• print • Dec/Jan 2020

    New as Foam, Old as Rock

    Pop critics are a sensitive lot. We fret about not being taken seriously and our heroes not getting a spot in the marble. Somehow the economic downturn hit us hardest, click-horny editors happened only to us, and the corrosives of social media burned us worst. And yet! We dropped into this foamy chaos of our own accord, this liminal gig with the lightest of accreditations and a very short stack of traditions to deform, or defend.

    At least some of this sense of insult is a response to real tendencies. Over the past fifty years, the music critic has gently shifted in position, from antagonistic

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    Very Fine House

    Few artists have proved as agile in mining American visual culture as Jess. Born Burgess Franklin Collins in Long Beach, California, in 1923, the former chemist reconfigured media clippings, mail-order catalogues, and comic strips into complex, beguiling little universes, omnivorous and imaginative, displaying a formidable literacy of both written word and image. His paste-ups (as he preferred to term them) suggested amalgams of almanacs, the backs of cereal boxes, and pages from Life magazine, by way of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, James Joyce, the chronicles of Oz, and the stoop-front

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    You Can’t Go Home Again

    The Mississippi River and its tributaries flood perennially. To protect the settlements along its banks, the Army Corps of Engineers created a system of levees and canals that forced the waters to an unnatural course. The Great Flood of 1927 uprooted nearly a million people from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. It disrupted the Mississippi Delta’s sharecropping economy and, in one of the Great Migration’s largest waves, drove a generation of black strivers from rural life into cities. A wealth of literature immortalized the flood and its aftermath, and elders tallied their losses in oral accounts.

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    Hildegard von Bingen: A Journey into the Images

    IN THE PAST FEW DECADES, the accomplishments of medieval polymath and visionary Hildegard von Bingen have gained widespread recognition. The Benedictine abbess was born in 1098 and, over the course of her long life, excelled as an artist, composer, and author. She extended the melodic range of sacred music, wrote sizable tomes that combined her deep studies of botany and medicine, and even found time to invent an alphabet. She also wrote and illustrated three works devoted to the apparitions she regularly beheld beginning at the age of five. The manuscript of Scivias (a contraction of the phrase

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    A Boy’s Own Story

    Even when a photograph of a wounded or suffering child becomes familiar, it retains the power to unsettle. The smudged face of a sharecropper’s daughter, children arrayed behind barbed wire at Auschwitz, a starving Biafran child, a nine-year-old girl seared by napalm in Vietnam—these images still disturb viewers and prompt strong responses. Yet, as Susan Sontag argued in On Photography, it’s difficult to measure their ultimate utility: “The knowledge gained through still photographs,” she wrote, “will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist.” That propensity for

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    Absolutes and Intermediates

    A “VISIONARY,” A “PROPHET,” A “MODERN-DAY LEONARDO”: Writers often resort to panegyrics when confronted with the eccentric, daunting intellect of Agnes Denes. Given the ambition of the octogenarian artist’s career, which spans fifty years and emerges from deep research into philosophy, mathematics, symbolic logic, and environmental science, it’s hard to fault them.

    And yet, as important as she has been to Conceptual and Land art, Denes, by her own reckoning, has been “marginalized” within these movements. That’s finally beginning to change, with a major retrospective this fall at The Shed in

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    Styles of Radical Will

    In April 1973, the twenty-four-year-old Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta invited her fellow University of Iowa MFA students to her apartment. They arrived to find the door ajar. Stepping inside, they encountered a grisly tableau, a performance later known as Untitled (Rape Scene). Tied to a table and bent at the waist, Mendieta wore a plaid shirt loosely over her torso while her lower half remained exposed: underwear around her ankles, backside and legs smeared with blood, all harshly spot-lit. The artist later recalled that her classmates immediately “all sat down, and started talking about

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    Reality Bite

    There’s a scene in André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me by Your Name in which a teenage boy ejaculates inside a peach. Later, his older lover, a family houseguest, finds the fruit and eats it in front of him, slowly, deliberately. They’re not even in flagrante delicto; it’s only barely a sex act. “He was still chewing. In the heat of passion it would have been one thing. But this was quite another. He was taking me away with him.”

    You already know that Call Me by Your Name involves peach fucking, just as you know that Fatal Attraction involves bunny boiling; such is the power of cinema. In Luca

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    Nice Work If You Can Get It

    A riddle: What’s made of mink-coated totems, toothpaste Lolitas, Thunderbirds, middlebrow colas, Kotex napkins, and Versace decadence? Answer: Avedon Advertising (Abrams, $125), a three-hundred-and-fifty-page collection of wall-to-wall, in-your-face ads—a dizzying exercise in optic overload. Richard Avedon’s impossibly long-running, far-ranging advertising work—created alongside his fashion and portrait photography—amounted to a sixty-year-long research project. How many forms of mild contradiction could he juggle inside a strictly commercial picture? How many suave anomalies could fit in an

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    “Nobody Likes Being Called a Cesspool”

    My relationship with D. H. Lawrence began in high school, when I bought a copy of Sons and Lovers more or less at random and proceeded to read it all the way through, by which I mean that my eyes literally traversed every page and recognized that the English language was there recorded in some complexity. But the words, instead of building a reality I could enter and move around in, were like a continually dying fluorescence. I had no idea what was going on. What registered was something like “words, words, flower, sentence, words, coal mining” (like I knew what a coal mine was). As far as I

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    Artful Volumes

    Gracing the cover of BILL CUNNINGHAM: ON THE STREET: FIVE DECADES OF FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY (Clarkson Potter, $65) is the subject of this tome, rendered as a white silhouette and wearing his trademark bleu de travail. He’s hiding his face behind a camera and perched sidesaddle on a golden bicycle—colored, surely, to match his generous heart. Cunningham died in 2016 at the age of eighty-seven, working to the very end on what he adored most: documenting beauty. His decades-long presence at the New York Times, for which he captured Gotham’s most nattily attired—regardless of age, race, sex, or class—is

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  • print • Dec/Jan 2020

    The Princess Diaries

    The first line of Carrie Fisher’s debut novel, Postcards from the Edge, is still one of the best opening volleys of all time: “Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares?” It is so good, in fact, that it only could have come from her—despite the fact that when Postcards was published, in 1987, the Los Angeles Times tried to foment a minor scandal about whether or not Fisher really wrote it. She had enlisted a good friend, Paul Slansky, as an “editor” of the book, and his name below hers on the title page was causing readers and critics a bit of

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