Giving Back Works of Art

As most of you know, my weekly column in the Waco Tribune-Herald came to an end last spring.  Over the summer, I began doing a short weekly show on our NPR station here in Waco that is basically a radio version of the column. Since then, I sporadically sent out the link via email, but never hit a rhythm in which I was doing it each week.  In the New Year, however, I’m returning to the practice that happily kept me in touch with so many of you throughout the years of my column.
Here’s this week’s show, asking whether big museums have any obligation to give pieces of art back to places they came from.  It seems perhaps that a growing number of politicians, at least, think such pieces should be returned.
Warm regards and Happy New Year.

Art for the Fourth of July

Along with the patriotic parades, fireworks, and cooking hot dogs on the grill, celebrating the Fourth of July always makes me think of four distinctively American paintings.  Three of them are, perhaps, to be expected.  The first one is John Trumbull’s famous painting of the Declaration of Independence being presented to the Continental Congress.  The second one is Emanuel Leutze’s stirring scene of George Washington crossing the Delaware River during the Revolution.  And the third is John Singleton Copley’s 1768 portrait of a pensive Paul Revere.  And the fourth one—we’ll come back to that.

John Trumbull, Declaration of Independence, 1817-1819. US Capitol Rotunda.

Ironically, the holiday also makes me think of the work of the great Russian abstractionist Kazimir Malevich.  Of all the artists of the Russian avant-garde, none was more serious than he about there being a transcendent spirituality in art, and nobody pressed a minimalist kind of abstraction further.  He worked his way through different styles before really hitting his stride around 1915.

Kazimir Malevich, The Knife-Grinder, 1912-1913.  Yale University Art Gallery.

But suddenly the last paintings he did toward the end of his life were heavy-handed pictures of Soviet peasants tilling the soil.  The state was telling him what he had to paint.

Many of the generation of abstract painters to which Malevich belonged had to flee the Soviet Union for their lives.  Under Josef Stalin, Modernism was condemned as degenerate and those painters who didn’t fall in line were shipped off to a Siberian gulag or simply shot.

After being interrogated and tossed in jail for two years, Malevich avoided a grimmer fate by abandoning the abstraction about which he felt so strongly and following the line of Socialist Realism, the only style that met with official approval.

Kazimir Malevich, The Reapers, 1929.

Being forced by the government to abandon his creativity and instead serve the ideals of the state or forfeit his life was a horrible abuse of both art and artist.

This sad culmination of Malevich’s career is the reason that I think of the fourth painting on my Fourth of July list:  Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist,” my favorite of his controversial “drip” paintings.  While Pollock wasn’t political with his art, the freedom evident by the spattered paint on his huge canvases is a testimony for me of the absolute value of American freedom.

We’re all familiar with the occasional controversies over censorship that sometimes erupt when government and art nudge up next to each other here in the United States.  Most of us have also seen a painting or two that we think is an affront to decency, good taste, or art in general.  But such episodes aside, the freedom that American artists enjoy is another cause for us to celebrate the birth of the United States on July 4th.

Jackson Pollock, Number One, 1950 (Lavender Mist), 1950.  National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.


New John Coltrane, 55 years later….

What if there were one more Shakespeare comedy out there featuring Benedick and Beatrice that we didn’t know existed?  What if there were another novel by Willa Cather set out on the plains of Nebraska that referenced characters in My Antonía, packed away in a forgotten trunk somewhere?  What if there were one more vivid painting by Van Gogh that was instantly recognizable because of the way he handled a brush and layered his paint?

On June 29, something very much like all of these, encompassing in its own way each of these possibilities, will finally see the light of day for the first time in over 55 years:  a previously unreleased album by jazz giant John Coltrane, recorded on March 6, 1963. Coltrane and the other three players in what was known as his “classic” quartet were right in the middle of a two-week gig at a famous jazz club in Manhattan called Birdland when they came over to a small New Jersey studio and recorded seven different tunes.  After the session Coltrane himself took a tape of what they’d done home with him.  Then it simply disappeared, apparently forgotten or at least set aside in light of the other projects and recording sessions that the quartet had scheduled.

The recording wound up with a collection of other tapes that were in the possession of the family of Coltrane’s first wife whom he had married in 1955.  The two broke up in 1963 with Coltrane moving out of their house just a few months after this recording session took place.  He died in 1967.

Since the mid-1970s a few people knew the recording was out there somewhere, but it wasn’t finally tracked down until 2004.  Jazz great Sonny Rollins, a friend of Coltrane’s, compared the recording to finding a new room in the Great Pyramid.  Coltrane’s son Ravi helped prepare it for release and said thatin 1963 his father and his quartet were approaching the height of their musical powers, and the playing here is indeed self-assured, creative, and solid.  “On this record,” he said, you get a sense of John “with one foot in the past and one foot headed toward his future.”

The new album is fittingly entitled Both Directions at Once because it sets us down between albums we already knew existed and lets us look forward and backward to sense an evolution.  It’s fully formed complete album, in other words not a collection of outtakes or bootleg recordings.  It links his earlier concentration on melodic improvisations—he recorded versions of “My Favorite Things” and “Summertime” in 1961—and his later embrace of avant-garde free jazz, best exemplified by his astonishing and deeply spiritual album A Love Supreme which he recorded with this same line-up of players in 1964 and which is regarded as one of the most original and acclaimed albums of all time.

Happily for impatient people like me, iTunes has made one of the cuts from the album available early and I’ve been listening to it as I write this.  It’s a tune labeled only as #11383.  Before it begins you can hear the engineer ask “It’s an original isn’t it?” and Coltrane answer “Yeah,” from the studio floor.  The playing is immediately recognizable as him.  On this cut he’s playing soprano sax, and the sound is sparkling, with crystal clear differentiation between the piano, bass, and drums.  This is the only time this song was ever recorded and the world apparently knew nothing of its existence until now.  There are two more originals here as well, songs that were never recorded again. The album also contains the only known studio versions of his live gig landmark numbers “Impressions” and “One Up, One Down.”

On the radio earlier this week, I spoke about how knowing an artist’s influences helps make sense of what she or he creates.  It illuminates for us the context in which new art exists.  In the same way, knowing the steps through which an artist passes as he reacts to his own work also reveals a great deal, particularly in terms of how an individual artist develops through time.  What we hear in this new Coltrane album enlarges our appreciation of his gifts by filling in a step in his development that was up until now a silent gap. And it lets us much more from an artist from whom we thought we had heard all there was to hear.