Arbus / Rothko
By Harold Jaffe
All rights reserved.
Found dead on July 26, 1971, Diane Arbus committed suicide in her Greenwich Village flat by ingesting a lethal amount of barbiturates, then slashing her wrists. Rumors circulated that she photographed her suicide, but the police failed to uncover any photos. She was 48-years-old.
“What I’m trying to describe [in my photographs] is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s… Somebody else’s tragedy is not your own.”
A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970
The acromegalic giant is Eddie Carmel (Arbus didn’t supply his name), steadying himself on a giant cane, his massive, shaggy head bent so as not to brush the ceiling of the lower-middle class living room with the drapes pulled and the furniture sheeted.
He is looking down at his parents (Itzack and Miriam — Arbus didn’t supply their names), with an expression beyond shame, a kind of silent humiliation (such as Kafka’s Gregor, metamorphosed into a monstrous insect, might have regarded his parents).
Parents: the short rotund mother in her polka dot housedress and the short grey-haired, spectacled father in suit and tie.
Both hide their hands in their pockets as they gaze up at their giant son with expressions of grief, wonderment, wild surmise.
Eddie Carmel was of average height until he was a teenager when he developed a tumor of the pituitary gland and abruptly grew large and vast.
He acted in a few monster movies and worked in carnival freak shows until he died at age 36.
Like K’s Gregor, Eddie had both a sense of doom and sense of humor.
He claimed he wanted to be a new Mickey Rooney — in reverse.
A producer who released an “audio profile” on Eddie Carmel formulated it this way:
Arbus’s “Jewish Giant is a story of suffering, not fitting in, the body betraying itself, the bizarre life — twists that subsume a family.
“It’s a story about what it’s like to be a regular person looking at the world from inside a markedly irregular body.” (www.soundportraits.org)
None of the human suffering context is suggested in Arbus’s photo, which is set apart, isolated, alienated, freakified.
Jewish Giant: You can’t know how I feel. How my parents feel. You don’t want to know.
Diane Arbus: What you “feel” is what is left unseen in the photograph. For me that is probably the aspect I find most thrilling.
DA: I mean it as an esthetic category. Esthetically thrilling.
JG: I’m an esthetically thrilling freak?
DA: Well, most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks are born with their trauma. In that regard, they’re aristocrats.
JG: Why “Jewish Giant”? What does Jewish have to do with it?
DA: That’s what I titled it. I can’t give you a “why”.
JG: Where does compassion — if not for me then for my mother and father — fit in?
DA: This is art, not charity. I see you and your parents, but I don’t know you. I don’t need to know you.
Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, NYC, 1965
Closeup of her face with its good bones.
She is gorgeous and ravaged.
Early middle-aged with thick wavy black hair under a shawl or veil, large, vivid, heavily made-up eyes and carmine-red lipstick on her full turned-down lips.
The “beauty mark” is on her smooth left cheek between her nose and mouth.
Where is the ravage?
In her black, “Latina” eyes with their fusion of disappointment, rage, uncertainty, resistance.
Her turned-down lips.
She is fearsomely (fearfully) beautiful, this Puerto Rican woman in New York City.
Puerto Rican Woman: My name is Cassandra Marisol Ruiz.
Diane Arbus: Hello.
PRW: Say my name.
DA: Marisol. Like the Venezuelan pop artist?
PRW: Cassandra Marisol Ruiz.
PRW: You said that the subject you select is more important than the photograph itself. Yet you don’t know who I am and are incapable of pronouncing my name.
DA: You misunderstood me. I mean the totality of the photograph depends more on the subject than on any technical aspect: lighting, composition, small distortions in the dark room. I was making a technical point.
PRW: Did you know I am a bruja?
DA: You mean a witch?
PRW: Yes. That is what it takes to be Puerto Rican and not permitted to speak your own language in your own country. New York is as much my city as it is yours.
DA: I’m not sure what you want me to say.
PRW: I’m a bruja. I’m going to put a spell on you.
DA: You’re too late. Born Jewish and rich in the fancy part of Manhattan. Coddled at home. Sent to the best schools. Insulated against the world outside. My brother Howard Nemerov, Pulitzer poet, the prized one. I’m already spellbound.
PRW: If you are spellbound, it is the wrong kind of spellbound.
Lady in a rooming house parlor, Albion, NY, 1963
Except for the filtered light behind the white linen curtain and half-drawn white shade, the ambiance is funereal.
A “plain” though carefully dressed middle-aged woman is sitting on an easy chair with her legs crossed at the ankles in the dark carpeted space reading a magazine by the dim light of the window.
Her expression is contained.
She seems isolated, lonely but stoical, at least while she is reading her magazine.
The scene recalls Edward Hopper, but without his romantic “realism,” without his affect, except perhaps in an unparticularized, generic format.
The woman’s name is Elsie Garretson.
Elsie Garretson: I didn’t want you to take my picture; I told you that. But you soft-soaped me.
Diane Arbus: Not at all.
EG: What then did you mean when you wrote in the preface to your Aperture monograph: “I think I’m kind of two-faced [with my subjects]. I’m very ingratiating. I hear myself saying ‘How terrific,’ and there’s this woman making a face. I really mean it’s terrific. I don’t mean I wish I looked like that. I don’t mean I wish my children looked like that. I don’t mean in my private life I want to kiss you. But I mean that’s amazing, undeniably.”
