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‘Kurt” is among the portraits Elizabeth Peyton painted of musician Kurt Cobain. (courtesy:Flag Art Foundation)

Elizabeth Peyton attracted attention in the mid-1990s not because her work was any good – that would take years – but because it catered to certain hankerings (for beauty, for human connection, for the rush of infatuation) that up until then the art world had grimly suppressed. People were disproportionately grateful.

With her smooching, facile portraits of historical figures like Napoleon, Ludwig II of Bavaria, and a young Princess Elizabeth (the future queen), Peyton indulged impulses of preening romance that are usually the province of pop music. Such tendencies became explicit when she started painting from photographs of doomed or dandyish rock stars like Kurt Cobain, Sid Vicious, and Jarvis Cocker.

It’s almost always wonderful when artists dare to be shameless – to go ahead and paint what they want. The trouble was, little of Peyton’s early work rose above the standard of lackluster fashion illustration, or of those saccharine, on-the spot portraits made by street artists in tourist traps.
Still, we can be thankful that she was encouraged by the kind reception extended to her early work, because she has gone on to produce one of the most daring and exquisite oeuvres in contemporary art. I fell completely for Peyton as I ambled through “Live Forever,” the retrospective at the New Museum here, feeling more and more like a mopey, heart-struck teenager every minute.

Many of you will not want to give in to such feelings, deeming them indecently frivolous. So let me try and convince you otherwise.

The first thing to say is that, over a relatively short space of time, Peyton learned to paint. Above all, she became a scintillating colorist, giving her colors an airy expansiveness and oozing fluidity as she brushed them onto Masonite rather than canvas.

Getting pleasure from the process gradually took on more importance for her than rote reiterations of a given mood. Consequently, the atmospheres conjured by her paintings became more interesting.
Compare, for instance, two paintings typical of Peyton’s output: Both are of rock stars and both are based on photographs already in the public domain.

The first, of Keith Richards, shows the Rolling Stone close-up in profile. The tones are dark and mournful. The touches of ruby red and purple in Richards’s shadowed, downcast eyes and the delicacy with which his bejeweled fingers touch his chin give him an appearance at once precious and damaged.
The image of Eminem, by contrast, shows him not as the felonious hip-hop star we’ve come to know and love, but as a little boy of almost preternatural beauty having the buttons of his winter jacket done up by some invisible adult. His face is painted with red and pink stripes which zing against long hair the color of orange rind; he wears a festive crown, and he stares at us with dark, unblinking eyes. The extraordinary intensity of this stare is accentuated by his white, unblemished complexion.

The immediacy of the image is unmanning. If Richards resembles a shipwreck at night, this boy could be the lighthouse.

But the images have a lot in common, too. In both, Peyton uses color and brushwork to calibrate exquisite contrasts between proximity and distance – not just physically but emotionally too. Her paintings of the famous dead and living are not just love letters to far-off objects of mass infatuation. They are love letters to present-tense moods that, once extinguished, are difficult to rekindle.

It’s important to talk about the paintings themselves, because there’s a tendency to talk about Peyton as a social phenomenon – the ex-wife of Rirkrit Tiravanija and the friend of artists such as Matthew Barney and Maurizio Cattelan; the chronicler of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1990s and beyond; the recorder of a decade and a half of pop culture obsessions.

Unfortunately the catalog essay by curator Laura Hoptman plays up these aspects. Personally, I don’t care for any of it. I find the best of her paintings too suggestive of the sensuality of indolence to make me give a fig about sociology.

One of the biggest influences on Peyton is David Hockney. At a time when abstraction, Minimalism, and stiff-jawed seriousness were all the go, Hockney painted and drew virtuoso portraits of famous intimates with hedonistic relish. The connections between Hockney and Peyton run deep, and have been acknowledged by Peyton, who has made several portraits based on photos of Hockney as a young man.

But the more I look at Peyton, the more I think not of Hockney but of Matisse in Nice in the decade after World War I. Like Peyton, Matisse alternated in those years between painting reality (his daughter, the views from his hotel window) and painting fantasy (girls posing as odalisques against makeshift, theatrical backdrops that no one was expected to believe in).

He became less concerned with flat expanses of saturated color and more interested in light, which he rendered with loose, airy brushstrokes, delighting in stripes and patterns, gorgeous color contrasts and creamy atmospheres. Like Peyton, he was motivated by beauty and sensuality, but not limited by them. Rather, he sensitively orchestrated the distance between himself and his objects of desire, creating a kind of tension between artifice and reality that remains as exquisite as it is elusive.

Peyton is hardly in the same class as Matisse. She seems to miss as often as she hits, and the misses can be really dreadful: kitschy, clumsy, often both. But there is an imperious, melancholy flavor to the Nice paintings that I often detect in Peyton’s work too. The paintings of both artists are ravishingly sensual, and yet frankly attuned to their own hamminess. They flirt knowingly with disappointment and disbelief.

It’s interesting, too, that Peyton, whose success has spurred many detractors, faces the same kinds of criticisms Matisse faced during the Nice years. He was accused of complacency, shamelessness, and playing to the market when he moved to Nice, while Peyton is criticized for making saleable commodities that valorize glamour.

“Fine, if you say so,” is about all one can say in response. But why not really look at the paintings? Why not give yourself over to the tremendous expanse of lazily brushed-in, cotton-candy pink set off by isolated outbreaks of dark chocolate, maroon, and scarlet in “Spencer Drawing”? Why not delight in the tour-de-force of stripes and lollipop colors in “Ben Drawing”? Or why not succumb to the gorgeously casual holiday atmosphere of the three self-portraits, “L.A. (E.P.),” “Live to Ride (E.P.),” and “E.P. Reading (self-portrait)”?

In the end, I love the unlikeliness of Peyton’s success. Who would have thought that one of the most acclaimed and closely watched artists of our time would be a young woman who paints small, unabashedly girly portraits in oils on board – pictures that have no tough-guy conceptual underpinning to speak of?

Compare Peyton to Barney (the subject of one of her recent portraits) and it’s hard to believe that they’ve been borne aloft by the same art world. But they have, which is what makes contemporary art generally – and my job in particular – so much fun.

Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe



Sol LeWitt was at the forefront of two of the 20th century’s most esoteric and alienating art movements, Minimalism and Conceptualism, yet he somehow managed to keep his own work as crowd-pleasing and hypoallergenic as a Goldendoodle.

From the process of making art, he removed the traits to which many people attach the most value – instinct, skill, personal expression – without forfeiting popular appeal. He even dared to take up one of the 20th century’s most pernicious ideas – “irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically,” he said, echoing the thinking of many a crazed dictator – and converted it to purposes at once sunny and civic-minded.
How he managed all this is not easy to explain: Most attempts at describing LeWitt’s work make it sound more or less lunatic.
So let me start by stating simply that the massive, three-story installation of LeWitt wall drawings that opens today at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is as wonderful as anything I’ve seen in years. It will be staying in place for at least a quarter-century, over which period it is sure to become a site of pilgrimage for all those susceptible to the proposition that life can be beautiful as well as absurd.

I traversed the 30,000 square feet of Mass MoCA’s Building 7, which has been converted for “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” by the Boston architectural firm Bruner/Cott & Associates, over more than an hour, delighting in LeWitt’s hands-free, deadpan humor and basking in optical delights. I felt like a little boy watching a mile-long freight train rattle past, each car holding some new, un-guessed-at enchantment. I went back with my family a week later.

The wall drawings were executed over the best part of a year by a team of artists following LeWitt’s casual-sounding directions (“Four-part line drawing with a different line direction in each part,” for instance). Many of the early works on the ground floor are in fine pencil; they feel as austere and otherworldly as distant galaxies. Others, in ink wash or acrylic paints, are so big, bold, and emphatically present they virtually snap their heels and salute.

LeWitt, who died last year, may have straddled the divide between Minimalism and Conceptualism, but he was typical of neither.

On the Minimalist side, he whittled art down to its bare essentials, exploring the rudiments of line, color, shape, and surface with the kind of steady-hammer intensity that Minimalist composers brought to rhythm, melody, and harmony.

He aimed, like other Minimalists, to make the experience of the viewer before the artwork as unencumbered as possible, dispensing with outworn vestiges of symbolism and rhetoric. In the same vein, he rid artworks of their aura of preciousness and singularity by emphasizing the importance of the idea behind a work over its execution.

This last, oft-repeated claim, however, needs closer scrutiny. It’s true, LeWitt was in thrall to the symmetries and permutations of mathematics, and he didn’t especially care who executed his works. But when you see his works in situ, it’s hard to hold onto the notion that the idea overrides all. These works give too much pleasure. They may begin with ideas, but eventually those ideas are reduced to a background hum.

So how does the show look? In a word, vast. Most people will enter on the second floor of Building 7, which focuses on the middle of LeWitt’s career. The best thing to do is cross the floor and walk downstairs to the ground level. The first work you will confront there is “Wall Drawing 305,” which has, as part of its subtitle, “The location of 100 random specific points.”

Dated 1977, the work reveals LeWitt with his best poker face on. One hundred numbered points are scattered across the wall, and alongside each point the instructions determining its location are written. The second point, for instance, “is located halfway between the center of the wall and the midpoint of the right side.”

The 12th point is harder to follow: It “is located as far as I can reach toward the center of the wall with my right hand while holding my left index finger at a point halfway between a point halfway between the upper left corner and a point halfway between the midpoint of the left side and a point halfway between the center of the wall and the upper left corner and a point halfway between the center of the wall and the midpoint of the left side.”

See what I mean by lunatic?

Don’t balk. This lower floor, dedicated mainly to early works in pencil, also includes some of the most exquisite things LeWitt ever conceived. A few of them experiment with lines that run in four directions (vertical, horizontal, and two diagonals). Superimposed in all possible combinations, the lines create effects of impossible delicacy against the subtly textured wall, and yet the clarity and unbendingness of the idea makes them as robust and inevitable as quadratic equations.

In other works LeWitt combines lead and colored pencil lines according to strictly logical rules. One whole wall, for instance, is covered with small squares covered in lines of one color only (red, yellow, blue, or gray). The opposite wall superimposes these primaries in different combinations, creating an overall effect that is, surprisingly, orange, brown, and light blue.

Upstairs, on the second floor, LeWitt goes to town with colored ink wash, a medium that combines intense levels of color saturation with an impression of cloudy ethereality. One work, “Wall Drawing 422,” is simply a series of vertical bands of color along a long wall. The first four bands are light gray, yellow, red, and blue. The fifth combines gray and yellow to get a darker yellow, the sixth gray and red, and the seventh gray and blue. The eighth combines red and yellow (to give us orange), the ninth combines blue and yellow (green), and the 10th red and blue (it’s purple). And on it goes, until every possible combination has been exhausted.

If it all sounds crushingly dull, the miracle is that it’s not. It’s as light and airy and joyous as can be.
On the third floor, color is intensified even further as LeWitt shifts from ink wash to acrylic paints. Almost methodically, we see him moving through all the rudiments of color, shape, line, and surface. We see glossy paint contrasted with matte. We see wavy lines combined with straight ones. We see arrangements of shape and color that imply three-dimensionality set against those that are adamantly flat. We see primary and secondary colors in various predetermined combinations. And we see strict geometrical shapes set against random “blobs” and “splats” (there is even a wall drawing called “Loopy Doopy”).

One late series of ravishing works uses nothing more than scribble lines to build up shapes and illusions of space with subtle gradations of tone. Part of you marvels at the amount of skilled, concentrated work required to execute such drawings; another part remains cognizant that, for LeWitt, skill was beside the point.

LeWitt’s great contribution was to lighten the burden of expectation artworks had to carry. In this, irony became his ally. He relished various contradictions: between, for instance, the simplicity of his own “ideas” and the (in many cases) devilish complexity of their execution. I think he also enjoyed the tension between the cold inflexibility of the logic he employed and the emotional experience it could give rise to.

Janet Malcolm once wrote that “the spell of any work of art can be shattered by the sound of the nasty little voice saying, ‘But this is ridiculous.’ ” Sol LeWitt was honest enough to embrace this vulnerability – every idea he had courted silliness – but he trumped the voice with rolling waves of beauty.

Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

Although there are many anecdotal stories of breakthroughs resulting from daydreams – Einstein, for instance, was notorious for his wandering mind – daydreaming itself is usually cast in a negative light. Children in school are encouraged to stop daydreaming and “focus,” and wandering minds are often cited as a leading cause of traffic accidents. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, daydreaming is derided as a lazy habit or a lack of discipline, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. It’s a sign of procrastination, not productivity, something to be put away with your flip-flops and hammock as summer draws to a close.

In recent years, however, scientists have begun to see the act of daydreaming very differently. They’ve demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind – so fundamental, in fact, that it’s often referred to as our “default” mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings – such as the message of a church sermon – the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we’re able to imagine things that don’t actually exist, like sticky yellow bookmarks.

“If your mind didn’t wander, then you’d be largely shackled to whatever you are doing right now,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But instead you can engage in mental time travel and other kinds of simulation. During a daydream, your thoughts are really unbounded.”

The ability to think abstractly that flourishes during daydreams also has important social benefits. Mostly, what we daydream about is each other, as the mind retrieves memories, contemplates “what if” scenarios, and thinks about how it should behave in the future. In this sense, the content of daydreams often resembles a soap opera, with people reflecting on social interactions both real and make-believe. We can leave behind the world as it is and start imagining the world as it might be, if only we hadn’t lost our temper, or had superpowers, or were sipping a daiquiri on a Caribbean beach. It is this ability to tune out the present moment and contemplate the make-believe that separates the human mind from every other.

“Daydreaming builds on this fundamental capacity people have for being able to project themselves into imaginary situations, like the future,” Malia Mason, a neuroscientist at Columbia, says. “Without that skill, we’d be pretty limited creatures.”

Jonah Lehrer
Boston Globe

For generations, the study of literature has been a pillar of liberal education, a prime forum for cultural self-examination, and a favorite major for students seeking deeper understanding of the human experience.

But over the last decade or so, more and more literary scholars have agreed that the field has become moribund, aimless, and increasingly irrelevant to the concerns not only of the “outside world,” but also to the world inside the ivory tower. Class enrollments and funding are down, morale is sagging, huge numbers of PhDs can’t find jobs, and books languish unpublished or unpurchased because almost no one, not even other literary scholars, wants to read them.

The latest author to take the flagging pulse of the field is Yale’s William Deresiewicz. Writing recently in The Nation, he described a discipline suffering “an epochal loss of confidence” and “losing its will to live.” Deresiewicz’s alarming conclusion: “The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.”

Not every literary scholar is so pessimistic, but most would agree that the field’s vital signs are bad, and that major changes will be needed to set things right.

Though the causes of the crisis are multiple and complex, I believe the dominant factor is easily identified: We literary scholars have mostly failed to generate surer and firmer knowledge about the things we study. While most other fields gradually accumulate new and durable understanding about the world, the great minds of literary studies have, over the past few decades, chiefly produced theories and speculation with little relevance to anyone but the scholars themselves. So instead of steadily building a body of solid knowledge about literature, culture, and the human condition, the field wanders in continuous circles, bending with fashions and the pronouncements of its charismatic leaders.

I think there is a clear solution to this problem. Literary studies should become more like the sciences. Literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, they should embrace science’s spirit of intellectual optimism. If they do, literary studies can be transformed into a discipline in which real understanding of literature and the human experience builds up along with all of the words.

Jonathan Gottschall
Boston Globe

It is hard to imagine a genre more misunderstood than memoir. Sometimes, these personal stories of our lives can illuminate the hearts and minds of writer and reader alike. Other times, they amount to little more than narcissism.

As a memoirist, critic, and teacher, Sven Birkerts is well positioned to explore this subject, and thankfully so. His “The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again,” is instructive, observant, and astute, a meditation on craft and culture by a relentlessly thoughtful writer. It is even at times a memoir itself, as honest and artful as any he examines.

Memoir, Birkerts writes, requires the juxtaposed perspectives of past and present, of what one recalls and how one recalls it. The recollection should be intuitive rather than chronological, a “felt past” allowing the themes of one’s life to emerge. They should be as relevant to the reader as they are defining of the writer, “universalizing the specific” in ways that assume “there is a shared ground between the teller and the audience.”

Lyrical memoirists, like Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Dillard, have pursued “restoration, searching out recurrences and patterns, but also then allowing for the idea that pattern hints at a larger order, possibly an intention to underlying experience.” Coming-of-age memoirists, like Frank Conroy, Jo Ann Beard, and Maureen Howard, have sought to extract from this “most dramatically fraught period of our lives” a sense of “how I came to be who I now am,” Birkerts writes.

Sons have sought reconciliation with their remote fathers through memoir, as in writings by Paul Auster, Geoffrey Wolff, and Blake Morrison. Daughters have sought distance from their domineering mothers, as in writings by Jamaica Kincaid and Vivian Gornick. Still others have struggled to confront and overcome trauma in their pasts, from incest to disfigurement, like Mary Karr, Richard Hoffman, Lucy Grealy, and Kathryn Harrison, Birkerts writes. Each memoirist has traversed the landscape between past and present in varying ways, using an array of literary techniques to craft their works.

Ultimately, however, memoirists share the human desire to know themselves, for their own sakes as well as their readers. They seek to recall and re-create their lives, and, in so doing, to compel readers to do the same. “Memoir is a narrative art,” Birkerts writes, “but through its careful manipulation of vantage point it simulates the subjective sense of experience apprehended through memory and the corrective actions of hindsight. In other words it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life.”

Birkerts is as incisive a literary analyst as he is eloquent a literary essayist. His occasional forays into his own life further elucidate his points by way of example, while they offer glimpses into the mind of a memoirist writing about memoirists. His book, required reading for anyone interested in the genre, is an engaging study of how we come to understand ourselves through this most personal of literary expressions.

Robert Braile
Boston Globe

David Muller at work, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

It took the Los Angeles artist [David Muller] a week to install the sprawling rock ‘n’ roll-inspired mural “As Below, So Above” in the ICA’s lobby. Filled with text, watercolor brushstrokes, and framed portraits of record-sleeve spines, the piece is a departure from the previous mural in the lobby, Chiho Aoshima’s playful anime-inspired “The Divine Gas.” Muller’s installation, commissioned by the ICA, comes with a soundtrack, a constantly playing rotation of 136,125 songs. The playlist put together by the onetime DJ – he still does a wedding here or there – is designed to run for 399 days without repeating a tune…

A central component of the mural is not Muller’s creation. It is a chart chronicling the advance of rock ‘n’ roll over two decades starting in 1955. Reebee Garofalo, now a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, created the text by studying record sales charts and translating them into the swirling design, which traces how the Kingston Trio led to Bob Dylan, how Fats Domino paved the way for Stevie Wonder. The chart was published in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music Industry,” a now out-of-print book Garofalo coauthored with Steve Chapple in 1977. (A poster of Garofalo’s chart can be purchased in the ICA store and online.)

To illustrate his view that rock history is an organic living entity, Muller has painted Garofalo’s chart in black watercolor and surrounded it with a kind of rock garden on the ICA wall. It’s a landscape seen in cross-section, with trees, grass, and autumn leaves, as well as an underground area in which Muller has placed a tribute to Sun Ra.

“Somehow, I’m just trying to relate that all the different kinds of music are connected somehow, the same way an ecosphere is connected,” Muller says. “I’m also trying to figure out how you deal with history and the future.”

Geoff Edgers
Boston Globe

The will will be on display at the ICA for one year.