All in Good Fund

New York

Left: Artist Brice Marden. Right: Artist Pat Steir and poet Anne Waldman. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

IF THERE IS METHOD IN MADNESS, there may be money, too. Witness the first volley fired in this season of fund-raising hell by the Drawing Center’s gala benefit last Wednesday, April 15, not coincidentally the annual deadline for payment of income taxes. How better to greet the spring than with a ready-made deduction?

Here is how: Mount an exhibition detailing the fascinating, troubled life and art of Unica Zürn. The author of a few violent sex novels and hand behind the masklike automatic ink drawings on the center’s walls, Zürn is the undersung Surrealist whose obsession with Henri Michaux and partnership with Hans Bellmer doomed her to madness and suicide. The exhibition, pried from the clutches of various estates by curator João Ribas, includes more than just intricate drawings of Zürn’s private gods and monsters. It also has photographs in which her masochism in modeling for Bellmer’s twisted “Poupées” is on telling display.

Patrons seemed drawn to these dark matters. The SoHo nonprofit raised $375,000 with the benefit. It included a dinner for 270 honoring painter Pat Steir in a TriBeCa party room overlooking the new towers of Lower Manhattan, once a low-slung bohemian savanna where the deer and antelope of art and theory played.

The evening was characterized by an elegant modesty, an elusive trait that has become the necessary armor to defend against these troubled fiscal times. It must work, because no one at the Drawing Center, not board cochair Frances Beatty Adler or artist Brice Marden or architect Steven Holl or any of Steir’s many artist, collector, and curator friends who applauded her—Kiki Smith, Jeffrey Weiss, Tom Otterness, Eileen Cohen, Betty Woodman, Marina Abramovic—displayed any concern. “It takes a hydra to run a nonprofit in this economic environment,” director Brett Littman told the guests, who talked over him.

Left: Dealer Tim Nye with New Museum director Lisa Phillips. Right: Artist Laurie Anderson with musician Lou Reed.

Steir is, of course, famous for pitching paint at canvas, but she is also an ace at drafting what poet Anne Waldman, in a spirited toast, called “accidents of the magic of the pour.” Reading from prepared remarks, Waldman said, “Things are symbols of themselves. We don’t have to look for meaning. It’s there.” I wondered whether we could say the same for love? Perhaps if I read more poetry I would know. Steir herself waxed sentimental: “Drawing is the backbone of everything we make. For me it is smoke and rain and young children crying.” See? Poetry.

In its interviews and stories, Bomb has been a stalwart promoter of contemporary poets, playwrights, novelists, artists, and filmmakers for twenty-eight years, and on Friday night it drew many of them to its own benefit at the National Arts Club. “We deliver the artist’s voice,” said founder and editor Betsy Sussler, announcing Bomb’s new association with the Smithsonian, which will share its oral-history database with the magazine’s, creating, Sussler said, “a library of American culture,” and introducing three sets of honorees—Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, Carroll Dunham and Laurie Simmons, and P.S. 1 founder Alanna Heiss.

Each received little pink bomb awards (a Bomb gala tradition) and testimonials from artist Clifford Ross, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, and Abramovic, respectively. Abramovic donned her signature lab coat for her performance, during which she sat at a lectern and proceeded to call Heiss an artist’s friend for life. “OK, some of them are dead—LeWitt, Matta-Clark—but she’s still a friend,” she said, and then read off a dazzling list of all the artists whose work had made their first-ever public appearance at P.S. 1.

Left: P.S. 1 founder Alanna Heiss. Right: Artist Marina Abramovic.

Now the ruling thumb at the Clocktower, for which only an hour earlier she had been granted a ten-year lease for her new radio project, Heiss said, “If there is anyone here who has never had a show at P.S. 1, please leave your name at the door, and you will get one at the Clocktower.” I didn’t see anyone running for the sign-up sheet. But I did see plenty of paparazzi, especially around Reed. “I never smile for the camera,” he announced, pulling on a dour face. “You never smile?” asked Phillips. “I didn’t say I never smile,” Reed said, looking grim. “I don’t smile for cameras.” Again she asked why. Strobes flashed. The dinner bell sounded. The scene changed. History is like that. It goes by in a flash.

Saturday night found me at the Guggenheim Museum for KOOL—Dancing in My Mind, a new video and dance piece by director Robert Wilson, choreographer Carla Blank, and videographer Richard Rutkowski. The museum commissioned the work, performed by six dancers, for “The Third Mind,” which was closing the following day.

For those who believe in dance, KOOL is indeed a cool experience. The work is essentially an homage to Suzushi Hanayagi, a classically trained Japanese choreographer who did some of her most important work at the Judson Church in the 1970s and who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Nonetheless, Wilson, who collaborated with her on fifteen of his productions, found a way to communicate through small gestures of the hands and feet, and these became the basis for the piece.

Left: Collector Christophe De Menil. Right: Dancers Illenk Gentille and Jonah Bokaer.

On the screen behind the dancers, Hanayagi, now eighty, appeared in a new video portrait by Wilson, but also in fascinating archival footage of her dancing some of the moves taking place live onstage, but with even more concentration. One section, featuring a kind of duet between choreographer Jonah Bokaer and Illenk Gentille (in real life also an Indonesian prince), was especially dazzling, even hypnotic.

Still entranced, I drifted upstairs to a small reception that Gentille nearly missed, it took him so long to remove the mask of his whiteface makeup. There’s the difference between men and women. When Steir arrived at the Drawing Center dinner wearing sizable, Vermeer-style pearl earrings, which she claimed never to take off, even to sleep, Waldman understood. “That's right,” she replied, admitting to reapplying mascara before bed. “You never know who you will meet in your dreams.”

Linda Yablonsky

Dust Collector

New York

Left: Writer Luc Sante. Right: Photographer David Maisel. (Photos: Nick Hunt/Patrick McMullan)

RARELY ARE CULTURAL EVENTS so fortuitously mirrored by their venues as Monday’s group reading in honor of Library of Dust, David Maisel’s recent book of photographs of psychedelically corroded copper canisters encasing the ashes of unclaimed Oregon lunatics. Inside the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts on Norfolk Street, formerly one of the oldest synagogues in New York, the images—hung on the cobalt-blue peeled-paint walls and projected on-screen behind the altarlike stage—seemed to have always been there, matching their surroundings in hue and vibe, twin testaments to the stubborn efflorescence of decay. Sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, the long, contemplative event applied layers of interpretation to the work as varied, inconsistent, and occasionally brilliant as the corrosion adorning the canisters. In tribute to the mental hospital’s nameless dead—whose identifying labels have been obscured by time—I will efface some of the thirteen participants.

NYIH director Lawrence Weschler took the podium and gave a pocket history of the building—built by immigrants in 1885 who, “being good German Jews, based it on the Cologne Cathedral”—and then introduced Maisel, a compact, balding man of muted sprightliness. After reading a quote from W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Maisel said the Library of Dust project was “about loss of memory—and its recovery.” He rushed to document the cache of canisters after hearing of it in 2005, as the Oregon State Hospital (formerly known as the Oregon State Insane Asylum, also the place where Milos Forman shot One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was shutting down and clearing its archives. The vibrantly colored corrosion was, he said, the result of trace minerals from the cremains that had seeped through the lead seams of the copper canisters after years of water damage. He called the radical transmutation an “alchemical equation,” the canisters “clocks, asserting the possibility of the soul’s existence.” Eerily, a faint computerized female voice (probably from the lectern laptop) could be heard intoning “Good evening, and welcome to . . . ” several times as Maisel spoke. He appropriated the name of the project, he said, from a prisoner whose work crew was helping close down the hospital, who saw the bland, officelike room housing the canisters as “a library of dust.”

