Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Day in New York

That Saturday—as fresh and blue-skied a spring morning as one could possibly want for a stroll up Fifth Avenue—I walked happily, block after block, a Jersey boy on a pilgrimage to the Upper East Side. I was twenty-four, an aspiring writer in whom certain tastes had already settled deep and firm: favorite author, Truman Capote; favorite band, Blondie; favorite artist, Andy Warhol. Warhol had died a year earlier, and now the much-anticipated Sotheby’s auction of his estate promised a public view of the artist’s massive and wildly eclectic accumulation of possessions, all of which would be on display prior to the auction itself. On display today, April 23, 1988; which was why I, a young man with no interest in auctions and no intention of bidding, was headed to Sotheby’s to seize a once-in-an-eternity opportunity: to walk through a momentary museum of Warhol’s acquisitions before their dispersal.

“That painting looks like the Duchess.”

“Oh, she’d like that. She’s got a fascination with nudes.”

I did not recognize the speakers, but that bit of overheard conversation reached me as soon as I entered Sotheby’s and began milling about. Not far behind me, near the entrance, a television news crew was interviewing a handsome young gay man with a gigantic Mohawk haircut; he told them he was an artist and that his appearance was necessary to attract attention to his art, and he easily connected this concept to Andy Warhol, or perhaps to Warhol’s wig, I don’t recall which; but somehow between his presence and that stray remark of the friends of the Duchess (and was she a genuine Duchess? Or was that a nickname? Or was “she” a drag queen friend of Andy’s?), I felt that I’d stepped into Warhol’s world.

Around me, and in the spaces that I and many other visitors would soon explore, rested Andy’s expansive collection. Beyond the amazing reality that one guy had amassed it all, its oddest attribute was that its mad mix of elements—a Fred Flintstone watch next to a Cartier, junk jewelry next to treasures fit for royalty, American Indian artifacts a stone’s throw from subway-graffiti-inspired paintings—somehow all fit together. As I wandered, the definite unity of the whole wacky assortment made me wonder: Is it possible to have great taste in garbage? And I understood differently a remark Warhol had made: “I just like everything. Everything looks so great.” Because walking through Sotheby’s everything did look great, and I wished it could stay together as a museum. Items that caught my eye, but were only small curiosities on their own, fed into the larger elusive “something” of Andy’s treasure trove. Here, for example, was an Andy Warhol Director’s chair; a display of giant Coke bottles, giant crystals, and a Campbell’s soup can full of smaller crystals; a TV script for Truman Capote’s “Children On Their Birthdays” inscribed “Happy Birthday dearest Andy—Truman”; and art by both the French cartoonist Hergé, who had autographed a pencil Tintin page to Andy, and by John Lennon (a “John Lennon Bag”). Whatever power these things might each hold in isolation couldn’t compare to their role here, as part of a vast network, in tandem with, for example, art deco objects or a brilliant canvas that Warhol had painted with Jean-Michel Basquiat.

In this, their cumulative effect, Warhol’s possessions hinted at a central aspect of his artistic legacy: his uncanny ability to combine two seemingly contradictory qualities, the selectivity of the artist and the inclusiveness of the insatiable collector. Viewed en masse his works are an overwhelming portrait of his times and culture: guns, flowers, celebrities, cows, skulls, balloons, electric chairs, cupids, shoes, money, advertisements, and so on, all in an unprecedented array—and I haven’t even mentioned the soup cans and Brillo boxes (or the films, the live events, the interviews-as-performance-art). While few of his own works were part of the Sotheby’s sale, they were, of course, everywhere in the consciousness of the browsing visitors.

The boldness of his color choices, the innovation of his silk screen technique, and the acuteness with which he selected images that he could position on a pedestal, so to speak, and endow with iconic status (and, despite the acuteness of his selectivity, his ability and desire to find more and more and more such images) allowed him to take in and epitomize American culture with deceptive simplicity (and, make no mistake, a green Mao is an American image, just as a camouflage Statue of Liberty is a deceptively simple way of making multiple statements at once). Like many artists, but with far greater effect than most, Warhol could stand back pokerfaced and let a painting “read” in different ways simultaneously. Is his vision of Marilyn Monroe, in garish make-up and depicted like a mass-produced object, intended as tribute, putdown, critique of Hollywood culture, wisecrack, or deliberate provocation? Is his cow wallpaper art or anti-art; product, décor, affectionate joke? Is his camouflage Statue of Liberty a political statement, an aesthetic statement, or “merely” a conflation of two aspects of American culture? Are his works charged primarily with philosophy or with the profit motive? Are they symbolic, symptomatic, or existentially empty?

