Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philadelphia-haunted David Lynch returns for an expansive salute

Never mind the world outside David Lynch's studio window: the sun beaming on the Hollywood Hills, the sprinklered lawns ringed by dry chaparral, the open-top tourist vans prowling for homes of stars.

David Lynch at the Idem Paris lithographic atelier, subject of a 2013 documentary short.
David Lynch at the Idem Paris lithographic atelier, subject of a 2013 documentary short.Read more

LOS ANGELES - Never mind the world outside David Lynch's studio window: the sun beaming on the Hollywood Hills, the sprinklered lawns ringed by dry chaparral, the open-top tourist vans prowling for homes of stars.

Stationed at his long desk, chain-smoking American Spirits, tossing the butts on the concrete floor, the celebrated filmmaker and artist is time-traveling to 1960s Philadelphia, recalling his 51/2 years in a city that seeped into his soul. The patina of grime-blackened buildings. Kitchen ovens filled with expired cockroaches. A murdered boy just beyond his stoop. "Smiling bags of death" at the morgue.

"Philadelphia is my greatest influence," says Lynch, 68, in a buttoned-to-the-neck white shirt and khakis, his eyes crinkled and clear, his silver hair in a Gumby whoosh.

"I loved the place - as well as hated the place. . . . There was a kind of anything-can-happen feeling. But the things that could happen weren't going to be good."

But they were good. On Saturday, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts - his alma mater, the polestar that drew him to Philadelphia in 1965 - opens "David Lynch: The Unified Field," an expansive survey of not just the work he did there, but also the paintings, drawings, constructions, and multimedia installations he has created in all the years since. Art quaking with memories and dreams of Philadelphia, just like his films (Oscar-nominated four times) and television work - the cult breakthrough Eraserhead (1977), the hallucinogenic Americana of Blue Velvet (1986), the coffee-and-cherry-pie procedural of the TV series Twin Peaks (1990-91).

The show is big, more than 80 works (with a sidebar collection by Lynch's friends, teachers, and contemporaries) occupying better than half of the second-floor exhibition space. Lithographs, watercolors, mixed media on wood and canvas, small pieces, giant pieces, pieces with titles that reflect his obsessions, but also his splendidly askew humor: Arm of Sores, My Head Is Disconnected, I Not Know Gun Was Loaded Sorry, I Find It Very Difficult to Understand What Is Going On These Days.

"He's been so successful in film that sometimes I think it's kept people from taking his painting seriously," says Jack Fisk, the Academy Award-nominated art director who has known Lynch since high school in Alexandria, Va., and who persuaded him to come to the academy, where Fisk had enrolled.

Robert Cozzolino, curator of "The Unified Field," has been working with Lynch and his staff, and his L.A. gallery, Kayne Griffin Corcoran, for several years to frame a show that, he says, would not "fall back on the film narrative" or "make the films the index everything is compared to. . . .

"Somebody was finally taking his work as a painter, as a maker of drawings and prints, seriously."

For the creatives, 1960s Philadelphia and 1920s Paris were not so very different, says Fisk. Both had "the right convergence of artists, writers, musicians. People were doing completely different things, and everybody was pushed to do more . . . all searching for identity."

At the academy, he and Lynch joined a circle of artists experimenting with new forms, new ideas. Among them were Murray Dessner, Tom Palmore, Ben Kamihira, Eo Omwake. James Havard, older, established, was an unofficial mentor. "We were rebelling against everything Thomas Eakins had built," Fisk says. "Nothing against him, but we were trying to find out what art was."

Lynch has told the story of his epiphany before, but it bears retelling.

He was slabbing paint on a landscape one night in one of the capacious studios. "It's a painting, mostly black, but it's a garden, and so there's some green that's coming out of the black. It's a garden at night," he explains.

"I'm sitting back and I'm probably taking a smoke. In those days, you could smoke everywhere. This is like the most beautiful thing in the world to me," he says, holding the object of his digression aloft. "It's a nightmare world now. But anyway" - he laughs, moving back on point - "I'm taking a smoke . . . and I'm looking at this painting, and from it I hear a wind. I hear a wind. And from it I see the green start to move. And I'm not taking drugs. It's really happening, but I'm not on drugs. The green is moving and I hear a wind. And the next thought is, Oh, a moving painting. And that's what started it: It's sound and picture. . . .

"So the first thing I did was 'Six Men Getting Sick,' and I had the sound of a siren."

"Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times)" was his first film, a stop-motion animated short in which crudely drawn figures do just as the title says. Colored liquid gushes from their guts, everything catches fire. Shown on a jerry-rigged 16mm projector in continuous loop, the 1967 film won the academy's student competition for experimental work.

Visitors to "The Unified Field" will find the one-minute film behind the academy's central lobby, installed in a black-box room and projected, as it was originally, onto a three-dimensional sculpted screen, featuring plaster casts of Lynch's head.

The day after his "moving painting" moment, Lynch was off and running from the dilapidated rowhouse he shared with Fisk at 13th and Wood, down to the Fotorama store on 16th Street to get a movie camera.

"The cheapest one, a little Bell & Howell windup," he recalls. "It held 100 feet of 16mm film. . . . it had a little turret of three lenses. I loved that camera."

More ambitious work and a better camera - a $400-plus Bolex - followed. "The Alphabet" (1968) combined animation and live action, a four-minute recitation decidedly un-Sesame Street in nature. A woman (fellow artist Peggy Reavey) lies in bed, with a soundtrack of whistling wind and a baby's wail. At the climax, she vomits blood.

"The Grandmother" (1970) came next: A 33-minute flambé of animation and live action - also with an eerie soundscape - about a boy who plants a seed and grows a grandmother. It won the attention of the American Film Institute.

The next year, he moved to L.A.

Lynch's time in Philadelphia divides into three chapters, defined by his addresses: 13th and Wood; the 2400 block of Aspen; the 2400 block of Poplar.

At the first, in a precinct of warehouses and light industry, Lynch established his graveyard-shift routine. He'd wake by 4 p.m. to have breakfast next door at Pop's Diner before it closed for the day. He'd return to the studio in the rowhouse he and Fisk rented (no heat, but two working fireplaces), or go to the academy or to Peale House, the old Belgravia Hotel that the academy had bought and rechristened. Around 2 a.m., he would break for another meal, usually at the White Tower hamburger joint at Broad and Race. He'd go to bed as most people were getting up.

Catty-corner to his house was the city morgue. One night, a guard let him in.

"He said, 'Ring the bell at midnight,' " Lynch says, recalling "a little entrance room, linoleum tile floor, cigarette machine, candy machine, little entrance desk, and a corridor going back and a big iron door."

In the cold room, Lynch saw about 20 bodies "kind of in bunk beds."

"I just sat with them," he says. "It wasn't like a thrill or any kind of weird thing. It was a life experience. It makes you think about many, many things."

He never again visited the morgue. But he often passed its loading docks, and observed workers hosing down the zippered rubber body bags, which had handles on either end.

"They bring the bodies back to the morgue, take the body out," Lynch recounts, "and they hang the bags with the zipper open, and the handles would go on these pegs and then they'd hose them out. . . . They looked like they were smiling. Sometimes they had water dripping out of their mouth."

Lynch deployed that image - like so many Philadelphia impressions - for the Season 2 opener of Twin Peaks. Yes, the smiling bags of death.

Fisk recalls Lynch's telling him about one morgue room filled with "pieces of people. It was etched in his mind."

And re-etched in Blue Velvet, when Kyle MacLachlan's character finds a human ear in a field.

In 1967, Lynch and Peggy Reavey were married. In April 1968, they had a daughter, Jennifer (who grew up to be a filmmaker and TV director). They moved into a brick trinity on Aspen Street.

Lynch had left the academy. "The realization came that being a father and being married, I needed to get a job," he says. "I remember the day before I went to work, I was sawing wood, and I was almost crying - I loved sawing wood. I was sawing a 1-by-3 pine, and I was thinking my freedom was gone, and tomorrow I go into lockup."

But lockup wasn't so bad.

