Outside In:

Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters

Sam’s is a Brattleboro, Vermont, institution. Originally an army-navy store, this flagship of the three-store chain still has something of an unvarnished quality: fluorescent strip lighting, wooden stairs, vinyl flooring with a brick pattern. In other ways, it’s pretty up-to-date, and it’s cheerful, tidy, and shipshape. Being a little rustic around the edges suits the outdoorsy nature of its specialty and its Vermont address.

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Founded by Sam Borofsky in 1932, Sam’s remains a family-owned business, with branches in Hadley, Massachusetts, and Keene, New Hampshire, and employees that have been working the registers and the floor for years.

IMG_0284You get the sense that over the last century, Sam’s just grew into one neighboring storefront after another. Now it slopes down the better part of a block on Main Street.

I don’t know about its claim to be “the biggest little store in the world,” but the scope of its merchandise is vast. You may need to fortify yourself as you shop with a bag of popcorn (more on that later). Exploring its 30,000 square feet will take you downstairs and upstairs, through archways, around corners, and eventually into Sam’s, Too, where you can step through its doors onto Flat Street around the corner.

 

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In your perambulations, you’ll find racks of gloves, stacks of caps, rows and rows and rows of socks (Darn Tough, Wigwam, SmartWool!), and work boots, hiking boots, rubber boots, running shoes, skate shoes, and snowshoes on display.

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IMG_0280 copyThere’s camo, ammo, sleds and skates, bows and arrows, rods and reels, and a full range of camping gear, including that classic blue speckled cookware, topo maps, and packets of deyhdrated entrées. (Have you ever tried freeze-dried pasta? It always makes me think of astronauts.)

 

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Skirt the tents and the ice-fishing augers (pausing to admire the woven pack-baskets nearby) and doubling back toward the stairs to the main floor, check out the various brands of rugged, heavy-duty, water-repellent jackets and vests, including some you won’t find everywhere, such as Filson and Bergan’s of Norway.

 

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Sam’s even sells ukeleles.

 

Brick-and-mortar stores are closing up shop right and left as online sellers gobble up market share. In their prime, malls and megastores delivered fierce blows to small shops and the downtowns they belonged to, and now their karma’s catching up with them, but the online trend also threatens the independent, mom-and-pop businesses that survived earlier threats.

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Not every small store gets it right. We’ve all been in businesses where the salesclerk never looked up from her laptop or the people behind the counter were too busy talking to each other to speak to you. Online shopping serves a need, but it also fosters and caters to a sad fact about modern life: we too often succumb to the frenzy of trying to get a zillion things done fast, whether they matter or not, and to the allied tendency to avoid real-life people and places with their foibles and quirks.

That’s why I cheer for places like Sam’s. They obviously work hard to stock what customers want and back it up with service. (I admit, I’m also probably drawn to Sam’s and its ilk because of a weakness for specialty stores. For students of material culture, they’re akin to museums, with myriad items each cleverly devised to suit a particular purpose.)

In Sam’s, you get a sense of place, you can talk to friendly fellow humans. You can try things on (many made in the USA, some just a few towns over in Vermont). You can see if the long underwear, the flannel shirts, the scarf you’ll loop under your chin pass the touch-test; see how many pockets are in the windbreakers; swagger around in a Carhartt jacket, pretending to tote bales of hay (well, maybe not); imagine cooking a stew in a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven, and find something you didn’t know you needed.

All those nice things.

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Footwear News, produced by the same group that publishes Women’s Wear Daily, ran a profile of Sam’s a few years ago. Here’s an excerpt:

Aesthetics haven’t always been Sam’s strong suit, [Brad] Borofsky said. “If you were an army-navy store, you didn’t have to put in an amazing [interior].” The store is, however, known for at least one in-store amenity. Thanks to a popcorn machine, Borofsky said, Sam’s gives away more than two tons of popcorn each year. Each location has had one since the early 1980s — though it can seem like longer. “The funny part is that now people remember eating popcorn [here] 20 years before we even put the machine in,” he said.

“But it’s just another way to extend your hand to your customer and say, ‘You can stay as long as you want.’”

 

Madame Escudier

In my next post, I’ll be leaving Vermont for the Berkshires, to take a tour of the Clark Institute of Art

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Art is All Around in Brattleboro, VT

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Taking a walk among the beasts and along welcoming streets

First the beasts…

I was a little shocked when an art-loving friend told me she didn’t know that Brattleboro had an art museum. The Huffington Post does; it recently named the museum one of the best in New England. Well, “best lesser-known,” to be exact. Perched above the Connecticut River, Brattleboro is the first metropolis you come to driving north on I-91, and it’s not surprising that it has its own museum. (More about the city later.)

I don’t visit the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center as often as I might, but every time I do, I’m impressed by the caliber, the freshness, and the heft of its exhibitions. Housed in a former railroad station dating from 1916, the BMAC has the airiness of a Chelsea art gallery. I love history, and New England history, but there’s something lifting and light-footed about a place focused squarely on the present; its shows feature contemporary art, and it has no collection. The physical space echoes that expansiveness. The main hall’s generous proportions and enduring materials, marble from nearby quarries, terracotta tiles, walnut-stained oak, make it a very pleasurable place to see art.

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IMG_2034Through February 11, “Touchstones, Totems, Talismans” proffers creatures native and exotic. With this assemblage of photographs, paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures Chief Curator Mara Williams has created a little wilderness.

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Over the river and through the trees–a view from the Brattleboro Museum.

This seems a fitting show for a Vermont museum: wilderness goes hand in hand with civilization in the Green Mountain State. Forests and pasture and tumbled stone walls border its backroads; wedged between towering rock faces, its interstates skirt massive granite boulders. Its humans go into the woods to snowshoe, canoe, hunt, bird, roam, and rove. Even the state’s city dwellers aren’t much removed  from nature–it’s usually just outside the window.

Its variously winged, beaked, four-legged, and furred inhabitants go about their own business, asserting their claim: moose amble across the road, hawk on the hunt skim gleaned fields seeking their harvest, juncos from farther north flock to feeders, bears raid the feeders, vultures circle the trees just off the highway.

So the state is rural, but “Touchstones” is far from provincial. It convenes work by artists from all over—New York, New England, California, Israel—namely, Walton Ford, Bharti Kher (“Misdemeanors,” at top), Colleen Kiely, Stephen Petegorsky, Shelley Reed (wall of works, below), Jane Rosen (bird sculptures and raven drawing, above), Michal Rovner, Rick Shaefer, and Andy Warhol.

The show prompts us to ponder our connection to animals, our distance from them, how they delight us and puzzle us, their familiarity and their strangeness, what we think of them and how they make us feel, what they are and who they are, and what we have done to them (mystification, domestication, taxidermy, captivity, extinction). The art is accomplished, original, wonderful, a menagerie of works that draw you in with their artistry and their messages.

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Welcome to the Alhambra: “Shimmering Mirage” by Anila Quayyum Agha.

 

Off the main hall are four other exhibition rooms. In one is the immersive installation “Shimmering Mirage.” Two others are given over to “Open Call NXNE 2018,” a diverse range of works on paper, through March 10. (Below,  a vessel made of paper wasps’ nests, by Justin Perlman.) After looking at “Finding my Signature,” an absorbing piece made of dozens upon dozens of receipts by SeungTack Lim, and a quartet of delicate cross-stitched grids by Marjorie S. Forté, I wondered whether something about the genre of works on paper encourages a microscopically meticulous approach to art. (See more images from the show here.)

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Next, the streets…

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After visiting the BMAC, you can head up the hill to Main Street and savor the meticulous artistry of the store window displays.

 

 

Making a circuit of Brattleboro’s downtown, which includes several side streets as well as the main drag, takes you a step back in time to when a small town’s center was a nexus of vibrant commerce. It’s not just the effect of the Victorian-era architecture and the classic storefronts, either.

 

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Besides the to-be-expected banks, restaurants, and coffee bars, Brattleboro’s commercial district has a hardware store, a hotel (the Latchis, lobby, above), a florist’s, a framer’s, a bridal shop, a bead shop, bicycle sellers, a furniture store, a music club, a camera retailer, stores selling LPs, art supplies, used books, men’s clothing, and sporting goods, even a Christian Science reading room—and Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters, worth a story unto itself (look for one, soon).

In short, it’s a mix of idiosyncratic shops and the kinds of stores that used to be standard components of a downtown but have disappeared in many places, replaced by generic franchise outlets—or nothing. No wonder I laughed when I heard the blast-from-the-past Sixties hit “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” in Sam’s. I was kind of wondering myself.

It’s disarming, but not quaint, in the way that some “destination” downtowns, preserved or revived by money, can be. You sense the effort that goes into keeping the town afloat; the care with which store windows show off the goods within alone speaks to that. Brattleboro also has that Vermont down-to-earth goodness vibe. And don’t be surprised if a semi hauling a massive load of fresh-cut pine logs or fragrant milled lumber lumbers by, headed straight through town.

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Among the idiosyncratic are…

Mystery on Main Street carries mysteries, thrillers, crime novels, and suspense fiction. Candle in the Night is an elegant furniture store, 11,000 square feet, about half of that given over to Oriental rugs and kilims, each one more gorgeous than the last.

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Miller’s Bros. Newton sells slacks (a blast-from-the-past word!) and “travel blazers,” ties discreetly patterned with, among other things, lighthouses, grappling hooks, and Bayeux tapestry figures, Harris tweed sports jackets and caps, Viyella shirts, plummy Italian pullovers–everything a civilized man could ask for. (An online review reads, “Walked in alone as a slightly shabbily dressed 17-year-old. The man didn’t even bat an eye, came right over and took my measurements, answered all my questions, and even gave me some style advice.”)

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Tailor’s corner at Miller Bros. Newton (Note “Yaz” on table. Vermont is part of the Red Sox Nation.)

 

One can certainly live a lifetime without buying beads, but Beadniks makes a powerful case against such austerity. Its stock must number in the millions (trust me, you have no idea how many kinds of beads exist in this world). It also sells candles, other housewares, and sweet children’s toys and maintains the Museum of Beads & Cultural Artifacts, a collection, as a notice on the door states, “dating from 10,000 BC through the last century … from every reach of the globe.”

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When it comes to sheer volume of items, carefully, artfully and, one senses, lovingly arranged, the nirvana of window displays in Brattleboro has to be the storefront of Delectable Mountain Cloth. Did you grow up with the I Spy books? These windows are similarly beguiling.

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More windows

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Hair freshly styled and set by Salon Jacqué; bike by Raleigh.

 

Take a summer stroll…

IMG_0265While there’s something quintessential New England-y about visiting a little Vermont city in the winter, being all bundled up, seeing your breath, sloshing through sandy snowy slush at the crosswalks under broody, lowering skies, you can enjoy an equally picturesque experience at a (usually) more congenial time of year: Brattleboro’s blockbuster Strolling of the Heifers.

I won’t call it moo-ving or make any other bad puns about it. I will say that watching this parade of dewy-eyed Jerseys and Holsteins, often led by young 4-Hers, good-natured, goofy farm floats, earnest school bands, and riders on high-spirited horses, all cheered on by a high-spirited crowd and all in the service of supporting local family farms, is a pretty perfect way to spend a sparkling June morning.

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Do you have a favorite store in Brattleboro? A favorite town in Vermont? Leave me a comment about it.

 

 

 

 

 

Zurich at Christmastime

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zurichporchZurich may not be a major European tourist destination, but at this time of year, it’s enchanting, if you enjoy the pageantry of Christmas. Or at least I found it so when I visited the city several years ago. Lots of lights, lots of evergreenery, and a wintry spritz to the air.

 

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I still have some sparkly Christmas ornaments from the big, beautiful department store Globus on the Bahnhofstrasse–and a few precious strands of real metal tinsel from there—I should have bought a dozen packages, not just one.

My recollection of the famous Teuscher store (some say Teuscher makes the best chocolate in the world) is one of total sensory overload, a phantasmagoria of decoration, floor to ceiling, frothy with violet tulle… Why violet? Who knows? Why not? It was pretty.

This 2015 picture from its Facebook page gives you a sense of how over the top the shop holiday decor can be.

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Zurich has beautiful churches, a famous and huge Christmas market …

 

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…and the promenade along the Zurichsee.

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The Altstadt, or Old Town, is a district of narrow, winding streets, with buildings that seem to lean over the sidewalks, art galleries and antiques shops.

 

I still regret that I didn’t buy one of the found-art pieces I saw in a gallery window there.

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There was also the photo that got away.

On Saint Nicholas Day, December 6, Samichlaus brings clementines, nuts, gingerbread, and chocolates to children (but they get their presents on Christmas Eve). When I was there, I saw Samichlaus walking down a quiet side street ahead of me. He was trim and saintly in a red robe trimmed with white fur. He was accompanied by a bearded, hooded figure  in a monk’s dark habit, a rope belt around his waist, a burlap sack over his shoulder, and an old-fashioned broom in his other hand.

I didn’t know until I started writing this, that the rather sinister medieval figure was Samichlaus’s helper Schmutzli, who represents the “better watch out, better not cry” side of the Santa story. He dates back to medieval times, to folklore, he’s a character right out of Grimm. Here’s a link about him. Before I could get a picture of them, they were through the door of a building up ahead, but I got there in time to hear the roomful of children inside all go, “Oooooh!!!

I did get this photo of children making funny faces at one another.

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zurich05The Globus window displays were little jewel boxes, fantastical vignettes that were especially alluring after dark. In the stylized scenarios, dramatically lit and aglow in the winter night, two young intrepid travelers explored exotic kingdoms populated by curious kingly figures and lions, tigers, polar bears, and peacocks …

 

I can’t tell you more about the story than that. I’ve been realizing as I write this how many questions I came away with, and with an interval of years between then and now, some things I knew at the time have receded beyond memory’s grasp.

It seems to me that no matter how wide-eyed, curious, and observant as travelers we may be, no matter how much we read beforehand about where we are going or Google afterward, we will remain strangers in a strange land, and the physical place becomes even more elusive to us as it becomes only a place in our minds. Our impressions are like those accumulated paging through a picture book and may not stand up to stringent testing.

Looking back, I do wonder if the purple tulle always came out at Advent (the liturgical color of that season)? Was my suitcase so tightly packed (no doubt), or was my travel budget so lean (yes, again) that it would stretch to just one package of tinsel? Why didn’t I buy one of those crazy-beautiful sculptures? (I think it was a Sunday, and the gallery was closed. I know otherwise, somehow, I would have found the money in my budget for that.) Was the story that unfolded in the Globus windows one that any Swiss, even ones of a tender age, would recognize immediately, although it seemed so idiosyncratic to me?

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Some scenes I snapped have shrunk to being just  snapshots, with nothing known beyond the frame: I don’t recall where or when during my stay that I saw the schnauzer (definitely a pipe smoker) or where that lyrical courtyard was (and for some reason, the latter  always reminds me of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film Red, which took place in Geneva).

 

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But I can still see vividly the scene that I didn’t get to photograph, of Samichlaus and Schmutzli on their rounds. Sometimes I suspect our memories discount moments that are being otherwise recorded, dismiss them as one less thing to bother with.

The conscientious travel planner may find this post thin on what to see and do in Zurich; fortunately, there’s no shortage of that kind of information elsewhere. See it as permission to be selective about what you carry home with you. Know that you will not know some things: feel free to make up a story about those artful store windows.

Here’s to the magic and mysteries of art, travel, and the season!

 

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Christmastime in Milan

 

milanmapYears ago, a few weeks before Christmas, I went to Milan for a couple of days to meet a friend, then on by train to Zurich.

In Milan, you feel the breath of the Alps; the air has the faintest glimmer of frost. The December daylight was pale and thin; the night was brown velvet.

 

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With the exception of the marble pastels of the beautiful, ornate, eccentric Duomo, a Gothic shimmering fantasy, lacy and ethereal despite its grandiose scale, it’s all those Italian ripe-fruit tones—apricot, dusty orange, ocher—that make up the palette of the city.

 

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At least that’s how I remembered it, and I remembered being struck by the contrast between arancio Milan and blue-and-silver Zurich, on the other side of the Alps.  As I recalled it, Zurich felt northern, austere, Protestant; Milan, Catholic, chiaroscuro, southern.

 

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In other words, I embraced those polarities that tourists love to discover, or believe they have discovered. But my slides from that trip tell a different story. From both places I have warm, smoky, shadowy shots and cool glittery ones.

(My next post will be about Zurich.)

 

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I’m not the first, by the way, to be delighted by the paradoxical loveliness of Milan’s Duomo. This is what Mark Twain wrote about the cathedral in The Innocents Abroad:

What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems in the soft moonlight only a fairy delusion of frost-work that might vanish with a breath! 

That’s another thing about the experience of travel. Part of the pleasure is those revelatory moments, those unique insights, but sometimes we learn our thoughts aren’t so original: We are following in the observational footsteps of generations of travelers before us. Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters, because those moments are authentic to who we are and genuinely thrilling–and isn’t it gratifying to know you and Mark Twain shared a thought?

 

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milan06a.pngBig shadows, Santas, pigeons, and passers-by on La Piazza del Duomo. Not sure what was going on with the Christmas tree and that pile of dirt…

 

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Cassetta antica in a shop window and an armchair of marble in the quadrilatero della moda. Feel free to sit a while.

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Louise Bourgeois @ the Museum of Modern Art

P1110212.JPGAn Ode to Remembering

In 1982, Deborah Wye, then an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art, curated an exhibition about the French-born American artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). It was beautifully conceived and executed, a gorgeous, revelatory show of the artist’s work and the sources of her creativity. At the MoMA until January 28 there is an equally thrilling show, “Louise Bourgeois: An Unfolding Portrait,” also the creation of Deborah Wye, now Chief Curator Emerita of Prints and Illustrated Books. (Wye talks about the show and Bourgeois here. You can also read an interview I did with her when she was still at MoMA: Wye’s World.)

Bourgeois’s work is primal, original, authentic, dark, illuminating. She was eloquent and insightful about art, and her art, a thinking artist, shrewd even; at the same time, her work draws its power and truth from a place very deep.

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She reached back to her childhood, her very first relationships, her feelings about her father and her mother, and she spoke evocatively about her childhood. (Her vivid recollections remind me of the memoirs of another great artist, Colette, who described her mother, Sidonie, rising at four a.m. to greet the flowers of her garden.) Here is Bourgeois remembering the site of her family’s Aubusson tapestry restoration business:

“It was because of the river that we bought the house in Antony. The Bièvre cut across the garden in a straight line. With the soil from that river we planted geraniums, masses of peonies, and beds of asparagus. There were hawthorns, pink and white, and purple tamarisk, and trees of cherries. Pears and apples grew on espaliers on the stone wall. There were boxwoods. And honeysuckle that smelled so sweet in the rain.”

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But life was not always an idyllic garden, and Bourgeois was no garden-variety artist. She was fearless in her choice of materials: she tackled monoliths of marble, created bronze sculptures on a monumental scale. You can see one of her many-times-larger-than-life spiders in MoMA’s atrium, as well as one mounted high up on the wall.

 

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Spiky, gnarled, fragile and looming, her spiders were benevolent, representing the sheltering, protective maternal impulse. She had a loving relationship with her mother; her connection to her father was about anger, conflict, antagonism. One of her most disturbing sculptures is “The Destruction of the Father,” sprung from kind of a dream, said Bourgeois, in which a mother and children kill the father, then feast on him. (The photograph of it below is from the 1982 exhibition catalog.)

 

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The focus of “An Unfolding Portrait” is not her sculpture, but her illustrated books, prints, drawings, and fabric works. She was prolific: This show has some 300 works, just a percentage of all she created. She was also resourceful and witty: in the 1990s, when she was in her eighties, she decided to raid her closet for art materials. Eventually a seamstress set up shop full-time in her house, helping to make fabric collages and other works from Bourgeois’s garments. Bourgeois said, “You can remember your life by the shape, the weight, the color, the smell of the clothes in your closet.”

 

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Meeting Bourgeois’s work years ago enriched my life. Since that 1982 show, she has been one of my heroes, along with others who went headlong into being fully themselves, as artists and as women. I loved how fiercely she came at the experience, the struggle, the pain, the richness of being a woman and being an artist; it feels both very personal, sometimes quite private, and like her spiders, larger than life.

 

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If you don’t get to see the show, you can explore her work through MoMA’s extensive online catalog The Complete Books & Prints, which ultimately will hold more than 5,000 images, and the museum’s YouTube videos.

Some Louise Bourgeois quotes:

“I need my memories. They are my documents.”

“Every day you have to abandon your past or accept it, and then if you cannot accept it, you become a sculptor.”

“The unconscious is something which is volcanic in tone and yet you cannot do anything about it. You had better be its friend, or accept it, or love it if you can, because it might get the better of you. You never know.”

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In New York, Looking at Art

Earlier this month, New York City Marathoners were wending their way through the five boroughs. It was heartening to see how many thousands turned out to run and how many to cheer them on as they came through the warm drizzle, only five days after the terrorist attack in lower Manhattan. It was reassuring to see law enforcement officials of every stripe, the garbage trucks and dump trucks blocking access to the race route.

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And it was cognitively dissonant, the contrast between the crowd’s roaring enthusiasm of and the somber effect of heavy-duty security everywhere.

That day, I wended my way down through the marshy, watery, sometimes wasted and stricken, sometimes strictly suburban, sometimes surprisingly lovely landscapes of southern Connecticut via Metro North, then from Grand Central up Fifth Avenue, around the fringes of the marathon, along the paths of Central Park to the Guggenheim.

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At the southeast entrance to the park right now is Ai Weiwei’s “Gilded Cage,” just one of the artworks that make up “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” installed in 300 locations around the city.  Beautiful and unsettling–what a gilded cage is all about–the 24-foot-tall sculpture, fitted with turnstiles inside and designed to let you look up through the opening at the top at a sky you can’t reach, comments on the current desire of some people to keep some other people out, and the effects on all of us within, e.g., the confining, stultifying effects of control and ignorance borne of insularity.

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Meanwhile, as tourists explored the cage’s ins and outs, an employee of Bendel’s on Fifth Avenue got ready for the shoppers about to come through its golden doors.

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The main show at the Guggenheim is “Art and China After 1989,” sculpture, paintings, videos, made since the year of Tiananmen Square. I get why it’s worth spending time with, but I felt mostly more dutiful than excited by the show, heavy on the Conceptual art, which try as I might to meet it halfway, often doesn’t do it for me. On a different day, in a different mood, I might have been more receptive. Some of the art goers that afternoon, though, were riveted by it, and their giggles and hoots of delight were contagious among the more “mature” visitors.

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More art lovers.

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My receptivity cranked way up when I got to the room of Brancusi sculptures and photographs and the exhibition “Josef Albers in Mexico.”

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Brancusi’s “The Muse” is a serene, silken marble bust on a rough-hewn oak pedestal, an essential pairing. Its backstory includes a legal tussle with the widow of  the Bulova watch magnate, confiscation by sheriffs, ownership by an art dealer who went to jail for tax evasion and evaded prison for much more heinous crimes,  and a long-awaited reunion with the museum and its then-director in 1985. I think I’m glad I didn’t know all that when I was absorbing its presence. Another piece in the gallery, a sleek, seamless, stylized, polished, and perfect swish of marble, immediately reads “seal.” And what is its title? “The Miracle (Seal [I]).”

 

IMG_2221.JPGThe Albers show (through Feb. 18) focuses on Josef and wife Anni’s love affair with Mexico and the influence it had on Josef’s art. (Anni was an accomplished, original artist; more about them both here.) They started visiting its sacred sites after emigrating from Germany in 1933 to North Carolina (after the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus), and over the next three decades, they made 13 excursions there. You can see Albers’ fascination/fixation with color evolving. I never really appreciated his paintings before–they seemed cool, in the service of theory. In this exhibition, they have warmth, they glow. They struck me as being less about control, more about discovery. “In order to use color effectively, it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually,” Albers wrote in Interaction of Color. These paintings’ combinations of colors are sometimes tricky, often startling and emotional, and seeing them “live” rather than in reproduction, you see the texture, not from the oils but from the pasteboard they were painted on.

IMG_2218You have to get in close to see what’s going on in his photographs of pre-Columbian ancient monuments, especially the collages of contact sheet images cut up and painstakingly arranged together. In a quiet way, they reveal that desire toward containment, organization, classification that becomes full-blown in the iconic Albers “Homage” paintings of squares of reds, yellows, blues.

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All wonderful, but the best was yet to come. Next: Louise Bourgeois at MoMA.

 

Road Trip: Bellows Falls, Vermont

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What is it about Vermont towns? Not the postcard hamlets with the clapboard Colonials around a common, a white Congregational Church at one end, but the ones with Main Streets of Victorian brick, wide corridors of commerce grown from manufacturing money.

They draw me in, the towns that have seen better days, doing their best to imagine a new life, or just hold their own. Their narrative is repeated throughout New England, an industrial story in an subsistence-farms setting. They grew out of factories that were powered by rivers, invention, and tedious, arduous labor. These towns still assert themselves and their place in a larger history: for instance, the first bridge to span the Connecticut River and the first canal in the United States–America’s baby steps to becoming a global economic force–were in Bellows Falls, Vermont.

P1110123The plate glass storefronts, the carefully arranged miscellany of goods in the shop windows, the wide sidewalks with Subarus and pickups pulled up at a slant beyond them, the hand-lettered signs, the “For Rent” signs, the hotel block, once a trophy of civic pride, that served the travelers who came up from the train station, all under that undiluted northern light…I see them, and my eyes start looking every which way at once to take it all in. I’m seeing through a sentimental lens, because much of this now-faded small-scale prosperity was built on people’s bent backs, and never available to all. But I also sense the attachment of the current residents because the scale, the architecture, the layout fosters it. Expansive, hopeful, aspiring; enclosing, comfortable, close to earth, fitted to human proportions.

Meanwhile, behind these downtowns, the hills change color with the seasons but otherwise hold steady–white in winter, rose, chartreuse, and violet in spring, green, and green, and green, in summer, and bronze, copper, gold as fall goes blazing out. Some years are more spectacular than others. This year’s foliage had less flash, less glory than previous years’, and the succession of changes seemed somehow out of sync (red maples and oaks don’t usually turn at the same time, do they?). But this season’s show had a deeper vibrancy, subtle notes, and I don’t mind having to look closer and farther afield. Equally striking, the prolonged spell of luminous, surreally cerulean, infinite-blue skies.

Bellows Falls

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The town of Bellows Falls is all ups and downs, teetering over a canal that feeds into the Connecticut River just beyond. (Full disclosure: It looks like a town, acts like a town, but officially, it’s a village, part of Rockingham.)

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“beautiful marble”

P1110152Among the attractions: the “not just hardware” hardware store (more than 12,000 square feet’s worth of supplies, including power tools, overshoes, beekeeping veils, camo, and chicken feed), an opera house (now a movie theater), Works on Paper, an art and archives conservation business, a jewelry store, bookstores (including one shop packed to the gills with used books), the Windham Antique Center, the Miss Bellows Falls Diner, and the Italian restaurant Popolo, in the former coffee shop of  the Windham Hotel (canine customer seen below).

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The Windham Hotel lobby, a work in progress.  Events, such as the Chowder & Chili Cook-off in October, set up shop here.

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The falls.

Postscript: Just up the road from Bellows Falls, there was this house. It looked more like a drawing than a real place.

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