Pure Photography

For a moving, disturbing, invigorating, heart-opening experience, get over to the two downstairs exhibits at the International Center for Photography.  Not that the contemporary show of Zoe Strauss photographs isn’t interesting.  But the two historical shows are powerfully emotional, full of iconic imagery, and rich in a historical dialogue that remains crisply pertinent today.

ICP does a good job, as always, telling a comprehensive story about its featured photographer–now Lewis Hine.  Hine’s photographs raised the consciousness of modern America about the conditions of tenements in New York, the immigrant experience, and child labor.  His photographs were so compelling that they were the major reason child labor laws were passed.

Child Cotton Picker, c1913

Look at the age on this boy’s face.

A Straight photographer, Hine used his camera in a documentary fashion to let the straight, unmanipulated image tell the story.  So newsies selling pape’s at midnight at a saloon and boys settings up pins in a decrepit subway bowling alley are much more effective at swaying sentiment than the posters and flyers, also on display, for pushing and prodding the moral question.

My dad was a newsie, and Hine’s work brought some photos of a tough version of him and his brothers to mind.  Look at the impact of this Hine newsie image.

Newsboy Asleep on Steps, 1912

Gives me a sense of what my father’s childhood was like.

Hine’s famous Work series is on display, too, with dozens of images of men and women, blacks and whites.  Elegant and spare, Hine elevates the everyday to the elegiac.  These gorgeous images validate the heroic quality of work, as they celebrate the human heart in the machine.  He did as much as anyone, including Charlie Chaplin, to show the modern workplace as a hybrid experience of humanity and technology, in all its complexity.

                                Mechanic at Steam Pump, 1920
Riveters on Empire State Building, c1931

Riveters on Empire State Building, c1931

Old Time Printer at Foot Press "Joy of Work" 1905

Old Time Printer at Foot Press
“Joy of Work”

His Southern poverty and Depression era images, presented so calmly and cleanly, are
show-stoppers, every one.  Unlike many of the other documentarian photographers of the period, Hine wasn’t successful at getting government work.  He died in the kind of penury he depicted throughout his career.

Georgia Cotton Mill Widow and Family
She has nine children!

Tucked into a corner of the large Hine show is a one-gallery exhibit on JFK in imagery from 1963.  The show makes effective use of song and video, and the missing Zapruder frame is there, too.  Breath taking, literally.  I hadn’t seen it before. I guess I can even understand the drive to suppress it, as just too upsetting.  Conspiracy-theorists, of course, have their explanations, too.

But the Hine show is the reason to go to ICP right now.  The images and emotions they evoke are pure, heart-felt, and heart-breaking.  You’ll see photography as art, as propaganda, as truth, as sentiment, as story–all in one image.  It’s worth a linger.

Elizabeth Okie Paxton

As you may know, I’ve been devoting my research energies to an artist named Elizabeth Okie Paxton.  So little is known about her, and only 4 works are in public collections.  I have been focusing on a messy, feminine, sensual painting called The Breakfast Tray, made about 1910.

For those of you who can, there’s a great opportunity to see the painting coming up.  Normally in a private collection, it’s emerging into the Art Institute of Chicago in “Art and Appetite,” an exhibit running from November 12, 2013 – January 27, 2014.

Another work you can see:
William J. McCloskey. Wrapped Oranges, 1889.

If you are able to go, let me know how The Breakfast Tray looks in a grand museum!


Apple picking through the ages

Connecticut looks so pretty this time of year.  I haven’t taken as much advantage of its elegance as I would like, but today rode the windy roads among the yellows, oranges, reds, and rusts of the trees, to catch the end of the foliage still up high.

The intrepid Jane Austen fans in Connecticut gathered to pick apples then potluck, in commemoration of the Box Hill picnic in Emma.  The day was glorious, the apples ready to be plucked, and a gentlemanly gentleman was handy to make it happen.

The gentlemanly Doug

The gentlemanly Doug

Striving for Empire (apples)

Striving for Empire (apples)

The Judgment of Paris and the Golden Apple for the fairest in the land, updated to the Regency era

The Judgment of Paris and the Golden Apple for the fairest in the land, updated to the Regency era

Everyone wins this contest!

Everyone wins this contest!







Lines and Depth

Soldier's Quilt Square within a Square Unknown Artist 1850-1880

Soldier’s Quilt
Square within a Square
Unknown Artist

Alt-Quilts at the American Folk Art Museum is a tiny exhibit with rich delights.  Several quilts from the mid 1800s set up the contemporary quilts by three artists.  Note how the geometry makes the quilt look as if it were three dimensional.







Because I’m intrigued by how artists trick our eyes, I particularly like the work of Luke Haynes.  Look at how he creates an anamorphic illusion.  Can you make out Benjamin Franklin who appears to be sitting up in bed?  Ironically, the trompe l’oeil only works when the quilt lies flat on the bed.

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Anamorphic trick

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American Context #4
Benjamin Franklin
Luke Haynes











Our eyes are fooled by the ingenious use of line.  Al Hirschfeld made really good use of line.  With the simple stroke, he could depict a character or create a stage set.  No wonder he was the go-to guy for every opening night in New York.  If you like his work or feel nostalgic for the 20th-century Greats of theater, music, and dance, don’t miss the Line King exhibit at New York Public Library’s Performing Arts Branch.


Look at how he captures the essence of the story.  I instantly recognized “Guys and Dolls” and “Waiting for Godot.”  No need for a label.  His genius included bringing the spirit of the show working in only two dimensions, not unlike the quilt artists.

Can't you tell it's  Guys and Dolls?

Can’t you tell it’s
Guys and Dolls?









Zero Mostel in Waiting for Godot

Zero Mostel in
Waiting for Godot









The line may be a visual shorthand, but it’s so much more, too.  Here are a few more of my favorites…

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein


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You Can’t Take It With You


George S. Kaufman Moss Hart 1971

George S. Kaufman
Moss Hart


Study for  Broadway First Nighters Detail c1958

Study for
Broadway First Nighters


Beauty here and there

Since I’m steeping myself in all things British (while training to be a docent at the Yale Center for British Art), I went to the William Kent exhibit at the Bard Gallery.  Kent started out as a painter, and studying in Italy put him close to all those wealthy Brits on a Grand Tour.

So he took up interior design and architecture, working in an Anglo-Palladian style, to help his patrons bring a bit of old world Europe home with them.   In other words, he brought an Italian style to British soil, almost ubiquitous in homes and gardens.  His style was called Georgian, named for all those George’s who were King.

This console table from Houghton Hall will give you some idea of the decorative arts style.  The lions show up on the British Royal Arms and are a symbol of power and courage, as well as knightly virtue.  The console lion is surrounded by cornucopias of fruit and flowers, showing wealth and plenty.  Of course, the blue marble slab on top is rare and precious.  This table really demonstrates the British sense of itself during its empire-building years.









Kent’s garden designs are pretty darn charming and lasting, having innovated the idea of the ‘wilderness’–so much more natural than those geometric gardens of Baroque France.  A hundred years or so later, Jane Austen would place a pivotal Pride and Prejudice scene in a “pretty sort of little wilderness.”2013-10-13 12.09.03

I found this drawing of Kent really endearing.  “Kent at his Desk” was sketched by Dorothy  Boyle, Countess of Burlington, made after 1720.  It suggests his comfortable relationship with aristocracy.

How’s yours?  If you want more practice, head across the ocean and over to New York Historical Society, just 9 short blocks away.


Jeannette Ovington

George Healy portrait of Jeannette Ovington, 1887

The  beauty of “Beauty’s Legacy” refers to more than just the physical; beauty was moral and social, too.  Each exhibit portrait tells a story.  Come on one of my tours to hear a few. Meet a charmer of Bob Ingersoll painted by my girl Lilly Martin Spencer, learn some weird fashion trends, and see miniatures of “notorious women” (aka women novelists).

Then if you’re so bold, you can check out NYHS’s recreation of the 1913 Armory show.  Patrons of the works in “Beauty’s Legacy” would have been shocked!  But all that investment in beauty and luxury and excess and opulence couldn’t last in the face of modernity.  Quite a story to explore!

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907


Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912

Run away to…

This may be the cutest packaging ever to emerge from a store.


I felt like I was running away from home with my tomato vine stick and cloth-wrapped, clothes-pin secured bundle.  What did it hold–my new vest, with the front made of men’s ties.  Well, you just have to see it.  It’s really clever and dashing.

As is so much of what Todd (a woman) carries at Fashionista.

A long two blocks from home, I actually went in looking for funky glasses.  But what fun trying on remnants of costumes from the Broadway show Fela! and vintage silk wrappers and a man’s smoking jacket.  I came back to 2013 and my middle-aged body to invest in that vest.  I’ll be the best-dressed runaway hitting the rails (to New York).

For the well-dressed runaway

For the well-dressed runaway

Looking in corners and out of the way places

In an interesting juxtaposition, I explored unexpected corners and spaces today.

Starting on the Hartford Belle, a boat sailing 2013-10-05 11.22.14the Connecticut River near Hartford, surprises were there in this pretty unsurprising city.  Who would expect this Russian onion dome on the Colt’s Firearm Factory?

I love origin stories and learned that the name Connecticut is a Dutch-ified version of an Indian word that means “long tidal river.”  Those Dutch!  They came as early as 1614 to explore the 410 mile long river, which runs all the way up to the Canadian border.  The river has a two-foot tidal variation each day, even as far up river as Hartford, 40 miles from Long Island Sound.

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The river is the first of the “Blue Way” program for cleaning up polluted, historic rivers.  Now little commercial traffic travels up the river.   Still, Hartford is prettier from the river than on site.



The afternoon saw me off the boat and on foot, back in New Haven.  This tour explored the corners of buildings on the Yale campus.  We were snooping out carved spouts and grotesques on “gargoyle-infested buildings.”  In contrast to the guide of the Woolworth Building, this author-architect Mathew Duman defines a gargoyle as a figure-caricature that also works as a channel for rain water.  Grotesques can be inside or on the exterior of a building, but are purely decorative.  No funnels there.  We can watch the architectural historians battle it out, or start our exploration.

2013-10-05 16.49.43What’s fun about the gargoyles around Yale is that they play off of student life, as well as showing dignitaries from its past.  The sense of fun, irony, and satire are consistently present, on all types of buildings.

Here’s a carving from the law school  Can you make out the charismatic teacher and his sleeping students?


And Calhoun Hall is named for a man who is shown as a student sleeping over his studies, not as a great benefactor.2013-10-05 15.41.06  Love the monkey grotesque, who seems to single-handedly hold up the building.

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Hilariously, this grotesque with the wooden stone on Bingham refers to a prize awarded to the Yale student who eats the most.

And as a critique on gluttony, two grotesques on Davenport show the roasted fowl and Faust (get the sound similarity?).  They satirize the gluttony of food (fowl) and gluttony of power (Faust).

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The bulldog Handsome Dan is the campus mascot, and bulldogs are all over the place on building facades.  I particularly like the bulldog nerd.

Also a “yale” is a fantastical figure that can resemble a goat, a unicorn, or a hybrid with a human.  It can be embellished with an elephant tail, polka dots, or horns that go in separate directions.  Lots of latitude in portraying a yale around campus.  We saw a baby yale, but don’t get too close!  They’re supposed to be vicious.  Here’s a pair of yales in the bright light of the old art building.

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Don’t look so scary, eh?

Check out more of my favorites in the slide show below.  Don’t miss the screenwriter and the painter (although he is missing his brush)…

What was so great about the tour, too, was being able to go into the locked courtyard of a resident hall.  We got a bell concert, commemorating the new president induction at Yale today, while standing in the Brother’s Immunity (a literary society) courtyard of Branford College.

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I definitely felt like I was in a rarefied place, but really, this is a dorm.  Yes, really.

You can hear some of the bell tower concert in this video of the main courtyard at Branford.



Here’s some more images for you:







Meant for Tourists

When the Woolworth Tower opened one hundred years ago, Frank Woolworth wanted to attract tourists.  You could pay a small fee to ride to the observation deck of the Tower and there find the ubiquitous gift shop.  Ladies could enjoy the tea shop, gentlemen the Ratskellar.  What they wouldn’t have found was a Woolworth’s which Frank considered too tacky for his “cathedral of commerce”–a catchphrase attributed to him, but actually spoken by a priest.

