blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts

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back RICHARD CARYLON | Selected Work From Reynolds Gallery

Curating the Grand Hotel:
The Spirit of Cinema in Richard Carlyon’s Art

by Paul Ryan

I make difficult films. But not on purpose.
—Alain Resnais

Richard Carlyon made difficult art. But not on purpose. This appropriation of French New Wave director Alain Resnais’ frank and pithy words affords an accurate perception about Carlyon’s oeuvre. As well, it identifies the artist with a cultural era that consistently informed his studio practice from the mid-1950s until his death in 2006. The seductive formalism of French New Wave film, the innovations of John Cage that engaged artists in every discipline, Andy Warhol’s blurring of high and low, Allan Kaprow’s elevation of everyday patter, and the cerebral constructions of minimalism and conceptual art defined an unparalleled zeitgeist of creative interchange, friction, and flow. Carlyon’s studio practice of 50 years embodied this spirit, not through forms of spectacle or sensation, but in many series of works that crystallize perception, sensitivity, and craft. Experiencing the integrated diversity of the paintings, drawings, collages, constructions, and videos of Carlyon’s career makes clear that his creative path was one of unfoldment—a continuously progressive, vital extension of the crucial zeitgeist of his early years as an artist—and not one of accretion, of an adding on of ideas or strategies. Each work of art, a porous gesture reflecting his attentive outward gaze, is aesthetically and conceptually centered as it absorbs the details of a changing world.

The difficulty of Carlyon’s work resides not in its often-strict geometry and the diagrammatic nature of his compositions, but in its persistent amplification of the intellectual affluence of his early cultural context. He consistently adhered to this expansive, adaptable field of ideas just as he always contemporized it. A conviction at the core of this milieu was what Susan Sontag identified as an “erotics of art,” an anti-theory theory that embraced the primacy of experience. She put it this way in her seminal 1964 essay, Against Interpretation: “What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”1 Carlyon’s studio practice imbibed this message. In these times of extreme mediation, a condition that Jean Baudrillard described as “hyper-reality,” Sontag’s words couldn’t be more apt. It’s why Carlyon’s work, anchored in the act of paying attention to daily phenomena, remains relevant and difficult.

Additionally, there is something that seems right, even joyfully so, about linking Carlyon and the entirety of his work to cinema. Film’s embodiment of a play of images, movement, rhythm, passages, intervals, sound, and structure reflects the deep interest Carlyon had in all of these elements as a painter, draftsman, and video artist. Like the aesthetic of much French New Wave cinema from the late 1950s and 60s, Carlyon’s work is strictly controlled, precise, and formally elegant; yet this overall control unleashes, as the film genre does, a flood of associations and possibilities. This composite of precision and the paradox of unpredictable effects is as true for Carlyon’s most sober work as it is for his most antic. Just as the French New Wave, Duchamp, Cage, Kaprow, and even Warhol sought to preference the audience over the constructed regime of the artist (a prefiguration of Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author, a revelatory description of the creative process), so does Carlyon’s work engage with daily experience and honor viewer response while remaining anchored in a rigorous formalism. Carlyon referred to this two-way openness in a 2002 interview in which his description of Cage also serves as a self-portrayal: “ . . . when I think of John Cage, I think of something that’s fluid, porous, open. He’s not working for closure, he’s working for openness. That’s the sense I have of him as a person and as an artist. . . .”2

An example of this dialectic of formal precision and conceptual indeterminacy in cinema, specifically within the French New Wave, is the 1961 film, Last Year in Marienbad, considered to be “. . . one of the great, lasting mysteries of modern art.”3 Directed by Resnais in collaboration with French Nouveau Roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet, this classic black-and-white film is formally exacting and pristine, though its unconventional narrative remains deliberately aloof. Set at an opulent grand hotel in Marienbad, a spa town in Western Bohemia of the former Czechoslovakia, it features the enigmatic story of a man and a woman whose past relationship is uncertain, perhaps even nonexistent. Their wandering paths and furtive encounters within the hotel and its high formal gardens become the stage for metaphysical foreplay and possible past or future romance. Matters of memory and dreaming lace the movie’s frames like its baroque décor along the hotel’s unending corridors and empty rooms. Composed through a rhythm of flowing camera shots often interrupted with fragmentation and flashbacks, the film is an elegant intersection of mystery and unknowing within spaces of extreme ordering and symmetry.

There are ways in which Last Year in Marienbad is emblematic of Carlyon’s overall work. For those who knew him, it’s easy to envision him in love with the film. In fact, he saw it in the early 1960s at the Lee Theater, an art-film house in Richmond, and was quite taken by it, although to what degree it may have influenced him is uncertain.4 A cultural icon for artists in many disciplines, the film did wield widespread influence. An ambitious 2016 exhibition, Last Year in Marienbad: A Film as Art, curated by Christoph Grunenberg and Eva Fischer-Hausdorf, and shown at the Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany and at the Rudolfinum Gallery in Prague, featured the work of over 20 prominent international artists. The exhibition made a convincing case not only for modernist art’s effect on the film, but also for the broad impact of the film on a variety of contemporary artists working from the 1960s to the present.

Thinking about Last Year in Marienbad as a kind of signifier for Carlyon’s aesthetic and creative sensibility offers a view of his practice as watching, listening, selecting, linking, arranging, and installing, as a curator at the “grand hotel” of daily experience and within the complexities of art and culture. The film’s fragmented, open-ended narrative and its flowing camera shots, which allow viewers to explore the proffered spaces themselves, recall the ways in which Carlyon’s viewers traverse his elegant forms, experiencing enigma as they uncover insights into human experience. The sober tone of the geometry within and circumscribing his paintings resembles the film’s artistic language, expressed through a solemnity of geometric forms within the hotel and its gardens. Carlyon’s shrewd processes and play within many of his drawings and video projects evoke its unconventional narrative strategies. Moreover, a theme in much of Carlyon’s work across different media is a deep play of interspace—emptiness, intervals, and repetition, much like the film’s flowing inventory of vacant corridors, rooms, and gardens, silent spaces, unused furniture, stillness, and frozen gestures. When looking at Carlyon’s work, perhaps it is inevitable to respond, as film critic Anthony Lane noted about Last Year in Marienbad, by “. . . succumbing, like a dance partner, to [the work’s] gliding moves.”5  

Paul Ryan is a professor of art at Principia College in Illinois and professor emeritus of art at Mary Baldwin University. He has taught critical theory in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Painting and Printmaking and has acted as contributing editor for Art Papers Magazine since 1990. He has been published in Sculpture Magazine and Art in America.


1 Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in The Critical Condition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, ed. David H. Richter (New York and Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007).

2 Mary Flinn, “An Interview with Richard Carlyon,” Blackbird, Spring 2002, Vol. 1, No. 1,

3 The Criterion Collection, last-year-at-marienbad.

4 Email correspondence with the author from artist Eleanor Rufty, November 19, 2017.

5 Anthony Lane, “Same Time Last Year,”

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