Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tale of Two Skyscrapers, Chrysler and Empire State Buildings

Empire State Building from the High Line Print / Deborah Julian Fine Art Street Photos

Can One Building Define a City?

When I first moved to New York City, the Empire State Building seemed the landmark fate intended me to orient around. I worked on lower Madison Avenue, one entrance to our building opening onto Madison Square Park.

Freed at 5:00, I walked up Fifth to meet my wife near 42nd Street. Because we arrived in autumn, it was usually dark by then. For blocks, the well-lit tower soared above everything else, defining midtown. Weaving through  rush hour crowds, I still felt like a tourist with this building, looking up in the bustle of others eager to get home, to dinners and to happy hour.

What the Empire State Building stood for was a kind of power, a New York certainty, important then during the last days of Ed Koch's disastrous reign as mayor. (I know. The press loved him. He was a showboat, but the run up in crime in his administration was astronomical and his exacerbation of the emerging AIDS epidemic, afraid apparently that he'd be exposed as gay himself, remains and always will be unforgivable.) The giant told us it wasn't going anywhere. It and we would weather the storm.

One cold day that winter, somewhere around 28th Street, I remember looking up at its illuminated pinnacle and thinking: God, don't let this ever seem ordinary. It was privilege to be here. I got to see this art deco masterpiece every day. It was like living with a big Matisse on my living room wall.

For three glorious days, until plans changed, my company situated me in an office with a window filled with it. Right behind my desk, the Empire State Building herded the masses of smaller structures in midtown.

What's the Big Deal with the Empire State?

For one thing, it survived the distinction of being known originally by many as the "Empty State Building."

Finished just in time to match the worst of the Great Depression, in 1931, its opening signaled by the Depression's accidental architect, President Herbert Hoover sparking the lights on from a button in the White House. Even then, there was hope. The Empire State's tower lights were first lit to recognize Franklin Delano Roosevelt's defeat of Hoover in the next year's presidential election.

It's hard to make the stretch backward to a time when an art deco building - or anything else artsy - symbolized the singular pride of the United States. It lifted spirits when economic times were at their worst. And as beautiful as it was tough, the Empire State Building remained unprofitable for 20 years, until enough tenants filled the floors in 1951.

But it stood for something. It stood for American prowess, for brilliant domestic engineering and for faith in the future.

Can we begin to say anything like that about the buildings throwing glass walls ever higher, mostly without distinction, in our cities now? Today's idea seems to come from viral capitalism without cultural contamination. The taller the structure, the more expensive real estate gets added to Manhattan's wealth. Scan the nighttime skyline and see how many are actually lived in much of the time. The newer buildings are investments on a par with works of modern art, bought by oligarchs and fund managers, indifferent to the work's value as a creation, whose abiding criteria is speculative investment.

So, the Empire State Building stands tall, a diamond among costume jewelry.

The World's Tallest Building


For forty years, it was the Empire State. Before, thanks to a crafty innovation by Walter Chrysler, the winner was the Lexington Avenue skyscraper that bears his name.

The Chrysler Building and Half-Moon Print / Fine Art Street Photography by Deborah Julian
Rightly or wrongly, I've thought of the Empire State as the crown jewels of undervalued New York architecture and the Chrysler Building as its companion wrist bracelet, stunning but no match.

That's wrong, of course, because the comparison is false. The Empire State was built from the idea of strength and durability. Although both buildings are basically art deco in design and thrust skyward out of the 1920s American boom, the Chrysler is more artful by at least half. As you can see from Deborah's photography, it has curves and icons jutting outward from ascending decks.

Margaret Bourke-White with a Chrysler Building Gargoyle
The startling image of Margaret Bourke-White, taken by an unknown photographer, as she ventured out over the edge of the city is classic, not just for its breathtaking view, but also for the extraordinary building element that's impossible to appreciate from the street.

White ventures out on a gargoyle, doing what the generation of photographers did then - document the dynamically emerging modern world.

As a monument to and headquarters for the automobile manufacturer, the Chrysler Building is a salute to the machine age, as powerful a driving element in America then as the digital age is recently.

History races, speeding up as populations swell. Imagining a time when cars really were the tools that reset Americas definition may be hard, but this building tells you it's so. It also tells us that buildings can be artful or elegant, just as the goods created by the machines that paid for them were, an idea of sinking value now, when buildings square off like glass boxes, echoes of worker housing from the communist era, and originality is defined as a curve in the facade.

Part of the reason, the Chrysler Building is so outstanding is that Walter Chrysler paid for the building and its design personally, not the corporation it symbolized. Not just that, but he participated in the design too. He actually refused to fully pay for it though in a dispute with architect William Van Alen.

Lost in the beauty of its design is the fact that the Chrysler Building is, to this day, the world's tallest brick building. As prosaic as that is, not so the story of how it became, for less than a year, the world's tallest structure of all, eclipsing the Eiffel Tower in Paris and 40 Wall Street downtown.

