Wojnarowicz bio

Artist biographies are my Oprah. They inspire me, they arm me with art-world anecdotes that guarantee I’m the life of the party, and they have just enough educational value to make them guilt-free.

I don’t live in New York and I have minimal contact with “the art world,” so I especially enjoy detailed accounts of the lives of contemporary artists. I want to know what they eat for breakfast, who they date, and how they spend their free time. During the several years I spent writing about contemporary Taiwanese art for the Taipei Times newspaper, I tried to present the artists I interviewed as real people, rather than only focusing on their work. Of course the work is important, and I’m equally interested in process, studio practice, influences, and to some extent theory, but the story-lover in me can’t resist a well-rounded character.

Imagine how pleased I was to find three newish books about contemporary artists on Amazon: Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr (2012), Infinity Net: The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusuma (translated by Ralph McCarthy, English version 2011), and Bad Boy: My Life on and off the Canvas by Eric Fischl and Michael Stone (2012).

If you’re looking for something well-written, start with Kusuma, hold your breath through Fischl, and roll your eyes at Wojnarowicz. (Hire more editors, folks.) If you’re looking for content, I’d recommend Wojnarowicz first, then Kusuma, and Fischl last.

Wojnarowicz (“pronounced Voyna-ROW-vich” we’re told in the introduction) describes a terribly frightening period in modern history. It’s hard slash impossible for twenty-first century us to imagine a time when frequent, unprotected sex with strangers didn’t obviously lead to slow, painful death, and Carr conveys this very well. Spoiler alert: Everyone dies of AIDS. They die and everyone knows they’re dying because they get sores on their faces and become bed-ridden and helpless and obnoxious. Carr presents death and Wojnarowicz in a straight-forward way that made me feel I was learning about both.

I wasn’t very familiar with Wojnarowicz’s art when I began the book, though I was familiar with the 80s art market from books like Phoebe Hoban’s Basquiat: A Quick Killing in the Art Market. Basquiat and Wojnarowicz rose to fame quickly, sparkled, and died. They shared a confidence in their work that allowed them to get a lot done in a short amount of time; I suppose that’s part of the graffiti background. It’s hard to imagine either of them staring at a blank canvas for very long. Of course Wojnarowicz didn’t typically work on canvas, and that’s an important aspect of his art and his time: Art could be anything. He used found images and objects, took photographs and video, made collages and sculpture, and painted directly on walls.

While reading Fire in the Belly, the former newspaper editor in me was slightly annoyed by Carr regularly referring to Wojnarowicz as “David.” Now I know why. After typing his family name about eight times, you’re pretty much done. According to the book, even “David” himself used the last name “Voyna” for a while, presumably for the same reason.

I’d recommend Fire in the Belly to anyone interested in Wojnarovicz, 80s New York art, or the AIDS epidemic, but I can’t say it was a “good read” as some of the writing was pretty much awful. I’m going to get a bit nit-picky here.

Page 108: “[Wojnarowicz] began with a new project called ‘Study of the Internal Anatomy of the Face,’ a visual record of places where something had occurred to effect his life, his consciousness …” This is egregious, and I’d think any trained editor would have caught the affect/effect mistake. The presumably missing editor might have also straightened out some of the regular clunky sentences. I didn’t read this book to search out mistakes, but often found myself rereading sentences about two males that included too many “he”s, or getting caught on silly errors like page 504’s quotation of Paul Marcus discussing a drawing game: “Then it grew into these other compartment.” Perhaps English wasn’t Marcus’s first language (“sic” would have sufficed), or perhaps it’s another typo. Either way, my forehead scrunched and I was pulled out of the story.

Kusuma bio

I read Kusuma second, and I found it much easier on the forehead. I suppose this is because a translator would by trade be more likely to pay attention to grammar and readability. I can’t read Japanese, but I assume McCarthy did a good job of conveying Kusuma’s sassy wit and unapologetic criticism of both American and Japanese conservatism. To be fair to Wojnarowicz author Carr and publisher Bloomsbury, there are typos in Kusuma too, but it flows much, much betterly.

As for Kusuma the person and artist, I’m a bit biased. As you see from the pic of the book cover, she dresses flamboyantly. When I lived in Taiwan I met a few artists, especially female artists, who considered her a hero. I attended an artist lecture at the 2009 Asian Art Biennial in Taichung,  and it was impossible not to notice that Kusuma was in attendance. I wasn’t very familiar with her art at the time, but I knew that she was “the obsessive dot lady who had checked herself into a mental institution,” and her dress and wig were similar to the ones she wore while posing for the book cover. It was one of those situations where everyone knows there’s someone famous in the room, and we were all trying hard not to stare. Partway through the lecture Kusuma got up and hobbled towards the back door. As she passed by, she looked straight at me with her big, sad eyes and smiled sympathetically. I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for her since that moment.

Kusuma’s charm shows through well in Infinity Net. It reads a bit like a fairy tale and I liked it from the very beginning, where she describes herself as a provincial Japanese girl who became pen pals with Georgia O’Keefe before venturing off alone to New York.  O’Keefe later visited Kusama in her studio there. Kusuma describes the roots of her art and mental illness, her odd relationship with Joseph Cornell, and her flash-mob orgies with equal flair.

This is just what I want from an artist biography: good reading for the whole family. You don’t need to be interested in art to enjoy Infinity Net. I’m reminded of Borges’ reviews of books that don’t exist. Good writing is compelling regardless of the subject. I have no interest in golf, but I loved Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings from a Lifetime in Golf. Carr’s Fire in the Belly was good for its Wikipedia factor; Infinity Net is just good literature.

Fischl bio

Of the three books I’m describing here, Eric Fischl’s intrigued me the most, so I saved it for last. The title had me hooked: Bad Boy: My Life on and off the Canvas. The back cover features a quote about how Fischl “survived his dreadful childhood, conquered a nearly fatal addiction to booze and cocaine, [and] salvaged his marriage to the marvelous painter April Gornik.” In retrospect, I should have been more wary of a review using the term “marvelous,” which seems more appropriate for a circus or firework show than a landscape painter.

Bad Boy fits into a category of artist bios that aren’t quite literature and aren’t about anyone who leads a terribly interesting life. The sentences roll out in an easy-going, foamy flatness that may be a remnant of Fischl’s time at CalArts. He’s troubled by a childhood with an alcoholic mother, he goes to art school, he teaches, his first marriage isn’t successful but his second is, and when he becomes famous he drinks and snorts cocaine. His hitting-rock-bottom moment is an argument with a stranger on the side of the street next to a police officer. No one gets arrested or throws punches or dies. Fischl just feels like a douche, so he goes sober.

Page 211: “I made a vow that day never to take another drink or do drugs again. And since then I haven’t taken a sip of alcohol or a hit of cocaine. I don’t want to make too much of it. I know what alcoholism, addiction, and abuse are, and I wasn’t there yet.” And that’s the end of his “nearly fatal addiction.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love Fischl’s artwork. If I could choose one piece to hang in my living room by any of the three artists I’m writing about, I’d choose Fischl’s painting Sleepwalker. It depicts a naked teenage boy standing in a backyard kiddie pool at night, and you’re not sure but it looks like the boy is peeing or masturbating. (If you haven’t seen it, please look it up; I’m not reproducing it here because I try to stick to photos I’ve taken myself.) It’s crudely painted and hugely subversive, just my thing. It’s cheeky. I like art that combines humor and poignancy. I’m not nearly as excited about his later India paintings or the group portraits of him and his well-to-do friends yucking it up for the camera on sunny beaches, but he’s still a good painter.

Bad Boy has a few tasty anecdotes, particularly about Fischl’s rivalry with Julian Schnabel, but it seems that he holds back when it comes to the New York party scene. I guess I was hoping for crazy stories à la drunk, naked Jackson Pollock urinating in the fireplace at Peggy Guggenheim’s society party. Fischl describes his art very well though, with explanations of how he developed his painting processes and detailed descriptions of how he started and finished his most famous paintings. Painters will appreciate Bad Boy, as will fans of Fischl’s work.

I’m now enjoying Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror, a biography of Norman Rockwell. Maybe I’ll review it in a later post. In the meantime, let me know of any good art reading you come by. And if you like artist bios, check out my earlier posts touching on books about John James Audubon, Arshile Gorky and Gerhard Richter here, and Martin Kippenberger here.