So I’m reading The Times at Starbucks this morning when I come upon a story that stops me dead. The headline Two Artists, One Suicide The Other Missing.
I knew one of them. Well I didn’t know her, personally, but I felt I knew her from two years of reading her blog The Wit of the Staircase.
Her name was Theresa Duncan and she was the intellectual glamour girl of the web. Brilliant, erudite, beautiful (she looked like Kate Moss who was, unsurprisingly one of her obsessions). I loved her blog I knew when my brain was weary with the conventionalities of news and politics on the Web, tired of immersion in my own work I could always find new intellectual and sensual stimulation in The Wit of the Staircase. And by sensual I don’t mean the glamour shots of Theresa, which she understandably had a weakness for, but that she was devoted to articulating her passions for sensual pleasures–her posts on perfumes for instance were sublime renderings of the wordless in words.
She had directed an admired short film A History of Glamour, she had a boyfriend, a rising star artist named Jeremy Blake, whom she often collaborated with and promoted. She seemed to have everything . And now they’re both dead.
Here’s The Times account of her suicide:
In a case that is reverberating in the art world, the New York Police Department said yesterday that a video-game designer and budding filmmaker committed suicide last week and that her companion, a rising art star, has been missing since Tuesday.
The police confirmed her suicide and his disappearance.
The filmmaker, Theresa Duncan, 40, who has also drawn attention for her writings on cultural topics, committed suicide in their East Village apartment on July 10, the police said. Her companion, Jeremy Blake, 35, a well-regarded artist known for digital animation that blurs the line between abstract painting and film, has been missing since his clothes were found on a beach in the Rockaways on Tuesday evening, they added.
Found with the clothes was a note that made reference to Ms. Duncan, the police said.
Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the police department, said that Mr. Blake was last seen taking off his clothes and then walking into the water at Beach 102nd Street on Tuesday. Police scuba teams have searched the waters off the beach since then, Mr. Browne added, but have not found a body.
Lance Kinz, a director of the Kinz, Tillou + Feigen gallery, which represented Mr. Blake, said that Mr. Blake and Ms. Duncan had been together for 12 years and were very close. The two collaborated, along with another artist, Karen Kilimnik, on “The History of Glamour,” a 1999 animated film that spoofed the fashion world. The short movie, which Ms. Duncan wrote and directed, was called “gentle” and “very funny” by Stephen Holden of The New York Times in 2001.
Mr. Kinz said that Mr. Blake told him he had discovered Ms. Duncan’s body after she committed suicide. He said he had spoken with Mr. Blake after her death and that, while devastated and grieving, “he seemed to be very much in control and to be coping with it.”
Mr. Blake, whose work has been shown at three Whitney biennials and at a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2005, is scheduled to have an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in late October, partly in collaboration with Malcolm McLaren, the musician and designer.
Mr. Kinz said it is unclear whether that show, or another coming up at his gallery, in Chelsea, would open. “There’s some hope that maybe that wasn’t Jeremy going into the water,” he said, “but it’s presumed that he’s gone.”
Ms. Duncan, who was raised in Detroit, became a prominent video-game designer in the late 1990s, making sophisticated story-based CD-ROM games for young girls — an underserved population in a business largely aimed at adolescent boys. She and Mr. Blake had moved to Los Angeles but recently returned to New York, Mr. Kinz said, where she was working on writing and movie projects.
She also maintained a blog called “The Wit of the Staircase,” where she wrote energetically and at length on topics ranging from books to politics to Kate Moss. Her last entry, dated July 10, the day she died, includes a blurry photograph of a woman putting on a mask and quotes the novelist Reynolds Price: “A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens — second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter.”
She listed her interests at the site, theresalduncan.typepad.com, as “film, philology, Vietnam War memorabilia, rare and discontinued perfume, book collecting, philately, card and coin tricks, futurism, Napoleon Bonaparte, the history of electricity.”
Mr. Blake, whose work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and several other prominent institutions, began to make a name for himself in the late 1990s with dissolving photographic projections used to create the equivalent of geometric abstract paintings. He called his work “time-based painting.”
The 2005 exhibition in San Francisco was based around the San Jose mansion of Sarah Winchester, the widowed heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, who built a mazelike house with 160 rooms to confuse or ward off the ghosts of shooting victims she believed would haunt her.
In addition to work for galleries, Mr. Blake also created sequences of abstract art for the 2002 movie “Punch-Drunk Love,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who had seen Mr. Blake’s work in an earlier show in San Francisco while working on the film.
Roberta Smith, writing in The Times about a 2005 exhibition by Mr. Blake in New York, said that his work had “given the stream-of-consciousness narrative, so long a part of modern literature, a time-based visual equivalent” and that he was moving past predecessors like Ed Ruscha, William Eggleston and Raymond Pettibon into new artistic territory.
The mind reels. Why would she kill herself? Why had the boyfriend,
in control and coping” for a week aparrently drowned himself a week later. Note that the Times hold back from the suicide verdict on him and call him merely “missing”.
It didn’t seem to make sense. Was there something else missing aside from the boyfriend.
I was always fascinated by Theresa Duncan’s choice of “The Wit of the Staircase’ as the name of her blog.() especially by the mysterious spin she put on the phrase in the definition she put at the top of her blog:
“The Wit of the Staircase
“From the French phrase ‘esprit d’escalier,’ literally, it means ‘the wit of the staircase’, and usually refers to the perfect witty response you think up after the conversation or argument is ended. “Esprit d’escalier,” she replied. “Esprit d’escalier. The answer you cannot make, the pattern you cannot complete till afterwards it suddenly comes to you when it is too late.”
in the light of what appears to be a double suicide, it makes you wonder what she mean in her interpretation of “esprit d’escalier'” Not just the obvious, “Wish I’d said that” but “the answer you cannot make , the pattern you cannot complete til afterwards it suddenly comes to you when it is too late.”
Too late. The pattern doesn’t come to you til too late? What does that mean. Too late to save her life. But are there clues on her blog, or in her life to the mystery of her death? I am going to do some research and perhaps a series of posts, including close reading of her last month of posts to see if they offer any clues.
What was the “pattern you cannot complete until afterwards it suddenly comes to you when it is too late..” If anyone can add anything please let me know in the comments.
I don’t expect to solve the mystery. But at the very least I can pay tribute to a beautiful spirit.