NOVEMBER 24, 2021
IN THE SPRING of my 21st year, I went to my university library and checked out four of Anaïs Nin’s unexpurgated diaries. I can’t remember if I went with the intention of finding those specific books or if I stumbled across them. My only memory is of their thick black spines all lined up in a row, dusty from apparent disuse. I stuffed them into my backpack and headed to the lawn in the center of campus. Under the sun, I thumbed through each one like I was looking for something. In a sense I was: I’d just had my heart broken and hoped Nin might have some wisdom to impart.
By the time I finished the diaries I didn’t feel enlightened so much as jealous. For reasons both temperamental and financial, Nin’s amorous bohemian life was far beyond my reach. And how those men fell at her feet! Those artists and writers who channeled her influence into their work! I mean, Henry Miller wrote Tropic of Cancer about how hot she was! With that thought I pinpointed the origin of my envy. Nin got to be what I’d recently — secretly — realized I wanted to be too: a muse.
My broken heart was the work of a fellow writer. Worse, he was that sort of writer: aloof, shiftless, itinerant, and maddeningly gifted. During our brief time in each other’s orbits, I wrote hundreds of words about him; in the months following our estrangement, thousands. He wasn’t likewise inspired by me. I didn’t take it personally that I had not moved a writer to write. But I realized that this was something I wanted, someday, to do.
I wondered: Was being a muse something I wanted to do for someone or to someone? Was inspiration something I wanted to bestow or impose? The muse, in theory, is passive, a source of raw material that the artist actively turns into art. But in my estimation, her influence is a kind of power, even a form of control, that I wanted to hold over someone — perhaps especially a man. I wanted quite desperately to matter enough to someone that they commit me to the page and, as a result, be able to see myself through someone else’s eyes. I needed another person to not only register my existence but also to wrestle with it.
Whenever I encounter the story of a purportedly genius (and inevitably male) artist, I am drawn principally to his (inevitably female) muse, in part because I aspire to her station (if only temporarily) and in part because I’m interested in the muse-artist relationship and all its thorniness. I get the allure of that sort of artist, and particularly one who gives himself so fully to his work that he cannot give himself to anyone else. But I wonder what it would really be like to live inside an arrangement marked by such stark power differentials.
The complications of the artist-muse relationship surface throughout James Lapine’s recent book Putting It Together, an oral history of his collaboration with Stephen Sondheim on the Pulitzer-winning musical Sunday in the Park with George. Sunday is a show about making art — its challenges, costs, and occasional rewards — that was inspired by a single artwork, Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Lapine writes that looking together at the painting, he made what Sondheim calls a “magical” observation. “The main character is missing,” Lapine said. “Who?” asked Sondheim. “The artist.”
Sunday tells the story of two artists: painter Georges Seurat, whose first name is anglicized to George in the musical, and Seurat’s imagined great-grandson, a light artist also named George (for clarity’s sake, let’s call him George II). The first act takes place in Paris in 1884, as Seurat works on what would become his masterpiece. The second takes place in the United States in 1984, as George II struggles to realize his artistic vision.
The only character that appears in both acts is Dot, George’s fictionalized mistress and muse whose name winks at his use of pointillism. She loves Seurat, and he cares deeply for her, but he can’t look up from his canvas long enough to truly see her. He’s too enveloped in his work to join her in the world. Caught between what she desires and what she deserves, Dot must forge her own path without George. The show’s title is misleading; Dot is its true center.
When we first meet Dot, she is posing as Seurat sketches her. “George,” she asks. “Why is it you always get to sit in the shade / While I have to stand in the sun?” He’s too distracted to reply. “There is someone in this dress!” she protests. Still she never breaks her pose: she considers her discomfort the price she pays for proximity to genius. “Artists are bizarre, fixed, cold,” she thinks, brows furrowed. “That’s you, George; you’re bizarre, fixed, cold.” But then her face softens, smiles: “I like that in a man — fixed, cold.” And there it is, the crux. This man is a challenge that she must rise to meet. Delusions of grandeur ensue — only she can free him; only she can thaw him — but those delusions give her clear purpose. “The others I knew, George,” Dot says. “Before we get through, I’ll get to you too.”
The pair’s relationship soon comes to a head in “Color and Light,” which Sondheim says in Putting It Together is his favorite number in the show for its organic blend of music and dialogue. I’ll set the scene: one night in his Paris studio, George is hard at work on what will become his most iconic painting, A Sunday Afternoon, while Dot preens at her vanity. “Color and light,” George sings as he paints the vast canvas before him. “There’s only color and light.” In most productions, this canvas is translucent so that we watch George painting through it and feel the full intensity of his gaze.
Seeing George so absorbed and frenetic, Dot thinks about how different he is from the other men she’s known. “None of the others worked at night,” she sings. “How do you work without the right / Bright white light?” George is oblivious. In front of his canvas — inside his canvas — there’s only color and light, nothing else. As if speaking in tongues, he spouts off colors as he applies them — red, orange, blue, green, violet.
She admires his focus but worries she doesn’t have the power to divert it. “George is very special,” she says. “Maybe I am just not special enough for him.” Her confidence that she’ll “get through to [him] too” has evaporated. She takes his disregard personally — how could she not? “But how George looks,” she says to herself in the mirror, rationalizing her affections, too enamored by his gaze — his vision — to dwell on his neglect. “He could look forever.” At his canvas, he returns to his refrain: “There’s only color and light.”
Gabrielle Selz’s accomplished biography of American abstract artist Sam Francis, Light on Fire, investigates the artist-muse relationship more obliquely than Sunday, but with no less nuance. Like Sondheim and Lapine, Selz uses the case study of one “genius” artist to deconstruct the very concept of artistic genius, at the core of which lies total emotional impotence. That emotional impotence, of course, wreaks havoc in their lives.
Light on Fire begins with a scene that feels like something straight out of Sunday. It’s 1958, a freezing Paris evening, and a 35-year-old Francis is painting his Basel Mural triptych. He’s been working through the night, daubing oil paints of blue and orange and yellow across three massive canvases, each one almost 80 pounds and more than twice as tall as Francis. The cold seeps through the walls, so he swaddles himself in a wool overcoat, burns some coal in the stove, and paints on; he had assured the patron financing the triptych that his brush would “not come down until [the canvases] are finished.” For Francis, Basel Mural was a matter of legacy. “Perhaps,” he wrote to friends and family about the project, “I have created something now that will endure.”
Suddenly one of the wet canvases falls swiftly from the wall and pins Francis to the ground. Flat on his back, terrified to ruin the fresh paint, he strains to hold the enormous canvas over his head. He stays like this — trapped, taut — for several hours until help arrives. The accident would cause severe injury to his abdominal wall. No matter. The painting was preserved; the work would endure.
The metaphor here feels as applicable to Francis as to Sunday’s George, since both were captive to their art as well as to their own sense of self-importance. Surely they felt that they were, to some degree, martyring themselves for their art. “By his own admission,” Selz writes, Francis “was not just messianic, he was slightly megalomaniacal. Fervent about painting, arrogant enough to value the importance of his work, he wanted to see his art recognized on a world stage” — no matter the time and energy (or relationships) it cost.
When, in Sunday, Dot wants to go with George to the Follies, he tells her his work is more important; he cannot go. “I have to finish the hat,” he says, referencing the accessory of one of the subjects of his painting, who we later learn is modeled after Dot. She storms out, devastated. “Damn!” he cries to himself. “Do I care? / Yes.” But he resumes his work, which he believes will revolutionize painting upon its completion. Later, in the climactic number of Act I, George reflects on his fundamental dissociation: “However you live / There’s a part of you always standing by / Mapping out the sky, finishing a hat.”
Sam Francis was born in 1923 in San Mateo, California. At 12, he lost his mother to a heart attack. Less than a year later, Francis accidentally shot and killed his best friend, who had brought what he thought was an unloaded pistol to school for him and his friends to play with. Selz argues that Francis dealt with these back-to-back tragedies by dissociating from the material world and embracing abstraction. When he didn’t want to face his pain, he turned — like George — to color and light. But ultimately, she believes Francis’s lifelong behaviors were shaped less by his acute traumas than by his battles with chronic illnesses, including two near-fatal bouts of tuberculosis.
At 20, Francis enlisted in the Air Corps. Flying planes, Selz writes, is how Francis “discovered the space that was to be his as an artist,” a space that was both boundless and liminal. But soon after enlisting, he was hospitalized with severe symptoms that “confounded” doctors and quashed his dream of being a pilot. (It would be a full year after he first reported symptoms that he was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis.) For three years, he was bedridden and encased in a full-body cast, “unable even to touch himself.” Staring at the white ceiling and walls of his hospital room, “his mind began to unravel,” Salz writes. “He swore they bled colors.”
Then in early 1945, Francis received a watercolor paint set as a form of therapy for his boredom and depression. He began working on his art 16 hours a day, lying prone in a cot suspended over his mattress and painting the canvas below. He levitated over the landscapes he painted — a view, Selz writes, not unlike one from a plane. In 1947, he left the hospital and began a long, slow convalescence. Forever after Francis believed art had saved his life.
