When we read the collected letters of artists we admire, it tends to erode the marble busts we have chiseled of them like strange and abrasive weather. These are, in some ways, revealing documents—Elizabeth Hardwick suggested that in reading letters “we expect to find the charmer at his nap, slumped, open-mouthed, profoundly himself without thought for appearances.” But their disclosures are often merely aspirations in disguise. As a form, the letter encourages gentle self-mythology. Life submits to editing, and if days or weeks produce but one golden aperçu, the letter writer has grown used to treating time with voluptuous contempt. The jittery spontaneity of conversation is slowed down, encased within amber. A glacial, anticipatory pleasure reigns. Letters suggest a dream self, a living fiction, whether bustling and crowded with incident, or possessed of an indolent charm. These emanations that come to resemble their authors’ fears and fantasies make for incomplete but fascinating biography.
Probably there are as many writers who are dog people as those who are cat people, but the idea of cats as the foremost literary familiar has long been entrenched and seems unlikely to be dislodged any time soon. (I have a friend who insists that if a person hates cats that person can’t be a writer.) Cat books are known to outsell dog books, and the average well-read person can rattle off a list of cat-besotted authors, from Mark Twain to William S. Burroughs to Patricia Highsmith. Conjure up an image of, say, Hemingway or Colette, and you may find that a cat has sneaked into the frame. In 1995, when A Cat was first published, I didn’t know the author well enough to know how he felt about my favorite animal. I do remember being surprised, though. The last thing I would have expected from Leonard Michaels was a cat book.
I had met him about twenty years before, when I accompanied a friend to the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where she had been invited to teach at a weeklong writers’ conference and Michaels, the conference organizer, was on the faculty. I was excited to meet him. I had read the brilliant, nervy, exquisitely written stories in his two collections, Going Places and I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, and I was a fan. He was forty-three, as handsome as his author photo, with luxurious dark hair, Mr. Rochester’s great, dark eyes, and a moody-looking, at times sullen, expression. His voice was also dark, the voice of a tough guy (I could have said thug), a voice you would not have wanted to hear raised at you, especially since it was obvious that beneath a gentle and self-deprecating surface was a very angry man.
From his stories I knew that he had a natural dry wit and a wicked sense of humor, but that week brought out little of that side of him. I was shocked at how openly miserable he was. Though, like his first book, his recently published second one had been widely praised, including on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, it had also been subject to a cruel and blockheaded attack by an unfortunately highly regarded critic in the New York Review of Books. Michaels made no secret of how much that review had enraged him, or how depressing he found the life of a writer. But in fact, much of the conversation I heard that week at the faculty club was in the same vein. The cheapskate publishers, the egotistical editors, the philistine readers, the lazy or malicious critics. You publish a book, said one writer, and it’s like you become a fire hydrant, there to be pissed on by any dog that comes along. Cats, as I recall, were never mentioned. Read More
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I’m thinking of a summer evening in Venice in 1982. The Biennale was on, and Ingrid and I were standing outside a palazzo where a loud party was in full swing. Ingrid was expected at the party, and so we walked over to the girls with the clipboards standing at the door. Slicked-back ponytails, pale and sleek in identical black dresses, they had perfected the “Do I know you?” look.
They were checking off the names on the guest list. Ingrid said: “Hi. I’m Ingrid Sischy, editor of Artforum.”
They raised their eyebrows. “Oh? And do you have ID?”
She did not, and since she looked approximately nine years old, it was hard to imagine she was an editor of an art magazine or that she even knew what an art magazine was. Ingrid said, “That’s okay.” Her eyes lit up, followed by a quick sideways glance and half smile. Her friends had seen this sequence many times—her eyes darting back and forth as if she were rapidly scanning the pros and cons of something she was about to say or do, running the alternatives and consequences. Laptop fast. We were familiar with this because Ingrid was one of the rare people who allowed you to see her think.
“Okay!” she said. “Let’s go around the back and climb in the window.” So we went around the back of the villa, pried open a first-story window, and jumped into the party we didn’t really even want to be at. Once inside, Ingrid did some brisk and intense networking. She stood right in front of the people she was talking to, leaning toward them and giving them her complete attention. We left by the front door, which was pretty much the way she did a whole lot of things—coming in the back way and leaving by the front. Read More
In November 1970, in the wake of the controversial arrest of the black activist and UCLA professor Angela Yvonne Davis, James Baldwin reflected on the acrid irony of seeing a dark-skinned woman harassed and manacled by white Americans. “One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles,” he wrote in an open letter to Davis. “But no,” he lamented, “they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.” Read More
While the Guggenheim is rewriting the narrative of twentieth-century art history, with revision inked in pages upon pages of critical revelation, a quieter disruption is occurring down the street at the Asia Society, where an ambitiously comprehensive exhibition populates two floors with paintings by the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group. After India’s independence in 1947, the PAG—a collective of headstrong, dynamic men—was formed as a way of shaping Indian culture and society for the new modern world. The social purpose of these paintings looks forward by looking inward, and therein lies their genius. The range and variety are evidence of an energetic originality; every painting is fresh and exciting, a refraction of the artist’s central vision, which is steadfast and zealous in its innovation. I found myself captivated by the characters that emerged from each cluster of work: F. N. Souza, the radical virtuoso whose work is arguably boldest in its imagination, is fearless in his often gruesome depictions and also in his liberal use of bold black lines and shapes (and is also perhaps my favorite). The prolific M. F. Husain marks his canvases with rough strokes of muted earthy browns and reds depicting Cubist renderings of scenes from Hindu tradition. S. H. Raza becomes obsessed with the Bindu, the motif of a black orb, which appears time and again, as a black sun in the sky or as a sparse mandala—a hypnotic, primordial symbol both auspicious and ominous. And the list could go on. As we change how we think about the influence of women in modern European abstractionism, so should we take time to reconsider the evolution of the avant-garde with respect to influence beyond the West. —Lauren Kane Read More