Sam Shepard, voice of the starving class, now flying with the eagles

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.

Conspicuous by its absence: “Ashcan” in the dustbin = mid-measure for ‘Stuart Davis In Full Swing’ Expo in San Francisco

Davis, StuartStuart 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

Stuart Davis, “For Internal Use Only,” 1944-45. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Davis, Stuart

Stuart Davis, “House and Street,” 1931. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Odol_1924

Stuart Davis, “Odol,” 1924. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Egg Beater No 2_1963-64 smallStuart Davis, “Egg Beater No 2,” 1963-64. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Salt Shaker_1931

Stuart Davis, “Salt Shaker,” 1931. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_The Mellow Pad_1945-51 smallStuart Davis, “The Mellow Pad,” 1945-51. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Blips and Ifs_1928

Stuart Davis, “Blips and Ifs,” 1928. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Davis, Stuart

Stuart Davis, “Owh! in San Pao,” 1951. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Rapt at Rappaports_1951-52

Stuart Davis, “Rapt at Rappaports,” 1951-52. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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Stuart Davis, “Lucky Strike,” 1921. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis_Visa_1951 small

Stuart Davis, “Visa,” 1951. Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Stuart Davis in His Studio

Stuart Davis in his studio.

 

Want more? Click here to see examples of some of the Stuart Davis works in the Crystal Waters collection.

From the Archives: An American Panorama at the Amon Carter in Fort Worth, Texas

carter 1 hopperEdward Hopper (1882 – 1967), “Night Shadows, 1921.” Etching. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1983.66.

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Text copyright 2012, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you read on the Arts Voyager and Dance Insider? We can’t do it without your support. Please donate now in dollars or Euros through PayPal by designating your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Your donation will help pay for our arts and dance coverage in Paris and around the world, as well as vital and urgent medical and dental care for AV publisher Paul Ben-Itzak. No donation is too small. This article from our Archives was first published on our sister magazine Art Investment News on December 5, 2012.)

FORT WORTH, Texas — Once upon a time a newspaper man named Amon Carter followed the recommendation of his friend Will Rogers, the great American humorist, philosopher, and actor, and spent about $5,000 on a couple of canvasses by the “cowboy artist” Charles M. Russell. He built his Russell (and Frederic Remington) collection until, by the time of his death, he was able to bequeath it to found the museum which for the past 51 years has born his name and which, by his decree, is always free, because Carter wanted children to have the advantages he didn’t. The museum did not rest on its rawhide laurels, but grew up to be the greatest museum of American art in the world, in both its curatorial savvy and collecting prescience. It chose Stuart Davis as the one artist it was important to represent in all phases of his career, which, following the trajectory of art in the 20th century, took him from the stark literalism of the “ashcan” school to the wildest reaches of abstraction, never losing sight of reality. And, unlike so many museums which follow collecting trends, the Amon Carter anticipated at least one. Starting in the 1960s, it built a photography collection which dwarfs even that of the Museum of Modern Art.

It’s been a while since we’ve caught up with the Amon Carter, so busy has the auction season been. So we’re taking advantage of a breather in art sales to continue your — and our — ongoing arts education, always with a view to making us all better informed art investors, to offer this update in images of current and upcoming exhibitions at my favorite museum. Herewith you’ll find images of work from the current exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection,” on view through January 6; “Marie Cosindas: Instant Color,” running March 5 through May 26, 2013; “Big Pictures,” on view March 5 – April 21; “Romaire Bearden: A Black Odyssey,” May 18 – August 11; and “Larry Sultan’s Homeland,” closing January 13.

carter 1A cowboy

David Levinthal (b. 1949), “[Cowboy],” 1988. From the Five Trails West series. Dye diffusion transfer print. ©1988 David Levinthal. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas P1988.9. From the upcoming exhibition “Big Pictures.”

carter 2 lawrence migrationJacob Lawrence (1917 – 2000), “The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north,” 1940 – 41. Casein tempera on hardboard. ©2011 the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1942, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. . From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

carter 3 train photoWilliam Henry Jackson (1843 – 1942), “Excursion Train. Lewiston Branch. N.Y.C. RR, 1890.” Albumen print.

carter 4 sloan trainJohn Sloan (1871 – 1951), “Six O’Clock, Winter, 1912.” Oil on canvas. ©2011 Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1922, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. . From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

carter 5 plumes warholLeft: Walt Kuhn (1877-1949), “Plumes, 1931.” Oil on canvas. Acquired 1932, the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.. From the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection,” on view through January 6. Right: Marie Cosindas (b. 1925), “Andy Warhol, 1966.” Dye diffusion transfer print. ©Marie Cosindas. Courtesy the artist. From the exhibition “Marie Cosindas: Instant Color,” on view March 5 – May 26, 2013. Both events at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

carter 6 davisStuart Davis (1892-1964), “Blue Café,” 1928. Oil on canvas. ©Estate of Stuart Davis / licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Acquired 1930, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Part of the exhibition “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection.”

carter 7 corte maderaLarry Sultan (1946-2009), “Meander, Corte Madera, 2006.” Digital dye coupler print. Collection of Andrew Pilara. From the exhibitioin “Larry Sultan’s Homeland: American story,” on view through January 13. (It may not look like much, but I was born here!)

At Artcurial Photography Auction, Frontiers in a Reflecting Glass

photo-newton-smallHelmut Newton (1920 – 1984), “Veruschka on the Terrace of the Presidential Suite, Hotel Meridien, Nice,” 1975. Silver gelatin print, 7.48 x 11.42 inches. Signed, titled, and dated with artist’s stamp on back. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 15,000 – 20,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

One might think that scheduled as a curtain closer on the same evening as its monumental “From the Willy Ronis Inheritance” sale, which offers 163 lots starting with a 1926 self-portrait and finishing with a 1990 nude, book-ending no less than a photo-biography of a largely mid-20th century popular Paris, an auction entitled simply “Photography” might have trouble holding one’s attention. But if the scale is more modest, the scope of tonight’s second Artcurial auction is in a way more audacious than the Ronis sale, with one predominant — and timely — theme emerging: Frontiers. We’ve chosen to share a some samples, ranging from the intimate to the inter-galactic and finishing with a presidential epilogue, from, respectively, Helmut Newton, NASA, Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, Man Ray, and Mark Seliger, whose portrait of a retreating Barack Obama is just begging to be Photo-shopped. – Paul Ben-Itzak
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The Chevalier de la Barre: Akerman and acolytes en prime in Paris; Amélie has two mommies, and they’re concerned (corrected and updated, 11-25, 16h00)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

To the memory of Jill Johnston, my Chantal Akerman. And for Ingrid, her widow, in profound appreciation. And for Chris, roommate sublime. And for Ben, collaborator, friend, and twin. And for Mark Dendy, idol and vector. And for P., friend and counselor. And for Amandine and spouse, voisines parisiennes des jours du 49 rue de Paradis.

I wasn’t going to take this brazenly political approach to writing about the exhibition Chantal Akerman: “Maniac Shadows,” which opened last Saturday at the Ferme du Buisson outside Paris, where it continues through February 19, because much as viewing art in a political and social context has almost existential importance to me as a journalist and citizen — and is, I feel, an honorable way to promote art’s societal relevance and thus potentially garner it a larger audience — I’m hyper-aware that it’s also unfair to impose my worldview, or angle and prism for viewing the world, on the subject I’m writing about. What should prime is capturing, as best I can, his or her expression as he or she intended it. It also didn’t seem fair to enlist Akerman, ipso facto and post-mortem, in a cause some might perceive as narrowly and exclusively centered on the rights of gay people, given that (as far as I can observe — and I might be wrong, because I certainly haven’t seen everything) her work doesn’t seem to focus particularly on the facet of her identity related to her sexual orientation; like all complete artists worth the designation, she’s neither defined nor limited by her own particular identities. (Even though obviously they inform her work, particularly Akerman’s Jewish background, which includes being the child of a Holocaust survivor, a frequent source of inspiration. But so is having lived in Brussels, Paris, and New York….And Godard’s “Pierrot le fou.”) And as a foreigner in these brittle times, I’m not particularly comfortable commenting on local politics, a subject which might justly be seen as none of my onions and a pursuit which thus might seem ungracious.

To access the full version of the article, including more images, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Not a subscriber? 1-year subscriptions are just $39.99, or $19.99 for students and unemployed or under-employed artists. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address for information on how to pay by check or in Euros or British pounds.

Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. par/by Leonard Cohen (1934 – 2016)

Leonard Cohen est morte; vivre Leonard Cohen. Et vivre la Democracie.

Lyrics/paroles ici/here. Et pour ceux et celles qui ont besoin de se protegé de la pluie / And for those who need to protect themselves from the rain, voici/here’s his/son “Famous Blue Raincoat.” Et pour vous protegé de vos pensées de 4h00 / And to protect you from your 4 a.m. anxieties, ecouté (et regardé!) /listen (and look at) this. (J’aime aussi / I also like le version de Jennifer Warnes.

“It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and the worse.”
— Leonard Cohen, 1932 – 2016

strasbourg nast.jpg

strasbourg-ungererThe exhibition “Oncle Sam, Thomas Nast et Tomi Ungerer: Une satire politique et sociale de l’Amérique,” prolonged through November 13 at the Musée Tomi Ungerer Centre international de l’Illustration, in Strasbourg, features more than 150 examples of the cartoons of Thomas Nast (1840-1902), one of the fathers of caricature in the United States, from the pages of Harper’s Weekly, including, top: “The sacred elephant. This animal is sure to win, if it…” Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, 8.3.1884. Accompanying the Nast works are original drawings and posters by Ungerer, including, bottom: Tomi Ungerer, untitled, 1967. Lavis d’encre de Chine et d’encres de couleur sur papier blanc. Collection musée Tomi Ungerer – Centre international, Strasbourg © Diogenes Verlag AG Zürich \ Tomi Ungerer. Photo : Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg.