I’ve been rereading Pico Iyer’s wonderful book on Graham Greene from last year, The Man Within My Head. The book is about the writing of Greene, but in a strange way: Iyer is not beholden to making an argument for why Greene matters, he is not trying to put Greene in any sort of canon, and there are times when Iyer doesn’t even like Greene (there’s a particularly memorable account of the distaste Iyer has for Greene’s travel writing on Mexico, specifically). Instead, what Iyer is describing in the book is a haunting. He is haunted and inhabited by Greene, and the old writer keeps appearing in Iyer’s life, as a model for a sort of hard-fought compassion, as a sparring partner, as a menace, as a friend, as a person whose voice, at times, comes forth from Iyer’s pen and mouth as if from his heart alone.
This happens across all of the arts—this haunting—and relationships with the artists that haunt us are often difficult relationships. There is a small, but vibrant canon of books which describe these relationships. Guy Davenport was a master of the short story haunted by artists. Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov is another good example, as is Geoff Dyer’s wonderful book, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence. Actually, Dyer has written many books in this manner: his conjuring of the ghost of jazz musicians in But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz and his account of why he keeps watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in Zona both convincingly offer us accounts of artists who come into your life and won’t let go. However, the perfection of the form probably belongs to Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden, the strangest, most gripping book about Dostoevsky written by someone who is not Dostoevsky.
I find that in the visual arts, this haunting is equally present as it is in literature or music, only we do not often have the occasion to give an account of these deeply personal, often troubling, and always unruly encounters with art. We have many occasions—the catalogue essay, the interview, the review, the profile, the work of journalism—but rarely are we allowed the candor to simply talk about an artist who, without any shadow of a doubt, just keeps rising up in your life, who points to your victories, your defeats, your troubles, and your moments of resonance in the world. Sometimes, when you are at your most desperate hour, all you want from the artist is that they quit bothering you.
These works of writing are almost always a little indulgent, a little frustrating, but most of the time, they offer something that is sorely missing in the artworld: a modest, simple account about why one cares about an artist and why that is almost always personal. Often it is in the expression of irritation where the art really feels vital, and these works of writing are great because they are not beholden to anything. They do not have to make the artist look good because they need to pack people in the door of exhibition, they do not have to be read and approved by a gallery or the artist themselves, they are not limited to the 500 word “describe then access” rigor of reviews.
I was asked by the Rail to provide an L.A. perspective, and in order to do that, I wanted to do something unusual. I want to take the pressure off the New York/Los Angeles split, not worrying about describing what is going on in Los Angeles for those that may not know (I have found that in this global contemporary art world, that everyone I see in New York, I often also see in Los Angeles. We know the lay of the land of both cities). Instead, I want to introduce New York to L.A.’s writers and curators and give the writers the space to write one of these pieces about an artist who haunts their life. I am sure that, in the end, the writers will radiate L.A., even if they aren’t talking about it directly.