EXCLUSIVE: LAURIE ANDERSON BY ANOHNI

Shirt and Jacket  by Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons

Photography by Jason Rodgers | Styling by Shala Rothenberg | Interview by Anohni

Famed artist, musician, director, and visual/sonic pioneer Laurie Anderson releases a new book and discusses her decades-long career with other-worldly talent Anohni.

Laurie Anderson’s retrospective book, All the Things I Lost in the Flood published by Rizzoli, chronicles her lengthy career in the world of art and music, marriage and collaborative career with the inimitable Lou Reed, and the power of books and language. Anderson’s artistry encompasses composing music, performance art, fiction writing, and filmmaking. A true polymath, her interest in new media made her an early pioneer of harnessing technology for artistic purposes long before the tech boom. Two years ago Anderson began looking through her archive of nearly forty years of work, which includes scores of documentation, notebooks, and sketchbooks.

In this exclusive interview for Iris Covet Book, Anderson speaks with a fellow pioneer. singer, composer, and visual artist Anohni, about art, VR (Virtual Reality), American culture, and the edge.

Hi Laurie, shall we begin? Going back and looking at the accumulated works of your long career, how did working on this book cast new light on your life’s work?

It cast a lot of light! I thought I was doing new projects one after another. As it turns out, I’m doing the same ideas. I can’t believe it. It wasn’t like psychoanalysis, but it was something close to it. I found a lot of things that were really shallow, too, that I put in the book anyway because I had thought at the time, as a young artist, that they were what art was about.

We’re working on a book of Lou’s early poems called Do Angels Need Haircuts?  There was one night in 1972 on St. Mark’s, he was reading his poems, and I realized that I was a couple of blocks away that night with my friend Lucy Lippard, the art critic. We talked endlessly about ‘the edge.’ That was really important to us. We’ve done too many images, too many colors and too many lines. What art is about now is how we see things. That’s what we felt. We were making things that called attention to the fact that we were paying attention. So this all was very meaningful at the time. You could write long, long essays on ‘the edge’, the edge between this reality and the other.

For me, it meant doing minimal sculptures. I was making things. And they looked pretty much like something you would see at any construction site, a piece of sheetrock leaning against a wall, or a line bisecting the room. And that’s what we talked about and that’s what gave meaning to our work. Now if you try to talk about that now, people don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.

Was that conversation a foundation for what we’re talking about now? In terms of seeing multiple points of view? Intersectional thinking, spectral thinking… you were pioneering that.

John Cage was pioneering it when he said, “Everything is music.” Robert Morris was pioneering it when he said this cube is a work of art, this plywood cube, because it forces you to look at the edge and your displacement and your position versus it. It forces you to use your eyes.

Eventually I began to use images again, and I thought, “Am I going backwards?” But then I wasn’t bothered by it anymore. I no longer see my life as progress. I just see it as trying different things at different times. One art form isn’t truly more advanced than the other. I just came from a conversation about how sound works in virtual reality. How can you make music and sound that doesn’t have a beginning and an end? What does that stuff look like? That’s the way we’ve always made music through history… with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But our lives don’t work that way so much either. Mine doesn’t have a beginning, middle and an end. I was born at one point and I’ll die at one point. The stories of our lives just don’t have any plots. Mine doesn’t really have a plot.

The only thing I’m pretty sure of is that we are evolving towards complexity. We are not sliding back down the evolutionary scale, slowly becoming toads and single cell creatures.

Jacket by Issey Miyake, Shirt by Comme des Garçons, and Laurie’s own Morgan Le Fay Trousers.

Shirt by Comme des Garçons, and Laurie’s own Morgan Le Fay Trousers.

The series of drawings you did about the life and death of your terrier Lolabelle in the film you created Heart of a Dog are so beautifully illustrated. There was a strong sense of the space itself in those drawings, supporting the figures and objects. I loved that you brought the aesthetic of your hand drawings into VR. It’s markedly different from every other experience of VR that I’ve had.

It’s because it has dust in it and smudges, and also because we made the atmosphere out of tiny little letters, so you would be able to see the air. It was full of infinitely small, dust mote letters. Most VR is airless. It’s like going into this really sterile boardroom. Like there’s no atmosphere whatsoever.

In the new book, you refer to your work as a combination of narrative and visual language. How have your stories changed over time? What stories are you interested in telling today?

They haven’t changed that much. That’s another thing I realized. I’m a short story teller, and a short story can be a two-sentence story. And if you can get it done in two sentences, then just do that, because who has time?

It’s vivid, and our mind can wrap around it without moving through much time. I think it’s harder for 21st century people now to read, to sit down with Crime and Punishment and absorb all those atmospheres, all those characters, all those days, all those roads, and all those moods, stringing them together. We’re more visual than that now.

You were saying to me recently that you feel like film will soon be relegated to museums… and the future of popular storytelling will be in VR.

VR and MR.

What’s MR?

Mixed reality. I don’t know how to do MR, but I’m really interested in learning. These are lighter weight viewing devices, and of course everything will get lighter until there’s no weight to it at all and it’ll just be retinal. In MR you will have a glass on this table, exactly like this real glass, with the reflections from your computer and of your shirt in there, and it will move, but it won’t be there. It’ll be a virtual glass that is beyond real.

It’s really wonderful for disembodiment, which has always been my personal goal as an artist. To have no body, to fall into a work of art and not be able to get out, ever. Just fall into it. And you can fall into a book, too, identifying so much with the character.

You mentioned in the introduction that the book is about language in live performances, the difference between spoken and written words, the influence of the audience, the use of the first, second and third person voices, metaphor, politics, the story of dreams, songs, misunderstandings and the new meanings that are created when languages are translated. How do you think language can change the world?

I think it might be one of the only things that can change the world, that can really let you see it in another light. Like the wall we’re building between the U.S. and Mexico. It’s actually not a wall. The wall doesn’t exist yet, but the wall is so real in our minds and it’s such a contentious thing that it’s more than real. And you have to remember, the wall is just somebody’s idea. It’s a wall of words. People react to it as if it were a real wall. We’re already living in a virtual world, you know? It’s not there yet. We haven’t even collected the money to build it. So you have to remind yourself that we live in a fantasy world, a dream world, where half the things that we’re talking about don’t actually exist.

I think it’s supported by contemporary technologies and media. It’s almost a tenet of fascist propaganda, that if you say something five times it becomes real. And I think that’s very much what Trump did with the wall. He said it so often that it became a specter in our minds and imaginations. And that leads me to a question about mythology and storytelling. Do we have a moral responsibility to write other stories besides the ones that seem most likely to happen?

I think we have a moral imperative to tell stories that turn out better than we think they might.

Last December, the Sag Harbor Theater burned down. They asked a bunch of people to pick the film that they think best embodies American values. I picked American Psycho, and we screened it on Sunday. It was a little beyond the veil for people in South Hampton. Even after the Valentine’s Day massacre, they don’t want to tell the story of a white psycho-killer who wants to kill people because he just doesn’t have enough stuff. He doesn’t have it the way he wants it. Frankly, I find the most frightening part of that story was the way the guy treated women, the cartoony-ness.

It was really disconcerting. You tell the story that you feel like telling. To me, American Psycho is very representative of what people love in this country: status and beautiful things and power and lording it over other people, and men being these absolute creeps. The prostitution was the thing that bothered me most. That was much more horrifying than the cartoony, meat-chopper stuff. People reacted to the chainsaw stuff because it’s horrible. He grabs a woman’s leg and tries to eat it. But the truly scary stuff were the things that were very real to me, which is the dismissive way that these hedge funders were talking about women, saying, “Have you ever seen an intelligent woman? I haven’t.” But people didn’t see that part of the film, because that’s so much a part of the culture.

Is this kind of storytelling the same thing as myth? In one way, it’s a discourse talking metaphorically about what’s happening. But does it reach even deeper than that?

Think of the Greeks – —Medea, Electra…all about hacking the head off your mother and eating the bones. I mean, horror movies are Greek. They’re really Greek. They’re about the hatred and rage we feel towards each other, particularly the rage towards mothers and fathers. So those are our DNA stories. But then you have these stories about heaven and particularly the ones that are trying to convince you to behave in a certain way. I don’t think they’re so much about morality or rules. I think they’re about time, ways to explain time to people, where you came from. Where are you going to go after you die? You’re going to go to heaven or you’re going to go to Nirvana or you’re going to stay in the cycle of suffering, or you’re going to be with a bunch of virgins. Time is the biggest mystery to us.

When the Christians concocted the ascent to heaven and the final coming and fire and brimstone, that was all a projection into the future.

I think it’s not very clear, because they disguised a story as something that is about human personality, and then distorted it to punish people for being bad people, because that’s the other important part of the myth. There’s something very wrong with you, and you were born with something wrong with you, and you’re going to be punished unless you do this. And that gets various shadings, like the King James Bible, for example. Jesus had always been in the Christian Bible referred to as Master or Teacher. King James wrote his Bible, and he paid for this Bible. It was the first time Jesus was called King of Kings, Lord of Lords. He became a secular, powerful person, not a teacher.

So everyone is using these structures and these stories for their own ends to get what they want, particularly power. That’s what religion mostly has come down to. It’s about control.

 

Shirt, Jacket and Trousers by Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons

Shirt, Jacket and Trousers by Comme des Garçons Comme des Garçons

Did it work? Did they get that control through the use of story? Or did the story tell of the power that they had already acquired? Is there a power in storytelling that can define the future, or even form the future?

Sure. That’s why I think women telling different stories is fantastic. Even in American Psycho, some of the greatest shots were the reaction shots of the women. Everyone is focusing on the men. But these cameras pan over to the women and they’re going, “What? Can you believe this asshole?” They’re not saying anything, but you can see it, it’s fantastic. This silent language of this woman filmmaker is telling a very different story. She’s telling it on a bunch of different levels. It’s a really complicated film.

Today, marginalized groups are sharing their narratives to ever increasing and attentive audiences. How has this recent cultural phenomena affected your work and your outlook on the work you’ve done?

When I was a young artist in the early ‘70s, I was part of a group of women artists. I joined it because I thought “OK, finally a group of people are joining together because we have different things to say than men,” and we do. But what was the focus of it? How to get into galleries. And I understand that on a professional level, but that’s not what I was there for. I was trying to find commonality with this group and be part of something.

And this was at the same time as separatist inclinations in various self-advocacy groups nationally. But you’re sort of describing a scene downtown that was more utopian.

I hope I’m not painting it as something it wasn’t, but I have some great memories of how much we did help each other. We saw ourselves as workers, somehow. That was the main thing. There were a lot of things that had opened people up in ways that were pretty wild. A lot of drugs around, a lot of sex, a lot of fun. Helping each other on every level. As soon as money came into it, things changed. We never thought we would make a dime from our work. That was the furthest thing from our minds. We all had little jobs, and you didn’t need that much money either. That’s another very important point. You needed almost nothing. You didn’t think about it.

I’m thinking about a photo of you in the book, standing in a crowd playing the violin. You’re talking about not really aspiring to get into galleries, as much, and there you were sort of just outdoors being scrutinized by these gangs of passersby. That image just reminded me of some of the stories you’ve told me of things you’ve done over the years, hitchhiking to the North Pole, just being out there in the wind.

Yeah. I did always want to get out, that’s for sure. I wanted to be part of an art world. But not one that was chummy, more that was supportive. So I was lucky enough to hit that NYC wave at the right moment.

For young artists, where do we go from there? How do we move forward?

To a young artist today, I would say “Don’t listen to me.” That would be number one. Each person finds it for themselves, and that’s the whole great thing about this. No one can tell you what it is. It’s your responsibility to find it. We have a million roads out from here, as many roads as there are artists to follow them. So question all sorts of things, even the idea of progress itself.  One of the things I’m interested in, as you are as well, is the ends of stories and what happens. So I asked my meditation teacher, “What happens to karma when there’s no one to embody your karma, and the whole system, the great dharma wheel, crashes?” It’s built on continuity and giant eons of time, the big wheels of time. So when that wheel stops and we’re not on it anymore, what happens? And he said that’s why the Buddha talked about other universes. I just loved that so much. It was so freeing to me.

It’s a kind of independence.

It’s your freedom to go anywhere and to realize that the rules are idiotic. I mean, maybe that’s one thing I would say, is that there are no rules, so don’t worry about that part. There are zero rules. It’s hard to be free.

Pants by Issey Miyake, T-Shirt by Tai Chi, and Laurie’s own gloves and jewelry.

Hair by Elsa Canedo Using Kerastase, Makeup by Kento Utsubo, Photo Assistant Jordan James, Special Thanks to Rizzoli. Laurie Anderson: All the Things I Lost in the Flood, Available on rizzolibookstore.com

EXCLUSIVE: ERIKA JAYNE


Photography by Alexandra Gavillet | Styling by Rafael Linares @ Art Department | Interview by Cecily Strong

From dancing on gin-soaked stages in the dive bars of West Hollywood, navigating the many dramas of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, to being immortally satirized on Saturday Night Live, the reality star, pop culture icon, and now New York Times best-selling author is taking the world by storm.

Erika Jayne is embracing opportunities with open arms, switching at the drop of a hat between author, international performer, “housewife,” and the icon we didn’t even know we needed. The Real Housewives franchises are filled with meme-worthy moments, unforgettable quotes, and exciting drama, but few women from the reality series have become household names to the degree of Erika Girardi, AKA Erika Jayne. In an exclusive interview between Erika and Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong, who parodied Jayne on the legendary sketch show and cemented Erika’s status as a cultural touchstone, the two women discuss ageism in the entertainment industry, creating a public persona, and her new Simon & Schuster bestselling book, Pretty Mess.

Jacket by Tom Ford, Earrings by House of Emmanuele

Earrings by House of Emmanuele

Hello! How are you Erika?

Hi Cecily, I am so good—it’s so nice to talk to you.

You too, what a treat! I am such a fan! A real fan, not just an Instagram fan. I am so excited. I’ve been bragging to everyone at SNL about getting to do this interview! So, starting with your new book, how did the idea to publish a memoir take off?

I was approached to do the book and said yes because these days I am just saying yes to everything. Obviously, you see a little bit of it on TV, but sharing 45 minutes of screen time with five other women is difficult. Writing a memoir is a way to give the audience a more in-depth peek into my life.

How open are you in this book and are you nervous about revealing too much?

There’s always the version of the truth which you can never tell or else all of your friends and family will never talk to you again (laughs), and then there is the book that I wrote, and then there is the book that got published – which went through two legal processes. Hopefully it works out well and people like it.

(laughs) What was the most challenging part writing the book?

Well, my mother and I were discussing how my father left when I was nine months old, and then she remarried and divorced again. I feel like I had blocked out that part of my childhood. I went back with her trying to piece it all back together. I was looking at it through 46 year-old eyes and thinking it was basically ten years of bullshit!

