6 Sep

Since the pandemic lockdown, I’ve been devouring crosswords as a way to combat boredom and intellectual atrophy. And I am apparently not the only one: crossword compilations I’ve ordered online are frequently out of stock, and the shelves of our local bookstore are cleaned out of the newer books of puzzles. Serendipitously, this crossword mania also seems to be having a moment of youth-inspired “rediscovery.” New crossword puzzle creators are appearing in The New Yorker and other publications, hipsters who are eschewing the dreary old clues such as “16th century Dutch coin” or “African root plant” for references to Hip Hop musicians and far too many (for me) Harry Potter and NEW series “Star Wars” entries. It’s fun and invigorating, even when I have to cheat to figure out the lyrics to a 2001 #1 recording by Cardi B or whatever the name of Dumbledore’s sidekick is (yes, I made that up, only showing how complete is my ignorance of Harry Potter characters).

Having finished all the puzzles in my most recent NYT compilation of Sunday ones, and unable to get any of the newer ones I tried for, I desperately grabbed some compilations that were available at Vroman’s, our local bookshop. Starting to work my way through them, I was initially perplexed that there were no TV show references, and lots and lots of Shakespearean clues.  Only then did I realize this book had compiled NYT crosswords from the 1970s!  The difference in tone and attitude was immediately striking! No wonder puzzlers were until recently seen as grandmas and nerdy or crusty old retired professors. Let’s hear it for the renaissance in puzzle making brought on by a new generation of hipster nerds! Now if I could only find some more compilations to do by hand rather than online. Please, young uns, for we oldsters, do remember to put out some compiled books of your brilliant works, so that we can take pencil to paper (I never use a pen!) to complete another crossword a day! 



3 Aug


Reading this article today reignited an enthusiasm, and reminded me of the reasons I began teaching the history of photography in the 1990s. As I told my classes at the beginning of each semester, I wanted to explore with them the seductive nature of photographs, to try and figure out why, at least in my case, it is nearly impossible NOT to look at a photograph. I can always ignore or skip over a painting or other artwork that doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically, but there’s something about the capturing of time and place in photographs that causes me to want to know more about any photographic image I see.

My mother came from a family that put their photos in albums, and so she made great big books of pictures she took throughout our childhood and beyond. I loved looking through the old ones, reading all the captions as a way to cement in my mind a visual memory bank of who was who and where was where in my family’s history. Then I started helping her compile the albums of our events, and finally, when I was on my own, making up my own books of my adventures as captured on Kodaks. I now have all the family photo albums, as well as boxes of images from various family members, dating from the 1920s through the 1950s, most of which have no identification, and there is now no way of finding out who these strays are or what they meant at one time to someone I know. But I still hang on to them, and occasionally look through them for signs of the times and to reflect on how landscapes have changed. In other words, I come by this obsession with photographs honestly, with a special attraction to found images, just as the writer of this article, Bill Schapiro, is drawn to them.

When I began to teach the history of photography at the Australian National University, my own curiosity about how photographic images work was my main motivation for offering the course. The teaching of photographic history, at least in Australia and I suspect in the U.S. as well, had been taken up primarily by photography departments in art schools, and for reasons that I suppose have to do with the enormous number of complex perceptual considerations that photos provide, most classes were steeped in theory, top-heavy with philosophical analyses and artspeak jargon. My history of photography class was, in the 1990s, the only one in Australia that considered photographs from an art historical rather than a theoretical perspective. I really loved teaching this class, because my students were as enthusiastic about the issues as I was, and they felt comfortable talking about a medium that they all knew about in some form. It has been years since I have revisited these topics, but this New York Times article sparked the interest again. So from my own collections, pictures that I love, and ones that are exemplary of the mystery of the medium, we can contemplate together some of these issues: how photographs’ meanings change over time, and finally, what to do with all those images in albums and boxes as references fade. Do they simply become non-entities, meaningless objects, or do they take on other, still significant, meanings? Here we go:


**I found this little photographic card at a paper store in Los Angeles, in a box of old photos and post cards (I collect post cards, too, adding on to the collection begun by my great-aunt in the 1910s). I had initially thought that its address in Hay referred to Hay, Australia, but of course, it refers to Hay-on-Wye in England. The photographer, Thomas Moxon, was a well-known figure in the late 1890s and early 1900s, so this card was probably produced in the early 20th century. Why did it appeal to me? For the same reasons that it would appeal to Schapiro: here is a darling little girl, dressed in a pristine white dress, probably held up from behind by a “hidden mother” or father. Aside from the evidence of past styles of children’s dress–and I do love that revelation from found photos–this is an image of someone who is now gone, but who, as Schapiro writes, “lived, worked, made their share of bad decisions, loved a bunch and surely suffered some.” Just like Schapiro, this image grounds me, and gives me a longer view, of “humanity’s slow and sweeping waltz.” Everything about life is ephemeral, but the photograph remains.


