The Back Room

Overtarci firehydrant.

In a Room Occupied by One or More Cats

Anne Walsh
“Dedications make visible a structure that does not have to answer to the cumbersome binary of fact and fiction.”  —Catherine Lord, Medium: Ink on Paper 


At the time my engagement with Alice Rahon begins, I am about to leave on a trip with my eighty-four-year-old dad. Dad needs to see a lot of Piet Mondrian paintings for his upcoming work, and has invited me along to look closely with him. Dad speaks Dutch and German, I do not. But he’s in chronic pain and has limited mobility; so in addition to thought partner on many questions Mondrian, my role on this journey includes chauffeur, companion animal, and drinking buddy. We meet in Basel, Switzerland; on day one Dad has an appointment at the conservation lab of the Foundation Beyeler outside the city. We tour Mondrian Evolution in the Beyeler’s pristine galleries, then descend to the lab in a spotless elevator. A multi-year, multi-million-dollar study of Mondrian’s grid paintings, funded by the Swiss skincare company La Prairie, has just concluded, and the conservators are proud to share their work, which included making dozens of mock-up Mondrians to study his colors, his lines, his strokes. Using x-rays and microscopic examination, they’ve discovered that in his working process, Mondrian frequently moved black lines to the right or left a fraction, narrowing or widening their width. Moved them lots of times, made decisions by eye, and used different shades of white, different blacks.

Left image shows black horizontal lines on white paper. Right image shows a computer screen of blue, black red sqaures and a hand pointing to it.
All images by Anne Walsh except where noted.

I can imagine the value of this data for refining notions of modernist gesture, process, even spirituality, but I’m disappointed; I must have hoped a bunny, a telephone, or a tenderly portrayed man would be revealed by the x-rays. I would rather know why Mondrian is so abstemious around personal and social intimacy. I am emphatic with Dad: Mondrian’s passionate idealism conceals something. What banished longings or messiness drive the rules and principles of “neo-plasticism,” Mondrian’s philosophy that called for the renunciation of representation in favor of a limited formal vocabulary of straight lines, rectangular planes, and primary colors? Why does he never partner? How did these life choices impact his work and also his fame, his election to genius status? I point out that the most heavily circulated photographs of the artist show him alone, posing in his double-breasted suits. I insist that the word “purity” in Mondrian’s writings needs to be interrogated. I go on about his documented anti-Semitism. I am also vexed about craving the biographical reveal, as if my interests are impure, as if I’m missing the big picture: in obsessing over the life of the artist, I’m not seeing or respecting the art or the artistry. Is there something dirty about the life? Why is biography considered such a low form of literature? Dad is patient, doesn’t point out that my desire to complicate the canon — to doubt one of its heroes — surely has its own blind spots.

Left image shows more blue, red and white square and rectangle objects on black able.  Right image shows book cover in hand that reads "Modern Art Desserts."

We spend a week traveling through Holland, and our days quietly contemplating De Stijl art are jet lagged and long; there is so much Mondrian-styled swag everywhere we go. I’m lonely — for friends, for my home and my child. Everything is grids and primary colors, black and white. I find Advils on the passenger seat of our rental car, escapees from Dad’s pockets. The little red disks rest elegantly on the stitched, black upholstery, sometimes in two pairs, one for each pocket. A neighbor texts me a picture of Timothée Chalamet absolutely fetching in a backless, red satin jumpsuit and black boots, his look for the Venice Film Festival. For many nights I watch the solemn choreography of Queen Elizabeth’s moving coffin, the perfectly straight lines of uniformed guardsmen and the slow, marching walk or silent stillness of her mourning children: four kids, one per side of the funeral bier. I know it’s a brutal empire, and still, I’m mesmerized by the form, by the unbelievable expanse of red carpet, flowers, mourners. Another night I watch The Rest I Make Up, a film portrait of the playwright Irene Fornes in the throes of dementia. She is antic, brilliant, queer — and Alzheimer’s has taken her literary voice. Without the young filmmaker Michelle Memran, who tells Fornes she was lost when she and Fornes began this collaboration, Fornes would be alone, a danger to herself in a tiny apartment. 

Image shows a black leather passenger seat in car with two red pills on it.

