Fabric, feathers, fur

What’s on at the Williams College Museum of Art

The little New England college town of Williamstown, Massachusettsis not only home to the Clark Institute of Art, one of the Berkshires’ star cultural attractions—right up there with Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Mass MOCA, the Williamstown Theater Festival—but also to the Williams College Museum of Art. While the WCMA’s profile may not be as high as the Clark’s, its shows are second to none, intellectually engaging and elegantly staged. And admission is free.

Even during the summer, when the Ivy League school’s students are away, the museum has a lot going on, talks, performances, and other events as well as exhibitions. On a recent visit, I spent time with three of the shows: Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob’s Pillow, 1906-1940 (through 11/11)  RAWR! A WCMA Bestiary (10/31), and Sam Gilliam in Dialogue (9/3).


Among the 350-plus objects in Dance We Must, the most ravishing treasures are the costumes, headdresses, and accessories worn by modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn, the founder of Jacob’s Pillow, and Ruth St. Denis, and the Denishawn Company dancers (1914-29).



The costumes were designed for maximum dramatic effect, and the craftsmanship behind their creation is brilliant.



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Made from gorgeous fabrics (velvet, lamé, silk), weighty with seed pearls, costume jewels, sequins, and beadwork, befeathered, and dense with embroidery, they are show-stoppers on mannequins, but you also get to see them in motion, in vintage film footage playing at various spots in the exhibition. (I took the photograph of St. Denis from one of the videos; here’s a snippet on my Instagram account fsfoto.)



You might wonder how it was even possible to move in some of the costumes. In a New York Times article, curator Kevin Murphy said that Shawn talked about “staggering under the weight” of his genuine matador’s traje de luces, or “suit of lights,” but in a film of Shawn performing with it on, Murphy noted, Shawn looked “really nimble.”

St. Denis wore the voluminous kimono (below) for her 1913 dance O-Mika over five other kimonos, another triumph of the creative spirit over the flesh. I was surprised to learn that the kimono, like many of the costumes, had been stored in one of the original trunks of the dance company, dating from the Twenties, since 1981. You can read the fascinating details of the objects’ curatorial unearthing here.








Photographs, paintings, props, and ephemera complement the displays of costumes and make it an altogether immersive experience. The visual splendor of it all is bedazzling, but there’s also a proverbial elephant in the room, and the curators didn’t ignore it.



When St. Denis and Shawn created their dances, they drew heavily from Asian and Native American sources, among others. They admired those sources. They found the dance forms of India, Japan, the Hopi inspiring and embraced them for their authenticity, even championing them as legitimate art at a time when Western critics and institutions designated them inferior. At the same time, St. Denis and Shawn altered and romanticized these dances. One of the show’s merits is that it raises the question, when does artistic interpretation become appropriation?




After risking sensory overload with the ornate objects in Dance We Must, you can refresh yourself by spending time with Sam Gilliam in Dialogue. Gilliam’s painted, draped canvasses are as lush, sensuous, physical, and suggestive of movement in their own way as any dance costume, but it’s the viewer’s eye that does the dancing.

Since it opened in January, this exhibition has been reinstalled twice to set up, as the title notes, conversations on three different subjects between Gilliam’s Situation VI-Pisces 4, a new WMCA acquisition (below), and works by a total of 13 other artists.

“Topographies of Color,” the current and final of the three, prompts the viewer to think not only about color, but also about form, scale, technique, surface, and, naturally, the diverse nature of art, through the back-and-forth between Gilliam’s art and pieces by Lynda Benglis, Helen Frankenthaler, Gene Davis, Morris Louis, and Jules Olitski.





And then, there’s RAWR! Drawn from the museum’s extensive collection (a fact that is impressive in itself), the art ranges across time, continents, moods, media.



cat.wcma.wolfeA medieval unicorn tapestry here, a Max Ernst bird there, some of the artworks are whimsical; others totemic. They play off each other, and all reward scrutiny, be it an ancient Egyptian cat sculpture, a Joseph Cornell collage, an early 20th-century Chinese calligraphic painting of a panda drinking from a bowl, the West African Antelope Marionette Head, or Jean-François de Troy’s oil Declaration of Amour, c. 1724 (detail, above).





RAWR! is more than a winning menagerie of artworks; it has a philosophical underpinning. In fact, it is presented in conjunction with the Williams College course “The Philosophy of Animals,” taught by Professor Joe Cruz.

“At a moment when species are dying off at an alarming pace, RAWR! considers how art has helped to create arbitrary distinctions between the human and the animal,” reads the WMCA’s exhibition description, and bravo to the museum for making the point.

There are certainly images that speak of that man vs. beast division: the trompe l’oeil painting of a very red (read: boiled) lobster tacked to a board, for instance, the delicate Persian watercolor depicting the gruesome finale of a tiger hunt, and Robert Doisneau’s poignant, disturbing photograph L’Innocent, of a pig’s head in a butcher shop.

Yet overwhelmingly to me, the show iterates that we humans and animals are connected. (Granted, I’m someone who frees moths trapped on the wrong side of a window.) Clearly artists have long understood that through representing animals they find a means of expressing their own feelings and ideas. Again and again, the works in this show reveal the power of animals to amuse, charm, mystify, move, and speak to us. And, I hope, RAWR! encourages people to speak up for animals.




Are you a moth rescuer? Do you have a favorite artwork featuring an animal? A favorite place in the Berkshires?

Let’s be “in dialogue.” Share your thoughts, tell me a story, leave a comment,  like the post, if you’re so moved.

(Left, terra-cotta Standing Dog, Mexico, 350 BCE–300 CE, from the WMCA collection.)







Aloha, Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii at the New York Botanical Garden

Art lovers know Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of the high desert of the Southwest, but fewer are aware perhaps of her “Hawaii period.”  In 1939, courtesy of the Dole Pineapple Company, the artist spent nearly 10 weeks in Hilo, Kaua’i, Hana, Oahu, and elsewhere on the islands.

Waterfall, No. I, Īao Valley, Maui, 
Oil on canvas, 19 1/8 x 16 in.
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art 
© 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society, 
New York

Seventeen of the exuberant paintings that came out of her travels are exhibited in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Art Gallery at the New York Botanical Garden, through October 28. At least as voluptuous is the profusion of Hawaiian flora on view in the magnificent Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, also part of the NYBG’s dazzling exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii.

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Some plants are native; many others were introduced by settlers, starting with the Polynesians who traveled to Hawaii by voyaging canoe 1,500 years ago. All lend themselves to close-ups.


Nature was a primary subject and a constant source of inspiration to O’Keeffe. Rapturous use of color is also a hallmark of her work, so it’s no surprise that in her first letter* to her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe immediately set herself to describing the landscape and identifying the Hawaiian palette.

“How do you do! Here I am in Honolulu as you see—on the Richards lawn out toward the ocean,” she wrote Stieglitz hours after her arrival. “The shade is sort of thick and light at the same time—the sun pale—a long dreamy blue sort of a mountain raising up out of the ocean.”

Georgia O’Keeffe on Leho‘ula Beach © Estate of Harold Stein

In later letters, O’Keeffe continued to describe in detail what she saw: “It was a dry-looking tree with a bright red feathery flower and foliage from almost black to pale green grey—sometimes a few new red leaves and always many little pale grayish green buds.”

She didn’t always note or seem to know the names of what she was seeing, and her spelling of those she did know could be characteristically idiosyncratic (you’ll see),  but she conveys her impressions vividly. What comes through is a feeling of being a stranger in paradise. Writing to Stieglitz of “a wonderful flower” she was painting, “You will think I made it up—You will not believe it is true. . .”

White Bird of Paradise, 19 x 16 in, © 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum


Her excitement, equal parts wonder and disbelief, shines out of her paintings in the NYBG art gallery. I couldn’t decide which of the three versions of a waterfall in ‘Iao Valley (a little mist, more mist, a lot of mist) I liked best–I wonder if she could? Knowing her renderings of such garden-variety flowers as hollyhocks and iris, I was curious to see how she responded to more exotic blooms. Her painting of a little ole petunia wrought large can make you see it for the first time. In this show, a white bird of paradise seems nearly as surreal as the floating lure in “Fishhook From Hawaii — No. 1,” also on display, and in some ways as skeletal as the animal skull suspended over New Mexican hills in, say, “From the Faraway, Nearby.”

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The LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the NYBG


Others—”Pink Ornamental Banana,” for example—have an almost heroic character, standing tall against a background of blue sky. Still others, “Cup of Silver Ginger” and “Hibiscus with Plumeria,” are just sensuous as all get-out. Each artwork brings the faraway nearby.

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In the conservatory, you get to cosy up to the plants that O’Keeffe struggled to capture in words and paint. While some of these hothouse Hawaiians are more familiar than they would have been in 1939 (now you can buy orchids at Stop & Shop, after all),  so many in one place is eye-popping.


Crotons, palmettos, brugmansia, bromeliads, birds of paradise, ferns, pitcher plants, canoe plants, palms, orchids, papayas, and many more plants form layers of greenery (and maroonery, purplery, and pinkery) that evoke Hawaii’s lush, dense rain forests.


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In gallery after gallery of the conservatory, the shapes, colors, and textures of the specimens on display remind you that the plant world has evolved myriad, brilliant approaches to survival, some sensational, some sensationally odd.



The 51-year-old O’Keeffe pursued new sensations at full tilt: looking at coral from a glass-bottomed boat, touring pineapple fields, avoiding steam vents at the Kilauea volcano. (Did you know that another term for steam vents is fumarole? Isn’t that a great word?)

She went hiking through “all sorts of jungle—up and down very steep hills—along the sea—past water falls and deep gorges,” waded in her “peticote” on an empty beach, and ate a “cocoanut” fresh from a tree for lunch. She wrote Stieglitz about another meal, “You will be disgusted when I tell you that I ate raw fish for lunch at a little Japanese place. It is a special fish that they eat raw and it doesn’t even taste like fish.” This was also long before Stop & Shop sold takeout sushi.

Judging from her letters, O’Keeffe was by turns captivated and disoriented by more than a taste of sushi. She variously described Hawaii’s hallucinatory natural beauty as fantastic, quite perfect, spectacular, and just too beautiful, and in the next breath as startling, unbelievable, strange, sort of terrifying, like a dream, like a fairy story. She thought she might “never experience any thing like it again” and described herself as “feeling quite apart from the place but I like what I see.”


“I am at a place that everybody says is lovely,” she wrote several weeks into her visit (telling, that phrase “everybody says”), “a very comfortable hotel right on the ocean at the end of the earth it seems to me and I feel a bit as if I fell out of the sky to get here.”

And: “The country is very paintable but I don’t get hold of a new thing so quickly—It doesn’t happen in a minute.”


Making sense of a new place and savoring that sense of unfamiliarity; making it yours, even if it’s only in a niche of your memory… when we travel, we try to do these things, and the results may be elation or frustration. For O’Keeffe, who loved traveling, there was the added pressure to translate her experience into art for her own sake and for her commercial patron. So she applied herself to painting (and sketching and taking “snaps,” as she called her photographs) during her sojourn and more painting after her return.

Pineapple Bud, oil on canvas, 19 x 16 in. Private collection © 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society, New York

She offered Dole a couple of paintings, one of a papaya, which it declined (papayas were a competitor’s product), and one of a Crab’s Claw Ginger, which it accepted and used in ads. The jaunty ginger portrait is in the NYBG show and the brilliant pinwheel “Pineapple Bud,” the other painting that went to Dole.


Words she used to describe what she saw, fantastic, startling, quite perfect, surface in your mind as you look at these works. They also serve as a running commentary on the plants in the conservatory.

Heliconia, Crab’s Claw Ginger, oil on canvas, 19 x 16 in. Collection of Sharon Twigg-Smith © 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society, New York

crab's claw ginger NYBG WolfeWhich is better: nature or art? The question grows naturally out of a show that pairs the two. But why choose? Why not let your eyes linger on a real pineapple bud or a ginger flower—they are extraordinary things—and study what an artist made of it? Give yourself over to both heart and soul.

As O’Keeffe, in her inimitable fierce way, put it: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”


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orchid couple NYBG wolfe

*O’Keeffe’s letters are fun to read: here is a link to Jennifer Saville’s commentary on and compilation of them. Sigourney Weaver gives voice to them in the film Off in the Faraway Somewhere: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Letters from Hawaii, shown in the Britton Rotunda of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library as part of the exhibition.

Further reading: Laurie Lisle’s Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe is a good, solid biography, written when O’Keeffe was still alive.

Ways to go: To get to and from New York, I took Amtrak’s Vermonter, which stops in the town I live in. It was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From Grand Central, it’s a mere 20-minute ride via Metro North to the charming station right across the street from the NYBG. I recently learned that Metro North has getaway packages that offer discounts on fares and admissions to a raft of NYC attractions, including, of course, the NYBG.


Bloomsday in Dublin


Wending my way around Dublin on June 16

James Joyce spent his formative years in and around Dublin, drinking, writing, singing, studying, falling in love, and hating his homeland.

With good reason, maybe. After trying for years to find a publisher for The Dubliners, he got into a wrangle with the publisher that ended in the printer’s “guillotining” all the copies. Small wonder Joyce left Ireland for good after that.

