999 Words

And All Things Nice: notes on Parall(elles): a history of women and design

Men like me love women.

There is a group of people, however, who love women even more than men like me, and that group is women. Women love women, man. Women love to celebrate all things by and for and about women. And why not? To me, at least, there is nothing lovelier in this world than that indefinable yet unmistakable assemblage of characteristics that constitutes essential femininity.

These days, asserting the existence of such a monolithic thing — womanhood — is a controversial pursuit; when even the word “women” is contested terrain, it is an implicitly political statement to drop it right into the title of a museum exhibition. Nonetheless, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts saw fit to go there, and for one of the stuffier of the city’s artistic institutions, it is a radically feminist rhetorical move.

Parall(elles): a history of women and design, which runs February 18th through May 28th in the museum’s Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion, collects 250 objects that (genetic) women either created or contributed to significantly, focussing a spotlight specifically on achievements hitherto attributed to men — Denise Scott Brown, for example, the partner of the Pritzker Prize-winning American architect Robert Venturi, and the General Motors designer Ruth Glennie, whose reinvention of the ‘Fancy Free’ Corvette functions as the exhibition’s centrepiece.

The assumption in art history has always been that men created capital ‘A’ art, probably, when we started painting the Lascaux caves. But a 2013 scholarly study published in the journal American Antiquity suggests that more women than men might have been responsible for producing parietal art. The anatomical difference in men’s and women’s hands serves as the basis for these claims which, if true, indicate that women may have in fact made between 75 and 90 percent of Euro-American Upper Paleolithic hand stencils, widely considered to be humankind’s first acts of artistic creation.

Ironically, many of the pieces in this collection gesture towards more traditional notions of the economy of femininity and domesticity. Clara Driscoll’s Tiffany stained glass lamp, for instance, or Ray Eames’s iconic pieces of office furniture reveal the discursive sites that historically served as women’s points of entry into the arts. Eva Zeisel’s Museum Coffee Service, a minimal set of elegant ceramic carafes, cups, and saucers, and Molly Hatch’s monumental terracotta installation, which the MMFA commissioned especially for this exhibition, discreetly signal towards interiors as women’s purview. The home, the office, the kitchen, the bedroom, the passenger seat of a sports car — these were women’s places, spaces created by women’s work.

Parall(elles) cleverly sidesteps gender trouble to focus instead upon design trouble, calling into question the circumscriptions around craft, fine art, and industry, while leaving the notion of what represents womanhood to the spectator. In doing so, this collection also suggests a sort of Montréalaise coda to a centuries-old dance between two complementary and corresponding partners, XX and XY. It is almost as if the 251st piece in this collection is woman herself.

As recently as the 1990s, it was still radical to be a woman. From the Spice Girls to Ellen DeGeneres, from Girl Power to the Riot Grrrls Manifesto, from Anna Nicole Smith to Kim Campbell, women were leaning into traditionally masculine pursuits. The future seemed decidedly female. In the 90s, the theorist Judith Butler critiqued the notion of womanhood as a socially constructed and economically reinforced category that ultimately served a patriarchal power structure. Women were the negative space that shaped masculinity, a binary dialectic allowing men to rule the world. The parallel nature of this dichotomy has disintegrated as gender identities proliferate and their acknowledgment becomes evermore contentious. Will there be an exhibition in twenty or thirty or forty years celebrating the underrepresented contributions of trans people to the design world? Is all this inclusivity necessarily exclusionary?

To the spectators of this exhibition, and me, it should simply be a question of aesthetics. Identity is an extension of intention, and every good art historian knows that intention is a fallacy. It may be interesting at best to know what an artist intended by this work or that, just as it may be interesting to know the gender or sexuality or politics of the artist. But it is only paratextual evidence, one rung above gossip. There is a kind of windmill-tilting, anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better notion to a show that makes women’s design its focus — a Rosie the Riveter rolled-up sleeves we can do it sense of spirit. But is that really necessary? Would this exhibition be any less spectacular if women’s work — so to speak — wasn’t brought to the fore? Can the works themselves stand on their own? I believe the answer is yes. Nonetheless, it is their assembly under the aegis of underrepresentation that makes Parall(elles) at once nostalgic and radical.

The Cleveland-born comedian and misogynist Drew Carey once had a joke in his routine about the common axiom that if the fairer sex ruled the world, there would have never been a war. Punctuated by Carey’s sarcastic Coke bottle-magnified eye roll, he retorts, “yeah right, like no woman has ever started a fight for no reason.” In this joke lies men’s fundamental ambivalence toward women. Men tend to attend women’s proud roar as vaguely hostile, somewhat hypocritical, tinged with a smug sense of self-superiority, but also paradoxically attractive. Conflict is sexy. It drives the story.

