“S.S. Champlain Presents, is a salon inspired by Gertrude Stein, Floreine Stettheimer and other visionaries who cultivated art and good conversation. It’s moniker is taken from the steamship that ferried Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas from New York to Europe, after Stein's successful American book tour.
A salon is a gathering of people under the roof of an inspiring host, held partly to amuse one another and partly to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation. These gatherings often consciously followed Horace's definition of the aims of poetry, "either to please or to educate" ("aut delectare aut prodesse est"). Salons, commonly associated with French literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, were carried on until quite recently in urban settings.
The modernist yet convivial enclave of Suzy Spence’s SS Champlain Presents proposes an intriguing premise; can we, as contemporary NY artists, overcome our incessant careerist urge to network and promote, and rediscover the principle of a “euphoric” interaction found in salons during the Age of Enlightenment?
This may sound like a cynically rhetorical query, but the constant stress of marketing art in an arena saturated by a Sandy-esque storm surge of baby boomer liberal arts competitors, could make the salon ideal of a dialogue encompassing all levels of social and professional accomplishment, without the politicking and envy endemic to most art world gatherings seem an elusive quantity.
It seems to me a successful salon is not just about ingratiating social niceties in a locally homogenous group, but should involve an inclusive demographic that extends beyond a particular cliques comfort zone. The salon experience should broaden the participant’s perspectives and breed other forums to expound on further issues.
Perhaps a thriving, broad based salon culture as occurred in 18th century France could be thought of as an intellectual and cultural insurgency; a way for the proletariat to level the playing field controlled by an aloof elite at the expense of the under represented. This is not as Marxist a premise as it sounds.
In fact 'The Blue Stockings Club” were a conservative salon of English ladies that on one occasion refused entry to The Duke of Wellington because the color of his stockings were unacceptable to the hostesses. How anarchic is that?
Although the Salon De Paris eventually became an aristocratic art showroom for the chosen few (sound familiar?), Napoleon came to the rescue with the Salon des Refusés. Under-recognized art has ever since promulgated a “left bank”, and the resulting bohemian denizens have had to institute underground forums to propagate their mediums outside the prevailing academy.
The visual arts salon tradition is probably most well known for cramming art floor to ceiling with no regard for rhyme, reason or status. I suppose it could be said that this might reflect the democratic notion of a melting pot; a broad constituency thrown together and left to sort things out for themselves. But I think most artists consider the salon exhibition model as a low probability opportunity to stand out from the mob, and see the odds of being nominated to higher artistic stature as slim. But there is also a certain appeal to being part of a crowd, and hanging your art shoulder to shoulder imbues a sense of solidarity with all the other hoi polloi yearning for an encouraging word.
However in a clever turn of events “Kinda Verbal” turns the prevailing salon stack on its head. Making full use of the high ceilings and open wall space of SS Champlain, Ms Brack & Ms Spence have placed the art pieces in a variety of novel juxtapositions. As though to acknowledge a phantom horde of art, Brack’s work is spread about floor to ceiling affording a salon feel without the sweaty overcrowded effect of a Sideshow spectacular.
The SS Champlain event is based on the traditional Salon De Paris format via Stein & Toklas. Suzy Spence, an accomplished illustrator, painter and novelist was our gracious informed hostess, filmmaker and raconteur David Dickson was the charismatic MC (and founder of “Moonlighter Presents”, a salon-esque sounding program of diverse cultural content).
About midway through the 6-9 PM schedule, everyone assembled in the main room to begin the symposium. Brack offered a modest and slightly cryptic glimpse into her artistic process as she adroitly fielded questions and comments from everyone.
Brack’s work lent itself nicely to this kind of forum. Her intricately devised collages frequently use appropriated imagery to instigate a stimulating dichotomy between her deft skills as a painter, and the implications of wry socio-political commentary.
Then after about 15 minutes as the event seemed to be going along swimmingly, abruptly and without warning the more formal aspect of speaker and audience participation ended.
I chalked this up to the novel aspect of an experiment still in development, structuring the ebb and flow of dialogue and ideas takes some practice, and this seemed like a good enough start. There were about 20 or 25 people in attendance, which I thought was the maximum for the right balance of interpersonal flux. After the Q&A session ended, the group divided up into a default format of those who knew each other previously, and although there was some continued discussion of how to proceed in any future salons, the spirit seemed to devolve into standard opening or party mode.
The challenges to conducting an effective salon may be more daunting than one might think.
There is the constant risk of veering into the realm of a group critique, that post grad ordeal of a trial before your peers whence most are found guilty until proven innocent.
When exhibiting individual artists work resolving the balance between a gallery's promotional activities, and the more altruistic notion of a salon presenting art for arts sake could be perceived as a conflict of interest.
Keeping everyone disciplined enough to maintain a salon syntax, but allowing for unexpected twists and turns to occur depends on a focused group that can take direction, yet think outside the box, while anticipating a results oriented goal for the evening.
Food, booze, and enough seating also seem key to maintaining enough of an anchor to keep everyone feeling sufficiently salubrious.
The baby boomers are the last of a breed born into an analog world long gone. The impetus for 21st century artists to share their work and aesthetic interests informally may now be mostly relegated to social media and other online enclaves that would be uninhabitable to the slovenly paint splattered sloths of yesteryear. It could be that lacking in this digital Age Of Enlightenment is the need for those antique modes of artistic sanctuary such as the Cedar Tavern and jazz lofts, which like the rotary phone could be museum relics in their own right.
There is a recent precedent for the salon experience. Louise Bourgeois ran a regular Sunday program for many years. Who better than a French woman from the early 20th century to promulgate such a rich tradition of doyenne’s dispensing drama?
Bourgeois’s approach was apparently more “trickle down” and less supply side, yet who could complain? Invitees were strongly encouraged to ply Her Highness with bourbon and bon-bons, but could still be subjected to scorn and banishment at her whim. Overall her reactions seemed to vary from rubber stamped approval, to the occasionally in-depth evaluation of a lucky participants work.
It may be that the contemporary salon model needs an influential figurehead like Bourgeois to thrive today. Can the compelling (to me) notion of small town connectedness motivate artistic communities enough to shuck the keyboard, and get out the door despite a potential lack of big shot incentives that benefit upward mobility more than creative insight?
Remembrances of Louise Bourgeois’s Salons
By Jerry Saltz
There was a man there who was kind of acting as her spokesperson, as she was fairly frail. I brought an altered book piece which the spokesperson liked a lot. Louise frowned as he showed her how it was made. She did not approve of cutting up books. I told her the books were in a rubbish bin in a Paris bookshop, about to be thrown out. Her retort? "The French never throw anything out." However, she was quite interested in a woman's red high heels and had a photo taken of them. She was quite girly when it came to fashion.
There was an American female student writer who recited several poems for her. One of her poems was about "dance," but Louise didn't hear this young woman very well. She mistakenly thought the poem was going to be about "anger" and she became instantly very excited. She said, "I like to hear about ANGER." But as soon as the young woman corrected her, Louise B. became very disappointed. She lost her interest in this woman's poem.
Deborah Renee Kaplan
I was so traumatized by the time I spent with her that I turned around all the books I had in my apartment with her name on it, so I would not be reminded of her. This will sound dramatic or forced or made-up, but it's simply my impression: This woman did not walk into the room, she appeared ... the afternoon was fully orchestrated by her. I became aware of the darker side of her work having met her.
Interview with Wendy Williams, Managing Director of Louise Bourgeois Studio
With the Louise Bourgeois exhibition up at MOCA in Los Angeles, I cannot think of anything else. I heard that Louise's assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, was in town helping with the exhibition and I started wondering more and more about what occurs in Louise's studio. Jerry was already back in New York by the time I could get ahold of anyone, but Wendy Williams, the manager of the Louise Bourgeois Studio was so kind as to answer some of my burning questions over email.
- Sasha Bergstrom-Katz
As a young artist, I am extremely intrigued by Louise's Sunday salons. Do either of you attend? If so, can you tell me about it? Or share an anecdote?
Yes, I've attended a few Salons over the years. It's open to all artists, writers, musicians and poets. The only requirement is that participants bring a sample of their own work to share with the others. Each Salon has its own character, depending on the participants. Sometimes it's like group therapy. Other times, things become hostile, with the Salon ending in tears or with people storming out. At best, the Salon provides an environment for pure discussion. At worst, participants come with the hope that Louise will further their career. Because of this, many years ago, Louise wrote:
What do you do for a living?
How do you eat and pay your rent?
You have to go to a shelter for the homeless, or you may have to go to the hospital.
I am not an employment agency, and I am not a publishing firm.
You are invading my privacy, and I am going to call the police.
To call yourself an artist is not an excuse.
Unsolicited material ends in the garbage pail outside.
