A Painter-Aficionado of Roberto Bolaño
BENJAMIN PRITCHARD with Joseph Masheck

Benjamin Pritchard, Albert Ayler, oil on linen, 76 × 80, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

Almost as soon as I got to know Benjamin Pritchard’s work, two or three years ago, it seemed evident that the writings of the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño (1953 – 2003) were important to his practice of abstract painting as pertinent now. It took me some months to read both The Savage Detectives, first, as he suggested, and then 2666—all 900 pages of it, including all journalistic documentation of many dreadful murders, because I’m a slow reader and not a devotee of fiction. This all took place when I’d already been thinking that today the young seem too interested in figurative painting on a purely narcissistic basis: “Pictures I can picture myself in.” Not long ago I was asked to evaluate an art history survey lecture on the 17th century. No landscapes or still lifes were shown. As the kids were lapping it up, I realized that all their comments concerned what the figures were doing with their bodies, and nobody considered what the painter was doing in the painting.

Portrait of Benjamin Pritchard, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Pritchard’s work promised something better. Straightaway I could see that his involvement with the novelist Roberto Bolaño encompassed an overall mood or flavor peculiar to our historical situation—especially a certain punkiness that’s nevertheless too cool to appeal by Expressionistic self-justification. His paintings were not only not ironic, but fortunately not about the triviality of his or the spectator’s feelings. Recently Pritchard and I talked about the appeal of this novelist to him as artist. We began in front of a work in which he thought Bolaño influence might be ostensible, the large Albert Ayler, 2016 – 18, an homage to the free jazz musician.

Joseph Masheck (Rail): I’m glad you have your large painting Albert Ayler out, because I’ve seen it several times, and now it looks definitive. Early on it seemed unfinished to both of us. Later, I sometimes had to be careful with my comments, knowing your way of suddenly totally overhauling an image, because the painting was growing on me. You were just saying that you could exemplify Bolaño’s influence on you with this painting?

Benjamin Pritchard: I think so; by a kind of labyrinthine structure that holds together even as it doesn’t; and it’s got a kind of superficial overtone of kitsch or pulp detective novels.

Rail: And the way the colors recur, like elements that are in themselves sufficient within the—one might have thought—chaotic compositional field, yet come back again here or there. 

Pritchard: Oh yes; definitely recurrence is something that I understand, and that also concerns Bolaño. 

Rail: Does it also relate to Ayler’s music? 

Pritchard: Well he wasn’t such a specific inspiration; but I started it on the anniversary of his death, and his work was being played non-stop on the radio. I think I was alone for about three days. So I was just listening to the music, really loud; and that was the impetus for the energy and general approach to the painting. I’m not necessarily a fan of his, but there was a time when it was very important to me. I’m not even a huge free jazz fan, but while this painting was happening I was completely obsessed with Ayler’s music.

Rail: And the painting, which consists of freeform bursts of bounded forms, hefty but supple in color, doesn’t have to do with any particular motifs.

Pritchard: Right.

Rail: Actually, I didn’t mean Ayler motifs, but Bolaño motifs.

Pritchard: Oh, no: I fight any sort of literalism, unless it just can’t be denied.

Rail: Well then: I began with Savage Detectives, as you recommended, so I have a few questions about that text; and then we can move to the later book. The young litterateurs call their poet’s movement “Visceral Realism.” So I’m thinking, If you follow Mondrian and others who like to argue that it’s the abstract painters who are really ‘realist,’ then isn’t your work ‘Visceral Realism’ too, as a rather visceral form of abstraction—even making all your own oil paint from gritty pigment?

Pritchard: Yes, yes! Totally. And they would probably have argued the same for their movement. The way they were constantly critiquing the status quo, including being failures on conventional terms.

Rail: In front of your paintings the difference is that the street-kid poetry society of Savage Detectives becomes more sophisticated in 2666, as your paintings already are. It’s not so clear in the beginning. The kids are all like sex-crazed teenagers. You can’t tell whether they’re going to become civilized or not.

