Tall Men? . . . Or was the painting ME? . . . I was shooting at MYSELF, society with its injustice . . . I was shooting at my own violence and the VIOLENCE of the times.”

Visitors entering ‘Hon,’ 1966

Saint Phalle’s method of making the personal monumental often evinced a voluptuous tenderness, such as in Hon (1966), a gargantuan edifice representing a supine woman with bulging belly, which visitors entered through her vagina. Constructed from wood, rebar, chicken wire, tar, fabric, and glue, and gaily painted in vibrant stripes, the Brobdingnagian mother-to-be contained a gallery of small paintings, a 12-seat cinema, a milk bar in the right breast, a faux planetarium constructed of ping pong balls in the left (referred to as “the Milky Way”), and other amusements. When an interviewer once asked Saint Phalle, “Did you not imagine her chewing up and digesting the public?” the artist replied, “I think she did. When they came out they were different from when they went in.” The 82-foot-long, 30-foot-wide symbol of female occupation of a major cultural institution (the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm) took 40 days to fabricate, was on display for three months, and was immediately torn down when the show closed.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Flaçon de parfum, 1982
Photograph for the book Noah’s Ark: Play Sculpture, Jerusalem, 1998

Saint Phalle combined Warholian promotion (some of her projects were financed by the sale of her signature perfume) with the audacious scope of land art. The exhibition is chockablock with color photos of her titanic site-specific gardens and environments, as well as stand-alone paintings, sculptures, assemblages, collages, and drawings. A three-and-a-half-foot-long maquette for a whimsical gila monster can be seen in all its final 39-foot-long glory in a video and in catalog photos that document Saint Phalle (in a heavy-duty respirator mask) and collaborators working on the steel framework and embedding vibrant tiles, mirrors, and other ornamentation into its concrete skin.

Niki de Saint Phalle at ‘Tarot Garden,’ Garavicchio, Italy, 1980s

In 1988, the artist wrote, “Every thought every emotion I feel and think is made visible and becomes a color a texture a subject a form. I have no secret closet or attic to hide in. Luckily for me most people cannot see what they are looking at.” As in childbirth, Saint Phalle brought joy out of pain.   ❖

What:Niki de Saint Phalle — Structures for Life
When: March 11 – September 6, 2021
Where: MoMA PS1
22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City

ART 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

From Russia With Passion — Jules Olitski’s Rollicking ’60s Paintings

Jules Olitski (1922–2007) was born in the USSR, shortly after his commissar father was executed by the Soviet government. His mother emigrated to the United States, settling in Brooklyn, and when Olitski was in his teens he received classical art training, having been influenced by Rembrandt paintings he saw at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. By 1940, the young immigrant was studying life drawing and portraiture at the National Academy of Design, on Amsterdam Avenue at 109th Street.

Olitski served in the army during World War II and eventually landed in Paris on the G.I. Bill, where he began delving into modernist art theory, which led to a period of painting blindfolded as a way to push beyond his accomplished academic skills. The expressionist images and outlined areas of robust color in these works would give way to darker abstractions. Olitski moved back to New York in 1951, studied at NYU, and then found a gig teaching. Inspired by his students’ drawing boards, he began painting monochrome fields with energetic, contrasting marks at the edges. Late in the decade, he returned to strong colors, using rollers and sponges to sweep across the canvas, techniques artists such as Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis had pioneered a few years earlier. But as the canvases in “Color to the Core: Painting 1960–64” reveal, the maturing artist’s vision of intense hues arrayed in flat, vaguely organic circles and halos owed a debt not only to the delicate stainings of the Color Field school and the rarified gestures of Abstract Expressionism, but also to the clarion compositions of the burgeoning Pop Art movement. 

2021 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about the painter Jules Olitski
JULES OLITSKI: Passion Machine, 1961

Bold as a billboard, the 10-foot-wide Fair Charlotte (1961) might be cells dividing or celestial bodies locked in close orbits. The right disk could be a cut-away scene of a planet, with a smoky blue core, black mantle, and pink crust. The rusty ring around the dark blue center of the left-hand orb just kisses its companion, adding formal exuberance as they seem to rumble around the burnt yellow background. 

