Monthly Archives: September 2018

MALCOLM MORLEY

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https://brooklynrail.org/2018/09/art/A-Tribute-to-Malcolm-Morley

Malcolm Morley In Remembrance
(1931 – 2018)

One tends to think of our artistic community, to some extent, as being similar to a symphony, which requires multitudes of instruments that each have their own distinct and unique sound, yet as a whole, they contribute to the total orchestration of musical experience. One can be certain that Malcolm is more like a violin or a piano rather than a viola or a celesta.

Anyone who has met or known Malcolm would offer a similar view, from up close the compelling details are deliciously visible, while from afar a broader perspective of the subject is generously revealed. As the saying goes, “there are those who read to remember and those who read to forget.” Malcolm, with great certainty, belongs to the former.

The following is our tribute composed by his friends and admirers.

 

Eric Fischl

I met Malcolm in 1976 when I visited his studio in NYC. The purpose of my visit was to invite him to lecture at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design where I was teaching. NSCAD at that time was profoundly and intransigently anti-painting and I thought that if anyone could change their minds about whether painting could still be radical or not, Malcolm was the one to do it.

At the time of my visit he was nearing completion of a painting about a train wreck, and as we stood there in front of it he explained his process to me. A friend had given him a shadow box with a model train smashed up and set against black velvet. He decided to paint it but rather than work from a gridded off photograph of it like he’d been doing, he decided to paint it from “life.” He floated a string grid of thread over the box and then cut cardboard to hide all but one square at a time. As if that wasn’t going to be difficult enough, he decided to paint it backwards. When he finished the painting he realized that no one would be able to tell that he had painted it backwards, and so he went back into it, adding the image of a crumpled Russian newspaper on top of the wreckage and then added a border with Japanese calligraphy on it. What didn’t occur to him until he’d finished it was that no one who didn’t speak Russian or Japanese would be able to tell that they were also painted backwards!

Anyone who knew Malcolm will have stories and memories not unlike this one. Every painting Malcolm created was a journey and an adventure. There was no one painting then or now who could make such a laden tradition feel like a novelty. There hasn’t been anyone who can match his child-like whimsy, wonder, and impish disregard for the weight and authority of painting’s own history. In his insistent deconstruction of the language of imagery and process of painting, with all its attendant clichés and sentimentality, he painted with an explosive energy that brought with it its own renewal.

Without Malcolm where do we go from here but carry on.

Andy Hall

I first became aware of Malcolm’s paintings at Charles Saatchi’s gallery in Boundary Road, London, in the 1980s. These bold, colorful canvases, full of unlikely and anachronistic juxtapositions, had a dreamlike quality with an unsettling hint of menace. They were hard to forget. Years later, as Christine and I became committed “collectors,” Malcolm’s work became a particular focus of our new obsession. We tracked down works that spanned his whole fifty-plus-year career as one of the most innovative painters of his generation. In the process we got to know Malcolm quite well and visited his Long Island studio on a number of occasions. That Malcolm, like us, was an émigré from England (he came from the same unglamorous suburbs of West London) probably resonated. But his deep understanding and knowledge of art history combined with a quick and mischievous wit was what really made our encounters a stimulating and memorable experience. On one occasion, we listened to Malcolm give a lecture about his work to MFA students at Yale. Malcolm had illustrated his talk with slides of some of his better-known works replete with the familiar Morley motifs including ships, model planes, toy soldiers, animals, motor cyclists and the like, all executed in his signature palette of bright saturated colors. At the end of his talk Malcolm answered questions posed by the students. The first came from a young lady who asked if Malcolm “had ever engaged the nude?” The then 80-year-old painter considered the question for a moment, narrowed his eyes and dead panned: “Yes, on many occasions.”

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From his early days in New York, Malcolm befriended and hung out with other artists. It was Richard Artschwager who told him to quit experimenting with sculpture and stick to painting ships. Supposedly Malcolm, following this advice, lugged his easel down to Chelsea piers and tried to paint the ocean liners that were docked there. He eventually gave up in frustration finding it impossible to fit the huge vessels on his canvas at such close quarters. Instead he bought some post cards of these passenger liners from a nearby newsstand and in his studio faithfully replicated the cheap four color printed images onto his canvases by using a grid. Thus was born his signature style and method along with a genre of painting dubbed “photorealism,” as well as some early Morley masterpieces like SS Amsterdam in Front of Rotterdam and Cristoforo Colombo. But Malcolm soon rebelled against being pigeonholed in this way. He defaced one of his paintings—a copy of a South African tourist brochure of a horse racing track (the aptly titled Race Track)—with a large red “X” the day before it was to be photographed for an article about him in Time magazine. Thereafter he progressively subverted his own earlier works. His imagery became more and more gestural to the point where by the early 1980s he was considered a leader of the neo-expressionist wave. How many painters can be categorized as both a photo-realist and a neo-expressionist? Subsequently, Malcolm successively synthesized these two polar extremes by painting gridded arrays of pure gestural abstraction that at a distance resolve into photographic imagery (or as he preferred to call it) “super” realism.

About 10 years ago we were chatting to Malcolm at a dinner honoring him and some other New York based artists—including a very well-known one with a famously large Manhattan studio and dozens of painter-assistants. Malcolm motioned in this artist’s direction and mentioned that he had recently spotted a help-wanted ad in the newspaper seeking “photo-realist” painters. He called the number and asked what they were paying. Malcolm wasn’t too impressed with the rate and said he thought it should be more. He was asked if he “could do photorealism?” to which Malcom answered breezily, “oh yes, I invented it.” We are going to miss you Malcolm.

 

Robert Storr
A Working-Class Dandy is Something to Be

Some memories spring into focus with the unimpeachable clarity of first-hand experience and others flicker around the edges of such clarity in such a manner as to suggest that they aren’t really one’s own recollections but rather variable mental reconstructions of things one has heard, things that however second hand nonetheless made so deep an impression that they feel first hand, earned. Years ago, when I was teaching at the Studio School on Eighth Street, I seem to recall having crossed Washington Square and noticing a man intently making $10 sketch portraits on a French easel of any and all comers.

It was the mid-Eighties and the man was Malcolm Morley at that time riding the crest of his second big wave of art world fame as an emblematic elder statesman of what the Royal Academy called A New Spirit in Painting. Such was the title of the RA’s 1981 survey show of post minimalism and new media art. In 1984 he was chosen the first winner of the newly inaugurated Turner Prize, further confirming his status as a pivotal talent in the eclipse of the former avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s, all the while being emblematic of some of them, most notably the advent of photo-mechanically based practices that would morph into “anti-aesthetic” Post-modernist “discourses” of the 1980s. An expatriate Brit who brought his working-class accent and a pugnacious style with him from the rougher parts of London where he grew up during the Blitz as well as an avid enthusiast of early aeronautical exploits, Malcolm was the Wrong Way Corrigan of Photorealism who became famous for his anti-expressive renditions of luxury liners, contemporary interiors, race tracks and other “pop” culture subjects. By the 1980s all this had morphed into vivid, deceptively awkward renditions of toy soldiers and other tokens of boyish fantasy that could not be more pronounced, reminding one of Picasso’s statement that having been well trained in traditional skills it had taken him years to learn how to draw like a child. 

This transformation, as well as his academic training and official honors, speak to Malcolm’s dedication to workman-like craft—as a practitioner of a medium that was officially dead he took the greatest pleasure in declaring his devotion to “the fine art of oil painting”—in constant dialectical tension with his utterly unpredictable playfulness which, Borstal boy that he had been before he found art, drove him to seek out and study rules the better to break them. For me the excitement of looking at his work overall and still more so example-by-example, was watching the tug of war between his drive to dazzle like the old masters and his impulsive need to mess with the viewer’s expectations—and his own.

Early in my tenure as a Curator of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA, and less than a decade after A New Spirit in Painting, I had occasion to acquire a looming, brushy painting of a fishing tub Michelle (1992) and, later, as Dean of the Yale School of Art, I organized a compact retrospective of Malcolm’s work. At Yale the one gallery synopsis of his career began with a conservative Euston Road-type landscape made while he was a student (the motif was the studio/residence of Sir Joshua Reynolds which was then inhabited by the British actor John Mills who came out to check on the person camped on the green outside his house and bought the work on the spot)—to brand new installation works incorporating the façades of pubs and other talismans of his childhood.

When I initially broached the issue of exhibiting his work Malcolm had just come through a life-threatening illness and seemed rather fragile. However, except for the Brooklyn Museum which mounted a Morley survey in 1982, the major New York institutions had generally neglected him, and thus despite his vulnerability—or perhaps because of it—Malcolm was anxious to take these 3D paintings public. I was, too. (In 2013 I organized a similar capsule retrospective for Alex Katz in the same space for the same reason.) And so, the Yale School of Art showed them for the first time as the climax of a synoptic account of his career that began with the landscape mentioned above and encompassed major Photorealist canvases, funky painterly montages and reliefs of the 1980s, watercolors and more, many of which featured his preferred boy’s toys—akin to those of Chris Burden, prompting one to wonder what a Morley/Burden exhibition might look like and what insights into “masculinity” it might offer—model planes, model boats, toy soldiers, and wonderfully polychrome sculptural animals wild and domestic, as well as a life-sized figure of a British marine. In the aggregate, they demonstrated a lifetime of empirical invention in many media and many representational idioms.

For students hamstrung by the ideological strictures of post-modern discourses of numerous kinds Malcolm’s object lessons in full-bore multifarious facture were liberating. They provided abundant evidence that insouciant improvisation, betting on the long shot and choosing aesthetic anarchy over decorum could bear spectacular results—so long as they found themselves at the disposal of fearless and ceaselessly tinkering hands. A graduate of the school of hard knocks—in addition to reform school Malcolm did time in prison for burglary—and of the Camberwell College of Arts in the then unglamorous South London along with the tonier and more prestigious Royal College of Art nearer the center of the city, Malcolm was an insatiable student of the Grand Tradition, whose late life passion for “swagger portraits” of Admiral Nelson and other “heroes” of the British Empire would have cast him as an easy target for post-colonial critique had his obvious, not to mention fertile, contradictions and irrepressible contrariness not made him so engaging.

Moreover, Malcolm wore those contradictions like badges of honor. Or rather like a costume in his own updated re-creation of the charming shit-stirrer Gulley Jimson from The Horse’s Mouth. Accordingly, Malcolm arrived at the opening of his exhibition at Yale wearing an elegant felt hat and a hyper-posh black woolen overcoat from Saville Row, which he peeled off to reveal a fire engine red plaid suit set off by a bright green tie. Then, having made his entrance, he worked the room for several hours, talking to students and faculty not like an elder statesman resting on his laurels but like the restless, trouble-making maker that he was, someone who could give the youngest of the young and the cheekiest of the cheeky a run for their money. The gallery was abuzz with his images and with the effect that he had on all who came in contact with them and with him. It was a great evening. The paintings remain and they will continue to startle the eye and stimulate conversation long after the “verities” of late 20th and early 21st century critical chatter have been rendered obsolete.

Robert Storr
Brooklyn, 2018

 

Richard Serra
Looking at Malcolm’s paintings

What it is
Is and is not
What it means
When I look at Malcolm’s paintings I mix my sensations and memories with my immediate perceptions. I don’t know how to separate them, I don’t understand what comes from my recollection and what comes from my perception.
Malcolm’s paintings converge with my memories even though their subject is Malcolm’s memories, Malcolm’s sensations.
What you see and what you think you see are not always synonymous with what’s present which also includes what’s absent; what’s in the gap, the caesura of perception.
In that gap I find cynicism that targets social progress, I find friction, collision, collapse and catastrophe.
The difference between one Morley and another is in the ideas they contain about painting which take me beyond the visual.

Richard Serra
February 2005

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Dorothea Rockburne

Dear, sweet Malcolm,

Damn! You know that I love you, love your sheer devilment! I’ll miss you, your art, and your ever inventive, wonderful intelligence.

We met in the early 70s on Crosby Street. You were painting a street scene from your fire escape. Spotting me you introduced yourself. Showing me your work, you explained that you painted upside-down. That didn’t get a rise from me. You continued to chat it up telling me how you learned to paint… in prison. [Still no desired effect from me.] How could you know I was partly English? I was raised in this rapport!

Next, you explained in England you had been a second story man, a thief. You related how you would enter a bedroom through the open window. Couples were either sleeping or fucking. You’d emulate their breathing, go through their pockets, then escape. Caught and sent to prison you learned to paint and fell in love with art. Only now can I tell you how amazed I was by your past, back then I simply nodded and said hmmm!

The next hilarious Malcolm scene occurred when we were both in Xavier Fourcade Gallery in the 80’s. Xavier had, against all odds, managed to clean up your bad habits. That freed you to paint. You were doing well.

The summer of 1981 was hot in New York. I was working on the Large Angel Watercolor on Vellum Series. Xavier and I were having fun with Angelology. On the phone daily from Bellport, he would translate archaic angelic information for me from his French Library; often he would send a car on Sundays to drive me out to Bellport for a welcome swim and lunch.

On one such occasion, Malcolm and his then new Brazilian wife joined us. We were sitting at the table dawdling after lunch when Xavier suggested a game: If we were to die and be reincarnated as an animal, which animal would each like to be and why? I was breathless waiting for your response. The question went around the table with the usual answers—a giraffe, a lion, a bear, a cat, a dog, a tiger etc. until it came to you. Carefully studying everyone’s face you stated (having just been married), “I would like to return as a woman.” Silence reigned. It worked. They were shocked and I broke up in laughter. We had always loved and understood each other.

Your social form of rebellious love will always remain in my heart.

Love,

Dorothea

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Bonnie Clearwater

Malcolm Morley was a risk-taker. Pigeonholed as a photorealist early in his career (a term he rejected in favor of “super-realism”), Morley defied categorization by frequently changing his work. As soon as a body of work was successful, he felt compelled to take a new tack, remarking, “You only really succeed by taking risks.” A child of war-time London, Morley lost his unfinished miniature model of the battleship HMS Nelson when he left it to dry on his kitchen windowsill, only to be destroyed that night, along with part of his home, in the blitz. This model became his “Rosebud,” representing the perfection he sought to achieve throughout his career. The frequent changes in his work perplexed those who wished he kept making the exquisite paintings of photographs of ocean liners that brought him fame in the 1960s, but his bold experiments were hailed by other painters. In 2005, when I was organizing back-to-back solo museum exhibitions for Albert Oehlen and Morley, Oehlen told me that Morley was the American artist who had influenced him the most. Although I never asked Oehlen what he meant, his revelation propelled me to remap Morley’s work as a missing linkbetween a vein of modernism that fused abstraction with figuration, and the artists of the postmodern generation. Painting gave Morley a sense of peace. Dividing his source imagery into square sections on his canvas, his world became whichever quadrant he was painting at the moment. His technique was democratic, no square was more important than the other. And when he reached the last square, all the segments coalesced into a single brilliant image. I was fortunate to work with Morley when he was 74, and at the top of his form. By then he had the luxury of time to understand the consequences of his actions and to find meaning and continuity in his work, as well as his place in art history.

Bonnie Clearwater
2018

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Alanna Heiss

Malcolm was a rascal. No doubt about it. He was also a tormented, talented, ambitious visionary. He was dangerous. Primarily self educated, he was a voracious reader and wildly over informed about a vast array of subjects. His wit was quick and sharp and could be deadly. I was always quite careful around Malcolm even when joking as I wanted to avoid exposing a lack of knowledge. I wanted him to respect and like me.

I succeeded, largely, in this goal. Malcolm frequently, and generously, referred to the importance of a show of his work that I organized at the Clocktower in the ‘80s.

I believe it was Klaus Kertess but it could’ve been any one of a number of (painter) friends who alerted me that Malcolm both needed and deserved a show at the strange, exclusive, tower in the sky that I ran where I exercised the extraordinary luxury of curating one artist shows in a space high above the Tribeca skyline with a large clock on each side symbolizing both timelessness and timeliness. Called the Clocktower, there had been since 1972 a run of wonderful shows each focusing on the special and sometimes strange quality of artists’ dreams. This is where Carl Andre showed the poetry he wrote for his mother. This is where Dennis Oppenheim did the famous piece with the German shepherd. This is where Lynda Benglis first made her odd tied gelatinous bows, and this is where I invited Malcolm to develop a show that would explain to his artist colleagues what he had been up to the previous five years.

We all knew Malcolm was a great artist, but we also knew Malcolm was troubled and from time to time he would reject all around him, including his own work. He explained to me that he wanted this show to not only prove a point but to prove several points, his position in painting, and his opinion about other painters. Always optimistic, I suggested that we organize a panel with three other painters he admired to discuss their positions. The painters we chose were Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, and Joan Mitchell. Knowing that Malcolm was held in high regard, I thought that support from the great painters of the moment would increase Malcolm’s confidence that he could follow his own path. Unfortunately all the painters rejected this invitation. Brice told me he was too depressed to take part in the exercise. Joan Mitchell told me to get lost, and Robert Ryman said he couldn’t speak in public. I made Ryman come because he is such a nice guy that he couldn’t resist but true to his promise, he refused to say anything about painting except “uhm. Uhm uhm.”

Malcolm and I had chosen a beautiful show of powerful new paintings which accurately reflected his previous years of unseen work. The opening was mobbed by artists excited by the opportunity to see the new work and to hear Malcolm explain his role as a painter in the cluster of the admired painters of the moment. I was proud to be a part of the evening and to hear Malcolm speak with his customary extraordinary abilities. The panel began and I introduced Ryman and Morley, and when I asked Morley to speak he dived under the table and brought out a large paper bag from which he gleefully extracted handfuls of torn up paper that he threw in the air! He then ran around the room throwing the paper in the air yelling, “that’s all there is folks! That’s all there is! You can just tear up all your theories and throw them in the air, it doesn’t mean anything!” 

Although this was the time when performance was emerging as a viable exponent of art logic, this performance failed miserably. Once again Malcolm was seen as a kind of discontent who put little value on that which we valued so highly.

However the show itself was the argument and the only argument needed for Malcolm’s genius despite his deliberate rejection of the opportunity to be a member of the club. It was clear and although Malcolm was no club member and would never be, he was a real artist.

Les Levine was worried that Malcolm was a potential suicide. He told Malcolm, “if you think you might do it, be sure to call me and I’ll come and take a last picture of you.” That’s how he came to take a picture of Malcolm in Central Park sitting disconsolately on a bench. We used that photograph, of a lonely and sad Malcolm for the poster of the show.

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Peter Krashes

Malcolm liked a perhaps apocryphal story about a conflict between Alexander Calder and Frank Lloyd Wright. In Malcolm’s telling, Wright was forced to accept a Calder mobile in the atrium of the Guggenheim so he stipulated it be solid gold. Calder assented as long as the gold was painted black. Malcolm saw gamesmanship as a natural outcome of creative convictions. He called it “historic ambition.” He took on his own actions as well as figures like Picasso and Cézanne and Turner who loomed large in his creative life.

I think the bold suits Malcolm wore in public, and the hand-striped overalls he wore in the studio were a product of his deep self-identification with being an artist, and more specifically with painting as a practice. He wore and painted the same colors. At varying points in his career he performed as a painter in public and created surrogates for himself inside his work. I don’t think he believed there should be much separation between his dream-life, what happens in the studio, and life in public. This lack of boundaries produced uncontrolled outcomes, (he painted phalluses while collecting containers in the studio—we called it “The Search for the Perfect Container”) and startlingly fine-tuned insights. It also enabled him to set aside his own inhibitions, whether with brush or career. It was good if an action evoked opposition, especially his own.

As vivid as his imagination was, his painting was nearly always grounded in observation. Not just his painting. He always looked around for better ways to do things. If a tool he needed didn’t exist, he made it. Perhaps the single tool he made that best captures him was a pair of gridded eyeglasses. They help break down what you are looking at as long as you don’t move. Malcolm was generally on the move.

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Sir Norman Rosenthal

As I write this short tribute to the memory of one of the greatest painters of the last half-century, Malcolm Morley, I happen by chance to be sitting in the middle of an outstanding group of his works belonging to Andy and Christine Hall. The Halls, particularly independently-minded collectors, were great friends and supporters of Morley since the nineties. This group of paintings is housed in Schloss Derneburg, near Hanover in Germany, formerly occupied for many years as a studio by Georg Baselitz, but now brilliantly transformed by the Halls into a museum accessible to visitors—a place also of true romance. 

This coincidence means much to me personally, as Malcolm was the poster artist for what was by far the most significant art show I ever co-curated, A New Spirit in Painting, which opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in January 1981. I collaborated on A New Spirit with Christos M. Joachimides, who too passed away earlier this year, and Nicholas Serota who went on to stage a great show of Malcolm’s works at the Whitechapel Art Gallery where he was then director.

In the early 1980s, Malcolm was making those extraordinarily dense expressive paintings of parrots, camels, cowboys, and native Americans that evoked exotic, even lost “fantasy” child-like colonial worlds. They matched, nonetheless with their very own style and mood, the new painterly expressionism of his European contemporaries, such as Baselitz himself, as well as newer, younger artists on the scene, such as Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente. But the fact is that Malcolm had much earlier already led the world of new painting by literally inventing Hyper-Realism, largely in a great series of ocean liner paintings, which in their time served as a great antidote to Pop Art while at the same time being a kind of necessary and vital sub plot to that world.

Malcolm was, of course, born into a British working-class family, but became a quintessential great American painter. His style of painting was constantly evolving as it conjured various motorized sports vehicles—bikes and cars, airplanes, but also horses. But with the evolution Malcolm always conveyed the profundity and even necessity of holding onto a certain child-like innocence. He was, indeed, immensely widely read, especially in matters pertaining to the human mind. However, it is touching, at least to me, that his last paintings present us with richly colored fantastical worlds of medieval castles: the knights that joust in shining armour were all based on toys that littered his house and studio. And yet through it all Malcolm was the most modern of painters, not say of individuals.

Malcolm was a marvelous man indeed, one of huge artistic achievement against many odds!

Derneburg
July 2018

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Nancy Hoffman

It has been many years since I have seen Malcolm, and while we lost the thread of connection, he was never far from my mind—especially his energy. I marveled at his willingness to go out on a limb and stay there, allowing in dream-like images, which became part of his work. His daring was undeniable, his mash up of subjects was uniquely his. He was not a “photo realist” like others in that movement, though he often used postcards and photos as reference.

He was a renegade presence in SoHo in the ’70s and ’80s, peripatetic in his connection to galleries. Nancy Hoffman Gallery had the good fortune of working with him during a particularly fertile, rich, adventuresome period of his life in the ’70s when he was experimenting with wide ranging imagery.

In the summer of ’78, while at the Venice Biennale, I came upon his spectacular L.A. Phone Book page painting, real yet raw, pulsing with life. I decided to send him a postcard to tell him that he stole the show, and plucked a card of Guardi’s Bucintoro from a postcard vendor, never thinking it would turn in to a painting. Lo and behold, months later Malcolm completed The Ultimate Anxiety with Guardi’s image painted in his muscular fashion, and through the center of the painting he placed a toy train from the Lewis catalogue, recalling his London youth, referencing the shape of Venice bridges and disrupting what would otherwise have been a classic image of the ship that protected Venice.

That was Malcolm then, the brilliant disrupter. He and his genius will be sorely missed.

Nancy Hoffman

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Brooks Adams

Malcolm Morley needed me in the ’90s. That is, he needed a younger American critic to write an essay for his 1995 retrospective at Fundación “la Caixa” in Madrid, organized by the European poet, curator, and former museum director Enrique Juncosa. All the subsequent catalogue essays for galleries were a terrific chance. Do you know how exciting it is to get a first crack at deciphering dense new paintings, and the occasional sculpture, by an eccentric, quixotic genius?

In person, during our studio visits, Malcolm was often flirty and gallant, lacing his comments with the occasional “dear” or “darling.” What did it signify? It seemed a throwback to an older, English lingua franca of difference—a strange survival in his now more established, though still quirky, individual style of speaking.

In the late ’50s and ’60s, was he an Angry Young Man or more of a Joe Orton type? There was that criminal, Jean Genet-esque aspect of his youth. Was he a bohemian tough, like one of those scrappy, Fitzrovian artist-pickers and their hangers-on in Anthony Powell’s multi-volume novel, A Dance to the Music of Time?

New York, February 2011. It was cold. I was staying in a hotel on the Upper East Side, took a cab to Penn Station, then a train to Bellport where Malcolm met me at the station, seemingly still in his pajamas, an overcoat thrown over them. I had come from Europe as he had, long ago. The conversation in the car was polite. He was reading a biography of J.D. Salinger, a strange choice I thought at the time. We were floating through the winter landscape of Long Island. I realized with some shock that Malcolm was driving and that I was going to be spending the night at his house.

Brookhaven. July 4th weekend, 2018. Around the pool at Tom Cashin and Jay Johnson’s, down the road from where Malcolm had lived and worked in a converted church, Lida Morley mentioned that Malcolm was once a redhead.

Greece, July 2018. It was hot. I was sitting in the Pirate Bar in Hydra, looking at the boats. One with an electric blue stripe on a red hull. Another caique painted a dull dark blue with a feeble yellow stripe. The white crests of water from speedboats, wakes crisscrossing, when we had earlier arrived by ferry from Metochi: all of it was Malcolm.

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Gian Enzo Sperone

Dear Malcolm,

For many years I’ve been unable to classify your painting: fathers, mothers, grandparents, etc.

It isn’t that I haven’t tried. The thing is, you were—and are—an unusual painter whose originality doesn’t reveal any underlying influence.

One of my obsessions in my youth was the problem of influences in art. That subsided in the early ’70s with Harold Bloom’s book, The Anxiety of Influence, but it does explain why I’ve always found your work mysterious and undefinable; precisely because it’s rather rootless.

Your work isn’t this and isn’t that, doesn’t derive from this and doesn’t derive from that, respects the norms but at the same time violates them: consequently, it forms a page of true independence and extravagance in the history of painting.

In a context punctuated with the triviality of phoney and often unimaginative anarchists, your intuitions—yours and yours alone—are prized material. 

Your friend and dealer
Gian Enzo Sperone

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Ken Miller

I first met Malcolm Morley at one of Alanna Heiss and Fred Sherman’s famous summer paella parties. Malcolm was probably already in his seventies, I, headed in his chronological direction. Sitting down over plates of delicious rice, beans, shrimp, and clams, lovingly prepared by Alanna’s paella specialist, Charley Balsamo, we bonded over a mutual life-long love of marijuana. I sensed that Malcolm’s wife Lida was becoming increasingly nervous as the conversation lingered on that subject, and then it reached the point where he asked with a gleam in his eye “Are you holding?” My wife, Lybess, pinched me and nodded her head in the direction of Lida who was frantically waving me off. 

We subsequently met many times at their studio/home in Brookhaven and at ours on 17th Street in Manhattan where hangs a particularly nice Morley, an ocean liner with a life-boat dangling off its side. There’s a lamp strategically placed so as not to obstruct the view but to protect the escape vessel from hands which might carelessly knock it from its moorings.

Once he admired a Moroccan fez I had donned on a lark, and after I took it off right then and gave it to him, it remained on his head for days, the white on his rice. The conversations we have had about art, philosophy, human nature, and our pasts—often punctuated by laughter—resonate as some of the more honest and essentially human exchanges it’s been my privilege to experience. 

Requiescat In Pace, Malcolm. Juvenile delinquent. Borstal boy. Bricklayer. Three dimensional artist. Multidimensional man. Truthspeaker. Deepseer. Lifelover. Friend.

Ken Miller

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Enrique Juncosa

I met Malcolm Morley as I curated a retrospective of his work for Fundación “la Caixa” in Madrid. The show opened towards the end of 1995 and travelled the following year to the Astrup Fearnley Museet voor Moderne Kunst in Oslo. Malcolm was a great person to work with: he was an enthusiast, incredibly bright, and had a terrific sense of humor. He was also very generous. I was a freelance curator at the time and had not organized that many shows yet, but he seemed happy with anything I suggested or wanted to do. He also loved to talk, from old time stories and gossip about the art world, to serious reflections about his art and that of other artists he admired, like Picasso or Cézanne. He talked about painting as if it was a matter of life and death. He also liked to travel, especially by ship. He loved boats and aeroplanes—their shapes but also their suggestion of adventure. I remember Malcolm enjoyed meeting an admiral, who for some reason attended his opening in Madrid. He did my portrait while we were having a drink in the terrace of a bar, and later gave me a wonderful watercolor depicting a waterfall in Jamaica. When we were in Oslo, everything was covered with snow and it was freezing. We had dinner in one of the houses of Mr. Fearnley. He had a room furnished with Viking furniture, and also an indoor swimming pool and a ping-pong table. Malcolm was very good at this game. Mr. Fearnley also enjoyed big game hunting and there were heads of large antelopes hanging all over the walls. Later on, I bought one of Malcolm’s paintings for the collection of the Museo Reina Sofía. Later on I visited Malcolm and Lida at Bellport. It really suited him to live by the sea. Malcolm’s work is greatly admired by other painters, and I remember having spoken about him with Terry Winters, Cecily Brown, Miquel Barceló, Francesco Clemente or Philip Taaffe. Morley’s work was central to the art debates that dominated the art world in the ’70s and ’80s. After that, his work became more and more personal, like perfect material for psychoanalysis. It would be great to see his work in depth in New York very soon.

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Robert Hobbs
Pre-Imaging and Painting Discrete Bits of the Visual Spectrum

Unlike other Brooklyn Rail contributors offering telling anecdotes about their friendship with Malcolm Morley, my association with him was strictly professional. In 2004 Angela Westwater invited me to write an essay on Morley for a May 2005 exhibition of his work at Sperone Westwater. I then spent an afternoon with Morley, who had been profoundly affected by a breakdown several years earlier that had left him speechless for six months, resulting in a return to his 1960s super-realist painting practice. This episode no doubt made him regard each interview as an opportunity to set the record straight about his ongoing effort to pre-image a single cell in a gridded photograph in order to transform it into painterly equivalents, and he was consequently very forthcoming.

Morley felt the need to be as faithful as possible to the discrete, small cutout blocks of photographic imagery that he would take from a chosen photograph in order to carefully analyze each one in an attempt to pre-image it in terms of the tones he would then transpose to his canvas. Even after undertaking these precautions to ensure painting a primary role in the conceptualization and actual production of individual cells, he realized that slight, yet critical, qualitative gaps or breaks would intervene.

Although this process has often been attributed to Chuck Close’s efforts to break down photographic images into discrete bits of visual information, Morley started doing it two years before Close, who was one of his fellow teachers at the New York School of Visual Arts. Even though Morley worked with photographs, he was far less interested in analyzing photography’s ways of warping vision through the necessary licenses it takes with depth of field than in understanding how he as an artist was able to perceive the world. For all their drama—and certainly Morley’s subjects of sports and news events in his later works are highly dramatic—his own acts of pre-imaging, followed by his transposition in paint of the resulting images, is the very human stage comprising his stirring paintings.

In my opinion Morley’s approach has definite antecedents in the English picturesque tradition of envisioning actual landscapes as equivalent to works of art before actually painting them. His tactic also resonates with Cézanne’s heroic efforts to understand a selected motif in nature before transposing it to watercolor and oil paint. I view Morley’s pre-imaging as an acceptance of Kant’s a priori that precludes any direct understanding of the world since it is always mediated in terms of space, time, and the causes one might attribute to it; but Morley does so while still countering this transcendental means of knowing through the most rigorous empirical means possible.

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ANNETTE MICHELSON – Bodies in Space

BODIES IN SPACE: FILM AS “CARNAL KNOWLEDGE”

I

       All mastery casts a chill.
      —Mallarmé

The indefinable, knowing
fear which is the clearest
intimation of the metaphysical.
—Borgès

IN THE WINTER OF 1905 the first continuously operated movie theatre opened in Los Angeles. There is an obvious sense in which the history of film is circumscribed by the feature of that theatre’s initial program, George Meliès’ Trip to the Moon, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There is another sense in which its evolution hypostatizes the accelerating dynamics of History. Walking the three blocks between the Museum of Modern Art’s screening room and the Loew’s Capitol, thinking of that evolution, one finds oneself tracing a vector, exploring, in implication, as one goes, a multi-dimensional movement of human consciousness in our century.

In 1961, the year of Meliès’ centenary, the Cinémathèque Française and the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs presented in the Louvre a commemorative exhibition still present to me as one of the finest I have seen. One wandered through the reconstitution of a life-work prodigious in its inventive abundance as through a forest alive with apparitions and metamorphoses, stopping all at once, however, as before a clearing, arrested as by a shaft of light, the illumination flaring from a photograph upon the wall.

Greatly enlarged, it showed the Meliès Company in action.1 The Company had been, of course, a family affair, its production something of a “cottage industry,” and one saw it here in operation on one of the artfully designed and fastidiously executed sets which were a point of honor and pride for an indefatigable Master Builder. The photograph gave one pause.

It gives us a behind-the-scene view, shows not the action being filmed, but its reverse side, the flats of its set anchored, here and there, in the manner of theatrical décor, to the ground. Men—gentlemen, formally dressed and hatted—stand about, supporting those flats, ready to catch them should the screws fail and they fall. The image is, of course, “moving” because it restores to us the feeling of the primitive, the home-made and artisanal modesty, the fragile and precarious underpinnings of a grandiose venture. It articulates, as well, the manner in which film first made its entrance, through the stage door (l’entrée des artistes), and something of the homely mechanics, the dialectic at work in the fabrication of illusion itself, its re-invention for us. It illustrates the manner in which the artisan, the bourgeois family man, the bricoleur, prestidigitator and entrepreneur fused in a single figure of genius to engender the art of cinema as we know it.

The 19th century had been dreaming of movies, as all its forms of popular narrative and diversion (photographic album, panoramic view, magic lantern, shadow play, wax museum and the novel itself) conspire to testify, and Meliès’ intrepid talent, a synthesis of the imagination and industry which were subsequently to be reified into the opposing terms of the new form’s dialectic, fused these dreams into something real. If Lumieré had been the first cinematographer, Meliès was the first of the réalisateurs, as distinct from the metteurs-en-scene; he realized the cinema itself.

Seeing Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, we sense, we know, that its ontogeny recapitulates a philogeny.2 The very conditions of its making involved the scale of enterprise, the dedicated resolution and intellectual flexibility, the proud marshaling of vast resources brought to bear upon the most sophisticated and ambitious ventures of our culture. Its making required, indeed, a length and complexity of preparation, a breadth of conception and detail of organization analogous only to those invested in the launching of a new regime, a new inter-continental missile system, a fresh episode in the exploration of space. And its appearance has, in fact, generated the same sort of apprehension or “cultural shock” which Arthur C. Clarke describes, in his novelistic rendering of the screenplay, as the reaction to the invention of “the highly advanced HAL 900 Computer, the brain and nervous system” of the narrative’s “vehicle,” the space-ship Discovery.

Like that black monolith whose unheralded materialization propels the evolution of consciousness through the three panels of the movie’s narrative triptych, Kubrick’s film has assumed the disquieting function of Epiphany. It functions as a disturbing structure, emitting, in its intensity of presence and perfection of surface, sets of signals. That intensity and perfection are contingent upon a conspicuous invisibility of facture commanded by the power of a rigorously conceptual imagination, disposing of vast amounts of money. Those signals, received by a bewildered and apprehensive community (tribe? species?) of critics, have propelled them, all unwilling, into a chorus of dismay, a choreography of vacillation, of approach, and recoil, to and from the “object.” We know that song and dance; they are the old, familiar projection of a crisis in criticism. And still the “object” lures us on. Another level or “universe” of discourse awaits us.

We are dealing, then, with a work which is revelatory, a “breakthrough,” one whose substance and function fuse in the synthetic radicalization of its metaphors. It is precisely because form and surface command the most immediate and complex intensity of physical response that they release a wild energy of speculation, confirming, even as they modify, the character and options of the medium. In that oscillating movement between confirmation and transformation, the film as a whole performs the function of a Primary Structure, forcing the spectator back, in a reflexive gesture, upon the analytic rehearsal of his experience, impelling, as it does so, the conviction that here is a film like any other, like all others, only more so—which is to say, a paradigm, unique. (If one were concerned with an “ontology” of cinema, this film would be a place in which to look for it.) The margin of difference-in-similarity which contains or defines its “edge” over other films is the locus of its poetry.

The play of an inspired primate (“Moon-watcher” is Clarke’s name for him) ending the Prologue of this film, issues in the visionary realization which transforms a bone into a weapon, then flings it in a gesture of apperceptive exultation, high into the vacant air. Meliès’ extraordinary intuition, realizing (inventing) the possibilities of the medium, created out of forms and materials that lay to hand, a new instrument of the Imagination, an agent of power and delight, launching his cinema in confident optimism out into an unsuspecting world.

Kubrick’s transformation of bone into spacecraft through the movement of redescent (through that single cut which concludes the Prologue and initiates the Odyssey) inscribes, within the most spectacular ellipsis in cinematic history, nothing less than the entire trajectory of human history, the birth and evolution of Intelligence. Seizing, appropriating the theme of spatial exploration as narrative metaphor and formal principle, he has projected intellectual adventure as spectacle, converting, through still another leap of the imagination, Meliès’ pristine fantasy to the form and uses of a complex and supremely sophisticated structure.

Moving, falling toward us with the steady and purposive elegance of an incomparably powerful “vehicle,” Kubrick’s masterwork is designed, in turn, as an instrument of exploration and discovery. A Space Odyssey is, in fact, in the sustained concreteness and formal refinement which render that design, precisely that which Ortega believed modern poetry to have become: a “higher algebra of metaphors.”

II

The object in motion moves
neither in the space in
which it is nor in that in
which it is not
—Zeno

The present hath no space.
Where then is the time
which we may call long?
—Saint Augustine

IN A LETTER, UNDATED but probably of 1894, Pierre Louys calls upon Debussy, about to embark upon the career of music critic which produced the brilliant and insolent persona of “Monsieur Croche, Anti-Dilettante,” to “do something” to cure the malady of contemporary criticism. Complaining that “one cannot strike a single chord these days without eliciting a flurry of metaphysical speculation,” he says that Lohengrin, after all is a work “about movement.” “It is about a man who arrives and departs,” and nothing else. Or, as Valéry was shortly to say, “The true connoisseur of this art is necessarily the person to whom it suggests nothing.”

Like all statements of this kind, these strictures suggest a critical strategy rather than an esthetic, a working hypothesis formulated in terms of a particular historical situation, a re-orientation of critical concern in the interests of immediate usefulness and interest. Like Fénéon’s descriptive criticism of painting, like Mallarmé’s assertion, to Degas, that “poetry is made with words rather than with ideas,” like Robbe-Grillet’s attack on Metaphor, Stravinsky’s rejection of musical “content” or “subject,” and Artaud’s indictment of theatrical text, they propose a therapy for an intellectual tradition in which, as in that of our current film criticism, an endemic and debilitating Idealism perpetuates exhausted critical categories. Reductive, double-edged, polemically inflected, they urge a closer, fresher, more innocent and comprehending view of the Object, a respect for form and physicality as the ground of interest and value.

Like LohengrinSpace Odyssey, is, of course, endlessly suggestive, projects a syncretic heritage of myths, fantasies, cosmologies and aspirations. Everything about it is interesting; it proposes, however, nothing of more radical interest than its own physicality, its “formal statement” on the nature of movement in its space; it “suggests” nothing so urgent and absorbing as an evidence of the senses, its discourse on knowledge through perception as action, and ultimately, on the nature of the medium as “action film,” as mode and model of cognition.

Reading the critical or journalistic reproaches (and defenses) addressed to this film’s supposedly “static quality,” its “plotless” structure in which “nothing happens,” one recalls the myths which dominated a half-century or so of theatrical criticism’s uncomprehending view of Chekhov, as of Wagner. In this Odyssey, incident, surprise, discovery, shock and violence abound. Its plot turns, in fact, upon intrigue, as the French define plot. And, like a “scenario” (the term adopted by contemporary technocrats such as Herman Kahn for their hypothetical projections of our future), its structure is “open.” Like Lohengrinand Uncle Vanya, above all, however, this work is about “arrival and departure,” about movement. Its narrative, a voyage of discovery, a progress towards disembodiment, explores, through a multi-level tactics of displacement, through a constant and intensive re-invention of the possibilities of cinematic immediacy, the structural potentialities of haptic disorientation as agent of cognition.

Navigation—of a vessel or human body—through a space in which gravitational pull is suspended, introduces heightened pleasures and problems, the intensification of erotic liberation and of the difficulty of purposeful activity. In that floating freedom, all directed and purposive movement becomes work, the simplest task an exploit. The new freedom poses for the mind, in and through the body, the problematic implications of all freedom, forcing the body’s recognition of its suspended coordinates as its necessity. The dialectic of pleasure and performance principles, projected through camera’s radical restructuring of environment, the creation of ranges of change in light, scale, pace, heighten, to the point of transformation, the very conditions of film experience. Viewing becomes, as always but as never before, the discovery, through the acknowledgment of disorientation, of what it is to see, to learn, to know, and of what it is to be, seeing. Once the theatre seat has been transformed into a vessel, opening out onto and through the curve of a helmet to that of the screen as into the curvature of space, one rediscovers, through the shock of recognition, one’s own body living in its space. One feels suspended, the mind not quite able to “touch ground.” One surveys the familiar ground of experience (as the astronauts have indicated, remarking that a prime reason for space flight lay in the rediscovery and organization of the earth’s resources), feeling the full meaning of “suspense” as anticipation, sensing that though things may possibly be the same again, they will, thanks to Kubrick, never be the same in quite the same way.

If, then, Space Odyssey proposes, as in Bergson’s view all works of art do, “the outline of a movement,” it is, as well what Elie Faure claimed all film to be: “an architecture of movement.” As a film which takes for its very subject, theme and dynamics—both narrative and formal—movement itself, it has a radical, triple interest and urgency, a privileged status in the art that is ours, modern.

III

Form is tinted with meaning.
—Quintilian, After Zeno

The secret of the true
artist consists in the
following: he effaces
nature through form.
—Schiller

THERE IS A MOMENT—that present moment which extends a century back into the past—in which the entire system of presuppositions governing the artist’s view of subject, content and theme is undermined. That moment initiates in the radical questioning of art as mimesis. It produces a shift or displacement of the artist’s aspiration. The movement of displacement is by no means steady or uncontested, as the entirely problematic esthetic implicit in Expressionism (it is, after all, neither school nor style, but the name we give to sixty years of polymorphic contestation) insistently reminds us. In that shift, the culmination of a crisis sustained since the 17th century through philosophy, the authority of the imagination moves to replace that of a transcendence animating the esthetic of transcription or expression. Sustained through the radical art of our century, the shift is pre-figured in Flaubert’s celebrated letter of January, 1852, to Louise Colet: “What I consider fine, what I should like to do is a book about nothing, a book without external attachments of any sort, which would hold of itself, through the inner strength of its style, as the earth sustains itself with no support in air, a book with almost no subject. Or at least an almost invisible subject, if possible.”

This aspiration toward a work of total autonomy, self referring, self-sustaining and self-justifying, required the invention of a mediating strategy, a transition. The subject could be eliminated only through a process of dissolution initiated by its re-definition. Therefore, Flaubert’s subsequent affirmation, in a letter dated one year later: “Since poetry is purely subjective, there is no such thing as a fine subject. Yvetôt and Constantinople are of equal value. One can write equally well about anything at all. It is the artist who elevates things (through his manner of writing).” (The manner in and degree to which the history of pictorial and sculptural modernism confirms and embodies this position requires no immediate development in this particular journal.)

It is, however, at precisely that moment which instigates the dissolution of the subject, a process crystallized and extended through Mallarmé and Cézanne into the art of our own day, it is when the painter, rendering “seeing rather than things seen,” takes painting as his subject, when the novelist commences the relating of “narrativity” itself, that art’s aspiration shifts, expands, intensifies, tending, as in a movement of compensation, towards the most radical and all-encompassing of possible functions. Poetry, consenting through Mallarmé to be poetry only, proposes, simultaneously, to become “the orphic explanation of the earth,” of a “world meant,” moreover, “to end in a book.” The dissolution of the subject or figure, the contestation of art as Mimesis, of Realism itself, is grounded in the problematic consciousness of a reality no longer assumed as pre defined or pre-existent to the work of the imagination. Art now takes the nature of reality, the nature of consciousness in and through perception, as its subject or domain. As exploration of the conditions and terms of perception, art henceforth converges with philosophy and science upon the problem of reality as known and knowable.

Thus, the very ambiguity of Kandinsky’s title for his esthetic treatise, Towards The Spiritual in Art—translatable, too, from the German as Toward The Intellectual In Art—defines with great precision the nature and locus of the shift. Its ambiguity spells out the problems involved in the relocation, through abstraction, of sources of authority, interest and aspiration, which had been dislodged by the crisis in the Western metaphysical tradition. Text and title reenact, in their ambivalence and contradictions, that crisis; their celebrated “confusion” has the clarity of a syndrome, a syndrome converted into an esthetics bequeathed to us, somewhat in the manner of an hereditary taint or talent, in the sensibility of “Abstract Expressionism.”

That movement towards abstraction which animates the style and esthetics of modernism posed, for every art form, the problem of what Ortega calls “the incompatibility of the perception of lived reality with the perception of artistic form,” in so far as “they call for different adjustments of our perceptive apparatus.” “An art that requires such a double seeing is a squinting art. The 19th century was cross eyed . . .” Ortega, speaking with a certain crudeness symptomatic of ambivalence, spoke far truer than he knew.

Surely that statement is nowhere more significant than in its central omission. It stops just short of the recognition that the 19th century ended in producing the cinema, the art form whose temporality created another space in which “lived reality” could once again be figured, restructured. Cinema is the temporal instrument working in a direction counter to that of modernist painting’s increasingly shallow space, through which the deep space of illusionism is reinvented. In assuming the burden of illusionism, cinema reintroduces not only “lived reality,” but an entirely new and seemingly limitless range of structural relationships allowing for the reconciliation of “lived reality” with “artistic form.” In order to do so, of course, film not only rehabilitated the “squint,” but elevated it to the status of a dynamics of creation and perception, installed it as the very central principle of an art form, the source of its power and refinement.

Film’s relation to modernism is, consequently, delicate and complex in the extreme, and the demands it makes upon its audience have a strenuousness directly proportionate to that complexity and delicacy, contingent upon its illusionistic immediacy. Its fullest experience demands a kind of critical athleticism.

As all who care more than casually for movies know, the point at which one begins to understand the nature of the medium comes when one sees the images before one, not as a sequence of events evolving past or within the limits of a frame, but rather as a structure organized in depth and in relation to the frame by the camera itself. The heightened experience of film henceforth involves the constant oscillation between the two “points of view,” the constant “adjustment of the perceptive apparatus” in an activity of experience. The trajectory of both narrative and of camera lens as the extension of the eye and will of the artist begins to describe itself for us when we see, as in the scene of the poisoning of the Czarina in Ivan The Terrible, that the slow and devious passage of a goblet through a room is the propulsion, to its destined victim, by design dissembled as chance, through a camera movement, the movement of History. Film’s narrative now acquires the dimension of style, as the structural and sensuous incarnation of the artist’s will.

One follows, in another celebrated instance, the trolley car ride of Murnau’s Sunrisemoved to pity by the protagonist’s agony of anguish and shame, borne along, from a country to a city landscape, carried away, as they emerge from an extremity of alienation into reconciliation as into the New Jerusalem, and ultimately transported by the movement of the camera, the artist’s agent, his mind’s eye, defining and sustaining the space and dimensions of narrative as form.

Film proposes, then, and most sharply when it is greatest, a dissociative economy of viewing. That is why, although its “dream-like” quality received an immediate and extensive entry in the Dictionary of Received Ideas, it remains to be stressed that cinema is, more than any other art form, that which Plato claimed art in general to be: a dream for waking minds. The paradox testifies to the manner in which film provokes that delicate dissociation, that contraposto of the mind, that constantly renewed tension and readjustment whose symptom is, indeed, Ortega’s “squint.”

If this distance, the alienation of the spectator with respect to his experience, reflecting the elevation of doubt to an esthetic principle, may be said to characterize modernist sensibility as a whole, determining, in fact, the intensity of its very longing for immediacy, then film’s conversion of that principle to the uses of a formal dynamics gives it a privileged place as a medium centrally involved with the cognitive aspiration of modern art. The dissociative economy of film viewing heightens our perception of being physical to the level of apperception: one becomes conscious of the modes of consciousness. The athleticism required of the spectator is contingent on the manner in which film reflects or returns that which is brought to it. Like all esthetic situations, it offers—quite beyond the luxury of identification—the occasion to gain awareness of the inner presuppositions that sustain us, so that pleasure is informed with the shock of recognition.

A Space Odyssey, that film of “special effects” in which “nothing happens,” is simply one which, in its extremity of stylistic formal coherence and richness, its totally reinvented environment, quite dissolves the very notion of the “special effect.” They disappear. Above all, however, it solicits, in its overwhelming immediacy, the relocation of the terrain upon which things happen. And they happen, ultimately, not only on the screen but somewhere between screen and spectator. It is the area defined and constantly traversed by our active restructuring and reconstitution, through an experience of “outer” space, of the “inner” space of the body. Kubrick’s film, its action generating a kind of cross-current of perception and cognitive restructuring, visibly reaches, as it were, for another arena, redefining the content of cinema, its “shape of content.” The subject and theme of A Space Odyssey emerge, then, as neither social nor metaphysical; they develop elsewhere, between, in a genetic epistemology.

IV

My mobility is the way in which I counterbalance the mobility of things, thereby understanding and surmounting it. All perception is movement. And the world’s unity, the perceiver’s unity, are the unity of counterbalanced displacements.
—Merleau-Ponty

All things in the heaven of intelligibility are heavenly . . . In this kingdom, all is diaphanous. Nothing is opaque or impenetrable, and light encounters light. No traveler wanders there as in a foreign land.
—Plotinus

THIS ODYSSEY TRACES, THEN,in its “higher algebra of metaphors,” the movement of bodies in space, voyaging, through spheres beyond the pull of terrestrial attraction, in exploration of the Unknown, in and through Discovery.

The Voyage as narrative form acts, in its deformation or suspension of the familiar framework of existence (as in the logic of Alice, the geography of Saint Brendan, the reality of Don Quixote, the sociology of Gulliver), to project us, as in space travel, toward the surface of a distant world, its propulsive force contriving, through a Logistics of the Imagination, to redeliver us in rebound from that surface, into the familiar, the known, the Real.

So, too, the voyage of the astronauts ultimately restores us, through the heightened and complex immediacy of this film, to the space in which we dwell. This navigation of a vessel as instrument of exploration, of the human organism as adventurer, dissolves the opposition of body and mind, bringing home to us the manner in which “objective spatiality” is but the envelope of that “primordial spatiality,” the level on which the body itself effects the synthesis of its commitments in the world, a synthesis which is a fusion of meaning as experienced, tending toward equilibrium.

By constantly questioning that “objective spatiality,” Kubrick incarnates the grand theme and subject of learning as self recognition, of growth as the constant disruption and re-establishment of equilibrium in progress towards knowledge. This succession of re-establishments of equilibrium proposes a master metaphor for the mind at grips with reality, and we re-enact its progress through a series of disconcerting shocks which solicit our accommodation.

As soon as the airline hostess starts her movement through the space craft’s interior, moving up the wall, around and over the ceiling, disappearing upside down into it, we get an intimation—through the shock of surprise instigated by the defiance of our gravity—of the nature of our movement in our space. The delight we take in the absurdity of her progress is the index of our heightened awareness of something fundamental in ourselves. The system of pre-suppositions sustaining our spatial sense, the coordinates of the body itself, are hereby suspended and revised. That revision and its acknowledgment constitute our passport into another space and state of being, from which our own can be observed and known.

The writing pen floating in the space-craft’s cabin and retrieved by the hostess prior to her movement over wall and into ceiling had signaled to us, as it were, the passage into the weightless medium. Since, however, we define and comprehend movement—and repose—in terms of our own bodily positions, through the sense of inner coordinates rather than in terms of what is merely seen, that signal could not fully prepare us for, or inform us of, the suspension of those coordinates, inevitable in the weightless environment. (And indeed, judging from the surprised laughter that has followed that second sequence in each of nine viewings of the film, it does not prepare us.) The difference between the two qualities aria intensities of response is the difference between things seen and things felt, between situations visually observed and those sensed haptically, between a narrative emblem and a radically formal embodiment of, spatial logic.

A weightless world is one in which the basic coordinates of horizontality and verticality are suspended. Through that suspension the framework of our sensed and operational reality is dissolved. The consequent challenge presented to the spectator in the instantaneously perceived suspension and frustration of expectations, forces readjustment. The challenge is met almost instantaneously, and consciousness of our own physical necessity is regenerated. We snap to attention, in a new, immediate sense of our earth-bound state, in repossession of those coordinates, only to be suspended, again, toward other occasions and forms of recognition. These constitute the “subplot” of the Odyssey, plotting its action in us.

The extraordinary repetitive sequence of the woman climbing a staircase in Léger’s Ballet Mécanique erases the possibility of destination or of completion of action, thereby freezing a woman in a perpetual motion of ascent. So, too, this first sequence of the air-hostess’s navigation (and it is only one of an amazing series of variations upon the qualities and modes of movement) suspends us, in its frustration and inversion of our expectations, impelling us to a reflexive or compensatory movement of reversal, clarifying for us something of the essential nature of motion itself.

By distorting or suspending the logic of action as we know it (movement’s completion in time, the operation of the coordinates), each sequence questions, thereby stimulating awareness of, the corporeal a-prioris which compose our sensory motor apparatus. Sensing, after the fifth ascent or so that Léger’s woman will never “arrive,” we re-direct our attention, in a movement of recognition, to the fact and quality of movement as such. The recognition of paradox speaks through our laughter, arguing for that double nature of Comedy as Bergson saw it; its delight in the concrete and its unique capacity for play with ideas.

In their reduction of people moving to bodies in motion, both sequences elicit the laughter which Bergson tells us is the response to that transformation or reduction of the human into the mechanical which underlies all comedy. Solicited, then, through a constantly playful succession of surprises to a re-assessment or re-structuring of the real, we see, in our surprised laughter, that here is a work which employs a very serious form of wit to teach us something of the nature of our experience.

A Space Odyssey, then, proposes, in its epistemology, the illustration of a celebrated theory of Comedy. In a film whose terrain or scene of action is, as we have seen, the spectator, the spectator becomes the hero or butt of comedy. The laugh is on us; we trip on circumstance, recognizing, in a reflex of double-take, that circumstances have changed. Tending, in the moment which precedes this recognition, “to see that which is no longer visible,” assuming the role of absent-minded comic hero, “taken in,” we then adjust in comprehension, “taking it in.” Kubrick does make Keatons of us all.

If “any incident is comic that calls our attention to the physical in a person, when it is the moral side that is concerned,” Space Oydssey indeed provides, through variation and inversion, a fascinating range of comic situations. (On quite another level, of course HAL, the computer as character, reverses the comic “embarrassment of the soul by the body” in being a mere body embarrassed by possession of a soul. A thing which gives the impression of being a person, rather than—as in silent comedy at its paroxysmic best—a person giving the impression of being a thing, “he acts as though he has feelings,” as one astronaut remarks. Here, God help us, is someone or something who, as R. D. Laing says, “can pretend to be what he—or it—really is.”)

As a film whose grand theme is that of learning, whose effect is intimately revelatory, A Space Odyssey is, in the strongest and deepest sense of the word, maieutic. Kubrick’s imagination, exploring the possibilities of scale, movement, direction as synthesized in a style, works towards our understanding. The intensified and progressively intimate consciousness of one’s physicality provides the intimation of that physicality as the ground of consciousness.The film’s “action” is felt, and we are “where the action is.” Its “meaning” or “sense” is sensed, and its content is the body’s perceptive awaking to itself.

The briefest, most summary comparison with Alphaville shows Godard’s film to be, as I have on another occasion suggested, a film of “dis-location,” as against this new film of “dis-orientation.” Godard installs the future within the landscape of present day Paris, dislocating the spectator in situ, so to speak. Kubrick’s suspension and distention of the properties of environment transform it into something radically new and revealing. The difference between the two films is also, of course, the difference between the strategies of bricolage or a “do-it-yourself” technique, brilliantly handled, and of technology. Two attitudes toward futurity are inscribed within the conditions of their making.

Alphaville’s superimposition of image upon image, of word upon word, of plot upon plot, creates a complex system of visual, verbal and narrative puns within which past and future alternatively and reciprocally mask and reveal each other. Futurity inhabits things as they look now. It is installed, moreover, as a corruption of the here-and-now, projecting Godard’s essential romanticism in a dislocation that is primarily fictional in its tactics. Figurative, one might say. In this film, Godard, like his Eurydice, looks backward in nostalgia.

In Space Odyssey, a total formalization imposes futurity through the eye and ear. The look and sense of things is in their movement, scale, sound, pace and intensity. Unlike most other science fiction films, both unflaggingly sustain a coherent visual style. All others (from Metropolis through the Buck Rogersseries to Barbarella) relax, about halfway through, capitulating in a relaxation of the will, a fatigue of the imagination, to the past. (It is generally a Gothic past, a style of medievalism, and these two films are probably the only ones utterly devoid of billowing capes and Gothic arches.) The manner in which both exemplify film’s pre-empting of the function, the esthetic mode, of Visionary Architecture, begun by Meliès, presents a striking contrast: Godard adopts a policy of abstinence, of invention in austerity, Kubrick a planned and prodigal expenditure of resources. (The manner in which the different economies at work—European as against American—seem to represent opposing sensibilities making fundamentally esthetic decisions, leads one to remember that Godard’s Computer—a Sphinx, speaking with the re-educated voice of a man whose vocal chords have been removed—asks questions, while Hal, that masterpiece of “the third Computer breakthrough,” presumably knows all the answers.)

Kubrick’s prodigality is, however, totalizing, heightens, through the complete re-invention of environment, the terms, the stylistic potential of cinematic discourse. Therefore, one’s thrilled fascination with the majestic movements of the spacecraft through the heavens, with the trajectories of arrival (landing) departure (levitation), seeing (sighting) conjunction (synthesis), action (gauging) through which the parameters of movement, scale, direction, intensity are examined, exploited. Suspended, totally absorbed by their momentous navigation, one remembers only days later, the manner in which the slow, repetitive lifting of the bridge in Ten Days That Shook The World shattered action, inventing, in its radically disjunctive force, another kind of cinematic time. The number and kinds of space simultaneously proposed by isometric readings and interior projections—as in the approach toward the space station or in the landing on the Moon—are fused by the spectator who discovers, with a sudden thrill of delight, that he is the meeting place of a multiplicity of spaces, depths and scales, his eye their agent of reconciliation, his body the focal point of a multi dimensional, poly-spatial Cosmos.

In the visionary catapulting through the “Star Gate,” “beyond infinity,” through galactic explosions of forms and sound as landscape, we zoom over a geography photographed in “negative,” passing finally, as through a portal, to a scene which reveals itself to be that of the eye itself. Experience as Vision ends in the exploration of seeing. The film’s reflexive strategy assumes the eye as ultimate agent of consciousness, reminding us, as every phenomenological esthetic, from that of Ortega to that of Merleau-Ponty has, that art develops from the concern with “things seen to that of seeing itself.”

In a series of expansions and contractions, the film pulsates, leading us, in the final sequence following the “trip,” with the astronaut into a suite of rooms, decorated in Regency style. Here, every quality of particularity, every limiting, defining aspect of environment is emphasized. The sudden contraction into these limits, projects us from galactic polymorphism into an extreme formality, insinuating, through the allusion of its décor, the idea of History into Timelessness. It shocks. Everything about the place is defined, clearly “drawn.” In the definition of this room lit from beneath the floor, as in the drainage of color (everything is greenish, a bit milky, translucent, reminding one slightly of video images), we perceive the triumph of disegno over colore. An Idea of a Room, it elaborates the notion of Idea and Ideality as Dwelling. (Poincaré, after all, imagined Utopia as illustrating Riemann’s topology.) It is, of course, a temporary dwelling—Man’s last Motel stop on the journey towards disembodiment and renascence. Its very sounds are sharper; the clatter of glass falling to the floor informs us that glass is breaking upon glass, evoking through an excruciation of high-fidelity acoustics, something of the nature of Substance. It is this strange, Platonic intensification through-reduction of the physical which sustains the stepping-up of time, through the astronaut’s life and death, to rebirth, ejecting us with him once again, through a final contracting movement of parturition, into the heavens.

V

Structural formation, that reflective process of abstraction which draws its sustenance not from objects, but from actions performed upon them.
—Piaget

However, the fact that knowledge can be used to designate sexual intercourse . . . points to the fact that for the Hebrews, “to know” does not simply mean to be aware of the existence or nature of a particular object. Knowledge implies also the awareness of the specific relationship in which the individual stands with that object, or of the significance the object has for him.
—The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible

IF A SPACE ODYSSEY ILLUSTRATES, through its exercise in genetic epistemology, the manner of our acting, it provides the immediate demonstration that the ability to function in space is neither given nor predetermined, but acquired and developed.

Its re establishment of the notion of equilibrium as open process is central. In a weightless medium, the body confronts the loss of those coordinates through which it normally functions. The manner in which all directed movement is endowed with the momentousness of the task indicates the reinvention of those coordinates for operational efficiency. Total absorption in their reinvention creates a form of motion of extraordinary unity, that of total concentration, the precondition of Style, a style we normally recognize as the quality of dance movement.

It would be interesting, then, to consider a style of movement created by the exact inversion of that negation of weight (its retrieval, in fact), which animates the Dance of our Western historical tradition. More interesting, still, perhaps, is the realization that the style created by the astronauts in movement, in the reinvention of necessity, does indeed have a special affinity with that contemporary dance which proceeds from the radical questioning of balletic movement, the redefining and rehabilitation of the limits of habitual, operational movement as an esthetic or stylistic mode.

In that questioning, initiated by Cunningham, radicalized through the work of Rainer, Whitman, Paxton, and others, dance is re-thought in terms of another economy, through the systematic negation of the rhetoric and hierarchies imposed by classical balletic conventions and language. That rhetoric is, in fact, reversed, destroyed, in what has been called the “dance of ordinary language” and of “task performance.” This movement of reversal—revolutionary—traversing the forms of most modernist art, works in Dance as well, toward “the dissolution of the (fine) subject.”

The astronauts’ movement—as in the very great sequence of the repair of the presumably malfunctioning parts—is invested with an intensity of interest (sustaining itself through every second of its repetition), a “gravity” which is that of total absorption in operational movement (task performance) as a constant reinvention of equilibrium in the interests of functional efficiency. The stress is on the importance, “the fascination of what’s difficult,” which is to say, the simplest operations. They require the negation of a floating freedom. (It should have been the business of Vadim’s recently released Barbarella to explore the erotic possibilities of the body floating free in outer space suggested by that film’s superb opening credits. Unfortunately Barbarella’s progress is entirely earthbound; the film is a triumph of iconography over form.)

The astronauts’ movements, slowed by weightlessness, reinvent the conditions of their efficiency. This slowness and the majesty with which the space-craft itself moves, are predicated, of course, upon the speed of space travel itself. And the film itself moves ultimately with that momentum, that apparent absence of speed which one experiences only in the fastest of elevators, or jet planes.

The complex maneuvering of tools, craft or the mere navigation of the body involves an adjustment which constitutes an adventure, a stage in the development of the Mind. Seeing films, in general, one gains an intimation of the link between the development of sensory-motor knowledge to that of intelligence itself.

We know, through the systematic investigations which constitute the monumental life-work of Piaget that the acquisition of the basic coordinates of our spatial sense is a very gradual process, extending roughly over the first twelve years of our lives. There is, presumably, no difference in kind between the development of verbal logic and the logic inherent in coordination of action. Both involve the progress through successive adjustments to perturbation which re-establish, in an open process and through a succession of states of equilibrium, the passage from a “pre-operational” stage, to that of concrete operations, and finally to abstract operations. “The logic of actions is, however, the deepest and most primitive.”

And here, of course, lies the explanation of the Space Odyssey’s effect upon its audiences, the manner in which it exposes a “generation gap.” This film has “separated the men from the boys”—with implications by no means flattering for the “men.”

“Human action consists in the continual mechanism of readjustment and equilibration . . . one can consider the successive mental structures engendered by development as so many forms of equilibrium each representing a progress over the preceding ones. On each successive level the mind fulfills the same function, which is to incorporate the universe, but the structure of assimilation varies. The elaboration of the notion of space is due to the co-ordination of movements, and this development is closely linked to those of sensory motor awareness and of intelligence itself.”3

The structures are to be comprehended in terms of the genetic process linking them. This Piaget calls equilibrium, defined as a process rather than a state, and it is the succession of these stages which defines the evolution of intelligence, each process of equilibration ending in the creation of a new state of disequilibrium. This is the manner of the development of the child’s intelligence.

“The development of the coordinates of horizontality and verticality are not innate, but are constructed through physical experience, acquired through the ability to read one’s experience and interpret it, and both reading and interpretation always suppose a deductive system capable of assuring the intellectual assimilation of the experience. The construction of the system of coordinates of horizontality and verticality is extremely complex . . . it is, in effect, not the point of departure of spatial knowledge, but the end point of the entire psychological construction of Euclidian space.”

And Kubrick has proposed, in the Space Odyssey, a re-enactment of the very process of sensory-motor habit formation, soliciting, through the disturbance and re-establishment of equilibrium, the recapitulation of that fundamental educative process which effects “our incorporation of the world.”Space Odyssey makes the experience of learning both plot and sub-plot of an Action or Adventure film. An invitation to a voyage, it proposes the re-enactment of an initiation, sustained rite de passage, “The Passage into Euclidian Space.”

The young are, of course, still closer to that slow development of the body’s wisdom, to the forming of the sensory-motor apparatus. Above all, however, they are more openly disposed to that kind of formal transcription of the fundamental learning process which negates, in and through its form, the notion of equilibrium as a state of definition, of rest in finality.

To be “mature” in our culture is to be “well-balanced,” “centered,” not easily “thrown off balance.” Acceptance of imbalance is, however, the condition of receptivity to this film. Our “maturity” pre-supposes the “establishment” of experience as acquisition, the primacy of wisdom as knowledge over that of intellectual exploration, of achievement over aspiration. “Adventure,” as Simmel observes in an essay of remarkable beauty,4 “is, in its specific nature and charm, a form of experiencing. Not the content but the experiential tension determines the adventure. In youth the accent falls on the process of life, on its rhythms and antinomies; in old age, it falls on life’s substance, compared to which experience . . . appears relatively incidental. This contrast between youth and age, which makes adventure the prerogative of youth may be expressed as the contrast between the romantic and the historical spirit of life. Life in its immediacy counts (for youth) . . . The fascination is not so much in the substance, but rather the adventurous form of experiencing it, the intensity and excitement with which it lets us feel life. What is called the subjectivity of youth is just this; the material of life in its substantive significance is not as important to youth as is the process which carries it, life itself.”

The critical performance around this film, object, Structure, revolving as it has about the historical, anecdotal, sociological, concerned as it is with the texture of incident is, of course, the clear projection of aging minds and bodies. Its hostile dismissal constitutes, rather like its timid defense, an expression of fatigue. This film of adventure and of action, of action as adventure is an event, an extraordinary occasion for self-recognition, and it offers, of course, the delights and terrors occasions of that sort generally provide. Positing a space which, overflowing screen and field of vision, converts the theatre into a vessel and its viewers into passengers, it impels us, in the movement from departure to arrival, to rediscover the space and dimensions of the body as theatre of consciousness. Youth in us, discarding the spectator’s decorum, responds, in the movement of final descent, as to “the slap of the instant,” quickening in a tremor of rebirth, revelling in a knowledge which is carnal.

Annette Michelson

 

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NOTES

1. That photograph, currently unavailable for reproduction, obviously differs from the one reproduced here.

2. For a consideration of this question one does well to compare Meliès admirable text, Vues Cinématographiques, reprinted in the catalog of the commemorative exhibition (Paris, 1961), which encompasses, within 15 densely printed pages, a basic course in filmmaking and a discussion of the formal and technical problems involved and resolved in his own work, with the information on the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey provided by the Journal of the American Cinematographer, June 1968, Vol. 49, no. 6. The parallels on all parameters are striking. In the production of this particular grande machine, the use and invention of metamachines resulted, as one might expect (in a medium, whose history is, more than any, tied to technological development), a number of technical breakthroughs recalling or extending those created by Meliès himself. Here are a very few:

a. Kubrick directed the action in the centrifuge sequences from outside by watching a closed circuit monitor relaying a picture from a small video camera mounted next to the film camera inside the centrifuge itself.

b. In order to attain a slow and “large-scale” movement of doors and other parts, motors were made to drive these mechanisms, then “geared down so far that the actual motion, frame by frame was imperceptible ‘We shot most of these scenes,’ says Kubrick, ‘using slow exposures of 4 seconds per frame. One couldn’t see the movement. A door moving 5 inches during a scene would take 5 hours to shoot. You could never see any unsteady movement. It was like watching the hand of a clock.’ ”

c. “For the Stargate sequence, a slit-scan machine was designed, using a technique of image scanning as used in scientific and industrial photography. This device could produce two seemingly infinite planes of exposure while holding depth-of-field from a distance of 15 feet to 1 1/2 inches from the lens at an aperture of F 1/8 with exposures of approximately one minute per frame using a standard 65 mm. Mitchell camera.”

d. “A huge 10 by 8 foot transparency plate projector for the application of the Alekan-Gerrard method of front-projected transparency” was constructed for the primates sequence. It is expected to open up enormous possibilities for future film production.

3. For detailed consideration of the notion of equilibrium as open learning process, I refer the reader to Piaget’s La Représentation De L’Espace Chez L’Enfant. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1948, and most particularly to the chapter entitled Le Passage à L’Espace Euclidien. Further discussion of this notion and of the development of spatial coordinates is to be found in Volumes 5 and 6 of Etudes Epistémologiques, Presses Universitaires, Paris, as well as in Six Etudes Psychologiques, Editions Gonthier, Geneva, 1964.

4. The Adventure, in George Simmel, Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics, Harper and Row, New York, 1965.

 

https://www.artforum.com/news/annette-michelson-1922-2018-75948

https://www.artforum.com/print/196902/annette-michelson-on-stanley-kubrick-s-2001-a-space-odyssey-36517