Anna Sokolow and Luciana Achugar: Two definitions of Intensity, Generations Apart

During Anna Sokolow’s lifetime, she apparently gave out a number of possible birthdates—all of them slightly later than the one on the birth certificate that her late biographer, Larry Warren, thought to look up. Odd for a woman who never cottoned to glamour, a choreographer who was raised by her immigrant parents on New York’s Lower East Side and grew up fierce and uncompromising. Anyone dancing for Sokolow—whether a professional in New York, Israel, or Mexico, or a student at Juilliard where she taught for a number of years—knew that every gesture had to be performed with unwavering intensity. Or else.

2010 marks the centennial of her birth, and events honoring her and performances of her works have been cropping up since October 2009. The plucky Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble group directed by Jim May (once a superb interpreter of the choreographer’s work) presented a program in February at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA, where in the 1930s Sokolow taught, performed, and showed some of her first dances. The Ensemble appears again at the Ailey Citigroup Theatre at the end of next October. Both the José Limón Company here and Introdans in the Netherlands mounted her great 1954 Rooms. At the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, an exhibition devoted to her is on view through July 24. These are just some of the celebrations.

One of May’s recent accomplishments was to unearth in Mexico a pirated video of Murals, a piece that Sokolow created for the dance group at the University of Veracruz in 1980. His reconstruction formed the centerpiece of the ensemble’s recent Joyce Soho season. In this handsome little work, you can see most of the structural characteristics of Sokolow’s choreography and her vision of dancers. From the opening moments of Murals, when the performers are seated in a tight circle around the single figure of a priest (Mayan, perhaps), the choreography shows you how powerful the sudden, simple, concerted lift of eight heads can be. Often Sokolow breaks up a phrase of, say, running, turning, and posing, so that the dancers are doing these at different times; the effect is of individual responses within a cohesive society. When they kneel in a diagonal line and strike the floor, each one embellishes the unidentified percussion score by Carlos Chavez with a different rhythmic pattern.

The dancers give the impression of seeing great distances, except when they settle into hieratic poses that suggest temple friezes. Even partners spend little time gazing into each other’s eyes, and when Atsushi Yahagi lifts Samantha Geracht, she lies back, slanted against his body, more like a ritual sacrifice than a lover. The work has an assertive, ceremonious power and condensed energy in both its spatial patterns and its movement, except for the leader’s big springs into the air. The impact of Murals is enhanced by the fact Luis Gabriel Zaragoza is not only a strong dancer; his face brings to mind ancient Mezoamerican carvings.

Sokolow’s 1997 Frida celebrates later Mexican culture. The choreography for this portrait of painter Frida Kahlo is flavored by a peasant jauntiness when the dancers aren’t echoing the moods, poses, or relationships shown in Kahlo’s projected artworks. (I was especially taken with one painting that shows Kahlo, looking small and grumpy, beside her large, domineering husband, Diego Rivera.) Set to a variety of folk music and pieces by Mexican composers, Frida diffuses toward the end, with various props never getting used.

Both this piece and the 1995 duet, September Sonnet, reveal in various ways Sokolow’s gift for making form resonate with feeling. In Frida, Roberto Garcia, as a stern and arrogant Rivera, revolves slowly, holding one arm stiffly out to his side; whichever way Lauren Naslund, as Kahlo, runs distractedly around him, she can’t get past that barrier. Sometimes Naslund moves forward, supported from behind by the ensemble dancers, but they also give the impression of a great cloak of people that she is pulling after her. In the middle of September Sonnet (set to music by Rachmaninov, Poulenc, and Schumann), Francesca Todesco enters to stand close to Zaragoza; pressed together spoon-fashion, they bend sideways and reach out their nested hands. At that moment, you realize that he performed those same gestures alone at the beginning of his solo. Sokolow must have wanted us to think back and wonder whether he was remembering her or hoping for her.

The program also presented one of Sokolow’s odder works. I’ve never fully understood it. Dating from 1952 and titled A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime, it’s meant, I think, to be both a comedy and a faintly malevolent satire aimed at upper-crust white folks attempting to get into the spirit of jazz. The music is by Jelly Roll Morton and, ideally, a live pianist would be onstage. A dressed-up 1920s pair (Eleanor Bunker and Richard Kilfoil), rise intermittently from their chairs to demonstrate various ballroom struts, waltzes and rags at the request of a cheery lecturer (May), wearing tails and a distractingly dreadful gray wig and holding index cards. Part of the disjunction between content and style comes from the fact that this interlocutor speaks his text—some of which appears to be by Jelly Roll Morton (“I’ll play it for you”)—with the precision of an elocution teacher, although the grammar is often casual.


The man and woman demonstrating the steps are stiff and proper, even when cutting loose somewhat in the scampery kicks and hip wiggles of the “Tiger Rag.” May plays his role charmingly, and Kilfoil displays a droll hauteur, although I don’t recall earlier performers making quite so much of a little flirtation as he and Bunker do. I’d give a lot to know what was going through Sokolow’s mind when she made this piece for the tap dancer Danny Daniels and Carmen Gutiérrez from Mexico.

I admire May’s commitment to keeping Sokolow’s austere, heartfelt work alive, but wish that the costumes for this relatively light program were better; only those by Bunker and Ivana Drazic for Frida were passable. And, although the members of the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble perform with conviction, few of them are proficient enough to make the choreography flame through them from the soles of their feet to their fingertips.


How often do you go to a dance performance hoping to be spellbound? No, I mean really

spellbound, wondering what spectral presence may be conjured up or whether the crawling, growling, snuffling creature starting up the aisle of the Kitchen’s black-box theater will lick your feet (not a usual aisle seat hazard). The Uruguay-born choreographer Luciana Achugar has always investigated—celebrated—the primal in her compelling pieces. She makes you intensely aware, sometimes at very close range, of the performers’ breathing, their body heat, their sweat. In her new Puro Deseo, she adds another layer, invoking paranormal phenomena and the occult. She wants, I think, to mesmerize us, which she does, and I don’t think she’d mind scaring the hell out of us. If I were to cede my ability to construct a sentence and moan my way down the page in syllables, I might better convey the visceral response this work induces.

