Sunny Cool Violence

By Anne Philippi


On the night of August 9, 1969, Sharon Tate is murdered by Charles Manson and his Family. Joan Didion writes about that night: “I remember that no one was surprised.” Suspicions and fantasies spread; very few pictures circulate. People call each other to share analog hypotheses and rumors.  

But how is it possible that no one is surprised by this murder, this unimaginable butchery? The night Sharon Tate dies marks a sudden reversal, the instant when a utopia turns dystopian. No one has seen it coming. It is a moment of supreme ambiguity in which the present is unrecognizable. The end of an era—by 1969, people have lost all sense of historical time.

The euphoric Hippie culture of 1960s America gave way to a hard drug culture edged with the harsh luster of psychopathology: before the attack, members of the Manson Family, some of whom were into speed, popped some “orange sunshine” an extremely powerful variant of LSD. Once its' effect set in, they launched an assault on Hollywood, a beacon of civilized optimism, and with it an assault on the utopia of a different world. But what had happened to the confused Hippie energies of the new era? All was blurred; the reasons behind such an outrageous bloodshed remained hazy.

The vague, invisible, indirect is the defining quality of Californian culture, of its “vibe.” Rationality, clarity, rigorous thinking are at bottom alien to the West Coast: in Hollywood, the epicenter of a modern esotericism, everything is “energy.”

Robert Lazzarini works with this idea and philosophy of vagueness, with the aesthetic of the mutable and equivocal. Sharon Tate’s face—its proportions so harmonious it might seem to be a product of mathematical modeling—is initially almost unrecognizable in the soft black-and-white portraits. The visage of a woman hailed as the “great American beauty” virtually dissolves into an array of delicate striations. The beholder distantly senses Tate’s beauty, but not her aura, her joy or grief. Yet take a step back and Tate’s characteristic features emerge, her smile comes into view, her warmth and innocence: she becomes a person, a soul, an energy.

As Lazzarini demonstrates, it is only from a remove that we can see the crime, the murder of Tate and her friends, with fresh eyes. Similarly, the perfect proportions of her face, its iconic quality, do not resolve into a different meaning until we consider them from a distance. Tate’s features then come to represent a universal feeling, a collective memory. She transmits the sensation of an era transmuted into a time of trauma, a brutal dénouement that baffles us even today.

The title Lazzarini chose for his show, Deeper Than Wide, which references the forensic description of a knife wound: the wound is deeper than it is wide. Three simple words are enough to conjure up a nightmarish vision that, once spirited into being, is hard to banish from the mind. Therein, too, lurks the idea of an imagination, a recollection of unspoken horror that will forever associate the sight of Tate’s face with Charles Manson’s looming presence.

Over the years, the murder of Sharon Tate marks a trauma America cannot overcome. The idea and the horror of the Manson commune’s assault on the normal civilized world—in this instance, on Tate, her husband Roman Polanski, and a circle of Hollywood friends who happened to be congregated in a house previously inhabited by the producer of the Beach Boys—remains a prolific source of dark cultural energy.

Contained within Robert Lazzarini’s work is the same antagonism: between the sunny cool of California that Hollywood embodies and the violence—often initially invisible—unleashed by the hatred of those who do not fit in, whose dysfunctional aspirations at some point transform into a hostile force and unimagined cold-bloodedness, as in Manson. And yet, in the right quantity, such hostility can fuel a career. Too much of it, and it ends in the greatest possible human self-obliteration: the murder of another human being. Or two human beings—Tate was eight months pregnant.

It is of this end of an innocence and of the calm ease and protection that fame supposedly brings that Lazzarini’s sculptures in the exhibition speak. Take, in particular, the golden sculpture of a bird at the foot of one of the Tate portraits. The object quotes the delicate birds that often appear as reliefs on walls, wallpapers, and furniture in the style called Regency Moderne. A kind of Hollywood Rococo, frivolous and superficially tasteful, it dominated in the homes of the stars during the motion picture industry’s golden age, from the 1920s through the 1970s. Interior designs in this style conveyed luxury, affluence, and membership in a specific entertainment class. The color gold, in particular, signaled wealth, accomplishment, success.

Lazzarini’s golden bird is a messenger from this golden world that cradled Tate and that, in 1969, was shattered by an indefinable revolt. And only when we take a step back do we realize, as with the portraits, that the golden bird is already dead. The artist’s sculptures and other works shine a spotlight on what would seem to be a timeless social law. All that is golden, all that gleams, whether it is genuine or not, gives rise, by dint of its very presence, to a counter-movement, a counter-violence, that culminates in the murder of this golden world.