Do come and celebrate the Erotic Literary Salon’s 11th anniversary and Dr. Jennifer Booker’s book Launch for her memoir/guide to transitioning, The New Normal.
Porn That Takes Senior Sex Seriously
Bonnie and Joel in Guide to Wicked Sex: Senior Sex.Image: Wicked Pictures
LOS ANGELES—Bonnie and Joel have known each other for over half a century. Now, they’re filming their very first porno.
They sit on a white leather couch, backlit by the Southern California sun, and gaze romantically at each other. “I could spend all day just looking into your eyes,” she says, a boom and mic hovering overhead. A camera pans their torsos, capturing wandering hands. Bonnie, 70, strokes Joel’s long, white mane, which has been pulled into a low ponytail. Joel, 69, runs his fingers through her closely croppedsilverhair.
The kissing begins, with pointed pauses for eye contact, face nuzzling, and laughter—but then Bonnie pulls back. “I’m uncomfortable,” she says as a straightforward statement of fact. “First of all, I’m too hot.” Bonnie slowly shrugs a pink cotton robe off her shoulders, revealing a black lace bra from Target, and shifts her position. She has fibromyalgia and her back has been acting up today.
The camera keeps rolling because this is exactly what the film crew is here to capture: two people navigating the vicissitudesof sex and aging.
This film, Guide to Wicked Sex: Senior Sex, co-directed by adult performer jessica drake, who uses the lower-case, and Joan Price, author of Naked At Our Age,will feature hardcore footage alongside narrated tutorials. It’s the latest entry in adult film studio Wicked Pictures’ line of X-rated educational videos, and it comes at a time when headlines frequently highlight the rising rates of sexually transmitted infections among seniors. Naturally, there will be a safer sex component. But, mostly, Price and drake want to show seniors that sex can still be hot and satisfying, even it’s necessarily different than it used to be.
“That’s better, that’s better,” says Bonnie, once her robe is off. The pair were “lovers” in college and only reconnected 11 years ago, thanks to the internet. They start kissing again. “I love your lips,” says Joel. She replies, mischievously, “Both sets.” With their foreheads pressed together, Bonnie offers up a “meowr” before laughing at herself. Joel, wearing a black tank top with a suede string that laces up the neck, “meowrs” right back and tugs at a handful of her hair. “Be careful with the hair pulling today,” she says. “Just, very gentle. I like it, but not too hard right now.”
Before long, Bonnie pulls back again to suggest another change, but this time it isn’t driven by physical discomfort. She tilts her head and raises an eyebrow. Then she says archly, “I think my pussy needs some attention.”
Bonnie’s black crotchless panties are taken off, pillows are propped behind her back, and a range of sex toys are deployed—all of them brought from home in North Carolina. The couple carried them here in a weathered jumbo Ziplock baggie, the kind you might use to freeze slices of fresh bread. There follows a series of “fucks” and “I’m about to come,” and she does, many times over.
“Good thing there’s a towel,” she says with an irreverent laugh, because Bonnie is a squirter.
Joel keeps going, applying a Hitachi between her legs, until she says, a matter of factly, “That’s enough. That’s enough for now.”
drake’s and Price’s film follows two other notable porn projects featuring older performers. In December, porn director Bree Mills launched the series Age & Beauty, which focuses on “elegantly shot encounters between self-confident older women and attractive younger talent.” These pairings are always taboo, which is Mills’s calling card, but the illicitness often arises from something other than the age difference itself—a physical therapist sleeping with her client, for example. Although, there is the exception of a young man from an elder care service who is seduced by an older woman while delivering her groceries. (“All I need is just a strong young man to give me a massage,” she says. “It really helps with my circulation.”)
In March, Erika Lust, a Barcelona-based director, premiered Soul Sex, a film in which a real-life couple in their 70s have sex. It’s a long ways from elderly women seducing grocery delivery boys: The film takes its title from the practice of “soul sex,” a spiritual approach to sex that involves eye contact, mindfulness, and the utterance of a special prayer beforehand (“I know you have sent me this person to help me find, know, heal, and forgive myself,” it begins). The film captures their slow movements alongside luxuriating closeups on rough skin, wrinkles, and sun spots.
