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HOW THE WORLD HAPPENS TO US: LUCY IVES’S LIFE IS EVERYWHERE
REVIEWED BY JAMES WEBSTER
October 4th, 2022
Approximately 365 pages into Lucy Ives’s Life Is Everywhere sits a rejection letter. Erin, the book’s main character, has received a resounding “no” from a literary agent who has, in one fell swoop, rejected both a novella and a novel written by our main character. The agent displays a kind of shrugged-shoulder indifference to the plotless ennui of the fictional characters contained within the manuscripts, saying that they lack something: an arc, a hook, an excitement of some sort. It’s a great moment, because by this point, Ives has attempted no less than four death-defying feats of writing—including making you read both of these rejected manuscripts in full.
The book opens with one of these feats. It tells, in short, the 1,156-year-long story of a species of bacteria. The bacteria produce a protein called botulinum, which attacks the body’s muscles and causes them to seize. The condition, botulism, was exacerbated by the invention of canning, allowing bacteria to thrive and ferment. Botulism was later weaponized during the World Wars, before the banning of bio-weaponry; the thinking was that the bacteria could make enemy soldiers lose control of their bodies. Eventually, researchers realized that hyper-localized injections of the toxins could freeze the body’s muscles in such a way as to prevent them from displaying the effects of aging—a procedure called “Botox,” short for botulinum toxin.
We are then introduced to a New York City academic who has received a not-insignificant number of Botox treatments. We learn about her research. We sit in on one of her classes. We meet several of her colleagues and learn about their personal lives, their scandals both personal and professional. We are introduced to one of the students in the lecture hall. We learn that this particular student is going through a terrible divorce, and that she has changed the locks to the apartment. And finally we are told that this student, our main character, has ended up locked out of her apartment.
And it is after 86 pages that the reader reaches a line break. “These are the events, to the extent that any human events are knowable, that led Erin Adamo to stand alone on the street in upper Manhattan,” Ives informs us. It is the first of Ives’ many spectacular sleights of hand—everything that has preceded this moment, a millennium of niche history and academic pseudo-celebrity, has merely formed the explanation for how a single person in New York City ended up standing where they did.
If it wasn’t obvious from its title, Ives’s third novel aims to signal the entrance of a new player into the realm of the “systems novel,” an increasingly popular term used to describe, most frequently, the Big Ideas books of the 20th century. Historically populated by male writers like Pynchon, Gaddis (whom Ives name-checks in the novel), DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace, the “systems novel” depersonalizes in favor of the larger picture. Inspired by the rise of technology like the radio and then the 24-hour television channel, these novels zoom out, shifting the focus from the lives of characters to instead demonstrate how the world at large imparts its influence on our lives. It’s an apt form for the social media era and the misery of staring at one’s phone, having our brains pummeled by outrage cycles and watching collapse happen in real time. We are now intimately familiar with the ways that macro-scale happenings dictate how we feel on a personal level. Life is, in fact, everywhere.
The title of the book also nods to an oft quoted but impossible to source quote from Arthur Rimbaud, who allegedly wrote that “life is elsewhere.” And life did often seem elsewhere back in 2014, when the book takes place. It’s an unseasonably warm Thursday in November, Barack Obama is the president, and we are careening off the sharp edge of the information age into an era of heightened connection and awareness of others, but also of online misinformation, purposeful division, demagoguery, and “doomscrolling.” “Whatever it was that we were living in now, we were not modern. We had no word for ourselves,” Erin writes.
Erin, locked out and wandering, seems aware of this impending cultural contract (or lack of one) as she contemplates the negative space of the atrium in the never-named library where she ends up. The library is clearly the Bobst library at NYU, and worry not, we are given a full biography of both the library’s problematic namesake and its architect. This void at the center of everything, as Erin thinks of it, seems to permeate the very air as she sits in the library, surrounded by both limitless information and crude, ad hominem graffiti.
Like the millennium-spanning introduction and the lengthy examination of library architecture, enormous amounts of Life Is Everywhere feel, at first, like needless digression—and perhaps they would be, in the hands of a lesser writer—but these offshoots add depth, texture, and an experimental flourish to the structure of the book. Ives, in an author’s note at the end of the book, mentions her desire to challenge the form of the novel by imagining a world where “cause and effect sometimes trade places.”
This type of nonlinear approach appears in one of Erin’s rejected manuscripts, a piece of autofiction written by a fictional character. Erin’s novel concerns a woman in her twenties, who has been married for years and who learns, gradually, about the actions of her unfaithful husband. It’s a fascinating intertwining of narrative form that hinges on art’s ability to tell us something about ourselves, or the world in which we live. Erin, the fictional protagonist of Life Is Everywhere, uses her autofiction to reveal to us details about herself that we are otherwise not privy to through traditional third-person narration.
We learn, after having read the manuscript, that Erin wrote the novel about a woman and her unfaithful husband before she had learned of her own husband’s infidelity—effect arriving before cause, or at least a conscious understanding of cause. Erin supposes she must have been aware that something was going on under her nose.
It all might sound a little meta, a little MFA-program, but Ives pulls it off in part thanks to an unshakable confidence in what she is attempting, and the fact that she can write. On a sentence level, the book is full of personality, stunning imagery, and ever-deepening philosophical roots. For example, the way that Erin thinks of her husband, Ben:
Erin knew now the extent of Ben’s laziness. His was a torpor of stupendous, infernal proportions. Although he appeared to be a fully grown man, in fact he was an early pupa, a limbless slug basking in the broth of some spiritual incubation tank, a feeding tube plugged into his neck. Ben was The Matrix (trademark).
The novel’s form is a miraculous, shapeshifting thing, changing at a moment’s notice. Ives radically, deftly reinvents herself throughout, mostly in the unbelievable middle section of Life Is Everywhere, in which we read through the contents of Erin’s backpack: her two manuscripts; a book by the disgraced professor; and several pieces of scrap paper, including an unusually high electric bill. Ives guides readers through dense academic writing about dialectics and gender, a condensed history of the early 20th century surrealism scene, and a translated short story. Each is written in its own distinct voice, even displaying progression in Erin’s own writing ability between the novella and the novel.
Life is Everywhere shatters any kind of straightforward narrative arc in favor of a collage of shards that emphasizes the tone, atmosphere, and the general experience of life in the world at a particular moment. And it wouldn’t work were Ives not a Big Ideas writer on the level of Gaddis, or DeLillo, or Wallace. Fortunately for all of us, she is.
The truly necessary point of comparison would be Helen DeWitt, who, like Ives, is a writer similarly lauded as a genius by those in the know. Life Is Everywhere, like Gaddis’s The Recognitions or DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, is a triumphant celebration of human beings’ capacity for knowledge. These literary pyrotechnics never become self-indulgent, however, as the digressions serve a purpose: the books and articles within the novel all point toward an erasure of women in specific fields, including the “systems novel.”
Ives’s previous novel, Loudermilk, or: The Real Poet, or: The Origin of The World was a vicious and hysterical (here meaning both “funny” and “frenzied”) satire of post-9/11 America, and of prestigious literary programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Ives herself is a graduate of the IWW, so her barbs land with a realistic weight. Life Is Everywhere takes similar aim at academia, art-world posers, and an aging class of tenured professors and publishing industry careerists who got to where they are simply by being white, male, and having a PhD. Ives, it’s worth noting, is now an adjunct humanities professor at NYU, and her eye, as well as her teeth, remain sharp.
It’s almost self-defeating to talk about Life is Everywhere in any kind of limited fashion, such as a review, because so much of it depends on the form—a truly spectacular gestalt that requires every one of its 472 pages. To reveal too many of its tricks would take away from the joy in experiencing all of the disparate parts that make up the whole. In the end, Life Is Everywhere is the funny, heartbreaking, and incredibly complex story of how a woman ends up sending a petty email—revolving around a pun, no less, on the word “work,” referring to both a person’s career and to cosmetic surgery (“having work done”). It’s a minor event, this email, but it is one that would not have been possible without thousands of years-worth of human history transpiring exactly as they did. We should be thankful, too, that human history has run a course that allows us to read a writer operating on the level that Ives does, able to see the individual threads that we follow through the world writ large.
Across that same course of history, Lucy Ives has proven herself to be one of our greatest under-the-radar geniuses, but an achievement like Life Is Everywhere demands attention. The systems have long been in place, but everyone will see them now.
Ambition and Artistry in “Life Is Everywhere”
BY D. W. WHITE
OCTOBER 10, 2022
From the Latin ambitiō, by way of the Old French, across the Channel and the centuries through the Middle English, and finally to the modern day, comes to our protean patois that pleasant, well-groomed word ambition. To us, it is an unassuming noun, unusually simple, for English, to both pronounce and spell, invoking affirmation of hard work and do-goodness. In the days of the Republic, however, when would-be Senators canvassed Rome for votes before a certain Caesar put an end to all that democratic silliness, there was a downside to future ambition, negative connotations that stuck with it through Milton’s misplaced Paradiso and Dickensian London, when to be “ambitious” was something of an insult. All those high-minded orphans, looking to get ahead. And although that definition has fallen by the wayside in our historically-adverse age, within the literary world ambition, it seems, has rediscovered its devilish ways. To hear it from Goodreads reviews and Twitter rants, “ambitious” novels are far too self-involved, too concerned with their accomplishments and achievements—to say nothing of those who write them. The ambitious is, once again, persona non grata. It is into this monotone whirlwind that the endlessly inventive Lucy Ives launches her latest novel, among the most audacious, effective, and ambitious books of recent vintage, Life Is Everywhere.
The top line descriptor of the book is that it is a systems novel, the death of which has been much exaggerated of late, one that takes on the beastly word of academia. Erin Adamo is a Ph.D. candidate at one of those prestigious Manhattanite universities that lend themselves so well to novels, possessed of a fine literary mind, an imploding marriage, taxing parents, and an apartment for which she has no key. Through this stressed out graduate, Ives refracts a novel of multitudinous brilliance and luminosity, hammering away at convention and the well-trod path with the confidence and skill of an accomplished, fearless writer. It is a credit to both her vision and her publisher’s constitution that Life Is Everywhere, as wide-ranging and risk-taking a novel to be found this side of Infinite Jest, never once feels restrained or neutered.
Ives signals her intention in the opening ten pages, which marks the absolute last instance when Life Is Everywhere may be said to adhere to writing workshop life lessons. Our energetic and polymath narrative entity, who is in for quite the workload over the succeeding 400 pages, begins with a lively history of botulism. Across an approximate millennia and about eleven fields of scholarship, the narration speeds through the Black Death and botox to arrive in a graduate seminar, chairs arranged in a neat socratic semicircle, crash landing into the consciousness of a professor:
Meanwhile, the beings on earth most affected by botulism are not humans but rather waterfowl, which die at a rate of some ten to one hundred thousand per year. Special conditions are needed for the bacteria to produce spores and, thus, the toxin: warmth, protein, an anaerobic environment, wetness. Plant matter and invertebrate animals decomposing along the surface of a lake in sun meet these criteria. They are feasted upon by ignorant birdlife.
But the lives and/or corpses of herons and/or loons were not of particular interest to Faith Ewer. Neither a birder nor a twitcher was she, nor did she particularly enjoy leaving the limits of New York City, except by way of the major airport named for a dead president, and, then, only really—or, really only—to travel the francophone world, but mostly and usually to France itself, where she felt herself alluringly anonymous as well as just foreign enough to keep things stimulating. She was what is termed an expert, and this had the effect of making her, at least in her own imagination, a spy. There was tension in her back, near the neck and shoulders, and stale air in the room.
While the quote does little justice, especially given the effect the weight the preceding ten pages have on the reader, the passage is nonetheless an excellent example of Ives’ movement skills, which are on display throughout. Her third-person narration commands the universe of the book—a key element of any systems novel—without the slightest hesitation or uncertainty, guiding the reader along as if it was her own life, connections drawn along interior lines and misplaced notes.
Erin, whom we rather obliquely meet on her way out the door, leaves her campus after class to dine with her parents and bear witness to the final implosion of her domestic life. In her bag are three documents—a monograph by a professor in her department flanked by two manuscripts of her own—which, in a rather clever laying bare the device, gives Ives her opening. In the spirit of completeness, not to mention adherence to the literary traditions in which she writes, Ives reproduces in full these works, showing her impressive range and the depth of her fictive world. There is indeed no lack of audacity here.
As is true with all systems novels—or, in James Wood’s rather more alluring phrase, hysterical realism—there will be elements of Life Is Everywhere that appeal more to some readers than to others. Ives spares nothing in her examination of Erin’s school bag, chasing oblique theories about obscure French writers to and through their logical endpoints. But the novel is a crafted work of art, a universe of creation that boasts nothing if not confidence and unity of vision. In this sense Life Is Everywhere is a total success, an achievement of its artistic goals made all the more impressive by the loftiness of those aims.
As with all novels, even those on the biggest scales, it is on the sentence level that the war is won, plot-length battles notwithstanding. Ives’s vision is grand and well-executed but it is her technical-mechanical skill that brings everything together. Erin, on the street now, thinks back to an incident the week prior when she was nearly hit by a bus. She recalls how she’d seen a flashing movie of her life passing before her mind’s eye:
The first thing on the screen was Ben’s face. His fucked-up face. Apparently the movie ran in reverse. But, then again, Erin wasn’t actually dying, so it made sense that whatever vision this semi-near-death experience inspired, it was basically an exploration of subjects of current concern, not the great existential themes. Thus: Ben’s face. There it was, and the long bus flowed by, bopping to a standstill.
She was not going to call him. Nope. She was not going to bring him food at the friend’s apartment where he might still be holed up like a genuine fugitive. She was not going to look at messages he had sent her two months ago, when things were still all right, when they were still whatever they had been. She would not look at his endearments, the begging, the threats. She would not read anything he had written.
Ben was her husband.
The movement between Erin’s inner life and speech and the narrative entity’s recognizably slanted stage direction is precise, crafting a bleeding of the two that welds our heroine to her outsized plot. As large and hysterical as Ives’s fictive world may become, it is her mechanics that prevent the reader from ever losing sight of the human element, binding her audience fast to Erin’s fate in this wonderfully bizarre New York evening. Life Is Everywhere is a remarkable, refreshing book, one that offers a reminder of how bold fiction can be, how effectively the novel's form can capture life and its endless absurdities when brought together in unchecked artistic ambition.
Review: How Lucy Ives turned the ‘What’s in Her Bag’ trope into a brilliantly berserk novel
BY NINA RENATA ARON
OCT. 5, 2022 6:30 AM PT
'Life Is Everywhere'
By Lucy Ives
Graywolf: 400 pages, $18
“What’s in her bag?” It’s a standard question posed in women’s magazines and on YouTube. The answers are meant to give readers an intimate glimpse into a chic individual’s world: what lip gloss she uses, what novel she’s reading. In her brilliantly berserk third novel, “Life Is Everywhere,” Lucy Ives utilizes this conceit to unique effect. If we imagine, that is, that the bag in question belonged to an obsessive, freshly jilted graduate student, “nearly insane with doubt,” awash in stoner wonderment and frustrated literary ambition.
The putative protagonist is Erin Adamo, a grad student locked out of her apartment one night in New York City in the fall of 2014. But the curtain does not open immediately on Erin’s life. Instead, the novel begins with the fascinating history of the discovery of botulinum toxin, starting in the ninth century and following an unlikely path (via its commercial form, Botox) into the faces of millions of women, including a member of the English department where Erin is a student.
This disorienting but thrilling opening gambit is cinematic, like a view from space that pans swiftly down into a single pore on a human face. It prepares the reader for the wild ride ahead, for the grand sweep, the layering of chronologies, the manifold references and acts of repetition that make this novel feel at times like a vital but hard-to-follow art film.
Following the Botox history and a thorough, often hilarious accounting of Erin’s marital breakup and the current drama engulfing her department (involving an older professor and a young student, natch), the reader enters Erin’s bag. What’s in her bag? Two of her own fiction manuscripts; a monograph from 1978, complete with footnotes, authored by the controversial professor about one Démocrite Charlus LeGouffre (a fictional French novelist, but the monograph is so convincing, one takes to Google straightaway to check); a single page of academic writing by the Botoxed professor; and a Con Edison bill addressed to Erin’s erstwhile husband.
They are all here, in full, comprising roughly 250 pages of the book. It’s a move the reader might resent, but it’s pulled off compellingly. It helps that Erin’s manuscripts are at least partially autofiction. They recast events the reader already knows something about, lending the novel a sense of perpetual circling and recapitulating.
These documents represent multiple attempts, workings-through, iterations of the same material, and reading them feels tender if sometimes voyeuristic. We know, for example, that Cody, the philandering husband character in one of Erin’s manuscripts, is very similar to Erin’s husband. We are accessing her grief in another register, one that perhaps should feel more detached but actually is more immediate and sad.
In its spirited play with literary history real and imagined, “Life Is Everywhere” bears a resemblance to Shola von Reinhold’s extraordinary 2020 novel, “LOTE.” Ives’ story-within-a-story also recalls “1001 Arabian Nights,” Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy.” Is one of Erin’s characters named Hamlet because of the play-within-a-play in the "Hamlet”? Is LeGouffre an echo of Baudelaire’s poem “Le Gouffre” (gouffre is abyss in French) in “Les Fleurs du Mal”? (This LeGouffre attends Baudelaire’s funeral in the fictional monograph!) Or have we simply fallen into our own abyss?
Ives also presents an array of possible readings of her own work. Peppered throughout one of Erin’s manuscripts are reading comprehension exercises, an alcoholism self-assessment and a dream journal titled “Hypergraphia” (a behavioral condition marked by a compulsion to write). We know Erin’s maternal grandmother may have been a sufferer, but the frequent mention of the disorder also functions as a self-own. Just as the reader begins to suspect Ives is constitutionally incapable of cutting pages or paragraphs, she throws out the specter of an actual condition that might be afflicting her main character, possibly even the writer herself.
Erin’s narrator also nurses an obsession with the German conceptual artist Hanne Darboven, who made large-scale installations of tables of handwritten lines and numbers. These acts of serialization offer a comfort to Erin’s narrator and, maybe, like the multiple manuscripts herein, a key to the book the reader holds in her hands.
“Life Is Everywhere” has a lot in its bag, but at heart it is a novel of academia, situating itself within a long, neurotic tradition of arduous, insular intellectual labor and petty competition among scholars. Its depiction of department dynamics is so pitch perfect as to be truly disconcerting to anyone with personal experience. A professor in a “lurid, floor-length paisley skirt” can be seen “glowering in the corner under a stack of muted raw-silk scarves.” A fellow grad student, “brittle and wan and proud,” makes Erin feel bad about herself, ever announcing her participation in a conference or roundtable on “the figure of the clerk in whatever.”
“Erin did not want to be Alana Harris—and she certainly did not want to be like her,” Ives writes of this student. And yet, she wanted to possess the kind of “potent delusion” that made Alana Harris so productive. (“Grad school!!” this reader wrote in the margin.) In spite of its many forays into philosophy and even mysticism, these grindingly real, almost cringeworthy passages ground the novel.
Sometimes, however, the asides feel excessive. Erin enters the university library, and four pages follow on the life of the antisemitic architect who designed it in the 1970s, students who committed suicide there, the installation of panels to prevent similar future tragedies and the way the panels “symbolized the movement of data as zeros and ones.” It’s a lot. Ives is capable of virtuosic control — there are at least 10 different kinds of writing in this book, and all are carried off so masterfully it’s almost frightening. At the same time, this is a work of art that feels like a barely contained explosion.
But this unhinged campus novel is, to use a campus word, generative. It’s “good to think with” on a vast range of topics: the chauvinism of a strain of literary criticism, the ineffaceable damage done by families of origin, why we can never again recapture the happiness we felt in old relationships or even fully understand why we were actually there, to say nothing of why we are here now. In many instances, Erin seems to lose touch momentarily with the thing we call reality, and those moments feel the most real of all. “Phenomenal reality bobbed,” Ives writes. “It bounced, jiggled.”
Yuka Igarashi’s first acquisition at Graywolf is a very cool-sounding novel by Lucy Ives.
By Emily Temple
June 2, 2021, 9:30am
Literary Hub is excited to report that Graywolf’s new Executive Editor Yuka Igarashi has made her very first acquisition for the beloved independent press: a new novel by Lucy Ives called Life Is Everywhere, which is currently scheduled to be published in Fall 2022. Here’s the skinny from Graywolf:
The novel is about Erin Adamo, a PhD student living in New York who, in the midst of a breakup with her husband, gets locked out of her apartment. She has with her a debit card, a Metrocard, a phone, and a bag containing papers. Instead of asking anyone for help, she goes to her university library and spends the night there.
That’s the whole plot, but the trick of the book is that it’s also made up of the contents of the bag that Erin is carrying, which includes a novella and novel she’s written, as well as her academic advisor’s book about (the fictional) Démocrite Charlus LeGouffre, a person of ambiguous gender born to a British prostitute living in Paris in the 1800s. Through these documents we start to see how both Erin and LeGouffre live inside dysfunctional systems—romantic relationships, family, academia, society—that erase women. Lucy is a brilliant writer on gender, and Life is Everywhere is smart, funny, and packed with ideas.
“I worked with Lucy Ives on her story collection Cosmogony and the novel Loudermilk and am delighted to be publishing Life Is Everywhere, in which we get to see Lucy’s outrageous wit, emotional precision, and sheer storytelling charisma working on an epic scale,” Igarashi told Literary Hub. “I think this book proposes a new kind of ‘systems novel.’ It’s about how individual selves act, and are acted upon, inside various systems—family, marriage, academia, gender, society—but it also reveals the instability of our notions of selves and of systems, and shows a new way to narrate the relationship between the two. Plus it’s just very fun to read, since it includes things like the history of botulism, a fragment of sculpture with mysterious powers, stolen artifacts, secret identities, and academic scandal.”
Fun to read and full of botulism? We’ll be first in line.
The Weird World Of 'Cosmogony' Is Immensely Inviting
By Lily Meyer
Lucy Ives has a mind well-suited to short-story writing, though her recent collection, Cosmogony, is her first. She combines an experimental spirit with roving curiosity, which perhaps explains why her prior body of work is so wide-ranging: In the past 12 years, she's published two novels, several books of poetry, and a significant quantity of art criticism. All, I am pleased to report, are good. So is Cosmogony. Ives — this is a compliment — is a real literary weirdo, and her stories are strange without ever performing their strangeness. Their plots and mechanisms can be baffling, and yet each one is emotionally precise in the extreme. Often, I was moved without knowing what had moved me — a rare feeling in art as in life, and an absolute treat.
Ives's stories may be puzzling, but they aren't opaque. Many writers interested in weirdness overload their stories with tangled sentences or thesaurus words; she's not into that. Line to line, Cosmogony is snappy, voice-driven, and immensely inviting. One story, "Scary Sites," is a dialogue between friends, stripped of any descriptive prose. All the others — with the exception of "Guy," which is the collection's only miss — feel nearly as conversational. "The Poisoners," a crookedly sweet account of an adulterous affair gone right, gave me the vicarious thrill of a good gossip session. Reading "A Throw of the Dice" and "Cosmogony," which are two of the collection's strongest stories, was like listening to a friend lament her mistakes. This fictional relatability is an achievement in "A Throw of the Dice," whose unnamed protagonist is a recent college graduate struggling to set up a life in the Bay Area. In "Cosmogony," it's downright exceptional, given that the story opens with the narrator's best friend getting engaged to a blue-legged, yellow-eyed demon.
As happens often, Cosmogony's title story is its best. I found it nearly perfect. It is at once a philosophical argument — Enlightenment secularism: Good or bad? — and a cosmic reframing of the female-friendship tug-of-wars dramatized in books like My Brilliant Friend or Conversations with Friends. In "Cosmogony," as in the others, the issue at hand is worldview. The narrator's friend is marrying a demon; the narrator herself, perhaps in retaliation, begins dating an "actual angel." Predictably, this creates troubles between the two women. It also disturbs the narrator's belief that she lives in a post-Enlightenment "secular zone. Sure, there might be devils and angels and true believers, but what did that really matter, now that we had the news?" That question — how much does the cosmic matter? — animates the rest of the story, and of the collection. Over and over, Ives asks the reader, in sly and extremely funny ways, to trouble their "Enlightenment-inheriting" belief that humans are at the center of existence, or even know, at any given time, what's going on.
Some of her narrators at first seem befuddled simply by themselves or their social worlds. The friends in "Scary Sites" are parsing art-world dating after #MeToo; Christine, the narrator of "Recognition of This World is Not the Invention of It," is attempting to work out whether she wants to continue in her marriage, or her life. Always, though, a philosophical question lurks beneath Ives's stories' surfaces. Both Christine and the friends in "Scary Sites" are confronting the fundamental, immoral fact that, as Christine puts it, "[t]he way things work is, everything is possible and everything is permitted." If that's true, how is a person in a secular world supposed to know how to act?
Other stories trouble human existence without fretting over secularity. In "Louise Nevelson," the narrator, grumbling over "how thoroughly my life has been defined by my female status," declares defiantly, "I am one of the animals. I live among the other human animals and am one of them. Nothing animal is outlandish to me" — a assertion she seems to hope will, somehow, help her escape the infinite expectations placed on women. (Spoiler: it does not.) In "Bitter Tennis," the narrator leads a regular New York life while claiming to live on the bottom of the ocean, "among the bristlemouths, the viperfish, the anglerfish, the cookiecutter sharks, the eelpouts." To what extent, the story asks, is her life a full human one? Can you lead a complete human existence while thinking of yourself partly as an animal?
Ives gives more answers than short-story writers tend to. She's done with the Enlightenment; she rolls her narratorial eyes at the inching progress of "women's liberation, so called;" she sees in the animal kingdom a set of role models for worrying less over the fact that everything is possible, and working to live more simply, even as human complication hovers infinitely at the edges. Her conclusions are deft and persuasive; she frames them less as revelations, which would be the standard short-fiction choice, than as primal knowledge unearthed by bizarre circumstance. I'd move to her weird cosmos any day.
Lucy Ives’s Cosmogony
By Cigdem Asatekin
There are moments in life that one thinks will add up to something decisive in the end. But more often than not, it’s revealed that they were insignificant in the grand scheme of things—assuming there is one. Lucy Ives’s debut collection of short stories, Cosmogony, is made up of these kinds of moments: a meme you thought would get a few laughs, a tedious coffee date with an artist, a pun you remember from years ago, a sculptor who is a plagiarist but also your mom’s friend, a mysteriously replaced bodega cat.
Cosmogony consists of 12 stories, every single one a profound narrative that takes a different form. When they get surreal, they are reminiscent of dream sequences. Even when they don’t, there is the slight hint of something unearthly, or at least uncanny throughout the book. Yet they all sound so familiar. On a sunny day one can, in a moment’s flash, time travel to visit an old relationship like in “The Volunteer.” One can feel the world “attempting to recompose itself,” growing as soft as a blanket, after the headrush of newfound love similarly to Will and Jamie in “The Poisoners.” Moments are written in such clarity and tact that an angel on earth working in IT, or a woman who lives at the bottom of the ocean taking the A train feels completely reasonable. Lucy Ives writes prose with the poetry inherent in her words, making the natural unnatural and the monotone fascinating, filtering and projecting the reality through the eyes of a poet. While doing so, she unveils parts of human nature through the book’s ostensibly mundane events, like the worldly games of tennis and Murder, or a proverbially unhealthy relationship of a woman and her mother. Some stories include marriage, specifically early marriage, and some bleak aspects of personal, familial, and professional relationships of contemporary living. Darkness finds its way through these cracks. “This is the way things work,” writes Ives in one of those moments, “not through vision but through blindness.”
When Ives writes about art, biographical or historical information finds its place gracefully within the fiction without being mere footnotes. Her reflections provide the basis of a delicate understanding of art criticism in relation to creative writing. Ives’s previous novel, Loudermilk, had a similar approach to longform art writing, and works of art are essential to Cosmogony as well. Their influence permeates all, even if they are only peripheral mentions. A Frida Kahlo portrait, an incredibly “weird” art object of mystery presented to a copywriter in “The Care Bears Find and Kill God,” a violent novel by Joyce Carol Oates, and works of sculptor Louise Nevelson meet halfway with Craigslist ads and a framer’s love affair. Meditations of Gottfried Leibniz (and his theory of monads) and Walter Benjamin (and his essay on human speech) are weaved seamlessly into the narrative, connecting the book’s insightful writing to its author’s wit. In “A Throw of the Dice,” there is a perceptive mention of shipwrecks in art in connection to Stéphane Mallarmé that complements the first-person narration of a writer who translates Symbolist poetry. In the uncanny world of Cosmogony, this makes perfect sense with story-within-a-story writings of erotica. Ives also plays with form as one story, “Scary Sites,” consists only of a back-and-forth conversation, and “Guy” is written in the style of a Wikipedia entry. The Internet’s underlying dominance in daily life has its marks on Ives’s writing as well. From its myths, terms, specific language and memes, there is no escape. “The Care Bears Find and Kill God” walks away from an expected climax by an unexpected mention of a funny image the narrator saw online. “It’s a joke,” she says.
The characters and their surroundings are recognizable to anyone in contact with any metropolitan art scene. Like Ives’s previous novels Loudermilk and Impossible Views of the World, Cosmogony emits the almost privileged feeling of being an insider of the art world. For an individual who is actually in the arts, it’s thrilling: Reading “Trust,” it was certain that once upon a time I was the one who had coffee with the artist who produces x. But having worked at an art gallery isn’t necessary to feel the human connection and sense of belonging conveyed by Ives. In the middle of a world full of the similarly absurd, I have been so many of these characters. I had found a well-hidden FedEx package which was an actual miracle. I sent images of numerous bodega cats to friends. I may have even dated a demon for a little bit. He was just some guy.
WRITERS: KNOW THYSELF IN EXCESS
BY AARON COLTON
If it is easy to mock the MFA writer, then it is easier still to mock the MFA writer who writes about a writer getting an MFA. How self-indulgent! How clichéd! How many more novels about young writers struggling to write must we suffer? In studies of this genre, critics of contemporary fiction often fixate on its definitive, and most frustrating, characteristic: “self-awareness.” They meditate on how slippery a concept it is, how strange it is to venerate it as a goal, how small a step toward true moral awakening.
All valid, perhaps. But critiques of self-awareness in novel form tend to portray the concept as merely a personality trait, a quality that characters (or even authors themselves) have either too much or not enough of. Yet, as the latest batch of self-aware fiction—in particular, Lucy Ives’s Loudermilk; or, The Real Poet; or, The Origin of the World (2019) and Andrew Martin’s Early Work (2018)—makes clear, self-awareness need not stop at the individual. Even with no shortage of figures vain, self-obsessed, or plainly insufferable, Ives’s and Martin’s novels exemplify how an author might deploy self-awareness to gain crucial insights into the very environments that cultivate self-aware tendencies, in writers fictional or real.
Ives’s and Martin’s project is an investigation into what we might call “institutional self-awareness.” In such efforts, authors put under the microscope an array of writer-characters and the principles of authorship and creative labor they navigate within specific contexts—and in the case of Ives and Martin, specifically academic contexts.
Seen through the lens of institutional self-awareness, the self-directed obsessions of Ives’s characters extend beyond those characters’ individual psyches. Through her varyingly self-aware figures, Ives offers a broader view onto the limited kinds of writing practices that the institution of the MFA rewards.
Meanwhile, Martin’s self-aware characters take us one step further. In Martin’s usage, the self-aware writer demonstrates how MFA programs sculpt not only the writing but also the people within their orbit, regardless of whether they are MFA educated themselves. Early Work shows how such programs in fact program the innermost thoughts, fears, and even desires of self-identifying writers, both within and beyond the walls of institutions.
This is to say, for Ives and Martin, self-awareness shows nothing less than the forces that shape art and the lives of art’s creators.
“LOUDERMILK” AND THE AWARENESS OF MFA DOCTRINE
Lucy Ives’s Loudermilk is a campus novel rife with immature hijinks, departmental politics, and literary subterfuge. Its major characters—students newly matriculated into “the Seminars,” a top-flight MFA program evocative of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—include a libertine, recently postcollegiate bro masquerading as a poet (the titular T. A. Loudermilk), his debilitatingly introverted ghostwriter (Harry Rego), and a fiction writer unable, after the death of her estranged father (himself a famously obscure poet), to write (Clare Elwil).
But where many a campus novel turns a critical eye on academia, Loudermilk appears uninterested in critique. Instead, Ives reveals the literary possibilities—both generative and destructive—that arise in the collisions between varying experiences of creative-writing values.
Ives’s characters are themselves test cases for the effects of self-awareness on the creative willingness and craft of students within the MFA program. What happens, Ives asks, when students of wildly different personalities and histories give themselves to a program that predicates creativity on productivity? And what happens to these students when they take to heart the famously self-conscious dictums of creative writing: “write what you know” and “find your voice”?
In particular, Clare and Harry provide inverted images of what it means to take up or break from institutional directives to be self-aware. For Clare, the prospect of writing from what she knows after the loss of her father proves paralyzing—in no small part because she had embarked on the trip coinciding with his accidental death explicitly in pursuit of experiences from which to write, “lust[ing] delicately after new material.”
So, as Clare falls prey to the twin tortures of writer’s block and imposter syndrome, she also experiences creative anxieties made doubly reflexive by an internalized, and departmentally reinforced, understanding of the MFA student as incessantly productive. “Is it OK not to be working?” Clare obsesses, a thought made all the more distressing by her belief that, as a writer, “one must work to justify one’s being.”
Similarly, as Loudermilk’s ghostwriter, Harry comes to understand his literary task in explicitly quantitative terms: “He needs to find out how people write a lot of poems, because he’s pretty sure that he and Loudermilk—or, rather, he—are/is going to have to write a lot of them.” But unlike Clare, whose initially uncritical adherence to writing what she knows brings only self-doubt, Harry is described as having few life experiences at all to draw from.
Absent institutional guidance, Harry develops an approach to verse in which the impersonal poet functions like a radio tower: catching, scrambling, and rebroadcasting the noise of the George W. Bush era, in which the novel is set. Ironically, this approach receives unequivocal celebration in the Seminars, though this praise is funneled through Loudermilk, who workshops Harry’s poem as his own.
In this way, Ives refashions institutional directives into literary conflicts. She tinkers with what might happen if a character were to hold too closely to a particular rule or to never have been capable of following it. And in so doing, she not only stages the self-awareness that MFA dictums command but also shows how the writers negotiating those dictums might find their writing energized or obstructed.
Ives’s investigation reaches its apex on the subject of “voice”: a quality of writing broadly understood as a matter of personal authenticity, something a writer must well up from inside themselves and nourish (in other words, “find”).
For Clare and Harry alike, the imperative to foster one’s true, singular voice begins as an impediment. Because she may only express the experiences that she herself knows, Clare can neither engage nor fathom the engagement of her voice. Harry’s aversion to his own voice is both bodily and creative. Physically, his voice is awkward and grating—“a little in between and out of bounds of normal registers”—but in Harry’s self-aware conception, his voice “is not even his.” So repulsed is Harry by his own voice that he conceives of an entirely separate being who articulates his words, a presence who, as a poet, is “capable of acts of perception obviously beyond [Harry].”
FOR SOME WRITERS SELF-AWARENESS IS A WELLSPRING, WHILE FOR OTHERS IT IS A MORASS.
Yet these conditions are far from final. For Clare, it is only by failing to write from experience and meditating in torturous self-consciousness on the limitations of the adage that she eventually discovers how to sidestep her obsession with productivity. “Clare can write,” she realizes, “as long as she does not do it”—that is, by betraying programmatic directives and writing, like Harry, in an imagined persona, and from a voice, that “sounds nothing like her.”
Meanwhile, Harry’s self-aware aversion to his voice resolves in an embrace of his own vocal characteristics. As a suspicious classmate eventually coaxes Harry into a poetry-recitation contest with Loudermilk at a departmental soiree, the audience quickly recognizes Harry’s voice as that of the celebrated poet. So, in a reversal of Clare’s epiphany, the voice that Harry had previously separated from himself he accepts as authentically his: a voice, in poetry as in person, “high and low both at once … [with a] superwavy tonal filling that makes you feel it really hard, right at the center of your body.”
From this perspective, Ives portrays self-aware characters not simply for narrative purposes but to instruct about broader questions of literature and institutions. Having spotlighted how the MFA reproduces self-awareness through literary values, Ives neither critiques nor lauds. Instead, she explores what a literary mandate for self-knowledge can mean for the experiences—and, ultimately, crafts—of different writers. And in taking the production of literature as material for storytelling (writing what she herself knows), Ives demonstrates the randomness of those very principles: how for some writers self-awareness is a wellspring, while for others it is a morass.
DESIRE ACROSS INSTITUTIONS IN “EARLY WORK”
Like Loudermilk, Andrew Martin’s Early Work presents a cast of self-aware writers defined by the writing they should be—but, crucially, are not—accomplishing. Yet where Ives highlights self-awareness as a quality deliberately cultivated by institutions, Martin explores the personal repercussions of such self-awareness for the writers who bear it. Martin shows how, even for writers unaffiliated with the MFA program, a fixation on institutions can warp their very self and relationships.
Martin asks: If self-awareness dictates not just a writer’s output but also their capacity for human connection, must one unlearn self-consciousness to become a better person?
Early Work centers around an infidelity between two stalled writers, Peter—a disillusioned English PhD candidate who has followed his poet partner, Julia, to Charlottesville, Virginia, for her studies as a medical student—and Leslie, a scriptwriter who has left Texas both to write and to rethink her impending marriage. The true aspirations of each lie in fiction. And while neither writes for much of the novel, Peter and Leslie’s common penchant for ironizing their own unproductivity and literary interests becomes the basis for their mutual attraction.
“I only read books without stories,” Peter quips in their first encounter. “Why not skip the words, too?” Leslie responds. “Move right along to the cold particularities of life.” In such instances, a clever self-consciousness gives Peter and Leslie a grammar for flirtation; in deprecating the time they waste on “nothing good” or on being “stoned and thinking about, like, the ideal character-defining gesture,” they make clear their intellectual and cultural compatibility.
Alongside these self-aware tendencies, the novel configures its partnerships through an awareness of institutional affiliation, with the initial pairing of Peter and Julia presenting a dichotomous picture. Although floundering in both research and fiction, Peter retains the closest ties to the university. While characteristically ironic in his treatment of professional training, Peter recognizes its necessity; he conceives of doctoral study as “like an MFA, but I’d actually learn something.”
Julia’s associations run opposite. Unaffiliated with academic letters, she separates writing from her medical studies for periodic “poetry fugue[s].” And while Peter’s “half-finished” submissions to literary journals are summarily rejected, Julia’s win acceptance at “good” venues.
Through these differences, Martin depicts Peter and Julia’s relationship in not just contrasting personalities but opposite creative frameworks. The consequence of this opposition is that Peter’s desire for yet another creative in Leslie cannot be understood merely as romantic or erotic. Instead, for Peter, to desire another writer is also to fantasize about writing from a different professional circumstance, or as a different writer altogether.
Seen in this light, Peter’s lust for Leslie maintains his aversion to institutions but relocates it into a relationship with a writer unlikely to threaten him with superior productivity. In Leslie, Peter can continue to live vicariously through the achievements of his partner—“It was … exactly what I would have written if I’d had any idea how,” he thinks on reading a past publication of hers—while also seeing his own frustrations reflected in her stagnation. She is, as Peter puts it, one of the “badass writers” that “this town needs more [of]” (i.e., not the typical MFA student, and therefore desirable), but not a writer who threatens to complete much of any writing. So, in Martin’s design, desire, infidelity, and partnership coalesce to demonstrate how for a writer such as Peter, ever conscious of institutions, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the logic of “creative writing” from the logic of life itself.
Yet, like Ives, Martin does not posit self-awareness as an obstacle writers must overcome. Instead, he reframes it as a perhaps inevitable phase of artistic—and personal—development. None of the novel’s characters transcends self-awareness; rather, they modulate their self-aware habits, learning to live with them in better ways.
After partnering anew with Leslie in Missoula, Montana—another flagship-university town boasting a top MFA program (which Martin himself attended)—Peter comes to accept that “his true calling [is] in PR” and not fiction. And while this realization does not ameliorate his habitual self-deprecation, it does appear to set his stalled life in motion.
Maintaining a literary trajectory, Leslie tempers self-awareness with an earnest, if cautious, self-seriousness. “It did seem possible lately,” the novel concludes,
that there was a chance she was what she’d long imagined herself to be: one of the chosen few to whom the task of chronicling the inner life had been given. There were hours—single hours, sometimes just minutes—when her thoughts moved down into her hands and transformed into something different on the screen in front of her, an eloquent translation of what had been in her head into something smarter, more substantial. She was chasing that now.
No less self-aware, Leslie reclaims her capacity for writing by attuning herself to her own creative promise. If she is to write, Leslie realizes, then she must—terrifying as it may be—regard herself as a person whose talents demand putting expression into words.
The novel does not, however, settle on a reductive portrait of Peter as a failed and Leslie as a successful writer. Rather, through their experiences Martin demonstrates how, in the lives of writers, the self-aware habits, ambitions, and desires predicated by the institution of literature are, however inevitable or irritating, also the stuff of personal growth.
It may well be that a writer’s self-awareness cannot be severed from institutional concerns (such as productivity and affiliation). Even so, the experience of self-awareness remains profoundly human—and even constructive—in art as in life.
SELF-AWARENESS BEYOND THE SELF
Difficult it may be to wrestle with self-awareness. When a character spends an entire novel contemplating their own self-presentation, genius, or intellectual and aesthetic commitments—as do not only the writer characters of Ives and Martin but also those of Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, and others in the most recent wave of “autofiction”—readers could be forgiven for losing patience.
But in viewing self-awareness as a concept both personal and structural, Ives and Martin throw new light on our frustrations with the self-aware. In their works, we find that novels of self-awareness—and novels of self-aware writers in particular—provide grounds for teasing out the differences between productive self-awareness and stagnant self-centeredness, not only in literary figures but also in real people.
While the self-aware writer may still rank among the least appealing of contemporary fiction’s recurring characters, those patient (or masochistic) enough to sit with them can learn to discern the systemic origins of what resembles self-obsession, or how what presents as narcissism might in fact be a step toward maturity.
This is not to go so far as to propose self-awareness as either essential or desirable. Neither Ives nor Martin is in the business of moral instruction, and their characters are, fundamentally, instruments of narrative conflict. What both ultimately offer is a better question to ask of self-awareness in its cultural manifestations: Where does this quality come from, and where can it take us?
We should be aware enough to listen.
The Poetry Project offers various low-cost, sliding-scale, and no-fee workshops and reading groups where we attempt to expand participation in cultural production and discussion, and challenge conventional power vectors around who is or can be a student, teacher, scholar to foster a learning model that is counter-hierarchical and more circularly discursive. Teachers, experienced writers, and new writers work collectively with a shared dedication to creating exciting poetry and exploring a wide range of literary genres, styles, and traditions.
Memory Palaces: Visions, Echoes, Forms — 10-Session Workshop
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
March 9 - May 11
Led by: Lucy Ives
At a time when digital techniques for saving and indexing allow us to consolidate endless memory in pocket-size devices, what memorial power remains in a sentence or line? This workshop is an intensive introduction to the work of art as mnemonic device, or system to aid and deepen, and/or create, memory. In this series we will explore strategies by means of which memory may be housed in or recovered via writing. Following Frances Yates’s descriptions of occult visual and literary technologies in The Art of Memory and through varied prompts and exercises, we will compose our own “memory palaces,” provisional structures though they may be. And we will consider other texts that both act as mnemonics and describe tactics for seeking, containing, inscribing, preserving, transforming, and reimagining memory, particularly in postcolonial and postmodern contexts. Nor will we overlook the dynamics of forgetting.
The Hingston & Olsen Short Story Advent Calendar is a collection of 25 individually sealed booklets to open, one by one, on the mornings leading up to Christmas.
From the website:
For the past five years, the Short Story Advent Calendar has lit up libraries and living rooms around the world with shimmering smorgasbords of bite-sized literary fiction. But all good things must come to an end. So grab the emergency schnapps from the back of the liquor cabinet, and join us for one last holiday hurrah.
You know the drill by now. The 2020 Short Story Advent Calendar is a deluxe box set of individually bound short stories from some of the best writers around. Contributors to this year's set include:
Sara O’Leary (The Ghost in the House)
Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olondria)
Jim Shepard (Like You’d Understand, Anyway)
Amber Sparks (I Do Not Forgive You)
Adam Sternbergh (The Blinds)
and [REDACTED x 20*]!
[*spoiler: includes a story by Lucy Ives]
As always, each story is a surprise, so you won’t know exactly what you’re getting until you crack the seal every morning starting December 1.
This year’s slipcase, with its electric-yellow lining and spot-glossed lettering, comes wrapped in two rubber bands to keep those booklets snug in their beds. (Those who attempt sneaking a peak before the first of December are at risk of being snapped.)
What Does It Mean to Be a “Real” Writer?
Two satirical novels, set in M.F.A. programs, challenge our ideas of literary authenticity and achievement.
By Hermione Hoby
Talent is like obscenity: you know it when you see it. It’s something that can’t be defined, only recognized—an irreducible and unteachable entity, like charisma or humor, and its confirmation all the more coveted for being so. In his fundamental study, “The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing,” Mark McGurl detailed how, in postwar America, anointing and cultivating literary talent became the purview of creative-writing programs and how, in turn, certain modes of writing came to be privileged above others. With this professionalization—indeed, institutionalization—of a nation’s art form, three injunctions popularized by the M.F.A. became holy writ. Write what you know; show, don’t tell; find your voice. Of this trinity, only the second speaks explicitly to craft and seems readily practicable. It’s the first and last dicta, however, that have proved the most influential, not through their utility but through their confounding simplicity. The question isn’t whether you should cultivate knowledge or voice. The question instead is a screamed “Yes, but how?”
When we identify talent, we say that we’ve found “the real deal,” a flimsy idiom for a solid belief—that, although talent as an entity may be undefinable, it’s still provable. It’s on this putative objectivity, in all its insidious allure, that M.F.A. programs are predicated, offering themselves as arbiters of talent who are able to alchemize literary promise into achievement. Many have found these claims at once irresistible and dubious. One year after graduating from the University of Arizona’s creative-writing program, David Foster Wallace wrote, “The only thing a Master of Fine Arts degree actually qualifies one to do, is teach . . . Fine Arts.” Wallace’s essay, “The Fictional Future” was one of several collected, in 2014, in “MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction,” a book that reanimated and enshrined questions both existential (Can writing be taught?) and practical (How does a writer pay rent?). The bathos of the latter tends to casts an absurd light on the former.
So it is that two new satirical novels set in creative-writing programs, Lucy Ives’s “Loudermilk: Or, the Real Poet; or, the Origin of the World” and Mona Awad’s “Bunny,” engage with the chimera of “the real deal.” They are set, respectively, in a version of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a version of Brown University and are authored by graduates of those institutions. These books constitute a kind of institutional critique, to borrow a term from the art world, or an institutional autofiction, to adapt an existing literary term. On the one hand, the satirical tone of these novels tips us off that the institutions being portrayed are fundamentally defective. And yet the pages in our hands are tangible counterfactuals! Because isn’t the published novel—the material proof every candidate longs for—evidence of these institutions’ success? Here is the M.F.A. program becoming self-conscious, displaying both impatience with and anxiety over the criterion of authenticity.
The centerpiece of the program is the workshop, or rather, excuse me, the Workshop; in David O. Dowling’s recently published history of America’s most famous creative-writing program, “A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,” the word is reverentially capitalized. For anyone unfamiliar with insular world of the M.F.A., the term might conjure scenes of elvin ingenuity—merry workers laboring at their craft. Instead, this mainstay of the creative-writing program has more often been understood as a process of destruction, of tough love that tears you down to build you up. Dowling writes admiringly about the “volatile cocktail of ego and competition”—the “blood sport” of peers ripping each other’s work to shreds—that pervaded the Iowa workshop in the decades after its founding, in 1936.
His book opens with the boozing, brawling John Berryman—he of the “blow-torch approach” to teaching—receiving a punch from a student. Lucy Ives’s funny, cerebral “Loudermilk,” which takes its epigraph (“Rilke was a jerk”) from Berryman himself, lampoons this kind of masculine swagger. Its prime object of satire, however, is the very bedrock of the workshop’s pedagogy, the identification of artistic achievement. The novel’s titular handsome idiot, Troy Augustus Loudermilk, is a fraud in the most incontrovertible sense; it’s only by passing off the poems of his nebbishy friend Harry Rego as his own that he’s gained entry to the prestigious Seminars for Writing. These plagiarized poems go down well, but what Loudermilk is truly rewarded for is not his artistic achievement on the page but his charismatic performance in the workshop, including cracking jokes and insulting his professor’s sexual prowess. When you’re a fraud and don’t care, you have nothing to lose.
It’s not just the students who don’t care: Loudermilk’s professors include the dyspeptic (and, in his belligerence and drunkenness, rather Berryman-esque) Don Hillary, who welcomes his young poets with a showily profane speech, assuring them that he does not give “one donkey fuck what you do while you’re here.” One student, Clare, overhearing this speech as she walks by his classroom, wonders, “Could one imagine that his pronouncements herald a really excellent form of meritocracy, somehow? That his is, paradoxically, the most sublime of metrics—since incomprehensible, profane, and therefore absolute?” In a field where the “metrics” are so hard to define, much less achieve, you can stop caring at all—like Loudermilk and Hillary—or, like Harry, you can care too much.
As Harry, whom we understand to be a “real” talent, becomes more invested in his poems, he writes himself a long list of questions that include “Am I the one who is writing these words?” and “Who is the one who is writing?” Eventually, he concludes that “the only way to get to the poem is to drop into a perfectly Harry-shaped shadow.” In other words, he must vacate himself to find himself, must fake himself into authenticity. We sense that his private litany of questions, though painful, are far more conducive to his literary growth than the public jousting of the workshop.
Ives’s hyperbolic satire—her outsized, loquacious characters, her stylistic brio—lays bare the central fallacy of “write what you know.” In one sense, we believe Ives is drawing from her own, all-too-real experience. And yet, with its ludic meta-fictionality and the self-conscious construction of characters, the novel cleverly dodges knowable reality, circumventing the question of authenticity altogether.
In “Bunny,” a work of toothsome and fanged intelligence, the agons of ego and machismo are replaced by the sly and saccharine maneuvers of a femme-y clique who call themselves “Bunnies.” Our narrator, the studiedly uneffusive Samantha, joins these women in the first all-female fiction cohort at the prestigious Warren College. “Workshop is an integral part of the Process,” pontificates Ursula, a professor whose self-regard is sustained by the idolatry of her students. (Here, the capitalization of the word “workshop” is scathing.) “Workshop never ‘confuses us,’ rather it opens us up, helps us grow, leads us in new and difficult and exciting directions. My Workshop in particular, I think you’ll find.”
My Workshop: the proprietorial claim is key. The tenor of the workshop proceeds from the leader, which is to say, the particularities and prejudices of one person—one ego. At some point taste, like talent, becomes an irreducible entity. The Bunnies engage in frothy pieties and hyperbolic niceties, telling each other things like, “Can I just say I loved living in your lines and that’s where I want to live now forever?” Within a rhetoric of universal approbation, every writer turns craven; all talent withers.
Though Awad plays knowingly with the tropes of eighties movies (the book’s hot-pink jacket copy mentions the cult classic “Heathers”; like Winona Ryder in that movie, Samantha has an air of quiet mutiny), we recognize these Bunnies as the apotheosis of that most contemporary archetype, the basic bitch. They love froyo from Pinkberry. They binge-watch “The Bachelorette.” Their Instagram captions are littered with the self-evidently false hashtag #amwriting. “Basic” in this sense is a synonym of sorts for “inauthentic”; we recognize the type, or at least we think we do. These Bunnies, so very bloodless seeming, are in fact quite bloodthirsty. Because, in addition to writing fiction, they’re engaged in an extracurricular workshop of their own devising, where, unlike in the simpering diplomacy of the classroom, their creativity is literally visceral. They conjure dream boys, real flesh-and-blood creations that they call “drafts,” “hybrids,” “darlings,” from rabbits. Unfortunately, these characters can get unruly, and the girls keep an axe close at hand. “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings, you know?” coos one Bunny. Just as Ives has constructed a postmodern playhouse to deflate the notion of authenticity, Awad has winkingly deployed the great ruse of the supernatural.
Are these Bunnies for real? The answer to this question is a twofold no. They are false in their friendships, and, worse, they have no true talent. Even in their own workshop, they never quite manage to pull things off. Their “darlings” always fall just a bit short of the intended reality, lacking fully operational hands or penises. In other words, the Bunnies fail both literally, within their necromancy, and metaphorically, within their writing, to bring their characters to life.
Like rabbits, bad writers are everywhere, bred by M.F.A. programs across the country, turning out banal, interchangeable stories. When Samantha finally conjures her own piece of literature, it’s from a lone and noble creature—a stag. Her creation, Max, is the workshop’s first fully functioning boy. In the wickedly hilarious climax of the novel, the Bunnies show up to their last class bruised, bleeding, and ready, finally, to get real. With sweet feminist irony, it’s this dream boy made flesh who finally liberates them from that feminine yoke, extreme faux niceness. One classmate passes a simple and supremely unsayable verdict of another’s work: “I hated it.”
Max, Samantha’s triumph of extracurricular creativity, is also the agent of institutional destruction. In true Frankensteinien fashion, the proof of the author’s brilliance is her character’s apparent autonomy. No one proves this more starkly than Ava—Samantha’s lodestar and world center, her beloved best friend, whose contempt for the Bunnies (“that little-girl cult”) and Warren is spectacular. She is the one character who seems to radiate pure, unassailable selfhood—tango-dancing, white-haired Ava, to whom Max says, rapturously, “being with you is like being in literature.” It turns out that Ava really is too good to be true; she, like Max and the other bloody boys, is a fictional invention come to life. How is it, then, that she feels more real than anyone else, both to the reader and to Samantha, her unwitting “author”? The question is unanswerable, or, rather, the answer is that unanswerable thing, talent realized. For Samantha, it’s the possibility of companionship with her characters (no less real for being, technically, fictional), not the praise or censure of peers or professors, that galvanizes her to write more, and to write better.
In the final chapters of “Loudermilk,” a “poetry showdown” finally reveals Loudermilk as a fraud and his proxy as the real poet. But, as with an unshameable wind sock of a politician whose lies and blunders do nothing to unseat them, this is by no means Loudermilk’s undoing. Workshop, which we understand to be a sort of microcosm for what Ives later denounces as the “banal hypocrisy” of institutional American life at large, has worked well for Loudermilk. He skips town for New York and gets an agent. Of course he does. “I feel like I couldn’t even have planned this, like how amazing things worked out,” he writes in an e-mail to Harry. “But, hey when you’ve got extreme talent haha ;).” He does not, however, have the last word. At the end of the novel, his author seeks to make explicit her intent in a startling afterword:
If the institution wants to render Loudermilk’s self-expression false, a gesture accomplished merely in order to obtain a fellowship, then so be it! Loudermilk will go one step further: he will be already false, already a pastiche, already a construction.
Loudermilk, c’est moi.
This confounding, fourth-wall breaking address is a spectacularly brazen announcement of inauthenticity. Ives seems to be reminding us that she has fabricated Loudermilk, just as he has fabricated himself. Our “hollow hero” is a fiction who knows himself to be a fiction. Might authenticity itself be an equally fragile myth?
Master’s degrees, agents, and advances can make a difference: talent thrives on recognition, and bills need to be paid. There is, however, no great and infallible arbiter of literary merit. The longing to be anointed, once and for all, as “the real deal” is a fundamentally hopeless desire. Moreover, such longing for external approbation might be the very thing stymieing a young writer from becoming what they need to be, since, as Harry and Samantha realize, both “knowledge” and “voice” can only be discovered for oneself, not bestowed from beyond. What is required is a sort of faith in uncertainty—an acceptance that one’s capacity to conjure authentic new realities will have to be tested again and again, that the writer must be in a constant state of becoming. (In this sense, Harry’s self-interrogation, born of self-doubt, is essential, if exhausting.) And, since thinking must precede (good) writing, it follows that a question might be a more generative tool for a writer than an injunction. Kant famously posed a heuristic in three questions. The first serves as a useful counterpart to the M.F.A.’s first dictum. Not “Write what you know” but, with its honest combination of curiosity and humility, “What can I know?”
Becca Abbe: www.lucy-ives.com
Lucy Ives is a writer whose particularly unique website was designed by New York-based web designer Becca Abbe. Featuring a lo-fi aesthetic, the site is comprised of six horizontally-scrollable panels which display the different facets of Lucy’s work (news, books, prose, interviews, poems, information). Within these panels, individual articles, when clicked, expand to fill the whole page; the design in its entirety feels like a piece of software itself. “Lucy’s site comes from a series of discussions we had about research-based work and the amorphous nature of writing,” Becca tells us. Becca often references physical objects, or uses them as guiding models when designing websites and in this case, it was archaic reading machines and early graphical user interfaces.
“The index draws from the Renaissance-era concept of the bookwheel and the interior projects pages are based on a Victorian furniture piece called the Holloway Reading Stand,” Becca further explains. “Lucy’s own work relies heavily on Scrivener which is a writing software that also manages all the ephemeral data: research, citations, images, etc. that go into a written piece. Its split-screen design was a big influence on the final site.” When it comes to how viewers digest Lucy’s work, several options are available including the raw text, a link to an online publication, a downloadable PDF, or simply rendered as the file size in bytes.
For those who do a little digging, Becca’s embedded several Easter eggs within the design. Readers can enter “kindle mode” for a distraction-free view. Once fullscreen, a reading tool (AKA pixel line) tracks your cursor and helps keep your place in the text. An option to output the texts with print-only CSS styles is also available via the printer button. Even without these features, what Becca has succeeded in doing, is creating a site which is memorable, and that keeps users exploring. While she designed and built the site herself, she does give a special shoutout to her “genius father Eli Abbe for workshopping the horizontal scroll animation script on the index page with me. Without him, it would not stop at each end.”
Scamming the Scene: Lucy Ives and the Fiction of the Cultural Industry
Ives’ second novel, Loudermilk, lampoons MFA writing programs and the inherited wealth that props them up.
By Charlie Markbreiter
Lucy Ives’s Loudermilk is an aughts period piece: It takes place between 2003 and 2004, during the start of the Iraq War. Troy Loudermilk—rich kid, Abercrombie hot—has enrolled at the Seminars, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop–like MFA program. But he doesn’t write. That gig belongs to Harry Rego, his debilitatingly anxious working-class friend from undergrad. In a present-day version, Harry might write Loudermilk’s application to USC as an independent subcontractor for Varsity Blue. Harry’s nascent poetry skills are derived from a Writing Poetry for Dummies–like guide, which directs him to use language that “[means] more than one thing” and phrases he finds in the local newspaper. The poems, written by Ives, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop poetry MFA program, are inserted throughout the book.
The dudes could have picked other lines of work to scam, but poetry seemed easy to sneak into. “Do you have any idea how many people are into this?” Loudermilk asks Harry. “Somebody could totally run this scene.” In exchange for writing poems in secret, which Troy passes off as his own, Harry gets a split of the program’s stipend while Loudermilk cruises female undergrads. After the Sessions, Loudermilk plans to ping-pong between free bags of poem money: “There was significantly more lucre than you would think in terms of fellowships and grants waived fees…. It would be stupid easy to get in and get out.”
Loudermilk just isn’t rich, though; he’s an heir, which makes Loudermilk what you might call inherited wealth lit—a modern-day version of the 19th century bourgeois novel’s dramas of inheritance. Loudermilk’s father, an “ex-military man” known as the Cleaner, had “made good in the 1960s and early ’70s providing infrastructural triage in locales the United States had not explicitly invaded” and became “alarmingly wealthy during Bill Clinton’s second term.” What does “triage” mean here? The line reads like a child asking an arms-dealing parent, “What do you do?” The parent lies, and the child swims in the results, a boorish aggregate of surplus value and other people’s blood. But Loudermilk isn’t stressed that his trust fund will end; he’s scared that it won’t. Is Loudermilk ashamed of being rich? Does he think that making his own money is the only way to be his own person? We don’t know; in October of his senior year, after Loudermilk proclaims that the Cleaner “had really crossed a line” and falls into an uncharacteristically deep depression, Harry infers that “the Cleaner had probably offered to pay for the rest of Loudermilk’s life.”
With the first round of stipend money, Loudermilk moves them into an apartment smashed next to an undergrad frat house where initiates are shot with BB guns. It’s a raw deal, but it saves Harry from doing the thing he hates most: speaking. Harry’s hatred for his voice borders on dysphoria. “The voice is ugly and sometimes shrill and sometimes bass and otherwise ludicrous, but the major thing about it is that it is not even his.” Loudermilk is obsessed with talking, and if they are together—always—then Loudermilk can speak for Harry. This engenders another dissociative relation: Harry hates Loudermilk’s voice; he just hates it less, despite knowing that the voice is an excuse. The larger problem is that he “dislikes and fears” other people and wants to avoid them. Loudermilk tracks Harry’s quest to find his voice by learning to write, speak, and assert himself. But it’s also a narrative in defense of narrative.
As with Ives’s debut novel, 2017’s Impossible Views of the World, Loudermilk satirizes a particular creative industry: While Views was set at a pseudo–Metropolitan Museum of Art, Loudermilk looks at poetry and academic creative writing. In both books, the markets judge a cultural product’s financial value, but its real (historical, cultural) value is always uncertain, necessitating an informal economy of gossip, jealousy, and clout. Members of the scene trade takes on a cultural product’s worth, and Ives excels at tracking the market-accelerated narcissism of small differences.
Ives’s protagonists—Harry in Loudermilk and Views’ Stella, a lower-level curator at Manhattan’s Central Museum of Art—are shy and observant, repulsed by the social climbing around them and harangued by a clout-chasing inverse. For Stella, it is senior curator Frederick Lu, who wants the museum to collaborate with WANSEE, a multinational seeking to privatize the global water supply and establish WANSEE-sponsored satellite museums. In Loudermilk, the nemesis is Anton Beans, who likes poetry but isn’t sure what it is for; he fills this void of uncertainty by humping up the career ladder, a caricature of the preprofessional MFA candidate.
In the afterword to Loudermilk, Ives writes that the novel is neither satire nor realist fiction; it is a libertine novel. “The libertine,” according to her, “hates society’s laws and loves the roiling dynamics of nature.” This archetype “transgresses in the service of freedom—a freedom the libertine believes is perfectly natural and therefore good.” Loudermilk is less interested in binge-drinking, group sex with corn-fed undergrads, and the Seminar stipend than in unmitigated freedom. He doesn’t know what he wants but wants to keep wanting without restraint.
Ives is invested in the sociological detail characteristic of a social novel, although Loudermilk isn’t a social novel. It isn’t a fully libertine novel either. In a literary critical flourish, she combines elements of libertine novels, realist novels, social novels, inherited wealth lit, postmodern novels, period pieces, poetry, satire, and revenge plots. Why does this book have so many genres? An answer can be found in two of Ives’s recent critical essays, the first on French theory’s American reception, the second on the social novel. Both pieces examine a disconnect between these genres of writing and their intended audiences. Loudermilk—and Loudermilk—result from this disconnect.
In a 2018 Baffler essay, “After the Afterlife of Theory,” Ives gives an intellectual history of French critical theory’s American reception, ending with its co-option by segments of the alt-right, as MAGA stans use postmodernist claims about the constructed nature of truth to peddle fake news. She is not anti-theory; she is against theory that doesn’t serve its pedagogical function, namely, to give readers “the tools…they need to see connections between their studies and the world.” Theory—and genres of writing that employ it, such as Beans’s poetry—that fails to do this is remiss, especially considering how much undergraduates pay to learn it, anyway. Ives ends her essay with this declarative: “The cost of a B.A. is more distracting and enervating to the citizenry than any form of relativism.” Her critiques of theory production are essential to Loudermilk. That Harry, who has no background in poetry, hacks his way into the country’s most prestigious poetry MFA program is both scandalous—if he got in, then can’t anyone?—and appropriate—people without the academic credentials to do poetry should be able to get in. More often, however, they don’t.
A year later, Ives wrote another essay for The Baffler, “Orphans of Dickens.” Similarly concerned about a genre of writing and its pedagogical function, the piece asks why nonfiction literature has dramatically superseded fiction sales since Donald Trump’s election. “Information’s stock rose; artifice suffered.” People want to understand why the world is so bad, so they turn to nonfiction, plump with data. She gets why, but if people want to understand “what’s going on,” she argues, they should read fiction, too. Narrative is, after all, a sense-making device whose ability to string events into meaningful progressions feels especially necessary in an increasingly non-narrative world. (“So much of the media we consume is non-narrative, in spite of the existence of presumably linear ‘timelines.’”) Fiction is already reshuffling to meet this rising need for social context plus narrative, hence the resurgence of the social novel, a genre invented by Charles Dickens out of “an ambition to move between world-historical events and the mundane dramas of intimate life,” as Ava Kofman put it in a recent review of Olivia Laing’s Crudo, a novel that is supposed to feel like reading tweets.
Like Kofman, Ives points out that when fiction simply mimics nonfiction, hoping to absorb its truth value via osmosis, the results are unsuccessful. She critiques Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success—about a hedge fund bro who flees his New York City life on a cross-country Greyhound—for the novel’s failure to examine the power structures behind its sociological detailing, as if the details themselves made the work automatically good. Fiction with a misapplied nonfiction-y style makes the same error as the tweet format in which the same declarative statement is repeated in a grave tone: assuming that adopting a specific genre form automatically endows your words with reality. For Kofman, shafting narrative for non-narrative because the latter is supposedly always more realistic “bodes ill for the readers and critics who still look to the novel as a respite from, and not simply an extension of, the relentless stream of social media.”
Loudermilk, in contrast, is a defense of narrative contra nonfiction’s and theory’s claims as the only good forms of writing—claims that have escalated under Trump. Loudermilk’s plot wraps up neatly because the point of narrative is to make points. Loudermilk and Harry’s agreement is broken, although Loudermilk, with his scammy charisma and trust fund, will be just fine, even when the Great Recession hits five years later. (The tax loopholes that generated his trust fund are not unrelated to the financial crash.) Harry finds his voice, but becoming “the real poet” doesn’t resolve the problems of the market-driven poetry world he is about to willingly enter.
While Loudermilk succeeds in making good on the arguments outlined in her Baffler essays, it does not totally succeed as a novel, although—unlike Crudo or Lake Success—it falters for more conventional reasons. Harry and Loudermilk can feel like tropes. Each is mostly defined by a single desire (for freedom and isolation, respectively), which makes their dynamic and relationships with other characters feel predictable. Her combinations of genre tropes never fully cohere. Each narrative flourish is so anxious to prove its right to exist as a narrative flourish in a narrative work that the book is always pulling the reader out to point at what’s going on.
Still, Loudermilk is worth reading. It’s a funny and cutting novel whose critiques of inherited wealth and its effects on culture in the aughts will keep being true until a full redistribution of wealth, beginning with reparations, occurs. Until then, Harry will fester with avoidance, Loudermilk will be horny, and Beans will continue his lifelong plot for empty career success, while the rich, like the Walton family of Walmart, for example, pour their money into trusts ($9 billion as of 2011) to avoid having to pay an estate tax. They’re thieves but also quite charitable. They support the arts. In 2011, Walmart heiress Alice Walton founded a museum, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas. Maybe next time, she will found a poetry MFA program—or just send her child to one.
What We’re Reading This Summer
June 4, 2019
“Loudermilk,” by Lucy Ives
“Loudermilk,” a new novel by Lucy Ives, is set at a lightly fictionalized Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Ives is either puncturing a myth about Iowa or advancing it; either option makes her book an indulgence. I loved the character of Anton Beans, a “conceptual lyricist” with a baby-bald head and a lush, Abrahamic beard. I loved Don Hillary, the requisite alcoholic professor, who once wrote cowboy poetry and now appears to be “slowly embalming himself as a source of perverse patrician fun.” The book’s title refers to Troy Augustus Loudermilk, who scams his way into the program with the help of his friend Harry. Their division of labor is as follows: Troy, a glorious idiot, goes to class, flaunts his loutish good looks, and tries to sleep with as many coeds as possible; Harry, who is painfully shy, sits in their crumbling apartment—the toilet’s in the center of the floor—and completes Troy’s assignments. The pair’s comic adventures interweave with the more melancholy account of Clare, a first-year fiction writer who can no longer write. Clare, who speaks with a clipped, mysterious precision, is an early indication that Ives’s interests point toward the philosophical, even the mystical. “Loudermilk” is not just funny; it becomes a layered exploration of the creative process, from the “tension that once indicated to [Clare] a beginning” to Harry’s feeling, as he plans a poem, that “he wants to walk backward … The challenge is to get himself to fall.” Ives approaches the students themselves with canny tenderness, and their work (which the novel excerpts, delightfully) with grave respect. Her own language is prickly and odd, with a distracted quality, as if she were trying to narrate while another voice is murmuring in her ear.—Katy Waldman
A Review of: Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World, by Lucy Ives
by Jameson Fitzpatrick
May 28th, 2019
Format: 304 pp., paperback; Size: 5.5 x 8.25 in.; Price: $16.95; Publisher: Soft Skull Press; Number of dramatis personae: seven; Number of scenes in which A character is in the process of writing: six-ish; Number of metafictional stories and poems appearing within: eleven; Number of fonts used: three; Number of uncomfortable moments of recognition writers are likely to experience while reading: countless.
Central Question: How does a person write (about writing)?
On December 3, 1961, Susan Sontag wrote the following in her journal:
The writer must be four people:
1) The nut, the obsédé
2) The moron
3) The stylist
40 The critic
1 supplies the material; 2 lets it come out; 3 is taste; 4 is intelligence.
A great writer has all 4—but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.
I thought of Sontag’s formulation often while reading Lucy Ives’s new novel Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World, as the titular character is a writer who is quite literally more than one person. Loudermilk centers on two friends conning their way through the 2003–2004 academic year at “the Seminars,” a prestigious Midwestern MFA program very transparently modelled on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (Ives is an alumna). The charismatic Troy Loudermilk attends classes and is the one officially matriculated, while his extraordinarily shy sidekick Harry Rego ghostwrites the poems. As Loudermilk/Harry’s work arouses the admiration—and suspicion—of those around them, the teenaged daughter of two poetry faculty vies for Loudermilk’s affection, and a fiction student removed from the rest of the action struggles to write. Though Ives’s portrait of the Seminars/Workshop is more farcical than flattering, readers expecting yet another referendum on the MFA will be pleasantly surprised to discover a much stranger and more ambitious book. In Loudermilk, Ives has taken a subject notoriously difficult to make interesting—the difficulty of writing itself—and narrativized it into an elaborate plot peopled by avatars of the types Sontag enumerated decades ago.
Loudermilk, who plays chicken with a semi-truck in the novel’s opening scene and sends emails from firstname.lastname@example.org, is Ives’s moron (2), or fool (a substitution I’ll be making given “moron”’s eugenicist history). Importantly, he is quite wealthy, the sole heir of a former military contractor turned disaster profiteer, and quite hot: “He is six foot three and built like a water polo champion. His face is hard to look away from.” He is also (if this were not already obvious) white, straight, cis, and able-bodied, biographical details frequently correlated with an assumed (if unearned) sense of authority—Loudermilk doesn’t have to write a word to feel right at home at the Seminars. In her afterword, Ives refers to him as a libertine, and indeed, Loudermilk is so free of shame he seems incapable of the emotion, a handy lack for a would-be writer to have. If, per Sontag, one must be a fool in order to muster the confidence necessary for self-expression, Loudermilk’s superlative confidence reflects a profound foolishness.
Only it isn’t his self that Loudermilk is expressing—at least not in the poems that quickly distinguish him as one of the Seminars’ star students. Those are secretly written by Harry, the Cyrano de Bergerac to Loudermilk’s Christian de Neuvillette (whose classic tale of literary impersonation Ives cites as an inspiration in the afterword). The two unlikely pals are collaborators on a hare-brained scheme that began on a whim: during their senior year at SUNY Oswego, Loudermilk discovered the existence of funded graduate programs in poetry and decided it would be a fun and easy way to spend two years. Harry, a former child genius who started college at fifteen, is more than happy to play along, particularly since their arrangement requires him to interact with no one but his trusted symbiont (he has an aversion to his own voice so pronounced that it renders him unable to speak in most situations).
It’s not just Harry’s prodigious intelligence that makes him the critic (4) in Ives’s story, but also his approach to writing poetry. Harry writes because he has to provide Loudermilk’s lines, not because because he has something to say—at least not at first—and so his entrée to poetry comes through analysis rather than inspiration. Like any good counterfeiter, he first has to understand how the thing is made:
Harry knows, based on his limited poetical reading, but whatever, that he’s supposed to be using language that might “mean more than one thing” when he’s creating a poem. But it’s confusing to him how exactly this should work, from the point of view of production. For this reason, he’s developing a work-around. He’s decided to find language that definitely means one thing and then try his best to use it in another way, so that it definitely cannot mean the very thing it usually means—which is to say, exclusively.
As he collages appropriated language into poems that parody the vernacular of American empire in the early aughts, Harry’s first subject becomes doublespeak; or, language itself.
The true nut or obsédé (1) here—the personality who, according to Sontag, provides a writer’s material—is Lizzie Hillary, the precocious fifteen-year-old daughter of two members of the Seminars’ poetry faculty. The undeserving object of her affection is (of course) Loudermilk, who, much to her mounting frustration but certain benefit, she fails to woo. Does anyone have a greater capacity for obsession than a teenager in love? Yet Ives is careful not to reduce Lizzie to a caricature; she is not frivolous (Harry recognizes her at once as “a worthy fucking competitor”). In fact, Lizzie is the first to see—almost immediately—through Loudermilk’s act, and even her infatuation with him belies another, more nebulous desire: to grow up and into an artist. Once again, Loudermilk is just a stand-in.
Finally, there is Clare Elwil, a first-year student in fiction and our resident stylist (3) (Ives declares this outright on page 10). The daughter of a minor but notable expat poet from whom she has long been estranged, and blessed with the kind of C.V. you might expect from an Iowa grad announcing their six-figure first book deal, Clare shares some of Loudermilk’s material advantages, though hers come along with significantly more baggage. Having deferred admission after a serious car accident, she is arriving to the Seminars a year late and with a bad case of trauma-induced writer’s block. Clare’s struggle to write constitutes her entire subplot (her story barely intersects with the other characters’) and the question of style—how to say what she has to say—is both her primary obstacle and ultimate salvation.
We are introduced to Clare via “two terse sentences [she] has been writing for the past ten weeks” Here, and in Clare’s scenes throughout the novel, Ives captures with painfully vivid detail how it feels when words fail you, or, worse, when you fail words:
It is in description now that Clare has a tendency to become most mired. No, now it is in description that Clare has a tendency to become the most mired. The tendency? Is that the word? Mired? The? She slides back and forth, on wheels, mobile yet unable to pass over the hump that stands between her and poised, proper articulation.
Over the course of the novel, Clare reflects on her past success (a prize-winning short story she remembers as “an exercise in style”), struggles with two unfinished drafts, and, at long last, writes a new story, tricking herself into success by “[telling] herself she is not the one writing.” Her classmates highlight “her unique style” in their praise.
Through these characters and their respective fates, Loudermilk posits that all artistic creation requires the use of a proxy. Harry needs to use Loudermilk’s voice to find his own. Lizzie needs to use Loudermilk as a receptacle for her ambition until it can take another form—a work of guerilla art she titles The Origin of the World, after Clare’s story of the same title, which is itself titled after Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde. Clare has to pretend to be someone else in order to write like herself. It is only in their proxies that they are finally able to recognize themselves.
Sontag says a good writer must be a fool and an obsessive, that the critic and the stylist are bonuses (so, inessential). But Ives—not just for her own erudition and syntactical artistry, remarkable as they are—counters that it is the critic and the stylist who are indispensable, for they are the ones who interface thought with language. Obsessions can be substituted, replaced, and tend to descend on us whether our nature is obsessive or not. Likewise, a fool’s confidence can be adopted when necessary; it’s no coincidence “bravado” so often collocates with “false” (or that Loudermilk is the only one of these characters without any apparent artistic promise of his own). Taste and intelligence can be faked, too, of course, but a good writer nevertheless must develop them sometime. Perhaps it is, after all, through the faking that the making happens.
May 16, 2019 • Sylvia Gindick
In Lucy Ives’s second novel, Loudermilk, a charismatic dumbass scams his way into a prestigious MFA poetry program by submitting the work of his antisocial companion. The real writer, who hates the sound of his own voice, follows the oversexed, symmetrically featured dumbass to school and continues to write for him. It’s a fun setup, but the book aims for more than just comedy. Ives, who once described herself as “the author of some kind of thinking about writing,” examines the conditions that produce authors and their work while never losing a sense of wonder at the sheer mystery of the written word.
Through canny third-person narration, Ives cycles through the perspectives of five characters as the book progresses: Harry, the “real poet” (whose voice tends to break into an “unintelligible croak”); Loudermilk, the charming but “hollow hero” (whose speech is littered with creative iterations of “dude,” “dick,” and “fuck”); Clare, the brooding early-success who fears she can no longer write (“What I’ve lost is so easy to name as to make it impossible to speak about.”); Anton, the pompous try-hard who always thinks he’s the best writer in the room (“heir apparent to the poem-based sector of the American humanities multiverse”); and Lizzie, the precocious daughter of poetry professors (“I’m just curious, so sue me!”). Their artmaking involves varying degrees of creativity and mimicry, and it’s often unclear whether we should laugh at their marginal successes—or grudgingly respect them. The fiction and poetry that the characters write, many pieces of which are included in the text, are rendered in a tone that balances sarcasm with tenderness.
Unlike Ives’s previous novel, Impossible Views of the World, which was largely focused on the protagonist's glossy, external world, Loudermilk dives into the characters’ inner lives. This is a chaotic place. They feel shadowed, almost overpowered, by fantasies and visions. Harry’s imagination feels so alive that he envisions it as another person walking alongside him. Clare sees her her dead father everywhere. Both feel constrained by these doubles, which also, paradoxically, give them license to create. As Ives describes the condition in which Harry writes, “He needs to sink back into that greenish-reddish veil through which he can see the gently pulsing backs of words, the frilled edges of sentences. The only way to get to the poem is to drop into a perfectly Harry-shaped shadow.” Clare writes of one of her characters, “She was alone. Sort of. No, she was not alone. She could feel it waiting in the wings, as it were, there, ready to take a word from her, take it to say it again, back, back, back again, as you,” followed by four pages of nothing but “SSSSS$S.”
The novel concludes with a curious afterword in which Ives explains that Loudermilk is a libertine, a symptom of democracy, a lover of freedom who has little capacity for self-restraint. “The libertine transgresses in the service of freedom,” she writes, “a freedom the libertine believes is perfectly natural and therefore good.” Loudermilk continuously does what he does just because he can, embodying Harry’s voice until Harry is ready to claim it as his own. The book’s postscript is another kind of writerly transgression, as Ives emphatically tells rather than shows. In a novel full of doubles, veils, and proxies, it makes sense that Ives concludes with yet another layer.
New York, NY (December 3, 2018) — The Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program is pleased to announce the recipients of its 2018 grants. The program supports writing about contemporary art and aims to ensure that critical writing remains a valued mode of engaging the visual arts.
Joel Wachs, President of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, explains that “the Foundation’s commitment to arts writing is a natural extension of the grants the Foundation makes to artist-centered organizations and museums, which often include funds for the publication of exhibition catalogues, brochures, and other outlets for scholarly perspectives. Critical writing on contemporary art connects artists to audiences, increases dialogue around their work, and is vital to a dynamic and engaged visual art community in this country.”
In its 2018 cycle, the Arts Writers Grant Program has awarded a total of $725,000 to 21 writers. Ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 in four categories—articles, blogs, books and short-form writing—these grants support projects addressing both general and specialized art audiences, from scholarly studies to critical reviews, and self-published blogs.
“Since 2006, the program has funded 272 writers,” said Program Director Pradeep Dalal. “A valuable reminder of the rich possibilities of arts writing today, the 21 grantees this year address a remarkable breadth of topics in nuanced and often interdisciplinary ways. Rahel Aima will write on the persistence of techno-optimism and relate it to race and the global south, while Dawn Chan will address Asian-futurism and media art's relationship to the formation of identity. Several projects address the urgent themes of ecology and environment, including Jessica Horton's book on indigenous American art which the jurors felt would reset the parameters of discourse in eco-criticism and anthropocene studies. Wendy Vogel will write on the art world's response to the #metoo movement and will discuss practices like Ana Mendieta's within the framework of sexual violence. Lucy Ives's critical biography of the radical and visionary practice of Madeline Gins calls greater attention to an artist primarily known for her partnership with her husband, Arakawa. Yxta Murray will write on the critique of property redistribution, post-Katrina, by the art collective Blights Out New Orleans. And several writers address public art, ranging from Claire Tancons’s book on processional performance, and Malik Gaines's research, which deploys arguments from art history, performance studies, black studies, and queer theory to sharply articulate the stakes of public art in present day America.”
The 21 grantees are listed by category as follows:
Ashley Hunt, The Political Economy of the Prison in Contemporary Art Exhibitions
Yxta Murray, Blights Out and Property Rights in New Orleans Post-Katrina
Erin Thompson, Art after Guantánamo
Andreana Donahue and Tim Ortiz, Disparate Minds
Essence Harden and Olivia K. Young, Speculative: Black Art Practices of the West
Bradford Nordeen, Memorabilia: Queer Countercultures and Moving Image Art
Susan Snodgrass, In/Site: Reflections on the Art of Place
Malik Gaines, Future Ruins: The Art of Abstractive Democracy
Elena Gorfinkel, Aesthetic Strike: Cinemas of Exhaustion
Jessica Horton, Earth Diplomacy: Indigenous American Art and Reciprocity, 1953–1973
Lucy Ives, She is Raining: The Work and Life of Madeline Gins
Eric Golo Stone, Artist Contracts in the Political Economy
Michael Stone-Richards, Care of the City: Ruination, Abandonment, and Hospitality in Contemporary Practice
Claire Tancons, Roadworks: Processional Performance in the New Millennium
Christina Catherine Martinez
MAGAZINE JAN. 01, 2018
POSSIBLE VIEWS OF THE ART WORLD
by Jameson Fitzpatrick
That Lucy Ives's Impossible Views of the World (published in August by Penguin Press) and Andrew Durbin's MacArthur Park (published in September by Nightboat Books) are both debut novels written by poets who are also art critics might explain the two books' further similarities. Each centers on a neurotic art worker—Ives's Stella Krakus is a curator and Durbin's Nick Fowler, a writer—in the midst, simultaneously, of an affair with a wealthy, insufferable man; a research project with no clear end; and an ensuing existential crisis. Stella and Nick are both erudite, hypercritical narrators prone to exacting description and essayistic digressions about art, urban life, and the familiar archetypes that populate arts professions. Most significantly, the two protagonists share a fascination with utopias—and a troubling readiness to accept their impossibility as an excuse to stick to the status quo.
This is not to say the books are not distinct. Stella, to a greater degree than Nick, dwells in the particular, as does her story: Impossible Views of the World takes place in the course of one eventful week. An awkward thirtysomething "termed a cartographic specialist in the art history world" but "a dilettante in the world of cartographers," Stella works as a curator in the American Objects department at New York City's Central Museum of Art. (Called CeMArt for short, the museum is a barely veiled send-up of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, though the administration's immoderate coziness with a corporate sponsor smacks of the Guggenheim.) Her unfulfilling routine is upended by the disappearance of her colleague Paul, who is "almost a friend" and an obscure but respected poet. Tasked with completing Paul's work on the checklist for an upcoming exhibition, Stella discovers in his desk a photocopy of a fantastical early-nineteenth-century map of a utopian community called Elysia. Determined to figure out the map's significance, she steals the document, along with copies of Paul's files. What follows is an art historical caper that Vogue aptly dubbed "something of a From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for grown-ups."
As Stella gets closer to determining the map's provenance, she may (or may not) be uncovering a conspiracy connecting Paul's disappearance, several generations of a wealthy but disgraced New York family of artists and patrons, possible forgeries, and CeMArt's latest exhibition of American portraiture. That exhibition is organized by the impossibly handsome Fred Lu, a senior curator in American Objects and scion of two wealthy New York families, with whom Stella has been conducting a (mostly) emotional affair while going through a bitter divorce. Stella seems to loathe Fred almost as much as she loves him, particularly for his willingness to collaborate with WANSEE, a multinational corporation seeking to privatize the world's water supply and partner with CeMArt to open satellite museums around the globe.
Where Impossible Views finds its subject matter (and critique) in the institution, Durbin's MacArthur Park looks to what Ives, in her blurb for the novel, calls "the precarious margins of the art world." And where the focus of Views is small, concerned with inconspicuous but meaningful detail, MacArthur Park is big and sprawling, in both its settings and its questions. Nick, a twentysomething poet and budding art critic, begins his travel narrative in New York, where the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy catalyzes a preoccupying anxiety about climate change and the impending end of the world. He then sets out on a nebulous book project "about the weather"-and on trips to Miami, upstate New York, Fire Island, Los Angeles (because he has been commissioned to write about the Tom of Finland Foundation), London, and Vienna.
While in Los Angeles, Nick's book about the weather (which, in a reflexive turn, is what we understand ourselves to be reading) also becomes a book about utopia. This section opens with a history of intentional communities and cults in Southern California, beginning at the start of the twentieth century and concluding with Scientology; at the Tom of Finland Foundation, Nick's guides frame Touko Laaksonen's erotic gay drawings as a "utopian project." But Nick suspects that "a utopia of men is no utopia"—and that all utopias, however appealing, are illusory. In Impossible Views, Stella comes to a similar realization about the Elysia of her map. Though she never believes the town depicted is real, when she finally solves its tantalizing mystery—her own idealized project—she is not quite satisfied. Every utopia fails on its own terms.
TOGETHER, Impossible Views and MacArthur Park suggest that art itself might be such a failed project. Or that the art world is, at least, as Nick implies while considering the 2014 Pierre Huyghe retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:
The art world is an unregulated economy that borrows from other economies . . . to continually update its relationship to the world and, in acting as a conduit for other (and all) disciplines, strives to become the clearest image of the world in which we may better see ourselves. . . . Art tries to be everything for everyone at once, all of it contained within salable products that can be exchanged between artists, galleries, individuals and institutions, across media, in a ‘conversation' about what now means, and what that now once meant and will someday come to mean. . . . Everyone wants to be an artist because everyone wants to speak about the now.
An impossible aim, to be sure, "to be everything for everyone at once." But it is not its ambition that dooms the project of art so much as its constraints, "contained" as it is. Consider, in Impossible Views, CeMArt's partnership with an evil corporate sponsor that wants to include affiliates of the museum in each of its planned "smart cities"—"‘technology responsive' communities" around the world in which people will "take refuge not just from everyday inconvenience and security issues posed by fundamentalists but from approaching environmental collapse." (It's worth nothing that WANSEE echoes Wannsee, the Berlin suburb where Nazi officials planned the Final Solution.) The proposed sites include Nevada and Abu Dhabi, evoking international expansions undertaken by the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and others.
Art's complicity in capitalism and its exploitation of natural and human resources is not news, nor is this the most meaningful insight offered by these novels. "Everyone" might want to be an artist not only because they want "to speak about the now" but also because they wish to be a part of the noble project of crafting an "image of the world in which we may better see ourselves." Who doesn't? Who in the art world, anyway? But reflection is not action, nor is this the only way to imagine art's function. As Trotsky wrote, "Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes."
In their accounts of the flawed contexts in which they live and work, both Stella and Nick position themselves as outsiders. Though they blend in well enough, they go to great lengths to make it clear they see through the fictions that others around them happily accept. Disgusted by the scene of the swanky party where Fred announces CeMArt's partnership with WANSEE, Stella wonders: "How could I possibly be a curator if Fred was a curator?" Of the partygoers at a club vying with feigned nonchalance to be photographed by Wolfgang Tillmans, Nick says: "I watched them and did not once allow myself [to] slip into their time." Both fixate on the class differences between them and their more affluent lovers (Nick hates his boyfriend Simon's "moneyed affect"), though both protagonists are white and middle-class, hardly outliers.
Stella and Nick's desire to see themselves as exceptions to the rules of their lives is paired with a sense that they are powerless to change those rules. Stella laments that the circumstances of her life—her career, her relationships—feel beyond her control, even as she recognizes that she must bear some responsibility for them. Nick speaks of history grabbing and shoving us forward as if our role in it were passive. This echoes Stella's description of the "invisible hand" she feels guiding her during her boldest moments. Ultimately, Stella's most profound discovery in Impossible Views is not the origin of the map, but of that hand. Drunk at a friend's party, she cracks it: "When it feels like there is that weird hand. . . . That's you encountering yourself."
How Stella and Nick imagine themselves in their own communities is how many in the art world seem to imagine themselves in the world at large: as outsiders who know better, exceptions to the ugliest aspects of their time and country, but powerless to do anything but study works of art. Through these characters and their delusions, Ives and Durbin reveal the flaw, and danger, of such thinking: it's precisely at the moment we feel most helpless that we are exposed to our own potential power. Helplessness, as Nick says, is a mask. What that mask obscures is not our complicity—it helps us feel that, in fact—but our ability to hammer a better reality into existence. Knowing the mask is there opens the possibility of taking it off, which makes the difference between the meek administration of American objects and the self-determination of American subjects.
10 New Books We Recommend This Week
The year of the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution has seen a number of new works published on Russian history, and our list this week includes two of them: Yuri Slezkine’s “The House of Government,” about an apartment complex in Moscow built for the Bolshevik elite; and the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War,” about the Russian women who served in World War II, new in translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Laurent Binet remembers a time when literary theory was all the rage, in his fictional take on the death of Roland Barthes; Lucy Ives sets a smart mystery amid the office politics of an art museum; and the pioneering programmer Ellen Ullman offers some much-needed perspective on the tech world.
Editorial Director, Books
NEW PEOPLE, by Danzy Senna. (Riverhead Books, $26.) Senna’s sinister and charming new novel, about a married couple who are both biracial, riffs on themes she’s made her own — about what happens when races and cultures mingle in the home, and under the skin. “Senna’s aim is precise and devastating. She conjures up ’90s-era campus politics with pitiless accuracy,” our critic Parul Sehgal wrote. “It’s a novel that reads us. It anticipates, and sidesteps, lazy reading and sentimental expectations.”
THE HOUSE OF GOVERNMENT: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine. (Princeton University, $39.95.) This panoramic history plotted as an epic family tragedy describes the lives of Bolshevik revolutionaries who were swallowed up by the cause they believed in. The story is as intricate as any Russian novel, and the chapters on the Stalinist Terror are the most vivid.
THE UNWOMANLY FACE OF WAR: An Oral History of Women in World War II, by Svetlana Alexievich. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Random House, $30.) This oral history, the first of a series that won Alexievich the literature Nobel in 2015, charts World War II as seen by the Russian women who experienced it, and disproves the assumption that war is “unwomanly.” Distilling her interviews into immersive monologues, Alexievich presents less a straightforward history than a literary excavation of memory itself.
A LIFE OF ADVENTURE AND DELIGHT: Stories, by Akhil Sharma. (Norton, $24.95.) In eight haunting, revelatory stories about Indian characters, both in Delhi and in metropolitan New York, Sharma, the author of “Family Life” and “An Obedient Father,” offers a cultural exposé and a lacerating critique of a certain type of male ego.
FREUD: The Making of an Illusion, by Frederick Crews. (Metropolitan/Holt, $40.) Crews opens his study with the question of how Freud, whose scientific reputation has plummeted over the past decades, could retain so much cultural capital in the 21st century. In a single volume, he draws a portrait of Freud the liar, cheat, incestuous child molester and all-around nasty nut job, bringing a new level of detail to these accounts.
THE SEVENTH FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE, by Laurent Binet. Translated by Sam Taylor. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Binet’s playful buddy-cop detective novel reimagines the historical event of the literary theorist Roland Barthes’s death. It’s a burlesque set in a time when literary theory was at its cultural zenith; knowing, antic, amusingly disrespectful and increasingly zany.
TO SIRI WITH LOVE: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines, by Judith Newman. (Harper/HarperCollins, $26.99.) Newman’s tender, boisterous memoir strips the usual zone of privacy to edge into the world her autistic son occupies. In freely speaking her mind, she raises provocative questions about the intersection of autism and the neurotypical.
IMPOSSIBLE VIEWS OF THE WORLD, by Lucy Ives. (Penguin Press, $25.) In this dark and funny first novel about a mystery in a museum, a young woman is stuck in an entry-level job as her private life unravels. Read it as the story of a young woman coming unglued, an art-world mystery or a museum-based episode of “The Office,” complete with a colleague in persistent search of a staple remover.
LIFE IN CODE: A Personal History of Technology, by Ellen Ullman. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) Twenty years after the publication of her classic of 20th-century digital-culture literature, “Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents,” Ullman discusses her career in programming and the dangers the internet poses to privacy and civility. She knows how to decode her tech-world adventures for word people, and her essays explore gender relations and misogyny in the office, among other enduring issues.
THE DESTROYERS, by Christopher Bollen. (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99.) The heir to a construction empire goes missing on the Greek island of Patmos in Bollen’s third novel, a seductive and richly atmospheric literary thriller with a sleek Patricia Highsmith surface. In this world of remote coves and beaches, wealth and luxury are inherent, but also inherently unstable.
A version of this list appears in print on August 27, 2017, on Page BR31 of the Sunday Book Review.
IMPOSSIBLE VIEWS OF THE WORLD
An art historical mystery that will interest fans of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, with a narrator equal parts intellectual, ironic, and cool.
In Ives’ scintillating debut novel, an up-and-coming young New York museum curator named Stella Krakus must solve the mystery of a co-worker’s disappearance, fend off her soon-to-be ex-husband, and retrieve her heart from an ill-conceived office dalliance. Stella, who is a 19th-century cartographic specialist, finds a photocopy of a meticulously detailed and illustrated old map titled “Elysia” folded up in her missing colleague’s pencil drawer. Her largely scholarly detective work on the matter also entails a bit of breaking and entering and lunch with her glamorous, secretive art-dealer mother. Ives’ writing derives much of its humor from a combination of high and low—arch formulations and mini-disquisitions studded with cussing, sex, and jokes about Reddit. Its delights include a description of Stella’s Williamsburg neighbors—“proofreaders dressed as majorettes, anorexics in suspenders, rich women in artisanal clogs propping up sobbing toddlers”—and this account of love: “the feeling…of it being spring for the first time, the face of a tiny kitten who is speaking fluent Spanish and is also a genie who can grant your wish, of being truly implied as the person I really was when another person spoke my name. My heart was a piece of paper. It was a paper fan. It was a dove.” Also delectable are an excoriating direct address to the cheaters of the world and a definition of charm in art that seems to have much wider applicability—it's “what happens when nothing works in a given painting. But what you get when nothing works is everything.” Yes!
A diversion and a pleasure, this novel leaves you feeling smarter and hipper than you were before.
Review Posted Online: May 15th, 2017
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2017
Ives’s smart and singular debut novel chronicles what turns out to be a big week in the life of Stella Kraus, a petite and observant map expert for a Manhattan museum resembling the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Over the course of seven days, Stella works through the one-sided residual effects of an affair with an inscrutable colleague being groomed to run the museum. Stella also copes with her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s inappropriate appearances at her work and work functions, eventually taking the matter into her own hands, so to speak. And what about the disappearance of a male colleague? The illustrated map Stella discovers while snooping in his office quickly becomes an obsession as she attempts to determine its provenance by embarking on a sort of scavenger hunt. Ives maximizes her story’s humor with subtlety; a line here and there is enough to call attention to the absurdity of, for instance, the museum’s corporate benefactor’s attempt to secure the world’s water rights. She also isn’t afraid to make her heroine unlikable, which works in the novel’s favor. Ives’s prose and storytelling feel deliberately obtuse at times, requiring readers to slow down to fully immerse themselves in the narrative’s nuances, but the result is an odd and thoroughly satisfying novel. (Aug.)
In her newest book of poetry, Ives (The Worldkillers), an editor and writer of many stripes, condenses what she calls “some kind of thinking about writing” into a cerebral collection replete with meditations on the writing process, dialogues concerning phenomenology, micro-stories, anxieties around a failed novel, lists, quotes, games, and notes to the self. Readers are invited to an inner conversation as the poet grapples with the idea of writing, the history of it, the creative act itself, and also the text as an object, asking permission to be seen (much as Ives permits herself to feel), to exist in the eyes of others, and to participate in the canon. What saves the book from being merely being a treatise or a personal journal is that the reader is taken along on the creative journey; Ives muses about another author or a technique, such as the idea of description, and the page transforms into an experimental playground where she produces gorgeous passages of lush imagery. There is some appeal in the variety of texts and in Ives’s insights into her life as a writer, and she succeeds most when she allows readers passage into this potential space: “One must possess only the ability to tolerate a given position long enough to make it intelligible to others.” (July)
LIFE IS EVERYWHERE: A Novel
A virtuosic, radical reimagining of the systems novel by a “rampaging, mirthful genius” (Elizabeth McKenzie).
Everything that happened was repetition. But it was repetition with a difference. So she dragged along in a spiral, trusting to this form.
Manhattan, 2014. It’s an unseasonably warm Thursday in November and Erin Adamo is locked out of her apartment. Her husband has just left her and meanwhile her keys are in her coat, which she abandoned at her parents’ apartment when she exited mid-dinner after her father—once again—lost control.
Erin takes refuge in the library of the university where she is a grad student. Her bag contains two manuscripts she’s written, along with a monograph by a faculty member who’s recently become embroiled in a bizarre scandal. Erin isn’t sure what she’s doing, but a small, mostly unconscious part of her knows: within these documents is a key she’s needed all along.
With unflinching precision, Life Is Everywhere captures emotional events that hover fitfully at the borders of visibility and intelligibility, showing how the past lives on, often secretly and at the expense of the present. It’s about one person on one evening, reckoning with heartbreak—a story that, to be fully told, unexpectedly requires many others, from the history of botulism to an enigmatic surrealist prank. Multifarious, mischievous, and deeply humane, Lucy Ives’s latest masterpiece rejoices in what a novel, and a self, can carry.
“Brilliantly berserk. . . . Ives is capable of virtuosic control — there are at least 10 different kinds of writing in this book, and all are carried off so masterfully it’s almost frightening. . . . This is a work of art that feels like a barely contained explosion.”—Nina Renata Aron, Los Angeles Times
“Ives possesses an enthralling emotional and psychological acuity, a seemingly bottomless store of knowledge and a thrilling wit, all of which she applies to the systems under which we live — and how we manage to live within or outside them.”—Lynn Steger Strong, Los Angeles Times
“Life Is Everywhere shatters any kind of straightforward narrative arc in favor of a collage of shards that emphasizes the tone, atmosphere, and the general experience of life in the world at a particular moment. And it wouldn’t work were Ives not a Big Ideas writer on the level of Gaddis, or DeLillo, or Wallace. Fortunately for all of us, she is. . . . Lucy Ives has proven herself to be one of our greatest under-the-radar geniuses, but an achievement like Life Is Everywhere demands attention.”—James Webster, The Rumpus
“This pastiche novel boldly explores what drives the creative mind: genius, vanity, grief, love, and mental chaos. Ives is a brilliant, one-of-a-kind maestro, leading this complex orchestra with great aplomb.”—Booklist
“The novel we thought we’d been reading—#MeToo scandal rocks university!—disassembles itself, becomes something else, and something else again. When we return at the novel’s close to The Incident, it is complicated further, left insistently, uncannily unknowable. . . . Life Is Everywhere reminds us that institutions have the advantages of accumulated power and the time to wait us out. But the rupture has happened. The cracks in the system are exposed, opening opportunities—we just have to take them.”—Jamie Hood, Bookforum
"If Lucy Ives is as smart as her novel Life Is Everywhere, then I am in complete awe. The novel is challenging in all the best ways and an absolute joy to read. How many books in one and yet one book. This is great writing.”―Percival Everett, author of The Trees
“Writing novels is the way Lucy Ives discovers her thoughts about the at once disheartening and marvelous fact of being alive right here, right now. This brilliant and playful novel brims with wisdom.”―Alejandro Zambra, author of Chilean Poet
Date: October 4, 2022
Publisher: Graywolf Press
EXERCISE FOR WRITING FROM MEMORY AND OTHER EXERCISES
125 x 200mm, 16 pages, black and white printing, saddle stitched, edition of 100, 2022
In Exercise for Writing from Memory and Other Exercises, Lucy Ives sets a series of imaginative and collaborative writing tasks—suggestions for hidden constraints, techniques for assassinating words, wild uses of indices and the infidelities of memory, revisions and lists, a plan for a collectively authored novel. This is a startling and enabling document for any kind of writer.
Date: March 9, 2022
Publisher: If a Leaf Falls Press
Genre: Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry, Self-help
A March 2021 Indie Next Great Read
A Paperback Paris Most Anticipated Book
A Rumpus Most Anticipated Book of Next Year
An energetic, witty collection of stories in which supernatural events meet the anomalies of everyday life: deception, infidelity, lost cats, cute memes, amateur pornography, and more.
A woman walks onto a tennis court. A woman has a conversation with a friend’s husband in a supermarket. A woman sees a painting at the home of an art collector. A woman goes on a run. A woman takes videos of a cat in a bodega. A woman answers a Craigslist ad to write erotic diaries for money.
Cosmogony takes accounts of so-called normal life and mines them for inconsistencies, cruelties, and delights. Incorporating a virtuosic range of styles and genres (Wikipedia entry, phone call, math equation, encounters with the supernatural, philosophies of time travel), these stories reveal how the narratives we tell ourselves and believe are inevitably constructed, offering a glimpse of the structures that underlie and apparently determine human existence–and which we ignore at our own peril.
Reading at 192 Books with Shiv Kotecha and Robert Glück
"There is perhaps no author better able to confront the acute absurdities of our reality than Lucy Ives, who veritably tackles the derangements of our era with glee, clarity, and brilliance. In this story collection, Ives touches on the mundane—from memes to porn to errand-running—offering up a version of life that is all the more authentic for its wholly surreal elements (time travel; living underwater). But then, this is what Ives does best: By offering up a kaleidoscope rather than a microscope through which to view our world, she presents us with something more glittery and beautiful and endlessly faceted than we could see if we were looking at it with our own eyes." —Kristin Iversen, Refinery29, One of the Best New Books of the Year
"Ives grapples with information overload while exploring her characters’ deeply personal interiority in this inventive collection. Here, Mallarmé meets Craigslist, as a young translator takes a job writing the diaries of erotic online models in 'A Throw of the Dice' ... . The fascinating, dialogue-heavy 'Scary Sites' surfs between many topics, from Saturday Night Live to violence in literature, to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s 'Perfect Smoky Eye.' The structurally ingenious 'Guy' takes the form of a casual stroll through Wikipedia’s hodgepodge of entries on Guy Fawkes and the Napoleonic Wars before settling into a startlingly intimate portrait of an affair. Through juxtaposition and collage, these stories illuminate the trickier fringes of life right now." —Publisher's Weekly
"In this collection of short stories, Ives time travels, hallucinates, and performs magic to speak about the mystical qualities of the mundane. The stories all meander into something unexpected before exploding in truth and keen observations of human nature...Ives has the rare ability to boomerang reality totally out of whack before calling it home in an even purer form." —Booklist
"Cosmogony, [Ives's] debut short story collection, takes on daily absurdities and the subtle supernatural, playing with format as she weaves in Wikipedia entries, text messages, and science equations." —Arianna Rebolini, Buzzfeed, One of the Most Anticipated Books of the Year
"Ives—this is a compliment—is a real literary weirdo, and her stories are strange without ever performing their strangeness. . . . Each one is emotionally precise in the extreme. Often, I was moved without knowing what had moved me—a rare feeling in art as in life, and an absolute treat. . . . I'd move to her weird cosmos any day." —Lily Meyer, NPR
“Lucy Ives writes prose with the poetry inherent in her words, making the natural unnatural and the monotone fascinating, filtering and projecting the reality through the eyes of a poet . . . When Ives writes about art, biographical or historical information finds its place gracefully within the fiction without being mere footnotes. Her reflections provide the basis of a delicate understanding of art criticism in relation to creative writing.” —Cigdem Asatekin, The Brooklyn Rail
"Ives takes a playful approach to her subject and, along the way, reveals how thin the fictions governing our world truly are." —Cornelia Channing, New York Magazine
“A series of impossibly clever riffs on familiar features of modern life . . . from a mind that just won’t stop.” —Kirkus Reviews
"Rare and fearless, Cosmogony's high-wire formal playfulness forges a circuit of human connection blinking at unlikely nodes. Even in moments of alienation and hurt, Ives's characters find themselves inextricably tethered to each other through philosophy, systems that fail them, art and love and searching. The puzzle pieces of this collection notch together, assembling a picture of the mysterious intelligence of coincidence and the sad, funny faces with which we meet it." —Tracy O'Neill, author of Quotients and The Hopeful
"I recommend Lucy Ives’s inventive collection of complex, deadpan, analytical, interrelated, controlledly wandering stories about divorce, lies, fear, parents, memes, the internet, art, artists, information, and literature." —Tao Lin, author of Trip and Taipei
Date: March 9, 2021
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
THE SADDEST THING IS THAT I HAVE HAD TO USE WORDS: A MADELINE GINS READER
The Brooklyn Rail Best Art Book of 2020
The White Review Book of the Year 2020
The Architect's Newspaper Editor's Pick
Poet, philosopher, architect and transdisciplinary artist, Madeline Gins (1941–2014) is well known for her collaborations with her husband, the artist Arakawa, on the experimental architectural project Reversible Destiny, via which they sought to arrest mortality by transforming the built environment. Yet, her own writings—in the form of poetry, essays, experimental prose, and philosophical inquiries—represent her most visionary and transformative work. Expansive and playful, Gins’s vigorous and often ecstatic exploration of the physicality of language challenges us to sense more acutely the ways in which we can—and could—write and read. Like Gertrude Stein before her, Gins transfigures grammar and liberates words. Like her contemporaries in conceptual art, her writing is attuned to the energized, collaborative space between reader and page. She invites the reader into a field of infinite, ever-multiplying possibility.
This revelatory anthology, edited and with an introduction by the writer and critic Lucy Ives, brings never-before-published poems and essays together with a complete facsimile reproduction of Gins’s 1969 masterpiece, WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), along with substantial excerpts from her two later books What the President Will Say and Do!! (1984) and Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994). Long out of print or unpublished, Gins’s poems and prose form a powerful corpus of experimental literature, one which is sure to upend existing narratives of American poetics at the close of the twentieth century.
Poems by Gins at the Poetry Foundation, with a short introduction
Interview in Bookforum
Interview in The Believer
Chapter 2 of WORD RAIN at Design Observer
Introduction excerpt at Art in America
LA Review of Books Radio Hour
Conversation with Paul Chan for the 2021 Printed Matter Virtual Art Book Fair
Reading and Conversation at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research
Reading at Poet's House
Sigilo’s Reader provides access to Gins’s major texts, all of which would be currently unavailable otherwise. Lucky for readers, Ives selects a comprehensive array of works: from the 1960s and ’70s, 27 pages of unpublished poems as well as two essays; a complete facsimile reproduction of Gins’s 1969 experimental novel WORD RAIN; and selections from her two other notable book-length works, What the President Will Say and Do!! (1984) and Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994). Ives terms WORD RAIN a “carefully calibrated and constructed artist’s book, as well as a comment on the novel form,” and asserts that it is “Gins’s most brilliant endeavor and among the most significant works of experimental prose of the second half of the twentieth century.” This is not a hyperbolic assessment — the Reader ought to provoke a revision not only of Gins’s legacy as Arakawa’s collaborator, but of the wherefores and why’s of experimental writing — of its capacity to say and do what other forms of writing or art-making cannot.
In these uncertain times of social isolation, when many of us will spend more time with a book, Gins’s writing captures what we crave from that experience—one that is physically and mentally all-encompassing. While The Reversible Destiny Project may not have succeeded in giving Gins or her partner eternal life, The Madeline Gins Reader does. With each reading we embody her words and write Gins anew, giving her life within the pages of the book and ourselves.
— The Brooklyn Rail
The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, a startling collection of essays, novels, artist books, and poems, edited by Lucy Ives, makes clear that Gins didn’t go for rote lyrical (or anti-lyrical) celebrations of language or comforting social narratives, but had more pressing goals. Employing a language equal parts phenomenology and microbiology, domestic-architectural intimacy and linguistic voracity, Gins’s literary ambition was nothing short of immunity.
This wide-ranging, energetic anthology of poetry and experimental fiction, with an authoritative introduction by Ives shows how Gins (1941–2014) explored the possibilities of literary form and its relationship to content. ... Stimulating and consistently surprising, this is a treat for those interested in interdisciplinary artists.
— Publisher's Weekly
The Saddest Thing Is that I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, edited by the novelist and critic Lucy Ives, is a gift. ... One of the real surprises and delights of The Saddest Thing Is that I Have Had to Use Words is the inclusion of early poems from the 1960s and ’70s, which have not been previously published. ... This generous selection of texts is an opportunity to engage with the full scope of [Gins's] thinking.
For Gins, words are nothing if not physical. It’s their physicality that protects them from perfect comprehension — in the scanned pages making up WORD RAIN, stray digits appear to block out words; in poems, words and lists are emphatically crossed out, smudged, erased. The inherent confusion of language is of course her tactic, for to reach full clarity is to resume gravity. And that’s why experiencing Gins’s writing in print — at long last — is so necessary. The Madeline Gins Reader feels like how I imagine living in a Reversible Destiny house feels — like floating, like hovering, really, in a cloud of mist. While stuck inside your familiar four walls, lockdown is the perfect time to dive in.
Gins was a master of wordplay; humorous images are built up into piles, with groups of phrases building into networks of meaning flowing in gradients down the page.
— The Architect's Newspaper, Editor's Pick for July 2020
[T]hroughout The Saddest Thing, Gins’s written language—especially in its formal arrangements—knows what it’s for. It’s a self-reflexive tool, one aware of its patterns and actions and how these patterns and actions might be described and quantified, kind of like an excited kid typing up directions for how to use the typewriter on the typewriter, nomenclature cards sliding off with every release of the carriage.
— Tarpaulin Sky
For anyone who wants to experience directly the uncharted regions of inner and outer space in which language, perception, thought, and image play freely with our cramped expectations of them, the Madeline Gins Reader is an indispensable guide and a startling discovery. Her explorations of the interstices between words as symbols, as images, as sounds, as drawings are sure, steady, and entirely original. There are pleasant surprises on every page, in which narratives open up to encompass your experience as reader; fold over on one another to include and picture her activity as author; break open to scatter into lists, logical formulae, diagrams; reconfigure our grasp of what a page is for and what it can do. It is a dizzying and deeply exhilarating ride. Madeline Gins was a pioneer of language, poetry, and Conceptual art. It seems incredible that her work received so little attention during her lifetime. This volume performs an invaluable service in recalling her to our attention.
— Adrian Piper
Madeline Gins was marooned here, on Earth, and made the best of it, using what was available to her, like words. This book is a splendid testament to how far she pushed them, and us, to realize what she already knew. That this, all this, is not it. Not. Even. Close.
— Paul Chan
Gins was a foundational figure. Her work was original and yet also deeply indicative of the transformative activities of conceptualism that performed a tectonic shift in art-making beginning in the late 1960s. These brilliant essays, the incredible novel/artist’s book WORD RAIN, the poems, projects, and thoughts have all been scattered, unavailable, or out of print. Ives frames the collection articulately, giving us a vivid sense of the period in which Gins began and developed her remarkable body of work. This is a welcome publication that will renew our appreciation of Gins’s intellect and wit.
