Casa Brutus kitchen issue

Peter Shire in his kitchen/studio.

Lesley Vance and Ricky Swallow in their kitchen at home.

Casa Brutus March 2013

February 21st, 2013
A Solid, Comforting Family Member

The George Nakashima table commissioned by the author’s parents. Courtesy of Wright

NY Times Published: February 20, 2013

The last time I saw my family’s Nakashima dining table, it was upended on a dusty Dodge Ram, a gray blanket wrapped around it. The ropes that tied the bundle to the van’s roof didn’t seem up to the task of keeping the precious cargo from slipping off and crashing on the road somewhere
between my mother’s town house in Pennsylvania and the warehouse of the dealer in New York who had just purchased it.

My mother had recently died, my father had passed away years earlier, and my three sisters and I had just sold the table. But I was having issues separating from the piece that my parents, in a burst of optimism, had commissioned more than four decades before.

It was the spring of 1967. They were young and adventurous, two Brooklyn-born, Syracuse-educated liberals who had moved into a 1920s house on the outskirts of Philadelphia because my father, an industrial designer, had a job nearby. But my parents never really fit the suburban mold. They steered our red-and-white VW minibus to art galleries and folk concerts, and Sunday mornings my siblings and I raked leaves while our neighborhood pals went to church in patent-leather Mary Janes.

At some point my parents heard about George Nakashima, a Japanese-American architect who had been interned during World War II and had set up a studio in New Hope, Pa., where he made furniture that celebrated the natural beauty of wood. They made a pilgrimage to ask him to build us a table.

With Mr. Nakashima, they picked out a vividly grained piece of American walnut from the raw slabs of wood lined up in his workshop like giant pieces of toast. They watched as he sketched out a table whose top would consist of two book-matched planks with undulating edges, the pieces held together with three rosewood butterfly joints.

My parents would keep the six-by-eight-inch scrap of paper in their safe deposit box. The table itself — once Mr. Nakashima had completed it and my parents had paid him $550, an extravagant sum for them at the time — became the centerpiece of our home.

Other houses in the neighborhood tended toward Lemon Pledged colonial reproductions. But our table went with our Hans Wegner lounge chair and ebony African figurines; architectural etchings by my father’s father, a W.P.A. artist; and Kathe Kollwitz’s lithograph of the 16th-century German peasant uprising, spears raised in the air. As a child, I envied the nondescript décor (and cushy chairs) of my friends’ homes. But I now realize that my parents’ design choices were their way of carving out an alternative universe in a place they didn’t quite belong.

Both were Jewish, neither religious. If my father worshiped anyone, it was Mr. Nakashima — never referred to in our house as George, as dealers do today. And he cared for our table in a way that seemed like a ritual of devotion. Periodically, he would remove the woven place mats that protected it from mealtime spatters, tipping a tall cylindrical container of oil onto it. Then, with a clean rag, he would anoint the wood, sweeping his arm back and forth. The table, still so natural looking, still so much a tree, drank it up like a living thing.

It was at this table that we gathered to eat all our meals and slice into birthday cakes. It was at this table that my father pounded his fist in frustration with a career that he ultimately found unfulfilling and a marriage that was coming apart.

And it was at this table, in the town house my mother moved to after the divorce and the sale of the family home, that my sisters and I gathered to regroup after her death. Here we mourned, planned her memorial, sorted through her finances and discussed what to do with her possessions.

There was an abundance of art and Danish Modern furniture, once again trendy. And there were a number of pieces by Nakashima, whose work had gained widespread recognition with an American Craft Museum retrospective in 1989, a year before his death. My mother had acquired four Nakashima chairs to go around the table, plus a Nakashima bench, ottoman and rocker, all of which she had saved for out of her schoolteacher’s salary.

It would have been nice if one of us could have kept it all, or at least the table my siblings and I had grown up around. But we had to empty her place of valuables so we could paint and put it on the market. Some members of the family needed immediate cash. One sister is more into traditional decorating.

I like modern design. But my husband and I live with our children in a New York apartment and already had furniture from my childhood home. And the Nakashima table was too big — 72 by 56 inches — to slip into a fully furnished room.

Besides, my mother had contemplated selling the furniture herself, in the last year of her life, to save my sisters and me the trouble after she was gone.

I called two dealers who specialized in Nakashima furniture, and both agreed to take a look. I had no qualms when the first carried off the ottoman and the second the bench, purchases my mother had made after my sisters and I had left home. The dealers passed on the rocker, completed after Mr. Nakashima’s death and therefore not signed by him, but they would gladly have taken the dining chairs, which they deemed very salable.

The table was a trickier proposition. The dealers admired the piece, but worried it was too wide for most dining rooms. It might languish in inventory for years, they told me, before the right buyer came along. Their offers were so far below what my mother had thought it was worth that it was easy for me to decline. When they left, I had two checks in hand, and my heart was still light.

But over the next couple of months, the table weighed on my mind. It seemed wrong to sell a piece that felt like a member of the family, only to have it end up in a storeroom until it was packed off to some decorator’s client in, say, South Korea, where Nakashima, I had learned, was suddenly hot. My hope was that we would not only find the table a buyer, we’d find it a loving home.

Briefly, I thought we had found such a home. A friend who is a modernism dealer introduced me to a gentle-voiced collector with a wife and two young children. He loved the story of my parents’ commissioning the table, the little sketch. His offer was slightly lower than what dealers might ultimately have paid, but I thought my mother would have liked the idea of the table going to a nice family.

In the end, though, the sale fell through; the collector wanted a table even larger than ours. So when the modernism dealer decided he was interested in the table and chairs (he had a client ready to buy the chairs), we let the set go.

When the shipper finally arrived, he pronounced the table, which I had come to think of as monumental, “light.” He wrapped it, flipped it on its side and slid it to the doorway. The table was too wide to fit inside his van, so with the help of a neighbor he heaved it onto the roof. In the last rushed moments, I handed the cherished sketch to him before he drove off.

I tried to get used to the idea of not knowing the end of the table’s story. But idly poking around online one day, I clicked on a couple of links and chanced on the Web site of a Chicago auction house where, astonishingly, the table was listed for sale. (I knew it was ours because our name and hometown were given under “Provenance.”)

I suppressed the urge to fly out for the auction. Instead, the day of the sale I lurked online, watching the streamed proceedings from my laptop. The auctioneer, standing before a screen on which a photo of the table appeared, opened the bidding at $14,000.

No one made an offer. I have no idea where my dealer friend — or whoever owned the table at that point — took it next.

I could have called the auction house to try to chase after the piece. But I felt I had dithered over the table long enough. It was time to let go.

The table is just a couple of planks of wood on a pedestal that I have freighted with significance beyond reason. For me, it represents my plucky parents and the golden age of my childhood, when my mother and father were still together and all six of us were under one roof.

Above all, it represents my mother, who lived with it longer than any of us. Just as the table grounded our family, my mother grounded me. Giving up the table has been so hard because it’s been so hard giving up my mother.

Still, it would be nice to see it one more time, and to know it is in good hands. Next time I sell a Nakashima table, I’m adding a visitation clause.

February 21st, 2013
Bark Up or Down? Firewood Splits Norwegians

Kyrre Lien for The New York Times
Lars Mytting at his home in Elverum, Norway. His best-selling book, “Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood — and the Soul of Wood-Burning,” inspired a TV program about cutting, stacking and burning firewood.

NY Times Published: February 19, 2013

OSLO — The TV program, on the topic of firewood, consisted mostly of people in parkas chatting and chopping in the woods and then eight hours of a fire burning in a fireplace. Yet no sooner had it begun, on prime time on Friday night, than the angry responses came pouring in.

“We received about 60 text messages from people complaining about the stacking in the program,” said Lars Mytting, whose best-selling book “Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying and Stacking Wood — and the Soul of Wood-Burning” inspired the broadcast. “Fifty percent complained that the bark was facing up, and the rest complained that the bark was facing down.”

He explained, “One thing that really divides Norway is bark.”

One thing that does not divide Norway, apparently, is its love of discussing Norwegian wood. Nearly a million people, or 20 percent of the population, tuned in at some point to the program, which was shown on the state broadcaster, NRK.

In a country where 1.2 million households have fireplaces or wood stoves, said Rune Moeklebust, NRK’s head of programs in the west coast city of Bergen, the subject naturally lends itself to television.

“My first thought was, ‘Well, why not make a TV series about firewood?’” Mr. Moeklebust said in an interview. “And that eventually cut down to a 12-hour show, with four hours of ordinary produced television, and then eight hours of showing a fireplace live.”

There is no question that it is a popular topic. “Solid Wood” spent more than a year on the nonfiction best-seller list in Norway. Sales so far have exceeded 150,000 copies — the equivalent, as a percentage of the population, to 9.5 million in the United States — not far below the figures for E. L. James’s Norwegian hit “Fifty Shades Fanget,” proof that thrills come in many forms.

“National Firewood Night,” as Friday’s program was called, opened with the host, Rebecca Nedregotten Strand, promising to “try to get to the core of Norwegian firewood culture — because firewood is the foundation of our lives.” Various people discussed its historical and personal significance. “We’ll be sawing, we’ll be splitting, we’ll be stacking and we’ll be burning,” Ms. Nedregotten Strand said.

But the real excitement came when the action moved, four hours later, to a fireplace in a Bergen farmhouse.

Perhaps you have seen a log fire burning on television before. But it would be very foolish to confuse Norway’s eight-hour fireplace extravaganza on Friday with the Yule log broadcast in the United States at Christmastime.

While the Yule log fire plays on a constant repeating loop, the fire on “National Firewood Night” burned all night long, in suspensefully unscripted configurations. Fresh wood was added through the hours by an NRK photographer named Ingrid Tangstad Hatlevoll, aided by viewers who sent advice via Facebook on where exactly to place it.

For most of the time, the only sound came from the fire. Ms. Hatlevoll’s face never appeared on screen, but occasionally her hands could be seen putting logs in the fireplace, or cooking sausages and marshmallows on sticks.

“I couldn’t go to bed because I was so excited,” a viewer called niesa36 said on the Dagbladet newspaper Web site. “When will they add new logs? Just before I managed to tear myself away, they must have opened the flue a little, because just then the flames shot a little higher.

“I’m not being ironic,” the viewer continued. “For some reason, this broadcast was very calming and very exciting at the same time.”

To be fair, the program was not universally acclaimed. On Twitter, a viewer named Andre Ulveseter said: “Went to throw a log on the fire, got mixed up, and smashed it right into the TV.”

But Derek Miller, an expatriate American and author of the novel “Norwegian by Night,” said the broadcast appealed to Norwegians’ nostalgia for a simpler time as well as demonstrating the importance of firewood in their lives. “The sense of creating warmth, both symbolically and literally, to share conversation, to share food, to share silence, is essential to the Norwegian identity,” he said in an interview.

“Solid Wood,” the title of Mr. Mytting’s book, has a double meaning in Norwegian, signifying also a person with a strong, dependable character. Its publication appears to have given older Norwegian men, a traditionally taciturn group, permission to reveal their deepest thoughts while seemingly discussing firewood. In this way they are akin to passionate fishermen roused from monosyllabic interludes by topics like which fly to use and how to really understand what a trout is thinking.

“What I’ve learned is that you should not ask a Norwegian what he likes about firewood, but how he does it — because that’s the way he reveals himself,” said Mr. Mytting. “You can tell a lot about a person from his firewood stack.”

The book has proved particularly popular as a gift for hard-to-shop-for men.

“People buy it for their dads, their uncles — ‘I don’t know what to get him, but he has always liked wood,’ ” said William Jerde, a clerk at the Tanum bookstore in downtown Oslo. Tobias Sederholm, a clerk in a different store, said that one customer came in after Christmas having received copies from seven different family members.

Petter Nissen-Lie, 44, a lawyer in Oslo who every morning before breakfast lights a fire with wood he has chopped himself, said he understood perfectly what all the fuss was about.

The other day, he said, one of his three axes broke at his vacation home in the mountains, and he took it to the store where he had bought it a decade ago. When he tried to pay for repairs, he said, the storekeeper declared that “this sort of thing should not happen to our ax,” and insisted on doing it free. “It was very important for this man to carry quality axes,” he said.

Where does Mr. Nissen-Lie stand on the important bark-in-the-woodpile question? (Do you have an hour?)

“I like to have the bark facing down,” he explained. “That’s the way I learned from my grandfather, and I believe it’s drier that way. But I respect that there are different ways to do it — and basically the most important thing is how much air you leave around the logs.”

February 20th, 2013

Through March 23, 2013

Ratio 3

thanks to lecia dole

February 18th, 2013
Off Reggae’s Grid, Back on the Map

Keeping Reggae Alive : For 30 years, Watty Burnett, considered one of the renowned roots reggae artists, has been living in Dix Hills, Long Island, working as a part-time electrician. He has three new albums on the way.

NY Times Published: February 16, 2013

In Rastafarian culture, Babylon symbolizes the corruption of Western society. Bob Marley sang of its oppressions; the Melodians wept by its rivers. But for Watty Burnett, a Jamaican reggae musician who recorded with Mr. Marley, these days Babylon is just a Long Island town nine miles down the road.

Their recent album is “Icon Give Thank.”
“I do a lot of my shopping in Babylon,” Mr. Burnett said recently.

Mr. Burnett — a wiry, bespectacled man with thin dreadlocks and a white cloud of a beard — is the baritone vocalist for the Congos, a group whose 1977 record “Heart of the Congos” is considered one of the greatest roots reggae albums of all time. But while his bandmates Cedric Myton and Roydel Johnson continue to live in Jamaica, Mr. Burnett, 63, has quietly resided in the affluent suburb of Dix Hills, N.Y., since 1980.

When not on tour with the Congos, he does some work as an electrician, records music on his own and occasionally performs with a local reggae outfit called Noah’s Arc, a group of young musicians he met at a house party in Patchogue.

And he is now in the midst of a comeback of sorts. Last year, a collaboration between the Congos and two young Los Angeles-based psych-rock musicians, titled “Icon Give Thank,” was hailed as one of the best albums of the year by the popular music Webzines Pitchfork and Tiny Mix Tapes.

This year, Mr. Burnett intends to release three new albums: a solo record produced by an independent label in Switzerland; a 14-track ska record called “The Lost Book of Ska,” featuring cameos by ska progenitors like Ernest Ranglin and Stranger Cole; and a compilation of singles he recorded 40 years ago at the legendary Black Ark Studio in Jamaica.

“When I return to Jamaica, they call me a Yankee,” Mr. Burnett said the other day at his home, a renovated 19th-century farmhouse. “Some of them think I lost my roots.”

But then again, he added, “the D.J.s in Kingston still announce on the radio when I’m in town.”

Mr. Burnett grew up as the fifth of nine children in Port Antonio, a small city on the northeast coast of Jamaica. Junior Murvin, a reggae musician who later became known for the single “Police and Thieves,” lived down the street. It was Mr. Murvin who gave Mr. Burnett the nickname “Watty” (his given name is Derrick), because Mr. Burnett’s prominent stutter as a boy caused listeners to ask: What?

At age 19, Mr. Burnett’s single “Pound Get a Blow” placed third in Jamaica’s annual National Festival Song Competition. He began recording songs for the eccentric dub reggae producer Lee (Scratch) Perry. And when Mr. Perry opened the Black Ark Studio a few years later, in 1973, he installed Mr. Burnett as a session vocalist and instrumentalist, placing him at the center of the roots reggae explosion typified by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Mr. Burnett often slept on the studio floor. “One time,” he recalled of Mr. Marley, “Bob came in around 2 in the morning and told me, ‘Go wake Scratch.’ Then he sat on a stool with his guitar and started singing this new song: ‘There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air. …’ ”

Mr. Burnett, still half asleep, patted out the rhythm on a set of bongos.

In 1977, Mr. Perry invited Mr. Myton and Mr. Johnson, both Rastafarian devotional singers, into the studio to record what would become “Heart of the Congos.” To balance out Mr. Myton’s falsetto and Mr. Johnson’s tenor, he added Mr. Burnett’s baritone. And so the Congos were formed. The resulting album is often heralded as Mr. Perry’s finest work.

And yet “Heart of the Congos” was a commercial failure. Island Records, whose founder, Chris Blackwell, employed Mr. Perry as an in-house producer, never released it. Mr. Perry and the Congos later released remixed versions through much smaller labels, but sales were negligible.

According to “People Funny Boy,” a biography of Mr. Perry by the music journalist David Katz, the Congos believed that Island Records saw them as a threat to Mr. Marley, whom the label had spent millions of dollars promoting.

Whatever the cause, the album’s failure led the band to cut ties with Mr. Perry. Through a combination of financial mismanagement, personal friction and bad luck, the Congos dissolved in 1981.

Before the breakup, however, Mr. Burnett appeared at a club in Roslyn, N.Y., as the M.C. of a show by the Mighty Diamonds, another popular reggae act. There, he met a young high school English teacher from Glen Cove, N.Y., named Eileen Regar.

“He introduced himself as Watty from the Congos,” she said recently, adding that she had never heard of him. “I thought he meant the Congo, in Africa. So I said: ‘I’m Eileen from New York.’ ”

Mr. Burnett left for France the next day, but the two remained in touch.

Then one day in 1979, Eileen from New York materialized in Mr. Burnett’s condominium in the hills outside Kingston, Jamaica.

Mr. Burnett was stunned. “I said, ‘How ya find me? I’m not on the map!’ ” he recalled. “And she said: ‘I could feel your presence.’ ”

She offered a slightly different version. “I’d asked a friend of his where he lived,” she said, laughing. “But it’s true: he wasn’t on the map.”

When she returned to Glen Cove, on the North Shore of Long Island, to resume her teaching job that fall, Mr. Burnett joined her. They married not long after, and have two children, a son and a daughter.

For a dreadlocked Rastafarian, Long Island took some getting used to. Mr. Burnett remembers a trip to Freeport from Manhattan on the Long Island Rail Road, accompanied by the bass player for the Congos, Tony Allen.

“When we got to Queens, the conductor said, ‘This is Jamaica, last stop Babylon!’ ” he said. “We got really angry. We thought, ‘This guy’s messing with us!’ ”

Through the ’80s and early ’90s, Mr. Burnett recorded sporadically at local studios while working primarily as an electrician, installing surveillance cameras and wiring for local businesses. He attended all of his daughter’s dance competitions and coached his son’s traveling soccer team.

“He was a real hands-on dad,” Ms. Burnett said.

Then in 1996, the British reggae revival label Blood and Fire reissued “Heart of the Congos.” The album became one of the biggest sellers in the label’s history and introduced the Congos to a new generation of fans.

In the wake of the reissue, Mr. Burnett reconnected with Mr. Myton, and they released several new albums under the Congos name. Finally, in 2006, Mr. Johnson joined them onstage at the Rebel Salute Festival in Jamaica, marking the band’s official return.

The Congos now tour extensively through Europe each summer, playing to thousands of people at massive reggae festivals like Rototom Sunsplash in Benicàssim, Spain. But they remain relatively obscure in the United States.

“Generally speaking, European audiences have always been hungrier for and more knowledgeable about roots reggae than their counterparts in the U.S.,” said Mike Alleyne, author of “The Encyclopedia of Reggae.”

Mr. Burnett puts it more bluntly: “Around here, I’m nobody,” he said, gesturing at the walls of his living room. “But in Paris, it’s like I’m Mick Jagger.”

Even so, during a performance with Noah’s Arc at the 89 North Music Venue in Patchogue, N.Y., last month, Mr. Burnett’s appearance on stage drew cheers from the sold-out crowd of around 500.

“Give it up for our hometown hero, Watty B!” shouted the guitarist, Craig Pagano.

Mr. Burnett, dressed in baggy jeans, a khaki army jacket and Timberland work boots, sang some of his greatest hits and covered “Buckingham Palace,” a song by his late friend Peter Tosh, as Noah’s Arc supplied a lively ska rhythm.

The crowd smiled at the disparity between Mr. Burnett’s small stature and his booming baritone. Before stepping offstage, he leaned into the microphone and declared: “On the air, everywhere, Watty B on your radio.”

It was no Jamaican dance hall, but the walls of the club shook with the sound of his voice.

February 17th, 2013
Catherine Opie

Oliver & Mrs. Nibbles, 2012

February 23 – March 29, 2013

Regen Projects

February 17th, 2013

Through May 8, 2013


Thanks to Rodney Hill

February 16th, 2013
ezra stoller

Chamberlain Cottage, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wayland, MA, 1942
Gelatin Silver Print 16″ × 20″

Through March 2, 2012

Yossi Milo

Thanks to RS

February 15th, 2013
Rubio and the Zombies

NY Times Published: February 14, 2013

The State of the Union address was not, I’m sorry to say, very interesting. True, the president offered many good ideas. But we already know that almost none of those ideas will make it past a hostile House of Representatives.

On the other hand, the G.O.P. reply, delivered by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, was both interesting and revelatory. And I mean that in the worst way. For Mr. Rubio is a rising star, to such an extent that Time magazine put him on its cover, calling him “The Republican Savior.” What we learned Tuesday, however, was that zombie economic ideas have eaten his brain.

In case you’re wondering, a zombie idea is a proposition that has been thoroughly refuted by analysis and evidence, and should be dead — but won’t stay dead because it serves a political purpose, appeals to prejudices, or both. The classic zombie idea in U.S. political discourse is the notion that tax cuts for the wealthy pay for themselves, but there are many more. And, as I said, when it comes to economics it appears that Mr. Rubio’s mind is zombie-infested.

Start with the big question: How did we get into the mess we’re in?

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath, which we’re still dealing with, were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. Circa 2005, the usual suspects — conservative publications, analysts at right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, and so on — insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Instead of learning from this experience, however, many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

Every piece of this revisionist history has been refuted in detail. No, the government didn’t force banks to lend to Those People; no, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac didn’t cause the housing bubble (they were doing relatively little lending during the peak bubble years); no, government-sponsored lenders weren’t responsible for the surge in risky mortgages (private mortgage issuers accounted for the vast majority of the riskiest loans).

But the zombie keeps shambling on — and here’s Mr. Rubio Tuesday night: “This idea — that our problems were caused by a government that was too small — it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.” Yep, it’s the full zombie.

What about responding to the crisis? Four years ago, right-wing economic analysts insisted that deficit spending would destroy jobs, because government borrowing would divert funds that would otherwise have gone into business investment, and also insisted that this borrowing would send interest rates soaring. The right thing, they claimed, was to balance the budget, even in a depressed economy.

Now, this argument was obviously fallacious from the beginning. As people like me tried to point out, the whole reason our economy was depressed was that businesses weren’t willing to invest as much as consumers were trying to save. So government borrowing would not, in fact, drive up interest rates — and trying to balance the budget would simply deepen the depression.

Sure enough, interest rates, far from soaring, are at historic lows — and countries that slashed spending have also seen sharp job losses. You rarely get this clear a test of competing economic ideas, and the right’s ideas failed.

But the zombie still shambles on. And here’s Mr. Rubio: “Every dollar our government borrows is money that isn’t being invested to create jobs. And the uncertainty created by the debt is one reason why many businesses aren’t hiring.” Zombies 2, Reality 0.

In fairness to Mr. Rubio, what he’s saying isn’t any different from what everyone else in his party is saying. But that, of course, is what’s so scary.

For here we are, more than five years into the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, and one of our two great political parties has seen its economic doctrine crash and burn twice: first in the run-up to crisis, then again in the aftermath. Yet that party has learned nothing; it apparently believes that all will be well if it just keeps repeating the old slogans, but louder.

It’s a disturbing picture, and one that bodes ill for our nation’s future.

February 15th, 2013
In Pursuit of Taste, en Masse

NY Times Published: February 11, 2013

AMERICANS didn’t always ask so many questions or expect so much in their quest for enjoyment. It was enough for them simply to savor a good cigar, a nice bottle of wine or a tasty morsel of cheese.

Not anymore. Driven by a relentless quest for “the best,” we increasingly see every item we place in our grocery basket or Internet shopping cart as a reflection of our discrimination and taste. We are not consumers. We have a higher calling. We are connoisseurs.

Connoisseurship has never been more popular. Long confined to the serious appreciation of high art and classical music, it is now applied to an endless cascade of pursuits. Leading publications, including The New York Times, routinely discuss the connoisseurship of coffee, cupcakes and craft beers; of cars, watches, fountain pens, lunchboxes, stereo systems and computers; of tacos, pizza, pickles, chocolate, mayonnaise, cutlery and light (yes, light, which is not to be confused with the specialized connoisseurship of lighting). And the Grateful Dead, of course.

This democratization of connoisseurship is somewhat surprising since as recently as the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s connoisseurship was a “dirty word” — considered “elitist, artificial, subjective and mostly imaginary,” said Laurence B. Kanter, chief curator of the Yale University Art Gallery. Today, it is a vital expression of how many of us we want to see, and distinguish, ourselves.

As its wide embrace opens a window onto the culture and psychology of contemporary America, it raises an intriguing question: If almost anything can be an object of connoisseurship — and if, by implication, almost anyone can be a connoisseur — does the concept still suggest the fine and rare qualities that make it so appealing?

There were probably Neanderthals who tried to distinguish themselves through their exquisite taste in cave drawings. But the word connoisseur was not coined until the 18th century — in France, of course, as a symbol of the Enlightenment’s increasingly scientific approach to knowledge.

At a time when precious little was known about the provenance of many works of art, early connoisseurs developed evaluative tools — for example, identifying an artist’s typical subject matter, use of color and use of light — to authenticate works by revered masters and to debunk pretenders to the pedestal.

“Works of art do not carry a guarantee,” said Dr. Kanter. “It has always been the job of the connoisseur to question, investigate, refine the received wisdom of earlier generations.”

As the aristocracy declined and the bourgeoisie enjoyed new wealth, especially after the Napoleonic upheavals, the number of people who could afford art expanded, as did the types of art they were interested in. Connoisseurship grew in response to the need for authoritative guidance in a changing world. In the 19th century, connoisseurs helped reassess the works of forgotten artists, like Giotto, Fra Angelico and Botticelli, who are now considered canonical. They studied and appraised ignored forms like German woodcuts, French porcelain and English statuary.

Contemporary efforts to apply connoisseurship to a host of far-flung fields are consistent with this history. “Our definition of quality continues to expand and mature,” Dr. Kanter said, “so it makes sense that we can talk now about connoisseurs not just of art but also of rap music, comic books and Scotch. Connoisseurship is not about objects; it’s a process of thinking about and making distinctions among things.”

True connoisseurs — and this is what makes the label so appealing — do not merely possess knowledge, like scholars. They possess a sixth sense called taste. They are renowned for the unerring judgment of their discerning eye. They are celebrated because of their rare talent — their gift — for identifying and appreciating subtle, often hidden, qualities.

Despite its expanded applications, connoisseurship still revolves around art, if we define art broadly as things that are more than the sum of their parts because they offer the possibility of transcendence. We do not speak of connoisseurs of nature (which can transport us) or diapers (which are simply useful). But no one blinks when we apply the term to wine, food or literary forms like comic books, because these are believed to offer deeper experiences to those who can gain access to them. Generally speaking, almost anyone can become an expert, but connoisseurship means we’re special.

If connoisseurship is a way of thinking, its rising popularity reflects the fact that people have so many more things to think about. ` Robert H. Frank, a professor of economics at Cornell whose books include “Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess,” noted that the British economist John Maynard Keynes worried during the 1920s and ’30s that rising productivity would lead people to work less as it became easier to satisfy their basic needs.

“It’s funny,” Dr. Frank said, “that someone as smart as he was didn’t realize that we would invent a million new things to spend our money on and create higher and higher standards of quality for those products that would cost more and more.”

Hence the $5 cup of coffee and the $8 pickle.

In the dark ages before arugula, most supermarkets seemed to carry only one type of lettuce, iceberg, and apples were either green or red. In 1945, the average grocer carried about 5,000 products; today, that number is more than 40,000, according to Paul B. Ellickson, a professor of economics and marketing at the University of Rochester.

In addition, the Internet has made millions of other options just a mouse click away. Easy access to higher-quality products opens new avenues of connoisseurship — gorau glas cheese is more interesting, more provocative, than Velveeta. But it also presents us with a mind-numbing series of choices. In this context, connoisseurship is a coping strategy. When we say we want “the best,” we winnow our options, focusing our attention on a small sample of highly regarded items.

Put another way, rising connoisseurship is a response to life in an age of information shaped by consumerism. As ideas increasingly become the coin of the realm, people distinguish themselves by what they know. An important way to demonstrate this is through what they buy.

It is a form of conspicuous consumption that puts less emphasis on an item’s price tag — craft beers aren’t that expensive — than on its perceived cachet. In hoisting a Tripel brewed by Belgian monks, the drinker is telling the world: I know which ale to quaff. As, in all fairness, he enjoys a very tasty beverage.

Ironically, many items celebrated as examples of connoisseurship — handcrafted, small-batch, artisanal products — are themselves a reaction against the mass production trends of the global consumer society that shapes us. Just as art connoisseurs authenticate paintings, others seek wines and cheese and cupcakes that seem mystically authentic.

“A lot of what gets called connoisseurship is really just snobbery,” said Thomas Frank, who has dissected modern consumer culture in books like “Commodify Your Dissent,” which he edited with Matt Weiland, and “The Conquest of Cool.” “It’s not about the search for quality, but buying things that make you feel good about yourself. It’s about standing apart from the crowd, demonstrating knowledge, hipness.”

The rub is that, as access to knowledge through a Google search has become synonymous with possessing knowledge, fewer and fewer people seem to have the inclination or patience to become true connoisseurs. How many people, after all, have the time to make oodles of money and master the worlds of craft beer, cheese, wines and everything else people in the know must know?

In response, most people outsource connoisseurship, turning to actual connoisseurs for guidance. “Many people want the patina of connoisseurship on the cheap,” said Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory and social action at Swarthmore College. “So they contract out the decision-making process. My guess is that a tiny fraction of people who are true connoisseurs of wine — and there are some — don’t make enough money to buy a $500 bottle of wine.”

As Steven Jenkins, an expert on cheese and other products at Fairway Market in New York, recently told a reporter for The New York Times: “The customer has no idea what he or she wants. The customer is dying to be told what they want.”

People have always relied on connoisseurs for guidance. What is different today is the idea — suggested by journalists and marketers intent on flattering their customers — that people can become paragons of taste simply by taking someone else’s advice.

Dr. Schwartz said this could be a wise strategy. Consumers may not get the pleasures of deep knowledge, but they also avoid the angst. “You get the benefits of discernment without paying the psychological price” of having to make difficult choices and distinctions, he said. “You’re happy because you’ve been told what to get and don’t know any better.”

This psychological dimension is essential to understanding connoisseurship, said Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University whose books include “Predictably Irrational.” While recognizing that a small handful of people are true connoisseurs, he said his experiments with people interested in wine revealed a startling lack of discernment.

In one experiment, Dr. Ariely asked people to taste and write descriptions of four wines. He waited 10 minutes and then gave them a blind taste test, asking them to match the wines to their descriptions. For the most part, they couldn’t.

In another experiment, he used food coloring to make white wine appear red. The participants, he said, “rated it highly in terms of tannins, complexity” and other general characteristics of red wine.

Dr. Ariely’s work dovetails with other experiments that have found, for instance, that many people cannot tell the difference between foie gras and dog food in blind taste tests.

Even connoisseurs have a hard time getting it right. Echoing a famous blind taste test of wines from California and France in 1976, known as the Judgment of Paris, nine wine experts gathered at Princeton University in 2012 to compare revered wines from France with wines from New Jersey that cost, on average, about 5 percent as much. Not only did the experts give vastly different scores for many of the wines, but they rated the Garden State wines on a par with their costly French counterparts.

Dr. Ariely said these results did not necessarily debunk the notion of connoisseurship. “Whether we can actually tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine may be less important than whether we think that we can,” he said. “We might actually experience more pleasure when drinking an expensive wine, enjoy it more, because we’re slowing down, savoring it, paying more attention to its qualities.”

Which, as it turns out, is a hallmark of connoisseurship.

February 15th, 2013
To Go: Plastic-Foam Containers, if the Mayor Gets His Way

Philip Scott Andrews/The New York Times
The citywide ban on plastic-foam food packaging will include takeout boxes, cups and trays.

NY Times Published: February 13, 2013

It is the most humble of vessels for New York City foodstuffs, ubiquitous at Chinese takeout joints and halal street carts. In pre-Starbucks days, coffee came packaged in its puffy embrace.

But the plastic-foam container may soon be going the way of trans fats, 32-ounce Pepsis, and cigarettes in Central Park.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose regulatory lance has slain fatty foods, supersize sodas, and smoking in parks, is now targeting plastic foam, the much-derided polymer that environmentalists have long tried to restrict.

On Thursday, Mr. Bloomberg, in his 12th and final State of the City address, will propose a citywide ban on plastic-foam food packaging, including takeout boxes, cups and trays. Public schools would be instructed to remove plastic-foam trays from their cafeterias. Many restaurants and bodegas would be forced to restock.

In excerpts from his speech released on Wednesday, Mr. Bloomberg rails against plastic foam, even comparing it to lead paint. “We can live without it, we may live longer without it, and the doggie bag will survive just fine,” the mayor plans to say.

Call it the era of clamshell prohibition.

To become law, the ban would require approval by the City Council. The Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, suggested in an interview that she was open to a ban on plastic foam as part of a larger effort to increase recycling.

“It lives forever,” Ms. Quinn said. “It’s worse than cockroaches.”

The plastic foam used in food packaging is not actually Styrofoam, according to Dow Chemical, the company that makes Styrofoam. The company says its product is widely used as insulation, but not “in the manufacture of disposable foam products, such as cups, coolers, meat trays and packing peanuts.”

Officials at City Hall said a plastic-foam ban could save millions of dollars a year. Plastic foam, which is not biodegradable, can add up to $20 per ton in recycling costs when the city processes recyclable materials. The city handles about 1.2 million tons of food waste each year; the mayor’s office estimated that the city’s annual waste stream included about 20,000 tons of plastic foam.

New York led the nation in restricting smoking and sugary drinks, but the city is a relative latecomer to the antifoam trend: measures against the material are already in place in Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco and Seattle. Mr. Bloomberg has been only a sometime-ally of recycling advocates; early in his tenure, he called for the suspension of some recycling to save the city money.

Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, hailed the foam plan as “an important step forward,” saying it would bring environmental and quality-of-life benefits to the city.

Plastic foam, Mr. Goldstein said, “is so brittle.” He added: “It breaks into these tiny pieces, and it’s not easy to clean up. Getting rid of it means our parks, our streets, our waterways, will all be cleaner.”

The restaurant industry, which has complained about overregulation by City Hall, offered a more measured response on Wednesday.

“We have to consider what the costs will be for both government and the business owners who make the city run,” said Andrew Moesel, a spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association. He noted that containers made of paper can often be more expensive than their foam counterparts.

Mr. Bloomberg is not the first mayor of New York City to propose a crackdown on foam. In 1987, Mayor Edward I. Koch joined a campaign to encourage fast-food restaurants to reduce their use of the product. McDonald’s later phased out foam boxes from its restaurants.

Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal is one element of a larger environmental protection effort he plans to pursue during his final year in office. In his speech, he will also pledge to install 1,000 recycling containers on sidewalks, doubling the current number.

The percentage of waste that is recycled by the city has fallen during the Bloomberg administration, to 15 percent today, from 23 percent in 2001. Mr. Bloomberg, in his speech, will call for the city to achieve a 30 percent recycling rate by 2017.

He will also propose taking the first steps toward city collection of food waste for composting, starting with a pilot program on Staten Island.

February 13th, 2013

William Burroughs & Brion Gysin’s Scrapbook

February 15–March 29, 2013

Opening February 14, 6–8 pm

Andrew Roth and co-curator Alex Kitnick are pleased to announce the opening of “Paperwork: A Brief History of Artists’ Scrapbooks,” including works by Monika Baer, Brigid Berlin, Joe Brainard, William S. Burroughs & Brion Gysin, Jimmy De Sana, John Evans, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Isa Genzken, Al Hansen, Richard Hawkins, Geoffrey Hendricks, Ray Johnson & Brian Buczak, Leigh Ledare, Robert Mapplethorpe, Aleksandra Mir, Claude Pélieu, Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter, Carolee Schneemann, and Jean-Michel Wicker. Also on view is a film by Karin Schneider and Louise Ward, commissioned for the occasion of the exhibition.

The scrapbook has long been used as a storehouse for memories—to preserve a lock of hair, a sentimental piece of correspondence, a magazine clipping, or a beloved snapshot. Finding a historical precedent in the seventeenth-century commonplace book, in which bits of scripture might be jotted down alongside literary quotations and recipes, the scrapbook evolved into a highly crafted visual record, a diary not just of thoughts, but also of things. Artists began to engage with the scrapbook in earnest in the postwar period, using the page as variously as the canvas, albeit on a smaller scale. As the title “Paperwork” suggests, this exhibition explores how contemporary artists have used the scrapbook to forge an intimate artistic identity, in opposition to the bureaucratic, administrative papers that provide official identification.

If the conventional scrapbook originally was a place to store memories, the artist’s scrapbook often trades in nascent ideas, both visual and textual, which may or may not grow into a more finished work. Such books allow an informal view into the process of thinking that goes before making; the collecting that comes before facture. William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin (whose three exceptional scrapbooks form the backbone of this exhibition) used oversize books to intertwine visual ideas and threads of stories: news clippings and shards of advertisements woven among watercolor paintings and excerpts from manuscripts—arrangements which fed into Burroughs’s dreams and back out into his cut-up narratives. Other artists, such as Al Hansen, carried small notebooks for organizational jottings, quick sketches, and humorous musings, making collages on the fly and tucking away daily detritus for safekeeping. Richard Prince collected tear sheets from magazines in plastic portfolios, archiving his images of biker chicks and catalog models for later use. Carolee Schneemann kept long-running scrapbooks, documenting both her domestic life and her burgeoning artistic career.

But the scrapbook can also be a finished work itself, in which the tightly conceived and carefully constructed sheets form a complete whole. Isa Genzken’s I Love New York, Crazy City is one such example: made during a year she spent in New York in the mid-1990s, the book is a madcap conglomeration of color snapshots, faxes, and letters affixed to the pages with electrical tape. The French artist Jean-Michel Wicker makes byzantine scrapbooks, often excising pages from store-bought notebooks at the gutter and taping in replacement patchworks of found images, Internet printouts, and hand-lettered phrases. A classic scrapbook purportedly made by Ray Johnson when he was a teenager features kitsch images of babies, puppies, and western landscapes; it was later repurposed in an edition by Brian Buczak, who xeroxed particular spreads, creating degenerated Pop facsimiles.

Recognizing the limitations of book exhibitions, in which viewers are typically unable to peruse pages freely, Karin Schneider and Louise Ward have produced Scraphagia, a four-hour-long HD video that records nearly every spread from the scrapbooks exhibited, showing the pages in motion: a disembodied hand leafs through the books, acting as a proxy for the viewer. To coincide with the exhibition, PPP Editions has published Paperwork: A Brief History of Artists’ Scrapbooks, reproducing (to scale) spreads selected from the books on view, along with accompanying essays by Kitnick and Richard Hawkins.

Andrew Roth

Thanks to Steven Baker

February 13th, 2013

16 February — 31 March 2013

Maureen Paley

February 11th, 2013
The Ignorance Caucus

NY Times Published: February 10, 2013

Last week Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, gave what his office told us would be a major policy speech. And we should be grateful for the heads-up about the speech’s majorness. Otherwise, a read of the speech might have suggested that he was offering nothing more than a meager, warmed-over selection of stale ideas.

To be sure, Mr. Cantor tried to sound interested in serious policy discussion. But he didn’t succeed — and that was no accident. For these days his party dislikes the whole idea of applying critical thinking and evidence to policy questions. And no, that’s not a caricature: Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” because, it said, such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

And such is the influence of what we might call the ignorance caucus that even when giving a speech intended to demonstrate his openness to new ideas, Mr. Cantor felt obliged to give that caucus a shout-out, calling for a complete end to federal funding of social science research. Because it’s surely a waste of money seeking to understand the society we’re trying to change.

Want other examples of the ignorance caucus at work? Start with health care, an area in which Mr. Cantor tried not to sound anti-intellectual; he lavished praise on medical research just before attacking federal support for social science. (By the way, how much money are we talking about? Well, the entire National Science Foundation budget for social and economic sciences amounts to a whopping 0.01 percent of the budget deficit.)

But Mr. Cantor’s support for medical research is curiously limited. He’s all for developing new treatments, but he and his colleagues have adamantly opposed “comparative effectiveness research,” which seeks to determine how well such treatments work.

What they fear, of course, is that the people running Medicare and other government programs might use the results of such research to determine what they’re willing to pay for. Instead, they want to turn Medicare into a voucher system and let individuals make decisions about treatment. But even if you think that’s a good idea (it isn’t), how are individuals supposed to make good medical choices if we ensure that they have no idea what health benefits, if any, to expect from their choices?

Still, the desire to perpetuate ignorance on matters medical is nothing compared with the desire to kill climate research, where Mr. Cantor’s colleagues — particularly, as it happens, in his home state of Virginia — have engaged in furious witch hunts against scientists who find evidence they don’t like. True, the state has finally agreed to study the growing risk of coastal flooding; Norfolk is among the American cities most vulnerable to climate change. But Republicans in the State Legislature have specifically prohibited the use of the words “sea-level rise.”

And there are many other examples, like the way House Republicans tried to suppress a Congressional Research Service report casting doubt on claims about the magical growth effects of tax cuts for the wealthy.

Do actions like this have important effects? Well, consider the agonized discussions of gun policy that followed the Newtown massacre. It would be helpful to these discussions if we had a good grasp of the facts about firearms and violence. But we don’t, because back in the 1990s conservative politicians, acting on behalf of the National Rifle Association, bullied federal agencies into ceasing just about all research into the issue. Willful ignorance matters.

O.K., at this point the conventions of punditry call for saying something to demonstrate my evenhandedness, something along the lines of “Democrats do it too.” But while Democrats, being human, often read evidence selectively and choose to believe things that make them comfortable, there really isn’t anything equivalent to Republicans’ active hostility to collecting evidence in the first place.

The truth is that America’s partisan divide runs much deeper than even pessimists are usually willing to admit; the parties aren’t just divided on values and policy views, they’re divided over epistemology. One side believes, at least in principle, in letting its policy views be shaped by facts; the other believes in suppressing the facts if they contradict its fixed beliefs.

In her parting shot on leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton said of her Republican critics, “They just will not live in an evidence-based world.” She was referring specifically to the Benghazi controversy, but her point applies much more generally. And for all the talk of reforming and reinventing the G.O.P., the ignorance caucus retains a firm grip on the party’s heart and mind.

February 11th, 2013
Takuro Kuwata  

Through February 18, 2013

Tomio Koyama

Thanks to RS

February 10th, 2013
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