The Evolution of War Memorial Design

(Given the ongoing interest in the subject of memorials, I am posting this July 28, 2010 story from Cincinnati CityBeat about the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans in Columbus, Indiana. It was constructed in 1997 and incorporates a lot of the new ideas about memorials that are now prevalent.)The Evolution of War Memorial Design. It deserves wider attention. — SR)


A couple Saturdays ago, I went on an Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati-sponsored excursion to Columbus, Ind., a city just 90 minutes away that has developed an international reputation for its Modernist architecture.

Besides the buildings, I was particularly moved by the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans in the city’s downtown. Constructed in 1997, it smartly reflects lessons learned about veterans’/war memorials in the years since Maya Lin’s landmark Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in Washington in 1982. Further, it is the work of architects.

As it turns out, a Cincinnati native, Maryann Thompson, designed Columbus’ memorial with her then-husband and partner, Charles Rose, after winning a competition. Now based in Cambridge, where she has her own firm and is an adjunct professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, she grew up in Wyoming and, after her parents moved to Indian Hill when she was in 10th grade, graduated from Seven Hills School.

She was a finalist for the Art Academy’s redesign of an old Over-the-Rhine structure into its school and has been contacted by Playhouse in the Park about a (now-apparently stalled) expansion, but this is her closest project.

The memorial features 25 limestone pillars arranged close enough together in courthouse square to form a kind of stone grove— a sanctuary — that envelopes you once inside. The purpose was to remember the 156 county veterans who died during 20th-century wars as a new century was about to begin.

The veterans’ names are part of the memorial. But what is so emotionally powerful is that the pillars have been carved with passages from the letters and journals the soldiers sent home, sometimes just days before their death. Or, in some cases, it features military notices to a family about a son missing or killed in action. This is a silent memorial, a remembrance of the deceased, but it also approximates a living, oral history. You can hear those soldiers talking as you read their letters home.

Though a spiritual cousin, this differs from Lin’s Vietnam memorial in not making the architecture so subtly part of the landscape. But Thompson and Rose are not seeking to fill up space with ostentatious monumentality and outdated heroic figuration, a trait of older war memorials. Rather, they take advantage of verticality to tell stories and infuse the limestone with humanity.

When Lin (a native of Athens, Ohio, by the way) finished her Vietnam Memorial in 1982, it was a real game-changer. Non-representational in nature, it consists of a black-granite wall containing the names of those veterans who died. Certainly after the disastrous Vietnam War a new kind of memorial was needed. By the 1980s, we sensed the modern war experience is at least as much about loss and remembrance as victory. Lin’s work captured that. And nothing has happened since to change that view. After her accomplishment — and the powerfully enthusiastic public response to it, especially from Vietnam veterans — more traditional representational-realism statuary no longer rang very true. (Regrettably, not everyone learned that lesson. An unfortunate example is the circle of life-size soldiers that are part of Blue Ash’s literal-minded and excessive 1991 Bicentennial Veterans Memorial.)

Coincidentally, on the bus trip home from Columbus a movie played about the making of Lin’s Vietnam memorial. It told how the process wasn’t easy for her — those afraid of change or who feared her wall might be disrespectful fought hard and won some changes. But history was on her side and you can see that, on a smaller scale, in the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans. It’s worth a visit to Columbus in its own right.

Visionary Cincinnati Gallerist Carl Solway Championed the Revolutionary and Was Devoted to the Art of Living

A prestigious art dealer and great Cincinnatian, Solway wanted to work with the best artists possible, preferably on big projects, to joyfully elevate our culture. His impact will live on.

106457628101585207175935412816357006169782563OCarl Solway passed away on June 25, 2020PHOTO: FACEBOOK.COM/CARLSOLWAYGALLERY



Seeing and talking to Carl Solway, who died on June 25 at age 85, were visits to a wise elder. His knowledge about Contemporary art and its ability to change a person for the better came from having had his own life changed by his experiences with some of the most important artists of his (and our) time.

I quickly learned, writing about art for CityBeat starting in 2007, that not only was he a good source for any story, but he also often had first-hand experiences with the subjects of my stories. It wasn’t long before I was sometimes selecting stories because Solway knew the artist.

And I was also doing stories that involved the imaginative ideas that Solway had had for improving our city and region through art. He thought big! For instance, when his Carl Solway Gallery in the West End had its Thanks: 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2012 (he opened his first gallery, Flair, with his first wife Gail in 1962), I was taken by a striking but odd 1990 drawing by Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen, “The Colossal Soap on the Ohio River.”

Near it was “The Soap at Baton Rouge,” a cast resin worn bar of soap, part of a 250-edition multiple that Solway and Oldenburg produced in 1990. Asking Solway about these unearthed the quixotic tale of how he and Oldenburg — one of our greatest living artists, known for his large public sculptures of utilitarian objects (his wife died in 2009) — proposed to Procter & Gamble floating a perhaps-inflatable version of a giant soap bar down the Ohio River to celebrate Ivory soap’s 1979 centennial.

“I said to Claes that it would be great to do some public art around it,” Solway said then. “What about the idea of doing a 400-foot inflatable bar of Ivory soap? You make a big inflatable balloon-like structure that you can blow up. It wouldn’t actually be real soap.”

It would, he explained, sit atop a barge that could guide it.

The idea didn’t get far beyond the two, but Solway tried again in 1983 after Christo wrapped 11 islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay. And he couldn’t help but make a new pitch for it during our interview in 2012.

“It would be fantastic if that could finally happen,” Solway said. “And now would be the time, following all the attention from the (then-fresh Cincinnati-staged) World Choir Games, to do something like this.”

That was what made Solway so special. He combined visionary ideas with a non-parochial, non-defensive civic pride that sought to joyfully elevate our culture. He wanted to work with the best artists possible, preferably on big projects, and he wanted to help the city by doing so.

As result of being a prestigious art dealer and one of some 180 members (in just 30 cities) of the Art Dealers Association of America, he had quick, easy access to those artists. For the story about the “Colossal Soap,” he provided me with a contact email for Oldenburg, who quickly replied to my inquiry: “To answer your question, if someone would have come up with the money and means to create the giant ‘Soap’ or its balloon double, of course Coosje and I would have responded, and given it a try. The impossible was always an inspiration to us.”

Another time, I discovered Solway had artwork by a 1960s Pop artist, the late Bob Stanley, whom I owned a print by but knew little about. The print was of an unidentified female singing group, and I had long wondered who it was. I told him that and within a few days he forwarded me an email from Stanley’s widow, Marylin, identifying it as The Shirelles and part of a set of Rock & Roll prints created in 1965. It’s now in our dining room, and I know who it is when people ask.

Solway was a charismatic speaker; he was supportively professorial. He talked about Contemporary art with a relaxed smile and in an inviting, narratively unfolding way that was just plain friendly. As a result, he was very convincing.

For instance, in 1985 Solway arranged for the Cincinnati Art Museum to commission Andy Warhol to create a portrait of Pete Rose, because the Red was about to break Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record. But neither man, Rose nor Warhol, knew the other — it’s said neither even knew who the other was — and it was hard to get Rose to go to Warhol’s New York studio to have a reference photograph taken. As a result, Warhol based his portrait on an existing newspaper image by Cincinnati photographer Gordon Baer, and presented his finished work like four large baseball cards.

I had not been predisposed to like the result much; there didn’t seem much artist-subject connection to the project. But in 2010, as part of the portrait’s 25th anniversary, I heard Solway explain why this is a significant artwork for Warhol. He had a gift for being able to emphasize what he believed was significant about a particular Contemporary artist or artwork.

“It was so brilliant of Andy to make it into a baseball card,” he said. “And that’s so interesting because baseball cards are collectible and negotiable. So it was a statement about the commercialization of art, just like his soup cans are about the commercialization of branding.”

He made me see it a different way.

There is much else about Solway’s career and life that is memorable. He worked with such major names in Contemporary art (and creative thinking) as Buckminster Fuller, Richard Hamilton, Nam June Paik and, of course, Oldenburg. He advocated for more and better public art in Cincinnati — with Jack Boulton, starting a late-1960s mural project, Urban Walls.

And while, like all gallerists, he operated a business and thus tried to sell its art, he did so with quality exhibitions. He also took pride in supporting women artists, including four who became MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipients: Judy Pfaff, Ann Hamilton, Aminah Robinson and Joan Snyder.

Pat Steir, another distinguished artist, presented a transcendent gallery show in 2008 — abstracted, Asian-influenced paintings of waterfalls. (The Cincinnati Art Museum bought one.) In 2010, when she returned to Cincinnati for a Contemporary Arts Center show, I had the chance to talk to her about Solway.

“Carl goes deep into the art he works with,” she said. “He cares about the people, too — the art and the people as one. He goes for the groundbreaking, not the ordinary — I think that’s his true obsession. He’s a great person and a great friend.”

I use the term Contemporary art to mean art of our time, often work by living artists attuned to changes in Post-World War II America. Solway once called the Pop artists, Minimalists and Conceptualists “my generation.” Yet he had started off emphasizing prints by Modern Masters, good but safe art for a developing regional market. He changed direction after meeting John Cage, the man he considered “the 20th century’s greatest artist.”

That’s kind of a remarkable statement, since Cage is primarily known as an avant-garde composer, although one influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s radical conceptualism. Cage’s most famous work is “4’ 33,” representing the amount of time that a musician “plays” an instrument by making no intentional sound whatsoever. It makes you hear music, or the lack of it, in a totally new way.

In the 1967-68 school year, Cincinnati arts patrons Alice and Harris Weston sponsored Cage’s stay at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music as a composer-in-residence. And Cage would visit Solway’s Flair gallery and play chess with him.

“We became friends,” Solway said in a 2010 CityBeat story that I wrote, and from which I have repurposed excerpts for this remembrance. “And John said to me one day, ‘What are you doing, showing all these people who are dead? Why aren’t you working with artists of your own times? Come to New York and I’ll introduce you to some of my friends.’ ”

At the same time, Alice Weston suggested Cage try his hand at visual art. Cage agreed — although he had never done it before — and Solway ended up publishing Cage’s “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel,” a limited-edition tribute to the recently deceased Duchamp. It’s an important work, now in the collection of many art museums, including Cincinnati’s, because it so imaginatively encapsulates Cage’s belief in the liberating role of chance in art…and life.

Working off the fact the Chinese I Ching contains 64 hexagrams (oracular statements), Cage rolled dice and used the I Ching to devise an artwork that — in complete-set form — contained 64 silk-screened Plexiglas pieces, or “plexigrams,” with individualized word fragments and images. Solway published Cage’s “Marcel” in an edition of roughly 125 “objects.” (A single object contained eight plexigrams and two lithographs.)

“That was a life-transformative experience for me, both in terms of my personal life and in terms of my career,” Solway said. “It was a wonderful project. I traveled all over Europe trying to sell it — (the objects) were selling for $200 apiece in those days.”

In the 1970s, the Carl Solway Gallery replaced Flair, he and his first wife divorced, and second wife Elizabeth (Lizi) became his gallery administrator for many years. At the time of his death, they had been married 42 years.

It is a bit strange to write about the importance of a career devoted to “art of the living” while knowing that refers to many who are now deceased. Now, Carl Solway is one of them. (His son Michael will continue operating the gallery.) But the fact that what once was so new is becoming history doesn’t diminish its importance. The art he championed was revolutionary, and everything new grows from it.

I hope everyone realizes just how great a Cincinnatian Carl Solway was. His impact will live on.

The Cincinnati/Weegee Connection and Other Discoveries During a Trip to L.A. Art Shows


(Nam June Paik’s “Video Flag Z”)

Sometimes you have to leave Ohio — and Cincinnati — to discover how many interesting and unusual connections there are between the Buckeye State and the larger world of modern/contemporary arts and design.

That was brought home to me, in varied and stimulating ways, when I ventured to Los Angeles recently to see Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980. This massive show, years in the planning, involved 60-some cultural institutions and looked at the evolution and worldwide impact of Southern California art and design. Going to Los Angeles for the show also gave me the opportunity to see one major museum building, new since I moved from there in 2007 — the Broad Contemporary Art Museum at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

The Broad displays some of the largest contemporary pieces in L.A. public collections. And on the main floor was Nam June Paik’s 1987 “Video Flag Z.” This museum-owned work, in which TV monitors show video images that comprise a large American flag, has pride of place on a central wall — at least during a show called Human Nature — because it has just undergone restoration. 

“Video Flag Z,” it turns out, exists because of a working relationship Paik had with Cincinnati’s Carl Solway at the time. 

“The piece was built in Cincinnati, first exhibited at Chicago Art Fair in 1985,” Solway explained in an email. “There were three versions — ‘Flag X,’ the Chicago-exhibited version, sold to Detroit Art Institute; the Chase Bank purchased ‘Flag Y’ for their collection; and LA County Museum purchased ‘Flag Z.’ ”

Moving from that into LACMA’s Pacific Standard Time-related show, California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, I quickly was confronted with another Ohio connection. Perhaps the key iconic piece in the exhibit is from an Ohio company, Airstream of Jackson Center. Modernist in form and in its vision of the American open road, the 1936 aluminum-body Airstream Clipper on display was designed by the company’s founder, Wally Byam. He created Airstream trailers in L.A., where they were manufactured from 1932-1979. But the company opened its Ohio plant in 1952, part of its post-World War II expansion. In an odd case of reverse migration, that’s where it is located today.

Probably the most interesting connection of all — another Cincinnati one — occurred at the downtown Museum of Contemporary Art’s Pacific Standard Time entry, Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles. Weegee (Arthur Fellig), the New York crime/street-life photographer who was propelled to fame after a 1945 book, Naked City, became a best-seller and prompted a movie, used the proceeds to move to L.A. and pursue a career.

I was struck by the fact that the 1945 clothbound copy of Naked City on display — the edition that triggered his fame — had been published by Zebra Picture Books of Cincinnati. According to MOCA, it sold through six printings, at 25 cents a copy, in its first year. (The unabridged hardbound version, also published in 1945, was from New York’s Essential Books.) 

And in trying to learn about Zebra Picture Books, I discovered George S. Rosenthal, part of the printing/publishing family that owned S. Rosenthal & Co. (Richard Rosenthal was his cousin.) He died young, not yet 45, in 1967, but his legacy is preserved by his wife, Jean Bloch of Cincinnati. She has provided his work to Cincinnati Historical Society and recently spoke to me about him in a phone call.

In 1944, when he was about to enter the family business and already interested in photography, he attended a summer session at Chicago’s Bauhaus-inspired Institute of Design under photographer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, which inspired his subsequent work. 

Collaborating with editor Frank Zachary, soon after the war he published a beautiful one-time magazine/yearbook called Jazzways. It was followed by the way-ahead-of-its-time graphic-arts magazine Portfolio, which apparently lasted three issues and featured work by Charles Eames, Alexander Calder, Richard Avedon, Saul Steinberg, Ben Shahn and others.

Rosenthal, meanwhile, pursued his own photo projects, such as one of Mexican ruins and another documenting the pre-expressway architecture of the West End. The Historical Society has these. 

Zebra Picture Books seems to have been more pop-oriented — besides Naked City, other titles were Life and Death in Hollywood and Murder Incorporated (about the Mafia). I looked through Jazzways at the Historical Society and it’s extremely impressive, with articles and photographs devoted to New Orleans, Chicago and elsewhere.

I look forward to finding out more about his work — he deserves renewed attention. Thanks, L.A., for introducing him to me


University of Cincinnati’s ‘Bloody’ 1968 Spring Arts Festival

The performance artist Hermann Nitsch remembers his controversial appearance in Cincinnati at a tumultuous time

APR 3, 2018 10 AM

AC–BP Nitsch0404Georg Soulek MAINHermann Nitsch in a supplied photoPHOTO: GEORG SOULEK

This is the 50th anniversary of the most eventful year of the 1960s, itself a decade of change and upheaval, and it will see all manner of media remembrances before 2019 arrives. It was an excitingly creative yet dangerous time — blood was spilled in the streets here and overseas in America’s awful, losing war in Vietnam.

Blood was spilled at University of Cincinnati, too, 50 years ago this week. Or so it appeared to anyone who attended the “action” performed on April 4, 1968 by the extraordinarily controversial, confrontational Austrian performance artist Hermann Nitsch. He was at the school’s 1968 Spring Arts Festival, which has been called by historian/blogger Greg Hand “the most avant-garde week in Cincinnati history.”

“It was a great success,” says Nitsch, during a Skype phone interview from his Austrian offices. (His assistant helped him reply to questions.)

The festival featured a who’s who of Contemporary anti-establishment, avant-garde artists — radical counterculture band The Fugs, performance/media artist Nam June Paik with the now-legendary topless cellist Charlotte Moorman, experimental filmmakers Jonas Mekas, Peter Kubelka and Jud Yalkut, and more.

But even among them, Nitsch was special. Now 78, he has developed an international reputation as a forceful painter. But in the late 1950s and through the 1960s, the European performances of his Orgien Mysterien Theatre caused him to be jailed for public indecency. Ritualistic in nature, especially in their use of animal carcasses, his work struggled to find a cathartic, audience-participatory way to show the human need for emotional and physical release. He also, maybe, was commenting on our propensity for violence. He held actions that called on his audiences to, in the words of his Nitsch Foundation’s website, “pour and slop fluids” like wine, hot water, Chasselas (a wine grape), lukewarm water, urine, hot blood serum, alcohol, blood, greasy wash water, paint and “etc.”

But he had never come to the United States before arriving in 1968 for two actions in New York City and one in Cincinnati. It’s been hard to find people who remember attending his April 4 performance in the Great Hall of UC’s Tangeman University Center. But the late Cincinnati filmmaker Steve Gebhardt, with partner Bill Fries, made a 9-minute film of the event, which can be rented from The Film-Makers’ Cooperative. And UC’s News Record wrote a front-page story describing Nitsch’s appearance.

According to that story, he brought a gutted 200-pound carcass of a pig to the hall and, while volunteers played on band instruments, encouraged the near-capacity crowd to become involved as he became stained with a bright red liquid that appeared to be blood. (He told CityBeat he preferred to use blood whenever possible in his actions and believes he used it in Cincinnati.)

“In the final stages of the performance, Nitsch became extremely involved with his art and after tossing a few entrails at the audience it brought back participation from the crowd in what could be likened to a pie-throwing fight,” the News Record reported.

The film presents not quite so blithe a picture. At times, it seems to be chronicling some kind of cult sacrifice — Nitsch, in a white shirt and dark pants, sticks his hands inside the open belly of the hanging pig; a barefoot student lies on the floor as Nitsch pours the liquid redness from a vial onto him; students mill about the “bloody” floor.

It’s impossible to watch now and not think of American violence. Perhaps most remarkable is that Nitsch’s action occurred after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated earlier in the evening in Memphis. Some in attendance may not have even known yet.

“Before I started to perform, Jonas Mekas told me about Martin Luther King and asked if I wanted to say that this is dedicated for (him),” Nitsch says. “For me, the death of Martin Luther King was so sad. (But) for me, it would be bad to connect this sad incident with my work. But I knew about the death, and in my heart it was there. That action in Cincinnati was not a normal action. It was a really intensive action.”

‘Rivers and Tides’: a flood of interest


How a documentary about a Contemporary artist became an arthouse blockbuster

March 10, 2003 / Steven Rosen / Special to the Los Angeles Times /

In the limited world of true art films — that is, documentaries about visual artists — “Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time” is the equivalent of a blockbuster. The movie, a collaboration between British earthworks artist Goldsworthy and German director Thomas Riedelsheimer, has found an unexpectedly large audience even before a wider national release. (The film opened Friday in Los Angeles and other cities.)

“Rivers and Tides” has been playing in the Bay Area since June 26 at San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema, after being named best documentary feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Tiny San Francisco-based Roxie Releasing, which owns that theater, also is handling the film’s distribution. It has grossed nearly $1 million to date, most of that from Northern California, although the film has also done well in New York and Boston, where it recently opened. By comparison, Artisan Entertainment’s far higher-profile “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” is considered one of 2002’s most commercially successful documentaries, earning about $1.6 million nationally.

“This is the biggest film we’ve released,” says Rick Norris, Roxie’s president. “We’re amazed at the repeat business. At certain theaters, they’ve done informal surveys on whether people have seen the movie before. We’ve found people who have seen it six times.” Those surveys show that the film appeals to environmentalists and Eastern-religion enthusiasts as much as contemporary-art followers.

Goldsworthy, 46, is known in the U.S. primarily for his 2,278-foot stone wall that snakes gracefully, seemingly organically, through the forested grounds of the Storm King Art Center sculpture park in Mountainville, N.Y. But “Rivers and Tides” captures him working on a far more intimate scale. He intuitively, with a sense of almost cosmic wonderment, engages in making ephemeral but beautiful art in remote locations. His projects are about creating profound moments as much as enduring objects.

He assembles a chain of bright green leaves and lets it busily swirl and flow down a river. With bare hands in the cold, he creates an icicle sculpture that glistens in the sun — which starts to melt it. “The very thing that brings my work to life is the thing that will cause its death,” he says proudly. Riedelsheimer, who spent a year following Goldsworthy around Nova Scotia and rural Scotland, where Goldsworthy has lived since 1986, eschews formal interviews in the film. He lets his subject work and talk, accompanied by the meditative cinematography and a soothing yet insistently rhythmic score by Fred Frith.

Goldsworthy has been doing this kind of work since the late 1970s, but it has been seen mostly in his photographs and books. Even then, he is hardly a household name. So the film has given people a rare chance to see Goldsworthy at work. Exhibitors, at first caught unaware, now realize that audience potential is exceeding expectations.

A national release

L.A.-based Landmark Theatres — the nation’s largest art-house chain, with theaters in 17 markets, including Los Angeles — is working with Roxie to give the film a national release. Landmark first played “Rivers and Tides” in Berkeley after noticing the strong business in San Francisco. “Sometimes you tap into something that has extraordinary depth and you don’t know why,” says Ray Price, Landmark’s vice president for marketing. “But eventually this mushroomed into ‘My Big Fat Greek Environmental Sculpture.’

“Traditionally, a documentary about an artist would have an extraordinarily limited audience,” he says. “But I think Goldsworthy’s ideas have a political and spiritual value for audiences. But it’s not the politics of a polemicist. It appeals to anyone who ever threw a snowball. It strikes people who remember when they used to experience wonderment as a child.”

Spirituality, not mysticism

Some have also responded to Goldsworthy as a mystic or seer — a practitioner of transcendence. But the artist, taking a break from installing a stone work at a New York gallery to discuss the movie by telephone, dislikes such terms.

“They trouble me — I don’t see myself as some sort of mystic,” he says. “It really gives me the creeps, that kind of reading. I would hope my work has a deep spiritual content to it, but it’s not being done in a self-consciously shamanistic or ritualistic way.”

Yet he also understands why he’s attracting such a response — because he sees art and nature, and by extension humanity and nature, as one. “While I’m not pretending that what I’m doing is anything but being made by the hand of a person, the intention is to draw from nature itself and to understand it,” he explains. “Inevitably, the division between what I make and what is already there is not so clear. And that’s the great thing. It draws the place out into my hands.”

Riedelsheimer, whose previous work as a director and cinematographer has taken him from Tibet to Tanzania, became interested in Goldsworthy after reading a magazine article eight years ago. They stayed in touch during the years it took to acquire European financing, including public funding from Scotland. The actual film took a year to make.

“The year of working with Andy was a calm experience,” Riedelsheimer says. “There was a feeling that we were doing something together. He sharpened my view on nature.”

Last year Goldsworthy created a stone cairn, a recurring motif, outside San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art. That museum plans to open a Goldsworthy show — devoted to this cairn plus two permanent and three temporary ones he built across the U.S., including one near San Francisco — on April 27.

True, San Diego is far more urban and congested than his home in Scotland, but Goldsworthy is comfortable making art there — or in Los Angeles. “If there’s one weakness in the film, it’s that it’s more pastoral than my art,” he says. “I do work in a lot of situations that are not remote or wild; some of them are quite urban. I guess I’m drawn to those places where nature is strongest, but I can find nature in most places that I am.”


His life was his art, his death its coda


The line often blurred between Ray Johnson and his work. A film offers him a new gallery.

March 11, 2004 |Steven Rosen | Special to The Los Angeles Times
Suicide is always a tragedy. Yet in the mysterious case of artist Ray Johnson, who jumped off a bridge into Long Island’s Sag Harbor on Friday the 13th in January 1995, the act also was a final performance piece.It was filled with references to the unlucky number 13, including his age, 67 (6+7=13). And at his home in Locust Valley, Long Island, police found stacks of Johnson’s artworks facing the wall. Only a small portrait of him faced outward — as if he were staring at them.

In “How to Draw a Bunny,” a new documentary about Johnson’s strange death and stranger life, director John Walter tries to make sense of a man who once said of himself, “I’m very, very serious but underneath it all, it’s a Dada joke.”

“The more you investigate, the more the mystery of Ray’s death is dissolved into the larger mystery of Ray’s life, which is how anyone can live every day as if it’s a work of art,” Walter says during a telephone interview. “You couldn’t find that place where you know Ray’s life is separate from Ray’s art. You can’t locate that border.”

Influential within the art world, Johnson was largely unknown to the general public. Johnson was born in Detroit and schooled at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, and in the 1950s he started making collages full of accessible pop-culture references and a methodically developed private symbology.

Further, he mailed much of his art to friends as correspondence, thus adding a conceptual component to the way he made his art, and himself, available. Superb at drawing, he also liked to make cartoon-like rabbits.

Johnson tried to take his art to a different level by staging what he called “nothings” — pranksterish performance pieces — such as dropping hot dogs from a helicopter or running around a gallery in circles.

Among friends and admirers of Johnson who appear in Walter’s film are far more commercially successful artists such as Christo, Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist. Among the collectors interviewed is Hollywood producer and screenwriter Gerald Ayres, who refers to Johnson as “a crazy aesthetic clown.” Walter also got Richard Lippold, who while married had a long, intimate relationship with Johnson, to talk.

The 39-year-old Walter, also from Detroit, grew up interested in rock ‘n’ roll, Japanese monster movies and Marcel Duchamp. But he had never heard of Johnson until a Detroit bookstore owner with similar interests invited him to an in-store performance by Johnson in 1988. “But my punk band had practice, so I couldn’t go,” Walter says.

Walter went on to forge a career in documentaries and independent film — he recorded sound effects, for example, for Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead II.” By the time of Johnson’s death, he decided he had a worthy subject for his first feature. With producer-cinematographer Andrew Moore, he contacted Johnson’s estate and got permission to proceed. (An only child who lived alone, Johnson’s closest relative was a first cousin.)

The result, as might be expected, is not a straightforward documentary. Walter aims for his own collage-like cinematic effect by mixing black-and-white interviews with archival color and video footage of the soft-spoken Johnson and his art. He calls particular attention to sound, using excerpts from Japanese monster movies as well as music from the band Destroy All Monsters. Walter uses an original score by jazz drummer Max Roach that is all brush strokes.

“Initially, what I wanted to do was do something that was really fun for an audience, in a way that learning about Ray’s life was really fun for me,” Walter says. “Ray’s work had a lot of humor. I felt if I could find a way of making film that was a collage, I’d be able to avoid giving a lecture on collage to the audience. They could experience it viscerally.”

In the end, all the complex reasons for Johnson’s death may be unknowable. To some extent, he was a mystery to all his acquaintances. As Billy Name, Andy Warhol’s assistant and a Johnson friend, told Walter: “He didn’t disconnect from his work. He was Ray Johnson’s creation. Somehow, it seems like he did himself in as another of his performances.”

Although “Bunny” won a Special Jury Prize at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, it is only now getting its theatrical release from Palm Pictures. Walter hopes the increasing public awareness of documentaries and the success of recent films about the mysterious work of environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy (“Rivers and Tides”) and the unconventional family life of architect Louis Kahn (“My Architect”) will help “Bunny.”

“It’s not so much the ravings of a lunatic now to say I have a documentary about an artist you haven’t heard of,” says Walter, who already has completed a new film about director Ted Demme. “For a while, I thought I was doing the most uncommercial thing I could possibly think of. But it seems there is an interest out there in eccentric characters and true-life mysteries.”

Art Shook Up: Elvis has entered the art gallery with new Paul Laffoley exhibit


JULY 29, 2014

The strange ways we remember Elvis Presley are best summed up by the lyrics of the late Warren Zevon’s “Jesus Mentioned,” in which he imagines traveling to Memphis to see the dead King: “He went walking on the water … with his pills.”

Zevon thus concisely explains how our culture both deifies Presley, who died in 1977, and views his life’s course as sadly, perhaps pathetically, tragic.

Paul Laffoley’s artwork The Life and Death of Elvis Presley: A Suite could someday have the same kind of impact. It is a lot more complex that Zevon’s sparse and simple song, but it covers the same sort of dichotomous territory. It’s also very strange in itself — surrealist even.

It’s at the Carl Solway Gallery in the West End through Sept. 6 for its first public showing ever. And how it got to Solway is equally strange.

One might call it visionary art — it has that kind of obsessive detailing. But its mystical intellectualism and its carefully ordered achievement marks the ambitious vision of a well-trained artist.

The Elvis Suite gets a whole gallery at Solway and needs it. On one wall are the eight paintings that comprise the work. On the other is the photocopied correspondence from Laffoley to Russ Barnard, the collector who commissioned the work in 1988.

Each painting is 55-by-35-inches and is jam-packed (that might be an understatement) with pictures and meticulously lettered text related to Presley’s life. Each also has a brass rod and velvet drape — the colors vary — that can be drawn to cover it up. There are six paintings whose central images depict Presley at step-by-step seven-year life stages (he died at age 42).

“Son of ‘Sattnin’” comes first, followed by “Captain Marvel the Third,” “Frankenpelvis,” “The Prime Elvis,” “The Comeback Kid” and “The Remains of the Voice.” (That first title refers to the way Presley as a child pronounced the word “satin,” because his mother worked as a seamstress.)

The actual portraits of Presley are moodily black and white with his irises a startling blue. He passes from a sweet child to the puffy, bloated, downright monstrous Presley of his last year.

Dropping down below the portraits, in color-compatible columns crammed with enough information to seemingly fill an encyclopedia, are important events during the years covered. And below those are horizontal strips with smaller images — precious miniatures — pertaining to Presley’s life and the greater world around him.

You might recognize the source material of some — “The Narc — Nixon” relates to his famous visit and photograph with President Nixon. But how Laffoley gets from, say, “Hitler in Berlin” to “Elvis Sees a UFO” is mysterious.

The first and last paintings in Elvis Suite are more like multi-bordered mandalas or horoscopic charts. One is titled “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has entered the world” and the other, fittingly, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the world.”

The overall information included is incredible — including discussion of Presley being cryogenically frozen.
“I think I’ve done the definitive work on Elvis,” Laffoley says in a phone interview.

Laffoley, 73, has an impressive resume and a website that’s very entertaining to read. Here’s a taste: (In the 1960s), “Laffoley began to organize his ideas in a format related to eastern mandalas, partially inspired by the late night patterns he watched for Warhol on sixties late night television.”

He studied classics at Brown University and architecture at Harvard, and decided to focus on painting in the Boston-Cambridge area after a spell in New York. Since 1971, his studio has been known as Boston Visionary Cell.

Michael Solway, Carl’s son and the gallery director, has a long relationship with Laffoley. He’s also a music lover, so the subject appealed to him.

“I’ve been a long fan of art that deals with issues of mysticism and spirituality — psychedelic art,” he says.

Elvis Suite was completed in 1995, yet this is its first showing. Owner Russ Barnard has kept it stored in crates.

He’d like to see important visitors, such as museum curators, view it for possible institutional display and/or sale, in the process establishing value. He also said Laffoley referred him to Solway.

Barnard commissioned Elvis Suite when he published a New York-based magazine called Country Music. He had already hired Laffoley to do a portrait of Hank Williams to accompany a well-received article by the art critic Dave Hickey. Barnard was a Country music fan who first saw Presley perform in Amarillo, Texas, in 1955.

He and an associate noticed magazine readers were placing ads for Presley memorabilia, and he thought a magazine-commissioned artwork might appeal to them. Perhaps it could be sold as a limited-edition print portfolio.

“Something classy rather than the crap people were advertising in the magazine,” Barnard says. But soon he thought of Laffoley and knew that wouldn’t work.

“I realized it was much too serious for that idea,” he says. “It had to stand alone as a one-time work of art.”

And the long letter Laffoley soon sent him reinforced that. A copy is on the wall at Solway — the gallery will provide magnifying glasses — and it’s fascinating. It reveals Laffoley wasn’t especially a Presley fan — he tells his patron he has so far heard 192 of his songs and is “beginning to really appreciate his operatic voice.”

He also explains he will be trying to “take calendar art and turn it into a meditation series in which the fans attempt to recreate Elvis’ existence as a thought-form or a tulpa (from the Hindu concept).”

Barnard, who sold the magazine in 1999, has thought off-and-on about what to do with the crated Elvis Suite. “I deliberately decided not to put these on sale until I could get a proper exhibition in a fine-art environment, because there is so much crap associated with Elvis,” he says.

“I’m glad it’s being shown,” Laffoley says. “I love people to see my work.”

(Note: Paul Laffoley died in 2015.)

The ‘Gainsborough’ Portrait That Got Away


(photo: Kehinde Wiley)


 SEP 22, 2010 2 PM

Cincinnati Art Museum has an important new exhibition on display through Jan. 2 called Thomas Gainsborough and the Modern Woman. Organized by Benedict Leca, curator of European paintings, sculpture and drawings on the occasion of the cleaning/restoration of the museum’s own Gainsborough portrait of “Ann Ford (Mrs. Thicknesse),” it brings together the 18th-century British artist’s paintings of women from top museums around the world.

A key theme of the show is that these women worked with the artist to defy gender roles of the time. Thus, they were “modern women.”

But there is one portrait planned for the show that got away. Strangely, it would have been new — one of the first, if not the first, portrait commissioned by the museum since Andy Warhol’s 1985 rendering of Pete Rose — Grace Jones by Kehinde Wiley.

This takes a little explaining. Wiley is a thirtysomething New York-based African-American artist who has found fame with his paintings of young black males in the manner of art’s past masters of portraiture. Jones, born in Jamaica, became an icon of dance music, fashion and film in the 1980s for her tall, androgynously avant-garde looks. The idea of commissioning Wiley to paint an iconic contemporary woman of the arts — and put the result in the Gainsborough — was Leca’s. The artist proposed Jones as his subject.

“The point of the show is to restore agency and self-direction to these (Gainsborough) women, just as Kehinde Wiley himself is re-inscribing black men into this preserve of traditional white-male power,” Leca says.

So Leca, with approval from art museum trustees, flew to New York to propose the project to Wiley.

“And then he said Grace Jones is the one we want to do,” Leca says. “And he was over the moon. His assistant would call me once a month and say, ‘Benedict, What’s up? Have you gotten through to Grace Jones?’ ”

That turned out to be a problem. Jones is reclusive. Wiley wanted a sitting, from which he would take a photograph to base his work. Leca says Wiley’s powerful dealer, Jeffrey Deitch (now director of LAMOCA), even had Alexander McQueen ready to create a dress for the sitting. But then McQueen died Feb. 11.

Leca had contacted Jones’ agent in London and wrote to Jean Paul Goude, the French fashion photographer to whom she is close. And he wrote directly to Jones through another photographer. No response.

“You’re talking about a Pop diva who has been around forever,” Leca says. “She doesn’t need exposure. The heartbreaking thing is we had it all in place and Grace Jones just couldn’t be found.”

On another note, Cincinnati Art Museum was the first American art museum to stage a retrospective of the artist — in 1931. Looking into that history, Leca found a 1934 Cincinnati Post article in which writer Eugene Segal recounts that the artist’s most famous portrait, The Blue Boy,” had a secret Cincinnati exhibition in 1922. The California collector Henry Edward Huntington bought it from a British duke for a record price, causing an outcry in England, and had it shipped to California. (It is now on display at the Huntington Library and has never been loaned.)

“Halfway down, they stopped in Cincinnati,” Leca says, citing the article. “They called the various directors, who came down in the middle of the night and opened up the box, looked at ‘The Blue Boy,’ packed it back into the box and off it went. I don’t think anybody knows about that. I looked at the minutes of the directors around that time and nowhere is it mentioned by anyone except Segal.”


The Rise and Fall of Drop City


(Ultimate Painting at Drop City)


AT THE SITE WHERE SOUTHERN COLORADO’S DROP CITY ONCE STOOD, all evidence of one of the first and most celebrated communes of the 1960s has dropped off the face of the landscape.

Once in this rural area known as El Moro, just north of the old mining city of Trinidad, its idealistic young residents had built their own Buckminster Fuller-influenced, multi-colored, geometric domed structures. Devotees of environmentalism and avant-garde arts, they used chopped-up car roofs for building material, experimented with passive solar heating and built a futuristic theater dome intended for panoramic movie projection.

Drop City received international press coverage and flocks of visitors, since it was near the state’s major north-south interstate, I-25. And it also won a $500 Dymaxion Award from the world renowned architect, visionary thinker and geodesic-dome champion Fuller, himself, for its “economically poetic architecture.” The most famous photo of it showed a horse grazing in front of the domed buildings — an impressive combination of rusticity and modernism.

Now it’s all gone — abandoned more than 30 years ago. By 1973, it had become “the world’s first geodesic ghost town,” in the words of one of its three founders, Clark Richert. Today, the seven acres it once occupied look too cluttered and dangerous to explore. A trucking and earth-moving company has what appears to be a collapsed hangar there, with some trucks parked on the property. A dog outside a separate house barks ferociously and doesn’t let up. It does not encourage drop-ins.

And yet, Drop City is hardly forgotten. In many ways, it’s never been more popular — not even in its heyday, which lasted from 1965 into the early 1970s. Right now, a documentary and major museum exhibit about it are both in the works. They follow an ever-growing number of books and magazine articles that discuss, remember or in some way make reference to the commune. These include T. Coraghessan Boyle’s best-selling 2003 novel Drop City; communard John Curl’s 2007 Memories of Drop City; and last year’s Spaced Out: Crash Pads, Hippie Communes, Infinity Machines, and Other Radical Environments of the Psychedelic Sixties by Alastair Gordon.

In addition, 2001’s The House Book — a global survey of 500 architecturally significant homes — included Drop City, even though it no longer exists. In fact, so great has interest been lately that a Denver rock band changed its name to Drop City and Trinidad brewpub created a Drop City beer.

“Precisely because there’s nothing left, there’s this kind of magic around it,” says Adam Lerner, director of Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It is organizing a show tentatively called Deep Structure: The Ever-Present Legacy of Drop City for the 2011-2012 season. “It has a kind of legendary status, given how ephemeral and utopian it was. There’s something beautiful about attempts to imagine a different architecture for civilization, to reject the square box and try to create something from scratch.”

Indeed, the memory of Drop City drew several hundred people to a Colorado Historical Society-sponsored symposium this summer in Trinidad, where Richert and filmmaker Joan Grossman spoke. Trinidad, with a population just over 9,000, is the last Colorado city of any size before crossing I-25 into New Mexico. It is hilly and old, trying to re-emerge as an arts/tourist enclave after spending the better part of the 20th century as a rough mining town. When Drop City existed on its northern fringe, people didn’t know what to make of its strangeness.

“I was expecting maybe 20 people at a library,” Grossman says. “I think Drop City remains a mythologized curiosity for the people in Trinidad — what was this thing that sprung up in a fairly out-of-the-way community? It has remained something people really wondered about.”

She and co-director Tom McCourt, a media studies professor at Fordham University, hope to have a rough cut of the film done this year. They have interviewed most of the dozen or so primary residents, and have been able to obtain original footage shot by another of the commune’s founders, filmmaker Gene Bernofsky.

By the way, Richert says, the name Drop City does not refer to dropping acid (LSD) or dropping out of society, like drug guru Timothy Leary advocated at the time. It originates from a time in the early 1960s when he and Bernofsky, as fellow students at University of Kansas, practiced something they called “Drop Art.” From their apartment building, they would drop painted rocks (and other things) on the sidewalk below and study the responses of passers-by.

“It fascinated us,” says Richert, a Denver-based, geometry-oriented painter and also head of Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design’s painting program. (He also maintains a Drop City page on his Web site.) “We called them ‘droppings’ — like Happenings — and ‘Drop Art’ because it rhymed with Pop Art,” he explains. “And everything we did after that we called ‘droppings’. So Drop City was a work of Drop Art. It was a community of artists.”

Richert, Bernofsky and the latter’s wife, JoAnn, got the idea for a commune as early as 1964 in Lawrence, Kansas. But then Richert and a friend who eventually lived at Drop City, Richard Kallweit, heard Fuller speak at the University of Colorado in Boulder and got the idea to live in a domed settlement.

They pooled almost $1,000 and started looking for a suitable space. “When we found this property, it had just rained and it was really green,” Richert says. “They told us we could have it for $500, and we bought it on the spot.” The Bernofskys bought the land; the rest of the money went toward utilities and the first structures.

Many of the core group used playful pseudonyms like Peter Rabbit, Drop Lady and Larry Lard. All were interested in how creativity, life and work (not necessarily a job) could be intertwined into a new society. After the first residents built three geodesic-related domes, a New Mexico engineer, Steve Baer, helped design newer ones based on a zonohedron — a polyhedron-type geometric shape easier to assemble.

Drop City residents also found time to create their Ultimate Painting — which had a motor and spun from a ceiling as a strobe light shined on it. It was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum and in Paris before disappearing.

Eventually, the crush of media attention took its toll and the core group all left. But many continued with the arts.

In the 1970s, Richert, the Bernofskys, Kallweit and another former Drop City resident, Charles DiJulio, started a Boulder art co-op called Criss-Cross, devoted to “pattern and structure” paintings. Baer started a New Mexico company called ZomeWorks, inspired by his Drop City work. John Curl went to New Mexico to do social work at an Indian reservation, later moving to Berkeley to join a woodworking cooperative and write. His second book about Drop City comes out this year — a history of communes and co-ops called For All the People.

“I and many other people thought it would turn out to be a long-term family place and I could spend the rest of my life there,” says Curl, who lived in Drop City with his girlfriend (now wife), Jill, from 1966-1969. “As it turned out, it became clear it would be like most 1960s communal groups were: an episode in people’s lives. Everybody lived there for a while and moved on.”

Moved on, yes. Forgot? Hardly.

Steven Rosen is a Cincinnati-based arts writer who worked at the Denver Post — as art and movie critic — for more than a dozen years. He has also contributed to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Modernism and Cincinnati CityBeat, and is reachable at

New Downtown Mural Is a True Big Picture


A new mural by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra — the largest ArtWorks has yet commissioned — honors late Ohio-born astronaut Neil Armstrong.



The name of this column — “The Big Picture” — is especially appropriate when discussing the new downtown mural by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra.

The work — the largest mural that ArtWorks has yet commissioned — is honoring the late Neil Armstrong, the Ohio-born astronaut who in 1969 became the first person to walk on the moon. After his career as an astronaut ended, he became a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

Kobra’s work is as monumental as Armstrong’s accomplishment. It measures 7,632 square feet and occupies the equivalent of half a city block, along the Walnut Street façade of a parking garage that is part of Fifth Third Bank’s Fountain Square headquarters. The bank is paying the project’s entire cost, in excess of $100,000.

The Armstrong mural may, as a byproduct, singlehandedly revive interest in the skywalk system, since Kobra has been saying the best place to see it will be standing on a connecting link across Walnut Street. (Although the mural was just finished, scaffolding may still be visible for awhile.)

He has been developing an international following for his large spray-painted public murals that, as he has described, mix a retro element — a Photorealist, sometimes black-and-white portrait of the subject, usually sourced from a photograph — with a contemporary, phantasmagorical Op Art-like use of bright color. 

In the Armstrong mural, Kobra, with help from his two assistants and ArtWorks’ four teen apprentices, has surrounded the helmeted, camera-holding astronaut with stripes, squares and emanating rays of fragmented color, color, color. One multi-colored band even serves as a kind of halo. (The mural was sketched and gridded-out first.)

So, this is quite literally one really big picture. But there’s also another aspect in which the term is appropriate. Cincinnati has a role in the larger world — the bigger picture of the evolution of street art. Murals are becoming the preferred, dynamic way for cities to memorialize the cultural heroes and historical figures that residents admire.  

“Street art and public art are really hot in cities all over the world,” says Colleen Houston, ArtWorks vice president of programs and operations. “It’s a great time to be an artist working in public spaces.”

It’s especially a great time to be Kobra, whom ArtWorks commissioned after admiring his 2015 mural for Minneapolis honoring Minnesota-born troubadour Bob Dylan.

That and his Cincinnati mural are a long way from tagging, which is how he got his start in the early 1990s in Sao Paolo. A gifted artist, his name “Kobra” was coined by fellow middle-school students and is slang for excelling at a certain task — drawing, in his case.

During an interview at ArtWorks offices, the Portuguese-speaking artist discussed his origins as Marina Castro provided an English paraphrased translation. He said a key early influence was New York Hip Hop culture. One reason he enjoys his U.S. projects so much — he has done about 15 so far, including an Abraham Lincoln mural in Lexington, Ky. — is because it is the home of New York. In his home country, he has just completed a mural he hopes will qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest ever designed by a single artist. It is 32,300 square feet and was done to celebrate the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. As he described it and as it was written about on, it features portraits of indigenous peoples of the world.

Incidentally, Cincinnati actually got two local heroes for the price of one with its new Armstong mural. On the upper right-hand corner, as you face it on Walnut Street, you’ll see E.T. in a bicycle basket being pedaled from Earth toward  “home” somewhere in deep, expansive space. As he’s moving away from Armstrong, maybe it’s toward the dark side of the moon.  

Kobra, a dedicated researcher of the cities in which he does murals, said he knew Steven Spielberg, the director of 1982’s classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, was born in Cincinnati. 

“He was trying to make a connection to the people from here,” translator Castro said.