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Paper Trail

December 2, 2014 | by

The invitation card for Claes Oldenburg's Store, New York, 1961.

Three years ago, PPP Editions published a limited-edition book called 100 Fanzines / 10 Years of British Punk 1976–1985. I have a copy and keep intending to give it to any number of friends who know more about the Clash, the Mo-dettes, or Attila the Stockbroker than I do, but I haven’t yet handed it over. I certainly wasn’t a fixture of the Thatcher-era punk scene, but I nonetheless feel nostalgic when I look through the book. The cover of Verbal Warfare no. 1, from 1981, contains the line “Beware of the serpent that twines around the cross … his body, the living dead at their production lines,” and I notice that it’s written in a script that resembles my sister’s eighth-grade cursive. I’m transfixed by the the ratty hand-drawn graphics and raw, energetic designs, not to mention the silliness and badassery of titles like Ignorance of the Unborn, Terminal Illiteracy, Surrey Vomet, and Raisin ’ell (number 10 is the special “This issue sucks!” edition). I also love the zines’ materiality: the staples in the bindings, the softly foxed corners, the smudges, visible erasure marks, and toner streaks. The idea that these are at once mass-produced publications (you can almost feel a phantom photocopier heat coming off the page) and rare objects—always already ephemeral—is fascinating.

The very notion of ephemera is curious: objects of little value that weren’t meant to be preserved but whose vulnerability, I imagine, appealed to someone. Political buttons, business cards, seed packets, and train timetables—scrappy artifacts that otherwise would have been lost to the dustheap. Even ephemera’s subcategories—like “fugitive materials” and “gray literature”—are suitably mothy and eccentric. In the art world, potential ephemera is everywhere: small-edition artist books, exhibition posters, flyers, announcement cards, invitations, press releases. The Museum of Modern Art Library, in New York, houses an extensive archive populated by such materials. A photograph of the files at MoMA QNS shows reams of folders that resemble medical records, though a bit of feathery orange fluff peeping out from one folder suggests something less sober. Through its sheer volume, the archive offers a minihistory of art and of individual artists.

David Senior, a bibliographer at MoMA Library, curated an exhibition around the archive; “Please Come to the Show” was on view last year in New York and earlier this year at the Exhibition Research Centre in Liverpool. It must have been fun digging through all the files and (re)discovering canon-adjacent materials like Claes Oldenburg’s blue, slightly stained business card/invitation to The Store; Nancy Spero’s pugnacious, textual invitation to “Torture of Women”; and an announcement, addressed to Frank O’Hara, of the premier of Warhol’s film Empire (admission: two dollars). Read More »

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Eye Contact: An Interview with Gladys Nilsson

November 24, 2014 | by

1 Plant16

Gladys Nilsson, Plant #16, 2010, ink, graphite, and collage on paper, 11 3/4" x 11 3/4".

2 Walk1

Gladys Nilsson, A Walk… #1, 2014, mixed media on paper, 12" x 9".

3 Walk5

Gladys Nilsson, A Walk… #5, 2014, mixed media on paper, 12" x 9".

4 Arbor3

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #3, 2013, mixed media on paper, 41 1/2" x 29 3/4".

5 Arbor6

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #6, 2013, mixed media on paper, 41 1/2" x 29 3/4".

6 Arbor 7

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #7, 2013, mixed media on paper, 41 1/2" x 29 3/4".

7 Arbor10

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #10, 2013, mixed media on paper, 29 3/4" x 41 1/2".

8 Arbor11

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #11, 2013, mixed media on paper, 29 3/4" x 41 1/2".

9 Arbor13

Gladys Nilsson, A Girl in the Arbor #13, 2013, mixed media on paper, 29 3/4" x 41 1/2".

Gladys Nilsson was born in Chicago in 1940 and grew up visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, which she then attended from 1958 to 1962. In the mid- to late sixties, she was a member of the Hyde Park–based art group the Hairy Who and created exuberant figurative paintings using both acrylic on Plexiglas and vibrant watercolors on paper. While at SAIC, Nilsson studied with the art historian Whitney Halstead, who taught his students to look beyond Western art and also beyond traditional realms of art to more vernacular sources. Though Nilsson has periodically integrated cut-paper elements into her paintings since the sixties, she has recently begun to make heavily collaged works, in the series “Plant” (2010) and “A Walk … ” (2014). But perhaps none of Nilsson’s work exemplifies Halstead’s directive better than the collages currently on view at Garth Greenan Gallery, in New York. The series, called A Girl in the Arbor” (2013), comprises thirteen lush works, each of a woman sitting on a brown chair under a blue arbor and surrounded by greenery. The surface of each collage is littered with tiny cutouts, some of which compose and adorn the large female figure; many others seem oblivious to her and are engaged in their own affairs. 

I met Nilsson the day before her show opened late last month, and we talked over the phone a few weeks later—she, in Chicago, where she still resides—about the intricacies in these collages, her experiences as a budding art student in the city, and the horror of trying on swimsuits. 

You visited the Art Institute as a grade-school student and then as an art student, and you’ve said that in that time, it changed from a nineteenth- to a twentieth-century institution. What did you mean?

What I meant when it changed from being a nineteenth-century building into a twentieth-century is that the building had been modernized. Things were hung in new places, and some galleries were configured differently.

When I was in grade school, a friend and I—she and I drew cows—would walk around a bit in the museum, and I remembered a catwalk in the back, over a large area that no one ever went to, that had large plaster casts of building facades and statuary from other times and other places. It stuck in my mind because it was a very curious area. So when I went to school there, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where this area was. But I couldn’t find it. At first I thought I had imagined the place, until I discovered old pictures in the archives of the museum.

Do you recall looking at Seurat’s painting at the institute?

Yeah, very much so. I wasn’t necessarily crazy about it. I liked it, but it wasn’t a favorite. But I found sitting and looking at it because it had a nice bench in front of it. That it was one of the most soothing things for me—not that I was in turmoil. It was just a very quiet experience, because Seurat has got a lot going on surfacewise. But then it’s also an extremely static painting. I spent a lot of time looking at it, and it’s probably the one painting that I remember most, aside from Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, which is a whole other thing. Read More »

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Hovering Hippie: In the Gallery with Gary Panter

September 25, 2014 | by

Gary Panter

I’ve twice visited Gary Panter’s studio, a large room tucked away on the third floor of his house in Brooklyn; the table at which he works—he lays his canvases flat to paint—sits roughly near the center of the room and is surrounded on all sides and from above by evidence of his many and various areas of work: painting, drawing, comics, music, design, printmaking, and sculpture. All of his art is of a piece, so in his studio it’s especially difficult to get a sense of just one aspect of it. Rather than report on Panter’s recent paintings from there, I proposed we meet at Fredericks & Freiser, where “Dream Town,” his show of new work, went on view earlier this month. Most of the paintings depict figures excerpted from their original sources and painted flatly, as though collaged, onto either monochromatic or expressionist backgrounds. The pristine walls of the gallery make it easy to focus on individual paintings and to see the connections between them. Still, in his paintings, as in much of his art, Panter converses with an estimable range of cultural subjects and styles, so, naturally, we ended up talking about far more than just painting. Read More »

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The Shape of a Life

August 26, 2014 | by

Notes for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

Notes for Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life.

Congratulations to Hermione Lee, who has won the 2014 James Tait Black Prize for her biography of the Booker Prize–winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. One judge described Lee’s biography as “a masterclass in writing of this type … the perfect marriage of an excellent subject and a biographer working at the very top of her game.”

Lee was at work on the book during her Art of Biography interview last year: in the course of their conversation, Louisa Thomas discovers a blanket-covered box that contains the Fitzgerald family archive. Though Lee denies having set out to be a “woman writer writing about women writers,” she has almost exclusively chosen women authors as her subjects. Still, for a biographer of Woolf, Cather, Wharton, and Bowen, Lee found Fitzgerald to be a special case:

I don’t have a theory about Penelope Fitzgerald. I’m deeply interested in the shape of her life, and I’m fascinated by lateness, late starts. She didn’t start publishing novels until she was sixty, for a variety of reasons. I feel there was a powerful underground river running through her life. She was a brilliant young woman, and everybody thought she was going to be a writer and she was writing away like mad in her teens and early twenties, and she was the editor of a magazine. And then it all went underground. Meanwhile, she’s writing notes in her teaching books, which are a form of apprenticeship, and she’s bringing up her family, and she’s coping with her husband. And then he dies. And then up it comes, this underground river, at the age of sixty, and she writes thirteen books in twenty years. I don’t have a theory about that. Nor do I want to blame anyone. But I want to understand it and show it happening as best as I can.

The complexity of women’s lives is, naturally, at the center of Lee’s interview, and it’s a thread that connects Lee to her subjects intimately. The first woman to hold the Goldsmiths’ Chair and the first woman president of Wolfson College, Oxford, she recalls walking across the grass of New College and thinking of Virginia Woolf, who, in trespassing momentarily on the lawn, was chased off by a beadle. As Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own, “Instinct rather than reason came to my help, he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.”

Lee, however, feeling the benefit of the “strenuous labors of my female predecessors,” can stray from the path; she makes a point of walking across the grassy quad, because “I had the right to be there.”

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I Remember Georges Perec

July 30, 2014 | by

640px-Stendhal-1

“I remember that Stendhal liked spinach.” Stendhal, Olof Johan Södermark, 1839, oil on canvas.

I remember reading Joe Brainard’s accumulated aphoristic memories for the first time. I remember the way each entry built on the one that preceded it, even when they had little to do with each another, and I remember the texture of the entire enterprise: a pointillist portrait of a man by way of his internal dialogue; his observations, at one time absorbed as impressions, sent back out into the world, now shaped by a unique river of associations.

I can only imagine the extent to which Brainard’s I Remember has influenced writers since he penned his flowing juxtapositions forty-four years ago. I had long thought Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait the most obvious example—a seemingly endless sequence of declarative sentences that coolly relate both trivialities and intimacies. But I’ve now discovered that Georges Perec got there first.

In 1970, Perec met Harry Mathews; Mathews introduced Perec to ideas then circulating in the New York art scene, including Brainard’s “serial autobiography,” which was then on the cusp of publication. The French writer likely never saw Brainard’s book, but tale of its concept—each sentence beginning with the phrase “I remember”—was enough to inspire him. Next month, the fruits of Perecs efforts, also titled I Remember, will be published in English for the first time, by David R. Godine.
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Lunch Poem Letters

June 11, 2014 | by

LFtoFOH_Lunch_Poems2-4

Toward the end of college and for several years after, I kept two postcard photographs taped above my desk: one of Anaïs Nin, the other of Frank O’Hara—the mother and father of my literary interests at the time. Nin was a gateway for me into feminist writing and into thinking about creativity and the self. My love for O’Hara, on the other hand, was ecstatic. I was infatuated—and still am—with the conversational tone of his poetry, the ease with which he moves from Russian novels to bad movies, Robert Frost to Busby Berkeley, Bayreuth to Hackensack; his poems are like letters to a friend, and when I read them, I am that friend.

As collections go, none brings this quality to the fore more than the thirty-seven Lunch Poems, published in 1964 by City Lights. It is number nineteen in their Pocket Poets Series, an apt category for poems that O’Hara wrote during hour-long lunch breaks from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he was a curator. He roved through midtown, recording the “noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon” as well as his “misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth,” as O’Hara himself described the volume—“while never forgetting to eat Lunch his favorite meal.” Read More »

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