Wayne Koestenbaum: The Desire to Write (II)

In celebration of our landmark exhibition The Steins Collect, Open Space is pleased to present a special two-part feature from essayist, cultural critic, and poet Wayne Koestenbaum. For this year’s Phyllis Wattis Distinguished Lecture, SFMOMA commissioned Wayne to write and perform a new work related to the exhibition. His topic: painting and writing. The result: “The Desire to Write.” Enjoy. (Part one is here.)

Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, 1905; Tate, London, purchased with assistance from the Knapping Fund, the Art Fund and the Contemporary Art Society and private subscribers, 1954; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about André Derain

Matisse’s 1905 portrait of André Derain attracts me because thick paint slashes form a coercive band around the subject’s neck, and because equally thick paint slashes provide Derain with a breastplate. On his chest, green-blue slashes crawl up to the yellow lines above, but remain dwarfed, humbled by yellow. The green-blue lines yearn to be something other than blue; they seem doomed to lose their marine identity in an undifferentiated whiteness, a whiteness that illustrates a desire to be obliterated, a whiteness that confesses a temptation not to announce a theme but merely to indicate the presence of a brush, knife, or fingertip. The fingertip exerts steady pressure, pushing the paint, in channels, runnels, or ruts, into the ready canvas, a canvas that, like the bedroom wall of my childhood tract house, had no personality of its own, but passively received projections. A blue-green line bisects Derain’s neck, travels up the beard’s periphery onto the mustache, ascends the rim of hair above the brow (half-hidden by red beret), and then soars up to the empyrean unspecificity (Percy Bysshe Shelley would have called it the “intense inane”) above Derain’s head. Into the creamy, naïve blue background, Derain’s mustache seems to tumble; a mustache always means a drunken loss of control. The art of painting, for Matisse, in 1905, implied a Faustian exuberance I long to imitate in my body language, as if a satyr-like tendency within my ribcage could emulate Matisse’s aggressive brushwork, its taffy-like gusto, its suggestion of pressing, smashing, denting, pushing — the eye thus inciting the hand to take on, by transference, the neediness (or pushiness?) of a painterly facture that paradoxically signifies madness and a decisive intellect. Today at lunch a young poet told me that he had wordless sex recently with a financier — wordless except for one sentence, when the financier said, abruptly, “I’m ready to come.” My young poet friend, like me, is a cross between a cocktease and a professional lubricator of interlocutory atmospheres: we specialize in keeping conversations running. His beard and mustache are thick and tangible, like oil paint pressed into grooves. Portraiture, as a genre, alternates between modesty and boastfulness. A portrait is always boasting about its resemblance — or its lack of resemblance — to its subject. A portrait is always modest about its status as merely a portrait — a genre with limits. However, Gertrude Stein, in her word-portraits, was rarely modest; boastfulness is intrinsic to aesthetic innovation. You can’t make it new without bragging.



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