Friday, November 21, 2008

Welcome to New York ... now go move your car (2009 calendar)

New Yorkers who own cars and don't have off-street parking (which can cost as much per month as a small apartment in Cincinnati) spend exorbitant amounts of time trying to remember whether their car is parked on the side of the street that'll get them a $65 ticket if the street-sweepers come through. Street sweeping is suspended for 30 or more days a year, but few of us can remember which days it's safe to ignore the posted alternate-side signs.

I was inspired to design an alternate-side parking calendar by an atonal piano piece sandwiched into an otherwise enjoyable concert. I didn’t want to walk out (the pianist was amazing), but I didn't want to listen to the "music," either. So I assigned myself the task of devising a way to incorporate some of the photos I've taken of New York into a marketing piece for my husband's dental practice. By the time the piano abuse was over, I'd had the idea of doing an alternate-side parking calendar for 2009 with photos of our neighborhood around the edges. It had to fit on a single 8.5 x 11" page, include all my husband's office info, and give a URL where people could print more copies. It had to be attractive enough that people would cheerfully post it inside their front door or on their refrigerator.

The next day I laid out the calendar using the conventional format: 7 columns and 4-5 rows per month for 12 months. Alas, there wasn't enough space for pictures. Then I decided to apply some of the principles I'd learned in Edward Tufte's Visual Displays of Quantitative Information. I raised my hands and backed away from the computer (sometimes one must), and considered what information had to be included and how to organize it with the least possible visual interference. After much tweaking of font sizes, table margins, and text colors, I managed to fit all the necessary information plus quite a few photos. A scanned image is below; to see the calendar as a PDF, click here.  (The blog text continues below the scanned image.)

Tufte's Visual Displays of Quantitative Information focuses on organizing visual information so that it's comprehensible at a glance. Reading it will change the way you look at printed material and websites as well as the way you organize material on a page - even if you're only printing a flyer for a garage sale.

Print as many copies as you like of the calendar for your front door, your refrigerator, your glove compartment, and your friends. If you're curious about the images, the locations are given at

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sylvia Bokor's Blog

My long-time friend Sylvia Bokor, an artist and writer, has just started a blog. Check it out at
The latest post (as I write this) is on mystery writer John Dunning, and it nails down an aspect of his style that had bothered me enough so that I only read one of his books - but which I hadn't bothered to put into words.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

History as Prozac

I am usually “even tempered and good-natured, whom you never hear complain,” but like Henry Higgins, occasionally I get furiously angry. My trigger at the moment is the upcoming presidential election. As an Objectivist, I don’t think the government should dictate how I run my private life or my business; it ought to confine itself to protecting individual rights, including protecting me from attacks foreign or domestic. (See Ayn Rand’s “The Nature of Government.”) McCain and Obama are both promising more regulations and more government programs that would affect every aspect of my life, and neither one has convinced me that he’ll fight genuine threats such as Iran. So when I see either one talking on TV, I soon find myself shouting at them, and wondering how a nation with such brilliant founding principles can survive, if we're reduced to choices such as this. Pass the Prozac, please.

 My Prozac is history, because history gives me a sense of perspective on passing events. Last summer I started working part-time as a cataloguer for Martayan Lan, a bookseller specializing in works printed before 1800, particularly the history of science, travel and discovery, and art and architecture. I typically skim a book and then write a page-long description of it, setting the book in context as a major contribution to knowledge, a quaint leftover from an earlier age, or something between. Recently I’ve described a 17th-century book on heart defects, a collection of reports submitted by Jesuits around the world in the 1590s, French newspapers promoting the California Gold Rush, and a compilation of women’s legal rights in 16th-c. Portugal.

Not long ago I described a book of medical aphorisms: Latin couplets that purported to help students and physicians remember how to diagnose and/or treat various ailments. The information in the poems was probably centuries old when the book came out, and had mostly likely been distorted by years of unthinking repetition to the point of being useless, if not outright harmful.

Here's the kicker: the book was published in 1589. Forty years earlier (the whole working life of a physician at that time), Andreas Vesalius had dissected cadavers and had published the results of his research in a beautiful multi-volume work. (See the illustrations at ). Others were also finally looking at nature rather than parroting ancient and medieval authors: physicians of this era described the circulation of the blood in the lungs and set the foundation for the systematic study of tropical diseases. Those at the cutting edge in science knew better than to simply memorize and apply medieval solutions in Latin doggerel. Many of them must have howled with rage that any publisher would print works such as Scholtz' Aphorismorum medicinalium.

And yet … eventually books like that were no longer published. Those who were constantly expanding their knowledge and confidently announcing their discoveries did eventually triumph. Reality and reason won out, in the long run - although not without staunch defenders who fought long, difficult battles.

So when I need a pick-me-up from the current depressing presidential election, history is my Prozac. If you need some anti-depressants, try these:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Three-fer: Wilkinson, Wildhorn, Gill

Last week I visited Michael Wilkinson’s studio in Manhattan, and it raised my spirits for days. One of Michael’s specialties is cast-acrylic sculptures of idealized figures, usually on romantic themes. I had seen photos of many of them on his website ( and expected to like them, but hadn’t anticipated the impact of seeing them in person, in three dimensions. Acrylic can be highly polished or sanded to a frosted finish. The outer planes can be angled in such a way that the images molded into it are reflected back at unexpected angles. Change the angle of the light or rotate the sculpture, and the effect is quite different.

Not all artists can talk coherently about what they do. Michael can. I was fascinated to listen to him discuss his aims for different pieces, and the ways in which he manipulated the material to make his intention a reality.

The piece that sticks in my mind is not an acrylic but a bronze: a small work called Sanctuary, which shows a woman leaning protectively over a man. Michael said the idea in his mind was that in a romantic relationship, there are times when one partner is exhausted by the outside world, and the other provides a sort of haven until the partner recovers.

I immediately heard a song in my mind: “You Are My Home,” from the Broadway musical The Scarlet Pimpernel (music by Frank Wildhorn). The words aren’t exactly the same concept as the sculpture, but they’re close; and I still get goosebumps when I think of the first time I heard that song performed on stage, with a dozen vocalists and an orchestra. So the Sanctuary sculpture gripped me not just visually, but via an auditory memory. (You can hear an excerpt from the song on iTunes by searching “You Are My Home.”)

Thinking of all the times in the past years that I’ve wished I could see the Pimpernel live on stage again reminded me, in turn, of an essay I recently read in A.A. Gill’s Previous Convictions. He pointed out that seeing a play live, on stage, is fundamentally different from seeing the same work on film. (Mind you, I wouldn’t want to live without film, even if I could afford to see a Broadway play every week.)

"Film performance is a vanity, it’s done for a mirror, it’s passed through a hundred hands. The audience is an abstract. There’s no middleman between you and a stage. Every time you see Olivier perform Othello on film it’s the same. You make no difference. What I saw onstage was unique. … You can see the same play again and again and it utterly changes. Every performance leaves a footprint, but it also leaves the text pristine and untouched. As I grow older, plays grow old with me. Their meanings change, the emphasis is different."

The same is true of sculpture: seeing the original work is very different from seeing a reproduction; and seeing it under different circumstances (whether it’s simply a different time of day, or the fact that you’re a year or two older) can make an enormous difference in what the work says to you. So if you’re lucky enough to live in a town with art galleries, museums, or artists’ studios, take an hour or two to drop by for a visit—not as a “chore” to prove you’re cultured, but for the chance it gives you to see something beautiful and, perhaps, to learn something more about yourself.

Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan, which was marketed as a guidebook to New York City sculpture, includes long sections on looking at art and figuring out why you react to a certain piece as you do. For beginners looking at art, see my blog entry on introducing kids to art.

The sculptures are Futurity and Sanctuary; art and photographs  copyright (c) Michael Wilkinson, all rights reserved.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Great views of Manhattan skyline

Midtown from Gantry Plaza Park
New York Harbor from Battery Park
New Yorkers who seldom venture out of Manhattan miss the delights of seeing the sun rising and setting on the island. I recently compiled a list of my favorite places to do that. It's not  exhaustive: I focus on places I can sit with a friend and have a picnic dinner (or breakfast). On Google maps, the list is called "Great Views of the Manhattan Skyline." (The sculptures in Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan are plotted on a different Google Map.)
For suggestions of places to take photos (but not necessarily sit and relax), see 
The pics for today's post are among the 350 images on the Upward Glance screensaver CD, available for $15 at .  All images Copyright (c) Dianne Durante, all rights reserved.
Midtown from Gantry Plaza Park
Midtown from the Pulaski Bridge
Midtown from Gantry Plaza Park

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Introducing Children to Art

Several friends have asked me how I would go about introducing a child to art. What follows is a combination of what I did with my daughter, and what (looking back) I wish I’d thought of doing. The suggestions are geared to any age from infant to adult: pick up wherever you feel is appropriate. For me, the point of looking at art is not to learn history or sociology, and it’s certainly not to wow other people with your knowledge. At its best, looking at art is pure pleasure. Even when it’s not pure pleasure, I enjoy figuring out why it’s not. Incidentally, if you’re looking for advice on teaching a child to appreciate abstract works, you’ve come to the wrong person. You can read my thoughts on such pieces in the essay I wrote a couple years ago on Christo’s Gates. 1. Learn to look. Teach your child to observe what’s around him by pointing things out and commenting on them. You can do this walking down the street (buildings, cars, public sculpture), with the pictures in children’s books, or any number of other ways. My father used to drive through open countryside and point out what crops were being grown. That’s what interested him, and to this day, I can’t drive through Upstate New York without noticing what’s growing … and looking at the way the hills roll, the rivers meander, the mountains fade into the distance. This is despite the fact that at the time, I thought playing gin rummy with my siblings in the back seat was much more fun. Don’t feel that what you say about what you see has to be your final word on the subject. Nor does it have to express the accumulated wisdom of centuries of scholarly research. Just saying, “My, that bear looks very happy!” is a fine place to start. 2. Think and talk. Translating images and feelings into words helps you understand and remember what you see and feel. After you’ve made some comments, ask “What do you think?” Your talking is giving the child the words to use; eventually he’ll come up with his own, and get his opinion in even before you offer yours. 3. Evaluate and compare evaluations. Talk about what you like and dislike about whatever you’re looking at, and (this is important) what you specifically like or dislike. Just saying “Eeuw, that stinks!” isn’t enough. But (this is equally important) don’t impose your own views on your child. When you look at one of Raphael’s paintings of the Madonna and Child, you may think of the story of Christ, the influence of Christianity on the Western intellectual tradition, or how Raphael compares to Michelangelo. Your child may love a Raphael Madonna and Child just for the affection shown between the mother and child. Within your child’s context, that reaction is just as legitimate as yours. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t say, “You like that? How can anyone possibly like that?” Maybe he likes it because it’s a pretty color of blue. Ask him, and listen to the answer. Remember this kind of conversation doesn’t have to be about art. You can talk about buildings, high-tech gizmos, cars, or whatever. The point is to get your child in the habit of looking, thinking, and talking to you - not just to get him to look at art. 4. Use a camera. Give your child a cheap digital camera and let him take photos of whatever grabs his interest. We once took our daughter to a sculpture foundry; what interested her was mostly flowering weeds. The weeds were prettier than some of the works that had been cast there, so you could argue that she was showing good artistic taste. If you spot a pattern to what your child likes, try to find ways to see more of that. Let him put together a folder of photos for the grandparents or aunts and uncles. Use them as a screensaver on your computer. Print them out for a changing display on the walls of your home. If you want to talk with your child about art, he needs to know that you’re interested in what he likes - not just in teaching him to like what you like. (Liking what you like may come later, if you can explain why you like what you like.) 5. Visit some art. Take your child to a museum, a gallery, or a place with lots of outdoor sculptures. Don’t plan to give an art history lecture. Don’t plan to spend more than 2 hours there - make it less if your child’s a restless type. If you’re in a mega-museum like the Metropolitan in New York, pick one room with pieces that you like, and plan to just meander through other rooms, letting your child decide which rooms to spend more time in. Pause often to talk about what you see. Let your child take photos, if the museum allows it. See if you can find a couple works on similar subjects that are hung side by side, and talk about how they’re different. I like to compare notes as we go along of which works are my favorites, in a particular room and later in the whole visit. It helps me keep them in mind, and what my husband or child choose as favorites often reveals sides of them that I never suspected. Notice that a concentrated look at art is the last step in this list of suggestions, not the first. You can take your child to the great museums of the world for hours on end, but if he can’t focus on what he’s seeing, and if the two of you can’t talk about what you’ve seen, what’s the point?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Upward Glance screensaver: more photos (2)

Here are two more photos from the Upward Glance screensaver. For more details and how to purchase the CD, see the post of 5/20/08.

Let's see, the screensaver CD has 350 images, so I can upload 4 per week for almost 2 years ... by which time I'll have another CD of photos to offer.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Upward Glance screensaver: more photos

Here are two more photos from the Upward Glance screensaver. For more details and how to purchase the CD, see the post of 5/20/08.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Upward Glance: A New Yorker's Look at New York

For years I've used architectural photos as screensavers: the buildings and details of buildings that I've captured are a remarkable combination of creativity and technical skill, from the details on wrought-iron fences to the towers of Midtown.

I'm offering 350 of these images on CD for $15, including shipping and handling within the U.S. Check this blog over the next month or two for more samples. For other samples, see

NOTE: The locations of the photos are not given on the CD as presently offered for sale, because to check and type up such as list would require many hours of additional work. If you yearn for such identifications and would cheerfully pay $5 extra for a list, email If or when the demand is great enough, I'll do the list and notify you that it’s available.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why not live with art you love?

I’m the kind of person who walks into your home and heads straight for your bookshelves and artwork. I can’t help it. As an art historian, I’m always avid to see more art, and as a mystery lover, I’m always curious to see what common threads I can identify in the books and artworks.

Your choice of art is, of course, a very personal matter. What you like will depend both on what’s in a particular artwork and on your experiences and values. If Michelangelo’s David looks like the bully who beat you up in high school, you’re not likely to want a reproduction of him in your home. No one can or should tell you what you ought to like.

But what if you want to own more art, and don’t know where to start looking?

Based on my years studying art history, my knowledge of esthetics (my writing and research are based on Ayn Rand’s esthetic theory), and my familiarity with art galleries and online sources for buying art, I’m offering my services as an art consultant. If you’ve had the same works on your wall for so long that you don’t really see them any more, or if you have wall space you’d like to fill, I can help. Together we can look at your favorite works and figure out what other artists or periods you might like to explore or live with, in your home or office.

My charge per hour for these consultations is less than the latest edition of Janson’s History of Art a framed 18 x 24” giclee print of the David. Email for details:

Monday, April 7, 2008

Forgotten Delights in the NY Times blog

I'm quoted in the City Room section of today's New York Times blog, in an article on a bust of Aristotle that was just dedicated in Queens. Sewell Chan, who writes the column, read Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan last year and loved it, and now calls me when he needs background on older sculpture in NYC. The article is at Incidentally, traveling to Queens is not a life-threatening experience - if you want to visit Aristotle in Astoria, you can expect to return unscathed.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

HBO's John Adams & the monument to the Montgolfier balloon ascension

Those of you who saw the John Adams miniseries on HBO this past Sunday may remember the scene in which Jefferson and the Adamses watched the ascension of a balloon in Paris in late 1783. Even in an era when scientific discoveries were being made with astonishing rapidity, the development of the world's first flying machine ranked as an awe-inspiring event. Wikipedia has an account of the Montgolfier balloon ascension, with an illustration that looks very much like the balloon that appeared in the Adams series. (Nice to know the producers did their homework.)

One of my favorite 18th-c. sculptures in the Metropolitan Museum is a terracotta model over 5 feet high for a monument commemorating this ascension. It’s surmounted by a hot-air balloon and a figure of Fame blowing her trumpet. On its base, absurdly energetic putti (cupids) feed the flames that keep the balloon aloft. This is an exuberantly ornate work, one of the few sculptures in the Metropolitan that still makes me giggle with glee. If you visit the museum, look for it in the room directly behind Canova's Perseus, who now guards the main entrance to the Petrie Court. In my whirlwind tour of 4000 years of sculpture at the Metropolitan I always regret not being able to spend more time on this piece.

Incidentally, I was worried that the John Adams series would be yet another made-for-TV smear job, diminishing the Founding Fathers to the Neighboring Nitwits. However, there are enough substantial quotes from Adams, Jefferson, Washington and others to bring the series up to a thought-provoking level, and the production is very well done and extremely well acted. If you've missed it, HBO is rerunning the first 4 parts on Friday, April 4th. The 5th episode (of 7) will be broadcast Sunday April 6th.
Sorry about the blurry photo: the Metropolitan Museum doesn't allow flash photography, and doesn't have an image on its site that I can link to.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Upcoming Lectures: History of Painting and Sculpture, Renaissance to Modern

In January Quent Cordair Fine Art sponsored a fine arts cruise in the Caribbean, during which I gave 6 hours of lectures: “The History of Painting and Sculpture, Renaissance to Modern (ca. 1400-ca. 1900).” The focus was on artists of genius whose innovations changed the course of art history. In the final session we studied in detail several paintings and sculptures (including Raphael's School of Athens) using for comparison works seen earlier in the course.

The Cordair cruise was fantastic, and (yes, I do say so) these were some of my best lectures ever. I’ll be offering them as an online/teleconferencing course on four consecutive Thursdays: April 17 & 14, May 1 & 8, at 8 p.m. Eastern time. For copyright reasons involving the images used, these lectures will not be videotaped for sale, so you’ll have to catch them live or not at all. Class size is limited to 15. To register, email .

For information on my other upcoming lectures and tours (including one on the World Trade Center Memorial and a series based on Outdoor Monuments in Manhattan), visit

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Upcoming: History of Sculpture Tour at the Metropolitan Museum

Sculpture is designed to be seen in the round. What better way to learn the history of sculpture than to take a tour of works in the remarkable collection of the Metropolitan Museum, where you can walk around each work as you learn its significance? In the span of 2 to 2.5 hours (including a break), this course will give you an overview of the major innovations in the history of Western sculpture, ranging from works created in Ancient Mesopotamia to those created by Auguste Rodin. The aim is to give you an appreciation of the brilliant sculptors who achieved this progress. Incidentally, once the tour is finished you'll also be able to recognize works from every major period. In the course of the tour, we'll address questions such as: What promotes innovation, and what stifles it? How can you remember what a work of art looks like once you've walked into another gallery? How can you tell that an innovator has been at work, even if his original works are lost? Upcoming dates: Saturday 2/23/08 at 10 a.m. Wednesday 2/27/08 at 10 a.m. Sunday 3/2/08, 1 p.m. Tuesday 3/4/08 at 1 p.m. To sign up or to hear a sample MP3 segment, visit The lecture fee of $25 (2 for $40) is payable in cash at the beginning of the lecture, and does not include the donation for admission to the Museum.