by Jeff Kelley
We had a few friends over for a cookout some decades back, although to call them “friends” was, at the time, perhaps a bit chummy. It’s not that they weren’t our friends, but that they were of an older generation, and it is this age difference, accompanied by experience and accomplishment, that makes me cautious, even now, about how I call them.
When older people – some of them well-known – come over to your cookout and seem to relax and enjoy themselves, there’s more than friendship involved. When they meet, they move among each other with genuine warmth. Greetings are extended and physical. Months and years are bridged in a handshake. Conversations pick up where they left off long ago. You, a younger person, may be drawn into these rhythms. You may even vitalize them with your (presumably) more youthful claims upon the present, but there are always certain orbits – held in memory, experience, gossip – that you can seldom penetrate. If you bluff your way in, you will merely drift among force fields; the gravity of time will be imperceptible to you.
Patience, then, becomes a form of respect in which the young come to emulate the elders. We wait and listen. We cross-refer according to our own experience, which, depending on what the elders say, may suddenly seem more layered than we’d known. The connections, when they come, involve verification of the hunches of the younger person by the elder, as well as belly laughs that rise out of forty years of an older person’s “times.” When an elder verifies a hunch or finds a laugh deep down, something physical happens to everybody. These are not abstractions but physiological enactments in which new connections are made. Our social synapses are realigned.
At a prior gathering, Jim and Maryanne Melchert had told me, in advance of my trip to Milan with Allan Kaprow (where he was “reinventing” seven environments from between 1957 and 1964), about two red wines from the Piedmont district of northwestern Italy: Barolo and Barbaresco. In the telling, the wines were enriched by the Melcherts’ experiences of having eaten at various little towns across the countryside. At each place, the wine tasted just a wee bit different, and they soon realized that the local varieties of food were creating this difference. When I returned from Italy, I had a bottle of each wine—an ’83 Barolo and an ’86 Barbaresco—to drink with the Melcherts. The moment came in the summer of ’92, and I brought up the bottles and showed them to Jim, who looked at the Barolo and said quickly, almost furtively, “Put this back.” He wanted me to save it for another time. It needed savoring, I guessed, and the cookout was stocked with other wine. “Put it back,” he said softly, and I did. With minimal ceremony, we drank the Barbaresco, after which Jim thought for a moment and said, with measured regret, “It’s very tannic… a little sour. I think it’s been.”
Jim was a decorous man. As an artist, he talked about himself by talking about the artists who influenced him. Once, while describing the necessity of a well-set table, especially those beset with ceramic plates, a thoughtfully floral tablecloth and napkins, and crystal wine glasses, he identified the purpose of these accoutrements not as calling attention to themselves but as getting out of the way of the food, wine, and – most importantly – the conversation. This was his curious theory of the “decorative.” Instead of enacting artifice for its own sake or on behalf of an ideology, his table settings – like his art, life and many friendships – were decorous; they conveyed decorum; they were polite. They set the stage and then got out of the way.
Elders have a better sense of timing than the rest of us because they have a longer memory and a more measured sense of how things unfold and fold up. They’ve been around and around again. This is analogous to how our understanding of space broadens and deepens as we grow older, so a childhood place will always seem smaller than it once did. The more time we’ve had, the deeper our spaces. Robert Morris once wrote that memory was “a temporal metonym of depth.” As we move through the spaces of our lives, finding places in which the past is present, we can also say that depth is a spatial metonym of memory.
As the dusk turned to darkness, as the food was cooked and eaten and the wine drunk, the conversations meandered back and forth across two picnic tables, sometimes constricted to two or three guests, at other times enveloping the entire table. People occasionally flit from group to group, pollinating and cross-pollinating the conversation. Some of that conversation is hard to remember, mostly because of the wine, which softened it then and softens it now.
There was one moment, though, I remember very well. It had to do with Peter Selz – among his generation’s most respected art historians – who responded to a question (mine) about the differences between artists of today and those of the modern past. Peter said that artists of the early decades of the 20th century shared a deep faith in the possibility of a better world, a world they were helping to imagine and even construct. Like a gunshot on MacArthur Boulevard, the assertion sobered me. Not so much because of its content, since as a child of the late-industrial age, such faith in the emancipating rhythms of modernist progress struck me as naive. Rather, I was taken by the spirit of Peter’s comment, which seemed driven less by academic authority than by the narrative credibility of an elder. A German Jew who saw Hitler’s Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich at 17 and then left for New York, Peter was someone whose time was long and whose memory was deep.
Earlier this month, I visited Lucy Lippard at her self-built home in Galisteo, New Mexico. Stopping at a gas station, I bought the most expensive bottle of wine I could find – $17.99. A shitty white wine from somewhere in California. A few days before, Jim Melchert had died. Lucy only drank red. At 87, she is tiny but still climbs a ladder up to her loft every night and morning, the better to keep her downstairs and writing during the day. We drank the red, and Lucy mused at how “old” I was at 71. She adored my wife, Hung Liu, who died at 73 two years ago. I know Hung adored her.
