Amiri Baraka in his apartment in Harlem, New York, in 1966. Photo: Bob Adelman.
SOME BLUISH NOTES ON AMIRI BARAKA
“If my letter re your poem sounded crusadery and contentious I’m sorry. But I have gone deep, and gotten caught with images of the world, that exists, or that will be here after we go. I have not the exquisite objectivity of circumstance. The calm precise mind of Luxury. . . . I can’t sleep. And I do not believe in all this relative shit. There is a right and a wrong. A good and a bad. And it’s up to me, you, all of the so called minds, to find out. It is only knowledge of things that will bring this ‘moral earnestness.’ ”
On the stars
On your head
—William J. Harris, “The Western Philosopher”
ON JANUARY 18, with bagpipes and African drums, singers, one tap dancer, and many speakers—including, poets, politicians, and community activists—the life and art of Amiri Baraka was celebrated at a four-hour funeral service at Symphony Hall in Newark; he died January 9 at the age of seventy-nine. It is hard to believe he has left us so soon. Each time I saw him he was so alive and vital, especially in performance. He was a fighter and an artist to the end. Since the mainstream never understood Amiri, it surprises me that there has been such a mainstream response to his death, including the front page of the New York Times. It seems like the cultural establishment realized something important had happened whether they understood it or not. But what really heartens me is the insightful comments by such people as Ishmael Reed, Questlove, Greg Tate, and Richard Brody, and in such strange places as Ebony, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal. And Ish Reed is right in his Wall Street Journal post: The mainstream has ignored Baraka’s important work after the 1960s. In spite of the narrow-minded dumbness that has been floating around about Baraka, he has made his mark on our time.
Baraka was a great artist in many areas, including poetry, music criticism, the novel, and nonfiction. But I want to talk about him as an anti-colonial writer, a man who wanted to see the world from his point of view and not the master’s. What I have always loved about Amiri was his superiority to the white power structure, or any power structure. In short, he was doing the judging. As he says in Home: Social Essays, he refuses to “merely tag. . . along reciting white judgments of the world.”
To fully understand Baraka’s project, we need to revisit W. B. Du Bois’s key concept of the double consciousness. In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois famously observes: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” This is a profound insight into the minority mind—or perhaps any mind that does not control the world. Amiri’s art has tried to destroy the double consciousness, has tried to see the world through his own eyes—eyes embedded in a particular body and place (culture).
There is much of Baraka’s work that is not as well known as it should be and I would like to make a few suggestions. See his recent Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music (2009), where he continues to both write about music and use his words like music, and Tales of the Out & Gone, (2006), where he continues to write “gone” stories, relatives to free jazz. Also look at the finally released Amiri Baraka & Edward Dorn: The Collected Letters (2013), which lets the reader witness two American intellectuals, one black, one white, frankly discussing race and justice in our country at a crucial moment in the ’60s. On the Internet, check out Baraka in performance at PennSound, where you move from reading the score to listening to the music. A real treat.
Ah, after thinking about Amiri I feel he is right here in the room with me.
William J. Harris is creative writing director and associate professor of English at the University of Kansas and editor of The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (1991). You can listen to his talk “Amiri Baraka’s Blues People at Fifty” at the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University here.
CHARLES POLLOCK, creator of what is roundly considered the best-selling chair in the history of modern office design, lived several lifetimes in the course of his eighty-three years. While his talent was legion, Pollock was also bipolar, which ruled out the traditional apprenticeship-to-partner-to-namesake-studio track followed by many of his peers. But then he rarely followed established patterns: He made small fortunes and lost them, and left behind little in the way of archives. Anecdotes of his unfiltered, larger-than-life persona abound, but given the unconventional circumstances of his life—and later, his death—it’s difficult to get a true picture of the man behind the legacy.