Pritchard: Right. Well half of them kind of lose their minds or disappear; but then they go on that quest at the end to find their great lost poet.

Rail: I know it’s sort of a pun, but one of the kids is called Luscious Skin; and you know, your paintings typically have luscious skin! [Laughter] But something, let’s say, without which you don’t have Bolaño, as typically part of the regrettable aspect of life, is a sense of casual brutality almost everywhere. But some of what you do as a painter may actually be a sublimation of brutality, isn’t it?

Pritchard: I don’t know, what do you mean?

Rail: Here’s an analogy: think of a sound that you might make on a saxophone that would make some people want to run out of the room; but a wild screech by Albert Ayler might be similar in terms of cycles per second, but only square people would run away. These novels ain’t Punch and Judy: people are being hurt and dying all over the place: life is cheap; but they attain a certain beauty. 

Pritchard: Yes, but’s that’s the realism part too. It’s like: I’m going to give this to you; this is where it’s located. We have to revolve around the dark truth of reality in order to get at what we are really need to say. 

Rail: There’s a feeling that only the people who are rich enough to be in gated communities or have doormen are safe on today’s social terms.

Pritchard: Yes, but they’re in denial. The whole section in 2666 on the mass murders is actually the documentation of what had really been going on. What’s so amazing about it is that Bolaño sort of weaves this tableau, and is basically just handing it to you: this is your world. None of those murders was solved; none of those people was caught: it’s unbelievable.

Rail: That’s what has me thinking about gated Republican communities and even a rise of fascism. Those poor working class women were inconsequential to the powers that be, especially the drug bosses. So there’s the feeling that you’d better watch out: you can’t trust anybody and the only protection is a gun or money for bribes. Justice is out of the question (then again, how much investigation was devoted to the death of Ayler, as a black man found floating in the East River?).

Pritchard: I was taken to Juarez, the only place I’ve ever visited in Mexico, as a kid. It made a strong impression on me. This town, which plays “Santa Teresa” in both of these Bolaño novels, had a big impact for a number of reasons. I remember climbing a high hill in El Paso, and looking south across the border into Juarez, when all of a sudden some sort of refinery exploded and caused a massive blaze. Half the sky was bathed in a gnarly yellow, while the other half was crystal clear. The place itself wasn’t as violent as it is now. But I grew up in Detroit, and I myself flirted with the ‘underside’ of things as a somewhat wayward youngster. So I’m always somewhat fascinated with that, and people who don’t shy away from it, because as Americans we like to live in our pretend world.

Rail: Well there’s the question of whether art is supposed to reflect the world or whether it can also be a justificatory compensation. Bolaño does show a sense of heartlessness that seems generational: people who grew up playing with an abstract Pac-Man now have kids playing games in which non-stylized people are murdered naturalistically all day long.

Pritchard: It’s very naturalistic, these days.

Rail: One thing that I turned out to respect in both books is that every once in a while there’s an intermittent landscape, like a wonderful respite in the midst of the human mess, despite no character’s paying attention to it. Speaking of naturalism, this made me think of Émile Zola’s Germinal, where the whole lower class is so oppressed and so dirty and so haggard, yet every hundred pages or so there will be a page of magnificent landscape description; and the same thing happens with Bolaño.

Pritchard: I know what you’re talking about. It’s almost as if the characters could look up and say, “Oh, yeah, I’m in this great amazing place.” Not that they do. That’s especially true concerning the horizon, I think.

Benjamin Pritchard, Shield, oil on panel, 18 × 23, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

Rail: You must be right because even I recall in The Savage Detectives a page or two about the desert, and it’s all the more beautiful because there’s almost nothing there to look at.

Pritchard: Yeah, all the literary critics are revolving around in their problems or trying to justify their own ethics, or the structure—whatever you want to call it—or situation they’re in; all involved in their petty little worlds. But they do have their moments. 

Rail: In the context of The Savage Detectives painting is inconsequential. One painter is just a good customer for drugs: that’s all that matters to the young characters. That’s not really the case in 2666.

Pritchard: Right; in Savage Detectives lazy people do it.

Rail: There’s a section in Savage Detectives devoted to a painter living on Majorca in 1994, who painted fake Picabias, Guillem Piña.

Pritchard: But the important thing is how story gets flipped around, as it starts to be from the perspectives of the different characters.

Rail: Maybe that’s a little like when your taking a painting that’s mostly finished, or even quite finished, and totally overhauling it anyway, as if just using it as raw material for the second take?

Pritchard: Right, right!

Rail: Anyway, here’s what Piña says about the poet Arturo in the Savage Detectives: “I would show him my paintings, and he would say ‘fantastic,’ I love them, that kind of thing. I’ve always found that oppressive. I know he meant what he said, but still, I felt oppressed.”1

Pritchard: I certainly don’t go to Bolaño to learn anything about painting; it’s just his attitude and approach—the world-building—that concerns me.

Rail: Well, I guess I have the idea of trying to milk this text for art theory.

Pritchard: Maybe the whole project could be milked for art theory! Like the way it gives us a view from outer space but then keeps zooming down to give us minutiae of people’s lives on earth. Everything is in a way a cosmic joke. But in that cosmic joke there is all the tenderness and truth, and the beauty and honesty taking place simultaneously. It’s not one thing: it’s many things happening at the same time. Depending on your perspective you can see either the horror or the beauty.

Rail: Let’s talk about the diagrams in both books. I wonder if you were interested in the line drawings in the latter part of Savage Detectives? I don’t mean the gag drawings where what looks like a doughnut is really a guy in a big sombrero seen from above (hah, hah, hah): you’re too young to know, but they’re just like the “Droodles” that Roger Price drew live on early television. No; I mean the drawings of horizontal zigzags or up-and-down curves—with or without little Monopoly-game houses to rationalize them as landscapes. They interest me art-historically because, as supposedly self-explanatory stylizations of nature, they’re typical of mid-19th-century ethnography leaching into ornamental theory and hence the pre-history of abstraction. 

Pritchard: Like the way people thought that Chinese characters could simply be traced back to pictograms.

Rail: Yes, the zigzags and wavy lines were taken “scientifically” to equate with mountains on the one hand or rivers on the other. But, hey, who says it’s a river when it could just as well be a snake! As forms though, they do have an element of universality. I think you know what I am driving at: you use a lot of forms like these yourself.

Pritchard: But I discovered them in the course of making my paintings, after having been trained to study the model and also the modern tradition, from Cézanne on.

Rail: The matter of stylization is fascinating because it was totally simplistic to think of such motifs as just words in a linguistic code that has to be cracked.

Pritchard: Language is something that I’m interested in dispensing with. Painting is the language of sleep. When you get up in the morning, and you have all those weird images in your head, that’s painting. As soon as you try to verbalize, you’re separating yourself from what was going on.

Rail: You know, in reading your journals I saw that you like the morning. You must like that liminal state, before verbalization sets in. 

Pritchard: Right. I like the morning, before you have to put things into words. After that, you’re swimming against the tide when you have to put everything through the act of language. This is why I stopped writing in my journals on getting up; now I immediately draw first. It’s weird that that will gradually solidify into words.

Rail: Getting back to Bolaño’s diagrams: since many of your paintings have a somewhat diagrammatic character, let’s observe a new kind of Bolaño diagram in 2666, the big book, where they are much more elaborated and sophisticated than before. What are they? 

Pritchard: They’re of the different sorts of philosophers, and how they relate to one to another. These diagrams were drawn for Amalfitano’s academic class—the Amalfitano who is to try lead the critics to Archimboldi. He’s a forlorn philosophy professor, exiled from Europe to a university in this little Mexican town, where he’s just kind of world-weary, and thinks he might be going insane; can’t quite get a grip. He’s actually really brilliant, and a beautiful human being. Those are diagrams of the relationships of key philosophers according to his thinking about their axioms.

Rail: Much deeper and more meaningful than the diagrams in Savage Detectives.

Pritchard: True.

Rail: The diagrams themselves are not unlike some of your canvases.

Benjamin Pritchard, Platonic Horizon, oil on found canvas, 20 × 18 in, 2014-15. Courtesy the artist.

Pritchard: Right, as geometrical structures.

Rail: Just look at the pair of octagons, quite like your painting Platonic Horizon, (2015) with its two hexagons side by side, as if under a cloudy sky.

Pritchard: Platonics! That’s interesting. Well, painting is a thing of the mind, and I’m a classicist in that way. 

Rail: You’ve read 2666 more than once, haven’t you?

Pritchard: I’ve read it a bunch of times, and I also have it on tape, so I listen to it.

Rail: This provokes me to a big overall comment: that one of the things that really is like Bolaño, in your approach to painting, is that at any point his narrative may blossom as an offshoot into something else. You know, like Deleuze’s “rhizome,” which at any point can crop up with new growth. I think that that’s something that concerns both Bolaño’s prose and your painting. 

Pritchard: “Flows” is what I like to say. When I’m working, I’m trying to get into a flow, and the flow will kind of branch off; and that will create a sense of moving along, instead of just finding something and then just drilling on that one thing. I will circle back to things, but always moving and thinking.

Rail: The way in which one painting blossoms into another: can that be just any kind of connection, like form or color?

Pritchard: No, it’s just a beginning, just a way of accessing; it’s more like sketching, a movement. Anything that in language terms might be considered grammatical is going to be there for legibility only, not for the experience of the thing. In my own way I’m trying to make it more legible: it begins with a subjective state of reality, but obviously it can’t just stay in that state; it has to be something that somebody else wants to look at.

Rail: But if an art historian took a lot of your paintings, with no dates on them, he or she might like to try constructing a genealogy, of which preceded which. And those connections might formal or coloristic—those would be two most obvious categories. Or whether a composition is rectilinear or curvilinear, because maybe there’s a whole stream of one or the other.

Pritchard: Yeah, sure, I’m a formal painter. I’m using form. I want the meaning to emerge through the form. On this subject I think I’m something of a fundamentalist! [Laughter

Rail: Well look, we have these two paintings which you have placed side by side on the wall. They’re somewhat similar, though they differ significantly. What I’m wondering is, if I were in a room with many similar works, whether all the ones where there curves were bisected by a line were or were not related to ones with zigzags bisected by a line. I might or might not be on the right track, because maybe both the circles and the zigzags belong to one category of bisected forms, with the circles and zigzags both being secondary elements. See what I mean? Maybe it’s enough for the spectator to know that it could go one way one day and another way on another day.

Pritchard: This is why I think of myself as circling around, like Bolaño. Every day I have an idea about what I am going to do that’s informed by a question of the day before; but it’s a new day. For me, so much of painting is an encounter with how you, me, anyone, personally makes decisions, and then being O.K. with them. Encountering how you think; discovering your own systems of what you’re doing every day.

Rail: But you don’t seem to want to be the victim of even your own algorithms, because, for instance, suppose you reduce these two paintings to the matter of bisection—rather than of the curvilinear or the rectilinear: then you’d be missing out on plenty of other things. You obviously don’t want to do it that way: you don’t want to say, “on Thursday I have to do another bisected painting, formalistically.”

Pritchard: That wouldn’t have to do with the reason for making paintings in the first place. Not that I’m quite sure what that is, but again there is an idea of a horizon. These things are happening within the context of a larger frame. Maybe I’m just fooling myself; maybe they are just like little abstract doodles . . . 

Rail: Impossible! Because we have these two paintings in front of us, and they are very complementary in just the way that we’re talking about, as different as they are.

Pritchard: They flow together pretty well, don’t they? They also inform one another, for instance as to building up and scraping back. I’ve worked on both these paintings for a number of years, and they’ve both just begun to resolve themselves recently, by literally drawing this division—a horizontal line in each case—that emerged out of the years and years it took to paint them. 

Rail: You sometimes keep photographic records of previous versions, right?

Pritchard: Yes; and in fact that is what they are.

Rail: But not obsessively; only where it might lead to another rhizome, right?

Pritchard: Exactly, like Albert Ayler. You and I were talking about Picasso, and how he would kind of “draw off” forms and then fill them in. In Albert Ayler I’ve put the drawing on top, which I’ve been interested in doing. The painting is not bound by the shapes that the drawing creates.

Rail: In 2666 there is an artist character named Edwin Johns. That Jasper Johns must have been such a famous name must explain the name, right?—even though they have nothing to do with one another. His celebrity is owed to the fact that he cut off his painting hand and affixed it to a still life. The plaster casts of body parts in early Jasper Johns have little to do with this compared with the popular topoi not only of van Gogh’s severed ear but also Kirchner’s great Self-Portrait as a Soldier—with its amputated hand, from battle hysteria—on which I once wrote an essay.2

Pritchard: I’m sure he knew about the Kirchner: he was certainly aware of expressionist painting.

Benjamin Pritchard, Mystic Truth, oil on linen, 10 × 12 in, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

Rail: The business of the severed hand is melodramatically provincial, by hanging onto the rather booby notion that that such scandals are what’s interesting about art history. I do think Bolaño harps on this motif. Maybe he is still learning: he knows that art is still a thin-ice subject even though he’s becoming more sophisticated about it, which is interesting.

Pritchard: He has an obviously extremely sophisticated life in the sense of knowing a lot about literature and translating it. He does use the art world as a kind of screen, to talk about celebrity and all the kind of surface BS, though also to delve into depth, which seems to be his primary concern. He’s including that within the horrific surface. He wants to know more about that world; but it’s both: he’s also making fun of it. Making fun of one’s own ambitions and desires at the same time he’s being that way is how I feel too. I can completely relate to that, not taking it seriously while also taking it really seriously. But we haven’t even talked about Benno von Archimboldi, the great missing novelist whom all the literary critics want to catch up with in Mexico. Everything revolves around him, even though no one gets to know him. He’s silent. As readers we only get to know him at the end. 

Rail: OK, take it away.

Pritchard: The part of 2666 that got me hooked early on is where we are introduced to a cast of fairly erudite and argumentative literary critics who exist in a comfortable bubble. They understand the true encounter with themselves and reality (and chaos) through the books of a totally reclusive author well acquainted with what seems to be deep or true reality, but they go about their lives and loves, having full careers dissecting his work, only vaguely aware of the questions that his books emerge from. There are intimations of their own truth (for instance a shocking incident with a cab driver); but for the most part their capacity for evil is at a remove until they travel to northern Mexico, to Santa Teresa, to track and find the elusive author. There they meet Amalfitano, who for me is a Virgil character: he’s already making an unwitting descent into an “other” inside himself. He thinks he’s going insane, but he is compassionate and honestly tries to rationalize or solve a pervasive problem of darkness and evil in the town. As readers we are introduced to jarring different frames of reality as Amalfitano lays his remarkable story on the critics; it concerns the different “stages” of art and how they interact between the larger horizon of reality and the “void.” He even points at the void like a biblical wasteland that absorbs everything, with art as the boundary between it and the audience—an audience that is sometimes small and sometimes huge (as is the case with cinema), but which gets ever smaller the closer that a medium can observe it. Then, hilariously, the critics say that they have no idea what Amalfitano, in his rumpled clothes, is talking about, and he apologizes, saying it was nothing. Of course, as the novel moves forward we get deeper and deeper into the very real problem of evil as it pertains in the circumstances of history, in Santa Teresa but even also in ourselves.

Rail: There’s a certain comic relief in a long paragraph where Amalfinano talks to a guy (Marco Antonio Guerra), son of the dean, who likes to pick rough fights in bars, not even caring if he can win them. Having no friends, hating all the other Mexicans, he’s pretty much flailing about when Amalfitano asks what what kind of music he likes. “Classical music, Professor Amalfitano. Vivaldi, Cimarosa, Bach. And what kind of books do you read? I used to read everything, Professor, I read all the time. Now all I read is poetry. Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game. I don’t know if you follow me, Professor. Only poetry—and let me be clear, only some of it is good for you—only poetry isn’t shit.” This strikes me as like Marcuse saying that the only two departments of culture not hopelessly contaminated by capitalism are art and religion (though now we may be down to one).