**This snapshot comes from one of my mother’s many albums. She seems to have kept and classified every single picture on the film roll, no matter how badly shot or how non-descript the focus. Playing devil’s advocate in my classes, I used to show another one in this “series” that conveyed even less information about what is depicted–it only showed the hood of the Karman Ghia in the background, the chain link fence,  the table with the orange pot, and my sister’s hands. I then asked the classes why such a photograph of hardly anything could possibly be interesting once the immediate references–my sister and her friend on a trip up the California coast in about 1973–had been lost in time. Students were all adamant: the image conveyed lots of information, they said, about the car, about a pot just like ones they had at home, and even about the landscape. I was amused by how closely they studied the photo, and how quick they were to defend its validity as an historical record, rather than a family heirloom.


**Another one from my family albums, this one really stretches the idea of photograph as information. In context, it was taken by my mother out the window of the plane in which she was flying for the first time–to my college graduation in Denver in 1971. She was trying, with her little snapshot camera, to get a photo of the snow-capped Rockies. Aside from saying something about the quality of snapshot film in the 1970s, this vernacular photograph loses all meaning once its purpose as evidence of one person’s presence in a plane across the mountains is lost.


**A snap of the living room in our “new” house in Torrance, California, in 1959. My mother must have sent this to her family back East, since she has written on the back: “East End of living room.  Behind drapes is a sliding glass door–in other words, the whole wall is glass, but our yard is still dirt, so I keep the drapes closed.” Then she writes below that, with an arrow pointing to the place on the front, “Stereo here.” I can read so much of family biography into this one: first of all, the pride of ownership. This house was a real step up the social ladder from where we lived before. My mother was especially proud that she now could have a piano, the piano on which I took lessons and which now lives at my son’s house. And I remember those curtains, or drapes as they were called, with all kinds of complicated pulls and ropes. They must have been an expensive item, since the curtains moved with us to the next house. And we had that green lounge chair for years and years, where my father usually sat. But what resonance can this boringly neat and tidy image of mid-20th century American suburbia have for anybody else? Just as I accumulated all these albums at my house, my history professor from graduate school contacted me for help with a book she was writing about suburban houses (Barbara Miller Lane, Houses for a New World). She looked through these albums, with their quantity of snaps of Californian suburbs circa 1950-70, and chose several as examples of how we lived, in a time that is now already historic. So there are those drapes, frozen in print for posterity, inside the covers of an academic book about American houses.


**From the boxes of unidentified family pictures comes this wonderful group portrait. I think these may be Norwegian relatives, taken when my grandmother, who had come to America in 1918, went back to visit for the first time 50 years later. A Norwegian friend has verified that the house looks like one from Norway, and if I study the faces carefully, I can convince myself that I see family resemblances. But now they are all dead, and eventually this image will end up in one of those dusty bins for sale in antique shops, flea markets, and second-hand bookstores.


**Finally, one of me. Granted, I’m only 5 days old, and not really recognizable yet, but the photo speaks volumes, doesn’t it? I would imagine that Schapiro, if he found this on any of his collecting expeditions would love it, for he says he is “drawn to quietly composed pictures that hold the sense of an unfinished story.” That it most certainly is.

For me, the picture also points to the great dilemma facing so many of us: what will happen to all these thousands of photographs once I’m gone, and the next generation only takes gillions of digital images? I would hope that my son will take them, and in preparation for coaxing him and his wife into maintaining this “hard copy” legacy, I have already made up albums of “real” photos of the digital images of their two boys’ first years. I am concerned about the fact that the next generation will have no actual visual record of their lives except in cyberspace. I want to make sure that they have the opportunity to peruse their families’ histories just as I have had.

