Albert Mobilio

  • Forrest Bess: Seeing Things Invisible

    In a 1948 letter to art critic Meyer Schapiro, Forrest Bess introduced himself as a “painter-fisherman.” Over the course of their correspondence (as well as in an exchange with art dealer Betty Parsons), Bess detailed the elaborate system of symbols encoded in his art. While the shoreline landscape of Chinquapin Bay in Texas, where he lived, figures vividly in his paintings, the symbolism expresses a different aspect of nature—his theories on sexuality, particularly a belief in hermaphroditism as a transcendent union of opposites. (The letters also recount—with photographic evidence—an attempt

  • Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives

    AMONG THE MANY cautionary examples cited by critics of the US security and surveillance establishment, the German Democratic Republic’s Stasi stands out in bold relief. The organization employed over ninety thousand full-time spies and police—but the truly depressing figure is its nearly two hundred thousand informants (some estimates run as high as two million). Since the wall fell in 1989, films, memoirs, and historical accounts have described a society riven with suspicion among colleagues, friends, and family members; a lot of citizens were their brothers’ keepers. Berlin-based artist Simon

  • Into the Mystic

    In 1953 Philip Lamantia joined four other poets for what is probably America’s most famous poetry reading, the word famous, of course, being highly relative when modifying anything to do with verse. Allen Ginsberg’s inaugural presentation of his declamatory epic “Howl” made the event at San Francisco’s Six Gallery historic, while the other writers on the bill—Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen—also took their first step toward wider recognition. For Lamantia, though, the reading wasn’t quite as decisive. Reluctant to offer his own work, he read poems by John Hoffman, his recently

  • Marcel Dzama: Sower of Discord

    IN THE EIGHTH CIRCLE of Dante’s hell reside the Sowers of Discord, those who have caused divisiveness in their families, cities, and faiths. The poet, deploying his ever-apt touch with punishments, describes them being sliced and diced by a demonic swordsman. Since the late 1990s, Marcel Dzama has populated his ink-and-watercolor drawings with sundry dismemberments and wounds accomplished by swords, knives, arrows, guns, bats, and the occasional mace; the malevolent images may be inspired by hellish doings, but this is hell as circus ring or costume ball. Dzama’s discord sowers are a curiously

  • Charles A. A. Dellschau

    A RESCUE-AND-RECOVERY NARRATIVE is fundamental to all outsider art: Revelatory works are saved from forgotten archives, abandoned apartments, and mental-hospital closets, and spirited away to museums and Park Avenue apartments. The storytelling frisson of the near miss imbues these works with an aura of serendipity as well as preciousness. Charles A. A. Dellschau, a German-immigrant butcher, spent his retirement in the first decades of the twentieth century creating a dozen densely illustrated booklike collections of airship images. After his death in Houston at age ninety-three in 1923, the

  • Man Ray: Portraits

    “MY WORKS ARE PURELY PHOTOMETRIC,” Man Ray declared in a note for a London exhibition in 1959. Although he began his career with a brush, the artist turned to the camera in 1922, and it was with this instrument that he proved a pivotal influence on fellow Dadaists and Surrealists. Man Ray never quite felt that photography—his own or the art form in general—deserved the respect accorded to painting (after all, he merely measured light). But this ambivalence didn’t affect his lifelong effort to innovate within the medium. Much of his work experimented with techniques to produce strange and

  • Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels

    IN A SKETCHBOOK NOTE, Jasper Johns put the plan and practice of modern art simply: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.” As an early-twentieth-century harbinger of this creative tack, Joseph Cornell’s Untitled Book Object was first displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a 1998 show that also featured, appropriately enough, Marcel Duchamp. Cornell most likely acquired the French agricultural yearbook that became the basis for this work on one of his treasure hunts among the bookstalls and junk shops of Manhattan sometime in the early ’30s. Like so much of the

  • Patterns: Divided, Mirrored, Repeated by Gerhard Richter

    IN A RECENT TIME magazine profile, the renowned German artist Gerhard Richter confessed his admiration for John Cage, particularly the composer’s famous dictum on poetry, “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it.” Cage substituted silence for actual notes, and Richter, in recent works of epic reproduction, substitutes multiplication for brushstrokes. Nowhere is this more in evidence than the artist’s book Patterns, a dizzyingly intense exploration of one of his works, 1990’s Abstract Painting (724-4). Richter digitally divided an image of that artwork a dozen times (then split those divisions

  • Atmospheric Disturbances

    What do we make of the adjective poetic when applied to prose fiction? While meant as praise, the modifier often sways backhandedly—as eclectic does for a menu—warning that what’s ahead may prove puzzling at best or downright indigestible at worst. Certainly the description indicates the presence of typical techniques—rhythm, alliteration, figurative language, and the like—as well as a density of both locution and imagery. But when used to characterize prose, on book jackets or in reviews, there’s an abiding sense the word also signals effeteness and self-indulgence: This is no mere page-turner

  • Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music

    IF YOU DRIVE ACROSS the US or even anywhere outside the I-95 corridor, you discover that country music dominates the airwaves. New Mexico, Maine, or Montana—regardless of region, the radio twangs in tones redolent of Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. Country music is without a doubt this country’s music. Its cultural associations—the clothes, attitudes, and politics—also hold sway: Country style’s quixotic combination of the outlandish (rhinestones, tattoos, hard drinkin’, and bolo ties) with that old-time religion generates a paradoxical—but no less enjoyable—frisson. Sin and salvation have been

  • Mannequin

    ALTHOUGH SCULPTED FROM PLASTIC instead of marble, mass-produced, and typically equipped with both arms, store-window mannequins share an aesthetic as well as a sociological lineage with the Venus de Milo. Depictions of feminine beauty whose aspect and proportion proffer benchmark ideals have been around a long time—no doubt many Athenian women in 100 BC compared themselves with Alexandros of Antioch’s handiwork, as do contemporary Americans with the shiny simulacra draped in the latest styles. Still, shopwindow dummies are hardly built for the ages; their machined uniformity highlights by

  • Past Forward

    Joe Brainard achieved a singular position in the poetry world before his death from AIDS-induced pneumonia in 1994. An artist identified with a rarefied strain of Pop art, he was also a poet affiliated with the so-called New York School, a loose collection of wry Francophiles who could be readily described in the mid-’60s as avant-garde without anyone wincing at the designation. Ensconced in the circumscribed world of highbrow, camp-inflected culture, Brainard penned I Remember—a litany of self-regard whose formal rigor sharpens the kind of intimacies that invite readers to feel like coconspirators.

  • Backyard Oasis: The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, 1945–1982

    SWIMMING POOLS. MOVIE STARS. The Clampetts found them when they moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. And they are what you find in this portable summer-between-covers collection of SoCal pool photos that feature the likes of Rock Hudson, Marilyn Monroe, assorted muscle boys, starlets, society dames, and just plain kids romping round the cement ponds. The shimmering aqua-blue parentheses in an otherwise bone-dry landscape are the locale’s most iconic domestic feature; what the stoop is to New York City, the poolside chaise lounge is to La La Land. If the stoop constitutes the border between home

  • Supercell

    STORMY WEATHER, there’s no sun up in the sky. But there’s plenty else. Nebraskan photographer Kevin Erskine captures epic doings in the skies over the Great Plains, where layers of cool and warm, dry and humid air clash to create tornadoes, lightning, and, if conditions are right, an especially combustible tempest called the supercell—a massive swirling thunderstorm whose powerful updrafts often precede twisters. Erskine’s artistic forebears include renowned skyscape painters J. M. W. Turner and Jacob van Ruisdael, who often devoted more than half of their canvas to the great swath of

  • James Castle: Show and Store

    IF THERE WERE A JOB APPLICATION for America’s archetypal “outsider artist,” James Castle could check almost all the appropriate boxes: Deaf, illiterate, untrained, and undiscovered until he reached his fifties, he lived his entire life (he died in 1977) on a farm in Idaho. There he employed ink made from spit and soot to draw on discarded packages, as well as bits of string to fashion cardboard constructions. His use of cast-off materials might have been inspired by Dadaist art if Castle had known about Marcel Duchamp, or really about anything beyond his immediate surroundings. As it

  • Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page

    MOBY-DICK IS ONE OF THOSE WORKS of literature more honored than fully read. Many a bold reader has sailed into its opening pages only to leap overboard in the midst of some lengthy, minutiae-rich account of the whaling business. Melville’s action-adventure scenes, harpooning rather than sperm milking, have certainly inspired visual artists—from the Rockwell Kent expressionist woodcuts published in a 1930 edition of the novel, to the ’40s Classics Illustrated comic-book versions, to Will Eisner’s recent graphic retelling. Kent’s copious illustrations—nearly 280 images—kick-started interest in

  • Precocity Exhibition

    Patti Smith shoplifted a volume of his poems and found revelation. Jim Morrison earnestly corresponded with his English translator. On first reading the work, Bob Dylan reports that “bells went off.” Throw in Salinger, Dylan Thomas, and most of the Beats, and you’ve got a good idea of Arthur Rimbaud’s enduring fan base: rebels besotted with language. That all of these rockers and writers fell in love with the author when they were adolescents or just a little older is no surprise—the French Symbolist wrote all of his legendary poems before turning twenty-one. But Rimbaud’s heroic stature has

  • Houdini: Art and Magic

    First, swallow a handful of needles. Chase with thread. Wash down with a glass of water, then retrieve from your mouth a fully threaded line. That’s the East Indian Needle Threading Trick, and if you’re not Ehrich Weiss—this ruse was one of his staples when he first took to the stage in the 1890s—you may be in trouble. A rabbi’s son born in Budapest, he startled audiences around the world for more than three decades performing as the Great Houdini, magician and escape artist nonpareil. The catalogue for the show currently on display at New York’s Jewish Museum charts the performer’s career from

  • Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century

    A rubbery lump, the human brain swirling in a specimen jar is an unimposing sight—more an overgrown mushroom than the seat of consciousness. The old gray matter is just that: gray. But when depicted by skilled anatomists or subjected to microscopes, MRIs, and electroencephalographs by neuroscientists, the brain and its parts can offer up visually bracing displays that call to mind an array of painters—from Motherwell and Kline to Julie Mehretu and Fred Tomaselli. Portraits of the Mind begins with a sketch of the nervous system done in eleventh-century Cairo that ably represents the movement of

  • Destroy This Memory

    Richard Misrach’s camera follows hard upon carnage. Whether it’s a crater-pocked desert landscape used by the navy as a bombing range or dead-animal disposal sites adjacent to contaminated military installations, he’s drawn to the imagery of aftermath. No surprise, then, that he headed to New Orleans in the fall of 2005 and began recording what the floodwaters had left behind. Among the many documentary records of Katrina’s devastation, Misrach’s images form a distinct and provocative subcategory: pictures of graffiti scrawled on wrecked buildings, vehicles, and even trees. The photos—which