A Review of Chuck Close: Life by Christopher Finch

This review, my first book review, originally appeared in the November/December 2010 Art New England. 

“All Stuart’s pictorial interest tended to focus on the human face,” writes art historian Robert Hughes of George Washington’s famed American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. “The remarkable thing was that he could fake the sense of direct confrontation between painter and sitter so well that not a few of his Washington replicas, some done years after Washington’s death, seem to preserve it.”

Chuck Close is the only American painter to ever rival Stuart in his candid concentration on the human face. Christopher Finch’s Chuck Close: Life begins with a fleeting reference to Stuart, with the author on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s steps. The instance sets a subtle tone for Finch’s epic biography, a companion to his 2007 Chuck Close: Work. Finch intimately observes Close’s established reputation as a Process artist aligned with the likes of Minimalists such as Brice Marden or Richard Serra, but positions Close’s larger legacy as that of a distinctly American artist.  Like American masters such as Stuart, John Singleton Copley or Thomas Eakins, Close uses the face, or head, as a motif in his larger explorations into Modern and Post-Modern aesthetics. Finch deftly weaves Close’s life and work into that of the mythic American artist as pioneer, rising above provincial beginnings through honest ingenuity and practice in order to contribute to the broader scope of contemporary art history. “Chuck Close is a self-made New Yorker, and a master of the New York School of painting, but beyond that he is an American artist, in the sense that Vermeer is Dutch, and Cezanne French—representative of an entire culture,” writes Finch in his first chapter.

Close’s childhood, typical of post-war America, was marred by the traumatic and untimely death of his father as well as numerous physical and learning disabilities. His father an inventor, his mother an aspiring musician, Close was born on July 5, 1940 in Monroe, Washington. Close as a precocious and determined child and young adult emerges through Finch’s careful study of family photographs and memorabilia, as well as exhaustive interviews with family members and Close himself. Finch conjures young Close diligently memorizing facts in the bathtub to overcome his dyslexia and learning magic tricks to amuse bullies who tease him for his thick glasses. It is this Close, argues Finch, systematic and industrious in his triumph over trouble, who is the archetypical pragmatic American artist.

Close began his career not in a sophisticated atelier in Paris or New York, but at Everett Junior College in his native Washington. Close enrolled at EJC to become a commercial artist, but he soon aspired to become a painter, akin to such contemporary revolutionaries as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Close’s admiration and replication of de Kooning’s loose, bravura style would haunt him for at least a decade, and Finch astutely analyzes de Kooning’s legacy on Close’s student and mature work. At EJC and later at the University of Washington, and ultimately Yale, where Close received an MFA, Close’s aesthetic mimics de Kooning’s bold, broad strokes, but never disregards figuration. Finch’s narrative winds us through Close’s struggle to shake de Kooning’s formal legacy in order to find his meticulous painterly, pixilated style and signature motif, the head.

Like Stuart, Close documents his sitters’ head once. Working from photographs, Close recycles a likeness through various formal and technical concerns. And, just as Stuart did, Close captures a sense of vivid present-ness in his work. However, Close relies on distinctly Modern and Post-Modern methods of art making to achieve an illusion of reality.


Finch’s examination of Close’s evolution from Abstract Expressionism to Process Art, and his provocative blend of the two, gracefully positioned within the greater cultural context of post-war America, is the biography’s principal strength. “For the generation that followed, the sense of scale found in Abstract Expressionism fit in well with other concerns, such as an interest in the sheer size of the pictorial content encountered in such archetypically American forms of expression as Times Square billboards and CinemaScope movies,” writes Finch. “In a real sense, this monumental increase in scale tends to make that most figurative of figurative subjects, the human likeness, less representational and more abstract.” In portraying his “heads,” Close summarizes his sitters into intangible particles of color and shape–a delicate Abstractionism conflated with the scrupulousness of Process. Finch argues this hybrid is a product of Close’s over-arching interest in illusionism found in old masters as much as Saturday Evening Post covers.

Finch’s intimate and decades-long friendship with Close is at the core of his biography, and affords us to penetrate deeply private episodes of the artist’s life and career. Descriptions of “The Event,” or Close’s middle-age metamorphosis into a functioning quadriplegic, are the most affecting passages. Finch’s prose can be jolting and verbose at times; however, his understanding of Close’s context and art historical legacy are significant, equivalent to Lloyd Goodrich’s Thomas Eakins


A Review of Near Andersonville

In honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as the excellent exhibition The Civil War and American Art, I’m reposting my review of Peter Wood’s Near Andersonville. This review’s first appearance was in the March/April 2011 Art New England



“Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of the earth has the capacity and passion for pictures,” reads the epigraph of Peter H. Wood’s book, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War. From Frederick Douglass’s “Pictures,” circa late 1864, these words are apt for the mysterious, moving story of a painting and its maker. Winslow Homer (1836-1910), one of the most revered and honored nineteenth-century American painters, authored the small, perceptive painting eventually recognized as Near Andersonville (1865-1866); the painting depicts a pensive slave woman at the threshold of a muddied shelter, obscuring the marching prisoners of war behind her. With her arms akimbo, the woman is painted with an affecting sensitivity uncommon in nineteenth-century portrayals of slave life. Perhaps it is unsurprising that such a painting ended up forgotten in a New Jersey attic for almost a century. Douglass’s straightforward words are apposite for the story of this neglected masterpiece, for if man is the only picture making being, his species is the only that collects pictures. In Near Andersonville, Wood engrossingly elucidates Homer’s motivations for making such an iconoclastic painting, and its first owner’s unexplained magnetism toward such a work. 

Wood starts the story of Near Andersonville in the 1960s in New Jersey, just outside of Newark in the affluent home of a recently deceased banker. Horace Kellogg Corbin dies in 1960, leaving the contents of his house to his children and grandchildren. Eager to organize and dispense with their father’s belongings, Kellogg’s children look to sell everything within the attic to a local junk shopkeeper. Something seems suspicious when the shopkeeper presses the family to get the job done, however. On a hunch, the Corbins inspect the family attic further, discovering the hidden treasure: a Homer painting. Eventually a Corbin family friend identifies the picture as not just any Homer, but a Civil War Homer. But there were no buyers for the paintings in 1960s America, and the Corbins decided to gift the painting to the Newark Museum with the title Captured Liberators. This demur name marginalized the painting’s true subject, and speaks to the country’s inability to process such a difficult, fraught image during the Civil Rights Era. Wood navigates the nuanced context of finding such a painting by a hero of the American canon with a refined, dramatic flourish, explaining the continued obscurity around Near Andersonville  as it came out of the Corbin attic and into a public museum.

