On Art and Intimacy: An Interview with Larissa Pham

Larissa Pham’s Pop Song is at once a meditation on a wide ranging list of artists ranging from Peter Hujar to Agnes Martin and also a personal narrative of love, trauma and healing. What makes Pham’s book so special, though, is how she shows the tangle between “art and intimacy,” how the two are not separate, allowing the various parts of the book to bleed into each other to a resonant end. I read the book for the first time in the fall and found myself in the predicament of enthusiastically recommending a book to many friends that wouldn’t be out for many months. I recommended the book for the originality of Pham’s voice, her careful writing on art, the unexpected places she goes and the possibilities opened up for thinking about both life and art. Now it is almost May, the book is finally out and I am still recommending it with just as much enthusiasm. This is one of those books I know I will be reading and rereading for a long time. I hope you do too. Pham was kind enough to answer some questions about the book.

One of the many special elements in Pop Song is the attention played to artistic and material process, particularly in photography. I wondered if you could speak to how your writing on art is shaped by an attention to practice and process?

This is such a wonderful question, thank you for asking. To be honest, when I think about my creative life, I identify as a failed painter. Or perhaps just a bad painter. I spent a lot of my early life thinking I would be an artist, but that's not really how my life worked out, and now I'm a writer, which is a different thing. But I still have all this material, tangible experience with the tools of art-making, and I have a great love for those processes. When I look at the world, I still think in terms of paint—strokes, thickness, value. Before I got my short-lived studio in Sunset Park, I was dreaming in brushstrokes. Aside from being really useful as metaphors, knowledge of how things are physically made feels fundamental to understanding and appreciating visual art, too. I like sharing that with a reader if I can. And I think there is absolutely a degree of vicarious enjoyment or fantasy here—in utilizing the terminology and referent of paint through words, I'm able to write painting (as an action) far better than I could ever paint it. 

What would be an artwork, song, or writer you would connect to the spirit of Pop Song that isn’t in the book?

This is such a hard question! There's so much that could relate and this text feels like a snapshot of a moment, not a grand unified theory. I'm not sure how I managed to write it without actually mentioning Mitski. I would have liked to write about Richard Siken a bit more. The imagery in Wong Kar-Wai films and the replication and fetishization of that imagery. I also had a whole chapter about the sublime that we cut, for good reason, but I would like to mention it and place it and dialogue with the paintings of Anoka Faruqee, who has written very eloquently about the sublime.

I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you chose what artwork and artists to include in the book? Specifically, I was interested in your inclusion of the two remarkable and under-discussed photographers Peter Hujar and Roy DeCarava?

Some of it is rooted in nothing other than coincidence—where I was when I saw something. I wouldn't have written about Bourgeois except I saw her show in Shanghai, and so seeing her work became part of my experience of loneliness there. It would have been a different essay if I'd gone to Shanghai a year earlier and seen the Dutch Masters show at the Long Museum, for example. I probably wouldn't have written about that show. 

With Hujar, I'd seen his work at the Morgan a couple years ago and it had left a really strong impression on my heart. The range of it, but also his perceptiveness and sensitivity. Thinking about the kind of portraiture I was, consciously or unconsciously, evoking in my own, it seemed really natural to talk about Hujar's work; this was also reinforced by the way he was said to have spoken about his own method, especially the reclining portraits. With DeCarava, my friend Elle mentioned his work in a conversation we had some time ago. I hadn't been familiar with his work at all, but when I looked it up, I just fell in love. I really wanted to write about the interior, and since Nan Goldin's work is so heavily featured in "Body of Work," it felt really apt to bring DeCarava's work into "Camera Roll." Both Hujar and DeCarava worked in black and white, so that feels relevant, too. And of course, bringing them into dialogue with the writing also informed the ultimate shape of the text. 

It's happened that I've wanted to write about an artist or piece of art and had a thesis in mind about how it would relate to some other part of the essay. But so often I start doing research, or looking more into the work, and I realize that what the art is saying is completely different from the point I wanted to make. So then I have to listen to the art, and the artist, and try to hear what they're saying.

Who have been some writers who have been models in how you approach writing about art?

I love the way Trisha Low writes about art in Socialist Realism, because you don't expect it to be about art, but of course the whole book is about art and making art as a political person. Her descriptions of art are really visceral and sometimes a bit shocking. I really admire the way Kate Zambreno drops history and references into her texts and expects you to be able to catch up. Olivia Laing's The Lonely City was absolutely a touchstone for me in terms of thinking about integrating biography with essay. I really loved reading Teju Cole on Caravaggio. And more recently, thinking about criticism more broadly, I've really appreciated the work of Namwali Serpell.

The book is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is the way you describe relating to running, place and travel. I wonder if your relation to these things has changed since this year of global pandemic?

It absolutely has! I wrote most of the book while in quarantine—in serious quarantine, as I turned it in before summer started and the numbers had gone down enough in NYC to go to a park or something. I miss movement desperately. I had a very carefree attitude toward travel in the past, and I miss seeing new places and allowing myself to be porous to those places. But I expect I will have a much more serious, even sober relationship to movement in the future.

Your writing on trauma as well as healing in Pop Song is deeply resonant. I wonder if you could speak on this and maybe on the powerful passage in which you write on the need for “moving forward, into the present, into the new.”

It's funny, as I didn't think I was writing a book about trauma. I thought I was writing a book about love. But then I finished writing "Body of Work" and went into revising "Haunted" from an earlier draft, and it hit me, oops, I'm writing a book about trauma. But for me, as it might be for a lot of people, love and trauma are so intertwined. To love well, and this includes loving ourselves and believing ourselves worthy of love, we do confront our own trauma. And it's so often in being loved rightly that our trauma resurfaces, looking for an outlet, and we have to tell ourselves that things have changed. That's a learning process. So, in wanting to write about love, writing about trauma and the effects of that trauma became inescapable.

It felt important to me that I was true to the self both before and "after," if there can be said to be an after. "Body of Work" was so hard to write. It's just pain, pain, pain, it's like a shutter banging. But I wanted to be honest to that. And it felt just as important to carve a path out of that pain, and illuminate that path, however imperfect. I think we often feel a need to talk about our traumas; it can be very cathartic, but it can also turn into a cycle of its own. I wanted to try to offer a way out of that in this text, which relates to that sentence, moving into the present. I don't consider myself particularly "healed" or "enlightened." But I think there is some use in identifying that pain is real, saying you're hurt, and then acknowledging that you don't have to remain a hurt person—you don't have to identify with your pain.

What was most challenging or unexpected in writing Pop Song?

As I mentioned earlier, writing "Body of Work" was really difficult. So was writing "Haunted." It was enjoyably so, in retrospect, but that kind of reflection is hard! I spent a lot of the writing process going all the way to the end of myself and staring at the back wall of my soul. Plunging, plunging, trying to be honest to how it felt. It was gutting, but it wasn't painful, ultimately, because I think it's what the text needed.

What was most joyful in writing Pop Song? 

Everything!!! Writing it was the hardest six months of my life. It was horrible and every day I woke up and sat on the couch, because after pandemic hit my house turned into a coworking space and my desk faced everyone and I can't write while someone might see my screen, and I hunched over with bad posture and gazed into my heart. But that I had the freedom and the support to do that, and that I could write whatever I wanted, that I had an editor, Jonathan Lee, who trusted in my voice and instincts and let me riff and be weird and flex and never pressured me about marketing or being legible to a wide audience... that meant everything to me. Everything in that book, I wanted it to be there. I had so much joy writing it.