Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Black Green Red Yellow (Blue)

"At first, we lived from my inheritance. We had an apartment on Riverside Drive. High on the twentieth floor, we watched the ships on the Hudson. Each place we had afterward, there were many, was slightly cheaper than the one before. And lower to the ground. In 1958 we went to 137 Seventh Avenue, South, on the Lower East Side. The apartment was in the basement, next to the boiler room. An incubator. The word among my students was not to come visit until summer when the heat was turned off. Evsa and I stayed there for the rest of our lives."

"We painted this basement apartment black, green, red, yellow. Planes of color that looked like Russian Constructivism or Mondrian. There was no daylight. The place was its own closed universe, dedicated to art with a capital A. It was beautiful. No one had seen anything like it. Students came to photograph the decor, such as it was. There wasn't much furniture. We built a plywood banquette that ran around the main room. That's where the students sat when they came for lessons."

"Evsa had left Russia. I'd left Vienna. We fashioned ourselves in New York as reborn world-citizens, no religion, no politics, or what Krishnamurti described as that rag, called a flag. Our new society was made up of artists. Survivors with one credo: Never compromise your principles."

"We were partners in this idealism. Our great fear was any- and everything bourgeois. We looked and lived like bohemians, like the artists we were. We wanted freedom!––What is art but one of the few freedoms left, where you can do exactly as you please without being thrown in jail! I had a hell of a time with money. It meant everything and nothing to me. When I tried to pay Willard Beecher, my spiritual advisor, he sent the money back, saying my ambivalence about money was the reason I was coming to him in the first place. I had to learn to accept his services gratis. That was his lesson."

"Half the time, we were starving. I didn't understand kitchens. The way I'd been raised, how could I? Evsa did all the cooking. Spaghetti and eggs, every night, unless someone invited us to dinner. To some we looked like classic bohemians. To others, figments from a Mondrian painting. As we grew older, we dressed in black, with green or red scarves as accents. It was the uniform of our two-person army of freedom fighters––against every kind of corruption."

Shooting Off My Mouth, Spitting Into the Mirror, Lisette Model – a Narrative Autobiography / by Eugenia Parry (based on Model's manuscript notebooks and on interviews)

Manfred Heiting, editor and designer, used the photograph of the Model apartment (at top) as a double-page frontispiece, then based his layout for the entire book (published by Steidl in 2009) on the angles and colors he found there (also echoed in the colored inks of Model's reproduced notebook pages).

Ideally, the book as object ought fully to body forth its subject. That ideal is, I think, accomplished in this book, and with elegance. How rare to see content and form functioning as sturdy equals. Steidl deserves great credit. Remarkable too that the work is still in print. Any commercial publisher in the U.S. would likely have remaindered it by now.

Earlier this summer Lisette Model (1901-1983) appeared here when I was reading the catalog of the only full-scale retrospective her photographs have received, so far. This took place in 1990 at the National Gallery of Canada, where Model's negatives and papers are preserved. Even though she spent almost fifty years living and working in New York, the only visionaries prepared to take on the archive at the time of her death were in Ottawa. No American institution came forward, so little was this crucial 20th century artist known or admired by the Reagan-era cultural establishment.