Painting © Maria Przyszychowska from a Photograph by Julian Wasser
IN EVE BABITZ'S THIRD BOOK, Sex and Rage, the main character Jacaranda Leven comes upon a black-and-white photograph hanging in a grand Hollywood penthouse apartment, next to "a David Hockney swimming pool, and a huge pornographic watercolor by John Altoon." Shot by Julian Wasser in 1963, the image shows Marcel Duchamp playing chess in an art gallery with a voluptuous naked woman whose face is obscured by a curtain of dark hair. "The contrast between Duchamp's dried-out ancient little person and the large young girl's Rubenesque flesh," Babitz writes, "was not (unlike chess) at all subtle." Leven, an aspiring writer who, like all of Babitz's protagonists, is an obvious stand-in for the author, can't believe her host owns a print of this legendary photograph, while her host can't believe this surfer girl in thrift-store Dior has even seen it before. "She'd have to be an idiot," Jacaranda comments to the reader, "to spend all her time around artists and not know this photograph."
Jacaranda's creator, for her part, knew it well, for the naked girl is none other than Babitz herself, age 20. She'd agreed to this stunt proposed by Wasser to spite her married boyfriend, Walter Hopps, who had curated a Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum and failed to invite her to the opening reception. Almost 50 years later, despite the fact that she went on to write a total of seven books, this staged chess match with Duchamp remains the single act Babitz is best remembered for, if she is remembered at all. Sex and Rage, like all of her books, is long out of print. Shockingly, most of them are not even in circulation in the Los Angeles Public Library system. A handful of titles can be found online, but these too reflect the degree to which Babitz's cultural cachet has overshadowed her reputation as an author: Her 1980 picture book on the New Wave Italian retailer Fiorucci, coveted by fashionistas, typically fetches $600 and up, but her last collection of stories, 1995's Black Swans, can be had for around $5.
This month, the iconic photograph with Duchamp — which has inspired both homages and feminist rants — is being exhibited in a Julian Wasser retrospective at the Craig Krull gallery in Santa Monica as part of Pacific Standard Time. This ongoing, citywide celebration of postwar art in Los Angeles can be credited with illuminating many forgotten movements and characters, and Babitz is one of them. She is also a central presence in Hunter Drohojowska-Philp's juicy 1960s L.A. art-world history Rebels in Paradise, published in July. Drohojowska-Philp calls Babitz "my muse," and notes that her other admirers include Dave Hickey, Joie Davidow, and Joan Didion.
Indeed, as a woman writing about sixties and seventies Los Angeles, Babitz has inevitably drawn comparisons to Didion, though the contrast between their writerly personae could not be more stark. Busty and giggly, a daughter of Bohemian Hollywood Jews to Didion's Sacramento pioneer stock, Babitz was the type to lament the regrettable things those 14 White Ladies that she drank made her do, while Didion dispassionately...