Thirty Years of Café Society

On a recent rainy, spring afternoon, Ruth Rogers of London’s River Café was sipping a fresh mint tea in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel while handling a potential transportation snafu on her phone. Later that night, Rogers was scheduled to cook at the Edible Schoolyard Spring Benefit near South Street Seaport, where she would be honored alongside Questlove and the artist Jim Hodges. In the meantime, a minor emergency had arisen, but, oscillating between our interview and a rapid succession of phone calls, Rogers kept her cool while offering a glimpse of the maternal affection for her staff.

The River Cafe, Hammersmith, London.

Last year, the River Café celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, having opened in 1987 under the guise of a lunch canteen for the firm of Rogers’s husband, the acclaimed architect Sir Richard Rogers, who designed the restaurant’s light-filled space overlooking a garden on the banks of the Thames. Rogers and her business partner, Rose Gray, were in their late thirties and forties, respectively, when they embarked on their plans for a restaurant that would serve the regional Italian-influenced cuisine they’d both grown to love. Gray, who died of cancer in 2010, had been a classmate of Rogers’s husband, whose Italian mother’s cooking was an early influence on both women.

“When Rose died, we were orphaned. I was the single parent, but with a hundred children,” says Rogers. “I took four [of my chefs] and said, ‘OK, you’re my Rose.’ We’d go to meetings and I’d walk in with four other people — it’s a very close relationship.”

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This spring, Rogers, who grew up in Woodstock, New York, returned to her native country for a week of appearances. Also on the schedule was an appearance as one of the keynote speakers at the Cherry Bombe Jubilee, and a book signing at the Gagosian Gallery uptown for the stateside release of River Cafe London, which celebrates the restaurant’s three decades as one of London’s culinary gems, and includes contributions from a dazzling lineup of contemporary artists who also happen to be restaurant patrons, including Cy Twombly, Ed Ruscha, Damien Hirst, and Ellsworth Kelly. Along with two of her head chefs, Sian Wyn Owen and Joseph Trivelli, Rogers spent months working around the clock to put together the book in time for the restaurant’s thirtieth birthday last September. River Cafe London contains 120 recipes, with 90 of them updated and revised from Gray and Rogers’s first cookbook in 1995, The River Cafe Cookbook, and 30 of them new. The restaurant’s legendary Chocolate Nemesis dessert is included, of course, in all its dark, decadent glory, as is Grilled Squid with Fresh Red Chile and Arugula, both of which have appeared on its menus since the very beginning. “It was really nice to review recipes from the book and change them,” says Rogers. “We didn’t want to just look backwards; we wanted to look forwards.”

A River Cafe menu, courtesy of Ed Ruscha

The artistic collaborations stemmed from three restaurant menus used as canvases by Kelly and Twombly, which Rogers had framed and hung in her house. “Ellsworth Kelly was a friend, and he came for the opening of one of his exhibitions at the Serpentine [Gallery], in maybe 1995 or ’96,” she recalls. “He gave me these two menus — we change the menu every day, twice a day, for lunch and dinner — where he’d drawn a self-portrait in the bathroom and a still life. And I also had one from Cy Twombly, who’s also a friend, and he just wrote on his, ‘I love lunch with Ruthie.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, it would be really nice to put these in the book.’ I approached Damien Hirst, who has a studio nearby, and I said, ‘Damien, look, I’ve got Ellsworth, what about you?’ and he said, ‘I’d love to.’ So we sent him the menus, and he did six, actually.” The collection grew from there, with contributions from Rogers’s sister, Susan Elias, and her husband, Reinhard Voigt, both painters; and Peter Doig, another frequent guest at the restaurant. Rogers next asked Brice Marden and then Michael Craig-Martin, both of whom she’d run into at events. “We were about to close the book and then the designer said, ‘If you could have one artist, one last artist, who would it be?’ and I said, ‘Ed Ruscha,’ because he also used to come,” says Rogers, rounding up the list of artistic contributions. “These artists were generous to a fault. I offered to send them back, but they were just incredibly warm and nice.”

