This Flashing Present

A subset of Rhapsody, by Jennifer Bartlett

I usually don’t write about a book until I have finished it. Or at least done the gleaning. But my enthusiasm won’t be bridled. Although I am only 100 pages into The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, I can’t NOT talk about this book.

Every page is delicious. The wordsmithing is so good you want to linger long, like driving slowly through a neighborhood with really fantastic Christmas lights. My partner David said this is the first time he’s seen me willingly slow down to 1 mph.

As James Wood wrote in the New Yorker (just one in a heaping stack of glowing reviews of the book):

Rachel Kushner’s second novel, “The Flamethrowers”…is scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice. It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures: Kushner is never not telling a story. It is nominally a historical novel (it’s set in the mid-seventies), and, I suppose, also a realist one (it works within the traditional grammar of verisimilitude). But it manifests itself as a pure explosion of now: it catches us in its mobile, flashing present, which is the living reality it conjures on the page at the moment we are reading.

I agree with him completely.

But an essential question is still out there for me: How does it happens that a book—or any work of art— can achieve that “pure explosion of now?” What is it that makes something jump up and speak so clearly, even when the setting is, like The Flamethrowers, in a completely different era?

This is a quality that goes way beyond the manipulations that drive fads and trends. (Will anyone remember or care about the Shades of Grey books in 20 years? I didn’t read them but I am still voting no.) I am looking for a something that is intrinsic, like the unique vocal quality of a coloratura soprano. Some things just can’t be taught and exist in some other place altogether.

I’ve seen that kind of “pure explosion of now” happen in the visual arts world as well. And in keeping with The Flamethrowers‘ timeframe, three of them happened to me in the 70s. There was that first heart stopping exhibit of the Ocean Park paintings by Richard Diebenkorn. And the life changing Richard Tuttle show at the Whitney in 1975 that was so out there it cost curator Marcia Tucker her job.

But the most memorable example was Jennifer Bartlett‘s exhibit at Paula Cooper Gallery in 1976. A newly arrived émigré to the Lower East Side from California (which, like any place that was not New York, was dismissed as a cultural backwater), I was an artist who wanted to do nothing but paint during a time when painting was being pushed aside and labeled outdated and irrelevant. Then Bartlett’s show opened. It immediately hit a nerve. It was all anyone talked about for months.

From Hilarie Sheets‘ New York Times review of Bartlett’s upcoming retrospective:

In the late 1960s, when many conceptual artists were using graph paper to chart their ideas, Ms. Bartlett wondered if she could make hard graph paper that could be wiped clean and revised, and that would resist coffee stains and cigarette ashes. Inspired by subway signs, she fabricated 12-inch-square steel plates coated with baked white enamel and silkscreened with a pale grid on which she could paint with Testor enamels. (Joel Shapiro, her neighbor in the tight group of artists colonizing SoHo then, lent her $500 to make the first batch.)

Those plates became the building blocks of Ms. Bartlett’s signature paintings that she configures in expandable grids. Best-known is her 987-plate installation, “Rhapsody,” first shown at the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1976. The piece addressed the question of what options are available in modern painting and playfully categorized the spectrum of possibilities in sections devoted to color, geometric shapes, types of line and the basic motifs of house, tree, mountain and sea.

“ ‘Rhapsody’ was absolutely groundbreaking and new, incorporating the space itself by wrapping painting around walls and corners,” said Klaus Ottmann, a curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington. The piece received significant critical acclaim, making Ms. Bartlett one of the most successful artists in the 1970s, Mr. Ottmann said. “Rhapsody” was eventually acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, and was shown in the atrium in 2006 and again in 2011.

These eruptions of greatness still thrill me, all these years later. I am guessing Kushner’s book is one more for that list.

9 Comment

  1. Sigrun says:

    Thank you – a wonderful post! Have to search out Bartlett & Kushner.

  2. Altoon says:

    I remember the excitement I felt when seeing Barlett’s Rhapsody at Paula Cooper: it was hugely ambitious and unique. Although I subsequently became less interested in her work, the knockout effect of that initial introduction lingers.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      As is often the case, your experience parallels mine. I too became subsequently less interested but I will never forget that initial experience. Really an important part of my coming of age during the 1970s.

  3. mrobertstcnj says:

    When Deborah Barlow recommends a book this strongly, I listen. I’m heading to my local bookstore this afternoon to buy Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers.” Thanks, Deborah.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      High praise from Herr Professor! Thanks Michael, and I will be eager to hear what you think. It is set during our decade together in New York, so it brings back the memories much the way Patti Smith’s Just Kids did.

  4. Here you speak to heart of the matter, Deborah….”I am looking for a something that is intrinsic, like the unique vocal quality of a coloratura soprano. Some things just can’t be taught and exist in some other place altogether.” And I love your question about “…an explosion of now….” A good one to live with!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks so much Jeffree. It is a provocative question that doesn’t seem to have a simple answer.

  5. Thanks so much for recommending The Flamethrowers – looking forward to reading it!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I hope it resonates for you too Diane. Let me know what you think.

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