Smiths Peace Is None Of Our Business

“Johnny Marr… So much to answer for,” to paraphrase a Morrissey lyric about Manchester in The Smiths’ song, “Suffer Little Children,” the great guitarist wrote the music for. I’ve never been quite sure what to make of Mr. Marr. SOMEONE has to take the fall for the end of The Smiths. Up to this point, I blamed Johnny Marr. In 1987, we were told that Johnny Marr left The Smiths1. The last authoritative source on the matter to speak publicly about it, Morrissey in “Autobiography,” claimed that as “the most famous face of the Rough Trade enterprise,” pictures began appearing in the press of Morrissey and not The Smiths as a group, who the press began dubbing “Mozzer’s men.” Morrissey says that this made Johnny fume. “It must have been at this time that Johnny believed that ‘If … well, ummm … if I just step from stage left to, ummm, center stage, then I, too, could gather lilacs.2” He goes on to say that Craig Gannon’s being added for the 1986 tour was Johnny’s decision 3 and says he brought up what he felt was “the sad lilt in Johnny’s chord structures,” during the “Strangeways” sessions, but was not listened to 4. That’s about it for why the band broke up.

Hmmm…

Morrissey, "Autobiography" one of a few signed copies he offered when "World Peace Is None Of Your Business" was released.

Morrissey’s “Autobiography” one of a few signed copies he offered in a bundle when “World Peace Is None Of Your Business” was released.

Later, in the extended section about the Mike Joyce case5, in which the former Smiths drummer sued Morrissey and Marr  for royalties, resulting in each losing over a million dollars, Morrissey speaks at length about Marr. “Johnny, too, was a bad witness, crumbling neatly from the top down. Although he and I were ostensibly on trial together as business partners, we were not actually business partners, and we had not even met once over recent years to discuss the Joyce claim, or the protocol of trial. I got the impression that Johnny’s verbal disclosures jumped about willy-nill and concluded with his exhausted inclination to accept anything at all that was said against me- in what I assumed was the hope that he might be separated from the one target who did not beg for sympathy (i.e. Morrissey)….He will, by now, apparently say almost anything at all in order to stay free, and seems willing to push anyone into the water in order to save himself6.” That’s Morrissey’s side, regarding why he may be on the outs with Marr, from “Autobiography,” in a nutshell, of course.

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I wonder if Morrissey will read it.

Now, with the release of his own Autobiography, “Set The Boy Free,” Johnny Marr’s been doing unprecedented interviews, and speaking candidly about the end of the band that he co-wrote the “songs that saved your life” for. We finally get to hear his side of things.

Unlike Morrissey’s books, where I read them multiple times looking for other meanings I missed, Johnny Marr writes in a straightforward way, like he was talking to you, so I found “Set The Boy Free” a quick read. For his part, Mr. Marr doesn’t have a heck of a lot to say about the breakup, either. After Joe Moss, The Smith’s original manager resigned as they left to fly to New York for their first appearance at Danceteria, many of a manager’s duties fell to Johnny (who was also a de facto producer on many sessions). Johnny doesn’t really say why Joe Moss resigned, only saying “When he resigned, most people around the band felt that it was because of a conflict between him and Morrissey, but neither Joe nor Morrissey expressed that to me at the time. I resisted any speculation for everyone’s sake, but there was something about Joe’s resignation that felt unresolved to me7.” He comments about feeling burdened by being the de facto manager here and there, but we are left to wonder if he mentioned his feeling about it to the band, and there is never any mention of finding a permanent manager until later.  The first sign of trouble in the book is during the making of “Strangeways” (The Smiths final studio album), a “brighter time for me8” having recovered from the trauma of a car wreck that he says could have been fatal. “In the middle of making the album, though, something suddenly changed. New allegiances were formed between band members…I didn’t understand why there was a problem….but the rest of the band made a sudden U-turn and it was three against one. Everything I saw as good management they saw as interference and giving up control, and I thought it was really weird that a band as big as The Smiths were trying to avoid having someone taking care of business9.” When Morrissey didn’t show up for the “Shoplifters of the World Unite” video shoot, he says he finally went to Morrissey’s house, “In a complete reversal of the day I formed the band, I banged on my partner’s door but this time he wouldn’t let me in. I was shouting ‘Don’t do this,’ but it appeared that we were no longer on the same side and it didn’t even seem like we were still friends10.” After the album was finished, the rest of the band suddenly decided to go back into the studio to work on more songs, though Marr hadn’t written anything else. Having booked a vacation, a first for him, he cancelled it, and complied, pulling all-nighters to finish the tracks before taking his vacation. When he returned, no one from the band contacted him. “Two days later, a story appeared that I was leaving The Smiths….Having the story out there I had no choice but to make a statement. I still hadn’t heard form the others, and with everything that had happened I just thought, ‘F*ck you.’ I faced up to the inevitable and announced that I was leaving The Smiths11.”

