The Face Makes a Comeback

August Sander

The face, I’m guessing, is itching for a comeback as a place of truth and confrontation. The dalliance in real life with the grotesque distortions is priming us for a reality check. I was moved by two shows in Paris – small sampling! – but each did the old-fashioned thing of demanding an accounting from its subjects – and having adversaries face each other in a dialog of the eyes.

Yan Pei-Ming, a Chinese painter, who is both fully modern and full frontal figurative. In a new show called “Dating,” he puts thickly painted, liberated and sexually engaged subjects across from Popes and cardinals who glare down their noses. Time, ravages and risk of living is inscribed in guttral unavoidable ways. Pei-Ming has painted Mao, Obama, Picasso and others in the past. He gets a guttural response from the harrowing intimacy and existential individual struggle.

August Sander, a German who was one of the pioneers of psychological portraiture, took pictures during the Nazi era. The show of “The Persecuted and the Persecutors” at the Memorial of the Shoah shows vulnerable and complex humanity on the foreign workers, prisoners and Jewish citizens. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, are frigid, autocratic, tightly bound; as executors of a master race ideology, they refuse connection with any other. While there is derangement on both sides, the soft eyes of the victims bear psychological violence and poignancy of intelligent awareness. As Sander said, “I never made a person look bad. They did that themselves.”

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Paris à Go-Go

Oh, the charms of having grown children!

The Nor’Easter knew I couldn’t miss my visit to Planet Rachel! It let me slip out under the wire and get that plane to Paris. After a spell of ersatz sleep (as much as the tattooed and beefy gents going off to St. Patrick’s Day allowed me), I met my darling daughter. Now that she’s finished her undergrad work, she’s in her town. That little crevette who was born premature in nationwide French strikes of ’95 is now a beautifully fluent cosmopolite, flowy red hair following behind her.

We’re bopping around the city, dashing in and out of thunderstorms; sitting under heated terraces with the Parisians who don’t let a gleam of sun pass unattended. We analyze the clouds, noting their individual identity. Baudelaire wrote about them, Paris designers must have coordinated the tint of the apartment buildings to resonate with the vibrating but flat light.

I’m relying on guidance of families and friends to put my finger on the pulse. A few things I’ve gleaned: Paris has long reveled in its self-selected role as standard bearer of values and artistry. How far does that go these days? Not very far.  It now sees itself reflected in a mirror, or in images of others, then appropriates that image for itself. Paris is taking “food concepts” (country/decadence/colonial) and making them fey, cute, designed.

France used to hide its commercial tendencies so as not to put forward a capitalist or “Anglo-Saxon” face. It made entrepreneurial spirit take backseat to other values. That’s changing. The latest “grand projet” (the French love massive redefining projects) aims to make Paris a start-up capital. Station F, a large complex built downstream from Notre Dame, not only lends up to-the-minute hipster designed space to start-ups, it also makes available government officials, bankers and soon-to-be living space. In Pantin, at the end of the metro, Bogosian and others have built important galleries around a small runway that makes it easy for buyers to whisk in on their private jets.
We still managed to land in cafes with only Turkish toilets. And find wonderful food and wine.  And the cheese – ah, the raison d’être. How many ways can they make fromage chèvre? Let me count the ways.

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Lucie Brock-Broido, Teenage Poetess


I’m grieving for Lucie Brock-Broido, the poet who died yesterday. We grew up across a street from each other in Pittsburgh. It was a cobblestone lane, really, enchanted like much of her poetry. From her teenage years, she was always the poetess, her long golden tresses following adoringly behind her. In another image, she carried her own peacock’s tail.  She cultivated mystery and dreamy depth.

Her step-father, Jerry Greenwald, owned a big carpet company and her mother, Ginger, used her actor training to make breathy TV commercials. In those days, Lucie wrote about a blue glass vase sitting on the side of my mother’s bath, eliciting some wry comments. No one ever understands artists! Lucie went on to write magnificent series of poems, lead the Columbia U writing program, and otherwise rise as she knew she would. Sympathies to Melissa and Julie.



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Emily Post Meets Brut

Joshua Primmer’s “Place Setting II”

It doesn’t matter
that the concrete of this setting
is less than elegant,
neither marble nor oak.

In Emily Post’s eyes, such form
is near perfection:
“the utensils are placed in the order of use;
Forks go to the left of the plate
knives and spoons to the right.
Finally, only set the table with utensils
you will use.
No soup: no soup spoon.”

We are part caveman, part modern,
though the differences are shrinking
and atavism more prominent
every day.
One thing’s set in stone: We Eat.

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My Mother’s Obelisk Lipstick


Standing at my mother’s vanity
I, girl child with wide eyes

her self transformed nakedly
with knots and tricks towards elegance,

her hair teased to an oblong,
her neck, like Cleopatra’s, lengthened:

I eyed the miniature Obelisk
that cased her red lipstick.

Heir and standard bearer
of beauty, of glamour

from a temple at Luxor
to Place de la Concorde.

I learned in a museum recently
Dior made this emblem of Luxor – y,

raising the everyday with this nifty
piece of glass and tube of wax.

Though the lipstick wore down
and my mother passed on, she’d say,

Let it fly, trip from lip to lip, Beauty,
pass along your open secrets:
blow your kisses widely.


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Snow Shoes (The Right Stuff)

I imagined an old-fashioned thatch —
bamboo, birch, cat gut –
a magic, organic weave of the kind
that keeps our lives from sinking.

We fitted our new shoes, meshed
now in high-tech plastic,
then went thrashing in deep snow.
We managed, though they broke.

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1-2-3 Sunset

In the sixties we had 1-2-3 Jell-O,
opaque, medium, and frothy layers —
a bright pink trio.

When the sun sinks in three pink zones,
is it the same freak chemical show?
Please, God, say no.

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How I Learned to Love the Bomb Cyclone

The Shape of Snow

Needlepoint of snow in the streetlight
cross stitches in the gusting wind.

Cars begin to disappear, the nearby elms
fade in the distance.

By the shore, four sharks roll up,
bone dead, though a dog learns
to amuse himself with a hill and a sled.

Warm inside, a fire rages like twin sisters,
one blond tresses, the other red-headed.

The fire in the fireplace begins to die.
“I’ll always love you!” shouts the child.

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See Feelingly


My wish for the coming year: to clear our eyes.  To see with feeling again.   To not just see broad strokes, cartoonish outlines, the wild and wooly, but to see deep.  See beyond. From the other side of the RISD Museum gallery, a casual viewer will say- woh, it’s a black painting!  Get closer to that Ad Reinhart beauty and you see how sumptuous and rich a single color is.  There’s not a straight black stroke on the canvas.  The black is all blended and spliced with blue, with red, melding to a super saturation of the kind of blue-black hair the comic strip heros used to have.   It draws you into worlds beyond worlds – and it’s one of my favorite paintings in the gallery.

Outside the gallery is a white-ish cafe, Cafe Pearl.  The flash neon lettering against an eggshell wall, a touch of milk foam lifts in a white cup on a marble tray.  The contrasts are delicious for the contrast conceived differently.  What is white but an array of variations that can go into the infinite.  An array of associations.  Black and white– It’s not a racial point, although it could be.

It could be a plea to go beyond ideology, simplicity, black and white. It could be what Gloucester says to King Lear after being blinded: “I see it feelingly.”  See deep.  Go with new eyes into the New Year.


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What gives in Florida, Hamlet?

Petite mort, as the French call orgasm, is a little death but also an ecstasy.  And in ecstasy, experience compresses in a single dose of timelessness.

By that logic, my quick trip to Florida last week was a little ecstasy.  The past was exceedingly present, pressed onto me as a double being. I’d been in Florida since my college days when my parents started seeking the sun.  I was a daughter there, attending a father in a light-spotched room, dying young; a mother overstated with flowers, then also wilting.  Myself as a mother.  A wealth of significant moments kept appearing.  It was like hopscotching the boxes of daughterdom.

Things got stuck in the present.   Even though my mom and dad have passed away, I was still in daughter role.  The referents were gone, but the rituals and roles clung, I kept looking over my shoulder, wondering who, what was there.

When at a loss, go to literary images: Hamlet.  The classic fellow was haunted with the problem of a repurposed family.  I was staying in our old house, with a father not my father, and his wife not my mother.  Were all these memories at my shoulder telling me something, serving a sign, some urging for action?  Some prescience about the future? Shakespeare, the writer who most understood the roles we play, would understand that I kept slipping out of role.  Fractured under the sun.  Nothing new.  All the world’s a stage. Beyond all that, it was a fab trip!

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