Thursday, May 23, 2013
Matt Freedman, Dead Man's Hand, epoxy and cards, 2013.
I’ve started writing this post a million times, but there’s no good way to begin. Okay, there’s an exhibition at Studio 10 in Bushwick by my beloved friend, Matt Freedman, who’s been strenuously treated for a rare form of cancer since the fall. The show, in Matt’s ironic, funny, touching, and self-deprecating way, is about his experience, and although heartbreaking, it’s not depressing. It’s just Matt, and art. Not art meant for the walls of the 1%, not art to further a career, not art meant to make a pithy statement about the human condition or to show off craft, but art made because Matt is an artist and this is how he processes the events of his life. If you want to know what art really is, this is it.
The title of the exhibition is “The Devil Tricked Me,” and indeed we could say the devil tricked all of us who know Matt, who has not a mean bone in his body. In the more than 20 years I’ve known him, I can’t remember hearing him say anything against anyone. Wickedly smart and without a shred of guile (two characteristics that often don’t go together), Matt's conversation tends toward humorous, gently ironic observation—as does his writing and art—and here he is observing himself face-to-face with mortality and his heroic attempts to thwart it. The 13 objects, all depicting folk admonitions of bad luck—broken mirrors, “three on a match,” stepping on a crack in the sidewalk—were made, for obvious reasons, without a lot of attention to craft. Yet nothing could be more heart wrenching than Matt’s pile of open and slightly crushed umbrellas, those fragile objects made to protect us that can so often fail. And the rainbow-colored ladder, which we must walk under, could be a stairway to heaven or, as I prefer to think of it, a way out, the escape route back to normal life.
Along with the exhibition are reproductions, for sale, of the journal with sketches Matt made during his extreme treatment. Again, I can only read a little bit each day, but it’s a way of keeping Matt in my thoughts. As his friends, we won’t let the devil trick us—having Matt in our lives is some of the best luck we’ll ever have. We love you, Matt!
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Duane Michals, Rigamarole, 2012, Tintype with hand-applied oil paint, 14 x 10 inches (Fred is the name of his partner of 53 years)
In addition to Gerhard Richter and Leonard Cohen, I can add photographer, poet, and painter Duane Michals, now 81, to the list of artists I want to be like in later life who, rich with years of accumulated experience, are now better at their craft than ever and still growing. Duane, whose exhibition of painted photographs is on view at D.C. Moore Gallery through April 27th, was one of my earliest influences. In the early 70s, when I was just beginning to paint, I saw his work in books at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and was struck by their peculiarity, inventiveness, and tender emotion. These were stories told with staged photographs, later underscored with enigmatic handwritten notes, and even later, painted embellishments. (He was also unafraid to depict a sweet, unabashed homosexuality that was ahead of its time.) I was then so careful and self-conscious about everything I did, it impressed me that he was willing to scrawl on his photographs with such an unaffected hand. Along with the paintings of Joan Snyder, which I discovered around the same time, they inspired me, in 1976, to begin incorporating words into my work. After I came to New York we were involved with the same gallery, Sidney Janis, and collaborated on projects for Art & Antiques (then a truly literary magazine, whose editors encouraged me to invent stories around ideas rather than events), for which Duane photographed Nam June Paik, George Segal, Louise Nevelson, and James Rosenquist.
At his interview and book-signing Thursday at the gallery, Duane admitted that his theme is love, and said that he didn't think he'd captured it yet. I don’t think of myself as particularly emotional, but when I stood to mention the early piece I feel perfectly embodies that sentiment, This photograph is my proof (1974), I surprised myself by getting all choked up. I can’t think of another work of art (outside of Cat Stevens’ song, “Wild World,” which just has too many personal associations) that could affect me like that.
Random notes from the evening:
Poetry is the courage to speak out loud.
Creative people never solve their problem; it's like an itch you can't scratch.
When you get older you should be completely silly.
The old fool does something because it's real and true.
I never learned the limits of photography because I didn't go to photography school and had nothing to unlearn.
Poetry is only a suggestion, a hint, a simulacra.
Facts lie more than poets, and poets lie all the time.
On his own poetry: I was forced to write about what you couldn’t see in the photograph.
You always have to be on the edge of failure, teetering on disaster.
When painters get involved in photography, it's like slumming.
Before the Cubists, there were no Cubists.
There was no precedent for Cubism, and it still reverberates.
I don't like art where I have to participate—participation is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
You can't be too rich, too thin, or have too many idiosyncrasies.
Art is all about freeing yourself, and becoming vulnerable.
Your poetry lies in your failure and vulnerability—otherwise you're not a poet.
Schedule? I can only write when I'm moved to write, paint when I’m moved to paint.
I recommend becoming an old person.
"This photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon when things were still good between us, and she embraced me, and we were so happy. It did happen. She did love me. Look see for yourself!" Duane Michals, 1974.
A description of the exhibition from The New Yorker here.
An unattributed profile from the current permutation of Art & Antiques here.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
I saw Leonard Cohen in concert, at Radio City last Sunday, part of his extensive “Old Ideas” world tour. A friend wanted to go. I won’t admit how much the tickets cost—something ridiculous—but then I read son Matt’s review of the tour in Rolling Stone, and was convinced. Later he said, “It doesn’t make any difference if he’s bad or good; he’s an icon of our times. I saw Bob Dylan and he was terrible, but I’m still glad I did.” I saw Dylan around the same time, and can agree, although have never gotten over the rotten Neil Young show that ruined him for me forever.
Well it turned out to be one of the greatest musical experiences in a lifetime of great musical experiences. Cohen is 78, and instead of being one of those performers whose later shows generate nostalgia for his younger self, he’s at the top of his form. Growing instead of fading, this show is—as it should be—a synthesis of everything he’s learned over the years. It’s as if he was always meant to be 78.
Perhaps Cohen’s deepening artistry has to do with his practice of Zen Buddhism, which I gently mocked in a post in 2008. Actually it wasn’t the practice, which I certainly respect, that bugged me, but the sanctimonious rhetoric that characterizes so much writing about New Age pursuits. Of course Louise Bourgeois’s artistry grew with age as well, and she was (in my experience) as neurotic as they come—sometimes delightfully and other times not-so-delightfully so. Fortunately, for those of us who love her work, the early childhood issues on which it was based remained unresolved.
A lean, elegant figure, Cohen is a showman, and from the moment he walks on, in his (no doubt) bespoke suit and fedora, the stage is his. The show was a generous 3 ½ hours long – and I have a feeling he took on the length as a challenge: “Can I keep you on the edge of your seat for 3 ½ hours? Yes I can.” Cohen is also a collaborator who surrounds himself with musicians who are, if not his equal, close to it, and showcases their talents, often kneeling in front of them, fedora to heart, as they perform (he nimbly dropped to his knees and bounced back up many times during the evening, and at the end, skipped off the stage). His back-up singers, the ethereal Webb Sisters, whose intertwined harmonies often sound like one divine voice, were the perfect foil for his gravelly vocals. They were joined by Sharon Robinson, who has co-written a number of Cohen’s songs, and whose solo, “Alexandra Leaving,” brought down the house. No obligatory applause here. Other standouts were traditional Spanish guitarist Javier Mas, from Barcelona, and Alexandru Bublitchi on violin, whose inter-weavings were almost as tight as those of the Webb Sisters.
And yet, after spending 3 ½ hours with him, Leonard Cohen remains unknowable. I’m sure each concert on the tour is exactly the same: same music, same patter, with no opportunity for spontaneity—not that it matters. He spoke of wanting to start smoking again when he’s 80, yet I’m sure he doesn’t mean it, as meditation practice is all about the breath—master the breath, master your life. He just wants to appear to be someone who would smoke, as if trying to associate himself with a little bit of decadence he can no longer muster. I always thought authenticity was the key to art, but in Cohen’s case the mask works. He gives everything, and reveals nothing. Way to go.
Friday, March 29, 2013
To rephrase Karl Marx’s famous quote, “History repeats itself, first as art, second as farce” (Thank you, Peter Frank)
I was in a gallery somewhere in Chelsea last week, a group show—I've conveniently blocked out exactly where—when I had to walk around someone lying under a blanket on the floor, supposedly a work of art. And I thought, OMG, when will it end? When will people stop thinking this is new already? Maybe it was interesting once, but now it’s just annoying.
Moments like that make me ashamed for the art world. But then there was Sigur Rós Monday night at Madison Square Garden. A band of three that collaborates with 20-30 classically trained musicians who’ve been influenced by rock and traditional Icelandic music, Sigur Rós’s sound is uncategorizable (more info and video here). Without a word of English except Jonsi’s modest “Thank you for coming,” their synergy of music and projected visuals was so emotionally calibrated that it kept the audience of more than 15,000 transfixed for two hours, and at the end—taking it down perfectly by concluding with the same piece they started with—stunned (everyone, that is, except the Times’s Ben Ratlif, who must have a ear of tin and a heart of stone). It was a singular human achievement, which is what I want from art, not just someone lying on the floor.
Friday, March 22, 2013
The current state of feminism has occupied my mind lately, not the least because a poem I wrote 20 years ago, essentially a feminist manifesto, has gone viral. I never posted it, as it was written before the rise of the Internet, but it’s in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which won the National Book Award in 1994 and is still in print. The good news (for those older women who have lamented what they perceive as a lack of feminist fire in the younger generation) is that it’s young women who are posting it. The bad news is that it indicates that women’s experience has barely changed in 20 years. In this case, it's not fun to have written a poem that stands the test of time.
I wrote it after my fellow poet, Denise Duhamel, and I were two of four judges in a poetry slam at the Nuyorican. A couple of very young Latino guys had just performed a piece that referenced women’s genitals in a derogatory way, and Denise and I caused a ruckus because we insisted on abstaining from voting; we felt our job was to rate the quality of the poem, not the content, but in this case the content was, to us, unacceptable. For the Men Who Still Don’t Get It, which I performed the next week, was an attempt to get them to see the world from our point of view. And, some of them told me afterward, it worked.
For the Men Who Still Don’t Get It (Carol Diehl)
all women were bigger and stronger than you
and thought they were smarter
women were the ones who started wars
too many of your friends had been raped by women wielding giant dildos
and no K-Y Jelly
the state trooper
who pulled you over on the New Jersey Turnpike
was a woman
and carried a gun
the ability to menstruate
was the prerequisite for most high-paying jobs
your attractiveness to women depended
on the size of your penis
every time women saw you
they'd hoot and make jerking motions with their hands
women were always making jokes
about how ugly penises are
and how bad sperm tastes
you had to explain what's wrong with your car
to big sweaty women with greasy hands
who stared at your crotch
in a garage where you are surrounded
by posters of naked men with hard-ons
men's magazines featured cover photos
of 14-year-old boys
tucked into the front of their jeans
and articles like:
"How to tell if your wife is unfaithful"
"What your doctor won't tell you about your prostate"
"The truth about impotence"
the doctor who examined your prostate
was a woman
and called you "Honey"
you had to inhale your boss's stale cigar breath
as she insisted that sleeping with her
was part of the job
you couldn't get away because
the company dress code required
you wear shoes
designed to keep you from running
And what if
after all that
women still wanted you
to love them.
After I wrote in a recent post about how, in the mid-eighties, seeing Basquiat's work caused me to stop exhibiting my paintings, a Facebook friend responded: " ...too bad, but understandable. You shouldn't have stopped, Carol."
Maybe, but I had to.
Looking back, I know I absolutely could not have worked out what I did if I’d stayed in the ring. I needed to abandon all other considerations, all other expectations. Success gets a bad rap these days but in its right place, I’m all for it. The success I had early on was the encouragement I needed to define myself as an artist. Success can often make you bigger and better, as you rise to occasions, meet expectations, and surprise yourself by going beyond them. It made me an artist. But then there came a time when the only way to get at the nub of what I was doing was to give it all up, even actively work against any possibility of outside interest. With no one watching, I had complete freedom to fail—or maybe “flail” is a better word. That 10-year period of working undercover culminated in the journal paintings, and another significant burst of public activity that lasted several years. The final paintings in that series, exhibited at Gary Snyder in 2002, represented the apex of more than 30 years of work. Afterward, having developed them as far as they could go, I needed to regroup, start from zero. This meant withdrawing again, as I felt unable to “find myself” or evolve as an artist in public. I'm not saying this is true for everyone, just what was true for me, and not a path I'd necessarily recommend, as it can be rather uncomfortable. It has helped that writing, an activity I see entirely as "research" for my painting, has enabled me to stay in the general conversation, whether my painting is or not. And believe me, all this is clear only in retrospect; I had no idea what I was doing at the time or why. It was simply what I had to do to keep my process interesting to me, to keep it alive and myself engaged. And right now I’m more engaged than ever. I’m also confident that I’ve finally learned enough about myself and my process that I can sustain it in or out of the public eye.
Carol Diehl, Resolutions (Blue Quad), 2002, oil on canvas, 96" x 82".
Carol Diehl, untitled (as yet), 2013, graphite and ink on paper, 12" x 16".
Friday, March 15, 2013
Exactly 37 years ago, on the Ides of March, I moved from Chicago to New York to work as John Coplans’ assistant at Artforum. At the CAA convention in Chicago a couple of months before, manning the booth for The New Art Examiner, I met Coplans and asked him to let me know if he heard of a job in New York. Mind you, I had no intention of moving anywhere; I said it because I wanted to appear worldlier than my young, green, Midwestern self. I wanted to see what it would feel like to be someone who would actually say things like that.
So when Coplans called and offered me the job I was stunned. He also gave me only three days to decide and ten days to get myself there. My children were in Chicago, living with my husband—how could I leave? But my artist friends were insistent. At the time Artforum was the sun that rose and set on the art world; it was like being invited to Oz by the Wizard himself. A creature of the suburbs and married at 19, I didn't know New York, had never been to the museums and galleries I’d read about, so decided that if I could find a place to stay, I’d go for a couple of months and treat it like a work/study program. Coplans could always find another assistant.
When I called Spanish artist Àngels Ribé, who’d spent time in Chicago, and asked if she knew of an apartment, she said she was looking for a roommate. It seemed meant to be—except Àngels lived on the Bowery. My friend, Barry Holden, had visited her there, so I asked him, “Aren’t there like bums and stuff on the Bowery?” “Oh no,” he said, “it’s been gentrified. There are galleries and boutiques all up and down.” (This was 1976.)
My friends who worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art packed my stereo system like art and I took it on the plane with me, along with my suitcases (those were the days!). When the taxi dropped me off in front of 331 Bowery, Àngels didn’t answer my ring, and as I waited, my boxes attracted the curiosity of the denizens of the street who surrounded me. I looked around for the galleries and boutiques but didn’t see any. Maybe they were on the next block. I tried to drag my belongings into the ground-floor shop but the owner wasn’t having it. Could I use the door that entered into the hallway? “It doesn’t work,” he said, “hasn’t since the fire.” When was the fire? “Last Thursday.”
Finally Àngels came bouncing down the street in the company of one of (I found out later) a string of handsome boy friends, and they helped me take my things upstairs. The next day, having stepped over a drunk on the floor of our foyer, I took the subway to the Artforum offices on Madison Avenue. When later I asked Coplans why he gave me so little time to make the move, he said, “I knew if I gave you more, you wouldn’t come.” And when, after having searched the Bowery from one end to the other, I asked Barry about the galleries and boutiques, he said, “I knew if I told you the truth, you wouldn’t go.”
JOHN COPLANS, Self portrait, (SP 8 88), Front Hand Pinched,1988, photograph, ed. 12, circa 52x64cm