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Category Archives: Visual Arts

Elsa Dorfman

Ten Minutes Left to My 67th Birthday, April 26, 2004 by Elsa Dorfman. With permission of the artist.

I’ve been on a kick about truth-telling lately, and we usually think of truth-telling as involving situations where the truth is ugly and difficult, as in the witnessing of atrocity or political injustice. However, there are those whose truth-telling is of a more joyful and humorous kind, and portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman is one of these.

On her talent for getting people to relax in front of the camera, Dorfman says in an interview, “maybe because I do so many self-portraits i exude confidence cause i don’t ask anyone to do something i havent done to myself. that is stand in front of the camera and accept my extra weight. imperfect haircut. mismatched wardrobe which i happen to approve, as in gudren clothes” (The F Blog).

As Lisa Surati notes on, “Elsa’s portraits do not illuminate or glamorize her clients; rather, Elsa presents her clients in an extraordinary way, as themselves.”

I remember how striking this was to me when I was a young woman negotiating the meaning of my own imperfect body. I was working as an editorial assistant for the Woman’s Art Journal in the early 1980s when we published an article about women’s nude self-portraits, including one of Dorfman’s that I recently found on artnet. (Please do open this link so you’ll understand!) Of all the wonderful work that the magazine featured over the years that I was associated with it, Dorfman’s is the work that I remember best.

The reason is twofold: one is that these portraits were the most honest depiction of ordinary female physicality I had ever seen. Another was that they were presented with simplicity and an understated sense of good-humored self-acceptance that I longed to inhabit then and still do. There’s no self-pity there, and no shame for not being a beauty queen.

Re-encountering Dorfman’s photography in general, and her self-portraits (both nude and not) in particular, has me thinking anew about the value of written memoir as well. My creative nonfiction students often talk about the “bravery” of their classmates who write about certain tough topics in their lives. I often raise with them the issue of how “bravery” isn’t enough, how the shaping of the trauma into a story that reaches beyond the self is necessary for any work that aspires to art.

And yet, I think about the utmost appearance of simplicity in Dorfman’s self-portraits. In The F Blog interview, she notes, “i can’t tell you how hard i work to make it seem effortless.” Yet she embraces the imperfect and the straightforward in her subjects, including herself. This is artistry in the service of the genuine, art that asserts that little truths are perhaps as important as so-called big ones. Perhaps, indeed, memoir has an affinity with this kind of documentary photography that doesn’t use dissolving filters. The person who puts experience down on paper, whether in writing or in photographic image, works hard, but there is a respect for the experience itself.

This is a kind of truth-telling that understands compassion is based on frankness and honesty, not fantasy and pretense. I like it. I’m glad that both Elsa Dorfman and the Woman’s Art Journal are still going strong.

Americans Who Tell the Truth

Shetterly's portrait of Janice Murikitani, community activist and poet

“Americans Who Tell the Truth” is a portrait project by the painter Robert Shetterly. He’s moved from more famous truth-tellers to more recent and less well known ones, but all the portraits share a moving intensity and clarity. The website is fascinating to peruse, with reproductions of the portraits, quotes from each subject, and biographies that summarize their background and reasons for their inclusion in the exhibit.

Shetterly notes, “A democracy, whose leaders and media do not try to tell the people the truth, is a democracy in name only. If the consent of voters is gained through fear and lies, America is neither good nor great. Nor is it America.” His website adds, “Whether or not you agree with a particular subject’s point of view, each is an attempt to create dialogue that will help us figure out which truths we value most as citizens in a democracy.”

Louise Nevelson on a Messed-Up Day

A small section of Dawn's Wedding Feast from

This has been a colossally strange day. Worst, Jupiter’s cancer is probably back, much sooner than we’d hoped, but we won’t even know today because the real diagnostics have to wait til a biopsy on Wednesday. Keeping fingers crossed that it will be rogue scar tissue, though it’s likely a swelling new tumor.

I couldn’t even drive Jupiter to the appointment as planned because I myself suddenly was having dizzy spells and staggering around after getting up on a step-ladder to get into a box in the closet early today. It was a mess indeed, as my car was in the shop and I had driven Bruce to campus and left him without a car. He couldn’t get home, and I couldn’t go get him, and we had this appointment for the cat, and I was trying to negotiate with the guy who has been redoing our rotten gutters.

In the meantime, my blood sugar went down to 45 mg/dl, which contributed to my panic and confusion. Was I having a stroke for real this time? What did it mean that even my right hand didn’t seem to type right? Might I pass out? Should I call 911? My right side seemed uncoordinated and loose.

Finally, after Bruce borrowed a car and came home to check on me and take the cat in, and after my blood sugar normalized, I realized that I was feeling in some ways very good. I didn’t want to drive to the vet’s but I could go, too, and on the way I realized that my body was somehow just adjusting to some kind of nerve or ligament or muscle release that had occurred in my shoulder when I stretched so awkwardly in the closet. After about four years (four long years!), some tightness in my frozen shoulder had finally let go a bit, and suddenly my nerves were learning to control my movements again. My dizziness abated, and I suddenly felt my arm more than I have in a long time.

Earlier in the day I was planning to post my usual sad, maybe sentimental song as I usually do on Mondays. But by now, I feel instead the call of the intensely cool, the emotional in deep reserve, the less obvious feeling, and so I’m posting a picture of a Louise Nevelson sculpture, whose work Dawn’s Wedding Feast I first saw at the Whitney in 1980 and which was recently recreated at the Jewish Museum.

Louise Nevelson is another one of those artists for whose work you just have to be there in person. The small pieces make up much larger rooms, and the work’s power is stark, its emotion apparent only in accumulation, the subtleties of its colors and shades are much more moving when you stand among the pieces as large as you yet made up of pieces as small and unique as every moment of your individual, irreplaceable, inexplicable daily life.

I just feel like that today: there’s no way to convey it. I was here. It was an odd, odd day in a thousand little details. That’s all. You know what I mean.

Mark Rothko

The first time I ever cried in front of a piece of art was when I visited the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 1980. Last February, during the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in D.C., I was locked into a tight schedule, but made it a point to visit the Phillips Collection again. It’s one of my favorite places on earth.

In 1980 I was a twenty-year-old art student, and I was in Washington on an internship with the Washington Women’s Art Center (no longer extant), which was just off Dupont Circle near the Phillips Collection. Since my college campus sat in the hinterlands of Minnesota, I vowed to see all I could during that summer. You might say I was museum- and gallery-crazy, not to mention deliriously thrilled to be in the city.

I had little interest in Abstract Expressionism. The figure and landscape—tangible things—though not necessarily in the Realist style, spoke to me more than abstraction. I liked Matisse better than Kandinsky. I loved Constantin Brancusi but not David Smith. Most of all, I loved the gentle obsessive boxes of Joseph Cornell and the harsh obsessive ones of Lucas Samaras. I loved the textile- and craft-based art of Eva Hesse, Miriam Schapiro, and Judy Chicago.

Therefore the Mark Rothko paintings at the Phillips were not high on my list. Nonetheless, in the process of devouring everything available, I went there one weekday afternoon. The galleries echoed, nearly empty, and I went through the door into the Rothko Room. I had it to myself, and I sat down on the little bench and stared at the paintings.

Mark Rothko. Green and Maroon. 1953. Phillips Collection.

Much to my surprise, I found myself weeping. The paintings were just so much more beautiful than could be captured in reproductions in books, the only way I’d ever seen them and where their lights and darks had been muddied in the photographic and printing process. The real paintings pulsed on the wall, the subtle contrasts in hue and value coming alive in front of me. They seemed truly alive, like living, breathing creatures. I sat on the bench for a long time, until others began to poke their heads in and interrupt my reverie. I got up and left, changed, shocked in part by my ability to mis-judge.

At the time, I didn’t know that this was a common occurrence. “The fact that people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures,” Rothko once noted, “shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them.” I certainly did.

Rothko, in fact, has also noted that he is “not an abstractionist,” that he’s “not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else,” but “only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” I’m glad that he puts tragedy and ecstasy side by side.

Perhaps because of the emphasis on contrast in the visual arts—a painting without the play of literal light and dark is impossible to conceive—it’s easier to see the necessity of balance there. But the same is true in writing and in music. Point and counterpoint, compression and expansion, scene and summary—all of these principles must exist in balance. Even emotionally, a work must have its balance. A work may be dark overall or light overall, but if that quality is uniform and uninterrupted, we won’t even notice the actual strength of the emotions.