Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Downstream from Richard Brautigan

As a book trader, it's my experience to encounter tens of thousands of books all the time, sifting through them for sleepers, sorting and discriminating at will. As a dealer in "modern first editions" (that is, collectible books published since circa 1900), I routinely consider the works of Richard Brautigan, usually the popular trade editions of his later novels (The Hawklike Monster, Willard and His Bowling Trophies, Sombrero Fallout, The Tokyo-Montana Express, etc.), and just as routinely reject them as unsalable material.  Like most people, I first became aware of Brautigan during the late 1960's and early 1970's, when his notorious hip novel Trout Fishing in America appeared. Copies of the first true edition published by Donald Allen's Four Seasons Foundation have become almost unobtainable on the market. Early in his career, Brautigan himself published a number of slim little chapbooks of verse, some of which were given away--and all of which, today, are very valuable.  

Like most people, I suspect, my feelings reading Brautigan's work tended towards skepticism. His narratives are not really stories, but surrealistic snapshots of events and people which are not tied to reality, except tangentially. The point of his work seemed to be to make very hip metaphysical jokes or ironic equations about life. Their spirit was unlike Beat literature. They were much more fatalistic and peculiar. As a kid who'd been raised by a man who worshipped the sport of fly-fishing, I was disappointed to learn that the book had nothing really to do with fly-fishing as such. 

It seemed to me then that Brautigan the author was probably a very shrewd sort of hustler who'd managed to put one over on the literary world. That would seem to have been the official verdict at the time, that its author was a clever "naif"--an inventor of quips and wise-cracks designed to impress teenagers and hipsters. In short, Brautigan had enterprised the counterculture trends of the 1960's into a full-blown literary spoof, complete with photos of himself and his girlfriends on the book covers, made out to look like fringe vagabonds. 

Brautigan's life was a mess, from beginning to end. A difficult childhood was followed by a period of struggle, trying to scratch out an existence while writing. Trouble with the law, incarceration in a mental facility (including shock treatments), and a period spent cruising North Beach in San Francisco, sleeping around with lots of groupies, a number of failed relationships. With fame and success and money, his escapades became more bizarre. An alcoholic all his life, and a sufferer of depression (much of it related to his tormented childhood), he eventually committed suicide in an old house he owned in Bolinas. 

Since I had never been much interested in the world Brautigan lived in, or in his fiction (though his poetry I found intriguing), I didn't mourn his death. His reputation had declined, and his last published books looked like exploitation. 

Recently, I came across a nice copy of Keith Abbott's memoir Downstream from Trout Fishing in America [Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1989], published five years after Brautigan's suicide. Abbott's account is a rambling, though consistent, portrait of his friendship with the late writer, covering their early years in San Francisco during the Sixties, with a few snapshots in the years following, and a short critical take on his literary style. What I found fascinating was the revelation that Brautigan was so much like the figure he wanted to project in his work. In other words, he was every bit as enigmatic and confused as his peculiar sentences and metaphors and narratives suggested or implied. Ordinarily, I think of authors as being "smarter" than their work, which is to say they design or craft their writing like clay, to make an object that bears their intention, with greater or lesser success. Abbott emphasizes how meticulous Brautigan was about his work, slaving over it, revising it, worrying it. But for a man without a college education--in effect, a self-taught writer--whose experience was limited, his sense of his purpose or mission as a writer was very close to the sort of man he was. In that sense, his work is a version of roman à clef--in which real people or events appear barely concealed with invented names or dates or places. In the 1960's, French and German existentialism was very big, and you can read this quality in Brautigan's fiction. But he also was able to convey a sense of American free-spiritedness, which is more like the Beats. It's hard to imagine Trout Fishing in America without On the Road.  

Ken Kesey, almost his exact contemporary (both were born in 1935, and Kesey's novels were published in 1962 [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] and 1964 [Sometimes a Great Notion]), shares with Brautigan the position of inventor and defender of an attitude towards life and conduct that we now recognize as familiar to a whole generation. The Flower Generation

Ken Kesey

As Abbott makes clear, Brautigan was probably clinically abnormal, and much of his behavior and thought was irrational. His literary skill was in transforming his troubled visions into form and content, which pleased his admirers and frustrated his detractors. He didn't grow as a writer, and seemed held by his demons in a permanent creative stasis. The underlying subtext of his work is of characters who suffer from a difficulty in enduring reality, and who invent imaginary strategies for fending it off. It may be that he lived his own life in much this way, fantasizing alternative versions of himself, which he projected in his fiction. Interestingly, Kesey's masterpiece, Cuckoo's Nest, posits just such a position for its protagonist, that of misunderstood outsider McMurphy. McMurphy could fit right into a Brautigan narrative. 

Today, Brautigan's reputation is tarnished, primarily in my view as a result of the second-rate work that he published after 1970, work which suggested he was rehashing the same material, or was unsuccessfully attempting to refashion himself into a straight novelist. His talent was a small one, but genuine and precious (in both senses). The pretense in his work is that you will and will not (simultaneously) take him seriously. The driver of his work may have been pain and frustration, but he turned those feelings into wit and irony. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Wright's Hanna - The "Honeycomb House"

Frank Lloyd Wright's career was a long one, and it divides chronologically into distinct periods. 

Born in the middle of the Victorian 19th Century, he lived to be 91, and even at the end, he was still actively producing works which would be among his most noteworthy. The impressive early works can still be seen on Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He developed a design principle which he called his "Prairie Style"--which emphasized strong horizontal lines, inspired by the flat, gently undulating Midwest countryside. All of his work demonstrates, as well, a strong geometric feeling, often credited to his childhood play with Froebel blocks, a kind of toy used in kindergartens of the day. 

During the 1930's, Wright designed a series of residential structures which came to be known as the Usonian Houses. Unlike the earlier Prairie structures, these designs had no basements or attics, were primarily single-story buildings; they continued his focus on long, horizontal sight lines, with banks of horizontal windows, and also exploited open plan layouts; and were always well-integrated (fitted) into the landscape where they stood. Among the most successful and satisfying of his Usonian houses, was the Hanna House in Stanford, California, begun in 1937, which employs the application of the 30-60 degree angle--roughly, the angular dimensional arc of the honeycomb. 

Once, during my class-work for the Landscape Architecture degree studies, I had an encounter with a TA about a project we had been assigned. Remembering how much I liked Wright's Hanna House, I remarked that one very good way to make an interesting design, was to select a strong visual or structural principle, and apply it to a specific site. The TA looked at me quizzically, and replied that "that isn't what design is about at all!" and proceeded to tell me that only through inductive, incremental consideration of each feature and limitation of the site, along with the functional requirements of the structure, could one arrive at a successful design. I said, in reply, that such an approach would produce something that had no character, since it would be nothing more than a hodgepodge of adaptations to a host of unintegrated aspects. In other words, I felt that taking her approach would yield results that had no inherent beauty, only functional parts somehow pieced together like a puzzle. 

If we follow this dialectic too far, we end up in a theoretical quagmire. No two individual designs are ever completely equivalent--though if they are, they're row houses or "tract" houses, cookie-cutter structures with no variety, and without a specific response to site. Of course, architecture is not a "pure art" branch of aesthetics. Every building is a combination of form and function, and involves the compromised intersection of the two principles. Nevertheless, remembering the Hanna House, it's possible to appreciate how "forcing" oneself to appropriate a strict geometric figure onto an "organic" locus is one way to generate creative solutions. One limitation may be the shape of the land, another may be the "artificial" structural principle brought to bear upon the given context. Here is a schematic of the project--

The "germ" of the design is visible in the hexagonal terrace tiles, which fit perfectly into the perimeter wall angles. This visual queue is probably not initially obvious to a visitor to the site, but it becomes more and more confirming as you move around, and inside the structure. The idea of imposing a design principle onto a site, while maintaining the functional organization of space, is like the golden section. It makes the existence of such a house almost a natural expression of the land itself, almost "inevitable" in its realization of possible form(s). 

There are, of course, many other aspects to the structure. By contemporary standards, the house possesses a luxurious consumption of area, and would be beyond the means of most clients. It's a demonstration of the possibilities of an ideal single family dwelling, exploited without regard for a more limited budget, or the surrounding real estate. When the house was originally commissioned, it literally stood alone in the landscape, but was eventually surrounded by the Stanford University campus, and it eventually became the property of the institution, now open to the public as an historic landmark, and used occasionally for official functions. 


Is there anything "logical" about 30-60 degree angles? In other words, are corners and edges and intersections at that angle less "efficient" in terms of spatial use? 

These interiors seem filled with light, largely as a result of making most of the exterior walls glazed with clear glass. There are disadvantages to having this much transparency, not least of which is you need sufficient insulation (or distance) from your neighbors. But it also brings the outside inside, an interpenetration that is inviting, or disquieting, depending on your temperament. 

Another aspect of the odd angles is tight corners. Philip Johnson believed in what he called the "processional" quality of architectural design, by which he meant the incremental unfolding of views and proprioceptive awareness of space, as in a procession. As we move through a space, our sense of how we feel, is a process, i.e., not a static, fixed point of reference, but a constantly shifting perspective. Transitions from one point to another allow a structure to be perceived kinetically. In the Hanna house, our movement through the house presents a constantly changing view of the outside, such that there's a continuing conversation between external and internal areas. There's an insistence upon this exposed quality, which some might find intrusive. The whole house itself is an escape, but once within its limits, there seems almost no privacy.     

In most Wright houses, landscape plays a crucial part. The contrast between the hard-edged man-made materials and the softer, twisted, gnarled, fluffy, gaunt shapes of trees, leaves, shrubbery and ground-cover makes a very pleasing effect. In any Wright house, you're likely to feel alternately as if you're in a kind of cave, or up among tree limbs, or floating in a water-way. This interpenetration of wild and built, nature and made precinct is now one of the hallmarks of modern design, though as recently as the 19th Century, inner and outer worlds were considered discrete, and nature was something to be pushed away from the ordered, safe interior of artificial space. 

In scenes from this property, it's clear that the natural and human spaces have been integrated into a symbiotic whole, where both are meant to belong. 

It's an architecture of conviction, but Wright's projects were not without their problems. Builders and owners nearly always had issues with his structures. They were almost always considered "beautiful" but not always completely thought through. Roofs leaked, walls cracked, rooms might seem too narrow or cramped, sometimes the heating didn't work, and too much sunlight might fade furniture and furnishings. Like most prima-donna designers, Wright sometimes seemed more interested in how his structures would be perceived in magazine layouts, than in how well they worked as homes. And some of them have not held up well over the decades. 

But how much do we care about the comfort of the inhabitants? Mies van der Rohe said that women didn't wear high heels because they were comfortable, but because they thought they looked beautiful. Which sounds like a smart retort to pretentious design critiques, unless you acknowledge that women are unlikely to wear high heels at home to wash the dishes or read a book. Home isn't for show, it's for daily living. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Arsenic / Absinthe in the Limelight - Green in the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec [1864-1901] seems almost like a figure from mythology. You couldn't make up a person like that, except perhaps as a figure in a French fairy tale. Physically deformed from an early age--legs stunted so that he never exceeded 4' 8" in height--he managed to create an unique body of stunning work in just a few short years, before succumbing to the effects of alcoholism and syphilis.     

As a painter, Lautrec occupies a crucial position in the history of art, just after the ascendancy of Impressionism, but before the great iconoclastic convulsions of Modernism (pointillism, cubism, futurism, Dada, constructivism, etc.). His work is frankly representational, but infused with special qualities and innovative effects. His subject was Paris night-life, the garish watering holes of the well-to-do, as well as the brothels and circuses and bohemian quarter. 

Though high-born, with means, his physical deformity meant that the social circles of respectable class were closed to him, so he fell in with the lower elements with which he came to identify. 

Nearly everyone is familiar with his raffish poster designs, the nudes and dancers and candid vignettes. They recreate a fin-de-siecle Paris world, decadent, dilettantish, gestural, piquant, forsaken,  sad, vicarious, naughty.   

There are many ways to approach Lautrec's art. In it are aspects of exhibitionism, degeneracy, burlesque, casual malignity--all of which Lautrec portrays with a directness which belies his shrewd sympathetic regard. The figures in his art, though often seemingly lost to virtue, are interesting, intriguing, enmeshed in a closed world of sexual longing, frustration, and occasional bacchanalian abandon. Indulgence seems its underlying motive-force, with the predictable aftermath of boredom, fatigue and shame. 

One of the chief aspects of this transgressive atmosphere in Lautrec's use of color to shade meaning and spin aura is the subtle application of the color green. The more I've looked at Lautrec's work lately, the more noticeable this aspect seems. 

Lautrec was known to favor absinthe, the spirit liqueur which was once thought to generate hallucinations and visions, but which recent science has proven to be a myth. Nevertheless, artists and bohemians in late 19th Century Europe popularized the notion that the "green fairy" could seduce imbibers into a deadly addiction. Absinthe became a late romantic indulgence, hence its appearance in Lautrec's paintings of Paris cabaret and bistro culture. 

Absinthe appears frequently in the paintings, and its potent green color acquires a symbolic reference, a code for the dissolution and decadence of the epoch. The more you look at Lautrec's work, the more you notice this green tint, not just in representations of clothing, or decor, but around the edges of things, in the shadows, or in the outlines of figures or objects. 

The more you look, the more you see that many of Lautrec's paintings are virtually immersed in a shimmering, evanescent pale, lurid green numinosity, which signals the influence of mortality and cultivated decay. Sometimes it's obvious, other times more subtle.

One of the revolutionary elements of Modern Art is its counter-intuitive use of color, an aspect that became like a signature of the new style at the turn of the last century. We would expect that Lautrec, like Cezanne or Matisse or Monet, would use combinations and contrasts that challenge our assumptions about the actual appearance of hue; but in many of Lautrec's paintings, green doesn't just appear, innocently, as a delight and titillation to the eye. It has an explicit, subconscious presence. 

Ask yourself, looking at the painting above, what the purpose of all that green on the sheets and faces and pillows is? It almost seems a kind of ethereal plasm which covers everything in the scene. 

Ordinarily, we would say that the use of convergent, even clashing colors in a modernist composition is evidence of the panchromatic argument about the complexity of our apprehension of light, and how painters will play with that notion to achieve various effects. But in these works, it seems more an intention--conscious or not--

If a color can acquire a metaphorical connection beyond its initial associations, then anyone's version of the significance of an association is no better or worse than another's. Lautrec seems to have become habituated to using green the same way Morandi uses grey, or Ingres uses carmine, or de Kooning uses yellow. 

Does green have a moral quality for Lautrec? Does it symbolize elegance, richness, serenity? Or is it a code for corruption, depravity or obscenity? 

Historically, the color green itself seems to have had a kind of furtive, baleful association, since its chemical combination once included arsenic, a notorious poison. In the 19th Century, arsenic was used in wallpaper, women's clothing, and soaps, as well as artists' paint-boxes. Its dangers, though not well understood, were known to be harmful. 

In my mind, these qualities of green are conflated, in ways I suspect might well have occurred to Lautrec.     



Limelight, the type of theatre-lighting once used in the 19th Century, to illuminate performance, might seem like another planet in this constellation of associations, though it's not really green--employing an oxide of calcium (lime) to produce an intense flame light when subjected to an oxyhydrogen flame. 

This detail, from the first image shown at the top, is like a mask, a dream image conjured out of the fantasy of the unconscious. It shows an upturned woman's face, with unreal cream and lurid green features, corn-yellow hair, and orange-y red lips. It's both hypnotically strange, but also unexpressive and doll-like. A face that's been transformed by the glare of artificial light into an icon of modernity--not unlike those courtesans in Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon

That green cast overshadows much of the "scenic" background in Lautrec's work, and for me it's the underlying meaning and affectation of his aesthetic, suggesting both the attraction of the sensual, and the jeopardy of mortality. 

Lautrec stands somewhat apart from these things. As a participant, he drank his absinthe cocktail (the combination of equal parts absinthe (or pernod) and cognac) to excess, and slept with prostitutes, whom he used as models. He lived hard, and produced great art, documenting a segment of society which today strikes us as supremely decadent and over-indulgent. And he only lived 36 years. To paraphrase, are we as full of life as life was full in him? 


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Growth - Who Needs It?

In yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, the lead Editorial was devoted to California Governor Jerrys Brown's proposal to "streamline the approval process for certain kinds of new housing development." His plan "would make it easier and faster to build new housing in California . . . [and] would ease [my emphasis] the state housing crisis." (Predictably, the editorial praised Brown for his practicality and good sense.) 

The so-called "housing crisis" is a well-identified phenomenon. It occurs whenever there are more people looking for a place to live, than there are places to live, in a given region. One of the consequences of rapid growth, is housing shortages. Its manifestations are various: Rising prices for homes, rentals, and also homelessness. It affects society at all levels. 

In California, we've been dealing with growth for over a century and a half. Indeed, "growth" has become the sacred cow, the holy grail, the third rail, the untouchable concept. Like "diversity," it's become politically dangerous to address, even to mention. Questioning the wisdom of uncontrolled, chaotic "growth" has become as politically incorrect as questioning the value of "multi-cultural diversity." 

California Bay Area satellite image, showing urbanization as grey color

Who benefits from growth, and what are the relative advantages or disadvantages of buying in to the campaigns for future growth?

On the Eastern Seaboard, or in the Midwest, "mature" settlement has largely moderated, except in Florida. But in the Greater West, we're still experiencing the "open range" mentality, with constant calls for expansion and encroachment, upgrades and enhancements. We're admonished for not building and adding-on and accommodating further additional growth. 

After a century and a half of this, we've become inured to the message. Most people don't even question the need for growth, the ever-demanding and insistent cry for "more!" Always more: More people, more roads and freeways, more schools, more police, more sewage treatment, more water, more parks, more jobs--it almost seems at times that it doesn't matter what it is, if it's "more" then we should need it. 

But more growth has consequences. More growth means more government, more crowding, more noise, more pollution, more ecological devastation, and--over time--higher prices for everything, as well as shortages of some things that are finite, limited, or irreplaceable. Politicians, contractors, developers, entrepreneurs, and minority advocates all love growth, because it expands their territory, and lines their pockets. 

I once had a friend who said, "everyone wants to live in California," and it's true. There's an overwhelming urge to migrate to the Golden State. We have space, good weather, and relative prosperity. 

The debate over uncontrolled growth in California will continue, and we can expect to hear the same tired arguments trotted out with predictable passion and persistence, in favor of more housing, more transportation infrastructure, more jobs, more, more, more, more.  

But the plain and obvious fact is that California has become--is, in fact, already--a mature region, occupied, filled-up, full. The high price of housing, and the scarce rental market, are symptoms of a disease, the disease of excess growth, and excess population. Ironically, the very things which people think they'll enjoy once they migrate here, are destroyed by this process. 

We've all heard about the "flight to the suburbs" which occurred after World War II. There's also the flight to new developing regions, such as the Southwest, where suburban sprawl has been spreading like wildfire.

Scottsdale, Arizona

Henderson, Nevada

The plain and obvious fact about our regional population abstract is that quality of life is compromised whenever "growth" is pursued and designed without regard for the real consequences. 

We know that the earth isn't--never was, really--just a playground for human exploitation. There may be no inherent ethical quality about ecological balance, of moderate habitation; but we know what the consequences are when a species explodes. Our instincts tell us that birth is good, that the pursuit of happiness is a human "right" and that democracy is about letting people chase their dreams. But our dreams cannot dictate how we approach common sense problems in the real world. 

How crowded do we want our cities to be? How much suburban growth is "enough"? How much blacktop and concrete do we want to spread over the earth? How much natural resource can we justify exploiting for our own convenience? How many species must be sacrificed to extinction to feed our bottomless rapacity? 

Jerry Brown says he wants to "ease" the housing crisis by making it more easy to build new houses and apartments. He wants to "include" "affordable" housing in the equation. How noble. 

And how corrupt! 

The bottom line is that as housing prices and scarcity rise, the desirability of migration declines. That arithmetic is easy to understand. We can "encourage" means by which the continuing influx of newcomers can be "accommodated," or we can celebrate the arrival of limits and barriers which moderate growth. 

Growth can be a very bad thing, and trying to facilitate additional growth by "helping" the housing market isn't a smart response to the problem. The intelligent response is to acknowledge the underlying causes of "shortages" and address the causes, not the symptoms. The cause of high prices and scarcity is growth itself, not some logistical problem with permits or environmental obstructionists. Because those too are symptoms--symptoms of the outer limits of our tolerance, and the region's natural holding capacity. Our recent "drought"--which may have been brought on by global warming--is another symptom of the finite limits of the region. There's no reason to think that short-term, short-sighted "fixes" will ultimately solve the problems of excess growth.

Jerry Brown, who once stood for reasonable intelligent public policy, now advocates unlimited growth. Speed trains along our coast, more "canals" to divert water, and now, streamlined housing construction. He no longer questions the growth paradigm. He says he wants to address global warming, but his solutions actually will exacerbate the problem, by directly stimulating the underlying causes of climate change. 

He's been body-snatched, and now marches to the old music.