“Just watch these images. Nothing much happens. Images go. No tragedy, no trauma, no suspense. Just images. For myself. And for a few others. One doesn’t have to watch. One doesn’t. But if one feels so. One can just sit and watch. These images…”
This quote comes nearly two thirds of the way through Jonas Mekas’s 1969 filmic essay Walden. For some viewers, it’ll be too late to explain just what he’s about. For others it’ll be unnecessary. But for an essentially plotless film that clocks in at three hours, this thesis has always been lurking in the background. Someone may as well say it. And it may as well be him.
And yet, so much happens here. Mekas is at the epicenter of New York art. He finds himself filming—and sitting in with—Andy Warhol, Eddie Sedwick, Allen Ginsburgh, Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Velvet Underground (during their first appearance), Hans Richter, an anonymous German film crew, John and Yoko, and Stan Brakhage. Yet all this amounts to a small percentage of what’s on screen. Mostly it’s Mekas as observer of his friends, environments, and the anonymous people of New York. He’s a master of jump cuts, double exposures, and asynchronous sound. The sequences are loosely connected through a series of typewritten intertitles. But mostly these are images. Nothing much happens.
I'm kind of, really addicted to art books. I buy them. Read them. Love them. I refer to them. I look to them for inspiration.
But I have a bit of a problem as I move beyond the cannon of Warhol, Cornell, Rauschenberg, Johns, etc. There aren't enough women artists represented in art books. Yes, there are many books on Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, and Louise Bourgeois. But many groundbreaking female artists have been passed over by a chauvinistic and risk-adverse publishing industry.
So I'm keeping a list, as I come across them, of important female artists who have no currently in-print catalogs or monographs. Know of a woman artist who needs a book? Let me know if the comments, and I will add her. Or tweet with #sheneedsabook.
Alexis Hunter: A remarkable feminist photographer whose work has only recently come to my attention. She utilizes sequence, deconstruction, narrative, and hand-rendered elements to examine stereotypes and indite patriarchy. Her work is in museums around the world — in fact, the Tate did a wonderful short film about her — but no book.
Sari Dienes: She inspired and championed Rauschenberg and Johns (who have more books between them than I can count). Her work ran the gamut from traditional printmaking, to painting, to photography, to complex sidewalk rubbings.
Joyce Neimanas: Neimanas is a groundbreaking photographer who discovered Polaroid "joiners" two years before Hockney. She delighted in process, and frequently brought feminist concerns into her work. In 1984, a 24-page pamphlet was published by the Center for Creative Photography is Arizona, but it's out-of-print. And it's only 24 pages.
Idelle Weber: Her graphical and dynamic pop art style literally invented the look of Madmen. In 2013, a 48-page book was published by Hollis Taggart Galleries.
Jann Haworth: She "helped" Peter Blake create the cover for Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But she did so much more. Her complex assemblages and "soft art" are feminist statements that deserve to be seen.
Dorothy Grebenak: She wove "pop" statements into rugs. Her woven "manhole covers" in particular seem apt critiques of the male-dominated art world.
There’s a scene halfway through John Schlessinger’s 1965 mod-relationship-drama Darling where the film’s heroine, Diana Scott, attends an art opening for artist Ralph Riggs. The gallery show is a backdrop, a stylish and appropriate one for mid-60s 'swingeing London.' In the scene, the film’s heroine is confronted by her lover who suspects her of betrayal. It’s a tense and kinetic scene, but it had me thinking just as much about what was on the walls as what was happening between Julie Christie and Dirk Bogarde.
Despite the big-screen exposure, it’s fair to say Riggs is pretty much an unknown today. But his work fits squarely in the pop vernacular. Stylistically it’s most reminiscent of his American contemporary Rosalyn Drexler, but also Peter Blake, Peter Phillips, Pauline Boty, and others who adopted a flat, graphic painting style in the '60s. The subject matter picks up on Warhol’s Death and Disaster series (1963), Lichtenstein’s Pistol (1964), and Jasper Johns’s many target paintings, as well as the socially conscious work his non-pop predecessor Ben Shahn. The one stylistic outlier is the exhibition’s main image of a crumpled body surrounded by an explosion of expressive Japanese ink wash that might suggest Joan Miró was taking a stab at a murder scene, though this may have been Riggs symbolically living in the shadow of art history. I also thought of Warhol’s drippy, ab-ex inflected early pop paintings like Coca Cola (1960) and Before and After  (1961).
Yet, before we think of Riggs as just a pale imitator or also-ran, at least one painting seems to anticipate Raymond Pettibon's inky comic-inspired style that broke with Lichtenstein’s cold, mechanical style.