How fitting for this quasi Gothic Revival tower, with its Byzantine-Romanesque Revival interior.  The idea was to build a cathedral for American business, using similar construction concepts as a medieval cathedral.  Small problem.  This building is 790 feet high, the tallest skyscraper in the world when it was built, and the limestone walls would have had to be 20 or so feet thick to support the colossal weight.  Instead, the building embodies modernity and New York in its glory–steel construction with a terracotta facade.2013-10-03 18.01.13

Terracotta is basically clay, an inexpensive material, and skilled immigrant labor was cheap for the hire.  Frank paid the rock bottom price of $13.5 million, in cash, for his building.  The result was a spectacular palace with ornate carvings inside and out, and a lobby meant to wow!  The headquarters for Woolworth took up less than two of the 55 stories, and the rest was leased on spec.  So that lobby was the sales pitch.  Barrel vaults, arched 2013-10-03 18.28.09throughways, and a dome open up the fairly narrow space in a spectacular way.  You can see from these pictures how luxurious the mosaic ceiling, wall murals to Labor and Commerce, elevators by Tiffany, and marble from Greece make the space.

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Architect Cass Gilbert turned the stone masons loose and let them carve according to their own artistic drive.  The resulting grotesques are witty and wonderful.  My favorites, of course, are of Frank Woolworth counting his fives and dimes and of Gilbert holding a model of the building.  Grotesques were used inside cathedrals to scare away demons, and while Gilbert is certainly a benign figure, Woolworth’s portrait grotesque may just do the job.

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Frank Woolworth


Cass Gilbert

Cass Gilbert







There are plenty of dirty little secrets, or not so secret problems.  From the beginning, the terracotta has torpedoed off the facade.  The attempts to fix the problem with concrete exacerbated it with the increased weight.  The building facade is basically continually under inspection.  The beautiful skylight was so drafty that it grew icicles that crashed 2013-10-03 18.40.16down below, before being permanently closed off.  The basement pool, always intended for gentlemen, had an unexpected use.  When it became part of a Jack Lalane exercise studio, it attracted the underground gay male bathhouse type.  The building management, in disgust, eventually didn’t renew the lease of the exercise studio.

But who cares about that now?  For some short period of time, you can still get in the building for a tour–no peeks otherwise.  Then when the tower finishes converting its luxury condos, priced at several tens of millions each, the building will clamp back down.  Not what Frank Woolworth wanted at all.  No insularity for him.  Instead, he built this out-of-this world celebration for the spirit of business, to be rejoiced in by all.

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The Shrieks of October

The trees are going hot orange and pumpkins to match are sprouting around.  The local MacIntosh apples are on the shelf, and the farm stands are offering apple picking times.  But the New Haven Museum is focusing on spooks.  During October, in this 375th birthday year for New Haven, the historical society is giving over to the macabre.

Last night was the kick-off, with Mike Bielawa discussing his new book Wicked New Haven.


The ol’ story goes:

“Is this Hell?” the boy asked.

“No, son,” his father replied.  “It is only New Haven.”

That the oft-repeated quip is on the New Haven Museum walls demonstrates just how low a city’s self esteem can go.  Bielawa uses it to wander into New Haven’s wicked past.


The book has a definite water-y theme, with its share of pirates using Connecticut coves as covers and cursed captains and haunted ships and hellish crimes and supernatural legends.  Bielawa focused on one cursed captain, the supposedly beloved Captain Parker J. Hall whose temper also got him in a lot of trouble, and his haunted ship, the Robert P. King.

Sailing in the early 1890s, Hall refused to give in to mariner superstition, painting his boat blue, which was notoriously bad luck, and thrusting a knife into the mast, another no-no.  While hauling a load of cement from Augusta, ME to New Haven via the Hudson River in 1894, Hall’s crew of two, Portuguese brothers, turned on and attacked him.  The siege ended badly for one of the brothers, murdered, or killed in self-defense, depending on your point of view.

After that, no sailor would stay on board the schooner overnight, for all the shrieks, weird laughter in the rigging, and voices calling, “kill him!”

Whether the haunting comes from that mutiny and murder, or from the schooner’s history as a slave ship, a whaler, and battle ship during the Civil War, we can only speculate while telling the tale on a dark October night.  The remains of the Robert P. King are on display in Mystic in the Ship Carver’s Building.  We need to go hear for ourselves.  Field trip!