Suellen Rocca’s “Bare Shouldered Beauty: Works from 1965 to 1969” is showing at Matthew Marks Gallery through October 22. In the late sixties, Rocca was part of the Hairy Who, a group of six imagist artists from Chicago; their exhibitions gained renown for their magpie approach, drawing influences from pop culture, magazines, comic books, and “trash treasures,” as Rocca’s collaborator Ray Yoshida called them. Rocca has referred to her work from this period as her “autobiography.” “I was this young mother making these paintings,” she told Hyperallergic last year. “It was a wonderful period. My son would take a nap and I’d rush to my knotty pine studio and work on a painting. Having a toddler and a baby and all these exciting shows, it was wonderful. It was a happy time.”
I’ve long felt that the best recommendations for photographic work come from other photographers. From Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan I learned about the work of Alex Webb, who, as luck would have it, has a show of photographs at Aperture right now. On view are Webb’s photographs from Mexico taken between 1975, when Webb was twenty-three, and 2007. He shot the images on the streets, in border towns, but it doesn’t feel right to call this street photography: there’s a theatricality to some of the photographs, but subdued, without the performative pomp of much American street work. One depicts a scene of mourning in which three anguished women are momentarily frozen in classical poses as they lament over a man’s body. Another shows a deserted boulevard of buildings under construction shot from an elevated perspective; the rocky terrain and buildings are mainly white, but in the foreground is a cardboard box from which an array of colorful women’s shoes bloom like a desert flower. There’s a sense of precariousness in many of these photographs, but it’s frequently offset by Webb’s brilliant use of color—acid green, sky blue, dusty rose—which light up each moment like a small celebration. —Nicole Rudick
I recently dove into C. K. Williams’s final collection of poetry, Falling Ill (which will publish posthumously early next year), and I’m in awe of it. As the title implies, it’s an unflinching chronicle of what it’s like to die, from terminal diagnosis—for Williams, the “alliterated appellation” multiple myeloma—to the difficulty of waking, to the things one says to oneself as the illness takes over, things like, Am I still here, Catch your breath, Are you ready. Williams writes carefully, matter-of-factly, of death’s crippling seizure: the pops and farts and groans his body makes in defiance of him, the fear that has “outwitted me again / changed its costume sharpened its knives.” The book is slender, with fifty-two poems: one per page, each five stanzas of three lines apiece. Williams voids every poem of commas and periods as if to weave his unself-conscious urgency and unease into the very fibers of the collection. The last poem, “Farewell,” leaves us with these indelible, inconsolable words: “there must be // a way to cry goodbye aloud to leave you / these inadequate thanks without resorting / to rending farewell oh dear heart farewell” —Caitlin Youngquist Read More
Don Buchla invented some of the first electronic instruments—not synthesizers, he insisted, but electronic instruments. To him, the word synthesizer implied some attempt at emulation, as if these new machines could do nothing more than imitate preexisting sounds. Buchla believed that his inventions offered an aural palette every bit as distinct as a trumpet’s or a clarinet’s. It was only marketing that made listeners hear something derivative in them.
“An instrument has to exist long before performance techniques can be developed and a repertoire arises,” he told Keyboard Magazine in the eighties, explaining why there are so few new sounds in the world:
Because of this, the market for the instrument doesn’t exist for many years after the R&D that goes into developing a truly new instrument. With short-term profits a primary motive, the big corporations are simply not interested … When you open up those other possibilities, you’ll alienate the people who are coming from a rock-band orientation and want instant gratification. They don’t want to have to figure out some other relationship between their actions and the instrument’s response. Read More
This is the last week to see the photography of Roger Steffens and the Family Acid at Benrubi Gallery, in New York. Taken mainly in the sixties and seventies, Steffens’s self-consciously psychedelic pictures “imagine a different America, one of strange beauty and mystic truth,” as his son Devon put it. The photos are on display through August 26.
Indianapolis, 1964. My younger self owned a bandolier full of bullets; three revolvers, two with bone handles to fit a holster; a rifle; knives; a sword; a full Civil War uniform; a genuine U.S. Army helmet. From age eight to ten, I fought and died a thousand times for fun. My friends and I knew all the best ways to fall down dead, exhaling sighs of pleasure. Awaiting nuclear annihilation, we acted out gun ballets like period folk art. Here, in America’s “Gun Belt,” boys used to get their first squirrel rifle at eight, nine, ten years old; now they get pint-size assault rifles. Get them early, so they can learn to handle the violent kick of firing, learn not to hold the part of the weapon that gets so hot it smokes. And it’s not just boys. Parents can purchase special pink assault rifles for their junior misses.
In my own backyard, I was always alert for enemies. I moved with a stooped, serpentine grace, darting, pausing, looking around for people to shoot before they shot me. There was something adorable about it. We had very convincing submachine guns then. They were made by Marx out of hard molded plastic and came in black—the conventional color, suitable for playing Chicago gangsters or warriors in the European theater—or brown-and-green camouflage, for war in the tropics. There was a knob along the side to unleash a machine gun rat-tat-tat whenever we encountered the enemy. I was unaware of the irony in the brand name: we were training for our turn to halt the march of Marxism, but we were unfamiliar with Marx the mastermind. Every Friday I looked forward to the latest photos of the Vietnam War, counting the dead in LIFE magazine. Read More
- Remember the sixties? Me either—I was negative eighteen in ’68. Jesse Jarnow also wasn’t born yet, but his book on the psychedelic counterculture, Heads, benefits from that distance, Hua Hsu writes: “He is vigilant in his attempt to understand the idealism of the past on its own terms, and to regard the ‘head’—the archetypal, open-minded sixties explorer—as someone whose skepticism toward power structures and authority might still resonate with us today. It’s just that, back then, such an explorer might have found a little more help along the way … As I read Jarnow’s chapter on the innocent, halcyon days of LSD experimentation, the mid-sixties started to feel further away than the seventeen-hundreds. It was easy to understand the central players’ ambitions—their visions of freedom aren’t so different from ours—but it was nearly impossible to imagine the world they found themselves in; I kept anticipating the nation’s inexorable tilt back toward its Puritan roots, its choice of law and order over mind expansion.”
- Today in the cock ring as a metaphor: “Artists hardly even qualify as whores. Contemporary art is a cock ring on a giant erection pumped up by capitalism and keeping the masters of that game from cumming. I think they like it. I think the artists like it, too. They get to pretend to be profound. Some are. Most are hemorrhoids waiting to happen. The blood that pumps it all up is money. Green blood. Who has a problem with that? We all want some of it. Just please don’t take it seriously. No, actually, do take it seriously. If you did, I would be impoverished, and maybe my life would have been worth more.”
- Books can be difficult—so many words, and usually they’re the same color. But what if we made them different colors? The Folio Society’s new edition of The Sound and the Fury presents the text “in fourteen different colors that represent different time zones in the narrative,” and this one guy is super excited about it: “Colored text … feels like a breakthrough for publishing. It’s a playful approach perfectly attuned to our era. Learning in general has already moved away from dusty tomes of monochrome text to brighter, shinier and more interactive methods. In a time of short attention spans and digital distractions, could multicolored publishing work for other difficult books? Would Gravity’s Rainbow be more popular with a rainbow-colored makeover? Would Proust’s interminable sentences be easier to navigate if they switched back and forth from one color to another, allowing the reader a sense of a light at the end of each tunnel?” (Because that’s why we read Proust: for the occasional sense of relief.)
- If you’ve kept yourself up at night pondering the ethical dilemmas of driverless cars—like, if they’re going really fast and there’s a kid in the road, and they can either plow over the kid or jerk the wheel and kill you, the passenger—you might have even bigger problems to worry about. Daniel Albert writes: “I’m optimistic about our robot-car future. It will be really cool. But make no mistake that the development of driverless cars will flow from the same combination of forces that have carried us from the Model T to the Tesla. For some 120 years those forces have favored not mobility precisely, but automobility: a system that melds moving from place to place with industrial production and consumerism. Promoters of autonomous vehicles promise that they will defeat those forces, will wipe the slate clean. History suggests that they might also be consumed by them … Robot cars will be neither moral nor immoral in the narrow sense premised in the thought experiments now being conducted and sold as valuable. They will not exist outside of the current automotive ecosystem. They will instead enter an automotive landscape that instantiates myriad ethical choices made in the past and rehearsed daily.”
- In the sixties, a group of black photographers formed the Kamoinge Workshop to promote and show their work. As LeRonn P. Brooks writes, Kamoinge “began when two separate groups of young black photographers—including Louis Draper, Earl James, and Calvin Mercer, among others—gathered in 1963 to discuss ways of using their work to address the civil-rights movement and the troubling conditions of black people in their communities. It was concurrent with other progressively minded black artist groups such as Spiral, also based in New York, which included painters Romare Bearden (whom [Ming] Smith would photograph in 1977), Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis, and Emma Amos, among others. Kamoinge was initially mentored by more established photographers such as Larry Stewart and Roy DeCarava served as its first director. More than just a photography collective, Kamoinge (named for a word from the Kikuyu language meaning ‘a group of people acting together’) was an important forum for creative political activity.”