Camus wrote that "the whole art of Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread." I have reread Kafka more than any other fiction writer, except Beckett - The Castle four times, The Trial seven or eight times and the stories - I've lost track. It's not just that he encourages close reading, but something in the work demands repetition, is bound up with repetition. I want I want I want, I can't I can't I can't, I will I will I will. "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." - Beckett wrote that, but the spirit of it is consistent with Kafka as well. With the rise of the industrial age, the machine aesthetic, the assembly line, etc, repetition has become a standard motif in modern art.
Blumfeld is a new work, but I made another artwork based on Kafka's writing some years ago. To be exact, I was twenty-one, living in the YMCA in New York, and going to the School of Visual Arts ( I ran out of money three months later and had to drop out, but that's another story). I no longer have the work, but I still have the sketchbook in which I planned it out, so with the aid of the sketches, I'll describe it.
But we do often speak about Klamm, whom I've never seen - still, his appearance is well known in the village, some people have seen him, everybody has heard of him, and out of glimpses and rumors and through various distorting factors an image of Klamm has been constructed which is certainly true in fundamentals. But only in fundamentals. In detail it fluctuates....For he's reported as having one appearance when he comes into the village and another on leaving it, after having his beer he looks different from what he does before it, when he's awake he's different from when he's asleep, when he's alone he's different from when he's talking to people, and he's almost another person up in the Castle. And even within the village there are considerable differences in the accounts given of him, differences as to his height, his bearing, his size, and the cut of his beard. Fortunately there's one thing in which all the accounts agree: he always wears the same clothes, a black morning coat with long tails. Now of course all these differences aren't the result of magic, but can be easily explained; they depend on the mood of the observer...
- Franz Kafka, The Castle
The idea was to make a portrait of a person impossible to see, a person who is seen in words, concepts and emotions only, a person seen only through hearsay, gossip and legend. Maybe he doesn't exist. But I assure you I really did it. I offer these sketches as evidence. They show my thought process. Repetition was essential. I seized onto the black coat tails - the only thing to hold onto - as the one constant in the ever fluctuating system. It was important to represent a series of viewers, since this was the only way to "see" Klamm:
I decided on six views, squares of equal dimensions. I drew it on raw canvas. Each square contained a bar of canvas colored paint on the bottom. Each one was so alike in appearance that only close examination revealed subtle differences in the way I had drawn them - as densely packed fields of horizontal lines.
The sketch above reveals the plan. (For those interested, one of my visual art references for work of this kind was Donald Judd.) At the time our drawing teacher instructed us to buy some inexpensive frames and hang several of our works in the halls. He meant our figure drawings, and, not to brag, but he loved my figure drawings.
I wasn't about to waste my precious money on cheap frames so I decided to show one work - my portrait of Klamm. I didn't have time to make the outer section, which was meant to represent the six viewers of Klamm. Each piece was to be sewn onto the large portrait proper, having the diagram representing that viewer's perception of Klamm drawn in simple contours, like a cartoon. I just made the primary section, and, not liking the rough edges of the canvas, folded them over and sewed a seam. I was sitting in my little cell of the YMCA, Klamm in my lap, sewing the seam, when John, the guy who lived across from me, looked in. John carried a sketch book with him everywhere, constantly scribbling. He scribbled me, then said, "Are you an artist or a fucking seamstress?"
When the day came to hang our work I entered the halls and there they were: 18X24 inch framed figure drawings lining the halls. I hung up my 40x60 inch Judd-like thing on canvas then went to class. Our teacher was only a few years older than me, a pumped up hot-shot from money who owned a gym on Madison Avenue. He called me out to the hall. Standing in front of Klamm, hands on his hips, a scowl on his face, he said, "What the fuck is this?" I innocently answered, "A drawing." "How's it supposed to hang?" he demanded. "Just like that," I answered. "Then why'd you sign it vertically?" he wanted to know. "I thought it was less intrusive that way," I answered. He said, "You hang a fuckin picture as a landscape you sign it as a fuckin landscape. Some day somebody's gonna nail you."
I still don't know what he meant.