I'm watching this film because I, too, have a long, involved, and studious fan-girl relationship with an elder woman artist, in my case Leonora Carrington. My obsession, sparked by meeting Leonora in 2008 and 2009, burned and smoked like a torch for the next decade; Leonora died in 2011 at age ninety-four, but I continued to write to her till I had a book in print eight years later. In theory I was “adapting” Carrington’s novel The Hearing Trumpet in a range of media; in practice, everything I did was part of that adaptation. Leonora's book gave my art and life their logic and purpose. Every person I saw, loved, or could imagine as a subversive old lady or wry, skeptical narrator was a potential cast member of my Hearing Trumpet movie, which is how, some years ago, I ended up with the name ALICE RAHON in a notebook. I wrote A-L-I-C-E R-A-H-O-N neatly, I liked its look. Speaking it aloud in French, I thought of a Spanish cheese, or an Alp. I liked saying it, liked the weirdness of the purring, rolled R, followed by the wide mouthed AHH, closed down by the lippy O, finished by the throaty and subtle NN. You can say it in a deep voice or a high pitch, either way it sounds like a growl, a cat-fighting cry. And if you begin with Alice pronounced en français, you get that same wide-open AH followed by a long LEEEE-SUH. The French lisse, a homonym, means smooth, or supple. Smooth mountain.

Left image shows a yellowed paper book with list of names. Right image shows white paper book cover with list of names, some circled.

Maybe because I couldn’t feel her yet, I didn’t put Alice Rahon on a cast list. Neither her poems nor her visual work were easy to find in print. It also didn’t occur to me that she might have been Leonora's inspiration for Claude la Checherelle, one of the book’s octogenarian characters, a former machine gunneress in World War I. (Anyway, the logic of cast lists was never about individuals playing specific roles. Being on a cast list was about affinity, association, affect, and charm.) Rahon was mentioned in Leonora's kitchen one day in 2008 by one of the art historians, gathered, like me, to soak up her caustic charm and anecdotes. Hearing Teresa Arcq say that Rahon had been “forgotten,” Leonora blamed Rahon’s first husband, the artist Wolfgang Paalen. “I once had to spend a long afternoon looking at his little abstractions,” she said. “And when they asked me what I thought, I couldn’t think of anything to say. But she [Rahon] was VERY good. Of course she's been forgotten. Because of HIM.”  

Painting of city with dark colors and yellows, moon in left corner.
Alice Rahon, Un puerto del norte (A Northern Port) (1947), oil and sand on canvas. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.
Detail, A Northern Port. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.

Leonora Carrington was not wrong. In the current (2022) hang of San Francisco MOMA’s permanent collection, paintings by Rahon’s contemporaries Kay Sage, Lee Krasner, and Dorothea Tanning are all labeled with texts that mention the artists’ husbands — better known, canonically modernist artists — by name. Had it not been deaccessioned by SFMOMA in 1976, Rahon’s nocturnal landscape, A Northern Port (1947), would probably be hanging today with the works of her peers, labeled with an attribution of influence or debt to her by then ex-husband. But apparently A Northern Port wasn’t deemed important enough for the museum to hold onto. Now that it is offered for sale by Gallery Wendi Norris — in San Francisco, no less — perhaps A Northern Port stands a chance of entering a collection where its wall label can speak to its relationship to the codex form, to epic poetry or Rahon's own poems, rather than her marriage to Paalen. Maybe A Northern Port will be curated into exhibitions which explore the roots of queer abstraction, or feminist fairy tales, or quantum theory. 

We didn’t see any of Rahon’s paintings in Europe (very few are in public collections there), but she was with Mondrian, Dad, and me through her writing: I brought along Shapeshifter, the new collection of Rahon's poems published in the 1930s and early ’40s. By the end of the 1930s, she had settled in Mexico City, where she worked and lived as a painter. From Shapeshifter’s introduction, I learn that Rahon spent the last twenty or so years of her life alone, producing little art. One of her few late works hangs now in Wendi Norris’s Uncovering Alice Rahon, a small painting called Una giganta llamada soledad (1975), and it shows, unusually for Rahon, a doll-like figure — receding into a dark space. Twice divorced, without family or children, Rahon died alone in a nursing home at age eighty-four. I want a perspective on those years that isn't as sad as the story I’m inclined to make up, and it's enraging to imagine what even a portion of MOMA’s sale profits could have bought in the way of long-term care for the elderly and disabled Rahon. The Alice Rahon papers, assembled recently and now in the collection of the Getty Research Institute, might deliver the not-so-sad perspective, once they’re catalogued. I’m curious, and also nervous to see them: uncovering Alice Rahon is an emergent process. Were I in charge, I’d specify that viewing the Rahon papers take place in a room (or rooms) occupied by one or more cats, well-cared for and tended, and fed only hypo-allergenic food. Access to the Rahon papers would be restricted in this way only. Anyone can be a researcher. 