Show and Tell: Louise Bourgeois and her Sunday salon by Kelly Devine Thomas
The wooden floors creak. Stuff is everywhere. Crammed on a table in the corner are a large bottle of aspirin, a shiny red heart, a can of Lysol, two lamps, rubbing alcohol, paper towels, and a bulky calculator. Filing cabinets and bookshelves line the room. A bulletin board that runs the length of one wall is layered with old museum and gallery posters, articles, and a bumper sticker that reads “Honk If You Hate Fission.”
In the hallway Gorovoy and Paulo Herkenhoff, a former curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art who attended his first salon in 1985, survey the prospects. “Sometimes there are only a few people,” says Gorovoy, Bourgeois’s assistant for the past 25 years. “Other times, so many people show up they literally have to be turned away.” Artists are advised to call ahead for an invitation. Bourgeois’s number is publicly listed, and all are welcome. “There are only two rules,” says Gorovoy. “You can’t have a cold, and you have to bring your work.”
Always On Sunday
By Brian D. Leitch Published: August 18, 2002
In its 30th year, the Sunday salon at Louise Bourgeois's house in Chelsea is suddenly getting quite famous. If you've got a certain flair with the cold call, work to show and if you can hack the possibility of being reduced to ''a hair in the soup,'' as Louise says, it's a fascinating trip.
Louise Bourgeois, like the giant mother-spider sculpture she created several years ago, has been spinning a web of weirdly magnificent work for more than six decades -- and finally, at 90, she's getting her full due. ''A woman has no place as an artist unless she proves, over and over again, she won't be eliminated,'' she said more than 25 years ago, when a mere girl in her 60's. To meet Louise is to know she won't be eliminated.
In attendance on the Sunday I went: Matthew Riva, 25, painter, poet and great-grandson of Marlene Dietrich; Brent Howard, the welder, who helped put Louise's giant spiders together; Jean-Louis, her son, who is fanning himself with a piece of cardboard with the word ''obsession'' or ''confession'' scrawled on one side; Pouran Esrafily, who is filming us; Robert Storr, the former senior curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and Louise's biographer; and six young artists, some extremely good, some less so. A self-described Charles Manson-meets-Yanni look-alike called Cloud sits next to a guy who has brought along a head shot, a television and his girlfriend. Quietly, perhaps cruelly, he's nicknamed Dysfunctional Model. Cliques are forming. We sit in Louise's web, a wonderfully tatty parlor, watching the paint peel, waiting nervously. There is a round coffee table with a dozen bottles of liquor on it. Esrafily pours and says: ''Louder! Like we're having a party. If she thinks she's missing a party, she'll come down.'' Cloud taunts us: ''Man, she's gonna lay waste. I call this place the smack-down shack, 'cause it ends in tears, man.''
Then she appears, and it's hard to imagine this small, opalescent woman in a pink tunic, black slip over black leggings and tiny black Nikes smacking anybody down.
We'll see. Later Louise will tell me: ''I want them to have a good time and drink a lot. They say, 'I want to show you my work,' and what they really mean is, 'I want to be endorsed, and congratulated.'''
First up is Riva. He has brought a large, Rothko-like canvas made with blue gesso and marble dust. Louise tilts the lamp toward it. ''And tell everyone -- you are the grandson of who?'' she asks.
''She's been dead since I was 15,'' Riva says of Great-Granny Dietrich, ''so I should have my name used.''
Louise passes no judgment, but asks the others to assess it, as she often will. The comments are astute, intelligent and competitive. Louise is intrigued by the title, ''When the Echoes Never Ring,'' which leads unexpectedly to a discussion of words, and a volume of ''journal'' poetry in his bag. (Oh no.) ''Read,'' she says. He does. ''Again,'' she says. ''Again.'' Louise's face lifts. The poems are startlingly good, sending a little shiver through the group, save for one -- Dysfunctional Model takes issue with the word ''whence'' and calls Riva pretentious. To show him how it's done, he pulls out a notebook and slavers through a reading of his own verse -- yelping, panting, whispering, acting out all the parts. Yes, well. We carry on.
Others show their work. But this little thundercloud is a gathering storm, which will eventually culminate in the loud and dramatic expulsion of Dysfunctional Model -- head shot, TV, girlfriend and offending ''artwork'' in tow. The bolt of lightning -- a tricked-out rap video of Sept. 11 that he showed us -- wasn't the problem. It was the violent and sustained reaction he had to those who were deeply offended by it. As Robert Storr said, ''An artist cannot stand beside his work and defend it.''
Louise refuses to defend or explain her work. It's part of the glamour and privilege of fame in old age, the tant pis pose that comes with being late for your life. Becoming a cult figure, and a sexual outlaw in your 80's, is probably not the shortest distance to a fashion shoot, but it may be the most compelling: in 1997 she deigned to appear in an advertising campaign for Helmut Lang. ''I enjoy his work, and I enjoy him,'' Louise says.
Louise Bourgeois Eats A Truffle, David Waddell discusses the Artist's Salon
I read about Louise Bourgeois’s Sunday Salon in the June ’06 ArtNews. I was excited by the thought of a salon. Salon is romanticized. Art students desire to emulate the aura of Paris, the Dada movement, Surrealism and de Kooning’s drinking days at the Tavern. This seemed like a worthwhile trip. The salon was touted as being an opportunity for feedback from art royalty. My anticipation differed from my experience. I question the positioning and morality of how the salon is currently run. The salon has been in session for 30 years, since Bourgeois was 64. The woman I hold in contention is the documentary filmmaker, Pouran Esrafily. She has been filming the salon for the past 12 years, since Bourgeois was 82 years old. Pouran quickly volunteered her own name without me catching it; rather I figured it out through reading Devine’s article. The experience was not an adventure into the art giant’s world but a painful visit to grandma’s house… a reminder of the fragility of life and the diminishing of a powerhouse and a force in her prime. For what purpose does this salon still exist? I question the choice of people who surround this aging artist in her final days. These issues must be examined. ArtNews was descriptively accurate without tackling the issues of control and critique of the salon. It could be that on the day I was present, Ersafily was running the show rather than Jerry Gorovoy, who facilitated during Devine’s visit. We wait for Bourgeois to enter the room. A muffled noise comes from the other room. It is Louise small voice. Pouran Esrafily demands that we sit. She requests that we act delighted to see Bourgeois. We should not glare as Bourgeois maneuvers with her walker through the room. Everyone holds her breath until the grand act of walking and then sitting is a success. Bourgeois’s wardrobe resembles the black-and-white animation of Steamboat Willie whistling while steering the steamboat. Bourgeois’s ensemble includes a white silk shirt, and black slip/shorts with suspenders constructed out of yarn. I might have imagined two white large buttons where the pants meet the suspenders. Once situated, each artist was to present their work in the designated area that would frame Louise Bourgeois appearing to view artwork. Then the work is turned to Esrafily’s camera. Louise Bourgeois’ has three phrases, “Yes, yes.” “I see.” and “Verrry goot.” When asked a direct question, she would shake her head no, and say, “I don’t remember” or “I don’t know them.” Ersafily was very demanding as how to approach and engage Louise. A generous curator came with a box of truffles as a gift. Ersafily insists that she would not indulge in even a single piece. We should open the gift before Bourgeois arrives. I wanted to place a bet on this act of eating a truffle. Bourgeois eats the truffle and proves Ersafily wrong. What does Bourgeois want? She wanted a truffle. But, does she enjoy the presence of strangers in her house? Or is this what Esrafily wants? Like any family, there are protective members who are in denial about a loved one aging. These same people often oppose a certain individual’s management over the elderly. In this instance, I am the grandchild who does not get a sincere vibe from Ersafily. But, I could have been rubbed the wrong way. Bourgeois is certainly present and conscious. She had strong opinions about her environment. Bourgeois’s most vocal point of the day is when she insists that the living room doors are shut and barred from the outside. It was an important and urgent request. People volunteer to close the door, but Ersafily quickly notes that she is the only one who knows how to properly seal the door shut. Later, Bourgeois complains about light. A small desk lamp facing a wall is the only source of light. But it is too bright for her. I am sure she would indicate if she did not want to receive guests. But does she want to look at work? She would glance, and then doze. She had a peaceful presence. However, there was no true critique from her. There was thoughtful discussion among the twelve artists in the room. The salon could have been held elsewhere. Ersafily was demeaning towards women her own age. She announced that Louise was excited about young artists. Ersafily decides the pecking line. The older women suspiciously went last. And contrary to Ersafily’s remarks, Bourgeois perks up to listen to these women. Ersafily also disregarded those with curatorial powers. An ex-curator from the Brooklyn museum insisted that an ICA.Boston curator speak. Ersafily begrudgingly allows the woman to have a few words. Louise Bourgeois is a device in this situation. Ersafily could be riding her famed coattails to promote her documentary. She clearly feels threatened by those that she perceives to be in the know and hopes that her own status can be elevated through association with Bourgeois for a younger generation. I recommend reading Robert Storr’s biography that will be released in the future rather than watching this documentary. I signed a release form which I regret. And I felt awful after I left. The same kind of awful feeling when you leave a retirement community and you pass by the intensive care unit.