DA: Sounds like something I might say, yes. There’s something not nice about photographing the people I photograph. But the result can be very pleasing in its way.
EG: Was it hard for you to give in to this “not niceness”?
DA: Odd question. I don’t give in. I photograph.
EG: But you wouldn’t want your children to look like me?
DA: Not at all. Why should they look like you?
Child with toy hand grenade in Central Park, NYC, 1962.
One of Arbus’s “freakiest” photos, the blond-haired boy, standing under a sycamore tree, is nine or ten-years-old, with unkempt short pants, stick-thin legs, baggy ankle socks, red or green shoes (the photo is not in color) with white laces.
He is staring brazenly at Arbus’s Rolleiflex medium format twin-lens reflex camera with either a real or mock grimace.
Both of the child’s hands are at his sides facing the camera; the right hand holds the toy grenade; the left is grotesquely twisted so that it resembles a claw.
I think of Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne, 1980, in which she photographs a boy of about the same age chasing pigeons in Venice’s Piazza San Marco with a dagger.
Sophie Calle writes: “I would like to see him kill one.”
Really? What if he decides to kill you instead?
That would mark the end of your predatory photos and “happenings.”
The first wave of feminism had made its mark; Sophie Calle’s amorality is opportunistic; a counter to the presumably culturally-induced dogma that females are fundamentally queasy and sentimental.
Arbus’s violent-minded little freak, a generation earlier, is both more and less complicated.
Freak Child: I’d tell you my name but it don’t matter. I am dead like you.
Diane Arbus: What do you mean?
FC: You committed suicide on July 26 1971. Swallowed a bunch of pills. Sliced your wrists. I stepped on a land mine north of Saigon on that exact same date — July 26, 1971.
DA: I don’t understand.
FC: You recall there was a war going on, right? Well, I was poor, so I was drafted, attached to a combat engineering company. We go in before the Marines and try to clear the mines. I stepped on one and was blown to pieces. Many, many pieces. I was 18-years-old. It was my own fault for being born poor. It could even be that my molecules and yours have mingled, married. You wouldn’t like that.
“I don’t particularly like dogs. Well, I love stray dogs, dogs who don’t like people. And that’s the kind of dog picture I would take if I ever took a dog picture.”
Mark Rothko was born Marcus Rothkowitz with a Cossack in his stomach.
In Czarist Russia (now Latvia),1903.
He escaped the pogroms by emigrating with his family in 1913 to Portland Oregon, which at that period was the “epicenter of revolutionary activity in the US, and the area where the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World was strongest.” (libcom.org/history)
As an adolescent Marcus Rothkowitz along with his anarchist family attended IWW meetings where they met Emma Goldman and Big Bill Haywood.
He referred to himself as an anarchist even when he was admitted to Yale, changed his name to Mark Rothko and became widely identified as a leader of the fledgling Abstract Expressionists, a designation he loathed.
“I’m not an abstractionist.
“I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom… ”
His minimalist, intensely refined use of color without any figuration aligned him with the “Color Field” painters, such as Morris Lewis, Kenneth Noland, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler.
Rothko rejected that designation as well.
He used color, he insisted, instrumentally, solely as a means of conveying his subject.
What he didn’t say was that color was reborn for him during a series of mescaline and LSD “experiments” he did with a fellow painter whose name I won’t divulge.
At Philip Johnson’s instigation, the architect and Rothko collaborated on several projects, notably a church designed by Johnson in Houston.
Rothko contributed 14 thematically related paintings to the church.
After Rothko’s suicide the church became known as the Rothko Chapel, a privileged space of visionary esthetics and meditation, which continues to attract seekers from around the globe.
Chronically depressed, Rothko fatally slashed his wrists and arms and shoulders with a palette knife in his Manhattan studio.
He was sixty-seven years old.
Reportedly a lethal dose of morphine was found in his body.
Nonetheless, the official cause of death was loss of blood from the sixty-seven palette knife slashes, one for each year of his life.
Despite Rothko’s insistence that he was a life-long anarchist, it came out after his death that he was in the employ of the CIA.
He was scarcely alone.
According to Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press, 2000), TS Eliot, Andre Malraux, Stephen Spender, Cszelaw Milosz Bertrand Russell, Robert Lowell, Dizzy Gillespie, Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko… all professed progressives, with the exception of the royalist Eliot, were, in effect, CIA operatives.
They received funding covertly in exchange for “battling Communism” (however indirectly) on the cultural front.
The well-known art critic and unrelenting champion of Jackson Pollack, Clement Greenberg, a nominal leftist, also on the take, didn’t flinch after being outed.
(Greenberg died five years before Saunders’ book was published, but had been interviewed by the author.)
Greenberg’s argument was that artists in dumbed-down cultures have no choice but to rely on patrons to support their art; whether the patrons are royals, wealthy industrialists, global oil corporations, or the CIA matters little in the end, so long as strong art is produced.
Then Greenberg reportedly sued Saunders for defamation but died before the suit was settled.
*Several of Arbus’s remarks, which I’ve tailored, are drawn from the posthumous Aperture Monograph, Diane Arbus, 1972.