Monthly Archives: March 2013

Pain in Paint

Pablo Picasso, "Guernica" (1937)  Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Pablo Picasso, “Guernica” (1937) Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid

Picasso is overrated.

Most of the art establishment would consider that statement heresy; their esteem for him matches his attitude about himself. Some authorities regard Pablo Picasso as the greatest artist since Michelangelo, to which I say, “Oh, please.”

As I have admitted before, I’m no expert, but I have stood in front of a lot of works by Picasso in a lot of museums. There are a lot of Picassos to see, by the way: His total output exceeds 30,000 works.

That astonishing number is due in part to the fame he enjoyed over his long life; Picasso could sneeze into a napkin and collectors would proclaim it a masterpiece. He’d dash off a painting or collage just about daily, some of which were quite good… but there were plenty that weren’t so hot. At least, they weren’t vastly superior to the work of his colleagues like Georges Braque.

Picasso enhanced his reputation by figuring out how to “work the room” in the art community. He systematically befriended critics, dealers, other artists, and writers who helped advance his career. That’s not to say that he was without artistic talent; clearly he had it. But some of the Picasso phenomenon sprang from his shrewd calculations about how to use associates for personal gain.

Down through the centuries there have been many artists who weren’t exactly lovable — Caravaggio, just to name one — so what we know about their personal lives probably shouldn’t influence our appreciation of their work.

However, having seen a generous sampling of Picasso’s work (much of which hadn’t enthralled me) and knowing a bit about his character (or lack thereof) I was surprised by my reaction to his celebrated painting “Guernica”. I hadn’t expected to be moved by it, but I was.

Like you, I’d seen reproductions of the painting, but finally came face-to-face with it, so to speak, in Madrid. It’s housed in a modern-art museum popularly known as the Reina Sofia, named for Spain’s current queen.

Guernica (pronounced GARE-nee-kuh) is a town in northern Spain that, in 1937, became the subject of an experiment in wartime brutality. Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator at the time, gave his fellow fascist Adolf Hitler the go-ahead to attack the town with a saturation-bombing raid. Hundreds — perhaps thousands — of civilians died.

Picasso was in Paris at the time, doing preliminary work on a mural he had been commissioned to paint for an international exposition. Outraged at the news of what had happened in Guernica, he scrapped a tableau of flamenco dancers (or whatever he originally intended to do) and launched into the epic anti-war painting instead.

It’s quite large, something like 11’x25′. “Guernica” is not a representation of the historical event, but the Cubist style — fragments randomly reassembled — conveys the destructive effect of the bombing. (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

The individual images within the painting are emotionally powerful: On the left, a mother sobs with her dead baby in her arms. Another woman, on the right edge, seems to be trapped in rubble, screaming for help. In the foreground is a dead fighter; he is still clutching a broken sword.

The unbearable pain of the tragedy is evident.

I’m still not a huge fan of Pablo Picasso in general, but I greatly admire this particular painting. Somehow the bombs that hit Guernica also ignited the conscience of an artist not known for having one.

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Dancing Backwards

Louis "Red" Klotz, 2011(photo credit:  Chris Polk/Associated Press)

Louis “Red” Klotz, 2011
(photo credit: Chris Polk/Associated Press)

When her husband called in from the road, Gloria Klotz never had to ask, “Did you win?”  That’s because Louis “Red” Klotz played (and later coached) for the Washington Generals, the perpetual opponent of the Harlem Globetrotters.

At the invitation of Globetrotters’ owner Abe Saperstein, Klotz founded the Generals in 1952; he was the point guard until 1984 when, at age 62, he gave up his playing career.  He coached for a couple of more decades, and still makes an occasional appearance on the bench.  Over all those years, the one constant is that the Globetrotters always win.  Well, not always — in almost 20,000 games, the Generals have won twice.

The last time was on January 5, 1971, in Martin, Tennessee, on a night when the Globetrotters’ entertaining antics went on longer than usual, and their opponents played efficient, workmanlike basketball.  The Globetrotters put on a burst at the end, but with seconds to play, Red Klotz hit a long shot to give his team a 100-99 win.  The spectators booed.

Technically it wasn’t a victory for the Washington Generals, by the way.  Over the years, Klotz experimented with name changes, so on that historic night, the Generals were performing as the New Jersey Reds.

The Globetrotters’ epic win streak, and Generals’ matching losing streak, is not necessarily due to a huge difference in skill.  There have been individuals from both teams who have spent time in the NBA, including the 5’7″ Red Klotz, who played briefly for the Baltimore Bullets.  There were also several Generals players who later jumped to the Globetrotters.

I don’t think it’s revealing a secret to say that the Globetrotters/Generals performances are really exhibitions, not games.  Not every last detail is scripted — the final score varies — but let’s say that the general outline remains the same from one night to the next.

The Generals aren’t as dim as they are made to look, or Red Klotz would have been justified in yelling during timeouts, “Dadgummit, that’s the 200th night in a row that they’ve pulled Henderson’s shorts down to his ankles.  Would somebody please watch his backside?  And Boyd — how many times are you going to let them dribble the ball off your forehead!?”

The current roster of the Generals has guys who were solid (if not spectacular) players at schools like Kutztown U., Voorhees College, and Robert Morris University.  And if you personally feel you have some unfinished basketball business and don’t mind being away from home for months at a time, the Generals are currently looking for recruits.

“An ideal prospect,” says the team’s website, “can strike a balance between sports and entertainment.”  It also notes that “The Generals serve an important role in the Globetrotters tours and realize the final score does not always define winners.”

