- Today in profligacy: for a cool $16,500, you could own Edith Wharton’s one-of-a-kind sterling-silver baby rattle, which she gave to the only child of Leon and Germaine Belugou on her christening in 1920. It’s got a whistle at one end with EDITH engraved on the lip. Oh, and it’s decorated with three bells. Oh, and it has a piece of coral at the end, which was apparently used for teething. Oh, and it’s housed in a custom-made black-cloth clamshell box lined with purple velvet with a black leather gilt-stamped label on the spine.
- You know that famous photograph of Eve Babitz, the one Julian Wasser took of her playing chess in the nude against Marcel Duchamp? If you’re wondering, it was taken on October 7, 1963, at the Pasadena Art Museum, and she’s finally willing to talk about it: “I’m sitting there, smoking like crazy, pretending to be bolder than I am, and then Marcel shows up. He’s wearing this beautiful suit, and he has this gay little straw hat on that he must’ve bought in Las Vegas, and he has these charming eyes that were very detached. Julian says he’s ready and I drop the smock, and Julian must’ve been afraid that I was going to have second thoughts, because he kicked the smock way across to the other side of the room. Marcel and I sat down in front of the chess board, and he says, ‘Et alors,’ which means, ‘You go.’ And so I did, and he checkmated me in a single move. It’s called fool’s mate. And I was upset because I thought I had a chance because of my tits, but I didn’t.”
- In last week’s staff picks I mentioned Mark Davis, who collected years and years of prerecorded in-store “Kmart Radio” tapes and then put them all on the Internet. Someone got the full story from him: “I was sixteen years old and Kmart was my first job, which lasted for ten years … When working in a retail store with a looping program, you hear the same songs over and over. And then you hear the same songs when you stop in to get your paycheck. And you hear them when you go to the store to visit friends when off the clock. Whether you initially like a song, artist, or genre or not, it really grows on you after hearing it over and over. That’s what happened to me at the store, and I started liking the songs as they were predictable and helped the day along. I loved Kmart as a company … I decided to go behind the service desk and look at the store’s sound system. I saw the October 1989 tape sitting next to the cassette deck and a reel-to-reel deck, which was decommissioned but still present. I thought to myself—why not take this tape as a keepsake for the first month at my first job?”
- Why is it that the same people who drone on and on about the future of “digital storytelling” are the ones who pay no attention to video games as a vehicle for said storytelling? Don’t these people have eyes? “The forums, summits, breakout sessions and seminars on ‘digital literature’ [are] run by exceedingly well-meaning arts people who can talk for hours about what the future might be for storytelling in this new technological age … without apparently noticing that video games exist. And they don’t just exist! They’re the most lucrative, fastest-growing medium of our age. Your experimental technological literature is already here … Games often manage to be both great art and an economic powerhouse; we’re doing ourselves and the next generation a disservice if we don’t take that seriously.”
- It’s never too late for a takedown. Here’s a broadside against Henry David Thoreau, 153 years after his death—because what was with that guy, anyway? “The most telling thing he purports to abstain from while at Walden is companionship, which he regards as at best a time-consuming annoyance, at worst a threat to his mortal soul. For Thoreau, in other words, his fellow-humans had the same moral status as doormats … The poor, the rich, his neighbors, his admirers, strangers: Thoreau’s antipathy toward humanity even encompassed the very idea of civilization … Why, given Thoreau’s hypocrisy, his sanctimony, his dour asceticism, and his scorn, do we continue to cherish Walden?”
Robert Seydel’s visionary, genre-defying art and writing.
How are we to regard the artist who writes or the writer who makes art? There’s a venerable lineage of creative figures working both sides of the street: think of the poems of Marsden Hartley, the photographs of Eudora Welty, the collages of John Ashbery, among others. In almost all such cases, a hierarchy effortlessly falls into place; what’s primary and what’s ancillary are self-evident. Would we be much drawn to look at the watercolors of Elizabeth Bishop if we did not know her first as the poet who wrote “Roosters” and “One Art”? True aesthetic ambidexterity seems vanishingly rare, particularly among top-tier figures: a great artist’s side projects invariably seem secondary and marginal.
The work of the genuinely hybrid artist Robert Seydel (1960–2011) chips away at our biases about one art form always taking precedence over another. Read More
- Joy Williams has a new collection out, and a reporter has found her in rare form: “Williams does not have an email address. She uses a flip phone and often writes in motels and friends’ houses on old Smith-Coronas; she brings one with her and keeps others everywhere she stays … Williams now splits her time among Tucson, her daughter’s home in Maine and Laramie, migrating across the country with her dogs in her Toyota, which has 160,000 miles on it but is pretty new by her standards. (Her last car, her old Bronco, neared 360,000.) She eats a lot of Weetabix.”
- You should be proud of your name: it’s yours. It denotes y–o–u, and no one can take that away from you. Unfortunately, things get a bit complicated if your parents happen to have given you a necronym, that is, a death name: “It usually means a name shared with a dead sibling. Until the late nineteenth century, necronyms were not uncommon among Americans and Europeans. If a child died in infancy, his or her name was often given to the next child, a natural consequence of high birth rates and high infant mortality rates … In their 1989 Dictionary of Superstitions, folklorists Iona Opie and Moira Tatum offer one reason for the necronym’s decline: many parents feared it was a murderous curse.”
