A year ago today, Hurricane Sandy made landfall along the eastern coast of the United States, and slammed into New York City with full force. The rest is all-too-familiar history. Most everyone thinking clearly about the future understands that cycles of extreme weather will be a regular feature of New York’s urban landscape. What remains unclear is how the city will respond. What measures have been taken to prepare for the next big hurricane? What still needs to be done? What political obstacles to optimal disaster preparedness remain?
On November 18, I’ll be hosting a conversation at The City College of New York with Joseph F. Bruno, Commissioner of New York City’s Office of Emergency Management, where these questions and others will be debated and discussed. We will talk about the politics of disaster preparedness, and the ways in which the city is planning for future episodes of devastatingly extreme weather. The event will take place at CCNY in Shepard Hall, Room 558 from 5:30-7:00pm. The discussion with Commissioner Bruno is free and open to the public. Interested guests are asked to RSVP here. Space is limited, so don’t delay.
I hope to see some of you there.
The most significant art exhibit on view in New York at the moment is “Iran Modern,” a beautifully curated show that opened recently at the Asia Society. The exhibit symbolizes something of a breakthrough for the United States, marking the first major museum show in the country dedicated to modern Iranian art. There’s a lot to like. In contrast to the uninspired “American Modern” retrospective down the road at MoMA, which fails to register a pulse despite its abundance of top-shelf art, “Iran Modern” is focused, exciting and, by turns, revelatory.
The exhibition showcases roughly one hundred works of painting, sculpture, and photography produced in Iran between 1945 and 1979. Taking root in the years immediately following the Allied withdrawal from the country at the close of World War II, Iranian modernism flowered for thirty years until Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept into power on the crest of revolution. These were, themselves, years of revolution. Iranian artists struggled with and celebrated the intensity of the socioeconomic and cultural modernization experienced by the country in the postwar era, establishing radical new modes of expression in response to these changes and managing to carve out an aesthetic space for themselves that was at once fully modernist and entirely Persian. And yet, the three decades of Iranian modernism following the Second World War have received curiously short shrift from critics and scholars alike.
“American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe,” is a show in search of a purpose. The exhibit, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art last week and runs through January 2014, gathers together some 115 paintings, photographs, and sculptural works by American artists between 1915 and 1950, a year before the 9th Street Art Exhibition inaugurated the age of abstract expressionism and New York School hegemony. Had it been given more careful curatorial consideration the exhibition could have been one of the most important of the year. Disappointingly, it falls short.
“American Modern” features some outstanding work, almost all of it drawn from the museum’s permanent collection. Striking paintings by Stuart Davis, Max Weber, and Joseph Stella sit alongside gorgeous prints by Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Paul Strand, and Charles Sheeler (whose “White Barn, Buckstown, Pennsylvania,” a masterwork of black and white photography, is the best of the bunch). Also included are weaker efforts from George Bellows, Peter Blume and John Marin. Not surprisingly, ample room is given to Georgia O’Keeffe—including her stunning watercolor, “Evening Star No. III”—and Edward Hopper, a pair that should ensure the exhibit’s box office success throughout the fall. Hopper’s “House by the Railroad,” better known as the Bates Mansion from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, will draw the tourist hordes on its own.
All the more remarkable, then, that MoMA’s curators were unable to establish a center of gravity to ground their American showcase. The near total absence of text throughout the exhibit suggests they didn’t even try. Instead, visitors are paraded past one chunk of work after another—here are the O’Keeffes, there the Marsden Hartleys; Jacob Lawrence’s work sits in this corner, Charles Burchfield’s is hung in that one across the room. While there is some interplay between the various works as they have been arranged, it becomes clear pretty quickly that “American Modern” has neither rhythm nor anchor.
I was privileged to team up with my friend Bree Zuckerman, far and away the sharpest Zim observer I know, on an essay examining Zimbabwe’s recent nationwide elections, for Warscapes.
