Friday, March 29, 2013

Life on display: Tilda Swinton at MoMA


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

For the Men Who Still Don't Get It




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 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)

What if
all women were bigger and stronger than you
and thought they were smarter

What if
women were the ones who started wars

What if
too many of your friends had been raped by women wielding giant dildos
and no K-Y Jelly

What if
the state trooper
who pulled you over on the New Jersey Turnpike
was a woman
and carried a gun

What if
the ability to menstruate
was the prerequisite for most high-paying jobs

What if
your attractiveness to women depended
on the size of your penis

What if
every time women saw you
they'd hoot and make jerking motions with their hands

What if
women were always making jokes
about how ugly penises are
and how bad sperm tastes

What if
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

What if
men's magazines featured cover photos
of 14-year-old boys
with socks
tucked into the front of their jeans
and articles like:
"How to tell if your wife is unfaithful"
or
"What your doctor won't tell you about your prostate"
or
"The truth about impotence"

What if
the doctor who examined your prostate
was a woman
and called you "Honey"

What if
you had to inhale your boss's stale cigar breath
as she insisted that sleeping with her
was part of the job

What if
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.

On success, and other maladies....


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

March 15 reflections


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

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Best Chelsea art day ever



JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT
Untitled (Julius Caesar on Gold), 1981
Acrylic and oil paintstick on canvas
50 x 50 inches  (127 x 127 cm)
© The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris, ARS, New York 2013


Every year at this time my friend, Terry Perk, comes from England with his students from the University for the Creative Arts and I take them on a gallery tour of Chelsea. Last year the art was so bad I was embarrassed for New York. This year it was a feast, although really, the Basquiats alone would have made the trip worthwhile. Terry says they don’t really know Basquiat in England; there have been no major shows, and the printed images give no indication of their power.

Basquiat had a formidable effect on my life – to the point that in the mid-1980s I stopped painting and withdrew from the gallery I was about to join. I envied the freedom in his work and hated what I saw as orderliness and constraint in mine. I thought, “If I can’t do that, why bother?” My absence from the studio lasted only a few months, but I would not show for another ten years, which was how long it took me to learn to appreciate what was, if uncomfortably, indelibly mine. My method was to make paintings so personal that no one would be interested in exhibiting them. Proof of this is that my first painting from that time, All the Numbers in My Head includes my Social Security number and my AmEx number. I had used writing in my paintings since 1976, but often it was obscured. Now, since I was sure no one was going to see them, I could be more revealing. Eventually they turned into paintings derived from my journals that were ultimately shown at the same gallery I'd been talking to ten years before – although that was pure coincidence since, in the interim, the gallery had a complete change of personnel. Seeing the Basquiats today, those spooky Boettis down the street—preceded by the work of Suzan Frecon and the late Alan Uglow, artists with whom I’ve had connections in the past—is almost too much to process. All of those exhibitions I’ve now been to several times, each visit more satisfying than the next, as well as the transfixing video by Ragnar Kjartansson at Luhring Augustine, with whom my relationship is, at least as yet, uncomplicated.


Carol Diehl, January1997
Oil on canvas, 36" x 36"


To see:

John Byam / Edlin / 134 Tenth Ave. / thru 3/16

Alan Uglow organized by Bob Nickas / Zwirner / 519 W 19 / thru 3/23

Suzan Frecon / Zwirner / 525 W 19 /

Matthew Weinstein; Elger Esser / Sonnabend / 536 W 22 /

Alighiero Boetti / Gladstone / 515 W 24 /

Ragnar Kjartansson / Luhring Augustine / 531 W 24 / thru 3/18

Andrew Masullo / Boone / 541 W 24 / thru 4/27

Jean-Michel Basquiat / Gagosian / 555 W 24 / thru 4/6

Thomas Nozkowski / Pace / 508 W 25 / thru 3/23

Thomas Nozkowski (drawings) / Pace / 511 W 25

Anthony McCall; James White / Kelly / 475 Tenth Avenue @ 36

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Boetti and me


The Alighiero e Boetti exhibition is at Gladstone Gallery until March 23rd, and I have been twice. My life has been full of so many unexplainable synchronistic events that I don’t know why I should be surprised when another crops up, but my relationship to this artist is one of the spookiest. As I wrote previously, I didn’t know Boetti’s work until my dealer at the time, Frank del Deo of Hirshl & Adler, pointed out that some of my paintings were nearly identical to his. This was in 1995; Boetti died in 1994. Of course I looked up his work, and—yikes!—it was like looking at myself. The configuration, the colors, the stylized letters were the same—the only difference was that the Boettis were embroidered and mine were painted. Okay, it could just be those few paintings, but the more I learned about Boetti, the more similarities I found. At the recent MoMA retrospective, for instance, I discovered that he had employed the same way of writing script over script to obscure it that I had, and that he made works with round Avery press-on labels – which I have drawers full. The physical proportion of all of our work is nearly the same. Even the pieces I didn’t do anything like feel familiar, like something I could have done had I followed the thread. This time at Gladstone I found walls full of small pieces that echo a moment in my life when I made small square gridded paintings with friends’ names as gifts….every time I see a piece of his, it’s a shock, like unexpectedly catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror. And what does it all mean? Absolutely nothing. That’s the weirdest part.

Carol Diehl, Journal of a Year, 1995, oil on canvas, one panel of four, each 80" x 48"


OGGI VENTICINQUESIMO GIORNO OTTAVO MESE DELL ANNO MILLE NOVE 100 OTTANTOTTO ALL AMATO PANTHEON INCONTRI E SCONTRI (1988), embroidery on fabric; 40 1/2 x 43 1/2 inches (102.9 x 110.5 cm). Courtesy Gladstone Gallery.