That’s all water under Dublin’s Ha’penny Bridge a century or so later, at least as far as Dubliners are concerned. On Bloomsday, June 16, every year, they seize the chance to celebrate Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, with readings, arts events, lunches, and general merriment.

Rolling in the makings of a toast or two to Bloomsday.

The hero of the book, Leopold Bloom, moves about Dublin over the course of that near midsummer’s day, and Joyce charted the course of his wanderings up and down and around its streets with such specificity that “if the city suddenly disappeared from the earth,” Joyce said, it could be recreated from the novel’s pages.

If you happen to be meandering in Dublin on June 16, you should certainly stop by Sweny’s Pharmacy. Now the home of a nonprofit dedicated to Joyce, the shop at 1 Lincoln Place, a hundred steps or so from Merrion Square in the city center, was where Bloom bought “a cake of new clean lemon soap.”

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Elixirs and novels on display inside Sweny’s

On Bloomsday Sweny’s holds readings, but at any time of the year, various reading groups are making their way through Joyce’s books. An Edwardian souvenir of a place, Sweny’s glass-fronted cabinets, and mirrored shelves display old bottles and apothecary jars by the dozen, and mahogany counters display second-hand books, old and new editions of Joyce’s works, in several languages … and cakes of lemon soap.

Dublin comes at the holiday from all angles, with an abundance of tours, readings, performances, even gallery shows. All year round, the James Joyce Center has programming related to the writer. Its starts up the Bloomsday festivities days before and hosts a breakfast on the day. The Bloomsday Fringe expands the array of things to do during what is really more like “Bloomsweek.”

If you’re in Dublin then, you might be able to sign up for a pub tour with an expert guide focused on the role of whiskey in Joyce’s writings; get down at “a good old-fashioned hooley”—defined as a “wild and noisy party”—where a musicians perform traditional favorites and songs Joyce referred to; or have a chance to try the “Joycestick,” an “immersive virtual reality 3-D game, a Boston College project, that recreates scenes from Ulysses.

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When I was in Dublin a year ago, the high point of my Bloomsday was the time I spent in a chic little town just south of the city.

On the way to Dun Laoghaire

IMG_0751Dun Laoghaire sits on the C-shaped curl that is the coastline of Dublin Bay. Pronounced,Dun Lairy, it’s accessible via the DART trains out of Dublin; you’ll want the Sandycove and Glasthule station.

Children sat wide-eyed with their mums in horse-drawn carriages that processed down the main street, while grown-ups clustered at tables set on the pavement just outside Cavistons Food Emporium and Seafood Restaurant. The al fresco lunch they serve there is an annual event, and you don’t have to be literary to love it.


This being Ireland, you can expect brilliant sunshine one minute and a rain shower the next—one of the straw boaters on sale for five euros, which nearly everyone was wearing, might come in handy.

But if your luck and the fine weather holds, you can sit at a white linen–draped table and enjoy a prix fixe three-course meal with a couple of options for each course, such as delicious smoked salmon with capers, fresh hake (a relative of cod) and steamed baby potatoes, and strawberries and cream for dessert, along with a glass or two of wine.


Cavistons started as a fish store, and the emporium side of the business stocks a dazzling assortment of seafood, lavishly arrayed on ice chips, as well as a panoply of cheeses, fresh produce, jams, and other comestibles.






Part of the scene on Bloomsday is the dressing up. Women wear vintage Edwardian hobble skirts, fitted jackets, and wide-brimmed, fancifully trimmed hats. Men stroll about in linen suits, bow ties, boaters, and white tennis shoes such as Joyce favored. In Dun Laoghaire, there was even a celeb or two of sorts.







The mayor made the rounds, looking dapper in a summer suit, with super-sized bling around his neck (his chain of office), only to be upstaged by the writer himself—well, actually, an impressive Joyce impersonator, complete with black eye patch.


There was singing, lots of greetings, lots of selfies, lots of conversation, lots of laughter—lots of “crack,” the Irish term for a rollicking good time. The experience was more than the sum of its marvelous parts, namely, the food and drink, the light, the pageantry, and the pleasure everyone seemed to derive from being in the moment and in good company. As Dubliners like to say, lovely.


In Dalkey, just the next town over, you can get teven closer to Ulysses on the day, or any day, really. The book opens at the Martello tower at Sandycove Point in that postcard-pretty town: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

The tower, where Joyce stayed one summer is now a popular tourist destination. It lies at the end of a lane that winds past the Forty Foot, a former men-only bathing beach whose bracing waters are now open to all. At the James Joyce Tower and Museum, you can go up to the top of the tower, view the collection of photographs and papers in the museum, and on June 16, take in its Bloomsday events.


Joyce taught—briefly—in the Clifton School in Dalkey, and only slightly fictionalized, the school is the scene of the Nestor Episode, a wry exchange between another main character in Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, and the headmaster. On Bloomsday, that scene is given a vigorous dramatic reading at the Dalkey Castle and Heritage Centre, one of the events it hosts as part of the Bloomsday Festival.

To be sure, the center’s appeal goes well beyond Joyce. Don’t be misled by its name to expect some Disney fantasy structure: Dalkey Castle has its own authentic, stalwart character. Dating from the Middle Ages, it served as a fortified warehouse for goods that came by ship to what was then the port for Dublin.


I don’t know if the castle housed a cargo of deer destined for the royal park at Glencree that arrived in Dalkey in 1244, according to a 1902 history, but I do know that uninvited guests might have had hot coals or boiling water dropped on them from the “murder hole” in the second-story floor. Fortunately, today the staff at the center greet strangers in a friendlier fashion. Docents in period dress deliver lively, quick commentaries on the homely details of life 800 years ago, what people ate, how they cared for their clothes (you’d be surprised!)—and perhaps a wee bit more than you ever wanted to know about archaic medical practices, but the information is charmingly delivered.


Yes, history goes way back in Dalkey. Just off the main street is the romantic golden-stone shell of eighth-century St. Begnet’s Church, also part of the center, with one door sunk so low (or the ground risen so high) that you need to bend over double to enter. Easier, the main entryway, that brings you inside the picturesque roofless ruin, where wildflowers bloom in cracks in the wall. If you’re on a tour, a roguish archer in a tunic and tights may drop by to fill you in about longbows.


Another Irish writer of note, George Bernard Shaw, said the happiest moment of his life was in 1866 when his mother told him they were moving from Dublin center to a little house in Dalkey. (A couple of years ago, Torca Cottage, now much-altered, went on the market for 2.3 million euros.) “I lived on a hilltop with the most beautiful view in the world,” he remembered later. “I had only to open my eyes to see such pictures as no painter could make for me.” The Nobel Laureate also said of the place, “I have never seen more beautiful skies.”

Those skies, they’re just as beautiful as ever.

(This story, in slightly different form, appeared in GoNomad.com.)



Have you read Ulysses? (This English major confesses she has never got all the way through.) And have you been to Dublin? Share the high points of your journey there in the comments below.


Taking In Taliesin

Entering into the world of Frank Lloyd Wright at his landmark Wisconsin estate


It’s been a struggle to figure out how to talk about Taliesin. It’s not as though there isn’t plenty to say; it’s more a matter of where to start and how to stop. Frank Lloyd Wright’s life and work have been written about extensively, the former being as sensational in many ways as the latter, so the trick is to avoid saying more than I know or attempting to say it all.

I’m not sure anything less than seeing Taliesin for yourself conveys the pleasure of being there. It is an exquisite, full-blown aesthetic vision; everywhere you look, you’ll see something worth looking at, even if you don’t think of yourself as a Frank Lloyd Wright fan or even especially interested in architecture. If you are a fan of Wright’s work, you’ll find it an immersive experience, one that gets you up close to his passions, obsessions, and sources of inspiration.

It’s saying something that the four-hour tour offered by Taliesin Preservation (one of several tours), didn’t seem a second too long.


Our guide had a lot to do with that. Margaret (above) is a retired actor with a marvelous voice, a knack for storytelling, a wealth of knowledge, and the actor’s talent for shifting the emotional tenor of the moment from playful to dramatic. (And a little “party,” as she called it, about halfway through the tour, with coffee, lemonade, cookies, and other treats set out on the terrace of the house, gave us all our second wind.)


Taliesin is both the name of the 800-acre estate, and the house that is its centerpiece,  created by Wright over a span of nearly 50 years in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The setting is rural, mostly hills, fields, and woods; the village center is a few miles away. Chicago, incidentally, is a three-hour drive away; Madison, the state capital and home to the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus, is about 45 minutes away.



On the estate are the house that was Wright’s primary residence from 1911 to 1959, the Romeo and Juliet Tower, Tan-y-Deri, a house he built for his sister Jane Porter and her husband, the Midway Barns (above) and other farm buildings, including a couple converted by students in the school of architecture into dwellings, and Hillside (below). The last was originally the location of the school that Wright’s aunts, Jane and Ellen C. Lloyd Jones, founded in the late 1890s; it now is the warm-weather quarters for the School of Architecture at Taliesin.



DSC00102Eight hundred acres seems to have been hardly enough space for Wright’s genius to express itself. It is a bit overwhelming to take in, all the more so when you start thinking about what it took–the money, the time, the labor–to create it and keep it all going and growing. The house alone has wings and levels and additions and courtyards, porches, walkways, terraces… In Hillside, there is an assembly room, a dining hall, a barn of a workroom, with row upon row of old-fashioned drafting tables, dormitory space for students, and a theater.





The heart of Taliesin is the house. Begun in 1911, it was Wright’s primary home, his studio, his refuge, and his creative wellspring. Experiencing it brings home the nature of Wright’s genius, nature being the key word.


Local limestone is the predominant building material. The walls, shelves, garden seats, balcony ledges, pools, inglenooks, hearths, and other structural elements appear as if they’ve always been there, as much a part of the setting as the trees and grasses, but a closer look reveals how the stone was masterfully worked to emphasize its intricate patterns and texture—to reveal its essence,.


Interior stucco walls are tinted with earthy pigments—shadowy ocher, raw sienna, deep rose—and punctuated by dark-stained wooden beams. Picture windows blur the distinction between outside and in, bringing in the landscape, extending the living space outward into the pastoral views. (Walls of glass have become so much the norm today, we may not realize how innovative they were a century ago.)


Big windows were one of the ways that Wright varied the mood from one room to the next. He made some spaces low-ceilinged, small, and intimate, and others impressive, airy, expansive.


Wright preferred to design the furniture that went into his buildings whenever resources and his clients permitted; there are stories about how he rearranged the furniture even in houses he was just visiting. Not all of his designs worked well: office staff at his iconic Johnson Wax headquarters regularly fell off his three-legged chairs.


At Taliesin, Wright went to town with the built-in furnishings he favored. Among the banquettes and bookcases are specimens of the  extraordinary collection of Asian art he amassed over his lifetime. Ancient Chinese screens, massive ceramic pots, blue-and-white vases, a carved sedan chair, Buddhist sculptures, cast-iron Foo dogs are precisely placed for maximum effect but, like the stonework, seem right at home.




Framing and enclosing the interiors are gardens that incorporate a variety of plantings: arbors of wisteria, lilacs cascading down a slope, may apples and columbines popping up in terraced beds, scraggy pines, a trio of birches.


The landscaping adds to the feeling of being in the “floating world” of one of Wright’s ukiyo-e prints. He once said, “If Japanese prints were to be deducted from my education, I don’t know what direction the whole might have taken.” (You can read about Wright’s own personal Japonisme in this Smithsonian.com article.) I didn’t fully understand how much Asian culture had influenced Wright, considered one of America’s greatest architects, born and bred in the heartland, the creator of the Prairie Houses and the Usonian (as in United States of North America) Houses, until I toured Taliesin.


Wright was “continuously  inventing and reinventing himself,” according to Brendan Gill’s biography, and “incessantly added to and tinkered with” his earlier Oak Park, Illinois house, in the two decades he lived there.

Calamity and tragedy made re-creating Taliesin a necessity several times over. It is still a work in progress, as its stewards, Taliesin Preservation, work to maintain, restore, and upgrade parts of the estate. But that necessity also provided an outlet for Wright’s tremendous creative restlessness and energy and seemingly infinite supply of ideas (he pretty much gave up sleeping toward the end of his life—too much to do).




Romeo and Juliet Tower, a replica of the windmill that stood a century or so longer than Wright’s uncles predicted it would.




Lunch is served … at Riverview Terrace Cafe, the Wright-designed restaurant in the Taliesin visitor center.



Although it was deeply satisfying to see how he brought his many ideas together into an irresistibly beautiful whole, I know that in four hours, I just scratched the surface of Taliesin’s splendors. If you go, you may be bitten by the bug, and join the ranks of Wright pilgrims (a few were on the tour with me) who seek out more of his sites, such as Monona Terrace, the civic center in Madison, Wisconsin, built 59 years after Wright first proposed it.


The Elegant, Observing Eye of William Eggleston

The  show Los Alamos, up until May 28, features 75 prints of color photographs by one of my favorite photographers, William Eggleston. He is widely acknowledged to be the photographer that took color photography out of the realm of the snapshot and made it an art form. His pictures have a distinctive palette, including shades of rose-beige, subdued dark green, bluejay blue, lime green, ocher yellow, and an even more distinctive quiet but very expressive voice.


Just by virtue of having been shot 50 or 60 years ago, the images have a documentary quality about them. Dating from 1965 to 1974, they show another time, another place. Turquoise banquettes in restaurants weren’t always retro; cars were big and ornate; big red coolers held Coca-Cola in glass bottles; teenage boys used to wear shirts with collars; cotton candy once sold for 25 cents. Sort of sweet in the way of bygone objects.

According to a quote from Eggleston, one of several displayed in the show, he wasn’t out to record the way things were–he was on an odyssey of discovery (although I doubt he would have put it that way, either).


A lot of his pictures are unpopulated. (I’ve been told that photographs without people are boring, I don’t believe it.) In some ways, objects and buildings, landscapes and still lifes are easier to photograph. They don’t move, they don’t object, they don’t expect.

He had that way that good photographers do of making ugly, ordinary, common, weird things compelling. He found lots of such things, and the way light plays on them, where they wait, all they value people have conferred on them, or taken back, the very way they are mute means they can say as much as a human face.

Eggleston had a sense of humor and a sense of the ironic. And as the quote above suggests, he could say something simply and amusingly, then matter-of-factly pull the rug out from under you, in words and in photographs.


In looking at these pictures, I kept thinking about the fact that so many of them were taken in the South during a period that overlapped with that of the civil rights moment.  (Eggleston was born in Memphis and grew up in Mississippi.) There are many ways of seeing, as John Berger showed us, and had I seen the exhibition on another day, I might have come away with a different take on them. But I’d been shepherding a children’s book about that moment in American history through production for a publisher, so  the breathtaking bravery of the protesters, and the horror of the response to them, was very much on my mind. (And of course abysmal current events influenced my thinking, too.)

You can see many more incredible photos like these on the Veterans of the Civil Right Movement website: http://www.crmvet.org.

Eggleston was sly, I think, his style oblique, so I wouldn’t assert that these pictures are a commentary on the times. If they are, the message is not overt. (A previous show of his work at the Met was titled “At War with the Obvious.”) Mostly, it’s just beyond the frame, or tucked into a corner, the sense of a divided place, the vestiges of an antiquated order.



There’s the campaign poster for John Kelly, with a picture of a white man in horn-rim glasses, nailed to a tree by a deserted country road, a slate-blue storm darkening on the horizon.

© Eggleston Artistic Trust


An abandoned, rusting Cadillac half-swallowed by vines.


© Eggleston Artistic Trust


Shots of white men with slicked-back haircuts. An African American farm worker buttoning his open shirt, his pants coated with Mississippi dirt.

© Eggleston Artistic Trust


A church billboard featuring a pious white family, the boy in a bow tie, the mother and daughter platinum blondes, kneeling in a pew. A black woman in a fitted bright green dress, two rows of buttons down the front, and what might be a shower cap on her head, caught midstep coming toward us, her posture tentative, alone by the side of another empty country road.

And there’s “Santa Monica,”  a trio of African American women–three generations?–standing at right angles to the camera, looking ahead, while behind them on the other side of a chain link fence, waves curl and break on a beach. Could be the threesome are facing the ocean, at the famous Santa Monica pier; what they gaze at lies outside the frame. In profile, their expressions are hard to read; they are not smiling, not unhappy.

I think it’s significant that in the immediate foreground a shiny-new, deep green car takes up a third of the photo and obscures the lower half of the women’s bodies. (That Eggleston palette, a deeper echo of the sea-green sea.) They are small figures set against a vast featureless pale blue sky, a tight square of humanness in the near center of the photograph. Maybe they have reached a freer, golden place, the California dream. It’s one of those pictures that the more you look, the more you see, but perhaps the less you know.

© Eggleston Artistic Trust

The show ends May 28, but you can see many of the photographs in it online, as well as those from the 2013 exhibition mentioned above, At War with the Obvious.

For some background on the exhibition, you can read this piece on the website of Steidl Books, a premier publisher of art books.


Meet Me at the Met

Leon Frederic painting The Three Sisters in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

When the weather was still dreary, I went to New York and spent a day in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have written about how I like small museums (to name two, the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center and the Smith College Museum of Art), where you can focus on a manageable number of remarkable treasures—a choice meal—but there are times for satiety, too, when it’s just not possible to get too much of a good thing.


