Duane Michals: A Powerful Eye, Part One

What no one tells you--and what no one wishes to believe--is that we wither and blister with age. The primary growths become, in time, odd bumps and blisters and appurtenances that serve no purpose than to reveal that we are being overtaken by proteins and enzymes that are growing faster than we are. We do not know this or wish to believe this, but the artist reveals to us--both painfully and beautifully. It is another form of bearing witness.

Tennessee Williams
Interview with James Grissom
New Orleans

I have turned to art because the words do not always come. I seek the fog that can roll in a character or two, or a line that entices, or a plot on which I can hang some laundry of words and motives, but it doesn’t always cooperate, so I force it; I fake it. I can watch movies or something on television, waiting for a voice, a form, or I can paint. Painting is, for me, a very aggressive act: I force my will and my vision and my pigment onto a surface. There WILL be a painting! So help me God. I cannot do that with words. I wish I could. Truman [Capote] is making collages, and I hope that gives him some sense of control. Others take up photography, but I don’t have the patience for it. I think I have the eye: I see things all the time and I think, That should be a photograph. I wish there were someone here to take it. Or I see a face, and I know instantly how to frame it or pose it. To be a good photographer—a great photographer—is to live in the moment, certainly, but to also know what it means, to see its context, its subtext, and then to light the damned thing. It’s too much for me. I’m addicted to photography, and, as you know, I destroy many a book tearing images out that might help me write. I’ve given you lists of names of those photographers that I love, many of them I’ve never met: We did not live in the same zone of living, by which I mean that they were long dead. I like very much Duane Michals. He can shoot someone straight on, no lies, no screens, and reveal far too much, or he can orchestrate a dreamscape of sorts—like his image of Joseph Cornell, a dear and odd man living on the inaptly named Utopia Parkway, obsessed with sweets and movie stars and glittery things found in the garbage. All of this intrigues me and could describe me, but he was so inward as to almost not be present. Very much a Beckett character, and Michals got all of that in his portrait of Cornell—a dreamy, gauze-like presence, merging with the venetian blinds and the various tins of powders and marbles found on East 4th Street. He has a very powerful eye, but, I think, a gentle one. I don’t sense any malignity in his eye, just a voracious curiosity. I would study his work, and then try to compose paragraphs to coincide with what he has exposed. This is what I would tell a class of aspiring writers, and this is what I’m telling you.

Text © 2013 by James Grissom
All photographs © Duane Michals


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