Parall(elles) seems anachronistic in this era when personal pronouns are beginning to outnumber the people they designate, when even abortion rights groups are banning the term “woman,” and when digital technology has curiously cultivated a less binary world. But to men like me, and to women like those represented in this exhibition, there is a certain strength in reasserting traditions and recognizing historical struggles that should be amplified, not muted, by the allied marginalia.

If there exists an implicit argument about womanhood in Parall(elles), it is a characteristically female one: make the fight about something else.◼︎

Parall(elles): a history of women and design runs February 18th through May 28th at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

How Do You Spell Holiday?

Heart Like a Wheel: notes on the Fancy Free Corvette

America in the late 1950s must have been an incredible time and place to be.

It was an historical sweet spot between two world wars and Vietnam, after rock n’ roll but before the British Invasion, still Elvis Presley on Ed Sullivan and not quite The Beatles. You could go for burgers and malted milk at the drive-in, twist your bobby socks off at the hop, and if you had the means, you might even be able to afford one of the finest and most beautiful automobiles ever produced, an upstart little sports coupe called the Chevrolet Corvette.

In 1958, General Motors produced 9,168 of these babies. But only one was known as the “Fancy Free” — a stunning metallic olive coloured prototype, all curves and chrome, upon which Ruth Glennie literally cut footloose. Glennie’s one-of-a-kind Corvette is part of an exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts entitled Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design, celebrating the contributions that women have made to the world of design, industrial and otherwise.

Glennie was among nine women working for GM, part of a unit known as the “Damsels in Design.” The corporate thinking at the time was that women drove most of a nuclear family’s expenditures, consumer durables like automobiles, furniture, musical instruments, and home appliances.

A number of the Damsels were allocated to Frigidaire, a GM subsidiary, to imagine the Kitchen of the Future. But Glennie worked on the ‘Vette, conceiving of features such as seasonal seat covers, retractable seatbelts, and of course a strategically placed ashtray. Glennie mightn’t have made the fenders nor the motor, but she designed an interior fit for a life of leisure, a pleasurable place to travel, sat comfortably in America’s second home — the passenger seat.

Everyone knows that the fossil fuel industry is rapidly destroying the planet. Our world has a significant oil problem that’s responsible in large part for deadly international conflicts and climate change among other catastrophes. Nonetheless, I have a cheesy bone in my body for classic American cars, those engines of internal combustion. It’s like alcoholics say about booze — we’ve got a problem with this stuff, let’s just finish it up.

I drove a Corvette only once. It was the plaything of an ex-girlfriend’s father, an unremarkable 1990s model, sadly, made of plastic and fiberglass and as unlike the Fancy Free as possible. But the first and only car that I ever owned was a 1968 Chevy Camaro, white with blue interior, the kind of automobile you might imagine the baddie driving in a Steve McQueen movie, definitely designed by dudes, as fast as the Devil himself, and yet with a trunk spacious enough to hold several dead bodies.

The Corvette and the Camaro had a common option: the Powerglide transmission. This was a racing gearbox with two speeds: go, and go faster. Although there was actually a secret “low” gear as well that I only discovered when a golden yellow 1970s model Chevy Nova Super Sport pulled up alongside me, its driver shouting out the window, “kick ‘er down, buddy!” I had no idea what “kick ‘er down” meant, until I shifted the centre console into “low” and felt the chassis shudder like an airplane in takeoff mode.

I blew off a Porsche in that car. Granted it was only a 928, but still. And I can attest that ladies loved the interior, too, especially the backseat, a crucial omission of Corvettes. The Camaro had a 327 cubic inch engine. The Corvette possessed a more modest 289, because no one man should have all that power. It’s only right that at least half of it should belong to the fairer sex.

Corvettes were classier, not driven by deviants and film villains. Glennie’s Fancy Free harkens back to a simpler time, when American modernity fostered optimism rather than cynicism. There was a sense in the ‘50s that the future was bright and full of possibility. In those halcyon days, the Mad Men might have appeared in control, but women were in charge by design.◼︎

Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design runs 18 February – 28 May 2023 at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

999 Words

Blow Up the Spot: notes on Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music





This city is crawling with uptight middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have. Status symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritually, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming for people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.

—Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1978

There is a morbid but reliable joke which hinges on Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The joke is that the dead rock star would have likely killed himself all over again were he alive today. The humour rests on the assumption that whatever circumstances which might have driven Cobain to take his life have surely worsened.

