The Machine, the Garden, and the Hollow

The work of the writer, artist, and critic Gary Indiana has coursed through the underworld of American letters since Indiana started writing in the early 1980s. Emerging out of the same downtown New York scene as his friends Kathy Acker, Lynne Tillman, and Dennis Cooper, Indiana has produced a lively body of fiction over the past three decades. Skirting along the stranger edges of American culture—the 1989 Menéndez brothers murders, the killing of Giovanni Versace, the grifters Sante and Kenneth Kimes—Indiana’s crime novels have become beloved for their dark wit and frank sexuality. And Vulture recently included his novel, Do Everything in the Dark (2003), as one of the 100 most important books of the 2000s.

Yet despite his success as a novelist, Indiana is almost always remembered as a columnist at the now-defunct Village Voice. Few reviews of Colson Whitehead’s novels mention that he wrote for The Voice, but nearly every review of Indiana’s work mentions his columns. And for good reason: his biting accounts of the 1980s art world left an indelible mark. Until now, interested readers would have had to cull through old microfilms of The Voice to find Indiana’s work. No longer. Next month, Semiotext(e) will publish them as Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns, 1985–1988. At a moment when 1980s New York has returned with a vengeance in the figure of Donald Trump, Indiana’s columns have never been more relevant.

Famously, Indiana’s columns raked the New York art scene over the coals. Although Indiana’s snark is fun to read, the columns now also exist as an archive documenting what it was like to live in New York City in the 1980s. When he wrote about art in the city, Indiana situated artworks and aesthetic debates within a complex tapestry of local concerns. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc reminded him of the homeless problem in his neighborhood; an exhibit of paintings at the SoHo branch of Chase Bank called to mind the long lines in his neighborhood bank. Or, as I’ll discuss here, a piece of land art summoned the dire specter of friends who were dying of AIDS.

Indiana’s columns show us many things that we have forgotten about the 1980s. In the example I pursue below, they show us that the artistic energies of 1970’s SoHo had not quite died by 1985. They were still living in unusual places – and in no place more unusual than the Nassau County Museum of Art in the decidedly not-downtown locale of Long Island.

Indiana moved to New York City from California in the late 1970s, just in time to drink the last dregs of the SoHo scene where performance art, conceptual art, and site-specific art aimed to challenge the increasingly market-driven art cultures of the city’s galleries and museums. In the late years of the postwar boom, New York’s art market had seemed to calcify around the prices fetched by a Pollock or a Rothko – and the corporate executives who bought them up (think of the Rothko that hangs in Bert Cooper’s office in Mad Men). For a brief moment in SoHo, however, art appeared to have wrenched itself away from the hands of capital.

Yet by the mid-1980s, those artists had lost their cachet. Gordon Matta-Clark’s, Vito Acconci’s, and Joan Jonas’s site-specific, conceptual, and performance works appeared to have made their intervention in the art scene and then disappeared. Such art was designed, after all, to work on the immediate experience of the viewer and to lose its shape soon afterward. In its wake, young painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel became rich and famous overnight. When Schnabel’s Notre Dame sold for $95,000 in 1979, the floodgates opened. After starting his career in the small galleries of the Lower East Side, Basquiat ended up appearing on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 1985 wearing an Armani suit. The title of the accompanying story said it all: “New Art, New Money.”

Indiana thought the new artists were sellouts, and he channeled his hatred of what art had become into his own personal brand of smart snark. But in some columns, Indiana also found things to love. In October 1985, Indiana trudged out to Long Island to the Nassau County Museum of Fine Art. The Nassau Museum was like a neglected suburban backyard: full of overgrown thistle and peeling paint. Indiana scoffed that the “present custodians care[d] nothing for the formal gardens—with their roses demolished and trellis in splinters, trees overgrown with weedy climbers.” Worse, they cared “nothing for the art, either, with Michael Heizer’s zigzag iron wedges overgrown with scrub grass.”

But then Indiana saw Meg Webster’s Hollow. Hollow was a perfectly formed rounded bank of earth, something like a Richard Serra bend, but using packed dirt instead of CorTex steel. Webster had filled the bank with an assortment of native plants. No pictures of it survive, but Webster recently created a similar work for the Socrates Sculpture Garden in Queens.

Throughout her career, Webster has worked with organic material: soil, twigs, moss, and dirt. She places these in galleries, emphasizing continuities between the built and natural world. Moss Bed, Queen, for example, is exactly what it sounds like: a queen-sized bed made of moss.

Webster’s work contains none of the heavy materials used by Minimalist artists like Serra, Donald Judd, or Carl Andre. It is just dirt, gathered into a gallery or gathered in a sculpture garden. Unlike polished aluminum, or rusted steel, or heavy railroad ties, it will fall apart.

A hollow is a cavity. It’s a place to hide, sometimes a place to live. It’s the middle of the night, or the middle of winter. It might be a cave near the Hollywood sign, like the one Indiana describes in his 2015 memoir I Can Give You Anything But Love:

I spent an absurd amount of time alone, in the car, driving nowhere in particular, driving because being on the road felt less horrifying than sitting alone in a room.

