An Interview with Alice Notley by Claudia Keelan. [Talking trash and art]
CK:Laura Mullen asked me to write to you and start a conversation about your beautiful fans made from garbage for an issue she’s putting together in Volta.
Does this interest you?
If so, let’s talk trash.
Do you make other objects out of trash, or just fans? What about the garbage you found led to the making of a fan, something that can cool you, hide your face, or blow away bad smells? Is any of the trash yours?
What do the French trash that Americans generally don’t, or vice versa?
Duchamp proposed ready-mades, Notley throw-aways. Comment?
AN:Well. I make rectangles too (odd pieces of cardboard that come in the mail get pasted and painted on); also booklets get made, and assemblages (see the cover for Doug’s Penniless Politics). But I make fans whenever I can, and have been doing so for maybe thirty-five years. I was initially fascinated by the fact that I could render a fan that was supposed to open and close, rigidly open. Then if I pasted things on it it became more rigid, something initially supple turned haplessly into art. But I also like the fan shape, as Asians do, for art.
There isn’t a lot of garbage here, nor garbagey items to be found in stores, of the kind I like. I started doing this in Chicago a long time ago, not with fans, but with rectangles; and I used a lot of newsprint, those pages in the Sunday papers advertising hedges and flowers were a favorite. Newsprint becomes very malleable when glued with Elmer’s Glue. I started making the fans in New York and got castoff materials sometimes from my artist friends who made collages. Here I’ve managed in the past to get objects from Laurent Baude, who likewise only uses found materials, but he’s a sculptor and tends to find metal and I prefer paper. There isn’t a lot of garbage in Paris. When I first arrived here I kept finding pearls (faux) on the ground, so there were a lot of pearls on the fans. Women seem to lose pieces of jewelry here more than they did in New York.
My works are in nowise meant to be thrown away. Most of them reside, at this point, in my archive at UCSD. I don’t make them that often anymore.
CK:I don’t mean “throw aways” as in throwing away, but as a query into the materials of your lovely fans. So cardboard, newsprint advertising hedges and flowers, lost, fake pearls... I like the expression “castoff.” It gives personality to things that aren’t needed, or wanted. The strangest fans I’ve ever seen were in what was Jefferson Davis’ plantation called “Beauvoir” in Mississippi which had been turned into a museum of the Confederacy. I bought a fan there with a scene of women (all holding fans exactly like the one I bought) and men in some sort of ballroom in the 19th century. I think the museum was trashed during Hurricane Katrina, which just might be wishful thinking... The thought of its destruction does something, though not enough, to balance the fact of all the mostly black, disenfranchised people who lost their homes in the 9th ward in New Orleans. Lucie makes fans all the time... there’s one on my desk right now.
The guys who take away our trash are two black guys. One drives the truck, the other swings off the back of the truck while it’s still going, grabs the can – which isn’t a can at all, but plastic, which will never degrade – then swings back up behind the truck, all while the truck is still moving. He is a ballerina trash man!
There isn’t a lot of garbage in Paris? How do people dispose of castoff stuff?
My trash sometimes embarrasses me...
AN:I mean that it’s hard to find things on the street. I use found things but also things, papers, that turn up in my house, paper from magazines I acquire... I’m looking at a fan I made about thirteen years ago and trying to identify what’s on it. There’s a paper butterfly but I don’t remember from where, a pin or brooch with six pearls found on the street, some coarse blue glitter I think I got from Jane Dalrymple-Hollo, a poppy I must have cut out of a magazine, a gold border of a heart – just the empty heart shape with no inside, a spar of cardboard I’ve pasted silver paper on and a nasturtium, a black butterfly, a black moth, a Chinese letter I’ve painted black, an Indian chief with face cut off, various torn pieces of paper – lots of them, a probably candy bar wrapper that had been run over by a car (Joe Brainard taught me that if you can find something run over by a car it will look really great), a Greek figurine I probably tore out of a museum pamphlet, a tiny playing card from a tiny deck of cards that I had for years, etc etc and in the middle the words Heart of Darkness which is something you can buy here, a candy bar maybe but I’ve only ever found the wrappers, there’s a small cardboard sword... all of this lightly accented with gold ink. That’s one of my primary means of tying everything together. But I now remember that I called it in my mind Heart of Darkness, because I made it while Doug was dying. There’s also a seashell with a hole in it. It’s becoming faded and dirty so I probably ought to send it to UCSD.
It takes me months, even years to make one of these. There are always several layers of torn bits of paper, painted and drawn on by me. I always put words on. I always put knobby things on, like the seashell or pearls. I had some red feathers for a long time that came from a department store in Needles, Claypool’s, that’s been closed since sometime in the 90s. I would glue a feather on and then paint it gold but so you could see it was originally red. Sometimes I use old jewelry of mine, particularly single earrings if I’ve lost one. I once made a collage with a white glove glued on it and painted further white, but it wasn’t a fan collage. The idea is to make it stiffer and stiffer until it’s all art. I have this one work in my bedroom that I made in the 70s, that has torn velvet on it from a garment that wore out, some gold letters I bought in a hardware store in Chicago, photo booth pictures of me, the Batman logo from a comic, and so on. This one was declared a masterpiece by several people including Ted, though I’ve never been able to see the difference exactly between it and others. Ted said it was his personal collage. Once Lita Hornick tried to buy it, but he wouldn’t let her.
But back to fans. First I acquire a cheap fan. Then I usually have to do something to the back of it to make it stay open, glue cardboard strips on maybe. Then glue one or two things lying around on it. Then set it somewhere where I’ll see it a lot at least subliminally. I commence to find things on the street or in my apartment that go with it. I am also thinking about whatever poem I’m working on, and I seem to meditate on the work while I glue, but not in a specific way. I feel something in the movement across the fan that corresponds to what I’m doing in my poetry. I seem to think about poetry either by writing it or by making a fan or some other kind of collage, or doing water colors.
CK:“The idea is to make it stiffer and stiffer until it’s all art.” What do you mean there? Everything you’ve said about making the fans shows a recycling. No thing is incapable of holding value, perhaps, and even mis-remembering is a renewal...
AN:It’s obvious. Art is rigid, motionless, dead. When I was in my early 20s I modeled for George Segal, and he made a life-sized statue of me (there’s a photo online of Allen Ginsberg discovering it, me, in a German museum.) He covered my warm, nude body (with head of course) with plaster. When the plaster dried, he had a beautifully accurate, frozen likeness. He then, as he always did, created a natural setting for the plaster body as if it were alive.
I’m not interested in recycling. The things I find I consider to be beautiful, partly because they’ve already been used. I’m simply attracted to shape and color and pattern, with a patina of use on them. But also, artists who use found materials tend to be poor. I don’t have any money; I can’t spend on materials. I barely have space to do this in, and that’s one reason I don’t do it much any more. Poetry is better for the unmoneyed, you hardly need anything to do it with, paper and a bic pen.
I don’t have a lot of art talent, though I have massive amounts of poetry talent. I have to use found materials when I make art. Joe Brainard said you have to respect your materials, and I do that to the extent I can. But I end up messing things up, scrunching them, painting on them, ripping them up – Joe never did these things, he was immaculate and influenced by Joseph Cornell. I think I’m saying I have to have materials that can handle the deficiencies in my talent.
George Schneeman, by the way, was so immaculate when he made collages that he would only use two pieces of paper for any such work. It had to be two. It was sometimes hard to find the division between the two pieces. He used to give me his castoff materials sometimes. He had second-hand stores he went to to find things like those Vargas girls he used. He would give me, like, an already cut-up piece of paper from a second-hand store. Terrific shapes and texture. Terrific quality of usedness. But not necessarily of accident, though that’s possible – the runover things, for example. But I think my materials more have a history attached to them.
CK:Art is rigid, motionless, dead? Isn’t that condition – that static, in situ control – exactly what the modernists worked to free? What Williams broke his heart over in Spring and All... “to gather a live tradition from the air?” If art is dead, what is someone looking at it, doing?
AN:I’m only talking about the fact that paintings and statues can’t move and that it’s possible to be fascinated by this. Joe Brainard, of course, intended for his works to fall apart. I watched a small one crack up and lose its pieces in our New York apartment one year. Then Ted assigned me the task of somehow remaking it. I worked on doing this for years, unsatisfactorily – I think about ten years; it became utterly transformed and some one of my friends now unwittingly has it in the guise of a work by me. I can’t even remember which one it is.
Now I’m thinking of two kinds of art which are related: Rauschenberg’s combines and African and Caribbean voodoo dolls. I was influenced early on by the Rauschenbergs, as both poet and collagist. You know, a tire or a goat’s head with other stuff from the dump and paint slopped on. This can be seen as the true garbage art, but it is somehow beautiful... But it is magic, like the voodoo art, too. I saw a show here a year ago of shamanic art that included a lot of small fetish dolls. There were some wonderful little Legbas – voodoo god of crossroads – that were basically sculpted out of filth, or wood covered with filth. God knows what gets put on them, human and animal substances like blood, slobber, feces. The catalogue said that every family has its own “recipe.” This is how the statue becomes alive and powerful. My fans are magic pieces too, though I don’t use slobber, I use glue.
CK:When Picasso started putting African mask on bodies of women, he was revaluing western notions of the beautiful, which is a heavy way of saying it, but I think it’s true. Rauschenberg combines always seemed to me to make a political statement about commodity and value, the garbage a country like this makes gold. Especially the goat with the tire over its head, which is funny as hell. Baa. Do you know what the poopy fetish dolls are used for? Tell me about this magic you’re talking about… Maybe I’ve lived in Las Vegas too long, because when I think magic, I think illusion.
AN:Picasso liked masks. I like them too and I sometimes make collage masks; again I’m fascinated by the fact that they make the human face rigid. I think Picasso thought it was funny to put masks on the faces of the women in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon – it is a typical cheap Dada trick, as someone once said of something Ted did. Rauschenberg, by the time I got to see his work, was so filthy rich nothing he did could make a statement about commodification except that he definitely sold. I think my point is that art doesn’t make a statement, it’s something you do.
The thing about magic, the world is magical. There’s no reason for it to exist. The Wittgenstein statement etc, “The most interesting thing about the universe is that it exists.” So, it might be illusory, as Vegas certainly is. If the universe is magic, you can change it, and you don’t necessarily have to invoke a god or gods to get what you want. Art changes the way we see things – i.e. the masks make us see people as masky, the combines make us see garbage as beautiful or interesting or funny. Art is magical. Poetry changes the way we think, it changes the way our brains work as we read it. We are not necessarily doing icky cause and effect thinking, we are perceiving or intuiting as it is tackily put, we are thinking by getting it. Poetry is magic. Religion of course is magic, but it gives you a power structure the way politics does: there’s always a top Googoohead.
Magic is an interesting idea if oneself is allowed to make up the rules and it isn’t subjected to the same hierarchical structure as religion. However the little Legbas do refer to a hierarchy. Legba is the voodoo god of the crossroads and the gatekeeper to the Loa, he lets you into the heavy spiritual place. That’s why he has to be covered with spit and blood. My fans are covered with bits of paper imbued with other peoples’ and my use, living, touch. By making them I enter the force that’s universal purpose, which has us all by the nape of the neck, though we barely realize it unless someone dies. But. When I take the time to make something by hand, I enter that place where we are shaped as I shape something. There are a lot of dopier ways of putting this – “creativity” etc. We are all together our own creative force. We create the world, because we create what we think about it. There’s no way of knowing if it would exist without us. Art is about all of this, as we make it it tells us we are the creator.