Lynne Tillman


Lynne Tillman on Second Avenue, April 2013

Lynne Tillman is an American Genius.  She is very smart, but I don’t only mean it in that way: genius in the Greco / Roman sense of being possessed or guided by an original spirit, combined with the a 19th century understanding of the term as a kind of esthetic play, a natural openness to re-imagining the relationship between form and content.  In addition to her funny, complex and varied novels, she is distinct in that her fiction operates so closely to the art world, next door really, although not in any direct or illustrative way. For art magazines, monographs and exhibition catalogs, she writes stories that do not perform the conventional task of contextualizing art works in their proper cultural, historical and theoretical frameworks, but instead uses the artwork as a portal to entirely new fictional spaces. In the early 1980s she created the character Madame Realism, singular in the history of art writing, an assertive yet self-implicating interrogator of the assumptions, delusions, and contradictions in contemporary art.

This interview took place in Tillman’s apartment in the East Village in April 2013.

MAD – Is it impolite to ask how old Madame Realism is?

LT – Let’s date her birth with the publication of Madame Realism, which was an artist’s book I did with Kiki Smith. I wrote the story and asked Kiki to make drawings for it. It was the first time she drew sperm.

MAD – We have to address her so formally as Madame – we are in a sense forced to respect her.

LT – It was a retort to Surrealism. Sir Realism.  I think it was in 1983, when someone asked if I wanted to contribute to a magazine of Surrealism. I thought that was so quaint. I said no, but when I got off the phone I began thinking of Meret Oppenheim and the odd position of women in regard to Surrealism — they were both deified and secondary.

MAD – Many of the Surrealist men were misogynists.  Frida Kahlo called Andre Breton a cockroach.

LT – And homophobic, I wouldn’t invite him to dinner. (Laughter)

MAD –In the first Madame Realism story you seem to set the foundation for the way you will work with this character. That story opens with the sentence

“Madame Realism read that Paul Eluard had written: No one has divined the dramatic origin of teeth.”

That sentence is so deceptively simple and yet suggests a whole host of strategies and references.  First of all her name are the first two words – secondly she refers to reading another writer – so already we are in discursive territory, It’s Paul Eluard one of the great surrealist poets – and I could be wrong but I think Madame Realism is connected to Surrealism and finally comes the strange and vivid statement about the dramatic origin of teeth.  That’s a lot of power in one sentence.

LT – It was a partly unconscious, my strategy, but still a declaration, and in the declarative mode because that helped me to write it, since I wanted to be ironic about the Surrealists. Do you know that after all these years no one has guessed that her name is a play on Surrealism? I know better now why I do things, but at the beginning I had some sense that following an impulse could reveal things that were hidden even to myself.  Finding a voice: how do you do it?

MAD – Well it’s a bit of a trick or leap of faith, the material is coming from you but you also want it to lead you to where you have never been or reveal ideas you were not aware you actually had.

LT – My friend Rebecca Wolff, who is a poet and novelist, told me, ‘Your work is all about voice.’ I had said to her that I couldn’t begin a novel until I find the voice. And she was right; because once I get the voice other things begin to stack up. And with Madame Realism, her voice could be playful but also stern, a no bullshit kind of thing.

MAD – You don’t want to mess with Madame Realism. (Laughter)

LT- Right, and it was a way for me, again on an unconscious level, to protect myself as a writer by writing a daunting character.  I wanted to be able to articulate ideas that I had that I did not think I could present as Lynne Tillman’s.  Although she is not my alter ego, she is both better and worse than I am. (Laughter)

MAD – So back to that first story.  In the second paragraph you write ‘The television was on. It had been on for hours. Years.”  There is this telescoping of time – and an implicit critique of the noise and distraction as it moves from a neutral observation of the moment to the statement that the TV had been on for years, that its just there, ubiquitous.

LT – The issue in writing is not to explain it but to give or allow for the experience of it. ‘The television was on’, that’s a simple statement. ‘It had been on for hours’ expands it a bit. Then ‘Years’ and you are in another territory.  We live with our televisions, like wallpaper. And when you state that it has been on for years, the question of what kind of information comes from it makes its presence monumental. This box in your house is like a mountain.

MAD – In the story Madam Realism Lies Here – again this double meaning – Madame Realism wakes in a large auditorium and finds that she cannot speak for herself discovering that a work of art is speaking for her and that she cannot control any of its utterances. (Laughter). How’s that for a summary?

LT – This was for a Jeff Koons symposium in Athens in 2000, at Dakis Iannou’s Deste Foundation.  Ralph Rugoff recommended me, because he couldn’t go, and it was great since I also got a trip to Greece. I was thinking about Koons’ work in relationship to how it is perceived, his use of pornography, and the identification people make of him with his work.  I was also thinking about the discourse around art, in regard to porn, say, in a gallery setting; and how people project ideas, put love and hate, too, into a work that makes meaning for them. But as an artist myself, I know that one can create characters that are quite other, that have nothing to do with me as a person.

MAD – But people associate that character with you; project their understanding of that character onto you.

LT – Yes, that’s right, not as a writer but as a person. So the problem for an artist is that, yes, the work is shaped by the psychology and intentions of the artist but it is also inflected with many other things that are not personal to the artist.  The work is not the same thing as the person.  So, Madame Realism, in Madame Realism Lies Here, is assaulted by art, her own art.  Which is also why the golem/Frankenstein tale comes into it.

MAD – This is an interesting way to examine representation and how a work of art does and does not speak for the artist who makes it.  Later Madame Realism says, “My work can’t protect me”.  Which is worrying but at the end of that same paragraph she says “I am not satisfied with the world, so I add to it.  My desires are on display. What I make I love and hate.”  So Madame Realism is not just an observer and commentator on art – here she proclaims herself an artist as well living with the contradictions and paradoxes of making things that do and do not represent her.

LT – It’s the only time I turned Madame Realism into an artist. I was thinking about the implacable façade of Jeff Koons the person. Who knows what he thinks and feels about what he does? Although I felt I had a glimmer at the symposium when he said that his older sister was a better artist than he and all his life all he wanted was to be a better artist than she is. He said it deadpan, straight-faced.  So, I was thinking a lot about the complexity of representation when I wrote it.

MAD – I guess its kind of an old story by now, but Koons has always been a divisive character. He is so easy to attack in some ways, its almost too easy, knee-jerk or even lazy.  Madame Realism doesn’t defend him exactly but makes a case for the complexity of that situation.

LT – And why is it that he is attacked for the pornographic images he made with his then-wife Ciccolina?  Why is it that we cannot look, are not permitted to look, at pornography?  And the response to the ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson with Bubbles? When it was made and shown, Michael was still alive, and it just seemed very pop. Now the piece speaks to the pathos of Michael Jackson, and it grows in dimension the longer, he’s dead.  We see things in a certain moment in time, the work doesn’t change but we change, and our responses do as well.

MAD – Did you create Madame Realism in order to engage art directly in a way you couldn’t or didn’t want to as Lynne Tillman?

LT- Yes, absolutely. The second Madame Realism piece I wrote was for Art in America, on Renoir. It was called Madame Realism Asks: What is Natural About Painting?  It came directly out of my fear about not being a formally trained art historian, and of producing something foolish. The mag was doing a written symposium about Renoir with heavy hitters Linda Nochlin, Rosalind Krauss and Benjamin Buchloh all contributing, and then there was me.  I remember telling Craig Owens, who was a senior editor, this was 1986,  ‘I am not a critic or art historian’ and he said, ‘We know you are a fiction writer.’ Then it dawned on me that I did not have to play by those rules. It is rare to have fiction in an art magazine, and fiction is a way to speak without claiming authority.  I would never want to do that, although lately I might be perceived as doing that, because of my column for Frieze.  I’m writing that not through a fictional character but also not as an authority: I insist on doubt and point of view. And jokes.

MAD – I was reading Diane Arbus’ introduction to her monograph to my students the other day and it has always struck me as a remarkable piece of writing. It’s so naked, awkward, funny, and honest.  An artist would never reveal that much today, artists are so much more guarded and protective of their careers. Kerouac’s introduction to The Americans is also unique in that way. These days a professional writer / critic / art historian is hired to write the monograph’s introduction, to make the appropriate theoretical and formal connections.  And that’s fine, but I miss the surprise of idiosyncratic thinking.

But your approach seems unique, which is not to write the conventional essay but to create a new world that can exist next to the artwork.  You do see fiction pieces in some monographs, but no one, that I know, has created a substantial body of fiction that was written in response to individual contemporary artists.

LT – I think it’s because I am very engaged with art, and I hope that doesn’t sound pompous.  I studied painting and painted, I’ve made films, I look at people’s work seriously and critically, I teach artists and collaborate with them, and I have been discussing art with friends and colleagues forever. I think about the mediums artists work in and what forms imply. And by considering all of that, I try to find approaches, to respond, tell a story, which is, if not analogous, definitely corresponds to the work, and asks critical questions of it but not through conventional forms.

MAD – I first read your work in the mid 1980s in the magazine called Between C & D, which was printed with a dot matrix printer and came in a large baggie with original artwork.  Around the same time I read more of your work in Blatant Artifice that I think was published by Hallwalls.   I lived in San Francisco at the time, which obviously has its own lively literary history and scene, but the things I was reading out of New York, including yours, seemed much more aware and engaged in visual art, performance, music.

LT – I came back to New York in the late 70s. For all sorts of reasons, there was a lot of interaction in art, music, and writing. I think of a place like The Kitchen, which was on Broome Street at the time: Although it was primarily for music and video, they were programming literary readings, gallery exhibitions, and dance.  That was the ethos of the time, that crossover, and artists and writers were in bands together, lived together. Lots of mags started then – Bomb, too, The Portable Lower East Side.  I’m not glorifying that time; it was a particular moment in the culture, in a subculture, in New York.

MAD – Another older anthology I wanted to ask you about is the collection Critical Fictions that was published in 1991.

LT – The editors, Philomena Mariani and Brian Wallis, were interested in the crossover between fiction and criticism and visual art. They organized a symposium and edited that anthology.  My piece is called Critical Fictions / Critical Self.

MAD – Yes, I am just about to quote it (Laughter)

OK, so instead of writing a heroic manifesto about opposing convention or subverting history you go to some lengths to question this aggrandizing vision of critical opposition.  You write:

“It’s certainly on my agenda – to challenge the complacent, to question national, familial, racial and sexual arrangements, to resist structures and institutions that serve the powerful and perpetuate powerlessness.  But as I wrote of the narrator in my novel Motion Sickness – An American moving from place to place in foreign lands “I must contribute daily, involuntarily, but in small and big ways toward keeping the world the way it is”

You end the essay with this wonderful passage:

“There are identities, there are shifting subjectivities, and you and I are shifty subjects who may from time to time be many things, not essentially any one thing, except by desire perhaps and in certain moments, for certain reasons and certain periods of time. I really am looking for new narratives to replace the old ones. I distrust words and stories and yet they are what I value most. Paradox rules.”

Is this paradox between challenge and complicity still a concern for you?

LT – (Laughter) I wrote that a long time ago and I would not write it now, not because I don’t believe it but because I don’t have the need to write it. I was responding to a particular moment in the art and politics of the late 80s and early 1990s. But again, it’s also about not wanting the mantle of authority. There is a lot of grandiosity in assuming one can be a critic of something as if separate from it. I have always had a problem with the kind of thinking, which takes the “I,” the writer, out of the equation.

MAD – I’m afraid of not being funny but I have to ask about humor.  Your stories are often funny and even in your titles are playful, for example your early story Absence Makes the Heart whose title is both a little sad and wry.

LT – Actually, I was thinking about that story the other day, I wrote it a few weeks  after my father died.  I was in England, sitting in my friend and the writer Leslie Dick’s house, and began imagining various grand themes and images; I wanted to write a story in which the father saves the daughter. There were feelings I wanted to work with after my father died, and out of them came a strangely elaborate and dramatic gothic story.

MAD – So it was inspired by loss yet there are some very funny lines in it.  For example, when the male character first meets the woman, he is assessing her, trying to figure out what kind of woman she is, how he might use her.  He comments to himself “If she turns out to be like pudding, sweet but thick.  It will be easier to leave her.”  (Laughter).  It’s so funny, perverse, cruel and surprising.

LT – Very arch. I don’t know how conscious I was of it, but maybe I had Oscar Wilde in mind.  I mean, being serious can be hilariously funny. I’m always aware of that. People respond the same way to death, with grief and loss, despair, and that’s right. Death is horrible. But it’s also funny – weird, odd — that it’s part of life, and we have found no way to live with it, so “funny” mostly comes from the sadness of life.

MAD – Do you think of your titles as a kind of challenge to your readers?  No Lease on Life which is full of jokes, American Genius: A Comedy, This is Not It, or even Someday This Will All Be Funny, these titles challenge or even taunt the reader a little bit to respond to its declarative quality. Your titles seem strategic; they are not merely descriptive or lyrical but have a kind of rhetorical power.

LT – The title helps me know what I am writing toward.  If I have the title then I can have some sense of the story.

MD – So the titles come first?

LT – Often. No, sometimes. I think a good title should be able to be a sentence in a novel or story. Be a part of the writing.

MAD – Obviously you create characters in your work, but Madame Realism is unique in that she was a recurring figure in your stories.

LT – I’ve just written two stories with a character I call the ‘translation artist’.  The Drawing Center did a show called Drawn from Photography, which Claire Gilman curated.  Claire commissioned me to write a piece for the catalog, and my story/essay features a male narrator, a character named The Translation Artist. He embodies the notion of everything as translation, from one form to another, from life to the page, canvas or screen, anywhere.  I don’t know how much further with him. I wanted to bring back Madame Realism, but I didn’t know how to do it.

MAD – She might be retired?

LT – She might be more than retired. (Laughter) I may have to cremate her.

MAD – You did write a Madame Realism story relatively recently, in 2007 for the Mr. President exhibition catalog.

LT – Yes, that may be the last one.

MAD – Well, tell her that I miss her.  The really great thing in Mr. President is how you use thought bubbles that appear over Madame Realism’s head.  It’s so visual and a great way to evoke tangential story lines not followed. It suggests simultaneity, a collage of thoughts, feeling and experiences without interrupting the narrative flow.

LT – I wanted to find an un-fussy way. We all know what thought bubbles are, anyone who has read a comic. The unspoken is a kind of thought bubble; I made it visual. It has helped me as a writer that I made films, edited films. For instance, I don’t usually elide into a new paragraph, moment or scene. I see it, I hear it, and write it, in a way more like editing in a film.  I might cut from scene to another, one mood to another, long shot to close up. I believe readers make the connections, smooth the story out, or make the story fit, for themselves.