The River Cafe

With a Josef Albers typeface and splashes of fluorescent color recalling the restaurant’s own interior, River Cafe London is equal parts art tome and cookbook. The ambient photography by Jean Pigozzi captures the orderly pace of the restaurant’s open-kitchen dining room, and the stark, moody food photography by Matthew Donaldson merges the simplistic nature of the cuisine with the nuance derived from its singular focus on bold but clean flavors. There are commemorative additions from Rogers, including the restaurant’s gradual floor plan expansions, personal drawings and notes from Rogers and Gray, and Polaroids from an art installation created by the restaurant in 1992. As much as it is a cookbook, it reads more as an ode to the restaurant’s enduring legacy, beginning with the bond between the two women who started it all to the River Café’s status as a pit stop on the global circuit of illustrious restaurants. “What I loved most [about this process] was the collaboration,” says Rogers, who notes that this is her first book to be published without Gray. “We didn’t write the book and then hand it over to the designers; we did everything together. We’d talk and sit, put it on the computer. We cooked all the food in the River Cafe and had it photographed.”

A frequent visitor to New York City, Rogers admits to thinking about having a restaurant here. “Everybody would be shocked for me to say that, as I’ve been asked lots of times and I’ve always said no — but there’s a vibrancy to New York that I love,” says Rogers, whose voice now intonates with the barest inflection of an English accent, having lived abroad for nearly forty years. Her visits here once centered on the routine of her grandchildren, but now that her family is congregated back in London, she’s reverted to rituals of her own. “I really enjoy street life,” she says, citing Sant Ambroeus as her favorite spot for breakfast and admitting to a predilection for hotel rooms on high floors. “I always go to MOMA, and I go to the galleries — Gagosian has the most amazing Twombly show going on downtown — and I love Central Park and trying new restaurants.”

Rogers is slight in stature, but she comports herself with the confidence befitting someone used to being in charge. It’s a trait she shares with her husband, whose latest building, 3 WTC, is opening in June. “I was there this morning,” she says, describing the experience as “humbling” and the project itself as a “tough commission” considering the gravitas bestowed upon the five office towers and memorial site erected on the footprint of the original Twin Towers. “Nobody knew what it was going to be like. Was it going to be full of memories? Was it kind of overwhelmingly grandiose? I think it’s done both — the beautiful water, the fountain. It’s a sign of the future to see the architecture.”

The same glimpse into tomorrow applies to her own restaurant kitchen, which was prescient in its pursuit to employ a staff of at least 50 percent women since it opened thirty years ago. “We were two women running it, but it was really crucial for us to have women [in the kitchen]. For every man, there was a woman, as it’s very important to have both,” she opines. “Like every profession, [restaurants] are dominated by men, but the excitement in London or NYC is that it’s changing.”

One aspect of the River Café’s legacy is the family tree that has extended across the Atlantic, most notably with the 2003 arrival of April Bloomfield, who opened the Spotted Pig before sprouting the rest of her burgeoning empire. Last year, two more recent alumni, Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer, opened the much-lauded King in Soho, where Rogers had dined the night before (she loved it). “Each of them wanted to do something on their own,” says Rogers. “They come to you and say, ‘Ruthie,’ with that look in their eye, and they say, ‘I’ve got to go, I’ve got to move on,’ ” she says with a smile and a knowing look. “A lot of people don’t — the four head chefs I have have all been with me seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years. So when somebody leaves, I say, ‘I hope you’ll keep cooking, I hope you’ll be strong, I hope you’ll take the values — don’t just take what you learned as a chef; take the values.’ It’s like with children: If you love them, let them go and develop.”

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At King, the menu also changes daily, which is something Shadbolt says is instinctive to most chefs who leave the River Café. “As a young chef, you are taught to fall in love with the ingredients primarily, and every chef there is conditioned to look at the ingredient and have real respect and appreciation for it,” says Shadbolt, who started out as a personal assistant to Rogers and Gray before stepping into the kitchen in 2013 at Rogers’s behest. “It’s so rare in a kitchen, where it’s so ingredient-led. There’s not a day that passes where I don’t consider what I was taught at the River Café. It really is the best restaurant in the world, and what I think they’ve created is a masterpiece — it’s magic.”

“When I really think of legacy, I think of the people who work there,” says Rogers. “They take me forward, and we just always think about the future.”

A sketch “for Ruth and Richard” by Ellsworth Kelly on the back of a menu.

Once she’s back in London at the River Café, Rogers needs to find a way to configure the framed menus. “We tried to put them all up, but [the restaurant] has one great white wall, and they just didn’t work there,” she notes. “We have to rethink it.” And she has no plans whatsoever to stop cooking, whether it’s at the restaurant or at home, where she’s been known to host dignitaries with simple meals that spring from her own personal food ideology: The more important the person, the more simple the food. “I think I’m lucky and privileged to love my work, to have a team of people that are just so great to work with, and to come home to my family,” she says. Then she adds, with a spirited laugh, “I’ll die at the stove.”

