“My body is made of the same flesh as the world...and moreover this flesh of my body is shared with the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world.”
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, 1968
Nicola L. Nous Voulons Entendre at the Thomas Mann House creates multiple parallels between the political and social practices of the Moroccan-born French artist Nicola L. and German author Thomas Mann. Spread throughout the living room and study of Thomas Mann’s home in Pacific Palisades, Nicola L.’s functional sculptures and Penetrables reveal a profound purpose while joshing with the legacy of modernist architecture.
Thomas Mann, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, arrived in Los Angeles with his family from Princeton in 1940, after spending seven years in exile. “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles,” said Frank Lloyd Wright at the time, probably in response to the influx of European émigrés in Los Angeles escaping World War II and the Holocaust. By the time the Mann’s arrived in Los Angeles, a number of their friends and colleagues had already settled in Los Angeles’s Westside – Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Christopher Isherwood, and Salka Viertel in Santa Monica; Arnold Schoenberg in Brentwood; Marlene Dietrich in Westwood; Fritz Lang, Hedy Lamarr, Sergei Rachmoninoff, Igor Stravinsky, and Billy Wilder in Beverly Hills. Weimar found itself against the edge of the Pacific.
In 1941, The Manns decided to make their move West permanent and commissioned architect Julius Ralph Davidson to build them a “moderately modern” house at 1550 San Remo Drive in Pacific Palisades. Much to the dismay of Davidson, the interiors were furnished to resemble the Mann’s Villa in Munich, rather than with modern furniture more fitting to the home’s exterior (Mann even managed to have his desk shipped over from Germany for his study). The house came to embody the exile — California modern on the outside, dignified German bourgeois on the inside.
The legacy of California Modernism has often been subject to that kind of eccentric disparity. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked into a mid-century home (often designed by a world-renowned male architect) with carpet over hardwood floors or laminate over cast concrete walls. There’s no doubt that most of this is a result of downright disinterest in protecting architectural heritage in Los Angeles, and hence the small number of homes that have survived demolition since. But there’s a few examples when that isn’t the impetus behind the stark differences between exterior and interior design in California Modernist homes. Ray Eames, who lived in the shadow of her husband’s fame throughout a great deal of her career, diligently decorated their steel and glass home with layers upon layers of lush fabrics, textiles, rugs and floor pillows, innumerable objects and tchotchkes, and elaborate floral and food arrangements. When Pauline and Rudolph Schindler divorced but still lived in their home on Kings Road together, Pauline painted her half of the house salmon pink. As curator Mimi Zeiger once brilliantly put it, these examples of “softening” are actually manifesto — “softness as resistance.”
Nicola L. (1932-2018) spent her life softening the built environment, often challenging Modernism’s hegemony of vision with a call to touch, hear, breath, and even become one with the spaces we enter and the rooms we live in. Her functional sculptures like the giant vinyl hand and foot sofas, lip and eye lamps, escargot tables and body-shaped bookshelves (examples of which are all on view at the Thomas Mann House) resist, or even disrupt, the notions of desensitization and sterility in minimalist art and modernist architecture. This couldn’t be clearer than with Nicola’s series of Penetrables, wall-sized “paintings” with body-part appendages sewn onto their surface, as well as the Fur Room or The House for Fifteen People (1969/2020), a free-standing, purple acrylic-fur room lined with fifteen Penetrables on the walls, floor, and ceiling for individuals to enter through, collectively becoming one with each other and with the structure.
Rooted in what curator Ruba Katrib sees as an unending optimism, much of Nicola’s “functional” works are whimsical, if still rooted in her exploration of the person as fragment. Her Penetrables, when unactivated by a performer, present as humans made into objects, without internal form, flayed skins stretched into rectangles. There’s a tension that exists in her oeuvre that brings forth the unique predicament of a woman who desires to be optimistic but must also fight to not be objectified or marginalized. Nicola L. played with the skin of social relationships, but always as a way of signifying the whole.
Nicola L.’s practice is rooted in feminism and liberation, with much of her work focused on inclusion and equal rights. Her approach to material mirrored her socio-cultural ideals, moving effortlessly between materials, making use of vinyl, canvas, wood, furniture, and video to give voice to one’s skin, body, and spirit. As writer Erica F. Battle put it: “Skin, as she conceived of it, is a threshold: both a literal, bodily boundary between the self and the world and a metaphorical site through which the actualization of the individual can meet the possibilities of collective action.”
For Both Nicola L. and Thomas Mann, the home was political. It was from his study that Mann would complete his novel Doctor Faustus as well as record his monthly anti-Nazi messages to the German people, broadcast by the BBC to Germany. Nicola, upon returning home to Paris in 1967, took to the streets with students and factory workers in the May 68 demonstrations, making a series of Penetrable protest banners. These banners were punctuated with entries for five to ten heads, with slogans such as WE WANT TO TOUCH, WE WANT TO SEE, WE WANT TO FEEL, WE WANT TO LOVE, and WE WANT TO BE LOVED stenciled across them. On view at the Thomas Mann House is an example of one of these banners with nine head-Penetrables and the phrase NOUS VOULONS ENTENDRE, or, WE WANT TO HEAR, this work resounds with Mann’s broadcasts, each of which began with the words “Germans, Listen!”
The Manns’ stay in Los Angeles was short-lived. With the rise of McCarthyism in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, the Manns’ relationship with the U.S. deteriorated. Mann was called in for questioning as a suspected communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee. "As an American citizen of German birth, I finally testify that I am painfully familiar with certain political trends. Spiritual intolerance, political inquisitions, and declining legal security, and all this in the name of an alleged 'state of emergency.' ... That is how it started in Germany." What was once a refuge for the Manns had now become hostile territory, and so they fled Los Angeles for Switzerland in 1952, where Thomas passed a few years later.
In 2016, the house at 1550 San Remo Drive was put up for sale by the descendants of Chet and Jon Lappen, who purchased the home from the Manns in 1953. Though the Lappens had taken pride in owning and living in the Mann House, one of the home’s listing agents was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying “The value is in the land. The value is not really in the architecture, I would say," immediately sparking concerns over the possible demolition of the home. A few months later, the German government stepped in to save the house, with plans to create “a cultural center for debate over major trans-Atlantic issues, including migration, exile and integration”.
Today, the Thomas Mann House is one of the brightest beacons of its kind in Los Angeles, not only for creating a space that encourages transatlantic debate, but also operating as a residency for artists and intellectuals. “In a conflict-laden world which is no longer sure of its own order,” said German foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the time of the acquisition, “we need more than ever places in which cultural and social exchanges take place free from external pressure.” Each year, the Thomas Mann House accepts a dozen fellows, including journalists, political scientists, writers, and curators, to take up residence at the house and to develop their personal research projects around the house’s annual topic. This year’s manifesto is “The Political Mandate of the Arts,” and I could envision Nicola L.’s head and hands reaching through her protest banner in eager anticipation.
To read the complete Against the Edge text and learn about other sites and artists included in Frieze Projects curated by Jay Ezra Nayssan and Del Vaz Projects, click here.