Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
During a very pleasant dinner at Edmund White’s apartment in Paris, I proposed we simply continue our conversation rather than conduct an interview. Edmund had just been to see my sculpture show at Galerie Daniel Templon. And I was deeply immersed in reading his extraordinary biography, Genet. I have long been a fan of Edmund’s novels, Forgetting Elenaand A Boy’s Own Story being my favorites. And, being a Parisian who now lives in New York, I was curious about this American living in Paris. We did continue our conversation, on a December afternoon shortly after our dinner, and again at his home.
Edmund White Do you always work with music playing?
Alain Kirili Never with music. I like to memorize it and absorb it, but when I create I really need silence, total concentration. How about you?
EW I always work with music.
AK You write with music?
EW With music, yes. I always have, my whole life, and my father did too. We lived in a house that was flooded with music from dawn to dusk. My friends who are composers think I’m crazy, because they can’t bear music. Of course, that’s because they listen to it so carefully that they don’t want it as a background. Virgil Thompson once said to me, “I think you like music for the reason lots of writers do, because it gives you something to resist, so that you can concentrate better.”
AK It’s a kind of challenge.
EW That’s right. When you worked with Roy Haynes, (creating sculptures while he was drumming), did you take your inspiration from what he was drumming, or were you working independently?
AK I pushed my gestures, making them a little quicker than what I’m accustomed to. That was the main stimulation Roy gave me. The strange thing is that he did follow what I was doing, but at other moments he would move even quicker, anticipating me, and I would follow up what he was doing.
EW So sometimes he took the lead, and sometimes you took the lead. You were definitely interacting back and forth.
AK Yes, certainly, we were interacting. You told me last time that you knew Mingus. Could you tell me more about your interest in jazz and in Mingus particularly?
EW It’s more in Mingus than in jazz per se. I don’t know that much about jazz. As a 12-year-old boy, I used the money from the first job I ever had to buy a record player and my first record, which was by Chet Baker. I met Mingus in New York, in 1962 or ‘63, right after I got out of college. Two girls I went to school with, Ann McIntosh and Janet Coleman, were helping him edit his book, Beneath the Underdog. They would invite him to parties, and I would always see him there. I spent New Year’s of 1963, ‘64, and ’65, I think, in his apartment. The most beautiful moment was this: one New Year’s Eve we were all screaming and carrying on, and he said, “Be quiet! Listen to the silence. I could orchestrate that!” He wanted to notate it, he felt he could write all that down. And it’s true, once you’re very quiet you hear the creaking of the building, the traffic, you can even hear the furnace in the basement.
AK I think it’s great that you care to read artists and write about them. You recently wrote a beautiful text on Ross Bleckner.
EW I’ve written on Philip Taaffe and Richard Prince, too…and Duane Michals, and Robert Mapplethorpe, and different photographers.
AK Tell me about your interest in a book that is crucial to me, Jean Genet’s L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti. This is a book I like to give as a gift.
EW What’s great about that book by Genet is that he doesn’t try to sound like an art historian. He doesn’t talk about art history. It seems to me that all most critics know how to do is trace influences. So they say, this artist is a little bit of this or that. Genet was capable of that kind of criticism, and when he wrote about an artist he didn’t like very much, for example, Leonor Fini, he resorted to that kind of art historical talk. But when he wrote about an artist he really loved, he invented a whole new language for discussing him. As when he proposes that the statues of Giacometti should be offered to the dead, and that they should be buried. He talks about the wound each person must have in order to have a sense of beauty.
AK I thought it was remarkable—and I like the way you emphasize this in your biography of Genet—that a novelist, a writer should have such an appreciation for the differences between a sculpture in plaster and a sculpture in bronze. Genet spoke about how great it was to see the plaster, and how Giacometti’s didn’t lose anything when they were transferred in bronze.
EW That’s right. He said he thought that the bronze was pleased…
AK Yes, exactly.
EW Genet was a writer who would travel to look at paintings and sculptures. He would go to the Hague to look at paintings, he would go to Germany, he would travel all over the world, actually, to look at works of art.
AK The thing I find most interesting and remarkable—especially considering the different sexualities of Genet and Giacometti—is the way Genet raises very direct questions that are definitely not typical of art criticism. Genet talks about Giacometti’s cult of prostitutes, he asks about Giacometti’s lifestyle, about the way he lives. Art historians rarely address such issues, and here it gets very intense when he asks about the poules, the whores.
EW People say Genet would not have liked a biography—and it’s true he probably wouldn’t have, since he lied so much. But on the other hand, when he wrote about Giacometti he didn’t write about him in a formalist way. He talked about very human things. And interestingly, in L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti, he gives little bits of conversation between the two of them, as in the wonderful exchange where Giacometti says to him, “How handsome you are, how handsome you are…like everybody.”
AK As an artist, I think it’s intriguing to think about how you, being an artist yourself, a writer, were affected by the writing of this biography. How is this project situated in your life, in your development? After your first series of novels, you have devoted seven years to the biography of another writer. Can you predict what effect this will have on you? How did you absorb or assimilate this experience, how will it affect your next books?
EW It’s hard for me to know because I’m writing them now. But I think the best example Genet provides is that of doing something in the strongest, simplest possible way. Making a big, bold gesture. For example, I’ve just finished writing a short story, and I like to think it’s less confused and more direct, simpler, than anything I’ve written before. I don’t want to write in Genet’s style—I think it’s idiotic to copy somebody’s style. But you can copy their example, which is the example of someone who goes to the limit. If one definition of a successful work of art is something that has fully exploited all the possibilities within the invented genre, then Genet is certainly successful in those terms. You couldn’t do anything more along the lines he was pursuing.
AK So the example he provides is that sort of radicalism, or intensity, taken as a stimulation, as a challenge. What’s the title of the next book?
EW I’m writing several different books. I’m writing a novel called The Farewell Symphony; I’m writing a book of short stories called Skinned Alive; and I’m writing a book of essays called The Burning Library.
AK We spoke a little bit about the collection of essays, The Burning Library. Could you tell me more about it?
EW It’s essays from the late 1960s until now, some of which are art essays. Since I’m a writer who publishes so much in Europe and in little magazines all over the world, I don’t think there’s anyone, not even my mother, who has seen everything I’ve written. So there will be a lot of surprises for people, because there are little art essays I’ve written for Parkett, in Switzerland, or for instance, I wrote a catalogue essay for Robert Mapplethorpe when he had an exhibit in Holland. I wrote about Prince the singer and Richard Prince the artist…There’s a long interview with me that was done for The Paris Review and that’s probably the best interview I’ve given. So there’s all kinds of things. There’s also a lot about the history of the gay liberation movement. In 1970, I had already started writing about that subject in essay form, and I continue to do so up to the present. So there are essays on everything from the very beginning of the gay liberation movement to the whole question, now, of political correctness.
AK Political correctness is a subject that’s tough to address.
EW How do you feel when Robert Rosenblum says, in his essay about you, that you are an artist who’s recuperating the past, who is a very cultured artist, one who is linked to great artists of the past?
AK Well, I think of myself as an artist who is not amnesic. Certainly, one of the reasons for living in New York is to appreciate a different way of life, a different culture, but also another ethic—and, thus, not to take the French way of life as natural. There is no such thing as a “natural” way of life. For me to be a foreigner helps me evaluate the different traditions that we, in the Western world, are still confronting.
EW Do you say “them” when you look at French people, or do you say “them” when you look at Americans? I mean, do you find Americans easier to understand now than French people? Do you find yourself more of a sociologist studying the French, or studying the Americans?
AK Well, at this point, I feel like a foreigner everywhere. I feel that very deeply, a sort of irreducible étrangeté, or foreignness. How about you?
EW I actually feel now that Americans are harder for me to understand; I’m more interested in studying them than French people. I don’t go to America very often, only three or four weeks every year, and when I do, I’m always thinking, Oh, that’s what they are doing now, that’s what they think, etc. For one thing, American culture seems to evolve much faster than French culture.
AK What’s intriguing for me is that I’ve come to a similar point. I’ve lived in New York for 12 years now, and sure, France has started to become more and more foreign to me. And when I come here, to France, I’ve started to feel the difference in their speed of evolution, or whatever, almost like a foreigner. And in fact I like that disconnection (laughter).
EW One thing that always strikes me as a big difference between America and France is this: I’ve a friend who’s an art dealer who told me an American woman walked into his office and said, “Last year I had no money and I was living in one room; now I have millions of dollars and I’m living in 20 rooms. I don’t know anything about art, so I want you to buy lots of art and put it on my walls.” And I thought, that would never happen in France. First of all, people don’t make money that quickly. Secondly, if they made it, they’d pretend they’d always had it. They’d never go in so naively and say, “Please tell me what I should buy.” And if they had just made new money, they’d want to buy old paintings. They wouldn’t want new paintings, they would want it to look as if they were from an old family with ancestors.
AK How many years have you been in France?
EW Twelve years…
AK What made you decide to live in Paris? What was it you liked?
EW Well, I like the fact that it is so calm here. People don’t bother you too much. And I also like being slightly out of it, in terms of America. I like being close to other countries in Europe.
AK It’s a base.
EW Yes, a base. I go to England, to Switzerland, Italy, Germany, a lot—especially England, maybe once a month. I have more friends in London than in Paris. So London’s really…I just don’t like the city very much. I also feel the English like me more if I live in France than if I were to live in England.
AK (laughter) What do you like about Paris itself?
EW I like the beauty of the place. I like the food. I like the calm. I think that French people are very difficult to get to know, but once you do they’re the best friends, the most loyal friends, because they have a cult of friendship in a way most people, most countries, don’t. And even if France has very few great writers right now, it has lots of great readers. In other words, there are many extremely cultured people who read for the pure pleasure of it, and who have read everything. I know lots of people like that here, and not many in New York.
People in New York are very interesse, they’re looking out for their own interests, they’re always networking, they all want to climb the ladder. You never know whether they like you for yourself or because you can help them with their career. Whereas here, I don’t think people are like that so much. When I first arrived in Paris I wanted to give a party and invite all the journalists and all my friends. And a French woman friend said, “We don’t do that in France—you have two parties, one for your friends, one for the journalists, but you don’t mix them.” But in New York you mix everybody.
AK Very true. In New York you feel that the notion of network often involves people who share the same background, in terms of universities and so forth.
EW Here too, with the Grandes Écoles, Sciences Po, and all that.
AK Do you think that affects the writer? That sort of school?
EW Camus said America is the only country where writers are not intellectuals. It’s true that here in France you tend to meet people who are writers. And when you dig a little deeper it turns out that their father was an editor at Gallimard, that they’re from a grand bourgeois family, or their great-grandfather was Francois Mauriac, or they were ranked number one at their school, or they were a professor of philosophy and now they’re a novelist. In other words, there’s a profile of people who live in the fifth, sixth, and seventh arrondissements, who all know each other, who tend to have a private income, and who tend to have a very exalted idea about art, and who want to be hommes de lettres in the sense of wanting to combine writing essays with writing novels, who read everything and are au courant with everything. Someone like Marc Chodolenko, for instance, who is a friend, who won the Prix Medicis many years ago—every time I go to the Louvre he’s there. He’s always there, studying everything. He has never written a word about art, he never will, it’s just that he wants to know all about it. I mean, there are these culture vultures. But in America I have many students of writing who go on to become writers, and their mother’s a nurse or their father’s a truck driver. They become writers but they’re not intellectuals; they haven’t read very much. They’re from modest families. Maybe that’s why American fiction is so vital and gutsy.
AK This is what is all the more extraordinary about someone like Genet. He’s self-taught. He knew how to create his network, by being somewhat protected by Cocteau, but at the same time he came from…
AK Exactly. From nowhere.
EW I think it helped in his case that there was the war. There was such chaos during the war, so many people were compromised by being collaborators, that suddenly there was an opening up in French culture that allowed a lot of talented nobodies to emerge. I don’t think they would have risen before the war. There are certain great exceptions. Celine, for example, was not from an important family; he was just a great writer. Obviously there are always going to be the “genius” exceptions. But I think the chaos of the war actually helped Genet to write, and then to be published and recognized.
AK With regard to what you said earlier about Rosenblum’s statement that my work has a memory or a heritage, I myself dealt with post-war chaos, being from the first generation after the war, a generation that had to make connections all over again. When I was a 20-year-old in Paris, there were no major artists 10 or 15 years older than myself, representing the previous generation, that I could meet. Yves Klein was dead, Dubuffet was totally inaccessible, and thus the generation between me and the artists I could meet was an American generation. That’s how I met Robert Morris and Rauschenberg; it’s one of the main reasons I went to New York.