Zimbabwe’s nationwide elections passed without bloodshed last month, but they were not free from controversy. On July 29, citizens went to the polls to elect a president and parliamentary representatives in the first electoral contest since 2008, and the first since Zimbabwe introduced a new constitution earlier this year. Tensions were running high. The candidates for the nation’s highest office were the same as they were in 2008, when Morgan Tsvangirai, running on the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) ticket, squared off against the incumbent, Robert Mugabe of the ruling ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Political Front).
Five years ago, Tsvangarai narrowly edged out Mugabe in a three-way race for the presidency. Having failed to win an outright majority with 48 percent to Mugabe’s forty-three, however, Tsvangarai and the MDC were forced into a second round runoff. Before voters returned to the polls, the country witnessed violence and intimidation directed at opposition supporters. Hundreds of Zimbabweans were victimized by state-sponsored human rights abuses and threats against their lives. Hundreds more were rounded up by security forces and thrown into detention. Tsvangarai eventually pulled out of the race in the name of his constituents’ safety, and was ultimately named prime minister in a power sharing agreement brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki.
Tucked away in the furthest reaches of its American wing, the Metropolitan Museum currently has a nifty little show on view. “Legends of the Dead Ball Era,” an exhibit of early-issue baseball cards, quietly opened in July as part of a wider push to celebrate this year’s All Star Game at Citi Field in Queens. It’s also the latest in a string of card shows sponsored by the Met over the last year. “Legends” follows directly on the heels of “A Sport for Every Girl,” which featured cards of women athletes from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before that, the museum hosted a remarkable show celebrating the first black players to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
As the title of this most recent exhibit indicates, the cards on display date from the so-called “dead ball era,” a period when home runs were rarely hit, and when the small-change tactics of today’s game—bunting, stealing, and working bases on balls—were the chief engines of run production. It was also an era when unusually colorful and capable players like Shoeless Joe Jackson, Cy Young, Christy Mathewson and the heinous Ty Cobb roamed the diamond. In short, the Dead Era was also the first of the game’s great eras. It’s these players, and dozens of others that history has forgotten, whose cards currently grace the museum walls.
What the Met has chosen to exhibit for this show represents no more than a sliver of its total collection. The museum houses some 30,000 cards, an assortment widely considered second only in size and scope to that stored at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. The museum’s holding includes some treasures: gorgeous tobacco and confectionary cards dating as far back as the 1880s, the marvelous Cracker Jack series cards with their blood red backgrounds, and, most famously, the rarest card on earth—a T-206 Honus Wagner, the Holy Grail of baseball card collecting. More astonishing still, the collection represents the life’s work of a single man.
By way of small celebration, I spent some time this morning with Notes of a Native Son, and re-read Lavelle Porter’s excellent piece on Baldwin’s uncollected writings in Cross of Redemption, along with this interview Baldwin gave to The Paris Review. Worthy reads, all.
Happy birthday, James Baldwin. Rest in power.
The internet came alive this past week with reaction to word out of Mexico that Miguel Angel “Z-40” Treviño Morales—leader of the sensationally violent Zetas cartel—has been arrested. The capture is big news. Aside from Chapo Guzman, the world’s wealthiest drug trafficker, Z-40 was the most wanted man in Mexico. Even the United States got in on the action, offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest. And still, the takedown of one of the most sadistic criminal bosses in Mexico was surprisingly peaceful. Not a shot was fired during Treviño’s apprehension, an astonishing detail considering the increasingly violent confrontations between traffickers and security forces in recent weeks.
The commentary surrounding Treviño’s capture has been predictable, principally falling into two categories. One argues that the recent arrests of Treviño and other crime bosses signals the progress and efficacy of Mexico’s “kingpin” crime-fighting strategy, and vindicates the approach taken to the drug war by President Enrique Peña Nieto. The second suggests that, sensational arrests aside, the strategy will prove ineffective and possibly counterproductive over the long haul (a position with which I personally sympathize). As the Institute for Policy Studies’ Sanho Tree recent told Rolling Stone, “On the trafficking side of things, it’s going to have little to zero effect, and in fact it may ultimately exacerbate it in terms of lowering the barriers to entry for rivals.” In other words, violence is going to continue; drug flows will remain robust.