The Ford Foundation building in New York
One very fine work can make you love an artist even if nothing else they produce ever rises to that same level. But the opposite is also true, especially with architecture, which impinges on public life in a way that books, music and art don’t. Since I was a student in New Haven in the mid 1980s, I’ve hated his work. His Knights of Columbus Tower and gawdawful downtown arena (now gone, thank heavens!) were some of the most oppressive architecture of the last half century. He’s not that bad an architect, actually, as a new exhibition at the National Building Museum demonstrates. But those works in New Haven made an indelible impression, and it’s hard to put it out of mind even now, decades later.
Ford Foundation Headquarters, New York, New York, 1968
A few weeks ago I wrote a cranky response (Silence is Not the Problem) to a Huffington Post piece by Richard Dare, which seemed to suggest that the major problem facing orchestras today was the putative complexity of concert hall etiquette. Yesterday we had a chance to speak on the same panel for WQXR’s Conducting Business podcast, and today they posted the results. Dare’s piece was polemical, as was my response to it (the blogging instinct in action). Our conversation, with pianist and author Kenneth Hamilton calling in from the U.K., was perfectly pleasant. In fact, we probably don’t disagree on much at all. I’m no purist or stickler for the rules of concert hall decorum, though I think they are often based on sound principles. And Dare, who is the CEO of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, is not quite the Vandal he seems to be from his writing, in fact, far from it. Charming and articulate. Our conversation can be heard here.
Not three names you often read together. I filed a blog post, pasted in below, to The Washington Post Style blog, explaining the common thread. It gave me the chance to say how much I admire Savage’s book, Monument Wars, which is essential reading for any one thinking about memorials and monuments today.
If authors got paid for their books in proportion to how good they are, Kirk Savage’s “Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape” would make him a rich man. The book, which came out in 2009, is the most comprehensive and supple analysis I’ve ever read of why the memorials and monuments of Washington look the way they do. Savage, who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, is a monument optimist. Even as he charts the inevitable controversy and internecine politics that have accompanied the creation of almost every monument in the District, he usually sees that process as positive, as fundamentally democratic. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to weigh in on the ongoing furor about the Frank Gehry design for a new memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, which may have hit crisis point in recent weeks.
It turns out that he also maintains a blog and his most recent post takes up ideas broached in David Brooks’ New York Times column about the Eisenhower Memorial. If Brooks’ grumbling about the lack of proper respect for authority sounded familiar when you read it this week, it’s not just because the columnist was rehashing familiar themes in the conservative critique of American society. Savage argues that Brooks was also channeling Thomas Carlyle, who articulated a skeptical conservative worldview with a curmudgeonly vigor and eloquence generally lacking in punditry today.
Savage points out something lost in most conversations about authority (and most conversations about memorials, too): That if authority is respectable, people generally respect it. It’s debased authority, irresponsible authority, arrogant authority that puts authority figures in bad odor. And so, too, people generally want to remember and honor great men and women through memorials . . . if the memorials are well designed and do justice to their subjects.
I happen to believe that Frank Gehry’s memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower is one of the few truly innovative memorial designs of the last half century, and that it isn’t just a good piece of architecture, but an appropriate way to pay homage to the 34th President. If we look back on the debate about it 10 or 20 years hence, I think people will wonder: How did a debate about a memorial to Eisenhower turn into a general cultural trashing of Frank Gehry, the greatest American architect of the last half century? I hope that these thoughts will occur to people sitting in a public garden, surrounded by luminous metal tapestries representing Eisenhower’s boyhood home of Abilene, Kan., in a memorial landscape that is universally acknowledged as one of the best places of respite from the sun-baked, rigidly ceremonial expanse of the National Mall.
A national portrait gallery, whether it’s ours or theirs, is forced to finesse the tension between teaching history and displaying art. I enjoyed the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition, “1812: A Nation Emerges,” but faulted it for not grappling more with the art, the artists and the embedded iconography that makes these paintings so fascinating. Instead, it is about what it says it is about: The war, the unloved, little understood footnote to the great Napoleonic wars of Europe that many believed was a second war of independence for our struggling, upstart Republic.
But why go to a gallery and spend time with objects if those objects serve only to illustrate history? You can get that from a book. The encounter with a painting is a different experience altogether, and I wish that this admirable effort to paint a broad, cultural picture of the war had been expanded a bit to consider the revolution in representation that was happening during the same period. My review from the Sunday Washington Post.
I think the New York Times columnist gets a lot wrong in the piece he published yesterday about the Eisenhower Memorial. I agree with him that Americans have a hard time with authority, with acknowledging and honoring greatness and with the dynamics and paradoxes of power. But I think the strength of Frank Gehry’s design for a monument to the 34th President of the United States is precisely its suppleness in dealing with these issues. My real beef with Brooks op-ed is that it doesn’t seem like he did much homework before writing it. My take here.
It’s a fun show, in part because he was such a wild and unpredictable artist. Everyone knows the painting to the left, of course, the famous Stag at Sharkey’s. But then there’s the painting below, made in response to the First World War. It sits in a room of war images that verge on the sadistic, filled with highly specific forms of cruelty which Bellows (who never left the United States) knew only second hand. Or imagined. His career is eclectic, filled with idiosyncrasy, and a lot of spectacular painting.
Credits: Top: George Bellows
Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection
Below: George Bellows
The Germans Arrive, 1918
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Promised Gift of Ian and Annette Cumming
There’s yet more action. The desire of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to see models and meet with the Eisenhower family and architect Frank Gehry has effectively put a stop (temporary, one hopes) to the approvals process for the memorial. There are a lot of unknowns, whether the Eisenhowers are using political pressure on the Obama administration (denied by Susan Eisenhower and Salazar’s office), or if Salazar is merely trying to be a peace maker, or is worried about this coming back to bite him and the National Park Service if everything isn’t smoothed out now. In any case, the usual judgements apply: The Eisenhower Family is being accorded undue influence over a public memorial; the process so far has included a competition conducted according to established and respected government rules; it has already received unanimous approval by the bi-partisan Eisenhower Memorial Commission (including early on grandson David Eisenhower), and enthusiastic preliminary approval from the Commission of Fine Arts. The Eisenhowers will likely try to grind down Gehry, delaying the process and demanding the evisceration of one of the most interesting, innovative and exciting memorial designs since Maya Lin gave us the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Washington is so predictable.
The Eisenhower Memorial saga continues, with Rep. Darrell Issa urging the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to delay going before the National Capital Planning Commission this summer. He wants documents pertinent to the process that led to Frank Gehry’s selection as architect. So he’s written a letter to the EMC, which has a certain force given that Issa holds an ex-officio seat on the NCPC. Delay at all costs seems to be the current strategy of memorial opponents.