Friday, September 12, 2014
Mark Twain- The Innocents Abroad, James Baldwin - Giovanni’s Room , Roland Barthes - Camera Lucida, Jacqueline Susann - Valley of The Dolls, Shakespeare - The Complete Sonnets, Dante - The Divine Comedy, Patricia Highsmith - The Boy Who Followed Ripley, Rachel Kushner - The Flamethrowers,
I’ve always had a relationship with books and its always been changing, when I was a little kid in Minnesota I loved reading this book about a boy who lived with his single dad in a NYC apt and every evening he would have to put on a clean shirt to go down to the coffee shop for dinner with his dad, then there were the Boxcar Children books that I loved and the giant Art History book with the tipped in plates that I would lug around as a little kid to keep me company in the car as I accompanied my mom on errands.
Once I started making art in earnest as an adolescent, I had no time for books, it was always make make make, My high school art teacher, Brad Nuorola, gave me a little corner of the art room to call my studio and I was tearing through projects, jumping from one medium to the next, high school was amazing and somehow I got through it without passing Algebra or reading a single book. I’m not exaggerating, I did not read a single book in all of high school.
So when it came time for college and my Dad was pressuring me to attend his Alma Mater, The University of Minnesota, I grudgingly went for a year and got straight A’s in art and f’s and in completes in everything else. I came to NYC after my freshman year, that summer of 1981, dropped off my portfolio at Metro Pictures…and when I returned to Minnesota at the end of summer I found a letter from the University informing me that I was not welcome back…..so i worked as many jobs as I could, saved as much as I could then headed off with $2,000 to england, then europe and the middle east…hitchhiking, trains, youth hostels and lots of books….Mark Twain’s “The Innocents abroad” was a revelation, this most american of writers was wise and witty in his critique of american culture and most importantly, in pointing out that all we read is mediated, there is no such thing as neutrality, most especially in newspapers. I also tried reading the Koran when I was traveling through Syria, Jordan and Egypt but the people I met in those countries kept telling me you could only read the Koran in the original Arabic so I got discouraged but was blown away by the art and architecture I saw in those countries…When I can back to NYC in the summer of 1983 in addition to seeing sonic youth at White Columns, I was curious to explore another side of my sexuality, but with AIDS rearing it’s ugly head, it wasn’t a great time for exploring….I read as much as I could and Giovanni’s room by James Baldwin was the standout from that period.
To my amazement I was accepted into Columbia’s School of General Studies in the Fall of 1983 and took to Shakespeare voraciously….his way with metaphor and his meter in the sonnets made me see, for the first time that writing could be art. I took a class with the brilliant Rennaisance literature scholar Joseph Mazzeo who encouraged me to read Dante in the original Italian. Mazzeo became my mentor at Columbia and I was amazed how deeply books could teach me about me and the life I was living. It was also then that I learned I have a touch of synesthesia….when Mazzeo discussed the concepts Dante was using in his art, I would nod my head ferociously and one day he called on me to interpret what he was talking about……I saw a yellow pyramid encircling a blue sphere and started to explain this to the class, their eyes grew wider and their stares were incredulous…….I got the idea that I might be different in ways I never knew.
The way Dante was reinterpreting the teachings of the bible as stories of contemporary Italy was mind blowing and was what inspired me to photograph music and other non material phenomena.
When I was done at Columbia I ran away to the west coast. One day at a bookstore in Seattle I cam across Roland Barthe’s “Camera Lucida”. I had been photographing people places and things for around 10 years by that point and except for a few exceptions, photography was still at the margins of the art world. In this slim, modest book Barthe’s explained the power that photography had over him and how it worked…..I had never read such a brilliant dissertation on how one medium worked. I returned to New York and photographed voraciously.
One summer I went to a friend’s cabin in wisconson and picked up “Valley of the Dolls” I loved the campy movie but the book was something else entirely….it was about a society coming apart at the seams….it was about the upheavals of the pre hippy sixties in the US….how new it was for women to have power and how everyone was renegotiating this new landscape…it helped explain why adults seemed so shaken in the ’60’s.
In 1991 I read a review of Patricia Highsmith’s last Ripley Novel. I didn’t know it at the time but I was already familiar with Ripley. My Favorite movie “The American Friend” By Wim Wenders was based on “Ripley’s Game” so I picked up the first Ripley book I could lay my hands on and it was “The Boy Who Followed Ripley” . This stylish, bisexual criminal lived in the south of france with his galmerous French wife and ran off to Berlin on the weekends to listen to David Bowie in gay clubs and cabarets….I read all 5 Ripley books and numerous short stories. I love her stance and point of view.
This past winter I picked up “The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner so it doesn’t have the benefit of time…..but I loved this book. The protagonist is someone a lot like Donald Judd and he navigates the 1970’s soho based art world smoothly just as his relatives must create futurism in pre and post war Italy. Art is life and death to these characters and I did not want this book to end. Even though I checked it out of the library I slowly savored each page, finally paying way more in overdue fines than a new copy would have cost.