As both New York buildings neared completion in 1930, the 125 foot spire that now seems a natural part of the Chrysler Building's design was secretly built inside the nearly completed structure, then hoisted onto the 68th floor in four pieces. Flummoxing the builders of 40 Wall Street took only 90 minutes.

Consulting architects for 40 Wall Street, Shreve and Lamb, fumed in a newspaper article, pointing out that their building had the highest occupied floor and more, but to no avail. The Chrysler Building, recognized as the world's tallest, until eclipsed by the Empire State Building, will be admired for its design while its erstwhile competitor will be remembered for not much.

Conclusion

It's an exercise in nostalgia to look at these buildings today as glass towers with entirely different virtues compete to throw them into shadows. And its a story about America and, probably, the world today. Sleek and investment worthy tops art and history.

Built to last is a cliche from the machine age dominated by American manufacturing ingenuity. What will we remember, if much of anything about today's newest skyscrapers? Their austere heights? The competition to throw the longest shadow across Central Park? Which has the highest density of Russian oligarchs?

These speculations are intended to sprinkle some humor on an impossible comparison. The Empire State and the Chrysler Buildings were as much about their times as the buildings dwarfing pedestrians along 57th Street are. As the past always is remembered fondly by exaggerating its best while diminishing its worst, I find it hard to imagine we have not lost something important in the push forward.

David Stone
Find all my books on my Amazon Author Page


Friday, June 19, 2015

Simon Dinnerstein - Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog

Simon Dinnerstein with Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog
Sometimes, this blog will step a little away from its primary theme, urban photography, to recognize inspiration that feeds it, exceptional work and ideas that alter perspective. Simon Dinnerstein's Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog is one such exception.

On a mild June night, we joined the crowds walking along Fifth Avenue, some circling blocks in lines awaiting entry at various museums and generally enjoying the pleasures of the annual Museum Mile Festival. The festival starts at the 82nd Street entrance to the Metropolitan Museum and stretches 28 blocks north to the underrated Museum of the City of New York. Entrance is free at venues along the way.

Billed as "New York's Biggest Block Party," it's less party than it is a celebration of the arts. Like spring's first seventy degree weekend day in Central Park, you get a sense that the tourists are back in their hotels and you are among only New Yorkers, a rare enough event among museums on Fifth.

Assessing the length of lines of eager art lovers, we quickly dismissed the Neue Gallery, one of our first choices, because the end of their line was out of sight down the Avenue. A line for the Guggenheim, which we were fortunately not interested in, lapped itself all the way around the block, the last passing the first near the main entrance.

We saw that the National Academy Museum, one of our two top choices, had a much smaller line, hard to understand because their 2015 Annual, The Depth of the Surface, had just opened. This nearly two-hundred year old museum, founded by legendary artists Thomas Cole, Rembrandt Peale and Samuel F. B. Morse, among others, mounts annuals that are irresistible, drawing on a select membership of only 320 artists.

Inside the Annual

It didn't take long to be thrilled. After climbing the first set of stairs and making a turn toward the gallery space, Simon Dinnerstein's large drawing brought several of us to a standstill in the broad reception hallway. For me, it was something like the time I saw Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party at the Phillips Collection in Washington or when I walked into the room full of Monet's large garden paintings that was the highlight of the Museum of Modern Art until the new building opened in 2004.

I love art, but I'm not a scholar. I hold the amateur belief that some works of art speak to you and some don't, with plenty of gray area between. Historian's (and my wife) love Paul Klee, although I've never gotten the thrill so many others have. The much less well revered Hans Hoffman can hold my eye as long as any other visual artist.

That said - and maybe it's a kind of disclaimer - Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog was, for me, as instantly exciting as almost any artwork I've seen. And I've seen thousands, from the Leopold Museum in Vienna to the Frye in Seattle. Simon Dinnerstein's work stands out as unique, immediately ethereal and penetrating. You won't see anything else like it, and if it gets inside you, its reach will be deep and sustaining.

Quick note: Don't let the term "drawing" mislead you. This is no off the cuff work or study for something greater. It occupied this world-renowned artist for three years, working with pencil and powdered graphite, applied with acrylic brushes normally reserved for more traditional painting.

Back in Time: Simon Dinnerstein's Masterpiece

The Fulbright Triptych, begun when Dinnerstein was twenty-eight and working on a scholarship in Germany and finished back home in Brooklyn three years later, is widely considered a masterpiece, if somewhat neglected, a brilliant meticulous comment on a moment in his family history and a startling variation on a style, triptych, usually used only for religious works.

The work has the honor of being the subject of the only book currently in print focusing exclusively on a single work of one artist: The Suspension of Time: Reflections of Simon Dinnerstein’s The Fulbright Triptych” edited by Daniel Slager. Fans from composer George Crumb to actor John Turturro add their thoughts.

When last shown publicly in New York, at the German Consulate General in 2011, Roberta Smith's enthusiastic review unfortunately refers to Dinnerstein as a "one hit wonder," as if discussing pop music, although she allows that that might be inaccurate because it "implies that his painting brought him some renown." She laments that the Met didn't buy it when it was first shown where it could languish in the massive storage vaults they maintain for rarely, if ever to be seen again art.

The hit parade mindset assumes that an artist will produce monster hit after monster hit. Quality and context are irrelevant. Artists deserve a longer look at the full body of their work, not just the ones lucky enough to score. Mozart and J. C. Bach, not to mention Van Gogh were no hit wonders in their day. Time and a longer view showed us something else.

Go to Dinnerstein's website (click here) to see a digital reproduction of The Fulbright Triptych and other examples of his work.

The Fascinating Gaze of a Small Dog

Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog has a quirky circuitous history. Fortunately.

Originally commissioned to recognize a romantic relationship, between Sam Simon, co-creator of the Simpsons, and Jenna Stewart, the commission was canceled before being finished because the relationship fell apart. An artist of modern sensibilities rooted deeply in the history of art, Dinnerstein did what any smart jazz composer would do. He improvised.

“I think the whole thing could’ve literally collapsed when he backed away," Dinnerstein told ArtNews. "But I thought the picture had a lot of energy and mystery to it and a kind of seizing of life. And I thought to keep going. And then I came up with this idea in which my family emerged out of the ashes.”

The artist erased Stewart and replaced her with his daughter, the celebrated concert pianist, Simone Dinnerstein (seen as an infant in The Fulbright Triptych.) His grandson, Adrian, joined her on the cylindrical cloud hovering gracefully with a gathering of dogs above the the Sturm und Drang of Manhattan.

In a stroke of what looks like transcendental genius, Dinnerstein replaced Simon with a soaring above view of Lower Manhattan sailing into the horizon. The dogs, all of which stayed in the picture, belonged to Simon and Stewart. For the artist, there was a deeper symbolism.

"When I worked on this piece I thought of incredible depictions of animals and dogs by such artists as Van Eyck, Durer, Titian, Courbet, Freud.  I thought it would be a challenge to see if what I could convey of these animals would somehow compete with the wonderful work of artists that I admire.

"I tried to convey some internal life force within each  animal.  What I wanted really was to occupy these dogs, to convey their inner world, their eyes, noses, texture, smell, dampness, their heat and heart.  I wanted them to speak as much as the 2 humans that occupy the same space.

"I wanted their eyes and dignity to compete with the woman and young boy that hover over them.

"Deep in the space, above it all is a panoramic view, which attempts to depict the tiniest details, as well as the shear vastness of New York.

"So, in a way, we are in a surrealistic space, where two or more realities are juxtaposed against each other."

The net result is a work of visual art uncannily unlike any other while being rooted in Dinnerstein's passion for art history. For a more detailed look at Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog, paste this link into any web browser:  http://simondinnerstein.com/email/universe_06web.pdf.

"A number of exhibitions have influenced me toward this particular approach - the large Degas, Lucian Freud and Balthus retrospectives and a recent Egon Schiele retrospective," he explains. "I am very interested in this combination of modernism and tradition, of skill and a new, or highly personal response to the figure in art.  I enjoy this combination and feel it is one which unites multiple influences and audiences.  The work  of the contemporary Spanish artist, Antonio Lopez Garcia, would come to mind, in terms of similar enthusiasms and the use of dream elements."

As philosophical as Dinnerstein can be about his influences and how his work fits in the larger perspective, the proof of any work of art's specialness is how it answers the hunger minds have for nonverbal representation, for visual art and music. We don't need to know art history to love the Mona Lisa or to be stunned by a room full of Rothkos. We just need to have our spirits filled by what our eyes are treated to.

Conclusion

I can't guess at the ultimate place Can the Universe Be Held in the Gaze of a Small Dog will be in the world of art. I hope it hangs somewhere I can sometimes visit for a fresh look. As with the Rauschenberg print on my wall, I believe I'll be treated to new features every time.

It was dumb luck that I found Dinnerstein standing next to his newest work. One of the greatest pleasures in art is to be taken by surprise.

See more of Simon Dinnerstein's work and other articles at his website.

While you're at it, discover Simon's brilliant daughter, pianist Simone Dinnerstein here.

David Stone
You can find all of my books on my Amazon Author Page.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Humor in Fine Art Street Photography

Everyone's a Critic/Street Photography by Deborah Julian
Something you rarely see in street or fine art photography is humor. Walking through galleries, I've marveled at the work of photographers who, for all their skill and artistry, have no sense of humor.

Humor may be in short supply these days with all the blue/red social tensions around. On television, producers still think we need prerecorded laugh track to tell us when a joke has been delivered. Subtlety in mass media is missing. Even the sweetness of comics pages has been sacrificed.

But all is not lost. At least in a place where humor is almost always absent, fine art street photography, I can show you that a publicly good sense of humor is still possible with meanness or what we used to call obscenities but take in stride as just the way things are, these days.

Getting a Smile in Urban Photography

Everyone's a Critic, shown above, makes its mark as fine art. The gentle colors of nature on an autumn afternoon in Central Park are accented by a batch of white balloons and the costumes of visitors along a path. One costume catches your eye.

A woman mounts a pedestal, a human statue posing as a butterfly or maybe an angel. A strategically placed bucket waits for tips.

The humor in this beautiful image may take a moment to sink in, so rich is it with color, but take a look at the three girls out in the park with their dads. What thoughts entered their minds to cause those looks?

It's not meant to be comical but the irony of those looks, reacting the what they see, always makes me smile.
I Can't Grow Up / Street Photography by Deborah Julian

It may be angst. Tom Waits has a great song titled I Don't Want To Grow Up, and you can imagine a defiant, "I won't grow up." I can't is another story.

I Can't Grow Up is a relief, a comic acceptance of the facts. We all feel like that sometimes, don't we? The world's too big, our ambitions too small or you just throw up your hands.

I like the way this composition shapes out, a linear expression of the city. It's plain simple, funny and truthful.


A Cactus of Her Own, Bologna, Italy, Street Photography by Deborah Julian
This fun photograph from Bologna, Italy, is the kind of picture you will never see again. It's just so unusual. A fashionably dressed young woman walks in the brick paved street, a tall cactus at her side.

Surprise is a better generator of humor than pain, although pain is probably more popular. This woman could be carrying groceries, flowers, a child. Instead, it's a thorny plant with which she walks easily along. 


Conclusion


Humor doesn't have to rely on the predictable meanness that fuels most television comedies. Cruelty or pain are not required. In fine art street photography, the elements so common today would probably sink it. To fit, the picture must be refined, artistic and smile-worthy without a laugh track.

Click here for more of more Deborah Julian's street photography.

Do you have any favorite humor in art you can share?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Introduction: Deborah Julian's Urban Fine Art Photography

https://www.etsy.com/listing/235563561/charles-bridge-prague-early-morning?ref=shop_home_active_5
Charles Bridge, Prague, Early Morning
Not all urban or street photography is fine art. It all depends on the photographer's motive. Street photography is about narrative, and urban may be static, a look at the landscape or how things fit together with or without people.

Deborah Julian takes both and blends in fine art in a unique mix of elements. In different pictures, different values dominate. Mostly, to my eye, it's the fine art. Beautiful compositions find more of the art in photography.

In this blog, I'll show you some examples of what I find to be the most pleasing style of photography, at least for my tastes. I find that Deborah's approach comes closer to the way I see things, although I am not a photographer. Hers is a less self-conscious, positive realism.

Charles Bridge, Prague, Early Morning, shown above, is a good example for anchoring the start of this blog.

Fine Art Street Photography in Prague

This photograph is opportunistic. In the spirit of Monet planning his outdoor paintings to use the natural light at its most evanescent, Deborah hauled her camera through the narrow streets of Prague's Old Town to take her pictures as first light swept over the city.

As the day progresses, the historically significant Charles Bridge, begun in the Fourteenth Century, fills with foot traffic. Residents going about their business and tourists taking in the scenery are joined by musicians, street performers and souvenir vendors. You can't walk a straight line for long.

In the early morning, it's different, and the bridge itself is the star. It's ornate street lights and statues remind you that such bridges were once more than efficient ways to cross a river. They participated in the communities urban art, repeating the values in the city around them.

In her photograph, Deborah captures the skyline of buildings jumbled close together in Old Town. Apart from the modern apparel, the scene probably looked much like this five-hundred years ago.

Color, Light and Composition

Before the glare of fresh sunlight changes the bridge, the even, soft tones of the scene are natural. You're put at ease and relaxed by the natural feel from a time when an urban expression didn't have to contrast nature, but emulated it in some ways.

The composition itself is painterly in a classic way. A balance of elements frames the setting firmly in place and people add a dynamic element, at this hour relaxed, more at ease.

Most people who visit Prague and appreciate the wealth of history will never see it like this. Mozart and Kafka walked here before cars and buses echoed through the spaces. Not just quieter, life was also slower. Neither quality automatically means better, but certainly different.

Deborah Julian's photograph gives us an easier platform to image how smitten Bedřich Smetana must have been when, inspired by this place, when he composed Ma Vlast - My Homeland, a symphonic cycle about the history, legends and landscape of the Czech people.

Click here for more of Deborah Julian's Urban Photography.

David Stone