Puro Deseo isn’t what people usually mean when they call something a dance. All the movement is guttural; gestures spew up from some dark, inner place. Only once, when Achugar stands with her feet apart and springs up repeatedly onto the balls of her feet, do you realize that she could hack it in ballet class. Nor can you think of the mysterious transactions between her and composer-performer Michael Mahalchick as anything resembling a conventional duet.

You’re constantly aware that you’re not seeing everything. Lighting designer Madeline Best creates a black cavern, within which paths appear and disappear on the floor, and dim patches of light reveal Achugar or Mahalchick, then vanish. If you blink, you may miss something. Sometime their giant shadows loom on the back wall. In this context, a sudden glare of white light is shocking, as is the low lamp at the rear that’s aimed right at us.

From the beginning, we’re taught to accept the dark. We sit in blackness, listening to Achugar’s barely audible voice coming from behind us. She’s singing in Spanish what sounds almost like a lullaby at first. I can just make out a few words: “sana,” and “mañana. . .” She repeats the short song many, many times, gradually getting louder and harsher as she nears the performing area. When we do see her, she’s gliding back and forth along a diagonal, turning her head to stare at us as she passes, her long, stiff, black silk coat rustling, black gloves covering her hands. She’s a solidly built woman, but she seems almost weightless on this smooth journey—like the ghosts that float through Gothic novels.

Now we see her, now we don’t. Suddenly Mahalchick’s supine form is revealed for a few seconds. When the lights come up again on Achugar, she’s tracing a new path. Sometimes in the dark, we hear sounds—metallic things clashing together, a ringing sound, crackling paper. Time begins to seem altered. Having glimpsed Mahalchick only in flashes, we watch him sit for a long time in a circle of light, moving his arms with a soft, incantatory grace that’s surprising, considering his appearance. His long red hair tangles with his beard, and Walter Dundervill has costumed him in a loose, curiously draped black silk shirt that sparkles subtly, and what look like shortish baggy overalls of similar material. When he stands, he intones Achugar’s song in a resonant monotone and at a pace so slow that his breath control seems close to inhuman.


The fact that the 55-minute Puro Deseo is so compressed and so elegantly constructed renders the allusions to witchcraft and possession all the more unnerving. Something very frightening is being hinted at, and we’re never sure which of the two characters is in control, or which is being conjured up by the other. Mahalchick stands at the back, raising his arms as if summoning up forces and chanting “sa-na, sa-na,” while Achugar lies supine on the floor, rhythmically spreading her legs, raising them bent, and lowering them pressed together; she moves her arms in a related pattern. At this point, she has shed her coat and is wearing a very short, artfully slashed tunic over lacework tights, under which she appears to be naked. She repeats this sequence of movements over and over (I counted about 84 times) quite calmly, without acting out sensual experience, but as time passes, you feel the action in your gut and can imagine that she’s giving birth to an infant fantasy or screwing a succubus.

In the end, the two merge—first standing one behind the other; then facing, foreheads pressed together; then separating and walking away from us, curved arms lifted, toward that one blinding light and on into darkness. The night air outside the theater has never seemed so fresh and bright.



Frida Kahlo’s traditional Mexican attire, which she made all her own—from the long skirts to the ribbon-laced braids—spoke volumes about the Mexican resurgence in art and experimentation that took place in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, once the country’s bloody revolution had ended. Renowned photographers from around the world flocked to Mexico to capture this new era, and, of course, the colorful Kahlo was one of their favorite subjects. In Frida Kahlo and the Mexican Renaissance, Throckmorton Fine Art exhibits a series of these photos and images, including shots of Kahlo and her husband, artist Diego Rivera, at a peace march, and several taken by Hungarian photographer Nickolas Muray, including one of Kahlo that was used for the cover for Vogue. Other photographers featured in the exhibit include Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Tina Modotti.

Aug. 9-Sept. 14, 2008


Olafur Eliasson’s Anti-Sublime Enchantment

“Art is about communication,’ I reminded a painter friend as she sang the praises of a mutual acquaintance, a sculptor with a prickly personality who makes notoriously recondite and difficult work. “Think so?” she responded. “I’d say art is about research.”

Communication or research? How interesting it is to view the history of modern and contemporary art in particular through the prism of that great divide. Frida Kahlo: communication. Marcel Duchamp: research. Henri Matisse: communication. Kasimir Malevich: research. Of course, no one’s work falls entirely on one side or the other. (Picasso’s Guernica: an experiment in form or a cry of political anguish? Koons’s Puppy: an expression of mass love or an essay in mass communication?) But in most cases, a basic impulse may be discerned.

Research is the operative mode for Olafur Eliasson, an artist raised in Denmark and Iceland who calls his Berlin studio a “laboratory” and collaborates regularly with scientists, engineers, and architects on projects ranging from the 2003 installation of an artificial sun in the vast entrance gallery of London’s Tate Modern to the design of a new BMW. The Tate installation (known as The Weather Project) made Eliasson, now 41, something of an artistic celebrity, with thousands thronging the museum’s massive Turbine Hall daily to lie on the floor, gaze up at the mirrored ceiling he’d mounted, and soak in the rays of the optical illusion he’d created from yellow lights, a huge semi-circular screen, and pumped-in mist.

It was the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of Eliasson’s “immersive environments,” as he calls them, many re-creating the effects of natural phenomena, like rainbows or solar eclipses, within museums and galleries. His was an art, coming from afar, that spoke to nature-starved urban sophisticates whose only contact with waterfalls or moss might take this highly mediated form. But it also reached out across class and geographical divides, using perceptual conundrums to dislodge received certainties about our relationship to art, our bodies, and our environment.

It was art that offered (sometimes quite literally) a breath of fresh air, engaging both the sense of smell, for example, and the philosophy of perception, and using minimal means to create transcendental effects, often through architectural interventions at several removes from the marketplace. Land artists like Robert Smithson, Light and Space artists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell, Minimalists like Donald Judd, designers and social engineers like Buckminster Fuller: Eliasson riffed on their legacy with his own peculiar brand of anti-sublime enchantment—smoke and mirrors revealing themselves as such.

This deft sleight of hand that turns dry exercises in phenomenology into wonder-inducing spectacles is also at work in “Take Your Time,” a traveling survey of Eliasson’s work, which arrived at MOMA and P.S.1 recently from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it originated. The exhibition in New York, with its two institutions, straddles a body of water that will itself be the site of another Eliasson work once The Waterfalls, his project with the Public Art Fund—a series of monumental, man-made cataracts installed along both banks of the East River—opens in late June.

“Take Your Time” is something of a teaser, then. For people unfamiliar with Eliasson’s work, it will likely come as a revelation. For those who have followed his career, it may prove a more uneven experience—heavy on research at times, and light on communication. In any case, it offers material for reflection on the way museums assimilate art that makes radical claims on our attention.

The first radical claim comes in the shape of an electric fan, swinging wildly (like an out-of-control pendulum or a hypnotist’s watch) just above the viewer’s head in MOMA’s central atrium. Ventilator, as an exhibition opener, is audacious—with its elusive breeze and slightly menacing motion, it’s a pirouetting high-wire act that seems to have swept away the Barnett Newman sculpture and the paintings (by the likes of Monet, Twombly, or Jennifer Barlett) that usually reside there.

The second comes in the form of an intense yellow light that begins to bathe visitors on their way up the escalator and continues through the third-floor hallways, so that, caught unawares, you’re immersed in the art before the exhibition even properly opens. (Don’t look for wall labels; your clues­—including titles, dates, and descriptions of the works—are to be found in the accompanying map/brochure.) Room for One Colour (1997) plays perceptual tricks, so that everyone appears to be wearing either black (which they probably are, this being New York) or yellow; it also turns the portal at the end of the hallway violet, so that we seem to be progressing down it toward both the main exhibition space and an illusion.

On the way, your attention is arrested by Space Reversal (2007), an opening cut into the corridor wall that you step up into; lined with mirrored foil, it shows your reflection, upside down and every which way, unto infinity. Other visually ravishing, if psychologically (and physiologically) disorienting works include 360 Room for All Colours, a panoramic chamber whose circular walls are illuminated with a changing spectrum of colors, evoking images of nature (rosy-fingered dawns, empyrean blues, the whiteness of the desert sky at midday) and acting on your emotions. (What does it feel like to be magenta?)

A curtain of moist and fragrant reindeer moss (Moss Wall, 1994), subtly variegated in color and filling an entire gallery wall, takes the minimalist monochrome in an entirely new direction. And in Your strange certainty kept still (1996), droplets of artificial rain, falling in a darkened room from a perforated hose positioned high overhead, are momentarily illuminated in mid-sprinkle by flashing strobe lights, so that they twinkle like a jeweled veil or stars in the night while offering a proto-cinematic sense of time’s passing.

Do these and other works at MOMA rattle our fundamental notions about art or the individual’s relationship to society? Probably not—but then, that’s a tall order. The best of them skirt the dry formalism that is this artist’s Achilles’ heel and reach deeper into the realm of fascination and feeling.

Perhaps context is all: Over at P.S.1, the specter of formalism seems more remote in a mix of Eliasson’s older and newer works. There, visitors can also intuit the biographical underpinnings of his oeuvre in several series of photographs, arranged in grids, of glaciers, caves, rifts, and horizons that he’s taken on his frequent walks through the geologically active landscape of Iceland. Two long galleries filled with mixed-media models (geodesic domes, Tatlinesque constructions, and the like) also give a sense of the fertile workings of his creative process.

A cave-like room (Soil Quasi Bricks, 2003), whose walls are covered with hexagonal earthen tiles, seems to have emerged from volcanic depths. The illuminated ceiling of another bare gallery (The natural light setup, 2008) emits different shades of white light, revealing the white cube (the standard envelope of Western art) as entirely artificial, while calling up the various emotions elicited by bright and overcast skies.

In the basement, Beauty (1993) conjures a constantly shifting rainbow from a spotlight shining on a fine rain of mist, recalling will-o’-the-wisps and other supernatural spirits that once beckoned to 19th-century travelers in the marshes of Europe. And upstairs, a dizzying brand-new work—an immense, circular mirror, attached to the ceiling at an angle and rotating slowly­—reflected, on opening day, a large portion of the New York critical establishment. The axial movement of Take your time (2008)—the work, created exclusively for P.S.1, that lends its name to this entire exhibition—reminded us that, like the turning of the earth’s sphere, each new day carries the potential for revolution.


Six’s Soft Upper Lip

A 1909 piece in The New York Times called for men to shave off their upper-lip adornments. “A moustache,” the article claimed, “is not conducive to greatness.” A century later, playwright Michael Lew has disproved this conjecture. Though overlong and strained toward its end, Lew’s The Moustache Guys displays a surfeit of comic genius.

The concluding play in Six, an evening of one-acts by Asian-American writers, The Moustache Guys uses these crumb catchers to excellent effect. A suspicious wife dons a false set of whiskers to try to infiltrate the International Order of the Moustache Guys, a secret sect her husband has joined. She searches for him among such mustachioed brethren as Barbershop Quartetist, Kung Fu Master, Kentucky Prosecutor, Frida Kahlo, and The Year 1977.

The Moustache Guys, like most of the evening’s plays, addresses ethnicity only glancingly. (The husband, like many Asian-American men before him, is himself unable to grow a mustache. Like his wife, he relies on a fake one.) Indeed, the plays have very little that unite them, although three do feature some form of air guitar. For the most part, they exist independently, sharing some of the same cast members, but presenting little overlap in form, character, or concerns.

Julia Cho offers perhaps the most proficient piece, Round and Round, about a couple on the verge of divorce. The husband (Joel de al Fuente), a linguist, can wax eloquent about Esperanto but can’t find the words to hold onto his marriage. Patricia Jang’s heavy-handed Ein Berliner also concerns a sort of breakup: the dissolution of a friendship between two men. Rehana Mirza’s trite A Dose of Reality features a wife making a public-access show of her own unsatisfactory life, while Sung Rno’s turbulent The Trajectory of a Heart, Fractured presents a husband trying to put his thoughts in order just prior to a plane crash.

Intermittently amusing, Ralph B. Pena’s Tail stars the superb Jodi Lin as a breathy would-be seductress, subjecting a suitor to an endless string of voice messages. “As you know,” Lin coos, “I come from, um, Asia . . . . A racial cocktail, with a just a teeny touch of bitters. . . . Inside, I have real . . . you know, pain. Do you like pained Asians?” It would be difficult to dislike Lin, pained or otherwise. Perhaps Lew can set up her lonely character with one of his mustache guys. I bet British Colonialist would just adore her.


Group Portrait

Ethnic identity isn’t the hot art issue it was in the ’90s, but in “The L Factor” it’s evolving into something cooler and a lot more complicated. This “conceptual portrait” show includes commissioned works by 31 new artists about Latino role models. “We were looking for the next generation of Latino artists,” explains Jeanette Ingberman, who with Papo Colo has long kept Exit Art ahead of the curve.

Latino role models? The theme can’t help but lure out all the old stereotypes: Carmen Miranda as Chiquita Banana, Ricardo Montalban as Latin lover, Cantinflas as bumbling sidekick, even Speedy Gonzales as a Pez dispenser. And of course it’s a trap for superficial attributes. Two artists focus on Frida Kahlo’s iconic eyebrow. Three go with J.Lo’s ass. But her cotton-candy figure by Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz and Edwin Gonzalez is a delectable comment on celebrity, and her glittering Grammy dress, re-envisioned by Milton Rosa-Ortiz in broken glass, is transcendent. With subtlety, humor, and paradox, these artists stress, stretch, and neatly dispose of both old and new Latino clichés.

From Ileana Emilio’s paper boat for historic educator Eugenio Maria de Hostos to Manuel Acevedo’s pistol-shaped perfume bottle for Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebron (who shot up the U.S. Congress in 1954), this show expands notions of identity and complicates things. What’s more Latino: Claudio Arrau playing Beethoven sonatas in Christian Torres Roje’s cerebral audio-bed piece, or the hip-hop oracles on 20-year-old Jose Mertz’s celestial mural? Worldwide soccer hero Pelé, who inspired a luminous video by Alex Villar, or the late major leaguer and humanitarian Roberto Clemente, levitating in Eduardo Gil’s video homage? In the end, this show is about the Latinness that has always been part of our national culture as well as the Hispanic presence here and now.


Deconstructing Hairy

She’s been dead for nearly half a century, but Mexican painter Frida Kahlo is the quintessential artist of our moment. Kahlo was female, Latina, disabled, bisexual, Communist, and even part Jewish. She hobnobbed with world-historical figures from Nelson Rockefeller to Leon Trotsky, yet during her lifetime was largely unrecognized outside her circle. Best of all, her overriding subject was . . . herself. Since Hayden Herrera’s biography propelled this hitherto marginal figure toward single-name celebrity, the artist herself has become an icon—the face that launched a hundred thousand refrigerator magnets.

Herrera opened a 1983 Artforum article on Kahlo by introducing the artist as the star of a unique melodrama, citing the 35 surgical operations Kahlo endured from age 18—when her torso was crushed and impaled in a trolley accident—until her death at 47. She next describes the Mexican folk costumes Kahlo wore, in part to conceal her injuries and in part to define her image. The subject of some 200 self-portraits, Kahlo played Gauguin to her own Tahiti and became her own trademark. Her concern with self-presentation and frank use of her physical condition anticipate later practitioners of performance and body art. Indeed, watching Salma Hayek impersonate Kahlo in Julie Taymor’s Frida, it’s difficult not to ponder the ironies inherent in the star’s frisky perf and voluptuous bod.

Hayek, who also co-produced, inhabits Frida with the unconcealed triumph of one who has successfully wrested the role away from such formidable wannabes as Madonna and J.Lo. An earlier Kahlo biopic fell apart 10 years ago when angry Latina actresses protested the casting of Laura San Giacomo in the title role. But no one can fault Hayek’s ethnicity or mistake her exuberant self-stereotyping. Mischievous schoolgirl or imperious invalid, Hayek is a tempestuous spitfire—eyes aflash, lip curled, bodice swelling. Whatever the real Frida might have been, this one, as the former editor of The New Yorker used to say, is hot hot hot.

While husband-to-be Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) argues politics with rival muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (Antonio Banderas), Frida dances a mad provocative tango with comrade art-world babe, photographer Tina Modotti (Ashley Judd). Frida is a woman to whom nothing is foreign. She can hurl dishes at Diego (a big, good-natured slob who brushes off his infidelities with lines like “It was just a fuck—I’ve given more affection in a handshake”), march at the head of the May Day demonstration, party down with the workers in a raunchy mariachi bar, accept the praise of suave surrealist André Breton (“Your paintings express what everyone feels—that they are alone and in pain”), or tenderly give herself to smitten Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), brightening his exile and last year on earth.

Paul Leduc’s no less hagiographic Frida, made in Mexico in 1984, presented Kahlo’s life as a series of achronological episodes. The result was static and overly curatorial, but the impressionist model might have served Taymor better than her Frida‘s straightforward script, which is ultimately overwhelmed with incident and suggests the labor of many hands. “I paint what I see—the world outside. You, you paint from in here,” Diego tells Frida, grandly thumping his chest, and Taymor herself seems to have taken that observation to heart. Frida‘s strongest scenes—including the catastrophic streetcar accident in which Kahlo is splayed out, bloody, and (as actually happened) covered with gold dust—are boldly stylized and halfway to cartoon animation. There’s even a tasty bit of business, apparently designed by the uncredited Brothers Quay, in which the delirious girl is ministered by a gaggle of Day of the Dead skeletons. The movie’s palette is vibrant, and the numerous meals served throughout are delectable enough to upstage the star.

Frida bogs down in close-ups and plot explication, but hopeful Taymor never stops swatting the piñata of Kahlo’s subjectivity. Improving upon her turgid adaptation of Titus, the director has no fear of gaudy trinkets. Would that there were more. Kahlo’s paintings are regularly brought to life to take their place in the grand gallery of MTV surrealism. The pet monkeys that scamper through the heroine’s tropical garden are reprised when she accompanies Diego to New York and in an elaborate hallucination imagines him as her King Kong. Swank and splashy as it is, Frida leaves the lurking suspicion that Taymor might have preferred to stage her pageant as a puppet show.

Another ’80s cult figure, French philosopher Jacques Derrida first appears in Derrida crossing Houston Street, not five blocks from the venue where this documentary portrait is having its local premiere. Derrida seems supremely at home in New York. His discourse mixes French and English, and it has long been suggested that his brilliance was more prized here than in Paris. The menacing phrase “Derridean deconstruction machine” had the aura of a secret password back when I was in grad school, and I treasure the story that the front row of the master’s Yale lectures was occupied by a gaggle of black-clad co-eds known as the Derridettes.

Derrida, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, assumes a similar perspective. The prof holds forth on subjects ranging from the concept of the future and the dynamics of forgiveness to the mystery of the other and the nature of narcissism, including his own. (There’s a garmento flash to his wardrobe; he’s fashionable in more ways than one.) The movie is ultimately about the philosopher’s personality—if you loved Lingua Franca (and what lumpen academoid did not?), you’ll certainly dig Derrida. It’s endearing to hear Madame D. refer to her husband as “Jackie”—and he does make for excellent company, not least as a self-conscious performer. Derridean analysis is founded, in part, on determining who speaks for whom (and from where). The filmmakers enter into the spirit, playfully deconstructing their own process by including shots of Derrida fiddling with his microphone and going to the cinematic interpersonal: “So this is what you call cinema verité. Everything is false. I’m not like this.” Naturally.

Movies about philosophers are in short supply, perhaps with reason. Asked what he’d like to see in documentaries on Hegel or Heidegger, Derrida immediately expresses curiosity as to their sex lives—although he himself is the soul of evasion. Indeed, Derrida’s most spontaneous moments occur as a public figure. He seems genuinely nonplussed, if not downright testy, when an overeager British interviewer attempts to lure him into a discussion of Seinfeld. “Deconstruction as I understand it does not produce any sitcoms,” Derrida haughtily tells her. “Do your homework and read.”

Having stunned the world with his glorious backstage Gilbert and Sullivan romp Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh sobers up and returns to more familiar turf. All or Nothing is set in a depressed London housing estate whose employed denizens, high Cockney most of them, hold depressing jobs and ward off clinical depression by challenging the Guinness world record for use of the term “fuck off.” The main depressives, played by Leigh regulars Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville, are a cab driver and supermarket cashier with two extra-large children, one of whom stoically mops up after the elderly while the other strains the capacity of the family’s living-room couch.

Humanistic tearjerker or misanthropic troll opera? Leigh uses a somber cello-rich score to infuse this quotidian suffering with a mystical edge and high-culture gloss—and yet, thanks to the generally enthusiastic performing, the movie borders on farce. (It’s revealing that Leigh would be a fan of Todd Solondz.) The most Dickensian of British filmmakers, Leigh populates All or Nothing with a grotesque assortment of drunken hags, persistent old wankers, creepy loners, belligerent slugs, and nut-job taxi fares—not to mention the pair of lissome young actresses compelled to contort their features into hilarious Kabuki-mask scowls. The ensemble is as compact in its way as the cast of a sitcom—and no less inclined to squabble and whine. The exception is Ruth Sheen’s chipper impression of a single mother with a pregnant daughter. (Mysteries of personality—why did her character get the cheerful gene?)

All or Nothing can be rough going—even a bit grueling—building up through a medical crisis to the big scene between Spall and Manville. To be fair, it’s largely a Spall solo. (Manville had her quieter equivalent at the end of Topsy-Turvy.) And to be accurate, his raw theatricality is at odds with the preceding action. Still, Leigh’s lesser films are founded on such privileged moments. Though more cathartic than redemptive, this sob-racked confession is the payoff for two hours of low-grade misery.

Related Story:

Frida Icon: The Return of the Kahlo Cult” by Joy Press


Frida Icon

Every era chooses its own heroes, and Frida Kahlo was the perfect feminist heroine for the ’80s. Hayden Herrera’s Frida, the first biography of the then obscure Mexican artist, was published in 1983, just as Madonna and Cindy Sherman were parlaying experiments with female self-representation into a mainstream spectacle. At the same moment, interest in Latin American magic realism was booming, and Kahlo’s audacious, fantastical self-portraits placed her at the intersection of these otherwise unrelated trends. Kahlo, who died in 1954, was a crippled, bisexual Communist who painted visceral images of miscarriage and menstruation and was overshadowed by her more famous husband, Diego Rivera. Yet in the last 20 years, she’s joined the rarefied ranks of artists like Picasso, whose work is as ubiquitous as wallpaper. More than just a poster girl for artsy adolescents or a Latina role model, Kahlo is now a coffee mug, a key chain, and a postage stamp.

Suddenly a fierce new wave of Fridamania is upon us that is conjuring up a new Kahlo, customized to suit 21st-century desires. This spring brings the publication of Kate Braverman’s The Incantation of Frida K., a provocative novel based on her life, and the opening of “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and 20th Century Art,” an exhibition at El Museo del Barrio featuring 10 of her paintings. There’s also the inescapable buzz surrounding Frida, the forthcoming Miramax film starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor.

The race to make a movie of Kahlo’s life has been frantic, with Frida admirers like Hayek, Madonna, and Jennifer Lopez all hatching rival projects. (Both Lopez’s version, to have been produced by Francis Ford Coppola, and Madonna’s, which reportedly would have starred Marlon Brando as Rivera, are out of commission for the moment.) Miramax’s Frida has been postponed until October amid gossip about wrangles between the director and Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein, but it was originally slated for release this spring—hence the media blitz that included a photo spread in Vogue and an odd Times piece on entertaining: “Kahlo often decorated her table with flowers that spelled out special greetings. Of course, in Kahlo’s case, one might say ‘Viva Trotsky,’ as one of her floral arrangements did in 1937 when her favorite Communist visited.”

Kahlo’s story lends itself to mass marketing because she consciously forged her own “brand,” painting herself over and over with that trademark unibrow and the traditional Tehuana costumes she wore to reclaim her indigenous heritage. Her life was also crammed with movie-ready melodrama and tragedy. There’s the trolley accident that shattered her teenage spine and sent a handrail through her pelvis, leaving her unable to bear children; the tempestuous marriage to Rivera, a world-famous artist and compulsive adulterer; her own numerous affairs, most notoriously with Leon Trotsky. Frida translated this raw material into paintings that pulse with voluptuous agony and eccentricity.

None of Kahlo’s bloodier work is on display at the current Museo del Barrio show. But if you stand in the center of the gallery surrounded by all those Fridas, you can’t help but feel singed by her look of defiance and self-possession. Diego on My Mind (1943) is a beautiful but chilling image of Frida shrouded in a shawl with a lattice of tiny threads radiating out from her face like roots grasping for water; embedded in her forehead is a tiny image of Diego. And Self-Portrait With Bed (1937) has Frida sitting on a bench alongside a creepy, pot-bellied baby doll—a stand-in for both Diego and the child they could never have. Although her canvases often reference Rivera, they also exude a stony solitude. “Loneliness is the key to her subject matter,” biographer Herrera points out. “A feeling of abandonment and separation and disconnectedness runs all the way through her work.”

Frida was once celebrated as the queen of pain. But now that female misery is unfashionable (kicked out the door with so-called “victim feminism”), the current resurrection of Frida Kahlo seems like a reaction against the blandness of post-feminism. Female icons like Madonna and Courtney Love have ditched transgression for yoga, replaced by numb nymphets like Spears and Aguilera or proficient starlets like Witherspoon and Diaz. And so Frida has been called back into service to incite some rebelliousness.

Julie Taymor, Frida‘s director, thinks Kahlo’s reputation needs an update. “People always think of her as the tortured artist, like Saint Sebastian with the arrows going through him,” she says. “I think what turns us all on is the humor and foul mouth and free sexuality of Frida—that’s what makes her interesting to do as a film.”

“Frida begs to be liberated from the confines of biography,” writer Kate Braverman explains. In The Incantation of Frida K. (Seven Stories Press), a hallucinatory novel loosely based on the artist’s life, Braverman does just that. The author of several previous experimental novels including Lithium for Medea, she acknowledges that her Frida is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Doped up on morphine and nearing death, the artist appears bitter but transcendent.


Several writers have fictionalized Frida’s life over the years—most recently Barbara Mujica, whose novel Frida (published in paperback this spring by Overlook Press) is narrated from the perspective of sister Cristina Kahlo, who had her own affair with Diego Rivera. Mujica plays the facts pretty straight, whereas Braverman’s harrowing book takes such imaginative liberties that it’s likely to piss off some of Diego and Frida’s faithful fans. Incantation embellishes Frida’s story with kleptomania, opium-den hopping, seedy sex with sailors, and lots of lesbian love affairs. After numerous miscarriages, she resolves her sorrow by carrying an imaginary daughter around in a ring box: “I let her crawl around the grooves in my palms, slide along my life and health lines. I put her in an ashtray so she could watch me work.”

Braverman says she chose Kahlo as a protagonist because “she was a painter, a morphine addict, the first woman psychoanalyzed in Mexico—she’s a prototype of female modernity. The trick was to invent a voice for the inner Frida, and to find a literary style as poetic and dangerous and prophetic as the paintings are. I felt I was an anthropologist discovering the subterranean Frida.”

The most controversial element of The Incantation of Frida K. may be its portrayal of Diego Rivera as an almost monstrous figure with the heart of a butcher. But Braverman insists that her Frida and Diego are not at war—they are entangled in a symbiotic relationship. “He cajoles her and he keeps her alive,” she says. “At one point in the book he tells her, ‘I give your agony focus.’ ”

Like Sylvia Plath, that other goddess of the angsty teen-girl set, Frida is sometimes lamented as a female genius overshadowed by her repressive, adulterous husband. But Taymor sees her movie as a love story, and has no sympathy for Diego detractors. “If people criticize the movie by saying our Diego is too nice—I would fight with that, because if you admire Frida, you could never present her as a woman who would just be abused. He was a giant, ugly man, so obviously there had to be a lot in Diego for her to want to be with him all those years,” she says heatedly.

“Frida took on a marriage knowing that this man’s capability for fidelity was pretty slim,” Taymor continues. “But the way she resolved her frustration was phenomenal. This woman didn’t sit in the corner and mope; she took on her own sex life. What I find so fabulous and disturbing is that they never stopped loving each other through all that. . . . At the end when she was at her worst, her health was failing and she was alcoholic and addicted to drugs because of the pain—he came back to her.”

Taymor, known for her avant-garde puppetry and for directing the stage version of The Lion King and the movie Titus, seems like the perfect filmmaker to bring Frida to the screen. The two artists share a visual sensibility that combines fantastical and folkloric imagery with tactile realism. “I was very attracted to the notion of how to realize her paintings in a surreal way,” Taymor says. She brought in lyrical-goth animators the Brothers Quay to reenact Frida’s post-accident hallucinations—a scene that some believe is at the heart of a dispute between Taymor and Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein.

“The movie will be amazing if Harvey Weinstein keeps his hands off of it,” says Herrera, whose biography was the basis of the screenplay. “If you’re hiring a genius like Taymor, you can’t then say, I want to cut these 10 seconds or whatever it is. And she’s as fierce as he is. She is the most focused person I’ve ever worked with.” Currently in Brazil recording the film’s soundtrack, Taymor won’t comment on the rumors except to say, “We got tremendous scores in the previews. And we found males and females like the movie almost equally—can you believe it? Because it’s not just her art, it’s about her life.”

Everyone has their own take on Kahlo’s magnetic appeal. Braverman says that her Frida “is a thrill seeker, a delinquent, a revolutionary. . . . She spent so much of her life in solitary confinement in hospitals that I think Frida lived posthumously. In my book she is fueled by the myth she’s creating.”

