Crème de Menthe and Armor: The Josiah Tell Interview

closeup500I first met Josiah Tell in the Spring of 1999, when he tapped me to ghost write his autobiography Josiah Tells All!: Notes from America’s Answer to Theodore Roosevelt. His erratic behavior—and his frequent absences due to the many arraignments he was required to attend over the years—made progress slow. The book was finally published on Tell’s GeoCities site last month, three days before Yahoo shut down the web hosting service permanently. Tell, who has claimed that backing up data is “for girls,” was left with nothing.

Tell has been known as the bad boy of the art historical world since 1985, when he provoked a fist fight at Pomona College’s annual Renaissance Art Symposium. (He repeatedly interrupted the keynote speaker by shouting from his seat in the audience that Leonardo da Vinci “was a big old Scientologist,” a claim that he stands by.) Since then, he’s traveled from museum to museum, shoplifting from gift stores and subsisting mostly on the free cru d’été served at exhibition openings.

In short, Josiah Tell is an abrasive outcast who only stays relevant by occasionally producing groundbreaking research. ArtForum calls his mode of scholarship the Stopped Clock method: unlike his peers, Tell doesn’t mind having his theories proved completely wrong. And because he’s never shy about sharing his libelous and paranoid theories, the law of averages states that eventually, a few of them will be correct—and fewer still, brilliant.

When he arrived at the Swedish Consulate General in New York, (where he’d demanded we hold this interview, since “The Swedes have never—and I do mean never—successfully prosecuted a submarine robbery”) Tell reeked of gasoline. “It’s Friday,” he shrugged, by way of explanation (It was a Tuesday). Tell grabbed the elbow of a passer-by and ordered “a piping-hot mug of crème de menthe.” Miraculously, the man, who I later learned was a senior diplomat, returned a few short minutes later with a steaming cup of liqueur, and nervously apologized for the wait. Call it the Tell Effect.

Tell wanted to speak about his recent visit to the Arms and Armor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but, being intensely suspicious of journalists, he refused to answer anything I asked. Instead, he conducted the entire interview himself, posing his own questions and pausing thoughtfully before responding.

Q: Are Arms awesome?

A: They are.

Q: How about Armor?

A: You bet!

Q: I was told you were a liberal elitist, and a socialist besides. Shouldn’t you hate guns?

A: Well, look: you can’t spell “Red State” without “Red.” So there’s something to think about. Plus, these weapons are all from Olden Times, before we had nations to protect us from Visigoths and bears and whatnot. Not to mention the constant threat of defenestration, which my research suggests killed more Europeans in the Premodern period than any other cause except witchcraft. So, sure, if I were living in Olden Times, you can bet I would have had as many muskets as I could fit in my castle. I would have worn a suit of armor, codpiece and all, in my sleep. Would have been crazy not to.

Q: That’s a really good point.

A: Thank you.

Q: Speaking of codpieces, if Prince were alive back in Arms and Armor days, what kind of codpiece would he wear?

A: You wouldn’t believe how often I get asked that question. He’d wear this one:

cock700Q: Rad!

A: I know, right?

Q: It assumes the wearer has an erection at all times!

A: Yeah, it’s pretty hilarious. I had to be escorted from the gallery the first time I went because I was laughing so hard.

Q: So what was your favorite piece there?

A: Definitely the seven-foot-tall suit of German fluted armor (below left). Look at it—the center suit’s a full head taller than the other two! Think how big the guy who wore that must have been. And this was back when everyone else was all atrophied and hunchbacked from gout and a diet of hardtack and dirt, so this two-metre Teuton would have been huge.

giant700Q: Well, the Days of Yore were some rough times, but I’m pretty sure people weren’t literally eating dirt.

A: Lots of people assume that. I actually was joking when I first said it, but apparently it’s a real thing called geophagy.

Q: Weird.

A: Totally weird! Eating dirt! But so anyway, you can imagine how terrifying this brute must have seemed in 1500, what with everyone else so malnourished and withered from eating rocks. If this ogre had started lumbering towards you in battle—

Q: Jesus Christ, I’d have pissed myself!

A: Precisely, you’d have pissed yourself. And suit of armor, remember, is impermeable, so it’s not like it would eventually have evaporated like that time you wet yourself after drinking a pint of ethanol that you stole from the the Rutgers Chem lab that caused you to pass out in a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, and when you woke up your cargo shorts smelled like frat bathroom but at least they were dry.

Q: I beg your pardon—I’m sure I don’t know what you’re referring to. And it was a tollbooth.

A: Yes, that’s right. You know, I haven’t been able to listen to Prairie Home Companion since that night. Who would have guessed that Garrison Keeler was such an adept cage fighter?

Q: He literally bent that guy’s arm backwards! Like with the elbow all going the wrong way! That’s a nice segue, actually, let’s move on to Arms. Were any of the handguns displayed in such a way that they appeared to be floating?

A: Yes. This revolver, manufactured by Samuel Colt, was displayed in exactly that manner:

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Q: Super cool! That’s some nice curatorial work.

A: It is.

Q: Well, this has been a wonderful. Thanks for your time.

A: The pleasure was mine.

At this point, Tell lurched out of his seat and asked to use the phone at the receptionist’s desk. He dialed 411, and after politely requesting the operator’s name and social security number, made his query. “New York City, The Internet. Yes. I need the number for The Internet. You can just put me through directly (pause). It’s some kind of a computer thing, I’m pretty sure it’s like Sega. Have you played Sega? (pause) Well look, I need Paypal to wire some money over to the Swedish embassy. I’ve just now realized I’m short on cash and unable to pay my bar tab, so I need money moved from my Party Poker account in Mauritius to the— (pause) Hello?” Tell’s face fell, and he slowly returned the receiver to the desk attendant. “My deepest regrets, Your Grace. Evidently my bank refuses to do business with Scandinavians. On account of the War—you understand.”

And with that, Josiah Tell bowed deeply from the waist and sprinted out the door, into the night.

Sergio Holl is an arts writer based in New York City.

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A Reputation for Amorous Predispositions

Nothing gets us going like a blockbuster museum exhibition. The Picasso and Braque show a few years back had us carrying around a stack of books for three months to hide the perpetual boner we’d get thinking about those lovely gray-brown forays into cubism. And don’t even get us started about Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci at the National Gallery.

So you can imagine our excitement when we learned that the good folks at the Rijksmuseum in Merry Old Amsterdam had lent the Met The Milkmaid (1658ish), Vermeer’s best known work with the possible exception of The Girl With the Pearl Earring (and that’s only because of ScarJo).
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There are a total of 30 known Vermeers, and six of those are currently on view in a little warren of rooms tucked just off the Greek and Roman Galleries. The show is excellent and the Milkmaid is fucking ridiculously good, and appears to have been recently cleaned (look at this image search for the painting—half the returns are yellowed with muck and varnish that’s since been removed). The blue and gold of the maid’s dress are lush and vital. It’s a simple mimetic scene—a young woman pours milk near a window. But then you step right up to the thing and you see that the loaf of bread on the table is rendered as minuscule dots, which makes it glow and radiate. It’s an ethereal trick, but the painting is grounded by the nicks and divots on the wall behind the maid. The whitewash is almost translucent, the blueblack of masonry or underpainting just barely shows through. And the . . . the fucking quality of light and shadow is fantastic, so vivid that you can tell it’s overcast outside, even though you can only see a fraction of a windowpane at an angle.

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The show’s well curated, too—also on view are period Delft tiles, nearly identical to the ones seen in the painting, and a tightly edited group of works by Vermeer’s contemporaries. Among our favorites were a pair of canvasses by Van Vilets and De Witte. Each painter shows an the interior of Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (old church). By 1600, wall text informs, the Netherlands had gone almost totally Protestant, and they converted their Gothic (Catholic) churches into more Romanesque (Protestant) buildings by stripping the “‘popish’ appointments and whitewashing their columns and walls.”  Anyway, the paintings show the Oude Kerk as a weird, wonderful palimpsest—the vaulted arches and stone tracery show the church’s gothic pedigree. It’s in the building’s bones, and no whitewash can cover it.

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In de Witte’s view, a dog, visually emphasized by a square of daylight, lifts its leg to piss on one of the church’s columns.

Show’s up through November. Get over there.

Vermeer’s Masterpiece The Milkmaid

Highlight: The textures in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1662ish). You can see the “needlework” on the tablecloth and the creases in the woman’s headdress. Remarkable.

Memorable quote:For at least two centuries before Vermeer’s time, milkmaids and kitchen maids had (or were assigned) a reputation for amorous predispositions.”

Next week: African art, for real this time. We were distracted by Vermeer.

Atlas Obscura

atlas obscuraWe’d turned off our twitter, ignored our to-blog bookmarks, and generally gotten-the-fuck-outta-dodge when erstwhile SD contributor JC sent us a link to a new project from some old favorites. It’s Atlas Obscura, a wiki-like compendium of the odd by the founders of the Athanasius Kircher Society and Curious Expeditions.

We love the graph paper background, the Medical Museums, the Real Life tours in Philadelphia!

We are reborn!

Modern Self Portraits

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A quickie this time. The Met’s Modern Art Mezzanine has an exhibition called The Lens and the Mirror showing self-portraits from the Museum’s own collection.

We loved the pair of William Roberts drawings, the first from 1911 (when he was sixteen!) and the second from around 1920. In both, the artist’s face is tilted down a bit, giving him a kind of menacing, Alex DeLarge look. There’s also an Egon Schiele watercolor, below, in which the artist appears eroticized and grotesquely emaciated. So, yeah, pretty much like any other portrait he ever did (ProTip: The Neue Galerie, just a few blocks north of the Met’s main entrance, has a fantastic Schiele collection in a weirdly intimate setting).

We enjoyed the Matisse intaglio, an expressive drawing by Umberto Boccioni (who was discussed previously on Suggested Donation) and the wonderfully rigid self-portrait by modernist photographer Edward Steichen (shown below as an unintentional self-portrait of a self-portrait—bad photographers and brightly lit objects behind glass do not mix. Metafictive! Kind of! . . . We’re like an accidental Charlie Kaufman).

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This group of work dates from the1880s through the 1940s; in August, curators will hit the reset button and put up another round  of self-portraits from the collection, this time from the 50s through today.

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