By Lisa Zeiger

            “I look at photographs like one looks up meanings in dictionaries.”—Francis Bacon 

I wish, by way of this article about Instagram and what seems to be the ebb of print magazines, to introduce a series of essays about Instagram users in whose accounts I discover striking originality, beauty, and instruction. These pieces on Instagram tastemaker-didacts will appear intermittently between now and the end of 2020, alternating, of course, with whatever subjects relevant to Book and Room I feel a psychic need to write. 



Why is Instagram important and where is it going? A bit of history of glossy magazines may explain. Until the late 1990s, the four corners of bound, printed high-circulation magazines expressed the singular, spectacular sensibilities of leading editors and art directors—uncut originals. This audacity of vision, celebrated throughout the twentieth century in figures such as Diana Vreeland, Alexander Lieberman and Alexey Brodovitch, is nowadays homogenized by corporate, celebrity-mad marketing departments. I don’t wish to see another hideous “home”--a cloying word for “house”--of the latest starlet, or “actor” as she now styles herself. Fame, no matter how fleeting or irrelevant to design, blights the pricey printed page. 



I was raised on novels, but it was the magazines I read in my twenties and thirties—The Tatler, British Vogue, House & Garden, and The World Of Interiors—that formed my visual sensibility with more immediacy than art books or even museums. Magazines presented a vision of the rooms I wanted to create and live in; the clothes I wanted to wear and make my own. If part of my identity was caught up with literature, a different cell sought its expression, more for my own satisfaction than to attract others, in visible, material expressions of a self I had already invented through reading, writing, and speech. My voice needed a vessel, and I learned how to hand-build one from the scintillating visions of magazine art directors and photographers.



My decorative influences as a young woman were most pervasively the rooms curated in glossy publications from the late 1970s until about 1990. I collected every issue of House & Garden and The World Of Interiors, hauling them across continents. They incited me to orchestrate in rooms the old things I found in flea markets and antiques shops, inexpensive echoes of objects I saw in museums and historic houses.  Magazines not only educated my eye, but provided compelling examples of how to live with objects I loved, long before I began formal studies of their history and qualities, first at Sotheby’s London in 1987 then at the University of Glasgow/Christie’s in 1988. 



From 1981 to 1987, House & Garden was a monthly distillation of Editor-in-Chief Lou Oliver Gropp’s unerring eye. Then-newcomer from British publishing, Anna Wintour would replace Gropp at House & Garden in March 1987, her stint lasting a year. Her baleful contributions to the magazine were to rename it HG, a dumbed-down “branding” I would always detest, and to reformat its oblong shape into an ungainly squarish book. Under Gropp, I had luxuriated in the houses and apartments of House & Garden, all different, yet all over-the-top splendid: the London home of John Stefanidis, Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound at Taliesin West, the Wrightsmans’ private rooms in Palm Beach, Adnan Khashoggi’s Manhattan duplex designed by Alessandro Pianon, and even real palaces, as in the Queen Mother’s Clarence House. House & Garden’s articles were by famous writers of wide cultural ambit, including Rosamond Bernier, Martin Filler, John Richardson, Hugh Honor, Steven M.L. Aronson, and Alexander Cockburn, among others.  The photography was consummate: Oberto Gili, Karen Radkai, Tim Street-Porter, Horst, Evelyn Hofer, Sheila Metzner and François Halard.



Then, in 1981, a new apotheosis stepped up the decorating game: Britain's The World of Interiors, tenured for twenty years by the divine eccentric, Min Hogg, R.I.P.; edited since 2000 by Rupert Thomas. During my misbegotten law school years, I spent stolen hours studying back issues of WOI at Columbia’s Avery Art Library. (The rest of my legal career unraveled playing hooky at home, where I read all of Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark in bed, with a blue Le Creuset vat of Bullshot--beef bouillon, vodka and lime juice-- simmering on the stove from early morning till midnight, when I watched reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.)



Today it is not starched print magazines but go-with-the-flow Instagram which offers a mass audience entree into unsuspected, even remote quarters of aesthetic experience, now tendered by millions of participants, many of them, in effect, independent curators, some, of startling visual and historical perspicacity. Instagram creates spontaneous communities and conversations among people who share passions of every sort: from politics to literature; city to country; design to fine art; opera to hip-hop. 





Instagram ‘s figure in the carpet is the golden, obsolete thread of civility, of elective affinities rather than illiterate brawls fomented online. I have formed remote yet loyal alliances with people I consider especially talented, writing about two of them—photographer Courtney Marie Musick Harvey and painter David D. Oquendo—in Book and Room last year. A third artist, Belgian sculptor Florian Tomballe, will be featured in mid-October. 





I have met numerous other artists in person, commencing unexpected literary and artistic colloquy, especially in the rising culture of my adopted home city, Newark. I also correspond with people as far away as Libya and Tokyo. We all speak the lingua franca of beauty, finding and sharing it in a world still wide enough for friendship as opposed to the strangling net of commerce.



Unlike the brass knuckles of Twitter or the trifling of Facebook, Instagram attracts people serious about intellectual and creative matters outside the cul-de-sac of political rage or personal gossip. It coaxes forth our better selves: the selves who live in wonder at the built and natural world, putting aside ire if not conviction. At its best, Instagram is middleman to the marriage, or, more accurately, the polygamy of true minds. The associations it makes possible—anchored in sharing variegated, subjective experiences of culture—are pyramidal, but they are not Ponzi schemes. If you are discerning you will find like-minded comrades with fresh knowledge to add to your own. 



On Instagram, glamour and the gutter seduce and sate me, the casually captured inner city street as compelling as the formal presentation of a palace. From one’s cell-phone one may make a thousand expeditions into the cities of Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe, gazing upon great artists through hashtags—#charlesrenniemackintosh, for example—or via museums, auction houses, dealers, curators, critics, editors, and art historians who post their private, rarefied obsessions. In my cellphone wanderings I have found new minds and eyes, frequently among passionate amateurs in the old, original sense of the word: “lover of,” a person who pursues an activity or field of study--often with great expertise--independently from earning income or “monetizing” their pleasures, to use yet another horrid neologism. 

For the past year and a half I have sifted tirelessly through images for over two hours a day, at one point following almost 3,400 Instagram accounts, and saving some 20,000 images I found important. At first I tried to organize them into three rubrics: Rooms, Beds, and Women, but my collection soon reverted to a free-for-all. My most abiding preoccupation is still with interiors, furniture, and works of design and decorative art, to which I’ve added a new fascination with photographs, mostly portraits, whether fashion-driven or from the boondocks. Both kinds mesmerize. 

I am unsure of how to categorize the online activities of my Instagram familiars: collector, curator, editor, educator, archivist, art director? Whatever momentary role these participants assume, it is as creators, not organizers, that they preside. If the images they choose are freighted with information and meaning, and are often not their own, it is the beauty beheld and passed on by these individuals that first reels us in, making us willing to learn more. The simple square, scroll, and grid of Instagram are as elemental and susceptible to a brush with genius as a stretched canvas. Sometimes, like the Shroud of Turin, they bear imprints of the miraculous. 

NB: The Editor apologizes for the watermark appearing on the right bottom corner of each grid. It will be remedied in due course.


Lisa Zeiger

A painting by Andrew Lord, 2014, that served as the central talisman of my room. Its red and blue are echoed throughout the other objects.

A painting by Andrew Lord, 2014, that served as the central talisman of my room. Its red and blue are echoed throughout the other objects.

“Things men have made with wakened

hands, and put soft life into 

are awake through years with transferred touch, 

and go on glowing for long years. 

And for this reason, 

some old things are lovely warm

still with the life of forgotten men who

made them.” 

—D.H. Lawrence


No matter how we banish clutter, the human need to collect resurfaces. Edith Wharton Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr., at the end of their 1897 manifesto, The Decoration of Houses, acknowledged this stubborn atavism in a chapter entitled “Bric-a-Brac”. The authors exhort us to control such residue by distinguishing three levels of quality among “household ornaments”: bric-a-brac, bibelots (trinkets) and objets d’art. If we include such unnecessaries in a room, they must attain Wharton’s “counsel of perfection.” An ugly chair may be excused but an ugly knick-knack must go. Bric-a-brac demands the taste of angels; “Tanagra figurine, never china pug.”

My own recipe for the ideal room is the opposite of Wharton’s.  Long before I created totalized interiors, rethinking walls and windows, moldings and hearth, I unconsciously organized rooms around one or two small, cherished objects, talismans of my own taste. The display of such objects was in the spirit of a shrine: my bric-a-brac was the raison d’être for the entire room rather than the other way around. 


An esoteric children’s book, Mr. Meredith and the Truly Remarkable Stone by Grace Chetwin, illustrates my point perfectly. When Mr. Meredith finds an old cracked stone which moves him as if by spectacular beauty, he builds a series of ever-grander structures to house it, beginning with a small pavilion, then a palace, and finally a city. With the success of each structure he entertains guests, simply at first; with greater extravagance as the structures expand. Eventually Mr. Meredith forgets all about the old stone, small nucleus of concentric monuments, until one day he trips over it. 

Ceramics & Pagan drawing.jpg

I once constructed a studio apartment around a particularly prized possession, a rare oil painting from the early 1980s by the German artist Rosemarie Trockel. It was of a black vessel with two playing cards against a smoky grey background. Two spectral eyes floated above the vessel. Like Mr. Meredith I bought ever larger, more expensive things to echo the darkness of the painting: a cabinet by Gilbert Rohde, a slate-topped table, shelves of raw stained mahogany, silver teapots by Christopher Dresser; an ebonized chair by Tiffany.  Eventually, not quite forgetting the origin of the room but pinched for money, I sold the painting to finance a trip to an ashram in India. I was sacrificing material to heal my psyche, but I managed only to rob the room of its core. Still, the room, conceived and organized around the vanished painting remained beautiful, if missing its retablo

Painting by Rosemarie Trockel, c. 1984. Photograph courtesy of Elise Boisante

Painting by Rosemarie Trockel, c. 1984. Photograph courtesy of Elise Boisante

Work is beautiful.

Work is beautiful.

Wharton’s text reminds me of a deeper musing upon the relationship of minor elements to a grander totality, one written about literature rather than interior decoration. In the late 1970s I took a seminar at Columbia in French literature called “The Detail” from the late Professor Naomi Schor. In 1987 Schor, a highly original literary critic, would publish a book entitled Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. In it, Schor writes:

“My own love of the detail—and like all loves this love is shot through with ambivalence—is inextricably bound up with my Oedipus: my father, a goldsmith, was a master of ornamental detail, a Renaissance artist in the age of high modernism and minimalism [...] In asserting the detail’s claim to aesthetic dignity and epistemological prestige, my motivation is then double: to endow with legitimacy my own brand of feminist hermeneutics, while giving value to my father’s craft.”

Schor’s seminar—in which we read Balzac’s strange epic of an amulet, La peau de chagrin, and Freud’s essay “Fetishism”—brought intellectual heft to my obsession with small objects, with what Dickens’ character Wemmick, in Great Expectations, so charmingly calls “portable property”. 


I would go on to a hybrid career of design historian and occasional interior decorator. I collected all sorts of things, some useful, some not. Books, teapots, ceramics, and Javanese furniture and sculpture. Yet I found coziness a shackle, and eventually ignited a chain of events leading to a bonfire of my own vanities, a forced potlatch of all my things, still lovely warm.  

In a book by the homeopath and spiritual writer Edward Bach, I once read the following sentence: “Even objects have their freedom.” I have never been able to find it again, nor have I ever forgotten it. 

La vie en rouge.

La vie en rouge.

My two place settings of the Waldorf -Astoria silver-plate service.

My two place settings of the Waldorf -Astoria silver-plate service.


By Lisa Zeiger





  1. a famous female opera singer.

  2. a famous female singer of popular music.

  3. a self-important person who is temperamental and difficult to please (typically used of a woman).


From 2014 till 2017, I lived in an immense grey battleship of an apartment building on Riverside Drive in the Hamilton Heights section of Harlem. It was a honeycomb of lives, none more interesting, from a distance, than that of a woman whom I met by chance at least twice in altogether different areas of the city, recognizing her by her silver hair, her butterfly black shades, and her long iconic dresses; by her severe, tilted hats and bold jewelry; and imperious demeanor that surpassed even her elegance. I thought of the Cumaean Sibyl. She was unmistakable wherever I saw her, despite the peculiar difficulty I have recognizing faces outside the places I usually see them. I remember her sitting once at the plaza on Broadway outside the West 72nd Street IRT; another time on a small traffic island near West 43rd Street, also on Broadway. In and around our building, she was aloof, but the surprise of seeing her outside our hood emboldened me to speak to her without even thinking about it first.

She had the sealed aura of a celebrity, and the searching eyes of an artist, missing nothing.

It turned out she is both. Photographer and jewelry designer Coreen Simpson, now 77, has been for decades a magnetic figure in the artistic life of Harlem, Brooklyn, and downtown Manhattan, a creator recording the history of Black communities as they happen. Recently she returned from decades in Harlem to Bedford-Stuyvesant, to take up residence in the borough where she was born.


Born in 1942 in Brooklyn, Coreen was raised along with her brother by a foster family, graduating from Samuel J. Tilden High School. She tried to study dress design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and found it too difficult; “I couldn’t relate to it as I thought I should. In 1977 she studied with Frank Stewart, famed photographer of jazz musicians, at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Stewart’s tutelage was a baptism by fire: “There’s the developer; go for it.” Stewart transmitted to Coreen his love for the history of photography. To this day, she admires antecedents as radically different as Diane Arbus, Weegee, Joel-Peter Witkin, and the more studied romantic figure, Baron Adolph de Meyer.

In a telling 1987 essay beautifully written by Roger Birt, accompanied by an interview, Coreen states:

Sometimes I wish that I'd not been made aware of photo history.

This is a double-edged sword. It's good to know history, but then

history can suffocate you. A true artist should probably know history

but then be able to transcend it or add to it. It's probably valid for

an artist to work in the mode of someone who is a great master.

I think that if you want to make a statement, then you must somehow

transcend. Every artist wants to go a little farther down the road.


Simpson's career took off in 1980, when she became editor for a small magazine Unique New York, first just writing articles, then realizing she could do better than their staff photographers.  As the ‘80s progressed, Coreen became a freelance fashion photographer for the Village Voice and the Amsterdam News, while also covering many African-American cultural and political events. She is noted for her images of Harlem nightlife, and for photos taken everywhere from clubs in downtown Manhattan, barbershops in Harlem, and braiding salons in Queens, bringing to those places a portable studio she constructed herself.

Coreen’s photographs are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Musée de la Photographie, Brussels, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the International Center for Photography, the Harlem State Office, and the James Van Der Zee Institute.

An intention courses like a river through Coreen’s long account of people, places, and events—political or artistic—that matter to her. It is her single-minded will to reveal the continuity of Black life in all its variegated personalities, communities, and privacies, the latter always gracefully respected.  Coreen’s images catch curious, climactic moments of human expression from characters famous or unknown, all suffused with exuberance and verve. She is unabashed about photographing people she finds attractive, and telling them so, to inspire confidence and a certain proximity between herself and the subject.


Three years ago, soon after I started, I ventured to ask Coreen if I could write about her, on whatever photographs she chose. The portfolio she entrusted to me answered an idiosyncratic repertoire of my own; very particular pleasures, passions, and tantalizing trains of thought. Its ten spectacular images were of women Coreen entitled Divas. They were black and white, fat and thin, young and old. Coreen found each woman so singular, flamboyant, and, above all, sovereign, as to christen them with the name our culture pronounces with a mix of adulation and alarm.

The Divas reopened a private, tangled trove of loves, predilections, and fixations dating back to my earliest childhood. I have always been a close observer and admirer of female beauty, rarely out of envy. The physicality of men bored me until I was old enough to size up what it could do for me sexually. Now, in the semblance of virginity restored by menopause, it bores me once more.

Of my fascination with female appearance, I echo Flaubert’s quip: “je suis un lesbien.” I still register in detail the appearance of every type of woman, provided she has made even a humble attempt at putting her best foot--or feature--forward. Divas simply exaggerate what all women are bound both by society and their autonomous desires to do: to construct a visual appearance for meeting the world. Some women do it to attract lovers or social cachet; others to please themselves. Clothing speaks. Even slovenliness is a fashion statement.  


A great consolation for the many temporal disadvantages of being female, in Western culture at least, is the freedom to clothe and ornament ourselves exactly as we want. The infinite variety of our clothing is possibly the only bodily liberty denied to men. They are restricted to attire so static and standardized--from corporate to hip-hop--that it amounts to a prescription. The aim of all but the most rarefied male clothing is to sedate the wearer into conformity and teamwork. Cookie-cutter clothes mute character, so inconvenient to corporate interests. On the other hand, Coreen has sought out male subjects of great sartorial style: her B-Boys Series of 1985-86, for example:

“I wanted to photograph these kids and the whole breakdancing/rap genre. I wanted to really key in on what these people look like, what they are about, and how they put themselves together. I like the style of the B-Boys.”

I am reminded of a sentence from The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, in which he first describes his young heroine, too impoverished to express her exceptional taste except in insubstantial yet noticeable traces:

“Fleda Vetch was dressed with an idea, though perhaps with not much else; and that made a bond when there was none other, especially as in this case the idea was real, not imitation.”

Dressed with an idea. I have worn many, sometimes in long tracts of devotion to a particular designer; nowadays assembled from thrift shops where my gimlet eye spots the $2,000 Dior swing coat, label and all, wedged amid the racks of Dress Barn rubbish.


Am I a Diva? Like an opera singer, my voice “carries”--much farther than it should-- but in the matter of dress I favor stealth disrupted by a flashy amulet; an outsized pearl-encrusted crucifix dangling from heavy silver chains, for instance. I wear no makeup. I might be a Diva to the extent of grandiloquent speech, snap judgments, and an unbridled sense of entitlement that has weathered even homeless shelters. But theatrical, heavily ornamented clothes have never been my style, so I don’t make Coreen’s cut.


A Diva, by definition, wears evening dress at any hour, satin gowns encrusted with intricately patterned sequins, their splendor surmounted by big hair and bigger jewels. The Diva’s nails are long and lacquered; her face coated in thick maquillage seamless as a geisha’s, scrubbed off, if at all, in utmost secrecy, then urgently repainted behind a tightly locked bathroom door. The Diva is guiltless about feathers and furs, wound about with boas, mantled in mink. Her tiara rides high upon hair teased into a tower; or densely wreathed in braided extensions. And then there is the implacably secured lace-front wig.

The Diva’s deepest calling is the construction of her appearance. More is more, and she blasts us all in one go with her every asset—natural or not--every inch of her anatomy and dress channeled into a vision minutely calculated to stun and be remembered. Her self-presentation surpasses even the most advanced and esoteric fashion statement, crossing over from aesthetic stasis to a live performance enacted in real time. The Diva is as sure of her show as she is of the get-up that brings it to life. For all her artifice, the Diva is seldom a phony or schemer. The women Coreen photographed are not dressed to kill, but to tell. Their various styles speak truth in tongues, unfolding tales of extreme adventure, daring, and passion, some salty, others high-toned.

Divas are stereotyped as drama queens, their reputed emotional chaos disdained and feared. Coreen Simpson’s Divas often enter laughing. Their sovereignty inflected with joie de vivre makes me want to meet them, to hear them tell all about the lives underneath the cover story of their clothes.

I never forget that the first definition of “diva” is of a great opera singer, and also in our own times, a pop singer. The power of the female voice is a force her body often cannot reckon with; many divas die young: Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Billie Holiday, to name just a few. Coreen Simpson reveals the vessels that house the voice as sturdy survivalists, the gleam of their armor undimmed even by age. Divine artifice protects and contains the emotion and volume of the female voice, whether expelled in threnody, or in praise.


NB:  In addition to her photography, Simpson also designs jewelry.[4] Her most notable jewelry collection is known as The Black Cameo (1990). The collection reintroduces the ancient tradition of cameos, but features portraits of black women. The portraits show the great variety of features of black women. Simpson’s goal was that every black women would be able to identify with the portraits within her cameo jewelry. Customers of the Black Cameo collection included Ruby Dee and Oprah Winfrey.


  • Selected Group Exhibitions

  • 2017

  • We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85, Brooklyn Museum of Art, USA, Brooklyn

  • 2015

  • Wild Noise: Artwork from The Bronx Museum of the Arts and El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Bronx Museum of the Arts, USA, Bronx

All images shown in this article are by Coreen Simpson, copyright 2019, and reproduced by kind permission of the photographer.





Lisa Zeiger

SleeplessNight_CoverFinal_ForWeb_900x1200 (1) (1).jpg

By Margriet de Moor

Translated from the Dutch by David Doherty

New Vessel Press 2019

Margriet de Moor’s novel, Sleepless Night, has triggered my relapse.

