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Rachel Cohen


An Early Interview

An Early Interview

Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, 1933

In college (when I was an ardent feminist, and also somewhat uncomfortable about bodies),  it seemed hard to like, or even to tolerate, the works of Max Ernst.  I’m not even sure I knew which paintings were his.  Now I am surprised that I seem not to have encountered even the most famous instances of his ravaging vision, like the Ange du Foyeur,

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let alone the collages of Une Semaine de Bonté that have absorbed my attention in recent years.    

The first time I remember suddenly seeing Ernst, what he could do as a painter, how ferocious and intelligent and clear he was, was at the Menil Museum in Houston.  I had gone down there to interview Walter Hopps, one of the 20th century’s master curators, first to show Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp in California, he who brought discernment and force to the display of California artists, who worked with Kienholz and Warhol and Jay DeFeo, who had a perfect touch for Donald Judds, and did the great Oldenburg show at the Guggenheim.

We had an odd interview. I was just starting out as a writer, and had never conducted an interview before.  I had been asked to write something for Modern Painters, and I don’t remember now why I came up with the idea of Hopps, perhaps it was meant to be a piece about a curator, and I had been writing about Joseph Cornell and thought that early show might be something to find out about.  I remember standing in the kitchen of my parents' house, telling them that the magazine had said I could do this interview, and I remember my father saying encouragingly that this was an opportunity. My parents gave me some frequent flyer miles, and I bought a tape recorder that I was none too sure about, and flew down to Houston, and was picked up by Hopps’s very kind wife, Caroline Huber.

I had read quite a lot about Hopps and his exhibitions. I had various ways of trying to imagine his working life, could see the light in which he had worked – my parents had grown up in the southern California of the 50s and 60s where his was a radical and celebratory presence. Nevertheless,  when I found myself across a table from him in his acrid office across the street from what he wryly called “the museum as office park,” designed by Renzo Piano, I realized that I had no idea what I was doing.  Of course Hopps must have realized this, too, but his attitude seemed to be one of grimly marching forward. He talked of artists and artworks I knew a little something about as if he were involved in a strong colloquy with himself that I and the tape recorded merely attended. There were glimmers of dark humor in his speech, and I tried to bring these out in the piece I wrote. I couldn’t then articulate what subsequent events made me realize, namely, that he was already ill and facing down the question of what what he had done had meant.

I felt the edge of it. His wife anxiously told him not to smoke during the interview and I had wondered about that and then been surprised when he immediately lit up and smoked – smoked not like a chimney, more like a furnace, like he was eating the cigarettes – while on the desk in front of him he set going an odd little gnashing machine that I think was a sort of ashtray but was also in a way meant to consume the smoke, to draw it down and keep it from filling the room.  My remaining impression is of the jaws of this machine clanking away at their ineffectual labor while the room became thick, hazy, a pall of smoke.  I believe I was enjoined not to tell his kind and worried wife, though of course she would immediately smell what had happened when he was picked up afterwards.

Perhaps not so many still came to talk to him about paintings.  He could have used a more knowledgeable and forceful interlocutor, but perhaps it was still a welcome occasion to get out to the office – he was now an emeritus curator – and to speak of these things.

When he had done, I shook myself from the smoky listening stupor and he said we would walk through some of the rooms he had done.  There were the Judds, clean-tempered force fields that Hopps had installed with autistic clarity and there, to my surprise, lining the walls of a small room, were what I remember as four Max Ernsts that I surprisingly loved.

Hopps believed in hanging paintings to be ready for a fist-fight with the viewer, much lower than the height dictated by blockbuster shows where crowds need to see over one another’s shoulders.  He believed the viewer and the painting should be body to body and sometimes quoted another Menil curator, Jermayne McAgy saying that they should “hit the tits.” This seemed to be just the kind of context Ernst needed because the paintings were suddenly so alive, so arresting in their life that I was shaken and drawn and a little disoriented.  It was at least another five years before I had a similar experience of La Semaine de Bonté and I didn’t look at Ernst in the meantime, but you don’t forget raw force like that, and from then I knew it was there.

