Your painting is a permanent presence in my life, and I don’t mean I carry it with me from place to place. I glance at it throughout the day. I notice it from across the room, like we’re at a party and the magic is still there, the silver thread is stretched taut. I don’t want to overanalyze the sensation; the painting doesn’t stare back. Even if you do believe eye contact is possible with the Mona Lisa, this one won’t return your gaze. It’s a painting of a torso.
How could you know about my dealings with your painting? You can’t monitor these interactions from Toronto. I wonder if you even consider how many of your works are viewed regularly and how many remain in bubble wrap somewhere; how many hang from a wall and how many are tucked away in storage. What do people get up to once they’ve purchased your work? Does it matter?
I stuck your painting on the wall behind the teetering stack of books I call a standing desk. I’m not exaggerating when I say I feel its presence every day. It moves into my line of vision and recedes. The painting remains static; I flit and shuffle paper.
The painting presents a rougher, more elusive version of the world than I see in the other line drawings and photos on my wall, which all look less vigorous and vital in comparison. Nothing matches the torso’s calm. Feel free to write back and fully explain its power.
I tried to gather some calm from it yesterday as builders attacked the apartment upstairs throughout the morning until I finally heard the sweep of plaster flakes, and, in the quiet of the afternoon, made a call to the woman who owns the place, whose young son had held a drunk-teen party up there a couple nights before the builders showed. While I spoke to her, I stood at my desk, tapping my fingers on the book stack, staring at your painting, as she told me: ‘Look. I’m trying to be a good mother and a good tenant.’
I was staring without seeing, a way of lightly interacting with art – staring and meditating and resting on its familiarity. As I spoke to her, I didn’t see anything new, but sometimes details reassert themselves in these moments. It depends on the time, the light and who is on the other end of the phone. ‘I didn’t know he collapsed in the lobby,’ she said.
Sometimes I look at the whole image; sometimes at the strokes of paint, the greys and the brown of the skin. Hopefully I draw from it something other than formal beauty, a lesson connected to its creative origins, from your rigor as an artist. The lesson is simple: Remember to do the work. Fill the canvas, every bit of the canvas, or choose not to fill it. There’s a blank spot on the bottom right corner of the painting, but that’s a choice, right? The corner is a reminder, to me, that there must be a point when you walk away, when the work is done, the plaster gets swept up, even if someone might say: This needs more work.
When asked for a description, I say it’s a painting of a torso. I add that the torso is the engine of the human because I don’t want to sell it short. In fact it’s a torso and an arm. Who needs more than a torso? ‘To me Art’s subject is the human clay,’ Auden once wrote, ‘And landscape but a background to a torso.’
You’ve captured the rumple of a white t-shirt. The man’s arm is raised; there’s action implied. The individual could be black or white. The title is ‘Nike of Samothrace (Ryan with a feather boa)’ but for ages I couldn’t even make out that last detail. I only recently looked at the work, stared at it in a new way, perhaps while talking on the phone, and thought: ‘Oh. Look. That’s the boa.’
Its unexpected arrival at my apartment on West 93rd was one of the great surprises of the past few years. We’d featured the painting in Five Dials 34, so I’d seen a replication before, but when I clicked on the jpg, or scrolled through a slideshow, or zoomed into it, I wasn’t appreciating the isolated object. Onscreen, the painting became part of my endless scroll. It somehow belonged to the screen. It was another of the images, the majority of images in my life, trapped and held in the frame of an Apple laptop.
Unwrapping the painting was a gradually trangressive act. Ripping into the cardboard was as banal as receiving a printer refill from Amazon. But the torn bubble wrap popped and revealed paint strokes through the opaque plastic folds. When I stripped away the wrap to reveal the painting itself, I was shocked, then anxious, and then a question arose: What has she done? I worried about you. To give away this art? Along with its weight, I could feel its monetary worth – you’re not exactly a beginner – and something else, something co-existent – its worth in the world. Sending it to my apartment was an act of sustained and exuberant generosity, but also perhaps partly a prank. You assumed I was ready. In Three Men and A Baby at least they could look to each other, Gutenberg to Selleck to Danson, for support. There was no abdication here. The painting was my responsibility.
