Looking at Morton Feldman, one hardly would have guessed that this irrepressible, self-described “New York Jew” created some of the most mystical and subtle music ever composed. Yet since his death, in 1987, it has become ever more apparent that his late works are among the most individual, distinctive and influential of the second half of the 20th century — even if recognition and reverence for his achievements are still more widespread in Europe than in the United States.
And so it makes sense that Europeans — the 89-musician Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava of the Czech Republic — have arrived to perform the very first all-Morton Feldman orchestral concert ever presented in the United States, at Alice Tully Hall on November 5 in New York City, the composer’s hometown. A significant part of the backing for this concert of Feldman’s music comes from the town of Ostrava and also from the Czech Republic. To ensure the quality and detail of the performance, the orchestra committed to an almost unheard-of 18 days of rehearsals. The driving force behind this program, and the entire seven-program “Beyond [John] Cage” festival of which this concert is a major highlight, is the 70-year-old Prague-born-and-educated conductor/composer Petr Kotik, grandson of a Theresienstadt survivor who was also a conductor. In trying to convey the importance of music in the Czech republic, Kotik told me that the entire country has the same population as New York City (where he currently lives and directs the S.E.M. Ensemble), “yet it has five major orchestras and another eight to 10 professional orchestras.”
Kotik said he’d gotten to know Feldman personally when both were teaching at SUNY Buffalo, but he had already been a fan from his youth in Prague. “What a joy to encounter music which had nothing to do with all the crap one heard from morning to night!” he said. “Even though there is no one I’ve ever met who was more consumed with desire for money and success than Feldman was, there is not one note of music he ever wrote with any thought of money or success.”
The married painters Nancy Spero and Leon Golub fascinated their contemporaries by interweaving political themes into expressive artworks. As an individual creator, Spero finally received her full due in Christopher Lyon’s “Nancy Spero: The Work,” a lavish book out in October from Prestel Publishing.
Lyon’s introduction explains the symbolic importance to Spero of texts such as “The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype,” still available from Princeton University Press, by the German Jewish psychologist Erich Neumann, a longtime Tel Aviv resident. Spero’s own archetypes began in Cleveland in 1926, where she was born into a family of Russian /German Jewish descent.
James Logan’s new play “Red” about abstract painter Mark Rothko, which has just opened on Broadway, begins with an unobstructed view of Alfred Molina’s back. Molina as Rothko, staring at his own painting, begins to pontificate — and this, in essence, is the central image of the play: a self-absorbed artist/genius who turns away from the world as his newly hired assistant witnesses his rants and rages, fears and memories.
The play is full of wonderful, if highfalutin’, art criticism, literary discourse and philosophy. I was actually quite surprised that this sort of thing could fly on Broadway. Rothko’s assistant Ken (Eddie Redmayne), recently introduced to Nietzsche, also begins to pontificate, calling Rothko “Appolonian, Rabbinical,” as opposed to Jackson Pollock who was purely “Dionysian.” Of course, his simplistic boxing of artistic personalities into newly discovered archetypes ends up being squashed and demolished by his mentor.
Discerning lovers of Jewish art have until January 17, 2010 to see the exhibit “American Artists from the Russian Empire” which opened in October at the San Diego Museum of Art. They will need to be discerning, because although the exhibit features major works of interest by Ben Shahn, Louise Nevelson and Mark Rothko, greeting–card mediocrity is also displayed.
This peculiarly uneven show is organized by the Foundation for International Arts & Education, a political-business association which backs traveling exhibits of kitschy realist painters and a forthcoming historical show about the father of the current U.S. Ambassador to Russia. The exhibit’s ineptly garbled and often irrelevant catalogue (essays on Hollywood, music, etc.), produced by the State Russian Museum does not mention the word “pogrom” or indicate why artists, Jews and others, were forced to flee Mother Russia. Thus, an innocuous still life and landscape by Abraham Manievich are shown here, instead of his more pointed oil on canvas, “Destruction of the Ghetto, Kiev, 1919,” now in the Jewish Museum, from the storerooms of which many works are lent.