On the first of March in the year 2005 (or the 20th of Adar I, 5765, according to the Hebrew calendar) some 200,000 Jews filled New York City’s Madison Square Garden and auditoriums around the world to celebrate the reading of the last page of the Talmud. For centuries, Orthodox Jews have studied Talmud daily, but these synchronized readings began in 1923; since that compendium of Jewish law and lore is 2,711 pages long, a cycle is completed once every seven-and-a-half years.
The following morning, artist Martin Wilner was perusing The New York Times when he came across an account of this event, featuring a photograph of an elderly rabbi, a Holocaust survivor. The rabbi’s image, with the texture of his beard transformed into the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, made its way into “Making History: March 2005,” the latest installment in a remarkable cycle of work based on the format of the Roman calendar that the artist has been pursuing for the past three years.
Every day Wilner searches through The Times and other periodicals for an image of particular interest or significance to him. Then, using an intensely detailed drawing style recalling sources as diverse as cartoonist R. Crumb, Weimar caricaturists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix, and the lyrical abstractions of Japanese master Hokusai, he reproduces the picture (or a small portion of it) in one of the 30-odd boxes representing each day on a monthly agenda: the grid of time’s inexorable march forward.
Musical notes symbolizing the melodic fragments of a lost Yiddish liturgy; the face of Jean-Paul Sartre; urns containing the unclaimed cremains of Oregonian psychiatric patients, and the hawk known as Pale Male, currently nesting at 724 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, acquire in his work an uncanny connectedness. Wilner weaves them together through various means. In “Making History: October 2004,” for example — four weeks when the American media was filled with frenzied presidential campaigning — he employs a latticework of tubing and wires to hook up the spliced, cadaverous heads and vampiric smiles of politicians from John Kerry to Saddam Hussein and George Bush, as if they were a single, monstrous creation. Left and right, renegade rulers and the leaders of the “free” world, feed on each other in endless rotation.
Wilner’s page for January 2005 — in the wake of this past December’s tsunami disaster, a month of scattered but persistent meditation on the ethical obligations of charity — begins with the hands of hungry tsunami survivors reaching for food at a refugee camp in India, and later finds an African locust growing from the mouth of Maimonides, the great Sephardic philosopher.
Unintentional echoes in imagery and subject matter occur across time in the work, linked through an invisible subjectivity, that of an artist whose day job — as a psychiatrist and a respected member of New York’s psychoanalytic community — immerses him hourly in the transformative language of dreams and the unconscious. The vivid, dense web of current events and more cryptic personal associations gradually takes on a life of its own, unfurling at the far reaches of one man’s visual imagination, and even influencing his choice of daily activities.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Wilner — who received a Modern Orthodox education, went to medical school and educated himself in the ways of the artistic avant-garde — likens his work to a game. And in fact, for him the calendar’s constraints prove marvelously fecund and energizing, reminiscent of playful, Dadaist and Surrealist strategies such as cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse) drawings, which by letting chance enter the work, sought to liberate it from the stranglehold of artistic intent.
The calendar’s pages have evolved over the years, gradually increasing in visual complexity, and showing the influence of friends and collaborators in Wilner’s parallel endeavors as a draughtsman: artists such as Joe Coleman, Jacob El Hanani and Daniel Zeller. Sometimes the rules of the game change, almost arbitrarily. November 2002 is all eyes — human, animal, extra-terrestrial? For March 2004, hands — waving, pointing, holding banners, reaching out and otherwise signaling to each other across the expanse of time, mark the days.
In “Making History: February 2004,” a text-based piece, Wilner’s attention, wandering between fragments of headlines, produces an open-ended poetry both wonderfully ironic and curiously matter-of-fact. “Quacking With Costs Rising Rifts Increase,” the work solemnly announces. This is close to the way we read the newspaper to begin with, our focus flitting between atrocities and distractions, sifting the barrage of type and “important” information for words that are of consequence to us.
Finally, in what strangely beautiful region, recorded in Wilner’s densely patterned, composite maps, such as the one filling the page for April 2004, does the southern tip of Manhattan meld into Congo, or Syria share borders with Queens, Saudi Arabia and Bayonne, N.J.? This is an inner geography rich in cognitive associations.
Yet beyond the ludic pleasure the calendar affords its maker, in his patient, day-by-day pursuit of the image that will help unlock that month’s secret form (which is still unfolding), Wilner also finds a spiritual practice akin to the observant Jew’s search for meaning in his daily page of the Talmud. The artist’s omnivorous curiosity is tempered by a relentlessly questioning moral intelligence; the calendar is his attempt to provide a frame of reference for a world without a center.
And beyond that, an existential melancholy lies. In newsprint, the faces and bodies, animals and objects filling this vast cabinet of curiosities have all been consigned to oblivion and recycled numerous times already. Who can remember what happened, even yesterday? Like Japanese conceptualist On Kawara, who repeatedly telegraphs friends and colleagues with a message saying, “I am still alive.” Wilner’s loving focus on and preservation of the day’s visual ephemera and detritus in “Making History” are his surest reminders that he exists.
Leslie Camhi is a writer and cultural critic whose work appears regularly in The New York Times, the Village Voice and other publications.