Painting on the walls, with social commentary

Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art 1925-1945

Whitney Museum of American Art

Man, Controller of the Universe
In 1934 the Rockefeller Corporation commissioned Diego Rivera to paint a fresco in the Rockefeller Center Tower. The completed work included a portrait of Vladmir Lenin. Nelson Rockefeller asked Rivera to erase the portrait. He refused and Rockefeller Corp. destroyed the mural. Rivera recreated a version of it at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City and titled it Man, Controller of the Universe. This is a reproduction of that work.

The Whitney’s most recent exhibit is dedicated to the influence of a group of Mexican muralists who emerged following the Mexican Revolution which ended in 1920. It focuses on three artists: José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. All of them spent some time in the U.S. and created some murals here. The exhibit also features the works of some of the artists, both American and Mexican, who were influenced by the muralists.

Diego Rivera

Diego Rivera was born in Guanajuato in 1886. He was an atheist and member of the Mexican Communist Party, though he was later expelled from the party for being a Trotskyite. Rivera studied art in both Paris and Italy. He created murals in San Francisco, Detroit and New York. The artist Frida Kahlo was the fourth of his five wives. They married in 1929, divorced in 1939, and then remarried in 1940.

Portrait of America, Diego Rivera
This is a study for part of Rivera’s 21-panel Portrait of America that he painted for the Communist New Workers School in New York in 1933.

Jose Clemente Orozco

Jose Clemente Orozco was born in 1883 in what is now Ciudad Guzman. When he was 21, he lost his left hand while making fireworks. He is best known for political murals. He lived in the U.S. from 1927-34 and he painted murals in New York, California and at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He also illustrated John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.

This is part of a reproduction of Prometheus, a mural which Orozco painted at Pomona College’s Frary Dining Hall in Claremont, Calif.
Christ Destroying His Cross
Christ Destroying His Cross reproduces one of the panels that was part of Orozco’s mural at Dartmouth College.

David Alfaro Siqueiros

David Alfaro Siqueiros was born in Chichuahua in 1896. By the age of 18 he was a member of the Constitutional Army fighting the government of Victoriano Huerta. He would be a political activist throughout his life. He lived and worked in Los Angles for a spell in the 1930’s but was deported by the U.S. government. In 1938 he was fighting in Spain against Franco and back home in 1940 he led an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Trotsky who was in exile in Mexico. In 1960 he was imprisoned after leading protests against the arrest of striking workers and teachers.

Self Portrait with Mirror
Self Portrait with Mirror
The Struggle Against Terrorism
This is a reproduction of The Struggle Against Terrorism, a mural painted in a two story courtyard at the University of Michoacan in Morelia, Mexico. It was painted by Philip Guston and Reuben Kadish, two artists who trained with Siqueiros in Los Angeles, and by Jules Langsner
The Protector, Alfredo Ramos Martinez
The Protector, Alfredo Ramos Martinez
Zapatistas, Alfredo Ramos Martinez
Man and Woman, Ruffino Tamayo
Man and Woman, Ruffino Tamayo
Woman of Tehuantepec, Tina Modotti
Woman of Tehuantepec, Tina Modotti
Me and My Parrots, Frida Kahlo
Me and My Parrots, Frida Kahlo
The Driller, Harold Lehman
The Driller, Harold Lehman
Motherhood, Mardonio Magaria
Motherhood, Mardonio Magaria
Posted in Art | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments


In the forest, old trees give way to the new.

In winter you see their broken trunks splayed about the forest floor.

Come spring the woods turn green,

and they are forgotten.

MIlls Reservation
MIlls Reservation
MIlls Reservation
MIlls Reservation
MIlls Reservation
MIlls Reservation

Photos from Mills Reservation, Cedar Grove and Montclair, N.J.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The LBJ Enigma

LBJ in his office

There is no U.S. president that I have more mixed feelings about than Lyndon Baines Johnson. LBJ assumed the presidency in 1963 after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was 13 at the time. He would remain president for most of my teenage years. I was approaching the age of 18, which at the time meant conscription, the draft, a possible unwanted tour of Vietnam. LBJ inherited that war but he perpetuated and escalated it. I hated him for it. At protest marches against the war we would chant, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

It took quite awhile for me to appreciate the things that LBJ did. His presidency included more landmark progressive legislation than anyone else I can think of. He signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. During his administration Medicare and Medicaid were created, legislation was passed addressing fair housing, immigration reform, clean air and clean water.

The LBJ Museum and Library on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin addresses the enigma of LBJ, albeit in an ever so gentle way. The war is presented from the viewpoint of the president. More than once I saw the quote, “I can’t win it, and I can’t get out.” It’s the latter part of that sentence than many of us would take issue with.

LBJ did this:

LBJ's legislation

He enabled this:

LBJ accomplishments

But then there’s this:

Vietnam War
Vietnam War era cartoon
Washington Post headline

And yet this quote is as appropriate today as it was in 1965:

LBJ quote
LBJ's limo
LBJ’s limo

From start to finish:

LBJ as a school teacher
LBJ's last speech
The LBJ library
The LBJ library

The campaigns:

LBJ's hat

LBJ the cartoon:

LBJ with kids

LBJ statue
LBJ and Lady Bird
Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Soundtrack of the 60’s

It was on Martin Luther King Day that I visited the LBJ Museum and Library on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. Seems somewhat appropriate since it was LBJ who signed the Civil Right Act and the Voting Rights Act. Much to my surprise I found a special exhibit, curated by the Grammy Museum, on Motown. And why not? LBJ was president from 1963-69. Motown was the soundtrack of that era

It all started here:

Hitsville U.S.A.
Hitsville U.S.A. was the home of Motown founder Berry Gordy at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Gordy bought the house in 1959. He carved out some office space, moved his family upstairs and, in the garage, set up Studio A, where the Motown sound was born.

The Motown Look

The influencers

The Temptation Walk
Lady Sings the Blues
Stevie Wonder
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Whitney Collection Never Ends

Since the Whitney Museum of American Art is one of my favorite art museums, I go there two or three times a year. Each time there is at least one floor, and sometimes two, dedicated to exhibits curated from the museum’s collection. You would think by now I would have seen a substantial portion of their collection. Yet, everytime I go, I see lots of works I’ve never seen before. Here are a few of the pieces that caught my eye during my more recent visit. They were part of an exhibit “The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965.”

Still Life Number 36, Tom Wesselmann
Still Life Number 36, Tom Wesselmann
Subway Scene, Isabel Bishop
Subway Scene, Isabel Bishop
Fantasia on a Theme by Dr. S., Paul Cadmus
Fantasia on a Theme by Dr. S., Paul Cadmus
Door to the River, Willem de Kooning
Door to the River, Willem de Kooning
The White Calico Flower, Georgia O'Keeffe
The White Calico Flower, Georgia O’Keeffe
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Robert Henri
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Robert Henri
Posted in Art | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Off the Leash, Literally

Pochuck Boardwalk

part of Appalachian Trail

Vernon, N.J.

Pochuk boardwalk
Pochuck boardwalk
Pepper hiking
On the lookout.
Pochuk boardwalk
Pochuk boardwalk
Pepper crossing the bridge
Pochuk boardwalk
That might be too cold for me.
Pochuk boardwalk
You coming?
Pochuk boardwalk
Ugh! Mud.
Pochuk boardwalk
heading home
Pochuck boardwalk map
Let’s see where we are
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Desert Modern: Selections from the Palm Springs Art Museum

Palm Springs Art Museum
Lost Angel Flakes, Bill Schenck
Lost Angel Flakes, Bill Schenck
Old Couple on a Bench, Duane Hanson
Old Couple on a Bench, Duane Hanson
Intense Curiosity, Gross Neglect, Edward Rusche
Intense Curiosity, Gross Neglect, Edward Rusche
Montage Series #3, Don Namingha
Montage Series #3, Don Namingha
The Moon Through 13 Months, Christopher Brown
The Moon Through 13 Months, Christopher Brown
Rat Catcher of Hamelin IV, Mark Bradford
Rat Catcher of Hamelin IV, Mark Bradford
Sence-2, Victory Vasarely
Sence-2, Victory Vasarely

Alexander Girard, fabric designer and interior architect

Changing Dimensions, Claire Falkenstein
Changing Dimensions, Claire Falkenstein
Interlocking Forms, A, Black Linear #2, Karl Stanley Benjamin
Interlocking Forms, A, Black Linear #2, Karl Stanley Benjamin

Il Deserto Fiorito (The Flowering Desert), glassworks by Lino Tagliapietra

Untitled, Fletcher Benton
Untitled, Fletcher Benton
The Last Outpost, Llyn Foulkes
The Last Outpost, Llyn Foulkes
Posted in Art | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Two Deserts Under a Winter Sky

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California consists of nearly 800,000 acres located at the convergence of the Mohave and Colorado deserts. The Joshua tree, for which the park is named, grows only in the higher elevation Mohave desert in the western half of the park. A protected species, most of the world’s Joshua trees are in this park.

