March 23, 2011

Creole Cool- the little easy

…of all the secret cities, New Orleans, so it seems to me, is the most secretive, the most unlike, in reality, what an outsider is permitted to observe. The prevalence of steep walls, of obscuring foliage, of tall thick locked iron gates, of shuttered windows, of dark tunnels leading to overgrown gardens where mimosa and camellias contrast colors, and lazing lizards, flicking their forked tongues, race along palm fronds-all this is not accidental décor, but architecture deliberately to camouflage, to mask, as at a Mardi Gras Ball, the lives of those born to live among these protective edifices.
                              -Truman Capote, Hidden Gardens, 1975

The first residents of the city, in urban-European style, built houses right at the sidewalk, or banquette, and walled the spaces between. The French Quarter’s blocks, still closed from the outside, form an outer wall giving protection from intruders and hurricanes, and hiding the secret majesty within. The beauty of a Vieux Carre house is focused at the rear, in contrast to the grand front entrances and lawns of St. Charles Avenue. Old New Orleans, for all its lavish lifestyle, wore a very humble disguise until American influence crept in during the nineteenth century.

The Little Easy

Marcel Proust, meet Blanche DuBois. Both would feel right at home in this small Bijou of a place. It is a mélange of French antiques and bits of whimsy.

Although the walls of this shadowy living room are cracked and scarred, with strips of plaster dangling down like rags, Xavier, the client, finds them only mildly distracting. "Rising dampness," he comments blithely. Then, as if motivated by the faintest twinge of propriety, he adds lackadaisically, "It's time we redid the walls."

The truth is, the natives are casual about old things, which they love intimately rather than reverently. Xavier’s family has owned this richly atmospheric Creole cottage in the French Quarter since it was built. He likes to call his dwelling an 1820s tract house. "If you go through the French Quarter and look around at the architecture, you will see a great many Creole cottages," he says. "A lot have disappeared, but there were so many built! Pretty average, simple, with a perfectly flat façade”.

Creole cottages, which probably originated in the West Indies and were introduced to New Orleans by refugees from Haiti, were popular in the city from about 1790 to 1850. These plainspoken structures were typically square or rectangular, with four equal-size rooms and two additional small cabinets in the rear corners, with a loggia between them. They were the most common houses in New Orleans during the early 1800s, and can still be found today, primarily in the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny, an adjacent neighborhood.
Those that survive seem like relics of a sweeter age. With their unpretentious, artisanal look and comely proportions, Creole cottages were never considered grand, like the three-story French Quarter townhouses with iron-lace balconies whose images now crowd picture-postcard racks. But Xavier, who has old-school manners and an absent-minded grace, prefers their modest charms. "I was raised in a formal house," he says, "and I moved to another formal house after that. This is more my style."

Regarding his relaxed approach to decorating, Xavier is characteristically straightforward. "Try to use what we have and fit it in the right place," he says. "And if we don’t have something that will fit, maybe we’d have to get something from home. Maybe we might have to go to the store. But I've really don’t like to”.

I think we have more than enough.

Voilà, le projet fini.  Merci Xavier.

March 11, 2011

Out of the Blue

The color International Klein Blue (IKB).

Last year The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC was giving visitors a taste of the 1960s art scene in Paris with its major retrospective of French-born artist Yves Klein (1928-1962). Klein dabbled in painting, sculpture, performance, photography, music, architecture, writing and video, and whatever he undertook was marked by his uncommon spirit and sensibility. He was a man who knew no boundaries; an artist whose peers found him “impossible to classify”. His short but prolific career set the stage for conceptual and avant garde art.

But back to the blue. International Klein Blue, to be exact. What sort of person would have the audacity to take out a patent on one of the colors of the rainbow?

The same person who wrote to the International Atomic Commission of his day to suggest in all seriousness that they color their atom bombs with IKB! In order to understand Klein’s obsession with blue it is essential to grasp his philosophy regarding Art and Life. He strove relentlessly to capture the immaterial, professing his ultimate desire to make ‘art be one with life’. For Klein, the color blue represented the void, the largesse of the sea and sky. Blue is not confined by dimensions, it simply “is”. Klein’s IKB was the result of experimentation to distill the infinite into a physical pigment, which he then used to cover his canvases, sponge installations and numerous other objets. His most identifiable paintings were created by ‘living paintbrushes’ – nude models who would roll around in his blue pigment, pressing their bodies against canvas to leave their imprints.

Klein lived in Paris at a pivotal time of social upheaval, where existing mores were being demolished one by one. In fact he called his work “The Blue Revolution”. One of his favorite watering holes was La Coupole brasserie in the 14th arrondissement, where he would spend evenings with fellow artists and intellectuals conjuring up new ways to capture reality and eventually penning a Manifesto of New Realism. Klein was fortunate to be living in a time and place where the art world was ripe for his eccentric ideas and concepts. Paris welcomed his outlandish ideas with open arms – one gallery exhibited floor to ceiling garbage which Klein collected from the streets of Paris; another opened an exhibition which consisted of…nothing! His endeavor to push the envelope led him to attempt to actually master air and put his signature on the sky, as represented in his brilliant photomontage Leap into the Void.

It is difficult to describe the vibrations which his blue emits. Intense and opaque, like liquid velvet. The National Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Center are amongst the institutions in Paris that boast works by Yves Klein in their permanent collections.

During his lifetime, some critics considered him insane while others thought him a genius. Ultimately, his works have stood the test of time, bearing witness to a mind constantly, almost painfully, searching for the next dimension to conquer. In retrospect, Klein’s iconic Leap into the Void foreshadowed his untimely death of a heart attack at age 34. But rather than seeming tragic, I imagine Klein lived an incredibly exciting and fulfilling life to the very last moment, adhering to his own credo that “if something marvelous does not happen to me every day, my world is shot.” Chapeau!