Pritchard: Note his name, too: “war.” He’s one of those marginal, daemonic characters who also manages to have a thought-through philosophy of life.

Rail: Speaking of specific characters: interested in the fact that there is a Pritchard?

Pritchard: Of course! Alex, right? 

Rail: Yes. Is he based on anybody?

Pritchard: I have no idea. He’s the boyfriend of the female critic; and then the rest of the critics show up and mock him in their snobby way.

Rail: And what about the part about Detroit, too. That must have struck home!

Pritchard: Of course! Bolaño applies this wild language to it that brings you into a whole ambience.

Rail: There’s a graffiti mural on a building next to a vacant lot, for a sense of the rust-belt aspect, like a down-in-the-trenches version of . . . Who did the murals of factory work in Detroit?

Pritchard: Diego Rivera, in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Rail: Much of a page is devoted to this mural of a clock in which the numbers are replaced by the “recurring character” of a “scrawny . . . black man-child, or a man clinging to childhood,” enacting twelve stages of the division of labor in a factory. He was apparently supposed to be a clown-figure; but this wasn’t funny at all. “The mural looked like the work of a lunatic. The last painting of a lunatic. In the middle of the clock, where all the scenes converged, there was a word painted in letters that looked like they were made of gelatin: fear.”

Pritchard: That paragraph—which will remind a Detroiter of Tyree Guyton as well as Rivera—is a case where you can tell that he’s taking a situation and applying his wild language to it, which brings you into a whole ambience. He’ll say something, and go back on it, or forward with it, like a language riff. 

Rail: Let’s get into the question of metaphor. I get a kick out of this sentence, “Metaphors are our way of losing ourselves in a sea of semblances, or treading water in a sea of seeming. In that sense a metaphor is like a life jacket. And remember, there are life-jackets that float, and others that sink to the bottom like lead.” A tough little cadenza on the subject, in the way it both bottoms out and goes over the top.

Pritchard: Right, right; because you can see it from both sides.

Rail: I often think that all painting is metaphorical, only more or less so. The classic case is supposed to be Rodchenko’s triptych Pure Red Color, Pure Yellow Color, Pure Blue Color, 1921, where he’s deliberately doing what the British call donkey-work, making it as flat-footed as possible; but that only defeats its own pig-headed principle by being quite as stroked—just not very nicely!—as anything meant to be meaningful. The tombstone of painting, whether the stonecutter thought that was a clever idea or not. Pure Red Color . . . sucks as a painting, by being deliberately dead in the water. It’s a flat tire as a painting! How many more of these figures would you like?!

Benjamin Pritchard, Earth, oil on linen, 30 × 30 in, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

Pritchard: Even as I’ve wanted to divest my paintings of any narrative meaning, they are all the more paintings. 

Rail: How about another character: Charly Cruz?

Pritchard: He’s a shady fellow, one of the characters that Oscar Fate is trying to separate Rosa, the daughter of Amalfitano, from, because he doesn’t want her to get sucked into that strange, corrupt world. He’s the one who’s always watching Robert Rodriguez movies.

Rail: Yes, he talks about that, and goes on for half a page about it. You know, he was also ticked off when they stopped saying mass in Latin!

Pritchard: I think the characters in the novel have their own ways, however weird, of accessing the divine. Even these kinds of, whatever, pretty basic characters. Cruz (= “Cross”) finds it through watching Robert Rodriguez films: you know, those pulp or vampire movies.

Rail: Forgive me if this is off-base, but one particular passage in this section strikes me as akin to your painting style: “in Rosa’s memory the conversation began to take on sharper outlines, as if time . . . were blowing incessantly on a flat gray stone covered in dust, until the black grooves of the letters carved into the stone were perfectly legible.”

Pritchard: Pretty good! Metaphor: it’s just implicit in our work; and it’s something that other people can’t help to bring to our work, either. So I kind of hope that enough bubbles to the surface so that there is meaning for people to hang onto.

Rail: Yes, and here your own metaphor seems totally Bolañesque: how do you mean “bubbling to the surface”?

Pritchard: My personal meaning, or some sort of rigorous thought, consciousness: something is there that other people can connect to. When you try to apply meaning to painting, people always interpret it in their own way: you can’t win; it’s impossible to control the reading of something. It’s like, all you can do is kind of . . .

Rail: Except for something you touch on in the beginning of this discussion: the affective aspect.

Pritchard: Yeah.

Rail: Because you can control the affect, right? 

Pritchard: Well, I don’t know that I feel I can control it. I’m interested in it; but I don’t know if I can control it, because I can’t see it until much later.

Rail: This is sort of a mine field; but if there is a human content that other human beings can recognize . . .

Pritchard: Right. 

Rail: And latch onto . . . 

Pritchard: In the same way that they do with cave drawings, and such, to which, even if they don’t really have any understanding, they can still relate.

Rail: There come to be so many things that relate to art that it’s impossible to quote more than a few.

Pritchard: Like the whole bit, extended here and there, that sort of “resets” Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade—you know, the geometry book left on a clothesline out in the weather. 2666 is littered with all that.

Rail: Part of this is that with an increased awareness of the art world, and since the whole crew seems more grown-up than in Savage Detectives, where poetry is the only thing that might trump sexual obsession, it matters more; and not at all just to be in an in-crowd, but because Bolaño’s actually suspicious of what you and I would consider bad art world conventions, like the way all standard, up-tight interior design has latched onto the term Minimalism.

Pritchard: Actually, just today I was tweeting with a popular critic about that. He’s been going off to art fairs; and I said, “Yeah, I work in them, and I hate these places,” and that if we learned anything from Minimalism it’s that context matters: you can’t just put things out in empty space. But then I went back and thought, “Oh no, the context of the art fair is just what people want for turning art into a commodity: there is no context except that of a commodity in a literal marketplace.”

Benjamin Pritchard, Shore, 2017. Oil on canvas, 18 × 20 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Rail: Supposedly in the name of Minimalism, which held a speak-no-evil silence in the face of Vietnam as well as the capitalist marketplace, we see white couches in every petit-bourgeous living room and an extreme frigidity in art by the yuppie (or wanna-be yuppie) young. Listen to Bolaño: “The little house, despite what a person might expect, was always clean, but its cleanliness, its neatness, lacked any feminine touch: it was a stoic cleanliness, utterly graceless, like the cleanliness of a prison or monastery cell, a cleanliness that tended toward sparseness, not abundance.” Ignoring the tinge of sexism, this strikes me as relating to what a lot of young abstract painters recently out of art school paint like now: so fastidious, so tailored, so totally vapid! Just don’t blame it on Minimalism, man! 

Pritchard: That look is manufactured in the graduate schools.

Rail: The big ones are now like careerist finishing schools. You were fortunate in regard to graduate school, at a place that accepts only seventeen students—all on fellowships—for a three-year course: the Royal Academy Schools, in London.

Pritchard: Right.

Rail: A later part of the book touches on something like an aesthetics of murder. You’ve already read 550 pages, much of it detailing appalling violence, when a medical examiner interested in philosophy objects to the way atheism seems to presume itself a bottom-line default position; and then you meet the seer Florida. Asked how she can tell that certain murders are local serial killings, she says: “Because they’re such a burden, said Florida. And because they come one after the other. Urged to explain herself better, she said that an ordinary murder (although there was no such thing as an ordinary murder) almost always ended with a liquid image, a lake or a well that after being disturbed grew calm again, whereas serial killings, like the killings in the border city, projected a heavy image, metallic or mineral, a smoldering image, say, that burned curtains, dancing, but the more curtains it burned the darker it grew in the bedroom or the living room or the shed or the barn where the killings took place.”

Pritchard: I love it when he elaborates that way: it gets wild.