The Newark Museum kept rough provenance records which helped in eventually identifying Near Andersonville’s true title, as well as its original owner. With a scholar’s curiosity, Wood traces the Corbin family tree back to Elijah Kellogg, a respected figure in nineteenth-century Elizabeth, New Jersey. One of Elijah’s daughters, Sarah Louisa, died young and unexpectedly in 1866, but not before she committed her life’s work to the education and betterment of “freedmen,” or ex-slaves. Just before her death, Sarah Kellogg was in Port Royal, South Carolina, where Union forces had freed masses of slaves at the War’s start. Miss Kellogg was among the progressive teachers who eagerly made their way to Port Royal and the St. Helena, South Carolina area in order to educate the newly free slaves.  Port Royal is just where Homer’s brother Arthur spent time throughout the war while stationed as a crewmember aboard the USS Kingfisher—a boat that the Port Royal teachers were well acquainted with. Is it possible that Sarah met Arthur while they were both in South Carolina, which spurred her to purchase his brother’s painting? Perhaps. At any rate, Sarah Kellogg was so drawn to Near Andersonville to collect it around 1866, soon after its creation. 

Like his brother, Winslow Homer went south for the war, but as a correspondent for Harper’s. The Homers hailed from abolitionist Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Wood supposes that as a sensitive, precocious boy Homer would have recognized and absorbed the era’s racial tensions. Wood parallels Homer’s early career developments with the anxieties of the day, explicating the painter’s cutting talent for burying a meaning within an arresting image. Most poignant is Wood’s understanding of the palpable empathy Homer exhibits for the woman in Near Andersonville, a compassion for the underdog that pervades Homer’s Civil War oeuvre. Wood looks to works such as The Bright Side and Defiance: Inviting a Shot before Petersburg, Virginia to illuminate Homer’s Civil War experience.  Writes Wood, “…much of Homer’s moral and political growth in wartime, like Lincoln’s, centered upon his expanding consciousness of the grim plight and potential liberation of enslaved black Americans….Both men ended up not too far from where Frederick Douglass had started out—just as most white Americans in our own era have eventually drawn closer to where Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders in the civil rights movement began.” 

In Near Andersonville, Wood tells the captivating story of an abandoned painting with the meticulousness of a historian and the panache of a novelist. More than just an enigmatic painting, Near Andersonville is a testament to the passions of abolitionists, and the halting confusion of the slaves that Lincoln freed. This short book is a quick, learned and touching read.

Three Reads for the Gardner Heist

Inside the Gardner: Two empty frames.

Today is the 23rd anniversary of the Gardner Heist, in which two thieves, dressed as Boston Policemen, simply rang the doorbell at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and proceeded to steal thirteen artworks, including Vermeer’s The Concert and Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.

When the two perpetrators left the museum in the early hours of March 18, 1990, with the thirteen works—objects that Gardner had meticulously selected from Europe’s finest galleries a hundred years before, with the help of her advisor, American critic Bernard Berenson—they disappeared. The thieves have never been caught, the paintings never recovered. There’s been so no shortage of theories or leads over the last two decades; last year a New England mobster claimed to have information on the whereabouts of the works. Last week, the Boston Globe reported that the guard who allowed the thieves entry into the museum was never cleared by authorities, and is writing a book on his experience the night of the crime and after.

I’m not sure if RIchard Abath has a publisher or pubdate quite yet, but in the meantime, three reads to understand the facts and significance of the Gardner Heist:

1. The Gardner Heist, by Ulrich Boser, HarperCollins, 2009.

Boser’s comprehensive account of the crime and the various complicated theories who orchestrated and executed the crime, their motives and where those artworks are now, is obsessive. “This is a work of fact,” he writes in the author’s note, though his study of the crime and ongoing investigation reads like mystery. While The Gardner Heist is carefully researched and noted, Boser at times irritatingly devolves into conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, its largely an absorbing, complete look at the crime and the cultural significance of art theft.

2. The Art of the Heist, by Myles J. Connor, Jr., HarperCollins, 2009.

Connor’s memoir, co-authored by crime writer Jenny Siler, chronicles his career as a bank robber and museum pilferer from the 1960s onwards. Though Connor was serving time in an FBI prison on March 18, 1990, authorities believed he might have orchestrated the Gardner theft from his mid-west jailcell. “Almost every aspect of the Gardner heist carried Connor’s fingerprints,” writes Siler in her prologue. And while Connor’s book doesn’t offer new intelligence into the crime or where the artworks are now, The Art of the Heist does give valuable, first-person insight into why artworks are valuable to criminals, and how the Gardner paintings might be used by the theives. Stolen paintings like The Concert can’t be sold on the art market, but Connor’s account suggests they have value in the crime world that’s predicated on their cultural worth.

3. Contemporary Cultures of Display, edited by Emma Barker, Yale University Press, 2009.

Contemporary Cultures of Display doesn’t directly talk about the Gardner heist, but the essays it includes discuss and explain how the meaning of a painting changes as it leaves the privacy of the studio and enters the public sphere for the market or the museum. “The context of display is an important issue for art history because it colours our perception and informs our understanding of works of art,” writes Barker. The studies in Contemporary Cultures of Display look at how cultural meaning is imbued in an artwork, and how we, as cultural participants, understand the value of artworks within a museum setting. One of the most fascinating essays is Barker’s “Heritage and the Country House,” in which she describes and analyzes how homes of powerful people of our past (like Gardner) are preserved with their art collections and presented to the public for cultural consumption (like the Gardner Museum is). There’s power in art, and that power is sometimes contingent on how it’s presented. How did the Gardner thieves recognize and understand the power that the stolen paintings signified, and how did they capitalize on that power? Contemporary Culture of Display offers critical insight into artworks as commodity.

