she simultaneously babbles and freezes up around her stunning humming maybe love Jordan Catalano (sumptuous Jared Leto), who sings a bit like Michael Stipe after a toke and wants to make snow in the mountains, his back-up plan if his band, Frozen Embryos, doesn't pan out. To help her deal with making it through the whole day, day after day, Angela has the sweet capable incapabilities of Brian Krakow (Devon Gummersall) and the help of new friends, brave pilgrims, Rayanne Graft (A. J. Langer) and Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz), both of whom are already too well aware of life's quotidian woundings--which they numb with a sip of a silver flask or a smile that is always about to turn into something else entirely--yet still nervously excited by its prospects. Rayanne has done it all, or acts like she has, which might be the surest sign that she soon will, and Ricky knows who is where and WE ASKED 29 TASTEMAKERS TO LOOK BACK AT 1994 AND REMEMBER THE BEST OF WHAT THEY SAW, AND THE WORST. WHAT MATTERED AND WHAT MISSED? IN THE NEXT DOZEN PAGES, CONTRIBUTORS IN FIVE CATEGORIES--EXHIBITIONS, MUSIC, MOVIES, TELEVISION, AND STYLE--PICK THEIR PETS AND PEEVES.
EXHIBITIONS DAVE HICKEY
Make It New
Bruce Nauman retrospective, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles: Bad news from the studio, but real news nevertheless. Twenty-five years of pieces, each of which seems to have arisen out of a condition of sudden panic--out of the terror of not knowing, of having forgotten, willfully, day after day, what art is and what an artist might do--of having forgotten, even, what an artist is. A fountain? A source of mystic truths? A cruel instructor? A tortured clown? We get one brutal, last-ditch guess after another, and the whole practice of "artmaking" is reinvented, again and again, in cold desperation, from ground zero. Eschatological propositions are posed, reposed, and never quite discarded. Death is the mother of beauty? Cruelty is the mother of joy? Slavery is the mother of thought? Clearly, while the best pupils in the class are polishing up their dissertations, Nauman is still trying to form the letters and wondering whether letters are indeed what is required. In the present atmosphere of smug knowledgeability, this doubt-wracked puritanism is as bracing as a sip of kerosene. If nothing else, this exhibition demonstrates the utility of intellectual fashion as a ready foil--as an academic straight man against which Nauman's drastic humanism, redolent as it is with Beckett, Eliot, and Artaud, seems as fresh as a daisy and perfectly au courant, perpetually seeking its end in its beginning--and continuing to begin, again and again.
Made Me Blue
Great. Art triumphs again. The abject body of "struggling humanity" is tarted up in a surfeit of excremental paint, stranded in an ocean of tasteful white space, imprisoned behind a wall of shining glass, and gentrified by a quarter-mile of high-dollar beaux-arts framing--and we are expected to genuflect, fall supine, and hyperventilate with transcendence. Basically, the Lucian Freud retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is the kind of exhibition that gives vulgarity a bad name. At best, it offered the beholder a baleful glimpse into life on the tidal flats of ebbing Modernist culture. But you didn't have to be there. Imagine Andrew Wyeth painting a Francis Bacon and you will get the idea, and it is a stupid idea. I hated this exhibition so much that three-quarters of the way down its intestine of soggy paint, I opted to regurgitate myself, turned upstream against the river of connoisseurs, and made my way out the way I came in. In retrospect, this still seems a wise decision, and the only explanation I can imagine for the exhibition's popularity (aside its being bad enough to recommend blindness) is that New Yorkers do not spend enough time in the art stores of Santa Fe, Scottsdale, and Laguna Beach. Seriously. Stick an abject, painterly feather on one of these dudes and you could move it out of the gift shop in the La Fonda.
Dave Hickey is a critic who teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Maybe I'm a Swiss person trapped in the body of a Baltimorean, but to me Fischli/Weiss (Sonnabend Gallery, New York) are the wittiest artists working today and their March show fooled even some of the so-called "cutting edge." Fischli-Weiss' faux ephemera of an imaginary installation crew (lumber, coffee cups, cleaning supplies, tools) arranged haphazardly in an "empty" gallery (nails from the last show still hung in dirty unretouched white walls) led many art-lovers to turn right around and get back on the elevator. "I went but the show wasn't up yet" became my favorite mistaken review. Little did these unadventurous browsers realize they had just seen the drollest, most deliciously good good-taste exhibition of the year.
If you managed to recognize the polyurethane-painted pieces for what they were--hand-carved sculptures of objects so commonplace as to be almost invisible except for the elegance of everyday dirt and grime--you realized here was irony without Pop, camp, or purposeful bad taste. But after careful observation of these brand-name cleaning supplies, ashtrays, and nondescript boards, you noticed that what looked so delightfully real at first glance wasn't even that well done. These fake "workmen's" wares seemed as if they'd been produced in a hurry, with little care for perfection, almost as if a first attempt at reality was the best Fischli/Weiss could do. You had been fooled by the exquisite bait left behind by these great impostors, but not by their craft, only by their effortless understatement.
"Dali--The Early Years," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I still don't like him much.
John Waters' most recent film, Serial Mom, was released this year.
Here's to the Crabgrass
Suburban themes are proliferating not only in the art world but in the general culture, such as it is--movies, fiction, TV. The message: suburbia in its Beaver Cleaver and Ozzie-and-Harriet moments is merely an epidermis of sham comfort, security, and normality; scratch this fragile outer shell and you "reveal" a seething, teeming cauldron of vices, the Smiths and the Joneses secretly, repressively kicking up a storm with booze and pills and sex and death. In the art world the suburban vortex gets played out by artists as different as Eric Fischl and Robert Gober.
In America, where a lot of us are from suburbia anyway, some of us can't get enough of our putative "bad" reflected images. Others are bored by this subject matter--I am, anyway. The charm of Bill Owens' and Vito Acconci's concurrent shows, though--both at American Fine Arts, New York, photos by Owens from his book Suburbia in the front room, maquettes by Acconci for houses and public spaces in the back--derived from their humor and lack of pretension. Sure, there's a bit of Diane Arbus-like freak-show voyeurism in Owens' photos, but they're still, for many of us at least, discomfitingly close to home. Plus, the photos usually get captions in the subjects' own words; speaking for themselves, these emissaries from the hated world of tackiness are reprieved from a too purely objectlike relationship to the spectator. As for Acconci, folie: a Vegas-style outdoor fountain is illuminated from below in the pattern and colors of the stars and stripes. Three channels of this patriotic canal burst in jets of fountains; the fourth runs off quietly into the gutter.
The art world offers us many examples of the unfortunate, the ill-conceived, the ugly, and the stupid. But with notable exceptions--like Ann Hamilton's Tropos at Dia, a nice setting for the original Saturday Night Live's "Bad Conceptual Art" segment--these crimes against taste, decency, and intelligence soon fade from memory. Basically, who cares? Far more distressing is the case of artists one actually likes/respects/admires doing really awful things. Such was the case with Richard Serra at the Drawing Center last summer--a show bloated on pride and pomposity but devoid of meaningful substance. How many more of those big black oil-stick drawings do we have to see? And this from the great artist who once brought us Hand Catching Lead and TV Delivers You. Sorry, Dick.
