Pati Hill: My old fur coat doesn’t know me explores the publications and extensive photocopy work of American writer and artist Pati Hill (b. 1921, in Ashland, Kentucky, USA; d. 2014 in Sens, France). This exhibition traces Hill’s forty-year practice beginning in the early 1970s, and includes some of her most emblematic projects, with an emphasis on her artists’ books and related working materials, many on view for the first time.
Between 1953 and 1962, following a successful career as a model, Hill published five books and several short stories. After the birth of her only child she claimed to “quit writing in favor of housekeeping” and began a thirteen-year period that she later described laconically on her resume with the words: “Housewife, mother.” She was fifty-four when she exhibited for the first time works she had started to make with the photocopier a few years earlier. Initially motivated by an impulse to record the household items at her disposal with photocopiers at local copy shops, Hill pushed the medium in more experimental directions with the assistance of a loaned IBM Copier II that was installed in her home in 1977. Over the next four decades, Hill would go on to produce thousands of prints across different series, along with a catalog of hybrid projects focusing on how text and images might “fuse to become something other than either.”
Hill’s approach to the work was clarified in her own writings—often marked by dark and deadpan humor—picturing herself as a kind of engineer dealing with technique, language, and visual information as a whole, rather than an artist or a writer. Her foregrounding of ambiguity was certainly a way to avoid deforming her subject, as we sometimes “destroy dreams by choosing wrong words for them.” As someone who was often frustrated by the systems of power, dependency and status to which she belonged, it may have also been a way for her to consider doors to exit her narrative, “to [slip] away to [her] next incarnation, as easily as an eel off a china plate.”
Pati Hill: My old fur coat doesn’t know me is curated by Baptiste Pinteaux, publisher of the Paris-based imprint Daisy and the art journal octopus notes. The exhibition is produced with the assistance of the Pati Hill Collection at Arcadia University (Glenside, PA) and gallery Air de Paris.
Pati Hill: My old fur coat doesn’t know me is on view June 29 – October 28, 2023.
Available at St Marks
Available at St Marks
Pati Hill’s Early Years, 1940–1960
Pati Hill wanted to live different lives, she said, “[as we live] in different books.” At the age of 20, a year after she arrived in New York in 1940, she met Harper’s Bazaar chief editor Carmel Snow and started an unexpected and successful modeling career. Modeling gave her the independence she had been dreaming of, qualified by the discovery of the “peculiar feeling of ‘reality’ […] The reality of an object, maybe,” as she later wrote. At the same time, Hill began to publish her writing, including a regular column on interior design in Seventeen magazine addressed to teenagers, as well as her first short stories.
Encouraged by her friends—the French aristocrat Alain de la Falaise, Paris Review editor George Plimpton, and the still unknown photographer Diane Arbus among them—Hill committed herself to writing and published her first book, a memoir, in 1953. Over the next decade she published three novels, several short stories and a collection of poetry illustrated by the poet Galway Kinnell. These works won her some critical acclaim, although Hill would later admit that she never fully considered herself a writer, maybe “more as a journalist […] with nothing journaled yet.” Despite being convinced of the value of her work and wanting to be compared “to no one but herself,” the comment reveals her reluctance to identify herself as an author, unlike so many of her peers.
History of Dressmaking, 1972–1975
In 1960, Hill married her third husband, the French art dealer Paul Bianchini. The birth of their daughter Paola in 1962 coincided with the publication of her third novel, One Thing I Know, the coming-of-age story of Francesca, a teenager whose journal opens to these lines: “One thing I know, I will never be in love again.” Facing the disregard of writer colleagues who considered her life as a mother to be a desertion of her vocation, she “quit writing in favor of housekeeping.” Hill did not publish any new work over the next thirteen years but she started a collection of what she called “informational art” (advertisements and instruction manuals) and wrote a journal, The History of Dressmaking, that she would eventually revise in the late 1990s.
