Edifice Teo Yang reimagines the history of Korean architecture through contemporary design. By Alexandra Lange. p. 82
The Cover Six decades in the art world: Calvin Tomkins in conversation with Randy Kennedy. p. 32 Essay Jarrett Earnest contemplates meaning at the Austin International Drag Festival. An excerpt from “Drag Diary.” p. 46
Score Emerging composer Marko Nikodijević in conversation with Nikolaus Bachler and Olivier Renaud-Clément. p. 54
The Keepers Carmen Winant on mothering sons, through found pictures and the voices of feminist theory. p. 60
Portfolio An introduction to Polish-Ukranian artist Erna Rosenstein’s unsettling pen-and-ink fairytales. p. 68
Conversation Fascism, Italian history, the art world and God: Maurizio Cattelan communes with Fabio Mauri (1926–2009). p. 88
Portfolio Nicolas Party’s travels through a watercolor thicket. p. 102
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Letters Lee Lozano writes to Virginia Dwan with an apology and an astrological reading, April 1971. p. 14 Unknown Pleasures Finding Joseph Cornell: Phyllis Tuchman returns to a long-lost afternoon on Utopia Parkway. p. 16
Antiphony A new poem by Donna Stonecipher in response to Rachel Khedoori’s Untitled, 2011. p. 20
Anxiety of Influence Greg Tate on Samuel R. Delany’s iconoclastic, intergalactic oeuvre, with Arthur Jafa. p. 22 Epitaph Jennifer Lucy Allan pays tribute to the unheralded work of electronic music pioneer Ruth Anderson (1928–2019). p. 26
Material A new feature about the physical matter of art. In this issue: Berlinde De Bruyckere’s wax and blankets. p. 116
Permaculture High Society, the Italian design studio making light fixtures from food waste. p. 118
Books New and upcoming publications. Plus, Lucy Ives on the radical writing of Madeline Gins. p. 30
Non Finito A Rrose by any other name: The centennial of an art star. p. 120
Madeline Gins, 1977, gelatin silver print. Photo: © Peggy Jarrell Kaplan. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York/Reversible Destiny Foundation.
Editor’s Note p. 12
PARK AVENUE ARMORY PRESENTS
Editor in Chief Randy Kennedy Managing Editor Catherine Davis Editorial Assistant Anna Shinbane Art Direction Common Name
NORTH AMERICAN PREMIERE
Production Christine Stricker Contributing Editors Andrea Schwan Michaela Unterdörfer Hauser & Wirth, New York Editorial Offices: 548 West 22nd Street New York, NY 10011 Tel: +1 212-790-3900 Presidents Iwan and Manuela Wirth Partner and Vice President Marc Payot Printed in Germany Offsetdruckerei Karl Grammlich
P H Y L L I S T U C HM A N
CA R MEN W IN A N T
JA R R E T T E A R NES T
An art historian and critic, Tuchman has written for numerous publications, including Artforum, ARTnews, Art in America, The New York Times and Vogue. She has written exhibition catalog essays on the work of Ken Price, Robert Smithson, Mary Weatherford, and many others, and has taught at Williams College and Hunter College of the City University of New York. She is currently organizing an exhibition about Abstract Expressionism for Guild Hall’s 90th Anniversary, in August 2021. (Photo: Paul Laster)
Winant is a widely exhibited artist and writer whose work was included in “Being: New Photography 2018” at the Museum of Modern Art. She is the Roy Lichtenstein Endowed Chair of Studio Art at the Ohio State University, and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow. She collects and uses found photographs to examine feminist modes of survival, revolt and feeling. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her partner, Luke Stettner, and her sons, Rafa and Carlo.
Earnest, based in New York, is an artist, writer and oral historian. His book What It Means to Write About Art: Interviews With Art Critics was published in 2018. Last year, he curated “Closer as Love: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge: Polaroids 1993–2007” at Nina Johnson gallery in Miami and “The Young and Evil” at David Zwirner in New York. Companion books for both shows, from Matte Editions and David Zwirner Books, were recently published.
D O NN A S TO NEC IP HER
GR EG TAT E
M AUR I Z I O CAT T EL A N
Stonecipher is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Transaction Histories, which was cited by The New York Times as one of the ten best poetry books of 2018. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including The Paris Review, and has been translated into eight languages. A collection of criticism, Prose Poetry and the City, was published in 2018. She is based in Berlin and her German translation of Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker’s études will be published in 2020.
Tate, critic, musician and cultural provocateur, was a staff writer at The Village Voice from 1987 to 2003. His books include Flyboy in the Buttermilk; Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader; Everything but the Burden—What White People Are Taking From Black Culture; and Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience. He is a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition. Since 1999, he has led the Conducted Improv ensemble Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber and produced 16 albums for the group’s Avant Groidd imprint. (Photo: Janette Beckman)
Cattelan, who recently reemerged from retirement, was the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 2011. He is a founder of Permanent Food and Toiletpaper magazines, and his work has been presented at the Kunsthalle Basel, the Venice Biennale, Tate Modern, the Menil Collection and, most recently, Blenheim Palace in England, where his sculpture America, a fully functioning 18-karat-gold toilet, was exhibited and later stolen. At this past year’s ArtBasel Miami Beach, Cattelan debuted a new work, Comedian, a store-bought banana duct-taped to a wall. (Photo: Pierpaolo Ferrari)
Raphaël Pichon | Ensemble Pygmalion | Pierre Audi | Berlinde De Bruyckere
At the center of Claudio Monteverdi’s spatial masterpiece stands Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere’s monumental sculpture created for the 55th Venice Biennale, ‘Cripplewood, 2012 – 2013’ that suggests vulnerability and fragility of man, as the central visual element of this performance. Dynamic conductor Raphaël Pichon leads renowned period orchestra Ensemble Pygmalion with staging by Pierre Audi.
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P h o t o: C o u r t e s y o f D e N a t i o n a l e O p e r a
Vol. 2, No. 6: Ursula (ISSN 2639-376X) is published quarterly, in spring, summer, fall and winter, for $60 a year in the U.S. by Hauser & Wirth, 548 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011.
“A spell-binding ritual…Beauty, suffering, mystery, heaven and earth– Monteverdi’s ravishing Marian Vespers embodies all of these, as did this production.” —Opera Today
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44 Years of Making Art
Editor’s Note Robert Creeley told the poet and art critic Bill Berkson that it was a good idea to try to meet one’s heroes, advice Berkson heeded. “At normal distance,” Berkson wrote, “some heroes can deceive (or, more likely, you deceive yourself at the expense of what’s for real); up close the worst they can be is disappointing—you were expecting someone else? Occasionally, it’s good enough, or, best-case scenario, a perfect fit.” I’ve had a few brushes with writers I’ve idolized. I once traveled to Oxford, Mississippi, under flimsy journalistic pretenses to meet the novelist Barry Hannah. He bought me a very good barbecue sandwich and talked to me about Faulkner while smoking Marlboro Reds outside Square Books. I’d been afraid he couldn’t possibly measure up to my expectations, but I stopped worrying; he was as wise as his fiction. When I interviewed Mary Karr for an article about the portrait photographer Marion Ettlinger, Karr told me that Ettlinger was the kind of portraitist who took care to read her subjects’ books. “She read my books of poems,” Karr added, “and I’ve slept with people who haven’t done that.” That’s exactly how I’d always dreamed Mary Karr would speak. Some writers seem at a loss as to how to process such reverence; maybe this is unique to writers. When I button-holed Vince Aletti several years ago at an opening, he just looked at me and said, “Oh…” Peter Schjeldahl, whom I spotted in the flesh for the first time on a balcony during a party at the Venice Biennale, backed away as I approached him yammering about the importance to me of his criticism. In an apparent attempt to offer some scrap of conversation, he looked out over the lagoon and related an obscure fact about the maritime history of Venice. For as long as I’ve cared about art, and almost as long as I’ve cared about writing, Calvin Tomkins has represented a kind of unattainable ideal of narrative prose about the living art world. I came across Off the Wall, his portrait of Rauschenberg, in college. Then I discovered that his art-writing life had begun completely by accident, as a young reporter, after he caught a random assignment one afternoon to interview Duchamp. Most of my favorite writers are the ones who come to their subjects unprofessionally, so to speak, and find themselves hopeless zealots. Tomkins’ effortless-seeming, empathetic, wry voice—which never speaks down to readers as it gently pulls them up to greater understanding of often-difficult work—is unquestionably that of The New Yorker but also unmistakably his own, the kind Joyce once described as “silver-veined.” Tomkins is preternaturally shy and has never much liked the idea of being on the other side of the table—the subject himself of a piece of writing. But a couple of years ago, I broached the idea and we began tentatively meeting, tentatively turning on a recorder each time. Eventually, we covered everything from his writing about David Hammons in 2019 to his writing about Duchamp in 1959, much before that and most things in between. The result—our cover story, graced with an intensely lyrical watercolor portrait of Tomkins by Elizabeth Peyton, painted after a sitting late last year—is, I think, an extraordinary history of a life lived in the art of its time. This issue, our sixth, celebrates many such lives, past and present. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did those many conversations. —Randy Kennedy
Cover of Calvin Tomkins' The Bride and the Bachelors: The Heretical Courtship in Modern Art, 1965, Viking Press, New York. Courtesy “John Cage’s Personal Library,” Archives of the John Cage Trust.
2019-20 Lab Grant Resident Nicole Eisenman working in Dieu Donné’s studios.
Dieu Donné invites established and emerging artists to explore the medium of hand papermaking. Artists such as Ann Hamilton, Glenn Ligon, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Do Ho Suh, and Nari Ward have pushed the potential of the medium and made groundbreaking work in Dieu Donné’s studios.
The exchange has become enshrined in 1960s art lore, as beloved in its own world as Dolly Parton’s most infamous rejoinder was in hers. “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes,” Parton said, “because I know I’m not dumb…and I also know that I’m not blonde.” Around 1965, the curator Kasper König told the fiercely iconoclastic artist Lee Lozano that he found her to be a “good painter and a nice girl.” To which Lozano replied: “Wrong on both counts. I am a very good painter and not a nice girl!” Through May 17, 2020, K21Kunstsammlung NRW in Düsseldorf is exploring the deeply ingrained discrimination and sexism encountered by women artists in the 1960s and ’70s, and their responses to that climate, in an exhibition whose title was inspired
by Lozano’s words. “I’m Not a Nice Girl!” organized by Isabelle Malz, includes work by pioneering conceptual artists like Lozano, Adrian Piper, Eleanor Antin and Mierle Laderman Ukeles. On the occasion of the show, Ursula revisits a casual 1971 letter Lozano sent to the gallerist and collector Virginia Dwan, a pivotal figure in postwar American art. Lozano’s half-prosaic, half-poetic message seems to be about a passing moment, a missed emotional connection between the two women at Dwan’s gallery on West 57th Street, which she would close for good that year. In the scene, the artist Carl Andre and Dwan’s second-in-command, John Weber (soon to found his own storied gallery), play supporting roles, along with the position of Saturn and its unfortunate effect on Scorpios.
Lee Lozano lecturing at NSCAD, July 16, 1971, Halifax. © Lozano Archive. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
Letter from Lee Lozano to Virginia Dwan, 1971. © Estate of Lee Lozano. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.
A writer returns to a lost afternoon with Joseph Cornell
By Phyllis Tuchman
On a Sunday afternoon in August of 1971, towards the end of a heat wave in New York, I went to Queens to see Joseph Cornell. I’d fallen in love with Cornell’s art when I was in college, after visiting a survey at the Guggenheim Museum. I was hoping to ask him, in person, if I could please interview him for Artforum, in whose pages I had been publishing conversations with artists for a little more than a year. Phil Leider, the now-legendary editor of the magazine, was on board with the idea, though we both knew it was quixotic at best. Cornell was an elusive figure in the art world, beloved for the exquisite work he created in the circumscribed conditions of a solitary life in the far reaches of an outer borough, living alone in a small house he had once shared with his widowed mother and handicapped younger brother. By the late ’60s and early ’70s, he was also known as mercurial, someone who kept to himself and would probably have no interest in explaining himself in the pages of an esoteric journal. I was in my early 20s and had already conducted talks with formidable figures like Carl Andre, Robert Ryman, Larry Poons and John Chamberlain. Phil and I were astonished that Cornell had agreed even to meet with me at his home, at 3708 Utopia Parkway. The house sat on a fairly generic, tree-lined street, the sort that appears in countless American movies and television shows. It was a two-story frame, with a large backyard, that his mother had purchased in 1929, several years after Cornell’s father had died of leukemia, leaving the family in financial straits. The Auburndale stop on the Long Island Railroad was a few blocks away, but I have no memory of taking the train nor, for that matter, of how I got there. I imagine I took a taxi cab from the Upper East Side. Reconstructing that afternoon over the course of several weeks so that I could write this has entailed some professional and personal excavation. It began with the recovery of a draft of a letter I wrote about the visit to my friend Nancy Graves, who was then teaching in a summer program in San Francisco. My notes had been buried hopelessly for years in a box at the bottom of an overstuffed closet. In the correspondence with Nancy, I described Cornell as “tall, gaunt and conventionally dressed.” Today, I can only assume that I meant he was wearing a nice pair of slacks and a short-sleeve cotton
shirt. (Earlier that summer, when I’d interviewed Chamberlain in a stiflingly hot SoHo loft, the big, burly sculptor had greeted me bare-chested, his torso covered with tattoos.) Cornell and I spent the afternoon sitting outside while birds were chirping and the sun flickered through the leaves of a sizeable tree he said he had planted around 1932. Later, when we went into the house, I recall it being dark and dismal, but now I wonder if all the blinds were drawn simply so that the dining and living rooms wouldn’t become overheated. There was no air conditioner in sight. We talked for quite some time. Cornell was then 67 and seemed quite healthy, though 17 months later, a few days after he turned 69, he would die of a heart attack. As I questioned him, he would close his eyes and appear to be experiencing mini-reveries. I imagined that he was visualizing the
places and events about which I just had asked. (In a review of Deborah Solomon’s 1997 biography of Cornell, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, the artist Anne Truitt described Cornell as a “knight whose adventures were entirely in the realm of his imagination.”) According to the notes I later made when I got home, he mentioned that his ancestors had arrived in America in the 17th century on a boat named The Pontiac, and we discussed his memories of New York in the 1920s. During this period, he worked for a textile wholesaler, based in Boston, that had an office off Madison Square Park. He still recalled the day in 1925, almost half a century earlier, when Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Diana, known as Diana of the Tower, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was lowered from its perch atop the crest of the second version of Madison Square Garden,
Above: Joseph Cornell, Chocolat Menier, 1952, mixed media construction. Courtesy Grey Art Gallery, New York University. Opposite: Harry Roseman, At the End of the Driveway, June 7, 1971, fiber-based gelatin silver print. © Harry Roseman. Courtesy the artist and Davis & Langdale Company, New York.
designed by Stanford White, before the arena was razed. As if it had been yesterday, Cornell remembered how the other men with whom he worked snickered and made jokes about the naked figure. In the draft of the letter I saved, I mention that Cornell several times referred to Black Friday. Until recently, I thought Black Friday and the demolishing of the Garden were close in time, not four years apart. When Cornell told me that he left his job after that momentous Friday and never again worked in an office, I incorrectly pictured the sequence of events. After referring to Solomon’s biography, I now wonder if I misunderstood what he said or if he was simply weaving a dramatic story for a future biographer to recount. I remember that as we talked that afternoon, seated in his backyard, he made Salvador Dalí come alive. I suddenly realized how critical Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory and Illumined Pleasures, both of which are small canvases not much larger than the size of his own boxes, must have been to him. I was taken aback when he said he was surprised that more people had not been inspired by his boxes to make similar artworks, as if such things were simply a matter of placing a few objects together. When I told him how much I liked one of his boxes filled with a chorus line of miniature plastic lobsters, he seemed wholly unimpressed by my choice. Over the years, I’ve often thought back to him telling me how much it meant to him that he had once met someone who knew Claude Debussy. By spending several hours one afternoon with him, I, too, was playing his highly poetic form of six degrees of separation, long before that idea gained currency—spending time with someone who knew someone who knew Debussy. Because I had worked for the photographer Hans Namuth, I was familiar with the studio Cornell maintained in the basement of his home. But he also kept a wealth of materielle—the word he liked to use— in his garage. Given that he had once had a job in the textile business, materielle must indeed have been a meaningful word for him. After we had been talking for a while about Paris in the 1880s, an epoch that was deeply important to him, he walked a few yards to the garage and returned with several hand-tinted views of Paris at the turn of the century. They were, as I put it in the letter, “small, delicate, full of bustling life and activity.” One of the cards showed a tiny sign advertising Chocolat Menier, a candy company that was a recurring motif in his art. When I spotted its logo, I gathered that I was probably learning more
about his art through images than I would ever grasp through his words. In fact, an appreciation Cornell once wrote of Hedy Lamarr for an issue of View magazine in 1940, titled “Enchanted Wanderer,” was, I noted to Nancy, far and away “the best interview he ever could have given.” (“In a world of shadow and subdued light,” Cornell wrote, “she moves, clothed in a white silk robe trimmed with dark fur, against dim white walls.”) At one point, he went into his house and came back with two pieces of cake and some ice cream. He asked if I could eat the larger slice, and over the years I’ve regretted that I answered in the affirmative. In the end, he declined to let me come back to interview him. The draft of the letter to Nancy suggests that I readily accepted this decision. Instead, he told me, he wanted to have a friend deliver to me a kind of storage box that would be filled with all sorts of objects. I know two people who worked as Cornell’s assistants who were given such boxes, filled with a wealth of seemingly unrelated items. The content of these boxes has, to this day, never been made public. As it turned out, no one ever dropped a box off at my apartment. A few months before Cornell died, on December 29, 1972, I received a phone call telling me to expect a delivery, but nothing arrived. Instead, I have my memories, just as Joseph Cornell had his.
• • •
Harry Roseman, 3708 Utopia Parkway, May 1970, C print. © Harry Roseman. Courtesy the artist and Davis & Langdale Company, New York.
When I began interviewing artists for Artforum—and soon afterwards, for Art News and Art in America—I was a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts and was already deeply involved with the lives of artists, though lives lived many years before mine. I passionately wanted to prove, for example, that Sassetta, the painter from Siena, knew the great Florentine Renaissance artist Masaccio. I couldn’t manage to do it, though years later, in a lecture class taught by John Pope-Hennessy, the distinguished art historian casually mentioned that the two titans were indeed familiar. Studying art history, it began to dawn on me that I was able talk to artists in the here and now, living right around me in New York and find out firsthand who they knew, what they thought, how they worked, who they loved and even who they hated, which mattered, too. (I used to stay up late to watch Dick Cavett’s talk show and remember being struck by the passion of the infamous put-down that novelist Mary McCarthy directed toward playwright Lillian Hellman.) While doing interviews for Artforum, I was constantly surprised by the wildly diverse personalities and dispositions of the painters and sculptors I met. We talked in light-filled studios; around tables in dark anterooms; in neat and tidy places and in places barely more habitable than hoarders’ dens. Some subjects were longwinded; others decidedly the opposite (Warhol answered brilliantly despite replying with monosyllables). I edited the interviews before they were published, sending the revised transcripts to the artists for review. Everyone treated the edits differently. I remember Chamberlain unexpectedly marking up the manuscript as if he were an English teacher. Anthony Caro’s pages flew back and forth across the Atlantic several times, during which travels his initial reference to Henry Moore eventually became “someone I once knew.” Only Larry Poons insisted that I run the interview as it proceeded in real time. And only Michael Heizer refused to allow me to publish our conversations, even after he marked up every sheet of paper with slashes that made them look like a set of Cy Twombly drawings. With each passing year, I remember all of these things more fondly. I treasure the innocence that was mine back in the day. And I love thinking back to the interview that I never did, the afternoon I spent with Joseph Cornell in his backyard eating cake and ice cream while the birds chirped and the sun flickered through the leaves of a tree he planted around 1932.
MARK BRADFORD END PAPERS Curated by Michael Auping
MODERN ART MUSEUM OF FORT WORTH March 8–August 9, 2020
20 minutes from any bus stop, 2002 (detail). Mixed media on canvas. 72 × 84 inches. Judi and Howard Sadowsky and Family. © Mark Bradford. Photo: Charles White. Lead exhibition support for Mark Bradford: End Papers is generously provided by the Texas Commission on the Arts. Major support is provided by Hauser & Wirth and the Fort Worth Tourism Public Improvement District, with additional support from Suzanne MacFayden.
Spatial Meditation No.1 (after Rachel Khedoori’s Untitled, 2011) By Donna Stonecipher
Rachel Khedoori, Untitled, 2011, rag-board and glue. © Rachel Khedoori. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
We kept replacing a house with a house with a house, thinking we were getting somewhere, elsewhere, but one day we held still for a moment and realized that all of the houses had been accumulating underneath our current house the whole time, one atop the other like a fragile hazardous lighthouse whose weak beacon would never be able to keep us from breaking to pieces on the shoals. Our apartments kept us in pieces: we had segmented ourselves throughout the rooms, our dreams in one room and our nightmares in another, our plans to get somewhere, elsewhere drifting here and there in precarious piles. If there was no progress, there could be no stasis. If there was no future, there could be no remorse. If there was no original, there could be no copy, only a utopia of copies, everywhere and at all instants like our own inevitable selves, filling selvage after selvage with inevitability. Developers tore down unprofitable houses and replaced them with profitable houses, but the unprofitable houses did not disappear: they accumulated like strata of sedimented geologic time in the minds of those who would never be free of them. But weren’t we also obsessed with profit and loss? Trying to get somewhere, elsewhere, yet engulfed with grief, stuck in the very same plot we believed we’d set out from? If there was no replacement, then there could be no retracing. If there was no development, then there could be no ruin. If there was no mobility, then there could be no nostalgia. There could be only a mise-en-abyme of home.
Reflections on Samuel R. Delany, fiction and art, by Greg Tate (guest-starring Arthur Jafa)
Opposite: Samuel Delany at Lunacon, 1968. Photo: © J.K. Klein. Courtesy UC Riverside Special Collections. This page: Cover of The Ballad of Beta 2, 1965. Courtesy Collectible Science Fiction.
t h g i L e l b u o D In
Anxiety of influence
ou know what I do? I listen to other Y people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences and their clumsy feelings that they can’t express, and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn’t hurt any more: that’s my poem. I know what they want to say, and I say it for them. —Samuel R. Delany, Babel-17 The one known as Samuel Ray “Chip” Delany first entered my frame of reference in Dayton, Ohio, circa 1968. He arrived through the mail via something called the Science Fiction Writers of American book club. SFWA would send you three books a month, and in my first batch was Delany’s Nova. Before even opening the book, I was struck by the author photo, which presented a woolyheaded young Black dude said to have been born in Harlem on April Fools’ Day, 1942. My 13-year-old self had been reading science fiction since second grade, but I’d never seen nor even imagined an Afro-American writing science-fiction novels at the height of the Black Power movement. In his 1968 novel Nova, Delany conceived the genre’s first starship captain of African descent, Lorq Von Ray (to be technical, Lorq was of SenegaleseNorwegian descent), and for that crime against unwritten genre racism, John Campbell’s Analog magazine—then considered the genre’s high bar of literary sophistication and scientific plausibility—rescinded an offer to publish an excerpt. Campbell reasoned that his readership would find Lorq’s ethnic identity and Delany’s vivid descriptions of his Negroid features too alienating to embrace. (The book itself would go on to become a classic, and Delany’s Dhalgren, published in 1974, would sell more than a million copies.) This wouldn’t be the last time we would find out that the race politics of some mainstream sci-fi and fantasy fans skew neofascist. Or that this same clot could be outraged and horrified by the discovery that some brave new worlds contained big, angry Black men, large
and in charge of everyday genre-defining conveniences like starships. Race wars and slave insurrections are, ironically, an inherent feature of much classic science fiction, which, as I’ve written elsewhere, project anxiety over technologically superior aliens colonizing and enslaving white Earth men, just as those men had enslaved various people of color since the so-called Enlightenment. In Nova (set in the year 3172), Delany has the temerity to suggest that Jim Crow attitudes and actions will continue to prevail towards dark-skinned ethnic others even after vast technological advances like the advent of galaxy-hopping, faster-than-light transport. The Earth of the future he describes is a place still ethnocidally barbaric. Delany breaks further with convention in Nova through an obsession with the future of class warfare. The book’s working stiffs are depicted as pawns in a galactic power game played between Lorq’s aristocratic family and that of his childhood friends, Prince and Ruby Red, an incestuous sibling pair of oligarch heirs committed to maintaining the class order of the day. At one point back in the ’90s, some of us in the R&B wing of the Delany fan base thought the deceased artistic eminence known as Prince Rogers Nelson and his alter ego Vanity would have made spot-on casting as Prince and Ruby Red, and a thirtysomething Jeffrey Wright would have made for a spectacular Lorq.
Like Lorq, Delany was a child of Black privilege. His parents owned a funeral parlor in Harlem and were sufficiently well-heeled to send him to Dalton School. He has remarked that much of his fiction has been an attempt to re-create the transcultural experience of riding the bus from Harlem to the city’s wealth-ridden Upper East Side and back. The actual distance between Dalton and 125th Street is only 36 city blocks. But within that short run, you can still encounter as much concentrated multiethnic difference and wealth disparity as exists in the 20 miles separating Compton from Beverly Hills. After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1960, Delany set about writing and seeing published his 1962 debut, The Jewels of Aptor, and then in rapid succession seven more novels in the next five years. In The Einstein Intersection, published in 1967, he weaves an Orphic fable of loving mutations egged on by the ghosts of mythologized human figures such as Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid on a depopulated, post-human Earth. He also equips the book with a flotilla of quotes from various sources, providing poignant clues to his deep thinking, pop-culture savvy and ecumenical wide-reading in fiction far beyond the crusty pulp pages of 1950s and ’60s science fiction. The presaging of Delany the critical theorist and textual tomb raider manifests in epigrams such as:
Experience reveals to him in every object, in every event, the presence of something else. —Jean Paul Sartre, Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr A poem is a machine for making choices. —John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean Jean Harlow? Christ, Orpheus, Billy the Kid—those three I can understand. But what’s a young spade writer like you doing all caught up with the Great White Bitch?! Of course, I guess it’s pretty obvious. —Gregory Corso, in conversation By the time of Einstein’s publication, Delany had begun winning Nebula and Hugo awards, and his novella The Star Pit was soon to appear in genre literary doyenne Judith Merril’s then-annual anthology of miracles, SF 12, where I found it. In her afterword, Merril offers this striking and slightly starstruck description of the 26-year-old New Wave superstar: “Samuel R. Delany is where it’s at, multi-mediumed, trans-culture, interracial, call it multiplicity. He has never decided whether he is a mathematician, musician or writer—he has wandered through most of Europe, has a speaking acquaintance with at least five languages, and can look natural in a tux, but prefers one earring and a psychedelic red weskit.…He’s just ahead of where it is otherwise at: approximately where the kids you worry about today will be tomorrow.” After 1968, Delany seemingly disappeared from the science-fiction circuit and was rumored to be working on a mysterious epic project. This turned out to be Dhalgren, his least conventional work of science fiction, which rapidly became his most successful, despite its length, 879 pages, and its declaration from the first sentence that it was experimental fiction. It propelled Delany into the ranks of hyper-ambitious American writers of his generation— Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Ishmael Reed, John Barth and Delany’s buddy, Clarence Major—who were composing the big, challenging books that would later come under the heading of “encyclopedic novels” and, less
obliquely, “the literature of exhaustion.” The rages and complexities of the historical moment seemed to demand novels willing to post up to the task as these did. The apocalyptic future shock of ’60s and early ’70s America had cracked wide open whatever myths of innocence remained to safeguard the nation’s white-picket-fence psyche from the upheavals within and without its borders. Whole categories of people previously considered marginal now commanded center stage—Black folk, gay folk, feminists, Mexicans, antiwar and leftist student activists. By the time of the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations in 1968, many had a come-to-Jesus flashback of Malcolm X’s 1963 statement that John F. Kennedy’s assassination had been a matter of America’s black-ops actions in Africa, Asia and Latin America “coming home to roost.” Dhalgren came out in January 1975, four months after Nixon was forced to resign and the same month the Church Committee was created to investigate the extent of the CIA’s long-running (and gunning) programs of assassination and destabilization of democratically elected leftist governments around the world. Dhalgren was inspired directly by Delany’s experience of the aftermath of the King assassination—of American inner cities left charred by the dozens of reprisal insurrections that erupted in response to the killing of the “king of peace.” I can still recall vividly my first encounter with the book, immediately after its publication. Taking possession of the black leather La-Z-Boy in the family den, I would spend the next four days devouring the novel in 200-page gulps. What I recall most is not what happened to the characters but what happened to me, the reader. The book created its own fog of memory, in which one seemed to be experiencing and re-experiencing events as if within the body of a character inside the mindscape, landscape and consensual hallucinatory dreamscape of Bellona, the novel’s setting. (Bellona is an imagined post apocalyptic city somewhere in the Midwest, but with two moons, a tip-off that the city may be a hallucination of its probably bipolar protagonist, variously known as Kid, the Kid and Kidd—an
intentional echo of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the troubled wanderings of its nameless first person narrator through a picaresque ’50s Harlem.) By the time I read Dhalgren, I’d already become acquainted with other literature by modernist African, AfroAmerican, Asian and Latin American writers who likewise treated the village experiences of their peoples as mythological, phantasmagorical, mystical, circular, “viciously modernist” (to paraphrase Amiri Baraka’s famous description of ’60s Harlem), absurdly existential, and full of routinely postapocalyptic ready-mades. So the novel was not my first encounter with a book that radiated a haunting meta-force even as an object, upright and uncracked on the shelf. But Delany’s was the first from the science-fiction genre to join the ranks of Borges’ Ficciones, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, Clarence Major’s Reflex and Bone Structure and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Sula and Song of Solomon in deploying the alphabet to drag readers down to the crossroads. The alchemy of eros and anarchy that he conjured up to supercharge the urban-guerrilla ruins of Bellona drew on the revolutionary romanticism of the times and rubbed readers’ noses in its no-exit endgame. Like several other Delany books— notably Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection and Nova—Dhalgren is a meditation on the power of coded language, writing about the act of writing. Kid, in an eerily prescient forecasting of Jean-Michel Basquiat and hip-hop culture, is a poet who becomes a class-mobile celebrity because of his cryptic writings and later a pariah for his associations with a vicious gang that projects monstrous images onto neighborhood walls as it rolls through Bellona’s ruins. If a mixtape for Dhalgren were to be DJ’ed into being, it would surely include the band War’s “The World Is a Ghetto”— arguably R&B’s first Afro-pessimist anthem and chart-topping hit. Dhalgren somehow also manages to be a novel-length exploration of white
“I can’t think of somebody who catalyzed me as much as he did. Reading Delany triggered an alchemical change in terms of my relationship to the world, to expression.” —Arthur Jafa 24
flight and possibly even the ensuing phenomenon of hipster-phase gentrification. Among its myriad characters are white middle-class traitor/counterculture archetypes who run towards rather than away from Bellona’s still-smoking danger zones. Here Delany places himself in prophetic dialogue with the renowned poet and dramatist Ntozake Shange, who scant years after Dhalgren’s publication would declare Black folk the subconscious of the white imagination. In this light, Bellona demands to be read through the ever-anxious white gaze—a gaze horrified by the thought of millions of unshackled and insurgent Black bodies freely roaming the land, fomenting miscegenation and anarchy, the stuff of American white-nationalist nightmares since before the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. In one quietly sardonic conceit of the book, Bellona’s majority Black population has chosen to remain in town despite the loss of all municipal services—water, electricity, gas, police— à la late 20th century Detroit. In other words, the postapocalyptic reality of one strata of the citizenry is revealed to be just a day in the life of the folk who were trapped on the social bottom in Bellona’s imagined best of times. As if all the foregoing weren’t groundbreaking enough, Dhalgren also marked an epic coming-out in queer sensibility by its author, now frequently given to rendering gay and bisexual and multiracial erotic encounters in graphic imagistic prose. (The 11th story in Delany’s 1979–87 Return to Nevèrÿon fantasy series cycle, “Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” has been acknowledged as the first science-fiction work to explicitly focus on the AIDS crisis, shifting between the author’s contemporary reportage of the virus’s ravages among friends and associates in 1980s New York and the toll of an invented version on gay men in his fantasy realm.) With Dhalgren, Delany’s authorial identity and readership definitively slipped the confines of the sci-fi ghetto—this, ironically, via a book set in an American ghetto that still reads as stranger and more perilous than any terraformed planet in the genre’s canon. The book’s world is a nightmare from which its elusive antihero cannot awaken.
• • •
When the artist Arthur Jafa and this writer began to nerd out over various fanboy obsessions at Howard University in the late ’70s, the works of Delany quickly arose as shared talismans of estranged and alienated Blackness, not least because we were the only other Black people we knew for years who’d completed Dhalgren (many are called, few are chosen). We’d also both devoured the rapturous and rhapsodic opening chapter of Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, 30 pages of which first appeared in a literary journal in 1980. (The full novel appeared four years later.) Jafa’s longstanding ardor for Stars moved him a couple years ago to initiate a collaboration with Delany and Fred Moten to transform the novel into an opera—one which they hope to premier next year. I asked Jafa recently about why he chose Stars, out of all of the novels and stories, for operatic treatment, then I asked him to speak more broadly about Delany—who Jafa’s been reading since early adolescence in Mississippi— as a primal influence on his own thinking and art work. Delany as a figure, as an entity, is where a lot of things I was interested in first coalesced for me. I mean 2001: A Space Odyssey had a huge impact [in 1999, Jafa worked with Kubrick as second-unit director of photography on the movie Eyes Wide Shut], but there were literally no Black people in it. So to be introduced to an artist who was also Black and had a rock-star thing going on—a writer with an earring was a really big thing to see in 1971 in Mississippi, when I first stumbled on a picture of him. I read the short stories first. I remember “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,” which was some pretty dark shit and has been touted as the first cyberpunk story. I tried to read Dhalgren in the eighth grade and couldn’t, but I kept coming back to it until I was finally able to finish it 10th grade. There were things in it that made a huge impression, like the Kid and the character Tak having sex on the top of a building. I was like ‘Whoa!’ But narratively it was too much for me at the time, too much going on. Like all of my great artistic experiences, it was initially disorienting, the way 2001 was disorienting. James Brown, for me, is the Olympian Black figure of the 20th century, but I can remember my parents taking me to see him in Memphis when I was four or five years old, and everything from that experience still seems more like a fever dream than like something that actually happened. And in that sense, reading Dhalgren was similar,
the most disorienting and phantasmagorical thing I’d ever read. At some point I also bought my first copy of The Tides of Lust, which was also disorienting, not just for the sex—though there’s the scene where somebody has somebody lick the shit off his feet. It was definitely beyond anything I’d read at the time. That was my second or third year at Howard University, so I’d already read things like de Sade and had seen Pasolini’s Salò, but there was something so visceral about that book. I didn’t know language could do that. I can’t think of another artist who catalyzed me as much as he did. Reading Delany triggered an alchemical change in terms of my relationship to the world, to expression. Kubrick and 2001 also changed my life, but I can’t think of another film of Kubrick’s that had that effect on me. It was like a one-and-done. But there are at least five instances, maybe more, with Delany in which my exposure to his critical thinking, to his fictional imagination, to his articulations of himself as a gay Black man in science fiction—his intersectionality, as we’d call it now—changed me profoundly. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Delany was my first exposure to the whole notion of the performativity of identity, which, of course, is underlined in all his books. I’d wanted to do something with him, to make a piece based on something he’d written for a long time. I started thinking about Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, and I was trying to develop a film or a graphic novel, but what’s particularly at stake in that book seemed ideal for an opera—boiled down to its essence, it’s literally a tale of star-crossed lovers. It’s also almost an anomalous book in his whole oeuvre in having a main character who is unambiguously Black—there’s a line early on where someone says, “Of course, you will be a slave.” Delany obviously has characters who are Black in so many books, but locating their racial identity is always complicated in some way because the language is so abstract. I also like the way the book explodes the heteronormative family—character who aren’t just multiracial but multispecies. It allows for an excavation of a lot of longstanding interests of mine. It also makes sense for an opera to have the kind of very singular figure at its core the way that book does: a narrative about a messianic figure whose very presence—his charisma more than anything—can disrupt empires. I remember that early on at Howard, my roommates were gay. One was closeted, the other was more out. And I realized that those cats were experiencing the universe Delany was talking about in his books; they were actually doing it. He just opened up all these alterior worlds that were out here for Black people. Washington D.C. poets like Essex Hemphill were breaking that down, too. But to me, because of Delany, I could see it as science fucking fiction, man.
Ruth Anderson, c. 1950s.
I Come Out of Your Sleep
A commemoration of the under-recognized work of electronic music trailblazer Ruth Anderson (1928–2019)
By Jennifer Lucy Allan 26
I never met Ruth Anderson in person, but over the course of the last year, I learned much from her about kindness, generosity, sound and listening. Ruth died on November 29, 2019, at the age of 91, before the release of the record I had been working to produce with her and her partner, the composer Annea Lockwood. Here, which appeared in February on my label, Arc Light Editions, is—astonishingly—her debut solo album. I first discovered Ruth through Annea, when I programmed a weekend of Annea’s work at Cafe Oto in Dalston, London, in early 2019, for a new-music series called Kammer Klang. Annea sparkles—she is open and warm, quick to laugh, fizzing with energy—and I love to hear her talk about the water sounds she has often composed with, captured along rivers on different continents. When she first told me about Ruth’s music, I wondered why I hadn’t heard it, or even about it, before. But while Ruth’s story is full of firsts—she has been described by the composer and writer Christopher DeLaurenti as a “quiet pioneer of electronic music”— I was not alone in my ignorance. Almost nothing of Ruth’s was released in her lifetime, so too few people knew of her many accomplishments. It was a situation in dire need of rectifying. Ruth’s work appeared on a handful of compilations—on Charles Amirkhanian’s 1977 compilation New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media: Women in Electronic Music and on an album called Lesbian American Composers— but there was never any full-length or sizeable collection. So I suggested to Annea that I’d like to release some of Ruth’s music, and we spent a year pinging e-mails and USB sticks across the Atlantic. Ruth, who was quite ill when we began working together, died just after she heard test pressings of the album, leaving behind a story in which there is still so much to discover. Ruth trained originally as a flautist, and spent time studying with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger. She worked as an orchestrator and composer and was the first woman to be admitted to Princeton University
Graduate School in the early 1960s. After joining the faculty of Hunter College (a City University of New York school) in 1966, she created its Electronic Music Studio, becoming one of the first women to establish an electronic music studio in the United States. While Pauline Oliveros was helping to set up the San Francisco Tape Music Center on the West Coast, Ruth was building her studio on the East Coast. It was through Pauline that Ruth met Annea. Ruth needed help in the studio and Pauline was on sabbatical, so she suggested Annea, who remembers their first meeting in minute detail, right down to the hole in Ruth’s sneaker. Ruth continued teaching composition and music theory at Hunter until her retirement and had a deep commitment to teaching. She said she wanted the studio to provide “equipment and a safe place to be,” where her students could “learn and do, or dream.” Amid her academic commitments, she made lots of work across a wildly diverse spectrum—from orchestrations for Broadway and arrangements for NBC-TV to radical early tape music experiments investigating sound and healing. Since her death, I’ve continued to discover aspects of her education and work that I wish I could ask her about. I only recently learned, for example, that she spent time studying Gregorian chant at the Abbey of Solesmes in France and that she built a home in the mountains of Montana from scratch with Annea. (Annea wrote about this in a remembrance for the site New Music USA.) A recently unearthed book about Broadway orchestrators includes a list of all the songs Ruth worked on and suggests that she was the only female orchestrator in the industry at the time—her work can still be heard on 1960s revivals of Show Boat and Annie Get Your Gun. But Ruth is not part of the pantheon of people we credit with getting us where we are now in experimental electronic music—she is not typically included in lists alongside contemporaries like Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel, Éliane Radigue and Joan La Barbara
(some of whom have only recently gained admittance into the canon). She certainly doesn’t feature in roundups of New York’s radical composers of the 1960s and 1970s—minimalists like La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, Terry Riley, Philip Glass—or of New York pioneers like John Cage and Morton Feldman. It is worth noting that she is not the only one missing from these histories—other forgotten and erased practitioners are still regularly coming to light, such Julius Eastman, the radical black composer. Because of the great diversity of her output, Ruth deserves a place in many kinds of avant-garde music histories. She, of course, knew this, and titled her album Here. It is an inspired choice—I yelped with joy when she sent the word to me. It encapsulates notions of presence, distance and a journey, echoed graphically on the cover with a winding line. Here is both a reclamation and an assertion of one’s presence. It is a way for Ruth to say she is in the room without displacing anyone else. My happiest moment, and the one in which I realized the potency of Ruth’s music, occurred in my living room in Southend-on-Sea, as I sat in the bay window surrounded by plants, listening to a portion of the vinyl test pressing of the album, a piece called “I Come Out of Your Sleep.” Where Ruth had heard the potential for edits, expansions and changes while listening to the work again—Annea told me Ruth moved her hands through the air, making shapes, as she did so—I experienced only a sweet drift into a meditative state between sleeping and waking. Try as I might to concentrate on catching stray pops in the vinyl pressing, it took five tries to resist the reveries the piece invited and make myself listen to it as a producer. The work achieves maximum effects through minimal means and is intended to be listened to at low volume. It is based on the speech vowels in Louise Bogan’s poem “Little Lobelia,” and in her notes Ruth wrote about how “the shapes of vowels become breathed melodic arcs and tones, and that breathing becomes the core of a stylized meditation.” Louise Gray
Anderson, c. 2000. Photo: Manny Albam.
describes this with wonderful poetry in her sleeve notes for the album: “It becomes something that is both intimate—a breathing, gentle entity— and simultaneously vast—the wind whistling around a mountain, the slow unfolding of something that only an attentive listening will reveal.” In addition to Bogan, Ruth worked
with other poets; for example, a sonic rendering of the layered meanings of her friend and collaborator May Swenson’s “The Pregnant Dream” is also included on the record. Ruth’s music is about ideas. At times there’s a revitalizing calm; at others, mischievous play with sound and meaning. When broken down into the
basic building blocks of music, as in “Points”—a piece constructed entirely from sine waves—she also demonstrates a mighty boldness. There is nowhere for a composer to hide in a sine wave. It was, she said, intended as “a healing piece, one that constantly generates in listeners a sense of repose and quiet energy.” The playful proto-plunderphonic composition “SUM (State of the Union Message)” is constructed from sounds Ruth sampled from TV commercials one January in the early 1970s as she waited for a studio to become free. It is funny— quick-fire samples that channel-hop through ads, an intense and prescient critique of hyper-consumerism whose message is amplified by the absurdity of the samples—gurgling, coughing, boings, jingles and appropriated vocal snippets, like “No wonder I sometimes suffer from irregularities.” It’s also a critique, and listened to in the present political moment on both sides of the Atlantic, it is once again dazzlingly relevant. She wrote that her intention became “to say as little, and by omission, as much as the President [Nixon] would in his address, using the one medium we all share.” I was at first reluctant to include these wild collage experiments alongside subtle micro-tonal pieces like “Points,” but I now see it as the record’s greatest strength and a hallmark of Ruth’s inventiveness and character as a composer. (At the same time, in the ’70s, she was also designing electronic games—in her notes, she mentions ones called Triangular Ping Pong, and Tunable Hopscotch.) I came to understand that the principles behind these wildly different pieces were not really at odds. They all exhibit a curiosity about the fundamentals of sound and music, and the way they operate upon us as human beings. Ruth played with and examined the accumulations and potentials of mood and meaning through simple strategies, refusing to allow herself to be caged in by a rigid style or genre. After spending months with these sounds, what I hear most of all is Ruth’s generosity to us, the listeners. She is a
composer who acknowledges our attentions. Sometimes she soothes, sometimes she makes jokes, but we are always welcomed with open arms, always in good company. In the pieces that invite us to listen deeply, Ruth’s music was ahead of its time not so much structurally or stylistically—although much of it was indeed at the front of the pack—but because of the equilibrium she struck between listening and meditation in the best of her pieces. She described her music as evolving “from an understanding of sound as energy, which affects one’s state of being.” These ideas have present-day relevance in trends surrounding mindfulness, but they were rooted in her Zen Buddhist practice. As with the work of some of her contemporaries like Oliveros, Ruth’s addresses the possibilities and the power of sound when it is the locus of quiet attention. It is no small thing to be trusted with someone else’s music and art. The duty to get it right often kept me up at night and woke me early in the morning. The responsibility is doubled when the artist is someone like Ruth, for whom acknowledgment has been so long in coming. I feel a weighty responsibility with this work, but throughout the process, I was also rewarded with smiles and warmth, a process full of love and mutual gratitude. At times when I was out of the office or on vacation, her funny mantras and missives reached me, through Annea:
Anderson’s forthcoming album, Here (Arc Light Editions).
“Do absolutely nothing worthwhile, sez Ruth.” I think it’s the first time I’ve sent e-mails about an imminent record release with “love and hugs” as the sign-off. I write about experimental music. I also run a record label and present radio shows, and part of the reason I can do these things is because, decades ago, women like Ruth (and Annea, and countless others) went into the spaces I where I now work, at a time when few women—sometimes no women at all—were in the room, and they made things happen. The longer I’ve worked with Ruth’s compositions, the more unbelievable it seems that she is not present in our histories of electronic music. But for sound and music that happens outside of the mainstream, the histories are often so partial. While it might feel as if we must know everything by now—that the whole story of electronic music
surely must have been told—Ruth’s work shows how much work still remains to include the excluded. History is written by those who hold the pen, and this release, more than any I’ve done before, is about grabbing that pen to put what has, to this point, been marginalia back in the body. In that way, Here has become the most important project I have ever undertaken. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to come to Ruth’s music, and I want the next generation to be able to find her more quickly. It saddens me that we were not able to meet in person and that she won’t see Here in the world or read the obituaries acknowledging her importance in publications like The New York Times and The Wire. They were only introductory echoes of Ruth’s life in sound and music, echoes we need to amplify. Ruth still has many things to teach us, if we take the time both to listen and to dream.
The Hunter College electronic music studio, 1970. Photo: Jay Gottlieb.
“Every book fell through me”: On the newly collected writings of Madeline Gins
When Madeline Gins died in 2014, at the age of 72, her obituary in The New York Times described her as a poet-turned-painter-turned-architect, a fitting summary of a life lived deliberately between categories. What the obituary mentioned only in passing was Gins’ experimental 1969 novel Word Rain, one of the most complex and brilliant deconstructions of the form—of language itself—produced as the radical reinvention of fiction was approaching its height. (In 1976, Gore Vidal placed much of this avant-garde-ism derisively within what he called “the R and D—Research and Development—wing of fiction.”) Word Rain became a kind of cult classic, more name-dropped than read, as did other pieces of Gins’ writing, which fell somewhere afield of concrete poetry, word-based conceptual art and experimental fiction. Her marriage to and lifelong collaboration with the Japaneseborn artist known as Arakawa—and the pair’s beyond-quixotic mission to design dynamic living spaces that would arrest the aging process indefinitely—undoubtedly also contributed to her writing’s lack of visibility, even within the world of the New Novel. Now, Siglio Press has gathered Gins’ most important works, as well as early and late essays and poems, in The Saddest Thing Is That I Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, which promises to bring her name back into the realm of writing. I recently spoke to the collection’s editor, the novelist and critic Lucy Ives, who first came across Word Rain in the library stacks at the University of Iowa and remembers its poetic influence on her master’s thesis. These are condensed and edited excerpts of our conversation. —Randy Kennedy RANDY KENNEDY What do you think drew you to Gins’ work, back when probably few of your friends and colleagues had even heard of her? LUCY IVES I vaguely remembered hearing about the Arakawa and Gins show at the Guggenheim in 1997, and in Iowa I saw the catalog, and I think there was something about the way
in which they used color and sketched their designs for their architectural projects that just stuck with me. When I came across Word Rain, I was almost frightened because I thought it was just too strange. It seemed like it was for a very sophisticated audience, and I wasn’t sure how to think about that. But her interest in words as materials, the way she balanced inelegance and elegance with sophisticated gestures toward the book as an object, was amazing to me. There’s the brilliant idea that the book itself is a character in the novel, which I was very interested in. When I went on to read What the President Will Say and Do!!, her 1984 book, I just couldn’t believe how original it was. I’d never read anything like it. RK Her reputation as a writer seems to have disappeared long before her death. At a time when lots of very difficult, experimental writers found audiences, why didn’t she? LI It’s a question that doesn’t really have a good answer. The way she wrote just didn’t fit under existing labels. Poststructuralism embraces forms of relativism, and Madeline and Arakawa were so unashamedly utopian in nature; they were not relativists, not nihilists in the least. Part of it might also be that Madeline never sought an academic position and she didn’t put herself into
the writing world as a public figure; for example, we don’t have any records of her giving readings of Word Rain. She ended up working in all these interdisciplinary and collaborative ways. RK In your introduction, you talk about how her writing seems to be more relevant now than when it was first published (or not published, in some cases). Why is that? LI She’s a person who was thinking of the way that we produce and consume text very early on, long before the internet. She was fictionalizing these dynamics and relationships for us, tapping into the way the media—for lack of a better word—would change the country and the world fundamentally. One of my students told me last night that she thought Gins was talking in a radical sense about what it feels like to be a cyborg, a being that is neither natural nor unnatural, that operates through a combination of organic parts and inorganic technological appurtenances, as we all kind of feel we do now. If you put that into the history of American poetry—or poetics—you kind of have to rewrite some of it, the history of how it happened. It’s what Word Rain is about. To me, it’s no coincidence that the proto-internet, ARPANET, was invented the same year the book was published.
This page: Madeline Gins, 1977, gelatin silver print. Photo: © Peggy Jarrell Kaplan. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York/Reversible Destiny Foundation. Opposite: John Cage at Stony Point, NY, 1967. Courtesy of the William Gedeney Photographs and Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Courtesy Atelier Éditions.
New and forthcoming books
Artforum (New Directions) Artforum is not easy to find in Buenos Aires. Or so explains César Aira, one of Argentina’s most beloved writers, in this new book, among the strangest in an already unclassifiable oeuvre. Through a series of interconnected episodes, Aira presents the magazine as a holy grail from a far-away art world that he, a culture-crazed zealot, pursues despite “the entire mechanism of chance that had to be set in motion in order for the magazine to reach me, the necessary integrities and efficacies.” He describes how one issue is sadly ravaged by a rainstorm, as if it martyred itself for his other publications. He plots a pilgrimage to a bookstore where a deceased gallerist’s library is for sale. And he fantasizes about being shot in a freak accident just as a mailman delivers the first issue of his subscription. The tales oscillate between the quotidian and the madly passionate, conveying the kind of longing and loss usually found in none other than love stories. —Anna Shinbane
The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia (Soberscove Press) England’s Portsmouth Sinfonia began as a student symphony whose mission was, delightfully, to play classical music amateurishly. Assembled by a collective of students at Portsmouth College of Art in 1970 along with their teacher, the composer Gavin Bryars, the intentionally untrained musicians engaged in raucous intellectual anarchy, passion holding court over precision, quickly earning a reputation as “the world’s worst orchestra.” The Sinfonia featured a group of 50 or so, with a heavy emphasis on the “or so”—countless members, from beginners to professionals, cycled
through during the orchestra’s decade-long run, including soon-to-be-luminaries Brian Eno and Michael Nyman—specializing in butchering pieces like Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Rossini’s William Tell Overture (selected for its popularity as the Lone Ranger TV theme song) in performances throughout England and beyond (in 1974, it sold out the Royal Albert Hall). World’s Worst is a spirited collection of documentary ephemera, archival photographs and liner notes that captures Sinfonia’s unlikely legacy as a soundtrack for a populist avant-garde. —Eileen Cartter
Taking Time (Rizzoli Ex Libris) In 2013, four years before his death, the legendary couturier Azzedine Alaïa began thinking and writing about the notion of time—specifically, in our era of acceleration, how we experience the concept of duration and what we decide to do with it. A year later, he and his close friend Donatien Grau, head of contemporary programs at the Musée d’Orsay, extended invitations to open Alaïa’s introspection to conversation, applying an old-school salon format to an insistently 21st-century question. For this book, Alaïa worked to bring together a group of notable friends and intellectual colleagues for tête-àtêtes—actress Isabelle Huppert with director Robert Wilson; writer Jean-Claude Carrière with artist Julian Schnabel—about one of the few things that connects them all. “Azzedine took time for us,” Grau writes in the book’s preface. “Now let’s take time with him.” —E.C.
John Cage: A Mycological Foray (Atelier Éditions) As side obsessions for artists go—Duchamp had chess, Nabokov butterflies, Virginia Woolf manual typesetting—John Cage’s mushroom love has always seemed to me the most consonant with its practitioner, suiting the searching nature of his intellect. “They escape your erudition,” he once said of fungi. Such humility against nature’s vastness undoubtedly informed his sense of composition and also provided him with a cause as humble as the common field mushroom: “American commercialism has brought about a grand deterioration of the Psalliota campestris, affecting through exports even the European market,” he lamented in the 1954 essay “Music Lovers’ Field Companion.” This handsome two-book set gathers almost all of Cage’s mycological musings and includes the first reproduction of his gorgeous, now impossible-to-find 1972 portfolio, Mushroom Book, made with illustrator Lois Long and botanist Alexander H. Smith. —Randy Kennedy
Calvin Tomkins’ six decades of art writing: A conversation with Randy Kennedy
In Eugene O’Neill’s unfinished play The Calms of Capricorn, the protagonist Ethan Harford, second mate aboard a clipper bound for California, is admonished for easing sail during the ship’s attempt at a speed record. When fate presents itself, the captain tells him, one’s only duty must be “to follow one’s luck.” Perhaps no American cultural writer over the last half century has had a more remarkable talent for following his luck than Calvin Tomkins. And in a life of letters approaching its 70th year, he has also been the beneficiary of an outsize portion of that luck. As a young foreign-news writer at Newsweek in the late 1950s, he was dispatched at random one afternoon to the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel to interview an artist whose name registered only faintly—Marcel Duchamp, a meeting that would set the course of Tomkins’ career as one of the most admired art writers of his generation. Earlier, he had become an accidental neighbor of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the storied Lost Generation couple whose friendships with Picasso, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cole Porter and Natalia Goncharova would form Tomkins’ classic 1971 biography of the Murphys, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, and ground his writings in the very foundations of Modernism. Even his choice of subjects for The New Yorker over the decades—Rauschenberg, Cage, O’Keeffe, Bearden, Serra, Sherman, Hammons—began with an auspicious break. In 1960, as a kind of tryout for the magazine, he had proposed a profile of a now little-known New Zealand painter and sculptor named Len Lye, when
a new acquaintance—Billy Klüver, the pioneering Bell Labs engineer turned art impresario— warned him off. “Listen, you don’t want to write about that guy,” Klüver said. “You want to write about Jean Tinguely.” And thus Tomkins’ New Yorker career began with a literal bang—a piece about the infamous self-destruction of Tinguely’s Homage to New York in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. Over a lifetime of historicizing others—in his pieces and his masterly biographies of Duchamp and Rauschenberg—Tomkins has long resisted submitting to the treatment himself. But in recent years he has been softening slightly to enshrinement. He donated his papers to the Museum of Modern Art and his art-book archive to the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island. On the occasion of the publication of his collected New Yorker profiles, a six-volume boxed Phaidon set, The Lives of Artists, Tomkins agreed to sit down for a series of interviews that began in the summer of 2018 and continued through this January, in Newport—where he and his wife, the Vogue writer and curator Dodie Kazanjian, have a house; at their modest apartment on the Upper East Side; and at their favorite diner, Nectar, around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum. Last December, Tomkins, widely known in the art world by his nickname, Tad, turned 94, and this year marks his 60th on the staff of The New Yorker. At our last interview, he was preparing to fly to Europe to work on his latest profile. These are edited and condensed portions of our conversations.
Self-Portrait in Profile 33
Previous spread: Calvin Tomkins and Christo at Running Fence, 1976, California. Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni. Opposite: Elizabeth Peyton, Tad, New York, December 2019, 2020, colored pencil on paper, 13 ⅝ × 10 15⁄ 16".
Randy Kennedy Maybe we could start by talking about your earliest writing, even before you started working for Newsweek. Calvin Tomkins Well, it’s a little odd because the first thing I ever published was a novel. My father, who was a remarkable man, a businessman, knew how badly I wanted to be a writer. At that point, I hadn’t really taken hold of anything else in my life. So he staked me to one year of trying to write. Kennedy You were just out of college? Tomkins Yes. I’d gotten married very young. Before that, I’d been two years in the Navy and came back and accelerated the last three years at Princeton, so I was about 21 or 22. A family friend who lived in Santa Fe said it would be a good place to write. So we went there and found a little place—more than a cabin but less than a house—up in the mountains. Kennedy What was the story about? Tomkins It was quite autobiographical, about me and my older brother, Fred, going on a ski trip to Canada. That became the basis of what was to become the novel Intermission. We moved into a house right in town. I had a little room over the garage and wrote there. Then we decided to go to Mexico and ended up in a place outside of Guadalajara, at a pretty little inn by Lake Chapala, which is huge, as big as Lake Champlain. We were there three or four months, and I wrote there, too. It was a kind of Hemingway-esque experience for me. I remember finishing the manuscript there and sending it to my agent. I heard back a few weeks later that it had been accepted by Viking Press! And then I had a vivid experience. There was no telephone where we were, so I sent a telegram to my parents back in New Jersey, something like, “Have turned pro. Viking accepts novel.” My mother told me later that she had been on the phone when Western Union called—in those days you could have telegrams read to you over the phone. She wanted to tell my father right away and ran downstairs to find him. She found him listening on the back telephone in the kitchen, weeping. She’d never seen any kind of emotion like that from him. He was so happy. Of course, she told me that in strict confidence later. Kennedy Do you think he had wanted to be a writer himself? Tomkins I’m sure he did. But he ran a business, a building-materials business. The factory was
in Newark. He had inherited it from his father, but it had been almost bankrupt when he took it over. He realized he had to take it in hand because a lot of people were dependent on it. I don’t think he would have chosen to do that if he’d had a choice. He used to say something that was supposed to have come from Samuel Johnson, when a widow complained to him that her husband had left her his printing business to run: “Do not worry, madame, for if business were difficult, those who do it could not.” My father did it for about 40 years and made a success of it, a modest success. He was a man who read all the time and had a rather substantial library. He would have loved to be a writer, but the idea of me being a writer was something that really pleased him. Kennedy Your family has been in the New York area for many generations, right? Tomkins From at least the late 18th century. There’s a place up the Hudson, Tomkins Cove—I lived there briefly with my first wife—that was founded by my great, great, great grandfather, who transported limestone and other materials down the river on barges. He eventually had a string of barges, and Cornelius Vanderbilt became his main rival on the river. They were doing the same thing, and family legend has it that, one day, Commodore Vanderbilt came to my grandfather and said, “I’m investing in this new thing called railroads. Why don’t you do it with me?” And Great, Great, Great Grandfather said, “There’s no money in railroads! I’m sticking to the river.” Kennedy Wrong choice. Tomkins I’d say. Then on my mother’s side, I have pretty deep Southern roots. Her father, John Temple Graves, was a Hearst newspaper editor who was the nominee for vice president on the Independence Party ticket in 1908. He was also a hard-line segregationist and racist. In The Mind of the South, W.J. Cash’s great book, Cash blames some of his rhetoric for helping to ignite the race riot in Atlanta in 1906. Kennedy Good lord. Did you know him? Tomkins No, he died the year I was born. Kennedy Were there other literary people in your family? Or anyone connected to art? Tomkins Not to speak of. My father had a small collection, some American Modernism—a Burchfield, a few things like that—and I remember he had a painting by Dufy. As far as literary, maybe the
closest I got was an uncle who did nothing but read—my father’s older brother, also named Calvin. He actually never did anything. He was of that generation where I guess you could just do nothing. He was the only person I’ve ever heard of who read all 12 volumes of Toynbee’s A Study of History, which is probably not an advisable thing to do. [Laughs] Kennedy Do you remember the response to your novel? Tomkins I remember mostly what my Aunt Kaps, my father’s sister, said. She, too, was a voracious reader. My book had the great misfortune, I guess you’d call it, of coming out the same season as The Catcher in the Rye, about a month apart in 1951, and she said, “Well, I certainly am glad I’m related to you and not that J.D. Salinger!” Kennedy Who were your first literary heroes when you were young? Tomkins Oh, the usual boy books—Jack London, Tarzan of the Apes; Lad, a Dog. I don’t think I had any particular advanced reading talents until I got to college. But I was probably drawn to writing early on because I had a very serious stutter, the kind in which you didn’t repeat syllables but just got stuck on a sound and couldn’t say anything at all. It was very upsetting in school. So I’m sure that writing, the whole act of writing, of not having to speak to express myself, felt like some sort of a victory over that or a way around it. Kennedy What was the first piece of what real literature that just grabbed you by the neck? Tomkins I’d say it was Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I took a course in modern American lit—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Sherwood Anderson. I remember being terrifically stirred by the language of early American modernism. And this was one my first great pieces of luck. In that house in Santa Fe one day, I’d been leafing idly through the library and pulled out Tender Is the Night. I’d read Gatsby and the stories in college, but I must say Tender Is the Night was probably the most intense reading experience I’d ever had. I became really involved in the story and the life and the character of Dick Diver. I
kept thinking about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was very upsetting. I wanted to be Dick Diver. And then a couple of years later, we came back to New York and moved into a house in Snedens Landing, on the Palisades, and ended up right next door to Gerald and Sara Murphy, who I found out were the basis of Dick and Nicole Diver in the book. Our daughter wandered into their yard one day and we met, and when I made the connection to Fitzgerald, it was just amazing to me, like a fairy tale. Kennedy Was Fitzgerald’s a writing style you wanted to emulate? Tomkins It was more Hemingway, actually. There was an idolization of the life and the work—the novels, but mostly the short stories. There’s something really tangible about them. You believe them. And I guess I would say the opposite about Fitzgerald. Even Gatsby, when I re-read it six or seven years ago, seemed badly written and clumsy. And I thought it was such a perfect novel at the time I first read it. Kennedy Did you work on another novel? Tomkins Yes, I came back from Mexico and immediately began trying to write another one. But I had this mistaken idea that with a first novel you could use personal experience, and then after that you had to make it all up. So I would make up one long complicated scenario after another, with a whole bunch of characters, and I’d get bogged down in plot. And then I’d realize it was just sort of fizzling out, nothing was really happening. I did get a few short stories published in magazines. And later I contributed short stories and humor pieces, what were called “casuals,” to The New Yorker. The magazine had been very much a part of my reading from early on. I was, in fact, born the same year as The New Yorker, 1925. Kennedy Wow. Tomkins But at that time, in my mid-20s, my money from my father was running out, and the novel was not making money, so I had to start looking for ways to make a living. I worked for a while for
“I must say, Tender Is the Night was probably the most intense reading experience I’d ever had.… I kept thinking about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.…I wanted to be Dick Diver.”
Radio Free Europe, then got a job at Newsweek, in foreign news, writing four or five stories a week at first and then doing longer ones. Correspondents from Europe would send in reams of copy, and the writers would use that as one of the sources for the story. The old timers who would write the main news stories were, in general, terrible writers. But there were some guys who wrote well, and I really learned how to do it at that job. After three years or so, I was promoted to editor in the back of the book—which was things like medicine, religion, movies. But not art! We didn’t have an art section. Time didn’t either. Kennedy So when you got the call to interview Duchamp, it wasn’t because you were known for knowing anything about art? Tomkins Not at all. When they thought they needed to do a piece on art, they called somebody from another section. And I just got the call one day, out of the blue. Pure accident. It might have been from Kermit Lansner, a great editor there whose wife, Fay, was a very good painter. Kermit might have thought I had some aptitude for art, but I’d never written a single art piece. The first monograph on Duchamp, by Robert Lebel, had just come out in English, and somebody there must have thought it was newsworthy. Duchamp hadn’t made art for so long at that point that he had come to seem like a historical figure. But of course he was living right among us in New York. Kennedy Were you someone who went to see art in those days, a museumgoer? Tomkins This might sound unbelievable now, but I had almost no interest at all. Then, I don’t know quite how it happened, but Lansner got me interested in what was going on in contemporary art. He made me think there was something exciting going on. And I began going to the Museum of Modern Art at lunch hour, just by myself. And then later I started going there quite often. Kennedy A lot has been written, by you and others, about that fateful first Duchamp meeting, but I’d love for you to tell me about it again. Tomkins I had some very vague idea who he was. I knew about the Armory Show and Nude Descending a Staircase, but I really didn’t know beans about him. I got the assignment and was told it was going to be the same day, that afternoon. I got an early copy of the monograph and had about 45 minutes to look at it. I just glanced at it and met him in the King Cole Bar, with that great Maxfield Parrish mural over us. The interview
was set up there by Newsweek. When I arrived, he was already there ahead of me, sitting at a small table, and the thing I remember most vividly is that I asked a lot of dumb questions, and he managed somehow to turn them all around into something interesting. One of the few things I thought I knew about him was that he had retired, though of course we now know that wasn’t true; he was making Étant donnés in secret in his studio. I asked him, “Since you’ve stopped making art, how do you spend your time now?” And he said, “Oh, I’m a breather. A respirateur. And I enjoy it very much.” A couple of years later, Time Life asked me to do a small book on him—they were making a Time Life Library of Art series and wanted Duchamp. I’ll never forget the first meeting. I went to the Time Life offices and there were about eight or nine people sitting around a table. A question came up that I didn’t know the answer to, and I said, “Well, I’m seeing Marcel in a couple of days, so I’ll ask him.” Deafening silence. I looked around and realized everybody thought he was dead. Everyone in the room. Kennedy They might not have picked him if they thought he was alive. Tomkins I don’t think they would have. After that first interview, I’d said to myself as a young journalist, “Wow, this is something.” Because usually you have to pull all sorts of stuff out of people and try to make it interesting, but here he was doing it for me. He had this completely at-ease-with-himself demeanor. He’s what the French call at home in his own skin. And that put me at ease. I usually was very tense in an interview, but he made me feel totally comfortable. Kennedy And it wasn’t long after this that the New Yorker job came along? Tomkins It was the next year. Roger Angell was the one who urged me to write for the magazine; he was a fiction editor there. He also lived in Snedens Landing, and he said, “Since you like the magazine so much, you should submit something.” I started writing short humor pieces and sending them to Roger, who accepted some of them and rejected others. But I really wanted to be on the staff, so I finally went in to see William Shawn, the editor in chief. Shawn said, “We really like your humor pieces, but you can’t get along here on just that. You’d have to be able to write longer pieces, too. Do you think you could try something for us?” Kennedy And that became the piece about Tinguely that ran in 1962?
This page, from top: Julia Child and Tomkins, c. 1974. Photo: Judy Tomkins. Robert Rauschenberg and Tomkins in the artist’s studio, c. 1997, Captiva Island, Florida. Photo: Dodie Kazanjian. Opposite, from top: Tomkins in his home office, 2011. Photo: Chester Higgins. Tomkins and Leo Castelli, New York, 1964, gelatin silver print. Photo: © Ugo Mulas Heirs. Courtesy Archivio Ugo Mulas.
“A lot of people said, ‘Well, you have to talk to Bob Rauschenberg,’ because he and Tinguely were close. So I did, and knew immediately that I had to write about Bob. And then Bob, of course, led to John Cage, and Cage very much led back to Duchamp.”
From left: Olga Picasso, Sara Murphy, Gerald Murphy, Pablo Picasso, 1923, Antibes, France. © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society, NY. Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Tomkins Well, by the skin of my teeth. A good friend of mine, Alastair Reid, the poet, who was around The New Yorker a lot in those days, knew the artist Len Lye, who was from New Zealand and living in New York, making paintings and also kinetic sculpture, which was a hot new thing in those days. I was about to approach Lye, but someone suggested I go meet Billy Klüver at Bell Labs, who had been working with kinetic sculptors. And he put me on to Tinguely, who he said was a far better subject. Of course, I’d never heard of him. Kennedy Did you know at that point that the art world was going to be your calling? Tomkins Not in the early years. After that Tinguely piece, the next one was on dyslexia and children, the whole idea of speech and reading disabilities, which was something personal for me. And then I did a piece on John R. Pierce, who was a pioneering engineer at Bell Labs, and next, I think, a piece on the chancellor of the CUNY system. I was a real generalist and continued to write on subjects other than art. But Tinguely ended up being the art catalyst, because when I started working on him, a lot of people said, “Well, you have to talk to Bob Rauschenberg,” because he and Tinguely were close. So I did, and knew immediately that I had to write about Bob. And then Bob, of course, led to John Cage, and Cage very much led back to Duchamp. Cage was the primary carrier of the torch for Duchamp in this country. He’s
the one who really helped to renew his reputation here. Rauschenberg opened up the whole art scene to me, and it began to seem like something nobody was writing about. Kennedy I know from spending a lot of time looking through the archives at The New York Times when I was there that the paper was indifferent at best, and often outright hostile, to most of the new art being made in those years. Tomkins The Times was doing very little, and John Canaday, the critic, was not much interested in this crowd. Neither was Hilton Kramer, later. Kennedy Did Shawn or people at The New Yorker have to be persuaded that these upstarts— apostates, I’m sure a lot of people thought— were interesting artists? Tomkins Not at all. That was one of the things about Shawn. He was amazingly open to the new. A little later in my career, he was the one who suggested to me that I might like to do something about Robert Wilson, and I’d never heard of Wilson. I did have one editor there, a woman who’d been on staff for a long time, say to me after my John Cage profile came out, “You know, I’ve been trying for years to keep Cage out of the magazine.” Cage was a special case. A lot of people just didn’t understand what he was doing. Kennedy Was Shawn himself up on avant-garde performance and music?
Tomkins My guess is that he knew a little because of Wally, his son. I myself had started to form a kind of idea about new art being made after reading Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years, which was about the birth of the 20th century avantgarde in France through portraits of Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry, Erik Satie and Henri Rousseau. That’s what gave me the idea that I knew artists who could make up a book somewhat similar to that. [Tomkins’ The Bride and the Bachelors, first published in 1965, told the interlocking stories of Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Tinguely and Cage. Merce Cunningham and Jasper Johns were added in later editions.] Kennedy Do you remember having a sense that this scene, the post-Ab-Ex revolution, was truly important, historically, in the same league as the birth of the French avant-garde? Tomkins I would like to say that I did then. I just loved the humor that ran through that whole group of people. I mean, Tinguely was very funny, and it was I-don’t-give-a-damn French humor. Writing about him was a gas, just enormous fun. The same with Bob Rauschenberg, on top of which Bob was a fantastically good talker. My first piece about him was very, very heavy on quotations, and he, in particular, was thinking and working in ways that fascinated me. Kennedy Meaning what? Tomkins Well, first of all, he was absolutely uninterested in self-expression. I still thought art was a form of self-expression. Not with Bob. He’d say, “I think it ought to be more interesting than that.” And then Cage, of course, was hugely influential for me. His mind was like a grown-up version of Rauschenberg’s. Cage once told me that he and Bob thought exactly the same way, that one would say things the other could have said. I enjoyed being around these people and seeing how they interacted. I felt that they were much livelier to listen to than writers. The other thing that struck me about Bob was that he always talked about art being, for him, a collaboration— with people and with materials. He wanted to
let the materials take their own place in what he was doing. It’s why he went around to hardware stores and found out-of-date paint cans whose labels had come off, so he wouldn’t know what color it was going to be. It was this whole idea that art could be a collaborative effort, rather than a heroic individual effort. I mean, these artists had huge admiration for Pollock and Rothko and de Kooning and Guston. But they were very scornful of the rhetoric around Abstract Expressionism, the idea of the solitary genius, the “I, alone, in the wilderness have come to this act of great creation” thing. Kennedy A lot of that was also metaphysical, communing with the oversoul, searching for the absolute abstraction, that kind of thing. Tomkins The next generation really wanted to break from all that. And everybody says this, but I think it’s true that Rauschenberg and Johns were the ones who led them out of the Ab-Ex stranglehold. They were also having a very good time doing it. It wasn’t all angst and suffering. That was very important. They were fundamentally opposed to the heavy moralistic aspects of Abstract Expressionism. Kennedy I want to back up for a second to ask what you recall from your early days of working with William Shawn, being around him. Tomkins Well, of course, we all basically worshiped at Shawn’s temple at that time. I had very few dealings with him. I had another editor who dealt with me directly, Gardner Botsford, and that was another marvelous piece of luck. Gardner had the kind of eye that could see where something was a little off or the piece was weak, and he wouldn’t change it himself, just suggest that maybe you could do a little something here or there. And all of a sudden you saw the same thing he saw. Shawn read everything, of course, and before writing a piece, I had to go to him and get his approval. He always called me Mr. Tomkins. Everybody was Mr. or Mrs. or Miss with him. In those days, you’d turn in a piece and sometimes you wouldn’t hear anything for weeks. I couldn’t
“In those days, you’d turn in a piece and sometimes you wouldn’t hear anything for weeks. I couldn’t stand it. I’d finally make an appointment with Shawn and…he’d say, ‘Oh, Mr. Tomkins, I’ve been trying to get in touch with you!’ Absolute lie.”
Marcel Duchamp, New York, 1965–67, gelatin silver print. Photo: © Ugo Mulas Heirs. Courtesy Archivio Ugo Mulas.
stand it. I’d finally make an appointment with Shawn and go to his office, and he’d say, “Oh, Mr. Tomkins, I’ve been trying to get in touch with you!” Absolute lie. Magazines could still function like that back in those days. There’s a wonderful story about Kenneth Tynan, when he was the theater critic for the magazine. He did a profile of Mel Brooks, and as soon as he finished it, he began getting calls from the Mel Brooks organization, the PR people, who wanted to know when it would appear and were very frustrated that he couldn’t give them a date. They were saying, “You have to run this right away, before the movie opens!” And Tynan said, “What you don’t understand is that Mr. Shawn is unalterably opposed to topicality.” Kennedy Did that give you time to just hang out over long periods with artists, the way Joseph Mitchell seemed to spend his days with cops and oystermen and bartenders? Did you spend a lot of time socially with artists, going out? Tomkins The Cedar Tavern scene was pretty much over by the time I came along. Max’s Kansas City became the place where artists were, but I don’t remember spending a lot of time there. I had a family, and for part of those years, I lived outside the city. But I did spend a lot of time at Rauschenberg’s studio and house on Lafayette Street, where I’d see plenty of artists. Both Bob and Jasper Johns loved to cook. Bob would cook for 10 people at a time. Kennedy You didn’t end up doing a full-dress profile of Johns in those early years, and you finally got him to submit to one fairly recently, in 2006. Did his absence from your profiles of that group trouble you? Tomkins It did, but he was just very dubious about talking for publication about himself and his work that way. And what happened also was that the breakup between Bob and Jasper was very severe. And because I saw quite a lot of Rauschenberg, I guess I felt, at a certain point, uncomfortable about trying to do Johns. Kennedy It was like a divorce, and you ended up on the Rauschenberg side of the divide? Tomkins More or less. But I also want to say that, from the beginning, I never thought that I was trying to compose a comprehensive picture of the art of our time or anything like that. I was aware and am aware that there are whole areas of art I’m just not that interested in. I always wanted a profile to be a good story, and some work and some artists just didn’t do that for me, despite their importance.
Kennedy I noticed in reading the collected profiles that it was a good number of years before you used the first person at all. Tomkins In the beginning, I felt that I, the writer, should be invisible, complete transparency between the subject and the reader. And then I began to realize that it would be a lot more fun if I let myself enter the piece more often. When the New Journalism came along, I never went into it with both feet, but my writing did change. Largely because of Rauschenberg, I got the idea that I wanted my profiles to be collaborations and that I wanted to choose subjects whom I not only could get along with but who would be interested in the experience, who would sort of open themselves up to the process, with the idea that maybe they could learn something, too. I began thinking of the profiles as experiments. I wanted to just put things together and let them resonate without too much artifice. I don’t know how often I was able to do that, but that was the ambition, anyway. Kennedy And you’ve always made very clear that your writing does not function as criticism. Tomkins I just didn’t feel that pure criticism was something I could do. I didn’t think I’d be good at it. And frankly, I didn’t want to. I mean, I’d been very influenced by the critics of that period, by Greenberg, and Rosenberg, and particularly by Leo Steinberg. But I just didn’t have that frame of mind. Very often I used to think that I never knew what I thought until I saw what I wrote. Kennedy There’s that great statement by E.M. Forster that’s almost exactly that, where he says, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Tomkins That’s it! I’m happy to hear that—I’m a huge Forster fan. I just always had the feeling that the writing came out of my hand; it was in the making. And that’s not the way most critics function. Kennedy When you look back now, are there people you wish you had written about? Tomkins Certainly Eva Hesse. I thought she was terrific. But she died so young, and it just never happened. I also think Sol LeWitt would have made a great story, but for some reason I never wrote about him, either. Or Cy Twombly. Kennedy Warhol also seems to have been a gap for you early on. You wrote about him in 1970, but it wasn’t for The New Yorker. It was a catalog
“When I arrived, [Duchamp] was already there ahead of me, sitting at a small table, and the thing I remember most vividly is that I asked a lot of dumb questions, and he managed somehow to turn them all around into something interesting.”
essay. And then you did write about him later for the magazine, in 1980 and then again in the ’90s, after his death, but they were not traditional profiles. You wrote that the one time you interviewed him, for the catalog essay, he brought along his own tape recorder and asked you the first question, which was, “Do you have a big cock?” And you thought he said “clock” and were a little confused. Tomkins I remember that interview pretty vividly. I’m afraid that somewhere in The New Yorker I did write, probably in the ’80s, that he was a clever minor artist. And the thing is, that’s what I thought at the time, and so did Robert Hughes. Kennedy Hughes pretty much continued to think that, but it seemed like your feelings changed over time. Tomkins I began to realize how important his influence was on so many artists I admired and that it was a big mistake to undersell him. But I did have the feeling that he was being given credit for things that Duchamp had done a lot earlier, in questioning the definition of art. I was just sort of blind to his accomplishments and didn’t look at them as closely as I could have. But that comes with the territory of writing about art being made in your time. Kennedy I want to circle back for a minute to the importance to your writing life of Gerald and Sara Murphy, particularly Gerald. Tomkins In Snedens, I used to just go over and talk with him, and he welcomed it. He became like a father figure, as important to my development as Duchamp. I think, having lost his two sons at such an early age to disease, he might have looked to me as a surrogate son. And I was deeply fond of him and of Sara, who was an extraordinarily compelling person to be around. Kennedy He died in 1964, so it wasn’t all that many years that you got to be around him. How often did you see them? Tomkins I don’t remember going for dinner a lot but for tea or for champagne cocktails. Gerald had a special recipe for champagne cocktails, and when somebody would ask him what the secret was, he’d say, “Oh, it’s just the juice of a few flowers.” And Sara would sit on the porch of their house and say, “You must always, after drinking champagne, look up into the trees.” They were the kind of people who said things like that convincingly, with no irony whatsoever. For quite a while, I tried to persuade him to write: “You had all these amazing experiences
in the ’20s, in that great period, and you really should write them down.” And he’d say, “I have far too much respect for the art of writing. I would never do that.” So at one point I said, “Well, how would you feel if I tried doing it?” And finally they agreed, though Sara was always more reluctant than he. Kennedy What was the process? Tomkins It was the first time I ever used a tape recorder, because I knew I wanted to write something longer and in fine detail. I remember lugging this huge reel-to-reel contraption down to their house, two or three times a week in the afternoon. I’d put it on the table, and Sara and her two pugs would sit on the sofa, and the pugs would go to sleep immediately and begin snoring very loudly. You can still hear it on the tapes. Kennedy Why do you think he became so influential for you, aside from being just an interesting person to be around? Tomkins He gave me a lot of real encouragement and was very intrigued by the artists I wrote about. He convinced me that what I was doing was a form of literature and not just journalism. And you have to understand that by that point in his life, he had completely banished art from his thinking. He had painted for only about seven years, in the ’20s, and after his sons died, he stopped and completely turned his back on that work. I didn’t realize how important his paintings were until many years later. He never even mentioned them. I think the other reason, later, that Gerald and Sara came to loom so large was my feeling that the New York art world in the ’60s had a lot of parallels with what was going on in Paris in the ’20s, very much the same kind of excitement and broad openness and sense of discovery. And I realized how lucky I felt to be living then and writing about it. Kennedy One of the last things I want to ask you, because all of these conversations over the last many months have been the three of us sitting together—you and me and Dodie—is about how your writing life changed when the two of you got together. And, Dodie, how yours changed as well. People in the art world speak of you as a kind of hybrid operation, a hyphenated creature, the Tad-and-Dodie, doing all of your interviews together and then writing separately. Can you tell me a little about how you met? Tomkins Boy meets girl? More like girl meets middleaged man. [Laughs] We met when she interviewed me, which was something I had never experienced.
Dodie Kazanjian I was the Washington editor of House & Garden. And I was also the editor of a magazine at the National Endowment for the Arts called Arts Review. I was working on a special book issue about support for artists by collectors, dealer, critics and curators [“Portrait of the Artist, 1987: Who Supports Him/Her?”]. Tad was one of the critics I wanted to talk to. The first thing he told me was that he wasn’t a critic! Frank Hodsoll, who ran the National Endowment, read the interview and thought it was terrific, and asked me to invite Tad to come to lunch in his office, which he did. And then in exchange Tad invited me to come to New York for Warhol’s funeral. Kennedy Seriously? What an auspicious occasion to launch a relationship! [Laughs] Tomkins Well, her plane was late, and she ended up missing the funeral, but there was a big lunch afterwards, at the Paramount Hotel in the space that had been Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, the famous nightclub. The whole art world was there. Practically everyone I’d ever written about. Kazanjian What I remember is a huge ice sculpture and that when you went down the big winding staircase, it was lined with covers of Interview magazine. This was 1987. We ended up talking on the telephone a lot after that, Tad here and me in Washington. We started talking about maybe doing a column together for someone. And once, when I was having trouble with a piece for Vogue, due the next morning, he said, “Let’s talk it through.” And he talked me through it for an hour and a half. Tomkins I think that’s where it began, me helping you, and then gradually, more and more, it became the other way around, you helping me.
Kennedy When did you begin reporting together? Kazanjian It started the summer we got married, with our biography of Alexander Liberman, the artist and éminence gris of the Condé Nast empire [Alex: The Life of Alexander Liberman, published by Knopf in 1993]. That’s when we began doing interviews together. Tomkins I realized immediately that she was a very good interviewer, that she could get people to say things I never would’ve been able to. And she was writing about artists for Vogue who tended to be younger than the ones I knew about. Kennedy Would you sort of play good cop, bad cop in interviews? Kazanjian No, not that. It’s just that I’m not afraid to ask a stupid question. Tomkins I’m much more inclined to take an organized approach, and Dodie is much more intuitive. I could tell right away that people were more comfortable with her. She immediately put people at ease. Kazanjian I’m also not afraid to ask questions about more personal things—how people’s lives work—in a way that I think Tad is hesitant to do. Also, because he’d been doing this for so long and was so highly regarded, some artists, particularly younger ones, would get intimidated—feel obliged to sound intelligent and not be themselves. Tomkins When the two of us are there, the game of being interviewed is much better. It’s always a game. A two-way street. Kennedy I’m very grateful for getting to go down that street with you.
“I began thinking of the profiles as experiments. I wanted to just put things together and let them resonate without too much artifice. I don’t know how often I was able to do that, but that was the ambition, anyway.”
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 14, AUSTIN, TEXAS
The queen beside me is having a mild panic attack. “I feel like a kid on the first day of school; I don’t know anyone,” she says in a slow Southern drawl to a willowy drag king beside her. We’re sitting back-to-back on taupe-colored benches deep in the bowels of the Holiday Inn Midtown, host to the Austin International Drag Festival, which, in its sixth year, describes itself as “the largest and most diverse drag festival in the world.” I’m eavesdropping on this conversation just outside the Hill Country Ballroom, which will house the main stage for the next four days. Like most of the nonlocal artists, vendors and attendees, I’m checked in to the hotel for the duration. I came here hoping to figure out why drag matters so much now, to me personally and to the broader culture. “Well, everyone here feels like that. Also, you know people…” her friend says. But she cuts him off: “Only from Instagram!” “Well, you know me,” he continues, but the queen is not comforted. Performers have been slotted into continuous five-minute spots for the next five hours, before the action all moves to downtown bars for the night. This aspirational timetable, with a lineup of talks, signings and workshops, is accessible via an app called Sched, which warns that the program can change at any moment, for any reason. At five in the afternoon, we’re already an hour behind, and the air is electric with nerves waiting for the kickoff. “You’ll feel better once you get to perform,” the king says and walks away. With office-style ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights, the interior is a calculated rainbow of neutrals. Midlevel corporate hotels are specifically generic, locating you precisely no-place. We are in a Holiday Inn that could be anywhere in the country. Similarly, the “ballroom” is designed to accommodate everything from bar mitzvahs to orthodontia conferences and can be sectioned off into smaller spaces with temporary partitions that retreat into the walls. I imagine that at this exact moment, in an identical room, preparations are being made for a sweet 16 party in the parallel universe of the Holiday Inn, East Windsor, New Jersey. Today, this ballroom’s wide rectangle is opened to its full expanse. At the center is a temporary stage, about a foot and a half off the ground, running against
EXCERPT FROM DRAG DIARY, A TRAVEL NOTEBOOK IN PROGRESS By Jarrett Earnest
Lucy Stoole (Chicago) at Swan Dive. All images: Austin, Texas, November 2019, © Jarrett Earnest .
eles) per forming to Slayyy James Majest y (Los Ang
e. ter’s “Candy” at Swan Div
Kat Sass (Chicago) performing to Ursine Vulpine’s cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” at Swan Dive.
the back wall with a catwalk extending up the middle, making an elevated “T.” Just inside the entrance is a folding table holding a sound board, laptop, monitors and a manual spotlight on a tripod. Around the room’s perimeter run two rows of tables draped in black cloth with staffed displays for the ACLU; Planned Parenthood; the Kind Clinic, which offers free STD testing; Drag Out the Vote™,” a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works with drag performers to promote participation in democracy”; Imperfect Foods, a delivery service on a mission to reduce food waste by shipping odd-shaped produce direct to consumers; a drag-themed cruise ship that travels from Los Angeles to the “Mexican Riviera.” Interspersed amid these tables are merchants selling handmade wares, like panties covered with the faces of the Golden Girls, paintings of oversized lips on canvas, as well as every implement imaginable for the drag trade—multicolored wigs, adhesive facial-hair pieces, rhinestoned accessories, extra-large spiked heels. On a table near the entrance are stacks of free stickers: “my pronouns are: she/her,” “my pronouns are: he/him,” “my pronouns are: they/ them.” The stickers continue with “xe/ xem” and “ze/zir” and “my pronouns are ” and, for those who see stickers as a conversation starter, “ask me about my pronouns.” Posted around the room are signs proclaiming a “drama free zone” and that “drag is not consent,” explaining that individuals who don’t want to be photographed or touched can flag themselves with colored stickers. The first day is dedicated exclusively to “male drag,” known as KingFest. Papi Churro, an Austin-based king dressed as Mugatu, the fashion-designer villain from the 2001 movie Zoolander, emerges to emcee. Fifty kings are slated to go on that afternoon, making up about half the audience, which sits on the floor around the stage or stands along the edges of the room. Churro reminds us to cheer and to tip and that “consent isn’t only sexy—it’s what? Mandatory!” Further announcements are made—that this is a “positive” environment and that daytime shows are to hover between PG and PG-13. I drove all the way from New York to Texas for the irreverent antagonism of drag queens and somehow found myself at Bible camp? As I’m having this thought, a drag king from Bloomington, Indiana, named Corvin Rose walks on stage in a loose white blazer over a T-shirt and slacks and announces, “This number is about religion and
being LGBTQ.” A plaintive pop-gospel piano begins to bounce and an emotional female vocal begins: “Well, you almost had me fooled / Told me that I was nothing without you / Oh, but after everything you’ve done / I can thank you for how strong I have become.” Out of a Bible, Rose unfurls a paper banner reading “love?” and then on the lyric “I’m proud of who I am,” a folded image of a rainbow. Rose then walks to the end of the stage toward a stool holding seven small cups. As the chorus peals into “I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’ / I hope your soul is changin’, changin’,” Rose’s jacket comes off and the cups are poured, one by one, revealing their contents to be water mixed with food coloring, which makes a pale, runny rainbow down the front of Rose’s white T-shirt. With a chin-length bob and soft, smoky eyes, Corvin Rose looks less like someone going for a “male” illusion than for a hot dyke preacher, lip-sync punctuated with ecclesiastical hand gestures. The song Rose has chosen, “Praying,” by Kesha, is widely regarded as a salvo in the singer’s ongoing legal battles with the producer Dr. Luke—someone she has accused of sexual and emotional abuse. This narrative backdrop is palpable in Rose’s interpretation, even as the role of abuser is recast as modern Christianity. I grew up Pentecostal, going to evangelical churches and prayer meetings. I remember how often pop music would be appropriated for services, probably because of the way in which great pop songs tap so effortlessly into preexisting emotional architecture. As a 10-year-old member of the puppet team of the First Assembly of God in Arcadia, Florida, I made colorful felt hand puppets sing along with Johnny Nash’s feel-good 1972 radio hit “I Can See Clearly Now.” At around 13, I was on the worship team of Rowan Christian Assembly in Salisbury, North Carolina. In front of the entire congregation we performed a multi-person interpretive dance that consisted of alternating between making “X” and cross shapes with perpendicular dowel rods held in each hand, moving in group formation to Bonnie Tyler’s barn-burner “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The moves had been choreographed by a middle-aged woman with bright red hair who often wore a purple crushed-velvet dress. The popopera’s lyrics about romantic obsession transposed themselves seamlessly into being about the love of Christ. Looking back, despite the explicit homophobia of the Christian Right, I count the performance as one of my first experiences of both the sacred feminine and unadulterated faggotry. Like Corvin Rose’s rendition of “Praying,” Tyler’s—“I don’t know what to do and I’m always
[There] is no longer really “subculture” in the traditional sense, but something more like overlapping rings of signification, legible to varying degrees from community to community. A drag festival turns out to be one of the most comprehensive ways for people to make sense of these new cultural formations.
Diana Fire (Portland, Oregon) performing to Hailee Steinfeld’s “Starving” at Swan Dive.
Brigitte Bandit (Austin) performing to Katy Perry’s cover of the Outfield’s “Your Love” at Valhalla.
in the dark / We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks”—was, in my young heart, devoid of even the most remote irony. At KingFest, other performances include Texan Hunsen Abequeer (a play on the demon-king Hunson Abadeer from the animated series Adventure Time), dressed in a sweater vest and bowtie, standing in a waist-high killer-plant rig, singing a live rendition of “Grow for Me” from the musical Little Shop of Horrors; the Elton J’s, a supergroup of five drag kings from across North America done up in different Elton John looks, vamping to a choreographed medley that includes “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “The Bitch Is Back” and “I’m Still Standing”; Damien D’Luxe from Minneapolis, dressed like an anatomically correct Sonic the Hedgehog, clowning to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” playing off the character’s speed, yes, but also the line “I wanna make a supersonic man out of you.” (D’Luxe’s bulging Sonic crotch reminds that the hedgehog is also a cult sex symbol in a subgenre of cartoon hentai porn); and lastly, from the local troupe Boiz of Austin, Alexander the Great enacting a slow-motion striptease, shedding a silver lamé spacesuit while floating horizontally around a portable stripper pole to the Police’s “Walking on the Moon,” which brings to mind a butch version of the opening credits of Barbarella. In these somewhat arbitrary examples alone are references to cartoons, musical theater, celebrity impersonation (of a flamboyant gay man), cosplay, burlesque, science fiction and classical antiquity, with musical references spanning more than 50 years of popular culture—not to mention all of this incredible complexity occurring under the rubric of “masculinity.” The shows in the ballroom end around 9 p.m. and cargo vans with AIDF written on the sides in pink chalk start shuttling guests to venues in the Red River Cultural District downtown. About 15 of us squeeze into one of the vans, which contains a strong first-dayof-school vibe: a bunch of positively disposed strangers, about half in drag, trying to sort out a provisional social order as swiftly as possible against a backdrop of widespread national chaos. The K-pop party—hosted by Soju, a YouTube-famous Chicago queen who was eliminated first on season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race—is held at the nightclub Elysium. Across the street at Valhalla is the trans and nonbinary showcase. The space is narrow, dingy and intimate. Jack Rabid, another member of Boiz of Austin, who
self-describes as a drag king, cos player and David Bowie impersonator, introduces the night, explaining how special it is for “the Fest” to highlight not only kings but also nonbinary performers, who often feel minimized within the world of high-femme drag queens. Clad in a glittering skin-tight wine-colored gown, fur stole, false lashes, fake mustache, oversized sparkling earrings and a black top hat, Rabid kicks off the evening around 11 p.m., lip-syncing to “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS. Watching and listening, I think about how the incredible proliferation of drag in recent years has been propelled by the seismic shifts within our society’s conversations around gender identity and sexuality; one of the most basic definitions of “drag” is playing within the unstable matrix of gender, which makes a showcase like this a perfect cross section of the ways trans and nonbinary people are inventing themselves and our world. Ricky Rosé, a drag king from Washington, D.C., walks out next in a white robe emblazoned with a silver-sequin crucifix across the chest, accessorized with a dark red velvet cloak, a painted black chinstrap beard, thick glasses and a plastic gold crown. They are followed by an attendant wearing a matching cloak, holding a red velvet skull in one hand and a burning crimson candle in the other. Halsey’s darkly overwrought “Castle” starts playing, complete with its samples of Agnus Dei: “I’m headed straight for the castle / They wanna make me their queen / and there’s an old man sitting on the throne / That’s saying I probably shouldn’t be so mean.” Rosé gives the song a burlesque treatment: Under their robes are black fishnets, red lingerie and a red corset hiding sparkling sacred-heart pasties. By the end, the attendant has splashed red wax from the candle across Ricky’s chest—you know, just some simulated sex and casual sacrilege, and in four and a half minutes it’s over. As counterpoint, the Bearded Queer, a self-proclaimed “Conceptual Shit Artist” from Denton, Texas, comes next, prancing around the stage in occult horror drag—curling ram’s horns, spiked epaulets and ripped tights—to Depeche Mode’s sardonic “Personal Jesus.”
About 15 of us squeeze into one of the vans, which contains a strong first-day-ofschool vibe: a bunch of positively disposed strangers, about half in drag, trying to sort out a provisional social order as swiftly as possible against a backdrop of widespread national chaos.
From left: Anhedonia Delight (Cleveland) as Divine in Pink Flamingos at the North Door, November 2019. Ricky Rosé (Washington D.C.) performing to Halsey’s “Castle” at Valhalla.
Ursula Major and On e Million Moths (Salt Lake Cit y) at the Holiday Inn Midtown Austin.
The night continues with back-toback numbers by the Haus of Kikii from Dallas. Face painted equal parts Kabuki and Richard Linder, Kilo Kikii moves like an angular marionette to a mashup of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Kids” and “Applause” and Slayyyter’s “Motorcycle.” Their drag “daughter,” Opulent Dekay, wears a black crop top with a fuzzy heart across the chest that says “Sex Toy.” Dekay’s oval face is contoured with doll-like makeup, shading their already thin nose to a knife’s point. Perched on pink platform stilettos, a straight silver wig accentuates their already exaggerated tallness and thinness. A thematic mix plays, combining “I Am Not a Robot” by Marina and the Diamonds and “Make Me a Robot” by Tessa Violet, capped off by “Still Alive,” the ironic congratulatory song from the end of the video game Portal, sung in the voice of a robot antagonist: “I’m not even angry / I am being so sincere right now / Even though you broke my heart / and killed me.” All three tracks have the same exaggerated sing-song phrasing and flat affect, allowing Dekay, tottering around the stage, to evoke the mechanical Olympia doll from Offenbach’s opera Tales of Hoffmann. There is no longer a meaningful high/low distinction within our culture. One effect of the internet and social media has been a leveling of cultural reference and association, as if everything that ever existed rests on a single horizon, imminently accessible. The result is no longer really “subculture” in the traditional sense, but something more like overlapping rings of signification, legible to varying degrees from community to community. A drag festival turns out to be one of the most comprehensive ways for people to make sense of these new cultural formations. There are 33 performances over the course of the three-hour-long trans showcase. Symone N. O’ Bishop, a queen from Columbia, South Carolina, lip-syncs Dondria’s “You’re the One” in a magenta pixie-cut wig that matches her hot-pink homage to a Donna Reed gown. Her tagline—“I’m not a snob, I’m just painted that way”—is a riff on the high-camp cartoon bombshell Jessica Rabbit, who famously cooed, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” After taking off the chiffon skirt and jacket and revealing a ruffled salsa-inflected miniskirt with pastel rainbow trim and a cropped blouse with full sleeves, SNOB finishes
with “Nobody” by Todrick Hall. Fluid Snow, a trans nonbinary drag king from Tel Aviv, follows in a fedora and painted goatee, wearing a tailored suit made from fabric printed with Nagel-like illustrations of women. Over the course of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” Snow removes jacket and shirt to reveal a bound chest, a common practice among drag kings and trans men, to minimize the bust line. The word “king” is written on this one in marker. Snow pushes the lyrics of the song into unexplored territory after removing the binding to reveal a bare chest and evidence of top surgery: “This is a man’s world / This is a man’s world / But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl.” By 2 a.m. I am waiting with a crowd on the street corner in front of Valhalla for the summer-camp vans to take us back to the Holiday Inn. One van is mobbed and leaves full, promising to return in half an hour. I get into the next one with the Haus of Kikii girls, talking to ShelbyAnn Waylon-Kikii 2.0, who is getting her PhD in library science from the University of Texas in Dallas. We talk about her interest in archival research, and I think about the depth of drag’s scholarly impulse toward a history of taste, an archaeology of pop culture. So much of the pleasure in the scene resides in the specificity of the references and associations, as well as in the nuances of the execution. Drag gets really good not merely with a flawless illusion or allusion, but when each aspect—a look, a dress, a song, a gesture—amplifies the others to create nuance and to undermine, re-contextualizing all of their meanings in real time. Outside the hotel, clusters of people in various states of undress smoke and talk. The latenight fluorescent corridors are empty save for those of us in town for the fest, and the contrast between us and the decor—chance juxtapositions of glitter and beige—simmers with a David Lynch style of American surrealism.
I grew up Pentecostal, going to evangelical churches.… I remember how often pop music would be appropriated for services, probably because of the way in which great pop songs tap so effortlessly into preexisting emotional architecture. South Symone N. O’Bishop (Columbia, of Carolina) performing to a mashup ick Todr and ” One the ’re “You s dria’ Don alla. Valh at Hall’s “Nobody”
Photography by Wolfgang Stahr
The Syntax Itself
Marko Nikodijević, Nikolaus Bachler and Olivier Renaud-Clément 54 conversation about opera, evolution, drugs and silence in
“We evolved to hear things with a complexity of spatial resolution— we can tell if a bird is flying up or down!” —Marko Nikodijević
I discovered the Serbian-born composer Marko Nikodijević more than a year ago at Teatro alla Scala in Milan. After an extraordinary interpretation of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 conducted by Teodor Currentzis, the orchestra performed an encore. The sheer expression of notes, sounds and percussions managed to prolong the intensity of Mahler’s composition. The audience was stunned. The music gave me tremors but somehow provided me with a feeling of resolution at the same time. The piece, I found out later, was “GHB/tanzaggregat,” Nikodijević’s 2011 work aptly named after a mind-altering drug popular in the techno scene. This obviously piqued my curiosity. Though the 40-year-old composer is impressively credentialed in classical music, having studied composition in Belgrade and in Stuttgart, where he now resides, his work often explores components of electronic music through classical structure and tonality. In the summer of 2018, Nikolaus Bachler, general manager of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, commissioned Nikodijević to collaborate with the pioneering performance artist Marina Abramović on 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, an opera project Abramović first conceived almost 30 years ago. Set to debut in Munich in April (then on to Florence, Athens, Berlin and Paris), the production will be comprised of seven arias that Callas performed, all featuring heroines who die for or from love: Tosca, Lucia, Butterfly, Carmen, Desdemona, Violetta and Norma. Abramović (as Callas) will appear in film and on stage during the performance, and Nikodijević will compose the music for the opera’s musical arrangement. In in my capacity as a founder of the International Friends of the Munich Opera, I traveled to Munich in December to speak to Bachler and Nikodijević about the project. These are edited and condensed portions of our conversation. —Olivier Renaud-Clément
Wolfgang Tillmans, Lighter 50, 2008; chromogenic print, acrylic hood. Photo: © Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London.
OLIVIER RENAUD-CLÉMENT Nikolaus, can you tell me a bit about how 7 Deaths of Maria Callas came to be? NIKOLAUS BACHLER The idea came when I met Marina Abramović in Denmark and asked her if she would like to direct Béla BartÓk’s Bluebeard’s Castle . As we were talking, she told me that her dream had always been to make a film about Maria Callas and mortality. She sent me the script, and I said to her, “Could this not be for stage?” She was immediately enthusiastic. The strength of Marina, of course, is in her action, not in her direction—the strength of Marina is Marina. We discussed how to include her in the piece, and we thought that if it were only Callas’ main arias, it would be a concert. To avoid that, I said, “You should be the center of the whole thing.” So now the structure is, for the first part, she is onstage with seven singers while a series of films featuring Marina and
Willem Dafoe [as Aristotle Onassis] are projected above. And for the second part, which is about the death of Callas, Marina is alone onstage, the set designed to look like Callas’ Paris apartment. Next, there was the question of who the composer should be. Since Teodor Currentzis was involved in the beginning, I wanted very much for him to do it. But I talked to him and realized the timing wouldn’t work. And so now, with Marko involved, there will be a new composition in the second part. And this, I have to say, I’m most excited about, because, as I imagine it, we will have, let’s say, Verdi’s Traviata, and then comes the big boom, which goes in a completely different direction. Marko, have you seen the films yet? MARKO NIKODIJEVIĆ No, not yet.
Two or three are amazing, and the other ones are very good. So now I can imagine how the things will come together.
“Because I grew up in theater, I think it’s important to think about how everyone experiences a piece differently…with his biography, with his fantasy, with his ears. Does he have good hearing? Has he a sense of vibration? This, I think, is the big mystery of our job.” —Nikolaus Bachler
I first became interested in you, Marko, from the concert at La Scala, when Currentzis and the musicAeterna orchestra performed one movement of “GHB/tanzaggregat” as an encore. It came out of nowhere, after all the applause. It was a musical revelation. Since I work mostly with visual artists, something I’d like to try to understand is your process of composition, how you create a piece of music. MN
Well, you capture time—that is what composition is—and the sounds are the color in that time. That is the essence of music, capturing time and trying to make time timeless, or immortal. ORC
You have a very interesting background. I understand you were a DJ… MN
That came later. I started studying music as a child, which is one of the nice things about the East European school system; there are still state schools of music, so you can actually go to a kindergarten for music! My aunt is a music-history teacher, so before I could read, I knew that the blue LP was Beethoven and the green was Mozart. As a child, I would stand in front of the record player because the sound transfixed me. And so, after I finished my academic studies in composition, I sort of had a crisis. It was a combination of teenage angst and midlife crisis. I went from desirable to a has-been, which I now find refreshing—I’m really free. It’s fantastic. ORC
Marko, this is the second time today that you’ve referred to yourself as old. [Laughs] MN
I’m old in the way that I am still a creature of the last century, and I understand that a time is coming that I cannot comprehend fully. You see social changes and political changes and artistic changes, and you see a time coming that is not completely yours. It’s a dawn on the horizon.
It’s yours in a different way. Your description of capturing time and filling that time is beautiful; it’s a very philosophical description for what music is. Do you think for Mozart it was the same? MN
Well, we have to separate two things. It is also a menial job. It is not different than being a cook or a secretary. It is really a job where you sit down and do it.
The handcraft part. MN
My favorite anecdote about Tchaikovsky, whom I adore, is that, for 40 years, he would wake up and eat his toast and drink his coffee—a rare Russian who liked drinking coffee in the morning!—and he’d write a fugue as a technical exercise. So, of course, you have to work on craft. The history of Western music is very interesting. It started with prayer chants, with the formulas at the end of those chants and listening to how well all the voices sounded in the church. They’d have cadences, and out of those cadences, ever more complex harmonic relations developed. And then those voices were moved around until they achieved counterpoint. Then instruments were introduced to those spaces and the virtuosity of instrumental play developed. Composers started pushing it ever more. So the complex cultural phenomenon that is Western music basically evolved over 900 years, completely separate from all kinds of other music-making: folk music, different types of ritual music we see in Africa or Tibet. But the one thing that the syntax of Western music has achieved is that it is able to assimilate everything. You can assimilate the didgeridoo into a symphony orchestra, and it won’t change the nature of it. It can pull everything into its context of meaning, which is why Western music achieved this kind of lingua franca. It is able to pull everything inside without
prototype of a composer in a time of educated absolutism. Beethoven was a prototype of a composer for an emerging bourgeois society. The first decade of the 20th century is when the revolutionary changes in music really began to happen. ORC
Now, 100 years later, we’re in the computer era, the information age, and we’re using new technologies to do many things, among them, make music. NB For this project, the first thing Marko said was that he needed loudspeakers. And it will cost a fortune, because he needs the best loudspeakers. [Laughs]
changing the notion of the complex language it is in itself. ORC
So within that, what is the ultimate form to you: the symphony, a sonata, an opera?
That’s an interesting question, because these forms came as instruments were perfected. Then the tonal system fixed itself around what is harmonically possible, the temperament of the tones. The early pieces of music were usually a collection of dances; a typical suite in Baroque music is just a collection of dances that are simple forms—AA and AB, or A with a variation. Then the structural elements grew more complex—composers thought, “How can this syntax last longer?” Of course, other cultural strains were happening at the same time: the Renaissance resurrection of the Greek idea of a staged music play, of opera; the monody, so that you have one voice singing with an accompaniment. At that point, you wouldn’t have an orchestra of 130 playing a symphony that’s 90 minutes long; 300 years were needed to achieve a musical syntax of that complexity, but in the end, it is really the syntax itself: How does a motif become a musical sentence? How does that sentence become a musical period, generating ever greater connective musical structures? NB Well, I think there is also a simpler explanation. The complexity of Baroque music, of music of the 19th century, is not more complex than the music of Monteverdi [1567–1643]. I think the big difference is that, until the 20th century, music had a certain purpose: to please the church or the person with the money. Composers had to find their way, or their genius, in the complexity within these constraints. From the 20th century on, we got so-called free time… ORC
Ah, the bourgeois society. MN
Well, it’s certainly true that the church
Marina Abramović in a still from a film projected during the staging of 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. Photo: © Marco Anelli.
and the nobility have more or less disappeared from public conscience. I mean, who had an orchestra and a choir? The church and the duke. When the bourgeoisie discovered that it could step into the role, music became more democratic. Something that fascinates me is that there is no silent culture on this planet. All cultures organize sound for ritualistic, spiritual or purely pleasure purposes. NB
What is yoga? Yoga is organizing people in silence. MN
Yes, but there is no such thing as a silent culture. There must be an evolutionary explanation, but I don’t know why music exists in this sense.
sound, because—except if you’re in an anechoic chamber—there’s sound everywhere. Now we have also music everywhere, which I find irritating. NB
You’re right. That’s why I think silence is not like a blank canvas; silence is like an orgasm, like a spiritual thing. You cannot deal with it practically. MN
There is so little silence in today’s world. Everything is so loud. There is noise and noise and noise. And this devolution of music…Why on earth do we need music coming out of loudspeakers to go shoe-shopping? ORC
Or simply to go to a restaurant and eat peacefully?
It’s interesting to hear you, as a composer, talk about this notion of silence, which is very important within music. Silence is the base of music, isn’t it? The moment when the music starts is the deepest moment of silence. MN
It’s a question what silence is—silence as a spiritual state and not just as an absence of
That’s something that almost physically hurts me, this idea that you can turn music into background noise. Who do you think are the key composers who brought something new to the form? MN
It’s not really composers; it’s that the zeitgeist changes. Haydn was a
Well, Marina’s voice narrates in between the arias. There are limits to how well you can achieve sound distribution that is both mellow in character and present in a large room like an opera house. An opera house also has this strange height problem that you don’t have in a concert hall, which is usually a shoebox form. You see, with a body that emits a sound—be it a human voice, a violin or a piano—that sound is already extremely complex spatially, because it emits in all possible directions; it refracts. A loudspeaker is a very narrow spatial thing, so you have to have sound coming out of enough loudspeakers to get a resolution that’s not broken. ORC
You want each of the people in the audience to have the same experience? MN
That’s technically really not possible, but you need to understand the complexity of what happens spatially with the sound. One of our ears hears sound slightly before the other; that’s our stereo hearing, and that makes the localization of sound for us. We evolved to hear things with a complexity of spatial resolution—we can tell if a bird is flying up or down! We don’t have to see it, we hear it. So if you put just one loudspeaker in front of you, it will sound completely unnatural, as if there is a television set. ORC
It’s interesting that you talk about hearing. When I heard your piece for the first time, it was more of a physical experience for me than a hearing experience. NB
For me, because I grew up in theater, I think it’s important to think about how everyone experiences a piece differently, for many reasons. A person experiences it with his biography, with his fantasy, with his ears. Does he have good hearing? Has
“I have always been interested in these sorts of mystical experiences, these places outside of ordinary life that have some kind of spiritual ascension. But it is not the typical teenage druggy tourism. Rather, it has a spiritual dimension in that, all of a sudden, time, color and sound are different.” —Marko Nikodijević
he a sense of vibration? This, I think, is the big mystery of our job. ORC
I would like to go back to your music a bit, Marko. When I started looking into your work, the title that caught my attention immediately was “GHB.” MN
It’s “GHB/tanzaggregat.” That’s a part of a psychedelic cycle that’s all about psychedelic experiences, either through ketamine or GHB or tiefenrausch, which is this intoxication that happens when you dive deeper than 30 meters under water. It changes the experience of time, and it also changes your sensory experience. I have always been interested in these sorts of mystical experiences, these places outside of ordinary life that have some kind of spiritual ascension. But it is not the typical teenage druggy tourism. Rather, it has a spiritual dimension in that, all of a sudden, time, color and sound are different. ORC
You know, as I’ve listened to the pieces over and over again, I keep thinking of the artist Wolfgang Tillmans—his beautiful and beautified world, his technical experiments and the almost banal aspect of a lot of his snapshots through the multiplicity of images. MN
I’ve never thought of that association before. But I’m happy to hear it, because I love his work. It’s something that comes out of a subculture that I find fascinating, but he doesn’t make pornographic tourism out of it. It makes something very special. His Berlin nightlife snapshots at the end of the ’90s have a gentle beauty about them. You know how transient these moments are. The people are often physically naked, but they are also in a state of rather emotional nakedness. I also love his work experimenting with chemical photographic processes. NB
For me, the “GHB” title is like using a code, like the Freemasons, because 90 percent of the population doesn’t understand GHB. That meaning is for only a few people, but that doesn’t matter, because everyone experiences the music differently. On the one hand, the title is playful, and on the other hand, it’s personal: “Oh yes, I’m part of this group.” This is probably what Freemasonry was for Mozart. It’s something you share with certain people that you don’t have to explain very much. ORC
Is that elitist?
Everything is elitist in that sense; there are so many different meanings of elite. Music fills a room with emotion, and this is completely about emotion, nothing else. You cannot analyze it. ORC
Nikolaus, as a producer you have to know who to bring together, but you also have to follow the process and be there to redirect, correct, handle and ultimately deliver the final “product.” Why did you think Marko was the right choice to work with Marina for this? NB
Well, we have seven arias that everyone knows by heart. That’s why I was happy that we could go in this unexpected direction. This is the real purpose of my job—that we go in a new direction. MN
This is why I have managed to frustrate so many people—they may expect something virtuosic and fast and loud, and then they’ll get something very slow and breakable, on the verge of silence. Or I’ll say, “I will write an eight-minute orchestral piece,” and then I come back and say, “I’m sorry, it’s 20 minutes long.” When you bring people together, the most important thing is that they will be able to work together. A lot of people think, “Oh, we’ll just get big names,” but the chemistry has to work. It’s not just about enjoying somebody else’s work; it’s about giving each other the space and about understanding their ideas and about wanting their ideas to succeed. I asked Marina exactly how she envisioned the piece, so I could make the music to realize what was in her imagination. You have to say to the person, “Show me the world you are creating that you can’t complete on your own. I want to help build the houses in that world.” NB
For me, it’s different. I work from my emotion. And in my experience, the best understanding between people doesn’t necessarily produce the best result. Sometimes a horrible atmosphere in production can produce a beautiful result. Sometimes a very good atmosphere produces a beautiful result. It’s really just about emotion, about passion, about feeling someone as a person more than just through his or her work. The main thing for me is always to avoid expectations and let myself be surprised. To put together this person and this project is always a risk. You have to love this risk. And you can’t complain about the problems you will inevitably have.
I’ve had situations in my life when things exploded or didn’t happen, but they were important in the long run. Mostly, I think the problem of our métier is that it got so commercial. Not commercial in the money sense, but commercial in the sense that it has to be… ORC
Exactly. Success and media attention and all of that, which is necessary; you cannot avoid it. MN
To grow as artist, you actually need to learn from failure. NB
We all know that we grow more from pain than joy. This applies to what I’m doing with the Abramović production. I’m not just trying to avoid problems. I know that working with such a big institution, it wants to avoid problems, which is also a matter of fear, which is very human. I mean, for this production, we have seven singers, we have a composer… ORC
And a lot of speakers. [Laughs] MN
We have video artists and two different film projections… NB
We even have clouds in the beginning, which cost a lot of money. MN
You have to trust somebody’s vision, that they know where they are taking us. They may not know exactly what the path is, but they have an idea where they want to arrive. NB
The time when I learned the most was when I was 29 years old, and I became the artistic director of the Vienna Festival. I worked with Giorgio Strehler, Peter Stein and Peter Brook, so this was my university. I was sitting in the hotel room next to Strehler, and he was very coquettish. [Laughs] He had his hair styled every morning. He never went out without makeup. The only thing that all of us had in common was an amazing passion. Strehler had passion as if he was 18 years old. And this is exactly what I felt from Marina for this production. When she had the photos taken of her looking like Callas, I felt this fire. I said, “Let’s go for it! What can happen?” As my grandma always said, “Why do you have so many problems? It’s only theater.”
might be easily read as a contrast between life- and death-making forces. But, in fact, those forces are much the same under patriarchy, aren’t they? With new life, motherhood produces new soldiers. The battlefield requires an endless stream of repopulation; it needs (majority male) bodies. Dix’s etching, titled Pregnancy, was made in 1922. If that hunching figure were carrying a boy, the same fetus that hovered over the dead of the First World War would have been enlisted to fight in the Second. Coming into contact with that print—passing it dozens of times a day as I came in and out of my own adjacent installation—did what the best art can do: It opened a window. It undid my facile (and conventional) idea of mother as the harbinger of peace and stability, and allowed me to see the pregnant body anew, as reinforcing rather than contracting the aims of nationalism and war. Dix’s figure, however griefstricken, is not at odds with globalized aggression simply by virtue of her capacity to procreate. Quite the opposite; she is its gestational engine. Once home from installing, I returned, urgently, to the worn pages of Rich’s 1976 book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution—to which I refer across these paragraphs—scanning to find a passage I remembered from many years prior: “ ‘Vous travaillez pour l’armée, madame?’ (‘You are working for the army?’), a Frenchwoman said to me early in the Vietnam War, on hearing I had three sons.” Another few lines follow, spelling out her point even more clearly: “Under the realities of organized male territoriality and aggression, when women produce sons, they are literally working for the army.…For generations, we have entered our sons in some kind of combat.” This phenomenon—which a more genteel academic might call proto-natalism—is defined as the “[non-waged] militarization of reproduction” by Elisabeth Domansky in her 1996 study “Militarization and Reproduction in World War I Germany.” Across all social classes of Western Europe in the 20th century, women were called on to “do their patriotic duty” and produce future soldiers, both during and between wars. Willingly or not, knowingly or not, mother-bodies are the most instrumental tool of the nation-state. Without us, there is no army. Needless to say, there is at present no military conscription in our country, and women can serve in the armed forces. We can be the fighters and the progenitors of future fighters all at once. And yet, Rich’s words ring out, ever apposite: Endless wars and the jingoism that fuels them still leave so many of our children dead and wounded, and so many parents cracked open. Even if the scaffolding disappears (i.e., obligatory military service), the underlying structure remains intact. My older son is now, as of this writing, almost four years old. After he was born, I couldn’t imagine him being one month or six months or—impossible—one
year. It seemed exceptionally far away, so long and cyclical was each little day. And now, at almost half my height, he is long-limbed and robust, a very different kind of body on my chest. He is more physically expressive than any other child in my orbit, in both tender and explosive ways. Several weeks ago at a friend’s house, I was helping him look for a piece of a toy he’d misplaced and was struggling to describe, finally settling on “peeler.” When we discovered it, under the couch, it was revealed to me to be a small plastic gun. He was attracted to it for reasons we might extrapolate, or perhaps just because it was an accessory unknown to him. Not wanting to call attention to it as an illicit object (he catches on to these things, and it is hard to un-catch them), I let him hold it. As that gun sat limply in his hand, it occurred to me: He not only didn’t know the name for this object, he couldn’t yet begin to know its use. At what moment do our sons turn into symbolic and literal soldiers, inheritors of the patriarchy? How do they regard us, their mothers, in the process? In her 1974 poem “To a Boy-Child,” the feminist writer Sue Silvermarie so poignantly and mournfully accounts for the caustic triangulation between mother, son and aggressive desire: i tremble to see your temptations. how clear for me what losing you would mean. how confusing for you little man. already you’re lured by what passes for power, and is, by half. what do I do with your guns? outlaws, you’re playing, and I think it is i who am out of the law, it is you within it, approved, who grows blind to its bars… Despite my better attempts to avoid solipsism in writing about a question with which I am entangled, here I must admit that speaking around my son feels impossible. I am not simply a mother inside of an anti-maternal world. I want to grant him total privacy inside all of this (as Rich did, faithfully), and yet I am his mother—I watch his body move from room to room as I write these words, running around the house, arms full of books—and this is our world, even if much of it still remains a mystery to him. How to raise this boy? And how to reverse engineer that question by thinking about the system that necessitates it in the first place? The truth—or my truth—is the best way to answer it is to speak of creating pro-maternal worlds from within patriarchy. What might my interviewer think if, instead of offering a vacant response about “raising feminist boys,” I spoke honestly about my abiding fear of creating future men who are not able to live for
Through images, a feminist artist addresses her male offspring
By Carmen Winant
I am often asked, as an artist and as a feminist who has contended with motherhood in my work, to hold forth on what it is like to have two sons. The question is meant this way, really: Your work is invested in troubling the values of patriarchy, and yet you’ve created two future patriarchs. Explain? A version of this question has been put to many feminists and proto-feminists who bore male children, from Elizabeth Cady Stanton (five sons) to Audre Lorde (one), Adrienne Rich (three), Robin Morgan (one), Toni Morrison (two) and so on. Beneath it lives a delicate insinuation that someone is being hurt: either the mothers, for whom sons are an inconvenience on the path to liberation, or the boys themselves, who are being held back in their exploratory manhood by way of their mothers’ politics. When Adrienne Rich was asked much the same question—regarding how her three sons were affected by her radical feminist writing and activism—she responded simply: You’ll have to ask them. What will my children say when they are old enough to say it? Has my striving imprinted on them, for our better or our worse, or some of both? I can’t say that I expected it. During both of my pregnancies, I carried low down and all in front, like a taco, rather than high, wide and round, like a deflating basketball. For that reason and maybe others, a lot of people around me predicted that my first child would be a boy. But I refused the information from my midwives, and came to know my son to be a son only as a wet and tiny being, throbbing on my chest. The news of my second son was revealed earlier, through a blood test. When my partner and I went in the following week for an ultrasound, I asked the doctor if she was sure. She responded by silently rolling the wand over to the side of my stomach, where I watched two glowing, phosphorescent marbles come into view. I still remember: They were pulsing brightly in the darkness. There is much I could write about this moment and all that has followed—the personal reckoning and recognition—about what it feels like to be the mother of sons. Instead, I will try to use these paragraphs to contend with something beyond my little world: the status of the “mother in patriarchy,” a contradictory designation that not one of us escapes. At the same moment that I began to unspool this idea, I was installing a museum project that was to appear alongside several works by the German artist Otto Dix. I wasn’t overly familiar with Dix’s history, other than the fact that he had been a soldier in World War I and thereafter depicted military conflict and its afterlife in his work. Included in that particular presentation was a small print of a heavily pregnant woman standing over the body of a decomposing soldier (who, shown in profile, appears himself to be encased in a kind of womb). The print—brute and sketchy—
themselves? Who are both innately attracted to “peelers”—to being Outlaws—and drafted into that way of being, thinking and feeling? In her 1979 essay “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response,” Audre Lorde wrote of preparing her son for a different kind of battle, one that this short text has not otherwise touched on. “For survival, black [boys] in America must be raised to be warriors.” Yet warriors are not so easily imbued with self-knowledge. “I give the most strength to my children by being willing to look within myself,” wrote Lorde. This task, of mutual self-actualization—of asking our boys to confront their own real selves and wants—feels to me to the most anti-patriarchal thing I can imagine. Because, of course, the question of what we want for our sons is most of all a question of what we want for ourselves.
(Following pages) Perhaps for what it represents about the cost of mothering our children into war, I have become fixated on sets of brothers who all died—together and apart— in combat. There were, famously, the Borgstrom brothers, LeRoy, Clyde, and twins Rolon and Rulon from Thatcher, Utah. Stationed separately, they were all killed over a six-month period in 1944 during World War II. One died under a falling tree while clearing an airstrip, the others in bombing raids in Germany and from battle wounds in France. In the same war and two years earlier, the five Sullivan boys were all sunk in the same attack when the USS Juneau exploded— torpedoed by a Japanese submarine—on November 13, 1942. George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert, ages 20 to 27, had enlisted in the Army together in January of that same year. Unlike the Borgstroms, their service was stipulated on being stationed together. It is reported that George, the only brother to survive the sinking, threw himself over the lifeboat after five days at sea (a day before the remaining men on the lifeboat were rescued), driven insane with hypothermia and grief. Not to imagine the mothers is impossible. Imagining them is also all that’s left.
Erna Rosenstein was a painter, graphic artist and poet born in Lviv, a city that was located in Poland during her youth and is now in Ukraine. She was raised in Kraków, the daughter of an Austrian judge. Resisting her family’s desire that she follow her father into law, she studied art and belonged to a leftist art movement known as the Kraków Group. In 1938, she visited Paris and saw the International Surrealist Exposition organized by André Breton, which had a profound impact on her work. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, she and her parents returned to Lviv, where they were confined to the ghetto. The family managed to escape to Warsaw, but her parents were murdered in 1942 in the forest outside Ogrodniki, Poland; Rosenstein herself was gravely wounded but survived and used various assumed identities to remain hidden for the duration of the war. After the liberation, she remained in Warsaw and returned to making art, marrying the literary portfolio
Untitled, 1992, pencil on paper. All artwork: © Estate of Erna Rosenstein/Adam Sandauer. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth and Foksal Gallery Foundation.
KEPT UNDER THE EYELIDS
critic Artur Sandauer. Through continuing political adversity, Rosenstein remained at the forefront of the Polish avant-garde for the rest of her life, participating in several seminal exhibitions and eventually receiving national acclaim in her native country, though her work is only now gaining recognition outside Eastern Europe. On April 23, Hauser & Wirth will open “Once Upon a Time,” the first monographic exhibition of Rosenstein’s work outside Poland, featuring autobiographical works and fairy tale texts written and illustrated by Rosenstein. The portfolio in the pages that follow expands on the exhibition through a glimpse into the ingenuity, range and lyricism of Rosenstein’s drawings over several decades. The show’s curator, Alison Gingeras, recently visited Adam Sandauer, Rosenstein’s only child and the executor of her estate, for a conversation in Rosenstein’s studio in Warsaw. These are edited excerpts from that conversation, translated by Antonina Gugała.
ALISON GINGERAS How do you feel about this show happening in New York? ADAM SANDAUER Early in my mother’s career, though she was a person with leftist views, she was against social realism, so she wasn’t allowed to exhibit her work. She didn’t want to paint what the Communist Party requested. Then once the Polish Round Table Talks [a series of negotiations in 1989 between the Communist government and the leaders of the opposition] took place and the system changed, she again wasn’t able to exhibit her work. So, I guess that what’s happening now is that she’s finally returning to her position.
What was it like growing up as an artist’s child? AS Fire,1980, ink on paper.
Erna Rosenstein in her studio on Karlowicza Street in Warsaw, 1996. Photo: Jacek Kucharczyk.
A portfolio of drawings by Erna Rosenstein (1913–2004)
My parents would work in the mornings. After breakfast, my mother would put on her apron, and my father would sit down at the typing machine, and they would spend a few hours like that. In those hours, I had access to their rooms, but I had to knock on the door before entering. Our housekeeper would take care of me. Then we would meet for the second time at dinner. My parents came up with the idea to teach me how to speak French during dinner, and we would speak only French at
home. Since I always had a passion for technology, what interested me most about painting and writing were all those technical details: How does a typing machine work? How do you make painting primer? Later on, when I was coming of age, it wasn’t that they would lecture me on art history or art in general, but we would discuss quite a few things of this sort in our everyday conversations. To be honest, the only times when I would see my mother directly at work would be either when I entered her room or, more often, during plein-air sessions, like the ones at Osieki or elsewhere. AG
What was her ideal working environment? Did she work in silence or listen to music as she painted? AS
She didn’t listen to the radio. She was rather focused on what she was doing. There would be no music in the background. Sometimes the cat would crawl onto the table. AG
How long would it take for her to complete a painting? AS
A painting would never end. A painting would end only when it left the studio. My mother would go back to one of her works years later and change a thing or two, so you would never know when it’s done. Yet there was a moment when she was satisfied, and the painting would end up on one of her shelves. Would I say that it had been fully archived? No. Some of the drawings were, because she wouldn’t go back to her drawings, but when it came to painting, something could always come to her mind and she could always make a slight change. But the older a painting was, the more seldom she would modify it. AG
Was your mother interested in your or your father’s opinion on her work? AS
She would show it to us, but she wouldn’t ask us for our opinions. It was rather my father who would ask her for her opinion, for some ideas when he was writing. AG
Was this because she was so certain of the quality of her work? AS
It was rather because she knew that we knew very little about the nature of it.
At the same time, as a poet, your mother was capable of commenting on your father’s writing. AS
Well, her literary work was mostly fairy tales. They were read to me when I was a child. Father knew that Mother was writing fairy tales, some plays, but it was done as a side note. She started publishing after March 1968. The tales are meant for children, but they have a surrealist subtext, so they are also tales for adults. Of course, back then I only saw the layer for children. AG
What triggered the change in 1968? AS
That’s a good question, to which I don’t have a very clear answer. I think her artistic practice stopped satisfying her after what happened in Poland in March 1968 [student-led protests against the Communist regime were violently quashed, leading to the expulsion of thousands of Jews from Poland]. I think that it was a bit of a protest against what was happening. Her poetry at that point was not politically neutral; it has this character of boycotting reality, a reluctance or a feeling that she simply did not like what was going on. The same goes for the plays that she wrote; they are a bit surreal, with a distancing from reality. AG
Wartime trauma is a recurrent trope in your mother’s work. Did your mother often talk about memories in her daily conversations? AS
Yes, but when we talked about those times, she would tell me more about her dog called Czorcik [Little Devil], about the town of Zakopane [a picturesque mountain resort in Poland] and not about the dark histories of the Second World War.
Erna was very present in the Polish art scene during her lifetime. Did she have to make a conscious effort to keep this position? AS
After the Second World War, as my mother had always been openly leftist, you would think that she and my father would be on the top. Yet neither my mother nor my father approved of the artistic concept of the Polish People’s Republic of the Stalinist period. Mother didn’t want to create in the vein of social realism, and Father took a public stand against it. Father was sacked from his job, banned from publishing. They were living off of what the family from abroad gave them. In order to make ends meet, Mother would hand-color portraits— enlarged photographic prints—of the leaders of the revolution. Father made a living working as a translator. We were rather poor until the early ’50s, after Stalin’s death. We didn’t starve, but it wasn’t easy. We were in constant conflict over not complying with these social-realist ideas. Later on, my father became a scholar at the University of Warsaw. By the mid-’50s, my mother began to show her work in lots of exhibitions, and she finally reached the position where she belonged, based on her talent, her oeuvre. She started to be successful, famous. Mother had enough of a reputation that she didn’t have to do anything to make these things happen. Poland was cut off from the rest of the Eastern Bloc, so it had its own piece of the art world, and my mother was one of the most important figures in that world.
Dissolving Shapes, 1977, ink and crayon on paper.
From the pictures of her studio taken in the late 1990s, we can see that she surrounded herself with unusual objects. What did your home look like growing up? AS
There were different pieces of rubbish— stones brought from the seaside, some dried roots, a piece of a folded can. You can still see some of those things on the walls here, like this can framed in plaster. [Points to an assemblage on the wall]
Echos, undated, ink on paper.
71 Cradle, undated, pen on paper.
Trolley, undated, pencil on paper. Untitled, undated, paint on paper.
Untitled, undated, paint and crayon on paper.
Untitled, 1960, ink and crayon on paper.
73 Untitled, undated, paint and crayon on paper.
Untitled, 1965, ink on paper.
Untitled, 1995, ink on paper.
Untitled, 1962, pen on paper.
Untitled (Sketch of Strikes), 1967, pen on paper.
1 to 1, 1971, ink on paper.
Curb, 1974, ink on paper.
Untitled, undated, ink on paper.
Untitled, 1985, ink on paper.
Untitled, undated, ink on paper.
Wreath, undated, pen on paper.
Oasis, 1975, ink on paper.
Untitled, undated, ink on paper.
Untitled, undated, pen on paper.
Untitled, 1992, ink and watercolor on paper.
Untitled, 1963, pen on paper.
81 Untitled, 1970, ink on paper.
Untitled, 1950, ink and crayon on paper.
A traditional Korean guest house should contain four elements: a book, a handcrafted object, a landscape painting and good tea. On a chilly day last December, the fourth item is offered as a welcoming gesture in the reception room of the home of designer Teo Yang, an emerging star in the increasingly sought-after world of South Korean design. Served in small celadon cups, the tea mitigates the draft through the woodand-glass screen walls of Yang’s renovated 1917 hanok, a tile-roofed courtyard house in the historic Bukchon neighborhood of Seoul. The teacup sits on a footed wooden tray no larger than a notebook—made by a local woodworker—next to a precisely wrapped caramel— made by a local confectioner. This site-specific still life of tea, caramel and tray provides a capsule summary of Yang’s approach to design, combining past and present in multisensory experiences that include interiors, furniture, scents and skincare. In fact, every detail of his home’s interior—from the built-in cabinetry with arches inlaid across the drawers to the geometric sun, moon and mountains on the sliding doors—is a reflection of the thoughtful balance he strikes between traditional and modern. The hanok architectural style, once seen by Koreans as a relic and an impediment to urbanization, is now appreciated as an important cultural form. But Yang’s interest in the form goes beyond historic preservation. “People think that I am one of the cultural keepers,” he says. “Oh, Teo is an important figure because he protects our traditions, but I am not really trying to protect traditions. I want to talk about the future, but in a context. We have a motto at our studio: Past in the future. We always try to think in those terms.” Yang is one of a growing number of designers working to give traditional Korean architecture and ritual—long overlooked amid the country’s contributions to international culture in the form of film, food, music and technology—a contemporary role. “Seoul is a city that celebrates change, celebrates innovation and always tries to focus on something new,” he says as we sit sipping tea. “I like to imagine how my house would’ve looked throughout
Teo Yang's hanok in Bukchon, Seoul, January 2020.
The historical experiments of Korean designer Teo Yang
By Alexandra Lange Photography by Gary Yeh
the ages if the Japanese occupation era hadn’t happened. If all those traditions and all those aesthetics had continued without disturbance, without armed force, what would it look like?” In the decade since he founded Teo Yang Studio—which operates out of a second hanok that was built on the lot in 1931—Yang, 39, has steadily gathered professional awards and established himself as a leader among the new generation of Korean designers. In recent years, he has been courted by heavyweight international luxury brands including Fendi (a resin-and-lacquer Peekaboo bag), Samsung (a refrigerator that looks like a sliding screen), Savoir Beds (a Deco-esque moon headboard), and watchmaker Vacheron Constantin (3-D-printed pagodas). On a national level, his projects have ranged from the refurbishment of the Manghyang rest stop (now likely the most refined highway rest-stop restroom anywhere in the world) to the design of the ultraluxe Seoul Sky Premium Lounge on the 123rd floor of the Lotte World Tower. The studio also designs receptions and events for Kim Jung-sook, the first lady of South Korea. At the 2019 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, he decided to make Korean crafts the subject of a luncheon for the first ladies of the 10 member nations, collaborating with YEOL, the Korean Heritage Preservation Society, on an exhibition of work by young Korean artisans in metal, glass and ceramics, and a luncheon served on dishware by the featured craftspeople. “Previous designers would just do pretty decorations,” says Yang. “But we are not interested in that. We always try to talk about curation. The guests were educated first, and then they got to use the items—we even gave the cups and utensils used at the luncheon as gifts.” Thus far, most of the studio’s interiordesign projects have been in Seoul, but it’s currently working on a karaoke bar in Los Angeles for SM Entertainment, the K-pop management powerhouse, as well as a yet-to-be-announced hotel in the Middle East. (That client told Yang his work represented “an Asian aesthetic they had never seen before. They said they saw a hint of Belgium in the look.”)
Yang opened his studio soon after returning from an education abroad: an undergraduate degree in interior architecture from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, a graduate degree from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and a brief stint in the Amsterdam studio of Dutch superstar designer Marcel Wanders. A golden Wanders lamp, shaped like a small dog, sits in a corner of his reception room. “Most of the designer pieces I have in this house are sort of an archive of my travels,” he says, and every city has made its imprint. From California: “The Eameses are pretty much my favorite designers,” he says. “I love their sense of scale.” From Chicago: “I learned so much about Frank Lloyd Wright. You learn the language of space through him. Sometimes we take it for granted—he used bright and dark, small and big, high and low. It is so simple, but sometimes simple is more powerful.” When I express surprise that the neutrals-loving Yang worked for Wanders, whose work can often be neo-Baroque, he explains, “I loved Marcel when I was in school: the knotted chair [Wanders’ most famous work, a 1996 seat made from cord braided around carbon fiber and then epoxied stiff] and his Delftware collection, a traditional ceramic that he redesigned. I love the way he incorporated old techniques like knots with new techniques like pouring resin.” His time living and working in Europe also gave him an important insight: “Seeing all those historic buildings and furniture pieces, I would always ask myself, ‘Where is the traditional design in Korea that I was never exposed to?’” Upon returning to Korea, his design philosophy began to coalesce. “That’s when I first started to study my own traditions,” he says. “It became a manifesto for me—I needed to bring these old artifacts that had been forgotten to a contemporary platform.” Yang got the opportunity to turn his lens back on European design when the studio was commissioned in 2017 by local bakery Mealdo and the Alvar Aalto Foundation to design a cafe inspired by the work of the Finnish architect and designer. The cafe, which sits among the lower level shops at the David Chipperfield–designed Amorepacific headquarters, looks like a tribute
to Aalto’s iconic Savoy vase, all lush birch-lined curves and copper accents, with a library table in the center displaying monographs on Finnish designers. The liberal use of wood and the strategic softness of the built-in banquette remind me of Yang’s home, despite the inspiration being half the globe away. Traditional inspirations are more overt at the EATH Library boutique, a short walk from Yang’s home and opposite an essential work of contemporary Seoul architecture, SO-IL’s chainlink-wrapped Kukje Gallery. Currently in the middle of expansion, the gallery gains design strength from the neighborhood setting, with a hanok on one opposite corner and EATH on the other. EATH’s facade splits the difference, with two large, irregular-shaped windows bordered in rich wood paneling. Inside, the shop’s wares are displayed in handcrafted wooden cases like specimens in a natural history museum. It’s a far cry from the pop, plasticky skincare shops in the Myeong-dong shopping district, but both styles epitomize modern Seoul.
Developing a skincare line might seem an unlikely project for an interior designer, but Yang describes it as simply another foundational cultural element that he can reinterpret. “Korean traditional medicine is a great heritage that we have,” he says. “But it is another thing that people don’t appreciate much. People tend to go towards Western medicine. I wanted to show that traditional herbal remedies can be translated into a contemporary thing.”
“Seeing all those historic buildings and furniture pieces [in Europe], I would always ask myself, ‘Where is the traditional design in Korea that I was never exposed to?’”
Polishing off my tea and caramels, I realize that talking to Yang induces a dreamlike state. The enclosed room, the scent of pine and incense, the faint sound of electronic music remove all other stimuli. I can see nothing through the trellised windows but the tree in the courtyard and a wedge of sky. I could imagine myself anywhere in the world except, given the architecture, I could be nowhere but Seoul. (The design scene in the city has gained remarkable visibility even over the last year alone. Architectural Digest, in a survey of young designers this January, said that “as the numbers reach a critical mass, the Western design world, collectors in particular, have started to connect the dots.”) It’s no surprise when Yang mentions, in passing, that film has been as influential for him as the design world. “Movies inspire me because, as a designer, I also come up with a program—a space program. When designers create a space for people, we always think about who the people will be and how they will use the space. We even write scenarios.” He cites Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s internationally acclaimed dark satire (the first foreign-language film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture), as an example of how a film’s production design can amplify a story’s central
theme. The intricate design of the characters’ living spaces in Parasite reflects perfectly the class tensions between the wealthy Park family, who live in a striking contemporary house, and the struggling Kim family, who live in a dingy semi-basement apartment. “It is a very Korean mindset, that hierarchy we have in society,” Yang says. “But it’s so interesting to exaggerate that hierarchy so that we can really see it. Sometimes I see myself as a parasite as well, working in this industry, because a lot of interior jobs are based on clients, and it is hard to do your own projects.” Yang cites fashion designer and filmmaker Tom Ford as an aspirational model of complete control of creative vision. He particularly admires Ford’s 2016 film Nocturnal Animals for its obsessive attention to detail. “He chose how the characters would move and what their lifestyle would be and what kind of car they would drive and what kind of clothing they would wear. Even though you can’t smell things on film, you always feel like there is this aroma.”
It dawns on me that the aroma I’ve been inhaling is no accident either. Yang produces a line of candles named for specific inspirational spaces, and the one burning in the corner now is called Northern V, after the original name for Bukchon village, located north of the Gyeongbokgung Palace. The candle has a label printed with the silhouette of the palace’s elaborate roof. While it wouldn’t occur to most designers to try to bottle, or melt, a sense of place, the candle epitomizes Yang’s entire project—made with traditional methods but contemporarily stylish, Korea-specific but luxurious anywhere, mobile yet rooted. I want to take one home to Brooklyn to see if I can create my own guest house, beginning with a scent.
“I like to imagine how my house would’ve looked throughout the ages if the Japanese occupation era hadn’t happened. If all those traditions and all those aesthetics had continued without disturbance.”
Maurizio Cattelan, Ave Maria, 2007; polyurethane, paint, clothing, metal. Installation at Tate Modern, London. Photo: Attilio Maranzano. © Maurizio Cattelan. Courtesy Maurizio Cattelan Archive.
A conversazione between Maurizio Cattelan and Fabio Mauri (1926–2009)
Fabio Mauri, Che cosa è il fascismo (What Fascism Is), 1971, performance, Stabilimenti Safa Palatino, Rome. Photo: © Elisabetta Catalano. © Fabio Mauri. © Eredi Fabio Mauri. Courtesy Estate of Fabio Mauri and Hauser & Wirth.
In a career that lasted more than half a century, Fabio Mauri, one of the most prominent members of the postwar Italian avant-garde, used his drawings, sculpture, performances and writings to return time and again to the question: How did European fascism gain the foothold that led to World War II, to the Holocaust and the war’s other horrors? As a teenager in Rome at war’s end, Mauri saw magazine pictures of concentration camp victims and was so deeply shaken he later suffered a nervous breakdown. In visually jarring and often profoundly provocative ways, his work explored the mechanisms through which spectacle, media, nationalism and anti-Semitism conspired to spawn Italian fascism and continued to fuel isolationist, totalitarian impulses long after the war. ¶ Maurizio Cattelan, born in 1960 in Padua and raised in a workingclass family, has used humor, shock and excess over the last three decades to create works that turn a jaundiced eye on the hypocrisies and failings of his native country, of the art world, and of late capitalist society at large. Though heavily disguised as a jester, he has been preoccupied throughout his career with the subjects of death, cruelty and abuse of power. A little-known part of his work for years has involved conducting “interviews” with figures who are no longer living, made by splicing together his questions with passages from the writings and sayings of his subjects, among them Francis Bacon, Pino Pascali, Alighiero Boetti, Ettore Sottsass, Birgit Jürgenssen and Gianni Agnelli. ¶ On the occasion of a retrospective of Mauri’s work on view through April 30 at Museo Novecento in Florence, Cattelan recently proposed a conversation with Mauri, his northern Italian countryman, portions of which, made in collaboration with Marta Papini and translated from the Italian by Neil Davenport, follow:
Maurizio Cattelan Mi sembra significativo partire, in medias res, da un tuo lavoro che trovo ogni giorno più attuale. Che cosa è il fascismo è una domanda che trova risposta in una tua opera. Mi racconti da dove è nata la necessità di raccontare il fascismo? Fabio Mauri C’era l’esperienza del fascismo che nessuno nominava. Nessuno. Si dava come fenomeno già giudicato, alle spalle, perdente e già archiviato. Mi misi a riflettere e in questa mia riflessione, cercando degli oggetti e degli spunti di rappresentazione, trovai il possessore del microfono di Mussolini. Mi disse: “Lo vuole vedere?” e tirò fuori una scatoletta. Venne fuori questa reliquia, tonda, con i buchini, con sopra la bambagia, l’ovatta, come fosse il microfono di San Francesco. MC Ho sempre trovato affascinanti le reliquie, hanno un potere quasi soprannaturale. FM Quel microfono era il simbolo del destino di milioni di persone, quelli che avevo ripescato nella memoria—morti in Russia, in Abissinia, sulle coste dell’Africa, in Grecia, in Albania. MC In un tuo testo scrivevi a proposito della bugia del fascismo “in cui il mare era il mare. La luna era la luna. E entrambe erano fasciste.” Il fascismo è stato questo per te? FM Ho voluto riaffrontare la bugia, quando una ideologia (se ne era data moltissima) d’ingannare con artificio esperto, fino a prenderti per mano e condurti a morire. A diventare pelle di paralume, come è successo a miei amici o a gente che avrei potuto conoscere. Il fascismo lo abbiamo sempre visto come il taglio del grano, le strade ben fatte… C’era tutto questo, ma contemporaneamente, cioè contemporaneamente all’ordine, coesistevano le preparazioni ai massacri. Proprio contemporaneamente all’ordine, alla divisa pulita con i bottoni lucidi, c’era qualcosa di terribile. MC Sei poi riuscito a convincerlo a cederti il microfono? FM Ho fatto di tutto per avere quel cimelio e so ancora dov’è, l’hanno ereditato i figli di quel gentile signore. Ho promesso di tutto, mi sono perfino dichiarato fascista. I figli mi guardarono con grande diffidenza, giustamente, perché io ne dovevo fare tutt’altro uso, volevo esporlo come il segno dell’infamia. Non me l’hanno dato. Volevo fare questa mostra col
Maurizio Cattelan It seems important to start out, in medias res, with a work of yours I find to be ever more topical, Che cosa è il fascismo [What Fascism Is]. Could you tell me where your need to talk about fascism came from? Fabio Mauri There was the experience of fascism that no one mentioned. No one. It was seen as a phenomenon that had already been judged, was behind us, failed and dismissed. I started to reflect, and in this reflection of mine, as I sought objects and prompts for representation, I found the owner of Mussolini’s microphone. He said, “Do you want to see it?” and pulled out a small box. Out came this relic, round, with the little holes, covered with cotton wool, with wadding, as if it were the microphone of St. Francis. MC I’ve always been fascinated by relics. They have an almost supernatural power. FM That microphone was the symbol of the destiny of millions of people, those that I dredged up from my memory—the dead in Russia, in Abyssinia, on the coasts of Africa, in Greece, in Albania. MC In one of your texts, you wrote about the purpose of the lie of fascism “in which the sea was the sea, the moon was the moon, and both were fascist.” Is this what fascism meant to you? FM I wanted to take another look at the lie, when that ideology took care—and it took great care—to deceive with such skillful artifice that it would take you by the hand and lead you to die: to become skin for lampshades, as happened to my friends or to people I might have known. We’ve always seen the fascists as maintaining order—the harvesting of grain, the good roads—but the preparations for massacres existed at the same time. Contemporaneous with that order, with the clean uniforms and polished buttons, there was something terrible. MC Did you manage to convince him to give you the microphone? FM I did all I could to get that relic, and I still know where it is—the children of that kind gentleman inherited it. I promised all sorts of things; I even declared myself a fascist. The children, quite rightly, looked at me suspiciously, because I intended to put it to very different use. I wanted to exhibit it as a symbol of
“[Fascism] took great care—to deceive with such skillful artifice that it would take you by the hand and lead you to die.” —Fabio Mauri
microfono. Per quei buchini erano passati i destini di milioni di persone. Poi mi chiedevo: “Ma la gente capisce?” Volevo aggiungere delle divise, qualche altro segnale. Invece no, la cosa giusta era prendere il microfono, esporlo e basta. MC Io l’avrei fatto con un microfono finto. FM Farlo finto no. Ora lo rifarei finto. Disinvoltamente, perché so che era l’idea giusta. Ma allora no. E quindi feci, cominciai questa performance su Il fascismo. MC Cosa avevi in mente all’inizio per la performance? FM La mia intenzione era quella di esporre qualcosa che avrebbe cambiato la prospettiva espositiva dell’arte contemporanea. Visto che non potevo fare la mostra andai a riprendere un’esperienza molto profonda che avevo vissuto che, forse, non ho pianto abbastanza né analizzato come avrei dovuto. Cercavo di rifare quello che avevo appreso (all’età di 12 anni) nel 1938 a Firenze per l’arrivo di Hitler dove al Giardino di Boboli sfilavano moltissimi ragazze e ragazzi, tutti vestiti molto elegantemente. Volevo capire come la bellezza poteva coesistere con la bugia e scoprire il perché di questa realtà dei giovani—la gioventù è bella non per valore o per merito. Di colpo ho visto capovolgersi questa situazione della gioventù e quelli appena un po’ più grandi di me andare al fronte, in Russia e nei campi di sterminio. Così è nato Che cosa è il fascismo perché stranamente in quel momento non se ne parlava più, sembrava una realtà già giudicata, invece serpeggiava un fascismo incredibile. MC Com’è cambiata l’idea strada facendo? FM Feci lo spettacolo dopo il golpe Borghese e così ho sbattuto la faccia contro il fascismo mentre facevo lo spettacolo, tant’è vero che nella prova generale c’era qualcosa che non funzionava perché sembrava una rappresentazione troppo autentica. Allora fermando la prova, cercai di spiegare che non dovevano recitare in quel modo così verosimile e allora un biondone un po’ arrogante mi disse: “Ma noi non possiamo recitare come vuole lei, perché noi ci crediamo profondamente…” MC I rischi del mestiere! In pratica stavi facendo un ready-made con dei performer. Forse anche col microfono avresti avuto lo stesso problema: sarebbero venuti in pellegrinaggio a omaggiare la reliquia. Come la risolvesti? FM A quella risposta li chiamai uno a uno al mio tavolino per farmi dire chi di loro voleva ancora continuare a recitare nel mio modo spiegando che lo spettacolo era contro il fascismo, non a favore. La metà mi abbandonò e rimasero in dodici, anche se i ruoli erano per il doppio delle persone. MC Credi che quella performance abbia avuto un ruolo di denuncia del silenzio che c’era nei confronti del fascismo, ancora vivo e vegeto? Voglio dire, anche rispetto ai tempi che viviamo, credi che l’arte dovrebbe essere in qualche modo utile? È una domanda che mi
that infamy. They didn’t give it to me. I wanted to do an exhibition with the microphone. The destinies of millions of people extinguished by way of those holes! Then I asked myself: “Will people understand?” I wanted to add uniforms, other symbols. But, no, the right thing would’ve been to exhibit just the microphone, and that’s all. MC I’d have done it with a fake microphone. FM Now I’d fake it, quite happily, because I know it was the right idea. But not then. And so it was that I began this performance about Il fascismo. MC What did you first have in mind for the performance? FM I had intended to present something that would have changed people’s perspective on the exhibition of contemporary art. Given that I couldn’t stage the exhibition [of the microphone], I turned to a very profound personal experience that, perhaps, I had neither mourned nor analyzed as I should have. I tried to reprise what I had learned at the age of 12, in 1938 in Florence, with the arrival of Hitler, for whom great numbers of young people paraded in the Boboli Gardens, all dressed very elegantly. I wanted to understand how beauty could coexist with the lie and to discover the motive behind these young people’s reality—youth is beautiful neither through value nor merit. I suddenly saw this situation overturned, with the youths and those a little older than me heading for the Russian front and the concentration camps. This was how Che cosa è il fascismo was born because, strangely, at that time, nobody was talking about it any longer. It seemed to be an era that had already been judged, but instead fascism was spreading. MC How did the idea change along the way? FM I staged the show after the Borghese Coup [a failed coup d’état in Italy in 1970]. I came face to face with fascism while I was doing it, to the extent that during the dress rehearsal, something wasn’t working because the representation seemed too authentic. Stopping the rehearsal, I tried to explain to the performers that they shouldn’t act in such a realistic way, and some rather arrogant blonde boy said to me, “But we can’t act how you want us to, because we truly believe…” MC The risks of the business! In effect, you were creating a ready-made with performers. Perhaps you’d have had the same problem with the microphone. They would have come in pilgrimage to pay tribute to the relic. How did you solve the problem? FM After that response, I called them to my desk one by one to ask who wanted to continue acting in the piece, explaining that the show was against fascism and not in favor of it. Half of them abandoned me and 12 stayed, although there were parts for twice as many people. MC Do you believe that performance had a role in denouncing the silence over fascism, which was
Fabio Mauri, Linguaggio è guerra (Language Is War), 1974, installation of found photographs from World War II–era magazines with artist stamps. © Eredi Fabio Mauri. Courtesy Estate of Fabio Mauri and Hauser & Wirth.
fanno spesso, e a cui ho difficoltà a rispondere. FM Noi sappiamo l’artista vorrebbe disegnare il nudo della moglie a casa, ma qualcosa, il suo appartenere a un punto che egli avverte cruciale, glielo impedisce. “Io sono l’arte, io sono il mio tempo” può rispondere qualsiasi artista. L’arte ha un’utilità di tipo umanistico. Piuttosto che andar per droga o rapinare, certo è meglio. Nella comparazione delle azioni umane, certo, è meglio andare a vedere una mostra di Gauguin, piuttosto che stuprare qualcuno a Villa Borghese… MC Su questo siamo d’accordo, non mi sarebbe neanche venuto in mente che uno potesse scegliere tra le due opzioni, ma in effetti hai ragione. Se il male esiste in ognuno, va considerato anche questo. A me sembra però che nel tuo vivere il fascismo prima e nel toccare con mano le sue conseguenze poi, tu abbia sentito da un certo momento che l’arte dovesse poter fare qualcosa. FM La storia su di me ha inciso tanto. Sono stato malato tre anni, non ho parlato più per un anno, ho frequentato tanti istituti manicomiali, perché non parlavo più, non mangiavo più, non volevo vivere, questo dopo aver avuto notizia dei campi di sterminio, proprio avendo guardato delle riviste in cui si vedeva questo orrore, ho capito che la guerra, l’uomo, questa vita che mi piaceva tanto, in realtà erano un orrore. Ho capito che i giorni potevano nascondere l’abominio, l’aberrazione. MC L’arte può salvare la vita, o meglio, cambiare il mondo? FM No, è triste la cosa che dico adesso, ma forse è un momento di pessimismo, il momento dell’anzianità, ahimè, e coincide col fatto che l’arte è per cambiare il mondo ma non lo cambia. Quando raggiunge un certo livello, l’arte, hanno necessitò di dar corpo all’invisibile. MC Cosa intendi con invisibile? FM I pensieri sono invisibili, i sentimenti sono invisibili, le sensazioni sono invisibili. E l’arte dà corpo a tutto questo. Il visibile e il miglior invisibile sono strettamente legati. MC Allora la materia dell’arte, alla fine, è rendere visibile ciò che non lo è? FM L’arte non è il bene, ma è un bene, senz’altro. Noi raggiungiamo il bene, attraverso cose buone. L’arte permette di farti salire e in qualche modo sperimentare—non in modo razionale—ma in modo spirituale delle realtà essenziali: infinitezza, sacralità, Dio. La rappresentatività artistica deve comunicare l’incomunicabile. MC Ma di ciò di cui non si può parlare è meglio tacere, diceva quello… FM Forse bisognerebbe rileggere meglio la frase in tedesco per coglierne il vero significato. Parafrasando Wittgenstein si può affermare che l’intero universo del pensiero verrà da qui in poi taciuto perché non se
still alive and kicking? I mean, with respect to the time we’re living in now, do you believe that art should be useful in some way? It’s a question I’m often asked and which I find difficult to answer. FM We know that an artist would like to draw nudes of his wife at home, but something, his belonging to a time period he feels to be crucial, prevents him. “I am art, I am my time,” he might reply. Art has a humanistic utility. It’s certainly better than taking drugs or robbing banks. In comparing human activities, it’s better to see an exhibition by Gauguin than to rape someone at Villa Borghese… MC We can agree on this. I’d never have thought that one could choose between the two options, but you’re right. If evil exists in everyone, we have to take this into consideration. However, it seems to me that you, having experienced fascism and its consequences firsthand, felt that art had to be able to do something. FM History has had a great influence on me. I was sick for three years. I didn’t speak for more than a year. I frequented numerous psychiatric institutions because I wasn’t talking, I wasn’t eating, I didn’t want to live. This was after I heard the news about the death camps. In fact, it was from looking at magazines that showed this horror that I realized that this life I liked so much was in reality a horror. I realized that the days could conceal abomination, aberration. MC Can art save a life, or rather, change the world? FM No. What I’m about to say now is sad, but perhaps it’s just a moment of pessimism—my age, I’m afraid. Art is for changing the world but doesn’t change it. On a certain level, art needs to give flesh to the invisible. MC What do you mean by the invisible? FM Thoughts are invisible, sentiments are invisible, sensations are invisible. Art lends flesh to all this. The visible and the best of the invisible are closely bound. MC So, the essence of art, in the end, is rendering visible that which is not? FM Art is not the good, but it is a good, without a doubt. We reach goodness through good things. Art allows you to rise and in some way experience—not in a rational way, but in a spiritual way—certain essential realities: infinity, sacredness, God. Artistic representation has to communicate the noncommunicable. MC Someone said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” FM Perhaps we need to reread the phrase in German to understand the true meaning. Paraphrasing Wittgenstein, we might say that the entire universe of thought will be silenced from now on because we cannot adequately talk about it. But all art does is to flout this principle: it talks only about what we are normally unable to describe.
ne può più parlare adeguatamente. Ma l’arte non fa che trasgredire questa massima: parla solo di ciò che normalmente non si riesce a descrivere. MC A questo proposito, tu hai saputo rendere visibile la banalità del male. Mi vengono in mente i lavori della serie Ebrea, ad esempio. FM M’interessa capire e sapere del male—anche per un fine etico. Mi interessa capire com’è possibile certo male. Con Ebrea ho ipotizzato qualcosa di orribile che c’è stato. L’uomo è plasmabile in ogni dimensione anche in quella del male, in modo che non distingue più. Questo mi ha sempre turbato. Rivivere due volte lo stesso (o quasi) evento trova più modificato l’osservatore che l’evento stesso. L’osservatore non può essere ricostruito, nemmeno per approssimazione, come l’evento. Lo spazio culturale in cui ha proseguito a vivere, contro ogni resistenza della sua volontà di capire, lo fa partecipe di profonde modificazioni. MC Quindi la tua è una strategia artistica precisa: riproporre ciò che è già accaduto per registrare se e come si modificano le reazioni del pubblico. Una specie di omeopatia? FM Una opinione patristica spiega l’Apocalisse come il giudizio non di Dio ma dell’uomo su gli atti e i sensi della propria vita ripresentati a lui esattamente nella successione di quando erano accaduti e con le loro attenuanti, però in pubblico. MC A proposito del male che avanza, negli ultimi tempi ci sono stati diversi stravolgimenti politici, portati avanti da leader che sono raccontati dai media come simboli dell’intolleranza e del razzismo. Dalla Brexit Di Boris Johnson, all’ascesa di Trump, all’estrema destra che spopola in Italia e in Francia con Salvini e Le Pen. E in effetti, le idee dell’estrema destra sembrano alla base di tutte le idee politiche di successo oggi. Credi che possa esserci una nuova ideologia su queste basi? FM La definizione di ideologia non è facile, ma io la uso, e ho scritto in questo senso, come esperienza vera e certa che ciascuno fa della propria vita, ma che è un sottopensiero, un pensiero di secondo grado, in realtà noi della vita vissuta siamo gli unici arbitri. Quando singolarità ideologiche su taluni pregiudizi si uniscono, non si fondano partiti, ma dei gruppi ideologici. Quando questi diventano governo, Stato,
MC Apropos of this, you have succeeded in rendering visible the banality of evil. I’m thinking of the works in the Ebrea series , for example. [This series included simulated hideous objects that evoked concentration camp atrocity, such as soap made from corpses and a horse harness fabricated from human skin.] FM I’m interested in understanding and knowing about evil—for ethical motives too. I’m interested in understanding how certain evil is possible. With Ebrea, I hypothesized something horrible that actually happened. Man is malleable in every dimension, including that of evil. This has always disturbed me. Reliving the same, or almost the same, event finds the observer changed more than the event itself. The observer cannot be reconstructed, even approximately, like the event. The cultural space where he has continued to live, against all resistance of his will to understand, makes him a participant in profound changes. MC So yours is a precise artistic strategy: re-proposing that which has already happened in order to register whether and how the reaction of the public has changed. A kind of homeopathy? FM A patristic view explains the Revelation as the judgment not of God but of man regarding the actions and meanings of his life represented to him exactly in the sequence in which they occurred, with their extenuating circumstances, but in public. MC With regard to evil, in recent times, there have been political upheavals spurred by leaders who have been described as symbols of intolerance and racism—Boris Johnson’s Brexit, for example, and the rise of Trump. The far right is gaining ground in Italy with Salvini and in France with Le Pen. In effect, the ideas of the far right seem to underlie some of the most successful political ideas of today. Do you think there may be a new ideology built on these foundations? FM Ideology is not an easy term to define, but I use it. I’ve written about it as a true and certain experience that each of us makes of his life, but which is a sub-philosophy, a philosophy of the second level. In reality, we are the sole arbiters of the lives we live. When ideological singularities regarding such
“I’m reminded of a work by Hans-Peter Feldmann.… He had collected all the newspapers from September 12, 2001, the day after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. I’ve always thought that I’d have collected those from September 10, 2001, instead.” —Maurizio Cattelan
Fabio Mauri, Ebrea (Jewess), 1971, performance at Galleria La Salita, Rome. Photo: Claudio Abate. © Eredi Fabio Mauri. Courtesy Estate of Fabio Mauri and Hauser & Wirth.
la cosa è rischiosissima. L’ideologia è la storia d’Europa. Per esempio, dopo la caduta del muro di Berlino è girata—per il mondo dell’arte e della non arte—la favola che l’ideologia fosse finita. Non per grande sapienza, ma per riflessioni fatte, mi sono chiesto dove fosse finita. MC Hai qualche strategia di sopravvivenza da suggerire a chi rimarrà? FM La storia, la giustizia, vanno visti come si vede la Televisione. Non in diretta. Abituati a tacere, e guardare l’errore degli altri. Buono o cattivo un programma è uguale. Bisogna attendersi il peggio: le punte migliori resteranno una sorpresa. MC E riguardo al futuro dell’arte? FM Il futuro dell’arte è più difficile da definire rispetto a quello dell’uomo. Posso discutere dell’arte che si farà domani mattina grazie a questo mescolamento di percezioni pubblicitarie e banali. Sono tutte cose che questo secolo ha già sperimentato a fondo e sono contento di essere nato molti anni fa perché credo che abbiamo inventato, scoperto molte cose – o forse ci siamo illusi, non so. I giovani sono un po’ accalappiati da una rivoluzione finta. C’è una retorica giovanile con cui cerco di avere sempre un rapporto ironico, paterno e autoritario. Il futuro richiede una grande coscienza, un grande lavoro, ma soprattutto una grande pazienza. MC Mi ricordo di aver letto da qualche parte che una volta hai incontrato Duchamp. FM Cercai di guardarlo il meno possibile, perché non mi si cancellasse di mente la sua immagine vera. Del resto, curato a vista dal pittore Baruchello, suo ospite, non fu facile avvicinarlo. Era perfettamente conservato. MC Cosa pensi del mercato dell’arte, di ieri e di oggi? FM Gli anni ’50, fino ad oltre la metà del decennio, includevano l’artista in un’esperienza di disagio. Impossibile far fronte a qualsiasi impegno ricorrente: una bolletta, un affitto... l’artista come ’intellettuale’, persino temibile, è la silhouette nuova che si fa strada. Credo di aver contribuito non poco a questa immagine. Ai più illuminati la situazione consentiva poca spesa per l’acquisto di opere. Non è un crimine, è un dato. Paradossalmente, con il prezzo di una cena si acquistava più che l’opera, l’artista. MC Una sorta di prostituzione intellettuale? Credo che non sia tanto diverso da oggi in fondo…Ti trovavi a tuo agio in quel ruolo? FM Non si poteva rimediare facilmente alla completa assenza di economia. In quei tempi fare il pittore restava una scelta di tipo magro, rischioso per la sfida economica che utopicamente comportava. La povertà, è noto, è fatidica, in qualche modo imperdonabile. La miseria veniva sostentata da un po’ di
prejudices come together, ideological groups are formed. When these go on to become a government or state, the situation is extremely perilous. Ideology is the history of Europe. For example, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fairy tale about the death of ideology began to do the rounds in the art world and elsewhere. Not through any great wisdom, but on the basis of reflection, I asked myself where ideology had gone. MC Do you have a survival strategy to suggest for those who remain? FM History and justice are to be seen as one would see something on TV. Not live. Become accustomed to keeping quiet, to watching the errors of others. Good or bad, it is a program all the same. You need to expect the worst: the best bits will remain a surprise. MC And with regard to the future of art? FM The future of art is more difficult to define than that of man. I can talk about the art that will be made tomorrow morning thanks to this blending of promotional and banal perceptions. They’re all things this century has already experienced in depth. I’m happy to have been born many years ago, as I believe that we invented, or discovered, many things. Or perhaps we’ve deluded ourselves; I don’t know. The young are somewhat caught up in a fake revolution. There’s a youthful rhetoric with which I always try to have an ironic, paternal and authoritarian relationship. The future requires a great awareness, a great deal of work, but above all, great patience. MC I recall having read somewhere that you once met Duchamp. FM I tried to look at him as little as possible, so that his true image wouldn’t be canceled from my mind. After all, cared for as he was by the painter Baruchello, the host [Gianfranco Baruchello, a longtime friend of Duchamp, lectured extensively about his work], it wasn’t easy to approach him. He was perfectly preserved. MC What do you think of the art market, past and present? FM In the early to mid-’50s, to be an artist was an uncomfortable experience. It was impossible to meet any recurring demands: bills, the rent…The artist as “intellectual,” someone to be feared even, is the new image. I believe I made a notable contribution to this image. For the more enlightened, the situation allowed the purchase of works for little expense. It’s not a crime, it’s a fact. Paradoxically, for the price of a dinner, an artist was purchased more than the work. MC A kind of intellectual prostitution? I don’t think it’s all that different today. Were you comfortable in that role? FM The complete absence of funds couldn’t easily be remedied. In those days, being a painter was a lean choice, risky in the economic challenge it involved.
Fabio Mauri, Che cosa è il fascismo (What Fascism Is), 1971, performance, Stabilimenti Safa Palatino, Rome. Photo: Marcella Galassi. © Eredi Fabio Mauri. Courtesy Estate of Fabio Mauri and Hauser & Wirth.
famiglia d’origine, da una moglie, o da prestazioni non vocazionali (un mezzo impiego), più di rado da supplenze d’insegnamento.…Doppi mestieri per essere artista in società cittadine in cui poco di nuovo accadeva quanto a sociologia delle arti. Un “non sistema dell’arte” occupava la scena. MC Come si rifletteva questo sulle opere e sulla loro ideazione? FM I quadri di quel tempo sono miserabili di fattura. La materia delle loro componenti è infima. Il legno, non stagionato, s’imbarca; la tela, economica, gonfia; i colori qualsiasi. I metalli casalinghi, ecc.…Le idee, invece, molte e incisive. MC Immagino che mi dirai che oggi è tutto diverso… FM Oggi via via che perfino il circuito degli espedienti si arricchisce, una tale miseria entra a far parte di un’epica poco credibile. Nell’arte viene riciclato, così come nell’antiquariato, una grande fetta del denaro detto “sporco”. L’arte lascia persino libero campo all’evasione fiscale. L’incompetenza burocratica aiuta l’economia degli esperti. Per tale aspetto l’arte non appartiene alla società, è un fortissimo stato privato. MC A proposito di futuro, cosa pensi della situazione italiana? FM Non mi piace, sinceramente. Certe cose uno non è che le ha pensate, ha delle sensazioni, ma non le ha sistemate in modo definitivo, non le ha verbalizzate. Cioè a me sembra un paese senza soluzione. Uno spirito di casta, l’uso della tutela dei privilegi delle categorie di appartenenza ha preso il posto, in molti, di ogni altra ideologia. L’aristocrazia è una casta, ammirata persino dalle sinistre. La società miliardaria produce caste, caste di reddito. I medici, gli avvocati, i politici sono caste. L’Italia, forse l’Europa, abbandonato il concetto di classe, sfumate e frammiste le immagini dei contendenti, si ricoagula in caste a tutela reale dei propri diritti castali, catastali. Linguaggi e codici contraddistinguono le caste. Il linguaggio cede il campo ad elaborate specialità gergali di casta. Anche gli artisti sono una nobile casta. Il mondo dell’arte lo è. Possiedono circuiti commerciali, d’informazione, gallerie, musei, case d’asta, collezioni statali e private, un bilancio, un disavanzo.Ma forse è la vecchiaia, la ripetizione delle esperienze della vecchiaia. MC Il solito dejà vu, a cui accennavi prima? FM Come se un film, di cui conosco il finale, fosse girato due volte. Nonostante i rimaneggiamenti, riconosco bene (e cerco di non dimenticare) i ruoli, l’intreccio e le conclusioni, che sono, oltre ai suoi significati particolari, quelli della vita, in generale, l’arte non esclusa. MC Ci sarà un antidoto per evitare che il passato ritorni tale e quale, non credi? FM
Poverty, as is well known, is unforgivable. The hardship was alleviated a little by family, by a wife, by non-vocational employment [a part-time job], occasionally by substitute teaching.…It took two jobs to be an artist living in a city where little new happened in the sociology of the arts. A “non-system of art” occupied the scene. MC How was this reflected in the works and in their conception? FM The paintings from that time were poorly made. The material of their components is the lowest of the low. The unseasoned wood warps, the cheap canvas sags, any old paint, the improvised metals and so on.…The ideas, instead, were many and incisive. MC I imagine you’ll tell me that it’s all different today. FM Today, when even the gimmickry circuit is gradually enriching itself, a similar poverty takes on a role in a hardly plausible epic. A significant slice of the so-called “dirty” money is recycled in the art and antiquarian worlds. Art even gives free rein to tax evasion. Bureaucratic incompetence helps the economy of experts. In this sense, art does not belong to society; it’s an incredibly powerful private state. MC With regard to the future, how do you see the Italian situation? FM I don’t like it, to be sincere. It’s not that you actually think certain things. You have sensations, but you haven’t arranged them in a definitive fashion. You haven’t put them into words. That is, it seems to me to be a country without a solution. A caste spirit, the safeguarding of the privileges of one’s position, has, for many, replaced all other ideologies. The aristocracy is a caste, admired even by the left. The billionaire society produces castes, income castes. The doctors, the lawyers, the politicians are castes. Italy, perhaps Europe, having abandoned the concept of class—blending and mixing the image of who the contenders are—is re-formed into castes that protect their own property rights. Languages and codes distinguish the castes. Language gives way to elaborate specialized caste jargons. Artists, too, are a noble caste. The art world itself is one. It possesses commercial and information circuits, galleries, museums, auction houses, state and private collections, a budget, a deficit. This is perhaps old age, the repetition of my experiences. MC The usual déjà vu you hinted at earlier? FM It’s as if a film, of which I know the ending, had been shot twice. In spite of the reworkings, I clearly recognize—and try not to forget—the roles, the plot and the conclusions, which are, above and beyond their specific meanings, those of life in general, not excluding art. MC There will be an antidote to the past repeating itself, don’t you think?
FM I don’t see many solutions. We’re on a very slippery slope. The danger doesn’t announce itself. It’s not like when you see the clouds on the horizon and then the storm arrives. I always remember that the day before the war was a wonderful day in Rimini, everything seemed happy. The equestrian event had just finished. There were the young women. There were the English, French and German officers, all elegant, who went to the Grand Hotel that evening. It was a peaceful world in which it seemed nothing terrible could happen. It was the day before the Second World War. MC I’m reminded of a work by Hans-Peter Feldmann that I saw at the Gwangju Biennale in 2010. He had collected all the newspapers from September 12, 2001, the day after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. I’ve always thought that I’d have collected those from September 10, 2001, instead. Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled, 1997, taxidermied ostrich and wood chips. © DR. Courtesy François Pinault Foundation and Maurizio Cattelan Archive.
Non vedo tante soluzioni, è su una riva di estremo rischio, perché il rischio non si preannuncia, non è come il temporale di cui si vedono le nuvole di lontano, quindi arriva la bufera. Ricordo sempre che il giorno prima della guerra era una bellissima giornata a Rimini, tutto sembrava felice. C’erano le giovani donne, era appena finito il concorso ippico, c’erano gli ufficiali inglesi, francesi, tedeschi, tutti eleganti, che andavano alla sera al Grand Hotel. Era un mondo sereno in cui sembrava non potesse accadere niente di terribile. Era il giorno prima della Seconda guerra mondiale. MC Mi viene in mente un lavoro di Hans-Peter Feldmann che ho visto esposto alla Biennale di Gwangju nel 2010. Aveva raccolto tutti i giornali del 12 settembre 2001, il giorno dopo dell’attacco alle torri gemelle a New York. Ho sempre pensato che io avrei raccolto quelli del 10 settembre 2001, invece.
FM Ogni guerra è uguale ma dolorosamente nuova. Il dolore, scopro, non lo si ricorda con esattezza. Se guardiamo i giorni prima, i mesi prima, l’anno prima, sembra sì che ci fosse una specie di lotta politica, ma niente di più. La guerra fredda era finita, invece è ricominciato tutto. È terribile. MC Non trovi nessuna differenza rispetto all’ascesa del fascismo che hai vissuto in giovinezza? FM Rispetto a prima, adesso c’è una liberalità totale. Un tempo la libertà era sempre uno spazio che andava conquistato. Adesso no, si trova al supermercato. Qualunque tipo di libertà. MC La libertà di dire quello che si vuole è il credo di ogni politico oggi, a giustificazione di qualsiasi oscenità. Tu in cosa credi? FM Il tema di fondo è che io sono ateo. Del mondo voglio dire. Non di Dio, che è l’unico che vedo in giro. Non so ancora bene se a Dio interessi l’arte, non l’ho mai capito, tantomeno la mia, che sottolinea il male, per cui ho un certo occhio. MC Non pensi che Dio includa anche il male tra le sue creazioni? FM Nell’universo c’è la forma della donna, degli astri, del mare, ma c’è anche il ragno, il serpe, la bava. L’estetica di Dio è grande. MC Parli in modo profetico, ma anche molto radicato nel tuo tempo...dal punto di vista umano, guardando indietro, senti di avere dei rimpianti? FM Ho dovuto combattere con molta gente per le mie idee e il mio carattere. Ho anche combattuto imprudentemente, forse avrei ricavato di più se non avessi impiegato tanta forza e coraggio. Avrei dovuto essere più diplomatico. Ma per me era insopportabile affrontare a testa bassa la gente in malafede, quelli che curavano solo il loro orticello, che avevano una visione piccola. Io ho una visione, non dico migliore, ma non piccola: è la mia indole. MC Esprimi un desiderio per l’aldilà. FM Vorrei fare il pittore, lassù. MC Se dovessi dare un consiglio a un giovane artista, cosa gli diresti? FM Senza metodo non si fa storia. MC E una cosa che hai imparato, una rivelazione? FM Si è soli prima, durante e dopo. MC C’è qualcosa che vuoi aggiungere? FM Non volevo rimproverare nessuno. Tranne il mondo, certo. Ma sarebbe eccessivo. O, come sempre, troppo tardi. Il tempo è scaduto.
FM Every war is the same but painfully new. I find that we don’t remember the pain clearly. If we look at the days before, the months before, the year before, it seems as if there was a kind of political struggle, but nothing more. The Cold War had ended, but instead everything started over. It’s terrible. MC Can you see any difference with respect to the rise of fascism that you experienced as a youth? FM Compared with before, now there’s an all-consuming liberality. Liberty was once a space to be conquered. That’s not so now. You find it in the supermarket, any kind of liberty. MC The freedom to say what you want is the credo of every politician today, justifying any obscenity. May I ask what you believe in? FM The underlying theme is that I am an atheist. With regard to the world, I mean. Not God, who’s the only one I see around. I still don’t know whether God cares about art; I never understood it, even my own, which underlines evil, for which I have a certain eye. MC Don’t you think God includes evil among his creations? FM Within the universe, there is the form of woman, of the stars, of the sea, but there’s also the spider, the serpent, slime. The aesthetics of God are great. MC You speak prophetically, but you’re also very rooted in your time. From a human perspective, looking back, do you have any regrets? FM I have had to fight many people for my ideas. I’ve also fought unwisely. Perhaps I’d have gained more had I not employed so much strength and courage. I should have been more diplomatic. But for me, it was unthinkable to deal with hypocrites with my head bowed, those who were interested only in their own patch, who had narrow vision. I’m not saying my vision is better, but it’s not narrow: It’s my nature. MC Express a wish for the afterlife. FM I’d like to be a painter, up there. MC If you had to give advice to a young artist, what would it be? FM You don’t make history without a method. MC And something you have learned, a revelation? FM You’re alone before, during and after. MC Is there anything you’d like to add? FM I didn’t want to reproach anyone. Apart from the world, of course. But that would be too much. Or, as ever, too late. Time’s up.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
Nicolas Party’s travels in the arbor
One of the first things that you draw as a child are trees. The unsteady lines on the paper find a structure in the form of a tree. A line topped with a circle structures the page, creates a space, shows us where the sky is and where the ground. ¶ From a very early age, you understand that this object is also a fantastic figure for all sorts of graphic explorations. ¶ A child learns to make letters, joining two lines and then adding a third, ending up with an “A.” Trees are nature’s alphabets. The infinite flexibility of the visual language of the tree makes its execution endlessly playful. There are green leaves and then red leaves and then no leaves. Just a few lines on the paper or a big quantity of colors and shapes building up. ¶ I love using watercolors to paint trees. The water creates natural movement that forms shapes on the paper. You don’t really control how the liquid moves on the paper. You have to let the fluid element of the paint do its part—the painting is moving and alive for several seconds. ¶ I’m really attracted to subjects that appear in history as constant markers, essential ingredients that always need to be used. Trees are one of those markers—sometimes as the main component of an image or sometimes in the background, but always there, looking at us, looking after us. ¶ Trees have a beautiful symbolic connection to time and memory, one of many reasons why they are such a fertile subject in painting. The oldest tree alive is believed to be almost 5,000 years old. I like to imagine how many trees have been painted during that time and how many trees I will paint during my time here. ¶ I like imagining a forest made of all the trees ever painted. When I paint landscapes, I wander in that forest. ¶ Throughout history, trees have been present in so many stories, legends and religions. They are one of the most important elements in human culture. Today, they are also one of the primary reminders of our fears and anxieties for the future. How many trees are being painted today? And how many trees are burning? ¶ nicolas party Through April 12, Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles, is presenting “Sottobosco,” Nicolas Party’s first solo exhibition in the city, comprised of new paintings, sculptures, site-specific murals and an architectural installation, inspired by the shadowy world of the forest floor. Party, born in 1980 in Lausanne, Switzerland, lives and works in New York and Brussels.
All artworks: Trees, 2011–20 (ongoing), watercolor on paper. © Nicolas Party.
Berlinde De Bruyckere/Wax/Blankets: In a new recurring feature, Ursula looks at the physical matter of art-making
“Was there ever anything that came so close to the real?” the 16th century Neapolitan poet Giambattista Marino asked once in a poem about a wax bust of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, the great art patron. Wax’s visual, tactile and ephemeral affinities with flesh have long been central in the artist Berlinde De Bruyckere’s sculptural universe. Recently, her exercises with the material culminated in Anderlecht (2018) and Nijvel (2019), two series of sculptures consisting of casts of flattened animal hides piled high on bronze casts of wooden pallets. Like her earlier wax casts, Anderlecht and Nijvel involve mimetic reconstructions of real objects, but they further De Bruyckere’s shift in recent years from the figural toward a kind of abstraction evocative of natural, elemental processes largely divorced from human intervention— growth, abundance, accumulation, decomposition, entropy, decay. The casting procedure of Anderlecht and Nijvel begins with a variety of colored wax blocks heated until liquified. The palette-like spectrum of the blocks recalls paint, and the process of inserting the colored layers of wax into silicone molds reads almost as an act of blind painting rather than object making. But once the wax cools, solidifying yet still malleable, it reenters the domain of sculptural manipulation, simultaneously animating and fossilizing it. De Bruyckere’s use of blankets, which entered her work more than two decades ago, involves a version of the real related to wax’s aura of flesh. But blankets, in particular ones that have clearly been used, add a dimension of human narrative that exceeds verisimilitude. Prior to their inclusion in her pieces, the blankets, bought from secondhand stores, were objects with use value. As such, they are imbued with history, with the imprints of former lives. In the series Courtyard Tales (2017–18), the most recent example of De Bruyckere’s work with woolen blankets, she adds elements of time, chance and exposure to the narrative, leaving blankets in the open air for extended periods, subjecting them
to sunlight, rain, insects and mold. Hung vertically on the walls like paintings, the threadbare fabrics return from the outdoors like something flayed, creating a sense of embodiment by way of negation and also suggesting a contemporary, secular version of the Veil of Veronica, the ghostly traces that time and the human body leave on the materials of humanity. —Ory Dessau
Born in Ghent, Belgium in 1964, where she currently lives and works, Berlinde De Bruyckere has had solo exhibitions in recent years at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the Leopold Museum and Kunsthaus Bregenz. In 2013, she represented her native country in the Venice Biennale, an exhibition curated by the Nobel Prize– winning novelist J.M. Coetzee.
Berlinde De Bruyckere in her studio, 2018, Ghent, Belgium. Photos: Mirjam Devriendt.
Light on the land: An Italian design team turns food waste into lamps
High Society, an emerging design studio that explores innovative and beautiful ways to use biomaterial from local food waste, sits in the high reaches of SouthTyrol—an evergreen-blanketed province nestled between the Alps and Dolomites in Northern Italy. Giulia Farencena Casaro and Johannes Kiniger, who co-founded the studio in 2015, grew up surrounded by the rivers and forests of this region. “We used to spend a lot of time in contact with nature,” Farencena Casaro says. “This made us realize the importance of having objects that connect us with the outdoors at home.” Their studio has been applying those lessons to one of Italy’s biggest cultural commodities: its culinary output. “Italy is renowned for its food,” Farencena Casaro says, “but less for its valuable secondary resources, such as the byproducts of food production. Each year tons of waste are produced that can be turned into something useful.” The duo’s lighting designs, made from the upcycled leftovers of sustainably run food factories in SouthTyrol and other parts of Italy, are both functional and made with the higher aim of “changing our awareness regarding natural materials.” Farencena Casaro and Kiniger have launched two collections so far: Highlight, a sleek pendant lampshade made from
either wine pomace, hemp stalks or tobacco leaves, fabricated through a process of mechanical compression; and Senilia, a biomorphic lamp made through zero-heat extrusion of a coffee bean’s silver skin or the hops and barley from beer distillation. Of their many partnerships, the farthest afield is the historic coffee manufactory Hausbrandt in nearby Trieste, and the closest is the pasture next door to their lab in Sesto, where they cultivate hemp. As is often the case with sustainabledesign projects, carbon footprints can sneak in through the back door while scaling up production and distribution. But High Society is determined to maintain a bona fide circular economy. Its approach is to align the pace of design development with the natural progression of wildlife. “Time is a key player,” Farencena Casaro says. “It is important to look for sustainability during the whole
process, which means taking care of the production and post-production impacts, in terms of endurance and recyclability.” High Society has remained almost carbon neutral by using hydropower. In addition, a return policy for used products is meant to ensure that their products will be composted properly or reformulated into new designs. The business model is a conscious scaling down rather than up—a focus on how design can be used to improve the welfare of their collaborators, as well as the climate and community. Social responsibility, Farencena Casaro says, is essential to the company’s mission, from the collection of waste from food suppliers at zero cost to the donation of a portion of the sale of each lamp to a local addiction-prevention institute. “Doing something for the environment cannot be sustainable if we do not take the well-being of humans into account.” —Anna Shinbane
Ida Applebroog (b. 1929)
From top: Light fixture from the Senilia series. Pendant lamps from the Highlight series. Photos: Courtesy High Society.
Mercy Hospital, 1969
© Ida Applebroog. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth
Ida Applebroog: Mercy Hospital 29 February to 7 June 2020 Works by the celebrated American painter and feminist pioneer whose work explores themes of violence and power, gender politics and women’s sexuality.
Organised by Barry Rosen In association with
Freud Museum London 20 Maresfield Gardens, London NW3 5SX
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A Rrose is a Rrose is a Rrose
Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, perfume label for Belle Haleine Eau de Voilette, 1921, gelatin silver print. © Man Ray 2015 Trust/ARS, NY/ADAGP, Paris 2020. © Association Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris/ARS, NY 2020. Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust.
A hundred years ago this year, the artist Marcel Duchamp brought drag culture—which has existed in various forms since the dawn of human civilization—fully into the heteronormative halls of Modernism. Duchamp had just returned that year from New York to his native Paris, where drag had become a nightlife sensation. Late that summer or early fall, as Calvin Tomkins relates in Duchamp, his definitive 1996 biography, Duchamp decided to double himself with a female persona, Rose Sélavy (evoking “Eros, it’s life” in French). The new woman, as Tomkins describes her, was “insouciant, mocking, a bit of a slut perhaps, with her talent for elaborately salacious puns.” Duchamp had originally thought of a Jewish alter ego to twin with his wayward Catholicism but then
“the idea jumped at me,” he said. “Much better than to change religion would be to change sex.” Rose, who later acquired an extra “r” for good measure, posed for Man Ray’s camera and the following year the two artists introduced her to the world in physical form through the production of a perfume with a custom label, featuring Man Ray’s portrait of Duchamp in pearls, makeup and feather hat above the sly title “Belle Haleine/Eau de Voilette” (Beautiful Breath/Veil Water). Rrose seemed to retire in 1963, after making her final appearance as a name on the poster and book for Duchamp’s retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum, five years before the artist’s death. But in the annals of art and androgyny, she remains among us today, as dazzling as the day she was born.
For as long as I’ve cared about art, and almost as long as I’ve cared about writing, Calvin Tomkins has represented a kind of unattainable i...