Do you think that your childhood experiences are the reason that you have this amazing life and personality and are so fabulous and youthful—or in other words, do you think that you’re basking in the things you didn’t have in your childhood?

I feel like I’m eternally 16. I had a nice car, a hot boyfriend, good grades, was performing all the time, and I looked cute. I don’t know if that’s because of my childhood, but I definitely know that all of that has an effect on you growing up.

Well, I understand feeling like you’re eternally a teenager because I feel like I’m 16 even though I’m like… 34, but have you confronted ageism in your industry? Is it something you even think about? I know I don’t think about it much.

Good, and I’m glad you don’t, and the only time I do is when someone tells me, “Oh, aren’t you a little too old to be doing this?” and I’m like, “No, actually I’m not.” I think that it’s important to keep doing it and keep pushing and dreaming because that’s an old way of thinking that is falling by the wayside as women continue to improve and show how powerful we are. You know, when you’re in your 40’s you’re not dead, you’re not done! I feel the most powerful now. I didn’t feel powerful in my 20’s, I was a ding-dong!

I couldn’t wait to turn 30 because I thought, “Finally, people will take me seriously!” And I can’t imagine someone saying to you that you’re too old, that’s insane to me. I’d be like, “Just watch me perform!”

Thank you! Could you imagine telling a man that? Could you imagine telling a man, “Sir, don’t you think you’re a little too old to be running the company?” It’s not fair for us to get a tap on the shoulder like, “Sit down honey, you’ve had enough fun, you’ve had your day, people don’t find you attractive, you can’t sell anything, and your time is up” No! I’m not going to do that.

Good, me neither. We’re taking a vow! What do you hope that people take away from your book and your personal story?

First off, I want people to laugh and have fun. It’s an easy read and a fun read, and if one person walks away inspired to go to dance class again or back to college or just see that, through this human story, we are all the same. My experience is just this way, but it’s the same bullshit for everybody, so don’t quit. You never know what the future holds.

So let’s talk about your persona Erika Jayne, how she was born and how you found her within yourself?

I was about 35 years old, had been married to Tom for six or seven years, and had been exclusively living his lifestyle. I was going to every event and socializing with a whole new set of very educated, super interesting people. I am glad I did it because it was an invaluable education, but it wasn’t me. I was wealthy and living in a bubble where I would shop, go to the gym, and then go to dinners, but what the fuck was I really doing with myself? I longed to go out, create again, and have my own identity.

I just don’t think that Tom expected the book deal, concerts, or this interview in my future. I don’t think anybody did! I started to create on my own, it was something that I loved, and here we are today. And thank God he has been so supportive. I have learned so much, and I am really grateful because without him I wouldn’t be here at all.

That’s so great, and good for you two! You’re a great example for couples. So, when did you get your big break and what was the beginning of your career as Erika Jayne like?

Well, if you take the Erika Jayne Project, it was very small potatoes. It started at my kitchen table and it was just something that I wanted to do. I created the persona with a friend of mine from high school. He took me to a producer friend of his and we made the Pretty Mess album, and I started to perform because that’s what I really love to do. It was the typical beginning. A few people in some terrible dump, no one paying attention, and just begging to get on stage. I thought to myself, “I don’t have to fucking do this, I’m rich! What the fuck am I doing?” (Cecily laughs) I hate to break it down and sound so rude, but there are a lot of naysayers and rejection. I kept putting one foot in front of the other and building it, and slowly but surely people started to pay more attention and come to my shows. The biggest break into pop culture was definitely being cast in the Real Housewives because it took Erika Jayne out of the clubs and into people’s homes, and she even became a parody on Saturday Night Live! (laughs) But I think the most interesting thing was seeing young women, like high school and college-aged girls tell me how much they love my music and style, and I’m like, “Wow, really? I’m old enough to be your mom.” That acknowledgement makes it all worth it.

 

Jacket by Vitor Zerbinato, Dress by Nookie, Boots by Christian Louboutin, Earrings and Ring by Glynneth B.

Jacket by Vitor Zerbinato

Most of my circle of friends are gay men, and so I’m curious when did your relationship with the gay community start?

Children’s theater! (laughs)

Oh my God! Same for me! I was raised in a theater in Chicago by a group of gay men.

That was where I started! And then I went to a performing arts high school where everyone in dance and theater was gay, even our instructors were gay. They were always a part of my life. These are my people and that’s that.

Right, it’s so true, and it’s so funny that I had a very similar experience. When my parents split up I felt that the gay men of my Chicago theater were raising me while my family was a mess.

And I think that’s a wonderful thing to have and I can’t imagine life without gay people in it. They are my closest confidants.

Now what about drag culture? Has drag had an influence on your life and career?

I mean, just take one look at me! What do you think? (laughs) Of course! I love drag because you get to transform into a superhuman. It’s a true art form that is not for the faint of heart. Your costumes, hair, makeup, the whole look, and your style of drag too! There are so many different styles.

What style would you be?

Hooker drag! I want to be hooker drag (both laugh). Are you kidding? Basically that’s what I already am so why not? Keep it going!

So let’s talk Housewives of Beverly Hills! Obviously I am a huge fan, but how has being on the show changed your life? Cameras catching you crying, drunk…I drink a lot, so I could never do reality TV.

I don’t really like crying on camera because you are embarrassed worldwide, and that sucks. But without that exposure I wouldn’t be talking to Cecily Strong and I wouldn’t have a book out today! See what I’m saying? You have to roll with the punches and make the best of it. At the end of the day, it is reality television and I try to be as authentic as I can and have a good time doing it!

As I say in my book, it’s like professional wrestling. There are heroes, villains, costumes, pyrotechnics, but at the end of the day the injuries are real! It’s like we are participating in this absurd narrative, but these are still my feelings and sometimes they get really hurt.

People are awful! Celebrity in general, people feel like they have some sort of ownership over you, and because you get to do your job they get to hurl insults at you. It seems even worse for people in reality TV because it is your name and your life.

Thank god I am 46 and not 26! I have lived a full life, have a successful marriage, had an unsuccessful marriage, I have an adult child, I can pay the bills. Forget it, if I were a kid and did not know who I was, I may not have made it and I would have been crazy-town. Honestly, I consider myself pretty fucking normal.

I think about that all the time. Like I was crazy enough at 22—

Right! I didn’t need anyone telling me I sucked and was awful and should kill myself. You can imagine how the younger ones feel.

I will say that my favorite piece of advice I’ve ever gotten, and I don’t mean to name drop, but it was from Jim Carey at a host dinner for SNL and he told me “Don’t ever let anyone tell you the narrative of your career.”

He’s right, and thank you for sharing that. I’ll split when I’m ready and I’ll do what I need to do. That’s very well said.

Well, thank you Jim Carey! So, what’s next for you? What do you see in the future?

I am on my way to a book signing in New Jersey which is right across the street from a terrible go-go place I used to go-go in when I was younger.

Wow.

I know, it’s really interesting, Cecily. I’m continuing to create, and there’s going to be more music and more shows, and who knows what’s coming, but I feel like it’s going to be really good.

 

Jacket by The Blonds, Bangles, Cuffs, Earrings and Hat by Glynneth B.

