During the decade following World War Two, a body of artistic work was created that clearly articulated for the first time, a distinctly American aesthetic, independent of European models. This is not to say that celebrated works like The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Appalachian Spring and Roy Harrisʼ Third Symphony are not recognized as American masterpieces; but their American characteristics are expressed through content, rather than form or methods of production. Fitzgerald and Hemingway all furthered their apprenticeship in Europe during the 1920s while Copland and Harris studied in Paris with Boulanger. It remained for the next generation of the avant garde, living for the most part in New York, to create original schools through the modes of Abstract Expressionism, the new chromatic jazz of Be Bop, and the literature of the Beats. The singly most important characteristic of the new American expression was the central role played by spontaneity and improvisation yielding works of astonishing vibrant surface detail.
The emphasis on the spontaneous as an alternative to the careful and rational reflected larger cultural and philosophical issues. In seeking a subjective, existential view of reality, honesty, authenticity, were prized over the objective world view, process over product. Whether expressed in gesture painting, spontaneous bop prosody, or the chromatic flights of bebop, the emphasis was on the experience, rejecting the academic craftsmanship of revision as antithetical to the glorification of the now.This emphasis plus the incorporation of elements from African and Native American sources were interpreted as an attack on the privileged hegemony of the Anglo-American academy. Beat writers were ridiculed by proponents of the New Criticism who vaunted T.S. Eliot as their model. Kerouacʼs spontaneous prose was dismissed as “mere typing” by Truman Capote. While mainstream journals such as Life magazine devoted some attention to abstract art, it was more often of a patronizing nature, referring to Pollock as “Jack the Dripper”. The new jazz faced opposition even within its own ranks, even prompting a revival of New Orleans music, now called “Dixieland”. Louis Armstrong dismissed bop as making about as much sense as “Chinese music”. So with its fusion of modernist complexity with vernacular) or “street”) immediacy the new art represented a third alternative to European elitism and mainstream pop culture. In an even larger context, the avant garde of the late 1940s represented a reaction to Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Gulag – the latter having a dampening impact on the leftist Communist idealism of the 30s. Whether implicit in words or explicit in painting and music, the avant garde became a central voice in the new bohemian counterculture criticism of United States political and corporate globalization with its strategy of cold war xenophobia and domestic consumerism. The full effect of this will not be fully realized until the mid 1960s when the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Viet Nam galvanized many to question the policies of the government.
Three artists, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Charlie Parker (1920-1955), and Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), play a central role in the emerging post war avant garde, each incorporating elements of spontaneity to their arts. The outline of their biographies shows many similarities. Roughly of the same generation, each were born and raised in provincial settings, Pollock in Cody, Wyoming, Parker in Kansas City, Missouri, and Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts. Each came from working class blue collar maternally dominated families, with dysfunctional (Pollock and Kerouac) or nonexistent (Parker) relationships with their fathers, Pollock and Kerouac becoming highly misogynistic. Each produced their most important work in New York beginning around 1945, where they all habituated the same Lower East Side and Greenwich Village neighborhoods, often hanging out in the same bars and coffee houses. All three experienced difficult personal lives, cut short from substance abuse resulting in early deaths (Pollock at age 44. Parker at 35, and Kerouac at 47). What is of great interest is the mutual interest and influence among the artistic intelligentsia of the period. Much of Kerouacʼs innovative spontaneous prose sketching achieved most notable in Visions of Cody and The Subterraneans were heavily indebted to his sophisticated knowledge of jazz. Several of the “choruses” in Mexico City Blues are profiles of Parker, Lester Young, and other musicians. Lee Krasner, Pollockʼs wife, has documented the painterʼs interest in jazz as well as classical music. Night Clubs, such as the Five Spot, doubled as jazz venues as well as art galleries.
A Pollock painting illustrates the cover of Ornette Colemanʼs, Free Jazz, released in 1959. Some artists worked in several disciplines, most notable saxophonist Larry Rivers who became a prominent painter, composer-novelist Paul Bowles, pianist-poet Cecil Taylor, and poet-painter-composer Weldon Kees. Poetic recitation with jazz, begun with Kenneth Patchen and Charlie Mingus included performances at the Village Vanguard with Kerouac who recorded with tenor men Zoot Sims and Al Cohn as well as recited on television with Steve Allen backing him up on piano. The image of these performances, with their “beards,bongos and beatniks” became simplistic cultural clichés in the late 1950s. perpetuated by the mainstream media in an attempt to trivialize and ridicule the movement. To reiterate the central thesis of this argument, the main thread that unites this rich period of American creativity is the use of improvisation for the purpose of creating art characterized by great emotional and intense expression.
American Zeitgeist: Spontaneity in the work of Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, and Jack Kerouac
Sex and design, not that long ago, were total strangers—at least in magazines. You could have sex and fashion, as Helmut Newton had memorably proved in Vogue, and you could have fashion and design, as Alexey Brodovitch, Harper’s Bazaar’s legendary art director from 1934 to 1958, had shown. But Fabien Baron’s remarkable 1992 redesign of Bazaar, under editor Liz Tilberis, brought them together under one elegant, sensuous roof. Baron also introduced art-world and European photographers (Mario Testino, David Sims, Cindy Sherman, Craig McDean, Mario Sorrenti, Raymond Meier, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin) to the fashion world for the first time, permanently altering our perception of what a fashion photographer does.
Baron grew up in Paris, the son of a magazine art director. He came to New York at 23; his first magazine job was at GQ, in 1982, where Bruce Weber was making his name. By the late eighties, he was multitasking prodigiously, producing Barneys’ famous ads with Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, and Naomi Campbell, and working on Franca Sozzani’s Italian Vogue and Ingrid Sischy’s Interview, all at the same time. By 1992, when he landed at Bazaar, he was a ubiquitous design star.
And a new kind of star at that: a “creative director,” which in short order became the most-sought-after (and then clichéd) title of the nineties. “I was the first person to have that title,” he says. “I didn’t want to be just the art director!”
Interview Magazine Christmas Card, c.1980. Issued by Interview Magazine’s publishers in the 1980s, the card features the artist playfully posing as Santa Claus, with a white beard drawn on by Richard Bernstein, who designed the card. The inside of the card is signed “love Andy Warhol” by the artist himself
Since Andy Warhol arrived in Manhattan, his fey sketches had blurred the line between commercial design and fine art. And he had become, among other things, the new king of Christmas. In 1956, in addition to all the work he was getting drawing shoes and bags, he was commissioned to design Christmas cards for the Fifth Avenue temple of Tiffany & Co. Warhol’s cards were subsequently published by Tiffany’s every Christmas up to 1962, the year he started to show his paintings of soup cans.
Picture a can of Campbell’s soup – eating it by yourself. Then contrast this mental picture with Warhol’s 1962 Tiffany’s Christmas card depicting a star constructed of fruit and holly – a picture of the good life, hearty and shared. Food is a constant theme of his Christmas cards. He drew a Christmas tree made of fruit, a reindeer centrepiece for the table, a basket stuffed with food and wine. Then there are the gifts, wrapped or opened, and arranged around the fireplace – a doll, a rocking horse, a striped candy cane with a pink bow: Andy Warhol’s vision of the perfect Christmas.
More recently, Warhol’s Christmas cards have been republished, and there’s even a little book of them. You might dismiss this as the extreme, ephemeral end of Warhol rediscoveries; he himself never claimed that his early graphic output was a significant part of his oeuvre. And yet, when you look at Warhol’s Christmas cards alongside his greatest paintings of the 1960s – the suicide, the car wrecks and so on – they become oddly telling. Set them beside his electric chair and their optimism about a warm and kind American community suddenly looks desperately fragile and consciously artificial. Then you realise why he needed to give up designing Christmas cards.
Narciso Rodriguez’s sketch-books
DIALOGUE BETWEEN FASHION AND DEATH
A CHAPTER FROM OPERA OMNIA (1824)
Translated by Charles Edwardes
FASHION — Madam Death, Madam Death!
DEATH — Wait until your time comes, and then I will appear without being called by you.
FASHION — Madam Death!
DEATH — Go to the devil. I will come when you least expect me.
FASHION — As if I were not immortal!
DEATH — Immortal?
“Already has passed the thousandth year,”
since the age of immortals ended.
FASHION — Madam is as much a Petrarchist as if she were an Italian poet of the fifteenth or eighteenth century.
DEATH — I like Petrarch because he composed my triumph, and because he refers so often to me. But I must be moving.
FASHION — Stay! For the love you bear to the seven cardinal sins, stop a moment and look at me.
DEATH — Well. I am looking.
FASHION — Do you not recognise me?
DEATH — You must know that I have bad sight, and am without spectacles. The English make none to suit me; and if they did, I should not know where to put them.
FASHION — I am Fashion, your sister.
DEATH — My sister?
FASHION — Yes. Do you not remember we are both born of Decay?
DEATH — As if I, who am the chief enemy of Memory, should recollect it!
FASHION — But I do. I know also that we both equally profit by the incessant change and destruction of things here below, although you do so in one way, and I in another.
DEATH — Unless you are speaking to yourself, or to some one inside your throat, raise your voice, and pronounce your words more distinctly. If you go mumbling between your teeth with that thin spider-voice of yours, I shall never understand you; because you ought to know that my hearing serves me no better than my sight.
FASHION — Although it be contrary to custom, for in France they do not speak to be heard, yet, since we are sisters, I will speak as you wish, for we can dispense with ceremony between ourselves. I say then that our common nature and custom is to incessantly renew the world. You attack the life of man, and overthrow all people and nations from beginning to end; whereas I content myself for the most part with influencing beards, head-dresses, costumes, furniture, houses, and the like. It is true, I do some things comparable to your supreme action. I pierce ears, lips, and noses, and cause them to be torn by the ornaments I suspend from them. I impress men’s skin with hot iron stamps, under the pretence of adornment. I compress the heads of children with tight bandages and other contrivances; and make it customary for all men of a country to have heads of the same shape, as in parts of America and Asia. I torture and cripple people with small shoes. I stifle women with stays so tight, that their eyes start from their heads; and I play a thousand similar pranks. I also frequently persuade and force men of refinement to bear daily numberless fatigues and discomforts, and often real sufferings; and some even die gloriously for love of me. I will say nothing of the headaches, colds, inflammations of all kinds, fevers — daily, tertian, and quartan — which men gain by their obedience to me. They are content to shiver with cold, or melt with heat, simply because it is my will that they cover their shoulders with wool, and their breasts with cotton. In fact, they do everything in my way, regardless of their own injury.
DEATH — In truth, I believe you are my sister; the testimony of a birth certificate could scarcely make me surer of it. But standing still paralyses me, so if you can, let us run; only you must not creep, because I go at a great pace. As we proceed you can tell me what you want. If you cannot keep up with me, on account of our relationship I promise when I die to bequeath you all my clothes and effects as a New Year’s gift.
FASHION — If we ran a race together, I hardly know which of us would win. For if you run, I gallop, and standing still, which paralyses you, is death to me. So let us run, and we will chat as we go along.
DEATH — So be it then. Since your mother was mine, you ought to serve me in some way, and assist me in my business.
FASHION — I have already done so — more than you imagine. Above all, I, who annul and transform other customs unceasingly, have nowhere changed the custom of death; for this reason it has prevailed from the beginning of the world until now.
DEATH — A great miracle forsooth, that you have never done what you could not do!
FASHION — Why cannot I do it? You show how ignorant you are of the power of Fashion.
DEATH — Well, well: time enough to talk of this when you introduce the custom of not dying. But at present, I want you, like a good sister, to aid me in rendering my task more easy and expeditious than it has hitherto been.
FASHION — I have already mentioned some of my labours which are a source of profit to you. But they are trifling in comparison with those of which I will now tell you. Little by little, and especially in modern times, I have brought into disuse and discredit those exertions and exercises which promote bodily health; and have substituted numberless others which enfeeble the body in a thousand ways, and shorten life. Besides, I have introduced customs and manners, which render existence a thing more dead than alive, whether regarded from a physical or mental point of view; so that this century may be aptly termed the century of death. And whereas formerly you had no other possessions except graves and vaults, where you sowed bones and dust, which are but a barren seed, now you have fine landed properties, and people who are a sort of freehold possession of yours as soon as they are born, though not then claimed by you. And more, you, who used formerly to be hated and vituperated, are in the present day, thanks to me, valued and lauded by all men of genius. Such an one prefers you to life itself, and holds you in such high esteem that he invokes you, and looks to you as his greatest hope. But this is not all. I perceived that men had some vague idea of an after-life, which they called immortality. They imagined they lived in the memory of their fellows, and this remembrance they sought after eagerly. Of course this was in reality mere fancy, since what could it matter to them when dead, that they lived in the minds of men? As well might they dread contamination in the grave! Yet, fearing lest this chimera might be prejudicial to you, in seeming to diminish your honour and reputation, I have abolished the fashion of seeking immortality, and its concession, even when merited. So that now, whoever dies may assure himself that he is dead altogether, and that every bit of him goes into the ground, just as a little fish is swallowed, bones and all. These important things my love for you has prompted me to effect. I have also succeeded in my endeavour to increase your power on earth. I am more than ever desirous of continuing this work. Indeed, my object in seeking you to-day was to make a proposal that for the future we should not separate, but jointly might scheme and execute for the furtherance of our respective designs.
DEATH — You speak reasonably, and I am willing to do as you propose
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