Fear is as much of a medium for Philippe Petit as is balance, poise, and control in his high wire act. In his death-defying walks across the Grand Canyon and between the World Trade Center towers, Petit bent fear to his will. At Lapham’s Quarterly, Petit reflects on what a lifetime of fear has meant to his art, and how he has faced fear on the wire and off.
Before my high-wire walk across the Seine to the second story of the Eiffel Tower, the seven-hundred-yard-long inclined cable looked so steep, the shadow of fear so real, I worried. Had there been an error in rigging calculations? No. I had just forgotten how high were my expectations, how mad I was to have conceived such a project. On the spot I vanquished my anxiety by imagining the best outcome: my victorious last step above a cheering crowd of 250,000.
If imagination does not work, turn to the physical side of things. Give yourself a time-limit ultimatum: start counting! Yes, choose a number—not too high—and when you hear footsteps on your porch at three am, unfreeze your trepidation by whispering to yourself, “At ten, I open the door! One, two, three, four…”
A clever tool in the arsenal to destroy fear: if a nightmare taps you on the shoulder, do not turn around immediately expecting to be scared. Pause and expect more, exaggerate. Be ready to be very afraid, to scream in terror. The more delirious your expectation, the safer you will be when you see that reality is much less horrifying than what you had envisioned. Now turn around. See? It was not that bad—and you’re already smiling.
With the publication of two books and new gallery showings featuring photographer Diane Arbus, Hilton Als explores her work, writings, artistic motivation, and uncanny ability to capture on film the humanity of the “freaks” — the marginalized people — who were the subjects of her work. Read his piece at the New York Review of Books.
Arbus’s photographs were elegant, too—classically composed and cool—but they were on fire with what difference looked like and what it felt like as seen through the eyes of a straight Jewish girl whose power lay in her ability to be herself and not herself—different—all at once. The story she told with her camera was about shape-shifting: in order to understand difference one had to not only not dismiss it, but try to become it. “I don’t like to arrange things,” Arbus once said. “If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”
As Arbus went on, though, she became more and more interested in the drama of the self as it appeared not only to her through her lens (her magic portal) but to her subject. No visual artist of the twentieth century has described with more accuracy the enormous pride her characters, certainly in the early pictures, feel at having risked all to become themselves—selves they could not lock up, or hide, or resist being recorded despite the pain of being marginalized in their daily life.
Arbus made pictures that grew out of and described the loneliness we are all taught to be ashamed of and should try to “fix” through conventional connections—marriage, children, and so on.2 Arbus’s “I”—the eye behind her camera—was unabashed loneliness, looking to connect, if only because she understood what it felt like not to. She wanted to see the world whole, which meant seeing and accepting the fractures in those connections, too, along with all that could not be fixed. When she started taking pictures of drag queens and interracial couples, homosexuality was illegal, and miscegenation was still met with violence or derision.
Unless you’re a millionaire or a member of a royal family, you might not have heard of painter Ralph Wolfe Cowan, but if you’ve seen a picture of the Donald Trump portrait that hangs in Mar-a-Lago, you know his work. For Oxford American, Nicole Pasulka spent a weekend with the Maestro, visited Mar-a-Lago to see his handiwork in situ, and learned the basics of the kind of celebrity flattery that lets an artist charge a cool quarter-million per portrait.
When Cowan was a boy in Portsmouth, Virginia, his three brothers would go see cowboy movies on Saturdays. He chose the Technicolor musicals showing across the street instead. From an early age, he found that portraiture was the perfect way to combine his passions for painting and celebrity. “I used to love going to the movies and seeing Maureen O’Hara in all these pirate movies and the big ships,” he told me. “I said, one of these days I was going to grow up and meet all these people and paint their portraits—and I did.”
In the 1950s he painted Debbie Reynolds in casual attire and Liz Taylor in white silk pajamas. The three of them would hang out together in Miami Beach, Los Angeles, and New York City before Taylor ran off with Reynolds’s husband, Eddie Fisher. Cowan wanted to paint Betty Grable, but he says by the time he met her she couldn’t afford it. Elvis paid for his eight-foot-tall portrait with $10,000 in cash and carried it home before the paint was dry. When country singer Kenny Rogers was newly divorced and feeling unsexy, Cowan painted him in a coat that concealed his waistline “and I put a big dick down there,” he said.
In a revealing memoir piece at New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz — the magazine’s art critic — retraces his early years as an artist in 1970s Chicago (spolier alert: it didn’t work out). It’s a gripping read not just for artists and art lovers, but for anyone who’s ever grappled with the tricky interplay of productivity, mediocrity, and coming to terms with one’s own limitations. Despite his failure to build a career as an artist, I loved how absurdly (admirably?) ambitious his plans were for his magnum opus: composing 100 illustrated altarpieces for each of Dante’s Divine Comedy cantos, for a total of 10,000:
I began my “Inferno” project just before dawn on the Thursday before Easter 1975, because Maundy Thursday is when Dante’s story begins in the poem — lost in “the dark wood of error,” having strayed from the “true way.” I planned to finish on Easter, the same day Dante finished his own journey, in 1300. I would finish in 2000, by which time I would have made 100 opening-and-closing altarpieces for each of the 100 cantos of The Divine Comedy. The 10,000 finished altarpieces were supposed to represent an idea of the infinite and a way to set myself free. Why Dante? Especially as I barely read at all and didn’t believe in God? I think because The Divine Comedy, which is a gigantic organized allegorical system where every evil deed is punished in accord with the law of equal retribution and divine love, supplied me with the formulated structure I craved. The highly established internal architectonics, the almost primitive definitiveness, what Beckett called the “neatness of identification,” were psychological shelter and weapons of revenge for me. A way to right my own world, to grasp an order like that in the Bible: “all things by measure and number and weight.” Most of all, it was a vision of justice — the good being rewarded and the bad getting their punishments.
I never acted on my mother’s suggestion that I find a nice creative job, like in advertising, but then the job came to me anyway. An art-director friend called and said she was making a TV commercial for Barneys New York and she needed some words. Would I do it?
I didn’t hesitate for a second. Why not? What is the difference between art and advertising?
Quality? Clearly not. The only difference I could come up with for sure was the logo. I was an adman from that day forward, and somehow it gave me the resources to do what I thought was art—with a logo.
I had always been interested in the neutral zone, the DMZ of art and commerce, and now I was working there. It was a place where I could push the limits, mainly because I was so unfamiliar with the limits. Like Iggy, I didn’t feel like a sellout, I felt empowered. If you’re going to be a bad boy, be bad: like Bob Dylan talking to the computer in the IBM ad. Don’t tell me he wasn’t savoring the transgression of the whole thing.
At The Guardian, George Saunders reflects on his writing process. The magical, romantic notion where fully formed art leaps from the author’s brain on to the page? It dishonors the writer, the reader, and the work. In reality, it takes “hundreds of drafts” and “thousands of incremental adjustments” to form a story into a “hopeful thing.”
We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.
The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.
How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.
The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?
The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.
And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.
Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be—almost surely is—a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system. But there is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you – something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.
To achieve their desired responses, the blots themselves had to function like works of art — an unusual ask for a psychological test. Rorschach was not the first or even the second to try his hand at designing inkblots. Klecksography, the study of inkblots or “blotograms” as they were once called, originated with the German poet and physician Justinius Kerner. Unlike Rorschach, Kerner was neither a scientist nor an artist but a mystic. He believed his inkblots to be “incursions of the spirit world,” magical images that spoke to him in the voices of the dead; voices he ventriloquized in the gloomy poetic captions he added to his blots. More popular than Kerner was the French psychologist Alfred Binet, who drew his inspiration for his inkblots from Leonardo da Vinci, who, it was said, had once thrown a bucket of paint at a wall and divined his next painting from the shapes he saw before him. In keeping with this backstory, Binet’s inkblots — messy, asymmetrical things — were used to measure a person’s imaginative capabilities: the greater the number of distinct forms the respondent saw in the inkblots, the greater his creative powers.
By contrast, the power of Rorschach’s inkblots derived in large part from their painstakingly crafted designs, refined through much clinical trial and error to give them the appearance of naturalness — as if the shapes had not been crafted at all, but rather “had made themselves,” Searls writes. The point was neither disordered inspiration (as it was for Binet) nor spiritual connection (as it was for Kerner), but technical perfection. There could be no trace of the artist’s hand in the thickness of the brushstrokes or the shading of the ink; nothing to rouse suspicion among Rorschach’s paranoid patients that the inkblot had been created to elicit a particular response from them. There could be no captions, no border, nothing to distract respondents from the lines, the curves, the colors. Only the aesthetic impersonality of the blot could reveal the personality of its viewer.
Growing up in the early 1960s I watched a Saturday morning television show called Learn to Draw hosted by a man named Jon Gnagy. He sported a neatly trimmed Van Dyke and exuded a comforting mix of calm and enthusiasm. The goatee was offset by a plaid flannel shirt. There was no beret or affected accent. He was artistic but not too artsy. Each show he taught us how to draw something new: a clown, a snow scene, or an ocean liner at dock. His hands flew as shapes and outlines turned magically into pictures. He lay the chalk on its side and shaded in order to achieve “effects” and talked continuously, identifying the light source and explaining the vanishing point.
I tried to keep up, but never could. At the end of each show, Gnagy would slap a frame on his drawing and declare it done, but I had to keep going, working on my version of “Mountain Lake” or “Boy Sledding” into the afternoon, sighing, starting over, and trying again and again to get it right. Hoping it would help, I convinced my mom to order me a Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Art Kit that included a tablet, pencils, charcoal, kneaded eraser, and guidebook.
I never became an artist, but I like to draw and so does my ten-year old daughter Phoebe. Recently, when she and I were poking around on YouTube, I remembered Gnagy, searched his name, and, though he died in 1981, there he was once again. We clicked “play” and it all flooded back. Johann Strauss’s bouncy “Künstlerleben,” or “Artist’s Life,” is still the opening theme. Gnagy is wearing his plaid shirt, goatee and ready smile. Today’s scene of a boy sledding might look complicated, he says, but it isn’t. If you can draw four simple forms—the ball, cone, cube and cylinder—you can draw anything. Read more…
If the contemporary art world seems like a place of pretension, status-seeking, and giant checks being paid through Larry Gagosian and David Zwirner, then it’s the critic Jerry Saltz who may be the last hope of bringing us all back down to earth. As Saltz once wrote: although contemporary art may not be of everyone’s taste, it’s still for everyone.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, Saltz went to the Chicago Art Institute wanting to be a painter but dropped out; he soon became a long-distance truck driver, but after a decade of driving, he decided life couldn’t get any worse and that he might as well go back to his truest passion. So in the early-1980s, with no formal degree, he moved to New York and entered the art criticism scene, writing mostly for the Village Voice. Fast-forward to today and he’s now the senior art critic at New York magazine and has twice been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism.
Howard Halle, the chief art critic at Time Out New York, calls the 65-year-old “America’s art critic.” And yet, Saltz, although perhaps an American icon, has hardly become a universally beloved one.
A few years ago, Saltz was briefly banned from Facebook for posting what Zuckerberg and co. determined, initially, to be pornography (Saltz maintains that posting ancient and medieval artworks depicting fellatio, cunnilingus, and circumcisions hardly constitutes pornography, and he continues to post these images on his re-activated Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, all of which boast, on aggregate, hundreds of thousands of followers). He also recently tried to pull the veil on the economics of the art scene—not everyone is making the big bucks—by posting a photograph showing his Chase checking account balance to be $3,832.16.
Although one wonders how much of his “everyman” appearance is an act (he maintains that it’s not), Saltz’s lack of pretension has been a burst of fresh air in the often-stodgy art criticism scene. Who else but Jerry would compliment Morley Safer’s painting of a hotel room after Safer unconvincingly tried to tear apart the contemporary art scene in two 60 Minutes segments? Or, even more surprisingly, who might say of George W. Bush’s paintings—in which the former president depicted his view of himself in the bathtub and while taking a shower, his back turned, only his face reflected in a small mirror—“I love these two bather paintings. They are ‘simple’ and ‘awkward,’ but in wonderful, unself-conscious, intense ways”?
Not everyone is on board with the Saltz movement. The Dean of the Yale School of Art Robert Storr called Saltz “the class clown” in an interview with Yale Radio, adding, “the idea that he should be running around being the conscience of the art world… all of these things are about Jerry. And it’s too bad.” Storr even clumped in Saltz’s wife—Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic of The New York Times—saying, “They are punchy writers and again, they draw interest because of the contrariness but there are no principles, and they’re not fighting long term battles for anything and never have.”
But Saltz doesn’t mind it. He’s endlessly quotable and his optimism and energy for art has led to an engagement with the art world from the most surprising of sorts—irritable Twitter users, suburban teenagers, essentially anyone with an opinion. Saltz has, in effect, de-localized art criticism, taking it from students at the Courtauld, writers at Artforum, the galleries and museums in New York and London, and instead placing it online, where anyone with even a modicum of interest in art can share their thoughts with both Saltz and one another.
Saltz and I recently spoke over the telephone, and we discussed, among other topics, where the art world is heading, how it can reorient itself, the current trends (good and bad) in contemporary art, and what the roles of critic, artist, and viewer are and could one day be. Read more…
I have been mildly obsessed with freeports—the secretive, treasure-crammed warehouses where Picassos are stashed alongside stacked bars of gold, tax-free—since David Segal’s 2012 New York Times article on the Geneva Freeport. Freeports, Segal explained, “remain the closest thing to the Cayman Islands that the art world has to offer.”
Sam Knight takes coverage of international freeport intrigue to the next level in this week’s New Yorker, with “The Bouvier Affair.” His story delves into the machinations of the Geneva Freeport and describes how one Swiss shipper saw the potential of the freeport as an adjunct to the art market, ultimately transforming himself into an under-the-radar dealer and bilking a Russian oligarch out of a billion dollars. It would not be an overstatement to call the story completely bananas. It is also a magnificently fun read—a delicious rollercoaster of a narrative, undergirded by a foundation of detailed, careful reporting. Of particular note are Knight’s nuanced insights into the bonkers world of art, like this description of the relationship between dealer and collector:
The relationship between art dealer and collector is particular and charged. The dealer is mentor and salesman. He informs his client’s desires while subjecting himself to them at the same time. The collector has money, but he is also vulnerable. Relationships start, prosper, and fail for any number of reasons. It is not always obvious where power lies. Over time, each one can convince himself that he has created the other.