Still, I am aware that, as this New York Times article states, in the end our photos are all that may endure of us. Schapiro’s last lines are something we all have to face: “These found photographs not only remind me of this delicate thing we run both toward and away from–time–but they also hold something else. The humbling, steadying truth that, one day, that’s all we’ll be: a photo.”

There is still so much more I would like to explore on this topic, but I’ll close for now–and include an image of us with a cat! Appleton, Wisconsin, 1985. The cat’s name was Hecate.


Lessons in lockdown

16 Jul


“Signs in Quarantine” by Felicia Chiao.

As the weeks in quarantine continue and the virus surges inexorably, I have been thinking about what I have learned in this historic time, ruminating on existential as well as banal questions during all this downtime. Here are a few thoughts:

**As long as we are the two of us here at home, I am having no problem having no visitors. It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed the idea of having a dinner party, or afternoon visitors, in any case, so this has not been difficult to maintain at all. It would probably be much harder for me if I were single and alone in the house. But I am actually surprised to realize what an introvert I am, and how easy it has been for me to stay home and just communicate via the internet or to talk with George.

**Continuing the above thought:  except for visiting museums and botanic gardens, I was never that driven to be in social groups, like choirs or clubs. This isolation is really hard on those who are social, those who are used to having lots of friends over and are active in group activities. As long as I have access to social media–and THANK GOD for that!–I’m OK with those interactions. I DO miss hugs at my AA meetings! And I do want to have projects to do on the computer or as a craft.

**I really worry about families/couples who have had any kind of tension in their relationships. All this togetherness is at times trying on even the most compatible people. I have heard that many people in early recovery from addictions have been under tremendous pressure in isolation, and all of my psychologist and counselor friends have been swamped with requests for therapy.

**Having pets has been vital, I think. I can understand why so many people have gone out and acquired a dog or a cat while housebound. I pet the cats much more often than before, and use them as substitutes for human hugs. They seem to love the routines that we have established, and are perfectly happy that we’re home all the time.

**I am so grateful we have a yard/garden that attracts birds. My amateur birding has been a constant joy as we sit on our back porch. I am actually getting better at identifying even the NBBs–the non-descript brown birds!

**Los Angeles skies are much clearer these days, as traffic has been so reduced. It’s really noticeable on our walks.

**We notice so many more people on our walks around the neighborhood. We always take our masks with us, and if we see another person walking toward us, we either go into the street to avoid being close, or we put our masks on immediately.

**No matter what others say, I have found no effective way to keep my glasses from steaming up when I wear a mask.

**The ONE source of tremendous sadness and distress for me: not being able to visit the grandchildren in Denver. Since George is high risk (COPD and heart issues), since we always catch whatever illness the kiddos have when we visit, and since Dottie works in a hospital, we just cannot risk getting there, either by plane or driving. We are missing their sweetest year, but are again so thankful that we have social media to keep us in touch. I just want the grandsons to remember us when they grow up. That, to me, is our only form of immortality.

**I have to avoid what I can of the news, since it just fills me with despair that we are suffering through this pandemic with the absolute worst possible non-government in power. But all the reading that I have been doing–what else is there to do?–inevitably leads me to some considerations of how America has devolved into such a situation. Here’s one thought that came to me and that I shared on Facebook: “I’ve just been reading, in David Talbot’s Season of the Witch, the story of Dan White, the pathetic human who assassinated Harvey Milk and SF Mayor George Moscone–you know, the one who got away with murder because his aggressive lawyer used the ‘Twinkie defense.’ What struck me in the story of this guy was something Harvey Milk said about him: ‘I feel sorry for him, because he’s just stupid, and out of his depth as City Councilman.’ Then it hit me: part of the problem for people like DT and CERTAINLY for Betsy deVos, is that they are not very bright at all. This makes them so defensive when they are out of their depth intellectually that they have to lash out against those who are smarter than they are. Couple this, in DT’s case, with pathological narcissism and you have the mess we’re in today. Stupidity can make people do awful things if they’re not loved enough and/or find themselves in positions of power and incapable of knowing what responsibility that power requires.”

**It’s even harder now to keep track of what day it is than it was once we retired.

**Zoom meetings are frustrating, but better than nothing.

**TV: for some reason, I find the presence of actual TV in real time calming, no matter how mindless the programs (well, up to a point). It must be my age, but it makes me feel like someone is out there, even though I know that isn’t true. Netflix and other streaming apps are great, and I do appreciate watching real shows and films on them, too. But for a feeling of security, I watch reruns of “Law & Order” over a first-run program. And no, I would NOT watch Tiger King!

**I really miss a swimming pool! I am never one for big-time, long-term exercise regimens, but I’m astonished at how creaky I can get if I don’t keep up some exercise routines. I wasn’t aware of how much running around I used to do in a day.

**I have resigned myself to the fact that in many ways, these quarantine routines are what we are going to have to live with for a long, long time. I am not ready to die yet, and getting COVID-19 is just not an option if I want to stay alive for a little while longer. So I must appreciate the small things, stay in touch with loved ones by media means, and be thankful that I have always been one to read and think.

**I will close with cats again: Kolo, the black & white one, always looks better in photos than he does in person! And orange one Zuma doesn’t like to pose.

Stay healthy and safe, everyone!


Manuscript is in production!

3 Jun

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Coffee drinking women, painting, 1907

While I am exhausted from despair and anxiety because of “current events,” as it used to be called in my high school days, I just cannot bring myself to comment on this blog about these dismaying incidents about which I have ranted on Facebook. But I did feel I needed to post something new here, so this is my report: I submitted the manuscript of “Three German Women” to the publishers last week! Despite the pandemic lockdown, the first proofs should be here in a few weeks. In the meantime, I have agonized over the choice of a cover image for the book. I scoured all the free sites, such as Wikimedia, I considered several possibilities, every one of which ended up requiring expensive permission fees, or was somehow unsuitable. My search terms had something to do with three German women, active 1910-1950, preferably a cafe scene, something not Weimar-era Flapper-like, or frilly, but not too serious either. Ideally I wanted a woman artist, but nothing I found seemed to resonate appropriately. I had several people recommend graphic designers who would, I am sure, have created something original and pertinent, but given the small size of this book (it’s A5 format), I really didn’t want to waste their obvious talents on such a meager space. Here are three of the possible images I considered:

I really wanted to use the Beckmann, because it was the right period, a little edgy- Germanic, but it would have required searching for copyright permission (the work appears a gillion times on Pinterest, but nowhere could I find who owned it), and it probably would have cost a fortune to reproduce. The photograph of the little girls would have been available, but my Facebook critics determined that it might lead prospective readers to assume the themes of the book were of a younger milieu than the text was focussing on. And the final image by Lotte Laserstein (a new and welcome discovery for me) was deemed too busy for a small cover (and probably would have required elaborate permissions as well).

Finally, after days of online perusal, I found a stock photo site that included images free of royalty rights or permissions. And there was the bright yellow painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner of three women drinking coffee! I could have the image for $70. While it is, at 1907, a bit early for the actual events of the book (one of my women is not born until 1919), the image was so striking and so German that I felt it captured the right mood. So I have submitted it to the publishers, who will now determine whether it’s usable or not. Fingers crossed! I think it will make a very striking impression.

If nothing else, all of these pictorial excursions and decisions have diverted my attention from the chaos and violence being stoked into frenzy by the highest levels of the American government, and in the midst of a global pandemic that already warrants extreme levels of vigilance and anxiety for everyone. We can do very little but try to continue to live civilized, humane lives. As I say in my book–one of the themes of which is that most Germans under Nazi rule were neither Nazis nor radicals–individual human beings will have to negotiate their own moral and ethical behavior in light of these atrocities: “In our present political climate, dictatorial impulses around the globe are, bafflingly, upending many of the gains made since that last world war, erasing for some the lessons we should have learned from the tumultuous history these women had to face. While we do not have to stand by in complete helplessness as these events out of our control occur, it is perhaps beneficial to be reminded that ordinary people should not necessarily be painted as traitors or heroes to a cause, as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ if they are simply living their lives with as much grace and perseverance as they can.”




For Mother’s Day

11 May


For my mother, Maydee Rahm Scheuneman Esau. She loved music, Nelson Eddy/Jeanette McDonald movies, crosswords, sewing, and baseball. She sang all the time, she played the piano, she was exuberant (some would say loud). She had absolutely no filters, which was sometimes mortifying, sometimes delightful. She had three daughters, I’m the oldest. She swore like a sailor when she was sewing, and she loved to travel. She went to South Africa, Germany, and Guatemala on an archaeological dig. She fought breast cancer for 12 years, but it got her in the end. She was only 61 when she died. We have never gotten over it. Here she is with me, 5 days old.


