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Paul Ben-Itzak’s new 40-page Memoir, including art by Ansel Adams, Robert L. Berry, Lou Chapman, James Daugherty, Gustave Caillebotte, Jacob Lawrence, Sylvie Lesgourgues, David Levinthal, Roy Lichtenstein, Sam Peckinpah, Charles M. Russell, Saul Steinberg, and Frank Lloyd Wright from both current exhibitions and the AV Archives, is now available. To receive your own copy as a PDF or Word document, including 35 illustrations, please send $19.95 to the AV by designating your PayPal payment to email@example.com, or write us at that address to learn about payment by check. Your purchase includes a complimentary one-year subscription to the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider ($29.95 value). Above: Saul Steinberg, “Train,” From the exhibition Along the Lines: Selected Drawings by Saul Steinberg, on view through October 29 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text (not including citations) copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
For Martin, with deepest condolences.
Imagine if, in yesterday’s story on the death of Jeanne Moreau, I’d written, “France today is mourning a great singer, who also happened to make a few good films.” This was more or less the ignorant turn that French public radio played on Sam Shepard — whose death Thursday in Kentucky at the age of 73 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, was announced Monday — in reporting that America had lost one of its great actors, who, by the way, as a sideline wrote a few good plays. In fact, it was the opposite. For all his distinction as a character actor, depicting a certain weathered breed of the archetypal Western man, the cinema would not have been much different had Sam Shepard never graced its screens. But where theater is concerned, Shepard was not merely the signature voice of his generation, but the first to formulate a dramatic language which elevated to poetic heights the lingo of an American lower-middle class whose denizens are often relegated to being described as living on society’s ‘underside’ but who are in reality the outcasts of a world “geared to invisible money” where, as Weston continues in “The Curse of the Starving Class” (written in 1976),
You never hear the sound of change anymore. It’s all plastic shuffling back and forth. It’s all in everybody’s heads. So I figured if that’s the case, why not take advantage of it? If it’s all an idea and nothing’s really there, why not take advantage? So I went along with it, that’s all. I just played ball.
Of course, what Weston doesn’t realize is that the game is rigged. And it is the conniptions that result from such dashed hopes, and how they set off often lethal familial contortions pre-determined by an American idyll constructed on high hopes and premised on their fulfillment, that Shepard explored. If the family traumas that serve as powder kegs for these tragedies are often stored in the basement (just as this territory often forms the most dreaded realm in our own nightmares), Shepard probed beyond this already slippery terrain, drilling through the basement floor and mining the entrails of family dynamics, using his pen like a coal miner uses a flashlight, to illuminate its darkest recesses. If his dialogues and scenarios could be earthy, rogue, and gritty — “The Tooth of Crime,” the first play I saw by him (at San Francisco’s New College) was a sort of Western punk rock opera that could have been scripted by Goth rocker Nick Cave — he was also eminently literary, weaving tapestries as rich in imagery and colloquial rhythm as Faulkner’s.
Growing up immersed in studying and making theater in San Francisco, I felt like Shepard was part of my extended dramatic family. Many of his first successes premiered at the Magic Theater, which also introduced several plays by a cousin, Martin Epstein (in one of which my younger brother made his own debut). My best friend from conservatory went on to play the manipulative lawyer Taylor in a professional-scale production of ‘Curse,’ by a director who had worked with Shepard at the Magic, at the University of California at Davis. Not long afterwards, another conservatory cohort starred as Emma (loosely modeled on Sam’s sister) in an early Magic mounting of ‘Curse.’ So it was only natural that when I finally made my own long-dreamed of debut on the New York stage at the age of 50, it was by playing Weston. If I already knew that Shepard’s characters were prone to bare their naked emotions (and bodies) at the slightest provocation, it was this inside perspective that revealed to me their authentically poignant human frailty.
