Sunday, December 26, 2010

Death/Grief/Absence/Presence: Felix and Felix

Aids is not only a medical crisis on an unparalleled scale, it involves a crisis of representation itself, a crisis over the entire framing knowledge about the human body and its capacities for sexual pleasure.- Simon Watney

The body is…directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out certain tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.-Michel Foucault


In a blog post entitled, The Absent Body: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, AIDS, Homosexuality and Representation, I discussed a black and white photograph by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres called Untitled from 1991. The image depicts an empty bed consisting of 2 pillows, a sheet and rumpled top sheet.  For Gonzalez-Torres, me and many others this image is a representation of AIDS that at first glance expressed simply and strongly mourning, loss and death. The image is a memorial to those who have died in the epidemic and indeed, the work was a personal memorial to Gonzalez-Torres’ lover, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991.

But, this photograph is more than just an elegy to Ross and the many others who have died. By not actually depicting a body within the work, (it is merely indicated by the depressions in the 2 pillows) I argued that the Gonzalez-Torres photograph was in the words of art historian and critic Douglas Crimp not only an act of mourning, but also militancy.  This simple, quiet image challenges, resists, subverts and exposes the paradigmatic representation of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic when homosexuality and AIDS was routinely and viciously conflated within culture. The dominant image of the disease at that time was a homosexual man, alone, gaunt, covered with Kaposi sarcoma lesions, a victim of his own perverted desires.A4 A photograph of Donald Perlman from 1988 by Nicholas Nixon exemplifies this prevailing depiction. In contrast, the Gonzalez-Torres photograph, by refusing to represent the body or bodies with AIDS is a work of cultural activism which engaged and undermined the authoritative AIDS discourse operative at the moment of its production.

A photograph by AA Bronson entitled Felix, June 5. 1994 depicts another Felix dead on his bed.  (This post has been updated.  When it first appeared, I mistakenly thought the Felix of the Bronson piece was Felix Gonzalez-Torres.  Thankfully a reader pointed out my mistake. This Felix is Felix Partz, a Canadian artist and member of the art collective General Idea as was Bronson and Jorge Zontal.  General Idea pioneered conceptual and media-based art and were active from 1967-1994.)

general-idea-aidsinstall General Idea, AIDS, Galerie Stampa, Frankfurt, 1988

Felix, June 5, 1994 appears in the current show at the National Portrait Gallery, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture; it is a troubling and fitting pendant to Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled of 1991.  Both are memorials.  Both are about death and loss.  Both are about AIDS.  And both are about resistance to the dominant fiction’s AIDS paradigm. But, while Untitled is lyrical and almost romantic in its pristine quality and simultaneously an image of revolution and militancy, the Bronson photograph is gruesome in its direct and unflinching portrait of death.  But this photograph is not a depiction just any death, but death from AIDS and all the horror that having such a disease once entailed (and still does for some) before the advent of new drug therapies.

Bronson who was also Partz’s partner at the time photographed Felix a few hours after his death. The image is to a degree staged.  As Bronson states, “He is arranged to receive visitors…”  He is lying in bed wearing a pair of black and white bull’s-eye print pajamas which are too big for his wasted body.  The oversized pajamas emphasize  how much his physique has been withered and ravaged by AIDS.  His face and hands, the only part of the corpse visible, are wizened and shriveled; the skin is tight and stretched over the bones underneath.  His eyes are open in a dead stare.  He looks at me.  Apparently, his skin had shrunk so much from extreme wasting that his eye lids could not be closed.  His mouth is parted showing his teeth as if he is taking a breath or about to speak.  It is a horrific image.

He is surrounded by vibrant and vivid color- a yellow, blue, red and purple pillow, a multicolor sheet with an egg like pattern, a red and black plaid blanket and a grey, white and black striped blanket.  The vibrancy of all of this color stands in marked contrast to the stillness of the devastated body of the artist, to its lifelessness.  Death is not colorful; it is utter black.

Felix is surrounded by his favorite objects: the TV remote control, a tape recorder and cigarettes.  This inclusion of cherished objects reminds me of an Egyptian tomb that is  filled with items that the inhabitant of the tomb will need in the afterlife to survive and enjoy their new existence.  These things around Felix make the viewer feel that he was just watching TV, he was just recording something, he was just having a smoke.  One second you are alive and the next you are not.

When I first saw this photograph it terrified me and I could not really look at and return the artist’s gaze that had captured me in its dead stare.  What struck me most, is how gruesome he looked- a skeleton covered with taut skin revealing the bones underneath.  Where was the creative, handsome Felix Partz in this body? 

As I viewed this image, I remembered seeing the other Felix, Felix Gonzalez-Torres years ago in the early 90’s speak at a conference on fantasy at the New School in New York City.  I don’t quite remember what this Felix talked about, but I do remember his quiet, unassuming demeanor as he spoke, his dark hair and his good looks- a sweet face and an appealing body.  He was smart and talented, producing works that were conceptual, lyrical, romantic even, but always pervaded by a sense of longing, loss and ending.  He would die from AIDS in 1996 and if he was HIV+ then, I did not know it, but he did not look or act sick.

The contrast of the photograph of this Felix in my head and the the depiction of Felix Partz in the Bronson photograph was shocking and it made me cry.  It was if I seeing Partz dead made me finally realize that the other Felix was really dead too.  I mean I knew Gonzalez-Torres had died from AIDS in the mid 1990’s, but the Bronson image confronted me with the reality of that fact and it made me feel raw and emotional as if both Felixs had just died.  At that moment I mourned their loss and rejected it at the same time, refusing to look too long at the terrifying image, refusing to accept the reality of their death from such a horrible disease.  (Did Felix Gonzalez-Torres look like Felix Partz on his death bed?)  But even at that moment I knew I had to write about this image and understand my relationship to it and why it affected me so greatly.  I had to allow it to speak its truth to me.

Almost always when confronted with a photograph that grabs me deeply, I turn to the work of Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida to make sense of my feelings and reaction.  While Barthes’ work on photography is theoretical, critical and intellectual it is also replete with emotion and is in the end profound.  It allows me to intellectualize an image and then find out what about that image twists me in the pit of my stomach.

In Camera Lucida Barthes denotes 2 classifications for photographs- those image that belong to the studium and those images that belong to the punctum.  The studium is the historical, social and cultural meaning of the photograph; it is denotation.  The punctum on the other can be a small detail within the photograph that pierces the viewer, undermines the studium and takes the viewer to a place beyond language, beyond culture to the realm of the pre-Oedipal.  It is connotation.  Barthes further develops the punctum to be the essential meaning of photography- that-has-been.  He states:

…every photograph is somehow co-natural with its referent…Photography’s Referent is not the same as the referent of other systems of representation…I call “photographic referent” not the optionally real thing to which an image or sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before a lens, without which there would be no photograph…in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past. And since this constraint exists only for Photography, we must consider it, by reduction, as the very essence, the noeme of Photography…the name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be: That-has-been…

The that-has-been is the profound meaning of photography that the viewer cannot escape or deny and that while simple and direct is a completely radical and unnerving revelation.  I look at the Bronson photograph and I cannot deny the dead body of Felix Partz.  The studium of the image is AIDS, the effects of this disease, the wasting etc., and also fashion- the bedding of a particular moment in the 90’s in a house of 2 gay men.  It is a historical image that denotes the fate of many of those individuals who contracted HIV+ before there were effective drug therapies.

The punctum of the photograph on the other hand is the dead staring eyes of the artist.  It is the detail of the image that as the viewer, I cannot escape.  The patterns and the colors that surround him are all subordinated to his eyes and his lifeless gaze.  Felix looks at me and you and fixes us in his gaze firmly, tightly as tight as his stretched skin.   We are in the grip of Death. Indeed, the connotation of the photograph is death, the finality of life.  The punctum of a photograph, Barthes says, pierces or cuts the viewer; here it eviscerates the spectator.  I am dead; there is nothing else except photographs of me alive and now one of me dead- testaments to the that-has-been. And as viewers of this photograph, you and I are taken not so much to a beyond of the pre-Oedipal, but to a beyond of nothingness, of death from which there is no escape, no return, no angels, no trumpets, no white light.

I cried when I saw this photograph, not only for both Felixs, but for all the people I love in my life that will also die one day sooner or later and there is nothing I can do to stop it. 

As Barthes eloquently states:

With the Photograph we enter into flat Death.  One day, leaving one of my classes, someone said to me with disdain:  “You talk about Death very flatly.”  -As if the horror of Death were not precisely its platitude!  The horror is this:  nothing to say about the death of one whom I love most, (Here Barthes is speaking about his mother) nothing to say about her photograph, which I contemplate without ever being able to get to the heart of it, to transform it.  The only “thought” I can have is that at the end of this first death, my own death is inscribed; between the two, nothing more than waiting; I have no other resource than this irony: to speak of “nothing to say.”

For Barthes, all photographs are a sign of death.  The people in them so alive are in many cases already dead or will of course die eventually.  Every photograph reminds us of our own mortality although we choose to ignore and deny it.  The Bronson image of Felix Partz dead simply literalizes the inherent nature of the photograph which Barthes describes in contemplating the image of his own mother.  While other photographs express death for Barthes, their subjects of people alive allow us at least to refuse to believe in their death and our own mortality.  In contrast the Bronson photograph makes us look unflinchingly upon death; it does not allow us to deny that death comes one day for all of us.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Remembrance of Christmas Past

tnsanta Thomas Nast, Merry Old Santa Claus, from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper’s Weekly

When the summer ends and cooler weather starts to prevail and September  begins my thoughts turn to Christmas.  It becomes in part my focus and goal for the next four months.  I think about ideas  for gifts, what will be my wrapping paper/ribbon combination for that year, what holiday cards I will send to family and friends, how I will decorate my apartment and so on.

P1020095Wrapping paper number 1 for 2010.  I love its illustration/graphic quality and the cast shadows.  It reminds me of the 1950’s.  I am using a matte gold double face satin ribbon with it.

P1020096 Wrapping paper number 2 for 2010.  I love this ersatz Burberry plaid paper and how it complements the poinsettia paper.  I am using the same mate gold ribbon with this paper as well.

polarbearxmascard The card for 2010 featuring a polar bear sculpture  by François Pompon 1922.  I should be a polar bear, but it’s impossible…

P1020107 Tablescape in the dining room- vintage silver foil tree with gold glass ornaments and a selection of silver from my collection, fresh flowers and sherry ready for guests.

P1010983 Wreath hanging from my massive bookcase with vintage green and gold glass ornaments,  silver glitter birds and silver ribbon edged in gold.

P1020103 Arrangement of faux creamy white roses, incense cedar, hanging cedar, long needle pine and weeping pine.  For more beautiful permanent custom floral designs see HERE.

And when Christmas comes, I quite enjoy celebrating the day with family and friends and putting all my plans into effect.  But, often in addition to the joy, there is a sense of wistful nostalgia or slight regret about Christmas past when I was a child and how the traditions then changed or ended as I grew up, as people died or faded away, as tastes changed, as time marched relentlessly on into the future.  Am I really 43?  Only yesterday I was 20.

Christmas Past

P1020100 When my family moved to New Jersey in 1975, a new Christmas tradition began in a new house.  My great aunt Margaret (my grandmother’s sister) and her husband Edward whom I always weirdly referred to  (as my mom did in her childhood) as simply “Aunt” and “Uncle” (in part because both of my parents are only children as I am and so in a sense they were really the only Aunt and Uncle on that side of the family.) 

Aunt and Uncle would come to our house on Christmas Eve and stay through the holiday.  With them we opened presents on Christmas Eve in the tradition of the German side of the family of whom Aunt was the only surviving member.  Her elder sister, my grandmother Hedwig, Grammy, died when I was 11 months old, so I never knew her nor do I remember her.  (That is a regret.)  On Christmas Eve in the New Jersey house, everyone selected a favorite food of the appetizer variety like shrimp or clams or pâté and we all sat and ate by the tree and the fireplace in the living room.  It was lovely.

I remember the year when my mom and I made yards and yards of popcorn and cranberry garlands.

I remember the year when I got the first Star Wars figures made- Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, R2D2 and my ultimate favorite, Darth Vader.  You didn’t get the actual figures, but a certificate that guaranteed you receiving those 5 characters when they were made in the following year.

I remember the Christmas Eve when I did not get the Wonder Woman doll,  but I survived…

I remember going out to dinner with my parents and Aunt (Uncle was no longer with us) on Christmas Eve and there was a dapper, older gentleman eating alone.  Before we left my mother went over to him and said, “Merry Christmas!”  and shook his hand.  That act encapsulates what she is all about and I will always remember her gesture of kindness and love.

Aunt and Uncle always gave me books, many of them about history.  I still have these books on subjects like The Great War and World War II and they fostered my interest in my German heritage despite the horrors of the 2 wars which was that heritage’s historical context.

P1020108 Aunt and Uncle circa 1950?  Aunt is all personality- full of piss and vinegar and Uncle is rockin’ the knee highs with shorts look.

Aunt and Uncle were an interesting couple.  No children, married quite young.  Uncle was a saint really- a very devout Catholic (Aunt always said he loved his religion), but he was Catholic in the best sense of Christ’s teachings and not dogmatic or political. 

Aunt, on the other hand, was high maintenance.  A character really.  Here is a picture of her in the 1930’s where one can see and feel her vibrant, jaunty and glamorous personality.  She was fun.


In contrast, a picture of my grandmother Hedwig in her thirties exemplifies her serious, exacting personality- the eldest child of a German upper bourgeoisie family.


But although Aunt was fun, it was hard to know her in an emotional/intimate sense.  She always wore an intriguing ring, her engagement ring- a flat rectangular stone of unfaceted black onyx set in gold.  I always thought that this ring captured who she was- independent (n0 traditional diamond for her), tasteful, chic, smooth, impenetrable- her emotions hidden beneath the shiny black opaque surface that did not and perhaps could not reflect anything truly personal.

Update:  In speaking with my mother after publishing this post, I learned that Aunt’s onyx engagement ring was also chosen by her because of potential gender discrimination at her job.  Aunt and Uncle were married in 1930 and Aunt had to still work and apparently married women were frowned upon because it was thought they would leave to have a baby.  So, Aunt’s ring in its length served to cover up her thin gold wedding band and impart the impression that she was a single, carefree gal in the workforce.  Fascinating.  But, I also still think that she liked being different and having an unusual engagement tickled her distinctive personality.

P1020110 Aunt still jaunty at 73 in 1985- great vest and cap look.

WilhelmIt was a shame really because I wanted to know all about her side of the family and their life in Germany.  Whatever she knew, she did not really tell and now never will, but instead she let out small bon mots about life in Germany as a child or about the Bier family.  (She and the entire family- mother, father, her elder sister and brother emigrated to the United States in 1922.)  Her favorite line, “All I remember is the Kaiser (Wilhelm II); his picture hung in my classroom at school” , but nothing else really about the family I so desperately wanted to learn about in contrast to the other half of my family:  my mother’s father’s side who were all Irish, all Catholic, all quite close minded.  To them I was too different, too intellectual, too much a thinker, too queer.  I thought the German side of my family would indeed “get” me- my critical consciousness, my refined taste, my bouts of melancholia, depression and doubt.

The Biers were from Dessau in the east of Germany.  They were solidly and probably proudly upper middle class with an ease of living.  P1020097 But as with all families there were secrets.  My great grandmother Johanna who was called Oma (colloquial term for grandma)  by my mother, married Arthur Bier.  Oma had a Jewish mother named Rosa Solomon pictured right in a stickpin my great grandmother wore.   My mother did not learn about this fact until her 20’s because my grandmother and Aunt thought it would upset her.  Surprise, she wasn’t upset.

And Arthur Bier whom we refer to as Opa even though he died before my mother was born was the black sheep of the family.  He moved to New York City around the turn of the century and married Johanna here and then returned to Germany where they lived apparently quite comfortably below the castle in Braunfels near Frankfurt-am-Main.Braunfels_Schloss  Why they didn’t return to Dessau in the east, I don’t know.  Perhaps his marriage to a partly Jewish woman prevented that. 

When they emigrated back to the United States in the early 1920’s, Arthur worked as a janitor- a fact that embarrassed Aunt even when I knew her.  I don’t think we even have a photograph of him.  He died on Pearl Harbor Day 1941; he was only 58.  The details are fuzzy, a mystery lost to time and there is no one left to ask.

At Christmas, I often think of the Biers and wonder and fantasize and try to imagine them and their life in Germany before and during The Great War and what came after.  Did they have real candles on their Christmas tree?  What were the ornaments like?  How did they wrap presents?  What did they give one another?  What were their traditions?  Who was Arthur Bier?