I often found myself driving on an unpaved access road that slithered along ridges hemmed with pines and juniper bushes to a flat, dusty plateau right below the observatory on Mount Lee. There was an outcrop of jagged travertine with caves woven through it. Sometimes I walked around in the caves, through puddles of bat guano, wary of rattlesnakes. Around a bend in the road, the reverse side of the Hollywood sign came into view, the letters, held up on charred diagonal pylons, a bricolage of white-painted metal sheets pocked with bullet holes.

A hollow might be a place to stop or a guide to bind a book. It’s the middle of a neglected art museum in the middle of an art boom in the middle of a life that has not precisely turned out the way Indiana wanted it to turn out.

Indiana begins his column on Webster with a sustained description of Hollow. This lasts for half the column’s space. In other columns, he moves quickly from idea to idea, but in this one, he’s happy to sit and look at what’s around him. Indiana describes Hollow as “an earthwork, a garden, a grotto, a microcosm.” He praises its “resolute geometry of sculpture” and appreciates that it was “densely packed with vegetation, a wild variety, everything from Chinese delphiniums to Shasta daisies, yarrow, scabiosa, caucasia.” He notes the shift in humidity one experiences when walking into the enclosure and the way that the plant life changes appearance from season to season. The description is immersive and contemplative: Indiana wants to get every detail right.

Often, Indiana’s columns can seem manic, like the frantic pace that of New York life in the 1980s. Coming upon Hollow, though, he slowed down, and he viewed this slowness as part of Hollow’s message: “the processional entrance, the quality of being slightly stuck into the earth, the ‘natural’ environment that envelops you after you negotiate a highly contrived architectural descent, raises your perception of the moment at which the environment ceases to exist.”

The American critic Leo Marx might say that when Indiana encounters Hollow in the outpost of Long Island as a work of art poised somewhere between contrivance and nature, he repeats a long pattern that stretches back to Virgil. In his landmark The Machine in the Garden, Marx argued that the pastoral has nearly always been in tension with the urban and with “industrialization, represented by images of machine technology,” in particular. Marx began his study with an account of another hollow, one written about by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1844. Hawthorne described sitting in “a shallow space scooped out among the woods, which surround it on all sides” (quoted in Marx 12). Sitting in the hollow and describing a pastoral scene, Hawthorne heard the sounds of civilization—a clock tolling in a nearby town, the “shriek” of a locomotive. It is at this moment, Marx argues, that the machine intrudes into the garden.

The machine is a lot of things: “organized power, authority, restraint, suffering, and disorder” (21). Marx traces this moment through Thoreau, Emerson, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. For Marx, Americans desperately long for the pastoral, but they continually encounter the machine.

Writing in 1964, Marx worried that an “inchoate longing for a more ‘natural’ environment” had caused Americans to feel real contempt for the urban, which they viewed as a machine (5). He offered The Machine in the Garden as a correction to this inchoate longing by showing that the machine had been in the garden the whole time. Marx recognized, too, that the pastoral was often invoked in American culture as a reactionary ideal against the machine of New Deal progress. But in an afterward written in 2000, Marx observed that soon after he had published The Machine in the Garden, progressives and countercultural activists began to invoke the pastoral, too, as a way of railing against “the machine” of the military-industrial complex.

The New York City of the 1970s that Indiana loved was shaped by both impulses. The SoHo scene began in the counterculture, and the urban neglect opened up space for them to bring the garden to the machine. Matta-Clark planted a cherry tree in the basement of Jeffery Lew’s 112 workshop. The Green Guerillas threw water balloons filled with wildflower seeds over the fence of a vacant lot. Agnes Denes planted a wheat field in what is now Battery Park City.

The abandoned city became a site where queer men could find a wild if temporary autonomy, too – what Jose Muñoz calls “a queer lifeworld” where cruising in the city’s neglected spaces became a “respite from the abjection of homosexuality and a reformatting of that very abjection.” These places, the piers along the Hudson River, or the Ramble in Central Park, could be dangerous. In July 1978, New York Magazine published a long cover article about gay bashing in the Ramble. The article noted that even as gay bars and discos became more available in the post-Stonewall era, the Ramble continued to be a haven for working-class gay men.

The wildness of the Ramble was important. Mourning the death of his lover Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz wrote a letter to his friend Marion Scemama in which he remembered going into the forest behind his family’s house as a child and “realizing that I was safe and the entire world was an adventure.” Sick himself and frustrated by the demands placed on him by managing Hujar’s estate, Wojnarowicz compared the forest to cruising:

So what has replaced the forest? What is the place that I drift into now? It was once a walk in the dark streets to witness blood. It once was the walk through the dark streets to enter the dark building that had the dark booths and the basement where the man with shadows for a face would put his hands under my shirt and lay his wet lips over mine…