The emergence of this micro-genre seems almost inevitable, given an aging populace—people over the age of 65 will soon outnumber children and they are increasingly going online. But the women behind these recent projects talk about them in political terms, rather than as attempts to capitalize on a growing market.
“People think that older bodies can’t possibly be sexy or desirable because we have been fed the message through advertising, television and films that only young bodies are attractive,” Lust says on her website. “It’s time we start shifting how we view senior sex.” Similarly, Mills says her intent is to “showcase intimacy with older people in a sex-positive light, instead of the usual novelty you see in conventional pornography.”
For drake and Price, the goal is to target seniors themselves. “We’re often thought of in our society as having aged out of sex,” says Price, a petite 75-year-old wearing low-heeled lace-up black shoes stamped with bright-red lipstick kisses. “We’re old, we’re wrinkly, who’d want us? We internalize the idea that as older people we’re not sexual anymore.”
Seniors may not age out of sex, but there are real potential sexual side-effects of aging—from vaginal dryness to difficulty with erections, libido changes to achy backs. “Our bodies, relationships, what we like, what we don’t like, what hurts, what feels good—all of that is changed,” Price says in-between takes. These changes, paired with the paradigm of sex as a youthful domain, can be discouraging. “So many seniors will give up on sex and go, ‘I guess that’s over, it was nice while it lasted,’” she adds. “What they don’t understand is that it can, in many ways, be better than ever.”
That “better than ever” requires accepting that, as she writes in Naked At Our Age, “sex might not feel or look the way it did when our hormone rush propelled us into jet-steam sex.” That might mean accepting the need for supportive pillows or the assistance of sex toys. Many women experience vaginal dryness post-menopause—although few discuss it with their healthcare providers—and lube can help. Throughout the shoot—which featured Bonnie and Joel, as well as Marlene and Galen, a kinky pair that had met that day—the co-directors encouraged performers to pointedly use lube on camera.
Senior sex can also require getting comfortable with a flaccid penis. What would have brought another porn shoot to a screeching halt was a narrative essential for this film. “Even with erectile dysfunction there are wonderful ways to have sex where there’s no erection required,” says Price. “Stimulation can happen, arousal can happen, joy can happen.” Galen, who describes himself as a dominant erotic sadist, memorably said during an on-camera interview that his partners “leave feeling penetrated.”
Aging puts some constraints on sex, but it can also put people in touch with the fundamentals: communication, creativity, authenticity. “When you’re young, your hormones will take over even if other things aren’t being done right,” says Price. “But at our age, sex won’t happen unless we have these ideas about how to communicate about it and how to compensate for physical issues and how to talk about sex and how to have sex that isn’t just penetrative sex.”
Bonnie and Joel—with their hair pulling, casual “pussy” talk, and effortless communication—are not your average elderly pair. They are polyamorous and lead an elderly sexuality discussion group at a local senior center back home in North Carolina. Joel is a physician and Bonnie has worked as a nurse and midwife, and spent years as a women’s health advocate. They were hippies in the ’70s. “This is not the senior population,” as Price puts it.
But that is why Price has managed to write four books on senior sex, and why Bonnie and Joel’s classes, where they discuss things like basic anatomy and STIs, routinely fill up. Many seniors are still learning the basics. “The kind of sex education we got back in the ’50s and ’60s was really not much,” Bonnie notes. “When I got my period for the first time, my mother handed me a booklet and said, ‘Read this.’” Bonnie says she encounters many women her age who “don’t know anything about the clitoris.”
In their discussion group, they do an ice-breaking exercise where everyone has to come up with slang words for the penis, vulva, and intercourse. “A lot of people can’t even say the word ‘fuck,’” she notes. They also review the basics of consent. “So many people don’t understand it. We were brought up in the age when you sometimes went along with it.”
Despite her progressive, sex-positive point of view, Bonnie might be somewhat representative in at least one aspect: her willingness to pause mid-makeout to voice her discomfort about an achy back, as opposed to moaning through it. A recent study of peri- and postmenopausal women found that, while some reported negative sexual consequences of aging, like lower libido and vaginal dryness, they also reported positive aspects, like greater self-confidence and communication skills. In a press release, Holly Thomas, the lead author behind that 2018 study, underscored one particular aspect of these improvements: “When they were younger they didn’t feel empowered to say ‘that is not working for me.’”
The reality of sex is rarely a seamless experience of two people wordlessly intuiting each others’ wants and needs—even when you have several decades of sexual experience. The difference might be a greater willingness to accept that.
In Marlene’s case, she didn’t feel empowered to actually figure out what worked for her until a few years ago at the start of her 60s. She followed a traditional path, married at 19, and was a mother by 20. That marriage ended after five years and was followed by another, which lasted a decade before they divorced. Her kids boomeranged in and out of her house, even as adults. “Finally, they got to a point where they were stable,” she says, throwing her strawberry blonde hair over her shoulder. “And I’m like, wow, I’ve got the freedom to do whatever I want now.”
For the past two decades, Marlene has been single and dating, but it was only a few years ago that she met a man in an open marriage who introduced her to the worlds of swinging and BDSM. “I’ve had a lot of experience with vanilla people, single men, and people who are just very repressed about their sexuality,” she says, wearing a strappy black lingerie set and waiting for the start of her scene. “For me, that was not working.”
Now, at 63, she answered a call in Price’s newsletter looking for seniors interested in appearing in the film. “My life has changed quite a bit in the last few years,” she says during an on-camera interview. “I have, I guess, come out as a very sexual woman.” Later, she adds, “We’re not here for a long time, so have a good time.”
She did just that in her scene with Galen, dressed all in black, his face framed by a halo of white hair. Marlene gave and received oral sex, and was blindfolded, flogged, and spanked for half an hour. There were multiple orgasms on her part. No erection, or ejaculation, required.
Older people are hardly unheard of in porn—although “older” is relative. There is MILF porn—a highly popular genre, which typically features performers in their late-20s and beyond—as well as the broader “mature” category. But, according to Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist who studies the adult industry, porn featuring women who have aged out of those popular categories “is often presented as ‘shock value’ content along the lines of Grandma’s Bush 12 or Granny’s Little Toyboy.” At the most recent AVN Awards, the so-called Oscars for the porn industry, several “granny” performers and films took home fringe awards.
Older men have their niche, too. Longtime performer Steve Holmes, who is in his 50s, regularly works in daddy-daughter faux incest films, as well as the occasional “dirty grandpa” flick.
These more recent high-profile projects—attached to well-known women directors in the adult industry—come at sex and age from different angles: drake’s is educational, Lust’s is spiritual, and Mills’s is psychological. But they all carry a certain degree of seriousness and sensuality around this business of older people having sex. These are not Grannies Got Hair DownThere or Grannies Got Hair Down There 2.
There is a cultural belief in youthful sex as the hottest sex, which equates “hot” with idealized aesthetics: Smooth, tight, unblemished skin. Acrobatic positions, raging hard-ons, “wet” vaginas, and endless pounding. Nothing flopping or sliding; no popping joints or bad backs. These recent projects suggest a broader set of aesthetics while aiming for something beyond the visual. In Soul Sex, it’s the spiritual and emotional connection during sex that’s punctuated with breathy utterances of “that’s beautiful.” In the Age & Beauty series, it’s often the seasoned confidence of an older woman. In Guide to Wicked Sex: Senior Sex, it’s the easing of physical expectations.
Later, Bonnie and Joel transition to a bed in a sunlit room with gauzy white curtains. He’s changed into white linen pants and let down his chest-length hair. She’s changed into a lacy purple lingerie set and black fishnets. Before filming begins again, drake tells them, “If penetrative sex happens, I’m thrilled. If it doesn’t happen, I’m thrilled, still.” Price calls “action.”
There is making out, fingering, oral, and laughter. Bonnie comes several times with a resounding “oh fuck.” Then she tells Joel, “I need your cock inside me.” He replies, facetiously, “I think we can accommodate that.” There’s some side-by-side and a brief bit of cowgirl, before she dismounts. “Too hard on my body,” she says. Joel fingers her, but then she lets him know that she’s sore and needs some lube.
They continue like this for a while, with necessary pauses and adjustments. Then, several minutes before they’ve captured the 30 minutes of footage that they need for the film, Joel ejaculates on Bonnie’s stomach. As the pair laughs ecstatically, they are told that they will have to fill up the remaining screen time with a bit of dry humping, that cliche domain of teenagers. Shortly before “action” is called again, drake reassures them, “You’re 10 minutes away from a nap.”
Tomorrow night Heather Shayne Blakeslee will be hosting the Salon. She is a musician, writer, editor, producer, and advocate. Learn more about Heather and Root Quarterly, her new Philadelphia-based journal of art and ideas: https://www.heatherblakeslee.com.
The 30,000 Year History Of The Dildo
By Gisely Ruiz
Published February 12, 2018
From the Stone Age to Ancient Greece to the present, there’s been one tool that nearly every civilization has kept handy.
The 30,000 Year History Of The Dildo
The dildo is not a modern invention. Instead, it is an ancient tool that is believed to date back to the Stone Age.
Archaeologists have attempted to conceive of non-sexual uses for the distinctly-shaped objects of this period that they’ve vaguely referred to as “ice age batons.” However, scientific opinion is gradually shifting toward the idea that these objects were being used for sexual pleasure.
This changing opinion is due to the incredibly detailed nature of a few of the phalluses. For example, some of these objects have retracted or totally absent foreskin, piercings, tattoos, and scars. This specificity — along with their life-size and smooth, polished construction (from siltstone, chalk, or antler bone) — leads scholars to believe that these ancient phalluses were used as dildos.
Following the Stone Age, the ancient Greeks did not look to the outside world for sexual inspiration in terms of their artificial phalluses, but to the inside of the kitchen. One of their most notorious sexual practices is the usage of olisbokollikes, or dildos made entirely out of bread (baguettes, essentially). Images of bread dildos have been recorded in a range of sources, although it’s vague on whether they were used for ritualistic purposes or everyday pleasure.
Furthermore, the Greeks used dildos in other contexts. In Aristophanes’ famous play Lysistrata, for example, Greek women go on a sex strike that leads to a discussion of the use of dildos to satisfy themselves while protesting.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the jaw-dropping wealth of the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) led to incredibly elaborate tombs that held a variety of exquisite items — including a number of ancient sex toys.
Essentially, the Hans believed that their spirits would be living on inside these tombs in the afterlife. And Han royalty expected to maintain the same standard of “living” after death, which means that they took some of their most important possessions with them, including intricate bronze dildos.
These toys were common sexual aids among the Han elites, and were products of high quality. However, although these dildos were toys, they had the additional function of being tools.
“When I say ‘tool,’ I also mean that these phalluses had a larger purpose than sheer physical pleasure,” Jay Xu of San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum told Hyperallergic. “The Han believed that the balance of yin and yang, the female and male spiritual principles, could be achieved during sex…In this regard, sex, especially if it was pleasurable and lasted for a sufficient amount of time, had a real spiritual dimension.”
Thus, for the people of the Han dynasty, the inclusion of these lavish sex toys in their tombs was not a naughty afterthought. Instead, it was a vital step meant to ensure that the deceased would have a peaceful and loving afterlife.
However, moving forward to 16th-18th-century Europe, dildos became more scandalous. For example, Italian writer Pietro Aretino recorded how nuns began to use dildos in the 1500s to “quell the gnawing of the flesh.”
A century later, dildos began to be more readily available to the wealthy, but their increasing ubiquity did not mean that they were condoned in polite society. When the daring John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, imported dildos into England for his sex club in 1670, for example, they were destroyed immediately.
Nevertheless, plenty of people apparently ignored the Wilmot episode and continued to attempt to get their hands on dildos. English women began making their own dildos, in fact, only to be penalized for it once it was made illegal.
At about this same time in Edo-period Japan, people had a far different, and decidedly relaxed, attitude about sex toys. The Japanese depicted these sexual aids in their erotic books and images known as “shunga.” In shunga, women were depicted purchasing and enjoying dildos.
In general, in this type of literature, women were shown as being incredibly sexual, even to the point of being the aggressor. Even after the Japanese government banned shunga in 1722, it flourished in underground markets.
In modern times, the dildo has been made out of a number of materials, but the most successful material by far is the silicone dildo, created by Gosnell Duncan. In 1965, Duncan sustained an injury that left him paralyzed below the waist. His accident inspired him to become active in the disability movement, and advocate for improved and safer options for penile substitutes.
During the 1960s and 1970s, dildos were largely made out of rubber, which was a poor material for the job, as it could not stand a strong washing or heating without losing structural integrity. Moreover, dildos were only sold as medical aids and intended only for straight couples that were struggling with sexual intercourse.
But, in the early 1970s, Duncan created the silicone dildo. He did do so as a medical aid for people with disabilities. However, as we all know, it took off as a product for anyone looking to improve or simply augment their sex lives.
Since Duncan and long before, phallic sex toys throughout history have remained fairly consistent in look, shape, and length — and remained a hidden staple in many of the world’s cultures for millennia.
Today, sex toys are more out in the open and part of an industry that pulled in about $15 billion dollars in 2015 according to Forbes. It’s safe to say that the dildo has come an incredibly long way since the days of stone and antler horn.
Philadelphia’s Erotic Literary Salon / Adult Sex-/Ed -Live-Tuesday, March 19.
Wooden doors, solid except for two peepholes, block off “Étant Donnés.” CreditSteve Legato for The New York Times – see article below. This photo was taken at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Door with peephole and art behind it are still at the museum, along with other works by Marcel Duchamp.
The Erotic Literary Salon will be held Tuesday, March 19. The evening will start with the Adult Sex-Ed Salon a one-hour program devoted to sex and sexuality. The audience will have the opportunity to pose any questions regarding sex and sexuality anonymously.Sexologist Susana Mayer, PhD, along with co-host Walter will facilitate the Adult Sex-Ed Salon and attendees interested in sharing their knowledge and experiences will join in the discussion. This is always an extremely lively, audience driven Q & A period.
PHILADELPHIA: Since 2008, The Erotic Literary Salon, unique in the English-speaking world has launched a growing movement mainstreaming erotica. Salons attract a supportive audience of 60 or more individuals. Approximately 10-15 attendees participate as writers, readers, storytellers, spoken-word performers of original works. The audience has the opportunity to participate sometimes reading sexuality quotes from various books or they can just listen, enjoy and applaud. The attendees also have the opportunity to create caption for erotic cartoon specifically designed for the Salon. Sign-up to read at the door; guidelines can be found at the Salon’s website.
Salons gather the 3rd Tuesday of every month at TIME (The Bohemian Absinthe Lounge), 1315 Sansom Street, Center City, Philadelphia. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., for cocktails, food and conversation. Adult Sex-Ed between7:00-8:00, readings begin at approximately8:30. Admission is $12, discounted for students and seniors to $10. Salon attendees must be 21.
Creator of this event, Dr. Susana, is Philadelphia’s best-known sexologist. She lends her voice to the Salon by offering relevant information to support the discussions that arise in the Salon and blog.
“…surprisingly comfortable….Salon devotees praise her for the space she has created….”
“I think Susana is doing a very brave thing.”
Philadelphia Inquirer, February 10, 2010
“There are laughter and tears along with the hot rush of blood – to the face.”
Daily News, March 15, 2010
“I never knew such a life of honesty could exist. I finally found a home I can be comfortable in…this event changed my life.”
First-time attendee and reader 2013
“First time attending but I really enjoyed myself, great crowd, love the transparency and openness. Looking forward to next month with great anticipation.”
PHILADELPHIA — “Marcel, Marcel, I love you like Hell, Marcel.” So ran a mash note written to Marcel Duchamp in 1923 by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, one of the scores of women, and many men, for whom Duchamp was a personal fixation, erotic, aesthetic or otherwise.
For many contemporary art lovers he is a fixation still, the archangel of a once and possibly future avant-garde and a patron saint of postmodernism. And the Philadelphia Museum of Art, rich with relics of his sly, seductively standoffish spirit, is a pilgrimage site.
The 1912 painting “Nude Descending a Staircase,” Duchamp’s first succès de scandale, is here. So is “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (1915-23), also called “The Large Glass,” a see-through mural about mechanized love and erotic frustration. And then there are the “erotic objects,” paperweight-size things molded from the body’s intimate nooks and crevices.
Duchamp’s great monument to eros, though, is the tableau called “Étant Donnés: 1. La Chute d’Eau, 2. Le Gaz d’Éclairage” (“Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas”). Created in almost complete secrecy between 1946 and 1966, it was his final work, and also his weirdest and most mysterious. And it is the subject of a potent exhibition at the museum called “Marcel Duchamp: Étant Donnés,” which, among other things, finesses the lingering myth that Duchamp ended up abandoning art for a life of chess and cogitation.
In reality, and by his own description, he simply went “underground.” He went on with his very active art-world social life, but told almost no one about the art he was making. He left the completed “Étant Donnés” in his bare-bones Manhattan studio when he died in 1968. The next year it was placed, as he had assumed it would be, on permanent view in the Philadelphia Museum gallery dedicated to the big cache of his work that came to the museum with the Arensberg collection in the 1950s. The gallery has been reinstalled with new material, much of it never before exhibited, to create the present show.
Jasper Johns, a longtime Duchampian, once referred to “Étant Donnés” as “the strangest work of art in any museum.” And strange it is. It occupies a closed-off room in a dead-end area at the back of the main Duchamp gallery. The room can’t be entered. The entrance is blocked by a pair of locked antique wooden doors, solid except for two tiny side-by-side peepholes in their center.
When you look through the holes — only one person at a time can do so, making for a very self-conscious viewing experience — you see a shattered brick wall just beyond the door, and in the distance a painted landscape of hills, autumn-tinged trees and what appears to be an actively flowing waterfall.
In the foreground, just past the shattered wall, the nude body of a woman reclines on a nest of dried branches, her legs spread wide to reveal oddly malformed genitals. Her face is obscured by her blond hair. Her lower legs and right arm are out of the range of vision. Her left arm is raised at the elbow, and in her hand she holds a small, glowing electric lamp.
The sight, at once bucolic and freakish, provoked an uproar when the piece had its public debut 40 years ago. What are we looking at? The aftermath of rape, mutilation and attempted murder? A profane update of Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa”? (Duchamp sometimes referred to the figure as “Our Lady of Desires.”)
Either way, it must have struck some feminists as one more addition to art history’s archive of aggression against women. And these viewers would have found small comfort in learning that the piece was conceived as a kind of erotic homage to two specific women in Duchamp’s life.
One was the Brazilian-born sculptor Maria Martins, with whom he had an affair from 1946 to 1951. His art went wild during that time. The “erotic objects” proliferated. He made paintings from semen and collages from body hair. The nude in “Étant Donnés” is largely pieced together from casts of Martins’s voluptuous figure. She was both the object of the work and a collaborator: Duchamp consulted her repeatedly as the work progressed.
The other woman was Duchamp’s second wife, Alexina, known as Teeny, whom he married after the Martins affair, in 1954. It is a cast of her hand that holds the electric lamp in the tableau. She was privy to every step in the progress of the piece as it evolved toward completion.
It is the making of “Étant Donnés,” rather than its enigmatic meaning, that this exhibition focuses on. Michael R. Taylor, curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum, essentially gives us a detailed backstage tour of the fabrication process, a tour all the more intriguing for being devoted to an artist who, it is often said, came to disdain all creative tools apart from ideas.
Proof to the contrary is here. Almost every surviving scrap of physical material related to “Étant Donnés” has been gathered, either from the museum’s deep Duchamp archives or from other collections. From 1946, early in the piece’s history, comes a highly polished pencil drawing of Martins’s nude body; later come plaster casts of her limbs and samples of “skin” made from parchment, all evidence of Duchamp’s fascination with craft and the naturalistic effects it could achieve: flesh that was smooth but not slick; skin that looked warm but not too flushed.
The background landscape was a similar blend of artifice and realism. The scene originated in photographs Duchamp took on a vacation in Switzerland. He enlarged the prints, cut them up and rearranged them to eliminate any evidence of buildings. After photographing and printing the altered panorama on cloth, he meticulously colored it with oil paint and chalk. He made the “moving” waterfall from translucent plastic backed by rotating discs powered by a motor housed in a biscuit tin.
The illusion of space and atmosphere seen in the peephole view is remarkable, especially given the out-of-sight construction that produces it, a ramshackle exercise in bad carpentry and precarious wiring, with pieces of drapery held in place by clothespins. It’s all documented in a series of Polaroids Duchamp took of the nearly finished piece in 1965, when he learned that the lease on his longtime studio in Manhattan wasn’t being renewed and that he had to move everything to a different space.
The Polaroids, being exhibited publicly for the first time, left me a little breathless. They are documents, not of a fabled retirement, not of cerebral dandyism, but of effort, effort, effort, and the strain and anxiety Duchamp was under as he began to form, through photographs, the rudiments of an instruction manual for dismantling and reassembling the flimsy product of nearly 20 years’ work.
The same dynamic of effort animates Mr. Taylor’s exceptional catalog, which weighs a scholarly ton but is as absorbing to read as a whodunit. I wolfed it down, transfixed, in a night and a day.
It covers not only, step by step, the two decades of the tableau’s creation, but also the minutiae of its delicate transfer to Philadelphia, an operation overseen by a young curator named Anne d’Harnoncourt, who a few years later would help to organize the museum’s great Duchamp retrospective and would then serve as the institution’s much-admired director from 1982 until her sudden death last year.
Both the book and the exhibition are dedicated to her. And both include something she would have liked: work by contemporary artists for whom Duchamp, and “Étant Donnés” in particular, has been an inspiration. Robert Gober and Marcel Dzama are among those covered in the catalog. Ray Johnson is in the show, with some snappy mail-art drawings that filter Duchamp’s piece through a homoerotic lens — quite plausibly, given Duchamp’s efforts to scramble conventional gender categories in his work.
And there is a film by a contemporary female artist, Hannah Wilke (1940-93), who went to art school in Philadelphia, saw “Étant Donnés ” soon after its installation and remembered finding it “repulsive.” She later did a performance about it in which she assumed the place of the prone figure. And in a 1976 film made in the museum’s Duchamp gallery, she engaged with “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” his other grand erotic masterwork.
Dressed in a high-fashion white tailored suit and fedora, she does a slow striptease in front of the piece, or rather behind it, as the camera shoots her performance through the glass and through Duchamp’s painted phallic and vaginal forms frozen in unconsummated union.
Wilke, who was a great beauty, preens, shifts, undoes a button, tips her hat, shifts, stares, slowly pulls at a zipper. The Bride and the Bachelors can never complete their erotic task, but she can. In her performance she was the cool but active counterpart to the woman in “Étant Donnés,” just as exposed but in control of the exposure.
Duchamp, the transcendent pornographer, would have understood all these contradictions. I suspect he saw himself both as the distanced creator of his final work and as the passively light-bearing figure lying within it. And surely he would have agreed with Wilke’s tough-love words: “To honor Duchamp is to oppose him.” Because he opposed himself — or the mythical self he invented — by slaving away at material forms of art that he had declared beneath contempt. His dispassionate passion is what continues to make him magnetic. Tough self-love, perverse and seductive, is what “Étant Donnés” is about.
Correction: September 1, 2009
Schedule information on Friday with an art review of “Marcel Duchamp: Étant Donnés,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, misstated the museum’s telephone number. It is (215) 763-8100.
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4 Videos Below-Readings are only recorded at the request of the presenter.
Monica Day performance/reading two poems: The Fifth Year and This is My Body for January 2013 Erotic Literary Salon
M. Dante reading SKIN dedicated to the art and inspiration of Heide Hatry for December 2013 Erotic Literary Salon
Frances' reading,“Go the Fok to Sleep”