May 26, 2009

density and vacuousness at the museum brandhorst

a conversation about great museums a few nights ago reminded me of the brandhorst, which i visited in 2009.

image by art-magazin

after a brief interlude for a stunning andechser doppelbock (dark and clear, with a crisp, malty flavour, plenty of acidity, and the aroma of citrus--thank you patrick), we headed back to the maxvorstadt* to see the new brandhorst museum, designed by sauerbruch hutton. the outside is clad with a bi-coloured steel skin covered with a layer of vertically-affixed ceramic rods glazed in a variety of different colours. the intent was to both shield the building from sun heat and to reduce reverberations from street noise; these objectives achieved, the skin of rods also gives the building an appearance of shifting colouration such that, from afar, it looks more like a collection of rectilinear masses of pure colour than a building.

the collection is from udo and anette brandhorst, yet another pair of tremendously-wealthy art collectors. the brandhorst collection focuses on contemporary artists from europe and north america; they have a stunning number of cy twomblys, and have in fact built the cavernous and beautiful upper galleries expressly to display their collection of twombly's giant rose paintings, a large proportion of the lepanto cycle, and many of his sculptures. i blame my poor education and exposure for my inability to see the slightest sense of wonder, insight, technical development, or rich meaning in these works. fortunately, the profound vacuity of the upper gallery was redeemed by the museum's superb construction (the inside was all limed oak, high ceilings, plastered walls, and frosted glass) and two paintings crammed into the ground floor gallery.

the first, by sigmar polke, is painted on glazed synthetic cloth such that the canvas becomes translucent and reveals the framework of the stretcher behind it; additionally, there is a section of canvas that has been printed with colours handprints and stitched in. the imagery is of a tree bare of foliage and a mountain in segments, both with perspective slightly messed up and represented as blown-up gravure lines painted on with clearly drippy paint--from a great distance, the tree and the mountain appear to have the tone and shade of paint but close-up they are clearly both line art and painting. the title is the three lies of painting which gives rise to a host of possible interpretations given the transparency and intentional fragmentation of the canvas ground and the numerous conscious and explicit pieces of trickery in the painting.

sigmar polke, the three lies of painting, image by the museum brandhorst

the second, by eric fischl, reminds me a little of sargent's el jaleo in the isabella stewart gardner museum. living room #3 (spinning) is part of his krefeld series in which he hired two actors to live in restored mies van der rohe houses and painted a series showing snapshots of their lives. this one is one of the best. the titanium white in the faces creates an irresistible sense of powerful light off to the left, and the sense of movement in the gown suggests an expanse of time, a prior history of interaction, and a durable mood all condensed into an unmeditated and transient moment. this has some connection to the tea ceremony concept of 一期一会.
eric fischl, the living room #3 (spinning), image by the museum brandhorst

john singer sargent, el jaleo, image by carol gerten

margaret was saying [and here, you can read what margaret actually said, which is actually about a completely different thing that i do agree with] that the unique value of paintings is in their ability to do what photographs cannot do, in the same way that the unique value of the novel lies in its ability to do what films cannot do. i think this may be a specifically correct judgment given a particularly good painting and a mediocre photograph, but i can think of many good photographs that are better than mediocre paintings and good films that are better than mediocre books. perhaps a more precise and generalizable rubric is that representations of objects and events are valuable in so far as they capture and can communicate a sort of density of meaning, and they are more valuable the more intense, the more dense they are. these two pieces by polke and fischl (and the flavin and sandback pieces in the pinakothek, and the installations of fragmentary statuary in the glyptothek) are dense with what irene winter calls affective power, the way the numerous pieces by twombly are not.

* margaret also notes that: "In the interests of strict accuracy, the Brandhorst is not at Königsplatz. It's in Maxvorstadt. Königsplatz is a square, not a district. The Glyptothek, meanwhile, is definitely at Königsplatz." 'tis.

May 24, 2009

pinakothek der moderne

pinakothek der moderne was designed by stefan braunfels and has some truly amazing cast concrete facework. unfortunately, the modern section was mostly underwhelming. fortunately, i could have spent at least four hours in the contemporary galleries.

there were many john chamberlains, though the best one was acme thunderer, placed in a hallway drenched in light from floor-to-ceiling windows.

john chamberlain, acme thunderer, image from the american patrons of the pinakotheks.

and the moderne was more than redeemed by a pair of installations placed side by side through the genius of the curatorial staff. from the stairs to the second floor, a green glow can be seen emanating from one of the galleries. this turns out to be an enormous, high-ceilinged room filled with a dan flavin fluorescent tube sculpture. the green light is remarkably penetrating, such that the tubes begin to vibrate slightly after just a few seconds of observation as parts of your retina become violently overstimulated. the galleries visible through the two exits turn pink, as does the light from the skylights, the way everything turns blue at sunset during the blue hour.

untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), image from asymptotia

exiting the flavin room in a pink haze, green tubes seared into our retinas, we then came on fred sandback's pink flamingo, two thin columns of pink yarn descending from the ceiling in a white room that, to green-accustomed eyes, vibrated in shades of pink. at the same moment, a man in a pink shirt and a woman in pink pants came into the room. their shadows blocked out the green light from the entryway for an instant, in which time the sculpture flashed the deep, saturated colour of lawn flamingos. a magic moment.

the glyptothek

having spent many (but perhaps not quite enough) of the last few days dozing by the riverbank, we decided that today, being hot and muggy, would be a fine day to see the museums of munich. the glyptothek in koenigsplatz, recommended highly by no less august an individual than irene winter herself, was the first on the list.

it is a small museum with walls of exposed whitewashed brick and a floor of large grey flagstones, with maybe 9 connected halls around a sunny, tree-ful central courtyard. i don't know if i've ever been in a museum as obsessed with material and with displaying statuary with such care and restraint. each pedestal is carefully and beautifully made--most out of a fine-grained pale-grey granite--with the dressing marks still on every face, but with the corners honed to a fine bevel. when the light comes in through the windows, the pedestals achieve the same soft tone as the marble of which many of the statues are made and seem to disappear.

as in the case of the dog below (in front of a horst thuerheimer drawing) many of the fragmentary pieces appeared to be in the process of flying apart, held together only by the edges of their silhouettes.

image from the glyptothek and antiken sammlungen

the pediment sculptures from the east and west facades of the aphaia temple at aegina were both installed a little above head level, on an unadorned blackened steel and granite base with two corner blocks of granite providing the suggestion of the shape of the pediment that would have been behind them. these fragmentary figures of greek and trojan warriors were originally installed in a different configuration which has since been revised.

the group from the western pediment, image from the university of regensburg

there is an entire room of greek and roman busts installed at various heights, creating the impression of walking through a silent and motionless crowd. it was all extremely satisfying.

May 19, 2009

london to munich

to munich in 20 minutes on an easyjet ticket that cost $44. incidentally, the streetnet on upper street is a beautiful thing.

May 14, 2009


having procrastinated for days on 3 sizeable papers, i was in the uncomfortable position of writing the bulk of all of them over the last 5 days. i turned in the last paper 20 minutes before hightailing it home to get my bag and leave for the airport. there's still one paper to go but the year is almost over and the summer is dimly visible.

the flight into london got in 20 minutes early, just in time to catch rush hour on the tube. i got to central london by 9am and got out at baker street. it is overcast, cool, and humid, and there appear to be waterfowl everywhere.

May 11, 2009

the end of term

is always the worst time of the year.

May 9, 2009

the week in review

whenever deadlines loom, i become spectacularly creative in developing ways to do anything but the work that's due right now. this week i,

  1. revisited the best lentils in the world: partly to prove replicability, partly to procrastinate, mostly as a contribution to the quantitative baker's intense middle eastern dinner tonight.
  2. discovered the breakfast of champions: killer black beans made from rancho gordo's midnight black beans (steve sando, the founder, gives me constant life envy). tacos made of fresh corn tortillas, avocado, black beans, and cholula=magnificent.
  3. procrastinated using food chemistry: to avoid writing the many papers i'm writing and use up the latest avalanche of lemons in the delivery box, tried an all whole-wheat flour lemon cake. flavour is excellent, texture dense. maybe next time with whole wheat pastry flour (does that even exist?) and more milk.
  4. procrastinated using hoped-for construction opportunity: 3 hours in conversation with tw and someone who makes paraphernalia for aerial silks, talking about the aforementioned large dining table. it was neat, as always, to observe and participate in the multivariate optimisation process of iterating through construction problems and mediating between design and construction priorities. on the other hand, also a little disappointing to have an idea be realised by someone else with a different sense of priorities in construction or for someone else with a different sense of priorities in aesthetics. as an unintended consequence, i also
  5. found good coffee and good espresso drinks: after my constant grousing (for example, here and here) about the absence of good espresso drinks in cambridge, i was surprised by simon's coffee shop. they made me an excellent latte, the better for being unexpected, using beans from barismo, a roaster in arlington that seems relatively obsessive. more taste testing is required before a more considered pronouncement can be made about either.
  6. was thwarted by the ever-present minor failure of intersubjectivity: started reviewing this massive sourceforge association dataset; has many of the things i want but missing a few critical things for a full-on analysis. nathan, ever-obliging, is going to try and patch it next week.
  7. had a flash of insight: frames and selective association might be the real-world functional equivalents of the d-dimensional lattice structures network theorists keep modeling but empirical researchers always fail to find. obviously, this bears more thought.
consequently: 0 down; 4 papers to go, 1 paper to review.

May 7, 2009

the kindle DX, e-book readers, and the halls of academe

here in the sociology department, we've been discussing ebook readers since december. every graduate student and faculty member in the natural and social sciences can be seen on a daily basis hauling around large stacks of printed, dog-eared, torn, coffee-stained PDFs.

some of us resort to extreme measures to reduce the number of pages we print. for a 290-page article, i once printed 8 sheets to the page. i cannot recommend it as a reading solution. what i really need is a good e-reader for these stacks of PDFs: all i want is a large screen (at least 90% of letter-size), the ability to annotate (for PDFs, ideally generating a new PDF text layer), some kind of standard connection system (USB would do), and a sensitive design for the shell. sell it to me for under $275, and i'll be happy for at least a month.

except, i've been waiting for such a thing for literally years now. the original kindles are great for reading books, except i will probably never read a book for pleasure on the kindle. kindle 2 is slightly better designed, but still way too small to display full-page PDFs well, and anyway they lack native PDF support--having to go through a complicated email conversion process just to read a PDF is not cool. the irex iliad reader does everything i need it to but the shell is poorly-designed and i would have to sell a kidney to pay for one. i went and poked at the sony reader at a best buy; it does almost everything, including supporting PDFs natively, but is too small for full-page PDFs and something about the design of the shell again spoils it for me. once again, it is more money than i would shell out for something i didn't love deeply. plastic logic's reader looks and sounds like it could be the real deal, but of course has been delayed to market several times and do i really want to buy the first version of anyone's reader?

so when i saw the kindle DX*, i immediately sent a volley of emails off to the many and various people to whom i've complained about technology's propensity to overpromise and underdeliver. is it possible that amazon has finally made something that inadvertently gives me everything i want in an e-book reader? there's no way to tell, of course: it isn't available yet, and it costs almost $500 (plus i would feel compelled to shell out for the 2-year extended warranty, a mere $109 extra). with the thousands of pages of PDFs i'll have to read over the next 4 months, this is a travesty of cosmic proportions. someone at amazon please read this and send me a unit to test.

* i find it incredible that the kindle DX is being contemplated as a viable replacement for hardcopy textbooks and newspapers--as many people have pointed out, kindle+textbooks is not cheaper than used textbooks+selling textbooks, and newspapers aren't dying off because people need a better thing to read them on than paper.