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Alex Carnevale

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is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

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Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

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In Which We Still Feel Philip Johnson Had Much To Learn

His Glass House


Philip Johnson's estate in New Canaan, Connecticut features eight buildings:

1) his house
2) a guest house
3) a gallery devoted to paintings
4) a gallery devoted to sculpture
5) a library
6) a folie
7) a ghost house
8) a tower

Thirty-three acres surround these structures, all as meticulously put together as the buildings themselves.

with his mother and sisters, 1917

Philip Johnson's mother Louise took a lot of staged photos of her children. She was relatively late to motherhood, and had not entered it lightly. She parented her only son with great purpose, pushing him towards academic achievement. She did not wish to be his friend. When he felt his first stirrings of attraction towards other boys in his class, he asked his mother what these feelings meant. "Philip, how should I know?" she replied.

with his sister

When Philip was a teenager his father was appointed by the government to investigate reports of pogroms in Poland during the first World War. The family sailed for Paris on the Aquatania. When they returned to Cleveland a few months later it was hard not to find it a disappointment.

He made few friends at boarding school — he was more concerned with winning the respect of his classmates. After being voted "Most Likely To Succeed," he entered Harvard, where he had none of the status of his more bourgeois friends, but all of the money. Finances were never a concern for young Philip: his father had purchased Alcoa stock i(n Philip's name) before the company became a behemoth. He bought a car and began amassing a library to his tastes. Philip tried kissing a few of his classmates with varying degrees of success. His father told him to forget about wanting to fuck men.

in Cairo 1928

Philip was depressed throughout his time at Harvard. A visit to Egypt claimed his virginity  he mated with a guard inside the Cairo Museum. Because of his numerous absences, he found himself a semester short of a bachelor's degree. Instead of finishing, he put his car on a boat crossing the Atlantic and arrived in Berlin. It was 1929.

Men of his particular predilection were numerous. The city thrived around him. "The Americans were the conquerors of Germany," he said later, "and the young Germans were eager to accomodate them. Paris was never that gastfreundlich." He observed the Bauhaus with wonder, making his first acquaintance with the artists there as a patron. The first painting he bought was a Klee.

PJ in Berlin, 1930

Other members of the group impressed him less. "Kandinsky is a little fool who is completely dominated by his swell Russian Grande Dame of a wife," he wrote. "He has millions of his sometimes painful abstractions sitting around the house and thinks he is still the leader of a new movement. It is sometimes pathetic, sometimes amusing."

Two months after the Museum of Modern Art opened in New York, Philip was back in America, finishing his degree so he could relocate himself in the institution's shadow. He became infatuated with a boyfriend named Cary Ross. In a letter to a female friend, he wrote that "You are the only one who knows about Cary and me, and to whom I can talk now. As you know the only reason it came about was because he is good-looking and identified with that group down there in my emotional life. Well it seems now that it was merely a passing whim with him, and he was too weak to tell me, and let me go on thinking more. He came up the other day, and naturally I soon found out where the land lay, and am now in a species of hell which I heartily dislike."

with Mies Van Der Rohe and Phyllis Lambert

Philip worked at the MoMA for no salary; he did not require any money from them and even paid for his own secretary. He travelled to Berlin often in order to indulge himself. The art dealer Julien Levy later said, "He showed me a Berlin night life such as few could have imagined. The grotesque decadence I was to discover over and over again in Berlin those few short weeks could only be compared, one might suppose, to Paris during the last days of Louis XVI."

Unlike in his youth, depression passed through Philip like a whim. He enlisted Mies Van der Rohe and his associate Lilly Reich to design a New York apartment he had purchased on a lark. He wanted the place to eschew the contemporary urge towards art deco.

Philip busied himself by preparing a massive event designed to feature modern architecture, the first in the MoMA's history. Despite or perhaps because of his experience with the artists of the Bauhaus, the final exhibition diminished Gropius, Le Corbusier (Philip was not a fan) and Van der Rohe quite significantly, placing their American peers on at least the same level. The arrangement satisfied no one, and Frank Lloyd Wright was also made furious by his depiction in the catalogue.

Philip replied,

I feel more than badly that you have misunderstood my intentions and actions to such an extent, and I am writing in the hope of clearing up as much as possible the reasons for your complaints. Please believe that I have appreciated your efforts to remain friends despite the many misunderstandings which I sincerely regret.

I feel as strongly as ever that I have a great deal to learn, much more so after the the experience of trying to make an exhibition. I still hope that we can have a good visit when I come West this spring...

For Philip Johnson toadying was itself an art of the highest order.

philip in NYC 1933

The moment Hitler emerged on the world political scene, Philip Johnson heard of him from his German-American supporters. Philip knew very little of world politics when he attended his first Nazi event in Potsdam, NY; his life in the city among gays and Jews effectively constituted Hitler's worst nightmare. Philip had even recently jumped into a relationship with a jazz singer named Jimmy Daniels. After all, Harlem was only a short trip up from his Upper East Side stomping grounds.

Jimmy Daniels perhaps a decade later

When Hitler came to power in January of 1933, Philip defended the man to anyone who would listen. He wrote an article for his Jewish friend Lincoln Kirstein's magazine entitled "Architecture in the Third Reich." Although he had not grown up hating Jews, he was receptive to Hitler's views of them. When Hitler ordered the murder of gay Nazi Ernst Rohm because of his homosexuality and potential challenge to the dictatorship, Johnson presciently left Germany.

Sony sold the building Johnson designed in New York to AT&T this year. I walk past it all the time  it seems to me it would be wholly at home in Nazi Germany. It is not surprising that Philip found something to admire in Hitler  many gentile intellectuals of the period did, just as many are attracted to the charisma of contemporary dictators now. But it is disgusting to be attracted to the Nazi aesthetic itself.

Johnson left his position at the MoMA in order to join up with Huey Long, the "left-wing" populist whose plans to redistribute wealth were ironic considering Philip's position. The MoMA board was completely embarrassed when Philip informed them that he was leaving to become Long's "Minister of Fine Arts." When he arrived in Louisiana, Long refused to see Philip.

After Long's death later that year, Philip attempted to join the cause of the Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, another populist whose anti-Semitic radio addresses were familiar rhetoric across the Midwest. Coughlin founded the National Union for Social Justice, an organization based on the man's plan to attack banks and the country's wealthiest citizens. Philip's biographer Franz Schulze rationalizes Philip's dabbling into politics thusly: "He could, when so inclined, impose an immense concentration on whatever concept seized him."

philip and jeannette in Nice

Because he was gay, Philip Johnson knew he could never properly be a Nazi.  Among his friends were those loyal to Germany, and this put him in the government's crosshairs. The FBI began assembling a dossier on Philip. He complained of Jews trying to buy a magazine he was interested in, and was disgusted by his experience observing a Polish ghetto. He was ever more convinced of the superiority of his mother country, and planned to celebrate when Hitler conquered England.

He took a position for the German propaganda ministry and dispatched reports in English favorable to Germany from the "front lines." Reading his reports, bile rises in every mouth. Such indiscretions are routinely tossed aside by those who wanted to embrace Johnson fully as an architect. I can't myself look at any of his buildings without remembering the things he said, even if he was a young man.

his later attempt at a synagogue

During the war, Philip was admitted to the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He had co-written one of the books assigned for his class in the history of architecture. One of his projects at Harvard was to build his own house, a lot he purchased at 9 Ash Street in Cambridge. He tried to put his Nazi past behind him by joining the Harvard Defense Group, but he was eventually dismissed after complaints. He tried to apply for a position with U.S. Naval Intelligence but was rejected for obvious reasons. The FBI continued to follow his activities.

Most people at Harvard actively avoided the young Nazi, but occasionally some found his personality charming. After sitting next to him at a socialist dinner party, Betrand Russell commented to the host that "your friend Philip is a diabolist, which is a strange thing for a friend of yours to be, but how much pleasanter it is to spend an evening with a gentleman you disagree with than with a cad you agree with." After his first year there, he moved into a room in the Hotel Continental, hiring an English butler and a Filipino houseboy to keep the place familiar while his new home was constructed.