When I say I used to read novels, I mean it in the way Proust says, in the first sentence of A la recherche du temps perdus, “For a long time, I used to go to bed early.” Reading novels was a habit so deeply ingrained it was inconceivable it would one day cease. Its full stop is comparable only to menopause.

It would be easy and dishonest to blame this loss on the the Internet’s snippets, or on our shrunken attention span. The truth is, my own abstinence is emotional. For a good novel reawakens longing, an ever-receding shore towards which I refuse to strain. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.

Sleepless Night is an emphatic one-night stand, its brief narrative not plot but prism. The narrator, a widowed schoolteacher in her late thirties, stays up all night baking a Russian Bundt cake in the farmhouse she shared with her husband, Ton, isolated but not empty. We learn that a lover, later revealed to be a near-stranger, is asleep in her bed upstairs. With her old dog the woman pads through the house, intermittently seeing the Bundt cake, with expert habit, through all its phases. This night measures out ingredients from the inexhaustible pantry of her past, beginning with Ton’s unexplained suicide at twenty-five, shooting himself in their chicory greenhouse.

Fourteen years on, the narrator’s short sharp loss has only grown in mystery, pinning her to its lonely place. Via memory, speculation, and tidy tactile snooping—through whatever scant clothes and papers she didn’t throw out—she seeks to unpack, to reconstruct: to solve it. She revisits Ton’s sister and stepmother; she tracks down male friends and an unknown woman. Like Proust’s Marcel, she escalates her research, but more patiently. This narrator’s memories of Ton are all strangely happy, moments of erotic yet secure fulfillment rather than the tormenting evasions and suspicions suffered by Marcel. Who was Albertine and whom was she with before she disappeared? Other people are a mystery story, to paraphrase a Martin Amis book title.

Profuse layers of intimate knowledge and intense sensation, of love manifestly requited, blanket her life and defy her husband’s death. Her static present resembles the ice forest she walks through with a lover—the latest of a retinue culled from the personals at the urging of her sister-in-law. The memories that interpolate and suffuse the narrator’s actions, from baking to cleaning to making love, to meeting a stranger at a wintry train station—an echo of Brief Encounter—all are described by de Moor in images both felt and photographic. Here is one of the prisms within its prism:

We belong to each other. We are passionately in love, as if that wasn’t clear enough. The sheets twisted along with our bodies, got in the way, trapping my legs, and we began to edge them down, shoes still on. Our heads bumped. I raised my eyes and looked into a pair of gleaming, slate-grey irises. The full length of him on top of me, tied and bound it seemed, and I knew he was out to imprint the weight of his body on me for good.” (pp. 102-103)

I won’t reveal whether the narrator solves the mystery, which seems to deepen with every clue. Sleepless Night is a novel for the floating world we live in now, a novel that ends endings, happy or otherwise. We can only have eternal returns, which if we are wise in the Nietzschean sense we immerse in, no matter how high risk the outcome: greenhouse gunshot or long decades till death do us part.

Sleepless Night does end, abruptly, after only 128 pages, good for our shortened attention spans. But I felt its riddle—the word in Old English for “sieve,”—could have squeezed my curiosity for double that length. If they are as real, and really romantic, as Sleepless Night, I will take up novels once more.  Margriet de Moor, c’est nous.

Dutch author Margriet de Moor.

Dutch author Margriet de Moor.



By Lisa Zeiger

John-Paul Philippe Poster WEB 2019.jpeg

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”—Virginia Woolf

1987 in London was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, a friendship that has lasted more than thirty years because it is disinterestedly devoted to beauty alone.

My London friend, the writer and art historian Simon Watney, introduced me to an Oklahoman from the tiny town of Henrietta with an equally unlikely name: John-Paul Phillippe, his boyfriend at the time, an artist and designer. In the 32 years I’ve known John-Paul, he continues to work within a stern aesthetic corral he built around himself himself long ago. He takes pleasure in choice reduced to a very few exquisite possibilities. His paintings, drawings and sculptures are undulating abstractions restricted in color to black, grey, white, amber-yellow, and his favorite hue, “cardboard brown.” He makes exceptions to his own rule, sometimes using blue, red, or green. Although John-Paul used to revel in London raves, and lets slide the foibles of others, about himself he was always a Puritan, from earliest childhood, he tells me. He is writing a memoir called Child Puritan.

John-Paul Phillippe at six; Child Puritan.

John-Paul Phillippe at six; Child Puritan.

In London John-Paul used to quarantine himself in Simon’s Camden Town apartment, or in his tiny all-white studio within a huge Islington house with a Bloomsbury pedigree and many paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. But English heritage aside, John-Paul and I shared a haughty disappointment in the debased design of post-Post-War Britain.

Everywhere, even in important old houses and at the Turner room of the Tate Gallery, a horrible textured wallpaper known as “Woodchip” was used to cover cracks instead of honest plaster. Kitchens were uselessly equipped with uneven electric “cookers” the size of hotplates, and tiny, greasy stainless steel sinks. Where were the Aga cookers, and spacious stone and ceramic sinks we had seen in our favorite magazine, The World of Interiors? These small details of utility were hints of much larger visual ruin in the country that had led the Arts & Crafts Movement, spurring Modernism, after hundreds of years of architecture that was not merely beautiful, but radically inventive and deeply influential upon buildings in other countries. An adumbrated list includes Robert Adams, Nicholas Hawksmoor, Inigo Jones, William Kent, Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Joan Soane, A.W.N. Pugin, Sir Joseph Paxton, William Morris, C.F.A. Voysey, William Godwin, William Lethaby, Sir Edwin Lutyens, and, of course, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose few Glasgow masterpieces we would come to know well. Without exception, these architects had also been decorators, creating interiors to harmonize with their great buildings. Now, all was Woodchip.

On the Underground and British Rail the upholstery in brooding maroon moquette from the 1930s was giving way to dirty velours in orange and mustard, lit by the greenish-white glare of fluorescent lights instead of soft incandescent bulbs. On our frequent train trips between Glasgow and London, we imagined isolating our seats inside a tent of white canvas cloth, to shut out the beer-swilling, chip-munching passengers, and the dreary passing views of high-rise post-Brutalist “housing estates.”

We were snobs on a budget. We bemoaned the psychedelic defilement of London’s stately public buildings and dignified private banks, newly cloaked in “fun” colors, sheetrock, and acoustic tile. The screeching cobalt blue of a bank in Camden Town mars both our memories. Shop signs, even those of new chain stores, were the last street fossil of Britain’s former taste, still using the beautiful typeface, Gill Sans.

In 1988 John-Paul became my disciplinarian in Scotland in all matters of interior decoration. Together we absolutely invented--not “reinvented” as shelter magazines say-- an attic flat I’d bought in an 1850s house in Glasgow. In London I had spent the previous year studying history of decorative arts at Sotheby’s Education,, and was now doing post-graduate work on 19th and 20th century design at the University of Glasgow. I took art history personally, as a source for things I would live with. The allure of all the styles I studied were competing in my mind for a place in my new apartment.  I was all over the place, and without John-Paul would have made my five new rooms into a horrible buffet, despite my canny eye for unusual objects.

One week I was enthralled by darkly vivid Regency colors and its preternaturally simple ornament; the next, much more so by Malmaison outside Paris, designed by architect-decorators Percier et Fontaine for Napoleon’s wife Josephine. From London or Glasgow I would sometimes fly to Cologne to see friends, always bringing back a piece of early 20th century German ceramic.

Then and now there has always been for me the Bauhaus, the first named design movement I became aware of at thirteen. I loved at first sight the tubular steel chairs, abstract woven tapestries, and Marianne Brandt’s silver teapot illustrated in a small Dutton/StudioVista paperback I found in an L.A. bookshop. Actually, besides love, I felt intellectually and emotionally magnetized by these designs, as if they fit perfectly a unique, oddly contoured space in my mind that had been vacated and shaped especially for their arrival. They moved me much more intensely than works of fine art, an inexplicable preference that remains and which I can’t completely explain.

In London the year before, John-Paul and I incessantly combed the flea market at Camden Lock, discovering at reasonable prices the ceramics and metalwork of nineteenth-century English proto-modernist, Dr. Christopher Dresser. I acquired a spherical beaten copper German teapot. We were furnishing a house. As we had no house, we began with ornaments, spinning out comprehensive decorative schemes from small, potent objects, a method of design reversing that of every professional interior decorator I have ever known. They all believe in beginning with the envelope, with architecture if possible, and if they can’t build or change that then they look first at floor coverings, followed by paint and textiles, etc. The small icons John-Paul and I snatched up would have been the very last step for any other designer. The copper German teapot was a nucleus, along with other 20th century German objects from the enchanted Galerie an der Wolkenburg in Cologne—-a bronze colored ceramic vase from Krefeld, a yellow Bauhaus pitcher, a small ceramic craquelure plaque of a face in vivid blue and white.

When I first moved to Glasgow, in September 1988, I stayed for a few months in a rented room. There I stashed furniture I’d begun to collect: a mortise and tenon mahogany screen, and a peculiarly narrow console table, its black beveled slate top supported by bony legs worthy of Richard Riemerschmid. Once I got the flat, John-Paul took charge, restraining my art historical excess with a strictly mapped palette which ultimately made a restful, more neutral background than I would have chosen myself. He taught me the lesson of consistency and echo among rooms. Only with great caution would he bring a new color near his baseboards, doors, and door and window frames painted at least three shades of grey, with other architectural elements in “cardboard” and bone white. The staircase was a Chinese red I dictated, with great success.

A selection of English and German early 20th century pottery on a Scottish handmade wood and slate table.

A selection of English and German early 20th century pottery on a Scottish handmade wood and slate table.

John-Paul and I began to conceive the rooms solely through the powers and auras of certain objects and colors: red, black, yellow, grey, inspired by Rietveld, minus bright blue. Green, also, was essential.

My attic apartment filled the top floor of a Victorian stone house within a graceful crescent of identical buildings. One climbed two flights of stairs to my front door, which opened on an interior wooden staircase that led to the apartment itself.  The large central landing was crowned by a huge gabled skylight. Five rooms--two bedrooms on the street side; living room and kitchen facing an alley, with a skylit bathroom on the third side--radiated from this landing, its floorboards lacquered by John-Paul in a grey so pale it was almost white.

Faced with five whole rooms, I was elated and intimidated. Never, except in decorating a doll's house, had I possessed such fortune, so vast a stage—this one divided up with unusual charm—where imagination could be made material.

My Glasgow living Room, with Glasgow Style barrel chairs reminiscent of the Wiener Werkstaette, citrine walls and curtains, and a dado in Peigei Angus’s spherically patterned wallpaper in olive and gold, hand-printed by John-Paul. The lantern is in Clutha glass, the kind used by Dr. Christopher Dresser.

My Glasgow living Room, with Glasgow Style barrel chairs reminiscent of the Wiener Werkstaette, citrine walls and curtains, and a dado in Peigei Angus’s spherically patterned wallpaper in olive and gold, hand-printed by John-Paul. The lantern is in Clutha glass, the kind used by Dr. Christopher Dresser.

It had never occurred to me to use wallpaper; I was a student of objects rather than pattern.But John-Paul had just apprenticed himself to the legendary English artist, designer and maker of hand-blocked wallpaper, Pegei Angus. In her Camden Town studio, Pegei, an intimate friend the 1940s of the wonderful artist and engraver Eric Ravilious, produced roll after roll of beautiful papers, very plain stylized floral repeats derived from her work as a painter.  The wallpapers John-Paul showed me convinced me to take this unprecedented design step, for they looked hand-made and imperfectly printed rather than slick and mass-produced. I knew at once which of the papers to use in my bedroom, in a deep charcoal grey, almost black, and a red almost pink, a dusky color, muted yet glowing. I love red, but the alternating vivid and dark shades of the paper--which I hung only as a low dado--allowed me to use it sparingly, yet dominate the room without making of it what Diana Vreeland famously called "a garden in Hell". My bedroom slowly became a sequestered, dimly beautiful territory.

The Bathroom, with its own skylight, oval art nouveau basin and pale yellow Marmoleum floor with star insert by John-Paul.

The Bathroom, with its own skylight, oval art nouveau basin and pale yellow Marmoleum floor with star insert by John-Paul.

The walls of the two bedrooms facing the street slanted inwards under the eaves, with attic windows sheltered by an arch. The casements opened out onto tiny balconies of cast iron overlooking a church. We covered the floor in a sisal patterned in small checks of dark grey and wheat color. On one side I planted the mahogany screen I’d found when I first came to Glasgow,, setting beside it a decomposing chaise longue covered in a rough grey wool army blanket. From the ceiling hung a silver latticed Arts & Crafts lantern with a single clear bulb. It was a room both sensuous and plain. The double bed was covered in a Scottish patchwork quilt of various pieces of brown tweed and plaid that resembled a Japanese textile. I was unaware at this stage of my decorating life that there were fabric houses with marvelous textiles to transform and soften rooms. I was Spartan about cloth, though not color, stuck on subdued tertiary hues. I would veer towards brighter colors later in life.

A guest bedroom under the eaves, with a curvaceous Aesthetic Movement screen stretched with roughly hand-woven silk.

A guest bedroom under the eaves, with a curvaceous Aesthetic Movement screen stretched with roughly hand-woven silk.

The kitchen was the undoubted core of this house, a place where I read and studied as well as cooked all the time, mostly macrobiotic food I had learned to make at a course in London. John-Paul was intuitively expert at the same cuisine. When I moved in, this elongated room had been mauled by a cheap "fitted kitchen" and carpet swirling in orange and purple. John-Paul and I gutted every trace, determined to make a kitchen like those in Stately Homes, all hearth and open shelves. The plain, misty grey plaster the builder applied to the pocked walls looked so ancient and beautiful, we decided not to paint it. It had the dusty surface of a chalkboard, with depth and texture like a Cy Twombly painting or early all-black Brice Marden drawing. At a small weekly auction we bought a long neoclassical solid oak table, glass covering its polished top, that might have belonged to a library. In the Glasgow Herald, the classifieds advertised an old double gas oven with a griddle, in black, white and chrome. It was wide enough to display or hide the old heavy pots and pans, black-enameled with long horn-like handles, we found at flea markets.

The Kitchen, heart of the house, with Japoniste working fireplace. Every piece of cutlery was hand-picked by John-Paul and me.

The Kitchen, heart of the house, with Japoniste working fireplace. Every piece of cutlery was hand-picked by John-Paul and me.

At great expense a new kitchen floor was laid of deep chocolate brown Marmoleum, the classic thick linoleum manufactured in Scotland by Forbo Nairn. Roddy, a carpenter with finesse and curiosity about our obsession with the old things his other clients got rid of, built an enclosure for the kitchen sink even more refined than John-Paul and I had visualized. From a priceless slab of solid mahogany Roddy crafted a grooved slanting draining board that let drops of water from wet dishes trickle into the sink.. The cupboard doors below the white porcelain butler's sink with its swooping nickel faucet were simple mortise and tenon in mahogany, the borders stained a dark blood red by John-Paul.

Another beauty of these rooms was that each had a real hearth, some of them walled over but easily excavated. I found cast iron fire surrounds impressed with Aesthetic Movement Japoniste designs and had them fitted into the larger fireplaces, installing in the kitchen a real gas flame that warmed the room. The slate table stood to the right of the door, displaying a small collection of ceramics, some broken and repaired.

The flat and our labors, so inspired in the first place by The World of Interiors, was honored by a long feature in that magazine in April 1993 under the amusing title “Celtic Ranger,” which referred to me. The late garden writer, Elspeth Thompson, wrote the piece, with eight sumptuous pages shot by photographer Polly Farquharson. Elspeth described me as exactly the solitary I feared I was becoming, quoting me at the very end, “Well, if you live for beauty, you’ve got to be prepared to die for it!” I was in Cologne when the magazine hit the stands, and I read this remark with surprise, not remembering I had told her anything so truthful.

The author in her living room, dressed in a dark green gown, probably a costume from an opera.

The author in her living room, dressed in a dark green gown, probably a costume from an opera.

In 1991, after two years I left Glasgow and sublet the flat.  I ran off to Cologne where I wore myself out on the wheel of longing and gratification. After two years in that city, the wheel stalled at longing and stuck there.

In 1993 I made a long trip to India that could have been to anywhere, since I stayed completely enclosed in the Poona ashram of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, already dead and renamed Osho. I saw and learned nothing of India. The media, obsessed only with Osho’s huge collection of Rolls-Royces, had always trashed him as a charlatan. At the ashram, videos revealed Osho to have been not only extremely funny, but uncomfortably truthful, likely the reason behind his bad press.

However curious this sojourn, as a rest cure it didn’t take. I flew back to Cologne, then returned to Glasgow by ferry, dragging eleven pieces of luggage across the Channel, spending my last few coins on beer and lockers at Ostende and Victoria.

In Glasgow, my beautiful attic apartment was still a close, which as an ancient noun means dead-end. I had very few friends there, no lover, and had never had any patience, anywhere. Suddenly and rapidly I dismantled all the perfection John-Paul and I--especially John-Paul--had created, and sold up. "The wise woman buildeth up her house; the foolish teareth it down with her hands."

By the time I was four years old, place had become a passion that almost exceeded anything I felt for a person. I responded very early to streets, buildings, houses, and rooms, with definite opinions about which were beautiful and which were not. Europe had always been the kingdom of my mind, but while living there the better, truer origin I sought packed its bags in the night and crept away to an unknown country I couldn’t find on any map. For seven years I had borrowed three countries. I didn’t belong to England, Scotland, or Germany, although my face and body--ignored in America--were wildly sought after inside that foreign triangle. To the British and Europeans, stupidity is not a sign of beauty.

In Manhattan, I slowly remade my life in the Upper West Side studio I had moved into at nineteen. Sadly but without regret I relinquished the dream of Europe which had furnished my childhood, like the fantasies of children who believe themselves to be the offspring of kings and queens, switched at birth;  mistakenly adopted by barbarians.

“All of me/ Why not take all of me?” asks the jazz standard written in 1931 by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons and made famous by Frank Sinatra. The word “American,” like “heterosexual,” has never described me with any accuracy although I accidentally belong to the two groups these words denote. I consider both categories to be be gigantic cults that far outnumber Osho’s and wildly surpass it in oddity.

Only New York, New York, the city in the title of Sinatra’s signature song, has ever taken all of me, more or less.

John-Paul also returned to New York City in the 1990s, becoming the design visionary and painter-craftsman behind the decorative schemes—murals, bas-reliefs, and sculptures— of Barneys Department Store, from Manhattan to Miami to Dallas to Tokyo.

My vital friendship with John-Paul, who continues to perfect a small japoniste compound of cabin and barn hidden in the woods of Connecticut, is one of the few full circles I admit into my present life. True friendship—or love—lasts only when it is founded on other, outside things that last: foreign objects beyond the blasted circle of self.

John-Paul Phillippe’s tiny cabin in Sharon, Connecticut; kitchen area.

John-Paul Phillippe’s tiny cabin in Sharon, Connecticut; kitchen area.


John-Paul’s latest exhibit, at Standard Space in Sharon, Connecticut, is entitled ‘Pond Life.’ In it, he paints a near-death experience, his recent fall through the ice of a not-quite-frozen pond. The suite of paintings number fourteen, like the Stations of the Cross, a sum John-Paul tells me is happenstance.

“The color palette is taken from that experience,“ Philippe says. “I use a color I’ve taken to calling ‘frozen mud,’ some elongated water-weed imagery, dappling, and rays of aquamarine that filter down.” John-Paul’s “cardboard” abides, now in near-aqueous form.

John-Paul Phillippe,  Pond Life , emulsified gouache on linen, 10x8” 2019.

John-Paul Phillippe, Pond Life, emulsified gouache on linen, 10x8” 2019.

John-Paul still borrows visual ideas, materials and textures from his immediate surroundings. For the current show, canvasses were layered with fabric and some were even blackened with pitch, echoing the dark, rough-hewn wood exterior of his cabin. He points out that a scarf hanging on his studio door may have inspired the fringed, unfinished edge he’s decided to leave on one of his pieces.

John-Paul Phillippe, Grebe, gouache on paper in bronze frame, 44 1/2 x 30 1/2”.

John-Paul Phillippe, Grebe, gouache on paper in bronze frame, 44 1/2 x 30 1/2”.

“In many ways, the work is already done,” says Philippe. “I’m just collating it.”

4 John-Paul Philippe Exhibition 2019_0701.jpeg

The collecting and creating John-Paul and I exerted on the Glasgow flat are closely allied. As death, not by water but by nature, draws nearer, both of us hasten to complete our life’s work. At this late date, it is the things that fall through, or away, that matter, infinitely more than anything we can acquire.

John-Paul Phillippe,  Amphibian , emulsified gouache on linen, mounted on panel, 16 1/2 x 16 1/2”.

John-Paul Phillippe, Amphibian, emulsified gouache on linen, mounted on panel, 16 1/2 x 16 1/2”.


Lisa Zeiger

“HOLLAND”: “Hope Our Love Lasts And Never Dies.”—An underground acronym used by young women committed to The New York Training School for Girls.

Language Sampler (detail), A lison Cornyn and Diana Weymar, Muslin and cotton thread wall hanging, 2018

Language Sampler (detail), Alison Cornyn and Diana Weymar, Muslin and cotton thread wall hanging, 2018

It is often--perhaps always--in the margins of history that we uncover the motives and methods propelling its grander public sweep.

”Incorrigibles: Bearing Witness to the Incarcerated Girls and Women ofNew York,” a study of the New York State Training School for Girls in Hudson (1904-1975), tells a shadow story of 20th century girlhood heretofore shuttered from view, now recovered through both accidental finds--most notably a box of documents and photographs from the 1920s and ‘30s about the School’s young charges unearthed at a yard sale--and academic research; through ardently sought family reunions, and less official loves and losses documented only by surviving human voices. Curated by artist Alison Cornyn, “Incorrigibles” conjures the School’s community through archival images and oral histories of women imprisoned there in the 1960’s and 70’s. Its earlier history is a mesh of court documents, medical forms, home visit reports, and fragmentary writings and notes by the residents themselves. Artworks by Cornyn, Aaliyah Mandley, Beth Thielen, and Diana Weymar represent and interpret the lives lived at the School and the ripple effect into the treatment of girls in the system today. The exhibition can be seen at the Charles P. Sifton Gallery in the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn until April 1, 2019..

Who were the girls at the New York Training School, and why were they there?  Surprisingly late into the 20th century, girls could be incarcerated for “vagrancy,” “lewd behavior,” and “keeping bad company,” among other vagaries, as well as for actual prostitution. Under the New York State Wayward Minor Act, children could be incarcerated for misdeeds as minor as skipping school or running away from an unlivable home. The Training School’s most famous resident was none other than Ella Fitzgerald, who ran away from it in the 1930s. Many prisoners were simply runaways or truants; others had suffered physical and sexual abuse and/or rape, often in the parental home, with the victim bearing the blame and punishment. More than a trace of this shifting of blame from perpetrator to victim abides today in the criminal justice system--or as Judith Resnik, Professor at Yale Law School prefers to call it, the criminal legal system, so often anything but just. The very word “incorrigible” still stains many a court document pertaining to young female defendants.

Ella,  Print by Alison Cornyn, Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2018 . Image Courtesy Library of Congress Ella Fitzgerald was incarcerated at the New York State Training School for Girls in the early 1930’s for being: “ ungovernable..."

Ella, Print by Alison Cornyn, Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2018 . Image Courtesy Library of Congress Ella Fitzgerald was incarcerated at the New York State Training School for Girls in the early 1930’s for being: “ungovernable..."

The Training School, founded in 1904, was a reflection of the imperfect ideals of the Progressive Era, which began in the 1890s and held sway until about 1920. Progressive reformers supported causes which today we would recognize as liberal, and, indeed, as cornerstones of American economic and political life: workers’ compensation, minimum wage legislation, a maximum work day, the graduated income tax and the right of women to vote. But Progressives harbored a notably illiberal streak: the policing of morality, with women as particularly useful captains, when, that is, they were not considered culprits.

Many prominent and famous Progressive reformers were female: Jane Addams, founder of the Chicago settlement house movement; Ida B. Wells-Barnett, campaigner against the lynching of African-Americans; Margaret Sanger, proponent of birth control and family planning; Charlotte Hawkins Brown, champion of education for black children; and Florence Kelley, instigator of laws protecting women in the workplace. These pioneers, who embodied female leadership and competence in social causes, slowly readied a political atmosphere receptive to women’s suffrage, proclaimed by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1919.

Yet the Progressive Era was a time of paradox for women. While Progressives extolled women’s social activism as a natural outgrowth of their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and caretakers, they did not omit to glorify and politically manipulate their mythic duty at the hearth: women as keepers of virtue. In 1919, Prohibition was enshrined in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, a dark twin to women’s right to vote passed the same year. And Prohibition’s figureheads were female: beginning with Frances Willard, second president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 1880s and ‘90s, culminating feverishly in the 1920s through firebrand Carrie A. Nation, who entered saloons only to scold the patrons, smashing their bottles with a hatchet.

The rights for the poor engendered by Progressive reform were inseparable from--and arguably legitimized by--the imposition upon them of social and moral “purity,” with female leaders the anointed vigilantes. The price tag of greater economic equality for the underclass was reform, not only of their work, housing, and education, but of their most private predilections, aka “vices,” seen by Progressives as personal moral failings which abetted economic degradation.

The Progressives’ vice sine qua non was prostitution, becoming a major national issue in the first two decades of the 20th century. Until that time, there had been mostly local laws criminalizing prostitutes or the act of prostitution. For reformers, the prevalence of prostitution was an affront to civilized morality, inflaming their crusade to eradicate the practice completely to "purify" society.

In the Victorian era and well into the 1910s--with periodic resurrections in our own day--the cult of “pure womanhood” had denied the very existence of female desire. At the same time, the collective consciousness surreptitiously feared the sexuality of women as a menacing, anarchic force--what Freud in 1926 would call “the dark continent” (as if the sexuality of men were not darker still!)--in need of legal control. Enter female incarceration, disproportionately imposed upon “crimes” traceable to often inchoate and non-transactional expressions of female sexuality outside actual prostitution. Female sexual expression, always morally condemned, was now increasingly criminalized; a moral weakness to be“cured” through sequestration. Young girls were considered susceptible to redemption through training; older “fallen women” were a lost cause, a virus to be excised from society and “isolated” in prisons without benefit of education. Hence the Training School’s agenda: the molding of girls barely in their teens, damaged but still malleable.

A telling article entitled “How to Save Girls Who Have Fallen,” was written in 1910 by Annie W. Allen, a member of the Board of Managers at the New York State Training School. Allen’s text classes female sexual expression as a primal horror, if not crime, along with outright prostitution. Society “abhors sexual irregularity in women,” observes Allen, noting a “racial dread of women who misuse their organs of reproduction.” Allen explicitly deems the very nature of girls to be an inborn hazard and weakness: girlhood left to itself was a disease; a snare. Training schools are to re-form girls to the “life of ordinary people.” Allen goes on to note, in words Freud would have seen as slips, a legal obstacle to such reform:

“[M]ost men, especially policemen and police justices, have a customary and unquestioning conviction that fallen girls are saturated with the consequences of their sexual misuse and cannot be penetrated with other interests....Our chief task and aim with delinquent girls is to protect them from the natural consequences of being girls.”

[Left]  Linda,  Alison Cornyn, Linda was committed to the Training School in 1921 for being an “ ungovernable or disorderly child ” at the age of 13. Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2013. [Right] American Dream  Beth Thielen. Charbonnel ink mono-prints on black Arches Cover. Artist Book, variant edition of twenty, 2018

[Left] Linda, Alison Cornyn, Linda was committed to the Training School in 1921 for being an “ungovernable or disorderly child” at the age of 13. Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2013. [Right]American Dream Beth Thielen. Charbonnel ink mono-prints on black Arches Cover. Artist Book, variant edition of twenty, 2018

At its founding, the New York Training School was the only institution in New York State to provide training for delinquent girls aged 12 to 15. The institution took over the red-brick buildings and grounds of the former House of Refuge for Women (1887-1904), which, despite its name, had in fact been a penitentiary for women aged 15 to 30--later 15 to 25-- serving indeterminate sentences, often as long as five years, for petit larceny, habitual drunkenness, and prostitution. High on a bluff east of the Hudson River, the compound possessed a "famous view" of the Catskill mountains.

Cemetery, Hudson Correctional,  Alison Cornyn, Installation. Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2014/2018

Cemetery, Hudson Correctional, Alison Cornyn, Installation. Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2014/2018

The House of Refuge had been the first prison for adults in the United States to adopt the cottage plan, breaking from the centralized architecture of surveillance which still prevails in this country. It adopted the European system of complexes of cottages in rural areas organized to provide a home – a family-like atmosphere--in the rural countryside, idealized by reformers for its curative powers. By 1904, there were seven three-story cottages for 26 girls on average, several sport fields, office buildings, and a chapel with a Tiffany window. Each cottage had a teacher and a few officers. The teacher, or "house mother" played the part of the parents, and other officials were responsible for leading the activities of the girls: learning to cook, clean, and sew as preparation for eventual work as domestic servants.

The Training School was led by a series of Superintendents, beginning in 1904 with Hortense Bruce, M.D., a sadist whose governance lasted till 1921. Although corporal punishment was strictly forbidden, under Bruce’s rule, transgressors were nonetheless subjected to freezing shower-baths, sleep-deprivation in brightly-lit rooms, enforced silence, and solitary confinement, practices today regarded as torture.

In 1923, a new, decidedly enlightened--albeit within the moralistic strictures of the time--Superintendent arrived: Fannie French Morse, who remained in charge of the Training School until 1937. In 1925, reflecting Morse’s influence, the Training School Board stated its mission as one of growth and success rather than correction or punishment: “to develop in every girl under the control of the school an ideal and a desire to become a useful citizen in the community and fill an honorable place in society.”

Here is a contemporary account of the ethos of Morse’s stewardship and sensibility:

 “We met in Hudson with a unique form of administration which radiated from the superintendent into all directions: to release, to restrain, and to rule through aesthetic principles projected into the community. Aesthetic principles entering into every detail of living are a powerful device of an invisible government. Here we found exemplified the effects of education when it is not limited  to a specific locality, the school alone, but is the very atmosphere itself of the whole community.

                  — Jacob Moreno, Who Shall Survive?(1934), pp.19-20

Photograph of Jacob Moreno by Tiago M. Peixoto

Photograph of Jacob Moreno by Tiago M. Peixoto

The author of this remarkable passage was the Romanian-born psychiatrist and sociologist Jacob Moreno, pioneer of sociometry, the visual mapping of human groups and relationships. In 1932, following a pandemic of fourteen runaways at the Training School, Fannie French Morse hired Moreno to be the Research Director of the Institute; and to produce a sociometric study of the School. Moreno and his assistant Helen H. Jennings examined 500 girls, their intelligence, social activities, and above all, their feelings toward each other.

Moreno published his observations and sociograms in his seminal book of 1934, Who Shall Survive? A New Approach to the Problem of Human Interrelations, based on his intense work with the residents of the Training School during several months. As a conclusion Moreno discerned that behind social phenomena there is an inexplicable driving force fomented by the very structure of the relationships between individuals. It was true for the girls from Hudson: their impulse to run away was not conscious, but rather an instinctive response to the location or status forced upon them in the social network.

Moreno’s dedication of Who Shall Survive? to Fannie French Morse reads “Educator and Liberator of Youth,” a startling tribute for a prison superintendent to receive; Moreno was honoring the empathy Morse showed her charges. And indeed, Morse viewed the girls not as “incorrigibles” but as captives of “a tangle of circumstances,” which it was her task to painstakingly unwind; above all, through education, as well as attention to physical health and an obligatory dose of religion.

As noted by Moreno in the passage above, the Training School was a complete world unto itself, centralizing in minute detail a variety of functions which in society at large would operate as separate institutions--housing, workplaces, schools, sports, hospitals, churches--each with distinct philosophies, rules, and practices. Every element of the Training School, in contrast, was suffused by the “invisible government” of “aesthetic principles,” a description by Moreno I find fascinating, but which unfortunately he does not elaborate upon. It is but a clue to the values, preoccupations, and methods Fannie French Morse exerted at the School; we can only guess at how aesthetics figured in issues of order and conduct.

I speculate that Morse was likely a throwback to the American Arts & Crafts Movement of the 1890s, when poor urban girls were elevated from the dismal lot of factory work through training in handicraft, seen as a natural extension of more mundane household skills. (It is noteworthy that Chicago’s Arts and Crafts Society began at Jane Addams’ Hull House, in October 1897, underscoring the alliance between social reform and handicraft begun by William Morris in the 1860s in England.) Although the Training School girls were being prepared for domestic service, the early 20th century understanding of that occupation involved a degree of art and craft, particularly that of fine needlework and embroidery, no longer expected of maids or housekeepers today.  

Who Shall Survive? reads, even today, as a radically optimistic approach to emotional healing and potential. In the first chapter, Moreno makes short work of Freud, characterizing sublimation--the goal of Freudian analysis--as a negation of the natural self; at best a dour truce between instinct and the imperatives of organized human life. Moreno calls the Freudian project “negative sublimation...a reversal of the active form of Christian sublimation,” that, far from overcoming Christian doctrine, adopts its strategy, minus its faith, and therefore its hope. If the Christian’s sublimation of instinct is a journey heavenward, the Freudian analysand travels ever backward towards the discouraging cul-de-sac of childhood trauma. “Christianity can be looked at as the greatest and most ingenious psycho-therapeutic procedure man has ever invented compared with which medical psycho-therapy has been of practically negligible effect.” Hail Mary.

Moreno had graduated in medicine in 1917 from Freud’s alma mater, the University of Vienna, and was a practicing psychiatrist near Vienna between 1918 and 1925. He was therefore within the ambit, though decidedly not the circle--or ideology--of Freud. During this time, Moreno founded the improvisational Stegreiftheater, or Theatre of Spontaneity, origin of the therapeutic psychodrama he would develop throughout the next three decades. Where Freud’s highest therapeutic hope for neurotics was “ordinary unhappiness” Moreno was more sanguine; certain from the start that human life could be pleasurable as well as meaningful.

In his autobiography, Moreno recalled an actual encounter with Sigmund Freud in 1912 in which Moreno, all of 23, boldly, even eloquently, differed with the master:

‘"I attended one of Freud’s lectures. He had just finished an analysis of a telepathic dream. As the students filed out, he singled me out from the crowd and asked me what I was doing. I responded, 'Well, Dr. Freud, I start where you leave off. You meet people in the artificial setting of your office. I meet them on the street and in their homes, in their natural surroundings. You analyze their dreams. I give them the courage to dream again. You analyze and tear them apart. I let them act out their conflicting roles and help them to put the parts back together again.”’

For Moreno, the word “spontaneity” was both battle-cry and strong medicine. Spontaneity—the positive and natural exercise of volition—was his key to the mental health, indeed, to the happiness of individuals and communities alike, encompassing enterprises and institutions of every kind. Moreno’s experiences at the New York Training School led him not only to ever more nuanced and intricate sociograms of groups--geometric ciphers of peculiar beauty which he published in Who Shall Survive?—but there, in a place of imprisonment, to a psychotherapy dedicated to liberty. And, unlike more orthodox psychotherapists’ concentration on the individual patient as a wretched island of dysfunction, Moreno discerned a fount of psychic well-being and empowerment in finding “elective affinities”: in belonging to a group of one’s own choosing:

“We began to speculate over the possibility of a therapeutic procedure which does not center primarily in the idea of sublimation but which leaves man in the state in which he is spontaneously inclined to be and to join groups he is spontaneously inclined to join, which does not appeal to man either through suggestion or through confessional analysis but which encourages him to stay on the level towards which he naturally tends, which does not forcibly transgress the development of individuals and groups beyond their spontaneous striving as has often been attempted by sublimating agencies. We were developing a therapeutic procedure which leaves the individuals on an unsublimated level, that is on a level which is as near as possible to the level of their natural growth and as free as possible from indoctrination.”

Moreno’s insight into the healing power of relationships and groups entered into freely and by inclination was accurate. Unusual unions, strange for the time, formed in the Training School’s desolate environment: wedding ceremonies, “adoptions” of one girl by another; the bonds of love and belonging he so emphasized as the most potent medicine for human suffering; the elixir of life that eluded Freud. The proverb, “Physician, heal thyself,” comes to mind, but at the Training School it was the “patients” themselves who brought about whatever true healing happened there. In the midst of catastrophe and control, the girls found unlikely loopholes of caring that had been missing from their “homes” of origin.

I have framed at some length the contradictory social, penal and psychological ideologies which underpinned the New York Training School for Girls. Frankly, they fascinate me as examples of how social “change,” “emancipation,” and “help” for the helpless are invariably commandeered and exploited by elites to expand their power rather than part with even a small portion of it. Rebels among reformers are rare; Jacob Moreno was one. Moreno and Morse appear, in my limited research, to have been benevolent, even oppositional figures who likely did their best to bring healing to lives misshapen by abuse and misdirected punishment.

But no voices, not even that of Dr. Moreno crying in the walled wilderness of normative psychology, are as powerful and damning as those of living women who survived the School, their spoken accounts recorded by Alison Cornyn. These residents remember episodes of physical, emotional and sexual abuse so regularly repeated they were in essence systemic. Forced labor, violence, and long stretches in solitary confinement were not sporadic aberrations but methods of “training” integral to the School.

Each spoken vignette also tells of suffering leavened by the nearness of others, both peers and staff, who could, of course, be thorny as well as comforting. Many of the cottage housemothers, known as “Ma” prefixing their surnames, are remembered fondly, kind surrogates who recreated maternal care that in the lives of some residents was the first they had ever received.

The residents themselves invented small pleasures from scant allotments. Much to my admiration, writing appears to have been primary, prim letters home the least of it. The yellowed, polymorphous papers that continue to be unearthed comprise coded communications between residents—love letters among them—and private diaries and calendars.

I especially liked the harsh, pungent words of Liz’s narrative, delivered in a knowing, throaty voice. Liz entered the Training School in 1971 at the age of twelve and ran away four times. She describes her clique, and why they were there:

“We had to be hip, so I was slick -- ’Slick, Sly, Wicked, and Wide’ -- that was the name of our group. Some of the girls were there because of unwanted pregnancies. Some of them were there because they were being sexually molested at home. We were there because nobody wanted us. So, our common bond was that we felt rejected. “

Years later, Liz wrote the following poem, a rhyme of triumph from the trenches. Her walk on the wild side and intact defiance made me rethink this essay:

High heels and pantyhose,

what does it matter? I’m twelve years old.

What does it matter? The things I’ve seen

—More than most at seventeen.

What does it matter that my eyes are black?

Obviously, I deserved that slap

--or was it a kiss?

I can’t remember the cause of this.  

Perhaps I stood, and then I fell

and winded up in a grown-up hell.

For sex and drugs, that’s what we did.

Twenty years later it matters, you see,

 to the child within me who is finally free.

Incorrigible Stories,  Alison Cornyn. Book Installation and Oral Histories

Incorrigible Stories, Alison Cornyn. Book Installation and Oral Histories

When a few weeks ago I published an earlier version of this review online under a different title, “Testament of Youth,” objected to my description of intimate relationships formed between Training School girls as “strange unions.” I took down the post, and thought hard.

My interest in reviewing “Incorrigibles” in the first place was never aesthetic, but personal; incited by my identification with the residents.

I don’t know if it takes a village to raise a child. But it absolutely takes a net of love far wider and more populous than the small, often malign mesh of the nuclear family, which I experienced as a secretive hell pitted against the world, sometimes icy, other times hot with rage. One morning when I was fourteen, I was sleeping late and refused to carry in a bag of groceries from the car for my father. He did not speak to me for the next seven years, until we met by chance on an off-ramp at La Guardia Airport. When I turned fifteen, in 1972, my father judged me incorrigible enough to exile, not to a reform school, but an apartment of my own; sometimes with a roommate; for longer periods alone. My parents, unsteadily bourgeois, could pay to throw me out, inaugurating a lifetime spent in apartments by myself until my early fifties, when my psyche and finances caved.

I was rescued in 2009 by East Harlem’s Greenhope Services for Women, a residential program founded and run by women for women, an urban community then enclosed in a former convent that blended residents court-mandated as an alternative to incarceration, along with parolees, and homeless women from the city. I fell into this last group. All of us were drug addicts, and, as intensely shared time and group therapy would gradually disclose, we had all been physically, emotionally, and sexually abused within our childhood families.

I do not believe our residents’ original families, all of them much poorer than mine, were unusual, or even unusually bad. For the “normal” nuclear family is not a shining point of light on a line, but the line itself, an undulating continuum that more often than is ever admitted, especially by the rich, has bends as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. The bourgeois family successfully masks ills and vices identical to those of the poor deemed so glaring and disgraceful by late 19th-century reformers.

Why is the nuclear family, rich and poor, still behind a sacrosanct red line, off-limits to total rethinking and reconstruction? In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Lucifer proclaims of his powers, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Substitute the word “family” for “mind,” and ask yourself my question again.

