February 2013

Ai Weiwei’s Little Black Book

By |02.06.13|



I didn’t expect a publication that has been touted as one of the “Best Art Books of 2012″ to stand just six inches tall and contain only two photographs. But as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s new book Weiwei-isms proves, small can be powerful.

This slim, pocket-sized volume compiles quotes made by Ai in interviews, in newspaper articles, on his blog, and via Twitter.

“Chairman Mao was the first in the world to use Twitter,” says Ai. “All his quotations are within 140 words.”

Weiwei-isms, published by Princeton University Press and designed by Pamela Schnitter with art direction by Maria Lindenfeldar, is brilliantly executed, and the high-quality paper and sewn binding are a pleasure to leaf through.

Ai’s reference to Mao is important, for his book cleverly satirizes the Chairman’s infamous book of quotations, ironically referred to as the Little Red Book in the West.

Like Weiwei-isms, Mao’s book of quotations was also pocket-sized for easy reading. The Little Red Book is reportedly one of the most printed books in history and at one point “was essentially an unofficial requirement for every Chinese citizen to own, to read, and to carry it at all times during the latter half of Mao’s rule, especially during the Cultural Revolution.”

According to Wikipedia, “studying the book was not only required in schools, but was also a standard practice in the workplace as well. All units, in the industrial, commercial, agricultural, civil service, and military sectors, organized group sessions for the entire workforce to study the book during working hours.” The small, red volume frequently appeared in propaganda posters from the period, some of which I’ve collected here…









It is impossible to fully grasp the political punch of Weiwei-isms without some knowledge of Mao’s own publication. By creating his own little black book of quotations, Ai is drawing a bold line in the sand and daring his government to cross it.

And that is exactly what the Chinese government did in April of 2011 when police arrested Ai at the Beijing airport and held him in an undisclosed location for 81 days without filing official charges.

Friends and family were desperate for news. The U.S. and E.U. protested his detention and supporters around the world responded with a Free Ai Weiwei campaign that included protests in Hong Kong, Germany, and Taiwan, a Release Ai Weiwei sign atop the Tate Modern, and a 24-hour silent protest at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, where individuals sat in two Chinese chairs for one-hour periods in collective protest. Creative Time’s “1001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei” asked artists to bring chairs to Chinese embassies and consulates around the world “to sit peacefully in support of the artist’s immediate release.”

When Ai finally was released from jail, he emerged from captivity thinner and visibly shaken. He was sentenced to house arrest and prohibited from leaving Beijing for a year.

“The 81 days of detention were a nightmare,” Ai says in Weiwei-isms. “I am not unique; it happened to many people in China. Conditions were extreme, created by a system that thinks it is above the law and has become a kind of monstrous machine. There were so many moments when I felt desperate and hopeless. But still, the next morning, I heard the birds singing.”




December 2012

The Complete Creative Part 4 : Christian McEwen on the Art of Happiness

By |12.18.12|



The holidays have their bright spots: the homemade bourbon balls, the annual viewing of Charlie Brown and the Grinch, the twinkling lights, spending quality time with family and friends, the Messiah performances and sing-a-longs.

But for most of us, the holidays also mean stress. The extra errands, the shopping, the cooking and baking, the decorating, etc. are hard enough, but it’s our attempt to satisfy the expectations of others that causes most of our anxiety over the holidays. There is pressure to find the right gifts, to have “the perfect” Christmas Day, and to make family, colleagues, and friends happy. Whether this means we make the same-old Jell-O salad or sausage stuffing for Christmas dinner, participate in the Yankee Swap at the office, spend more money than we should on gifts, or lapse into our usual daughter/mother/brother/son/father/sister/friend/favorite aunt/uncle roles, attempting to please others is stressful, particularly when our own values are not aligned with those around us.

If you’re like me, you begin to feel a bit crazy when you don’t have quiet time to think, process, and work on your own creative projects. As artists, we need to “make” and “create” and the holidays disrupt this usual routine. The onslaught of ads urging us to buy, buy, buy! and the frenzy of Christmas consumerism can easily make us feel out of sync with the rest of the culture. It takes intention and awareness to remain true to our own values at this time of year.



I’ve been struggling to maintain a healthy balance myself this holiday, but a chapter from Christian McEwen’s book World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down recently stopped me in my tracks and forced me to step back and think about priorities.

Gwarlingo readers had an overwhelmingly positive response to my last feature on Christian McEwen, and I know some of you have purchased her book already. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and give World Enough & Time to yourself this holiday season. Christian has much to say about living slowly and deliberately, and this is the perfect book to keep you centered through the holidays and into the New Year. (It’s a thoughtful gift for stressed-out friends and family too.)

Though McEwen currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, she grew up in the Borders of Scotland “in a big old-fashioned house” with “beautiful shabby rooms and scented gardens” and “a perpetual drone of adult anxiety about school fees and taxes and the latest heating bill.”

In this excerpt from the final chapter of World Enough & Time, “A Day So Happy,” Christian ponders subjects like consumerism, gratitude, slowness, generosity, and happiness, and shares insights from some of the world’s most interesting writers, thinkers, and artists.

I hope you find Christian’s writing as enriching as I have. But I also hope you find time over the next two weeks to slow down and savor the small, pleasurable moments.

This excerpt from World Enough & Time is my gift to you this holiday season. Enjoy.





World Enough & Time by Christian McEwen
From Chapter 12:  “A Day So Happy”



Take someone who doesn’t keep score,
who’s not looking to be richer, or afraid of losing, 
who has not the slightest interest even
in his own personality. He’s free.


“I want! I want!”
In May 1793, William Blake published a strange little etching. It shows a naked sprite poised at the foot of a long ladder that leads up and up into the sky, grazing the slim crescent of the moon. The sprite’s voice is visible in the caption underneath. “I want! I want!” it says.

American astronauts landed on the moon in 1969. But here on earth, the sprite’s thin voice still whines across our airwaves: confirmation of our “hungry ghost” economy.  In the Buddhist tradition, the hungry ghost has a huge belly and a tiny throat, but however much it eats, it’s never satisfied. In the same way, we in the United States live with continually exacerbated “wanting-mechanisms,” always hurried, harried, obsessive, greedy, yearning. Such greed and neediness shows up even in our children, as Naomi Shihab Nye writes in one of her poems:

Since when do children sketch dreams with price-tags attached?
Don’t tell me they were born this way.
We were all born like empty fields.
What we are now shows what has been planted.

What has been planted is the I want! I want! of advertising, which thrives on envy and dissatisfaction. Advertising tells us that happiness can be bought if we will only put our minds to it, that we need only acquire the right house, the right appliances, the right car and TV and personal computer, and perpetual satisfaction will be ours. In the last sixty years, we have listened attentively to such messages, and done our best to put them into practice. We consume twice as much now as we did in 1945. Our houses are three times as big as they were then. We are forever stockpiling more possessions. But happiness has continued to elude us.



According to a recent health survey, Americans are, in fact, the unhappiest people on the planet.  9.6% of us suffer from depression or bi-polar illness – the highest rate of all the nations surveyed. In 2006 alone, some 227 million antidepressant medications were prescribed in the United States. Even the very richest among us claim an average happiness of 5.8 (on a scale of 0 to 7), the equivalent of the Inuit people of Greenland, and the cattle-herding Masai of Kenya. Meanwhile, the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, whose people live in mud huts with no electricity or running water, and whose only currency is pigs, has been rated as the happiest place on earth.

I am writing this in October 2008, when the $700 billion bailout package has just been signed into law. The aging colossus of American capitalism has already begun to falter. It is clear, even now, that our easy assumptions of privilege, our many years of greed and peace and prosperity, are finally drawing to a close. Not even the richest and most well ensconced can be certain of what lies ahead. At such times, a capacity for happiness is far from trivial. It is, instead, one of the few crucial strengths we have available: potent antidote to self-absorption and despair, welcome guide to grace and gratitude and praise.



Gwarlingo “Sells Out”…To You

By |12.05.12|



You’re curious. Open-minded. Creative. You’re an artist or arts lover who isn’t afraid to be challenged.

Gwarlingo, like the arts in general, is about seeing the world in a way we’ve never seen before. Whether it’s through poetry, film, visual art, music, performance, or writing, we make room for art in our lives not only to be entertained, but also to […]

November 2012

Chuck Close, Alice Munro, & Jack White on Creativity & Constraint

By |11.01.12|

The Challenges of Motherhood
Alice Ann Laidlaw was born in the rural town of Wingham, Ontario, the daughter of a fox and mink farmer and a schoolteacher. While writing fiction and studying English at the University of Western Ontario she worked as a tobacco picker, a waitress, and library clerk.

“I had no chance to be anything else [but a writer] because I […]

September 2012

Writer Christian McEwen on Creativity and Slowing Down

By |09.26.12|


Every day we’re faced with the decision of how and where to focus our attention. Sustained attention may be the most endangered resource in our modern age. We often forget that we have a choice about how we spend our time, as well as how we use technology. No one is requiring us to live harried lives in a reactive […]

The Complete Creative Part 1 : How “If-Only Syndrome” Derails Us As Artists

By |09.12.12|



When Gwarlingo readers give me feedback, I listen. You’ve been telling me that you’d like to see more articles about process and the challenges of being an artist. I’ve appreciated your emails and comments.

Today, I’m excited to launch a new series on Gwarlingo called The Complete Creative, an in-depth series that will examine some of the topics that most concern you and your creative life. During the coming months, I’ll be covering practical topics like money, social media, deadlines, artist retreats, presenting yourself online, and grant writing, as well as a range of deeper, more complex subjects like fear, procrastination, technology, community, time, and limitation. (If you want to read the entire series, be sure to sign up for a free email subscription to Gwarlingo).

Over twenty years of working with artists and arts nonprofits, I’ve noticed an intriguing disconnect. At openings, cocktail parties, and readings, the artist’s life appears glamorous and carefree: fascinating, talented, creative people hobnob with equally “fabulous” collectors, patrons, and members of the public, gawking at bad fashion choices and discussing the weather, real estate, and recent art news. (One of the best gallery conversations was recently overheard at Thomas Beale’s opening at Honey Space when a middle-aged man was spotted walking around completely naked other than his shoes and socks: “Is he part of the art,” a visitor asked, “or just here for the opening?”).



But what do artists talk about once the collectors, patrons, critics, visitors, and naked men have left the building? What do artists discuss when they’re amongst “their own kind?” Sure, they talk about politics, relationships, and literary agents. But they also discuss their struggles to make a living, to overcome self-doubt and creative blocks, to meet deadlines, to keep distractions like email and social media at bay, and to make time for creative projects, in addition to a fulfilling personal life. In other words, real artists discuss real concerns whenever the opportunity presents itself. (This is the beauty of artist retreats or arts and writers groups or simply spending time with like-minded friends — all of that flashy veneer is stripped away and we can dig deeper into subjects that really matter).

It may not be fashionable or hip to publicly own up to weaknesses or self-doubts; it may not be in keeping with the mainstream’s mythology of the inspired, confident artist, but it’s the reality. Why should there be a sense of shame surrounding these struggles when they’re something every artist experiences? Why in heaven’s name aren’t we discussing these topics with sincerity, openness, and intellectual vigor instead of suffering in isolation?

I blame the self-help industry and the touchy-feely, new age gurus who talk about process in terms of “the muse,” “the creative flame,” “the inner goddess” (no offense, but I personally find such a framework exclusive instead of inclusive, while also devoid of practical advice).

Professional artists understand that the best art emerges from good work habits, not from some elusive muse. As the painter Chuck Close once said:
Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself.


One of the most popular posts in Gwarlingo’s short history is a letter I posted from the artist Sol LeWitt to his friend Eva Hesse (shown above). Hesse was going through a creative crisis at the time of LeWitt’s letter. Here’s an excerpt:
Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rumbling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just DO!
…If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant [sic] approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!
Make the work. This is the phrase that the poet Walt Whitman posted above his writing desk. It’s so obvious, and yet it can be misery-making to accomplish. Whether we’re an emerging artist, a student, or an established professional, we all hit roadblocks in our creative work.



One of the central problems of starting, continuing, or finishing a project is that too many of us suffer from what I call “If-Only Syndrome:” If only____________, then I would ____________.
If only I didn’t have to work this terrible job, then I would have time to finish my documentary.
If only I could write like Nabokov, then I would have the guts to attempt a novel.
If only the carpet weren’t covered in cat hair, then I could concentrate on my play.
If only my health were better, then I would have the energy to go to art school.
If only I had more money, then I could afford to buy the new camera I need to start my next project.
If only my family weren’t so judgmental, then I would have the confidence to screw the status quo.
If only I had my own studio, then I would have the peace and quiet to compose.
If only I knew someone famous in the art world, then I would be featured in ArtForum.
You get the idea. (I’ll let you fill in your own blanks.)

One of the biggest problems with If-Only Syndrome is that it robs us of the present moment and all of the present’s potential. We aren’t thinking of the person or task in front of us. Instead, we’re allowing our mind to live in the future or past. Our mind and body are wasting precious time and energy stewing, time and energy that could be used for a better purpose (perhaps even to start the very project we’re talking ourselves out of tackling). Instead of focusing, we’re waiting: waiting for the perfect moment to act.

I have some bad news: there is no such thing as the perfect moment. The ideal conditions we’re waiting for are never going to happen. If we don’t stop worrying and waiting and start doing the thing that is most important to us today, we’ll never fulfill our full potential as artists.





Artistic perfection is an illusion, a myth we impose on the successful artists we envy most. Artists don’t arrive into the world like some visionary Adam and Eve, fully formed and at their creative peak. Do you think Chuck Close began his art career by creating large-scale, highly memorable portraits? Was the first story Jane Austen wrote a masterpiece? God no. (Like many writers, Austen kept a few early unfinished novels “in the desk drawer,” including Lady Susan and The Watsons; Chuck Close’s earliest paintings were still lifes and landscapes).

Many artists destroy their early work out of embarrassment, an act that only perpetuates the notion that they were talented geniuses from the get-go. But this is rarely true. (The Mozarts and Picassos of the world are in short supply.)

When the acclaimed painter Agnes Martin first saw the mountains of Taos during a residency in New Mexico from 1946-1951, she was moved to capture the scene in representational paintings like this one…



“I used to paint mountains here in New Mexico and I thought my mountains looked like ant hills,” Martin wrote in “The Untroubled Mind.” Through the process of painting, Martin realized that a representational style couldn’t capture the essence of the New Mexico mountains as she experienced them. Martin was in touch with nature in a way that most people are oblivious to. She realized that what she was trying to convey in her art was not the mountain itself, but the feeling of transcendence she experienced when she saw the mountain. Here is Martin writing about her epiphany in “The Untroubled Mind”:
I saw the plains driving out of New Mexico and I thought
the plain had it
just the plane
If you draw a diagonal, that’s loose at both ends
I don’t like circles — too expanding
When I draw horizontals
you see this big plane and you have certain feelings like
you’re expanding over the plane
Anything can be painted without representation
I don’t believe in influence
unless it’s you, yourself following your own track
Eventually, Martin would reject her early representational style for a minimalist approach — a unique and original style that would make her one of the most respected and famous artists in North America. Here is a New Mexico mountain as Agnes Martin imagined it in 1960…


I have great respect for artists who include their earliest works in presentations and catalogs because it tells the whole story about how their art evolved, not a carefully edited version. To see the entire arc of a career is especially important for students. Young artists need to understand that being a professional artist is a process that unfolds over time and that there is no way to get there without going through the painful phase of producing crap. The awful first drafts, the embarrassing early paintings, the horrible first songs are a fact of life. The gap between good taste and skill can only be closed through the process of making more work, painful or embarrassing as it may be.


An Exclusive Peek Inside Keith Haring’s New York City Studio

By |09.05.12|



On a recent trip to New York City, I had a chance to visit the studio of the late Keith Haring. The fifth-floor space, located on Broadway between Bleeker and Great Jones Street, is now home to the Keith Haring Foundation. Haring first rented the studio in May of 1985, and it was his workspace until his untimely death in 1990 at the age of 31. He also owned an apartment on LaGuardia Place, only three blocks from the studio.
Haring was born in 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, and grew up in the nearby town of Kutztown. Inspired by Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss, he learned to draw cartoons from his father at a young age.
The artist is best know for his graphic drawings and paintings of dogs, children, and dancing figures. “He was one of the most astonishingly unique talents of recent times,” gallery owner Tony Shafrazi told The New York Times. ”In a short time after he arrived in New York at age 20, he practically took over Manhattan with his subway drawings, which were an instant series of signs and pictograms that everybody became familiar with.”
Between 1980 and 1985, Haring produced hundreds of public chalk drawings in the New York City subways. According to the Foundation, he could create as many as forty subway drawings in a single day. Commuters would often stop and talk to Haring while he was working. The subway became, as Haring said, a “laboratory” for creative experimentation.










Haring believed that art should remain accessible to people of all ages and income brackets, and he was always looking for new ways to make his work available outside a gallery setting. He conducted art workshops with children, created logos and posters for public service agencies, and produced murals, sculptures, and paintings to benefit health centers and disadvantaged communities.

Haring’s 1986 Crack is Wack mural has become a famous New York City landmark on FDR Drive. He also collaborated with 900 children on a mural for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, and he painted a mural on the western side of the Berlin Wall three years before its fall.

In 1986 Haring opened the infamous Pop Shop in SoHo, a retail store that sold T-shirts, toys, posters, buttons and magnets bearing his images. As the Foundation explains, “Haring considered the shop to be an extension of his work and painted the entire interior of the store in an abstract black on white mural, creating a striking and unique retail environment. The shop was intended to allow people greater access to his work, which was now readily available on products at a low cost.” Many people in the art world criticized him for becoming too commercial. “I could earn more money if I just painted a few things and jacked up the price,” Haring said in response. “My shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art.”








August 2012

Being André Gregory : Before and After Dinner

By |08.08.12|



We gathered around André Gregory like children eagerly assembling around the librarian for story hour. André perched in a picture window inside Winsome Brown and Claude Arpels’ fashionable Tribeca apartment. Behind him, the sun was setting over the Hudson River. On the wall hung a series of striking self-portraits by Gregory.

We were gathered in Tribeca with some of André’s closest friends and supporters to hear the legendary raconteur tell stories. The event was also a party for Before and After Dinner, a new documentary about Gregory directed by his wife, filmmaker Cindy Kleine. The genuine affection the guests felts for André was palpable as he moved around the room embracing old friends and asking questions of acquaintances and strangers. The passion, empathy, and sincerity Gregory radiates on screen also comes through in person, a fact that is quite remarkable when you consider André’s personal history.

“How many of you have seen the film The Shining?” he asked. “That’s a documentary about my childhood,” André said with a laugh. And he wasn’t kidding.

On May 18, 2009, the opening day of Wally Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors in London, which was directed by Gregory, André received a disturbing phone call from his brother, who informed him of a document implicating their prominent Jewish father as an economic spy for Hitler. The next day, André came down with a severe case of shingles.

As André told us that evening in Tribeca, most people would have balked at receiving word that their father was potentially a Nazi collaborator, but in his case, the disturbing revelation, while unexpected, was not unbelievable. The quest to confirm or disprove this shocking story would become the centerpiece of Kleine’s film. The filmmaker’s marriage to André placed her in a unique position to capture intimate stories about Gregory’s dysfunctional childhood—stories that took on new meaning in light of his brother’s discovery.





As Klein’s documentary reveals, André’s parents were “Jews who forgot to tell their kids they were Jews.” Fugitives from Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, the family was on the last ship to leave England before the war began. Looking back, André’s family was often one step ahead of the Nazis, a fact that raises further questions about his father’s connections with Hitler. The fact that Hitler’s foreign minister also visited his parents’ home was another worrying piece of the family puzzle.

During our evening together, André described his father as “non-human”—a manic depressive with “no empathy.” His parents would leave André and his brother in the care of a babysitter, then disappear. Instead of returning home as scheduled or sending home news of their whereabouts or travel plans, they would send money. Once, when André’s mother was passing a woman and child in the street, she declared, “What a beautiful baby!” The woman answered, “But Madam, he’s yours.” “My Nanny saved me,” Gregory told us.

His happiest times were in Beverly Hills in the 1940s, where the family lived in a lavish house with a plastic driveway lit from below. André remembers Charlie Chaplin visiting regularly. One afternoon Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo played tennis in his backyard, a doubles match against Thomas Mann and Errol Flynn. According to rumors, his mother had an affair with Errol Flynn.

“I know when I die, you’ll dance on my grave,” André’s mother once chided the family. “It was so true,” Gregory explained, “no one knew what to say.”

Gregory grew up in an overly formal household where people said horrible things about the people they loved most. As a child, André was never touched, hugged, or shown any sort of physical affection. An attractive girl once kissed the teenage Gregory in a graveyard and he fainted in shock.



It was his desire to heal his parent’s unhappiness and dysfunction that honed his role as the family caretaker, a role he has also assumed within his theatre company. “If you go into the theater,” his mother once told him, “your father will have a heart attack. He’s already had one.” As a boy, Gregory longed to have a magic wand to fix his father. “I wanted to persuade him that his life was really beautiful,” Gregory reveals in an intimate moment in Before and After Dinner. “You have such a nice life…wonderful friends…you’re so well off.”

Most people know André Gregory through his critically acclaimed film My Dinner with André (or, from the other end of the film spectrum, as the warden who has his eye gouged out by Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man). Gregory has had numerous film acting roles. He played John the Baptist in Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ and appeared in Woody Allen’s Celebrity and Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast. Louis Malle, Wallace Shawn, and Gregory also collaborated on the film Vanya on 42nd Street with Julianne Moore. Kleine told me that Gregory is frequently recognized on the streets of New York, but his celebrity is of a peculiar sort. Those who recognize him from My Dinner with André often approach Gregory “with gracious awe, the way one approaches a great rabbi or teacher.”



But Gregory’s impact on the art world extends far beyond these high-profile acting roles. In the theatre world, André Gregory is revered as a master storyteller, an influential teacher, and as a visionary director who believes that the role of theatre is to awaken the audience and make them question themselves and the world around them (no small goal). For Gregory, this means keeping audiences small and venues intimate. “What happens in these small spaces because of their intimacy,” Kleine explained, “is that audience members become active participants in the ritual being performed.” In the same way that chamber music loses its impact in an oversized concert hall, live theatre can also lose its effectiveness if a venue is too large.

From the very beginning of his career, Gregory had a fresh and personal approach to theatre. Deeply influenced by both Brecht and Tarkovsky, he is one of the original creators of the regional and off-Broadway theatre movements. His legendary, Obie-winning production of Alice in Wonderland played in New York for seven years. “People screamed during the play like a roller coaster,” Shawn told Noah Baumbach in an interview. It was “thrilling.” Alice toured the U.S., Middle East, and Europe and was eventually made into a book in collaboration with photographer Richard Avedon.

Gregory often says that Alice in Wonderland is a “portrait of his own childhood.” Alice is born into this terrifying, insane world and is simply traveling around trying to make sense of things, but she never gets a direct answer to her questions.



Kleine’s film gives us a rare look at how a childhood can shape the creative life of an artist. But be forewarned, this is not a traditional documentary. To better understand Kleine’s approach, it’s useful to revisit My Dinner with André, for Before and After Dinner is really a companion piece to the much-discussed, art-house hit from 1981. If My Dinner with Andre gives its audience a glimpse of “André the Character,” Before and After Dinner addresses the gap between fiction and reality by giving us a taste of “André Gregory the Man.” Both films ask versions of the same question: “Who exactly is André Gregory?”

Directed by French filmmaker Louis Malle, My Dinner with André was a radical concept in 1981 and remains so today. The entire 110-minute movie depicts a conversation between André Gregory and his friend Wally Shawn during dinner in a chic Manhattan restaurant. The two friends talk about experimental theater, love, work, money, spirituality, and the nature of life itself. There are no flashbacks depicted on screen, only verbal exchanges like these between André and Wally:
André: What does it do to us, Wally, living in an environment where something as massive as the seasons or winter or cold, don’t in any way affect us? I mean, were animals after all. I mean… what does that mean? I think that means that instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars, we’re living in a fantasy world of our own making.
Wally: Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It’s a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I’m not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort. I mean, on the contrary, I’m looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I’m trying to protect myself because, really, there’s these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look!
André: But, Wally, don’t you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable and I like to be comfortable too, but comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility.



For six months Shawn and Gregory met in a room at NYU to work on the project. Each session began with André telling Wally a story. By the time they ended these regular meetings, the typed transcript from their conversations was over 1500 single-spaced pages. Shawn spent more than a year wading through the transcript identifying central themes that could be used in the screenplay. From these themes, he crafted a three-hour script comprised entirely of fragments from his real conversations with Gregory. Malle, Shawn, and Gregory then edited the script down to a two hour film. Malle was able to trim My Dinner with André down to 110 minutes in the editing room.

They shot the film in the then-abandoned Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Because heating the immense building was too expensive, the crew ran heaters in between takes. Gregory says he wore long-johns and kept an electric blanket on his lap during the shoot (a funny irony in light of the above dialogue).

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen My Dinner with André, I encourage you to watch it again, for it’s one of those classic pieces of cinema that only improves and expands with time. It’s one of the few films I know that investigates the cinematic potential of language. Gregory discusses this idea further with Noah Baumbach in a DVD interview for Criterion. In the late 70s and early 80s, we were living in a time “when no one was talking…in depth. It was all…very superficial. If I had one goal with this movie, it was to hopefully activate people to talk again.”

For Gregory, My Dinner with André “is as big as Lawrence of Arabia or Cleopatra” because the film takes the viewer to Tibet and the Polish forest, but each viewer sees his own Tibet, his own Polish forest.” My Dinner with André is a radical piece of cinema because it isn’t doing everything for you as a viewer. Instead, it’s activating your imagination. “If you like the movie,” Gregory explains to Baumbach, “it’s waking you up, which was one of the intentions of the movie.”

“The film is about men, because men tend to be so hidden,” Gregory adds. “And Wally is hiding behind silence. I’m hiding behind words. The progress of the movie is that Wally is able to come out and start revealing and I’m able to to listen…These were radical actions as characters.”



In Baumbach’s interview with Wally Shawn, the playwright agrees with his friend’s description. “The film is about being asleep and waking up. Are you just crawling through your life like a mole…? Are you not observing what’s going on in your own life and not letting your consciousness speak to you?” Shawn is also quick to point out what is NOT overtly stated in the film: political consciousness. My Dinner with André depicts “two upper-class guys spending hours talking about life, while others are working and suffering,” says Shawn. “I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film because that guy is totally motivated by fear and he’s defending himself and he is the bourgeois human being.”

In his conversation with Baumbach, Gregory says that there was one question that initially vexed him during the making of the film: Who exactly am I? In My Dinner with André he is playing a character based on himself. But even in real life the André that his doctor sees is completely different from the André his wife knows. Gregory’s breakthrough came when he got the idea for using four different voices in the film:
1. André the Peter Brook theatre guru
2. André the off-the-wall, spacey, dilettante rich kid
3. André the spiritual used car salesman
4. And André  when he is being sincere, as seen in the last part of the film
If Malle’s movie gives us these four sides of André Gregory the character, Cindy Kleine’s documentary Before and After Dinner fills in the gaps with intimate glimpses of André the loving husband, the loyal friend, the searching son, the patient director, the encouraging father figure. In many ways the films are two sides of one coin, or of one man in this case.



Kleine’s dual role as wife and director gives us a unique perspective on André. We see him in some of his most intimate moments—making breakfast, bending over a steam inhaler, frolicking naked in a hot tub with a puffy shower cap on his head. It’s hard to imagine that such moments could have been captured by anyone other than his wife. To see a public figure letting relaxing and letting his guard down is a scarce thing in documentary film. Watching such scenes only confirms the impression I had upon meeting André in person: this is a man who has a passion for living, someone who appreciates life’s fragility. “He is a man who is not afraid to step into his own life,” says Kleine, “and is, therefore a rare and precious bird.”

Before and After Dinner is really a love story of sorts, for it captures something exceedingly uncommon in the movies: a happy marriage. “The only two films I can think of that depict happy marriages are Mrs. Miniver from 1942 and Mike Leigh’s Another Year,” Kleine told me over the phone this week. “But unhappy marriages…There are plenty of films about miserable relationships.”


Amy Hempel & Matthew Zapruder : Lessons from the Writing Life

By |08.03.12|


A few weeks ago I had a chance to meet writers Matthew Zapruder and Amy Hempel for the first time. The event was part of a reading series at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, an annual summer workshop at the University of Massachusetts that brings students and accomplished writers together to explore the craft of poetry, fiction, and memoir.

Zapruder and Hempel did not disappoint. Zapruder read a selection of new poems, including “Poem Without Intimacy,” which was a featured Sunday Poem here on Gwarlingo. His most recent book, Come on All You Ghosts, includes two of my favorite works, “Pocket” (also published on Gwarlingo) and “April Snow,” which Zapruder read at UMass.

Here is an excerpt from “April Snow” (courtesy Copper Canyon Press):
Today in El Paso all the planes are asleep on the runway. The world
is in a delay. All the political consultants drinking whiskey keep
their heads down, lifting them only to look at the beautiful scarred
waitress who wears typewriter keys as a necklace. They jingle
when she brings them drinks. Outside the giant plate glass windows
the planes are completely covered in snow, it piles up on the wings.
I feel like a mountain of cell phone chargers. Each of the various
faiths of our various fathers keeps us only partly protected. I don’t
want to talk on the phone to an angel.

Zapruder’s poems are provocative, unexpected, and capture contemporary American life in an entirely original way. In “April Snow” it is the “scarred waitress who wears typewriter keys as a necklace” and the “mountain of cell phone chargers” that prevent the poem from lapsing into a conventional, snowy reverie. Amidst the emotional insights and vivid descriptions of place in Come on All You Ghosts are mentions of a Xerox machine, David Foster Wallace, the unemployment rate, Joni Mitchell, ESPN, and Diet Coke. Not every poet could make this combination work, but Zapruder does.


Zapruder came to poetry in his twenties while earning his PhD in Slavic languages and literature at UC Berkeley. He realized that compared to his fellow students he didn’t have the focus and dedication he needed to pursue his field of study professionally, so decided to follow his true passion instead: poetry. Zapruder went on to earn his MFA at the University of Massachusetts.

“There’s a lot of bullshit about MFAs, and people complaining about them,” he explained in an interview with Marissa Bell Toffoli, “but the fact of the matter is that I’m the perfect example of someone who really benefited from it. I would learn something in a day just by talking to someone, or by being in a bookstore when someone happened to be there, or having someone put a book in my hand that it might have taken me months or even years to run across on my own. It helped me start to become an artist; I had a long way to go, but it got me from being a complete ignoramus to beginning to have some sense of what was going on.”


When discussing his writing process on the Pen American Center blog, Zapruder explained that many of his most recent poems are the result of writing exercises, “either ones I have found or those I have generated myself, in order to move from the terror of the blank page into the actuality of language. As always, I then take this language and move it around as necessary, until I feel real, deep, human concerns are emerging.” His ultimate goal is to write poems that feel “close to a natural speech act, language an actual person might use when feeling emotionally and intellectually engaged and committed.”
“What intrigues and electrifies me is the possibility of beginning with total freedom, intuitive knowledge, instinct, even randomness, and building out of those states or qualities into a poem…I continue to try to find ways, whether it is through the processes mentioned above or through new ones such as writing exercises I find or invent, to move from the unformed chaos of free language to the formed poem.”
When I chatted with Matthew after the reading, he told me that he is working on a non-fiction book about poetry, as well as a new collection of poems, tentatively titled Sun Bear. In addition to being a talented writer, Zapruder is also a translator, teacher, and editor at Wave Books, a press that is as obsessed with the quality of its books as printed objecst, as it is with the quality of the writing itself.

“I think that people are most happy when they do things that are deeply connected and integrated with who they are,” Zapruder explained to Toffoli, “and that fulfills that need in themselves to feel connected to others and productive.”


Like Alice Munro, Amy Hempel is one of only a handful of contemporary writers who has built a career on the short story. I’ve read Hempel’s The Collected Stories three times now. I never tire of her wit, empathy, and ability to convey a range of powerful ideas and emotions in only a few words. Her story “Memoir,” which appears in The Collected Storiesis only one sentence long:
Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?
Hempel shared three stories with us during her reading at the University of Massachusetts—“Moonbow,” a micro-fiction story called “Sing to It,” and her most recent published piece from the current issue of Tin House, a moving story about a high-kill animal shelter titled “A Full-Service Shelter.” Although the story was published as fiction, Hempel explained that everything she describes in the story is true: sometimes the wrong dogs are killed, shelter compliance records are inflated, and sedatives are judged too costly and eliminated during the euthanasia process with shocking results.

The point of view and structure of “A Full-Service Shelter,” which repeats the phrase, “They knew me as the one who…,” was inspired by Leonard Michaels’ story “In the Fifties.” It was this line by Michaels that caught Hempel’s attention:
“I had personal relationships with thirty-five rhesus monkeys in an experiment on monkey addiction to morphone. They knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose.”
Animals are a continual presence in Hempel’s life and fiction. She volunteers at a high-kill shelter in New York City, has trained seeing-eye dogs, and is co-founder of the Deja Foundation, a non-profit that offers direct assistance for care, training, recovery, and rehabilitation to dogs rescued from high-kill shelters. After the reading, Hempel told me that she started Deja in order to give death-row dogs a second chance. “Many of these dogs just need behavior training or vet care before they can become viable adoption candidates,” she said.


One of Hempel’s many volunteer duties is writing the biographies of dogs housed at a shelter in New York in an effort to get the animals adopted before they’re euthanized. She considers it some of her most important work since the end result can mean the difference between life and death for a dog.

In her 2003 interview with The Paris Review, Hempel told Paul Winner that during her childhood, “the two things that were always there were reading and animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but slipped up when I hit organic chemistry.” Words and animals continued to be a life-line for Hempel during a particularly difficult two-year stretch when her mother took her own life, her mother’s younger sister committed suicide, she was injured in two serious auto accidents, and her best friend died from leukemia.

It was at Gordon Lish’s workshop at Columbia that she began to transform these life tragedies into fiction. In one exercise, Lish told his writing students to reveal their own worst secret—“the thing we would never live down,” Hempel told The Paris Review, “the thing that, as Gordon put it, ‘dismantles your own sense of yourself.'” Hempel’s “worst secret”? “I failed my best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story I wrote, ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.'” This short story masterpiece would become Hempel’s most anthologized piece of fiction.



In The Paris Review interview, Hempel credits her early training as a journalist and her study of stand-up comedy for her concise style and well-timed humor. “I don’t feel I have a particularly large imagination, but I do have some powers of observation.”
“Journalism taught me how to write a sentence that would make someone want to read the next one. You are trained to get rid of anything nonessential… You start writing your article, assuming a person’s going to stop reading the minute you give them a reason. So the trick is: don’t give them one. Frontload and cut out everything extraneous. That’s why I like short stories…Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. But I go in with the opposite attitude the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.”

July 2012

Receipts, Email, Bread Tags, Styrofoam : Rachel Perry Welty Transforms Life’s Daily Clutter into Art

By |07.12.12|




(Note: All photographs can be viewed in a larger size by clicking on the image)

Every artist must work within certain limitations, and these limitations come in a variety of forms. It could be financial restraints, a lack of free time, formal education, or materials, or something as basic as having limited skills or knowledge. Rachel Perry Welty is a marvelous example of how an artist can use such limitations to her benefit.

Welty is a self-described “late bloomer” and didn’t attend art school until age 36, when she decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps and attend the Museum School in Boston.

“I discovered art around the same time that I became a working mother,” Welty explained to me, “so the only way I knew how to make it was to maneuver it into my day. I gravitated toward materials that were around me and that were easy to pick up and put down, as a defense against the frustration of regular interruptions.”

By making art throughout the course of her day and using everyday objects like receipts, bread tags, aluminum foil, and telephone messages as her medium, Welty found a way to make art in spite of her busy family schedule.




It’s the minutia of middle-class, American life that most fascinates Welty. As a conceptual artist, the message is more important to her than her medium. Working in the tradition of artists like Mary Kelly, Warhol, John Baldessari, and On Kawara, Welty uses photography, drawing, video, social media, installation, collage, sculpture, or whatever method is the best fit for the idea she wants to convey.

To have your only child end up in the hospital with a serious illness is a parent’s worst nightmare. It was this harrowing experience as a mother that was a turning point for Welty as an artist. Altered Receipt: Children’s Hospital Bill for Inpatient Services and Transcription/Medical Record #32-52-52-001 (654 Pages) were painstaking artworks Welty created using actual records in response to her son’s illness. For Altered Receipt she devised a color-coded system that corresponded to each number and letter of the alphabet, and then painted over each of those symbols on the 37-page receipt.









Although her son is now grown, healthy, and no longer at home, Welty continues to make art out of her everyday surroundings. When I arrived at her spacious, modern home in Annisquam, Massachusetts, on a sweltering summer day, I found an array of colorful gum packets, stickers, aluminum-foil words, plastic strips from food packaging, and other fascinating odds and ends spread around her office and studio.

The books on her kitchen shelf were wrapped in aluminum foil, a lasting tribute to her piece Lost in My Life (wrapped books) and above the kitchen counter was a recent piece, Cash for Your Warhol, by artist Geoff Hargadon. Several of Welty’s own artworks hang in the house, including a series of small, framed receipt drawings, whose tiny, intricate markings seemed to recall Welty’s upbringing in Tokyo.

During the dinner party that Welty and her husband, Bruce, hosted for myself and nine other guests, two 18th century portraits of Rachel’s great, great, great, great grandparents, Mary and John Rooker, peered over our shoulders. The portraits are a striking contrast to the rest of the decor in Welty’s open-concept, modern house.

At the end of the meal, Welty asked her guests to sign their names on the white linen tablecloth. The next day Welty sent me a photograph of my own signature, which she was in the process of embroidering with white thread. The artist has been recording the signatures of dinner guests since she moved into her home in 2009; every person who has shared a meal with the artist and her family in Annisquam has signed. Eventually, Welty plans to create a public artwork out of the tablecloth. It is Welty’s nod to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, but also her own original way of using art as a record for her everyday life.





Welty’s work has transformed the way I view these banal objects in my own life. I can’t remove a sticker from a piece of fruit now without thinking of her Lost in My Life series or her elegant drawing Sin and Paradise, made from sliced fruit stickers.

As deCordova curator Nick Capasso says in the catalog to Welty’s solo show at the museum, pieces like Lost in My Life show “consumerism run amok.” Capasso rightly points out that many of the material Welty uses, such as twist ties, styrofoam, and bread tags, are preservative in nature, yet in Welty’s work these objects perniciously erase the artist’s identity.













Welty has not been afraid to embrace technology in her artistic practice. She has an ongoing diary project on Twitter and in 2009 she created the Facebook project Rachel Is, in which she recorded an entire day’s activities in real time on Facebook, updating her status every 60 seconds. For her piece Karaoke Wrong Number, Welty collected all of the messages on her telephone answering machine not intended for her or her family, along with the machine’s time and date stamp. She then lip synched to each recording, creating a persona for each “character.”

“We’re always just a hair’s-breadth away from completely misunderstanding one another,” Welty told WBUR in a radio interview. “Somebody listens to it, pushes a button, deletes it, and it’s gone forever. And we do this in our lives daily with all of the information that comes in.”

The artist’s Deaccession Project began in 2005 when Welty decided to discard, sell, gift, and recycle some of the clutter in her life. As Nick Capasso explains, “this life-based performance is documented each day on a page with a photograph of the object in question, and accompanying brief notations that include number/sequence, date, description, reason for deaccession, and method of disposal or ultimate destination. The pages are then ordered chronologically in scrapbooks.” For Welty’s show 24/7 at the deCordova, the 2,028 pages were scanned, reprinted, and arranged in a chronological grid along a single 78-foot gallery wall.