Hear You Roehr

Left and right: William E. Jones, Film Montages (for Peter Roehr), 2006, video, color, sound, 11 minutes.

RINGER (1965) one of German artist Peter Roehr’s final films, spotlights a pair of jockstrapped wrestlers locked in an acrobatic embrace. Posed in front of a heady nowhere of puffy clouds and high-density sky, one figure slips off the other and slams slowly toward the frame’s bottom—then again, and again, mechanically, eleven times. William E. Jones departs from this piece—the only in Roehr’s oeuvre with homoerotic overtones, among dozens of traffic jams, gas stations, and female hair models—for his own video Film Montages (For Peter Roehr), 2006, imagining a kind of alternate continuation of Roehr’s career, cut short by cancer, which would have embraced the “physique” sexuality that coded midcentury gay pornography.

Content didn’t matter to Roehr, except as material for relentless repetition—yet here he and Jones part ways. Film Montages compiles—repeating in a structuralist manner four, six, or eight times—clips from vintage gay porn films, stressing the same charged bodily contact, yet withholding, relentlessly, four, six, or eight times, the money shot. A bondage sequence in a warehouse repeats a pan down a man’s torso, a cut to a second man chained to a crate, then back to the first man zipping up his jeans and then buttoning closed the mouth of the bound man’s mask. Eight times each. In Roehr, a then-unknown young artist deeply invested in pushing mathematical precision to its logical conclusion, Jones finds the pleasures of modernism’s sadistic repetitions.

Film Montages opens, though, with a throbbing Roehr homage of a different sort. The white holes of streetlights glide by above a freeway; a 1970s synth noir sound track loops four times into a sludgy beat; pornography, in this moment, is an art form. This stark peripheral image, like those Roehr drew from 1960s television advertisements, exerts its own poetry on the absent sex, like the absent products, that were the “point” of both artists’ source films. There’s pleasure, Jones argues, in watching, again, then again, the awkwardness of what you’re not supposed to notice: men draped across a couch, boots on a hardwood floor. Particularly charmed is a tangle of nude bodies in a boxcar; the faces are bare of the perfunctory intensity that has come to characterize the genre, and instead the men are playful, played-with, almost innocent.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, between screenings of Jones’s Film Montages and Roehr’s 1965 Film-Montagen on January 9, Jones read two letters. “March 15, 2013. Dear Peter,” begins the first. Jones addresses Roehr with a “work of fiction,” partly as biographer, partly to, as he writes, “figure out why you have such a hold on my imagination.” The letter laces Jones’s infatuation with certain romantic details—such as how a close friend of Roehr’s, the sculptor Charlotte Posenenske, gave up art in 1968 in favor of more direct social engagement; or that Roehr himself stopped making work in 1967, a year before his death, to run a head shop with his lover, the gallerist Paul Maenz. “Your idealism remains intact,” writes Jones, “because the dead cannot accumulate personal wealth.” Again, Jones finds most endearing, most powerful, those moments surrounding the supposed “core” of the work at hand; his personal address punctures an art context with real feeling. The second letter is archival, from Roehr to Maenz. Roehr touches on Sol LeWitt, New York, his illness, their meeting in a mailroom, with an optimism that turns art into something unfamiliar—something like love. Jones’s presentation, continuing a project begun in 1993, bends his excavation of Roehr’s brief life into an autobiographical fragment: Jones’s entanglement with his young, dead, idealized subject, four…six…eight times.