“… [S]peak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” Matthew 8:8. At Greenhope I heard the official definition of “domestic violence” for the first time, startled into real life at 52 by its perfect fit. Chapter and verse, it applied to me. These two words had never been spoken by any of my exorbitant, forty-year retinue of top-notch therapists and psychiatrists. Even the analyst who graduated from Yale could never get to the point. Elites excuse their own.

At Greenhope, unlike the Training School, there were no punishments, except for group confrontations and discussions and occasional suspension of passes to the outside world. Only the serious transgressor—for theft, assault, or flagrant and repeated drug use—would be remanded to prison, a strong incentive to behave well towards one’s fellows and care responsibly for oneself, which to an astonishing degree, we did. Greenhope was a very pleasant place to live. For the first time in my life, I felt my own strangeness—my history, strengths, and weaknesses— was understood and upheld by an institution with authentically supportive structures, unlike the faintly misogynist ones of the Ivy League women’s college from which I graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1980.

About strangeness, I am here to say that every union, straight or gay, is always strange; always a clash as well as a coming together. And an intimacy forged in a place of restriction—whether maximum security or simply so low-income that kitchens and bathrooms are shared and house rules imposed as they are in the women’s residence I live in now—will be a highly charged catch-all of connection well beyond mere romance. Such relationships reenact—or in some cases create for the first time—sisterhood, motherhood, even infancy, as well as the saving freshness of new friendship.

The New York Training School foisted on girls who had, at most, misbehaved in some unimportant way, a label and punishment that were indelible their whole lives long. “Incorrigibles” cross-examines the legal words and sentences still used to blight female lives. The exhibition ends April 1st, but the glossary Alison Cornyn has compiled will speak volumes for a long time to come.**

Anna.  Alison Cornyn, Anna Murphy was sentenced to the Training School in 1925 for being an "ungovernable chid". Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2013

Alison Cornyn, Anna Murphy was sentenced to the Training School in 1925 for being an "ungovernable chid". Pigmented ink on archival paper, 2013

*Alison Cornyn’s ongoing oral history interviews with former residents of the Training School will be published on the Incorrigibles narrative website once it is completed. The website has received a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2017 and thanks to that support now have preliminary designs, information architecture and plans for the narrative website. Additional fundraising is in progress to finalize designs and program the site.


By Lisa Zeiger

*Jugendstil: another name for Art Nouveau...from Jugend literally: youth, name of illustrated periodical that first appeared in 1896, + Stil style.”

Collins English Dictionary

“A house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation.”

—Eileen Gray

When Rosemarie Trockel makes art, she is an artist. But when she designs objects for everyday life--furniture, carpets, vases, and, most significantly, her own Cologne interior, she is an unadulterated designer. (I remember particularly a veneered wooden bed and a beautiful soft blue carpet with multicolored fringed ends--designed by Trockel for her bedroom.) Both these tributaries of creation flow from her lucid stream of sense and sensibility.

If Trockel’s sensibility is unique, idiosyncratic, and highly aestheticized, her sense is stubbornly common. In her design work, she exerts horse sense, creating useful objects that answer practical needs with heuristic insistence; their beauty incidental rather than pursued. Happily, Trockel is temperamentally incapable of ugliness, except for occasional deliberate excursions into the jolie-laide, as in her recent ceramics, their lumps and excrescences totems to chaos and abjection. As a designer, in contrast, her furnishings insinuate visual allure, albeit subjugated by the functional priorities of Trockel’s inner housewife.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL,   LESS SAUVAGE THAN OTHERS   (2007). CERAMIC, PLATINUM GLAZED. Copyright Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019.. Courtesy Sprüth Magers.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL, LESS SAUVAGE THAN OTHERS (2007). CERAMIC, PLATINUM GLAZED. Copyright Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019.. Courtesy Sprüth Magers.

It was Trockel’s elevation of "hot plates" into minimalist icons--dark electric stove burners placed onto colorful backgrounds--that galvanized her fame in the mid-1980s. These banal appliances of lower middle-class kitchens, heretofore invisible because of their ubiquity, pilloried the sheer ugliness of unpaid female drudgery. Beginning in 1985, her geometric knitted and machine-produced textiles--wall panels, balaclavas and other clothing--made still broader political statements through well-known woven-in logos, from the Playboy Bunny to hammers and sickles, and swastikas. The individual expression possible within the art of weaving--the most archaic form of women’s work apart from prostitution--was stolen by stamps of male corporate approval.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL,   MA FENETRE  , 2005. 2 HOTPLATES, (IRON, STEEL, WOOD). Copyright Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019.. Courtesy Sprüth Magers..

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL, MA FENETRE, 2005. 2 HOTPLATES, (IRON, STEEL, WOOD). Copyright Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019.. Courtesy Sprüth Magers..

As a designer, Trockel no longer toys with such stigmata. Instead, she enhances the hidden life of dwellings as our last remaining freedom, arguably the only domain of individuality left to us in cities enchained by chain stores. Within the walls of a house, utility may unleash art: weaving, building, painting, cooking. Trockel takes up her axe, no longer to grind, but to build: constructing, as play rather than chore, objects that serve our needs and please our wants.

Trockel’s carpets, produced at intervals from 1991 through the present, represent her most concentrated, unified, and useful effort at serial decorative design. Their timeline traces an evolution as logical as it is mysterious, a progression from critique to creation for its own sake, always, however, with deference to function.

In 1991, Trockel designed two seminal carpets, “Woolmark” and “Plus Minus,” still hand-woven today in Nepal for Equator Production, the latter founded in 1985 in Brussels by Petra Singh and her late husband, Ranbir Singh, and still led by Petra today in New York City, with new designs by an outstanding array of major contemporary artists. The couple’s original programme for Equator included Trockel, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Joseph Kosuth, Guillaume Bijl, Walter Dahn, Georg Dokoupil, Rob Scholte, and Albert Oehlen. Since reinventing Equator in 2017, Petra Singh is ever more ambitiously producing carpets by artists such as Alan Belcher, Joseph Kosuth, Julião Sarmento, Heimo Zobernig, Liam Gillick, Emilia and Ilya Kabakov, Jonathan Monk, Emilio Prini, and Ken Lum. Singh’s roster of artists reflects her conviction that carpets are icons of high art, woven equals of works on canvas. Their domestic function is seen as subservient to their artistic aura; utilitarian though they may be, they are inseparable from the artist’s total oeuvre. Both carpet and canvas are ruled by the artist’s eye.

The rich carnelian red background of “Woolmark” is embellished with serried ranks, in beige, of the Woolmark Company’s enduring logo, introduced by the company in 1964. Designed by Italian graphic artist Francesco Saroglia (an alias used by the Italian architect, graphic designer and artist Franco Grignani), the history of the Woolmark logo has more to do with art than commerce. (It is worth noting the minority view, or rumor, which attributes the Woolmark logo to artist Bridget Riley, who worked as an art director until 1962 at the advertising firm, J. Walter Thompson.)

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL, “WOOLMARK CARPET” (1991). Photograph courtesy of Petra Singh/Equator Production.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL, “WOOLMARK CARPET” (1991). Photograph courtesy of Petra Singh/Equator Production.

A one-time Futurist who would exhibit alongside Jasper Johns, Francis Bacon, and Anthony Caro at Documenta 3 in 1964, Grignani, not unlike Trockel, led a double life as both fine artist and graphic designer, engaging each calling with lyric intensity. His approach to inventing a logo defied the blandness of corporate values: "The drawing of a logo for a designer is the most […] exciting assignment, because in that symbol he tries to pour all his graphic sensitivity.” His other pronouncements border on manifesto: “...graphic art must rely on a large number of experiments in order to achieve perfect freedom, facing the routine daily activities.”

Trockel’s adoption (I loathe the fashionable word “appropriation”) of the Woolmark logo for her first carpet and in other woven artworks was not a feminist scourge but an artist’s tribute to Grignani’s ingenious trope. Its half-century as possibly the most famous logo in the world transcends — and perhaps transgresses--the corporate agenda that commissioned and used it for commercial profit.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL “PLUS-MINUS CARPET” (1991) Photograph courtesy of Petra Singh/Equator Production.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL “PLUS-MINUS CARPET” (1991) Photograph courtesy of Petra Singh/Equator Production.

A second Trockel carpet from 1991 is her “Plus Minus.” Like “Woolmark,” it is composed of symbols in regimented rows upon a solid background, in this case black. The carpet’s upper half consists of ten rows of brown “plus” signs, in alternating lines of eleven and ten. The lower half is composed of eleven rows of “minus” signs oriented vertically rather than horizontally, thereby changing them from mathematical symbols into a lively but meaningless abstract pattern.

The ciphers of “plus” and “minus” signify an infinity of meanings, some official, others read into them by art critics of various ideologies. Just as the triple intertwine of the Woolmark logo, without beginning or end, recalls the lemniscate--the mathematical figure for infinity resembling a figure eight--so the “plus” and “minus” signs invoke an eternity of opposites: gain and loss; yin and yang; dark and light; and, of course, male and female, to name just four binaries they suggest or outright denote.

As in all of Trockel’s oeuvre, in which art critics so habitually find socio-political critique, I see something else: I see play, pattern, order, and duplicity, all engaged in by the artist to provide pleasure rather than score political points. As art history marches on, whatever extra-artistic message Trockel’s work signifies to present-day academic cadres will coil in on itself and disappear, leaving in its wake that which matters and endures: the visually compelling, seductive forms she thinks in and makes real through the work of her own hands or, in the case of carpets, the craftsmanship of others.

This brings me to Rosemarie Trockel’s most recent carpet, entitled “Jaune/Jeune.” Its plain expanse is empty of symbol; traversed instead by a spacious grid of skinny orange-red lines and a tightly woven border of the same color. Unlike her earlier carpets, it bears no marks of meaning, and thereby averts elaborate misinterpretations. “Jaune/Jeune” pretends to nothing more than household use. Unlike “Woolmark” or “Plus Minus,” “Jaune/Jeune” would look vacuous hanging on a wall.

One of Trockel’s wittiest design solutions, “Jaune/Jeune” expresses function through a trick of texture. The thin red line divides the carpet into two halves, each distinctively woven to demarcate and facilitate two different domestic uses of floor space. One half of “Jaune/Jeune” is fabricated in abundant shag, to soften a hard floor for sitting or reclining in comfort. The other half, its flat, tight weave resembling that of sisal matting, is designed as a durable platform for furniture. Shag is a plus; matting, a minus.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL, “JAUNE/JEUNE” CARPET, ( 2018). Photograph courtesy of Petra Singh, Equator Production.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL, “JAUNE/JEUNE” CARPET, ( 2018). Photograph courtesy of Petra Singh, Equator Production.

Finally, “Jaune/Jeune,” Trockel’s title. Always fond of wordplay, Trockel has now confined symbol to two French adjectives split by a slash, rather than inscribing its emblems across a large surface in repetitive formation.

The meaning of “Jeune” has, with a certain melancholy, always haunted Trockel’s repertoire; a nostalgia for youth long before its loss. As a young artist, Trockel was an old soul, conscious of the futility of human attachment, affixed so often to precisely those people, places and things which lack staying power. Unlike me, even in her own youth she was able to regard youth and beauty from a safe remove; choosing wisely to capture forever its possessors in photographs instead of the fleeting press of their flesh.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL,   DEMANDING PERSON BUT A SUBLIME POET,   2016. DIGITAL PRINT ON PAPER.  Copyright Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019.. Courtesy Sprüth Magers


Copyright Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019.. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL,   YES WHERE OTHERS SAY NO  , 2014, DIGITAL PRINT ON PAPER. Copyright Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019. Courtesy Sprüth Magers.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL, YES WHERE OTHERS SAY NO, 2014, DIGITAL PRINT ON PAPER. Copyright Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019. Courtesy Sprüth Magers.

As for her title’s other half, “Jaune,” the particular pale yellow Trockel so assiduously sought and specified to the Nepalese for her carpet is, like youth, a plus shadowed by a minus. Yellow’s very essence, its luminosity, renders it the color easiest to soil. Of yellow, Goethe had this to say:

“In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character...its utmost power is serene and noble, it is, on the other hand, extremely liable to contamination, and produces a very disagreeable effect if it is sullied, or in some degree tends to the minus side.

I rest my case. Rosemarie Trockel upholds beauty, use, and order; backbone of design; heresy of contemporary art. With “Jaune/Jeune,” a design stripped of the coded patterns that made her famous, she continues to unlock the concealed ambiguities of binary symbols and their unadmitted, sometimes inadmissible meanings.

A coda:  if Rosemarie Trockel’s art qua art exposes our open psychic and societal wounds, her domestic design serves to bind them up; bent as it is on harmony rather than disruption. In great design—by, for example, figures as diverse as Eileen Gray, Jean-Michel Frank, and Theo van Doesburg, to name a fraction of the canon—the ineffable eye of the artist governs tables, chairs, and rugs, soothing us within our surroundings, as surely as it informs the more ambivalent, provocative pleasures of what we hang on our walls.

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL,  REPLACE ME , 2009. BLACK AND WHITE DIGITAL PRINT, FRAMED. Copyright Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019.. Courtesy Sprüth Magers

ROSEMARIE TROCKEL, REPLACE ME, 2009. BLACK AND WHITE DIGITAL PRINT, FRAMED. Copyright Rosemarie Trockel and ARS, 2019.. Courtesy Sprüth Magers


By Lisa Zeiger

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“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough”

                                      --Ezra Pound, In a Station of the Metro

Let me say first that Twitter, before it became a bullhorn for Donald Trump’s edicts and nasty retorts, once intrigued me, its former 140-character limit a challenge to invent pungent haiku on a variety of cultural and political subjects.

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Parisian journalist Clara Beaudoux has compiled a coherent, compelling biography of a stranger, from her own Twitter prose-poems, which document a most curious happenstance in her life. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson, and published by New Vessel Press, New York, The Madeleine Project, Uncovering a Parisian Life, chronicles Beaudoux’s discovery of the previous tenant’s belongings, in a padlocked cellar within a Paris apartment she had moved into in July 2013.  After a series of studio apartments, this was the first Beaudoux at last felt at home in. She sawed through the padlock, unearthing the material relics of a Parisian life, marked by European history, of the previous owner, a certain Madeleine, who had died in her late nineties in the apartment. Madeleine’s godson told Beaudoux she could do with these objects and documents what she wished, and she set about reconstructing Madeleine’s life in a novel form: photos and captions on Twitter.

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Beaudoux’s meticulous photos of Madeleine’s artifacts, accompanied by her Tweets, reminds me, on the one hand, of auction house catalogues of important house sales: the 1986 Christie’s catalogue of the contents of Lutyens-designed Monkton, home of the Surrealist collector, Edward James, decorated by Syrie Maugham; Andy Warhol’s vast eclectic spoils, compiled by Sotheby’s in a 1995 five-volume set; and the 1996 Sotheby’s catalogue of the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name a scattershot seminal few.

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On the other hand, Beaudoux’s hybrid work is redolent of what I consider to be the greatest form of biography: one which describes, in Balzacian detail, the everyday impedimenta which compose real life, as well as the less palpable and more shifting events of romance and friendships, and momentous historical events and movements. The English biographer, Diana Souhami, is an exemplar of this genre, writing biographies of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; Romaine Brooks; Greta Garbo and Cecil Beaton, Alice Keppel and her daughter Violet Trefusis, among others, with an idiosyncratic grasp of the the telling possession or quixotic name of a minor character, even a dog, as well as the broader sweep of a life’s events. Souhami’s biographies are close in texture to novels. Few of her books use a birth to death approach: "We don't live our lives or read in a linear fashion. Also, the internet has so much information that it rather absolves the biographer from being a storehouse of knowledge." Beaudoux’s reconstruction of Madeleine’s life is similarly non-linear, more constellation than chronology. Still, a biography emerges.

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Beaudoux divides her compendium into seasons of gradual documentation of her finds, many of them contained in leather suitcases as well as carefully labeled cardboard boxes. The first tend to be of paper: photographs of Madeleine herself, born in 1915, and of lovers and family, books, newspaper clippings, magazines, shopping lists, letters (some with pressed flowers), crossword books, report cards, wartime ration cards, coal coupons, diaries, calendars, notebooks copying out song lyrics, lists of travels, extensive guidebooks to Holland, piles of postcards she wrote from Provence. Then there is clothing and jewelry: pairs of size 36 shoes, clothes, lace gloves, linens, earrings, army dog tags, broken strings of pearls, a pendant with a baby tooth. And finally, less classifiable objects: paintings, inscrutable gadgets, fossils, a “first-class tennis racket,” a huge magnifying glass with which Beaudoux composed a selfie, a paint box with an odd, tiny funnel, an Agfa Movex 8 film which Beaudoux was unsure of how to find a projector to watch it on, a tuning fork in the bottom of a suitcase. Beaudoux’s/Madeleine’s treasures traverse 281 pages; what I have listed above is only an adumbration.

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In the middle of this catalogue, Beaudoux embeds an eloquent text recounting how her encounter with Madeleine’s time capsule galvanized her desire, beginning in 2015, to make a radical change in her own life, by working for herself, rather than for others: “Which meant I planned to follow my desires, and mine alone; I was tired of going along with what other people wanted, of making do with a minimum, of being reasonable.” (Having personally made the same radical choice over a year ago, that of pursuing my own writing rather than paid pablum or ghostwriting assignments, I identify powerfully with Beaudoux’s resolve.)

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“...I had accepted the fact that we had embarked on this adventure together, and that after “I” there

had to be “you,” and our relationship was bound to become part of the story. There was one

insoluble question that continued to torment me, however: What would you have made of all of this,

Madeleine?...Even my gestures were tentative and careful, when opening her letters, or moving

things around to photograph them...Do I have the right to question your secret garden in this way?”

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Beaudoux’s vicarious journey into and representation of the past life of another, was disrupted on November 13th, 2015 by present-day tragedy: the murder of 130 Parisians by radical Islamic gunmen, with nearly 500 wounded. Temporarily she abandoned the Madeleine work. Yet soon after the attacks, one Internet user wrote to Beaudoux that the Madeleine project “restored his faith in life.” Beaudoux’s reaction: “I told myself that beauty would be my weapon,” an idea that has redeemed--yet is perhaps inseparable from--millennia of human suffering. The creation of works of art--from the Aztecs to ancient Egypt to the Medicis--have often demanded human sacrifice of various kinds, from actual ritual killing to slave labor to the wealth of patronage acquired by blood vendetta.

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In quite another context, Beaudoux’s wielding of beauty as weapon recalls Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous 1927 Whitney v. California opinion defending free speech, in that case literature by Communists:  "If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied [to disturbing or offensive ideas] is more speech, not enforced silence." Free speech--debate--is not an abstract virtue but a key element at the heart of a democratic society. Beauty, similarly, is antidote to devastation; an argument against it, whether political or personal.

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By upholding in the wake of public tragedy the sovereignty of a private life lost yet preserved, Beaudoux asserts survival, even after death, of the preciousness of each human existence fated to come to an end, whether by massacre or natural passing. Her answer to unspeakable violence is the triumphant beauty of individual life, exhumed and immortalized through its tactile possessions; mapped carefully by her through the emotion and events conveyed by letters, photos and every other sort of document.

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With Twitter and other social media now used routinely--arguably, dominantly--to “out” the foibles and depredations of public figures, The Madeleine Project demonstrates a radically different possibility: the resurrection of another’s life-- including delicate allusion to her secrets--with empathy, admiration, and the eye of a curator, or perhaps an artist.

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“We are committed to books that offer erudition and enjoyment, stimulate and scintillate, transform and transport.”

New Vessel Press, founded by Michael Z. Wise and Ross Ufberg in New York City in 2012, is an independent publishing house specializing in the translation of foreign literature into English. Literature and narrative non-fiction selections from around the world pour great books into the vessel of the English language, by translators who regard their work as an art: as writing. These volumes, distinguished by high production values, have beautiful covers that sheathe literary odysseys now available for the first time to English readers.


By Lisa Zeiger

Susan Manno and Alexander Wood, photograph by Neil Winokur, 1994.

Susan Manno and Alexander Wood, photograph by Neil Winokur, 1994.

Darling, the body is a guest house;

every morning someone new arrives.

Don’t say, “O, another weight around my neck!”

or your guest will fly back to nothingness.

