Monthly Archives: May 2010

A Great Artist

Usually at some point greatness disappoints. Even very great artists sometimes falter, lose their way, run out of steam. Not so Louise Bourgeois, who transmuted a family story of paternal infidelity into a narrative of mythological dimension that she always insisted was the primary driving force of her work, and for whom that self-mythologized personal narrative served as an undying battery to produce great art works until the end of her very long life, her late stuffed cloth figural sculptures as raw, uncompromising, and young as her early objects and drawings.

Louise Bourgeois, 1946

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1950, ink on paper, 11"x7 1/2"

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 2001, Fabric and aluminum, 14 1/2"x11 3/4"x11 3/4"

***

“My name is Louise Josephine Bourgeois. I was born 24 December 1911, in Paris. All my work in the past fifty years, all my subjects, have found their inspiration in my childhood.

My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.” (Louise Bourgeois, epigraph, Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father; Writings and Interviews 1923-1997)

I first learned of her work from “Louise Bourgeois: From the Inside Out,” an essay by Lucy Lippard  in her 1976 collection of essays on women artists, From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art. At the time, Lippard’s essay was first published in Artforum in  1975, Bourgeois was 64 years old. She died this morning, May 31, 2010 at age 98 (b. December 24, 1911-d. May 31, 2010) having created another lifetime’s worth of great art since Lippard’s critical appreciation.

Lippard began by situating Bourgeois work within the personal framework of the artist’s “psyche,” as did Bourgeois herself in all her writings about her work.

“It is difficult to find a framework vivid enough to incorporate Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture. Attempts to bring a coolly evolutionary or art-historical order to her work, or to see it in the context of one art group of another, have proved more or less irrelevant. Any approach–non-objective, figurative, sexually explicit, awkward, or chaotic; and material — perishable latex and plaster, traditional marble and bronze, wood, cement, paint, wax, resin — can serve to define her own needs and emotions. Rarely has an abstract art been so directly and honestly informed by its maker’s psyche.” […]

“It would, however, be a mistake to see Bourgeois as the classically “feminine” artist, adrift in memory and intuition, for her first formal “revelation,” and the origin of her love for sculpture, was solid geometry. Although, from the age of fifteen she worked with her parents as a draftswoman restoring ancient tapestries, she majored in mathematics at school, took her baccalaureate in philosophy, and studied calculus and solid geometry at the Sorbonne. Only in 1936, at the age of twenty-five, did she begin to study art history and art, with Léger, among others.”

[May I interrupt myself here to say that thinking about the mathematical and philosophical knowledge and the practical artisanal experience that Bourgeois brought to her art studies at age twenty-five helps to put the works exhibited in “Greater New York”  at P.S.1  —  by artists mostly under the age of 40, many much younger than that — into some perspective]

Louise Bourgeois, Femme Couteau, 1969/70, from Lucy Lippard, From the Center

Lippard’s discussion of Bourgeois’ sculpture Femme Couteau (1969/70) was particularly determinative and prescient, anticipating by a few years the more comprehensive focus on Lacanian terminology of woman as “lack”  which dominated feminist discourse on representation in the 1980s and early 90s. Lippard quotes Bourgeois on this sculpture:

[Femme Couteau] embodies the polarity of woman, the destructive and the seductive. … The woman turns into a blade. … A girl can be terrified of the world. She feels vulnerable because she can be wounded by the penis. So she tries to take on the weapon of the aggressor. But when woman becomes aggressive, she becomes terribly afraid. If you are inhibited by needles, stakes, and knives, you are very handicapped to be a self-perceptive creature. These women are eternally reaching for a way of becoming women. Their anxiety comes from their doubt of being ever able to become receptive. The battle is fought at the terror level which precedes anything sexual.”

Lippard concludes:

“Bourgeois exists in the dangerous near-chaotic climate of Surrealism’s “reconciliations of two distant realities.” … Within the art (as, one suspects, within the artist) form and the formless are locked in constant combat. The outcome is an unusually exposed demonstration of the intimate bond between art and its maker. Despite her apparent fragility, Bourgeois is an artist, and a woman artist, who has survived almost forty years of discrimination, struggle, intermittent success and neglect in New York’s gladiatorial art arenas. The tensions which make her work unique are forged between just those poles of tenacity and vulnerability.”

Lippard’s essay marks the informed admiration which began to accrue to Bourgeois in the late 70s and early 80s. After decades of a kind of semi-neglect despite living within the elite of the center of the New York art world, Bourgeois was embraced by women artists for her immense contribution to the lexicon of representation of gender and gendered representation while at the same time  receiving broad international recognition as a great artist in such a way that her success went well beyond a succès d’estime among women. What she did with the attention and the financial rewards it brought is truly astounding and inspiring, particularly given her age when she achieved material success. Bourgeois grabbed the opportunity to do larger pieces, taking on master media of sculpture — marble and bronze — as well as creating room-sized installations she called “cells.” Thus she was able to get beyond financial limitations on her production that she noted in one answer to a 1970 questionnaire: Q: “To what extent have financial considerations affected your work?” A: “Limited returns from my work have constricted my willingness to make  the investment necessary for full production.” (from Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father).

In recent years Bourgeois returned to the medium of textile where her art formation had begun as the daughter of tapestry restorers, making increasingly crude (that is direct) stuffed cloth sculptures that continued to transmit sexual power transmuted into sculptural form. Her figuration in these pieces was both raw and stylized yet did not seem mannered. Sometimes an artwork hedges its bets, or, by some minute concession to accessibility, in some tiny betrayal of form, apologizes for itself. I never detected that in Bourgeois’s work.

Louise Bourgeois, Couple IV, 1997, mixed media in vitrine,

Her work sprang out among the fray at Biennials and art fairs in recent years and, even if she had help in doing her work for many years, all her work showed the mark of her hand. I never felt the distance of factory production. One of my favorite moments in a film about an artist is one that was shown at her Brooklyn Museum retrospective, in which Bourgeois says something like, “you know we sculptors, we have to do this,” demonstrating what she means by “this” by, with a quick strong twist of her hands, bending a piece of rebar as she speaks, in her late 70s or early 80s!