The forest behind his house was a respite from his father’s violence, and when Wojnarowicz came to New York in the 1970s, cruising replaced the forest as a respite from everything. As Muñoz explained, cruising was about much more than sex. It was about community and mutual recognition at a moment when public voices still denounced homosexuality as “unnatural.” In 1983 at the dawn of the AIDS crisis, Pat Buchanan, who would soon become Ronald Reagan’s communications director, declared in a syndicated column: “The poor homosexuals. They have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”

In the 1970s, artists and members of the queer community courted the garden. By the mid-1980s, the machine had intruded again. This was certainly true of capital’s machines once Wall Street’s traders began using computers to create complex financial instruments. Their incomes skyrocketed, and the art market boomed. Another set of machines, though, would have been intimately familiar to Indiana and his friends once AIDS led them to spend lots of time in hospitals attending to dying friends and lovers. “Sickness on sickness on sickness on sickness, weakness on weakness, one hospital stay slotting neatly behind another,” recalls the writer Tom Crew in the London Review of Books. You could not escape the machines.

After describing Hollow in detail, Indiana began to muse on its meaning. First, he sets it against the sellout art that he hated. “If the bulk of painted art in the ‘80s seems to be about enhancing sensations produced by tabloid newspapers,” Hollow seemed instead to be about “universal experiences, submerged feelings, the possibilities of living, continuities instead of crises.” Next, he takes an unexpected tack. Observing that Hollow is, as Marx would have it, a “dialogue with nature,” Indiana linked Webster’s work to “a highly unnatural fear of an unplanned, nontechnological death: an irrational death unmediated by medical bills, diagnoses, scans, x-rays, doctors, prognoses.”

Indiana stops there—he doesn’t tell his readers why he’s thinking about medical bills, or diagnoses, or doctors, or prognoses. But his other writings offers a clue. At the time he was writing the columns for The Village Voice, he was also writing Horse Crazy. That novel depicts an Indiana-like-critic doing everything he can to avoid thinking about the loved ones who are dying all around him from AIDS:

Whole chunks of the actual hospital moved about on wheels, metal instruments and dialysis machines and people on stretchers with cloudy IV bottles plugged into their arms, people with nostril tubes clamped in place with white tape, clutching the padded arms of wheelchairs, all dappled with the greenish yellow aquarium light which flooded in through the atrium windows and gave the procession of medical technology a floaty underwater logic.

This passage helps us to see why Hollow led Indiana both to fear and long for an “unplanned, nontechnological death.” The machines driving the art markets deserved snark; hospital machines demanded something else altogether. In this context, a garden that acknowledged the machine while keeping it at bay – “an earthwork, a garden, a grotto, a microcosm” arranged into the “resolute geometry of sculpture” – becomes a welcome respite from the underwater logics of medical technologies.

Hollow was far from a gritty ruin. It was neither the sort of art nor the sort of landscape beloved by cyberpunk aficionados, or the devotees of Serra’s cool bends of rusted steel, or Wall Street’s traders. Hollow was banked earth, what you might build to stay alive in the woods – if there were still woods near you.

Somewhat dismissively, the critic Paul O’Brien describes Webster’s work as “difficult to distinguish from gardening.” That characterization minimizes and genders Webster’s work. But in the wilder segments of queer life in the 1980s and 1990s, gardens weren’t domestic things. Dying of AIDS, the director Derek Jarman found respite in a garden. He retreated to Dungeness in South Kent to build a garden on a disused, empty beach near a power station. In his book about the project, Modern Nature, Jarman described his garden as a memorial. “[E]ach circular bed and dial” was “a true lover’s knot—planted with lavender, helichryssum and santolina.” Modern Nature is part mourning, part loving: “Santolina, under the dominion of Mercury resisteth poison, putrefaction and heals the bites of venomous beasts. Whilst a spring of lavender held in the hand or placed under the pillow enables you to see ghosts, travel to the land of the dead.”

Out in the wasted space of a deteriorating museum on Long Island, Indiana found a strangely comforting message in Hollow. Webster’s work, he decided, “takes the transience of everything, including itself, cheerfully in its stride.” “Hollow,” he writes, “makes you feel that living and dying are important processes to pay attention to, and that everyone is always doing both. You could die even if you belonged to the country club, and you could live even if you didn’t.” “In Hollow,” Indiana concluded, it seemed “possible to understand the futility of art without giving up on it, because the work is joyful and ‘irrelevant.’” For Indiana, joy was hard to come by in 1985. Sheltering wildflowers, Webster’s banked earth proved, in the end, to be well worth the hated trek to Long Island.

Hollow was temporary, and it would die. Hollow was honest about this. And Indiana loved it for that.

Andrew Strombeck has written about such topics as David Wojnarowicz, Gordon Matta-Clark, Kathy Acker, Rachel Kushner, Don DeLillo, and the Left Behind novels for venues such as Post45, The Millions, Modern Fiction Studies, Contemporary Literature, and Cultural Critique. His monograph, DIY/Lower East Side, on aesthetic responses to the 1975 New York fiscal crisis, is under advanced contract from SUNY Press. Find him at https://andrewstrombeck.com or on Twitter at @astrombeck.

Andrew Strombeck

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