Galisteo is a small town of big artists, some of whom have died recently: Susan Rothenberg, May Stevens, Nancy Holt. Lucy knows them and the burdens their spouses have borne. I do too. We go crazy for a while, maybe forever (it’s too soon to tell). Last year in Oakland, Jim came by with his grandson, and when I asked him to help me make sense of Hung’s death, he said: “It’s your turn.” I hated that phrase then, but he spoke it the way one offers an incontestable truth. Having outlived his wife, Maryanne, by 18 years, he may have been bored with my plea.
Moira Roth was my advisor at UC San Diego during my first year there, 1983-84. Her graciousness was like Jim’s, but English. When Hung arrived at UCSD from Beijing on October 26th, 1984, everyone was curious. She was arguably the first Chinese artist to come to graduate school in the United States. Moira was, of course, among the first to welcome her. Allan Kaprow was her first and best teacher. He taught her how to make art in a dumpster. I was Moira’s teaching assistant, and we had students enact Jacque Louis David’s revolutionary paintings as tableaux vivant. Then Moira took a job at Mills College, and I felt bereft. David Antin became my advisor, and I began to work with Allan. Four years later, when Hung and I were living in Arlington, Texas, where I had a job at the University of Texas, Moira called Hung and asked if “whether” she would “possibly” be interested in applying for a tenure track position teaching painting at Mills. Jay DeFeo had recently died. Of course Hung was interested! We couldn’t wait to get out of Texas. Hung taught at Mills for 24 years until 2014. Sometime after that, Moira came by for dinner. She brought what looked like a bottle of white wine. I thought to open it but was stumped. It was wrapped in cellophane. There was no cork. Suddenly, I realized she’d brought a wine-like bottle of bubble bath. I remembered Jim’s advice about the Barolo: “Put it back.” I popped a red instead. The bubble bath is still in my cellar, but I think it’s been.
Back at the cookout, I turned and looked at Allan sitting at the other table. Though we had yet to speak during the evening – his visit was the excuse du jour – we’d been working all that day on an upcoming book of his essays. Known as the inventor of Happenings in the late 1950s, Kaprow also wrote some of his generation’s most provocative and influential essays. Spanning the postwar history of American art, they constitute a penetrating philosophical inquiry into the nature of experience in the context of profound changes in the media, social systems, and values with which we measure that experience.
For some, Kaprow was a legendary figure of the American avant-garde. For others, his name – and with it, the word “Happenings” – echoes vaguely across the pages of art history, like the fluttering of a Lepidoptera. You’d have to be a senior citizen or a graduate student – or his editor, which I am – to have actually read them. Even now, I remain awed by the time and experience they portray. From manifesto to parable, from the contents of avant-garde art to the meanings of everyday life, and from youthful ambition to the wisdom of the shaggy dog – Kaprow’s writings embody an experience of the time required to become an elder. It is not the time of reading but of writing. It is not the time of memory but of remembering.
At this point, my memory of the cookout dims, except for a paragraph I read out loud near the end of the evening. Intended as a homage to my guests, it was about the difference between mentors and elders, and thus, for me at least, it suggested a threshold at which modernist progression settles into postmodern place. It was also the final paragraph in my introduction to Allan’s book, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (later published by the University of California Press). With a flashlight in one hand and the text in the other, I read it slowly and soberly:
“Mentors guide us in our youth, and though we remember them fondly, we outgrow their influence awkwardly. By contrast, we can choose our elders only when we are adults—when the choice is meaningful. We may stumble upon them too early, but once we have chosen them, they will never leave. Perhaps one of the reasons they stay is that we never tell them who they are for us, either because they’re dead or busy or famous or far away. In fact, we rarely meet them, inscribed as they are on the margins of our lives. But they are the mothers and fathers we would have chosen had we known.”
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A version of this essay originally appeared in Artweek in 1992.
About the Author: A critic since 1977, Jeff Kelley has written for such publications as Artforum, Art in America and the Los Angeles Times. From 1986-1990 he was the founding director of the Center for Research in Contemporary Art at the University of Texas, Arlington. After returning to the Bay Area, he taught art theory and criticism at the University of California, Berkeley from 1993 to 2005, and edited/authored two books on Allan Kaprow published by the University of California Press. Kelley was a consulting curator of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum from 1998 to 2008, and in 2008 he curated the popular and critically acclaimed Half-Life of a Dream: Chinese Contemporary Art from the Logan Collection for SFMOMA. Currently working on a book about the art and life of his late wife, Hung Liu, Kelley lives in Oakland.