Sunday, July 29, 2012

Denise Green: An Artist’s Odyssey

“…far from a tell-all memoir.”


The other night, I was in the biography section of The Strand in New York when I overheard a customer ask an employee how she had located a particular book. The employee explained that the bookstore’s system allows for multiple fields to be searched simultaneously and she had used publisher and author. The customer thanked her and said, “You’re so sweet.” If only all reference interviews were this pleasant! Interestingly, the new Denise Green biography I picked up for half price eludes bibliographic organization. In the introduction to Denise Green: An Artist’s Odyssey (2012, University of Minnesota Press), Ingrid Periz asks, “Where would it fit on a library shelf?” (p. 11).  She elaborates on how it blurs genres: it’s part autobiography (Green has written or co-written only a third of the content) and part multi-authored biography, mixed with advice and art criticism, in a tone that vacillates between scholarly and chatty.

Contributor Peter Timmins writes, “…words remain the subservient partner to images” (p. 169) in Green’s practice but they are what interest me most, as much as her simplified renditions of everyday objects and fluid use of line are engaging. She’s a good writer—a case in point is the description, “the uncontrollable spread of colour which was India itself.” It’s no wonder the New York-based artist became editor of the feminist journal, Heresies and the equally radical Semiotext(e). What fascinates me is that she began writing about art with the explicit goal of becoming respected as an intellectual, to fight the gender bias facing artists. Her secondary purpose was to weigh in on how paintings were critiqued during the postmodern era governed by Clement Greenberg’s writing; she fought for critics to consider the subjective experience rather than interpreting works in a vacuum.

It’s ironic, then, that the book doesn’t delve too deeply into Green’s personal life. Not surprisingly, the chapters written by her colleagues—primarily art critics, curators and gallerists sprinkled around the globe—focus on her artistic contributions over the past forty years. The chapters she has written, however, are far from a tell-all memoir. In part, this discretion may be the result of thematically arranged chapters like ‘the Paris years,’ meaning there is some jumping around (though not to the extent of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One). For example, she mentions that her alcoholic father had a car accident and in another passage, she concedes that one of her painting series stems from latent grief for him, but the reader never learns whether said accident was fatal. Nor does she disclose any details about the courtship leading to her second marriage. The majority of self-revelation is concentrated on her childhood in Australia and the family dynamics that prompted her to leave the country as a teenager. Periz is accurate in observing, “…Green the woman stays somewhat hidden” (p. 15). In a sense, this strategy allows the reader to focus—intermittently at least—on Green’s art independent on her gender, which is refreshing.