Jumpsuit by Any Old Iron, Shoes by Christian Louboutin

Dress by Gucci

Makeup by Etienne Ortega @ The Only Agency using NARS and KKW Beauty, Hair by Castillo @ Tack Artist Group using Sexy Hair styling products & T3 styling tools, Art Direction Louis Liu, Editor-in-Chief Marc Sifuentes, Photo Assistant Mallory, DP Vanessa Konn, Gaffer Zachary Burnett, Production Assistant Benjamin Price, Produced by XTheStudio.com, Special Thanks to Jack Ketsoyan, Laia and Mikey Minden

AI WEIWEI

Ai Weiwei’s fight for the human rights of others has meant that his own have been jeopardized. Creating work that is both dangerously loud and quietly considered, the artist-activist is a true revolutionary of his time. By using the internet as his soapbox, he has become a global figure for those without a voice.

Portrait Photography by Zachary Bako
Essay by Ashleigh Kane

“I consider myself more of a chess player. My opponent makes a move. I make a move. Now I’m waiting for my opponent to make the next move.”

This is how Ai Weiwei responded in Never Sorry, the 2012 documentary about his life, when asked how he would describe himself. Aside from a chess player, Weiwei has been called many things; artist, curator, filmmaker, activist, philosophist. Also dissident and criminal. While the Chinese government has gone to extreme measures to stop Weiwei raising his voice, his fellow Chinese people have heralded him as a figure of worship. As have many of us in the wider world. Technically into his third decade as an artist, Weiwei’s art became increasingly reactionary and prevalent ten years ago, after he launched a citizen’s investigation into the devastating 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.

The tragedy pushed his frustrations with China’s oppression, surveillance, and lack of transparency to a boiling point, and he began to create works that questioned the mechanics of the country he called home. Weiwei also found the tension between old and new China fascinating, and the ways in which it denied the advancements of the Western world, particularly the internet – a realm which he has wholeheartedly embraced, and, in turn, has embraced him. Since relocating to Germany in 2015, Weiwei has become most recognised for his work with the ongoing refugee crisis. Seeing no distinction between the artist and the activist, earlier this year he told CBS, “I think artist and activist is the same thing. As artist, you always have to be an activist.” When pressed by the interviewer whether one had to be political to be a good artist, he responded, “I think every art, if it’s relevant, is political.”

A self-described “natural outsider”, the seeds of Weiwei’s rebellion were planted by his father, the famous poet, denounced traitor and accused ‘rightest’, Ai Qing. Shortly after Weiwei was born in 1957, Qing, along with his family, was exiled to Heilongjiang, followed by Xinjiang. In 1976, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the family was allowed to return to Beijing. But Weiwei’s growing fascination with art led him to leave his home in 1981 for New York where he attended Parsons School of Design. Inspired by Marcel Duchamp – who said anything can be art – and Joseph Beuys – who said anyone can be an artist – Weiwei’s only art show in New York, Old Shoes, Safe Sex, was held at Art Waves gallery in 1988 and featured a series of readymades, such as a trenchcoat with a hole and a condom attached (Safe Sex, 1986). In 1993, his father’s incurable illness brought him back to China, after 12 years abroad. Bringing with him the lessons of the artists he’d come to admire.

Above: Sunflower Seeds (5 tons) Installation: Mary Boone Gallery, 541 West 24 Street, New York, January 2012

 Tree with The Animal That Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca wallpaper Installation: Mary Boone Gallery, 541 West 24 Street, New York, November 2016.

At home, Weiwei submerged himself in the underground art scene by creating a series of publications which profiled American artists such as Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, as well as contemporary Chinese artists. Described as “a free space” where “you could write anything”, “Black Cover” (1994), “White Cover” (1995) and “Gray Cover” (1997), were only available through word-of-mouth. In 2000, Weiwei was included in Feng Boyi’s exhibition, FUCK OFF – an alternative to the Shanghai Biennale. The show debuted his series, “Study of Perspective” (1995-2010), alongside “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995). The latter an early documentation of Weiwei’s growing penchant for smashing or modifying Chinese antiques, and one he would continue throughout his career. Such as “Neolithic Vase and Coca-Cola Logo” (2010), which crosses capitalism with a classic cultural relic.

In 2003, Weiwei began work on the Bird’s Nest, the stadium for Beijing’s 2008 Olympics. But after seeing the impact of the event’s looming arrival on local homes and businesses, he became critical of it. In 2008, he was the first prominent Chinese person to oppose the games when he published an article on The Guardian, titled, “Why I’ll stay away from the opening ceremony of the Olympics”. Three months later, the Sichuan Earthquake struck, killing 70,000 people – 5,000 of them children. Devastated by the government’s refusal to release the death toll, Weiwei and his volunteers collected the names and birthdays of all the children who perished and published them on his blog on the tragedy’s one-year anniversary. Authorities shut down the platform, but Weiwei found a way to subvert the Great Firewall (of China) – he joined Twitter.

It would be a disservice to Weiwei to think all of his work is overt middle-finger-up, in-your-face art-activism. His 2010 installation, “Sunflower Seeds” (2008), at London’s Tate Modern, which included 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds and covered 1000 square meters with a depth of 10cm, shows a more considered side to the artist. The piece, which took two-and-a-half years to create, is a nod to China’s conformity and censorship. At a distance, the seeds all look the same, but on closer inspection, viewers will find signs of individuality. “Tree” (2010) is another work that peacefully pushes Weiwei’s message. The sculpture is made up of different species of trees. It pays homage market vendors who sell branches, roots and tree trunks as decorative items to be displayed in homes, but a more complex political reading symbolizes the rapid urbanization and economic growth of China.

Below: Neolithic Vase with CocaCola Logo, 2010

Surveillance Camera and Plinth, 2015

Despite this, no matter the volume of Weiwei’s messaging, his refusal to cease making work about his home country led to the Chinese authorities detaining him on 3 April 2011 for 81 days. Initially reported as missing – news which sparked a worldwide #FreeWeiwei campaign – authorities claimed they had arrested the artist on suspicion of tax evasion. While he was never charged or convicted of a crime, Weiwei’s passport was confiscated for four years and he was banned from leaving the Beijing for one year. After his release, Chinese authorities installed at least 15 cameras outside of Weiwei’s Beijing studio. He retaliated by launching “WeiweiCam”, a self-surveillance project which live streamed from within his own house. Later, he would create “Surveillance Camera and Plinth” (2015), a marble reincarnation of the CCTV cameras.

With the return of his passport in 2015, Weiwei relocated to Germany. Initially unsure what his purpose would be in a foreign country, he quickly found his cause; the refugee crisis. Weiwei set to work creating 70 meter sculptures from inflatable life boats (“Law of the Journey”, 2017) and building 100 fences and to be displayed in New York (“Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”, 2017). He even set up a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos to facilitate his increased artistic output. More recently, Weiwei premiered Human Flow, a documentary which put a face to a crisis which has seen more than 65 million people flee their homes after famine, war and climate change claimed their safety.

Even as one of the most recognisable artists in the world, Weiwei continues to place other people’s fight for freedom above his own safety. Like all true revolutionaries of their eras, many have tried to quell his voice and his spirit, only for him to show that no matter how many people, or governments, want to silence him, Weiwei’s voice will only get louder.

All artwork courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery New York
For more information visit aiweiwei.com | maryboonegallery.com

 

TRACEY EMIN

Once called the “enfant terrible” of the Young British Artists, Tracey Emin’s confessional, autobiographical work fearlessly intimates that the artist is here to stay.


Portrait and Studio Photography by Oli Kearon | Interview by Sarah Nicole Prickett

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In a beautiful new compendium entitled TRACEY EMIN: WORKS 2007-2017  by: Jonathan Jones, published by Rizzoli International Publications, we can view a decade’s worth of work of the prolific and inimitable Tracey Emin. Compiled in close collaboration with the artist and unprecedented in its scope, this definitive book collects ten years of Tracey Emin’s drawings, paintings, sculptures, appliques and embroideries, neons, video stills, and installations. A multimedia artist whose intensely personal work blurs the boundaries between art and life, Emin remains one of the most highly publicized contemporary British artists and continues to stir as much controversy as she has acclaim. A multimedia artist whose intensely personal work blurs the boundaries between art and life, Emin remains one of the most highly publicized contemporary British artists and continues to stir as much controversy as she has acclaim.

Moving chronologically through a prolific decade of work–from major public installations to recent reflective paintings and sculptures–this book shows a coherent vision that defies the idiosyncrasies of Emin’s evolution as an artist. The same mixture of anger, hope, curiosity, and vulnerability that informs her delicate drawings and handwritten neon works can be felt in the darker tones of recent monoprints and the weight of later bronze pieces.

Written by Jonathan Jones, whose text places Emin’s work in a broad art-historical context and sees this recent decade of her artwork as an entry point to examining her full career, this is a beautiful monograph on one of the world’s most influential living artists.

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She is, for enough of us, the first famous, knowable, and wealthy living artist to be a woman. She is the first we could name before we knew quite what art was. Because of this, she has helped decide what we think art is: the outrageous act of doing something because you can, which means that you should. Her sensibilities make crucial sense to the most desirous young artists and writers, mostly young women, but not always. Imitated by dozens, her style has become memetic, which makes it seem more original. It is original as she is. Tracey Emin is permanent.

That’s what she says. The words–here to stay–are stitched in capital letters on one of the blankets she liked to make, in acerbic pastels, from the early 1990s on. This one, titled The Simple Truth, was made in 1994 for the Gramercy Park Hotel Art Fair, where a thirty-year-old Emin slept and showed her work in the same small room and did not feel welcome. I saw it in a book of Emin’s pictures, My Photo Album, which I had not opened since buying it four years ago. Oddly the picture of the blanket took me by surprise. Odd because the ambiguity of “Here to stay,” the provisional, limited idiom of the sojourn turning into a journey’s broad conclusion, is blatantly Emin; and because the early work that is still her most widely known also concerns a bed, namely her bed; and because I had seen pictures of the blankets before and had apparently found this one forgettable. This time its freshness and its near-vulnerability was alarming. I imagined it making people want to cuddle her.

Emin is not generally thought of as an artist whose work keeps one warm at night. The title work in her most recent show, The Memory of Your Touch, is a self-portrait (1997—2016) on another hotel bed, taken from behind as she lies prostrate in red thigh-high stockings. Other works include sculptures, more naked and headless or faceless bodies in jaggy plaster or bronze; paintings that leak cold blood and cloud with the nacreous greys of frozen breath over dysmorphic outlines of the body in chalky blacks; and her signature hand-scrawled pleas in popsicle-pink, slinky tubes of light. Her idols are dead, untouchable, macho like Rodin and Schiele, and we see their relentless impressions on her figures. In her “neons” she is most obviously, saleably herself, and these have become fixtures in expansive hotel lobbies from London to Miami, New York to Istanbul. Most spell out more of her words: You Should Have Loved Me. I Followed You to the Sun. I Dream of Sleep. One, at a hotel in Oslo, traces a humanoid figure, bloated with withering limbs, made and titled in homage to Emin’s favorite painting: Munch’s The Scream. It seems made to induce the nightmare of your life.

Good Red Love, 2014 © Tracey Emin. Photo: Ben Westoby. Courtesy: White Cube

Hers is like a Cinderella story stuck at a minute to twelve. Born like Kate Moss, in Croydon, South London, Emin spent her childhood in the rough-edged seaside town of Margate, where her mother ran a hotel her father owned. At thirteen she was, as she told us in her lacerating memoir, Strangeland, raped in an alley behind a tavern. At twenty-seven she had her first abortion, carrying the killed fetus home in the back of a taxi. Nearing thirty, with a degree from the Royal Academy in London but practically nothing to her name, she burned all the fine little lithographs she used to sign “Miss T.K. Emin” and started over as Tracey qua Tracey. She made five-minute films that looked like very unfunny home videos, like the one titled Why I Never Became a Dancer, which loops through her thwarted adolescence as images of Margate unspool: “The reason why these men wanted to fuck me, a girl of 14, was because they weren’t men. They were less. Less than human. They were pathetic.” It was 1993.

Sick, delicious egoism, paired with ironies that were a bit rich, was all the rage in Emin’s milieu, which included Sarah Lucas, Damien Hirst, and Anya Gallacio (it was in Artforum’s 1992 cover story on Gallacio that Michael Corris coined the term YBAs, for Young British Artists). Emin and Lucas opened a shop in Brick Lane, painted the walls pink instead of white, and sold t-shirts with “slogans” like Have you wanked me yet? Emin titled her first solo show, facetiously but not self-deprecatingly, My Major Retrospective (1993). Corris called her Sandra Bernhard and Beuys in one body. “Emin’s persona,” he said with emphasis, “is designed to look as though it can take everything life can throw at her.” Messiness, of course, accommodates more mess. When the mess becomes massive it looks like a cover-up, where the crime is ambition; and it’s hard to be sure that ambition is not per se criminal. Only, it’s apparent that when a woman reaches success before losing her sex appeal, her talents are perceived to be strategic, not divine. Emin’s rise inspired some of the art world’s hottest debates over craft, narcissism, and intent. Enviable, she could not be beloved.

In the six years between her “retrospective” and her first (and last) nomination, with My Bed (1999), for the Turner Prize, Emin made a brand out of getting blackout drunk and saying unbelievable things in the press. When she claimed, like she did after one particularly wild televised incident in 1997, to not even remember she’d been on television, the press insinuated she not only remembered but intended doing it–anything for a headline, as if she were both headless and single-minded, or strategically mental. The persona stuck to her work. Colm Toíbín, in a review for British Esquire of Emin’s 20 Years retrospective, about summed it up, saying, “her drawings have a starkness and an aura of desperate loneliness attached to them. Her nudes are drawn with merciless care; they manage to achieve an effect which is spare and plaintive.” He notes the effort in making My Bed “so unglamorous, all tossed, with knickers stained with menstrual blood, among other things, on the floor beside it, the last place you would lie down to rest.”

Emin has been soberish, meaning she drinks wine but not spirits, for eighteen years, and it is no longer her fault that she forgets things. She tries to remember. She is trying to be remembered–as what? Enormous. Great. A vast power. Her work becomes vaguer and vaguer, even as it solidifies and gains mass. Primal scenes dissipate into other people’s myths, words blow up and fuzz into lyricism. Something was lost when she shed the itchy habit of the first-person, shameful confession, when she stopped calling her pieces my that and my this and started saying your, yours, you. It became unclear what she loved. Something, some meaning. I cannot remember either what the meaning is.

My lips moved across your face, 2015 © Tracey Emin. Photo: HV-studio, Brussels. Courtesy Xavier Hufkens

I call Tracey Emin at her studio after lunch, her time. There is the just-caught breath. There is the click of a lighter. Her voice, never mind all the cigarettes, retains the softness of Egyptian cotton. It’s possible, somehow, to hear the ‘e’ in Tracey, the barest flutter of vowel.

She gives a sigh of displeasure at telling me what her days are like, or how they are not alike. Last week she was in Paris, Brussels, Rome. Today she and her team are renovating Emin’s studio, which is over eight thousand feet of former factory space in Spitalfields, East London, with a swimming pool in the basement so she can do laps in the space of a smoke break. Next year the operations will relocate a new, larger space in Margate, where she can swim in the sea. London is “too noisy,” says Emin, “and too full of shopping.” She will wait until night to make, say, the molds for her sculptures, working from one o’clock in the morning until three o’clock, seven o’clock, eight. Then the emails start: “I don’t even know how many emails I get, too many to count, every day. One demand after another. And all these questions.”

Emin has a propensity to feel questioned. She listens badly and is quicker to hate a question than to hear it, perhaps because she assumes her interlocutors think the worst. When I say that she got famous by not sleeping, by seeming to party all night while actually staying up to work, what she hears is the accusation echoed: “I was working then and I’m working now. I don’t like to go out. I never did.” When I ask whether her works begin with shapes or notions or, perhaps, with their titles, which are memorable and seem so definitive, she says: “No, you’re wrong.” Then she considers. “The title is the subject,” she says. “The title or the subject is a loose net that catches things, and whatever fits inside the net stays, if that’s not too pretentious.” Emin has never seemed pretentious. Her most-used words, in conversation, are different forms of work. “All the wildness is in the work,” she says. And, “there is a calmness in me when I am working.” And, “the work is working toward the crescendo of the subject.” When she says that the subject is often a question, it becomes tempting, though unwise, to ask a question containing the word tautological.

Yet Emin must delight in being questionable. A few hours after she hangs up the phone, she says, she will be going out, but only to dinner, and only then to see her friend Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg, the billionaire exmayor of New York, is Emin’s idea of a man who should be leading the free world. She asks, when I express my doubts, whether I prefer having Trump. She says that my not voting in the election was smart, even if it wasn’t a choice but a consequence of being Canadian. She thinks Mark Carney, a Canadian economist who currently serves as Governor of the Bank of England, would make another good President of the United States. There seems to be no useful reply. It occurs to me that Tracey Emin is a Conservative. It occurs to me, in particular, that I once read a story in the Telegraph saying that Tracey Emin feels abused by other artists for voting Tory. “Anyway,” says Emin, “I am going to dinner tonight as a representative of–of myself, not as myself, but as a famous international woman artist.”

When the artist was younger, she did not think of representation, or of being represented. She did not go around calling herself a feminist, and whether she was one is irrelevant to the fact that, as Emin herself has said, she experienced sexism at the hands of institutions and critics. But then, the word feminist was more a term of art than the marketing term it can be today, and it is today that the term sticks more easily to work signed “Tracey Emin.” She is aware that female artists who are younger, prettier, and better off than she was at the start of her career are prone to copping her style: Petra Collins, the photographer, artist, and model who was born in Toronto the year Emin showed her first piece in London, has done a number of pieces spelling out Rihanna lyrics and late-night iMessages in Barbie-pink neons. Emin-lite, I might call it. Emin doesn’t mind. She is not, as a woman, threatened by girl power.

“I don’t mind being imitated when the artist who’s doing it is really young,” she says, not naming names. “It’s natural for young artists to pay homage and even to copy. What annoys me is when people my age who are just copying and trying to make a name off my ideas.” Emin is possessed of a congenital, gentle smirk, which often appears in flash photographs to be something meaner, or darker, like a scowl. It is easy to picture her scowling now. “Number one,” she continues italically, “they’re not going to heaven. Number two, they’re not even artists, they’re a sort of designer. And number three, how can they get any satisfaction out of it? They can’t.”

Emin believes that art is not a task but a vocation. She utters the phrase “doing what you love” as if it’s never been said. She says, as she has said in most recent interviews, that her work is getting better as she ages. Better how? “Stronger.” How does she know? “Because of the pleasure and understanding I find in it.” Have there been any changes to elicit new strength, or understanding? “No, I am the same person.” A breath. Then: “My mother died last year, which changed a lot about how I feel, how I am in the world.” What was the biggest change? “My mother was alive,” says Emin, “and now she’s not.”

Neon and Mirror/Diabond Installation view: The More Of You The More I Love You, Art Basel Unlimited, Basel, 2016 © Tracey Emin. Photo: Sébastien Bozon. Courtesy the artist, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, White Cube and Xavier Hufkens

She uses the word “my,” and even the word “me,” more seldomly now. In lieu of a diary, which makes her aware of living posthumously and inspires self-censorship, she writes and sends letters to her friends. “I’m the last person in England using the post office,” says Emin, who also believes, despite what the government says, that “they are starting to take the post boxes away.” In the titles of her recent exhibitions, as in her more private writings, the first-person possessive has given way to direct address: “Love is What You Want,” “You Saved Me,” “I Followed You to the Sun.” She got “The Memory of Your Touch” from a moment in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a husband dead and a widow anguished, missing “the touch of him.” Emin, a desirous reader who’s usually too tired to read, has a different book open at every bedside: a biography of Nabokov, whose author she can’t recall; I Love Dick by Chris Kraus; Provence by Lawrence Durrell. The last book she read cover to cover, almost six months ago, she sighs, was the wonderful novel Horse Crazy by Gary Indiana. She remembers a bit near the end, when a woman artist, suffering from myopia, thinks she sees a cute, brooding guy in a tavern; but when she gets close, he turns out to be a stain on the wall.

Her beds are various, scattered between her studio, her home in London, her other home in the South of France, her old family home in Margate. It’s in France where Emin is “self-sufficient, or somewhat self-sufficient.” She has peppers, tomatoes, and courgettes in her garden, and recently she grew her first pumpkins, though they were “not very good.” There are no good restaurants around, so she cooks. I ask for a recipe. She can’t think of one, and then she doesn’t want to. “I thought we were going to talk about my art,” says Emin. “I am not interested in these questions, and by the sounds of it,” referring to the dilatory sound of my voice, “you aren’t either.” I laugh. She laughs less.

We talk about art, and it is nearly the same conversation. She lists the materials in her studio, starting with the Dionysian bronze she loves for its “machoness.” She makes declarations of increasing dependence on herself. She means a “true” self. She also means a “real” self. “Total isolation, surrounded by nature,” says Emin, “is what I need to really work.” Never lonely in the studio, she continues to feel a longing in bed. Whether the longing is for a man is unclear. Not every you is the you of a very romantic pop song. Quieter, larger, is the you of a prayer.

We talk about her husband Stone, who is literally a stone, a piece of rock, and whom she married last spring in the garden in France where she found him. Stone and Emin “are having a nice relationship,” she says, “although long-distance is always tricky.” It occurs to me that I once read a story in the Telegraph saying that Georgia O’Keeffe left her unfaithful husband for a mountain. “God told me,” said O’Keeffe, “that if I painted it enough I could have it.” Emin, when I tell her this, softly repeats: have it. There is a word loved by the master self-portraitist, and painter of flora and fauna, Albrecht Dürer. The word is Konterfei, which means an exact likeness and signified to him the making of something exactly like. “Yes,” says Emin. “Yes.” She exhales at length. “You asked what I’m working on now. That’s what I’m working on. The thing. The thing that it is. That’s the end of the interview.”

JONAS MEKAS

iris04_mekas_webJohn & Yoko on a cruise boat up the Hudson river, July 7, 1971 | 17 x 22 inches, Archival Photographic Print. Edition of 3 + 2 AP, 2013

Recognized as one of the leading figures of American avant-garde filmmaking, Jonas Mekas is a pioneer in the craft and has become an icon in the world of fine art. Through his accomplished career as a filmmaker, photographer, poet and organizer, Mekas firmly established filmmaking as a widely accepted means of artistic expression. Through his lens, Mekas has captured some of the most beautiful, provocative, and interesting moments of celebrities, nature, and Mekas’ distinct view of life. Some of his most famous subjects include noted filmmakers, Jacqueline Kennedy, and artists like Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley. Another large portion of Mekas’ work is concerned with the more intrinsically personal moments of nature: family, being human, and appreciating life beyond the conventional.  Known also as a curator and an icon of contemporary American culture, Mekas documented the works of many other famous artists, notably listed are the works we have published here of John Lennon with Yoko Ono on a cruise boat and Andy Warhol posing with an academy award. Jonas Mekas’ work has been exhibited at the finest museums worldwide, and is this issue’s Icon in recognition of his lifetime of work innovating the world of film and photography.

-Benjamin Price

iris04_mekas_web2Andy Warhol, 1971 | 17 x 22 inches, Archival Photographic Print. Edition of 3 + 2 AP, 2013

CHRIS VON WANGENHEIM

Prolific fashion photographer Chris von Wangenheim’s iconic images have pushed boundaries and inspired an entirely new generation of photographers. His career and his work is garnering new attention with a new book Gloss: The Work of Chris von Wangenheim.

Outtake from Christian Dior advertisement, 1976, “Fetching is You Dior,” Lisa Taylor and Whiskey

“We sort of fell into it,” explained New York’s PR powerhouse duo, Roger & Mauricio Padilha, “We have always loved Chris von Wangenheim’s work, but other than seeing his work in vintage magazines, there was no outlet to fully appreciate his body of work.”

Inevitably for von Wangenheim, the memory of he and his work slowly faded from the fashion scene shortly after his death in 1981. Decades later, von Wangenheim is back in the spotlight with Gloss, a provocative new book by brothers & business partners, Mauricio & Roger Padilha. Gloss is the third photo essay book by the Padillha brothers, who have similar works on other fashion world visionaries. It is an extensive photographic journey, featuring over 200 images of artist’s published, unpublished, and personal work. It also includes a collection of evocative interviews with some of his favorite subjects such as the iconic photo of model Lisa Taylor, being fashionably mauled by an equally dashing doberman pincher.

When photographer Chris von Wangenheim died at the age of 39, he was on course to becoming one of the most emblematic photographers of the 70s art and fashion worlds. Along with his contemporaries, Helmut Newton and Guy Borden, von Wangenheim transcribed the hedonistic cultural mood of the times into gorgeous photographs that pushed the boundaries of art and fashion. His work included advertising campaigns for fashion heavy-weights like Dior & Valentino, as well as iconic fashion editorials for Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, & Interview.

From Bianca Jagger to Jerry Hall, von Wangenheim’s subjects were always as prolific as how he chose to envision them. Skimming through Gloss, the reader is bound to encounter such enigmatic imagery as Gia Carangi’s nude body suggestively juxtaposed behind a chainlink fence or the iconic photograph of Grace Jones mounting a taxidermy leopard.  Along with the glamour, disco, sex and drugs of the 70s, they were also violent times. Cars vandalized and set ablaze were real-life backdrops to a rising number of murder cases plaguing the city of New York. Von Wangenheim’s work was a titillating fusion of fashion glam with the grit of the Nightly News. The result elevated the commentary of the images and branded them with edge, mesmerizing his clients and fans with an exhilarating shock factor.

Outtake from Christian Dior advertisement, 1977, “Explosive is You Dior,” Chris O’Connor

“Chris moved to NYC in the late 60’s and assisted a lot of photographers such as James Moore before venturing out on his own. We’d say that the primary inspiration behind his images was NYC itself. His photography captures the grittiness, violence, danger, and glamour of New York throughout the 70s,” explains Roger.

“It was so sexy, dangerous, and always had a cool narrative,” says Roger, about his and Mauricio’s discovery of von Wangenheim, when they were teens living in Long Island. The narrative element of the images piqued the brothers’ imaginations as they’d leaf through Vogue Magazines.

Despite fashion being the medium, “He cared more about the women and the direction of the images than he did about the fashions of the time,” say the brothers, “Our main goal is to always spotlight artists who were super influential but never got their due. So much of contemporary photography owes a great debt to Chris and when future generations look at work that they feel is new or exciting, we want them to know where it comes from and who did it first.”

What was your intention in creating Gloss : The Work of Chris von Wangenheim ?

We have always loved Chris von Wangenheim’s work but other than seeing his work in vintage magazines, there was no outlet to fully appreciate his body of work. As he died at such a young age
and his archives were unattended to, Chris (or any absence of a celebration of his work after he passed) became an enigma in the fashion world. This mystery, coupled with truly extraordinary photographs and a continuing fascination with anything to do with fashion in the 1970’s were all the elements we thought could make a fascinating book.

Did you decide to use Chris von Wangenheim as a book subject organically or was it a calculated process that happened over time? 

All of our books happen organically through our interests. If we were more calculated, I suppose we’d pick a subject that had a guaranteed massive sell through. It’s a lot harder to market a book on a forgotten artist than it is to market a book on one of those housewives on TV! But if we aren’t fans of the subject matter initially, we just can’t spend a few years of our lives writing a book about it.    

Christian Dior advertisement, 1976, “Nightlife is You Dior,” Patti Hansen

How did you find a starting point to sort through the tons of archives and what was your editing process in selecting the final images to publish in the book?

We always know what we want to include in our books. We are the subjects ultimate fans so we approach selection of images to reflect what we, as fans, would want to see in a monograph on our favorite artist. So many times we see books on artists we admire and disagree with what the authors might choose to include or the order or classification the images are in.   

How extensive was his archive?

Not very. as his death was sudden, he didn’t really organize them to leave behind as a body of work the way an aging artist might. Also, the archives were spread apart between many different parties so there was a lot of investigation work done on our part to make sure we saw the best and most important work to include in the book.

What is your goal for the reader to take away from the publication?

Our main goal is to always spotlight artists who were super influential but never got their due. So much of contemporary photography owes a great debt to Chris and when future generations looks at work that they feel is new or exciting, we want them to know where it comes from and who did it first. 

Unpublished image of Karen Bjornson and Whiskey Circa 1977

All photo courtesy of MAO PR | Text by Matt Bell

IRVING PENN: BEYOND BEAUTY

Interview by Dustin Mansyur | Photos by Irving Penn

Bee, New York, 1995 by Irving Penn

A discussion with Sue Canterbury of the Dallas Museum of Art on the iconic American photographers latest traveling retrospective in nearly two decades.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, a retrospective of iconic American photographer, Irving Penn, will be on display at the Dallas Museum of Art for the first installment of the Smithsonian American Art Museum-organized (SAAM) exhibition. While known and beloved by fashion for decades, the exhibition delves into the body of Penn’s work, exploring the full range of his career. Often overlooked early periods of the 1930s street scenes & his study of the American South in the 1940s, these earlier works were crucial in the development of Penn’s approach surrounding his lifelong endeavor to experience and create beauty in all subject matter. The exhibition, now on display at the Dallas Museum of Art through August 14, 2016, debuts 100 photographs recently donated by The Irving Penn Foundation with over 40 more additional images drawn exclusively from the Smithsonian’s holdings.

“While Irving Penn was one of the key photographers of the 20th century, this will be the first retrospective of his work in 20 years…His mastery of lighting and composition, and his technical prowess in the darkroom, reveal him as a true master of modern photography,” said Sue Canterbury, the presenting curator in Dallas for the exhibition and the Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art at the Dallas Museum of Art.

 

 

Perhaps more notable is that all 100 images donated to SAAM were printed during the artist’s lifetime and approved by Irving Penn personally, 60 of which Penn himself donated personally to the Smithsonian in 1988 and which span his career from 1944 to 1986. The photographs donated by Penn’s foundation, and now on display at The Dallas Museum of Art, include unpublished early works of postwar Europe; a host of color photographs produced for by Penn for his editorial and advertising work—some of his most highly recognizable fashion imagery, celebrity portraits which include Salvador Dali, Leontyne Price & Truman Capote, and a selection of still-lifes.

“Penn’s role as an innovator in the medium of photography is a compelling story, and the DMA is pleased to reveal, and celebrate, his artistic legacy,” Canterbury explains. Here Iris Covet Book spends time with Sue Canterbury to discuss the iconic photographers career & life’s work and the exhibition Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty.

 

Head In Ice, New York, 2002 by Irving Penn

 

A lot of people are familiar with Irving Penn’s work as a fashion photographer and for the work that he did later on in life. What foremost qualities stands out to you about Irving Penn’s work and his creative process?

In some of his early works he had this real attraction towards surrealism. His earliest photographs of shop windows, or storefronts with cut-out signs have a surrealistic quality to them. This sort of approach continues throughout. Sometimes it’s not as obvious as others, but it’s there.

Another thing that stands out is his idea of beauty as an absolute value, and his interest in how people present themselves. All cultures have their way of self-adornment, which is part of what makes them beautiful. It’s how that culture sees and appreciates beauty.

He had, I think, a fascination with that beauty. While on assignment in San Francisco, you see it in the way he photographs the Hell’s Angels and the hippies. It didn’t really matter if you were a model from Manhattan or a woman from New Guinea. It’s just part of a continuum within his work.

 

Truman Capote, New York, 1979 by Irving Penn

 

Issue Miyake Fashion: White and Black, New York, 1990 by Irving Penn

 

Do you think that his approach to beauty, and how he understood it, helped him to become an innovator in the world of photography?

I think one way he was really an innovator was his approach to fashion. In the ’40s, fashion photos shoots had become tableau-like.  A model would wear a particular dress, and a contextual situation would be created around her to basically give her the excuse for her wearing the dress. It was a lot of work to put it all together, but another aspect of it, it really abstracted the eye from the main event, which was the piece of clothing.

In contrast, Penn deviated from that aesthetic and pushed a very stripped down background, which would have been considered minimal for the time. That’s something we also see with his portraiture, for example the Warner portraits, in how he stripped things down. The result is, there’s this wonderful emphasis on silhouette, light, and composition. And for his commercial clients, the designers and editors, this approach emphasized the costume itself. Because of its simplicity and elegance, other photographers began imitating.

 

Salvador Dali, New York, 1947 by Irving Penn

 

Were there any photographs in the exhibition that surprised you or that you were particularly drawn to?

I think in particular, the lead image which is on the cover of the catalog, Head in Ice. This image is unlike everything else that’s in the exhibition and it demonstrates his unusual approach to subject matter. After submerging a mannequin’s head in water and freezing it, Penn proceeded to photograph the head through the fractured block of ice and it’s incredibly surrealistic. He was always thinking outside of the box in his approach to his subject matter which is why he was such an exemplar in the advertising industry. He made images that were memorable.

 

Yeah, it almost appears as if it is a painting, the part where it’s fractured, as if it could almost be like texture from brush strokes on a painting. There’s a very painter-like quality about that image.

Yes, that’s very true. It’s sort of interesting you bringing that up, because when he was starting out, painting was what he wanted to do. So there are particular aspects of that in his work, and in the approach of it.

For a long time, photography wasn’t really respected as a viable art-form the way that painting was. Much of Penn’s work was geared towards commercial publications, but what about his work as an artist?

He had already began working in that vein to some degree in the ’40s. You see it in his early shots from Philadelphia or New York, and also the ones he did in Mexico in 1941, some of which he submitted to a surrealist magazine at that time. So he was already thinking of photography as an art form early on. It isn’t until 1942, when he returns from Mexico that he is hired by Vogue.

That’s when Penn became very oriented towards mass-publication magazines. A lot of photographers leading up to mid-century were picking up the greatest exposure through printed matter. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, when magazines quality began to suffer due to poor paper qualities and printing techniques, Penn turned away from that. It’s in the ’60s when he starts his research and began working with the platinum printing process. Still throughout the entire body of work, both commercial and art, his approach is always an unusual one.

With the accessibility and the popularity that has happened with photography, how do you think that society’s view of photography as art is going to continue to evolve over time?

It definitely becomes more democratized, not just because of digital, but because of smartphones actually. That has been one of the challenges for this exhibition because we realize we are speaking to a generation that may have never seen a piece of film negative.

They don’t understand the concept of shutter speeds or apertures. So we’ve been trying to do some other educational things on the side to inform them about what that process is because it’s difficult for them to realize what Penn accomplished and how he accomplished it.

 

Irving Penn In a Cracked Mirror, New York, 1986 by Irving Penn

 

Especially because the printing techniques and the technology was so different then. Today everything is Inkjet. Unless you’re still working with film creatively, and doing those types of printing processes.

Very true. His processes were so evolved. He had to be a bit of a scientist and alchemist in the dark room, not just an artist. I think another aspect of his work that people don’t realize is how he altered cameras to suit his needs.

An example of this is in the Underfoot series. Penn used a 35 millimeter that he had modified by attaching a tube to the body. At the end of the tube he put a macro-lens. So essentially, he could sit in a chair in the street and have the macro lens hovering as close as possible over the chewing gum. The detail, of course, is really quite amazing. He makes grains of grit and dirt sparkle like crystals. It has this wonderful tone and richness.

Another example of how he altered cameras, was in the ’70s. He purchased a Folmer & Schwing wide format, banquet-view camera, which had a 12 by 20 plate on it. That’s a camera that was manufactured in about 1910. So he reaches way back in technology, pulls it forward to ’79 and does these really great still-lifes. The wide format still-lifes in the show were shot with that banquet-view camera. What it meant was that he did not have to enlarge it. It was a direct contact print. So the resolution was really wonderful. Then he would go on to take that same camera in the ’90s and use it for his experiments with moving the light.

What are you hoping people will garner from the exhibition?

One of the things that I want them to take away, is that Penn’s work encompassed so much more than his body of fashion work. There was the public commercial areas where he had his own clients, but also his personal work that he did on the side, and how innovative he was with his eye – to understand how he saw beauty. Penn felt that he could pull beauty from any object, given the right circumstances, proven by his street trash, for instance.

One assistant recounted many years later how he would go out to find things for Penn to photograph. He would bring back things he thought were interesting. Penn said to him, “I don’t want things that are interesting. I want things that can be made interesting through photography.”

It’s a subtle difference, but it’s a big one. And that’s something that he brings to all of his work. That beauty extends far outside the fashion body of his work to encompass all of it, really. Everything is done with such intention, such precision, such perfection because he was a perfectionist. It’s incredible to see these really wonderful works and to realize what went into them.