PRINT April 2005


“The New Order album cover and the Monty Python image speak to the sort of trickle-down art that reached me in the suburbs as a teenager. The combination of Fantin Latour’s classicism and the tiny color bar on the album cover suggested that canonical images weren’t set in stone, that the history of images was in fact something malleable, something that could be re-created in the present.”

T. J. Wilcox

MARIE ANTOINETTE kept us waiting. Not the queen herself, of course, but an elusive photograph of a little-known portrait by her friend and favorite artist Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun. Other images of this most regal sitter would have been far easier to secure. But no other portrait, no matter how grand, could boast having been painted from memory seven years after the queen’s beheading as a gift offered to her only surviving child by an exiled painter who had once depicted the mother-daughter pair in, shall we say, decidedly happier times. And as such, this royal portrait was the only one that would suffice for T. J. Wilcox’s artist-curated “exhibition” for Artforum. He explained, “I’m fascinated when a single image can represent both a private interior experience and a greater collective one. This painting was literally something that could remind a woman of her deceased mother, but it also stands for the collapse of an entire era and social system, so it works on the personal and epic levels at once.”

The same could also be said for many of the apparently unrelated pictures on these pages, whether Ludwig Bemelmans’s assured line drawing of his intimate, society decorator Elsie de Wolfe, or Rirkrit Tiravanija’s half-scale model of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, situated in the Museum of Modern Art’s beloved sculpture garden, another of Johnson’s designs. With the recent passing of the architect, not to mention MoMA’s physical reinvention, the image has accrued new layers of meaning, which make all the more poignant Wilcox’s fantasy that the bespectacled nonagenarian might have gazed down on his country house from his city house in the museum’s adjacent tower.

Fantasy is an operative word here, fueling the artistic universes of a Joseph Cornell or an Edward Gorey. But ultimately it is Wilcox’s own fantasies—his rapturous affections and projections—that unite these images more than any of the scenarios unfolding within them. Such an intense regard animates his short films as well, which he has strung together in his recent series of “Garlands,” making unlikely bedfellows of Chopin and Pamela Harriman (to say nothing of her real bedfellows, Frank Sinatra and Aly Khan, among other inamorati). Working with such loaded, recherché allusions is not without its risks. Wilcox acknowledged as much in reference to the images that close his project here: “A friend once described it as the ‘cringe factor’—you know, an empty bed or someone standing on the beach at sunset. But these works rise above that and carry the weight of their clichés without dissolving into them, evincing instead the poetics they were intended to convey.” Such is also true of Wilcox’s project in these pages—and of his art. In both, his deft juggling of cultural registers manages to conjure a sentimental world while slyly eluding the pejorative connotations of that word. For every lonely Prince Ludwig there is a swaggering Smithson; for every sultry Marchesa Casati, an impossibly ecstatic Divine.

Scott Rothkopf