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The Collector of Sad and Beautiful Stories
An Encounter With T.J. Wilcox in New York

Marie Antoinette, Marlene Dietrich, Jackie Kennedy-the protagonists in the collages and films of T.J. Wilcox are famous figures from history and pop culture. Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the heroine of his works in the Deutsche Bank Collection, also became an icon-as the unhappy Empress Sissi. Wilcox' hyperaesthetic homages to the divas of yesteryear oscillate between historical truth and sheer illusion. Daniel Schreiber met with the artist in New York.

T.J. Wilcox, ohne Titel (Sissi back), 2007, © Courtesy Galerie Daniel Buchholz,Cologne/Berlin,
Deutsche Bank Collection

Thomas John Wilcox, called T.J. for short, is a dandy. Not in the affected sense of an Oscar Wilde, but rather like his post-modern counterpart. One imagines, à la Fitzgerald, a contemporary Great Gatsby of the art world. When we met on a sunny Manhattan morning at the end of August in the Metro Pictures gallery in Chelsea, he spoke unpretentiously and pleasurably of his fascinating career and his summer home on the Atlantic coast in Orient Point, a sleepy town on the northeast tip of Long Island. He's tanned and sports a smart three-day beard and open shirt in brilliant Ralph Lauren white.

T.J. Wilcox,
Photograph of the film "The Escape (of Marie Antoinette)", 1996
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures

The 42-year-old film and collage artist was still in short pants in Seattle when the gang around Jasper Johns began exploring the sparsely populated Montauk on the opposite, southeast tip of the peninsula for the New York bohemia. Today, Wilcox' adopted summer home is well on its way towards becoming every bit as legendary. "By now, Orient Point is sort of an artists' colony," he says. "My friend Elizabeth Peyton lives there. Jorge Pardo, Laura Owens, Kelley Walker. You see Cindy Sherman riding her bicycle. All these people that we know and love are there often in the summer".

T. J. Wilcox, Escape of Marie Antoinette, 2006
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures

Anyone who has seen a work by Wilcox, for instance The Escape (of Marie Antoinette) from 1996 or The Funeral of Marlene Dietrich (1999), has a hard time shaking off a lingering sense of longing, a quiet sadness. His handmade films and collages are charged with a nostalgic charm that reveals the structures underlying our fantasy. With their deep sense of the idiosyncratic, they unite an aesthetic of the handmade with Hollywood glamour. In his 12-minute film about the French queen who was so brutally executed by the Jacobins, Wilcox works over drawings of"" wiki="" marie_antoinette="">Marie Antoinette's carriage from the 18th century, historical footage of a procession around Notre Dame from the turn of the century, short scenes from American melodramas of the 1950s, and not least images of the catwalk performance of a Galliano model from the early 1990s. United through the subtitles in which Wilcox reinvents the history of the early-day French icon of luxury, these disparate images suddenly convey meaning: Marie Antoinette lives on, the film seems to say-in every injured diva, in every one of our weaknesses for haute couture. This is why the artist chooses to save her life. The queen, whose flight failed because her horse-drawn carriage was so pompous that she was immediately spotted by the revolutionary reconnaissance patrols, arrives in safety in Wilcox' work.

T.J. Wilcox
The Funeral of Marlene Dietrich , 1999
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures

T.J. Wilcox
Photograph of the film "The Funeral of Marlene Dietrich", 1999
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures

Wilcox performed a similar service for Marlene Dietrich, the German glamour icon. Once again throwing together film images of state burials, photographs of Marlene, and city images of Paris, the artist gives the diva the glorious burial she'd always dreamed of. To the sound of tolling church bells, a procession of reporters, photographers, and gay fans follow her casket through the French capital, where there isn't a single hotel room to be found. The icon is then buried humbly in "a simple black dress by Balenciaga." "Characters like Marie Antoinette or Dietrich never die," explains Wilcox with a grin, "they become part of a collective mythology. They have consciously transcended the quotidien. That is something we all need to live our lives. (…) They represent great parallels to art-making. These women were almost performance artists.“ Objects of Wilcox' earlier cinematic obsessions with tragic diva figures were Sissi, the Austrian Empress; Comtesse de Castiglione, known as the most beautiful Italian woman of the 19th century; Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis; and Mick Jagger's ex-wife, the model Jerry Hall.

T.J. Wilcox, Rapture (Jerry, Cherries in the Snow), 2007
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures

Wilcox developed his passion for European history, grand divas, and realistic novels early on in his hometown on the rainy west coast of America. "People speak about Seattle often as the edge of the earth. It was one of the last places settled by the Europeans. While reading history books and novels I started thinking about different places. I was treating the reading of every book as a treasure hunt, to fill the gaps in my world," as the artist recalls. This is why it comes as no surprise that he was an exchange student to France at the age of 14 and then again at 17, to learn French in Dijon, to satisfy his Europhilia, and to party undisturbed. In 1988 Wilcox moved to New York to study at the School of Visual Arts. In the East Village, which was run down at the time and brimming with junkies and homeless people, he shared an apartment with Elizabeth Peyton, who later became a portrait painter. After finishing school, he took an assistant job with the French collector family Wildenstein and bought himself a cheap apartment on Union Square. After three years in exile at the Arts Center in Pasadena, California, where he also studied with video artist Mike Kelley, he moved back to New York, where he produced The Escape (of Marie Antoinette) and exhibited in the Gavin Brown Gallery. "Then, everything happened so quickly," he says. The film was accepted to the New York Whitney Biennial in 1998 and quickly made him a brand name in the art world.

T. J. Wilcox Comtesse de Castiglione, 2005
Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures

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