Geoff Manaugh, who runs Bldgblog and contributed an essay to Maisel’s book, followed, comparing the project to William Blake’s mystical cosmology, which was partially inspired by chemicals and elements the poet used to fashion copper printing plates. Next was novelist Jonathan Lethem, who read a short, fanciful piece called “The Ballad of Henry Anonymous, Actually an Octopus,” that turned out to be stitched together from sentences by Emerson, child psychotherapist Adam Phillips, and several scientists.

Left: Writer Jonathan Lethem. Right: Lawrence Weschler, director of the New York Institute of the Humanities. (Photos: Nick Hunt/Patrick McMullan)

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, said he had known Maisel since he was a student, and recalled that the last institute event he’d attended was a 1980 Foucault seminar on the history of sexuality. Citing the philosopher’s Madness and Civilization, Roth asked, “How do we pay attention to crazy people?” and read a fragment of an 1886 Oregon newspaper article about children decorating the graves of the insane dead. Decasia auteur Bill Morrison then showed The Film of Her, a collage film culled from photographed celluloid reels from 1894 to 1912, an era when movies weren’t protected by copyright law but photos were, so film reels were photographed and printed on paper to secure authorial rights. Manic, grainy images of machines, factories, mills, nature, and a nude woman (the titular her) were underscored by Bill Frisell’s music and a voice-over narration by an old black man, telling how he saved the Library of Congress’s archive of photographed movies from this period from destruction. In theme and tone, a perfect complement to Maisel’s work and the highlight of the evening.

Doubt: A History author Jennifer Michael Hecht followed with a lively ramble comparing the colors and forms of Maisel’s aerial photos of mined and polluted landscapes to the corrosion on the “cans of crazy.” “When the mad hallucinate after death,” she said, “they produce maps—lands and seas.” Photojournalist Gilles Peress couldn’t attend due to a back injury, so his female partner lip-synced to a filmed close-up of a woman’s mouth reading his critique. Noting that the canister images were enlarged by Maisel, Peress condemned the “intrusion of design on meaning.” “We are here witness to death by design,” the disembodied photog said by proxy. Harsh. Very French. Also reminiscent of Dr. Brian O’Blivion in Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Luc Sante came next with a brief, piquant essay about the project, recalling how he first saw the images in a New York Times article and thought they resembled cans of mystery food in ghetto bodegas. Then they reminded him of bullets; then artists (Klimt, Kandinsky, Warhol’s soup cans “transformed into suppurating flesh”); then NASA photos of Earth from space. “Cosmic metaphors always become hollow,” he said, “but not in this case.”

Maisel returned to the stage and read an e-mail to him from a woman whose family had, on learning of the canister archive through Library of Dust, located their long-lost dead relative Ada, who had been abandoned to the hospital not for insanity but because she was an “inconvenience” to her parents. In forty years of residency at the Oregon State Hospital, she received no psychiatric treatment. The e-mail concluded by noting that when the family arrived at the hospital to collect Ada’s ashes, they saw that her canister had, in a final effacement, been buffed and polished, removing the colorful corrosion that expressed her identity. With that, an old man to my right fell off his chair, and this elegiac marathon came to an end.

Oh Jesus

New York

Left: Artists Ryan Trecartin and Liz Rywelski. Right: Whitney Biennial curator Francesco Bonami with “Generational” cocurator Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)

I ARRIVED TUESDAY EVENING at the New Museum’s inaugural triennial, “The Generational: Younger than Jesus,” an appropriately Eastertide roundup of fifty vernal artists, to the sounds of stomping feet, shattering glass, and the twangs of Shahzad Ismaily’s noise performance—all part of artist Liz Glynn’s 24 Hour Roman Reconstruction Project. The hullabaloo marked the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths, which, according to Glynn’s accelerated history—her cardboard and hot-glued Eternal City had been “founded” the previous evening—was timed to occur precisely as the “Generational” opened its doors for the invite-only vernissage at 6:30 PM. I walked in just in time to see the fiberboard model of the first-century BC “Castra Praetoria” that I’d assembled earlier in the day, as a member of Glynn’s volunteer construction crew, battered to pieces by a couple of overeager adolescents.