Lynch got a job with his friend, the gallerist Rodger LaPelle, making prints of drawings by LaPelle's wife, Christine McGinnis, in the couple's carriage house in Germantown.

"They supported themselves on Christine's animal prints," Lynch says. "I'd print alongside Dorothy McGinnis, Christine's mother - we called her Flash - and Flash turned me on to The Edge of Night and Another World. . . . We'd watch TV and print."

Thus, another piece of his Philadelphia experience was socked away for later use: the loping cadences of soap opera, reworked in Twin Peaks.

The Lynches' last Philly house was also their biggest, 2416 Poplar - a number that Eraserhead fans know as Mary X's address. "Twelve rooms, full earthen basement, oil heat, three stories," Lynch remembers. The real estate agency asked $3,500 - $600 down.

"I think I bought it that day."

Lynch has called Eraserhead, the film he spent five years making once relocating to L.A., "my Philadelphia Story."

The stark, cracked factories. The haunting thrum. A protagonist who works at the LaPelle printing plant and is suddenly confronted with the prospect of fatherhood - though the child's species is up for discussion. (A 1972 ink on paper in "The Unified Field" is an eerie rendering of the Eraserhead baby.)

Family is a theme that runs through Lynch's art and films. He has been married four times (his second wife was Mary Fisk, his best friend's sister). In addition to daughter Jennifer, he has two sons, and a 2-year-old daughter with his wife, Emily Stofle, an actress who appeared in his most recent feature, Inland Empire (2006).

He also had a relationship with his Blue Velvet star, Isabella Rossellini.

"He loves family," says Jack Fisk. "When he first married Peggy, he'd go every weekend to play horseshoes with her family."

But in Lynch's work, the family unit is almost always frayed, and freaky.

"I don't understand all of it," Fisk says, "but I think that he was so normal growing up" - son of an Agriculture Department scientist and an English tutor - "that it embarrassed him. . . .

"He was conflicted, because there was a craziness in him."

In his studio, Lynch is making a small box. There is a painting in progress. He is constructing a lamp. He takes his art seriously - but not himself.

He practices Transcendental Meditation 20 minutes each morning and evening, and oversees a foundation to spread the word. He has his own brand of coffee. He composes music. He is a photographer. From 1983 to 1992, he drew a comic strip, The Angriest Dog in the World, syndicated in alternative papers. And he shows up on TV. In last season's Louie, he was an entertainment industry veteran who coaches Louis C.K. when he's auditioning to replace Letterman.

"David has more of a sense of humor than about any artist I know," says Fisk, who remembers how Lynch used to wear two ties at once when he lived in Philadelphia.

Lynch plans to be in the city for the week of the academy opening. He's set to appear at a members-only preview there on Friday, at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute Saturday (sold out), at the Prince Music Theater for the Philadelphia Film Society on Wednesday (sold out), and at the Free Library on Thursday (sold out). He also has agreed to meet with the folks who rechristened his old stomping ground around 13th and Wood the "Eraserhood."

But Pop's Diner is gone. So, too, Buck's Hardware, where Lynch found everything he needed for his constructions. White Tower was bulldozed. The city morgue is an annex for Roman Catholic High. The ghost factories are loft apartments with rooftop pools and nearby businesses selling artisanal pizza and craft beer. There's talk of making the old Reading Viaduct a park.

Lynch considers this news.

"You see," he says, shaking his head ruefully, "that's the end of the world."


"David Lynch: The Unified Field"

Sept. 13 to Jan. 11 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St.

Hours: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Adults, $15; 60+ and college students, $12; youth (13-18), $8; children and military, free.

Information: or 215-972-7600.

Companion events at other venues. Check with venues for schedule and admission:

Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 824 W. Lancaster Ave.; or 610-527-9898.

Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.; or 215-686-5322.

International House, 3701 Chestnut St.; or 215-387-5125.

Philadelphia Film Society at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St.;, or (Tickets for PFS Lynch events are also available at the PFS Theater at the Roxy, 2023 Sansom St.)

PhilaMOCA (Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art), 531 N. 12th St. or 267-519-9651.

Rodger LaPelle Gallery, 122 N. Third St.; or 215-592-0232.