Friday, March 25, 2011

Ancient Electric Lights

Obviously, the ancient Greeks and Romans did not have electric lights and light fixtures. If you happened to be a neoclassical architect in the early 20th-century, you were confronted with a new design problem. I have been looking at a number of neoclassical light fixtures admiring the ingenuity of their solutions. One example is the light fixture at Lancaster's Railroad Station, designed in 1929 (above), which plays with the ornamental motifs of the railing. Two lines that float like waves, bow out and intersect symmetrically, producing shapes that resemble the infinity symbol, the figure eight, or a curvy "x". The oscillating wave motif reminds us both of the marine inspirations of the classical vocabulary, but it also mimics the magnetic wavelengths of magnetism and electricity. This double reading collapse antiquity into modernity. See similar observations in my Train Wave posting.

Another light fixture that utilizes this motif was found in the reading room of the Shadek-Fackenthal Library at Franklin & Marshall (William Lee, 1937). The fixtures were removed during the 1980s renovations, but Christopher Raab at F&M Special Collections has shown me photos.

During the "Liturgy and Migration" conference at Yale, I got to spend some quality time at the Yale Divinity School, which was designed by Delano & Aldrich, the industrious neoclassical firm. The exterior is modeled on Thomas Jefferson's UVA campus, but it has a highly surreal sensibility. The exterior walkways that connect the pavilions are lit by a beautiful light fixture that takes the intersecting wave motif and lets it circulate freely around a cylinder. For readers of this blog affiliated with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, consider the following connection. Charles Spector and Joseph Shelley, architecture fellows at the American School in 1931, worked for Delano & Aldrich.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lovecraft's Byzantium

H. P. Lovecraft is a cult author of “weird fiction” from the 1920-30s. Although I had heard of the name, I didn’t become interested in Lovecraft until Matthew Sweet's interview of novelist China Mieville and journalist Suzi Feay on BBC's Nightwaves (Oct. 20, 2010).

For the last three months, I’ve been feasting on Lovecraft’s short stories. His grotesque apocalyptic visions help us understand modern American anxieties in the light of Gothic fiction and the inheritance of Edgar Alan Poe. What I also find most enlightening is the persistence of archaeology in the form of both archaeological knowledge but also the inclusion of archaeologists as characters. “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931), Lovecraft’s longest story, we read about a fantastical campaign, the Miskatonic University Expedition to Antarctica. Partially written in the form of expedition reports, the explorers discover an unknown species, as well as the civilization of the “Old Ones” that flourished before the Pleistocene geological age.

Lovecraft’s own archaeological scholarship creeps dominantly through the narrative (Eckhardt 1987) and includes reference to late antiquity and its use of spolia. Lovecraft compares the sculptural reliefs of the Old Ones with the decadence of Constantinian art, which he partially acquired from general 1920s art-historical notions but more specifically from Oswald Spengler’s, The Decline of the West translated into English in 1926 and 1928. Along with Joseph Wood Krutch’s, The Modern Temper (1929), Spengler influenced Lovecraft’s transition from classicism to Decadence to a sort of antiquarian regionalism and finally to the science of weird fiction (Joshi 2001, 297-305). The decadence of Byzantine art that Lovecraft cites takes on a positive role in reconstructing the civilization of the Old Ones.

“Art and decoration were pursued, though of course with a certain decadence. The Old Ones seemed to realize this falling off themselves; and in many cases anticipated the policy of Constantine the Great by transplanting especially fine blocks of ancient carving from their land city, just as the emperor, in a similar age of decline, stripped Greece and Asia of their finest art to give his new Byzantine capital greater splendours than its own people could create. That the transfer of sculptured blocks had not been more extensive, was doubtless owing to the fact that the land city was not at first wholly abandoned. By the time total abandonment did occur – and it surely must have occurred before the polar Pleistocene was far advanced – the Old Ones had perhaps become satisfied with their decadent art – or had ceased to recognize the superior merit of the older carvings. At any rate, the aeon-silent ruins around us had certainly undergone no wholesale sculptural denundation; though all the best separate statues, like other moveables, had been taken away” (Lovecraft 2005, 555)

Lovecraft has witnessed a revived interest in 2010. News had it that Guilermo del Toro was directing a film version of "Mountains of Madness," produced by James Cameron and starring Tom Cruise. As of early March, unfortunately, Warner Bros. has pulled the plug on this $150 million project. See here and here.

“The Rats in the Walls” (1924) is another Lovecraft stories that involves an archaeological expedition, but I will discuss it in a future posting. I must also warn the reader that during my Spring Break, I’ve been thinking about a strand of New Wave rock from the 1980s that marries the dark vision of the Gothic tradition with a post-punk musical precision. I’ve been thinking about the archaeological layers of The Cure, for example, and trying to weave a thread of archaeological Orientalism that ties Bob Dylan’s “Isis,” David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane,” The Cure’s “Fire in Cairo,” and Peter Murphy’s (of Bauhaus) Muslim conversion and migration to Turkey.


- Eckhardt, Jason C. 1987. “Behind the Mountains of Madness: Lovecraft and the Antarctic in 1930,” Lovecraft Studies 6 (Spring), pp. 31-38.
- Joshi, S. T. 2001. A Dreamer and a Visionary: H. P. Lovecraft in His Time, Liverpool.
- Lovecraft, H. P. 2005. Tales, ed. Peter Straub (The Library of America 155), New York.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tyng Toy 1949

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) is hosting a small show on Anne Tyng, the pioneering engineering partner of Louis Kahn. Tyng taught at Penn's architecture school for many years where many got to know her. She was truly one of the toughest critics. The show would offer no surprises to those who know the modern architectural scene of Philadelphia. Tyng's case continues to raise some critical gender questions. Tyng was the first female graduate of Harvard's engineering program, and a student of Buckminster Fuller. Her relationship with Kahn was both professional and emotional, as she fathered one of his children. Those that have seen Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect (2003) will remember that Kahn had three separate families resulting from his affairs. Tyng's contribution to Kahn's City Towers (1952-57), the Yale Art Gallery (1952), and the Trenton Bath House (1955) are amply visible in the show. Tyng has published the letters that she exchanged with Kahn when he was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in Louis Kahn to Anne Tyng: The Rome Letters, 1953-1954 (1997). I haven't read them yet, but I look forward to learning more about their relationship. During this second fellowship in Rome, Kahn visited ancient Corinth and produced a set of fascinating drawings of the Temple of Apollo -- but I have to leave this for another installment of the intersection between Corinthian archaeology and the avant-garde.

The ICA's "Anne Tyng: Inhabiting Geometry" makes a great case for the autonomy of Tyng's engineering vision. Her Elementary School (1950-51), the Rev. & Mrs. Tyng House in Cambridge, MD (1952), and the Four Poster House (1975-84) are wonderfully modest in their application of abstract geometries on the terrains of everyday life. The house extension built for her parents is also interesting in the ways that the new triangular inventions are integrated with the triangular forms of American colonial architecture.

For me, the greatest discovery in the ICA show was a b/w brochure that accompanied Tyng's contribution to the arts of children. The TYNG TOY of 1949 needs to be included in the pantheon of mid-modern toys. The toy was a kit of plywood parts that could be assembled into a variety of ensembles. I sketched the primary 5 parts above and copied the text-description of the brochure. This project makes Tyng an equal of Ray and Charles Eames or Isomu Noguchi, who took children's education seriously and softened the male machismo of modernism. Knowing Kahn's relationship to domestic life, we could never imagine him designing a toy. He spoke endlessly of his upbringing and his formative democratic experiences in Philadelphia's public spaces. But he never brought it home. We cannot help to see Kahn as the male genius of insatiable sexual desire but little time for domestic responsibilities. Tyng, in contrast, brought high geometry to the home in an entirely different way. As a mother and struggling architect, she never received the recognition that she deserved. The ICA show helps a bit in bringing Tyng back into focus.

Blogger Glenn Allen provides some good visual illustration in "Holy Smokes! It's the Tyng Toy," (Oct. 13, 2009).

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Consuming Art: The Black Middle Class

Franklin & Marshall's Emerging Scholars symposium this year was dedicated to Identity. All the papers were amazing, but Patricia Banks' "Represent: Art and Identity Among the Black Upper-Middle Class" was the one that struck some chords with my research. It was a pleasure to meet Patricia and initiate some comparative discussions with the Armenian- and Greek-American middle classes. Symposium lunch turned into a workshop with Sylvia Alajaji, Susan Minasian, and I capitalizing on Banks. Thanks to Laurie Baulig and F&M's Center of Liberal Arts & Society for making this forum possible.

Banks is a sociologist at Mount Holyoke College. Her talk was based on her dissertation, published last year (order it for your libraries here). Banks interviewed over 100 black art collectors in Atlanta and New York and has documented a typology of patronage, collecting, and re-presenting. Black artistic patronage is caught up with a race of legitimation and story-telling focusing on distinctly black narratives. Most striking is the prominence of figurative representation with abstraction entering the home only when the motifs have clearly African folk origins. As one might have expected, the black middle class stays clear of any controversial art. There is very little Glenn Ligon or Kara Walker and there is no attempt to address the vibrant cultural production of the ghetto. While the white middle class becomes obsessed with pimps, hoes, bling, and gangstas, the black middle class wants to keep it out of the home. The art of the middle class is conservative, occasionally bordering kitsch. Glenn Ligon's retrospective just began at the Whitney, following the Kara Walker retrospective. The black middle class is clearly not in-step with the Whitney. Like all middle class minorities, they will not take artistic risks. They will collect only after legitimation has occurred by a dominant authority, in this case, the (predominantly) white art world.

Franklin & Marshall's owns the collection of one of America's greatest black Abstract Expressionists, Bill Hutson. Hutson was a faculty member in the Art Department at F&M. One of our art history students, Jessica Jackson, spent last year conducting an oral history project documenting Hutson's artistic and social struggles. Black artists were ostracized in the 1960s if they chose to use the language of abstraction. Patrons like Spike Lee have categorically rejected any black art that does not reflect some political (read: figurative) black content.

Hutson's story and Banks' analysis are particularly interesting with a recent news item on the art collection of the White House, see Randy Kennedy, "This Museum Has a Lived-in Look," New York Times (Mar. 16, 2011). The item of interest is the following incident: "When the first lady changed her mind in 2009 about hanging a painting by the African-American artist Alma W. Thomas in her office, some critics accused her of giving in to conservative commentators who criticized the painting as a fraud because it reworked and paid homage to a famous Matisse collage. The first lady’s office took great pains to say that the removal had nothing to do with politics; the painting just didn’t fit the space where it had been intended to hang." Alma Thomas' Watutsi (Hard Edge) --above-- was painted in 1963 and corresponds with the Hutson's period of abstract work. Watutsi resembles Matisse's collage Snail (1953) -- left-- but the issue of "plagiarism" that dominated the media coverage is less interesting. What is more interesting is America's general discomfort with abstraction. Forget about the issues of collage, which is by definition a derivative genre.

The moment that art becomes "representational" of identity it is reduced to a boring equation, it becomes illustrative. As Kara Walker or Glenn Ligon has taught us, identity is produced through the production of art not through its consumption. Since the birth of modern art, the Avant-Garde had a special relationship with the Middle Class, which it tended to critique and try to shock. The incorporation of the avant-garde into the mainstream is an old story, but it's a central part of the Art Story. To look at art simply as a sociological illustration provides an important slice, but it robs it of its essential function. The postmodern critique might in fact take the argument a step further and argue that art is ONLY a process of legitimizing the middle class. In the 1960s, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu studied the French middle class and produced one of the most influential studies of art and sociology, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979). Banks wants to argue that class is too thin of a lens. Building on Bourdieu, she has adds the lens of race. It's a wonderful contribution, but at the end of the day, the processes of class trump race. To put it another way, race may provide the narrative content but class still commands the appropriative process.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Kypseli: Salon de Vortex

Kyspseli is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Athens and in the world. Developed in the 1920s, Patesion Boulevard stretched a new modern identity for the expansion of Athens north of the archaeological museum and the polytechnic university. During the "golden" age of the 1960s, Patesia and Kypseli defined a new metropolitanism. To use American terminology, these neighborhoods experienced "white flight" in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, they represent loss of control, economic degradation and the incoherence that ensues when the middle class flees to the (yet further) northern suburbs. The Kypseli of today is a new animal perhaps as interesting as its older moments of the 1920s garden city or the 1960s dense metropolis. See my earlier post on 1920s Patesion here. Like much of downtown Athens, Kypseli is a laboratory of globalization. Greeks are a visible elderly minority of landlords. Asian, African and Central European newcomers are calling the shots.

I was born in Kypseli. While visiting my sister in Kentucky yesterday, I looked at an old family album showing me as an infant in 1969 on our thin Kypseli balcony. Forty years later, I find myself owning that balcony, inherited from my father who bought it with his first savings. When my wife and I visited Kypseli this summer, we felt quite at home with the ethnic mix of the neighborhood. It feels a lot more like our hood in Philadelphia than any other place in Greece, although the human density, mechanical noise, and dog-shit still took us by surprise. We basically had to decide as a new family unit whether to keep the tiny apartment or sell it. We decided to keep it, despite the financial burden it will impose. And we find ourselves in Kypseli as our Greek base and a future place of reference for our two-year-old, we pay close attention to the neighborhood vibe. Who knows? A returning 1.5th-generation Greek-American, his American wife, and 2nd-generation Greek-American toddler might be part of the new global soup of Kypseli.

Thanks to the web, I can keep track of my new old neighborhood. A few months ago, the renovations of Mars Field Park were completed. This rare patch of park land was looking rather shabby in the last decade as urban resources ran out. See article by Demetris Regopoulos "Patesion Street starts believing in itself again," Kathimerini (Feb. 2, 2011). Other installations have sprung up.

Most interesting, a trio of Kypseli inhabitants are recognizing the new vitality of the neighborhood and through the medium of art seek to build a bridge between the Kipseli of now and the intellectual Kipseli of the mid-century. They are two artists and a writer, Giannis Isidorou, Giannis Gregoriadou and Katerina Eliopoulou, founders of the art space SALON DE VORTEX on Ithakis 24 (and I. Drosopoulou). Salon de Vortex's mission statement includes engaging the neighborhood's global present. Salon de Vortex makes me particularly excited because it happens to be housed in the office of Kostas Kitsikis, one of Greece's premier modernists. Since I haven't yet visited the gallery, I don't have much to report on first hand. Salon de Vortex founder Isidorou published an opinion piece in Kathimerini that intrigued me. I quote the whole editorial here. It is entitled "Why We Chose Kypseli"

Giannis Isidorou, "Γιατί προτιμήσαμε την Κυψέλη" Kathimerini (Feb. 5, 2011)

"Tο project space salon de vortex είναι ένας νέος αυτοδιαχειριζόμενος χώρος στην Κυψέλη, που σκοπεύει στην παρουσίαση και ανάδειξη συλλογικοτήτων και συνεργασιών από τον χώρο των εικαστικών, της ποίησης και του κοινωνικοπολιτικού στοχασμού, με επίκεντρο την αναπτυσσόμενη ανεξάρτητη σκηνή στην Ελλάδα του 21ου αιώνα. Εγκαινίασε τη λειτουργία του με την κοινή μας έκθεση με τον Γιάννη Γρηγοριάδη και τίτλο «Μοφερισμός μια πρώτη αποτίμηση», στις 20 Ιανουαρίου του 2011 (διάρκεια έως 18 Φεβρουαρίου).

Το «παγκοσμιοποιημένο σκηνικό» και οι τομές της καθημερινής ζωής είναι τα στοιχεία που χαρακτηρίζουν την περιοχή της Κυψέλης. Η πυκνή κατοίκηση, η διάσπαρτη αγορά, οι πολυκατοικίες με την πλούσια τυπολογία, τα ρετιρέ και τα θυρωρεία, η ορθολογική πολεοδομία μαζί με τα κτίρια Μπαουχάουζ και τα ανακαινισμένα νεοκλασικά, η ήπια χρήση των χώρων διασκέδασης και η διατήρηση του δημόσιου χώρου, ορίζουν τη γειτονιά ως αναφορά της καθημερινότητας και ως κυρίαρχη χωρική κλίμακα. Ταυτόχρονα, η ταξική και ηλικιακή διαστρωμάτωση, οι δραστήριες και σε μεγάλο βαθμό αφομοιωμένες αλλοδαπές κοινότητες, οι πολυσύχναστες πλατείες, τα ποικίλα επιτηδεύματα, δημιουργούν μιαν πολυεπίπεδη συνύπαρξη και ένα φορτίο εντάσεων, που με τη σειρά του διαμορφώνει το κατεξοχήν αστικό πεδίο δράσης της τέχνης. Στην Κυψέλη, όπου έζησαν πολλοί ποιητές (Ελύτης, Σαχτούρης, Εγγονόπουλος, Γκάτσος, Δημουλά), λειτουργούν και άλλοι χώροι τέχνης, στεγάζονται εργαστήρια καλλιτεχνών, καθώς και τα ιστορικά θέατρα και πολλοί κινηματογράφοι.

Μαζί με τα πρακτικά πλεονεκτήματα της περιοχής, την εγγύτητα με το κέντρο της πόλης, η Κυψέλη φαίνεται να κερδίζει μια νέα αίγλη, μετά και διά μέσου της παρακμής των δύο δεκαετιών που έκλεισαν τον 20ό αιώνα. Βιώνοντας και ερμηνεύοντας σε βάθος χρόνου τα παραπάνω, θεωρήσαμε ότι η λειτουργία ενός ανεξάρτητου χώρου για την προβολή της ελληνικής εικαστικής σκηνής, της ποίησης και του κοινωνικοπολιτικού στοχασμού, θα μπορούσε να ενταχθεί και να συμβάλει δημιουργικά στον χαρακτήρα της περιοχής."

Good luck guys!!! From a distant new neighbor. Anything I can do from the U.S.?

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States