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.



Pablo Picasso, La Rue-des-Bois, 1908

The Desire to Write about La Rue-des-Bois

If I wanted to insert narrative into a description of Picasso’s La Rue-des-Bois, 1908, purchased by Gertrude and Leo Stein, I’d need to anthropomorphize. The trees are easy to anthropomorphize; they come in pairs — two sets of bony twins, tall as Franz Liszt or Abe Lincoln, but without virtuosity or eloquence, and substituting for flashiness a puritanical leaflessness. The leaves, when they finally arrive, are few but chunky, almost qualifying as bushes, lampshades, or balloons. My heart, however, is not in the leaves; my heart is in the green, its monochromatic domination of the field. The green’s decision to wipe out dissent (to silence the rebuttals of red or blue) reminds me of any decision to stick to one color, one action, one book, one body, one house, one desire; any monotheistic fidelity puts to rest the brain’s traffic and simplifies the horizon, even if such radical simplicity (I choose green, and only green), like all abstentions, takes discipline. Two nights ago I dreamt that a literary critic I no longer love was flossing his teeth in my bathroom; this critic (I’ll call him Leo Stein), naked from the waist down, was semi-erect, not because flossing was an aphrodisiac, but because he didn’t belong in my bathroom, and intruding on a former rival’s property can be a turn-on. If I were to declare an erotic allegiance to any element in Picasso’s La Rue-des-Bois, I’d choose the green horizon-curve that cuts, like a sickle or a bent bow, across two thin trees; this curve ignores the two trees it cuts, but also nonviolently includes them in its sinuous embrace. If there weren’t curves in this proudly vertical painting, with its upright trees, I’d feel abandoned; curves offer me a surge of liberty. In my dream, Leo Stein’s penis curved — perhaps because he was only half-hard. His penis, unable to make up its mind, chose to curve instead of aiming its missive at a single addressee. And his undershirt, in the dream, billowed outward, like a maternity shift.


Francis Picabia, The Acrobats, 1935

The Desire to Write about The Acrobats

I sat in the sex room, a waiting room. I’m often sitting in this underfurnished, underlit room, a space (heated, windowless, cramped) devoted to the religion of the under: undercover, underground, underwear, underarm, under erasure. Into this undemonstrative room, a room without connotations, another man entered. He had, so far, no name; I’ll call him Francis Picabia, the artist whose painting The Acrobats, 1935, I’m looking at while I write this account. Picabia, whom Gertrude Stein admired and encouraged, walked into the sex room and sat a few feet away from me on a white horizontal platform. He crossed his legs to conceal his penis, which I had little desire to see. I prefer the area surrounding the genitals — the penumbra of inferences and speculations tripped into motion by the presence (real or imagined) of a penis. With dispassionate scrupulousness, Picabia rubbed his thighs, as if to verify their palpability, or to wipe off scum. Then he uncrossed his legs and put his hands over his crotch, to shield me from a display I might find appalling or disappointing. His modesty wounded me; as retaliation or compensation, I wriggled out of my tight blue uniform, as a clumsy Salomé might execute her final dance, and turned to face Picabia, to give him my nudity’s veined ultimatum. Picabia, whether to avoid my advance, or to show more of himself, stood up from the white platform and turned around. On his right buttock, a large brown mole, not disfiguring, was uncannily beautiful and individuating, much like (if you’ll forgive the sacrilege) the late Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty mark, a flaw that highlighted the presence, below, of famous breasts. If my stranger’s name weren’t temporarily Picabia, I’d say that his buttocks were Rubenesque; in this context, it might be more appropriate to say that his buttocks had the dark gravity — the heft, the humor, the consoling solidity — of Gertrude Stein’s body, clothed in eccentric, Buddhist/Maoist garb, in photographs by Cecil Beaton, Man Ray, and other apotheosizers of the surreality that animates a fashionable body. I placed my hands on Picabia’s buttocks, to judge their worth — and he moved toward me, until his buttocks were level with my mouth. Paradoxically, by capitulating to my desire, he was punishing me. His buttocks, their cooperativeness, wordlessly aimed invective at me, and I became a nullity, a receptacle for his contempt. Picabia’s buttocks smelled of vetiver; when he finally turned around, I noticed that his crotch and its complicated vicinity smelled of lavender mixed with turpentine, the oil painter’s companion.


Henri Matisse, Madame Matisse (The Green Line), 1905; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, gift of The Engineer J.Rump and Wife Fund, 1928; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Desire to Write about The Green Line

A green line bisects the face of Matisse’s wife, in a painting Henri made in 1905, and so we call the painting The Green Line; the line’s unreasonable presence overshadows the woman it besmirches. Or does the line have nothing to do with the woman? Should we leave her out of it? Before I felt the desire to write about The Green Line, I felt an overwhelming desire to write about a 1922 Man Ray photograph of Alice B. Toklas entering the atelier she shared with Gertrude Stein: Alice hovers in the doorway, maybe entering, or maybe standing frozen, commanded by Man Ray to strike a characteristic pose; I felt a desire to write about Alice’s threshold status, her occupation of an ambiguous point between arrival and departure, but I felt a stab of remorse when I realized that Toklas reminded me of a friend whose husband had died a decade ago of heart disease.

Man Ray, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas in the atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris, 1922

Though I was not responsible for this man’s death, and though I would be doing no damage to his widow by writing about Alice entering the atelier, nonetheless their resemblance chastened me and made the prospect of writing about the Man Ray photograph seem an act of premeditated violence; to write honestly about this photograph, I would need to write about the widow, and to write honestly about the widow, I would need to describe the outline of Toklas’s breasts beneath her dress, a smock that modestly veiled her body but allowed the breasts to declare their existence with an unembarrassed directness that corresponded to the steady, large grace of Gertrude Stein seated (in that same photograph) at her desk. Stein’s blouse, tucked into her skirt, bunched in the back; this bunched place, a site of pressure and crowding, underlined Stein’s physical amplitude, her regal comfort on her writing throne, a seat she occupied in a suspended present she would have called a continuous present. Permissive, unbroken, the time of writing (and the time of reading) didn’t stop at the gate to pay a subservient toll but stretched into the past and future with a lazy (and secretly splenetic?) unfetteredness. If I were to write honestly about Stein’s body and about her writing process, and if I were to write honestly about the visible implication of Toklas’s breasts within her floral dress, then I would also need to describe the body of my friend whose husband died a decade ago of heart disease, and I would be trespassing on her body by mentioning it; to write about her body, I’d need to describe my torpor, as if I were drowsing in a Florida room whose jalousies admitted a variegated light, like the operating theater in Suddenly, Last Summer, or the ward where Tennessee Williams’s sister Rose received a lobotomy. Afternoon torpor, redolent of jalousies and lobotomies, overtook me when I considered writing about Toklas entering a room suffused with a fine dust; and so I decided to write instead about Matisse’s portrait of his wife, a portrait subtitled The Green Line. By defecting from Toklas, and hiding behind The Green Line, I felt cowardly — guilty of shirking my vocation’s duties and cowering behind abstraction (the green line) as a way to avoid the hard work of describing ambivalence, destructiveness, guilt, and fatigue. The green line attracted me because it permitted a face to say two things at the same time. The green line permitted one half of the subject’s face to be burdened (or heightened) by flesh-pink brushstrokes, wedges of conspicuous paint that offered a pressured statement, a demand, an exhibition; the other side of the face, yellow and flat, unenhanced by thick paint or emphatic brushwork, nonetheless borrowed enough green to cloak the eye-socket. Thus the face’s downtrodden side flourished, albeit in a mephitic, doomed fashion, a dignity composed of too much green. Matisse’s abundant green signifies a luxury that, for a writer, can only be approximated by the silence that follows an act of composition: the ordeal of sequential language, word following word, has been surmounted, and now the complicated respite of green, an indescribable green, can begin.