According to Taymor, “She made herself an icon. She took her imperfections and made them the ultimate. She made her eyebrows and her mustache much more prominent than they were in real life; she emphasized what we would consider the ugly parts and made them beautiful. I think that appeals to many people because it tells them you can make something extraordinary out of ugliness.”


Once the film hits the screen this fall, moviegoers will likely begin nursing their own personal Frida fantasies. “Frida Kahlo would have loved all this attention,” Herrera says with a chuckle, “because she painted self-portraits partly to get people to acknowledge her.” And she probably would have been thrilled to see petite Mexican starlet Salma Hayek decked out in frilly skirts and chunky jewelry, her face garnished with unibrow and mustache. Says Herrera, “There’s one scene in my book where she’s walking down the street with one of her doctors and they pass a pretty woman. Frida says, ‘I’ll smoke that one myself.’ That’s probably what she would have said about Salma.”


Girl Trouble

Will anyone mourn the late Mademoiselle? Folded after 66 years, the last issue had the bad luck to hit newsstands almost immediately after the worst attack in American history, though that can hardly be the whole reason for its demise. The turquoise and pink cover, awash with the lameness that afflicts most ‘women’s’ magazines, bills the typical mix of the prosaic (‘Your New Haircut Starts Here”), the lurid (“Cadee Condit: Why I’m Sticking by My Dad”), and the deeply conventional (“Engagement Special—Yes! Yes! Yes!”). Inside, there’s a list of products purportedly favored by the late Natalie Wood’s daughter, and a picture spread of Julia Stiles and Catherine Zeta-Jones sporting a hairdo the magazine calls a demi-ponytail.

Mademoiselle‘s last cover girl is Keri Russell, an actress who used to be on a show called The All New Mickey Mouse Club and now plays Felicity, an NYU student with a roiling love life, on the WB television show of the same name. If plenty of readers would love to trade places with someone playing a student rather than stay in school themselves, this was most assuredly not the case when Mademoiselle, once a highly regarded magazine, was founded. In its heyday, Mademoiselle did not spend its time telling you how to look like an actress or a model. These unseemly careers, associated in the public imagination with nudity, casting couches, leering directors, and photographers with greasy hands (in polite society, model was a euphemism for whore), were the polar opposite of the métiers the Mademoiselle girl had in mind.

The Mademoiselle girl wore a cashmere twin set and lived in a dorm with a curfew; she got a degree, suffered the ignominy of learning to type, killed a few years working someplace like an art gallery or a publishing house, and then achieved her true goal: marriage. This unvarying script had an iron grip on social life, repeated for decades not just in magazines but in novels, movies, TV shows, and plays until the late 1960s, when the curfew was permanently lifted. (Invitation to readers: If you can think of one American movie made before 1965 where the heroine is allowed to live a happy life without benefit of husband and/or children, please e-mail this column.)

The suffocating world Mademoiselle was born into has faded into oblivion, and good riddance. But it’s a shame that what was best about the original Mademoiselle—its willingness to acknowledge the intellectual aspirations of its readers (the magazine once published Truman Capote and Carson McCullers)—has vanished as thoroughly as bobby socks and circle pins. Like its sisters—Jane, Glamour—who survive it, Mademoiselle died trying to serve a modern reader who herself is torn in a dozen contradictory directions at once. If the marriage-minded college girl of Mademoiselle‘s early days was schooled to be reasonably well-groomed and well-read, her successor is expected to look like a model, pursue a brilliant career, be hot in bed, and still spend untold hours trying to snag a husband.

In its attempt to please this combination of Britney Spears and Madeleine Albright, the magazine took the low road. “Is Your Job Sabotaging Your Sex Life?” queries one article in Mademoiselle‘s last issue. As if you don’t have enough to worry about, “Plan Dates for When You Ovulate!” is the suggestion made by another piece, but not so you’ll get knocked up—the article alleges that “you feel more beautiful when you ovulate.” “You Conform? Hell, No” is the headline extolling the virtue of “being yourself at work,” with no nod to the ominous consequences that can attend this strategy. Is it any wonder Mademoiselle lost its way, preaching to women who’ve been told that to be happy they need to sport a diamond engagement ring on the fist that holds a bulging briefcase?

Just as it was hearing its exit music, the equally anachronistically named Harpers Bazaar was debuting a new editor—Glenda Bailey, imported from Marie Claire. In recent years, Bazaar has been the Pepsi to Vogue‘s Coke, offering a similar if weaker brew of what Anna Wintour has on tap: an unspoken contempt for people who can’t afford the prices of designer fashion, a giddy adulation of socialites and that reformed call girl, the model, and the odd pairing of a head-in-sand approach to social ills with the occasional worthy digression about, say, breast cancer treatments. Bailey’s Bazaar throws a bucket of cold water on those Blahnik pumps and Gucci pedal pushers. For the first time in its life, the magazine has stuff like a $35 shirt from the Gap, and, in a feature called “Luxe for Less,” an $80 coat from Old Navy. (The hyperactive, super cheap Old Navy has been called many things, but luxe is not one of them.) Of course, like Mademoiselle and virtually every other magazine on the stands these days short of The Nation, the new Bazaar borrows from the highly successful, celebrity-besotted Instyle, telling readers where actresses buy their hairpins in the hopes that this will inspire you to buy them too. The obligatory page of party pictures is here, but now it not only shows you what Sofia Coppola and Sarah Jessica Parker are wearing, it tells you where you can buy the same outfit. (Oh, would that the magazine went just one step further and revealed that, unlike you, these starlets don’t pay for the stuff they wear.)

There’s still plenty of retrograde stuff: do’s and don’ts makeup columns, endorsements of quack diets, articles about events like a “plastic surgery party,” where gals get together for nips and tucks. But these reactionary vestiges are undercut by a number of features about women who couldn’t care less what kind of hand cream Madonna uses, and here, one senses, is where Ms. Bailey’s heart really lies. An interview by David Bowie with the highly unorthodox British artist Tracey Emin discusses matter-of-factly the artist’s life in 1990, when she had an abortion and destroyed all her work. The text that accompanies a fashion spread designed to help the reader look like Mexican painter Frida Kahlo ($3800 Marc Jacobs skirts, $925 Dolce & Gabbana blouses) has anecdotes that make it clear that Kahlo, a highly original, nutty dresser, wasn’t the sort of woman seduced by designer clothes sold in department stores. Little kids would yell “Where’s the circus?” as Kahlo swept through town in authentic peasant skirts, ruffled blouses, embroidered aprons, and clanking jewelry. “It’s so horrible, it’s beautiful!” she would crow as she swooped down on a market stall full of kitschy treats. Kahlo was notoriously difficult, but she wasn’t trivial: It’s hard to imagine her at a botox party.

Even women you wouldn’t expect to break the mold reveal themselves in unexpected ways. Though an article about Gwyneth Paltrow, Bazaar‘s November cover girl, regurgitates the predictable movie star fodder—she eats whatever she wants; she hates her butt; she loves sex—it’s not entirely without surprises. Asked who she’d like to trade places with, the actress picked a woman who can be seen nightly wearing a khaki jacket and hanging out a few miles from the Afghanistan border in Pakistan. “Christiane Amanpour,” confesses Paltrow. “I just think she’s totally punk rock.”


Pillow Talk

Mommy, suburban-blond and cardiganed, lies curled up on the sofa. Daddy, just home from work, unburdens himself of briefcase and joins her. Daddy wants to play. “Once upon a time,” he proclaims, “I was a star of the Russian ballet.” After some prompting Mommy follows suit, sort of. “Once upon a time,” she deadpans, “I was a 500-pound porn star. I used to let men pee in my mouth.”

In Mother’s Couch (Flea Theatre), Mommy and Daddy’s round of let’s pretend serves as a gateway drug. It leads to many more sports—some frivolous, some serious, some deadly. No sooner have the couple entered into a second game—a mild s/m scenario involving handcuffs—than two would-be robbers burst in. Max, the softheaded gunman, and Argentina, his hard-hearted moll, thrust
Mommy and Daddy into new roles, those of helpful hostages. Daddy passes out drinks, Mommy hands over the cuffs and offers dinner. With the subsequent arrivals of the couple’s young daughter and a neurotic neighbor, the roles reverse again, for both criminals and victims.

Playwright Erin Courtney’s characters use these games as approach-avoidance tactics, allowing them to endure, and even embrace, terrifying situations—
terminating the make-believe whenever the situation becomes too real. And Courtney, a talented young writer with some charming turns of phrase, should be pleased at having found such an enthusiastic cast. Stephanie Weldon’s chirpy Mommy and Paula Ehrenberg as the union-suit-clad daughter stand out, as does the couch itself—a plump looker that would do any drawing room proud. —Alexis Soloski

Mail Bonding

In the realms of art and entertainment, being earnest isn’t very important at all. Perhaps that’s why After the Fair, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s story “On the Western Circuit,” is such a ho-hum (York Theater Company). During the four-character chamber musical, Anna, an illiterate maid in an upper-middle-class home 100 miles from London, falls for Charles, a barrister visiting the local fair. Unable to answer his subsequent billets-doux, she prevails on her bored-with-marriage mistress, Edith, to correspond for her. The inevitable happens, as fans of Cyrano de Bergerac will foresee. The barrister falls in love with the lady of the letters, learning who really wielded the mighty pen only after his wedding to the guileless Anna. Once again, literature makes the point that it’s no fun being a go-between. But whereas Cyrano et al. tug at the heartstrings, Anna, Charles, Edith, and husband Arthur, an unimaginative wine merchant, are only a pain in the neck. Is it Hardy’s problem, or has librettist-lyricist Stephen Cole (the sweet, nonstick music is Matthew Ward’s) simply been unable to give four imperceptive figures any appealing characteristics? Or make credible some gaping plot holes? Why doesn’t Charles recognize that the giggling hoyden he seduced at the fair can’t have composed the fervent letters written on expensive stationery? Possibly Cole was hoping the qualities his people don’t have in the lines would be supplied by the actor-singers, but if that was his wish, it hasn’t been granted. Michele Pawk, Jennifer Piech, James Ludwig, and David Staller, as directed by Travis L. Stockley, perform at a level equal to the mediocrity of the entire enterprise. Maybe they were working too hard on the English accents they never quite mastered. —David Finkle


Frida Kahlo painted in many colors, but her story will always be rendered in purple. Prose, that is. With Goodbye, My Friduchita (the Directors Company), playwright Dolores C. Sendler freely indulges the lefto-feminist hagiography Kahlo frequently inspires. Kahlo had everything that makes for a role model these days
(not counting her partially German ancestry). She was a communist, a self-
mythologizing artist, a lover of Trotsky, and a Mexican nationalist who, by virtue of her abusive marriage to muralist Diego Rivera, lived the glamorous life while remaining an outsider. The average Nuyorican poet has nothing on her.

Most important, the woman was in pain. Excruciating physical and emotional pain. Sendler spares us none of it, from the bus accident in which a metal handrail pierces Kahlo’s hip and exits her vagina, to the miscarriage, to the stabbing she suffers at Diego’s hand, to the drug addiction and spinal taps. But there’s little drama in Friduchita, unless your idea of theatricality consists of Priscilla López as Kahlo describing a miscarriage and wailing in agony. Sendler emphasizes research, leaching human interactions from the play. She subjects the audience to undramatized descriptions of events in Kahlo’s life, two-person scenes performed by one person, and, most boringly, Kahlo’s letters read aloud. The playwright too often lapses into self-
conscious “writerly” prose: “Your absence lingers as it pulses with the breath of the stars.” Designer Troy Hourie’s set, pumped with high-affect colors and multiple projection screens, and Michael John Garcés’s sharp direction do a wonderful job of distracting you from the limitations of the text, as do the charismatic López and Anilú Pardo as Young Frida. “My life has gone from pain to paint,” Kahlo proclaims. We’ve taken the opposite journey. —James Hannaham