Frontera DigitalStephane Mandelbaum at The Drawing Center

Stephane Mandelbaum at The Drawing Center

Stephane Mandelbaum, (1961-86), a precocious draftsman, died young–the result of a criminal syndicate murder (two bullets in the head), by people presented a stolen, but entirely  inauthentic painting supposedly done by Modigliani. He was found, his face disfigured by acid to hinder identification, outside Brussels. During the short time Mandelbaum was active,  he worked long days, often with little sleep, producing a considerable body of work. The drawings, done with graphite, colored pencil, and ballpoint pen embellished with cutouts from magazines and text, often in Yiddish, a language the artist taught himself. While married when he was killed, more than a few of the drawings appear homoerotic; men in his art wear lipstick, and there are separate portrait drawings of Francis Bacon, the queer British artist, and his lover George Dwyer. The quality of the drawings themselves is deliberately garish, often sensual without being overtly sexual, and given a literary, intellectual bent by the inclusion of words from Yiddish, Italian, French. Mandelbaum, in both life and art, seems confused about the gap between his life and his imagination. Generally,a need for overstatement exists in his work, but the quality of the drawings can also seem highly trained: Mandelbaum received training at the art academy of Watermael-Bolsford.

Mandelbaum, murdered within living memory, wanted a position of sensational effect in the demimonde. How much his actual participation was in the criminal underground appears exaggerated; many of his transgressions took place entirely in his head. But the imagination looks like the place in which the artist most comfortably lived.  His drawings, a marginal mixture of fine art accuracy and cartoonish vulgarity, appear very much in tune with the spirit of the time–a fallout occurring after the demotic Sixties. During the brief period while he worked, skills were beginning to be abandoned for a political position, considered more important than skill. But Mandelbaum liked the edge of society: a stance having more to do with his psychological outlook than a public outcry  Why the artist wanted to see himself as a figure outside the pale is uncertain; it may have been a wish for the unconventoinal,  intensified by considerable youth. What really matters is the aura of the drawings, individually and as a group. The informality of his address was a general attitude considered useful when he worked, but even if Mandelbaum had embraced populism, he also could finesse a drawing. The brutality of his death may fascinate the contemporary public for its violence, but something else can be taken from his assassination, namely, the very dangerous nature of his attraction for low-level crime. But even if we don’t know why, we can speculate on the drawings themselves, which exist as an energetic mix of grap;hic assertion and unusual skill.

A side issue, like the topic of Mandelbaum’s flirtation with  homosexuality, is the artist’s Jewishness. Yes, he did bring Yiddish into his art, but his fluency is likely limited, as he learned it on his own rather than having spoken it from the start, from within the family. There is no traditional observance of Jewish ritual in the drawings, but perhaps a bit of identification with Jewish culture, made evident by the use of Yiddish, which by the second half of the 20th century had become more or less moribund within European languages.  At the same time, the troubling portraits of the Nazi figures Joseph Goebbles and Ernst Roehm lend an air of public menace to the show’s works. They also reify, mostly by  implication, the Jewish identity of Mandelbaum himself. So Jewish cultural history quite literally enters the picture. Certainly, Mandelbaum’s religiioius identificaiton, like his suggestion of queerness, looks as much imagined as real. Yet Jewishness has a way of asserting itself in central Europe; we remember that the artist’s inheritance is tacitly given, being shadowed by the Holocaust. But in this artist’s case, the value of self-worth is presented by imagery devoted to the Nazis themselves, indicating that historical horror is a way of defining the present as the cultural assertion of self.

We can start to look at the individual drawings of Franci Bacon and his companion George Dwyer.  There are several drawings by Bacon; one, done in 1982, addresses his portrait, beneath which are a lof smaller d, slightly obscured sketches.The artist’s chipmunk-like cheeks are accurately remembered, but we look more closely at his wistful gaze. His hair, parted on the side, stands out as streaked,  linear strands. Most of the poetics of the drawing center on Mandelbaum’s authority in rendering Bacon’s  melancholic  stare, which looks too general to be focused on anything in particular. But that is what makes the image take hold of our imagination; it is a view of a great artist, known to be in difficult straits in his private life. The drawing gives us no hard evidence of personal hardship; everything is concentrated into his blank gaze. In this drawing, Bacon is understood as an enigma, someone renowned for his complex treatment of the figure, the face especially.

Dwayer, Bacon’s companion, is seen in a profile portrait made in. He turns his head toward the right side of the paper. Wearing a tie and jacket, Dwyer offers a jowled, slightly coarse physiognomy: heavy lips and a large nose. His jowls extend invisibly into his neck. Both Dwyer and Bacon are scrupulously given; they are sharply accurate indications of the men’s inner lives.. But Bacon, more the poet, lyrically appears to us, whereas Dwyer’s aura is more worldly. Dwyer  feels like a man of affairs, and seems set in the moment. Here, by implication, homosexuality is championed, but biographical accounts of Mandelbaum do not mention active gay experience. This drawing occurs along with an unusually frank queer image: a graphite drawing of Peter Max, made in 1984. It shows the narrow-faced portrait of a young man with a shock of hair drooping over one side of his forehead, coming close to covering the sitter’s right eye. Despite conventional dress–Max wears a tie and coat–the man also wears lipstick, eroticizing his portrait. As happens with much of the artist’s life, in this drawing the cry of the wild may have only been suggested and not have taken place.

In Composition (Masked Figure) (c. 1981), Mandelbaum presents a visually intricate drawing that connects historically with his recent Jewish past in Europe: the contraction camps where Jewish people were imprisoned before being systematically destroyed by the Nazis. Dense with small figures bearing rifles, the work centers on an obviously Jewish figure  wearing a star on his chest and a mask tied behind his head, whose most prominent feature is a large star. The figure is surrounded by an oval made up of orange lines, like;y a symbolic version of barbed wire. Within the oval are numerous goings on, and above the imprisoned person and to his right are very small images of armed personnel, what might be hils in miniature. Diagonally aligned bar shapes, too abstract to find a meaning for, climb upward toward the far left corner. Actually, the piece looks like a map, as much symbolic as actual, of the Jewish incarceration. Mandelbaum may well have found solace in rendering this image; his version of history, effectively imagined if not actual, succeeds in small.  We remember that the artist was born in western Europe, where genocide mostly took place, less than twenty years after the end of the Second World War. So he belonged to that time, as well as to a contemporary life that is still with us now.  But this work is conceptually rather than formally driven. It imaginatively, not in actuality, makes historical time clear.

A self-portrait, c. 1960, made with graphite shows the artist as looking from a near profile view. His hair, similar to that of the man wearing lipstick, falls over the right side of the forehead. The artist sticks out his tongue in a defiant, erotic presentation; his gaze feels amoral, beyond the pale. The defiance in his countenance is unnerving; it is the conscious pride of someone very gifted in art, who also wished to inhabit a world of social decline. Why this was a focus of Mandelstam we don’t know, but we do know that his artlife collided, literally in a mortal fashion, with an underworld he chose to contact.

In a study directly heterosexual, tiled Executive in a Red-Light Care (1981), Mandeklbaum presents us with two figures sitting on a small couch: to the left, an attractive prostitute, topless and with short black hair, sits next to a middle-age businessman with a receding hairline wearing a tie, The eroticism of the scene is clear; this is an assignation that will be fulfilled shortly enough. Again, Mandelbaum opts for  a scene open in its transgression. He is very often suggesting rather than stating, often with sensual implications. Why would he be so taken with low-level crime? It hardly makes sense, but maybe his identification with those who cross lines enabled him to portray the contemporaneity that reggularly accompanies imagery presenting the lower depths (conversely, goodness can often feel like it comes from an archaic culturs). There is true sexual flair in the portrait of the nearly nude young woman; her allure is evident at once. As with the queer eros suggested in Mandelbaum’s art, her physical attractiveness turns on the moment. In one sense, the work merely depicts a naked girl. But, maybe, in a deeper way, the desire her figure initiates is more than an excuse for looking. These kinds of feeling established themselves a long time ago with the beginnings of classical renderings of the nude. The gap between desire then and desire now is not really pertinent as a theme. Desire does not go away in culture, and that’s the point.