EW I see…I wonder, I feel that one of the historical movements you connect with is Abstract Expressionism. But Abstract Expressionism itself was anything but a historical movement. It was interested in discovering the new, in pulling a vision out of the guts. It was very improvisational, like jazz, and it was heroic in that fiercely romantic and individualistic way. Even when someone like Robert Rosenblum can link it with the Northern, German tradition, I don’t think American painters thought in those terms. They themselves thought they were doing something brand new. And I know in your case when you do modeling that is non-figurative, that this represents something new as well.
So my question is, how important is it for you to do something brand new in a kind of heroic way, like the Abstract Expressionists, and how important is it for you to see yourself in a tradition? Or is this a false dichotomy?
AK No, I think the answer is something I can observe in your case too. You gave me an answer earlier about Genet that’s very similar to what I want to say now. You said that Genet provided a heroic or radical example that stimulates and pushes you in your work. Similarly, for me, the power of the transgression that occurs in the Abstract Expressionists, their “heroic” sense of urgency, is absolutely crucial. It’s their sense of urgency that’s important for me, something they possessed more than anyone else at the time, excepting perhaps the jazz players. There is probably, as you have mentioned, a great connection between Charlie Parker and Jackson Pollock. What they shared is the sense of urgency.
EW I think that’s right. Actually. Philippe Sollers, when he wrote about your sculpture Commandment when it was installed in Paris, said that you were more recognized by the Americans than by the French. Would you say that’s true now? Was it true when he wrote it, in 1985 or 1986?
AK For the most part it’s still true now, if only because the community of artists is so much larger in New York. Personally, you know, my priority has always been to have the respect and concern of my confrères—what’s the word?
EW My colleagues.
AK Yes…So in some ways I feel I’m more a part of the New York art scene than of the one in Paris.
EW Is there a Paris art scene?
AK Is there a Paris art scene…That indeed is the question.
EW Didn’t you say once that you sculpted while listening to Sollers recite from Paradis?
AK That’s right. Something very helpful for me is to hear the French language. It’s hard for me to escape French. It’s my mother tongue, and I’ve never really mastered English; I don’t have that Nabokov-like talent in language. Are you going to write in French someday? You speak it well enough, eh? Would you find it stimulating to write in French, or merely inhibiting?
EW (laughter) I think I would just make mistakes. It’s easy to make mistakes, especially if you have never been trained in a language. I never studied it to write it. I suppose I could if I worked with somebody.
Samuel Beckett, obviously, only became a great writer after he began to work in French. If you look at Watt, the last book he did in English, and then the trilogy, the first books he did in French, there’s a tremendous leap forward—and it comes from writing in French. In his case he was a descendent of Joyce, he was Joyce’s secretary, and in a way was too clever, knew too many words, had too many ideas. He was over-refined. But by writing in French he was forced to concentrate himself and simplify. I think that helped enormously. At the same time, he made another change; he began to write in the first person and say I, which he’d never done before. Those two things, I think, simplified and gave tremendous strength to his writing.
But in my case, I don’t have the problem of being too clever. Writing in English is a problem already. It’s not that I write too well, but that I’m always trying to write well enough. Gertrude Stein said, when she lived in Paris, that what she liked about it was that she felt she was the only person in the world who spoke English, that she was alone with the language. I like that part. I like writing in English in Paris.
The story I just wrote takes place in the Midwest in 1957, and I find that all those words we used to say in 1957 come back to me; I have a perfect memory for them. The longer I’m away from that world, the more crystal clear it becomes to me. (laughter)
AK Speaking of such clarity, it’s true that living in New York, I have a better, clearer appreciation of what is specifically French. I’m much more aware of this now than if I had stayed in Paris all this time.
EW You made me laugh the other day when you talked about the work ethic. You said that when you first arrived in New York, you were impressed by how hard everybody was working. But I found that what I like about Paris is that I don’t work so hard. I relax more and I practice the art of the flaneur. I spend hours walking around looking at books and things like that, without worrying about wasting time, which I used to worry about all the time.
Translated from the French by Philip Barnard.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby