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The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

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JUNE 2020 Issue
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Playing Solitaire

Ellen K. Levy in collaboration with Michael E. Goldberg, <em>Stealing Attention</em>, 2009. Flash animation. Courtesy the artists.
Ellen K. Levy in collaboration with Michael E. Goldberg, Stealing Attention, 2009. Flash animation. Courtesy the artists.

At age 14, in my sophomore year in high school, I was in Dr. Nikol’s Advanced Placement European History class. The syllabus was thorough and in the section on the Enlightenment we paused briefly on Descartes, to note his contributions to mathematics, and secondly his Meditations on First Philosophy, which have to this day never left me a moment’s peace. The premise that there is in fact nothing making up the universe but just me and either an entertainingly malevolent demon or a very mischievous God, is hard to shake. On revisiting the First Meditations again this quarantine, and reading the whole thing very carefully, it’s obvious that Descartes, seated comfortably at his table in a bathrobe and a glass of Sancerre, was never able to convince himself either. He could prove his own existence, and he surmised that we need some source material. Beyond that, if we can’t really trust our senses, it’s hard to tell if all those people out there are real, and are really making things. Or is this just a great big hive mind, our parti-colored adversary, set on teaching us a very long drawn out series of morality plays and teleological lessons?

Descartes has pursued me these last 29 years becoming a bit of an adversary himself: he’s intruded on romantic relationships and affected my art practice as well. If it’s all just for an audience of one, what’s the point really? And if it’s all an illusion then one is only doing it for oneself and selling work isn’t a problem and money is also a mirage. As an art writer in this context, you can find yourself becoming something of a regular (almost daily) therapist to this clever creator. Art, and the art world, with its wide spectrum of creative efforts and personalities, presents a microcosm of the wider panorama of this dazzling, constructed humanity. This God-like mentality regularly fires ideas at you, and composing careful opinions is a way of sussing out a path through this intractable reality. Sometimes the demon is brilliant but lazy—clearly most of the work at the Dia Foundation has been created by one entity, working their way through string, zinc squares, holes in the ground, holes in the ceiling, boxes in all materials and bands of color. Other times they are absurdly singular and can conjure up in a gesture all the emotions of what it means to be a human being in a single object, like Tracey Emin and her bed, something that no one had thought of, but can never think of again.

So there is this volley of thoughts directed at me like a machine firing tennis balls in all directions. Me, I sit here trying to decipher them, and occasionally bat one back. One tries to sort it all out through one’s avowed profession, maker of objects of no apparent use-value. Art is simply the decorative instinct applied to the fundamental problems of existence. In the context of a lifelong conversation with philosophy, I see it as the only possible profession, a weird niche market of activity devised by myself and Mr. Descartes. But what does this malevolent genius want me to do? Do I supplicate them so that the tennis balls slow and become much easier to return, or do I turn my back and let them go everywhere? At this point, after assessing the opponent’s serve, I think I’ve almost seen everything. The writing serves as careful notes in these therapy sessions with God, and the art becomes an anchor in an effort to sum up some sense of one’s personal space in a meandering conversation, clearly meant to impart some wisdom but with so many digressions it becomes impossible to keep the facts straight. While these endless interior dialogues assure me of my own existence, as Descartes promised they would, the goal would be to go one step further and to accomplish the much older precept to actually “know myself.”


William Corwin

is a sculptor and journalist from New York. He has exhibited at The Clocktower, LaMama and Geary galleries in New York, as well as galleries in London, Hamburg, Beijing and Taipei. He has written regularly for The Brooklyn Rail, Artpapers, Bomb, Artcritical, Raintaxi and Canvas and formerly for Frieze. Most recently he curated and wrote the catalog for Postwar Women at The Art Students League in New York, an exhibition of the school’s alumnae active between 1945-65, and 9th Street Club, and exhibition of Perle Fine, Helen Frankenthaler, Mercedes Matter, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner and Elaine Dekooning at Gazelli Art House in Mayfair. He is the editor of Formalism; Collected Essays of Saul Ostrow, to be published in 2020, and he will participate in the exhibition Anchor/Roots at the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art at Snug Harbor Cultural Center in 2021.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2020

All Issues