Willem de Kooning: The Cat’s Meow

Cy Twombly died today at 83. 

Here’s a nice tribute to him by Jerry Saltz.

Edward Hopper: Hotel Window.

There’s a tendency to make Hopper into something quaint and kindly and to ignore the times when he’s not. He’s not allowed a trace of Europeanness. Documentaries smother him in big band jazz. But some of his pictures have an eerie side to them and the gaze, while I’d never say it wasn’t often compassionate, hardly strikes one as benign when it peers into glary rooms and contracts big geometric spaces into tunnels. Hotel Window is a good example of what I mean. A hotel room that feels as big as Grand Central Station but a Grand Central Station that somehow feels claustrophobic. All that spaciousness comes to point at the woman, who looks away as if there were anyone else in the room that could be the object of attention. And being lit like that, she must wish she were out in the anonymous dark.

Office at Night.

In Office at Night, the light again seems over-bright, like stage lighting. The unpleasantness is not just a function of the light, though, or of the not-quite-right angles; it has something to do with the guilelessness of the people spied on. It’s an embarrassment to be found serving time so innocently and in so exposed a place, to have been caught in the act of doing nothing much again. These two couldn’t have an affair if their lives depended on it. They couldn’t shut a door or window, couldn’t turn off a light.

Eleven AM.

Similarly affectless, the woman in Eleven AM, naked but for her shoes. Some people might see this as a touch of humour on Hopper’s part, but as she, like many of Hopper’s people, stares dreamily out the window (they’re often oversize, as if to show people for cowards), there seems something more pathetic about it. Is that as close as she could get to going out?

Night Windows.

Pisanello: Portrait of a Princess.

This is one of those paintings whose every detail looks to have been chiseled into stone. I don’t find it a cold painting at all, but there’s not a hint of improvisation to be found, and nothing really moves except the odd butterfly, perhaps. The intricate flowers and the embroidery of the over-gown could be from Netherlandish painting of the period, and the ribbons in the princess’ hair and the lines in her garment - they’ve been painted with a carefulness and patience that heightens the impression the woman is already giving off, as she stares distractedly at nothing, of langourous chastity. The woman’s head and the dark bushes behind it form an intense contrast - I find my attention always gravitating toward those hard contours of her profile. But there’s also a contrast between stoniness and leafiness; despite its controlled arrangement of forms, there’s something about that bush and all the impossibly varried flowers growing out of it that makes it look as if it had a life of its own. And it’s possible to start to see the princess, whose gaze is inward if it isn’t blank, as the true negative space, the static center of all that growth, as if we’re looking at a cutaway of a woman overgrown, left to go privately and elaborately to seed.

Compare and Contrast (14)

1. Titian: Man with a Quilted Sleeve (detail).
2. Philip Guston: Sleeping.

This is another big stretch but, I’m telling you, I can’t look at that sleeve in the Titian and not think of Philip Guston. I may not even have the best Guston to illustrate the comparison, but there’s something about the strokes on that sleeve…

My brain’s desktop (4)

My semi-regular house-cleaning of links, desktop jpegs, miscellaneous likes and dislikes I might not otherwise post…

1. Steven Soderbergh, list-maker

A compulsive list-maker myself, I could relate to the impulse that led director Steven Soderbergh to keep track of all the movies, books, tv shows, plays, etc, he took in over the course of a year. I’ve done the same thing with books for the past four years and, together with my friend, for the same length of time, all the movies we’ve watched. Soderbergh seems to be a real student, watching The Social Network around six times, and Raiders of the Lost Ark - in black and white no less - three times in a week. On the last page there are also lists of essential books on film, films notable for their cinematography, screenplays, and editing.

2. This cartoon
(from Crimes Against Hugh’s Manatees)

3. A Roberto Bolano piece…

Roberto Bolano piece in the New York Review of Books from the forthcoming (did it get pushed back?) book of essays, Between ParenthesesSome folks are already reading it, reviewing it.

4. Amazon now selling reduced-price Kindle with ads

A pretty supportive New York Times piece about this nauseating new idea. One little mention of its downside…

Still, books are one of the last ad-free zones, and by showing ads on an e-reader, Amazon risks alienating some users, he said.

“There’s been research that shows that if you put an ad in an environment where people are highly engaged, that kind of intrusiveness can really backfire,” he said.

Part of me hopes it does backfire, that there is a backlash against this kind of thing. I have a kindle. It’s a nice toy. But I can already see it won’t be a satisfying long-term replacement for books for me. And it’s true: books represent a kind of retreat, both in terms of mental space and physically - the clean, uncluttered pages themselves, with only the odd, forgivable ad for the publisher’s other titles, from electronic devices, ie. ad distribution machines. I’m leery.

5. Lil’ Kim / Nicki Minaj / Ganguro

Speaking of branding, here’s Lil’ Kim (thanks for the correction, AJ) selling herself body and soul to Louis Vuitton, and then Nicki Minaj on the cover of V. 1) This is how the Gaga generation pop stars deal with a corrupt, capitalist culture - not just by joining it, but binging on it, making everyone want to vomit on it. 2) I can’t say that’s not a powerful, disturbing portrait. Pretty radical femininity. 

It reminds me of Japanese Ganguro fashion…

6. The Brooklyn Rail / John Yau / Tom Burkhardt

I mentioned Brooklyn Rail and its interviews (specifically John Yau’s) not that long ago but it’s still on my desktop, as it were. This month’s issue has three interviews with painters, none of which I knew about before and all worth checking out. (I love that they prioritize painting, when museums are on this installation bender).

One artist interviewed this month, Tom Burckhardt, seems to be in that flirtatious place between abstraction and figuration that a lot of artists, the try-anything type, are thriving in right now. What he says about wanting to have to really work to make his paintings art and wanting to start from the assumption that painting is dead made sense to me:

"My thought for that work, which carries over to this work, is that I feel that when a painting is hung on the wall in a gallery with nothing on it, it has this assumption of quality, it’s already 50 percent on the way to being a work of art. Sometimes I find I am dissatisfied with looking at art where I feel like there’s only another small percent added to that scenario. You know there’s an atmosphere, a context of the whole thing, which builds it up to a point where the person, the maker, doesn’t have to participate very much farther. I want to find a way that’s work intensive and Calvinist about really putting something into it that matters to me; that is time, and process, and things like that. I like this idea of beating the premise down to the ground somehow, in a good natured way, where the very idea of painting is kind of squashed down flat somehow and I am almost endorsing this idea of painting being dead. That seems like a great starting point. Rather than taking that pronouncement as an insult, I think that it is terrific because then it all becomes available to me in a way, from the starting point of painting perhaps being so-called dead."

I like the look of this Rorschachy color/shape/variety set of his, too - a little like Ellsworth Kelly or Helio Oiticica…

7. This poem - it’s been making the rounds on Tumblr and it’s pretty good: Courtship, by Mark Strand


There is a girl you like so you tell her
your penis is big, but that you cannot get yourself
to use it. Its demands are ridiculous, you say,
even self-defeating, but to be honored, somehow,
briefly, inconspicuously in the dark.

When she closes her eyes in horror,
you take it all back. You tell her you’re almost
a girl yourself and can understand why she is shocked.
When she is about to walk away, you tell her
you have no penis, that you don’t

know what got into you. You get on your knees.
She suddenly bends down to kiss your shoulder and you know
you’re on the right track. You tell her you want
to bear children and that is why you seem confused.
You wrinkle your brow and curse the day you were born.

She tries to calm you, but you lose control.
You reach for her panties and beg forgiveness as you do.
She squirms and you howl like a wolf. Your craving
seems monumental. You know you will have her.
Taken by storm, she is the girl you will marry.

(thanks youmightfindyourselftowerofsleep)

8. Diane Fawcett illustration

One of the kids I teach on Saturdays showed me a book he’d been reading with these really great, kind of scary illustrations in it by someone named Diane Fawcett. She has a website with everything from textbook diagrams to Twilight shit on it.

9. This sketch of Swinburne

…a reminder of a time when real men walked the earth, and promptly caught pneumonia.

Compare and Contrast (13)

1. Francis Bacon
2. Random Japanese postcard

…because I have an overdeveloped Bacon radar.

Art Bullshit (6)

I’m calling bullshit on artist Mike Nelson and Modern Painters for collaborating to produce these awful photos in this month’s issue. I’m not sure which is the worst mistake - the coat, the coat from behind, or the hangdog expression. I was thinking what you are: that mopey expression is the worst offense. But now ask yourself Why would anyone want to see a picture of an artist in a grizzly bear coat walking away from the camera? It’s bad enough having him out there to begin with, having him out there pretending he knows how to walk around in his backyard, and having a photographer out there licensing him to do so, but a walking-away shot? That’s ridiculous; and it’s bullshit.

The Gospel of Matthew

"Today we’ve got a kind of art that turns against the visual and sensual side of painting, and against the idea that content can ever really be merely in the look of something. The type of art now celebrated by Tate Modern concerns ideas alone, and a rather twisted notion of what "ideas" actually are: in this art if a bit of anger or some identity politics are referred to, then the art really is "angry" or it really does challenge the assumptions of people who haven’t read any books about identity politics (however feeble the realization of the actual art might be). What’s said and written about this type of art, its apologia, has become merely a list of the same pretend-important ideas that by now makes one fall asleep just hearing it."

- Matthew Collings, Matt’s Old Masters.

Elad Lassry: Woman (Camera).

I love this photograph and I kind of like what I’ve seen of Elad Lassry generally, though I sometimes wonder what it’d be without those magic frames, and I wonder also why contemporary art is content to come across so small - but that’s a separate thing.

What’s made this woman leap onto that shelf? My guess is that it’s nothing more urgent than a priceless expression on her son or daughter’s face (I’m convinced this is a portrait of a mother, and if I’m wrong it makes no difference anyway). But there she is, in one of those feats of everyday superness, balancing on a tightrope between domesticity and high adventure. Her concentration is so intense that she hasn’t even noticed what she’s up to - it almost makes me laugh. Of course there’s another photographer here, equally stealthy, though I imagine this photograph was more “found” than composed. Nobody could have foreseen the little rhyme between the extended arm and the neck of the lamp. And the woman - is it an actress? - in the black and white photograph: another photographer and photographee, and another version of feminine glamour, maybe, to contrast with this newer kind. You have to look harder for it, the newer kind, and its attributes have changed (from lofty passivity to something catlike cloaked in frumpy), but it’s there. This picture is one degree and a frame away from the photos all families accumulate and never really look at, but there’s a difference, and I’m glad somebody noticed it.

Kurt Schwitters: Untitled (Elikan).

Artists in pictures: Sean Scully

Here’s Sean Scully with two of his gigantic paintings, a good abstract expressionist soldier back from battle, covered in the blood of his victims. You’d think this rather obsolete content would upstage the paintings, but it doesn’t (and I don’t necessarily have a problem with that content anyway). In fact, you get a real sense of the physicality of the paintings here, a sense you don’t really get, by the way, looking at them in reproduction. (Apparently the sides of Scully’s canvases are also painted; this too would add to their monolithic solidity.) The paintings, though they really do bear those old-fashioned qualities, sought and admired by the abstract expressionists but laughed out of town today, toughness and masculinity, come off pretty well, not nearly as cold, or as easily pigeonholed, as you’d expect given their ancestry. Scully himself looks somewhat more anachronistic than his paintings do. I feel like he may accidentally have gotten himself pressed into that mold in the photo.

In other photos, some in which Scully is seated, we see an artist applying paint not with a Herculean trowel, but carefully, with a relatively small brush - and check out that posture in the photo on the right: that’s a guy who has to be careful about his back if I ever saw one. There. Fine. But I still like the first photo, just like I do pictures of Jackson Pollock in his barn or, heck, Nick Nolte in Scorsese’s Life Lessons, where no artist cliché is spared. As long as painting is an art and not a science, as long as painters start a painting not knowing what they’re after, there will always be some air of romance in it. And whatever the nature of the attraction to getting messily engrossed in useless work, I don’t think I’m the only one who’s feels it.

Google’s Art Project

This is a detail view of part of the bed in Van Gogh’s The Bedroom. I got it from Google’s new Art Project, a site where, apparently, those hoarders everyone feels ambivalent about plan to archive high resolution renderings of the world’s artworks like they’ve archived everything else. But after having spent a good hour on the site, I can’t say it’s not an awesome tool for art lovers. There’s a whole luscious side to artworks that you’re missing if you’re not able to see them close up, and for those of us who can’t jet around the globe whenever it strikes us, this offers a pretty reasonable substitute for the experience you’re going to get in a museum, that is, with your face pressed to the protective glass.

I’ve thought a lot about the experience of art via jpeg, or through reproduction in general (since this is how I take most of it in) versus the direct gallery experience. The only conclusion I can come to is that both are absolutely valid art experiences, and there’s nothing saying the humbler means can’t afford the richer experience. All experiences of art, after all, are imperfect; you take what you can from it however you can get it. And since so much of any significant encounter with art comes down to factors such as your receptivity to it and capacity for appreciating it, the network of experiences that lead up to your seeing it, and, say, whether your tired back or the kid mounted on it is distracting you, there’s nothing saying that even when face to face with a masterpiece you’d be the right person and it the right work of art or the time right. 

I remember the day that I finally “got” Francis Bacon. For a long time I had no feeling for his paintings at all and then one day, after looking through a couple of monographs in a book store - I ended up buying both of them - and spending the whole day looking at them, I had something like a road to damascus moment if I’ve ever had one. Would I have gotten even more out of the paintings if I’d seen them in a gallery? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have felt anything at all. I’ve still only seen a few Bacons up close but I don’t have any reservations about calling him one of my favorite artists. 

Bacon had his own experience like this with a Velasquez, the Pope that obsessed him for a good part of his life and became the inspiration for many of his own paintings. In fact, he liked it so much in reproduction that he eschewed the direct experience, even when he could easily have gone and seen it while in Madrid, and instead, apparently buying book after book with it in, collected reproductions of it. 

But there is a lot to be said for seeing a painting close up. It’s a different thing, and it’s less easy, looking at them this way, to forget the aesthetic dimension, the How of the painting, the side of art appreciation that entails running your eyes over a paint surface in grateful participation, retracing the brushwork that made it, when you have both the tactile level and the overview and you can track back and forth between them. Roberta Smith, writing about the Art Project a couple of days ago, says it’s “a mesmerizing, world-expanding tool for self-education.” I think that “self-education” part gets it right. It’s not a replacement for looking at art in museums. It’s a reference, and next to seeing it in the raw, a pretty useful second.

A close-up of Chris Ofili’s No Woman, No Cry (right). And you can get much much closer still…

My brain’s desktop (3)

I know it’s kind of unbloggerly to put a bunch of stuff in one post when it could easily make seven or eight, but a lot of this is even more trivial than normal, or stuff I’ve already mentioned, and I’m going to do some grousing, and I’m going to talk about stuff I want to buy, which is not a cool thing to do, and certainly not worthy of a dedicated post. Odds and ends. Time to clear the desktop, literally: I have a lot of jpegs on my desktop, a tiny fraction of which I hope to get rid of after posting them here.

1. The Syberberg website

As you can see, in terms of design, my blog hugs fairly tightly to the straight and narrow. A 576 pixel column, everything justified and on the square. But I really like the aesthetic of director Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s cavernous, zero-format website. Is it a blog? Is it an artwork? Does he just not know any better? Impossible to tell. Pages link to other pages, one link to another, without there being a way to retrace your steps and without any sort of menu. Fearless html here, anarchic and a little bit lovely, in a Peter Greenaway kind of way.

2. Alku cassettes

For several years I’ve been an admirer of Alku, a miniature label for experimental (and, I’d go as far as to say “silly”), computer-based music out of Barcelona (run by a group called Evol, if that name rings a bell). Recently, I went to their site again, not having been there in a while, and found these adorable cassettes they’ve been issuing. This is something I’ve thought about myself, a cheaper alternative to vinyl and a way of putting some of the object back into the album. So I felt I recognized the idea when I saw them. And they look pretty awesome. 

3. Art Now: big, boring, impersonal, manufactured

This is what art looks like now. Every time I see something like the above posted on someone’s blog, I wonder what it is that interests them. Just the bigness, I guess, and the displacement factor, which is more a matter of money than artistic bravado. What do I have against it? It’s like the complaint often made about the internet: information without analysis, without filtering or understanding.

The Aichi Triennale here in Nagoya several months ago was as disheartening as it gets. I felt sorry for the kids I saw at the museum, that this should be the exposure to art they were getting. Big and bland, everything just the idea of a moment sent to the manufacturers, shallowly political but arrousing no aesthetic curiosity. Not a painting in sight, of course. Nothing handmade, and nothing that looks as though it had been worked at and arrived at, found in the process of its making, come to by creativity rather than by horseshit “theory.” 

3.b. If you’re the type, like me, to go to museums and end up depressed, and depressed that you’re depressed, looking at how the market is draining the art out of museums and substituting something bloated and pretentious in its place, know that you have Matthew Collings as company. I’ve mentioned Collings before because I love his honest, aggressively anti-bullshit Diaries in Modern Painters, and I love his appreciative descriptions of the art he does like (you wish he were able to find more of it). Anyway, I’m one of those people who feels pretty much exactly the way he does. If you are too, you might like his latest, a harsh panning of the Frieze Art Fair.

Some bits of it, basically half the article…

"The two paintings by Wilkes, at the Modern Institute stand, were both abstract. One small, one medium-size, they looked as if they’d been done in pastel. The forms were rough-edged color glows in a loose grid. On the floor before them was a little doll, also by Wilkes, like a voodoo fetish. Its purpose, I felt, was to excuse the paintings, since they were a bit harmless whereas the doll was in the well- known (by art people) recent tradition of mannequins to which the correct response is to mime a professor piously recognizing a conversational reference to something important (“Ah, yes, body discourse”). In other words, I felt the overdetermined doll was rubbish, but the paintings were accidentally good."

"In that the fair displayed no formal or ideological trend and offered no manifesto for living, it was a 3-D version of an art magazine. The depression evoked is the same but much more blasting and overwhelming. The work — feeble academic amplified surrealism — was all hasty, whimsical departures from some assumed norm of existence, where you could only imagine that the norms people’s lives have descended into must be really chronic. A dead pigeon with a little banner stuck in it with a slogan reading i too have lived and loved — I just made this one up, but that is the level of sheer, naked, regressive sentimentalism of the poetic meanings of most of the art. Nazi art or 19th-century Victorian moralizing painting seems the height of ironic philosophical sophistication compared to it."

"You might wonder why I’m doing all this sneering. It’s because things are more complicated than Frieze is pretending. “Art” hasn’t triumphed. You’d think one thing that’s good about all this sudden mass interest in art that’s going on now is precisely the mass, the fact that a lot of people can be energized in the name of something — it ought to provoke the opposite of despair. But because everything you see at the Frieze fair just seems like a series of little stimuli intended to not let you progress anywhere at all or think anything, there really is something despairing about it."

"Plus I think it’s reasonable to see the stagers of the fair, Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp (the publishers of Frieze magazine), as creepy and sick rather than enviable social players. Being a Frieze-style manager of modern-style art consumption is a repulsive, sterile, regressed, inhuman, ignorant way to live, and nothing at all like the rebellious existence it’s cracked up to be. Forgive the digression, but if I wanted to be a rebel now I’d write like me and not like someone on the Frieze writing staff. That’s why I’m glad I actually am me, without basing my whole raison d’être for writing on trying to create a cool image of myself, which I observe is the raison d’être of my colleagues at Frieze."

4. The jaded postmodernist narrative voice - heard it, tired of it

I read Tom McCarthy’s Remainder this week and, while it wasn’t altogether my kind of thing, I admit it has an intense and mesmerizing quality that sucked me right in (and reminded me - the quality and the story itself - of Synecdoche, New York, a film I liked a lot). I read it in the space of three days and it left me with a not completely pleasant sick feeling.

One thing that I wish this kind of novel would find its way past is the knee-jerk narrative voice they adopt - everyone can recognize it by now - that comments on the world as if it were alien, impossibly alien for anyone who really lives in it. I can’t stand that tone they all eventually get to when supposedly ‘making strange’ the commonplace - you hear it in DeLillo and we’re still hearing it in Remainder. I say supposedly because it’s become cliche, a postmodernist tic, revealing nothing, it seems to me, other than authorly arrogance.

"It was a themed Seattle coffee bar where you buy caps, lattes and mochas, not coffees. When you order they say Heyy! to you, then they repeat your order aloud, correcting the word large into tall, small into short. I ordered a small cappuccino. “Heyy! Short cap,” the man said. “Coming up! You have a loyalty card?” “Loyalty card?” I said. “Each time you visit us, you get a cup stamped,” he said, handing me a card. It had ten small pictures of coffee cups on it. “When you’ve stamped all ten, you get an extra cup for free. And a new card.” “But I’m not here that often,” I said. “Oh, we have branches everywhere,” he told me. “It’s the same deal.” He stamped the first cup and handed me the cappuccino."

Its a little bit funny but a little bit obvious, the author playing dumb (“Loyalty card?”) and, as if it were a virtue in itself, detailing the monotonous course of an order placed at the “Seattle themed cafe,” symbol of dehumanized corporate capitalism, where people unschooled in irony or cynicism go about doing their work, sometimes happily. (How stupid they are, these poor sheep, eh?) Of course we’ve all had those feelings - whose stomach doesn’t turn when they hear the ‘Seattle-themed’ jargon? But what does it illuminate when you pore over it? What does it ‘make strange’? Most of us see the world this way already. After all, even if you’ve been living in a hovel somewhere, you’ve been reading books like this since the 60s (figuratively, in my case). It would take more effort - it does for me - to see the person behind that jargon - maybe she’s not just a smiling idiot - or, better yet, to ignore the jargon. Capitalism is not going to abate or go away. And you can’t beat it with cynicism. What about finding a way to work around it, a way to live around it or write around it? There’s no shortage of cynicism. That’s the new problem. 

5. And now, three things that with a savage lust I want, want, want…

a. An Expensive, Stripped-down Bicycle

I was thinking about buying a bike, a road bike. Then I got looking at (and drooling over) these gearless, brakeless bikes - fixies, they call them, as in fixed-gear - that are kind of like the Volkswagen Beetle of cycling. I couldn’t ride one of these with any credibility, nor could I afford one - it would take me a month’s earnings to pay for one of those rims alone, and then, to do it right, you have to go back in time and find some old Bianchi frame, etc. But if you’re into googling stuff, this is a good way to fulfill the promise of a whole afternoon.

b. New Schocken Editions of Kafka

It’s going to be hard to resist picking up these new Kafka editions, even though I already have most of the books. Where are the Octavos, though? I don’t have those yet.

c. AIAIAI TMA-1 Headphones 

I don’t need new headcans; lord knows I love my AKGs. But that’s product lust for you - it’s irrational and stupid. But wait a second - I could almost do €200. Here’s the poem about them:

"The one-piece headband is made of a strong, durable and pliant matte nylon material, which provides full flexibility when wearing and positioning the headphones during DJing, and at the same time renders the TMA-1 virtually unbreakable. The inner parts are sheltered by the headphone-cup made out of a resistant ABS material. The 40mm dual-diaphragm high-definition drivers deliver high definition, full-spectrum sound providing you with crystal clarity and an accurate sound on all frequencies."

6. A review of a new Stanley Fish book about how to write

7. Sad news if you’re a fan of Broadcast

8. John Cheever’s Paris Review Interview

I’m on a bit of a John Cheever kick these days, though I don’t think I’ve read anything as strong as the first thing by him I read, The Country Husband. I underlined several parts in his Paris Review interview for various reasons, these because they lend some insight into the composition of a story like The Country Husband

"I don’t work with plots. I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts. Characters and events come simultaneously to me. Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction. Of course, one doesn’t want to be boring … one needs an element of suspense. But a good narrative is a rudimentary structure, rather like a kidney.

"What I love is when totally disparate facts come together. For example, I was sitting in a café reading a letter from home with the news that a neighboring housewife had taken the lead in a nude show. As I read I could hear an Englishwoman scolding her children. “If you don’t do thus and so before Mummy counts to three” was her line. A leaf fell through the air, reminding me of winter and of the fact that my wife had left me and was in Rome. There was my story. I had an equivalently great time with the close of “Goodbye, My Brother” and “The Country Husband.” Hemingway and Nabokov liked these. I had everything in there: a cat wearing a hat, some naked women coming out of the sea, a dog with a shoe in his mouth, and a king in golden mail riding an elephant over some mountains."

9. Shari Eubank
, from a surprisingly romantic scene in Russ Meyer’s Supervixens

Saint Passionate


priceless anecdotes drawn from my real experiences and souvenir jpegs of lost time


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