This 350-page text recounts Hill’s daily life between Stonington (Connecticut), Paris, and a French countryside village, Cerisiers, while she was trying to negotiate her open approach to marriage in a conservative society. She portrayed herself amongst a crowd of picturesque characters: her farmer neighbors in Cerisiers, her husband’s family with whom she experiences the French haute bourgeoisie with a mix of fascination and scorn, her dog Lucas, who leads her to ponder the platonic nature of emotions, as well as her mother with whom she shared a “taste for impractical men.” The journal is the story of a life going from one place to another, as well as an account of Hill’s pivotal encounters with the photocopier beginning in the early 1970s.
On occasion of the exhibition, Printed Matter has published a new booklet excerpting the final chapter of The History of Dressmaking, titled “High in the Sky.” View the publication here.
Slave Days, 1974
Hill was fifty-four when she published Slave Days, a collection of thirty-one poems and twenty-nine photocopies portraying the biting, sardonically detached gaze of a housewife contemplating her existence. This was the first book she published after a thirteen year pause, a time she laconically summed up on a 1977 resume with the words “Housewife, mother.” The book includes some of the first xerographs she had begun making a few years before, reflecting on domestic space and labor.
Four years later, in 1979, Hill wrote a kind of manifesto, Letters to Jill, to help clarify her thoughts about her practice. She talks about her desire to use the copier in a “straight” way so as to experience its intrinsic qualities: its “yes/no, multiplicity, instantaneousness;” but also how she considered this series of mummified objects captured on the scanner bed as a “kind of de-Freudianized series of symbols.” In many ways, Slave Days introduces Hill’s distinctive form of attention to her subjects: delicate but never romantic and at the same time dark-hued, subtle and cruel.
Impossible Dreams, 1976
Impossible Dreams was Hill’s last published novel, released in 1976 after it was partially published two years earlier in the Carolina Quarterly under the title “An Angry French Housewife.” It tells the story of Geneviève, whose life is turned upside down when she unexpectedly falls in love with her neighbor, Dolly. Mixing anecdotes with existential thoughts, the novel describes the gradual disruption of the heroine’s perceptions. Each of its chapters is accompanied by a xerograph of a photograph, selected by Hill with permission from its maker. The resulting combination of text and image constitutes her most ambitious attempt to produce a work in which “the two elements fuse to become something other than either.”
It is also one of the most incisive examples of Hill’s writing—dry and impartial, but managing to capture the contradictory feelings of her characters. In a letter addressed to the photographer Eva Rubinstein asking for reproduction rights, she writes: “My book is about a woman with a little girl and a husband who falls in love with a woman and a little girl and a husband and loses them all, just like in your mirror. It doesn’t sound very cheerful but it is mainly funny.”
In the years after it was published, Hill presented several public readings of the novel accompanied by 35mm-slide projections of its 48 images.
Symbol Language, 1977
In response to her bilingual daughter’s challenges with French and English grammar, Hill started working on a language composed entirely of combinable symbols that might circumvent traditional language and the Roman alphabet. By this time she had already assembled a collection of printed examples of “informational art”—advertisements and instruction manuals—prompted by her interest in how these commercial illustrations, intended to convey practical directions, might fail in their goal; how their information could get lost on its way to bring to the reader unexpected meanings. A teacher in a Connecticut school taught this language to children for several months until (as Hill tells it) their parents started to complain because their children would refuse to write in the “proper way.”
While Hill was developing this language she met Charles Eames on a transatlantic flight and told him about her ongoing research. They started a short but intense correspondence until his death a year later. Unsatisfied by the community of writers in which she found herself (and whom she thought not progressive enough) and disappointed by the contemporary art she knew at the time, Hill’s correspondence with Eames encouraged her to see herself as a kind of engineer who dealt with technique, language and visual information as a whole.