I wish I could find that film clip but in this later video you get a little idea as you see her talking about using power tools:

In “From Liberation to Lack,” an essay I first published in Heresies 24: 12 Years 6, 1989, I wrote a little about some of Bourgeois’s work, influenced by Lippard’s earlier analysis:

“Louise Bourgeois also claims no distance from physical experience and autobiography. Her insistence that the source of her work resides in the psychological wounds inflicted on her by her father contravenes any formal theories of art and yet embodies the Oedipal crisis that psycholinguistic theory interprets as the entrance of human beings into  the symbolic order of the Father. Bourgeois obsessively returns the critical audience of her work to its motivating source — the murderous rage of a betrayed daughter. Her admission to the symbolic order has been warped by her father’s open affair with her governess, yet her link back to the imaginary (completeness of relation to the Mother) is damaged by her mother’s presumed complicity.

The forms that Bourgeois’s anger takes are directly related to those of surrealism. The influence of “primitive” sculptures and totems is pervasive. “Primitive” art was a locus of the (female) unconscious of “civilized” (nonprimitive) Western man; its influence on a woman artist is bound to differ. Bourgeois’s Femme/Couteau and Giacometti’s Spoon Woman are kin but they are not sisters. Spoon woman has a tiny head and a large receptive body. Femme/Couteau, in its degree of abstraction, is ambivalent and bisexual. It is a vulva and a knife — what woman is and is feared to be. Bourgeois’s forms are blatantly vaginal, mammary, and womblike, yet exuberantly, mischievously phallic. It would betray her intent to deny the role of her own body experience. The rawness of her surfaces and the openly sexual nature of her forms vitalize the organic/biomorphic surrealist vision of lack and dissolve the distance the male viewer seeks to place between himself and the art object and between consciousness and his own suppressed physicality and mortality.” (from Schor, “From Liberation to Lack,” Wet)

In “Representation of the Penis” I wrote briefly of Bourgeois’s sculpture, Fillette, which she cradles in the noted and notorious 1982 photographic portrait of her by Robert Mapplethorpe: “This penis is everything: as Fillette/little girl it is the baby as penis substitute, as rugged depiction of a stiff penis and big balls it is a sexual instrument of pleasure … and as creator of this polysexual object, which she cradles in her arms, Bourgeois is indeed the all-powerful phallic mother.” (Wet, 34)

Portrait of Louise Bourgeois with Fillette, 1968, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1982

In her MacDowell Medal Acceptance Speech in 1990 Bourgeois described how she came to have her photo taken with this sculpture in hand:

“The story of this photograph is actually quite complicated. When Mapplethorpe approached us to make this portrait, I was a little apprehensive….Instead of being photographed candidly in my own studio, I had to go to Mapplethorpe’s studio. That is how it is with highly-professional photographers …they work on their own terms and operate from their own studio. It was up to us to go there. That gives me stress.

So I prepared with Jerry Gorovoy and appeared as scheduled at Mapplethorpe’s studio. This is my attitude towards men, you have to be prepared and work at it…. You have to prepare everything. You have to feed them, tell them they are great, you literally have to take care of them. …I mean, it’s really a job.

So the day of this appointment at Robert’s studio, I thought, ‘What can we bring? What prop can we bring?’…So I got Fillette (1968), which is a sculpture of mine, which was hanging among others. I knew I would get comfort from holding and rocking the piece. Actually my work is more me than my physical presence. So the sculpture is in the background of the photograph.

You see the triple image of the man you have to take care of, of the child you have to take care of, and of the photographer you have to take care of.”

Even if Bourgeois, like many women artists, did not necessarily like to be pinned down to being (only) a woman artist, her critical view of patriarchal power and its warping effect on relations among women, is one of the foundations of her work.

Louise Bourgeois, Nature Study, Velvet Eyes, 1984, marble and steel, 26"x33'x27"

One of my favorite works by Bourgeois from the 1980s was Nature, Velvet Eyes (1984) made at a time when, along with “lack,” the gaze was such an important term of feminist theoretical discourse — lack and the gaze, a psychoanalytic landscape of gendered representation, in which, according to Luce Irigaray’s analysis of Freud and Lacan’s theories, “Now the little girl, the woman, supposedly has nothing you can see. She exposes, exhibits the possibility of a nothing to see.” (Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, 47). “Here the object of the gaze, a tub of stone, has eyes which stare back up at the viewer. The specularized “nothing to see” ogles back unblinkingly, recuperating the agency of vision.” (from my 1994 essay, “Backlash and Appropriation,” in The Power of Feminist Art).

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled (with Foot), 1989, marble, 30"x26"x21"

In what conceptually seemed like companion pieces to Nature Study,Velvet Eyes, Bourgeois inscribed text into the bases of exquisitely carved pink marble sculptures of truncated body parts: “Do you love me? Do you love me” insistently asks one such sculpture, of a baby’s foot emerging from a large and perfect spherical egg or zygote.  “Yes, I love you” answers another.

From what I gather from people who knew her, Louise Bourgeois was not necessarily always an easy person — why should she be? how could she be? I only mention that because it is essential not to sugarcoat an image of a cute little old lady artist, she’d have bent you like that piece of rebar for suggesting such a thing. But she was uncannily and informatively direct in her writings and statements, vivid, sharp and unyielding as a speaker, and brilliant as an artist, in her treatment of her subject matter, in her lines, her forms, her surfaces, her approaches to materiality and space. I love her work.

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MoMA Panel: “Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now”

The overall atmosphere of Friday’s symposium at MoMA, “Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now,”  was more low key than the 2007 MoMA symposium The Feminist Future: Theory in Practice in the Visual Arts. Although the museum claimed the event was sold out, the auditorium never seemed completely full and the overall sense of buzz was subdued, curbed also perhaps by a certain atmosphere of self-censoring professionalism and politesse that was one of the underlying threads of the event in keeping with its focus on art institutions — art institutions in general and MoMA in particular.