Walter Hopps died not long after my small article was published. I know that he and his wife had liked the draft I checked with them; that was the end of our contact. I thought I should try to reach her and to see if she would like the tapes of his muffled clenched voice with the grinding cigarette machine drawing him out. I had the instinct that it would be right to send them, and at the same time could not quite feel that any record really existed, or was mine to send. I felt that I had watched him as he barricaded himself behind something, and had emerged from the room as if from a dream.

This all came back to me on Tuesday, out walking in the snow, S. asleep in the stroller.  We had returned to Cambridge after being home at my mother’s, S. and I.  Sunday was the anniversary of my father’s death.  He did not smoke, but he died of cancer in his lungs, and toward the end I sat by him, amid the oxygen machines.  He talked, and I listened with a sharp, painful attention.

For years I have been trying to write about Max Ernst, and this year I have had a puzzling feeling that there would be something to say about Ernst’s work and my father’s death together.  

Something – etched and strange – in this configuration. A man who can feel in his lungs that the end is coming; two hopeless, helpful machines – the little cigarette jaws, the little tape-recorder – trying desperately to fight back to life, to hang on to its meaning; a young incomprehending woman sitting by, catching at the edges of this parade of figures for whom life has been violent and radiant.  And then: a momentary experience of razor-sharp clarity about deeply mysterious objects that have the hybridity and continuity of dreams. This followed by fumbling efforts to ascertain in language what might have been there. None of this is foreign to the capacious and impossible work of Max Ernst.      

Surrealism and Form

Surrealism and Form

Arshile Gorky, Summation, 1947, iphone detail

There are other feelings for form, of course, but that doesn’t mean the Surrealists didn’t have formal feelings.  Form is often described in spatial terms, as arrangements of objects, as landscapes with prominent and receding features.  Perhaps the Surrealist feeling for form could be evoked by inversion: one could speak of a disarray of objects, or of interior landscapes in which prominence is, like that in dreams, more a matter of excitation and disturbance.

This is not to say that when you look at, say, a Max Ernst collage, your eye is not still balancing the long pointed beak of the rooster against the long line of the legs of the naked woman he has turned over his knee, but that your awareness of the beak and the body, as a beak and a body, are affecting your seeing as loci of attention in a way that is not mostly about parallel lines but about balancing visceral experiences and grappling with perceived and imagined relations between them.

The thought I’ve been trying to get articulated for a few days, since seeing Arshile Gorky’s Summation, is that these turbid experiences of suggested meaning might still in some way be understood as formal.

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I rushed into the MoMA last Saturday at 5:00 (the museums closes at 5:30).  I didn’t plan to go, had been in New York for five days without setting foot in a museum, had given up on the possibility of going, all of us, the baby, too, were sick, we were leaving early the next morning.  After a meeting, I had been unable to get a cab for fifteen blocks and realized I was within blocks, decided to chance it…
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I knew that if I had to check my backpack I would be left with ten minutes at most.  I discussed this with a sympathetic man at the information booth who, blessings on him, comped me; the much less sympathetic man at the entrance did make me go check the bag.  I couldn’t remember where things were; I’ve never spent time at the new MoMA the way I used to at the old MoMA; on the narrow escalators I was trapped behind someone who preferred to stand.

These are all aspects of seeing art in New York, but I’m not sure which should be brought out and which let drop.  I was hoping to hit Abstract Expressionism.  My father loved Rothko and I thought maybe if I got one of those I could use my ten minutes for missing him, but the one I saw through a doorway opening had a kind of bright lime green edge that I recoiled from and before I quite realized what was happening I saw a Gorky and thought I’ve been meaning to think about Gorky and stopped.

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In the wall text next to Summation, Gorky is quoted as saying, “There is my world.”  I could see from the dates that he had died the next year, and remembered dimly that there was something untimely and terrible about his death.  [I looked it up later.  He killed himself the following year, at the age of forty-four, after a gruesome two years, in which his studio burned down, a car accident left him with a broken neck and a temporarily paralyzed painting arm, and his wife left him, and took their two children.]  What had stayed in my mind was the sense that he had been an extremely important link from the Surrealists to the Abstract Expressionists – and that his loss had been bitterly mourned by both André Breton and Willem De Kooning.

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The significance of Gorky’s influence was pointed out both in the Whitney drawing retrospective (winter 2003-2004), a show I thought was very profound, and in “Abstract Expressionist New York,” at the MoMA three years ago.  Although people do talk about it, I still think it is easy to overlook how totemic and dream-oriented the Abstract Expressionists were in their early days.  Frank O’Hara’s great essay on Jackson Pollock has a long useful section on Surrealism.

Another approach in the direction of my hoped-for thought might be: if one thinks of the forms discovered by the Surrealists as being in some way taken in and then diffused throughout the canvases of the Abstract Expressionists then one could in a way actually be a witness to this in looking at the works of Gorky.      

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Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, plate 10, detail

Walking through the gallery, struck from the first with what felt like a wind of invention, a strong wind with particles of sand in it, it was at about the tenth image that I noticed that not only did this lion have a medal (and it was a giant medal, ridiculous, but not without pathos, because he also seemed to be a gentleman now fallen on such hard times that he might be a wandering beggar, his ailing daughter clinging to his arm, and the fact that he had retained the medal, such a large one, seemed to suggest a painful pride and attachment to some institution that had not in the end cared for him at all), not only, as I say, did this lion have a medal, but every lion had a medal.

In the first “Lion de Belfort” section of Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté – the lions, the ones of authority parading through ghoulish exhibits, the night watchmen of ill intent, the one in a greatcoat seducing a dancing nude woman by playing the clarinet, the pride-engorged executioner whose victim lies down at the guillotine, the debauched reveler like an appalling caricature of a Dutch lass-on-knee genre picture – they all have medals.

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Worn with obdurate aggression, the medals would be pitiful if they weren’t pernicious. The writing on the medal of the lion in plate 21 is extremely legible: “Merite Agricole, 1883” it says and hangs from a loop that seems half-clamped in the teeth of a dusty disheveled bowler-hatted better-days lion.

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It was the summer of 1933; Max Ernst made these 184 collages in just a few months, while he was staying in the north of fascist Italy. All those medals – given for fifty years of military valor, colonial expeditions, police arrests, agricultural progress, upright bourgeois citizenship – all those medals for what had after all been rape, pillage, murder, surveillance, manipulation, state-sanctioned robbery and unbearable preening – all this hung heavy in the imagination and in the air over Vigoleno.      

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Images are photographed details from Lion de Belfort plates in catalog Max Ernst: Une Semaine de Bonté, les collages originaux, edited by Werner Spies, Paris: Gallimard, 2009.

Une Semaine de Bonté

Une Semaine de Bonteacute

Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, 1934

Some weeks after my father’s death I thought that I might at last begin my piece on Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté, but I didn’t.  I did spend some hours studying the images in the catalog of the complete collages, a massive black-spined book with thick cardboard covers that seem the gates to an inaccessible realm.  And it was a right time to be in contact with the images again, and to begin a small private inquiry into Ernst and Surrealism, but I couldn’t really write then, and I didn’t.

The show, at the Musée d’Orsay in the summer of 2009, affected me powerfully, the feeling while there an odd combination of extreme clarity and something like vertigo.  Afterwards I felt a great need to be sure that I could go through the images again, more slowly.  I coveted the forceful catalog and when at the gift shop they said there would be no American show and that they did not ship internationally, I bought it.  I carted it then from Paris to Switzerland, strong help was necessary to get it up and down the peaceable heights, and it had weighed down my luggage to New York and later been moved with my library to Cambridge.

The catalog has become one of the books that’s most important to me to see on my shelves.  Although it is not terribly frequently that I take it down to look through the pages, its presence is a strong clean line, like the novels and notebooks of Dostoevsky, or The Interpretation of Dreams.  “It’s all been squarely faced there,” is how the feeling might be named, “it’s all there, he wasn’t afraid.”