In another work, a brown oval weighted by a red dot plunges down a green, seven-foot-high rectangle, looking like an olive in a glass, a notion in tune with the playful title, Patutsky Jazz (1963). The layout is as direct as a subway poster. But a triangle of blank canvas in a lower corner echoes an oscillating aura around the olive shape, changing object into environment — figure and ground cavorting like acrobats. 

Olitski’s compositions might at first seem blunt, as in the two black blobs rollicking across the bottom of a gray-green ovoid ringed in purple, reminiscent of a pig’s snout (Passion Machine, 1961). But that impression dissipates with the sense that one of the black forms is distending its purple shell, conjuring forces as volatile as Rubens’s Venus and Adonis at the Met — desire constrained by events. 

Rubens had the advantage of following the Renaissance, which allowed him to advance on his predecessors’ formal and psychological glories. Similarly, Olitski came along at a time when he could ingest the breakthrough aesthetics of the Abstract Expressionists — their explorations of scale and bodily gesture as well as their quest for inspirations that ranged from the deepest wells of the psyche to nature’s most elemental forces — to which he added his own bright-hearted dynamism. 

2021 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about the painter Jules Olitski
JULES OLITSKI: Wet Heat Company, 1963

A massive orange wedge in Wet Heat Company (1963) bears down on a burgundy block that seems the last protection for a small green orb floating in a lower corner, a contest as unbalanced as Sun vs. Earth. Yet shifts of taut edges to softer focus belie the bullying proportions, as the shapes nestle with syncopated grace.

Olitski’s paintings were racing at the fore of their moment, as if the artist could see ahead to the vivid patterns and psychedelic biomorphs that would be emblazoned on headshop posters later in the decade. (Indeed, in the 1970s Olitski married Kristina Gorby, a cutting-edge fashion designer whose East Village shop was a mod Mecca in the ’60s — Janis Joplin wore a Gorby creation at Woodstock). 

Jules Olitski: In My Old Tin Lizzie, 1961

In all the works, Olitski takes care to align a straight perimeter to a curve here, contrast a warm concavity to a cool bulge there — sly subtleties within grand expanses. The black field of In My Old Tin Lizzie (1961) is adulterated at the top-left edge by a bit of bare canvas, a scruff of light at the horizon. On the right half of the canvas, two large rings lock together like handcuffs, one hollow with the dark background showing through, the other tarnished yellow with a lavender brown belly. They float in the void, seemingly not the seven-foot-breadth of the canvas away from that high-up hint of dawn, but more like seven leagues distant. Was that tiny glimmer an accident that Olitski then opted to leave as a decision? Like most of these spirited pictures, the sense is that the light and the shapes could have journeyed anywhere, but somehow ended up in just the right place.   

Color to the Core: Paintings 1960–1964
Yares Gallery

745 Fifth Avenue
Through March 12, 2021 


Before The Empire Strikes Back — New York City’s Lost Public Art

Is “public art” oxymoronic? Can the work of fierce individualists be embraced by the masses? Gotham yields no easy answers.

Staffers call the massive mural over 30 ROCKEFELLER PLAZA‘s reception desk the “Wailing Wall,” because its bland allegorical figures and enervated cityscape veil a clash of ideologies. In the depths of the Great Depression, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had a newly minted skyscraper to rent out. Pushed past his loathing of modern art by an aesthetically adventurous wife, the Uber-capitalist commissioned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera — who wore his Communist politics draped about him like a matador’s red cape — to paint an allegory: Man at the Crossroads. Slave to the bottom line, Junior rationalized that “[Rivera] seems to have become very popular just now and will probably be a good drawing card.” Indeed, 100 tickets were sold each day to view the master’s blossoming Technicolor illumination of humanity’s advancement through science and proletarian labor.

Then the head of a “great dead man” materialized on the wall.

It’s doubtful any preliminary studies portrayed Lenin’s visage, but since the Rockefellers already owned Rivera’s sketchbook from Russia — filled with scenes celebrating the Worker’s Paradise — this tribute should not have been a shock. Ordered to efface the outrage, Rivera refused, proposing a portrait of Lincoln as counterbalance and fatefully adding that otherwise he “should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety.” Rockefeller’s agents took the artist at his word, paid off his contract, shrouded the nearly completed fresco from view, weathered a year of free-speech protests, and finally, one midnight, had workmen chop the painted plaster off the wall. A lesser muralist shortly plugged the void.

Rivera gave the Rockefellers their money’s worth 70 years ago, but frightened by a bit of propaganda, they exchanged his masterpiece for the sepia pall that has hung over their lobby ever since. After a pleasing stroll across the Queensboro Bridge, a livelier lobby can be found in the Queensbridge housing project’s JACOB RIIS COMMUNITY CENTER, 10-25 41 st Avenue. One July afternoon, a visitor encountered kids painting posters, a piano recital attended by local seniors, and workmen refinishing a sidewalk. Over the entrance to the gymnasium, a 40-foot mural foreshadows this vibrant community: it includes scenes of a child sketching, a cellist surrounded by dancers, and a workman jackhammering con­crete. Philip Guston, who allied a deep social conscience to his fecund brush, completed this WPA project, Work and Play, in 1940. Under the minor ravages of the elements and a few blunders by a restorer — “some of the faces are sweet and syrupy; Philip’s faces had Renaissance solemnity,” says his longtime dealer David McKee — lie Guston’s bedrock themes and forms. His trash can lids, work shoes, and angular, entwined limbs soon morphed into the lush matrices and intensely modulated hues of his majestic ’50s abstractions before bursting forth, recognizable once more, in the monumental cartoon paintings of the ’70s. Unfortunately, by 1965, Work and Play was forever lost to Guston — he agonized that it looked “Terrible!” after “some commercial artist” retouched it: “I want the whole thing obliterated.” Original photos prove this an overreaction from an emotional creator. It’s just dumb luck that bureaucratic inertia preserved this wonder wall, which reveals Guston’s grounding in 15th-century frescoes while simultaneously unveiling the originality that will propel his legacy at least as far into the future.

2004 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about lost public art in New York City

Now march back to Manhattan, downtown, to community’s antithesis. Surrounded by a dark-windowed megalith abutting a squat, black courthouse, 1 FEDERAL PLAZA has all the charm of detention hall in the school basement. In 1979, the General Services Agency commissioned Richard Serra to erect one of his elegant, space-torquing metal slabs across the windswept cobblestones; two years later, he bisected the plaza with 120 feet of two-inch-thick, 12-foot-high, Cor-Ten steel. Immediately, many of the federal employees developed a Hobbesian hatred toward the rusty barrier they had to circumvent daily — it was nasty, brutish, and long, and they wanted it gone. Others, however, found Tilted Arc‘s pitched, concave side quiet and warmly enclosing; its flip side provided a seemingly infinite recessional that was profoundly American — utilitarian materials opening vistas that welded disparate forces together. Throughout years of court battles, Serra was adamant that offers of relocation meant death to his site-specific sculpture. But in 1989, the forces of aggrieved conservatism finally pulled the trigger. Like Rivera’s mural, Tilted Arc was destroyed under cover of night, 72 tons of scrap hauled to a government motor pool in Brooklyn. It had been given barely eight years — an eyeblink for radical art — to gain wider public appreciation. Today you’ll find curlicue formations of lime-green benches set in purple concrete. We all paid for, and got, a penetrating work of art; many tax dollars later, we’re left with an abandoned Barney set.

So lastly, trudge up to 101 SPRING STREET, the cast-iron home of the Judd Foundation, partially obscured under weary scaffolding. In one corner of this minimalist shrine, which is practically lost amid Soho’s frenzied mercantile bustle, stands a slight but monumentally engaging sculpture. Using no glue or pins but only the inexorable grasp of gravity, Carl Andre has stacked eight salvaged bricks on edge, exposing the brand name embossed on their faces: EMPIRE. Patina’d with crusty mortar and paint, they teeter precariously, verging on collapse since the work’s 1986 inception. Christened Manifest Destiny — a mordant title under Reagan, now made truly scary through W’s cowboy antics — the pitted red clay and worn inscriptions are reminiscent of the exhumed detritus of many an overreaching empire.

Quick — catch it before it falls.  ❖


2004 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about lost public art in New York City