PRINT November 1996

Q & A

Coveted Creations

IT COULD HAVE HAPPENED when you were a teenager, still cultivating the tastes you would someday turn into a career (or at least enjoy as everyday pleasures). You’re reading a book, or looking at a painting, or listening to a piece of music that crashes in on you and triggers a ferocious sense of recognition, and you sputter, “I wish I had done this!”

The awe may be inspired by an athlete who uses his body like a magic toy, a painter who captures a moment with the faintest brushstroke, a writer who crafts in words the subtlest emotions. When I told a friend about this column, she immediately said, “I wish I’d created the 1939 World’s Fair! No, I know. I wish I had written the New Deal!” While one person may wish he had painted Guernica, another might just as well wish she had invented the safety pin or penned the Declaration of Independence. So, convinced that the wish to have created that! is as human an instinct as lust or fear, I set out to see how a selection of artists, writers, and performers—whose own work has most likely been the source of someone else’s gee-gosh awe at one time—would answer this question. What’s the one work of art (other than your own) you wish you had made and why?

MICHAEL SNOW (artist): Since 1984, I’ve had in my studio a reproduction of Willem de Kooning’s painting Asheville, 1948. It has been a reminder not so much that I would be proud to have made Asheville, but that I must avoid doing so; that I want to accomplish what the painting does, but in my own way.

Asheville is a recording of the physical, optical, and mental attention that de Kooning gave to his materials on a particular occasion. The evident speed with which the piece was executed is now static, fixed, analyzable—a painting; yet it is still a motion picture. The viewer can enter the work anywhere; no form is “first.” One shape or passage becomes another, guiding the eyes, yet representing neither metamorphosis nor flux. The painting is not a “performance.” It’s the result of one. This work will live and will always give the spectator a new “improvisation.”

PAUL MULDOON (poet): Of the many works of literature I wish I had made I’d single out Ulysses by James Joyce, a Matterhorn to those of us who toil on the foothills or, indeed, the molehills.

ELIZABETH STREB (choreographer): About a year ago, I went to the Moscow Circus in Madison Square Garden. Very early in the show, a performer was hauled, solely by his wrist, to the very top of the Garden’s dome, at least 120 feet above our heads. At first, all you saw was a beautifully held body, perfectly straight, as in a line, ascending up, up, up. Then, he grabbed a pipe attached to the roof of the Garden, undid his wrist, and hung from both hands, steadying the mild swing he had acquired on his rise. On the ground, directly beneath the hanging man, four men held a “cushion,” measuring about six foot square and two feet thick.

This all happened so unceremoniously I was not prepared for what happened next: he let go, did a perfect 360-degree head-to-foot circle and fell. At the exact second that he landed on the cushion feet first, the four men let go in perfect synch, the performer hit the ground, and ran like crazy until the remaining impact was sufficiently relieved. I can’t imagine how he worked up to that moment of letting go, his aim, his circle, his guts. I know nothing can be more profound, more moving, than a single move. But it is usually hard to isolate one so spectacular.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG (artist): I would have liked to have been around to help the Wright Brothers work on their concept of flying bicycles.

KATHA POLLIT (journalist): I wish I had written the Bible. True, as composed by me, the Bible would not be as well-written or exciting as the existent Old and New Testaments. But it would be free of misogyny, divinely sanctioned murders and executions, calls to obedience, and bad personal advice, like “spare the rod and spoil the child.” You would not be able to use my Bible to justify slavery or war or burning people at the stake. It would be very clear that God does not care who wins a football game. In the Bible we have now, God is obsessed with whether human beings think he exists; people are always having to reassure him by doing awful things, like sacrificing their children. I never understood God’s psychology on this matter. Doesn’t he know he exists? In my Bible, God would have more self-esteem. If you don’t believe in him, he wouldn’t mind. He might even find you amusing.

KENNETH ANGER (filmmaker): I would love to have directed the film Metropolis in the legendary UFA studios in Neubabelsberg in 1925 and 1926! I would have thrilled to the challenge of working hard in the boots of Fritz Lang for two years; creating a vision of a possible future with the assistance of Germany’s top craftsmen and technicians, superb cameramen Karl Freund and Gunther Rittau, actors such as the Expressionist genius Rudolf Klein-Rogge, and the childwoman/vamp discovery, the luminous Brigitte Helm. All this amid the masterful futurist sets of Otto Hunte, plus a willing and malleable cast of thousands!

CAROLEE SCHNEEMANN (artist): I wish I had done just about everything that moves and affects me. So I think I’d rather talk about the dilemmas the question brings up for me. I have the problem of dreaming my work, and then I’m not sure whether it’s mine or whether I saw it and dreamt it as someone else’s work. For instance, my piece Video Rocks, 1989, was inspired by a dream. I dreamt that two hundred handmade, crusty rocks were moving in space on a horizon line with parallel monitors on which you saw feet walking on all these rocks. But before I made it I had to call everyone I knew to ask them whether they had seen this piece somewhere!

KATHERINE DUNN (novelist/journalist): I wish that I’d had the capability to create the September 1981 WBC World Welterweight Boxing Championship between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas “Hitman” Hearns. This particular match brought together two equally gifted stylized wizards in a great clash of wills. Improvisational art climaxed in ritualized crisis. These two men created a brilliant, fluid, shifting drama. No matter whose side one was on, the evening was good for three heart attacks!

BRUCE STERLING (novelist): As a science-fiction writer, I always have the incubus of analytic rationality perched smugly on my shoulder. That is why I so envy the unfettered and deeply irrational achievement of Max Ernst, particularly during the incredibly fertile and wondrous decalcomania period. Decalcomania is the process of squashing wads of black goo between two canvases, pulling them apart and painting whatever is suggested by the blots. Under this simple provocation, Ernst’s imagination violently exploded. Leonora In the Morning Light, 1938, is the simplest, clearest, most personal and by far the most painful of these pieces. It is Ernst’s tribute portrait to his “permanently exalted” girlfriend, the artist Leonora Carrington. The young priestess of Surrealism, all somber and glowing, is daintily entwined in a magical greenish mass of organic profusion. The portrait is very human, very loving, perfectly sincere and authentic, and extremely weird. I stand in awe.

LAURIE ANDERSON (filmmaker/musician): Fassbinder’s film, Alexanderplatz (1980), because of its enormous scope and the filmmaker’s empathy with his trapped characters.

SAMUEL R. DELANY (novelist): When I was a kid, both Dali’s and Tchelitchew’s work struck me as something I wish I’d made myself. I wanted to make things, real and unreal, seem that real. So did the work of Alexander Raymond, who drew the original Flash Gordon comic strip; Frank Frazetta, who drew science-fiction and horror stories for EC Comics; and, much later, the work of Barry Windsor Smith, who first brought Conan the Barbarian alive for Marvel (1937). When I first saw Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, at age eleven, and when I first stepped into the Salon de Rubens in the Louvre at age twenty-four, I simply fell on the floor, breathless. What I was looking at was as beyond me as it was awesome. When I re-read the early novellas of the recently deceased Roger Zelazny, or his novels This Immortal (1996) and Doorways in the Sand (1976), I have the feeling that something incredibly exciting is going on in a realm to which this is my only entrance. Theodore Sturgeon’s sci-fi stories and Alfred Bester’s first two sci-fi novels The Demolished Man, 1953, and The Stars My Destination, 1956, often made me feel that way as well, as I read and re-read them.