Another way to express that notion is how Red Klotz once described his career.  “Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the Harlem Globetrotters have always had a dance partner,” Red said, “but I’ve always been dancing backwards.”

Botts’ Dots

The originals were round; the square reflectors were developed later.

The originals were round; the square reflectors were developed later.

If his name had been Chadwick or Gormley or Jones, it’s doubtful that anyone would associate the man with his achievement.  As it is, Dr. Elbert Botts doesn’t exactly rank with Sir Isaac Newton and Bill Gates among the giants of science and technology.  His invention was the raised pavement markers that separate traffic lanes on streets and highways; because of the coincidence of his name and their shape, they have become widely known as Botts’ Dots.

In the 1950s, Botts was employed by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) at a testing lab in Sacramento.  Painted lines tended to disappear in rain or darkness, and had the additional disadvantage of requiring frequent repainting, so Botts began searching for a safer and more durable alternative.

He came up with the idea of the little ceramic domes, but then had to figure out a way to attach them to the pavement; his first thought was to use spikes.  If you or I had been working in the lab with him, we’d probably have said, “Really, doc?  You want to put a bunch of nails in the road?”

That idea was soon scrapped and various formulas of epoxy were tried.  Eventually one was found that permanently adhered the lane markers to asphalt or concrete.  The next step, apparently, was to stuff the entire concept in a file drawer and forget about it.  Elbert Botts had come up with the idea in 1953, but it wasn’t until 1966 that the dots were finally put into use on California freeways.

An additional benefit of Botts’ Dots was discovered soon thereafter.  When a driver is drowsy or preoccupied with yelling at the kids in the back seat, the raised markers announce that the car is drifting into the adjoining lane.

They are now widely used throughout the world, except in areas that get a lot of snowfall.  The equipment that removes snow from roadways also tends to scrape off Botts’ Dots.  According to the Caltrans website, “There are an estimated 20 million Botts’ Dots in place today” — and that’s just on freeways and highways in California.

Unfortunately for the heirs of Dr. Botts, the legend that he got a small royalty per dot and therefore became fabulously wealthy is untrue.  In fact, Elbert Botts died in 1962, before the pavement markers that bear his name were put into use.  He never knew that his innovation was successful, or that they gave him a bit of immortality.

As durable as they initially proved to be, the increase in the volume of traffic since the dots were introduced has reduced their life span.  In some places they still last for over ten years, but on heavily-traveled sections of road, they now have to be replaced after only a few months.

Although it insists that Botts’ Dots “will be with us for a long time,” Caltrans has begun experimenting with longer-lasting, higher-visibility alternatives.  Among them are reflective strips that are essentially baked onto the roadway.  It’s probably too much to hope that the chief engineer on that project is named Parker… you know, so that someday we’ll call them “Parker’s Markers”.

We Are Not Alone

The "Eye On L.A." crew hovered nearby

The “Eye On L.A.” crew hovered nearby

Somehow I had found out about Harbour Island, an isolated spot in the Bahamas that sounded like an ideal place to get away from it all.  It required an overnight flight from Los Angeles to Miami, then a connection to Nassau, followed by a flight to Eleuthera, and then a ferry boat to Harbour Island, but it was going to be worth it.

What I didn’t know was that the crew of a TV show called “Eye on L.A.” would be staying in the same hotel I had booked, and that they would be pointing their cameras at us.

Eventually they had enough footage of me in a bathing suit, I guess; after a few days they left.  We wound up having a nice time on Harbour Island’s beautiful Pink Sand Beach.

The point is, though, that no matter where one travels, other travelers will be there, too.  On any given weekend, you can expect to encounter scores of other climbers as you attempt to scale Mount Everest.  And if you’re headed for the Louvre or St. Mark’s Square in Venice, you don’t really think you’re going to have the place to yourself, do you?

Sometimes being in a crowd is part of the fun — bowl games or Bourbon Street come to mind — but most times, it’s preferable to have some elbow room.  Here are things I’ve tried over the years to avoid, or at least reduce, the crush of tourists…

Arrive early — or late.  Find out the hours of attractions.  If the doors open at 8 a.m. and you’re standing there with a ticket in hand, you’ll probably be at least an hour ahead of the throngs, who are still finishing breakfast.

Many museums are open late on certain nights:  The Metropolitan in New York doesn’t close until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, for instance.  We have been able to admire artwork without being jostled because at that hour, the midday visitors are now jamming into restaurants for dinner.

Avoid the High Season.  Obviously, if you’re planning a ski trip, you want to go when there’s snow on the ground.  The week between Christmas and New Year’s is a possibility, but you’ll be sharing the mountain with many other people who had the same thought.  If you have the flexibility to schedule your trip in mid-to-late February, lift lines will be shorter and there will still be plenty of snow.

Crowds at some tourist destinations vary on a daily basis.  While in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, we were considering a day trip to Cozumel, an island off the coast.  It occurred to me to go online and check out the cruise ship schedule.  Some days as many as six ships — and their thousands of passengers — were in port, but on Sunday there were zero.  That proved to be a great time to go, since even the trinket vendors seemed to be taking the day off.

Get a guide.  We have tried this a few times and gotten mixed results.  The principal advantage is that a licensed guide is able to lead you past the long lines of people waiting to buy tickets at, say, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.  The principal disadvantage is that guides tend to assume that you hired them to talk for several hours without taking a breath.

Those are some of my strategies, and you may have your own ways of opening some space around you at tourist attractions.   Hey… you aren’t the guy who faked that sneezing fit in the Smithsonian, are you?