The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2013

All Issues
OCT 2013 Issue
Critics Page

Wall of Water

Last year during Hurricane Sandy I called an artist friend of mine, Mehdi Matin, and we spent the next six hours talking each other through the storm. I was in my studio in Long Island City, wind whipping round the building, clattering the loft windows in a terrifying way. I paced back and forth, ignoring the sounds of my alarmed studio neighbors hastening to repair some shattered windowpanes on the building’s east side. At one point I just lay down, staring up at the red pipes while my phone companion told me some stories. We talked about tigers, and about two glorious weeks in Milan. Later we talked about his elderly roommate. I had a feeling that she was still alive only because he wasn’t yet ready to let her go.

More water.

A young Dorothea Baer Tyler in the Lower East Side, flanked by Richard Oviet Tyler, his hand on her shoulder. Image courtesy of the Uranian Phalanstery.

After the storm was over a few of us took refuge in the gorgeous townhouse in Hamilton Heights where Mehdi currently resides, spread out on sheepskins or watching the news on the projector while drinking tea at the enormous hand hewn dinner table. Our mutual friend, Pipi, was seven months pregnant at the time, soon to give birth to a golden soul of a boy, named, appropriately enough, River.

After the experience of Sandy—of seeing people walk home with flashlights in the darkness of Lower Manhattan, of taking a cab into work and seeing a cityscape that was half unlit grey stone—I made two very large, very strange paintings. Both were black, 44 by 44 inches, oil on board. One had a large, pink dot with soft edges emanating from the center; I had seen it in a dream. The other was empty in the center but had a dinner plate-sized ring of painted light around this emptiness, white bleeding out from this ring like the sun blazing behind the moon during a solar eclipse. When I was very young I would have nightmares of this image because I knew that it was synonymous with dying. I put the painting at the foot of my bed.

The next few months were a meditation on depth, death, and dying; the art I saw and the places I went all seemed to reflect this watery memento mori. In November I went up to the Neue Galerie to review the Ferdinand Hodler show for the Rail. The entire top floor was filled with images of Hodler’s beloved on her deathbed, her withered frame a poor container for her vibrant soul. In other rooms expansive landscapes filled with horizontal lines depicted Lake Geneva, mountains, and the sky beyond.

A month later I was in New Orleans with my mother and sister, visiting one of the cemeteries there; it was closed but the gates had never really been repaired after Katrina so it was easy to wander in. A youngish undertaker was giving a frenetic impromptu tour to some passers-by. The mausoleums were gorgeous, white and grey, sometimes cracked or crumbling, sometimes adorned with an angel. The tombs of the voodoo priestesses were easy to spot: simple cuboid forms covered in hundreds of XXXs, surrounded by material offerings from tourists and devotees alike.

After a little while a very elegant, stately older man appeared; he had been the funeral director of the cemetery for the past 40 years. The gentleman told us about the history of segregation in New Orleans, and about how, because of living on a bayou, one had to bury a corpse above ground. Then he told us about Hurricane Katrina, and how it had sent many beloved families away, often to smaller towns where they were given a chance at a better life than they ever had back home. Whence does the wall of water come; whither shall it take us when it leaves?

Dor used to live in two adjacent dilapidated townhouses in the East Village—one without electricity, the other without water—in an artists’ collective and burial society called the Uranian Phalanstery and First New York Gnostic Lyceum Temple. One of the buildings was an old Shul, where Dor’s husband, Richard Oviet Tyler, had been serving as the Shabbos goy in years prior. Richard and Dor acquired this building and its neighbor in 1974, which thrived as home base for the Phalanstery—existing as a collective, and later an underground printing press, since Dor and Richard met in art school in Chicago in the ’50s—for nine glorious years until Richard died of face cancer in the same home. For the next 30 years Dorothea lived in the Phalanstery more or less alone, retreating into an internal sort of communion and welcoming strays of all kinds, many of whom would contribute artifacts to this living work of art. Almost no one and nothing was turned away.

The collective spirit of the household suffused into the walls; soon, the rooms, floors, walls and ceilings of every room were covered in printed matter, posters, objects, masks, even corpses of animals turned into sculpture. About three years ago, during a bitter winter, Dor nearly passed away; that plus the significant tax liens on the house pushed Mehdi to sell the properties, catalogue the contents of the house, and move the whole operation uptown.

Post-Sandy Dor was somewhere in her 80s, barely able make it up and down the stairs of the new house. I watched my young friend, strong, fit, and healthy, hold Dor patiently as she slowly ascended the stairs from her flat to the dining room, one labored step at a time. About a month after Hurricane Sandy, just two days before Thanksgiving, she died.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2013

All Issues