A note on this week's issue:
First and foremost, any value found within these photographs rests predominantly with the artists whose works are featured, and with the talented people who curated this exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I usually present the story first and then land at the photograph, which is intended to provide a kind of arrival or unlocking for what you've just read. Given the nature of these stories, though, which were composed as imagined conversations between each artist and viewer, it felt right to lead with the image. And if you find yourself lost in terms of context and associations, the year in which each artwork was created plays a significant role in the conceptual framework for each conversation.
WORK RECONSIDERED #1, 1950
John Wilde asks “What do you see?”
I see your Wisconsin wonderland in winter’s twilight.
A glow hovers above the low-rolling land, pressed down by wind and cold and tractor tire with too few trees to shield you each. Your love is splayed against a gray matte under glass, wings pinned back, too cold to flutter. And then I see the spring and summer, the buds and buzz of all the little creatures who stood up to revolt against the dark months –– because we all crawl back in due time, we do, we do. The rot of life was present, yes, and it was overcome.
Time is moving in circles for you here now. This night may as well be morning and this year, a bold dash at the precise center of our final physical century, may just as well be 1943. You, alert and somewhat anxious in this gregarious post-war slumber, drink tea in the front room and reminisce on seven years gone.
Where is that sketch you made of Helen in the night?
“Ah yes, here it is. Here it is.”
When and where was this then?
“Ah,” you say, “let me tell you.”
This was the middle bit of the beginning of your adventure together. The two of you stayed warm by dancing at Gertrude’s. Once off your feet, you leaned forward, sighed, and returned as ever to the not so distant war: a brutal tiger in Marseille, Woollcott’s heart, the shoe ration, those dreaded U-boats and the crush at Bethnal Green. You found relief by musing over Saint-Exupéry’s prince and Wyler’s Oscar grab, then shuddered again at Murrow’s Orchestrated Hell.
“This will all be ok in the end,” you said in fervent consolation. “This too, this too.”
You lifted her hand, her coat, her scarf, made your goodbyes, then grabbed your own jacket and out you went. You two. The white gravel crunched under foot as you opened her door, then sidled around to yours. That ole’ moonshiner coupe coughed back to life and at last you were homeward bound. She counted breaths between the trees while you counted branches as they crossed the moon. One, two, three, another there, and one there. “Now don’t drift off, dear,” she said. “Of course not,” you said, “but the night!”
Meanwhile, Duke Ellington smiled coyly in the wings mere minutes after his Carnegie Hall debut, ears turned inward to early sketches of new work –– Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me perhaps?
I see new love and fortitude. “That’s what I see,” says she.
DEMPSEY AND FIRPO, 1924
George Bellows asks “What do you see?”
I see the grandson of a whaling captain dancing in the boundless ruckus of Gotham back before its next lost step. I see the grime and the wish to float above it all. I see the pale crowd and the dark lights above. I see the fair fight and the grave injustice. And there in the corner, the lyrical left corner one might say? I see you, George. Yes, I see you.
Those bells and jeers signal the fall of great men everywhere. Jack Dempsey, sure, but Caliph Abdülmecid II and Lenin too! Don’t stop there for the fall will catch us all. Soup lines, gas chambers, and a big red dog around the bend? Fascists are winning elections, then and now? Or is it just a scrappy Argentine? One can’t be sure quite yet. For now we dance and cheer and pound the fist. For now we raise our hat and shout our way to mindlessness. For now we jump wild-eyed at the thrill of a human body being knocked clear through the ropes. Knocked clear, through the ropes. For now we sing and raise a glass to Dempsey, who fought his way back –– can you believe it? For now we sing and raise a glass to the fight of men.
I see pride before the fall. “That’s what I see,” says she.
NEW YORKERS I, 1965
Howard Kanovitz asks “What do you see?”
I see slick movers and makers in a monotone world. As the gray horizon cuts itself across the roofline, serious-minded men with soft hands contemplate their next gambit. Theirs is a world between worlds. They speak a language known only by those whose hearts reflect their central paradox: both citizens of the fray and aliens to it all the same, they attempt to simultaneously live a life and provide commentary on this thing called living. So it follows that their language is strange and you, dear sir, are their translator.
But your translation betrays your own paradox: that of a painter who is preoccupied with photographs. So tell me, do you see as the camera sees or do you push and pull the light as it pleases you? Maybe a dose of each method in the same chemical tray? Do you paint quietly by an open window or in the silence of the darkroom? Does the work end with a satisfied sigh or with a stop bath? Forgive me but the means of translation are every bit as fascinating as the end result, particularly given the currents of the year in question.
Now, please excuse my tangential mumblings. No matter your method, this world between worlds needed translators like never before.
Did you translate at Stormont Castle in Belfast when Sean Lemass and Captain Terence O’Neill shared tea from a pot that had been brewing for two scores and more? Did you translate through the sky as Edward Higgins White somersaulted in low Earth orbit with his beloved Gemini 4? Were your services required amidst the cannon fire at Winnie’s state funeral in the shadow of Big Ben? Was it your hand that translated Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella from black and white to color for CBS? Did you help humans understand the inhumane on Bloody Sunday or work to relay their prayers from Selma? Did you paint a photograph of the Unisphere at Flushing Meadows or chase the tornadoes in Minnesota with brush in hand? Perhaps you aided Horowitz in his offstage errands or drafted letters to Kentucky for Ali? Did Dylan seek your hand at Newport to stumble honorably between his acoustic and electric worlds? Did The Beatles entreat you to discern the screams at Shea? Did the Cubs beg you to decode the hints in Sandy Koufax’s arm? Did you greet the first Cubans to arrive at port in Miami? Did you douse the anti-war flames as LaPorte burned himself to death at the steps of the United Nations?
Did you tell these brilliant men, gently, that theirs was no longer the largest city in the world?
Your shutter surely quivered at each of these moments, even if it wasn’t fully released. And as the world tilted forward, these men began to see that they themselves might be the aliens. They, each in their own elusive language, began to understand the extent to which they truly did live between worlds.
And with that I’ve just realized that you might just be the perfect person to help me with something. To help us all actually. Let me explain: I’m lost between the world I could touch and the one I can’t find, between people and appearances, between family and ambition, between action and slumber, between war and peace. See, Howard, we need a translator again now. I suppose we always do.
I see the tides of time turned inside out when the lens becomes the brush becomes the message. “That’s what I see,” says he.
UNTITLED (AFTER SAM), 2005
Rudolf Stingel asks “What do you see?”
I’m no writer, so I’ll answer in fragments. I see, in no particular order, a luxurious twenty-first century malaise, an artist fucking with process and inviting us in (and akin to our aforementioned Howard no less!), a hotel on the outskirts of some soon-to-be forgotten metropolis, a man resting and wandering after breakfast, after lunch, after dinner, after drinks. A man who forgot to feel lonely until it was too late to return. A bout of indecision, the pang of regret, the longing for a woman whom he hasn’t yet met. I see the contrivance of rhyme and the manipulation of punctuation. Alliteration? No. Process over substance and the absence of substance as answer to its own riddle. The relentless cycle of bravado and self-loathing, of output and discontent. The way we lived and, even more so, the way we live now.
Do you see a way out? Can you find some sweet relief? Do you see how we’ll survive when this new day passes? If I close my eyes and listen, I can hear him breathing. Listen.
I see a moment in the mind of a man, a mind where no quiet thing stirs. “That’s what I see,” says she.
This final image is an outlier as the photo was captured in the lobby of the United Nations Secretariat Building, the little girl seen here is not the narrator, and the year in which the artwork was created has little bearing on the ensuing conversation.
Rufino Tamayo asks “What do you see?”
Can I speak first of what I hear?
“Why yes, of course.”
There’s a low breeze. I can’t feel it, but I can hear the leaves tumbling. I can hear my father stoking a fire. And I can hear my mother singing me to sleep. I can hear the hum of insects and the occasional truck or car passing on the other side of a shallow wooded ravine stretching between our tent and the highway. I can hear the low buzz of the Coleman lamp, nearly indistinguishable from the infinite murmurs of the Illinois twilight.
If you were to drive from that tent of ours to your home in Mexico City, perhaps in the gold Mazda pickup that my father used to own, you’d cover two thousand miles end to end. The journey would last thirty hours, unless of course you took two more hours for a slight westward swing through the streaming fields of Kansas. And while we’re at it, why not wind our way down to New Orleans?
“Why New Orleans?”
Have you ever been?
“I saw it from the sky, many times.”
Well, the people in your mural remind me of the people of New Orleans. They form the best circles and sing the best songs. You must visit in October when the air there is simply the best in the known universe –– womb weather, as a friend of mine once said. Speaking of October, I remember another fire back home in Illinois.
I can smell the smoke and hear the nervous chatter of a group of teenagers, each hoping for a kiss, possibly their first. I remember the ride to her house after the game, chest bursting. We were children really, just old enough to know what we should want. Things didn’t go quite as I’d hoped that night but it’s a wonderful memory nonetheless. The chase is always better than the prize, is it not?
I have a point here somewhere. I’m just not sure where I left it. Let’s see, oh yes. What I mean to say is that I see the simplest acts of human kindness and connection as our way forward. These acts are the only sure bridge across past, present, future. When asked what we think, we each answer in our own limited shapes and ways, driven by our doubts and desires at that moment only. When asked what we feel, on the other hand, we echo one another from a deeper place. Don’t believe me? Try it.
What do you think of the park? Ask an urban planner. Ask a naturalist. Ask a mother. Ask a child. They’ll each answer with their own unrepeatable rationale. What do you feel in the park? Ask them each again. Now their answers will fold over one another like a stack of blankets. These are the spaces in which the acts occur. I witness them in my time. You witness them in yours.
We will witness them in our time, too. “That’s what I see,” says we.
Now They Hear Nothing is a photofiction serial created by Nathan Heleine, a writer & artist from Normal, Illinois who currently calls Brooklyn home. New issues will be published weekly, give or take. The characters represented here are fictional and inspired by the artists themselves.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with notes of encouragement or derision, commission offers, collaborative opportunities and so on.