Portrait of a Punk (Hugo) (1984) give  us the side view of a young Turkish punk, more than likely living in Germany at the time–the language of the words Mandelbaum uses beneath the head of the young man is German, and there is a small image of the German flag to the left of the words. The sitter has a shaved head with only a thin scalp of hair set in the center of his head. His gaze is melancholic but also sensitive, as he looks off, beyond the right edge of the paper. But a snub nose, and rough stubble above the lip and around the chin, show him as aggressive–even if only in appearance (we recall that a lot of the violence in punk culture was more show than actuality). Somehow, despite the roughness of this man’s appearance, a sensitivity occurs as well. Mandelbaum is excellent at investing his imagery with a common touch, but it is so finely handled, the meaning in the drawing becomes one nearly of high culture. The craft of the artist’s hand, then, redeems a coarse portrait by making it well drawn. Mandelbaum’s artistic fluency often transforms the rough-cut nature of his art.

Bar Albertine North Brussels (1981) consists of a light-skinned black woman sitting in a chair. Her hair is short, and she is wearing a dress with extended fringe. The

technical aspect of the drawing is formidable, and she seems to belong to Brussels’ bar life. As obsessed as Mandelbaum was in establishing a view of the demimonde, he was also determined to depict that scene with notable skill. Drawing, one of the most transparent of art skills, does not leave much to chance; everything is a decision not easily reversed. The dress and the haircut of the woman suggest the 1920s, but we are not sure. It is likely that this was a well-known haunt with artistic ties. Here Mandelbaum’s gift for figurative report is wonderfully evident and fully draws his audience in.

In the last drawing to be discussed, Artur Rimbaud I (1980), the great first poet of modernity is shown in a dark jacket, leaning against a white fence, which keeps him from falling into a dark, roiling sea. Above the water, which appears to be rising, is a blank white sky. We only know that it is Rimbaud because the artist names him in the title. But both the gravitas and the dysfunction that seems to follow a great early modernist writer like Rimbaud can be intimated in the black mass of water. Mandelbaum, very much a lyric poet of psychic disturbance himself, finds in Rimbaud, and in a rendering of the great Italian filmmaker and poet Pasolini, comrades in arms. They offer support for a much later artist, whose affiliations are not always clear. Yet the artist likes marginal figures such as Bacon and Rimbaud and Pasolini, whose visionary (not necessarily erotic) influence allow Mandelbaum to allude to a tradition of dissent and creative innovation that started early in the 20th century. This means that our current time, to which Mandelbaum very much belongs, owes its energies to a past that is very recent–even if his skills are also deeply influenced by older traditions.

It is hard to bring a final judgment on Mandelbaum’s drawings. They are a striking mixture of the refined and the coarse. His skills were more than considerable; they become deeply moving in light of his short life, his mythologies of rebellion, and his ability to fuse eros with original, but also notably historical, form. His efforts took place after the Sixties experiments of Pop and conceptual art, making his themes eclectic and memorable. This can only be done in a time when experiment is nearly exhausted, having become the victim of extravagance in thinking and form.

Time will tell with Mandelbaum, but one senses that his achievement is genuine. It looks like he Drawing Center, always original in its presentations—I vividly remember, more than a few years ago, a marvelous show of the great French poet and novelist Victor Hug’s drawings, which established him as an important visual artist–resulted in another exhibition of distinction, It is particularly attractive to see an artist from Europe continue the continent’s penchant for innovation and historical influence both, and drawing, the most transparent of the visual arts, is also often the most revelatory in theme. So Rimbaud, now a recognized  master, began as a marginalized artist whose life and creativity were experimental in the extreme.  Perhaps Mandel sought a similar kind of double allegiance. He seemed to want notoriety, but the drawings show that he understood the historical past. It is very hard today to assert the long influences of prior work in art; the effects of time have been erased by intellectualism–the pronounced use of concept. It seems that Mandelbaum intuitively understood the present drama of visual art, in which  the events of an artist’s life are to be treated as being as importance as his work. Time will tell if such an allegiance works beyond the days in which such visuals were made.


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