PRINT December 1997

Wayne Koestenbaum

1 George Stoll (Morris Healy Gallery, New York): Stoll’s toilet-paper art, lighthearted and gravid, proves waste’s centrality. Looking at these iconic rolls, again I remember the frank demonstrativeness of household objects, their indisputability, difficult as Wittgenstein. Who said a roll of toilet paper was easy to comprehend? I wonder if there are connections between toilet paper and aesthetic commentary. Though some people might think this show’s a joke, it isn’t. Stoll’s objects are actually beautiful, and unlike most of so-called Pop art, his drawings, paintings, and sculptures don’t ironize the objects they echo: they simply point, like witnesses.

2 Candy Darling (Feature, New York): Say this for Candy Darling: the woman paid attention. Her scrapbooks compel: careful notations of hairdo ideas and techniques. A letter to Mrs. Vreeland, a letter from Kim Novak: I wish there were more shows like this one—inviting vitrines of star/fan ephemera.

3 Joe Brainard (Tibor de Nagy, New York): Busy as a monk, poet Brainard, best known for I Remember, was also a significant visual artist. His collages, as fine as another’s “serious” work, are spare—time art, attesting to time’s spareness and to this magician’s frugal use of extra, waste moments. I especially treasure his Madonna of the Travel-size Prell and his literal re—utilization of cigarette butts. He sees what he wants to see, nothing more. Here’s his “Imaginary Still Life No. 5,” from Ten Imaginary Still Lifes (Boke Press): “I close my eyes. I see a charming nosegay of violets in an ordinary drinking glass. That’s all.”

4 Elizabeth Taylor Life magazine (April 1997): Liz chose to publish Harry Benson’s picture of herself bald, after brain surgery: an extraordinary act of star abjection, shamelessness, solidarity with the world’s other sufferers. The skull scar echoes her long-displayed tracheotomy scar: further demonstration of Liz’s too-deep-for-tears connection to the realm of visible trauma. Says Liz: “I won’t dye my hair for a while. I’ll let it grow out white. In the meantime, I don’t mind being bald. For years the gossip sheets have been claiming I’ve had face-lifts. Now they’ll have to eat their words. Look. No scars!

5 James Schuyler The Diary of James Schuyler, ed. Nathan Kernan (Black Sparrow Press): Photo inserts prove that the late, Chelsea Hotel–dwelling Schuyler was not (as I once mistakenly wrote) the least cute of New York School poets, but at one time the most cute. In an era of unsifted confessions, how refreshing are his unhistrionic observations of life outside his window. “October 10, 1970: All over the grass there are yellowing elm leaves (from upstairs they look brown, or just dull) and walking on and among them you see how no pattern is ever as good as randomness.”

6 Gucci boots, ostensibly for women Aggression, sleaze, shininess, exorbitance, waste; ugliness transvalued. I’ve not seen one pair of these red, knee-high stiletto-heel numbers worn, and yet they define where my eye wants to go. Like de Kooning’s beautiful last paintings, these shoes are mementos of the cognitively disappeared, and they are the kind of commodity that presents a problem—an ideal, a paradox—that it is the duty of other, more humdrum items to solve. I bought a pair of black boots to commemorate the fact of their resemblance to the unwearable red Guccis.

7 Frank Bidart Desire (FSG): The newest offering by one of our finest living poets: a book of dramatic salutes to the body, perpetually in the act of bidding a prolonged goodbye to itself and a hello to its friends in the other world. The volume includes haunting poems for Joe Brainard; and a stunning long poem, “The Second Hour of the Night,” that weaves together the death of Berlioz’s wife and the incestuous relation of Myrrha and Cinyras. A two-line poem entitled “Homo Faber”: “Whatever lies still unearned from the abyss within/me as I die dies with me.”

8 Michel Leiris Scraps, trans. Lydia Davis (Johns Hopkins University Press): At last, forty-two years after its French publication, the first English translation of volume two of this impossible journey into the writer/anthropologist’s private lexicon. Almost unreadably labyrinthine and rigorous, it is, ergo, necessary reading. It surpasses virtually every other twentieth-century language odyssey, save those of Proust and Stein. “Cleopatra’s nose. Cromwell’s urethra. To say nothing of technical inventions like the cooking of foods, assuming the soup pot is indissolubly linked to family life as we understand it!”

9 Pam Grier Coffy, (1973, dir. Jack Hill, rereleased): See Gucci above. A braver and weirder flick than any of its imitators. In a league with Russ Meyer’s pioneering Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!: baroque Salpêtrière fun-house sadomasochism. Grier’s sanity is more than a fashion statement: she makes the world cohere, provides mayhem its lost logic.

10 Phyllis Rose The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time (Scribner): An ode to writer’s block, in the form of a memoir. Elegant, elegiac, the book shows that impediments to expressivity are themselves expressive, that inanition is an art: “A massive battle takes place every day in the time it would take, unblocked, to write eight pages. If I could just sit down and do it! Instead I think of all the excellent books I’ve read and think how unlike them a book of mine would be. I imagine my friends reading it dutifully. I imagine strangers picking it up and throwing it down in disgust.” It’s not easy to write what you really want to write, instead of what you think readers want. Rose’s memoir has the fragile beauty of a book that almost didn’t get written.

Wayne Koestenbaum is a New York–based poet and the author of Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995).