Salter’s Armory


Arts & Culture

James Salter, Robert Rauschenberg, 1963, black-and-white photograph, 16 x 20 inches.

If you are neither looking to buy art nor quite understand the glut of it before you, what do you do at the Armory Show? To an ill-informed visitor, it’s like being at the Louvre, but without the benefit of history to fall back on. The show’s aesthetic labyrinth is thus the source of a certain amount of bafflement. I dealt with this quandary partly by writing down what it was I happened to see and enjoy, as though to come back to it later: Ai Weiwei’s porcelain owl houses; some distorted nudes by the photographer André Kertesz; a series of vegetables in gelatin-silver prints by Charles Jones; the Turkish artist Irfan Onurmen’s tulle portraits; totem poles by Charlie Roberts; a photograph, called L’Oiseau dans l’Espace, by Brancusi.

I arrived late on the last day of the show and spent the first twenty minutes of my visit searching for the press office (ah, the other pier), explaining why I did not possess any sort of business card, failing to locate the down escalator and descending alone in an elevator twice the size of my kitchen. I eavesdropped on a couple trying to decide if they could afford two seventeen-thounsand-dollar Weegee prints, agreeing they had space in their home. Then a young man told his friend just how badly he wanted to fuck someone’s sister (“so bad”). Next to the champagne bar, beneath a huge neon sign reading scandinavian pain, I allowed a kind Norwegian to apply a temporary tattoo to the underside of my wrist with a damp paper towel. I was surprised at how intimate this was—he might have been taking my pulse.

“You see,” he said, “most of what this is about is the fact of making it happen at all.”

Almost by chance I found the booth for “As They Were: American Masters Through the Lens of James Salter,” a combined effort by Loretta Howard and Nyehaus galleries, showcasing some of James Salter’s films and photographs taken between 1962 and ’63 while he had a studio in Peek Slip. In the event you don’t know who Salter is, the curators have obliged by providing a few old editions of his books in a glass case, along with the script for his film Downhill Racer next to a bluish spiral of canistered film sitting atop the receipts from its printers. There is a photo of the bearded Salter, standing behind his camera in a field, and another of the author as an old man, being greeted by Robert Redford. So, you see: legit.

People tend to label Salter a “writer’s writer,” a term he has called distasteful. The phrase certainly doesn’t do much to illuminate his writing—spare but unsparing, beautiful, economical, seductive, and cold. Salter was born in New York in 1925, flew fighter jets for the air force in more than a hundred combat missions, and called himself, in his 1993 Paris Review interview, a “frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hands, to turn them around and feel them.” He is the author of five novels, three screenplays, many short stories, and a memoir called Burning the Days.  Early in his career, he also made documentary films. Those at the Armory, made for the film Fifteen American Artists, are very much concerned with hands: Larry Rivers’s, fluttering over the image of a woman’s face, or Robert Rauschenberg’s pencil drawing of two hands pulling thread through a needle.

James Salter, Claes Oldenburg, 1963, black-and-white photograph, 16 x 20 inches.

The films themselves, shown on small flat screens mounted on the booth’s walls, have a printerly, inked look: deep, fat blacks and voluminous shadows. Salter made them in the artists’ studios, using natural light, and they are softly luminous in the way late afternoons can be. The films are small portraits, unposed of course, interesting especially because of the fortuitous convergence of author and subject.

As Salter is credentialed by the presence of his books, so too are his subjects, by several examples of work created contemporaneously with the films. The Rauschenbergs are printed fabric collages, delicate, and showing their age: a crane, a piece of checked cloth, a view of traffic at night. Of Rauschenberg, handsome of face and tucked of shirt with the rolled sleeves of an archeologist, Salter notes the “long sensitive fingers that he curls around a glass of vodka after work and sometimes during it.” Here, too, is Claes Oldenburg—pensive, fleshy, in the “every-thing-for-a-dollar variety store” of his studio—and Rivers, darting, bright-eyed like a wren, and wiping his canvas with a rag. Rivers, too is, as Salter suggests, “incredibly photogenic—you feel you are looking at Caravaggio or some figure in medieval Florence.” Among the six or so of Rivers’s pieces on the wall was a sketch of Frank O’Hara reclining.

James Salter, Andy Warhol, 1963, black-and-white photograph, 16 x 20 inches.

On another wall is a film of Andy Warhol, so poignantly youthful and mid-Western looking in those days before the fright wigs and Ray Bans that the images provoke startled musings on lost innocence, as when one sees an actress without her makeup on.  Warhol was among those whom Salter filmed while they were still relatively unknown, and the author notes how “he seemed a little friend-starved and shy, left out of life and finding its beauty in movie magazines.” I am no great fan of Warhol’s, but I believe I felt a pang, reading that.

The comforting sound of a projector is piped in from somewhere, which is pleasant. I do think I would like to have seen these films in actual 16mm. I also think I would like to have seen them someplace else, where the collagelike effect of bringing together a novelist’s film, a painter’s life, and an assortment of beautifully aging artworks was less drowned out by the larger, noisier collage of the Armory. It creates so much volume, these different ways people have of getting at whatever art is. But I am glad that Salter was there to capture so stylishly for us this fact of making it happen at all.

Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.