MoMA Curators on the Modern Women's Project, May 21, 2010

This was summed up in the third and last event of the day when eleven women curators and Associate Director of MOMA Kathy Halbreich sat at a long dais, with curator Connie Butler and others joking it looked like the Last Supper. Halbreich quipped that however Judas was not invited! She seems like a big personality, warm and funny, with a little looser sense of how things could be done. She noted that 24 out of the 35 curators at the museum are women. For several years women curators working with the encouragement of the Modern Women’s Fund established by benefactor Sarah Peter have been meeting on a regular and intensive basis to reevaluate the collection, go through the museum’s archives in order to discover what work by women artists the museum does own, seek out the gaps in the collection, target acquisitions, and organize exhibitions of work by women artists in all media in an effort to normalize the display of women’s participation in the history of modern art in an incremental manner rather than in a one-shot total museum square footage WACK! or elles@centrepompidou model, to reassess their own canon on a longer-term basis (see my recent post, Stealth Feminism at MoMA).

According to Roxana Marcoci, Curator, Photography, these curatorial discussions and initiatives emerged from a desire for greater transparency within the institution; she described the participants’ organization as non-hierarchical and cross-generational. The nature of this feminist work had forced departmental boundaries to be breached  as researching work by women forced a greater transdisciplinarity. Marcoci said that. before, “departments functioned like Federations,” and Barbara London, Associate Curator, Media and Performance Art, said that before this women’s initiative they were bureaucratized by medium but now there was much more interdepartmental engagement. I wish there had been more time to develop this point further, that is, why looking for women in the collection would impose the necessity to transcend departmental fiefdoms and to what extent now common ideas about collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and the non-hierarchical are part of the legacy of feminism’s critique of monolithic patriarchal power. Marcoci also noted that the curators involved in these weekly meetings “didn’t have the power of governance but of thinking,” and that they “created intellectual capital for the institution to redefine canonical narratives.” I think she was the one who said also something funny, that it was no longer a “become like me and I’ll respect your difference” kind of  situation but something more open.

The curators noted the importance of Kathy Halbreich’s role in emboldening them in their efforts on this project and in “creating peripheral vision broader than vision.” But Halbreich’s response disclosed part of the problematic of women striving to insert a feminist discourse and investigation into a major institution: she said that when she first arrived she had gone around and asked each person “what do you want to do?” and then, leaning in, “what do you really want to do?” She gleaned from this exercise and reported to museum director Glenn Lowry that there was “a lot of self-censorship going on in this organization, do you want to keep it this way?” She said that he gave permission for her to give permission. That feminist activism is often dependent on permission from a more or less enlightened or benevolent individual or set of individuals in an institution is one of the well-known ironies of the history of feminist art in this country certainly: you have the example of Dean of the School of Art at CalArts Paul Brach inviting Judy Chicago, working with Brach’s wife Miriam Schapiro, to bring her feminist art program from Fresno State (Chicago’s Fresno program enjoyed an aberrant degree of autonomy for a state institution) as well as the counter example of the Women’s Building which Chicago co-founded with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Arlene Raven precisely to create an institution where women would do everything and owe nothing to male power or agency.

This question of permission is both the positive and negative side of the whole story: better to get the permission — which can only come from an activism brewing from below anyway — than not get the permission. But any freedom or rights based on patriarchal noblesse oblige or realpolitik can be withdrawn when it serves the institution, which is why continued vigilance and activism are always necessary. Some might take issue with the idea that it is better to get that permission and get some feminist action in a dominant institution such as MoMA but I think it all has to happen all over all the time and over and over again (over and over because feminism has tended not to have a good institutional memory, even if you take into account that we live in an ahistorical time).

Nevertheless, despite the notion of needing institutional permission for feminist activism and clearly having to work within the rules of a large and uniquely important and self-important institution, it was evident that things really had changed in terms of the institution’s sense of responsibility to women artists’ contribution to the history of modern art, in all fields. Here was a cohesive group of highly capable, intelligent, dedicated women who were involved in a long- term concerted development project.

On the other hand there were also indications in the three panels that some things don’t change, that many struggles for and within feminism are ongoing.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Frankfurt Kitchen, Höhenblick Housing Estate, Frankfurt, Germany (reconstruction). 1926–27. Various materials, 8’9” x 12’10” x 6’10” (266.7 x 391.2 x 208.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art.

Even on the panel of curators, I occasionally wondered how much history of feminist art was in play (or how much rediscovery of the wheel in the midst of sophisticated curatorial practice) when the curator of Architecture and Design Juliet Kinchin was speaking about a show opening next fall Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen. The kitchen was a contested site, she said, a space of projections. Her enthusiasm was so great the other curators teased her about it but the first major scene of Johanna Demetrakas’ 1974 documentary film Womanhouse came to my mind, the participants talking in 1971-72 about their consciousness raising sessions on the kitchen as a gender-coded site in preparation for a collaborative installation within the actual former kitchen of the house, during which the diverse and conflicting associations the kitchen evoked were discussed in order to develop artworks: for some it was the site of domestic warmth, for others a locus of primal hostility and danger. The kitchen is a contested site, well yeah …

Robin Welsch et al, Womanhouse, Kitchen, detail, 1972


As further evidence of how little has changed in the world of feminism, several speakers mentioned the continued problem posed by the very term feminism, which mostly boils down to the fact that other people don’t like it, therefore it unfairly ghettoizes women who have the justifiable ambition to be seen as operating on as broad a field as anyone else (the male universal where true success exists). On the first panel, “Collections and Exhibitions,” Camille Morineau, curator of elles@centrepompidou, made it clear that the show was accomplished despite considerable resistance from her male colleagues and superiors. She said that despite the fact that French feminist theory (de Beauvoir, Irigaray, Kristeva, Cixous et al) has been so important outside of France, “the word feminism is still completely taboo in France. ” Thus a certain amount of deception about the goals of the exhibition had to be built in to its planning: in fact, it was a guerrilla process, “a feminist gesture that could absolutely not appear that way.”  (As an aside, the show by March had clocked in over a million visitors!). Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society, pointed to reluctance on the part of Asian women artists to being associated with feminism or women’s issues, despite clear evidence in their work, at least to western feminist eyes, of engagement with just such issues as well with many of the tropes of feminist art — the body, nudity, woman as sexual commodity, personal experience, domesticity —  — not all that different than the many women in the US who will say they are not feminists but who support many of the elements of what might be considered a feminist agenda and certainly no different than all the women in the western world who do not want to be considered feminist or even women artists but just artists.

Tania Bruguera began her talk on that familiar note, “I am not a feminist artist.” Marina Abramovic began her talk at the 2007 Feminist Future with the exact same statement, different accent, so my ears pricked up . But Bruguera walked that statement back and forward in a vivid, smart and funny way. She had the audience roaring with laughter, which is so great and so feminist, just the sheer joy of seeing things as they are and speaking out fearlessly. Her comments and her activism are always contextualized and her presentation of her various decisions was hilarious: she announced that she had developed a list of career rules, the first was that she would never sleep with a curator — big laugh– well she did once in 1995 — bigger laugh; never sleep with married men (a recent decision — another big laugh); would try to acquire power — said she does not want to react to power but create power; would do the work she wanted to do without thinking of what it meant for feminism. She made the decision that it was more important to be a strong feminist woman rather than a feminist artist. She asked all the men in the room to stand up. About 5 guys stood up in MoMA’s largest film auditorium. If they were straight, they should sit down. That left about 2 guys standing. How many were there for other reasons than having worked on the forthcoming MoMA publication, Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art? I think that left no man standing. “I’ve made my point.”…  And she is right about that: for the thousandth time, why is it that most men think anything regarding feminist art is of no concern to them? Since so much contemporary art by men owes such a debt to feminist/women predecessors, in terms of content, form, and materiality, and so much now fashionable institutional critique has its roots in less fashionable feminist critiques of power, the question becomes ever more absurd.

Other good presentations included Catherine Lord’s very interesting statement on queering the classroom. I look forward to this being online, which I assume it will eventually, perhaps on ArtOnAir.org, which archives many MoMA events. However, fair warning, the afternoon panel “Pedagogy and Activism,” on which Bruguera, Lord, and Indian performance artist Sonia Kuhrana appeared was derailed [warning, we’re going negative for a minute] by a performative but, to my mind , manipulative and self-indulgent, action by Michelle Wallace, who was to be the final speaker on that panel, who was not there when her turn came (and the Oscar goes to, —- … awkward silence, anxious whispered discussion amongst the hosts … —- could not be here tonight so the Academy accepts the award for —-) so the audience was treated to a twenty-minute long silent, amateurish Powerpoint presentation about Wallace’s family and her mother Faith Ringgold‘s work, at the exact end of which, surprise surprise, Wallace wandered down the aisle, and was then given the opportunity to ramble on further (she was “late” because she was so moved/upset/something by a show at the International Center Photography that she had overslept — it was 3PM). ..One thing crosses gender borders: the bad boy or girl always gets more attention. Proof of that, some younger women thought it was the best thing. (I walked out briefly but am glad I went back in to hear the curators’ discussion.)

The photo curators had mentioned that for the first time they had been able to organize a comprehensive survey exhibition on the history of photography solely through the work of 120 women photographers in the collection of the Museum, perhaps because from its inception photography was a more democratic medium and thus more accessible to women (and most likely also, because of the relatively lower cost of acquiring photography, easier to acquire in depth particularly in the earlier years of the institution). There are indeed many wonderful photographs representing major movements in the history of photography in Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, including this self-portrait by Ilse Bing, the woman artist in the act of looking at herself looking, owning and refracting the gaze.

Ilse Bing. Self-Portrait in Mirrors. 1931. Gelatin silver print, 10 1/2 x 12" (26.8 x 30.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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In the Wave

This post contains video clips that may not play in some email programs.

It is a fun and utterly cosmopolitan thing to do to go see a movie alone the first day it comes out on a cool grey late spring day in mid-week, at mid-afternoon in New York City. It’s a Truffaut/Godard thing to do, by way of saying that yesterday, Wednesday, restlessly trying to feel the pulse of a return to work in the studio after a hard season of teaching and wrestling with the publication of my book and the launch of this blog, I took myself to the Film Forum to see Two in the Wave, Emmanuel Laurent’s new film about the artistic friendship of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.

In my teens and early twenties I was a Truffaut person. I remember seeing Breathless but it does not seem to have left the lasting impression on me that seeing Jules et Jim did (these films were released in 1960 and 62 but I probably didn’t see them until about 4 or 5 years later) — Jean Seberg versus Jeanne Moreau… I’m sorry. But I seem to recall that when I read about Godard’s other films, and I read the New York Times and New Yorker art and film criticism pages even more closely and with more of a sense of moment and thirst then than I do now, I felt somehow intimidated or, probably more so, the people and the language that supported Godard seemed intimidating to me. Maybe they were more radical and in the context of the late 60s I may have been more conservative than the vanguard of my generation — I loved Antonioni too, so there was some general sensibility there.  The poeticism of Truffaut resonated deeply, as did  the sense of longing. For instance, for me as a young girl, the scene in Jules et Jim when Jeanne Moreau puts cold cream on her face before going to bed with Jim in the doomed hope of conceiving a child,  was a mysterious key-hole view into an adult sexuality.

Still from Jules et Jim

I had (I bet I still have somewhere) a 45 rpm record of Jeanne Moreau singing Le Tourbillion (Dans le Tourbillion de la Vie) which I listened to often:

Record cover art, Jeanne Moreau, Le Tourbillion, from Jules et Jim, 1962

The Wild Child is a film I think of often: Truffaut’s own reserved and gentle presence as actor and narrator, the story of the effort to educate a feral child, particularly the experiment to see if he understands the concept of justice, the beautiful use of black and white, the simplicity and seeming verisimilitude of the settings make me feel that I have spent two hours in post-Revolutionary France inside the mind of an Enlightenment figure.

Now I am also nuts about Godard movies. While having steered clear of Godard in my youth may have been a terrible and costly mistake — I might have understood modernism and radicality so much better and perhaps fared so much better professionally as a result had I followed Godard much earlier (pitiless irony does so much better) — it has also been a gift to discover the movies now because seen at a remove of 40 or more years they are on the one hand as filled with a very similar sense of charm and a kind of innocence to that of Truffaut, (see Masculin/Feminin and Stolen Kisses), as or more poetic (see Alphaville),  and at the same time the sharp, disjointed, Brechtian editing style, bright color aesthetic, and the political satire as well as the uncanny apparition of Abu Ghraib-like imagery of films like La Chinoise are as brilliant and radical and new now than then, maybe more so. But as I embrace Godard I would hate to think of Truffaut as seeming lesser. Two poets can exist in the world, even if eventually they can’t speak to each other, they can both still speak to us.

I highly recommend seeing Two in the Wave. It is a complex, imperfect yet fascinating and also touching documentary on the friendship of Truffaut and Godard from the day they met in 1949 — a moment captured in as uncanny a photograph as that of the young Bill Clinton shaking the hand of President Kennedy. Was anyone there to shoot a picture the day Damon met Pythyas? — to the bitter end of their long and productive friendship in 1973.

The only flaw in the film is the organizing frame of a young woman, “played” by actress Isild Le Besco in order to humanize the director’s focus on reams of archival print material. It’s kind of a waste of time but doesn’t harm the film which offers so much rich material. The film is “about” a number of things: the history of the Nouvelle Vague as a radical movement of rupture from tired rules of commercial cinema is laid out though the interpolation of archival copies of the Cahiers du Cinema to which both men wrote film criticism before they started directing their own movies, a radical rupture paradoxically rooted in their passionate and redemptive love for the history of film. The importance of influence, homage, and quotation is a major theme with many scenes of each man avowing his admiration for the same directors: Jean Renoir, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Roberto Rossellini are cited as major influences by both. There is a fascinating clip of an interview between Fritz Lang and Godard, with Lang urbanely speaking in flawless French, as well as appearing as himself as film director in Godard’s Contempt. The whole mid-century phenomenon of “cinephilia” is discussed at length, a passion that I’m not sure is as prevalent now: how many times do I tell some student working in video about basic film form: editing, lighting, script, and mention someone like HItchcock and meet a blank stare.

There is an interesting section on the influence of Bergman on both of them, in particular how he taught them to film women, not just their bodies but their subjectivities, their desires.

Each film reference is a line of a must see filmography.

This is also a tale of two ambitions and of the moment when politics was the excuse for an irreparable break. They had often worked in tandem in support of film and other causes. Both were involved in the February-March 1968 demonstrations in Paris to protest the firing by Andre Malraux of Henri Langlois, co-founder of the Cinemateque Francaise and one of the many father figures they shared a passionate admiration for.

Although for many years they often engaged in political activism together up to and including the events of May 1968,the two men eventually split over politics. Their films went in different directions. Truffaut died at the early age of 52. Godard still works although some of his recent work including Histoire(s) du Cinema is often quite hard to access particularly here in the United States and he has kept himself remote. Still the tenor of their final exchange of letters indicates long simmering resentments. After the release of Truffaut’s 1973 film Day for Night, Godard wrote him, denouncing his (a)political declarations about the nature of film and calling him a “liar.” Truffaut responded in a 20 page letter, calling him a disingenuous shit who always managed to make himself out as the victim and denouncing Godard’s politics as fundamentally hypocritical and inauthentic, “That men are equal is a theory for you.”

But then the film ends on another note, not exactly reconciliatory but nevertheless of a different tenor, like, very like, reviewing the life of a child after having told the story of his parents’ happy marriage, differing natures, and bitter divorce: the very close artistic and personal relationship that both directors had with the actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, who was effectively, as the character Antoine Doinel, the alter ego of Truffaut in The 400 Blows, Stolen Kisses, Bed & Board, Love on the Run, in addition to his appearances in other Truffaut movies as well as the star of major films by Godard including Masculin,Feminin, La Chinoise, Love on the Run, Made in USA, and Weekend.

Two in the Wave ends with Leaud’s first film test interview for The 400 Blows. Then about twelve years old, he is cheeky, eager, Parisian: “are you sad or happy?” asks the off-sceen voice of Truffaut. “Je suis pas triste, je suis gai,” I’m not sad, I’m happy,” answers Leaud, replicating without knowing it one of the most exquisitely poignant moments in the history of French film, when in Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), the character of the heroine, the beautiful Garance, played by Arletty, says in a bright and brittle tone, with a beautiful smile masking a guarded heart, “Moi? Je suis gai comme un pinson.” “I’m as gay as a songbird.”

It is not altogether unfitting to recommend books of writings by, interviews with, and biographies of these two filmmakers because they began as film critics using writing to prepare a critical field for their work and their formations as critics and scenarists made them extremely articulate proponents of their ideas and of the history of film, in text and in interviews.

Interview with director Emmanuel Laurent about his use of actress Isild Le Besco as a silent framing device

Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody,

Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews

Godard on Godard

Books by or about Francois Truffaut:

The Films in My life,

Hitchcock/Truffaut

Truffaut: A Biography

Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New
Wave, vol.1


However their films are the necessary element: these two men who spent their youths at the Paris Cinemateque studying the entire history of film should be honored by festivals of their films, and since this documentary focuses on their friendship it would be interesting to embody the productive interaction by scheduling/studying their films in dual sequential order: the documentary focuses on their actual collaborations, including Breathless, for which Truffaut wrote the screenplay, giving his already more developed stature to Godard in order to give him a chance to make his first full length film. But other alternating presentations would be fascinating: the double chronology of Jean-Pierre Leaud’s presence in both directors’ films for 15 years is one of the most interesting tri-lateral collaborations in the history of cinema, and one of the most charming to watch, and tragic to think about. I left the Film Forum envisioning a month-long, four screen festival, with Truffaut’s films running in sequence in the first, Godard’s running in sequence in the next (the Film Forum did have a great festival of Godard films in 2008 and one of Truffaut in 1999), then the dual presentation, film for film, running in the second theater; while in the third, and in the fourth, the directors they loved.. oh and no we need a fifth theater in which to screen all the other wonderful films of their time, by Eric Rohmer, Agnes Varda, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette: in the documentary there are particularly affecting scenes from Jacques Demy‘s 1961 film Lola, and an adorable moment in one of the most beautiful movies of the era, Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, (1962) in which a short comic slapstick silent film staring Godard and Anna Karina reenacting how they met (cute) creates a moment of comic relief within as beautiful a reflection on mortality as any that exists on film.

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Stealth Feminism at MoMA

Next Friday May 21, there will be a symposium at MoMA on Art Institutions and Feminist Politics Now (where “an international group of artists, writers, curators, historians and activists discuss the impact of recent debates about art and feminism on exhibitions, collections, pedagogy, and cultural politics.”). This continues a series of major feminism-related events held at the museum including The Feminist Future: Theory in Practice in the Visual Arts, a highly charged two-day symposium  held at MoMA in January 2007. To hear some of the panels and presentations from the 2007 symposium: in addition to the material archived on MoMa’s website of that event, there is a comprehensive  audio archive on ARTonAIR.org (you have to scroll down but will find the entire conference). Next month will see MoMA’s launch of its publication Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art. In addition to these events at MoMA, what sounds like an interesting, interactive program will take place at the Brooklyn Museum on May 22, Making Ourselves Visible, with participants including Hilton Als, Emily Apter, Johanna Burton, and others.

There are currently several small one-person and group exhibitions of women artists and installations of discrete works by women artists  scattered around MoMA although perhaps secreted might more accurately reflect the stealth approach to the serious engagement with curation, presentation, and acquisition of works by women artists that the museum is currently engaged in. There is a lot of very good work by women artists on view at MoMA right now, although aside from Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, you would hardly know about many of these shows from the signage  in the lobby, and certainly would not know to look for or understand the import of some individual installations.

Wall signage, MoMA Lobby, May 6, 2010

The shows include Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now, Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense, Performance 7: Mirage by Joan Jonas, and Pictures by Women: A History of  Modern Photography, (and look for Experimental Women in Flux, opening in August).

The way I became aware of these exhibitions had an Alice in Wonderland Secret Garden feel to it that reflects the stealth approach.

First, during one recent visit, I noticed a large painting previously unknown to me, hanging in one of those out of context, no-man’s land spaces near the escalator bank, on the 3rd or 4th floor.

Lee Lozano, Untitled, 1963. Oil on canvas, two panels, 7' 10" x 8' 4," Collection The Museum of Modern Art

There is some ironic justice to the isolated presentation of the Lozano work: her decision to “boycott” women, taken in the late 1960s and maintained for the rest of her life, is legendary so being placed in the context of women artists would be anathema to her. In fact the painting presents an object lesson of why you can’t assume the gender of the artist from an individual work, since it has every sign of what generally would be consider the epitome of masculinity: the subject, the size of the work, the scale of the image, even something boldly un-ingratiating about the dry paint application. But anyway, there was the Lozano painting, and why had I never seen or at least noticed it before, and what was it doing there?

Then, another day at MoMA, as I was making my way to the Cafe on the 2nd floor, I noticed a curator I know slip into an exhibition hall. Curious, I followed her, sort of  like following Alice down the rabbit hole, and I found myself in a large room (where Monet’s Waterlilies were earlier this winter).

Yayoi Kusama, Violet Obsession, 1994. Sewn & stuffed fabric over a rowboat and oars, 43 1/4" x 12' 6 3/8" x 70 7/8", collection MoMA, in Mind and Matter

In the center was a full size row boat made of purple silk phalluses, unmistakably a Yayoi Kusama, there were elegant minimalist works by Gogo, an embroidered patchwork cloth book by Louise Bourgeois.

Louise Bourgeois, Ode à l'oubli, (2002). Fabric book with hand-embroidery and lithographed cover, page (ea. approx.): 11 3/4 x 13"

Louise Bourgeois, Ode à l'oubli, (2002) detail

Louise Bourgeois, Ode à l'oubli, cover, (2002). Fabric book with hand-embroidery and lithographed cover, page

The artists were all — women? Where was I? I went outside again to check the title, “Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now,” but  nowhere in the introductory wall text is there any indication of the fact that all the artists in the show are women although of course it is evident from the list of artists.

Mind and Matter, Alternative Abstraction, 1940s to Now, MoMA wall text, May 2010

I was particularly struck by a strong artwork in the show by a Polish artist I was unfamiliar with, Alina Szapocznikow (1926-1973). The work, Belly Cushions (1965), made of 5 polyurethane foam pillows molds grouped on a low pedestal, has a strong presence: the dark rich color and leathery patina drew me across the room and then there is something compelling and yet strange about the shapes:  the scale is indexical, yet the torso truncated so that sexual indicators are lacking — the work has the intensity of one of Nancy Grossman‘s torso sculptures from the same period without as overt tropes of sexuality —  and the flat back of each form repels a unitary reading of these as molds from real bodies.

Alina Szapocznikow, Belly Cushions, 1968

Why are these particular abstractions alternative? Because the artists are all women? OK — positive thinking — I won’t go there. For more alternative abstraction, look to Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense on the fourth floor, in an open space between an entrance to Painting and Sculpture II and a view of the museum garden.

Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1980–98. Welded steel, porcelain, wire mesh, canvas, wire, and grommets, 7 x 8 x 6'. MoMA © 2010 Lee Bontecou

The centerpiece of the show is an untitled hanging sculpture that Bontecou worked on for nearly twenty years. It has an eerily uncategorizable quality, in addition to being extremely difficult to photograph: it is an ethereal, jewel-like, surrealism-inspired curio — the connection to surrealism links it to many of the works in Mind and Matter: the utility of surrealism as a matrix for work by women artists is an important subject of modernist and feminist art history (though on the other hand the resonance to works by Calder or Tanguy puts into some question the subtitle of Mind and Matter — Alternative Abstractions — in relation to a women artists only grouping).

The most interesting work for me was the least branded. These are beautiful soot drawings. My snapshots could not capture the soft surface, I really recommend spending some time with them: Untitled, 1958, Soot on Paper is a very minimalist exercise in darkness, a black field divided by two central barely lit horizontal lines, one straight across and hard edged, the second curved and soft. Bontecou’s use of soot came from her quick awareness of the aesthetic usefulness of an accident in the mechanics of sculptural process: “While on a Fullbright Fellowship on Rome in the late 50s, Bontecou accidentally made what became one of the most crucial discoveries of her career: she adjusted the oxygen levels in the blowtorch she used to weld sculptures, and  soot poured out. She began to draw with the torch, moving it across paper and canvas. ‘I finally got the black I wanted and a kind of landscape or “worldscape,” she said.”

Untitled ,1963, soot and aniline dye on muslin, is another beauty, much less overdetermined than some of her other more illustrative and instrumental drawings for sculptures. It would be very interesting to see this work next to one of Myron Stout’s works in the collection, such as Number 3, 1954: on a black ground, a series of ochre and white ovals frame a black center, with one very thin black line cutting through the concentric rings but not penetrating the last white band closest to the center. The ochre and white dye appear on the muslin in such a delicate fashion because of the muslin’s fine weave, and the use of dye rather than pigmented matter is such that the surface approaches the uncanny. The black created by the soot is absolute.

Mind and Matter and these other exhibition and incidental installations of individual works are part of an ongoing initiative among women curators at MoMA to delve deeply into the permanent collection in order to find out what works by women artists they already own and then see how gaps in the collection can be filled through acquisitions, with assistance from the Modern Women’s Fund. Mind and Matter is organized by Alexandra Schwartz, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings, and Sarah Suzuki, The Sue and Eugene Mercy, Jr. Assistant Curator of Prints and Illustrated Books; Lee Bontecou: All Freedom in Every Sense is organized by Veronica Roberts, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture. Performance 7: Mirage by Joan Jonas is organized by Barbara London, Associate Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art; Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography is organized by Roxana Marcoci, Curator; Sarah Meister, Curator; and Eva Respini, Associate Curator, Department of Photography.

The women involved in this ongoing initiative decided not to follow the example of the Centre Pompidou which in the exhibition elles@centrepompidou filled the entire museum with a one-off, blow-out installation of work by all the women artists in their collection. Instead, the group at MoMA is attempting a more gradual, incremental, and infiltrative approach which, in the long-term, may well be potentially more effective at redressing the balance of representation of women artists in the entire museum.

There is a kind of self-effacing anonymity to the whole enterprise that aligns it with Virginia Woolf’s proposition in A Room of One’s Own that “Anonymous was a woman.” But I think it is important to draw attention to the work of the women artists on exhibition due to this initiative and to the women curators whose efforts should be recognized and supported, since I think one can take as a given that their efforts occur in a context of resistance, based on previous histories from all major museums.

In my essay, “Generation 2.5,” in A Decade of Negative Thinking, I go into some detail about the gender distribution of major retrospectives at MoMA since the mid-1980s (the men’s room is very crowded) and I note that in general it has been my experience or at least my supposition based on observation, that most women curators who want to curate a major exhibition of women artists, never mind of feminist artists, are likely to get just one such opportunity in their careers, if their institutions and funders are amenable. If the ongoing MoMA Women’s Project’s incremental, small scale and stealth approach results in their having the opportunity to organize many more, though perhaps often modestly scaled exhibitions, then their strategy is a good one!

I look forward to the conference on Friday, when these issues will be discussed from many practical, professional, and theoretical points of view.

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Magic Tricks in the Dark

An earlier, unfinished version of this post went out to my subscribers by mistake yesterday although I immediately deleted it and it does not appear on the blog itself. Also, for subscribers who receive these posts in their email: this post contains videos that you will not see in the email program, you have to click on the site itself.

I shouldn’t be surprised at what gets media attention: my previous post, about Marina Abramovic’s live performance in “The Artist is Present” went viral, mainly because of the louche interest elicited by my speculations on how she pees. That is to say, I got attention not so much for what else I said about her exhibition at MoMA but just for that one provocative question. Meanwhile I’ve been stymied in my efforts to figure out how to convey the importance to me of a particular moment sitting in the dark in William Kentridge‘s installation of 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès. But since the Kentridge show closes May 17 and I hope that anyone who has not seen the show will go see it, I’ll try to pull out of the darkness a few stray thoughts suggested by my experience of his work, like the floating pages that Kentridge snatches from the air as they float into his hands in several of his recent films. (This is a series of impressions, not a review, Roberta’s Smith’s New York Times review when the show opened offers a fair assessment).

I had set out in New York City last month to look for art works to fall in love with. Of all the categories of falling in love that I identified, the one that mattered the most because it was in some way attainable yet not total, was the category of something, however fragmentary, that would propel me back into my studio with sense of affirmation of creativity and a provocation for honesty and frankness of the gesture. Sitting for the first time facing Tabula Rasa I (2003), one of the 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès, I was thrilled by a particular moment where the dark liquid in a coffee cup is poured out on a sheet of white paper as a cloud of charcoal dust, and the charcoal seems to draws itself, the paper is folded and when the artist reopens it, he gazes on a self-portrait of himself at the table .

William Kentridge, still from Tabula Rasa I, 2003, from 7 Pieces for Georges Melies

Kentridge’s films are interesting in that they are made up of elements that in themselves are not necessarily that interesting. The individual charcoal drawings that make up his films are done in a stodgy, static, outdated academic style, which may be deliberate and strategic but I think is also just the way he draws; in his most recent works, the film tricks he borrows from the early history of film animation, including a consistent use of reverse motion, may seem even more obsolescent; the music in all the films has a slightly nostalgic quality that could be too sentimental. The work doesn’t have an iota of the kind of ironic distance that remains so much a marker of contemporaneity in art. Yet when the drawings are put into constant motion of inventive fluidity, the music lends a driving haunting quality that transcends the nostalgic, and the subject matter whether it is apartheid in South Africa or the private life of the studio artist is literary, personal, generous, and modest, all in the best sense, the totality of the work speaks to a genuine and impressive confidence in the artist’s own creativity, and in creativity in general.

The first time I saw the Kentridge show, I was thinking to myself, “this work makes me want to go home and work,” and, also,  “I have to step up my game.” (Just then, Susan Bee, sitting next to me in the dark room spoke up, “This work is too good, it makes you want to give up.” She said that I had left that category out of my list of types of falling in love with art!) The work opens up the possibility of serious creative play for the artist/viewer precisely because it is made up of so many unpromising or unremarkable components and because Kentridge never uses his confidence in his own work as a weapon, as so many artists do (see the first room on the 6th floor of MoMA of  Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present in contradistinction).

The recent work’s focus on the artist’s studio practice, the action of making, of reaching for an idea, literally snatching ideas as they float past you, about pigment, matter and its vanishing, is echoed in the quotes used to good effect in the wall text:

“Walking, thinking, stalking the image. Many of the hours spent in the studio are hours spent walking, pacing back and forth across the space, gathering the energy, the clarity to make the first mark …It is as if before the work can begin (the visible finished work of the drawing, film or sculpture) a different invisible work must be done.”

Beyond this invisible or seemingly unproductive preparatory work, which Kentridge literalizes by filming himself pacing in his studio, looking through books, day dreaming about his wife who then appears, touches his shoulder and as quickly disappears from the frame, a naked but unidealized body, Kentridge also comments on the importance of  process even when the results are not immediately evident:

“Everything can be saved. Everything is provisional. A prior action is rescued by that which follows. A drawing abandoned is revised by the next drawing. … The smudges of erasure thicken time in the film, but they also serve as a record of the days and months spent making the fim — a record of thinking in slow motion.”

Kentridge’s commitment to retaining the the trace of process continues in “Double Lines, A ‘Stereo’ Interview about Drawing with William Kentridge” by Michael Auping, in the exhibition catalogue. Auping notes that Kentridge preferred to annotate the transcript of their interview, rather than polishing it into a smooth unified text. Auping writes, “He is not a polisher. He is a questioner. Reflecting the dialectical character  of Kentridge’s art, the interview takes the form of a self-argument. …As with his alter egos Felix and Soho, Kentridge in essence doubles himself in this interview by not only answering my original questions but also questioning his own answers.” In one such internal dialogue, Kentridge speaks about drawing (I’ve put the question of the answer into a lighter font color and, as in the catalogue layout, a further indent):

WK: […] If you have little money, drawing materials are not that difficult to come by. Drawing does not in most cases require special tools. In South Africa that matters in some fundamental ways. There is a democracy to drawing, and a certain kind of work ethic. One of the things that attracts me to drawing, and that in some way relates to its politics, is that it is a demonstration of agency. There is something about the act of drawing that reflect a process of labor. You have a sense of work, at least for me.

There is no work ethic. Or that is not what I am interested in. It is the appearance of work, making visible the hours on the paper. In an era in which the human labor in everything was clear, there was something utopian in making art appear effortless or at least miraculous. Now that we take the impossible for granted — digital animation, Photoshop (the invisible workings of a computer compared to the very visible and audible mechanics of a typewriter) — there seems a place for showing physical process (And through this mental process; this is not clear, but some impulse in this direction sits in my guts — not that they are to be trusted either).

These statements about materiality, process, and failure are ever more important to hear and read and see. So many young artists I know feel so much pressure to produce a marketable product that they never can trust themselves to engage in process, in making and unmaking. So much of Kentridge’s work reflects on process, change, and the constant attempt to make and unmake an image.

There is a characteristic gesture in Tabula Rasa I that caught my attention, one that recurs in a number of these works about studio practice and it is to the point of this emphasis on creativity as the very subject of Kentridge’s work: the hands of the artist as he prepares to draw or sculpt engaged in a ritual gesture of tentative prestidigitation, to conjure up the image or the mark. It is a gesture that is so self-ironizing about the artistic process that Art Carney used it often for classic comic effect in The Honeymooners, as Ed Norton, to preface the most mundane task. This film fragment captures some of these moments:

Unfortunately  it is impossible to provide good quality video links to the works that most relate to Kentridge’s homage to Méliès — such as Méliès’ The Trip to the Moon from 1902 — and to his recent use of live action animation: here it would be great to be able to see Shoot the Moon (1963), Red Grooms’ own tribute to the Méliès film, made with Rudy Burckhardt and Mimi Gross, and his live animation masterpiece, Fat Feet (1966), made with Yvonne Andersen, Dominic Falcone, and Mimi Gross, both of which sadly are not yet available on DVD. These works share Kentridge’s  pleasure in the simple magic of film although the Grooms films are less melancholic and more anarchic than Kentridge.

The degree to which the studio in Kentridge’s films is a construct and a fiction becomes clear when you see a bit of Kentridge working in his actual studio, in a clip of Art21: Kentridge’s “character” The Studio (as much a character as his other alter egos) is an intimate, dimly lit space, in perpetual twilight, seen through the scrim of the kind of greyed out scratches reminiscent of silent film. Thus it comes as a bit of shock when you see that his studio is in fact a brightly lit, state of the art, very clean space practically arranged with the requisite number of assistants.

But it is the very brightness of this actual space that makes some of Kentridge’s most recent work so strong, particularly his live performance of I Am Not Me, the Horse is Not Mine. I wish everyone I know could have shared the excitement of seeing this performance live last fall, followed the next evening by Joan Jonas’ performance of Reading Dante II, both part of performa09. There were some interesting similarities: the combination of new media with the most basic, oldest human means of artistic expression, — the body and drawing — an improvisational humble texture of the piece, the combination of video projection with very simple props and the body and voice of the artist, and literature (Dante and Gogol) as an important source read out loud by the artist. Both together made for a really inspiring and great week to be an artist!

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