Lou Reed in Greenwich Village, New York City, in 1982. Photo: Waring Abbott.
If there’s one tragic factor in the downfall of an artist, it’s that he or she forgets what he or she originally set out to do. This never happened to Lou Reed. All too often it’s the case that a few years into a career, artists lose their way, though it doesn’t stop many, and many of the most successful, from going on. We are cursed, you might say, with boatloads of ambitious, talented professionals. So we should be thankful, because they allow us to appreciate, in stark contrast, those few who remain true to an original impulse and shift gears with some regularity, to pull the rug out from under themselves, and from under us. Lou Reed had this ability to be waywardly true. In a world where so many play it safe and are duly rewarded, he played with conventions and expectations to keep his art alive—nine lives at least. Reed was never afraid to do something that his fans wouldn’t like, or critics, or the record company, or even he himself.
It’s still incredible to me that he followed his surprise hit, “Walk on the Wild Side,” an infectious gender-bent ho-stroll—produced by his biggest star-fan, David Bowie, complete with funk bass, a sax solo, and those irresistible “doo-da-doo” backing vocals—with Berlin (1973), a somber song-cycle that was critically drubbed as one of the most depressing albums ever released. And then, after roaring back in 1974 with a killer live recording, Rock ’n Roll Animal, he delivered, a mere six months later, the top-ten charting Sally Can't Dance. Exhausted but pressured by RCA for another record, he produced Metal Machine Music (1975), one of the most infamous albums in all quote/unquote rock. Subtitled “The Amine β Ring,” its disclaimer of being “An Electronic Instrumental Composition” did not stop kids from buying what looked like a sexy slab of heaviness, with Reed on the front and back covers, hair bleached blond, fingernails painted black, requisite shades and a leather jacket—the bad-ass incarnate. What they got, instead, is an hour of music they probably didn’t consider music at all, created with tube amps, tremolo and reverb units, and ring modulators. There are no guitars, no drums, and no vocals. In other words, to his newly-acquired fans, no Lou Reed. In his liner notes he described it as “rock orientation, melodically disguised, i.e. drag,” claimed to have invented heavy metal—which for him was both a musical genre and an alloy—and famously boasted, “My week beats your year.” The copy that I have, picked up from a bargain bin at a suburban shopping mall for maybe six dollars, has a little notched cut in the top right corner of the sleeve, indicating that the record had been cut out. Contractually obligated to its release, RCA deleted it within weeks, and even if this wasn’t entirely unexpected, it was a humiliation for an artist of his caliber.
Writing for Metal Machine Music, Reed admitted, “No one I know has listened to it all the way through including myself. It is not meant to be. Start any place you like.” If this sounds suspiciously like Andy Warhol laconically advising filmgoers on how to deal with eight hours of his film Empire, it’s certainly no coincidence. Is Reed the most Warholian of Factory denizens? Or did Warhol equally absorb the ultra-cool indifference of Reed and the Velvets? Influence, all too often, is thought to flow in one direction when it has many facets, especially when you’re surrounded by speed freaks, drag queens, an ice queen, and Lou Reed. In that milieu—a sort of amphetamine-fueled soap opera/movie set with a reliably unpredictable cast of characters—Reed reflected what he saw and created some of his most beautifully eternal songs: “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “Femme Fatale.”
Cover of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, 1975.
In June of 1990, three years after Warhol’s death, the Cartier Foundation in Paris organized a Warhol/Velvets exhibition. Reed and John Cale, his former collaborator in the band, had recorded an album dedicated to their one-time mentor, Songs for Drella. (“Drella” was superstar Ondine’s taunting pet name for Warhol, his canny merging of Dracula and Cinderella.) Reed and Cale were asked to perform at the opening, to which the other members of the band, Sterling Morrison and Moe Tucker, had been invited. I was in Basel at the art fair when I heard rumors of a potential Velvets reunion, and a wisp of rumor provided the only motivation necessary. In less than an hour, I had convinced Wolfgang Staehle, who had conveniently been loaned a super-charged BMW, to split the fair and drive to Paris, usually a five-hour trip. We didn’t know exactly where the Cartier Foundation was—this was well before GPS—but off we flew. How we weren’t pulled over remains a complete mystery, as we got there in just over four hours. Back then, the Foundation was outside the city, at a chateau in a large park-like setting. It was a pitch-perfect summer’s day, and as we pulled into the dusty lot, the sound of music in the distance was fading, the way the volume trails off at the end of a song on a record. Afraid that we had missed the concert, we took off in the direction of the crowd. It turned out that Cale and Reed had finished their Drella set only moments before, and the level of anticipation in the crowd was palpable. The equipment remained in place, as did the crowd, basking in the sun on that big green sloping lawn, eyes peeled for any activity on stage. And then there they were, the Velvet Underground, together again for the first time in nearly twenty years. From the opening notes, with the haunting sound of Cale’s viola (instant chills up the spine, as if his bow slid up our backs), the metronome of Tucker’s drums, Morrison’s rhythm, and that unmistakably Reedy voice, direct and detached—it was as if they’d never been gone. They had chosen one of their most monumental numbers, “Heroin,” for the occasion. Although this was the only time I ever got to see the band, it was enough, the rush of that one song, in exactly the right dose. And of course those nine minutes beat almost any other band’s ninety.
Reflecting back on the experience now, the question of another addiction, to nostalgia, is unavoidable. And yet, Reed and the Velvets on that perfect day proved one thing above all, for themselves and for us: The transcendent is not a state that’s easily retrievable from the past, but only ever conjured in the present. And the man who wished he was born a thousand years ago? He’s going to be with us for a long time to come.
Bob Nickas is a critic and curator based in New York.
Greil Marcus’s reflections on Lou Reed appear in the February 2014 issue of Artforum.
Karin Higa. Photo: Russell Ferguson.
CRITICISM AND SCHOLARSHIP that makes a difference grows out of palpable conviction—a belief that the stakes of an art practice go beyond professionalism, expertise, and mastery of a subfield. Karin Higa’s exhibitions and essays possessed that special quality. In part this is because her path-breaking curatorial projects like “The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945,” 1992, bore links to her own heritage as a Japanese American. But such biographical connections aren’t sufficient to explain the special intensity Higa had as a leader in the field of contemporary art, especially but not exclusively in building a complex and nuanced understanding of Asian American experience within it. Higa was awake; she engaged seriously with all kinds of visual worlds from fashion to food to architecture and she knew how to bring the richness and contradictions of life into her analysis of art. She was rigorously honest—she meant what she said, and her critical assessments were always based on a deep and constant practice of looking at art, and interacting with artists. Moreover, Higa was devoted not only to her own curatorial projects and scholarship but to institution building. Her efforts in this regard range from her early participation in the Godzilla Asian American Art Network and her dedication to establishing a world-class art program at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, where she worked in various capacities from 1992 to 2006, to her service on numerous panels and committees, including chairing the editorial board of Art Journal from 2010 to 2012. Higa was committed to making the art world more inclusive, more complex, and more humane.
I remember how excited I was when the Hammer Museum chose Higa to co-curate the 2014 “Made in L.A.” biennial along with the writer and curator Michael Ned Holte. It is one of the many losses resulting from her untimely death from cancer on October 29, 2013 at the age of 47 that she was unable to complete this project. Higa was an inspired choice because of her special capacity to articulate the complexities of “identification”—the assignment of an identity as conditioned through diverse visual media. In her terrific retrospective of Bruce and Norman Yonemoto at the Japanese American National Museum in 1999, for instance, she constructed a nuanced reading of how these important artists approached the question of the “Asian American” from a diverse and even contradictory range of perspectives including internment camp propaganda, queer sociality, and Hollywood stereotypes filtered through a panoply of media including television, film, and live performance while alluding to genres ranging from melodrama to underground film. As Higa remarks in her catalogue essay, “the Yonemotos could reference ethnic difference without foregrounding the search for ethnic identity.” In other words, subjectivity, as it is developed through artistic practice, need not solidify into a fixed “identity.” Indeed such an ossification or reification leads to the very danger of stereotyping that helps to justify policies like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. While Higa is probably best known for her work on questions of identity (though her expertise and knowledge of contemporary art was not limited to any particular community), she insisted on assembling dynamic chains of association—configurations of ethnic differencerather than constructing securely delineated profiles. This is one of the reasons she was so widely admired and respected, and why she was an inspired choice to co-organize the Hammer’s biennial devoted to Los Angeles, a city that she knew so well, and which is characterized both by enormous diversity and fantastic fusions.
