March 24, 2010

Son's Day at Colicchio & Sons

Tucked away at the bar of the wood-hued Tap Room of Colicchio and Sons today, my own Son and I were the only spring break refugees in the business lunch crowd. The room is contemporary, light-filled and warm, and the selection of beer on tap is impressive. The two women next to us weren’t interested; they were sipping soft drinks and burning holes in the keypads of their BlackBerries between courses of kale and white bean soup and salads.

What we ate: Fresh ricotta with roasted fennel, carrots, and cipollini onions drizzled with truffle honey; a leg of lam sandwich with roasted eggplant and black olive tapenade, and baked rigatoni with duck and cavalo nero (dark-green Tuscan kale). This is a kale kind of place, earthy, robust and masculine.

The ricotta dish, which we overheard referred to as burrata (it looked at tasted like burrata), was a perfect balance of creamy, woodsy and sweet, and the lamb was rare and herbaceous. Our server, Brent, whose other job is creating tv series, told us we’d ordered two of the most popular dishes in the room, the ricotta and the rigatoni (less of a knock-out but still rich and warming). Oddly, he said, though the pizzas are popular, not many customers order the burger with balsamic onions, pecorino and chips (which he assured us was as stand-out).

The adjacent dining room is open for dinner only, and features much more elaborate tasting and a la carte menus.

Coliccio and Sons, 85 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, New York, 10011. (212) 352-1690

March 15, 2010

Chef Maryann Terillo returns to the West Village with Bistro de la Gare

On the winters’ rainiest and windiest night, we ventured around the corner to the recently opened Bistro de la Gare, where chef-owner Maryann Terillo is turning out rustic Mediterranean food for a neighborhood that has welcomed her back with open arms. Terillo last cooked at Jarnac on West 12th and Greenwich Streets, which closed last June after owner Tony Powe was unable to come to terms with his landlord.

The night we visited, Terillo wasn’t sure how many guests would keep their reservations, what with the aggressively foul weather outside.  She need not have worried. The room filled to capacity during the hour after we arrived, and at the end of our meal, we were gently ushered out to make room for the night’s second seating.

The 43-seat restaurant is located 626 Hudson Street (at Jane Street), in part of the space that formerly housed Mi Cocina; next door, Móle Mexican Bar and Grill, an import from the Lower East Side, has opened. The Bistro’s interior is simple, but warm and welcoming, painted in brown and beige tones with red and steel blue accents. The double-exposure pinhole camera photographs that adorn the walls are by Yoshi Hija.  On the menu, Terillo has kept Jarnac regulars happy by including her signature roast baby chicken with walnut butter and her winter-vanquishing cassoulet. We also enjoyed the roasted cream of tomato soup and a tender plate of braised short ribs, as well as a terrific cinnamon panna cotta garnished with nuts and winter fruit.   

Terillo is assisted in the kitchen by chef Elisa Sarno, whom she first hired to work for her when she ran another West Village restaurant, Café de la Gare, between 1984 and 1991. I was happy to see Terillo back in her element, supervising her new but eager staff and shuttling back and forth from the front of the house to kitchen as she kept an eye on things. After suffering the frustrations of months of delays due to permit-related bureaucratic snafus she seemed thrilled to be working again.

Even after the restaurant’s  soft opening, there were difficulties, including a period of time where the kitchen struggled with no gas, working with makeshift electric burners and the chefs even doing some cooking at home. The restaurant is still BYOB, which it seems they can’t announce to customers, but I can.  Call before you go in to see if that’s still the case.  For fans of brunch, the Bistro had a soft opening of its brunch menu this past weekend, which looks terrific and includes a fair number of southwestern dishes.

Bistro de la Gare,  626 Hudson Street at Jane Street, New York, NY 10014, (212) 242-4420,  

March 14, 2010

The Armory Show 2010: the alphabet made new by John Baldessari

When my friends Lea and Luis Remba come to town, it’s often to exhibit their exquisite fine art prints at the annual IFPDA (International Fine Print Dealer’s Association) show at the New York Armory. Last week, it was for their first appearance at the Armory Show at Piers 92 and 94. This fair is actually two shows, one devoted to classic modern and contemporary art, and the other to 20th and 21st century art. This means that in Pier 92, the upper level, carpeted and sunlight-filled show, you strolled past works by name-brand artists from Georges Bracque to Tom Wesselman. Below, in the more raucous, cutting edge and frenetic Pier 94, you confronted works by talented emerging artists such as Jacob Hashimoto.

Luis, an engineer and second-generation printer, developed a trademarked fine art printing technique that allows artists to create three-dimensional prints that are wonderfully textural and exceedingly fine in detail. Their printing process offers creative possibilities like no other, and so has attracted a roster of marquee-name artists to the Remba’s Los Angeles print workshop, Mixografia. Including among the dozens of artists they’ve published are Louise Bourgeois, Ed Ruscha, Helen Frankenthaler and Terry Winters.

Last week, I was able to see for the first time the Rembas’ latest big work, a series of prints by Los Angeles artist John Baldessari.  Titled ABC Art, each print of the series represents a letter of the alphabet, and each letter is accompanied by a lovingly detailed image of an object that begins with that letter. The letter “R,” for example is represented by a round-eyed robot, the letter “J,” with a jello mold, and the letter “U,” by a flying saucer for “UFO.” In the first, 20-edition part of the series, the 26 letters of the alphabet are arranged like a typewriter or computer keyboard, or in “QWERTY” order. Part II of the series, which was the one hung at the Armory Show, is a pangram, or a phrase that uses every letter of the alphabet at least once. Baldessari used the pangram, “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs,” and created a series of seven of these works.

Baldessari is the dean of L.A. artists, an influential mentor and teacher to generations of artists at CalArts and now UCLA. He gained fame later in his career with his Dada-influenced works that often incorporate both photos and words. In her fascinating book Seven Days in the Art World, author Sarah Thornton describes the 6’-7” wild-haired artists as “a hippie version” of Michelangelo’s representation of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. On his first trip to the Venice Biennale in 1972, he slept on the roof of a Volkwagen bus. He doesn’t need to do that anymore, thanks to his success in the marketplace as well as the academy. In the ABC series, his enduring fascination with the relationship between language and image is evident, perhaps more charmingly than ever before. 

March 4, 2010

Historian Linda Gordon’s new Dorothea Lange bio

I attended a fascinating discussion recently at the New York Public Library, featuring NYU history professor Linda Gordon in conversation with New Yorker writer Ian Frazier. The topic of discussion was Gordon’s extensively researched and beautifully written new biography, Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (W.W. Norton & Co.).

Lange was a force of nature, a fiercely determined and ambitious woman who overcame a physical disability—a lame leg—to become a titan of documentary photography and a lifelong advocate for the dishonored and the neglected. Most famously, she chronicled the plight of migrant farm workers, southern sharecroppers and other victims of the Great Depression.

The portion of Lange’s work that initially interested me most, however, was the 800 or so photographs she took of the evacuation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Included are pictures of the California camp Manzanar, where my father spent part of his boyhood. The photographic documentation of Manzanar by Lange, Ansel Adams and a Japanese prisoner and photographer Toyo Miyatake, is a topic I have been writing about; I hoped to learn more from Gordon about the nature of the professional and personal relationship between Lange and Adams.

Lange made a name for herself with her work in the 1930s for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), and believed wholeheartedly in the FSA’s goal of creating a democratic agricultural policy. Yet when another government agency, the U.S. Army’s Western Defense Command, hired her to document the uprooting and incarceration of the Japanese Americans, she could not support the government’s actions. She was highly critical of what she saw, and her photographs reflected those views. Instead of circulating Lange’s photographs, the government impounded them during the war, later slipping them without fanfare into the National Archives. Gordon and co-author Gary Y. Okihiro wrote about these photographs in their 2006 book Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment.

