PRINT March 1996


Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis is the author of Sister (Graywolf Press, 1993).


    (5 December 1995). A strike a demonstration, a riot, with overturned and torched cars, thrown bottles, charging police, and me in the middle with my press pass and pocket camera. I thought it was over too quickly, and as soon as it was done I wanted more: more excitement, more violence, more “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!” I wanted more war; I’m not proud to admit it. Needless to say, it wasn’t like that at all. There was no History at hand, just another pointless skirmish. I went home later that night wondering if maybe I hadn’t read Dispatches one too many times for my own good; but I also told myself the next time was going to be different: better, more meaningful.


    “Studies for The Large Pine.” At the Grand Palais, the next day. Two tiny sheets of paper, on which the artist rendered, in pencil and watercolor, the foliage of a tree, in impossibly delicate washes of color that should have had nothing to do with limning the tree at all and that were, of course, perfect. Of the 184 works in the Grand Palais’ exhausting Cézanne show, these were my favorite; above that, they may have also been the best. Pure sleight of hand, and the longer I stood in front of them the more puzzling they became, until at last I realized that the trick was inestimable, and I laughed out loud. Between this and the entry above, there’s a somewhat pat lesson in who owns history, but I’m still not sure I believe it.


    The Daily Practice of Painting (M.I.T. Press, $19.95). Not the book itself, a disappointing collection of rather glum writings, but a single photograph, among two dozen or so reproduced. In it, the artist’s teenage daughter—Betty, subject and eponym of, what the hell, a great painter’s greatest painting—stands in his studio, carefully aiming a pistol, possibly a Luger, at something unseen off to the right, while her father watches on with an inscrutable expression. What’s she aiming at? What does his face convey? Who took the picture? Like Richter’s paintings, the photo says something striking about filiality, violence, Germany, and art while pretending to say nothing much at all. Or maybe it says nothing while pretending to say something: I can never really tell, which is a good part of what I love about Richter’s work. Then, too, it may be a water pistol.


    I can’t say he was ever a hero the way Ali was a hero, but there was a time when it was a joy to watch him fight. Not since the rape. These days, about all one can hope is that after the final bell he’ll turn and clock Don King. But speaking of gestures I don’t understand: Tyson comes out of prison with a big jail-house tattoo of Mao on his right arm and another on his left of a bespectacled black man. The Mao homage is weird enough, God knows, but who’s the other one? Malcolm X? . . . No—it’s Arthur Ashe, champ in his own right and author of A Hard Road to Glory, an important history of the black athlete in America. Tyson’s story is getting as tangled as Michael Jackson’s, and I dare say he’s a more significant cultural force than the singer. But I swear I don’t have the faintest idea what he means; as icons go this is as inscrutable as they come. I’d bet anything King doesn’t get it, either.


    “You Oughta Know,” from Jagged Little Pill (Maverick/WEA). More and more these days it seems that Stanley Crouch is right: rock music is made for teenagers, which is great if you’re a teenager, but if not, not. Me, I can’t get myself to care about the music. No great loss to either pop or me, I suppose. Anyway, I heard this tune for the first time at a friend’s house about a week ago. Catchy, isn’t it? She even says “fuck.” Rage being as fashionable as it has been these last few years, I predict it’s going to be a big hit.


    “New Partner,” from Viva Last Blues (Palace Music/Drag City). The Brown education and the crappy TV movie he starred in tend to belie Will Oldham’s hillbilly hermit pose, but so what? This is the second most beautiful song ever written with “You were always on my mind” as its chorus.


    (ABC, Wednesdays, 8:30 P.M. EDT). Never mentioned in the press, never discussed among my friends. It’s so gentle that it barely exists. But Drew’s a hoot, and he’s not even trying. Because after all it’s a half hour of TV, and how hard can that be?


    (4WD model, $19,447). I saw one of these pull into a McDonald’s parking lot in a tiny town in central Nebraska last summer, and the guy behind the wheel had a look on his face like he was taking Rita Hayworth to his senior prom. Giant V-8 engine, high suspension, and a snout like a big rig, it’s the best-looking new American vehicle to come along in a decade. Between this and the Viper—great car, lousy name—the Dodge people have been on the ball like no one else. I saw another Ram on Greene Street in SoHo a few weeks ago, and the guy behind the wheel had a look on his face like he was the only one around who really knew what art was.


    Where the coming millennium doesn’t matter, because you can’t show that kind of time on TV. And you can’t show love, only its accoutrements. Is that why everyone in this city dresses so badly?


    Jeff Koons at the Guggenheim, the trailer for the movie Twister, a new Denis Johnson novel, and a new niece: pleasures and rumors of pleasures.