Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Christmas is coming

My longtime faithful readers know that every year I make personalized Christmas ornaments for my family and friends.  Often the task of actually making the ornaments is less onerous than the task for figuring out what to make, because after 40+ years of this project, when every year has to be different from the ones before, it gets harder and harder to come up with new ideas.  But this year I was fortunate to be browsing around in the craft store when I found some raw materials that suggested their own finished product.

This week I got down to business, found all the necessary tools and supplies -- and didn't even have to go to the store to buy anything new -- and started work.

So far, things are proceeding smoothly.  I did have a near-disaster over the weekend, when I reached for a tube of paint and was dismayed to find that it had spurted a leak at its base and there was a huge blob of yellow on the front of my shirt.  I raced to the sink and scrubbed and scrubbed with a vegetable brush, and I think got it all out (haven't run it through the wash yet).  But at least it didn't spring its leak in its previous position, on the carpet.

Many little beads have escaped onto the floor, but one of these days I'll send Isaac down with a flashlight and a little dish and let him retrieve as many as he can.

For several years I've also been making an ornament for one of my blog readers.  If you would like to be in the running this year, just leave a comment on the blog between now and Friday midnight.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

My favorite things 46

Four months after we got married we moved to Germany, and my parents seized upon the opportunity to come visit us the next summer.  It was Mom's first trip to Europe, and Dad's first since he was in the Army in WW2.  In subsequent years they traveled the world but for this first expedition were happy to have a home base, a chauffeured car and personal guides.

The chauffeured car was nothing to write home about: a VW hatchback, only slightly larger than the classic bug.  When all four of us, with our luggage, piled in there was barely room to breathe, but we were all much younger then and soldiered through.  We picked them up from the ship in Bremerhaven and then drove around for a couple of weeks through Northern Germany and Denmark.

In Copenhagen we split up, men adjourning for beer while women went shopping.  Mom and I were both enamored of Scandinavian design and we wandered around drooling over all manner of furniture, china, housewares, textiles and glass.  Mindful of the tiny car we had to return home in, we bought a couple of tiny dishes, small enough to fit in your pocket.  But then we came upon a small table, dark wood with an inlaid copper top.  The copper was incised in a shallow bas relief, with an abstract pattern that was at once organic and industrial in feeling.

I fell in love.  But how would I get it home?  We asked the clerk if the legs came off.  No.  We asked the clerk if they could ship it to Germany.  Yes, for three times the cost of the table, which was a non-starter.  We left.  We came back, so I could stroke the copper top again.  Do you suppose the legs really don't come off?  So we turned it over, and guess what?  The legs came off!

So we took the table home, in pieces, held on my lap in the backseat for 1000 kilometers.  It has sat next to my living room chair, whichever chair that might be, for 46 years.  It really could stand to be refinished, at least the wooden part; the copper looks as beautiful as the day it was born.

The moral of the story, of course, is persistence, and/or skepticism: even when the clerk says the legs don't come off, turn it over and look for yourself. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Chicago art 1 -- early work

Many artists become famous for some easily recognizable technique, subject or approach -- and when you see their early work, quite different, it's a surprise.  I found several examples in my recent Chicago museum extravaganza.

First, at the Art Institute, Jackson Pollock, before he started flinging paint in spatters.  Here he is one year earlier, with an almost-landscape, almost-still-life.  He was working on the floor rather than vertically, but a long way from his signature style.

Jackson Pollock, The Key, 1946

Also at the Art Institute, Robert Ryman, who went on to explore every conceivable permutation of all-white painting.  Here he was working predominantly in white, but underneath the white, definite colors visible as a background.

Robert Ryman, Untitled, 1962 (detail below)

Finally, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, here's Jeff Koons -- yes, famous for his renderings of himself in flagrante with his porn-star wife, Michael Jackson and his chimp, and highly polished balloon dogs -- in a very different character.  It's a formalist tableau of vacuum cleaners and fluorescent lights in plexi cases (and very hard to photograph; you can either get the camera to see the appliances or the bulbs, but not both).

Jeff Koons, New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10-gallon Displaced Tripledecker, 1981-87

And another early Koons, in which he suspended three basketballs in a tank of water with exactly enough sodium chloride added so that the balls float at the same level:

Jeff Koons, Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Dr. JK Silver Series), 1985  

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Chicago architecture 1

We took a walking tour of Chicago architecture that focused on mid-century modernist buildings, including the Daley Plaza of three federal buildings.  In a corner they built an eternal flame, quite unassuming to my eye, considering all the people it commemorates.

It was a cold day.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

My favorite things 45

Although I own plenty of things whose only function in life is to sit there and look beautiful, I love souvenirs that work.  And best of all are free souvenirs that work.

Consider the humble beer mat.  While the customary American beer mat is inscribed with the name of the restaurant or bar, the customary European beer mat, like the customary European beer glass, is inscribed with the name of the beer.  When we lived in Germany in the 1970s we started acquiring beer mats by accident, and some time later I started acquiring them on purpose.  I own several dozens, small piles of them conveniently situated around the house within reach of any place you might ever want to sit down and park your drink. 

Since I've been officially collecting (a much nicer word than stealing, don't you think?) beer mats I have gotten many that are in relatively virgin condition, but the most precious are the ones that have been with us since Germany.

 It's amazing how tough those old mats are -- some of them are kind of beat up, and some have faded a bit, but they keep on trucking.  Some day I may retire them to use as art materials, but for now I'm just as happy to use a vintage mat as a nice new one.  Although I don't remember exactly where and when I grabbed most of them, they bring back fond generalized memories of pleasant hours of leisure and cameraderie.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Handwork in miniature

The Art Institute of Chicago is known for its collection of 68 miniature dioramas depicting rooms from different places and times.  They were made after extensive research into the authentic furniture and architecture styles, and crafted meticulously in the 1930s under the direction of Mrs. James Ward Thorne, a rich benefactor of the museum.

The rooms are done to a scale of one inch to one foot, and situated low in the walls, with a convenient step beneath each one so small visitors can get a good view.

I was intrigued to see that the inhabitant of the New England Bedroom, 1750-1850, was at work on an embroidery in a standing hoop.

It's apparently an allover floral design, only half finished.  And what a bright, sunny, spacious room in which to sit with your needle in front of the fireplace!