The Longreads Blog

The Urban Crisis of Affluence

Skyscrapers
Photo by Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images

After three decades living in and around New York City, I, too, am leaving to make way for the only people the city is still welcoming: billionaires who don’t live here.

In Harper’s Magazine, Kevin Baker writes at length in “The Death of a Once Great City” about how the few who can afford to build and buy in New York don’t want to live here, either. In one affluent twenty-block corridor, “almost one apartment in three sits empty for at least ten months a year.” A couple of neighborhoods south, developers at an eighty-three-unit luxury condo were recently offering “to throw in two studio apartments and two parking spots for any buyer willing to shell out $48 million for the building’s 7,000-square foot penthouse.” That’s five empty things for the price of one empty thing, in case you’d like to park dozens of millions of dollars in an investment property that’s big enough to fit dozens of homeless families.

Drawing from Michael Greenberg’s incisive piece on the city’s housing emergency last summer in The New York Review of Books, Baker connects the dots between empty penthouses and empty storefronts, decrying how “all that our urban leaders, in New York and elsewhere, Democratic as well as Republican, have been able to come up with is one scheme after another to invite the rich in.”

As New York enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, it is in imminent danger of becoming something it has never been before: unremarkable. It is approaching a state where it is no longer a significant cultural entity but the world’s largest gated community, with a few cupcake shops here and there.

The new rich infesting the city are barely here. They keep a low profile, often for good reason, and rarely stick around. They manufacture nothing and run nothing, for the most part, but live off fortunes either made by or purloined from other people—sometimes from entire nations. The New Yorker noted in 2016 that there is now a huge swath of Midtown Manhattan, from Fifth Avenue to Park Avenue, from 49th Street to 70th Street, where almost one apartment in three sits empty for at least ten months a year. New York today is not at home. Instead, it has joined London and Hong Kong as one of the most desirable cities in the world for “land banking,” where wealthy individuals from all over the planet scoop up prime real estate to hold as an investment, a pied-à-terre, a bolt-hole, a strongbox.

A triplex at the forthcoming 220 Central Park South will reportedly be sold for $200 million, and a four-story apartment at the same address is priced to move at $250 million. These would be the largest home sales ever recorded anywhere in the United States.

Who spends this sort of money for an apartment? The buyers are listed as hedge fund managers, foreign and domestic; Russian oligarchs; Chinese apparel and airline magnates. And increasingly, to use a repeated Times term, a “mystery buyer,” often shielded by a limited liability company.

This is not the benevolent “gentrification” that Michael Bloomberg seemed to have had in mind but something more in the tradition of the king’s hunting preserves, from which local peasants were banned even if they were starving and the king was far away.

There are now so many of the supertalls gathered so closely together that they threaten to leave the lower sections of Central Park, the only true architectural marvel to be seen here, in shadow for much of the year. One simulation found that the shadows of the highest towers may knife a mile into the park on the winter solstice.

When the journalist Warren St. John protested against these towers that block the sun and literally leave children shivering in the park, he pointed out that the highest supertall apartments—when they are occupied at all—house maybe a few hundred people, as opposed to the 40 million individuals who use Central Park every year. But this seems to be the calculation on which New York now operates.

Even for those who can afford the new New York, it is unclear how much they actually like it or maintain any ability to shape it to their tastes. What is the point, after all, of paying a fortune to live in a city that is more and more like everywhere else?

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The Dangerous Beauty of Russian

A Russian stamp from 1992 showing children's book character Cipollino, a little onion who fights the unjust treatment of the his vegetable friends and neighbors at the hands of the upper-class -- Prince Lemon and Lord Tomato.

Keith Gessen‘s parents left the Soviet Union when he was six, young enough that he speaks unaccented English but old enough that he still knows Russian — which he’s now teaching his son Raffi. In a lovely essay in The New Yorker, he reflects on bilingualism, child development, and why he’s teaching Raffi the language of a country he won’t even take him to visit.

When we started reading books to Raffi, I included some Russian ones. A friend had handed down a beautiful book of Daniil Kharms poems for children; they were not nonsense verse, but they were pretty close, and Raffi enjoyed them. One was a song about a man who went into the forest with a club and a bag, and never returned. Kharms himself was arrested in Leningrad, in 1941, for expressing “seditious” sentiments and died, of starvation, in a psychiatric hospital the following year; the great Soviet bard Alexander Galich would eventually call the song about the man in the forest “prophetic” and write his own song, embedding the forest lyrics into a story of the Gulag. Raffi really liked the Kharms song; when he got a little older, he would request it and then dance.

It’s difficult to encourage bilingualism when life is lived overwhelmingly in English, but eventually, the songs and stories and conversations begin to pay off — but to what end?

Raffi hummed the Nautilus Pompilus song on the way home. A few days later I heard him singing it to himself as he played with some Legos.

Ya hochu byt’ s toboy
Ya hochu byt’ s toboy
Ya hochu byt’ s toboy

And a few days after that, he said his first Russian sentence. “Ya gippopotam,” he said. I am a hippopotamus.

I was deeply, stupidly, indescribably moved. What had I done? How could I not have done it? What a brilliant, stubborn, adorable child. My son. I love him so much. I hope he never goes to Russia. I know that eventually he will.

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Sign O’ The Times: Paisley Park Offers A Public Tour

Prince performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

For The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich tours Paisley Park, the home and recording studio of the late Prince. What she learns is that no matter how close you may get in physical proximity, even in death Prince maintains a carefully curated distance between him, his fans, and the world.

Mostly, the tour made me feel lonesome. Absent its owner, Paisley Park is a husk. In 2004, when Prince briefly rented a mansion in Los Angeles from the basketball player Carlos Boozer, he redesigned the place, putting his logo on the front gate, painting pillars purple, installing all-black carpet, and adding a night club. (Boozer threatened to sue, but Prince restored the house before he moved out.) Yet Paisley Park feels anonymous. His studios are beautiful, but unremarkable. There are many photos of him, and his symbol is omnipresent, but I was hoping for evidence of his outsized quirks and affectations—clues to some bigger truth. I found little that seemed especially personal. Paisley Park presents Prince only as a visionary—not as a father, a husband, a friend, or a son.

Although Prince’s estate has disregarded some of his preferences—his discography is now available on Spotify, a platform he pulled his music from in 2015, in part because he believed that the company didn’t compensate artists properly—there’s something profound about how Paisley Park insists on maintaining Prince’s privacy. It does not need to modernize him (which feels unnecessary), or even to humanize him (which feels impossible). In 2016, the most common response to Prince’s death was disbelief. His self-presentation was so carefully controlled that he never once betrayed his own mortality. He’d done nothing to make us think he was like us. During parties, Prince sometimes stood in a dark corner of the balcony and watched other people dance. Visiting Paisley Park now evokes a similar sensation—of being near Prince, but never quite with him.

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The Camouflage Artist: Two Worlds Wars, Two Loves, and One Great Deception

'Grumble' York, July 1941, Retreat from Dunkirk by John Churchill

Mary Horlock | Excerpt adapted from Joseph Gray’s Camouflage: A Memoir of Art, Love and Deception | Unbound | September 2018 | 22 minutes (5,778 words)

This story starts with a picture: a vast turquoise sky, an endless yellow beach, a mother and her child playing in the sand.

My grandmother lifts a trembling hand and points towards the smallest figure.

“That is me.”

She now has a room measuring nine feet by five. There isn’t much wall space, so the picture hangs in the corridor outside, beside the sign: “No.18: Maureen Barclay.”

Maureen Barclay is a widow and there are many here. Some don’t know where they are, nor do they remember the lives they have lived. Maureen is different, she remembers plenty. But with this blessing comes a curse: the older she becomes, the more she worries what she might soon forget. She has moved into a nursing home quite by her own choice, but as she downsizes, reducing her life to the essentials, the more she is stripping back memories, the memories embedded in clothes, objects, papers and pictures.

There simply isn’t room for them here.

The only solution is to pass them on to the people she trusts. She has given me many things over the years — her love and time above all else — but now she surrenders a most treasured possession. It is a pencil-drawn self-portrait of her father and my great-grandfather, Joseph Gray. This is the man who first painted that small child playing on the beach.

