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In Tim Youd’s recent solo exhibition and performance, The Long Goodbye, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, visitors were able to hear the artist’s work before seeing it. It is a sound that most people will be familiar with, but haven’t encountered in a while. As one approached the museum’s Krichman Gallery, the staccato sound of the clacking keys of an Olivetti Studio 44 typewriter was audible before rounding the corner to take in the sparkling view of La Jolla Cove through the room’s generously sized glass windows. I have always admired the beach location of this gallery, and Youd was able to enjoy it for four weeks in the month of July as part of his durational performance, where he sat at a desk and retyped Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe crime novel, The Long Goodbye (1953), the sixth book in the seven-volume series. An acclaimed detective-fiction writer, Chandler moved to La Jolla in 1946 with his wife, Cissy, settling down the street from the museum on Camino de la Costa. Chandler wrote The Long Goodbye in this location, as well as the novel Playback (1958), which is set in a fictionalized La Jolla. Thus, Youd was not only retyping Chandler’s novel with a spectacular Southern California ocean vista as backdrop, but he was also reconstructing and possibly reliving the experience that Chandler may himself have witnessed as he wrote the novel.
Youd’s performance formed a component of his larger project, conceived and initiated in February 2013, for which he has undertaken to retype one hundred classic novels over the course of five years. Apart from staging his performances at locations integral to the plot of the novel or related to the author’s life, Youd also uses the same make and model typewriter used by the author as a type of homage, and as a means to authenticate the experience (indeed, the Olivetti Studio 44 is what Chandler used, and it was also the model that Ralph Ellison and Tennessee Williams utilized). Youd’s very literal appropriative act of retyping these novels is also an act of devotion, given his sheer demonstration of endurance. However, his careful research, scholarship, and historical preservation also animate his passion for the craft of writing, typing, and authorship itself. Simultaneously, Youd considers his act of retyping novels to be as absurd as some of the fiction he appreciates, which often borders on the darkly satiric; for the artist does not merely retype the novels in order to reproduce a replica, but rather he types relentlessly on a single sheet of paper backed with an additional sheet. As he runs the doubled page through the typewriter carriage again and again, a dark monochrome print eventually emerges. The format of the novel is made defunct because the text is indecipherable, and what results is one of modernism’s most enduring emblems. Youd’s visual translation of copying text evolves into this abstract/conceptual format instead.
Surrounding Youd’s desk containing the typewriter and related ephemera, curators Hugh Davies and Jill Dawsey filled the walls of the Krichman Gallery and adjacent Meyer Gallery with Youd’s recent typed-up framed monochromes, twenty-three selections from the first year of his larger 100 Novels series. These included Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (1971), which Youd typed on an Underwood Champion at the Terminal Annex Post Office in Los Angeles where Bukowski worked for several decades, and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), which was reconstructed on a Corona #3 at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum in Arkansas (the home of Hemingway’s second wife, and the place where he wrote most of the novel). For each, Youd mounted his two sheets of paper as a diptych, where a positive and negative image side by side suggested the two pages of an open book. The diptych is a formal consideration that also has a long lineage in art history, and the open pages of a book stylized as a diptych emphasize the effect of rectangles within rectangles. Youd’s monochromes were juxtaposed with sculptural, three-dimensional portraits of typewriters constructed from cardboard, which jutted out of two-dimensional frames. Youd created a typewriter portrait for each of the seven Philip Marlowe novels, as well as an eighth for the unfinished novel that Chandler was working on at the time of his death in 1959. Youd’s homage is taken one step further with these memorializations of the typewriters, which, as Davies and Dawsey state in their introduction to the exhibition wall text, almost act as surrogates for the authors themselves.
Through this multipart display of artistic production, Davies and Dawsey provided a deep and lasting impression of Youd as a devoted fan of twentieth-century American fiction, but it was the durational performance that ended up being the most evocative aspect of Youd’s all-consuming fetishization and obsession with the male-dominated cult of author and personality. The sensorial qualities witnessed in Youd’s performance were visceral and demanding, ranging from the smells of the ink as it smacked across the surface of the paper over and over to the nostalgic snapping noise of those typewriter keys under nimble, yet sore, fingertips. Watching Youd’s earnest, meditative facial expressions as he typed was also mesmerizing. How Youd might capture all this in satisfactory forms of documentation is another question, but the accompanying two-dimensional pieces felt like a pale shadow of the performance itself.
Given that process is a critical part of Youd’s project, there was also an opportunity for the viewer to gain a heightened awareness of her or his own embodied acts of viewing and listening in engaging with the exhibition. Questions that arose include: What is the benefit of becoming more conscious of ourselves in the act of reading a book or viewing a work of art? How can such private acts be made public, and what generative outcomes might occur from doing so? When are such acts a form of devotion, or when do they become compulsive? How long can I maintain my attention on one task or object? Through these questions, the viewer might also have become more aware of time—do I read slow, or, rather, quickly? Or conversely, how much time do I spend with a work of art? Within this state of heightened awareness, one might be able to grasp a renewed perception of letters, words, or where you might be placed in the narrative of a story. Youd’s work offers this scrutiny of process, which might result in how to become a better reader, and how to experience a work of art more fully through multiple points of inquiry.
Youd told me that he has begun to branch out into new terrains of fiction, given the acknowledged unconscious tendency to gravitate toward hyper-masculine American male authors such as Chandler, Hemingway, and Bukowski (Tim Youd in conversation with Amanda Cachia, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA, July 25, 2014). At the time of the exhibition, Youd had retyped twenty-five novels, all of which had been written by men, including authors like Philip K. Dick and Henry Miller. Thus, Youd plans to include novels by Joan Didion, Patricia Highsmith, Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and non-white authors such as Alex Haley. Youd will also incorporate international authors and locales. Yet he is determined to stay bound by the constraints of the project, such as retyping novels that were written on a typewriter. The typing instrument becomes important in the same way that the sound of its keys is iconic and unmistakable—Youd is reaching and yearning for a time before automated technology, where the typewriter is an extension of a finger, similar to how a paintbrush might be wielded. Unlike a computer, the typewriter provides evidence of manual effort, given that the hand is connected to a key that is ultimately hitting the page.
Youd wants to ensconce himself in the mythology of a bygone literary and mechanical era, but his performance entwined with his framed monochromes and sculptural portraits remind viewers that this was also a period in which women and minorities groups had very little literary voice through the written word. In the end, what was absent in Youd’s work is what became the most obviously visible, which ultimately mirrors the absence of women and other marginalized groups not only in art history but also in other cultural domains. Youd would do well not to replicate these omissions, even as he attempts to remain ostensibly pure to eras past.
PhD candidate, Department of Visual Arts, University of California San Diego
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