So Deep in Your Room You Never Leave your Room
Or: The life and Times Of Alice B. Ross
The topic for this lecture will be a collection of artworks and artifacts I recently discovered while rummaging through my studio building.
They make up the remnants of the life and times of Alice B. Ross, and together they give us an insight into who this person was, and where she was coming from (what made her tick, so to speak), but unfortunately not where she was going.
According to my janitor Lester, she was last seen in the late 1990s. Since then her rent has been paid from an off shore account, (which is why she had not been evicted from the building) but other than that no traces of her whereabouts can be found.
Although my actions in the legal sense are akin to trespassing, or maybe even breaking and entering, I feel more affinity with the role of the archaeologist, as her windowless room resembles a tomb or a time capsule. Not a time capsule of the kind that will paint a picture of anything and everything that went down in the world at that time in broad strokes –not that kind of index- but a time capsule that might give us an intimate, if incomplete, knowledge of the person who collected it.
But before we start, I would like to preface my findings with a disclaimer:
Because art criticism is a verbal activity, I [speak] with the consciousness that my language is being evaluated in that context, and knowing that certain words and phrases will assume overtones that were not intended. I choose to ignore this hazard by reassuring the [listener] that art-criticism is not my primary (or even secondary) occupation in life, and that my intention is to [speak] about these works simply, and because I want to. I hope that by doing this I can assume a level of trust on the part of the [listener] that might not otherwise be afforded me.
(So, don’t laugh, babe, it’ll be alright!)
 Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt “Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno” Arts Review 29 (Dec 9th 1977), 737. ( As quoted by Erik Tamm in his book Brian Eno;His music and the vertical color of sound Faber & Faber, Boston and London 1989, p. 78)
Fig 1: What we see here on the first slide is the entrance to the space, which was hidden away in the SW corner in the basement of the building.
During recent renovations to the building, a lot of the rubbish covering up the door was removed and somebody reconnected the electricity that had been shut off for years, waking this sleeping beauty from it’s slumber…
Fig 2: This is the view from the NE facing door, as you come in.
As you can see, the space is fairly cluttered. There is a multitude of various artifacts in here and I will tell you about them as we move along. But most importantly I will let Alice B speak for herself as one of the discoveries I made, was a note book labeled “Notes to self” which she uses as a kind of diary of her reflections on various topics.
I am not sure who this note book was intended for. Although parts of it has the feel of a rant, she is clearly very intentional in her argumentation.
But before we start reading, I would like to take a closer look at a few of the items in her room.
The first thing you notice as you come in is of course a number of rather large canvasses stacked against the back wall. In these works we see an obvious Morris Louis influence, albeit with a certain ‘Glam Rock’ sensibility.
Fig 3: Glitter painting.
The drippy handling of paint is a clear reference to Morris, whereas the glitter refers to glam rock, and I think in particular to David Bowie, who she mentions repeatedly.
Fig 4: Glitter Painting Detail.
If we look closer at some of the canvasses, we can clearly see how she has rendered ‘Morris Louis’ idiosyncratic drips in glittery acrylic paint.
Fig 5: Work in progress and “glitter mandala”
This, as far as I can tell, is a work in progress, and the last one she made before she vacated the studio. I am not sure what is going on with the glitter on the floor, but from the information I have gathered about her through my observations, I am guessing she was also maybe dabbling in eastern philosophy, and I take it as a reference to the Buddhist practice of the sand mandala. (A painting made out of sand, created and destroyed as part of a meditative ritual). I have not had this confirmed however, as a true Buddhist she does not reveal herself as such, so you are free to interpret this in any way you like.
What I did get confirmed is a rather personal, subjective affinity with the work of Morris Louis, which she talks about on this, first, diary excerpt:
Note to self #1
(A visit to the museum)
I went to the Museum of the Art Institute today, to see “my” painting, but it wasn’t there. I tried to describe it to the custodian, as the name Morris Louis clearly didn’t ring a bell.
