June's Best Television, Art, and Literature
We reviewed STARZ's new series 'The Girlfriend Experience,' Ben Lerner's latest book, the final installment of the Uncharted series, and more.
Women of Abstract Expressionism
Denver Art Museum
In 1945, two years before Jackson Pollock made his first drip paintings, Grace Hartigan, 23, moved to New York City with Ike Muse, her art professor. Muse was there to advance his career in art. Hartigan was tagging along. One night, they threw a party. Muse had hung his paintings throughout the house. A solitary painting by Hartigan hung on the living-room wall. The guests pointed to it and congratulated Muse on his best painting yet. He was furious. He told Hartigan to stop painting. She didn't and eventually moved out.
Hartigan is now considered one of the most important abstract expressionists for her wild use of colour and pop-culture references. (She once joked that Muse taught her more about sex than he did about art.) Several of her most famous paintings—some of which were first collected by the Museum of Modern Art—are part of a new show of more than 50 works called Women of Abstract Expressionism, which opened this month at the Denver Art Museum. Together for the first time are Lee Krasner's voluptuous and explosive The Seasons (1957), Helen Frankenthaler's washed-out and blocky Jacob's Ladder (1957), Jay DeFeo's dense Incision (1958–61), and Elaine de Kooning's violent Bullfight (1959). The show is less comprehensive than its title suggests, focusing only on 12 women from the two coasts. (This is due mainly to space. The paintings—like The Seasons, almost 17 feet long—are enormous). From New York come Krasner, Hartigan, Mary Abbott, and others who worked under the movement's elders, Pollock and Willem de Kooning. But there are also artists from the San Francisco Bay Area art scene, which was more inclusive but less conducive to fame.
In the middle of last century, men—exemplified by Picasso, Matisse, Dalí—got to be great artists. Mistresses were muses. When Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline and other downtown artists started the Club, the famous village hangout, one of the original rules was no women allowed. But there were plenty of them. And they broke the rules. In the words of biographers Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan in the excellent De Kooning: An American Master:
The strongest female figures of the period, refusing to be pitied, became remarkably tough survivors. They often did so not by rejecting the macho of the period, but by embracing it, showing the world that they could out-boy the boys... Joan Mitchell had a mouth that could shame a marine and could be especially cutting about other women. She called Helen Frankenthaler, who was known for staining her unprimed canvas with misty washes of paint, "that tampon painter."
The abstract expressionist movement, which attempted to free itself from figurative language, was largely dismissive of the work of these women, many of whom were accused of being too much in the shadow of more representational European traditions. A critic for ARTnews, writing in 1949 about both the work of Pollock and Krasner, said Krasner's paintings could be seen as an attempt to "tidy up" Pollock's more untamed gestures. Yet reading the show's catalog of the same name, published by Yale University Press, it's clear these artists approached painting with radical intuition. They, too, mined their subconscious for distinct styles, creating, as the curator, Gwen Chanzit, writes in her introduction, "painterly expressions brought on through direct or remembered experience": Frankenthaler with her dreamy color washes, DeFeo with her obsessive layering of paint, Hartigan with her vivid sense of scale, and experiments with the traditions of old masters.
The renewed attention given to these painters, thanks in a large part to recent academic scholarship, may help cast abstract expressionism in a new light. These women pushed the boundaries of the movement in ways Willem de Kooning, who continued to play with figuration, and Pollock, who struggled with what to do after his drip paintings until his tragic death in 1956, didn't. For instance, while the work of artists like Pollock tended to be entirely inward—"I am nature," he famously declared—Hartigan turned toward the world. One early work of hers showed a window display of bridal mannequins arranged similarly to Goya's famous portrait of Charles IV and his family. Her Oranges collaboration with Frank O'Hara, in which she made paintings in response to 12 of his poems, incorporating text from each, reflects how seamlessly painting mixed with poetry within the New York School.
Perhaps they were ignored because many postwar American artists struggled to define themselves against the Europeans, who commanded more legitimacy and respect from the MoMA, gallery owners, and influential collectors like Peggy Guggenheim. But as Pollock and Willem de Kooning's careers began to take off in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the competition intensified. An aggressive artistic character was admired. These gestures on the canvas were crowned for their maleness and, in turn, used to eliminate competition in a small market.
