Katharina Grosse is a German artist based in Berlin. We were captivated by her architectural shapes, and the vivid colors in her paintings. Her process is equally powerful: armed with a spray gun, she covers large canvasses, often close to seven feet heigh, with layers of paint. “I become a different being when I’m spraying,” she said in a recent interview. “I enlarge myself. I’m able to embrace far more than just my bodily presence. I would always start with these very intense yellows and greens and reds because I always assumed that that’s what’s underneath the surface. That’s how I see things. That’s how I see the world. The very strong and raw colors tend to attract or even repulse the viewer. They tend to create certain reactions in a very direct way. To be over-explicit with these raw colors is one of my intentions.” —Thessaly La Force
What turned me away from painting was a realization that the streets and parks of Boston provided me with subject matter that I could not conjure up in my studio. At that point, a blank canvas drew nothing but a blank stare. So, with a newly purchased 35mm Leica loaded with tri-x film, I began my forays into downtown Boston to photograph. The kind of photographs I took then related to my art school days, when I would amble around the city making quick pencil sketches of people on park benches and subways.
After roaming around Vermont in the summer of 1964, I decided to move to Cambridge, MA where I took a full-time job in a commercial art studio. I was by this time married to my first wife and our plan was to save up enough to live for a year in Europe. Instead we wound up in New York, arriving by U-Haul in the summer of 1967. Rents were cheap, and we could now get by on my part-time work in advertising studios. I had abundant free time, and I took full advantage of it.
Some writers learn by practicing their craft alone in their rooms, some by a mentorship with a beloved teacher, some by M.F.A. committee. I have always tried to learn by osmosis: by placing myself in the physical location of genius, on the off chance that some greater force clinging to the chandelier would attach itself to me and give my writing a cosmic boost. Though I did spend many nights in my early twenties at the Cedar Tavern (where there was certainly some cosmic mojo to be had), the easiest path to absorbed genius always seemed like the real estate section of the newspaper.
I found my first apartment a couple of months after graduating from college—a studio on Perry Street, at the curious point in the West Village when 4th Street finds itself between 10th and 11th Streets. Though I knew the neighborhood a bit from my own teenage explorations, there was one simple reason I wanted to move to Perry Street. Ted Berrigan, one of my favorite poets at the time, wrote this in 1963:
I think I was thinking when I was
ahead I’d be somewhere like Perry Street erudite
dazzling slim and badly loved
contemplating my new book of poems
to be printed in simple type on old brown paper
feminine marvelous and tough.
Feminine, marvelous, and tough. I wanted it tattooed on my forehead. Never mind that in 2002 a pair of Marc Jacobs stores sat around the corner from Perry Street, and I was too intimidated by the salespeople to walk into either of them. I was tough and feminine and absolutely convinced that living on Perry Street would make my writing more wild, which it did: I wrote a long, messy novel that took Wuthering Heights and put it in my high school. There was incest, in a sexy way, like Flowers in the Attic. I forced my boyfriend to paint the entire room a shocking shade of pink and shoved my tiny desk against the oven, which was good for two reasons: The first was that I never used the oven, not once, and the second was that an entire family of mice soon took up residence inside the oven’s walls.
Georges Simenon famously wrote in a kind of concentrated trance state, starting and finishing books within a matter of weeks, sometimes days. And that has always seemed to me the best way to read him, too—in a concentrated trance state. Quick, immersive, done. (See his Paris Review interview here.) I don’t necessarily remember many details afterward—just a blur of images, a filmy kind of dread—but once I begin to read his work, especially the romans durs, nothing else exists but the slide into whatever seedy underworld awaits: cheap hotel rooms, colonial outposts, occupied cities, whorehouses, and roadside bars. Whiplash quick, atmospheric, his are usually the skinniest books on the shelf.
So, at five hundred and forty-four pages, his autobiographical novel Pedigree is something of a departure, and not simply in terms of length. Pedigree is the book that Simenon spent the most time on, and it’s the one where the most time passes. Set in his birthplace, Liège, it opens in 1903 and continues through 1918, just after the Armistice.
When I was in second grade, I wanted to be a werewolf. I’d been raised to think that most of my goals were within reach, if I only applied myself. Also, a good friend had just upped and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, so I had time on my hands. I practiced my snarl for half an hour after school each day, baring my teeth in the bedroom mirror. At recess, I crawled under the shed, convinced I was allergic to sunlight (I’d gotten my horror myths confused). I’m not sure where my werewolf fascination came from—maybe I felt social cliques tightening around me, and monsters suggested the blurring of boundaries: between humans and animals, for instance, or earth and the underworld. More likely, though, it was about power. I longed for the thrill of being feared, of commanding fear. Not all the time, of course. Once I attained shape-shifter status, I knew I would spend the majority of my day undercover. The secret would be part of the fun: Who would suspect that, beneath my quiet facade, a supernatural fury waited to erupt? Lycanthropy was an insecure girl’s backup plan, for use as needed.
As I got older, the fantasies took a new form. I started to imagine dating werewolves. They were, unfailingly, cute guys who turned into dangerous beasts when I needed protection. One, who showed up during my Ben Folds Five phase, played rock piano and hated the suburbs. Another, an ice-hockey player, memorialized a very short-lived interest in the Washington Capitals. They melted in and out of my high-school existence at odd intervals. Feeling lonely or undesirable, I would retreat to my inner woods, where they waited: strong, loving, but also ineffably menacing. I was deliciously aware that any one of these soul mates could hurt me if he wanted to. Apparently, it was intoxicating to be scary, but being scared was even better.
By day, Van Cortlandt Manor is a historical estate where interpreters in colonial attire give tours, comb wool, and bake kickshaws (from the French quelque chose) at the hearth. The Hudson River borders the property. There’s a gift shop that’s quiet and renovated, and sells old-fashioned candy sticks. But in the weekend evenings leading up to Halloween each year, the manor becomes the site of the “Great Jack O’ Lantern Blaze.” Visitors follow a path that winds through thousands of illuminated pumpkins arranged thematically—dinosaurs, Celtic knots, sea creatures, ghouls.
From August through October, for several summers, I worked as as jack-o’-lantern carver for the “Blaze.” The workers were a mix of site staff and local artists. One day, we would be assigned to work on the undersea kingdom, which meant carving kelp-shaped gashes on twenty or thirty jack-o’-lanterns. Another day, it would be crunch time on the pirate faces. Whether we were stationed in the boathouse next to the geese, or outside on benches under a tent, we worked among garbage bags full of pumpkin guts, arrays of handsaws, X-Acto blades, and wood- and clay-carving tools, as well as dremels, paper stencils, and drawings for inspiration. A first-aid kit was always on hand. Many of the pumpkins were polyurethane, which allowed them to be stored in cardboard boxes for future “Blazes” to come.