by Lyle Lofgren
September & October, 1994

[NOTE: One advantage of publishing  journal entries on the web is that I can add links to illustrate what I was writing about at the time. The fact that, in 2009, I have to add explanations that seemed obvious 15 years ago, shows that anybody who writes anything for the future should realize how ephemeral the present is.]

Minneapolis, MN,
September 4, 1994:

Today's New York Times magazine says that the US National Gallery in Washington DC is mounting a Robert Frank retrospective. It's going to be a big deal, traveling to Japan and Europe, then the Whitney Museum in NYC in 1995. I'm surprised we haven't already read in the newspapers that the call-in show hosts are outraged. Robert Frank! Exhibiting his works is an insult to Americans, almost as unthinkable as Rockefeller hiring Diego Rivera to paint a mural at Rockefeller Center. Frank's photos in his book, The Americans (Grove Press, 1959), demonstrated directly that Americans of the 1950s were lost and unhappy. What can Family Values fans, who want to take us back to a 1950s that never was, make of that? Talk about pissing on your crucifix.

[Note added February 2009: This was a reference to a now-forgotten 1989 political flap, where a photograph by Andres Serrano of a statuette of Christ on the Cross in a jar of the artist's urine won an award at a competition sponsored by the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts. Since the Center was partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, a number of US congressmen wanted to shut down the NEA. Fortunately, some other blasphemy came along to distract them before they got around to defunding the arts.]

Frank's values, of course, are not ours. He doesn't want success, and never did. In the 1950s, he called the success-bound photographers, such as Richard Avedon, "Sammys," after Budd Schulberg's novel What Makes Sammy Run? He's still so scared of success that he takes active steps to avoid it. He summers on a bleak seacoast in Nova Scotia where no one bothers him with silly demands, and he smokes marijuana "to relax." Heavens! Doesn't he know better than to keep that sort of information from the newspapers? This is the 1990s, and we're back to worrying about Reefer Madness. An interview in the Minneapolis Star Tribune with cop killer Guy Baker from Mason City, IA, stressed that he liked to smoke marijuana because it eased the pain he'd been feeling ever since he got back from the Kuwaiti Gulf War. You could tell he was weird, because we all know the Gulf War was a painless one -- almost no one got killed. Well, there were about 100,000 Iraqis, but they were almost all citizens, and they were their citizens, not ours, so how could there be any pain?

The newspaper is also reporting that a group of WWII veterans are amassing for a march on Washington to get the Smithsonian to close their exhibit of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb in 1945. Their objection is that the display shows photographs of the type Robert Frank could have taken: corpses strewn all over the place, which is the effect usually produced by an aerial bomb. The veterans are worried that the display will generate sympathy for the Japanese. As one veteran put it, it would imply that "they didn't deserve destruction." Shades of the late 1940s song, When the Atom Bomb Fell, by Karl and Harty:

...And when the smoke had cleared away,
There the cruel Japs did lay,
The answer to a fighting boy's prayer.

The dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were almost all civilians. The protesting veterans say that, since the civilians were the enemy, they were just as guilty as the soldiers. In the journal entry titled Innocence, I wrote about George Gelecinskyj's observation that all victims of a war are innocent victims. But these veterans, since they're both still alive and still filled with hate, cannot be innocent. Robert Frank, un-American as he is, is a perpetual innocent, and so it would perhaps be better for those in power if he were dead. Instead, he uses his camera to express discontent. He once did it by showing faces of 1950s Americans, and now by photographing rock, snow, and sand. These are almost as unsettling: landscapes that are unfit for human habitation. What a thing to be shown in this great nation's capitol city. Piss on a crucifix, indeed.

Alexandria VA & Washington DC,
October, 1994:

I didn't imagine it when writing the above, but an unexpected wedding invitation gave us the excuse to make a dual-purpose trip. I don't find weddings that fascinating, but jumped at the chance to see the Robert Frank photography retrospective, after all. The wedding is in Alexandria VA, where we found a reasonable ($109 / night for a week) kitchenette arrangement with the Guest Quarters Suites there, and they run a van to the Van Dorn Street Station, which is the southern end of the DC Metro Line. Our AAA book lists an $89 / night deal for members. Unfortunately, it turns out to only be available if no one else wants to stay there. The motel was hot property because, the Sunday we left, Alexandria was the site of the Marine Corps Marathon, featuring 16,000 runners, including Oprah Winfrey. I don't suppose she was staying at the Guest Quarters.

