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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Thursday
Apr102014

In Which One Move Leads To Everything Else

Blue Islands

by CATIE DISABATO

Grocery shopping is an aesthetic experience. The cardboard boxes built to hold crackers are decorated with designs that the cracker companies hope will make you feel a feeling, then buy crackers. The crackers lead to cheese. The cheese leads to fig jam. Everything I know about advertising I learned from television – certain colors make you feel certain things and what I call love was invented by guys like Don Draper to sell nylons – but I remember vividly when Coca-Cola debuted those mini-cans in the early 2000s. It was all I could do to keep myself from constantly buying them. They were so cute and little and came in Diet.

If you completely fetishize the act of grocery shopping, the way I do, it becomes totally divorced from cooking and eating. It becomes about places and things. Sometimes I manage to leave the house with an idea of the foods I want to cook. More often, I’ll leave the house with a list of grocery stores I want to visit.

photo by henrico prims

I grew up in the southern suburbs of Chicago, which, in the late 80s and early 90s, did not have a grocery store that carried organic meat and produce. My mother was a sort-of ex-hippie and wanted to raise her children on organic meat and produce. We did not have pop, we had Spritzer. We did not have potato chips in the house, we had blue corn chips. All the other kids made fun of the blue chips, they looked so strange. Sometimes, a boy would agree to eat one on a dare, like sometimes a boy would agree to eat a worm on a dare. I would insist that they tasted just like yellow corn chips, but no one would believe it until they had the chip in their mouth and they were chewing. I relished the attention from my classmates, but it was also hard to be the kid with a weird lunch. 

To get our organic items, blue corn chips, and Spritzer, my mother trekked into Chicago several times a month to visit the closest Whole Foods, approximately 30 miles from our house. She buckled us into car seats and filled a cooler with ice, to keep the meat and frozen food fresh during the long drive home.

by hannah sheffield

I remember the Whole Foods from the vantage point of a person so tiny the aisles were like long, wide stretches of road and the shelves were the height of one-story buildings. Shelves filled with colorful bags, bottles and boxes, which themselves were filled with things that tasted good. Things I could have and hold and make my own. In an age before my parents give me privacy, food was something I could own because once you eat it, no one could take it away again. My brother always stole my candy; I learned to eat it quickly so it could be mine.

I hated the fish section, which smelled bad and still smells bad. I loved the bulk goods, the tubs of grains, each with their own consistency. I could sense their enticing textures. I wanted to touch them, the way I wanted to touch paintings in museums, to see what the heavy paint felt like when it dried. While my mother ordered fish and meat at the counter, I tried to touch everything. I did not distinguish the Whole Foods from other playgrounds.

On the few occasions my father took me grocery shopping, he took me to the “regular” grocery store (in Flossmoor, Illinois, this was either Jewel Osco, Dominic’s, or Walt’s). My father lead me through the produce section, grazing. He ate green beans and cherries and anything small left out in piles. He taught me to be grazer. When I’m at Trader Joe’s, I visit the free sample stand two or three times. I eat the green beans from the produce section at Whole Foods. I also eat the nuts, candied fruit, and yogurt pretzels out of the dried goods bins. I use the plastic spoons to pour two or three items into my palm and I eat them while filling plastic bags with lentils or red quinoa.

The only distinctive grocery store my father brought me to as a child was Calabria’s, a small Italian grocery store in Blue Island, the south Chicago suburb where my father grew up. Blue Island is primarily a Hispanic neighborhood now, but when my father lived there, all of the families were Italian immigrants. My grandfather, Michael Arcangelo Disabato, was born in a town in southern Italy called Ripacandida. Calabria’s was named after a region in southern Italy so, combined with my family’s town of origin, I sometimes like to think that Blue Island was a town for southern Italians exclusively. No one ever told me this, but my grandfather died when I was eleven and I don’t remember him very well, so I make things up to fill in the emotional gap. I don’t really remember my grandfather’s voice. I don’t remember if he had an Italian accent.

Calabria’s is hard to remember, too. Narrow aisles, wire racks, boxes of pasta – all vague images. In the back, there was an Italian deli, with fresh baked bread in plastic bins. I remember the bread bins. I remember my uncle, also a Michael, and my father making us capicollo sandwiches in my grandparents’ kitchen. My father made mine with mild capicollo and no provolone cheese. My brother, a third Michael, ate the cheese and the spicy capicollo, the way it was supposed to be.

After college, I moved to Los Angeles. Every neighborhood has a farmer’s market and the produce in the “regular” grocery stores (Albertson’s, Von’s, Ralph’s) is as beautiful as the produce in a Midwestern Whole Foods. I’ve been looking for a good Italian grocery store in Los Angeles. I haven’t found one yet because I’m not really looking for a good Italian grocery store, I’m looking for something that reminds me of Calabria’s, and nothing really reminds you of half-forgotten nostalgia. I’m looking for a feeling I never felt in the first place.

Sometimes I go on a private scavenger hunt for a particular item. I once went to three different stores searching for Morningstar Black Bean Burgers, at least half of which are still in my freezer, crusting over with freezer burn. I searched for Edmond Fallot Dijon Mustard for weeks before finding it in a cheese shop in Century City. Now I see it everywhere, winking at me at the butcher shops and the specialty stores.

I’m the kind of person who will drive half an hour out of my way to go to the nearest Whole Foods, because the grocery store near my house does not have the Sea Salt & Vinegar rice crackers that I like to eat while watching Revenge and drinking red wine. The red wine is from Trader Joe’s, because Trader Joe’s is the only place I buy my wine. I’m the kind of person who will drive fifteen minutes out of my way, from one grocery store to another, just to buy one bottle of wine.

Walking the aisles, I feel a sense of calm and control which I so rarely feel outside of the grocery store. I can pretend to remedy my persistent budget worries by cutting costs in each aisle (no nuts, no meat, no pre-prepared salad). I can combat uncertainty by completing a task, nevermind how small the task. The path before me is clear and unencumbered, the goals are modest and attainable, the competition of those goals is imminent. Checkout, paper bags, refrigerator, pantry, done.

Catie Disabato is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"The Wedding Band" - The Nels Cline Singers (mp3)

"Red Before Orange" - The Nels Cline Singers (mp3)

Wednesday
Apr092014

In Which The Letters Of William Gaddis Become Part Of This

The Device

The letters of the American writer William Gaddis range from an almost precocious naivete to a hardened cynicism. These shifts occur so frequently we can assume they were a distinctive part of his personality. Although the main output of his career was two voluminous novels, The Recognitions and J R, he assembled the raw material for these tomes through a variety of occupations, and various dalliances with the opposite sex, both of which merited time-consuming research. Many critics and readers struggled to understand Gaddis' brilliance, provoking his frustration at times. When his anger was set off, he expressed his dissatisfaction in a number of ways, but always in writing as well, since it was his prime form. In his letters Gaddis shows, like a master juggler, the merest of tricks first before asserting any mastery at all.

As a boy he had not yet been taught of evil.

January 1932

Dear Mother,

We just came back from the library but I didn't get any books.

I finished Bomba the Jungle Boy and I have started Bomba the Jungle Boy at the Moving Mountain. I wrote a poem and it went like this:

Easter

Easter is on Sunday
But today is Monday
And Easter is 11 weeks away
At Easter the bunny hides eggs all over,
Some in the grass, some in the clover.

Did you like it?

With love

Billy

 

He met model, artist and muse Sheri Martinelli in New York in 1953. He wrote her one surviving love letter, but never sent it:

Massapequa

Summer 1953

Sheri, what a great happiness it was, seeing you again; though there were enough moments of feeling young again, and too young again, and though other people seem to want to be young again I do not, once was enough. So we all go not changing just getting more so.

But you again, is something else, and still beautiful, yes: even then I could not understand other people taking your presence for granted and still I cannot, nor understand, no one weeps looking at you, I will. So, such a recognition, seeing you again: but to be grateful, right before God and everybody, for your being happy to see me again, take that for granted! no, no that could not be for granted, too kind a gift. Or, if the present is every moment reshaping the past, so that any instant is liable to come up with the verdict, I was wrong all the time! or, I was right all along — there: I was right all along? Not being a scientist who by measurement attempts prediction, it is a very dangerous way to live today. So gifts asked from the most selfish motives are the humbly received. And considered upon retirement. Knowing you go right on now, every minute being, thought of and loved you know. My selfish motives, my humble gratitude, then always the retirement for finally there is only the work. And all the while you are loved.

W.

 Never one to miss an opportunity, Gaddis sent his debut novel, The Recognitions, to the father of the atomic bomb.

4 January 1955

Dear Doctor Oppenheimer.

I have already taken a greater liberty than this, asking your attention to my letter, in having called Harcourt, Brace & Co., who are publishing a long novel I have written, to ask that they send you a copy. You must receive mail of all sorts, crank notes and fan letters of every description, but few I should think of half a million words. And since I can also well imagine that you seldom if ever read novels, if only for not having the time, it is an added imposition to have sent you such a bulky one.

But for having read your recent address at Columbia’s anniversary, I should never have presumed to do so. But I was so stricken by the succinctness, and the use of the language, with which you stated the problems which it has taken me seven years to assemble and almost a thousand pages to present, that my first thought was to send you a copy. And I do submit this book to you with deepest respect. Because I believe that The Recognitions was written about “the massive character of the dissolution and corruption of authority, in belief, in ritual and in temporal order, . . .” about our histories and traditions as “both bonds and barriers among us,” and our art which “brings us together and sets us apart.” And if I may go on presuming to use your words, it is a novel in which I tried my prolonged best to show “the integrity of the intimate, the detailed, the true art, the integrity of craftsmanship and preservation of the familiar, of the humorous and the beautiful” standing in “massive contrast to the vastness of life, the greatness of the globe, the otherness of people, the otherness of ways, and the all-encompassing dark.”

The book is a novel about forgery. I know that if you do get into it, you will find boring passages, offensive incidents, and some pretty painful sophomorics, all these in my attempts to present “the evils of superficiality and the terrors of fatigue” as I have seen them: I tried to present the shadowy struggle of a man surrounded by those who have “dissolved in a universal confusion,” those who “know nothing and love nothing.”

However you feel about the book, please allow my most humble congratulations on your address which provoked my taking the liberty of sending it to you, and in expression of my deepest admiration for men like yourself in the world you described.

W.

After eloping with a woman named Patricia Black, Gaddis felt he had to write a letter to her mother for some reason. What resulted is the best, and the writer even outlined it beforehand, writing, (dnt wnt to snd apologtc: proud)(come see us, I dnt know when we can get there) (household problems, $, the usual bickering over groceries, the life I hope to give her &c, but I depend on her stability & household sanity, after bachelordom &c).

May 1955

dear Mrs Black,

It is late for me to be writing you, at last, of my marriage to your daughter, and I want first to offer you my deepest apologies for uncertainty and anxiety that you have suffered because of the way we have managed things starting off our life together. Like so many difficult parts of the whole situation, this letter is hardly the way I should want to be doing even now, writing you instead of seeing you, to tell you of what is already accomplished, instead of seeking your good wishes for our plans. All of this does bring home how selfish I have been, or both of us have been perhaps, not in what we have done, but in the way we have done it.

A moment came when it seemed there were so many complications that the only thing to do, and the best thing, was to take matters into our own hands. We have been aware of the complications that would follow and, to some extent of the hurts and disappointments we might cause. My mother had met Pat and of course liked her immediately, but she too found our news rather abrupt, and had a little difficulty adjusting to it so quickly. I know how much she would have wanted to participate in such an important event in her only son’s life, and in spite of how happy she is about us now, I shall always regret causing her that disappointment. I wish that you and she could have met before this, —but I could sit here writing ‘I wish’ all day, and it wouldn’t change any of the anxiety we have caused for others. Except for these things, we are happy, I know we are going to be happy together but I hope never at the expense of others who are, in different ways, equally dear to us.

I was fortunate in meeting your son Bob, and I hope the advantage we took of his stopping here didn’t seem an unfair one, in asking him to carry our news home to you. Never having had a brother or sister myself, that relationship will probably always be strange to me, and I find wonderful how much Pat shares with her brother, even after such a long separation. I also marveled at how he could step out of army life in Alaska straight into new responsibilities, to his return to home and civilian life, and I deeply appreciate how readily he took on what we asked of him, and how well he must have taken care of it.

Now I wish I could go on to say that we were coming down to see you any time soon. But you may imagine we have a good deal of readjusting to do ourselves. For myself right now that involves pulling together enough writing work which I can do at home so that I can be with Pat here in Massapequa, instead of commuting to New York or spending the hot summer there. If I can continue to work this out, she should spend a restful and pleasant summer out here in the country, and be as healthy and ready for the fall as possible. None of this yet is the life I hope to give her, but it is a good start. Meanwhile she is an excellent cook, which isn’t difficult to appreciate after so many years of cooking for myself. But cooking aside, there are qualities in her, of patience, and kindness, and unselfishness, simple consideration and loyalty, which I know that at last I have you to thank for, in the way you brought her up. And as these things go, from generation to generation, I suppose the only way I will be able to show my appreciation will be indirectly to you, by trying to be worthy of them in her, and making her happy.

Looking back at the early part of this letter, I find a constant tone of troubled apology. I repeat it, concerning my feelings and our feelings for you, but I don’t want that to be the whole tone of all this because I am proud to have your daughter Pat for my wife, and grateful, and happy at the prospect of our life together. I hope that it will be something we will be able to share in some ways with you, and that after the anxiety we have given you, you will be proud of us.

W.

with legendary dick Donald Barthelme at an awards ceremony

Pat Gaddis divorced her husband eventually, taking the kids with her, and Gaddis remarried a travel editor at Glamour, Judith Thompson. This is his first letter to her.

August 1966

How strange this is the first ‘letter’ I have ever written you, & can’t begin “Dear Judith” with a straight face, dear girl, dear Judith, dear heaven how long ago only this time yesterday already has become.

And you may imagine how much news there is here since our telephone call—and how you haunt this house — and that downstairs room where I hope to move tonight if the children can be persuaded to move into theirs, Sarah quite entranced with hers, mirrored dresser &c — and how this letter is merely a device to see if mail really works between here and there, and so you will have something in the mail, and know I have mounted a pencil sharpener on a kitchen wall and once more spread out work.

And to tell you you must call, wire, come, if things, pressures, get too disproportionate won’t you—including $ (and use the enclosed just to keep you in balance until I see you)—though for the moment 2 days’ a week work may not be unrealistic, may allow you a little more freedom at home—the horoscopes keep insisting how splendid everything is for us, and that means work I guess, you to fight off the difficulties in your situation there, toward work; I to fight off the attractions in mine here, toward work; and toward seeing you Sunday night, barring disaster.

yours, with you know what and you know why

W.

Gaddis sent a copy of F. Scott Fitzgeralds' The Crack-Up to his daughter Sarah and enclosed the following note:

September 1970

Dear Sarah.