Had I hinted when we last saw each other? I tried to remember if I’d bullied you into this or made an outrageous request. Was I now a guilty party, taking this painting out of circulation and robbing it of its worth? Or had I helped liberate it from some arbitrary price? I’d be forever grateful. There’s no simpler way to say that.
I’ve owned art before, but never a painting I coveted and then, against the odds, received. When we published the reproduction of the painting online, I was unsure of the size of the canvas. It’s smaller and more delicate than I imagined. You scrawled your name on the back and also Nike of Samothrace. A few hours after its unwrapping, I went online to find out what critics said about the painting, and I found a quote by curator Ann Marie Peña about how ‘these torso works pull us into Williamson’s concerted attempt to reveal, through painting, some kind of formula for understanding our common struggles in this life.’ ‘The strain of the brushstrokes [evoke] the anxiety involved in just trying to get by.’ Although I could see the strain of the brushstrokes, they didn’t evoke anxiety. As soon as it went up on the wall, calmness feathered out, like a boa, to its edges and beyond.
We know each other, but not a lot. At some point I might have mentioned that my knowledge of visual art is sorely lacking. You might have intuited as much when you sent the painting. As it turns out, the torso on my wall has got me thinking not only about this one painting but about the art that surrounds me. It was the beginning of something. In order to rise to the gesture of your gift, I’m going to send you a few letters. Even if you don’t answer these letters – I know you’re busy – I’m going to write to you about my efforts to engage with art. I’m not necessarily interested in memorizing facts but rather trying to improve on what Peter Schjeldahl calls ‘the discipline of writing about mute things.’ He enjoys it because it feels like ‘honest work’ which I guess is true, though it’s not exactly tilling a field. I was more drawn to his second reason. After writing about books, it might be a relief. ‘Words about words.’ Schjeldahl writes, ‘feel vaguely depraved.’
So, Margaux, here goes:
A while ago I took the subway to MoMA to the huge Picabia exhibit. I’m not a longtime Picabia fan, but I was intrigued by the ads on the walls of a few different subway stations which featured his gnomic catchphrases like ‘Every Conviction Is An Illness.’
The huge photograph outside the entrance of the exhibit showed Picabia cycling on a small bike with a maniacal gleam in his eyes. He looked entitled, like the ‘independently wealthy, chubby’ man he’d been described as by one critic – ‘possessed of a wad of lustrous hair.’ He spent time in the French Riviera, hosting parties, playing the part, making that lustrous hair work for him. The last time I came across his name, I was reading an article about Jean Cocteau. Always entranced by status, Cocteau couldn’t bear to be snubbed by Picasso, so he pretended he had merely been snubbed by Picabia, as if he could be like ‘That’s better, no one will ever know, no one will ever write about this later. It was a slip of the pen.’ And who could live up to Picasso? It’s unfortunate he and Picabia had to share those first few letters. Picabia was never going to be the Pic-painter of note.
I felt restless in the exhibit because the exhibit exudes restlessness. What happens if you avoid a singular style your whole life? What happens if you shift mediums relentlessly: poetry and film accompanied Picabia’s paintings; the exhibit started with his impressionism, ended with minimalism. The folks at MoMA tried to make this restlessness positive – and modern. It’s certainly modern. It’s tough to find, these days, someone dedicated to one art form. But was this ‘consistent inconsistency’ helpful? And was it a choice – is it ever? Did he choose to flit (just as I do when I’m moving between project, between mediums, unfortunately, while the torso keeps watch over my movements) or was this his irreducible form of artistic expression? He had to be all over the place, and all over the next place.
At times, when I’m scattered, I feel that I’m dodging my chosen form and swerving from a deeper engagement. We don’t have time for endless experimentation, at least that’s what I’ve always thought. But the Picabia exhibit seemed to whisper back: Maybe we do. The exhibit featured more than 200 works, including the towering ‘La Source’, described by unimpressed critics in 1912 as ‘a heap of red and black shavings’ resembling ‘encrusted linoleum’ as well as his loud experiments with industrial paint. The exhibit aimed to ‘advance the understanding of Picabia’s relentless shape-shifting’ and MoMA even called it ‘Our Heads Are Round so Our Thoughts Can Change Direction’, which sounds modern, or at least like a good description of every smart-phone user.
When I got home I watched a walk-through of the exhibit on Facebook Live. The co-curator Anne Umland is accompanied by artist Rashid Johnson, who starts the walk by discussing Woody Allen’s Zelig, and how the bumbling title character absorbs whatever surrounds him. Picabia, he argues, was the same. The talk starts with Picabia’s Impressionist paintings – even though he’s 30 years too late to the Impressionist party – and then moves through each restless stop in the exhibit.
Johnson describes the Zelig quality as a positive. He speaks of ‘porousness of ego’, and makes the point that an artist like Picasso with his massive output and ego, sucked up all the air in the room. Picabia had less investment in authoring. Fine, I thought, but he could have just been entitled and skittery. The effect at MoMA had been jarring: room after room of incessant creation. Think I can’t make this thing? I just made that thing.
Picabia’s artistic poetry, that whatever inside of him, could reflect whatever was going on in the world at the time. He could Zelig his way into any situation – even though there’s a dark slice to the Zelig analogy when you look at the paintings he made during the French occupation, many based on appropriated images from ‘girlie’ magazines in which the skin of the subjects has a deadened sheen, like he was loathe, at the time, to show anything that resembled real life, preferring a closed circuit between canvas and schlocky mag.
As he speaks in the Facebook Live video, Johnson keeps wandering in and out of the frame, while co-curator Anne Umland keeps repeating the words ‘Ah-huh, Ah-huh, Ah-huh, Ah-huh’. Eventually people in the comments section started complaining, like ‘How many times is she going to say Ah-huh?’ But these interruptions couldn’t contain Johnson’s enthusiasm, and after a while I began to agree with him. I tried to reconsider some of the paintings I’d seen. Johnson is especially convincing when he makes a connection between Picabia’s last-to-the-party Impressionism and his later work. The pointillist dots in those early paintings are eventually wrenched free: his post-war paintings feature huge dots, this time given space and made present on the canvas. The thick, encrusted dots like the five featured in Selfishness (1947-48) link to his past. The restlessness has led him back. With so much movement, he’d have to eventually find an intersection with his past, especially with those thoughts in his head changing direction.
Changing your mind and wanting a second chance with paintings can be costly. You can look at a photo online or track back to the MoMA and reconsider the real thing. It’s almost an act of penance. This could become a theme in these letters: paying the entrance fee again, reconsidering, taking my time, taking in criticism without losing my initial reaction, looking at what Johnson calls the artist’s ‘framing strategies’, and considering his decisions. ‘That’s what
artists are,’ he says near the end of the wobbly Facebook Live. ‘Decision makers.’
Picabia’s career cannot be confined in a single page of an art history book. The first time I saw his work, its skittishness looked like failure, but only because I was applying a thin definition of success. Perhaps his life was not about crafting a defining look, but rather expanding his career description so it spilled onto a second page, even onto a third. Whether he meant it or not, he became a witness to his times, repeatedly, and he bequeathed his ideas of scattered, omnivorous work to the next generations who would become even more scattered and omnivorous. In his review in the New York Review of Books, art critic Sanford Schwartz pretty much agrees with this reading: Picabia deserves attention because he barreled through the orthodoxies of the modern movement in ways that seemed like a gift to artists of the future. Schwartz liked the show but he wasn’t totally won over: ‘The exhibition presents too many emotionally thin, quickly digestible works.’ That may be what Picabia wanted – he was a Dada joker, after all – and certainly the curators would have us believe that no matter how quickly you digest the pieces, this ‘consistent inconsistency’ is ‘a powerful alternative model’.
Maybe it is. Writing this letter to you, I’ve flitted between projects in my own version of consistent inconsistency. The approval of this Picabian alternative model is reassuring. I initially dismissed his breadth as a lack of substance. I feel more kinship with him now. What’s most compelling about this position of consistent inconsistency is the idea of a poetry running through the different forms. It’s made from a different material. It remains consistent.
I kept thinking back to the torso, what went into the painting, what separates it from the others on my wall, what it reaches towards (or away from). Do you feel your poetry flowing through each art form you choose? Each subject? Or do some resist? What happens when you’re writing or making films? Does it always flow with same momentum? It looks like there’s Picabia’s restless poetry – and some of his mischief – in you.