I arrived at LAX. On my way to the baggage claim, I texted Malerie: “Just arrived : )”
A text shot back immediately causing my iPhone to vibruzz: “Sorry! I’m running a little late.” And then another slipped in with a second vibruzz: “Still in traffic on 405 : (”
My thumb at work, “No rush. : )” And I really was smiling. For an East Coaster, arriving in L.A. is like stepping into the flip-flops of Lebowski—throwing on his bathrobe, and heading to the supermarket for a fresh pint of milk. License to flop.
Just then, Malerie Marder drove up in a red Beemer that screamed “film industry,” and I pulled at the hard plastic car door, which let out a little pop, and, just like Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach, I eased myself down into the upholstery. In the back of my mind was an interview I’d edited years ago between Malerie and the painter Mark Grotjahn for Parkett. In the introduction, written by Malerie, she describes her early days living in L.A. She wrote (and she’s a damn good writer): “I’m a transplant and suffer from an East Coast mentality, which includes melancholy. I liken my move to L.A. as an alternative to rehab. The Getty struck me as a sprawling psychological clinic, set amongst rolling hills locked in springtime. Mark remembers my red Alpha Romeo Spider …”
Alpha Romeo Spider? What a great detail, in life or in fiction! We sped off, sadly not in a Spider, avoiding clogged highways and jammed-up intersections with the skill of only the most experienced L.A. driver. After only a few minutes in the car with Marder, I was taken over by her booming personality, her talky way of talking, her intensity. She was so ready! Ready to laugh. Ready to make me laugh. Ready to cry. Her emotions were there for the taking. We drove a short distance and drifted onto the topic of her father, who had passed away exactly a year ago.
“It’s been hard,” she said. “I just got back from Baltimore where we had the yahrzeit service.”
“Why Baltimore?” I asked.
“He’s buried there. That’s where he’s from. He was raised in Baltimore and went to medical school there too—he went to Johns Hopkins.”
Marder wasn’t talking about just any ordinary father. Or any ordinary doctor, for that matter. She was referring to Dr. Victor Marder, a giant in the medical field. I guess you could say, he had been a famous doctor.
We were at a stoplight. I glanced up at the In-N-Out Burger sign staring down at me as my mouth filled with saliva. I was like the actual dog Pavlov used in his experiment.
“Are you ready for lunch?” Marder asked, keying in, sweetly, on my desperation for a Double-Double. Being in such great physical shape, it was obvious, to me at least, that Marder was not going to succumb.
“Let’s wait,” I said, trying to pull myself together.
Before long we arrived at Marder’s place and sat down in her kitchen. She poured me a tall glass of freshly-squeezed OJ, brewed some black tea, then disappeared for a second. When she returned, she was carrying a binder. She opened it up, unclasped its three rings, and handed me a sheet of 35 mm Kodak slides.
I squinted. The images were tiny. My eyesight was going. I tipped my reading glasses off my brow, like a welder. “What are these?” I asked, pulling one little square slide from the scratched-up plastic sleeve and holding it up to the slant of light. It was pinched delicately between two fingers. “Who shot this?” I asked, knowing that it could not have possibly been Marder. It had none of the “Malerie Marder” drama or cinematic, psychological, erotic, heaviness I’d come to expect from her work. It had none of the seductive Yale-noir she’d become known for, since her breakout show in ’99 in the somewhat legendary “Another Girl Another Planet” exhibition that launched her and a few of her grad-school classmates.
Marder had made it right out of school. The timing was right. The show received a ton of attention in the press, mostly due to its high-profile curator, Marder’s professor, Gregory Crewdson, who was himself having a “moment,” as they say—mostly because of the recognizable celebrities, like Julianne Moore, who were appearing in his deeply evocative, Hopperesque, large-format photographs. Marder was discovered, but she didn’t quite ascend to the ranks of her two Yale comrades Justine Kurland and Katy Grannan—who were two of the other “B.Y.T.s” (Beautiful Young Things) in the show, as they were provocatively yet dismissively labeled by a New York Times critic.
I sat at Marder’s kitchen table with my tall OJ and what felt like my own little angle of afternoon, West Coast sunlight, staring at the little slide in my hand, not sure what to say. I could tell the slide was pretty old. It was probably from the 1960s, I thought. Its faded color and lack of sharp focus reminded me of the settings on my iPhone (Fade, Chrome, Process, Transfer, and Instant). The man in one picture was trim and handsome, but clearly from another era, with slightly extended sideburns and Peter Fonda-style Ray-Bans. I turned to Marder and asked, “Who is this?”
“That’s my dad,” Marder answered excitedly. “All of these pictures are from his camera.” She seemed to be hurting with enthusiasm.
“Is this some kind of family photo album?” I asked as I continued to scan the sheet, now looking for baby pictures, birthday pictures, bat mitzvah pictures, high-school diploma pictures. But there was no sign of a family, nor of Malerie.
“Is this your dad and mom on their honeymoon?” I asked, now extending another slide up to the bright wall. This one was of a sexy blonde in a pink floral bikini reclining on a spacious yellow blanket on a beach. My brain was beginning to feel like a 1965 Kodak slide carousel, automatically clicking forward. The next slide was of the same blonde. This time she was standing next to a very slow-looking white car from the ’60s pulled over on the side of a road in some nondescript rural setting. It looked like a still from an early Antonioni film. “Your mom was a hottie,” I said, beginning to get into the spirit of things.
“That’s not my mom!” Marder shot back. “The picture was taken before my dad even met my mom. It’s just some girlfriend he had at the time. This picture was taken long before I was …”
“In the picture,” I interrupted.
“Yeah, right. ‘In the picture,’” Marder repeated. She was excited as hell, maybe even a little manic, and she began to explain that the entire sheet of slides was essentially her new body of work.
Suddenly I felt confused. How was it that I had managed to fly all the way across the country to look at an old sheet of dusty, generic snapshots, taken by an interning medical student and his girlfriend on their little adventure? The man in the pictures may very well have been Marder’s father, and maybe he was the famous Dr. Victor Marder, but who cares?!
I sipped my juice and looked at my cellphone, hoping for something—a vibruzz—anything!
Sensing that I was losing interest, Marder began to tell me how she’d discovered the slides when she was going through her dad’s stuff after he died; and how they spoke to her; and how she could not let go of them; and how she knew she had to use them, somehow, in her work. She’d also discovered her dad’s old stethoscope. She informed me of this as she ran into her bedroom and shot back out with a rubbery doctor’s instrument from the ’50s that had probably been used to listen to 800 billion heartbeats.
I knew that Marder was going on pure intuition. She was searching. She was the one wearing the proverbial “stethoscope,” hearing the murmur of her muse. She didn’t know why she was doing what she was doing any more than I did. But I respected her for this, and I felt a jolt of sympathy that I definitely don’t feel in front of the stale art being made by lazy, or even worse, greedy artists. Handling the slide more gingerly, I slipped it back into the crinkly plastic sleeve and peered at the grid of images.
“I’m planning to give the slides to my printer in a few days,” Marder cut in, knowing she’d begun to win me over. “He’ll clean them up in the darkroom and print a few for me so that I can see them in a larger format.”
I was thinking about Richard Prince, the photographer who had explored similar ideas of appropriating images that he hadn’t shot himself. This was in the ’80s when an entire generation of photographers embraced appropriation all at once. Prince was lifting images right out of magazines. His “Marlboro Men” had made a giant impact on the history of photography. And he even had the gall to exhibit a picture of a prepubescent Brooke Shields standing naked in a bathtub, as if he’d shot it himself.
But Marder’s appropriated slides were different. They were gentler. They were less about taking and more about giving—giving in. They were less about capitalizing off of somebody else’s decision-making and perverse marketing and more about surrendering her own creative power and authorship.
“Have you ever seen that really controversial picture of Brooke Shields in the bathtub?” I asked.
“Yes, it’s called ‘Spiritual America.’ It’s from a show he did in ’83. It’s such a stunning comment on us—our desires, our consumption. I think it’s his most iconic work.”
“I agree. And they are spiritual, in a Vegas sort of way.”