Pati Hill, Symbol Language (excerpts), 1977–78
Xerographs on yellow paper, 11 x 8.5”
Courtesy Pati Hill Collection, Arcadia University
Dreams, Objects, Moments – 1977
Hill presented her Dreams Objects Moments series for the first time in 1976 at Kornblee Gallery, New York, displaying about a hundred typewritten texts copied onto sheets of colored paper. Each example offered a literal description of a dream, an object or a moment, with the paper color relating the texts to three categories (green for Dreams, pink for Objects, yellow for Moments). Some texts resemble poems while others could be short stories, but they all share the same illustrative and concise quality, the same humor—cynical, detached and tender towards the characters and situations they depict—as well as the same peculiar way of highlighting an unexpected trouble found in ordinary situations, univocal dreams or common objects.
The work gives the feeling of watching a hazy subjectivity formulate its shape, mirroring Hill’s own taste for transformation. The work doesn’t distinguish between dream and material life, but creates a stereoscopic vision out of simultaneous and contradictory points of view. For Hill, these works may have been a way of keeping herself on a razor’s edge whilst considering several doors that might allow an exit from her own narrative and its ideological strictures—specifically as a woman, a mother and a housewife refusing to be part of any system of power, dependency and status. In a note about this series Hill talks about being afraid “to deform [her] subject by [her] exploration of it, to cripple or kill it so no further exploration could be made, the way we destroy dreams by choosing wrong words for them, or memories we destroy by the repeated insertion of modifications or lies thinking that we can keep an unexpurgated version of ourselves.”
Texts from Dreams Objects Moments, Pati Hill, 1976
facsimiles of xerographs on green, pink, and yellow paper, 11 x 8.5 inches
Courtesy Pati Hill Collection, Arcadia University
Cartoons, early 2000s
It is perhaps with animals that Hill maintained the companionships that suited her best. And among them, cats are foremost. One can talk to them without expecting to be understood. They have fun by themselves and from nothing in particular. They have no taste for sentimental miseries. Their aloofness and apparent disregard may have helped Hill clarify her idea of her own independence. In the last ten years of her life, Hill’s drawing practice, which had always been important to her, took on a different dimension. With the cooperation of her feline companions, Hill created a series of experimental drawings in response to the food and urine stains they left on white sheets of paper. These drawings were likely the source of a series of cartoons Hill hoped to publish in The New Yorker. This unusual body of work is useful in showing Hill’s comfort with broadening her practice while also illuminating the humor of her oeuvre, however discreet, present from its inception.
Picture her in her studio drawing as she made her xerographs, without any romantic idea of creation, remembering her wedding day when her friend, the poet James Merrill, offered her a cat to accompany her “new life as a prisoner,” thinking that after all… a married woman who draws cats is not so bad…
Selection of cartoons, Pati Hill, c. 2000, 11 x 8.5 inches
Artists’ Books, Early 2000s
Pati Hill thought that publishing “should be like taking your clothes to the laundromat.” This sentiment may have guided her to create a large number of books in the early 2000s, bound by hand like her diaries, and gathering around two hundred works each. Unlike the emblematic series that Hill produced during her lifetime, with their focus on thematic motifs, these books respond to a more narrative logic, although one that can be chaotic and elliptical. They say something decisive about the way Hill thought of xerographs in profuse and irregular series, never fixed merely by the thing being recorded, but rather subject to the tools of their representation.
Cumulatively creating a kind of “symbol language” of their own, these books are testaments of Hill’s late advances in her work with the copier—her use of colored toner, accidents, and superimpositions. Some of these books were created as part of her attempt to photocopy Versailles, a major project that kept her busy for more than ten years. If some of those books seem to have been clearly regarded by Hill as publications, others, which she labeled “Déchets” [Waste], may have served her more like visual repertories. The sheets on view represent a small sampling of pages found in these books.
Thank you to the Archives at Arcadia University, Richard Torchia, Anastasia Rousseau, Adam Hess, Matthew Borgen, Mimi Bassetti, Arthur Lubow, Lucy Glasson, Sarah Middleton, the Pati Hill Collection steering committee, Svea Williams, Kelsie Winship, Galerie Air de Paris, Florence Bonnefous and Nicole Huard.
This exhibition is supported, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts.