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Why the NEH and NEA Matter More Than Ever

In 1790, in the first ever State of the Union address, George Washington told Congress he understood that federal support of agriculture and commercial ventures across the nation needed no special defense. He wanted to insist, however, that the government give equally concrete encouragement to new inventions and “the promotion of science and literature.” Why? Knowledge is “the surest basis of public happiness” everywhere. But in a representative democracy, where the laws and policies of the government are molded directly by “the sense of the community,” knowledge is essential.

When Washington described laws as the product of the sense of the community, he was choosing his words carefully. In the context of eighteenth-century science and philosophy, “sense” meant not only the facts citizens collectively hold to be true, but also their convictions, opinions, feelings, and self-understanding.

Fast-forward to a powerful documentary released just a few weeks ago, I Am Not Your Negro, in which director Raoul Peck brings alive the words of the brilliant James Baldwin, who died in 1987 after decades of writing about American life and the place of black Americans in it. The question white America has to ask itself, Baldwin told one interviewer, is why it invested itself so deeply in the notion of racial categories in the first place. White Americans, Baldwin says, have got to find out why they invented them, and why they need them — “and the future of the country depends on that.”

Baldwin is challenging Americans, to use Washington’s phrase, to figure out “the sense of the community” about race and racism in our country. What knowledge do we need to do this? To make a sensible start on race — and note we can say the same about class, religion, ideology, and anything else that divides the national community — we need some political and social and economic history, psychology, economics, political theory, and philosophy, as well as literature, art history, music, and cinema. Next, since we seek the sense of the whole community, we need to talk with people who disagree with us; even in the course of disagreement we can find common ground, most likely through the discovery of shared histories or hopes, tastes or emotional commitments, on which we can move forward together.

In short, we need the knowledge provided by the arts and humanities. So we can see the president’s new “skinny” budget, which proposes to end two federal agencies, the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and for the Humanities (NEH), as it truly is: a blow against our capacity to gain the sense of our community and from there the insight to tackle, together, the wicked problems besetting us.

The question is bigger than whether we want the federal government to support particular programs (though a preliminary study by the Digital Fellows at the CUNY Graduate Center vividly displays the benefits of NEH funding enjoyed across the country, including, ironically, in “red” states). It’s about what kind of political culture we Americans want — whether we are willing to place a high enough value on knowledge and the skills of thinking together that Washington and Baldwin believed to be crucial to democracy.

To hear a poetry reading in a public library, to learn about the past at a local museum, or to attend a Greek play about war mounted by veterans: These aren’t the pretty extras of life in a modern democracy but the engine of inspiration and imagination that keeps a robust democracy going. We’ve had this argument for generations. W.E.B. Du Bois argued long and hard against the notion that the permanent uplifting of black men in America rested in material advancement alone. The vocational school that guarantees the skills to earn a living cannot be our final and sufficient answer, he insisted, because life is “more than meat.” The kind of education that encourages aspiration and complex thinking is not a privilege of the well-off, but a necessity for citizens engaged in democratic decision-making.

Especially in these emotionally loaded days, citizens also need practice in dialogue about thorny questions, so that we can handle differences of perspective, emotion, and opinion as we think and (inevitably) disagree. Baldwin describes how a teacher named Orilla Miller “gave me books, and talked to me about books, and about the world.” It is because of her, Baldwin observes, that he “never really managed to hate white people,” despite the rage he felt at the prejudice and hatred he sensed all around him.

Learning to think critically about how words and images work, and how they can be manipulated for good or evil, pleasure or prejudice: This is what the NEH and the NEA do. Yes, these are small programs, and yes, private sources of funding for the arts and humanities exist. But if we believe along with Washington that knowledge is the surest basis of public happiness, then we should celebrate our public investment in knowledge.

Joy Connolly is provost and professor of classics, the Graduate Center, CUNY.

 

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How The Whitney Houston Biennial Help To Push Feminist Art Forward

 

In New York’s abundance of art fairs and gallery shows, male artists have always tended to outnumber female artists. One show this Spring, however, sought to change this gender imbalance: The Whitney Houston Biennial. The exhibition, which was founded two years by curator and painter Chritsine “C.” Finley, has since doubled in the size of the space and the number of artists included. This year’s show features over 160 female-identified artists.

“For the first version, I imagined that if I was tapped as the curator of the Whitney, I would show three floors of women artists,” says Finley. “When I told this to my friend, the artist Eddy Segal, she immediately made a joke and said, ‘The Whitney Houston Biennial!’ We laughed like crazy but I also realized that I had to do it. We created such a wonderful platform for highlighting female artists, I knew we needed to keep going. I am already arranging for 2019!”

By this year, when Finley staged the show at a building on West Broadway, the original concept had evolved. Every inch of available wall and floor space was covered in art within the gallery space. From the salon-style hung paintings, drawings and photographs to the various video pieces and small installations, the show created a sense of organized chaos. It features a mix of painting, drawing, screen printing, video and found object works that require more than just a walk through. While it appears to be light-hearted, the exhibit (produced with the help of Chashama.org)serves as a vital deconstruction of the contemporary art world. Amidst the sea of art fairs, including the current Whitney Biennial (which gave Finely’s version its name), the show had a lot to offer.

The range of works touched on topics including body image, race, intersectional feminism and more. In addition to the works themselves, each artist was also asked to include the name and description of a woman pioneer who inspired them.