Charles “Chuck” Pollock was born in 1930 in Philadelphia, and as a young man worked on the floor of the Chrysler factory in Detroit. He attended the illustrious Cass Technical High School, then Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, on scholarship, graduating in the school’s first industrial design class in 1953. He impressed George Nelson enough to earn a spot in the legendary designer’s atelier, and helped develop Nelson’s signature Swag Leg profile. Pollock notoriously caught the attention of Florence Knoll by knocking her over—literally—with a chair prototype. She hired him, seeing promise in a draft of what would become Pollock’s 657 Lounge, introduced in 1961. Just two years later, Knoll released Pollock’s seminal Executive Chair—which sports a pedigree both academic (residing in MoMA’s permanent collection) and popular (featuring in the décor of AMC’s Mad Men). In a later interview, Pollock described his process as one of intelligent fiddling: “You don’t make this arm shaped like that because it is beautiful just by itself. You are integrating an awful lot of different elements all at once… I mean, you just fiddle with it forever and run back and forth to the factory and talk to Mrs. Knoll forever until finally it just gels.”
Charles Pollock’s designs for Penelope, produced by Castelli.
The Executive Chair proved so successful that Pollock lived off royalties for almost two decades while traveling around Europe and tinkering with nascent design ideas, sculptures, and prototypes. While skiing in Italy, he met the Castelli family—owners of an Italian office furniture manufacturing company since 1877—who produced his steel-mesh and wire-frame Penelope chair in 1982. Though he kept developing ideas in the intervening years, the passive ergonomic structure he created for Castelli was Pollock’s last full-fledged design to hit the market until 2012, when his CP Lounge chair—produced in collaboration with North Carolina–based Bernhardt Design—earned him late accolades and introduced his name to a new generation of design aficionados. The designer was still hard at work when he died in a fire at his Queens studio in August 2013. And even now, the powerful momentum of his extraordinary talent continues to move forward; Bernhardt will release a new piece, which he designed during his last year, this May, during the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York.
Kelsey Keith is a senior editor at Dwell magazine.
Charles Pollock in 2012.
HAVE YOU EVER KNOWN someone so talented in their chosen field that their formal education seemed redundant?
In 1949, after two years at St. Lawrence University, I entered Pratt Institute’s foundation year in the school of art and design. I found myself in a three-dimensional abstraction class with a very tall student with the head and body of an Italian Renaissance David. I remember that once the instructor, Rowena Reed Kostellow, started reviewing his work, everyone else just assumed her time would be occupied for the remainder of the class, and we should just leave. Yet there was no animosity because we all knew his work was exceptional and he was good-natured, loud, quirky, and driven. That student was Charles Pollock. Today, he is renowned as a designer of beautiful furniture, but his road to that success was one of unbelievable difficulty.
In the 1950s, after graduating from Pratt, I was a designer with the George Nelson office, recognized for its work in architecture and furniture along with product, interior, and graphic design. One of our clients was Herman Miller, a furniture company manufacturing top-of-the-line avant-garde residential and office furniture. The Nelson office had done some iconic designs, among them the Coconut Chair and the Marshmallow Sofa, and Charles Eames and Isamu Noguchi were among those designing furniture for them. With a classmate from Pratt, also in the office, I decided to convince George that he should hire Charles (or “Chuck,” as his friends called him at that time). George agreed, and Chuck took his seat directly behind me. Unfortunately, Chuck had had bipolar disorder all his life and, although I had only been remotely aware of it, in an office environment his quirkiness proved to be a problem. His conversations with himself were shared with everyone, to the point that George asked Chuck to see if working at home would be an acceptable solution. So the seat behind me became empty.
Time went by and I married, had a daughter, and continued designing. I noticed Chuck’s designs advertised but never with his name attached and wondered why. Much later, after several chance meetings with some who had stayed in closer contact with him, I found that he had married and divorced. He had given up everything, including an expensive East Hampton house. Nothing mattered to him but his work. He once said he was married to his work, and it is what kept him going. Without it, he might not have survived all those years.
About ten years ago, Charles invited me for dinner to his studio, which was filled with his drawings, sketches, models, and other paraphernalia. I arrived and we talked and talked. Eventually he said he had to check on something in the kitchen, and just then the odor of burning potatoes drifted into the room. So we went back to talking and forgot about dinner. The conversation was more nourishing than the meal would have been.