Regarding being on the stand in the Joyce case, he says, “I knew there was no point in trying to be clever, and by then I was under no illusions that Morrissey and I might win. I just answered as directly as I could, without letting Joyce’s barrister succeed in winding me up. I’d been forced to go to court, and I decided that whatever happened I was going to speak up for myself and get the satisfaction of putting a few things straight. At least that way I’d have no regrets and I could walk out of there my own man12.” By my count, Johnny Marr spends 4 pages out of 313 pages of text on the Joyce case (say 1%). Morrissey spends 40 pages on it, or about 11% of his 445 pages of text, 20 pages of photos omitted.

In his recent interviews, he addresses the subject of leaving The Smiths again, especially in this section from  The Guardian’s interview with him-

“In July 1987 a story appeared in the press that Marr had left, accompanied by a new photo of the band taken by their press officer in which Marr was scowling while the other three Smiths smiled away. At that point, he felt he had no option but to walk.

It sounds horribly stressful, I say. Yes, he says – not least the presumption that he would be the one to step in and manage the Smiths. “It’s what split the band up. To this day I haven’t met anyone who thinks a major rock group should be managed by the 23-year-old guitar player.” So why did he agree to manage them in the first place? “Well, because we were deemed unmanageable. When we fired managers, I always had to deal with it. When we got to the end of the band’s life, it was put to me by my partner that he wouldn’t work with the current manager and we had to go back to how it was. I wasn’t prepared to do it, and so it became untenable. There was no way forward.” For a moment, those tensions sound as raw as they did three decades ago. “I was waiting for someone to fix it, and make it so it didn’t have to happen.”

Why were they so resistant to having a manager? “A lot of it was to do with control.” Does he feel he was…? Marr finishes the sentence for me. “Forced out? Yes, that was the tangible public manifestation of all that.” He stops, embarrassed by his words. “Wow! Check me out! It was the feeling of being tested, and my role in the band being untenable.” He stops again. “Just like any break-up, bad sh*t goes on.”

The day that he confirmed he was leaving, the other band members issued a statement wishing him luck and saying: “Other guitarists are being considered to replace him.” How did that make him feel? “I literally thought it was a joke. It was the final nail in the coffin and it took me a long time to forgive them. It was pretty callous. But I don’t hold it against anybody now. I absolutely don’t.” Within a week, the Smiths were in the studio with a new guitarist. They never completed any new material, though: by the time their final album, Strangeways Here We Come, was released in September 1987, they had announced their split.”

So. There you have it. They both have spoken. Am I missing something?

Great musical groups are a 20th Century phenomenom that never existed in Western Music before. The great Jazz bands of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and others, were first early in the century, and great Jazz groups continued throughout. Towards the end of the 1950’s great rock and R&B bands also began to form. We take them for granted now, but they are historically new. Mozart never wrote with Haydn, and Haydn never wrote with Beethoven, either. It never ceases to amaze me that people like Morrissey and Marr actually found each other (at a Patti Smith concert!), let alone that the 4 Beatles found each other. Knowing full well how hard it is even to find real friends, I’m pained when these groups end.

“Don’t they realize what a miracle it is they met?”

I have been in bands I loved being in (that no one ever heard of) that broke up. A band really is a something like a multi-way marriage, and just as hard to preserve. As Johnny Marr admits in these interviews, he wasn’t even 24 when The Smiths were over. All of us have done things early in our lives that we look back on years later and wring our hands over. Most of us weren’t in a world famous band at the time. This reminds me of what the late, great Joe Strummer said in the documentary about The Clash, talking about the little things that broke them up, and what he wished he could go back and talk to his 20’s self and say-

“None of this matters. The addictions don’t matter. The personality conflicts don’t matter. You are in one of the greatest bands of all time. Don’t f*ck it up.”

But, in Morrissey & Marr’s case? Whatever caused their split continues. Johnny Marr is now 53, Morrissey 57.  I still don’t get it.

So? Where are we now? Johnny Marr says in the letter to Morrissey I quoted in footnote 1- “I’ve only recently come to realize that you genuinely don’t know all the reason for my leaving. To get into it would be horrible…I will never point the finger at anyone but myself…” I’m not sure he’s still “gotten into it!” I’m also not letting Morrissey off the hook, either. Why weren’t the others happy with Ken Friedman’s management as Marr asks on Page 202 of his book (“I didn’t understand why there was a problem.”)? Is there more we still don’t know? I’m about to give up on it and face it- they just don’t want us to know.

Smiths Peace Is None Of Our Business!

He wrote, usurping the title of Morrissey’s latest album, for those who may have missed it before it quickly went out of print. Wait. What? More unhappiness with a business relationship? Stop me if I’ve heard that one before. On other fronts, The Smiths have never ended. The music lives on in the solo careers of both Marr and Morrissey, who still perform Smiths songs in their shows. Whatever the problem is, at least they haven’t turned their back on their storied pasts, music countless people still love and revere. Morrissey’s last appearance in the NYC area on September 24 was instantly sold out. The cheapest tickets available on the after market approached 200.00. His set included 3 Smiths songs, and a Ramones song. That The Smiths still have the impact on, and importance to, new listeners it had on me when I first heard them can be seen, perhaps most poignantly in this instantly iconic picture (about halfway down that page) taken of a defiant protester in the 2010 London demonstrations in Parliament Square dressed in a Smith’s “Hatfull of Hollow” shirt. I haven’t seen anything since they broke up that speaks to their power more than that picture does. Only the words of Ellen Wood, the woman in it, are more impressive. Both Morrissey and Marr were impressed by it, too. Marr has included it in his book. Still? Even this wasn’t enough to get them to reunite. WHY? For me, though none of my business, this will continue to be the biggest ongoing mystery in rock.