Pablo Picasso, Strolling Player and Child, 1905

The Desire to Write about Strolling Player and Child

Last night I dreamt that my father killed himself, but first he divided his property, and explained to me the division. I would receive one portion; my siblings would also receive one portion each. (My father’s fortune, in the dream, was divided into “portions,” each symbolized by a medicinal lozenge — a cough drop.) My stepmother would receive merely one portion. My mother (my father’s ex-wife), however, received three portions, although they’d been divorced for nearly thirty years. I hoped that the news of this inheritance would cheer her up and remind her of my father’s noble sentimentality, a trait he shared with Goethe’s Werther; perhaps the inheritance — three portions! — would revise her pessimistic narrative of their marriage and its final shattering. I looked forward to using my father’s suicide as a ploy to wrest sympathy from my friends, who, in the dream, had grown angry with my unreliability; now they would understand my neurasthenia’s paternal origin, and they might forgive my selfishness. The night before I dreamt about my father’s suicide, I dreamt that my lover fell off a superhighway’s entrance ramp. When I saw him lean over its edge, I restrained myself from criticizing his imprudence; I scold him too frequently. And then he fell over the edge. Looking down, I saw a small figure plummeting faster than I have ever seen any object fall. From a distance, he looked like a minnow or a dandelion. The instant he fell into the water, I forced myself to wake up; my own body felt bruised, a woundedness antithetical to the blue and orange pastels in Picasso’s 1905 Strolling Player and Child. The boy-child’s blue costume — like pajamas — is essentially the same blue as the backdrop (wall, sky?); against that background he stands, his shoulders touched, with a companionable or paternal watchfulness, by the tall Pierrot, dressed in an orange whose docility equals the softness of the boy’s blue apparel and of the blue atmosphere dispersed behind him. Who exactly are the boy and his clown-protector? They might be brothers, or father and son, or merely coworkers, belonging to a motley troupe, itinerant players granted license in sexual and sartorial actions. By writing about Strolling Player and Child, I try to join a guild of orange- and blue-appareled wanderers, writers, artists, loners, fantasizers. I don’t understand color theory, but my eye tells me that orange moves forward, and blue moves backward. The boy’s blue atmosphere — a domineering shroud — exceeds the puissance of the older player’s orange; the boy’s blueness proposes that moods and fantasies overtake the categories in which we try to keep them contained. I’m afraid of this writing session ending; without the fountain pen in my hand, and Picasso’s blue boy and orange man, in reproduction, in front of me, I’d lack blood and skin. I’m the one ending this paragraph, but I feel as if the paragraph were ending me, choosing me as the victim of its violent wish to terminate anything blue, abundant, and flowering. I often feel like the victim of my own elation; excitement overtakes me when I write (though lethargy, too, tampers with my onward motion), but excitement then becomes my persecutor, a figure holding a whip and urging me to walk forward, even when my body aches. Excitement, my persecutor, gives me the illusion that I inhabit two bodies at once — the small blue body of my raptness and motility, and the large, slender, punitive, orange body of my caretaker, whose calves are muscular from hard labor, whose eyes are narrow and judgmental, and whose hands grip my shoulders with a tightness I earlier called companionable but now I will call coercive. The caretaker’s grip is no more coercive than syntax, my blue master, with its adjectival arms, its participial thighs, its orange litanies. Last night I dreamt that I flunked math and couldn’t graduate from high school. I argued about my grade with the math teacher, who doubled as art teacher; his face, lightly bearded, seemed irrevocably lodged in the Gay Liberation movement of the early 1970s, as interpreted by Vincent Van Gogh and André Derain. The point of writing — of my writing, at least — is to travel forward under the guise of traveling backward.

Wayne Koestenbaum has published five books of poetry: Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, Model Homes, The Milk of Inquiry, Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, and Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems. He also has published a novel, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, and seven books of nonfiction: Humiliation, Hotel Theory, Andy Warhol, Cleavage, Jackie Under My Skin, The Queen’s Throat (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist), and Double Talk. His next two books, forthcoming in 2012, are The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (University of California Press) and Blue Stranger with Mosaic Background (Turtle Point Press). Koestenbaum is a distinguished professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, and also a visiting professor in the painting department of the Yale School of Art. He lives in New York City.

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