The "T" Drawings
“When you’re over forty there is nothing to do after 11 P.M. except
cry or fuck.” Kenneth Tynan
The conceit of an alter ego or persona in art and literature is so common as
to be a cliché. This is so because it is such an efficacious one.
In my case, the series of drawings I refer to, as much by default as deliberation,
as the “T Drawings”, began with a serendipitous bedtime flip
through the New Yorker Magazine.
Kenneth Tynan’s diaries were published in 2001. Tynan, an Oxford educated
Englishman who died in Los Angeles of emphysema in 1980 at the age of 53, was
a renowned writer, theatre critic and producer, most notoriously of the sex
revue Oh! Calcutta. His diaries of the last ten years of his life, released
by a daughter years after his death, were edited by John Lahr , a theatre critic
at The New Yorker, and it was in its pages that I first read Tynan, in excerpts
that left me stunned by their breathtaking intimacy, humor, poignancy and sexual
candor. The diaries are rooted in the heady social landscape of the theatre
and entertainment worlds, both British and American, of the 1970’s. Tynan
rose to early prominence for his sharp, biting theater criticism, and came
to America in 1958 as senior drama critic for The New Yorker. In the early
60’s he returned to England, eventually becoming the publicity manager
of London’s National Theatre where he worked uneasily with its director
at the time, Sir Laurence Olivier. Among the very first entries of the diary
are enthusiastic accounts of a live sex show in Hamburg, conversation on a
film set with Roman Polanski, and a dinner party at the home of Peter Sellers
where Tynan discuses William Blake with George Harrison. Harrison had never
heard of Blake.
As much as the diaries glitter with celebrated names of a recent era, they
are also brutally direct about Tynan’s sexual restlessness and explicit
about his affairs and sadomasochistic interests (specifically spanking and
caning). Tynan was variously described as brilliant, impudent, narcissistic,
a mythomaniac. His politics were socialist while his instincts were hedonistic.
His personal life was as complex as his public one was notorious; most Brits
recall him as the first to say “fuck” on the hallowed BBC. As
successful as he was as a writer and critic, as the diaries progress and
his emphysema advances, he becomes increasingly frustrated with his professional
boundaries while more flagrant with his sexual ones. It is hard not to resist,
in reading the diaries, the fusion of eloquence, searing honesty about his
appetites, and a brooding sense of mortality that ultimately seems an expression
of existential longing: “ I remember about thirty times a day, between
waking and sleeping…that I am going to die.” He wrote on hearing
a chamber work by Schubert “…there is nothing more beautiful
than the happy moments of unhappy men. This might serve as a definition of
art.” His own ambitions to make art, specifically to direct a film,
came to naught, and his truncated life, revealed in the final pages of his
diary, flares with an almost incandescent sadness.
My reading of Tynan’s diaries was coincidental with and in no small part
responsible for a sea change in my work as an artist. I stopped painting still
life, landscape and the neo – academic figuration that had been my focus.
I eschewed color and paint and began to draw with compulsive, cathartic profligacy
doodles and lewd, cartoon-like sketches around the idea of rouge male desire;
over time these became a body of unexpected work. At this time I had also just
began working with a psychoanalytic therapist and I remain uncertain as to
whether the drawings are more art or therapy.
In the diaries, Tynan often refers to intimates, including his wife, by first
initials, and I borrow this ploy for naming the drawings. So there is T at
his analyst’s (he was in psychoanalysis for a time), getting his hair
cut, being cuckolded, having his teeth fixed, his prostate examined: the
plausible humiliations of an Everyman. His eyes bulge and trousers swell
to the tug of the sex of the young woman, her skirt hiked and genitals exposed
with fetishistic and apotropaic insistence, while a skeletal sidekick lurks.
There is in fact virtually no correspondence between any of the drawings
in the series with any specific likeness or incident in Tynan’s life,
with the exception of the broken penis. There is a greater correspondence
of mood and tone, but Tynan was far more of a sophisticate than the drawings
suggest. More accurately, Tynan’s diaries were the catalyst, the permission
slip for the device, unprecedented in my work, of a kind of anti-heroic male
figure, both comic and tragic as I imagine him, entrapped by desire. Art
Spiegelman observed that comics have the virtue of compression, and as formal
inventions these drawings were at first tentative and experimental. Comics
also devalorize the artistic process in a way that both grows out of representational
traditions and revitalizes them. Like the diaries, the drawings are replete
with transgressions and desublimations, neo-adolescent in their awareness
of the troublesome ubiquity of sex and its shadow, death.
