Essays & Journalism—
“Lost in Los Angeles” in Weltkunst
In March 1935, from his temporary home in Sanary-sur-Mer, France, the German-Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger published an open letter in the exile newspaper Pariser Tagesblatt. Addressed to the current resident of his former villa on Mahlerstrasse—now Regerstrasse—in the Grunewald in Berlin, a villa which had been confiscated along with Feuchtwanger’s bank account by the Third Reich, the letter poses a seemingly innocuous question in the most withering of tones: “How do you like my house, Mr. X? Do you find it pleasant to live in? Did the silver-grey carpeting in the upper rooms suffer while the SS-men were looting? The carpet is very delicate, and red is a strong color, hard to take out.” »
The letter is an imaginative recreation of a home—once dear, now lost, perhaps forever. He wonders about beloved architectural elements—“And did they rip out the round bench which was built into the library’s loggia?”—about sounds —“I would like to know what is going on with the buzz saw in the Grunewald forestry.” He frets about the fate of the denizens of his terrarium: “Did they actually kill my turtles and lizards because their owner was of an ‘alien race’?”
He beseeches the owners to take care of the place—“Don’t let my house get into a mess, Mr. X.” And there is a note of bravado at the end, wherein he tenders: “Your ‘Führer’ has promised that his rule will last a thousand years: thus I’m assuming that you will soon be in the position of negotiating the house’s return with me.” But the sense of loss is keen and though the letter betrays no anxiety, instead unsheathing sarcasm in service of contempt, we know the end of the story. Lion Feuchtwanger and his wife Marta escaped France in 1940 just barely: Lion had already been interned at Les Milles and managed to get out of the camp by dressing as a woman and hiking with Marta over the Pyrenees into Spain. Fellow exile Walter Benjamin committed suicide at the border. The Feuchtwangers, like Thomas Mann and Arnold Schönberg, ended up in Southern California, in the paradisiacal suburb of Pacific Palisades, where they lived for the rest of their lives. Lion would never see his house again.
We were in Los Angeles for the winter. Thomas had been invited to stay at the Villa Aurora, the former home of the Feuchtwangers, now a German artists’ residency. We were there to work and Thomas, to his credit, did, but because of the traffic or just laziness, I often ended up taking our three-year-old to preschool, going to yoga (as one does in L.A.), then sitting in my rental car near Café Bolívar in Santa Monica to wait for a metered space to open up. At the end of the stay I owed several hundred dollars in parking tickets and I had managed a few pages of disorganized notes.
In Hell too
There are, no doubt, these luxuriant gardens
With flowers as big as trees, which of course wither
Unhesistantly if not nourished with very expensive water.
I loved it. Despite the the traffic and the hours in the car every day, despite the villa being under renovation. For the first weeks we didn’t have a kitchen. They were updating the one Marta Feuchtwanger had used since fleeing France, so on the way to preschool our son, my husband, and I ate at a bakery in a minimall on Sunset. They made chicken pot pies and orzo soup for wealthy Palisadians to take home at night. It was a shame because I liked that kitchen. There was a breakfast nook where one could look at the shining Pacific while eating one’s muesli.
Between the kitchen and the dining room opened a vestibule from which one could walk downstairs, where sprinklers gushed every morning despite the drought. This unexpected room was charming, and because of the bright, nearly Mediterranean air, melancholic. There on the wall in persistent sunshine hung black-and-white pictures of Lion and Marta doing calisthenics on a terrace somewhere, staying healthy—perhaps in the Palisades, or Sanary-sur-Mer, or in the Grunewald.
To set memory into gelatin-coated paper or to frame it on a cell phone screen at an Instagrammed angle: the photograph stands for that which no longer stands. Yet photography has irrevocably interfered with our experience of actual memory, its contradictions, elaborations and elisions, its quality of being both fleeting and oddly intense. Images “come between the world and human beings,” wrote the Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser, himself a postwar exile (he lived in Brazil most of his life). “They are supposed to be maps but they turn into screens.”
The reality of the present is denied by a photo of a ghost and we simply can’t get that other picture out of our minds. Lion Feuchtwanger in plank pose, tanned and grinning. But maybe a photograph can also do what memory can, if we set it up to look correctly, if we include the gaps, the forgotten, the forlorn.
What remains? What occupies the kitchens, bowling alleys, libraries, cinemas of our memories? Real people?—Nazis?—or furniture stores, emptiness, Hawaiian chicken purveyors? At the Fox Venice … pinatas.
Christopher Williams and Thomas Struth met as part of a group show at the Kunsthalle Basel, curated by Peter Pakesch. The other participants were Larry Clark and Nobuyoshi Araki, so Thomas and Chris hit it off, I guess, by virtue of being square. This was twenty years ago. They spent ten days together, culminating in a blowout dinner in France where everyone got drunk and ate a lot of food.
They stayed in touch and saw each other often in New York, in Düsseldorf or Cologne. Their friendship is as unexpected as it is enduring. Williams had spent his entire life in Los Angeles, attending CalArt in the early 1980s, until he began to visit Cologne, drawn by his friendships with Martin Kippenberger and Alfred Oehlen and by his German gallerist Gisela Capitain. Now he is professor of photography at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, where Thomas studied.
At the Carnegie International in 1991, in which Williams showed small pictures of fingerprints on glass vitrines, Thomas understood in his friend’s work the principality of making conceptual, analytical work with the camera. (Christopher Williams does not only make photographs. A recent show at David Zwirner in New York showed cut-out chunks of museum walls: another preoccupation.) The pictures are accurate and gorgeous, and in their condensation—he works with smaller formats, flawlessly printed—has been construed as being slightly cool, but this may be because Williams is a perfectionist.
“The art world is not known as a harbor of greatly humorous people,” Thomas says about his friend. “But Chris Williams is funny. He’s a great storyteller. … He knew people like Albert Renger-Patzsch, who made this book Die Welt ist schön, which we kind of collegially laughed about, because on one hand we understood that it’s a naive and kitschy title. But on the other hand, we both are characters who think that die Welt ist schön, but in a different sense.”
It is a phrasing which could be applied to Los Angeles: beautiful, but in a different sense. But what did I know—I’d mostly seen the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway that led to our son’s preschool. (More highway than coast, though we did see a school of dolphins arcing out of the water one day.) So on a cloudless Friday in February Thomas and I went on a drive to look at the city Christopher Williams grew up in. I had wanted to see more of L.A.; Thomas wanted to learn about the place where his friend, who knew so much about Germany, was from. Chris directed us—produced our meandering, as it were—by giving us the locations and their stories and the drive was about loss, because many of the places that meant something to Williams in L.A. were gone.
At the Box gallery downtown, a Renzo Marten video played, the gritty scene of Williams’ day visible only in a gesture. Turning a corner onto South Hewitt we surprised a bearded man—hipster? hobo?—and his pal standing between two Dumpsters. He was bringing something to his lips—drugs? currywurst?—and he looked friendly and a little guilty: what I’ve come to think of as the L.A. look.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Thomas mused, “except the necessity of these places.” Gleichgesinnte—same mindedness. “By meeting people in these places you can identify yourself. Like in Düsseldorf at Ürige, das Einhorn, Ratingerhof.”
We saw empty lots and boarded-up cinemas, one as bleached white as a beach skeleton. Williams said the tour would be about a string of absences, and that cinema would be coming into it in a big way, and indeed, the pigeons were still living in the fins of the Deco-style theatre-turned-furniture-store, where Mike Kelley had watched Porkies and Chris had traced the arc of pigeon feathers drifting down from the ceiling.
And at every place, no matter how prosaic, there was at least one person with a camera. An Asian production crew filmed an actress in front of the old Al’s Bar, once a punk venue, now bodega, pie café and theatre/yoga complex. At 5959 Hollywood Boulevard someone else was taking a picture of the exact same decrepit boarded-up theatre we were, a tacked-up flyer next door helpfully reminding us: For filming call Charlene. At the Fox Venice—now the Fox Mobile Store, Nail Salon and plant nursery (also seller of Mexican birthday pinatas and occasional employment agency—the saleswoman asked me if I needed a housekeeper), a security guard ran us out, his hands waving the universal “no photos” sign.
We’re all ready for our closeup, Mr. DeMille. In L.A. it is in proximity to the image that one feels most grounded, especially that most nostalgic of images, the actor’s head shot. At Lucy’s El Adobe on Melrose, candles flickered behind red plastic votives, Cat Stevens played and on the wall the ageless visages of Ricardo Montalban, Phil Collins, Dolly Parton—I swear I saw Ed Ruscha up there too—smiled into the dark future.
We had made it to the molten heart of L.A., where nothing would ever change even while everything changed around it. The sweet jangle of an old phone sounded; a waiter finally materialized out of the caramel light. He said no one had shown up to work. We ordered our margaritas and ate our chips and salsa. Then we took some more pictures.
Photography grew up with capitalism and the two are granularly related. That we have photographs of these places that are now gone, or so materially changed as to be gone, really does preserve them and that preservation locks us into a way of seeing. Think of every hotel you’ve ever been in which shows this or that beach, or the mountains behind Hong Kong, the way they used to be. It’s what we’re supposed to see, not the catastrophe of the present.
There is not much about decay in Williams’s work. Look more closely at the moles spattered across the underwear model’s back, though, or those very large nipples on the Dutch Playmate of the Year—there’s always something askew, too. He sent us to places that had either been so materially changed they were no longer recognizable, or had been torn down. So we looked at spaces where things had been.
Though nostalgia in L.A. is as thick as the trunks of the coral trees lining San Vicente, one is encouraged to take every current reality of the city as at least temporarily permanent. The Fox Venice is a theatre turned into a minimall and florist. What better use of such a space? The thing photography makes plain, though, is that memory always intervenes, destabilizing our clear apprehension of what is. In his letter Lion Feuchtwanger mourned a house he knew, despite his best hopes, he’d probably never see again. I wonder if his lack of a photo of it actually helped him adjust to his new home in the Palisades. I don’t know.
To tell the truth I was upset that they changed Marta’s kitchen. What had existed before, the mission-style wooden drawers all painted in a yellowing white, the cupboards for pupu platters and champagne coupes, put me in touch with the Feuchtwangers in the same way that their funny calisthenics pictures fading in the sunlight did. The visiting artists needed a larger fridge, and got one, but now stray nails twisted from the new cupboards, set in by a harried construction worker. I felt stupidly protective of what Marta had preserved for over forty years, and depressed that it had all been so summarily replaced. It seemed an additional affront to a couple who had lost whatever real home they had. But both were long dead, Lion in 1958, Marta in 1987 and I was a guest of a guest.
Tara Bray Smith, essay
Thomas Struth, photographs
Christopher Williams, memories
Jana-Maria Hartmann, translation