Ruth Rogers appears with Danny Meyer and Adam Rapoport to discuss “Thirty Years of Recipes and Stories from the River Cafe” at the 92nd Street Y on Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m.


Grisaille Vaginas and Saturated Sunsets

Ah, summertime, when a gallery-goer’s fancy turns to . . . group shows. “Sunsets and Pussy” (Marianne Boesky Gallery) focuses on two time-honored summer pastimes, envisioned by four artists from three generations.

The youngest, Lucien Smith (b. 1989), nails the desperate ennui of summer-camp romance in a series of snarky postcard appropriations adorned with hand-inked dialogue balloons. In Cindy don’t live here no more (2013), a conversation pokes in from the left side of a sunset framed by leafy trees:

“Didn’t you say you had a boyfriend?”


While from the right, a third voice calls out “Cindy??”

In another series, “Panoramic Postcards,” Smith cobbles together vintage vistas, including Canadian lakes and Southwestern deserts, printed in drive-in movie palettes, transporting us to amped-up idylls somewhere beyond nature. The lurid, manufactured hues create what might be a new genre—landscape porn.

Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) delivers monochrome salaciousness, employing gentle curlicues to spell out “Pussy” in a 7-inch-high graphite drawing, the velvety gradation of the background seamlessly entwining figure with ground, content with composition. At the other end of the calligraphic spectrum, Ruscha’s starkly stenciled depiction of the decrepit Hollywood sign against a smoggy sunset conjures the Black Dahlia and Charlie Manson downsides of California dreamin’. Novelists might kill to craft phrases as compelling as a Ruscha drawing.

There is something equally expansive about two pink paper pieces by Piotr Uklanski (b. 1968), which, despite their imagery—the ripped pages convey an undulating softness that gathers in dark magenta flaps at the center—recall Robert Motherwell’s mandarin collages employing torn classical music scores and Gauloises cigarette packs.

The career of Betty Tompkins (b. 1945) fascinates, beginning with her explicit “Fuck Paintings,” which doomed this feminist artist to obscurity in the early 1970s before lifting her to fame when she was in her late 50s. Although she was disheartened by the art world’s disdain for women painters when she started out—she once tried to get her then-husband to show dealers slides of her work using his name—Tompkins also disagreed with the wing of feminism that was, as she put it, “not pro-pleasure.” She cropped hardcore pornography shots (borderline illegal at the time) to inspire what she briefly labeled her “Joined Forms” paintings, a rather tortured terminology for penises entering vaginas, but one that nodded to the minimalist and formalist theories ruling the era. An interviewer recently asked, “Were you attacked by women?” Her reply: “No, I was ignored by everybody.”

Except for one writer who, back in the day, deemed Tompkins’s work “about as interesting as a medical textbook.” But in 2003 dealer Mitchell Algus finally ignited her career with an exhibition of those same ’70s paintings, which have become a hit with today’s collectors. Scale and a monochromatic palette are part of their disarming charm. The works on view here depict solo vaginas; one, Cunt Painting #20 (2013) measures nearly 5 feet square. The opposite of a textbook diagram, this work, and a grid of nine 16-inch-square “Pussy Paintings,” offer blurry gray diagonals and smooth creases that gather into abstract money shots. Tompkins’s surreal colored-pencil sketch from the auspicious year of 1969, Cunt Landscape, gives us the female crotch as a bushy red valley leading to an inviting sea. (The span of Tompkins’s works illustrates a cultural shift summed up by no less an authority than Hugh Hefner, as he reminisced about six decades of publishing Playboy in a 2010 interview: “Quite frankly, the biggest difference is that pubic hair has disappeared. It happened overnight. It was probably something in the water.”)

While perusing pornographic pictures almost half a century ago, Tompkins hit on something elemental, and she stuck with it until the world finally took notice: “I was looking at them one day and thinking, you know, if you take off the head, and the hands, and the feet, all the identifiers, then what you have left is something really beautiful in an abstract way, plus it has this tremendous kick as subject matter.”

Correction: An art review by Brienne Walsh titled “We’re All Her” that ran in the Village Voice on June 19 contained several misstatements. The father of the artist, Laurel Nakadate, is Japanese-American, not Japanese. A subject’s shirt was described as having a unicorn on it; in fact, it was a horse. Finally, the project’s gestation should have been described as “two years” rather than one. The Voice regrets the errors.


Spooks and Aliens: Trevor Paglen Surveils the Surveillance State

In a stroke of grim serendipity, Trevor Paglen’s latest exhibition opened on the day the Senate began confirmation hearings on John O. Brennan, President Obama’s choice to head the CIA. A recent brief by the ACLU notes that Brennan is “something of a Forrest Gump of toxic national-security policies, having been in the room when everything from torture to the killing of an American citizen was being debated.” Paglen was not in any of those rooms, but he might have been watching them: His long-range lenses (repurposed from astrophotography gear) have captured the vast network of buildings, vehicles, and technological marvels that make up our mostly out-of-sight, out-of-mind national-security complex.

At first glance, Paglen’s five-foot-wide 2012 photo Untitled (Predator Drone) seems like one of Ed Ruscha’s canvases with the subject airbrushed out. But look very closely at the gradated beige and orange background and you’ll discern a teensy plane in the desert sky. A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution estimates the kill rate of these attack aircraft at “10 or so civilians” for every “mid- and high-ranking [al Qaeda and Taliban] leader,” and Paglen’s image captures the terrifyingly remote, indiscriminate nature of high-tech warfare. The U.S. drones circling unseen over Pakistan and Afghanistan are piloted by joystick jockeys based somewhere near Las Vegas, who can rain down sudden hellfire on foe and mistakenly targeted friend alike.

In the 2012 diptych The Last Pictures (The Narbona Panel; Humans Seen Through a Predator Drone), Paglan probes the moral dilemma of a war that keeps one set of combatants out of harm’s way. In the left-hand photo, Navajo pictographs illustrate an 1805 massacre by Spanish troops led by Antonio de Narbona. The tribe hid in a high cave and the Spaniards fired up into its mouth, the ricochets killing everyone inside, sight unseen. The right-hand panel depicts hazy figures trudging through gnarly topography, the scene garlanded with targeting data. Paglen captures the fog of digital warfare in these static-blurred shapes—a tough call for some over-caffeinated pilot in an air-conditioned building half a world away.

Paglen brings the war home with National Security Agency Utah Data Center, Bluffdale, UT (2012), which documents the ongoing construction of the gargantuan facility that will hoover up yotabytes (one quadrillion gigabytes) of American citizens’ e-mails, Google searches, and cellphone calls, plus such digital “pocket litter” as parking receipts and bookstore purchases. Traveling to Aruba, Moscow, or Lahore? Don’t worry—the Men in Black will know where to find you.

The artist, who has a Ph.D. in geography, writes, “One of my analytic assumptions is that all human undertakings, including secret programs, are spatial . . . even though classified programs are organized in such a way as to maximize their own invisibility, they have to happen somewhere.” Whether he’s taking his own photos or appropriating the work of others, Paglen indeed appreciates the complexity of compressing our volumetric world down to two dimensions. At 3 by 4 feet, his photo of the blossoming NSA complex delivers painterly heft through a swath of bright work-lights bisecting a nocturnal landscape of mountains and desert.

Paglen’s The Last Pictures project, meanwhile, has taken his obsessions into orbit. Represented here by several diptychs on the wall and in a slide show, the work itself consists of 100 images etched onto an “ultra-archival” silicon disk sealed in a gold shell and affixed to the EchoStar XVI communications satellite—a picture book for whatever beings might find it circling the Earth eons after we’re gone. Not knowing our fate is part of the point. The pictures run the gamut of humanity: a trainer bows to a killer whale in an aquarium; a Vietnamese mother tends to children deformed by the effects of the U.S. Army’s herbicide Agent Orange; Captain America hurls his shield. Two walls of the gallery are festooned with outtakes from the project, a mural of formal hijinks: a Japanese graphic featuring sexual congress between a maiden and an octopus is juxtaposed with Pentecostal snake handlers; firing rocket engines join Turner’s painting of Parliament burning, along with the steam-belching Moloch machine from Metropolis. Like a DJ, Paglen connects moods and segues among rhythms in this deft visual jam culled from the graphic babel of the Internet.

In an excellent catalog essay, author and critic Rebecca Solnit observes, “Artists are, at their best, honorary aliens seeing the familiar through strange eyes and the unseen in plain view.” This notion becomes manifest in one of the more playful diptychs on display from The Last Pictures. On the left, a still from a 1956 Japanese sci-fi film depicts characters in cyclopean starfish costumes struggling to communicate with endangered earthlings. On the right, reality gets even weirder: in 1975, as part of the Golden Records program for the Voyager space probes, three Cornell scientists were photographed demonstrating “eating, licking, and drinking.” In the image here, a woman’s tongue strains toward an ice-cream cone, an older man clamps his teeth on a sandwich as if he’s preparing to shake it to death, and a grad student streams water into his mouth from a pitcher held above his head. Unlike Paglen’s photo album, which is eternally locked in geosynchronous orbit with Earth, Voyager 1 is approaching the outer edge of our solar system, bearing this bizarre calling card from humanity to whatever interstellar denizens might try to decipher it.

