Tag Archives: Edwin Denby

Orson and Edwin and other pleasures

As we enter the dog days of August here’s a little recap of some pleasures from the past few months that have stuck with me and that I’d love to share.

1.

This year is Orson Welles‘ centenary and in May Turner Classic Movies ran a weekly festival of Welles’ films. I have seen almost all of them, multiple times in most cases, benefiting in my youth from the proximity of the New Yorker Cinema on the Upper West Side. Peter Bogdanovich ran a festival of Welles there sometimes in the late 60s I think, with interesting mimeographed handouts for each film: Welles’ repertory theater, the Mercury Theatre players, the crazy plots and over the top or sloppy acting of films like Mr. Arkadin, the exaggerated post-War middle European displaced persons camp atmosphere, the camera shots and pacing, all of it is part of my artistic bedrock. So I was intrigued when late at night, May 27 after midnight I think, TCM ran the restored footage of Welles’ first venture into film, Too Much Johnson, a silent movie meant to be used as vignette interludes within a play, a film project I had never heard of. In typical Welles fashion, the 10 reels of 35mm film disappeared and were said by Welles to have burned in a fire until they were rediscovered in a film warehouse in Italy  a few years ago and now have been restored. An introductory text by film historian Scott Simon can be found here; a long informative text on this film by Welles scholar Joseph McBride can be found here, and there are a number of versions of the film available online including the total footage here, and a reconstruction based on archival research of how the footage was intended to be used as part of a theater production here.

The minute the film started I knew I was a goner in terms of anything like a semi-reasonable bedtime since it ran into the middle of the night but I was captivated by the film and drawn into it also by the dreamy contemporary film score. Since the film is already anachronistic in its homage to silent film, it is interesting to have it also be anachronistic forward with a Philip Glass/Steve Reich like repetitive score. Unfortunately the versions available online have a piano based film score that is very much a pastiche of silent movie music accompaniment one is familiar with, which is serviceable but not distinctive. However one film clip on TCM does have the new score and is also an excellent glimpse of what makes the film so captivating: here is a link to the clip.

The film is a pastiche of the silent movies that Welles saw as a child, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, with a deadpan hero contrasted by exaggerated stock theater pantomime acting (among many registers of acting in the ensemble cast), brisk and often surrealistic narratives, and palpably fake sets. It happens that I saw these movies as a child too, since my mother often took me to see silent comedies at MoMA.

In the early part of the film the lead character “Johnson” played by a debonair and fearlessly acrobatic Joseph Cotten is pursued through the streets and across the rooftops of Lower Manhattan by a jealous husband. At first the locations seem somehow staged, fake, but gradually you realize you’re looking at the Woolworth Building and at the Meatpacking district and around the Highline, when it was a functional entity (it was built in 1934), sometimes completely empty, other times populated by regular people watching the goings on with amusement.

Minutes into the film I was struck, in fact I was kind of thunderstruck by the resemblance between the settings and the plain yet daring black and white cinematography in the film and the photographs from the same time period by Rudy Burckhardt, who had arrived in New York in 1935.

Too Much Johnson, film still

Too Much Johnson, film still

EDWIN-DENBY

In fact I was so thunderstruck by the connection I felt between this film and Burckhardt’s work that I abandoned the film to rush to my computer to research the relationship. The time frame and location was identical, and the New York avant-garde art, film, and theater worlds were relatively small compared to now so it was entirely plausible that Orson Welles and Rudy Burckhardt knew each other. They were very close in age and very young in the late 1930s, Burckhardt born April 6, 1914, Welles May 6, 1915. Not that every very talented person around the same age knows each other even in the smallest community. Still, there was something.

But instinctively I made a leap from the idea of Googling “Orson Welles Rudy Burckhardt” to instead Googling “Orson Welles Edwin Denby,” that is, Burckhardt’s close friend, the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, and bingo!!: in 1936 Welles and Denby  collaborated on the Federal Theater Project production of “Horse Eats Hat,”(see here the picture of Edwin Denby as either the front or back end of the horse), a farce by French writer Eugene Labiche, staring Joseph Cotten. “Too Much Johnson” was a 1894 play by actor director William Gillette, based on another late 19th century French farce.

Orson-and-Edwin-timeline

from the absolutely awe inspiring timeline of Welles’ incredible career http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/307013/The-Ultimate-Orson-Welles-Timeline/#vars!date=1912-05-14_22:05:02! just the first decade of his work is protean, fascinating, and important historically and artistically

Too Much Johnson includes wonderful set pieces such as a rooftop chase seen in the clip above, a chase through a maze of fruit packing cases, and a subsequent sequence with Magrittean bowler hats that shares the anarchic energy of Surrealist films such as Louis Buñuel’s 1930 film, L’Age d’Or. The acting is both parodic of early silent film and late 19th century theatrical melodrama, and ineffably hip and of the moment not just in the specific sense of the late 1930s but beyond that the kind of permanent “of the momentness” of any good work done with a youthful carefree improvisational spirit that remains young throughout time. The acting and directorial style at times veer into a stylized version of amateurish verve, when you get talented people who are game to do anything including things not in their area of expertise, harkening back to domestic amateur theatrical productions as described in Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott novels among others, and yet a highly developed artistic instinct and discipline of composition, timing, and order prevail at the same time. In this, Too Much Johnson again reminded me of Edwin Denby and Rudy Buckhardt, in such film collaborations as Money, a 1968 film by Rudy Burckhardt (which I wrote about here).

Postscript August 2: All along I could have called Rudy Burckhardt’s wife Yvonne Jacquette or his son Jacob Burckhardt to ask about the Orson/Rudy connection. When Jacob saw this post last night he wrote me that around the same time as Welles was making Too Much Johnson, Rudy made a movie called Seeing the World Part One: a visit to New York N.Y., in which Virginia Welles appears, with a now lost film score by composer and author Paul Bowles (I forgot to mention that originally Too Much Johnson was to have a score by Bowles, also now lost). In it, according to Jacob, “There is also a scene in a dark saloon, where two gangsters sit across the table from each other. One of them, played by Edwin, pulls a gun on the other. The other played by Joseph Cotten, pushes the gun aside and knocks him down (Cotten had recently had his first starring role in Welles and Denby’s “Horse Eats Hat”). Rudy told me that the scene was originally supposed to be between Orson and Joseph, but since Orson didn’t show up, Edwin stood in.” Which answers more than the limited question of whether Orson knew Rudy and his work: they did know each other. More, it turns out that for at least a brief moment they were both in their early twenties and very talented in New York at the same time, with shared friends and shared collaborators, interested and cross-influenced by similar histories–a vivid example of how art comes out of fertile communities where worldly success may arrive for different figures at different times in different ways, or not at all, but where everyone is essential to the mix in an unmarked way which is hard to replicate and which is obscured by celebrity culture.

2.

In working in the mode of silent film, Welles was looking back to his own childhood experiences with silent film as film, that is, as what film was when he was a child and he was emulating the sui generis pioneer actor/director geniuses of that time period, Harold Lloyd, to whom the rooftop chase scene is indebted, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin.

Which leads me to another wonderful film viewing experience from earlier this winter which I highly recommend: The Chaplin Puzzle, a 1992 documentary film which follows Charlie Chaplin’s early development, his artistic evolution during his first two years in Hollywood, in his Keystone and Essanay period, from 1914 to 1916. It is a fascinating view of how an artist creates himself and refines his craft. I was particularly interested in relation to my experience of young artists today working in video who often do one simple thing and then ponder it for months, or young filmmakers who struggle with fundraising even for small projects they film on iPhones and produce themselves: during this period Chaplin turned out about one film a week and was able to gauge the success of his character from audience reaction while learning for himself what worked in film formally and technically.

3.

Finally I want to encourage anyone who’s in New York this summer to see George Ohr Pottery: “No Two Alike,” which is at Craig F. Starr Gallery through August 14. I have a particular soft spot for pottery, it brings together materiality and color, qualities I appreciate in painting: that something is a thing and yet  can glow with color. I often visit the American Wing at the Metropolitan to look at their installation of early American pottery; just give me an early American earthware pot pot with slip decorated in earth tones and it’s like a ray of sunshine.

Sugar Pot, American, c. 1820-1840, earthenware with slip decoration, Coll. Metropolitan Museum, American Wing

Sugar Pot, American, c. 1820-1840, earthenware with slip decoration, Coll. Metropolitan Museum, American Wing

The George Ohr exhibition is a wonderfully curated show, which contrasts unglazed works by the American ceramic artist of the post Civil War / early 20th century period with some of his more finished glazed works, the front room containing the raw clay works, the back room with a spectacular installation of glazed works, with one juxtaposition of each kind in the middle office space creating a bridge between the two parts of the exhibition. The pieces range from works that fit into established forms of art pottery of the period to works that are experimental, immediate, delicate, modern in their formlessness.

Ohr-1

Ohr-5

Ohr-6

Ohr-7

Except for these two pieces juxtaposed on a little shelf in the middle room, to compare the effect of the unglazed and the glazed you have to run back and forth between the rooms, or, rather, walk quietly given the fragility of the objects, and it hard to chose–a contemporary aesthetic tips one towards the unglazed, but for me the gleam of a colored glaze is kind of divine, pleasurable and unknowable at the time.

Ohr-10

Ohr-9

Ohr-11

*

On another positive note, I was recently interviewed by Berlin-based curator, art critic, and educator An Paenhuysen about A Year of Positive Thinking. I responded to four questions, about the art scene I might belong to, about the blog itself, about my background, and about money–whether or how I monetize the blog, directly or indirectly–always an important question. The interview appears here.

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Money can’t buy you love but art friendships can create joy

The most sustaining force in an artist’s life is supportive friendship with other artists. If at some crucial moments in your life you can form a group of close friendships with artists who share your aesthetic ideals or at least understand and enjoy them maybe even more than you do yourself, you can make it through the incredible difficulties of being an artist: financial peril, near constant rejection, fragility of success. If those friendships also are the basis for artistic collaboration, that is more marvelous still. And there is a particular kind of collaboration among artists who are friends that is special because it takes place outside of the frame of the art market, often before each individual’s path is fixed and their fate is determined, that is before some become rich and famous, while others struggle along, and still others die or vanish from the scene into another type of life than the one of the artist.  Such moments are nearly impossible to sustain, but it can be pretty conclusively proven that these are often the happiest times in the lives of these artists and often too those artworks that later are seen to have the greatest market value emerge from just these moments of friendships and creative projects undertaken in relative conditions of anonymity, for the sheer joy of making and the pleasure in shared ideas.

One such a web of creative friendships among visual artists and writers working in the mid-20th century in New York City, in a close yet liminal social and generational relationship to the New York School, is documented in a wonderful exhibition currently on view at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Painters and Poets. This exhibition celebrates the 60th anniversary of  the gallery, founded in 1950 by two men with diverse backgrounds–Tibor de Nagy, a well-born but impoverished Hungarian-born refugee banker, and John Bernard Myers who had been the managing editor of the avant-garde art and literary quarterly View.

View, March 1945, cover by Marcel Duchamp

Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Inaugural Statement, 1950

The unique characteristics of the gallery were already marked by its prehistory: de Nagy and Myers had just founded a marionette company which failed when parents kept their children away from public spaces during the polio epidemic of the time. Both men were interested in poetry, the artists who quickly merged into the gallery’s stable were intimately connected with poets, and the gallery began publishing small illustrated chap books and other incunabulae, many of these on view in the current exhibition.

One such work is Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett’s series of small collages collected as the work S, included in the exhibition. In his marvelous book Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard, Padgett describes their daily life during the time they produced this work, in a small apartment on East 88th street where Padgett and Brainard, childhood friends from Tulsa who had come to New York around 1960 lived with Padgett’s wife Pat. At the time Padgett was in college at Columbia and Brainard was an unemployed artist.

Joe slept on our living-room couch. Neither he nor I cooked, and Pat was sketchy in the kitchen herself. Breakfast was coffee and, on good days, a Pop-Tart….While I was in class and Pat at work, Joe roamed the city, especially the art galleries, museums, and junk shops, usually alone, sometimes with Ted [Berrigan], and on weekends with Pat and me. There wasn’t enough room in our apartment for him to set up a work space…. It was on Eighty-Eighth Street that Joe and I did a series of small works that we called S. The name came from a flat, metallic gold s that one of us glued onto the lid of a small pasteboard box, the kind that greeting cards come in, and into which we placed the finished works. These were on pieces of cardstock, typing paper, and tracing paper–drawings, words, and collaged material, much of it rather cryptic and hysterical, some of it erotic, some of it with images from Dick Tracy, L’il Abner, and Nancy comic strips. Our working method was highly collaborative; that is, Joe provided some of the words and I provided some of the images. Using the limited media and materials at hand, we worked spontaneously at a table in the living room, passing the pieces back and forth, drinking coffee, and smoking. Joe and I were twenty-one and goofy. Pat was a few years older and far more pragmatic, but she joined in on a few pieces. Over four or five such sessions, we ended up with around seventy works, some good, some puerile, some good and puerile. (Padgett, 61)

Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett, cover of S, 1963 gallery installation snap shot, Tibor de Nagy

Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett, S, detail, 1963, collage

This may describe an archetypal young artist’s narrative, but it also outlines a situation rather different from the present: Padgett and Brainard moved into a New York artworld where the circles were smaller, more interconnected and accessible, they could survive safely on less money, relative to current economic conditions, and Brainard could become a respected even beloved artist with only the self-education of the city streets and of looking on his own at lots of art, with no institutional framework or timetable except deeply felt personal necessity.

“Painters and Poets” celebrates and tracks a number of crucial friendships from these interconnected circles of artists and poets, some of which were also love affairs, sometimes sexual sometimes not: Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers, Frank O’Hara and Grace Hartigan, Joe Brainard and Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard and John Ashbery, John Ashbery and James Schuyler, James Schuyler and painter and writer Fairfield Porter, Rudy Burckhardt and Edwin Denby, Rudy Burckhardt and Red Grooms and Mimi Gross, with central figures also including painters such as Jane Freilicher, Rackstraw Downes, Neil Welliver, Yvonne Jacquette, and Alex Katz.

Each of these artists were ambitious and dedicated artists in their own right and could legitimately claim to be at the center of some aspect of the group, and yet the interplay and the productive collaborations were an important part of their creative life. The current exhibition covers this fertile dynamic, with the orbit of Frank O’Hara shifting to the orbit of Joe Brainard, to the orbit of Rudy Burckhardt.These interlinked circles of friendships have been the focus of a number of exhibitions in the past decade or so, all interesting and inspiring: “In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O’Hara and American Art,” initiated at LA MOCA in 1999; “Art and Friendship: Selections from the Roland F. Pease Collection,” (Tibor de Nagy, Summer 1997); “Rudy Burckhardt” (also at Tibor de Nagy, June 2000), “Rudy Burckhardt and Friends: New York Artists of the 1950s and 60s,” (New York University Grey Art Gallery, May 9-July 15, 2000); “Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle” (Grey Art Gallery, January 16-March 31, 2007), and “New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Art Collection” (Grey Art Gallery, April 22- July 19, 2008); and also in 2008, “Picturing New York: The Art of Yvonne Jacquette and Rudy Burckhardt” at the Museum of the City of New York.

Fairfield Porter, Jimmy and John, oil on canvas, 36 1/4" x 45 1/2", 1957-58

Larry Rivers, Frank O'Hara, c. 1955, detail, plaster, 15 1/2"x7 1/4"

Many of the artists represented in the show and many long represented by the gallery, including Fairfield Porter, Freilicher, Burckhardt and others, worked in a vein of representational painting that was intimate, almost awkward, diffident, yet done with knowledge and experience of the just waning movement of Abstract Expressionism. Their works are among those that led me to suggest a category of “Modest Painting,” where ambition for painting is not dependent on huge size or even oppressive ideological rhetoric. As noted by painter Rackstraw Downes, Tibor de Nagy was one of a group of galleries which offered an alternative to the rapidly consolidated official art world of the late 50s and 60s:

To see this, the official art of the 1960s, you tramped Madison Avenue beginning at Emmerich and ending with Castelli. But there was another route which some people took, it included Frumkin, de Nagy, Zabriskie, Schoelkopf, Peridot, Graham among others. In these galleries one saw an art which looked awkwardly inexplicable; like so much of the liveliest art of any time it eluded critical dialectic. By the official art world it was virtually dismissed. And so I would call it the “unofficial” art of the 1960s. This was the world which interested me. It was the only art of quality that did not seem stage-managed; it had no party platform, no campaign. It did not bully you into believing that it was “right,” a condition impossible to art and which, when claimed by a school or a critic, automatically makes the art seem slightly suspect. …In 1964 John Bernard Myers, in an article called “Junkdump Fair Surveyed,” called this art “private.” [Downes, “What the  Sixties Meant to Me,” (1973) 17]

Rudy Burckhardt, Money (1967), screen shot, Edwin Denby and Money Tree

Many of the individual and collaborative works reflect a casual, relaxed approach to creative life underscored by ambition for art and an understated perfectionism. They were serious yet playful and playfulness was not the unique property of youth but a cross-generational process, engaged in by artists who were 19-year old newcomers to New York and people in their 50s and 60s, sophisticated veterans of the New York artworld like Burckhardt and Denby. My favorite piece in the show at Tibor is Burckhardt’s Money, (1967), his first feature film of his 100 or so films, with script by Joe Brainard, about a money mad billionaire played by Edwin Denby, a film which combines a goofy, spontaneous home movie feeling (with actors including Grooms, Gross, Jacquette, Welliver, Downes, as well as these artists’ children, Jacob Burckhardt, Titus Welliver, and Tom Burckhardt–now all adult artists engaged in film, acting, and painting) with thrillingly beautiful scenes with the cinematic quality of Jean Renoir, the neorealism of Roberto Rossellini, sly riffs on the contemporaneous Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Jean Luc Godard’s Week End (1967) — there are also cinematic parallels to the spirit and the style of scenes going back to the anarchic speed of early Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton or Hal Roach silent shorts and to films from the 1960s such as the one in 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) interrupts Varda’s poetic reflection on mortality. There are so many scenes that stay in my mind from Money, not just the ones where I get a kick out of seeing people I knew when we were all young and younger, but just for their cinematic beauty: a boy running down a country road in Maine to recover a single penny he dropped, Denby planting a money tree, and floating up to the sky in a kind of dream of a death where you can perhaps take it with you. [Money has recently been preserved and digitally restored by the Anthology Film Archives in New York and will be screened February 25 and 26]. Of Money, Denby wrote: “The characters are all pretty bad, money is the root of evil, and they ought not to enjoy themselves, but they do anyway.” You will too.

Rudy Burckhardt, Money (1967), Jacob and Rudy, screen shot

[I should add that I am in some small way a member of the artworld family I’ve just described: my parents Ilya and Resia Schor were friends with Chaim Gross. I met Chaim’s daughter Mimi in my childhood and became friendly with her and her then husband Red Grooms when I was about 12.  As soon as I began to navigate the city on my own on the subway I made my way to their studio on Grand and Mulberry Street. One amazing evening in 1968 I met for the first time Rudy Burckhardt, Yvonne Jacquette, their small son Tom, Jacob Burckhardt, Rudy’s son from his previous marriage to painter Edith Schloss, and Edwin Denby — the first sight of these 5 very delicate, kind, and interesting looking people is one of those crisp snapshots that immediately are engraved in your mind as deeply significant–also that night I met the Kuchar brothers, George and Mike, and we watched their movies. A few months later I worked for Red and Rudy on a stop-motion animated film Tappy Toes (1969): incredible to me that I was paid generously (can’t remember what but it seemed very generous to me) basically to hang out with them and get to see how they worked, what they looked at, while doing a menial task of moving small paper cutout figures a fraction of a millimeter at a time frame by frame for Rudy to photograph. And many years later I still live within the ripples of this particular art world, it is not historicist, for many of its participants are still alive, and its influence continues in the work of new generations–my collaboration with Susan Bee on our journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G also connects me to her collaborations with poet Charles Bernstein, who in turn has collaborated with Mimi Gross, and so on. The connections are many and they are important because the values of this world, in important part because of the connection to poetry (less money in this branch of the creative world), are always a vital corrective to the international Art Industry of museums, art fairs, which is as it appears, a capital-oriented and generally impregnable fortress. Within it creative friendships still exist of course, though time, play, and friendship are monitored and monetized in such a way that it can constantly erase the parallel universe of the artworld that Painters and Poets celebrates. ]

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