Portrait of a Dinosaur
Cezanne once told a young painter who said he didnt know what to paint to go paint the drainpipe in his kitchen. On its face, an old manual typewriter isnt 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 Messers 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, whos 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 Austers 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, Austers 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, its 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.
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, its 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 whos 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 Messers work: If I could paint, these are the pictures I would dream of doing.
One can see why. Theres 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 Messers work is also deeply character-driven and novelistic. Unlike a figurative painter such as Lucian Freud, he doesnt 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. Its 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 Messers house and that other world is everywhere. Theres 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 Josephines work he seemed most interested in.) But mostly the work on view is Messers: 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 (Messers 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. Its entitled, New York To Go, and like a lot of Messers work, its 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 wasnt 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.
You get the feeling that Messer could paint anything at any moment, and thats one of the most attractive things about his work. He appears to have no conceptual or political baggage. Theres no barrier between him and the world. He doesnt 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 theyve become a form of rigor mortis. Hence, when Don DeLillo was called upon to write an essay for Harpers about September 11th, the result was an embarrassment because the essay read like one of his novels. He couldnt let go of his style, which was already decades in the making, when what was wanted was a fresh response. Its 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, its 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 Messers 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 youd 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 theyre yours. But a lot of contemporary art, price aside, is virtually un-ownable, designed to rebuff the idea of ownership itself. You cant imagine it in your home. It would cast a chill over your home. But Messers 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: Its 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. Its 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 theyre 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 Serls 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. Messers 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 hed expected.
It bothered me a bit, I must admit, when I first started doing portraits of John, he tells me over a cup of tea in the sparkling, light-dappled kitchen that looks out on his back garden. They werent like what I thought I should be doing.
How did you think they should look? I ask.
Well, I grew up wanting to be Jackson Pollock, Messer says, as if that explains everything (which it does). I thought paintings had to be much more about showing something than representing it. But I think that the idea that theyre old-fashioned comes out of the 20th century, where art was always changing, and I think that most of that is just about looks. One of the problems of our culture is that people are looking for what looks new rather than whats meaningful. A lot of it has to do with selling, and in that sense its kind of like Hollywood. Whos the new young thing?
Although hes resigned to having them described as such, Messer doesnt really believe that his paintings are old-fashioned -- at least not in the way theyre constructed. Theres no logic to the perspective, theres no logic to the scale from one item to the next, he explains. If you look at The Wizard of Brooklyn, the bottom part of the painting, the middle part of the painting, makes no sense with Paul. Theres an internal logic, an internal narrative within each painting that dictates where things are and how things relate.
While Messer and I talk, going from garden to house, sitting in the kitchen, traveling from room to room, Eleanor floats about doing various things. Josephine is in school, but you can feel her presence, not just in the paintings of her on the walls, but in the house itself. Something is at the center, between mother and father, and at this time on a weekday its not there. Not a sense of absence, exactly, just a piece temporarily missing.
Theres something especially alive about a house whose inhabitants not only exist in its rooms but lead a second, more mysterious life on its walls, dog included. That other existence, constantly added to, seems to me a wonderful thing. And an artist who makes this happen is surely a very different creature from one whose work is comprehensible only in the context of a gallery or museum.
It was around the time I talked with Messer that Martin Creeds The Lights Going On and Off, an installation consisting of lights blinking on and off in an otherwise empty art gallery, won Englands prestigious Turner Prize, presented at a televised award ceremony by Madonna. I tell Messer how a cleaner in a London art gallery mistakenly threw the cigarettes in a Damien Hirst sculpture, composed of real cigarette butts in a real ashtray, in the trash recently, and Messer responds with a story about the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who was accused of pushing his wife out of a window in 1985. When Andre tried to make bail by putting up one of his sculptures as collateral, the judge said: Maybe where you come from a pile of bricks is worth a lot of money, but not in this courtroom.
What about portraiture as a genre? I ask Messer. Isnt that the most old-fashioned genre of all?
It does seem the most old-fashioned, he agrees. But something Ive realized that I love to do is to go out and meet people and just draw them. So Ive really kind of embraced that. And the fact that it is considered old-fashioned I actually like now, whereas before I was always embarrassed by the fact that these paintings looked old, or that people thought they werent what they were supposed to be. I almost want to embrace that as much as possible, because I think it makes people feel uncomfortable in a way that I like.
When Messer talks about making people uncomfortable, hes really talking about the kind of people who consider art primarily in terms of progression. (As Foer pointed out in his article in Modern Painters, Messer isnt looking for the next thing. Hes looking for the thing.) The judge in the Carl Andre case wouldnt have been made uncomfortable by Messers work. Nor, for that matter, would the average member of L.A.s film community, where Messer has found some clients. Ben Stiller recently commissioned him to paint a double portrait of his parents for their wedding anniversary, and Messer purchased his house with the money he earned painting two gigantic murals for Twentieth Century Fox. Despite bucking the tide, Messer has done quite well for himself -- theres a house in which his paintings hang alongside Picassos. When he started teaching a course in portrait painting at Yale seven years ago (he is a Senior Painting Critic at the university), some of his peers were embarrassed to see something so quaint as portraiture listed in the university catalog. But seven years on, hes still teaching it, and portraiture has started to come back into fashion, if with a self-protectively conceptual bent.
Protecting himself isnt something Messer worries about anymore. Nor does he feel the need to belong to a school of painting, and he admires the very different kind of work being done on the West Coast by artists such as Charles Ray. There are painters in Los Angeles with whom he could be linked -- the critic and curator Michael Duncan mentions two, John Sonsini and Tom Prosch, who he believes work in a similar vein -- but Messer prefers to see himself as a solo act. When he first came to Los Angeles, no one was painting, he says, and he enjoyed feeling like an outsider. Now that L.A.s galleries are filling up with paintings again, he still feels like an outsider. In any case, a lot of the work on view is so stiff and self-conscious it brings to mind an ancient art-world joke: Why did the conceptualist take up painting? Because it seemed like a good idea.
Messers work rarely looks self-conscious or overly strategized. In the back-garden shed that serves as his studio (a gloriously paint-encrusted mess), everything you see indicates the presence of a man who simply loves to pick up a brush and go at it. Pinned to a wall is a large piece of canvas divided into two sections of blue. Deep blue at the bottom third, lighter blue above: sea and an endless sky. Afloat in the middle of that sky is an Englishmans face, along with the beginning of a neck, a hint that there may or may not be more to come, that the painting may or may not be finished. Alone in the ether -- a head without a body, a human balloon thats lost its owner -- the face looks civilized, wry, and faintly embarrassed by its predicament. Theres something perfect about that painting: Its a feeling captured.
But for now its just one sketch among many, nailed to the wall of a leaky garden shed.
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