Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween Ghouls in Manhattan

 Strolling yesterday on Manhattan's Upper East Side after dropping Amalia at preschool, I discovered the truly terrifying lengths some New Yorkers will go to decorate their brownstones and apartment entrances for Halloween.  (Is that an Obama ghoul on the lower right above?)

 Walking on 74th Street from Lexington toward Fifth, I noticed a low-flying witch had been crushed by a giant pumpkin.

This brownstone included life-sized figures that could sing and/or move.

While this man's dog was investigating the singing skeleton and he was admiring the moving witch, he told us to go over to 72nd Street between Madison and Park to see another spooky brownstone.

A female zombie welcomed us.

A skull-lined staircase with an old woman at the top, flanked by a witch...

...and a zombie bride.

Four floors of ghouls beckoned us to come in.

The front courtyard hosted a dragon and a lot of spooky folks...

....including this head in a glass globe.

Someone told us that this house becomes a haunted house open to visitors at night, but I think we'll skip that on Halloween, and go trick-or-treating instead with Amalia on 76th Street, which will be closed to traffic for the little costumed ghouls who come in droves to each brownstone, including the home of former Mayor Bloomberg.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Last Chance: Jeff Koons’ Show and the Whitney Museum

The hot art exhibit of the summer in New York— “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective”--is about to close on Sunday, Oct. 19, and that will also be the end of the Whitney Museum as we know it. The Whitney will move into its new building in the meatpacking district and leave the iconic Breuer-designed building at Madison and 75th to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to use as a satellite space starting in the spring of 2016.
I’d already seen Jeff Koons’ gigantic, flower-covered “Split Rocker” at Rockefeller Center.  I even knew that the four-story-high structure was meant to represent a toy that had half the head of a rocking horse and half the head of a dinosaur. But I hadn’t been able to make it to Koons’ show at the Whitney until September 10th, when I finally saw it with some friends who had come all the way from Minnesota. 
I was familiar with Koons’ art— I’d written, at the time of Michael Jackson’s death, about Koons’ sculpture of Michael with his chimpanzee Bubbles, which sold for  $5.6 million in 2001 but would sell for much more after the death.
I saw one of Koons’ balloon dogs on the roof of the Met some years ago. (It’s made out of stainless steel, but it looks so much like a balloon that you really, really want to touch it to make sure.)  Last year the orange-tinted balloon dog sold for more than $58 million dollars, making it the highest price ever for a living artist.
And Jeff Koons, fifty nine, is really living.  I was aware that one room in the show was devoted to “Made in Heaven”-- giant-sized paintings of Koons having sex with his ex-wife, the Hungarian-Italian porn star Ilona Staller, known as “La Cicciolina”, who, when their brief marriage was over, took their son Ludwig back to Italy, where she has also served as a member of Parliament.  A long and painful custody trial ensued and Koons’ bitterness at losing his son is often echoed in his art (or is it just a longing for Koons own boyhood?)  Looking at his art, you realize the man, like Peter Pan, never grew up.
The review of the Whitney show in the New Yorker rightly called Koons “The most original, controversial, and expensive American artist of the past three and a half decades.”
There are plenty of critics who hate Koons’ work, and a lot of their comments are apt, funny and understandable. But I was won over by the humor and whimsy of his latest sculptures and paintings, which seem to have a spirit of fun and fantasy while at the same time mocking the kitsch and the commercialism of the things that he is parodying.  
The best thing about seeing Koons’ exhibit at the Whitney—for me anyway—was watching the visitors (and even the guards) interacting with the art.

Koons’ newest, and I think funniest, piece of sculpture is the gigantic “Play-Doh” which The New York Times critic  Roberta Smith  called “a new, almost certain masterpiece whose sculptural enlargement of a rainbow pile of radiant chunks captures exactly the matte textures of the real thing, but also evokes paint, dessert and psychedelic poop.” 
This pile of Play-Doh is dated 1994-2014.  He worked on it for 20 years! Mr. Koons, says the NYT critic, “spends much money and often ends up inventing new techniques to get exactly what he wants in both his sculptures and his paintings, which are made by scores of highly skilled artists whom he closely supervises.”
This is "Hulk (Organ) 2004-2014" and the organ really works
It was recently announced that, because the Koons retrospective at the Whitney is so popular—more than 250,000 people have seen it, making it among the highest attended shows in the museum’s history—that the director of the Whitney has decided to stage a 36-hour marathon, keeping the Whitney open from 11 a.m. Saturday, October 18 through 11 pm. Sunday Oct. 19. 
"Dog Pool (Panties) 2003
If you’re anywhere near Manhattan, I suggest you go to the Whitney marathon and buy a copy of the catalog.  There will be special activities, the bookstore and restaurant will stay open all night and, according to The Times, the director  "confided that Mr. Koons may make an appearance in the dead of night and be on hand to sign catalogs.”  (Maybe someday his signed catalogs will go for big money like his art!)

But if you can’t make it to the marathon, here are some scenes of what you missed—New Yorkers and art lovers interacting with and trying to figure out Jeff Koons’ very expensive art.

"Balloon Venus"

Monday, October 13, 2014

Was Columbus Really Greek?

 "Reception of Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella"

I realize I may sound like Gus, the dad in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" who chauvinistically insists that everything originally came from Greece and Greek culture, but a number of historians do believe that Christopher Columbus was not Italian but came from the Greek island of Chios, specifically the mastic-growing village of Pirgi.   (Only on Chios will you find the mastic tree, which produces a resin that has made the people rich since the 14th century. ) 

"Santa Maria--Flag Ship of Columbus"
When I visited Pirgi on the island of Chios, I learned that many families  there still have the last name "Columbus".   All the buildings in Pirgi, even churches and banks, are decorated with a unique kind of geometric patterns made by scraping away the top lawyer of white plaster to reveal the darker color beneath.
 This decoration is called  ksista (“scraped” in Greek) or, in Italian, scrafitti. It is believed to have originated in Genoa and spread to Chios when the island was under Genovese rule—from 1346-1566-- but it’s still done today in Pirgi.

"The Landing of Columbus at San Salvador October 12th 1492"

Here are some of the reasons that historians like Ruth G. Durlacher-Wolper, who wrote "Christophoros Columbus: A Byzantine Prince from Chios, Greece", believe that the discoverer of the Americas was a Greek from Chios.
"Triumphal Procession at Barcelonna in Honor of Columbus"
--He was said to come from Genoa, but the island of Chios was under Genovese rule from 1346 to1566, so it was part of the Republic of Genoa during Columbus's time.
--Columbus kept his journals in Latin and Greek--not Italian, which he didn't even speak well.
--He signed his named "Christopher" with the Greek letter X .
--He made notes in Greek in the margins of his favorite book--Imago Mundi, by Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly.
--He referred to himself as "Columbus of the Red Earth" and also wrote about mastic gum. Chios is noted for its red soil in the south of the island, which is the only place where mastic grows. 

--The name "Columbus" is carved over many doors in the villages of Pirgi  and a priest with that name traces his family on the island back more than 600 years.

Whatever the truth may be about Columbus's origins, I wanted to illustrate this Columbus Day blogpost with some of the many scenes on a bed coverlet that I have hanging on a wall  near my computer.  It was sewn in redwork (also called "turkeywork") by a woman with the initials "E M" in 1892 to celebrate the tetracentennial of Columbus's landing. Whenever I look at it, I wonder at the many hours it must have taken her to complete this tribute.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

No, I Don’t Want to Die at 75!

I imagine by now you’ve heard about the kerfuffle over the article in the October  Atlantic by Ezekiel J. Emanuel titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75”.

Ezekiel Emanuel is a very distinguished scientist.  He is director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and heads the Department of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.  He was a primary architect of Obamacare.  And he is 57 years old.

Needless to say, his 5,000-word piece evoked a lot of debate, although everyone agreed he makes some important and startling points.  They are his reasons for saying that he hopes to die at 75 and that after he turns 65, he plans to discontinue all his health care—no flu shots, colonoscopies, surgery, pacemakers or heart bypasses. No cancer treatments or antibiotics.  He quotes  Sir William Osler, who said in a classic turn-of-the-century medical textbook, “Pneumonia may well be called the friend of the aged,”  because it kills you quickly and relatively painlessly.

Emanuel cites, scornfully, what he calls the “American immortal”, who is “obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.” He thinks this “manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive.”

He also includes a graph to show that creativity “peaks about 20 years into the career, at about age 40 or 45, and then enters a slow, age-related decline.”   He writes, “The fact is that by age 75, creativity, originality and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.”

Furthermore, “A third of people 85 and older  [have] Alzheimer’s.”

Selfish people who insist on living beyond 75 are burdening their children with the “wrong kind of memories.”  [If we live too long] “We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

Mr. Emanuel points out that more than half of us oldsters have functional limitations. (The test of whether you’re functioning properly is this: you can walk a quarter of a mile, climb 10 stairs, stand or sit for two hours; and stand up, bend, or kneel without using special equipment.)

He points out that his own father, now in his eighties, had a heart attack and bypass “just shy of his 77th birthday” and has been slowing down ever since. “Today he can swim, read the newspaper, needle his kids on the phone and still live with my mother in their own house, But everything seems sluggish….no one would say he is living a vibrant life.”

Well, Mr Emanuel, I’m about to turn 74, and I want to tell you that I do not hope to die at 75.  I submit that my quality of life in my late sixties and early seventies is better than at any previous time in my life.  During high school I was miserable.  In college and grad school I was exhausted, overworked and sleep-deprived.  During my thirties and forties I was juggling pregnancies, raising three kids, trying to make a career in journalism, housekeeping—the usual multitasking monster.

Today, every morning, I get up, get myself a cup of coffee and as I settle in to read three newspapers, I breathe a silent prayer of thanks that I don’t have to get up at six a.m., prepare lunches, don office-worthy clothes, push into an over-crowded subway and arrive at the office at 8 a.m.

Here are some of the things I’ve done since turning 65 (most of them since turning 70):

--I went back to my original love, painting, signed up for classes at the local museum, have exhibited and sold art in several shows, and decorated three restaurants with my paintings or photographs.

--I started a blog, “A Rolling Crone” and have written 390 posts in the past six years.

--I’ve traveled to India for a three-day Hindu wedding, visited the Taj Mahal and, in Varanasi, drifted at dawn in a small boat on the Ganges, watching the laughing yogis doing their morning exercises and the cremation ghats burning bodies on shore.

---I’ve visited the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoachan, Mexico, where millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter clustered in the fir trees. This involved climbing a mountainside at such high altitude that I had to stop every 20 yards or so to get my breath, but it was well worth it.

---I’ve visited a beach in Nicaragua at night, lantern in hand, watching hundreds of sea turtle babies emerge from the sand, and helped them in their journey toward the ocean, where they would swim to Africa, then return to this beach one day to lay their eggs.

--and I’ve celebrated Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico (twice)

--In 2009 I participated in my 50th high school reunion in Edina, Minnesota, helped gather everyone’s biography for the Reunion Book,  and since then have explored Manhattan with high-school friends during several “mini-reunions”—most recently three weeks ago when we walked north from the bottom of Central Park, stopped for lunch by the boat pond, then visited exhibits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art , and wound up eating dinner in the Great Hall Balcony Bar accompanied by live classical music.

---The most life-enhancing thing I’ve done in my 70’s is to meet my newborn first grandchild in August of 2011.  Since then, I’ve traveled with her and her parents to Nicaragua, Greece, Miami and Manhattan, watching her grow into her own person and sharing with her the places, songs, games and books I loved 70 years ago , when I was her age. (As every grandparent knows, rearing your own kids is wonderful, but you never have time or energy to watch and wonder at their development; you’re just too tired and worried about doing things right.  That’s why being a grandparent is so much more fun.)

My mother died at the age of 74 of cardiomyopathy after a long, slow decline to the point where she was too weak to open the door to her bedroom and weighed about 85 pounds.  But she didn’t want to die at that time.

My father died at 80 after about six years of suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and dementia—perhaps Alzheimer’s.  He spent the last year or two unable to communicate, curled in a fetal position.   That’s why I say that-- if and when I’m diagnosed with Alzheimer’s-- I intend to investigate and schedule an illegal physician-assisted death.

(Mr. Emanuel writes, “Since the 1990s I have actively opposed legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.”),

But for the moment, as I prepare for my 74th birthday, I still take Pilates classes, wear my “Fitbit” to measure my daily activity, and manage to rack up more than 10,000 steps a day.  I still can sprawl on the floor to play with my granddaughter or lift her into her stroller. I still can drive the 180 miles between our Massachusetts farmhouse and her Manhattan apartment, while listening to CDs in an effort to learn Spanish—which she speaks to her other grandma.  I can still do the crossword in the Times or read a menu without wearing glasses.

But I‘ll probably need them 18 years from now, Mr. Emanuel, when I’m scanning The New York Times for your obituary.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Man Who Created the Smiley Face--The Harvey Ball Story

Because today (Oct. 3, 2014) is the 15th annual World Smile Day, I'm posting the story of Harvey Ball, the artist from Worcester, MA who created the original Smiley Face fifty years ago and never made more than $45 from his creation.  Then, in 1999, disturbed by the crass commercialization of the Smiley, Harvey created World Smile Day--the first Friday in October every year--to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face.  So World Smile Day is the day to do a random act of kindness--improving the world "one smile at a time."

When three of Harvey Ball’s comrades were killed by a wayward shell as they stood next to him in Okinawa during World War II, he did not ponder if fate had saved him for a greater destiny.  Harvey, a tall, lanky, laconic Yankee from Worcester, Massachusetts, was not much given to introspection, socializing, talking, or even smiling.  But when he died in 2001 at the age of 79, Harvey had figured out his purpose in life.  As he told  People Magazine in 1998, “I taught the whole world how to smile.”

Harvey Ball, born and raised in Worcester, was the creator of the Smiley Face--that round yellow image that now beams out from Wal-Mart ads, Joe Boxer shorts and internet icons.  When, in December of 1963, he picked up a black pen and a yellow piece of paper and drew the world’s first Smiley Face, Harvey, a self-employed commercial artist, was working on an assignment from a Worcester insurance company suffering from employee discontent after a merger.  They wanted a campaign and buttons to raise company morale. They ordered 100 yellow Smiley Face buttons and then, when those disappeared almost over night, they ordered 10,000 more.

Harvey later figured out that his compensation for creating the Smiley Face button for the Worcester Mutual Insurance Company added up to about $45.   When the lawyers for the company tried to copyright the image eight years later, they learned that it was impossible, because the image, reproduced 50 million times in the year 1971 alone, was in the public domain.  By the mid-seventies, according to the curators of the Worcester Historical Museum, the image had fallen out of favor.

But Smiley made a significant comeback in the late 1980’s when interest in acid and other psychedelic drugs became a major cultural phenomenon. The icon was embraced by trendy downtown club kids.  Those who grew up in the 1970’s—today’s most desirable consumer demographic —view the image with nostalgia. (Some of them also think it was created by Forrest Gump, the fictional movie character.)  When votes were taken by the U.S. Post Office for icons to represent the decade of the 1970’s, the most popular image by far was Smiley, whose stamp was issued in 1999.

Brothers Murray and Bernard Spain of Philadelphia added the phrase “Have a Happy Day” and took in a reported one million dollars in sales of Smiley products in the first six months of 1971 alone.  In 1998, French Businessman Franklin Loufrani claimed that HE had created the image in 1971, and he proceeded to trademark the face in 80 countries.  When faced with Harvey Ball’s earlier creation, Loufrani replied with a Gallic shrug:  “I  don’t care if he designed the Smiley face.  We promote, we own, we market.” 

Riled up by “the France guy” as he put it,  Harvey in 1999 created World Smile Day—the first Friday in October-- to promote the true meaning of the Smiley Face.  And he trademarked it. Harvey said, World Smile Day® is open to every person on the planet.  No matter what color they are, or who they might pray to, no matter what country they live in.  World Smile Day® simply asks each person to live the day with a generous heart, do one kind act, to help one person smile.  Acts of kindness and smiles are contagious."

Every reporter who interviewed Harvey Ball asked him the same question: was he angry that he never made more than $45 from the creation that could have made him very, very rich?  To every reporter he patiently gave pretty much the same reply: “Hey, I can only eat one steak at a time, drive one car at a time.  I’m not ticked off about it.  I don’t mind getting up in the morning and going to work. They ask me why I’m not upset.  I just get satisfaction from it being so widely used and that it has given so many people pleasure.”

Even though he didn’t want to profit from it, Harvey Ball did want recognition for creating the image whose smile has been called more famous than the Mona Lisa’s.   He said  “Smiley is one of the greatest pieces of art ever created, as simple as it is.  It’s got a very, very positive message. Anybody can use it and reproduce it and it reaches everybody regardless of language, religion, nationality, all those things--as compared to some of the art you get today which you haven’t the faintest idea of what you’re looking at…I’m glad Smiley came from Worcester.  The city should make more of it.  Because no other city has this.”

After Harvey died in 2001 in Worcester, his son, Charles, said : “He was proud and pleased to have served his country and raise a family…He died with no apologies and no regrets.  His moral compass stayed on northh and never wavered."

And he left us the legacy of a smile.