Monday, July 4, 2011

Dying to See You

A couple of months ago, the conservator of Lincoln Center's artworks collaborated with me on a sort of VIP Art & Architecture tour, so I got a chance beforehand to chat with him. I asked him about this painting, and he said it likely won't be returning. He also said the Yaacov Agam sculpture, Three X Three Interplay (1971), probably won't be coming back either, which I also find very disappointing. He said the Agam sculpture is very large and there really is no place for it anymore. I really think they should have created a new spot for it. For the painting this post discusses, there does happen to be a perfect spot, at the western end of Alice Tully Hall's lobby, in a curved alcove that I believe contains doorways to back offices. He said that there was some resistance on the part of Diller, Scofidio + Renfro to reintroducing this painting in the space for some reason.

As much as I think I've made clear the enormous respect I have for this trio of architects, I have to say, I'm disappointed. Part of my defense of this painting is selfish, because I would LOVE the opportunity to tell this wonderfully disturbing story to the snotty, uninterested high school kids with whom I often have to contend. But the other part is that I think it's a brilliant piece, suited very well to the space. The third argument I'll make is that the painting was a gift from the artist to Lincoln Center. To just callously throw it away as a useless addition to the building is kind of a slap in the face of this gracious gesture. And the point remains that there is a perfect place to re-hang it, so there is no excuse.

I do feel justified in calling for this painting to be hung once again in Alice Tully Hall. At this point, I suspect it never will be. I hinted at this before, but since I probably won't have the opportunity to ever tell this story on one of my tours, I thought I'd share with you the (here revised) essay I wrote about it in creating the Art & Architecture Tour for Lincoln Center.

The piece I'm referring to is Black Dahlia (acrylic on canvas, 1971) by Gene Davis.

"What? THIS is the piece you're defending?" Yes, this is the piece.

First of all, Gene Davis (1920-1985) was from the Washington Color School of painters from D.C. along with Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and others. He started out as a sports journalist. As a writer he also covered the Roosevelt and Truman presidential administrations and often played poker with Harry Truman. He worked predominantly in acrylic.

Vertical lines fascinated Davis because he felt that they're conceptually infinite. His pieces therefore draw a contrast between the limits of the physical painting and the conceptual limitlessness of the lines in them. They aren't canvases dissected by lines. They're lines represented on the canvas that theoretically extend beyond its borders. He pushed this idea to its extremes in both directions of scale. In 1972, his Niagara, painted at a parking lot in Lewiston, New York, was the largest painting ever created at 43,680 square feet (4058 square meters). His smallest works were as tiny as three eighths of an inch square (a .95 centimeter square). Likewise, Tully is the venue in the complex dedicated to the smallest of the classical music performance types, Chamber Music, a question of scale.

Davis' works also often have musical themes: Banjo, Black Grey Beat, Solar Beat, Sonata, Sun Sonata, Yukon Sonata, etc. The vertical bars of color form obviously rhythmic patterns across the canvases. The connection may be that, like his paintings, music is orderly and restricted in form yet expansive and expressive in concept and meaning.

There are some deep reddish-purple dahlias said to be "black" like their counterparts in the rose and tulip families. The secondary level of signification no doubt appealed to Davis, but this botanist reference is so uncommon as to make the following explanation infinitely more probable. Many of you, especially from the West Coast, already know where I'm going. Surprisingly, considering my fascination with True Crime and anything disturbing, I'd not ever heard this story before I began to research this painting. The "Black Dahlia" was Elizabeth Short (1924-1947).

Little is known about her life, except that she moved around the country quite frequently as a teenager and had relationships with quite a few military men, leading some to speculate that she was a prostitute. This was later refuted by grand jury reports. A telegram sent by Short places her in Washington, D.C. around 1944. Although he was still only fourteen, there remains the possibility that Davis knew her, or at the very least, that he believed he might have met her. She was found dead in a vacant lot in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, at the age of twenty-three.

Her body was horribly mutilated. She was cut in half at the mid-section, all the blood had been drained from her body, and her face had been cut from the sides of her mouth all the way to her ears, what's known as a "Glasgow Smile." Because she liked to dress in all black, possibly she was nicknamed "The Black Dahlia" at a Long Beach drugstore where she hung out, as a play on the title of the currently-running film The Blue Dahlia (1946), starring Alad Ladd and Veronica Lake. In other accounts, newspaper reporters covering the murder coined the nickname.

At the time, it was the largest murder investigation ever conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department. Hundreds of people were considered suspects and were questioned. Around sixty people falsely confessed to the crime. In his book, Black Dahlia Avenger, published in 2003, Los Angeles police officer Steve Hodel claimed that his father, psychiatrist George Hodel, had murdered Short. The claim was never substantiated. Surrealist photographer Man Ray, who was very close with Hodel, has also been suggested as the killer. The crime remains unsolved to this day.

In their 2006 book, Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, authors Mark Nelson and Sarah Bayliss put forth a fascinating theory. Numerous details about the way Short's body was found, with her arms posed above her head and the ways that her body was mutilated, have direct correlations with specific works by surrealist artists. They therefore propose that Short's killer was well acquainted with the work of the surrealists (as was Hodel), and that the murder itself had been an extremely twisted work of surrealist art. The book's title comes from the parlor game played by the surrealists wherein each participant writes one word on a folded piece of paper, so that when unfolded, a nonsensical sentence has been composed. The authors go on to suggest the possibility that, similarly, Short's body had been passed around amongst a whole group of people, each of whom performed some disturbing act of surrealist-inspired mutilation to her cadaver.

Marcel Duchamp's final work, Étant donnés (probably NSFW, unless you work in an art gallery), installed posthumously at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is suspiciously and eerily similar to Short's crime scene.

In a brief and pleasant email correspondence with Nelson, he revealed to me the possible Washington, D.C. connection with Davis. The day I received my copy of Exquisite Corpse in the mail, my curiosity took hold and I began reading. I literally could not put it back down again, and finished the entire book that evening, something I never, ever do. For anyone interested in Art History and especially surrealism, the macabre or disturbing, or True Crime, I must highly recommend this brilliant and fascinating read. Although maybe something for the weak of constitution to avoid, the photos are illustrative but (purposely) not particularly the most graphic or vomit-inducing.

I'd also like to add a brief discussion of this crime from a Feminist perspective. I won't delve deeply, I think that's better handled by someone more informed than myself. But I think what this violent act says about both the Hollywood system and the Art World is quite poignant. It's how the female body in this case was viewed as a purely aesthetic object to it's most horrifying conclusion. Short's body was the artwork, and it had to be devoured, destroyed in order to be so. In fact, the very destruction of her body was the work's most defining feature. 

In our day and age, we've seen how the mutilation of one's body falls fairly easily into the category of Art. Tattoos and piercings are great examples, not to mention of course cosmetic surgery of any kind, but especially the most extreme cases. Note Jocelyn Wildenstein. In some cases, indeed the very act of mutilating one's body as it might be in a work of Performance Art clearly takes the name. 

From the other direction, most serial killers consider what they do to be a cathartic, precise, sick sort of art form. Ed Gein was, to be far too generous, a fashion and furniture designer (as were some of the nazis). But to my mind, only in the case of the Black Dahlia murder do all these troublesome qualities come together to make one powerful, shocking statement about American popular culture's view of and attitudes toward the Female Body. It alone speaks perhaps more than any other psychotic act of how and to what extent our cultural machine feels the Female Body should be (allows it to be) used and consumed, at least how it did in the 1940s.

On a much lighter note, due to the unbelievably morbid subject of this Gene Davis painting, one might be inclined to suggest that Davis was almost playing a practical joke on Lincoln Center, and that those in charge of curating the artworks were and still are unaware of this explanation (not even the published author of the book on LC's artworks had any idea about it when I mentioned it to him).

Davis is clearly saying something very specific about the piece by giving it such a provocative title. It may be proposed that the physicality of the stretched canvas is deliberate and very consciously considered. Its proportions necessarily cut the vertical lines into particular lengths, a key element in the artistic expression of the piece. At the same time, to cut the canvas into specific proportions may be akin to "murdering" the lines, in that it robs them of the infinity Davis praised them for having. In this sense, representing the lines in a painting becomes murder with an artistic purpose, much like the above theories surrounding the fate of Elizabeth Short.

Although no one who could make the final decision will likely ever read this, I do hope I've made my case for the reintroduction of Black Dahlia to the beautifully-renovated Alice Tully Hall. Perhaps I should get a petition going.

[EDIT: I found it. Black Dahlia is now hanging in a hallway on the ninth floor of the Rose Building at the northwest corner of the campus. It's the floor containing Lincoln Center administrative offices and conference rooms. I discovered it there purely by accident: "wait a minute, that's the Gene Davis painting!" Memorizing the exact colors, widths, and arrangement of the lines to compare with the image above was not easy, but luckily I'm a visual thinker.]

©2010, Ryan Witte

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