There was a third man, a first man, a failed first, a forever failing first. You’ll find him in the blank space to my right, on that pedestal of dirty laundry. He’s gone, was rubbed out, was never there, never born but killed over and over. You killed him, who made me. Are you beginning to get your eyes yet? Can you see the emerging man to my left? Do you see what he has, what he lacks? It’s a miracle he can stand. Note, however, he is anchored to my foot. His hand, Ah, his hand! Pink, infantile! He does not need finishing. No man does. We do not ask to be finished. We only ask, I ask, to be given the hands to do the proper job of a man. I ask you, no, I demand it of you, whose eyes reflect mine.
In recent weeks I have felt the need to take a vacation from my mind and that has meant getting away from writing. As an escape I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of watching a lot of YouTube videos on mechanical watches. I haven’t stumbled upon a single video made by a woman. They’re all made by guys and for guys and they’re all addressed as such. Invariably they start with the greeting, “Hey guys!” They all follow the same pattern and they all use the same words, such as: beater watch, strap monster, robust (movement or construction), everyday watch, dress up or down. Because of this self-referentiality, some of the more entertaining ones make jokes about other watch enthusiasts, such as the true believer in quartz watches who makes sarcastic asides about those who love mechanicals. In fact I’ve now seen so many of these that I could make a parody watch video.
It’s hard to read about Robert Rauschenberg without encountering a Great American Image: a uniquely American hero in modern visual art. It seems to me rather that he was more like the Slavoj Žižek of the art world of his time. That is, far from being an (uniquely American) original, he was one of the greatest synthesizers of (visual art) ideas and attitudes circulating at his time, ideas and attitudes that were both historical and international in scope. He blended Kurt Schwitters-style assemblage and a de Kooning-like painterly gesture with the impishness of Picabia and the cool head of Duchamp. To be sure, there is a lot of the big open space of Texas in his collages and combine paintings, full of American images. But the core ideas and forms that undergird his art didn’t come straight from the spit and dust of Port Arthur; they had deep European roots.*
I shall not venture a guess into the reasons for the myth-making surrounding Rauschenberg, which I am trusting is obvious enough to anyone who has read about him. Doing so would be a purely negative project. But I think it’s worth noting how dependent the myth is on Rauschenberg’s own statements. So, putting aside the question of why the myth has been constructed, one can say something about how it is done and this examination has its own rewards.
I’m new to the films of Tarkovsky, and have become obsessed with them. Yet with the peculiar itch typical of my mind my thoughts on his work keep slipping into thoughts on my favorite filmmaker, Luis Buñuel.
Arriving from always, you’ll go away everywhere. —Rimbaud
We are modern. We are so because Rimbaud commanded us to be. —Ashbery
It is one of those curious accidents (but are they really accidents?) that I have resumed my de Kooning studies at the exact same time I decided to buy Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, a book that had been on my wishlist for eight years.
I have never made a conscious connection between the painter and the poet. In fact I’ve been a student of de Kooning’s work for many years whereas for the same amount of time my knowledge of Rimbaud has been a ragged tissue of cultural cliches. As a teenager I read translations of Rimbaud’s poetry that were already dated and none of the poems took hold on my imagination. Essentially Rimbaud has been little more to me than a name one sees dropped over and over, registering absolute zero, like a distant bell that keeps ringing and one no longer hears.
Ashbery’s translations have changed that for me. Though one can still place most of the poems in 19th century Europe, the language is fresh, often startling, and the brilliance of the poems comes through. More to the point of my theme today, I couldn’t help but contrast and compare what I was reading there with my meditations on de Kooning. Because it seems to me that one sense of the modern as Rimbaud commanded it reached full flower in de Kooning. And yet another sense of the modern that comes out of Rimbaud was antagonistic to de Kooning’s attitude toward art. For there are two senses of the modern, two divergent streams that both have their source in Rimbaud. They are not always easy to disentangle (a bit of one always remains in the other) but each one taken as an individual track leads to a very different place than the other.