AN INTERVIEW WITH MYRON HELFGOTT
Mary Flinn: This is Mary Flinn sitting in the Blackbird office in Richmond, Virginia, with sculptor Myron Helfgott, whose work appears in the current Gallery section.
Having watched your work over many years, I'm fascinated as to when you decided to try to put sound into it, and what sort of came to your mind to do that.
Myron Helfgott: Well, it does have quite the history, the first being, of course, that being a static artist, as we were called in those days, one's jealous about writers and movie makers and film makers having this aspect of time, so I always wanted to put time in there, of course didn't know how. You know, it's never one thing that happens, it's always a lot of things that come together over a long period of time, and the light goes on, and you move in a particular direction. So at one point, I did get involved, interested in, literature, literature having time from beginning to end. There's a compromise one has to make . . .
MF: Time or duration or both?
MH: Well, time, you read it over a period of time, so I'm thinking about this thing as not revealed, I don't want the sculpture to be revealed instantaneously, but I have mixed emotions about this. I mean, the power of the whole, the gestalt, when you see something that has that terrific thing that beats you over the head is wonderful. So, I'm going to lose that and gain something else, so it was all problematic. So these things, ideas are going through my head. I read an awful book one time and it was John Barth's Sabbatical, and in the book he had a piece of fiction. Can we say junk fiction? Is that okay?
MF: You can call it anything you want to.
MH: It was awful. But he had an interesting thing. He had footnotes in it, and the footnotes were, as far as I could tell, authentic. They were real things. So I thought, well, What would it look like if I did a piece of sculpture that had footnotes in it? So then I attempted to do this, did it a few times, and that was kind of interesting, and then, so it was sitting there.
When Marcel Duchamp died and he left the Étant Donnés to the Philadelphia Museum and they installed it and I went to see it, it just knocked me out. And one of the things that knocked me out was the waterfall, the little, tiny waterfall in the upper right-hand side. I loved it. So when I got home I wanted to build one for myself. You know, if you love something you want to either imitate it or eat it, so I wanted to make one just for myself, my own little waterfall. At that time, a friend of mine owned a bar, and so I asked him, Do you have any old Miller signs that I could have and use? And he said, No, they're very hard to get, you can't get them. So I made an attempt to make one, and it was awful, and then I made the second attempt and it was awful, and then I put that aside, and about six months later I said, I'm going to make the waterfall, I'm not going to do anything else until I make the waterfall. And I tried numerous ways of making the waterfall, and I eventually made the waterfall. A number of years later a book came out of Duchamp's notes and photographs he left to have the piece put together again, and there's a photo of the rear side of the Étant Donnés, and there was his projection of the waterfall, and I had done it exactly the same way he had done it, which was kind of amazing. So I had done that, and so now all of a sudden these things are moving, it's moving beams of light projected on the back of this plastic thing.
So that's the first kinetic aspect that came into the work. And then there were slide projections, and slide projections that were motorized, and they would move back and forth and stop. Then I was invited to have a show at the Glasgow School of Art, and I had a very large wall, about sixty-some-odd feet long. And my first thought was to make this enormous drawing, bits and pieces of paper tacked up onto this wall, and I started doing that. And it got too chaotic, and I had to somehow organize it. So in organizing it what I did was I used the structure of a book, and it's calledno, a film, ratherit's called A Film in Three Chapters and Epilogue, which had four distinct parts, and each part had some kinetic aspect to it, where there were some motors driving pencils making drawings on existing drawings. And they had what was very much like didactic labels, except that these labels were part of a story, and I actually was telling a story about this fellow. And then we had Chapter One, then Chapter Two goes into landscape, Chapter Three, that's the erotic chapter, and then Four is the Epilogue, we wrap it all up. And so that was pretty nice. But each station also had an audio component. And the first thing I did, the very, very first audio piece I did, was I was going to ask the viewer psychological questions while they were standing in front of the work looking at it, thinking these are the kind of things that really determine how one perceives the work. And some of them were funny, some of them were serious, and I would say that I really enjoyed that. So I went into Chapter Two, Three, and Four, and that got me going. The most difficult thing with the audio, of course, is audio editing, which is astounding, you know, to be able to do it. So I'm just scratching the surface. And I have this thing coming up where I have a questionnaire with answers, and I have to edit 120 answers, each one in its own separate little file, plus my thirty questions, and I have to move them aroundfour different people answeringmove them around and edit, make it appear as if it's happening at all at one time. I've not done that yet. But that's how the audio got into it.
MF: I know you have engaged some friends to write pieces for you, you've written pieces for it, you've appropriated other work. How do you sort of choose that? What sort of . . . serendipity is what you're looking for? How much are you actually planning?
MH: I'm glad you mention planning, because planning . . . I do plan a lot. I plan, I read, I think, I make notes, I have notebooks full of notes, and then, of course, you get into the studio and you forget everything that you ever planned, what you're thinking about. It's like theory. Theory is wonderful to read, and it's part of the artist's makeup, but when you get in the studio you don't think about theory, you just go to work. There is something I try to do, is not have any piece similar to the previous piece when it comes to the audio. So when I asked the psychological questions . . . I've not done that again. I've worked with a poet, and I've given him instructions as to what I would like to see happen in terms of time within this writing. Terry Hummer came up with this extraordinary event that was just perfect, but there were a lot of aborted attempts. I tried to work with Terry again, and we both agreed that this thing wasn't going anywhere, so we deep-sixed that. I've worked with somebody else that has come in, Dick Carlyon who has come in, and I've shown him the work and asked him to do a modernist descriptive analysis of the work, and he has done that, and we've recorded it. Other things I write that are fictitious, other things I get off the net. And the latest one which isI don't even know how to describe this onebut it's reporting. It's a couple I happened to meet on the airplane going from Detroit to Miami, and I was able to take some photographs of them, and then I have about a seven-and-a-half minute description of our flight and the photos that go along with it. But this is the thing that I found most intriguing, the idea that it's nonfiction, that I'm telling things exactly as I recall them, and I wrote this text the day I met them. And this intrigued me, and I want to do more of that, where I just deal with something, and I have some visuals plus write about it.
MF: I'm thinking particularly of one of the pieces, your two German friends.
MH: Oh, yes.
MF: How did that piece come about?
MH: This German couple live just outside of Cologne, Ingo, a novelist, Annette, a painter. Ingo and I at least used to email each other quite a bit, I haven't heard from Ingo in quite a while now, but he's very angry with the U.S. and their foreign policy. In one email he told a story about his father's seventieth birthday, and I happened to be going to visit them, and I wanted to record his recollection. On the way over there I realized that I have a photo of Ingo and Annette together, and I wanted Annette to say something also. So I got there, we recorded Ingo, and I said, "Annette, I'm going to email you some text and if you could record it it would be great, and send it to me." Fine. So what I thought about doing was havingas I've done in many other works before, which is something that interests me quite a bitis the idea of the criticism of the work is endemic in the work, as many wonderful writers have done. So I wrote a criticism of the work that we're looking at, and all my fears about the work, and I wrote it as text for Annette to be saying. So in the audio portion of it, one speaker will be on one side of the work with Ingo's story, Annette's will be on the other side of the work with her criticism. So I emailed her the text and a week later I get a reply saying she wouldn't have these stupid things coming out of her mouth, and then she refused to do it, and then a week later I get a letter from Ingo, and he's criticizing me using the same language I was criticizing myself, but they felt that I was using them as I was saying in my criticism to them. Nonetheless, I've got a woman in Richmond who is a German speaker and who has a nice German accent to read Annette's part, so I've got her in there. The one other little thing that happened which was kind of interesting, those two letters, because I'm the kind of person I am I copied the letters, I laminated them, and they hang next to the piece.
MF: That's where the title Literary/Criticism comes from, essentially, that you feel that the criticism is embedded in the text that you're using.
MH: Yes. Many years ago I got a grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts to do this project to have the criticism of the work endemic in the work. And I spent a year, my work came to a screeching halt. I couldn't do it, didn't know how to do it, and I had to forget about it. It wasn't only till recently in the last couple of years that I found out how to do itnow with the audio it's much easier to do. So many of the works now have the criticism of the work within the work. Probably the biggest influence there was Fellini's 8 1/2, where Guido hires this fellow to criticize a scenario that he's writing for the film, and even though the criticism is perfect, right on, the movie's still brilliant. So it was a wonderful lesson for me.
MF: Thinking of your work, it's always had sort of more than one layer to it, usually, almost a commentary within a commentary, just thinking of simple collage things, or even photographs of photographs. Is that something that's always sort of intrigued you, to be standing in two places at the same time?
MH: Well, again, there's so much of these ideas come from literature. I've found the ideas about . . . although I'm not interested so much in Modernism . . . but still structure in literature fascinates me.
MF: A lot of the writers I know you read are the High Modern, High European Modernists, I guess you would call them, rather than this . . . who are edging toward the Postmodern period but are not necessarily purely Postmodern.
MH: Exactly right. So within the work they are going to carry on other discussions, sometimes about the work itself. A wonderful American writer of, The Facts by Philip Roth, who in The Facts, Philip Roth has his first two-thirds of the book is this autobiographical thing, and the last third of the book is Zuckerman telling him how full of crap he is, and how he's lying and misleading and so and so, it's a criticism of what's going on in the first half. You know you find it in a lot of the Eastern Europeans, and also comments about the book itself. This wonderful book, Bitov, Andrei Bitov in Pushkin House, where just the nature of the novelat one point the hero dies, and Andrei Bitov starts talking to you and saying, saying, Look, you can take care of yourself and I can take care of myself, but who's going to take care of the poor character in a novel? It's really the author's responsibility, and I feel so badly, what I've done to this poor boy. So the next scene, of course, the hero's alive again. And then at another point in the book, Andrei Bitov meets the hero and he says, I was amazed that he was a blond, I never thought he was a blond. And it's just this discussion of the book in the book, it keeps you at arms length from this reminding you that you're reading a fiction here, a story, a fabrication. I don't try to do that exactly, but still have that distance and talk about the work in the body of the work. Show other things in the body of the work. Nabokov has in The Gift the biography of the admiral, I think, inside it, so it's an autonomous object within the body of the book. Mishima does it. Art Spiegelman does it. Any number of other people do the same sort of thing. These are the things I attempt to do in the sculpture.
MF: I'm remembering, too, you alsoand thinking of some of the pieces in Literary/Criticismyou sort of burgle your own visage and life to use bits of them too, and over time you've done a lot of odd kinds of self-portraiture.
MH: One of the reasons that Ingo and Annette got angry with me is that when I'm using their pictures they think that everything ought to be nonfiction. And I try to tell them no, and all these works are a mélange of fiction and nonfiction all wrapped up and becoming something hybrid of these two things, and they couldn't reallyI mean they're very bright people, but either they didn't agree with it, or they didn't get it, or they thought it was inappropriate. But, so much of the things I do, I don't want to tell the truth. Truth is, truth is too boring. You want to take and expand the truth and make the truth even more true by adding other things to it.
MF: So how are you going to do that with the straight reporting? Though memory is very fishy.
MH: I don't know. Because I've only done this one thing. The other thing too is, Mary, as much as one plans and one says, that's not the way it ends up. It's like, can you imagine some prize fighter who, he's been training, and he's been thinking, and he's kind of doping out the fight, and then he goes into the ring and he thinks about what he's going to do? I mean, he's gone immediately.
MF: And the other guy has an upper-cut when it wasn't scripted.
MH: Right. But so what happens is you make all these plans, but what actually happens when you get there to actually do it, something else takes over, you don't even think about it. So whether this straight reporting is going to be reporting, or it's going to be one of those objects in the cabinet of curiosities that you say, My, I wonder, is that really real? We don't know, we don't know. I don't know, either. So we'll see what happens.
MF: This is Mary Flinn sitting in the Blackbird office in Richmond, Virginia, with sculptor Myron Helfgott, whose work appears in the current Gallery section.
It has always interested me the things that you put into your hopper, like Nabokov's work. What artists besides the novelists that you were mentioning, what artists . . . and you might comment a little bit about your fondness for Duchamps.
