Franklin Fifth Helena
Cynthia Talmadge’s installations reference places that have figured prominently into one or another celebrity’s biography—from her 2017 debut featuring a reproduction of McLean, a rehab facility where Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace sought treatment, to a 2018 presentation inspired by The Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, an Upper East Side funeral home famous for its memorials of public figures.
Talmadge’s current show, “Franklin Fifth Helena,” is the artist’s most ambitious endeavor yet. The installation brings to life an imagined study-slash-storage room at the residence of Ralph Greenson. A lauded intellectual and UCLA professor, Greenson assumed a Hollywood-adjacent reputation through his private practice as a psychoanalyst, cultivating a roster of star-studded clients that included Judy Garland, Vivian Leigh, Frank Sinatra and, infamously, Marilyn Monroe.
It’s little surprise that his office, by 1956, was in Beverly Hills. Yet, after taking on Monroe as a patient in 1960, Greenson began conducting her sessions at his Santa Monica home at 902 Franklin Street. There, she frequently joined his family for dinner and other social functions. Greenson justified these otherwise brazen professional transgressions by describing his methods as “adoption therapy.” Monroe reportedly wanted to move back to New York, but Greenson insisted she stay in LA, as near as possible to his home. In February 1962, she purchased a Brentwood hacienda a mere five-minute drive away. The home would be her last. Its address was 12305 Fifth Helena Drive.
Hence the title of Talmadge’s exhibition: a semantic coupling of the street names that would become inextricable from the bizarre circumstances leading to Monroe’s death later that year.
Influencing the floor-to-ceiling design of “Franklin Fifth Helena” is the late 15th-century studiolo (or study) from the Palazzo Ducal di Gubbio, now on permanent view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The room is renowned for elaborate wood inlays forming trompe l’oeil cabinets and their contents: Musical instruments, books and calibration tools (e.g., an hourglass and caliper) signal the commissioning duke’s erudite humanistic and scientific pursuits.
Using dyed sand, Talmadge created similarly illusionistic imagery for the exhibition, including trelliswork with doric pilasters and structural niches encircling the interior. Two pairs of arched openings reflect other parts of the room as if inset with mirrors. This backdrop—while subtly mocking Greenson’s self-involved intellect—sets the stage for an eclectic array of around 250 objects plucked from the respective narratives of Greenson’s and Monroe’s lives. Greenson, defined largely by his profession, is embodied through books ranging from academic texts to pop psychology. Looseleaf papers taped to the mirrors and walls include a single prescription pad and the letterhead of his alma mater, University of Bern, where he studied under one of Sigmund Freud’s disciples. Rather than the ubiquitous onslaught of photographs highlighting her physique, Monroe is represented through quotidian possessions and keepsakes. Situated in front of an archway, for instance, is a box of recipes and eye drops on top of a padlocked brown filing cabinet given to her by Frank Sinatra.
The overlap between their stories manifests as nonspecific 1960s ephemera, such as matchbooks from iconic LA hotels, as well as invented components. Talmadge doesn’t miss a chance to side-eye the creepiness of Greenson’s control over Monroe’s life. By 1962, he had explicitly instructed her to cut ties with longtime friends. To wit, a defaced photo of her ex, Joe DiMaggio, appears tacked to a dartboard. Greenson knew that the actress remained close with the baseball player after their divorce; that year, she wrote that she was preparing to return to New York in the fall to remarry him. Whatever her plans, she was found dead in her bedroom from a drug overdose that August. Greenson and his former housekeeper, who he’d had Monroe hire as her own, were the only ones on the scene when the police arrived.
It’s a testament to the artist’s technical skills and sophisticated conceptual sensibilities alike that this vast repertoire of pop culture and art historical references coheres, thematically and aesthetically, into an enigmatic, elegant and often poignant whole. The irony is that, between the encyclopedic documentation of Monroe’s life and the ceaseless speculation about her death, what becomes the most impactful are the mundane details of her daily existence. Invisible to her legions of admirers and of no interest to those who, like Greenson, would take her trust and exploit it, these are the aspects that humanize Marilyn Monroe most of all. —Rachel Small
Cynthia Talmadge, Franklin Fifth Helena (right wall), 2021. Sand on panel, 118 x 132 inches. Courtesy 56 Henry, New York.