This coming year marks 30 years since The Smiths broke up. Today, Johnny Marr continually sounds a bit mystified, himself, at why he is not on better terms with Morrissey (as he says he regretted he was not in his letter to Morrissey quoted in “Autobiography,” see footnote 1). The Guardian piece ends with him talking about their communication over the protester photo, which Marr brought to Morrissey’s attention. “Our communication continued for a day or so, but although I felt I’d created a moment of friendship, an air of disaffection and distrust remained betweeen us. It was a shame.” Marr says he hasn’t read Morrissey’s Autobiography (“so he doesn’t have to answer stupid questions about it.” He also adds that the only book that’s “alright” on The Smiths is “A Light That Never Goes Out,” by Tony Fletcher, who he cooperated with at length during it’s writing). While I will never understand everything that went on in and around the Joyce case, Marr seems resigned about it, and has moved on, in his book. Morrissey, based on how many pages it gets in “Autobiography,” will NEVER get over it. The man can carry a grudge with the best of them. Maybe he carries one about Johnny Marr? I don’t know. Unlike most of the best of them? He can, also, slay you with lyrics. While many feel he has done this regarding Mike Joyce13, I’m not aware of anyone saying he has done it regarding Johnny Marr.

Finally hearing him speak at length, and reading his book, Mr. Marr comes across as a musician first (one who always seemed destined to play with many groups), who’s also a thoughtful, deeply feeling man, who’s values seem to remain intact, and central. I think I was rash to blame him for the end of The Smiths those years ago. Now? I’m not sure it’s any one person’s fault. While they may have made it seem it was Johnny’s doing, they may all well share whatever “blame” there is.  So in the spirit of “Kumbaya,” yes, I did get a signed copy of “Set The Boy Free,” from his NYC appearance on November 15. and I’m going to “set it” on my shelf right next to my singed copy of Morrissey’s.

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“My name is Johnny Marr and I approve this book.” (Reader Did Not Meet Author in either case.)

It may be the closest I’ll ever get to seeing the two of them together, again. I am already blessed at having seen them together in person once. August 6, 1986 when The Smiths played Pier 84 on the Hudson River, which turned out to be their last NYC appearance, but I would camp out overnight(s) for a chance to see The Smiths again14. If they can’t get past whatever it was that ended “one of the greatest bands of all time,” I’ll put them together myself in the only way I can!

"Kumbaya my lord..." Uh oh...Marr & Moz first met at a Patti Smith concert. Marr's is taller than Moz'!

Smiths, reunited. Morrissey & Marr- TOGETHER! Next to Patti Smith, at who’s show they first met. Uh oh…Marr’s is taller than Moz’! “Kumbaya, my lord…”

But? I’m not alone. After they put it out, their music becomes a part of the lives of all those who hear it, and through them, it takes on a life of it’s own. That’s because Music is an aural Art- it exists to be heard! As this world seems to get crazier and harder to understand (like the Smith’s breakup?) with each passing moment, this rendition of Morrissey’s “First Of The Gang To Die,” from Jakarta, Indonesia, posted online today, gives me hope for the future. I hope it also gives Morrissey & Marr pause for thought about what a Smiths reunion would be like, what it would mean to countless millions around the globe, and the impact THAT might have on the world.

After everything they’ve said and written hasn’t done it, it might be the ONLY thing left that could reach them.

*- The soundtrack for this Post is “Kumbaya” a spiritual. Wikipedia says “‘Kumbaya’ has been used to refer to artificially covering up deep-seated disagreements.”

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  1. In “Autobiography,” Morrissey quotes a letter from Johnny Marr to him that says, “The main thing that I want you to know is that I really regret us not being friends. I’ve only recently come to realize that you genuinely don’t know all the reason for my leaving. To get into it would be horrible…I will never point the finger at anyone but myself, and I am glad I took a step towards making my life sane.” Morrissey, “Autobiography,” iBooks version, P.272, 
  2. ibid, P221.
  3. ibid P.221-23. Marr, in his book, says Craig Gannon was added as a replacement for bassist Andy Rourke, who was repaiced in The Smiths due to his drug issues. They soon reconsidered, and Andy was reinstated, which led to Gannon switching to rhythm guitar, which he was for the 1986 tour. Johnny Marr, “Set The Boy Free,” iBooks version, P.191. Wikipedia says that Rourke allegedly received the news of his being sacked with a note under the windshield wiper of his car that read, “Andy, you have left The Smiths. Good luck and goodbye, Morrissey.”
  4. ibid P.223
  5. Completely derailing what had been a most enthralling narrative to that point, in my opinion, as it apparently felt to him in his life
  6. ibid P.319-20
  7. Johnny Marr, “Set The Boy Free,” iBooks version, P.150
  8. Marr, P. 202
  9. Marr P.202-3
  10. Marr P. 203
  11. Marr P.206
  12. Marr P.253
  13. “Sorrow Will Come In The End,” is generally considered to be about Joyce, with lyrics including “Legalized theft leaves me bereft,” and “You pleaded and squealed, And you think you’ve worn, But sorrow will come to you in the end, And as sure as my words are pure, I praise the day that brings you pain.” By Morrissey & Whyte, published by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, LLC, Warner/Chappell Music., Inc.
  14. With their new drummer, obviously. My money is on Zak Starkey, Ringo’s son.

