In Coming-of-Age Tales, Three Authors Take a Page from the Book of Holzer

If you haven’t gotten around to checking out Jenny Holzer’s "Inflammatory Essays" at Pérez Art Museum Miami, you’ll want to pencil that in before the exhibition comes down Friday, June 17.

First wheat-pasted onto buildings in Manhattan between 1979 and 1982, Holzer’s essays made their way from the streets to major museums such as the Guggenheim and the Tate Modern in short order, beating Banksy to the punch by a good 30 years.

In PAMM's iteration, each of the author's fifteen 100-word diatribes is duplicated from floor to ceiling in rainbow-ish rows across the southwestern wall of the second-floor Greene Gallery. As the all-capped italics of the typeface suggest, individual essays are a veritable clinic on aggression.

Let your eyes unfocus before the literal wall of text and fragments of the missives. “I’LL CUT THE SMILE OFF YOUR FACE,” reads a dollhouse-pink sheet; “IT’S MOSTLY LOVE THAT MAKES YOU LOOK AT FINE ANKLES AND THEN BREAK THEM,” begins the dolphin gray.

Holzer began her career as an abstract painter before switching to the didactic conceptual work for which she’s become famous. The coming-of-age process for artists tends to be like that: less a gradual accumulation than a dialectical switchup.

A similar instinct toward reinvention is the driving impulse in All Tomorrow’s Parties, the newly released memoir by Rob Spillman, cofounding editor of the storied literary magazine Tin House.

Spillman’s early years were spent in frequent transit, bouncing between career musician parents in Rochester, Lynchburg, Baltimore, and Colorado, where his father was codirector of the Aspen Music Festival’s Opera Center. The crux of the book, however, traces Spillman’s return to Berlin, the city of his birth, in the days between the fall of the Berlin Wall and official reunification. Pointing to the reinventions of Berliners Marlene Dietrich, her boxing trainer Sabri Mahir, ballerina Helene Bertha Amalie, and philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, young Spillman optimistically considers the city a perfect spot to escape the dreary “publishing-industrial complex” of New York. It is there where he found his voice as an artist.

The West Berlin of his childhood had been a walled-in arts mecca in the heart of the Soviet-satellite German Democratic Republic — a place where West Germans could avoid the draft and American pianists like Spillman’s father could earn a thousand marks a night ($1,275 today) playing lieders. Two decades later, when the writher returns with his wife, novelist Elissa Schappell, they find themselves living in a cold-water flat on the formerly Communist side of the wall, awash in violence from anarchists and skinheads and policed only by riot cops. It makes the syringes and homeless encampments they left behind in Alphabet City, only a few blocks north of Jenny Holzer’s Manhattan studio, look quaint.

Beyond memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties is a practical Bartlett’s of the arts. Each of the 63 chapters carries an epigraph from a famous artist and a soundtrack entry. “Write naked. Write from exile. Write in blood,” Denis Johnson says before Spillman and Schappell leave Berlin for Zambujeira do Mar in Portugal. It’s a trope that could cloy in such numbers, but it works here because of good curation and the undercurrent of art’s importance in personal development. A crucial part of this young writer’s coming of age consists of defining himself in alignment with and opposition to the art around him.

Guggenheim fellow Dana Spiotta makes the same point of filmmakers in her newest novel, Innocents and Others. When the privileged, self-possessed Meadow Mori and the humbler Carrie Wexler leave the Los Angeles of their youth to become filmmakers, they take very different paths. Ostensibly supportive of each another, there are nonetheless rifts between the two.
Carrie soliloquizes privately about Meadow’s process, saying that “the dishonest part of it was the way [Meadow] seemed to embrace things by rejecting what she had previously embraced. John Ford had to be seen as vastly inferior to Howard Hawks. It was Godard vs. Truffaut. As if engaging art became a conversion experience. Which felt juvenile and, well, reductive to Carrie.”

As is often the case among friends whose values don’t totally align, the two drift slowly apart. It’s a phenomenon that’s too often ignored in fiction, in favor of the narratively tidier concussive act, and Spiotta’s deft attention to her characters’ psychological machinations is the force that sells it.

Privileged and self-possessed, Meadow has “a penchant for failures, a soft spot for them,” playing the disciplined iconoclast on a cloistered upstate compound, experimenting her way toward acclaim as a documentarian. Carrie takes a more conventional path in New York City: film school, marriage, and work less interested in “breaking” forms than “pushing [them] in subtle ways.”

Enter the overweight, formerly blind Amy, alias Jelly. Lonely but a crack cold-caller, Jelly uses her telephonic charms to seduce Hollywood lesser-knowns into platonic long-distance relationships, gaining cult celebrity status in the industry and piquing Meadow’s interest.

Innocents and Others shares its dual settings of New York City and New York State’s Capital District with Holzer, who has her own cloistered upstate compound in Hoosick Falls to go with that Lower East Side studio. There is art, the world, and then the art world. For most artists, each realm has its own epicenter. Part of the process of any artist’s actualization is finding those answers for herself.

Probably the most inflammatory of the essays on the wall at PAMM is the one printed atop an Easter-green page. It begins, “RIGOROUS SELECTION IS MANDATORY IN SOCIAL AND GENETIC ENGINEERING. INCORRECT MERCIFUL IMPULSES POSTPONE THE CLEANSING THAT PRECEDES REFORM.”

Not exactly an applause line.

But poet Camille Rankine took the title for her recent debut collection from this snippet of fascist propaganda. Incorrect Merciful Impulses employs a breathy delicacy and sparse poetic forms to complicate the brutality of its subject matter. “On the forest floor / what rots tomorrow feeds / what’s taking root today,” Rankine writes in “Instructions for the Forest,” a coupleted poem barely wider than a thumb.

An aficionado of the uneasy assonant rhyme over line breaks, Rankine delivers odes on mechanized violence, the casual cruelty of lovers, and wholesale barbarity: scenes in which “children bear weaponry,” bombs dot the landscape and America needs “to be lowered to the ground and lit up.”

Pervasive throughout is discussion of the difficulty of speech. “Papier-Mâché and Other Human Resources” begins, “Before I learned to speak I was a bird / throat gaping, split on the first go.” In “On the Motion of Animals,” the speaker struggles to find a voice—“I am trying to tell you / something but my mouth / won’t move”—before admitting to total paralysis: “I am marooned / in this body / with no gift / for puppetry.

The struggle / is authenticity,” Rankine writes. “I have a message. / You must believe me.

It’s a posture contemporary poets and literary critics alike have gone hoarse proclaiming: that the most authoritative utterances are slow-burning, intractable, untweetable. “In the new century,” Rankine writes, “we lose the art of many things.”

If this point seems out of step with Holzer’s brash declarations, it should. Though she and Rankine have a certain affinity of topic, don’t let their shared medium — words — fool you. They work in very different fields.

"Inflammatory Essays" by Jenny Holzer
Through June 17 at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Tuesday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Visit
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