Brian Jermusyk

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.

Brian Jermusyk

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 (Bloomsbury, 2001).
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.


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The "T" Drawings