Inside the Gardner.

Inside the Gardner.

PAINT THINGS @ deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum

“Within and around a given work exist multiple forms of space, among them the area between the body and the work, its dimensional space as a container for materials and gesture (painted or otherwise), and its architectural–and contextual–support.” Evan Garza, from PAINT THINGS, Beyond the Stretcher

Curated by Garza and Dina Deitsch, PAINT THINGS examines the sculptural turn of painting since approximately 1990; in the catalogue, they both examine the historical precedent for this shift, which began globally around 1949. Central to their inquiry is the idea of space, both as a physicality and concept.

I’ll discuss the show in the March Big, Red and Shiny. Some pieces/artists I can’t wait to talk about:

Summer Wheat, Ankle Biter, 2011

Cheryl Donegan, chair from Kiss My Royal Irish Ass, 1993
Exhibited publicly for the first time since Donegan’s performance of Kiss My Royal Irish Ass in 1993 at Andrea Rosen Gallery.

Detail from Kate Gilmore’s site-specificLike This, Before, 2013, commissioned for PAINT THINGS.

Inside the deCordova, with Claire Ashley’s thing one (fluoinkem), 2013


ON/SINCERITY is on view at Boston University’s 808 Gallery until December 16, this Sunday. Here’s my reivew of it for BR&S.


Irony has long associated with hollowness in contemporary culture. “Irony was the final polish of the shoe, the ultimate dab of the clothes-brush,” writes F. Scott Fitzgerald of Antony Patch, the doomed protagonist of his 1922 novel, The Beautiful and the Damned. More recently, in October, Camille Paglia treated us to a little teaser of her then-forthcoming Glittering Images with “How Capitalism Can Save Art” in The Wall Street Journal. “The vulnerability of students and faculty alike to factitious theory about the arts is in large part due to the bourgeois drift of the last half century,” writes Paglia. And just a few weeks ago, in an op-ed for the New York Times, Princeton professor Christy Wampole attacked hipsters and their irony infused lifestyles. Irony “signals a deep aversion to risk…As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat,” she writes.

None of the many artists included in the 808 Gallery’s On/Sincerity are culturally numb, resigned or defeated, however. Nor are they adverse to peril, physical or mental. The artists in On/Sincerity aren’t weak, and especially not towards theoretical posturing. They are artists who confront the connected questions of permanence, purpose, practice and craft at the forefront of contemporary art making. If these artists are vulnerable, it’s towards their audience. “By consciously seeking to narrow the distance between the viewer and their artwork, these artists generate honest and meaningful connections that resonate throughout the exhibition space,” write the curators, Lynne Cooney, Exhibitions Director at BU’s School of Visual Arts and Liz Munsell, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art and MFA Programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Douglas Weathersby’s sprawling tree-house of an installation, 808 Gallery Storage Project (2012), anchors the show. Enormous and reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s Knowing My Enemy (2002), 808 Gallery Storage Project is the product of a clean-out of School of Visual Arts’ storage, or a trove of decades-old unclaimed student paintings. These art works were once significant; they represented a grade, if nothing else. But then they were forgotten, relegated to being unknown and unseen until Weathersby, who supports himself through his environmental services company, recovered and related them to each other via two-by-fours in an interconnected structure that recalls Alfred H. Barr’s The Development of Abstract Art (1936) much as it does Facebook’s iconic global map. This work is intricate, precise, yet reverberates the sense of arbitrary chance that social media interaction as well as the personal biases that can structure canon.

Video work by Ivan Argote, Jordan Tynes & Taylor McVay and Carlos Martiel articulate the structures of truth, honesty and the real in relationships. The curators’ shrewd choices of which videos require headphones to experience versus the ones allowed to harmonize throughout the space simulates social and mass media over-communication, as well as inherent distance in intimate relationships. Argote’s Altruism (2011) makes the viewer recoil as the artist passionately licks a Parisian subway-car pole, a disgusting act that questions association and difference among strangers. Argote risks his physical body through this performance, reinforcing the authenticity, or perhaps desperation, of the human need for interaction. In Feeling (2009), Argote passionately dances to the Cure’s “Close to You,” playing through a small boom box, in front of a Malevich. Argote is distanced from the music and painting’s respective contexts, and the institutionalization of both is highlighted by white-cube gallery and the to-code fire extinguisher in the bottom left corner. In Birthday (2009), Argote uses his learnt French to ask a crowded elevator of all types of people to sing him “Happy Birthday.” The crowd unifies and obliges, and then, presumably, continues about their day, while the videos ends with the camera’s lens gazing down towards Argote’s feet like a shy teenager might. Altruism, Feeling and Birthday form a trio of videos that investigate the mediation of human emotion through communication, action and expression, and all require headphones. Thus the viewer is drawn into the video’s mounted small-screen as if they are a removed participant in the performance. The most effective exploitation of this is McVay & Tynes’s Conversation Piece (2010), in which the artists, a couple on the verge of a kiss, discuss Nicolas Bourriaud’s The Radicant. The video is closely-cropped, so the viewer sees just the pair’s eyes, nose and mouth—from far away, it’s like seeing couple on the train, squished together and possibly discussing dinner options. Up close and with audio, the viewer becomes a silent third-participant in their conversation, experiencing the struggles of intellectual intimacy in romantic relationships, but also possibly representing a threat to that intimacy. Similarly, in his short and silent Prodigal Son (2010), Martiel examines the dual nature of public and private life. Martiel performs a military ritual by directly pinning his father’s military medals into his own skin, a stunning recital evoking not only the private aspect to public ideologies, but personal sacrifice publicly celebrated through ceremony, and enacted in battle. Furthermore, Martiel’s wince inducing performance suggests the physical pain that soldiers bear in order to protect ideas and people, as well as the distancing consequences that that pain wrecks in personal relationships.


Martiel’s video is installed alongside Wayne Stokes’s Untitled Verso 1-3 (all 2012), presented here as a triptych of paintings that depict, with an AbEx flourish, details from the back of his family photos. These reference high modernism and the parameters of painting and formalism as much as Suara Welitoff’s neighboring Untitled (2010) and Analia Saban’s Two Stripe Bath Towel with Tag and Stain. Together these works explore how memory is created, preserved and continued through high and low culture.

Despite the pocketed, maze-ish feeling of the 808, in On/Sincerity Cooney and Munsell have seamlessly assembled artworks that critique irony, or are earnest to the core. Cumulatively, On/Sincerity probes the relationship between artist and viewer by investigating the charge of human connection realized through image, practice and material. It’s fitting that Cooney and Munsell collaborated to produce this exhibition. With its title implying both proximity and honesty, this show expresses the complexities of language and communication that inform our irony-imbued culture. Perhaps the best example of this is Platform2’s installation Failure Support Group, which both sincerely and humorously observes that the financial success available to Baby Boomers, like Paglia, and GenExers like Wampole, is starkly inaccessible to Millennials. On/Sincerity is an unassuming exhibition, but multifaceted. It provokes as many topical complexities as it reconciles in both art making and culture today.

9 to 5

Here is the full text to an article that I published in the November BIG, RED AND SHINY journal about the 1980s Boston art scene.

I’ve gotten some really interesting responses to this piece. It’s the most hard-core research I’ve done since grad school, and the first time I’ve ever had to really assimilate so much archival material. And by archival material, I mean that it’s the first time I’ve had to track down, interview, transcribe and make sense of so many primary sources at once. That said, I made some omissions (both consciously and not) that have been called to my attention. I am writing a follow-up article that will touch on those omissions, as well as the making of archive, in the December BR&S.

9pm to 5am: Underground Boston and Mark Morrisroe

The 11th Hour Gallery was cold. It was upstairs at 20 East Street, and in the very early 1980s, it was home to Mike Carroll and Penelope Place. Blocks away from South Station, on the outer edges of what was the Combat Zone until the mid 1970s, the 11th Hour was situated among parking lots and big businesses. Carroll and Place had found the space when they needed somewhere to make work for the Boston Film Video Archive. They weren’t supposed to be living there as it was a commercial building, and was thus heated only Monday through Friday, nine in the morning until five at night. It was after nine and before five that the 11th Hour was very awake, as Carroll and Place put on raucous performances by The Fucking Barbies, Steve Stain, Human Sexual Response and others, including the Clam Twins, the drag duo that were Taboo! (Stephen Tashjian) and Mark Morrisroe. They also put art on the walls—art that challenged the material of photography and the nature of performance, film and document.
The material and character of photography exploded in the 1970s, in the wake of such texts as Susan Sontag’s On Photography and technological innovations such as Polaroid. Boston was no different—the 1985 Boston Now: Photography exhibition, curated by David Joselit, Elisabeth Sussman and Gillian Levine, received a record 335 submissions.1 According to then ICA Director David Ross, Boston Now: Photography attempted to look at how photography changed art, and “reveals the Boston area as one of the nation’s strongest centers for photographic activity.”2 Coincidentally, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw record high numbers of state dollars directed to arts funding in Boston. According to Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, in her essay to accompany the deCordova’s 2002 exhibition Painting in Boston: 1950-2000, the state funded $20 million towards the arts in 1987, and opportunities for artists increased accordingly.3 In her essay Photography in Boston, 1970-1985: Expansion and Experimentation, included in the catalogue for the deCordova’s 2000 exhibition Photography in Boston: 1955 to 1985, Lafo writes that the “role of public funding agencies in supporting photographic projects in the 1970s and early 1980s cannot be underestimated,”4 and yet some of the area and period’s most innovative and significant artists working with photography or video—David Armstrong, Nan Goldin, Mark Morrisroe, Gail Thacker, Jack Pierson—were decidedly and triumphantly outside the mainstream and middle American culture. Carroll, Morrisroe, Pierson and Thacker, along with Pat Hearn5 and musicians such as Steve Stain (who rented a raw space at 38 Thayer Street in the South End, then populated by Leather District factories) formed a nexus of the alternative. 
Incubating their practice on society margins, the group was fueled by a punk spirit and sense that spontaneity and performance were inherent in art making. Soon, most would launch their work into the global art world. As young artists, the group that inhabited the 11th Hour and 38 Thayer were apathetic to the greater art scene, inventing their own spaces as opposed to inserting themselves in someone else’s.
“When I started putting art on the walls, there was this sense of urgency to do it that once you started to do it, it didn’t feel like urgency,” says Carroll, who now owns and directs The Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown. “It wasn’t to get clients, it wasn’t to get into the scene, it was sort of like this family of people that made things, and the next thing to do was put them up.”6 Stain was a drummer who often performed with Thacker, Hearn and Morrisroe, and hosted bands such as the Girls or Mission of Burma at 38 Thayer.7 The space was also a place to convene for impromptu performances, where invitees might be told to come wearing clown clothes or makeup.8 Though this group was on the periphery of the Boston art world, they were visible through their connection to pioneering video and photographic work, and through the music coming in and out of the city. “We felt that this is where we can be heard if we speak, we can be seen if we move, our colors are the colors of the times,” says Carroll. “And it all came from that music. It all came from the fact that really good punk music was coming out of Boston, really good punk bands were coming to Boston.”9

Morrisroe always alleged that the Boston Strangler was his real father. It’s true that Morrisroe and his mother, Patricia Morrisroe, lived next door to Albert De Salvo and he was their landlord in Malden, where Morrisroe was born. It’s also true that they share an uncanny resemblance. Morrisroe never knew his father, at any rate. Morrisroe also said that his mother was a prostitute, but according to Teresa Gruber, that rumor cannot be verified, though Patricia Morrisroe is reported to have been a depressive alcoholic.10 She dated a lot, and it was one of her boyfriends, Mitch, a manager at the punk club the Rat and arguably Morrisroe’s only father-like figure, who introduced young Mark to art. “Mark posed as a white trash angel of art, with no family support or influence, and he pretty much was right,” writes Pia Schachter, a Museum School friend and classmate in her essay Mark’s Dirt: One Dame’s Take on Mark Morrisroe.11
In high school, with his childhood friend Lynelle White, Morrisroe haunted clubs such as the Rat. He and White wrote and published (via Xerox) Dirt magazine, a crude fanzine that featured scene gossip spun into myth. Morrisroe was queer, and also began prostituting himself in high school in an effort to move away from his mother and graduate. A client shot Morrisroe in 1976, severely hurting and forever maiming him with a crippled walk. He finished high school and received a grant to study at the Museum School, where he was promptly met with disdain and even disgust from the faculty. Required to make work that demonstrated his proficiency with all media and technique, Morrisroe made a gigantic wall of swastikas, each one created in a different material and style. Most of the faculty was appalled, but Jeff Hudson (who created the video program at the Museum School in 1974 with his wife, Jane) defended him. “I fought for him,” says Hudson, when other faculty members wanted to expel Morrisroe.12 Jeff and Jane Hudson were young, just a few years older than Morrisroe, and they often played in bands with him and Pat Hearn. The Hudsons also allowed non-Museum School students, such as Stain, into their classes.13 In the late 1970s, the Hudsons were part of the Rentals, a punk trio formed in Boston; by 1982 they were the electro-punk duo Jeff and Jane and released their iconic Flesh album with a photo taken by Mark Morrisroe of Malcolm Travis, drummer of Human Sexual Response, in the shower. They also had a gallery, The Atlantic, on Atlantic Avenue, not far from the 11th Hour, which showed works by a then nascent Goldin, among others. “I couldn’t sell a Nan Goldin then, not for $100,” says Hudson.14
According to Morrisroe’s last boyfriend, Ramsey McPhillips, it was Goldin who taught Morrisroe his way around the Museum School darkroom, and whose early success with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency became a metric for artistic achievement and fame.15 However, McPhillps writes, Morrisroe thought that “her vision, which he called ‘vital,’ would have been better served in writing. He disagreed with those who found Nan’s work raw, candid, and impromptu…He believed that the complicated subtext of her work, the full ‘scope’ of her life behind the photos, was where her genius ruminated.”16 Goldin took highly saturated snapshots of Morrisroe and their friends around their Hemenway Hotel apartments, often dressing up, hamming up, and generally performing as themselves for her camera. Morrisroe quickly mastered darkroom practice, and also made hundreds of Polaroids, cyanotypes, gum prints and c-prints. Polaroid work forms the bulk of Morrisroe’s estate, now deposited at the Fotomuseum Winterthur. Gruber, who took over organizing the estate in 2008, writes that Morrisroe first acquired a Polaroid 195 Land camera and film in 1979, through the Polaroid Corporation’s Artist Support Program.17 From then on he used the medium to make highly sexual, idealized head-on self-portraits, as well as ephemeral shots of his life and times around the Hemenway. Gruber writes that “T-665 Polaroid film became his preferred medium, because development of the black-and-white instant image could be manipulated well, and the negative produced incidentally could be used afterward for gelatin silver prints.”18 Morrisroe took his Polaroid camera to the clubs, photographing punk bands and their spectators with a raw candidness. These stark, smooth images of punk bands are eerily dated to look at now—the spiked hair, make-up and destructive action of these Polaroids have an inherent immediacy, but feel now relegated to the realms of cultural pastiche. Manipulating the surface or negative of a Polaroid (or inscribing memories in the film’s trademark margins) became something of a Morrisroe signature. Scribbling droll writings in a sort of sarcastic nostalgic cant, Morrisroe edited and updated these works, imbuing a memorializing quality that was as immediate as it was historicizing. Morrisroe also invented a process in which he made “sandwich prints,” by copying a color negative onto black and white film, and then taking the positive print and copying it again into a negative in order to cut it out and fix it to the color negative and exposing it again. The results are velvety flush works, often retouched with color and notable for a painterly Pictorialism, an aesthetic that confronted the boundaries of painting. These sandwich prints constitute a vast portion of Morrisroe’s entire artistic output, and the scientific method of matching and superimposing snapshot onto studied photograph and vice versa mimics the memory revision thematically inherent in Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
Reconstituting reality into beauty always preoccupied Morissroe. “We had ideas, but we weren’t intellectual,” says Gail Thacker, a close friend of Morrisroe’s.19 They met while studying at the Museum School, and living in the nearby Hemenway Hotel, which was something of an art school dorm. Thacker also studied at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and once took Morrisroe with her to classes there. Collaboration was a primary way to explore and comprehend the ideas that Morrisroe and Thacker had, a shared attitude that didn’t necessarily extend into each other’s aesthetics. Thacker and Morrisroe showed their work together in Blow Both Of Us at Pat Hearn’s loft in 1980. Like Morrisroe, Thacker often worked with Polaroid, and makes intensely diaristic work of her friends and life—often the figures in these works are taken crisply straight-on, but other times figures emerge or recede in soft, nuanced textures of the printing process. (Some of her work may be seen in the entrance of the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in New York.) Many of Thacker’s works emanate a haunted quality, and many have been edited through ripping and stitching, as if destroyed so it could be remade. “Mark was a romantic,” Thacker says. “He loved beauty, and risk taking.”20 Thacker explains that she risks her negatives as a way of symbolizing risk in the life she’s led, and says that Morrisroe did the same. “We felt that if you don’t live, and breathe in life, to its fullest, how can you create,” she says.21
Morrisroe graduated from the Museum School in 1981. That fall, he put on his first solo show at the 11th Hour. A small showing of twenty gelatin silver prints, most of the photographs presented in Mark Morrisroe at the 11th Hour were expertly printed, unadorned by expressive or Impressionistic qualities (one was later accepted to the 1985 Boston Now show). These were intimate, quiet photographs of Morrisroe’s friends and lovers, mostly, whom he captured with an Arbus-like awareness of emotion and eccentricity. Perhaps the most powerful of these is a softly focused, tender photograph of Jack Pierson (then known as Jonathan). In the early 1980s, Pierson was Morrisroe’s boyfriend, and he was included in the 11th Hour show in the nude, as if just out of a hot shower, his head illuminated and casting a giant shadow on the bathroom door he is opening into the dark room, where we feel that Morrisroe is lying in wait for him. These photographs derive from the documentary photography tradition, but unlike straight photography, in these works, Morrisroe’s eye is un-mistakable, and ever present. They are diaristic, documenting and celebrating his particular experience and vision, which was cultivated on the far margins of the Boston, and by extension American, mainstream.
Many of the group that would have seen Mark Morrisroe at the 11th Hour left Boston shortly thereafter. Thacker moved out of the Hemenway Hotel and Boston, eventually making her way to New York, where she now lives and continues to make artwork. Steve Stain got in to a car crash and left Boston for the West Coast. Hearn went to Paris, then New York. Morrisroe went to Paris in the winter of 1982, but didn’t like it there. He returned to Boston for a few years, working, as many of the group had in school, at Restaurant 29 (still open at 29 Newbury Street, though under different ownership).22  By the mid-1980s Morrisroe—like Thacker, Hearn, Taboo! and Pierson—was in New York, contending with the international avant-garde and showing his work at Hearn’s downtown spaces, now more professionally than he had years before in her Boston loft. “The big shift for us, for a lot of us, was when Pat Hearn went to New York,” says Carroll. “Soon after, there was a picture of her in Interview magazine, and was transformed, for the picture basically, but she had this entirely different look, she had sort taken on not a persona, but a relationship with persona and identity that was fiercely designed to engage with the world on its own terms.”23  This particularizing of identity was developed out of an overwhelming desire to be seen and to see the world in an individual way.
Desire—and memorializing desire—is the crux of This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s, a major exhibition investigating art made after Feminism splintered in the late 1970s, and before Clinton took office in early 1993. Organized by Helen Molesworth of the ICA, This Will Have Been opens November 15 at the ICA/Boston. Judging by the catalogue, the exhibition offers a dense, gratifyingly complex way of looking at how desire (to be known, to know and to change how and what people know) informed not only the decade, but also a period molded through radical changes to the American sociopolitical landscape. Molesworth writes in the introduction to the catalogue that the art of the 1980s is “almost impossibly heterogeneous,”24  and that the exhibition is informed by the idea that