In Paglen’s expansive visions, miscommunication—too often intentional—is a fact of life. In war, innocents die as a result; in pop culture, aliens are stymied; in America, the Constitution gets bent.

So it goes.

Metro Pictures, 519 West 24th Street, 212-206-7100, Through March 9.


Drawn to Text

At first glance, the photocopied page from an obscure 19th-century British treatise on methods for copying drawings seems bland. Yet Molly Springfield’s 2008 “Chapter IX” is not actually a photocopy but a pencil drawing that lovingly mimics the gray toner blotches and bumpy focus of an old Xerox machine, the expertly re-created text noting, “The usual result of such a practice with thoughtless and stupid persons is idle deception.” “Art = Text = Art: Works by Contemporary Artists” promises scores of such post-modern gems, including multiple entendres (“Gray Sex,” 1979) from painter Ed Ruscha, graceful schematics by choreographer Trisha Brown, and collaged “to-do” lists from camp auteur John Waters.

Mondays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: Sept. 4. Continues through Jan. 6, 2012


2010’s Best Comics and Graphic Novels

We’re sorry, but 2010 has been a dreary slog (Tea Party, anyone?), which is reflected in just about every graphic narrative that moved us this year. But we won’t let darkness visible obscure the intense artistry found in our picks of 2010’s best comics and other illustrated provocations.

For starters, we now know what 1930s anti-Nazi collagist John Heartfield would have done with the physiognomies of Hitler and Goebbels if only he’d had Photoshop. In Repuglicans (Boom Studios, 128 pp., $14.99), Pete Von Sholly brings every right-wing potentate from Newt to Sarah to undead life with bloated, pustular flesh, frothing fangs, black-oil eyes, and other colorful grotesqueries. Steve Tatham’s pithy commentary confirms that the policies of these demagogues are every bit as monstrous as their portraits.

Even more horrifying, Danzig Baldaev’s Drawings From the Gulag (Fuel, 240 pp., $32.95) documents the phantasmagorical evil of the Soviet prison system. Female “enemies of the people” were thrown into cells to be gang-raped by thieves and murderers; children of imprisoned dissidents were given a “ticket to a happy childhood”—a euphemism for a bullet to the head. One prisoner lamented that “a human being survives by his ability to forget,” but Baldaev (1925–2005), who served as a camp guard and risked his own freedom to create these unflinching, painstakingly crosshatched scenes, knew that forgetting only allows such horrors to be repeated.

The Sinister Truth: MK Ultra (Pop Industries, 102 pp., $11.95) exposes our own government’s nefarious experiments with mind control and the CIA’s 638 different plots to kill Castro (and you thought it was only exploding cigars). Jason Ciaccia’s tale of LSD-crazed assassins would seem ridiculously hyperbolic if it weren’t derived from the CIA’s own files. With nods to Grosz, Bacon, and Steadman, Aaron Norhanian’s fervid ink drawings propel this witty hybrid of underground comix and the History channel right over the top.

Another aspect of America’s id gets probed in The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read! (Abrams, 304 pp., $29.95). Jim Trombetta’s exuberant prose posits that postwar visions of atomic Armageddon, combined with rebellion against the era’s social constipation, inspired paroxysms of four-color mayhem. Bluenoses all around the country held comic books up as examples not only of why Johnny couldn’t read but also why he was out raping, robbing, and killing. Copious color reproductions highlight the lucid lunacy of Basil Wolverton, the proto-psychedelia of L.B. Cole, and other inspired craftsmen of the macabre.

By 1955, Congressional pressure had driven horror comics out of business, but in less than a decade Creepy and Eerie magazines resurrected the genre like some reanimated corpse seeking revenge on its own murderer. Darkhorse’s striking reprints (currently at 13 hardcover volumes, $49.95 each) reveal such industry giants as Gene Colan, Russ Heath, Jerry Grandenetti, and Alex Toth using ink wash, crosshatching, and swathes of Zip-a-tone to lend their murderers and monsters convincing presence. These always entertaining, occasionally brilliant stories — see Archie Goodwin and Steve Ditko’s kaleidoscopic time shifts in “Collector’s Edition” (Creepy Vol. 2) — gain force from the lithe black-and-white layouts.

Meanwhile, contemporary horror keeps coming at us like a zombie tsunami. Julia Gfrörer’s Flesh and Bone (Sparkplug, 40 pp., $6) features ardent line drawings of wan figures that might have escaped from an Elizabeth Peyton painting. This unearthly collision of witchcraft, gruesome love, and pathetic death dissipates into a truly poignant climax.

Equally absorbing, Charles Burns’s X’ed Out (Pantheon, 56 pp., $19.95) takes his obsession with the mating habits of teenagers to otherworldly planes. Burns allies luxuriant brushwork with an inspired palette that illuminates boho parties and mutant dystopias with equal conviction.

King of the Flies: 1. Hallorave (Fantagraphics, 64 pp., $18.99) manages to combine dystopia and partying in one particularly morose suburban nabe. Artist Pascal “Mezzo” Mesenburg’s crisp scenes of druggy costume soirées and bowling-alley liaisons deftly complement writer Michel Pirus’s slyly interlocking tales of depraved jollies in suburbia.

No one, however, can transform the workaday into existentially bleak page-turners like Chris Ware. His tales of myopic relationships and enervated dreams shimmer with eloquent graphics, precisely tuned dialogue, and perfect-pitch body language. In Lint, Acme Novelty Library Vol. 20 (Drawn & Quarterly, 72 pp., $23.95), we see parents’ faces slowly come into focus through their baby’s eyes, watch the young Jordan Lint grow into an adult-scaled world, then follow his punctured ambitions and bumptious middle-aged affairs to the moment when everything contracts back down to that first dot of consciousness. Astonishing.

Also dazzling, Dirty Baby (Prestel, 160 pp., $125.00) begins with Ed Ruscha’s paintings of blurrily silhouetted sailing ships and foreboding tract homes overlaid with white bars implying censored phrases. Each of these mysterious images is counterpointed by David Breskin’s witty poetry (derived from such Ruscha titles as “Be Cautious Else We Be Bangin’ on You”). Rather than explicate the pictures, the poems seek to metaphorically fill the blank areas with fresh interpretations. Nels Cline’s clashing musical harmonies (included on four inset audio CDs) further stitch poetry and canvas together into a mordantly funny, amorphously beautiful genre Frankenstein.

But if you’re looking for the current gold standard in straight-up comic-book artistry, Darwyn Cooke is your man. The Outfit (IDW, 160 pp., $24.99), like last year’s The Hunter, sets one of Donald Westlake’s crime thrillers against Rat Pack–era backdrops, where antihero Parker wages a profitable war on syndicate bosses who want him dead. Westlake’s cynical characterizations — a thrill-seeking society girl pouts when a would-be hitman confesses before he can be tortured — merge with Cooke’s diverse layouts and visceral figures to keep the plot burning rubber from wire to wire.

DC Comics Superman Vs Muhammad Ali

Neal Adams set equally high standards in the 1960s and ’70s with masterful renditions of characters as disparate as Jerry Lewis, Deadman, and Batman. In 1978, Adams, along with the virtuoso writer Denny O’Neil,  yanked out all the stops to portray that era’s most incandescent personality in Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. DC has reprinted the original oversize comic in a lavish facsimile edition (80 pp., $39.99) that provides a nostalgic respite from our current national malaise. The plot opens in the ghetto as the Champ plays hoops with a multiracial gaggle of kids, but it’s not long before an alien armada arrives to lay waste to Earth. Things get progressively wiggier as Supes and The Greatest take their lumps in the ring against the humongous invaders; Adams’s hyperkinetic action sequences are barely contained by the page margins. The book closes on a poster-size spread as the two heroes shake hands after truth, justice, and superior fisticuffs have straightened those freakin’ aliens right out.

So maybe there’s hope for the American way, after all.

¶ Web Extra!

And here are a few online bonus items to round out our admittedly idiosyncratic baker’s dozen of the year’s best:

Simon and Schuster’s new “Pulp History” line digs into America’s seamy past, with Devil Dog (160 pp., $19.99). U.S. Marine Smedley Darlington Butler (1881-1940) fought bravely against Germans, Chinese, Nicaraguans, and anyone else he was pointed at before writing an exposé entitled “War Is a Racket.” David Talbot chronicles Butler’s shift from self-described “muscle man for Big Business” to supporter (and, by some accounts, savior) of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, while comix luminary Spain Rodriguez provides flamboyant illustrations to complement archival photographs, period posters, and news clippings.