I was profoundly moved in reading Higa’s essay for Kellie Jones’s “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,” which revisits an exhibition her father, Kazuo Higa, commissioned from the artist Alonzo Davis in 1970 while director of the Da Vinci Gallery at Los Angeles City College. To accompany “Black Art in L.A.” the elder Higa asked photographer and filmmaker Robert A. Nakamura to make portraits of participating artists, and it is these portraits that are the primary focus of the younger Higa’s essay four decades later. As she writes “At that time, black art became a key source of identification not just for African Americans but in the broader Third World sense of people-of-color coalitions.” In this historical reflection on cross-identification and coalition building, I find a description of Karin Higa herself as an historian, a curator, and an activist who made similar connections in her own time. She was much too practical and too wise to minimize the difficulties of reconciling difference; but Higa was also too ethical—and too optimistic—not to try. And often succeed.
David Joselit is Carnegie professor of the history of art at Yale University.
Ulrich Franzen in Rye, New York, in 1962. Photo: Ezra Stoller.
I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED by the work of Ulrich Franzen, because to me it represents an as-yet poorly understood transformation and expansion of the legacy of architectural modernism. Franzen’s work certainly wasn’t postmodernist, and his most famous buildings, such as the Philip Morris headquarters or his buildings for Hunter College, both in New York, are well known for their kind of late-modern, Brutalist style. Like many other prominent architects of his generation, he had trained at the Harvard Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius after World War II, and so there was no question that he was steeped in the more orthodox traditions of modernism.
And yet his work also reflected a whole range of wider influences. He had a lifelong interest in art, in particular—he actually studied art history before moving on to architecture—and he valued having a connection with art in his projects and working with artists in collaborative way. The Philip Morris building, for example, had a sculpture gallery on the ground floor that was open to the public. But he was also the president of the Architectural League in New York for many years, and he used this position to exhibit artists, commission work, and undertake collaborations. When I interviewed him as part of an exhibition I organized for Harvard focusing on the legacy of his generation at the school, he spoke at great length about his work at the League. I think he had a real commitment to expanding architecture as an institution in a way that encompassed art, and he had a major impact on the work and careers of several artists, Les Levine among them.
And the most interesting of his projects, for me, clearly reflect the influence of artists like Levine, who were so actively exploring new technology and media at the time. These were a series of stores he did for the fashion company Paraphernalia. They showed an obsession with weird new technologies; it was as if he were dealing with retail space as a kind of art environment. There were motion sensors that triggered slide projectors, and graphics on all the surfaces—the clothes themselves were almost hidden. He managed to produce these incredible interactive environments. I think that through his work at the League, Franzen reinvented himself in a way that brought him, and maybe architecture more generally, closer to art. You can trace the influence of his education, a kind of modernist technical and tectonic bent, throughout his work, but somehow he was also able to open up a totally different discourse about the scope of architecture. He pushed both fields toward a kind of collapse of the technocratic and artistic that could have only come from within architecture, and in a sense, he anticipated so many of the hybrid art-architecture practices we see today.
Michael Meredith is a founding principal of MOS Architects, based in New York.
ED PINCUS made a number of remarkable documentary films during his career, but the most memorable for me—and for most of the people who followed his work—was Diaries. Between 1971 and 1976, Ed recorded on 16-mm film episodes from his life with his wife, Jane Pincus, their two young children, and the several women with whom Ed had love affairs. It’s also a portrait of a particular era—the early 1970s, or perhaps more accurately, the post ’60s—a time in which a willingness to experiment in life, love, and political expression was still present, but was on the wane in the culture at large.
The title, Diaries, is as unadorned, direct, and honest as the film itself. Appropriate, too, is the title’s inference that the film’s content would normally not be intended for the eyes of outsiders. However, what I experienced when I first saw Diaries was not a sense of voyeurism, but one of privileged intimacy. There is absolutely nothing lurid or sensationalistic about this film. And there is absolutely nothing quite like Diaries in the history of nonfiction filmmaking.
Ed will be missed by those of us he taught at the MIT Film Section. His daring as a filmmaker continues to be inspirational, and his unsentimental yet deeply humane sense of humor will stay with those of us who knew him.
Ross McElwee is a filmmaker currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.