“more than any other twentieth-century decade, the 1980s enacts most fully the ramifications of feminism for art, theory, and politics…always coursing through the works chosen for this exhibition is a profound belief in the capacity of art objects—indeed, of culture in the broadest sense—to signify, enact, and enable these multifarious forms of desire.”25

The exhibition promises to be a heady exploration through the radically diverse methods, themes and subjects that preoccupied artists in the American 1980s, and is divided into four sections, or, as Molesworth calls them, “problem-ideas.” These are “The End is Near,” which attempts to realize the immense feeling of a finality to recusancy that attended art and history in the 1980s; “Democracy,” which probes the politics of mass media and the street as spaces for public intervention, as well the political significance of Central and South American artists in the period; “Gender Trouble” elucidates on Feminism’s plurality and the meaning of desire as an agent of difference and exploring particularity; and “Desire and Longing” takes a deeply affecting look at artists occupied appropriation as critique, coupled with the queer and gay visibility made necessary through the AIDS crisis. “In hindsight, appropriation also reveals the desire on the part of the artists (and viewers) for ideas, positions, and objects that supposedly lie outside of the intellectual arena of advanced art and ideas—desire for fame, greatness or success,” writes Molesworth.26
Those desires mark and inform the work of Morrisroe and his circle of friends from the Museum School, who orbited around punk rock clubs, such as the Rat, and the alternative spaces such as the 11th Hour and 38 Thayer. But surprisingly, of this group only Nan Goldin is included in This Will Have Been, with no mention of how the alternative Boston scene shaped or participated in her work. Morrisroe is mentioned in the catalogue in very brief passing, for his work included in the New York Film Festival Downtown, and for having died of AIDS.
Morrisroe died in 1989, with a few close friends present, Gail Thacker among them. At the time, he was living in a Jersey City apartment, with views of the Statue of Liberty,27  close by to where Ronald Reagan had kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign. His life and work in the 1980s was contoured by the politics of art and society that Molesworth confronts in This Will Have Been, and yet she neglects to highlight or contextualize how those politics shaped the epoch in Boston. It is an oversight that Molesworth seems all too conscious of in the catalogue. “The show really, I hope, is not seen as any kind of definitive or defining exhibition,” she recently said. “I never meant it to be that. I always offered it as a conversational gambit.”28 Thus, in This Will Have Been, Molesworth provides a comprehensive, intricate framework through which we can begin to understand art from the 1980s. We should not use her structure as a canon, but as a launch site that propels us into the history of the Boston’s alternative and collective practices from the 1980s. Just as it was up to Carroll, Thacker and Morrisroe to generate their own cold, raw, anti-institutional spaces, it’s up to us to remember and historicize that practice into the global discussion.


[1]David A. Ross, “Forward,” Boston Now: Photography. (Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, exh. cat., July 3-September 1, 1985), n.p. Running for about ten years at the ICA, Boston Now were yearly exhibitions devoted to taking a pulse on art in Boston by medium. [2]Ibid, n.p. [3]Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, “The Boston Art Scene: A Community and Its Institutions,” Painting in Boston: 1950-2000. (The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., and DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Garden, Lincoln, Mass., exh. cat., September 14, 2002-February 23, 2003), p. 40. [4]Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, “Photography in Boston, 1970-1985: Expansion and Experimentation,” Photography in Boston: 1955 to 1985. (The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., and DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Garden, Lincoln, Mass., exh. cat., September 16, 2000-January 21, 2001) p. 70. [5]Hearn attended the Museum School with Gail Thacker, Mark Morrisroe and others, and worked with painting, video and performance. By the mid-1980s, Hearn was one of the most influential and important dealers in the New York Downtown scene, showing work by artists such as George Condo, Philip Taffe and Milan Kunc. The Pat Hearn Gallery was one of the first in the East Village and later was one of the founders what would become the Armory art show. Hearn died in 2000. See Dan Cameron’s essay in East Village USA, (New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, exh. cat., December 9, 2004—March 19, 2005). [6]Mike Carroll, interview with the author in Provincetown, Mass., August 21, 2012. [7]Steve Stain, phone interview with the author, October 6, 2012. [8]Gail Thacker, interview with the author in New York City, October 1, 2012. [9]Carroll, interview with the author in Provincetown, Mass., August 21, 2012. [10]Teresa Gruber, “Biography,” Mark Morrisroe )Fotomuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, Switzerland, exh. cat., November 27, 2010-February 13, 2011) p. 443. [11]Pia Schachter, “Mark’s Dirt: One Dame’s Take on Mark Morrisroe,” in Boston School (Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, exh. cat., edited by Lia Gangitano. October 18—December 31, 1995.) Boston School included a survey of the Morrisroe Estate, then retained by Pat Hearn and organized by her gallery. Curated by Gangitano and Milena Kalinovska (with significant curatorial input from Pat Hearn) this exhibition was the first to historicize the Boston School within global or New York contemporary art discourse, but erroneously placed Museum School graduates such as Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Shellburne Thurber within the same context with that of Hearn, Morrisroe and Pierson. diCorcia and Thurber later expressed that they weren’t apart of the group that circled the 11th Hour or 38 Thayer Street. Likewise, Gail Thacker, a key participant in the group, was not included in the show. [12]Jeff Hudson, phone interview with the author, October 1, 2012. [13]Stain, phone interview with the author, October 6, 2012. [14]Hudson, phone interview with the author, October 1, 2012. [15]Ramsey McPhillips, “Who Turned Out the Limelight? The Tragi-Comedy of Mark Morrisroe,” in Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, edited by Edmund White (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2001) p. 105. McPhillips’s essay on Morrisroe is biographical and critical, and one of the most candid written accounts on Morrisroe’s life to date. McPhillips and Lia Gangitano are publishing Morrisroe’s ephemera and writings in Mark Morrisroe: Mark Dirt, a book forthcoming from Paper Chase Press. [16]McPhillips, 106. [17]Teresa Gruber, “Survey of the Estate,” Mark Morrisroe (Fotomuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, Switzerland, 2010, exh. cat., November 27, 2010-February 13, 2011) p. 437. [18]Gruber, 437. [19]Gail Thacker, interview with the author in New York City, October 1, 2012. [20]Thacker, interview with the author in New York City, October 1, 2012. [21]Thacker, interview with the author in New York City, October 1, 2012. [22]Gruber, 447. [23]Carroll, interview with the author in Provincetown, Mass., August 21, 2012. [24]Helen Molesworth, This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in association with the Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012, exh. cat., at ICA/Boston November 15, 2012—January 27, 2013) p. 16. [25]Molesworth, 16-17. [26]Molesworth, 39. [27]Thacker, interview with author in New York City, October 1, 2012. [28]Greg Cook, “Futures Past,” The Boston Phoenix, September 21, 2012.

New BOOKSLUT posted today

My December Bookslut column was published today, concluding a year’s worth of monthly columns on art writing and books. Some were good, some were eh–if nothing else, I am looking forward to another year writing columns that investigate the nature of art writing, challenge the relationship between exhibition and catalogue and celebrate the looked-over critics of modern and contemporary art history.

Next year starts off with Peter Plagens and his new novel, The Art Critic, published earlier this May by Hol Art Books. I hope it’s just the first of twelve columns that probe the relationship of art and literature across genres.

At any rate, here’s the text to my December column, discussing Berthe Morisot: 1841-1895 (Yale Univerity Press, $50).


I lazed over the New York Times Book Review on a late Sunday morning last  month. Wondering if Philip Roth actually required a copy of iPhone  for Dummies in order to work his new device, I was reading a  rather harsh treatment of Roberto Calasso’s newest book, La  Folie Baudelaire, when I saw it. It was a short sentence in  which John Simon called Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), an Impressionist  painter significant for not only her artistic achievement but for her  financing some of the earliest critical exhibitions of  Impressionistic work, “a worthy but minor painter.” Arguing  that Calasso’s arrangement of Modernity’s Parisian beginnings is more  random than not, Simon gently but brazenly invokes a phallocentric  understanding of modernity and modern painting in that single  sentence. Simon writes that in La Folie Baudelaire, Morisot “figures rather prominently, both as painters’ model (as shown in several of the book’s illustrations) and as Manet’s lover and subsequent sister-in-law.” Implying that Morisot, though “worthy,” presumably for her talent as a painter, was haphazardly included (both in the text and in illustration) by Calasso for her merits as a model, mistress, and wife, Simon seemingly obscures her work’s worth, dismissing it in order to present her as how her visage was made commercial and consumed in the “cradle of modernity.”

Morisot has long  been overlooked in popular Impressionism (that is, the Impressionism  purported in mega-blockbuster institutional exhibitions and in their  gift shops on coffee mugs, tote bags, pencils, and posters). The  Museum of Modern Art’s third exhibition ever, “Painting in  Paris,” curated by Alfred J. Barr and on view in early 1930, was  one of the first of such critical and crowd-drawing exhibitions, but  didn’t include Morisot (or her contemporary Mary Cassatt, for that  matter). Such oversights warranted mention from Paul Valéry (who  married Morisot’s niece, Jeannie Gobillard in a 1900 joint ceremony  with her daughter, Julie Manet, and the painter Ernest Rouart) in “On  Morisot,” his essay included in the exhibition catalogue  accompanying “Berthe Morisot” at the Musée de l’Orangerie  in 1941. “Now qualities are being noticed that of all the  Impressionists she alone possessed, qualities that are indeed  increasingly rare in painting,” Valéry wrote that year.

Valéry’s text is  excerpted in the catalogue from this spring’s “Berthe Morisot:  1841-1895” at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, the first  retrospective of her work in fifty years. The exhibition barely made  waves this side of the Atlantic, but the catalogue offers a  wonderfully nuanced look at Morisot’s life, as well as a keen  examination of her masterful watercolors and drawings. Alongside  Valéry’s excerpt (which begs to be read within his 1948 Vues)  is a short piece, “Berthe Morisot: from wound to light,” by  Jean-Marie Rouart, a descendant of Morisot, and a weighty essay,  “Watercolours, pastels and drawings in the work of Berthe  Morisot,” by curator Marianne Mathieu. With Valéry’s essay  probing Morisot’s French mid-nineteenth century social context,  Rouart’s delving into the mysteries of her family and psyche, and  Mathieu offering a scholarly assessment of her work within the medium  with which she was most prolific, Berthe  Morisot: 1841-1895 situates her identity as an artist, as  well as her art work, within the early Modern milieu.