I visited Joshua tree in late December a day after a full day of precipitation. In the Colorado desert, the eastern half of the park with elevations below 3,000 feet, that precipitation fell as rainfall. But in the Mohave it was snow. Entering the park from the eastern side I started by walking in the sand through the cactus gardens. But a little ways up the road I was standing in 8 inches of snow amidst a field of Joshua trees.

Colorado Desert

Joshua Tree National Park

Cholla Cactus Garden

Mohave Desert

Joshua trees
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua tree
Joshua tree
Joshua tree
Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Some wire, wood and fabric; some wool blankets, beads and human hair.

Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Kitchen, Liza Lou
Kitchen, Liza Lou. beads, plaster, wood and found objects
Swimmer, Mary Frank
Swimmer, Mary Frank. earthenware
Giant BLT, Claes Oldenburg
Giant BLT, Claes Oldenburg. vinyl, kapok, painted wood and wood
Untitled, Robert Gober
Untitled, Robert Gober. wax, cloth, wood, leather and human hair
Angel: The Shoe Shiner, Pepon Osorio
Angel: The Shoe Shiner, Pepon Osorio. painted wood, rubber, fabric glass, ceramic, shells, painted cast iron, hand-tinted photographs, paper, mirror, two video monitors
No title, Eva Hess
No title, Eva Hess. latex, rope, string and wire
Skywalker/Skyscraper, Marie Watt
Skywalker/Skyscraper, Marie Watt, reclaimed wool blankets and steel
Me Man, Viola Frey
Me Man, Viola Frey. glazed ceramic
Portals, Njideka Akunyill Crosby
Portals, Njideka Akunyill Crosby. acrylic, solvent transfer, collage of fabric and paper, colored pencil on paper
Posted in Art, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

The Six Best Books I Read in 2019

Unlike any of the other best books of the year lists you’re likely to encounter this week, mine has nothing to do with when these books were written or published. They just happen to be books that I read in 2019. I meant to create a list of five but couldn’t leave out any of these. They are presented in order of preference, but I might have changed my mind about that by the time you read this.

1. The Ghosts of Eden Park

The Ghosts of Eden Park

A story of three giant personalities who between them pretty well represent 1920’s America. George Remus of Cincinnati was one of the largest and most successful bootleggers during Prohibition. Imogene Remus, his femme fatale wife, is a gold digger, social striver and business partner. And Mabel Willebrandt, assistant attorney general of the United States, is responsible for landing Remus in jail.

As a bootlegger, Remus was more of an entrepreneur and businessman than a gangster. He exploited a loophole in the Volstead Act that allowed liquor to be sold for medicinal purposes. (Sound familiar?) Thus his accumulation of distilleries was accompanied by acquisitions of pharmacies. He would have his own employees hijack his liquor shipments creating the appearance that his legal cargo had been stolen. He also represented the ostentatiousness of new money. At one of the parties he threw in his mansion, he lit guests cigars with $100 bills and his guests found $1,000 bills tucked under their dinner plates.

All of this fit in well with Imogene’s ambitions. That is until George went to jail. She then absconded with most of his wealth and possessions and took up with one of the investigators that Willebrandt had hired to go after him. If that wasn’t enough, she tried to have him deported as a non-citizen, an issue that is not completely clarified in Abbott’s book.

While many readers will find themselves focused on the dramatic story of the Remus’s marriage, a story that ends with murder and a spectacular trial, I was fascinated by Willebrandt. I had known of her as the most dedicated and effective enforcer of Prohibition. As such, and considering that like most folks today I don’t think Prohibition was a very good idea, I pictured a rather uptight, straight-laced, self-righteous woman.

Not so much. Willebrandt was the highest ranking woman in government at a time when women had only just attained the right to vote. She was a feminist who no doubt carried the weight of her entire gender on her shoulders. She was not a supporter of Prohibition before it was enacted and was a social drinker. But put in the position of assistant attorney general and being charged with enforcing Prohibition, she did her job and did it well. This despite being part of the notoriously corrupt Warren Harding administration. In fact, you get the impression she was the only one in the Justice Department who wasn’t on the take.

Abbott’s book humanizes Willebrandt. We learn that after divorcing her husband she goes to an orphanage and adopts a daughter who she raises as a single mother. She resigns in 1929 after Herbert Hoover bypasses her (for a man) for the attorney general position. In later life, as a private attorney who often represented well-known Hollywood stars, she stood up for the victims of McCarthyism.

This if a very fast-paced and well written book. It reads like a novel. So much so that I had to remind myself more than once that it is history.

2. Car Trouble

Car Trouble book cover

A story of a family as told in chapters defined by the junkers and low riders that the alcoholic dad brings home from poker games and police auctions. There’s no Lexus. No Prius nor a sensible family SUV. This is about widebodies with tail fins, smoking tailpipes and noisy mufflers. And chrome. Lots of chrome. There’s the Green Hornet, the Black Beauty and the Red Devil.

Rorke’s novel is set in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1960’s. It reminds me of the people Jimmy Breslin would write about. It also reminds me of the working class Italian-American neighborhood where I grew up in northern New Jersey. Until I read this story I’d forgotten about boil-in-the-bag chicken a la king that my mom would serve to me on toast. And I had long since forgotten what a head of hair adorned with Vitalis smelled like.

The similarities go beyond such trivial things. Both Rorke’s fictional family and my real one were representative of the gender roles of the time in neighborhoods like these. The dad in Car Trouble, like so many of my friends’ fathers, was a walking time bomb. You tiptoed around them to avoid the inevitable explosion, an explosion that meant a lot of shouting and at least the threat of physical violence. These were the predecessors of today’s angry white men in MAGA hats. Part of it was the alcohol, of which there was always plenty. But it also had to do with being raised in a culture where you were supposed to be the chief provider and protector, the “king of the castle,’ yet finding yourself tied to a dead-end job or profession where you worked like a dog, didn’t really have enough and had little hope of things getting better.

Yes the women were housewives who cooked, cleaned, looked after the kids and did the laundry. But they had an even more important role. Mom was the voice of reason, the voice of sobriety, the sole source of empathy. Most often it was the mother who was chief financial advisor and banker. My dad was in his sixties when my mom died and one of the first things I had to do was teach him how to use a checkbook.

By the late 60’s things were starting to change but in neighborhoods like this it was driven more by economic need than by enlightenment. In both the Car Trouble family and mine, the mom ended up as the sole breadwinner in the family.

But back to the cars. This was not yet a seat belt era. Most of the 50’s era cruisers that found their way into the hands of Rorke’s fictional family had a bench front seat that fit three across. The middle seat was affectionately known as the “death seat.” But it had its advantages. The deluxe models had a record player stored under the dashboard and the death seat occupant had control over what 45’s to spin. You can’t really ride in widebodies like these without a little Motown in the background.

This is a great novel. You don’t have to have experienced boil-in-the-bag chicken a la king to enjoy it. It’s 400 pages that read like 150. I hated to see it end.

And in the end Nicky, the oldest child and only boy in a family of five children, helps his father drive the Blue Max backwards through the Brooklyn streets. Backwards because that’s all that’s left of the transmission. When they find a sufficiently secluded spot, dad, who the other family members refer to as Himself, takes out the pliers, destroys the plate with the VIN number, removes the license plates and that’s a wrap. (The novel doesn’t really end this way but you don’t want me to spoil it, do you?)

3. The Pianist of Yarmouk

The Pianist of Yarmouk

A man rolls his piano out onto the decimated streets of Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus, and despite the bombings, the snipers, the starvation, plays his music. A photo goes viral and the man, Aeham Ahmad, is tracked down by journalists, photographers, filmakers. This book is his story.

Ahmad’s life is one of tragedy layered upon tragedy. His family is Palestinian, forced to leave their homeland and seek refuge in Syria. His father is blind because the medical care needed to deal with his childhood eye disease wasn’t available to Palestinian refugees in Damascus. Then there’s the starvation caused by a siege of the city, the brutality of ISIS’s entry and the harrowing trip to flee his homeland.

But Ahmad carves out a comfortable, if modest, life for himself and his family in both his first and his second adopted home. Before the Syrian civil war virtually destroyed Yarmouk, Ahmad and his father operated a music shop there. Despite his disability his father made himself an expert piano tuner and he made ouds, a popular string instrument in the region. Ahmad gave piano lessons. That all ended with the war. In Germany, Ahmad became a concert pianist and was able to get his family and parents to join him where they live in safety in Weisbaden.

But Ahmad is one of the lucky ones. His almost accidental notoriety and musical skill got him through situations that others likely wouldn’t have. The first half of the book is about his life in Yarmouk before the warring factions took over. It humanizes the tragedy and devastation that has befallen the Syrians. For many of us the Syrian civil war seems to be an endless affair with more factions involved than we can keep up with. But Ahmad has no politics and his words clarify for us the human toll irrespective of who is on whose side.

After what seems a lifetime of trials and tribulations, it is something of a surprise to realize that Ahmad was barely 30 years old when he wrote this book. I can only wish him a peaceful life from here on. This should be required reading for anyone who subscribes to the Trumpian doctrine that Muslims are terrorists and migrants are criminals.

4. The Rent Collector

The Rent Collector

Sang Ly and Ki Lim live in a dump. Literally. To stay alive one or both puts on their boots and picks through the garbage each day until they find enough salable items to buy something for dinner. They also have a chronically sick child for whom they have no means to get proper care. Their home is of cardboard and canvas and even that they don’t own. It’s rented. Hence there’s a rent collector, a drunken, sour, nasty woman.

Asian folk tales always have a moral that they demonstrate. This one is along the lines of ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover.’ To witness, we learn what the rent collector is all about. A novel about a poor family living amidst a trash heap may sound kind of depressing. This book is anything but. It is about hope and humanity. About education and the power of literacy. It also is about the lingering impact of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

Stung Meanchey, the municipal dump, does in fact exist. And there are folks living there by the names of Sang Ly and Ki Lin. The author discovered them in a documentary made by his son. But this is a work of fiction. Confused? Me too. There are pictures of this couple at the end of the book as well as some others who are part of the story. But the author tells us they are not to be construed as pictures of his characters. Huh? Suffice it to say this is a good story and I enjoyed reading it.

5. Talking to My Daughter: A Brief History of Capitalism

Early in my career as a fledgling journalist I had an editor who would say, if your grandmother wouldn’t understand this story, you need to rewrite it. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that this crusty old editor was insulting the intelligence of grandmothers, this is similar to the approach that Yanis Yaroufakis takes in outlining the history of capitalism. His book is written as he would explain this to his 15-year old daughter.

In doing so he answers questions like why do we have income inequality and why do we have religion. Or, more provocatively, why did the English conquer Australia and push out the Aborigines rather than the other way around?

None of the economics here involve any formulas or algorithms. Instead Yaroufakis makes liberal use of various fables and tales to explain the world economy. The myth of Oedipus is an example of the self-fulfilling prophecy that is in play in producing a recession. And Frankenstein is an example of human technology creating monsters that enslave us.

The book is full of nuggets of wisdom. “The economy is too important to leave to economists.” As for technology, “The robots that have replaced human workers do not spend money on the products that they help produce.” And, as for bankers, they are conjurers of “black magic.”

Yaroufakis frames some of the most critical issues facing us. “We urgently need as a species a way to make full use of our technological potential without periodically destroying the livelihoods of great swathes of humanity and ultimately enslaving ourselves to the few.” And this is one economist acutely aware of climate change observing, “we seem wholly intent on destroying our host environment.”

This is not only readable economics, it is literary and humane.

6. The Last Days of Night

The Last Days of Night

A novel that raises the question of whether Thomas Edison was a greedy, second-class inventor who would go to any lengths to squash the competition. Like much historical fiction, it leaves you scratching your head wondering how much of it is true. The author offers some notes at the end clarifying which of the events in the story were real and which imagined. But those notes offer no clue as to whether Edison was indeed a scoundrel. Living as I do in Edison’s backyard, we don’t think of him that way.

The plot of The Last Days of Night is based on a patent suit. Edison sues George Westinghouse for violating his patent on the light bulb. The cast of characters goes beyond that. Alexander Graham Bell and J.P. Morgan make cameos. Nicola Tesla, who invented alternating current, is portrayed as an awkward, inarticulate, pretty much crazy guy who also happens to be brilliant. And the story is told through the eyes of Westinghouse’s attorney, Paul Cravath, who in real life the author credits with inventing the modern-day law firm.

How much drama can you create around a patent suit? Turns out quite a lot. But there are a lot of other story lines, including the question of alternating vs. direct current, the moral issue of using the newly-invented electric chair and the mystery of who nearly killed Tesla by setting his lab on fire while he was in it. There’s even some romance.

If you like Eric Larson’s books, you’ll like this. It is the same sort of fast-moving, dramatic history. As for the question of Edison: Greedy? Probably. Unscrupulous? Possibly. But also a man who made history and changed our lives. A man of his age. Not just the Wizard of Menlo Park but one of the late 19th century captains of industry, with all the positives and negatives that entails.

Posted in Book reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments