Sunday, July 25, 2010

Summer reflections on Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, Rotoreliefs (1935), Alan Koppol Gallery, Chicago.

Do leave comments, even if it’s just to say hi, because even though I can see the stats, I often forget that there are real people out there. I’ve been in that state of forgetfulness since coming back from Europe, and then last night went to Brenda Goodman’s opening at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson, NY, where I ran into a bunch of people I hadn’t met before who were totally up-to-date on my peregrinations. It’s a funny feeling, but nice.

Also the heat has taken me over, my big obsession being whether or not I should get air conditioning (which I haven’t needed before) for the studio—a major expense. By the time I make up my mind, we’ll be into another Ice Age.

So since I’m not generating original ideas, I’ll put forth those of another—Marcel Duchamp, with whom I seem to agree about everything. Calvin Tomkins’s biography titled, not surprisingly, Duchamp: A Biography, is without a doubt the best biography of an artist I’ve read (don’t get slowed down by the first chapter but save it for the end, when it’s more meaningful). I got the book out to lend to a friend—perfect summer reading—and then kept it to peruse the phrases I highlighted back in 1996.

Duchamp, who used to say that the artist never really knew what he was doing or why, declined to offer any such explanations for The Large Glass. One of his pet theories was that the artist performed only one part of the creative process and it was up to the viewer to complete that process by interpreting the work and assessing its permanent value. (p.11)

“I do not believe that art should have anything in common with definitive theories that are apart from it. That is too much like propaganda.” (p. 152)

Works of art could not be understood by the intellect, [Duchamp] maintained, nor could their effect be conveyed in words. The only valid approach to them was through an emotion that had “some analogy with religious faith or sexual attraction—an esthetic echo. This echo, however, was heard and appreciated by very few people. It could not be learned—either you had it or you did not—and it had nothing whatsoever to do with taste, which was merely a parroting of established opinion. “Taste gives a sensuous feeling, not an esthetic emotion,” Duchamp said, “Taste presupposed a domineering onlooker who dictates what he likes and dislikes, and translates it into beautiful and ugly, whereas “the ‘victim’ of an esthetic echo is comparable to that of a man in love or a believer…when touched by esthetic revelation, the same man in an almost ecstatic mood, becomes receptive and humble.”

I don’t think you would've caught Marcel writing an artist’s statement.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I Am Love

Tilda Swinton in "I Am Love"

I’m still in the afterglow of Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love,” which I saw the other night. Even though I linked to it, don’t watch the trailer, which is not only a spoiler, but offers a series of staccato bytes from a piece that unfolds its subtle surprises with a tempo of its own. Just be sure see it while it’s still on the big screen, because it’s a film to sink into, be totally immersed, all senses stimulated. Especially in these bombastic times, the level of subtlety and restraint is extraordinary. Enhanced by oblique cinematography and editing, the narrative-free story is told with the slightest of clues, its intensity sustained because we’re shown only the events that directly contribute—such as the engagement party but not the wedding, nor the patriarch’s funeral—after handing over his assets, we know he must surely have died because he’s not in the final scenes. My friend, Petria, who I saw it with, said, “He (Guadagnino) trusts us to fill in the blanks” and later I found an interview with Tilda Swinton who talked about “giving the viewer ownership.”

While critical opinion ranged from “artistic triumph” to “artsy mishmosh”, it’s surprising that many critics would choose to call this “melodrama,” which is characterized by “exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts.” Here the characters are under, rather than over-acted, and hardly stereotypical—the cuckolded husband isn’t even a meanie--and the much of the drama occurs around a serving of soup.

‘I Am Love” was developed by Guadagnino and Swinton over a period of nearly a decade (Swinton interview), and which resulted in an attention to detail that could not have been hurried. The aggressively modern, symmetrically rhythmic score, a composite of existing pieces by contemporary composer John Adams, is nearly another character in the film (I wrote this before finding a video interview with Guadagnino about his process where he says that very thing), and played almost perversely against mood—urgent and insistent during languid scenes, tantalizing lighter during those more emotionally charged. (Guadagnino has said that he doesn’t like being “told by the music what to feel.”)  And the subtle inclusion of Elliot Smith’s “Pretty (Ugly Before),” by an artist who, before his tragic death, never found his place in this world, is more than indie music dropped in for its cool factor, but the perfect allusion to the daughter’s inner turmoil over her secret life, still playing on her iPod (i.e. in her head) as she greets her family.

My only complaint is that the ending is a little too abrupt and inconclusive, reminding me of Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” where it seemed the director didn’t know what to do with his protagonist, so he just blew her up.

Two other characters in the film: the house and the food. The house is Villa Necchi Campiglio, and can be found on, a website of historic house museums. The food in the film was real so that the reactions to it would be real, and prepared by Milan chef Carlo Cracco, who runs the Michelin two-star restaurant Cracco.  Both might justify a trip to Milan.

Cracco's soup in "I Am Love"


Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I’m back. Sort of. Some moving parts may still be hovering over the Atlantic. Usually blog posts just come bubbling out of me, but in this heat nothing is bubbling; the brain cells are stuck. Every day the forecast calls for precipitation, but does it ever happen? My own forms of the rain dance, so efficacious in the past—refusing to carry an umbrella, going out with all the windows and skylights open, leaving garden tools out overnight—have not yet gotten the attention of the Gods, who are clearly Spanish and still off celebrating the World Cup. My resolution for today is to find the connector cable for my camera and download my photos…but in the meantime I’ll leave you with this exquisite piece of music by the 23-year-old Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds (yes, one third of all male Icelanders are named Olafur, including their President), whose new album ...and they have escaped the weight of darkness got me through yesterday.