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Celebrating the end

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January 2, 1981. A row of metal chairs for a close-up view of a drive-in theater screen on U.S. 90 on the southern side of Van Horn, Texas © Steve Fitch

BY Christian House
freelance writer for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph

In Books

For several years I was an obituarist for a British newspaper. Depressing, people assumed. Far from it. The “dead desk” was a rather jolly affair—obituaries are celebrations of life rather than reports of coronaries and car crashes.

But my interest was more specific. I have long been fascinated by last hurrahs and final acts, those great last-minute bats for the boundary. So, this month, my column is dedicated to three volumes that celebrate the elegiac.

The great beyond

The American West has changed immeasurably over the past half a century. In Steve Fitch’s wonderful photographic survey Vanishing Vernacular: Western Landmarks we find a fading world of the hotels, diners, radio masts and cinemas dotted along the highways. In a similar vein to the city vistas of Eugène Atget and Berenice Abbot and – in particular – the studies of cooling towers by Bernd and Hiller Becher, Fitch produces a moving paean to the landmarks of yesteryear.

Photographing the hop kilns of Mendocino County during his college days opened his eyes to the impermanence of vernacular landscape. An obsession was born. “I travelled at a time when there was an interesting character to the roadside: a pre-franchise cornucopia of idiosyncratic motel signs, drive-in movie theaters, beautiful figurative and architectural neon, and crazy roadside establishments ranging from snake pits to dinosaur parks.” This is Americana of an imaginative kind.

December 28, 1980. The La Mesita Lodge sign, with the crowning arrow and cactus garden, is a classic 1950s sign, in a row of motels in Mesa, Arizona, that adorns U.S. 60 © Steve Fitch

The palette of these punctuations—signs created predominantly in the 1940s and 1950s—was intended to arrest motorists’ eyes. The colors of candy—red, turquoise, yellow, pink—emphasize the modest promises of small-scale establishments (“Heated pool, refrigerated apartments”, boasts La Mesita Lodge in Arizona). It was Abstract Expressionism for travelling salesmen and truck drivers.

Fitch shot these pictures over some four decades and notes, plaintively, that almost all of the unique signs in these pages have disappeared. But it is not just the signs that are vanishing: along with them go the various artisanal crafts—the signwriting, molding, neon work—that created them. And, more pertinently, the human interaction they represent.

And consider the redundant drive-in cinemas, with their buzz of engines and chatter, now replaced by streamed films on iPhones. As Fitch’s photographs illustrate, not all change is progress.

Vanishing Vernacular: Western Landmarks is published by George F Thompson Publishing

Finishing touches

“I have sworn to myself to die painting,” remarked Cézanne. Of course, not all artists are afforded that opportunity, as historian Bernard Chambaz observes in The Last Painting: Final Works of the Great Masters, from Giotto to Twombly. Luca Signorelli fell off his scaffolding while inspecting his final altarpiece, but plenty of masters simply withered away. This remarkable book illustrates the full range of works produced in the final days of great talents. It is a bittersweet gallery.

Caspar David Friedrich, Landscape with Grave, Cof n and Owl (c.1835)

Identifying a final work can be tricky. As Chambaz explains: “Sometimes debate amongst art historians and other experts can settle the matter, sometimes not. Such enigmas leave open the possibility of discovering wonderful stories along the way.”

Some of these last paintings are mournfully prescient. Corot depicted a monk playing a cello; Casper David Friedrich drew an owl sitting on a coffin. Van Gogh’s swansong is perhaps the most famous: a murder of crows flapping over a wheat field. (Although there’s no definitive evidence that this was his last work, it does make for a great story.) Bernard Buffet’s Storm in Brittany (1999) also depicted black crows, this time flying in over a stormy harbor in a scene worthy of Hitchcock.

Other endgames are bursting with life. Henri Rousseau’s Le Rêve (The Dream) (1910) features a jungle of verdant greens, a voluptuous woman reclining nude on a chaise longue and trees full of fruit and birds. Not long after painting this lush scene the unlucky Frenchman died of gangrene from a gash to his leg.

Chambaz has an extraordinary writing style, positioned midway between the macabre and the poetic, the torrid and the florid. It’s rather effective. Take his entry on Edvard Munch: “Munch began to decompose after 23 January 1944, in the generous earth of the Cemetery of Our Saviour, opposite the fjord, in the shade of birches and pines.” Such mitigated beauty runs through this fascinating volume.

The Last Painting: Final Works of the Great Masters, from Giotto to Twombly is published by ACC Art Books

Au revoir Duchamp?

Like fashion and sport, the field of contemporary art is awash with garbled half-baked commentary. Into this squall of contemperhooey, gallerist David Zwirner has provided a lifeboat of clarity. His eponymous boutique publishing house is dedicated to good-quality writing about the visual arts, and its latest publication, Duchamp’s Last Day, by artist and writer Donald Shambroom, is a fascinating addition to its list.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray at Man Ray’s home (1968) © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos. Courtesy David Zwirner

“In Paris, in the early afternoon of October 1, 1968, the last day of his life, Marcel Duchamp made a trip to the Vuibert bookshop on the Boulevard Saint-Germain,” writes Shambroom, adding that the artist was “returning to the shop to gather materials he had ordered for a final playful assault on everyday experience”. What follows is both an account of Marcel Duchamp’s final hours in Paris—shopping, posting a letter, a touch of Left Bank strolling, seeing friends—and an existential art mystery.

That fateful evening Duchamp hosted a dinner for his partner-in-art Man Ray and their friend, the critic Robert Lebel. They ate pheasant, complained about ageing and reveled in morbid wordplay. Death seemed to be waiting in the wings. Duchamp “was being deflowered by mortality and loving it”, states Shambroom.

I won’t say what happens next—no spoilers here—but this curious, wonderfully written little book poses the question: “Can the lifetime collaboration of two artists be extended a few hours after one of them has died?” The debate—impossible to conclude—is gloriously Duchampian.

Duchamp’s Last Day is published by David Zwirner Books

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