While the exhibition’s premise provocatively assured no artists over thirty-three (Christ’s age on the Cross), the teenagers trashing Glynn’s miniature city installed in the ground-floor Joan and Charles Lazarus Gallery looked to have been half that age and were safely led out of the museum before the festivities really kicked off. They took their hormone-fueled angst with them. While in the past few years, the youth-infatuated art world has thrilled to a certain brand of marketable hooliganism, this exhibition’s young artists did their best to look grown up (with the prominent exceptions of Ryan Trecartin and AIDS 3-D’s Internet-inspired infantilism: the former represented by his gigglingly virtuosic DIY costume extravaganzas and the latter by a monolith in which had been inscribed the neon letters OMG). The most auspicious model is the appearance of the global flaneur—more researcher than rebel—promised in Cyprien Gaillard’s video of European housing projects and Liu Chuang’s catalogue of items bought off anonymous subjects encountered in the streets of Beijing.

Left: Artist Brendan Fowler. Right: “Generational” cocurator Lauren Cornell (left) with the Roysdon family and artist Emily Roysdon and Lawen Mohtadi.

Bars set up on the first and seventh floors sandwiched the exhibition spaces and forced a steady stream of short-of-breath opening-goers to discard their Campari cocktails and climb the museum’s narrow staircase or huddle into the two elevators. I worked my way through the galleries from the bottom up, past Brendan Fowler stationed in front of his prints and posters at the entrance to the second floor (explaining the “voodoo stress” embedded in the work), by the bare limbs and shock of red hair of Chu Yun’s drugged model tucked under a white duvet, and up to the third floor, where the nu-rave crew clamped on headphones to watch their own performances in Trecartin’s sprawling video installation sans the distractions of opening-night chatter and oblivious to the sleeping middle-aged visitor in a pink chaise longue—whom many, peering closely, mistook for an element of Trecartin’s suburban-inspired set. I finally made it to the Sky Room, where the post-thirty-three crowd had assembled (Jeffrey Deitch, Clarissa Dalrymple, and David Salle had all dropped by to scope out the show), as well as the “new” old guard—with “Generational” artists Cory Arcangel and Josh Smith assuming the role of elder statesmen among the recent art school grads. The lineup included new arrivals like twenty-two-year-old Mark Essen, who just finished his undergrad at Bard last year. He designs video games, an artistic genre—post-Arcangel—now in its second generation. I futilely tried my hand at Flywrench, Essen’s lo-fi outer-space game navigated by an old Nintendo controller. Essen, of a generation reared on PlayStations and GameCubes, assured me that the game’s simple, geometric graphics belie its difficulty.

Exhibition cocurator Lauren Cornell directed me to the basement as the musician Koudlam took up a microphone as part of a collaborative performance with Gaillard. The artist screened found footage of the construction of the Crazy Horse Memorial while Koudlam played with his Ray-Bans, fiddled with a laptop, sipped white wine, and, occasionally, sang. With TNT blowing up the Black Hills behind him, he reached for a bottle of spring water at the lectern and, garnering only scattered audience cheers, poured the contents over his head in a final flourish. This wasn’t a rock-show crowd, though. Only half-joking, Foxy Production’s John Thomson observed, “The artists’ parents are all here.”

Michael Wang

Left: Artist LaToya Ruby Frazier with “Generational” cocurator Laura Hoptman. Right: New Museum director Lisa Phillips.

Negative Thinking

New York

Left: Carter, Erased James Franco, 2008, still from a color film in Super 16, 63 minutes. (Courtesy Yvon Lambert Gallery) Right: MoMA's Josh Siegel, James Franco, and artist Carter. (Photo: David Velasco)

ERASED JAMES FRANCO, a sixty-three-minute film by the New York–based artist Carter, borrows its title from Robert Rauschenberg’s infamous Erased de Kooning, 1953, a Willem de Kooning drawing that the younger artist painstakingly erased, leaving a ghostly trace of the original, and claimed as his own. The Rauschenberg work was a pointed and poetic act of negation, a Dadaist stunt with an Oedipal edge. Carter’s film, in which the actor James Franco, confined to a minimal set, alternates between channeling a pair of iconic Rock Hudson and Julianne Moore performances and reenacting scenes from his own less than iconic movies, is altogether murkier and more mysterious in its effects and intentions. “I don’t quite know if it’s erasing or it’s building up,” Carter himself acknowledged in an onstage conversation at the Museum of Modern Art on Monday night, after the film’s North American premiere.

Franco, who also appeared at the event, was swarmed by teenagers on his way out. (The capacity crowd skewed younger than the average MoMA film audience.) And whether or not the gathered Franco-philes appreciated the willful, repetitive tedium of a conceptual exercise that brought to mind Warhol and Beckett, they were surely grateful that its star appears in every scene.

Erased James Franco’s central theme of identity—or more to the point, identity breakdown—comes across most palpably in the two films it quotes. Both are existential horror movies: John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966), in which an aging bank manager (John Randolph) is transformed into a bohemian painter (Hudson) by way of a Faustian arrangement and advanced plastic surgery, and Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), with Moore as a blank-slate Southern California housewife suffering from environmental illness and a disintegrating sense of self.

Carter, Erased James Franco, 2008. (Three-minute excerpt.)

Franco pitches these re-creations in a specific register—paranoid disorientation for Hudson, numb fragility for Moore—but the scenes of Franco doing Franco are, perhaps by design, a bit of a blur. It’s not just that it’s hard to pick out or recall quotes from the likes of James Dean (2001), City by the Sea (2002), and Spider-Man (2002). (Carter’s film was shot in a single day last summer and stops short of Franco’s two 2008 hits, Pineapple Express and Milk.) Carter has also gravitated to what he calls the “in-between moments” in Franco’s filmography. And so we get plenty of shots of the actor eating, drinking, pushing a chair around, scribbling in a notepad, walking through doorways, answering the phone. (He has some cleverly spliced-together “conversations” with the Hudson and Moore characters.)

At MoMA on Monday, Carter and Franco suggested that the idea was to give both a metaperformance (a performance that refers exclusively to other performances) and a nonperformance. (Carter, who has experimented with self-portraiture in his sculptures and paintings, told Franco to hold back, and the actor estimates he was operating at half speed: “I wish I could act at 50 percent in all my movies.”) All of which seems like a pretty labored way to arrive at a truism about the artifice of acting. Erased James Franco has less to say about identity and performance than the great dramas on the subject (John Cassavetes’s Opening Night [1977], Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn [2000], any number of Jacques Rivette movies). But not unlike Warhol’s Screen Tests, it becomes a de facto study of screen magnetism. Franco, even in this oddly muffled mode, retains his drowsy, goofy charm; far from a tabula rasa, he’s not erased so much as distilled.

One surprising corollary for Erased James Franco can be found in the “Acting With James Franco” series, created for Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Funny or Die website, in which Franco and his younger brother Dave explore the mysteries of his method, even reenacting a scene from Rebel Without a Cause. (“Actors sniff jackets if they need to sniff jackets,” James tells a reluctant Dave.) The artiest member of the Judd Apatow frat pack, the thirty-year-old Franco is turning out to be one of the more intriguing Hollywood stars of his generation, certainly the one most willing to lend his bankable, Gucci-endorsing face to an experimental art project. (See the current edition of Wholphin for a Dave Eggers collaboration that consists entirely of Franco trashing a room.) He’s a filmmaker, an MFA candidate, and soon to be a published author (his short-story collection is due out from Scribner next year).

Erased James Franco never quite settles on what it means to erase a performance or a persona (as opposed to a drawing). But for its star, at least, the film constitutes a meaningful act of negation, a kind of personal exorcism. As he put it, it was a way to “live through these bad movies I did, act them badly, and put them behind me.”

Tourist Trap

Los Angeles

Left: Artist Dave Muller. (Photo courtesy Los Angeles Art Weekend) Right: Artist Piero Golia and The Box's Mara McCarthy. (Except where noted, all photos: Andrew Berardini)

“AT HOME HE’S A TOURIST / He fills his head with culture / He gives himself an ulcer.” The words from the Gang of Four song kept rattling around my head as I made my way through last week’s rambling Los Angeles Art Weekend. The event, ostensibly an open house for LA culture but originally conceived by New Yorkers, was quickly latched on to by Angelenos for its salubrious marketing opportunities. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the framing makes me feel a like a tourist in my hometown; there might be such a thing as too much culture.

The “weekend” stretched somewhat amorphously over four days with numerous parties, artist talks, and sundry other events. That first night, it was either a walk-through with artist Elliott Hundley for his most recent show at Regen Projects or a book launch for the carrot-colored designer Valentino. I was more than glad to kick of with Hundley. Discussing his collage and sculptures’ connection to Anne Carson’s translation of Euripides’s Hekabe, the boyish artist took on a clipped pace, and the walk-through was over before you could say “Agamemnon.”

After a quick dinner, I set off for the LA Art Weekend launch party at the Standard’s Purple Lounge, a swanky bar populated with almost as many photographers as guests. The venue is as intimate as a hotel lounge gets, but I only ever seem to go there when someone’s promoting something. Michael Stock from Part-Time Punks put on the haunting Gang of Four song and seemed to rile a few dancers with a sign he hung outside the DJ booth reading, WARNING: TONIGHT NO HIP-HOP / JACKSONS / MADONNA / PRINCE. Miranda July (who Venice Biennale curator Daniel Birnbaum apparently claims is “big in Germany”) and Mike Mills didn’t seem to mind as they toasted the launch of Mills’s newest book, Mike Mills: Graphics Films. “I like that they put my books between the bottles,” said Mills. “It’s a place I feel very comfortable.”

Left: Artist Elliott Hundley. Right: Artists Mike Mills and Miranda July. (Photo: Andreas Branch/Patrick McMullan)

The following day, I battled ubiquitous LA traffic to arrive just in time for Dave Muller’s artist talk at Blum & Poe. As he went through a gallery filled with ten-foot-tall diptychs arranged like dominoes, he riffed on the works’ multitudinous threads: A pile of stones connect to Terry Riley–inspired squiggles connect to cows connect to a loose array of records connect to a Pollocklike splatter; about the last example, Muller said he felt it was finished when it looked “Jackson Pollock-y enough.”

No one I asked was heading to the afterparty, never a good sign. Nonetheless, I made my way to Royal/T, a J-pop café housing an art collection hung behind ghetto-thick Plexiglas. Mungo Thomson and Kerry Tribe were in the back drinking Japanese beers, taking a night off from their baby and work. The artists had recently toiled for exhibitions on different coasts that either just opened (Tribel’s at 1301PE) or were about to close (Thomsonl’s at John Connelly Presents). “When we were students, there was nothing here—no galleries, no decent restaurants,” Tribe noted. “And now there are waitresses in maid outfits.”

I kicked off Saturday night yet again in Culver City, this time at Timothy Hull’s opening at Taylor de Cordoba, then skipped around the corner to Kehinde Wiley’s Culver City debut at Roberts & Tilton’s newish digs. Wiley’s latest stop in his “World Stage” series takes his franchise to Brazil, limning the natives in statuesque poses atop wallpaper of pretty designs and flowers. To quote Martha Schwendener in a recent review: “I wish I liked Kehinde Wiley's paintings more than I do.” As I headed out, I saw publisher Benedikt Taschen heading in. Between us, he’s the better chance at a sale.

Left: Artists Mungo Thomson and Kerry Tribe. Right: Dealer Bennett Roberts with artist Kehinde Wiley.

Most of the Chinatown openings were off the official LA Art Weekend schedule, and I’m not sure whether it was because of or despite this that it was the most fun I had all weekend. At Henry Taylor’s opening at Mesler&Hug, I cut through the exhibition—which is set up like a living room with some paintings casually worked into the pad—and made my way onto the crowded back patio, where LA MoCA curator Bennett Simpson and artists Eric Wesley, Ry Rocklen, and Erika Vogt made lively banter. The sounds of the jamming blues band followed me (along with the aromas of barbecue and pot smoke) as I headed around the corner to Chung King Road. I stopped in at The Box to catch one of Stan VanDerBeek’s ’70s films playing in a one-night event in conjunction with the late artist’s exhibition. In between films, I sneaked to the back; scanning the crowd, I saw people I’d been looking for all weekend: MoCA curator Ann Goldstein, artist Paul McCarthy, dancer Simone Forti, and writer Benjamin Weissman, to name a few. Here was the intellectual ballast to the pomp and circumstance on the other side of town.

I popped into Erik Frydenborg’s exhibition at Bonelli Contemporary before heading over to Candice Lin’s solo debut at Chung King Project. The streets were packed with revelers, a ton of them artists, like Nathan Hylden, Carter Mull, and Amanda Ross-Ho. Looking around the swaying red lanterns, I felt for the first time in three days like I was at home in Los Angeles. With a few closures and moves in the past six months, there have been rumors circulating that Chinatown is dead. I asked Chung King Project owner Francois Ghebaly what he felt about the impending “demise.” “Chinatown’s like a cockroach,” he told me. “You can try to stomp us out, but we always come back.”

Andrew Berardini

Left: Artist Erika Vogt with Mesler & Hug's Vera Neykov. Right: Artists Erik Frydenborg and Amanda Ross-Ho.

Trompe Lit

New York

Left: Oulipian Anne F. Garréta. Right: The panel of Oulipians. (All photos: Dawn Chan)

IF THIS WERE A TEXT generated by the OuLiPo, or Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature), which, founded in France in 1960 by novelist-poet Raymond Queneau and engineer-mathematician François Le Lionnais, dedicated itself to the playful pursuit of constrained writing (e.g., a novel that eschews the letter e or a palindromic poem), I might have bound myself to the rule that I name the participants of Wednesday’s group reading at the New School only once. This, it turns out, happens to be a not entirely arbitrary conceit, because while Yale associate French professor Jean-Jacques Poucel’s affectionate introduction was otherwise informative, it failed to clearly identify the six individuals seated, panel-style, onstage at Tishman Auditorium.

So, here they are, for the record (they will be assigned nicknames for the duration): Marcel Bénabou, Hervé Le Tellier, and Jacques Roubaud made up the Frenchmen, who, in not necessarily corresponding order, will be referred to as Frenchman A, B, and C. Then there was Ian Monk (the Brit); Daniel Levin Becker (the Boy Wonder); and Anne F. Garréta (Dr. Strangelove), whose uncanny resemblance to Peter Sellers’s Nazi rocket scientist in hairstyle, eyeglasses, and facial structure was mildly disturbing.

As noted by poet and memoirist Honor Moore (the Host), the six readers are Oulipians for eternity. One of the tenets of OuLiPo is that, once elected to the society, you remain a member in good standing even after death. You can only resign by committing suicide with the specific purpose of resigning from OuLiPo. Some of the more famous inert Oulipians include Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, and Marcel Duchamp. The most prominent living American member, novelist Harry Mathews, was on the bill but sadly absent.

Left: Yale associate French professor Jean-Jacques Poucel with professor Peter Consenstein. Right: Oulipian Ian Monk.

As I entered the hall, the crowd was getting seated to the strains of the appropriately perverse Serge Gainsbourg. The Host soon ascended the stage and called the reading the start of a “once-in-a-lifetime week” (further OuLiPo events were scheduled around New York in the days to come) and read fulsome endorsement of the society by John Ashbery. She recounted a multiyear e-mail correspondence she’d had with the prominent American Oulipian, the constraint being that they had to address each other with names beginning with the letters H and M (which, of course, were already the initials of their real names). As they passed missives starting “Hunka Munka,” “Her Majesty,” “Henry Mancini,” etc., the Host was indoctrinated into the ways of OuLiPo, which the novelist called “a sect.”

She then introduced the associate French professor, who explained that the OuLiPo’s “arbitrarily conceived constraints” must be “verifiable,” or perceptible, and that oral readings of the work made this more difficult. “The nature of tonight’s reading is to be tricked,” he said, and this seemed in line with OuLiPo’s general air of literary pranksterism. With that, the Brit, who functioned as a sort of moderator throughout, announced that the group would begin with a “collective reading” of an iconic text by the prominent American Oulipian: a series of cheeky variations on “To be, or not to be” (e.g., “Antonymy—Nothing and something: this was an answer”), of which my favorite has always been, “Another point of view—Hamlet, quit stalling!”

The Boy Wonder, a recent Yale graduate and the youngest member of OuLiPo by far, read a 160-word story that he “wrote for a 160-word story contest.” It was clever and brief. The Brit followed with “Iris,” a bawdy tale of a bar hookup and sloppy copulation that had an i in every word. During the remarkably detailed (considering the constraint) sex scene, the oldest Frenchman held his head in his hands in apparent embarrassment. Frenchman C then read a story that had been translated into English by the Brit in which every sentence began, “I was thinking . . . ” Another Frenchman (A or B; I’m not sure) read from the well-known Oulipian text Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, in French. A number of audience members chuckled knowingly after the first few lines. Sophisticates. The Brit then read the same story in English, which begins with a Borges epigraph about how tiresome it is to write long books when ideas can be orally expressed in a fraction of the time. The piece, unsurprisingly, is something of a manifesto for literary minimalism.

Left: Oulipian Marcel Bénabou. Right: Oulipian Jacques Roubaud.

One of the Frenchman (not C), read an amusing, hyperliteral deconstruction of the standard epistolary opener “I received your last letter.” The Boy Wonder, uniting OuLiPo’s twin passions for literature and math, followed with a series of microstories whose subjects were determined by the prime factors of their word counts. This was one of the less “verifiable” offerings, but impressive nonetheless. Frenchman C read fragments of a novel about various couples and their couplings, each scene capped by the Brit, who read the last few lines of every segment. C’s thick accent caused him to mispronounce vowels—clitoris had a long i; penis a short e—but his story did contain the priceless lines “He muttered a Georges Bataille quote into her ear” and “She noticed that the Chlamydiae he had given her were not decorative plants.”

Dr. Strangelove, saying, “Let’s be serious for a bit,” read a long, memoiristic fragment about how books proliferate, colonize, and overwhelm her life, which ended with a series of Oulipian constraints intended to limit the amount of books in the world and, hence, in her apartment. The Brit concluded with a “serious limerick sequence,” which “chopped and butchered” the rhythm and rhyme scheme of the form into a flowing series about a romance gone bad. Then, unceremoniously, it was over. The audience was invited to the stage to have their books signed by the authors. For a group as gnomic and experimental as the OuLiPo, some Q&A elaboration would have been welcome, but perhaps this lack was the event’s overarching constraint.