David Rimanelli is a regular contributor to Artforum and The New Yorker.
The year's best exhibition? With my memory first grounded in New York, nothing clicked; but then I remembered the happy geographic accident that found me in Copenhagen last June, and a border-crossing ferry ride to Malmo's Rooseum, where the question was answered for me with a eureka: "Andy Warhol's Abstracts." "Best" would have to mean something that opened the eyes, lifted the spirits, and changed history, and this giant slice of unfamiliar late Warhol did all of this. Beginning with something real--tangles of yarn, urine stains, Easter eggs, Rorschach tests, camouflage patterns, shadows--Warhol, with his effortless genius, transformed mundane throwaways into a new language of "found abstraction" that opened startlingly beautiful vistas on both art and art history. Airy and vast, these serial paintings, with their mural dimensions, bowled me over, their one-note vocabularies--ovals, blobs, smudges, filigrees, tangles, blots--rejuvenating through bold magnification the purest pleasure of color, shape, texture. And after the optical shock subsided, there was a brainier pleasure. For with these visual one-liners, Warhol created nothing less than a fresh dictionary of abstract art, reinventing everybody's logo with a sweeping range that covered Joan Miro and Jean Arp, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline, Ellsworth Kelly and even Philip Taaffe. After we've absorbed these works, the history of abstract painting, whether first time round or post-Modern, will have to be rewritten to make a big new space for Warhol.
Mum's the Word
As for the worst show I saw, I forgot most of the candidates' names, and the ones I do remember, some famous, I wouldn't dare disclose in print, since I have to go on living in the art world. But I'd be happy to tell you about them over dinner.
Robert Rosenblum is an art historian and professor of fine arts at New York University. He is most recently the author of Andy Warhol Portraits (Thames and Hudson, 1993).
Seeing the Light
Cy Twombly's retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art makes it clear that he is one of the true greats of 20th-century art--in the same league among gestural painters as Pollock and de Kooning. I single out the exhibition not only as a triumph for an artist but as an exemplary piece of curating. Kirk Varnedoe's selection is challenging and open to criticism, but never ill-considered or facile. His hang is perfect and one of its perfections is that it doesn't call attention to itself. The background colors are right and the lighting good, though the museum lacks the daylight that would bring out all the inner light in Twombly's paintings. And there is no writing on the wall, only in the catalogue, where it is penetrating in content and stylish in formulation.
Temple of Gloom
The biggest let-down of the year for me was the display at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, of "Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Early Modern." In the '60s I was lucky enough to spend many days in the Barnes, in Merion, Pennsylvania; every visit was deeply satisfying, partly because of the absence of people, partly because of the presence of daylight. (On more recent visits I found the electric lights permanently on: madness.)
Arriving at the Kimbell, I gasped anew at the proportions of Louis Kahn's exterior, a great temple. In the exhibition there were joys such as finally getting to see Matisse's Le bonheur de vivre, 1905-6, at eye level. But the selection had disappointments: too many Renoirs of the wrong sorts; my favorite Cezanne in the collection missing (Still Life, 1892-94; Venturi 745). What was really making me peevish, though, was the space. The lighting was poor; the walls were too low, being of travertine their color was disobliging, and the lines of the joins were distracting. I even had the feeling--a feeling one wouldn't ever expect to have about a museum built by Kahn--that as with the Guggenheim, the art should be removed and a new, ritualistic religion invented (something Masonic, perhaps) in order to make proper use of the temple.
David Sylvester's book Looking at Giacometti was published in London in October.
A Good Impression
I choose "The Origins of Impressionism" (the Metropolitan Museum of Art) not for the brilliance of its curatorial strategies, nor for the originality of the conception, but simply for the inventiveness, freshness, and sheer exhilaration of the paintings on view. This is a show about the visual invention of modernity: what it was to be young and alive in mid-19th-century Paris, full of the novelty of the greatest city in the world and the ravishing countryside around it, of the new resorts and their denizens, of new ways of formulating sexuality. And it's all painted in a new visual language that you can see evolving within individual paintings and from painting to painting, within the work of individual artists and among the members of a vigorous artistic community. These paintings are not just origins of a later moment, not just the origins of anything: they are terrific achievements in themselves. I gave a lecture called "Why the 1860s Is the Best Decade of the 19th Century--Or Any Other." It was meant to be a provocative title, to be sure, but it was based on a deeply felt conviction.
I would also like to plug the "Mme. Gres" show at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum as the best sculpture show in town.
I have already said enough about the Lucian Freud show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I reviewed for this journal. Rather than repeat myself, I'll just add that probably quite a few shows were worse, but I didn't really look at them--I stuck my head in and took it out again as fast as possible. I don't remember names or galleries, and even if I did, I don't think I'd want to repeat them; I don't like being unkind to young artists--only to self-important, self-aggrandizing old ones, who can take it.
Linda Nochlin is the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Modern Art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.
John Cage's ever-changing, "Rolywholyover: A Circus" (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, SoHo, New York) was a curator's nightmare and a critic's dream--watching the museum staff gingerly carting work in and out of the galleries throughout its run had a sheer visceral thrill. The mixing of artistic principles with those of the day-to-day world became a kind of constant leitmotif, manifested over and over again in innumerable variations. Cage's theory of chance was conveyed through this project as a kind of natural offshoot of this marriage of art and life, not really as a theory at all. In a sense, "Rolywholyover" wasn't even a survey of Cage's ideas as such, but a template to be brought back out onto the street and applied to the experience of the world outside the museum. If the exchange between art and life has indeed become this century's most meaningful esthetic site, then Cage can posthumously be appreciated as a kind of ecological correction on Marcel Duchamp's art of restraint. Through his example, random acts of generosity may yet find their place in critical theory.
At first I was at a loss to figure out where the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at the Guggenheim went off the tracks. Having been a gung ho Lichtenstein fan for years, I guess I'd managed, like many others, to maintain a state of denial about the fact that most of his recent shows have been packed with filler. The sad part is that this survey appears to have been motivated by the most straightforward of intentions: to keep its subject bobbing along in the tide of public consciousness. But it was scheduled at a moment when the only way Lichtenstein's work changed the pulse rate was through the fear that this 15-year fallow period might turn out to be a deeper rut than he'll be able to paint his way out of. Hanging the show so that one started at the top of the Guggenheim ramp with the recent paintings, then descended to the early work, only intensified the search to pinpoint the last good painting he did. (I'll take Reflections II, 1988.)
Dan Cameron is a New York-based independent curator and a regular contributor to Artforum.
