Last time I was in Florida my mom took me to a specialty BBQ store, Just Grillin, off of Dale Mabry in Carrollwood. I didn’t know such places existed. I thought everyone just bought their grills at a hardware store, Amazon, or direct from the company. It was a pretty great to be able to see and touch Yoders, Weber Summits, and other high-end BBQs. They also came by with some chicken they’d cooked in the back using a variety of rubs they sell. Oh yeah, the entire wall behind the register was full to the brim with rubs and sauces – most (if not all) of them local or competition group rubs. Any rub you wanted to try would be poured into a tasting cup. Sure, it’s not the same as having the rub on some food, but it’s certainly better than the blind buying we have to do with supermarket rubs. As a gift, mom said she’d get me any rub I wanted to try, so I picked up Thunderbird Chicken Scratch. Then a bunch of travel meant I had to keep waiting impatiently until I could finally try it. Last night I finally got my chance.
I asked the wife to get me some boneless, skinless thighs and legs from Costco. Boneless for faster cooking and skinless because no one in the house but me eats the skin. I checked the rub ingredients and it already had salt, so I would dry brine the thighs and legs with the rub. A couple hours before I was planning to grill, I patted the parts dry and I placed them onto a baking sheet. There I generously seasoned them – as in put rub over the entire surface by shaking it over the food. I wasn’t looking for pork shoulder-level coverage, but I wanted to make sure every bite had rub on it. Then I put the chicken into the fridge uncovered. I had been planning to cook them on the gas grill for a faster start, but the rub’s label stated it was developed to be eaten with smoked meat, specifically pecan. So half an hour before I wanted to start cooking, I fired up the kettle and placed a couple small chunks of pecan on the coals. I wanted a medium heat, so I spread a chimney evenly over the grill, leaving only a small area for flare control, even though I wasn’t expecting it to be an issue.
I grabbed the chicken from the fridge and used a silicone brush to paint some canola oil onto both sides of the chicken. Five minutes later, the grates were hot and I was ready to go. After throwing the chicken on, I left the bottom vents completely open and closed the top vent halfway. This measured 350ish on the dome thermometer which I know is inaccurate, but I note for consistency. I don’t usually bother with accurate measurements when I’m grilling chicken, only when I’m cooking indirectly. After 7.5 minutes, I flipped the chicken – it was looking quite beautiful.
After closing the lid again, I noticed the temp had dropped to 300 (one of the pitfalls of closing the lid with the coals spread everywhere is that it reduces flow from the bottom vent). So I reopened the top vent and it bounced back to 350 and stayed there. After another 7.5 minutes the chicken was at 165 or more on all but 2 pieces. So I left those on the grill with the lid open while I went to the kitchen to get a loaf of bread to throw on the grill. By the time I came back, the chicken was measuring a safe temp and so it joined its brethren in the cassarole dish loosely tented while I raked the coals to one side to create a smokey “oven” for the bread. Ten minutes later food was ready.
The chicken had a nice, seasoned taste with a little bit of a kick. I’m in love with with spicy – I eat Indian spicy, Korean spicy, and only Honolulu Thai spicy was a bit much for me. The inredients list has three types of hot peppers, but they’re in a ratio that provides a heat that doesn’t linger. It says, “hey there, tongue!” and then is gone in the next bite of salad or bread. The chicken was incredibly juicy (I wasn’t sure how it would be – I usually brine in a soy sauce concoction that my wife has adapted with various herbs to suit fajitas, lamb, chicken, and ribs) and I loved sopping up the chicken juices and bits of rub from my plate. I’m not sure how easy it is to get this rub outside of this store in central Florida, but I highly recommend it if you’re bored of your usual chicken taste. (Also endorsed by: my wife, my mother-in-law, and the guy at work that I talk to BBQ about and had a bite of the chicken)
Part of the fun of being into BBQ has been trying new things. As I’ve mentioned before, when I was growing up “BBQ” was what we called grilling and it MOSTLY consisted of burgers and hot dogs. Very occasionally it would be something else. Lots of lighter fluid and mediocre results. But now I know about low and slow and smoking and 2-zone grilling. And once I mastered ribs, chicken, and brisket it was time to experiment. So I tried Meathead’s recipe for Alabama Birds with White Sauce.
I threw the chicken on the smoker as he recommended. Then I using some direct grilling (I had some corn grilling on the Weber Kettle), I crisped up the skin.
Finally I added the sauce:
The sauce had a nice piquancy to it. It was milky and spicy – I’d say if you like to mix your cole slaw with your chicken while eating BBQ, you’ll likely enjoy this sauce. In fact, I had some leftover cabbage from another meal and I poured the leftover sauce from the chicken meal onto the cabbage for a makeshift coleslaw.
Also, surprisingly, my mother-in-law was really into the sauce and took the recipe home.
In the past few years I’ve been moving away from seeing pizza as junk food towards seeing it as another food that is sometimes made with care, skill, and love and sometimes make in a hurry for a buck. I can’t remember the exact timeline and can’t be bothered to search for photo evidence, but the two restaurants that changed my mind on pizza were Two Amys in Maryland and Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn. Two very different styles of pizza, but Grimaldi’s cooked in a fire-based pizza oven and authentic Neopolitan at Two Amys. So now there was a new measurement against which to measure all pizzas: the wood-fired pizza.
For my first outing I didn’t want to do my own dough in case it turned out badly. I didn’t want to have also wasted time making dough. So I bought a couple pounds of dough from Wegmans. Then I set up the coals in a rough U shape around where the pizza stone would go.
I left the dough out for the amount of time recommended on the package, but it was not fully defrosted. That made working with it very challenging.
Here’s how the first one came out:
Not the prettiest, but when it’s not a perfect circle we call it rustic. I got the comment that it wasn’t quick as cooked on the top of the dough as would be preferred. So I went from 10 minutes to 15 minutes – rotating every five minutes.
Better crust and better cheese distribution. By this time, though, the temp in the kettle was getting low. I started with one chimney of coals. So I added some more coals above the already lit coals. This was a huge mistake as it ended up WAAAAY too smokey:
For some reason, it seems that having unlit coals underneath (or in a snake or fuse method) doesn’t cause a noticeable amount of white, acrid smoke. But adding coals on top does have the smoke issue.
It was pretty delicious, but actually, I found them to be tastier the next day heated up in the toaster oven at work. But that’s generally the way I feel about pizza.
So lessons learned:
Pizza may need to cook for 15 minutes
Wegmans dough takes longer to defrost than it says on the bag
use a rolling pin if it’s cold or the dough will keep trying to bunch back up
Do not add more coals on top if the heat is getting low – have more coals already on the bottom or wait until the smoke clears again
Overall, it has a good pleasant taste
May need to use less cornmeal on the paddle or warn people about the “sandy texture”
To try next time:
Putting a mild wood like post oak or whatever they typically use in pizza ovens and see how that affects the flavor.
Do you know why a lot of people don’t BBQ that often? Because they always make the same thing and that’s boring. So I’ve been going through all the recipes in Meathead’s book (and other sources) to see if anything else is tasty to my palette. This time it was smoked chicken. I cut the chicken in half.
I took the skin off because Danielle was going to take off the skin anyway and since this was a rub-based recipe, that would remove all the flavor as well.
This time instead of Simon and Garfunkel rub, it was Meathead’s Memphis dust. I threw it on the smoker with the skin on the side to crisp it up, but I didn’t realize I was supposed to stretch it out, so I just ended up throwing it out after the smoke.
When it was done, I had a smoked chicken sandwhich. It was OK. Danielle definitely does not want this recipe again. She said it doesn’t break up the taste of the ribs and/or pork shoulder since it’s all the same rub. I do agree with her on that front. If I made this chicken, it wouldn’t be as part of a meal with Meathead’s Last Meal Ribs or a pork shoulder with his Memphis Dust.
I’d tackled all the major BBQ meats. It was time to try and make my own sauce. So I assembled all my ingredients and followed Meathead’s recipe. It’s supposed to be like KC Classic, which I’ve never had. I also went with the secret optional ingredient of Tamarind paste.
Then I finished cooking
And canned it while it was still hot:
So what was the verdict? Again, I’ve never had KC Classic. My favorite commercial BBQ sauce is Trader Joe’s Kansas City sauce and that’s nice and sweat. This sauce was very tangy. While it has grown on me over the past couple months, it’s definitely not my favorite and my wife doesn’t like it at all. I want to try one more time, this time tweaking it to be a sweeter sauce. Also, I want to see how it changes when caramelized, something I haven’t had a chance to do yet. Still, it was fun to make my own and add it to my other BBQ/smoke creations.
I had been wanting to do brisket for a very long time, but I couldn’t find anywhere convenient to buy a whole packer brisket. But right before I was convinced I was going to have to go to a butcher, Costco decided to carry them.
Yeah, it was 20 lbs, which is ridiculous for what was essentially going to be just 3 adults, but it was USDA Prime for only $3/lb! I had no choice. I put it in my shopping cart and resolved to deal with the consequences later.
After I got home I realized I had a problem, it was too long to fit in my 18″ Weber Smokey Mountain. So I had to cut off some of the flat. (I ended up using that to make some beef phở).
Then I had to trim the fat. There was a pretty good amount to take off.
I put on a Dalmatian rub and put it into the fridge to dry brine.
The next day I fired up the smoker and got to work on the Texas mop sauce.
Instead of vegetable oil, I rendered some of the brisket fat:
I should have cut it into smaller pieces to increase the rendered fat to fried fat ratio, but there’s a first time for everything. And here’s my completed mop sauce:
The taste reminded me a lot of my mom’s carne con papa sauce or a ragu. I think a bit over 20 hours later, the brisket was finally done smoking:
I used Kingsford coals with the minion method and some hickory as the wood. I always think it’s so funny the smoked food looks burnt until you cut into it and get that delicious food. But first I had to put it in the cooler for four hours.
and then finally was able to bring it inside:
then FIRST CUT!
Even the lean part was ridiculously moist. The whole thing was practically falling apart.
Here’s a look at the point where you can see muscle grains going in two different directions:
And here was my dinner that day:
A week later this is all that was left:
And after searching fo what else I could do with my brisket, I made brisket tacos!
So, what were my lessons learned from my first brisket? Basically, I was a little too focued on getting to 203 when I should have checked for probe tender at 195 and every few degrees after that. I ended up with an overcooked (although moist, not dry) brisket that just fell apart a little too much. Overall, it was good, but I also realized I’m just not that into brisket compared to other BBQ foods. I prefer ribs or chicken. I’ll make brisket again, but only if I’m cooking for a group so I don’t need to eat 10ish lbs of brisket over the course of a couple weeks.
For the first time in a few years, my mom was going to be in town for Mother’s Day. We didn’t have a ton of events to attend or anything, so I asked her what she would like for dinner if she could have anything. She said she wanted prime rib, so I figured it was the perfect time for me to try out a prime rib roast on one of my BBQs. Meathead has lots of tips for eliminating most of the hassle of making a prime rib roast. First of all, remove the ribs – they only serve to block heat and keep the roast from cooking evenly. Second, use twine to make it into a cylinder so it cooks evenly from the outside to the inside.
I also decided to make some gravy to drizzle over it. Here’s what the stock looked like:
So I fired up the Weber Kettle to 225 F and threw on the meat.
Meathead said it would take about a half an hour per inch and this 4 inch diameter roast took about 2 hours to get to the right temperature on the inside. Now it was time to sear the outside.
And there she is, all cooked up:
and another shot with the gravy:
Here’s the first piece cut off (money shot):
And this was dinner:
One more shot of the inside a few slices in:
So, in the end, the flavor was great. The crust had a nice kick to it as did the gravy. Will I make it again? Probably not unless my mom’s back in town. My wife is all about the steak. This is too much meat without a sear for her. I thought it was better than I’d had at The Prime Rib in Baltimore, but I’m not going to make a whole roast just for myself. Still, it was a fun experience and something I was able to cross off my list.
I cut the pork shoulder into roughly equal halves. I had three things I wanted to experiment with:
Would it cook faster?
