“The highest which a man can attain is astonishment.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
During the decade following World War Two, a body of artistic work was created that clearly articulated for the first time, a distinctly American aesthetic, independent of European models. This is not to say that celebrated works like The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Appalachian Spring and Roy Harrisʼ Third Symphony are not recognized as American masterpieces; but their American characteristics are expressed through content, rather than form or methods of production. Fitzgerald and Hemingway all furthered their apprenticeship in Europe during the 1920s while Copland and Harris studied in Paris with Boulanger. It remained for the next generation of the avant garde, living for the most part in New York, to create original schools through the modes of Abstract Expressionism, the new chromatic jazz of Be Bop, and the literature of the Beats. The singly most important characteristic of the new American expression was the central role played by spontaneity and improvisation yielding works of astonishing vibrant surface detail.
The emphasis on the spontaneous as an alternative to the careful and rational reflected larger cultural and philosophical issues. In seeking a subjective, existential view of reality, honesty, authenticity, were prized over the objective world view, process over product. Whether expressed in gesture painting, spontaneous bop prosody, or the chromatic flights of bebop, the emphasis was on the experience, rejecting the academic craftsmanship of revision as antithetical to the glorification of the now.This emphasis plus the incorporation of elements from African and Native American sources were interpreted as an attack on the privileged hegemony of the Anglo-American academy. Beat writers were ridiculed by proponents of the New Criticism who vaunted T.S. Eliot as their model. Kerouacʼs spontaneous prose was dismissed as “mere typing” by Truman Capote. While mainstream journals such as Life magazine devoted some attention to abstract art, it was more often of a patronizing nature, referring to Pollock as “Jack the Dripper”. The new jazz faced opposition even within its own ranks, even prompting a revival of New Orleans music, now called “Dixieland”. Louis Armstrong dismissed bop as making about as much sense as “Chinese music”. So with its fusion of modernist complexity with vernacular) or “street”) immediacy the new art represented a third alternative to European elitism and mainstream pop culture. In an even larger context, the avant garde of the late 1940s represented a reaction to Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the Gulag – the latter having a dampening impact on the leftist Communist idealism of the 30s. Whether implicit in words or explicit in painting and music, the avant garde became a central voice in the new bohemian counterculture criticism of United States political and corporate globalization with its strategy of cold war xenophobia and domestic consumerism. The full effect of this will not be fully realized until the mid 1960s when the civil rights movement and opposition to the war in Viet Nam galvanized many to question the policies of the government.
Three artists, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Charlie Parker (1920-1955), and Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), play a central role in the emerging post war avant garde, each incorporating elements of spontaneity to their arts. The outline of their biographies shows many similarities. Roughly of the same generation, each were born and raised in provincial settings, Pollock in Cody, Wyoming, Parker in Kansas City, Missouri, and Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts. Each came from working class blue collar maternally dominated families, with dysfunctional (Pollock and Kerouac) or nonexistent (Parker) relationships with their fathers, Pollock and Kerouac becoming highly misogynistic. Each produced their most important work in New York beginning around 1945, where they all habituated the same Lower East Side and Greenwich Village neighborhoods, often hanging out in the same bars and coffee houses. All three experienced difficult personal lives, cut short from substance abuse resulting in early deaths (Pollock at age 44. Parker at 35, and Kerouac at 47). What is of great interest is the mutual interest and influence among the artistic intelligentsia of the period. Much of Kerouacʼs innovative spontaneous prose sketching achieved most notable in Visions of Cody and The Subterraneans were heavily indebted to his sophisticated knowledge of jazz. Several of the “choruses” in Mexico City Blues are profiles of Parker, Lester Young, and other musicians. Lee Krasner, Pollockʼs wife, has documented the painterʼs interest in jazz as well as classical music. Night Clubs, such as the Five Spot, doubled as jazz venues as well as art galleries.
A Pollock painting illustrates the cover of Ornette Colemanʼs, Free Jazz, released in 1959. Some artists worked in several disciplines, most notable saxophonist Larry Rivers who became a prominent painter, composer-novelist Paul Bowles, pianist-poet Cecil Taylor, and poet-painter-composer Weldon Kees. Poetic recitation with jazz, begun with Kenneth Patchen and Charlie Mingus included performances at the Village Vanguard with Kerouac who recorded with tenor men Zoot Sims and Al Cohn as well as recited on television with Steve Allen backing him up on piano. The image of these performances, with their “beards,bongos and beatniks” became simplistic cultural clichés in the late 1950s. perpetuated by the mainstream media in an attempt to trivialize and ridicule the movement. To reiterate the central thesis of this argument, the main thread that unites this rich period of American creativity is the use of improvisation for the purpose of creating art characterized by great emotional and intense expression.
American Zeitgeist: Spontaneity in the work of Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, and Jack Kerouac
“Everything I loved had the shape of people around me—the shape of my husband, the shape of the children,” Louise Bourgeois has said. “So when I wanted to represent something I love, I obviously represented a little penis.” In the 1960s Bourgeois began constructing hanging sculptures and using a variety of materials—here plaster and latex—to create organic, fleshy sculptures that recall the human body.
Fillette, Louise Bourgeois, 1968
Fillette (Sweeter Version), Louise Bourgeois, 1968-89
The title of this emphatically phallic sculpture means ‘little girl’, an ironic disjunction of word and object. In fact, while it most obviously represents a phallus, it can can also be seen as a female torso. In this in this reading, the two round forms are the tops of two legs, attaching to their hip joints. This eliding of genders creates ambiguity, as do the work’s dual qualities of erect potency and fragile vulnerability.
Bourgeois has talked about this work in relation to her experiences as a wife, and a mother to three boys, which led her to see masculinity as far more vulnerable than she had imagined. ‘From a sexual point of view I consider the masculine attributes to be extremely delicate’, she explained. ‘They’re objects that the woman, myself, must protect.’
“Robert was not a literal person.
Everything he saw was an ambiguous shade of something else.
He was a metaphorical person. The irony was he took photography, which is a literal person’s perfect way to show life in snapshots, and raised the single frame to a metaphor.
A Mapplethorpe lily is not a lily is not a lily*.
This is trick photography shot by a trickster.
Now you see it.
Now you don’t.
Now, if you’re lucky, you do.
Senator Jesse Helms never got it.
Helms probably thought that Robert’s drop-dead flowers, always actually more explicit than his human nudes, were, uh, flowers.
And not the sex organs of plants or, omigod, phallic and vaginal symbols!
Metaphor is a problem for fundamentalists clamming up the hard shell.
Robert captured the essence of flowers, figures, faces, and fetishes so resonantly on the literal level that the very perfection of the moment frozen in the single frame caused the very being of the object to suggest its own becoming… other.
That capturing of the suggestive instant of becoming ambiguous was his existential magic.
Elegant flowers become sexual organs,
The shadow of a flower becomes the horned god.
Sexuality becomes theology.
Face becomes mask.
The mirror becomes window.
Life becomes death.
The cross becomes the crown.
Light becomes dark.
The looking glass makes the way out become the way in: the anal insertions.
This spinning ambiguity causes fear in the literal-minded who look at his single-shot metaphors…
…He intended his stills to be “moving” pictures, photographs that “moved” the viewer, through assault if necessary, for the viewer’s own good, the way one slaps someone who is hysterical.
Every Mapplethorpe photograph is a single frame in a movie, which, if it existed, would be a series of dissolves:
The lily dissolves to the genitalia,
The face to the skull,
The skull to the lily.
Although versed in film and video, Robert consciously kept with the discipline of the single-frame still camera.
Robert was a Platonist: he saw the real and he saw the ideal.”
Mapplethorpe: Assault With a Deadly Camera
*Praraphrase of Gertrude Stein’s sentence “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
On July 4th, 1932, Frida Kahlo suffered a miscarriage in the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. In this disturbing work, Kahlo paints herself lying on her back in a hospital bed after a miscarriage. The figure in the painting is unclothed, the sheets beneath her are bloody, and a large tear falls from her left eye. The bed and its sad inhabitant float in an abstract space circled by six images relating to the miscarriage. All of the images are tied to blood-red filaments that she holds against her stomach as if they were umbilical cords. The main image is a perfectly formed male fetus, little “Dieguito”, she had longed to have. The orchid was a gift from Diego Rivera. “When I painted I had the idea of a sexual thing mixed with the sentimental” Frida said. The snail she said alludes to the slow paced miscarriage. The salmon pink plaster female torso she said was her “idea of explaining the insides of a woman”. The cruel looking machine she invented “to explain the mechanical part of the whole business”. Finally, in the lower right corner is her fractured pelvis that made it impossible for her to have children.
In November 1938, this painting was shown at Kahlo’s first solo exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. It was shown with the title: The Lost desire.
1 May 1933
150 West Fifty-fifth Street
Wherever one goes̱‒and I just gone to Baltimore‒one hears about your paper in the Atlantic. Everybody loves it. Even Harry Hansen who made some asinine remarks about it really loves it. Anyway, it seems the whole town rose to write and correct him¹. We are all dying for the 20 of May when the June number comes out and when I think I have to wait till July 20 to get at the whole I some times think I can’t bear it and other times I am happy because I have so much pleasure ahead of me! You are a woojums and Alice is woojums and I foresee now that you must, soon or late, come to America and then I will photograph you… I do nothing but make photographs now and they are good… I like your Francis Rose portraits². Edith brings in food on the Carlo plates more often than not, but it does not need that to remind us of you… Fania had her appendix out and is much better than she has been in years, I didn’t have mine out, but I am better too! In this crazy world it is nice to remember that there are two people we love called Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
a great many shell boxes and four orchids to you!
NOTES FROM THE EDITOR:
1. Harry Hansen was a syndicated newspaper columnist.
2. Stein had sen Van Vechten a photograph of a portrait done of her by Sir Francis Rose (1930-33), which is now in the collection of the heirs of Gertrude Stein. She also sent him a photograph of Rose’s Portrait of Alice B. Toklas (1932)
The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten, 1913-1946
By Edward Burns
Amerika is the incomplete first novel of author Franz Kafka (1883–1924), written between 1911 and 1914 and published posthumously in 1927. The novel originally began as a short story titled The Stoker. The novel incorporates many details of the experiences of his relatives who had emigrated to the United States. In the story, the Statue of Liberty is holding a sword, and some scholars have interpreted this as a “might makes right” philosophy Kafka may have believed the United States holds.
In conversations Kafka used to refer to this book as his “American novel,” later he called it simply The Stoker, after the title of the first chapter, which appeared separately in 1913. Kafka’s working title was Der Verschollene (The Man Who Disappeared or The Missing Person) . The title Amerika was chosen by Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod, who assembled the uncompleted manuscript and published it after his death. Brod donated the manuscript to the University of Oxford.
Kafka was fond of reading travel books and memoirs. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was one of his favorite books, from which he liked reading passages aloud. Although he always had a longing for free space and distant lands, it is said that he never travelled farther than France and Upper Italy. Despite this, a rare photo shows Kafka with an unknown man at Marielyst beach, in Denmark.
Kafka, at the time, was also reading, or rereading, several novels by Charles Dickens and made the following remarks in his diary: “My intention was, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, enriched by the sharper lights which I took from our modern times, and by the pallid ones I would have found in my own interior.”
By Patty Smith
from Details, November 1992
“When Robert and I were young, scarcely twenty, we’d sometimes go to Coney Island, have a Nathan’s hot dog, sit on the long pier, and dream about the future. Robert wanted to be a rich and famous artist. (He did it.) I wanted to do something great. (I’m still working on it.) We’d cast our wishes like the shoeless kids and old men who cast out their fishing lines. We’d sit there until dawn, then head back into Brooklyn. We were never afraid. New York was tough but kind. We were always all right. Maybe just a little hungry.
It was the summer of 1967. I had left the security of family, cornfields, and billowing New Jersey skies to seek my fortune in New York. I met Robert, a smiling, barefoot kid as misfit as myself. That fall, we got a place on Hall Street in Brooklyn, across from Pratt Institute, where he was a student. The streets were run by painters and poets. Everybody had a vision. Everybody was broke. Nobody had a TV.
Ours was a bleak little apartment that he brightened with Indian cloths, religious objects, and his own work. I tacked pictures of Rimbaud over my writing desk, played my Juliet Gréco records, and read Illuminations. Robert had a Timothy Leary book–one of the few books he actually read. (He often fell asleep in foreign movies. It was the subtitles, he said.) He was always working on a drawing, an installation, or a new piece of sculpture. He’d work twelve hours straight, listening to the same Vanilla Fudge album over and over. His work was asymmetric, psychedelic, and he was always scavenging for materials. I had to hide my best stuff, for many a wolf skin, brocade, or crucifix was sacrificed on the altar of art.
At twenty, we were still learning about ourselves, trying to make sense of what was going down. Assassinations, Vietnam, universal love, where our next meal was coming from. New York was going though its own changes–the Beat residue of the early ’60s was giving way to the divine disorder of 1968. All this was new to me–beaded curtains and LSD were not big sellers in South Jersey.
Robert and I rarely fought. We did bicker, though, like siblings, over everything. Trivial things. Who would do the laundry. Who would get the last sheet of drawing paper. Who was the better dancer. (He refused to acknowledge the superiority of my South Jersey over his own Long Island style.) What to eat. All he ever wanted was spaghetti and chocolate egg creams.
Our main preoccupations were art and magic. Magic was an intuitive thing you either had or you didn’t, and Robert was sure he had it. It was a gift from God, and he pinned his faith upon it. I always admired his confidence. It wasn’t arrogance, it was just there, unshakable. And he was generous with it–if he believed in what you were doing, he somehow infected you with it. His major source of anxiety was money, because executing his ideas required it and he loathed employment.
We were not the hippest people. That was not the thing. The thing was to develop a vision that would be worthy of remembrance, or even a bit of glory.
Sometimes we’d pass the night by sitting on the floor, looking at books. Some my mother gave me: The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera, Brancusi, The Sacred Art of Tibet. And his own big coffee-table books on erotic art, Tantric art, and Surrealism. I’d plait my hair like Frida Kahlo, he’d stretch out in an old black turtleneck and dungarees, and we’d find refuge in the pages and emerge inspired, full of resolve.
Robert loved the large-format book. He wasn’t much of a reader, but he’d study the plates–the work of Michelangelo, Blake, Duchamp–and extend what he saw in works of his own. He dreamed of having such a book someday, devoted to his own particular vision that was, in the late ’60s, still forming.
This was on my mind recently when I opened the package containing the unbound sheets of his forthcoming book, Mapplethorpe. A large, exquisite book, admittedly not for every coffee table, but coffee-table size, just as he wanted. It forms a visual diary of his life, opening not with his name, nor a text, but with an image of a proud, frayed American flag. The stars block, and are therefore illuminated by, the sun. Toward the end of the book is one of his last self-portraits, in which he is aged considerably from physical suffering, stubborn, stoic, and a bit frayed, like the proud and weathered flag.
Robert took his first pictures in 1970. We had parted as a couple, but we stayed together as friends. We tackled Manhattan: The Chelsea Hotel. Max’s Kansas City. The Factory. The ’70s. Robert loved Manhattan, its perpetual twilight. He felt alive there, free. He loved socializing-even though he was shy–and he loved Andy Warhol, who was also shy and loved to socialize.