30 Apr

As we are all sitting in our living rooms or working in our kitchens, essentially under house arrest, I have been fascinated to see all the people, famous and not at all famous–from the Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Rolling Stones to my anonymous friends in AA–being broadcast from their most private spaces, at home. I find myself looking at their books, their lamps in the background, their art on the walls. My favorite YouTubes have been the fantastic mashups of people all over the world playing instruments or singing together, performing in their home situations.

So let me wax professorial for a minute. In studying art history, and cultural history for that matter, we learn that one of the most important aspects of the transition to modernity was the breakdown of the rigid distinctions between private and public life. These distinctions had, of course, been most rigidly maintained for women, many of them being kept so tightly confined to domestic life and private worlds that they might as well have been in a sultan’s harem. While men in the nineteenth century defined public spaces and were free to become flaneurs and artists of the street, even women who had the means and the support by family to create art did so for the most part within the confines of their private spaces. Just think of those hauntingly beautiful images by Clementina Hawarden, photographs in the 1860s within her well-to-do household, or the famous close-ups by Julia Margaret Cameron. Private spaces–the home–were the venue of women. These photographic tableaux may have been carefully staged, but they were still an expression of the artist’s daily world.

It often seems that now, in the 21st century, all those divisions between private and public spheres have been obliterated, that the complaints are rife about no one having privacy in the age of social media, and cameras are everywhere, capturing every moment of everyone’s daily comings and goings. But this time of “social distancing,” in which all of our performative, public spaces have been closed down temporarily, has demonstrated that there was after all one last bastion of privacy left, even for public figures: our homes. Personally, I have found the experience of seeing performers and celebrities in their own domestic environments absolutely exhilirating, as they shed some of their public personas just by being in their own living rooms, as they sing to us, or tell jokes while their cat or dog or kid walks by. I find myself examining their lamps, for example, or what’s on their kitchen counters that is also on my kitchen counter. It makes their performances, to me, more authentic, and thereby more impressive. The other night I watched the “virtual” presentation of a tribute to Stephen Sondheim, in which all the performers were singing in their living rooms or, in at least one case, in her bathroom next to the tub. Bernadette Peters sang a capella, no make up, standing in her kitchen against a tiled diamond-designed wall with crooked candlesticks and a lamp visible in the background. It was like seeing a Raphael out of its frame and off the museum wall, being able to appreciate fully the immediacy of the artist’s craft. bernadette peters_Schulman-SondheimBirthday

End of ruminations! In my Zoom meetings–another perceptual experience altogether–I also spend a lot of time examining where people are sitting and what’s behind them. In some cases, people choose completely neutral backgrounds, or position themselves so you can’t see much of their material belongings, while others–inadvertently or not–display their aesthetic in the art behind them. Again, I read these images to glean information about my anonymous friends’ lives. This at home experience has equalized us all in what I see as a good thing: we all have private spaces where we feel at home.

And rejoice when we see a cat enter the at-home weatherman’s report!


So I’ve succeeded in ending again with a cat!


17 Apr

As I have been working on my book “Three German Women,” I have found lots of juicy, informative, first-hand information in the pages of The New Yorker. These have been particularly good about the immediate aftermath of World War II, from great reporters like Janet Flanner in Vienna and Joel Sayre in Berlin. As I went through the issues of 1945, I have almost been led to tears to see how strong and principled were the remarks about American diplomacy and its role in defeating the evil force that was German fascism. In “Notes and Comment” of the May 12, 1945 issue–that is, at the moment the war in Europe had ended–the writer, perhaps E.B. White, makes an observation that caught me up short:

It is a confusing thing, this phenomenon of personification which turns a statesman into a state. Let him put his arm around another man, and to all appearances you have an alliance. Let him wrinkle his brow, and you have a disturbed condition. Let him say a foolish thing–which any man is likely to do at any moment–and you have a national trend. We recall the stinging letters the Republicans wrote to the papers on that occasion when President Roosevelt’s tongue slipped and he referred to “Russia, Britain, and me.”

Ah, how far we have fallen! Now the cult of personality reigns, and the world is turned upside down. All is now vengeance, “I have complete authority” but “I take no responsibility.” And so now the “national trend” is–at least for some–demented, vengeful, narcissistic bullying.  Elsewhere in the New Yorker notes, focussing on the incipient efforts to organize the United Nations, the writer comments again, “One thing we notice in San Francisco is how quickly a person becomes a country in the eyes of all.” Indeed. May God have mercy on our country’s soul.

