New York

Duane Michaels

Light Gallery

It is wrong to suppose that Duane Michals allies himself with the range of photographic Conceptualists, or “story artists” who have elicited so much recent discussion—despite the fact that Duane Michals is a photographer and does present stories to the viewer. The major distinction between artists like John Baldessari, Roger Cutforth, Peter Hutchinson, among others, and Duane Michals is that the former ally their art to formal and linguistic issues derived from recent abstraction, whereas Michals derives his sensibility from Surrealism and, beyond that, from Symbolism. He imaginatively reinvents a legacy that in most other hands is illustrative and dated.

I was first aware of Michals when an exhibition of his work was installed two years ago at the School of Visual Arts Gallery. Among the works shown at that time was the series recently reproduced in Hollis Frampton’s article (Artforum, October, 1974). Things Are Queer is a complex narrative of nine shots the scenario of which runs as follows: 1) a shot of a bathroom with a photo hung over the sink; 2) gigantic hairy feet standing in the same now tiny environment; 3) a shot of the whole figure bending over, looking at the small ceramic fixtures; 4) a thumb contrasted against that whole image, now transformed into a page illustration; 5) a shot over the shoulder of a man whose thumb holds the page down while reading the book in which the illustration appears; 6) the same man, viewed in middle distance, walking in a tunnel; 7) the image of shot “6” framed and hung over a sink; 8) a closeup of the framed picture over the sink; and 9) the whole bathroom environment again, thereby ending while inferring a new beginning to this infinite cycle.

This complex description in large part keys in to Magritte, particularly the out-of-scale toilet articles in his Personal Values, 1952. Who dwells in this sky-walled bedchamber, in which the comb is as large as the wardrobe, and the bed as small as a cake of toilet soap? Michals acknowledges his debt to Magritte. His Album of 1974—photographs with commentary written on glasine sheets—is dedicated to René Magritte. Further evidence: Album opens with a photograph of Giorgio de Chirico, whose work Michals points to as originative of his own, but with whom a visit proved disappointing, if only because the photographer felt inadequate to express to the Metaphysical painter how much he had meant to him.

The present exhibition is filled with a far more sexualized content than has heretofore been publicly seen. His 11-part series The Enormous Mistake traces the SM adventures of a boot fetishist. The delicately etched obsessions of a glove fetishist, whose adventures are detailed in Max Klinger’s 1878 Fantasies Upon the Finding of a Glove, establish the model for Michals’s heavier, more macho version of sexual obsessiveness. The Klinger source is alluded to explicitly in another series which deals with the masturbatory fantasies of a guy and a glove watching a girl on a bus, The Pleasures of the Glove, a 15-part work. I believe Michals works with narrative and cyclic structure because such a sequential nature characterizes masturbation itself.

In Private Acts, Michals again alludes to the masturbatory fantasy cycle in terms of garment fetishism. What is remarkable is the balance he maintains between loaded subject matter and refined presentation. In watching his dreamed-butbefore-this-unseen photographs, the heady sometimes shocking, erotic subject matter has no element of coarseness to it. It is finely textured.

In The Blue Sequence, for example, a mysterious blow job transpires, but one so elusive as to be no more tangible than the having of the nymphs by Mallarmé’s faun. Is this celestial fellatio real or angelic? Michals is an unrepentant (yet somehow Jesuitical) observer of human relations, not just male/male or (as is often the case) male/spectral relations, but of the hungers of the male/female interchange as well. “She,” at the beginning of a sequence is, Watching George Drink a Cup of Coffee, and in watching, imagines him nude. She sees the cup move to his lips and “his tongue begin to grow.” The image, startling but not gross, is that of a tumescent penis emerging from George’s mouth. But it is her fantasy, and the suite of it is George’s delight in realizing what she was thinking. “He was happy. He knew.”

Who is Michals’s “she”? She must be Lewis Carroll’s Alice who, rejuvenated by Albee in Tiny Alice, is once again reborn in Michals’s camera. In her hand she holds Alice’s Mirror, a series as elliptical as Things Are Queer. Through this mirror Alice passed into the world of fantasy. It is the mirror through which Orpheus must pass to reach poetry as Cocteau taught us, and it is the lens that Michals passes through to reach art.

Robert Pincus-Witten