I’ve always thought of Chuck as a force of nature. His early years might have destroyed a less strong character. Even at the end of his life, with typical age-related health problems and requiring a walker, nothing reduced his determination. And, in spite of his talent, it was only very recently that he was able to take his well-deserved place in the design world. “Who is Charles Pollock?” I would hear someone ask from time to time, and for years, no one really knew. Imagine my joy when I received a call three years ago from Jerry Helling, president and creative director of Bernhardt Furniture, a major manufacturer of a quality product, inquiring about a “Charles Pollock,” the fourth “Charles Pollock” he had chased down, who seemed to be the designer of a beautiful Knoll chair he had seen in offices and conference rooms all over the world. Jerry Helling’s refusal to stop looking led to the beautiful and successful chair design introduced by Bernhardt at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City in the spring of 2012. Chuck’s name is now associated with that design, and finally with many of his other timeless designs, all exhibited at that show. Some manufacturers still refuse him credit for work done in the past. But times are changing. Today the profession of industrial design is gaining importance—partly due to Chuck’s own pioneering work. This means that designers are included from the very beginning of a product’s development and that, more often, credit is given where it’s due.
Lucia de Respinis is a professor of industrial design at the Pratt Institute, New York.
WHAT TO SAY ABOUT SETH? He was pretty unique: such an intriguing mixture of hard-headed businessman and creative innovator. No nonsense, but plenty of lousy jokes. Though we stayed in touch for the rest of his life, I knew him best the two or three years before he absconded to Europe. Apologies to Lawrence Weiner, Bob Barry, Joseph Kosuth (and Doug Huebler, wherever you are), but I’ve always felt that Seth was the co-inventor of our particular brand of Conceptual art because distribution was such a huge part of its trajectory, built into the innovative forms many of you came up with. He offered a new context, a way for artists to bypass the institutions, the art world’s rites of passage—group show, solo gallery show, reviews, collectors, museum shows, fame. You all moved out into the world by ignoring the sacred cows, outrunning the critics and curators, and corralling some daring collectors. The “March, 1969” show, which took place all over the world at the same time, one work for each day in the month, and announced its existence in a calendar and documentation; the Studio International issue, which Seth edited and gave several curators (I was among them) a chance to try out similarly conceptual strategies; the “Xerox Book”; and all the artists’ books—a medium that was just being recognized as art. I’m not trying to give a history lesson here, but these innovations were all way ahead of their time. Or rather they made the times what they were: exciting, cantankerous, adventurous, outrageous, full of energy and new ideas and political revelations.
In the winter of 1968–69, when I met Seth, I had some similar ideas about dematerialization and alternative modes of getting art out into the world but not a clue about how to make them function. His models combined with the actions and activities of the Art Workers’ Coalition (we were both involved at the beginning) and all the artists cutting loose from the so-called establishment, were a big influence on my own work. He was a generous and egoless collaborator; among other things he helped publish the index card “catalogues” for my Numbers shows in 1969–70.
Times were definitely a changin’. In 1971, I called my first collection of essays Changing, because that’s what it was all about. I always say art can’t change the world alone, but with the right allies it can help challenge power with the kind of unconventional solutions that only the arts can offer. Seth’s no-nonsense approach to all of these issues veiled a true love of art.
Seth and some of the other so-called Conceptual artists—Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre among them—were very supportive when we formed the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee protests at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annual exhibition, sculpture that year. It wasn’t easy living with a newly converted feminist. Despite his support, some of us bitched about the low percentage of female artists Seth included at an event he organized in Halifax. Enlightenment only went so far in those days. In fact, the advent of feminist groups helped spell the end of the Art Workers’ Coalition, since women were doing a lot of the work and when they split off it knocked the air out of the organization.
I finally made it to Amsterdam last spring, and stayed with Seth and Marja. I’d been putting it off for a couple of years, and I’m eternally glad I finally got there then. When I was leaving, I told Seth I worried about his health. The reply was totally Siegelaubian. Don’t. It doesn’t do anyone any good. So I guess we should feel the same way about his death, and be glad he was around, and we were there too.
Lucy R. Lippard is a writer and activist based in New Mexico.
I MET ROBERTO back in the fall of 1996 when I was working at City Arts, the award-winning art series on WNET/Channel 13, New York’s PBS station. A mutual acquaintance, a film editor, introduced us; she thought we might have a lot in common and that perhaps Roberto might need help with a film he was working on about artistic influence. And then she turned to me and said, “And who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love.”
I called Roberto and soon after we met for a Saturday morning coffee in Chelsea. I thought we’d meet for about an hour and then I’d be on with my day. We ended up spending five hours together—something Roberto referred to as “Peruvian compression time.” I was instantly struck by his intelligence, his achievements, his worldliness, his humor, his sensitivity, his good looks. He told me how he had come to New York as a young filmmaker from Peru to meet the cinema verité pioneers—Albert and David Maysles, Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker—and worked with some of them early on. Then he told me about the many films he had made over the years with Eila Hershon, his first “accomplice” and life partner, who initially had a painting career. (Hershon died of cancer in 1993, three years before I met Roberto.) Their very first film was on Oskar Kokoschka, who Hershon had studied with. They went on to make many other documentaries about artists, working in Europe, where the production / distribution model was more conducive to actually making films, rather than raising money for them. They also made many films on the worlds of design and fashion, including portraits of Karl Lagerfeld and Coco Chanel. These films, all made on 16 mm, were broadcast by major networks in over thirty-five countries, featured in international film festivals and museums, and were critically acclaimed in major international magazines and newspapers.
I immediately liked Roberto—a lot—and envisioned, that very first day, that we would work together. And then, who knew what else might happen? Flash forward seventeen years later. We called that woman who connected us our bruja. For the next two decades we worked on many projects as we shared our lives together. We won two Emmy awards for Outstanding Fine Arts programming for pieces we did for City Arts: on MoMA PS1’s reopening in 1997 with an amazing cast of art-world figures (James Turrell, Alanna Heiss, Julian Schnabel, Jack Smith, among others) and on Artists Space’s twenty-fifth anniversary (featuring Vito Acconci, Chuck Close, Nan Goldin, Laurie Anderson, Jeff Koons, Elizabeth Murray, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Robert Longo, and others). And we did another piece for City Arts on emerging artists having their first solo shows.
In 1999, we went to Peru to work on a documentary, Cusco 1999, about people going to Machu Picchu for the millennium. This was Roberto’s first return since he left the country in the late 1960s, and my very first visit to any country in South America. That trip broke the ice, triggering an annual return to Peru, and a strong interest to develop projects there, as Roberto found a renewed love for his home country, and I fell in love with this amazing place. We were actually in Peru in July of 2013, working on editing our next project—the almost completed Double Take: The Art of Seward Johnson—when it became clear that we had to return to New York for Roberto’s health.
From the onset, Roberto’s spirit and equanimity in the face of his sudden pancreatic cancer diagnosis was inspirational. For him, the glass was always half-full, filled with gratitude and love and a kind of rare wisdom in facing one’s own impermanence. During this time, our most recent film, and our biggest achievement, Design is One: Lella & Massimo Vignelli, had its theatrical premiere at the IFC Center in New York. Here all the efforts of our creative work together were finally having a major tipping point, and my accomplice and soulmate was dying. We had hoped that a break in treatment would allow Roberto to gain strength so that he could attend the opening screening, but that was not to be the case.
Roberto’s intuitive eye, unique style, and spontaneous grace imbued everything he did with a sense of involvement and intimacy. This was how he lived his life. His joy for life and people and his creativity will live on through all the work he created and in all the lives he touched. And for the way he touched my life, I am so honored and forever grateful.
Kathy Brew is a filmmaker, writer, and educator based in New York.