Wayne Koestenbaum

  • Jessye Norman performing in Leoš Janáček’s 1925 The Makropulos Case, Metropolitan Opera, New York, January 1996. Photo: Johan Elbers/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty.


    1. I REMEMBER driving away from Tanglewood one summer night in 1987 after having heard Jessye Norman sing a concert performance of Salome’s last scene, a soprano’s autoerotic orgy with the head of John the Baptist. (Long ago, I wrote about that pivotal night, but the memory of the performance and its aftermath rises up now, untainted by the sentences with which I once clothed the experience.) I remember driving into the night and wondering what on earth I would do with my life. My life, struck by Norman’s artistry, had become a thing worth interrogating. My life had become, suddenly, very very


    IF INGRES HAD PAINTED STILL LIFES while staying in Blanche DuBois’s ratty Chateau Marmont bungalow, they might have resembled David Gilbert’s delicately trompe l’oeil photographs of do-it-yourself, Judy-inflected domestic tableaux. Judy Garland almost appeared in “House & Garden,” Gilbert’s fourth solo show at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery in New York, but he wisely kept her offstage. She would have dominated. We needed, instead, to see what Judy left behind.


    Or skip Judy altogether. As Ezra Pound said, at the beginning of The Cantos: “Lie quiet Divus.” Lie quiet, Judy.


    Gilbert assembles

  • “‘My’ Masculinity”

    IN 1994, I WROTE AN ESSAY—“‘My’ Masculinity”—for Artforum’s “Man Trouble” feature, organized by Maurice Berger. Twenty-two years later, I revoke my earlier version and start the composition all over again. (Consider the two essays mismatched nipples.) Did anyone own masculinity in 1994? Aren’t we finished with possessiveness—its sodden betrayals, its puerilities, its cuts?

    I only half-mean what I say; identity remains in the half-meaning, the ruse I fall into when I begin this odd dance called thinking. I don’t have an identity, only

    a vast fatigue—
    did I once call it

  • Maria Lassnig, Prothesenselbstporträt (Prosthesis Self-Portrait), 2000, oil on canvas, 49 1/2 × 39 3/8".

    Wayne Koestenbaum

    1 MARIA LASSNIG (MoMA PS1, NEW YORK; CURATED BY PETER ELEEY WITH JOCELYN MILLER) Lassnig meets my eye’s hunger by offering the entire banquet of “body,” rendered with expressionistic ease and candor, as if the Blue Rider had ridden straight over patriarchy and found itself in a post-apocalyptic world where virtuosity doesn’t shun the messy, the morbid, or the pugilistic. Swift, unforced lines and impossibly up-front colors limn bodies exploding with a joyful anger that elucidates rather than shatters.

    Co-organized with the Neue Galerie Graz, Austria.


  • Ryan Trecartin, Sibling Topics (Section A), 2009, still from a color video, 50 minutes.


    IMAGINE SLASHER FILMS WITHOUT BLOOD; porn without nudity; the Sistine Chapel without God; the New York Stock Exchange without capital. Pretend that Hieronymus Bosch’s intermeshed figures could text. Ryan Trecartin’s videos depict a vertiginous world I’m barely stable enough to describe. Watching them, I face the identity-flux of Internet existence: surfing-as-dwelling. Images evaporate, bleed, spill, metamorphose, and explode. Through frenetic pacing, rapid cuts, and destabilizing overlaps between representational planes (3-D turns into 2-D and then into 5-D), Trecartin violently repositions




    The financial crisis of fall 2008 is one symptom of a transition in the nature and form of global order. The most important question this transition raises is what new possibilities it is opening up; but before asking that, one has to understand also what the transition is closing down. Two of the best books I have read in the past year, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (Verso) and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Picador),

  • the best books of the year

    Twelve scholars, critics, and artists choose the year's outstanding titles.


    A book like Alastair Wright’s Matisse and the Subject of Modernism (Princeton University Press) is enough to rekindle my faith in the future of art history as a discipline. (Here I could also mention two other such rare pearls from 2005: Maria Gough’s The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution [University of California Press] and Christina Kiaer’s Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism [MIT Press]). The first amazing trait of Wright’s book is that it manages

  • Wayne Koestenbaum

    Susan Sontag, my prose’s prime mover, ate the world. In 1963, on the subject of Sartre’s Saint Genet (her finest ideas occasionally hinged on gay men), she wrote, “Corresponding to the primitive rite of anthropophagy, the eating of human beings, is the philosophical rite of cosmophagy, the eating of the world.” Cosmophagic, Sontag gobbled up sensations, genres, concepts. She swallowed political and aesthetic movements. She devoured roles: diplomat, filmmaker, scourge, novelist, gadfly, essayist, night owl, bibliophile, cineaste . . . She tried to prove how much a human life—a writer’s life—could


    Critic, activist, novelist, filmmaker, Susan Sontag exceeded even that elastic and amorphous category of “public intellectual” so often linked to her name. To mark Sontag’s passing last December at the age of seventy-one, Artforum asked ARTHUR C. DANTO, HAL FOSTER, ABIGAIL SOLOMON-GODEAU, and WAYNE KOESTENBAUM to reflect on her achievements and legacy, which challenge us to reconsider the role of the critic today.

  • Pop shrine created by Billy Name at David McCabe’s studio, New York, 1965. Photo: David McCabe.

    Wayne Koestenbaum

    WARHOL CHEERS ME UP ABOUT GETTING BAD REVIEWS. Lousy press didn’t stop him, so he’s my role model for the shat-upon artist who bucks up (despite harsh criticism) and continues to produce. Being unlikable was his endeavor’s foundation.

    Warhol cheers me up about never transcending kindergarten, never shedding infantile fascinations. Often my brain can’t accommodate what it receives; information glut shuts down my mainframe. Warhol processed perceptions in a peculiar way: He listed, atomized, cut, reformatted, and hybridized the angry corpuscles of fact that streamed into his system. His example

  • “Andy Warhol: Screen Tests”

    For a time in the 1960s, anyone interesting who visited Warhol’s Factory would be invited to sit for a screen test: Starting in 1964, he made more than 500, of which, so far, 277 have been preserved. The Factory camera (not necessarily operated by Warhol) would record the subject on a single unedited one-hundred-foot 16 mm silent cartridge. The tests were shot at sound speed (twenty-four frames per second), but Warhol wanted them projected at silent speed (sixteen frames per second), so they take longer to see than they did to make: They retard time. (The viewing duration of each is four and a

  • Wayne Koestenbaum, Baltimore, 1981.

    MY ’80s: CALLED ME

    The 1993 appearance of WAYNE KOESTENBAUM’s third book, The Queen's Throat, confirmed the author’s singular presence on the literary landscape—and it signaled a fresh turn in American criticism. Forecasting an appetite for “mythologies” as divergent as Jackie O and Andy W, his ecstatic meditation on opera, homosexuality, and desire revitalized cultural studies just as they threatened to succumb to disciplinary dreariness. For this issue, Koestenbaum revisits his own literary coming of age in the 1980s.

    Les Fleuves m’ont laissé descendre où je voulais.
    —Arthur Rimbaud

    I met Tama Janowitz once in