- “Unless ice burns and burning fire cools / No bard could look on you and not speak out / It can not be that I monopolize / The making of the songs that give you praise / Or that such pools as are your dearest eyes / Have just one bather.” These lines, and about eight others like them, are worth seventy-five hundred pounds. That’s not because they’re excellent, necessarily. It’s because Ezra Pound wrote them. They’re from an unpublished sonnet he wrote to the British painter Isabel Codrington in April 1909; it sold at auction earlier this week. “He obviously admired her,” said a perceptive employee at the auction house.
- Let’s go on an adventure with the passive voice, shall we? Watch as, step-by-grammatically-irksome-step, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” becomes “Speed was involved in a jumping-related incident while a fox was brown.” “We have finally fully arrived at the ultimate in passive voice: the past exonerative tense, so named because culpability is impossible when actions no longer exist. For the most extensive erasure of direct communicative value, the original object can now even be removed entirely.”
- Duchamp is old hat. The future of toilet art is, like the future of most things, in Japan, where an exhibition called Toilennale “brings together Japanese artists who have transformed sixteen public restrooms into sites for art installations … one park lavatory literally becomes a sweet site, transformed inside and out by a trio of artists into an enormous piece of pink candy titled ‘Melting Dreams.’ ”
Donald Judd moved into 101 Spring Street, in New York’s Soho neighborhood, in 1968. The area was then the “Wild West,” as artist Trisha Brown once put it: a wasteland in which anything was possible. Judd had purchased the five-story, century-old building for sixty-eight thousand dollars and immediately set about restoring its interior, floor by floor, detail by detail—a project that would take him nearly a quarter century to complete. (Today, it is the only single-use cast-iron building remaining in Soho.) He aimed to create open, minimal spaces for working and living in which all elements existed in harmony, both in the context of the building’s architecture and with regard to his own aesthetic. On the fourth floor, for instance, he reproduced the parallel wood planes of flooring on the ceiling; the room feels like a light-filled wooden box.
Judd also intermixed nineteenth- and early twentieth-century objects—such as a cast-iron wood-burning stove, tin ceilings, an oak rolltop desk—and pieces from his substantial personal art collection, which includes sculpture, drawing, painting, furniture, and prints by John Chamberlain, Carl Andre, Lucas Samaras, Marcel Duchamp, Alvar Aalto, and others. Some of his interventions, however, are less formal: in the second-floor kitchen, a flap of wood on the wall opens to reveal a puppet theater Judd devised for his children. Read More
- Milan Kundera has a new novel out, his first in a decade—but does anyone care? Kundera’s books epitomize a certain outmoded, chauvinist worldview: “I can’t help feeling that if anything will undermine Kundera’s long-term reputation … it will be his overwhelming androcentrism. I avoid the word misogyny because I don’t think that he hates women, or is consistently hostile to them, but he does seem to see the world from an exclusively male viewpoint, and this does limit what might otherwise have been his limitless achievements as a novelist and essayist.”
- Speaking of androcentric writers: Philip Roth’s much ballyhooed retirement “may well go down in history as one of the literary world’s greatest pranks.” Despite his many claims to have retreated from the public eye, Roth is still as visible as ever, even if he isn’t publishing new novels.
- Dante is still very much a public figure, too, having gone on an international charm offensive to celebrate his seven-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday: “More than a hundred events are planned. These include everything from the minting of a new two-euro coin, embossed with the poet’s profile, to a selfie-con-Dante campaign. (Cardboard cutouts of the poet are being set up in Florence, and visitors are encouraged to post pictures of themselves with them using the hashtag #dante750.)”
- And who knows? A hashtagged selfie with a Dante cutout might be just what you need to recharge your fatigued sense of awe, that emotion most abused by modernity: “You could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favor of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events—live music, theater, museums and galleries—has dropped over the years.”
- Don’t blame literature’s avant-garde, though; the state of the contemporary novel suggests that writers are spending more time in museums than ever before. “The avant-garde writers of today aspire to be conceptual artists, and have their novels considered conceptual art. This may be literature’s Duchampian moment. Welcome to the readymade novel.”
On Marcel Duchamp, Mad Libs, and conceptual writing online.
As Marcel Duchamp had it, an artist is nothing without an audience. No work of art—no balloon dog, no poem mentioning cold-water flats, no four-minute-and-thirty-three-second performance by silent musicians—is a great work until posterity says so. In a 1964 interview between The New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins and Duchamp, the latter remarked, “The artist produces nothing until the onlooker has said, ‘You have produced something marvelous.’ The onlooker has the last word in it.”
This is also a tidy summary of Duchamp’s short lecture “The Creative Act,” given in Houston in 1957, in which he calls the artist a “mediumistic being,” one whose “decisions in the artistic execution of the work … cannot be translated into a self-analysis.” Analysis is the work of the spectator, who “brings the work in contact with the external world.” Posterity decides if an artist’s works are deserving enough of an extended solo show at the Whitney, or should be reprinted in every iteration of the Norton Anthology until the end of time. The “creative act” is a transaction between artist and onlooker, and in it, again, the onlooker has the last word.
This is literally true in Joe Milutis’s new conceptual project Marcel Duchamp’s The [Creative] Act, released last month via Gauss PDF. Milutis’s text is a free fourteen-page PDF file that takes Duchamp’s 1957 lecture and turns it into a sort-of Dadaist Mad Libs: Read More