Francis left the hospital a new man: he’d gone through “a sort of hibernation, and the cast was his chrysalis.” He had been consumed by “the idea that color was embodied light […] ever since he’d gazed for hours at the play of light on the ceiling of his hospital room and stared at its white walls until he’d seen colors bleed through the plaster.” Once he was in good enough health, Francis went to Paris, where he spent the 1950s palling around with Anaïs Nin, Samuel Beckett, and Sartre and de Beauvoir. But he “refused to be tied to a single country or home,” and went on to live in New York, California, and Japan. As a result, he was perpetually caught between art scenes, never able to fully establish himself as intrinsic to any of them. And yet a part of Francis delighted in his inability to be pinned down geographically or pigeonholed to a specific cohort; Selz writes he felt “trapped by anything locked, firm, stable, or binding.” That also included relationships.
The thing about Sondheim’s Sunday, and some critics’ chief complaint, is that its first and second acts feel somewhat incongruous. Act I takes place in Paris, in 1884, and centers on painter Georges Seurat; Act II takes place in the United States, in 1984, and centers on an “inventor-sculptor” also named George, who is the great-grandson of Seurat and Dot and whom we will continue to call George II. If Act I is about living as an artist, then Act II is about making a living as an artist. Like Sunday, as Light on Fire progresses, the practical and financial aspects of artmaking move toward the center of the story.
In his lifetime, Francis enjoyed considerable and, by today’s standards, nearly irreplicable financial success. A peer of Pollock, Rothko, and the de Koonings, he entered the art world at a moment in which painting was not only culturally valued but, for a select few, extremely profitable, and Francis’s business acumen was considerable. Later in his career, in the 1960s, he ventured into other mediums beyond painting, including light shows. Anaïs Nin, among others, saw these mediums as “sounding the death knell of painting,” but Francis did not. He collaborated with James Turrell, whom he found to be a kindred spirit. “Artists are like that,” he writes of their rapport. “Light and space excite them and the dream machine is turned on.” There’s only color and light.
As part of the LACMA’s 1967 Art and Technology Program, Francis was paired with Nobel-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman to collaborate on a project. He suggested “an elaborate strobe-light environment — a light show in outer space.” (I picture something like the Chromolume installation that George II works on.) When Feynman estimated the project would cost more than $1 million, it was scrapped. (George II, bemoaning the logistics of art making: “[W]ithout the proper preparation / Having just a vision’s no solution / Everything depends on execution.”)
But for the most part, money was no object for Francis. Selz notes that his “earning power and control over his career challenged the stereotype of the struggling, impoverished artist.” He knew how — and perhaps genuinely loved — to schmooze, attending and throwing lavish dinners and parties, not unlike the gathering George II reluctantly attends at the beginning of Act II of Sunday. Well connected, prolific, and convinced of his own genius, Francis saw no reason to suffer for his art. Others could do that for him.
Francis married five times but didn’t take well to the inherent stability of marriage. He was loath to bind himself to one woman. He saw his libido and creative impulses as intertwined, and he “courted change and drama,” Selz writes, “even encouraging conflict because it forced him to retreat into his art.” (When Dot tells George that she is leaving for America to marry another man, he spurns her, saying he has “work to do.” “Yes, George,” she says, “run to your work. Hide behind your painting.” He replies, “I am not hiding behind my canvas — I am living in it.”) Selz notes that while Francis had many independent female friends, among them the scene-stealing Joan Mitchell, he liked his own women to be more “pliable.” (When Dot eventually leaves him to start her own life in America, George tells his mother he has a new woman in his life. “They are all the same woman,” she says. He chuckles and replies, “Variations on a theme.”)
Francis’s first wife, Vera, was “the first blank canvas on which Sam projected all his desires.” His last wife, Margaret, made a point to “think like a lily. A lily has one main desire: to face and worship the sun.” His second wife, Muriel, wondered “if Sam’s world of space and light and acclaim included her.” (Dot laments that with George, “There was no room for me.”) Muriel accepted “that his primary commitment was to his art and his primary relationship that with the canvas” (“I am what I do,” George tells Dot.) but admitted that he had a “focused intensity that could be hard to live with.”
Francis’s third and fourth wives, Teruko Yokoi and Mako Idemitsu, were themselves artists. This was initially what attracted Francis, and then quickly became a source of conflict. Yokoi was a talented abstract painter and Idemitsu a pioneer in film and video. Idemitsu cuts an especially fascinating figure — I often wished I could read her biography instead, just as I wish Dot had more stage time in Sunday — and through the book evolves into the accomplished and keenly feminist artist she is today. Selz devotes due attention to Idemitsu’s “artistic self-actualization,” from the consciousness-raising groups she attended and her experience at Judy Chicago’s Womanhouse to her use of Jungian theory and her landmark 1972 film Inner Man, which considered the domestic expectations placed upon women.
But before she pursued her own creative practice, Idemitsu was a muse to Francis. She explicitly inspired his celebrated Edge paintings, one batch of which is named “the Mako series.” The Edge paintings are a collection of white-painted canvases with colorful borders: “Sam may have seen himself as the monumental white forms,” Selz writes, “and Mako as the thin strips of color that defined, contained, and bounded his world.” Idemitsu was a resource for Francis to draw upon and, inevitably, deplete. “She was the breath Sam needed to take at this point in his life,” Selz writes. “Sam needed the contrast she provided.”