“So on the wall text next to each piece we have Joan of Arc, Beyonce, Sappho, Patricia McCormick, who’s a female matador, and many more,” said Finley. “Their stories are included in the exhibition which is a new element for this show.”

"Midnight Work" by Chanel Matsui Govreau
“Midnight Work” by Chanel Matsui Govreau

One video, entitled “Midnight Work” features the work of artist Chanel Matsunami Govreau. Also known as Queen Gidrea, Govreau is a performer, photographer and mixed media artist explores issues of gender, race, and identity within her work.

“Midnight Work” is an edited version of a dance class the artist took on Waacking. This style of dance, developed during the 1970s in LGBTQ club spaces, emphasizes making hand and arm gestures to the beat of the music. The video itself is focused on the women who participated in that particular class, with close up shots of their faces, exaggerated looks and hand gestures.

Govreau’s experience as a self-identified queer woman exploring these charged socio-political spaces within the context of this performance and others, is a complicated meta deconstruction. As a kind of intersectional feminist gesture within the video itself, this is taken a step further in the person that Govreau chose as her pioneer, noted feminist and critical race scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Crenshaw has also been credited with the development of intersectional feminism.

Seat of Heritage" by Francena Ottley
Seat of Heritage” by Francena Ottley

“This is for You,” a video piece by Francena Ottley, also takes on issues of race and identity, and features the artist doing various friends hair in an apartment setting. The video is accompanied by a sculpture entitled, “Seat of Heritage,” a children’s sized chair covered in braided hair. The works seemed to be referencing the larger complicated history of African American  hair and the representations of it but it is the artist’s investigation of these topics that give it more meaning.

The DIY feeling of the Biennial is reminiscent of the Armory’s “Spring Break Show” but seems to be angling to do something more. There is scrappiness and hard edge  that produces a larger sense of urgency. Perhaps it is in the overwhelming volume of work, the setup of the show, or the larger political climate we are currently in, but the Biennial underscores many of the voices, works and artists that often go unrecognized and this show is helping to give them vital recognition.

By creating a larger sense of community which does speak directly back to feminism in general and also third wave feminism specifically, Finley has curated a show in which women’s issues are at the forefront. Seeing the works of Justin Vivian Bond alongside those of emerging art students is encouraging to say the least; however, there is still a lot of work to be done. As Finley noted, plans are already underway for the 2019 biennial and it will be exciting to see what the next phase in this this exhibition will bring.

 

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A New Documentary Explores the Wild Life and Tragic Death of Lee Morgan

East Third Street, between avenues B and C, was placid on a weekday afternoon, as it has been for some time now. On the corner, glowing red, white, and blue Capital One ATMs stand, copping their $3 on withdrawals—the present-day squeegee men.

But 45 years ago, almost to the day, this block was the scene of a crime. In the snowy, early morning hours of February 19, 1972, trumpeter extraordinaire Lee Morgan, then 33, was shot to death by his common-law wife, Helen, between sets at Slug’s Saloon. The esteemed dive hosted some of the most renowned figures in jazz- from Charles Mingus to Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. Keith Jarrett had been scheduled to play there the following week.

The events of that night are now the subject of Kasper Collin’s finely-crafted documentary I Called Him Morgan, which has already done a tour of some of the grandest stops on the festival circuit: Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York.

Kasper Collin, director of I CALLED HIM MORGAN
Kasper Collin, director of I CALLED HIM MORGAN

The story is emphatically cinematic; it’s a wonder why it hasn’t hit screens sooner. Morgan was a teenage prodigy under the glowing influence of Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown. In 1956, he was discovered by Dizzy Gillespie. By 1958, he was in one of the most important groups in music—Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Soon after, he had his own contract with Blue Note Records and appeared as a sideman on some of that label’s signature works—John Coltrane’s Blue Train, and lesser-known wonders like Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution.

“Like his playing, Lee was brisk, witty, and strutting with confidence,” Nat Hentoff wrote in the liner notes of Morgan’s 1964 album Search For the New Land, which director Collin says is his personal favorite, using it to great effect throughout the documentary.

Morgan managed that rarest of achievements, a hit jazz record, the year before with “The Sidewinder,” a prancing 10-minute boogaloo-inflected romp. Chrysler used it, without permission, for one of its commercials shown during the 1965 World Series, Dodgers–Twins, when the Fall Classic was what the Super Bowl is today. Not that Morgan actually had a ho-hum, middle class Chrysler; my man drove a Triumph!

Collin, who also directed the 2006 documentary My Name Is Albert Ayler—another portrait of a jazz iconoclast who had a tragic, premature end in New York City—first became obsessed with Morgan while poking around YouTube. There he came across a live performance of the Messengers playing “Dat Dere.” He couldn’t get enough of Morgan’s solo. “I was so moved,” he says. “That just knocked me out that solo. It made me so curious about his music.”

Morgan’s playing has that effect. “Lee Morgan was the first trumpeter that I transcribed in my youth,” says musician and composer Jeremy Pelt. “For whatever reason, whatever Lee played always sounded fresh and new, and that’s what appealed to me.”

After the YouTube revelation, Collin began asking around about Morgan and soon embarked on the “long journey” that became this documentary. “Part of doing a film like this,” he says, “is kind of doing archaeology in a way.”

Collin began pursuing interviews with musicians who were close with Morgan, like Wayne Shorter, Bennie Maupin, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and Billy Harper among them. He weaves these in with concert footage, photographs, a plethora of contact sheets, part of an interview that Morgan did with British writer and photographer Valerie Wilmer, and, to create the mood of the night in question, his own obsession with snow, which he filmed while he lived in New York during the winter of 2010–11. “As a Swede, it’s normal with snow here,” Collin says, “but that winter was crazy. Those storms, it was 60–70 centimeters!” He searched the archives of the Down Beat magazine, and the black American press as well: Jet, The Amsterdam News, The Baltimore Afro-American, and The Philadelphia Tribune. He also works in a TV clip from the PBS show Soul!, where Morgan performed “Angela” (dedicated to Angela Davis).

The real coup, though, came when he found Larry Reni Thomas, a continuing ed teacher in North Carolina, who taped an interview he did with Helen in 1996—a month before she died—and published a book on the subject in 2014, The Lady Who Shot Lee Morgan. Helen returned to Wilmington, her hometown, after she served her time for second-degree manslaughter. She got involved in the church, where, according to her son Al Harrison, “She found her salvation.”

The interview—“an amazing document,” Collin says—enriches the documentary and transforms it into a story within the story, one that humanizes Helen. Morgan lived fast, and rose fast. And then he got addicted to heroin. Tootie Heath tells Collin in the film about how Morgan came to Birdland in slippers after he sold his shoes; Maupin says that “he looked like a homeless person….No one would hire him.” Morgan even pawned his own coat.

Lee and Helen Morgan in 1970
Lee and Helen Morgan in 1970

It was Helen, the documentary makes clear, who saved him in 1967. She was nurturer—and was some cook—but she was tough, too. “I will not sit here and tell you I was so nice,” she says at one point on the taped interview she did with Thomas, “because I was not. I was sharp. I had to be. And I looked out for me.”

She didn’t take shit from Miles, who once said to her, “I see you got a quick mouth…I don’t mess around with bitches with quick mouths.” So when Morgan met another woman, look out. She did warn him: “I can’t live like this; it’s not in me.”

Helen giveth, and Helen taketh—or, in the words of Collin, “it was a Greek tragedy.” Yet the documentary doesn’t end on a flourish of blue notes, but one of forgiveness. And what Morgan left behind, still resonates. “Lee’s tone was always, and still is, something I had in the back of my head when I improvise,” says Pelt, who was born four years after Morgan died. “If I remind some people of him, that’s always to be taken as a compliment.”

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Velvet Wonderland: Rediscovering The Velvet Underground’s New York

Fifty years ago this week, the Velvet Underground and Nico was released, causing barely a ripple in the wider music world, but leaving a trail of influence nearly unequaled in the history of rock & roll. To celebrate the anniversary, we’re resisting some of the locations that helped form and definite band.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Loft space, 56 Ludlow St.
In a loft with no bathroom, heat, or electricity, Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Angus MacLise rehearsed the first Velvet Underground songs. (A tape — minus drummer MacLise — surfaced on the box set Peel Slowly and See in 1995.)

Cale and MacLise had broken ground in the emerging world of minimalist music, playing together in La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, also known as the Dream Syndicate. (Tony Conrad, another minimalist pioneer, is a member of an early version of the band called the Primitives.) Reed and Morrison knew each from college at Syracuse. The Velvet Underground would combine the steady-state drone and repeated single notes of minimalism with the propulsion of the blues and R&B that Reed and Morrison loved.

In 1965, the nascent Velvets appeared in an underground film directed by a neighbor in at 56 Ludlow, Piero Heliczer, called “Venus in Furs.” Heliczer invited them to perform as part of a multimedia show at the Filmmaker’s Cinémathèque on Lafayette Street.

A side note: From 56 Ludlow, look to the Bowery to the west. That’s where the exploitation paperback from which the band took its name is found, reportedly by Conrad. “The Velvet Underground,” per Morrison, despite the whips and chains on the cover, “was basically about wife swapping in Suburbia.”

The Ludlow Street lofts are now home to a software company, a recording studio, a magazine publisher, and the building is now wired for electricity.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Café Bizarre, 106 West 3rd St.
Less a genuine Greenwich Village folk haunt than a tourist trap (“it was a dump,” according to Reed), this club hosted a residency by the Velvets in December, 1965. Drummer Maureen Tucker had now joined the group, but the club’s “anti-rock group” policy meant she was restricted to banging on a tambourine.

Underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin brought Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Gerard Malanga and Nico to the Café Bizarre to see the Velvet Underground. Warhol loved the band’s confrontational edge — audiences left performances “dazed and damaged.” Warhol had been asked to be part of discotheque opening in the spring of 1966 on Long Island. He took the Velvets under his wing with the idea that they’d play there. (The gig eventually went to the Rascals.)

Café Bizarre is long gone. Now, the east corner is a JW Market; NYU Law School’s Faculty Club takes up the rest of the block between Sullivan and MacDougal.

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Hotel Delmonico, 502 Park Avenue
Warhol was invited to speak at the annual dinner of the New York Society For Clinical Psychiatry on January 10, 1966 at the Hotel Delmonico, on Park and 59th. He decided his remarks would take the form of showing some of his films, with the Velvet Underground providing music. Some 300 guests sat down in the Hotel Delmonico’s Grand Ballroom for a black tie dinner and were greeted by the Velvets playing at full volume, with Nico now on vocals and Malanga cracking a whip in the air while Edie Sedgwick danced. Jonas Mekas (a Voice columnist) and Rudin filmed the guests while asking blunt questions about their sex lives. “I’m ready to vomit,” said one.

Donald Trump bought the Hotel Delmonico for $115 million in 2001 and converted it into a luxury condominium building, the Trump Park Avenue.
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Andy Warhol at the Factory in New York, 1966.
Andy Warhol at the Factory in New York, 1966.

Warhol’s Silver Factory, 231 E. 47th St.
Twelve blocks south of the Delmonico was Warhol’s art studio, located in an industrial building near the United Nations. There, on the fourth floor of 231 E. 47th Street, Warhol oversaw the making of silk screens and collages, and shot experimental films and his screen test series (Bob Dylan was a subject; so was Beck’s mom, Bibbe Hansen, a Factory regular).

The Factory is social center for artists, filmmakers, journalists, drag queens and hangers-on of all sorts. The Velvet Underground practices there regularly from 1966 – 1968. (Rehearsal tapes were included on the 45th anniversary edition of “The Velvet Underground & Nico”; you can hear Reed going over the words to “Venus in Furs” while they fool around with Bo Diddley’s “Cracking Up.”) The cover of the Velvets third album shows the band on a couch at the Factory. According to Ken Pitt (David Bowie’s first manager) to access the Factory you rode up in a rickety old elevator — more like a cage than a proper elevator. Open on three sides, the thing offered a harrowing view of the sheer drop as you ascend.

Demolished in 1968, the building is a car park now.

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The Dom, 23 St. Mark’s Place
After the January, 1966, performance at the Hotel Delmonico, the Warhol multi-media show — first dubbed Up Tight — went on the road, playing college campuses in March. When the Long Island disco booking fails through, Warhol and Paul Morrissey are alerted to a ballroom in an East Village hall at 23 St. Mark’s Place. It’s called the Dom, an abbreviation of Polsky Dom Narodwy, or Polish National Home, the organization that owns the space. They rent the spot for the month of April, and the show is renamed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable in a Village Voice ad which reads: “Live Music, Dancing, Ultra Sounds, Visions, Lightworks, Food, Celebrities, and Movies: ALL IN THE SAME PLACE AT THE SAME TIME.”

When the band returned from a California tour, however, they found their lease ripped up and the room under new management with a new name: the Balloon Farm. Still later it becomes the Electric Circus. The band played both in time.

There’s no rock venue there today. A Chipotle and a Chinese restaurant are in part of the building, as is a tattoo parlor, though next door, at at No. 25, is the the punk rock apparel shop Search and Destroy.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Scepter Studios, 254 West 54th St.
In April of 1966 the band recorded the majority of their debut album here (though it would not come out for nearly a year) in studios belonging to Scepter Records, the label that put out the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick. Scepter had taken over the run-down recording studio from CBS, which had called it Studio 52, and used it for radio and television broadcasting. The building will later house the iconic ’70s nightclub and discotheque, Studio 54. Nowadays, the Roundabout Theatre Company runs the place, though you can still enjoy a nightclub scene in the basement dinner club.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Chelsea Hotel, 222 W. 23rd St
One of New York’s quintessential rock & roll hotels. Bob Dylan lived there in 1965 (he wrote “Sad Eyed Lady of Lowlands” there), and Leonard Cohen recalled his assignation with Janis Joplin there in “Chelsea Hotel #2.” Scenes for Warhol’s 1966 film Chelsea Girls were shot there, though a scene with Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov was shot in an apartment on West Fourth Street, with the Velvet Underground in the next room improvising music. John Cale met his future wife Betsey Johnson at the Chelsea in 1967.

The hotel is currently closed, undergoing renovations, with plans to re-open in 2018.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Gymnasium, 420 E. 71st St
In April 1967, the Velvets played a series of gigs here on the Upper East Side, following the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico. (A tape of one show included on the 45th anniversary edition of the Velvet’s second album, White Light / White Heat, includes the only recording of a rocker called “I’m Not a Young Man Anymore.”) The delay between the debut album’s recording and release meant the Velvets couldn’t take advantage of their 1966 notoriety. Warhol, in an attempt to rekindle the energy of the band and the flagging EPI, arranged for a series of gigs in the spring of 1967 at the Gymnasium in Sokol Hall.

It was a real gym, complete with barbells, weights, parallel bars, even a trampoline that kids leap onto from the balcony where Warhol’s projectors live. The maintain their residency for the rest of the month, playing to small crowds and sniping critics.

You can still get your sweat on in Sokol Hall, which offers gymnastic classes, as well as dance and yoga.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The Scene 301 W. 46th St.
This basement club in the Theater District — a block west of Broadway and down some dicey stairs — was run by Steve Paul. Warhol and Paul hosted “underground amateur hour” advertised as featuring appearances by “stars of The Chelsea Girls” as well as “gurus, creative people, pop celebrities, society submergers” and the Velvet Underground.

The Velvets play here in January and of May of ‘67. Soon after, they cut their ties to both Warhol and Nico. And they won’t play another gig in New York until 1970.

Currently this space is under construction. Watch your step.

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Joan Mellon Flies High at Carter Burden Gallery

The painter Joan Mellon recently told me that, for her, painting was a conversation with her materials and surfaces. Indeed, her abstractions can evoke the sense of a searching, back-and-forth discussion — not to mention the occasional heated argument.
In Flyin’ High (2015), that exchange appears to have included agreements, reconsiderations, digressions, and, finally, altered points of view (one of the many ways that painting bests politics). The scale — two and a half feet square — speaks to the reach of hands gesturing in lively debate. It seems the angled pale-peach bars in the foreground intended to flatly divide the image into three planes, but background rectangles of green, orange, gray, and yellow — roiled by solvents dragged through the paint — disagreed. Another small bar of peach sings out from the adulterated orange patch, engendering a sense of the volume of a tenuous cube. This on-the-fly framework, implied beyond the canvas’s borders, warps the barely contained color fields into a gorgeous bedevilment of color and contrast.

Mellon (born in Brooklyn, in 1944) embodies a native New Yorker’s feistiness. Local History (2015) is roughly an arm-span wide and head-to-gut high, the reach of wary boxers feinting punches. Runnels of aqua dash across a burgundy field but are abruptly staggered by mashed-in brushstrokes, the drips a reminder of implacable gravity always trying to flatten us. There is a hard-won, luminous animation to these sagging striations — they are down, but definitely not out.

Many “isms” have reigned during Mellon’s lifetime: minimal and conceptual, as well as art of the land and the performance space, and the new’s and neo’s of figuration, expressionism, and pop. But, steadfast over the decades, she has let passionate form and color do her talking, no explanations necessary.

Reflections: Joan Mellon
Carter Burden Gallery
548 West 28th Street, 212-564-8405
carterburdengallery.org.
Through March 23

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Robert Sikoryak Comes to Terms with Comics History (And Donald Trump)

Robert Sikoryak was going to adapt Moby-Dick, until another white whale caught his eye.

Perhaps best known for his short literature parodies, like those in his book Masterpiece Comics, the cartoonist had watched comics trend toward longer and longer works, and set his sights on one of his own. But as he struggled to find the right hook for Melville’s novel, his attention turned toward adapting an even less likely behemoth: the iTunes terms and conditions agreement. The result is Terms and Conditions, his latest graphic novel.

“Like Moby-Dick, it’s the text that everyone thinks they should read and they don’t,” says Sikoryak. “It just struck me as amusing and inappropriate and absurd, and those are all things I like to have my work play with.”

But how to do it? Adapting the text literally was out of the question. Instead, Sikoryak used existing pages from comics history as his template, jumping from comic to comic (and style to style), inserting the agreement text into the word balloons. The constant reinvention turns a text that’s intentionally droning and obtuse into a propulsive, and surprisingly compelling, read.

Each page follows the unedited text of the legal disclaimer, but the action bounces from Snoopy’s doghouse to Prince Valliant’s castle to Scott Pilgrim’s Toronto suburbs. Throughout, a Steve Jobs figure expounds upon the legal ramifications of using the iTunes software. By appearing in one environment after another, the character seems almost supernaturally pervasive—the cartoon version of iTunes’s digital sprawl.

“I was very excited when I realized that Steve Jobs had a uniform,” says Sikoryak. Turtleneck, glasses, stubble: Drawn in any style, it’s shorthand for Steve Jobs. “If I put him in a yellow zigzag shirt, you’d know what that meant,” says Sikoryak. “Instead, he’s got the black turtleneck. As he always did, [Jobs] came with a very clear design sense.”

Sikoryak began the project by adapting comics pages he knew by heart, but soon he expanded the scope. “I wanted to be catholic,” he says. “I didn’t want to just adhere to my own tastes.” He went to iTunes (naturally) to find popular comics he might not have considered, like Transformers and My Little Pony, and looked abroad for international titles.

It was also an opportunity to parody some younger artists whose work he hadn’t yet touched on—Kate Beaton, Allie Brosh, and Raina Telgemeier, for example—“people who are hugely popular and of a much younger generation than me, but whose work I really respect and admire.”

Sikoryak matched a few pages specifically with text—an explosive Green Lantern page hosts a section of the agreement that prohibits users from making nuclear weapons with iTunes products—but for the most part juxtapositions between comic and text were unplanned. “I was interested in seeing what happened rather than making things happen, or underlining the text,” says Sikoryak. “I was more interested in letting the echoes come as they would naturally.” Those unorchestrated echoes led to a lonesome Snoopy musing about “family sharing,” followed by the Endless siblings from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman continuing the thread.

In unintended tandem with the project’s improvisational nature, Apple kept changing the user agreement during the adaptation. Part C sprouted a Part D, causing Sikoryak to revise the text and add 20 pages. “Part of the point of this was to make a long comic, so I thought, ‘All I can do is adhere to the job,’” says Sikoryak.

Lately, Sikoryak has turned his pen to other matters, particularly The Unquotable Trump, a drawing project on Tumblr that recontextualizes the president’s more outrageous statements into classic comic book covers. (One of the first Sikoryak drew depicts Wonder Woman throwing Trump off a castle wall as he exclaims, “Such a nasty woman!”)

While there are surface similarities to Terms and Conditions, The Unquotable Trump is an entirely different beast. For one thing, Sikoryak is cherry-picking quotes instead of adapting a whole text. “And I’m drawing Donald Trump, I’m not just putting his outfit on someone else,” he says. “I mean, in one case he’s a duck, but it’s still clearly Trump as Uncle Scrooge.”

“This is much more my response, rather than my documentation,” says Sikoryak. “I think it’s not as interesting as Terms and Conditions because it’s less pure, but we are living in impure times.”

Although Drawn and Quarterly plan to collect the Unquotable Trump covers in a follow-up to Terms and Conditions, in the meantime Sikoryak occasionally displays the Trump covers as part of Carousel, a live comics performance he regularly hosts at Dixon Place in Brooklyn, among other venues. Comics artists read (or even draw) their comics as they’re projected onto a screen.

It’s the live aspect of Carousel that interests Sikoryak. “When you introduce a time element into the pace of reading a comic, it makes it something very different,” he says. Among other things, it creates a personal moment that artist and audience experience simultaneously.

“It’s kind of an intimate moment in a way,” says Sikoryak. “It’s very revealing.”

Robert Sikoryak will be discussing “Terms and Conditions” with poet Kenneth Goldsmith at the Strand Bookstore on Thursday, March 16, at 7 p.m.

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Big Game Book Hunting at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair

Book people, they’re an odd lot. Their prize is paper, printed with words profound and lyrical, or just full of personal resonance. The value of rare books is a subjective thing, and like all markets – for art and real estate and all the rest – an item’s ultimate worth comes down to whatever a buyer will pay for it.

At the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, the centerpiece of last week’s Rare Book Week, book lovers united inside the Park Avenue Armory to lust over the scarcest of first editions, along with assorted manuscripts, maps, and ephemera that encompassed a bibliophile’s nirvana. Count myself among this odd lot.

From March 9th to 12th the Upper East Side Armory filled with booths, hawking the wares of over 200 rare booksellers from both sides of the Atlantic. If you were on the hunt for a first edition of your favorite novel, and had a few grand to drop, you needn’t search for long. I found a first printing of The Great Gatsby for $6,000.00 and a few 1939 copies of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep between five and fifteen grand, depending on the condition. There was a stunning compilation of Jim Harrison’s collected works, each one signed, for five thousand. Any one of which would be the prize possession in this mortal collector’s library.

But this being Manhattan there were bound to be anonymous billionaires among us, strolling those same booths, eyeing much bigger game. For that rarified breed of book hunter, searching for titles to fill their gilded libraries, the New York Antiquarian had some serious discoveries.  There were ancient texts and maps that soared into the mid six, and sometimes seven, figures. For $450,000 you could own “The Book That Named the New World” – Amerigo Vespucci’s 1504 edition of Mundus Novus. For $150,000 there was Lewis and Clark’s History of the Expedition – the 1814 “first edition of the definitive account” that first captured the American West. And in keeping with the theme of discovery, for $1.35 million there was a 1559 world map, noted as the “first geographical treatise created in Europe for a non-Western audience.”  Here was the written word at its most rare, a chance to feel the passage of time at your fingertips. But in the eyes of one reader, here are three booths that vied for best in this greatest of book shows:

Hamilton, he’s so hot right now. Located at the far corner of the Fair was the must-see attraction: The Alexander Hamilton Collection. For $2.3 million, for sale as an entire lot, it was a jaw-dropping trove of all things Hamilton, including a first edition of The Federalist Papers, and innumerable letters and documents exchanged between the Founding Fathers. The seller of the collection, Seth Kaller, of Seth Kaller, Inc Historic Documents and Legacy Collections, noted that the Broadway play has driven interest in this particular Father in unprecedented ways. “I’ve had a Lincoln-signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation,” he said. “But I’ve never had hundreds of people come to the Book Fair especially to see my exhibit.” He noted that George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the Museum of American Finance have both tried to buy particular items, but so far Kaller is holding out for a buyer interested in acquiring the complete collection.

Next, there was another American original of a different sort: Walt Whitman. For $270,000 you could go home with Walt’s own first edition copy of Leaves of Grass. Whitman self-published 795 copies of the first edition of his opus in 1855, and just 200 or so are known to exist. Alongside that stunning screed at the Buddenbrooks Fine Books booth, proprietor Martin Weinkle proudly showed me a second edition of Leaves, printed two years later in 1857. This one was special for another reason: It contained the first ever blurb in the history of American literature. Without permission from his idol, Whitman included a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that proclaimed: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” For a relative bargain, that one was less than a tenth of the first edition, listed at $22,500.

William Shakespeare gets second billing
William Shakespeare gets second billing

Finally, any self-respecting rare book fair must have its Shakespeare. From London’s prestigious Sokol Books LTD, there was a pair of beautiful texts from the Bard: for $360,000 a second folio of his Comedies, Histories and Tragedies from 1632, and for $165,000, from 1634, what may be the only available Shakespeare quarto in existence. Working at the Sokol booth and there to help translate for the layman, was NYU Masters student Emma Sarconi, who explained that folios are akin to coffee table books, and hence weren’t ideal for travel, while quartos were about the size of your standard novel, making them more portable and suitable for leisurely reading. Meaning that somewhere four centuries ago, another pair of eyes read those same words and passed the Bard’s book down through countless hands, before it reached my own hands inside the Park Avenue Armory. That is, until it was gently placed back behind glass on the shelf.

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In Search of Lost Fashion: A Dispatch from Antiquarian Book Fair

Considering it’s lousy with near-priceless first editions and ancient tomes, the Antiquarian Book Fair is hardly the typical destination for a fashion enthusiast. Pickings on this front were slim, but hardly worthless, and the best place to be was booth E21, belonging to New York collector David Bergman.

On his front table, gorgeous illustrations danced off the two-dozen or so pages of a fall/winter 1947 catalogue from the French designer Idees ($125), their nipped waists and intricate pleating carrying across a full wardrobe designed for the well-traveled woman. Next to this paean to glamour sat a hefty 1939 trade catalogue from No Mend Stockings ($325) with a plush cover. It wasn’t selling hosiery, though — page spreads featured an illustration on the left side of a majestic woman and, on the right, inset fabric swatches (rayon, wool, grosgrain, even fur) of suggested materials to make an outfit inspired by the adjacent sylph. Hosiery hounds disatissfied with that fakeout, though, would be elated at the shelf above, which displayed a circa-1940 accordion of single stocking samples from the Spanish manufacturer Rossell S.A. ($175). If all that’s too modern, the other end of the table held a stack of 1910 catalogues for both women and men; one for the ladies ($125) was fully photographed, each stern-looking model wrapped in what must have been an astronomically expensive fur, often including multiple tails and full heads.

OK, pervs, here are your stockings
OK, pervs, here are your stockings

That booth earned a visit on the recommendation of White Fox Rare Books & Antiques, which boasted not one but two No Mend catalogues of the same era, in better condition and requiring the better part of a grand to take home: S/S 1940 went for $800, and A/W of the same year demanded $900. The bookseller there told me as he leafed slowly through the A/W catalogue’s pages that he’d nabbed a third in even better condition but, as it was missing a leaf, he hadn’t brought it — although a buyer interested in both could take the third home gratis (“It only seems right,” he remarked as he put his wares back in their case). Asked if he had any more, he said (more than a bit grudgingly) that Bergman had snagged his ‘39 around the same time White Fox nabbed its ‘40s.

The last find of note was nestled in the back of a case a few booths down at Eric Chaim Kline, and what a find it was: five pristine 1921 editions of a French fashion periodical called La mode dessinée par fried (rougly, Fashion Illustrated by Fried, again, very roughly), each in the form of a beautifully illustrated folder holding ten full-color plates. Sad-eyed waifs slouched on each page in painfully elegant bubble coats and sheath dresses, their necks dripping with pearls and fur — styles the contemporary “Gatsby”-themed partygoer would do well to emulate instead of another ahistorical fringe dress. At $3750 for the set, anyone but the best-financed would do just as well to fly to Paris and visit the Palais Galliera, which (according to a cursory google search) has the same run of plates in its collection. But then again, who comes to this book fair for a bargain? Perhaps a hopeful fool, like this humble reporter.

A No-Mend trade catalogue
A No-Mend trade catalogue

 

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Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore, Reluctant Feminist Icon

Mary Tyler Moore, who died Wednesday at 80, was a reluctant feminist. She wouldn’t even call herself one at all.

In 1970, when Moore embodied the character of flighty, 30-year-old single TV news producer Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, there was no other such woman portrayed on television — at least not one who was leading her own show or not dismissed as slutty. The only forerunner was Marlo Thomas in That Girl, but her Ann Marie was a 20-something on her way to marriage, while Mary was running away from the institution.

On the show, Mary fought for equal pay after discovering she made less than her male coworkers. Storylines tackled premarital sex, infidelity, homosexuality, divorce, infertility — everything on a woman’s mind in the dawning era of equal rights, with the glaring exception of abortion. She seemed to be feeling her way toward feminism, sometimes tripping over it and into a women’s movement she wasn’t all that sure about.

Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine began publishing soon after The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered, but Moore wanted nothing to do with the feminist rights icon. Today, Moore’s show might play as the work of what has become known as a “white feminist,” someone concerned primarily with equality for white middle-class women. But it remains revolutionary for its time, and it’s still ahead of much of TV today in one respect: Nothing was more groundbreaking than Moore’s insistence that the writer’s room be filled with women.

Moore with Timothy Hutton in 1980's <i>Ordinary People</i>

This was a precedent that carried over into all the television series developed by her production company, MTM. I’m currently in the middle of a Newhart binge and can attest to the many women who occupy the writing and directing slots for every single episode. In all, MTM produced almost 50 television series, including Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda and WKRP in Cincinnati, and it gave countless women their starts in television. Gail Parent, who worked on multiple MTM shows, went on to write and produce series like The Golden Girls and Tracey Ullman’s Tracey Takes on …

While Moore’s show rounded up a then-unprecedented 29 Emmys, Moore herself was suffering. She was an open alcoholic, and an episode in which Mary became addicted to sleeping pills was largely inspired by her own life. She funneled that pain into her work, fundraising for charities that combated diabetes (she had had Type 1 diabetes since her 30s) and animal abuse. Toward the end of her life, cancer had infected her brain; according to many friends, the happy liberal Moore was glued to Fox News and suddenly calling herself a libertarian.

It’s not exactly clear why she took a right turn in her politic. What was always most important to Moore, a former dancer, was grace. Grace in asking for what you want and in accepting defeat. It’s not hard to imagine her shivering with disapproval at Black Lives Matter activists or millions of women marching for their rights — shades of Ms.! To her, this would be uncivilized, and Mary Tyler Moore lived in a world far from this one, a world where a woman could walk into a news station to apply for a secretarial position only to walk out with an assistant producer title.

She was a woman of great paradoxes, successes and setbacks. When her son was 24 he accidentally shot and killed himself. Holding this in mind while assessing her award-winning performance in Robert Redford’s 1980 directorial debut, Ordinary People — in which Moore plays a mother grieving her son’s death by slapping on a chipper demeanor — brings her life and career into better focus. It might explain why Moore never joined up with Steinem. The woman who could turn the world on with her smile gave a self-fulfilling prophecy that for the world to accept her she had to smile. But not everything can be smiled over.

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Will There Ever Be an Oscar for a History of the Mercury 13?

It’s been a small but warm comfort to witness the success of Hidden Figures, and today’s three Academy Award nominations for a movie that subverts the most tired storytelling traditions about America’s early space program. As the title promises, Hidden Figures moves the story’s focus away from the male astronauts who got vaulted above the atmosphere to the black women mathematicians and engineers who were just as essential to making it happen.

But there’s another part of the story that deserves telling: The astronauts who linger around the film’s edges weren’t all men either. On the contrary, there were 13 women, just as qualified as the men, just as accomplished as pilots, who never got to go to space.

Close to four decades after the 1979 publication of The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s history of early American spaceflight, we’re still undoing the damage, and Hidden Figures is just the start. Wolfe’s book quickly became enshrined as popular history, and the template for blockbusters about NASA’s early days. The 1983 movie adaptation, 1995’s Apollo 13, and the glossy HBO successor From the Earth to the Moon all hit the same storytelling beats—especially when it comes to gender and Wolfe’s “men: astronauts::women: wives” model.

It’s an infuriatingly limited version of history. This is a grudge I’ve nursed since I was a space-obsessed preteen, when The Right Stuff made my fledgling-feminist teeth clench with its rapt descriptions of the brave, macho test pilots and their passive, Penelope-like spouses. Wolfe wasn’t subtle; the righteous stuff of his title came down to “manliness, manhood, manly courage.” (Italics all his.)

At least his version of femininity went over my head at the time. I had to pause a recent reread for gags at “young juicy girls in their twenties with terrific young conformations and sweet cupcakes and loamy loins.”

Even at ten years old, I knew Wolfe was leaving people out of his ode to manliness. I’d already come across Jerrie Cobb, a record-breaking pilot who happened to be female in other, seemingly less authoritative histories, and kept waiting for her name to come up. It didn’t, though during the era that Wolfe chronicled, Cobb and 12 other female pilots underwent the same grueling tests as the Mercury 7, the first seven U.S. astronauts.

The women publicly lobbied for their shot at the stars. “In August 1960, when word of her rating of ‘extraordinary’ on the tests was made public, many newspapers and magazines in the country saluted Miss Cobb as America’s first ‘lady astronaut.’ Time magazine referred to her as ”Astronautrix Cobb,” and Life ran photos of her taking the tests,” according to a 1983 follow-up in the New York Times.

But Cobb and the other women now known as the Mercury 13 were blocked from the early space program – and omitted from many subsequent stories about it. Many Americans, including John Glenn, were complicit in keeping women out of the early astronaut ranks. NASA sent Glenn to Congress in 1962 to make sure these pilots wouldn’t fly:

“The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes,” Glenn testified at a House of Representatives hearing about charges of gender discrimination in the space program. “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order,” he added. “It may be undesirable.”

Then-vice president Lyndon Johnson rejected the women’s efforts to plead their case: “He did not want to ask [NASA administrator] James Webb to look into the question of women astronauts,” Martha Ackmann wrote in her 2003 book, The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Space Flight.

Instead, Johnson scrawled across a letter to Webb, “Let’s Stop This Now!”

It would take another two decades before Sally Ride became the first woman into space, and three before Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman there. It would take thirty years, until the middle of Bill Clinton’s first term, before a woman named Eileen Collins was actually allowed to fly the spacecraft.

Meanwhile, the Mercury 13 women mostly slipped out of history – especially the pop culture version. That women weren’t allowed to do the jobs they were trained for isn’t Wolfe’s fault; that they were left out of the story is. Every once in a while there’s a heartbreaking article about Cobb, who decided to use her flying skills for missionary and humanitarian work in South America. In 1998, as Glenn was allowed to return to space to study the effects of aging (apparently the natural order allowed for old people), a group of U.S. senators and aviation organizations urged NASA to give Cobb her long-awaited chance at an astronaut’s suit.

“I would give my life to fly in space, I really would,” Cobb, then 67, told the Associated Press. “It just didn’t work out then, and I just hope and pray it will now.”

It did not. But her story is as much a part of the early American space program as the one that Wolfe solidified in The Right Stuff, or the much-delayed one that book author Margot Lee Shetterly and director Theodore Melfi are now popularizing with Hidden Figures.

As that film’s success shows, it’s now possible to make a compelling – and popular – story about space even when its heroines remain grounded. Someday, hopefully soon, Cobb’s history should fit right in.