Amping up tropes from The Stand, The Road Warrior, and other post-apocalyptic jaunts, Jeff Lemire’s ongoing Sweet Tooth (Vertigo, vol. 1, 128 pp., $9.99, vol. 2, 144 pp., $12.99) envisions a ravaged world populated by roving gangs tracking down hybrid human-animal babies in order to determine the cause of a global plague. Gus is a sweet-tempered, doe-eyed tyke with antlers growing from his head; when his religious-fanatic father dies, Gus travels with a former NHL brawler who, in exchange for his dead wife’s corpse, trades the kid to a militia performing experiments on the new breed of children. Lemire’s disheveled line work, somber palette, and angular black silhouettes keep this surprisingly touching story entirely believable.

While set in the here and now, A God Somewhere (Wildstorm, 200 pp., $24.99) climaxes with apocalyptic slaughter, as tales of gods generally do. John Arcudi’s grim narrative of delivery-man Eric Forster’s accidental ascent to omnipotence is bolstered by Peter Snejbjerg’s expressionist violence and overt visual references to such classical compositions as Michelangelo’s Christ the Judge, from the Sistine Chapel. Families, generals, and presidents suffer as Forster’s good intentions are outstripped by the power his ego can’t contain. His dearest friend, wishing that the chain of events leading to widespread carnage had somehow been different, finally despairs, “There is no ‘if.’ There is only ‘is.’ ”



Although artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol are iconic because of their paintings, they both made important contributions to photography. Artists Making Photographs at the Whitney features their photos alongside some of their works in other mediums. You’ll see Warhol’s Nine Jackies, a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy taken at the time of her husband’s assassination, which explores the use of repetition and ushered in the genre of photo-based history painting. Images in the exhibit by Rauschenberg were taken during a trip to Rome in 1952- and include a snapshot of fellow artist Cy Twombly in Cy + Relics. The show also features photos by artists John Chamberlain, Lucas Samaras, and Ed Ruscha (including his painful-looking 1973 self-portrait Swollen Eye. Ouch).

Sat., Jan. 17, 2009


The Cool School

Half a century ago, so the story goes, Los Angeles was a visual-art wasteland. Excepting the movies, of course—an asinine exemption to make for any number of reasons, not least being the presence (albeit temporary) of experimental-film pioneers Maya Deren and Gregory Markopolous. But as for official, capital-A gallery art, that happened in New York, where the Abstract-Expressionism movement was entering high summer, soon to give way to the cerebral cool of the Pop Art scene. A thing or two was going on in the Bay Area: a lively group of second-rate Ab-Exers, a scattering of superior painters (Clifford Still, Richard Diebenkorn), and—not that anyone knew it at the time—an institutionalized Mexican immigrant and master of drawing and collage named Martin Ramirez. But L.A.? Zilch, zero, nada—until, all of a sudden, kapow! The Ferus Gallery! Ed Ruscha, Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin! Andy Warhol’s gallery debut! Duchamp retrospectives in Pasadena! Like all such stories, the saga of the contemporary L.A. art scene is more nuanced than that, and The Cool School, a documentary by filmmakers Morgan Neville and Kristine McKenna, does an ace job at tracking down forgotten figures and burgeoning bohemias even as it perpetuates some of the conventional disparagements and outmoded narratives of mid-century La La Land. Galvanized by the idiosyncratic curator Walter Hopps and the legendary scene-maker Irving Blum, a gifted clique of painters, sculptors, architects, and mixed-media artists coalesced around the Ferus. Derision, notoriety, and fame ensued, as did breakthroughs in materials (clay, glass, plastics), motif (car culture, typography), and attitude (sleek, industrial, ephemeral). All told, and well told, this is essential history.


Lonely Hunter

The subjects of Catherine Opie’s academic black-and-white photographs are, as the show’s title informs us, “American Cities.” We see St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and New York. Opie is trying to tap in to the deadpan lucidity of Atget, Abbott, and Evans. She’s drawn to the indexical vision of Edward Ruscha and the lonely 1970s cityscapes of Thomas Struth. Although many of these works are momentarily engaging, Opie’s city pictures flirt with the canned grandeur and romanticism of Ansel Adams.