— Johanna Drucker
MADELINE GINS was an American poet and novelist, artist, philosopher, and speculative architect. Born in the Bronx, NY in 1941, she grew up on Long Island and graduated from Barnard College in 1962, having studied physics and philosophy. Gins was the author of three full-length collections: the artist’s novel WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), What The President Will Say and Do!!, and Helen Keller or Arakawa. Alongside her own writing practice, Gins also collaborated with her husband Arakawa on a theory of “procedural architecture,” an endeavor to create buildings and environments that would prevent human death. Arakawa + Gins’s Reversible Destiny project realized five built works in the United States and Japan, and before her death in 2014, Gins independently designed a staircase in the Dover Street Market in New York City for Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. Long a resident of New York City, Gins participated in experimental artistic and literary movements of the 1960s and ’70s before developing a collaborative practice as a philosopher and architect. She leaves a rich and complex legacy of interdisciplinary thought, action, and writing: although much of her work was unpublished or went out of print in her own lifetime, her prescient efforts in poetics, aesthetics, and environmental studies are central to contemporary debates about how to form communities and create collaboratively and sustainably.
Date: April 21, 2020
Publisher: Siglio Press
Text by Lucy Ives. Photographs by Matthew Connors.
A superbly made hybrid photobook on the stories that objects invite us to tell.
In July of 2017, photographer Matthew Connors (born 1976) and novelist and critic Lucy Ives (born 1980) embarked on a strange project: to remove and catalog all the contents of Connors's car, a 1992 Volvo 240 station wagon.
Although the New York–based duo began the endeavor without knowing where it would lead, their investigation—of parts, tools, ephemera, litter, personal items, unidentifiable disjecta, among other objects—lasted more than two years and resulted in a series of photographs by Connors and an essay by Ives on narrative forms and temporalities inherent to contemporary media.
This collaborative publication, designed by Elana Schlenker, poses questions about where narrative originates and how we establish our stories in relation to the objects and timescales that carry, ground, and surround us.
"As an integrated artistic statement, this book is a sophisticated exercise in collaboration, trust, and creativity. The audience for The Poetics is definitely those who indulge in active reading, and who are intrigued by unconventional narrative structures – the book brings photographs and writing together in a clever way, making them interdependent. The book is also exciting in its mission of taking a simple, and somewhat amusing idea, and turning it into layered project with many more possibilities and discoveries than we might have guessed. It requires both reading and seeing, and rewards that combined effort with pleasing intricacy."
— Collector Daily
Date: November 22, 2019
Publisher: Image Text Ithaca
Genre: Mixed; theory, memoir
LOUDERMILK: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World: A Novel
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A May 2019 Indie Next Great Read
A June 2019 MIBA Midwest Connections Pick
Los Angeles Times, 1 of 7 Novels Coming Out This Month That You Won't Want to Miss
Nylon's One of the Best New Books to Read This Month
Frieze, What We're Reading This Summer
It’s the end of summer, 2003. George W. Bush has recently declared the mission in Iraq accomplished, the unemployment rate is at its highest in years, and Martha Stewart has just been indicted for insider trading. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Midwest, Troy Augustus Loudermilk (fair-haired, statuesque, charismatic) and his companion Harry Rego (definitely none of those things) step out of a silver Land Cruiser and onto the campus of The Seminars, America’s most prestigious creative writing program, to which Loudermilk has recently been accepted for his excellence in poetry.
Loudermilk, however, has never written a poem in his life.
Wickedly entertaining, beguiling, layered, and sly, Loudermilk is a social novel for our time: a comedy of errors that deftly examines class, gender, and inheritance, and subverts our pieties about literature, authorship, art-making, and the institutions that sustain them.
Excerpt in Granta.
Excerpt at Lit Hub.
This clever satire of writing programs exhibits, with persuasive bitterness, the damage wreaked by the idea that literature is competition.
— The New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice
Ives is either puncturing a myth about Iowa or advancing it; either option makes her book an indulgence . . . Ives’s interests point toward the philosophical, even the mystical. Loudermilk is not just funny; it becomes a layered exploration of the creative process . . . Ives approaches the students themselves with canny tenderness, and their work (which the novel excerpts, delightfully) with grave respect. Her own language is prickly and odd, with a distracted quality, as if she were trying to narrate while another voice is murmuring in her ear.
— The New Yorker
The nuanced subversion of tropes and full-throttle self-indulgence of Ives’s writing lend a manic glee to this slyly funny and deeply intelligent novel.
— Publisher's Weekly (starred review)
Ives’ satirical masterpiece follows poet Troy Augustus Loudermilk, a shallow Adonis recently admitted to the nation’s premiere creative-writing graduate program, located in the heart of America’s starchy middle . . . Laugh-out-loud funny and rife with keen cultural observations, Ives’ tale is a gloriously satisfying critique of education and creativity.
— Booklist (starred review)
A book where profound poststructuralist meditations on language, chance and creativity are deftly spun through with a myriad of jokes about farting, sex and male anatomy . . . With the Bush presidency and invasion of Iraq playing out ambiently and calamitously in the background, Loudermilk perfectly captures the strange cultural ethos of the early 2000s . . . With razor-sharp prose and a plenitude of linguistic strangeness, Ives has written a novel about American college life that is both philosophically gripping and exceptionally hilarious.
— Shelf Awareness (starred review)
Lucy Ives has created something special in Loudermilk. The early 2000s setting is unmistakable, and while all the characters are both familiar (in all the right ways) and written with at least some degree of love, none are spared by Ives’ razor-sharp satire. Unlike so many other satirical novels, Loudermilk is nuanced and feels like it has something to say.
— May 2019 Indie Next List
Hilarious, pointed, perfectly executed . . . Ives manages to subvert all expectations, and offers up one of the slyest, smartest looks at what it means to be a writer I've read; her every sentence sings, and they're songs I'll return to again and again.
Ives, who once described herself as "the author of some kind of thinking about writing," examines the conditions that produce authors and their work while never losing a sense of wonder at the sheer mystery of the written word . . . The book’s postscript is another kind of writerly transgression, as Ives emphatically tells rather than shows. In a novel full of doubles, veils, and proxies, it makes sense that Ives concludes with yet another layer.
In a literary critical flourish, [Ives] combines elements of libertine novels, realist novels, social novels, inherited wealth lit, postmodern novels, period pieces, poetry, satire, and revenge plots . . . A funny and cutting novel whose critiques of inherited wealth and its effects on culture in the aughts will keep being true until a full redistribution of wealth, beginning with reparations, occurs.
— The Nation
Readers expecting yet another referendum on the MFA will be pleasantly surprised to discover a much stranger and more ambitious book. In Loudermilk, Ives has taken a subject notoriously difficult to make interesting—the difficulty of writing itself—and narrativized it into an elaborate plot peopled by avatars of the types Sontag enumerated decades ago . . . Sontag says a good writer must be a fool and an obsessive, that the critic and the stylist are bonuses (so, inessential). But Ives—not just for her own erudition and syntactical artistry, remarkable as they are—counters that it is the critic and the stylist who are indispensable, for they are the ones who interface thought with language.
— The Believer
Hilarious . . . A riotous success. Equal parts campus novel, buddy comedy and meditation on art-making under late capitalism, the novel is a hugely funny portrait of an egomaniac and his nebbish best friend.
— The Washington Post
Loudermilk, a satire, explores a complex web of plot and episodes, thick descriptions, biting character arcs, poetic and philosophical precision, stylistically different stories/poems within stories, the nature of time, and the mirage of power (or the possibility of unveiling politics, and cracking open agency). By employing a classical theatrical technique of dramatis personae, rather than 'realistic' novel characters, perhaps Ives is able to move between so many registers that enable her unusual 'mash-up' to excel as at once philosophical and planted in the mud . . . Ives’s style of satire shatters the dichotomy between meta-narrative and human empathy. Breaking such a distinction requires rare observational skill, patience, and multi-genre flexibility and curiosity.
— The Brooklyn Rail
Ives’s new novel is one of the funniest in recent memory, stuffed with jabs at writers and toxic masculinity, bluntly yonic allusions, and feuilleton-esque prose that prances on page . . . What Ives is playing with here is not just beautiful sentences and humorous situations, it’s the disharmony felt at the core of our experiences . . . Though the empirical distinctions between prose and poetry are often illusory, Ives finds a way to make her prose both a kind of communication—as is expected—as well as a construction of satire. Her words linger longer than normal trade, and find ways to avoid their disintegration, as if the must of a punchline is more lasting, more fragrant; words this eloquently framed and humorous imprint, and, often enough, hold us in their absurdity.
— The Adroit Journal
Loudermilk may best be read as a contribution to a growing body of literature that both historicizes and critiques the MFA program . . . Loudermilk suggests that MFA programs are only incidentally committed to the production of great writing, that their true purpose is the cultivation and maintenance of power. In this, they have been perversely successful—as successful as Loudermilk himself. And yet, paradoxically, their very success in cultivating such power has led the MFA into crisis.
— The Georgia Review
This send-up of contemporary graduate writing programs and the characters they attract and create is sure to highly amuse any reader, especially those with a penchant for academia-set hijinks. Reminiscent of Michael Chabon, this highly original satiric novel is sharp-witted and adroit. Brava.
— Addison County Independent
Lucy Ives mixes genres with unusual abandon in her second novel, Loudermilk. The narrative could be regarded as a campus novel, a portrait of the artist, a scam story, a retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac, or a farce . . . Loudermilk is a novel about the tension between art and life, and the conflict between labor and power.
— On the Seawall
Lucy Ives is as deeply funny and ferocious a writer as they come. She's also humane and philosophical when it matters most. I love Loudermilk.
— Sam Lipsyte
With Loudermilk, Lucy Ives tears down the curtain to unveil the wizard—and here all of the characters are implicated in operating the clunky machinery that creates then lionizes the concept of merit or talent in the academic/literary world. The result is this wildly smart novel that hilariously exposes its characters as they try to vault or cement themselves into some literary canon and/or ivory tower, unaware that the canon/tower is an ever-vanishing mausoleum wherein living writers go to get stuck, or lost, or to scrawl their names and draw butts and boobs on the walls.
— Jen George
Date: May 7, 2019
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Impossible Views of the World: A Novel
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A witty, urbane, and sometimes shocking debut novel, set in a hallowed New York museum, in which a co-worker’s disappearance and a mysterious map change a life forever.
Stella Krakus, a curator at Manhattan’s renowned Central Museum of Art, is having the roughest week in approximately ever. Her soon-to-be ex-husband (the perfectly awful Whit Ghiscolmbe) is stalking her, a workplace romance with “a fascinating, hyper-rational narcissist” is in freefall, and a beloved colleague, Paul, has gone missing. Strange things are afoot: CeMArt’s current exhibit is sponsored by a Belgian multinational that wants to take over the world’s water supply, she unwittingly stars in a viral video that’s making the rounds, and her mother—the imperious, impossibly glamorous Caro—wants to have lunch. It’s almost more than she can overanalyze.
But the appearance of a mysterious map, depicting a 19th-century utopian settlement, sends Stella—a dogged expert in American graphics and fluidomanie (don’t ask)—on an all-consuming research mission. As she teases out the links between a haunting poem, several unusual novels, a counterfeiting scheme, and one of the museum’s colorful early benefactors, she discovers the unbearable secret that Paul’s been keeping, and charts a course out of the chaos of her own life. Pulsing with neurotic humor and dagger-sharp prose, Impossible Views of the World is a dazzling debut novel about how to make it through your early thirties with your brain and heart intact.
Excerpt in Granta.
Book page at Penguin Random House.
Recording of reading from the novel.
“[An] intricate, darkly funny debut…There is so much going on in this novel, so many sharp observations packed into sentences as sensual and jarring as a Mardi Gras parade, that it bears a second look…Ives, an accomplished poet, infuses even mundane actions with startling imagery…Read this book on whichever level you choose: young woman coming unglued, art world mystery or museum-based episode of ‘The Office,’ replete with petty workplace drama, aged PCs and the occasional colleague marching ‘up and down the hall, loudly, in quest of a staple remover.’ It’s a smart novel brimming with ideas about love, art, personal agency, a lack thereof.”
— The New York Times Book Review
“An archival treasure hunt yields riches for the heart-worn young curator in Lucy Ives’s ultracharming fiction debut, Impossible Views of the World, though it’s the author’s tart observations of present-day social pretensions that sparkle brightest.”
“Cool and bracing…a perfect summer pleasure…An accomplished poet, Ives also knows how to delight sentence by sentence, with turns of phrase that cry to be underlined or Tweeted…Part send-up of the Manhattan art world, part elaborate literary mystery, the novel is bound together by a voice that is at turns deadpan and warm, shot through with a crisp irony that makes it tempting to declare it the literary equivalent of an Alex Katz painting…It’s a singular work, worthy of a place in any world-class collection.”
“Diehard Da Vinci Code fans will find a new heroine in Stella, the code-cracking art curator at the center of this clever mystery.”
“An art historical mystery that will interest fans of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, with a narrator equal parts intellectual, ironic, and cool…Scintillating…A diversion and a pleasure, this novel leaves you feeling smarter and hipper than you were before.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“An original debut ringing with smart prose, engaging humor and cultivated taste…Ives’ genius is apparent in the intricate way she weaves ironic confession, romantic comedy and artful treatise with explorations into the historic art world…Full of intelligence and imagination, this relatable literary mystery will charm even the most apprentice art devotee.”
“Stella is like Hannah Horvath from Girls—smart, with an equal tendency toward snark and introspection—living in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The novel sends up the museum world, with pretentious art folks courting corporate dollars and the usual office politics, but maintains a sense of something larger, even magical, working in the background.”
“The charm and energy of Impossible Views of the World rest in Ives’s uncanny eye for the subtle tells of romance, the idiosyncrasies of the NYC young, and the details of 19th-century furniture and art…A clever curatorial mystery, a love-gone-wrong rom-com or a sharp-witted story of a young New York woman, Impossible Views of the World is way more fun than a rainy afternoon in the American Objects wing of a cavernous museum.”
— Shelf Awareness
“[A] smart and singular debut novel…Ives maximizes her story’s humor with subtlety; a line here and there is enough to call attention to the absurdity of, for instance, the museum’s corporate benefactor’s attempt to secure the world’s water rights. She also isn’t afraid to make her heroine unlikable, which works in the novel’s favor…odd and thoroughly satisfying.”
— Publishers Weekly
“I first knew Lucy Ives’s work as a poet, and to have her prose is a gift, too. The detailed novel she’s built with such authenticity, wit, and feeling is remarkable for its vitality, insights, and lyrical view of a changing world.”
— Hilton Als
“This book was written by a rampaging, mirthful genius. It stands before me like a runestone, magical, mysterious—an esoteric juggernaut masquerading as a ‘debut novel.’ During the days I spent reading it, I said goodbye to all else.”
— Elizabeth McKenzie
“There are abundant pleasures to be found in Lucy Ives’s debut novel about art curation, corporate control, and utopia (among many other subjects and digressions), but the best is the poetic, elegant intelligence of its narration, vocalized by Stella Krakus, whose every sentence wryly climbs from the ridiculous to the sublime.”
— Teddy Wayne
“Lucy Ives, a deeply smart and painstakingly elegant writer, wins the prize with this intricate, droll, stylish book—at once a mystery novel, a romantic comedy, a tricky essay on aesthetics, an exposé of art-world foibles, and a diary of emotional distress. With sharp phrases, uncanny plot-turns, and mise-en-abymes galore, this mesmerizing tale radiates the haute irreality of Last Year at Marienbad and the dreamy claustrophobia of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, this time for adults only.”
— Wayne Koestenbaum
Date: August 1, 2017
Publisher: Penguin Press
The Hermit is a catalog of thoughts concerning art and experience. Layering fragments of dreams, lists, games, conversations, poems, and notebooks, Lucy Ives offers an intimate look into one writer's practice—"The worst is my imagination: lushly underscoring everything."
Excerpt at BOMB.
Excerpts at The Poetry Foundation.
"Readers are invited to an inner conversation as the poet grapples with the idea of writing, the history of it, the creative act itself, and also the text as an object, asking permission to be seen (much as Ives permits herself to feel), to exist in the eyes of others, and to participate in the canon. What saves the book from being merely being a treatise or a personal journal is that the reader is taken along on the creative journey; Ives muses about another author or a technique, such as the idea of description, and the page transforms into an experimental playground where she produces gorgeous passages of lush imagery."
— Publisher's Weekly
"'This is a poem about trying to write a novel,' Ives writes, daring us to read her poem The Hermit like a novel, or at least as a poet’s desire to write a novel. 'When I was 13 I swore to myself that I would become a novelist,' she continues. In fact she already has: Her impressive publications credits include both poetry (including her excellent collection Orange Roses) and even a novel, nineties, a bildungsroman focused on a young woman coming of age during that decade. She is an editor for Triple Canopy, a magazine and arts organization committed to 'resisting the atomization of culture' and who assembled an installation as part of the 2015 Whitney Biennial. Earlier this year it was announced she’d sold her second novel to Penguin, titled Impossible Views of the World. Ives hasn’t just fulfilled the promise to made by her 13-year-old self, she has documented what it took to get her there. In clumsier hands, this would come off as diaristic. In Ives’s, it’s art."
— The Culture Trip
"Like the paintings of Agnes Martin or the films of Nathaniel Dorsky, the most important character in Ives’s prose is its reader. In the white space underneath these notes my own mind’s wanderings take on what is not exactly an importance, but a space for reading and thinking. I move around in this writing, and become aware of my moving around within it, and consider not only the shape of the writing, but my own shape as its reader. In other words, Ives’s writing encourages its readers to consider their own power and form among the reality they encounter."
— MAKE Magazine
"Throughout The Hermit recur images of dwellings, both simple and extravagant, and they take on the weight of allegory from the outset. The first of these appear in '3,' where Ives’s author notes: 'I write, inconclusively, ‘All culminating in the image of a dwelling: It indicates a secret life…’' This secret life, for the poet-critic, comes into existence only where the mystery of desired knowledge can be apprehended, where she can sit down by the hearth and be with it. She dreams this is where her path will lead her."
— Full Stop
"Imagine if all you had was phenomenology, and then that faded, making every legibility left behind look like scare quotes around the word "thought." Lucy Ives is smart in that heart-breaking way that can make a spare, suspicious, elegant work of anti-poetry out of the silent treatment between ideas and those who have them. 'You cannot win,' says The Hermit, in that cognitive territory unoccupied by ease."
— Anne Boyer
"Stray thoughts are the protagonists of The Hermit—they might be the after effects of intense focus, yet come across as decidedly eccentric in their resistance to systems (i.e. genre) that might dull their prismatic luminescence. Here they deliver proof of parataxis's poiesis. Ives's exquisite take on ellipsis as realism is a dream, as both vision and something that fully satisfies a wish."
— Mónica de la Torre
Date: July 1, 2016
Publisher: The Song Cave
Genre: Mixed; prose poetry, aphorisms, games, memoir
Human Events is an essay pamphlet, published by Flying Object in 2016.
The essay concerns human events and how to write about them. It was composed during an iteration of Flying Object's ResidencyX, from January 2nd to January 18th, 2015. The title of the residency was "Real Allegory." The focus of the residency was described in the following way:
What can research contribute to writing not based in fact? How, more specifically, might we imagine the potential of historical documents and artifacts to teach us about what is not the case, what cannot be, what is excluded or merely (and perhaps eternally and enticingly) possible? And how does a literary construction such as narrative or a trope such as metonymy find its place in the writing of history?
Treating historiography as a poetics—as a discipline concerned with fabrication, contingent meaning, and aesthetic power, as much as objective analysis and proof—this iteration of ResidencyX will include a lecture, workshop, and exhibition. These events will address the question of how the writing of history can serve as a model for other kinds of writing, depiction, and creation, around and beyond the discipline of history. Also explored: the relationship between historical modes of American art making and artistic collaboration, and contemporary practice.
Installation views of the related exhibition.
View of related library.
Related interview in The Believer.
Date: March 1, 2016
Publisher: Flying Object
Genre: Literary theory
Currently sold out.
nineties is an unforgettable novella about credit-card fraud, the end of the 20th century, and the lives of young girls. A deceptively simple and clear-eyed look at adolescence at the dawn of American hypercapitalism, nineties is a cautionary tale, rendered in riveting, lucid prose; a narrative of innocence and experience and the intoxicating nature of first friendships.
Excerpt at Triple Canopy.
"Alien, canny, and alert... . So precise as to sometimes feel punishing, nineties is a brief, formal, forceful book. In it, Ives employs an economy of language that undoes the extreme fecundity of the material culture she describes. As a work of literature, it asks: How can writing be a motor for social revaluation?"
"I couldn’t help thinking of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers while reading nineties. The adolescent shenanigans of the girls in that movie are definitely higher-stakes. They involve sticking up a restaurant (with fake guns) for money to go on spring break, ending up in jail, then falling in with a local thug, sticking up other spring breakers with him, and climatically using actual guns to take out an entire rival gang. These girls are older than the characters in nineties, but it’s a similar pattern of behavior in that there is no forethought or concern about potential repercussions. They are 'playing with fate' and are turned on by it. I think this is true of every generation, nineties or otherwise. Perhaps it’s just true of youth. The scary thing about this playing with fate is that said fate can be accessed in further and more nuanced ways aside from just credit fraud. The Internet and social media can inspire such cruel, desperate, and depressing behavior (think of all the stories of kids who kill themselves because they are bullied online, because of their sexuality or otherwise), and we are still learning how this behavior will be understood through the eyes of a generation of humans who have never experienced life without it."
– The Rumpus
Date: June 1, 2013
Publisher: Tea Party Republicans (Little A, 2015 republication)
Currently out of print.
The Worldkillers is a book including poems, a novella, and an essay.
"Ives ... is quickly developing into a poet of sentences on par with the poem-essays of Lisa Roberston and Phil Hall for their sharp blend of lyric, thought and wit."
— Rob McLennan
Poem. Novel. Essay. Here is a literary triptych whose panels swing from one another unfettered by geometry in wide and wild arcs. But there are hinges. Think of the upkeep of the minotaur at the center of what can only be the labyrinthine mind of Lucy Ives. This particular creature feeds on its own enclosure. Who said time is eternity turned into a moving image? How does this work on the page? As soon as Ives allows things focus, she pulls back, revealing a small component of a larger construct, but never anything objective and irreducibly whole. Thus, effectively her subject and obsession is not the demarcation of time, but the inability of time to be properly or comparatively enacted. What if Stein and Paul Éluard were a single poet? What if Wittgenstein, Elaine Scarry, and Charles and Ray Eames collaborated on a novelization of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits? What if Robbe-Grillet and Hélène Cixous were to re-write The Duino Elegies as an essay? Daedalus never built anything quite like this. Good luck getting out.
— Noah Eli Gordon
The Worldkillers is a strange and beautiful novel of numerology written in the course of a day; it is also a brilliant essay on description. But it begins with singing. Lucy Ives ushers us into her newest book via a series of mediations on repetition and transformation. “I saw” unfurls down the page, eventually becoming “I was,” but not before so many things turn in on, and thus into, themselves. This is not some simple reconfiguration of Decartes’ “cogito ergo sum” whereby vision replaces thinking. Neither thinking nor seeing are proof of being. Ives reminds us that language, image, and description are merely operations we perform, beautiful and useful as they may be. Nothing overrides “the physical world[’s]…indomitable reality,” try as we might to kill it. In the face of our love and disregard for this world, Ives gives us a book so unsettling and so stunning that we “either say no words or weep into” the worlds she so generously offers. These are worlds I gratefully receive.
— Sasha Steensen
Lucy Ives's The Worldkillers is so much fun. Like a sick-and-gorgeous dollhouse not-meant-for-kids and come-to-life. Or like a series of Daguerre's Dioramas with lights flickering in windows and pale blue smoke lifting out the chimneys. Anything might happen! Yet only one thing can, because this is a book. But will it be horrible? Gruesome? Grand?
— Danielle Dutton
Date: September 1, 2015
Publisher: SplitLevel Texts
A The Believer Reader Survey Book of the Year for 2013.
An Entropy Magazine Best Poetry Book of 2014.
One of Flavorwire's 50 Best American Poetry Books of the Decade So Far.
Written over a 10-year timeframe, Orange Roses enacts a poet’s development: the process of her discovering what a poem might be. In this work, there is hardly a difference between dream and reality—the line between that which exists and that which is merely a construction of perspective is blurred in any attempt to portray a given experience. Ives questions not only what we can get away with, in attempting to add to or alter whatever “poetry” or “literature” might officially be—but, too, what will we be able to take away? Writing is less about choosing between worlds, she suggests in this exploratory book, than it is about existing in one where life and our perceptions thereof are complementary.
"Orange Roses" at Conjunctions.
"Beastgardens" at The Poetry Foundation.
"Early Poem" at The Poetry Foundation.
"On Imitation" at Triple Canopy.
“Though lyric in its form, Orange Roses is a coming-of-age narrative that unfolds against the backdrops of college, California, cityscapes, and an American art conference. Explicitly influenced by the work of George Oppen, Ives takes accretion as her lodestar, moving fluidly from analysis to aphorism, concept to sonnet, and paragraph to fragment. . . . Ives is a poet of aporia or lack, seeking to discover what exists by examining what is absent: poetry ‘is not a question of relating language to a person one is but rather of relating it to the exact person one is not.’ Orange Roses is autobiography composed of its omissions.”
— Boston Review
"'Mind-blowing' is an overused phrase when describing books, but with Orange Roses, it fits the bill. 'Thought-provoking' would be an understatement."
— Coe Review
"Ives’s raw material is the refreshing stuff of life, the mind and the body. The genuine is trickier territory, but I think for all her concerns with imitation and transference, this is a book about the wonder of discovering yourself as writer in language."
— Constant Critic
"In which a maturing writer look[s] back on her younger self with a kind of wild surmise, amazing herself by where she has been, and amazing us by where she might go."
“Lucy Ives’s Orange Roses is a thrilling book. It is also brilliant, hard-earned and honest. In the acute materiality of its poems—part diary/travelogue, part theatrical event, part philosophy—fervently anti-chronological—it is an urgent (albeit always witty and wry) inquiry into the aesthetic set of mind and the act of making. One could say it is an undressing of the readerly act, of the eye itself and its habit of ‘tugging incessantly forward.’ In fact, Ives’ work contests that forwardness and, in its numerous sequences (most vividly in the stunning ‘Early Poem’ and ‘Orange Roses’) she undertakes to imagine alternatives to the no-longer-apparently-natural forces of progress and growth. In this it is also an urgently political book—but without a trace of polemic. Its politics are where they do the most work—in its form and in its poetics. Ives’ work is certain in its undoing of certainty; it has an unforgettable voice as it strips itself of voiced identity; it summons a deeply trusted narrator in a work which cunningly challenges that trust. What illusions are to be left standing? That you cannot improvise the truth. That you can go backwards. That you cannot start over. That you must. The erasures and reappearances of figure and ground—that hard drama—have rarely been so movingly undertaken. A heartbreakingly beautiful work.”
— Jorie Graham
“I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Orange Roses. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. Especially do I marvel at ‘Early Poem,’ the prose poem sonnet sequence that counts its one hundred sentences with great delicacy, freshness, wit, surprise, and wisdom. Original in form and expression, it brings us to attention, thereby to the real, and the leap mid-sentence from one page to another is dazzling. I’m serious. Here we have objectivist vivacity and accuracy near the U-Haul headquarters in Emerson’s America. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the poems ‘Orange Roses’ and ‘On Imitation,’ is a sober certainty—read the latter as a prospectus for the new poetry. To quote an earlier work, ‘If one follows one’s understanding rather / than resisting: pleasure.’”
— Paul Hoover
Date: October 15, 2013
Publisher: Ahsahta Press, Boise State University
Genre: Poetry, essay
Novel is a poetry chapbook.
"I wonder at times what a genuinely philosophical poetry might look like; I know it wouldnt look like philosophy. I suspect it might bear real resemblance to the poems that Lucy Ives is writing in Novel. Such poems accept confusion without reveling in it. Such poems trouble themselves by working toward song in the very realm where thought and perception divide and grow quarrelsome. They forsake Truth with its capital T for truthfulness: an attention to consequence, a willingness to become complicated without false reverence thereof, 'the knot so language would have / mention // of what it later did.' These are poems remarkably without idols; and by that I simply mean that these poems seek to 'follow one's understanding rather / than resisting.' It just happens to be the truthful case that one doesn't always understand ones understanding, and the pleasure of the poem is inextricable from its necessity: an accompaniment into the world that refuses to be domesticated by thought, the very world in which one loves what she loves, the very world in which one makes her home."
— Dan Beachy-Quick
Date: February 1, 2012
Publisher: Projective Industries
Out of print.
Anamnesis is a long poem. It was the winner of the 2008 Slope Editions Book Prize.
It was also recorded and released as a 12" by Flying Object/Unicorn Evil, in 2011.
"The word 'anamnesis' relates to how a person arrives at knowledge. In the Platonic sense, it suggests the recollection of ideas which the soul knew in a previous life. In a clinical sense, it is the full medical history as told by a patient; in the Christian sense, it is a Eucharistic prayer; and in immunology, it is a strong immune response. All of these meanings relate to the central concept of this fine collection, how a writer 'finds' and/or 'makes' meaning and deals with the temporary nature of the act, how even our most vital life stories are provisional at best, and how erasure becomes part of the process itself. We are asked to reflect on what previous life brought these sentences to the page, what history of illness or wellness caused the words to form this way, what invisible prayer was erased even before meaning was posited."
— Maxine Chernoff, from the Introduction
Excerpt in Typo.
An excerpt included in UPD's 6x6 lent that particular issue of the periodical its title.
Audio at Triple Canopy.
"Powered by the refrain-directive 'write,' and 'cross out,' the content of Lucy Ives’ most recent work, Anamnesis, remains under active, sustained deliberation throughout. In this single long poem, her first book, Ives stalls writing at its inception so that a central question—what can be acceptably written here?—hovers over the poem and induces it."
"This is an important book: I’ll come back to it."
— With Hidden Noise
"The simple concept Ives has chosen for her collection of poems is ingenious. Anamnesis belongs not among stacks of experimental poetry, but with the ambitions of conceptual visual artists who sought to replace the object with the assumptions and intentions behind it: Rauschenberg’s erasures of de Kooning or Ceci n’est pas une pipe are closer to the kind of infinite aesthetics of Anamnesis than those of contemporary poetry. Ives has replaced the book with the act of reading and response. The book does not become the book, does not become itself, until we engage with it. For the elegance of its iteration alone, it merits our attention."
— Tarpaulin Sky
"By not holding to one thought, Ives triggers many; we become the writer and the reader of multiple poems. Anamnesis is a new reminder of the fluidity of our roles and our memories. The reader’s experience is not passive, and the stylistic choice to expose poems and the writing of them for what they truly are—decisions and regrets and half-truths—is refreshing."
— The Colorado Review
"Ives highlights the poetic occupation of establishing comparative structures only to torment the linguistic foundations on which they are based. The text occludes the making of a manageable recollection, since the thing remembered is at once mutable and disposable. This effect both carries and calcifies content: the afterimages of words and meanings appear and disappear in real time, and are reminiscent of the erasures and alterations found in William Kentridge’s animated films. Like Kentridge, Ives performs a kind of mental trickery as the medium allows for the appearance of progressions. Kentridge’s drawings—when captured in succession—create the illusion of movement, much as Ives’ constructions collect meaning—jerking through affirmations and negations, reflecting the false starts and reboots of living."
— Lana Turner
Date: December 30, 2009
Publisher: Slope Editions
My Thousand Novel is a poetry chapbook.
You can download it as a PDF at right.
Date: January 1, 2009
Publisher: Cosa Nostra Editions
Out of print.
Lucy Ives on the art of Toyen
Rare are they who are up to the task of freeing love from caricature.
—Annie Le Brun
FOR FIVE YEARS, Toyen’s dear friend Jindřich Heisler hid from the Nazis in the artist’s bathroom. There—perhaps also venturing from time to time into Toyen’s neighboring studio—Heisler developed some of the most remarkable experimental photographic techniques of the twentieth century, capturing painstaking miniature dioramas and deploying photomontage to highly original ends. He converted everyday objects and common substances into rich, strange forms, toying with scale and unexpected juxtapositions. One of his favorite materials was Vaseline.
Legendarily, when Prague’s occupiers came knocking, Heisler skipped down the building’s front steps, waving sociably as his would-be abductors passed him on their way up. They would have found his protector alone, smoking and reading. Toyen was known for her love of books. The novel she preferred before all others was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Because she seldom wrote, we know little of how Toyen, born Marie Cěrmínová in Prague in 1902, experienced these events. Heisler died in 1953, leaving no account of the war years. Indeed, we do not even know if Toyen, who famously referred to herself in Czech as a “malíř smutnej” (sad [male] painter), would have employed feminine pronouns. It feels awkward to make use of them in these sentences, but this is the convention among the few chroniclers of Toyen’s life and the mode chosen by one of Toyen’s last living friends, the French author Annie Le Brun. Toyen, were she alive today, might elect differently. Given her tendency to secrecy regarding her personal life and, as time went on, her refusal to speak at all while in public (a reticence she adopted whenever she felt her milieu lacked “poetry”), perhaps it is best to think of she, her, and hers as imperfect signs, mediocre translations, found objects. Asked why she chose to be silent in overly prosaic settings, she remarked, “Je mets mon scaphandre” (I put on my space suit).
That Toyen is simultaneously one of the least known and most productive, multifarious, and inventive of the Surrealists is another mystery to add to the list. She provided illustrations for some 570 books over the course of her career, realized dozens of brilliant paintings, created stunning line drawings and prints responding to the horrors of World War II, and amassed a connoisseur’s trove of pornographic materials. She had two close collaborative relationships. With Heisler, whom she met in 1938, she created the revolutionary photobook Z kasemat spánku (From the Strongholds of Sleep, 1940), among other clandestine wartime publications. Before this, she and the painter, poet, publisher, and set designer Jindřich Štyrský, with whom she was close from 1922 until his death in 1942, founded their own artistic movement, Artificialism, in support of which they held a number of successful exhibitions in Paris, becoming famous in their native Prague and infiltrating André Breton’s inner circle. Breton, Toyen’s staunch supporter, once compared her to a nightingale that had become trapped in his apartment, maintaining that she was somehow beyond judgment or valuation. All that Toyen touched, Breton wrote, was connected to the wild and utterly free song of the nightingale by “a ladder of silk.”
Breton romanticized Toyen as a revenant of the lost nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Prague, city of paradisiacal bridges and Franz Kafka. He wrote of “the mark of nobility that stamps her face, the deep tremor within her co-existing with a rock-hard resistance to the fiercest attacks.” It is true that Toyen had a distinctive look: In 1919, a year after the creation of the nation of Czechoslovakia, a photograph was taken of then-seventeen-year-old Marie, or “Manka,” as she was known. Her fashionable features convened the ideals of Victorian beauty and of the so-called New Woman, combining doll-like symmetry with striking eyes that projected a worldly clairvoyance. The face in the picture is that of a teenager who has just left home, stalwart, ready to forget childhood—the face of a revolutionary. Toyen had joined the anarchists, a group then ascendant in the Czech capital, taking work at a soap factory. She frequently dressed in men’s clothes and distanced herself from her parents. Four years later, she changed her name and became affiliated with Devětsil, a leading local avant-garde devoted to Proletkult and the fantastic.
Toyen: two short syllables. Various origin stories have been proposed for this mononym, some more plausible than others. Le Brun understands it as a shortening of the French masculine noun citoyen, or “citizen,” an etymology that links the artist to the French Revolution and foretells her emigration. American critic Whitney Chadwick, author of a landmark article on Toyen, 1989’s “Toyen: Toward a Revolutionary Art in Prague and Paris,” proposes a pun on to já jen, Czech for “to think oneself.” Toyen’s contemporaries made their own interpretations. Adolf Hoffmeister, a caricaturist, depicted her in 1930 as Ten-Ta-To-yen on the cover of the Prague review Rozpravy Aventina (Aventine Debates). The hyphenate compound is a declension: “that male, that female, that neuter-creature.” Hoffmeister’s thoughtful portrait—a smiling individual in pants casts a shadow as a heteroclite figure with a bird for a head, a pair of fish for a chest, and a drafting triangle and a picture frame for arms—stands in contrast to others’ bafflement at or (as scholars Karla Huebner and Malynne Sternstein put it, respectively) “mythologiz[ing]” and “heteronorma[lizing]” of Toyen’s self-fashioning. Poet and fellow Devětsil member Jaroslav Siefert goes on at length, claiming to have devised the name himself: “I wrote TOYEN on a napkin in big letters.” In a memoir, he lingers over his shock at having often “encountered a strange but interesting girl” wearing “coarse cotton pants, a guy’s corduroy smock, and on her head a turned-down hat, such as ditch-diggers wear.” Later, at a cafe, he is astonished to discover her transformed, “with a clean face” and “dainty pumps on her pretty feet,” sharing a table with Štyrský, a male painter already known to him. “When she extended her hand,” Siefert writes, “I couldn’t exhale for a couple of seconds and I looked in amazement.”
Toyen’s ability to inhabit more than one persona—“male” worker, “female” intellectual—made her an object of fantasy, although the nature of her own fantasies remains a matter of speculation. She was apparently uninterested in romantic attention from straight men. As for her reference to herself as a “malíř smutnej” (“Farewell, I am a sad [male] painter!” she exclaimed from the window of a taxi after a night of carousing with the Devětsilians), Seifert made the wry observation: “We didn’t believe in her sadness.” After Toyen began to collaborate with Štyrský, whom she had met on vacation in 1922, she was seen by some as his “druh,” his companion or common-law wife, although Toyen always maintained that their relationship was platonic. Some who took a prurient interest in the duo thought of them as “twins” or as somehow exchanging gender characteristics. The poet Vitezslav Nezval, fascinated by what he viewed as a symbiosis of binary genders, wrote, “Štyrský was her soul and her female element, because Toyen, who after a certain time dressed like a boy, refused, when she spoke of herself, to use the feminine endings, in order to demonstrate her human and artistic equality.”
Not to be outdone by these many commenters, Toyen created a striking painting titled Polštář (Cushion), 1922. It depicts the salon of a brothel in which naked men and women form a flower chain of flesh, brushstrokes quick but unerring. At the bottom right of the piece of cardboard on which the image was made, two women pleasure each other. “I don’t know if today one can measure the incredible audacity that it took for a young woman twenty years of age to realize this tableau,” writes Le Brun. For her part, Toyen maintained that she had been making erotic images since she was a child. Speaking of her first sexual experience, she used terms suggestive of autonomy and empowerment, declaring that she herself had “ended” her virginity.
Whatever the case may be regarding the physical aspects of Toyen and Štyrský’s intellectually intimate partnership, by the fall of 1925, they were living together in Paris. Theirs was an ambitious plan: Following in the footsteps of Apollinaire—the French-Polish poet whose death from influenza in 1918 cut short an ingenious career—they would synthesize painting and poetry. Although socializing with noted Surrealists, they rejected Surrealism’s fetishization of the unconscious. In two manifestos from 1927 and 1928, “Artificialism” and “The Poet,” they wrote of melding painterly form with poetic sensibility, claiming mysteriously, “We have no memories, but we are trying to manufacture them. There is only one way to rid oneself of memories. To be abandoned by them.”
Toyen’s works from the mid- to late ’20s, in any case, look less like memories (manufactured or otherwise) than visions of liberation. In one startling painting, Polykačmečů (Sword-Swallowers), 1925, a trussed female performer lies smiling on a carpet as nearby two men impale themselves on the titular weapons. Witty notebook drawings from around this time document sex workers, animals, and figures from the Bible, among other practitioners, engaging in every act under the sun. Salome placidly urinates on the head of John the Baptist. Meanwhile, Toyen and Štyrský were compiling a sizable collection of print pornography. For their Artificialist project, they made pleasant, vaguely Cubist landscapes mostly devoid of humanity, the paint thickened with sand—not always their finest work. They cooked up various moneymaking schemes, writing a travel guide to Paris for Czech speakers, designing fabrics, producing endless commercial book covers. They hit the clubs. “Elegant Manka, or Toyen, who buys herself clothes fashionable and ultrafashionable and dines on smoked mackerel at ‘Au rendezvous des chauffeurs’ with Jindřich Štyrský, a painter quiet and artificial,” wrote the observant Hoffmeister in 1926 regarding their Montparnassian exploits.
The ’30s brought change. Whereas Artificialist Toyen had favored flatness, now she began to paint more conventionally three-dimensional forms, rendering them at once vivid and hard to identify: Is the huddled, wire-wrapped entity in Prometheus, 1934, an empty garment? An outcropping of stone? In 1929, she had returned to Prague, although she continued to travel. She was moving out of step with Štyrský, employing some of the tenets associated with Artificialism but discarding others. It was as if she saw the possibility of interiority in a painting that manifested as an impossible-to-complete zone, a rip or fissure in representation itself. When, in 1931, Štyrský began publishing the Erotiká Revue and a serial imprint, Edice 69 (Editions 69), Toyen illustrated a Czech version of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine and explored the graphic qualities of oversize genitals. She seems to have been struck by Georges Bataille’s notion of the informe, which Rosalind Krauss has described as an undoing of traditional aesthetic categories, a “deny[ing] that each thing has its ‘proper’ form.” As if in anticipation of the brutality that would soon be unleashed across Europe, Toyen’s work by the mid-’30s had already turned to themes of horror and abandonment. Everything cracks; in works like 1934’s Růžový spektr (Specter in Rose), we no longer differentiate between subject and object, fluid and solid, surface and hole.
In 1939, the borders close and her name appears on a list of artists banned from public activity in occupied Czechoslovakia, now the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Along with Heisler and his immediate family, she has been swindled by a customs agent out of passage to South America. Toyen begins the long wait for the end of hell. Arrests and executions are not uncommon among Prague’s creative milieu. In a rare extant letter to the French poet Benjamin Péret in April 1946, Toyen will say, “Life was indeed terrible here and I often had to hide.”
It was very dangerous to shelter Heisler, who had elected not to show up to a 1941 deportation call. Equally risky was the pair’s continued artistic production. They condensed the unbearable into striking poetic images beginning in 1939 with their collaboration Les spectres du desert (Specters of the Desert), with illustrations by Toyen and poems in French by “Henri” Heisler. They hoped to distribute a second collaboration, this time in German, to invading soldiers as pro-defection propaganda. Nur die Turmfalken brunzen ruhig auf die 10 Gebote (Only Kestrels Piss Calmly on the Ten Commandments) featured Heisler’s poetry, Toyen’s drawings, and a cover by Štyrský, its colophon boldly proclaiming, “This book originated in the suffocating atmosphere of military commands as a document of Surrealist activity that none of the reactionary powers of mobilized Europe can destroy.” During the war, Toyen and Heisler, with occasional input from Štyrský, continued to develop such Surrealist samizdat. Their furtive efforts included the aforementioned Z kasemat spánku, a photobook of “realized poetry” (realizované básne), as well as a number of serial graphic works by Toyen. Her terrifyingly precise drawings for the cycle Strělnice (Shooting Gallery), 1939–40, reveal her at the height of her powers, confecting images of blasted landscapes inhabited by a cat’s head, memorial wreaths, crumbling puppet theaters, and faceless children, among other vivid fragments. She continued in this vein with Den a noc (Day and Night), 1940–43, and Schovej se, válko! (Hide Yourself, War!), 1944. Reminiscent of the work of contemporary artist Milano Chow, these meticulous illustrations-without-books, published only after 1946, evince an existential nausea seldom equaled in modernism.
The wartime projects led to what are perhaps Toyen’s most unforgettable works: a group of loosely related paintings of the 1940s and ’50s united by an attention to hyperfine detail that ebbs cryptically into a zone of nonrepresentation or impossibility. The first among these, Po prědstavení (After the Performance), 1943, depicts a girlish body suspended upside down from what seems to be a dancer’s barre, embroidered bloomers exposed even as feet and head have melted into a carefully worked wall of dripped and scraped paint. Below the hanging figure are an empty pillowcase and what looks like a combination flyswatter–riding crop, accessories for a discomfiting Sadean recital. De Sade, Štyrský and Toyen’s former household god, also informs two paintings titled Na zámku La Coste (At Château La Coste) after the ancestral home of the Marquis, one from 1943 and the other from 1946. In these two studies of ground and wall, a graffito of a fox steps ominously forth, ready to make a kill. Toyen seems to play with an ambiguity also broached in de Sade’s writings: that the causal relationship between imaginative representations of violence and genuine acts of horrific cruelty remains undefinable—and that this uncertainty sits disturbingly at the heart of human politics.
In the early ’50s, Toyen produced paintings based on signs of Prague businesses. By then, she had relocated permanently to Paris, bringing most of her artworks with her—thus much of her oeuvre is in private collections in France. She completed an iconic painting, Mýtus světla (The Myth of Light), in 1946. By 1953, Heisler, its subject, was dead. “The war destroyed his heart,” she later told a friend. One might also say that the war destroyed the last of Toyen’s illusions, convincing her simultaneously of the artificiality and fleetingness of visual experience and its viselike hold on the human imagination.
In exile, Toyen reestablished herself among the Surrealists and began a new series of book-related collaborations. In the 1960s and ’70s, she worked closely with Le Brun and her late husband, the Croatian-French poet and playwright Rodovan Ivšić, providing collages and illustrations for their books. Le Brun once annotated a vulvar collage by Toyen with an intriguing fragment: BIJOU FAVORI: “LA PATTE MEDITATIVE D’UN GRAND FAUVE SUR LA CLITORIS” (FAVORITE JEWEL: “THE MEDITATIVE PAW OF A LARGE BEAST ON THE CLITORIS”). Toyen’s late paintings become increasingly nocturnal and concerned with enigmatic genital forms. Her most reproduced work of this period is the partly collaged Le paravent (The Screen), 1966, in which a spectral three-faced figure garbed in leopard spots and bright-green gloves appears to hover in the central panel of a folding screen. By the ’70s, Toyen was working almost exclusively in collage, mining the exploitative universe of popular print. Le Brun observes that the artist still went to see X-rated films in the theater several times a week at the age of seventy. In November 1980, Toyen passed away.
It is to be hoped that the traveling survey “Toyen: Dreaming Rebel,” which originated at Prague’s National Gallery and is currently at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, will bring Toyen’s work to a larger audience. Curators Le Brun, Annabelle Görgen-Lammers, and Anna Pravdová have accomplished the near impossible in securing loans of Toyen’s paintings from so many private collections and have published a biographically informative and visually rich catalogue in German. A full appreciation of Toyen’s achievements might require a series of smaller exhibitions focusing on short periods—such that her wartime works, for example, can develop their own mythos, a bit like Philip Guston’s Nixon drawings or Adrian Piper’s graphic experiments with the Mythic Being, whose name is borrowed, with apologies, for this essay’s title. Yet the present survey makes an undeniable contribution to the broader ongoing reevaluation of Surrealism. To paraphrase the Artificialist manifesto: Art history retains few memories of Toyen, and thus this is the time to begin manufacturing those memories. We should recalibrate our visions of the past to include this artist, who was a defender of that which hovers fitfully at the edges of visibility and intelligibility, that which does not and cannot conform.
“Toyen: Dreaming Rebel” is currently on view (through February 13) at the Hamburger Kunsthalle; travels to the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris, March 25–July 24.
Date: February 1, 2022
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Artforum, February, 2022.
CLOSE-UP: WOMAN IS THE HOST
Lucy Ives on Meret Oppenheim’s Object, 1936
NO LESSER EMINENCE than Carl Jung declared her sane. “She seems to have learned a lot from her clash with the elves,” he wrote in a 1935 letter to Meret Oppenheim’s father. This father, himself a medical man, had to be contented. Although he had heard that his twenty-two-year-old daughter had posed nude “for those certain magazines (with whores),” he did not force her to quit Paris for the relative backwater of Basel. Hitler’s rise would be enough to accomplish that. Anti-Jewish laws soon made it impossible for Erich Alfons Oppenheim to practice, and he could no longer send rent money. The sale, in 1936, of one of Meret’s artworks to a New York museum resulted in a payment of $50 (a little over $900 in 2021 currency). It was encouraging, but it was nothing. No one could live on that.
And what of that celebrated artwork, devised in the company of the men Jung strangely termed “elves”? The rumor lingers even today that she didn’t mean to do it. It was a “fluke,” as she herself put it. She had only created it to be amusing, to play along in the clique of middle-aged avant-gardists, Surrealists, et al. whom she’d enthralled with her looks, liberated manner, and precocious linguistic gifts. She “peed in the hats of overly bombastic gentlemen on the terrace of the Dôme,” in the words of Alain Jouffroy. She smoked fat cigarettes, forcing harsh blue smoke through her delicate nostrils, reminding her new friends of a locomotive or cruise ship. The members of the elf committee, not to be outdone, grimaced and dressed up in costumes, shaving their facial hair into weird patterns. She was beguiled and occasionally responded by taking off her clothes.
It was not easy to satisfy the elves. She would leave them, but not before producing an answer to the riddle that seemed to motivate all of their glamorous, hash-fueled activities: What is woman, after all? Max Ernst, for a short time her lover, tried to solve the puzzle, using Meretlein (“Baby Meret”) as his key: WOMAN IS A WHITE MARBLE SANDWICH, he announced in an invitation to Oppenheim’s first solo exhibition in 1936 in Basel. Meretlein, for her part, made an objet of a pair of the older artist’s wife’s white shoes, which she trussed with kitchen string and festooned with a pair of ruffled paper caps, placing them soles up on a chrome platter like the legs of a roasted fowl. She titled the bundle Ma gouvernante—My Nurse—Mein Kindermädchen. Marie-Berthe Aurenche—the French painter who in 1927, aged twenty-one, had made the disastrous decision to marry Ernst—subsequently destroyed this insoluble sign of her husband’s philandering.
Oppenheim, seven years younger than Aurenche, later commented that these were the years in which she slowly became aware of the degraded status of women: “I felt as if millennia of discrimination against women were resting on my shoulders, as if embodied in my feelings of inferiority.” This recognition resulted in a series of depressions. Living in exile at her family’s home in Switzerland during World War II, Oppenheim suffered a crisis and struggled to make any art at all. She briefly became a conservator, a safe profession for an unmarried girl who liked to work with her hands.
But we have overshot the moment in early 1936 when Oppenheim fortuitously wore a fur bracelet of her own design (ocelot atop metal tubing) to a meeting with Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at the Café de Flore. Picasso joked—referring to the unusual accessories—that you could cover anything with fur. Invited by André Breton to join a group show sometime later, Oppenheim recalled this conversation, purchasing a cup and saucer at Uniprix and appointing these, plus spoon, with leftover pieces of “Chinese gazelle.” She dubbed it Fur Cup. Breton revised: Luncheon in Fur, he proclaimed, a mash-up of Leopold von Sacher–Masoch’s novella about masochistic obsession and Édouard Manet’s painting of a sexy picnic. The Luncheon quickly caught on, developing an escape velocity that carried it to the Museum of Modern Art, where, as noted, it was cheaply snapped up by Alfred H. Barr Jr. (no dummy), rechristened Object, and featured over and over in the American press. “This Crazy World! Surrealism Is Proving Contagious,” an Illinoisan headline screamed, as if in confirmation of Walter Benjamin’s thesis regarding mechanical reproduction, published for the first time in French the same year Fur Cup was created.
Notoriety meant little to Oppenheim. She might well have been gratified by the current traveling retrospective of her work, thoughtful and completist as it is. (Now on view at the Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland, the show was co-curated by that institution’s director, Nina Zimmer; Natalie Dupêcher, associate curator of modern art at Houston’s Menil Collection; and Anne Umland, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.) But she had no desire to shock crowds of confused museumgoers and disliked being famous for a single assemblage she considered, at base, a friendly stunt. Yet in spite of the artist’s reservations, something intimately hers had gone into the furred table setting—which appears sensitive to the touch, as if frilled with thousands of fine antennae. Although often mistaken by drooling critics for a canny representation of someone’s hirsute vulva, Fur Cup is in fact a holobiont, a host and its many, many coexisting guests. It is plural, symbiotic, bristling with susceptibility. It is, in this sense, a guide to survival for those who know how to look (women, among others), hidden in plain sight.
“Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition” is on view at the Kunstmuseum Bern, Switzerland, through February 13, 2022; travels to the Menil Collection, Houston, March 25–September 18, 2022; Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 30, 2022–March 4, 2023.
Lucy Ives is most recently the author of Cosmogony: Stories (Soft Skull Press, 2021). Her third novel, Life Is Everywhere, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press next fall.
Date: November 1, 2021
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Artforum, November, 2021.
LUCY IVES GIVES SOPHIE CALLE A CALL
In a cross-continent phone conversation, one author traces the narrative artist’s evolution through her books
I was digging up lilies when someone I live with came outside and said: ‘Sophie Calle’. A cordless telephone was indicated. I realized, after a moment, that he meant that Sophie Calle – the ‘narrative artist’, a term she herself approves – was on the line. I ran to answer, as you do, I’ve come to understand, when Calle is calling.
It was a little after midnight in France. Calle wondered if, perhaps, I wanted to reconvene another time, given I was panting. I told her that I thought we should seize the moment. I was thinking of the missed connections in her work: a first date that takes place a year late in her autobiographical vignette ‘The Husband’, included in True Stories (2018); the lover whose agonizing failure to appear she relentlessly narrated and re-narrated for Exquisite Pain (2004). I worried that, if I were to delay now, I’d never hear from her again. It didn’t exactly make sense, given all Calle’s communications with me thus far had been prompt and direct. In response to my baroque self-introductory message, for instance, she’d replied with a phone number and just two words: ‘Call me?'
Over the next 90 minutes, Calle spoke to me about the origins of her practice and the enhanced agency her work has given her over the years. Critics sometimes reference Calle’s dislike of elaborate explanations of the motivations and meanings of her combined texts and images. A line from a 2002 interview with Fabian Stech published in Kunstforum International – ‘Let’s say I’m a conceptual shop girl, or shop-girl-ish conceptualist’ – may be cited. In a not-entirely-flattering catalogue essay for Calle’s 1991 exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris, writer and photographer Hervé Guibert described her, despite her bourgeois origins, as ‘a shop girl in search of impossible, eternal, perfect love’, and you wonder if she appropriated the sobriquet from him. In my own interactions with her, I found that Calle’s reputation for aplomb – or faux-naïveté, depending on whom you ask – was, in a sense, justified. Calle was not her own interpreter. She would reveal little to me beyond what I could already divine for myself, as a viewer and reader of her work. Yet, in another way, she shared more: her reflections were personal, revealing if not precisely autobiographical.
Many of Calle’s pieces – like early works by Vito Acconci and Adrian Piper, to whom she is occasionally compared – concern the act of following. Calle told me there was a pragmatic motivation for her pursuits in such well-known projects as Suite Vénitienne (Venetian Suite, 1983), for which she followed a stranger to Venice, documenting the stalking process in writing and photographs, and L’Homme au carnet (The Address Book, 1983), Calle’s portrait of a man generated through interviews with individuals included in an address book he had lost on the street. She told me: ‘When you do the work I do, you create situations that are emotional.’ Her aim, she said, in generating interpersonal dynamics that suited her artistic fiat, was to experience relationships in which she was ‘not dependent’. Of the duration of such relationships, she explained: ‘I decide. When it was over, it was just over.’ Somewhat paradoxically, the whole point was not to become involved. Calle accorded an intense attention to the men she pursued, surpassing the regard we tend to think is normal in a romantic encounter. Her gaze was possibly obsessive and definitely logistical: it involved the use of disguises, hidden cameras, international travel and numbing administrative labour in the form of endless phone calls and interviews.
I mention our conversation – which, in another act of mild control, Calle asked not be reproduced here – so that you know what sort of reader of her work I am: I choose to be unsuspicious, even as I admire what Calle’s most suspicious interpreters have discovered in her practice. My favourite among these, the art historian Yve-Alain Bois, wrote a lovely, if periphrastic, essay on Calle titled ‘Paper Tigress’ (2006) in October. ‘She undermines the foundations of her “person”,’ Bois writes. ‘She only gives shape to this mask in order to dispel it as an illusion.’ Linda Nochlin is less patient in ‘Sophie Calle: Word, Image and the End of Ekphrasis’, a previously unpublished essay collected in Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader (2015). She considers Calle’s hard-to-categorize displays at once ‘annoying and provocative, seductive and boring, dependent often on personal narrative but refusing emotional closeness’. Of course, after this ambivalent salvo, Nochlin expends several thousand words on a painstaking reading of ekphrastic tendencies in Calle’s texts and images. According to Nochlin, Ghosts (1989–91), for which Calle asked museum workers to describe missing or stolen canonical works of art by male artists, ‘unintentionally’ creates ‘an unconscious feminist response to the Great Art of the museum and its authorized discourses’. Like Bois, Nochlin finds Calle lacking: a mask instead of a person, an unconscious response instead of deliberate critique. Did Calle mean, in Ghosts, to indicate the troubling absence Nochlin herself identifies in her celebrated essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ 1971)? Or, does Ghosts, with its tendency to humorously minimize works by Pierre Bonnard and Johannes Vermeer – as one interviewee remarks of Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath (1936): ‘Nothing special. It’s a nude in the bath in the water’ – just coincidentally function as an inquiry into what we venerate by way of immensely valuable art? To extrapolate: is Calle in control?
The answer is yes. But the answer is, also, no. As a thunderstorm traverses the valley below my house and our connection begins to drop in and out, Calle tells me that the responses her prompts elicit – the phrases, feelings, points of view – are variously groomed, edited. For Transport-amoureux (2007), a work seldom discussed in the literature on Calle, the artist invited commuters at Jeanne d’Arc metro station in Toulouse to submit personal notes regarding missed encounters. These messages were then displayed on screens throughout the station. I mention to her that the listings website Craigslist once hosted these sorts of communications, and that I used to read them for entertainment and to try to make sense of the world, that 2007 was probably the peak of my engagement. I say I don’t really know what’s on Craigslist these days, although it seems to have changed a lot since 2018’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act in the US and the demise of the ‘Personals’ section. ‘Yes,’ Calle says. And here she tells me that it was necessary to moderate the Transport-amoureux messages, that someone read and approved them before they were broadcast.
This case of official oversight points to the way in which Calle’s work, even if possessed of a distinct lightness that some have received as naivety or dilettantism, co-exists warily with various legal and quasi-legal regulations related to property, privacy, obscenity and public space. Her writing deftly excavates discursive regions in which the personal becomes confused with authority. For her installation and publication Que faites-vous de vos morts? (What Do You Do with Your Dead?, 2019), she invited visitors to her 2017 exhibition Beau doublé, Monsieur le marquis! (A Fine Double, Your Honour!) at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature to reply to the titular question on the pages of a blank notebook. The handwritten responses were reproduced as received, without, as far as I can tell, editing or culling. Yet, this in itself is an editorial choice, since it leaves intact so much repetition and banality: over and over, writers (probably children) gleefully explain that they ‘eat’ their dead: ‘On les mange!’ Elsewhere, the predictable necrophiliac surfaces: ‘On les encule,’ which I won’t translate. More earnest respondents describe mnemonic haunting and magical thinking. Throughout, there is a striking lack of description of protocols for the disposal of dead bodies and of questions around the official regulation of physical decay – an absence that renders the state unsettlingly present. As with the mechanics of birth, Western society seems to prefer to acknowledge the logistics of death only when they are absolutely unavoidable, and then to forget them as quickly as possible afterwards.
More frequently discussed are emendations to Calle’s Suite Vénitienne. At the publisher’s request, the photographs of ‘Henri B.’ – himself a photographer and filmmaker who was scouting locations in Venice during the two weeks Calle stalked him in various disguises – were re-taken by the artist on a subsequent trip, using a male friend as stand-in. The year of Calle’s original visit to the city was also changed. These alterations were undertaken to prevent a possible lawsuit – to relocate, as it were, the project within a credibly fictional realm, even though the work’s force comes from the reader’s belief that they are encountering indexical traces of a real act of obsession, as arbitrary as it is actual. Calle did this for no reason, you might think, even as you marvel at the boldness it took and the odd and highly unstable interpersonal dynamics generated. Fortunately, our fantasy about Calle’s following ‘Henri B.’ is hardly punctured by the changes. Indeed, the editing may even serve to heighten our curiosity. If it’s not real, why does it feel so real? But you should know, as Calle told curator and editor Bice Curiger for ICA London’s ‘Talking Art’ series in 1993, that there is always a ‘lie’ in each of her works: ‘It is what I would have liked to find and didn’t.'
Far from stumbling upon a space of writing in which the factual and the imaginary lose their distinctness, Calle ended up here very much by desire and design. Critics often gesture towards the similarities with surrealist and situationist relationships to urban space and questions of chance when attempting to unpack Calle’s motivations and techniques. But, whereas doctrinaire surrealism compelled the viewer or reader to confront the hypocritical prudery of modern culture, and situationism sought to address the presence of authoritarian narratives in the built environment, Calle’s claim is not really on or about larger systems, except in that they happen to figure in her strategies as raw material. Calle aims at a more subtle human mechanism, one that goes by various names: attachment, repetition, obligation. I’d add another term you see less frequently in the writing on Calle: inheritance. Even as her project takes place in public, it is often about outing the functioning of domestic arrangements. How much, she asks, can we bear to understand about our own actions? Calle compels us to attend to what we have decided, willfully, to forget – whether this is obsessing about strangers, ignoring our own mortality, mindlessly venerating political monuments or works of art, using a payphone, deciding what to eat on a given day or whom to marry, and on and on.
When Calle tells me that her overarching goal is ‘to decide’, and thereby control, her interactions, I understand that it is her aim to detach herself from a commonplace emotional life, one that often goes un-thought. Although her work diverges from the high conceptualism of the 1960s and ’70s – in that it does not focus exclusively on the act of art-making or the artwork’s medium, its institutional context or related economies – it does comment reflexively on the origins of narrative in everyday life. The unconsidered self, in possession of a supposedly natural story, is lost in Calle’s carefully staged endeavours, but an art object is gained. For Calle, this object is usually a book.
While Calle has produced fine, limited editions – including La Fille du docteur (The Doctor’s Daughter, 1991), a box enclosing black and white photographs documenting her 1979 performance The Striptease together with facsimiles of congratulatory cards sent to her parents after her birth – most of her publications are more attainable. Offered in French by Actes Sud and in English by Thames & Hudson and Siglio Press, Calle’s artist books are mass-produced yet beautifully designed, printed and bound in hardcover, almost always with a petite trim size that suggests portability as well as intimacy, an uncanny hominess. There is, additionally, an air of the children’s story, travel guide, devotional text or novelty book about them, a jumble of genres and contexts that somehow coalesce into a uniquely Calleian style, as maniacally energetic as it is refined.
As Calle explained to Gagosian director Louise Neri in Interview in 2009, she has been accused of putting ‘open books on the walls’ with her exhibitions of images and texts, perversely privileging reading in settings normally associated with looking. She tells me that creating sensual experience is her primary goal as an artist. Although, as she also tells me, she often thinks about whether something will work ‘for the wall’, she seems less a devotee of galleries than of Stéphane Mallarmé’s notion that all the world is destined to end up in a book, which for Calle is a multivalent, carnal location. For her most recent English-language publication, The Hotel (2021), this has meant gilt edging, full-bleed photographic images with a painterly lushness and a witty, cloth-bound cover reproducing three vintage wallpaper patterns – amounting to a modern-day reliquary. You do not read The Hotel: you step into it, lie down, feel and smell the personal items of the unwitting guests Calle, posing as a maid in 1981, documented with her camera and daily writing.
With Calle, it is less a question of representation of a real world via false media, than of a symmetry between our experience and her creations that can feel unaccountable and unnerving, for she offers something more nuanced than objective truth. Hers is a painstakingly strategic literature that poses ceaselessly as what has already been written, as that which belongs to the agency and fantasies of others, as what was discarded and only accidentally found, in which ‘I’ is a mystery to be filled in by strangers. Near the end of our conversation, I gathered my courage and attempted a meagre joke. ‘You’re a very lucky person,’ I told Calle, and she laughed. I was ludicrously proud of myself, as if I were the first writer to successfully describe her.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 223 with the headline ‘The World in a Book’
Date: November 1, 2021
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, November, 2021.
OF LIGHT AND FOLDS
On Etel Adnan's Hybrid Practice
Etel Adnan’s contribution to the 2015 Istanbul Biennale was an artist’s book titled Family Memoirs on the End of the Ottoman Empire. This accordion-fold work contains the artist’s handwritten recollections, in Turkish and English, concerning her family and the catastrophic conflicts of the decade before her birth in 1925. As the text mentions politically sensitive material—social ties between Turkish and Armenian families before the 1915–17 Armenian-Assyrian-Greek Genocide—what had originally been foreseen as an accompanying wall text was shrunk down to a more discreet card one could read while viewing the turning of the pages. At the Biennale, a white-gloved assistant seated at a table silently lifted, displayed, and shifted the pages for visitors.
Family Memoirs on the End of the Ottoman Empire is but one example of Adnan’s sensitivity to the ways in which we look, read, and remember—a sensitivity that inflects her larger hybrid art-and-writing practice. In this particular institutional and national context, the fold took on new meaning, as a site that at once concealed and revealed, that demanded intimate, patient reading and looking from those who chose to approach the table, even as it intensified more broadly resonant connections between everyday life and the centenary of the genocide, still unacknowledged by the Turkish government.
Adnan, who was born in Beirut to a Syrian father and Greek mother, began working as a Californian in the late 1950s. After studying literature and philosophy at the École des Lettres in Beirut, the Sorbonne, the University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard, she became a professor at Dominican College of San Rafael in 1958, teaching aesthetics and the philosophy of art. There, a colleague encouraged her to revisit a childhood curiosity—painting—in spite of the fact that Adnan’s mother had warned her that she was “too clumsy.” (“And you believed her?” countered the colleague, artist Ann O’Hanlon.)
Adnan began painting, wrote poetry in English against the war in Vietnam, and undertook an exploration of various media that would lead her to pursue tapestry-making and ceramics, filmmaking, fiction, playwriting, and journalism. Yet, to call Adnan’s path a “career” seems inaccurate: the term conversation is more apt. This conversation encompasses mountains, especially Mount Tamalpais, which she painted daily while residing in Sausalito, where it was visible from a window in her home; cities; wars; space exploration; the worlds of plants and animals; even the nature of color itself, in all its insistence, violence, and richness—and, of course, books.
THE NAME FOR THE ARTIST’S BOOK-FORM favored by Adnan has a somewhat ignominious source: in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Leporello, the lothario’s right-hand man, reads out a list of his master’s amorous conquests. Famously, he sings, “My dear lady, this is a list of the beauties my master has loved; a list which I have compiled; observe and read along with me.” The leporello—an accordion-style binding with hard covers on either end—is so named for its resemblance to that character’s apparently endless list. With pages formed by a single folded sheet, the leporello can be conveniently packed up, its front cover like the top of a box. Yet one might unfold a long leporello to find that it crosses the entire floor of a room. A shorter leporello will stand nicely on a table top, like a small screen or series of walls, its zigzag pages and stiff covers acting as a sort of paper architecture.
Adnan’s interrelated roles as poet and painter meet in these hybrid visual spaces that un-scroll in time. She makes use of blank accordion style books imported from Japan. The covers on either end of the book are wrapped with fabric by the manufacturer; sometimes the fabric is patterned or bears a pasted-on paper label. Adnan occasionally paints over the pattern or inscribes the title of the leporello on the label; otherwise, she does not alter the books before filling their pages. Of her decision to engage with this sort of prefabricated notebook, Adnan writes:
I remember how carefully I used to wash my hands, with what care and apprehension I was choosing a particular scroll, with what interest I was looking at the paper, usually Japanese handmade paper or rice paper made in Kyoto, because everything had to be in tune, the size, the format, the text, the colors, the texture of these colors, the light outside, my own availability; it was each time like entering into a religion for a believer, like going for a climb, for an alpinist, as if painting in this case was also a sacred sport, a battle both spiritual and physical, as well as a game of chance.
It is interesting to read Adnan’s use of the term “scroll” here. Although the pages of the leporello arrive already pleated, Adnan is clearly of a mind to emphasize their continuity rather than their possible status as a series of discrete rectangular planes, divided into units by line-like folds. At times, she continues handwriting or drawing, ignoring the folds altogether and ending only when she has filled the entire book. The tactility of the paper is as important as this quality of expansiveness. In mentioning her practice of adjusting her own “availability” to her materials and environment, Adnan’s remarks are reminiscent of those made by the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki in his 1933 essay, a favorite of students of design, In Praise of Shadows. Tanizaki notes, “Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in to envelop it gently.” He observes that Japanese paper is soundless when agitated and “pliant to the touch.” This tendency to absorb and bend is at once inviting and challenging. Adnan says that to paint and write on “these long horizontal scrolls” is akin to the adoption of a system of belief or an encounter with a landscape; it is a “sacred sport,” a matter neither purely of the spirit nor of the body. Chance, presumably because of the liquid nature of ink as well as the undulating surface of the page, enters into this encounter as well. Materials, Adnan maintains, “become in a way a co-author of one’s work.”
The leporellos entail a sense of rhythm, of variation and call and response. Adnan works with her own improvisational gestures, refusing the notion of the mistake in favor of the happy error. In her essay “The Unfolding of an Artist’s Book,” from which I draw the remarks above, first published in 1998 in the journal Discourse, she writes, “The mind never rests on these scrolls as it moves back and forth on them as a scanner.” She maintains that the books “awake[n] . . . memory images, or memories of the nomadic essence of the spirit.” In these volumes, she is able to mingle handwritten text, drawings, and watercolors without engaging in acts of “illustration.” Rather, she is a translator: “Written words and the visual text mirror each other and form a new entity which combines them both.” In addition, Adnan’s interactions with folding books reveal to her the interpretative nature of perception itself: “Any thought that we may think to be primary, primordial, spontaneous is already an interpretation of something which precedes it.”
Also in her 1998 essay, Adnan tells the story of her friendship with an American artist and war veteran, Rick Barton. Adnan calls her exchange with Barton “a mystic transfer, a gesture in the logic of Being, something that came from a place preceding him and that had to go, to keep going.” When Adnan first met Barton in San Francisco, he was surviving on very little money, a pension from his service, and frequenting cafés in order to have a space to work that was not the small rented room where he lived. He was apparently a habitual user of opium and an avid reader, someone who devoted his life to small ink drawing —fragmentary portraits of café-goers—that he made in leporellos. Barton shared his work with Adnan and in the early 1960s presented her with a leporello he had begun to illustrate with faces and which she was meant to finish. Thus began the leporello chapter in Adnan’s devotion to the dialogue between language and pictures.
ALTHOUGH, AS I HAVE NOTED, ADNAN BEGAN painting in the 1960s, her work was not broadly recognized in visual art circles until 2012, when curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev included her in Documenta 13. Later, Adnan’s participation in the 2014 Whitney Biennial brought even wider acclaim. Here, Stuart Comer curated a floor devoted to intermedia artworks and other practices exploring the relationship between print and visual art, including several of Adnan’s leporellos. For serious readers of Anglophone and Francophone poetry, Adnan was already a figure of renown who had published groundbreaking work in multiple genres in the late 1970s and ’80s. I myself began reading her poetry as a college student in 2002 or so and was astonished, twelve years later, visiting the Whitney, to learn that she was also considered a major painter and creator of artist’s books.
Literary writing and visual works inform one another and interpenetrate in Adnan’s practice. Adnan has, for example, always applied oil pigments straight from the tube using a palette knife, itself not unlike a broad pen nib. And, as the critic Kaelen Wilson-Goldie has observed, Adnan’s preferred canvases are “small, intimate, on the scale of a book.” The notion of writing hovers over Adnan’s painting practice, in which she makes her pieces, as Wilson-Goldie writes, using a semi literary method—“in a single sitting, working fast on a flat table, never on the wall or at an easel.” Meanwhile, Adnan’s writing partakes of the painterly; her poems are vivified with references to “red waters,” the “pleated horizon,” “shined surfaces,” and the light and heat of many colored suns, matter and landscapes that tremble on the verge of transformation into vivid two-dimensional images but which refuse to be flattened.
In Adnan’s more painterly leporellos, the zigzag surface is crammed full with seductive lines, sometimes in black ink only and at other times involving rich washes of color. A frequent subject is the artist’s desk, where potted flowering plants, vessels containing fruits, books, jars of ink, and writing implements predominate, as in 1989’s Sausalito, California, and the multiple “Inkpots” books of 2015. If the work in question was created in California, as with Spring (2003), a leporello depicting a series of flowerpots, the humped triangle of Mt. Tamalpais, with its distinct ridges, may be present in the background. The objects, plants, and landscapes of Adnan’s figurative scrolls all have a quiet, uncannily lifelike quality, as if they were gazing back at the artist, affirming her presence. The organization of these familiar items across folds additionally gives the leporello a nearly linguistic sort of revelatory energy, begging to be read from left to right when stretched; the work’s planes seem to cry out, “And then! And then! And then!” Or, perhaps, “Here! Here! Here!”
Elsewhere, Adnan arranges symbols and geometric shapes in patterns that resemble illuminated poetry without ever fully entering the semantic realm; these leporellos have a somewhat more recessed, erudite quality. One wants to linger over them, pausing on each character of the partly invented yet nearly intelligible hybrid alphabet or syllabary Adnan has devised for the occasion of a given artwork, attempting to read it aloud. Such books include Signes (2015) and Signs (2018), in which black “O”s, “X”s, crosses, and dots flirt with shapes approximating Greek letters, as well as Numbers, Signs and Squares (2015), in which numbers in Arabic dance with Greek letters and a variety of bright watercolor squares.
And there are the scrolls containing hand-copied poems written by friends and admired poets in Arabic, English, and French. (Among the American poets so treated are Barbara Guest, Lyn Hejinian, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.) These pieces are often the most colorful and various, with bright passages in the shapes of hillsides or geometric forms and loose lines, as with Adonis (1984). Adnan’s partner, artist and publisher Simone Fattal, has written in the 2002 essay “On Perception: Etel Adnan’s Visual Art” that Adnan’s leporellos of illuminated poetry are especially poignant and urgent, as their words were “seen by Adnan twice, once as text and once as image.” Adnan, who grew up speaking Arabic but never learned to write the language in an academic context, effects a quiet “revolution in Arabic calligraphy,” Fattal maintains, by means of her highly personal act of recopying by hand.
“I WRITE WHAT I SEE; I paint what I am,” Adnan wrote in her 1986 essayistic daybook, Journey to Mount Tamalpais, which contains an account of her painting practice. “To each place, there is a counter place,” she notes. This pronouncement leads to a comparison of the mountain in the title with Yosemite Valley, height contrasted with depth, aridity with greenness. Elsewhere in the piece, Adnan observes, “I feel trapped in this universe and think of what an anti-universe could mean, which is still a universe; there is no way out.” In a 2009 interview published in Bidoun, she told novelist Lynne Tillman that “I don’t lie when I write.” Adnan explains: “Something happens, and I must discover it. Writing forces one to go to the bitter end of what one thinks.” If there is something propulsive and urgent about the act of writing for Adnan, then perhaps painting provides a more restorative relationship to the line.
Images bear tremendous significance in Adnan’s novels and poetry, whether they serve as subjects and plot devices, or are incorporated into her sentences and lines as annotations in the form of glyphs. Adnan opens Sitt Marie Rose, her 1978 novel inspired by the kidnapping and murder of Marie Rose Boulos, a Lebanese teacher and pro-Palestinian activist, with a meditation on images. An unnamed female narrator is spending time with a wealthy man who shows her his latest amateur Super 8 film of a hunting trip in Syria and southeastern Turkey. The violence romanticized by these soft, grainy images soon spills over, in raw unmediated form, into the streets of Beirut with the commencement of the Lebanese Civil War.
Elsewhere, in what is perhaps her most brilliant work of poetry, The Arab Apocalypse (1989), Adnan’s linguistic writing transmogrifies into ink-drawn symbols—some legible, like suns, some more ambiguous, suggesting color-based notations—which intervene in otherwise relatively orderly lines of roman typeface. In this book of fifty-nine poems, which Adnan wrote at the beginning of the Civil War that raged from 1975 to 1990, there is a need for a form that engages the senses differently from written language and that can express her interrogation of conflict, whether internecine or civilizational. But by the time of this book’s publication Adnan had already been meditating on the book-form for several decades.
“THE ENVIRONMENT WAS MY LIFE,” Adnan said of her Beirut childhood in an interview with poet Lisa Robertson published in BOMB in 2014. In this conversation, Adnan speaks of the “great event” of light, that she saw the light in her sunny and sometimes partisan birth city as “a being on its own,” something to look at as well as to inhabit. The same might be said of the folds of her leporellos. She has written that these folds make possible “combinations of the same reality, the birth of different realities out of a single one.” The fold’s interior, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote in 1988, is a space in which two planes approach each other until they meet in a brief hinge in which they become indistinguishable. There is no content in this hinge, save for the joining of the two planes; a fold is thus a no-man’s-land, in the most hopeful sense of that expression. A fold is utopian. It cannot be claimed for other use. (Try and you will end up with two torn pages and nothing where your fold was!)
But the utopia of the fold in Adnan’s work is not merely to be found in the physical manipulations of the page. It exists in the movement of the palette knife lavishing paint on canvas and in the intensity of the linguistic image in a line of poetry, or in the turn indicated by a comma in a sentence. For those of us who feel “trapped in this universe,” Adnan offers not so much an escape as a key to the unlimited potential inherent in the apparently humble present. “I see infinite distances between any point and another,” she writes in “Sea,” a long prose poem published in 2012. “That’s why time has to be eternal.” Adnan’s artist’s books, her leporellos, dip into the seam of the fold, a shady counter-place rich with thinking. They emerge again to get on with the story, a tale that now seems unending, for what is an ending, anyway, if not another fold?
Date: August 10, 2021
Publisher: Art in America
Format: Print, Web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Art in America, July & August, 2021.
INSERT AWE SOMEWHERE
How Rachel Harrison’s Sculptures Reframe Art History
One of the earliest sculptures by the artist Rachel Harrison I have seen is 20 × 24″ (for CDL), created in 1999. It is not easy to describe this work, so bear with me for a moment, as this will take some doing. It is a wall-hung structure composed of wood, polystyrene, cement, acrylic, and a color photograph. The photo, in a cherry-red frame, shows Gustave Courbet’s 1866 The Origin of the World, along with some people who are standing nearby. It appears to be a view of Courbet’s well-known vulva painting as exhibited in the Musée d’Orsay in the late 1990s (the work has since been rehung in a different gallery there). Affixed to the front of Harrison’s assemblage is a board that reads, in a white scrawl atop a violet field, $50.00 bet. It is not particularly easy to see the photograph—or the Courbet itself, therefore. The framed picture is nestled into the polystyrene construction, shielded by the frontal announcement of the low-stakes wager; the photograph sits on a sort of shelf that seems to have been designed for it. In this sense, the photograph is about as framed as something can be, without being entirely hidden. There’s so much going on here—white acrylic mixed with cement slathered everywhere in a way that recalls the uneven texture of insulation, odd rectangular planes, a small painting that is also a weird hand-drawn sign with a narrative about a gamble (between or among whom, and what for?)—that one might even miss the photograph of the masterpiece.
But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we don’t. Rather, we home in, intrigued and attentive, and walk around to the left side of 20 × 24″ (for CDL) to have a closer look. In the snapshot three individuals huddle before a neighboring Courbet canvas, possibly Nude Woman with a Dog (1868). Nude Woman is not Courbet’s highest achievement, and anyway these people are less important. What we fixate on in Harrison’s photograph is a male figure, his back to us, who stands transfixed before The Origin of the World. He wears a black leather jacket, dark hair closely cropped. We cannot see his face, but we have the impression that his gaze is directed right into the cleft of Courbet’s subject. One could imagine his jaw slack, mouth arranged in a silent “Wow.” He’s like an arrow, pointing, and we don’t quite know whether to stare at the back of his head or to look at (into?) the infamous work of art.
What was that fifty-dollar bet about, again—and who is “CDL”? Is this some sort of “made you look” situation? A different sort of in-joke? Or, are we meant to recognize ourselves in the midst of a multigenerational act of transmission of styles of looking, i.e., tradition? And is there a critical message related to the “male gaze”? It occurs to us, too, that with its frame, the Courbet is almost the right size to be the referent of the title of the sculpture. We’re sure for a moment that we’ve solved the matter of the title, if not the elaborate framing/enwombing of the photograph. But not quite—the measurements are slightly off—that’s not it, either.
The disorientation 20 × 24″ (for CDL) engenders is thus spatial, material, linguistic, and also temporal, given the involvement of the history of Western art. Made three years after Harrison’s first solo exhibition, this sculpture has many of the hallmarks of her later practice, from the materials selected to the strategies deployed: use of polystyrene slabs and a liberal application of paint roughened with cement; a construction whose multiple sides invite multiple viewing positions, along with possibly contradictory readings; plays on language and history that keep the viewer guessing; the inclusion of manufactured objects the sculpture seems to grip, shelter, proffer, embrace; a title that feels autonomous from the object and thus like a work in itself; a joke about human posture and/or sex, which is to say, a universal style of humor.
By including the anonymous snapshot of a young man whose fashion choices are easy to mock and who seems, himself, to have been transformed into a sculpture by the power of Courbet’s realism, before becoming Harrison’s own gawking readymade, the artist also indicates a series of conventions for the viewing and display of art, after the advent of postmodernism. 1. Stand before painting. 2. Obtain photographic reproduction. 3. Insert awe somewhere. But the young man Harrison’s photograph captures is in fact an exception to this theory of the floating signifier: Whereas he would seem to have come to the museum with the expectation of viewing “high art,” here, with The Origin of the World, he has landed on a realist painting that offers him an image that interests him differently, I think it’s fair to say. All he has to do is look, no elaborate rationale or hushed discourse (see trio next door at Nude Woman with a Dog) necessary. Thus, too, the odd compliance of this viewer’s body. The museum has surprised him by permitting him to stare at something he genuinely wants to see.
Harrison has a point. A funny one, at that. And no doubt Harrison wouldn’t mind if the viewer of 20 × 24″ (for CDL) thought a little, too, about the strange history of that particular nineteenth-century canvas, which, conceived as bespoke porn and probably itself painted from a photograph, originally hung in an opulent bathroom and was concealed by a velvet curtain, making its way, as it changed hands, into a series of display boxes with false fronts showing other paintings; to be owned, after the Second World War, by a famous psychoanalyst, before being quietly donated to the Musée d’Orsay by the famous psychoanalyst’s widow, who had at one time been a movie star.
The multiple stagings and framings of The Origin by its commissioner and later owners underscore both the frank obscenity of the painting and the need for props (including its grandiose title) to make it into an acceptable work of art. The painting’s concealment and, one assumes, performative unveiling among cronies, must have accorded it additional value, such that it transcended its possible status as a gynecological artifact. Harrison’s staging, on the other hand, takes the painting right back to this basic function, in part by showing how Courbet’s mercenary realism is of a part (pun intended) with contemporary commercial images. Her readymade guy knows well how to look at this shot, I mean, canvas.
In light of the above, it is not unusual for critics and scholars to emphasize the postmodern aspects of Harrison’s sculpture. Her work is ambiguous, multi-planar, and comprises objects and references that bounce from high to low, that require some technical prowess for their execution or that require none at all (i.e., are readymade), that are conceptually rigorous (require “reading”) or that address popular culture plainly and directly (“entertain”). There are some carnival beads or a photograph of Leonardo DiCaprio. There is a reference to Jeff Koons or Hanne Darboven. There is a trail of Styrofoam peanuts leading from the feet of a mannequin as well as ropes, garbage bags, food, taxidermied chickens, and accomplished drawings of Amy Winehouse that manage to eulogize the singer even as, in one fell colored-pencil swoop, they mock the economies of line favored by Willem de Kooning, along with two of de Kooning’s best-compensated imitators, Richard Prince and George Condo. As John Kelsey, one of Harrison’s most eloquent interpreters, puts it: “There is a point beyond which sculptural properties of material, form, and structure disperse into more hysterical outbreaks of style and vernacular reference, and this is the very point around which the best Harrisons tend to both blossom and congeal.” There’s also Harrison’s tendency to establish her constructions (what Kelsey calls her “complexes”) using polystyrene, best known for its use in buoyant disposable items: coffee cups, take-out containers. It’s the plastic we have liked to expand into foam, and also to condense into a high-impact variety as well as the sparkling cases that once contained everybody’s compact discs. While not as ubiquitous as polyethylene (grocery bags), polystyrene is a shape-shifter. Its refusal to degrade is matched by its receptivity, in its foam state, to carving, cutting, pressure.
I have never attempted to knock over a statue by Rachel Harrison, but given that polystyrene is almost always included in her materials lists—along with wild cards like “plastic pastry,” “latex Dick Cheney mask,” “La Morena salsa can,” and “Slim Jim display rack”—I’ve wondered if there would be a crash or, perhaps, a bounce. Maybe a soft tapping sound, a click or rustle. There would, of course, be a lot of other sounds after this, and I wouldn’t recommend the experiment. Yet, for all their incorporation of disparate materials, some of which originate in the 99-cent store, the Halloween center, the supermarket, Goodwill, Home Depot, and, one assumes, on Craigslist and eBay, Harrison’s works—even as they twist away from the viewer, sheltering a peculiar thing—do not seem dense. Their volume, in other words, does not connote or entail mass.
But Harrison’s refusal of monumentality and even wholeness has another effect. If we follow various semantic trails around and into the surfaces and planes of a Rachel Harrison like 20 × 24″ (for CDL) we discover that our inability to land on a single reading feels, paradoxically, not like the “correct” reading of the piece, not something verifiable, but rather a process that actually and unavoidably occurs. The title is specific, yet it’s baggy, seemingly intentionally so. The frontal sign and various white facades distract us further. This is to say that Harrison’s material and discursive frames get in the way, they compete and jostle; they threaten to become representational. They want to be figures, too. But at the same time, at the center of this flurry of formal and semantic elements threatening to become near-figures, is a clear and direct reflection on spectatorship and the role of realist representational styles, a nicely staged understatement: A guy sees something he likes. It’s this cutting and clever element of Harrison’s work, her focus on vernacular realism and pursuant ways of looking—an interest somewhat poorly acknowledged in previous writing on her sculpture and one I find to be a key element in her strategies of construction—that I would like to focus on for the remainder of my essay.
THE FOREVER POSTWAR
Harrison’s work is often compared with that of Robert Rauschenberg, whose Combines offer a visual if not methodological analogy. Harrison does not shy away from this association and even seems to encourage it, while, at the same time cultivating other conversations and confrontations: with the art of Henry Moore, for example, whose public sculpture Three Forms Vertebrae (Dallas Piece), 1978–79, she boldly augmented in 2013 in a not-entirely-complimentary fashion, with a gigantic hot-pink arrow pointing down at Moore’s work in front of Dallas City Hall (Moore to the Point). There is also the inevitable tie to Duchamp, due to the many manufactured objects she employs. We might see Louise Nevelson in Harrison’s slabs, as well.
I’m limiting myself to earlier twentieth-century references here—avoiding nods to relevant contemporary artists like Isa Genzken and the late Mike Kelley, or to Harrison’s New York–based contemporaries like Nicole Eisenman and Darren Bader—because although it can be difficult to pin down the meaning of single pieces by Harrison, there is a larger gambit at stake, one related, it seems to me, to the shifting fate of figuration in American art after the Second World War. The tension of the pre- and early postwar scene centered on the expression of political commitments in representational art, particularly through figuration and caricature in a social realist mode. Although Clement Greenberg’s canonical “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” dates from 1939, its effects reverberated on the other side of the international conflagration, as a confluence of wealth and need for visual symbols of the US’s newfound soft (as well as hard) power prevailed upon a generation of artists, mostly based in New York. The short version of this story, always a risky version to tell, is that the notion of representing “social issues” by means of a direct, figurative depiction, as in the socially engaged figurative styles of Thomas Hart Benton, Jacob Lawrence, and Ben Shahn, was outpaced by an elite leftism, what Greenberg had hinted at in his essay as formally pure “Athene,” the aesthetic heights of complex, imperial, urbane civilization—that which was diametrically opposed to kitsch, or pandering art for the masses. Abstract Expressionism was the alleged savior. Although it was perhaps difficult to see the anthropomorphic face of god in a painting by Jackson Pollock, one could (and was encouraged by the contemporary press to) see the face of some sort of conceptual deity, perhaps one corresponding to the dreadful instrumentalization of quantum mechanics.
I often consider this early Cold War period of transition in relation to Rachel Harrison’s work. Her use of artfully scrubbed-on fields of paint on her polystyrene sculptures recalls the gradations of Mark Rothko, Pollock’s early semi-figurative canvases, or gestures made by a lesser-known contemporary, Byron Browne, in their variety. We see this in the sculptures featured in her exhibitions “If I Did It” (2007) and “The Help” (2012), both at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, and with even more pronounced clarity in the particolored mass that supports a prepubescent mannequin, nude save for a cape and an Abraham Lincoln mask worn on the back of their head with sunglasses, in Alexander the Great (2007). Alexander’s boulder is at once as slight as a kernel of popcorn and as symbolically loaded as Venus’s foam or a sun-burnished cloud rendered by Caspar David Friedrich, propping up as it does a two-faced imperial figure. Harrison’s application of paint here is a citation of a moment when artists on the left seemed to reject authoritarianism in the same breath as Communism, the depiction of presidents along with the depiction of heroic workers and immigrants. Although the rejection of figurative realism was far from universal and was in short order interrupted by the arrival of Pop, the fields of color and drops of paint the abstractionists favored made a bid for visceral excitements beyond language, even as they were blandly internationalist, covertly nationalistic, and, eventually, very selling. In spite of what Greenberg argued, they were a new mass ornament. What, after all, as Harrison’s Alexander seems to argue, looks kitschier today than a canvas by Pollock?
Harrison’s painting practice—for we should probably call it that, as she is a painter as well as a sculptor in many of her works—recalls this demise of social realist figurative styles, one that was apparently necessary for Americans to become world-class artists. Yet Harrison also resuscitates figuration in a social mode, often by way of photographs, drawings, and readymades. The immature figure in Alexander the Great, rising all too gamely out of its massive harlequin packing-peanut—as if in tribute to Amazon Prime (b. 2005)—is not an answer to any sort of question about the failure of figuration. Rather, the work is a series of store-bought (thrifted? stolen?) commercial readymades. It is a testament to the actual overwhelming and, let’s face it, uninterrupted success of figuration as a representational mode in the US: it is a stand-in for a stripped Barbie or Spiderman figurine, combined with a countenance on our money. Nothing, nothing at all has been worked out over the past seventy years by artists, and there isn’t really any “art world” of any significance, just proxy wars and manufacturing. Labor’s power ends at the feet of this plastic adolescent. Still, given the idiotic symmetry of its face and charming, guileless offer of a Jeff Gordon–themed bucket of paint rollers (?), it is hard not to laugh.
Sliding into this storm of references and points of view (themselves frequently readymade) are the directness and vividness of many of Harrison’s titles, which frequently cite contemporary events, neologisms, public figures. I have already mentioned the O.J. Simpson autobiography citation (If I Did It), which does double duty as a counterfactual disavowal of authorship (“What, me, make art?”). The sculptures in “If I Did It” are in turn named for male celebrities: Fats Domino, Al Gore, Johnny Depp. They incorporate slightly unkind pieces of humor—a can of “Slim Fast,” a mercury-filled thermostat, an oversize pirate hoop earring (respectively)—such that each pillar or stack of blocks wears its designated readymade like an epithet. The oddly shaped constructions are handily roped into portraiture through the addition of names and accessories. Indeed, “If I Did It” seems to mock the very notion of pure abstraction. Although I like to think of Harrison coming upon the “identities” of the sculptures accidentally—via some fun pareidolic coincidence, a fortuitous squint of the eye—it seems more likely that she is deliberately recoding Ab Ex as Pop drag.
Harrison’s first solo show, in 1996 at Arena Gallery in Brooklyn, had a memorable, if nearly un-memorizable, name: “Should home windows or shutters be required to withstand a direct hit from an eight-foot-long two-by-four shot from a cannon at 34 miles an hour, without creating a hole big enough to let through a three-inch sphere?” This question was appropriated from an article in the New York Times on housing codes. Later, in 2004, Harrison culled another exhibition title from the press, “Posh Floored as Ali G Tackles Becks.” The former points up the bizarre results of objectivity as a rhetorical mode, while the latter calls our attention to an odd pun (“floored”) that springs to life in the midst of several assumed identities. And it’s not just these linguistic oddities from the recycling bin or browser history: Harrison likes literature, too. For a 2007 group of photographs, she made use of the title of Charles Darwin’s diary, The Voyage of the Beagle; a 2009 survey at Bard College’s Hessel Museum of Art was titled “Consider the Lobster,” after the essay by novelist David Foster Wallace. While I personally prefer the 1996 and 2004 titles, I’m not beyond seeing that the name of Darwin’s boat was fairly strange, while the name of Wallace’s essay was pretty normal (for someone reputed to be a genius). This language is decontextualized, pushed to a point of abstraction, then reconfigured, tied to new images and forms; as a result of this process it does, I have to say, become more insistent.
The title of the 1999 work that I mentioned at the outset of this essay acts as an unpredictable frame, one that both encloses the sculpture and gets in the way of its interpretation. I think of Harrison’s titles as shoring up the ambivalent space of figuration in her works and, by turns, getting stuck in it. They remind me of Marcel Duchamp’s explanation of what he learned from the poet, playwright, and novelist Raymond Roussel, i.e., that “everything can be done, especially when you describe it in words, and anything can be invented.” Duchamp credited the poet with the novel conceptual turn in his work, circa 1911 and 1912, a discovery of language’s own hermetic realities and worlds. Harrison’s titles can function in this way, as semiautonomous processes of signification, sometimes pointing back to phenomenal reality, culture, and history, sometimes glossing the object or installation they name, but never fully relinquishing their status as independent figures. If they are frames, they are competitive ones. They seem, however humorously or intelligently, to acknowledge a prohibition on what Duchamp called “Cartesianism,” a method of reasoning from innate ideas and first principles, leading to real truths about the real world. But unlike Duchamp’s spectacular leveraging of language as space and time, Harrison’s titling (along with her appropriation) is more casual, more familiar, more willing to be demoralized by contemporary reality and/or direct about it, and therefore more social, if not overtly political. It may even be that her versioning of the category of kitsch aims at solving Greenberg’s quandary, reactivating the “and” in the title of his 1939 essay to read not “versus” but “as.”
THE ACT OF LOOKING
If Harrison is a painter, a shopper (or collector), and, as I would argue, a skillful writer, then she is a photographer, too. Given the ubiquity of images online and the pursuant erasure of medial distinctions, along with the variety of strategies used by those who now identify as photographers, perhaps it is less important to emphasize the act of “taking” a photo than it is to note the act of situating—framing or, as Harrison’s structures can seem to do, enfolding, grasping—and circulating one. In any case, Harrison is sometimes the active camerawoman, as, possibly, for 20 × 24″ (for CDL) and as for her 2001 installation, Perth Amboy, for which she photographed individuals who had come to view an image of the Virgin Mary that had appeared on the glass of a window in a private home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Harrison often hangs framed images of celebrities on her polystyrene steles or builds pictures and video into a given piece. Perth Amboy, however, sets photograph and sculpture apart, in part by means of a cardboard maze. The twenty-one photographs in Perth Amboy, many taken from outside the house to capture views of hands on the blessed window, hang on the gallery walls. At the center of the room, tall pieces of cardboard are arranged and folded in such a way that they stand freely, swaying sometimes. They might well be knocked over by visitors. (“Don’t worry,” the artist seems to be saying, “it’s not like it’s going shatter.”) In the maze, Harrison sets up encounters between essentializing toys, tchotchkes, and figurines—Barbie’s “friend” Becky, who uses a wheelchair; a ceramic “Asian” figure; a “Native American” head—and tiny works of art. The anthropomorphic items are arranged in such a way that they seem to gaze appreciatively and obediently at their assigned objects of contemplation, miniature sculptures and paintings. Thus, Harrison, as an artist who is often engaged in staging occasions for looking at photographs, calls our attention to the fact that photographs can be framed by objects and elaborate physical structures, and can frame those objects and structures, in turn. Her use of photography, much like her use of other figurative modes, is ambivalent, a switching station for the currents of meaning that flow through her constructions, reversing direction and colliding from time to time—avoiding realism’s one-way street, while at the same time addressing the fact that viewers are often conditioned to seek realist representation.
Perth Amboy has appeared in a number of institutional settings; like many of Harrison’s installations, it is intended to be meaningfully iterated, changing form depending on its context. It is among the most generous of Harrison’s creations. When Perth Amboy was installed at the Museum of Modern Art in 2016, I took a group of undergraduate writing students to see it, and I have seldom experienced such a strong collective response to a museum visit: the students were enthralled by the photographs of pilgrims’ hands and faces. They also lingered in the cardboard maze, making notes on the various readymades staged there. The students considered these scenes of fake absorption intently. They weighed the feeling of the looking described here against the looking they themselves were doing in relation to the miraculous site of Perth Amboy, where, as they understood, devout people had congregated to touch a holy image. They told me that they enjoyed the way in which the cardboard kept some parts of the room hidden, such that one could not grasp its contents in a single glance. The installation seemed, in some way, to liberate them to be completely focused on their own thoughts and observations. It was also acting, therefore, as a consideration of a possible relationship between privacy and collectivity, two concepts that are usually opposed. The installation seemed to pose a question about the location of the so-called mass ornament: Is it with “them” (the visitors to a miraculous image of the Virgin), or with “us,” we who ponder unpleasant miniatures that in turn ponder bad art? In other words, is the face of Mary kitsch or is the image of museum spectatorship kitsch—or, are these two images and the behaviors they entail actually more allied than we might think?
Given that, as of the writing of this essay, I have not yet seen “Life Hack,” Harrison’s fall 2019 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and as the uncorrected proof of the accompanying catalogue contains no clear exhibition checklist nor any installation shots—focusing instead on images of past shows and mostly literary essays about Harrison—I cannot offer a sense of what the experience of moving through this exhibition will be like. I do, however, find it interesting that the Whitney is the site of this major consolidation of Harrison’s efforts.
Visitors to the museum’s home in Chelsea may be forgiven for not recognizing in this deluxe incarnation the institution’s scrappy beginnings, in the late nineteen-teens, as the Whitney Studio Club, an experimental downtown exhibition space that encouraged collaboration among American artists. The Club was overseen by Juliana Force, then personal assistant to heiress and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a somewhat distant patron whose greatest previous achievement was to have backed the 1913 Armory Show. When, in 1931, the Whitney became a full-fledged museum, Force lived above its West Eighth Street entrance in an apartment whose bizarrely eclectic appointments (folk art, Victoriana, contemporary American paintings, a red lacquered elevator, fur carpeting, “a white rubber floor with brass inlay, black furniture inlaid with mother of pearl engravings, a large Bakelite table, opalescent wallpaper, blue satin draperies with pearl fringe, doors decorated with trompe l’oeil designs and rococo patterns offset by lace paper appliqué jambs, gilded eagle lamps that hung from the ceiling on silk cords, and an alabaster cat perched on a sofa”) might have been to Harrison’s own liking. The Whitney Museum, carrying on the work of the Studio Club, did not draw a sharp distinction between decoration and artwork, craft and fine art, kitsch and sublimity, artist and curator. The intended experience was of a multifarious aesthetic space, rather than, as in Greenberg’s conception of the modern art gallery, of recessive surrounds for formal canvases discussing their own display. Force treated art in a familiar fashion and was generally more concerned with inviting living artists and other visitors to the spaces she maintained than with maintaining Neo-Classical or modernist ideals.
The Whitney has since changed quite a lot, deaccessioning, after Force’s death in 1948 and over the intervening seventy-plus years, a number of no doubt excessively kitschy American artworks acquired before the Second World War along with any and all pre-1900 objects, to become an impeccable modern and now postmodern institution. But Harrison has never been the sort of artist to miss an opportunity to point out the strange conditions (historical, social, material) under which we view art, and this makes me wonder. The current catalogue concludes with a “Curators’ Acknowledgements” section by Elisabeth Sussman and David Joselit, which names without describing an “ambitious, unique, and incisive plan for this exhibition,” calling it additionally “utterly reflective of Rachel’s vision.” Reading that gnomic sentence, I begin imagining for a moment another pink arrow, à la Moore to the Point, this one some twelve stories tall, perhaps aimed at Hudson Yards, the Vessel, or the museum itself. But I feel unsatisfied by this fantasy intervention, which could only be titled More of the Same, and would have little of the capacity to astonish that I associate with Harrison’s work, save in its monumentality, which, again, would not be very Harrison at all. But what if there is a way in which hosting Harrison brings back some of the emphasis on so-called minor styles that are in fact key to the Whitney’s original reason for being? Or, what if the show simply calls greater attention to our habits of moving around and looking while we are in the current Whitney? Indeed, this second option feels quite possible to me. As most of us know, one of the most disorienting experiences one can have in a museum is to make a ground-figure category error, in other words to mistake infrastructure or trash—say a directional sign or stray packing peanut—for art.
Date: October 28, 2019
Publisher: Art in America
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Art in America, November 2019.
TRUST SURVEY 2018
What can we learn from Adrian Piper's search for ethical ways of being?
THE VIDEO CONCLUDED “A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016,” Adrian Piper’s recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Two friends had recommended it in high terms, and so I went, on a Tuesday in late May of 2018, and was treating it—the video, that is—incorrectly, as the beginning of the show.
In Adrian Moves to Berlin, Piper dances to “selected Berlin house music of the early 2000s.” She’s in Alexanderplatz, Berlin’s storied central pedestrian zone, site of a weird, squat world time clock and the Brunnen der Völkerfreundschaft (Fountain of Friendship among Peoples), along with the former GDR’s prize television tower. The square’s Stalinist desolation has been updated since reunification—notably with a shopping mall. However, save for the clock, the shot is too tight for us to make out these monuments to globalized space and time. We hear house music and see Piper in motion in jeans, blazer, pink scarf, sunglasses. It’s possible that Piper, dancing, is not listening to a recording—though from time to time we see her touch her ear, as if adjusting small headphones. She may have memorized the composition, as she did for her 1971–72 performance, Aretha Franklin Catalysis, in which she danced to Franklin’s “Respect” without playing a (publicly) audible track.
Adrian Moves to Berlin, as I later learned by reading a text on Piper’s website, was shot on a Monday in late March 2007 at lunchtime. The video’s title points up a related logistical matter: Piper has relocated to Berlin from the United States, and Piper is “moving to the beat of Berlin,” if we can suffer that expression. She’s at once displaced and attentive to location and time. Piper’s lack of constraint regarding passersby, some of whom seem to shift to acknowledge and even stiffly celebrate her, is a demonstration of autonomy—in particular, freedom of movement—even as we understand that this is an artwork about interpersonal relations in public space.
On MoMA’s sixth floor, meanwhile, in spring of 2018, there were at least two popular ways of engaging with the video, which was projected onto a wall beside the exhibition’s exit. Some people would come up to it and begin dancing along, sometimes so that their friends could photograph them or make a video. Others would assume an attitude similar to those passing through Alexanderplatz on March 26, 2007: they drifted by, commenting on the anomaly of the spectacle. Look at her, they said, sometimes appreciatively, sometimes with an air of confusion. I studied these responses, enjoying them as if they were works of art in themselves—an echo that seemed part of the point. I wanted to dance too, and maybe I did, shyly, standing off to the side. I began to be subject to fantasies about personal agency and started walking through the exhibition in reverse.
“A Synthesis of Intuitions” (now at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as “Concepts and Intuitions”) is a comprehensive show, painstakingly organized in strict chronological order. It was also, as size-conscious individuals noted at the time, the largest exhibition of work by a living artist held at MoMA, filling the entire floor. Traveling backward thus had consequences. I experienced trepidation before The Humming Room (2012), a small room I had to pass through in order to access the rest of the exhibition. Above the entrance was a sign: in order to enter the room, you must hum a tune. any tune will do. OK, I thought. Within the room stood a security guard, who, although currently distracted, was probably empowered to enforce the imperative. I wasn’t sure if I knew how to hum recognizably in public and was concerned, however ridiculously, that if I did not manifest the correct behavior I would be asked to leave. Some of my disorientation probably had to do with the fact that I was coming early, as far as the show’s narrative was concerned, to The Humming Room. Piper explains in an interview, quoted in the exhibition catalogue, that this space is intended as a “kind of pressure valve that allows viewers to let off steam, to release [their] anger and tension and anxiety” after they have passed through the “Corridor of Pain,” her works of the 1990s treating racism and misogyny, trauma, and America’s history of violence and police brutality. But the “Corridor of Pain” was still on the other side of the room for me. I procrastinated, hovering at what was properly the exit of The Humming Room, studying Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment, a self-portrait from September 2012 that combines text in white typewriter font with a photographic image of Piper’s smiling face that has been printed in an artificial gray. The text announces her decision to “change my racial and nationality designations” to “6.25% grey, honoring my 1/16th African heritage” and “Anglo-German American, reflecting my preponderantly English and German ancestry.” I lingered on the exclamation point at the end of the declaration: “Please join me in celebrating this exciting new adventure in pointless administrative precision and futile institutional control!” Nearby was a photolithograph, Imagine [Trayvon Martin] (2013), with Martin’s face on a white field printed in an extremely faint, pale gray overlaid with prominent red crosshairs. Beneath Martin’s chin, a sentence rendered in purple typewriter font reads, “Imagine what it was like to be me.” There is no punctuation. With this ellipsis in mind, I ducked into The Humming Room. My humming was literal. It went, “Hum, hum, hum.” The guard had a non-reaction and I stepped to the other side.
I reflected that before entering The Humming Room, speaking of “institutional control,” I had failed, in an important sense. I had been so focused on the directive (you must hum a tune) and, relatedly, on the task of acquitting myself faultlessly as a normal museumgoer, that I had lost track of what was at stake. I had perceived the letter of the law (you must hum) without intuiting its spirit, its ironies, its will to distinguish. I’d striven, ludicrously, to behave correctly, to enter into the law’s good graces, even as Piper’s recent works had already impressed upon me the incontrovertible historical and contemporary fact that the letter of American law is infernal and subtle, its clarity a dissimulation.
Though I had focused on Thwarted Projects, Dashed Hopes, A Moment of Embarrassment and Imagine [Trayvon Martin], there were other works—and other words—to read on the subject of institutional control. howdy says an unapologetic no-entry symbol Piper projects onto a locked door, for example, in her 2015 Howdy #6 [Second Series]. And Never Forget (2016) appropriates the nationalist slogan of September 11, 2001, as the title of a graphic exploration of Piper’s family tree. The genealogical diagram at the lower left of the print montage reveals that her white, formerly slave-holding great-great-grandfather became “colored” in his legal death record, through his marriage to Piper’s great-great-grandmother, who, “[paid him] a thousand dollars in order to obtain her freedom and the freedom of her four children.” Piper couples this detailed elaboration of the administrative workings of America’s racial caste system with another archival revelation and appropriation, an image of the official 2008 letter she received, summarily revoking her appointment as a professor of philosophy and dismissing her from Wellesley College.
Piper’s 2015 Golden Lion–winning Venice Biennale installation, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1–3, on the other hand, allows visitors entrée into an apparently more livable bureaucratically managed community, under the auspices of which, at a series of three reception desks staffed by attentive young people, they may pledge always to “be too expensive to buy,” “say what I mean,” and “do what I say I am going to do.” The plain language associated with these and other artworks gave me opportunity to contemplate my own decision-making process, along with the sorts of prompts I was most receptive to. I noted that sometimes I wanted to be independent and sometimes to imitate or join. Sometimes I was thrown back into the problem of not knowing what to do or how to understand the environment, and sometimes problems beyond my own individual actions or experience loomed larger, pointing me out as a subject of history. Overall, I found that the present—present time, present action, present thought—was getting thicker, more specific, more challenging in its detail.
As I continued my walk backward, back into Piper’s work of the 1990s, ’80s, ’70s, and late ’60s, I considered her recent imperatives (“Please join,” “Imagine,” “Never forget,” etc.), along with my own inability to trust either the contract offered by The Humming Room or my own actions within that room, though I had decided to enter. I reflected that—no great epiphany this—contracts, social and otherwise, are tricky. Subject to spontaneous revision, reinterpretation, and disintegration, among other forms of unwanted variance, they tend to function one way in theory and another in practice. I reflected, too, that the author of these works was a professor of meta-ethics and, therefore, in some non-negligible sense, an expert on trust.
BEING AN ANALYTIC philosopher isn’t easy. I know because I made brief attempts at the close of the last century, as an eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-old. Most memorable was a course on Kant’s ethics taught by Christine Korsgaard. The Harvard University lecture hall was packed, largely with young men who wore shorts in winter and claimed math courses were a leisure activity. It provoked in me a feeling of extreme discomfort. Though I was at the time unaware that anything related to my identity could determine which disciplines I could and could not pursue, and though Korsgaard herself was female, there was a definite chill. I chose to believe that the chill was mostly due to the way in which the discipline treated language. The notion that a paragraph could be converted—clarified—into a formal grammar, a raft of specific propositions, felt artificial and alien, at least to me, who was unused to words being valued for the stability of their meanings. I was otherwise spending most of my time being a comparative literature major who had just discovered German poetry (Celan, Novalis) and, in a stroke of genius and desperation, had convinced my teaching assistant to let me write a final paper for Korsgaard on a single word in The Metaphysics of Morals. I said nothing all semester, save in the T.A.’s office hours, where I struggled to put in a relevant (to the field, at least) thought.
Thus, it may not be specific enough, particularly in the context of contemporary visual art, to say that Adrian Piper is “a philosopher.” The everyday valence of this term, given the existence, for example, of Slavoj Žižek, who is also, yes, “a philosopher,” can obscure the rigor and technical specificity of what those who work in the analytic tradition do, particularly since it is a method that embraces not just conceptual clarity but empiricism. Given the tendency on the part of art institutions to casually solicit the tidings of adjacent disciplines, particularly those concerned with language, we are accustomed to encountering professional philosophers in galleries and museums. Usually these philosophers, phenomenologists and ideologues (I use the latter term without pejorative intent), offer broad humanistic themes, not unambiguous logical forms. Piper, in her role as an analytic philosopher, works with logic, deploying specific techniques to address discrete problems with identifiable results, though more popular notions such as value(s) and history also come in for consideration.
Piper has taken care to explain that her work in philosophy, her “day job,” as she writes, is not a mirror image, in another guise, of her work in visual art—or, for that matter, an uncomplicated extension of her study and practice of yoga—and vice versa. Though there was a craze among Conceptual artists and others for the analytic tradition’s linguistic turn during the heyday of the so-called dematerialization of the art object, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (“All philosophy is a ‘critique of language.’”) has persisted as a figure of fascination in the American humanities, there has been little cross-pollination between the fields of visual art and analytic philosophy, generally speaking.
I am not proposing to initiate the process of cross-pollination here. I don’t have the skills necessary to the task; moreover, I’m not sure that one career need be deployed to interpret another. But it does seem worth clarifying that Piper is a distinguished philosopher. She is the first woman of African descent to receive academic tenure in a field notoriously lacking in diversity in the United States, and among her many achievements is the inclusion of her 1984 paper, “Two Conceptions of the Self,” in the Philosophers’ Annual, a selection of the top ten papers from a given year, among the highest honors a paper can receive. This paper in turn forms the basis for Rationality and the Structure of the Self, Piper’s two-volume magnum opus, a work some three decades in the making, which Piper describes as the fullest expression of her engagement with Kant, ongoing since the 1960s.
As a philosopher, Piper points up her interest in employing means and ends that are congruent. As she writes in the first chapter of Rationality and the Structure of the Self, philosophers do philosophy in no small part because philosophy requires the exercise of the “buoyant device” of reason, and exercising reason suggests a respect for the rational capacity of others, as well as the existence of something called “transpersonal rationality,” i.e., “principled rational dispositions—to consistency, coherence, impartiality, impersonality, intellectual discrimination, foresight, deliberation, self-reflection, and self-control—that enable us to transcend the overwhelming attractions of comfort, convenience, profit, gratification . . . and self-deception.” Most if not all of Rationality and the Structure of the Self is about showing how this account of the self, a Kantian account, is not only superior to David Hume’s account of the self as primarily egocentric, but in fact the account of the self that already undergirds Humean descriptions. According to Piper, it’s essentially a revision of the entire contemporary analytic field, which she suggests is necessary on practical as well as empirical grounds, as:
When teachers fail to impart a love of philosophy to their undergraduate students, or drive graduate students, traumatized, out of their classes and out of the field, it is often because these elemental guidelines for conducting the enterprise—guidelines that express the simple truth that a love of philosophy is incompatible with feeling humiliated or trounced or arrogant or self-congratulatory for one’s contributions to it—have been ignored.
I can’t judge whether Piper is entirely successful in her enterprise in this book, but I was interested enough to read its thousand-plus pages in PDF form, having downloaded it from her website. A technical work to be sure, it is also beautifully written, full of humor and broadly applicable wisdom. I found, in reading it, that I wished that as a graduate student I had had such a professor. Indeed, my reaction and Piper’s own references to the state of the academy in this text and elsewhere, along with her accounts of her professional and personal experiences there, indicate another wrinkle in the circulation and reception of her work: She repeatedly maintains that the field of analytic philosophy is beset by unethical, prejudicial practices; that it can no longer reproduce itself with integrity. Rationality and the Structure of the Self is launched as a theoretical and practical corrective.
If I go to adrianpiper.com, I can view a video and other materials that explain why Piper elected to publish her masterwork with her own nonprofit, the Adrian Piper Research Archive Foundation (APRA) in Berlin, even though it was accepted by Cambridge University Press. Piper rejected the prestigious press’s offer, in part because its publicity department asked for cuts to her text. Her refusal to alter her work in any way in order that it might appear with a certifying imprint is an example of a decision to think of images and texts as more than “mere” representations of reality, to reconcile ends and means. Piper has taken care to treat Rationality and the Structure of the Self as an act with practical and ethical consequences, as well as an object or series of messages.
WE MIGHT SAY something similar of the publications that accompany “A Synthesis of Intuitions.” Though we have the predictable oversize catalogue, with its luscious full-color reproductions, there are two additional hefty tomes, Adrian Piper: A Reader, published by MoMA, and Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir, published by the APRA Foundation. These two publications serve, if differently, as useful gestures in relation to the show. Cornelia Butler and David Platzker write, in their introductory “Adrian Piper: Reading the Work,” in the MoMA reader, that they “encourage readers to consider this book as a kind of communal interpretive mural project.” Though the collection has the standard exegetical function of a grouping of catalogue essays, it also functions like a Festschrift and consolidates, deepens, and expands previous accounts of Piper’s career; it likely replaces earlier tomes as the definitive critical compendium, given the various writers’ wide-ranging research interests and areas of expertise. Escape to Berlin, meanwhile, is at once a more and less complex story.
Readers of Piper’s writings in what she has termed “meta-art,” know that she is capable of trenchant analysis and rigorous style. But Escape to Berlin is a different sort of writing, tonally distinct: it is concerned with autobiography, and although Piper repeatedly states that she cannot be concerned with what the reader thinks, the book sounds and feels intimate. It is a first-person narrative about Piper’s childhood, her experiences with family, and her professional life as a philosopher. The book mentions Piper’s career as an artist, but it is not primarily about this aspect of her work. Rather, the memoir focuses on Piper’s loving relationship with her parents and extended family, how she came to have awareness of the world, the ways in which “the American caste system, based on the imagined binary opposition between ‘black’ and ‘white’ ‘races’” affected Piper’s family and Piper herself—particularly through her father’s abandonment by his own white father—and the ways in which Piper’s experience of familial love and societal corruption played out in her work as a professor of analytic philosophy, a field from which she would eventually need, as the title suggests, to escape.
Piper describes a dangerous “dissociation of theory from practice” in contemporary analytic philosophy and throughout the academy, the reign of the “popular rule derived from Socrates’ [sic] execution.” Her adviser, the moral and political philosopher John Rawls, was supportive only when it was convenient for him to be so and, as Piper maintains, effectively wrote her out of the canon by neglecting to cite her work in his own. Others were devious and competitive, when not openly racist and sexist: There is, and this is a beautiful string of descriptors, the “most subterranean, efficient, and easily angered among [Piper’s] colleagues,” who at her first job contrived to create a climate that made it impossible for Piper to receive tenure. I’m giving just one example, but what is clear in this account is the hostility of the academy in general to those who are not male and white and who speak their minds, as well as the particularly closed and conformist nature of the field of philosophy. These are not new complaints, but what is unusual is to see someone lay out the sequence of events in such detail, how it is possible to progress from the happy moment at which one is a desirable prospective graduate student, courted by faculty, to the state of being a threat and serious inconvenience, in spite of, or perhaps because of, one’s achievements. As we have recently seen powerful tenured academics publicly attribute “malicious” intent to a student, it is quite illuminating to see an individual with tenure—who was in theory in a protected position in the academy—describe an environment in which viciousness and paranoia reign, to the detriment of thoughtful pedagogy. And, in this case, it is Piper’s description—which is to say, a description offered by someone whose embrace of the Socratic imperative to align theory and practice, word and deed, means and ends, has given her not just a logical rationale to protest but a professional obligation to do so.
A metaphorical image appears throughout the account, of “a sprout, a tiny sapling slowly and laboriously pushing its way above ground and emerging into the air.” For Piper, this sprout is an analogy for “the self you really are.” Now a doctor of comparative literature and definitely not an analytic philosopher, I find it striking, for literary reasons, that this sounds a lot like a central metaphor of Platonic and Aristotelian poetics, in which personal action (including artistic creation) is thought through using the coming-into-being of nature as a model. Presumably, this sprout also has to do with Kant’s epigenetic conception of pure reason, in which innate mental capacities, Erkenntnisvermögen, or “faculties of cognition,” synthesize external experiential data, along with representational processes that are fundamentally prior to experience. However, and perhaps most importantly, the image of this sprout is a place in Piper’s writing in which her “three hats” come together for a moment, and we can understand the larger project; the kind of self and cultivation of self that is at stake.
Commentators have been perplexed by Piper’s narrative of her clashes with philosophy departments and with Wellesley College, in particular. Can it be true that a smallish women’s liberal arts institution aggressively attacked an artist and scholar of Piper’s standing, who—and this is perhaps the kicker—stands for the sorts of values of inclusion, reasoned critique, and historical reflection that the college is presumably desirous of fostering? Can it be accurate that Piper’s complaints feel only vaguely substantiated (as Piper maintains, she was able to fully identify and address many harmful actions only years after the fact)? Is it reasonable for Piper to have left the United States, to have claimed she did so under mortal threat? And, why didn’t she come to the opening of her own show? Is there not something missing here, some part of the story withheld from us, some simple written fact or other piece of evidence that might drop from the sky to clarify what has gone on? Yet it is also the case that Piper’s protest does not begin with Escape to Berlin or the opening of “A Synthesis of Intuitions.” Piper has been writing about these matters for years. The renewed exploration of the truth status of her claims in Escape to Berlin feels like an extension of considerations that have long been a feature of critics’ and others’ responses: We are not analytic philosophers; can we “trust” Piper’s philosophical texts? We are not appreciators of art (in fact, we are analytic philosophers); can we “trust” Piper’s celebrated art? And there is the matter of art criticism itself: can critics be trusted not to misrepresent Piper’s work? And, conversely, can critics trust Piper not to dismantle their assertions in public, or, rather, trust that she will do exactly that?
TO RETURN TO THAT past version of me, the one who was walking backward through “A Synthesis of Intuitions” on a Tuesday afternoon in May of 2018, I reflected that the present now frequently takes the form of an online survey or option to “like” or re-blog some chad of content, and Piper’s long-standing practice of employing, altering, and criticizing news media in her work feels particularly compelling and relevant. I considered the “Vanilla Nightmares” series of the late 1980s, in which Piper annotated the New York Times with muscular dark-skinned figures, some of whom are equipped with sleek erect penises, along with the ambiguous Mythic Being’s meme-like iteration in the early 1970s as a series of ads in the Village Voice. These works speak to the state of media in our time, and, notably, to the isolating condition of digitally born “bubbles” of sentiment and resentment, under the discursive regime of which we now suffer. Piper’s works from her 1990s “Corridor of Pain” identify a hunger for sameness, depicting how the insecurity of white identity expresses itself through a combination of spectacular pity and fear, alongside tacit acquiescence to the ongoing reproduction of a discriminatory system. The “Vanilla Nightmares” series, just previous to this period, suggests that blank passages in newspaper advertisements and fields of article text are surfaces onto which readers project illusory images generated by racist anxiety and desire. Piper’s illustrations make these fantasies visible—revealing the New York Times as a locus of violent, divisive, and irrational feeling, in spite of its ambition to deal in fairness and trustworthy information. Meanwhile, the Mythic Being is a means of inserting a complex persona—a face and accompanying speech bubble that inspire sustained and careful examination—into the everyday circulatory space of an advertising section. Rescuing text and images of the public sphere of the news from a fate as mere representations, Piper turns them into sites for action, discursively “reflective” surfaces that can’t be fully stabilized, stilled, or assimilated to preexisting categories.
“A Synthesis of Intuitions” asks what role the faculty of reason has to play in an increasingly, if you will forgive the clichés, mediated and automated world: what are we doing with our capacity to represent, and what is it that our representations do? If soon it will be possible to employ artificial intelligence to counterfeit a unique voice, appearance, movement, email style, and so forth, what will it mean for us to consistently or believably “be ourselves,” and what sorts of expressions of identity will come to challenge algorithmic sorting and machine learning, among other increasingly pervasive acts of choice and mimicry accomplished on our behalf by software?
One answer to these questions is to be found in Piper’s emphasis in her philosophy on the crucial importance of transpersonal rationality, the exercise of reason with the presupposition of the rational capacity of others, along with the conviction that the flourishing of others’ reason, their logical perspicacity and ability to argue, is fundamental to one’s own flourishing. Transpersonal rationality renders disingenuous manipulation of others undesirable, from both objective and subjective points of view, as one’s own ability to exercise reason is dependent on the existence of undeceived others who seek to do the same.
Yet what are we to make of the apparently disingenuous Mythic Being, a male version of Piper in Afro wig and mustache, accessorized with mirrored sunglasses and cigarillo, who appeared as both a performance persona and in a series of images? The Mythic Being was, on the one hand, a disguise and, on the other, a tool for exploring interpersonal perception and behavior, along with the functioning of categories related to identity. Though a work of mimicry, the perfection of the Mythic Being’s drag/counterfeit was curiously limited by Piper’s use of passages from her childhood diary to supply much of his language, which appears most often as speech bubbles drawn on photographs. In one filmed performance from 1973, the Mythic Being strolls down a Manhattan street while reciting a fastidious mantra: “No matter how much I ask my mother to stop buying crackers, cookies, and things, she does anyway and says they’re for her, even if I always eat them, so I’ve decided to fast.” Though it’s not clear to me what phrases would be properly congruent with the Mythic Being’s appearance, this sentence about aggressive self-control in relation to a solicitous mother seems stereotypically girlish to me. Thus, I don’t think that the point of the Mythic Being was to fool people into thinking that they were seeing a man, at least, not exclusively—I think that the point was to create an entity that did not physically resemble Piper but had Piper’s history, “an alternative of myself,” as Piper explains in her preparatory notes for the project. “A mythic being is timeless with reference to the actual history of the world. His own narrated personal history is either prior to the history of the world or unspecified in relation to that history,” she writes.
In another image series, of 1974, The Mythic Being: I/You (Her), his characteristics progressively take over a photograph of Piper with a female friend from school who had betrayed Piper by secretly dating Piper’s boyfriend. Here the Mythic Being delivers an account of Piper’s pain at her friend’s deception and offers a warning: not to expect emotional closeness or mutual acknowledgment, that Piper will no longer be subject to this young woman’s predations. By 1975, the Mythic Being had become “a static emblem of alien confrontation . . . the personification of our subliminal hatreds and dissatisfactions,” present not just in Manhattan or in print, but also making embodied appearances in Harvard Square, sometimes to cruise white women and sometimes to mug Piper’s white male friend. “I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear” reads his speech bubble in The Mythic Being: I Embody (1975).
THE VERSION OF me who was walking backward through the MoMA show in May 2018, and who therefore saw the 1975 Mythic Being image before the images from 1974 or 1973, had the experience of gazing at the full metamorphosis before the early stages. However, even before this, I saw the Mythic Being’s farewell tour, the vestiges of his visage in the form of a pencil mustache and sunglasses on Piper’s face made up in white makeup, 1975–76, when she performed Some Reflective Surfaces at the Whitney Museum. Some Reflective Surfaces was an exploration of her work as a go-go dancer and seems to have been the Mythic Being’s last public appearance, although by this time he was already a shadow of his former self. The Mythic Being was shifting, contingent; in other words, he was not the static image of a man, not a counterfeit person or false identity, but rather (“being”) a real verb.
Date: December 1, 2018
Publisher: Art in America
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Art in America, December 2018.
Difficult author; reclusive aesthete; visionary fabricator of fantastic objects literary, conceptual, and material: The reputation of Raymond Roussel (1877–1933) often precedes him. In photographs he is a pale, impeccably groomed man with a resplendent moustache. A shy smile pairs oddly with the wild energy in his gaze. His writings, allegedly incomprehensible to all but the most committed appreciators of his day still receive less attention than his biography or, what is perhaps more accurate, legend.
Galerie Buchholz’s recent exhibition is the latest view into the Roussel annals. It also functions as a housewarming: Previously exclusively a Berlin concern, Buchholz now has a foothold near the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Behind the robust façade of a townhouse of the sort normally occupied by foreign embassies, Buchholz’s three-room offering of Rousseliana is an extremely welcome addition to the neighborhood and feels, more generally, like a happy return to a fan favorite. Roussel’s work never gets old—partly because of how strange it is, and partly because so few people have actually read it.
Roussel wrote long, formally and conceptually complex poems, as well as novels. He is best known for 1910’s Impressions of Africa, a novel that he published at his own expense and later mounted as an elaborately costumed play. The structure of the novel is famously based on the punning difference between two otherwise identical, seemingly insignificant phrases: les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard (white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table) and les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard (letters of a white man about the bands of the old pillager). Beginning with the first of these two arbitrary images, Roussel concludes 26 chapters later with the second; in the pages between, he describes the court of an imaginary African king at which, in a fantasy of colonialism reversed, a troupe of European entertainers are detained, forced to enact various impossible tableaux.
Like the prose of Marcel Proust, Roussel’s oeuvre marks the encounter of Victorian representational styles and ideas about time with those that come to characterize modernism. Unlike the prose of Marcel Proust, Roussel’s writings are not concerned with phenomenal reality. Instead, Roussel wants his readers to consider unreal visions already mediated by writing or other technologies, not experiences but rather images of experience; Roussel is a practitioner of the trope of ekphrasis, or description of another work of art in writing, par excellence. In Impressions of Africa, in what amounts to a displacement of lived time by performances and scientific experiments, unusual devices give rise to new images and texts. There are light-projecting plants; a glass-enclosed mechanical orchestra powered by the thermal sensitivity of bexium, an imaginary metal; a photo-mechanical painting machine. These “machines correspondantes,” as Gilles Deleuze called them, have the additional effect of rendering ornament essential rather than “removable,” as in Walter Pater’s formulation. For Pater—whose stylistic economy was influential for modernists from Proust to Ezra Pound—the “surplusage” of decorative language diminishes meaning. Pater’s rules are passionately flouted by Roussel, whose nearly nonsensical ekphrastic delays, or stoppages, produce exciting excursions into speculative artistic and scientific practice.
Galerie Buchholz helpfully parses Roussel’s relationship to Proust by means of the inclusion of two editions of Proust’s prose-poem collection, Les Plaisirs et les jours, published in 1896, the year before the appearance of Roussel’s first novel-in-verse, La Doublure. This juxtaposition is characteristic of what is most exciting about the show’s display of numerous books, which allows us to draw our own conclusions about the milieu in which one might have encountered these publications for the first time. Even more startling and immediate are enlargements of a series of Roussel family snapshots, some taken by Raymond, including a close-up of Madame Roussel and a pet dog with eyes that appear to be made of glass. Here we glimpse a largely unknown corner of the archive.
Yet far more space in this modest gallery is devoted to the better-known reception history: Roussel’s influence on artists from Marcel Duchamp (who attended a performance of Impressions of Africa) to Joseph Cornell to Marcel Broodthaers; the connection to Surrealism; the American poet John Ashbery’s oft-cited importation of Roussel’s work into American English; Michel Foucault’s early monograph. Such diverse adulation for the show’s subject is reassuring, but upon coming to the fourth vitrine stocked with untouchable publications, one begins to wonder what, in the age of worldcat.org, when bibliographies of obscure texts can be instantly formulated, one is looking at. The sheer quantity of materials included in the show, along with recent works by Cameron Rowland and Henrik Olesen, among others, feels a bit like a missed opportunity. Though for Roussel more was always more, he always advanced via carefully designed procedures. More and more we want narrative and arrangement, space to think about the overwhelming amounts of information we receive; it might have been nice to consider the ways in which Roussel’s miraculous inventions anticipate our desire.
Date: November 1, 2015
Full text of review available as PDF, below at right.
CRITICAL EYE: PUBLISHING AMID THE MUSEUM’S RUINS
During a 2012 conversation at Art Basel, artist Adam Pendleton told curator Jenny Schlenzka, “I have a copy machine. It’s the queen of my studio.” The remark was offhand, yet revealing and generous. Pendleton, who is in his mid-thirties, has a multidisciplinary practice encompassing painting, printmaking, book arts, performance, filmmaking, sculpture, and event organizing. At times he describes himself as a conceptualist but, eschewing rigid emphasis on systems and nonrepresentational strategies sometimes associated with the term, he has also spoken of “a kind of philosophy of being” in relation to the images, spaces, and occasions he creates. In all his output, Pendleton works with preexisting language and print materials; as he said in a 2012 interview with Thom Donovan in BOMB, “I am constantly lifting words, sentences, images from a wide variety of sources.” A photocopier was not obviously involved in The Revival (2007), commissioned by the Performa festival in New York, for which Pendleton orchestrated a secular sermon with a full choir by appropriating language from experimental poetry, political speech, and traditional gospel songs. Yet, the duplicating device stands as a possible metaphor and accomplice for a work such as this, in that it enables the rapid recontextualization and repetition of words otherwise located on the pages of books in Pendleton’s extensive library.
Curator Adrienne Edwards argued in her 2015 Art in America essay “Blackness in Abstraction” that Pendleton employs reproductive technologies—Adobe Illustrator, silkscreen, as well as a Xerox—to emphasize “blackness as material, method and mode, insisting on blackness as a multiplicity.” In keeping with this ability to move from the material to the conceptual and back again, Pendleton is known for a photocopied compilation of writings by Hugo Ball, Amiri Baraka, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sun Ra, Adrian Piper, and Gertrude Stein, among others, that he published in 2017 with Koenig Books as The Black Dada Reader. These texts evince Pendleton’s larger Black Dada methodology, which combines influences from both Ball’s 1916 Dada Manifesto and “Black Dada Nihilism,” a 1964 poem by Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). Pendleton’s Black Dada is on the one hand a return to the politically charged nonsense of the Zurich Dadaists and, on the other, an exploration of the term Black as an “open-ended signifier,” as he has said. Black Dada is at once revolutionary and archival, allowing Pendleton to reflect on anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and decolonial political movements, including Black Lives Matter and Occupy, along with philosophical and literary writings. The photocopier has an obvious practical role in this undertaking, particularly given that Pendleton first produced the reader for personal use. Yet the device stands as an allegorical presence, too—indicating Pendleton’s commitment to a nonlinear mode of historiography that allows for repetition, nesting, and transposition, among other transformations and dilations.
The year 2021 is turning out to be significant for Pendleton. His installation As Heavy as Sculpture (2020–21) appeared in the lobby of the New Museum from February to June as part of the exhibition “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” curated by the late Okwui Enwezor. A montage of black-and-white imagery and text covering the walls, As Heavy as Sculpture layered reproductions of photographs of political events in Africa, masks, and sculptures, with iterations of language drawn from Black Lives Matter protests, including the acronym ACAB (for All Cops Are Bastards, also represented numerically as 1312). In September, DAP released an artist’s book by Pendleton related to the installation. Titled Adam Pendleton: As Heavy as Sculpture, the volume permits sustained, close consideration of the words, letters, numbers, and images Pendleton selected and sometimes partly painted over for the installation, encouraging a mode of reading in which one considers what cannot be seen as much as what is visible. Also published in September, by DABA and Koenig Books, was Adam Pendleton: Pasts, Futures, and Aftermaths, a revisitation of the format of The Black Dada Reader, with a new selection of texts, including writings by Sara Ahmed, Clarice Lispector, and Malcolm X, among others. For his solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which opened in September, Pendleton published another anthological reader, Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?, which functions as the show’s catalogue.
That Pendleton is publishing two new critical anthologies this fall points to a need to reframe the experience of viewing art, one that is particularly urgent in light of current anti-racist and anti-capitalist movements, as well as efforts to reform the labor and collecting practices of museums, along with the composition of their boards of directors. Pendleton’s readers are, in effect, new narratives of the history of art, bibliographies and syllabi, personal records of research and learning, spiritual autobiographies, and guides to contemporary politics. Like As Heavy as Sculpture, they generate original, inter-media, transdisciplinary modes of reading; in Who Is Queen?, for example, one reads the poet Simone White with and against curator Kynaston McShine with and against critic Lauren Berlant with and against composer Julius Eastman, to name but a few of the figures present. All of Pendleton’s selections appear as photocopied texts—“poor images,” in Hito Steyerl’s sense—and he has added various marks and writings. The collections show us Pendleton as an editor and publisher, in a fairly straightforward sense: DABA is, indeed, his own press, through which he recently republished concrete poet Norman H. Pritchard’s remarkable 1971 book EECCHHOOEESS. They also remind us of the radical sort of influence a publisher can have, not just on content but on the very outlines of a given discipline. Pendleton believes that you cannot really understand painting unless you understand improvisation, and you cannot really understand improvisation without a thorough knowledge of poetry and music. Nor will you comprehend lyricism unless you comprehend the intersections of political struggle and love.
This is not mere argumentation; this is an attempt to reengineer the ways in which published writing is associated with the experience of viewing art. Similarly, the physical work Pendleton creates is designed not merely to exist within but to affect the feeling and meaning of the institution housing it. As curator Stuart Comer notes in the preface to Who Is Queen?, the exhibition at MoMA “recalibrates the museum, from a rigid frame designed to regulate official accounts of history into an open, generative, and polyphonic device.” Pendleton has constructed an architectural installation in MoMA’s atrium, with three five-story wooden scaffold towers painted black. The towers mimic balloon frame construction, a method for building homes popular in the US from the 1880s to 1930s; it was simpler and faster than timber frame construction, which required knowledge of complex joinery techniques. These physical frames evoke larger questions regarding housing availability in the US, as well as ad hoc forms of architecture associated with protest: Resurrection City, for example, constructed on the National Mall in 1968 during the Poor People’s Campaign, as well as the encampments of the Occupy movement and plywood boards transformed with spray paint by Black Lives Matter protesters. One might also see a link to the design experiments and architecture of modernism, from El Lissitzky’s 1923 Proun Room to Le Corbusier’s grid-like structures. Pendleton employs the towers as supports for a variety of artworks and devices, including paintings, graphic and textile works, sculptures, screens for moving images, and speakers for a sound piece, as well as a site for events. The exhibition is a powerful Gesamtkunstwerk, or all-embracing art form, with Pendleton signaling to viewers in many different registers and media.
Pendleton has transformed the space at the heart of one of the most influential institutions in the world, calling to mind a related watershed essay. In “On the Museum’s Ruins” (1980), critic Douglas Crimp describes Robert Rauschenberg’s painting practice as “insisting upon the radically different kinds of picture surfaces upon which different kinds of data can be accumulated and organized,” and points to its affiliation with “discontinuity, rupture, threshold, limit, series, and transformation,” as opposed to historical continuity. In Crimp’s reading, Rauschenberg’s photographic layering, via silkscreen, of canonical artworks—“Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus at Her Toilet”—is emblematic of a new logic of pictures in an era of near-instant reproducibility and dissemination: singular physical art objects lose their value and qualities as such, and become instead “‘moments’ of art.”
Crimp’s discussion of a movement from emphasis on discrete objects to emphasis on flashes of time seems quite relevant to Pendleton’s practice. But while Rauschenberg explored numerous disciplines and media, beginning his career as a choreographer before turning to assemblage and graphic work, Pendleton is determined to combine an equally multifarious résumé into a single piece, as “Who Is Queen?” makes manifest. There is a larger gambit here to dispense with specialized audiences—readers of poetry, appreciators of sound art, and so on—in order to create a new sort of public, one for whom experiencing multiple artistic disciplines at once is illuminating and desirable. Pendleton seems to believe that we need as many points of access to our history as possible, so he aims to reform not just objects and space, but the very sensory and temporal conditions under which we consume art and other media.
How does Pendleton generate these revised sensory and temporal conditions? A simple answer is: research. As suggested above, these conditions have much to do with that queen of his studio, the copy machine, along with his library of books, and the surfaces and features of the studio itself. It takes a relatively short time to remove a book from a shelf, and a few more moments to then sit and find a page, to stand and go to a copier to reproduce it. Yet, in Pendleton’s practice, these everyday acts of study and reflection, which are also acts of love, traverse much broader expanses of time and space. They recur as moments of viewing and listening in galleries, with pages altered, blown up, and reframed; with pieces of language excerpted and recopied; with new interventions and participants added. Pendleton’s research is amplified by institutions and yet it reframes the location it occupies. His installations resonate with a larger, always-unfinished collection of texts, images, and performances the artist continually mines for republication.
Thus, publication might be a useful way to think about all the work Pendleton makes, and using a term with an industrial history reminds us of the role technology plays in this undertaking. Of the title of his MoMA installation, Pendleton has said,
Queen is a kind of Afro-optimism balanced by a kind of Afro-pessimism, and it’s also a kind of queer theory. Queen is all about being queer, really, the perpetually misunderstood position. It’s about this memory of someone saying to me, years ago, when I thought I had done away with such things, ‘Oh, you’re such a queen.’ It really came out of this feeling or this sense of vulnerability, when someone thinks that they can name you or claim you as something, even if at any given moment it’s not what you might have wanted to be.
With his new books and his work in the museum, Pendleton makes public myriad texts, contexts, histories, and presents, seeking to outpace and overwhelm others’ limiting claims. He helps us look at space (and the contemporary world) through books and then look at books and their pages in a new light. This comparative gesture, the gesture of the publisher, comes with an important difference: traditional authorship has receded, replaced by an alternate and far more vulnerable practice, a practice that remains as open as a dance floor, even as it is contested, haunted, many-voiced, thick with marks. For, as Pendleton has said: “I am both in control and not.”
Date: September 23, 2021
Publisher: Art in America
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This essay appears in the November/December 2021 print issue of Art in America, with the title, "The Artist as Publisher: Adam Pendleton's recent book projects suggest that his multidisciplinary practice is also a kind of anthology."
In 1949, seven years after fleeing a warring Europe for Mexico City, the artist and writer Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) read a very curious book. Robert Graves’s White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, published a year earlier, was a mythographic account of the ways in which paganism underlies Christian belief. It posited the existence of a moon-affiliated “White Goddess of Birth, Love and Death,” whom patriarchal structures obscure. According to Graves, one could not successfully write poetry without serving this female deity:
“The reason why the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright and lust—the female spider or the queen-bee whose embrace is death.”
Graves’s scholarly methods were suspect, his tone one of reverence and perhaps obsessive conviction, his sentences elaborate, his sources arcane. T.S. Eliot called the book “prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable,” and Laura Riding, Graves’s former literary collaborator and romantic partner, disliked it very much. Riding felt her own spiritual convictions had been parodied by her ex in what amounted to a “whorish abomination.” Graves seems also to have invented his translations of Celtic poetry, relying on a limited grasp of the language. A series of deductions based on a purported relationship between letters of the Celtic alphabet and certain trees enabled him, he claimed, to uncover divine names hidden in ancient writing. Yet his entirely reasonable overall conclusion—that modern monotheistic religion has effaced other, pluralist systems dedicated to matriarchy and the worship of nature—found resonance with many nonacademic readers, and the book went into multiple editions in 1948, ’52, and ’61. It has since become a classic of Contemporary Paganism.
Carrington, who had previously written a number of short stories in a piquant Surrealist vein—many of them critical of Christianity—took notice. Having absorbed Graves’s fantastical investigation, the British artist went on to write her first and only novel, The Hearing Trumpet, a tale of the apocalyptic upending of an elderly woman’s life. It’s clear The Hearing Trumpet was strongly influenced by Graves’s revisionist mythology: the manuscript, according to Carrington scholar Susan L. Aberth, was completed in 1950. However, it was not published until 1969, in a French translation titled Le Cornet acoustique. In 1974, it appeared simultaneously in the US and the UK, in the original English.
Printed in more than twenty editions and some six languages over the past forty-plus years, Carrington’s story was once again rereleased in January by New York Review Books, with an afterword by Polish novelist and Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. After glowing reviews in the New York Times and the New Yorker by Blake Butler and Merve Emre, respectively, the first printing sold out in a month. This feat, along with recent republications of Carrington’s two other major pieces of literary work—her memoir of detention in a Spanish mental institution during World War II, Down Below (NYRB, 2017), and her collected short stories (Dorothy, A Publishing Project, also 2017)—suggests that her authorial star is yet again on the rise, perhaps due to a renewed interest in the occult among Gen Z and millennial readers. But how should we think of what Emre calls Carrington’s tendency to be continually “reborn,” if never fully domesticated or canonized? Given her status as both a brilliant painter and an enchanting storyteller, might Carrington be more at home—and, therefore, more recognizable as a major artist—in our own increasingly interdisciplinary age? And why did she herself wait nearly two decades to publish her most fully realized literary work?
Butler and Emre both wax enthusiastic about Carrington’s novel. For Butler, it is a discovery: a “mind-flaying masterpiece,” full of humor and rare events that leave the reader “reconfigured.” Emre, already a convert, sees it as a testament to Carrington’s uncanny ability to mate “the artificial to the natural”—a capacity that reflects the perpetual human ambivalence regarding technology and our animal nature. Both reviewers question Carrington’s reputation as the girl who beat the Surrealists at their own game, to paraphrase a bit glibly. She was heralded in Paris by André Breton et al., who prized her beauty and educated wit, as an example of the intersection of femme enfant and femme sorcière, realized in living flesh. Although she had a famed youthful relationship with the artist Max Ernst in the late 1930s and early ’40s, Carrington eventually rejected the role of muse. Still, it was through Surrealism that she found her way to her remarkably expressive painting practice: the endeavor which, in 1938, produced her well-known Self Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse), a striking image of the artist consorting with a hyena and rocking horse while clad in an iconic pair of white jodhpurs.
That painting, with its reliance on unmixed colors and psychological oneirism, is a prelude to Carrington’s more lyrical and fantastical mature work, produced in Mexico City after World War II and characterized by delicate application of egg tempera. In Mexico City, Carrington collaborated closely with Spanish-Mexican painter Remedios Varo and photographer Kati Horna. And she set up her living space to accommodate her various roles, as mother to her two sons (by her second husband, photographer Csizi “Chiki” Weisz), keeper of the house, and painter. Carrington’s studio encompassed all these activities: it was kitchen, laboratory, nursery, salon, and study, all rolled into one. In this sense, it expressed Carrington’s changing orientation to imagery, history, and artistic work. Less concerned with the shocking figurative juxtapositions and revelation of unconscious psychological drives so dear to the Breton-led version of Surrealism, Carrington’s Mexican tableaux meditate upon magic and the divine, primarily as these are manifest in an internationalist array of folk traditions. It is in this context that The Hearing Trumpet should be read.
This first-person novel concerns the fate—which we at first take to be unhappy—of a ninety-two-year-old woman named Marian Leatherby who lives in Mexico with her son and his unpleasant English wife. Marian, as she informs us, has a gray beard and limited hearing. Thanks to a timely gift—the titular trumpet—from her friend Carmella, an elderly artisan of cat-fur sweaters, Marian overhears her family plotting to send her to an old folks’ home. But what a place this turns out to be! The residents are ensconced in fantastical cabins (“bizarre dwellings—shaped like a toadstool, a Swiss chalet, an Egyptian mummy, a boot, a lighthouse—impossible and absurd, straight out of a Bosch painting”); the director, Dr. Gambit, is a Gurdjieff-influenced evangelical fixated on aerobics; and there is a murder plot involving toxic chocolates. However, lest Carrington’s tale appear a mere wacky caper watering down Ernst’s own critique of Victorian mores in his 1934 collage novel, Une Semaine de bonté (A Week of Kindness), she quickly leaves the institutional narrative behind. An ice age abruptly threatens all earthly life, even as animals and humans are magically drawn together by the imminent return of the White Goddess, a massive beelike being who demands orgiastic worship via dancing and dining, usually both at once.
The Hearing Trumpet’s nonsense is less surreal than synthetic. What had seemed like a novel becomes, in conclusion, a sort of cyclical prose poem of adoration, not unlike the Celtic works Graves bent to his will in The White Goddess. Carrington seems to allude to the Tuatha Dé Danann deities of Irish legend, with their mother goddess Dana, whom she had heard about as a child from her Irish nurse and read about in James Stephens’s comic quest-narrative The Crock of Gold (1912). Carrington’s novel combines elements of Arthurian legend, Mexican culture, Irish myths, and proto New Age spiritualism, with a glimmer of the spirit of the European fairy tale.
In this sense, The Hearing Trumpet seems particularly at home in the context of other folk-related works of feminist Anglophone fiction published in the 1970s, and one wonders if Carrington was at the vanguard of a sort of zeitgeist. The 1970s saw a number of notable works of fiction and criticism related to fairy tales and folklore, in which these vernacular forms are more or less elaborately reimagined. Most famous among these are Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon (1977) and Angela Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber (1979). (Carter happened to own a first, 1974, edition of The Hearing Trumpet.) Also published during the decade were Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976), a psychoanalytic reading of fairy tales now thought to be in large part plagiarized from other scholarly works, and Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, released the same year. All these works explore the significance of folklore in relation to the formation of personal identity. Unlike Graves, however, their authors have absorbed the lessons of Structuralism and construct their arguments by describing broader social systems, rather than attempting to trace elaborate genealogies back to a singular source of belief.
Although I share some of Butler’s and Emre’s enthusiasm for The Hearing Trumpet, today it feels more dated than Carrington’s earlier short stories; it is less annoyed with the social strictures of Western civilization and more utopian and wondering, and at times this wonder is obtained by way of a celebratory mysticism that can feel a bit forced. What neither recent review mentions is that it is also a tale of the end of the world—which Carrington foretells, ambivalently, as a time when women will at last, and once more, take control of the story.
Date: April 7, 2021
Publisher: Art in America
Link to the essay.
THE EXHIBITIONS THAT DEFINED THE 2000S
Christian Marclay’s The Clock
Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour video installation, The Clock, had its 2010 premiere at White Cube in London and went on to win a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Comprising thousands of clips appropriated from films and television shows (Safety Last!, Gaslight, Double Indemnity; “Mission Impossible,” “ER,” “The X-Files”) produced over the previous hundred years, the compilation functions as a chronometer in itself, with depicted clocks and verbal references corresponding to the time at the viewer’s own location. Marclay’s obsessive montage was assembled over some two years in collaboration with six research assistants; Marclay edited this high-low material (Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet alongside forgettable commercial films) using a single aspect ratio. Collaborator Quentin Chiappetta provided expert linking of soundtracks, a key to the work’s immersive and eerily engaging polyvocal quality. Famously, The Clock holds spectators’ attention in a relentless grip through its suspension of resolution, stringing action along between and among various truncated scenes and gestures: a woman walks to a door in one scene and, after a cut, a couple exits a building; a man looks up from his watch and, in a subsequent shot, the camera scans an unrelated landscape.
The Clock has been compared to other works of appropriation-based durational video such as Douglas Gordon’s 1993 installation 24 Hour Psycho, a silent projection that extends the Hitchcock film into an all-day affair. However, The Clock’s treatment of time is quite different from that embraced by Gordon—or, for that matter, such auteurs of slowed-down cinema as Andy Warhol (Sleep, Empire) or Wang Bing (West of the Tracks). Over the course of his daylong video, Marclay does not make his viewer feel the lugubrious infinity of the here-and-now so much as its unbearable brevity and disconcerting ineffability.
“This is a time machine,” intones Rod Taylor in an excerpt from George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel that appears at around 5:45 PM in The Clock. The statement is at once wittily overdetermined and slightly oppressive: sitting rapt in a dark gallery before a 12-by-21-foot projection, The Clock’s viewers know exactly what time it is, even as they observe the present moment slipping unceasingly away without the traditional cinematic payoff of a twist in the plot or, perhaps, a conclusion.
An immensely popular yet ambivalent commentary on the legacy of movies and television in the internet age, The Clock illustrates the technological mediation of contemporary life—in all its thoroughness, speed, and hypotactic accumulation of images. The aesthetics of the database take over, and the video’s thousands of protagonists each have only seconds to distinguish themselves. As director and critic Chris Petit opined, it’s like “YouTube for gallery space.”
Date: December 8, 2020
Publisher: Art in America
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
I remember some of 1996. That election year nearly a quarter century ago is the subject and title of a new collection of essays—a time capsule, even—edited by artist Matt Keegan with interviews edited by writer and oral historian Svetlana Kitto. In 1996, I was either fifteen or sixteen years old, and I lived in New York City, where I took a bus or the subway to high school most days. I wore a lot of polyester clothes sourced from bins and bulging racks downtown. I carried a plastic wallet with cartoon frogs on it and lugged my textbooks around in a leather Village Tannery backpack that was way too small for the purpose and therefore had a weapon-like density. I read Hermann Hesse, Toni Morrison, Anaïs Nin, Gertrude Stein. I had never heard of David Foster Wallace, author of 1996’s Infinite Jest. I was obsessed with platform shoes.
I still don’t know where the determination to look and dress the way I looked and dressed in 1996 came from. It was, however, of such importance to me to wear the clothes I wore, and to use a specific eyeliner (white) and hair dye (blue-black), that over time I’ve wanted to decode this affinity. Since I thought less about the provenance of my thrift-shop finds than their colors and shapes, I have to believe I was after an image rather than a series of historical references—but what image was this, precisely? The decadence of the American nineties was a decadence of false minimalism, of up-cycling and appropriation, and of the dissimulation of enormous wealth and geopolitical power in textiles and imagery as “soft” as fake monkey fur or the underfed body of Kate Moss.
I couldn’t vote in 1996, and to the extent I remember that year’s election, it is for the pen that the seventy-three-year-old Republican nominee Bob Dole always clenched in his war-crippled right hand to mask its limited mobility. This, along with the candidate’s susceptibility to memory lapses, was subtly exploited by the Clinton-Gore ticket. Most of what I recall from 1996, if this can be said to be a politics, has to do with messages related to sex. In spite of the country’s having emerged from the puritanical Reagan-Bush years with Democratic triumph in 1992, sex, we were told, was unsafe for a number of reasons (shame, pregnancy, infection). I did not think of this as a sign of the times or evidence that the liberalism of the executive was frequently merely symbolic—saxophone stylings covering for continued dismantling of the social safety net and high rates of incarceration. Instead of thinking such things, I got up each morning and arrayed myself as if I were a visitor to the present from some other, possibly fictional era.
Keegan writes in his introduction that the election of 2016 was an intellectually and politically transformative moment for him, motivating him to investigate “changes that the Democratic Party went through in the run-up to Bill Clinton’s emergence as a presidential candidate in 1992.” The essays, interviews, archival images, magazine and newspaper clippings, and shots of art installations he and Kitto collect in 1996 focus on the experiences and points of view of artists who were either in or nearing their twenties in 1996, some voting for the first time in that year’s election (including Becca Albee, Thomas Eggerer, Malik Gaines, Chitra Ganesh, Pearl C. Hsiung, Jennifer Moon, Seth Price, Alexando Segade, Elisabeth Subrin, Martine Syms, and Lincoln Tobier, among others). The anthology also features contributions from a number of other disciplines, exploring the 1994 Crime Bill and the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act meant to reduce welfare; the AIDS crisis; racism and carceral politics during the 1990s; poet Eileen Myles’s 1992 presidential campaign; American immigration policy; Israel, Palestine, and American foreign policy in the Middle East; and the climate crisis, among other touchstones, many of which significantly affect the present or remain with us in hardly altered forms. The book includes essays by such writers and scholars as José Esteban Muñoz (“Pedro Zamora’s Real World of Counterpublicity: Performing an Ethics of the Self”), Yigal S. Nizri (“5756, Jerusalem”), and Mychal Denzel Smith (“A Lesson to Be Learned: On Clinton’s Approval of the 1994 Crime Bill and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act”). The book’s guiding animus is the notorious movement toward business interests and globalization effected by the Democratic Party in the platform of William Jefferson Clinton, (in)famously evidenced by the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a Reagan initiative that was finally stewarded into existence by the forty-third chief executive. Keegan explains the relevance of his research to our present situation: “I would argue that this rightward move [of the Democratic party] is also foundational to Joe Biden becoming the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020.”
Keegan has a point. As rhetoric in the lead-up to this month’s contest has tended to emphasize the anti-democratic statements and policies of the incumbent, as well as the GOP’s more general affinity for low turnout, restrictions on voting, creative districting, and indirect representation, 1996 reminds the reader of a longer history of norms, messages, exclusions, and coalitions—Republican, Democratic, and otherwise. One of the most interesting things about the writings and pictures the book assembles is that, although a great deal of this material originates in the year 1996, much of it does not. A number of essays are set several years before or a decade or so after the titular year, suggesting that even as we have a tendency to corral events into discrete dates and spans of time, our experience of them can be far more amorphous and ambiguous. In particular, essays by journalists Ahmad Ibsais and Jordan G. Teicher on global warming and the denial thereof show the ways in which political rhetoric and the news have wreaked havoc on our sense of time and causality. As Teicher notes in his concise history of climate-related misinformation from 1996 to the present, 1996 has the alarming distinction of being the last “cool” year in human history, with its average of 51.88 degrees Fahrenheit just shy of the twentieth century’s overall average of 52.02. “Every year since,” Teicher writes, “it’s been hotter.”
The anthology deploys ephemera very effectively, handily shocking the reader with the stupidity of mainstream ideology of the mid-1990s. A 1996 Kenneth Cole ad, touting the brand’s next-level wingtips, proclaims: “The year is 2020. Computers can cook, all sex is safe and it’s illegal to bear arms and bare feet. The future is what you make it.” Such items—along with an image of Ivanka Trump as teen model or a fear-mongering depiction of the pledge of allegiance in Spanish and German from the xenophobic nonprofit “U.S. English,” still operational today—provide some of the strongest tastes of the moment and foreshadow its lingering social and political effects.
The 1990s were the heyday of so-called scatter art. Although scatter art has perhaps not held up as well as other late-breaking takes on conceptualism (like those of Felix Gonzalez-Torres), some of its interest in the power of metonymy and everyday artifacts has clearly been absorbed—not uncritically—into 1996’s modus operandi. Interspersed among the essays are images of pieces dated 1996 by Rachel Harrison, Roni Horn, Glenn Ligon, Cady Noland, Jack Pierson, Lari Pittman, Julia Scher, Wolfgang Tillmans, Kara Walker, Nari Ward, and Andrea Zittel, along with a still from 1995’s CREMASTER 1 video by Matthew Barney—all of which appear without comment. However, there are no photographs of works by such artists as Mike Kelly, Karen Kilimnik, or Paul McCarthy, who are often understood as dominant artists of the time, and these omissions felt purposeful as well as refreshing. I did, however, sometimes wish that 1996 leaned a bit harder on Keegan and many contributors’ area of expertise, i.e., visual art. It might have been nice to include at least one essay surveying the ubiquitous installation-based work of the 1990s or discussing the numerous artworks illustrated, particularly as the collection is well positioned to explore 1996’s art in an original way, given its wide-ranging interest in policy and popular visual culture. That the book’s ambition to focus on a rightward shift in American liberalism is not more fully explored via “high” art, as opposed to mass media, seems like something of a missed opportunity; or, perhaps the reader is simply meant to connect the dots. Yet, while juxtaposition can be a powerful aesthetic tool, it tends to produce suggestive resonances rather than clear argument, and the reader of 1996 might have benefited from a bit more lucidity with respect to the role of artworks in this historical moment. Given that Rudolph Giuliani serves as Trump’s lawyer today, the book might have considered, for example, his failed attempt to censor Chris Ofili’s 1996 glitter-and-elephant-dung-adorned painting The Holy Virgin Mary while it was displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. Although Giuliani was widely hailed as a hero for his actions around the World Trade Center’s collapse shortly thereafter, his authoritarianism and disregard for the First Amendment had already been made clear when he sued and attempted to withdraw municipal funding from the Brooklyn Museum. It is interesting to consider how the art of 1996 might, for the perceptive reader, have decrypted the neoliberal politics of the time—de-normalizing them, as it were—even before these politics became more legible in hindsight.
Two of my favorite pieces in 1996 manage a difficult feat where nonfiction is concerned: that of being at once historically informative and intensely personal, showing how we may experience major historical changes as they are unfolding in the present. Debbie Nathan’s essay recounts her time as the Texas chair of Eileen Myles’s 1992 write-in presidential bid. As Nathan notes, Texas has gone Republican in every presidential race since the 1980s. Nathan, who would otherwise have voted Democrat, decided, after attending a poetry reading by Myles, “that if I was going to throw away the coin of my vote, I might as well toss it into a wishing well of hope.” She joined Myles’s campaign (its slogan: “Veto the mainstream! Stay outside! Vote for Eileen Myles”). She quickly discovered that she was too late to submit signatures necessary to get Myles on the ballot. Undeterred by this or her friends’ dismay at her enthusiasm for an independent candidate, Nathan, a journalist and immigrants’ rights advocate, joined the poet-candidate to paint a giant WRITE IN MYLES on a concrete embankment of the Rio Grande in El Paso. But this is only the beginning of Nathan’s account. She details the Democrats’ ramping up of policing after Clinton’s first success: a 1993 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Democratic California senator Dianne Feinstein calling for tougher measures on immigration, as well as Biden’s 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed by Bernie Sanders, among others. By the time 1996 rolled around, Clinton’s position on immigration was hardly distinct from that of his Republican opponent.
Michael Bullock’s “Cruising Diary: 1991–2001,” meanwhile, is a memoir of navigating the early internet’s male-seeking-male offerings. Bullock recounts his teenaged attempts at cruising and use of a telephone chat line advertised in a newspaper (the source of one very creepy encounter), bringing the reader along as he begins to experiment with web-based communications and, in the process, to reckon with desire, risk, and safer sex. In 1996 there were only limited and somewhat awkward options via real-time chat rooms, but by the early 2000s Craiglist’s personals section had blossomed. Encounters with one Craigslist poster, “ZebraShades,” demonstrate to Bullock the power of the anonymous message board to facilitate new kinds of connection, along with the fulfillment of very particular erotic needs. As he writes, “Digital space allowed a generation of men to grow together, enabling us to each fearlessly seek out our own ZebraShades.”
The verb “to normalize” has become a favorite shorthand in the present, yet 1996 calls our attention to a much longer series of successful and politically devastating normalizations, which we would do well not to ignore or forget. It is a kind of art to establish familiarity and normalcy where, in truth, none can or should inhere. In this sense, as we know, artists are far from the only ones who are creative in their jobs; marketers and political strategists are creative, too. The Jamaican-American artist Dave McKenzie, writing in a new essay on his 2004 performance We Shall Overcome, makes the following observation:
I know the internet and social media supposedly explain Trump, but weirdly enough—and this is why I think of him as the television president—I wonder about there being some sort of delay. At some point, we’ll have a YouTube star who’s president, but maybe not for another fifty years or something. But I’m wondering how each Clinton—from Clinton to Clinton—each moment or figure exposes something in the very recent past of media, of culture. They’re dragging with them some idea from the generation just prior.
If McKenzie is correct, we should be thinking about 1996 today because it is this moment’s media ecosystem and its political events that are likely to affect if not determine the present. I’m not sure what it might mean to be governed by a YouTube president, to extend McKenzie’s metaphor, but it does seem clear that four more years of “the television president” would be an instance of the past not merely influencing the present but overwhelming and, in some sense, displacing it. Overall, 1996 is an informative and, in the end, hopeful collection, demonstrating that we can learn a great deal from recent history, even as the time remaining to apply these urgent lessons grows increasingly short.
Date: November 2, 2020
Publisher: Art in America
Link to the essay.
Review: The Classical Body in Romantic Britain
Cora Gilroy-Ware’s engaging study of nineteenth-century Neo-Classical sculpture, The Classical Body in Romantic Britain, brings an invigorating new interpretation to a style that many contemporary viewers too often see as either dull or self-congratulatory. A visitor to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London who passes the large marble war monument depicting Captain Richard Rundle Burges may be perplexed to find that this naval captain, who lost his life in 1797 during the Battle of Camperdown, is all but nude. Draped in what appears to be a wrinkled tablecloth, Burges accepts a sizable sword from an attending winged Victory. It is perhaps no wonder that, as Gilroy-Ware points out, the 2012 Rough Guide to London calls this statue “overblown” and questions its dorky sensuality. Figurative marble statuary from this period is indeed hard to look at: derivative of numerous earlier classicisms, it is often engaged in modes of historiography and/or moral allegory that bypass or clash with contemporary concerns and values, promoting sorts of idealism that seem outmoded when not openly celebratory of imperial violence, extractive economic practices, and white supremacy.
Gilroy-Ware’s triumph in The Classical Body is to carefully re-politicize what we perceive as the daffiness, essentialism, homogeneity, and what she terms the “Dream” or “Poem” of such plastic works—to permit us to see them again, reknit into the aesthetic and discursive context of their times. She additionally succeeds in drawing connections between the smooth surfaces of these objects and later expressions of Neo-Classicism, from the fluttering garments of modern ballet to the hard bodies of Nazi symbols to the hyper-depilated form of the Victoria’s Secret “Angel.” Her book is generously illustrated with full-page color images of statues, paintings, and graphic works, and it is fascinating to discover therein that what this writer, for one, took to be the cliché of the ubiquitous pale marble statue in the nineteenth century was in fact a complex means of working through an array of dispositions to public life as well as political and national sentiment. For example, Thomas Banks (1735–1805), creator of the seminude Captain Richard Rundle Burges, was a leftist activist, abolitionist, and pacifist, committed to an “egalitarian classicism.” Gilroy-Ware observes that for Banks, “the classical body became a vessel for utopian ideas.” Although Banks’s disposition was not widely shared, it is noteworthy that appropriation of so-called classical styles during this period did not always connote an enthusiasm, on the part of the artist, for endless imperial wars and colonialism.
The Classical Body’s central argument is that, in Britain, an engaged form of classicism, associated with radical republicanism and revolution, was gradually replaced by a saccharine, tacitly nationalist classicism as the nineteenth century wore on. Whereas France’s Neo-Classical nudes were tasked with allegorizing the power of the popular body released from the shackles of monarchy, British artists navigated a different set of concerns, more rarely expressing democratic values—or, for that matter, any direct political values at all—through their increasingly “Poetic” works. As Gilroy-Ware writes, “The definition of the classical body was especially sensitive to historicizing tendencies, . . . it readily lay open to revisions at any minute.” The British government’s purchase of the looted Parthenon Marbles from Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, in 1816 is one significant example of the way in which Britain embraced an imperial—here, Athenian—classicism. Artists (such as the aforementioned Banks) for whom the nakedness and dynamism particular to Greek, Roman, and later Italian sculpture might serve as an “emblem” of physical liberty and self-determination, as well as the possibility of a more equal society, were succeeded by individuals more concerned with satisfying middle-brow appetites for cavorting nymphs and militaristic muscle-bound hunks.
Gilroy-Ware thus moves the reader from the early 1800s—sometimes thought to have been an era dominated by “Grand Tourism” and the aristocratic manipulation of Classical themes, but which she reads as a more complex and diverse period of assimilation of both past sculptural styles and the writings of eighteenth-century popularizers of ancient art such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann—into the second, third, and fourth decades of the century, when what she terms “Poetic sculpture” overwhelms the utopian “Dream” originally embraced by more radical artists. She discusses Banks’s antiwar figures (some of the most revelatory passages in the book), as well as the “draped Dream” of the toga-heavy royalist creations of sculptor John Bacon Sr. (1740–1799), the origination of a “sweet” style by the draftsman and sculptor John Flaxman (1755–1826), the sylph-filled paintings of Henry Howard (1769–1847), as well as the unrelentingly sugary marbles of celebrity-artist Antonio Canova (1757–1822), which she places into illuminating dialogue with the poetry of John Keats (1795–1821). A significant chapter, “Living Dreams and Poems,” considers the horrific treatment of Saartjie Baartman (1789–1815), forcibly exhibited in the 1810s as the “Hottentot Venus,” in relation to changing British mores and conventions of sculpture and display. A regressive culture no longer pursued an “active connection between Greece and Freedom” and saw no paradox in “putting a captured African woman on stage and calling her Venus.” In this chapter, Gilroy-Ware additionally details painter Benjamin Robert Haydon’s use of a Black sailor named Wilson as a model. Having studied and sketched Wilson’s body for a month in 1810, Haydon began a year later writing a series of pseudonymous pieces as “An English Student” for the Examiner, making aggressive pseudoscientific claims regarding white superiority and purported ancestral ties to ancient Greece, employing the Parthenon Marbles as a primary example of his “racial ideal.” Here, Gilroy-Ware demonstrates how the classical body was rapidly becoming a discursive object, enabling the ideology of slavery, “the false consciousness that allowed for the exploitation and exchange of human beings as if they were inanimate things,” to overtake and replace any remnants of egalitarian political sentiment.
I first came to Gilroy-Ware’s work via an essay she published in 2019 in X-TRA magazine, “Knowledge-Montage: Page 3, Poetic Sculpture, and Print.” I was immediately taken by her fluency in multiple registers of thought—melding precise art historical narrative with contemporary commentary (on cheesecake tabloid nudes, in this particular essay)—and her highly original style of affect-theory-influenced interpretation. She deployed these in such a way as to permit me to see the interconnections and resonances inherent to the various layers of her scholarship. I was additionally struck by the synthetic and even intermedial nature of Gilroy-Ware’s overall theory of “Poetic sculpture,” a type of derivative image-making that “ushers the viewer into a remote and disinterested space,” one that is pointedly free of accurate historical narrative and rather trades in sentiment and sensuality. Throughout Gilroy-Ware’s writing there is an exciting and, I think, productive tension: While she excels at capturing the material qualities of works of sculpture (“tender, feeding the desire to caress,” “lathered in a balm,” “finished to a lactic sheen”), her goal in The Classical Body in Romantic Britain is not in fact to detail surface particulars or related techniques but rather, as she writes, “to de-aestheticize objects by bringing to light their lost connection to politicized art.” That she comes to this de-aestheticization by way of the haptic and visual qualities of sculpture forces us to contend with the works in question both as historical objects and as objects located squarely, and often uncomfortably, in the present. In this sense, Gilroy-Ware writes against modernist novelist Robert Musil’s ironic contention, cited in The Classical Body, that “there is nothing in the world as invisible as monuments.” Gilroy-Ware re-substantiates appropriations of the Classical body along with related value systems; in other words, she renders visible that which she ably deconstructs.
Date: October 7, 2020
Publisher: Art in America
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This review appears in the print edition of Art in America, November–December 2020.
FOR THE REVERSAL OF UP AND DOWN
Would you know how to look at the Antarctic, if you were lucky enough to travel there someday? What would you expect to see? Probably you, like me, anticipate a frigid landscape of snow and ice (endless ice), dotted with penguins at its coasts. We may well imagine the North Pole—that non-place taxed by its incorporation into the modern consumer rite called Christmas—doubling it, attaching it to the other side of the globe, a twin, striped post opposite or upside down, as it were. Of course, whether you and I are aware of this, language has already invited us into this fantasy of symmetry: we are thinking of the anti-arctic, that which is opposite “the bear,” i.e., Ursa Major, the prominent constellation of the northern celestial sphere; we are thinking, too, thus, of the arctic, from the Greek arktos, “bear” and, via the magic of metonymy, “north,” from which the more familiar Latin ursus comes. But would we know how to look at the Arctic, either? I vaguely remember (likely this is apocryphal) a moment from grade school, right before a geography test, someone hissing, “Which is the one with bears, again?”
I know few people who have been to the North Pole—not a spot on land, we will recall. Fewer still have been to Antarctica—the one with land, no bears. When I was 23, I traveled by train between Sweden and Finland, stopping overnight in Kiruna, a Swedish town north of the Arctic Circle and home to one of the deepest iron ore mines in the world. It was July and remained light out seemingly at all hours. With some advance arrangement, a tourist could pay to travel down into the mine, but I am afraid of heights and had no wish to do this. A year later, I learned that the local government had decided to relocate the town. Human intervention had irrevocably altered the state of the ground; Kiruna had begun to sink. As of 2020, the movement of buildings and persons two miles to the east of Kiruna’s former inner city is ongoing and will continue for another two decades. In May of this year, the largest seismic event ever caused by mining, a 4.9 magnitude earthquake, was reported at the Kiruna mine of Swedish company LKAB. The scale and risks of this now more-than-a-century-old project, along with the sums of money involved, are dizzying, staggering, disorienting. Which way is up? I think. According to Wikipedia, in 2012 the depth of the mine attained some 4,478 feet, which is to say, around the height of many peaks in the North American White Mountains, some of which I can perceive from a window in the room where I am currently sitting, typing. I also think, losing my bearings for a moment: Am I above or am I below?
The artist Himali Singh Soin has created a lens and a language for seeing in such states—which may also be landscapes—of disorientation, where up and down cease to be opposed and commonplace direction founders. Her ongoing project, we are opposite like that, which is comprised of videos, an artist’s book, as well as a musical composition and performance, partly documents travel she undertook to uninhabited parts of the Arctic’s Svalbard archipelago and the Antarctic Peninsula. It is additionally a reading of the fantastically disoriented and disorienting way of regarding these parts of the world that grew up during the so-called ages of polar exploration, the periods of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when European men set off in boats and heavy woolen clothes, hoping to access frozen reaches where they would prove their autonomy and valor by planting flags in shimmering patches of snow and ice, which were then to belong to the nations from which they came. They went in quest of efficient global circulation, pursuing a Northwest Passage, also engaging in the industrial harvesting of ice—a project that may seem quite strange to us, given contemporary refrigeration technology.
Significantly, as Soin shows in her most recent video, produced in 2019, those who remained at home were not immune to the spectral lure of these otherworldly realms, where hallucinations, disappearances, and cannibalism on the part of Europeans who sought to stake a claim or find a passage were not unknown. A negative fantasy arose in Victorian England alongside scientific research into prehistoric glaciers: when the world ended, it would end in ice. As if persecuted at long range by the very recalcitrant icescape that had consumed Captain Sir John Franklin’s mission of 1845 to discover a Northwest Passage, Victorians pictured themselves as threatened interglacial beings in popular prints and culture. They imagined the ice appearing at their doors, polar bears menacing them on the weekends at their parks, their cities enveloped by a genocidal crystalline substance. In one 1868 print by caricaturist Gustave Doré, featured in Soin’s video, a “southern savage,” who is somehow unaffected by the collapse of civilization so-called, gazes out at an empty London whose inhabitants have not survived a freeze or other apocalyptic catastrophe.
At the center of Soin’s work is a figure portrayed by the artist herself. Dressed—and sometimes seeming to nest—in a cloud of silver emergency heat blankets, this being emerges from frozen masses or walks slowly across tundra, her reflective garments shimmering and loosening in the wind. She is ice, personified. She is still here. Her movements, focused gaze, and undulating attire act as stand-ins for what the art historian Maggie Cao, an expert in landscape painting of the nineteenth century, has termed ice’s “ever-present liquidity,” its liability to “fracturing, restructuring, and, of course, melting,” its “material contradictions.” We watch as ice, solid and slow and never not in motion, departs. Soin’s figure also harbors contradictions of political history: for the Victorian sailor or imperial captain ice was at once a living adversary and cherished lifeless property; ice was a place where nothing was, into which one was compelled to travel; it was a void to be filled, a glamorous screen, a phantasmagoria at once colorless and containing every imaginable color; a killer of and magnet for fantasies; nothing and too many things. It was feminine, other. We need, it seems, some way of looking at ice. We need a language—possibly multiple languages—to address her. We are already too late.
In 1895, the year of the earliest confirmed European landing on Antarctica by the Norwegian steamship Antarctic, a Swedish physicist named Svante Arrhenius was devising the first mathematical model of what we now call global warming, showing by 1896 that increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere could lead to dramatic heating of the planet. In spite of the appetite for coal in his industrializing time, Arrhenius was unalarmed and viewed his discovery as predictive of a relatively slow process of climate change, by way of which it would take thirty centuries for CO2 levels to grow by 50 percent, his marker for a planetary temperature uptick of five to six degrees Celsius. As we know, it has in fact taken a single century for CO2 levels to increase by 30 percent.
In an email, Soin tells me, “When I finally traveled to both antipodes, they weren’t spaces, but places of loss that needed to quickly be written in order to be preserved in some way.” This sentence produces a vicarious immediacy for me: I realize that I cannot go to the North Pole, even if I do someday and somehow travel to the point in the Northern Hemisphere where, to employ the technical definition, the Earth’s axis of rotation meets its surface. Who knows how I might get there but, beyond this, who knows what sort of solidity I would be likely to encounter, what will remain of the ice in this place predicted to be passable by ship within the coming decade?
Thus I turn to the canvas-bound book that accompanies Soin’s video, hoping to orient myself in time and space via writing (a long habit with me). The book is also titled we are opposite like that, and it is taller along its spine than it is long across its pages, giving it the air and heft of a log book of some sort, a portable item that might fit in a large pocket. I think, speaking of writing and pockets, of the titular coat fabricated by Herman Melville’s narrator in his 1850 novel, White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War. This allegorical outer garment is a palimpsest, reinforced with whatever fabric comes to hand in an urgent situation aboard a ship headed for Cape Horn, “bedarned and bequilted” by the wearer “with many odds and ends of patches—old socks, old trowser-legs, and the like.” The jacket is a bound object, a sort of book with pages gathered from various sources but lacking writing: like the pale whale set to appear in Melville’s subsequent novel, the jacket is blank. It has, unfortunately for its wearer, not been waterproofed with tar—a foreshadowing of challenges to come—but, and moreover, its whiteness bespeaks the uncertainty and radical ignorance of the young sailor, who may himself be inscribed by events at sea. In book form, Soin’s we are opposite like that is also a palimpsest, but it overflows with writing from many sources and in varied genres and styles, from calligraphic poem to brief play to chart to litany to history. In one extraordinary essay, Soin makes an argument for thinking of the aurora as “a form of art writing,” for example; elsewhere, she provides a guide that may be used to “FOUND YOUR OWN LANGUAGE.” “Bequilted” into the center of the book, which may be read beginning from either cover, is a rectangular fragment cut from an emergency blanket. A reader familiar with Soin’s video might, coming to this silver page, have the sense of brushing the hem of ice’s raiment. The character, if not ice, is abruptly, materially present.
Maggie Cao advises us to read the history of ice as “reveal[ing] the intersection of environmental and political imperialisms that have long fueled our dreams and fears of entropy.” I think about this history as a force for reorientation; for replacing, rescaling the grid, much like the crossing, telescoping, turning lines I read in Soin’s book. I am learning some ways to look and read. I am learning that my own disorientation has language in it—for opposites, like hallucinations and distortions, come with, and from, language. And disorientation, like any language, must have a history.
The title of this essay borrows from that of a 2006 artwork by Tavares Strachan, Chamber with Ice: Elevator for the Reversal of Up and Down, an installation including ice harvested from Alaska, a refrigeration unit, solar panels, fans, flags, and a battery system, exhibited in Nassau, Bahamas. Strachan’s work is discussed in both of the essays by Maggie Cao I cite in the writing above.
Date: October 5, 2020
Publisher: Columbia University GSAPP Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery
Link to the exhibition site.
This essay appears as a part of A Wildness Distant, an online screening room accessible during fall of 2020.
IN 1971, BOTH THE USPS AND THE TERM “MAIL ART” WERE BORN
The first widely circulated use of the term “mail art” in print occurred in the title of an exhibition catalogue: Mail art—Communication à distance—Concept. This publication was released in November of 1971: the same year that mail processing in America was transformed by the founding of the quasi-corporate United States Postal Service. The exhibition took place on the other side of the Atlantic, as part of the seventh Biennale de Paris, and was the brainchild of a French master’s student in his early twenties. A year prior, curator Marcia Tucker had organized a show with Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondance [sic] School at the Whitney Museum of American Art, featuring postcards, letters, and drawings from 106 participants, though the survey didn’t use the term “mail art.” Indeed, artist John Held Jr. recalls that the exhibition was presented without “standard curatorial comment” altogether. The French show is significant because it foregrounds the role of the postal service itself—which looms in the background, if not the foreground, of many postal works. With the USPS’s crucial role in this year’s election, it is instructive to revisit this exhibition that highlighted the roles postal workers play in artistic production.
In the US, the transformation of mail in July of 1971 was brought about by an act of Congress that converted the former federal Post Office Department into a government-owned company that was expected to generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining. Previously, for some two centuries, American taxpayers had funded the POD. The reorganization into this autonomous entity was agreed to by unions and the government after postal employees, primarily led by Black workers, had successfully engaged in dramatic nationwide wildcat strikes in March of 1970. In New York City, where the strikes began, stocks fell and some feared that the market would close altogether. After unsuccessfully ordering postal workers back to their jobs, President Nixon summoned the National Guard to the Big Apple. However, the Guard and other miscellaneous military personnel—deployed in a mission dubbed Operation Graphic Hand—were unable to restore normal mail service. The 1970 strikes protested pay so low that many mail carriers and other workers required second jobs or received welfare assistance. In return for collective bargaining rights and long-overdue raises, postal worker unions accepted that their place of work would be run as a business—a Nixon-administration idea that they had earlier resisted. According to American mail historian Philip F. Rubio, Frederick Kappel, who had headed AT&T before becoming USPS chairman from 1972 to 1974, saw the resulting Postal Reorganization Act as a first step toward privatizing the mail.
Meanwhile, in France, the youthful scholar Jean-Marc Poinsot had become fascinated by what he perceived as an overlooked mode of artistic production, the envoi, literally “a sending,” and here, specifically, an item sent by an artist in the mail. Poinsot’s curiosity was roused by artist-friends including Christian Boltanski, Jean Le Gac, and André Cadere, with whom he was then socializing as he completed his dissertation at Nanterre. Wanting to bring greater attention to the envoi form, as well as to a growing body of work by contemporaries, Poinsot began soliciting contributions from artists in and around his network of acquaintances, writing to the Swiss Fluxus artist Ben Vautier, among others, for advice. As historian Klara Kemp-Welch notes, Poinsot explained to Vautier, who preferred to be called simply “Ben,” “Envois are only to be found in the possession of their recipients and, as they are not visible in magazines, galleries, or museums, I am obliged to return to their source.” Poinsot’s major finding about mail art seemed to be that “postal communication is a form of long-distance communication, and thereby the aesthetic object is modified both in its form and in its presentation.” Although Poinsot does not elaborate regarding this “modification,” it is clear that many artists considered the bureaucratic processes and official material and graphic formats related to the mail a significant part of the artworks they sent to one another.
The artist Ken Friedman, a Fluxus participant, has written of his experience with postal regulations and his enjoyment of the challenge of trying to send via the USPS “objects that were difficult or perhaps impossible to mail,” such as large chairs. As Friedman notes, this activity required not only precise knowledge of acceptable dimensions and packaging rules but an ability to negotiate with postal workers, who themselves became more intimately involved in the work of art in the case of a bulky or unusually shaped package—perhaps more to their annoyance than creative fulfillment. Also worth considering is the death of Aspen, the “first three-dimensional magazine,” edited by Phyllis Johnson, formerly a writer and editor for Women’s Wear Daily and other periodicals. Aspen met its end in 1971 (the year of Poinsot’s exhibition and the creation of the USPS), after six years of operation and ten issues. The project lost its second-class mail license due to the Postal Service’s ruling that Aspen was not a magazine but rather a “non-descript publication” that was “unclassifiable; belonging, or apparently belonging, to no particular class or kind.” Without a second-class license, it was prohibitively expensive to mail subscribers the experimental magazine—a box containing thematically organized media items. Both of these examples point up the simultaneous freedom and banal constraint represented by the postal service, particularly in regard to visual art. It is clear that artists associated with mail art were interested in the possibilities of the post as a means of circumventing the formality of galleries and museums, of establishing intimacy across distance, and of engendering surprise and joy in one another—not to overlook the general cheapness of this method of sharing work, particularly meaningful in the US, where artists have long been unable to expect much assistance from their government. We might also add that mail art could (and can) be a form of political resistance, establishing vocabularies and codes that would be significant to recipients but meaningless to state censors or other less-than-welcome readers. All the same, artist Yves Klein, who created a series of stamps in his signature blue for exhibition invitations in the 1950s, had to be sure that his self-made postage was regulation size. At the post office, he not only paid the established price for mailing but also tipped the postal clerk to postmark his diminutive paintings. This was not an economic exchange of the same order as one with a gallerist, collector, or museum acquisitions representative, but it was nevertheless a necessary negotiation. And all those who mail artworks (or, anything at all, for that matter) engage in such apparently mundane and yet official, regulated, and theoretically uniform transactions.
In his quest to make an array of (previously semi-private) mailed artworks visible on the occasion of the 1971 Biennale, Jean-Marc Poinsot turned not only to practitioners associated with Fluxus, but also to artists who were participating in slightly older networks: the francophone Nouveaux Réalistes and Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondance School, a network of artists who engaged in a sort of postal “dance.” The responses to Poinsot’s invitation were overwhelmingly numerous and varied, surprising and delighting him (he had a good mail day every day for several years, he claimed). The project, which was originally conceived as taking the form of a book exclusively, grew by chance when Poinsot was invited to contribute to the section of the 1971 Biennale devoted to conceptual art. Poinsot selected forty artists—among whom were such well-known figures as Johnson himself and On Kawara—to be included in the book as well as in the exhibition. He also designed a participatory component: visitors to the installation were able to mail their own letters using a stamp dispenser and a working post box and were invited to make phone calls using a provided stall and to employ photocopiers as well as a photo booth to reproduce traces of their presence in the cavernous gallery in the Parc Floral de Vincennes. The exhibition, which included a selection of works by Eastern European artists, traveled to Belgrade in January of 1972 and to Zagreb the following March.
One of the more unexpected qualities of Poinsot’s exhibition was its inclusion of a number of artists from the Soviet bloc, where state control of media and other institutions gave their envois a different valence from that of pieces produced in the West. Some of these works were designed to encode messages in the guise of “nonsensical” aesthetic experimentation; others were subject to redaction and other forms of institutional mark-making and censorship. Mailings by the Hungarians Gyula Konkoly and Endre Tót as well as the Czechoslovak Petr Štembera were included—with each artist engaging in his own form of pointed evacuation of meaning from his missives: Konkoly simply reproduced a rejection letter from a grant-making organization in Paris, Tót opted for a series of O’s in lieu of words, and Štembera offered a grouping of blank pages. Tót additionally made use of a poignant artist’s stamp that proclaimed the reason for his communications: “I write to you because I am here and you are there.” When the show arrived at the Galerija Studentski Centar in Zagreb, the gallery director, Želemir Koščević, elected not to open the crate containing all of the envois but rather exhibited the container itself as-was, documenting this artful decision by having himself photographed standing before and atop it. As Kemp-Welch writes, Koščević believed that the exhibition of the works at the Biennale in Paris had “marked the end of the life of this idea,” and that he was therefore exhibiting “the postal package as postal package.” So concluded the circulation of Poinsot’s precocious and unusually engaged master’s thesis.
As Gérard Régnier, a critic and later the director of the Picasso Museum, wrote under his penname “Jean Clair” in a succinct and illuminating preface to the exhibition catalogue, once an object or practice is considered art—“consecrated to, confiscated by a museum” —it then loses its everyday role, becoming, in a sense, “superbly useless.” Thus, there was some acknowledgement that a number anti-institutional artistic practices were receiving their first institutional recognition by being included in a traveling exhibition and a publication with a print run of 1,500 copies. Yet, Poinsot was more concerned with loftier questions in his introduction. Writing in the tortured style of a diligent graduate student, he focused on the question of how meaning relates to artistic form, citing Marcel Duchamp as a paradigmatic example of an artist who generated a “self-enclosed” world of signification, in which the art object is at once a “means of communication and . . . a study of the mechanisms of communication.” Poinsot offered Duchamp’s exploration of postal dynamics in Rendez-vous of [Sunday] 6 February 1916, a series of postcards narrating a meeting as well as explaining some of Duchamp’s own works, as a canonical example of art commenting upon distribution networks. That Duchamp gave these postcards by hand to his friends, Louise and Walter Arensberg, much-noted collectors of modernist works, might be seen as further proof that the artist intended to comment on the channels that enable art to circulate and survive. Poinsot, for his part, was very concerned with how an artwork intended for a private recipient might become public, “the means by which,” as he wrote, “we become conscious of [these artworks].” He considered that artists might at some point decide to sell some of the works they received by mail, but would do so at “risk of distorting their meaning.”
As we know, this episode, far from representing the conclusion of mail art, was merely one in a long series of actions and events that are ongoing today. Many artists with varied practices, from Yoko Ono to Joseph Beuys to K8 Hardy, have engaged in reciprocal mail-art practices, defying the stereotype of the isolated, incommunicative genius. A visit to the post office can indeed seem so ordinary (or, so distressingly, ploddingly time-consuming, depending on the time of year and one’s location) that it can be easy to forget the incredible benefit that a state-run, non-market-driven post represents. In the United States, where cuts in service and compensation have been the norm since 2011 and where the federal government has repeatedly attempted to privatize the service since the Kappel Commission recommended that the postal service be “self-supporting,” some citizens may forget that an inexpensive and ubiquitous mail system is essential. As commentators and historians have pointed out with increasing frequency, the United States Postal Service continues to be the only delivery service that goes everywhere in the United States, “to patrons in all areas” and “all communities,” as Title 39 specifies. This law also says, rather plainly, “The costs of establishing and maintaining the Postal Service shall not be apportioned to impair the overall value of such service to the people.” Meanwhile, FedEx and UPS—whose options that are significantly more price-impaired—deliver, in combination, approximately 130 billion fewer pieces of mail within the United States than the USPS each year. This is a figure that takes a moment to sink in.
Although much is currently being made, and very rightly so, of Trump-campaign donor Louis DeJoy’s June 2020 ascent to the position of postmaster general—along with his leaked plans for austerity, slowing of service, and firing of senior USPS officials—DeJoy’s ambitions are not entirely original. For nearly fifty years the USPS has maintained its awkward status as a semi-public/semi-private “self-supporting” corporate entity. Its ability to continue on this path has been challenged not just by the advent of email and other forms of electronic communication, but by oversight issues, including a provision in a 2006 law that requires the USPS to fund employees’ future retirement medical benefits in advance, which has been blamed, if controversially, for many of its financial woes. The Great Recession did significant damage, and the company has not turned a profit since 2007. In the context of art, it is difficult to imagine On Kawara notifying a wide array of individuals of the time at which he woke up at a rate of $12.40 (intrastate delivery to a residential address by UPS) or $8.50 (by FedEx “One Rate” envelope) or more per missive. Recall that a first-class “Forever” stamp that will cause your envelope to be conveyed anywhere within the United States, most likely in a matter of days, is currently priced at 55 cents. Perhaps now is a good time to stock up.
Date: September 29, 2020
Publisher: Art in America
Link to the essay.
LUCY IVES REWATCHES A DYSTOPIAN BUDDY MOVIE
Primer (2004) asks what happens when history is always hanging in the balance
Primer is a film by US director, actor and writer Shane Carruth. Shot independently on a US$7,000 budget in 2004, it was released in cinemas in 2007 and has since garnered a cult following. It concerns the accidental invention of a time machine by two entrepreneurial engineers who labour away at a box-like contraption in a garage start-up (that mythic American site) on the anonymous outskirts of Dallas. Although the plausibility of the science at stake is not crucial to the viewer’s immersion in the situation, Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan)’s device at first seems to be a means of countering gravity; its ability to transport them back in time is a secondary discovery. For Carruth, on the other hand, the film’s science is crucial. So devoted is Primer to impenetrable engineer-speak and avoidance of plot-related exposition that it has spawned a mini-subgenre of explanatory videos and other dissections online. And, although it is ostensibly an exploration of what might happen if you had the ability to go back in time, it also serves as a perfect time capsule of the malaise of US President George W. Bush’s second term.
In Primer, Aaron and Abe tell each other that they want to use the time machine to game the stock market. Their main source of solidarity in this scheme is that neither can pinpoint what exactly makes the device work, although each privately comprehends that, in order to avoid catastrophe, he must control the/a past in which there is a ‘fail-safe’ machine that can be used to destroy all future machines and, therefore, prevent the very discovery of time travel. Abe believes that he is in command of the one and only fail-safe; however, it eventually becomes clear that Aaron is one step ahead of – and behind – him.
The infinitely regressive narrative arms race to control the fail-safe is hard to perceive in the film itself, given that it proceeds according to a standard linear plot. By the time the viewer realizes what is going on, Aaron and Abe have replicated themselves multiple times and exist in a universe in which it is possible not only to change the past but to kill oneself and carry on living. This strenuously unsimplified depiction of the effects of unfettered recursion is about more than just best buddies under late capitalism and weird science. Rather, it allegorizes a negative fantasy about historical consciousness that was endemic to the early 2000s, during the time of the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq – an era which presages the current age of fake news, as well as the combatting of manufactured narrative through public protests, the making-real through collective presence.
Primer trades in narrative spleen. The characters develop extraordinarily pessimistic relationships – not just with each other, but with the notion of life lived on a unique, unrepeatable timeline. For the two time travellers, all events become mutable and suspect, losing their intrinsic value. Here story, too, is unimportant: the only thing that matters is strategy. Existence becomes as non-narrative as it is agonistic, with time serving the most meagre of purposes – as the passive substrate in which Aaron and Abe are at war. Aaron and Abe’s existential battle concerns origins. Each wants to be in possession of the determining fail-safe. The time traveller who controls this device can render his partner entirely unaware of the disruptive Pandora’s box to which the garage has given rise and, therefore, prevent time travel from being invented. He who emerges from the fail-safe has the power to create a plot and a future in which he can claim, borrowing the all-too-familiar trope: ‘It was only a dream!’ The question is: who will have the privilege of determining what shall have become real? It’s not writing history that I’m talking about here, metaphorically speaking, but the invention of the very media and language that allow someone to write it. What would the present look and feel like, the film asks, if such radical forms of control over history were, in fact, hanging in the balance?
Date: September 1, 2020
Format: Print, web
Link to the article.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, September 2020, issue 213, with the title "Reverse Forecast."
RENEGADE ART HISTORIAN ABY WARBURG CHALLENGED THE DISCIPLINE’S ELITISM WITH PHOTOGRAPHY
I suppose I am something of an Aby Warburg agnostic. Or, I vacillate. The German-Jewish art historian (1866–1929) is known for his “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne” project, a compendium of photographs of artworks as well as other print items from across time and cultures categorized and mounted on cloth, by means of which Warburg sought to illustrate his theory of collective memory. Warburg is, to me, a figure of a certain mystery: he is now beloved by thinkers in every corner of the humanities for his innovative, comparative approach to the analysis of images, but during his lifetime his work was poorly understood. He, in turn, maintained a certain distance from academia and its tendency to privilege rote diachronic accounts of the development of art. Hailing from an immensely wealthy banking family, Warburg was able to act as an independent scholar, gathering a library of books and tens of thousands of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs and other images documenting artworks that became the basis for the prestigious Warburg Institute, located in Hamburg until 1933 and subsequently in London. In a biography, eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote that he sometimes felt as though Warburg “had no method, but he had a message.” His characterization gets at a major difficulty: by what criteria does one assess the work of a scholar who occasionally acted like an artist—who sought to undo what he termed the grenzpolizeiliche Befangenheit (border-police-style close-mindedness) of disciplinary practice?
Warburg began his art historical studies in a fairly standard way, completing his doctoral thesis at the Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence, in 1892. Yet, even as he absorbed more staid philological material, he was a super-fan of two interdisciplinary works, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laokoön (1766), a reflection on the representational capacities of painting and poetry, and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1834), a satirical novel ostensibly about the history of fashion. The latter was the apex of critical prose, as far as Warburg was concerned. Warburg was a scholar of the Italian Renaissance, yet he was also interested the art of Greece, Rome, and Northern Europe, and was most of all invested in wide-ranging questions regarding the meaning and evolution of images. His early exploration of excessive quantities of what he termed bewegtes Beiwerk, wittily translated by Gombrich as “accessories in motion”—an inspired way of thinking about the pleats in garments worn by Botticelli’s female figures—later became a series of semi-scientific convictions about the literal inscription of memory images in the human nervous system.
At the center of Warburg’s theory were visual forms he termed Pathosformeln, or repeating, historically traceable figurative gestures and expressions. An 1895 trip to the United States led to an obsession with Hopi religious practices and dance, which Warburg saw as confirming his beliefs about cultural evolution, in which Western art represented a later stage of development in a universal process of working through violent and fearful impulses to arrive at reasoned responses to the world. He concluded, in one instance via a study of children’s drawings, that the Hopi used a symbolic snake form to represent lightning, a potentially threatening meteorological phenomenon. Warburg’s continually developing theory was profoundly influenced by Charles Darwin’s 1872 The Expression of Emotion in Animals and Men (“At last,” Warburg remarked in his diary, “a book that helps me!”), as well as evolutionary biologist Richard Semon’s Mneme, a 1908 tract from which Warburg borrowed much of his theory of collective memory wholesale.
But even as Warburg flirted with broad, sometimes simplistic assumptions and supernatural syntheses, he was devoted to detailed work on the Western canon. He had the obsessive, acquisitive eye of a collector but, unlike many individuals of his class, preferred to acquire books and photographs rather than paintings and sculpture. Warburg had forsaken his birthright at the helm of the Warburg banking enterprise in exchange for a generous budget to be used for acquiring the texts and media necessary to his research. Beginning in the 1880s, photographs were reproducible as paper prints, and Warburg took advantage of this development in his research, commissioning a small number of photographic reproductions of Renaissance artworks for his dissertation. But it was not until the 1920s that he began arranging numerous documentary photographs of paintings and other works in the set of displays that were to become his Typenatlas (character atlas) or Bilderatlas (image atlas), the compendium of types he named “Mnemosyne,” after the Ancient Greek goddess of memory, who was also the mother of the muses. At this time, Warburg was in later middle age and had already suffered a catastrophic mental breakdown that put him in a sanatorium for three years, from 1921 to ’24. When he died suddenly from a heart attack in October of 1929, a book version of the “Atlas” was still in early stages.
A description of what the “Atlas” was—and now is, given a newly published catalogue, Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne: The Original, and the delayed exhibition of the same title, currently scheduled for September 12–November 30 at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin—can help to explain Warburg’s recent rehabilitation, which began in the 1980s. To illustrate his theory of how “Western man” individually and collectively used visual representations to overcome “primitive” phobic instincts, he and other members of the Institute staff began grouping photographs of historical artworks around 1926. Starting in 1928, these groups were mounted on vertical panels of stretched black Hessian (i.e., burlap) of approximately 60 by 50 inches and displayed in the Warburg Institute’s library in Hamburg, sometimes accompanying Warburg’s lectures. Warburg collaborated closely with Gertrud Bing (1892–1964), a former doctoral student of philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s and a scholar of German Neo-Classicism who was to become the director of the Warburg Institute from 1954 to ’64. After Warburg’s abrupt death, Bing was the individual most knowledgeable about the panels and their intended destiny, as plates in a book to be titled Mnemosyne. Warburg had planned to explicate the image series in two additional volumes of text but was unable to do so; only his preface survives. Glass negatives had already been made from some of the image-arrangements, but the metal plates to be used in the printing of the book were never created. Although Bing was able to provide her own captions based on her conversations with Warburg for a number of the panels—“Superlatives of gestural language. Haughtiness of self-confidence,” for example—the images were separated from the panels, the original frames and fabric lost. During the 1930s, staff sorted these images back into the immense pictorial archive, and a subsequent re-indexing further muddled matters. The “Atlas” was considered largely lost, if not a bit crackpot.
It was only in the second volume of Warburg’s Gesammelte Schriften (Collected Writings), published in 2000, that the glass negatives created in 1929 were used to publish fragmentary pictorial evidence of the “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne.” Editors Martin Warnke and Claudia Brink produced black-and-white images from the negatives, printing them at a reduced size that tended to obscure their details. They also left off additional commentary, given the lack of extant captioning by Warburg himself. This publication was in no small part encouraged by the resurgence of interest in the works of Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), whose theories of media and history had come to seem prescient, particularly in the Anglophone world, with the 1969 publication of Illuminations, edited and introduced by Hannah Arendt and subsequently popularized by John Berger in his 1972 TV series and book, Ways of Seeing. (While Warburg was only peripherally aware of Benjamin during his lifetime, Benjamin sent Warburg a copy of his thesis on Baroque Trauerspiel, or tragic drama, which cited Warburg.) Like Benjamin, who often engaged in leaps of thought and argument by way of metaphorical image rather than logical deduction, Warburg was concerned with Zwischenräume, the spaces in between, as well as something he termed Denkraum, or room for thought.
If the “Bilderatlas Mnemosyne” shows more than it tells, this is by design. Warburg hoped to create a visual tool that would foster what he saw as art’s innate ability to generate reflective, dialectical distance for the viewer, a key to the civilizing process: by means of this Distanz, states of rational detachment can co-exist with animalistic frenzy, the sober philosopher meets the rampaging maenad, over and over through the ages. This seems like an odd intellectual goal now, but the panels hold an aesthetic fascination that either exceeds this magic theory or, paradoxically, proves it. I find them strange and hard to look away from—whether they combine depictions of “Ascent to the sun,” “The cosmic system as a dice board,” or “Monumentalizing and dissociation,” to name but a few of the trans-historical motifs studied.
The panels are particularly fascinating in the new book, published by Hatje Cantz. At approximately 17 1/2 by 24 inches and 184 pages, the volume is massive enough that I had to strain to get it up my front steps after the UPS guy deposited it there from a safe social distance (speaking of Zwischenraum). The book requires its own desk (luckily I have two in my office) or, preferably, a free-standing support of some sort, which one may discover by googling “nineteenth-century book furniture.” It is the result of a Herculean, or perhaps Cinderellan, feat on the part of historian Roberto Ohrt and artist Axel Heil, who rediscovered the 971 original images by meticulously combing through the some 400,000 now included in the Warburg Institute archive. The book is probably best handled slowly and with gloves, as the large pages crease easily and pick up fingerprints. It’s a dramatic art object in itself, one requiring a kind of physical care to which most of us, myself included, are unused, except in the context of religious practice or visits to institutional archives. Upon receiving the tome, I experienced successive waves of elation and annoyance. What an amazing achievement! I thought. Then, but why do I have to read it standing up?!
The book offers a series of eighty-three full-page color photographs of painstaking reproductions of the original “Atlas Mnemosyne” (as it is called in English), expanding on the work accomplished by the collected writings volume in 2000. It also includes black-and-white prints from the available glass negatives. On the page facing each panel image, captions parse the montages, and sometimes there are close-ups of selected images. A feeling of detective work comes with extended study of these arrangements and glosses. One believes oneself to be re-seeing long-familiar images of Poseidon or Hermes, for example, as fresh figures un-dulled by repetition in Neo-Classical marble or recent appropriation in the US for sugar-free gum branding or flower-delivery logos. In particular, the violence endemic to some Classical imagery and the repetition of this violence in the Renaissance is made, if you will pardon the pun, striking by Warburg’s constellations. There was for me an equal puzzlement at what I experienced as Warburg’s obsession with Western origins and his sometimes paranoid logic of analogy, which in panel seventy-seven, for example, brings together female figures from twentieth-century advertising for anti-aging cream with the mythical person of Medea, murderer of her own children. Here I thought of the repetitious imagery later deployed to more subversive, anti-philological ends by Pop and Conceptual artists, in particular the installations of Hanne Darboven (1941–2009), although many artists have been influenced by Warburg. The panels are hypnotic; with their clear details, they inspire hunts for correspondences that may or may not have been intended by Warburg himself. Yet I kept wondering if there might not have been another way to design the book. Its dedication to the pre-twentieth-century Bilderatlas format means that it must function like a reference volume. Priced at two hundred euros (about $222), it will be unaffordable to many.
RETURNING TO MY earlier question reimagining scholarly disciplines from the inside: the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman has described Warburg as a ghost who haunts the discipline of art history. Certainly, Warburg worked to call many of its tenets into question, not least of all its elitism. His “Atlas” was intended to be reproducible as a book, to circulate widely; it also aimed to accomplish a kind of deskilling in relation to so-called visual literacy, suggesting that the most important aspects of art cannot be grasped through philological expertise and complex terminology. Some have solved the puzzle of Warburg’s simultaneous critique of his discipline and extreme insider-ness by thinking of him as an eccentric philosopher of typologies with a serious collecting habit, an erudite hoarder. But this is to overlook Warburg’s interest in technologies related to mechanical reproduction. Photography, among other technical means of reproducing images, became part of his intellectual practice and affected his theories and method. Although he himself did not use a camera to reproduce artworks, Warburg was in no small part a photographer. His elaborate hypothesis regarding the trans-historical transmission of images served to justify his working not primarily with painted surfaces and marbles (as many other historians of the Renaissance might) but with photographs and techniques of montage. And because he had to create his own teaching materials, he also acted as a designer. Although the “Atlas” functions imperfectly as a work of art, its multifarious author is by no means exclusively scholarly in his pursuits.
Yet, it is surprising that a scholar of the Italian Renaissance would forsake the “artist’s hand,” not to mention the original, authentic object, in favor of the reproducible photographic image. Even among more recent commentators on the history of art, it is common to hear of loss and forgetfulness associated with the proliferation of photographs. Critic Benjamin Buchloh, for one, has considered “whether, under the universal reign of photographic reproduction, mnemonic experience could even continue to be constructed.” Warburg seems to have taken a different view—one analogous to that of his contemporary Walter Benjamin. In a 1931 essay, “Little History of Photography,” Benjamin discusses the photograph’s tendency to reveal “material physiognomic aspects, image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things.” This is particularly true of early, metal-plate photography techniques such as daguerreotype, which can record minute particulars at a resolution many present-day digital cameras cannot match; as Benjamin writes, “It is through photography that we first discover the existence of [an] optical unconscious.” It is in the spirit of such an optical unconscious—a collectively authored archive of unintended and often-unrecognized visual detail—that Warburg’s “Atlas” is best viewed. This should be done in the spirit of Warburg’s embrace of photography and pursuant embrace of a “technological concept of art,” also a notion I derive (somewhat circuitously) from Benjamin. Far from despairing that the new regime of infinitely reproducible photographic images would, as Buchloh puts it, prevent the construction of “mnemonic experience,” Warburg seems to have wagered that the proliferation of images would permit us to see new, unconsciously created mnemonic worlds, ever multiplying and coalescing dialectically within images. As the existence of a related neologism, “meme,” suggests, on this point at least Warburg was right.
Date: June 8, 2020
Publisher: Art in America
Link to the essay.
MOYRA DAVEY CAPTURES THE PHOTOGRAPHIC IMPULSE OF WRITING
Moyra Davey repeats herself. Or, as she puts it, she “cannibaliz[es].” She reframes beloved references across her repertoire of media. In various interviews, in one of her essay-films (Les Goddesses, 2011), and in her writing in her new collection—Index Cards, out today from New Directions—I find a sentence attributed to German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder: “The more honestly you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.” In Index Cards, it appears twice: in the essay-script for Les Goddesses and as an epigraph for “One Year,” the brief contents of a notebook that she kept in 2012–13. In the second instance, the quote is slightly expanded and, one assumes, more accurate to Fassbinder’s original statement, as if it’s been verified, rather than casually remembered: “I’d say the more you put yourself into the stories, that is, the more ‘honestly’ you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.” This is not the only statement attributed to another author that comes in for such treatment in Davey’s work. Throughout her writing and filmmaking, she iterates the words of artists and writers she admires. Their phrases and sentences repeat, much like the serial motifs and formats one sees in her work in photography: images of empty liquor bottles, images of books, images of newspaper kiosks, images of pennies, images of dust, images of people writing on the New York City subway, images folded and mailed, images created by filming photographs made earlier in Davey’s career—to name but a few of her categories and strategies.
For me, Davey, who is sometimes described as a “conceptual artist using photography,” or someone who “works across photography, video, and writing,” fosters a space in which discourse on the arts (photographic and literary histories, in particular), fiction, critical theory, and autobiography flow together, frequently taking the form of pictures rather than sentences or paragraphs. As we learn in Index Cards, which contains fifteen prose pieces dating from 2006 to 2019, as well as a number of small black-and-white reproductions of images by Davey, there is a certain “magic circle” drawn around the authors Davey prefers. “Magic circle” is a phrase that the critic Walter Benjamin applied to the act of creating a collection, and with it he implies at once the synthetic quality of collections and the collector’s selectivity, according these a mildly occult valence via his chosen metaphor. The collector is a creator not just of piles of stuff, but of categories, genres. And with new genres come new aesthetic possibilities. Davey’s “magic circle” encompasses those writers who form the grounds from which her photographs, as she says, “take seed.” Her canon includes (but seems not to be limited to) James Baldwin, Roland Barthes, Benjamin himself, Jane Bowles, Jean Genet, Hervé Guibert, Violette Leduc, Janet Malcolm, Susan Sontag, Robert Walser, Simone Weil, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf. Along the edges of this circle, figures such as Freud, Goethe, Kafka, and Muriel Spark crop up. These sources may seem disparate, but as one reads Davey’s reflections on reading and writing—co-implicated activities—it becomes apparent that all are assembled for a reason. Each has a distinct relationship to detail and clarity in prose, as well as a unique affection for mixing firsthand, reportorial, or autobiographical writing with the fictive or speculative. And while some existed (Wollstonecraft, Goethe) before photography was, strictly speaking, a thing, there is nonetheless something of a photographic impulse in all this writing: a drive to describe and to render as image, a boundless hunger for vividness and particularity that would seem to threaten to exceed the limited capacity of words.
In one of the most beautiful texts in Index Cards, “Les Goddesses,” (The Goddesses), which also serves, as I note above, as a script for Davey’s film of the same name, Davey reflects on the heroic, peripatetic existence of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), feminist, historian, novelist, and philosopher. Davey derives the piece’s title from the superlative nickname given to Wollstonecraft’s two daughters, Fanny Imlay and Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), as well as Shelley’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. Upon meeting these three accomplished and desirable women, American politician (and Alexander Hamilton antagonist) Aaron Burr bestowed the sobriquet. Davey writes, “The real story concerning the lives of these extraordinary women is filled with many paradoxes, and without a doubt it is more fantastic than any fiction.” “Les Goddesses” is additionally an account of Davey’s fascination with travelogues—with Goethe’s report of his voyage to Italy, Louis Malle’s documentary Phantom India (1969), Wollstonecraft’s descriptions of her time in Scandinavia, Mary Shelley’s collaboration with Percy Bysshe Shelley on History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni—and it is also a study of family dynamics, of how, in particular, sisters imitate and reflect one another. It is, thus, an essay about how images circulate within families, how family members create images of themselves, identify with one another or elect not to. To this series of themes Davey adds one further: the difficult-to-narrate history of her own relationship with alcohol, what she terms “the Wet.” It is a testament to the capaciousness of Davey’s thought that she is able to weave personal memory and literary and political history together in a series of extended and interconnected gazes—or, better, breaths. Near the end of “Les Goddesses,” Davey quotes Benjamin: “There is a delicate empiricism which so intimately involves itself with the object that it becomes true theory.” It seems to me that much of Davey’s writing goes in search of such a theory, an innovative genre that discovers its remarkable combinatory capacity through engagement with minor, fugitive qualities, as well as an openness to discovering intimate facts in sometimes impersonal and distant places.
In the film versions of her essays, Davey reads from a stack of pages or repeats words from a recording she listens to on an iPhone, one earbud in, the other hanging from its cord. This documented repetition, the recirculation of language already written and, then, in many cases existing as quotations from other sources within that very writing, heightens our sense that, wherever we are in relation to Davey’s language, we are already well within the province of something that has come before, with text standing as a preexisting item or object that is here merely recycled, reshown, lived through once more. With Davey, we are always in medias res. There are no beginnings in her accounts; narrative origins are refused, because they aren’t really good for anything. Worse than this, they are often chimeras. And I think this brilliant capacity on Davey’s part to transport her reader or viewer or listener into the very midst, the heart, of a given text, is what most distinguishes her practice. Davey says of her engagement with scripts and words, “One of the ways I’d kept photography alive for myself was through writing.” We might expand this statement to see writing as a more general practice for artistic and personal survival, in which repetition, far from dulling experience, richly complicates and supports life.
Date: May 27, 2020
Publisher: Art in America
Link to the essay.
(RALPH LAUREN, THE J.CREW PEOPLE, AND OTHER) BLUFFS
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I pertained to a household that received several general-interest glossy magazines, along with the J.Crew catalog. While there were many items to fascinate a young person (who was only partially literate at this time) between the covers of the magazines, a certain set of advertisements held my attention in a way that little else did: images that celebrated the brand Ralph Lauren were not merely narrative but mysterious, somehow subterranean in their intent; they portrayed (usually, although not exclusively) white Americans in opulent settings, richly dressed. The models, whose symmetrical faces shone with terrifying perfect health, were the focus of every ad. They evinced the specific yet distant psychology of characters in a novel one means to read but has not yet read, heroines of unwatched films. I studied these portraits of anonymous pert beauties (occasionally of a certain age) and glowering hunks in cashmeres, silks, furs, cottons, cotton flannels, and wools. I sniffed the pages, nearly drank them. There was a lesson here about the past, and about how people understood one another now, in the present. The men and women had priceless vintage cars, touched one another’s arms, were accompanied by schnauzers, skied with a child, sat on sand or lawns. These images formed a story about family, at once whispered and loudly proclaimed, for those who grasped its codes. It was a story about nation and inheritance, too. I strove to know whatever the person who had created the images knew. I turned to the pages of J.Crew’s seasonal offerings as if I might discover the further elaboration of a plot. Here, however, the models were less obsessed by an ancient familial saga; they merely disported themselves at a rented beach house. I assumed that they were probably the liberal cousins of the Lauren figures, yuppies or something, individuals I might today peg as better-adjusted prototypes for HBO’s Cousin Greg, of the network’s latest sociological study, Succession. They lived less well and their garments were thinner, yet these J.Crew people seemed the more likely to survive.
I did not understand, then, that Ralph Lauren was (additionally) a person, since the two terms merely connoted “boy’s first name plus girl’s first name” as far as I was concerned, and did not quite add up to a human. Lauren was an assimilated version of the founder and designer’s family name, which had at one time been Lifshitz, Belarusian and Ashkenazi; of course, I did not know this. Nor did I know that Lauren hailed from a modest household in the Bronx, the same borough where my own father—who also had an assimilated last name, Iranian and Assyrian—had been born just a year before Ralph Lifshitz.
Although I believed myself to be encountering a drama about important adults, in looking at Ralph Lauren’s ads I was also absorbing a sort of structuralist approach to American social hierarchy, one pioneered by the golden age of Hollywood cinema, if not the mythical Jay Gatsby himself, that was now being leveraged by Ralph Lauren into an empire of something that would soon be termed lifestyle. It was a generalized picture language about taste, affluence, and comfort, even as it was also a series—a “line”—of real things one could buy. It is perhaps no accident it was in 1977, the year when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sported head-to-toe Ralph Lauren in the comedic film Annie Hall, that the art critic Douglas Crimp composed his now-famous essay for a late-September show at Artists Space, Pictures.
Crimp discusses the regime of pictures, “signifying structure[s] of their own accord,” how the removal of syntagmatic context permitted the exhibiting artists to “isolate, distill, alter, and augment” certain appropriated images, such that “representation [is] freed from the tyranny of the represented.” In these pictures, the viewer is alleged to see the very mechanism of representation, which Crimp associates, above all else, with memory. Or, as Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer winsomely demands of Diane Keaton’s Hall when she insists on telling him the family story behind her mannish tie, “What’d you do, grow up in a Norman Rockwell painting?” Although the audience understands Singer and Hall as engaged in a struggle to understand their respective identities and origins and to love each other across various divides (above all, gender) they are also (and I am unsure about Allen’s intentions here) acting as Ralph Lauren models. Whatever the other messages of the film, the garments the two wear in every scene present a sort of unified front of floating signifiers by means of which the audience may aspire to a finance-driven America to come, one in which anyone can experience the good life—which is now merely superficially coded as white and Protestant—provided he or she has the means and perspicuity to buy it. It isn’t cheap, this drag, but soon it will be everywhere. And when it is everywhere (i.e., now), it will be cheap, too.
The uncanny thing about picture languages is their simultaneous vulnerability (to abrupt recoding) and impenetrability (to historical interpretation). Crimp associated the pared-down aesthetic of the so-called Pictures Generation with the way in which paradigmatic linguistic concepts combine image and word into a sort of mnemonic bundle; it is, to his mind, a crucial, critical gesture for visual art of the late 1970s to point up this underlying mechanism within representation and, therefore, sensemaking. Reporters and fashion critics of the period, meanwhile, were also concerned with memory, although for different reasons. Discussing Ralph Lauren’s meteoric ascent, the press would frequently add a “né Lifshitz” tag of some sort to the first mention of his name. In this way they at once indicated his, to them, unforgettable origins, even as they pointed out the miraculous, world-historical artifice Lauren was so busy confecting. I, on the third hand, since not yet reading with any sort of ease in the late 1980s, only encountered an opaque string of pictures, forms. In a sense, I had to take these ads as they were. I would never, for example, have been able to draw particular distinctions between a patrician domestic scene as captured, for example, by Tina Barney and the latest Lauren spread—except perhaps to say that people in Lauren’s world looked cleaner and more certain. And I could easily have been guilty, had anyone bothered to demand some art criticism from my prepubescent self, of the naive offense Peter Galassi indicates in a short essay on Barney’s photography: “One dispiriting measure of the writing about Barney’s work is that the figure most often mentioned (other than Barney herself) is not another artist but the clothing purveyor Ralph Lauren”. Indeed, here I’m partly repeating, although for good reason, this very error.
Thus, while the images Buck Ellison creates follow in a tradition of large-scale color portraiture developed by the likes of Barney, along with photographers such as Catherine Opie and Thomas Struth, they also partake, in no small measure, of the critical innovations of second- and third-wave conceptualisms, which tend to identify and play explicitly upon discursive structures located in media and behavior, as in Crimp’s description of the work in Pictures, indicating larger systems and economies, some of which are historical in nature. I see Ellison’s work as at once concerned with the traditional purviews of portraiture—likeness, sentiment, and, yes, beauty—even as it is committed to ends we are more likely to associate with criticism: analyzing the ways in which conventions of image making and image reception structure the world, as well as revealing not just particular lifestyles, but inequalities and assumptions about normality and the status quo.
But how exactly does one deploy likeness, sentiment, and, yes, beauty to critical ends? Ellison’s portraits are staged, and extraordinarily so: he does not merely arrange his figures but casts models to play parts in, for example, his Christmas Card series, depictions of a family that substitutes, visually at least, for Ellison’s own. Ellison tells me that he does not instruct the models as to how they should arrange their faces or bodies, but rather takes a large quantity of digital photographs, which he edits together afterwards to achieve an ex post facto collaboration among his stand-ins that constitutes a “yearly” photo. When I look at these images, which are certainly “pictures,” in Crimp’s sense, I find myself struggling to determine who is who within the artificial family. Ellison’s casting at once heightens the significance of roles within the group—such that one says, “OK, he is the father; she’s the mom,” and so on—and removes context to such an extent that there is very little left to see within the picture, save one’s own attempt to parse it. And, as I remark to Ellison in conversation, it’s also true that these people are not actually related to one another. In this sense, the image shows a “family” to which the prohibition against incest does not pertain. While they’ve clearly been dressed (Ellison tells me he works with the stylist Charlotte Collet, a fact I love) to typify a mid- to late-aughts upper- or upper-middle-class Californian aesthetic, there’s also something unavoidably general about the clothes, even slightly unattractive. One person has on a garment I can only describe as semiformal shorts. These are puffy, paired with a childish genre of Adidas sneakers, no socks; if the wearer were not strikingly beautiful, she would look ridiculous. However, instead of looking ridiculous she looks “casual.” In fact, she looks like the paradigmatic expression of that category, a sort of Kantian daughter-in-law or older sister, just the sort of person one needs: to make a simple salad for the holiday repast, clean up wrapping paper without being asked, or linger artfully in the kitchen, nursing a glass of prosecco. Meanwhile, the individual I take to be the patriarch sports a hideous patterned shirt indicating an interest in safaris. One is uncertain as to whether he picked this item up on his latest NGO-related excursion or simply got it at the mall, hoping, misguidedly, to broadcast whimsical masculinity. In either case, the colonialism quietly implied is enough to recast the entire scene in a glance: Indeed, what is a family without the prohibition against incest, we have to ask ourselves; a team, cult, or corporation? What can their intentions toward one another be, and what sort of system of beliefs regarding history does a family of this sort entail? How is it that they “stay” (I qualify the verb because we know they left the set long ago) together?
In a certain way, it is terrifying to me that Ellison can succeed in posing all these questions just by replacing individuals related to him with professional proxies—terrifying, much like the terrifying, unreal health of those Ralph Lauren models. Although perhaps I should not write just. I have been meaning to specify that these photographs were not taken in 1988 or 1994, years we might associate with Barney and Opie’s portraits. Ellison is working within a different image economy, with different technological affordances. However, it is not merely the overwhelming proliferation of photography in our time through digital media that sets Ellison’s work apart from other practitioners I mention here; it is also the changing relationship of public and private spheres in the present that renders Ellison’s techniques pertinent and necessary. As a contemporary philosopher writes, “An age that has lost its gestures is, for this reason, obsessed with them. For human beings who have lost every sense of naturalness, each single gesture becomes a destiny.”
We live in a time when videos posted to YouTube, among other platforms, allow us to explore others’ domestic spaces and practices ad nauseam, to question the ways in which they orient their beds, scrub their vegetables, steam their salmon filets. Obviously, this—along with the elephant in the room, social media—is not the only style of permeation of the private sphere endemic to the present: each of us is all but constantly being made public via information processed by software and shared back to the creators of this software. One is not, of course, particularly public in the old-fashioned sense, since the predictive tools our behavior informs are created by corporations and sold to other corporations and governments (entities with proprietary, secretive interiors). Yet there is a sense in which this processing of data is much of what constitutes the so-called public sphere. This is what publicness is: a transformation of what was formerly the private into a species of inscription. My movements between and among various websites, my use of an email platform provided by the same corporation that makes my browser, my manipulations of the applications on my phone, are tracked, taken in. They are anonymized and accrue to massive data caches. In 2012 the law scholar Paul Ohm presciently wrote, “We are embarking on the age of the impossible-to-understand reason, when marketers will know which style of shoe to advertise to us online based on the type of fruit we most often eat for breakfast, or when the police know which group in a public park is most likely to do mischief based on the way they do their hair or how far from one another they walk.” Ohm’s paper was titled (more terror here), “The Fourth Amendment in a World Without Privacy.”
But in spite of these seismic shifts in how we understand the relationships between and among individuality, behavior, and taste—shifts Ellison mimics by documenting the form of the individual rather than their instantiation as indexical, documentary, candid, or true visually presenting selves—privacy remains. Privacy is a luxury; it can be expensive to get and maintain, but we know it’s out there. One of the ways we know this is on account of the photographic images that we know we do not have. Among these, as Ellison argues via a series of stunning staged portraits narrating the story of the DeVos-Prince family, are personal images related to the wealthy and powerful. There are “gaps in our society where there is no imagery,” as Ellison told me, noting that when he searched online for childhood and family images of the 45th president’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, the daughter and daughter-in-law of of Republican megadonors and multibillionaires, he found that this material was mostly private, locating only a pair of yearbook photos. After this discovery, and after seeing that an article about the family in the magazine Vanity Fair made use of muddy commissioned paintings rather than photographs for the purpose of illustration, Ellison determined to illuminate this American dynasty. He cast young actors to portray Betsy DeVos (née Prince) as a teen, along with her younger brother, Erik, who would later found the embattled Blackwater USA security corporation; in The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, 1975 (2019) they lounge with siblings in an imagined 1970s-era living room, in what would have been their hometown: Holland, Michigan (local truism: “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”). Ellison’s staging, while essentially historically accurate with its colonial-revival decor and wool knee socks, is not slavishly so; the relative modesty of the room, particularly given the actual wealth in question, speaks to the family’s strict Calvinism as well as this interior’s distinctness from the sort of fantastical display Ralph Lauren might envision. Here, as in other works in the series, color and poses recall the somber and expensive portraiture of the Northern Renaissance, with its reds and greens, even as the viewer is teased into inventing psychology for those depicted, in spite (or because) of the unavoidable fact that everyone is an actor. Ellison weaves in small, precise clues regarding the family’s past and future. Erik, as befits a warrior-to-be, clutches a toy soldier. Ellison informs me that Erik and his father would cast lead soldiers using a saucepan and molds, painting them by hand. According to Prince’s own autobiographical writing, this craft activity is his first memory. Of course, lead is poisonous, and heavy lead exposure is linked to aggression and mania, among other developmental difficulties. In Dick and Betsy, The Ritz Carlton, Dallas, Texas, 1984 (2019), meanwhile, a pregnant DeVos in an approximation of loudly patterned 1980s workwear, barks into a hotel telephone, as her (uxorious?) loafer-sporting partner attempts to distract himself. DeVos is already a political insider here, even as she is busy having it all, procreating to continue the dynasty. In Erik with Kitty, Blackwater Training Center, Moyock, North Carolina, 1998 (2019), a mature Erik sprawls in a fenced-in field with a kitten and bulletproof vest; he’s clearly stumbled into an amusing allegorical representation of the following sentences from his Wikipedia page:
Prince moved to Virginia Beach and personally financed the formation of Blackwater Worldwide in 1997. He bought 6,000 acres (24 km2) of the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and set up a school for special operations. The name “Blackwater” comes from the peat-colored bogs in which the school is located.
Some things, as Americans have begun saying with increasing intensity and irony since the presidency of George W. Bush, you just can’t make up.
Like the satirical social and historical paintings of such millennial masters as John Currin and Karen Kilimnik, these photographs do not so much represent events as show us how much we do not know, how dependent we are on received ideas, assumptions, and clichés, when it comes to visualizing the lives of the elite. Yet Ellison’s images also, and conversely, serve a function that reminds me of the large-scale schematic drawings of the artist Mark Lombardi, depicting the movement of late twentieth-century capital between and among corporations, families, and heads of state: they show history, not as a collection of lived experiences and details, or even heroic events, but rather as a kind of formal data or code, a quantifiable pattern we would do well to familiarize ourselves with and confront.
As you gaze at the Christmas Card series and DeVos allegories, along with the other pictures gathered in this volume—pictures that explain what it looks like when two models consider a four-hundred- dollar “cheeseboard” at the Heath Ceramics store north of San Francisco, for example, or demonstrate the aggressive flexibility of the axles on the Range Rover, a six-figure car—follow the ironies that become visible. These are strategic images. Ellison’s photographs demonstrate the expensive and increasingly fugitive privacy that attends contemporary democratic society. And they show that the display of luxury, far from being a dead giveaway of the location and machinations of power, is a bluff .
Date: May 1, 2020
Publisher: Loose Joints
Format: Print (book)
NB: This essay appears in print in Living Trust, by Buck Ellison. It was unfortunately published with a number of typos and formatting errors. Please find a more correct version of the essay here. A PDF of the text is available for download via the floppy disk icon at lower right.
HOW ARTISTS HAVE TRANSFORMED THEIR HOMES INTO OTHER WORLDS
For John Boskovich, Jean-Jacques Lequeu, Florine Stettheimer and Niki de Saint Phalle, obsessive decor served as ‘preparation for a voyage to another plane’
In a letter penned in 1782, the Marquis de Sade claimed that he knew ‘enough about architecture […] to decide if an idea is beautiful or not’. Indeed, De Sade constructed at least two complex literary edifices. The torture-sex rituals of 120 Days of Sodom (1785) are convened by a clique of libertines in the Château de Silling – an inescapable fortress with rooms dedicated to specific activities, such as desecration of the cross or narration of tales of past debauchery (to be violently re-enacted upon victims). The monastery of Sainte-Marie-des-Bois, imagined for De Sade’s 1791 novel Justine – which, unlike 120 Days of Sodom, was published during the author’s lifetime – is less infamous than the Château but somewhat more cruel. The only means of entry or exit is through a winding underground passage, and the complex is further secured by a series of thorn-encrusted hedges, an additional wall and a moat. Overgrown with vegetation, the structure is indistinct, if not invisible, from the exterior. Everyone inside can hear you scream; those outside perceive a thicket or a bosky hill. There’s a nod to the notion of the folly – that thrill of Enlightenment gardens – but Sainte-Marie-des-Bois is not a private building; it is a communal retreat for libertine monks, who maintain stable-like dorms for the objects of their interests, whom they segregate by gender. Precise order reigns throughout this corporate seraglio. Like the Château, Sainte-Marie-des-Bois evinces a fascination on De Sade’s part with, as architectural historian Anthony Vidler has written, the impossible ‘coincidence between imprisonment and liberty’. Certainly, it unites De Sade with the utopian social philosopher Charles Fourier, who similarly proposed, as Roland Barthes notes in Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1976), a communitarian lifestyle in which all functions necessary for life, including coitus, are as communal as they are minutely regulated.
Although De Sade’s interiors precede the technological transformations of the industrial revolution, which transferred the means of manufacture from the home to industrial spaces during the 19th century, they do offer a vision of production that pre-empts the Victorian model. Like the meticulous, fanciful architectural drawings of his contemporary Jean-Jacques Lequeu, which concern themselves with elaborate monuments to classical spirits and genital-shaped grottos sown with smelly flowering plants, De Sade represents spaces so total, so awesome and so expansive that, once we are inside them, there really is no other place to go. In De Sade’s world, there is nothing but fantasy and ceremony, no way to wake up from the dream and absolutely no privacy – not even for the apparently empowered libertine. As for De Sade and Fourier, so for Lequeu: his structures would be impossible to realize in real life but, in the artist’s projections, currently on view in the exhibition ‘Jean-Jacques Lequeu: Visionary Architect’ at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, bodies are effortlessly conveyed through space, combined, created and destroyed, in a sensuous narrative that – seemingly for no reason beyond personal preference – partakes synthetically of logics borrowed from the church, the abattoir, the bedroom, the classroom, the theatre, the kitchen and the prison, both past and future.
A different kind of sensuousness took hold in the Victorian era that followed. According to design historian Peter Thornton, the mid-1800s marked:
the ‘age of the crapaud’ – of the ‘toad’, the disrespectful but apt nickname given by the French to the standard, mid-19th-century, heavily stuffed, deeply buttoned and elaborately trimmed easy chair. This object, together with its sisters the sofas, confidantes, ottomans, pouffes and so forth, were the subject of derision […] but such seat-furniture embodied the true spirit of the period and was to be seen everywhere, modified ad infinitum.
This was a period of ‘seat-furniture’, structures designed for sinking, fainting, zoning out, lingering, posing, pining and attending the inevitable: death. Dense massing of decorative objects and upholstery – fashionable in Europe and the US between the 1860s and the 1890s – added clutter and clashing to rooms duly padded, as if to soften the blow. A craze for drapes and fringing seems to have celebrated the increasingly extreme feminization of the private sphere with symbolic labia: indications of mysterious concealment and delicate sensations to be found only within the vessel of the home.
It was an era of the blossoming of a certain social format: the so-called separate spheres, which had emerged at the beginning of the 19th century, after the revolutions and early stirrings of industrialization. In this organization of society, domestic space pertains to the woman of the house, while the man enters into public in order to work and make known his name. The domestic arena is the site of childrearing, decor, material culture, religion and sentiment, while the public realm is a locus of action, reason, money, politics and history. Alexis de Tocqueville, who travelled to the US from France to observe the relations between men and women there, writes in a chapter on ‘How the Americans Understand the Equality of the Sexes’ in Democracy in America (1835), that ‘although the women of the United States are confined within the narrow circle of domestic life, and their situation is in some respects one of extreme dependence, I have nowhere seen women occupying a loftier position’. If our contemporary conception of privacy was popularized, if not exactly invented, during the 19th century, then it fell to women to groom and nourish this valuable civic substance. They hung it with drapes, planted it with ferns and, in the process, became enclosed and obscured along with it.
The modern object or room, by contrast, seems to partake, at its most strenuous, of an ideology of limitation: form follows function and function itself is exhaustively knowable. Thus, there can be no need for the chicory of rococo, with its folds and undulations, nor the drips, points and bead-like embellishments of the gothic, nor Victoriana’s endless tufts and patterning. The industrial aesthetic moves indoors. The ‘new woman’ has dispensed with frills, wears trousers, cuts her hair short, practises photography, smokes. The visibility promoted by modernism is remarkable: surfaces are free of encumbrance and, where not strictly administrative, work is intellectual and creative (since, in theory, much physical labour is done by machines), meaning it can take place, once again, within the home.
This said, the ideology of the separate spheres has proved stubborn, if not invincible; even as we have drifted far beyond a historical moment that can reasonably be termed modern, it remains with us. Perhaps this has something to do with the style of privacy that began to emerge in the 20th century along with the advent of mass media. As architectural historian Beatriz Colomina puts it in her book Privacy and Publicity (1994): ‘Privacy is now what exceeds the eyes.’ In Colomina’s reading of modernist design, interior space is often exposed to the exterior in what amounts not to a revelation of the private but, rather, a re-invention of public space on what were apparently private grounds. ‘Modernity’, she notes, ‘coincides with the publicity of the private.’ We need only think of the floor-to-ceiling windows, so prevalent in contemporary architecture, which provide an unobstructed view of a pristinely curated (and pointedly crapaud-free) interior.
Such was the historical trajectory of interior design. Yet, as a spate of current and recent exhibitions attests, there have always been exceptions. A number of 20th-century artists resisted the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres even as they did not fit within the massively influential paradigms proposed by the utopian era of republican revolutions or high modernism’s rejection of the purely decorative. These artists perform a sort of ambiguous installation work, designing interiors that are neither solely for aesthetic contemplation nor for autonomous living but that engage moods of monumentality, esoteric ritual and even entombment, just as they give place to ecstatic forms of daily life that cannot be reduced to work or leisure.
Two artists who lived on opposite coasts of the US during two different halves of the 20th century, Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) and John Boskovich (1956–2006), developed a deeply weird decorative grammar that not only escapes the logics of work and privacy entailed by the ideology of the separate spheres, but also manages to differentiate itself from libertinage as well as modernism. Stettheimer, who wrote poetry and painted elaborate encrusted scenes, usually of flowers and wispy figures and fauns, was also an extraordinary decorator, favouring copious quantities of lace and doilies alongside a new translucent material: cellophane. As a mature artist, Stettheimer painted in her apartment, layering the space with various crystalline textiles in the midst of which she displayed her works, along with her collection of George Washington figurines and images. Similarly, Boskovich altered a rented Los Angeles house, presumably at significant expense, to house artworks that were also furnishings. His custom Prada-themed fridge, his use of koan-like excerpts of poems on objects and walls, along with his inclusion of religious iconography as well as medical and industrial items, gave the space, which he termed his ‘Psycho Salon’, the quality of a large mausoleum or period room for a time in history that had not yet fully come to pass. The relative obscurity of his practice at the time of his death further contributes to a masonic air of hidden ritual about the place, even as its growing fame in art-world circles contributes to its ongoing public-ness.
In his catalogue essay ‘Playing with the Truth’ (1988), Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe sees a ‘narrative of both accessibility and arcane reference’ in Boskovich’s pristine framed juxtapositions of image and text, in which he culls language from such poets as e.e. cummings, John Keats and Octavio Paz and sets it alongside found and altered photographic imagery. Boskovich, according to Gilbert-Rolfe, is at once emphatic about ‘transparency and the idea of its opposite, or presentation and therefore the possibility of what is not present’. In his work, one category does not succeed in transforming or overwhelming the other; rather, they open up to each other in a relation not of exclusion but of addition.
If there is too much in Boskovich and Stettheimer’s rooms, it is not because there are too many things. Rather, all the items have been so obsessively placed, fixed, altered, caressed and framed that their esoteric natures, far from being domesticated, have been exactingly preserved intact and are, therefore, liberated to act upon the eyes and emotions of the resident or guest. Stettheimer was, like Boskovich, a connoisseur of the frame and had a number of lace-like frames constructed for her paintings that also matched her frothy custom furniture designs. Walking into her apartment must have been like entering an amusement park’s rendition of an ice palace, with the difference being that Stettheimer’s glittering false ice (lace, cellophane, painted wood) was not intended for public consumption and reflected her highly rarefied personal taste. Her decor pointed toward a monumental elsewhere that, in spite of her adoration for George Washington, was not exactly or uniquely nationalistic, institutional or religious in nature – even if it was devotional. Rather she, like Boskovich, seemed to be preparing for a voyage to another plane, an alternate universe or an eternal party in her honour.
Both Stettheimer and Boskovich appeared to aspire to a sort of celebratory translation of surface, an extension of reflection that shone or sparkled or glowed dimly without exactly being mirror-like, which served to externalize a complex series of moods and affinities that were not merely or purely personal in nature. Like the winding and uneven mosaic encrustations of the artist Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden (1998), the surfaces they created were often engaged in plays of light and shade, as much as with material substance itself: Boskovich’s remarkable combinations of citric hues with powdery reds and ingenious recessed lighting being a particularly memorable manifestation of this shared tendency. In contemplating these maximalist practices of decor – the grammars of darkness and light, the hyper-precise framing, the obsessive strategizing of every surface – I am struck by their reliance on qualia, geometric form and what we might term, punning on architectural historian Lisa Heschong’s beautifully titled book Thermal Delight in Architecture (1979), ‘photic delight’. The resonances with the miniaturized landscapes and figures of amusement parks (which often allegorize fantastical worlds), as well as the sparkling gloom we might associate with chapels and shrines, suggest that we would do well to view these homes less as enclosures than as portals. These rooms indicate possibility: here and now and soon; also, elsewhere.
Date: March 19, 2020
Format: Print, web
Link to the article.
This article appears in the print edition of frieze, April 2020, issue 210, with the title "The Ecstatic Home."
NO MORE WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
For both Hanne Darboven and Madeline Gins, a kind of personal mathematics became a method of reading and writing their art
The math occurs because of the page—because the page is a grid, a map of coordinates. The message is also a number, a quantity of character spaces. There is no message without a container, no container without limits, no limits without quantification. It’s a realization that occurs over and over in the intertwined histories of visual art and poetry in modernity: writing not as expression but as confrontation with a limited schema or net, that site (cf. Mallarmé) of the writer’s shipwreck.
But I am not really interested in generalizations about media. Of greater interest to me are individuals, specifically their obsessions and solutions. How is it, for example, that two female artists, both born in 1941, one in Northern Germany, one on the east coast of the United States, both living in Manhattan in the late 1960s and participating in adjacent if not identical visual art communities, came to use sums and equations to manipulate the space of the page? Why did each determine that a style of quantification was a necessary component of her poetics? What can we learn from these sometimes inscrutable, personal mathematics, this mathematical prose?
Hanne Darboven, the German artist, was born in Rönneburg, outside of Hamburg, second daughter of three, to Cäsar Darboven, heir to and owner of the J.W. Darboven coffee roaster and general store (not to be confused with the J.J. Darboven coffee company, a better-known firm that has since expanded across Northern Europe). Hanne’s mother, Kirsten, was Danish. Her father was a successful contractor for the German military, supplying coffee to the army of the Third Reich. Later, there was an adolescence involving boarding schools and social dysfunction. Although Darboven had originally trained as a concert pianist, she entered art school, the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg, as a young adult. She was thin, yellow blond, conventionally pretty, yet with a kind of sacred circle around her: unteachable. A suggestion from a teacher, Almir Mavignier, was enough to send her packing her bags for New York. In Manhattan, after two years of relative isolation, Darboven met Sol LeWitt in 1968, along with, among others, the artists Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. Darboven’s father’s illness and eventual death brought her back to her childhood home; here she set up a sort of studio, along with a daily writing routine. This was how she made her way to the math, in which 1 + 1 = 1, 2, even as 3 = three three three: a methodology that privileged the act of counting. This was to be a key aspect of Darboven’s all-comprehending practice of time registration and would be expressed through the pages of checksum calculations the artist incorporated into her wall- and room-size installations of writing.
But I need to double back for a moment: in the summer of 1943, when Darboven was two, the Allies bombed Hamburg, at that time a centre of industrial production. The operation, code-named “Gomorrah,” began on July 24, 1943, a time of unusually arid weather, and lasted for eight days, creating at one point a 460-metre-high tornado of flames, with winds of up to 240 kilometres per hour and temperatures of 800 degrees Celsius. Asphalt burst into flame and fuel spilled into the river, causing the surface of the water to ignite. The attack is thought to have killed some 42,600 people, wounding another 37,000 and decimating the city. It was made possible by a radar-jamming technique known as “chaff” (code-named “Window”): clouds of tinfoil strips dropped into the air. The foil interrupted radar imaging, creating false echoes, a fuzzy array; it is an information technology, even in its obvious nature. The results were stupendous. The nearly 800 American and British bombers were effectively invisible.
Although the Allies did not target Rönneburg, where the Darbovens lived, they did haphazardly detonate excess armaments in the suburban landscape. In early July, just before the bombing, the Darbovens’ neighbours’ farm was one such site. Shortly after this event, the Darboven women fled to Lower Saxony, thus avoiding Operation Gomorrah by a matter of days, although their home was still standing when they returned two years later.
I mention these events less in an attempt to inspire pity for this wealthy family headed by a man who did profitable business with the Nazi Party than to point out a series of historical events for which Hanne Darboven was effectively present without the capacity for conscious memory or comprehension. Whatever else she lived before she began to make her “writing”—which was, by the way, the term she used for all her art—echolocations and bombings, the repeated hollowing out of vast architectural spaces, consumed her early youth.
In 1971, Darboven wrote to LeWitt from Germany:
Sol, am completely absorbed in - it - / - it - i wrote about although there / is nothing to write about — / - it - thinking and looking - it - and / - it - and doing - it -, writing - it - / and Oh Sol, i feel like 1968 when / i went to your place with my pages / of “68” again i would like to walk / to your place [a holy place] with / pages of : - it - no title no more, / words words words, oh, if you could / come here, to my place, oh — this / this time, good night my master love… / Hanne
On returning home, Darboven had in some sense taken up her ailing father’s place, becoming a manager of accounts. With her distinctive writing, she investigated the unintelligible side of information flows. She transformed information back into lines, into material. No more words, instead - it -. No more years, instead - it -. - it - was sometimes a loop, resembling a letter but not a letter; sometimes it was a number, treated not as a quantity but as a graphic image, something like a name (3 = three three three) but not a name, either. - it - was when a number was not itself and yet most itself at the same time, turned inward toward its own condition. “Numbers are the most neutral way of talking about things; no names, no objects, just the counting of numbers and the use of dates,” she said in an interview in 1994. Darboven placed herself in the midst of whatever - it - was.
When I look at the drawings Darboven produced during her time in New York, I see her exploring the uses and pleasures of the grid in various ways, using graph-paper boxes as a series of slots to be filled in, organizing and reorganizing. On one page, a series of numbers appears, apparently sourced from a late-summer date, August 30, 1968. When she wrote to LeWitt concerning her “pages of ‘68’” did she mean this very series, Kleine Konstruktion (Small Construction) of 1968, with four sequences of repeating numerals, 30868, 86830, 68308, 83086, day/month/year, month/year/day, year/day/month, month/day/[inverted year]? What might it mean for her to be fondly recalling this earlier page of work in the year 1971, when she began producing more ambitious sums, as in 1933/8K = No. 1, a large-scale numerical permutation on 42 sheets of paper in which Darboven renders three as “3 3 3” and five as “5 5 5 5 5,” for example, elaborating a series that permits her to produce “K” sums through different combinations of added numerals? Although Darboven’s checksums are synthetic, they also defamiliarize numbers, treating them as non-repeating, unique identities to be discovered within one another, rather than as quantities or points in a cyclical calendric sequence. As historian Zdenek Felix points out, it is less that Darboven wants to manipulate the calendar in her calculations, than that the calendar functions as the ideal ready-made matrix, “a system within which unfolding and regression would follow their own laws.”
It is nearly a secondary result of her work with these numbers, the infinite supply in the calendar, that time is pressed together into the characteristic Darbovian event, a seemingly gratuitous value labelled “K.” “there / is nothing to write about,” Darboven joyfully informs LeWitt, who may have been her lover; she is ecstatic, having discovered how to “[do] - it -,” and possibly where to get “- it -,” how to immerse herself in a practice in which there is always more to write, more to manipulate, more loops and checksums, but no longer anything to discuss, “no more, / words, words, words.” As she would later say in an interview, “I wrote things down again by hand so that the mediated experience might impart something to me.”
In the year of the holy walk(s) to Sol LeWitt’s place, another artist and writer, Madeline Gins, an American, lived and worked in Manhattan. Gins, like Darboven, was in her late twenties in the late 1960s, but unlike Darboven she was born in New York and raised on Long Island. She studied philosophy and physics at Barnard College, painting at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, and in the early 1960s she met, collaborated with and, in 1965, married Nagoya-born artist Shūsaku Arakawa, who, along with his mentor Marcel Duchamp, exhibited work in the Dwan Gallery’s 1967 show “Language to Be Looked at and/or Things to Be Read.” Perhaps it is the recent entry of language into visual art that moves Gins to do so much work on her typewriter. Perhaps she sees herself as typing up not just pages but images of a kind. Maybe she, like Darboven, understands the space of the page as not just an opportunity for establishing semantic meaning, but also a site for immersing oneself in an experience of mediation. When, in 1969, Gins publishes her experimental novel and artist’s book, WORD RAIN (or A Discursive Introduction to the Intimate Philosophical Investigations of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), it contains a story about mediation, perhaps of the kind Gins herself experienced during the course of the novel’s composition. The dust jacket offers the following summary:
In WORD RAIN, an unnamed narrator sits at a desk in a friend’s apartment reading a manuscript. Surrounding the undefined character is a birthday party taking place in the next room, a glass of pineapple-grapefruit juice that is supposed to be pure grapefruit juice, the loose leaves of the manuscript, and the variable weather conditions. The pages of the manuscript slide to the floor. The weather turns misty and cold. Dishes rattle in the kitchen nearby. A package is delivered. It feels like rain. As each of these distractions occur playing against themselves in almost musical variation, the reader either opposes or flows with them as she reads. Sitting at the desk, she sometimes skims pages day-dreaming or catches the rhythms and reads in word blocks while the text fills itself in…
The reader of WORD RAIN, at once a character in Gins’s novel and an individual independent of the prose, finds numerous textual strategies at play: citations and appropriations of material from other books, as well as a detailed accounting of the by turns elating and distressing phenomenology of reading. The narrator’s (fictional) reading has peculiar results—special effects, one might say. At times she seems to encounter a version of herself in the text, whom she attempts to instruct or salute as from a distance; these moments feel elegiac, suggesting that reading can be an act of reconciliation with, or loss of, the self. At other times, the effects felt by the protagonist-reader are directly physical, synesthetic, as in a passage in which, instead of functioning to deliver semantic sense, words ossify: “The word face was a stone. The word guess was a flint. The words a, the, in, by, up, it, were pebbles. The word laughter was marble.” At the conclusion of this passage, the protagonist-reader seems to become one with these textured, surfaced words: “The word read was mica and I was granite.” It’s a phrase in which the “I” mentioned is at once a term in the manuscript the protagonist reads and also a possible name for the reader, herself. In either case—in either reading—reading is alchemical and transporting.
WORD RAIN also makes use of an eccentric form of mathematical notation (what Gins calls “oiled geometry, liniment algebra and creamed mathematics”) to quantify the text, an imaginary math. Gins’s math is designed to account for the number of words and letters used in a page; it allows for an alternate method of representing a page of writing, that is, by means other than semantic paraphrase, and therefore seems related to Gins’s understanding of writing and reading as having quantifiable, material qualities. Gins summarizes algebraically, such that sentences can be compressed into variables and arranged into formulae (“A = 13W + M1,” where “A = the first sentence,” “W = word” and “M = meaning”) explaining relationships between meaning and energy expended in the reading process across a paragraph or page. In this math, a given passage occurs again, for a second time—and differently. Semantically represented events are lost, but the events of the words themselves and the event of semantic meaning are rendered more prominent by means of mathematical generalization.
“am completely absorbed in - it -,” Darboven wrote in 1971. Gins, meanwhile, describes an experience of “tak[ing] up inside” of letters and words, where the self is a sort of membrane reading renders permeable. The choice not to differentiate between personhood and the activities of writing (Darboven) or reading (Gins) perhaps seems more familiar to us today, given our movement toward an increasingly scriptural society. Yet, moving beyond “words, words, words” into spaces and states of extreme mediation does not come without loss—and what exactly goes missing here is difficult to quantify. If I attempt, instead, to qualify this loss, I might suggest, necessarily engaging in speculation, that it has to do with the historical moment in which both Darboven and Gins were coming to consciousness and early maturity as artists, not to mention the shared year of their respective births. Language, although distinct from information in some contexts, is often treated as, or transformed into, data. By the middle of the 20th century, data had ceased, if ever it had been, to be a raw or mere tool—having become instead a weapon, an instrument of politics, a commodity. The theatres of the Second World War, with their various demands, could only hasten this process, and the civil societies that succeeded the conflict inherited new technologies, beliefs, fashions, drugs and foods from the business of making war. I sometimes think that one major thrust of Conceptualism, as a broad artistic movement, is to aid people in confronting the cybernetic transformation of everyday life in the postwar period, in which a word is no longer word but data; in which movements are data; in which persons, places and things have all become information. Darboven and Gins, paradoxically, deployed their math as a sort of antidote, transforming information back into things.
Date: February 6, 2020
Publisher: Canadian Art
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Canadian Art, "Antimatter," Winter 2020.
THE REPATRIATION OF F$
NEITHER FRANZ KAFKA nor Louis-Ferdinand Céline had extensive experience in the United States, yet both wrote novels set wholly or in part in the land of opportunity. In 1932’s Journey to the End of the Night, Céline limns New York’s “gold district,” aka Manhattan, which the narrator-hero, Bardamu, fancifully maintains can be entered only on foot, “like a church.” “It’s a district filled with gold, a miracle, and through the doors you can actually hear the miracle, the sound of dollars being crumpled, for the Dollar is always too light, a genuine Holy Ghost, more precious than blood.” This eerie concatenation of capitalism, architecture, and human ambition resembles the earlier surreal landscapes of Kafka’s Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), written 1911–14 and published posthumously in 1927. Yet, there is a haunted and perhaps more vicious mood circulating in Amerika’s bizarro USA: The Statue of Liberty, for example, holds a sword instead of a torch, and “unchained winds” blow around her. “One couldn’t look for pity here,” the protagonist, Karl Rossmann, reflects of this port city of “haste, precision, clarity of representation.”
While hyperbolic and rife with allegory, these portrayals of pre-World War II New York are weirdly accurate. Or, rather, it is their use of hyperbole and allegory that makes them accurate. Modern New York is a place one can see even without seeing it with one’s own two eyes, given the long-range power of media. The city really is the dream of skyscrapers, big bucks, and mobility dangled before the exploitable immigrant, which also makes it something of a nightmare. And these novelizations, dreamed and fantasized and pasted together from others’ accounts, resemble, tonally and rhetorically, nothing in the visual arts of their time so much as the paintings of Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944), who, as a Jazz Age socialite and actual resident of the US, would seem to have little in common with either the clerklike Kafka or war veteran and later anti-Semite Céline. Yet both authors are uncharacteristically comic, even zany, when it comes to American tableaux. It is, for example, possible to compare Amerika’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a massive imaginary entertainment operation that ostensibly hires all comers, to Stettheimer’s canvases, which are likewise anomalous sites of performance, often depicting large casts of figures. In their detail, excess, and carefully deployed allegorical systems, Stettheimer’s paintings depict an era of conservative nationalism and roaring decadence, a contradictory cultural and political amalgam that looks ever more familiar.
STETTHEIMER BECAME an American late. Though she was born in Rochester, New York, she lived somewhat less than half her life within her country of origin. In an early instance of the mix of extreme privilege and social uncertainty that would define her life, Florine, along with her four siblings, was whisked off to Germany as a young child after her father abandoned the family. It is not known whether her mother, Rosetta Walter Stettheimer, was aiming to save face or cash, or both. The result was a childhood like an extended vacation. Florine briefly returned to the US in the 1890s, to study at the Art Students League, the first school in New York to permit female students to make drawings from nude models. She was otherwise in Vienna and Paris and other places European, often in the company of her chic sisters, Ettie and Carrie. There were performances of the Ballets Russes, discussions of the vitalism of Henri Bergson, careful examinations of canonical Continental paintings. Then, with the outbreak of the Great War, the Stettheimers decamped to New York, which became a permanent home. Florine Stettheimer would leave the US only once thereafter, to vacation in Canada. In 1914 she was forty-three, with an impressive education but no career.
Most critics of Stettheimer’s multiform body of work—which includes poetry, furniture, and stage sets, along with her complex paintings—have a tendency to cast their essays as close readings of the artist’s social calendar. These treatments have mainly taken the paintings as portrayals of, and decorative backdrops for, Stettheimer’s interactions with Marcel Duchamp (who may have modeled Rrose Sélavy on her), Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Elie Nadelman, Gertrude Stein, and Carl Van Vechten, among other celebrities, some of whom, like best-selling author Joseph Hergesheimer, were more renowned in their own day than they are now. With recourse to her archives at Columbia and Yale, Stettheimer’s careful readers have disclosed her uptown avant-garde coterie. She is understood to have led a life of comfort and leisure, if of questionable romantic and professional fulfillment. The contradictions were many, but increasing quantities of family money seem to have made them more interesting than tragic. (By the time Florine, Ettie, Carrie, and Rosetta Stettheimer resettled in New York, they were apparently quite financially secure.)
Starting around 1918, Stettheimer entered her mature period. She stopped painting post-Impressionist mediocrities and got weird. She festooned her studio with cellophane and Victorian lace. She gilded liberally, filling her canvases with lithe little bodies en pointe. She was at once a consummate Continental decadent and a patriotic American modern—a hyper-feminine late bloomer and visionary, the ultimate outsider-insider. She became a satirist of artistically inclined upper classes, as well as a depicter of nationalist pageantry. She was not a bad poet. She showed infrequently and was nearly forgotten after her death. Andy Warhol got a private viewing of her work in 1961 from a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Though professing his “love” in his memoir POPism, Warhol was not above dubbing his forebear a “wealthy primitive painter.”
There is, to be frank, often something of a letdown when it comes to Stettheimer’s reception. Wanda Corn and Michael Leja—two art historians who have, to their credit, shown a greater tolerance than most for the minutiae of the interwar period in the US—have little to say about her. Yet, as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith observes in her review of the current one-woman show at the Jewish Museum, “Every 20 years or so an exhibition devoted to Florine Stettheimer . . . shakes up modernism’s orderly hierarchies.” This latest survey, “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry,” suffers somewhat from a cramped, windowless setting. Stettheimer’s four late masterpieces, her “Cathedrals” series of 1929–42, in the permanent collection of the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, are not included, meaning that it is all but impossible to comprehend Stettheimer’s enormous achievement as a painter by way of the show. Without the “Cathedrals” as zenith, the exhibition culminates uncertainly in maquettes, publicity headshots, and barely legible snippets of film related to Four Saints in Three Acts, a 1934 avant-garde opera, featuring an entirely African American cast, with libretto by Gertrude Stein and score by Virgil Thomson. Stettheimer designed iridescent cellophane scenery and feathered and sequined costumes for the show, making something of a splash.
The catalogue for “Painting Poetry” hardly mitigates the disappointment. Even given the dearth of popular writing on Stettheimer that is not a rehashing of Linda Nochlin’s 1980 tour de force in this magazine, the two workmanlike essays by Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik are lamentable. (Uhlyarik, for example, resorts to such platitudes as, “Stettheimer painted herself into an art history of her own making, informed by a long classical tradition and activated by a vanguard attitude.”) A subsequent coda-like transcript of a roundtable discussion among contemporary painters rehearses the usual terms in which Stettheimer is praised. Overall, this lackluster if jauntily packaged retrospective, with its anodyne title and incomplete trajectory, deviates little from the boom-bust cycle Smith describes.
IF WE WANT TO grapple more seriously with Florine Stettheimer, it is worth returning to Kafka and Céline’s unreal depictions of the US. We could well think of Stettheimer on similar terms: as an artist who treated America as an exotic, largely unknowable locale and who used the space of fantasy and escapism this orientation opened up as a source of inspiration, improvising at will. This way of looking at Stettheimer may not endear her to contemporary American audiences, who seem to enjoy her work mainly for its flowers, stars, large-eyed maidens, and ubiquitous crystalline frills. However, highlighting Stettheimer’s interest in allegory and appropriation helps to explain such apparently contradictory impulses as her life-long fascination with the figure of the faun as portrayed by Vaslav Nijinsky in his famous choreography for L’Après-midi d’un faune, a ballet based on a Stéphane Mallarmé poem with a score by Claude Debussy, and her equally powerful obsession with the far less sensuous George Washington, to whom she dedicated an entire shrinelike room in her Bryant Park studio and who repeatedly appears in her paintings. From the intently researched exoticism of contemporary designers Léon Bakst, who created sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes, and Paul Poiret, the celebrity couturier who in 1911 held a “Thousand and Second Night” fancy-dress soirée, Stettheimer learned the power of orientalist pastiche.
Critics often note the impact Nijinsky’s June 8, 1912, Paris performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune made on Stettheimer. She immediately began sketching costumes and scenery for her own ballet, the story of a well-heeled father-daughter duo who are accosted by art students and compelled to don Bakstian/Poiretian garb and begin dancing. Though the ballet, L’Orphée des Quat-z-arts, whose title cites an annual Parisian ball, was never staged, Stettheimer’s mock-ups evidence rapt work, including collaged fabric and beading. This early undertaking is usually seen as a sign of the talent that would be more concretely manifested in Stettheimer’s designs for Four Saints in Three Acts. L’Orphée might also be read as an indication of Stettheimer’s fashionable equation of personal liberation with the assumption of non-European dress; the clothing of the art students points to a generalized East, in which the constraints of Western society are imagined not to apply. Indeed, in one of the very few extant photographs of Stettheimer, taken ca. 1917–20 in her Bryant Park garden, she wears a matching set of billowing pantaloons and embroidered white tunic. Stettheimer’s garments are even more loosely cut than Poiret’s iconic “lampshade” tunic ensemble, but the association is unmistakable and incorporates another trend in which Poiret also participated: deliverance from the corset.
Stettheimer thus favored an eccentric exoticism—one in which fauns, George Washingtons, and other stock figures were caricatured and fetishized—over related contemporaneous avant-garde movements, even as she maintained a rather straightforward relationship to the sensuality of paint. The academically trained and always elaborately decorative Stettheimer was, for example, never fully taken with Dada’s sardonic anti-art. The Stettheimer sisters’ liking for puckish Duchamp, aka “Duche,” their sometime French teacher, occasionally took a turn for the patronizing, as when Ettie Stettheimer referred to him as a “charming garçon” or the “queer but charming French boy who painted ‘Nude Descending the Stairs’ and other cubistic creations.” Meanwhile, the uncanny imagery and narrative ruptures of Surrealism never caught on with Florine, nor did the movement engage the materiality of paint as much as she might have liked, though comparisons to Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo are hardly out of place. For Stettheimer did not just daub, she built her faux-naive pictures with an artfully wielded palette knife (which is why it is remarkable that her substantial canvases sometimes look like finely delineated New Yorker covers in reproduction). Stettheimer has also been said to have roots in the European Symbolist tradition, and there are clear parallels between her work and the oneiric images of Odilon Redon, for example. However, to the synthesis of the symbol she clearly preferred the ambivalence and deferral associated with allegory, the effect produced when a thing in a picture does not represent that thing, purely or exclusively, but rather points to something else. This current runs so strongly through her work that the very fact that it has not been clearly elaborated by Stettheimer’s critics suggests that the artist’s failure to fully “appear” within either the canon or major American museums may be due as much to this omission as to the artist’s gender. For it is difficult to understand or, for that matter, see Florine Stettheimer, without examining her allegorical depictions of America.
An important political fact of the era during which Stettheimer resettled in New York was the increasing prevalence of attempts to define American identity, as well as domestic policy, with recourse to types and categorization. The use of statistics by the government during the Progressive Era, while ostensibly indicative of a turn to objectivity, was also linked to attempts to limit access to US citizenship and the protections it entails, as well as to jobs, reproductive rights, freedom of movement, and so on. The rise of “race science” in mainstream academia in the teens drove a wave of popular white supremacist publications that claimed empiricist authority, including books like amateur anthropologist and anti-immigration activist Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race of 1916. While the US had maintained a policy of relatively open borders until the late nineteenth century, in 1917 the Asiatic Barred Zone Act expanded California’s anti-Chinese restrictions of the 1870s and national anti-Chinese restrictions of 1882, identifying a large portion of Asia as the source of unwanted immigrants, who were to be banned along with idiots, illiterates, anarchists, et al. This was followed by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from most parts of the world. Though Stettheimer was born in America, she was raised a European. Her status as a native daughter who had to become American in middle age was, in itself, a challenge to the essentialism of nativist views. However, Stettheimer brought with her a European eye for Asian and Middle Eastern art and design. Painted in the midst of the developments enumerated above, her first mature works recognize the racial and ethnic divisions of American society with an outsider’s clarity, even as they participate in the reduction of nonwhites to stock types. At times her use of cliché and stereotypes can appear merely fey or decorative, since these types are obviously not intended to be realistic; yet it is worth examining how her work both resists and conforms to conservative currents of her day.
STETTHEIMER'S New York/Liberty (1918–19) is an early example of the technique for superimposing diverse historical and personal events that Duchamp later termed multiplication virtuelle, a technique that inscribes multiple, discrete meanings into a single image. Depicting battleships in New York harbor, New York/Liberty layers manifold times, tacitly commemorating Stettheimer’s 1914 repatriation into the port of New York, even as it more overtly indicates America’s late May 1917 entry into WWI and President Wilson’s subsequent voyage to the 1919 the International Peace Conference. Though ostensibly about victory and American exceptionalism, Stettheimer’s composition seems designed to be read as an allegory for immigration and assimilation under the American flag (clearly pivotal processes for Stettheimer) as its vantage point is from on board a ship that, as indicated by a thickly gilded Statue of Liberty, is located near Ellis Island.
The Manhattan cityscape that dominates the top half of the canvas functions as a painting within a painting. A bit like a birthday cake, parade float, or theatrical backdrop, this seductively vulnerable skyline justifies the guns mustered to protect it. Like the red, white, and blue banners employed throughout the scene, it signifies both power and peace. Despite its consummate charm, the city appears secondary to the enlarged seal of New York City occupying the bottom margin. Featuring a pair of allegorical figures, this doubly significant seal is a supposedly collective image, an icon for the municipality. But it has been personalized and privately “stamped” by Citizen Stettheimer, who as a woman did not have the right to vote in 1918. The Dutchman, no hardened colonist, possibly an early twentieth-century Dutch naval officer, is jaunty with ribbons. Meanwhile, the Native American employs a union shield as a bizarre breechcloth, while wearing a flag-themed headdress. Stettheimer’s revision of New York City’s social compact suggests, in a strange softening of the US’s new 1917 exclusivity, that Lady Liberty lifts her lamp for all those who resemble Broadway extras. As do Kafka and Céline’s novels, New York/Liberty complicates the utopian fantasy of a newly arrived immigrant. It presents an Oz-like America seen, gleefully and somewhat ignorantly, from the exterior, an advertisement for a theatrical production full of esoteric, and perhaps ultimately inaccessible, cheer.
In the late 1910s and early ’20s, Stettheimer’s paintings become increasingly social, and the miniaturization of compositional elements explored in New York/Liberty and other paintings like Picnic at Bedford Hills (1918) predominates. Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum (1924) shows a more complex and less ambivalent response to the question of American identity, filtering its visible forms through a beauty contest reimagined as a hybrid event incorporating a circus. Stettheimer presents a pageant of human types watched over by recognizable individuals, including herself at upper left, smiling and well made up, next to writer Edna Kenton and photographer Edward Steichen. At lower right, an impresario who may or may not be a slenderized Barnum oversees bathing beauties tanned and pale, as well as, at center, children in feathered headdresses, a Rudolph Valentino–like figure leading a horse that may or may not be a Lipizzaner, and, at left, an all-black band in elaborate uniforms over which the painter has obviously lingered.
The beauty contest is a pretext for various kinds of showmanship, which Stettheimer organizes according to genre, race, and gender. A seemingly endless supply of palm fronds and dripping red, white, and blue crystals mediate the carefully divided scene, in which everyone stays in his or her corner, as the show goes on. With the exception of Stettheimer and her artist friends, who are legible as themselves, everyone plays (and represents) a role, a mere type, suggesting that their identities within this convocation are at least partly performative. Identity’s fungibility is additionally figured, for example, by the labels (“Miss Atlantic City,” etc.) held by the beauties. Read allegorically, the painting offers a retort to American nativism, since it implies that much national belonging is merely “put on,” contingent and assumed for public occasions. Yet, here Stettheimer also limited herself to satirically depicting contemporary norms rather than upending or abandoning these norms for something else. Though the painting presents a quasi-democratic social sphere in which Americans ostensibly gather to have fun, there remain real divisions and inequalities within the collective setting. Indeed, so many shows go on simultaneously that it is difficult to determine the actual nature of the contest or what is at stake, and for which participants. The scene is, additionally, unrelentingly festive and self-congratulatory, though there is something unsettling about the many knowing smiles exchanged: some smile because they observe an amusing scene, others because they are on display. The painting’s commentary on these dynamics is uneven, whimsical, never quite attaining irony or critique.
Stettheimer’s unusual semi-realist, semi-allegorical mode in her mature paintings, combining both stylized stock figures and portraits of individuals known to her, of which Asbury Park South (1920), depicting a segregated New Jersey beach, is also an example, reaches its zenith with the late “Cathedrals” series, four large-scale compositions devoted to Broadway (1929), Fifth Avenue (1931), Wall Street (1939), and Art (1942). Though Stettheimer’s work was not commercially successful during her lifetime, in the “Cathedrals” series she explicitly appropriates commercial styles only hinted at elsewhere, exploring billboards, industrial lighting, illustration, entertainment industry publicity, and contemporary fashion. The costumes and sets she designed to great acclaim for Four Saints in Three Acts clearly influenced these late paintings, which are setlike in their composition and contain lacy elements recalling the cellophane she used in these designs.
There is a certain seamlessness between this light and purposely vapid work and actual advertising, as one clipping in Stettheimer’s papers at Yale indicates: an East Coast department store advertised its latest cellophane raincoat collection, imitating Stein’s prose style in the copy and including illustrations of Stettheimer’s scenery, an image of one cellophane lion plus palm tree. Like Kafka’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma, where “angels” on ladders play trumpets all day to publicize the performances, Stettheimer’s late works devote themselves strenuously to the American cult of celebrity, perhaps reveling in the emptiness of this endeavor. Even their satirical elements feel resigned to the vapidity of glamor, and recognition of a certain emptiness in New York social life may be as close as Stettheimer came to openly acknowledging the divisions of her new-old homeland.
AT THE END of her life, Stettheimer was working on a ballet about the life of Pocahontas, which, like her 1912 effort, was never to be staged. This patriotic work—celebrating the foundational myth in which Pocahontas rescues John Smith—had a number of strange features: Stettheimer and her collaborator, Virgil Thomson, had decided that Smith and his countrymen would wear Scottish highland garb rather than the expected British costume, and the ballet’s Native American characters were to be dressed in cellophane, gold foil, and feathers. The curators of the Jewish Museum show chose not to include the twenty-two maquettes Stettheimer produced, instead devoting space only to the two earlier stage design projects. Yet the designs for this unfinished epic are worth mentioning because they demonstrate Stettheimer’s enthusiasm for styles of appropriation germane to period popular culture, along with her use of the trope of the noble savage, a stock character embodying the concept of the uncorrupted outsider and therefore allegorizing humanity’s innate goodness, a figure not unlike the faun. This choice of subject additionally implies Stettheimer’s acquiescence to increasingly fervent nationalism leading up to the US’s 1941 entry into WWII, suggesting not only that she viewed indigenous identity as yet another performance, available to a modern update via musical theater, but that she believed, or was willing to pretend that she believed, in an excessively cheerful national origin story.
It is possible that Stettheimer, an unmarried and childless Jewish woman, played down her own anomalousness in mainstream Protestant America, while also answering her family’s polite rejection of her ambitions to be an artist, by exoticizing and feminizing nearly everyone and everything in turn. However, such speculation verges on armchair psychology and almost certainly misses the point, which is that Stettheimer struggled with questions regarding power and assimilation throughout her American career. Oil painting, an economically and culturally dominant art form, became reconciled to minor decorative styles in Stettheimer’s hands, even as she took on major themes, including the nature of American identity. Stettheimer’s ever-changing signatures reflect the fact that she deliberated a great deal about her own authority as an artist. Until about 1920, while she still painted in a derivative European style, she favored her initials, “FS,” superimposed in such a way that the “F” appears to be impaling the “S,” transforming the first letter of Stettheimer’s surname into a certifying dollar sign, as if to say, “Look at me, I am a rich American!” But in later paintings she more confidently offers her full name, often trompe l’oeil-style, trickily “written” on a depicted object. She additionally abbreviated, sometimes becoming the saintly “Florine St.,” a moniker that may have had something to do with Stein’s opera.
Wealth allowed Stettheimer to be at once candid, utopian, hermetic, escapist, appropriative, and in violation of good taste, and she grew into this fact from 1914 on. She assumed an American identity of a kind, as a woman who could, at least in theory, buy whatever she desired. Whereas staunchly middle-class William Carlos Williams in a 1923 poem railed against the lack of “peasant traditions to give them / character,” which made average Americans fools for “gauds,” Stettheimer embraced artificial forms of pleasure and liberty, for she could afford them. The mature Stettheimer made no secret of her affection for luxury. No longer using the hermetically crest-like “F$,” she proudly provided, usually in white, a full, or nearly full, name on her decadent, gilded, and frosted canvases—at least until The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931), where her old “F$” does double duty as the mark on a luxury car. Yet, in spite of her wealth, Stettheimer depicts herself in her final, unfinished painting of 1942, The Cathedrals of Art, standing on the side of folk culture. In the painting, icons of modernism such as MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. and a painting by Picasso appear on one side of a templelike structure, while signifiers of vernacular aesthetics, a stylized bald eagle and Juliana Force of the Whitney Museum, occupy the other. Stettheimer is standing on the side of folk-influenced American Art, as the right-hand column reads, rather than on that of the more lucrative high-modernist Art in America, on the left. Florine Stettheimer, formerly F$, had become extraordinarily, surreally American, as only someone who adopts her nationality as a decorative style can.
Date: September 1, 2017
Publisher: Art in America
Format: Print, web
Link to the essay.
This article appears in the print edition of Art in America, September 2017.
THERE ONCE WAS A PERSON WHO COULD DRAW ANYTHING
Il est surnaturel d’arrêter le temps.
– Simone Weil, Notes for Venise sauvée
At her 1943 death, the philosopher Simone Weil left unfinished a ‘tragedy in three acts’, Venise sauvée, or Venice Saved. This play about an averted coup is gorgeously, strangely formal and slow—a dramatic rendition of an actual early seventeenth-century incursion. Short on dialogue, Weil’s draft is studded throughout with plans for future writing, including description of the exact number of syllables of blank verse to be assigned to various characters. At the play’s close—one relatively complete section—the naïve heroine Violetta declaims a poem. Ignorant of the plot to destroy Venice as well as the role of her own beauty in the collapse of this nefarious design, she murmurs, ‘Qu’il sont beaux sur la mer, / Les rayons du jour!’ (How beautiful they are on the sea, / These bands of daylight!) Offstage, revenge killings ensue, but neither Violetta nor the vast majority of the Venetians know anything of this. The denouement of Venise sauvée envisions a mostly static and unreal scene in which nothing happens save that some light travels. Venice is unaware that it has been saved. And any appreciation of light at the end of this drama does not come with added symbolism. The light is simply present. As critic Anne-Lise François wryly describes this moment, ‘Venice awakens to a beauty it has not lost the power to take for granted’.
In François’s reading of Venise sauvée, Simone Weil has created a play that fails to conform to the rules of Aristotelian tragedy, lacking a convulsive final moment of reversal and recognition. Weil’s play is ‘the (non)record of events that failed to transpire’. In other words, it records non-existent events of a plot that does not unfold. It displays the trace of a transformative will that in fact recedes curiously from the stage, rather than setting narrative in motion. The tragic hero Jaffier, who might have ruined Venice, hesitates to enact Venice’s destruction for no particular reason other than that the city actually exists—and he notices this. After he is betrayed by those to whom he has confessed, Jaffier makes a desperate petition to the sun, sky, ocean, Venetian canals, and blocks of marble. He describes these inanimate things, calls their names and curses them, but to no avail. The historical event collapses inexorably, quietly and mechanically, on his head.
If not strictly speaking a play in which nothing happens, Venise sauvée is a play in which the mystery of the physical existence of the world—one’s surprise, for example, that there is a world at all—has the power to interrupt the history of mankind. Lest this be understood as some form of primal ontological surprise, Weil uses the term ‘surnaturel’ to describe Jaffier’s decision not to act; his choice to instead, as she puts it, ‘stop time’. ‘Il est surnaturel d’arrêter le temps’, Weil writes in a contemporary notebook, regarding Jaffier’s retreat. And she repeats the term, instructing herself, ‘Faire sentir que le recul de Jaffier est surnaturel’. (Give the impression that Jaffier’s retreat is supernatural.) This, according to Weil, is a moment at which eternity enters human time.
Begun in 1940, Venise sauvée is also a complex comment on Paris’s fate under the Vichy state. The play is now infrequently staged, not least because of its incompleteness. And it is indeed difficult to think of a proper theatre and audience for its arabesques of meditative avoidance of action, leading to a non-event including lovely light. Yet, if there is such a theatre and such a setting, it might well be the Serralves Villa, as reimagined in the 2017 exhibition of artist Nick Mauss. With long bands of daylight striping the walls and floors, accompanied by equally expressive passages of shadow, the Villa lushly affirms its own existence. Its citations of classical architecture, along with its modern styling, suggest a complex and highly civilized relationship to the notion of history. Mauss’s sculptural and pictorial arrangements in the space at once reflect the aesthetic lineages in which the Villa’s design participates and challenge its claims to orthodoxy. Mauss’s work—like the sight of Venice imagined in Venice sauvée—and like the tragic hero’s miraculous recognition of the bare and actual existence of the great city—is a supernatural incision in everyday time and space. It permits the visitor access, if not to eternity, then to other planes of vision. Additional pictures, patterns, and outlines now appear within the Serralves Villa. These might underlie or be implicit within the Villa’s rooms. They may be excavations of form dormant in the Villa’s design. They may also simply be possible.
Mauss’s work plays with our expectations regarding surface. The image of what appears to be a pencil sketch has been enlarged in steel. It rests solidly against a wall. One feels a foolish urge to rush over and attempt to fold it in half. Surely it will resist. And yet one now feels an identical urge, with respect to the immaterial shadow cast by this sculptural form. The act in question is equally impossible.
Elsewhere, Mauss’s lines skitter across the speckled surface of a mirror. Intimate figures form. We must place ourselves conscientiously, depending on our willingness or unwillingness to be included, to have our own bodies potentially interrupt (or join) this scene.
The use of printed fabric, too, is a way of disrupting commonplace relationships to the surface on which a picture rests. Patterning, repetition; these gestures trouble the primacy of a single image. Indeed, the print on fabric threatens to become merely decorative, a drape or unrealized garment. It refuses the high seriousness of portraiture. It will not ‘look back’ at the viewer.
Everywhere there is a tension with, if not outright opposition to, lyrical treatment of history. Indeed, this is a tension Weil herself certainly felt. The various rooms and passageways are not explained with recourse to personal histories of the Villa’s creators or owners; no masterful design history stuns us into awed attention with its authoritative detail. Rather, the Villa is engaged as a varied surface, a permeable given. (How beautiful they are…, / These bands of daylight!) Everything we notice here, we are asked to notice as if we have already been looking at it. Everything is new, because we had not yet recognized that we had already been seeing it. The power to take this extraordinary home for granted (a power we never knew we possessed) is returned to us. The question that remains is, what will we do with this weightless liberty?
I do not pose the above question idly. For of course this art making is also occurring in the present of 2017, a historical moment of so outlandish a form that it begs for reconciliation with some era or event of the past. But my citation of Simone Weil’s citation of a 1618 intrigue in Venice as a citation of 1940s occupied France is not intended to serve as a complex analogue for the contemporary. Rather, I cite Weil because she seems to have observed something about the nature of the claims we make about the meaning of history, and I find her observation not merely relevant in a general contemporary sense, but relevant to Nick Mauss’s work, in particular.
The Serralves Villa contains numerous images of itself, numerous reflections, within it. These change with the changing time of day and the passage of visitors. These images are visual and kinetic, created by the elaborations of the sun, moon, and other external and internal sources of light; they are sonic, as when the Villa’s rooms reverberate with voices and footfalls. Clearly there are numerous examples of the way in which the Villa multiplies itself internally, by way of images produced by the coincidence of society and the physical world. (How beautiful they are…!)
Mauss’s response to these images is to admit their existence. But he does not reproduce them, holding them up so that we may step into a romantic dioramic recreation of the scene we already inhabit. He does not elaborate images in such a way that we are shocked or amazed by the accuracy of his gesture. Rather, his drawing—for much of his work, even the work that is not explicitly drawing, is drawing, and he is a person who can draw anything—favours a recessive articulation. To the viewer he offers a line that takes the form of a beautiful event that the viewer does not know he or she has not lost the power to take for granted.
One example of this mode of articulation are the dance figures Mauss has also included in the exhibition. What could be more artificial than these representations, with their unusual, typographically performative arrangements of text? And yet they are participatory images; they show and tell us what will happen, should we dance. They are not representations of dances, they are dances. In this sense, they recede from the eye as drawings and come to seem more like speech or gestures, i.e., the dances that they are. Of course, these dance figures are not original drawings by Mauss; they are reproductions. Their status as reproductions of historical texts intensifies our experience of Mauss’s line as one in retreat. He has not quite written these words, although he has also not quite not written them.
Similarly, the shifting locations and material statuses of the surfaces on which Mauss writes and draws contribute to our sense of his mode of drawing as a deliberate retreat from a kind of drawing that could be claimed or exploited, as such. In spite of this retreat, his drawings hardly cease to appear. They become ever more durable, more multiple, more fascinating, and more ubiquitous. The non-existent white ground of the so-called pencil sketch enlarged in steel I whimsically pretended to wish to bend earlier causes the viewer to attempt to compose a picture using a support that flickers in and out of view. One focuses, erroneously and even a little hilariously, on a white “page” that is in fact a wall. The act of perceiving the steel sketch itself may even become lost in this flickering deliberation.
To return to my earlier contentions regarding Weil’s treatment of history, her personal dedication to participation and empathy, along with her extraordinary capacity for study, suggest that the recessive action of Venise sauvée stands in deliberate contrast to hasty heroic and/or violent solutions to political crisis. Yet, this does not mean that the play ignores the existence of political crises or their seriousness and insolubility. Without idealizing human nature, the play imagines a place and a role in the material world for human nature—and ties this place and role to human politics. The play imagines that one way human consciousness and creativity can function is as a labour of ensuring that the ongoing human appreciation of beauty—a sometimes unconscious appreciation we all hope to have the luck of not needing to be reminded of by way of crushing deprivation, harm, or disaster—can merely continue.
I imagine that a staging of Venise sauvée among the rooms and passageways of the Serralves Villa in which Nick Mauss has staged his various modes of drawing (and withdrawing) would be an echoing, choral affair. I wonder if Mauss would consider contributing a setting for the play’s final poem. Perhaps there is some way of indicating what Weil has conceived of as nearly un-representable events: those sunbeams on water that turn out not to be anything more or less than sunbeams on water. Or perhaps the entire play could be revised to consist in the enactment of that single sentence of appreciative pleasure. I should say that this, at any rate, is what I think of Nick Mauss’s work as already accomplishing.
NB: Discussion of Simone Weil’s unfinished play, Venise sauvée, in this essay is deeply indebted to Anne-Lise François’s brilliant writing in Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience.
Date: June 22, 2017
Publisher: Museu de Arte Contemporâneo de Serralves
Link to the catalogue.
The unsettling history behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American period rooms.
There are two ways to access the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American period rooms, situated behind the 1823 Branch Bank facade in the Charles Englehard Court, a space bright with winsome marbles and burbling with fountain sounds. One may enter via either medieval Europe or the patio of another of the museum’s great indoor edifices, the Temple of Dendur. On a recent visit, I took the latter route and, upon entering the American sector, immediately mistook a framed reproduction in the gift shop for “real” art. My prolonged respectful gazing was, mercifully, unnoticed. As I moved awkwardly on, I happened to glance at another item of nonart, a nearby plaque explaining the American Wing’s “Campaign for the 21st Century.” The sign announces:
The American Wing offers the Metropolitan Museum’s principal display of American art made before 1920. Originally opened in 1924, the American Wing has recently undergone a comprehensive renovation to best present its collections for twenty-first century audiences. Conducted in three phases over a decade, the Wing has been modernized and re-conceived to provide a more logical and aesthetically pleasing path along which to travel through American art and history.
Beside this notice is a list of generous donors of “Gifts of $1 million and above as of May 15, 2015.” By my count, there are approximately thirty names on the list, including the City of New York.
The phrases “to best present its collections for twenty-first century audiences” and “modernized and re-conceived” stick with me. The period rooms—a sort of hybrid, heteroclite house within the larger house of the museum—are the center of the American Wing, and the plaque recommends their recent modernization and new orderliness in particular. There is, for example, a newish glass elevator ready to whisk visitors between floors. Numerous touch screens offer animations and informative text. The “house” itself, last redone in 2009, now combines twenty-odd historical rooms, from 1680 to 1915, with parlors harvested from Southern plantations alongside paneled rooms from ancient New England homesteads, not to mention a swank Frank Lloyd Wright parlor. It is an exceedingly complex document, the creation of various unusually prosperous American ancestors working in unknowing collaboration with the museum’s staff and trustees, a ship of Theseus if ever there was one. It also seems to be one of the least popular parts of the museum. Often, one or more of the floors is closed to public view due to, as a guard told me, lack of foot traffic, persistent ceiling leaks, or perhaps a combination of the two. One hopes the wing’s benefactors may help out with ceiling continence soon.
The Met’s American period rooms first opened to the public in 1924. According to Robert W. de Forest, then the museum’s president, the purpose of this chronologically tidy feat of spatial reproduction—a massive diorama into which the public could stroll from century to century, moving backward through time from a decadent nineteenth-century ground floor to a seventeenth-century attic outfitted with low ceilings and heavy wood—was “to test out the question of whether American domestic art was worthy of a place in an art museum, and to test it out not theoretically but visually.” Though an experiment, it was intended to be permanent: the first major installation of decorative arts and furniture of Colonial and early Federal America in an urban museum, in a purpose-built wing containing rooms complete with original paneling, ceilings, beams, staged lighting, and painted skies visible beyond built-in windows. (In Europe, period rooms had been a curatorial modus operandi since at least 1873, when Stockholm’s Nordiska Museet opened a number of them.) The Met’s period rooms were, in one sense, a response to the seductive Continental dawning of Art Deco in the 1910s from the matrix of Cubist and Fauvist art. Deco forms were bright, internationalist, mechanically reproducible, and potentially highly commercial. The 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris proved the movement’s success, though it was not attended by a delegation from the U.S. The rooms of the new 1924 American Wing, meanwhile, expressed the tastes of a tightly knit upper class and increasingly nativist milieu, advertising these interests to a broader public as didactic content. Concerned with a selective history that links moneyed Dutch and Anglophone ancestors of Protestant faith, the rooms detail a conservative, anti-modern vision of the U.S., with a pursuant aristocracy. The rooms elided the influence of late nineteenth-century waves of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and the Middle East, along with the increasing importance of German, Jewish, and Catholic culture within the U.S., as well as Victorian innovations in design. They presented American culture as an early nineteenth-century fait accompli, in which rococo revival and neoclassical styles reigned supreme and home decor was all but exclusively authored by males. At the time of the 1924 opening, the Met’s period-room galleries seemed to proclaim that great innovation and beauty in American furnishings commenced just before 1700 and ceased around 1811. The museum would not begin to install later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rooms until 1982.
The wing was the personal project of three men: de Forest; Henry Watson Kent, an influential librarian and administrator; and R.T.H. Halsey, an Anglophile stockbroker, collector, chairman of the museum’s Committee on Decorative Arts, and trustee. The three gentlemen worked autonomously, bypassing bureaucracy. De Forest personally purchased the 1823 facade of the former Assay Office building from Wall Street in 1915, and other acquisitions arrived through familiar channels, such as de Forest’s wife, Emily, who gave the Met its first period-room element, a Long Island fireplace, in 1910. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that American decorative arts were canonically significant, despite the nation’s growing wealth and World War I victory. This afforded the undertaking a certain interventionist quality, even as the results now appear elite in the extreme. These rooms also had the function—perhaps not even secondarily—of increasing the value of the objects they contained. Many of the people affiliated with the Met were themselves Colonial-revival enthusiasts who stood to gain from the boom in antiques and Americana during the 1910s and 1920s.
The value and rarity of these objects cut both ways: the narrowness of the interests of the engineers of the American Wing made their task all the more difficult. Even during the war, it was no simple matter to obtain desirable Colonial and early republican interiors. New England, for example, did not relinquish its wood paneling cheaply. In 1916 and 1917, one young curator, Durr Friedley, was dispatched below the Mason-Dixon to investigate estates facing foreclosure. (Friedley later turned down a more permanent job with the Met and pursued a career as a painter, hanging out with Gertrude Stein and other luminaries.) Historian Jeffrey Trask writes that the Old Dominion “ultimately served as the Metropolitan’s best resource for elite period rooms.” One is the painted Marmion Room, circa 1756, from the formerly slaveholding Marmion Plantation in Fredericksburg, Virginia, obtained in 1916 (presumably by Friedley). Found on the second floor of the Met’s American period-room section, this disconcerting and very yellow space sports dim wall paintings of garlanded vases, Romantic vistas replete with windmills and ruins, impish disembodied heads, and trompe l’oeil marble. New York Times art critic Roberta Smith described the room as “incalculably sweet” in a 2000 piece, but I find it drippy and weird. One 1916 description by architectural historian Frank Conger Baldwin claims that the paintings were a gift of gratitude from a Hessian mercenary who had been nursed back to health at the plantation. An elaborate gilded mirror with soggy rococo curlicues and a sunken central folly hangs over the otherwise empty room’s fireplace. The room was also apparently far more luxurious than the exterior of the original manor would have let on—for reasons that remain mysterious—lending it an additional air of unease that is difficult to diagnose. In her 1930 book Virginia Ghosts, Marguerite du Pont Lee records the legend of a “white lady,” a young girl who haunts the Marmion grounds, protecting the place and even attempting to shake hands with some astonished visitors.
But this is approaching a folk tale, and the Met’s rooms were created with far more rational, if not social engineering, ends in mind. Architect, professional home restorer, and Met curator Charles Over Cornelius had touted the “vitalizing influence of period group displays” in his article “The Museum and the Collector” in the inaugural issue of Antiques magazine from 1922. Cornelius’ dry prose unpacks the relationship between selection, arrangement, and connoisseurship of decorative works in a museum. It also provides a sociological anatomy of the collector.
Most collecting is done from one of three points of view—the aesthetic, the historical, or the utilitarian. The aesthetic point of view emphasizes the art content and quality of an object whatever its material or period; the historical attitude allows its historic import or interest to outweigh the measure of its artistic quality, while a utilitarian collector assembles objects of a decorative art for actual use, however carefully he chooses with discriminating care as to their artistic quality. All these viewpoints may be satisfied in the museum by a certain amount of period grouping.
In Cornelius’ account, the visitor to period arrangements is already a consumer of goods, taste, and history. The museum provides visual material that, while not itself available for sale, stimulates the broader market. Elsewhere in the magazine, an unsigned editorial describes “an intensified interest in places and objects of historical and antiquarian value” either connected to “stimulated national self-consciousness resulting from participation in the World War, or somehow a by-product of the Americanization movement”—that is, the initiatives designed to convert immigrants into Americans. This new interest resulted in art exhibits “in which relics, some valuable, some merely curious, some, perhaps, absurd, are coming to be a recognized part of community gatherings of all kinds.” Given the barely concealed venality of Cornelius’ imagined collector, the jump to imagining a chummy, tag-sale-loving “community” of collectors is startling. The anonymous editor’s use of the dog-whistle phrase “Americanization movement” suggests this community would be composed of individuals who, as late as 1922, believed that the rigorous assimilation of immigrants into so-called American culture was not merely important but dangerously incomplete. Enthusiasm for antiques was apparently thought to be a bulwark against degenerate hordes. Among those professing such views were the creators of the Met’s period rooms.
The two catalogues published by the museum to coincide with the opening of the American Wing did more overt ideological work. A Handbook of the American Wing was coauthored by Cornelius and Halsey; the latter was “nativist and anti-immigrant in affiliation and antimodern in his sympathies,” historian Neil Harris writes, adding a further wrinkle to the meaning of the period rooms. The second publication was also coauthored by Halsey, this time with his third wife, Elizabeth Tower: The Homes of Our Ancestors, as Shown in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York from the Beginnings of New England through the Early Days of the Republic, Exhibiting the Development of the Arts of Interior Architecture and House Decoration, the Arts of Cabinetmaking, Silversmithing, etc., Especial Emphasis Being Laid upon the Point That Our Early Craftsmen Evolved from the Fashions of the Old World a Style of Their Own; with an Account of the Social Conditions Surrounding the Life of the Original Owners of the Various Rooms. The interminable title matches the book’s bombastic insistence on the greatness of “the spirit in which those men who made the colonies and those who founded the republic lived their lives at home and superimposed urbanity upon the site of the primeval wilderness.”
Halsey’s image of the past was reactionary, to say the least. As he confided to de Forest in a personal letter, “We should endeavor to show in the rooms things which have class. The furnishings should be restrained and no semblance of crowding permitted”—the assumption being that those who might crowd in would bring with them the worst traits of unwanted, unfit, “un-American” groups. This celebration of ancestral homes took place less than half a year after the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, signed into law on May 24 by President Calvin Coolidge (whose White House Halsey would decorate in 1925) in order to “limit the immigration of aliens into the United States, and for other purposes” by means of annual quotas of “two per centum of the number of foreign-born individuals of such nationality resident in continental United States as determined by the United States Census of 1890.” Much as the American Wing institutionalized an ideological experiment around American domestic culture and history, so this law made permanent those quotas set in place temporarily two years earlier. The restrictions of the 1924 act unpleasantly echo the aesthetic logic of the antiques collector, returning the nation by means of “informed” selection to a bygone time of supposed greater order and homogeneity. As recent books like Adam Cohen’s Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck and Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era have shown, the federal government’s decision to turn to 1890 census data to create immigration legislation in the 1920s emerged from discriminatory eugenicist theories that emphasized the hereditary dangers of miscegenation as well as problems caused by “weak minded” members of the working class, who were bound to reproduce in excessive numbers. There was also the perceived danger of the spread of Communism. The ethnic and multinational makeup of the United States depicted in the 1890 census gave license to dramatic restrictions on immigration—helpfully for nativists, as the census all but neglected to admit the existence (and populations) of the continents of Africa and Asia, even as it closed the door to Southern and Eastern Europeans. So while Germany was given a quota of 51,227 and Great Britain was given a quota of 34,007, Italy received a quota of just 3,845. A colonial construct called “South West Africa (proposed mandate of Union of South Africa)” received the minimum quota of 100 persons—African Americans who came to the United States as slaves were considered irrelevant to the act. Other large nations receiving the minimum designation included India, China, and Persia.
The nativist shift that culminated in the 1924 act wasn’t limited to the hushed discourse of collectors of decorative things, of course. “Nordic Victory Is Seen in Drastic Restrictions” read a Los Angeles Times headline on April 13, 1924, citing the coming act as well as Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race, first published in 1916, with new editions in 1921 and 1923. Grant’s book outlined a three-tiered system by which whites might identify as “Mediterraneans,” “Alpines,” and “Nordics,” with the final category being the purest and superior designation. Grant warned against the corruption of American society by immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as from the growing economic empowerment of African Americans, whose migration north to industrialized cities disturbed his sense of natural order. He predicted a dissolution of the U.S. into a fragmented, corrupt nation of mongrels if absolute power were not maintained by Nordic whites, whom he somewhat creatively equated with individuals of English, Scottish, and Dutch descent. Grant’s theory of eugenics seemed to condone ethnically and economically motivated violence, such as the West Frankfort, Illinois, mob beating and arson attack carried out on August 5, 1920 against Italian immigrants, who were perceived by local members of the white working class to be colluding with the Mafia. The July 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York City, aka the “Klanbake,” saw an almost successful insurgency when Klan sympathizers rejected both an anti-Klan plank in the party’s platform and the nomination of Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, a second-generation Irish American and Catholic. A year later, in August 1925, 25,000 Klansmen marched on Washington, DC, to demonstrate their white-robed numbers and fundamentalist determination.
Beyond serving as an inflammatory ideology, whiteness was a legal concept, as some regarded nation and race as synonyms. In 1925 an Oregon court heard testimony from anthropologist Franz Boas that “it would be utterly impossible to classify” Tatos O. Cartozian and other Armenians “as not belonging to the white race” and ruled in U.S. v. Cartozian that they were European “Alpines.” That same year, the state of Michigan successfully sued to revoke the U.S. citizenship of John Mohammad Ali, a traveling lecturer and wholesale importer born in India, arguing that race and nationality were inextricable. When Ali had become a naturalized citizen in 1921, “high caste” Hindus were considered “white” and therefore eligible for naturalization. But the 1923 case U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind created new precedent that Indians were not white. Ali attempted to defend himself by arguing that he was in fact of Arabian descent, even employing testimony from a University of Michigan eugenicist who argued that Ali was white due to his Middle Eastern ancestry as well as due to the shape and size of his head. The judge ruled against Ali, stating that Ali’s skin was not light enough for naturalized citizenship under current law.
Ultimately, the Met’s American period rooms reflect the eugenicist theory that swept American culture in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Halsey and de Forest’s message was not one of tolerance or collaboration, but rather of required improvement. They wanted to correct newcomers, and in 1924 they set in place a vision of elite homes of America previous to Western expansion, when the United States had not yet fully colonized the Louisiana Territory. Theirs was, additionally, a vision of East Coast gentility at a time of stark disparities, before the emergence of an American middle class in the 1820s and in the midst of an ever-expanding domestic slave economy. This intensely selective vision has been only nominally revised by the museum over time, though the physical space itself has been much reordered and improved. Electricity was added in 1974. In 1980 the bank facade courtyard became an interior space. Starting in 1982 a handful of rooms of the later nineteenth century and beyond were added at the back of the wing. A more spectacular renovation in 2009 brought the elevator and touch-screen displays, improvements for historical accuracy to some period rooms, and a ribbon-cutting speech by First Lady Michelle Obama, who used the occasion to stress the importance of access to the arts for all.
I have no way of knowing what the American Wing’s curators have said to one another over the years regarding the ways in which the period rooms should be labeled, of course. Searching through the numerous touch-screen displays (some of which have a tendency to freeze), I found little mention of the labor, whether paid or not, that created the historical American edifices and furnishings, though there is lengthy discussion of various period styles, master architects, and the curatorial exertions that have resulted in these remarkably atypical “typical” luxe rooms. Nor could I find good intel regarding the original curators’ vision of how contemporary audiences were meant to understand this reconstruction of American life. Yet, in the depths of one of the touch screens, I did finally discover a single digital card on Halsey’s goals in “Educating New Americans.” It is seemingly randomly placed at the end of the series in Gallery 9, the Powel Room, 1765–66. As the card explains, Halsey apparently hoped that the 1924 displays would “teach newly arrived immigrants about American history and values, so that they might assimilate more easily.” I am not sure why current curators have chosen to locate this important information at the bottom of the electronic pot. The year 1924 should be urgently on our minds. And the period rooms are as much, if not far more, a portrait of that time than of any previous era. They should be described as such.
Date: February 6, 2017
Publisher: Lapham's Quarterly
Link to the article.
A NOTE ON VANITAS
The driver exited his vehicle to take a selfie with the animals.
—Wikipedia, “List of selfie-related injuries and deaths"
Is all still vanity? Four hundred years ago, Dutch and Flemish painters produced hyperrealist still lifes of flowers, food, and luxury goods, seemingly fixing these gauds beyond time. So-called Vanitas images symbolize the brevity of human life, as well as the ephemerality and essential emptiness of earthly pursuits. Paradoxically, the Vanitas image also boastfully advertises the artist’s “ability to give permanence to the ephemeral and thereby overcome death,” according to historian Sybille Ebert-Schifferer. This tantalizing tension between human mortality and human ambition maintains today: High-net-worth individuals spend ever more in hopes of liberating their physical selves from senescence and death, while the rest of us obsessively save our memories to the cloud, convinced that the digital records that compose us will act as viable substitutes after we are dead. Meanwhile, the online graveyard grows. For example, the number of deceased individuals with Facebook profiles increases by an estimated 8,000 “users” per day, suggesting that our attempts to memorialize everyone and everything may mainly recall the fragility and brevity of life. Just as the Vanitas—also known as the pronkstilleven, or luxury still life, for its shiny and expensive contents—reminded wealthy patrons of their own earthly impermanence, we now negotiate a world of images that confusingly express our time’s extreme finitude (global warming, resource wars, economic stratification) even as they promise escape and immortality (life extension, quantum computing, planetary colonization).
In its earliest appearances in the English language, “vanity” flags the transitory nature of the human body, as well as the essential bootlessness of corporeal whim. Derived from a Latin root meaning “empty, void,” vanity is a paradoxical and sometimes dangerous way of relating to the self: To be vain is to mistake the changeable for the permanent, to love an image in the place of embodied presence, as the drowning victim Narcissus did in myth. Vanity is a conceptual error at once semantic and ontological, in which an item belonging to one category (the body) is presented as if it belongs to another (the numinous). Vanity may be the category mistake to end all category mistakes, a tragic misapprehension that is, all the same, associated with a non-negligible supply of pleasure and fun. Indeed, vanity often assists in crucial ways in our identification and interpretation of value, particularly when it comes to those endlessly seductive, sometimes troubling, sometimes anodyne items: art objects and luxury goods. Though we should perhaps know better, we hope that new purchases and proximity to beautiful, costly things will bring us increased vitality.
In this sense, little has changed since the 1600s, when opulent still-life paintings repurposed the failure to fully recognize our mortality as subject matter. Roland Barthes remarks on the seductive “sheen” of these meticulous and costly renderings of tables piled with wet grapes, split peaches, and shimmering oysters, which symbolize pleasures of fleshly existence; and the occasional leering skull or recently snuffed candle, which symbolize frailty and death. He reads the precise detail of these images as not merely allegorical, but expressive of a drive on the part of the artist to imprint one’s mark “upon the inert by shaping and manipulating it.” The art historian Svetlana Alpers, meanwhile, observes the remarkable “attentiveness” shown to the things of the pronkstilleven, whose astonishing realism suggests that they may also be visual documents of a new and modern style of looking, proofs of an emerging empiricism; soon artists might not merely paint nature but influence it.
As Barthes and Alpers note, the author of the Vanitas painting always seems just about to step into the image, to seize an oyster or disturb a precarious table setting. In Jacques de Gheyn II’s 1603 Vanitas Still Life, a massive hovering bubble threatens either to burst, ruining the composition, or to reflect the curved image of the artist himself, thereby interrupting the illusion of this apparently perfectly impersonal representation. The skill necessary to convey this opposition—between the ephemerality of experience and the overwhelming sensual presence of the physical world—ups the ante: The effort lavished on the delicate, shining surfaces implies that the painter may not believe in his own fleeting nature so much as his vicarious immortality, as guaranteed by the liveliness of the very work he was engaged in painting. The eternal present of the Vanitas image is animated not merely by the voluptuous objects it contains but by the illusion of an eternally living artist, who forever seems to hover just beyond the frame.
What is vanity now, and does it equate with mere selfishness or indicate a more complex balance of rational belief and carnal experience? Cryogenics labs offer to reanimate us into a future of improved technology. Luxury spas promise the approximation of youth. Google’s (a.k.a. Alphabet’s) Calico biotechnology arm will leverage the power of nature to extend life. These endeavors—often described in terms of service, even obligation, to the entire life-loving species—are buttressed by antiaging researchers who seem driven to prove that the more privileged among us are in fact no longer absolutely mortal. At the same time, we must reckon with the fact that, for the foreseeable future, we’ll all age and eventually pass away, particularly since senescence and death are not just emotionally but monetarily involved processes. The populations of many countries are disproportionately aged and aging, which poses challenges to the configuration of cities and economies (as well as questions about representation and inclusion); collective resources are already being strained, even as wealth is distributed with an unevenness that rivals the early nineteenth century—a statistic that becomes more disturbing the longer one ponders it.
The ways in which we recognize and deny death are embodied in the material things with which we surround ourselves. The drive to collect, categorize, and archive is one response to the uncertainty of mortality, and today’s ever-expanding capacities for digital storage encourage the endless memorialization of oneself and loved ones. The permanence or impermanence of such traces, which depend on the viability of servers and compatibility of files, software, and hardware, is debatable; indeed, the update could be the double-edged sword upon which our digital identities fall. Yet perhaps posterity is of lesser consequence to us than it once was. We are able to document our lives with unprecedented speed and medial diversity and produce endless streams of selfies and video testimonies for the “here” and “now.” If most of our content is addressed exclusively to the immediate present, perhaps we have begun to dispense with the notion of posterity at the very moment at which we are, at least in theory, able to save everything. In this case, it is not merely our conception of mortality that has been destabilized, but also our sense of time, in that we have begun to favor ephemerality and inhabit the present—on Snapchat and beyond—in new ways.
This issue of Triple Canopy features artists, writers, and critics who are thinking and working in the midst of these paradoxes. They reflect on a wide range of topics, from the unstable glamour of K-pop to the collective process of aging in naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), from the deadly force deployed by the American police to the consolations of the recovery of one Los Angeles artist’s cenotaph-like home, from the antideath architecture of Arakawa and Gins to multiple contemporary interpretations of the Vanitas image tradition, from the much-heralded “end of death” to the pursuit of impossible—or nearly impossible—forms of beauty. The futility of human striving meets the plenitude of digital memory, and acts of self-representation contrast with attempts to comprehend the situation of the human species, prompting us to ask: Does death still define life as the “vanity of all vanities,” as Ecclesiastes has it, if death is also a highly remunerative field of scientific research and product development? How will solutions to the perceived problem of mortality be shared out, fairly or otherwise? What framing device will replace the all-comprehending selfie stick?
Date: September 15, 2016
Publisher: Triple Canopy
Link to the essay.
THE IMAGE OF GENRE
IT WOULD BE a very long list indeed if I were to name all of the visual artists dead and living whom I know to have written novels, commissioned novels to be written, or published other literary works. And such acts of publication have not been limited to the bound book. Artists have hung framed pages in galleries, installed (therefore unreadable) books and pamphlets in vitrines, photographed poems and novels and plays, performed poems and novels and plays, printed poems and other unclassifiable though apparently literary texts in vinyl on gallery walls, fabricated and displayed objects described in canonical poems and novels and plays, and even stopped being artists in order to become full-time writers. (Although, I personally know of no one who has done this last thing.) This is to say, it would be a very long and likely incomplete list! The phenomenon to which I refer, that of literary production for not just gallery space but also specific audiences of contemporary art, as opposed to concertedly “literary” audiences, is so broadly, variously, and at times ingeniously undertaken that I am doing no one a major intellectual favor by pointing out its existence.
But, having thought this phenomenon over a bit, and being a writer, it occurred to me that it might be worth discussing the persistence of not just the category of literature — in these intensely mediated days — but also and more significantly the categories of literature, especially by way of the appropriation of literary styles of authorship by visual artists. I should note that I am not angry at visual artists for becoming, or already being, literary authors. I would only like to offer a few observations about how this appropriation of certain semi-professional roles seems to occur, with these observations grouped under a title that indicates, by way of preview for those with limited time, what I am about to argue.
Since the turn of the century before last, literary experimentation has been good for creating readers fluent in the ways of literary experiment. Whether or not exclusively due to such efforts, we are now familiar enough with the diversity of literary genres, their conventions and interpenetrations, that we no longer require written works to adhere to particular laws of form or content in order to be able to read them. The progressive pastiche of various literary heroes, both modernist and post-, has greatly expanded our conception of what and where a poem might be. Even so, radio and moving images quickly overtook (or, had already overtaken) our experimenting heroes, indicating new levels of fungibility of content. These media simultaneously overtook, in publicness and popularity, a genre-agnostic entity of even longer standing than modernism itself: the novel.
It is worth pausing a moment on the novel. I have called it a “genre-agnostic entity,” but it is, of course, also a literary genre. As its name suggests, the novel is a new or novel kind of work, and since its earliest appearances in various parts of the world previous even to the 11th century, with varying degrees of fictiveness and interest in something called a plot, it has been a kind of long-form commemorative and speculative writing that is also quite willing to absorb and depict other kinds of writing and styles of speech and thought, both literary and nonliterary. Fast-forward to the 19th century in France and the novel has become a multifariously designated space for the writing of history, of journalism and critique of journalism, of sociological and economic analysis, gossip, sex tips, table manners, poetry and song, political debate, satire, travelogue, fashion reporting, not to mention dictionary entries. (It is also worth noting that most of this mix can as easily be found in novels of the Renaissance and before.) The novel has survived on the merits of its engaging narrative structure and closeness to everyday life, but these qualities are possibly less significant than its willingness, even eagerness, to be other kinds of writing and forms of expression. As we have seen of late (with Cole, Heti, Knausgaard, Lerner, et al.), the novel, fiction’s grand unit, is also quite often documentary and/or true.
The brilliant omnivorousness — or content-agnostic composting, depending on how you understand literary evolution — of the novel has additionally meant that its diversion into an array of predictable subcategories or strictly defined, sometimes concertedly commercial types known as “genre fiction” is yet another opportunity for appropriation; here of a more fixed version of the novel by some less fixed one, or the other way around. The novel alters, specializes, divides, recombines. It plays on cultural and aesthetic dichotomy, portraying division as well as synthesis. The existence of so-called “genre” novels proves that a major part of the appeal of the novel is its ability to be other than itself: the quick read of the formulaic thriller or bodice-ripper is diametrically opposed to the slow-burning reveal of the literary masterpiece — or, at least, I think so.
I only think so, or know I only think so, because of what I know of the state of genre. I am familiar enough with the diversity of genres, their conventions and interpenetrations, that I no longer require literary works to adhere to particular laws, in order to know how to read them. When I come to a lengthy insurance contract included verbatim in a novel, I know, for example, that I have permission to skim or skip this text and don’t need to read closely in order to discover key plot points and character motivations. It’s present merely for verisimilitude. I mean, I may believe this. On the other hand, I may believe that this insurance document is a painstakingly constructed scrim behind which lurks a secret architecture determining the course of all events occurring within the world of the novel. It’s up to me, the reader, to administrate the reading, to decide. The insurance document is a decorative accessory to the novel, or, in another scenario, the novel is a decorative, possibly interpretive accessory to the insurance document; either I am reading a novel with an insurance document attached or it’s an insurance document with a dependent novel. This is a plausible present of genre, genre as conventions of reading, as a series of decisions about which kinds of reading go where. (In the past, genre had been a succession of rules for composition, later it indicated different species of texts, and even later the kinds of textual patterns one saw in a given text.) Now genre may be in the eye of the beholder. Or, as an acquaintance recently remarked, the public sphere is built from genre. I think that what this acquaintance meant is that the public sphere is built from conventions of looking and reading, from publicly or mutually recognizable conventions for determining what kind of a thing something is and what we might be able to do with this thing.
This becomes clearer with a (mostly) literary example: I think that we are interested in the recent publication by Badlands Unlimited — a publishing concern run by artists Paul Chan, Ian Cheng, Micaela Durand, and Matthew So — of a trio of romance novels because here a high-art brand is publishing a low, popular form, several works of literal “genre” writing. In its adherence to genre convention, this series, “New Lovers,” enacts a kind of image. And in this image is included our amusement at cheerful fulfillment, as well as gentle flouting, of conventions. These books, probably fun to read (I have not read them, though I have discussed them with friends who claim to have done so), are also designed to have a valid conceptual existence, even without being read or requiring our reading. (I don’t, for example, feel pressure to read them, though I like knowing about them.) Though books have been for some time trading on this fact about their existence — that it does not always matter whether or not we read them, that they look nice on a table and so on — here it seems that the physical container, the trim size, cover design (very generic!), etc., is less important than the very genre. It is not that the books are images of books — though they have circulated widely online as JPEGs — but that they are an image of genre, an image of a series of conventions for reading as well as for discussing books, an attitude toward what they may or may not contain.
Reviewers and critics hoping to demonstrate an earnest relationship to “New Lovers”’s first installment of three publications helpfully perform our reading for us, summarizing plots, treating the writers like literary authors in interviews, adding exquisite detail to the image of genre. Indeed, here there may even be a kind of good-natured pun on the very term, as applied to painting (“genre painting”), in that scenes from art-centric everyday life, and perhaps less sex itself than the consumption of porn and images in general, are reproduced for us as the species of these novels. (For example, God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name, by Andrea McGinty, tells the tale of an “art career” as it devolves and/or improves into a series of sexual exploits.) Our ongoing interest in the image is reflected via the genre of these novels; in this sense, they represent a kind of catachrestic portrait of everyday life, documenting nobody’s — which is to say, everybody’s — actual activities and reflecting an improved, possibly “tasteful” version of our (conventional, everyday) looking habits, tastes.
Anyway, artists write novels all the time. I think immediately of AA Bronson’s Lena, or Lana, and Andy Warhol’s a: A Novel, and there is even a recent anthological publication devoted to artist’s novels to tell us more. Of course, I am not sure that the fictions of artists are inherently interesting. I am not sure if the fictions of novelists are inherently interesting! But there seems to be a special license associated with the literary enterprise when undertaken by a visual artist. The artist knows how to organize visual information. The artist manages the informational architecture of the novel, too. The artist makes available aspects of the novel that have to do with this work of management, questions of material format, discursive truth and artifice, means of distribution, intellectual property. The artist’s novel seems to celebrate the tactics of the studio, unsurprisingly, rather than the dynamics of nuclear families or other human genealogies. In this sense, the artist’s novel also seems linked with poetics, where this term refers to a set of strategies for making, especially in or with language. This is, then, not quite the private literature of the living room, bedroom, airplane, or poolside lounge. Reading an artist’s novel is often a kind of aesthetic or intellectual work rather than a leisure activity. And this is yet another perfect deployment of the novel, generically speaking: As we have already seen, the novel does not care which type of everyday life or habit or profession or other nonliterary thought or activity you want it to absorb. The novel is already (and always was) something other than, and in addition to, fiction. It is only too happy to become the discourse of art.
Institutions and businesses displaying visual art, which are related or adjacent though not identical to the public sphere, could also be built from genre. Certainly they have a tendency to cultivate particular conventions of looking. If they do not already enact certain generic conventions, they seem like plausible sites for human encounters with genre. A gallery wall becomes peculiarly useful when we think about it like a page. This wall, like the page of a book, is more or less public, though often only theoretically so. Like print and digital books, the wall of the gallery has a mixed relationship to privacy and propriety. Like print and digital books, the gallery show is usually a mix of singular authorship and shared, collective, and/or industrial production. The analogy is broad and not particularly compelling in itself, and it would probably not be worth drawing this comparison were it not already being drawn for me.
Recently, wandering the cubicles of a large art fair, I came upon some pieces of text by the artist Darren Bader. These were printed on a wall. I turned them over in my mind. In a space of constant potential social encounter, one needs a place to direct one’s eyes, so I read the text with care. I wondered if I should consider the text poetry. It was fragmentary, divided into smaller units. One unit mentioned Emily Apter, a professor of French and American literature with whom I had once studied. I felt a weird kind of gratitude. I also considered the fact — these “poems” were often about reading — that I should be reading more, more frequently, and also in larger quantities. I was spending, I mused, too much time in public.
A few months later, at MoMA’s show of Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series,” multiple rooms displayed books, ca. 1912–1948, behind glass. Cover art and design by Charles Alston, Margaret Bourke-White, E. Simms Campbell, Aaron Douglas, and Winold Reiss stood in metonymically for what I could not read inside. Elsewhere, books were displayed fastened open to a single spread. I photographed titles by Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Scott Nearing, Emmett J. Scott, Jean Toomer, Walter White, Carter Godwin Woodson, and Richard Wright, among others, creating a visual bibliography I later found for some reason to be more complete than the online checklist for the exhibition. I wasn’t sure what my impulse to collect or “read” these titles and authors in this way meant. In so doing, it is likely that I was mostly considering exhibition strategies and not really reading much at all. Yet, reading was being mentioned. The unit of the book — evidence of cultural production — was being mentioned. With my iPhone I dutifully (and privately) repeated this mentioning gesture.
There is a strange promise of privacy in many public displays of books. “You’ll read this later,” such displays seem to say. And when one is alone or, at least, at home, if one is not reading something else, one might indeed read. But the promise might also remain just that: a promise, and a kind of fantasy. Sometimes displays of books or book-like displays are also an image of a kind of reading, a kind of reading worth describing as an image precisely because it is so difficult to obtain in a time of ubiquity of text. The limits of the book are, perhaps, more porous than ever; sometimes, particularly if the book in question is a PDF, I find these limits nonsensically breeched by my email. The book could, in the context of an exhibition, be a metonym for a kind of historical knowledge or cultural production, but it might also be a metonym for a kind of attention, style of reading, or even a mode of consciousness. And in standing in for a kind or convention of reading, the book-as-image is a vague image of genre. (Such images become increasingly precise and focused when they bring us closer to acts, rather than fantasies, of reading — though fantasies of reading are also pretty interesting.) There is really a great deal of exhibition of reading these days. Reading is variously and frequently — via reading rooms, performances, and installed printed objects — purveyed as a notable and attractive habit of everyday life, which it also, to be clear, is; in this sense, displays of reading are a lot like genre paintings.
Not one to be left out of a market in which it is so clearly implied, the Bibliographical Society of America at last arrived at the party with the recent publication of an article addressing the strong showing by books in current visual art. This article, “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as a Medium in Contemporary Art” by Michael Thompson, provides an exhaustive 50-page description of the 2014 Whitney Biennial’s book-related contents. For all the nerdy delight this extremely precise and engaging account of bookish stuff in the Biennial inspired in me, it let me down a bit by concluding with a sort of non-conclusion, that “books as an aggregated medium comprising many component parts, present few constraints for contemporary artists.” Thompson further observes:
The one component that all conceptual art needs is an idea, and a book, which can take the form of scroll, codex, score, patterned broadside, leporello, audio recording, manuscript sketchbook, and most recently electronic file, and which has long been viewed as the primary means by which to transmit ideas of any kind, whether scientific, philosophical, literary, or artistic, may therefore be the final irreducible essence of conceptual art: an idea without a fixed physical object. [i]
It is inevitably true that books and ideas go well together. However, it is a little odd to find a bibliographer turning to a canonical summary moment in the history of art, something called “the final irreducible essence of conceptual art,” in order to explain the invocation and discussion of the everyday activity of reading that the many displays in the Biennial including books undertook. Displays asked visitors not just to recognize the possibility of reading but to do it, with various necessary time commitments, levels of concentration, and access (many books were behind glass). I much prefer Thompson’s earlier claim that books have a lot of “parts,” and therefore artists like them. I’d go even broader and speculate that in addition to “parts,” books have a lot of kinds, and therefore artists know that people like books (that people even resemble books) — and that people like books so much that people want to experience their liking of them and experiencing of them, over and over again. And people want to talk about books and hear more and more, as Gertrude Stein might say, about how everyone likes them. Do people like books more than paintings? It’s a tough and perhaps silly call, but if you think about it: likely, yes.
What the final, irreducible essence of conceptual art, in all its majesty, may allow artists to do — as it broadcasts its expensive maxims into the present, out of the pit of the past — is to put things in galleries that are not works of art. Though context may do its darndest to turn these non-art things into art, it remains possible to say that what is being displayed, and therefore via visitors’ eyeballs as well as gallerists’ and curators’ efforts valued, isn’t art. I do not mean to suggest that such things aren’t valuable. Rather, their value is imperfectly symmetrical with, and imperfectly assimilable to, structures and conventions of value associated with artworks. What also becomes clear, which is to say, noticeable, is a plurality of modes of authorship; that professional artists aren’t the only individuals who make things and that everyone who makes things isn’t an artist (this last point being meant more as an economic and professional fact than an insult). Thus, if we come to look at a poem, or an essay, or a novella in a gallery — if we see a framed page from a novel by Jill Magid, for example, or a page photographed by Erica Baum —we are reminded of one of visual art’s closest outsides, the outside of reading-not-looking, even as we remain within the context of visual art. And this moment of exteriorization, this appearance of the anomalous if commonplace activity of reading along with the conventions of literary genre in the space of visual art, by way of a certain kind of image, reminds me of another moment in history, one that has little enough to do with conceptualism.
Classicist Gregory Nagy’s “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria” gives an account of the professionalization and inscription of lyric poetry — in other words, the way lyric poems came to be treated, once they were actually written down. According to Nagy, a “reenacting I” in written lyric poems reenacts an archaic form of public address that would at one time have occurred before a live audience, at a symposium. Here the written text represents a reality that, according to Nagy, is already generic; the live performance was in itself “a fictional occasion,” with pursuant compositional rules and necessity of adoption of a persona corresponding to group expectations. [ii] In this sense, once we get to the written lyric poem, what we are reading is a fiction of a fiction, a mise en abyme, as Jacques Derrida (with apologies for the name drop) might put it, a “thinking about its own possibility.” What is real or historical in the archaic, live format, in the expectations of a certain group of listeners, must be somehow reenacted in the written environment. Nagy reads anticipation usefully: Whoever fictionally “speaks” in the written lyric poem, formerly a singer, is the product of the interaction of a group and a conventional role, which interaction, in being written down, is also being reread at some historical distance. The lyric genre, even in its earliest written forms, is according to Nagy already historical, complexly fictive, and dramatically opposed to the private, whether or not we might read such poems privately.
I have to say that I think literature that occurs in art galleries is more interesting when it has done a bit of thinking about its own possibility, and when this thinking has included consideration not just of format and some broad idea of interdisciplinarity, but also consideration of readers — readers both past and present, many of whom may also be writers. (I am thinking about the inclusion, for example, of social histories.) A mention of genre that expresses various kinds of fictionalizing of social forms, and which even socializes fiction, is also a way to think about habit. In this sense, we get to keep our pun: images of genre are paintings of everyday life in which a day lasts a long, long time.
[i] Michael Thompson, “The 2014 Whitney Biennial: the Book as a Medium in Contemporary Art,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 109, no. 2 (June 2015): 183. With thanks to Stuart Comer for bringing this important article to my attention.
[ii] Gregory Nagy, “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: From Lesbos to Alexandria,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 1 (2004): 46.
Date: September 13, 2015
Publisher: The Los Angeles Review of Books
Link to the essay.
YEARS AGO BEFORE THE NATION WENT BANKRUPT
An introduction to the journals of David Wojnarowicz
Artist David Wojnarowicz’s thirty or so journals are stored in a pair of boxes in New York University’s Fales Library. Folders of loose photographs, tickets, and postcards are also included, as is an oversize wall calendar, sparsely annotated by Wojnarowicz, of the type one might find in the gift shop of the American Museum of Natural History (triceratops rooting in lush surrounds). “Series 1,” as this lot of the David Wojnarowicz Collection is designated, feels like a grouping of keepsakes: These are items in and by means of which Wojnarowicz marked, from 1970 to 1991, time’s passing. In 1992, he died at the age of thirty-seven.
The journals were also meant for publication and display. Composition books predominate, though there are larger spiral-bound notebooks and one three-ring binder. The covers are occasionally embellished with collage or a holographic sticker. Wojnarowicz interleaves clippings, print ads, band flyers. Pages are pasted over with typescript, newsprint, photocopies of photographs, handwritten notes, redacted poems. The journals were a location in which Wojnarowicz prepared—by means of plans, lists, sketches—work he would later execute in other media, and they were also a site for work. As they themselves self-consciously narrate, these books were a constant in the practice of a peripatetic artist who painted out of doors, who traveled, who regarded homelessness as inherent to humanity (what in one entry he refers to as “the matter of having no home”).
Wojnarowicz made extensive use of the text of his journals, excerpting and reworking sections to create essayistic pieces that appear in Close to the Knives and Memories That Smell like Gasoline. He wrote with his body as witness, vehicle, and recording device: For The Waterfront Journals, for instance, he conducted interviews with people he met on the streets of American cities before “transcribing” monologues from memory, perhaps fictionalizing. In this sense, the kinds of experience with which Wojnarowicz was concerned could not be rendered untrue by the embroidery of art; as the artist once said in an interview with Nan Goldin, “I grew up realizing and believing there’s no difference between fantasy and reality. I always believed that my fantasies were stored pieces of information.”
This belief in fantasy as “stored … information” might inform our reading of the journals, for the writing here seems searingly honest and committed to the actual even as it is devoted to its own language and to the unreal concerns of literature—to symbolism, imagery, dream, erotic transport, and even a kind of lyric thought or philosophy of the self.
Of his diary accounts of sex at the West Side piers and elsewhere, Wojnarowicz told Sylvère Lotringer:
When I wrote them I was so excited to write them, to document them. I thought they were the most amazing things that I had ever seen. They were like films or they reminded me of Burroughs’s Wild Boys. I loved it. I loved the fact that it was outdoors, that it was by the river and in the wind. They were moments of incredible beauty to me.
I remember when I first started becoming more and more aware of AIDS. And here I am sitting with all these journals, looking at them in total disgust. … And now, years later, I realize I shifted again and want these things.
It is with this in mind that one reads Wojnarowicz’s accounts of anonymous sex, his cinematic reflection of the encounter. Many of the selections I have made here, then, are graphic—perhaps more so than other previously published excerpts from the journals. There are also mundane episodes. We see a Manhattan that barely resembles our own. And we see Wojnarowicz at work, taking photos of hell in an alley (homelessness, refuse) or visiting an editor at the Soho Weekly News, the paper that would first publish his “Rimbaud in New York” series. I have wanted to show both the explicitness and the everydayness of Wojnarowicz’s writing practice, as it is in this meeting of the extraordinary and the routine that one finds the crucible of the artist’s personal myth.
I have also included “Dateline for Retrospective Catalog.” This sketch, written in list form, is a draft of a text that appeared in a catalogue of Wojnarowicz’s work from 1979 to 1990, Tongues of Flame. The published work, in paragraphs, is titled “Biographical Dateline,” and it expands the outline’s pithy notes. For example, what in the preparatory document is “Stabbed Steven: lizard tail in hand in police station” becomes, in “Biographical Dateline,”
Stabbed my brother in a fight back in n.y.c.—while waiting for the police to arrive at the apartment to take me away I played with my lizards. One of them dropped the tail off in a self-defense move. The tail continues wiggling for twenty minutes or so to confuse the predator. In the police station a cop asked me what I had in my hand. I replied, a lizard tail. Cops thought I’d gone over the edge.
If the draft “Dateline for Retrospective Catalog” lacks detail and standard syntax, it makes up for this in economy of expression, as a sort of episodic poem.
There is much that has been left out. Without mentioning the mass of writing and illustration that remains unpublished in the journals, it has also not been possible to preserve all of Wojnarowicz’s handwritten punctuation, his use of ellipses, spaces, and dashes of varying length. For this reason, one may look forward to Fales’s completion of a digitization project of the journals, at which time these will be viewable in their entirety online. (Additionally, from November 18 of this year until February 12, 2012, the Brooklyn Museum will host the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” formerly presented at the National Portrait Gallery, here emphatically including Wojnarowicz’s 1985–87 film A Fire in My Belly.)
Date: September 23, 2011
Publisher: Triple Canopy
Genre: Nonfiction, biography
Link to the introduction.
This piece includes transcriptions and images from the journals of David Wojnarowicz, housed at Fales Library at NYU. The text at left serves as an introduction to the selection, made in summer of 2011 for issue 14 of Triple Canopy, "Counterfactuals."
Dodie Bellamy’s bereavement chronicles
IN AN EARLY ESSAY in her recent collection Bee Reaved, Dodie Bellamy takes on a stalker who harasses her by ordering her scads of unrelated items using a fake credit card. “My stalker sends me objects that are not objects. They’re images I keep trying to push into language.” Bellamy provides a list of selected virtual purchases: “BLISS FUZZ’ OFF™ BIKINI PRECISION HAIR REMOVAL CREAM/2 OZ – 2 TUBES,” “SUPER-SENSITIVE SUPREME CELLO STRING SET – 4/4 SIZE,” “FOREST FRIENDS ORNAMENTS FELT KIT,” “TETRA POND AQUASAFE TAP WATER CONDITIONER – 2 101.4-OZ BOTTLES,” “THREE ASSEMBLED MINIATURE WIDOW’S WALK RAILS,” and on and on. American English has been bent and zombified by the need to name an ever-widening object-world that in turn inspires an ever-widening array of bizarre behaviors designed to manage all the stuff. In the absence of such a commodity-world and its attendant grammars, its spammy word-strings and low-resolution thumbnails, would one understand, for example, the necessity of depilating the borders of one’s pubic region with a stinky paste? Or painstakingly hot-gluing a miniature widow’s walk to one’s dollhouse? The answer is that one would not. The title of this essay is “The Violence of the Image.” That seems right.
The nineteen pieces collected in Bee Reaved concern contemporary embodiment. They are about the flickering interstices between what’s physical and what isn’t; the gaps between matter and spirit, language and action, and how these divides are bridged and sometimes obviated. Bellamy treats mob behavior among poets on Facebook; the disorienting experience of having one’s archive collected by the Beinecke Library at Yale; memories of her manic, fantasist first husband; various Netflix programs; the myth of James Dean’s beloved and apparently haunted sports car, Little Bastard. And more. Yet primarily this is a collection about a single event, the passing of Bellamy’s husband, the writer and artist Kevin Killian. A record of grief that is also an astute and tragicomic account of our digitally managed sensoria, Bellamy’s intensely felt prose is persuasive, alchemical. As one reads, that hollow site lately conditioned to push data around on social media and purchase toxic goods produced by slave labor in one click becomes something else. This book is a spell for recovering feeling(s), a sort of salutary linguistic drug.
Bellamy mentions Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking more than once, and I will admit that after completing Bee Reaved I downloaded an audio version of that “bereavement chronicle” (Bellamy’s phrase). I had never read Didion’s account and, listening to it a decade and a half after its first appearance, I found myself challenged. I couldn’t seem to pay attention to the right aspects of the writing. I obsessed over the number of drinks John Gregory Dunne had consumed on the night of his death, as well as Didion’s unflagging insistence on the absolute, crystal-clear normality of the situation. I supposed this insistence, the titular “thinking,” was the whole point, but it nevertheless chilled me in a way I doubted that it was intended to. I felt a bit guilty about my reaction—particularly given that Didion herself has recently passed away—yet the sentences felt like stalling strategies, uncannily practiced and polished and maybe inherited from a previous generation as a sort of wedding gift. Although Bellamy writes that this book was meaningful to her, it’s a very different sort of work than Bee Reaved, and that, to my mind, is not such a bad thing.
Bellamy and Killian are often associated with the New Narrative writing movement, a loosely affiliated group of writers known for mixing explicit autobiographical and documentary styles with appropriation and pastiche, as well as more traditional tools of fiction. Indeed, they may be the movement’s de facto cofounders, along with other San Francisco-based figures such as Robert Glück (known for his transcendent 1994 novel Margery Kempe), Bruce Boone, and Steve Abbott. As Bellamy and Killian explain in the introduction to Writers Who Love Too Much, a 2017 anthology of New Narrative-allied work including such authors as Kathy Acker and Gary Indiana, “the question,” for them and their colleagues, “was how to reproduce the sensations of ordinary life while subverting the totalizing narrative that had stymied and withered our lives.” The wish to “bring the body back to writing,” brilliantly and collaboratively fulfilled in workshops they participated in beginning in the 1980s, was complicated by the advent of the AIDS crisis. The disease laid siege to queer communities, killing the poet and short story writer Sam D’Allesandro, among so many others. Bodies broke down, betraying the authors who inhabited them, and mortality ceased to be an abstract literary theme, becoming instead a messy, terrifying, and very real foe, ever close at hand. As Dennis Cooper wrote, “AIDS ruined death.”
About that totalizing narrative, deadly in its own way: Bellamy and Killian locate it explicitly in nineteenth-century realist and romantic fiction concerned with bourgeois life (e.g., Honoré de Balzac), but it strikes me that they might also intend the totalizing narratives of other, non-literary institutions: of marriage and the nuclear family; of the great (usually heterosexual) love affair; of manifest destiny; of white supremacy; of capital; of Bildung; of heath and sanity; of enlightenment; of the inviolable meaning of the birth and execution and rebirth of Jesus—to choose but a few. While I’m not convinced that Balzac or, for that matter, George Eliot, among other such giants, were in fact writing in support of the institutions of bourgeois social life of their day, I do see how the descriptive techniques they developed have been exploited over time to create an unimaginative secular mode of storytelling that favors pat tropes, rather than investigating and revealing the conditions of the writer’s life.
When I think of totalizing literary narratives, avoidance seems to be a big part of the gambit. Glossing over ethical ambiguities, yes, but also omitting the fact that, as they say, everyone poops. (People do not, as a rule, poop in nineteenth-century fiction.) From a more contemporary technical point of view, I think of something called the “emotional question,” which I recently learned from a student is a craft-related tchotchke that all short stories must consistently refer to throughout their “arc.” The student had at first called the emotional question “the EQ,” and I had to ask him what he meant by that. He assumed that anyone interested in literature must know all about the EQ. It had to be their watchword. The student had learned about this sacred touchstone in a college writing class. “You know,” he said, “the EQ!” The famous EQ. A relic of Cold War pedagogy as far as I can tell, the EQ is the sort of arbitrary metric that New Narrative came up against. The student and I later laughed about his fervor for a pair of letters, but I will admit that it felt strange and not altogether pleasant to struggle for a moment in their hold.
“The distinction between abstract and material has become a joke,” Bellamy writes in the final essay in Bee Reaved, “Chase Scene.” She is describing how it is to live after Killian’s death. But this is not the same as Didion’s magical thinking, because far from slipping into a fantasy that Killian had not received a serious cancer diagnosis and then died from complications related to chemotherapy treatment six weeks later, Bellamy dwells in the simultaneous reality and impossibility of this emotional, intellectual, and physical loss. It takes skill to inhabit this place, and a character has emerged. She is named Bee Reaved: “Side note about the ‘I’: Dodie’s gone.” Bee Reaved is someone who can talk to Killian, write to him, write about him. She is the one who can confess, of being brought to tears after seeing a couple holding hands on the street, “I so intensely longed for someone who would care enough for me to hold my hand. I have the eroticism of a child.” She can document the weeks, days, and minutes leading up to the moment when Killian is taken off life support. She can admit that at times she was a “horrible wife.”
I never took the garbage out, I didn’t read the final version of your novel Spreadeagle. Not only did I fuck other people, I fell in love with them—all that was fine, you said, as long as when things turned to shit you didn’t have to take care of me, and then you took care of me anyway. The last thing you wanted was a good wife. The unspoken promise of our partnership was that neither of us would ever have to be “normal.”
I’ve forgotten to mention that “Chase Scene” is also an essay about the movie version of Stephen King’s novel about a killer car, Christine, and James Dean’s vehicular death, and Bellamy’s discovery that she has a sister she has never met who was given up for adoption before Bellamy was born, and the poet Jack Spicer’s grave. And there are other details pasted deftly in the margins like little illuminations: scenes from Grey’s Anatomy and Bellamy’s dreams. I feel as if I’ve left everything out: that I am supposed to tell the reader that Killian identified as a gay man, that Bellamy has written in detail about their sex life. But there isn’t a singular issue or emotional question, a.k.a. EQ, here; that is Bellamy’s signature and her talent and genius. Her syntax makes you throb. You pant, trying to pull it in through your eyes: more information, more feeling, more life. More accumulation. Particularly in these Covid-numbed days, this is compelling, enlivening, relieving; reading approaches a state of grace. “You acted like sex was a miracle, like I was a miracle that happened to you,” Bee/Bellamy writes. The essay, like all of Bellamy’s prose, concerns the metamorphic miracle of writing.
The Authorized Version
“Chase Scene” concludes with a scenario that also plays out at the close of Dodie Bellamy’s 1998 novel, The Letters of Mina Harker, which Semiotext(e) has just rereleased as a sort of companion volume to Bee Reaved. In this scene, the narrator’s husband, KK, insists, “I’m your house.” He is naked, kneeling over her. He pauses, jokes: “This is what you always wanted, isn’t it, a house that talks.”
Returning to Letters alongside Bee Reaved, I was struck by this line about the talking house. It’s a sweet yet unsettling image, since archetypal. As in a fairy tale in which objects and animals conspire to aid the heroine, where candlesticks speak and hundreds of mice flood a dungeon chamber to separate grains of wheat from a pile of sand, the talking house is a figure of salvation. A talking house might be the mystical other who accompanies our always-incomplete journey from childhood to whatever comes next. It is, indeed, what we’ve always wanted and needed: someone who knows what this place we are living in is, because they are somehow already of it. They are the place. A house that talks uses its powers of speech to remind us that we are here, sheltered, not quite alone.
Anyone familiar with The Letters of Mina Harker, perhaps Bellamy’s most ornate and challenging book to date, knows that things are a bit more complicated than I am letting on. This epistolary fiction follows the exploits of a hybrid writing subjectivity—part Mina Harker, part Dodie Bellamy (and thus a different spin on the Bee Reaved persona). Mina, who is inspired by the female protagonist of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is, like that Mina, a.k.a. Mrs. Wilhelmina Harker, née Murray, a stenographer, a gatherer of media and linguistic evidence. An aside here to say that I had forgotten that this character is primly interpreted by Winona Ryder in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation, a fact that adds a whole other pop-cultural valence to the mix. Bellamy’s Mina revises Stoker’s characterization—along with Ryder/Coppola’s and just about everyone else’s. Her Mina is no mere “secretarial adjunct to the great European vampire killer, Dr. Van Helsing.” Rather, this is the true Mina, an undead Brontë-esque figure “dart[ing] across the moor fog condensing on my long plait of hair.” She’s “THE AUTHORIZED VERSION.” It seems that after a fun dalliance with old Nosferatu, she’s moved on. “I will never love him,” she writes. “He’s too weird too intense.”
The language of Mina Harker haunts Dodie Bellamy’s word-processing software, but not only this—it threatens to permanently possess Bellamy’s body. The authorized Mina turns out to have succumbed to Dracula/Nosferatu’s charms precisely in order to be infected with the Count’s infernal powers: “Remember,” she writes, “my kind can slip through keyholes, slide beneath doors.” Whereas in Stoker’s account Mina’s soul vacillates between damnation and salvation, and she is only rescued through the heroism of a crack team of Christian vampire-slayers, here Mina revels in her cursedness, which expresses itself via a voracious appetite for sex and, more important, writing. Page one of the novel’s first letter: “I am so aroused my clit flicks like a tongue.”
Despite being centrally located on many human bodies, clits don’t seem to make it into much literary fiction. Letters is on a mission to revise all that—through the detailing of a sex life that could, factually speaking, be Dodie Bellamy’s own, but which is mediated by the titular character who, as it turns out, begins taking credit for it. Mina mocks Dodie for her relative prudery, and, meanwhile, Dodie “threaten[s] an exorcism” if Mina doesn’t “calm down.” Mina takes two lovers, Quincey and Dion. KK, Dodie’s husband, knows all about this; he offers dry commentary. Of the latter of Mina/Dodie’s paramours, he quips, “You and Dion are two giant screens with different movies playing on each of you.” In the novel’s lush array of sex scenes, KK himself appears, “cock and balls dangl[ing].” As he also seems to be Dodie’s most trusted reader and editor, he’s in the curious position of commenting on his own acts and the description thereof.
Perhaps it doesn’t seem like Letters could possibly be a book about mourning, but I think it is, and this is part of the reason why it makes so much sense for it to appear again at this time. If Bee Reaved is, on the one hand, a text about grief, it is also a book about how one becomes a writer and how that—process? fantasy? act?—gets bound up in one’s most intimate relationships. Similarly, Letters treats loss and how writing permits its assimilation: here a loss of innocence about what one is capable of as an embodied being, about love itself, about the very meaning of our strongest drives and most intense experiences. It’s not that sex is just or merely empty, empty in a simple way. If only! Sex is empty in the extraordinarily haunted way in which mirrors are empty. This is a very hard thing to get over. Some people never do.
Bellamy has an unerring ability to find the verbal mot juste—and not just once, but over and over and over (and over) again. Her sentences are capable of vulpine rapidity, gleaming condensation, shaggy languor, and all sorts of other movements and gestures that astonish, please, unnerve. What separates her from other “experimental”—I employ quotes to help a little with the tiredness of the term—writers who have foregone the faded distinctions of traditional literary genre, is her simultaneous uncompromising antinomianism, a.k.a. weirdness, and stylistic rigor. Her science of the American phrase revises the “show don’t tell” chestnut so that it reads something like, “Exist and never ever cease opening your body and brain to what it might be to write this down.” Not mean. Be. Meaning is not lost in Bellamy’s prose, far from it, but it comes after enunciation. Only with the selection of the word that has the satisfactory texture, suppleness, drip, bite, brittleness, heat, ichor, etc., will meaning begin to pool and teem.
Bellamy’s writing feels simultaneously disconnected from the internet and intimately intertwined with it, too, full of strange contradictions related to being an insider and outsider, both at once. This amphibious quality is what allows her to so convincingly convey psychic and corporeal particularities of our time, to bring us figuratively and literally back to life. Her work simultaneously builds on earlier precedents—like Acker—and foreshadows and even exceeds the most surreal and antic moments in contemporary (auto)fiction by “very online” authors. But, more important, Bellamy’s writing takes on an ambiguous literary substance we seem at once to revile and crave: emotion. She doesn’t rail against our addiction to emotion in its triter manifestations (i.e., sentimentality) or exploit our weakness for it, yet she is engaged with it nevertheless. She tracks it. She tirelessly mimics it, reinscribes it, questions it, drives it out of her body ahead of the cursor, plays with it. She is one of the handful of living writers I know of who have had the force, courage, and maybe also the luck (but what is luck other than hard work) to go beyond cliché.