Robert Frank: Art Review October 2004 Volume LIV
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Where he is, he is from some place else, a man of the world, perpetual traveler—a foreigner even at home. His is the miner man, Ben James, gone down under. His is the minor man, the black soul of the south in the 1950s, going under. His is time and experience made imagistic...
It is Peru 1949, London 1951-52, Wales 1953, Vermont, New York, Nova Scotia.
His is the worker, not content to sit on his ass, a rough man who cannot get himself clean despite how hard he scrubs. Shaves twice a day, but there is always a beard, heavy whiskers. He has the dark eyes of a thousand years.
His stories are the fragments of a fragmented narrative read front to back, back to front—the same line read twice and then again. English/Hebrew—read it forwards in English, backwards in Hebrew. His is the DOG/GOD that lives in us all. Don't fear complexity, embrace it, he says. Don't fear complexity, erase it, the politician says.
His is the man who felt too much—there is no such thing as feeling too much, living too much—he shouts from under the burden he carries. Who's to say what is too much, what is bearable or un... OK, so he is the man who feels an awful lot, the man who cannot help but feel. But if he cannot bear up, if he cracks and caves is that too much or is that just the way it is?
Life is heavy if you hold it.
He started off in comfort and chose to make himself uncomfortable, he could not resist discomfort, he can roll in it, wade through it. He is absorbent, porous and yet protected at some primal cellular level from deprivational injury—he had more to begin with—a privileged bohemian.
Gesture. When ink hits the page, he doesn't fear damage, doesn't fear fucking up. Pristine perfection is not the thing of value, it is about the human hand, the thumbprint, the feeling that someone has been there, made his mark.
He is a paleontologist, stringing together pieces, each image matched to the next, an adjustable puzzle, there is no right answer, no fixed solution—except fixer solution. There is a constant awareness of the interconnection, the relatedness of all things—that can be kind of overwhelming. To feel the weight of the world is crushing. There are times she seems crushed despite everything. He is bearing witness, covering ground, crossing mile for mile.
He finds the haunting in the everyday, capturing the way in which every landscape, every person, every bit of light and life is imbued with great power, memory and soul. Nothing is absent of meaning. There is so much depth, density. Sometimes he puts a single word down, a mark that makes meaning explode, or just a year—1989—or a shutter speed—1/250th.
There is a purity to it all, clarity, a blur that is the breath exhaled, clouding the lens, the fog of temperatures shifting. This is the green rolling hill, the clatter of the subway—heaven and hell. At a certain point he'd pushed so far that he'd become a different person and there was no going back, no giving up...
There is no denying what you already know. You will bite yourself in the ass. And he wanted to get there first, wanted to be the one who did it—it's not the kind of thing you want to leave to a stranger.
He knew someone whose wife chewed her own arm off, said if I have to cook dinner one more night I might as well chew my own arm off, and she started just after breakfast and by dinner was done. The light is the flickering of the family—chaos, anxiety, deliverance, darkness from hope to darkness to hope.
He is the man of the world, soothsayer, seer, committed to truth in advertising, or no advertising at all, seeing is believing, the omniscient Swiss eye has something to say. It is the flickering of film, the spaces between things, black, white, making palpable the unseen. He passes through an apparition, apprehending—holding in storage samples to show us later, he is holding our memories.
He is the man—invisible. Were you to see him you would not know him. Sometimes we look with our eyes closed, staring straight ahead, the blind seeing the blind. He is a human X-ray machine with X-ray specs preinstalled—no need to order them from the back pages of a comic book, his are factory-installed—born that way.
He is a pathologist, his images are the stained slides we examine under magnification, under the bright light we study the cells and ask, why are we this way, does it have to be like that, I didn't mean for things to turn out that way. The more we see, the more we know, the more we have to think about that.
He is an undertaker, arriving early on the job, he sticks around, waiting for the moment to come, unafraid to look death in the eye, his shutter clicks and we're suspended, apprehended. He is a mortician man, who doesn't mind seeing us at our worst, turned inside out; that in fact is a celebration of our humanity, is it the fullness of who we are.
He peeks beneath the sheet—he sees us fucking, he sees us dying, he sticks around watching while we are carried out.