on The Irresponsible Magician: Essays and Fictions, by Rebekah Rutkoff (Semiotext(e)/The MIT Press)

In Notes on Thought and Vision, H.D. wrote, “My sign-posts are not yours, but if I blaze my own trail, it may help to give you confidence … to get out of the murky, dead world of overworked emotions and thoughts.” Rebekah Rutkoff cites H.D. in her essay “The Incubators,” one of ten in The Irresponsible Magician. Rutkoff works in the breach where scholarly studies, creative expression, and art culture reach toward each other. Her project is to make reading a kind of looking at language -- where narrative tone wavers between principled assertion and comic strangeness, and the reader caroms between lecture and gossip, documentary and chimera. Meaning doesn’t accumulate as much as lurk and flash.

The mash-up of genres has a disruptive purpose, spelled out in “The Art of Transcribing a Sunset”: “The secret is both that we’re all having versions of the same conversations and that culture provides few ways for us to know and encounter this fact.”

Rutkoff.jpgCurrently a Member at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, Rutkoff is completing one book on experimental film and another (hybrid fiction/nonfiction) on psychoanalysis and abstract painting. The Irresponsible Magician also deals with these subjects and introduces us to her attitude, tastes, and style. The first five essays form the first section, “Art in the Family,” beginning with a “transcript from an unmade video,” a self-interview. Art (like the family) generates anxiety due to its insistence on maintaining its own shape and rule: “The dilemma of wanting work to look like art is ongoing.” But the wanting is essential to the departure from the conventional, not that a mind like Rutkoff’s is ever really in danger of fatally surrendering to the mainstream even as the culture presses in on her. The avant-gardist’s oppressive bind: lead the way out while disavowing the power of the leader, set new standards while disparaging standardization.

After initial comments on photography, drawing and film, “Art in the Family” shifts into a droll catalog of celebrity encounters, including this on Louise Bourgeois:

Louise was as you’d expect. She wore small gold hoop earrings and there was a general smell of urine in the house. She served Campari and dirty grapes and kept using the word “compensation.” She looked at my work; she didn’t seem to like it much and said it was mysterious. An artist from Paris stopped by – actually he was Swiss, living in Paris, and he had just landed in New York and took a cab straight to Louise’s apartment from the airport. He was very muscular, and he came carrying an enormous tube. It was very dramatic: he tapped the tube and removed its contents and unrolled a large sheet on the wall, and it turned out to be a monster-sized photo of Joseph Beuys. All of this was his way of asking if Louise would sit for a similar photo. She thought about it for a moment, and then said yes.

“Loss of Luster: A Catalog of Luxuries & Errors” tells eight loosely braided anecdotes on family and art. Then comes “Headliners & Legends” based on a series of work assignments – calling Joan Kennedy to obtain family photos for a TV program featuring Matt Lauer, then a similar episode on Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson. “Firsts & Seconds” makes the transit from celebrity to artists, staring with Jim Dine, Stan Brakhage and Michel Auder. The first section ends with this entry: “I once had an art teacher who sat at a desk while the class stood around her and she ran her fingers over pictures of Milton Avery paintings and African masks before we started working.”

RutkoffTemenos.jpgPart two, “Writing on the Wall, Screen and Sky,” centers on her investigation of experimental film – but she begins with Claude Levi-Strauss’ objection to the use of photos and travelogues as materials that describe the lives of primitive peoples – or what Rutkoff labels “the proof-boasting quality of photographic forms.” Ultimately, she takes up the 80-hour non-narrative 16-millimeter film by Gregory Markopoulos (d. 1992) titled Eniaios (Markoff says it means “unity” or “uniqueness” but Nina Danino says it means “sacred place”), screened outdoors for free at a three-night event in the Peloponnese called the Temenos, “a spectacle so thoroughly committed to ephemerality and subjective vision” that the viewer did not feel a “contingent pressure to worship a new god.” His aim here was to create a spectator as liberated as the filmmaker himself.

The new god makes a claim for itself – and why shouldn’t it? The incidental and the haphazard, the isolate fact and the tossed remark – this is what sincerity looks and sounds like in The Irresponsible Magician. Sometimes it reads like journalism or feature writing. Sometimes it reads like something someone else must understand better than you do. And sometimes a singular sentence stops you cold. One of my favorites: “I always liked watching women in administrative positions filling out forms.”

RutkoffCover.jpgBut underlying the anecdotal bits is a vast sententiousness and a wish for purity. She writes, “I think of H.D. and Markopoulos as kindred protectors of the poetics of separation. They prevent overlap and merger between discrete images, and know the importance of singling out frames, symbols and colors in the process of divining, naming and reordering one’s own objects, psychic and material.”

Eniaios may be her example of freed art – but antagonists are essential in the world of a fundamentalist. The unseeing other is a necessity. She ends her essays by swinging back to popular culture with a comment on Diane Sawyer and the commercial protocol that both intrigues and disgusts her:

“Whenever I watch Diane Sawyer, I think, wow – you won the lottery. The rushing around to meet world leaders in pants over hose, skimming the producer’s notes in a plush leather binder on the way to the U.N. … The way she leans forward in the chair, savoring the outpouring of words: this is as close as you can get to being present while remaining totally blind.”

[Published October 31, 2015. 104 pages, 42 color photographs. $14.95 paperback]