A few weeks ago I had to write a Facebook eulogy for one of my rabbits, Leander, a ten-year-old who succumbed to complications of arthritis and gastrointestinal stasis. I’m not trying to jump the gun, but I know I’m going to have to write something, at some point, for Celeste, a fourteen-year-old half-lop who, as near as the vet can tell, has a brain tumor.* But I want to write about her now, not then.
Celeste is one of the smartest rabbits I’ve known, as much as you can measure it—which I think is by behavior. She’s always had a remarkable sense of cause and effect, willfully foregoing bribes if she knew it meant a few more minutes of freedom. Her ability to perceive spacial relationships has always been superb. She would remember doors that opened for only a second and where they lead. She coupled this intelligence with courage, boldly venturing into new areas, going nose-to-nose with my sister’s Manchester Terrier. If she wanted to get on the dining table to steal a turnip (which she once did), she would jump to the chair first. She always looked to see where she could go next.
She doesn’t do that anymore.
A few months back, Celeste started having seizures. Even though they’re mostly under control with medication, they still happen on occasion. One happened just the other night. She seemed confused as to how to get out the litter box. As I lifted her out, her legs started scissor kicking while her front paws tensed. When I tried to put her down on four feet, she curled into a crescent shape, meaning she could only be on her side. Her breathing was heavy. And then the horrible screaming—an unusual thing for largely silent and stoic beings. There’s a trick my wife figured out, giving her a bit of petramalt which used to snap her out of it, but less these days. This seizure lasted thirty seconds but felt like minutes. Since her first round of seizures, she’s been dragging her back legs. Some days are better than others but she still does her daily run into the living room.
Here’s what gets me: Her brain is so remarkable—always has been. How ironic that that’s the thing that’s taking her down. There’s no way to tell how much time she has left.
I have to bathe her hind legs and tail once a week, and spot clean them nearly daily. It’s ok, I don’t have a job. I often have to feed her her cecotropes by hand—cecostropes are the stinky, vitamin-rich droppings rabbits produce and eat. She’s too inflexible and forgetful to always get them herself. I help her with leg extensions too.
And yet, I’m getting to know this doe-eyed beauty in new ways. She’s always loved to cuddle and be handled, despite her independent nature. Now it’s even more important to her. Mornings and evenings are epic snuggle sessions. She eats with pleasure, sleeps long and comfortably, and clicks her teeth frequently (the rabbit “purr”). I’ll sit on the sofa to read a book and she’ll hop towards me, kind of sideways. I help her the rest of the way. She looks confused when she tries to hop and can’t do it right, but her eyes are peaceful and happy when she lays down in my lap.
So, my rabbit has a brain tumor. I sometimes look at her head and think of the size of her brain, and how small the tumor must be. A part of me wonders how something so small can affect so much—but it’s that willfully naive part. I know. It’s all about scale.
We know this when we get pets. We will outlive them. They may get ill, but either way we will watch them deteriorate. We will want every last minute with them, while knowing at some point we may have to decide it’s time. A dear friend told me she seems happy but that she’s just winding down. It’s true. When things get too tough for her, well, that’s then. But this is now.
But the willfully naive part of me also thinks that maybe if I write this now, in lieu of a eulogy, she will just always be.
*A CT scan would diagnose it, only CT scans for rabbits of any age can be dangerous. And truth be told, it wouldn’t change the treatment much at all.
When I saw "NOT NOTHING: The Collected Writings of Ray Johnson" on the shelf of Bird & Beckett Books, something seemed off to me. I knew Johnson as a collage artist, mailart master, "outsider artist", proto-pop hero, friend of Andy Warhol, mysterious suicide, and subject of the film "How to Draw a Bunny." I did not think of him as a "proper writer." So, as I pulled the book off the shelf, I had to wonder if he also had a secret identity as art theorist. The answer to that is variously: "Yes", "No", and "What the Fuck?"
The content of this irresistible tome from Siglio is made up of facsimiles of Johnson's mail art activities, which went under the name of the New York Correspondence School. He would write to, and reference, big names in art like Marianne Moore, Eve Hesse, Robert Rauschenberg, Ruth Asawa, Billy Name, Joseph Cornell, and so many others (there's a "who's who" in the back for easy reference, but you'll be going to the internet for help given the number of people involved). He would type out letters (often on stationery appropriated from various institutions) and send them off to members of the school, frequently with instruction that the receiver should send the letters to someone else. He would incorporate collage too, as well as his famous bunny drawings.
I'm working with a typewriter a lot these days, which was my ostensible reason for buying the book, even while unemployed. But really, it's just fun: Here he writes nonsensical answers to an art reviewer's questions. Here he draws two horses humping, referencing fellow members of the "school." Here he appropriates a Joseph Cornell "collage tag" in a piece about Warhol. There's no point in reading it sequentially. It's a book you open up and drop in on. If you find a writing you've read before, re-read it. It'll only take a minute.
There's also a suitably bewildered intro by Kevin Killian which is worth a read (because Killian is ALWAYS worth a read) as well as an intro by editor Elizabeth Zuba which gives you more context. But after that, abandon all sense, ye who enter. Spend some time with this mad mind, this left-field creative, this (im)proper writer. And then make something. Anything. And send it to a friend. It's what Ray Johnson would have wanted.
While I do see my fair share of photography shows, it’s rare that I come out of one where I feel like I know the photographer personally. With painters, there’s the stroke of the brush, the erasures, the patched canvases, the drips and hesitations. Yet when you are viewing a photograph in a museum, you are looking through the viewfinder. There are the veiled self portraits: Lee Friedlander calls himself out, through shadows and reflections, yet those elements don’t really tell us what it’s like to be Friedlander. Cindy Sherman photographs herself, but she is all shifting identities.
With Danny Lyon, its different. Lyon brings us into the world he’s photographing, but he also brings himself to us. A lot has been written about his work covering bikers, the civil rights movement, and the lives of prisoners. And rightly so. Lyon wasn’t a casual observer of the groups he photographed. He became part of them. But he also became part of his photographs in a very unique way.
Early on we see Lyon creating montages: portraits of individuals (mostly) created out of a variety of different photographic sources. He arranged this patchwork of snap shots in a kind of cross structure. He would also write narratives in his cramped handwriting on the unexposed space around a photograph. None of these would seem surprising in a photo album (which Lyon also made) or on a teenager’s bulletin board. But in the space of a museum where we are accustomed to the meticulously framed and matted presentation of a single image, devoid of the trace of the artist’s hand, it’s strikingly, well, personal.
Lyon using Polaroid too. Which wasn’t unusual for a serious photographer. Polaroid had a program for getting its film and cameras into the hands of fine art photographers, what we now call influencer marketing. But Lyon’s work distinguishes itself by often looking like casual snapshots. He wanted to use Polaroid because he didn’t want his project to look like photojournalism, and so he could share his photos with the people he was photographing.
In short, Lyon’s work looks alive and part of his life, not just a product he crafted for consumption. He was often the subject of his own work too, photographing himself and friends in mirrors, the camera clearly in view.
Flick through Instagram right now and you’ll see users arranging photos in grids, adorning photos with text, photographing themselves in mirrors, sharing their photos, emulating that Polaroid look, and making their photography a seamless piece of their lives. Is it too much to say that Lyon invented how we Instagram? Probably, but it’s probably not a stretch to say that Lyon’s work prefigured the way so many of us practice photography in our lives. This photographer of freedom, gave us the freedom to be ourselves.
I thought for my opening salvo on kent.ly I'd just sabotage the whole thing by saying that I don't like making websites. At least, I don't like making them nearly as much as I like making books.
Books became a bit of a thing for me while I worked at Blurb. It's what Blurb does, and I quickly succumbed to the magic of it. Books have been our primary way of organizing and disseminating information for the past 600 years. Websites have been with us for about 25. Books I read and collected and cradled in my arms as a child. Websites appeared to me in my teens—they were slow loading and ugly, but hey, they've improved. Even when I've fallen asleep with my phone in my hand, I've never really held a website.
But it's more than legacy, sentimentality, and tactile fetishism that draws me to books. It's about construction and purpose. I've made about 30 books, most print-on-demand but also the handmade variety. They have a mechanical structure and a sequential order (though that's open to experimentation). There's no code, no standards, no widgets, no browser dependencies. The size of the page will not change based on who reads it. But more than that, when I make a book it is a discreet package of information, whether verbal or visual. I make a book about baseball, another about my pop art, still another (four or five) about Chicago. They amount to a small library and each is part and parcel me.
Websites, like this one, are a visual and verbal soup stuck in a bifurcating ontological tree. I can't control how you go through it, or what you get out of it, any more than I can with a book. But websites have to be organized top down, like a convenience store. They are open to experimentation, but people get impatient if they can't navigate. But most of all, a website compresses. In this case it compresses me: Here is everything represented, a sampler platter.
I could make a library of websites. And I suppose I should—After all it's easier to send someone to a website then to get them to buy a book. But I'm not likely to. There's not the same joy in it for me. Because in my heart of hearts I know this: Websites inform, but books express.