Shapeshifter also introduces me to a bisexual artist-writer forbear, the queer Rahon! A star-studded culturati of female lovers emerges from the little that’s been published about her. Here Rahon’s biography hails me, it feels salutary, and I want to know more. How ‘out’ could she be with her female lovers? How did ‘out’ present in mid-century Mexico City art circles? Did she fear fascist persecution before leaving Europe? Did she fear homophobic violence in Mexico? Did Frida and Alice exchange letters, and did they talk about art? Did Rahon ever postulate a queer aesthetic? Did she think of line as erotic? I don’t see sexual identity explicitly explored in Rahon’s artwork, but like so much European Surrealism, it does queer figurative realism. It queers the primacy of human being, which in her work seems neither an aspirational condition nor a fixed state. In Rahon’s paintings, markers of time and space are sometimes stretched or repeated; I feel reminded that the when, where, and what of who I am as a viewer is fluid and mutable. I want to smell, to scratch, to lick them, to know the world they were made in, the one they invite me into. 

Alice Rahon, La cuadra (1942-1950), oil and sand on canvas. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.
Installation view, Uncovering Alice Rahon, Gallery Wendi Norris, October 2022. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.

La cuadra (1942-50) is the first painting one encounters walking into Gallery Wendi Norris, and it works as a prologue for the rest of the show. Painting is color, painting is wet stuff pushed around deliberately on a surface, painting is touch. Here there is no hierarchy of form or subject. Cats are buildings and boats are reptiles, sky is wood, people are birds, drawing is cutting, life is energy, paintings can fly. Rahon made La cuadra with sand mixed into paint, then incised the paint so that fine lines are drawn — or really burred — into the surface to reveal color below. You could call La cuadra a city scene, roughly, but then you could also think of it as a diagram, a map. In the center of a three-lobed yellow form, a sort of background architecture, floats a grid of nine colored rectangles: acidic yellow, cloverish and lime greens, dark Mediterranean blue, pumpkin oranges and fruity reds. Into those thickly laid rectangles are incised smaller rectangles, and littler colored squares, like cells with a nucleus. Outside the thick block of this grid float more colored rectangles, as though they have flown free, or belong to another spatial logic — the animated versus the stationary. The fine line drawing inscribed into this perimeter space shows a procession of dancing stick figures, and rooftops and smoke or moving clouds along the top border. La cuadra feels rough, raw, and urgently made — in fact it has to have been, given its technique, which means Rahon was composing on the fly. La cuadra (the stable or the block) feels celebratory, and talismanic. I want to be a horse that lives there.

When the gallery’s Melanie Cameron tells me La cuadra is dedicated to Piet Mondrian, I’m baffled: what’s he doing here? But also: what's she doing? Rahon hand-wrote the dedication on the back of the canvas, and at some point crossed it out, replacing it with a dedication to the artist and stage designer Esteban Francés. Melanie speculates that La cuadra could have a painting underneath it, dedicated to Mondrian, and the one we see, to Francés. If we x-ray La cuadra, we might find something there — a different grid? A windmill? — or nothing; if we read the Rahon papers, we might find that she and Mondrian liked the same song, or loved the same man, or woman.  Maybe Mondrian read and memorized Rahon’s poems, reciting one in full to her at a party in Paris sometime in the late 1930s. Perhaps he proposed the whole book be adapted for film. Maybe, like Dad and me, Rahon saw Mondrian’s two tender little paintings from 1917, each titled Composition with Color Planes, and found them magical, like math, sex or language. Perhaps the dedication is meant only to point to a web of connections, to generate possibilities, to subvert the very notion of artistic debt. Rahon dedicated works frequently: she loves out loud, telling us this artwork exists BECAUSE another person matters to me. Through this work I am connected to another life, another creation.

I am imagining Alice Rahon running into Piet Mondrian at The Milk of Dreams, this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition. They have wandered through the sequence of galleries showing recent and contemporary art exploring themes dear to Leonora Carrington, who wrote and illustrated the children’s book from which the exhibition takes its name. There are animals, goats, and wolves in particular; there are many hybrid beings; there are lamentations and exhortations; epics, faith, and ritual. It’s a huge, sensual show that brings feminist, animist, and futurist realities into conversation, giving them a platform and an international art audience. Rahon and Mondrian’s encounter takes place on either side of a fire extinguisher. They make small talk about the depredations of Covid and the Russian imperial war on Ukraine, only a long day’s drive away. Rahon acknowledges it’s a special honor to be here, because she has works included in two of the smaller, historically focused shows within The Milk of Dreams. But it's these peculiar red fire extinguishers in every room that have both Rahon and Mondrian really captivated. Let’s call the extinguishers sh’elders. The specular, sharp gallery light makes a sh’elder’s glossy finish sparkle, renders its alluring form even more pregnant. They are composed of two parts. A narrow, cylindrical stand, formed as a coil at its base, extends vertically upright like a charmed red snake; from this human-height snake-pipe, which also loops into a hook at its finial, hangs a shiny red canister, the size and shape of a forty-pound sausage, an otter, a very heavy capsule-shaped balloon.  

I also am a polyglot survivor of the Spanish flu, two world wars, and emigration, says the sh’elder that has attracted Rahon and Mondrian. I also love art, love to be as close as I can to it. I have a secret for you, would you like to hear it? You are connected through a network of artists, many of whom have works in this very exhibition, people who have deep sensitivity to living beings (plants and animals especially), to touch and the hand-made, to the ecstasy of color, to desire and the new knowledges and languages it creates. You both belong to an extended community of makers and thinkers, of whom I will name just a few. There is the painter Alicia McCarthy, whose weaves, rainbows, and color arrays breathe you in and push you out. Because of a paint drip, a spray of color, or a coffee stain sharing space with an interlocking pair of striped arcs, McCarthy shows you forever and everywhere from the perspective of a cigarette, or a boot. There are Sahar Khoury’s sculptures, makeshift towers of belted-together animal cages and blocky, bulgy ceramic stacks topped by bronze casts of her cat Lola. Pets, says Sahar, are “survivors of a big domestic human experiment.” You may lose and find yourself in Khoury’s substances. There is Edie Fake, a graphic novelist, tattoo artist, and painter picturing and writing the trans body through the metaphor of architecture. Fake's sandcastle paintings, his architectural façades, and his psychedelic floor plans are precise and vibrant; they are drawn closely from the desert where he lives, and from the diatom forms foundational to his designs. Diatoms are algae, by the way, and the oxygen they release gives us thirty percent of the air we breathe. You belong to Virginia Woolf, author of Flush, the imaginative biography of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, and you belong to Mitz, the marmoset who lived with Woolf and her husband Leonard as World War II was beginning. You belong to the crunching improvisation of Françoise Sullivan’s Danse dans la neige, performed in the hard snow of a frosty, silent day. You may find delight in the “Metaphysics of Mixture,” elaborated by Emanuele Coccia in his book, The Life of Plants. Fisherman Forrest Bess’s paintings, made on a tiny island off the Gulf Coast of Texas, belong to you, as do his lexicon of symbols, and his theories of transcendent, eternal hermaphroditism. As a sh’elder guardian of beauty, I guide you toward your kin and your inheritors, and invite you to imagine genius to also mean love, community, and the capacity to feel. 

Alicia McCarthy, Untitled (2019), acrylic and spray paint on panels. Photo courtesy Jack Hanley Gallery.
Alicia McCarthy, Untitled (2019), gouache, spray paint, house paint on panel. Photo courtesy Jack Hanley Gallery.
Forrest Bess, The Penetrator (1967), oil on canvas.
Piet Mondrian, Composition # 3 with Color Planes (1917), oil on canvas.
Sahar Khoury, Untitled (Cage Topiary with Accessories) (2019), animal cages, glazed ceramic, cement, and steel. Photo courtesy SFMOMA.
Sahar Khoury, Untitled (belts with Lola sitting) (2019), glazed ceramic, bronze, belts. Photo courtesy SFMOMA.
Alice Rahon, La Femme qui neige (1945), oil and sand on canvas board. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.
Alice Rahon, City of Cats (1968), oil and sand on canvas. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.
Alice Rahon, Gato cristalizado (1957), oil on cardboard. Photo courtesy Gallery Wendi Norris.
Edie Fake, excerpt from Gaylord Phoenix, Secret Acres (2010).
Edie Fake, Future Presence (2021), gouache on panel.
Edie Fake, Union Station (2016), gouache on paper.
Forrest Bess, Untitled (no. 11A) (1958), oil on canvas.
Forrest Bess, Untitled (The Crowded Mind/The Void) (1947), oil on canvas.
Françoise Sullivan, Danse dans la neige (1948), improvised performance. Photo: Maurice Perron.
Microscopic image of Diatom from Guadalquivir valley in Spain,


“In a Room Occupied by One or More Cats” and Tausif Noor’s “Only Correspond” were commissioned by The Back Room in conjunction with Uncovering Alice Rahon, a reading hosted by Small Press Traffic and Gallery Wendi Norris to celebrate the opening of the eponymous Rahon exhibit.

The Back Room