I.M. Pei: Establishment Modernism Lite

Martin Filler

Architect I.M. Pei near his Pyramid Entrance at the Louvre Museum, at its opening, Paris, March 29, 1989

A characteristic mid-career I.M. Pei design began with his initial selection of an elemental geometric shape—a square, triangle, or circle, say—which he then bisected (often on an acute angle), rotated forty-five or ninety degrees, and finally juxtaposed against other Euclidean patterns similarly manipulated. The specifics of this slice-dice-and-spin formula changed from job to job given the variables of budget, site, and function, but the lookalike results were readily confirmed as Pei’s signature style—which might be termed Establishment Modernism Lite. His tendency to repetition was reassuring to clients, who not only wanted to know what they were going to get for their very large investment, but also enjoyed having an identifiable product by an acclaimed architect. The communications-savvy Pei received remarkably strong press support throughout his long career.

What Rod Rosenstein Knew When He Helped Trump Fire Comey

Murray Waas

Attorney General William Barr with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during Rosenstein’s farewell ceremony at the Justice Department, Washington, D.C., May 9, 2019

In May 2017, then Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein agreed to assist President Trump in an effort to fire James Comey as FBI director despite Rosenstein’s knowing beforehand that the president had devised a false cover story to conceal the fact that he was firing Comey for his oversight of the FBI’s Russia investigation. President Trump gave Rosenstein a draft of a letter to then FBI Director Comey, in which the president justified his firing of Comey with a concocted story claiming that, at the beginning of his presidency, Trump had retained Comey on a probationary or trial period only, because of what he described as Comey’s poor job performance. After reading this draft letter, Rosenstein agreed to write a memorandum for the president severely criticizing Comey’s handling of the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton. The White House used Rosenstein’s memo as its initial public rationale to explain Comey’s firing.

Dancehall: Raising the Voices of the Dead

Erin MacLeod

Chris Wayne performing with Sugar Minnott’s Youth Promotion soundsystem, Jamaica, 1985

In the 1970s in Jamaica, soundsystems would clash using vocalists performing over instrumental rhythms on systems built from the ground up, using an ingenious hodgepodge of materials put together by arguably some of the most innovative sound engineers in musical history. At that time, soundclash meant that soundsystems would quite literally be killed—their speakers blown, amps shot, vocalists unable to continue. As clash has developed, performances have become less important and pre-recorded music has increasingly dominated, from 45s to CDs to other portable and digital formats. But the emphasis has always been on having music that can score a fatal blow, and it is the crowd that decides who’s left standing. Today, rival sounds will use the same system when they compete, but they bring their musical libraries and the ever important “dub box,” full of a soundsystem’s prized “dubplates.” It is also on a dubplate that we move beyond discourse and metaphor, toward actual traces of the past, voices from beyond the grave.  

Barbara Rubin, Shameless Angel of Avant-Garde Cinema

J. Hoberman

Barbara Rubin, photographed by John “Hoppy” Hopkins, 1965, from Chuck Smith's Barbara Rubin & the Exploding NY Underground, 2019

Barbara Rubin (1945–1980) may have been something less than a great artist, but she was also something more. An agitator and a mystic whose friends and associates included Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and Allen Ginsberg, Rubin made scenes the way other people made movies—although she did make those as well. Rubin was zeitgeist-made material, a young woman who embodied her historical moment in the process of working out a unique destiny. Rubin was a wild child and a force of nature whose drug-fueled trajectory through the Sixties counterculture is the subject of Chuck Smith’s new documentary Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground, as well as of the latest—and most likely, the last—issue of Film Culture, the magazine Jonas Mekas (1922–2019) founded in 1955.

‘Orientalism,’ Then and Now

Adam Shatz

Jean-Léon Gérôme: The Snake Charmer, 1870

The Orientalism of today, both in its sensibility and in its manner of production, is not quite the same as the Orientalism Edward Said discussed forty years ago. 
The hard edge of today’s Orientalism targets the fragile fabric of domestic politics, the very possibility of coexistence, particularly in Europe and the US. The Western self, produced by this contemporary Orientalism, is not a liberal who measures his or her freedom or reason by the absence, or weakness, of those concepts in the East. Instead, he is an aggrieved, besieged white man standing his ground, with his finger on the trigger, against the barbarians who have made it through the gates. He is not Lawrence of Arabia, or even the Quiet American; he is Dirty Harry.

‘Boys Do It Better’: The Paintings of Louis Fratino

Christopher Alessandrini

Louis Fratino: Me and Ray, 2018

The twenty-five paintings in “Come Softly to Me”—Fratino’s first solo show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.—range from gem-like portraits of friends and lovers to larger scenes of city life to a trio of alluring box lids, each measuring roughly 3.5 x 3.5 inches. Known primarily for his graphic but tender representations of queer intimacy, often set in the same apartment, Fratino here swaps domestic tranquility for psychogeography. Many of the featured works were made following a breakup, during a period marked by long walks around the city; they certainly embody an ambivalent relationship to this sudden windfall of hours. For all the new faces and encounters, the prevailing mood is one of charged solitude.

‘Les Temps Modernes’: End of an Epoch

Mitchell Abidor

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, circa 1945

Few publications remained as true to their initial goals as Les Temps Modernes, and few demonstrated the rigor and openness and bravery it did in fulfilling it. Fewer still could boast of contributors of the caliber of those who wrote for the journal, especially in its early days, and the quality and durability of their contributions. Difficult as it may be from our perspective, it is important to see that the review was, within its historical moment, making honest attempts to break out of the closed, bourgeois world it rebelliously grew from in order to seriously engage in changing society. If its call for radical action sounds hollow today, more’s the pity for us.

ISIS: Resilient, Adaptable, Decentralized

Michael Weiss

President Donald Trump showing a map of Syria and Iraq depicting the size of the

ISIS’s breathtaking reach into other parts of the world—including distant corners few experts imagined it was capable of penetrating—is now so pronounced that it’s possible to imagine a day when the ISIS media apparatus could be based outside the Middle East entirely. Equally, the organization may separate into various satellites in multiple countries, the way international newspapers establish foreign bureaus. If that happens, ISIS will become a virtually borderless phenomenon and the difference between “inspired” and “directed” will lose all meaning.

Jeff Sessions’s Grave Conflict of Interest

Murray Waas

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe during a news conference at the Justice Department, Washington, D.C., July 13, 2017

A government official with first-hand knowledge of the matter told me that Jeff Sessions enlisted his subordinates to lie on his behalf that he did not know he was under federal investigation when he fired then Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe. In addition to firing McCabe, Sessions, while under investigation, played a leading role in more broadly carrying out President Trump’s relentless campaign to undermine and discredit the FBI. Several leading experts on legal ethics have told me that Sessions’s simultaneous and dual roles almost certainly violated the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct and federal government conflict of interest regulations. That demonstrates both the utility of Sessions’ misstatements, and the gravity of the situation he faced. 

‘One Seed Can Make an Impact’: An Interview with Chen Hongguo

Ian Johnson

Chen Hongguo in Zhiwuzhi, the reading room he established in Xi’an, China, 2018

Ian Johnson: You got your PhD in law from China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. You could have kept teaching in the capital but you chose to come to Xi’an. Why did you do that?
Chen Hongguo: You don’t realize how pitiful the students are here. The quality of teaching isn’t that good and they don’t get to hear good speakers. So I began to invite prominent intellectuals… I set up reading clubs to interact more closely with the students… We met in the stairway. People called it the “stairway lectures.”