Return to Articles

Peter Frank


Since I’m e-mailing as well as snail-mailing this to you, I’m following e-tiquette and not beginning the letter with any sorta salutation, which seems a shame, but when on line, do as the on-liners do . . . :)

Whoops, there I go again! (Am I paraphrasing Britney Spears or Ronald Reagan?) Punctuating with an emoticon. Actually, I’ve not gotten into that habit, mostly cuz I’m in the habit of not punctuating with emoticons, but also because I’m highly ambivalent about the little critters. As a fan, nay historian, of visual poetry, I should be an enthusiastic emoticonversationalist. But as a writer, nay editor of writing, my enthusiasm is tempered by my faith in words themselves. Maybe it’s that damned smiley face. I do like the “emoticon” neologism, tho.

It all comes with the territory, I guess. And I like the territory, daunting as it may be. The mondo digitalo spreads before us, a vast terra barely cognita sprawling to a blinding horizon. Artists and artsters in particular step into this surreal landscape with a mixture of excitement and dread. The possibilities are infinite, and so are the challenges to everything we know and believe and cherish. The ongoing controversy over giclée prints, and the whole crisis in authenticity it embodies, is just the tip of the iceberg. But it could be an instructive tip. If we pull back from our brave-new-world awe and simply try to fit “printout art” into the existing scheme of art-things, it’s clear that giclées, or Iris prints, or inkjet prints, or whatever you want to call them, occupy a heretofore empty--but rather vast--realm between the (limited) photographic print and the poster. Oh, sure, there’s a whole other dimension to the issue, that of on-line access to the image, à la Napster, and even whether the file is itself “art” (no more, I argue, than is a negative or an etched copper plate). The more I think about it the more sanguine I get: this is a realm of art unto itself, and its particular concerns touch upon but do not pre-empt those of unique paintings, small-edition bronzes, not-so-small-edition lithos or Ektachromes, or, for that matter, unlimited-edition posters. The popularly circulated prints that predate the Age of Mechanical Reproduction--Hogarth’s in 18th century England, for instance, Posada’s in 19th century Mexico, the lyubok of provincial Russia, or the countless images serving religions from Rome to Lhasa--weren’t produced as signed-‘n’-numbered collectors’ items. The computer print, in whatever form(s) it’s going to take, occupies that popular level of freely circulating in-hand image. Only now, the image can freely circulate around the globe. That’s cool. And very scary.

Jeremy Blake, “Guccinam”,
digital animation with sound,
installation at San Francisco
MoMA’s “010101” exhibition.
Digitally driven art in general is turning a corner, don’tcha think? The shows seem less and less driven by the desire to show off technical prowess or wizardry and more and more driven by the desire to make art--new kinds of art--with the tools now provided. Was up in San Francisco recently and saw the 010101 show at their MOMA and Telematic Connections at the Art Institute. I was impressed by the sense of spectacle that the artists in both shows (as well as the shows’ organizers) seem to be striving for. We’re familiar enough with digital technology (technologies?) to not marvel anymore at the eentsy size of transistors or the supple obedience of robots, so we can move on, as these artists have, to making art--that is, doing unpredictable, informative, gorgeous and overwhelming things--with what’s available. And a lot more is now available than the stiff, diagrammatic virtual spaces of your typical video game. (Although there are still plenty of surprises--that is, art--left in that ubiquitous demi-medium as well.) It’s not all special effects--and the effects have to be truly special.

Speaking of which, the two movies preoccupying me of late are pretty much F/X-less. I’m sure you know which ones I’m talking about: the one about an artist and the one by an artist (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the male leads in both are up for the same Oscar). I know you’re going to see Pollock; anyone in the New York art world who refuses to is just being contrary. But go see Before Night Falls, too – not just because a New York painter directed it, but because it’s a thrilling film. Around these parts, in fact, we’re all saying that this clinches it: Julian Schnabel is a better director than visual artist.

