IN A FEW MOMENTS
Born in 1929, the daughter of a furrier and a seamstress, in New
York, lived in Chicago and San Diego before moving back to NYC in
1974. Applebroog? An abbreviation of Appelbaum and Horowitz, maiden
name, family name—but also the name she gave herself while
dreaming, a salute to the primacy of the unconscious. Her work has
been shown in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Mexico, Cuba, Cincinnati,
Chicago, California, and of course New York; it was removed from
New York's Chamber of Commerce Great Hall in 1982; the work placed
captions such as "Underneath I'm Naked" and "I'm
Hot Stuff. I Am Also Rich" in speech balloons beside static
paintings of Nelson Rockefeller and other great capitalists. She
has been a maker of books; in the 80s, she mailed them to friends
and artists. The movement of the book from one page to the next,
a series of events taking place beyond our reach, an oblique expression
of independence—as important as care: concern for making,
humans' concern for each other. And yet, we are also taught that
life is forever un-pretty, as much as we try to make it other, forever
splashed with mud, forever in need of some time in the yard with
a garden hose.
Upon first encountering Ida Applebroog's work
in a Whitney Biennial in 1993
when I knew almost nothing of the Biennial
and little more about my own taste,
I was relieved to find her work storied and human-sized
in a room of elephantine heads, floor-to-ceiling films,
gigantic words, robots, Europeans,
the occasional clever miniature.
The others made sex and gender and race
and class and bodies and not-bodies
and automation and video and industry
and money and psychology and the suburbs
and the newfound light and the newfound space,
while Applebroog was making life itself.
It wasn't that I fled relevance,
it wasn't that I didn't read the news,
I just found the places she took me
easier to describe to friends.
I preferred her restraint, her intelligence,
her persistence in an impatient universe.
She seemed accountable, aware
that she was being watched, and thus
prepared to perform, to deliver the goods.
Here was someone whose adulthood
had not sullied the innocence within her,
but wedged it deeper, between the veins,
amplifying the dialogue between the principal
and the girl who breaks all the schoolhouse windows
to improve the not-so-distant view
of the battle, of the troops approaching
in their bright red uniforms.
FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE
Being a movie-goer myself,
Applebroog's strange panels invite my soul—
they appear throughout her work,
in small, comic-strip-like series or
in the shapes of the paintings themselves,
each section its own affirmation
of comedy, trauma, boredom, love, memory, existence.
The basic movement often does not change
from frame to frame, if you squint—but then
it does, too. Think of the person who made these
pictures. You see a slight moderation
with each return, to show proof
that the artist was there, or
you were there.
If you were reading
I Hear You're A Terrorist (1986)
in real time, and you shifted,
just slightly but just enough
to wake you up, to help you see clearly,
and you were watching as carefully as you should,
you might find tiny changes—the flip of hair over the ear,
the slouch in the posture, even their height
or the light, embodied here in the wash behind them.
Not a mistake, not imperfect: made.
Applebroog includes these squiggles to reward
for looking so carefully, to show her own hand.
We ask why the man and woman hold hands—
once, twice, three times.
Did they just meet? Are they brother and sister?
Did he propose marriage? Did she accept?
AS IF YOU SAID IT OUT LOUD
The captions, in a case like this,
open their doors and then say no one's home
but the armoire in the corner, where
they must go, now.
The words are wise and fair
as they push us
over a cliff, back end first,
simply doing what's necessary.
As we fall, hands and legs waving,
mouth asking unanswerable questions.
"I hear you're a terrorist" and "I'm not exactly
poke us in our collective paranoia.
The man and the woman know each other not from Adam,
at least not yet.
We see here the natural suspicion
preceding lasting love
that preceded yours
or is still there, gathering interest
before it is released into the light:
is that a dangerous plot in your unconscious
or are you just passionate,
your mind seeded?
Or, if you must be political,
who do we fear most?
Are they living right among us?
Are they Chinese? They certainly can't be American—
can they? Are you one of them? Am I?
Who's doing the asking, anyway?
The captions are not quite after
but not quite before or during,
or even part of the pageant—
in some cases, they prop open our eyes,
snap us out of prayer to the image,
thus taking us up:
our eyes have been closed a long time.
Weren't we sleeping, then,
in the white space of the county museum
with no one to watch out but a balding man
whose job it was
to notice the children we were
when we first began to look at things carefully
or first began to have the interruptions
we might later call feelings?
But it is the determination, the clenched mind,
that bring us back,
making us implicit in some conversational dysfunction
which seems to stand for love,
that started before the day began.
Or for sadness, the tremulous if
predicating losing propositions
hardened into economic systems.
"Sure I'm Sure," one of Applebroog's many window panels,
peeks into windows
in a crowded tan city
whose blinds are always half-drawn;
a man stands above a woman, lying in bed,
announcing, contending, muttering, admitting,
"I threw it away" and "Sure I'm sure."
Could there be a sadder waste
a greater defeat
in the life we have observed
"It" is hope for a life in the country, a good job,
a ticket to the great races, all lost, all garbage,
smelling in the heat
like a lowered income, or a failure.
The speaker stands on the head of a pin,
the speaker has already fallen.
In one of the darker works, a man and woman waltz
above "hurry up and die,"
the age-old hatred at the heart
of what so many call contentment,
perhaps the only thing driving the dance,
in a crabbed, restrained hand
which tells all, though I'm no graphologist.
Its rounded edges, its neat resolution, its handmade panache
all scream the benefits of an old-school education
but also quietness, a banged up-table in a cluttered kitchen
where concentration comes at last with a warm breeze,
gentle steps through brutal whirligigs,
Applebroog has found herself
amid pictures changing everywhere,
continuing with a stubbornness
that gives some of us, in our foraging,
a handful of quashed berries after a day among thorns.
She shares an orbit with slogan-driven artists
like Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer—but there are others:
the great Ensor, Daumier, Crumb, closer to her:
and there is poet Russell Edson, semi-poet Lydia Davis,
fiction-writer Bruno Schultz,
man of letters Guy Davenport, composer Moon Dog,
musician Tom Waits at his best, Joseph Cornell at his best,
hell, even Carson McCullers at her best:
taking the accepted word, paring away at it in secret,
and then offering it again, marked by thumbprints,
broken a little, no longer ornamental but still working
when you turn it on, still able
to make one year turn into another.
of Maldoror, of the Gorgon, of Rita Hayworth,
of the beast with two backs, of the green-eyed monster,
of Jayne Mansfield, of Marilyn Monroe, of bête,
of the goblin under the stairs, of Tinker Bell:
as she grows older,
Applebroog tosses gargantuan problems of subjection—
both violent and unconscious,
even the subjection we perform in looking—
onto the wall
and they stick.
As the paintings get larger,
her innocence is scattered into discrete morsels.
Panels? Where have you gone?
Ah, there you are, self-singing ghosts,
reminders of something that once was.
The larger works introduce a desire
to be told, themselves, what they are about,
a release after the shrug of her cartoons.
We put them together as if salvaging remains
following a great explosion no one saw coming.
Some are more generous than others, leaving more of a residue
as they move forward through time.
But this is too clever to be true:
she knows how the pieces are placed in the box,
and she has taken them apart,
and she will not put them back together,
as if it were all too simple for her.
Again, an assertion of independence.
In bridal, bridle/spermicidal,
remember the sensuousness of the figures
from the arm of a woman tying her shoe
to the leg of the boy standing pantless
to the silly sex of Bacchantae Rockettes
appearing in triplicate, fainter each time:
as if we would not give the work our time
if it were not wearing the right bodies, and
how dare we! Given the revisions of time
and the selfish glut of the senses, how could we
be taken into these powdered arms?
And yet we are. And how could we be horrified
by the mask the woman on the left wears,
(one part beekeeper, one part umpire,
one part restraint of the active mind)
stooping to tie her shoe, with nothing to lean on,
in danger of falling
over and over her own self—
or by the boy with the strangely unshaped face,
(although many of Applebroog's bodies are born this way,
to emphasize what the body does on this earth,
and not the looks it might give the viewer)
saying almost nothing, possibly unwanted
in this picture, in this day—
don't we know it's only a movie
and the projectionist is only a boy—
and yet we are. Neither feeling is right,
and yet neither is uncalled for.
And between the child
and the woman so obviously the mother
lie orbs which may be cabbages
but which could just as easily be
buried in the soil of duration,
the rest of us, leagues below
the dour truth Applebroog displays.
This is a life without speech.
This is a life beside life,
that took place during the years
when you were looking at the waves,
coasting downhill at the hour of the pearl,
beginning to think you knew the pleasures of motion,
think you could roll indefinitely,
that the end of the film might not be inevitable—
BUT WHAT IS THE PURPOSE AND
NATURE OF THIS MOTION?
Look at Baby, baby, suck your thumb, for instance.
An index of the temporal, as we know it.
Bathing beauties, looking back
although they have nothing to look back for,
know there is nothing behind them
but something they never wanted;
little towheaded boy, head on hands,
thinking of something he shouldn't think of
but fascinates him at this moment:
a woman, peeing, her urine pooling
until the boy might be unable to forget its smell;
a puppet show re-enacting a saga of progress:
the beheading of Macbeth, perhaps? the French Revolution?
St. George's slaying of the dragon?—
and yet the puppets turn out to be only plants,
mandrakes, in fact, simply doing what plants do,
that is to say surviving, their roots placid in the cold ground;
and the man in the fedora, a totem,
stooping to pick up a ball, continue the game,
or toss it into the laden alley.
Applebroog yokes all clarities with her shade,
giving the best view to the nymphs
and shame itself the darkest.
The shades are separated into different panels, different years,
different stances—each panel points above it and below it,
as if to suggest: the answer is here—but it is also up
don't be so limited—use your eyes—relate to me as I
relate to you—
it's all I ask—be as awake as you can—
IN WHICH THE PAINTINGS CLAIM VICTORY
Upon studying, carefully, Martha Stewart:
a magazine meant for the improvement of earthly life
even as it hastens spiritual death,
Applebroog made a series of paintings entitled Living,
rife with prescriptions, haunted by objects,
imbued with dreams of strangely bought power.
The central image in 1974 could be two men
meeting on the street, shaking hands,
or it could be a story of restraint,
an ancient mariner keeping a young father
from getting home (where else?)
with his son, by now
a heavy weight, despite the fact
(did you notice?)
that he has no hands or feet—or perhaps one man
is keeping the other from falling, from sliding
into the soft snowy confusion of the rest of the painting,
in which a hand grasps the leg of the father of the doll,
a woman eases herself into an easy chair,
and a man puts his pants on
one leg at a time—ways in which we hold on
although why is not always certain.
The work is almost sad—and then we catch,
sense a repeated feeling, taste its staleness.
Around the edges of this image
are moments of absurd supremacy:
one panel reads "Change God's phone number,"
while another reads "redecorate murder asylum,"
both denials of distance:
from the human will to annihilate—
both impossible, and yet
here made open to discussion,
indeed, made daily tasks
in the life of an archangelic hausfrau.
Applebroog takes the control sold by Martha Stewart
and which we may have striven for,
possibly without knowing it,
without being housewives
or without having a house,
and makes it comic, makes it the nothing it is,
pops it open, splatters its shiny clothes with
humble pie. A humiliation with any other timbre
would be unbearable—and yet in the case of Applebroog,
we are able to forgive it—or, if you are like me,
you welcome it, relishing its ugliness
and its vaguely oily taste,
acknowledging its ultimate inscrutable health.
BUT THERE IS ALWAYS
When explaining pain and frustration,
only the most adroit
do it with humor
or even with grammar—
Applebroog's humor and grammar
are, it would seem, ingrained,
encased beneath enamel that once glowed softly
when properly charged, and now, in spots,
explodes outwards. The spots, of course, are hers,
scratched as she wandered from there to here,
collecting passion and dispassion
for future reference,
making notes for a great realization.
poems and reviews have appeared in Volt, the Denver Quarterly, The
San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, and The Washington Post. He was
just awarded the annual Boston
Review Poetry Prize, with new poems debuting in their October/November
issue. He lives and works in New York City.
ArtKrush Copyright © 2002 ArtKrush, LLC
& Max Winter. All Rights Reserved.