You could spend a whole day in just one room of the Met. You can go and skip the special exhibitions and meander among the prodigious permanent collection and not feel you’ve shortchanged yourself.

Have you ever been to a party for a five-year-old where the birthday child burst into tears? Overwhelmed by the embarrassment of riches: all this for me, how do I blow out all the candles, eat all the cake, open all the presents, at once? If you’re susceptible to a similar anxiety that comes from being in a mega-monument to human creativity, you can counter that peculiar sensation by looking closely at particular things.

When you lose yourself in contemplating something you didn’t know you were interested in—4,000-year-old glass vials, a Federal-style mahogany four-poster bed from Haverhill, Massachusetts—you find your way toward understanding the minds of the people who made it and used it, cherished and preserved it. The objects’ survival can be as extraordinary as anything else about them.




I was in a perfect museum-going mood that day, relaxed and ready to be dazzled, in no hurry to see this or that, although I had my list. I took as my direction this recommendation from the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, in regard to its extensive collection: “See it all, or just what you feel like.”

I went along with the crowd into the galleries just beyond the entry.



Greeting me right off the bat in the Egyptian rooms were stalwart, stocky, weighty, sure-footed figures and the delicate wall drawings of workers and animals going about their business. Some ancient art seems so ancient, while other works seem perfectly contemporary: a turquoise pot, a gold earring.

On past the sarcophagi, mummy cases, terracotta figures of fertility goddesses, gallery after gallery of the awe-inspiring, eternity-exuding objects, then into the temple that houses the Temple of Dendur. I always feel a thrill entering this vast, airy shell that achieves the maximum effect from a short list of elements: granite, glass, steel, water, space, light, shadow. And a sleepy crocodile with a truncated tail lying low to one side.




I look at the art, but I also look at the people around me. Some, I’m pretty sure, want to be seen; probably that is true for them no matter where they are. Others are unselfconscious, in a reverie. What has brought these observers here? The ones in the size 6X T-shirts probably came on a school bus, the man in walking shoes and a tweed cap, could have stepped off a hiking path in the Cotswolds. It’s like a day at the beach–a similar impulse sends us to the sea, to be in the presence of something bigger, more enduring, more mysterious, than ourselves. Or maybe just to gaze…










On my list was the exhibition “Thomas Cole’s Journey,” up just a few more days. Cole was an English-born artist who fell in love with America and painted big, transcendent landscapes, romantic visions that contain a “fervent visual warning … to his fellow American citizens of the harsh ecological cost of unchecked development of the land,” in the words of the exhibition description.”The Oxbow,” one of his most well-known paintings, is dear to my heart because it portrays a loop in the Connecticut River just a few stones’ throws from my home. (The loop is no longer the pristine fluvial phenomenon it was then; traffic on I-91 now zooms across it.)



Another exhibition, Los Alamos, that I went to see, features 75 prints of color photographs by one of my favorite photographers, William Eggleston (up through May 28).  I may do a separate post about it later.




And in between were all the masterpieces, the celebrities and less familiar ones that  pulled me in: “The Three Sisters” by Leon Frederic; “Moonlight, Strandgade 30,” by Vilhelm Hammershoi (a few years ago I spent a lot of time looking at his paintings in the aforementioned SMK in Copenhagen), and Noguchi’s “Water Stone,” in the Asian arts galleries, the still pool where my art spree concluded.


Asian art gallery Metropolitan museum of art


Is there an artwork at the Met that you always make a point of seeing?  

Blooming bulbs

Seeking out infusions of color and life as winter in New England winds down


Because today is the first day of spring, I’m sharing a few photographs I took at the spring bulb shows at Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.




The blast of brilliant color and scent is most welcome in March, when winter seems to drag its feet toward the exit.














The windows at the peak of the glass greenhouse rooves are often tilted open to keep the temperature brisk and the display at its peak as long as possible, so the air is fresh, and laden with the heady scent of hyacinths, and sometimes bees find their way in, as excited as the humans to find the profusion of flowers.





March is the month when the sun leans in and the shadows return, along with the red-winged blackbirds, grackles, and robins. The title of John Gardner’s book October Light introduced me to the idea that every month has a different kind of light.

March light is white and sharp, unfiltered, and untinted by greenery, and one of the pleasures of these shows is seeing how the flowers seem to lift their faces to the brightness and how the light settles among the smaller blooms, the grape hyacinths, primroses, and oxalis. I lift my face, too, and let the sun settle on my shoulders. This is what bliss feels like.






Happy Spring!