Philadelphia looms large in the personal mythology of David Lynch as a place that both terrorized him and changed the course of his life, his Gomorrah and his Rubicon in one. A product of small-town America, Lynch credits this onetime epicenter of urban blight with instilling in him a fear and disgust so extreme it opened a mental pathway to “another world.” He transfigured the city’s postindustrial dereliction into the infernal wasteland of his first feature film, Eraserhead (1977), and the dying gasps of its manufacturing age—clanking gears, droning machines, venting steam—indelibly shaped his aesthetic vocabulary. It was art school that brought Lynch to Philly in 1966, and it was in his studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where he experienced an epiphany that, in the familiar telling, moved him away from painting. The story appears in his memoir-cum-self-help-guide, Catching the Big Fish (2006). He was at work on a painting of plants in a garden when he sensed a wind emanating from within the canvas, seeming to stir the leaves under his brush. What if paintings could move? he wondered. What if they had sound? The rest is cinema history.

Dennis Lim writing about David Lynch in the January 2015 issue of Artforum.

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