Would it be nice to have twice as much bark?
I wanted to try a Mexican-ish rub on one to have pulled pork tacos.
In my opinion, for a long Weber Kettle cook you can’t beat a snake. If it’s going to go VERY long, it can be a pain as you have to move the water pan to continue the snake. But for medium-long cooks, it’s a nice, perfect way to have a consistent temperature throughout the cook.
This time around I went with Apple wood chunks to see if I could taste the difference from Hickory. Well, without them side-by-side I couldn’t really tell the difference.
Used the Weber Spirit as a safe place to light the first ten coals.
We were expecting rain, so I also setup my umbrella.
With the fire going, I set about to putting the rub on the pork shoulders while waiting for the kettle to get to 225 F.
It was quite windy and I ended up keeping the lower vents mostly open for most of the smoke.
And here’s a shot partway through the cook.
Two shoulders was just a bit too much side-by-side on the Kettle if you’re leaving enough space between them and keeping them away from getting direct heat from the snake/fuse. Here’s the graph of the smoke:
The fajita rub was off the fire first:
About an hour later, the Meathead rub shoulder was done:
First I created a pulled pork fajita:
It was quite delicious! Then it was time for a pulled pork sandwich:
I was reading through Meathead’s sauce page on AmazingRibs.com and saw that Shealy’s was the best South Carolina Mustard BBQ sauce. I ordered some from Shealy’s and …. I did not like it. It just tasted like mustard to me. However, as time passed and I tried the sauce with other pork dishes, I came to taste the subtle difference between this sauce (which is mustard, ketchup, and Worcestershire sauce) and regular yellow mustard and I like it quite a bit now.
Finally, my wife had some pulled pork nachos:
This time the bark was perfect and my wife loved it. Not sure what’s different. The main difference is that it’s spring now and not winter and Meathead does say that humidity can affect cooks. It’s also possible I overcooked it last time. I’m not 100% sure. Either way, it was a resounding success and I had fun trying all sorts of different dishes with the pulled pork. Also pretty awesome (but I didn’t get a photo) was my pulled pork breakfast burrito.
As a manger, I’m often thinking of ways to show my employees how much I appreciate their hard work. Recently, while watching a Meathead video, I saw his quote at the end that cooking for someone is an act of love. And love is not far off from appreciation so I figured I’d ask my employees if they’d like it if I made them some smoked baby back ribs for the cost of raw materials. We settled on a half rack per person, salad, and bread for $6. So then I just had to pick a date to make the food. Thanks to my mom getting me the Weber Kettle for my birthday this year, I had enough room to smoke to the ribs across both my BBQs as long as I used rib racks. So I used the Weber 6605 rib racks (which you saw in the featured image and will see again below)
I was already a pro with Meathead’s recipe for baby back ribs, having done it about 3 or 4 times now. But it was my first time using both the gas and charcoal grill to make 6 racks at once. I offered people the option of less smokey taste and more smokey taste. On the charcoal grill I used what I’d learned with the pulled pork to do a snake method with the charcoal.
I wanted to offer an option for anyone who couldn’t eat pork. So I offered Simon and Garfunkel Chicken and one guy took me up. He got 4 thighs. And he loved it because he loves the herbs used in the rub.
After about 3 hours the ribs were ready (a process that began at 0600 with lighting the coals) and I sauced them so I could carmelize the sauce on the BBQ. It’s easiest to ramp up the temp on the gas grill, so they were all carmelized on the Spirit.
Then it was time to roll it in pink butcher paper and put it in the cooler to keep it warm until I got to work.
It was a big success. Someone said it was the best baby back ribs they’d ever had. Others didn’t go that far, but enjoyed it it well enough. The question is – what do I make next time?
Long-time readers of my blog will know that while I’ve been working at mastering my grills for a few years now, it was in 2016 that I decided I would take my BBQ to the next level. Back in June I smoked baby back ribs for the first time. Then I realized that I wanted to step up my smoking game I’d need a Weber Kettle. Mom got me one for my birthday and at that time I started pining for a chance to take on one of the two kings of BBQ: Pulled Pork or Brisket. The local area made up my mind for me. Apparently it’s next to impossible to get full packer brisket in Maryland. So pulled pork it would be.
I’d already been spending a lot of time in Reddit’s BBQ Subreddit, but to master a winter smoke, I turned to the Smoking subreddit. A special thanks to the two users who helped me here. (As of now going by the handles: HolySchnikeys and golfzerodelta) There will be room in the future to experiment with other recipes, but for now I’m mostly following Meathead Goldwin’s recipes. This time it was this one for pulled pork. I recommend reading the website once to get Meathead’s very wordy tips. Then use his cookbook to do the actual cook as the realities of printing costs mean he has to be more economical with his works. Meathead recommends trimming the fat (because most people aren’t going to eat it and they’ll end up throwing away your bark – where most of the flavor is) and salting it 12-24 hours ahead of time. I ended up being able to salt it 18 hours-ish ahead of time:
Meathead warns that a 5 pound pork shoulder could take 8-12 hours depending on conditions and this was nearly an 11 pound shoulder. I had a feeling it wasn’t linear (meaning it wouldn’t take twice as long), but I had no idea how long it’d take. So I planned to get it on the Weber Kettle by 0600. I didn’t want to be running around the house while everyone was asleep, so I got everything ready ahead of time:
I got up at 0515, brushed my teeth, and got ready to go outside.
The winter gear is pretty self-explanatory – it was 29 out there when I first went out. The headlamp was so that I would be able to see even if my body was blocking the porch light.
The guys on the smoking subreddit recommended the snake or fuse method to keep a nice, consistent flow of heat because a lot of it was going to be radiating out of the Weber Kettle due to how cold it was outside.
I set up a snake of 2 coals topped with 2 coals going around as you see above. Here’s a closer shot:
I used hickory wood chunks as I like the hickory flavor – it’s the one I associate most with BBQ. (Although I’ll be experimenting in the future) Meathead usually has one weigh wood so the pitmaster can be consistent in the future. I didn’t have time the prior day so I tried to approximate about 1 lb of wood.
I put 10 coals into the Weber chimney and about 7 were fully lit when I placed them onto the right side of the snake fuse. I filled the water pan with 208 degrees F water from our instant hot water tea maker. I used the entire capacity and ended up filling the pan somewhere between 75% and 80% full. Then I closed the lid with both the top and bottom vents fully open. It was 0609. So I was a bit behind. I went and grabbed the butt (yuck yuck) to put the seasoning on it while I waited for the BBQ to come up to temp.
Then I added the temp probe:
The pork ended up on at 0645. The grill wasn’t up to temp yet, but I figured I’d start the cooking rather than waiting for the perfect temp. Things went well and the snake kept things relatively sane. I only had to adjust the vents a little here and there (probably when a wood chunk would ignite). Here are some shots of the kettle and settings at 1113:
A little after 1400 I noticed my temps starting to drop precipitously. I’d been checking the snake every time I adjusted the vents, but given how cold it was outside I didn’t want to do that too much and leak more heat out than the Kettle was already leaking. Turns out my snake was about to die. So I removed the cooking grate, moved the water pan, cleaned out the ash, continued the snake onwards, and watch the temps. They were taking too long to climb back up, so I took 1 chacoal lump, and the newly created charcoal (the hickory wood from before) and lit that in the chimney. I then added that to the snake. Temperatures began to climb back up. This was also around the time I had a stall. Was the stall because I’d reached stall temp or because the meat was cooled by being taken out in winter (I think in the summer the effect would be negligible)? Anyway, here’s how the pork shoulder looked at that point:
Before I get to the finished product, here’s a chart of various temps throughout the cook. The least accurate is the ambient temp as that was from my phone which probably updated on the half hour.
Near the end there as it started to get cold again and the coals were starting to run out on my second snake, I had to clean out the ash a lot to maintain my temps.
It was getting late and I pulled it at 196 rather than wait for 203. It was super tender and a bit actually stuck to the grate and I had to remove it with a spatula (that’s the part on the right of that photo). The bark tasted amazing on average. However, there were some parts (especially on the edges (as opposed to top and bottom)) that were actually burnt rather than just looking burnt. That was regrettable because it was bark and flavor no one wanted to eat. I might end up cutting it up so that it’s smaller and easier to eat while still giving flavor.
My wife shredded the pork as I had no experience with that whatsoever. Then we took her homemade coleslaw (buttermilk instead of mayo and 2 kinds of cabbage!) and made sandwiches:
I never had to crutch so my bark was somewhere between simply tough and crunchy. I liked it, but my wife did not. Perhaps in the future I will crutch it or rest it with foil to soften the bark a bit for her? Another lesson learned is that since it really does have nearly all the flavor in the bark (like 90%), I’d do better to have 2 five pound shoulders instead of one ten pound shoulder to increase the bark to inner meat ratio.
Overall it feels great to have conquered my first long cook. My wife liked it (and she does NOT mince words with me when it comes to food taste – she will not hesitate to tell me when food flat out sucks) and I took some to work the next day and the guy with whom I usually talk BBQ shop loved it. People did not want to stop eating and share with others. So that’s a good sign. In fact, I actually found that it tasted a bit better to me the second day. Aforementioned BBQ expert agreed with me, but your mileage may vary. Next….time to find some whole packer brisket!
Ever since I bought my house and got a BBQ/grill I’ve learned that most of what I thought of as BBQ growing up was actually grilling. The key difference is that you BBQ at a lower temperature (typically around 225 F) and that BBQ is cooked via indirect heat. Grilling is cooking directly over a fire and, typically, done at the highest heat your BBQ/grill can provide (at the very least starting around 350 F and higher). Although I’ve been cooking ribs successfully on the BBQ/Grill for the past 6ish years, I’ve never really been BBQing them. So I looked around on the web and I found the recipe for Last Meal Ribs.
I thought about the best ribs I’ve ever eaten and one of the aspects that adds a lot of the taste is smoking. So I bought some hickory wood chips. I’d usually done Danielle’s family ribs marinade, but this time I wanted to make it American Style. So I put together Meathead’s Dust rub to dry rub the ribs before I put them on the BBQ.
When I BBQ this new way, it ends up being just juicy enough without falling off the bone
One thing that was essential for BBQing that’s not really needed for grilling – a thermometer. BBQ built-in thermometers are just not accurate. Also, they’re measuring temperature up where the lid is, not by the meat. I couldn’t get a photo (with my phone) where both thermometer were in focus, but this one shows the BBQ in focus and the numbers on the external thermometer are large enough to read, even if it’s out of focus.
Another reason you need the thermometer (even if you’re BBQing on a gas grill) is that weather and humidity affect the heat. For example, when I took these photos, this was the setting to maintain 225 F:
Only one of the burners on this setting with the others off. But when I BBQed yesterday, I had to turn the knob to the bottom setting.
So, having now done this twice, what are my lessons learned?
I need a bigger BBQ if I’m going to feed more than just my immediate family. I can only make about 2 racks of babyback ribs on my BBQ.
I need to work on getting the wood chips to smoulder/smoke better. I’ve gotten some flavor out of them, but not exactly what I’m looking for. Next time I’ll have to remove the grate and put it right on the fire to see if I can get a better amount of smoke.
I always preheat the grill first – all high at 15 minutes. That’s supposed to help get the grates into a good state and help some of the fat or anything that remained on the grill melt off. I always wash them before use, but I can’t get everything off without risking ripping off some of the anti-rust coating of the grill.
Overall, I like the texture of the ribs better when I cook it this way. It tastes good when I cook it the old way where I was finishing in an hour, but it’s a bit tougher. When I BBQ this new way, it ends up being just juicy enough without falling off the bone (which is overcooked and probably pre-boiled). Next up for me is to try a Brisket. I’m slightly intimidated by the 10ish hours of cooking time, but I’d definitely like to try it.
On my Father’s Day Weekend visit to NYC I finally got to see some MoMA exhibits I’d wanted to see for months. First off was a Picasso exhibit called “Variations”. Ever since my parents took me to the Dali Museum in St Petersburg, FL six years ago, I’ve been very interested in painters – especially artists from the 1930s-1950s and the surrealist and associated movements. Also, as a person of Spanish heritage, I’ve had a special interest in artists from the region. So I was very excited to see this Picasso exhibit.
When I first walked into the exhibition space, I was initially disappointed to read that this exhibit was focusing not on his paintings, but rather his pencil and printmaking works. After going through the exhibit I was very happy to have seen this side of his art that I had never experienced before. A good part of one room was dedicated to his series featuring a minotaur representing lust and the id side of sexuality.
I found this series to be both playful (because of the art style) and highly symbolic. Unlike the extreme abstract art we sometimes see with post-modern art, Picasso’s symbols were clear. Before I read the caption explaining the series, it was quite obvious to me that the minotaur represented unrestrained sexuality. I enjoyed being able to understand the art pieces without having to first read about what the heck it was I was looking at.
One of the most interesting aspects of this exhibit is that it showcased most of Picasso’s least surreal/cubist/etc artwork. It was often pretty obvious what it was you were looking at. The following sentiment will probably reveal my boorishness when it comes to art, but frankly anyone can create cubist art. It seems to simply require forgetting everything you know about 3D and putting the back and front of an object on display at the same time. Kids often do this when they’re learning how to draw. (this is not to take away from the skill required to properly paint it) But to see this artwork showed that Picasso was a master artist. His drawings reveal that he could draw and paint normally if he wanted to. That is, of course, how I define art – knowing the rules before you break them. So, a kid scribbling on paper is not art. But an artist scribbling on a canvas with a purpose will have the same result as a kid, but it is art. So to know that Picasso was not drawing weird simply because he didn’t know how to properly draw a face made me see him as an even greater artist.
On display were also a bunch of portrait drawings of each of his mistresses. Apparently each woman with whom he became involved sexually also became one of his muses. He made dozens of sketches of each of these women and they also appear in other works of art where they are not the only focus or maybe even not the primary focus. As I observed these, my mind wandered from the art to real life. What would it be like for his wife to have him not only involved with all these women, but sketching them and incorporating them into his art. Would she feel sad that she could not provide him all the inspiration he needed? Did she feel it was so brazen for him to create art from his mistresses?
And what of these other women. When they could no longer provide him with inspiration and he tossed them aside for another, did they feel spurned? Did they feel used as they became part of his art and he earned money from their likenesses? I also wondered how they felt about his portraits. While some of the portraits were drawn in the traditional manner, many of them are cubist or surreal. I know, from the captions at the museum, that at least one of these women was a surrealist artist. She would have appreciated the distortion in his work, but what of the others? Did they find it weird or grotesque to be depicted in this manner?
Above I mentioned the playfulness on display in some of the art from this exhibit. Another series which exemplified that spirit of play (but which I did not photograph) was a series of drawings of a bull. This series is Picasso playing a reductionist game to see how basic he can make a bull with us still recognizing it as a bull. Each successive work has less and less detail. (by analogy, the end result is similar to a stick figure as representative of a person) This is playful on an intellectual level and it tickled my brain to see it. But what I found extra funny was that amongst the details Picasso deemed essential to know it was a bull (horns, almond head, large body) were large testicles and a penis.
As I ascended the stairs to my final destination on the sixth floor, I stopped to see a photographic exhibit consisting entirely of female photographers. The first impression I got while walking around the exhibit was that there appeared to be no inherent difference between having a male or female behind the lens. In other words, there was nothing on the surface that screamed out, “This was taken by a woman!” On closer inspection I found a few threads that ran through the exhibit, but, at least in the way this exhibit was curated, they were only the faintest of threads. One such thread was an examination of the female condition — using the photograph to show others what it means to be a woman. Often this was very subtle, although there was one piece by an artist featuring a series of self-portraits that appeared to document her life in an abusive relationship. The images were brutal without being overly graphic and it made me hope that it was staged and not photodocumentary.
Another thread, again, very faint as it only encompassed a few of the photographs on display, was that of motherhood. The piece that stood out to me here was a series of portraits of the photographer’s daughter — one per year (only a subset of these were on display). Each was taken on a chair by a window. It was interesting to see the expression on the face go from childlike happiness to “ugh, I have to do this again!” to appreciation of the effort as she grew. The most profound was the last photograph chosen for this exhibit in which the daughter is now pregnant — presumably with a daughter of her own.
As expected, there were far fewer images of the female form than in a male photographic exhibit. Although there have been exceptions, throughout photographic history most images of the female form have been by male photographers. (As was the case with painting) Nor were there many images of the male form — it appears to be more off limits — perhaps exposing an undercurrent of sexism in the art world? In my surveys of photographic history and in what I’ve seen of paintings in museums, males have seldom been depicted nude. Far more likely has been the depiction of the nude or semi-nude female form. In fact, masculinity often is masked, as in the case of Picasso above, in the form of a minotaur, centaur, or other mythological half-man create. Part of this appears to be changing — at least from what I can tell on flickr. If females are not taking more portraits of the female form with other models, there is a proliferation of self-portraiture of the female form on flickr. This may, however, simply be a symptom of our narcissistic culture colliding with our voyeuristic culture. The female form will attract a much greater audience to someone’s photostream. Still, it removes at least one layer of exploitation to have the woman photographing the naked woman. But, as in other fields (pornography, music videos, film, etc) a case can be made that the woman is simply still functioning in the same world under the same pressures even if it is for a female master. Suffice to say, it’s a complicated issue and one that will not be explored any further in this post.
My main draw to the museum was a comprehensive exhibit of the work of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. This exhibit occupied all of space on the top floor that was available for public viewing. (Another area was under construction for a new exhibit) This collection of photos was amazingly vast. The space was arranged to take the visitor through Cartier-Bresson’s career in a roughly chronological order. The chronology was broken up a bit in order to divide his photojournalistic work into different categories —mostly on geographical boundaries.
The bulk of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photojournalistic work was accomplished in the 1930s and 1940s. His photographs appeared in all the important photojournalistic magazines of the world at that time. On display were magazine photo essays from American and French magazines. Given that commercial aviation was still a novelty during this time, it is astonishing that Henri travelled to so many places to bring back photographs for his assignments. Photographs on display included locales as diverse as America, England, Communist Russia (one of the first non-communists allowed to photograph there), Shanghai, China before and after the Maoist revolution, and Spain before, during, and after the 1930s civil war. Even today, with all our modern airplanes and relatively cheap flights (especially compared to the 1930s) most people don’t get to visit so many countries. But, back then before the Internet, his photographs (along with other photographers of the time) were all that Americans would get to see and know about places like China. It probably conferred both a great responsibility to properly represent the countries he was photographing and a feeling of great privilege to travel to all these places. In addition to the photojournalism work, he had photographs of some of the most famous people of his time including Jean Paul Sartre. They also had photographs of women and his capture of feminine beauty.
It was interesting to see the photos in a museum setting. For the most part, museums are associated with art (especially when the museum is named the “museum of modern art”). While photojournalism can produce photographs that people would conventionally consider art, I do not believe that 99.9% of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs would fulfill those requirements. They are great photos, often capturing a great moment. Most of the time they also exhibit great technique. To me, this makes them art. But they are not artsy photos. And that is what had my wife feeling a bit disappointed. She was expecting a great art photographer – I had told her nothing about Cartier-Bresson other than that he was a famous and heralded photographer. I guess, when it comes down to it, she found the photos too ordinary. To put it another way, she asked why my similar photographs of NYC life were not on display on the walls at MoMA. What made his photograph of a man in Shanghai haggling at the market different from one a tourist might take today that was of the same technical merits. I could not answer that question. He was, no doubt, a great photographer – as I mentioned, his photographs both capture that special moment and display perfect technique. But in modern times we are inundated with photographers of similar skill on flickr. Who will decide if one of them will end up in MoMA in the future?
That evening I went to dinner at Danielle’s cousin’s house. I was able to get some shots of people interacting with all the kids. They’re all in the 3-6 year range so they make nice, cute subjects. Here are a few photos from the evening.
Finally, we all went to see Toy Story 3 (in 2D) at a 2230 showing. I will discuss this in my next blog post.