During the first part of 1994 I saw fewer shows than usual: I was at home a lot working on a book about David Salle. But it seems to me that Salle's two January shows--of new paintings and sculptures at the Gagosian gallery, New York, and of mostly older paintings at Mary Boone--together constituted one of last winter's high points. Although he always seems to be having the vapors in print, Salle is in fact in quite vigorous form these days. Despite being labeled an '80s has-been, for instance, he managed to conjure up a scenario wherein two prominent galleries seemed to be competing for him, and his new Early Product paintings were dismissed even by some of his habitual enthusiasts for being too cool and self-possessed: perhaps too successful, in other words. In any case these suave, seemingly impassive pictures were underestimated. The show struck me as a kind of classic valedictory, a grand gesture of passage through which the artist demonstrated his rhetorical techniques while placing himself historically within a context of specific sources and affinities. These are not Salle's most ingratiating works, and they are not his most irritating ones, but in their sangfroid and commanding clarity they are his most public works to date--history paintings, in this sense.
The concurrent opportunity to see a clutch of early-'80s Salle classics at Boone should, on the other hand, have dispelled some of the sentimental nimbus that still lingers over that period of the artist's career, when people seemed either to be rushing off to the barricades "offended" or falling abjectly in love with his tentative, cypherlike nudes. A brooding trio of paintings from 1983, for example, including Man in a Hat, Cane, and Deaf Ugly Face, looked remarkably sharp and fresh for all their introspection; and the infamous Autopsy of 1982 (the painting that first set off feminist alarms) seemed almost academic: an ingenious translation of certain video and performance genres of the '70s--in particular ones largely associated with Bruce Nauman--into a two-dimensional format.
Safer in Numbers
For some reason, I can't seem to remember anything this year that struck me as both awful and significant enough to attack in print. I would, however, like to express some seasonal ire against contemporary-art bashing and the scapegoating of criticism, as both practices have increasingly been manifest in the general press. I am tired of all the creeping punditry by aging oompahs--all that flatulent talk of the emperor and his clothes. After fifteen years of suffering fools in the field, I am reminded of Allen Funt and his old Candid Camera routine: Whatever the season, critical climate or condition of art, someone, somewhere, often late at night at a party when I've least expected it, has walked up to me and--with a piquant-nigh-onto-sultry expression--said to me "Gee, honey, you use such big words." This, dear readers, is the level we're dealing with.
Lisa Liebmann's book David Salle, will appear this month from Rizzoli.
Let's not make this a matter of good or bad. Obviously the worst shows I didn't see at all or walked right through without seeing. The really bad stuff you don't notice unless you force yourself. Your shields are up. So I'd rather deal with the feel-good show of the year and the feel-bad show of the year.
I felt really good at Fischli/Weiss' show at the Sonnabend Gallery. You got off the elevator and the show wasn't there. Or it was there but it was camouflaged. You had to track it down and look hard to find it. The exhibition was disguised as no exhibition, the process of installation was installed, the show was between shows. What you saw was the gallery stripped bare by construction workers who had left their stuff behind. Conceptual trompe l'oeil. Modesty. Humility. Arte povera puttanesca.
Art doesn't play hard-to-get enough these days, but Fischli/Weiss combine elusiveness with congeniality, the perfect combination for fun and cognition. Abstraction is usually a process of elimination; Fischli/Weiss make it a process of realism. By reconciling these traditional poles they are starting art over from scratch. Their ersatz everyday objects are black holes that suck response out of you, suck the meaning out of everything that comes near them. Million-dollar Sheetrock and cigarette butts!
The Barbara Kruger show at Boone was heavy. It made me feel fat. I wondered if maybe I dress a little too much like Jack Webb. I noticed that my feet hurt. I fought against guilt and eventually won. I felt urged toward alienation and it made me want cookies and a hug. Of course these feelings were evoked skillfully; Kruger is a smart cookie. But if she were actually a cookie, if for example she were a Fig Newton or a Prune Pocket or a creme-filled sandwich, she might be thinking about switching from that same old Futura bold italic to Dom Casual or News Gothic or Broadway. You can't live on permanent hard sell anymore than you can live with a permanent hard-on.
I guess Kruger, despite her genius, is not my favorite artist because she's not much fun. It's the same reason I don't listen to a whole lot of Ice Cube or Megadeth. Kruger used to be funny. Now she's just scary in earnest. I wonder if the surgeon general ever thought about putting jokes about smoking on the sides of cigarette packs.
It seems that Kruger has forsaken resonant ironies in favor of a Big Sister Is Watching approach that would be kitsch if you added water. She's become a sort of Stalinist/MacLuhanist ad agency. What saves her work from being bad is that it is well done. It's the best pro bono work out there, except that it probably makes a profit and it may not really be as bono as it looks. It's so unrelenting and accurate and detailed in its depiction of the iconography of evil that it verges on going over to the wrong side, it verges on being fascinated with the style of evil. Sorta like Milton and Satan, you know, or Visconti and Nazi uniforms.
Kruger would be a genius if she would lighten up. She's so solemn and serious and righteous that I wish she'd do some work with Freddy Kreuger. I'd like a little greater range of emotions, technique, and taste. I'd like new typefaces, music, and video. How about working with Beck and Hole. How about being more investigative and less rhetorical. I prefer questions to answers. They give me, the audience, something to do. But that's just how I feel now. I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time. I'd rather be president than right. So sue me. Wait a second. Rereading this it seems to me that I must have liked Barbara Kruger's show a lot. Maybe I was just ticked off there was nothing to buy. Never mind.
Glenn O'Brien is a contributing editor at Allure and creative director of advertising at Barney's, New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.
House Is Where the Heart Is
In a London year not blessed with superlative events, the brightest recollection remains the extended life, into 1994, of Rachel Whiteread's public sculpture House. For those yet untouched by its local notoriety, Whiteread created a concrete cast from the interior of a narrow row house, a last survival of an entire demolished terrace in Bow, in the city's working-class East End. There was a homely degree of sentiment in the fragments of domestic detail imprinted in its surface: traces of paint and wallpaper deflated the sculpture's automatic mimicry of Brutalist extruded forms, a mimicry that in itself recalled a history of poorly judged transformations in the area's urban fabric. At the same time, the sculpture's exposed volume of once-private lives assumed the civic character of sentinel and monument, but one so sensitive to its environment that its quality of presence underwent a fundamental reversal as one moved around it: a romantic monolith when seen against the raw expanse of turf exposed by the destruction of its neighbors; a ghostlike X ray when seen against the dense townscape on the opposite side of the road.
One reward for House's eloquence and dignity was a genuine and steadily growing magnetism for visitors from all over the country. In that context, the local governing council, pontificating in the usual way about the offended esthetic sensibilities of the common man, perpetrated the worst event of the year by finally insisting on the sculpture's demolition. Though not a strict parallel to the fate of Tilted Arc, since the original agreement between artist and council had specified a temporary work, this legal vandalism arose from resentful incomprehension and an attendant wish to frustrate and deny the wide engagement with ambitious work that the piece had opened up. House had won its place in London life, and that alone was grounds for its destruction.
When Whiteread had earlier won the Turner Prize, it was strictly in recognition for her gallery-bound work; but House was on everyone's mind, and its background presence lent the award a reprieve from idleness and self-congratulation. That one glimmer of authenticity was enough to bring on moneyed specialists in corporate detournement to add aid and comfort to the official enemies of the piece on the Bow council. The "K Foundation," opportunistic guise of the hit-it-lucky dance-music producers KLF, used their global takings to stage an award of their own--twice as lucrative as the Turner, and staged with impeccable Situationist iconoclasm--for the "worst" artist of the year. Naturally they made Whiteread their target, and it wasn't only the gutter tabloids that applauded. Britain remains the place where recombinant pastiche, reigning over a digitized cultural economy, can exact its revenge on art.
Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.
Let It Bleed
Put your finger on the problem; tap the phobia; feel the malaise; work the twisted, sordid junk--the oppression, the pain--we all carry around with us. Feed off it. Fetishize it. Flaunt it. Make no apologies for your difference, but don't claim privilege because of it either. Make it into art.
That's the way Cady Noland's work (Paula Cooper Gallery, New York) functions for me: no smarmy appeals to conscience; no heroic acts of salvation; no trumped-up aura of righteous transcendence (downright spooky in work that purports to be socially engaged). In Noland's deft portrayal of tabloid Americana, the "cult of the artist" mumbo jumbo that corrupts socially engaged art is mercifully absent. Noland drops from the picture entirely; the only reflection of autobiography we encounter is our own. No one asks us to care, either about the plight of the individuals represented in the work (Wilbur Mills, the Manson girls, troubled celebrities, "poster people") or about the artist. Such concrete realism paves the way to interpretative largesse. Put yourself inside the frame--literally, in one of the stockade sculptures--or muse from a safe distance on the media's power to commodify human suffering. Shake your head at the condition of American culture or see your own reflection in it. Subjective engagement is deregulated: you're on your own.
A Lean and Hungary Look
The award for the worst form of social-esthetic dysfunctionalism goes to Andres Serrano (Paula Cooper Gallery), who traveled to Eastern Europe (or should we say to Europe's "third world"). His mission: to exoticize, patronize, and exploit. In earlier series--those of the morgue, for example, or of the homeless--Serrano has displayed his attraction to severely marginalized people, but his colonizing impulses in the name of the father have never been so apparent as in the "Budapest" series. Life-size scale and luscious color animate his subjects, but his approach is blatantly an orientalizing one: first, cast people in genre roles; second, portray them as quaint, or freakish, or purely sexualized objects. We are given the soldier, the sailor, the bathers, the elderly couple, the mother, the child, and so on, but in each case the "genre" is overwhelmed by prurient interest and presented as spectacle: the mother is a vision of enormous tits; the elderly couple, a mesmerizing display of sagging flesh; the little girl sits in a masturbatory position, a pedophile's delight. Serrano affects a cross between old master painting, National Geographic, and Hustler, which would be fine but for the pretense that his work is unblemished by voyeurism or libido--an excruciatingly boring denial, particularly when mobilized in the name of "art."
A Sigh for a Cy
If there were a word for those deep sighs of relief and release that erupt spontaneously after the successful completion of necessary physical and mental exertions--whether athletic, sexual, or esthetic--that word would describe the feeling that Cy Twombly has created and induced for some forty years now. Twombly has taken up and extended the frantic impurities that Willem de Kooning first imposed upon abstraction. He has turned the sublime into the scatological, and vice versa. His exuberant writerliness, which at once reveres and reviles Jackson Pollock, kept drawing viscerally alive on painting's surface during a period when the acts of the hand were elsewhere being severely disciplined or forbidden. He disrupted abstraction's proclivities toward hermetic homogeneity with a kind of discursive and disjunctive narrativeness.
Together with his drawing wizardry, this has made his work critical to a wide spectrum of artists. Twombly may well have supplanted Jasper Johns as a paradigm for emerging painters. But all of this dissolves in the exhilarating rush of visual intelligence that Twombly's joys and furies of paint have induced each time I have seen his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
So, if I now write that the Twombly exhibition was also the worst that I saw in the last year, it is to bemoan the exhibition's incompleteness. As beautifully selected as the individual paintings largely are, I regret the sparse selection of drawings, when drawing has obviously been such a critical and beautiful part of Twombly's undertaking. And as wonderful as the year 1961 was for Twombly, could we not have had fewer paintings from that year and seen some of those later dark-green paintings suggesting drifting shards of Courbet landscapes (shown at the Venice Biennale in 1988), and the still darker and more disturbing ones shown later that year at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh? Have these works been banned from Twombly's career? If so, why? In New York, we still don't know enough about Twombly's work of the last decades (certainly the 50-foot painting shown concurrently with the MOMA retrospective at the Gagosian Gallery was a big help, and provided an unanticipated but profound coda). Rather than a retrospective, this became a curatorial selection. What we need is a full retrospective and more Twombly in New York.
Klaus Kertess is a writer and adjunct curator of drawing at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. He will curate the 1995 Whitney Biennial.
Rousing opening number: 11 months ago Los Angeles rang in the new year with a magnitude-6.7 earthquake. Amazingly, the local art scene managed to sleep through it. Artistically speaking, 1994 has dragged out like one long snore, giving new meaning to the phrase "beauty rest."
Most of the highs: groups--ones that play music, that is. Art bands, once a cringe-worthy label, have been reinvigorated locally by such outfits as Polar Goldie Cats, Mythter, and Liquor Cabinet, who perform regularly at popular hideaways like Three Day Weekend (which mounts exhibitions only when Monday's a day off). In the spring, down the street from Three Day Weekend yet worlds apart, the Museum of Contemporary Art was taking beginners' lessons from Felix Gonzalez-Torres on how to act with the level sociability incumbent upon a truly public institution. Meanwhile across town, the small, embattled literary-arts center Beyond Baroque was screening a short film by newcomer Anna Biller, Three Versions of Myself as Queen. A fairy-tale adaptation of feminist realpolitik, the film's humor and graceful perplexity may not have caused any sudden shifts in the local fault lines but did crack a glorious smile on this audience member's face.
Some of the lows: Catherine Opie, and the wave of hype she rode in on. Her show of photographic portraits at Regen Projects over the summer was one of the most acclaimed of the year, which only goes to show what a lousy year it was. The power of Opie's work can be credited entirely to her subject--pierced and tattooed bull dykes, transsexuals, cross-dressers, and gender-benders, scouts pondering the frontier of identity--yet this power is registered only by how the photographs shrink from it, how their expressivity nervously alternates between timid reticence and heavy-handed outbursts. The pictures look like they were made by a DMV photographer on assignment for iD magazine. Opie faithfully adopts the sober conventions of mug shots and official portraiture, but, as if to hedge her bets, she also tries to spice the images by using loud monochrome backdrops and, most annoyingly, a fish-eye lens, which pushes and pulls at her scenes, making some sitters lean too far back while others jut their faces out at the viewer. The delicacies of pride spiked with vulnerability, of teasing, challenge, and seduction, are bludgeoned into either smug self-satisfaction or arrogant confrontation. Seldom has drag come across as, well, such a drag.
