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Portrait of a Dinosaur 

Sam Messer, old-fashioned modernist, paints the moments between poses

Wednesday, Jan 23 2002
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Cezanne once told a young painter who said he didn’t know what to paint to go paint the drainpipe in his kitchen. On its face, an old manual typewriter isn‘t much more promising as material for a painting than a drainpipe (even if the typewriter belongs to Paul Auster), but Sam Messer -- who does know what to paint -- paints it anyway, time and time over. A lot of contemporary art smacks of the laboratory and the Ph.D. thesis, but Messer’s seems as natural as plucking fruit off a tree. The world is there, and he paints it. People, typewriters, animals, buildings, furniture, musical instruments, trees -- eventually, they all wind up in his pictures.

Messer, who‘s 46, was a junior member of the neo-expressionist movement in New York during the 1980s, when older figurative painters like Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl, Georg Baselitz, David Salle and others held court in SoHo. He moved to Los Angeles 11 years ago, having planned, like everyone who moves to L.A., to stay only a few months. When I visited him at his home in Santa Monica recently, I found him stretching a giant painting of Auster’s typewriter in his back garden. The painting was gorgeous, aswirl with color so colossally impasto I wanted to sit down and start typing on those massive, thickly encrusted keys.

As depicted by Messer, Auster‘s typewriter comes in all sorts of moods -- drunk, angry, giggly, blue, cute as a chorus girl in one picture, treacherous as a vagina dentata in another -- and it always looks both like a typewriter and like something more than a typewriter. For Messer, it’s a symbol of sorts. His late friend, the gallery owner Stuart Regan, used to refer to him affectionately as a “dinosaur” because of his decision to ignore art-world fashion and paint whatever he felt like painting in the manner that pleased and interested him most. And a portable manual typewriter -- even one used by a fashionable postmodern novelist -- is also a dinosaur of sorts: a museum piece, a contraption from another era, what Auster humorously calls “one of the last surviving artifacts of 20th-century homo scriptorus.”

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Messer himself is not old-fashioned in the least, although his smooth bald head and black-framed glasses would have looked just right in 1920s Berlin. As for his home, it‘s all Southern California cool: vibrant colors, razor-sharp angles, giant street-facing windows with paintings behind them that turn the front of the house into a virtual art gallery for anyone who’s interested. The odd thing about Messer is that although his work is sometimes deemed antiquated by critics and curators, it is greatly appreciated by friends -- writers, artists and musicians such as Auster, Denis Johnson, Vernon Reid, Kiki Smith and Sally Mann -- whose work no one is calling old-fashioned. The musician Vernon Reid asked Messer to sketch the members of his band (the drawings were projected onto a screen above the stage) during a series of concerts at the Knitting Factory in New York in 1997, and Auster has said of Messer‘s work: “If I could paint, these are the pictures I would dream of doing.”

One can see why. There’s the general fact that painting is always deeply attractive to writers, if only because the completed work is proudly displayed on a wall rather than enclosed between covers on a shelf (or worse, hidden in a drawer). Painting has a thingness, an objective reality that literature lacks, and those who toil in the nebulous realm of the word recognize and salute this fact instinctively. But Messer‘s work is also deeply character-driven and novelistic. Unlike a figurative painter such as Lucian Freud, he doesn’t really ask his subjects to pose -- at least not for more than a few minutes. Rather, he tries to find the moment between poses that reveals something new about a person. It‘s that moment that he tries to paint.

When you open a book, you enter another world. But when you hang a picture on a wall, the other world enters this one. Walk into Sam Messer’s house and that other world is everywhere. There‘s a Kiki Smith a sculpture in one room; a Sally Mann photo of the Messer family (Sam, wife Eleanor and daughter Josephine) looking like a trio of sun-bronzed nature gods, in another; and some delicate and precocious paintings by the 10-year-old Josephine. (When MOCA chief curator Paul Schimmel came to the house for a party thrown for Kiki Smith, Messer says, it was Josephine’s work he seemed most interested in.) But mostly the work on view is Messer‘s: in the living room, a giant portrait of his close friend Auster at his typewriter entitled The Wizard of Brooklyn. The writer, with as many hands as Shiva, is seen sitting before his Olympia typewriter with the Manhattan skyline behind him, twin towers intact, although the sky is a lowering one painted an apocalyptic orange. On the wall across from it, a small ashen painting executed on 911 (Messer’s birthday) with the towers vaporized, gone. Another small oil of the World Trade Center is in the kitchen, with one of those old Greek takeout paper coffee cups in the foreground. It‘s entitled, New York To Go, and like a lot of Messer’s work, it‘s bold and fast and fresh and spontaneous as a dashed-off watercolor. Why so many paintings of the World Trade Center? Probably because it was there. And when it wasn’t there anymore, Messer painted it too. Go paint the drainpipe in your kitchen. Go paint the place where the drainpipe used to be in your kitchen.

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