Morisot was born  bourgeois, upper middle class, in 1841. Her father was in government,  and eventually moved his three daughters and son to Passy, in Paris.  Berthe and her older sister, Yves, took music lessons, as girls of  their station might; by 1857 their mother signed all three sisters up  for drawing lessons. Yves hated them and eventually quit, but Berthe  and her other older sister, Edma, were hooked. Their teacher, a  student of Ingres, says that both will be professional artists and  has them both registered as copyists at the Louvre. Eventually Berthe  and Edma study with Camille Corot (1796-1875) in his studio. A  proto-Impressionistic painter of the Barbizon School, Corot  introduces his students to plein-air painting, and by 1865,  Monsieur Morisot built a garden studio for his daughters at their  Paris home. But Morisot was never pleased with her work. Berthe  “destroyed nearly everything she had produced before 1869,  making it difficult for us now to follow the stages of her  apprenticeship and determine with certainty the possible influence of  any of her teachers,” writes Mathieu in her essay. I suspect  that this dearth of early work has dissuaded curators from mounting  retrospectives of her work in the last fifty years.

But I also  suspect that the mediums of watercolor and drawing, parlor room  activities for ladies throughout the nineteenth century, repealed  serious curatorial investigation. Garden paintings by Morisot next to  floral paintings by Monet are ascribed a much different weight,  completely engendered by masculine-driven understandings of  Modernity. Two years ago, in 2010’s epic Claude  Monet: Late Work, Paul Tucker Hayes beautifully connected  Monet’s twilight interest in nature and private life to his  repugnance with French public life in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair.  (“That Monet essentially abandoned French subject matter from  1898 onward is therefore surely no coincidence,” writes Hayes.  “How could he continue to propagate an ideal that was so  painfully compromised?”) The Morisot garden-studio was destroyed  in the Siege of Paris in 1871, the same year that Berthe exhibits in  the Salon for the second time. In 1869, Edma Morisot gave up painting  entirely after her marriage to a French naval officer. The two events  combined, one public, one private, must have scarred Berthe  emotionally (and physically; her health was never the same after  1871). But situating the very public Modernity with the very private  “femininity” is difficult.

This complexity is  something that Rouart vaguely alludes to in his short essay, as he  writes that though Morisot’s work might remind some of fluffy French  eighteenth century painting, melancholy was its source. “The  paradox of this work that comes across as spontaneous, cheerful,  gentle and harmonious is that it was born of suffering, of a  doggedness and despair that would be difficult to imagine were they  not attested by so many pages in the notebooks and letters written by  this artist who was always dissatisfied with herself,” writes  Rouart. Those notebooks are still in the Rouart family, but have been  lent to the Musée Marmottan Monet. Some of Morisot’s writings were  published in 1987 as Berthe  Morisot: The Correspondence, the same year that Julie Manet’s  diary was published as Growing  Up with the Impressionists. Julie was born in 1878, four  years after Morisot married Eugene Manet (brother to Edouard).  Julie’s father supported her mother’s artistic pursuits, as well  those of other Impressionists. For instance, after a rather acerbic  review of a show of Impressionism at Durand-Ruel in Le Figaro,  Morisot’s husband wanted to challenge the offending critic to a duel.  Morisot died in 1895 of pneumonia, after caring for Julie. She  exhibited her work, entertained artists, and financially contributed  to Impressionist shows until the end of her life. To my knowledge,  neither Julie nor Berthe’s writings have been reissued; however, Jean  Renoir’s memoir, Renoir,  My Father, first published in 1962, was rereleased in 2001.

The catalogue for Berthe Morisot: 1841-1895 provides excellent notes for each of  the works included in the exhibition, pulling from both Morisot and  Manet’s writings. The cataloguers seem intensely sensitive to  contextualizing Morisot’s work and life within greater  Impressionistic scholarship in their writing. That’s a job largely  started by Griselda Pollock in the late 1970s. In 1988 she published Vision  and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art,  which sought to rupture art history’s “masculinist discourse,  party to the social construction of sexual difference.” Written  with a lucid urgency, Pollock historicizes Feminist thinking and  writing, dismantling Modernity’s masculinity as delineated by early  curators, such as Alfred Barr at MoMA. To measure Morisot’s work as  “worthy but minor” against that Barr’s metric of Modernity,  as Simon seems to in his New York Times article, is to reject  her work’s meaning as Modern paintings. Morisot treated the space in  her paintings like an Impressionist, with quick, loose brushwork and  expert attention to illumination. But the space that her paintings  depict and occupy must be understood against the biases of Modernism.  As Pollock writes, we must therefore reject the notion that women  painters were second-rate painters, even ten years into the  twenty-first century.


In Observance

In Observance

I left work early yesterday to trek over to Boston University’s 808 Gallery to see On Sincerity. It was snowy, wet and cold.

The best thing about the 808 is that you can clearly see inside from the street and train, and as got closer, I realized that lights were on, but it was a little dark.

Oh no, I thought. The first time I’d come by this week the gallery was closed. This time I’d scoured their website before I left work, looking for any hint of a cancellation. Nothing.

My fears were confirmed as I got to the door. The 808 was closed.

Unlike earlier this week, this time it was to observe World AIDS Day. I was frustrated, standing outside of the dimly lit gallery the snowy rain, staring at the simple and pointed sign.

I could see artwork and therefore could technically have somewhat of a stunted experience of it. I had come across town on the green line, expecting to spend the next hour in the privilege of art and ideas. But I was refused it fully because of something (much, much) larger needed to be heeded and honored: World AIDS Day.

I’m glad my schedule was so interrupted. I don’t want to (and would not) compare yesterday’s experience with the 808 Gallery with the consequences of AIDS. However, I am glad that I came to the 808 and was denied, because World AIDS Day needs to be observed through abruption.  It forced me to observe, albeit in a very small way, the loss of life represented every December 1.