The narrative film seems to be a medium much more suited for Schnabel’s vision (and ego), a discipline which tempers much of the self-indulgence that has burdened his art and channels the rest of it into effective, even inventive, storytelling. I recall you were iffy on Basquiat, and I could see your argument. That film wasn’t really about Jean-Michel, it was about Julian, and the mondo SoHo he and Basquiat happened to cohabit. But we did agree that Schnabel got some good acting out of his players and some great shots out of his camerapeople. Okay, multiply that by ten, throw in some fabulous writing, and move the milieu out of the New York art world, and there’s Before Night Falls. Here, Schnabel isn’t pre-empting his subject, his empathizing with him. Granted, Reinaldo Arenas is an at least somewhat more sympathetic--and certainly more heroic--character than Jean-Michel Basquiat was. By basing the movie on Arenas’ posthumously published autobiography Schnabel exploited the Cuban writer’s substantial powers of articulation. But, as they say in the local industry, it’s not whether a director is exploiting a writer, but how well. I’m sure Arenas’ book is “better” than Schnabel’s film; but, then, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is better than the movie, too.

Schnabel’s cinematic models are mostly non-American, but he does stick to one Hollywood rule: tell the damned story. Ed Harris tells the damned story almost to a fault in Pollock, following a classic (perhaps even démodé) ‘wood model: the tortured genius kept going by the self-sacrificing love of a woman. But that was Pollock’s life. Harris and his cast put it across, painstakingly and thus painfully. He shows--plays--Pollock as an enfant terrible in the complete sense of the word, terrible and infantile and possessed as much by as of a vision that is very much of its time--this, I should note, as opposed to a vision that is far ahead of its time. Pollock’s drama, Harris underscores, was not that he was misunderstood, but that the responsibility of being understood was more than his fragile personality could withstand. Lee Krasner could lead her husband to success, but it was the one thing from which she could not save him.

Harris focuses on the Pollock-Krasner dynamic, and, as I’m sure you’ve read, gets an out-of-the-ballpark performance out of Marcia Gay Hardin (despite her forced Brooklyn accent) to match his own. They both inhabit their characters (as film critics like to say), both taking advantage of their physical resemblances to them. To varying extents, the supporting players also approximate their characters with remarkable precision. Jeffrey Tambor, for instance, doesn’t much look like Clement Greenberg, but damn if he doesn’t sound and act just like him. Amy Madigan plays Peggy Guggenheim just as you’d imagine her. The cameos are right out of the art history books: you know that’s Franz Kline the moment you see him, Helen Frankenthaler’s portrayer is spot-on, as is Alfonso Ossorio’s, and get this: William Baziotes is played by Kenny Scharf. Not everyone fits; Val Kilmer looks (and acts) about as much like Willem de Kooning as I do, blonde, bland temptress Ruth Kligman is played by a brunette bombshell, and there are a few other off-notes. But they are few enough, minor enough, and, if anything, they serve rather than disrupt the story.

And Pollock is story first, history second. Without distorting what happened, the film concentrates on Jackson and Lee, not Jackson and Lee and the Cedar Bar Crowd. I had to see the film twice to accept this; the first time I was checking out the mise-en-scène so hard--yeah, there’s the Waldorf Cafeteria! Whoa, that has to be Betty Parsons!--that I nearly missed the tragedy Harris and Hardin were playing out in almost every scene. The second time around, I could barely see anything else. So, since you’re also familiar with the art angle, go see Pollock twice, once for the Abstract Expressionist jollies and once for the movie. I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say about both. And you probably have fewer biases than I do. I knew a lot of the portrayed characters, after all (although some 20-30 years after their portrayals). That makes me the more able to declare, hey, the Hans Namuth depiction is great, that’s a passable James Johnson Sweeney, blah blah blah, but the less able to get a distance on the film.

Actor Joachim Bardem in still
from "Before Night Falls" film
directed by Julian Schnabel.

Stills from the film "Pollock",
starring Ed Harris and Marcia
Gay Hardin, directed by Harris:

Also, I know a few of the actors. Indeed, I finally had the quintessential Hollywood-once-removed experience, seeing someone I know portray someone I knew. I scared Jeffrey Tambor when I ran into him before seeing Pollock for the second time and told him he did a great Greenberg, but wasn’t quite as arrogant as the real thing--explaining that, of course, it was a considerably older and more insular Greenberg who pontificated at me than the one who dicked Pollock around. Then we went in and saw the screening, and I realized that Jeffrey’s rendition may have been low-key, but it was every bit as imperious as the Clem I’d encountered. It was nice at the same screening to be able to tell Harris to his face what a killer job he’d done--and to remind him that we’d gone to high school together. He said he remembered, which I would have shrugged off as genial politesse had he not given me a brief, quizzical, almost troubled “wait I know this guy from somewhere” stare. Last time I’d seen Harris live, of course, we both had hair, but our faces haven’t changed that much. Actually, his has narrowed and taken on that trademark intensity. Back in Jersey, Eddie, who was a year behind me, was his class’s smart jock, the BMOC with a smile and a strut. He did some acting, as I recall, but that wasn’t his calling card. Another thing Harris hasn’t lost is his own New York accent. He coulda given Hardin lessons--although he completely stashed away his yoozes and fuggedaboudits to play the Wyoming-born, LA-raised Pollock.

Alexandra Nechita (top) and Pierre
Henri Matisse (below) pose with
their Angels--little and otherwise:

So what else is new in these parts? Well, the latest in public art goes for the sublime and falls somewhere closer to the ridiculous. You remember those painted (and otherwise manipulated) cow sculptures that popped up in the middle of NY last year, courtesy of Chicago? And how everybody loved them? No, they haven’t appeared here as well. That wouldn’t be so bad. Nooooo, Los Angeles, following the lead of any number of other cities, had to go do its own version. Another animal, perhaps? Nope. A humanoid figure. With wings. You got it, a friggin’ angel. And this cookie-cutter more-or-less lifesize statue has been plopped down in various places around the city, each one daubed by a different artist, some more thoughtfully and/or skillfully than others, but it hardly matters. The figures themselves are as smooth and vacuous as those peoploids Mark Kostabi paints (or has painted for him), but are a lot less droll. They provide the hapless artists who have decorated them with too complex a structure, and yet too bland a surface, to work on comfortably; and they themselves are too big, too slick, and too predictable to be taken seriously. Talk about smiley faces! Hey, maybe some clever post-modernist has painted a smiley face--or maybe even an emotion--on one of these figurolas.

Meanwhile, the Museum of Contemporary Art has involved itself in a sort-of ad campaign, and its billboards are everywhere you look. Each one is a black-and-white, text-only version of a museum wall label: Title, date, media or description, perhaps dimensions, and a courtesy line mentioning MOCA. There’s a lot of arch self-referentiality in the format, only amplified in the specific “entries.” The project purports to turn life into art, labeling our quotidian experiences as if they were museum pieces. As several writers here have already complained, this in-jokey approach would have been dated but perhaps have retained a bit of residual tang were it simply straight-ahead labeling ( e.g. ”Strip Joint, circa 1979, strippers, patrons, booze, courtesy of MOCA”), but someone saw fit to get cute and make all sorts of wry social commentary. Some of it hits home, at least obliquely (one billboard, for instance, labels the “media” of a fitness center as “men running with keys”), but too much of it tries too hard, and too much of it is simply too big, looming larger than the structures it identifies. As opposed to the angels, I want to like this project; it coulda been a contender. But the copywriters couldn’t decide whether to think like curators or like comedians, and too, too rarely found the happy medium.

Painting isn’t a happy medium, Pollock avers. Film is, Before Night Falls proves. As for digital media, they may or may not be happy, but they are here to stay.
-- :(

--April, 2001

A selection of advertising billboards,
Museum of Contemporary Art
(client) and Chiat Day (agency):