More ruminations on Covid-19

4 Apr


On our porch with custom-made face masks!

A dear friend of mine just sent me the Ted-Talk-like article linked below, and asked me what I thought of it:

Essentially, the author is ruminating on two ideas: 1) how many Covid-19 deaths would be considered acceptable in order to allow the world to get back to normal; and 2) contemplating optimistically the possibility of a “reset” of world priorities that could come from having this slowdown, and time to reconsider life options.  He’s not offering answers, just contemplating possibilities.

In response I wrote to my friend:

Thanks for sending this, M.  Very thought-provoking. Personally, I do feel this slowing down is a good thing, and can sense a “reset” in people’s thinking. But alas, I don’t think it will outlast the current crisis. This writer also hints at the fatalistic approach, which I do think will happen: eventually societies will say “fuck it, we can’t go on like this any longer, let’s just let people get sick, and go back to normal.” And then societies will go back to their normal. It would be lovely if this crisis did bring about the end of capitalism, the beginning of kinder, gentler societies and the implementation of caring programs. But it won’t, I fear. More likely those systems of control will continue. Sigh. I just look at the phenomenon of my online AA meetings getting Zoombombed: on the one hand, the meetings have been so wonderful, bringing people from all over the world together digitally to share and care. But then, these idiotic young men have figured out how to hack into these open forums with hideous pornographic and violent imagery and hate speech that can’t be unseen or unheard, and the whole mood is wrecked.  The yin and the yang. Sigh.

I thought “the coronation” was going to refer to DT being crowned Emperor for life! Sigh. Right now I’m just applying all my AA principles, and living one day at a time. If I think about how long this isolation will last, or of the damage it’s doing to children and those who are alone, I’ll go crazy. Right now this isn’t at all difficult for us, since we were more or less doing this kind of living anyway! But I do miss visiting the kiddos, and looking forward to travel. 
Keep safe, everyone!  Who knows what the answers are? And please, Americans,
remember that we MUST vote these horrible people out of office, no matter what
happens! We MUST at least have faith that we can still retrieve something of American
democracy. That at least should be a goal that we can hope for!

Covid-19 in SoCal 2020

14 Mar


Since everyone else is sharing Covid-19 Panic stories, I thought I’d send a report from the SoCal scene–which, really, can be summed up by the photo above. And the virus hasn’t really even hit us yet! More on that in a minute.

George, who after 40 years of smoking (he has now been smoke free for 12 years) has COPD, was told by our doctor two weeks ago that he had to stop his volunteer work at an elementary school because he is high risk for any kind of respiratory illness. He is very sad about that, but is still going out shopping every day! Three days ago, he went to TJs, and while it was a bit crowded, they still had everything on the shelves. Yesterday, he went to Target–all pharmaceuticals gone, no TP, and the lines were so long, he left. Then he went to TJs, our local one, and it was absolutely packed with people. He was still able to get most of the stuff we needed. But then we realized we had forgotten goat’s milk (I can’t drink regular cow’s milk). I went with him, hoping I could persuade him to stay in the car while I braved the masses. By the afternoon, our local TJs had a line waiting to get in, and was apparently out of most everything. So we went over to the bigger TJs across town. We first stopped at Sprouts, which was busy, but not overrun, and still pretty well stocked–but no goat’s milk. So off to the other TJs. All the milks were for some reason in abundant supply, but there was no meat, no bread, no TP (of course!). We didn’t even look for hand sanitizer. As someone else has written, if TJs wants to know what products they can drop or get less of in future, they only have to check out what few items are left on their shelves now!

People were all very well-behaved, even a bit of cameraderie, and we saw no fights over food items as have been reported elsewhere. Personally, I am fascinated by the obsession with toilet paper. Why is that the biggest worry? There are other methods of dealing with your tush, you know!

As for SoCal preparedness: the biggest worry is that we won’t be able to “flatten the curve,” and that serious cases of infection will hit all at once and hospitals will be overwhelmed. Pasadena already has a serious shortage of beds and care facilities. Now most venues have closed for public events–my art tours have been cancelled, since the museums are cancelling all such events–and we’re all hunkering down (well, sort of). George thinks that until “it” really hits, we don’t have that much to worry about. Sigh. He IS washing his hands a lot, as am I. For us in SoCal, spoiled by our usual good weather, this quarantine is made less serene by the fact that we have much-needed rainy weather right now, and it is supposed to stay this way for another week. Gray skies do not help our mood of impending doom.

As for the national scene, here’s my tip: do not pay any attention to the ravings of the spurious Commander in Chief, and listen to the people who really know something about whatever issue is at hand.  There are lots and lots of good sources online that can both lift your spirits and give you factual information. Turn off the so-called news. Good luck, everyone!


Pattern & Decoration @ MOCA

20 Feb


When I first started teaching art history in the early 1980s, the whole modernist canon as laid down in the 1950s by such champions of masculinist purity as Clement Greenberg and Ad Reinhardt was teetering on the brink of relevance and relegation to history. We started to talk about post-modernism and feminist directions, but the textbooks for the teaching of Introduction to Art History classes were still pretty party line. I remember that the newest editions of Janson and Arnason ended with brief and tentative descriptions of “Pattern and Decoration” artists, and gave a bit of lip service to feminist artists’ works that had been created throughout the 1970s. Some of the older art historians I knew were skeptical, and sniffed at these attempts to champion craft, colorfulness, popular culture, “anonymous was a woman” efforts as–gasp!–DECORATIVE, and therefore unworthy of inclusion in the discussions of “real” and important art. The High Art/Low Art divide may have started to be breached by Pop Artists as early as the 1960s, but “the canon” was still firmly ensconced in most of the halls of academe.

On the other hand, my artist friends, and especially the women, were already moving away from all that heroic purity and were painting and constructing in brilliant colors, incorporating craft, non-Western creativity and artisanry into their efforts, and bringing some fun, intimacy, and even messiness back into their work. (Thank you, JoAnne Carson, Marilyn Lanfear, and Wendy Edwards!) We became aware of  Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” and the objects produced by the artists of The Woman’s House. As a dutiful product of academe, still trying to understand how to teach and afraid of my own opinions, I toed a thin line between Old School and new ideas. But as someone whose personal aesthetic veered toward a fascination with the decorative, ornament, and construction, I was intrigued by this embrace of craft and the art of the “ornamental other.”

So now, after all those years of changing aesthetics, movements of post-modernism and post-colonialism–all that artistic water under the bridge–it was absolutely thrilling to see this magnificent exhibition of the best of the artists associated with the Pattern & Decoration movement, now on at MOCA, in the Grand Avenue venue in Los Angeles. Not only were the famous pieces there–Miriam Schapiro’s quilts, Joyce Kozloff’s tiles and textiles–but some of the groundbreaking moments associated with those 1970s feminists were on view as well. It was especially wonderful to see included Kozloff’s fantastic counter-manifesto to Ad Reinhardt’s purist aphorisms of negativity (one of the most severe declarations of abstract minimalism): “anti-pretentious, anti-pompous, anti-patriarchal, anti-heroic, anti-genius, anti-master.” Tell him, Joyce!  Women like Schapiro and Kozloff had studied art in schools run by these men, and began their careers more or less compelled to mimic monumental abstraction. Their embrace of the decorative and the crafts associated with “women’s work” was part and parcel of their feminist rejection of a modernism determined by male artists. (There are many good male artists involved in the P & D movement, too, usually exhibiting an interest in non-Western ornamentation–lots of their works in this exhibition as well.)


I was particularly excited to see “in the flesh,” so to speak, Sylvia Sleigh’s Turkish Bath, her riposte to centuries of female nudes painted by men. I always asked my students to ponder the fact that until VERY recently, we had no images of naked men painted by women–women weren’t allowed to study anatomy at the academies, but why didn’t they have their lovers and husbands pose for them? Sylvia Sleigh was a great slide to show to engender discussion about this topic–and she includes ornamental rugs, too! A different take on Orientalism….

The rooms of the exhibition are divided thoughtfully into various themes, beginning with quilts, and ending with 1980s gaudiness. George was so excited by this show, emboldened to follow his own ornamental predilections; seeing this work of folded paper and acrylic paint was a revelation for him.

Finally, for my animal-loving friends, a wonderful painted piece inspired by medieval/Renaissance tapestries: Rabbit and Hounds!


The exhibit is on until May, and MOCA is now FREE!  If you have a chance, be sure to visit–it will make you happy!