Friday, November 27, 2009

Thanksgiving with Brigitte Bardot and Ann-Margret

Last night, after the turkey, we watched two films from 1963-64 back-to-back: Brigitte Bardot in Jean Luc Godard’s “Contempt,” and “Viva Las Vegas” with Elvis and Ann-Margret. To my male friends it was high camp, but for me, watching them produced flashbacks of what it was like to grow up in that era: wanting men, wanting them to like you, wanting them to want you, but at the same time having to fend them off on a daily basis, the frustration of having your strengths ignored while being valued for your sexual potential: no one was ever going to understand the damaged woman Bardot played so beautifully in “Contempt”—except, of course, Godard, who somehow managed to see it all, which makes it an oblique but powerful film.

Ann-Margret, then Ann-Margret Olson, was a few years ahead of me at New Trier High School in the Chicago suburbs. One of 3,000 over-achievers in a public school that boasted a fully professional theater facility and a faculty sprinkled with Ph.Ds, Ann-Margret was already an icon—a cheerleader and the star of everything. She was dark-haired and beautiful, with a singing voice that could handle any style. I remember a prom where she sang a jazz song a cappella, holding a room filled with probably 1,000 teenagers rapt. But even though her version of “Heat Wave” in the student variety show was so hot my friend Donna’s parents walked out, it wasn’t her sexiness that stood out—she wasn't provocative at all—but her strength and determination. She didn’t go out with the high school boys; my ex-husband, who was in a band with her briefly, said that it was because she knew she was destined for greater things. Flash forward a couple of years and I’m on vacation somewhere with my parents, watching (I think) the George Burns Show, and there’s Ann-Margret, completely transformed. Her straight, glossy dark hair is now frizzled and red-blond, she’s speaking and singing in an unfamiliar little baby voice and, like her character in “Viva Las Vegas,” acting all weird and coy. I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back it was one of those coming-of-age moments as I wondered, why would she hide her talents and do this to herself? Why would she allow this to be done to her?

A former colleague from Bennington tells me that the current crop of female students wants to disassociate from feminism, clearly not understanding the emotions that prompted it. They don’t want to be angry—perhaps they want to be liked? If so, we’re all in trouble. While it might appear that we’ve gone overboard with the whole sexual harassment thing, talking with my dinner companions last night I recalled what it was like to be female before the culture had those constraints—the high school and college teachers who hit on me and then gave me bad grades, the (two) dentists who would rub themselves against me as they drilled (think of how conveniently the dental chair is situated), doctors who took advantage (how to explain my first gynecological exam to my mother? I didn’t), the Purchasing Agent at Evanston Hospital, who literally chased me, the temp, around his desk. Then there was my only corporate job—at Whitney Communications, which owned Art in America in the mid-to-late 70s—where, among other things, the vice president used to routinely feel my back to see if I was wearing a bra and snap it if I was. That was our world; we took it for granted. Once we discovered we had rights, that we didn’t have to put up with this shit, yes, we were angry. What I love about “Mad Men” (check out this clip) is that it’s not an exaggeration.

Too much of the discussion around feminism is centered on the political action, rather than the culture that provoked it, choking off any serious analysis of where we stand now. I’d love to teach a class focused on the culture of the times, and I’d start with “Contempt” and “Viva Las Vegas.”


Viva Las Vegas:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

While I’m waiting for my friend Richard to call so I can post the best Facebook story ever, can we talk about apps? I’m always wary of writing about this stuff because I figure half of everybody already knows it all, and those who don’t, don’t care. I won’t bore you with the long story of how music technology challenged I’ve been for three years since moving into this house, but the short story is that I had it totally wired for sound at great expense—by a very sweet guy, a coke-head who up and split town leaving a bunch of tangled wires in his wake—and no matter how many experts I’ve employed, I have not been able to get streaming radio to work properly. And as far as I’m concerned, life without streaming radio is not worth living. Well that may or may not have been fixed today, but before my latest tech guru came over, I was leafing through New York magazine at breakfast, and learned that I could circumvent my computer with a free Pandora app for my iPhone. I instantly downloaded it, plugged it into my stereo, and viola! endless wonderful music. My only complaint, and it is small, is that having ascertained my alt rock bent (Radiohead, Pixies, Silversun Pickups) it plays an excess of Death Cab for Cutie (which I don’t really mind, but enough is enough) however I’m confident that with adequate training, it will get over it. Whew!

So I’ve been happily dancing and singing along in the kitchen tonight, preparing my wild rice contribution to my friends’ annual pot luck, and hope everyone has a thankful Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 20, 2009


From the Web, copyright may apply.

Oh my, it’s a rather gloomy time for Art Vent. Today I was saddened to read that Jeanne-Claude died, and I’m sad for Christo; I’ve never known a couple more intertwined. It seems significant to me, and was significant for them, that they were born on the same day, same year. They met through Jeanne-Claude’s mother, for whom Christo was a kind of art project. She commissioned him to paint her portrait and even live in their Paris home for a time, never dreaming that this poor Bulgarian immigrant and her debutante daughter—meant for better things—would take up with each other. They were my neighbors in SoHo, but I really got to know them when we worked together on a cover for TIME’s Planet of the Year, 1989. Ever after we greeted each other as friends; they came to my opening at Gary Snyder in 2002, and invited me to the openings of all their events. Below is an excerpt from a paper I gave on the occasion of The Gates at a symposium presented by the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) at the Guggenheim. Sadly the postcard, which was tacked to the bulletin board in my former loft in SoHo—the only one I ever got with such an ego-gratifying message—fell through a crack behind the built-in desk, never to be seen again.

My first contact with Christo and Jeanne-Claude was In 1989 when, as fine art consultant to TIME Magazine, I proposed commissioning Christo to do the cover of a special issue about the state of the environment: “The Planet of the Year: The Endangered Earth.”

But when I met with them, Christo said, “The idea is banal.”

Jeanne-Claude said, “Christo doesn’t do commissions.”

My deadline was the next Wednesday. “If you change your mind,” I told them, “you can call me at home any time.”

Jeanne-Claude called me at 7:00 Tuesday night. “Christo has an idea.”

The next morning, the art director, Rudy Hoglund, and I went to the studio, where Christo presented his plan to wrap a globe of the earth in semi-transparent plastic, tie it with twine, and photograph it on the sand at Jones Beach with the sun rising behind it. It was the perfect image: the earth bound and enshrouded in a claustrophobic film, with the sunrise a sign of optimism.

Leaving the studio we were walking on air, until Rudy asked me what I’d negotiated about the copyright.

Copyright? It was my first commission for TIME, and I had to admit I hadn’t considered it.

Hearing this, Rudy's face turned bright red and he started stomping up Broadway.

I spent the next weekend on the phone between Jeanne-Claude and TIME’s lawyer, working out the details of a contract that became TIME’s standard agreement with fine artists. In the process I learned a lot about copyright and also about the way Christo and Jeanne-Claude work.

I learned about their openness to possibility. Their decision to refuse all commissions was one that served them, but it didn’t blind them to the one situation that might be different.

I was impressed by their willingness to negotiate a solution that would maintain their integrity in the project without impeding it. It was a remarkable exercise in both flexibility and inflexibility that comes, not from ego, but from recognition of what’s really important.

After it was over, I received a post card that read simply “You were right,” signed: Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

So although the TIME Magazine cover was their smallest public project, it was also the one that reached the most people. And according to newsstand sales, one of the most popular TIME ever ran.

Their work illustrates that even with a minimalist, non-representational approach, high art need not be elite, that artistic rigor and public engagement can indeed go hand in hand. There’s a distinction to be made between work that seeks to be popular by pandering to existing perceptions of what art is, and art that transcends those expectations to create an event that becomes a vehicle for social and esthetic advancement.



Five Films about Christo and Jeanne-Claude by Maysles Films--after watching these unusually candid films you will feel as if they are your old, intimate friends.

Also Christo and Jeanne-Claude, A Biography by Bert Chernow.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why no posts? Because I have no thoughts, no opinions. I am a blob. My mind is a vast wasteland, everything Truitted (see below) out of me. I did make my deadline, though, despite nearly going berserk at the end trying to identify quotes for footnotes (no, I didn’t write them all down, I know, I know), spending last weekend thumbing endlessly through three volumes of index-less memoirs. I’m trying to get up to speed in the studio, doing some work for TIME, but otherwise just want to sit and knit in front of the films about bands Netflix has kindly sent me. The last couple of weeks were intense, travel-write-travel-write, and in the middle Jon Gams, the publisher I worked with at Hard Press Editions, died, leaving a great gap in the art book business. His dedication and vision were rare. Jon was the one who published Mike Glier’s Along a Long Line, which I had a hand in, and also Jerry Saltz’s Seeing Out Louder. I know he was thrilled at the turnout for Jerry’s book launch, the last time I saw him, so he went out on a high.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Truitt, following up...

Actually the comments to the post before last, have turned out to be more interesting than the post itself. There appear to be those who think I’m “overreacting” – a term that has been applied to feminists since the beginning of feminism. Sexism, however, is not dead, as many would like to think, and until it is (assuming that happens in my lifetime) I will continue to make essential distinctions. The catalogue essay for the Truitt exhibition is only the tip of the iceberg, but takes priority as it was officially sanctioned by the museum, and will stand to represent Truitt for years to come. The more ephemeral writing, however, was even more blatant. Along with the Charlie Finch diatribe for Artnet I previously cited, there was Blake Gopnik’s rant in the Washington Post, which counts as the most scathing and sexist writing I’ve ever encountered about an artist, seconded only by Mario Naves when he wrote about Nevelson. Not to speak of Post staff writer Mark Berman‘s appalling article about Truitt entitled “A Dutiful Wife Who Sculpted Her Own Identity” (hard to believe in 2009, but there it is). Even now I’m wondering what it is about Truitt of all artists, that raises the male hackles and causes even women to deal with her on sexist terms.

I’m reminded of an incident that happened 15 years ago (I hope I’m not repeating myself here), when I wrote an article for Art & Antiques about my great-grandmother, an artist and early chiropractor. When it came to the contributor’s blurb, which I insisted on vetting, the twenty-something female editorial assistant had written something like “Diehl has recently gotten a grant to do some paintings of her own. Will they be in the style of her great-grandmother?” I made the magazine pull it, saying that I wouldn’t let the piece run otherwise. That night I was at a dinner with Louise Bourgeois, with whom I was working on another article, and told her what happened. She started pounding the table saying, “It’s not about promoting our art, we must defend it. We must defend our art!” So that’s what I’m doing, for all of us.

Friday, November 6, 2009

I’m too deep into Truitt to write a proper post, but as an addendum to the one below, will note that last night I attended Roberta Smith’s lecture at the New School, sponsored by the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), where she talked about writing description as a way of coming to an understanding about an artwork. She also wrote a review in the Times today of the Roni Horn exhibition at the Whitney that includes a digression on the subject of “curator’s art”:

Ms. Horn’s work has both benefited and suffered from being what might be called “curators’ art.” Curators’ art is indisputably, even innocuously, elegant — with clear roots in Minimal and Conceptual Art and not much else. It tends to be profusely appreciated by a hermetic few, curators, artists and theorists, who fetishize its refinements and often take its creators pretty much at their word. Ms. Horn has always had a lot to say about what her work means and how it is to be viewed, and some of it is quite interesting, but artists don’t own the meaning of their artworks.

Also here you can find the podcast from James Meyer’s gallery talk on Anne Truitt at the Hirshhorn.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Observations on observation

Anne Truit, First, 1961. Latex on wood, 44 1/4 x 17 3/4 x 7 in. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of the artist, Washington, DC. Artwork © Estate of Anne Truitt/The Bridgeman Art Library

Doing research on Anne Truitt (1921-2004) and her current Hirshhorn Museum survey, I’m reading the catalogue essay where curator Kristen Hileman writes:

Not wanting to anchor the work in a linear narrative, or imply that her sculpture in any way ‘illustrated’ a particular event, Truitt herself was reticent to make fully explicit the connections she nevertheless acknowledged between her life and art. Instead she emphasized the importance of the transformation from the specific to the universal in her process.

After stating clearly what the artist would not have wanted, Hileman turns around to do exactly that:

The elucidation of some of the events, places, people, literary references, and philosophies that appear to constitute fragments of the iconography Truitt perceived behind her ultimately irreducible works, however, provides another lens through which to consider Truitt’s unique and highly expressive deployment of the objective language of color and geometry.

Hileman then, throughout the essay, continues to interpret Truitt's work through biography as in:

The two works further appear to convey a sense of the “powerful” and “looming” qualities the artist associated with Asheville’s mountains….” and “Truitt’s childhood encounters in and around fences lend a psychological dimension to the boundary depicted in First

Inanimate sculptures that do not include a video monitor and on which nothing is written cannot “convey” or “appear to convey” anything, and any “psychological dimension” that can be associated with an art work is elicited by the configuration of the work itself, not by specific pre-knowledge of the artist’s history.

Granted Truitt, having published her memoirs in three volumes, invites this sort of exercise more than most, however the dependence of critics and curators on information that is not intrinsic to the work is epidemic—and, because the backstory is so often used to justify or rationalize what's on view, I will even go so far as to say that it’s responsible in large part for the ridiculous amount of bad art we see out there (an artist friend wanted to blame it on the artists, but they’re not the ones making the selections, and further, this kind of thing only encourages them to think that’s what art is).

Interpreters of art seem unable to deal with the object itself and instead rely on externals, often having to do with the artist’s “intention” or political bent or, when dealing with artists like Luc Tuymans or Josh Smith, how their work represents some kind of reaction to the history of painting. But it’s really simple. The work is the work, no matter who did it, when s/he did it, or why s/he did it. Biographical information, such as the fact that Richard Serra had day jobs in steel mills is worth noting if trying to determine how he arrived at his format, but the work itself, that big thing made of metal, is something else entirely. What does it convey or express? Nothing. What are its “psychological dimensions?” None.

While it seems that the function of curators and critics should be to open up the discourse to many interpretive possibilities, this conflation of intent and biography with the work allows for a single reading, too narrow a lens through which to view any artist, especially one as evocative as Truitt.

While in Washington on Friday to see the exhibition and catch James Meyer’s excellent gallery talk (Meyer being the perfect example of an art historian who knows what’s important and what isn’t), I also had lunch with Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, who said he thought that with the advent of photography, writers about art were not so inclined to engage in elaborate description.

If so, this could explain a lot, because for me, it’s through being forced to describe something that I learn what it is and what I really think about it. In fact this is why I write about art at all, because I wouldn’t engage in such a detailed exercise on my own. It’s how I learn, and it’s how I teach students to write about art. In fact I think everyone studying any aspect of the arts should be required to take art writing, not so they can better write their theses or that noxious item we call the artist’s statement, but because through writing description you learn to observe what’s outside—and inside—you. And no matter what the endeavor—be it art, bricklaying, dentistry or cooking—observation is everything.