Collaborating Then and Now: Eldon Garnet & John Abrams

“There I am, John nervously sweating, Teeny sipping her chilled white wine and Marcel lifting a bishop from the board, and the sound of electronic chatter and I am trying to focus in the dark, documenting the slippage, the moment in history.” These poetic notes, written by Toronto-based artist Eldon Garnet, who was then a 21-year-old, second year English literature student at the University of Toronto, were about a chess game played at Ryerson between John Cage and Marcel Duchamp in 1968. It would be Duchamp’s last public performance; he died a few months later. Called Reunion, it was played on an electronic chessboard that made a sound every time a piece was moved. The sound was Cage’s idea; the chess was Duchamp’s.

Garnet was there almost by accident. Even though he was studying literature, he was interested in discordant music and was familiar with Cage and his ideas about composing silence. “I considered Cage a poet. I knew Duchamp by name but that was it.” As he moved about the stage with a batch of professional photographers, it was the mischievous artist more than the high-tension composer who held his interest. “Duchamp had a twinkle in his eye and that smirk. I put down in my notes, ‘the enigmatic smile–no wonder he chose the Mona Lisa’.” Garnet had an old Leica his father had given him; he wasn’t using a flash; and he shot a single roll of black-and-white film. The photographs remained unpublished until Garnet saw an exhibition in Philadelphia in which *Étant donnés *was reanimated and he began thinking of his own photographs. He returned to Toronto and made high-res scans.

Two years ago, he e-mailed a few of the images to John Abrams, the Toronto painter who had been working on a series of portraits of famous critical theorists and philosophers, like Derrida and Bourriaud, from images he had lifted from the Internet. He had also done a work in which he painted six Duchamps at different points in the artist’s life, and that project sparked the series with Garnet. “I thought the photographs were fantastic and I did really get caught up in the event,” says Abrams. “I wanted to get it right so I painted three of everything and let Eldon pick. The three versions are very close, but some of them are a bit looser and more painterly. It always starts as a painting and my goal is to make it a great painting.”

For his part, Garnet is pleased that his images have been re-imagined through the eye of a painter. “I was never really into documentary photography, and with John they became portraits. That’s probably the impetus that made me really excited because they became part of my larger project again.”

Abrams views the project as an ongoing collaboration. “Not just with Eldon, but with Duchamp and Cage, who are also collaborating. We consider the photograph and the painting, which are mounted together, as one piece. I think it’s great because painters and photographers have always been at odds with each other, but in this project, it’s like a friendship between the two.”

The work was shown in an exhibition “Works on Paper” at Gallery Poulsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, from January 29 to March 5, 2010.

Volume 29, Number 2: Marcel x 3

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #114, published May 2010.

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