The "suite" has a partitioned-off bedroom and another partition for the bathroom, but the kitchen and living areas are the same (a "studio suite", although no artist could ever afford to stay there). There's a TV in the living area, and another in the bedroom, so we can each watch our favorite show. The only problem is that neither Liz nor I have a favorite TV show.

The motel serves a free Continental Breakfast each morning in the dining room, where we can stuff ourselves on sweet rolls and coffee. There are two TV sets in the dining room, too. One lady complained to the bus boy because the only TV set she could see was tuned to the Perpetual Victim Channel, featuring example after example of pitiful people with their tawdry tales of infanticide, parricide, fratricide, esteem abuse, and general bad luck, telling the stories from their own viewpoints, of course. But the complaining lady could only hear the other TV, which was tuned to CNN Headline News. That channel covers only stories of world-class disasters, including the latest House Post Office Scandal. It seems that some congressman, through machinations that are not clear to me and evidently not clear to CNN either, managed to get the House of Representatives's Post Office to pay for his silverware. Well, I don't object to that too much. We got our flatware free, too, after all, by saving cereal box tops back in the 1960's. We had the opportunity from our table to see and hear both shows. I thought of Liz's father Harold. A stroke ruined his brain, but not so much that he could enjoy TV. The attendants at the nursing home wheeled him in front of the Assembly Room TV, but with his one good arm, he could turn the wheelchair so he didn't have to see it. But it's the sound that's really offensive, so irritatingly fatuous. I think TV should be available only with closed captions.

We spent an afternoon wandering around Alexandria's Old Town. The city was fortunate enough to never get urban renewal money to tear down its buildings, so they now have tourist attractions. Down by the Potomac, an old torpedo factory has been turned into an artist's colony, where they pound swords into souvenirs. Each artist is allocated a small fenced-off space for both creating and selling artwork. The artists aren't doing any real creating while you watch them, though. Nobody is smoking weed or drinking bootleg absinthe to fry their brains for artistic inspiration. They're not even drinking cheap chianti in order to use the empty bottle as a candle holder. It's more like the anthropology exhibits they had in the early World's Fairs, where imported Trobriand Islanders sat around carving effigies and hoofing out primitive dances to exotic drumbeats. One nice thing  is that no remodeling has been done to the building; it could be reconverted into a torpedo factory in a matter of months if there were an invasion.

David Brinkley (yes, I do have this attribution correct; it was not Mark Twain) once remarked that Washington DC combines the efficiency of a Southern town with the cordiality of a Northern city. I'm not sure if that's precisely true, but it's an odd place, nonetheless: probably one of the permanently cursed places on earth, like Babylon or Gomorrah. The reason for the curse, I think, is not due to any special iniquities on the part of the inhabitants, but because it was a planned city, designed by only a couple of idealists. Boston, where the street patterns were laid out by cows, may be in just as bad shape financially, and it, too, has a beltway, but no one says mean, insulting things about Boston.

Suburban flight is not just a white phenomenon, and almost any non-caucasian who can land a good enough job to afford to leave Washington is very likely to move to Alexandria. Still, most of the inhabitants are white; almost all of them are middle class; and it has a much more southern feel to it than either Washington DC or the Maryland suburbs to the north. Like its contiguous suburb, Arlington, Alexandria has lots of spinoff government agencies and military bases. George, our van driver, is a taciturn (to us) black man in his 30s. In addition to regular trips to the Van Dorn Metro Station, he makes the rounds of nearby military installations, because Guest Quarters does a brisk business housing visiting generals and colonels. Some of them stay on for months.

George doubles as bellboy and concierge, and I give him a modest tip every time he takes us to the station; the other van passengers give him nothing. I've worked in a restaurant, so I'm highly aware of how dependent service industry workers are on tips. (I also drop small sums of money in the instrument cases of street musicians.) The tip, which is cheaper than a cab, paid off because, when we asked George where to go to get groceries, he drove us to the local supermarket, then came back later to pick us up. But it also makes me uncomfortable, because I can see that, if we were staying longer, we could get a relationship going where he'd drive us anywhere for $2. Virginia is definitely the South, and my facility at playing the role of  Mr. Charlie to his Mr. Bones both amazes and embarrasses me.

Washington DC
The Robert Frank exhibit at the National Gallery is impressive, as we expected, but I don't have much to say about it. His technique is the visual equivalent of letting a self-important boob reveal himself through his own words. I think Washington politicians are relieved that he spends his time in Nova Scotia.

But I learned something about Washington's attitude towards celebrities when I overheard two bookstore clerks at the National Gallery talking about some bigshot (I didn't catch his name) who was in the building:

"Why's he here?"
"To see the Frank exhibit."
"Is he still here?"
"No. He's upstairs having lunch, though, if you want to have a look at him."
"Nah -- it's OK -- I've seen him."

We also looked at some second-rate French impressionist paintings collected by a 3rd-generation Mellon and then the permanent Dutch exhibit, which we visit every time we're in DC. I greatly enjoy Jan Steen's paintings of the Dutch enjoying themselves. It's also good to be reminded that the Minneapolis Art Institute's post-stabbing Lucretia by Rembrandt is better than his pre-stabbing version owned by the National Gallery.

On another day, we went to my favorite exhibit space, the Phillips Collection (not a museum or a gallery, but a "collection"). It's housed in two adjacent mansions of the northeastern type: that is, they are more like townhouses than the sprawling plantation houses that mansions become when they're built farther out in the country. Every room has several chairs. They assume you will want to sit and watch the paintings in each room. They're all worth looking at. The permanent collection has some genuine masterpieces. There are 3 excellent Van Goghs. There's a wonderful Monet of some large rocks by the sea in a mist that's illuminated by a sun that's just breaking through. Most famously of all, there's Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, which would continue to astonish me even if I saw it every single day of my life. They have some nice Bonnard paintings, too. The only duds are by Braque and Juan Gris, but I don't think either of them ever painted an interesting picture, anyway.

They had a separate gallery for the paintings of Marjorie Phillips (Mrs. Duncan Phillips) (1894 - 1985), who was born 100 years ago this year, and was no slouch, either. She did some wonderful landscapes ala Cézanne, but her mistresspiece is a painting of a night baseball game between the Washington Senators and the New York Yankees. She got the green of the night-lit grass just right.

The temporary exhibit was a series of "pictographs" made by Adolph Gottlieb in the 1940s, influenced by African and Southwest American Indian art. A lot of them are not obvious as to what they mean. To be more precise, the symbols are obvious, but they're fenced off from each other so there's no longer a pictographic message. The lack of a message was Gottlieb's main departure from real traditional art. He certainly wasn't just copying.

An explanatory plaque listed some Adolph Gottlieb quotes from 1947:

"Certain people say we should go back to nature. I notice they never say we should go forward to nature. It seems to me they are more concerned that we should go back than about nature."

"If the models we use are the apparitions seen in a dream or the recollection of our prehistoric past, is this less a part of nature or realism than a cow in a field? I think not."

"The role of the artist has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images. Today, when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of a neurosis which is reality. To my mind, so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time."

"I'll drink to that," as DeKooning said, over and over again. Or, as Karel Appel said, "I paint like a barbarian for a barbaric age."

I learn a lot by overhearing what other people say. This trip, I found two examples to add to my collection:

1. Two MAWDLs (Middle-Aged Well-Dressed Ladies) were viewing the Gottliebs:

MAWDL#1: I like these better than the abstract expressionist they showed last year at the National Gallery.
MAWDL#2: Who was that?
MAWDL#1: I don't remember his name, but he specialized in painting voluptuous ladies.

Now who but Dr. Rorschach would be able to decide that an abstract expressionist is painting voluptuous ladies?

2. Down in the Phillips gift shop, we ran into a bonus: two other MAWDLs who came in off the street to shop, but were not interested in seeing the exhibits:

MAWDL#1: (scanning the postcard rack): Where's Luncheon of the Boating Party? It's the most famous painting they have here. You'd think they'd have a postcard of it.
LIZ (helpfully): Here it is.
MAWDL#1 to MAWDL#2: Look at this. Luncheon of the Boating Party. The most famous painting in the museum. This painting is world-famous.
MAWDL#2: Oh, I have a better one than that at home, in my living room. I got it framed and everything.
MAWDL#1: What painting is that?
MAWDL#2: I don't remember. It's much prettier than this one. It's some ladies in dresses. I picked it because of the lovely soft colors. I saw it and I loved it and I bought it already framed. Well, actually, my decorator bought it.
MAWDL#1(sneering): Ladies in dresses. Sounds like John Singer Sargent. It must be a print, though.
MAWDL#2 (agreeably): Maybe that's who it's by. Yes, I suppose it's a print.
MAWDL#1 (still flourishing postcard): Well, this is a real painting, and it's world-famous.