As much as the cliché of the alter ego is well worn, the emotionally
vulnerable male in mid or later life is equally familiar. There are the assailable
males of Philip Roth and John Updike; Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout; the sour-sweet
poetry of Philip Larkin; the inhabitants of the comic world of R. Crumb and
Aline Crumb; John Wesley’s Bumstead paintings; William Kentridge’s
Soho Eckstein. There are also Domenico Tiepolo’s Punchinello, Daumier’s
satiric caricatures of heroic myths, and the astonishing graphic displays of
late Picasso, with their aching sense of voyeuristic jealousy and looming decline.
Nevertheless, however well trodden, this emotional landscape is startling and
bracing when one, inevitably, enters into it. It is Dante’s dark woods,
Yeats’ rag and bone shop of the heart. When I made them, these drawings
seemed urgent, cathartic and necessary; an art I needed to make as opposed
to one I felt I should be making.
In spite of the sense sexual transgression, there is a Sybaritic integrity
to Tynan’s diaries, which in the end feel almost an account of a pilgrimage
(Lahr refers to Tennessee William’s expression, the ‘mad pilgrimage
of the flesh’), confessional. It is not unimportant that Tynan was
at Oxford a student of, and regarded with devoted esteem, the scholar and
Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. This confessional mode situates Tynan in
the spiritual lineage of St. Augustine and in a perverse way Tynan is a sort
of harmonic reflection of him: it is the same unflinching stuff, the same
tormented awareness of the fragility of the world, the mystery of embodiment,
and a sense of the body as a site of pleasure trumped by anguish, woundedness
and unfulfilled desires. He wrote: “Life is a bountiful murderer. It
comes to us bearing an armful of gifts, of which the last is a knife to the
heart.” For me, Tynan’s self - accounting is fraught with metaphysical
longing. His anguish and desire are liminal symptoms; we all wrestle, ultimately,
with the finality and triumph of absence.
These drawings, then, were a quest for a kind of content. They make no formal
claims but on some level I imagine they might converse with things I had
seen and felt in the work of John Currin or Carroll Dunham. They are narrative
in the sense of narrative as a way of structuring anxiety, of creating, in
the face of experience, forms and meanings imagined as figures that relate
or imply a story, which in itself implies some expectation of change, of
internal or external motion. The largest drawing imagines Virgil, transposed
from The Divine Comedy, leading a limp-cocked T through purgatory. Tynan’s
broken penis was a real life side effect of his emphysema and its treatment.
His member is frustratingly unresponsive to the display of flesh around him – a
metaphor of a metaphysical desire, of hopeless longing as a human condition.
(Should I add that purgatory was seen as the preparation for advance to heaven?)
Often one makes art, and drawings in particular, in the same sense that W.H.
Auden spoke about poetry; you do it in order to understand what you are thinking.
This insight into the creative process echoes Gombrich’s notion of
making coming before meaning, a notion I subscribe to. Making work in series
particularly gives evidence of process, of opening up an idea and seeing
where it takes you. Some of my more recent work began with the conceit of “Loves
of the Gods”; drawings and paintings of amorous couplings in the ephemeral
Eden of sex, probing the Freudian primal fantasies of origins, so wound with
the double wish for rebirth and death. Now I find myself intrigued by the
myth of Perseus and Medusa. Perseus, (another avatar for Tynan?) penis erect,
holds Gorgon’s dripping head in his hand over her splayed sex in an
uncertain gesture of phallic triumph. I am still trying to understand this,
but this has become “the work” ; making and seeking as a way
of watching oneself think and feel. These drawings have taken me a good distance
and would have been unallowable and perhaps unthinkable, but for Tynan’s
ambiguous, conflicted, tender revelations.
Sincere thanks to Cathy Quinlan and the ‘temporary Museum of Painting
for giving this work a viewing. This essay was written in conjunction with
the “ In A Series” exhibition at the ‘temporary Museum of
Painting, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. April – June 2007
i John Lahr, ed., The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan
ii Hal Foster, Prosthetic Gods (MIT Press, 2004). Much about this body of work
and the process of making it has been illuminated for me by this psychoanalytic
reading of 20th century art.