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Thursday
Oct292009

In Which Our Upstairs Neighbor Is A Major Painter

with fairfield porterJane Freilicher

by JOHN ASHBERY

I first met Jane Freilicher one afternoon in the early summer of 1949.

james schuyler, ashbery and kochI had recently graduated from Harvard and had somewhat reluctantly decided to move to New York, having been simultaneously rejected by the graduate school of English at Harvard and accepted at Columbia. Kenneth Koch, who had graduated the year before me, had been urging me to come and live in New York. He was at the time visiting his parents in Cincinnati, and told me I could stay in his loft (loft?) till he got back; his upstairs neighbor Jane would give me the keys. Accordingly I found myself ringing the bell of an unprepossessing three story building on Third Avenue at Sixteenth Street. Overhead the El went crashing by; I later found that one of Kenneth's distractions was to don a rubber gorilla mask and gaze out his window at the passing trains.

After a considerable length of time the door was opened by a pretty and somewhat preoccupied dark haired girl, who showed me to Kenneth's quarters on the second floor. I remembered that Kenneth had said that Jane was the wittiest person he had ever met, and found this odd; she seemed too serious to be clever, though of course on needn't preclude the other. I don't remember anything else about our first meeting; perhaps it was that same day or a few days later that Jane invited me in to her apartment on the floor above and I noticed a few small paintings around. "Noticed" is perhaps too strong a word; I was only marginally aware of them, though I found that they did stick in my memory.

As I recall, they were landscapes with occasional figures in them; their mood was slightly Expressionist, though there were areas filled with somewhat arbitrary geometrical patterns. Probably she told me she had done them while studying with Hans Hofmann, but it wouldn't have mattered since I hadn't heard of him or any other member of the New York School at that time. My course in twentieth-century art at Harvard had stopped with Max Ernst. (For academic purposes it was OK to be a Surrealist as long as the period of Surrealism could be seen as being in the past, and things haven't changed much since.)

max ernst & dorothea tanningDespite or because of our common trait of shyness, Jane and I soon became friends, and I met other friends of hers and Kenneth's, most of whom turned out to be painters and to have had some connections with Hofmann. (This is not the place to wonder why the poets Koch, O'Hara, Schuyler, Guest and myself gravitated towards painters; probably it was merely because the particular painters we knew happened to be more fun that the poets, though I don't think there were very many poets in those days.)

Al Kresch, Near CoshectonThere was Nell Blaine, whom the others seemed in awe of and who differed from them in championing a kind of geometric abstraction inflected by Léger and Hélion. There were Larry Rivers, Robert de Niro and Al Kresch, who painted in a loose figurative style that echoed Bonnard and Matisse but with an edge of frenzy or anxiety that meant New York; I found their work particularly exciting. And there was Jane, whose paintings of the time I still don't remember very clearly beyond the the fact that they seemed to accommodate both geometry and Expressionist surges, and they struck me at first as tentative, a quality I have since come ot admire and consider one of her strengths, having concluded that most good things are tentative, or should be if they aren't.

At any rate, Jane's work was shortly to change drastically, as were mine and that of the other people I knew. I hadn't realized it, but my arrival in New York coincided with the cresting of the "heroic" period of Abstract Expressionism, as it was later to be known, and somehow we all seemed to benefit from this strong moment even if we paid little attention to it and seemed to be going our separate ways. We were in awe of de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko and Motherwell and not too sure of exactly what they were doing.

merce cunninghamBut there were other things to attend to: concerts of John Cage's music, Merce Cunningham's dances, the Living Theatre, but also talking and going to movies and getting ripped and hanging out and then discussing it all over the phone: I could see all of this entering into Jane's work and Larry's and my own. And then there were the big shows at the Museum of Modern Art, whose permanent collection alone was stimulation enough for one's everyday needs. I had come down from Cambridge to catch the historic Bonnard show in the spring of 1948, unaware of how it was already affecting a generation of younger painters who would be my friends, especially Larry Rivers, who turned from playing jazz to painting at that moment of his life. 

Bonnard, Model in BacklightAnd soon there would be equally breathtaking shows of Munch, Soutine, Vuillard and Matisse, in each of whom - regardless of the differences that separate them - one finds a visceral sensual message sharpened by a shrill music or perfume emanating from the paint that seemed to affect my painter friends like catnip.

Soutine, in particular, who seems to have gone back to being a secondary modern master after the heady revelation of his Museum of Modern Art show in 1950, but whose time will undoubtedly come again, was full of possibilities for painters and poets. The fact that the sky could come crashing joyously into the grass, that trees could dance upside down and houses roll over like cats eager to have their tummies scratched was something I hadn't realized before, and I began pushing my poems around and standing words on end.

Soutine's "View of Ceret"It seemed to fire Jane with a new and earthy reverence toward the classic painting she had admired from a distance, perhaps, before. Thus she repainted Watteau's "Le Mezzetin" with an angry, loaded brush, obliterating the musician's features and squishing the grove behind him into a foaming whirlpool, yet the result is noble, joyful, generous: qualities that subsist today in her painting, though the context is calmer now than it was then.

The one thing lacking in our privileged little world (privileged because it was a kind of balcony overlooking the interestingly chaotic events happening in the bigger worlds outside) was the arrival of Frank O'Hara to kind of cobble everything together and tell us what we and they were doing. This happened in 1951, but before that Jane had gone out to visit him in Ann Arbor and painted a memorable portrait of him, in which Abstract Expressionism certainly inspired the wild brushwork rolling around like so many loose cannon, but which never loses sight of the fact that it is a portrait, and an eerily exact one at that.

After the early period of absorbing influences from the art and other things going on around one comes a period consolidation when one locks the door in order to sort out what one has to make of it what one can. It's not a question - at least I hope it isn't - of shutting oneself off from further influences: these do arrive, and sometimes, although rarely, can outweigh the earlier ones. It's rather a question of conserving and using what one has acquired. The period of Analytical Cubism and its successor Synthetic Cubism is a neat model for this process, and there will always be those who prefer the crude energy of the early phase to the more sedate and reflective realizations of the latter.

Picasso's "Still Life With Chair Chaning"Although I have a slight preference for the latter, I know that I would hate to be deprived of either. I feel that my own progress as a writer began with my half-consciously imitating the work that had struck me when I was young and new; later on came a doubting phase in which I was examining things and taking them apart without being able to put them back together to my liking.

I am still trying to do that; meanwhile the steps I've outlined recur in a different order over a long period of within a short one. This far longer time is that of being on one's own, of having "graduated" and having to live with the pleasures and perils of independence.

In the case of Jane Freilicher one can see similar patterns. After the rough ecstasy of the Watteau copy or a frenetic Japanese landscape she once did from a postcard came a phase in the mid-1950s when she seemed to be wryly copying what she saw, as though inviting the spectator to share her discovering of how impossible it is really to get anything down, get anything right: examples might be the painting done after a photograph by Nadar of a Second Empire horizontale (vertical for the purposes of the photograph) with sausage curls; or a still life whose main subject is a folded Persian rug precisely delineated with no attempt to hide the face of the hard work involved. Her realism is far from the "magic" kind that tries to conceal the effort behind its making and pretends to have sprung full-blown onto the canvas.

Such miracles are after all minor. Both suave facture and heavily-worked over passages clash profitably here, as they do in life, and they continue to do so in her painting, though more subtly today than then. That is what I mean by "tentative." Nothing is ever taken for granted; the paintings do not look as if they took themselves for granted, and they remind us that we shouldn't take ourselves for granted, either. Each is like a separate and valuable life coming into being.

I was an amateur painter long enough to realize that the main temptation when painting from a model is to generalize. No one is ever going to believe the color of that apple, one says to oneself, therefore I'll make it more the color that apples "really" are. The model isn't looking like herself today - we'll have to do something about that. Or another person is seated on the grass in such a way that you would swear that the tree branch fifty feet behind him is coming out of his ear. So lesser artists correct in nature in a misguided attempt at heightened realism, forgetting that the real is not only what one sees but also a result of how one sees it, inattentively, inaccurately perhaps, but nevertheless that is how it is coming through to us, and to deny this is to kill the life of the picture. It seems that Jane's long career has been one attempt to correct this misguided, even blasphemous, state of affairs; to let things, finally, be.

John Ashbery is a poet and critic living in New York. This essay is excerpted from here.

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"This Drift" - Uninhabitable Mansions (mp3)

"Static State" - Uninhabitable Mansions (mp3) highly recommended

"The Brain Is A Slow Wave" - Uninhabitable Mansions (mp3)


Wednesday
Oct282009

In Which Nothing Will Cut New York But A Diamond

Manhattan in Middle Age

by ELIZABETH GUMPORT

New York is a city that looks better from a distance. The gap can be temporal – the poverty of youth becomes, in time, one’s golden freedom – or spatial. A friend from Chicago complained that Manhattan lacked alleyways: in the summer, our garbage stunk and burned on the sidewalks. On the Brooklyn Bridge, the smell disappears, and all you can see are buildings massed at the edge of the island, the offices crowned with lights, glowing like bottles in a dark bar. The boundaries of other cities blur – at what point do the sprawling lights become suburb? – but Manhattan is an island, cut cleanly against the night. As pure image, New York is flawless: tidy, discrete, simple to hold in your mind, and for this reason particularly easy to romanticize. Emblem, icon, colophon: its skyline stands for a story.

It is this fantasy that makes the reality bearable. “There is really only one city for everyone, just as there is one major love” the novelist Dawn Powell wrote in 1953. “New York is my city because I have an investment I can always draw on – a bottomless investment of twenty-one years (I count the day I was born) of building up an idea of New York – so no matters what happens here I have the rock of my dreams of it that nothing can destroy.”
 
Born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, Powell arrived in New York in 1918. The city was the largest in the Western Hemisphere: 2.3 million people lived in Manhattan alone. Her life sounds like the life of many new arrivals: she moved frequently, first renting on West 85th Street, and then West End Avenue, and finally a series of apartments in Greenwich Village. For a time she worked as a typist; once she appeared as an extra in a film. Before she became a novelist, she freelanced: American Agriculturalist, Southern Ruralist, Oil and Gas Journal, a piece on “Pekinese poodles” for Dogdom. She went through a phase of screaming in her sleep.

In 1920, Powell and Joseph Gousha took the ferry to Staten Island for their first date. That November, after addressing a brief letter to her aunt – “please come and give me away next Saturday” – she married Gousha at the Church of Transfiguration, known as the Little Church Around the Corner, on East 29th Street. In the following years, Powell would give birth to an autistic son, who once beat her so hard she had to be hospitalized. Powell drank a lot, Gousha drank more, and they were almost always broke or near-broke.

In Powell’s New York novels, scenes and images accumulate; parties propel, or stand in for, plot. Restaurants and cafes figure prominently in many of her novels; Café Julien, which serves as the hub of The Wicked Pavilion, was inspired by Powell’s beloved Hotel Lafayette, on Washington Square between University Place and Ninth Street. The hotel was demolished in 1950 and replaced with apartments.

Powell’s novels feature artists and editors, writers and failed writers, the “quartette of midnight friends (male) who would not know each other by day but view everybody’s business (particularly their catastrophes) with a philosophic pleasure” and the “completely New York people” who “only remember you when you’ve gone into your fourth printing.” Her subject is the man who believes, or once believed, that “New York loved him as it loved no other young man.”

“… spangled skyscrapers piled up softly against the darkness, tinseled parks were neatly boxed and ribboned with gold like Christmas presents waiting to be opened. Sounds of traffic dissolved in distance, all clangor sifted through space into a whispering silence, it held a secret, and when letters flamed triumphantly in the sky you felt, ah, that was the secret, this at last was it, this special telegram to God—Sunshine Biscuits. On and off it went, Eat Sunshine Biscuits, the message of the city.”
 
In many ways Powell’s life was what one imagines the life of an author to be, at once glamorous and sordid: drinks and debts, famous acquaintances (Edmund Wilson was one, Hemingway another), pithy asides (“I don’t make beds,” Powell said. “I break them.”), and perpetual professional dissatisfaction. Over the years, she bounced from publisher to publisher. For a time she worked with Maxwell Perkins, after whom she named her cat.
 
Powell saw herself as a descendent of Edith Wharton, and her novels as Menippean satires, but believed their subject matter caused critics to dismiss them as frivolous. “This is obviously an age that can’t take it,” Powell complained. "When someone wishes to write of this age—as I do and have done—critics shy off—the public shies off." No subject is in itself serious or unserious: whether something is drama and comedy depends not on the events of the plot but the attitude of the author.