Also a drag: group shows, fast becoming the most hateful exercise in the art world. They're now used solely as occasions for either turf seizures by petty cliques or delusional pseudoscholarly expositions. Often they're both at once. It's getting to the point where it seems there's little joy left in belonging to a group of any kind, unless, of course, it's got a beat.
A new year's resolution: that in '95, we finally get the art world to rock.
Lane Relyea lives in Los Angeles and reviews regularly for Artforum.
MUSIC HOWARD HAMPTON
We'll Always Have Paris
Lourdes, 8 July 1940: a refugee sensing fate closing in around him, Walter Benjamin writes Hannah Arendt and ruefully quotes an aphorism that will shortly be an epitaph: "His laziness supported him in glory for many years in the obscurity of an errant and hidden life." "This ain't Paris," mutters Babylon Dance Band singer Chip Nold on the group's belated debut (Matador), "It's not the 19th century." This incandescent one-shot reunion recorded over a decade after their break-up offers "errant and hidden life" as pure revel (and reverie). Desperation is Nold's text, mode, salvation: singing as someone who may never get another chance to be heard, he turns every phrase into final reckoning, secret glory. With Tara Key orchestrating the songs at once as guitar goddess and one-woman answer to Phil Spector (taking BACK TO MONOTHEISM for her jealous motto), things like "Golden Days" and the rocket-from-the-cryptic "All Radical" invoke the heresy that rock 'n' roll should be impassioned, thrilling, unreconciled. A strange alchemy is at work here: with each sordid detail and doomed wish, the group builds a Paris of their own, brick by clamorous brick.
Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador), the long-awaited breakthrough: music to do Cultural Studies by, or more proof that post-Modernism recapitulates Invasion of the Body Snatchers as social blueprint. Less music per se than an infinitely pleasant miasma of received gestures--"The Sound of Silence" reharmonized by Fredric ("Freddie's Dead") Jameson and Andrew ("Andy Fell") Ross, with a pinch of Suzi Quatro's "Lacan the Lacan" for luck--Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain shows that all those years these KMart/K-Tel Bartlebys spent toiling in the bowels of R.E.M.'s Dead Letter Office really paid off. At last the art-punk legacy, passed down from Wire to Sonic Youth, has come to this: refusal made over into swankly skanky Muzak, stasis camouflaged as flux, Dada rolling over and playing d-d-dead. "It was all very, very painless," Dylan said once upon a time in the basement, but now no more tears or (perish the thought!) rage, just boundless apathy. The 1968 student slogan went "Beneath the Pavement, the beach"; but like Buddy Holly sneered in The Searchers, "That'll be the day."
Howard Hampton writes for Film Comment and is working on Badlands: A Psychogeography of the Reagan Era for Harvard University Press.
Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. With damaged guitars and tube amps, these fresh-faced boys crammed more musical samples into one record than De La Soul. An analogue pomo masterpiece. One of the few '90s records that asserted its timelessness on the first spin.
Frank Black, "Calistan," from Teenager of the Year. A thematic follow-up to "Los Angeles" from his eponymous debut, Mr. Black continues his time travels through the days of future past in the city of angels, Philip K. Dick in Mike Davis' City of Quartz. "Used to be sixteen lanes/Used to be Nuevo Spain/Used to be Juan Wayne/Used to be Mexico/Used to be Navajo/Used to be yippy-ay-I-don't know."
Guided By Voices, Bee Thousand. Gorgeous pop songs pumping through the blown woofers of a ghetto blaster down the hall from your room.
Stereolab, Mars Audiac Quintet. Standing next to Graduate-era Dustin Hoffman while coasting on an electric walkway through the airport in The Jetsons.
Jeru the Damaja, The Sun Rises in the East. With The Sun Rises in the East, GangStarr's Hard to Earn, and Buckshot LeFonque, a collaboration with Branford Marsalis--all released in '94--DJ Premier's gritty, "found sound" production and turntable wizardry set a new standard for "real" hip-hop. He's the star here, but Jeru's politically-conscious-yet-hardcore rhymes and antigangsta stance make him a welcome heir to KRS-ONE's throne.
R.E.M., "King of Comedy," from Monster. On an otherwise strong album, the usually intelligent Michael Stipe bleats "I'm not commodity" repeatedly, betraying an ultranaif understanding of pop-cultural production and making us wish he still mumbled the lyrics. Kurt Cobain's "Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm bored and old" was more like it.
Hammer, The Funky Headhunter. In which the former dancing fool in genie pants stopped cavorting for KFC and morphed into a mack daddy gangsta, a media illusion that would have shocked Guy Debord.
Offspring, Smash. Unlike Pearl Jam clones Stone Temple Pilots, Offspring at least had the courtesy to wait until after Cobain's death to release their shameless "Teen Spirit" knock-off. As bad as "alternative" gets.
Rolling Stones, Voodoo Lounge. Another spurt of aggressive mediocrity from these dusty vampires. Unfortunate by-products are the brought-to-you-by-Budweiser tour, the MTV minimovie "Love is Strong, or Leathery Dinosaurs Battle Horse-faced Supermodels over Manhattan," and creeping embarrassment over my affection for Exile on Main St.
Ice Cube, Lethal Injection. A lazy cop-out from a previously incisive rapper, whose internal contradictions made his earlier records compelling and tense. Cube replaces his angry schizophrenia with blunt extremes--stoned gangsterisms and Nation of Islam cant--laid over substandard G-funk beats heisted from his former NWA partner Dr. Dre. A study in how leaders become lemmings in service of the almighty dollar.
Andrew Hultkrans is a writer and former managing editor of Mondo 2000. He lives in San Francisco.
DIEDRICH DIEDERICHSEN AND JUTTA KOETHER
Since we probably couldn't decide among Silver Jews, Warren G., Chuck Dukowski's United Gangmembers, Mutter, Pavement, and Gastr Del Sol for best record of the year, the best record for us isn't the single best achievement but the record that best represents the best: the new hipness of abstract 'n' roll in general; the Drag City label's continuation of the SST tradition of label politics as the driving force of musical development in general; the triumphant return of Mayo Thompson's Red Krayola as a supergroup featuring both artists (Albert Oehlen, Stephen Prina) and musicians (Gastr Del Sol's D. Grubbs, Overpass' Tom Watson); a new discovery in avant-garde rock, Gastr Del Sol; the most surprising songwriter group, Silver Jews; the new sensitive/autistic darlings of college radio, Smog; the bizarre Mantis; and more, very promising newcomers. All these achievements, surprises, and developments are represented on Hey Drag City (Drag City Records) by small selections for the most part otherwise unavailable. The label's past has already become history, and continues into its present. After recording a terrific version of "Delta 88," Royal Trux may have left the label for which they long were figureheads and gone to the majors, but in the meantime Will Oldham of the Palace Brothers has so much aura that even Nick Cave has been seen watching him from the front row.
Oasis's, Definitely Maybe (Sony) is not the worst (because there's a world of bad records out there that we have nothing to do with) but the most flawed record, the one we would have wished had been sensational. For a decade now, the U.S. has ruled through hip-hop and avant-rock, and techno is a worldwide international phenomenon. Meanwhile British pop produces only a hype a year--it's a genre as exhausted as the madrigal. Oasis has been praised as the best of this broken British pop, a blend of the Beatles and the Sex Pistols. But they actually sound more like a mix of early rave and James with a much-too-solid rock production. Next to this, some of their feeble predecessors in the hype mode seem like deserving cult bands. Pity: we would have been happy with a band able to move ambivalence into quivering, powerful ecstasy, as the record's title implies. Unfortunately Oasis is neither ambivalent nor powerful. In New York, they're playing not arenas but midsized clubs, while the people their record was made for are probably buying Who anniversary CD compilations.
Diedrich Diederichsen is a critic living in Cologne, and the author of Freiheit macht arm, 1993, published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch. Jutta Koether is an artist and critic living in Cologne.
Lords of Jungle
Jungle is all the rage in London: from every other car and boutique you hear its febrile beats, rumblin' bass, and insolent ragga chat. Now that the sound has broken into the mainstream, most people equate jungle with dancehall reggae-influenced hits like Shy FX & UK Apachi's "Original Nuttah." I prefer the sub-genre of ambient jungle, because it's at once more experimental and more melodic.
"Renegade Snares (Foul Play Remix)" (Moving Shadow, import) unites my two fave a-j artists, Omni Trio and Foul Play, who pull off the remixer's miracle of making a perfect original even more sublime: somehow they manage to extract even more searing/soaring orgasmitude out of Omni's arrangement of soul-diva spasms and mellotronic synth-swoops. The drum-and-bass undercarriage is based around a break beat so crisp and fierce it's like a cross between James Brown's "Funky Drummer" and an Uzi. What I really love about ambient jungle, though, is its sentimentality--the gushing tenderness of the voices, the tingly, almost-twee piano motifs--and the way that fits the huggy, open-hearted poignancy of the Ecstasy experience. Strangely, and thankfully, people continue to make this kind of music even though the luv'd-up E-vibe has disappeared from British clubland, replaced by a sullen aloofness.
Boys in the Band
The chorus of the would-be anthem by These Animal Men, prime movers in the Brit-scene "New Wave of New Wave," goes "This is the sound of youth today" (Hi-Rise, import). The pat rebuttal would be "No, this is the sound of youth yesterday"--specifically of youth 1966, or worse, its charmless replay in 1979's mod revival. But what really unnerves me about These Animal Men--and the same goes for the U.S. pop punk of Green Day--is that this is the first time rock revivalism has gotten around to exhuming something I lived through as a late-'70s just-missed-punk adolescent. I've always hated those old fogies who greet each new band with a cynical "seen it all before"; now I find myself one, as kids half my age pogo.
Still, everything about "This Is the Sound of Youth" is a tale thrice told and stingless. From the band's legs-akimbo stage leaps, windmilling Pete Townshend power chords, and speed-freak stares to the video's boys-will-be-boys plotline (the band as ten-year-old schoolkids throwing paper pellets at girls and checking their wrinkly old school ma'am), this is prehistoric stuff: a willful flight from all the things that make '90s pop exciting (samplers, remixology, women's ferocity), a retreat into a Luddite, homosocial nostalgia.
Simon Reynolds lives in London and New York. His book The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n' Roll, cowritten with Joy Press, is due out in March from Harvard University Press.
FILM RICHARD FLOOD
Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs was a perfect little movie. It aspired to nothing that it didn't do, brilliantly. Tarantino knew how to keep the camera moving while the actors tossed their lines like they were grenades; he fast-forwarded the gangster genre way past the previous innovations of Brian DePalma and Martin Scorsese. Reservoir Dogs was wildly funny, unremittingly brutal, and heroically human. It also knew how to stay small while trying out some big ideas.
Pulp Fiction is an imperfect big movie. But imperfection has seldom felt so liberatingly giddy. The elliptical storytelling is cinematic in a way that hasn't been much in evidence since Orson Welles left Hollywood in 1958 after completing his perfect little movie Touch of Evil. I don't mean Tarantino is another Welles; Welles made movies like nobody before him and Tarantino makes movies like everybody before him. Barely a frame of Pulp Fiction whizzes by without a kiss or a hug for some preexisting celluloid something-or-other. Yet Tarantino's delirious references and cockeyed quotations go beyond pastiche into a territory of hip damnation and salvation that is brand new.
Tarantino's casting is revelatory, particularly as regards John Travolta and Bruce Willis, whose preexisting flat-lined personas he makes seem karmic rehearsals for Pulp Fiction. There are also sensational performances by Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel, and Ving Rhames. I am personally indebted to Tarantino for finally doing something interesting with Uma Thurman, who is right up there with Charlotte Rampling and Dominique Sanda in the movie pantheon of slightly off gorgeousness. Typically, while Tarantino gives Thurman a career-defining role, he turns her into one more homage, this time to Jean-Luc Godard's most glamorous muse, Anna Karina.
The nagging doubt about Pulp Fiction's greatness comes from its self-aware contextualization within film history. I have no doubt that Tarantino is concerned with issues of despair and redemption, but sometimes it's hard to separate the text from the footnotes.
Mazeppa, which won the Prix Technique at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, is a fabulous mess. Reviewing it in the Times when it played for a nanosecond in New York, Stephen Holden referenced such excessives as Federico Fellini, Peter Greenaway, and Ken Russell. He could have thrown in Georges Franju, Alexandro Jodorowsky, and Erich von Stroheim, all of whom are to blame and to applaud for this crazed wank of a film. The director, Bartabas, has clearly been dying to make a movie for a long time. The result is a torrent of incredible images scurrying around in search of a raison d'etre. The funny thing is that it almost doesn't matter whether or not they do.
Very loosely, the film imagines that the painter Gericault apprentices himself to the impresario of an equestrian troupe. (Bartabas himself cofounded an equestrian circus.) Painter and horseman then engage in a sadomasochistic struggle that destroys them both. And then there are the horses--rivers and garlands and constellations of horses. The images of the animals are ecstatic and liberating. The human story is an annoying formal construct.
What I love about Mazeppa is that it got made, and that the best of Bartabas' vision is now a part of me. I wish the director had made a film that felt more necessary. Nonetheless, a failure like Mazeppa is an act of extreme grace, and I remain dazzled by the height from which it fell.
Richard Flood is a writer and the chief curator of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Don't you just hate it when everyone agrees with you about a film? A sure sign something's wrong, it means the country is ahead of the curve, or you're behind it. Either way, things are not good. Especially if you make your living writing about the movies.
So I was shocked to find myself extolling the merits of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino's exhilarating story of misfits and madmen, which I was sure was too grizzly for mass consumption. While it does contain a splendid performance by John Travolta (forget that white suit--when Travolta gets up to dance with Uma Thurman, he's sexier and more natural than he's ever been, which ain't easy when you're twenty pounds overweight and have long greasy hair hanging down your back), I couldn't imagine the multiplexes loaded with fans on a Saturday night.
But there they were, laughing at the right places, hiding their eyes only once or twice (which is de rigueur in any film by Tarantino), talking endlessly about which scene was out of sequence and which character out of luck.
It was enough to make me go see Forrest Gump, which I had studiously avoided all summer because everyone--my mother, my friends, one of my cynical editors--was raving. They were Gumped, and sure I would be too. Words like "sweet" and "life-affirming" were bandied about. It was enough to make a girl retch.
But Tom Hanks is irresistible, even though he did such a lousy job in Bonfire of the Vanities and hadn't redeemed himself in Philadelphia. (Don't be so politically correct: if Philadelphia were the story of an average AIDS patient, the guy would have died alone, without health insurance, and no smiling Joanne Woodward to cheer him up. But I digress.) So I went.
They say if you remember the '60s, you weren't there. Which is totally untrue: you just remember it with better colors. So while Hanks as a retarded guy (Don't you mean mentally impaired? Intellectually challenged? No, I mean retarded) was reeling from one situation to the next, acting cute and oblivious, changing the outcome of elections, wars, and his girlfriend's life, I was horrified. If they want to screw around with the images of Kennedy, LBJ, and Nixon, who am I to quibble? But when they portray John Lennon as an empty vessel who gets the words to "Imagine" from this dolt, then someone has to stand up and say "Enough."
Life is like a box of chocolates? Whose life? For that matter, whose chocolates? Nah, life is really more like a Quentin Tarantino movie: you'll certainly die in the end, but maybe you'll get in a few belly laughs along the way.
Martha Frankel is a contributing editor of Movieline.
"It doesn't have any soul," a friend complained about Natural Born Killers, but if it did it'd be unwatchable--in fact the one killing that hurts, the first, Mickey gunning down the terrified, pleading waitress for no reason on earth,
almost upends the movie, almost poisons the pleasure you might take from it after the fact. Still, nothing really gets in the way of the torrent of amazements that drives the picture, most notably the horrible little sitcom where Rodney Dangerfield makes a perfect family monster without changing an eyelash of his stand-up act. Still, that doesn't make Natural Born Killers the year's best anymore than the lifeless Quiz Show was the worst.
There's something enormously appealing about watching Keanu Reeves be competent; as in Point Break, in Speed there's nothing natural about his movements, no grace. He seems to earn the right to get from one place to another, and for most of the film his cop is trying to keep up less with Dennis Hopper's fiend than with Sandra Bullock's citizen bus-driver. Sure, it's Die Hard on a bus, but the Die Hard movies were wonderful (with the villain in Die Harder based hard and fast on Oliver North--where are the movies when we really need them?), even if Bruce Willis was the only good guy who ever got to kill anybody (except for the blond avenger shot by the black cop at the end of number one). In Speed there's an economy of violence that's also a democracy of heroism. Plus, a surprise ending: how many people even knew there was a subway in Los Angeles? (There isn't, yet: this fall, construction on the L.A. Metroline was stopped when it caused the partial collapse of nine blocks of the Walk of Fame.)
I can't decide what was worse about the arrogance of True Lies: the idea that there might be something titillating about watching Jamie Lee Curtis gyrate in a thong, or the notion that a gun falling down steps would wipe out a platoon of bad guys without any need of direct human agency (sufficient that, having last been touched by a good guy, it was therefore blessed)--a notion that might forever discredit all interestingly unbelievable stunts, even in retrospect (Richard Burton diving from one airborne cable car to another in Where Eagles Dare). Having given Arnold Schwarzenegger his comeuppance for The Last Action Hero, critics felt the need to rehabilitate him this time around, as if they'd proved their power and would now do it again, like the congressional Democrats who rushed to prop up Ronald Reagan after Iran-Contra broke. But they won't have to pay to see True Lies Too.
Greil Marcus is a contributing editor and monthly columnist for Artforum. He recently completed The Dustbin of History, a collection of essays to be published in 1995 by Harvard University Press.
A friend of mine describes Pulp Fiction as Jean-Luc Godard's first commercial hit, an appraisal I can only second, the question then becoming: why this movie, why Quentin Tarantino, why now? Though all its component parts seem to have been hijacked from somewhere else (to the point where Tarantino has to be considered not just the Godard du jour but the Philip Johnson of Hollywood), Pulp Fiction has broken the mold that all Hollywood product has been cast in since Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, and the other key narratives of neonoir. You can love Tarantino or despise him or just have serious problems with the gaping hole in the middle of his work where the humanity should be, but films will look different and feel different after Pulp Fiction. And where movies are concerned, the nothing you don't know is always more interesting than the nothing you do.
Ed Wood is a drastic enlargement of Tim Burton's range. Superficially sweet, it's actually as harsh and sardonic as Douglas Sirk or Werner Rainer Fassbinder. It's certainly the first Disney blockbuster that deals--unrelentingly--with mediocrity, delusion, and failure. Because Burton refuses to despise his characters, or kill them off in explosions, some people think it's less significant than Pulp Fiction. I disagree.
Michael Tolkin's New Age is an ambitious film that occasionally seems to get oversaturated by its digressions, but what is remarkable about Tolkin's work is a restless and even tortured attention to the divagations of the soul in a spiritual desert. Tolkin is the only American director working near the level of Paolo Pasolini and of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, and the problem he sets himself is how to bring these concerns to a narrative that will both deliver the goods and sell enough tickets to let him keep working. New Age should have done that for him, and for reasons I can't account for, it didn't, at least not as much as it should have. The acting's great, the film looks wonderful, and it really is funny.
Of Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers): the less said the better. He epitomizes everything he despises. Period.
Hal Hartley (Amateur) is masturbation on stale toast.
The Last Seduction is the ugliest portrait of a female since Picasso's classical period. Your basic HBO after-school special. Some perky dialogue, though.
That French thing by the bisexual guy who died of AIDS.
Gary Indiana's third novel, Rent Boy, was published recently by Serpent's Tail/High Risk Books of New York and London.
Given that it's an undistributable 7 1/2 hours long, you can thank your local film festival (or not) for an opportunity to see Satantango, Bela Tarr's bleakly comic allegory of social disintegration on the muddy Hungarian puszta. Simplest put, Satantango is a characteristically East European tale of hapless peasants and charismatic swindlers who choreograph nature (rain, mist, wind) as a presence. The movie is a double tour de force--for the actors, as the camera circles them in lengthy continuous takes, and for Tarr, who constructs his narrative out of these morose blocks of real time. The final shot, in which one character boards up his window, provides a superbly materialist fade-out.
Satantango has fewer shots than the average 90-minute feature, and two hour-long chunks of it would be remarkable movies in their own right. In one, a fat, drunken doctor spies on his neighbors and takes notes like a character in an Alain Robbe-Grillet novel, runs out of booze, and makes an epic trek through torrential rain to get another bottle; in another, a ten-year-old girl poisons a cat and then herself. The dance that gives the movie its title is a remarkable composition in repetitive ranting, drunken strutting, and befuddled dancing to the same mind-breaking musical loop. After everyone collapses, the accordionist finishes all their drinks and pukes (offscreen). Despair has never been more voluptuously precise. Not until halfway through the movie is it apparent that much of the action is unfolding simultaneously.
Sound Bite Nation
Where Satantango opens a chasm in your life, Forrest Gump drills a hole in your head. There's an undeniable kick to the idea of the Boomerography as a tale told by an idiot, but it pales long before this interminable, mawkish saga ever reaches Vietnam.
It's fitting that Forrest Gump would explain its hero's lineage by quoting The Birth of a Nation, our first and most amazing attempt sentimentally to reconfigure in celluloid a traumatic national past. When not reduced to sound bite or bumper sticker slogan, history is understood here mainly as old movies (livened with old music).
A mixture of insistent innocence, unremitting solipsism, and allegiance to the eternal verities has elevated Forrest Gump from marketing triumph to the fifth-highest-grossing film ever released in the U.S. (and quickly closing in on number four). Hailed by Pat Buchanan as "a morality play, where decency, honor and fidelity triumph over the values of Hollywood," the movie--which ends more or less at the moment that Ronald Reagan becomes president--demonstrates that you would need an IQ of 75 to obliterate the lessons of the past forty years.
J. Hoberman writes on film for The Village Voice. His column "American Myths" appears regularly in Artforum.
TV MARK VAN DE WALLE
Shoe First, Ask Questions Later
The screen is on, it's flickering, making a blur of static. It's watching. Nixon dreamed of this: a TV that would watch you while you were watching it, and even when you had turned it off. It's not clear whether or not he achieved this dream; they say not, but who knows? William Burroughs knows. Because now the static is cleared, and a screen falls out of the sky, and Burroughs is there, inside the box inside the box. He is watching you watching him. Now listen: Burroughs is talking.
He says, "Technology exists to free the body, not to enslave the mind." Then he disappears and there's a stream of quick-cut scenes of people whose bodies have been made free by technology. They are running, jumping, skiing, flying. They are throwing it down with authority. They are making the sign of the Nike swoosh. Now Bill Burroughs is telling us that technology has "carried their bodies farther, faster, higher than ever before." You can tell this is true, because they are inside all our boxes, inside big screens, medium screens, itty-bitty screens across the country--they are everywhere at the same time. Technology has freed them from the need for a body, and if you are lucky, and you buy the shoe, you can be free too.
So clearly you need that shoe. Burroughs understands this, the man who posited a world where the only ethical question is "Wouldn't you?," a world where the only answer is "Of course you would. You'd do anything, you really would." If Nike asked you to do a commercial, hawk shoes with your flat Midwestern twang, and your outlaw's mien--you'd do it. And it'd be beautiful, the most beautiful thing on TV ever, it really would. Air Junkies: the shoe to wear when you need to score.
Phair Is Foul
But now the commercial is over, and a video comes on, and it has to be Liz Phair, because Liz Phair is everywhere, on heavy rotation on everything all the time; you can't go anywhere without Liz already being there. Liz is wearing the cool girls' uniform: a sort-of-'70s, sort-of-post-grunge look. The song is okay, like Suzanne Vega on fuzz box. In the post-mega-alternative world it is at last possible for folk and punk to mate and produce offspring just like Liz Phair. Liz is playing guitar, which, in the age of grrrl rock, is extremely cool as well: the guitar is a sign that the woman playing it is empowered by her desires. Liz can't play it very well, but that's missing the point, which is that she has desires at all. And talks and sings about them to boot.
This is exciting for, apparently, everyone, but mostly for rock critics, a mostly male, notoriously nerdy bunch. Men have never believed that women want it too, so when a woman admits to suffering from desire, just like them, they get all excited, even if the song is lame. Primarily because they think it means they might finally get laid. Women, who have always known that they want it too, say, "Shit. If I had known I could get rich and famous just because I said I liked to fuck too, I'd have done it years ago. PJ Harvey kicks Liz Phair's ass anyway." Which is true, but PJ's not as cute, and therefore not as user-friendly, so we're stuck with Liz. Lame as that might be.
Mark Van de Walle is the media/culture editor of THE magazine. He reviews regularly for Artforum from Santa Fe.
Can We Talk?
Hypothesis: the sheer weirdness of Joan and Melissa Rivers healing themselves after Edgar's suicide with a mother-daughter, made-for-TV movie (Tears and Laughter) as therapy was so out there it broke some kind of art-life continuum and propelled Joan literally out there into some kind of cosmic media black hole. Just last May, the woman ruled as a quadruple threat: starring to rave review on Broadway, in Sally Marr and her Escorts, as a serious actress (a lifelong dream for her, I kvelled), hosting not one but two daily TV shows (The Joan Rivers Show and Can We Shop?), and kicking major tuchas as a successful faux-jewelry-designer-slash-entrepreneuress on QVC. Then pouf--all of a sudden--in the space of like one week--the Broadway show, gone; the TV shows, also gone; like a comet, she's in outer orbit. Something's strange.
Bad Brain Day
Roseanne: The Unauthorized Biography may have been the first-ever made-for-TV movie in which the actors were actually worse-looking than the people they played in real life. This significant inversion of the usual mechanism of glamorization symptomatizes the resentment of anti-Roseannes unable to accept the truly subversive strategy with which she has worked her nonglamour to exert supreme power over the socius, becoming glamorous on her own terms, i.e., as a soothsaying increasingly well-styled fatty. Even to this fan of anything Roseanne, the movie was so tedious I could hardly watch. I mention it not to revive its lame memory but because I believe it may qualify as a rare instance of poetic justice intervening in the real. I actually felt sorry for that actress Denny Dillon--her big break after distinguishing herself by her squealy voice in a run of failed '70s TV shows turned out to be a big flop. As a fan of the First Amendment as well as of catty celebrity gossip, I eagerly consume "unauthorized" bios, but either everyone involved with this production suffered from a group bad-brain day--or maybe Roseanne really is a good witch.
Rhonda Lieberman is a writer and critic who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her column "Glamour Wounds" appears regularly in Artforum.
My teenage girlhood was thwarted, because I went to an all-boys high school and remained a boy. It would be years before I learned frock knowledge, femme dominance, and pussy-whipping, all of which by that time would have little to do with girlhood. What I did learn was that the hallways of high school were never really filled with boys or girls but with waiting and distraction that had decided to look just like them. Watching Angela Chase (the amazing Claire Danes) in My So-Called Life (ABC) brings back teenage girlhood as if it were a language I had forgotten I'd known. Angela waits for something to happen and when it does it's not what she's been waiting for, she's distracted by thinking about what it means, a threadbare shirt or someone's enthralling slouch, she confronts who she cares about most, often by saying nothing; she dyes her hair and practices saying hi, she partakes of the rite of coffee,