Whatever enters your heart is a guest

from the invisible world; entertain it well…

  --Rumi, The Guest House

Thanksgiving 2018 with Susan Manno and Alexander Wood at their country house in Canajoharie, New York, near Cooperstown, was a visit of rare warmth, for the joie de vivre of the Woods as a couple envelops the friends they invite to dine or stay. On Thursday night, my friend, decorative arts curator, Markus Winter and I arrived in Cooperstown to meet the Woods at the grand Otesaga Hotel, built in 1909, where the outsized holiday buffet groaned with sumptuous American comfort food, its gracious plenty and presentation somehow reminiscent of the early 1960s, just before counterculture undid the customs once followed by all levels of American society, including dressing for the occasion.

In Canajoharie, the Woods’ house, whose bones date back to 1793 when Washington was still President, has evolved decoratively over the fifteen years in which they have gradually let go of Manhattan. It represents purely the work of their own eyes, hands, and wit, an constantly renewed aesthetic dialogue that began fatefully on September 10, 1985, when Susan and Alexander met for the first time at a birthday party for Ford Wheeler at the Villa Mosconi on Macdougal Street.

Ken Tisa, Carpet design.

Ken Tisa, Carpet design.

Susan arrived with Ken Tisa; Alexander with his partner at the time, Honey Wolters. Paired with Susan by their host to blow up balloons together, Alexander received a coup de foudre: he knew instantly that he and Susan would marry, and so, a decade later--May 10, 1995--they did.

As their relationship jelled, Susan and Alexander were each fully steeped in art and artists, through both work and friendship. Susan’s familiars were young artists just starting out, many of whose names today are legendary. Her closest friend was the late photographer Peter Hujar, within a coterie that included Ken Tisa, Donald Baechler, and the late David Wojnarowicz.

Peter Hujar and Susan Manno, Photo by Gregg Wolf

Peter Hujar and Susan Manno, Photo by Gregg Wolf

In 1983, Susan had founded Swimming Pool Productions with her friend Keith Davis. Swimming Pool represented and recruited graphic and fine artists for commercial projects, its roster containing David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Chuck Nanney, Ken Tisa, Philip Zimmerman, Steve Doughton, Greer Lankton, and Neil Winokur, among others.

A major Swimming Pool client was fashionista Dianne B., for whom Susan had been the buyer from 1979 to 1983, and to whom she would return in 1985 as buyer in Paris. Swimming Pool’s marketing for Dianne B. was an art form in itself, with collaborations by Robert Mapplethorpe, Duane Michals, Cindy Sherman and Peter Hujar. Susan’s eclectic clientele included Cygne Design, Tommy Motola Champion Entertainment, Hall & Oates, The New Museum, ‘80s fashion designer David Cameron, the jeweler Gregg Wolf, and the French XYZ company, Arlequin.


When he met Susan, Alexander was working for Semaphore Gallery, after beginning his New York career at a high Modernist mecca: the prestigious Grace Borgenicht Gallery. Semaphore, in contrast, was about newer, untried art, led by Barry Blinderman, the first critic to write about Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In April 1986, Alexander would found his own eponymous gallery at 127 Spring Street, an adventure lasting through February 1988. Shedding the headache of overhead, Alexander spent three halcyon years with Lucio Amelio, the wonderfully imaginative dealer from Naples, before becoming an associate at Hirschl & Adler Modern in 1991.


At their successive (always charmed) addresses in Manhattan throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s, Susan and Alexander collected friends and art: twin, inseparable devotions. The collection hanging in their house today conjoins their knowledge of art with their abiding affection for its makers; intimate memories of departed genius merge with life’s ongoing discoveries.

David Wojnarowicz, Map Head, 1984.

David Wojnarowicz, Map Head, 1984.

Peter Hujar, Catacomb photograph, 1974-75.

Peter Hujar, Catacomb photograph, 1974-75.

Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz preside over the house in image and spirit, deeply kindred as they were to both Susan and Alexander. The walls are dense with work by other intimates: Donald Baechler, Ken Tisa, Andrei Roiter, Robert Hawkins, Jean-Francois Octave, Wolfgang Stiller, Neil Winokur, John Bowman, and Keith Milow, Kiki Seror, Martin Wong, and Donald Lipski.

Still other artists collected by the Woods are Steven Westfall, Juan Matos, Christian Silva, Deborah Warner, Daze, Steve Schwartz, Richard Bosman, Suzan Pitt, Skip Snow, Yayoi Kusama, Phillip Zimmerman, Chuck Nanney, Michael Ottersen, and Tom Woodruff.

Kiki Seror, Light Box with text from the film  Barbarella , 2005

Kiki Seror, Light Box with text from the film Barbarella, 2005

The Woods’ collection is as accessible as it is important, art to be enjoyed at ease rather than displayed with hauteur. I felt free to ask questions, realizing I had missed much of the 1980s New York art scene imbibed by the Woods. The works and names in their house were an intriguing supplement to my own memories of the period, which was divided between study of literature and later law at Columbia, and exposure, through friends at Cooper Union, to a handful of very much living artists. Somehow my path had never crossed Susan’s, although we both knew Donald Baechler at his first studio on lower Broadway in 1981.

Donald Baechler, “Flowers for Susan,” 1998

Donald Baechler, “Flowers for Susan,” 1998

As well as proliferating art works, every single room at the Woods’ has at least one bookcase, a library that roams the whole house. Their domain is a high-spirited duet of tastes, spiked with surprises, not unlike the conversations one has with Susan and Alexander themselves. The couple do not finish each other’s sentences; they excitedly interrupt them--like an M-dash--until the other spouse picks up the thread of an intensely shared memory to finish the story. On speakerphone, they consistently outshout my own insistent decibels.

Susan Manno at the Palais Royal, Paris, amid Daniel Buren’s installation, “Les Deux Plateaux,” 1985-86. Photo by Alexander Wood.

Susan Manno at the Palais Royal, Paris, amid Daniel Buren’s installation, “Les Deux Plateaux,” 1985-86. Photo by Alexander Wood.

The private moments of my stay were spent in a charmed room; charmed because it is dominated by an immense, bright red fresco-like painting by the Italian artist Ernesto Tatafiore (b.1943)--whom Lucio Amelio had represented since the painter’s first solo show in Naples in 1969--and whom Alexander came to know during his 1980s tenure with Amelio. I did not know Tatafiore’s name or work at all, but was immediately entranced, claiming “the red room” as the one I wanted to stay in. I would learn later that the painting’s grey, black and white figure, writing at a desk with three severed heads, was Robespierre, part of works with characters from the French Revolution Tatafiore had begun in the 1980s and continued to explore for decades.

Ernesto Tatafiore, Robespierre, c. 1991; me in a Dream of the Red Chamber. Photograph by Markus Winter.

Ernesto Tatafiore, Robespierre, c. 1991; me in a Dream of the Red Chamber. Photograph by Markus Winter.

As with every object in the Wood household, there are stories and histories behind Tatafiore’s painting, likely from the early 1990s. I was startled, first, to learn from Alexander that the Neapolitan artist is also a practicing psychoanalyst, a discipline suffused with dreams; yet often parched by Freud’s successors into reductive, straitjacket interpretations. Interpretation and creation cancel each other out, especially when they war within a single individual. Not in Tatafiore’s work, which preserves the preeminence of dreams. Achille Bonito Oliva had coined the term, “Neo-Illuministic,” to describe Tatafiore’s visual connection of art to history, memory to life.

Pontormo, Portrait of Cosimo Il Vecchio de’ Medici, c. 1518-1520, Uffizi Gallery.

Pontormo, Portrait of Cosimo Il Vecchio de’ Medici, c. 1518-1520, Uffizi Gallery.

When I asked how they’d acquired the Tatafiore, Susan remembered with eidetic clarity a contemporaneous event that would indirectly spur their purchase of the painting from Lucio Amelio. In 2004, as part of the ongoing reconstruction of lower Manhattan in the wake of 9/11, the Uffizi Gallery lent twenty-two sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paintings. All but one--the newly restored ''Madonna della Gatta,'' by Federico Barocci--were portraits of the Medici family, icons the Splendor of Florence Festival staged throughout the Wall Street area. The exhibition, from October 1 to November 15 that year, was held at Federal Hall National Monument on Wall Street and Broad, an 1842 Greek Revival building said to mark the spot where George Washington was inaugurated in an earlier building in 1789.

At the Uffizi exhibition, Susan was transfixed by “Medici red--everywhere!”; red pervaded the clothing depicted in the Uffizi portraits. Medici red is as hard to describe as it is to imitate. I think of it as a color close to that of fresh, rather thin blood (not the blackish kind collected in test tubes) with the faintest tone of deep orange, a perception which might be color heresy. It is a red with a hint of transparency and lightness despite its vivid saturation. Medici red seems not to exist outside Italy. As Diana Vreeland, who had difficulty getting workmen to mix the exact red she desired, memorably remarked, “About the best red is to copy a child’s cap in any Renaissance portrait.”

The Red Chamber again, with a segment of the Woods’ library. Photograph by Markus Winter.

The Red Chamber again, with a segment of the Woods’ library. Photograph by Markus Winter.

In the Woods’ Red Chamber, my dreams were haunting; and as is my habit in the country in bleak midwinter, I began listening to podcasts on philosophy, invariably ending up with Nietzsche’s magnificent writings and dreadful life. Snowy open landscapes remind me of the philosopher’s voluntary, difficult solitude in the village of Sils Maria in the Engadin region of Switzerland, where in fact he spent summers rather than winters, when he escaped to Turin or Rapallo. Nietzsche, as we know, had lost the love of his life, Lou Andreas Salome, to his faithless friend, Paul Rée, during a trip the triangle made to Leipzig in 1882. He seemed afterward to abjure companionship of any kind.

Portrait of a Love Triangle: Lou Andreas Salome, Paul Ree, and Friedrich Niezsche. Photographed in the studio of Jules Bonnet, Lucerne, 1882.

Portrait of a Love Triangle: Lou Andreas Salome, Paul Ree, and Friedrich Niezsche. Photographed in the studio of Jules Bonnet, Lucerne, 1882.

“The best friend will probably acquire the best wife, because a good marriage is founded on the talent for friendship,” wrote Nietzsche four years earlier in Human, All Too Human. In the unlikely search I just made to find a Nietzschean aphorism fitting to the Woods, this startling sentence was the first to appear, a clever, appropriate conclusion just biding its time.

The Woods’ love and friendship for one another reaches ever outward, inviting new friends to encounter the old. The house in Canajoharie is tangible expression of their gift for friendship: its art the work of cherished companions.

With pleasurable anticipation, the Red Chamber awaits its next guest. Will it be an emissary from the all-too-human slaves of New York, or denizen of a world--what Rumi called the Source--no less real for being invisible? Both are welcomed, with love, Into the Woods’.

Philip Zimmerman, pencil drawing on paper, 1984.

Philip Zimmerman, pencil drawing on paper, 1984.


By Lisa Zeiger

The Newark Public Library, photograph by Jim Henderson.T

The Newark Public Library, photograph by Jim Henderson.T

“People can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.”

--Saul Bellow

Within each of the six cities I have lived in, there was always one public building that claimed me; one that stamped my citizenship. In Glasgow, it was Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s quixotic School of Art of 1899. In New York City, I confess it was Barney’s clothing store at 61 Madison, the design of its interior altered every few years, reaching its apotheosis in the late 1990s via the work of my friend, artist-gone-survivalist, John-Paul Phillippe.

The Glasgow School of Art.

The Glasgow School of Art.

I have only ever been a citizen of cities--one at a time--and, frankly, felt no belonging, identity, or allegiance whatsoever to America as a whole. Not, that is, until now, when America’s freedoms--like electricity, taken for granted--are no longer invisible, infinite conveniences, but stony landmarks, smaller than we thought: chipped, hacked, and poised for demolition.

I lived in New York City for over four decades--with breaks in Europe and L.A. that lasted years--until 2017. I left because I was a pauper, working two jobs and made homeless at 59 by the “gig economy” and its ridiculous multi millionaire puppeteers. Now, in Newark, which I pray is too poor to ruin, I inhabit a boarding house. Yes, we still have hundreds of real ones here, unadorned by the bronze plaques--which might as well mark tombs--that in New York indicate the houses where Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and O. Henry, once rented just one room. These famous names are but a fraction of the writers who flowered thus. Such is my home in Newark. In it, in nine months, I wrote my first book, now in the hands of an agent. Within its narrow walls, I no longer fear my death: I plan it with pleasure.

In the chain gang of Manhattan talent, which stretches for miles, I would have settled, as many do, for Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. In Newark, I’ve switched to the long game: books which attain a footnote in posterity, my personal dream of the afterlife. If my readership doesn’t gather till I’m gone, it’s all good. I’ll make merry in my grave, just as a few creative New Yorkers laugh all the way to the bank.

In downtown Newark, two buildings away from the Greek Revival Museum on Washington Street, there is another edifice which yanked me in like a church; my faith instantaneous and ardent. The Newark Public Library, designed around 1898 by John Hall Rankin and Thomas M. Kellogg and opened in 1901, is above all a place. My adoption of and by this four-story limestone Italianate building, inspired by the 15th century Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, was settled the second I walked in. In Newark, I did not yet know I was home; but the Public Library was my manifest embassy. I had found, by chance, exactly the right city--ennobled as it is by this institution--for the little life I passionately want. Writing requires adventures in the past--these days, hideously called “content”--and limits in the present. The latter for me are severe and voluntary.

I have had other embassies, other shrines; but just as M.F.K. Fisher named both her final residence and her final book “Last House,” so have I made an uncharacteristic commitment to Newark till death do us part, a loyalty that comes straight from the Library, like a book--or a heart--forever stolen, not loaned.

That’s enough personal preface. The Newark Public Library has its own evolving biography, with heroic humanist adventures and achievements I will attempt to outline in this brief account. A more diligent researcher should one day write a book connecting the 120 years of stories, some of them esoteric, housed inside it.

The architects’ intentions were to create a building beyond a library, designing the space to serve  also as museum, lecture hall, and gallery. Rightly, they ensconced book learning in the wider unity of visual culture so well understood in the late 19th century, expressed by an architecture and interior that seduces the visitor towards self-education by pleasing the eye.

The building structure includes an open center court with arches and mosaics that extend upward to a stained glass ceiling four stories high. Over the front entryway is the bronze relief, Wisdom Teaching the Children of Men, sculpted by Newark artist John Flanagan, installed in 1909. In 1927, the Friends of the Library commissioned the artist Robert Hales Ives Gammell, a Classical Realist and member of the group known as The Boston Painters to paint a mural. The Fountain of Knowledge was unveiled on the east wall of the second floor and depicts a group of sages, the Fountain of Knowledge, and the Nine Muses. The Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, are accompanied by Apollo, transporting knowledge to the four corners of the earth. In the far left corner hovers a likeness of John Cotton Dana--founder of the Newark Museum--who also served as the institution’s librarian and influential second director until his death in 1929.

Gammell’s pale, etheric murals have always echoed for me those of the 19th century Symbolist painter, Puvis de Chavannes; reminders that reason and knowledge, pace Freud, originate in the Divine, even for those, like Freud, who would use that knowledge to explain it away. Like Prometheus, every reader steals fire from heaven.

The name Newark, when Americans elsewhere think of it at all, evokes the 1967 race riots, and more currently, dimly understood crime statistics and rumors. What few people know--myself included, till I moved here--is that Newark is one of America’s oldest cities, founded in 1666 by Robert Treat, who led a group of New Haven Colony dissidents to New Jersey, having been forced by the Connecticut Charter to merge with Connecticut in 1665. Newark was but an interlude in Treat’s long, peripatetic military and political career, but he is said to have brought to his new city dozens of books, including the Bible and other, probably Puritan, religious tracts.

The beginnings of a library proper occurred much later, when an 1840s law resolved to establish a library in built form. From 1845 to 1889 this mission was incrementally carried out by the Newark Library Association, first from its landmark home, Library Hall, a cultural fulcrum also housing the post office, the New Jersey Art Union, the New Jersey Historical Society, the New Jersey Natural History Society, and the YMCA. Library membership among the public was by annual subscription of $3.00 until an 1884 state law, upheld by voters, galvanized the establishment of a free public library. The Library Board of Trustees was formed in 1888; and its first edifice, on West Park Street, opened in 1889.

Even before 1899, when the cornerstone of the present Newark Public Library was laid, Library Hall was a veritable ambassador of written and sometimes visual culture in Newark. It acquired books in foreign languages, as well as donations of important private collections; organized the University Extension Society in 1893, inaugurated by an exhibition of art books; appointed professional librarians, first, Frank Hill, then Beatrice Winser, later the assistant to John Cotton Dana, appointed Director in 1901 and Head Librarian in 1902; and last but not least, delivered books by wagon to Newark’s schools and firehouses.

The Newark Public Library as a solid, enduring palace of books was opened officially in 1901 by Librarian Frank Hill. All that transpired at 5 Washington Street from that earliest of 20th century dates was incalculably enriched by the legacy of the decades immediately preceding: a long period of unusual and abundant flowering in all the arts, and moreover, the social will, in both Europe and America, to shape from them a unity that would benefit society as a whole. Political utopias always fail; but history is kinder to artistic movements. The latter’s fluid cultivation of both the individual artist and of a diversity of groups, each formed around a shared aesthetic insight, but none of them dominant, is the very opposite of political movements--even those dedicated to equality and freedom--which prevail only through the imposition of order, often a rigid one at that, their unity all too often achieved only through a potent, charismatic leader. As Hannah Arendt would write much later in the century, in the wake of World War II, “good” authority is “something between a suggestion and an order.”

Late 19th and early 20th century art movements evolved and magisterially succeeded through powerful visual suggestions, ranging from color theory, some of it based on Goethe’s treatise, Die Farbenlehre; to the unbuilding of the subject through Cubism and Futurism; to the beginnings of pure abstraction in Kandinsky, Hilma af Klint, and Paul Klee; to spiritualistic attempts--some Christian, some not--to contact other worlds and channel the visions they revealed into works of art. At the same time, Nietzsche’s often misinterpreted declaration that “God is dead,” cast a long secular shadow; cemented by Freud’s deconstruction of religion’s “oceanic feeling” as psychological defense rather than manifestation of a real if inchoate divinity.

In art, a medley of these heady, often conflicting ideas permeated even American pragmatism: hence, Gammell’s mythic, frankly pagan murals, and the Library’s focus, from the beginning, on visual art as the sister of written texts. The Library’s opening was launched with an exhibit of materials loaned by Charles Scribner, the New York City publisher. Director John Cotton Dana began Newark’s own picture collection, and staged a major library art exhibition in 1903, attended by an astounding 32,000 visitors. In 1910, the Art Department moved to the third floor with a large collection of 7,000 books. 1915 saw an important exhibition on New Jersey ceramics; in 1916 a great textile exhibition coincided with celebration of Newark’s 250th anniversary.  A major exhibit on printing followed, featuring Bruce Rogers, and co-sponsored by the Carteret Book Club, founded by Dana in 1908, the same year the Library staff came under Civil Service rules.The year 1920 brought an astounding new Library service: fine art prints were circulated to borrowers with “library-approved frames.” In 1921, a bronze plaque honoring the brief, tumultuous life of writer Stephen Crane--born in Newark in 1871, dying in 1900, only a year before the Library opened--was affixed to the building facade.


Dana also made of the Library a veritable publishing house, producing Frank Urquhart’s three-volume history of Newark in 1904, among other books printed during his administration. Books for the blind were made available; five Italian-language newspapers were subscribed to for the large Italian-speaking community; and new branches opened in other districts of Newark, notably the Springfield or ‘'Foreign Branch,’ with books in Russian, German, Yiddish, Polish, Ruthenian, Italian and Hungarian. In 1906 the U.S. document and U.S. Patent collections, among the largest in the country, were begun; and in 1907 the telephone came into use as a serious reference tool. The Library was the stage for a major city planning exhibition, with maps, charts and graphs, in 1912. In 1914, the color-coded filing system developed by the Library became standard for other American libraries.

John Cotton Dana (1856-1929) and Head Librarian of the Newark Public Library from 1902 until 1929.

John Cotton Dana (1856-1929) and Head Librarian of the Newark Public Library from 1902 until 1929.

During the First World War, the Newark Public Library became more activist than oasis, sending in 1917 41,000 books and 200,00 magazines to servicemen in Europe; in 1918, working with wartime organizations in town.

In the 1920s, the Library augmented its collections of valuable rare books, acquiring that of J. Ackerman Coles; engaging Shigeyoshi Obata, Japanese print and book expert, to identify materials in Newark's famed Japanese collection; and publishing book lists on the Far East.

In 1929, John Cotton Dana died, and Beatrice Winser was appointed Librarian. The Great Depression ushered in serious cutbacks in the early 1930s, including the closing of branches in hospitals, schools, and jails. But 1935 brought the relief of WPA activities, salary increases for the lowest-paid employees, and by 1937 significant increases in the operational and book-buying budgets.