There does exist a picture of the Biers which I now cannot find, but it has always stuck in mind.  The setting is spring or summer and the family is arrayed outside in the bright sun, some seated, some standing.  Whom they all are I don’t know, but the patriarch stands out still in my head.  He is seated and wearing a light colored suit with a straw boater hat and perhaps he holds an elegant cane.  He and his family surrounding him all look self-confident, almost smug in their display of their haute bourgeoisie status in the relatively new German Empire founded in 1871.  They are proud Germans, recording themselves around the time of the war, just before or just after, but before the (un)representable horrors to come.

Christmas Present

For the last 12 years or so, my parents and I have been celebrating Christmas with our adopted family- my father’s goddaughter, her husband and their 3 children, the oldest of whom, a girl, will be 12 in January 2011.  The youngest, also a girl, 18 months is my goddaughter and she is the great joy of my life.  I am her Mary Poppins 1/2 the week and though arduous, it is a great adventure watching her growing up and learn and wonder.  Her new favorite word is “No”.

Christmas, I think, is always more sweet with  children present, especially if they still believe in Santa.  Their excitement about gifts, decorations and Christmas cookies is infectious and reminds one of one’s own childhood when all things (at times) seemed possible.  Their unjaded participation in the festivities is a great thing to share as I do with the 3 W____ children.  It is like inhabiting a Thomas Nast (1940-1902) Christmas engraving, many of which appeared in tnthewatchxmaseve76 Harper’s Weekly- sweet, innocent and make believe. These images are the way we all want Christmas to be, but often it is not in reality because one grows up, one experiences loss and disappointment and no one expects a jolly man in a red suit to once again come the chimney bearing wondrous gifts.

When my mother was a child, she would like many children leave Santa a snack, but also with great originality a cigar.  This of course was at a time when smoking was still considered healthy and I guess Santa needed a nicotine break on his long night of flying through the sky delivering presents.  The next morning the snack was gone and the cigar was half-smoked with its ashes on the plate thanks to Uncle.  It is a fond memory for her; it makes me smile and demonstrates what a sweet man Uncle was and how small memories can last a lifetime.

momsanta  My mom age 6 and Santa in 1948.

The snack and the cigar for Santa were left in a house devoid of any decoration or ornament.  But, when my mother woke up Christmas morning the house was a holiday wonderland seemingly created by Santa himself.  My grandparents and Aunt and Uncle stayed up late into the night transforming the house for my mother and her belief in Santa Claus.  How lucky that was for her and them.

This tradition of course ended with my mother’s childhood as so much invariably does as we grow older.  Now, my mother and I decorate her house over several weeks as we simultaneously decorate client’s homes for her successful custom floral design business, Jo’s Blooms in Short Hills, New Jersey.  At my parent’s house, we laden the tree with hundreds of ornaments, many of them vintage pieces from Aunt and my grandmother, trim the mantle and staircase with garlands and ribbon and set the table for the coming holiday meal.

Even the kitchen is transformed for Christmas.  Here is a picture of my mother’s kitchen hutch filled with a collection of Spode Pink Tower transferware circa 1900-1920 ( a collection that nicely began with my grandmother) interspersed with vintage holiday items:  bottle brush trees laden with snow, elves and snowmen (some smoking cigarettes!) made with pinecone bodies, decorated cardboard houses with snowy roofs and a vintage plastic Santa in a sleigh pulled by celluloid reindeer.  These holiday ornaments are  now over 50 years old. They have survived and endured many a Christmas and are now slightly faded or a bit broken and so on.  But no matter.  In the end that is what we all do- survive and endure and hopefully enjoy Christmas or whatever holiday we celebrate with family and friends.


And when Christmas is over, I often have a slight dip in my overall mood.  All that preparation and anticipation for one day and then it’s over too quickly and a new year begins.  Putting away everything from the holiday is certainly not as fun as decorating and unpacking it.  But there is always next Christmas and the memories made this year will carry me through to next September when my mind turns toward the holiday again.

Happy Christmas!  Happy New Year!

bierchildren The Bier children in Germany- Aunt with the impish grin, serious Hedwig the eldest and Hans the next generation’s black sheep.

mombabygrammyMy mother as a baby, my great grandmother Johanna, “Oma” and my grandmother Hedwig, “Grammy”.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Silver Desire: An Aesthetic Sugar and Creamer by Rogers Smith and Company


At the Pier Antique Show in November I was reintroduced to  a wonderful antique dealer, Sarah Eigen, who deals in 19th century decorative arts especially aesthetic pieces in pottery, silverplate and brass.  10_10 In the past I had bought from her a swell black transferware plate in the Sado pattern circa 1879-1881 which features a border design of Asian children playing a board game, along with butterflies and peonies.  I also purchased from Sarah a pair of silverplate sugar tongs in an early Aesthetic pattern called Brilliant that was introduced by Reed and Barton in 1869.


When I bought the Sado plate, Sarah kindly invited me to her apartment to see her Aesthetic transferware and silverplate collection which was vast and superb.  I learned so much that afternoon and it is always lovely to spend time with someone who shares your collecting passion.

At the Pier Show, I added to my Aesthetic silverplate collection and acquired from Sarah a gorgeous creamer and lidded sugar in very clean condition by one of the ubiquitous Rogers  manufacturers- Rogers Smith & Company.   The pair probably date to circa 1877-1880 or so.   P1010867 I learned from Sarah that the applied circular foot was indicative of that 1870 period rather than a piece of holloware on feet which is more in keeping with the style of the 1880’s.  Also, the clear influence of Japanese art on the pair suggests a date after the US Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia where a  lavish Japanese pavilion featured the arts of Japan and fostered “The Japan Craze” which spread throughout the United States and influenced silver styles especially in plate.




