Essay accompanying the exhibition THERE YOU ARE at Lehmann Maupin
by Hilton Als
You see too little. No sooner do you tumble out of bed than your eyes search for some means of connection, words that describe yourself to yourself: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr: You don’t know what you look like. You don’t know what shape you present to the world. You don’t know what your eyes say, since they never look up; like Narcissus you are always looking down at your reflection, but instead of water, it’s a Blackberry screen. You talk too much. No sooner do the words tumble out than they devolve into meaningless sound-symbols signifying the busy work of thinking, of being, of feeling, while doing very little of the above. You lack half-wit. You plug into your day like another appliance: a double pronged, bi-pedaling thing immune to sensation you cannot mitigate through a television screen, a computer screen, an iPad screen, mobile phones. You don’t know what your mouth looks like as it shapes the words that tell you about the world in which you assume you have a place because you share the same language—sort of. What about the language of the soul? Individuality? That which our individual bodies sing only to ourselves? What about all that Walt Whitman gave us when he wrote, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” You can’t celebrate yourself because you don’t know yourself, trapped in that net of beeping words.
Given that words too often supersede handmade visuals—paintings, drawings, sculpture, and so on—how to make those visuals matter? That is, how to contemporize painting, say, or, more specifically, return it to the level of discussion it engendered fifty years ago, before our world went mad with beeps, and biomorphic forms and various color fields and portraiture and drips and concentric circles inspired conversation, too. In recent years, the brilliant English artist, David Hockney, in addition to his work on canvas, has begun to use the iPhone as another canvas. Every day, via this Apple method, he sends images to twelve or so friends—still-lifes, landscapes, self-portraits, whatever he comes up with that day. By using an electronic tool for communication, instead of the transmission of more information, Hockney subverts standard use, and marries the artist’s hand to what can’t be avoided—our contemporary world—and what we misuse: apparatuses like the iPhone that allow us to spread more and more blather.
In Sandro Kopp’s recent painting, “Mum,” a dark-haired woman sits in a room. She looks as if she’s lit from within. She has a long face, and she wears a headphone—the most modern of accessories. She’s looking down, and to the side of the visual field. But at what? She’s thin, and her body communicates that she is trying to communicate something, but what? In Sandro Kopp’s painting, “Viktor and Rolf,” two men sit against a white wall. The wall looks as if it’s lit from within. Both men are thin—one more than the other—and their silence is palpable. It is a silent painting, made electric through light, and brushwork: patches of lit heaviness alternating with dark shapes that communicate something about his subjects’ bodies, they’re being joined, but in what way? They, too, look a bit off center—which is to say, it appears they are, and aren’t looking at the artist, all at once. In Sandro Kopp’s painting, “Maria,” we see a woman’s head. She seems to be lit from within. Brown hair frames a facial plane composed of lines made out of strong brushstrokes. Who is Maria? What accounts for the sensuality of her lips, the wry intelligence in her eyes? And why does she look as if she is and isn’t looking at the artist? In Sandro Kopp’s recent paintings, the sitter poses in a field of ether. The artist works in collaboration with his subjects, but at a remove: they pose in the terrible intimacy and distance that Skype affords them. Kopp can talk to his subjects, certainly, as they adjust their eyes to the image of the artist recording who they are, or thought they were, or who Kopp sees them as, but he can only touch you through paint, through his attention, and his various descriptions, on and off the canvas – seeing through modern technology, but transmogrified, somehow, through the artist’s eyes, which is where vision belongs. Like Hockney before him, Kopp’s work isn’t just about painting – that is, the image qua image – but about how to incorporate the artist’s subjectivity with a modern contrivance, thus not only making painting matter in a post-Impressionist world, but the better to show ourselves to ourselves in a framework we understand: that distant and close world where talk is cheap, but it doesn’t have to be, and paint communicates our inner silence, the only vocabulary worth knowing.
Before coming to The New Yorker, Hilton Als was a staff writer for the Village Voice and an editor-at-large at Vibe. He has also written articles for The Nation and collaborated on film scripts for “Swoon” and “Looking for Langston.”
Als edited the catalogue for the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition entitled “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art,” which ran from November, 1994, to March, 1995. His first book, “The Women,” a meditation on gender, race, and personal identity, was published in 1996.
In 1997, the New York Association of Black Journalists awarded Als first prize in both Magazine Critique/Review and Magazine Arts and Entertainment. He was awarded a Guggenheim for Creative Writing in 2000 and the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for 2002-03. In 2009, Als worked with the performer Justin Bond on “Cold Water,” an exhibition of paintings, drawings, and videos by performers, at La MaMa Gallery. In 2010, he co-curated “Self-Consciousness,” at the Veneklasen Werner Gallery in Berlin, and published “Justin Bond/Jackie Curtis,” his second book.
Als has taught at Yale University, Wesleyan, and Smith College. He lives in New York City. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2017.