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Review: “What Artists Wear” by Charlie Porter

Jean-Michel Basquiat loved his clothes as he loved his art: “oversized, quirky, controlled chaos”. His outfits, stained with paint and burnt seams, were very elaborate and often expensive – he preferred Rei Kawakubo’s designs for Comme des Garçons – but they never lost the spirit of his former homelessness: “Always dress just in case”, he’ d say. “Maybe I should sleep on the street.”

In WHAT THE ARTISTS WEAR (Norton, $30), British fashion journalist and art curator Charlie Porter treats his subjects as more than just “style icons”. Making art can be isolating, discouraging, consuming, he says. What a person wears while doing it, whether it’s a blouse, blue jeans or couture, is “a testament to that fearlessness, that focus.”

It’s also a testament to their humanity: a response to the deified white male canon, a reminder that all artists are mere mortals with bodies that need covering just like ours. What adorns the non-male (Louise Bourgeois, Mary Manning), non-white (Tehching Hsieh, Alvaro Barrington) bodies in this book is as much self-expression as resistance.

“What can these artists tell us about the way we all wear clothes,” Porter asks, “all of us trying to pretend not to perform, all the time?”

During the Area party at Keith Haring’s new POP shop in New York in 1986, Basquiat’s look was pure instinct and aesthetics: the mismatched checked shirt and trousers, under a loose jacket (probably Comme des Garçons) and a Kazou hat. The juxtaposition makes artist Francisco Clemente, to his right, look like an accountant, in his stiff, starchy suit and tie.

“Attack clothes”, Cindy Sherman scribbled in her notebook in 1983: “ugly person (face/body) vs trendy clothes”. That same year, she published a series of self-portraits in Interview magazine that “challenge fashion imagery,” Porter writes, including this photograph in which she wears a tailored, imperfectly tailored jacket-dress (which can say which one?) French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. Rather than fetishizing the clothes she wears as works of art in themselves, she views them solely as “a means to an end.”

At 25, David Hammons made his first of many body prints, which brought his name to the public. It was 1968 and he had moved to Los Angeles from Springfield, Illinois five years earlier. Bruce Talamon photographed him in his studio in 1974, wearing jeans and shirtless, with a bottle of baby oil to his right. “He just poured oil on his hands and rubbed them together,” Talamon told Porter. “He would then rub his oily hands on any part of his body and also on his clothes, then press that part of the body onto the paper.”

Like the imprint of a baby’s foot or hand in a family album, the result was a record, a preservation, of a person and a time that would inevitably change over time. “By doing body prints,” Hammons said, “it tells me exactly who I am and who we are.”

German Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys was photographed by Caroline Tisdall at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland in 1974, wearing his old school uniform – white shirt and jeans, fisherman’s jacket, felt hat – under a lined coat of fur. According to Porter, the uniform “made him one of the most recognizable performers of the 20th century”. But for him, the garment was not simply a “trademark”: each of these components was both function and personal mythology. The hat, for example, which he wore to protect his head from the cold after a plane crash (in 1944, when he was in the German Air Force) left him with a metal plate in the skull. According to his shamanic beliefs, he said the hat “represents another type of head and functions as another personality”.


Lauren Christensen is an editor at Book Review.

Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds