By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
You get the feeling that Messer could paint anything at any moment, and that‘s one of the most attractive things about his work. He appears to have no conceptual or political baggage. There’s no barrier between him and the world. He doesn‘t come encased in a style. Or rather, his style is so fluid and adaptable it can never be a hindrance. Our most acclaimed artists often have styles so pronounced that they’ve become a form of rigor mortis. Hence, when Don DeLillo was called upon to write an essay for Harper‘s about September 11th, the result was an embarrassment because the essay read like one of his novels. He couldn’t let go of his style, which was already decades in the making, when what was wanted was a fresh response. It‘s hard to imagine Messer having that problem. He travels light.
The Wizard of Brooklyn is one of the paintings I keep coming back to. Measuring 78-by-94 inches, it’s a masterpiece of dislocation, appropriate for the author of the postmodern detective story City of Glass, which begins: “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” As Messer depicts him, Auster looks like a more robust Kafka -- Kafka as a private eye -- all dark circles and angst, with a cocked ear the size of a small satellite dish. The head (figuratively speaking) is in one place and the body (which consists of a withered trunk and seven separate hands) in another. One hand, expressionistically elongated, supports his chin, but the others, which are as grasping and acquisitive as claws, lead lives of their own. One stubs out a cigarette while another dials a number on a rotary phone (that other mechanical dinosaur); others type, take notes and smoke; one prepares to lift a glass of whiskey. The page in the typewriter is blank except for the words “The Story of My Typewriter by Paul Auster,” which also appear on a small book they have done together (subtitled The Story of His Typewriter: A Painting Cycle by Sam Messer), to be published by D.A.P. in March.
In a recent article about Messer in Modern Painters, the prodigiously talented young novelist Jonathan Safran Foer wrote, “One enjoys looking at Messer‘s paintings. One wants to look at them. Which is not to say that they are easy, or even attractive. Rather they make one happy.” I know what he means. Messer makes art that you’d like to own, and a sense of ownership is at the heart of all art, even in the age of the CD burner. You own books, you own CDs, and even though thousands or even millions of people own precisely the same books or CDs, the best of them still feel as if they‘re yours. But a lot of contemporary art, price aside, is virtually un-ownable, designed to rebuff the idea of ownership itself. You can’t imagine it in your home. It would cast a chill over your home. But Messer‘s work is both personal and personable. You would want it in your home.
Messer talks a lot about his friends. One of the reasons he finds portrait painting attractive is that it enables him to meet people: It’s inherently sociable. He is known for sketching constantly, and sure enough, before long he is executing a quick sketch, or rather a note toward a sketch, of me. The manner in which he does this is oddly journalistic. It‘s like a reporter jotting down the word “mustache” during an interview, or “glass eye,” or “leans forward when he speaks.” His art is all about engaging with the world.
Aside from his relationship with Auster, whom he expects to go on painting as long as they’re both living, the most artistically productive friendship Messer has had so far was with the eccentric “outsider” artist John Serl. They met in December 1990 when Messer was 34 and Serl was 96. For three years, Messer drove out to Serl‘s house in the California desert as often as once a week, painting almost 50 portraits of him, with the last one done on the day Serl died. The results were published in an unusually moving book entitled One Man by Himself. Looking through this book, in which Serl is repeatedly depicted standing and sitting, eating and painting, asleep in his bed and finally dead in his bed, you get a sense of what a more humane, engaged and ultimately more interesting art -- the kind people briefly thought might emerge after September 11th -- could look like. The last painting in the cycle, in which a naked Messer emerges from the beard and body of Serl, comes with an epigraph provided by the old man himself: “One artist dies. Another is born.” Messer’s meeting with Serl was in fact a personal turning point. By painting Serl, Messer became the artist he was destined to become. There was only one catch: He turned out to be a more traditional artist than he‘d expected.
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