Like many exploring their sexual identity at that time, he cased the emerging frontier. Christopher Street. Forty-second Street. The leather, bars. The baths. He shifted identities, not out of crisis, but out of delight. One month, the sailor; the next, the hustler. “How do you like this new image!” he’d ask, pleased with himself in a black net T-shirt, tight pants, and a piece of red silk tied around his throat. In that same black net tee he hung out on Fifty- third Street, where he observed the hustlers, photographed the hustlers, and perhaps hustled himself. He wore the T-shirt executing art. And when he finally took it off, he stretched and mounted it on a frame and exposed it as art itself.
He was using at this time an old Polaroid. A pack of film was costly and might take the place of a meal, so each shot was important. Robert never took snapshots. He always knew beforehand the image he was after. He followed me around with that Polaroid constantly, issuing simple commands. “Can you stand in that shaft of light?” “Slowly face the wall.” Each shot taken with a studied economy, an economy he employed throughout his working life. Even later, as his work developed, he never used a motor drive, never shot roll after roll. His process was not a passionate one. His work was the result of a contemplative, deliberate act. He never drew lines; he crossed them, without apology, to create something present, new. A contact sheet would reveal just twelve images. They were all alike, except for the one he had marked, the perfect one. “The one with the magic,” he’d say.
I admit I hoped his photography was a passing phase. Somehow, being shot with a cheap Polaroid didn’t correspond to my notion of the role of the French artist’s model. But he took it seriously. He liked the speed, the immediacy. He was convinced that the common Polaroid print, in his hands, was a viable work of art.
He drew his subjects from life’s walk, and his work reflected change–both personal and social. Many of his models were biker boys, call boys, men of the street. His form was classic, stylized–“I’m not after beauty,” he would say, “I’m after perfection, and they’re not always the same.”
In the early ’70s he began to use the large-format camera, and he committed himself to photography, championing its elevation and exploration. Portraits, still lifes, early flowers, the S&M suite. At first I found the S&M photographs, which were difficult by most standards, frightening. I once asked him what it was like being there, observing, immortalizing the private rituals of these people. He said it was “somewhat scary. But they know what they’re doing. And so do I. It’s all about trust.” He used these photographs, which caused such a stir years later, to tease me relentlessly. He knew I was squeamish about them, and he’d slip prints into my books. So on a rainy Sunday, I’d open a beautiful copy of Peter Pan or Arabia Deserta and be assaulted by an image of a bloodied member in a vice grip. “Robert!” I’d yell. And I could hear him, through the wall that separated our studios, giggling.
I think the furor his work caused after his death would have amused him. But the attention paid to just the sexual aspect would have surely dismayed him. He was not intentionally political. He was not an activist. He shot what he saw–just as Genet wrote what he experienced–with grace. All his work–from the translucent skin of a lily to the arched torso of a black male–represented him, his vision of the world. Just as Pollock hated being called an Abstract Expressionist and Manet deplored the title Impressionist, Robert never wanted to be pegged. Not even as a photographer. The true artist desires, and deserves, to be remembered only as an Artist.
Shortly before he died, I sat with Robert in his studio. He still worked, despite terrible bouts of coughing, vomiting, and excruciating pain. With the aid of his youngest brother, the photographer Edward Maxey, he was able to produce some final, perfect images. We sat amongst large, exquisite prints. A cluster of deeply ripe grapes. A single rose. And a marble portrait of Hermes. The skin of the white statue burned and seemed to emit its own light against a field of black. It was as if, through Robert’s eye, it had glimpsed life.
“I think I’ve done everything I can with the photograph,” he said. “I think I’ll go back to sculpture.”
He had on that day the anxious, fervent gaze he often wore when he worked. I remember that same look as he photographed me in Burbank, California, in full sun before a drying palm. It was 1987, I was six months pregnant and feeling the strain. Robert was not well. His hand trembled and, as he worked, he dropped and broke his light meter. But we took the picture anyway, barely saying a word. He checked the image and drew the camera closer. “Can you raise your head just a little!” It was much like the first pictures. High concentration. Simple and direct. Within that modest photograph is all our experience, compassion,, and even a mutual sense of irony. He was carrying death. I was carrying life. My hair is braided and the sun is in my eyes. And so is an image of Robert, alive.”
“Robert absorbed every image he ever saw. The Baron de Meyer’s famous image of the flower became Robert’s flower. Robert also nicked something from de Meyer’s sequence of photographs showing Nijinsky in L’Après-midi d’un faune”
(As quoted in Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera, by Jack Fritscher)
At the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe claimed (in his version), he met Patti Smith, who appeared in his open doorway looking for someone else, not Robert, whom she had never met. “I woke up,” Robert said, “and there was Patti. We recognized each other’s souls instantly. We had matching bodies. I had never met her, but I knew her.”
“Robert at first was too poor to live at the Chelsea Hotel, so he lived down the street, but he hung out in the Chelsea, cruising its corridors, picking up on the art-sex-and-drugs cachet of the address, trying to meet people who knew people.” Robert at the time was twenty years old and had been hustling Manhattan for four years. He was six years away from meeting art historian John McKendry, curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who bought Robert his first serious camera. Robert worked the Chelsea Hotel and the galleries by day the way, in the later, more successful, period in the late seventies, he worked clubs like Max’s Kansas City, The Saint, and the Mine Shaft by night. Those early days, he once told me, were hard and dark. Sometimes, he was able to afford the tab on a small room at the Chelsea Hotel on West Twenty-third Street. Sometimes, he retired to a dingy walk-up just down the street. In New York, one’s address is everything, and crashing the Chelsea, the notorious avant-garde enclave, gave Robert his first tangible sense of arrival.
The androgynous bodies took, according to Robert’s take, to a kind of Chelsea heterosexual bonding. They became a couple on the art-and-party circuit. They pooled their money to afford their nightly visits to Mickey Ruskin’s bistro at Park Avenue and Sixteenth Street, Max’s Kansas City, where sixties pop celebrated itself nightly. “I hated going there,” Robert said, “but I had to.”
At dawn, the young couple returned to the Chelsea. Robert supposedly had kicked a hole in the wall between his room and Patti’s. This instant suite was his first attempt at interior design. Robert needed Patti. He was alone. She was there. She nurtured him for several years. She was a writer and he was mad for the company of writers. She was a singer and he loved rock ‘n’ roll. The Chelsea Girls film had lasted three hours and fifteen minutes. Robert and Patti lasted longer. For a while, as a couple, they were chronologically correct, until they weren’t. Patti graduated to her own stardom, travels, and odalisques. One pop culture urban tale has Patti running off with playwright Sam Shepard, leaving Shepard’s writer/film actress wife, O-1an Jones (O-lan later became a theater legend, directing her experimental music and theater company, Overtone Industries). Another urban pop tale, told by porn star J. D. Slater, pairs Patti with the lead guitarist of MC-5, Fred Sonic Smith. Patti Smith herself can be the only one to tell the tales of her heart. Whatever her real private history, the true romance pop culture story is she never really left Robert, not for men, not for women, not for music, not for long, because she was more than his muse; she was his twin, his divine androgyne, and he was her photographer, the artist whose camera, with her, became positively Kirlian, capturing her spirit, her aura, her being.
His camera became their bond. “Patti is a genius.” Robert said that so often I began to understand that what he said about Patti he was projecting about himself as modestly as he could. His style was to reveal his personal self by indirection. (His professional self he revealed by edict.) Consequently, I never knew much about Patti, to whom I sometimes spoke on Robert’s phone calls from my home, because Robert used her as an emblem to talk about himself. When Edward Lucie-Smith met Robert and Patti, they were inmates at the Chelsea: spiritually, but not physically. “When I met him,” Edward said, “Robert was in one of his ‘broke’ phases, and the walk-up a few doors down the street was the place where he slept, if he ever did sleep, while he hung out at the Chelsea.” But Robert and Patti seemed avantly certifiable Chelsea Girls. Signs and omens were everywhere. Andy Warhol’s film was banned in Boston and Chicago. The “Chelsea Robert,” so enthralled by Warhol, was already on the trendy trajectory toward censorship.
Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera
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