Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 11 - Lest we forget
Log 11 - Lest we forget

From the notebooks
Wystan Curnow


1976. November 28. Sunday

To Susan Ensley’s performance, Come Up and See Me Sometime. Venue’s her dining room, her apartment, 250 Mulberry St. A typically scungy SoHo building. Dark vestibule, plaster walls in dark green, and battleship grey paint, peeling. Wide metal staircase. As we go in there’s someone collecting $1 a head, while residents (none the wiser) clatter down stairs and out into the street. Puerto Ricans. We clamber up, all the way to the 6th floor where on the stairs the audience of about fifteen sits waiting. Jean de Puy, Peter Frank, Vito Acconci and other regulars. There’s talk about Willoughby Sharp and the shenanigans at the Colgate show. Einstein on the Beach. Vito says it’s ‘hollow’. Because it’s the Met the audience applauds no matter what. Everyone’s relaxed here, it’s Sunday. In SoHo these days people don’t ask you over for afternoon coffee, they mail you a card inviting you to drop in for a ‘performance’.

Eventually Susan opens her front door and we all file into her tiny dining room, kitchen. She disrobes, matter of factly. (I notice she’s clean shaven. Nudity’s pretty standard in performance, but there are two schools regarding body hair.) In the centre of the room there’s a large circular wooden platform. Like a display stand. Susan clambers up and arranges herself in exaggeratedly languid fashion into a sort of reclining position, gazing into a hand-mirror which she holds high in the air at arm’s length. The platform begins to turn, slowly. There is very little room around the walls; if any of us reached out we would touch her. Nevertheless, Peter Frank, ubiquitous SoHo art critic, is ostentatiously making notes. Now I hear a tape: two women’s voices, atonal incantations, reciting: "’it’s like a peep show without a curtain. You are getting pleasure looking at this body. All bodies are the same but mine is unique." Performance soundtracks, those with text anyway, they’re a problem. Too many people think they are Vito Acconci for one thing, but he was a poet before he took up performance. But the redundancy, the overdetermination of it, that’s lack of confidence in the medium, a fear that nothing is actually happening. And if there isn’t, as here, words are not going to make up for us actually being here, certainly not these attempts to put banalities in one’s head. After ten minutes the tape runs out, Susan gets up, puts on her coat, and says—just so we know—"that’s all". So off we troop. Really none the wiser.

From here we (Dieter Froese, Kay Hinds, Shelley Rice), as they say, repair uptown for Einstein. Pick up Jacki Apple. Got to get some food now. I’ve not had lunch today and this particular performance is a lot longer. Five hours. Salami and Swiss cheese on rye. Yes to mayonnaise and mustard. One hardboiled egg and handful of Hershey bars and a pack of Taryetons and we’re off to Lincoln centre. It’s six ten, dark by now and damp (but not cold), spots of rain, soft mist. Lights of the West 60s—mostly reds and yellows, and their reflections off the wet streets, window glass, etc.—are suffused. To come in out of that into the awesome brightly lit vulgarity of the Lincoln Centre, especially the Opera House with its acres of white marble, the red velvet wallpaper, the blown glass chandeliers. [What follows is an act-by-act account of this Robert Wilson minimalist opera in its first (only?) season in New York (two performances only?) after following a successful European tour. The music is by Philip Glass—this was my first exposure to his music—for electronic keyboards and choir. No libretto other that DO REY ME FA SO and 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. Instead of actors/singers there are dancers: the Lucinda Childs Dance troupe. Were the sets by Sol le Witt? Partly because it gave that old multi-media genre such a shake, down and up, partly because it was grandeur screen scale minimalism, partly because it had you for five hours, Einstein on the Beach was a defining performance experience. Of course, there was not an opera buff to be seen; this was a downtown audience, the raggedy jean-clad longhairs from SoHo, munching on their bag-lunches, coming and going between ‘knee plays’ between acts, not at all the usual Met crowd. But being part of it just added to sense the triumph that it was.]

December 1st.

Met up with Rick Killeen and Margreta and took them to lunch at OJs. He had more to say about the Greenberg cocktail party. Helen Frankenthahler was there. Rick had been asked his opinion of a painting of hers hanging on the wall, one she’d had Clement choose for himself. Rick said he didn’t much care for it. This was immediately relayed to Helen in Rick’s presence. Nobody seems to like your painting, Helen, the Killeens don’t. She said, well Ken (Noland) liked it. Clem then says, not when he was here last he didn’t’ Rick says now he’d seen a lot of New York painting he was no more concerned to paint that way than he had been before. New York painting has a New York look. It’s very cool, sophisticated, a style—too cool, much of New York art seemed to him somehow overly calculated’ He’d had half an hour or so with Jules Olitski, Greenberg had given him his number. He was a very pleasant, gracious man. They’d not much to say, mind you. What was there in it for Olitski, after all? Lunch went on till five, and on the way to the Bowery where they caught the bus, Rick asked me: have you been mugged? They fly to London on Saturday.

1979 September 26, Thursday.

Billy [Apple] and I went to the [Auckland City] Art Gallery to talk with the curator, Alexa Johnston. Once again events had overtaken proposals Billy had made; the previous August I had taken some drawings of his to [the Director] Ernest Smith [’who] had said he was keen on the ideas. He had resigned two months before Billy was due to arrive from New York. When I asked Alexa what the position was she had no knowledge of them; in fact it appeared Ernest had not discussed Billy’s proposals with anyone and Billy’s drawings were no where to be found. Alexa said that in any case there was full calendar well into next year, but allowed that there was a commitment that would have to be honoured, and the discussion turned to the question of whether his works could be adapted to already occupied exhibition spaces.

But by the time of our next meeting with Alexa, however, the Art Gallery had decided to put the West and Centre Galleries out of commission while alterations were taking place in the print room and the first moves were being made into the old public library end of the building. And so another set of ideas went by the board.

Billy had been talking with another staff member Ian Bergquist about the recessed rectangle half way up the spiral staircase to the mezzanine and projections there. He got the architect’s drawings; the projections concealed marble pillars, as we later saw from old photographs reprinted in the ACAG Quarterly on the history of the Gallery. They were said to be orange. Alexa was taken with the idea of exposing them and the process that modernised them out of sight. And while we were about it we’d fill in the wall recess’.

1976 November 26, Monday.

Called Colin McCahon. He’s quite convinced Molly McAllister was commissioned to make a plaque for the recess in the wall beside the spiral staircase but that it didn’t come off. You have to realise that what Molly was doing was pretty way out for the time. It was to be commissioned by the City Council. I said I’d talked to Peter Tomory about it and he had no recollection of it. Well, said Colin, he wasn’t interested in the building as such. I should try to get hold of the City Architect of the time if he’s still alive—Tibor Donner, Bauhaus-schooled fellow. Did some nice work around the town. Colin liked him, but said he came too late. And that ridiculous staircase—it took two years to build. The end gallery was in a constant state of demolition from the time he arrived. The recess space was never used while he was at the gallery. He actually hung the long red curtain there because people were afraid to go up the staircase which was the only means of access to the mezzanine gallery. It was so flimsy—it didn’t seem supported.

I called Hamish Keith and he confirmed Colin’s views—he always thought the recess was meant to house a work of Molly’s. Says I should talk to Peter Webb. Hamish mentioned a mural she painted for the reference library, behind the main desk, which just got painted over during some renovation.

November 27. Tuesday.

Grant Kirby reckons the recess might have been there from the start, 1916 that is, and been meant for The Coming of the Maori and called the Files Department at the Council to dig out the engineering drawings’The future plans for this space will probably mean closing off the staircase, filling in the gap between the two floors and adding the Mezzanine Gallery to the West and Centre Galleries when they are vacated in two years time.



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room