Rail: On his own terms, I think that Bolaño carries literary tradition forward. A little as I know about novels, I can tell that one whole large section of 2666 is dependent on an excellent late 19th-century work, Dracula, by that Anglo-Irish guy.

Pritchard: Bram Stoker?

Rail: Exactly. And I think that Bolaño’s very extensive riff on that book is also—typically for him—a riff on a piece of fiction still perhaps underestimated even though it has a cult following, namely, that beautifully written English novel. So I like the fact that he’s using this as kind of a ruse, in respect to form and content, because insofar as you realize that Dracula is a subtext, you’re teased into thinking that you know that it’s one murderer and that you know who he is; but that doesn’t hold true! So it turns out then that you are only more pointedly ignorant than one who didn’t know the subtext! When the aristocratic German officer is locked up, you think, Now they got him at last! 

Pritchard: See I thought of him as: Maybe it’s Archiboldi at last, who’s also a big German guy.

Rail: You must be right, and it was only my lack of familiarity with Bolaño’s text that pushed into inferring from his own literary source.

Pritchard: Maybe he’s blending both. 

Rail: At this point, maybe we should leave analogy between you and Bolaño behind, because your literary insight diverges from your own practice in that, however much your painting relies on compositional ordering forms, it isn’t about anything like an allusive layering of influences, even though it has points of contemporary reference. Do you recall that Bolaño touches on the painting of Archimboldo?

Pritchard: Not the character Archimboldi, but the Mannerist painter who painted the gourds that became faces, and such.

Rail: Right. Listen: “Whenever Ansky was in despair, he returned to Archimboldo. He liked to remember Archimboldo’s paintings, though he knew or pretended to know almost nothing about the painter’s life, which wasn’t in a state of constant turmoil, like Courbet’s, true, but in Archimboldo’s canvases Ansky found something that for lack of a better word he called simplicity, a descriptive term that would not have been to the liking of many scholars and exegetes of the Archimboldo oeuvre.” First of all, it’s kind of funny to think that in despair this guy thinks about Archimboldo, like turning to Max Ernst if you’re in a bad mood!

Pritchard: Right. But how about: “knew, or pretended to know. . .”!

Rail: Nice! Or: “something that for lack of a better term he called simplicity”!

Pritchard: He was always taking the piss out of the academic world, but he was also steeped in this stuff, with a mad desire to know all this arcane history of the world and culture. And he also believes it, in almost a quasi-religious way: that that’s the balm, that’s the thing that carries you through, to help you. This is the positive side of the bad situations in which everything else takes place; so that art is a vehicle, a constantly unfolding discourse that is the solution of working ourselves through difficult times. 

Rail: Perhaps someone who started out a naive poet and became a great novelist, got to think, Hey, now I maybe understand a little more about what it is like to be a painter.

Pritchard: So there’s a kind of crossover between novels and painting and poetry after all. Not to mention Vivaldi! I love thinking about this book. It’s long, but you get familiar with it. Moby Dick is the same way: it has a great painting discussion, towards the beginning, discussing a painting in a bar in Nantucket. 

Rail: Amazing! Want the last paragraph to be about that?

Pritchard: Sure.

Rail: [After looking this up] It’s in New Bedford, actually, in the tavern of The Spouter Inn, whose sign was already “a white painting . . . fairly representing a tall straight jet of misty spray.” Because the actual painting, in the entryway, is difficult to make out as a representation, Melville practically adumbrates the condition of an abstract image on formal terms: “a long, limber, portentous black mass of something hovering in the centre . . . over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvelous painting meant.”


  1. The quotation cited as ‘SD’ is from Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives (1998), trans. Natasha Wimmer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007); those cited by stand-alone pages are from Bolaño’s 2666, (posthumous, 2004) trans. Natasha Wimmer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).
  2. Joseph Masheck, “The Horror of Bearing Arms: Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Soldier, the Military Mystique and the Crisis of World War I,” Artforum 19 (December 1980), 56 – 61.  


Joseph Masheck

JOSEPH MASHECK, art historian and critic, has been awarded the 2018 "Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on Art" by the C.A.A.