(You know, its really big with washes upon washes of drippy paint on it, that hangs on the canvas like a heavy curtain; a beaded curtain of paint, that makes you want to run your fingers through it, to reveal the rainbow colored layers underneath…)
Except I didn’t say the last part, the part about wanting to run my fingers through it, because I didn’t want to sound all weird, and she clearly didn’t know what I was talking about. She just pointed around the gallery and asked: “Was it supposed to be in here, with the contemporary art?” and I said that yes, he was considered an abstract expressionist and associated with color field painting, so that’s what I’d expect. And she just said: “No ma’am,
(she called me ma’am)
if it’s not on this floor, it’s in storage. It’s either on loan or it’s in storage.”
I was really disappointed.
I hung around the gallery for a while, to see if I could get my fix, but none of the other paintings really did it for me; Willem de Kooning just seem messy and dumb, -a misogynist pig rolling in a pen of paint, drunk with the rotten fruit of fame… and even Pollock, though undeniably funky was way more macho than I needed.
The thing about Morris Louis I have discovered of late, as I have been trying to emulate him, is the somewhat female character of his work.
(Even his inverted rainbow shapes as I see them resemble the “lady parts” of giants but now I’m really tripping…)
Despite its size and considerable bravura there is a feminine, sensuous touch to his gesture; the drippy, trippy handling of the paint is performed with an offhand ease that would almost be glib, if it wasn’t so sincere.
(There is no irony here.)
The slowness of the paint as it trickles down the surface leaving its fat, wet, amorphous trail that seems to grind slowly, slowly, almost to a halt, but never really harden, or solidify.
In 1960 Clement Greenberg described it as follows:
Louis spills his paint on unsized and unprimed cotton duck canvas, leaving the pigment almost everywhere thin enough, no matter how many different veils of it are superimposed, for the eye to sense the threadedness and wovenness of the fabric underneath. But “underneath” is the wrong word. The fabric being soaked in paint rather than merely covered by it, becomes paint itself, like dyed cloth: the threadedness and wovenness are in the color.
Again, in Greenberg’s vocabulary, the association with feminine crafts are apparent; the threadeness, the wovenness -the repetitive, meditative actions of producing and dyeing fabrics.
(I imagine them visiting Helen Frankenthaler in her studio, together with Kenneth Noland, to admire her monumental Mountains and the Sea. While the three men were impressed with the ambition and scope of the work, Noland later recalled that Louis seemed particularly enthralled by the painting and its evocative fluidity. A man who wants to paint like a woman? How often has this happened in the history of art?)
I know that he was painfully private about his working process, he never let anyone watch him in his small studio in his suburban Washington home where he would paint day in, day out, from early morning till late at night until his premature death of lung cancer induced by paint fumes. His biography is uneventful, except for this enormous and never-ending activity of painting. He only reluctantly ventured out, except for the few exceptions when persuaded by his aforementioned friends Kenneth Noland and Clement Greenberg to travel to New York with them.
(Oh, give me just one friend in the art world, and let it be Clement Greenberg (!))
In the little catalogue I am leafing through right now, from his memorial exhibition in the Guggenheim museum in 1962, the essay by Lawrence Alloway opens as follows:
Although ours is apparently a period of total information, withdrawal and secrecy are still possible. In fact, as information increases, the area of our ignorance dilates, also
It seems unreal, prophetic even, that this text was written so long ago – considering the deluge of imagery and information we have to navigate today, every day. Perhaps it is his secrecy and his privacy I admire and the reason I take such solace in his work?
So, yes, I was disappointed, as I had been looking forward to that moment of solace…
Something did catch my eye, though, as I was leaving: A painting of a lady in an evening gown, descending a staircase. The shiny fabric of her dress was rendered in a bluish grey monochrome like that of a glossy magazine of yesteryear. The feathered brushwork, in which she is treated not much different from the stairs supporting her, gives her a translucent, almost ghostlike appearance as if she is not so much walking down the staircase as hovering above it. Or melting with it, I don’t know; an amalgam of body, stairs and movement and above all, that shimmering, glamorous evening gown – how different in its glamour than Duchamp’s mechanistic rendering of the same motive.
Something to consider, perhaps?
 Greenberg, “Louis and Noland” p. 28, Art International, Zürich, vol. 4, no. 5, May 1960
Morris Louis 1912-1962 Exhibition catalogue from the “Memorial Exhibition, Paintings from 1954-1960” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1963
Fig 6: Wardrobe
The painting she is referring to at the end of this diary entry, I believe, is Gerhard Richters “Womand Descending the Staircase”. Although this painting was painted in 1965, it was not in the collection of the Museum of the Art Institute until 1997, when it was acquired through a gift from the Lannan foundation. If indeed this is the painting she’s talking about, it would date the tape to sometime some time after 1997, which matches Lester’s testimony.
Fig 7: Wardrobe with posters
I believe the painting not only impressed her, but also had a profound impact on her production. On the next fragment of her note book, she talks about taking up photography and about exploring the genre of self-portraiture. This sets her of on a philosophical tangent about the nature of the self and an analogy with quantum physics, which is at times hard to fathom, but interesting nevertheless.
But before we read from her diary, I want to show you a few more pictures from the studio, and also I want to send round an album of her photographs, which I found in the space, inside this cupboard:
Fig 8: Photo albums found inside cupboard.
In this picture, and the picture before, you will have noticed a number of small posters, on the cupboard doors. They are pretty primitively made, with the use of a color copier. The posters match some of the photos in the album, with the distinct addition of a ‘Flash’ or ‘lightning’ on her face –a clear reference to the cover of David Bowie’s album Aladdin Sane from 1973 –when he was on the height of his glam rock fame.
I am not sure exactly where she is going with this idolatry, but there is a definite sense of identification with her idol here.
But let’s take a closer look at some of the pictures:
Fig 9: “Aladdin Sane” Poster #1
I am pretty sure this is what she would have looked like, and that the photos in the album are self-portraits. Not only because she mentions it on the diary, but also because I found, among her stuff, a box containing a number of personal items, dresses in particular, that matches the ones in some of the photographs.
Like the one she wears here:
Fig 10: “Aladdin Sane” Poster #2
In her description of the Richter painting, she mentions a notion of glamour: She is particularly intrigued by the rendition of the dress and it’s almost liquid appearance.
The dresses I found in her studio were all of very shiny or satiny fabric such as metallic lurex, which would lend itself well for this kind of imagery, which you can also see in this image here:
Fig 11: “Aladdin Sane” Poster #3
It is not impossible that these pictures were actually meant as studies or sketches for paintings, although I did not find any evidence of such paintings.
But, let’s look at the next fragment of her diary:
Note to Self #
(Hang on to Yourself)
For there to be a self portrait, there has to be a self, or so we assume.
There is a perceived tension between inside and outside, between the public persona and the ‘real’ self; like Cybil Connolly’s thin person inside the fatso, screaming to get out, or the exotic negresse trapped inside a stiff white body.
(Her sister the often-dissed ‘coconut’).
That’s the faint cognitive dissonance you experience when you hear your own voice on tape, or see a picture of yourself: It’s yourself, but not yourself as you know your self.
According to quantum theory, the idea of continuity is absurd, because the universe is not scale invariant.
In classical physics you would have a infinitesimal test body,ever smaller parts ad infinitum
you would need a new set of physical laws to describe at every scale
The essence is that because nature is not indefinitely dividable, it is impossible to make an observation without disturbing the system.
Schrodinger’s cat illustrates the idea of entanglementthe most difficult concept to grasp in quantum mechanics. His paradox introduces the concept of superposition –the disturbing idea that a system can simultaneously be in several distinct states.
Albert Einstein’s famous quote “God doesn’t play dice!” was uttered in protest, describing his reluctance to accept the probabilistic worldview as described by Schrodinger.
It makes me wonder if the tension between the self and the self-portrait can be expressed by analogy of that old debate about the wave/particle nature of light?
Let’s try it:
Does [self] contain of particles or waves? When one focuses upon the different types of phenomena observed with [self] a strong case can be built for a wave picture.
By the turn of the 20th century, most [artists] were convinced by phenomena like the above that [self] could be fully described by a wave, with no necessity for invoking a particle nature. But the story was not over.
Most commonly observed phenomena with [self] can be explained by waves. But the [photogenic] effect suggested a particle nature for [self]
As I understand it, theIby s
Let’s revisit our pseudo-scientific thought experiment:
Wave-particle duality does not mean that the [self] is both wave and particle simultaneously, but that it could manifest either as wave or particle depending on circumstances. Central to [the Chicago Interpretation] is the principle known as complementarity. The wave and particle nature of the [self] can be regarded as complementary aspects of a single reality, like two sides of a coin. It can behave sometimes as wave and sometimes as particle, but never both together, just as a tossed coin may fall either heads or tails up, but not both at once.
If we accept that:
Every [self] has both a wavelike and a particle-like aspect he wavelike aspect is indeterminate, spread out all over space and time and the realm of possibility. The particle-like aspect is determinate, located at one place in space and time and limited to the domain of actuality. The particle-like aspect is fixed, but the wavelike aspect becomes fixed only in dialogue with its surroundings – in dialogue with an experimental context or in relationship to another [self] in measurement or observation. It is the indeterminate, wavelike aspect – the set of potentialities associated with the [self]- that unites [discrete selves] in a truly emergent, relational holism that cannot be reduced to any previously existing parts or their properties.
analogy allows to both
, on the condition that we can embrace complementarity and randomness as the basis for our self-understanding.
Of course, given the parameters of quantum physics, true randomness does not exist; uncertainty does exist.
 -Interference(self propagation): the superposition of two or more [selves] resulting in a new [self-awareness].
Diffraction: Diffraction refers to various phenomena, which occur when [self] encounters an obstacle.
Polarization: The orientation of oscillations in the plane perpendicular to a transverse [self’s] direction of travel.
 The original version of this article (not my bastardized version of it) about the wave/particle duality of light, can be found here:
he original article about the Copenhagen interpretation can be found here: http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/21st_century_science/lectures/lec15.html
Fig 12: Overview
In the beginning of this fragment, she mentioned something she calls her “Bowie Dipping Oracle”. Now, if you were looking closely at this picture here, while listening to the tape, you might have noticed a pair of shoes, and a shoebox, in the corner underneath the dress.
Fig 13: Shoebox with ‘Bowie Dipping’ oracle.
If we look closer, we will discover that the shoebox contains a set of note cards, which I believe must be the oracle she is referring to. It is pretty primitively done; just standard index cards, with a hand written note hastily scribbled on each of them. Each entry refers to a title or a lyric from a David Bowie song. This one, for example, reads: “Think about paint and [ ] think about glue, what a jolly boring thing to do”, which is a line from the song Andy Warhol from the album Hunky Dory that was released in1971.
Fig 14: Bowie dipping oracle.
This one reads “Strange Games They were Playing” , Which is a line from the song The Supermen from the album The Man Who Sold the World from1970.
The lyrics on the cards span more than a decade, from Bowies breakthrough album Space Oddity from 1969 until Let’s Dance from 1983. She doesn’t seem to care much for anything he released after that, but who can blame her?
I was using the oracle extensively myself, while preparing for this lecture, to channel ‘the spirit of Alice B. Ross’ so to speak. It’s pretty simple: whenever you’re stuck with a problem or a process, you ask the oracle and you pull out a card.
I interpret the oracle as a reference to, or actually even as an homage to, Brian Eno’s set of Oblique Strategies. These Oblique Strategies are a set of cards with instructions, which Eno had collected. During recording sessions, the involved parties would each pick a card, which was to be kept confidential and followed to the letter.
As Alice talks about in the next tape fragment, Brian Eno and David Bowie used the deck of cards extensively, during the making of what later became known as “the berlin Trilogy”, the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger, which they recorded together between 1976 and 1978.
I have reason to believe that these three albums, which are commonly recognized as Bowies greatest artistic achievements, but perhaps at the same time his most depressed and introverted recordings, are of special importance to Alice.
Fig15: “Stationary” Poster #1
Not only did she include the lyrics in her oracle, she also produced a number of small posters, almost akin to the kind of posters with bible verses and truisms that were popular throughout the United States at the time, with lyrics from these albums.
Fig 16: “Stationary” Poster #2
In the examples we see here the first one reads “You’re just a little girl with grey eyes/ Never mind, Say Something/ Wait until the Crowd Cries/ Oh, wait until the crowd cries/ So Deep in Your Room, You Never Leave Your Room” which is an excerpt from What in the World from the album Low (1977) and the second one ends with Baby, Baby, Baby Fire Away” from Sons of the Silent Age from Heroes (1977). All of these posters were hand written on primitive, homemade, stationary with a solarized portrait of a little girl.
I am not sure who the girl is, perhaps a childhood snapshot?
Fig 17: Wall painting
This is a view of the NW corner of the room from inside the room, so the opposite end of the room, from where we were just looking. The first thing we notice here is of course the wall painting , which reads “Blue Blue Electric Blue” , which is a quote from the song Sound and Vision from the album Low (RCA 1977). It refers to the opening line which goes Blue, blue, electric blue/that’s the color of my room/where I will live.
Fig 18: Wall Painting Detail
As you can see the lettering is executed very hastily and sloppily, in this color, Electric blue. She in fact painted the whole room in this color, and although I cannot find any physical evidence of her actually living there, it was perhaps her intention
Let’s look at her last diary entry:
Note to Self #3
When I was little, my dad would sometimes read me a story.
We loved Dr. Seuss and would collect them all, but my favorite is Oh the places you’ll go!
(He gave to me when I left home. It was a sentimental gesture, which I appreciated.)
It was very exciting, and full of promise, but also problematic: you could end up in a slump.
And when you’re in a slump,
You’re not in for much fun.
Is not easily done.
By 1976 David Bowie found himself in a bit of a slump. His drug- and relationship problems has soared out of control in LA and he had fled to the cooler climates of Europe to cool of and to approach the German groups Kraftwerk and Neu!, who he admired and who were making waves with what would later become known as the Neue Deutche Welle.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning. His exuberant lifestyle had left him physically and mentally instable, albeit with a gigantically inflated ego, and from the interviews he was giving at the time we can only conclude that his romance with Fascism was more than a flirt.
(Perhaps room-mating with Iggy Pop, while trying to kick your coke habit could also be categorized as an error of judgment, but who are we?)
It was not until David Bowie in desperation rang Brian Eno in London and persuaded him to come on over, that things started to shape up.
Eno’s arrival in Cologne was a gift for Bowie. Their collaboration started of in the studio of Conny Plank, and would also bring them to Paris for studio sessions together. But the bulk of the recordings were done in the Hansa by the Wall studio in Berlin. Over the next few years the two of them record what later becomes known as the “Berlin Trilogy” – the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger – that are not only hailed as Bowies masterpieces and greatest works of art, but are also a triumph in terms of introducing minimal music into the main stream.
(As a tribute, Philip Glass later recorded Sons of the Silent Age and Heroes in his own, acoustic, arrangement. In my opinion he turned these pop-noir gems into pompous drivel, elevator music by any other name, but perhaps my heroes are not yours and vice versa, for which I apologize!)
With him in his suitcase, Eno brought his Oblique Strategies – a deck of cards with instructions to be kept confidential and carried out to the letter as the recordings progressed. According to my treasured old copy of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine;
Bowie and Eno used the deck of Oblique Strategies extensively in the making of ‘Heroes’ and ‘both worked on all the pieces all the time – almost taking turns.’ When they began work on ‘Sense of Doubt’ each pulled out a card and, kept it a secret.