The following monologue, with which Weston opens the second scene of the second act of “The Curse of the Starving Class,” captures the trap forged by the combination of the rotting American dream and that incurable American optimism which yields so many American tragedies. Later in the play, just before he takes off for Mexico fleeing debtors, Weston will proclaim: “I can’t run out on everything…. ‘CAUSE THIS IS WHERE I SETTLED DOWN! THIS IS WHERE THE LINE ENDED! RIGHT HERE! I MIGRATED TO THIS SPOT! I GOT NOWHERE TO GO! THIS IS IT! BACKED RIGHT UP TO THE PACIFIC DAMN OCEAN!” When the following, earlier scene opens, he’s sobered up, shaved, and donned a fresh shirt. The speech, delivered as he’s folding clothes he’s just laundered, is addressed to a lamb he’s just wormed. A last burst of American optimism — flying towards the Sun fueled by lamb testicles — before Weston becomes the sacrificial lamb to this idol.
There’s worse things than maggots ya know. Much worse. Maggots go away if they’re properly attended to. If you got someone around who can take the time. Who can recognize the signs. Who brings ya in out of the cold, wet pasture and sets ya up in a cushy situation like this. No lamb ever had it better. It’s warm. It’s free of draft, now that I got the new door up. There’s no varmints. No coyotes. No eagles. No — (Looks over at lamb.) Should I tell ya something about eagles? This is a true story. This is a true account. One time I was out in the fields doing the castrating, which is a thing that has to be done. It’s not my favorite job, but it’s something that just has to be done. I’d set myself up right beside the lean-to out there. Just a little tin roof-shelter thing out there with my best K-bar knife, some boiling water and a hot iron to cauterize with. It’s a bloody job on all accounts. Well, I had maybe two dozen spring ram lambs to do out there. I had ’em all gathered up away from the ewes in much the same kinda’ set up as you got right there. Similar fence structure like that. It was a crisp, bright type a’ morning. Air was real thin and you could see all the way out across the pasture land. Frost was still well bit down on the stems, right close to the ground. Maybe a couple a’ crows and the ewes carrying on about their babies, and that was the only sound. Well, I was working away out there when I feel this shadow cross over me. I could feel it even before I saw it take shape on the ground. Felt like the way it does when the clouds move across the sun. Huge and black and cold like. So I look up, half expecting a buzzard or maybe a red-tail, but what hits me across the eyes is this giant eagle. Now I’m a flyer and I’m used to aeronautics, but this sucker was doin’ some downright suicidal antics. Real low down like he’s coming in for a landing or something, tucking his wings, then changing his mind and pulling straight up again and sailing out away from me. So I watch him going small for a while, then turn back to my work. I do a couple more lambs maybe, and the same thing happens. Except this time he’s even lower yet. Like I could almost feel his feathers on my back. I could hear his sound real clear. A giant bird. His wings made a kind of cracking noise. Then up he went again. I watched him going small for a while, then turned back to my work. I do a couple more lambs maybe, and the same thing happens. Except this time he’s even lower yet. Like I could almost feel his feathers on my back. I could hear his sound real clear. A giant bird. His wings made a kind of cracking noise. Then up he went again. I watched him longer this time, trying to figure out his intentions. Then I put the whole thing together. He was after those testes. Those fresh little remnants of manlihood. So I decided to oblige him this time and threw a few a’ them on top a’ the shed roof. Then I just went back to work again, pretending to be preoccupied. I was waitin’ for him this time though. I was listening hard for him, knowing he’d be coming in from behind me. I was watchin’ the ground for any sign of blackness. Nothing happened for about three more lambs, when all of a sudden he comes. Just a thunder clap. Blam! He’s down on that shed roof with his talons taking half the tarpaper with him, wings whippin’ the air, screaming like a bred mare. Brought me straight up off the ground, and I started yellin’ my head off. I don’t know why it was comin’ outa’ me but I was standing there with this icy feeling up my backbone and just yelling my fool head off. Cheerin’ for that eagle. I’d never felt like that since the first day I went up in a B-49. After a while I sat down again and went on workin’. And every time I cut a lamb I’d throw those balls up on top a’ the shed roof. And every time he’d come down like the Cannonball Express on that roof. And every time I got that feeling.*
Having masticated the testes of the American socio-familial psyche like a cowboy pensively chewing his cud before spitting the leavings back out to form a pastiche as lyrical as a frayed quilt, Sam Shepard is now flying with the eagles. (And not — French cultural media take note — because he once played an astronaut in the movies.)
