Monday, June 16, 2008

"Interesting": Euphemism for "Sucks"? Or just what it says?

14 June 2008

I realize my last preamble turned into something of an essay. I don’t think I need to apologize – and I never would anyway; but it occurs to me that the reader might be forgiven for thinking s/he had stumbled into the wrong blog. However, (again) before I post any notes on what I’ve actually been looking at (last night, an old – but dazzling – movie, War and Peace – the first two parts of a four part, seven-hour marathon of a movie – the 1965-68 Russian treatment of the Tolstoy novel (I think there was an older attempt – American or international co-production – made in the late 1950s, which, from what I’ve seen of it, is markedly inferior) – parts of which I can’t get out of my head), a postamble, if you will, on the sort of thing that might, hypothetically, be going through my head as I walk through or view a show (any show, really) for the first time. In other words, a headnote in the most literal sense. I was downtown for some openings this evening, including a couple in Chinatown (ps – I love Chinatown). Tennis Buddy was there, along with her brainiac sister, Jill; also, genius bricoleur and compleat artist, Frohawk Two Feathers – and a host of others from all parts of the L.A. art world – in fact all parts of the world. As openings go, a complete success. (Uh-oh – I can see the alarms going off – hang on for a second, will ya?) It was not, however, a particularly easy show (or certainly not in any but the most ridiculously superficial sense). In fact, appearances to the contrary (or not), it was fairly dense in context (historical and otherwise), craft and media, and, generally, in the process of its making, effectively setting up a dynamic tension with the finished work itself. (I was certainly not alone in remarking on this apparent emphasis on process.) As I stepped outside for a breath of air, I was greeted again by the gallerist putting on the show. “So – what do you think?” At this point, of course, I was the one heavily immersed in 'process'; in short I was still mentally processing the show – there was a lot to take in and a lot to think about. “It’s very interesting,” I said, aware that I probably sounded pretty neutral, or even a bit pat, about it. “Interesting?” she shot back, laughing a bit. “That means it sucked!”

There’s no escaping the fact that when a presumably friendly viewer says something like this at an opening/private view, at least 50 percent of the time, that is almost exactly what it means. Of course, the other 50 percent of the time, it simply means what it says, and even possibly something slightly more flattering. Chez moi, more often than not, it means, ‘I need to take my eyes off of it for a second and take my brain for a little stroll down the La Cienega and Washington Boulevards (or for that matter Wilshire or Chung King or Michigan or Main Streets) of recent memory.’ Sometimes it means anything between ‘I’m absolutely dazzled’, and – see above – and ‘I’m simply perplexed’, and – ditto. In this particular instance, what I had seen resonated on certain levels with a number of different things (mostly painting; also some photography) I had seen within the last month or several months, both here (in fact, on the aforementioned La Cienega) and in New York. So I was thinking about the fact that a number of artists seemed to be referencing certain (historical, among others) sources, subjects and structures in common; and also, as I mentioned, the relative complexity, even density of this particular artist’s process, more or less transparent in the work itself. Also about the specific historical contexts referenced. Now, many hours later, I actually can give a (still completely superficial) opinion. Yes – I liked the show. Dazzled? No – but that doesn’t say anything about the artist or the show, either. It wasn’t that kind of a show (and he’s not really that kind of an artist).

Just one more thing that separates fine art from – well, theatre for starters. It’s a tricky business. As everyone knows, this is stuff for the long haul. More than dance, theatre, music, literature, film, we tend to be thinking (if not looking) across the far horizon line; fully aware, furthermore, just how that horizon line may shift over ten, fifty, or the next 100 years. We’re not sitting through the after party or waiting overnight for the notices. What is to be celebrated is simply that it happened. To the extent that it is noticed – ideally, in some dynamic relation with the way it’s produced, perhaps – is all gravy. Fortunately, there are committed audiences here in Los Angeles and around the world for the fine art produced here (or for our galleries). The dialogue may not shape the art; but it may refine it to some extent; and certainly it contributes to the way we view it and think about it.

And anyway who cares what I think? At least for now – until my next deadline. (Coming up in another ten days or so, if I’m not mistaken.)

Friday, June 6, 2008

Elegance as protest: Yves Saint Laurent -- Exemplary Sufferer, Exemplary Pleasure-Seeker

I started writing this, thinking it would simply be a preamble to the rest of my C.O.L.A. and L.A.C.E. auction (RePresent) notes (and a few other things); but, as you can see, it turned into a more extended digression -- almost an essay which, rather than pick over further, as it seems like I've been doing the last few days in and out of the Flynt Building (or in and out of bed), I've decided to post as is before I even post the rest of my notes (as well as the notes from the last couple of week-ends). I don't know about you, dear reader, but I'd need to take a breath after the block of text that follows. (Sorry about that.) You'd be forgiven for calling it nostalgia; but I prefer to look at it as Obama damage -- the 'damage' of hope. After this past Tuesday, I think I can be forgiven.

My hopes are now ... with the Lakers, of course.

2-3 June 2008

Saint Laurent is dead this evening as I write this. Shocking to think how large his shadow loomed only a few years ago – though, of course, it was just a shadow. He went out with fireworks – closing his house as if he were drawing the curtain on the spectacle of a century. But his glory – the sense of celebration and rebellion; the rigorous luxury; the avant-garde snickering at and seduction of the bourgeoisie; the seriously subversive, seriously elegant, seriously Parisian, seriously French qualities that characterized his greatest couture productions and the original rive gauche boutique lines – of his glory days had long since passed. To watch Saint Laurent moving haltingly, almost painfully among the sumptuous fabrics, the beautiful fitting models -- and his staff of brilliant couture professionals under the guidance of his muse and major domo, Loulou de la Falaise, taking the pulse, as it were, of both designs and designer – in the film, 5 Avenue Marceau, was almost painful. You had the sense that the pleasure of a luxurious fabric sculpted into a finished piece, the fragile beauty of the dressed model were his only oxygen. (It couldn’t have helped that he smoked incessantly.) You had the sense that the work alone was keeping him alive.

That Tom Ford managed to resurrect some of the qualities of his past successes could not have given him much cheer. His best work always had the spirit and currency of the new; whatever pleasure luxury and refinement could supply could never revive that spirit. The Saint Laurent we see in 5, Avenue Marceau is an almost shattered human being. But there’s something about this portrait (if we can really call it that) that leads the viewer to wonder if what we’re watching is an unfolding inevitability – a kind of via Dolorosa, the inexorable progression of a king’s court to its end (as if Saint Laurent, like Elizabeth I of England, was determined to die standing up).

It was Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s longtime companion and business partner, who said that Saint Laurent was “born with a nervous breakdown”; and there were many episodes of the designer’s life over the years that gave ample testimony to his emotional delicacy and imbalance, neurasthenia, his addictions, breakdowns and endless neuroses. Even the boy wonder cachet he enjoyed for his brief tenure at Dior was accentuated by an apparent reticence, what comes across in news footage from that period as almost a terror of press and publicity. He eventually conquered that terror; but would remain forever haunted by his demons.

Yet Saint Laurent’s life was also poised on the fulcrum of generational and cultural change. Born before war’s end in Oran, Algeria, a born cosmopolite in a colonial outpost; a homosexual during a time when, at least in the early part of his adult life, homosexuals were persecuted and stigmatized, notwithstanding whatever protective sanction his profession might have provided – he was a man flying by the seams of his trapeze dress. It could not have helped that not long after his success at Dior, he was drafted into the army for service in a cursed war that would have taken him back to Algeria. An apparently relentless hazing by fellow draftees and recruits was enough to break that delicate balance. (The only celebrity of the time whose military draft received more (and obviously far more flattering) attention was Elvis Presley.) His military hospital treatments probably ensured he would never be entirely free of his demons – particularly drugs.

But the world Saint Laurent returned to was already changing. Saint Laurent’s emergence as a star designer came at a pivotal cultural moment: the Sixties – a moment that saw an exploding youth culture, accompanied by an explosive surge of pop culture amounting to a mass renaissance, a blurring of distinctions between high culture and pop or mass culture, an erosion (if not leveling) of class differences; a moment of protest, rebellion, experimentation and sexual liberation. It was a moment Saint Laurent was perfectly suited, by culture, temperament and sensibility, to exploit. Having explored youth culture, Left Bank-style, even before he left Dior, Saint Laurent would now be free to take his inspiration as he found it – 20th century art (e.g., Mondrian, Cocteau, Massine, Miro, Picasso, Pop), Hollywood and film noir glamour (e.g., Dietrich/von Sternberg, Hawks, Huston), 19th and 20th century literature – Flaubert, Proust, Gide; rock’n’roll; and a certain street glamour as American as it was Parisian.

Saint Laurent’s genius was in trusting those sometimes impulsive sparks of inspiration and connecting them with the energy of the street, the circulatory rush of everyday life, particularly women’s lives; also a connection to the street as the ultimate stage, the ultimate runway, resonating with certain touchstones of a specifically French visual, cinematic and literary aesthetic. It was no accident that Luis Buñuel tapped him to design the costumes for Belle de Jour. Deneuve’s wardrobe as Séverine are a witty subversion of bourgeois proprieties: a severe, almost exaggeratedly proper, tailleur, elegantly, rigorously cut dresses, the trench coats of subtly varying lengths and details, with their variable military touches (collars, epaulets), in fabrics variously luxe and risqué (from wool boucle to black vinyl so shiny it looks like patent or even latex – rendered with clerical rather than military details, fit for the celebrant of a black mass), those patent leather pilgrim-buckle shoes, the luxurious fabrics themselves, which the film also make a joke of – all connect the worlds of comme il faut with comme ca veut, so to speak; Séverine’s dream world – the masochistic fantasy, the daytime brothel (a fantasy perhaps equally enhanced by Geneviève Page’s innate elegance) – with the quotidian realities of bourgeois households and commercial streets. (Saint Laurent also designed costumes for Resnais’ Stavisky, which – set in a world of 1930s “Biarritz bonheur” – must have been a romp for him.)

Regardless of his inspirations high or low, the best Saint Laurent looks partake of a certain cool elegance – without excessive refinement, a shade more street smart than, say, Givenchy; and with a nod (or slouch) to the specifically Parisian glamour of street and café. It was in its own way a kind of democratization of elegance that American designers – I think Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, particularly; also Marc Jacobs and Stephen Srpouse – would be heavily influenced by. Saint Laurent reached across the Seine to Saint Germain-des-Près and the Quartier Latin only to make his influence felt clear across the East River. If the New York street glamour that is so familiar to us, especially in its downtown incarnations, was a by-product of Warhol’s enterprise, Saint Laurent had already put his finger on it and was ready to turn it into fashion. The kind of street fashion/street glamour that now seems a commonplace everywhere from Manhattan to L.A. (and one of the trademarks of Sex and the City) owes so much to Saint Laurent’s glory days – the days when he segued from couture to the boutique ready-to-wear of the rive gauche stores – the late 1960s and early 1970s when he partied with muses Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux; the time of his fabulously androgynous safari pieces and evening “smoking” ensembles, so memorably photographed by Helmut Newton, among others.

Beyond that, Saint Laurent’s glory was something he shared with other great cultural trend-setters (icons, really) of that particular moment, from rock stars like Dylan, Jagger and the Stones, Lennon-McCartney and the Beatles, the Who, literary lions like Mailer and Vidal; Rudolf Nureyev; to filmmakers like Bergman, Godard, Fellini, Antonioni – a will to turn the mal de siècle into something like a joie de siècle. Saint Laurent embodies something akin to what Susan Sontag ascribed to, among others, Cesare Pavese – the ‘artist as exemplary sufferer’ So much of this period as it transitions into the following decade and the rest of the century is about, not so much idealism, as the failure of idealism. The flip side of Saint Laurent’s glory, the life of urban adventure, of pleasure, that he both sought and embodied, was his intense vulnerability – the ‘demons’ and often painful solitariness of his creative process; the legacy of a shy boy repressed by a colonial bourgeoisie, conventional mores, scarred by the brutality of the military establishment; the demons of his drug addictions. If you look closely enough, you can see it in the clothes (cf., especially, le smoking). Saint Laurent exemplifies the modern creative spirit as simultaneously one of exemplary suffering and exemplary pleasure-seeking. The pleasure is almost a measure of the pain.

One of the first ‘designer’ items I ever purchased for myself (on sale) after college was a pair of Saint Laurent/rive gauche pants, which I wore almost until the fabric was as frail as the lining. They remain the most perfect pair of pants I’ve ever worn (I include the many great pairs of jeans I’ve had over the years). Santayana called dress the "badge of lost innocence" – which doesn’t necessarily imply its opposite, whether an accrual of sophistication, cynicism or wisdom. Saint Laurent’s clothes are nothing if not sophisticated, but they’re much more. There is luxury in the fabric, the cut, drape, fit and details; but that’s only the beginning of their pleasure. The pleasure is in the wearing, even wearing out – a pleasure we pay for dearly; but in the failure of ideals, in the absence of love, it’s sometimes worth protesting our claim on both with the defiance of elegance, the ‘badge’ embodied in, as much as worn on, the sleeve – or the pants or the dress; to stride forward in the face of wisdom and cynicism both, with beauty itself our only shield.