I the interview Eno recalls:
It was like a game. We took turns working on it; he’d do one overdub and I’d do the next. The idea was that each was to observe his Oblique Strategy as closely as he could. And as it turned out they were entirely opposed to one another. Effectively mine said ‘Try to make everything as similar as possible’… and His said, ‘Emphasize differences.’
It may seem counter productive to work in this way, like two horses pulling a cart in opposite directions, but in fact it is very intuitive. It is almost ironic that this strategy was employed while working on a track called Sense of Doubt while in fact what Brian Eno was doing by introducing his “oblique strategies” was to remove the “sense of doubt”, you encounter when you are in a slump:
You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?
And IF you go in, should you turn left or right…
Or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite?
Or go around back and sneak in from behind?
Simple it’s not I’m afraid you will find,
For a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind.
With his oblique strategies, Brian Eno embraced the uncertainty principle, and introduced its related concepts of randomness and probability into the process of songwriting and composing.
In his “Pro-Session – Part I” he describes how:
You no longer come to the studio with a conception of the finished piece. Instead, you come with actually rather a bare skeleton of the piece, or perhaps with no starting point. Once you become familiar with studio facilities, or even if you’re not, actually, you can begin to compose in relation to those facilities. You can begin to think in terms of putting something on, putting something else on, trying this on top of that, and so on, then taking some of the original things off, or taking a mixture of things off, and seeing what you’re left with – actually constructing a piece in the studio.
I love this quote because he makes composing, – and in fact the whole artistic endeavor – sound so casual: like getting dressed in the morning, or like thrifting.
(–But I’m drifting.)
In 1979 he said:
People think that you sit at home and you have a melody and the chord sequence in mind and then you think, “well, what instruments would be good for this?” you know, that kind of idea of having a goal, which you then build towards. I don’t think anyone works like that, or very rarely. Sometimes there will be melody at the beginning, or a particular rhythmic configuration, but generally there is a sense of, “Well, I’m going to set this process in motion. Where will it lead me? And furthermore, do I like where it leads me?” Because if you don’t you abandon it; you start again.
 O’Brien “Eno at the Edge of Rock” Andy Warhol’s Interview 8 June 1978, as quoted by Erik Tamm in Brian Eno, His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound pp. 158
 “Pro-session part I”
 Loder, “Eno”, 24
This is her last note, and the last I have known to be heard of her. Perhaps it explains why the studio was left in this state: maybe she abandoned it. Or maybe she just left it while waiting for her self to become “un-slumped”?
Leafing through her albums and notes, I find myself asking: Would the real Alice B. Ross please stand up? She appears in many disguises, yet she is never really there. She eludes me. Her obsession with glamour annoys me, yet it allures me.
Alice B. Ross explores another kind of happiness, which cannot be experienced in the public sphere but only ‘So deep in your room/you’ll never leave your room’* –the particular enlightenment of staying in and dressing up, while listening to old records for your entire adult life.
As the song goes, she’ll ‘Make love only once but dream and dream’** -about the lives she could have lived, the kids she could have had….
Despite her narcissistic character, she is not the navel-gazer we know from recent pop psychological interpretation of the myth. Rather, like the original Narcissus, she is an astounded youth who stares in amazement at their own mirror image –rather like that other Alice who sticks first her hand, then her head through the looking glass, before plunging headlong in and coming out again asking: “who dreamt it?”
Although her theories are shaky, I have been trying to embrace her ideas of randomness as a guiding principle for this research: I can recommend the Bowie Dipping Oracle –it really works!
As for this lecture, it is of course just me and my idols, singing falsetto.
I initiated this process as an attempt at analyzing the studio process and what happens in the studio. As was pointed out to me in conversation, it is about confluences of influences an about how we process and digest information and inspiration and blend it into a new amalgam, which in turn enters the world as new information.
Whether this process is akin to an alchemist’s, in which we produce gold, or more akin to downright digesting, in which we produce shit, is of course up to you –the observer — to decide for yourself. As we have become aware, it is impossible to observe the system without influencing it.
But perhaps, discreetly, we do both?
L.H.B. Ross Chicago April 2012