Idemitsu accepted this role at first. She “romanticized his need to rove and idealized him as an artist on a quest for self-discovery.” A pretty thought — that Francis was bettering himself. But once she picked up a Super 8, carved out her own career, and found relative success — in Francis’s own field, at that — the arrangement was no longer viable. “[B]oth his unfaithfulness and his lack of outright interest in her films stemmed from the same source,” writes Selz: “his grandiosity.” The pair split in 1985. Idemitsu later penned an autobiographical novel, White Elephant, based in part on her relationship with Francis. “[A]rt,” she writes. “That one word meant all was accepted, all forgiven.”
In 1974, she would make a film called Sam Are You Listening?
Sunday culminates with the number “Move On,” a duet between George II and an apparition of Dot. George II is stuck, artistically blocked. Dot appears to give him what Idemitsu — purveyor of breath and contrast — apparently gave Francis: perspective. “I’ve nothing to say,” George II laments. “You have many things,” Dot assures him. “Well, nothing that’s not been said,” he clarifies. “Said by you, though, George.”
In Act I, Dot chastises George for caring “about nothing.” He replies: “I care about many things.” But that’s just the problem, Dot says: “Things — not people.” George resigns: “I cannot be what you want.” In “Move On,” she wrings all the lessons she can from her time with George, even appreciates in him what she once saw as irredeemable flaws. “Look at all the things you’ve done for me,” she sings. “Opened up my eyes / Taught me how to see / Notice every tree / Understand the light / Concentrate on now.”
Meibao Nee, who briefly dated Francis in the 1970s, said that he would tell her that “we could see art everywhere — spoons, forks, bowls, table, chairs — as long as we were attentive.” Attentive, that is, to things — not people. The mark of a good artist, not a good partner; nevertheless, Dot and Nee depart from their artist-partners fuller rather than drained, having learned what they could and left when they needed to.
In her apparition form, Dot holds space for George’s flaws and virtues while foregrounding her own experience. In Color and Light, Selz achieves similar nuance. She admires Francis’s work and advocates for its recognition but also critiques efforts to canonize him. She cites two close colleagues of Francis who called him “the first international artist” and “the last great painter of the twentieth century” then qualifies their adulation. “Though the statements might be a stretch,” she writes, “they are not entirely untrue if viewed in the context of an era that lauded conquest, expansion, and male ambition.”
I’m not sure that era has ended. Both George II and Francis express a similar desire to push further, to penetrate some untapped space. “I want to know how to get through / through to something new,” George II sings in “Move On.” Francis says of his own work, “I want to reach something deeper.” After a lifetime devoted to making art at the expense of maintaining relationships, it would seem that loving and being loved by other people would be something new, something deeper.
During a period of separation, Idemitsu wrote to Francis, “Life is very simple without you.” Playing muse for so long had grown tiresome. She couldn’t shrink herself any longer for the sake of his ego. Surely, she appreciated seeing herself in Francis’s Mako series, and now she would put herself into her own art.
Sam Are You Listening?
Eventually, Anaïs Nin would also reevaluate her life as a muse. “For too many centuries women have been busy being muses to the artists,” she wrote in her 1974 essay “The New Woman.” “And I know you have followed me in the diary when I wanted to be a muse, and I wanted to be the wife of the artist, but I was really trying to avoid the final issue — that I had to do the job myself.”
“I did what I had to do,” says Dot of leaving George and starting her own life in America.
How much easier it would be to have someone see me, than to have to look closely at myself. To take someone else’s version of me for granted, rather than piece it together on my own. I wanted to be loved so tangibly that there was physical evidence left behind. I wanted to star in a painting or lend my name to a whole slew of them. I hadn’t considered that I could make my own Sunday on La Grande Jatte, my own Mako series. That I didn’t have to wait for someone to put me in their story, that I could simply write it myself.
The roles of artist and muse were slipperier than I’d initially thought. I was too quick to forget that I’d made a muse out of the writer who broke my heart. That I’d converted his brief presence into work that bears my name and not his. Suddenly I couldn’t care less if I’d provided him free material, or if I’d made enough of an impression to move him to write. I was the one who wrote.
“Look at all the things you’ve done for me.”
I returned Nin’s diaries to my university library a week after checking them out. Next, I read some of her essays, “The New Woman” among them, and realized I preferred them to her diaries anyway. How prolific she was, what a body of work she gave us — and still she had managed to live fully and love deeply in her lifetime. It was nice that those men had committed her to the page. I suspected that what she had written about them — so honest and horny and heart-on-her-sleeve — would prove for me more durable. That for me, she would always have the last word.