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Flue-ed Times

Correspondence with Bruce Hainley, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, and Sherrie Levine, and November

The tabloid centerfold for the third issue of The Flue, December 1980, opens like the doors of a wardrobe to reveal a short story called “The Wardrobe.” What’s inside? Manslaughter, self-effacement, psychic splitting, love—yes, love—and pictures of words for all those things, delivered before Reagan’s inauguration, after Marianne Faithfull snarled “Why’d Ya Do It?,” and during the run of the debut group exhibition of Metro Pictures.

Few knew what to do with Metro Pictures. This is not the digression it might seem. In the blue moony moment no one really knew where any of it was headed, where or if it would land, what even it was. Meanwhile New York state law about multiples was hotly debated, under review. Richard Prince attempted to explain the mood in a letter to a friend and benefactor, a month after he “lost interest” in what led Kruger, Lawler, and Levine to publish their Flue position paper:

Metro Pictures has been a hard address to swallow for many—mainly because of the name—attitude—owners—stable—i.e. why am I choking when I should be swallowing and breathing. Most do not know what to make out of it. I must admit I had a bit of panic mania during the opening group show but it seems to have leveled out—an even strain has come over me in the past 3 weeks—however there’s always that ever present keg of grunts ready to press their ugly little heads upon a smooth wave and just plain make things difficult for me. Why can’t I be satisfied? Never never—it’s always never—it’s never even. To “bottom out” and stay bottomed out—for at least a month would be most welcomed.
Three more weeks till my show—Lord help me—this is blue but not at night.


Lord help us we imagine knowledge to be dark salt clear moving utterly free forever flowing and drawn, and since our knowledge is historical (and I may be quoting) flowing and flown—but nothing is any longer (if it ever was, then only for some) utterly free, and what occurs, impromptu actual in the flow of living, soon is flown away. Flew.

The opening and closing pages that surround the center of the centerfold (a term Hugh Hefner claimed to coin) void everything—no shadow, noon glare—other than two large questions set small one per page between black bars running across the top almost like bereavement borders: “What do we own?” and “What is the same?” It was becoming difficult to tell anymore. It would become more difficult still.


At the bottom of the centerfold’s last page beneath a final black bar bounding the blankness the words "By:"


Alberto Moravia
Barbara Kruger
Louise Lawler
Sherrie Levine


The old existentialist was still alive. He signs the prior questions of ownership and sameness, blank space, as much as Kruger, Lawler, and Levine underwrite everything preceding their names, including his. Looking becomes reading. Smoke gets in your eyes.

“Flue, if you have not checked your dictionary by now,” Martha Wilson clarified in an editorial for the first issue of Franklin Furnace’s publication, “means the following: flue (floo), n.1. a passage or duct for smoke in a chimney. 2. Any duct or passage for air, gas, or the like. So if ‘Furnace’ connotes an organization dedicated to preserving ephemeral art, Flue suggests the ephemeral art itself.” Although the metaphor might not totally track—wouldn’t ephemeral art be fire, its fuel, or smoke?—it furnished frank fluency in stays against conflagration and disappearance.

Within the Flue intervention, its only facing pages, four photographs that aren’t of “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote,” placed in quadrants formed by a cross of black bars set on the tabloid’s fold. Instead of Borges’ appropriational standard, the artists tender Alberto Moravia’s The Wardobe”—“L’armadio” in the Italian—from a book of short stories published in 1970 under the title Il Paradiso, translated by Angus Davidson as Paradise when it was brought out in Britain in 1971, eventually appearing in the US as Bought and Sold (buying and selling supplanting the hereafter in America)—a text spurred by desire betrayal and hurt, recursive scenarios that abandon the Borgesian library for the bedroom. Women tell every story in Bought and Sold and as much as they divulge about themselves—desires thinking—imagining their mindset allows Moravia to observe men, their foibles, cruelties, and drives. Moravia via Sylvia and everything they recount is class specific, bourgeois forensics. Villas. Hotels in Paris. A smiling maid. Kruger, Lawler, and Levine, not unlike the protagonist of “The Wardrobe,” remain “at a distance, impassive, ironical, and watching.”


Not sure any of the above has or had anything to do with coming to terms for why’d they do what they did, even though it’s not as if some of it didn’t. They trafficked in American inexpressionism someone said at the time. Which is not the same as effacement. Which is not the same as silence—although the sonic difference between the two can be difficult to discern.

“[T]he more I loved,” Sylvia, the narrator of “The Wardrobe,” confesses, “the more I effaced myself, driving myself from my mind and forcing the beloved person into it.” Ownership as much as sameness structure her state of being. Is anyone’s selfhood always a property of their being? No, of course not, and not only because of any hangover modernist dissociative proclivity. Something like the symmetries and asymmetries of Sylvia’s divisions, splitting herself into two persons—“of whom one, the real, the genuine one, continued on her own account; while the other, a successful imitation of the first, was delegated to have relations with the world”—can be traced in the various appropriative and expropriative drives of the work with which the three artists are associated. A tale of returns and repetitions, “The Wardrobe,” Moravia’s as well as Kruger, Lawler, and Levine’s, reconfigures “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” as Double Indemnity. Call it The Wardrobes. “I killed my husband by mistake, that is, for a joke,” Sylvia divulges in the story’s first sentence. One of her did but not herself. An art that ratifies not self-expression or autofiction but self-division for nonaligning and/or resistant otherness.

“A photograph is one kind of picture / That can be put to some kind of use” Lawler would later clarify. Usage instead of expression contouring the photographic and its reach. To what kind of use were Kruger, Lawler, and Levine putting these photographs of page spreads held by the mounting corners of questions and matted with so much blank space? Were their queries ontological? Helpful? What is their tone? Do the four pictures of “The Wardrobe” answer the two questions, stay mum, or provide critique? The artists were examining—aren’t they still—the rough present. How not to be manhandled by it. Intellectual property. Bodily autonomy. Various parities. Their questions remain pulverizingly relevant.

Aspects of the project had already and would continue to divide off into proxies, others “delegated to have relations with the world,” while the Flue project continued on its own account. Almost simultaneously, Levine rewrites parts of “The Wardrobe” to use as a statement about her pursuits that appears in October, primal seen. Then six months later the two questions repeat in the press release for her first solo exhibit, “Sherrie Levine: Photographs,” at Metro Pictures: “I am interested in issues of identity and property—i.e. what is the same? what do we own?” Lawler photographs another spread of Bought and Sold for her tondo, “Open,” and in her work of selecting and arranging the photographs for Art After Modernism cleaves its opening text, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in two by transplanting a version of the entire Flue project into it. Getting the band back together in a way, while all three serious ladies are represented by solo projects elsewhere in that infamous anthology. Kruger, perhaps most coolly, takes from Moravia further lessons in othering the mind fields of paternal enunciation.

At a distance, impassive, ironical, and watching, a photograph of man and a child on the lower bottom right of the page facing the artists’ deadpan initiative: the man, seated shirtless on a bed, looks somewhat askance, perhaps at the one with the camera, while the child, in a stained smock, eyes closed, head slightly down, ignores it all. Other in other ways, a bedroom scene outside any of those represented in “The Wardrobe,” the photograph could fill the blankness on the page opposite, glinting off “What is the same” which now folds into and becomes the question of “What do we own?” The man in the picture does not own the means of production. Artists can be on his side, but that doesn’t make them the same; unlike the proletariat they own the means of their production. A portrait of that daffodil commonplace, child as father of the man, whether Bud and William Fields, Hale County, or Edward Weston and his son Neil, then at Metro Pictures, the unattributed photograph collaborates with all the Flue collaboration puts forth but differently. It will not become part of what eventually coalesces as After Walker Evans 1-22. Preserved in Flue, complicating inside and outside, contingent, it could be seen to be “one ‘work’” that “they all claim to have done,” untimely document, nameless adjacency. Violence inheres in all of it, intentional or not. The picture now shows what it hides.


–Bruce Hainley



LL — Louise Lawler

November

This three-artist collaboration for The Flue: who initiated it and how, or did it arise from already ongoing conversations?

LL

We—Sherrie, Jim Welling, Richard Prince and I—met at Barbara Kruger's loft and discussed the project. At one point I suggested that we all claim to have done one 'work.' Chris D'Arcangelo and I had previously proposed this idea for a show at Artists Space with 4 artists, but it didn't happen.


I had photographed "The Wardrobe," and exhibited the prints in a show curated by Group Material.

Sherrie, sort of out of the blue, suggested we agree to it being our work. Fine with me and Barbara, but Richard and Jim lost interest.

November

Was there any prior knowledge that this issue of The Flue (Vol. 1, No. 3, December 1980) would engage two contextual “frames,” an interview with Charles Henri Ford that was subtitled “When Art and Literature Come Together,” and Barbara Moore and John Hendricks’ essay, “The Page As Alternative Space—1950 to 1969”?

LL

I don't remember being aware of the texts ahead of time.

November

How did the collaboration work in terms of duties/decisions/production/design?

LL

I had also photographed some pages of a Lissitsky or Mayakovsky book, which is where I got the date photos and i think lifted the design idea, but feel like we discussed and did it together.

November

The book of Alberto Moravia short stories, Bought and Sold, from which “The Wardrobe” was photographed wasn’t “current” or pointedly contemporaneous to the moment of the collaboration (FSG published the book in 1973). How did it become the focus of the collaboration? Were you and your collaborators all reading Moravia at the time?


For this collection of short stories—Il Paradiso (Bought and Sold in its American publication)—Moravia assembled texts from a woman’s POV; the first sentence of the front flap reads: “All the stories (there are thirty-four of them) are told by women.” In terms of the collaboration, was this part of the point?


In the bluntest summary, Moravia’s story engenders thinking about doubling, psychic splitting, repetition, appropriation, and erotic domestic ricochet, but in a manner radically different from Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Was this discussed?


This Moravia book, Bought and Sold, became generative for other works and/or statements by you: your photograph, “Open,” 1980, a “tondo” of another page spread from the book; your work as selector and arranger of the photographic illustrations for Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, for which you embedded a reproduction of the three-artist Moravia collaboration into the midst of Borges’s “Pierre Menard,” almost as if a retort to its ubiquity as commentary on “appropriation”/“pictures.” What was it about this book that facilitated making work and/or helped articulate a stance toward your artistic endeavor?

LL

Yes, I remember Sherrie and I reading Moravia, as well as other Italian and French writers and yes Borjes.

(A strange fact, regarding FSG. I went to their office to ask for permission and they said Yes, but I had to blur the page of the preceding story. This made absolutely no sense to me, but I complied and rephotographed it.)

November

Was there a specific (social, political, and/or aesthetic) prompt or antecedent to the tabloid centerfold’s framing questions: “What do we own?”; “What is the same?” Or were the questions seen to respond to “The Wardrobe” directly?

LL

These terms—"What do we own?"; "What is the same?"—were among the modes of address floating around at the time and seemed to fit.

November

You have written: “A photograph is one kind of picture that can be put to some kind of use.” How would you describe the kind of use to which the photographs of the short story in The Flue are being put?



Email transcript in full:


Lauren, There is a lot that could be answered here.

In general , I avoid interviews, not wanting to intrude on the reception of my work. Knowing more about me is a part of this and I am a little uncomfortable about my answers and their 'chattiness.'

I mean to be responding as a 'fact checker,' but it is just how I, one of 3 remember it.

We—Sherrie, Jim Welling, Richard Prince, and I—met at Barbara Kruger's loft and discussed the project. At one point I suggested that we all claim to have done one 'work.' Chris D'Arcangelo and I had previously proposed this idea for a show at Artists Space with 4 artists, but it didn't happen.

I had photographed "The Wardrobe," and exhibited the prints in a show curated by Group Material.

Sherrie, sort of out of the blue, suggested we agree to it being our work. FIne with me and Barbara, but Richard and Jim lost interest.

I don't remember being aware of the texts ahead of time.

I had also photographed some pages of a Lissitsky or Mayakofsky book, which is where I got the date photos and i think lifted the design idea, but feel like we discussed and did it together.

Yes, I remember Sherrie and I reading Moravia, as well as other Italian and French writers and yes Borjes.

(A strange fact, regarding FSG. I went to their office to ask for permission and they said Yes, but I had to blur the page of the preceding story. This made absolutely no sense to me, but I complied and rephotographed it.)

These terms—"What do we own?"; "What is the same?"—were among the modes of address floating around at the time and seemed to fit.

All for now,

Louise



Second email transcript:

November

1. Is it accurate to consider The Flue collaboration something that led to your collaboration with Sherrie Levine, A Picture Is No Substitute For Anything, the first appearance of which occurs about six months later, at Harold Rivkin, on Wednesday, May 27, 1981, and at your (then) loft, on Thursday, June 25, 1981, or was that collaboration another kind of and/or separate conversation?

LL

No, not in any exact way. Sherrie and I had been talking of various possibilities for a long time. It seems a very different kind of project and came out of different questions.

November

2. The next annual subject of November is the fraught (?) term “postmodernism.” As mentioned, The Flue collaboration appeared in Art After Modernism, for which “[p]hotographs selected and arranged” by you, “in collaboration with Brian Wallis,” the book’s editor, illustrated the volume’s contributions. Clearly there was some shift in how artists were working in the moment the Flue collaboration happened (in relation to the photographic, to the changing gallery system), and the collaboration occurred late in or “after” modernism, but was the term “postmodernism” how you (and your peers) thought of or described your work—or was it only expedient in the moment?

LL

I didn’t think about the term “Postmodernism,” but others did.
There was a lot of collaboration around that time, but that inclusion in The Flue was different, more “an investigation” that was "a matter of agreement.”

Photo editing with Brian and Douglas was certainly more ‘working together’ in different roles. For me it was also an effort at taking on different jobs to expand the idea of not what an artist can be responsible for, but that ‘work’ deserved attention. Also (I am not clear what I am trying to say) but to be included in ‘reading’—spread ’thinking' to different formats of a certain kind of attention.


There were a lot of efforts that were inclusive and sharing platforms. Artist run galleries on the lower east side, Jenny Holzer’s “sign on a truck’, magazines…

Allan McCollum and I collaborated on a page in the publication of New Observations, neither of us remembers how we were invited, but decided to use the page as an ad and then collaborated to come up with something to sell. We had Jim Welling photograph the resulting object. Later we showed them at Diane Brown Gallery and together wrote the press release...


I am just saying this and attaching to give an example of fluid times.

Jenny invited others to show on her truck.

November

3. You mentioned the idea that you and Christopher D’Arcangelo had for four artists to “all claim to have done one work.” Although it didn’t end up coming about, didn’t you propose that idea for the 1978 exhibition at Artists Space, that included Adrian Piper and Cindy Sherman? Was there ever any discussion of that 1978 exhibit as a response, if not exactly a retort, to Douglas Crimp’s notorious exhibit at Artists Space a year prior, “Pictures”?

LL

Yes, it was for that show. Adrian Piper didn’t respond to our letters.
No, I don’t think the “Pictures” show was part of our discussion, although it was a “name making” exhibition. More hindsight.



Additional fact checking emails:

November

You mentioned that you had photographed "The Wardrobe" and exhibited the prints in a show curated by Group Material. We've been trying to identify that show but can't seem to find it. Do you remember which show it was? (GM's It's a Gender Show! took place Feb 14–March 9, 1981, after The Flue was published in Dec 1980.)


It was the gender show, which unfortunately I didn’t see.(Think I left for California.) Don’t quite remember how I handed over the work, although I do remember I mostly dealt with another woman from Group Material who also had a fabulous voice, but not Julie. The show was in the 20’s (street, near SVA), I think and I don’t remember any announcement.
I guess I got the order wrong.
I just looked on my bio and it isn’t there.
Let me know if you find any info.


That is so interesting. As you, Barbara, and Sherrie were all in the Gender show, we are now wondering if the collaboration appeared there?


No.

I didn’t know Barbara was in it. Have a vague feeling I knew Sherrie was. Was a little surprised to be invited to be in it.

It is strange I know so little about it. Remember framing the prints with those metal, put together frames from Pearl; kind of last minute.

I’d printed the photos...a bit ripply.
I remember having done the photos before.
In my memory it was Sherrie who proposed we use them for the Flue.
They weren’t made to be a proposal for the Flue.

BK — Barbara Kruger

November

1. This three-artist collaboration for The Flue: who initiated it and how, or did it arise from already ongoing conversations?

BK

Can't recall the origins of how it came about.

November

2. According to Martha Wilson and the archival website for the publication, you are credited as the “artist/designer” of this issue of The Flue (Vol. 1, No. 3, December 1980), while the “centerfold” itself is credited to you, Lawler, and Levine. Was the design up to you or were there conversations amongst the collaborators about the use of bold blank space, black borders, font and font size?

BK

I recall the design being a result of conversations.

November

3. Was there any prior knowledge that this issue of The Flue (Vol. 1, No. 3, December 1980) would engage two contextual “frames,” an interview with Charles Henri Ford that was subtitled “When Art and Literature Come Together”, and Barbara Moore and John Hendricks’ essay, “The Page As Alternative Space—1950 to 1969”?

BK

Yes, I believe there was prior knowledge.

November

4. The book of Alberto Moravia short stories, Bought and Sold, from which “The Wardrobe” was photographed wasn’t “current” or pointedly contemporaneous to the moment of the collaboration (FSG published the book in 1973). How did it become the focus of the collaboration? Were you and your collaborators all reading Moravia at the time?

BK

I had read Moravia. I believe Sherrie was particularly engaged with that text at the time.

November

5. For this collection of short stories—Il Paradiso (Bought and Sold in its American publication)—Moravia assembled texts from a woman’s POV; the first sentence of the front flap reads: “All the stories (there are thirty-four of them) are told by women.” In terms of the collaboration, was this part of the point?

BK

Yes, this might have been PART of the point.

November

6. In the bluntest summary, Moravia’s story engenders thinking about doubling, psychic splitting, repetition, appropriation, and erotic domestic ricochet, but in a manner radically different from Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Was this discussed?

BK

Yes, this was probably discussed. Don't recall the specifics of the convo.

November

7. Was there a specific (social, political, and/or aesthetic) prompt or antecedent to the tabloid centerfold’s framing questions: “What do we own?”; “What is the same?” Or were the questions seen to respond to “The Wardrobe” directly?

BK

In the most cursory fashion, I'd say a response to the text, to the every day, to what is seen, thought, felt and lived. Again, sorry I can't give more info that might be more useful or productive for you. Thanks to both you and Bruce for thinking about this long ago thingy :-) Barbara


Email transcript in full:


Hi Lauren- I'm so sorry, but I really don't have much to add. I received an earlier request, forwarded to me by Martha Wilson that I'm attaching to this email. Louise got it also and I was wondering whether this is part of your research or something separate. LL and I emailed back and forth about it and she recalls far more of this process that I do. I'm so sorry, but my info about the forensics of our project are kind of atmospheric and will be of little help. 1. Can't recall the origins of how it came about. 2. I recall the design being a result of conversations. 3. Yes, I believe there was prior knowledge. 4. I had read Moravia. I believe Sherrie was particularly engaged with that text at the time. 5. Yes, this might have been PART of the point. 6. Yes, this was probably discussed. Don't recall the specifics of the convo. 7. In the most cursory fashion, I'd say a response to the text, to the every day, to what is seen, thought, felt and lived. Again, sorry I can't give more info that might be more useful or productive for you. Thanks to both you and Bruce for thinking about this long ago thingy :-) Barbara

SL — Sherrie Levine

SL

I’m sorry I can’t help you.






Next from this Volume

Institutional Critique

with Gregg Bordowitz, Tom Burr, Aria Dean, Andrea Fraser, James Meyer, Nicholas C. Morgan, Christian Philipp Müller, and Blake Oetting with Gregg Bordowitz, Tom Burr, Aria Dean, Andrea Fraser, James Meyer, Nicholas C. Morgan, Christian Philipp Müller, and Blake Oetting

“Where’s the anti-aesthetic? The critique of practice is gone.”