Beyond Nude Chess: Eve Babitz Embodied Bygone L.A.
By Lucy Li
posted: 07-07-11
Then it was all about Eve
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The photograph of Marcel Duchamp playing chess with a nude Eve Babitz has become one of most iconic images of the French artist. In a gallery filled with his works, a well-dressed, gentle-looking Marcel sits opposite a young, voluptuous woman. Her face retreats behind her bangs but her posture is composed and comfortable, and Duchamp himself does not seem to care that his opponent has no clothes on. Behind them is “The Large Glass," or “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even,” and a number of other significant pieces that fade into the background. The nude and the elderly artist beg to be viewed as another piece of art in the gallery; the viewer remains bewildered and indecisive, however, about how to approach the photo as a whole. It was the perfect portrait of Duchamp and Los Angeles.


According to Babitz’s 1991 Esquire essay “I was a Naked Pawn for Art,” her photo-op with Duchamp was actually more of a capricious, attention-seeking young-adult stunt than an artistic statement. Here's what happened: A massive retrospective exhibition of Duchamp’s art was held at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963. Everyone important was invited to a private viewing, yet Babitz, though she was friends with curator Walter Hopp, was not. Later, at the public viewing, Time photographer Julian Wasser, her younger sister’s date to the private viewing, suggested it would be a fun idea for Babitz to pose naked playing chess with Duchamp. Young, reckless and dying to get revenge on Hopp for his earlier snub, the twenty-year-old Babitz jumped at the opportunity.


The next morning, Wasser photographed Babitz playing chess with a very old, very polite and very un-L.A. Duchamp. The shoot itself lived up to neither its hype nor its legacy. Wasser spent ages fixing the lights and Babitz arrived at the gallery dressed in “nunlike severity.” She tried not to think about her stomach, which was puffed up due to the birth control pills she was taking, ran to get dressed soon as Wasser finished the shoot, and succeeded in confronting Hopp. That was all.


Wasser was already driving around Hollywood with a police radio in his car in 1963, and he went on to become one of the most successful celebrity photographers of the 20th Century. Babitz became an acclaimed writer who published books and novels about L.A. culture, but she is now more than anything remembered as the naked woman who played chess with Duchamp.

 Today, Babitz’s literary reputation is borderline nonexistent: all her books are out of print and difficult to find even at libraries. Of the three books Stanford holds, one is held in a non-circulating collection on Californian history, and the other two are buried in “SAL3,” the Stanford Auxiliary Library. A Google search of “Eve Babitz” yields a slew of reproductions and humorous (and awkward) parodies of Wasser’s photo, a few obscure graduate dissertations, blog posts by serious bookaholics, as well as the Myspace page of an British indie goth-pop band called “All About Eve Babitz.” She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

 However, once upon a time she was the epicenter of everything Los Angeles. She was neither a celebrity nor a wealthy heiress, but it seemed as if everyone who was anyone was somehow magically connected to Eve Babitz. Besides being friends with the aforementioned Walter Hopp, the legendary curator whose gallery hosted the first solo show by Andy Warhol, she was the daughter of an L.A. Philharmonic violinist, and eventually became the goddaughter of a certain visiting musician named Igor Stravinsky. She was one of Ed Ruscha’s “Five girlfriends of 1965” and she also unapologetically slept with Jim Morrison. And through the sheer serendipity of her meeting her sister's date, the media-savvy, impulsive Julian Wasser, Babitz finally and for posterity became the nude girl who played chess with Duchamp.


Ironically, the world of Eve Babitz’s writing could not be further from European manners and intellectual French Modernism, and deserves recognition in its own right. It would be a slight stretch to admit her into the canon of great 20th century American writers, but her work definitely packs more punch than that of many writers with Wikipedia pages. Her essays and novels present a city populated by alcoholics, fame whores and Scientologists, a glamorous Sodom without a sense of history and an enforced moral code, whose only oases of any form of purity were vegan, natural food stores decorated in Indian wallpaper and frequented by yoga jocks and sex addicts. These were atheist and political people who worshiped Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor and believed that “fascism is worse than what Oedipus did to his mother.” L.A. was admittedly messy, weird and sinfully delicious; Babitz was not afraid to love every bit of it.


Certainly, versions of Babitz’s L.A. can be found in works of a dozen other writers, but unlike Joan Didion or Nathaniel West, Babitz does not attempt to critique L.A. She acknowledges that “what educated people from the East Coast and England take one look at [LA] and think is what is wrong with this place,” but she has no desire to fix it. Writing in a style that is a mix of David Sedaris and Lauren Conrad or Chelsea Handler, she is observant, witty, tactful, efficient and daring. After reading Tolstoy, Austen, Dickens and Camus, she concluded that “the point of these book as far as I, a bleached blond teenager growing up in Hollywood, was concerned was that though the authors thought they were so smart--being from England and the East Coast and so well educated and everything--they were suckers for trashy cute girls who looked like goddesses and just wanted to have fun.”


Occasionally she dives into intricate, poetic descriptions or introspective streams of consciousness, but for the most part she is the immensely biting and practical writer who chose to attend L.A. Community College “because you could park, unlike at UCLA.” To Babitz, a flat stomach is worth more than the “tenets of Western Civilization that try to convince us there are higher things,” which “always seemed to [her] just a handful of dust.” The towering necessity of a svelte figure over higher philosophy is thoroughly and nakedly explored in many of her essays, and she does not care if the reader disagrees. Perhaps her biggest flaw is that she succeeded so beautifully in writing records of a disposable culture that her writings became a part of it, and were themselves forgotten as the world she describes vanished and was replaced.

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Eye Drawing: Paysant's Art Comes Directly From the Head
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 07-06-11
sight is vanity
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Bypassing the question of the technical skill of the artist was a long-standing target of the Dada and Surrealist movements, from Jean Arp's stochastic collages to Duchamp's readymades, to the "automatic drawing machines" constructed by Jean Tinguely. Perhaps ironically (though perhaps suitably), technological aids and prostheses were always tied in with this tradition. And the French contemporary artist Michel Paysant has taken the scientific solution to the next level with his quite cutting edge "eye-drawing." Using eye-tracking and cognitive imaging software at the Laboratory of Cognitive Neurosciences and Intellectual Imagery of the LENA at the Hospital of Salpêtrière in Paris, Paysant produced a series of skull-shaped schema, he has said, by imaging them "internally."The Centre Pompidou recently displayed one of these, entitled Autre Vanite, or the "other vanity." (Skulls, classic memento mori, are known as Vanites due to their recalling that life is but a vanity.)

Another vanity indeed seems to be at work here: though relying on eerily post-human technical supplement, the concept of Eye Drawing almost conjures the neo-Romanticist ideal of a work flowing unmediated from the soul of the artistic genius: precisely the sort of heroic vision that Dada would seem to scorn. However, Tristan Tzara in fact at times compared Dada to Romantacism; Hugo Ball, for his part saw the chaos of Dada as serving a new, deeper verity and indeed a transcendental unity.

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Lee Miller: More than a Muse
By Jordan Baum
posted: 07-05-11
"Observatory Time The Lovers," Man Ray, 1936
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The new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, titled “Man Ray / Lee Miller, Partners in Surrealism,” showcases the long and complicated relationship between the two avant-garde artists. Bringing together the work of Ray, Miller and others from their close circle in an interesting retelling of their story, it documents the various phases of their interconnected lives: as strangers, as mentor and student, as lovers, and finally as friends. Ultimately, it demonstrates how their liaison was critical to each artist’s growth as a Surrealist.


If for Miller their encounter meant a foundation for a career in photography, Ray’s oeuvre evinces his strong fixation with her. He created haunting works based on Miller’s body and facial features that are now powerful and classic images, most notably “Observatory Time — The Lovers,” in which Miller’s glorified lips hover in a cloudy sky. Reviewer Chris Bergeron describes such pieces as “visual archetypes for the dream states, subconscious impulses and sense of dislocation Surrealists sought to convey.” These particular works are certainly reflective of such impulses, but they also exemplify what can be understood as the dilemma for Surrealist women: On the one hand, their desire to work as artists themselves, but also the unavoidable positioning of their bodies as objects of desire for their male contemporaries.


A beautiful subject, Lee Miller is sometimes seen as merely a muse. The PEM exhibit allows us to better understand her success as an individual, independent of Ray, though still in inevitable interaction with him. Curator of Photography Phillip Prodger explains that part of the goal in telling their story was to represent Miller “on equal terms” with Ray. In removing the hierarchies of master and student, artist and muse, male and female, the show vindicates Miller without diminishing Ray.


Yet the exhibit makes clear the degree to which Ray’s work, while stunning, is soaked in masculine desire. It pulls back the veil of lust that flattens Miller into an object of that desire. Ray’s depiction of Miller’s body in whole or in part may create a “sense of dislocation,” but there is perhaps nothing more dislocating than Miller’s work as a photographer/correspondent during World War II. This deserves appreciation in its own right, as it reveals her as not only an authentic Surrealist, but a visual storyteller with integrity and empathy.

The show runs through December 4.

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Games, Continued
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 07-04-11
Eminent Postructuralist
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"Games, which as operations are disjunctive, because they produce differentiating events, give rise to spaces where moves are proportional to situations. From the game of chess, an aristocratic form of the "art of war" which came from China and was brought by the Arabs into medieval Western culture where it constituted a very important part of manorial culture, to pinochle, Lotto, and Scrabble, games formulate (and already formalize) rules organizing moves and constitute as well a memory (a storage and a classification) of schemas of actions articulating replies with respect to circumstances. They exercise that function precisely because they are detached from those everyday combats which forbid one to "show his hand" and whose stakes, rules, and moves are too complex. The explicitness of the rules is always inversely proportional to the practical engagement involved. If we observe a formalization of tactics in these games (as has been done with respect to the game of go), or compare to games the technique of divination, whose formal framework has the purpose of adjusting a decision to concrete situations, we gain a preliminary body of material concerning the kinds of rationality proper to the practice of spaces—spaces that are closed and "historicized" by the variability of the events to be treated."

"To these games correspond accounts of particular games: people tell each other about the hand they had to play the night before, or the slam they made the previous week. These stories represent a succession of combinations among all those that the synchronic organization of a space, of rules, of deals, etc., make possible. They are paradigmatic projections of a choice among these possibilities—a choice correspond-ing to a particular actualization (or enunciation). Like the bridge or chess articles in The New York Times, the stories could be formulated in a special code, thus making it clear that every event is a particular
application of the formal framework. But in replaying the games, in telling about them, these accounts record the rules and the moves simultaneously. To be memorized as well as memorable, they are repertories of schemas of action between partners. With the attraction that the element of surprise introduces, these mementos teach the tactics possible within a given (social) system."

"Tales and legends seem to have the same role.They are deployed, like games, in a space outside of and isolated from daily competition, that of the past, the marvelous, the original. In that space can thus be revealed, dressed as gods or heroes, the models of good or bad ruses that can be used every day. Moves, not truths, are recounted."

-Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 41

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The Quotable Avant-Garde: On (Duchamp) Games and Pataphysics
By Eli Epstein-Deutsch
posted: 07-03-11
Asger Jorn, Situationist, with Pipe
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"The game is the Pataphysical overture to the world. The realisation of such games is the creation of situations. A crisis therefore exists, caused by the crucial problem which each Pataphysical adept must resolve: s/he must either apply the situlogic method and attack the conditions of the reigning society, or else simply refuse to do anything whatsoever about the situation. It is in the latter resolution to this problem that 'Pataphysics becomes the religion best adapted to life in the society of the spectacle: a religion of passivity and pure absence." ― from 'Pataphysics - A Religion In The Making by Asger Jorn, originally appeared in Internationale Situationniste No.6 (August 1961)

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