To say his ironic wit was double-edged is a reduction: in his best paintings the possibilities are far more than double and the wit unquantifiable. He combined the virtues of abstraction (ambiguity that allows for flexibility of meaning and interpretation; near-endless possibilities for decorative and symbolic resonance; freedom from the more stifling aspects of specificity) with the solidity and “thing-ness” of representational art—and while seizing the possibilities before him, he mixed distillation and accumulation in unprecedented ways; he became the artist as consumer of everything.

Admittedly, not all the items at Sotheby’s fed my enthusiasm. I browsed Andy’s bookshelves to peek at what he had read, or perhaps left unopened: the books included The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne; Stardust, a hack biography of David Bowie co-written by a friend of Andy’s; a High Times book of drug lore; Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins; Dali, a book about Warhol’s surrealist hero; and the Ed Koch opus Mayor—nothing I’d be tempted to add to my own bookshelf. All of these books, however, feed in their different ways into or off of the celebrity culture of which he was a part, and in which he made himself into a kind of icon, revered (not always for the right reasons) by younger artists.

*****

When I recall that spring Saturday now, twenty-two years later, it’s not only the Warhol auction that comes to mind but the entire weekend. After I left Sotheby’s I walked to the Whitney Museum of Art and looked at Warhol’s Mao, his Flowers, a Self-Portrait, Green Coke Bottles, and Ethel Scull Thirty-six Times; also Jackson Pollock’s Number 27 (about which I had once written a poem), and many other works for which I had a youthful breathless reverence. Then I headed to the New York Society Library, simply because in his book Music for Chameleons Truman Capote had mentioned it as a “pleasant shelter” where he had met Willa Cather in the late 1940s. The library had, I found, the right ambience for that kind of literary anecdote; tasteful, elegant, and sleek, it fit the image I had conjured of a perfect place to come in from the rain and fill one’s notebook by writing or one’s mind by reading. The essay in which Capote had told the Cather anecdote had originally been written, like much of Music for Chameleons, for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.

Eventually I walked all the way from the Upper East Side through midtown, downtown, and into and around Greenwich Village. Then I took a train back out to New Jersey to see my friend Phil West sing and play guitar that evening at a coffee house called The Other End, on the campus of my alma mater, Drew University. It all made for a long and exhausting day, but a satisfying one. Phil stayed over at my apartment in Morristown—I cooked rice in the wee hours of the morning because he had never eaten dinner and was starving—and on Sunday morning we ate at a favorite local restaurant, Calaloo Café, and discussed Europe: my recent trip to Italy and France, and his experiences there in the past, an “exotic” contrast to our day-to-day lives of mostly menial work and low-budget living.

All these years later, Phil and I are still good friends; and though my cultural tastes have expanded, Capote remains a cherished literary inspiration and Blondie is still my favorite band. As for Warhol—my interest in him waned for some years, having been satiated after I had read thousands of pages by and about him, and had sufficiently experienced his works. At times, however, the bright ingenuity of his paintings still delights me. In the odd way that a life often has of following and weaving together its most resonant threads, my own life led me to several years of work in an art museum that included Warhols in its collection, and later to a publishing job in which I’ve served as publicist for books about Warhol; but these facts are tiny points amid the vast weave of cultural influences in my life and the synchronicities and intersections of those influences with, within, and throughout my reality. When I think back on not merely the “bright ingenuity” of Warhol’s paintings but the bright ingenuity of that long-ago spring day in Manhattan, what resonates is its freshness and my wide-eyed receptiveness, and how well its blue-skied grace looks now, shining like a precious object amid a vast network of collected moments, some of them junk and some of them treasure, but all together suggesting a definite unity, the selectivity of the artist and the inclusiveness of the insatiable collector.

Originally published in the second issue of the Folio Club. Copyright 2010 by Robert Pranzatelli. All rights reserved.

Image: Andy Warhol, Flowers.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Maurice

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the film Maurice, which was released in the U.S. on September 18, 1987 (three days earlier in the U.K.).

I’ve already written—in the context of an earlier consideration of E. M. Forster—of my high regard for the vastly underrated Forster novel of which this film is a faithful adaptation. It’s difficult now to believe that the movie, which holds up splendidly, is already a quarter-century old, and even more difficult to believe that Forster composed the novel a century ago, in 1913-14. (He made important revisions to the manuscript decades later, in both the thirties and the fifties, before leaving it to its posthumous 1971 publication.)

A website called “Cinema Queer” features an excellent review essay about the film, with a number of stills. Though posted a few years ago, the essay is still relevant. Be forewarned, however: like many articles about this book and movie, it gives away the ending.

I read the book before I saw the film, and I began reading with no idea how the story might end. From the first page I thoroughly enjoyed it, but as I neared the final chapter it seemed to me impossible that Forster could resolve the plot in a way that would satisfy me. Ah, but he did—I won’t reveal how—and though the ending may not be to every reader’s taste, I regarded it (and still do) as brave, thrilling, and magnificent.

P.S. The film’s 2002 “Criterion Collection” two-disc DVD release contains a number of genuinely interesting extras, including deleted scenes and short documentaries. I particularly enjoyed the interview clips in which actors James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves—the three charming and talented straight boys cast in this very gay drama—recall with pleasure the making of the film.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tolstoy

Today is Tolstoy’s birthday. I like this description of him given by Professor Nabokov in Lectures on Russian Literature:

Count Leo (in Russian Lev or Lyov) Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a robust man with a restless soul, who all his life was torn between his sensual temperament and his supersensitive conscience. His appetites constantly led him astray from the quiet country road that the ascetic in him craved to follow as passionately as the rake in him craved for the city pleasures of the flesh.

In his youth, the rake had a better chance and took it. Later, after his marriage in 1862, Tolstoy found temporary peace in family life, divided between the wise management of his fortune—he had rich lands in the Volga region—and the writing of his best prose.

Tolstoy’s miracle, as has often been observed, is the sense of life, of lived reality, that permeates his best work, especially Anna Karenina. Open that enormous novel to any page and start reading and you will instantly feel you are in the midst of the characters’ lives, as life is lived daily, in motion—both outward and inward motion. This lifelikeness or “actuality” (as Lionel Trilling called it) has been attributed to various causes: Trilling credited Tolstoy’s moral vision and affection for his characters, Nabokov pointed to Tolstoy’s handling of time.

James Wood has focused on “the physicality of Tolstoy’s details”—brought to the fore in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Anna Karenina, which Wood praised in the New Yorker in 2001. As he points out, Tolstoy “is not interested in telling us what things look like to him [emphasis added], and he is not interested in telling us what else they resemble. This is why he eschews simile and metaphor at these moments of physical description.”

I particularly like Wood’s observation that Tolstoy’s descriptive details portray signs of wear on everyday objects, reflecting their ongoing use and, by extension, the lived day-to-day reality of which they are a part. Furniture, clothing, other household possessions, as well as the objects in the world beyond the home, are all seen in an ongoing state of existence, whether new or used or aged—and here we cross paths again with Nabokov’s consideration of time as a key element; and, as time means for humans a progression toward death, we recall Trilling’s view that it is Tolstoy’s humane feeling for his characters, his moral vision, that is the crux of the matter. The three factors intertwine; the rooms have been lived in and are being lived in; the book is being lived in; and as we read it we enter and live in it too, to a greater extent than with any other author.

Photos: Tolstoy in 1848 (upper) and 1854 (lower), at the ages of approximately twenty and twenty-six—when, as Nabokov put it, “the rake had a better chance and took it.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

Three by Moebius

Here’s a little “art appreciation” exercise with three images by the great Jean Giraud, a.k.a. Moebius. Look closely at the first two to note the differences, not only due to the change from black-and-white to color but also the subtle alterations to the drawing itself. And then compare to the third image which represents a sequential movement. (Click images to enlarge.)

The black-and-white image is from Moebius’s 2008 graphic novel Chasseur déprime (literally Depressed Hunter, but also a play on the term chasseur de prix, bounty hunter).

The color images were created for two limited edition digigraphie prints based on the book and sold through the official Moebius website.

(Images: Jean “Moebius” Giraud.)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In Tribute: Moebius

Images by Jean “Moebius” Giraud (1938-2012), in my view the finest artist in the history of comics. Click for a more detailed view of each.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Virginia Woolf

“I love her strange whirling rhythms,” Truman Capote once said of Virginia Woolf. He claimed not to like her novels—“But I love her criticism and I love her diary.” While I don’t share Capote’s aversion to the novels, among which I would single out To the Lighthouse as Woolf’s masterpiece, I do find those three words “strange whirling rhythms” marvelously apt. For whether in fiction or nonfiction, Woolf’s prose has its own pleasurable, not to say captivating, cadences; the strange whirl of her complex yet always pellucid sentences derives not only from the musicality of her diction and syntax but also from the strange whirl of the ideas beneath the surface, which the prose precisely reflects. “Strange” because the author relentlessly found fresh new angles of approach to her material, which was life, its consciousness and the consciousness of it; “whirling” because in her narrative and rhetorical strategies for both fiction and nonfiction she never stood still, never proceeded in predictable linearity, always whirled in an improbable circle around her subject, within her subject, bringing into the whirl seemingly disparate peripheral subjects, and then, in perfect rhythm, landed with an artful smack onto the dead-center of the target one hadn’t realized she had been after all along, its essence illuminated by her unconventional sweep as it could never otherwise have been. Yes, I too love her strange whirling rhythms.

I appreciate, too, a term that Virginia Woolf used as a genre category: “life-writing”—a useful label for a broad array of work. Woolf applied the term loosely, to biographies, to memoirs and autobiographical essays, and to letters and diaries; and, not surprisingly given her identity as an innovator, the term is suited to a merging of such forms, and seems to imply spontaneity as well. “Life-writing”: direct, intimate attempts at capturing life, and capturing it alive.

This valiant woman, beleaguered by severe mental health crises, once wrote in her diary: “But I will use all my art to keep my head sane.” Part of her greatness stems from her insistent ability to prize and chronicle those moments when, most alive to the reality of beauty, she could revel in the union of language and life, in, for example, a phrase jotted in a journal entry: “A lovely soaring summer day this; winter sent howling home to his arctic.” Or another: “The world swinging round again and bringing its green and blue close to one’s eyes.”

“Art is being rid of all preaching: things in themselves: the sentence in itself beautiful: multitudinous seas…” How perfect, how appealing; yet in place of the “preaching” there are of course silent selections of values, choices; and even when she did wish to “preach” (I’m thinking here of A Room of One’s Own, that most gorgeous lecture-argument), she could make rhetorical magnificence—in a word, art—of the entire proceedings, and finish with four paragraphs (“and please attend, for the peroration is beginning”) that hold a place of honor among my favorite passages in literature.

It wasn’t Virginia Woolf but Colette who said: “Be happy. It’s one way of being wise.” —but Woolf did her best, in regard to both happiness and wisdom, despite ghastly obstacles stacked against her. Literature provided a lifeline again and again. Through her voluminous writings her inspirations are thoroughly documented, her love of English poetry and of Shakespeare and of biographies and histories—and then there is this:
My great adventure is really Proust. … I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.
They were kindred spirits in several ways. She hailed in Proust “his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom.” In these sentences she might as well have been describing her own best efforts. Yet her sensibility, her strategies, her preoccupations and special lyricism, remain entirely her own.

Contemporary editions of her books sometimes quote, on their back covers, a few words of tribute from her friend E. M. Forster: “She pushed the light of the English language a little further against darkness.” In the essay from which that phrase is taken, Forster also noted, in the very same sentence, that “she gave acute pleasure in new ways”—all of which I mention because it’s easy to forget that art at its best is both a remarkable pleasure and a heroic act; in the midst of its wit, insight, and delectability it almost inevitably advances the energies of the truly human.

Virginia Woolf’s birthday is January 25—this Wednesday. I recommend you curl up with at least a few paragraphs of her strange whirling rhythms today or sometime this week.