Kusama: ‘Miss Naked Happening’

The Way of All Flesh: Stripping for Inaction

I have seen the future — and it doesn’t work.


“Those things never start on time,” I was informed.

So I showed up about 10:40 just as the first young man slipped off his shirt and pants. Within seconds half a dozen young men joined him, all body-paint­ed, all well-lit by the over-lap­ping flash of photographer’s bulbs.

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On a stage at the far end of the gym, the Group Image was performing against a huge back­drop of multiple — projections. It isn’t accurate to say they play extremely loudly — like many groups, they don’t seem to make sound at all, but to have enter­ed another sensory dimension altogether. Movies were projected on several screens hung from the ceiling, moving lights dappled the walls, and from time to time strips of paper were thrown from the balcony. Two or three hundred hippies — the term is still valid in certain environ­ments — were dancing in various stages of consciousness.

And in a kind of pen at the entrance-end of the gym, about the size of a boxing ring, with fluorescent posts at the corners and a C-movie projected on a screen at the back, the naked dancing continued — now 10 or 12 young men, and a few on the main dance floor itself.

“Put your clothes on,” the owner of the Gymnasium vainly implored, but suddenly, in a heterosexual followup to last week’s naked happening at the Palm Gardens, a fleshy blonde girl strode naked into the pen, and the crowd, merely curious up to this point, clustered quickly around the area. The girl danced for a few minutes, then disap­peared as quickly as she’d come — into clothes and into newsprint.

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A little later, another girl lay down in a corner of the pen and casually smoked a dubious ci­garette as her boy-friend gently lifted her skirt and deftly painted — but not so deftly that it didn’t tickle — what John Cle­land referred to as “nether lips”. Eastman-Kodak stock must have jumped at least a point, and a Time reporter, more indignant than curious, asked “is this what’s going on in New York?”

For the next hour or so the over 30 reporters and photo­graphers waited around, Marty-­like, for more [of] what used to be called “action.” But finally Ku­sama admitted that that was pretty much it for the evening, and she seemed as disappointed as anyone.

Actually, I’d very much wanted to like it. On the way up on the subway, I vowed not to use the banal and obvious jokes like telling boys from girls or having it up to here with nudity. After all, everyone had said the Ann Halprin dance concert at Hunter College last year was ex­hilarating and liberating, many people in our time regard utopia as a sexual rather than a social ideal, and we have been told that the younger generation is finally overthrowing 2500 years of Platonic idealism in favor of tactility. This was to be a glimpse of the unrepressed fu­ture. Animal vitality and accep­tance would sweep the world. Que viva body mysticism!

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But how sad and depressing it was. The utopian fantasies, col­lapsed, and somewhere in between the titillated media and the post-civilization on 71st Street lay hopes that this was not to be the way of all flesh.

For the most disturbing thing about the evening was its com­plete sense of unreality. At first I thought they might be laughing at how serious everyone was get­ting about such a trivial thing — ­wow, we just take off our clothes and people write articles about “glimpses of the unrepressed future.” But they weren’t putting us on, they weren’t even there. It was very much like one of those press conferences at which a public figure makes state­ments for television cameramen. The cameramen are bored, the public figure is just putting on his act for the cameras — the “reality” of the event, its es­sence, when it actually “happens,” is when the film is shown on television six or eight hours later.

Similarly, the reality of the “mass naked happening” seem­ed to lie in the media, in the pictures, in the gesture — which meant nothing except insofar as it was reported. I felt at first it would be unfair to comment as a voyeur, that one would have to swing with it in order to understand it (another Voice reporter arrested), but the only reality of the situation WAS voyeurism. We had achieved a situation in which the voyeur was more real than what he observ­ed.

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For the scene — or at least this one example of it, which we can only hope is an exception —seemed like nothing so much as those futuristic movies (some of which were projected on the screens) full of pale, emotionless zombies. The participants were obviously in a state of ecs­tasy — but it seemed such a solipsistic, masturbatory ecstasy that the pleasure-principle itself may need re-definition. What a sad and lonely and disembodied ecstasy.

When telegrams announce the arrival or the Noble Savage, tactility has become the final abstraction. ♦

1968 Village Voice by Ross Wetzsteon about Yayoi Kusama "Naked Happening"


Where Angels Fear To Tread

The country which is nowhere is the real home.
— Lao-tzu

LAST MARCH 30, artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay set out to walk the length of the Great Wall of China.

They began at opposite ends, some 3700 miles apart. In the east, Marina stepped away from the Yel­low Sea and onto the wall at precisely 10:47 a.m., the auspicious moment chosen for her by those Chinese officials who’d come along to bear wit­ness. In the west, Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) planted a flag honoring Moroccan explor­er Ibn Batouta at the canyon where the Great Wall ends; then he turned to follow it east into the Gobi Desert. The artists would simply walk toward each other un­til they met.

Ulay and Marina’s performance work had always forced them into unknown and dangerous territory. And the work had always illustrated and depended on their own relationship, as it supported them through terra incognita. Crossing the Great Wall would take the project to an epic dimension. “The Lovers” they’d called this piece originally, meaning lov­ers of each other, lovers of the world. But eight years had passed between the dream of walking the wall and the first real step onto its crumbling remains. The epic they’d intended had become impossi­ble. Another would unfold in its place.

From half a world away, Marina and Ulay were metaphors crossing a symbol. The Great Wall is said to be the only human artifact visible from outer space. Chinese mythology describes it as the body of a sleeping dragon. Ulay had stepped off on its tail, and Marina on its head. In pictures, the Great Wall runs snakelike over mossy hills. In pictures, Nixon strolls along it with Mao. But as I prepared to visit the artists last spring, I couldn’t picture what they were going through — what vistas, what struggles over mountains and deserts, what people met along the way. Then, in May, I re­ceived a “letter” from Ulay — a page from a daily calendar, actually. On it he had written the words: “stranger than innocence.”

GOING OFF TO FIND the artists on the wall was a trip that I’d saddled with some do-or-die meaning. I suppose I thought it would change my life. Certainly the art­ists expected the walk to change theirs. In art and myth, that’s what happens on the perilous unpredictable voyage: the sea change. Into something rich and strange. I could be the next pilgrim in the long brooding line. So, if I went through months of anxiety over money, if I didn’t know how to plan because I didn’t know where they were, if I had to delay leaving a dozen times — what were these little traumas compared to the artists’? It had taken them five years just to get permis­sion to walk.

I think of Ulay and Marina as exem­plars of those who make the inner journey, who use their art to sculpt the self. Typically, they place themselves in some precarious circumstance, facing not just the unknown, but the unknowable. At first, the risks they took were always physical. Their shocking or bizarre actions pushed the artists to their limits, while making some primal experience real for an audience.

In a piece called Three (1978), for ex­ample, they crawled over a floor on their stomachs with a python who hadn’t eaten in two weeks, both of them making sound vibrations to attract it. The snake went straight to Marina (“like in the Bible”) and followed her intently for four hours as she slowly backed away from it. When it finally broke eye contact and turned away, the artists declared the piece over.

In the ’70s, they created classic Body Art pieces they called Relation Work: sit­ting back to back with their hair tied together for 17 hours; breathing each oth­er’s breath until they felt faint; slapping each other till one of them chose to stop; moving mobile columns by repeatedly hurling their naked bodies at them. They chose difficulty and risk for their art, uncertainty and insecurity for their lives. For four years they lived in their car, nomads with uncompromising, self-im­posed rules: permanent movement, tran­scending limitations, no fixed living-­place, no rehearsal, no predicted end, no repetition. They have since described this period as one of the happiest of their lives.

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By 1980, however, they felt they’d ex­hausted the possibilities of such work. They turned their attention from the un­articulated voices of the body to those that layer the mind. In the meditative Nightsea Crossing series, the artists sat motionless for seven hours at either end of a long table, trying not even to blink. And they did this 90 times in museums all over the world, completing the series in 1986. Both have called Nightsea Cross­ing the most painful and difficult work they ever did. Marina once said that she reached a point, as her muscles cramped in each of the 90 performances, when she felt that she would die. She’d tell herself, “Okay, then. Just die. So what?” Ulay described states of near-catatonia and panic on that edge before the body locks. He said he was “permanent on a brink.”

When I watched Nightsea Crossing for three days at the New Museum in 1986, I thought of Ulay and Marina as two peo­ple balanced on a seesaw over the abyss, as if both would fall if either of them moved. Each knew, however, that the other was unmovable. The piece was trust — and will — made visible. The content was the artists’ inner life; the body was mind. “We believe in the art of the 21st century,” Marina once told me. “No object between the artist and observer. Just direct transmission of the energy. When you develop yourself strongly in­side, you can transmit your idea directly.”

I could almost see their connection, like some filament between them. Here was a performance in which nothing hap­pened, yet I found it very moving — be­cause of the artists’ courage, and the im­age they created of mutual empowerment. I suppose the relation­ship-as-tableau represented some ideal of love and work, of trust and acceptance, that I despair of attaining. Like Relation Work, Nightsea Crossing addressed feelings not easily forced into language — as difficult to describe as emptiness.

Motionlessness, said Ulay, was “the homework.” When he spoke of his birth in a bomb shelter in what is now West Germany, of spending the first years of his life among the ruins, or when Marina described her early performances in Yu­goslavia, cutting herself in front of an audience for the simple reason that she was afraid to bleed, I would think — they’ve been preparing to walk the wall  all their lives.

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I HAD TO PREPARE, I decided, by enter­ing into the spirit of the work: Take a look if you must, but leap. I converted my life savings into travelers checks, and flew. The artists’ heroism, the epic walk, the Great Wall — it was really much larger than life to me. I felt small. When I looked down from the plane and realized that that was China — just an endless un­dulating brown prairie, really — I began to cry, overwhelmed because I’d come so far, and I don’t mean geographically. It was June 1 in the Year of the Dragon. Enter­ing Beijing, I was dazzled by the every­day — the cliche herds of bikes all pedal­ing in the same heartbeat rhythm, the young guys playing pool on a table in the street, the sign wishing me to become “one of the 200 lucky fellows,” the lan­guage that sounded the way it looked, all big blocks. It was a relief to tune into the details and think small and get real.

The young woman who’d met me at the airport announced that in another day I would accompany an official to some­where in northwest China. To Ulay. In other words, the leap of faith that had brought me there had just been a practice jump. I’d have to do it again every day. I wouldn’t know where I was going, what I’d find there, or (usually) who was taking me. And the plans were ever-changing. There was no choice but to flow with it. The next day, during an unexplained five-hour delay at Beijing airport, I tried to get a grip on my first fit of Western impatience. Or maybe it was pride. I’m not used to feeling so helpless. I speak no Chinese, and my traveling companion, part of the sponsoring Chinese Associa­tion for the Advancement of Internation­al Friendship (CAAIF), spoke no English. I would point to the line in my Mandarin phrase book: “When does the flight take off?” and Wang Yunfeng, solicitous and paternal, would tell me: “Yinchuan, no.” Yinchuan was a destination too far off the tourist track to merit more than a sentence in my guidebook.

Sometime after 7 p.m., we finally tax­ied off in a plane that vibrated hard and smelled like a hundred years of sweat. There were no safety tips. The steward­ess handed out kiwi sodas, then a square gray box of snacks: two dry rolls, two pieces of cake, a chocolate wafer cookie, and peanuts (“the tasty food of tourism,” it said on the packet). I had to laugh at myself, at my snack for a sea change. Outside I saw craggy spooky mountains, thin peaks like frozen waves. I hallucinat­ed a dragon in flight from a patch of river golden with sunset. I looked up the word “beautiful” to show Mr. Wang, but it wasn’t in my phrase book.

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SUCH A STRANGE and ambitious project as walking the Great Wall wouldn’t have been possible in China until recently­ — until the new policy of kai fang (opening to the West), instituted under Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese had been building walls for over 2000 years. Qin Shi Huangdi, called the first Chinese emperor because he unified the warring states, connected existing border walls into a Great Wall between 221 and 210 B.C. Subsequent dynasties built more walls as borders shifted. And the project culmi­nated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), whose emperors connected and added to everything constructed before, giving the Great Wall the course it takes today. Ostensibly built for defense, it never worked in defense. The wall, Ulay would tell me, was “a groove in the Chi­nese mind.” Beyond it, throughout their history, lay foreigners and hell.

Ulay’s and Marina’s performances, with their elements of ritual and ordeal, have no counterpart in China outside re­ligion or politics. Commitment, struggle, pilgrimage — that was the Long March. Before the artists sent their first formal proposal to Beijing early in 1984, no one in China had ever walked the length of the wall. No one had run it or crossed it on horseback (as Westerners have now done, more or less, in the first few years they’ve had access to it). No one in Chi­na, apparently, felt compelled to do such things. Then in 1984, Liu Yu Tian, for­mer railway worker, suddenly became the first person to go the distance on foot. The artists thought this was no coinci­dence. Ulay called it “plagiarism.” But the artists weren’t crossing the wall to enter the Guinness Book of World Re­cords. They were surrounding themselves with the unfamiliar in order to find the unimaginable.

That’s what they always did. In 1980, for example, they spent six months in the central Australian desert. This experi­ence was the pivot that turned them from aggressive physicality to motionlessness. Forced into stillness by heat that rarely dipped below body temperature, they dis­covered the “nightsea” of the subconscious mind. And it was in the desert that they decided they would someday walk the Great Wall of China.

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They became world travelers, seldom at home, based in Amsterdam but not Dutch citizens. They had no wish to be anyone’s citizen. They performed Night­sea Crossing, for example, in Brazil, Ja­pan, Finland. In one episode, they sat with an aboriginal medicine man and a Tibetan lama. And they began a series of videotapes, one for each continent, fur­ther exploring the spectacle that unfolds in motionlessness. In the three completed tapes — set in Thailand, Sicily, and Bos­ton — local people pose in tableaux that are saturated with things to look at, satu­rated with the tension of remaining still. Some detail in each, like a gently billow­ing dress, makes time visible. The artists’ self-imposed rule: one take, no second chance. They also began a series of life­size Polaroids, some featuring themselves as archetypal figures or anthropological objects, others capturing their shadows.

At the heart of all the work, still, was their connection and commitment to each other. The artists themselves de­scribed their relationship as lovers, brother/sister, husband/wife. And the work was an “energy-dialogue,” which created a third entity they labeled “That Self.” Three was “their” number. They had it tattooed on the middle fingers of their left hands.

They had met in Amsterdam in 1975 on what happened to be their mutual birthday, November 30 (Ulay was born in Germany in 1943, Marina in Yugoslavia in 1946). They had immediately felt con­fidence in each other. “Like we knew each other before,” Marina once told me. In their work together, with their some­what similar profiles and sometimes sim­ilar haircuts, they became the image, at least, of the ideal couple. Or the symbiot­ic one. They sometimes designated them­selves UMA.

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In walking the Great Wall, crossing mountains and deserts to reach each oth­er, they wished to experience at their meeting “the apotheosis of romantic love.” They thought they might get mar­ried at that meeting, right there on the wall. They planned to camp as they went, exposing themselves to nature as they had in Australia, conditioning themselves to make new work. They shipped a year’s supply of freeze-dried tofu and seaweed to China. They bought tents and camping stoves. They would study the wall and make paper rubbings from its stones. They’d be retracing the earth’s “geodetic force line,” for the wall’s coiling path (rarely ever the shortest distance between two points) had been determined by geo­mancers, ancient diviners of the earth’s energy, and they felt that walking this force line might change them. They thought the walk might take a year.

Sometimes I wonder what the Chinese made of that initial proposal. Some ulti­mate expression of Western individuality and ego? The bureaucracy in Beijing will not even deal with individual artists. In 1983, Ulay and Marina had to create the Amphis Foundation to represent them. Ironically for two people so interested in Eastern philosophy — who had originally speculated that the piece could become a walking meditation — negotiations turned their way only after they proposed doing a film about the wall for China Central Television. They would be walking its length, then, to study it. Finally they were talking the bureaucrats’ language. The adventurous CAAIF agreed to sponsor them. The Dutch government then declared the walk a cultural exchange and kicked in some much-needed funding.

But by the time Marina and Ulay be­gan walking last spring, almost every­thing about the project had changed. Where they once thought they would walk singly, each now had an entourage; the Chinese feared for their safety. The artists had wanted to cover every inch of the wall; but the Chinese restricted them from military areas. (For these detours, among other things, each artist got a jeep and a driver.) Where they once thought they’d camp on the wall, they often ended up in villages, even in hotels, because the Chinese do not camp. The Chinese esti­mated that the project would take four months and demanded the sum of $130,000 — more than $1000 a day. The artists sold work they hadn’t yet made in order to raise the money. Walking the wall had become something they just had to do.

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But the most startling change of all was in their relationship. They could no longer call the piece “The Lovers.” Less than a year before starting, they separat­ed. Marina told me she wouldn’t have expected their relationship — so unique — ­to end just as badly as any other, but it had. Marina felt that everything had bro­ken between them. Ulay insisted their connection would continue, though it had changed. They would still work together after the walk, he said. They would not work together after the walk, she said.

Despite their mutual unhappiness, not walking was something they never considered seriously. They would surrender to the situation. They had always shared this unwavering resolve, the voice that said, “Okay, then. Just die. So what?” That was what had made their work so compelling to me in the first place. Yet their split confused and saddened me. I even wondered if they should walk. Was the project still valid? When a mutual friend suggested that the connection be­tween them went deeper than the vicissi­tudes of romance, though, I agreed.

The artists had traveled along parts of the wall by train and car in 1986 — to get some sense of what they’d encounter — ­and when they told villagers living near it what they were doing, those people had understood it immediately as an epic love story, something right out of mythology. Of course, the project had always been more than that. But it was still, in its way, a love story made real. Ever inter­ested in testing the limits, they would now have to contemplate the limits of love — an emotion more complicated, har­rowing, fragile, and imperfect than most epics allow.

The artists considered starting at the middle and walking away from each oth­er, but decided not to. In their very first piece, Relation in Space (1976), they had moved toward each other repeatedly for one hour, naked, first touching shoulders as they met, then accelerating the inten­sity till they were colliding head-on at full speed. Walking the wall would duplicate this action in arduous slow motion and would seem to mark the end of their extraordinary 12-year collaboration, even as it demonstrated what they’d once called “the impossibility of escaping one another.”

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I WONDERED HOW FAR we were from Ulay, as Mr. Wang and the Foreign Affairs people and I left Yinchuan by van. The day Ulay had finally begun to walk, he’d sent me a postcard with the mes­sage: “I go now.” On the back, barely visible, were some faint blue lines. Under a magnifying glass, I recognized the sec­ond century Chinese poem called “Con­fessions of the Great Wall” that he and Marina had found years ago: The world is small and blue./I am a little crack in it.

Now, presumably drawing near, I no­ticed a billboard on which the winding wall of legend had been painted into the center of a Great Wall Tire. We drove honking and weaving into the bike and donkey traffic, past the rickshaw piled with slaughtered sheep, into the country, past the mud-brick medical office with a gingham curtain for a door. Everything familiar was now strange, and I didn’t know where I was. Couldn’t tell what direction we were going. And it was rain­ing as we entered the Mao Wu Su desert. Mr. Wang pointed to a jagged reddish rock formation (I thought) on the hori­zon. “Ulay has been there,” he said. That was the Great Wall of China.

That little chunk of it must have been 30 feet long. Here in western China, the wall was built from clay. It had eroded, and so had the other ruins we passed. A broken beacon tower. A crumbled com­pound. Everything deserted but for the odd sheep or shepherd. “How old are these things?” I wondered. The Foreign Affairs people told me, “It is difficult to measure the time.”

Finally, after four hours of driving, we entered the village of Yan Chi. Where the Great Wall of China runs through a car­pet factory. In a new but already shabby hotel covered with bright yellow tile, we found Ulay.

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As he came striding down the hallway, where the dirty strips of red carpet never quite met, Ulay looked happy. As if he were home. In two months he had walked through two provinces, through desert most of the way. He’d seen camels pulling plows. He’d found people living in the wall — in caves — in the most clever way. He’d crossed the Yellow River on a sheep­skin raft. He was filled with enthusiasms. And with complaints. There’d been so many detours, so many “tough quarrel­ings” with authorities. They would insist on hotels instead of camping. And when they did let him camp, they would sleep in the van. Often his crew couldn’t keep pace with him. And they would tell him that areas were restricted when, really, they were just inconvenient, he thought. It had been impossible to carry out the pure concept, to be one of two tiny hu­mans moving toward each other over this broken but monumental path.

I began to see how the piece was really unfolding, as my first 24 hours with Ulay became an ongoing social event. He was not walking merely the Great Wall, but a line threaded through the gears of Chi­na’s infamous bureaucracy. Crossing a provincial border like this one between Ningxia and Shaanxi was a political event, a time for meetings, banquets, speeches, and a complete change of crew.

“Walking is the easy part,” Ulay told me that night, after the first of three banquets we would eat in two days. “All the people involved in the project are bureaucratic, administrative-trained peo­ple. There is no great spirit for explora­tion, for sportive behavior. They like to be nicely dressed. They like to have their dinners on time. They like to sleep.” To the bureaucrats, accompanying Ulay was hard work. To Ulay, being accompanied by them was like dragging a heavy tail. They had pulled each other in different directions, and in this tug-of-war the Chi­nese had taken control of the project.

The only struggle Ulay could hope to win was the ongoing struggle with his temper. Occasionally he’d become so an­gry that he had “choiced wrong.” For certainly he was no tourist wanting China to be a museum — new sights with the comforts of home. Ulay can become ab­sorbed in a culture completely. Rootless and mobile, he is not much attached to his “world of origin.” At one of the ban­quets in Yan Chi, he told the officials and the crew that he had been born in Ger­many during the war and had lost most of his family then, but here in China he had found a new one.

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Yet, two months into the walk, he was still fuming over how “their waterproof security system” had changed the con­cept. His frustration over this seemed to enter every conversation we had. He’d nearly come to blows, he admitted, one day in Ningxia province when two mem­bers of his crew physically restrained him from walking farther into the mountains. They told him he’d come to a restricted area. He didn’t believe them. He guessed that they simply didn’t want to climb. In his rage, he broke the staff to which he’d tied a knotted white flag — a private sig­nal meaning “remember to surrender.” That day, when he’d done neither, had been the worst of his journey.

I recalled his distress when, in 1987, the Chinese had inexplicably postponed the walk (for the first time). He’d de­scribed his state of mind then as “so disencouraged, so desperated.” At that point, he said, he’d been living on the wall in his thoughts for five years, and “already I have walked it 10 times. Al­ready it is worn. It is polished.” So when he finally climbed onto it that first day to see the long-anticipated plan “bent into a different direction,” he began trying to bend it back.

Not covering every foot of the wall, not camping near it every night — these were the changes that vexed and preoccupied him, the ones he would talk about. The altered relationship with Marina he didn’t talk about, and I sensed that I shouldn’t press him. He said only that this was the first time he and Marina had worked so separately. They hadn’t even communicated. And he didn’t know what it meant. He’d decided it was “not impor­tant” at the moment. Meanwhile, he con­tinued to speak in the plural: we feel, our work, important to us … He asked me if I’d heard anything about how she was doing.

The artists had speculated that they might meet where the Yellow River di­vides the provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi, and he wondered aloud one day which of them would make the crossing by boat — but, really, he did not want to think about the ending. When he’d see Marina again. He wanted to have no expectations.

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ULAY CRAVED the first light of day, so good for photographs. He always set out between six and seven and walked until noon or one, averaging 20 kilometers. Walking became so mechanical, he said, that the earth moved beneath him like a treadmill. He was measuring the Great Wall with his body.

This was not the picturesque stone wall that beckoned from the travel brochures. That wall ran through the eastern moun­tains, and somewhere Marina was cross­ing it, headed in our direction. The clay wall Ulay followed through the west had been more vulnerable to both humans and the weather. Obviously it inspired no awe among the people who lived with it. One day it snaked through a village where we discovered homes and stables built in beneath our feet. Hours before in the countryside, we’d found it spread out into two gentle slopes and plowed.

Since the wall had been built from the best available clay, peasants occasionally made off with whole chunks of it. “Mao killed the dragon,” as Ulay put it. Mao had encouraged the Chinese to make use of this cultural relic, to take its clay for topsoil or its stones for building. Re-­educating millions to leave it alone again was not so easy. At Jaiyuguan where his walk began, Ulay had seen workers re­storing the wall for tourists, while eight kilometers farther on, peasants disman­tled it.

Even during my first excited walk, I had to remind myself sometimes that I was crossing the Great Wall of China — ­from afar the stuff of legends, a giant sleeping dragon; up close, a hill to climb. That day, when we picked up the wall at the Ningxia/Shaanxi border, it was scrub-covered at first, an uneven 10 to 12 feet tall, but rounded like an earthwork on a battlefield. An hour or two later, we hit desert and began crossing its perfect shapes. Here the wall became a rough clay trail, often too broken to walk on. We were alone in a blue and yellow world where all centuries had been the same, scuttled over by scarab beetles.

As I skirted some large holes in the top of the wall, Ulay, walking below, reported that they opened into one-room caves. Here, the crew told us, soldiers from the Red Army had dug in and lived during the ’30s. An hour later, we found a bea­con tower converted into a temple, where two old men in gray lived and worshiped a war hero from the time of Three King­doms (220 to 265 A.D.). History was just part of the landscape. No drama. No theme park. We were dots moving over the dunes.

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BACK WHEN THE WALK was still an idea, Ulay had considered going the distance in silence. He is reserved by nature. He’d always said he was “no talker,” leaving the art-world social chores — openings, lectures — to Marina. Now, here he was officiating at banquets, wanting to mix, always the center of some group. If the people he passed wanted to gawk, Ulay was more than willing to be seen. He was their new information. He wanted to con­nect, even while surmising that “my smile comes from a different muscle than their smile.”

He had come to feel that he represent­ed foreignness. He hated the VIP treat­ment usually accorded everyone who is not Chinese, which so effectively sepa­rates them from everything that is Chi­nese. Foreigners travel most often in groups of foreigners, staying in hotels just for foreigners. The Chinese authorities seem to want it that way (and, of course, so do any number of the foreigners). There is, in other words, a great wall.

Ulay said that in all his travels to the remotest parts of India, Australia, and North Africa, he had never experienced such “fear for a person who has two eyes, two ears, and a mouth.” Here he had been so many people’s first foreigner. Again and again he’d observed in their eyes that “moment of doubt and strangeness.” Tall and lanky with a brown mustache and ponytail, carrying a staff, wearing baggy drawstring trousers, big hiking boots, and sometimes a flowing overcoat — Ulay was a sensation.

All of our walks ran through territory closed to foreigners, and for four days, we stayed in the closed village of Dingbian. “A real Forbidden City,” Ulay called it. Soon after arriving there, we decided to take a stroll and a crowd materialized around us within steps of the hotel. Peo­ple had stared at me since my first day in China, but in Dingbian they were mes­merized. As though we were movie stars. Or monsters. On their faces I saw joy, fear, hostility, disbelief. We were no long­er ourselves, but spectacles of ourselves. I was learning how racism feels, how frightening it is to be other-than-human. Soon we were leading a large blue and green parade through the heart of the village, everyone silent but openmouthed. When a hundred people followed us back into the hotel and watched as we climbed the stairs, Ulay joked that in all his years as a performance artist, he had never had such a big audience.

“Alien,” said Ulay, referring to our Alien Travel Permits. “They use the right word.” He did a lot of theorizing about China. He’d come to love it and wanted to understand. “The Chinese have been isolated for such a long time. Deliberate­ly. And if a large group of people isolates themselves from the rest, something strange has to happen. You have a circu­lation throughout your body. Take a rub­ber ring and put it around your finger. The circulation becomes disturbed and something starts rotting. And if you take it off, you poison your own system. May­be that’s why they generate one wall after another.”

This was what he thought “stranger than innocence.” Not that the Chinese were innocent of the world but that for many of them, the rest of the world sim­ply didn’t exist. He’d discovered that peo­ple who lived along the wall often didn’t know it was a wonder of the world, and many had no idea that it crossed most of China. The translator who’d traveled with him and Marina in 1986 said she’d grown up thinking that the moon be­longed to her village. “They have a non-­ability to look out,” Ulay told me. “They are unable to see there is one sun and one moon which is touring.” He thought Chi­na womblike, thermal. He pointed out that people constantly drank boiling wa­ter (of necessity, for there’s no potable water anywhere), and that even in June, men wore long underwear. “They live like they’re preparing for hibernation.”

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OFTEN AS WE WALKED, Ulay pointed out tools used by the peasants, used for cen­turies and so ingenious. He would roam from the path of the wall occasionally to explore, wanting to know the history and customs of the area. He’d lit a fire in one of the beacon towers, because signaling in that way had once been their function. And when we found pottery shards along the wall, he could often identify the dy­nasty from which they came.

For Ulay the walk had become a study of China, and there he had focused his emotional energy — rage for the bureau­crats, love for the yellow earth of the northwest and for the peasants’ way of life. So, while his walk was no longer romantic, it had acquired perhaps a touch of romanticism. It was about an­other sort of yearning.

In the countryside, he’d observed a bare-bones and to him idyllic life. He’d observed that those who lived it had no complaints. “There is contentment, which I find a more reasonable term than happiness.” Such a room as one found in a commune — with a brick bed, bowl of water, two chairs, and a table — it was all one needed, really. His first translator had called him a “voluntary socialist.”

To the men on his crew, however, this simple life wasn’t necessarily ideal. Ulay hadn’t understood at first what rigors of exile some of these people had suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Now they’d managed a better life for them­selves, and the hardship he craved re­minded them of old horrors. He told me in Dingbian that he now thought his problems were his problems.

He thought maybe the explorer’s na­ture was a sort of greed. Critic Tom McE­villey had visited him in May and ob­served that he was “greedy for authenticity,” and Ulay thought it was so. On our last afternoon together, we dis­cussed what it meant to be blocked so thoroughly from language, trapped with­out an alphabet. “The search for authen­ticity is where you are exposed to a dif­ferent world and have to rely stronger again on intuitive intelligence,” said Ulay. “We look to traditional cultures to sound into that intuitive intelligence. Where your sharp senses get a holiday.”

Ulay was looking for more by looking for less. Paring things away — technology, comfort, habit, even language. I was re­minded of the existential drifters who appear in the work of Ulay’s favorite writer, Samuel Beckett. Molloy saying of his journey’s aim: “… the most you can hope is to be a little less, in the end, the creature you were in the beginning, and the middle.”

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FROM JUNE 9 TO JUNE 12, from Ulay to Marina, I made a slow, U-shaped arc by jeep, plane, train, and car. I was still an impatient Westerner, ignorant of the dif­ficulties involved in getting tickets or making phone calls, therefore outraged that I had to stop for a full day in the city of Taiyuan. And I still became paranoid over conversations like this one:

“Where’s Marina?”

“Maybe she’s here.”

“Can I see her?”

“Maybe she just left.”

“Can you find out?”


Though no one in Taiyuan told me so, Marina had come through town the day before, detouring a large military area. By the time I caught up with her at a xiang (commune) north of Datong a couple of days later, I felt — as I had with Ulay­ — that I’d arrived at the end of the earth. I’d also brought with me certain expecta­tions. But no, Marina had had no trouble with bureaucrats. And for her, walking had not been the easy part.

The eastern half of the wall, built from stone and famous in pictures, runs across the spine of a mountain range. One small piece of it, fully restored, is open to tour­ists near Beijing. There they can buy a T-­shirt declaring, “I walked the wall.” There the wall is most clearly a symbol, like the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. And there Marina had refused to walk — ­because it was too short, too fake, and too easy. The rest of the eastern wall is now a trail of loose rock ascending and descending the peaks. Hers was more arduous terrain than his, but in choosing sides, the artists had been concerned only with symbolism. According to Chinese mythology, hers was the male part of the wall and his the female. Their work together had always balanced these polarities.

Each morning Marina had had to climb for two hours just to get to the wall. She would reach it exhausted. Then it would take all day to do 20 kilometers, then another two hours to climb back down. She’d never once camped. She’d descend to find a place in the nearest village or xiang. There she would ask the people to tell her stories about the wall. Not its history, but its legends.

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Marina is affable and vivid, the poetry of her rather ungrammatical English only adding to her charm. She was even on a first-name basis with her quiet young in­terpreter, Han Dahai, and the crew that accompanied her throughout the moun­tain trek had affectionately dubbed her “Pa Ma Ta Je” (Big Fat Sister Ma) be­cause of her bulky clothing. “I wish new Chinese name,” joked Marina, who’s fairly slim. Like Ulay, she wore big hiking boots, baggy trousers, a multipocket vest, a flowing overcoat. More importantly, like Ulay, she had an iron will. But they had reacted as opposites to the changes in the walk. Where he had struggled with the authorities and lost, she had yielded and gotten her own way — by incorporat­ing their changes, making them her changes.

But then, Marina didn’t really care about the camping. To her the big change was in her relationship with Ulay. She’d even been reluctant to start. “Before was this strong emotional link, so walking to­wards each other had this impact … al­most epic story of two lovers getting to­gether after suffering. Then that fact went away. I was confronted with just bare Wall and me. I had to rearrange my motivation. Then I always remember this sentence of John Cage saying, when I throw I Ching, the answers I like the less are the answers I learn the most.

“I’m very glad we didn’t cancel the piece because we needed a certain form of ending. Really this huge distance we walk towards each other where actually we do not meet happily, but we will just end­ — it’s very human in a way. It’s more dra­matic than actually just having this ro­mantic story of lovers. Because in the end you are really alone, whatever you do.”

She’d insisted that she had to walk directly on the Wall at all times, and the Chinese allowed it. In the mountains, this meant ascending or descending on un­steady piles of rock, climbing to “the bor­der of human possibilities,” up peaks where even the local guides would not go. To avoid a fall, or an avalanche, she’d had to concentrate so hard on every step that she could think of nothing else. She couldn’t think about Ulay.

Before we left the xiang, she described the drama of her fourth day, when she and Dahai had nearly fallen to their deaths. They’d been descending the mountain at the end of the day, when it suddenly dropped off at a 90-degree an­gle, the rocks “polished like ice,” below them an abyss. “We were hanging there on the tips of our fingers.” They had, of course, no climbing equipment. It had taken two perilous hours to inch back up.

Where I met her, the Great Wall had been built from clay. She complained that walking was so easy here her mind could wander. She’d come to love the stone wall, its dangers, its “continuous falls and ups like real life.” While never foolhardy, Marina appreciated danger. “Is danger what wake you up, and that’s what I like so much.” With months of this behind her, she had the survivor’s conviction that she could face anything.

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MARINA HAD PERMISSION to cross just one of four counties in the province of Shanxi (not to be confused with neigh­boring Shaanxi, where Ulay was). As we started down the wall behind the xiang, I pointed out that we were going east — the wrong way. Marina was taken aback, then shrugged her shoulders. The new crew had driven her to the starting point the day before, and she’d started — that’s all. I couldn’t help but think of Ulay — his precision in estimating where he’d stop for the day, calibrating the mileage, his U.S. Air Force map, the most detailed he could find, always tucked in a vest pock­et. Marina rarely consulted maps, wouldn’t think of carrying one, and didn’t plan her days. It was one of their differences: “his practicality, my chaos.”

We set off down the border of Inner Mongolia, for this was one of the rare places where the wall still served that function. And at the end of the day, we came upon a network of ruins. I was sure it had been a massive fort. In the field south of the wall, where peasants were weeding on hands and knees, sat two ancient greenish stone lions, and beyond them a walled city. I figured this had been the passage to Mongolia, heavily armed back when the wall was supposed­ly stopping the hordes. Marina wanted to spend the night in that ancient city, where I could learn the history and she could get a legend. We bounced through the same gate that once saw chariots — I was sure of it. I was overwhelmed by it. The buildings were yellow mud; their windows were oiled paper. Our jeep was the only vehicle there. Dingbian, in comparison, had been the picture of urbanity.

The jeep dropped us at a shabby old house festooned with pink paper — the village radio station, half its area filled by a brick bed wide enough for six people. “The sheets,” Marina laughed, pointing to the dirty corrugated cardboard on the bed. She was excited, for what she liked most was staying with peasant families in villages like this one. She disliked the xiangs. (They now function more like county seats than communes, but there’s no exact equivalent in English.) Laid out like cheap motels, in straight brick rows one story tall, they embodied order. They were always the same. They were too much like Yugoslavia. “These straight lines. This socialist aesthetic,” she would sigh. “Bad light and hospital green. Why they choose this form of expression?”

I, however, felt a sort of vertigo in the village, an irrational panic I couldn’t ex­plain to her. Perhaps I was simply more alien(ated) than I had ever been before. Perhaps when nothing fits a single groove in your memory, you’re like a newborn. I would remember this later as a most val­ued moment.

But at the time, I took notes as if a list could help unravel my “doubt and strangeness”: a couple of sheepskins, the door of a jeep, a telephone so old it might have rung during the Long March. Wom­en and children began to sit down in silence across the dusty yellow yard from us, to stare, while an old man came in and, without acknowledging our presence, began broadcasting into a mike with a red cloth tied over it. He was calling the head of the village, said Dahai. Or trying to. None of the ancient equipment seemed to work.

Yet the head of the village arrived soon after. A middle-aged man with Beatle bangs and a Mao jacket, he told us sever­al times that “conditions” here were not so good. Marina assured him several times that “conditions” did not matter. But no foreigner had ever stayed in this village before, and he clearly didn’t want us to be the first. We left for a xiang.

There we were able to discover that the village, over 2100 years old, had been there before the wall was there. But no one knew anything about the ruins. No one knew any legends.

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WE SET OUT the next morning around nine or nine-thirty. Marina never began earlier. She followed the habit acquired in the eastern mountains of walking all day, with a break at lunchtime.

“Here is like Ulay wall,” she com­plained. She didn’t like it — this ragged line of baked clay surrounded by plowed fields. “This like the endless tail. Like the burial ground of the dragon.” It was a day of blazing heat. At noon, Marina asked about the jeep — since of course she had made no plan — and the security man with the walkie-talkie said, “Six kilome­ters.” Insects and heat shimmered off layers of brick scraggly with grass — the Great Wall. Apart from this enigmatic line built by unknown hands so long ago, the landscape could have been Iowa.

Two hours later, we still hadn’t found the jeep or even a road. Now the security man was telling us, “Just over the hill.” But it wasn’t there either, and we’d run out of water. “Kafka is good literature here,” said Marina, who now felt sick with headache. She, Dahai, and I sat down across the river from a factory belching chemical fumes, while the crew went on ahead. Around three, Dahai  pointed to a stick figure atop a distant beacon tower. They were telling us the jeep couldn’t come.

We spent the night at a nearby graphite factory, where all the offices had brick beds. When a blackout hit around 10 p.m., someone appeared with candles al­most instantly, suggesting that this might be routine. In the hallway, a tallow burned on the handlebars of the bike parked just below the portraits of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. We joined the workers who’d drifted into the yard with their thermoses and teacups. A voluble middle-aged man in a white T-shirt made some little speeches (through Dahai) about how welcome we were.

People always talked to her this way, Marina said. It was so hard to get past the platitudes. The worker went on to say that “conditions” weren’t so good, then he asked us to please sing. Marina had soon persuaded him to sing instead, and in a beautiful tenor he sang bits of local folk songs. I went in for a jacket and returned to find that Marina had assured the group I would now sing. A dozen workers watched me expectantly, as Ma­rina suggested I do “Strangers in the Night.” Mortified, I gave them my best Sinatra. They only looked baffled and stunned.

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IN EVERY VILLAGE she’d come to after descending from the wall, Marina had asked to meet the oldest resident. She would photograph that person and ask for a legend about the wall. The oldest person was always a man. She had never been able to get a woman to tell her a legend. She hadn’t been able to get a woman for her crew, either, though she’d requested one. Holding up half the sky they may have been, but the women I’d seen (in rural areas especially) stayed shyly in the background and were rarely included in the official dinners or meet­ings. Marina must have seemed doubly strange — not just a foreigner, but a female on an incomprehensible mission. In one mountain village, people had gath­ered to watch her fall asleep. A different group was sitting around the bed when she woke up.

Judging from the legends she’d heard, Marina believed the wall’s origins were connected more to mythology than to de­fense. The legends spoke of marvelous fierce dragons. White, yellow, and black. Mountain dragons. Sea dragons. They fought. They caused earthquakes and tid­al waves. Where she’d started, at the Yel­low Sea, the builders of the wall had sunk ships — representing, in some legends, the sea dragon; in others, the head of one giant dragon slain by the emperor of the air. To control the creature’s energy, peasants had designated “energy spots” along the Great Wall, like acupuncture points along the dragon’s spine. There they placed copper pots, then covered them with heaps of stone. When Marina found these places along the wall, she stopped and spent time. To absorb the energy.

She was convinced that the geodetic energy line was alive in the mountains (while the clay wall, much of it older, felt dead to her). That was why she’d insisted that she couldn’t leave the line of the wall. She’d come up with a phrase that described her process: “boat emptying, stream entering.” She would empty her mind as a meditator does — the danger she faced forcing her to stay in the mo­ment, to stop thinking of past or future. The stream was the energy of the wall, the force line, nature.

Marina had made the walk an inward journey, a way to strengthen herself for the new life ahead when she would work, she said, without Ulay. She called it “a broom for my soul.” Art should be done, she believed, from that extraordinary state of mind one could only get to physi­cally, through exhaustion or pain or repetition. This was what attracted her to hardship and risk. “I put myself in a circumstance where all my defense is bro­ken and all my habits don’t exist.” Every day of the walk in the mountains had exhausted her and caused her pain. She’d had two months of that. She thought it essential to push herself for a long time. Then — “is like gate to me, when the body give up.”

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THE MORNING THAT WE LEFT the graph­ite factory, we soon came upon steep vel­vety hills. The wall ran up the sharpest incline, at the angle a ladder takes against the side of a house. It was no mountain, but it looked impossible. Mari­na scrambled straight up, exhilarated. Winded after toiling to the top of the first stretch, I could see that this was nothing to Marina and Dahai. The wall here was stone, unsteady beneath my feet, and dropped off sharply on the left. Wind snapped my hat off, began strangling me with its cord.

Finally the wall leveled off on a barren plateau that stretched toward what looked like forever. It was so empty. Not even a tree. Just to the north was a breathtaking vista of treeless, silver green hills: Inner Mongolia. I began to imagine that we were the first humans who’d been here in centuries.

One of the crew sprinted over the grass behind a rabbit. “He thinks is dinner,” said Marina. We’d brought a lunch today, again uncertain where we would eventu­ally find the jeep. Again, the sun was scorching. We had to settle for a foot­wide patch of shade in a little gully. In our lunch bags, packed by the crew, we each found six hard-boiled eggs, some cucumbers, and one tomato. We ate it all. Marina thought that, given the heat, we should rest until three, and we moved on to find better shade. There was one thin tree. There was one tiny cave. In a bea­con tower north of the grass-covered wall, I eased into a cranny big enough for one human and watched the ants.

When we began walking again, Marina said that I must tell her exactly how I felt. I knew that I had two feelings. Ev­erywhere we looked was the beauty that language can’t describe, the primordial landscape, naked gullies forking into soft hills. This grass was the only jade I’d seen. And here were these amazing ruins. Not just the Great Wall of China, but walls that were once houses or stables, built long before the country I came from was a country, and over there some obe­lisk, all so mysterious. So I told her that I felt exhilaration. I would leave China having seen the massive Buddhas back in Datong, having seen the terra cotta war­riors near Xi’an. But nothing would com­pare to this walk on the wall, because there I saw the things I didn’t know I would see.

But my second feeling was a great anxiety. I told her that we didn’t know where we were or where we were going or how big this plateau was or if we’d leave it by nightfall or where the jeep would find us again. I’d noticed that the security man couldn’t get through on his walkie­-talkie. I supposed we were up too high. And look what had happened yesterday. Marina smiled at this, my fear, as she put it, “that jeep is somewhere and we are nowhere.” She told me that this, actually, was the ideal journey. When nothing is fixed. She got happiness from this open­ness, from not knowing. This was why she wanted no plan. This was where she found the “edge that make you wake.”

“In this way,” she said, “I find my destiny.”

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ON JUNE 27, having each walked well over a thousand miles, the artists arrived at Shenmu in Shaanxi province. Ulay had just endured the most physically difficult part of his journey, crossing the Mao Wu Su Desert with its nearly 300-foot sand dunes and canyonlike east-west cracks. It had been two steps forward and one back the whole way. Marina had had to make another giant detour around a military area, resuming her walk at the Yellow River, at the place where they’d thought the piece might end. The day before meeting with Ulay, she’d passed through a kilometer of human bones.

Chance set their meeting at the site of 200 small Taoist, Buddhist, and Confu­cian temples built into the hills early in the Ming Dynasty, dedicated to the war­rior hero, Er Lang. The crew had found musicians to play traditional instru­ments. They’d hung banners to fly in the breeze and exploded fireworks. By chance, the artists were both just round­ing the corner of a temple when they saw each other. By chance they had traveled for exactly 90 days, the same amount of time they’d spent doing Nightsea Cross­ing. And by chance, they finally came face to face at the center of a stone bridge. “Over the abyss,” as Marina put it. They embraced. She experienced a flashback of their twelve years together. He whispered something about how much they’d accomplished.

I had left China before the meeting, unable to extend my visa. But the mean­ing of the walk was no longer hinged there. Over the telephone, each com­plained a bit about the other’s first reac­tion. Marina had started to cry, which Ulay thought inappropriate. Ulay’s first words were something about her shoes, which Marina thought inappropriate. Marina couldn’t wait to leave China. Ulay said he could have walked on forever.

They discovered that they had both written the same little poem along the way: “Cloud in the sky/dust in the eye.” But in no other way had their journeys been the same. “For the first time in 12 years, we had separate experiences,” re­ported Ulay. “There will be no way to fuse it.” So the project came to have two names (see below): for Ulay, The Alien; for Marina, Boat Emptying, Stream Enter­ing.

From Shenmu the artists went right to Beijing to hold a press conference. The Chinese media has never published any­thing at all, however, on the journeys made by Ulay and Marina across the wall. The artists returned, separately, to Amsterdam.

Their walk had been much like the Great Wall itself, which never accom­plished what it was built to accomplish, yet it became a wonder of the world. It was both an absurd and a glorious pro­ject, a bit of a failure yet an overwhelm­ing success. Like the aspiration to love, to transcend, to risk everything, it was too too human. ■

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After the Wall 

THE EXHIBITION inspired by the walk will tour the world, opening at the Stedjilik Muse­um in Amsterdam this June and ending eventually in Beij­ing. Ulay is creating a slide show for three screens, with pictures of the Great Wall in the center and pictures taken north and south of it to the left and right. Marina is making sculptures — steps, seats, and beds — ­from pink quartz and copper. All will be affixed to the museum wall and interac­tive, so the public can stand, sit, or lie to experience the “dragon energies” she found on the Great Wall.

Between these separate exhibits, each artist will place a sculpture. Hers will be two vases in Chinese orange, lying hori­zontally head to head; one Ulay’s height, one her height; one shiny, one matte. Ulay will place together two ab­stract sculptures so that the negative space between them forms a gate. It’s a crude reading of the work, perhaps, but she’s created a symbol of ending, while he’s made a passage to somewhere else.

This fall the artists returned to Chi­na, separately, to make the film they owed to China Central Television. Their two films will become one by crosscutting.

Ulay calls his The Alien. He appears throughout in bright blue silk, face cov­ered with a blue silk mask. No one knows where he’s going or why he’s come, but he’s searching for something along the Great Wall of China. Accom­panying him is a blind old Chinese woman — someone he actually met in Ningxia province, who was a cinema­tographer before the Cultural Revolu­tion and had always dreamed of making a film with an alien. Now she has done so.

Marina has called her film Boat Emptying, Stream Entering. In it, she encounters mythological figures — kings and queens from the Tang and Ming dynasties, Shanghai girls from the ’20s, and peasants who drift into view in fantastic costumes while she climbs to­ward the peaks. As she descends from them, she encounters reality — the real wall, the tough mountain. Then at the end, she meets Ulay at Shenmu again, and for the first time uncovers his face.


Rear Window: The Mystery of the Carl Andre Case

It was on the third day of the mur­der trial that the defendant’s voice was heard in the court for the first and only time. The pros­ecutor punched a cassette into a cheap portable, and cranked up the volume of the recorded phone call made to a 911 operator on September 8, 1985, at 5:29:26 a.m. The man’s voice, pitched high, is severely distressed, wailing, as he struggles to tell his story. It dis­solves into broken cries and moans of pain and bewilderment. His wife just committed suicide, the caller says. What happened, exactly, asks the operator:

“What happened was we had … my wife is an artist and I am an artist and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, eh, exposed to the public than she was and she went to the bedroom and I went after her and she went out of the window,” said Carl Andre, 52, the museum-class Minimalist sculptor whose work is far more exposed to the public than that of his wife, the sculptor Ana Men­dieta, whose body moments before had landed on the roof of the Delion Grocery, 32 floors below the couple’s apartment. Twelve hours later, the police arrested Andre for murder.

After two and a half years of investiga­tion and two overturned grand jury in­dictments, Carl Andre went on trial on January 29. In the absence of crowds and TV cameras like those attending the Robert Chambers trial down the hall, without a jury to grandstand to, the An­dre trial went through 40 witnesses in just nine days. “Carl got a Minimalist trial” went the line. Emotionally dense and packed with detail, the trial left ob­servers mesmerized, drained, frustrated, and bewildered by the end of each day.

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The prosecution’s case had been shaky from the outset. After the pretrial sup­pression hearings — when Judge Alvin Schlesinger ruled key evidence and testi­mony inadmissible — it was weaker still. Then the defense outmaneuvered the prosecution by abruptly requesting a nonjury trial. A jury can be swayed by sympathy for the victim; a judge must look hard to find that the circumstantial evidence proves murder beyond a reason­able doubt.

What did the prosecution have on An­dre? A scratch on Andre’s nose; a bed­room in disarray; Andre’s conflicting statements to police and puzzling behav­ior on the day he was arrested; one wit­ness (who had a history of auditory hallu­cinations) said he heard a woman screaming “no, no, no, no”; and, finally, the heart of the mystery: how could a four-foot-10-inch tall woman who was mortally afraid of heights fall out of a window that came up to her breast and had a 20-inch deep radiator cover and sill?

It could only have been an accident, a suicide, or a murder. The prosecution tried to prove murder as much by arguing against the other two possibilities as by presenting its shreds of evidence. Carl Andre never took the stand, and there was little testimony about his character. So throughout the trial, the case turned on Ana Mendieta, the dead 36-year-old Cuban-born artist.

Before courtroom spectators who in­cluded artists, curators, dealers, and crit­ics, the prosecution and defense argued over the meaning of Mendieta’s art, the source of her inspiration, careerism in the art world, the social life of artists, and the comparative success of Andre and Men­dieta. As the lawyers tried to cope with this unfamiliar language, there were inad­vertently comic moments. While the de­fense was preparing to call yet another expert to testify to Andre’s enduring ge­nius, prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer jumped up in exasperation to protest, “I don’t understand this ranking of artists! They’re not like baseball players!”

Jack S. Hoffinger, Andre’s highly re­garded attorney, brought in art critic Da­vid Bourdon to describe his client as “a modern master.” Hoffinger intimated that Mendieta’s performance pieces and earth works betrayed themes of violence, voodoo, and death wishes. Lederer brought in the new editor of Artforum. As Andre sat impassively, wearing his trade­mark “artworker” blue turtleneck and blue coveralls, Ida Panicelli testified that his career had peaked — it was Mendieta’s that had been surging.

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On February 11, 1988, Judge Schlesing­er found Carl Andre not guilty of murder in the second degree. The testimony in the trial had only deepened the mystery about Andre’s actions on that Saturday night and the following Sunday at the Sixth Precinct. The circumstances of Mendieta’s death had grown murkier still; aspects of her personality had be­come blurred.

Throughout the trial, the relationship between Andre and Mendieta — two gen­erations of artists, two fierce and arro­gant temperaments, two heavy drink­ers — was an unspoken presence in the courtroom. Judge Schlesinger, who had ruled in the suppression hearings, understood this. So did the lawyers. So did Andre. So did Mendieta’s friends and rel­atives who came to court every day. And so, presumably, did many members of the art world — not those who took sides without having even met Andre and Mendieta, but those opinionated people who abruptly became so tongue-tied. Par­ticularly women. “If my name is used, I’ll never get shown at Paula Cooper [Andre’s gallery] and the Modern,” said one young woman artist, who like the nearly two dozen artists willing to be in­terviewed, requested anonymity. “Non­sense,” retorted artist Laurence Weiner, “Carl just doesn’t have that kind of pow­er. They were afraid to speak out in in support of him because they feared the feminist backlash.”

In the days after the verdict, two wit­nesses whose testimony had been inad­missible agreed to talk. It’s impossible to know whether their statements would have affected the verdict; certainly a jury would have been slowed by them. But the missing testimony reinforced a suspicion that prevailed through the nine days: the murder trial of Carl Andre was actually more about what was not exposed to the public than what was.

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“Jumper down at 300 Mercer.” The man in overalls who answered the door of apartment 34-E around 5:40 a.m. on September 8, 1985, was dis­traught and rumpled, according to police officers. (There were innumerable contradictions in the police officers’ testi­mony through three grand juries, the pre­trial hearing, and the trial. This recon­struction is based on the statements repeated and corroborated most fre­quently.) The complainant’s hair was messy, and he had a “fresh, wet mark” on his nose. He didn’t smell of alcohol, nor did he seem drunk. He said, “My life is over … my wife is gone … I can’t believe it happened. It’s a tragedy.” Carl Andre then asked the cops if he could wash his hands.

There were numerous empty wine and champagne bottles in the kitchen — some on the counter, some in the garbage. In the bedroom, the window over the bed was wide open. The sheets were strewn about, a chair was overturned. One offi­cer leaned out the window, placing his hands on the sill for safety. When Andre came out of the bathroom, he was notice­ably calmer. The officers asked him what had happened. “I think she jumped,” An­dre said. Did you see her jump? “No.” Then how do you know? “I just know.”

Andre said he and his wife were watch­ing a movie on TV and having a glass of wine. His wife said she wanted to go to bed and that he should go with her. He didn’t. “… if that’s what she wanted … then maybe I did kill her then. You see, I am a very successful artist and she wasn’t, and maybe that got to her and in that sense I did kill her.” After his wife got up and went into the bedroom, Andre watched the rest of the movie. He looked in the bedroom, and she wasn’t there. He went out to the living room. About 20 minutes later, he checked again and she was still gone, and he called 911.

While another officer phoned for the supervising lieutenant, Andre took a cat­alogue out of the bookcase. “He said, ‘These are pictures of my work’ — he wanted to show how successful an artist he was. There was one picture in particu­lar … a bunch of boulders in lines, 10 or 20, I don’t know,” testified Officer Mi­chael Connolly. “He says, this is his art, his work.” (Apparently he was showing the officer Stone Field Sculpture, the controversial 1977 outdoor work for which the city of Hartford paid $87,000.)

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The police took Andre to the West 10th Street precinct. When the day-shift de­tectives arrived around 8 a.m., he was sitting quietly, reading a book. Andre told detectives Ronald Finelli and Richard Nieves that he and Ana were sitting at home, watching TV. At about 9:30 they ordered Chinese food. Ana was drinking wine heavily (the level of alcohol in her brain tissue was .18; legal intoxication is .10). They watched the U.S. National Tennis Open semifinals, a Yankee game, Dracula, and Without Love with Kathar­ine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. At 3 a.m., Ana said that the acting was good but the plot was absurd and she went to bed. The film was over at 3:30, and he went to the bedroom. She wasn’t there. “Mr. Andre,” asked the detective, “did you look out the window?” No. “Well, what do you think happened to your wife?” I don’t know. “Do you think she went out the door?” No, he would have seen her. “Do you think she took a pill and disappeared?” I don’t know. He re­peated the same story he’d told the offi­cers earlier — that 20 minutes later he checked for her again and, without look­ing out the window, called the police.

“Do you remember what you said when you called 911?” No. “Do you remember when you said you had an argument with her?” “What I said, I said.” When Detec­tive Finelli asked Andre how he had got­ten the scratch on his nose, he said he’d been out on the balcony a few days earli­er; a big gush of wind rose and the door struck him in the nose.

By mid-morning the police returned with Andre to photograph the apartment. The artist made a few phone calls — none to Mendieta’s family — saying to one an­swering machine: “Hello, this is Carl. Ana is dead. We’ll have to cancel our dinner engagement for tonight.” A friend of Ana’s named Natalia Delgado phoned. When Carl answered, she asked to speak to Ana. “She’s not here right now,” was the response. Delgado was nonplussed; when she had spoken with Ana around midnight, Ana had asked for a wake-up call so they could continue their conver­sation. “Ask Ana to call me when she gets in,” Delgado remembers saying. “I’ll give her the message,” replied Carl.

Even though Mendieta’s death was still being called a “fall,” officers were can­vassing the building and the neighbor­hood for witnesses. A doorman was on his way to get coffee at about 5:30 in the morning when he heard “no, no, no, no — ­as if someone was pleading” and about four seconds later a loud crash.

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By mid-afternoon, the detectives said they wanted to run through Andre’s story one more time. Detective Finelli started to take notes, paused and handed the paper and pen to the sculptor: “I says, ‘Mr. Andre, you can write and read En­glish better than I. Why don’t you do it?’ ”

Andre’s written statement essentially recapitulates the story he’d given both at the police station and the apartment. It’s vaguer, though: Instead of saying he wait­ed 20 minutes, Andre writes that “later,” the second time he checked for his wife, he had “the horrible belief” that she had gone out the window. But the account is troubling because it differs from what he said to the 911 operator. There is no mention of a quarrel. There is no indica­tion that he was in the bedroom when she died. He no longer uses the word suicide, leaving open the possibility that her death was an accident. And the major contradiction raised by all his statements to the police: according to his version, the 911 call should have come in at around 4:00 a.m., instead of 5:29.

The detectives alerted the assistant district attorney on duty, Martha Bash­ford. A little after 6:00 Sunday night, the police video unit arrived to tape Andre making a statement. “Oh shit,” Andre said to the police, “this is serious. I want an attorney.”

A friend’s lawyer showed up and pre­vented the video statement. Detective Finelli, who noted the scratch on Andre’s nose and one on his arm, as well as one on his back (though this was not men­tioned by any other officer), complained to the district attorney that Andre re­fused to be photographed. “So she says, ‘Fuck him, he’s under arrest.’ ”

A few hours later, Carl Andre was sent to Central Booking, and then to Riker’s Island, where he remained for two nights, when his $250,000 bail was posted by a group of friends, including the artist Frank Stella.

They were a striking art-world cou­ple, a marriage of seeming oppo­sites. He was Scottish and Swed­ish, a working-class New Englander; severe, opaque, a bril­liant autodidact 14 years her senior; and a pioneer in Minimalism, the art move­ment that her feminist generation broke with. She was a high-born Cuban; instinctive rather than cerebral; a forth­right, often obnoxious prankster who, as a friend said, “never hit anyone in the neutral zone.” When he stood next to Ana, Andre looked hulking and over­weight; at five foot seven he was 175 pounds, with an unkempt beard down to his chest. His daily uniform of overalls was almost a reverse dandyism, and an effective way of covering what former lovers say was a discomfort with his body. Mendieta was tiny and lithe, 93 pounds, a vegetarian and a jogger, beauti­ful, with thick straight black hair that hung well below her shoulders, and a fondness for unusual bracelets and dan­gling earrings.

“You and I are going to be friends,” Mendieta announced to sculptor Marsha Pels when they met in Rome in 1984. Pels, who did become close friends with Ana and who testified at the trial, dis­liked her instantly. “Ana came across as selfish and egotistical but it was a fa­cade,” she recalled. ”She was really very generous and very vulnerable. She didn’t like to be alone, and she loved to party, to drink. We always had a blast together.

“She was judgmental and honest: if she thought you were full of shit, if she thought you were fat and ugly, she’d say so. She’d bitch, she’d make a stink — she’d send a glass back at a restaurant if she thought it was dirty. She could be endear­ing, and then you’d want to punch her in the face. She was so small that she looked like a child, so all her power and presence came through her voice. She was incredi­bly loud, she screamed, she was a little volatile person.”

Ana Mendieta was the pampered youn­ger daughter of an old and remarkable Cuban family that includes a past presi­dent of Cuba, a general for whom a mu­nicipality is named, and the founder of the country’s first museum. Summers were spent in her maternal grandmoth­er’s beach estate, a 11-bedroom mansion of cedar and mahogany.

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This idyllic childhood was ruptured in 1961. Her parents, like thousands of Cu­bans, feared Castro would ship children to the Soviet Union for education. Ana, then 12, and her older sister Raquel were shipped to the United States in care of Catholic Charities for what the family assumed would be only a year or so. The sisters landed in a refugee camp in Flori­da and were sent to Dubuque, Iowa, where they spent their teens being shut­tled among orphanages, reform schools, and foster homes.

It would be five years before they saw their mother, a professor of physics and chemistry, who fled Cuba to live with them in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and almost 18 before they were reunited with their father. Imprisoned for anti-Castro activi­ties in 1966, Ignacio Mendieta, a lawyer, did not rejoin his family in the States until 1979. Lonely and humiliated, Ana raged at her parents for sending her away. The longing for homeland would inform her politics — as an adult she was sympathetic with Castro, actively organized cultural exchanges between Cuba and the States, and, during her return trips in the 1980s, became an art star there. It would also inform her art. In caves and on hillsides in Iowa, Mexico, and Cuba, she’d use gunpowder to silhou­ette breasts and wombs — iconographic images of goddesses from Cuba’s ancient Thino Indians, and from santeria, the popular religion of Cuba, a syncretism of Catholicism and African deities.

“She spoke of how it was to be a dark girl in Iowa, to be called a little whore,” recalled another friend, the Cuban-born artist Nereyda Garcia. “She felt insulted and discriminated against by the atti­tudes in the art world. To them, she was just a loud Cuban. She had a mocha [a small machete for cutting sugar cane], and when her work wasn’t in shows she would joke, ‘This would be so good to hit the Americans with.’ ”

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After obtaining a graduate degree in painting from the University of Iowa, Mendieta came to New York in 1978, and, while supporting herself as a waitress, was invited to join A.I.R., a women’s co­operative gallery. Years later she told a friend that at the opening of her first show there, in November 1979, a man walked up to her and announced, “I’m Carl Andre and I would like to take you to dinner.” Amused and put-off, Mendieta turned him down.

The words “courtly” and “old-world romantic” perpetually come up when ex­-lovers describe being pursued by Andre, one of the art world’s most notorious womanizers. Mendieta said he made her feel feminine, beautiful, adored, even worshiped. Recounts one former lover, “He wrote incredible love letters and po­etry — I still have them. Champagne, roses, expensive restaurants. He’d send me a ticket from Europe, waiting for me to join him. I’d say, ‘Carl, I can’t. I have obligations in New York.’ So he’d fly over and show up on my doorstep to take me back. But when he got me he wouldn’t be all that nice to me, full of mad passion one day, and withdrawn the next. I be­lieve he was a misogynist — women weren’t real to him. He had that incredi­ble, almost compulsive succession of them, and he was unfaithful to almost every one.”

(After Mendieta’s death, the prosecu­tion tried to track down the persistent rumors that Andre had physically abused a few women. Though one influential art­-world figure claims he saw Andre hitting a woman on a street in Washington, D.C., some 15 years ago, the woman herself spoke with Jack Hoffinger and denied it. Through his attorney, Andre declined to be interviewed for this article. According to Hoffinger, “There was no confirmation of any beatings or assaults by Carl Andre.”)

Mendieta told everybody that she was seeing a “famous sculptor.” To a woman who’d been fatherless for most of her life, this older man became an approving mentor. Friends say he genuinely respect­ed her work and made introductions for her to his influential acquaintances.

In 1970, when Carl Andre was only 34, he’d had a one-man retrospective at the Guggenheim. Along with fellow Minimal­ists Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Dan Flavin, Andre’s status as a blue-chip sculptor, his place in the art history books and international museums, was assured. In the art world he remains a well-known, if hardly beloved figure.

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Though many find his Marxist line in­compatible with the prices his art is com­manding and his association with world-­class museums, Andre has been politically active for years, particularly in such leftist groups as the Artworkers Co­alition and Artists Meeting for Cultural Change. In 1973, as an anti-Nixon pro­test, he made a sculpture with 100 pounds of cottage cheese and 50 pounds of ketchup. In 1976 Andre helped organize a May 1 demonstration to protest the Whitney Museum’s “200 Hundred Years of American Sculpture” show. Art­ists went up to passersby in Soho, handed them longstem red roses, saying “Happy May Day” — an action that an old friend, the artist May Stevens, describes as “typical Carl: that strange offbeatness, not very political, but kind of gallant.”

Those who have known him for two decades describe Andre as withdrawn and dignified, spellbinding and charismatic, but, said a man who’s played poker with him, “essentially unknowable.” “Carl is brilliant and not at all likeable,” says a crusty old friend. “I’ve had fights with him and he has a certain intellectual arrogance. He says things people don’t want to hear. He carries a certain mystique. He’s a pompous, isolated character, pecu­liar, shy, dependent on a small core of friends who don’t feel all that close to him.” Laurence Weiner, a longtime friend who testified for Andre, commented that “he’s extremely eccentric and ritualistic. You could set your clock by when Carl goes to the post office everyday.”

In public he has been characteristically reticent about his own working-class childhood in Quincy, Massachusetts. An­dre went to Phillips Andover Academy on scholarship, graduating in 1953, then left Kenyon College after less than one se­mester. He eventually came to New York where he worked as a freight brakeman and conductor for the Pennsylvania Rail­road in the early ’60s. Meanwhile, he was mixing with the art bar scene at Max’s Kansas City and the Cedar Tavern and arriving at his mathematically precise, factory-tooled, apersonal, ground-hugging sculptures. Minimalist art, which rose as an elegant, impersonal, and theoretical retort to the romantic excess of Abstract Expressionism, had triumphed in the mid- to late ’60s. By mid-decade, Andre had become well off.

Mendieta’s own career did not take off as rapidly as Andre’s. But in less than five years, she’d won guest-artist appoint­ments, two NEA grants, a Guggenheim fellowship, and in 1983 the prestigious Prix de Rome, which provided her with bed and board for a year at the American Academy in Rome. Andre didn’t want her to go, she told her sister; he said he was lonely and always needed to have some­one around him. They broke up. He wooed her long distance, and they recon­ciled, only to split a year later when Men­dieta accused him of having affairs in New York while she was away. Mendieta stayed on in Rome for a second year, and Andre went to Berlin on a fellowship. They traveled together in Europe and patched things up. Mendieta told friends that the commitment of marriage would make Andre faithful.

They were married in Rome on Janu­ary 16, 1985 — Ana’s first marriage, Andre’s third. That night they attended a gallery opening that celebrated a joint book of their lithographs, Duetto Pietro e Foglie. The night before their wedding, a radiantly happy Mendieta telephoned her mother in Cedar Rapids to break the news. Then Andre got on the phone. “I want to marry your daughter,” he said, “because I think we have so much in common.”

“Oh Ani,” teased her mother, “does that mean he has your bad temper, too?”

In the first few months of the mar­riage, Mendieta was ecstatic. Between their two worlds — in New York and Eu­rope, his well-heeled dealers and collec­tors and Mendieta’s connections in femi­nist, Latin, gay, and performance art circles, plus their mutual ties to leftist groups — they socialized with an extraor­dinary range of people.

Mendieta, whose idol was the feminist Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, was vocif­erous about presenting herself as a Cuban woman, and yet it was that identity, she felt, that shut her out of the art establish­ment. “It was her biggest conflict,” said her friend Nereyda Garcia. “She thought she could sit at all those big fancy dinner parties with Carl Andre and still be Ana Mendieta. It backfired.”

A friend of theirs ruefully observed that, “They both had fierce, oversized artist’s egos” — that blazing confidence in their own talent, combined with a fine-­tuned insecurity that could pick up the only criticism in a roomful of applause — “and they were drinking partners.” Though Mendieta could spend a social evening knocking back wine spritzers, she would accelerate with Andre. He was such a heavy drinker, says an ex-lover, that he occasionally had alcoholic black­outs. Often when they were out in restau­rants, they would drink and argue about art, politics, each other, their voices growing louder, more derisive and taunting, the quarrels taking on an erotic charge. Mendieta, who loved to shock, enjoyed an audience. She would be the attacker, but Carl, as mortified dinner guests have recounted, could respond in kind. “Ana could outshout him,” says a friend. “But Carl could go for the jugular.”

By the mid-’80s, Andre, whose work was in almost every major museum col­lection in Europe, complained bitterly to friends about his declining recognition and slumping sales in the American art market, which was in the first flush of Neo-Expressionism. Mendieta’s list of grants and group shows was impressive and growing and in her two years in Rome, she’d had three gallery shows.

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By the summer of 1985 she’d decided to move there permanently. Though she fretted that the New York art world would forget her, she felt at ease in a Latin climate. She spoke fluent Italian and eagerly chauffeured her visitors around the city in her VW. And she’d made a breakthrough with her sculpture: for years her female forms had melded with natural settings and eroded with them too. But in Italy she’d brought na­ture into her studio, working with free­standing objects like tree trunks and sand molds in the shape of leaves. She was also preparing an outdoor commission for MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Al­though Andre would maintain his New York apartment, they had rented a new one in Rome. At the end of August she returned to New York for a brief visit and to tie up some business arrangements.

According to testimony in the trial, Mendieta had numerous appointments during the week of September 1. Friends said she was effusive, happily chattering about her plans. On Tuesday, September 3, she stopped by her favorite Cuban res­taurant, Sabor, to arrange a dinner party for 12 friends the following Sunday night. On Wednesday, she spoke with Marsha Pels about moving things out of her old, prenuptial apartment into Andre’s, so Pels could sublet it. On Thursday, Andre and she dined with the artists Nancy Spero and Leon Golub at Janice’s Fish Place.

Also on Thursday night, according to testimony from a neighbor down the hall, Mendieta ran down the corridor crying and screaming, “I’m going to do it, I’m really going to do it.” Friday morning she called Pels. She couldn’t really talk then, she said, but there’d been a change in plans and she was going to move her things “the other way.” Could they meet on Monday afternoon? On Friday night, she and Andre dined at Pirandello with the painters May Stevens and Rudolf Baranik.

Saturday morning she jogged in Wash­ington Square Park, and that afternoon she spoke with her sister, Raquel Men­dieta Harrington. She was pressed for time since she was flying back to Rome on Thursday. Ana would be having Sun­day brunch with friends at noon; the din­ner party was set for eight. Could they get together Sunday afternoon at three? Saturday night around midnight she spoke in Spanish for about 20 minutes with her friend in Chicago, Natalia Del­gado. And by 5:30 that Sunday morning, Ana Mendieta was dead.

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During the Carl Andre trial last month, every morning would begin something like this: prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer, a 35-year-old senior staff attorney, scarcely tall­er than Mendieta herself, would briskly march into Part 93, either lugging an oversized model of the Mercer Street high rise or pushing a shopping cart full of folders. Jack Hoffinger, a dapper, six­tyish, silver-haired six-footer who is vice­-president of the New York Criminal Bar Association and on the faculty at Colum­bia’s law school, would soar in with his team, carrying handsome leather boxes full of documents. Andre, reading either the Times or The New Republic, would already have been there. And waiting im­patiently for them all, his bespectacled eyes gleaming, as if he’d just swallowed his morning glass of lemon juice, would be the Honorable Alvin Schlesinger.

“Mr. Hoffinger!” he would scold, during one endless cross-examination, “I used to live in the faith that there was an end to everything, good and bad. Well, I’m losing my faith!” And on other occasions: “Miss Lederer! I’ve heard your objection and sustained it! Don’t look so anguished!”

She certainly had good reason. The as­sistant district attorney from whom Le­derer inherited the case had obtained and then lost two grand jury indictments. The judge who’d overturned them (before Le­derer herself made the third one stick) wrote that this was “a close circumstan­tial case.” The original police work had been sloppy — they didn’t photograph the kitchen full of wine bottles or give Andre a breathalizer test, so there could be al­most no testimony by the prosecution in the trial about his behavior when drunk — and their memories of key details didn’t improve over two-and-a-half years. And, after police canvassed neighbors and residents at the 35-story building, they’d produced only one witness, of sorts. He’d managed to hear the short screams, identifying them as a woman’s voice, from 34 flights below, a distance longer than a football field. Moreover, he had problems of his own.

So by the time prosecutor Lederer crawled out from the preceding week of pretrial, suppression hearings, only a fool would have bet she could still prove mur­der beyond a reasonable doubt. (Dealers and artists said the prosecution was seek­ing witnesses up through to the last day of the trial.)

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Schlesinger had ruled inadmissible the set of partial fingerprints found on the bedroom windowsill because the search warrant didn’t specify dusting. The iden­tity of the prints (possibly those of the cop who’d leaned out the window) weren’t as important as what they indi­cated was missing: if Ana Mendieta had jumped from the window, why were no footprints found? (“Negative evidence,” the prosecution would have argued, sug­gesting Mendieta had been thrown out or pushed.)

But what hobbled the prosecution most was that the substance of the conversa­tions Mendieta had with her sister and Natalia Delgado the day before she died were ruled out as prejudicial hearsay. There went Mendieta’s “state of mind” and a possible scenario for a murder. Without elaborating, Raquel Mendieta Harrington could only testify that on Sat­urday afternoon, “Besides the fact that she was very angry and spiteful towards her husband, she [Ana] was in good spir­its about the rest of her life.”

If a defendant does not take the stand, the prosecution cannot explore his char­acter in depth. So Lederer, working back­wards and forwards in time, built her case around the victim. She recreated the last week in the life of Ana Mendieta, even as her witnesses painted a dramatic (but judiciously sanitized) portrait of a “vibrant, forceful, independent young woman,” an ambitious artist. An artist who — in contrast to Andre’s description of her as despondent over her career­ — was well on her way up.

Witness after witness, both for the prosecution and for the defense, testified that Mendieta was afraid of heights and avoided standing near windows. In August 1985, narrated Marsha Pels, she and Ana were going to take a vacation at a cliffside house on an island. But halfway up the footpath, Mendieta screamed. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this,” she said. “I’m an acrophobiac.” She froze, and Pels had to take her by the hand as if she were a child and slowly walk her the rest of the way up. They left the next day, because Mendieta could not bear to go up and down the path to the beach.

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While Lederer’s courtroom style was to stand stock still, back stiff, arms crossed, and drill away, Hoffinger would swoop and pace, getting worked up, throwing his shoulders and long arms skyward, then come to a sudden halt, push his glasses up on his forehead, wheel and face the witness. His portrayal of Mendieta was not nearly so sanguine. Her traumatic childhood, he suggested in his own pre­sentation and as he cross-examined her friends and family, left her full of resent­ment. She was angry at men, particularly her father, with whom she’d broken be­cause of their differing positions on Cas­tro (in fact, Mendieta had reconciled with her father a year before he died). Why else would she drink so much? And her behavior when she drank!

His witness, Dr. Filip Bool, chief cura­tor of the Museum of the Hague in Neth­erlands, recounted a March evening in 1984, when the Stedelijk Museum in Am­sterdam was hosting a dinner in honor of the Minimalist artist Sol LeWitt. Every­one was eating rijstafel and drinking beer, but “Carl and Ana were drinking wine. At a certain moment, in front of 75 people, Ana Mendieta stood up on her chair, very excited, very unexpected, and she did fall down with this chair.” How was the be­havior between the two, asked Lederer. “Carl wasn’t too glad with the food … I don’t know what she was doing, what was the reason for the chair. She was a Latin American or South American type.”

Before a courtroom filled with well­-known figures from the avant-garde, fem­inist, and Hispanic art worlds — Yvonne Rainer, Maria Irene Fornes, Barbara Kruger, B. Ruby Rich, Lynne Tillman, Marina Gutierrez, Howardena Pindell — ­Hoffinger tried to turn some of Mendie­ta’s art against her, particularly the body works from the mid-’70s. “Did you know she used her own body … to depict blood running down her face? … That she created art … in which her own body was lying face down, melding into the earth?” And he also went after Mendieta’s fasci­nation with primitive religions and ritu­als, particularly santeria (which he kept  calling voodoo). Didn’t she tell people she could cast spells?

He called Alice Weiner, who with her husband Laurence, has been a close friend of Andre’s for over 20 years. In late May or early June of 1985 when Men­dieta was visiting New York, Weiner test­ifed, they went to a party together and began talking. Mendieta said, “‘I have this funny feeling … I don’t have a lot of time left, I want to get my work done.’ She said it had something to do with … falling out a window from a great height.'”

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On a Monday morning midway through the trial, Lederer, who’d as­sumed a hollow-eyed stony mask, strode into court with a new manicure, her nails now fighting-angry red. The battle of the expert witnesses was on, as each side tangled over the scraps of evidence. Le­derer got the testimony of Hoffinger’s expert “human factors engineer” kicked out. Then his medical examiner noted that the autopsy reported Mendieta’s bladder was empty: since urine fills at 1 cc. per minute, she must have gone to the bathroom just before she went out the window. But Lederer brought in a toxi­cology report that indicated that 70 ccs. of urine had been removed from Men­dieta and sent to the lab.

And about that mark on Andre’s nose: scratch, scrape, or pimple? Laurence Wei­ner testified that on that Friday or Satur­day he’d run into Carl, who had a reddish blotch on his face and appeared to be suffering from prickly heat or eczema. But Lederer pressed Weiner into admit­ting that maybe the mark was on the cheek near Andre’s sideburn, he couldn’t be sure. And about the screams. The doorman said that on the morning of September 8, his birthday, he was on the way to get coffee, when he heard a woman pleading “no, no, no, no,” from above on his left, followed almost immediately by a crash. Then Hoffinger brought out the door­man’s fondness for alcohol and history of being hospitalized for auditory hallucina­tions. The doorman stoutly maintained that he hadn’t suffered from hallucina­tions since 1981, when he began taking medication regularly. Later, Hoffinger called Andre’s former next-door neighbor Bobby Tong, who testified that he and his business partner had been up all night on Saturday, September 7, sending telexes to Hong Kong. They heard no screams, no arguments. But at 5:30 he heard a win­dow being slammed open, and then a crash.

A few days after Tong’s testimony, Le­derer announced she’d learned that his business partner, Angela Wu, hadn’t even been in the country on September 7. And though Tong said he’d dissolved his firm, he actually had been fired for stealing checks. Wanting to recall him to the stand, she sent police to the address he’d given in court, but they could not find him.

On February 10, each side offered Schlesinger their summations, which amounted to radically different versions of the death of Ana Mendieta and the behavior of Carl Andre on September 8, 1985. Point by point, Hoffinger went through the circumstantial evidence, eva­porating it. The bedroom didn’t show signs of a struggle — a stool next to the bed had a lamp perched on it — but was a typical early-morning mess, the clutter of two artists getting ready to travel. Andre’s questionable scratches? There had been no tissue found under Mendie­ta’s fingernails, and if they’d fought, wouldn’t a woman of her agility, fearing for her life, have raked him? As for Andre’s conflicting statements — even in­nocent people have been shown to cover up guilt. Such statements are the weakest form of evidence and must be substanti­ated by the strongest evidence. Andre had probably passed out in front of the TV. Twenty minutes? Carl Andre didn’t wear a watch! He woke up when he heard the crash. And phoned the police. He was groggy and in shock. “These statements aren’t inconsistent. If they are … they don’t rise to the level of murder.”

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Instead, suggested Hoffinger, Mendieta’s death was an accident or a possible “subintentional suicide.” She had been drinking and went to sleep. (There was a T-shirt hanging on the doorknob, a head indentation on one pillow.) It was a hot summer night. The temperature at 5:30 a.m. was 78 degrees, humidity 88 per cent. She woke up and went to the bath­room to urinate. She climbed up on the radiator in front of the sill to open the window. In the morning darkness, still drunk, sleepy, her visual acuity was off. “She slammed the window open with both hands, her body swiveling, and hur­tled out of the window.”

After a brief recess, Lederer came roar­ing back. The radiator in front of the window was two-feet, 11 inches high, and it’s surface made the sill 20 inches deep. “For Ana Mendieta to fall would require more than half of her body to go over the ledge.” There had been no testimony in­dicating that she’d even go near a win­dow, only that Andre, who disliked air-­conditioning, usually kept the windows open.

“He is a man who chooses his words carefully,” said Lederer. “He was in that bedroom when she went out the window,” referring to Andre’s statement on the 911 tape. Throughout the long day with the police, he distanced himself further from that version, from the time and circum­stances of her death. When the police arrived at his apartment, just 10 minutes later, he was already backing away. “‘I think she committed suicide, I think she jumped … I just know.’ ” By late after­noon, in his written statement, he offered a particularized account of what they ate, and when, and what they watched, who starred in the movies, even reviewed them. But his description of Mendieta’s death was “cloudy.”

And there still remains the unex­plained hour and a half between when he claimed he called the police and when he actually did. “Are we honestly to accept the unbelievable conceit and arrogance of the defendant, that merely because he has this conversation with his wife saying he is more exposed to the public, that that should cause her to get up from the table, walk into the other room, climb up on the sill, and dive out that window?”

Lederer offered a different scenario: “We know Ana was angry at Carl … that when intoxicated she became caustic and taunting.” Perhaps Mendieta said some­thing that cut Andre to the quick, and it escalated into a full-scale fight. He had a scratch on his nose and one on his arm. She was either too drunk or too small to defend herself successfully.

So the mystery of Ana Mendieta’s death had come to this: How could an acrophobe conceivably climb onto a win­dowsill that looked out on a 34-story drop? But how could Carl Andre possibly have lifted her — whether she was asleep or resisting him — more than three feet and forced her out over a 20-inch ledge? (The body was so badly damaged on im­pact that it was impossible to know if Mendieta had been assaulted prior to the fall.)

The next day, before a packed court­room, Judge Schlesinger ruled that the evidence did not satisfy him beyond a reasonable doubt, so he found the defen­dant not guilty. In the ensuing tumult that spread through the courtroom, Carl Andre hurried out, saying only, “Justice was served. Justice was served.”

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A few days after the trial, both Ra­quel Mendieta Harrington and Na­talia Delgado agreed to discuss what they couldn’t testify about at the trial. They repeated the con­versations they’d had with Mendieta in late May and June, 1985, around the time she’d mentioned her premonition of dy­ing to Alice Weiner (many of Mendieta’s friends believed her to be slightly psy­chic), as well as the conversations on September 7.

During her June visit to New York, less than five months after her wedding day, Mendieta told them her marriage was in trouble. She was convinced that Andre had a girlfriend in Berlin and one in New York. But when she’d consulted a divorce lawyer in Manhattan, she learned that the marriage was too new for her to col­lect a settlement. She wanted at least a year’s rent in Rome from him. She’d have to sue Andre for adultery and provide proof — even photographs of Andre in fla­grante delicto. “She said she was beyond being sad, she was really angry,” remem­bered Harrington. “She’d found letters, postcards, and two nude photographs of  the woman in Germany.” Mendieta tried to entice Natalia Delga­do to be an accomplice in a wild plan: “She wanted the two of us to disguise ourselves, follow him, photograph him, and then take off our disguises so he’d know she’d caught him. She needed someone to help her get away, fast — she said he had a terrible temper. I said, ‘Ana, you’re crazy!’ ”

Mendieta saw Andre intermittently over the summer in Europe. When she got back to New York, she spoke with her sister on Saturday afternoon, September 7. “Ana said that things had gone from bad to worse and that Carl was a compul­sive liar. ‘Everyone in the art world thought he was so nice and so generous,’ she said, ‘I’m going to let them know what he’s really like.’ She said she was going to expose him.”

Raquel asked Ana why she didn’t con­front Andre. Mendieta replied, “‘There’s something big happening in my career through some people Carl knew, some­thing in northern Europe. I can’t screw that up. But don’t worry, I’m going to hire a detective and divorce him next spring.’

“Then she said, ‘Carl’s here. Let’s meet tomorrow.’ ”

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By 12:30 or so on Saturday night when she spoke to Natalia Delgado, Mendieta had been drinking. “She said there was no possibility for the relationship. She had sufficient evidence collected for the divorce — charge slips, phone bills, pic­tures, and postcards. I said, ‘Why don’t you confront him and see if you can work things out?’ She said, ‘I don’t know, he’ll get so angry, I’d feel safer doing it anoth­er place.’ I told her I knew about a wom­an with an unfaithful husband who decid­ed to stick it out so she’d be well off. Ultimately she was wretched. I said, ‘Confront him or forget about it and get out.’ ”

That night Raquel, who was six months pregnant, couldn’t sleep. So she watched a late movie called Without Love with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hep­burn. As Raqucl recalls it, the film was about a young widow (Hepburn) who rents out a room in her basement to a scientist (Tracy). They work on a success­ful project and travel together, promoting it. But people keep wondering why they don’t get married. So they do, just for business. She falls in love with him, but he’s detached and nasty to her. “At 3 a.m., I didn’t want to watch anymore,” recalled Raquel, “because it reminded me of Ana and Carl. So I went to bed.”

On Sunday afternoon the family, who lives in Westchester, arrived in the city late, getting to Mendieta’s old apartment around 4 p.m. They waited for more than an hour, wondering if Ana had already come and gone. Around 5 p.m., they left a note on her door, went out to supper, and returned home after midnight.

Around 1 a.m. Monday, September 9, the phone rang. It was a Detective Finelli from the Sixth Precinct, and he had some bad news.

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Almost two and a half years after she died, Ana Mendieta had her first one-woman museum show. The ample and stunning retrospective, which included an hour-long bio­graphical video, opened on November 20, 1987, at the New Museum of Contempo­rary Art. In the catalogue essay, art critic and co-curator John Perreault wrote, “She was well on her way to proving that a woman artist, an artist with Third World roots, and a so-called minority art­ist could establish herself as an innova­tor. Her artwork is a significant addition to twentieth-century art: it is expresssive without being maudlin; it taps primitive imagery and sources of energy without being exploitive. Mendieta did not appro­priate; she found her own images of pow­er and meaning.” The show closed on January 24, 1988, five days before the trial opened. The show was reviewed en­thusiastically in Artforum, the Voice, and The New York Times. Mendieta’s oeuvre, owned by her family, has been catalogued and stored in a warehouse, awaiting future showing.

On the day Mendieta’s retrospective opened, the word SUICIDE had been scrawled in black paint on the sidewalk in front of the museum.

At art world dinner parties and open­ings, people took hardline pro-Carl or pro-Ana positions, convinced they knew what had happened by the window ledge at 5:30 a.m. on September 8, 1985. The artist and the art had become indistin­guishable: Mendieta symbolized “the murdered feminist Third World martyr,” commented the painter Leon Golub. For others, he said, who considered Mendie­ta’s art “self-indulgent” and therefore be­lieved she had commmited suicide, “Carl represented the purest embodiment of Minimalists, and so his fall was all the more shocking. He’ll be seen as a tragic Dostoyevskian figure, who has gone into the depths and come out of them making renewed, even purer sculpture.”

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Among the many people who knew Mendieta and Andre, friendships rup­tured, unexpected alliances formed. Some, who were pained, confused, uneasy about how to call this, preferred to be publicly neutral. They mourn Ana’s loss, but say that Carl has suffered, too. “Ana used to say to me, ‘Now, be nice to Carl!’ ” recalled an old friend of both. “So when­ever I think of blaming him for her death, I wonder if Ana’s up in heaven, looking down at me and saying, ‘Now, be nice to Carl!’ ” Still, the pervasive suspicion re­mains that certain artists, critics, and dealers did not cooperate fully with the police. The art community, as one source close to the investigation put it, was “in­credibly self-serving and cowardly.”

On February 10, the day before the verdict, a one-man show of Andre’s work opened at the Palacio de Cristal in Ma­drid. Throughout the trial, his dealer, Paula Cooper, showed a modest Andre from 1986, priced at $16,000; his prices, she said, range from $4000 to $250,000. In a February show of Minimalist sculpture, the Sperone-Westwater Gallery showed a 1968 piece, 2002 Slope (five steel plates placed on the floor), for $135,000; a 1975 work, The Way North, East, and South, (three red cedar un­carved logs) sold for $37,500. Some critics and Minimalist artists have noted that the art market has started swinging back toward Minimalism.

A powerful collector and patron, who has followed Andre’s career closely over the years commented, “I hope the resolu­tion of this particular situation frees him. He’s exhibited very little in the last few years, you know. I thought she was a terrible artist, really.

“Carl is an American romantic as well as being a Minimalist. He came from a working-class background and had a chance of fulfilling the American dream. He can be naïve, like a child, and take a childish delight in things. I always thought he made a lousy Marxist. He’s not phony — he’s very sincere! He has such courtly, beautiful manners. I just care that he makes good art.”


Jean Michel Basquiat: Mass Productions

Mass Productions
March 23, 1982

OPEC isn’t the only world community with an oil glut these days. To anyone walking through Soho this week, the sense of overproduction is overwhelming. Maybe artists with waiting lists should have their paintbrushes taken away for a while. David Salle, certainly one of the best artists of his generation, is distracting us from this fact with an endless three-ring show at Castelli South and Mary Boones East and West. Surprisingly short on really good paintings, it seems more a statement of territoriality than anything else. I don’t even mind the lapses in quality — it’s interesting to see an artist as good as Salle push at his ideas and not be afraid to flounder. But I do mind the scale of pres­entation, which verges on the corporate. Discretion isn’t only the better part of valor.

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Of course, where production figures in, shows which don’t make any mistakes can be even more boring. Jean-Michel Bas­quiat first made his name as the graffiti artist-poet Samo, whose observations about the state of the world have amused and provoked New Yorkers, at least down­town ones, for the last few years. I always thought Samo was some frustrated older artist who hadn’t made it in the system and was taking his revenge with his excep­tional graphic and verbal skill. Wrong, or at least partly wrong.

Basquiat is only 22 years old and, hav­ing turned from masonry to canvas sur­faces, he seems to be having little trouble joining the system. But in a way I was right: Basquiat has absorbed every trick in contemporary painting’s book at an astoundingly early age. He’s so precocious he’s practically old before his time and his sensibility seems very European, also in an old vein. In a word, it turns out that graffiti art can have the hell domesticated out of it. This art seems made for a museum — it has the same imitative primitiveness that I associate with Art Brut, the same roughed-up perfection that comes from savvy imitation.

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The paintings are large, usually with big apelike heads or figures — King Kong/Space Man hieroglyphs fraught with echo­ing outlines — rising from a dense rubble of scumbled paint, drips and scribbles, most of which remain largely decorative. It’s hard to dislike them, but I keep coming back to how old and tame and well-put-­together they seem. Almost every canvas offers a seven-course painting that is done to perfection. The sense that they couldn’t take another mark, word, or smear looks at first fascinating, then calcifying, for it becomes an aspect of their illustrational stylishness. They’re too perfect to be as raw as they pretend. Plus, the drawing and colors get really monotonous. After a while, it all starts to look like great graphic design — trompe l’oeil graffiti meets trompe l’oeil painting, as effective on a billboard as in a spread of New York maga­zine.

Finally, we do come up against Bas­quiat’s youth in the assumption that sheer graphic talent, driving, streetwise belief in self-expression, and a working knowledge of painting’s many wonderful tricks are all that is required. These have gotten him someplace, but, so far, not far enough.

(Annina Nosei, 100 Prince Street, 431-9253, through March 31)


Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1960-88

Since learning of 27-year-old painter Jean-Michel Basquiat’s accidental death by drug overdose last week, what I live over and over again are not so much the hideous and hideously stu­pid circumstances surrounding his pre­mature demise, nor the fact that so much splendor has been left by someone so young. He was a vibrant painter, a complicated artist, who produced work that meant more to the viewer, to me, than met the eye. But what I missed immediately was the figure of Jean him­self, one of the most beautiful young men — with one of the most original minds — I have ever met.

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It began with his eyes. I saw them­ — and him — for the first time in Brooklyn, our hometown. Never before and never since have I felt someone’s eyes pierce my consciousness in such a direct and directly personal way. Looking across the room at him and he at me, I saw the largely white cocktail party in which we stood grow smaller; the sea of faces that did not look like ours became a force that made us recognize each other to a degree that made at least my side of the conversation halting, stilted, naked. Sometimes love at first sight is like that.

And it was at first sight, too, that you realized Jean lived his life as if he had nothing to lose. At that same party he replaced the tape being played — Debus­sy — with a scratched bootleg recording by the Sex Pistols. As he danced about alone, I saw him watch, from the corner of his eye, to see just how long the others would take to pretend they would not react to the spectacle of dreadlocks, paint-splattered khakis, and brown limbs. As it happened, the others didn’t react. But then again, he did not stop dancing.

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That image was replaced, in later years, by the image of the artist as com­modity, enfant terrible, bad black bitch, nasty lout, charming gadabout. Initially identified with a group of artists who reached “blue-chip” status through their efforts as graffiti guerrillas (Jean’s tag­line: SAMO, as in Same Old Shit), he rapidly progressed to other forms of vi­sual expression. His paintings, drawings, and sculptures challenged the European idea of the “primitive”; as a disciple of Dubuffet and Twombly, he wanted to give his heroes the black face of his history.

It became increasingly difficult then to see him across the crowded rooms where so many of his paintings — in such a short time — loomed. The images he created always resonated for me because they were the truest representation of the “Negro” from my generation. In his last show, paintings with words like Mississippi and South African diamonds appear repeatedly in reference to what was being bought, sold, and lived outside of the world of his canvases. I think the words were metaphors for his position in the world just then, too. But that degree of self-knowledge is not what many people saw. Mostly what they saw was a boy so anxious for his life to begin — accompanied by love, by trust — ­that sadly enough he wanted to buy it all.

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Death not only happens once, but time and again to those of us who are left to speak of the dead. But sometimes we don’t. This has become a time in which we are more and more disinclined to speak of so frequent an event, essen­tially because, as Owen Dodson once said: “The dead have become the signs of our bury hour; our living crucifixion.” ❖


Clemente to Marden to Kiefer: It’s the All-Eighties Art-Stars

Clemente to Marden to Kiefer

Art lovers in New York and baseball fans everywhere get weird in October. For the former, it is the season of undulled appetite, when an unleashed flood of new objects and images temporarily scintillates with interest and promise. For the latter, it is the ferociously accelerating climax to long languorous months of foreplay. What, then, of those of us for whom both art and baseball are chronic passions? Pity us! Each addiction being, in its own way, total, we are besides ourselves.

A tendency is noted around dinner tables to discuss the aesthetics of baseball at very great length, as the sane and the innocent tiptoe from the room.

Another tendency suggests itself as a heretofore neglected possibility: view the world of October art through the lambent October mists of baseball. A method for such madness happens to be ready-made in a brilliant little book of several years back by poet Charles North, Lineups (reprinted in his Leap Year, Kulchur Foundation, 1978). North proved by example that any quantitative category of qualitatively diverse units — movies, colors, dis­eases, etc. — can be subjected to the subtle yet ineluctable analysis of talent and temperament that determines a baseball player’s optimum position in the field and place in the batting order. For instance:
San Francisco ss
Munich cf
Paris lf
Rome c
Madrid 3b
London rf
Athens 1b
Istanbul 2b
New York p

Isn’t that great? My only trouble with this lineup is North’s National League purism, which deprives him of the delicious wild card of the designated hitter. (Havana, batting seventh.)

So. With collaboration from art journal­ist and hardball fancier Gerald Marzorati, I recently set about compiling a roster of present art stars according to the Northian Paradigm. Carried away, I have embellished it with analytic descriptions in that important American folk-poetic form, the scouting report. Marzorati and I set certain rules — that all named artists should be roughly of baseball-playing age, that all should be coming off hot seasons, etc. — and broke them repeatedly. For the relative absence of abstract painters, per­formance artists, realists, sculptors, and women I have no defense. For the presence of Europeans, presumably good only for belaboring balls with their feet, I have no explanation. This is just the way, in the frenzy of free association, it turned out.

Please note that a batting order is not an order of preference. Actually, if you can’t interpret one, don’t guess; ask a friend who can. With that, the lineup:

Francesco Clemente, shortstop: smooth, great range and hands, great off-balance arm…switch hitter, weak bat but outstanding on-base knack, good eye, will bunt for hit…threat to steal.

Cindy Sherman, third base: middling range but super quickness, Gold Glove, hasn’t missed a ball hit her way in two seasons…disciplined hitter, pulls inside pitch for distance…selfless player, cinch to sac bunt or hit behind runner.

David Salle, center field: uncanny range and glove, fluid speed, [Roberto] Clemente type, makes it look easy…line­-drive hitter all fields, league-leader doubles and triples, rally-maker…temperamental, injury prone.

Anselm Kiefer, first base: two-ton Teuton, just adequate at position, can be bunted on…fearsome slugger, aggressive, bad-ball hitter, can take anything down­town…slow but intimidating on bases, catcher advised not to block plate.

Julian Schnabel, right field: Reggie Jackson clone…erratic glove, grandstand catches may follow initial misjudgment, arm strong but wild…picture swing, strikeouts and homers in bunches, scary in clutch…Mr. October.

Ken Price, designated hitter: pure hitter, great bat control, strokes the ball, consistent .300…no threat on bases.

Brice Marden, second base: keystone pro, range limited but good jump, unreal pivot…tough out, sometime power…knows the game, team captain.

Susan Rothenberg, left field: me­dium glove, unstylish but determined, body-blocks short hop…strict pull hitter, streak power…consistent effort, home­town favorite.

Joel Shapiro, catcher: solid, smart, calls a good game, good arm but release has lost snap…contact hitter, rarely strikes out, longball infrequent…slow but wily on bases.

And on the mound:

Frank Stella, starting pitcher: ageless vet, owns the ball…heat diminished but sneaky with awesome pitch assortment, super control, mixes speeds, throws changeup for strike…competitor, will brushback.

Ed Ruscha, short relief: submarine delivery…indifferent heat but slider and screwball sparkle, keeps everything low.

Jonathan Borofsky, long relief: ev­ery kind of slow, junk exclusively…jughandle curve, great knuckler, confusing windup…control doubtful.

Keith Haring, pinch runner: rabbit speed, incautious but known to outrun pickoff, first to third on anything.

So there’s the team a formidable one (with a payroll to match ). Will I stop here? Would you?

General Managers: Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns.

Manager: Leo Castelli

Coaching Staff: Louise Bourgeois, Ellsworth Kelly, Malcolm Morley, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol.

Scouts: Betsy Baker, Mary Boone, Paula Cooper, Holly Solomon.

Batboy: Scott Burton.

Trainer: Chris Burden.

Ground Crew: Walter de Maria, Michael Heizer.

Statistician: Lawrence Alloway.

Umpiring Crew: Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, Craig Owens, Ben­jamin H. D. Buchloh. (Krauss Crimp Owens Buchloh — they even sound like umpires.) Rulebook deconstructionists, they tend to award first base on foul balls and to throw everybody out of the game.

National Anthem: Laurie Anderson.

Bird Mascot: Rene Ricard.

Howard Cosell: Hilton Kramer.

And so on. (Additions and alternatives invited.)

Some might object to the above on the grounds that art is not a game. But then neither is baseball.

It occurs to me that two years ago most of my lineup would have been different. The next two years undoubtedly will make another wholesale revision. At any given moment, certain individuals seem invested with the drama of urgent issues, tastes, and yearnings, but of course it’s not all their doing. These individuals slip into and then out of focus as cultural attention shifts between near and far, surface and depth, center and periphery. Energy and quality do count, but always in context. A home run is just a lost ball if no one who cares is watching. Knowledge of art pre­pares you for what you feel on seeing a genuinely new work: that you have been waiting and waiting for only this thing. The meaning of ritual events is, being al­ways the same, to hone the edge of the unique present, the instant that will never repeat and never be forgotten.

Think of the way baseball balances its star system with long, long rhythms of life and time. Each season begins in careless spring and ends in darkening autumn, and baseball’s present is absolutely continuous with the ever-renewed memory of stars and seasons gone before any of us were born. Each baseball star’s career mounts through classical stages, from rough youth to honored old age (usually before 40) — a standard trajectory indelibly imbued with the individual’s legend. In the beginning is the end, and vice versa. It’s something fans savor in October.

Art is crueler. At least in modern times, the rhythms are short and broken. The unflagging, continually compelling career is a rarity. There is no rulebook. Art’s very premises can seem to change overnight. (They don’t, really, but the shape of art’s continuity is so vast and dim that it is apprehended only in the best moments of the best minds.) “Stardom ” is chancy in the long as well as the short run: it can be conferred or snatched away posthumously. The culture’s uses for art alter constantly. Treasures become white elephants, and the other way around, in a twinkling. Great art returns, but in ways and for reasons that would amaze its makers.

Isn’t there a softening poignance in all this contingency? Such vicious tem­porality — the still-operating syndrome of 15-minute fame — may represent some harsh, necessary wisdom of democracy, as I’m sure Tocqueville (that smart aleck ) once said somewhere. We’ll permit all sorts of people to dominate, if only for the fun of knocking them down. This is so much part of us that complaining about it is probably a waste of breath. On to Halloween.

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Bodys at Rest: An African Artist Gets His Due at MoMA

Bodys Isek Kingelez almost wasn’t famous. He lived in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) — which was still known in the 1980s as Zaire, per edict of the autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko — a city scarce on opportunities for a contemporary artist. A bit of a recluse, Kingelez had ditched his early career as a schoolteacher for a more oblique civic engagement: constructing, out of paper and plastic and found materials, scale models of fantastical buildings that he imagined for the city.

When the Parisian curator André Magnin visited him in 1988, Kingelez was forty, and worked as a restorer at the national museum, tending to masks and other traditional items. His own art — meticulously crafted, vividly colored, always representing civic or business edifices — piled up at his office and in his modest home. Magnin picked Kingelez to be one of the artists in Les Magiciens de la Terre, the mega-group show he co-curated in 1989; mixing fifty Western artists with fifty from the so-called Third World, it made a forceful statement, especially for the time, about equal worth in contemporary art. Even so, the Congolese press treated Kingelez as a footnote, emphasizing the selection of the popular painter Chéri Samba instead.

“Ville Fantôme” (1996)

Kingelez is now the subject of a fun and absorbing retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the apotheosis of a career that took off through that Paris exposure, making him a regular at biennials. It comes late for the artist, who died of cancer in 2015, and even later for the museum, as this is MoMA’s first-ever survey of a Black African artist. In that respect, the idiosyncratic Kingelez is an unexpected choice. But one has to start somewhere, and the show itself is a delight. Attractive in its jaunty, toy-world charm, it gets profound on longer look, as the cityscapes reveal the artist’s stubborn civic optimism dueling with his frustration at broken social promises and missed possibility.

Screen captures of “Ville Fantôme:” Virtual Reality Tour.

Kinshasa is the crucial context. Prior to the Paris show, it was the only major city Kingelez had known since arriving from his village after secondary school. In the late 1970s, when Kingelez began to make art, the energy was souring in many African cities, lofty post-independence dreams giving way to cynicism in the face of corruption, neo-colonialism, and complicit leadership. Mobutu’s histrionics amplified this phenomenon in Zaire. Having taken power in a coup in 1965, he had imposed in 1971 his doctrine of authenticité, under which people were told to spurn suits and ties for Mao-like ensembles, switch from French to African names, and call each other citoyen. The mishmash didn’t stick, leaving the single party, the M.P.R., with no ideology beyond plundering the country’s mineral wealth, while ordinary Zaireans lived by “Article 15,” a fictional law invented by street wags that stated simply débrouillez-vous, find a way to get by.

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Architecture and planning underwent a parallel decay. A wave of truly interesting African modernism had swept major cities on the continent as countries attained independence, starting with Ghana in 1957, and with the biggest batch, including the D.R.C., in 1960. In major African cities like Abidjan, Accra, and Dakar, both European and local architects endowed civic and corporate buildings with aggressive designs — blunt rectangles, cylinders, pyramids — plus elements such as breezeways or louvers or sheathing intended variously as decoration or to suit the climate. But by the 1980s, with money and belief exhausted, high architecture retreated, and unregulated sprawl took over as the language of urban expansion. Kinshasa was no exception, with no better symbol than the Tour de l’échangeur, four tubular concrete shafts soaring more than 200 meters high with a rounded triple-level belvedere on the top intended to serve as a city landmark — like the Eiffel Tower or Space Needle — as well as house a restaurant and other entertainment amenities. Begun in 1971, the tower looms over the city today, yet was never finished or put to use. Mobutu shifted his attention in the 1980s to building palaces and useless amenities in Gbadolite, his home village far up the river.

Kingelez was attuned to this psychic and political environment, and the needs it left unfulfilled. He had come to Kinshasa after high school, like so many rural migrants; his village was called Kimbembele-Ihunga, a place impossible to find on the map, at the edge of Bandundu and Kasaï regions in southwest D.R.C. At university in Kinshasa he studied economics and industrial design, so he was not exactly an autodidact. The urge to make art only hit in his late twenties, however, in a kind of epiphany. The medium he landed on would stick for the rest of his career. He called his works “extreme maquettes” — paper-based models of almost always imaginary buildings, and eventually whole cityscapes. They varied in size, but often reached two feet high or more. They landed between architecture and sculpture, but were not meant as literal designs — rather as general propositions, or fantasies. What made them truly distinct was their style, rich with ornaments and full of bright color applied with paint, marker, or colored pencil.

“U.N.” (1995)

The exhibition gathers 33 of these maquettes, many of them quite involved: The largest, Ville Fantôme (1996), fills a base that is roughly nineteen feet by eight feet, with buildings several feet high. All the works show imaginary buildings, except one — a rendering of that unfinished concrete tower in Kinshasa, Approche de l’échangeur de Limete Kin (1981). Three feet high and made of paper and cardboard colored with paint, marker, or pencil, it is close in structure to the original, though gold-toned with pink, orange, and brown accents instead of the concrete gray, and with its spire off-kilter, looking distinctly (and one presumes, intentionally) wobbly. Later Kingelez invented structures with clear marked purposes — airports, stadiums, universities — and sometimes urgent relevance, such as The Scientific Center of Hospitalisation the SIDA (1991), an elaborate gingerbread-house hospital; that title appears verbatim on a label affixed as a canopy, using the French acronym for AIDS, a major concern in Congo at that time.

What he made of Mobutu is never clear. The M.P.R. acronym, for the ruling party, appears on a monument in Place de la Ville (1993), a model of a plaza with a rambling city hall–cum–conference center, a second building dominated by scalloped shapes, plus paper trees and statuary. A version of Mobutu’s green-and-yellow Zaire flag flies atop the buildings, but incomplete, the central torch-bearing brown hand replaced by a ghostly white shape. Then there are two works titled after Kingelez’s rural village. Reinvented in Kimbembele Ihunga (1994), the village becomes a space-age downtown with some fifteen buildings in assorted shapes — bulbs, wheels, fans, scallops, shafts — and a cacophony of decoration. One of three large, complex cityscapes in the show, the work includes a railway station with a sleek high-speed train ready to depart, as well as a “Kingelez Stadium.” One can read the work as aspirational and development-minded, but also a sideways comment on Mobutu’s Gbadolite and similar artificial cities manufactured by autocrats.

“Kimbembele Ihunga” (detail) (1994)

By then, the Mobutu regime was falling apart, the president sick and often out of the country, the government dysfunctional, and the Rwandan civil war spilling into the east of the country to spark a regional conflict that continues to mutate to this day. Mobutu fell in 1997, and died in exile in Morocco the same year. His successor, Laurent Kabila (father of the current president) promptly changed the country’s name back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through it all, Kinshasa carried on in its usual resourceful way. Kingelez stayed, though he now traveled for exhibitions and European residencies. His spent the newfound means from purchases and commissions on imported art supplies, but also on Kinshasa real estate.

His work became more global in references, however. U.N. (1995) is a wild alternative design of a United Nations headquarters that looks like a demented fairground attraction. Nippon Tower (2005) and Development Australian Bank (2007) make geographical assertions in their title, and Sports Internationaux (1997), a tower of beer and soda cans crossed by an oval horizontal structure adorned with Lipton tea bags, is odd but clearly of global intent. (His proposal for replacement twin towers for New York City after the 9-11 attacks, with their third structure intended as a water-cooling system for putting out fires, is not in this show.) Ville Fantôme (“Ghost City”) is peak Kingelez: With skyscrapers up to four feet tall amid a forest of lower-rise buildings in seemingly every possible shape, it looks like a demented mash-up, drizzled in colors, of Las Vegas, Dubai, and the capital of Wakanda in the film Black Panther. Adding to the overload of signifiers, some towers are marked “USA,” and one cluster of buildings is labeled “Seoul.” (This piece is also the subject of a three-minute virtual-reality experience at MoMA, in which you zoom amid the buildings, though this reviewer, deterred by the long line, skipped the opportunity.)

“Sports Internationaux” (1997) and “Nippon Tower” (2005)

Kingelez was on a residency in Sète, a port on the French Mediterranean, in 2000, when he fell ill, resulting in his cancer diagnosis. He lived another fifteen years, but his output slowed. The cityscape Ville de Sète 3009 (2000), made during that visit, contains some of the classic Kingelez motifs — scalloped triangle buildings, weird tubes, bulb or cone spire ornaments — but makes greater use of translucent materials that give the work airiness and new light. With diagonal lines sectioning curtain-walls (in the manner of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China building in Hong Kong), and a star-like grid of roads, it suggests a geometry at work, a vector field. It is the rare Kingelez work that feels squarely futuristic, and not just for its title. More often he seems to work in an alternative present, concerned with expanding the scope of possibility to address civic needs. And though his maquettes are not meant for literal implementation, the cascade of materials and style vernaculars involved in their making returns, inexorably, to the improvisational genius at work in Kinshasa and other African cities.

“Ville de Sète 3009” (2000)

“As I see it, he is more of a mental-mapping phenomenon, and his sculptures represent a dogged mining of the contemporary African psyche,” the British and Ghanaian architect David Adjaye writes of Kingelez in a catalog essay. “The power of his work comes from his ability to aggregate his observations in fantastical scenarios.” There is nothing stereotypically traditional in Kingelez’s maquettes — no village motifs like thatched huts, nor for that matter the slum vernacular of tin-roofed shacks. Instead he offers a kind of shadow history of African modernism as it might have been and could yet be, suffusing his work with the while tormented, romantic history of nationhood and belonging, from the independence era through globalization, with its promises and contradictions. The absences are striking as well. Kingelez never put human figures in his works. He never depicted housing. He only did cities. Perhaps that was just his obsession, but it reminds us that infrastructure, public facilities, the skyline, remain central to how a society narrates itself, its way of being. They are always improvable, and they are worth the fight.

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The sheer color and invention gives the MoMA show a snack value that has earned it raves since it opened in early summer. The works live on white pedestals with rounded, irregular shapes, prepared by the German artist Carsten Höller; they are not encased in vitrines, so one feels proximity. But there are missed opportunities, too. A thirty-minute documentary about Kingelez, with ample interview footage, is shown near the elevators, in an area where noise is near-certain, making it impossible to hear. The catalog is truly excellent, its highlight a fluent and wide-ranging essay on Kingelez’s life, art, and context by curator Sarah Suzuki, but little of that information makes it to the gallery. The risk is that Kingelez’s work lands out of nowhere, and comes off like a brilliant curiosity.

Kingelez is at one end of the spectrum for African artists, in that his exposure owes primarily to Western curators and patrons. They include Magnin and the businessman Jean Pigozzi, whose famous private collection of African contemporary art, considered the world’s largest, owns a good number of the works in this show. Kingelez didn’t exhibit in Kinshasa, nor seek out Congolese collectors. To be clear, this was also by his choice: He was obdurate, grandiose, and didn’t care for the company of other local artists. That’s fine; it’s who he was. But if MoMA, after looking away from Africa so long, is to play catch-up (for instance with the Brooklyn Museum, which has presented surveys of El Anatsui and Wangechi Mutu), the hope is that it will pick up the pace, broaden the range, and not limit the pleasure of deep engagement with the work to those who already know.

‘Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams’
Museum of Modern Art
Through January 1


At MoMA PS1, Photographer Elle Pérez Finds Depth in the Everyday

Elle Pérez, a Bronx-born Puerto Rican photographer, is having a hell of a summer. Their first solo show, Bloom, a tightly curated set of beguilingly intimate portraits and still-lifes, went up in March at 47 Canal, a gallery in Chinatown; a handful of months later, on July 1, Pérez’s first solo museum show, Diablo, opened at MoMA PS1, where it’s on view through September 3. Their work has also become a mainstay in New York’s art scene, appearing in summer group shows like Yossi Milo’s “Intimacy” and David Zwirner’s “This Is Not a Prop,” both of which were on display in late June and August.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Pérez attended the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and went on to do their MFA at Yale, where they Tod Papageorge and Gregory Crewdson, among others. Pérez first came to attention photographing the Black and Latino wrestlers of the Bronx’s underground, independent wrestling leagues, interested in the way that the young men’s interactions tangled with identity formation, ritual, and performance. In these early photographs, the action bursts out of the frame — bodies and faces are contorted with emotion, and there’s a tenderness in the more intimate photographs, a sense that we, as viewers, have been allowed in. Other bodies of work demonstrate Peréz’s interest in created community, from photographs taken at a Radical Faeries queer sanctuary in rural Tennessee, to the quiet, almost behind-the-scenes photos from nightclubs and the ballroom scene.

Expansive yet intimate, concerned with the specifics of queer and trans community yet tautly private, even reticent to the unschooled eye, Pérez’s current work dwells in seemingly mundane moments of intimate connection — between Pérez and their subjects; between the artist and the world. A binder — Peréz’s own — hangs to dry in a bathroom, weighted with its own powerful presence. A figure unfurls a red handkerchief at the camera; it blurs in the frame, flagging — what, exactly? A viewer in the know will realize that, according to the hanky code, red indicates an interest in fisting, an act referenced again in a viscerally beautiful image of a bloodied hand resting between parted legs — the blood on the fist dried into the perfect shape of a flower.

Many of the photographs feature Peréz’s partner, Ian. In some, he gazes into the camera; in others, his face is cropped out, as if to provide an insulating layer between subject and gaze. In a strikingly beautiful portrait at PS1, Ian is shot in black and white, his body curving out of the frame. In the lower third of the composition, Ian’s hand is thrust between his legs, but the viewer’s eye is drawn to his wide, bright smile.

These private moments are made startlingly public, but never slide into voyeurism — they’re still deeply encoded within a language of queerness and trans experience that offers viewers varying degrees of access. In Warm Curve, an arm protectively circles the torso of the sitter, which bears a top-surgery scar — and from that scar, a story unfolds, though only its outlines are known to us. In another photograph, two phallic rocks nestled against each other conjure subtle, diffuse erotics, charging the everyday.

Pérez’s show at PS1 features a suite of ten large-scale photographs made in the last three years, many of which appeared in the show at 47 Canal, as well as a new wall-spanning collage consisting of prints, visual references, and pieces of writing by Pérez and other authors, including the poet Anne Carson. The collage hops from place to place — landscapes are connected by colorful foliage; pages are torn out of books, photocopied, and underlined, accompanied by Post-it notes in Pérez’s hand. “I’m not necessarily looking for someone else’s mundane, but my mundane,” says Pérez. “My everyday.”

At 29, Pérez currently teaches at Harvard, and is a dean at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, an intensive summer residency in Maine. Earlier this year, I collaborated with Pérez on writing the text for their show at 47 Canal, working to evoke the same haloed, subtle intimacy conjured in the photographs. We spoke again some weeks after the opening of “Diablo” at MoMA PS1, talking about intimacy, formalism, representation, and … Stephen Shore.

“Of course there is a conversation about representation and authorship that’s a part of it,” Pérez told me. “Sure, I’m a different kind of author than maybe other authors have been.”

Installation view

Let’s start with the collage. It’s so cool to see the network of inspiration that you have laid out. It’s not explicit, but if you get up close and read everything, you begin to understand where this work is coming from. Tell me about the collage — what inspired it?

I used to do that kind of building for myself all the time. When I really dig into the studio, that’s what my studio looks like. And that’ll accrue layers and layers of information and references.

Sometimes I think about what I did before I thought of myself as an artist, and it’s like, oh, it’s been there all along. I was looking for something on my old Flickr account and I found a picture of my room in high school. On all of my walls I had made these intense whole-wall photographic collages that were composed of Xeroxes, and pictures of my friends, and clippings that I had torn out. I think it’s something that a lot of people did, but it was kind of funny to see that and think, “Oh yeah, that’s totally coming from this kind of obsessive collecting and media saturation.” Like, when I was a kid, that was my impulse — to put it on the wall and cut it out and hold on to it.

I had been hesitant, or reticent, to put the collage up. It felt like part of the process, but not a piece itself. But then, for the show at PS1, there was the idea of, “What would your studio look like in an exhibition?” And I thought of the best ways to do that. The individual pieces of the collage were things that I’d just been thinking about, and looking at, and really intensely referencing for the last year. There are a couple of pages from Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red …

Oh, I saw that! I knew immediately. That’s one of the first queer love stories I can remember reading that felt complicated and adult and deeply mythological, but also so present. Of the moment. Which line in particular is your favorite?

It’s the one where he’s like, “Lots of little boys think they’re a monster/But I’m right./The Dog regards him joyfully.”

There’s a lot of text on that board, which I wanted to ask you about — how your writing practice started out, and how you see it play into your photographic practice.

I think the moment where I was pushed to make that public was actually when we were working on the writing for the show at 47 Canal, in February and March this year. And Jamie, who is the director, called me out a little bit! He said, “I feel like you’re maybe hiding behind your friend’s writing!” And I was shocked. He said, “I really want you to write something. I’m not going to let you hide from this. You need to do something too. It can be a network, we can do all of it, but you’re not allowed to hide anymore.” And I was like … I just gagged. Like, oh my god, OK.

Ian had told me about his daily writing practice. He writes for thirty minutes every day, in a stream of consciousness. And he said, I think this might help you. So then I was trying to do that, and I pulled the pieces together of all the diary entries that I had had, that I had written, which I wasn’t necessarily thinking of as a writing practice.

Talking to you really made me think about what I was trying to do in that first show. At first I was like, “I don’t even really know what I just did here! I don’t know if this is good, I don’t really know what’s happening, I don’t know …” I was not ahead of it at all. I was maybe five steps behind it. Things became much clearer at the end of the exhibition than the beginning of the exhibition.

With the PS1 show, you can kind of see the backbone of it a little more. As you said, you know what it’s about, and I think the device of the collage allows us to know what it’s about. I wouldn’t consider it voyeuristic, even though some of the photos can feel really intimate. The way that you handle the intimate relationship you have with Ian, for example, feels very protective.

That’s good. That makes me happy, because sometimes I worry about how vulnerable the work can be. Sometimes it does feel like there needs to be time for the relationship to heal before photography can come back into it. Especially now that  we’re more aware of the fact that the images will be distributed. Whereas before the two shows it wasn’t like that.

This summer I’ve taken a little bit of pressure off of our relationship by not photographing our intimacy as much, and putting this material aside to contextualize it allows me to still be doing something and making, but it’s also giving our relationship some time to heal from after being made very public.

Installation view

Do you feel like your work is moving in different directions now, or does the way that you conceive of it feel different now?

What was cool about having the opportunity to do this PS1 show was that I had realized what I was doing with the show at 47 only after it all came into focus. And I started tofeel like then I could really home in on a couple of things … and then this kind of came out of thin air. And I was like, Oh, wow, now you do have an opportunity to do that.

It was perfect in a way, and such a privilege — it was like saying, here’s the second half of that body of work that you saw the beginning of. If this had been a longer period of time, people might have expected a new body of work entirely.

What’s the process of photographing like for you? What is the impulse that you have to make a picture of a moment?

There are two things that go on at the same time. The first thing usually comes from impulse. Part of how this work started was, I was super not making work after grad school. In my second year of grad school it dried up. It had to do with a lot of personal things, and a lot of changes I had to make. I started feeling like, if I didn’t figure out how to how to have this process and make work, it was not going to happen.

I really wanted to be able to make work, and I really wanted to make work wherever I was. Previously it had been so tied to the right location — to being home, to being in the Bronx, to going to wrestling matches. There were people who I admired who were able to make work anywhere, and I was tired of allowing myself to have those excuses. Like, Oh, it’s not the right place. I really wanted to move away from that. So it became this thing about making photographs of what is around me. It’s also been these very specific moments of thinking about what was around me that I hadn’t necessarily been allowing myself to see as material, or to see as worthy of being in a picture. And it’s been allowing myself to just fully use my life as raw material.

The way I got to that though, was through practicing. Like, Since I’m just practicing, since I’m just trying to make something, I am going to try to make a really good picture. My specific problem was, How do you stop relying on a kind of written context? That I had to tell you that people were queer, that I had to tell you that people were trans. It was about figuring out how to make a queer photograph, how to make a trans photograph, that would operate on a couple of different levels. I really wanted to figure out those problems in photography that I had. [Laughs] I wanted to figure out how to make a picture with content. I really really wanted to figure that out!

Formal problems are such a good way to go about art making. Even in my own painting practice, when I’m going through and editing down and figuring out what I’m actually going to paint, it becomes: what am I drawn to, why am I drawn to it, why is this happening, what does this body of work say.

That has been a real shift for me that has been really generative. The things that I was thinking about when I was doing the first show had to do with surface, texture, and having a balance of gesture and pose and stillness. It was about making an image that felt like it had the right amount of tension in the frame but still emotionally authentic. And not having an image that was too staged, or too contrived. Because I’m not interested in feeling contrived. When it comes too close to that, it starts to annoy me. Like, ugh, get rid of it. And compositionally, how do you make a photograph that works? Which brings up color relationships. How does color work, how does light work? These are really basic problems. It was about color, light, composition. What do I do with that?

The easiest things to reach, of course, are my particular life, and my particular circumstance. It comes down to being honest about that, and being honest about who the people who surround me are, or what objects are really close to me. And what is my mundane: I’m not necessarily looking for someone else’s mundane, but my mundane. My everyday.

Of course there is a conversation about representation and authorship that’s a part of it. Like, sure, I’m a different kind of author than maybe other authors have been. But I’m still interested in formal things. It’s funny, when I have college students, they’re surprised by this, when I say I’m really interested in Stephen Shore. Do not shit-talk Stephen Shore! He’s doing a lot that we can learn from! And my students are like, You have a septum ring and you’re a trans fag, and you’re telling us that Shore has the answers?

Because of my identity and what is part of it, which is part of the work, sometimes the conversations can really focus on that, and not on the other parts of it. So I really appreciate being able to go off about this formal stuff.

Apart from Shore, who are some other old-school photographers you’ve been influenced by?

I love Roy DeCarava. Classic stuff. He’s incredible. I’ve learned so much from Roy’s work, because he’s someone who really thought about the way the tool of the camera — but also the picture plane, and the tones, and the way that he was utilizing his printing and image construction — could create a metaphor for what he was talking about.

The thing about DeCarava’s pictures is the gray tones are where everything happens. He has these super luscious shadows, and so much information is in the shadows — it reinforces that idea of there being life in the shadows. Everything happens in the shadows for Roy DeCarava, and you can spin out from there, and associate various kinds of positions on black life in the Fifties and Sixties. What didn’t have light cast on it but was still there. That is present in the physical, formal construction of the images. And that was like, a fucking mind-blowing lesson that I get to have every semester, because I have the privilege of teaching it.

You mentioned trying to figure out how to do the work. How do you think you’re doing?

By the time I had the show at 47, I was really earnestly discovering what the work is about. And then for PS1 it was cool, because I had done a little bit of that discovering, and it was like what else can I find out here? At that point it felt a little bit more like, this is what I found! Knowing partly what it was. Because, obviously, I know what my life is.

I was looking at this Nobuyoshi Araki book, that I’ve had since I was like eighteen. It was the first photography book that I’d ever bought, Araki’s Phaidon monograph, Art Life Death, and I carry it around with me everywhere. It’s the only book that doesn’t go into storage. I hadn’t read it in a long time, but I was going through it, and he has this one quote that I find so fucking funny, and also really true: he was like, “If you want to change your life, change your life. If you want to change your photographs, you need to change cameras.” Like, real. I think that’s really true.


This Brooklyn Artist Is Taking On the Media

We met in May, close to midnight on a quiet industrial street in Bushwick, in front of an unremarkable steel building. On the second floor was Alexandra Bell’s small, square studio, its walls plastered with blown-up reproductions of the front page of the most recognizable newspaper in America — specifically, the edition delivered to newsstands and doorsteps on August 25, 2014. In skinny strokes of red permanent marker, she’d circled words, crossed out sentences, and written notes and questions in the margins, a public humbling designed to present the paper of record as little more than a series of decisions made by human hands and brains — decisions Bell was now questioning with force. Earlier that evening, at Shoestring Press, a print shop in Crown Heights, we’d picked up copies of the finished versions of those same augmented articles. Michael Brown’s eyes seemed to follow us around the room, staring intently from beneath the jaws of a giant black printer. Bell rolled the finished product into cylinders and tucked them away.

Bell’s public art series, called “Counternarratives,” reworks or redacts text from real stories that ran in the New York Times, exposing the long, ongoing tradition of media reliance on stereotypes — itself a print term — in coverage involving people of color. By deploying marginalia, obscuring whole passages with fat black ink, and rewriting headlines, captions, and other text, Bell, who is 34 and a Chicago native, highlights the often overt bias that still survives the editing process. The series is a trenchant questioning of these sometimes baffling choices, made by workers in an industry that prides itself on its fairness, from reporting and writing to photos and layout. Next to her annotations, Bell presents an alternative.

Her work began popping up on street corners and subway platforms across Brooklyn last December. The first piece in the series tackles that front page from 2014, a controversial double feature about the killing of Brown, an unarmed eighteen-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. The Times ran the stories, each with its own headline, side by side, divided by a thin line down the center of the page. In the story about Wilson, the original headline refers to the officer as having had a “low profile” and the lede mentions the commendation he’d received after the arrest of a different black teenager. The story about Brown refers to him as “no angel,” a characterization that drew widespread derision and criticism; the original headline was “A Teenager Grappling With Problems and Promise.”

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Bell began her version by using Adobe InDesign to reconstruct the front page before adding her annotations. She went through multiple drafts, experimenting with such meticulously thought-out details as the opacity of the black lines she would use to — in the finished product — redact almost the entirety of both articles. In the Wilson story, she retains only the information she considers most pertinent: “Officer Darren Wilson … fatally shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown.” The only visible text in the article about Brown is “Michael Brown Jr. … his shooting death by Darren Wilson, a white police officer.” The black lines are completely opaque.

“I want you to really have to strain to find a reason for the other information,” Bell says. “It’s not necessary. Ultimately, this was a very simple narrative. There was a kid, who did not have a gun, who was shot and killed by a white cop. This is all that matters.”

Bell then constructed her imagining of a more appropriate front page for the story, opting, after much deliberation, for an enlarged version of Brown’s haunting graduation photo, his eyes locked in an unbreakable gaze, paired with a simple, powerful headline: “A Teenager With Promise.” The two covers are displayed as a pair, side by side.

That night in May, I spent three hours on Bell’s heels as she ducked into and out of subway stations and around street corners in north Brooklyn. Sharpied posters featuring the Times’s familiar gothic script poked out from the top of the black yoga bag strapped across her body; a white bucket full of homemade wheatpaste and paintbrushes rattled alongside her. Bell, working with a friend, moved quickly. First task: find a suitable wall space. They quickly assessed locations — how visible will the art be; is the surface good for wheatpaste? Once they’d picked a spot, Bell unrolled the posters, ran a wide brush covered in wheatpaste over the wall, then lined the posters up next to each other with precision. A second coat of wheatpaste, a quick photo, and we were gone. The whole process took no more than a few minutes, and Brown’s gaze became no less poignant as the chilly night dragged on.

Bell grew up in Chicago under the tutelage of a mother who encouraged critical thinking, even in seemingly mundane places. “Trying to look past what’s in front of me is something I grew up doing a lot of,” she recalls. Her mother often engaged her in conversations about the politics of the era, and sometimes that meant reading the Chicago Tribune. In middle school, a teacher encouraged her to read the Chicago Defender, a famous black-owned newspaper, right around the time much of the country was consumed by the O.J. Simpson murder trial. The controversial Time magazine cover in which Simpson’s skin was darkened to make him look more menacing stands out as one of the first times she remembers noticing how the media manipulates — in that case literally — the image of black people in the news. But it would take years before she returned to that image and other examples of bias with a critical eye.

After high school, Bell pursued a course of study at the University of Chicago that included classes on media, race, politics, and film; she graduated in 2005. Soon after, she moved to New York and found work in communications, and it was here, a few years later, that she began to take stock of an evolving national trend. While public violence against black people has long been a function of American society, a barrage of shootings and live-streamed death at the hands of law enforcement would rattle the black community in new ways, beginning — but not ending — with the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The 24-hour coverage of each new death, and the resulting unrest, furthered Bell’s understanding of the news as a uniquely precarious function in the lives of black people.

“Why do I have to read this shit every day? It’s just black people dying, drowning in the boats trying to get somewhere where they think they won’t die but they probably will,” she recalls thinking. She described the exhaustion as a kind of PTSD.

“Somewhere between a Kara Walker show and Glenn Ligon’s ‘America’ show” at the Whitney in 2011, she says, her admiration for text-focused art grew. Bell was encouraged, for example, by Ligon’s rewriting of runaway-slave broadsides, the newspaper ads taken out by slaveholders offering rewards for the return of their “chattel.” Bell’s interest in the manipulation and maneuvering of words and newspapers grew.

Her hometown is a city steeped in a rich history of journalism — the Chicago Defender. And while Bell says she was not hypercritical of the news growing up, it is perhaps unsurprising that she wound up a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2011.

It was then that she began to consume mass amounts of news media as part of the curriculum. But though the school is considered the premier training institution for journalists, her teachers did not engage her classmates in conversations about media bias.

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Over the summer of 2016, Bell began tinkering with the Brown story, one that had stuck in her mind for what she considers grave but all too common mistakes. “I started thinking, you know, I should maneuver these things,” she recalls. She rented a car in late December and went on a solo mission to wheatpaste the first iteration of “A Teenager With Promise” in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “It was a shove back at the New York Times,” she says.

Since then, she has gone on about ten late-night runs in Brooklyn and Manhattan to put up her work. A jumbo version of “A Teenager With Promise” was displayed, with permission, on an outside wall at Sincerely, Tommy, a shop in Bed-Stuy that sells clothes, housewares, and coffee, and at We Buy Gold, a gallery in the same neighborhood. It has sparked the interest of a diverse crowd of New Yorkers, sometimes in ways Bell did not expect.

“I want people to slow down and think more critically about what it is like to reframe what you read,” she says. “When I read something, I try to [think about] if these things were different, what would it look like? How would it change what I think and how I see something as important or valuable? That’s a big part of what I was trying to do. What does it mean to make space for another perspective?”

Her inbox on Instagram is frequently flooded with messages from strangers offering their thoughts, thanks, and links to problematic stories her fans believe could benefit from her annotations and alterations, an assumption of labor she has taken in stride. But she did not anticipate the ways in which black people would view “A Teenager With Promise” — her first public art piece — as a much-needed memorial to the teenager whose untimely death reignited protests against police brutality across the country.

“While I didn’t see this as a memorial, I can’t lie and say I didn’t see it as a sort of restorative justice,” she says. “What has been most rewarding for me has been when black people tell me they needed this. It matters to me when a black person is like, I needed to see it in the paper. And then other people are just like, Drag they ass! They can handle it!

While Bell says she has felt personal swells of pride and closure as people all over the city — and thousands more on the internet — have reacted to her work, it’s the quiet ways we become acclimated to what was once new and surprising that have been symbolic. She described to me a scene at the Montrose Avenue stop on the L train, where “A Teenager With Promise” survived for eight days before it was taken down. While it had demanded the eyes and attention of nearly everyone who passed when it first went up, that day subway riders displayed a sort of quiet, calm reverence for the remarkable, in a way only New Yorkers can master.

“People are still really strongly reacting to [it], but there’s some spaces where it’s blending in. It just blends in to the day, and that to me is where the accomplishment comes in. If anything, that might have been the goal,” she says. “That you believe this [counternarrative] so much that it lives in your space with you. It’s there, you see it every day, and you’re sad because you know what happened, and you’re even annoyed in some ways. But it’s become the truth.”

The second piece in the Counternarratives series, titled “Olympic Threat,” tackles an egregious story from 2016: When it became known that swimmer Ryan Lochte and one of his teammates had fabricated a violent robbery to hide their vandalism of a gas station in Olympic host country Brazil, the Times ran the story on the August 19 front page. The headline, “Accused of Fabricating Robbery, Swimmers Fuel Tension in Brazil,” ran above the fold. Directly underneath it was a large photo of Jamaican track star Usain Bolt, a black man, who had nothing to do with the crime.

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In “Olympic Threat,” Bell marks up the original story, etching such questions as “why this photo” into the margins, and adds a racial description (“White-American”) to the headline, something she says news organizations hesitate to do only when the assailant is white. Next to it, she mimics the layout of the original story but redacts most of the text, leaving visible the word “privilege” and the phrase “in a society where many Brazilians themselves often lament their exposure to alarming levels of violent crime and police corruption.” She replaces the large, vibrant photo of Bolt with one of Lochte and changes the caption. The decisions made by the editors who constructed the original layout so fail the test of logic that viewers often confuse her reconstruction for the real thing.

“I want people to have a clear sense of the history of journalism,” Bell says. “When you do, you understand what the implications are behind what you’re writing. You need to think more critically about how, historically, people have been framed in newspapers, what decisions you’re making that may be contributing to that even if that’s not your intention.” The placement of Bolt’s image (he’d just won the men’s 100- and 200-meter dashes, making him the first to win gold in each at three consecutive Olympics) above a story about a crime he did not commit, Bell says, is the perfect example of subtle, sexy, liberal racism.

“There’s no way, with a better understanding of race and crime and newspapers, that you opt to keep that there. We’ve been dragged through the mud so much. It’s time for a reprieve. This can’t happen.”

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of stories worthy of Bell’s — and all of our — scrutiny. The New York Daily News’s repeated use of the word “brute” to describe black men accused of crimes, as well as a third Times story, on a white man from Tulsa whose terrorizing of a Lebanese family ended in murder (the headline identifies the race of only the victim, and fails to name the violence as racism), are among Bell’s current interests. And while she hopes journalists will more carefully consider the power they wield with words, she is under no illusions.

“If I felt like the revolution was me scratching out articles and putting up posters, I’d have been done it,” she says. “I’m interested in the conversation.”


Best Weekend Food Events: NYC Chilifest, Edible Games, and Beer Galore

New Guest Chef Sandwich, Genuine Superette, 191 Grand Street, Friday through the next couple of months

For a limited time, Genuine Superette is offering a new Wagyu brisket sandwich developed by Chicago chefs Paul Kahan and AJ Walker. The sandwich — which includes horseradish cream cheese, smoked onions, mustard, and lettuce — is served on a pumpernickel roll and is available for both lunch and dinner for $13.78.

New Brunch, The Bennett, 134 West Broadway, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m./11 a.m to 8 p.m.

Say goodbye to blizzards and grab a sangria, spritz, or mimosa cocktail at a brand-new brunch this weekend. Meaghan Dorman is offering eight new brunch cocktails to go along with a menu that includes a chocolate-sprinkle-and-butter sandwich, banana pancakes, and meatballs with fried eggs and polenta.

Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ Festival, The Tunnel, 608 West 28 Street at 11th Avenue, Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Sure it might be cold outside, but venturing out for beer, bourbon, and plenty of hot ‘cue has its obvious rewards. This event has all three  — 60 beers, 40 bourbons, and too many pounds of pork to count. A limited number of tickets ($99 per person) are available at the door for the second session, which starts at 5:30 p.m.

NY Chilifest, Chelsea Market, 416 West 16 Street, Sunday, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The halls of Chelsea Market will be filled with something other than tourists this weekend. Chili fanatics are invited to sample tastes from over twenty different restaurants; Toro and The Brooklyn Star are just two stops on the fest’s trail. Rye cocktails and beer will also be available. Ticket options start at $50 for all-you-can-eat chili and $60 if you want to add booze; reserve them here.

Meal of Fortune, Babycastles Gallery, 137 West 14th Street, 2nd Floor, Sunday, 7:30 p.m.

Whether you’re a gamer or someone who enjoys edible art, this pop-up restaurant at Babycastles Gallery has something you won’t find most weekends. Chef Theo Friedman of Theory Kitchen, along with a few video and digital artists, came up with four courses of experiential dishes like a bowling alley with 3-D printed salt and pepper shakers that season food when they’re knocked over, and a conveyor belt that rolls out edible dice. Tickets are $37.40 per person — there are still some available for Sunday. Reserve them here.