Painted by men or women, the work is still breathtaking in its ambition. Consider Hedda Sterne, who is included in the catalog's thoughtful index. She did not quite define herself as an abstract expressionist, and yet she was the only woman in the movement's famous 1951 Life photo shoot by Nina Leen. In it, she stands on a chair, above the men—she claims she arrived to the shoot late, and the photographer just told her where to go. She stands out, as she said later, "like a feather on top."
Her painting New York, NY, 1955, which she made with enamel and a spray gun, came out of storage last spring for the opening of the new Whitney Museum. It blended right in alongside a Pollock, a de Kooning, and a Rothko. It was about time. —THESSALY LA FORCE
Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
A month before last year's general election, Richard Seymour wrote an article in the London Review of Books entitled "Bye Bye Labour". He placed the Labour Party's ineffectual campaign under the leadership of Ed Miliband in the context of a wider decline in Western social-democratic parties. Labour's acceptance of austerity, its hostility to immigrants and the unemployed, and its confused conception of class – Miliband had just sacked his Shadow Attorney General for tweeting a photo that "conveyed disrespect toward the owner of a white van" – revealed a pathetic indeterminacy. Labour was never going to be as "trusted on the economy" as the Tories or as good at being racist as UKIP. In its perverse imagination, class was not a relationship to capital or wages but a vague, racialised concept involving England fl ags and white vans. Just like the centre-left parties of Europe, it didn't know whom it was supposed to represent or why.
Seymour concluded that if Labour were to lose the 2015 election, which it did, "the result would be demoralising and increase the possibility that the party will ultimately collapse". To make things worse, the Blairites would take over since there was "[no evidence] that a Labour left would emerge from the ruins". Seymour isn't a political pundit – he's better than that – but based on this attempt at divination he's about as accurate as the rest of them. A few months after Labour's loss and Miliband's departure, a radical socialist did emerge from the ruins. Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics is the first serious analysis of Jeremy Corbyn's unexpected ascent to leader of the Labour Party: the conditions that allowed it, the strategies and tactics it renders necessary, and the problems it raises for the left.
As one of the founding editors of Salvage, a journal that exalts the critical value of pessimism, Seymour is well placed to give Corbynmania a sober evaluation: he is sympathetic to Corbyn's politics but brutally honest about his chances. As such, the book's primary function is to puncture the optimism of wide-eyed Corybnistas, the record. What's more typical of Labour is its disavowal of strike after strike, its conservative structure and lack of internal democracy, its persistent nationalism and imperialism, and its takeover by a caste of managerial Thatcherites by the end of the century (ie New Labour). Seymour uses this chronology to put forward a standard communist critique of social democracy – it neutralizes working-class militancy to better manage capitalism – and it's an analysis worth rehearsing. You get the impression he's writing for the many young members who joined Labour in order to vote for Corbyn last year.
In a political culture defined by personality, he recognises the importance of pointing out that the political content of Corbynism can't be separated from the form it takes within the Labour Party. For young people without much formative experience of political parties, this is crucial – and depressing. Grassroots activists and passive members who believe their gentle messiah would deliver a socialist future tomorrow if it weren't for those pesky Blairites. Seymour is more sympathetic to the Blairites than you might expect, reconstructing their anti-Corbyn hysteria into questions worth answering when they contain a grain of truth. He isn't concerned with attacking the usual enemies of parliamentary socialism – the capitalist press or the British military establishment, which threatened a "military mutiny" were Corbyn to get within sight of Downing Street – but with Labour itself.
The book's longest chapter provides a history of the party since its founding in the early twentieth century, arguing that its "way of doing politics... has largely been an experience of failure." Clement Attlee's post-War Labour government, which enshrined the welfare state, is an anomaly in an otherwise pitiable It's not all doom and gloom, though. Despite the concessions Corbyn has made to his party's right wing over the EU, NATO and Labour council spending budgets, there have been positives to his shadow government so far. He has refused to triangulate with UKIP and concede ground to the racist class politics of the "Blue Labour" faction. He has nudged Britain's discourse about refugees in a less sadistic direction. His cabinet has been good at opposing the government – on Syria, on tax credits and more. These are real advances and Seymour defends them with greater passion than the average Labour MP. But what ultimately preoccupies him is the redundancy of traditional centre-left parties – a structural phenomenon that Corbyn can't escape, no matter how "kind" his politics are. Working-class identification continues to decline under generational assaults on trade unions. Low-voter turnout plagues Labour's constituencies. Even if it were able to form a majority in 2020, a Corbyn administration would fi nd itself, like Syriza, outmanoeuvred by global capital. It is for these reasons that Seymour implores the Left to embrace the value of defeat: "There's a generation of work to be done," he writes in the conclusion. Therein is the book's resounding note of pessimism: rather than contradicting the analysis of "Bye Bye Labour", Corbyn's spectacular rise might confirm it.