Here is a book I’ve meant to get you a look at since you talked of keeping a sort of notebook journal. Obviously it’s not for you to sit down and read straight through but I thought you would be interested in what one writer turned the idea into and continue and expand your own along the lines of catching ideas, impressions, thoughts, images, words and combinations of words and overheard remarks and stories and anecdotes at that instant you encounter them, which is so often one you can never recreate purely from memory and may in fact lose forever. Of course in this case, assuming Fitzgerald never expected these notes to be published, I think you find a lot of material which he would have reconsidered and thrown out and never wanted published; but at least, having written them down, he gave himself that choice, rather than putting himself through those long moments of trying to remember — What was it? that remark I heard yesterday, that idea I had last night . . . What is it that makes end of summer at Fire Island unlike anywhere else, and yet like a concentration of the whole idea of summer’s end everywhere.

See you soon, much love, write!

Papa

 

The following letter Gaddis wrote in the style of a classified report in order to advise his wife Judith of his activities while she was away.

REPORTREPORTREPORTREPORTREPORTREPORTREPORTREPORT EYES ONLY EYES ONLY EYES ONLY EYES ONLY AM 26FEB74 OFFICIAL CLASSIFIED 26FEB74 OFFICIAL CLASSIFIED

08:25 waved

08:26 watched down hill to make sure car turned corner safely; waved

08:28 walked dog to Aufieri garbage can and returned

08:31 poured coffee

08:45 decided to move car back to house so I would not keep looking out and thinking Judith had gone on errand and would return

08:46 saw bag with grapefruit, put it by door to remember to give to Jack

08:47 let cat in

08:48 poured coffee

08:49 saw MIL’s letter

08:59 went in to look for stamp for MIL’s letter

09:00 saw work laid out on table, decided to have drink

09:01 let cat out; decided not to have drink

09:02 decided to move car back to house so I would not keep looking out and thinking Judith had gone on errand and would return

09:04 burned toast

09:09 called John, reached hoarse lady who said he would call back

09:11 let cat in

09:12 poured coffee, looked at work laid out on table

09:14 decided to clear kitchen table and bring typewriter there to be near ’phone

09:16 tied up newspapers

09:23 emptied ashtray

09:25 decided to make list of things I must do

09:29 could not think of anything so decided not to make list

09:31 cleared kitchen table

09:34 John called; read him note from his Mrs emphasizing all underlined words but did not know Pat’s ’phone number. Haha.

09:44 let cat out

09:45 decided to move car back to house so I would not keep looking out and thinking I had gone on errand and would not return

09:46 moved car back to house

09:58 looked at work laid out on table, decided to have cereal

09:59 made cereal

10:02 ate cereal reading Swarthmore alumni bulletin; noted one alumnus who claimed 3 billion dependents for federal taxes and given 9 months in prison for filing fraudulent W-4 form, decided must remember to warn MIL who might consider something similar

10:40 looked at work spread out on table

10:41 twinge at noticing coffee cups &c, put them in dishwasher to not be reminded of departure

10:48 examined contents of refrigerator, discovered spaghetti sauce with Message and put it in freezer

10:50 discovered corned beef and potatoes

10:55 thought I should probably go down and get butter; checked first, found 4 sticks of butter

10:57 let cat in

10:58 hung up coat

10:59 put trash out

10:00 listened to news on radio

10:04 went upstairs and looked around

10:08 came downstairs and looked around

10:13 sat down and studied design in kitchen floor linoleum

10:20 looked outside for car to make sure I had not gone on errand and might not return

10:22 decided I should probably go down and get cigarettes; checked first, found 5 packs

10:24 brought typewriter in to kitchen table to be near ’phone

10:28 decided to have nap till suppertime when I could have corned beef

10:29 sat down in livingroom chair

10:33 woke startled by ghastly liquid snoring, decided I had horrible cold and should have drink

10:34 discovered snoring was being done by dog, very relieved

10:37 decided not to have drink, went to typewriter in kitchen to work

10:41 decided I should get some letters out of the way before settling down to work, got paper

10:50 could think of no one to write to

10:51 stacked wood more neatly on porch, checked newspapers to make sure they were well tied

10:57 returned to kitchen and listened to refrigerator hum

11:01 examined contents of refrigerator

11:04 thought I should probably go down and get milk; checked first, found a full quart

11:06 looked to see if mail had come but flag was still down

11:09 discovered memorandum WILLIAM THINGS TO REMEMBER and read carefully

11:29 put cat out

11:31 examined clam chowder from refrigerator

11:33 decided clam chowder looked thin, decided to add potatoes

11:34 peeled and diced 3 small potatoes and put on boil

11:51 heard mailbox, got mail

11:55 opened mail, one item from American Express with new card and literature which said read enclosed agreement carefully

11:56 read agreement carefully

PM

12:18 diced potatoes somewhat soft, added them to chowder; decided chowder looked somewhat thick, got spoon

12:22 served bowl of hot chowder, got spoon

12:23 ’phone rang: talked with Hy Cohen at agency who said check should arrive this week; who also said Aaron Asher is leaving Holt and was concerned that Asher’s departure would not or might upset me; I told him I was not unless Holt wanted their money back; he said that would be fine, certainly sell it elsewhere; I told him I was working hard on it right this minute; he said Asher might go to Dutton which would be logical following on Hal Sharlatt’s death; I said Dutton had no money; he said we will think about it, it could all work out extremely well especially if I finish the book soon; I said I would finish the book soon, was working on it right this minute; he did not answer; I told him my only real dismay at this moment was confidence and faith Asher has shown in me and my work over many years and would be a shame to part with him at this point; he said we will talk about it, that the Dutton possibility is only a possibility; I said I will not tell a sole; he said we’ll be in touch with you I said boy you better.

12:55 poured chowder back into pan to reheat

12:56 listened to news on radio

01:00 ate chowder, reading interesting article on Alaska in Swarthmore bulletin

01:21 checked upstairs, nothing changed

01:23 checked downstairs, emptied ashtray

01:26 looked at work spread out on table, noticed stamp for MIL’s letter

01:29 walked out with dog to mail MIL’s letter

01:42 returning from walk waved cheerful friendly wave to neighbor standing on corner

01:43 realised neighbor standing on corner was really Jack’s garbage can, hurried inside hoping no one had noticed

01:52 sat down at typewriter to work

01:58 ’phone rang, talked with Mr Cody a real estate agent who wished to be helpful if we wished to rent or sell our Saltaire house this summer; wrote reminder to call Savages

02:11 got notes for present sequence in book beside typewriter

02:13 suddenly realized I had better get cat food before stores closed; checked and found 2 full cans of cat food

02:19 decided to call Hy Coen back with some ideas

02:35 could not think of any ideas so declined to call Hy Coen back

02:36 reread notes for present sequence in book

02:39 reread notes for present sequence in book

02:41 decided to reread whole book through up to this point

02:42 looked at MS, decided not to reread whole book up to this point

02:44 reread notes for present sequence in book

02:47 began to type rough version of present sequence in book

03:05 dog passed through going east to west

03:07 dog passed through going west to east

04:01 began to type second page of rough draft

04:26 dog passed through west to east

04:27 dog passed through east to west

04:44 read two pages of rough version of present sequence in book

04:48 began to type third page of rough version

05:26 decided to have drink as Adrienne rang doorbell, told her to come back in the spring

05:26 fixed drink

05:28 sat down to read pages of rough version just written

05:31 laughed heartily

06:31 decided might be a good idea to start checking motels in Virginia, North and South Carolina

06:35 could not find Mobil guide to motels in Virginia, North and South Carolina; wondered where they were

06:44 wondered where they were

06:55 turned on oven to heat corned beef, dog passed through west to east; let cat in

06:57 reread pages of rough version just written

07:02 did not chuckle; wondered where they were

07:09 put in corned beef to warm; wondered where they were

07:16 fed dog; wondered where they were

07:18 fed cat; wondered where they were

07:41 served corned beef

07:42 ate corned beef

08:01 watched Benny Goodman Story did not know he was such a sap and wondered where on earth they were

Gaddis felt the barest measure of politeness for people who considered him their own because they had read his novels. Here he is turning down an interview request.

July 1981

Dear Tom LeClair.

Yours of 21 July & ‘no graceful way to ask about the interview’ must provoke no graceful way to decline it. Unfortunately the deadline of your publisher ‘who wants to schedule printing’ has got to be of less concern to me than mine.

For now then, all I can do is recall to you some lines I wrote 30 years ago in The Recognitions (p. 106 in the careless little Avon edition) asking what they want from the artist they didn’t get from his work? & why must one repeat this & repeat it when that is what the whole damned thing is about? If it didn’t come through in the work then what use or interest is an ‘interview’? All the purposes such interviews can serve seem to me, on the one hand, to say ‘this is what I really meant to accomplish’ or, on the other, some definitive statement from the writer regarding his ‘interest in making some statements about fiction and (his) work’ as you say; whereas this is precisely what his work constitutes for better or worse when he offers it, in the best & most final shape he can give it at the time, the final statement in ‘interview’ terms being, of course, his obituary, & the real final statement no more than the sum of the work itself, its fictions offering probably fewer opportunities for misinterpretation even than the interview’s that isn’t what I meant (at all).

So for the moment at any rate your notion of publishing any transcribed version of our talk edited, disclaimed or whatever, is unacceptable, as a condition of your original proposal. I appreciate your time and effort spent on it but it was very much the petulance of an afternoon.

Yours,

W. Gaddis

You can purchase The Letters of William Gaddis here. It is edited by Stephen Moore and published by Dalkey Archive.

"Many Moon" - Great Plains (mp3)

"To Remain Weightless" - Great Plains (mp3)


Tuesday
Apr082014

In Which The Whitney Biennial Contains All Our Macaroons

Allan Sekula

Passover Treat

by ALEX CARNEVALE

The Whitney Biennial 2014
curators Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms & Michelle Grabner

There is an overwhelming number of penises in the Whitney Biennial. In order to deal with them properly lest the sensation of mass phallus overtake you, it is prudent to rename those cocks "jimmy-jammies." You will find this expression goes much more smoothly in your art-based convos e.g., "did you see the macaroon at the end of that guy's jimmy-jammy?" (Macaroon is a Yiddish expression that refers to the tip of a jimmy-jammy, or alternately a sweet, fluffy after-dinner treat.)

The worst part of the exhibition itself is undoubtedly the pron room, or as it is technically referred to, Bjarne Melgaard: Intimate Transparencies. There, among greasy couches and oversized models of vaguely erotic resemblances, you have a "reaction" to the jimmy-jammies. Light satire is the opiate of the masses. Artists and media types are ironically the most prudish among thinking peoples, mostly because their consumption of culture prevents them from focusing entirely on the practice of sex as a moral imperative. The Biennial itself, despite all the macaroons and full frontals, is as Puritan as the Mayflower.

Bjarne Melgaard

As the exhibition notes detail, "Melgaard intends for his installation to communicate the effects of what some scientists call the Anthropocene, a new geological age created by human activity, especially through global warming. He proposes that our collective psyches have been abused and damaged in much the same way the environment has, resulting in sadism and an utter disregard for humanity." Global warming did this, you guys.

Using three different curators for this year's event, the last to take place in the museum's Madison Avenue location before the Met takes it over as storage space for its lesser paintings, was a bold move. A bold move is what you call something when it doesn't quite come together the way you want it to, like The Lone Ranger or the Munich Pact.

proposed mock-up of the new Whitney

I attended the event with a local painter, a woman who goes by the nom de plume of Medium Rosenstein. She made several observations about the Biennial that I jotted down so that you can get an idea of how a working artist perceives such an occasion:

- "I just heard someone say a sculpture was rococo. It sounded like the way you would describe a roof."

- "This is an eight minute video. It easily could have been on YouTube."

- in reference to spooky music and creepy stuffed animals prominently featured in the staircases between floors: "It's harder than you would think to confuse high art with like, a really good Halloween party."

- "The guy wearing the tutu has a massive jimmy-jammy. When I was a kid I thought the word penis ended in a vowel."

Shio Kusaka

- "I find it difficult to take seriously any exhibition with space for Gary Indiana."

- "I just saw two girls crying at the David Foster Wallace exhibit." I asked whether she attempted to console them. "No, I just told them the mock-science video about the guy with HIV was pretty good."

- "I've heard Susan Howe is a bit of a prost."

- "If I see another flaccid JJ, I'll scream."

- "Carol Jackson is a genius":

Carol Jackson

Eroticism has always been an important part of art, but none of that was terribly present at the Biennial. There was only evidence of the exertion required not to get turned on by something that would ordinarily be stimulating to the senses. It is something like going to a rodeo and being upset when a rider is bucked off a horse.

Many of the pieces included by all three curators were collaborations, or re-imaginings of artwork produced but never officially displayed as intended. Such works rarely cohered, like the photographs and artwork commemorating the relationship of a couple in which each party was changing gender in the opposite direction. It all seemed like a slice of something real rather than the actual thing.

from "The Relationship", Rhys Ernst & Zachary Drucker

Work by Jackson, Ken Okiishi, Dashiell Manley and Joseph Grigley's hilarious tribute to the dead critic and painter Gregory Battcock were the clear highlights. The modest number of paintings seem to recede into the background, taken over by the most extensive installations, and the arrangement of Battcock's papers as a series of clues to the mystery of his murder made for the best room in the building.

The fact that so many of the artists were either deceased or being reinterpreted really should not matter, but an event like the Biennial always feels like a hodgepodge, and implicating the dead seems like a distraction from the purpose. I really hate to be harsh, but Medium Rosenstein agrees with me: It's a bit morbid to only have buildings full of art by people who can no longer enjoy or profit from any of the admiration the work engenders. It is even stranger to make this part of what is supposed to be a modern, contemporary exhibit. David Foster Wallace's notebooks might be worth a laugh, but they surely don't belong in a glass case to go untouched by human hands. They were meant for somebody.

the deceased Gretchen Bender

All told it took just over two hours to cover the Biennial and trifling permanent exhibit of the Whitney. The latter element contained a variety of mediocre Jasper Johns and Georgia O'Keeffe paintings, and who ever thought those artists would ever be thought of as entirely sincere? If they knew introducing satire in the context of visual art constituted an irreversible change, I doubt they ever would have been so glib.

The Whitney generally has a thing about not showing off the best parts of their substantial collection. It is the reason they are moving their base of operations to a location in the meat-packing district, where they will have ample room to fete a wife-beater like Edward Hopper more lavishly. Again I am being overly unkind  the presentation of paintings in their respective rooms has long been far more pleasant at the Whitney than at the cramped Met or overly spacious MoMA. You would not think it would be so hard to know how much of one thing to pour into something else, but it is.

Dashiell Manley

Afterwards, I bought Medium some Jane Austen temporary tattoos from a nearby gift shop, and I applied the one relating most closely to Mr. Darcy to the inside of my left thigh. We talked over a malt what the very best of the exhibit was. "I liked the stuff by the woman in her 90s," Rosenstein informed me, swallowing the edge of a Pop Tart she had been housing in her purse in order to keep her blood sugar up. She was referring to the Beirut-born Etel Adnan. "It felt like she was putting everything into it, holding nothing back for later. If she had an idea, it was there, even if it did not fit just right." I nodded and stroked my tattoo with a plastic fork. It itched.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

Etel Adnan

"Moving to the Left" - Woods (mp3)

"Leaves Like Glass" - Woods (mp3)

Rebecca Morris