Alexis Smith: Masculine Feminine, Der Zauberberg et Isadora

from "Alexis Smith" 1991 Whitney Museum catalog, available for perusing at Tom Solomon Gallery


Alexis Smith


Car le corps, c’est la maladie et la volupté, et c’est lui qui fait la mort, oui, ils sont charnels tous deux, l’amour et la mort, et voilà leur terreur et leur grande magie!

L’amour pour lui, pour le corps humain, c’est de même un intérêt extrêmement humanitaire et une puissance plus éducative que toute la pédagogie du monde!

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, conversations between Hans Castorp and Madame Chauchat.

I rely on a Wikipedia quote page as I am not able to put my hands on my own copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. This favored paper-back was a gift in 1979 from a lover (and thrillingly to me, PhD candidate) nine years my senior who, I recognize now, appreciated my native enthusiasm but preferred his bleach-blonde psuedo punks to be more lettered. Thus was born in me, my friends, a culture-filiac. Thanks college guy.

It happens that Alexis Smith’s works in the current show at Tom Solomon are difficult to photograph. “But wait!,” my more intelligent half says to me, “they’re only difficult to photograph if you want to issue forth pristine images of idealized art objects.”

It is as it should be: I find “Isadora” reflected in “Masculine and Feminine,” I see the world outside embedded in the presence of a young Chic magazine model, I stumble everywhere across myself.

Alexis Smith masculine / feminine 1975-1976, bernard street


Also, the state of these photographs represents perfectly my experience of looking and reading and skipping eagerly ahead then skipping back a few panels to re-read a poignant or poetic note. In this way Smith’s art resembles the cinema and literature from which she draws her power.

Alexis Smith Masculine and Feminine (and me)


And isn’t this just the way? The art in a thing flourishes because of, not despite interruptions, errata and personal reflections. An artist making a thing aims and struggles toward… something. As she works curious and unintended stuff presents itself and becomes part of the final piece. Her own treacherous hand and her emotions may derail one plan only to offer a looser and more nuanced trail for her to follow.

Alexis Smith "Silver Screen" detail


Alexis Smith "Silver Screen" detail


As it is with the artist, so it is with me: stumbling over my presence is, I think, how I become invested in the work.

In the case of the pieces exhibited in this show (“Silver Screen,” “The Magic Mountain,” “Isadora,” “Think” (a small sculpture that may be titled ‘Think for yourself’ I am not certain), and “Masculine and Feminine“) I kept recalling books I have read, movies I have seen, and partners I have had; the Montenegro quote that I use in a description of one of the “Isadora” photos is loosely translated from a 1970’s television show about Duncan and her lovers. I have silently remembered the TV movie and this quote for 35 years now and Alexis Smith managed with her art to unleash in me this memory and also everything that goes with it. (The long shaggy blue and green carpet on which I sat watching, conversation with my parents who watched with me, our parrot squacking and talking in the background and my Great Dane, Zeke, who laid with his head in my lap.)

And so, I had my own Proustian ‘madeleine’ moment in a gallery in Chinatown. (Thanks Alexis!)

Alexis Smith "Isadora," 1980-1981 (a good-looking wop)


Alexis Smith "Masculine and Feminine" 1975-1976, Godard made Masculine Feminine in 1965


I asked Tom Solomon about the script that Smith typed on blue and pink paper for “Masculine and Feminine.” When I visited a second time, to take pictures, Tom related to me that “Alexis reminded me (he said, blushing) of Godard’s film “Masculine Feminine” and of course the dialogue is clearly from that source. Funny that I should forget Godard…

Alexis Smith "Masculine and Feminine" detail, as installed at Tom Solomon


I like that Smith conflates Paul Newman with the Paul in Godard’s film: imagining Newman in such a brusque, sexy and careless role is delicious. Smith relates the story of two male characters as they discuss strategies for – well, I guess they are trading pick up moves. One approaches a woman in a cafe asking to take a lump of sugar from her table. As our gentleman reaches – his fingers brush this woman’s breast. He returns to the table, drops the sugar in his coffee and drinks. Looking challenginly at his companion. His friend (apparently learning from his predecessor and yet masterfully upping his friend’s ante) repeats this charade move for move except that when the friend obtains his lump of sugar he places it on his tongue, closes his mouth around it and…well, you get the idea. Hot on so many levels.

(And problematic: can you imagine in our present day any man feeling able to touch a woman in this way? Can you picture a woman not feeling threatened? Were their actions invasive even then? Did sense of entitlement derive from a paternalistic and ownership based society – even among French intellectuals? Are these thoughts examples of me straying from the artist’s work, or am I having a dialogue with it?)

from the catalog "Alexis Smith" by Richard Armstrong for the Whitney Museum


from the catalog "Alexis Smith" by Richard Armstrong for the Whitney Museum


Alexis Smith’s way with films, movie stars and with books feels risky and dangerous right now. She looks at her sources with the honesty of one who is charmed, her critique is subtle and is more a directed attempt to question one’s own relations with the work and the world and with the originating films and books than it is an ironic statement about cinema or texts. I do not get a sense of distancing, or of coolth – rather Smith is hot about the stories she loves, the characters she borrows, the narratives she re-purposes and the movies in her dreams.

Respect is risky. You stake yourself on those things you value. People can see when you are in love.

All of you younger artists who read Notes would do well to visit Alexis Smith: The Early Work at Tom Solomon’s. And then go back in your studio and risk something personal in the things you make.

(Possible authorial-stance-supporting urban art myth alert!!):

Anecdote time: an artist friend, while visiting a grad student’s studio, listened in disbelief as the young painter told her, “Ugh, I don’t want there to be poetry in my paintings!”

Oh dear, says the fusty, middle-aged writer, I beg to differ. You misunderstand either poetry or art.

Alexis Smith "Isadora" glancing detail


...thus spake Isadora Duncan, in her unshake-able California accent - as she continues her life journey in a Bugatti with a "good-looking wop." (I remember him as from Montenegro "Where," he told the dancer, "we fuck like tigers!" Gloire indeed.)


Alexis Smith, The Early Work at Tom Solomon Gallery thru October 22. Real images of the work available on the gallery’s website.

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