Saturday, April 20, 2013

Duane Michals at D.C. Moore

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

Leonard Cohen at Radio City

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.

Times review here, Newsday here.