The seminal account of the Newark Public Library during and after World War II is Philip Roth’s June, 2017 essay in the New Yorker, written almost a year before he died.

The title, “I Have Fallen in Love With American Names,” tells a story in itself: Roth’s passionate absorption, as the grandchild of 19th century Jewish immigrants, in regional writers, none of them Jews, “mainly small-town Midwesterners and Southerners...shaped by the industrialization of agrarian America” which began in the 1870s.

Roth’s teenage reading list after the war included Theodore Dreiser, born in Indiana in 1871, Sherwood Anderson, born in Ohio in 1876, Ring Lardner, born in Michigan in 1885, Sinclair Lewis, born in Minnesota in 1885, Thomas Wolfe, born in North Carolina in 1900, Erskine Caldwell, born in Georgia in 1903--all emissaries from a “second world” who lifted Roth’s “ignorance of the thousands of miles of America that extended north, south, and west of Newark…” These authors imported geographical nuance to Roth’s grade school inculcation, from 1938 to 1946, with “the mytho-historical conception of my country.” The American effort during World War II had harmonized an extraordinary “marshalling of communal morale,” which becalmed, for a time, the country’s seething conflicts of national origin, ethnicity, religious difference, class, and race.

The sentence in Roth’s essay which particularly captivates me recalls his high school years, when “... I began to turn to the open stacks of the Newark Public Library to enlarge my sense of where I lived.” Today, the Library’s stacks, still open to the public, constitute a densely material intellectual resource I have not encountered since the late 1970s at Barnard and Columbia, a rare access to tangents of book learning I suspect is disappearing from the life of libraries at large. Wandering the stacks of Columbia’s Butler Library in search of a particular call number, I invariably made new literary acquaintances side by side with whatever book I’d set out to find. This purposeful yet rambling forage spiked agenda with accident. For the most inspired research is not limited to the texts we expect to find, but admits as well their long-lost relatives, books just lying in wait in the stacks for us to check them out, in both senses.

Roth willed his books to what will become the Philip Roth Personal Library, a grand reading room on the second floor with arched windows. The $1.5 million cost of the project is being raised by private donations to pay the architects, designers and construction firm already hired. Rosemarie Steinbaum, a dean at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston chosen by Roth to curate his Library legacy states, “It is an astounding opportunity not just for the Newark Public Library but for Newark.”

An exceptional testimony to the irreplaceable power of library stacks, is the work of the late artist Jerry Gant. As a young man, without any formal art training, Gant spent hours in the Library stacks going through hundreds of art books teaching himself what he needed to learn to make his own art work. He was much beloved by the Library, which will pay tribute to him  by installing the book sculptures he created for the Cafe, slated for February, 2019.


The late Jerry Gant’s book work, shaped from discarded books and destined for display at NPL’s cafe.

In February 2017, the distinguished librarian Jeffrey Trzeciak was named Director of the Library, arriving from his post as University Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis. During Trzeciak’s thirty-year career in urban libraries, he has been a champion of civil rights and social justice, particularly in the African American, Hispanic and LGBTQ communities. He possesses an acute, potentially controversial awareness of libraries as loci of political engagement, as well as storehouses of “objective” information. Given the present White House attempt to annihilate public schools, public libraries are our surviving arenas of learning, tailoring ever more educational activities to the children and teenagers of diverse communities for whom private schools are a commodity out of reach.

Since coming to Newark, Trzeciak has cast a wide, necessary net of extra-literary community outreach services, some intensely practical and urgent, as in the Library’s donation to homeless citizens of backpacks filled with toiletries and writing materials; and its food drive, which forgave borrower fines in exchange for canned food, destined for the Newark Food Bank. (The Library has now abolished fines altogether.)

Then there are pinnacle literary events, most famously the September 2018 Philip Roth Lecture delivered by Salman Rushdie. Between the poles of emergency and enlightenment are an almost daily calendar of arts and crafts lessons and reading groups for children, and evening readings and discussions with authors for adults, often targeted towards the upcoming generation of readers, as in the April 2018 overflow audience for Dominican-born writer Junot Diaz’s bilingual reading and signing of his children’s book Islandborn (Lola in Spanish). On Friday evenings in summer, the adjacent garden hosts live music with dancing, the most memorable a Cuban party where cigars were hand-rolled then handed out, along with homemade Cuban delicacies.

Public libraries, like museums, must snare corporate donors for their survival, and crowds for their vitality; as well as to justify their very existence for government funding.  And now, as historically, the Newark Public Library houses and displays much more than books to attract the community it sustains. Its art exhibitions in the past year have traversed the overtly political, as in the photographs from “Ferguson Voices: Disrupting the Frame”; to more traditional exhibits of images and artifacts central to local history but obscured by time and demographic change, notably “Synagogues of Newark: Where We Gathered and Prayed, Studied and Celebrated”; and “‘Old School’: Collections of the Newark Public Schools Historical Preservation Committee.”

Jennifer Blum is a Librarian and Adjunct Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, and an intensely driven board member of sixty-some Friends of the Newark Public Library. The Friends are a cadre of volunteers who raise funds through sales of deaccessioned and donated books; are initiating a program to support children’s art projects at branch libraries; donate numerous Spanish-language children’s books; and have established a social linchpin, namely The NPL Cafe and Friends of the NPL Bookstore, where even massive art monographs can be had for a dollar.

Already transfixed by the building, I discovered in Jennifer a human conduit to the Library’s mission. The day of my first visit, flyers advertised a book sale on the fourth floor, a shopping spree I couldn’t resist. Books were the last luggage I needed, as I was still living in a shelter, awaiting the move to my present boarding house. For two dollars apiece, however, I stashed heavy classics beneath my cot: thick art books that included The Dream Come True: Great Houses of Los Angeles, by Brendan Gill and Derry Moore; The Machine Age in America: 1918-1941, published years ago by the Brooklyn Museum and Abrams; and The Parallel Worlds of Classical Art and Text by Jocelyn Penny Small.

My interest in this third book elicited from Jennifer the revelation that she had studied Classics, first at U.C. Berkeley, later transferring to and graduating from NYU. She then earned an M.A. in Medieval Islamic History from Brandeis. Only a hundred years ago, if that, nobody was deemed truly “educated” without a passing knowledge of Latin and Greek. This once-mandated mastery of half-lost, sophisticated structures, especially ones so archaic as to seem alien, instill a method for understanding just about anything. Several graduates in Classics I have known, mostly British, leapt with almost unfair ease from the study of Latin and Greek to spectacular success in unrelated but equally fascinating professions: examples are MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin, and labor lawyer Nicola Dandridge, now a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

I began this essay with examples of the power of great buildings to make us feel we belong; and the paradoxical power of humble surroundings to make us know we can write. It is this second quite idiosyncratic conviction I’ll conclude with, remembering always, as a writer in one room, that my work is indispensably abetted by the nearby Newark Public Library, whose splendor I can borrow whenever I want.

In Newark, people without a penny laugh as they live, following inflexibly the first commandment of the hood: Mind Your Business. Books are so much easier to write far from the backstabbing crowd. The voice I hear now is my own, uncontaminated by the bad grammar of celebrated, usually bourgeois writers who know better, but think the massacre of language is democratic, politically correct, and above all, “edgy.” What they don’t know is, the hood they talk down to craves the grammar they were deprived of in school, a valuable addition to their own vernacular; not its replacement. When both schools and literature abandon age-old rules of speech and writing that work for new ones that neuter, it is left to the still-open, still-uncensored stacks of libraries to replenish the sentences we utter and write.

Unfair passions and rage, pungency and extremity--that of Shakespeare; of Richard III and Macbeth--are as native to the English language as prayer. And the latter, at its highest, is never anodyne, euphemistic, or casual. Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was a speech act that got him burnt at the stake. His words incite us, with the grandeur the task demands, to change our lives completely.

When language, with the best of intentions, is forbidden to burn, it burns out.

Travel the stacks.


As the brief history of the Newark Public Library above emphasizes, from as early as 1920 the Library is has sought to disseminate knowledge of works of visual art along with with written works. The Library’s annual fundraising gala, “Booked for the Evening,” on November 19th, 2018, featured not only speeches by  honorees whose support for the Library has been exceptional, but a small silent art auction, to benefit the sixty-strong Friends of the Public Library, the voluntary organization who supports its mission with outreach and donations, among other activities. As curator, I gathered some eight works either from artists I knew well, or from talents discovered on Instagram. I intend, in future, to expand greatly this event, focusing upon the strong and evolving community of artists in Newark itself.

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The undisputed centerpiece of our small array was New Jersey artist David D. Oquendo’s large calligraphic painting, “I Did It My Way,” enamel and spray paint on canvas; blue letters on silver, grey and white background. California artist, Alan Good contributed a labyrinthine lithograph, “City Lights”; and East Texas photographer, Courtney Marie Musick Harvey, donated two small black and white prints, “Osmosis,” and “Summer.” (I consider Courtney to be a cross between Diane Arbus and Sally Mann.)

“City Lights,” Lithograph by Alan Good (2017)

“City Lights,” Lithograph by Alan Good (2017)

“Osmosis,” by Courtney Marie Musick Harvey

“Osmosis,” by Courtney Marie Musick Harvey

Dutch-Argentinian photographer Richard Koek, recent author of the monograph New York, New York, donated the color photograph “Terrace on the Park, Queens”; and upstate New York painter Peter Cusack gave us a lyrical sepia nude on paper. Contemporary art collectors Susan Manno Wood and Alexander Wood donated a small, unexpected  icon of tradition: a porcelain Tiffany box.

One more donation, the 1945 etching, “Roman Head,” by Frederic Taubes (1900-1981), was donated by New York curator Alan Rosenberg, in honor of the prodigious William Dane, the head, for 62 years, of the Library’s Special Collections Division. A founder of the Victorian Society in America, Dane and Rosenberg met while the latter was serving on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Chapter. Recounts Rosenberg,

“William Dane was a founder of the Victorian Society in America and we met when I was serving on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Chapter. I asked him if the Newark Public Library might have any information on Edward John Stevens, Jr., a Newark artist who was the Director of the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art in the 1950-60s. Not only did the library have an extensive file on the Stevens but Bill knew him well. Not only was I able to find the information I needed in my research but I also got to hear a number of personal anecdotes about the artist. BillDane was a charming person whose life mission was to share the voluminous information that he had at his fingertips and in his head.”

For further information on David D. Oquendo and Courtney Marie Musick Harvey, please take a look at my blog posts on them, at Mark my words; they are up and coming.

Such is the polymath expertise harbored within the precincts of the Newark Public Library.

Frederic Taubes, “Roman Head,” 1945

Frederic Taubes, “Roman Head,” 1945


“Across the lines, who would dare to go?  Under the bridge, over the tracks,

that separates whites from blacks.” --Tracy Chapman

If you don’t know me by now

You will never never know me, oh…”

                  —Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff

Lisa Zeiger and Simone Perkinson-Harris, photographed by Albert Liesegang, April 17, 2018

Lisa Zeiger and Simone Perkinson-Harris, photographed by Albert Liesegang, April 17, 2018

In July 2017, a month into our friendship, Simone and I boarded the PATH train at Newark Penn Station and set out for Manhattan. We both had lived there: she for ten years, I for forty, and now we lived in Section 8 exile in a women’s rooming house in Newark. Simone is resentful about this; I am relieved. I wanted to take her to the New Museum, to show her an exhibition of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits of black people whom the British artist had invented rather than painted from life. My wish, with a touch of pedantry though not condescension, was that Simone, who had never been to a museum, would find Boakye’s subjects exalted and regal, beings to identify with and aspire to.

I have spent all my adult life in museums, often without understanding what I saw but reveling always in the atmosphere. Real people--the visitors-- look better in the light of galleries, at once prettier and more intelligent. The presence of antiquity, or for that matter, the spanking new, seems to summon unlikely spirit and style from spectators one would scarcely notice on the street. I seldom take the long, serious look at anything that is expected. I don’t contemplate; I dart, my attention caught between object and subject.

“The Women Watchful,” Lynette Yiadom-Boakyle, 2017

“The Women Watchful,” Lynette Yiadom-Boakyle, 2017

We had free passes, obtained from the New Museum’s press department on the promise that I would write an essay, which only now am I sitting down to do. It doesn’t matter. The Museum has become all the more vivid because it comprises a memory Simone and I share, a small shining plaque in the record of our friendship. If anything, as I glance through the catalogue, I now understand that part of the meaning for me of Boakye’s extraordinary paintings was that they had catalyzed a relationship marked by constant contentment and strife, a mixture which has empowered me to write the way I used to live: with abandon.

“Undersong For A Cipher,” 17 portraits by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, New Museum, 2017.

“Undersong For A Cipher,” 17 portraits by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, New Museum, 2017.

The day was a bit rainy with sun breaking through, the weather that so glamorizes Lower Manhattan, deepening the grey of its cracked pavements and dark corridors of scaffolding, which somehow seem more dignified when wet. Outside the Bowery Mission, Simone asked a man whether he knew her old boyfriend, Vern, who often sits there in his wheelchair.  He thought maybe so. The Bowery did not disappoint her, or me.

Nor did the exhibition. The fourth floor of the New Museum’s clean white spaces was painted a deep red, somewhere between Chinese and Roman, the color of drying blood I particularly love. There were seventeen paintings in all, the show mysteriously entitled “Under-Song For A Cipher.” Boakye writes as well as paints, but her make-believe portraits spoke for themselves, and for centuries of painting. She has few predecessors of her own sex: Artemisia Gentileschi, Alice Neel. The figures in them, mostly lone although there were one or two triads, seemed all to be poised and captured in a particular instantaneous act, from thinking to dancing, reclining or laughing. One believes in them as in live presences, their faces and expressions, like Caravaggio’s only much darker, emerging from the darkness, deeper still, of walls, rooms, and the occasional landscape.

“The Matters,” Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

“The Matters,” Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

The most powerful picture, “The Matters,” was chosen for the catalogue cover; a young man in a black tank top stands with an owl perched on his right hand: Athena with a sea-change. His mouth is ever so slightly defiant; then again, he may just be amused. It’s hard to tell. All Boakye’s faces emanate such ambiguities of mood and demeanor, familiarity and distance, melancholy or charisma. Simone found the paintings beautiful, asking me the unmentionable: are people paid to paint these? “Probably several hundred thousand each,” I told her to her disbelief.

“Light of the Lit Wick,” Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 2017

“Light of the Lit Wick,” Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 2017

I was satisfied with the museum and the few moments of immersion in paintings my pretensions can tolerate. I had looked long enough. But Simone wanted to explore the other floors, a thought which had not occurred to me. I tend to do or take in one thing at a time; Simone is omnivorous. So we ventured to another floor where something strange was going on. Long tables had been set up with Luddite-looking machinery, with museum attendants sitting across from visitors. The attendants were very busy xeroxing, cutting and pasting things; laminating them; stamping them. My usual reaction would have been simply to watch, but Simone said, “Let’s do what they’re doing.” We approached the first table, behind which the wall was covered with what seemed to be ID cards far more colorful and disorganized than the usual thing. A young lady explained to us, “We are making new ID cards for visitors out of things they have in their purse or wallet that they think represent themselves. Pick the things you like, that you want to show the world about yourselves.” Simone and I began shuffling through our IDs and various business cards, of which we both had many. We threw our lives down on the table as if we were playing 52 pickup.

The New Simone.

The New Simone.

I still had my New York State Benefit Card which I got in 2007, my only surviving official form of picture ID. Then, ironically, there was my Columbia Libraries alumnae card. I also had one of my own business cards, though I was barely still in business. Then there was my new Newark Public Library card, entree to the treasure house that is the NPL, where the dense stacks, stocked by exceptionally smart librarians, are open to the public, who don’t visit them much. Instead they sleep at tables in the second floor reading room, or use the computers on the third floor. NPL is a place not only to read but to retrench, to charge cell phones and receive backpacks full of toiletries before reentry into the more competitive terrain of Newark’s streets, shelters and soup kitchens. I proffered, too, a card from the wonderful Hana Mission Thrift Shop in Belleville, New Jersey, with clasped hands and a cross, in blue. (Later that year, in October, I would find there a navy Dior swing coat, of Loro Piana lambswool, for twenty dollars.) And I had a pink Newark light rail ticket, expired.

The young woman xeroxed all these items. I assumed she would cut them up and reassemble them into a pleasing Schwitters-like collage. But there was a twist. She did nothing with the small pieces of my life until she had copied, clipped and processed Simone’s impedimenta: a proper New Jersey Non-Driver’s License; a McDonald’s coupon; and a friendly orange bubble I can no longer identify, emblazoned with the word “Share,” in yellow and blue.

The new me.

The new me.

The museum attendant switched our identities. Simone became me; I became her, each of us newly christened with the other’s name, though still encumbered with our own histories and habits. My card, with Simone’s full name at the top, has my smiling Columbia picture rather than the hectic Benefit portrait; flanked by Alma Mater in profile and the Hana Mission emblem, which I just now noticed is heart-shaped. Simone’s card bears my name, along with her penchant for French fries, and our common love for the Newark Public Library, all embedded in the “Share” halo.

Thus we came away from the New Museum with something more than a memory. The cards, I learned only afterwards, were an interactive part of Paul Ramirez Jonas’ exhibition, “Half-Truths.” They remain with us as reminders of a halcyon day that involved a number of initiations for both of us.

The place of keepsakes.

The place of keepsakes.

I hold both these keepsakes in my top drawer in my room in Newark, and sometimes Simone and I take them out and look at them, laughing hysterically over how different we are, and yet how connected. The Museum had done its work.  Simone and I did not become partners that day. Instead, our day made plain to us—each girded in her own skin—that we were partners already.

Friendship in Newark.

Friendship in Newark.

We are Platonic in both senses, the upper-case ideal ruptured and sealed over and over again because we are alive. Together or apart, we are a notorious piece of work.

Simone’s voice, from a whisper to a scream, is the soundtrack of my unlikely, happy life.


The Photographs of Courtney Marie Musick Harvey

The Family
      by  Robert Creeley
Father and mother
And Sister
And Sister
And Sister
And Sister
And Sister
And Sister
And Sister
And Sister
And Sister
And Sister.
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I first noticed Courtney Marie Musick Harvey’s work on Instagram. It was a black and white photo she had taken on her phone, of a black dog with glittering eyes poking its snout at a small child rolling on the bedroom floor. It was accompanied by these words: “Someone said to me once, ‘you’re just a mom.’ So I’ll be Danae--Mnemosyne--Samuel and Frances with dust motes when we lived above a racist troglodyte on the brick streets…”

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I was pleased, not only by “brick streets,” but by her reference to Danae--the maiden sealed in a room by her father, then impregnated by Zeus in an orgasm of gold pieces--whom I’d just written about for in “Household Gods.” Courtney Harvey fixes on Danae as mother rather than prisoner. Numerous photographs over the years are of her two young sons, now aged eleven and six, their emerging features still veiled by the mystery of beginnings.


Diane Arbus once remarked, “My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” That statement depends on where you’ve been already. Courtney Harvey, the third of seven sisters, was born in 1986 in Virginia, where her father’s military career and, later, both parents’ nomadism carried her family “house to house, town to town,” seventeen addresses she and her sisters can remember. Now living in East Texas and married fourteen years, she goes or stays where she knows people intimately, revealing each time a bit more of whatever was concealed at first, second, or ten-thousandth sight. Her adventures have longevity.

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I have always found going to new places much less daunting than revisiting old ones, which takes more courage. For in repetition is the fantasized repair of whatever went wrong before; as well as a return to whatever once went right that we cannot let go of. Thus we retouch our troubled memories; or seal the good ones against change. Photographs apply new patinas to ancient history, including the history of photography itself.


In Courtney Harvey’s images are radiant traces of Sally Mann’s unearthly odes to childhood; faint spectres of Diane Arbus’s unrated miasmas. Harvey’s pictures are eerier than either, because they are more informal, less exquisitely framed. Their expertise is so casual it takes you by surprise; an aesthetic hidden within an unaffected family album.


Like Mann and Arbus, Courtney Harvey is a portraitist; but she is too busy to orchestrate. Nobody in her pictures sits still, nor rarely do they pose; and if so, only for a second. Her subjects are caught up in a moment of strangeness she watches with burning, passionate familiarity: ”bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”  Courtney concentrates religiously upon her own blood; beings she was born alongside or gave birth to. Family may be a place to escape from, but kin is still where she settles.


The inherent anxiety of childhood lists on the verge of every image; a darker margin to the happiness of play: swimming, pets, plants, painting, and disguise. Fears, along with the features which mark Courtney’s parents, sisters and all their children, pass through generations, even those of tribes to whom we are not related. She remembers:

“We had read Number the Stars in class and loved it. If you could look through time to those evenings you would see two girls--one black, one white--both with white baby dolls. Our heads wrapped in pillowcases as we ran through the pastures from the pretend Nazis; saving our Jewish babies. A strange and beautiful memory for me.”

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Small, scant country schools were expanded by Courtney’s learning at home with her sisters, more an amusement than a labor. The girls pieced it together themselves--in my opinion, often the best way, because it is shaped by true interest--from their father’s idiosyncratic library:

...My education was one of my own making. My father stockpiled books like a hoarder. Most of them were religious books, but there were others as well. Stacks of photograph books ranging from old Hollywood glamour to Life Magazine’s graphic war photojournalism. We also immersed ourselves in his old medical books, poetry collections, army survival guides, Greek mythology, and classical literature. I rejected school in favor of my books, old movies, and art. My institutionalized education was nothing short of abysmal. At home, however, in our odd capsule of sisterhood, I could never absorb enough knowledge.

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Religion was as scattershot as books and houses:


We “church hopped.” Mostly Pentecostal, Southern Baptist, Assemblies Of God, “non-denominational” (whatever the hell that means). My favorite were the predominantly black churches. They were friendliest, more accepting, and they knew how to sing & cook the best...Now, we raise our boys to question, to seek, and to come to their own conclusions.


In creating a startling, surrealistic photographic oeuvre, Courtney Harvey simply began with what her real life looked like. She continues to connect its sometimes missing parts--her past, her sisters and parents--to being a mother, among her other earthly duties, delights, and snares.

In responsibilities begin dreams.

The photographer at fourteen.

The photographer at fourteen.


Although no one is entirely positive about its precise origins, scholars think that smithereens likely developed from the Irish word smidiríní, which means "little bits." That Irish word is the diminutive of smiodar, meaning "fragment." Written record of the use of smithereen dates back to 1829.


Lisa Zeiger

“...if [a] man is any kind of man, he’ll allow himself the awesome power, the wonderful beauty, of uncontrollable male passion.” —Mark Judge

Current discourse on “sexual assault “ focuses heavily, sensationally, and pruriently upon the “sexual” half of the expression; minimizing the threat or reality of death or injury represented by its other half, the word “assault.” Assault is the grievous bodily harm resulting from whatever female body part collides with a man’s “uncontrollable” passion, or, more often, rage. Obsession with the “sexual,” i.e. genital, by right and left alike, forecloses any sort of analysis of rape as just one of numberless violations--not the ultimate, only the most symbolic--inflicted on women by the blend of greedy sadism with con-artist sentimentality which found and fund patriarchal society and politics.

#MeToo is not the beginning of the end, but the end of a beginning. By vigorously and collectively outing, and wherever possible, prosecuting sexual crimes, we see at last that they are not rare aberrations of disturbed individuals, but standard male strategies of control as commonplace as they are putrid. Our recovery, as women, from our trance-like complicity with such tactics requires the sacrifice of false securities and fallen idols. We must not only punish malign male sexual behavior, but storm and transform--and in some cases abandon-- the institutions that inculcate and shelter it. We must be willing, if necessary, to walk out—or away—with just the clothes on our back.

From frat antics to unequal wages; from career ruin by liberal moguls who hire Black Cube to spy on females who spurn them, to hush money contracts invalid on their face; from abortion restrictions that so delay lawful early procedures as to make the horror of late-term abortion the patient’s last option (Kavanaugh himself recently protracted exactly such a case, involving an immigrant, on the D.C. Circuit), to he-said-she-said testimony before kangaroo Congressional “hearings” sans investigation or witnesses: the entire present-day parade of patriarchal wrongs against women, from creepy to criminal, is all the more hateful because of the governmental speech that purports to explain it all away. Compared to Senator Susan Collins’ slow—”slow,” as in stupid—Vichy-washy droning, I give Mark Judge ‘s purple phallocentrism a pass. Judge’s operative word-- his tell-- is “uncontrollable,” an “un-word” that obviates responsibility.

A manipulative paternalistic altruism was afoot in Senator Chuck Grassley’s oily assurances to Dr. Ford that Congress would do all it could to make her feel “comfortable” testifying, as if comfort were her remedy. Every accommodation was proffered--including a Senate mission to Palo Alto to hear her testimony--everything except a meaningful bite at real justice. Implacably, Grassley refused Dr. Ford’s demand for a renewed FBI investigation into Kavanaugh’s background, and a subpoena to Mark Judge, whose old-boy letter to the Judiciary Committee demurring to testify was blandly accepted.

Politicians like Grassley simply do not possess what Italian-Americans call the “stones” to brazen out--to own-- their own unappealing old-white-windbag “optics.” Instead, the Judiciary Committee has insisted on wheeling in an “Aunt Lydia,” female sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell. It remains to be seen this morning if, in hiring Ms. Mitchell, the Committee has unwittingly hired, not the beard they required, but a tough cookie; the very hit man to bring them down.

Whatever the short-term outcome of today’s hearing, an even shorter fuse is pending.

Set it off.



Lisa Zeiger

President Trump and Liberace: interior decorators separated at birth? Liberace, born auspiciously in 1919, en caul, had a twin who, sadly, died at birth. Might our President be the latter’s reincarnation, the hetero twin bro’, the Platonic other half which would have completed Lee, and which he likely longed for all his life, as evidenced by his quest for partners who physically resembled him?

Liberace ensconced in bubbles.

Liberace ensconced in bubbles.

We tend to think of furniture and decoration as a superficial, inconsequential excrescence upon the body politic, yet leaders of every ideology and character, throughout history--Pharaohs, presidents, kings, emperors, dictators, and tyrants--have ably used interior style as visual imprint and propaganda for their political power. There is the seminal, admirable example of Napoleon’s Empire style, much of it derived from his campaign in Egypt, transmuted by his wife, Josephine Beauharnais, with the aid of architect-decorators Percier et Fontaine, into Malmaison, the imperial couple’s magnificent house outside Paris. We recall Jacqueline Kennedy’s famously refined redecoration of important rooms at the White House, for which she engaged America’s premier decorator, Sister Parish and France's finest, Stephane Boudin. Adolf Hitler, of all leaders, was obsessed with architecture and furniture, relying on his favorite architect, Paul Ludwig Troost, to create a new, “pure” German form of neoclassicism both for national monuments and his own grand private dwellings. When  Troost committed suicide, Hitler seriously contemplated taking over his firm, but felt too insecure about his own command of aesthetics to take the reins. Hitler did not quail at reenacting Napoleon’s nemesis by sending 300,000 troops into Stalingrad; yet he dared not invade Troost’s aesthetic legacy.

Chateau de Malmaison, Sitting Room  of Empress Josephine Bonaparte in the Empire Style

Chateau de Malmaison, Sitting Room  of Empress Josephine Bonaparte in the Empire Style

I am relying, perhaps foolishly, on the fact that nobody reads this blog--actually, I hope all five of my readers avert their eyes--to insulate me from social media persecution as I write this essay. But then I am reminded, by my own long experience with far lesser despots than Trump, that such miscreants--counterfeit kings, outdated as carbon paper--derive their greatest delectation from tormenting those, like me, at the very bottom of the economic scale: a receptionist or volunteer; a typist or house-cleaner. “Let them eat shit,” they gloat. Nothing delights a miniature dictator more than marginalizing further the marginalized, especially if doing so consummates the damage already done to people of different race, gender, or sexual orientation. I publish this post with caution, knowing that, because its subject is President Donald Trump, I may attract a most undesirable, nay, deplorable, readership. To them I say, this post is not about Trump’s politics, but about his taste in interior decoration, a gilded world opulently cushioned against matters of state and justice. I approach Trump World, not with a sword, but a throw pillow, focusing on the elaborate confections which compose his style.


Donald Trump’s demolition, in 1980, of the beautiful Art Deco bas-relief friezes by Rene Chambellan, and iron doors which had adorned the 1929 limestone Bonwit-Teller building, and which he had promised to donate to the Metropolitan Museum, has been well-resuscitated and publicized in recent years.;; Trump was recklessly making way for the building that would emblematize and vaunt his name:  Trump Tower.

But I seem to remember a ghostly detail of the story that is barely reported, namely, that Ashton Hawkins, then Director of the Met had floated the idea of a “gift” to Trump as token recompense for Trump’s claim that salvaging the artworks would cost him $32,000 in labor, and delay construction by two weeks at a cost of $500,000.  Instead of preserving the architectural ornaments, as the mogul had agreed to do, Trump grew impatient and had the friezes summarily smashed with jackhammers; the ornate iron doors--whose designer, Trygve Hammer, was still alive--mangled with acetylene torches.

Apparently, the pleasure of vandalizing beyond repair a thing of beauty surpassed the civic honors, praise, social cachet, and philanthropic status Trump coveted and would have reaped from New York City and the Met, along with Hawkins’ vague offer of a compensatory gift. Saving and donating the artworks would have smoothed Trump’s entree into the Manhattan social elite which shunned him, an exclusion he still bitterly resents. I recall, as a Barnard senior, the chill I felt reading the front page New York Times article about the event. I knew and admired the Bonwit’s building, which hearkened back to a vanishing understated strain of Manhattan wealth. Diana Vreeland had discovered future model Lauren Hutton on a back stairway there. The building was redolent with high society anecdote.  I had lived in New York City just four years, and was only dimly aware of somebody jauntily referred to as “the Donald,” an endearment coined by Trump’s first wife, Ivana. That article engraved him early and permanently in my mind as a barbarian. If only he were only that.

Donald and Melania Trump's Penthouse Apartment.

Donald and Melania Trump's Penthouse Apartment.

In the wake of  Trump’s election, I have done a bit of reading on the ancient Barbarians. In fact, the pre-410 invasions of Rome by Germanic warriors such as the Vandals and Sueves spared the city’s buildings; the Northern tribes evinced a touching wish to emulate the arts, manners, and refinements of the Romans they conquered, humbly recognizing in them a culture, if not a military, superior to their own. Even those naive and hearty beer-swilling lugs had discernment. Instead of breaking the splendid toys of the people they subjugated, like wise infants they appropriated and imitated them.

I reread, too, C.P. Cavafy’s poem, “Waiting For The Barbarians,” in which the Romans anticipate, in vain and with a secret thrill, the arrival of the manly Northern hordes: “Those people were a kind of solution,” the poem concludes. Having ransacked mind, heart, and and what Donald Trump would call pussy, I cannot detect the faintest frisson for this President. (My only dream about Obama was that he invited me to a garden party followed by the theatre, then announced we were going Dutch.) I will concede that in 1980 I thought Trump a good-looking man, yet I was always put off by his mouth; that cruel, curling Cupid’s bow, now relimned by time into a sort of mean postal slot; a square maw that opens to bawl invective then clamps shut as if worked by wires. Where is Francis Bacon when we need him?

Scratch tyranny. Trump’s sense of style, especially in furnishings, is more fascinating, specifically his near-total subscription to the aesthetic--crowned by similar hair-color, combing, and spray--of the late, ineptly closeted gay icon, Liberace, whose vast, flaming reserves are unveiled in a 2000 BBC documentary entitled Reputations. Unlike the late Las Vegas showman, straight man Donald Trump has the sense not to don white fur or pink maribou boas at his rallies, but his interiors, published on the web, ape and vye with all the excess of Liberace’s homes; dripping with gold fixtures, right down to the toilets; suffocated with neo-Rococo plasterwork in a saccharine palette of pastels. The respective and multiple domiciles of the two men are very nearly indistinguishable from one another, as even a cursory comparison of their interiors published online reveals..

Liberace's Living Room in Hollywood.

Liberace's Living Room in Hollywood.

Liberace, like Trump-- indeed, like Narcissus in the Greek myth--was lost in hypnotic adoration of his own image. I have no idea whether Trump has had “work” done; but Liberace resorted frequently to plastic surgery, not only for himself, but upon Scott Thorson, his ill-fated lover who was seventeen when they met, and whom the showman would ditch in 1982. Showing his plastic surgeon a youthful oil painting of himself, Liberace demanded the doctor remake Thorson’s face as a replica of his own, replete with cheekbone and chin implants and a nose job. Thorson, now resident at Northern Nevada Correctional Center, wrote the 1988 memoir, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, made into a 2013 movie by Steven Soderbergh, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.

Wikipedia recounts that Liberace, like Donald Trump, “was a conservative in his politics and faith, eschewing dissidents and rebels. He believed fervently in capitalism and was also fascinated with royalty, ceremony, and luxury. He loved to hobnob with the rich and famous, acting as starstruck with presidents and kings as his fans behaved with him.” As Liberace is no longer with us, we can only speculate whether he would have fawned over and basked in the company of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un as Trump, his decorator bro’, has done. Liberace would have been enthralled with Putin’s famous, priceless collection of Faberge eggs; less so, perhaps, with Kim’s spartan rows of lockers and benches. Given the twinship of Trump’s and Liberace’s decor and political convictions, we can be almost certain Liberace would have been entranced by Trump’s interiors.

But behind many a glittering palace lurks a gulag, the shadow side of imperial power; or, at the very least, the dismantling, not only of architectural treasures, but of the bodies and institutions--now revealed as fragile entities reliant on human decency-- which protect the rule of law: in America’s case, our Constitution. The Constitution is enshrined, not in an impregnable tabernacle, but in the less solid hearts, minds, and will of citizens, Congressional leaders, the Judiciary and finally, the Executive, all human beings subject, whatever the oaths they have taken, to the sway of self-interest and partisan zeal. It will be interesting to see who among these elements of democracy crumbles like so much shattered limestone, and who withstands the jackhammers and torches of political reaction.

Peter the Great Faberge Egg, 1903

Peter the Great Faberge Egg, 1903



Lisa Zeiger


Mr. Brangwyn tools leather in the family's neo-Arts and Crafts house.

Mr. Brangwyn tools leather in the family's neo-Arts and Crafts house.

Things men have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into

are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing

for long years.

And for this reason, some old things are lovely

warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.

--D.H. Lawrence

I first saw Ken Russell’s 1969 film Women in Love  in 1973 when I was sixteen, soon afterwards reading the D.H. Lawrence novel of 1920 on which it was based. Both movie and book became my manuals for houses, clothes and sexual experiment. For a discomfited L.A. girl, they signaled a densely cultured world I knew would one day suit me better than my vacuous birthplace, spread out like some bimbo grande horizontale. If I could not go back in time, I could go forward in place, and England was the first of several cinematic meccas I would discover as a child and young woman, and live in as an adult.  

D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love is not only a paean to erotic possibility, it is a map of the rich material culture--with presentiments of Modernism--which once enclosed and abetted such encounters, a decorative accompaniment to sex that was a sort of visual soul music for bodies longing to merge. Just as we are still aroused today by the music of Marvin Gaye, so Lawrence’s late Edwardians were drawn towards sexual healing as much through the seduction of beautiful rooms, clothes and objects as by the sexual attributes common to all humans, aesthetes or not. The Gesamtkunstwerk of rooms and their decoration throughout Britain and Europe permitted and evinced a moody eroticism which might, indeed, have been their creators’ most basic impulse in the first place.

Ken Russell’s Women in Love turned British cinema from its early 1960s depictions of the contemporary working classes--shot almost always in stunning black and white--towards a highly colored nostalgia for more extravagant pre-war eras, as well as Day-Glo celebration of late ‘60s Swinging London. The late 1950s and early ‘60s “kitchen sink” dramas had invested the dark grit of hard lives with even darker glamour, a captivating contradiction that has never quite disappeared from British cinema. Russell’s flamboyance was still underpinned by the deeply serious and subtle exploration of emotion in these magnificent films. For all its lush color and period decor, Women in Love is as dark about the limits of love as Darling, as erotically doomed as Room at the Top.

Gudrun Brangwyn, artist, played by Glenda Jackson.

Gudrun Brangwyn, artist, played by Glenda Jackson.

Lawrence exalted the supremacy of the natural man, but he was no primitive. As a writer, like Nietzsche, whom he had read, Lawrence invoked the return of the old gods. He sang the body electric yet was preternaturally attuned to the inanimate, to the designed world which was reaching an apotheosis in the 1910s, the period in which Women in Love is set. In meticulous detail, Lawrence records the beauty of made things, even down to lyrical descriptions of women’s clothing, a literary transvestism which greatly amused the late Angela Carter in her essay on Women in Love, entitled “Lorenzo the Closet Queen”:  “...D.H. Lawrence attempts to convince the reader that he D.H.L. has a hotline to a woman’s heart by the extraordinary sympathy he has for her deepest needs, that is, nice stockings, pretty dresses and submission.” Lawrence exults in stockings as passionately as he does in nature, and in fact his descriptions of hosiery, “thick, silk stockings, vermilion, cornflower blue and grey, bought in Paris,” were among my favorite passages as a teenager. Pace Carter, Lawrence hit my hotline. And, if anything, it is the men in Women in Love who submit to the women: for all his implacable sexual ardor, Gerald Crich never quite captures Gudrun’s heart; and Rupert Birkin ruefully compromises his ideal of parallel loves for both man and woman to Ursula’s insistence on herself as his one and only love object. Faute de mieux, Rupert capitulates to her fixed exclusivity.

Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) and Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed) discuss marriage.

Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) and Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed) discuss marriage.

Throughout his short, peripatetic life, Lawrence wandered and moved places with his wife Frieda, in restless search of a place in the sun. He died in 1930, only 45, at the Villa Robermond in Vence. The Lawrences’ travels and longer sojourns encompassed Sicily, Australia, Ceylon, Mexico, and Taos, New Mexico, where Frieda settled after his death and where the author’s ashes reside. They had abandoned Britain in 1919, yet Lawrence toted it with him on their “savage pilgrimage” in the form of novels set in the coal-mining region of the Midlands of his childhood and youth. From memories of this often miserable place of inhumane industry, Lawrence would wrest at least as much beauty, mystery and passion as he drew from more exotic climates and peoples. He wrote his final novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in a villa near Florence, but set it in a town modeled on Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, his birthplace. He could not help but lie back and think of England.

Lawrence would have deeply appreciated director Ken Russell’s faithful rendering of Women in Love. Screenwriter Larry Kramer wove in verbatim much of Lawrence’s dialogue. But Russell was faithful to more than speech, for together with his art director Kenneth Jones, he created a lavish, sensuous, and accurate representation of Lawrence’s detailed descriptions of the diverse but always beautiful strains of English aesthetic life of the period which had penetrated even the provincial Midlands where the plot unfolds, all sumptuously shot in wonderfully ambient Technicolor by cinematographer Billy Williams. Women in Love was brilliantly cast, with Alan Bates as Rupert Birkin, a Lawrentian priest of Eros, Oliver Reed as Gerald Crich, rigid scion of a Midlands coal fortune, Glenda Jackson as the aspiring artist Gudrun Brangwyn, and Jennie Linden as her sister, Ursula, both schoolteachers who long for the wider world, for “experience.”

Rupert and Ursula in his country cottage.

Rupert and Ursula in his country cottage.

We see Shortlands (filmed at Elvaston Castle) the traditional manor house of the Crich family, owners of a coal mine; Breadalby (filmed at Kedleston Hall), the Georgian country mansion of Hermione Roddice, played with touchy hauteur by Eleanor Bron, an aristocratic anti-heroine based on Lady Ottoline Morrell, and pilloried by Lawrence as overbred archenemy of the “real physical body”; the throwback Arts and Crafts town dwelling of Gudrun’s and Ursula’s parents, their father a handicraft teacher.

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Then there is Gudrun’s room in the Brangwyn house, where we see intimations of Cubism in her paintings, her small rarefied chamber separated from the other rooms by only a swinging bead curtain, a peekaboo veil for the private world where she explores her talent and difference. Rupert Birkin lives in a pleasantly humble cottage with an assortment of rustic furniture. In a street market scene, he effuses over an old chair as emblematic of the lost England of craftsmanship, buys the chair, then presses it on a stranger shouting, “I don’t want things.”

Rupert and Ursula purchase an old chair.

Rupert and Ursula purchase an old chair.

Women in Love, by its very title, implies plural modes of relationship, a manifesto for more than one kind of love which Lawrence preached and which Russell puts on daring display, in the famous nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in a library lit only by a fireplace, a fight perilously close to the clinch of consummated love. Bates declares afterward, “We are mentally and spiritually close,  therefore that we ought be physically close. It’s more complete...Shall we swear to it one day?” Reed answers, “Wait till I understand it better.” Alienated, immured in himself, Gerald shies away from a brotherhood Bates longs to make “eternal,” seeking in the stony Gudrun an impersonal sexual relief, the only form of connection and catharsis he can permit himself, or, indeed, withstand. "You seem to be reaching at the void, and then you realize you are a void yourself,” he tells Rupert.

Gerald and Rupert wrestle by firelight.

Gerald and Rupert wrestle by firelight.

Angela Carter listed female submission as an element of Lawrence’s vision of sexual love. Yet it is Gudrun who holds Gerald in her thrall; just as Ursula overrides Rupert’s utopian longing for a love which would embrace other affinities, with her insistence that her love alone be enough for him, a monolith admitting no other competing affections. Women in Love anatomizes a would-be ideal community, a folie a quatre in which the women, especially Ursula, impose an indomitable archaic need for love as dyad. Of the four, only Gudrun is capable of detachment from monogamy, not through the pursuit of other men, but through her ultimate ability to sublimate sex in the service of art.

Gudrun sculpts a head of Gerald.

Gudrun sculpts a head of Gerald.

At the end, in the sublime, glittering Swiss Alps, Gudrun abandons Gerald’s brutal obsession within a a Nietzschean elevation of thin, pure mountain air, forging in its disorienting heights a sexless alliance with a German homosexual artist who promises her work--Arbeit--instead of love. “I think I shall go to Dresden,” she announces with sangfroid, finding at last her means to “fly away.”

In contrast, Ursula’s rage for possession of Rupert becomes no less implacable than Hermione’s, but comes furled in a more appealing persona, an instinctual capacity for “the real, dark sensual body of life,” in authentic answer to Rupert’s own drive. Ursula’s earthiness wins the day, at a price: Rupert’s rueful sacrifice of an ideal love for a male friend, eternal and irrevocable as the sexual centrifuge he lives out with Ursula. Angela Carter, like many critics, reads Rupert’s/Lawrence’s longing reductively, as suppressed homoeroticism. But I take Lawrence at his word, knowing that even the most absorbing and fixated love always lives with in a wider context of personalities and circumstances which provide breathing space for its survival, competing and disruptive though they may sometimes be.

Gerald traverses the Alps, to sleep and death.

Gerald traverses the Alps, to sleep and death.

The white, unbounded expanse of Women in Love’s final setting, the menacing sublimity of the Alps, signals each character’s unavoidable existential solitude through which each must make his or her way via different paths and urges. Gerald walks for miles alone in the snow until he falls asleep, and frozen, dies, an ironic echo of Rupert’s earlier speech to Ursula:  “I would like to die from our kind of life, reborn with a kind of love that is sleep….”

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Gudrun decamps for the European project of a new art that will fracture the aesthetics of the past, in parallel to her break with the psychic organization of her own past,  passions and place.

In the final scene, Rupert and Ursula, ensconced once more in his Midlands cottage, still debate a question which has no answer: Rupert’s vision of brotherhood in tandem with marriage, a desire Ursula pronounces to be “a perversity.” “You can’t have two kinds of love; why should you?”she asks.

“It seems as if I can’t, yet I wanted it,” he answers.’’

“You can’t have it because it’s impossible,” says Ursula.

Rupert’s reply leaves this enmeshed, embroidered drama and dilemma with four words that hover as a pregnant anticlimax, an enigma: “I don’t believe that.” There, very abruptly, the movie ends, with neither whimper or bang, but with an idea that will resurface, sometimes as secret psychosocial crisis, throughout the external traumas of the twentieth century. Who is our neighbor; may we have allegiances beyond the tiny fortress of the nuclear family? Lawrence’s expansive definition of love as multiple and liberating is as threatening today to the orders--familial, political, national--we cleave to even in their chaos.


Lisa Zeiger


Cinema captures the sound of speech close up and makes us hear in their materiality, their sensuality, the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence of the human muzzle (that the voice, that writing, be as fresh, supple, lubricated, delicately granular and vibrant as an animal's muzzle), to succeed in shifting the signified a great distance and in throwing, so to speak, the anonymous body of the actor into my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.

                                                                                                                          --Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

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                                           Karl-Heinz Bohm in Fox and His Friends (1975)

I was bewitched--I’m deliberately using Wittgenstein’s word, bezaubert--by the first Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie I ever saw, in 1977. It was Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven. The cinematography was as colorfully saturated as Douglas Sirk’s; the actors traipsed the ugly side of beautiful; but it was not what I saw but what I heard; it was the sound of German that knocked me out, a tongue I had rarely heard before but which suddenly seemed intimately, atavistically familiar: syllables I could not translate but which I understood.

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                     Brigitte Mira and Gottfried John in Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975)

German is a language often disdained as harsh, and harsh it is, like Germans themselves, rough even in the refinements of Hochdeutsch, which, from my first classes at Columbia University, I spoke with an almost flawless accent despite my halting grammar. It was in my palate, if not my blood. My paternal grandparents emigrated to Ohio from Lithuania in 1910, speaking Yiddish. They had been interlopers in Prussia. Learning German was a semi-conscious grail, an ancestral frustrated fate.

German is for contraltos, and for melancholics, for people dominated by bodies in search of speech. (It is curious, by the way, that Hans Castorp, tubercular hero of Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain, should reveal his love to Madame Chauchat by praising her very skeleton and muscles and veins-- her innards--in French, when she has expressly asked him to do so, “like a German, profoundly.” German, to me, epitomizes Barthes’ all-too-human muzzle. Only Arabic, which I will never learn, seems to me as deeply summoned from the body’s chasms.)

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                    Irm Hermann and Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Fox and His Friends (1975)

The old New Yorker Cinema, on Broadway on the Upper West Side, screened just about every film Fassbinder made between 1969 and 1977. After Mutter Kusters were shown Effi Briest, the wonderfully twisted Chinese Roulette, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Katzelmacher, Jailbait, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Satan’s Brew, A Merchant of Four Seasons, Beware of a Holy Whore, and Fox and His Friends. I just watched Fox again on YouTube and found it more poignant than ever, having now the ambivalent benefit of forty years’ experience, during which I learned first-hand how to exploit/be exploited. Fox, played by Fassbinder himself, is a good-hearted simpleton who wins the Lotto on a hunch, and is inveigled into blowing it all on his unloving lover’s business, apartment, furniture and apparel. A few years later, I would see In A Year with Thirteen Moons, the tormented story of Elvira, a gay man who undergoes sex-change surgery to land his straight lover, who promptly abandons him. It is a tale about the burnt offerings we make for love, wagering all, always irrevocably, on whatever we cannot have. On the subject of being fucked over, Fassbinder is the Old Master; about suffering he was never wrong.

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In a Year with Thirteen Moons (1978)

Fassbinder’s characters manipulate and destroy each other, not with fastidious irony--the British way--or with the upbeat hypocrisy of Americans, but in the long bombastic sentences of the Muttersprache, as intricately circuited as they are staccato, a language which follows every kiss with a slap. Germans have never killed anybody with kindness. Tactlessly, they say what they mean and mean what they say, with deeds, from breakups to mass murder, to prove their point.

Having said that, Germans are also extraordinarily clear in declarations of love, uttered sparingly, perhaps but a few times in a lifetime, but with what the Austrian novelist Peter Handke called the moment of true feeling. Ich liebe Dich is reserved for the real thing, and you can trust it. There are weaker variants: Ich hab’ Dich gerne, ich hab’ Dich lieb. I have heard all three, but with the first, I heard the mermaids singing, knowing with jubilant disbelief I had reached solid land. The jiltings were equally firm, the sentence their winding sheet.

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Hanna Schygulla and George Byrd in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

It is true, as Mark Twain observed with great merriment, that in German the verb in a dependent clause must come at the very end of a preposterously sinuous sequence of modifiers that can go on for pages. Then again, in a main clause, the verb must be the second word, a punch unsoftened by the folderol of adverbs. The genius of German is for combining serpentine indirection with a single, sledgehammer blow. I have learned much about the endless possibilities of English from the detours and ultimate directness of German. I borrow its whiplash inversions; I mimic its final crack.

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Peter Chatel in Fox and His Friends (1975)

Fassbinder’s ear is for the love-slap, his early films, especially, a theatre of cruelty. His voices cut to the heart, and to the heart of the matter. They cut, they come. Occasionally, as in Mutter Kusters, there is grace at the end; unlikely kindness, the impossible boon of reconciliation; or the simple friendliness of a stranger. More often, there is suicide, slow or sudden. Fassbinder himself died in 1982 of an overdose at 37, having made over forty films in fifteen years. I think improbably of the great English architect, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who died of overwork at forty, having reinvented the Gothic, and designed, among many other monumental buildings, the Houses of Parliament.

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Katzelmacher (1969)

Fassbinder was an architect, not only of films, but of a strangely cohesive, almost eternally bonded band of actors, intimates who virtually all recount the seductions and punishments of the director’s ineluctable will while mourning him still. Fassbinder made each actor feel herself to be the only person in the room, perhaps the only person in his richly populated life, which included male and female lovers, and even, at one point, a marriage, to the actress Ingrid Caven.

Fassbinder, polymorphous and polyamorous, was never polyglot. Only in German, a language of incandescent order and shock, could post-war Germany be bodied forth. And, only post-war Germany, with its plangent need for expiation, could have produced such a sort of Caravaggio for its time, a film director who incited ordinary mortals to pose, enact, and displace an unspeakable past onto the present-day smaller stage of near and dear: in a vocalise as sad as it is strident.

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Brigitte Mira and El Hedi Ben Salem in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)














Lisa Zeiger



“The world will treat your children as you have treated them.”--Alice Neel


To reopen, at sixty, the pages of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, a children’s book I first read at six, is to uncover my real childhood, the one lived in the house of books, rather than the contemporary house I lived in, often in terror, in the hills of Los Angeles in the 1960s.

My father was Jewish, my mother, Unitarian. I suppose I had a vaguely Christian orientation, imposed by the right-wing, faux-WASP, fancy private school I attended, but I knew the faith preached there was one of hypocrite punishers. It was not until my forties that I was able to shed that trauma, and be baptized into the Episcopal Church.

But to this day, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, published in 1955 and still in print, is my true catechism. I have never read Homer, or Pindar, or Aeschylus, but from the d’Aulaires--a married couple, who met in 1929 in Munich while studying with the painter Hans Hoffman, and later knew Robert Graves, traveling the Greek islands, sketching and writing-- I know the names and deeds of every Olympian, every one of their offspring, every mortal, every monarch, every hero, every beast, and every monster.

The foibles, powers and beauties of the Greeks still make more sense to me than the protagonists and punishments of the Bible. Certainly, at six, they sheltered me from and explained to me the irrational rage of father, school, and spoilt peers. The displeasure of the gods was always emotionally intelligible, whereas I have never understood God’s rejection of Cain’s offering of his harvest, while exalting Abel’s burnt cattle. An Episcopal priest blithely explained it to me this way: “Perhaps God wanted a ham sandwich that day.” But if God is all-knowing, he knew his favoritism would incite fratricide. I have always sided with Cain, the murderous sower; just as I honor Hagar, the slave who bears Abraham a son, Ishmael--the outcasts--more than I do Sarah, Abraham’s barren wife, who chastises Hagar in jealousy, before, at ninety, giving birth to Abraham’s second son, Isaac. At six, I did not yet know I was illegitimate, but I sensed in myself the scapegoat, the proof of something not quite warded off.

Genealogy of the Gods.

Genealogy of the Gods.

The magnificent illustrations of the d’Aulaires were my initiation into the wonderful counterpoint of word and image that is possible, and which ought to be mandatory in our lives. (Alice in Wonderland was another such experience, and, indeed, another literary shelter, but it was d’Aulaires’ that first gave me an inkling of the divine connection between logos and eikon.)

At six, I was unnaturally curious about the gods’ methods of seducing mortals. When I remember the Greek myths, the first I think of is one from the middle of the collection; of the beautiful Danae, immured by her father, King Acrisius, in a sealed room with only an opening in the roof, because an oracle had foretold that his daughter’s son would kill him. “There no suitor could see her beauty and she would remain unwed and childless.” Wily  Zeus, however, visits Danae in the form of a shower of gold pieces. Danae gives birth to Perseus; upon discovering the infant and realizing he is the son of Zeus, Acrisius does not kill him, but locks Danae and Perseus in a chest which he casts out to sea. “If they drowned, Poseidon would be to blame.”

Zeus visits Danae as a shower of gold.

Zeus visits Danae as a shower of gold.

It is Perseus who will ultimately decapitate the Medusa, one of the three hideous Gorgon sisters who turn all who set eyes on them to stone. In Athena’s protectively mirrored shield, he sees that “long yellow fangs hung from their grinning mouths, on their heads grew writhing snakes instead of hair, and their necks were covered with scales of bronze.” From Medusa’s head springs Pegasus, a beautiful white winged horse.

               Perseus and Andromeda.

               Perseus and Andromeda.

With winged sandals and a cloak of invisibility, Perseus escapes the surviving Gorgons and flies over the coast of Ethiopia, where he sees, “far below, a beautiful maiden chained to a rock by the sea. She was so pale that at first he thought she was a marble statue, but then he saw tears trickling from her eyes.” Andromeda is the daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, whose vain boast that she was lovelier than Poseidon’s daughters, the Nereids, so inflames the god that he sends a sea monster to ravage the kingdom of Ethiopia. King Cepheus appeases Poseidon with the sacrifice of his only daughter, Andromeda,to the monster, whom she awaits in fright and whom Perseus slays.

This tale of  beauty, secrecy, imprisonment by a father, and discovery by a god was a myth I prematurely recognized and would unconsciously live by, and, on charmed occasion, live out.  The association of beauty with gold pieces reminds me of a favorite passage from Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl, the narrator’s description of another forbidden heroine, Charlotte Stant, as metaphorically envisaged by her lover and brother-in-law, the Prince:

He knew above all the extraordinary fineness of her flexible waist, the stem of an expanded flower, which gave her a likeness also to some long loose silk purse, well filled with gold-pieces, but having been passed empty through a finger-ring that held it together.

A second myth I love is the story of Io, a maiden seduced, then changed by Zeus into a beautiful white cow to deceive his jealous wife Hera, who cannily asks Zeus for the cow as a gift, one he cannot refuse. “Hera tied poor Io to a tree and sent her servant Argus to keep watch over her. Argus had a hundred bright eyes placed all over his body...He was Hera’s faithful servant and the best of watchmen, for he never closed more than half of his eyes in sleep at a time.”

To rescue Io, Zeus sends the god Hermes, disguised as a shepherd, to entertain Argus first with his lyre, then with a tale so dull the watchman’s eyes all close and he dies of boredom. Io runs home to her father, the river-god Inachos. “He did not recognize his daughter, and Io could not tell him what had happened, all she could say was, “Mooo!” But when she lifted up her little hoof and scratched her name, “I-O,” in the sand, her father at once understood what had happened, for he knew the ways of Zeus.” Zeus defends himself against Inachos’ revenge by throwing a thunderbolt, parching forever the river-bed Inachos in Arcadia.

Hera, Argus , and Io.

Hera, Argus , and Io.

Hera, in turn, furious that Argus is dead and Io the cow, free, sends a vicious gad-fly to sting her. “To be sure that her faithful servant Argus would never be forgotten, she took his hundred bright eyes and put them on the tail of the peacock, her favorite bird. The eyes could no longer see, but they looked gorgeous, and that went to the peacock’s little head, and made it the vainest of all animals.”

The gadfly chases Io “all the way to the land of Egypt,” where she is worshiped by the Egyptians and becomes an Egyptian goddess. Hera permits Zeus to change Io back into human shape if he promises never to look at her again. “Io lived long as the goddess-queen of Egypt, and the son she bore to Zeus became king after her. Her descendants returned to Greece as great kings and beautiful queens. Poor Io’s sufferings had not been in vain.”

Both these myths are starred with the themes of beauty, jealousy, rescue of a captive (usually through her transformation) and just deserts. I see also the recurrent Oedipal scenario of youth held in captivity by age, spurred by the elder’s fear of being murdered by his offspring, or betrayed by a younger spouse. Demeter’s daughter Persephone is confined to the underworld for half of each year by her husband, Hades; Aphrodite skips out on her old husband, Hephaestus, with the dashing war-god, Ares. Everywhere youth is the prey of parents and gods.

In my late twenties, a psychoanalyst told me that beauty was for me an “overdetermined” category. Primal and primary, perhaps; yet I  learned from Athena, my favorite goddess, that wisdom, too, has power. When I read the myth of Paris, Prince of Troy, who must decide which goddess, Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite, should win the golden apple of Discord, Paris gives it to Aphrodite. Aphrodite has promised him Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman on earth, overwhelming the youth-- himself extraordinarily beautiful--so that he spurns the worldly power offered by Hera and the supreme wisdom pledged by Athena. I told my mother, “I would choose wisdom, because with wisdom you can learn how to have both beauty and power.”

Athena born from the head of Zeus.

Athena born from the head of Zeus.

Athena springs full-grown from the head of her father, Zeus, as the goddess of wisdom, victory, and, oddly, handicrafts, At thirty I would begin to study this last discipline, as a thread of art history. I identified also with Athena’s precocious maturity, at least in intellectual matters. I loved the gods partly because they were adult, rather than fairytale children led astray. When I was thirty-four, my lover’s mother told me Grimm’s fairy tale, die Sterntaler (star-currency), the story of the little match girl who gives away all her clothes, until, naked in a storm, she is showered with gold coins from Heaven. I silently wept, hiding my face while doing the dishes. When I mentioned the little girl’s similarity to Danae, the mother replied, “Das war aber was anders.” “But that was something different.”

Reading D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was an imaginative escape that promised an eventual, actual escape from childhood and its tyrannies, the reason, perhaps, that I return to it now as I do not return to Alice in Wonderland, the story of a child. We remain, to one extent or another, sealed in childhood our whole lives long, receiving gold through a hole in the roof, only to be thrown into a sea-chest and swept away: to survive, sometimes to subdue; at last, to love, the mysteriously patterned commotions of our fate.

Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur in his labyrinth.

Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur in his labyrinth.

Over the door of the d’Aulaires’ house in Vermont, still lived in by their son, Nils, are inscribed the words, “This is the House that Books built.” The d’Aulaires built for me a house of many mansions, a house with deep porticos, celestial views, looming towers, and hidden doorways. I am still tracing its unending labyrinth.



Lisa Zeiger

Most histories of 20th century design, as epitomized by the Bauhaus and its progeny, exalt the brightly lit subject of function, while eliding mention of Modernism’s mystical and even Symbolist shadow, an origin opposite to the official Modernist Genesis story of design and a new visual style driven by the imperatives of industrial production.


A few great scholars of architecture, decorative art, and design, notably Joseph Rykwert and David Brett, trace with erudition and subtlety the Modernist obsession with function and progress back to roots consumed with form, symbol, and mystery.  In David Brett’s slim, seminal book, Charles Rennie Mackintosh: The Poetics of Workmanship, he locates Mackintosh’s early inspiration in the European Symbolists, imbibed through the person of Jean Delville (1867-1953), the Belgian Symbolist artist  who taught Mackintosh and his future wife Margaret MacDonald at the Glasgow School of Art in the early part of the first decade of the 20th century.



Joseph Rykwert’s illuminating 1968 essay, “The Dark Side of the Bauhaus,” reminds us that in its beginnings the Bauhaus owed as much to the artist and Zoroastrian devotee,  Johannes Itten, who wore a monk’s habit while teaching color theory, and to Wassily Kandinsky, the Bauhaus’ greatest artist, deeply interested in Theosophy and  the writings of Rudolf Steiner--who revived European interest in Goethe’s color theory-- as to the steely rationalism of Walter Gropius and, later, Moholy-Nagy. Itten’s practice and belief, according to Rykwert, was that “the whole personality must be involved in the work; the designer’s and the artist’s activity must involve the mind, the body, the senses and the memory, and the unconscious urges. Of Itten, Rykwert concludes his essay with these words, “It may be that [Itten] represents the Bauhaus at its darkest. But then, I think it was also the Bauhaus at its richest.” The Weimar Bauhaus of 1919 was a school bifurcated between the firmament of reason and the deep waters of something close to religious belief.



Exactly such  depths, such shadows, both literal and metaphorical, attend the Modernist clarity and clean lines of interior designer Charles Burleigh’s design of a small Greenwich Village apartment. Rectilinear planes intersect or divide the space, yet their solidity is always in question, always floating. It is an almost Minimalist interior--Mies van der Rohe’s sternly beautiful leather daybed is there-- and yet there are dark corners one does not readily associate with the cult of plainness. Diaphanous cream sheer curtains both admit and mute the sunlight, fomenting an almost hypnotic feeling in this otherwise shipshape space. Colors stream in through art works: a red abstract painting, the lime green of sofa and  vase, a silvery coverlet in the bedroom.



In Greenwich Village, Burleigh may have created a compact machine for living, but how much more intensely has he made a space--within the great city-- for contemplation.