In Seymour's final diagnosis, Corbynmania is not a sign of Labour's return to health but another symptom of its decline. The Marxist critic Raymond Williams was hostile to the Labour Party throughout his life but once voted for them in the 1970s with the following proviso: "Elect them on Thursday and fight them on Friday." This is the double-spirit that animates Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics. Seymour does not know whether Corbynism will be the first ideology of the twenty-first century or the last of the twentieth. But he finds this uncertainty productive. There is hope in the "decay of British democracy". A new radical opposition could emerge from Labour's ashes because of or in spite of Corbyn's fragile success – one that doesn't seek to simply manage capitalism but imagines a world without it. Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's keep our expectations low.
– YOHANN KOSHY
Foreigner: Migration Into Europe 2015-2016
Daniel Castro Garcia and Tom Saxby
John Radcliffe Studio
One might think that self-publishing a large, beautiful, high-quality photo book about the refugee crisis at a time when there is a regrettable but undeniable degree of compassion fatigue surrounding the issue would be a risky move. Indeed, given that seemingly almost every magazine (including this one), colour supplement and weekend broadsheet regularly carries extended reportage on the horrors faced by those struggling to enter Europe – it seems there may be a genuine challenge for those wanting to cover this immense issue in their own, unique way.
But that is exactly what photographer Daniel Castro Garcia set out to do. As a reaction against the majority of the coverage of the crisis, which he felt to be sensationalist and lacking in feeling, Foreigner is a strange and seductive book. It blends intimate, at times almost surreal, staged portraiture with more traditional news reporting. There is a hard-hitting black and white series covering a group of desperate people coming ashore, eerie still-lifes of items discarded by those on the move, intimate scenes from the daily lives of those whose routines have been upended and unsettlingly beautiful landscape photography. While the effect could, with a less cohesive subject to tackle, come over as fractured, in relation to the issues in hand and in contrast to the majority of work on the subject, the book conveys a feeling of engagement and compassion above newsiness or sterile objectivity.
Foreigner was shortlisted for Mack Books' prestigious First Book Award in April, a success that was followed by a frenetic Kickstarter campaign to cover the book's print costs. But don't let the Kickstarter tag arouse any suspicion of make-do in terms of its production – it feels luxuriant and is a faithful recreation of the original dummy, including the traced maps and faux-passport cover. For an unusual and intimate take on one of the most pressing issues we face today, Foreigner warrants close inspection and succeeds in breaking away from the vast body of reporting on the subject of mass migration.
– BRUNO BAYLEY
The Girlfriend Experience
To watch The Girlfriend Experience is to witness a young woman slowly destroying her life—or is it?
The STARZ drama, executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh and very loosely adapted from his film of the same name, follows Christine Reade (Riley Keough), a 20-something second-year law student who lands an internship at Kirkland & Allen, a Chicago law firm. As the show progresses, she's drawn into the world of high-priced prostitution by a friend and fellow law student, Avery. Christine—who bangs under the nom de guerre Chelsea—has sex and intimate conversation (the girlfriend experience) with rich businessmen in sleek, antiseptic hotel rooms, making thousands of dollars a pop. It hardly seems like a spoiler to say these two lives intersect with disastrous consequences. But while the fallout clearly ruins the lives of many around Christine, its effect on her is more ambiguous—and it's also one of the most interesting aspects of the show.
There's a deep continuity between the soul-crushingly muted vibe of Christine's office and law school and the fancy hotel rooms where Chelsea takes over, and throughout it all, she's unsettlingly opaque, displaying little or no emotion. In a telling moment early on, before she has started sex work, Christine is at a job fair with Avery, memorizing technical terms from intellectual-property cases on index cards. Avery asks her what the phrases mean. "Doesn't matter," Christine replies. "They just want to hear their own words repeated back to them." Of course, when she uses this technique at an interview with Kirkland & Allen, they see right through it—and hire her anyway. She's already a hooker; she's just not a very good one. Toiling at a major law firm is about spinning bullshit and making money, just like selling sex to millionaires, but at least the latter is sometimes interesting and pleasurable. It's hard to resist: As her life at the law firm blows up, Christine fucks corporate America, literally. She doesn't seem to be leaving much behind at Kirkland— she's just trading up from intern to small-business owner.—SOFIA GROOPMAN
How could Democrats win 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in 2012 and still lose the House by 33 seats? Welcome to modern politics in America. In his first book, Ratfucked (a term for political sabotage), David Daley, the editor in chief of Salon, shows how a few Republican operatives and dark-money donors were able to ensure legislative victories that could last through the decade, regardless of the popular vote. It began in 2010, when Republicans flooded local races with cash and took control of a handful of state legislatures, giving them the ability to draw local and congressional district lines that will last until 2022. Using software that compares everything from voters' political preferences to recent online purchases, they gerrymandered districts across the country, allowing them to guarantee Republican wins. But there's more at stake here than just party control, Daley argues. Gerrymandering creates districts so politically uniform that candidates only face a real threat in primaries, which are thought to attract more ideological voters than general elections. Daley believes this forces candidates from either party to become increasingly extreme in order to keep their seats, furthering political polarization. With the new battle to draw political lines approaching, Daley leaves readers wondering what the GOP is up to now. —SARAH MIMMS
In 1965, six years after he covered the Cuban revolution, the photojournalist Lee Lockwood returned to document the country's new socialist system. He traveled with the young Fidel Castro around the country in jeeps, boats, and Soviet helicopters, photographing the charismatic leader giving speeches in tropical downpours, playing dominoes, and smoking cigars. Castro's Cuba—first published in 1967, and now reissued with more than 200 photographs from Lockwood's archives—is a diary of these fourteen weeks, accompanied by a transcript of a wide-ranging weeklong conversation he had with the then 39-year-old ruler. Some of Lockwood's photos are surprisingly intimate: a shirtless Fidel, in army pants and Chucks, flexing his muscles and doing pull-ups; in another shot, he lounges in a track suit, lazily pointing an AK-47 at something (or someone). Though he edited the interview before it was published, Castro welcomed Lockwood's pointed challenge to his utopian aims. He countered by accusing the US of hypocrisy over racial discrimination, money-clogged politics, and the suppression of Communist media. "An enemy of Socialism cannot write in our newspapers," he said to Lockwood. "We don't deny it, and we don't go around proclaiming a hypothetical freedom of the press where it actually doesn't exist, the way you people do." —NATALIE SHUTLER
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
In this final installment of the Uncharted series, Nathan Drake, the adventure seeker, treasure hunter, and amiable cypher, finds himself stuck, for once, in the mundanity of everyday life. He's married and working for a retrieval crew in New Orleans, when his seedy brother, Sam, shows up. Sam, sunken cheeked and sallow, is fresh from 15 years in a Panamanian jail, where Nathan inadvertently left him for dead after a treasure-hunting caper gone wrong. He's in deep with a Mexican drug lord and needs to find a payoff. Before long, the two are in search of a lost pirate treasure. The game is overwhelmingly beautiful, and the environments—17th-century abbeys, seaside Italian villas, lush tropical jungles—are rendered in almost stupefying detail. Yet for all its technological marvels, it feels old-fashioned. At heart, it's essentially an interactive summer blockbuster, part National Treasure, part Indiana Jones. The attempts to give characters more nuance and maturity are admirable, but there's an absurdity to watching Nathan bicker with his brother and wife about the give-and-take of adult relationships while being pursued by mercenaries through an abandoned pirate utopia on an island chain off the coast of Madagascar. —ROSCOE JONES
The Hatred of Poetry
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
"So many people have told me... they don't get poetry in general or my poetry in particular and/or believe poetry is dead," writes Ben Lerner in this slender but capacious new book. His response?
"I, too, dislike it," he says, quoting the poet Marianne Moore. For Lerner, "disliking it" is reasonable because "like so many poets, I live in the space between what I am moved to do and what I can do." Sitting down to write means aspiring to achieve one's vision but knowing failure is the only option; sitting down to read a poem means encountering these yearnings and shortcomings. Ranging from Walt Whitman to Claudia Rankine, Lerner (himself a well-known poet and novelist) shows that poetry cannot do everything we want it to do—for example, "express irreducible individuality" or "defeat time"—but is "no less essential for being impossible." Poetry awakens the "desire for a measure of value that isn't 'calculative'"—and is all the more essential for reminding both writer and reader of the need for alternatives to dollars and utils, no matter how unattainable any alternatives may seem. —JULIAN GEWIRTZ