PRINT December 1984


Alfred Jarry, Edward Hopper, Hip Hop, The Life and Times of Little Richard, and Partners

THE Q.L.P. SERIES WANTED a Hopper book to go with its 60 other titles; thus this respectable survey, which against Gail Levin’s far more inclusive Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist (1981) and Edward Hopper As Illustrator (1979) is close to mere commodity.

Two distant but related points might be made. The heavily coated paper of The Art and the Artist gives the color reproductions an almost Kodachrome sheen, utterly distorting Hopper’s use of light rather than perspective to catch spatial and emotional depth; the duller paper in the new book preserves the flatness of the pictures. The way the paper shows how Hopper’s light recedes into his scenes also reveals an inescapable affinity between Hopper and Walker Evans—compare Hopper’s 1930 Early Sunday Morning with Evans’ 1936 Main Street Architecture, Selma, Alabama, or Evans’ 1936 Frame House, Charleston, South Carolina with Hopper’s 1946 October on Cape Cod. It’s an affinity not only of composition but of social voice: like Evans’ photographs of inhabited but seemingly abandoned buildings and rooms, Hopper’s strongest pictures, whether they include men and women or not, set forth a Depression-era America which has been shocked into silence, where nothing that matters can be said, where talk can produce neither action nor pleasure.

It’s no accident that the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven recreated Evans’ 1936 Billboards and Frame Houses, Atlanta, Georgia in its shot of a Carole Lombard billboard, along with, as tableaux vivants, Hopper’s 1932 Room in New York, 1939 New York Movie, and 1942 Nighthawks. But Levin, who has made something of a career of Hopper, does her best to avoid such territory; her “just the facts” approach keeps Hopper happily within the fold of formalism. Early on here, she ventures a dead-end comparison with Courbet, which she takes nowhere; what Hopper and American art criticism as such need are studies on the level of T.J. Clark’s adventurous Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (1982). The paintings can indeed tell you everything, but not if you only look at pictures.

Gail Levin, Edward Hopper (New York: Crown), 96 pp., 25 black and white illustrations, 50 color illustrations.


DID KEITH HARING’S USE of found frames make his work something other than graffiti, which defines its own field? Did the Funky 4 + l’s “That’s The Joint” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” speak separate languages? Such questions don’t come up in this fine book; Hager is stronger on sociology than on art, more acute on the secret history of the scene than on its spectacular emergence.

The prehistory really was secret: budding graffiti writers seeking the new Bronx Kilroys, would-be DJs looking for the right party to crash, cops chasing guerrilla artists, turntable wizards stripping the labels from their records to outfox the competition. Hager makes it a thrilling, intricate story, all set against the heroic opposition between master-builder Robert Moses, destroyer of the Bronx, and Afrika Bambaataa, tribune of a new culture built on the ruins of the old. But Hager loses his tale once it becomes public, as perhaps it lost itself. His claim that hip hop “has the potential to infiltrate and subvert the mass media, energizing them with a fresh supply of symbols, myths, and values” doesn’t define hip hop; it defines America’s ability to recuperate the idea of subversion itself. Still, Hager talked to the right people—better yet, they talked to him.

Steven Hager, Hip Hop: The Illustrated History Of Break Dancing, Rap Music, And Graffiti (New York: St. Martin’s Press), 112 pp.


THIS SPRIGHTLY RECLAMATION JOB on a punk ancestor, adding little to Roger Shattuck’s Banquet Years (1968) chapters, is most vital in Lennon’s account of how her teenage discovery of the ultimate monstre sacré ruined her character and saved her life. Griffith’s many drawings are a delight (it’s no accident that his Zippy the Pinhead is a ringer for Jarry’s woodcuts of Père Ubu), but the inclusion of his blazing collage-bio “The Life of Alfred Jarry and Relevant Data” (1982, Raw magazine #4) would have made a perfect companion to Lennon’s closer, a swift piece of fiction that sees Jarry elected mayor of Los Angeles. All in all, a good time.

Nigey Lennon, Alfred Jarry: The Man With The Axe, illustrations by Bill Griffith (Los Angeles: Panjandrum Books), 130 pp., 43 black and white illustrations.


WHAT’S THIS ABOUT “THE Quasar of Rock’? Little Richard was always the Queen of Rock—as this deft assembly of taped interviews with those who knew, mostly Little Richard himself, makes abundantly clear. Conventional scandal-bios or tellalls pale in comparison: ”One time we were playing at the Paramount Theater and Buddy [Holly] came into my dressing room while (was jacking off with [my friend] Angel sucking my titty . . . Buddy took out his thing. He was ready, so she opened her legs and he put it in her. He was having sex with Angel, I was jacking off, and Angel was sucking me, when they introduced his name on stage!. . . . He came and he went!“ There’s wonder in that story (told well after Richard most recently gave up the Devil’s music for the Lord’s work); what one takes away from this book is a sense of how inevitable it was that the Black Liberace would tell everyone in the world all about it—in ”Tutti Frutti,“ in ”I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me),“ in ”Keep A-Knockin:" British rock fanatic, physician, and DJ Charles White balances recording-session detail with orgies; after a while you can’t tell one from the other. No ideas, but they can wait.

Charles White, The Life And Times Of Little Richard: The Quasar Of Rock (New York: Harmony), 269 pp., 33 black and white photographs, complete discography.


THE GREAT DELIGHT OF VERONICA Geng’s pieces is that she never parodies less than two things at once, and targets from the second on down are not necessarily obvious straight off. The knockout punch in this collection is “Coming Apart at the Semes,” which takes off from Newsweek’s unreadable 50th-anniversary American-family issue. Placing herself behind the aegis, or eight ball, of the quarterly AXES, Geng traces the lives of a “triad of paradigmal kinship units” in the context of their struggle against—defeat by—embrace of the hegemonic tyranny of narrative: “the Baxters, a staunch clan of obsolete modernists; the Russos, an irrepressible tribe of decadent expressionists; and the Joneses, an oppressed but indomitable household of duped retrograde humanists. These women and nonwomen, who have not made texts but lived them, are a hyperbolized exemplarization of what our critical discourse—” Which is only a bit of the opening paragraph. The rest, moving on to encompass not only the actual history of the last fifty years but one of the better Melville asides in the last hundred and fifty, performs a decathexis on artspeak so hilarious it’s guaranteed to unhypostatize anyone sufficiently prediscoursed to understand it—and that should include almost any reader of this magazine.

Veronica Geng, Partners, (New York: Harper & Row), 184 pp., 13 black and white illustrations.


Greil Marcus contributes regularly to Artforum.