Max Ritvo. Photo: Ashley Woo.
We die. You did, who seemed to have believed this fact. That we are of the nature of dying means that what happened to you in August in Los Angeles is that you went ahead of us. If too far ahead.
I froze on a Brooklyn sidewalk the moment I realized I would no longer be chanting your name as I had for months with everyone in our temple: “Max Ritvo . . . Monastic Senjin . . . May they heal all their ills.”
Did you hear, before you died, that Senjin’s last words were “I’m ready”? I have wondered if you were ready, who wrote:
When my heart stops, it will be the end of certain things,
but not the end of things itself.
Sure, my smile is useful, but a chair is useful too.
In the end, I love chairs, and I love dogs,
and I’ll be chairs, and I’ll be dogs
and if I am ever a thought of my widow
I’ll love being that.
To me (a stranger), of course, this is what you are now: the poem. In it, you have rewritten a line I love, by Robert Duncan, into a full first person: “The source of the song will die away.” In the heart of your writing there is a revision of the tense of thought as well, the “continual-thought-of-dying” (Ingeborg Bachmann). The first words of yours I read were about your future death in retrospect:
When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.
What am I missing? I ask
patting my chest
and I am missing everything living
that won’t come with me
into this sunny afternoon
This vertigo I feel at the sense you were, when writing, “dead already, in an immemorial past” (Maurice Blanchot) comes from the movement of your impossible traversal of past by future perfect. It serves the same purpose that Jacques Derrida attributed to our tendency to speak, as I am here, to the dead as if directly: “to traverse speech at the very point when words fail us.”
To practice, in language, the dead’s relation to time: an injunction to try to live here where, as you say, “we’re always so close to living.”
Abraham Adams is an artist based in New England.
Mladen Stilinović, Artist at Work Again, 2011. At Ludwig Museum, Budapest, 2011. Photo: Boris Cvjetanovic.
“La Pologne, la Pologne. Isn’t it terribly cold there?”
“Pas du tout,” I answer icily
THIS IS THE DEDICATION Mladen Stilinović wrote me in his artist’s book Energetic Action, comprising newspaper cutouts of political meetings in former Yugoslavia, reprinted on the occasion of his 2010 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. The quote is by Polish poetess Wisława Szymborska: two lines of mordant irony and deceptive simplicity.
Stilinović loved poetry. He loved Polish poetry especially. He wrote his own poems, though he rarely published them. He also loved colloquial language: “One must put an end to it. (Whateva’). Let me be,” went a line from one of his early collage works. He loved to imitate political slogans in his titles: Attack on my Art is an Attack on Socialism and Progress. He took down authorities and playfully occupied the space: Work is a disease – Karl Marx.
It’s very difficult to write about Stilinović and not slip into his style of short, trenchant phrases. How astute and humorous they are, how efficient in keeping us vigilant. “Language is pain. Language is possessed by ideology,” he said. The text of another work: An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist.
Since the beginning of his career began in 1970s Zagreb, he never stopped questioning conventions—whether in collage or photography or film. His notorious artist books began as an open edition: As soon as he would give one away, he would produce another.
There is no art without laziness, Stilinović claimed, teasing both socialist and capitalist obsessions with work and money. He was always opposing social norms, both in the East and in the West, examining his own human and artistic status while remaining obstinate toward any authority. He was proud to be an autodidact. Stilinović’s works are mainly simple in their execution—handwriting on cardboard, paper, plates, cakes—meticulously engaged with poverty, death, money, economy, and pain. Money is the only language everybody understands.
Mladen Stilinović, An Artist Who Doesn’t Speak English is Not an Artist, 1992, acrylic on artificial silk, 54 3/4 x 38 3/5".
He loved potatoes, a simple ingredient. “There are two kinds of art: potato art and cake art,” he told curator Dan Byers and me during a conversation at e-flux during his New York exhibition there two years ago. “New York is full of cake art.” When the lecture adjourned, slices of cake had been carefully placed on the stairway of the gallery.
I have no time is another of his artist books, filled with repetitions of the titular statement. It sounds like a mantra for our age, but Stilinović found it an outrageous and dangerous mode. Stilinović and the art historian Branka Stipancić, his partner in life and art, were always generous with their time. In their apartment on Ljudevit Posavski Street in Zagreb, where Stilinović used to organize his exhibitions, they would meet with artists, curators, students, friends, visitors—these rituals were particularly important for young local artists and curators. We learned so much from them. We laughed, we discussed, we listened, we asked many questions, we wanted to know more about the past, we shared, we worked together, we drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. Stilinović was taciturn—sometimes or even mainly—with a canny smile under his mustache, a distinctive sense of humor, a strong charisma and warm humanity.
Szymborska’s poem is called “Vocabulary.” Stilinović left the title out, though I am sure he considered it a good one. He also omitted the poem’s central verses. They resume so well the complex and multilayered relation to language, East-West, power and politics. I hardly think this was an accident, or that he simply had no time: Stilinović was a master of voids, of mordant irony, and deceptive simplicity.
“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?” she asked, and then sighed with relief. So many countries have been turning up lately that the safest thing to talk about is climate.
“Madame,” I want to reply, “my people’s poets do all their writing in mittens. I don’t mean to imply that they never remove them; they do, indeed, if the moon is warm enough. In stanzas composed of raucous whooping, for only such can drown out the windstorms’ constant roar, they glorify the simple lives of our walrus herders. Our Classicists engrave their odes with inky icicles on trampled snowdrifts. The rest, our Decadents, bewail their fate with snowflakes instead of tears. He who wishes to drown himself must have an ax at hand to cut the ice. Oh, madame, dearest madame.”
That’s what I mean to say. But I’ve forgotten the word for walrus in French. And I’m not sure of icicle and ax.
“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?”
“Pas du tout,” I answer icily.
Ana Janevski is associate curator in the Department of Media and Performance Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Alan Vega, 1980. Photo: Ebet Roberts.
“imagine just playing this , like casually like ppl would listen to Beyonce and shit”
—Comments on a YouTube video of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop”
THERE WAS NOTHING CASUAL ABOUT ALAN VEGA, who died last summer at (what turned out to be) the age of seventy-eight. An artist, musician, provocateur, and all-around wild man, Vega was best known as the vocalist for the lightning-bolt-channeling Suicide, who in the late 1970s gave Frankenstein-life to the extraordinarily loud, harsh breed of synth punk that not only inspired others to take up the genre, but arguably spawned new wave, industrial, dance punk, and electroclash, and influenced countless diverse acts as well-known and beloved as Bruce Springsteen and as obscure and overlooked as Years on Earth.
The incandescent warmth of Vega’s unhinged-Elvis-style croon lent a soda-fountain sweetness to partner Martin Rev’s open-heart-surgery synths, most famously in the epic “Frankie Teardrop,” in which, over an electronic cicada-drone throb, and punctuating his whisper-spoken narrative with tortured shrieks, Vega starkly limns the travails of a not-yet-of-voting-age Vietnam veteran who shoots his family and himself over money woes. “We’re all Frankies,” Vega concludes. “We’re all lying in hell.”
Suicide, “Frankie Teardrop,” 1977.
In fact, having fought his way out of blue-collar Bensonhurst, the Brooklyn native spent little time reclining: Suicide put out five full-length studio albums, around and between which Vega built for himself a solo career. He collaborated with, among others, Alex Chilton (who would later be celebrated for his own undersung band, the power-poppy Big Star); Lydia Lunch, Genesis P-Orridge, and the Cars’ Ric Ocasek. Additionally, he continued to make artwork, as he had done before Suicide’s genesis, creating paintings, light sculptures, and works made from detritus he found in the street, much of it to more immediate acclaim than he initially received for his music, and none of it earning him an axe thrown in his face, as his work with Suicide reputedly had.
He continued to provoke to the very end. “Life is boring,” he told Noisey a few months before his death. “Right now, I want to get rich. That’s all.” When he died, the public learned that he’d shaved ten years off his age, presumably in an attempt to battle the still-dominant music-biz bias against anyone who’s needed the services of a razor for more than a decade. Consciously or not, Vega resisted the culture of infantilization that has increasingly infected American civilization in recent years; his work was consistently adult, marked by aggression and knowingness, not passivity and innocence. In creating something entirely new, he didn’t attempt to ignore the old; rather, he acknowledged it, then tore it apart, reassembling it into something at once glowing and ugly. Late-modern capitalism posits youth as simultaneously eternal and fleeting, a thing only just gone, that must be continually recaptured; Vega’s work looks only forward, evocative of that which can never be captured to begin with, only sought forever.
Polly Watson is a musician, editor, and writer based in New York.
S. H. Raza in Paris. Photo: The Raza Foundation, New Delhi.
FOR SOME REASON, which now will forever remain a mystery, the great Indian painter S. H. Raza was always known by his family name. His initials stood for Sayed Haider, but one rarely found these used. This was, oddly, common to all the founders and associates of India’s modernist movement, the Mumbai (then Bombay)–based Progressive Artists’ Group: M. F. Husain was Husain, not Maqbool Fida; K. H. Ara was Ara; F. N. Souza was Souza. This was probably just coincidence; to find any significance in this is likely to be futile.
What was significant was that the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group was formed in the year of India’s independence from British colonial rule, in 1947. While the country discarded the yoke of an imperial power, these progressive artists set out to deliberately discard the formality of European Realism. Each of them did it in his own way: In forming a group, they did not evolve a common manifesto of style. Others who later joined them (notably, V. S. Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna, and Tyeb Mehta), too, found their own individual ways to break free.
I met Raza rather late in his life. By then, his reputation was such that you approached him with awe. But surrounded as he was by acolytes and admirers, his manner was kindly and without condescension. I engaged him in a long conversation, which he seemed to enjoy. We talked of the place of art in today’s India, the growing intolerance of religious fanatics, and whether spiritualism was incompatible with modernity. Here he was emphatic on one point: Human beings needed a strong sense of spirituality more than ever today, but their sense of belief had to transcend the orthodoxies of organized religion.
His own life and work were a clear embodiment of that. He was born a Muslim in a small town in India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh in 1922. His parents were traditional Muslims, and his father was a forest ranger. Raza began to show his talent for drawing at the age of twelve. Luckily, his parents were liberal enough not to try and straitjacket him and force him to study for the civil services. Recognizing his talent, he was sent to the Nagpur School of Art and then to Sir J. J. School of Art in present-day Mumbai, India’s premier art school. A French scholarship then took him to France’s École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.
Raza was enamored with the French landscape, and his early work contained many series of paintings reflecting this. Later, his Expressionist landscapes gave way to a more abstract style. If you wanted to encapsulate his work in these years you could broadly say that Raza was swimming with different currents of Western modernism. But, as he later said, although happily settled in France (and happily married to a fellow student at Beaux-Arts, Janine Mongillat), and in spite of a fair degree of success, he felt a sense of restlessness and unhappiness with his work. Visits to India in the 1970s, and particularly to the caves of Ajanta and Ellora, and the religious center Benares (now Varanasi) began to move him away from landscapes to landscapes of the mind.
Raza then remembered his childhood, when a primary-school teacher drew a dot on the class blackboard and asked him to concentrate on it in order to stop his mind from wandering. Thus was the idea of the Bindu born. The Bindu is a large dot, the dark core of energy from which the cosmos emanates. That dot became the center of his work, along with the mandala, the image of the cosmos, and the tribhuj, the triangle of space and time. Later came representations of male and female energy, all rendered in vibrant colors of red, black, and yellow. The palette later expanded to include green and orange as well.
What is remarkable about this major shift in Raza’s work—which was to continue till the end of his life—was that all these symbols come from Hindu mythology. If Raza’s mature work is spiritual in nature, that spirituality stems from Hinduism. How did Sayed Haider Raza, born a Muslim, who neither renounced his religion nor converted to Hinduism, do that, or, in today’s fraught atmosphere, dare do that? He achieved this by simply transcending religion. Spirituality for him was beyond its confines. Ultimately, he often said, we all are of the same flesh and blood.
The changes in his color palette toward the end of his career are also consistent with Hindu spirituality, where the last phase of life is one of sanyas, the renunciation of material life. His work was now an exploration of whites and off-whites, the absence of color being his sanyas. This must be why, although suffering from physical disability and confined to a wheelchair, Raza never stopped painting. When he held his brush, his hands as steady as a young man’s, he reached a sense of tranquility and peace. Raza’s was truly a life well lived.
Anil Dharker is a columnist and writer based in Mumbai. He is the founder and director of the Mumbai International Literary Festival.
Malick Sidibé, Self-portrait, 1956, silver gelatin print, glass, paint, cardboard, tape, and string, 16 x 12 x 1/4".
“REGARDEZ-MOI!” a voice shouts assertively. The photographer turns and swings toward the young man dancing. His knees are bent low, buttressing a torso thrown impossibly far back. His arms are flung wide open, his grin even wider. Snap. The photographer shifts position, steps one foot forward, lowers his camera, and snaps again. The year is 1962. The place is Bamako, Mali. And the photographer is Malick Sidibé, whose formally elegant, dynamically composed black-and-white images testify to the complex modernities fashioned across postcolonial Africa.
That they exist as such is cause for both celebration and despair. To be sure, Sidibé has been deservedly lauded for expanding the narrow range of racist Euro-American perceptions of the continent, challenging the colonial archive of African photography no less than contemporary media’s Afro-pessimism. But tethering the photographer’s work to this pedagogical charge has tended to obscure its specificities and depths: its knotty contradictions, its uncomfortable displacements. As Sidibé’s photographs are tasked to correct and defend—to testify to African modernities—our gaze is invariably directed beyond the images, toward evidentiary functions that can stretch and overdetermine their meaning, and ultimately, occlude them. As I remember Sidibé’s passing, and consider his inscription into the historical record, the photograph’s injunction “Regardez-moi”—Look at me—sounds like a dirge. Seeing his work mandates freeing it from its documentary “lesson,” releasing it from the weight of white ignorance—especially because, as Chinua Achebe pointed out, said “ignorance” about Africa is itself a deeply motivated occlusion.
Malick Sidibé, Regardez Moi (Look At Me), 1962, silver gelatin print, 17 x 17".
Sidibé’s oeuvre presents as a potted history of enormous visibility matched by equally sizable blind spots. To begin, we might wonder why, among a gamut of varied subjects, Look at Me and Sidibé’s other images of dancing (notably Christmas Eve, Happy Club, 1963) have become his most iconic. It may be—as Sidibé assumed—that such photographs marked a distance from Seydou Keďta’s studio portraits, even as they retrospectively appeared to establish a proximity to Euro-American audiences through internationally legible gestures of dance. Certainly, as we navigate around the Scylla of Afro-pessimism, the lure of seemingly carefree, twirling youth is undeniable. But such images can be a Charybdis of their own, especially when they are transparently linked—as they all too frequently are—with a performance of social or political freedom.
A 2009 fashion spread Sidibé shot for the New York Times Magazine titled “Prints and the Revolution” is only the most egregious in the insistent presentation of his work against a facile backdrop of “revolution.” Time and again, the democratic impulse of his images is taken at face value: dancing youths (albeit defying state curfew) are read as signifiers of liberty; studio portraits are touted as a self-fashioning of postcolonial subjectivities. Yet the limits on self-fashioning imposed by religion and state, custom and family—limits that Stephen Greenblatt underscored in the same breath as he introduced the term in his study of Renaissance Europe—are usually forgotten in the rush to rally these images as documents of freedom.
Malick Sidibé, Christmas Eve, Happy Club, 1963, silver gelatin print, 13 x 13".
Sidibé himself stressed the boundaries and tensions that animated photographs such as Look At Me: from denying the illusion of sexual license (“We never slept with the girls we danced with!”) to underscoring the gendered inequities of “freedom” in a polygamous, Muslim country (“Here boys have always had freedom; but girls have never been free.”). Sidibé, by the way, is survived by three wives and seventeen children. Manthia Diawara, who has brilliantly unpacked the complex enmeshment of Sidibé’s photographic subjects in American and diasporic culture, has plumbed the nuances and paradoxes of “freedom,” generational conflict, and defiance in 1960s Bamako. The chic, oh-so-modern young women in Sidibé’s photographs often had to smuggle their miniskirts and bell-bottoms under more voluminous clothing. That their mothers would pass them contraband garments through the window in defiance not only of paternal authority, but also of the roving militia of the largely unpopular socialist regime in place between 1960 and 1968, which dispatched scantily clad teens to re-education camps, only begins to gesture to the array of internal pressures pushing up against the picture plane. Freedom may always be a myth, but Sidibé appears to have captured a highly gendered and deeply compensatory modeling of it that belies simple projections of liberty. “All was controlled and forced,” the photographer has explained. “Young people could feel free at the parties because they were not free the rest of the time.”
Far from diminishing the centrality of the postcolonial context that undergirds Sidibé’s work, I want to champion an engagement with it that acknowledges how the historically specific contradictions and disavowals of postcolonial Mali trouble a straight line between the photograph and the polis, or between the imagined emancipation of subjects and their performance of it. Likewise, the limits Greenblatt cautioned about the illusory freedom of fashioning the self apply all the more to the illusory, partial knowledge we can construe of another. In this sense, Look at Me is a negative demand: to stop reading me through you, through your projections. The call for Africa to not merely be a mirror of Western narcissism has underpinned postcolonial critiques for the last thirty years. But is it possible for us to surmount our own egos in this way?
Some would say not. That the image is always a mirror. That interpretation is always projection. Nonetheless, this is the challenge Sidibé’s legacy throws out to us. Never has the demand to see beyond ourselves been more urgent. Regardez-moi! the photograph calls out. Again.
Leora Maltz-Leca is associate professor of contemporary art history in the history of art and visual culture department at Rhode Island School of Design.
Vladimir Kagan. Photo: John Walsh.
PUCK IS DEAD. That was my reaction when I heard of the passing of Vladimir Kagan at the age of eighty-eight. I only met him late in his life, by which time he had an unmistakable sparkle of celebrity. But even when he was young, I imagine that he resembled Shakespeare’s “shrewd and knavish sprite” pretty well. Like the elfin upstager of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kagan stood somewhat outside the mainstream of his profession (that is, furniture design), a good place to be if you want to provide a little light relief. Though he was initially influenced by the Bauhaus, he never adopted its rigorous functionalism. Nor did he push the envelope of technology, like Ray and Charles Eames, or rethink fundamental engineering issues, like Eero Saarinen, or conceive a new vocabulary of symbolic form, like Ettore Sottsass. His achievement was simpler—and, for many people, more alluring.
Kagan sweetened modernism up, dispensing curves like spoonfuls of sugar. Plenty of other designers, from Alvar Aalto to Eva Zeisel, helped make avant garde style palatable by giving it more sensuous lines. But none were as keen to make their work touchable, beckoning to the hand as well as the eye. In Kagan’s furniture the lines are always taut, and the upholstery is always pleasingly plump. Let’s go ahead and say it: His furniture is sexy. He was the master of that slightly louche manner of design which has become iconic in recent years thanks to the TV show Mad Men, which is cited constantly in discussions of Kagan’s work. Clichéd it may be, but the reference is apt, particularly when you come to think of what “sexy” meant in the midcentury moment. Kagan developed his aesthetic in a pre-Feminist age—the age of Jane Russell, padded bustiers, and va-va-voom—and more or less adhered to that look for the rest of his career. The world of Don Draper doesn’t seem all that remote when you read the New York Times obituary of the designer, in which hotelier André Balazs remarks of his Kagan-designed office chair: “I think that with good furniture, if it doesn’t at some point make you want to make love on it, it’s missing something.”
Vladimir Kagan, Contour High Back Lounge, 1953, walnut with rubbed oil finish, 36 x 33 x 35".
Vladimir Kagan, Sculpted Coffee Table, 1950, walnut with rubbed oil finish, 16 x 59 x 30".
Vladimir Kagan, Serpentine Sofa with Arm, 1950, maple base with ebony finish, 30“ x 11' x 61”.
Vladimir Kagan, Fettuccini Chair, 1997, chrome frame with Siena leather, 27 x 28 x 27".
Yet if Kagan’s conception of sensuality was relatively self-evident, his means of achieving it definitely were not. When he sat down at the drawing board—he never did migrate to the computer—magic happened. Try making an outline sketch of one of his pieces yourself, and you’ll see how expertly he marshaled his compositions. The typical Kagan design has a single point of tension. From this vertex springs a set of sinuous lines: broad cushions curving from the narrow end of an asymmetrical sofa; a gazelle-like chair, leaping forward from tapered hind legs; the undercarriage of a table splaying out from its nether angle. At the convergence point, all is tautness, energy, and snap. Otherwise the lines in the object are relaxed—which is exactly what Kagan wanted his clients to be.
Kagan’s desire to set the world at ease was also embodied by his blog, which he began in 2009 when he was already an octogenarian. He wrote often and unaffectedly, in a style that combined old-world charm with New York kvetch. Reading it is a lot like chatting with him. Alongside perceptive and generous discussions of his fellow designers, such as Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava, Studio Job, and Wendell Castle, he delved into his travels to see London’s contemporary architecture (thumbs down) and Paris in the snow (thumbs up), his experiences driving a Model T (thumbs up), unauthorized knockoffs of his own work (thumbs down of course, but also the objects of his genuine curiosity), and bagels and chopped liver (thumbs way up). One my favorite entries is his very last, which is devoted to maintaining the pleasures of eating in an age of anxiety about weight loss: “Lunch. Don’t neglect this.” Words to live by.
A final point to make about Kagan’s work is that it has always been superlatively crafted. He apprenticed as a boy in the Fifty-Seventh Street woodshop of his father, who had moved the family from Worms, Germany, when Kagan was young. The experience instilled in him a lifelong respect for the skills of the artisan, and he continued to oversee the manufacture of his pieces with the family firm for many years. After a period of relative quiet in the 1980s and ‘90s, he enjoyed a renaissance via collaboration with the design impresario Ralph Pucci. It so happens that on the day that Kagan died, a new chair called the Gabriella was unveiled at Pucci’s New York showroom. Curvy (of course) with a bronze frame and upholstered seat, the chair recalled his classic designs but also suggested the new directions he might have pursued, had even more years of energetic productivity been left to him.
When Kagan’s wife Erica Wilson, a leading embroiderer, died in 2011, the designer posted a moving tribute on his blog. “The little joys, the good things she did uncomplainingly and selflessly are daily missed,” he wrote. “Everything is a little more curtailed–less enjoyable.” Much the same can be said about the loss of this delightful man. I began this remembrance by calling him our Puck, but if I were going to inscribe a monument for Kagan, who so beautifully combined visual and material intelligence, I would select these words of Hamlet’s: “O, ’tis most sweet / when in one line two crafts directly meet.”
Glenn Adamson is an independent curator and writer based in Brooklyn.