  “Thirty is really the most important age for women. . . They have to be started towards fame or a family by that time, and if they’re not, they’re done for. So you see it’s very necessary that I should crowd the next few years.” Powell often lied about her age.

People think New York changes, but it never does. It doesn’t matter whether the year is 1919 or 2009: the city has always been too expensive and too vicious. A letter Powell wrote to a college friend shortly after her arrival in New York touched on what would become the central themes of her novels. “Beauty,” she stated, “is after all the only thing in the world that matters—not mental or spiritual beauty or any of that lying rot, but splendid physical beauty. . . Let us not mention money—it is so obvious that it is money that makes beauty possible, so that very likely money is the only thing that matters more than beauty.”

What is true is not always nice, and it is true that happiness begets happiness. People who luck into money or beauty find more of it, and more; its early absence only makes its later arrival more unlikely. Money burns, youth melts away, and the failure of one person makes possible the success of another: in Turn, Magic Wheel, a young author uses his friend’s failed marriage to a Hemingway-like figure as fodder for his novel. To survive here, you must protect yourself: “I will be absolutely free,” Powell wrote when a long-term affair ended. “No affections can touch me.” The city demands a novel as hard as itself: “Nothing will cut New York but a diamond.”

Powell’s novels are like New York parties, where familiar faces – ravaged by alcohol, the hour good for going home having long past them by – appear again and again. A number of characters who figure or are mentioned in Turn, Magic Wheel return for A Time To Be Born, set in the early days of World War II.

“Drink,” muses one, “seemed the only protection against the lacerations of his mind, now that he was back in New York, his foot rocking away once more on the touted ladder of success. At this time the famous ladder was propped against nothing and led nowhere, and anyone foolish enough to make the world his oyster was courting ptomaine; yet the ladder tradition was still observed, and until the flames reached them young people were still found going through the motions of climbing.” Later, he tells another character, "Youth is all I demand of a woman."

A title Powell considered but never used: Promiscuity Recollected In Senility

The city that unduly privileges youth also extends it. Powell called Manhattan “the town for middle age. Elsewhere, middle age is surrounded by its grandchildren or young and chaperoned into discretion.” We become addicted to our endless childhoods. Trying to leave proves futile: if New York is bad, everywhere else is worse.

On a trip home to Ohio, Powell found in Cleveland “private homes as big as our public libraries, the beautiful country clubs, the glorification of material conveniences, the vast invincible Magazine Public that in New York we can thank God forget. . . I caught the language again quickly and the familiar combination of open hearts and closed minds that represents so much of the country except New York, where we have closed hearts first, and minds so open that carrier pigeons can fly straight through without leaving a message.”

While working at the MacDowell Colony, Powell learned Edward MacDowell had gone mad on the estate, and wondered if his wife “started this place after his death to see how many other artists would be driven nuts by it, too.”

Once you get out of the game, it’s hard to get back in, and for some people this is reason not to play at all. Even those like Powell, who love the hustle, or are addicted to it, know a world exists across the river. Powell always retained an image of herself as outsider.

In the autobiographical short story “What Are You Doing In My Dreams?” she envisioned a split self, half of which lived by day in New York and “the other half by night with the dead in long-ago Ohio.” Edmund Wilson described Powell’s real theme as “the provincial in New York who has come on from the Middle West and acclimatized himself (or herself) to the city and made himself a permanent place there, without ever, however, losing his fascinated sense of an alien and anarchic society.”

Located to the north of the Bronx in Long Island Sound, Hart Island – accessible, like Staten Island, only by ferry – has served since 1869 the home of New York Cemetery, the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. New York Cemetery is a potter’s field, and each year inmates from Riker’s Island inter over a thousand bodies in its mass graves. When the executor of her estate declined to claim her remains, Powell was buried on Hart Island.

She was lucky: those of us raised in New York have no other half, no dream-island to fall back on when the real city disappoints. We are all New York, and it is the rest of the world that seems unreal. Failure here means failure in full; a life lived elsewhere would be less than a life.

In the end, of course, it hardly matters. Nobody wins the game: youth is all anybody demands of a woman, and we are not so long young. The best we can hope for is to die and be buried in New York.

Elizabeth Gumport is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer from New York City. This is her first appearance in these pages.

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Tuesday
Oct272009

In Which Nature Is Lars Von Trier's Satanic Church

Antichrist 

by JESSICA HOPPER

Akin to Andrea Dworkin, the legendary radical feminist, Lars Von Trier sees the world in full masochistic flower; he refuses to look away from the relentless blunt force trauma of patriarchy.

Antichrist is not the most direct route or noble ways of illustrating it, and his illustration of the nature of women’s suffering—which in this instance is unrestrained and gruesome—has been understood as perpetuating or endorsing that suffering (he was awarded a special, created just for him prize for misogyny at Cannes), rather than bearing witness.

Much has been made of Antichrist’s plotlessness, which has been called perverse and inexplicable, with bits of symbolism and plot from which it is difficult to extract meaning even days after viewing. LVT has called it a dream film, images that haunted him in the deep of his depression, and whether intentioned or not, it’s a film about male hubris. Which might be part of the reason a lot of male critics don’t get it, or call it a horror film.

Women (see Taylor Swift, witch trials etc.) are told throughout their lives, by men--familial, institutional, strangers—that they know better than her. They know what’s best for her body or mind. That she is doing it wrong.

Men grow up with that privilege, that the world values and is interested in their opinion, that however inexpert it might be it counts as (right) knowledge. Their place in the world has conferred them a right of governance.

In Antichrist, following the accidental death of their son while they fucked in the other room (opening sequence, not a spoiler) psychologist He (Willem Dafoe) takes on his depressed wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as patient. 

Operating at cool, composed remove from her grieving hysteria, he prods her with analysis. “I know you better than any doctor can,” he tells her as he embarks into treating her, which she reluctantly begins to cooperate with. He is clinical and flat, whereas she wails and heaves and bashes her head on the toilet bowl. His interventions set up the film's rationality-versus-nature subtext.

Her nature is portrayed as human wildness—while she cannot heal herself, she consoles herself with fucking—which could be read as an attempt to connect with her good doctor husband, reel him back into peerage, into empathy and not authority. Fucking seems the only pleasure she is capable of, her only circumstance of power.

In order to make her confront her fears, the couple—identified only as He and She—head to their cabin, Eden, which may or may not double as hell. Once they arrive, He begins to become haunted by his own fears, by the irrational, by all that he cannot control—his wife, an oak tree, a talking fox with a Black Metal voice.

Werner Herzog’s description of the jungle in Burden of Dreams, could serve as Von Trier’s thesis for Eden, which Herzog calls a “curse” and suggests the only harmony in it is “The harmony of overwhelming and collective murder…We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery, overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order.”

Once at Eden, once She tells her husband she is cured, which is when we get the major paradigm shift—where both she and the film itself come loose. What follows his refusal to accept her pronouncement of wellness is, true to LVT form, a fairly untidy everyone-gets-what’s-coming-to-them—He, She, a too-squawky blackbird all get revolting star turns of their own. Her vengeance is brutal, and it’s not particularly gratifying to watch—this isn’t Lady Vengeance or Ms. 45.  

Much has been made (rightfully) of the his n’ hers genital mutilation—though watching what she inflicts on him, I was instantly reminded of introduction to bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Mean, Masculinity and Love: “Women all over the world want men to die so they can live.” So cowed by the life-threatening power of men, they see it as the only way out of their suffering.

In her attempts to untangle from her suffering She does herself in, much the same way; by cutting off her own clit, her resource for pleasure being her only consolation, she is rendering herself inconsolable, unfixable, untamable.

In the final chapter of the film, Von Trier asks us to suppose something about nature, which in the film is suggested to be “Satan’s Church”—a kind of equation, where nature = evil, nature = woman’s nature, women = naturally evil. It’s not a particularly steady equation, but it’s an exaggerated response to the equation which we live with every day: men = rational, rational = good, men = good.

Jessica Hopper is a writer living in Chicago and author of The Girls Guide To Rocking and blogs at tinyluckygenius. This is her first appearance on This Recording.

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"Recording Angel" - Arve Henriksen (mp3)

"Poverty and Its Opposite" - Arve Henriksen (mp3)

"Migration" - Arve Henriksen (mp3)