On March 12, 1943, Philip Johnson was drafted into the army. He never left the U.S., or even advanced beyond the rank of private. His fellow soldiers called him "Pop" because of his age and general ineptness.

with Frank Lloyd Wright after the war

Through the influence of his friend Alfred Barr, Philip returned to the MoMA after his discharge from the army in 1944. Shortly thereafter, he bought his estate in New Canaan and began construction on what would be known as The Glass House. The irony was lost on him, and in fact irony itself did not emigrate to America until a decade later.

The Glass House was Philip's primary residence on the estate. It was first and foremost a bachelor pad except to the extent that it did not afford a measure of privacy, kind of like a closet that wasn't. Since such a structure could only be realistic on an estate that allowed total isolation from passersby, The Glass House is of course impossible except for the very rich, who tend to value their privacy more than most.

By 1949 he had completed the Guest House, opaque where his own residence was open. He moved in and immediately set to work on an article documenting the construction of both buildings. He invited the editors of every architectural publication he knew to come visit. In the meantime his attempts to pass the licensing exam in his field failed again and again. In order to continue practicing what was now his trade, he relocated his office to New Canaan and began teaching part-time at Yale.

One of his commissions in the years that followed was the design of a synagogue in Port Chester, New York. He had won the job by promising to deliver his design at zero cost. The resulting structure is among the most revolting of Johnson's designs  the wholly uninspired, predictable interior clashing with an exterior that was nothing short of repulsive. Years later Philip would continue his half-hearted desire to atone for his Nazi past by designing an Israeli nuclear reactor.

Sorek Nuclear Research Center

In 1954 Philip finally passed the architectural exam and relocated his practice to Manhattan, where he shared space with Van der Rohe. Together they collaborated on the legendarily bad Seagram building, although the vast majority of the responsibility for the building's dullness fell on Van der Rohe alone. He would make his own name during the ensuing decades, falling in and out of the zeitgeist depending on the various whims of the media and his peers.

Philip was forever wanting to add structures to his New Canaan parcel, and the pavilion he added to the lagoon was the worst of his ideas. Aesthetically, it was a hodgepodge, and its intrusion on nature — in effect, in created a small island where there was nothing — made it not only objectionable but dangerous. "There is something attractive about making some part of a building precarious," Philip would later claim airily. "It is titillating. I sometimes get an erection when I jump over that little stretch of water."

Philip fared better in the museums he designed in the 1950s as his star rose. He had already had good practice when he fashioned an extension of the MoMA, and his work on the fantastic Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Nebraska and an art museum in Fort Worth emboldened his confidence. His proposals for Lincoln Center were not well-regarded among his peers, but his early designs for it have aged better than many of his more celebrated structures.

one of his unbuilt plans for Lincoln Center

In his personal life, Philip had dumped his serious boyfriend for a gorgeous Yugoslavian immigrant named Peter Vranic. They kept each other supplied with what the other lacked; as Philip would later put it, things were "very violent, very sexual, very physical, and very short." When Vranic found out he wasn't in the now 50-year old Johnson's will, however, he bailed. In the chaos of this turmoil Philip met the man he would spend the rest of his life with: then-RISD student David Whitney.

Early in their relationship, Philip had treated David like a fawning admirer, installing him in a Manhattan apartment. There David established friendships with Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns to satisfy him whenever Philip ignored him. Whitney used Philip's money to great effect, and soon buildings had to be constructed to accomodate the paintings his lover desired. Before David's arrival, Philip had only installed an oval-shaped swimming pool near The Glass House, but with David's input he designed a large art gallery, completed in 1965. A sculpture gallery followed by 1970.

david whitney in 1975

David Whitney died in 2005, five months after Philip. Tours now run through The Glass House from May to November. An extended survey of the place runs about $100 and should be booked in advance. Taking a virtual tour on the website is far more cost-effective. If you did not take care to remember, you would think that The Glass House had suddenly popped into reality to serve some new master — it is no good as a museum. This place sheds history, now rendered invisible among the structures Philip imagined.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about Vuillard. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

photo: Richard Payne

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In Which There Is Something Better Than Wireless Communication

Sinister World


Vuillard lived with his mother and sister. The shy painter spent all his time either representing them in his small, pursed canvases or writing in his journal. A short distance away workers labored to construct that ugliest of monuments: The Eiffel Tower.

His older sister Marie was, to her mother's disappointment, not yet married. The static scenes of the two women we find again and again in the artist's early work characterize the relationship between mother and daughter, but it was a subject easily exhausted. Vuillard resolved to change this: he would get his sister married.

Self Portrait with Sister

Vuillard was sustained by the women in his life. After he convinced his best friend Roussel to marry Marie, who was seven years the man's elder, he was forced to find other females to surround him. He met women in the parks of Paris, the only place he could freely move about without anxiety. it was there that he came upon Misia Nathanson and her husband Thadee.

Seducing painters had always been Misia's metier. She loved toying with them, making them fall in love with her, putting them off and on. She was as charismatic as she was intelligent, finally perishing in Paris in the year 1950. Before then, she lived off her skills as a pianist. Vuillard professed his love almost immediately. He wrote her letters:

I have always been shy in your presence, but the security, the assurance of a perfect understanding relieved me of all embarrassment; nothing was lost by this understanding being a wordless one. Now that we have been so long without seeing each other I have sometimes anxiously wondered if it is still as perfect as it once was. Your postcard arrived in answer to my question.

And no, I found nothing ridiculous in your thought: I saw it simply as a token of your affection. You met halfway a desire that flashed across my mind yesterday and that I was afraid of not having time to mention to you. So there is something better than wireless communication. The best thing was that you were there! It seems to me I am happy now, thanks to you. I am calm...

his 1925 painting of Misia and her niece and the black cups Liaisons of this sort were nothing new for Misia. Later, she would take up with Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec among others. But now her omnipotent position in Vuillard's work started to make some of his patrons uncomfortable. After all, she was a married woman. A painter in Paris could sleep with a married woman, or paint her without any repercussions, but not both.

Misia was his love instructor more than his intended, however. In his sights was another married woman, Lucy Hessel.

lucy hessel

Keeping his affairs a secret was not exactly Vuillard's strong point. Soon enough people knew that he and Lucy weren't platonic simply by the volume of their public screaming matches. They began spending the summers together, half-encouraged by her husband Jos Hessel, who sold his wife's lover's paintings for a lucrative profit. The three spent the next forty years in a perversion of symbiosis.

the reader, 1896

Vuillard kept his journal faithfully during this period, but it was destroyed by Jos after his death. Confidence in his work and love life filled him. The attraction of two outstanding women to his person enabled him to conceive of soliciting others to the position. He dallied with models in his studio until he became absorbed by an actress named Lucie Belin. It is no surprise that Vuillard's favorite play was A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In 1897, he bought his first camera, a Kodak. He immediately set to work taking pictures of his aging, sick mother. I mean, what else was there?

It is one thing to be a great artist and another completely to be told that you are in your lifetime. Even for painters there is a sophomore slump, a momentary lull in creativity. Vuillard's first representations of his life resembled a turtle poking out of its shell; his characterizations afterwards lacked that artistic caution. Japanese and medieval art constituted the pillars he returned to; a shy man loves history because it justifies his prejudice that the world is filled with terrors.

Yet artistic confidence can overcome whatever the passing of first inspiration evaporates. Any white man must go outside his own experience in his art, or else his work is reduced, eventually, to caricature. The Dreyfus affair and the events of the first World War had a tremendous impact on Vuillard's view of his country. Misia Natanson, Leon Blum and others were persecuted as a result of these events, and Vuillard leapt to their defense when he could. A gentile man who mixes with those outside his own experience finds there is another world beneath this one, and a menace beyond the menace he suspects he exists when he is a child.

Vuillard's mean portrait of Popescu

Still, Vuillard's art never approached the political. It is always personal for him, from the first time his work, so different from the others, was presented to his peers at Lycee. When the Romanian actress Elvire Popescu missed various sittings for her portrait, Vuillard avenged this slight by putting wrinkles where there weren't any.

Vuillard's mother remained of utmost importance to him until the day she died in his arms. He lived with her until he was 60. She represents, in his many depictions of her, that world into which he first entered. Her slow deterioriation only enhanced the sinister quality she possessed in some of her son's canvases. Because something he loved was vanishing before his eyes, the joy seems to fade from these images as we view them.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He last wrote in these pages about The Last of Us. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

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The new album from Gregory Alan Isakov is entitled The Weatherman, and you can purchase it here.


In Which We Move On After Robert Coover's Bowel Movement

First Flight


The Last of Us
dir. Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann
Sony Computer Entertainment

Interactive fiction died an impetus death somewhere between a Robert Coover bowel movement and LucasArts' Full Throttle. The concept of Choose Your Own Adventure was always more exciting in theory than in execution and the dull plotting of Telltale's version of The Walking Dead proved this. Only a few options are ever available, so the resulting story effectively becomes Choose One Of Two or Three Adventures. In interactive art, creators focused on the illusion of choice at the price of artistic vision when due to the limits of technology not many choices were possible.

In contrast, the basic narrative at the heart of Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann's The Last of Us remains profoundly linear. It is the exploration of dilapidated cities where the story unravels that offer a variety of experiences given completely over to the player. In the depth of its world-building, and the unbelievable mood and atmosphere it delivers at every moment, The Last of Us is the rare experience that transcends the idea of game, evolving into a work of art occuring entirely in the mind of the player.

In the first scene of the The Last of Us, Joel's daughter Sam perishes in the chaos after a fungal outbreak that murders millions, turning them into red-eyed nonhumans that consume the survivors. This introduction indulges in all the clichés of the genre, but as the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that these familiar events are merely a prologue to what follows, getting the expected disorder out of the way.

Fifteen years later, Boston is a broken-down quarantine zone, more or less as revolting a city as it is today. The detail of a society stripped and dislocated from all the technology we are used to goes far behind Cormac McCarthy's world turned to ash.

The Last of Us has been called a depressing experience, but this is misleading. The further we get from our own civilization, the more relaxing it becomes. Naughty Dog, the Santa Monica-based developer responsible for The Last of Us, are known for harnessing the best visual and sound design in their industry, but the game moves beyond mere representation. The aural atmosphere The Last of Us synthesizes creates tremendous relief, as with finding a quiet car on a crowded Amtrak train, to find an Earth stripped of all the noise.

At one point in the story, Joel and the girl he has agreed to deliver to an insurgent group, Ellie, arrive at a hydroelectric plant. There an organized group flourishes among the country's chaos, but its denizens seem strangely frustrated for all they've been able to establish, something like children called in from recess. Bringing order to anarchy is exhausting if it's not simple.

All across the recess there is detail impossible to provide in any set or real world location. Exploring the environments, in the guise of both Joel and Ellie, feels like peeling back the layers of buildings and biomes more alive than the world that surrounds us now. Watching a movie after playing The Last of Us is strangely inadequate, like looking at a cube that from our vantage is only a square.

concept art

The story, such as it is, makes a point of being relatively restrained. Joel's charge Ellie is resourceful and earns trust from her "protector," soon they are more like a team than The Bodyguard. Suspense, creative director Neil Druckmann has realized, is something that cannot be forced by simply delaying the arrival of something the audience is expecting. In this fashion violence in The Last of Us is explosive, quick and pernicious. It consistently arrives without delay. No safe place exists in this version of the United States, where even the safest moments are prone to combust. The message that there is no hiding place looms in handwritten diaries we collect, the sudden onset of cannibalism and murder, all the unlikely places for human habitation that we find.

Animals populate the cities Joel and Ellie move through, unaffected by the cordyceps fungus. They are reduced to the behaviors man expected from other animals when neanderthals first emerged on the scene. Keeping pets is very difficult here, because the noise they make could alert the infected that lurch through dark environments, searching for their next meal. When you move close to a a dog or a monkey, it runs from you instinctively. We are reminded that we have always been a sort of plague, and the The Last of Us only makes this literal.

All of these elements only take on as much meaning as you yourself ascribe to them - it is possible to play though the story in a sort of robotic haze, doing and feeling only what you must to keep going. But it is more likely to be affected by these varied moments of sadness and joy, so much so that by the end we find it difficult to have to control Joel or Ellie, the people who have taken us to these hidden places between the disarray. It is powerful to empathize with others, but it is more powerful to be as they are. Nothing like this has been achieved in any other medium.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about Brian De Palma's Passion.

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