Steven Watson Unravels the Enigmas of Modernism
"There are these conundrums," Steven Watson said at lunch the day before he headed off to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at UT to try and unravel some of them. Clarifying the enigmas of modernism and avant-garde artists is something that Watson has become quite proficient at. In 1999, Random House published Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism, Watson's deft, engaging, and critically lauded biography of a work of art, Four Saints in Three Acts. An opera composed by Thomson, written by Stein, and performed in 1934 by an all-black cast -- the first all-black cast in an opera -- Four Saints was an opera that didn't at all sound like one. Ostensibly about medieval Spanish saints like St. Theresa of Avila, Four Saints didn't have a narrative, its set was composed of cellophane and feathers, and it was the first time its headstrong collaborators had ever worked together. Audiences loved it. Even reclusive poet Wallace Stevens liked it.
But Watson's most recent conundrum, the one he is thinking over at lunch, is about Andy Warhol. Watson has already videotaped 70 hours of interviews with various figures from Warhol's Factory, and he was in Austin from New York, where he lives, to investigate the HRC's collection of letters to Gerard Malanga, a poet who was Warhol's silk-screener and who appeared in several of Warhol's movies from the Sixties. "Warhol from the beginning says, 'I am a whore,'" Watson explains. "To do a Campbell's soup can, some of it is an homage to what he grew up with and some of it is saying, 'I'm silk-screening it. This is not produced by an artist but you have to consider it in that context and I'm taking the most debased, ordinary subject matter you can imagine and it's about sales and it's about product.' The thing about Warhol's aesthetic is that it gets you coming and going. If you say, 'That's funny,' well, no, it's really quite serious; if it's serious, it's really quite funny."
Before Prepare for Saints, Watson had already written books about the Beats (The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters, 1944-1960) and the Harlem Renaissance (The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930; in 1996, HBO optioned that book in order to make a dramatic miniseries from it, but it has not been produced yet). "Sometimes I like the avant-garde but even more I like the idea of the avant-garde," Watson says. "Something about the importance of kicking the door in every 10 years or so and the importance of really looking at things differently, not the way it's mediated by advertisements and media and all the versions of that. I think we're at a stage where the avant-garde as it used to be is not recognizable. People will say that it's always been unrecognizable and in some sense that's certainly true, but it's so much more involved with commerce and all of that that I just think it doesn't function the same as it used to."
So why study Warhol since his aesthetic is mediated by so many entities it's hard to define exactly what his aesthetic is?
"It's the closest thing to my generation," Watson answers. "For instance, one of my friends sent me a note that I'd written to her in 1966 in which I said, 'Edie Sedgwick is Andy Warhol's girlfriend.' Now number one, it's interesting that a boy from Mound, Minnesota, knows who Edie Sedgwick is -- and how much I didn't get it, how profoundly I didn't get it."
Since Prepare for Saints, Watson has co-edited An Eye on the Modern Century: Selected Letters of Henry McBride (Yale University Press, $35). McBride was a towering but genial American art critic whose career spanned from 1913, when the famous Armory Show in New York first introduced Americans to the leaps avant-garde artists in Europe had taken, until the late Forties and early Fifties, when Abstract Expressionism took hold. In the New York Sun, The Dial, and Creative Art, McBride was a progressive, loyal defender of modern art who was never obfuscating or stuffy. He was invested in bringing his readers along with him as these strange new modernists overturned the culture. "I like the old masters as much as anyone," McBride wrote in his journal shortly before he became an art critic. "But we don't live like them nor dress like them nor think like them, so we can't paint like them." An Eye on the Modern Century should satisfy anyone who wonders how modernism shook up American culture, not to mention the fact that McBride's letters indicate that he was a great raconteur and gossip. "My dear Gertrude Stein," he wrote in January 1918. "You didn't send me a Christmas card this year! True, I didn't send one to you. But then I never send them to anyone, and you always do. It is clear we are becoming estranged! It is probably my fault. But I will reform."
"McBride provided the link between conventional and avant-garde modernism," Watson and Catherine J. Morris, his co-editor, write in the introduction. "His enthusiasms were thoroughly twentieth century, even if his manners and social attitudes were nineteenth. ... He looked with reverence and irreverence on both the past and the present. He read the classics and loved the opera. He was fascinated with the nuance of archaic social forms and the homeliest of customs and cuisine. He dressed like a gentleman."
"I think this man possesses an extraordinary kind of openness to new experience that remained throughout his life," Watson says. "The fact that he doesn't become an art critic until he's 46 is deeply reassuring to some of us. By the end, when the Abstract Expressionists come in, he doesn't like it, he doesn't get it, so he says, 'I have to go back and see it again.' And yet I would just say about him that there are very few people that I could spend a long time with. One of the many reasons I love writing about groups is that I don't want to be married to one of these people for four years. Steiglitz is fascinating to write about. If I were married to Steiglitz for four years, I would be going crazy. And it would come out in the writing, too."
After nearly 20 years as a therapist, and with some help from the money he received when HBO optioned The Harlem Renaissance, Watson has the great fortune to elucidate the things that interest him. "I'm not very interested in me," he says. "I'm more curious about things in the world. One of the things I'm doing in a way is just collecting endangered treasures."