*”The Curse of the Starving Class” copyright 1976, 2004, 2009 Sam Shepard.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
Jeanne Moreau, the embodiment of French film and muse to the giants of French and World cinema for seven decades, including Francois Truffaut (“Jules and Jim”), Louis Malle (“Ascenseur pour l’echaffaud”), Orson Welles, Luis Bunuel and countless others, was found dead in her Paris apartment this morning by her maid, French radio reported. Jeanne Moreau was 89 years old.
After making her theatrical debut at Jean Vilar’s Festival d’Avignon in 1947 and subsequently joining the Comedie Francaise before leaving it for Vilar’s new and pioneering Theatre National Populaire in 1951, Moreau never really left the French stage or screen, continuing to be a formidable presence with her distinctive gravelly voice well into the current decade.
“My voice changed with the years and the cigarettes, but my voice is like that,” Moreau said. “One should never take advantage of one’s tools; at that instant one becomes manipulative. Even with men, I never played the coquette.”
“She’s an absolute monument,” declared the actor Pierre Arditti, speaking today on French public radio. “The very model of what an actor must make of her metier. She’s the very example, that is to say that she was always conscious of her art; when it came to playing someone else, she always mined herself.”
“In a certain manor, she incarnated the modern woman even before the explosion of feminism,” explained Eve Beton, a cinema commentator for French public radio, adding, “This was a woman who loved words; her home was packed with books.” Among other signature moments, Beton singled out Moreau’s poignant portrayal of an ex-convict in Bertrand Blier’s 1974 “Les Valseuses,” which made stars of Gerard Depardieu and Patrick Dewaere, as two incorrigible youth on a rampage through France. “They encounter this woman as she’s being let out of prison, they sleep with her, and the next morning she commits suicide.” Moreau’s brief appearance was so moving that it eclipsed that of an icon of a younger generation whom the two seduce earlier in the film: Isabelle Huppert.
It was one of many roles in which Moreau revealed what Serge Toubiana, the former director of the Cinematheque Francaise, described as her strong sense of a ‘sovereign self.’ “She had such a taste for liberty,” Toubiana said, “that she revolutionized the very concept of what it meant to be a star. I rarely encountered such an independent personality. Truffaut said of her, in ‘Jules and Jim,’ ‘She is prestigious.'” For Orson Welles, who directed Moreau in his 1962 “The Trial” after Kafka, Toubiana said, she “incarnated the French language, the French panache.”
While it was not her debut film — among other roles, she’d already held her own opposite French film legend Jean Gabin (France’s answer to Humphrey Bogart) in Jacques Decker’s 1954 Paris polaire “Touchez pas au Grisbi” — the film which announced Moreau’s arrival, Toubiana remembered, was Louis Malle’s 1957 “Ascenseur pour l’echafaud” when, to the melancholy trumpet notes of Miles Davis, she walked the Paris streets, sans make-up (Moreau didn’t need any to make an indelible impression), in search of her man.
Also speaking on French public radio this afternoon, Jean-Claude Carrier, who adapted the scenario for Luis Bunuel’s 1964 “Diary of a Chamber Maid,” recalled, “One day Jeanne came to see me and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on with Luis. He’s not telling me anything. I have the impression that he doesn’t like what I’m doing.” When Carrier reported the remark to the director, Bunuel replied, “What do you want me to tell her? It’s she who’s teaching me things about the character.”
If Toubiana and others pointed to Moreau’s audacity, for the actress it was an audacity she put to the service of the directors with whom she worked in over 130 films. “What’s interesting,” she said in a recent interview, “is to have commenced in 1948 and have told stories in a different way…. with the Nouvelle Vague, and after, it changed again. In fact these are always the same stories, but told in a different manner. And it’s good to allow a young woman or young man to be conscious, and to have the audacity to express his desire and not be timorous. One should never submit.”
On view at the Art Institute of Chicago through August 20, as part of its exhibition Robert Frank: Photos is, above, Robert Frank. Untitled, 2005/14. The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall. © Robert Frank, from the book Partida. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.
Stuart Davis, “The Paris Bit,” 1959. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
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After having pilloried recent exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou for being too monographic — the everything but the kitchen sink Corbusier cavalcade was pretty crammed to the hilt for what was supposed to be an homage to a master of efficient space management, while the Paris institution’s Wilfredo Lam show should have turned off the spigot after 1950, when Lam’s tropical jungle canvasses started becoming monotonous — I’m aware it might seem contradictory to complain that the exhibition Stuart Davis, In Full Swing, on view at San Francisco’s de Young museum through August 6 before moving on to Arkansas’s Crystal Waters, omits a vital chapter in the Abstract Expressionist’s career. The omission is important, because unlike the apprentice paintings of Duchamp and Picasso, which only demonstrated that they’d mastered the basics of composition before deviating from them but were not significant for their intrinsic value, Davis’s contributions to the early 20th century fount that was the Ashcan School, starting when he was still a teenager, also prove that his social activism (notably as head of the Artists’ Union) wasn’t isolated from his painterly activity, but sprung from the same well.
Davis’s 1912 canvas “Chinatown,” for example, isn’t just a slice of Lower East Side topography, but a portrait of the desperation driving those women who weren’t going up in flames in locked factory fires into selling their bodies to survive. (The painting is part of the permanent collection of Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art, whose founders identified Davis as one of their core artists around whom they decided to build their stock.) The omission of work from the seminal part of his career that most directly responded to social conditions is particularly boggling given museum director Max Hollein’s declaration that the de Young “has always believed that artists have a duty to comment and critique our culture and we are pleased to show how one American artist responded to the tumultuous times he lived through.” Leaving aside that the ludicrous pretension of this statement is more a reflection of the social-message driven San Francisco aesthetic (and I’m a native) than a directive any artist worth his sourdough starter would take seriously, *having made such a profession of faith*, to then ignore the very work that meets this definition in the exhibition Hollein is putatively promoting is incomprehensible.
Perhaps deserving more leniency is the misapprehending of Davis’s later work by New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl, in his review of the exhibition’s tour at the Whitney last year, as “proto-Pop Art,” perhaps a mis-reading of curator Emma Acker’s statement that Davis’s “appropriation of images from consumer culture and advertising in the 1920s… predates 1960s Pop Art.” In fact, where Pop Art more often than not simply re-envisioned commercial icons as Icons — the only ingredient Andy Warhol added to Campbell’s Tomato Soup cans was his marquee name — Davis actually worked in the opposite sense. Rather than elevating pop “culture” into art, he inserted its ready symbols and recognizable images into his abstract and semi-abstract art to offer an anchor or key which would help viewers identify with the abstractions, perhaps his own manner of resurrecting the ubiquitous key in the medieval Unicorn tapestries on view at the Cloisters museum in New York, where Davis installed himself when he was just 15 years old.
Stuart Davis, “For Internal Use Only,” 1944-45. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis, “House and Street,” 1931. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis, “Odol,” 1924. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis, “Egg Beater No 2,” 1963-64. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis, “Salt Shaker,” 1931. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis, “The Mellow Pad,” 1945-51. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis, “Blips and Ifs,” 1928. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis, “Owh! in San Pao,” 1951. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis, “Rapt at Rappaports,” 1951-52. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis, “Lucky Strike,” 1921. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis, “Visa,” 1951. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Stuart Davis in his studio.
Want more? Click here to see examples of some of the Stuart Davis works in the Crystal Waters collection.
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