A Week in Culture: Eric Banks, Writer
August 25, 2010 | by Eric Banks
11:30 A.M. One of my favorite things about going to Philadelphia is that when you’re disgorged from the train you step into 30th Street Station. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment—how many films1 have been made about the City of Brotherly Love that find some way or another to use the old Beaux-Arts structure as a set? I’m not sure what it says about a city that every filmmaker wants to signify Philadelphianess with the very place you’d pass through if you were either coming or going—or for that matter, why so many Philly films choose to stage their most extravagant moments of murder and witnessed mayhem in this relatively quiet corner of the city—but at any rate I get a little thrill2 of walking through the station, so much more humanly scaled (if still monumental in its own way) than Grand Central or Union Station but losing nothing of the rustle of urbanity in the process.
11:50 A.M. It’s a quick hop by cab to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the first leg of our seaboard-descending art trip. It’s not so much a staycation—with the price of an Amtrak ticket down and back, plus a night among all the foreign tourists at a Dupont Circle hotel chain, we could as well have flown somewhere. We were lured by the recently restored Gross Clinic, on view for the first time since it’s been spiffied up by its new owners, who rallied to keep the canvas in Thomas Eakins’s hometown when the Walmart heirs were trying to buy it and exile it to an Arkansas museum, and the promise of an Arte Povera installation. The latter turns out to be a bit overblown—really just a couple of ho-hum works thrown in to a room alongside great but familiar pieces by Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris. Povera, indeed.
12:30 P.M. The Duchamp gallery is, happily, nearly empty of other visitors. Our companion, a Yale art historian who did his dissertation on Duchamp, seems almost deliriously placid sitting in front of "The Large Glass." You don’t associate that sort of copacetic plenitude with looking at Duchamp, and it’s sort of marvelous to behold. “It never disappoints me,” he says in a church voice. I’ve never had that experience with "The Large Glass," though "Étant donnés," no matter how many times you’ve peeped through the hole in the doorway, never loses its filthy staying power and fresh smell of mystery. What other creaky and canonical artworks of the last one hundred years can you say that about? I still feel like a perv squatting so slightly to look through the peephole at the splayed, spread-eagle figure and the twinkling faux waterfall. It’s almost obligatory afterward to cut back through the Brancusi gallery and have a look at the plain, unmarked door allowing maintenance access to the piece. The sight is a purgative for the eyes.
2:00 P.M. After a bite in the commissary, we catch the trolley to the museum’s annex, where "The Gross Clinic" is the star attraction. There’s a dismayingly large crowd on hand to see Eakins’s bloody study from 1875, which until a few years ago was off-the-beaten trail at the Jefferson Memorial Hospital (where Gross, a celebrated military surgeon during the Civil War, held his classes). There’s a lot of documentation on the walls about the painting’s history and how its subject matter—the surgery to remove a diseased bit of femoral bone, which pre-Gross would have entailed amputation of the leg—revolted audiences in 1876, when it was excluded from the city’s Centennial Exhibition. I hoped there’d be a picture of how it was in fact installed at the time, hanging at the end of an art-meets-life prefab model army hospital tent, neatly and almost hilariously in situ, but no such luck.
The canvas now has far more commodious digs—almost its own mini-chapel, where it’s flanked by Eakins’s other surgical masterpiece, "The Agnew Clinic3." And after the restoration effort, it’s that much clearer just how strange a picture it is. Before, you saw Gross holding his scarlet-flecked scalpel upright like a paintbrush, you made out the scene of the operation, with its attending surgeons wielding their blood-tipped knives like pencils4. But so much else was clouded and clotted in a bizarrely blah electrically colored background glare—the tonal registers were just weird, almost fecklessly unresolved. Now you can really pick up the dark clarity of the whole background, including the image of the figure just behind Gross, who’s taking notes and whose grip on his pencil ramifies that of the doctors going after the rotting bone. The sharply foreshortened patient’s fuzzy blue socks jut out at you all that more dramatically and make a clean rhyme against the ether-soaked pillow over his head. And the guy lingering in the hallway—Gross’s son—behind the theater, swallowed in a red haze, is a lot more fiendishly integrated into the scene. I first saw the canvas when it was in the Met’s Eakins retrospective in 2001, and this was like seeing a totally different picture.
When we had dinner a couple of nights earlier with an art historian who has a book coming out on the “pleasure dairies” of the ancién regime (the best known being Marie-Antoinette’s white marble Hameau at Versailles), she complained about the recent exhibition tendency to make a fetish of the tech-wiz conservationist. Philadelphia’s played up its efforts to clean Eakins—a misnomer, since what they did in essence was to add a level of varnish that the old medical hospital canvas doctors stripped away to try and make the gloomy tones brighter, mucking up the balance in the process. They’ve clarified it strangely enough by making it more oblique. In a lot of the press notices, the conservators make a fascinating observation that their restoration process can easily be undone by future generations if viewing tastes should change—what they’ve got now is a painting that is more attuned to the way nineteenth-century viewers looked at canvases, though most nineteenth-century folks couldn’t stand to look at them. Could you do the same thing with literary translation—build in some sort of tacit statement that the new translations of Proust or Tolstoy or Kafka that you’re reading are only provisional, or for that matter, opt to retranslate them backward, into their earlier and less contemporary idioms? I’ve just read a passage in Tom McCarthy’s new novel C where Egyptologists are discussing a dig and talk about the fact that what they drag up aren’t pure artifacts but the record of earlier plunderers, Romans, Arab, even pharoaic. Where the latter-day architects make their historical mistake is in thinking that their own moment is somehow the definitive one. Instead, it’s just another chapter in a long book. I think McCarthy would approve of "The Gross Clinic’s" restoration relativism.
10:45 The train ride down from Philadelphia to Washington yesterday was uneventful enough, except for the drone of the two Tea Party types seated behind us who mercifully got off at the BMI stop. The pair of old Bags segued from a discussion of the merits of Glenn Beck to talking about going north to New York on September 11 to protest the proposed Muslim community center. I kept trying to read Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, part of a summer of rereading Mann, but it doesn’t jibe with the background noise, and I put it aside for the current London Review of Books and a withering review of a biography of Graham Greene’s extended family.
Now this morning we’re crossing D.C. to see the Yves Klein retrospective at the Hirschhorn. It’s always amazing to me to realize how much work you forget when it comes to somebody like Klein, the impresario of fields of monochromatic blue. I’d wondered aloud in the cab whether there would be anything in the show that we hadn’t already seen at some point in recent years on view in the show, and yes, there was a lot—why are so many of the works in private collections rather than museums? But I’d forgotten so much of the melodramatic grandiose gestures of Klein over the years—not the "Anthropometries," executed by directing nude paint-slathered women to roll themselves on the canvas, which just look campy now; or the "Leap into the Void." No, I mean more the bouquet of 1,001 blue balloons he had released for his opening at the Iris Clert gallery in May 1957, the over-the-top Order of St. Something-or-Another uniforms and goofy tricornes he sometimes sported (he looks like he’s staring a Parisian version of Paul Revere and the Raiders), the incantatory touting of what he called the “blue revolution.” All completely or at least apparently without any buffer of irony.
Anybody who knows anything about Klein knows that he was a serious student of judo, but I’d always lazily pictured it along the lines of Andy Kaufman’s enthusiasm—or whatever it was—for wrestling. It’s standard to mention the book he wrote about its techniques, which I always imagined as some sort of self-publication. Wrong: There’s a copy of his Fondements de Judo in a vitrine with its handsome cover, published by Grasset. Archival photos are a dead weight in a lot of exhibitions, but here they’re a nice compliment to the work itself. In one picture, Klein’s sitting on the beach in Malibu, in swim trunks that look like they’re held together with masking tape, beaming as he holds up the monochrome he’s been working on with the blue ocean in the background. It’s still weird to imagine him dying at age thirty-four from a heart attack—the exhibition encourages the myth that Klein was shocked into cardiac arrest from the distress of seeing the film made about him at Cannes, the same death by celluloid that triggered Boris Vian’s heart attack when he saw the movie made out of I Spit On Your Graves. My art historian friend mentions the more prosaic speculation that he was juiced on steroids (the judo thing), and later a friend avers that he was a speed freak.
2:20 P.M. Before we have to catch the train back to New York we head to the National Gallery hoping to see the show of Allen Ginsberg’s photographs in the West Building. I give up—like every gallery here, it’s simply too crowded with people to see much more than other people. I’d read recently that scientists in Italy were formally investigating whether the Stendhal Syndrome5 exists. Could such a thing exist today or would it be dismissed as a run-of-the-mill bout of agorophobia? And wouldn’t the sufferer of the Stendhal Syndrome, having a swooning fit in the middle of these crowds, simply die of embarrassment?
3:30 P.M. Back in New York and a slow recuperative day—obedience classes for the new dog, and later a glance at the late races on the OTB channel from Saratoga. I miss not making the trip up there this summer and live vicariously through keeping the broadcast on in the background most afternoons while I’m stuck here downstate. Last week I caught one of the best horse names in a long time, a filly who was the daughter of a one-eyed horse named Pollard’s Vision (he was so named for the blind-in-one-eye jockey, Red Pollard, who rode Seabiscuit). Her dam was named Lady Mondegreen (mondegreens are misheard but homonymically related phrases—“excuse me while I kiss this guy” for “excuse me while I kiss the sky.”). The filly’s name? Moshe Diane. Get it? She won and paid nearly $7.
8:30 P.M. We’ve been given a DVD set of restored silent films and start to watch the disc billed as The City Reformed. It includes a 1909 D.W. Griffith shortie The Voice of the Violin (a violinist is recruited by anarchists and turned into a terrorist after his advances are rebuked by a hoity-toity daughter of an industrialist) and a silent-era safety film made for kids, the 1913 Cost of Carelessness, which shows the deleterious effects of playing in traffic. Who knew that driver’s ed splatter staples like Mechanized Death and Signal-40 went back to the ’10s? What’s remarkable about the disk is how many are ripped from the headlines. We reflexively think of the earliest silent movies as being little more than a camera aimed at a primitive stage set, penny plays mindlessly transferred to film for nickolodean viewers. Here there are message films about the dangers of the payday loan (The Usurer’s Grip, 1912), and a dramatization of an Italian-American cop busting up a proto-Mafia extortion ring (The Black Hand, 1906). It was rushed out just weeks after the real-life detective-hero, Joe Petrosino, became a tabloid star for nabbing the crooks; the scene where the respectable extortion-ready butcher’s daughter is kidnapped was shot in real time on snowy 14th Street while onlookers panicked at what they mistook as a real crime taking place. I’d never heard of Petrosino—he was a legendary cop, who later traveled to Sicily to infiltrate a nascent mob family and got himself whacked in a Palermo square when he was recognized—but thanks to this old forgotten silent film and a bit of Internet searching, I now know that the little triangle of land in Manhattan where Kenmare meets Lafayette was only last year rechristened in his honor. There’s not much of the Little Italy of The Black Hand left, but now we’ll always have Petrosino Square.
Check back tomorrow for the second installment of Banks' culture diary. Banks is a freelance critic and writer based in New York. He's formerly the editor of Bookforum and senior editor of Artforum.
- I immediately think of Witness, and Trading Places, and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. (I can’t recall whether there was a 30th Street Station scene in Philadelphia, but it seems to be on AMC every five minutes, so I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough, but if there wasn’t, there should have been.)
- Do Philadelphians have the same feeling, or does it communicate this little charm only for the visitor?
- While we’re standing there, a couple of kids in T-shirts and white gloves come out of the woodwork to make a show of dusting the frame.
- The pencil-brush contrast is one of the palpable dramas, of drawing pitted against painting, taking place in the canvas; once you know that Eakins’s father was a successful calligrapher and have seen enough Eakins to register how frequently he tried to couple both graphic perspective and painterly chiaroscuro to produce his own brand of realism, the violence of the operating room gets a lot more Oedipal.
- Buried in his great tissue of fabrication and plagiarism, Rome, Naples, et Florence, Stendhal famously writes of the “fierce palpitation of the heart” he felt in front of Santa Croce: “The well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.” Ironically, a bit later in his diary entry, he remarks that it is “a surer guarantee of happiness to possess a heart so fashioned, than to strut about in the coveted regalia of a Knight of the Order of the Holy Ghost.” Poor Klein, who suffered both!