Joseph Gray is an artist most people have never heard of, but for much of my early life he was the only artist I’d ever heard of. His paintings filled all the rooms of my grandparents’ flat and much of my own family home. Smoke-filled streets and blitzed churches lined our staircase, thickly painted still lifes crowded in corners, restless seas churned over each mantelpiece. While the houses of my friends contained candy-colored Impressionist prints or tastefully anonymous landscapes, we had this curious mix of styles and subjects, all courtesy of an artist I’d never even met.

But at least I knew what he looked like. I would stare for hours at this pencil-drawn self-portrait: darkly piercing eyes under hooded lids, a wide curving nose, a proud, rounded jaw. With a crumpled hat pulled low on his head Joseph Gray stood straight and returned my gaze. Now that’s what an artist should look like, I thought.

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A Woman’s Work: Home Economics* (*I Took Woodworking Instead)

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | June 2018 | 10 minutes (2,600 words)

 

By the time I was 44 I’d never lived with a boyfriend, a fact that I, a woman living under a patriarchy and not getting any younger, sometimes thought should be bothering me more, but which didn’t.

I even had fond memories of a day when I was 41 and freshly dumped, on which I woke up alone in bed, stretched out, and had a remarkable, quite unexpected realization…

"Ahhhh... this is really pleasant"

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Looking for a Greener Death

An aquamation unit. Photo via bioresponsefuneral.com.

Aquamation, a method of body disposal that uses lye to dissolve muscles and organs — basically, anything that isn’t bone or tooth — is more environmentally-friendly than cremation and has a growing number of supporters who want it for themselves or their loved ones. Right now, though, it’s difficult to access and is only legal in a handful of states. As Emily Atkin’s story in The New Republic reveals, there are several groups with a vested interest in keeping it largely illegal, and they’re not afraid to use inflammatory rhetoric to get their way.

Representative Dick Hamm’s speech made national news that day, and not only because of his business interest in keeping human aquamation illegal in Indiana. “We’re going to put [dead bodies] in acid and just let them dissolve away and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever,” Hamm said, comparing the process to “flushing” a loved one. This wasn’t accurate. Aquamation uses lye, not acid, and similar fluids are flushed down the drain during the embalming process. But Hamm’s hyperbole was effective. Though he was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill, it failed in a 34-59 vote.

The idea that aquamation is unnatural or gross or even immoral has impeded its adoption in other states. A bill to re-legalize it in New Hampshire, where it had been legal for two years before being repealed, was rejected in 2009 after lawmakers gave speeches similar to Hamm’s. “I don’t want to send a loved one to be used as fertilizer or sent down the drain to a sewer treatment plant,” Republican John Cebrowski said. His Republican colleague Mike Kappler added that “he didn’t want to drive by a sewage lagoon where a relative’s liquid remains would wind up.”

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Old In Art School

(FluxFactory/Getty)

Nell Painter | Old In Art School | Counterpoint | June 2018 | 14 minutes (3,906 words)

Curiosity in my regard, and there was a lot of it, didn’t only come from inside Mason Gross, for generally the kids were cool with whatever. Curiosity came from people of my generation in my soon to be former existence. They regarded my new life, my adventure, in the words of some, my “journey,” with envy and hesitation. They identified with my break for freedom but feared their academic or lawyerly selves had already quashed their inner Beyoncé. They wondered if they, too, could leave dutiful, controlled professional personas and fling themselves into a new, hyper-saturated, Technicolor — no, RBG color-coded — artistic life of creativity and apparent abandon. I had yearned like that before actually walking away. Professing admiration for my bravery, my friends asked how I did it and hoped I would send back a report.

Why do something different? Why start something new? Why did I do it? What made me think I could begin anew in an entirely different field from history, where, truth be told, I had made a pretty good reputation? Was it hard leaving a chaired professorship at Princeton? I didn’t think so. For a long time, my answers, even to myself, were simple — too simple by far.

I said, because I wanted to.

Because I could.

I knew from my mother I could do it.

My smart, small, intense, beautiful, disciplined little mother, Dona Irvin, administrator to author, held the key to my confidence. To a very great extent, she still does. The so much more of myself beyond my sex, race, and age that I cherish is rooted in my family, in my father the gregarious bohemian, who had taught me to draw decades ago, but even more, in my mother, who starting over at sixty-five, blossomed as an older woman, transforming herself into a creator in her own right after a lifetime as a shyly dutiful wife and mother. As an older woman, she cast off the strictures of a lifetime — well, some of them — and took to wearing red or white with her dark skin and taking the bus overnight to play slot machines in Reno.

My mother had never written a book before 65. She had started her career as a school administrator late, after the civil rights movement opened opportunities for an educated black woman, and she had grown professionally. She overcame crippling shyness whose stutter made the telephone her monster. At a liberating feminist retreat at Asilomar, near Monterey, she reclaimed her own name, Dona, after decades of letting other people correct her. Yes, people tried to correct her pronunciation of her own name and talk her into accepting the more easily recognizable “Donna.” At the Asilomar retreat, she put a stop to that and made people call her by her own name. And she started writing in earnest.

Always a terrific writer of letters and reports, she’d never attempted a book. After Asilomar, she found steel within to pull it off.

She devoted ten years to research and publishing her first book, The Unsung Heart of Black America, about the middle-class black people she knew as close, long-term friends in the United Methodist church we attended in the 1950s and early 1960s in Oakland, a work the fine and generous historian John Hope Franklin blurbed.

It took me years to sense the bravery, the sturdy determination her metamorphosis demanded, for she was tougher than I could see during her lifetime. I knew she delved deep to express herself with unadorned honesty. Hard for a woman. Doubly hard for a black woman. Triply hard for a black woman of a class and a generation never wanting to let them (meaning, mainly, white people) catch even a sidelong glimmering of your doubts.

Suppressing doubt and never washing dirty linen in public came naturally to my mother. A public that was black and wore the beloved faces of her friends awaited my mother’s writing as an upstanding black person. That public’s expectation of her as a black author discouraged her speaking as an individual whose identity exceeded race. She felt that pressure and wrote her first book as a black woman, never losing sight of race in America. Yet there was more to her.

It took her ten more years to write and publish her frank and funny memoir, I Hope I Look That Good When I’m That Old. Just pause for a moment and imagine the guts and good humor she needed to use that title, to admit to looking good, and to write the word “old” and apply it to herself.

I Hope I Look That Good When I’m That Old.

People used to say that to her all the time, and now they’re saying it to me.

In her memoir, she went on to claim herself as a unique individual, racialized, but with much more to her than race. She wrote as a daughter of two parents in conflict on the most intimate level. The conflict stayed within the range of ordinary human misbehavior — the usual adultery and betrayal — but talking about that exceeded the vocabulary of race alone. Hard to do in the USA, because it’s hard to describe black humanity beyond race and so easy, practically an automatic response, to interpret a claim of individuality as treason to blackness. It’s as though individuality, the pride of white Americans, belongs only to them; as though a black woman speaking as an individual must be backing away from blackness. My mother had to find words to claim both uniqueness and blackness. But find those words she did. Dona was working on a website about vigorous old people of many races when she died at ninety-one, not at all ready to leave.

Looking at her, identifying with her when I was 64, I figured, hell, I could do that. I could do something new in the quarter-century or more still before me, even starting from close to scratch. My mother’s example made me think I could lay down one life and pick up a new one.

***

I had been a youthful artist, and for years I carried a sketchbook and drew all the time. I was still drawing when I lived in Ghana with my parents in the 1960s. These three drawings, pencil on paper, were in my sketchbooks there.

Ghana gave my Bay Area eyes, squinting into a bright blue sky, a whole new palette, a landscape and architecture and people in clothes and rioted textures and colors. Something grew on every surface: bushes, flowers, or mold, or all of it all at once. The California Bay Area that I had left was a beautiful, but a eucalyptus gray place, foggy in the morning, dryly sunny in the day, with mostly light-colored people.

In Ghana, I moved through a humid world of tropical contrasts and color-wheel hues. The dirt was red, the trees and grass blue-green. White buildings, red tiled roofs. Red-orange bougainvillea climbing whitewashed buildings and cascading over fences and walls, some topped with menacing shards of broken brown glass or black wrought-iron spikes testifying to class tensions that barricaded the wealthy against the grasping poor. Together, this colorful landscape and the very black people in white and spectacular clothing altered my vision of everyday life.

In Ghana, I taught French in the language school and gave the news in French on Ghana Radio for a year. I can still hear the drums

Boom boom boom      Boom  Boom

announcing “Ghana calling!” I began graduate study in pre-colonial African history at the Institute of African Studies before a coup d’état deposing Kwame Nkrumah ended his nascent African socialism and sent us Afro-Americans, including Maya Make (later Maya Angelou) to Egypt, to Europe, and for us Irvins, home to California.

I completed my MA in African history at UCLA, having previously discovered a love of history during my junior year abroad at the University of Bordeaux. After UCLA a year of rattlebrained, youthful follies too embarrassing to mention, I ended up at Harvard for a Ph.D. in history. I quit smoking. I wrote a dissertation that became my first book, published by — ahem — Alfred A. Knopf. Many books and professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Princeton University followed.

I was a whiz kid, tenured and promoted at Penn in three years and promoted to full professor at Chapel Hill in another three. In the early days of my career, I never questioned my ability to do well in my field. I loved history, loved research, loved writing — I still love history, love research, love writing. I published books at a regular pace: Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1976), The Narrative of Hosea Hudson: His Life as a Negro Communist in the South (1979), Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 (1986), Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol (1996), Southern History Across the Color Line (2002), Creating Black Americans: African American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present (2006), and the Penguin Classic Editions of Narrative of Sojourner Truth and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. And there were fellowships (Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright, &c.), scholarly societies (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Antiquarian Society, &c.), and honorary doctorates (Dartmouth, Yale, &c.).

I don’t want this to sound effortless, for it was all a lot of work, a hell of a lot of dedicated work. Good work, I mean, work that felt good to me, for writing history gave me enormous pleasure. If you want to see the whole panoply of achievement, check out my website, www.nellpainter.com or look at my Facebook page. Over the years, though, images made their way into my writing of history.

Visual art’s gravitational field had renewed its pull decades before my mother had reinvented herself as a writer. Still, I cannot shrug off my change of field as simply a matter of time. It took place step by step, as I was writing history.

My history writing tugged me toward art over the years. I used a photograph I had taken as the frontispiece of my second book, The Narrative of Hosea Hudson, and I wrote about the photograph as a meaningful image, not merely an illustration. Then came the “Truth in Photographs” chapter in my fourth book, Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol, on Truth’s self-fashioning through photographs. I spent hour after hour preparing that chapter in the abundance of Princeton’s Marquand Art History Library, where the art books fill four levels and you can sit comfortably for hours, with the history and theory of photography. In Marquand I learned the rhetoric of the image and critical seeing.

I illustrated Creating Black Americans with fine art. Though it’s a narrative history, Creating Black Americans gave me an introductory course in African American art history. There was, I discovered, more good art by black artists than I could ever cram into one book, even limiting the art to subjects bearing on history. None — okay, very few — of those artists figured in the art history I would study in art school.

The books I wrote weren’t art history, but each one took me beyond text into new visual archives. I loved working with images; I loved learning new history and new artists. This was not like my first undergraduate experience in art.

***

Back in the 1960s I had studied art at Berkeley, had been an art major and drawn a couple of covers for the campus humor magazine. My art major ended with a C in sculpture, a C I earned by not doing any work. Why should I have to work at sculpture, I reckoned like the kid I was, because talent should insure success. I saw talent as everything, therefore exerting myself would make no difference. What kind of reasoning is that? Dumb kid reasoning. I didn’t know how to work on learning sculpture, and I didn’t know any professional artists to show me a way. On the other hand, my academic family applauded my writing. There ended my story in art for decades. Except for occasional sketching and knitting, I put down the visual and wrote a very great deal of text. Eventually, my books returned me to art, and once back in images, I concluded, Yes, I think I could stay in the world of pictures. Let me test this out.

During my last year teaching at Princeton I took two introductory painting classes. Introductory painting came after my regular teaching and kept me in Princeton to 10 PM. After that, I’d get home to Newark in the middle of the night. My generous Princeton colleague Valerie Smith let me stay over at her house and sweetly bought one of my first drawings. At first, I didn’t know to photograph my work, so Valerie’s drawing has disappeared from my files. The office of another Princeton colleague, Edmund White, was next to my painting studio. He bought my very first painting, my attempt to depict a set-up in various surfaces and shades of red and yellow, shiny, matte, opaque and translucent, saturated and toned down. The reflective red hat contrasted with two drapes, one also reflective but mixed with blue, the other with a pattern that fractured in the folds of the cloth. The bright yellow shopping bag in front combined a shiny surface and a broken pattern.

In this first Princeton class I painted gray scales and figures and landscapes and learned light sources and perspective, as in two other early paintings. The gray scale began simply as that, a gray scale, where you alter hue and saturation between black and white. I liked that exercise and added mountains in the distance. It still looks like a gray scale, but with something else going on. The blue painting came from an exercise in creating depth through perspective, shadow, and luminosity. I made both these paintings on manufactured canvases 24 x 18”. I still have a whole pile of these canvases, which I consider beneath me now. My second Princeton painting class taught me how to make my own stretcher bars and to stretch and gesso my canvases, thoroughly enjoyable manual labor.

My Princeton painting classes took me to museums, to Philip Guston’s cadmium red, ivory black, and titanium white cigar-smoking Klansmen and John Currin’s skinny, huge breasted naked white women the color of supermarket peach flesh. I joined the throng of Guston admirers, but never acquired a taste for Currin’s virtuoso painting. I still stumble over his skinny, big-breasted women and wonder why his famously rendered Thanksgiving turkey is raw.

***

Even before art school and with what I look back on as incredible hubris, I toyed with the idea of myself as a professional artist, not a mere Sunday painter. I might want to go to art school, not just to undergraduate art school, but to graduate art school as well. I might want to work professionally. I might want to be as professional a painter as I was a historian. Well, within reason. Why would that pose a problem?

As I poke into the crevices of memory, I touch another motive for leaving history, a motive that wants to stay beneath the surface, pulling back into deeper obscurity like a darkness-dwelling troglobite I’m dragging into the light for you. It is not a nice feeling to acknowledge, but candor demands acknowledgment, for otherwise I just might have remained in the grooves of academe. For there was, as always, much more history yet for me to write. Any sentiment other than gratitude strikes me as most unbecoming in one whose achievements have been honored with a Princeton professorship, honorary doctorates from the Ivy League and beyond, and the presidencies of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association. What could be more annoying (a word I learned to employ in art school) than a person of privilege whining about what hasn’t been bestowed? Nonetheless. Nonetheless, let me whine a little. There was some sour sense of limits reached, of disappointment over book prizes not won and books not reviewed. It was as though I had assumed I’d be exempt from the rules of the world, where people who looked like me or who didn’t fit an image of how they were supposed to be were never fully seen or acknowledged. For all my lovely recognition, I seemed not properly to fit in.

I’ve never been a black person easily captured in the idea of a black person—come to think of it, no one is. No person, no black or otherwise person fits a racial mold. The idea of a black person is a stereotype that shifts its shape in order never to fit anyone real. I’ve hardly suffered or overcome hardship, can’t talk ghetto, won’t don a mask of black authenticity or speak for black people as a whole. Too many disparate themes reside in me for coherent recognition: images, phrases, people, and things from the multiple worlds I live in and have lived in over many years of life. The freedom I treasure in art reminds me of walking in Bordeaux in the 1960s and inclining toward the study of history. My mother’s dismay at the appearance of aging triggers scattered associations, from the biography of a French theorist to older women artists. Driving down I-95 from Providence calls up a memory of skidding my beetle across a snow-covered bridge over the Connecticut River when I was a graduate student at Harvard. This jumble is not smooth, but its disorderliness is what makes me me.

When I sniveled to friends that I had never received a book prize of import, they pulled me up short, and not just by recalling my honors. They reminded me of the world we live in and the off-kilter nature of my writing. What on earth did I expect? I had enough, I really did have enough in many meanings of the word. Enough in hand, I left history, in the sense of no longer writing scholarly history books as I used to, with honor and fulfillment. History remains a part of me, naturally, and it remains in me even though my relation to history became uneasy in art school.

***

After my two toe-dipping Princeton painting classes, I took the summer drawing and painting marathon at the New York Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. The Studio School started at 9 a.m., ended at 6, with crits stretching past 9 p.m. Okay. For me that meant get up at 6 a.m. walk across the park, take Newark light rail to Newark Penn Station. New Jersey Transit to New York Penn Station, that hell of thank-you-for-your-patience dysfunction. The 2 or 3 subway downtown, get off at 4th Street, walk to 8th Street, and arrive before everyone else.

Then the pay-off. Stand up and draw and paint for eight hours. I loved it.

I L O V E D IT.

The paper, the charcoal, the canvas, the set-ups, the model, the space, the perspective, the shadows, the colors, the smell. Concentrating hard, I did it wrong, and I did it right. I painted a still life in red and blue that taught me that you can’t mix cerulean blue from ultramarine and white oil paints as they come from a tube. A figure painting asked for warm but light browns for skin and an indefinite darker shade for light skin in shadow. This shade has no name, so you mix it out of the leavings on your palette.

Here’s the best lesson of all from the Studio School marathon: Staple a 5’ x 4’ piece of tough watercolor paper to the wall; cover it with a charcoal drawing of the model in the set-up, the very best drawing you can make. Cover the entire paper. This takes hours standing up, drawing in the heat. Sweating. Now rub out your drawing with a chamois. Owwww!! All that work for nothing! Draw it again, only 10” to the right. Okay. Concentrate. Draw. Sweat. Fill up the paper. Rub it out. Erase it again? Yes. Rub it out. Draw the model and set-up 1/3 smaller. Draw draw draw. Rub it out. Again.

Lesson learned? Essential lesson learned! You can erase what you draw, even what you’ve spent a long time drawing and sweating over. You can throw away what you paint and, as I learned to do later, cut it up and incorporate it into a new painting. A lesson to take straight to heart, and not only in art making.

I loved it. Even though I was the oldest by far, I stood up and painted right up until 6. Some of the kids came late, farted around, took two-hour lunch breaks, and left before dinner without washing their brushes. Crit came after dinner break. To accommodate Newark light rail’s evening schedule, I would leave crit around 9 PM. Start all over the next morning, five days a week. Okay, I could do it! Let’s go!

I applied to Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers with a portfolio of drawings and paintings from Princeton and the Studio School marathon. Rutgers admitted me. What a thrill! What an accomplishment! My knowing Friend Bill hinted later that undergraduate art school isn’t all that hard to get into. Be that as it may, my admission puffed me up as a worthy achievement. I affiliated with Douglass College, the (sort-of formerly) all-women’s college, for its feminist tradition, of course, also for its quiet.

***

In the summer before I started at Mason Gross, Dear Husband Glenn and I attended an art exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. You will only hear of Glenn occasionally, when absolutely necessary because Glenn doesn’t want a role in this story. We were together in Paris, where the Grand Palais had installed a huge show of stirring paintings, abstract and figurative, witty videos ironic and silly, sculpture bright and colorless, and perfectly gorgeous drawings: a feast for the eyes of color and movement and sound. Wait a minute. What in creation was spilling over several folding tables—used ball-point pens, foil, torn newspaper, doodles, bits of paper, the contents of a wastepaper basket held together with cardboard and brown packing tape. A shapeless mass of faded color and haphazard images. Too-muchness splayed out from one section to another without any composition, without coherent color that I could see, as though a drunken Do-It-Yourselfer had turned over his trash barrel in the lofty Grand Palais. Hunh? An art enigma. A mistake, surely. But what did I know? I did not know this was art.

This piece by the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn had won the show’s first prize, and Hirschhorn was installation art’s shining international star. I hadn’t yet heard of installation art and didn’t know that in the twenty-first century this was more than any old art; it was good art, excellent art. The best art. With work in the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, and the Walker Art Center, Hirschhorn had hit all The Art World’s high notes and strutted off with its prizes.[1] Clearly, this was art, and Hirschhorn was a major artist. Hirshhorn’s work raised the oldest questions in the world of art, questions that followed me for a very long time afterward. What counts as art? Who is an artist? Over the course of several years, I learned the answers. The hard way. In art school.

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From Old In Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over by Nell Painter, published by Counterpoint.

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[1] By “The Art World” I mean the important museums and galleries that bestow visibility and money on selected artists, virtually all white men. Without caps, the world mans everything in and around art, regardless of sex and race and wealth and wide recognition. 

Trying to Kill the Want

Philip Toscano/PA Wire

Kristi Coulter | Nothing Good Can Come From This | MCD x FSG | August 2018 | 15 minutes (3,080 words)

I had just left Babeland and was heading to my car when I spotted the otter I thought might get me sober. He was in the window of the craft shop next door, waiting to be felted into being and then hung on a Christmas tree or something. I didn’t know what felting was, or even that it could be a verb. I assumed that felt, like most things, sprang from Zeus’s forehead in precut rectangles, ready to rock. Apparently not. I stood on the sidewalk, looking at the otter and contemplating all the things I could learn if I got my head right, before going inside.

I had a hopeful, sheepish relationship to crafting stores. I saw them as temples to utility and skill and the concept of having an interest in something besides drinking and worrying about drinking. Twice a year I would drop mounds of cash on yarn for scarves I imagined donating to homeless shelters, or embroidery thread for tooth fairy pillowcases I would donate to children’s hospitals. My crafting plans were always large-scale and philanthropic, partly to compensate the world for the wake caused by my existence but also because I needed a project. Some neophyte knitters might think that one scarf is a project. But then their goal is probably to make a scarf. My goal was to no longer want to drink a bottle of wine every night, and that would take more yarn. So I would set myself up with the needles and the patterns and the diagrams and spend about twenty minutes in earnest learning mode before realizing it wasn’t working. I was in fact not absorbed in my craft, and my nerves were not calmed the way other knitters claimed theirs were, and I still wanted to have that glass of Viognier that would become four. And all my new supplies would go into the linen closet among the sheets and beach towels, to the shelf reserved for optimistic variations of myself that rarely surfaced. Read more…

Come for the Crullers, Stay for the Community

(Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

In a bid to get to know the people in her neighborhood, Laura Yan spends 24 hours in the Nostrand Avenue branch of Dunkin’ Donuts in New York City. As she reports at The Outline, what she discovered was that the lovely people she met and the new friends she made more than made up for sleep deprivation, stale croissants, and watery oatmeal.

Before I spent the day in Dunkin’ Donuts, I had the feeling that it would be a lonely place, a modern-day “Nitehawks” in Brooklyn. But my 24 hours there was full of delight. Instead of loneliness, I founded an unexpected community.

Weeks later, I walk past the Dunkin’ and look for familiar faces in the window. I can recognize the rotating staff, and situate them in the rhythm of shop: the morning rush, the indulgent afternoons, the evening lulls, and the late nights, when everything became a little more unusual. One afternoon, I ran into Mr. Hawkins, the accounting teacher. Another time time I saw Justin, the Guyanese vegetarian, who beamed when he saw me. “It’s good to see you!” he said, and it was wonderful to see him too.

It’s funny, how a seemingly soulless franchise started to feel like an old friend, once I spent enough time there.

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Looking Back at Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville

Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Sometimes the music that endures is the music a musician writes early in their career, when they’ve lived inside a bubble free from fans and critical expectations. Songwriter Liz Phair made a huge splash in 1993 with her debut album Exile in Guyville. The album spawned a devoted following and, thankfully, its own 33 1/3 book. Twenty-five years later, Phair is rereleasing Guyville alongside her early home recordings.

For Esquire, Phair-fan Tyler Coates sees her play at Chicago’s legendary Empty Bottle, examines his own fandom, and talks with Phair about creativity, authority, and those early years before, as she put it, “I had a public awareness of what I represented to other people. There’s me, and then there’s Liz Phair.”

The dueling identities—the public and the private—are tough to pull apart for your average listener. Most of Phair’s work feels brutally honest and unfiltered; Guyville, released when she was 26, remains notorious for its frankness. She sang about messy hookups on “Fuck and Run,” the inevitability of a breakup on “Divorce Song,” bemoaned the behavior of obnoxious men on “Johnny Sunshine” and “Help Me Mary,” and growled the declaration “I want to be your blowjob queen” on “Flower.” When Phair sang her lyrics, you believed they were her truth. That’s never more powerful than on the Girly Sound recordings, which are playful and intimately confessional.

The personal nature of her work is, naturally, what has drawn listeners to Guyville for the last 25 years—and why the retrospective to the album and its origins have been so rewarding for both the singer-songwriter and her fans. For so many, the album is formative. Its frank lyrics, while infamous, are also incredibly empowering.

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