Both the creamer and lidded sugar feature incised decoration indicative of the Aesthetic period in its love of nature and the influence of Japanese art, particularly its metalwork which often depicted flora and fauna.  On each side of the sugar and creamer, there is a flock of 3 birds, a spray of  leaves which may be fern fronds or laurel leaves and a stylized pine tree with lovely and intricate detailing to the bark.  The elements are asymmetrical in their layout which is also a characteristic of Japanese art and the Aesthetic style.


Below the pine tree is a stylized decorative geometric band that could also be understood as a garden wall from behind which the stylized pine tree emerges.  The flock of 3 birds appear to be flying to alight on this tree.  This band is reminiscent of the borders found in English Aesthetic transferware which was a strong influence on American Aesthetic silverplate design.  Here are 3 examples of English Aesthetic transferware pottery in my collection whose geometric border designs are similar in feel and appearance to the Rogers Smith sugar and creamer although slightly later in date.   These border patterns on the transferware and the band on the sugar and creamer may also have been influenced by Japanese textile designs of the period, yet the transferware seems to be the paramount influence.

P1000386 Platter in the Kew pattern by Copeland circa 1884

P1020079  Plate in the Faisan pattern by Minton circa 1881

P1020080 Plate in the Chinese Vase pattern by Blair & Co. circa 1884


The handles on the sugar and creamer have an carved look as if the handle was cast and then metal was cut away to reveal and create flowers, leaves and vines in relief.  The flowers seem similar to dogwood and against a stippled ground- a feature reminiscent of Japanese metalwork although the top of the handle features an acanthus leaf which is a classical motif.

P1000309a  Coffee spoon (handle end) in the Gorham Japanese pattern also with a stippled ground found in Japanese metalwork.  The pattern was introduced in 1870.


The decorative band around the top of the pair also features leaves interspersed with what resemble stylized flowers and indeed they are meant to be petals or leaves based on  honeysuckle or palm leaves.  This motif is called an anthemion and was used commonly in classical art and architecture.  This ornamentation relates to the acanthus leaf at the top of the sugar and creamer handles.

anthemion_10161_lg A selection of anthemia

Obviously, this decorative die-rolled band of anthemia on the sugar and creamer are in contrast to the main Aesthetic elements of the pair.  (Die-rolled- a sheet of metal which has been passed through patterned steel rollers. )  It makes me think that perhaps that the form of this sugar and creamer was an older model that had an overall classical design that this decorative strip would have originally complemented.  When fashions changed and “The Japanese Craze” began, the company redesigned the main decoration of the sugar and creamer, but left other elements such as the die-rolled band of anthemia in the design perhaps to save costs.   It is an intriguing thought and speaks to the nature of silverplate in which the dies (the forms that made the shapes and some decorative elements like die-rolled bands) are valuable and were not just discarded when styles changed.  These dies were used over and over again and even sold between different companies so that similar forms often appear from different makers.

P1020088 The holloware division of Rogers Smith began in 1862, so it is possible that this sugar and creamer represents an older form.  Another silverplate maker, Meriden Britannia, bought this holloware division in 1863.  And the mark on the pair is after 1865 when the division was moved to Meriden (and of course obviously later by its Aesthetic style as well.)  So, it is possible that this Rogers Smith creamer and lidded sugar is a former model with a new Aesthetic design.  A footnote perhaps but fascinating to me as a collector.

P1010865a Or the mishmash of styles, motifs etc. may just be an example of Victorian eclecticism and art historical interest.  For example, the finial of the sugar lid looks like a stylized lotus blossom which would be an example of the Egyptian Revival.  (The Egyptian Revival is usually dated from 1820-1850, but silver examples with Egyptian motifs appear long after that date into the 1880’s.   And of course, there was another great Egyptian revival after 1922 when King Tut’s tomb was found by Harry Carter.)  So, yet another style enters the mix, though I would argue that the design as a whole works together despite the stylistic dissonance.

egyptrevpitch Egyptian Revival silverplate water pitcher by B. A. Clark & Co. Boston, circa 1860

I am looking forward to using this sugar and creamer at my next silver dessert soirée along with my other Aesthetic china, holloware as well as flatware and amuse my guests with the word anthemion.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

31 Seconds of Anger, Terror, Shock and Ambivalence: It’s Never Just HIV

“Aids is not only a medical crisis on an unparalleled scale, it involves a crisis of representation itself, a crisis over the entire framing knowledge about the human body and its capacities for sexual pleasure.”- Simon Watney

NYC Department of Health PSA: It's Never Just HIV

The New York City Department of Health created the PSA It’s Never Just HIV which began airing on television about one week ago.  The department’s website states that in New York City the AIDS rate is 3 times the US average and that HIV is the third leading cause of death for NYC residents aged 35-54.  These are sobering statistics which when coupled with the evidence that many gay men under 30 are contracting HIV at a greater rate than their older peers believing perhaps that with the new drug therapies the disease has become merely a chronic condition.  Or perhaps they feel that a cure is just around the corner.  Either way the context of the disease now is vastly different from the early days of the epidemic when contracting HIV more likely meant suffering and death.

Against these facts, I assume, the Department of Health felt the need for a very strong PSA to urge people to practice safe sex, use condoms and realize that HIV even when treated with medications can cause many other health problems.  Yet, the form of this PSA which only features men of various ethnicities and seems clearly targeted to gay men alone is a shocking display of terror and fear.  It attempts to scare the viewer into safer sexual behavior by graphically relating the potential complications of HIV.  It states that dozens of diseases can occur with HIV and no matter if you are on a drug therapy.  It focuses on three that you could contract: osteoporosis, dementia and anal cancer.

In the osteoporosis section of the PSA there is a split second image of men dancing; you only see their legs while the voice over describes the disease as a dissolution of bone accompanied by an x-ray image of bone full of holes and then another x-ray of a leg in which the thigh bone cracks and brakes.  The brief dancing segment seems to reference gay nightlife and suggests rather ignorantly that such nightlife always leads to unprotected sex and HIV infection.

The dementia portion of the ad depicts a man holding his head and looking confused and then the image of his head dissolves into a cat scan of apparently his brain that suddenly atrophies and looks shredded.

The final section about the contraction of anal cancer is the most graphic and gruesome.  A cat scan reveals tumors in the anus.  And then a split second image of a diseased, reddened anus with hideous black stitches appears.  This sequence reminded me of Leo Bersani’s famous article, “Is the Rectum a Grave"?”  Clearly in the PSA the rectum (of gay men) is a place of disease and pain rather than pleasure and sexual gratification. 

And here is why I am angry.  This  PSA seems to revive old representations which appeared in the early years of the AIDS crisis in which gay men were conflated completely with the disease.  To be gay was to be a contagious threat to the rest of the population.  This paradigmatic representation changed as the nature of AIDS itself shifted with effective drug therapies that allowed people to live longer and healthier lives.  But this ad shows gay men seemingly healthy but when their insides are revealed through technology only disease is present.

And while I am angry at this PSA for its terror tactics and its casting of gay men as some sort of new millennium monsters, I am also ambivalent because I realize that there exists a degree of complacency about HIV as if it is simply a chronic and manageable condition.  Of course, it contributes to other health problems, but shock and awe scare tactics do not seem to be the way to reach gay men about changing their sexual behavior.  The content is important, but its form is dangerous.

A recent study in The Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes found that gay men newly infected with HIV change their sexual behavior only in the short term, only to resort to previous unsafe practices in the long run.  In this context (whether this study is accurate or merely anecdotal) it doesn’t seem that the new PSA can truly be effective for its target audience.  Instead what it does rather insidiously, is confirm for the wider heterosexual world that gay men are vessels of disease with the founding disease being HIV.

The PSA ends with an image of a man in a hospital bed visited by his lover or husband or friend as if this is the fate of all gay men whether HIV+ or not…same-sex desire equals death.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Antique Flâneur: A Pair of Carlton Ware Armand Lustre Vases


Recently, I have been working with a wonderful designer in Madison, New Jersey who loves to use antiques in designing her clients' homes.  She asked The Antique Flâneur to find a pair of vases for a client's living room mantle.  The pair had to be substantial in size, complement the rooms color scheme of pale blue and rusty red and have a slight Asian feel.  With this brief, I found a gorgeous pair of ginger jars by the English manufacturer Carlton Ware dating to circa 1915-1920 in Tennessee of all places.

The vases feature a complementary, yet different design of hand-painted cockerels or roosters in underglaze enamels of rusty reds and navy amongst rusty red peonies set against a pale, mottled lustre blue ground.  The entire motif is superbly  highlighted with an overglaze metallic gold which was probably applied using a transferware process.  This color scheme was a perfect match to the drapery treatments of the room.  The vases on the mantle brought all the wonderful color of the drapes to the focal point of the room.


The cockerels and the peonies reminiscent of motifs in Japanese art  impart the slightly Asian feel that the designer wanted to highlight in the room.  This Asian feel is further enhanced by the finials of the ginger jars which are gilded foo dogs.  In Asian culture, foo dogs serve as guardians against evil spirits at the entrances of homes and temples.  They are a subtle and sophisticated addition to the vases.  The cockerel motif, color scheme and foo dog finials firmly place this pair of Carlton Ware vases in the long tradition of European decorative arts that have been influenced by the arts of China and Japan.


Carlton Ware was founded in 1890 and based in Stoke-on-Trent, England; The Carlton Ware trademark was introduced in 1894.  The pair of cockerel vases I recently found were sold under Carlton Ware's separate high-end Armand line which began production circa 1915-1920.  The vases are a true high fired lustreware with a pottery body more like china than heavy earthenware and were expensive at the time of their production.  The back stamp shows 2 fish in water encircled by the name of the line.


In the 1920's Carlton Ware introduced a new mode of production which combined decals applied to high glaze bodies with some hand-painting and gilt transfer.  This process was in a sense a cheaper version of the expensive Armand line which did not use decals and was all hand-painted.  This new process featured Asian inspired patterns such as New Mikado and Chinoiserie as well as a range of Tutankhamen inspired ware.  The tomb of the pharaoh was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter; the objects found in the tomb inspired many branches of the decorative arts.  There was also a pattern called Persian that was inspired by the arts of the Near East.  Here is a later New Mikado vase dated circa 1950:


Here is a selection of Tutankhamen pieces:


Contact me at if you would like me to find you a gorgeous Carlton Ware item!  And if you are looking for a wonderful interior designer in the Madison, New Jersey area, please contact me for a referral.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Notes on Art: Jesus Loves Me Part II or The Wandering, Lonely and Restless Soul of Marsden Hartley

“…I have never been near the real thing before, for a fisherman is more of a ‘thing’ then a shut-in farmer…”-Marsden Hartley in a 1935 letter from Nova Scotia

“I wasn’t unmindful of the look in your face that day that comes over one in the moments of crucifixion.  Only the other day I said to the dear….girls here in the house- and it seemed as if I must shriek it- ‘I want to get down off the cross.’  I make no…comparisons in using the symbol of the cross- I only felt I wanted to get down from something, to have the steel points removed from my flesh.” -Marsden Hartley in an undated letter.

“It’s wild and tense(?) up here- noble in spirit and devastating human endurance from the stories of the sea they tell me so simply as anyone would tell of a bus ride.  They recount the dangers and the savagery of the sea  and there are no ‘dude’ fisherman up this way- they are the real thing…”- Marsden Hartley in a 1935 letter from Nova Scotia

hartleychrist Christ Held by Half-Naked Men, 1940-41, oil on fiberboard, Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Gardens, Washington, DC.