Nevertheless, some of Opie’s city pictures are laced with a degree of latent psychological content. We know from her past work that Opie is, or was, part of the lesbian BDSM community. She’s known for images of herself and others pierced with needles etc. This ritualized pleasure and pain is here but cloaked in a fascinating blandness and Opie’s rage for normalcy. She likes families and communities. In “American Cities” the streets may always be barren, but it’s as if she’s staking a claim for those, like her, who want to walk these streets alone without feeling afraid.

Far better are pictures of Los Angeles mini-malls, in which Opie gets out of her own way. We see storefronts of a Taiwanese dentist next to an Arab hairdresser next to a Chinese dry cleaner next to an Italian pizzeria run by Vietnamese. Admirers say these pictures are about “urban sprawl.” This is totally wrong. These pictures echo Opie’s urge for normalcy and are images of hope. The mini-malls are portraits of those who have hung placards outside shops in hopes of making their fortune. I love these pictures.


Hot Spot

Tod Lippy, a New Yorker, is the creator of ESOPUS (pronounced “ee-SOAP-us”), an interdisciplinary arts publication that is published semi-annually by the Esopus Foundation. Combining brilliant, dramatic design with often esoteric texts, Esopus was conceived by Lippy to provide a forum for the open exchange of artistic ideas and theories, unhampered by the constraints of commercial publishing: i.e., budget restrictions, advertising (Esopus has none), and editorial trends. Issue four, out now, contains work by Ed Ruscha and stills from Claire Denis’s film Vendredi Soir, among other features, plus a CD of songs about imaginary friends. Also in the works are an events series, chapbooks, and other artist’s books under the Esopus umbrella. Lippy, who is also a filmmaker and an educator, edits and designs the publication.

1 What does “esopus” mean? Its name comes from that of a creek that runs through the Catskills, which is very unspoiled and quite beautiful.

2 How did you get started with this gorgeous project? I’ve always been struck by the uncomfortable relationship between advertising and editorial, and I was dying to try to create a completely “commercial-free” magazine. And it seems to me that there weren’t enough generalist (i.e., multidisciplinary) publications in the arts anymore, and I wanted to create something that could be accessible to a wider audience. . . . I was keen to create a forum in which contemporary art could be delivered to the public in the most neutral way possible (i.e., with little or no editorial interference) but in a format that was appealing enough visually to attract a more diverse audience. I knew the only way to do all of this was to operate as a nonprofit—we could charge less for the magazine than it costs to produce and not have to worry about answering to all kinds of commercial pressures. This led to the creation of the Esopus Foundation, which publishes Esopus and which will hopefully do a whole bunch more stuff in the future.


3 How is Esopus funded? The magazine is funded by revenues from sales and subscriptions, donations from individuals, and grants from organizations. Since we don’t accept any advertising, we count on grants and donations to take up the slack.

4 What magazines do you like? These days, I read The Economist, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Discover, Topic, Cabinet, Bomb, etc. For pure “look at” value, anything designed by Alexi Brodovitch. I was given a copy of the first issue of Portfolio 10 or so years ago, and it’s still my most prized possession—he, as far as I’m concerned, is the true master of publication design.

5 David Carson, a graphic designer of the early ’90s known for his often illegible style and terribly grandiose pronouncements, declared print dead some years ago. Was he right? No way! There is something undeniably visceral in the experience of handling a book or magazine—the smell of the inks, the weight and texture of papers, simply flipping through pages—that no other medium can match.




Is “Contemporary Voices” the Ishtar of museum shows? Just as with that Hollywood debacle, this sample of work from the collection of financial behemoth UBS proves that sometimes marquee stars + big budget = dud. Like a preview suckering you in with a film’s best scene, UBS’s ubiquitous ad campaign featured The End, a grisaille painting of two distressed movie frames by the always sharp Ed Ruscha. More typical of the exhibit is Philip Guston’s In the Studio, an enervated painting devoid of the subtleties that give the clumsy alter egos of his late cartoon paintings their pathos.

Diversifying their portfolio with a tepid trio by Anselm Kiefer—a bland watercolor, a leaden collage, and an incoherent canvas—the brokers, perhaps counting pennies, neglected to invest in any of his powerful paintings depicting Nazi architecture. The passionate painter Susan Rothenberg is represented by narrow, unwieldy panels remaindered from niches in PaineWebber’s corporate dining room. Masters from Joseph Beuys to Terry Winters contribute works that are blue-chip in the ledger and bloodless on the wall.

But no worries. At the new MOMA multiplex, if you don’t like this show, there’s a terrific one, featuring many of the same big names, only an escalator away.