MH: I was talking to a good friend, Richard, again, Carlyon, and both of us, he's a Modernist and I am not anti-Modernist, but aI don't trust it so much, Modernism, any more. So we come to art from very different directions, and we both think that Marcel Duchamps is the most important artist of the twentieth century, either of us without question. There's so much of the vocabulary that he's suggestedhe doesn't tell you anything. He's unbelievable as a reporter, he doesn't tell you much about what he's thinking, what he's doing. He's a great planner inasmuch as he planned to have all his work in a museum, and there they are in the museum, and they're still vital because we don't know about them. But he obviously is somebody because he's so unique, you can't mimic what he's done, but all you do is carry that spirit around, that vital spirit. I'm reading about Duchamps, and I find that my mind is just rolling, I'm very active. He generates a lot of ideas for me.
MF: He does seem to be very open ended in comparison to somebody like Picasso.
MH: Oh, yeah, yeah. Picasso, you know Picasso. . . . When David Smith died and there was one whole issue of one of the art magazines given over to David Smith and all of his friends wrote about him and one thing they agreed upon about David Smith is that he wasn't a very good sculptor. But the only reason he made good sculpture is because he made so many of them. He made an enormous amount of sculptures. And I think Picasso did a lot of bad paintings, I think maybe Guernica might be one of the bad paintings, but he did some brilliant things, and he was very smart in how he presented these things. But Picasso, he doesn't hold the fascination for me, Cubism doesn't hold the fascination for me that other people do, I mean, El Greco, I have an infinite amount of interest in, fascination by his works. Cézanne, I'm totally fascinated by his paintings. I was fortunate to be in Paris when the largest Cézanne retrospective show there ever was, was. And they had a transit strike, so nobody could get to the show. And I was in walking distance, and I walked there, and here the place is empty, I'm looking at this enormous Cézanne show by myself. So I was able to stand in front of all these paintings by myself and just look, stand there and look, uninterrupted and not worry about the ambiance and crowd. I finished that visit and realized that every painting there, that if you looked at it long enough there's something that's going to shock you about the painting.
MF: I was thinking that both of those artists and Duchamps all have a fairly edgy relationship with reality, and that it's very shifty in that sense.
MH: Some of the El Greco paintings, after 1600, they are just amazing. I still can't come to grips with them. I was sitting at the National Collection a couple of years ago, and there's a painting there that I'd seen many, many, many times. I was sitting there looking at it, and I couldn't believe what I saw. He had this little part of it where it was just a little event, a little shocking event. And so I keep discovering these things in these paintings. Picasso, not so much. I don't want to be a heretic about it, but he doesn't hold the fascination for me that some of these other people do.
It's amazing I'm not talking about much sculptors, isn't it.
MF: That doesn't surprise me, having observed your work, but are there sculptors who also fit in there, or did you come into sculpture through architecture rather than through sculpture ?
MH: Yes, through architecture. I didn't know anything about art when I got into art. This was quite accidental. I got into architecture accidentally, too, and actually loved it. But the only reason we're calling the things I do now sculpture is because I say they are. Aside from that, I don't think anybody else would call them sculpture. I'm not sure what they would call them. There are a lot of people that interest me for very different reasons. I look at Martin Puryear's work and they're elegant, they're just exquisitely made. For me they're these wonderful archetypal images that he makes. There's Tony Cragg, many of these things he does I find fascinating, other things less fascinating. Yeah, there are some people out there that I really enjoy.
MF: But thinking back to thirty years ago, thinking of other work you've made, the things that you sort of . . . real objects that you made out of lead, little sort of stage sets, almost, were there sculptors that you were looking at along through that period that interested you or influenced you?
MH: One of the biggest shifts is my increasing disinterest in the aestheticized object. I just don't care about it any more. I go to the museums and look at these things and I'm less and less and less interested in them. So as much as I attempt to take some of these issues out of my work, it's impossible to remove it all, but that's the difference, I just don't care about some of those things. I don't want to spend the time to think about, Should I put this here or should I put it over here? I don't care. Should it be a red one or should it be a green one? I don't care. I don't care.
MF: In that sense I guess Duchamps continues to speak to you there, because the aestheticized objects frequently disappeared from his work, too.
MH: He was amazing, though. One thing you don't hear too much when we talk about Duchamps is the craftsmanship; these things were so spectacular, so immaculately done. And they're so good, they're hidden, because you don't even notice the craftsmanship. And things he couldn't do himself, he hired other people to do, to build for him, the little urinals, these miniature urinals in The Box in a Valise, he hired somebody else to do. In maybe the last painting he ever did, there was a hand in it, and he hired a sign painter to paint the hand in this painting because he wanted it perfect like a sign painter's hand. But everything is perfect, everything is just perfect. In fact a friend of mine was over yesterday looking at my work, and she said, "Have you thought about making these things look cleaner?" because now I just glue a bunch of pieces of paper together, actually I posterized a large photograph, so there's a grid pattern that's set up because of the pieces I glued together. I said, Yeah, I've thought about it but it's going to be too nice and I want the work to be a little rustic and get in your way as you're trying to look. You can't look through it; you have to look at it also. Is that a contradiction?
MF: No, maybe, but so what? That contradiction in your work would not surprise me, because some of it always strikes me as saying on this hand and on the other hand, that there's a conversation sometimes that goes on in it in that way.
MH: Well, I hope so because a) I don't actually know what I want to do. And one makes the work to find out what one wants to do. And then more often than not hopefully that there's an internal conflict that you work at resolving and if you resolve, probably the work, then, is not very good. So when you finish the work, if this internal conflict remains, then you probably have something that's going to be fairly vital within the work itself. So the conflictthe conceptual conflicts, or pictorial conflicts, whatever they are that are going on thereI think, give the work its life. So one hopes that I don't find the answer.
MF: Thinking a little bit about what you were saying and Donald Kuspit, who was here lecturing last week, and we'll be lucky enough to have that lecture, I think, in the May Blackbird, was talking about a quote he brought from William Gass about the "permanent avant garde," which was one of those little intriguing things, who was in it, and it usually is something akin to what you were saying about that surprises or shocks you or that remains open ended.
MH: Yeah, remains open. Well, of course, Duchamps is always that way, it's never closed and nobody can ever close it. I can't think of any of his work that has beenexcept maybe things like Nude Descending a Staircase, those early paintings that he was doing. But beyond that you get, you get into about 1912 and everything after that is, you throw up your hands, you have no idea what this is about. [I'm] just fascinated by it, and people have written these wonderful treatises on The Large Glass and Étant Donnés, and it still doesn't answer the questions.
MF: Do places mean a great deal to you in terms of how you work? I know you spend a lot of time in Paris.
MH: The French aren't really part of the avant garde. I'm not interested so much in what the French are doing. The Germans, of course, are doing spectacular things, and some of the Italians are doing wonderful things. Germans are doing terrific. Some of the Russians are doing wonderful things. I don't go there [Paris} because of the art. I go there because I can actually go there cheaply. I do love the wine and the food, and Paris is such a small town that you can actually walk around in this town. And I love taking pictures there because pictures are so wonderful, not because of the art.
MF: Who is doing work right now that interests you, that you've looked at lately around here or in D.C. or New York? Anybody who's caught your eye or you sort of keep track of?
MH: D.C. I don't think has a terrific art scene, I have to say. I think one of the new galleries in D.C. that is really trying to do something is the Fusebox, and I really enjoy what they're doing. It's a style that's slightly hipper than I am. I have to say I'm an old guy, of course, and I have expectations when I go to look at paintings and sculptures, and that expectation is that it's going to want to invite me back again. And too much of the art I see, I'm not invited back again. I've seen it, there's no reason to revisit it again, and I'm off to see something else. And people have . . . I think the expectations have changed, the fame for fifteen minutes is way too long. Now you've got, for less than a minute you can have somebody's attention, and you're off to something else. Recently, I saw a show, a now-deceased artist, Paul Teck, and it was, it just knocked me out. I'd forgotten how much I loved his drawings and paintings. In Richmond, of course, my colleaguesI'm not saying this only because it's politically correct to say itbut I have to say that my colleagues are, there are some wonderful painters and sculptors in Richmond, that I love their work. I don't see why they're not more famous than they are.
Can I go to these other cities? It's always amazing, you go to New York, and there are some wonderful things. You go to McKee Gallery, where they have Martin Puryear and they've got a number of other wonderful people in that gallery. You go to some other galleries, and there's some wonderful things, but the great bulk of it is thin. It's just way too thin. It's not that I see it and I don't get it, the problem is I see and get it way too easily, and I look at my colleagues' work and I go, boy, oh boy!
MF: Who have you been reading lately?
MH: I'm reading some nonfiction. Richard and I were just talking about this book called Formless, it's a series of essays by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss about a show they put together, and it was influenced by Bataille and one of the things he had done. And I'm interested in it because formlesshaving to do without an apparent structurethese things are structureless, and you think of, maybe, Pollack paintings, they think of that as formless. But this whole book is about formlessness, which, as I said before, I'm trying to get way from so much of the things of placement, that I found it fascinating.
Nothing, no fiction that I've really been knocked out by lately. I've tried a number of things, but nothing. Again, the eastern Europeans have been wonderful. Ivan Klima and Love and Garbage was a wonderful book, him just reminiscing about some things and talking. And I love it when the hero in first person, the "I," and he begins to talk about things beyond the novel, just whatever, just [the] nature of things. I find it really intriguing.
MF: Sebald certainly does . . .
MH: Oh, yeah, of course, of course, The Emigrants and the Rings of Saturn, yeah, those were fascinating. Another one was very influential for me because there's essentially no beginning and no end. I mean, you have this thing that is a flat line, nothing exciting happens and you just kind of move through the scene, he takes his walk and visits places and then he stops. It was wonderful, just a knockout. Yeah, I loved it. Those are the two favorites. The other ones, I didn't enjoy them quite as much those two, they're the very best.
Oh yeah, yeah, Naguib Mahfouz, I haven't read him for a while. But one of the things that intrigued me, some of the issues I use with my students, in the introduction to The Cairo Trilogy, he said that before he ever started writing the books he developed a dossier on all the characters in the book, this family which goes through, lives in Cairo from about the turn of the century to about 1950, as I think he writes about this family. And so he knew the people very well, and so when incidents happened in the book, that he knew how they all were going to react. So my students now think about doing figures, I say, Well, who are they? What are they thinking? What are they doing right now? As opposed to making some anonymous figure that has a head and a couple of arms and a couple of legs, they actually, they're right in the middle of something very specific, and it allows them to look at the figure more closely. And it seems to pay off.
MF: Does music play any role for you?
MH: I would like to say yes, but I don't think so, although I borrow pieces from composer friends of mine and use in my audio, which I've just done recently. Although my friend doesn't know it, I stretched out the six-and-a-half minute piece to seven minutes, fifty seconds. So it's a little slower than he had anticipated it to be. No, it doesn't. It affects me, but it doesn't influence my work in any way, no. Mostly literature.
MF: You have a new show and new work coming up here shortly.
MH: Yes, at the Anderson Gallery, two floors, a little scary to fill up the two floors of the Anderson Gallery. But I have one piece, the one I said is sixty feet long, we may put that in. Then I have another piece that's, all the visuals are done, all the writing is done, but I haven't recorded it yet, that's thirty-eight feet long, so between the two of them we can put a big dent in the gallery.
MF: So this will sort of follow logically the work that's in Literary/Criticism along with the recordings and things like that.
MH: Yes, and there'll be a couple of pieces earlier, before I started doing the audio and the kinetic thing.
MF: Is this sort of a retrospective?
MH: It's supposed to be and I'd like to keep the old work, as few of those as possible, in the show.
MF: All right. Next year, you'll be retired. What are you going to do?
MH: This year I would be retired.
MF: Yes, I'm thinking the next academic year. As of this summer, you'll be retired.
MH: Yes, I'll be retired this summer. What I'm I going to do?
MH: As much
as possible, of course. The only reason I'm retiring is to spend more
time in the studio.