In my last post I discussed in part the masochistic act of Jesus Christ in his crucifixion as being at its core (beyond the religion that emerged from this act) as a negation of traditional masculinity.  I further suggested that an image of the crucifixion in its display of a nearly nude and muscular male body is a site of homoerotic desire seen through a dynamic of suffering, sacrifice and humiliation.

This underlying homoeroticism is made starkly and passionately visible in Marsden Hartley’s late work, Christ Held by Half-Naked Men.  In this painting, the artist has created a homoerotic Pièta, the moment after crucifixion when the dead body of Christ is taken down from the instrument of his death and in traditional works of this subject held by his mother, The Virgin Mary.  In the Hartley image, the Virgin is absent as is all female presence; she is replaced by a muscular shirtless fisherman in blue jeans and a traditional Nova Scotia fisherman’s hat who tenderly cradles on his lap the lifeless Christ, a fact emphasized by the greenish, whitish, bluish skin of the dead, decaying body which vividly contrasts with the smooth, pink and robust skin of the fisherman.

Behind the central pair stands 7 other similarly attired, but also shirtless buff men with bright pink smooth skin.  These figures become a new type of angels mourning the dead Christ.  Yet, these men are not wholly pious; they adopt the stance of one cruising at a bar- one hand at the waistband, the other emphasizing the groin.  They are posing and displaying their body for the spectator and like Christ’s solace, they proudly display their large almost grotesque pectoral muscles with giant nipples and prominent belly buttons like wide staring eyes that fixate the viewer and implicate him in the homoerotic scene.  Indeed, there real eyes seem closed in pray? 

The belly buttons and nipples in their representation also mimic the nail holes in Christ’s hands and feet, the wounds of the crucifixion as if the fisherman all received symbolic stigmata for their love of Christ.   The painting conflates and contrasts his suffering with sexual spectacle and desire- the desire for built Nova Scotia fisherman.

In traditional Christian iconography the image of Christ held by the Virgin Mary is symbolic of  Christ as a sacrifice, as the lamb, as the host of the mass, as the bread of the Last Supper placed on the altar of the Church personified and embodied by his mother Mary.  It is decidedly a heterosexual union.  In Hartley’s painting the body of Christ is instead displayed and sacrificed on the altar of conventional masculinity signified by the shirtless fisherman- a masculine archetype that the artist favored both in his art and his life.  In a 1933 letter from Germany, Hartley writes, “…I am always in a state of little boy admiration of the strong men type for what he is able to do with his body.”  The smaller stature of Jesus in Hartley’s painting suggests a child despite his beard and pecs in relation to the larger men who surround him.  Indeed, in a traditional Pièta, Christ is a child held by his mother The Virgin Mary.

I have always found this painting incredibly moving; it is poignant, erotic and tender in its conflation of (homo)desire, death and religion underlined by the rawness of its form- the visceral brushstroke and the striking contrast of blue and pink.  It is not surprising that this work was made at the end of Hartley’s life.  He died in 1943.  Knowing this fact has always brought tears to my eyes when I look at this image.  It is underlined by the numerous letters of Hartley’s which I read while researching my master’s thesis in art history.  In his own words, I encountered a creative and lonely man who on some level remained an outsider his entire life (a self much like me).  He was a restless, searching soul  who perhaps never found peace and that truth is with me when I look at any of his paintings and not just this one.

In the end, Christ Held by Half-Naked Men is really a self-portrait.  Hartley is  himself the Christ in this work, finally able to get down off the cross of life, of loneliness, of homophobia, and be lovingly yet full of desire held by another man and hopefully find a degree of solace, the steel points finally removed from his flesh.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Notes on Art, Memory and Religion: Jesus Loves Me

Another Christ is on the cross/ The nails are words, the nails are lies/ To make it crawl and make it scream/ And make it real and make it bleed/ And make it bleed and make it bleed/ And make it bleed and make it dream/ Imitation of Christ/ Imitation of Christ

-Imitation of Christ by The Psychedelic Furs, 1980

In the spring of 1974 in the blond wood paneled basement of my parent’s attached brick house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I, a young Roman Catholic queer boy, attempted to reenact the resurrection of Jesus Christ with a small model tomb fashioned out of what I don’t remember and homemade vanilla wafers to serve as the host of the Mass and the bread of the Last Supper.  Surprisingly, none of the other kids on my block were keen on the idea, but I was fascinated with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection especially since that was also the year of my First Communion. 

At that time, I had become obsessed with a book of saints which presented ersatz High Renaissance pictures of saints and martyrs along with the narrative of their grisly demise at the hands of non-believers.  I was especially riveted by those saints who bore the wounds of Christ as a testament of their devotion.  In my young queer mind,  I longed for this miracle as proof of my own belief, but also as proof that God really did exist.  (Even today, I long for miracles.)

The images in my book of saints more than the text kept me fixated which is no surprise because if nothing else Roman Catholicism is a pictorial religion, almost cinematic really in its spectacular display of torture, death and resurrection.  The pictures in my book were like the images on the walls of the dark church in Brooklyn that I attended.  These paintings were the last gasp of the High Renaissance ideals of Raphael in their seamless and easy style.

As I grew older, I moved from the ersatz to the authentic and began seeing religious paintings by accomplished artists from periods where religion was a central component of everyday life, of everyone’s weltanschauung.  These works of art were more resonant than the pale imitators in that Brooklyn church and even their antecedent, the work of Raphael which became as I earned my art history degree in college, more tame, too perfect, too easy,  Works by Raphael and his contemporaries no longer appealed to me in their perfect idealism.

velazquez_christ Diego Velasquez, Christ Crucified, c.1632, oil on canvas, 67”x98”, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

In contrast, a work such as Christ Crucified by Velasquez is not easily digestible.  It is visceral in its depiction of the taut, muscular, smooth and dying body of Christ and the draining and dripping blood from his wounds.  This painting is not a shrill drama; there is a serenity here despite the painful death on display, a peacefulness heightened by the isolation of the figure against a stark black background.  Nothing distracts us from the simple emotion of the act of Christ’s masochistic sacrifice.  It is like a vision that materializes before the devoted viewer who is deep in prayer.  For me, a Raphael simply does not possess this kind of profound emotion.

As works like the Velasquez stimulated me emotionally and intellectually I had become by that time at 17 or 18 angry and alienated from the Catholic Church because of its misogynistic and homophobic dogma and teachings.  But while I stopped attending church and believing, religious works of art became in a sense my new religion- objects of faith and devotion.  A work such as the Velasquez ( and even the work of Raphael and maybe even those illustrations in that dark Brooklyn church) have for years and centuries been objects of worship and faith.  They are animated and inscribed with the religious emotion of all those people who have seen and felt them.  They are invested with power; Christ Crucified by Velasquez emanates not only an artistic, creative energy, but the spirit of all who have ever viewed it, contemplated it and been touched by it.  It resonates with a faith and desire whether you believe in God or not and one cannot deny its power when you stand before it.

Indeed, the key word here is “desire”, not only in a religious sense, a desire to be one with Christ, but also a sexual one in the spectacular display of Christ’s nearly naked body.  This body in its youth and lithe muscularity appealed to my young queer self (and many others I am sure) twisted through the lens of masochism.  Appealing not only visually as a desirable body, but also as an act of sacrifice, the crucifixion is ultimately a negation of traditional masculinity despite the formation from it of a patriarchal, misogynistic and homophobic Roman Catholic Church.  Christ has always been more radical than the religion(s) that were constructed around his teachings.

manetdeadchrist64 Edouard Manet, The Dead Christ with Angels, 1864, oil on canvas, 70”x59”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Christ’s acceptance of death whether you believe he was divine or not is indeed a profound and radical act.  God dies.  He is not omnipotent, wrathful, vengeful, unapproachable or hierarchical like other gods.  He is a frail human being.  I am often reminded of this truth when looking at Manet’s The Dead Christ with Angels which I always contemplate when I go to the Met.  In this painting, the reality of Christ’s physical death is unavoidable- the bloodless pallor of the skin,, the dead stare of the open eyes, one more open than the other, and the dried wounds of the crucifixion.  The scant halo around the figure’s head seems like an afterthought, overshadowed by the visceral corporeality of the dead body.  There seems to be no hope of resurrection or divinity.

The pair of angels in the work also seem out of place or at least they are not the typical angels of for example a High Renaissance painting.  They are not idealized, but are facially distinct.  Their wings appear ornithologically accurate as if to underline the reality of the dead body displayed.  Or it suggests that they are costumed models with attached wings in an art studio scenario.  The entire painting is  a mockup, a fiction.  It is a painting about religious painting, rather than a religious painting.

Moreover, the wound on Christ’s torso is located on the wrong side.  Manet knew of this error, but did not change it as if to call into question the resurrection narrative of the painting:  God is just dead, not divine and incapable of resurrection.  Religion and representation are in question.  As Nietzsche said, “God is dead, “ killed by the modernity that Manet sought to represent both in form and content in his paintings of Second Empire Paris and after.

Gauguinyellowchrist Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889, oil on canvas, 36”x29”, The Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo.

In contrast to the 1864 Manet, God is certainly not dead in Gauguin’s The Yellow Christ, but mythology and ideology (as in all works of art) are still operating in this striking painting of Post-Impressionism.  Three kneeling women in traditional Breton costume are on one level having a vision of the crucified Christ as they engage in prayer and contemplation.  The brilliant color of the image- the vivid yellow of Christ’s body, the orange of the trees set off against the blues and whites of the female figures contributes to this sense of vision and the otherworldly.

On another level, Gauguin is looking to the countryside, in this case Pont-Aven, Brittany as a way to escape the modern city with all of its pleasures, but also problems.  Tourism is a decidedly late 19th century phenomenon when with the advent of the railroad one could leave the city for a fictitious, bucolic countryside supposedly unaffected by industrialization and the rise of consumer culture.  But this understanding is of course a myth of capitalism and the other. 

There is evidence to suggest that the Bretons revived the wearing of their traditional costume as a way to make Brittany a more popular tourist destination.  It added local color.  The Bretons were selling the picturesque and the quaint.  In this regard, both tourist/viewer and native participated knowingly and unknowingly in constructing the binaries of tourist/other, inside/outside, modern/rustic, city/country, masculine/feminine and so on.  In The Yellow Christ Gauguin is presenting the viewer as tourist what they want to see:  the simple religious devotion of the Breton peasant.  This sense of religious feeling is heightened by the painting’s form- the areas of bright color and the overall flatness of the image.  In the end, Pont-Aven was not far enough away from Paris, from modernity for Gauguin, so he travelled to Tahiti to find another Other, to find paradise, where he enthusiastically spread syphilis to the native population.

My devotion to religious painting continues to this day whether it is the visceral calm and emotional piety of the Velasquez, the paradigm shattering of the Manet or the myth building of the Gauguin.  Each of these works of art to varying degrees are inscribed with the power of the faithful.  They are embedded with devotion.  As with all things that arouse my desire, when I stand or have stood before these paintings I experience a moment of bliss.

The Psychedelic Furs Imitation of Christ