The silhouette as reagent in Kara Walker’s Gone (1994) and other works.

Rev., August 23, 2015.

Disclaimer: This treatment was prepared for a lecture to be delivered in Art and Agency, a course I taught at UNL in Fall, 2015, focusing on the concept of the “reagent.” For various reasons, it was never delivered. This represents the application of theory to an artist’s practice, it is an exercise in model-building, not a formal documentation of the artist’s work. A review of the movie Mandingo (1975) is included in the appendix.

Of the artists of my generation, whom I watched come of age, Kara Walker is on the younger side, born 15 years after me. That means that she arrived on the scene at the end of the postpop moment, and at the end of the neoconceptual moment, and when picture theory was fading into history. But when I saw her work, and was immediately on board. Why?

It remained, in the early 90s, a cause of some concern that the American postpop artists had settled into a rather uncritical posture as art relates to life and as popular art relates to life, by and large not challenging the distance, or the proxemics, between art and life in the pop culture. Still, for Americans, media was technological heaven, changing our world, and yet real life was just—eh. The fact that most of the postpop artists deconstructed popular or bad art by strategies of sarcasm (Ashley Bickerton), smart or cleverness (it was actually called smart art for a while), ersatz cuteness (Jeff Koons, exploiting the limited art world perception of popular culture as kitsch, a term I always thought to be snobbish and exclusionary) no longer seemed adequate to address growing issues in the culture.

The only artist (excluding discussion of Mike Kelley here) who dug down below into the underbelly of American popular culture was Cady Noland, whose show, Our American Cousin, again, in, I think, 1989, at Colin de Land,  also remains one of the signal events of my art-looking life. This is fairly typical of here work (she is very scarcely represented online)

kara-1Noland dove down into a world of tabloidism, where the mythology of American life is haunted by our original sins of violence and slavery and cheap commercialization and objectification, to create a movingly forlorn vision of America run amuck. In the tabloid world, all values are topsy turvy, you don’t quite know what’s what, everything is exaggerated and distorted, black and white in the extreme, and people are best represented in a lampooned political caricature way as constituting objects evoking the rock bottom or end result of their deepest darkest impulses. It is a symbolic world, I think a lattice level world of heavy meaning—tabloid art is, no doubt, heavy art. Here, for example, is her version, told in symbols and signs attached to a lattice, of Betty Ford and her Daughters


I then, on the basis of this, felt that the Pop art faith in the mainstream and its ability to sanitize and redeem, the faith that media can lift us up out of life, and we can dwell there free of the baggage of encumbrances of ethnicity, past, etc etc., because we are “moderns,” had become discredited, and that America had flipped upside down into a tabloid state (The artists that I felt subscribed to this darker vision of America I included in my show, Tabloid, at the Sally Hawkins Gallery in New York, in 1992, including Lutz Bacher, who has gone on to be one of the most dependable tabloid artists, Walter Robinson, Angela Bourodimos, who was doing straight up tabloid girl power trophy art, and then other artists whose work over time has shifted discourse). Noland appeared to me to be the artist that closed the distance between art and life, to create a tighter nexus between art and life, in which the media and its support of demons and stereotypes and its glorification of idiots and assassins and mass murderers and the like fed a confusion in which the boundary of art and life was blurred. That is, she darkly mythologized the bowels of American life, and brought up the dark figures, as in a haunting, here is in fact her Oozewald, that is, Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of President Kennedy, whose image bounces off deep fears in me, since I came of age watching that event on TV, but here rendered as a kind of porous creature of the black lagoon, shot through by our interest in him, oozing upward at us.


At the bottom of the tabloid world, in the ultimate bottom of the bottom, was death,  mortality, criminality, and especially sexual crime, a place of terrible things. Only Noland was addressing this in art at the moment. In the subsequent grunge moment, vanguarded in popular culture by Smells Like Teen Spirit, the physical rundownness and abjectness of the object is what the art world, obviously, latched onto, and it was thought that exploring forensic-like works of an abstract sort was enough to be art. In many cases, it was not. But in so far as the presence of a garbage or junk or abject aesthetic did raise the “is it art?” question it inadvertently pushed art down to the border of life and in that, that new closeness of danger was a good, real thing. The problem was that in forensic art I was never that interested in the abjectness per se of the objects, by way of a sort of upside down or depleted formalism, but in the “what just happened here?” “scene of the crime” aspect of the installation, and it was in the mythology evoked by the objects in Noland that I swooned with pathos and worry over the fate of a nation addicted to violence.

Because the YBA artists coming out of England just then seemed to be making art in a place closer to life, and saturated with dark tabloid themes, confronting death, and the like, I immediately, when they arrived, jumped ship, because of their work’s immediacy to the moment and its closeness to real life. The devices of their art yanked art closer to life, put the face of art back into the vomit of life–this was the corrective that was needed for us to get over our faith in popular culture and media and our belief that it could save us. My belief in the YBAs and my support of Damien Hirst, who in the beginning was a very good artist, was based purely on the fact that for an enactive critic the scene is a road and you get a sense of what you need to see and have as you live on that road and then when you come upon something new on the road and it gives you what you need, there it is. It is unfair for critics 25 years later to lament that Hirst’s pickled sharks are, per se, formalistically, in flatearth perception, crap, because in their grandeous tabloid confrontation with death as it confronted and even came close or some of them to cancelling out the defenses of art, it was exactly what was needed just then. All this to be discussed in detail later.

Kara Walker, therefore, emerged at precisely the right moment, in 1994, when the market was rebuilding itself on a new synthesis of these ideas, and setting off on a more tabloid oriented and YBA influenced direction. In the checkerboard of white cubes and black boxes that make up the New York art world, and all the custodians of their squares, in particularly, many African American artists from the uplift generation, who felt that art by African Americans had to rise above negritude and other genre aspects of their work, she was loathed, and her displaying slaves played with like toys by masters in the context of a materialistic presentation usually given to sweet or stately feeling was viewed as outrageous.

But to me, it was perfect. Walker was a grunge artist, a tabloid artist, a postpop artist, a neoconceptual artist, a folk artist, all of the above, all in one person. Here’s why I see her in this way. I have come to see that all great art, especially in the postpop era, where an artist must choose and then seems to have to live in the wake of that choice of materials or program ever after, all art must be based on a strong and flexible reagent. Walker selected, in a eureka I have not yet documented, that she could say all the conflicted things she wanted to say about the legacy of slavery on African American life (a common theme in black studies literature in academia, where you can find any number of scholars to deconstruct how the lingering roles of the mammy, etc etc, continue to haunt and restrict African American women) by using the benign material and convention of the silhouette. This was either a stroke of luck or genius. It must have been a very exciting moment, and then, several times after that, more exciting again, as she realized that it could go in so many different ways. Why? The cut out paper silhouette was able to host scenes opposite of its original intention because of its previous intermedial life, its prior use by mainstream white culture, its prior use by horror movie culture, and its fading away in time to become just a nostalgic affectation enjoyed by ladies with flowery and puppy tastes projected on the better past that they do not live in. For all that, for its complex intermedial history, the black cutout silhouette serves as one of the great examples of what I now call a reagent in a body of work.

A reagent in chemistry is “substance or compound that is added to a system in order to bring about a chemical reaction, or added to see if a reaction occurs.” In many cases, reagents have no meaning or purpose, except that when another chemical is put into it, there is the desired reaction. As such, it kind of passively hosts the reaction of other things on or in it. It also can be used in a number of other situations with other chemicals by chemists desiring other reactions. Using this concept metaphorically, I classify reagency as a healthy and creative type of agency whereby the agency itself revives and refreshes itself by means of doing a reset or simply taking in or on elements that make, for example, this year’s observance of a holiday not a mere motion-going repeat of last year but a separate and new celebration characterized by new entry energy and a reset based on it, that is, by a reagentifying revival of the agent. While reagency is therefore a positive form of agency, a reagent embeds it in a medium or object itself.

A reagent material (or other element, gesture, form, color or time element) would serve an artist well if it has in it inherent capacities to expand and spin and mean different things over time. In the past, I termed this quality polysemy, and exploring the polysemy of a material as it has been used in the culture at large and then making art from that has always struck me as one of the best ways to make art. Polysemy also involves puns, deepening the meaning of things, conducting against a reagent any number of revising efforts (all of which I mapped out in the 80s, regression, retrogression, sublimation, I would also add from Belting now animation and others). Because it has this malleable quality, and can go any direction, it acts as an antidote against one-liner-ism, and even better, it’s presence, if you choose to instrumentalize the reagent in a particular body of work at a particular time, that serves as the conscious, and the reagent’s prior use provides the work with an unconscious, which lends it a deep, but also easy going feeling. A reagent has a very easy and inviting surface, and a very deep and complicated substructure: it allows the artist to make it all look like it is easy, but then there are punches to come. Like a gyro or vortex spinning at the heart of an artist’s creativity, the potential of the reagent is the secret, hidden force of great contemporary art.

It is likely that as a student at RISD, which has a strong material culture, decorative arts and craft tradition, Walker wanted to speak of African American themes, but without doing it in the blunt political discourse style of Dred Scott, or in the subtle critique style of, for example, Fred Wilson. She chose a more conflicted path. As a result, Walker’s work, in terms of other African American artists, is much closer to David Hammons mock comic postpop negritude send-ups than to the pious preachings of Glenn Ligon. Her entirely eschewing the patrolling and power-defending politeness of political correctness, in 1994, after a few market circles of extreme correctness, came as an immense relief.But how did she get there? At some point, she might have come upon the antique Yankee tradition of the silhouette. The history of the silhouette is rich and deep, I won’t go into it here, there’s a nice wikipedia page on it, but the point is by the middle of the 19th century, the silhouette fad meant that all upper class homes had silhouettes of loved ones in them, and that they for a time replaced paintings or cameos of loved ones as their silhouetteness in profile seemed to capture with metaphor-made-literal razor sharp accuracy, the very nature of being reminded of someone, as, by their blackness, they were there, but they did not press on you anything more than a moment to rest one’s eye, while one was thinking of another. I have devised this notion of the silhouette, as, basically, the visual equivalent then of the texting today, from the movie The Creeping Flesh, see my note (not yet posted).

kara-4My point is, a full on picture was imposing, writing a letter took a lot of commitment, but a silhouette, it was perfectly poised materially to capture the airy but shadowy nature of the “thinking of you” moment. The eyes rested on it, then thought of the other, then glanced away, enough. But the silhouette also came to be considered de rigeur in the upper class, and, since it seems to have been used, as noted, a token of mindfulness, a symbol of  deference and discretion, their circumspect politeness, their, in short, cultivation. While silhouettes began as cheap poor man’s pictures, they ended up, for their qualities, being symbols of the refined mental propriety of the proprietary classes.

Walker must have sighed, isn’t it odd, slave owning folk, in the nineteenth century, doing such bad things, such very unladylike and ungentlemenly things, self-adoring their discretion through the elegant art of the silhouette, and they have chosen to represent themselves in unconscious black face, without a hint of irony or selfawareness. It was just……a very queer intermedial nexus, filled with all sorts of blind spots. It is my guess that at first this is as far as Walker went, clearly operating in the picture theory universe of the deconstruction of representation  discourse. I do not think she  yet cultivated the intramural inversion of silhouettes in movies and horror movies, that I have charted out (silhouettes came to signal in the background of a shot in a movie, there is trouble in this house, or, worse, the family line in this house is about to be destroyed, see my treatment on this theme in the Pet Semetary and the Chucky movies), and believe that when she began to work, she felt that white America viewed the silhouette as a quaint device evoking a refined past, a blind art form then, and she would invert it to show how white folk back then were really treating black folk, and what if they put all that on their walls?

I also strongly suspect that Walker had cultivated in some way the verboten mandingo-like blaxpolitation movies of the 60s and 70s, Mandingo (1975) (see my review in appendix) itself being amazingly frank regarding the awful things white plantation owners did, the normalcy created in their lives in the midst of sick dementedness, the wife’s acceptance then refusal of the routine custom of her husband making of a slave negress a second wife, and then the terrible things all this sexual tension did to their houses, but a blaxploitation movie is a “tabloid” movie in that it sensationalizes the potential “scandal” in a thing, especially the sex, creating an unreal, exaggerated history, that nonetheless has some oomph to it, and a strong measure of truth, because at least it addresses the issues (if only to be able, as per exploitation, show some naked ladies). The fact that Walker’s landmark and career making work, Gone (1994), was a take off on Gone with the Wind (1939), which sensationalized the old south as a world of womanly scheming, but the darkies being all good and loyal, simply all that, turned upside down, reinforces this connection.

I work, then, from a simple model, white refinement reversed, by way of the silhouette, to do some truth telling about what was really going on in those houses. That is, somehow, Walker situated her spirit next to those silhouettes in situ, in those houses, and listened, and then she started cutting, giving figure to the truth of what was really being said. So if the lady of the house walks by a silhouette in situ and then hears the news that one of the slave girls has had another baby, well, let’s make a silhouette of the awful thing she might have said about her dropping it out of her like an animal, right on the ground, and put that up


If you wanted to morph a standard silhouette into the insult that the slave girls were mindless voodooists who did awful things with chickens, why, I half don’t doubt they et em, might say the mistress of the house, then that too


If you hear the master of the house full of refined silhouettes declare that the baby born that day ain’t going to be any good for selling, cause it is too small, then there’s a silhouette for that too (a baby born from Mandingo having sex with the white wife of the plantation master is actually killed off in the movie,  Mandingo, see apprendix)


As we know from Mandingo and other films, presuming that there is a measure of truth under the mythology of exploitation, sex was on the mind of all persons living in those elegant silhouette-bearing houses all the time, and the sex most on the minds all the time was the sex that the master was having with the slave ladies, which the white wife just had to live with, appalled and horrified. And so it would come to be, in a paranoid world, that she fears his every encounter has a sexual orientation, her mind composing endless fantastical scenarios of worries of all the heathen and animal types of intercourse devisable with slaves who do not have to be respected as partner humans (Walker’s world is also a paranoid world)


Even you see massa bounce a slave girl up and down on his knee, that too has to be worried over, as illicitly sexual


Then of course the flip side of the sensationalized Mandingo scenario with regard to the slave culture is the horrible cruelty in the form of punishment and killing that was inflicted upon slaves, mere property to kill at one’s will. Walker is less forthcoming about the torture aspects of these horrors, but here’s a little girl being burned, maybe for being a witch


This is the basic formula, then. Black silhouette has in it an intermedial history, which means that it can serve as a reagent, as many cultural meanings have been applied to it, per se. And then Walker makes use of the ironies inherent in those uses as she: 1) takes the primary discourse and reading of the silhouette as medial support items that help whites take a nostalgic view of the past and blind themselves to the realities of slavery, and she 2) tears open that screen by appropriating, through countering, the material, the device and the genre, to  3) through the voicing of the views of the masters to frame the scenarios, 4) turn it all upside down, ie negate it, to tell mandingolike exploitation stories with it. While exploitation art is art that pretends to deal with a serious subject, just so it can show you a lot of sex, reagentic art seeks to foreground those politely verboten topics, to create a shock in the content which then turns everything in the medium upside down. It is a recognizable “bad painting” stratagem, but what distinguishes Walker from others is that she fixated on the exploitation material and used it to turn the polite discourse upside down.

But then there are dangers in the reagent too. When an artist discovers a technique and an application, if they work it, and then, when the inspiration fades, lock in, and then exploit it, putting “ “ of self-reference behind it, so that Kara Walker, artist, begins to make “Kara Walkers,” then the art will lose power. When you follow an artist, you are ever on the watch out for this occurrence. There is some evidence of weakness. Walker has allowed herself to be photographed installing her art, a practice that emphasizes the technical aspects of it, thereby allowing polite art ladies to talk technique and never look at the content (tabloid art however is about content). From this photo, it is clear that Walker worked very hard to master a technique, that is, she became a master silhouette razorcutter (she has, in short, the supporting alchemy), and she took great care in installing her work

kara-12The previous picture also shows that all the silhouette pieces were preexisting, cut in the studio. Simply the fact by the way that she has taken a technique usually executed quite small scale, and done it large, would qualify her work for materialist wow art status, which is all about extension of technique to the point of eliciting a wow, but luckily it does not appear that this is what her work was about. In this picture, in fact, she is doing something with pressing paper over the edges, indicating to me that the edges were more important than the paper shapes. I suspect that she needed a sharp edge the way a photographer likes an in focus picture as opposed to a blurred one

kara-13The interesting thing about this is that she is doing it on site, herself (so in this regard ranks with Pensato and others as artists who do the installation in a kind of performative way on site). But the fact that she seems to concentrate on using a device and a screen of brown paper to press down the edge and make sure it lies flat on the wall, while ignoring the absolutely horrific content of not only a blowjob above, but a pedophile, and a slave pedophile blowjob again indicates to me how overly concentrated most artists are with their technique.

But there is an odder aspect of this tendency to picture Walker papering. I am a bit uneasy by the presence, for example, of this video in the middle of a presentation of the mural, back in the distance, it is literally a distancing technique, perhaps designed to offset close look at content


And the fact that she is so often pictured in front of her work, working on her work, being workmanlike and blaise in the presence of awful scenes, which, in being worked, are reduced just back to paper, makes me suspect that with Walker there is a market need and a social need to make her the prototype of the art, and everything on the wall an expression of her inner self  (a modernist notion). Of course, the cult of the artist is in play here, as country club ladies can forgive any rudeness if the artist is an artist. But as just an artist in the postmodern sense, out front of her art, the agent of its agency, there is a strange rhyme between her body and her figures, between her blackness and her content, as if exonerating it, “its ok, she’s black, so she can say these things, she’s not racist,” and then that, in what some genius thought was a good picture, her crouching position, visually “catching” the baby she is in fact installing, makes of her a maternal figure (even more placating exploitation of her plumber’s butt here—subtly stereotyping her), which further softens the harsh meaning.  I do worry that forces are out there, which she is aware of and plays with, but which may still be too powerful for her, trying to not see or look askant at the content of her art (reinforcing as well the entire art world blindness with regard to content, where nothing is ever about what it is about), but these are meta issues, and it would seem, so far, and we are 20 years into her career, Walker has thus far avoided Mike Kelley’s mistake of letting the art world, and the breaching of a popular culture trope into the art world, talk her out of her art. There is no doubt about it, it is hard to become famous in the art world, then it is harder to not let that fame tear you apart as an artist).

kara-15But in this case, this emphasis is telling. Why would edge be so important? Why would it mean so much, that the silhouette as it were seemed to emerge from the wall itself, and sit on the wall in a way that glided into the wall, and was not roughly sitting on the wall. The answer is in Gone itself, where Walker expands upon her technique and her material a second time by arraying them as a classic panorama


I wrote about this just the other day, on the use of the panorama as a device in horror movies (Friday the 13th (1977), with Peggy Fuery), to whisper or call out that trouble was coming in on the house from the other side of that wall. A panorama would seem to open the house up to the world beyond, but while this was a power act of domain surveying self-cult behavior and appraisal from the point of view of the master, with his whole domain visiable as it were from the picture window of his panorama, in horror movies it intramurally inverted. This was likely due to the visual tradition, not lost on viewers, but only gradually coming to consciousness, that in panorama rooms, with panorama wallpapers, the master sat at the table

kara-17the wide world without, which he ruled, was all about him (notice in this bustling port scene, several African Americans)

kara-18But then it is also true that what you saw most of the time in movies with rooms with paintings like this in them were that the servants and slaves stood back behind the table, to serve on the masters, and they kind of stepped out of the panorama, in their service reversing the trajectory

kara-19In any case, within movies itself, the panorama inverted, and became a symbol of trouble coming at the house. It is was no longer a picture window on all that one has, but a laundry list of all the troubles all one has brings your way. Again, whether or not Walker understood this at the time, I can’t say: I certainly had not yet studied the meaning of the panorama within the history of film (though have always been interested in panoramas in the prehistory of movies and as related to history painting for a good while). But she decided, I will display these figures in a panorama, and that is what she did

kara-20Since in this inverted state, the panorama bleeds off the wall, and one’s domain is replaced by a seethrough vision to all the problems and horrors besetting this, this represents a kind of haunting of the master’s house, better still of the white cube. Each vignette itself is a work of art, a flip of a conventional silhouette, often giving voice, as I imagine it, to some rude obscene racist comment made by a master, and then they arranged next to each other to create a lively counterpoint, adding to the shocks (shocking to see the hatted minister flip a black wench on his cock, even more so as he is peering into a black (tar?) puddle, where a little boy drowning is going down by the feet). It’s an added dimension, expanding its reagency.

And then it happens a third time. The key to keeping reagency as a power powerful is to let it flow, it is a flow, and it must manifest as a flow. There is no lecturing and political correct patrolling of nicety, there is no censorship or self-censoring, there is no tidying up and sanitizing. If this is the program that Walker has chosen, then she has to let it take her where it will. And Walker has shown herself willing and able to back off and let the chips fall where they may. Having unleashed the hounds of hell of the internal imperatives of her self-generating reagentic discourse, she has been wise enough to get out of its way, and let it ride, time and again “going there” and sometimes going too far, but in all cases, in every case, where that happens, still showing a willingness to let her work live and have a life of its own. To arrange these horrible vignettes in a beautiful array is not a tidying up procedure. It pulls back to surround the whole with the far niente ease of fate, it represents at the far exo-reagentic reaches of her mind, she still believes in the blinding mechanism of the silhouette to, even having raised it, put it all back to sleep again, and she has incorporated that beware into her work by allowing the white viewer to step back and see and enjoy the smooth and easy flow of the frankly harmonious negative (white) spaces between the vignettes, and misread it for a moment.

And Walker has been wise enough to include enough of the sweetness, to make the doubletake flip still work, these are pleasant vignettes, seen, as panoramas often are, from afar, and then they get brutal

kara-21There is just an undeniable visual pleasure in this art, because of its white tradition


The panorama perspective likely also drew her vignettes up toward her, into the surface zone of the artwork complex, so that she began to think of them as more above or in front of a foreign ground, and from that she could insert other, more portable grounds. In an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005, which I really enjoyed, I loved how she made a body of print work in which her figures are ironically inserted over, to turn the meaning of the print behind upside down, romanticizing shots from Harper’s Weekly, which excited me, as that was one of the first body of historical reportage artwork that I latched onto to critique the romantic phoniness of coverage.

kara-23I remember paging through page after page of Harper’s Weekly and other publications of the time appalled at the routine romanticizing they did of the Civil War, and here Walker is making use of her silhouettes to haunt the hypocrisy out of those same images


This represents a more counteragency state, as it precipitates upon a reagent, and, as such, this can become something like a virus, a curse, a sickness, a thing that attaches itself to you, in danger of becoming a posture, and then you cannot stop yourself. Sometimes you do it with glee, at other times you pull back. Seeing a lot of push and pull in her work, from quiet and cute moments, to harsh and extreme moments, from not going far enough, to going too far, is part of the life of having a counteragency reagent based art. If at no time as you engage a discourse critically, you at no point ‘fall into’ it and succumb to its charms, if you do not struggle in the long term, not only with your hatred of the discourse, but your acknowledgement of your weakness vis a vis the discourse, that it is strong, that it has much that can and does seduce you, that there will be times when your critique is disarmed, and there will be quieter times when the harsh stuff appalls you and then harsher times when the quiet stuff is thrown away, if there is no danger that the discourse targeted by your critique will seduce you, then you have not fully addressed it, and acknowledged its power. Only by that acknowledgement, will your war against it be real (I experience a similar thing as Walker in my long-term struggle between self-identifying as an Irish Catholic and then my repeatedly reverting to a weird Anglophilia, even though the British did great damage to “my people”—it goes on and on).

As a result of her push and pull, Walker’s art has still another characteristic of great art that is too often overlooked in the art world, and sometimes even mistakenly poo-poohed. And that is that, having got her technical armentarium down, she is on a roll, it is prolific, she makes a lot of art, and it shows, not in the sense that she is outrunning the work, and outstripping it, making it weaker, but it just keeps exploring and building and going off in that way, and then that. It is as if the work has presented so many possibilities to her, that she is running after her work—always a very good place to be in. This liveliness is another key component of the ease and no sweat composure of a completed work of art. Sometimes Walker goes abstract, and one might think, too abstract


Sometimes she veers over into gruesome, and gets too gothic, and one might think, too figurative


Sometimes she just has a notion, you’re not quite sure what’s up


And at some point, she can even experiment, so in this obviously transitional work, perhaps getting a bit tired of the silhouette thing, seeking some new way to situate it in a new intermedial nexus, what looks like an attempt to paint things around it , which seems to me to be a failure

kara-28But the presence of the reagent  provides her so much wiggle room that she is free to pursue these pushes and pulls, without endangering her art.

Very much according to the same model as I mapped out for John Currin, once Walker solidified and established command of her conceptual armentarium in terms of material, technique, color, subject matter and time factor, as a formal apparatus that had great breadth and width because it was a legitimate reagent, she was  free to “take it on the road” and by that I mean imagine for her babies a new context, a new setting, a new way to present it. This then lead to her video art, which is a variation on her silhouettes

kara-29Sometimes shown in video format

kara-30Sometimes even shown in a tableaux setting

kara-31And then in large scale installations, where the video is reduced to overhead projected scrims of moving color, with the silhouettes back in place. Same elements, all mixed up in newly creative ways. I in particular loved this moving installation at Sikkema in I think 2007.


And again

kara-33sometimes these light shows can pause to offer a regroup to pure vignette power, as with this red willow

kara-34But most of the time the projection serves to activate the notion of the panorama. But then, too, it represents still a further extension of the panorama, to the motion picture, and the early history of the motion picture. Since it was during this era of entertainment that the magic lantern developed a number of different light show ways to present things, and one of them was, historically, the incorporation of shadowplay silhouette in film and even in puppet show stage plays, Walker stumbles by sheer luck into another incredibly rich historical load of intermedial and racially charged intermedial history, which she can play with ad infinitum.

Which means that now sometimes she can go small and crafty, but even here to invade the children’s book, with her lovely silhouette aesthetic, that then turns up some very rude realities, is another case of intermedial upturning that is genius


But sometimes she goes quite broad with the panoramas, reminding us again that that format is there to allow the viewer to get tripped up in an expanded networked version of the original turnupside down of the silhouette, to step back and just passively take in the whole of it, without regard to content, and just float or glide on the surface of a deracinated and emptied out “it’s just history,” an edge and a resolution that I think Walker must like., or at least acknowledge as part of being a person in time and in and out of history. To state the case, I present Prince Charles viewing a panorama last June of the Panorama of Waterloo, because we know how totally pissed off the Germans and the French are over that, still today (I’m joking )

kara-36The fact that the viewer is left to it, to take it in or not, is an aspect of that far framed  force I term exo-reagency, a difficult force to get a handle on. But let me try. Counterreality is reality created by a person who has, for various reasons, turned away from the reality they grew up in, or were supposed to thrive in, but they turned away. But then they inevitably find that turning away does not really open up to a new life, they are placed as on a cliff, as it were, looking out onto the abyss, their shoulder turned to their world, but still part of their world. In that case, they their counterreality in their imagination only, they turn a shoulder to their world (live with a chip on their shoulder), then go back fashioning a counterreality out of the material of the reality they left behind, but reimagined. Hopefully, in this confabulation, reagency will thrive. Over time, developing the milieu and repertore of this private “personal mythology” world, the repeated precipitation of counteragency onto reagency can result in a wide spin out to exo-agency (this takes time, trailing from short-term memory to working memoery to long-term memory), where the mind in its farthest reaches is excavated to flow and speak n total freedom as if by ventriloquism though art. In those far reaching exo-agentic zones, any number of simplifying explanations of life are intelligently cultivated to make life as represetned in the art must more straightforward and meaningful, full of agency too, than in the actual conflicted, rationalized and exploitation-ridden real world. This lends to exo agentic space a distinct mythological or religious aura—some artists get to this point, where everything they do is like a pull on a spiderweb and it all means something in a world where everything means something. The mere experience of this world, in a world where there is so little of this, is one of the great life-saving thrills of art itself, it is not so much empowering, but revivifying, waking one up to life, it is, then, I suppose, a votive-cult thing, a final offering made to the life force itself. So, the presence of a mythology, of a whole world in which one’s art lives, and in which one’s art works as a kind of fictional force to overwrite the real with a preferred or ideal or even horrific (but if simplified, at least comprehensible real), all of this pushes the reagent out to wider and wider potential. And this finally means that an artist who has reached the high stratosphere of the exo-reagentic, realizes in time that he or she is actually writing over all life, his or her whole life, they are rewriting and reassigning meaning to the whole thing, and this mandate creates such a drive that it acts like the pull of a far off sunrise, to pull them on to greater and greater things. I takes a lot of opening up of mental full brain space to get to the hippocampal zone of the long-term consequent memories of one’s art, but it is apparent to me that Walker is on her way.

And, yet, in a career, always bumps in the road. Walker’s most recent full scale show, at the Art Institute in Chicago, in 2013, I think, shows some signs that her rather comfortable academic existence may be causing her to self-censor her rudeness and her tabloid undertone raucousness, and tidy up and be more polite and sensible. There are more straight lines, more frames, more nice spaces, the fact that she went white against a grey wall, it is a legitimate twist of her practice, but it’s meaning is not entirely clear to me

kara-37What interests me most is that she has decided to display in white rather tame scenes, and then counterpointed them with an installation of smaller drawings. These then come direct head on into my discourse studying the history of pictures hung on walls in middle class homes, which I do by way of the evidence of horror movies, and of the confluence in intermedial history of the silhouette as small picture in middle class home, and its coming off the wall as a whispering haunter, symbolic of trouble in the house. But when she does a salon spray of this sort, it speaks to me of, as in Chucky 3 (see my essay), the demise of the family, strangely, a new sort of pessimism


This work also includes large scale drawing, which I have never thought to be her forte (note: in 2016, she solved this problem, with the Ecstasy of St Kara, Cleveland Museum of Art).But generally is given tone by the counterpoint confrontation between whited out vignettes, which seem to have given up some of their power, and then a drawing on the wall of a gallery, it is beautiful, but it strikes me as Walker again being in a more abstract region of the push pull that is allowed by her art.


All in all, Kara Walker is a terrific artist. She may be the best African American artist of my time in viewing art. She might be one of the very best artists of “my generation,” really her generation. Her example has inspired many others, whose work would fall in line behind her. But her work has also, for the art world, often seemed too rough. But the key to the mystery of why Walker soared and learned how to manage and control the nexus of meaning with all of its plus-minus charges inside of it is that she discovered a fundamental reagent (a material,gestural, formal, black paper-cutting-silhouette, historical-intermedically complex format) that was so pliable and agile, so rich in potential and in relationships with others, so self-contained in terms of embodying in it a “double blind” which locks out lecture and keeps in art, keeping the agency in the art itself, it is because she discovered this, and so many other artists never do, that her work soars. That she then was able. through her counteragentic recreation of a tabloid world where vile and violent things are the norm,  a harsh vision of African American life and the legacy of slavery in the mindset and rootwork of white American life, in effect, harvested from her reagent, to develop variations and expansions and reagentifying reinventions and reimaginings that just go on, and on, and even as they go on, raise other issues, and other relationships, it is all a body of work that actively grows in front of you. For this, Kara Walker has her thing, her milieu, her repertore, her philosophy, all of which orbits about her core reagent to continually spin off great contemporary art.


from RoMMerreviews:

583 Mandingo (1975), three stars, May 10 2013 (with pics, in case you think Kara Walker is the first person to address all this).

Quentin Tarantino has declared that Mandingo is one of his favorite exploitation movies and used it as a source to model some of the action, especially the mandingo fighter storyline, in his movie Django Unchained. As such, his movie was a weird mesh of a spaghetti western reverting east to encircle blaxpploitation movies/subgenre slavery. But Mandingo was a Dino De Laurentis production, and stared James Mason and Susan George, it was trashy, but, for that, a serious little attempt to put a postGonewith the Wind novel to film. The movie starts and ends with a terrific song by Muddy Waters, his guitar all but weeping the blues, and this tone recurs throughout out as at every strange headturn of the plot a dulcimer hits a flat note twang. The story is that at Falconcrest, a rather rundown plantation whose suffocating claustrophic quality is emphasized terrifically by its barren floors, worn walls, heavy mosquito nets and especially the drapes and curtains of Susan George’s bedroom prison, has a mean father, Mason, and a sympathetic oaf of a son who has a thing for the black ladies. As a result, the movie starts when one of the slave girls must go through a ritual of losing her virginity to the master, we see her bathe, we see her enact, we see her nude, twice or three times.

kara-40Meanwhile, master has the rheumatism and following old medical belief  tries to put it off into something else, though in this case the something else is a small black boy who has to lie at the bottom of his chair or even bed with the master’s dirty feet on him, and that too is bizarre (but a common medical superstition at the time)

kara-41After the young master comes up to his bedroom, after deflowering the slave girl, we find, from a boob shot, that is, boob in the frame, that he also has a regular “bed wench”, and they have a rather nice relationship

kara-42The really eerie and effective thing about all this, and what makes it something other than exploitation (the exploitation is in the sex), is that it is all just seems taken for granted or resigned to as normal and as a result communicates again the suffocating sense of living in and making something of and culturing the everyday nightmare of slavery. It is intriguing that the whites begin to talk like the blacks, for example, saying what fers and lessin you, knocked for pregnant, and sucker for child, it shows how deep it went. I don’t doubt in fact that most of the facts in the movie were fairly well researched. The old slave who watches over all then gets caught trying to read and since the masters think reading will make him human or start thinking and join up with another slave revolt he is hung upside down naked and paddled on the behind with a board with nails in it, a scene or method of torture pretty much borrowed by Tarantino, verifying the source. As if the master has not had enough when he is off on a road trip to buy some slaves he discovers a lovely comfort girl offered him and when he gets her to look him in the eyes he falls for her, and she thinks he is a sensitive white man because he winced at his pal beating his bed wench before he entered her, so, within the coping limits of the time, they form a bond.

kara-43On the same trip though he meets Susan George and they agree to marry but then on a honeymoon in a lovely Bourbon street loft in New Orleans he huffs off after discovering that she is not a virgin and goes to a whorehouse where he backs off the girls but buys Ken Norton as Mede, short for Ganymede, a mandingo fighter. So it is true: this movie was all about the mandingo boxing circuit, and in the main fight that he is trained for, and for which even pa comes to New Orleans to see, he has to kill the opponent to survive the fight. That fight scene is terrific, and also included, by the way, biting (one wonders if deep down in his subconscious Mike Tyson wasn’t getting all mandingo when he bit an ear off). .All of this has been discovered since to be urban legend, but still told by Tarantino. It should be said that Susan George married him because she was desperate to get away from her family but back at the plantation she immediately comes up against her husbands favor to his bed wench and begins to drink. She is thoroughly nasty and miserable throughout, George puts in quite a performance all cooped up sweaty and drunk in the mosquito net hell.

kara-44At one point she gets so desperate for sex that she blackmails Mede into sleeping with her, with a modest nude scene, but when she gets pregnant and gives birth to a black baby the doctor has to kill it by letting the umbilicial bleed out and her husband comes up with a drink with poison in it to kill her, then he goes orders Mede to prepare a big pot of boiling water and shoots him into it, pushing aside his bed wench on the way, not before the old slave grabs a rifle in disgust and shoots James Mason on his rundown porch.

kara-45We know from diaries from the time that white women were in fact tormented by the attraction of their men to the slave women: this is of course the exploitation seam of the slavery story that would make a lurid tale, and here it is. But to dismiss this movie as just melodramatic soap opera trash is to ignore the fact that it seemed to me to overall tell a truer tale of the everyday evil of slavery, as it destroyed everyone, and was frank too in having plenty of outraged scenes of slave families being separated and sold, and slave markets, and all around vile behavior to the slaves, than Django Unchained. But this is how culture is: people trying to get by, they make up the rules as they go along, they put up with things, some things they can’t change, are terrorized into other things, get used to other things. then they go crazy, and lash out, and on an on. Mandingo, it’s a haunted house movie where the ghosts are the whites undone by the crime they have built their life around, and for the thoroughness of its depiction of this corruption, including, in the end, the right to murder their slaves, it’s actually quite good.





Bobby’s world in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

rev., August 19, 2014.

In a recent screening of a movie I have seen many times, over many years, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), a few important ulterior motives influenced my view. For one thing, I watched the movie this time, for the record, but for what I could glean from it to help me work out, in the context of my series of studies called Exposures, why it was that in 1965, at the age of 12, Salvator Dali’s Last Supper at the National Gallery of Art turned out to be the most influential work of contemporary art in my life. It has been very difficult to figure out this problem. But in a previous essay on the poli-myths involved in movies of the time like The Deadly Mantis and Forbidden World, the fact that movies of the time focused all government activity on the Mall in Washington, D.C., made me think that it was likely one reason I valued the Last Supper so highly was that it was news and I saw it on the Mall at the National Gallery. The question to follow from that is, why was the Mall so significant as a schematic representation of the US government in the 1950s (with the theme picked up on in Earth vs Flying Saucers too), and what did it mean in terms of mapping out in movies a vision of the country for a kid of 12 who might then be seeking to give a place to art in that world view. As a result of this interest, I sought in this viewing to see the movie not as I might see it now, but try to imagine how a boy of 12 would see it, especially a boy with the name of Bobby. Indeed, Bobby is the main character of the movie. Here he sits, somewhat confused by what is going on in his life, he’s got a lot on his plate.

bob-1I would like to point out that he sits in a grown up chair, overly comfy for him; he sits and lives ‘under the map’ or in the care of a force larger than him, and he also has some porcelain in his field of vision. But in this scene he is wondering how much of what he did today he should share with his mother. The movie’s treatment of the invasion of Klaatu is entirely domestic. As a result, it makes use of basic domestic haunting conventions to create a sense of something wrong in the house. Early on, we see how it is that Bobby sees the world. He sits in a circle, on the floor, with adults around him making comments on the news, and learns. The TV is black and white, nothing fancy. (The reporter is the most dated aspect of this transmission for me: by 1961, not 1951, the radio Walter Winchells with their hats had given way smooth hatless smokers).

bob-2The importance of this is that the scene is archetypal. That is, I got a lot of my news that way too: this was because houses did not have that many tvs, so you all had to sit in the same room and watch. We were in that phase until the late 1960s, when the TVs began to proliferate in different rooms. I can document that I watched Lee Harvey Oswald be shot on November 24, 1963, Lyndon Johnson withdraw from presidential politics on March 31, 1968, Bobby Kennedy get shot, and the Chicago Democratic convention riots, all in a group-format viewing of the TV news in the den. So, the world is projected in a singular medium, a new medium, but to a common campfire. This is made more public in Bobby’s case because he lives with his single mother, his father having been killed in the war, in a boarding room house in Washington, which I cannot speak to as such boarding houses are almost unimaginable to me (though they apparently exist right down the block from me in NE). In any case, this is the image of the national campfire, everyone “glued” to their TVs, watching a common news, a common authoritarian reporter, with a common voice and concern. This is important: media at the time was monolithic.

And, then, too, it is into this scenario that Klaatu first walks. In fact, the TV reporter reports that he might be lurking anywhere in town, and to watch out for him: he becomes the bogey man. And then they turn around, and there he stands. He lets them take him in, in his silhouetteness, for a moment, then he asks for a room. But, as such, he becomes the news that has stepped out of the TV. He becomes that is the cult figure, but now come alive as an agent in the cult space.

bob-3An important element of his appearance is that he is rationalized as well as a possible startled physiogonomy seen by way of the lamp bouncing off the bronze figural work of art on a pedestal in the hallway, the umbrella stand to the right. It is a great shot, full of menace, but, then, not so much. IT has to be noted, then, that in 1951, an alien from outer space is imagined as a thing seen, startled from thinking a work of figurative sculpture was the presence of something else

bob-4Because he appears first in the house, however, his haunting of this world will have to work through the common gauntlets of this world. The first would be, in a haunted house scenario, the bannister, suggestive here of white picket fence All Americanness, but generally representing complication, prisoning, and danger. It is also to be noted that, as early as 1951, there is a generic landscape on the wall, of no importance, except that here and in a thousand horror movies to come, this kind of picture on the wall represents trouble coming at you from without. I would also suggest that in this particular shot the prominence of the newell post also represents his alieness, his stiffnes, reinforced by the raking light, all effects which create a two-d world in which strange things can be seen.

bob-5Further up, having come round the newell, he gives one of his condescending smiles, entirely represented in his foreigness by that closeup of the landscape picture

bob-6Later, when the boyfriend goes up to look for him, knocking at his door, we see that this boarding house has kept the upper hall somewhat public in nature, in the nature of a hotel, with a set of a table and lamp at the end of the hall, and then more generic landscapes in the décor scheme in the hall

bob-7When Richard Carlson is in his room, with the diamonds, we see again that he is dealing with something strange, from outside of our world, by the fact that there too is that convention, the generic landscape.

bob-8and then when he heads back down, to signify now his greater urgency, and that trouble is brewing, and that his challenges are greater now, the newell has become a hurdle, the bannister a trap, and the shadows almost film noir deep, signifying intrigue

bob-9The only other important business in the house is that exchanges of who’s going out, and who’s taking care of who, happen in the outer lower hall, and at the front door. Klaatu appears often coming down from above, in the house, one or two times somewhat unexpectedly. Later, after her date out, to get some boyfriend time away from her single mom kid, there is a dissolve, as she climbs the stair, indicating just how torn she is by what is out from that door, and what is safe at home.

bob-10This puts the central shaft of the staircase as the central axis of the drama of the movie, and the main domestic problem that propels the plot, in the complications that arise in the boarding house after Klaatu’s arrival, and that is that she is a single mom, needs time with men, and is impatient with taking care of, and caring for Bobby. Bobby, then, is not having all his needs met. This makes him susceptible to Klaatu, but then Klaatu seems so eager to make use of Bobby to learn about man, and Carlson seems so eager to get her away from Bobby, alone to him (presumably for sex), that she makes the extraordinary decision to let Klaatu take care of Bobby for the day, when she has known Klaatu less than a week, and let Bobby show Klaatu around the town. For this reason, Klaatu gets a boy’s tour of Washington DC. The tour is odd, but highly centralized. They go to Arlington Cemetery, to see Bobby’s father’s tomb, which is way too soon to be sharing that kind of thing with a stranger, and this is obviously rear projection

bob-11And then they drop back down to none other than the Mall, and the monuments of the mall. And having gone seen Bobby’s departed father, with his new temporary father figure, their first stop is at the shrine or godly temple of the also killed father figure of the US, Abraham Lincoln. This is an amazing shot, showing Lincoln to be as big to Klaatu, as Klaatu’s original arrival over the Mall was to earth

bob-12There is also a rear projection reading of one of Lincoln’s greatest speeches, and Klaatu as the enlightened alien says that these are wonderful words by a great man, a man whose peacefulness might well have made him welcome among his people too

bob-13This is the second time that the movie has in fact been to the Lincoln Memorial. In the opening sequence, it showed a typical day in Washington DC, in the national consciousness of the time, that would be on the Mall (the colonnade can also be seen here as a public enlargement of the imprisoning white picket fence of the neighborhood schematic view of the world; when I first saw these monuments, age 11, they seemed like unapproachable, alien places)

bob-14Washington is those monuments, whose tremendous steps you walk up, whose awesome majesty you cower under, all of it on the Mall or thereabouts

bob-15This is the Washington where Mr and Mrs America, Ma and Pa from Palookaville, come to see the Nation’s Capital, here they are at the Supreme Court. Here it is we see how the government works, that the government works, that the government is all. But, then, it is precisely at this point, that they are interrupted from their retired person tour, and notice something strange in the sky

bob-16So it comes over the Capitol

bob-17And then the Mall and the Smithsonian

bob-18In fact it begins its descent right over the Smithsonian Museum, in the world of the Mall museums

bob-19and finds a place to land on the ball fields that existed at the time where the National Christmas Tree is still placed directly opposite the front side of the White House itself

bob-20And there it sits, then, a new addition to the monuments and the attractions of the Mall (This appearance was important for me previously when I made an attempt to study Mall culture and the roll of the Mall during the Inaugural Events of the 1980s, and made much progress, but all I recollect was that there was a concert at the Mall, at the Lincoln Memorial, where I saw the old Beach Boys and the President Elect, and then a weird cult outdoor maze of an exhibition of the world’s biggest chair, the walls of the maze covered with bizarre supersize historical paintings, which is possibly why I view historical paintings as somewhat alien, but also homey.

bob-22Later on in the movie, Klaatu and Bobby go on another outing, but this time it is Klaatu ducking out to arrange with his spaceship for the stand-still demonstration the next day, for which he has to return to his ship, and then Bobby following him. In this one, Bobby trails along about a half block behind him, here he is sneaking around the spiked gates of a house in the neighborhood

bob-23Then in the world of the movie we see that the Mall is at the end of the block, more or less, easy walking distance, no security, like a park at the corner, he just walks right in, on the grass

bob-24Then circles round back

bob-25And Bobby is able to follow him in, and spy on him, right there in his world, the alien universe at the end of his block

bob-26Critics of the British horror boom have noted with approval the ability of the Brits to place alien invasions in the milieu of the small British country town, and have called the syndrome the “parochial apocalypse,” that is, the end of the world is depicted as something terrible happening in one small community, and that is that, they leave it at that. This then would be an American example of that, except that Mall represents America at large, but as imagined as right at the end of the block and in the neighborhood a boy who lives on the block. The alien is the man who lives down the hall, and the alien spaceship is parked at the end of the block. It is very parochial, and, for that, I am sure that it impressed me as a compact and coherent if schematic representation of what exactly the USA was vis a via the world of a ten year old suburban boy in America in 1960. Just as we drove to the end of the block to go shopping, or go on errands, and as far as we went by ourselves was on our bikes to the Port Washington Shopping Center, so too America existed as a concept represented by distinct monuments, mere schema, located just beyond the scope of our world. We lived like a donut hole inside a world comprised of the Mall and its monuments.

It is somewhat surprising to me, for someone who would come to live in NYC for 35 years, that when the Day the Earth Stood Still part happened, I was not that impressed with that, a boy might have wanted a bit more destruction of the world than a global power failure, after all, but also that the New York in the movie was a nonstarter, making no real impression on me at all.

bob-27No, it was the Washington, the country as Washington, and Washington as the Mall, and as, and the government as a series of principles elucidated by great men represented by monuments and organs of government bespeaking the powerful impression made by their imposing classical architecture. In this I was indoctrinated into a primarily neoclassical vision of America as the monumental housing of certain founding father principles, not to be messed with, but held in sanctity in museums. I did not care about America the real and American the film noir and America the ugly, all I knew was America the monumental. This vision of America was reinforced in my childhood life by the collecting of stamps, commemorative issues at that time both monumental in style, ie neoclassical in design elements, and in content, focusing often on monumental figures and monumental buildings, but also the monuments of nature out West too (I mainly still place the Devil’s Tower and the national parks in a monumental mindset because of my exposure to them first through stamps). So, this is one conclusion: If I thought Klaatu was important, and the landing of Klaatu was an event that the nation had better pay attention to, it was because it landed on the front lawn of America, which was a projection of my neighborhood, and even the front lawn of my house. That also means that I would be inclined to think that anything in any field of life that I was being educated in would be more important and landmark in nature if it was housed on the Mall in a national monument. The connection between stamps and the Mall were made when we visited Washington in 1965 when I was 12 and took a tour of no less than the national printing office on the mall, which printed our nation’s stamps. At the same time, it is likely that I would have thought it important to “collect” a work of art I first saw on the mall, and one recently given to the country as a gift by the artist, Dali’s Last Supper, which I believe I saw in person at the National Gallery during that tour, then I bought an 8 by 10 card image of it that I still have sleeved in my 1965 scrapbook.

So, from this reading, it is clear that the psychogeography of The Day the Earth Stood Still mapped out a cognitive map of what the government was, and where it was, relative to my private life, in my house, my yard, and my neighborhood, and that, situated as it was at the end of my block, it was there that all great things were housed. Thus, it is not far-fetched to say that I was so influenced in art by Dali’s Last Supper because it represented for me a transposition of the space ship in Day. It is also true that many of the effects of the aliens lend themselves to transfer to the Dali and its otherworldly unrealness. For example, Gort’s skill in zapping weapons, was a simple special effect, they just lit up, and vanished in the hand, apparently without a killing rise in temperature.

bob-28Even tanks are irradiated, by that laser ray

bob-29Later the USA tries to house Gort in a thick plastic polymer, to contain him, but he melts it away

bob-30in a way that does look forward to the dissolving nature of the chamber of the last supper in Dali’s painting, in the National Gallery of Art, on the mall (which I saw in May, 1965).

dale-dali-3And then, the congress being also held quite parochially without the benefit of security clearance, in the Mall, in front of the thing, it lights up, and lifts away, a transcendence

bob-31On a second level then, the Day and Dali share the trajectory of a vision, both situated on the Mall, in different ways.

There is no doubt that all of this is meant to be scary to a ten year old boy. It is only read that way as hysteria in the movie, as expressed in the press. This was how I was meant to see the movie.

bob-32this fear is then made to seem irrational, compared to what Klaatu really is, by spreading to the newspapers, and more hysteria there, and this is a very good newspaper movie, or headline scare movie, and may indeed be the place where I picked up the bug for this kind of effect, and this kind of movie, the headlines blaring (since I was later a paper boy this then also cross references with my writing on the Kennedy Assassination).

bob-33But the really strange thing about the movie is that at the end Klaatu restrains Gort and makes a peaceful proclamation to mankind, in the atomic era, where the threat of annihilation is now the underlying subject of most sci fi movies. The strange thing is is that I am sure in the supertext or explicit text of the movie we were meant to read this all as pacifism and rational and as a reasonable response to the lowly hysteria of the average atombomb building killing post World War human being. But in fact what he really says is that they have surrendered their self determination to a super police force that will annihilate them if they get out of line, and that is in fact fascism. It’s odd, indeed. How does one get out of it, or rather, how has it not been noticed how fascistic this is? I think the answer goes back to the theme of Bobby and his mother, his mother being single, trying to find another husband, wanting sex. There is something in Patricia Neal that makes her the star of the movie, she is nervous and unsure, then frantic and strangely brave throughout: from her first curious gaze at Klaatu, to her final fearful appraisal of Gort, it is her performance, supported by Michael Rennie, which keeps the movie aloft, in stature. But there is also something about her manner, sexually frustrated, unhappy, that keeps the motor running. Why?

When on their day trip Klaatu and Bobby go visit the professor in a house, one presumes, somewhere in the neighborhood, when Klaatu walks in, there is a picture of a very smart man on the wall, signifying that this is place of learning, but it also Sigmund Freud

bob-34That IS Freud

bob-35Same picture


The scene plays out, in a scenario that would become a meme in many subsequent sci fi movies, the great math, the solving of impossible problems easily, as a male, macho thing

bob-37But it is precisely interspersed with this episode that Neal gets back, and she wonders about the day Bobby has had, and she climbs the stair, and that door empties out her head, she worries if she is good enough as a mother, if she is a good mother, and if Bobby is not failing as a child because she is not a good mother

bob-38From this point of view, as I pointed out in July, 2014, on my FB page, the female principle presides, and from this point of view it cannot be mistaken that the strangely serene contour of the alien ship is entirely female, and, in its slit, and opening, and shape, and form, like a vulva and vagina (she is also the only human being who enters the craft)

bob-39Klaatu himself first comes out from the slit, unformed, and silky, all covered in shininess, a space baby, this is a figuralized birth scene

bob-40Gort too, for all his heft in his chest, is all round and clean, impregnable, babylike, and he emits his force in a non-male, non-gesticulating manner, from a slit in his face, another slit, another female form, as I said an anti-penis

bob-41and one has to say that Klaatu does with talking what Gort does with zaps, he is not using lethal male force, but trying out the more peaceful, feminine approach of talking it out,

bob-42and his solution to the world’s problems: to recede mankind back into that early stage of development where the self is not yet differentiated from the mother, and where, as a result, if the baby makes a false move, it fears annihilation from its mommy, he wants to bring back regressively the allpowerful undifferentiated mommy of the very earliest stages of Freudian development. This is a clear statement of that phase, before the emergence of the self. And then too the world of it: all of it an extension of one’s bedroom, of one’s house, the world at the end of the block, the fricking government and all the things you read in the news at the end of your own block, and then the alien that you are reading about in the papers, that alien is playing your surrogate daddy so that mommy can get some time off from your care to go out in the world and have some sex, so she does not destroy you in resentment for having stolen her life from her. It has the potential of a deeply demented Freudian melodrama, and in its tacit script is not that far from Psycho, to tell the truth: I mean, Klaatu’s plan for peace is entirely unacceptable to adult humanity, and a nonstarter for its feminist mommyism and its regressive repressive fascistic ethos. Thus, today, the movie has a very odd feeling, a creepy vibe, because of this.

bob-44And then, two last things, why would I have found this scenario appealing? Likely because of my rather undifferentiated state as a younger identical twin. It is likely that in some way I retained in my imaginative framework an undifferentiated view of the world in which schematic representations of complex realities, as I spelled out in my description of the museum on the mall in the Deadly Mantis, was how I saw the world. And I then too would have had an odd relationship with my mother, in ways not to be addressed, likely having to do with deep concerns as to whether or not I was getting enough attention.

But for both reasons, Dali’s Last Supper in so far as it represents a transcendant supper, happening on Easter morning, skipping the bad part of the Passion, lifting the burden of his sacrifice from Jesus, for a more Greek orthodox vision of the happy ascensioning Jesus (as spelled out too with meaning in Lars van Trier’s latest, Nymphomania), it fed religion and government together, through a Klaatu-like Jesus, to a vision of an undifferentiated world, where Jesus was a subcategory, as represented in an image got from the mall, of In God We Trust, thus, a governmental god, a god of the mall. Thus, in retrospect, The Day the Earth Stood Still laid the groundwork for a whole level of imaginative development in my youth in which the premise of life was that things should stand still for months and years and, in that way, become as monuments in life, just like on the Mall.


The preeminnance of the Mall as the site, schematically, of government, and important things, and History with a capital H, is carried out of course in the mania, after House of Cards, and Scandal, and now more to come, for Mall soap operas, everything happening in government buidlings. All of these are fantasies. But this past year my life was directly negatively affected by a decision made on a Friday in Congress that, for failure to act, took effect immediately on the next Monday, resulting in the cut off of my long term unemployment. As a result of this, the government and its nonaction immediately, without buffer, without a grace period, without a period of accustomization between passage of the bill and it going into effect, but through an immediate action, cut off funding, and cast my life into chaos. As a result, I have suffered much directly as a result of a government action. And then when they failed to grant me disability for my condition, which obviously prevents me from working nine to five, again, a direct negative action by elements of power centered on the mall. For that reason, the denizens of the Mall, as at no time in life since the early 1960s (for in my elaborate studies of mall culture in the 1980s I was in a state of ironic disbelief at the vacant silliness of it all), the Mall and its dramas had an immediate negative, horror-inducing, alien impact on my life. The Day the Earth Stood Still, in 2014, turned into the Year My Life Stood Still, because Congress stood still on unemployment renewal.

Strange vibes in Anselm Kiefer’s Walhalla paintings, White Cube, London, 2016-2017.

Rev., November 26, 2016.

(Note: again, this is a musing, not a review, based on virtual consideration of installations shots; however, in my day, I saw in person many Kiefer exhibitions, therefore retain some bearing with regard to his installation gambits).

Anselm Kiefer’s latest exhibition, Walhalla, at White Cube in London, raises a few question about the artist’s ability to sustain the vibe of agency, and make the art authentic, or whether or not he is lapsing back into rationalization and repeating himself. According to my model, all art must be about either cult, intercessional, votive or apotropaic matters (as well as compound agencies, agency arrays and dynamic countering, reagencying, or reverse agencying actions thereof), and only comes to life when the art touches on the live wire of one or any of these human impulses, and fails if it retreats into the shelves of rationalization by which modern mankind pretends that the fishbowl is safe and all is ok. In fact, reviews of the show were split along these lines, some, woken up to the dangers of the world after Brexit, thought that Kiefer had touched on a theme that requires some better treatment, while others felt that he had in fact begun to flounder in his freedom and was just repeating himself.

The main point of contention in this issue is the paintings, Walhalla. They picture some towering structures, tilted at various angles, like the ruin of an ancient city, on fire. To an eye accustomed to blur out detail until the image clicks as some sort of iconic trope, this would make the paintings apocalyptic paintings. By that reckoning the paintings represent the city, or modern life, or our world, or global civilization in the 21st century, and it is on fire. By this reading, Kiefer falls in line behind any number of precedent examples of apocalyptic painting, and, indeed, I have addressed this theme by way of Lawrence Gipe’s treatment of apocalyptic themes in his recent series, a part of which was shown in Lincoln in April, 2015 (unposted piece, August, 2015). His series was in fact based on a European apocalyptic series, in northern France

kief-1And it should be noted that in the singular or comic-book nature of the figuration and drawing of such things, the cities are reduced to emblematic buildings, and do topple in an ersatz way, both of which reflect on Kiefer’s tower, the 14th century

kief-2And Kiefer’s towers

kief-3But there is also another tradition of apocalyptic imagery, in the culture and that is translated through by way of media. Actually, the images that these paintings most directly echo, on strictly formal terms, are recent pictures of the environmental depredations wreaked by ISIS upon its retreat from lands taken in Iraq

kief-4And then, since there is no chance that these so recent images inspired Kiefer, the precedents of those images, in so far as ISIS borrowed from Saddam Hussein’s playbook, the burning of the oil fields at the close of the Gulf War of 1991


And of course, then, any number of apocalyptic images, going back through Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and on and on, could be added in into the apocalyptic tradition. In painting, however, the tradition is bit less certain, and I would say at present that it winds its way back by way of Picasso’s Guernica to the tradition of large scale apocalyptic paintings made into a genre by Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath

kief-6And practiced as well by Turner, his fifth plague of Egypt

kief-7and his Houses of Parliament on fire would be a modern example.


This also touches on a counter tradition in another field, movies, whereby there is also a more limited tradition of warning pictures, the primary one in my library of references being the picture of the Burning Church in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

kief-9These paintings, then, could be filed in in any of the above treatments, and in all cases the paintings read as a warning of future troubles. They speak to the fact that human beings living in the present, not knowing how the present is going to turn out, always overreact to any turn of events that seem to negate any sense of progress having been made (as, for example, in the liberal’s current nervous breakdown following the election of Trump), and so when fear is activated and made salient TMT (terror management theory) says that immediately fear of death clicks in, and that is then responded to by attempts by art to either express that fear, or tamp it down. However, in modern formalist criticism, the artist is only granted the right to absorb the vibe of the moment then give voice to it in a material or conceptual form to speak to critique an aspect of culture as is. That is, a work can be about fear, or a critique of fear, or even an expression of fear, but it is almost never read as an actual magic apotropaic object that has the power to ward off evil, and, like a horror movie, reduce fear by way of the expressive catharsis of simulations of it, or to actually act against the fear. Another aspect of apotropaic art is when it is compoundedly joined to a border herm and therefore serves as a border scarecrow to tell the person who sees it, do not enter. My argument is that, while modern culture continues to belabor the point of an artist “expressing himself” or “expressing herself,” in fact art does serve its traditional, even primitive functions today, every bit as much as it did 20,000 years ago. It may not be that the makers or recipients of the art believe in the powers of the art in a magic way as formerly, but it is, I think, true, that the performance of these acts of agency provide some sort of placebo effect relief that ends up by way of reagency serving the same purpose, in reducing the lability and the frantic insecurity of the modern mind built mostly on rational thought. Therefore, it has to be asked, does Kiefer’s Walhalla paintings serve any other function, is do they have agency, apart from the general rationalized notion that they express his concerns about the state of the world.

The answer is, tentatively, yes. This is not to say that I am claiming that Kiefer is a new magic artist, who has distilled to intuition pure examples of ancient cult, intercessional, votive or apotropaic devices, manifest in contemporary art, he was an artist of the postmodern age working with the notion of representation as it engaged the issue of the icon and the inheritance of Nazi Germany in German culture after the war, and his goal was only an iconoclastic one, to negate the meaning of the symbolism of the past, which had done so much evil, and then to deconstruct the whole apparatus of Germanic heroic romantic culture going back two centuries (but he did this in a direct negating way that nonetheless had to make use of the contested imagery in the first place, and this was often misread by absolute iconoclasts as nonetheless a tacit continued support and enabling of the power of this imagery—Joseph Beuys has felt the same charge). How, then, could we get to the point where it might be said Kiefer’s latest work represents a specific agency, divested of its postmodern representational devices?

One way is to pick up where we left off, with the picture of the burning city compared to the picture of the burning church in Rosemary’s Baby, as the exemplum of a type of popular art in print and painting that one sees in genre situations. The painting is not just in RB as scenery, it, as I have worked out before (see), plays a part. It is the first painting inside door of the Castevette’s apartment, after Rosemary has broken through the closet to come looking for her baby, knife in hand. She stares at it with a sense of déjà vu, as shown previously. What this means, situationally, is that for the Castavettes it is at the far end of the range of their influence, and if they feared someone coming through the closet, then they put it there to announce, like a scarecrow, one is entering into a godless realm, where dependence on churches is gone, emblematized by the burning church. It is also true that supporting this apotropaion herm painting at the border of an evil sacred place, it is supported by a host of Goya’s witch paintings, all of which are the routine genre paintings of a zone of culture entirely bereft of standard genre values.

But Rosemary stares at the painting because she has seen it before, in the dream of the rape by Satan. It was on the wall in the back in the strange French chateau room below the decks of the Kennedy yacht, and as such as a cult painting hung up in the cult space of the coven (faintly above third person from the left). Since it was hung there to profile the rite to be undertaken, it is a legend picture bespeaking the emblematic nature of anything to occur in that space, that is, desecration, destruction of the holy, burning down the culture of good, for one of evil, and the rape is one (making the church also a type of Rosemary’s marked, painted body).

kief-10But then, even more amazing, as she is walking into that dream space, it is inferred that she is entering, in fact, a bedroom in a mansion in hell itself, because she passes exactly that painting, but in her bypass it is no longer a painting but a furnace, actually burning, that is, the church in the picture is actually on fire. This animation makes of it an acheirodiptheria (sic), that is, a painting that kills, a painting that comes alive, for it to then punch out into the reality of the room, and make everything come alive. It becomes assaultive, breaking out of itself into actual space (all this covered in an unposted entry, 2014).

kief-11Without going through the whole installation of the setup of Kiefer’s show, it is hard to work out how it all works. But what if reference to the tradition of the burning painting allows one to consider that, one, a generic picture of an apocalypse is, in fact, intended to serve as a border warning, do not enter here, unless you can handle it; and then, as you view them, it grooms and seduces you, to begin to see them as real, and when animated, it drops you down into the literal space of the gallery, for one to then experience the drama of an encounter with Kiefer’s haunted voodoo objects. Thus, they warn, then they induct, and then they lead you in. More precisely, the paintings next to the installational objects, let you establish an image in the mind, and then they, physically, actually, become real, in the sense that they let you down into the literal world of what might be in the towers


By contrast with conventions in landscapes in motel painting, or in the trope of painting in popular culture, the winding road does not mean trouble coming your way from outside, it functions rather here to come out at you, and, after letting you into the painting, leading you back out, and letting you down in the physical space, but transformed to existing in the world of the painting, psychopomp-ously


In this regard, the vitrine pieces can be viewed a relics pulled out of the painting, as it were, not unlike the objects pulled out of dreams in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the physical objects are magical manifestations of things in the pictures, and by confronting them, and seeing them, you are no longer in the real world, but in a world beyond, lead to through going into and coming out of the painting


This makes the paintings much more reasonably readable as agentic devices with a purpose of casting a spell on you so that you can take in the installation part of the exhibition with an alive sense of the uncanny resonance imbedded in them. So, on one level, as a type of painting, there is agentic potential of magic in this new body of work. Or, at least, that is a reading.

kief-16However, do I think this? Alas, I would love for Kiefer to have scaled back his practice to the point where it could present us with straight up agency-related works, without any of the mist of rationalization, but he is an artist of the postmodern era, his mind is filled with the model of the artist in that era, he is not a contemporary new magic artist, so I am going to say, no, I do not believe the paintings function in this way. Or, at least, they wont for most, they will remain “paintings,” that is, screens for visitors coming to the cult space of Kiefer, to see into, as an xray, Kiefer’s mind musing on the world situation today (though there is little double artist worship is cult behavior, I tend to think of it as rationalized, displaced exploitational cult behavior, not true cult behavior). So, then, the question is, how do they function?

Which brings us to the the flip side, coming back out of the magic cult place, to the artist as reflective expresser of his views in the world, and that is that the towers in the pictures are NOT a burning city, and not a reference to burning oil rigs or churches, but they are, specifically, the burning towers that he has shown as art works several times previously before. They are also the towers that stand in storage on the backlot of his studio complex in Barjac, France.


In addition to cluttering up the countryside, but in a way that seems to interest tourists as either an example of a folk art environment which traditionally clutters up the countryside, or as an amazing wonderland junk complex, in the tradition of the barons of aristo-art, artists living in their Makart palaces, in both capacities the towers represent a strange sort of personal impulse by the artist to expand the cult space of his art, and the art world his art makes, and act as a kind of gesamtkunstwerk advertisement of his global purposes.


But, then, he has taken them travelling. They have been exhibited by themselves as works of art in an installation

kief-19They have served as stage sets for the Bastille opera


And they have come to town as one-off installations in a city scape, as, for example, London, 2009


The travelling circus aspect of them itself adds to the complexity of their semiology over time. It might even be said that by resituating them in different situations Kiefer is sculpting social space to see what new meaning or agency he can extract by context change from the work as a whole.

This, schematically, sets up (for the purposes of my treatment here), five schemas of reading for these towers: 1) the studio backlot look, which is an environment, which makes them look like a fortress city from medieval Europe; 2) the installation, which highlights stacking, and the fact that they are containers stacked up; 3) the stage set, which makes of them a haunted city, characterized, in the theatrical tradition, of unresponsive monumentality; and 4) public art, when they are a totem pole of sorts. In the first sense, they have been compared to a Steampunk San Gimigiano, referring to Italian fortress cities


in the second, the foregrounding of containers bespeaks not only the artifice of life today, but, combined with the first sense, seems to say something about the container-based camps for immigrants set up in Calais in 2015, and disbanded recently; the third reading refers to monumentality as a symbol of power, and the responsiveness of government and as public art they read as countermonuments as well. Just in this cursory review, then, they refer to power, political power, three times, and then to personal, social and civilizational issues too.

It is the space between the images of the towers in the paintings, burning, and the realization that they refer to the towers seen on his studio backlot, that I picked up a vibe of doubt or even self-iconoclasm, Kiefer wondering if even his discourse is faltering, and his status as cult artist has not begun to turn into a trap. He is, by this reading, wondering if all his use of the tower has not itself come to naught. This thought of a self-grumbling at the work is reinforced by the fact that he compares, by title, the work to Vahhalla, but not the hall of the Norse gods of old, which would continue his critique of German culture importation of Norse lore to reinforce the Aryan mythology during the war, but to the ersatz Pantheon built in the 19th century in Bavaria, full of busts, just the sort of thing he likes to tweak, but… he cannot believe that anyone takes that seriously anymore, it is a tourist site, comparable, perhaps, he suggests, to his towers, and his status as baronial artist, and, by this, his towers too and even his critique of the hero cult is ersatz and meaningless. Here is the Pantheon at Bavaria


And again

kief-24And here is his towers, also part of the Euro country landscape

kief-25only, in his imagination, imagining what might be going on in that ‘city’ or that Forum, he sees hospital like settings for the dead or dying, memorial beds, not busts


On this level, the works lose their agency, and curdle into self-doubt, a rationalized way of thinking. If this is the case, this would account for the slightly ersatz nature of the work that I picked up on.

But, then, on the second level, as containers only, an installational gambit, they would in a more traditional way of a Venice Biennial work, or the like, just a material accumulation of objects made use of in real or unexpected ways in the world at large, and resituated in an art gallery, in bulk, with the belief that it magically, therefore, will “comment” on that use in the world, and cause the viewer to report this to the powers that be and by petition get that problem changed (all magical thinking that sustains the biennial circuit). The way that this device, the container, is being used in Europe right now is as container- home for immigrants in camps, such as at Calais, disbanded in 2016.


Kiefer must have been surprised to see an idea he had years ago become real in Europe ten years later. Perhaps the appearance of the container camps made him rethink or even revitalize his idea, in this case the real world giving him new ideas. But, is this the Kiefer style? It really is the biennial device, a convention, and Kiefer usually does not submit to this ersatz magical thinking in the art world. The other problematic aspect of this is that by stacking them up into an almost city he might almost be construed as making fun of the plight of the immigrant, and even give voice to anti-immigrant stands, as a comment in the nature of, what are we going to do, let them build cities out of containers? Thus, the pursuit of meaning by way of the material, the container, only seems to lead off into the outer space of rationalization.


There is a similar problem with the enlistment of the towers in a Robert Wilson type contemporary opera in Paris. Contemporary opera is certainly the most elite of contemporary art forms, and Robert Wilson is the godfather of this special zone of total rationalized escapism. In this shot, with small figures huddling up against a hulking structure, in a city of them


the shot reminded me of the supermonumental paintings of Francoise di Nome, of Strasburgh.


As to the issue of how Di Nome came to an art like this, as I imagined it, his imagination was disappointed at the collapse of the Strasbourgh republic, in a state of despair or loss of hope he felt that responsive government in the middle of Europe had died, and then, construing the wiggle room that Strasbourg found for democracy in the decay of the Holy Roman Empire, as opposed to the rise of the modern states, he imagined his mind back to ancient Rome, to make its ruins emblems of unresponsive power in an imperial system, where the plebs are just reduced to a mob placated by bread and circuses. These paintings then are ultra baroque despair pictures, representing the idea that while little people can do little things in the world, by and large the universe, and especially the government, is unresponsive.


To circle back to the theatrical, di Nome even did theatrical backdrops, here a panorama for the sacrifice of Abraham


That is, politically, there is a black hole in the center of Europe, made there by past histories just steamrolled to extinction, and reinforced by amnesia since, and, by vibing on those lost threads, di Nome devised a painting expressive of that black hole, showing that black hole, and Europe as  a black hole.


It might be that by way of this reading of his towers we get to Kiefer’s despair at Europe too, and that would be his despair at the leadership to makes things work, but it is hard to say. Di Nome’s paintings are anti-intercessional pictures, they intend to comment on intercession, but comment only on the gulf between subject and object, and the fact that, in royal Europe, intercession has stopped. They have agency, but it is flickering. It is possible the same is true for these paintings by Kiefer.

But perhaps these uses are too arcane and obtuse, and lead us astray from the big, blunt, upfront purpose of Kiefer’s art, which would be better expressed by his public art installations, as at the Academy in London in 2009


Here, its presence only comments on the monumentality around it, but more in the manner of tweaking it, that is, momentarily questioning the purpose and point of monumentality, but, then, after all, engaging in it, in a new way, as well. As such, and because it penetrates to the ideal superstructure space of public sculpture, it bespeaks of the idealism of social life, if in a modern form, and simply loosens up the eye and mind so that you pay attention and see the monumentality all about, and wonder about it, and its purpose, its expression of power, its cult quality, its defensiveness, all of which connects to classical discourses.

kief-34All in all, then, with the paintings in this show (that then goes on into a hallway, and then a steel walled gallery, and then on to Sursa ordem, another installation), they seem to exist as thematic statements, a precis, a prospectus picture, allowing the mind to raise all sorts of questions, based on the semiological adventures of its base forms, and then wonder what it all means, they loosen up, they lead in, but they do so in a concierge way, not in an apotropaic way, and, as such, I believe I am correct in wondering if they are entirely worked out, because it does seem like, as I have demonstrated here, one goes into the paintings and tend to get lost, not in a good way,  in them.