In a slide show presentation before the Q&A, Gordon described how, despite her “enormous love and admiration for [President] Franklin D. Roosevelt” (with whom she shared the physical ravages of polio), Lange became convinced that the President’s treatment of Japanese Americans was “an atrocity.” The photographer and her husband, UC Berkeley economist Paul Taylor, were vocal critics of the Japanese imprisonment at a time when few whites spoke publicly against F.D.R.’s decision.

Gordon showed some of Lange’s photographs of the concentration camps, including a grizzled-looking Manzanar prisoner with his young grandson [Lange had a talent for showing the bonds between fathers and children], and others that captured the harsh conditions, sadness and despair of prison life. She compared Lange’s portraits to those of Ansel Adams, whom she described as “not an opponent of internment.” Adams wanted to portray the Japanese as “unthreatening” and “to prettify, to disguise the real meaning of the internment,” Gordon explained.

The relationship between Lange and Adams was not always a smooth one. “They fought a lot,” said Gordon, who shared examples of the type of lively insults the two friends and rivals often traded. Lange once commented that Adams, most famous for his heroic landscapes of the Sierra Nevada and the West, “made rocks look like people.” Adams, in turn, sniped that documentary photographers “were social scientists with cameras.” Yet despite their open arguments, the two shared a deep and lasting friendship, Gordon said. Adams visited Lange when she was sick, wrote admiring and complimentary letters to her, and even did darkroom work for her occasionally. In its volatile ups and downs, explained Gordon, their relationship was “almost familial.”

In Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, Gordon writes that “Adams and Lange quarreled all their lives,” as one observer noted, like feuding standup comics or the bickering partners on cop shows. Their political disagreements were “fundamental,” too. Lange was a natural champion of the oppressed. One-third of her photos, said Gordon, were of people of color, although government censorship hid this fact for years. Adams had a knack for befriending the rich and the powerful, and lived a life of what Lange considered unseemly luxury. His Manzanar photographs were his only professional foray into charged political or racial territory. Yet at the same time, Gordon writes, “Adams deeply respected, championed and promoted her photography.”In 1954, when Lange was asked by U.S. Camera to name the 25 greatest photographs of all time, she included an Adams’ photograph of an Alaskan mountain scene.

For me, knowing how differently their photographs of the World War II imprisonment have been accepted and interpreted over the years, Adams’ with intermittent hostility, and Lange’s with increasing admiration, the idea that these two photographers were lifelong friends is somehow touching, attesting to an artistic and professional bond that was deeper than the choices they made in the political and material worlds.

Although Gordon and Frazier covered many other facets of Lange’s life and work during the Q&A, I will briefly mention only one here: Lange’s most famous image, “Migrant Mother,” and the issue of Lange’s own role as a mother. Although this portrait of a migrant farm worker, Florence Thomas, and her three children has come to symbolize the hardship of the Dust Bowl “Okies,” Thomas was actually a Cherokee Indian. Lange “felt her anxiety,” said Gordon, “because it was hers as well.” The tale of Lange’s own “fraught motherhood” to two sons and a step-daughter, Gordon admitted, was one of the hardest parts of her life to write about. The photographer’s ambition and drive led her to put her two sons, Dan, 7, and John, 4, into the equivalent of foster homes while she traveled the West on photo assignments. Both sons, said Gordon, had “a store of bitter memories” of their childhood, “but also tremendous admiration and pride” for what their mother had accomplished.

It was only after Lange left her first husband, painter Maynard Dixon (Gordon describes him as “the husband from hell” who took little interest in his children and turned them over to Lange for tending) and married Tayolor that she was able to cease being the bread winner for the family and achieve greatness as a photographer, Gordon noted.

My initial interest in Lange was for her documentation of the Japanese evacuation and imprisonment. I now see her as a role model for any woman wrestling with the traditional roles of wife and mother and at the same time trying to make a difference, to leave a mark.