At the end of 1978, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a member of a New York graffiti collective operating under the name SAMO©. Seventeen-year-old Basquiat, along with the young artists Shannon Dawson, Al Diaz, and other revolving participants, were astute observers of post-modern life, scrawling axioms upon Manhattan’s windows, doors, tunnels, trains, producing pointed commentary on the city’s new “neon fantasies,” “micro-wave existence,” and what they labelled “hypercool.” For the latter they reserved their most merciless salvos — the fine art world, which in their view was as fickle as fleeting fashion, was profoundly lacking in some palpable sense of authenticity. SAMO© rejected the artifice of the gallery walls for the urban wall’s credibility.

One particular scene in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic, Basquiat, depicts a wealthy Yuppie couple, the sort that Jean-Michel Basquiat despised, on a patron’s visit to the artist’s studio. At the encouragement of New York art dealer Annina Nosei, they have come to purchase a Basquiat painting. After some gentle quarrelling over the colour of the work in question, the woman turns to her husband, gesturing toward the canvas, and says, “I like it, I’m just not sure about the green.” To which Basquiat replies, “You want me to paint it a nice shit brown for you?” Jean-Michel Basquiat craved acceptance, but he wanted it on his own terms.

The MMFA show provokes awe, wonder, and sadness — awe at the sheer volume of works Basquiat churned out in such a short creative lifetime; wonder at the meaning, the method, the madness of it all; and sadness, finally, with the tragedy of addiction befalling a generation’s best and brightest hope for a powerful and prominent Black American voice in art.

And yet there is an absurd Metterling-ish impression that every scrap of paper that Basquiat ever made a shopping list with or spilt coffee on or tore up and tossed in the trash was recovered and reassembled and preserved as if it contained some profound truth embedded in its banality. It evokes melancholy to walk among the ephemeral printed matter that once composed the entirety of an ingenious imagination before the advent of digital media. Would Basquiat’s lists be as interesting or important if they were typed out and posted online and not scribbled onto bits of looseleaf and framed under plexiglass?

Schnabel’s film is among the most star-studded movies of the 1990s. Each actor — Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe, David Bowie, Courtney Love, Jeffrey Wright — is deserving of their own biopic. In addition to contemporary songs by Public Image Ltd., Joy Division, Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, its soundtrack includes a re-recording of Bowie’s “A Small Plot of Land,” and an unreleased version of Keith Richards performing the Hoagy Carmichael standard, “The Nearness of You.”

The association of Basquiat with rock music royalty introduced him to the next generation of musicians including Jay-Z, Bun B, Yasiin Bey, and the Strokes, who graced the cover of their 2020 album with the painting, Birds on Money.

Schnabel, who mentored Basquiat, understood the ambivalence at his art’s core — the romantic love and righteous wrath simultaneously present in every stroke of Basquiat’s brush, evident in every fleck of spray paint, that would have remained only paint in a can had Basquiat not transferred it onto objects and transformed it into something timeless.

Art history is comprised of legends, and Basquiat has officially achieved legendary status. He might have been the first American artist to do so algorithmically, which is what makes him relatable to today’s youth. Basquiat learnt by absorbing, by surfing, curating, and funnelling more of what audiences liked back into his works. His favourite catchphrase being “boom for real,” Basquiat made his name bombing walls; he was always keenly aware of whatever was on the cusp of blowing up. But Basquiat could neither foresee his own fate, nor change it.

Basquiat would only be 62 today. He could have been a beacon for artists like himself. Instead he exists in spirit to reinforce the myth of the solitary savant, stupid as an animal and just as wild, falling ass-backwards into genius.

Basquiat achieved the immortality he so desperately desired, but he is no longer among the living. He was robbed of the opportunity to mature as an artist and as a man, and so he has kept American art itself in a perpetual adolescent state of arrested development, conserved for the masses like a mosquito in amber hawked at a tourist trap. The Holy Grail to the Cultural Industrial Complex. Infinitely replicable youth. The sad truth is that the world against which Basquiat fought, won. Basquiat is worth more dead than alive. Had he lived, he might, like Cobain, have only further tarnished his own legacy. But what is sure, he would have aged. Nobody’s teen spirit lasts forever.

For Kurt Cobain, heroin and sudden celebrity led him to swallow the wrong end of a shotgun. And though Jean-Michel Basquiat didn’t blow his brains out, junk and fame’s pressures took his life, too. What would Basquiat do today if he could see his sprawling exhibition right now at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts? I wonder: would he just die?◼︎

Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music continues until 19 February 2023 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Cover image: Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Beat Bop, 1983. Collection Emmanuelle et Jérôme de Noirmont. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Video: Extract from MTV’s “Art Break” : Jean-Michel Basquiat (1985) used with permission. © 2022 Viacom International Inc. All Rights Reserved. MTV, all related titles, characters and logos are trademarks owned by Viacom International Inc.

Photo credits: Henry Flynt.