“Totally depersonalized. These images I’ve taken from my dad are so much more personal. They incorporate the fragility of time. They are these candid moments that weren’t meant for public consumption and were certainly not made for art. And they become a meditation on the day-to-day joys that we tend to edit out of our lives. By speaking about nostalgia—by putting their sentimentality on display—I will be breaking so many rules.” Marder pointed to a slide on the sheet that I hadn’t noticed. It was a picture of two swans all alone in a pool of yucky brown contaminated water.
“My father was creating memories.”
‘I think my pictures exist somewhere between what’s real and what’s fake.’
“And you’re not planning to alter those ‘memories,’ right? You’re just gonna blow it up so that the world can see those two swans sitting there in that chocolate milkshake?”
Marder looked at me with confusion. The idea to do anything to any of the slides hadn’t even occurred to her. As far as she was concerned, they were done.
The next morning, I was on my return flight back to Brooklyn. Compressed oxygen and sonic engines were humming at an airborne pitch. I continued to think about the work Marder had shown me. Her photography was spinning in a new way. She’d “rubbed it up,” as my tennis coach Maury Schwartzman used to call it while instructing me with the head of my big Prince racket on how to create topspin or backspin. It’s a good sign, I thought, when the artist changes the spin mid-rally, like approaching the net and slicing out a perfect drop shot.
Malerie Marder’s pedigree, her photo-genealogy, goes back to when she was an undergrad at Bard College in the ’90s. Few art students can say they were encouraged “to switch to being an art major” by a professor as accomplished in the field as either Stephen Shore or Larry Fink. Fink’s 1977 high-contrast shots of celebrities and wannabe celebrities partying hard at Studio 54 made him a legend. And Stephen Shore—who cut his teeth documenting the daily grind in Warhol’s factory before making his mark with a shockingly un-shocking portrait that he took of his breakfast one morning in a diner: a slice of cantaloupe and a very buttery stack of pancakes.
Marder then went on to Yale, whose prestigious faculty at the time included Crewdson but also the moody street photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, known for his weirdly lit, violating snapshots of pedestrians.
In her 20s, Marder wasn’t so far behind her professors. She had a natural instinct for sniffing out the photographic split-second and a great sense of setting and location. Marder had just the right blend of mischief and mission. Her work—often exhibiting herself, her friends, and her family in the nude and in sexually loaded situations—is generally received as either objectionable, admirable, or just plain-old honest.
As Marder’s work has matured, she’s stuck to her guns, combining exhibitionism with a strong sense of regret. Artists who take the biggest risks are often haunted by their own work, and Marder has been called courageous for venturing where many will not go, and for blurring the lines between privacy and publicity. Her subject, she has reminded us, however, is not merely the shock and terror of sexuality. It’s a vast range—a network, really—of subjects that she refers to as “cocoons of emotion.” Her subjects range from secrets to nostalgia, voyeurism, barren rooms, trysts, awkwardness, randomness, immaturity, innocence, boyfriends, numbness, etc. “I get pangs of self-consciousness,” she confessed to me, “aka, homemade night tremors—as in, ‘What the fuck have I done?’”
In a recent telephone conversation, Malerie expressed more about these so-called pangs: “When I began photography, the internet didn’t exist the way it does now. I thought—worst-case scenario—I’ll be in some books, and maybe, if I’m lucky, in a museum! But I had no idea my photographs would end up on computer screens everywhere. It’s terrifying!”
Indeed, there is something disconcerting about the high-speed internet. And, at the same time, there is something dialectically comforting about the fantasy of being hidden in a book, on a shelf, waiting for that one curious person to come along and open you up and pay some serious attention to you.
So, Marder goes on shooting and exploring—fearfully! The success of her photographs, it has been said by critics and art historians, comes down to her ability to catch her subjects in certain poses. Her posed figures can have ease and structure while being loaded with tension. But Marder’s pictures are not only posed. It’s also in the way the naturalism of the body works within a highly calculated, manipulated set. “I’m pretty dogmatic about the composition of the image,” Marder said, “but it’s a natural process when it comes to someone’s pose. … It’s something often a person does instinctively, and then I respond in kind. I think my pictures exist somewhere between what’s real and what’s fake.”
When I was in Marder’s kitchen that day, at one point she left the room to take a phone call, and I wandered over to a very large framed print from a past show hanging in a prominent location. I’d been eyeing it from the second I entered her apartment. It was a relief to finally get closer. The picture shows a young man in his early 20s, naked, standing opposite a woman in her 50s. The young man’s hairy chest and unshaven, rough face catch the harsh light beaming across the room. His hair is greasy and tussled. He is slightly higher up in the composition than the woman, whose eyes are closed. The light is too bright for both of them, but the darkness is too dark. One senses that whatever is about to happen is inevitable, and on some level, horrible. The space in the photo is compressed, and the figures almost look collaged (there is a touch of Lee Miller that haunts the environment). The woman’s head is somehow too big compared to the young man’s—although both of their heads look too big for their bodies. She is in perfect profile and he is in three-quarter profile. They are at once too close for comfort, and yet somehow too far away for comfort. David Lynch comes to mind. The shot is lit in a way that seems to say: “We’ve closed the curtain for a reason.”
In an email interview with Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Marder was asked to answer numerous flirty questions. What is one thing she would change in her work if she could? And her answer is, “No one would be naked, particularly me.” She is then asked what she would want to be addicted to? And her answer is, “Youthful impetuousness.” Next: What is her favorite smell? And she fires back (hilariously): “Jet fuel.” DiCorcia then asks Marder whom she would want to come back as? And her answer is, “A guy.”
A guy? The mention of “a guy” sends me back to that photograph of the youngish man and the oldish woman hanging in Marder’s kitchen. I grab Marder’s book Carnal Knowledge (published in 2011 by Robert Violette Editions in London), searching for other images of the same handsome guy. He appears regularly in her work from those years, often nude, often with Marder, nude, or Marder’s mom, nude. Who was this guy? He did look familiar. I studied the images in the book more closely and then determined that it was the actor Peter Sarsgaard.
I asked Marder about Sarsgaard, and she was forthcoming. She told me all about their relationship, and somehow, like the photographs themselves, I found her description at once frightening and reassuring in a pubescent sort of way:
We met at Bard in our freshman dorm. He had acne at the time and was shy but also knew how bright he was. He thought I was pretty but dumb until our history professor read an essay I wrote out loud. He said his initial criticism of me was a defense against being in love. We became close friends. I slept with his best friend that came to visit, which pissed him off and then at the end of the year something happened but he left Bard for Wash U and we stayed in touch. I called him after breaking up with a boyfriend I was living with in NYC. Turns out he was living close by and rode his bike over. From that point on we were a couple. I think in our pictures I was trying to work out my intimacy problems.
In a 2005 article in The New York Times Magazine about Marder titled “The Empathist,” journalist Lynn Hirschberg tracked down Sarsgaard and inquired about this same set of erotic images that he posed for, which have become fairly well-known. “The camera made it seem like something sexual, but it wasn’t. … I really knew her mother well—she was like a mother to me,” the actor told Hirschberg, who then continued: “Sarsgaard halted, perhaps realizing that this explanation made Marder’s photos seem only more peculiar.”
In 2006, the independent curator and critic Ralph Rugoff (director of the Hayward Gallery in London) put Marder in a show called “Shoot the Family,” exhibiting her work in the context of other photographers with familial, and especially parental, muses. Marder’s dialogue with two photographers in particular—Richard Billingham and Mitch Epstein—is very illuminating. Billingham’s alcoholic father (in “Untitled,” 1995, from Ray’s a Laugh) is a representation of sustained inebriation and trauma from every angle and every glance. Epstein’s father, who is seen from above treading water in a dark pond (in “Dad Hampton Pond,” from Family Business, Steidl, 2003), is in limbo after his antique-furniture business went up in flames in a horrible warehouse fire. Both of these “fathers” are tragic figures.
Marder’s portrait of her father (“Victor Marder,” 2002) doesn’t show any obvious flaw or misfortune, but it is smoldering with vulnerability and pathos. Yes, the man is naked, by the fireplace, presumably in his own house; but his broad back holds us out, his body itself acts as a bunker providing shelter from our intruding gaze. “I wanted my dad’s robe to fall around him like a baby lightly swaddled in blue,” said Marder. “Daddy,” so to speak, is in his domain. He is neither weak nor strong. Neither old nor young. He just is. The picture, oddly—almost uncannily—just is. It is a record of a day in the life of a Homo sapiens.
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Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.