Bruce Conner- “The Most Important Artist of the 20th Century”

“In my opinion, Bruce Conner is the most important Artist of the 20th Century.”

And all this time I thought it might have been Picasso. Before you put fingers to keyboard to email me- I didn’t say that. Dennis Hopper did. Here-

In addition to being a fine Actor, Director and Photographer, Hopper was a major, and an astute, collector of Contemporary Art. Sharp enough to attend Andy Warhol’s first show and buy one of his “Soup Can” Paintings for 75.00. He was also a long time friend of Bruce Conner.

You've got to have friends. Bruce Conner, left, with Dennis Hopper.

You’ve got to have friends. Bruce Conner, left, in Hopper’s chair, with Dennis Hopper from the Senior & Shopmaker show catalog.

Still? That’s a pretty big statement, Mr. Hopper.

The Magic Curtain. Like a black hole to new universes within.

The entrance. Walk through this black curtain and it’s like entering a black hole to new universes within.

Though I don’t believe in qualitatively comparing Artists, there are, no doubt, many other differing opinions on the question of who was the most important 20th Century Artist. But, there was some quite compelling evidence in favor of Mr. Hopper’s opinion on view over 20 rooms at “Bruce Conner: It’s All True,” the first posthumous retrospective of the Artist, at MoMA from July 3 through October 2, and now at SFMOMA until January 22, 2017. (You can revisit MoMA’s Show  in amazing detail here.) In fact, it makes Hopper’s case about as well as it is possible to make it. With 250 pieces this show is one mind bend after another after another and after another that doesn’t stop until you’re back outside of it, in the lobby of MoMA’s 6th Floor. It’s like Groucho Marx’ joke delivery style- You don’t like that one? Here’s another. And another, and another, and another until he finally gets you. Having never even heard of Bruce Conner, he got my attention pretty quickly on my first visit.

How my head felt after. Show's Lobby.

“It’s All True’s” Lobby. The show’s title comes from a letter Conner wrote in 2000, paraphrased on the left.

By my third visit, I was obsessed. For me, “It’s All True” sets a bench mark for Retrospectives of a Contemporary Artist. Pick a genre- drawing, painting, collage, photography, film, assemblage, Bruce Conner’s work in it can hang with anyone else’s. Here are some things I noticed that could be used to support Mr. Hopper’s claim-

-He was an assemblage Artist every bit as inventive and creative as the great Robert Rauschenberg during the same period. In fact, one of Conner’s assemblages was selected for the 1961 Moma show, “the Art of Assemblage,” when he was 28, where it was shown alongside works by Malevich, Magritte, Miro, Man Ray, Picasso and Rauschenberg. Conner, himself, was denied entry to MoMA on opening night, but that’s a story unto itself.

"THE BOX," 1960 Photo ©MoMA

“THE BOX,” 1960. Dennis Hopper actually preferred this work to Picasso’s “Guernica” as an anti-war statement because it is “not cloaked in pleasing forms.”1 Photo ©MoMA

-While he drew for much of his career, with fascinating results, he created an entirely new and unprecedented type of drawing, made out of inkblots (yes, you read that right) that contain from 1 or 2  upto 494 inkblots in a single work that, I believe, people will spend years trying to figure out how he did them. Even once they do, they are going to have a very hard time achieving his level of mastery with their manipulation.

inkblot-drawing-8-17-1991p

HTF? “INKBLOT DRAWING,” August 17, 1991. See a Detail of this further down. Photo ©MoMA

-His groundbreaking first film, “A MOVIE.” was a work that was hugely influential, credited by the same Dennis Hopper with inspiring the acid scene in his own film “Easy Rider.”

Blowing Minds. "Crossroads," 1976 at Moma. Photo ©Moma

“CROSSROADS,” 1976. Mushrooms, of all kinds, even atomic clouds as here, are a running theme. Yes, all of his titles are in CAPS. Photo ©MoMA

“CROSSROADS,” 1976, a 36 minute film that struck me as being part horror film, part meditation on the power of the unseen forces in the universe, showing the unimaginable devastation an atomic explosion unleashes, while at the same time showing it as a force of nature to which it gradually melts into, as we watch the surrounding clouds become indistinguishable from the atomic cloud. The end result is summed up in what writer William C. Wees calls the “Nuclear Sublime2.” Showing multiple views of the atomic blast at Bikini Atoll on July 26, 1947, which Conner selected from the over 500 cameras that filmed the event (some at speeds of up to 8,000 frames per second), and juxtaposes the images with, first, actual sounds of the event, and then soundtracks created by synth master Patrick Gleeson and avant garde composer Terry Riley. Forty years later it’s hard to see this film becoming irrelevant any time soon. It’s a film that everyone involved in the military or government of any nation around the world, or those with the power to vote for or select them should see. Conner’s other films (totaling over 20) were no less creative or groundbreaking, and are increasingly being studied, and recognized.

-He took some of the greatest photos of punk musicians and punk bands ever taken.

MoMA_Bruce Conner_June 2016

Up against the wall! A wall of his punk photos shot at the Mabuhay Gardens Club in L.A. Photo ©MoMA

Frankie Fix of "Crime," 1977. Photo ©Moma

FRANKIE FIX of the band “Crime,” 1977. Photo ©MoMA

-He created unique portraits he called “photograms” using his own body that are unlike any “selfie” ever taken (actually, Edmund Shea photographed them) and are so ethereal he titled them “Angels.”

Spiritual Side "Sound of One Hand Angel," 1974, Photo ©MoMA

“SOUND OF ONE HAND ANGEL,” 1974, Photo ©MoMA

"Angels" by Bruce Conner. Photo courtesy of Moma.

A Room full of “ANGELS.” Photo ©MoMA

-His collages are every bit as surreal as any by Max Ernst, the Surrealist Master of the Collage.

"PSYCHEDELICATESSEN OWNER," 1990 collage from engravings. Photo ©MoMA

“PSYCHEDELICATESSEN OWNER,” 1990, collage from engravings. Photo ©MoMA

-Being as he was the first Artist to put film to contemporary music, he is considered to be the “Father of Music Video,” with his “COSMIC RAY,” in 1961, then “BREAKAWAY,” with Toni Basil (see above). His subsequent work with David Byrne and Brian Eno on videos for their 1981 album “My Life In The Bush of Ghosts” presaged and anticipated MTV’s “Music Videos.” Having his innovations and techniques aped without credit was not something he accepted well. I put this lower on the list because the music video seems to be fading in importance.

And, he ran for office (a seat on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco), in 1967, actually garnering a few thousand votes.

So?

Why haven’t more people heard about Bruce Conner? Why isn’t he listed and discussed in 20th Century Art History Books?

"Untitled" from Mandalla Series, 1965, felt tip pen on paper. 10x10 inches

“UNTITLED” from MANDALA SERIES, 1965, felt tip pen on paper. 10×10 inches. Photo ©MoMA

Detail of left side

Detail of left side

Bruce Conner was something of af an “anti-artist.”  He didn’t like the art establishment, and that came out in his dealings with galleries and museums, including a bizarre encounter with the Security staff at MoMA, at that opening in 1961, alluded to above. In this show he is quoted questioning the need for an Artist to put his name on a work, and near the end of his career works that are undeniable Bruce Conners began appearing with other names, like “Emily Feather,” or “Anonymouse” attached to them. It seems it was a conscious effort to avoid inclusion. He claimed he hired these Artists, but today, they are assumed to all be by him. He once said having work out in the public under his own name made him nervous.

Women's World. Form Left- Pinups on the back of "Untitled," 1954-61, "Spider Lady," & "Spider Lady Nest," 1959, Homage to Jean Harlow," 1963,

Women on his mind. Form Left- Pinups on the back of “UNTITLED,” 1954-61, “SPIDER LADY,” & “SPIDER LADY NEST,” 1959, “HOMAGE TO JEAN HARLOW,” 1963, “WEDNESDAY,” and “LADY BRAIN,” both 1960. Entrance to “BREAKAWAY,” right. Photo ©MoMA

Contemporary Art of any time is supposed to break all the rules that had been set in place before it. In Bruce Conner’s case, he broke the rules in every medium he created in, and he broke the rules for being an Artist in the “Art World,” which he loathed. It’s interesting to me that there is so much craft in his films- including dripping ink on them, punch holes seemingly randomly, that make them Art Pieces in themselves. This is part of a duality in his nature that sees him pay attention to the minutest of details like these films, his collages, or his ink drawings where countless minute lines are drawn in pen that somehow never intersect with each other, contrasted with the hugeness of “Crossroads,” horrible, yet strangely beautiful, and contrasted with the “spirituality” of works like the “Angels” and his final work, “Easter Morning.” Bruce Conner may have been many things, it’s all true (as he says in a letter that is the basis for the show’s title), but one thing he was not is easy to categorize. Unless that word is “Artist.”

The first gallery featuring Assemblages. Photo ©MoMA

After seeing “A MOVIE,” you exit the door at left and enter the first gallery featuring Assemblages. Photo ©MoMA

Walking around “It’s All True,” as well as no less than three very good satellite shows going on around town, of Conner’s trippier collages and tapestries at one Paula Cooper, unique works at the other, and prints and drawings at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery. I found that every time I look at one of his works, I’m left with the same question-

"Tocatta & Fugue," 1986, engraving collage

“TOCATTA & FUGUE,” 1986, engraving collage

"Christ Casting Out The Legion Of Devils," Tapestry from engraving collage. Both seen at Paul Cooper Gallery

“CHRIST CASTING OUT THE LEGION OF DEVILS,” Tapestry from engraving collage. Both seen at Paula Cooper Gallery

“HTF?”

That’s “How” inserted instead of the W in WTF? As in- HOW did he do that?” No matter which genre of his work I’m considering, that question hits me. I stare at his drawings, for example, including one with hundreds of lines where no two intersect (like “UNTITLED,” above) and wonder “How did he do that?” I’m face to face with a pseudo Max Ernst collage, like the one above, and wonder “I can’t see anything cut out and applied on top of something else. It’s all seamless, and this was before scanning, photoshop and all the rest. How did he do that?” I look at his movies, “BREAKAWAY,” (above) and wonder the same thing. “How? The editing and the way it’s complied is beyond the technology of the time.” I’m not alone in saying this. In fact, no less than Harvard put on a film series of Bruce Conner’s films in 2008 that THEY called “Bruce Conner, the Last Magician of the 20th Century.” (Mr. Conner passed away in 2008). Then, there’s the “Inkblot” drawings, in which each inkblot is a perfect, unique, miracle of beauty, like a snowflake.

Detail of "INKBLOT DRAWING, August 17, 1991" seen above in full. Photo ©MoMA

Detail of “INKBLOT DRAWING, August 17, 1991” seen above in full. Photo ©MoMA

“How the…” Don’t ask.

As near as I can tell, Conner folds the paper (vertically in the image above) then applies the drop of ink. How he manipulates it after that to get these seemingly miraculous results is the mystery. Artist David Hockey wrote a fascinating book titled “Secret Knowledge,” about the lost techniques of the Great Masters of Painting going back to the mid 1400’s. He makes a downright riveting case, via reverse engineering, for some of the optical “tricks” and methods some of the greatest Painters ever used. I think someone is going to need to do a Volume 2 of “Secret Knowledge” and include Bruce Conner. MoMA’s curator, Laura Hoptman, said at the Press Opening, “For Bruce Conner there is always the acknowledgement of the viewer, especially in the drawings you can not only admire the steady hand and the attention to detail but it’s also on us to look so carefully and closely as possible to divine the meaning and also the intensity of the work.” While I agree that looking closely reveals wonders, I also wonder how much Conner really wanted us to see and understand3, how much of Bruce Conner, the Artist, was about making (some) works for himself, works that defy understanding by others because they aren’t meant to be. Unless his wife, Jean, also a very fine Artist, tells us, it looks like we’ll never know.

"Black Dahlia," 1960 Photo © Moma

“BLACK DAHLIA,” 1960. Inspired by an unsolved sex-murder case in L.A. His Assemblages require, and reward, very close looking. You’ll even see a nude, from the back. Photo ©MoMA

One of the themes of some bigger NYC Art Shows this year has been a revisiting of the Art History of the 20th Century. “It’s All True” does it again and makes such an emphatic case, as “Nasreen Mohamedi” did earlier this year inaugurating TMB, that I would be shocked if either Artist is omitted going forward.

From the "Dennis Hopper One Man Show," Print after engraving collage as seen at Senior & Shopmaker Galleri

From the “Dennis Hopper One Man Show,” at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery, a partial reconstruction of a Bruce Conner show honoring Dennis Hopper. Limited Edition print after engraving collage.

Beyond that, Dennis Hopper’s opinion will live on. I’m glad he expressed it before he passed of prostate cancer in 2010. Is Bruce Conner “The most important Artist of the 20th Century?” I don’t know if it matters. What matters is that his Art is being seen more and more, and so it will grow in appreciation and influence. Bruce Conner may have had reasons for being an “Anti-Artist,” and “Anti Art World” during his life, but one thing that is apparent- Now that he’s unfortunately no longer with us, his work is going to continue to speak for him, while it is seen far and wide in the 21st Century. Where he will continue to blow minds…like mine.

"BOMBHEAD," 2002

“BOMBHEAD,” 2002. Based on a Self Portrait. Photo ©MoMA.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “In C” by Terry Riley, the soundtrack for Bruce Conner’s final film, the gorgeous masterpiece, “EASTER MORNING,” 2008, which struck me as a farewell to life, and is the final work in “It’s All True.”

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  1. SFWeeky
  2. Wees’ excellent piece on “CROSSROADS,” in which he coins the term, is here.
  3. Very very few are going to get to examine the film strips of his movines to see the attention to detail he lavished on them.

Outside Trump Tower

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Caddy corner from Trump Tower this afternoon seen from the southwest corner of West 56th Street.

This isn’t a political blog, and this isn’t a politcial Post. I’ll leave politics to the “experts.” Ok? So…there I was, walking along 5th Avenue this afternoon on my way to the West 57th Street Galleries. Barricades lined 5th Avenue for blocks, with the eastern lane completely closed off. West 56th was cordoned off- going west (away from the area)- towards the left in the picture above. Police vehicles of all kinds and sizes lined the street interspersed with an equal number of TV satellite trucks.

Yes, it seemed there were as many media as there were NYPD.

Given how many police are in the area, that might be hard to believe. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, take a look at this, which I shot as I walked past Trump Tower-

The barricades extended 4 blocks south, even blocking the bus stops (going away from the area).

As I walked through the area, a thought struck me-

What would this same scene, the area around Trump Tower, look like if Hillary had won?

I don’t think it’s a simple question. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that however it went on November 8. the world was going to change, in ways we don’t yet know.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “No Language In Our Lungs (To tell the world just how we feel)” by Andy Partridge of XTC from their classic album “Black Sea.” Play it behind my video.

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Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel #November 11, 2016

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If those paving stones could talk…The scene in front the Hotel Chelsea, currently covered in scaffolding, this afternoon after the passing of Leonard Cohen yesterday.

Here’s an iPhone video I shot outside of 222 West 23rd Street, world famous as the Hotel Chelsea, which Leonard Cohen helped to immortalize in no small way, through his songwriting, and his presence in Suite #424-

Leonard’s “Bird On A Wire” performed live by a couple who were “just passing through,” something that adds even more to it being a fitting tribute to Mr. Cohen, and the spirit of the Hotel Chelsea he helped foster.

Leonard Cohen's wall plaque is now behind the scaffolding, making it very hard to get a shot of.

One for the road. Leonard Cohen’s wall plaque is now behind the scaffolding, making it very hard to get a shot of, though folks were able to leave tributes nearby.

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UPDATE- As seen on Saturday, November 12

UPDATE- As seen on Saturday, November 12

I’ve got a good deal of personal history there, myself, these past 25 years, though none that directly involves Mr. Cohen. The Chelsea is the figurative center of the Chelsea Neighborhood, and was immortalized most recently by Patti Smith in “Just Kids,” which also took place before my time in the area. None the less, I have a ton of respect for all that went on there, and the amazing group of people who occupied the place, including my late friend, Storme, who I recently wrote about. Certainly Mr. Cohen is right up there with any of the others in terms of bringing to the Chelsea the cachet that made the place, the area, and the City a mecca for countless thousands of people- then and now.

Outside Academy Records, one of Manhattan's top Record & CD Stores, tonite.

Outside Academy Records, one of Manhattan’s top remaining Record & CD Stores, tonite.

In the basement of The Strand Bookstore tonite. Yes, the basement where Patti Smith once worked.

In the basement of The Strand Bookstore tonite. Yes, the basement where Patti Smith once worked.

I don’t know what the place is going to become now. I doubt it will retain much of it’s former energy. It’s another sign of the times. An era is slowly ending right before our eyes. Another place that was once a focus point for seemingly boundless creativity, filled with people who inspired each other, the world around them, and beyond, that now must be found somewhere else in town. While there will never be another Leonard Cohen, I look forward to the next generation of Musicians, Writers, Artists and Poets who’ve been inspired by him and all the others.

Hallelujah. There are some big shoes to fill…

More on the legendary Leonard Cohen at the Hotel Chelsea (which sits one block west of the recent bomb blast) can be found here.

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen.

*Soundtrack for this Post is “Chelsea Hotel, #2,” by Leonard Cohen. Thanks to kitty for reconnaissance assistance.

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The Rothko Chapel, Chelsea

“I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.” Mark Rothko.

I could sit there for a month. One of the infamous "Seagrams Murals," 1959. Rarely seen.

“Seagrams Murals, Section 6,” 1959. One of the infamous murals for the 4 Seasons Restaurant, but never installed there.

Lines to get in are nothing new in New York, or in Chelsea, home to some of the most “happening” nightclubs in the City. But a line to get in at 2 or 3pm in the afternoon is rare anywhere in NYC. Even rarer are lines to get into an Art Gallery at that hour- unless it’s late in the run of a “must-see” show. But, the line filled the lobby and extended out the door at the extraordinary “Mark Rothko: Dark Palette” show which only opened the day before at Pace on West 25th Street. Five years in the making, and focused on exploring one aspect of his work, don’t bother asking for the price list, it’s also unusual for a gallery show because none of the work is for sale. Darn! What will I do now with that spare 90 million dollars?? Maybe I’ll open some grocery supermarkets with reasonable prices most neighborhoods in Manhattan desperately need.

3pm November 5. The crowd in the lobby waits.

3pm November 5. The crowd waiting to get in fills the lobby. Buckle up! It’s only going to get more crowded.

When it comes to writing about the work of Mark Rothko, I have to say up front that it’s very hard for me to be unbiased. Mark Rothko’s Art changed my life. In 1999 I saw his Retrospective at the Old Whitney (now TMB) the final weekend it was there. It was one of the unforgettable experiences I’ve ever had at an Art show, and it was perfect timing, given the roadblock I had hit with record companies in trying to get my records released unaltered, I then decided to turn (back) to Art History, my first love. Thank you, Mark Rothko.

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Let’s get lost. This is how I prefer to see Rothko. Each work can be seen on it’s own. Getting close to feel engulfed by the work is good, too.

There have been Rothko shows in NYC since 1. But, none of them have yet matched the feeling I got from the 1999 show- aided in no small part by the way the works were hung, the way the show moved through his career. I’ve longed for that feeling ever since. At long last, here it is. The “dark” works have a unique mystery among Rothko’s work, and are a terrific choice for a theme. While some see them as “depressing,” (including a lady mentioned in the show’s introduction card who rejected one that Rothko had painted for her for that reason), I find them to be among his most powerful, subtle, even, yes, poignant pieces. While it’s always great to encounter a Rothko in a Museum, they’re usually hung among the work of others, which I find a bit distracting, For me, Rothko needs to be seen and experienced in a “vacuum,” or with only Rothkos nearby. Few institutions have that many Rothkos, and given their popularity, it is very hard for them to part with them and disappoint their visitors, even for a couple of months.

Worshipping at the altar?

Worshipping at the altar?

Luckily, two of the very few people who do have some, the offspring of Mr. Rothko, Dr. Kate Rothko Prizel and Dr. Christopher Rothko, have gone above and beyond to support this show. A number of the works on view come from their collections- by my count, no less than 4 from Kate’s and 2 from Christopher’s, in addition to “Seagrams Mural, Section 6” which they jointly own. That’s 7 of the 21 works on view- one third. (Christopher Rothko, by the way, is the author of one of the very best books on his father there is- “Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out.“). To help facilitate the loans of 3 pieces from major Museums, the Rothko “kids” loaned the institutions works from their own collections so the institutions would still have Rothkos to show their visitors, and enable them to part with the works requested for this show. Remarkable. Dad would no doubt be proud. With 21 “dark” works, the majority of which are out and out masterpieces in my estimation, including some stunning works on paper mounted on canvas, the results are as close as there has been to a truly “must see” show in Chelsea in years.

Someone else...

Someone else…

That said, it was only a year and a half ago that another show in this same space left me transfixed and provided many hours spent in sheer meditative bliss- by Richard Pousette-Dart. This one is very similar in it’s effect, as we explore the history of Rothko’s use of dark colors in his “sectional” works. I can’t categorize what these works say to me because it’s different each time I see them. Sometimes it’s spiritual. Sometimes poetic. Sometimes I feel like I’m standing on a foreign landscape looking at distant horizons. But, it’s that experience they give, the pure joy of looking, seeing and letting them in that transfixes me.

"Black in Deep Red," 1957. The day will come where these works will be as famous as Monet's are now, in my opinion.

“Black in Deep Red,” 1957. The day will come when Rothko’s work will be as ubiquitous as Monet’s are now, in my opinion.

This has been a year full of big New York School Abstract Expressionist Shows. First, there was the biggest “name” in AbEx, Jackson Pollock, at MoMA, then concurrent shows of his wife, Lee Krasner, and long time friend, Philip Guston. A very nice smaller show of New York School Artists is going on at Allan Stone Projects that includes two marvelous Joseph Cornell Boxes (Ok, he’s not an AbEx Artist, but his work is wonderfully abstract, and he was a New Yorker), alongside works by Abstract Expressionists2 de Koonjng, Arshile Gorky and Clifford Still. There’s also a nice Joan Mitchell show that’s about the same size as the Rothko show going on very nearby it, AND there’s the Centennial show of Richard Pousette-Dart, for my money the most under appreciated of the lot, going on right now at Pace uptown!

"Untitled," 1955 the earliest work here has never been displayed in the country before.

“Untitled,” 1955, the earliest work here, has never been displayed in the country before.

Phew…

I didn't bring flowers, so this will suffice as my "bouquet."

I didn’t bring flowers, so this Post will have to suffice as my “bouquet.”

For me, though, this show will be the high point. Short of going to the “real” Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas or the Seagrams Room at the Tate, London, this is the only, and best, chance you’ll get to get that feeling…until the next big Rothko show. Unlike most of my Art Show Posts, this show only opened this past Friday, November 4, so you have until January 7, 2017 to experience it.

"Untitled," 1968, one of a few acrylic on paper, mounted on panel pieces here, seen from an angle.

“Untitled,” 1968, one of a few wonderful acrylic on paper, mounted on panel pieces here, has fascinating sides.

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After that? You’re stuck being like me- Praying for the next one.

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*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Rothko Chapel” by Morton Feldman.

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  1. “Mark Rothko: The Watercolors” in 2014, shining light on his seldom seen work in the medium, and “Mark Rothko: A Painter’s Progress, The Year 1949” in 2004, focused and fascinating, both excellent, and both at Pace, East 57th Street.
  2. according to a list The Met has published

Bob Dylan – Nobel Laureate

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You may have noticed I haven’t had anything to say about it. Well? That shouldn’t be a surprise. As I’ve said I’m against competitive awards in the Arts. No one can really say who’s a “better” Artist in any of the Arts, or what work of Art is better than another, so what’s the point?

Along with this award came all the hubbub about Bob not saying anything about it, leading to one Board member, or whatever they’re called, commenting about Dylan’s silence. Reminds me of a song…

“Hey, please crawl out your window
Oh, use your hands and legs it won’t ruin you”*

Um? It’s not like he asked for it, is it?  Anyways, one thing to come out of all this has been some terrific articles. This one by Lucian K Truscott IV in this week’s Village Voice is a must read. It tells the tale of the night Dylan met Patti Smith and a whole bevy of literary giants- in the first person!

PostScript December 14, 2016. When I Posted the above I had no idea that Patti Smith had been selected to sing at the ceremony for the Literature Nobel Laureate. She wrote this piece in the New Yorker about the experience.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” by Bob Dylan, published by Bob Dylan Music, Co, and released as a single in 1965. It was finally released on an album on “Masterpieces,” 1978 and “Biograph,” in 1985.

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