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!


29 Dec


In the 1970s, when we were very young and more adventurous than we are now, we lived in San Antonio, Texas. Driving to California then required a lot of hard-copy maps and hard cash to pay for gas. One summer–operative word here is SUMMER–we drove a VW bug provided by Auto Driveaway–the company that found drivers for people who needed to get their cars from one place to another (does this service still exist?)–taking it from San Antonio to Santa Monica.  We set out across West Texas and the rest of the Southwest, all the way across on Interstate 10, in the middle of July–no air conditioning, no radio (there would be little reception across the desert anyway), and already temperatures into the 90s. I have no recollection of stopping overnight anywhere until we got to Tucson. What I do remember is being more uncomfortably hot than we have ever been since, dripping wet on the back of our seats as the temperatures crawled up past 100 degrees. The huge expanses of the West went on and on, the interstate provided a few rest stops with toilets and vending machines and telephones, and we prayed desperately that we wouldn’t run out of gas before the next service station, usually placed about 150 miles between, and usually consisting of one small building with a less-than-salubrious rest room and some gnarled old attendant who lived god knows where and sold lots of beef jerky. There was some traffic on the road, but in some places you saw no car for miles and miles. If the car broke down out there, you just had to wait until someone drove by who could get you to the nearest phone to call for help. Fortunately, our VW held until Upland, California, where we got a flat tire on the freeway–close enough to civilization that we could limp to the side of the road and change it.

Travelling then meant you were totally isolated in this little metal box, barrelling through these open spaces a la Kerouac’s “On The Road.” No one knew where you were precisely, and concerned family and friends just had to wait patiently until you either wrote a post card to them or called once you arrived somewhere. I remembered that trip so clearly as we once again traversed the same route this month. This time–along with entirely different weather and 40 years of experience that would certainly prevent us from doing anything as foolish as driving in the heat of the day through the scorching desert in the middle of summer–I couldn’t help but be struck by other changes. We had our cell phone, air conditioning, GPS via the Google Lady (although I now ALWAYS also carry hard-copy maps), and reservations at hotels and AirBnb houses made ahead of time via the internet.  Only in  a very few spots along the way were we ever out of touch with anyone!  It’s an entirely altered experience of travelling through the Great American West. Whether it is less stressful, more secure, or just a sign of being older and wiser, I don’t really know.  What I do know is that the distances are still very long and very monotonous if awe-inspiring in the expanse. West Texas still goes on and on and on….

But there is a bright spot, and I recommend that everyone take the small detour–70 miles off of I-10, which is nothing “out there”–to visit Marfa, Texas. Those in the arts have heard about Marfa for years; I had always wanted to visit, so took this opportunity to get there at last. I can honestly say that this cow town-cum-serious artist community is one of the only places in the world that I can consider unique.  The minimalist artist Donald Judd discovered the town in the 1970s, and set up a foundation to exhibit his and fellow artists’ works and to support further artistic thinking and creating. As Wikipedia describes his Chinati Foundation (named for the nearby Chinati mountain range), “[t]he emphasis is on works in which art and the surrounding landscape are inextricably linked.”

We were enchanted with the whole scene in town. As an important rail head for West Texas from the 1880s, Marfa already had enough infrastructure to support a community, but was remote and open enough that artists could find lots of spaces in which to work and exhibit. What is so remarkable is that the place has not been turned into a kitschified tourist trap, but offers serious galleries and extremely high-end artistic products. Even the coffee shops are indicative of its melding of small Western town and contemporary artistic lifestyle: located in old cattle auction buildings, one cafe serves things like turmeric and chai, or almond butter and honey on homemade spelt bread. Not your usual good ol’boy breakfast!  That same cafe had for sale artistic candles for $20, and a divine made-in-town perfume costing $78 for a tiny bottle! Again, not the kind of stuff one usually finds in Western towns.

And finally, there was the Chinati Foundation itself. The collections were not open when we were there, and usually are open by appointment only through the Judd Foundation offices in town. But Robert Irwin’s garden in the middle of the buildings can be experienced every day. Beautifully meditative, I could have sat there for hours, with only the sound of the rustling grasses and the huge sky overhead.

Worth the immense drive to get there, and inspiring a more perceptive appreciation of the stark beauty of these open spaces.

Finally: we even had a wonderful Marfa cat experience: a beautiful little female, either pregnant or just fat, followed us all the way down the town’s main street!

Now we have to make the journey again, going back the other way. This time, we’ll stop in Alpine, a less artsy community about 40 miles from Marfa. And then, it’s full-on desert until home.