Marfa, Texas

James Benning, after Thoreau, 2014, serigraph, oil-based ink on paper, 31 × 25". Installation view, 2015.

James Benning, after Thoreau, 2014, serigraph, oil-based ink on paper, 31 × 25". Installation view, 2015.

James Benning

Marfa Book Company

James Benning, after Thoreau, 2014, serigraph, oil-based ink on paper, 31 × 25". Installation view, 2015.

In keeping with one of the primary tenets of his formally rigorous filmmaking, James Benning’s exhibition “Thirty-one Friends” observed a strict framework, in which thirty-one unique works were dedicated to thirty-one friends and gifted to them at the close of the exhibition. Friend was here defined by a multitude of affections, ranging from professional esteem to paternal love: Old flames mingled with blossoming romantic interests, artistic admiration with gratitude, in seemingly inexhaustible and shifting combinations that characterize the dance of intimacy. In and of itself, the list of dedicatories read as an index of various degrees of proximity. Erstwhile partner Rhonda Bell; daughter Sadie Benning; Berlin gallerist Maia Gianakos; writer Rachel Kushner; celebrated filmmakers Harun Farocki and Richard Linklater; established artists Sharon Lockhart, Julie Ault, and Danh Vo; emerging filmmaker Zorana Musikic; critic Sarinah Masukor; and twenty other people dear to Benning formed the first of several networks that prescribed the show’s predominantly handmade content.

Copious in number but modest in scale, the works quietly flowed from the gallery onto the walls of the adjacent bookstore and were, for the most part, meticulously crafted reproductions of sketches, notes, and photographs by a second network of artists and thinkers. An image of Andy Warhol grabbing Parker Tyler by the crotch from 1969 and a working sketch of Spiral Jetty, dated 1970 and signed “Robert Smithson,” might have easily been mistaken for archival material were it not for their respective titles—after Warhol (smiling) and after Smithson (all works 2014)—and descriptions (“Serigraph of a 1969 photograph” and “Copy of a working drawing”) in the laminated field guide of sorts that accompanied the exhibition. Encased in two handmade cardboard boxes and resting on plinths elsewhere in the gallery were hard drives, each containing a new film, one of which was intended for Farocki, before his death in July 2014. Titled Farocki, the film is a single seventy-seven-minute-long fixed shot of a cloud bank.

While many of the objects were replicas of the work of familiar art-world names (including those of the very friends to which some of the objects are dedicated), others were culled from a cadre of self- and societally proclaimed loners, including outsider artists such as Henry Darger, Miroslav Tichý, and Bill Traylor, as well as political dissidents, reformers, and malcontents ranging from the abolitionist John Brown to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. The largest example of the last—a silk-screened piece dedicated to Linklater, featuring a blown-up passage championing vigilant attunement to the sensory, from the original manuscript of Walden, in Henry Thoreau’s undulating scrawl—rested in the interstitial area between gallery and bookstore. Elsewhere in the gallery hung a copy of an unpublished two-page letter that Kaczynski sent to the San Francisco Examiner in 1985, in which he railed against the techno-industrial complex. Outsider ethos, whether artistic, literary, or political, is a recurrent interest for Benning, who feels a conflicted affinity for reclusive and nonconformist figures. Many of them have informed his artistic methodology—a politics of solitude that stems from the American Transcendentalist belief that sovereignty of individual conscience is achievable through observation and introspection.

However, Benning never loses sight of the need for pluralism. “Thirty-one Friends” can also be understood as the artist’s quest to reconcile his conflicting needs for solitude and companionship. Amid the personal artifacts and across spatiotemporal registers, the exhibition assumed an almost confessional air, laying bare values, influences, and associations in the company of public intimacies. Out of this network of affection within a network of influence emerged a practice of community that elides insider/outsider distinctions. And what better setting for the celebration and cohabitation of seemingly antithetical phenomena than the remote enclave of Marfa, Texas?

Erin Kimmel