May 23, 2024


Super Art is Almost

The way Eve Babitz wrote about art in Los Angeles was art in itself

Try to remember when you didn’t know about Eve Babitz.

I first read Eve in the context of a photography book by the artist Zoe Crosher. Zoe’s work isn’t about the city per se. Through photography and sleuthy archival projects she maps a certain afterimage of Los Angeles like a noir conceptualist. The book, titled after her project “LA-Like: Transgressing the Pacific,” reproduced photographs Crosher had taken of various shoreline sites of watery disappearances. They had titles like “Where Natalie Wood Disappeared Off the Coast of Catalina Island” (2010) and “Where Norman Maine Disappeared at Laguna Beach From the 1954 Version of “A Star is Born” (2010), treating the fates of real stars and fictional characters alike to the same postcard-cum-crime scene quality of Zoe’s lens. They were interspersed with excerpts from Eve’s 1977 book “Slow Days, Fast Company,” still long out of print when Zoe was putting her own book together. (Disclosure: Hesse Press, which published Zoe’s book, later published mine.)

“I included excerpts that surrounded notions of disappearance,” Zoe told me over the phone yesterday as I washed the dishes. “I sleuthed. And it wasn’t easy.”

The first page in “LA-Like” is a photo of a hand holding open a page from an early edition of “Slow Days”:

I saw Gabrielle the other night out hunting in a bush jacket at some museum opening. I asked her if she remembered about the Coyote’s Brain, and she cracked her bubblegum and wondered what I was talking about. She was with Edward Sanford, and when I asked him where his wife was (the next one), he said he thought probably Kenya. Gabrielle probably “disappeared” her too.

NYRB would republish all of Eve’s work starting in 2015, unleashing the literary renaissance of a woman who hadn’t published in over 20 years. Who had, in effect, disappeared herself.

Coming to an Eve Babitz sentence out of the blue was like reading a foreign language. I didn’t know what I was looking at. I wrote about art, and my art writing career up until that point had been an exercise in self-flagellation via continental theory, occasionally allowing myself to read Maggie Nelson or Chris Kraus or Joan Didion, as a treat. (For a certain type of girl growing up in the lower half of California, especially one who wants to write, there is a mandatory reckoning with Joan Didion. I don’t remember my first actual encounter with Joan Didion’s work, only that I ate up most of her books in rapid succession. Despite being utterly impressed, even moved, by her unimpeachable seriousness, I felt alienated by her unimpeachable good taste. And I got the sense she was closing the door behind her.)

All I wanted was permission.

I’d never read sentences like Eve’s — beautiful, breathless, full of information yet humming with the stress of running into a coked-out acquaintance at a party. Eve’s name morphed into a curious shorthand for being in thrall to the fantasy of Los Angeles, but her prose is stuffed with details, details, details. Just look at all the proper nouns in that passage: Edward, Kenya, Gabrielle, Coyote’s Brain. She wrote about Grand Central Market and Olvera Street and Bunker Hill, places I’d been going to since I was a kid and didn’t think much of in terms of literary merit. She wrote about Musso & Frank and the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Angels Flight railway, places brought to life by the people who went there and the way Eve talked about them. That one might chase down and collect her haunts was never my takeaway from her books. To visit these places — which you should anyway — just because Eve did skirts the cardinal achievement of her work: The permission to respect one’s own aesthetic experience, especially in a place like this.

I was FaceTiming with a friend in Philadelphia last year, begging him to come to Los Angeles to recover from a breakup. He’d never been to Los Angeles. I was trying to put Eve’s magic into words that might pull him onto a plane. There was a knock at my door and I told him to hold on for a bit as I stepped out of frame to answer it. When I came back he asked what happened and I said, “Oh, my neighbor across the hall is a cameraman and I guess he got a job in Tunisia for the next few weeks so he dropped off his avocados so they wouldn’t go bad.” I would have thought nothing of this very straightforward sentence if I hadn’t seen the look on his face after it came out of me. “Eve’s Hollywood” is itself an afterimage of a Los Angeles that would never exist to me, but it got me thinking about avocados and what my neighbor did for a living. The seductions of my city were not in what other people wrote but in the details, details, details of my everyday life.

This is the magic. It’s sometimes very small. Eventually he got on a plane.

Eve was never merely an art critic, but she intuited the social contours of the art world. She knew that an art encounter began even before you left the house, it seeped in while you were trying to pick out an outfit for the opening, and described works of art with the same diction she used to talk about food and sex. “Here are Peter Alexander pyramids that’ll sink you into a trance” she wrote in an essay about the Ferus Gallery scene. She had even choicer words for her ex-boyfriend Walter Hopps, describing his “Clark Kent glasses that chopped his face into rectangular squares and made him seem as square and cool as celery.” Around the same time that Eve’s books were being republished, Boris Groys, another favored purveyor of media theory that I like to punish myself with, wrote that “traditional art produced art objects. Contemporary art produces information about art events.” The ever-prescient Eve spent her formative years living this dry observation with sybaritic relish, waking up the next day to write it down. The information she produced about art events was not just gossip, but an art form in itself. In the same essay she refers to a New York artist as an “uppity bitch,” and I like that.

I toggle between intoxicating myself on Eve’s prose with giving a hard look at the price she paid to live the kind of life that could produce it. Like Lili Anolik, whose 2014 Vanity Fair profile also helped usher in the new Eve-mania, Zoe had once been on a mission to find Eve. She tried to explain to me what it was like to know about Eve Babitz in the early aughts: “I was completely floored and dumbfounded that she was not in the canon — she wasn’t even in libraries.” Zoe did eventually meet Eve, in her characteristically sleuthy way, bartering an artwork in exchange for information on her whereabouts from a fellow artist who did not want to be named. “I haven’t talked about this because part of me still wants to hang on to this fantasy of her,” Zoe said of her 2012 meeting with Eve. She sensed a gnawing wish for privacy, though, and did not contact her again. If Zoe ever constellates Eve into her work, it will be through actors and lookalikes, a conflation of a real star and a fictional character that I find more deferent to Eve’s legacy than voyeuristic fetishization of her biography. “To be clear,” Zoe said, “I think she’s incredible. To me, her legacy is her writing.”

Same. It’s hard to not vicariously live through Eve. She did everything we’re not supposed to be doing now. The women I see posting the most histrionic social media tributes to Eve are also the ones posting infographics about emotional sobriety, or how to avoid “situationships,” or any number of immaterial tools for getting a handle on the self. That snakeskin of bourgeois psychological management is what Eve spent her life continually shimmying out of. Her relationships — to men, art and alcohol alike — were absolutely situations, at times ecstatic, dangerous, and always fleeting. In the end she did get the guy, and she did it with her inviting and incisive attention to detail. To paraphrase Mary Oliver, Eve was all her life a bride, married to amazement.

Christina Catherine Martinez is a writer, actress, and comedian born and raised in Los Angeles.