Lester Strong holds a graduate degree in philosophy from the New School for Social Research in New York City. He is Special Projects Editor for A&U magazine, a national, monthly, glossy publication that covers all aspects of the AIDS crisis, where he is in charge of the blog site and podcasts for the magazine’s website (ww.aumag.org) as well as writing articles for its printed version. From 1994 to 1999 he wrote the monthly column “Gay Arts Beat,” syndicated in various lesbian/gay publications around the country. His scholarly articles have appeared in the South Dakota Review, the New Mexico Historical Review, the St. John’s Review, the International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, and the Journal of Homosexuality. He has also been a contributor to Out magazine and The Gay and Lesbian Review. He lives with his husband in New York City.
“Give and take”—a friendly sounding phrase, perhaps indicating a congenial kind of relationship where people help each other in times of need or just for the fun of it. “Give or take”—a distinctly less friendly sounding phrase, indicating perhaps not enmity but a situation where people go their own ways, choosing to deny rather than establish a relationship.
Welcome to the brittle atmosphere you enter at the start of the recently released movie Give or Take. It opens with a young New York City-based techie named Martin heading for the home in Cape Cod where his family vacationed during his childhood and where his father Kenneth moved permanently after his retirement. Martin’s mother has been dead for years, but his father died only recently. Martin’s reason for the trip is to close out his father’s estate, which involves selling the house. There’s one complication, however, and not a small one: After Martin’s mother died, his father came out as gay and fell in love with a local gay landscaper named Ted, who has lived in the house with his father for a number of years. Kenneth left no will, and it’s up to Martin and Ted to sort it all out together.
Both men loved Kenneth, and both are grieving his loss in their own ways, but they have nothing else in common except their relationships with a dead man whom his son always found distant and who failed to include his lover/partner in a will.
To say the least, Martin and Ted spend much of the movie butting heads, with other characters either exacerbating the problems between them or helping the two find some kind of resolution. For example: There is Patty King, a relentless real estate agent wearing a walking boot to protect an injured foot who stops at nothing to push the sale of the house to clients who want to knock it down and replace it with what in many parts of the country is called a “McMansion.” (As Patty stomps her way through the movie, by the way, the boot almost becomes a comic character in its own right.) On the other hand, there is Emma, an old flame of Martin from earlier years with whom the fire failed to ignite, who tries to mediate between the men as a friend to both. Last, but not least, is Terrence, whose unconventional way of teaching Martin how to relax is by introducing him to the idea of a “weed hole,” which they dig themselves on a nearby beach and occupy while smoking a joint.
The movie of course raises questions: In an era of marriage equality, why did Kenneth not protect his partner Ted by getting hitched? Why did he not at least put him into a will? On the other hand, why is Martin so resistant to signing over the house to Ted? After all, he’s successful at his tech job in New York and seemingly not hurting for money. The answers to these problems may lie in the personality of the dead Kenneth, who had managed to alienate his son over the years and seems not to have cared for his partner enough to protect him by the legal means at his disposal. But of course Kenneth being dead means those answers are inaccessible.
Give or Take is an engaging movie, shot on location in and around the Cape Cod town of Orleans, Massachusetts. Written by Paul Riccio and Jamie Effros and directed by Paul Riccio, the principal cast members include award-winning actor and writer Jamie Effros as Martin; Broadway actor and two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz as Ted; TV and film actress Joanne Tucker as Emma; TV and film actor Louis Cancelmi as Terrance; Saturday Night Live alumna Cheri Oteri as Patty King; Jaden Waldman as Colin, a young neighbor who has his own unique way of coping with problems, which he passes along to Martin, and Annapurna Sriram, an award-winning actress and film-maker, who as Martin’s decidedly unhappy girlfriend Lauren arrives unexpectedly at the Cape Cod house near the end of the movie to find herself running into a situation even more fraught with problems than her own unhappy relationship with Martin.
Are the problems finally resolved? To answer that question would be giving away the end of the movie. Let’s just say the film will not leave you bored, and by its end Give or Take may possibly—just possibly—be edging toward give and take.
Note:Give or Take is no longer in theaters, but can be accessed on the following digital platforms: @itunes; @appletv; @primevideo; @googleplay; @vudu. You can also purchase the DVD from Amazon.
Relatively recently I had the good fortune to have a lost and unknown short play by American playwright Edward Albee fall into my lap. Titled Touch (An Improvisation), it seems to be Albee’s only written foray into the topic of AIDS. After researching the reason for him writing the piece and receiving permission by the Edward F. Albee Foundation for it to be published in A&U magazine, where I’m the Special Projects Editor, I wrote the Introduction to the play that accompanied its publication in the magazine’s January 2022 issue. In that Introduction I described the play’s background and how it came to me. What I failed to describe (because it had nothing to do with Touch or its history) was a backstory relating to my personal history with Albee. I relate that backstory here.
For five years in the 1990s I wrote a column I called “Gay Art Beat” that was syndicated in a number of GLBT newspapers and magazines around the country. One of those publications was Baltimore Gay Paper (BGP). One day I received a call from the editor of BGP. Albee’s play Three Tall Women was on its national tour, he told me, and would be coming to Baltimore. Would I interview Albee about the play, and write an article based on what he said for publication in BGP? He had Albee’s telephone number and permission from Albee to be interviewed over the phone. Of course I said yes. What cultural journalist wouldn’t? So I researched the play and Albee himself, and eventually called him for the interview.
Albee had a reputation for being cantankerous, but all I found him to be was a bit shy at the beginning of our conversation. My research must have paid off, because fairly early during the interview, he commented: “Well, you certainly seem to know something about me. I’ve run into many writers whose first question is ‘Well, Mr Albee, what is it you do?’” After that his shyness ended, and I found him friendly and forthcoming in his answers to my questions. I wrote the article for BGP, which also eventually appeared in the other publications where my “Gay Arts Beat” column was syndicated. Later I published the interview itself in an article titled “Aggressing Against the Status Quo,” the title taken from one of his comments in the course of the interview.
That first encounter with Albee occurred in the mid-late 1990s. Then in 2001, an artist friend of mine who lives in the Tribeca section of lower Manhattan phoned to ask if I’d like to interview a sculptor she knew. His name was Jonathan Thomas, he was Edward Albee’s partner, and he and Albee also lived in Tribeca not far from her own apartment. Of course I said yes, and so an appointment was arranged for me to meet with him for the interview in their apartment.
Jonathan and I, it turned out, were the same age—both born in 1946—and we got along quite well. Since A&U is an AIDS-related magazine, the story had to at least touch on the disease. Neither he nor Albee had AIDS, but it turned out that Jonathan had extensive experience helping out with friends who had the disease and so had a remarkable story to tell in an article I titled “Hands On: Jonathan Thomas Talks About Making Art and Helping Friends in the Age of AIDS,” published in the May 2001 issue of the magazine.
At the end of the interview, Jonathan said he’d like to take me on a tour of the apartment to show me the art they had collected over the years. About two paintings into the tour, he called out: “Edward, I think you should lead this tour. I can’t remember the stories about all these art pieces.” So I was given a private tour of Albee’s apartment by Albee himself.
The comment I remember best from this tour was when he pointed to a largish black wooden sculpture standing against one wall and said, “This was given to me by Louise Nevelson.” It should be noted that Albee and Nevelson were friends, and he later wrote a play examining her public artistic accomplishments and private emotional conflicts, which he titled Occupant.
Sometime after the story about Jonathan was published, I received an email from him that read:
Dear Lester: Just a note to thank you again for the article. A surprising number of people have seen it. I hope you are having a good summer. We are holed up in Montauk until October. We both have wonderful deadlines to keep us going. We are finally converting our elevator in NYC. You won’t see us in the city until we get the new one running. I don’t see myself carrying sculpture up and down five flights of stairs. Be well! best, Jonathan
I replied that I’d enjoyed interviewing him and writing the article, and if he felt like getting together when they returned to the city, I’d enjoy seeing him again. I never heard back, then many months later learned the sad news that he had passed away from cancer.
I debated with myself whether to publish this anecdote in print. It’s certainly dropping a big name, which is a form of gossip. It’s also a form of bragging. Then I remembered Albee’s comment: “This was given to me by Louise Nevelson.”
So even the famous drop names. Even the famous like bragging. Perhaps it’s a very human way of pushing ourselves to outdo ourselves when we feel we’ve touched greatness. After all, we’re only human.
Analog: something that is analogous or similar to something else; analogize: to compare by analogy.
In a catalog essay for her most recent exhibition, titled Analog Time, currently on show at the DC Moore Gallery in the Chelsea art district of Manhattan, New York City-based artist Carrie Moyer writes: “This has been a year of doubt. Every day I wake startled to recall that my world has been completely remade in a confluence of two very different, but long-foreseen crises. Part suspended animation, part a galloping extension of the universe, it’s been all about negotiating the mobius of interior and exterior, micro and macro.”
From the COVID-19 pandemic to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, to the national election last November, to the storming of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC, on January 6 this year by followers of Donald Trump, the past year has indeed been a period of doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, and upset—a traumatic period unpleasant and difficult to live through. For Moyer, a professor of art at Hunter College in New York, it has meant a year of long-distance teaching via Zoom instead of in person at her college and months of confinement to the neighborhood where she lives and has her studio. “I became intimately acquainted with the 25 blocks between my studio and apartment,” she comments in her catalog essay.
Moyer used those months to explore through her art how the trauma we’ve all been living through has affected her personally, especially in regard to the COVID pandemic.
In regard to the psychological effects of COVID, the closest recent comparison, medically speaking, that I can think of was the early years of the AIDS pandemic, which for the gay community was certainly also a period of doubt, uncertainty, anxiety, and upset. AIDS too, like COVID, was politicized negatively, and by many of the same social groups that have been so problematic in terms of COVID: ignorant bigots so entrenched in their own fears that they are willing to sacrifice compassion, the lives of those stricken with the disease, science, and ultimately reason itself to promote their own mistaken views of the world.
But the differences between the two pandemics are very pronounced. Many people these days can relate to the sense of suspended animation COVID has produced. But AIDS produced no such feeling that I can recall. Instead, quite early on among the LGBTQ population, it led to a huge surge of activism, with the creation of organizations like GMHC, ACT-UP, God’s Love We Deliver, and community-based medical research organizations like ACRIA. Also early on it produced quite a visual response in terms of photography, drawing, painting, film. Just think of artists like Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz, or art groups like Gran Fury, General Idea, and the AIDS Names Quilt, who were in large part responsible for producing the images, slogans, and activist demonstrations that promoted awareness not just among the LGBTQ population but the general population as well of the devastation caused by the disease.
Carrie Moyer may not be the only artist to respond to COVID in her work, but she’s the only one to do so that I’m aware of, and quite a response it is. Her work is known for its vivid explosions of saturated colors and abstract biomorphic forms incorporating glitter and sand. My first reaction on visiting the show and reading Moyer’s catalog essay was to wonder how those elements could capture anything of this COVID era in a visual sense on canvas or paper. After all, as Moyer has stated: “I feel like color is basically a kind of joy. It’s magical” [A&U, April 20, 2017, p. 31]. COVID, on the other hand, feels more like a nightmare than anything joyful, and if it’s magical, more likely than not it’s a form of black magic. Then I recalled her words that living through the last year for her has “been all about negotiating the mobius of interior and exterior, micro and macro.”
In other words, the last year in terms of her art has been an exploration through her paintings on canvas and paper of how living through the pandemic has affected herself as an artist and as a person. She’s not out to educate anyone about the pandemic itself, as was the aim of so much art related to AIDS, but to discover how living with COVID has affected her in the innermost core of her being.
Carrie Moyer, Rosewater and Brimstone, 2020, Acrylic, graphite, glitter on canvas, 78 by 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York.
It’s clear that the art on display in Analog Time involves no sense of the “suspended animation” mentioned in her catalog essay.Instead it suggests the “galloping extension of the universe” she also mentioned. It’s agitated in regard to both color and design, providing the eye with nowhere to rest. This is hardly unusual in Moyers’ work, to which anyone familiar with it can attest.But the agitation in these pieces—allcompleted in 2020 or 2021—is different in a number of ways. For example, Rosewater and Brimstone by its very title suggests something sinister. And in the upper right part of the painting, there’s the suggestion of a woman holding a small child, with portions of both figures painted in a reddish-brown color suggestive of dried blood. Lower down on the right side there is what looks like the pointy end of a knife, also painted reddish-brown, ready to penetrate the serene blue of a vertical line. Certainly dried blood and a pointy knife are both suggestive of physical harm, perhaps even of death (by police murder? by asphyxiation via the COVID-19 virus? does it matter?). Not exactly images aimed at exciting the eye in a joyful way.
In her catalog essay, Moyer also notes another effect of the pandemic on her work: “Many of the paintings . . . are marked by a ‘down-shift’ in palette. Greyed-out hues slip in where sunny unadulterated colors once had been.” Analog #5, with its subdued colors, illustrates this effect very well. Moreover, the central figure, painted in a very subdued brown color, seems to be trapped in a tangle of vines or perhaps ropes painted in black, greyed-out blue, and greyed-out red and yellow. There is color and movement in this piece, but they feel neither joyous nor magical. Instead they convey struggle, surely one of the hallmark feelings the COVID-19 crisis has instilled in all of us. And, it should be noted, they also convey a sense of desperation many, if not most, of the black citizens living in this country must feel in the face of the possible police brutality they must confront every day.
Carrie Moyer, Analog #5, mixed media and collage on paper, 24 by 21 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery in New York.
Returning to the words “analog” and “analogizing”: The past year has induced in many of us feelings of both distance from our “real” lives and being trapped in a world of crisis that seems to have no end. Analog time. Art creates its own world, but in so doing analogizes the real world, which is the only source it can utilize for the colors, the emotions, and usually even the visual subject matter it needs to create its images. During her year in analog time, Carrie Moyer has managed to produce a remarkable body of work attesting to that difficult period.
DC Moore Gallery is located at 535 West 22 Street, New York, NY 10011; Analog Time runs through May 1, 2021.
Carrie Moyer and Sheila Pepe: Tabernacles for Trying Times runs May 22, 2021, through February 13, 2022, at the Museum of Arts and Design, located at Columbus Circle in New York City’s borough of Manhattan.
I have been close friends with Richard and Shirley Flint since our college days in Santa Fe during the 1960s. I was best man at their wedding in 1968, and over the decades that friendship has only deepened. Noted historians of the early Spanish incursions into New Mexico, and especially of the Coronado expedition in 1540, they still reside in New Mexico, these days in my hometown of Albuquerque.
Every Christmas-New Years season, they send out holiday cards of their own design to family, friends, and professional colleagues. This year was no exception, but the card was sent via email, not snail mail, and for the first time its text centered on the political and medical upheavals and disasters in this country, not just during the past year, but during the past four years.
The letter summarized the situation so well that, with their permission, I reproduce it below as the latest entry in my blu sunne blog. The illustration that accompanies the written content of the letter was drawn by the Flints, based on an old photo they consulted showing a train wreck that occurred somewhere in America’s Midwest during the 1930s.
The Trump train may finally have run off the rails, but its wreckage still blocks light and air. Many thousands of casualties, and many more thousands bereaved. There can be no forgiving the willful disregard of past lessons or the giddy cheering-on of the lunatic engineer and his reckless crew. The carnage strewn in their wake will not be forgotten or pardoned. Shame on them all. Shunning is the least we can do. Voting enablers out of office and keeping them out permanently, an imperative.
Remember the kids in cages; the lost kids; the lost parents. Remember the Muslim ban. Remember George Floyd and the countless others before him and since. Remember the outright refusal to lower the death toll from Covid-19. Remember the casual disregard of plentiful data and overwhelming scientific opinion regarding climate change. Remember the hate-filled insults and disrespect toward all sorts of people. Remember the poisonous racism, sexism, and homohatred. Remember the disparagement of science and expertise. Remember the elevation of fantasy over fact. Remember the contempt for longtime foreign friends, colleagues, and allies. Remember the obscene embrace of despots and tyrants. Remember the habitual lying and infantile name-calling. Remember the depravity of routine grifting. Remember the sleezy and wholly undeserved self-promotion. Remember the solicitation of fake dirt from a foreign president. Remember wholesale circumvention of rules and laws governing hiring of subordinates. Remember a mobster president who tried over and over to disenfranchise whole segments of the population. Remember the shameless toadyism by members of cabinet and Congress. Remember the daily lying and obfuscation by officials charged with keeping the public informed. Remember a president, with profound indifference to governing, AWOL for weeks after the election. Remember all these things and more when incumbents next time try to hide their boosting of these disgraceful, pernicious actions or their determined silence about them.
We cannot simply close and board up the door on 2020. The past is not only prolog to the future, it is the still roiling stream underlying the present and threatening to burst out again in the near future.
There will be pleasures and delights in 2021 and beyond; there will be amelioration of ills and righting of wrongs. But only remembrance and vigilance can sustain those gains. To that end, we’ll be watching Harriet, Denial, and The Best of Youth again, along with other signpost movies. Our best wishes and affection for the new year and always.
Remember the 1960s’ TV series Gilligan’s Island? It’s been revived several times over the decades in syndication, and who can forget the seven characters marooned on an island somewhere in the Pacific during its original three seasons: Gilligan (Bob Denver), The Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.), Mary Ann Summers (Dawn Wells), Ginger Grant (Tina Louise), The Professor (Russell Johnson), Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus), and Eunice “Lovey” Wentworth-Howell (Natalie Shafer). Visitors come and go on the island, but through ninety-eight episodes of the series the seven basic cast members for some reason are never able to leave.
Canadian artist Joe Average is reviving memories of the show in his own way these days, which is to say, through his art.
I profiled Joe, his encounters with AIDS, and his art in the June cover story of A&U magazine (available online at aumag.org). As I noted in that article, “Joe’s art communicates a kind of colorful, joyous wittiness.” Those qualities are certainly evident in his latest project, which he titled Lovey.
Lovey is not going on canvas or paper, but on a piece of wearable art—a gender-inclusive, long-sleeve shirt produced in collaboration with Vancouver-based DEQQ Apparel. According to the company: “DEQQ Apparel is an artist-led fashion brand producing limited edition wearable art. We believe you can change the world when you share the art you love in your daily life. Art will start conversations. It will make us think. It will stir our emotions. Art is meant to be experienced; so share it with your community and wear it often.”
Why was the piece titled Lovey? According to Joe: “After I painted it, I looked at it and it just struck me. It reminded me of the wonderful actress Natalie Schafer. Most people remember her for her role as Lovey on Gilligan’s Island. That’s where the name came from.”
Natalie Shafer as Lovey on Gilligan’s Island.
Joe lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. The idea for the shirts-as-art project came from David Gratton, an established technology entrepreneur, who also lives in Vancouver. Gratton ran a boutique studio that developed products for companies as diverse as Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Mattel, and ArcTeryx, as well as co-founded one of Canada’s largest digital consultancies called Appnovation. Asked about the genesis of DEQQ Apparel, Gratton answered: “I came up with the idea when a man tried to buy an embroidered shirt off my back at a conference in Banff, Alberta. It took close to a decade for the idea to germinate and for the technology needed to guarantee authenticity and provenance to mature.”
Joe and Gratton have been friends for fifteen years, and Lovey is the initial shirt Gratton has chosen to launch DEQQ Apparel.Asked why, he replied, “First, Joe had never released this image previously, and second, Lovey is just a joyful name. The image makes me smile every time I see it. We need more love and smiles.”
Lovey shirt. Joe Average in the background. (Image provided by David Gratton; all rights reserved.)
About Joe Average the person, Gratton continued: “Like Joe, I’m a Canadian and a Vancouverite. Joe’s art is on the street signs of Vancouver. It’s on the coins in our wallets and pockets. He’s a personality in our community and a strong advocate for HIV/AIDS and the LGBTQ community. If you follow art, you know who Joe Average is. If you’re from Vancouver, he’s part of the fabric of our community.”
Lovely shirt. (Image supplied by David Gratton; all rights reserved.)
When Joe was asked why he agreed to participate in the project, he answered: “During my career I’ve been approached about twenty times by people with very grand ideas to use my art in some exclusive manner, ninety percent of which never came to fruition. People get to a certain point in a project, see it’s hard, and then give up. When David approached me with his idea, he was very excited and I thought the technology element was novel and interesting. I decided to let him run with it, and see if he tired out. But David didn’t tire out. He finished the project, and I’m pleasantly surprised.”
The technology both David Gratton and Joe mention refers to a chip embedded into each garment that works like those embedded in credit cards one taps to pay for a purchase. Because each design is produced in a strictly limited run similar to lithographs, in DEQQ garments the chips are used to identify the authenticity of the garment and its exclusivity (i.e. “this is #25 of 90). The customer just taps her or his smartphone to the chip to verify that information. With Lovey, the chip is embedded in Joe Average’s “A” logo located on the back of the shirt.
Lovey’s run is ninety garments.Like all DEQQ Apparel garments, it is being sold under the artist’s brand.Once the run sells out, that is it. No more garments with this particular design will ever be produced.
Each shirt is made of a durable, luxurious cotton fabric that feels exquisite on your body and can be easily repaired in the unlikely chance that it becomes damaged. Cost: $550 [Canadian] per shirt. The shirts go on sale August 27 and can be ordered through deqq.com
A final note: As David Gratton commented during the interview for this blog entry, “Wearable art is meant to be worn. Please don’t put it on the wall!”
In this blu sunne blog entry, I’m doing something new: in words not my own, presenting a powerful commentary by someone who experienced the ravages of living with AIDS in his own body through the early years of that pandemic, and thanks to the effective medicines introduced in the mid-1990s managed to survive into the current COVID-19 years. He has some important advice to offer, and he offers it in eloquent prose.
I know Brian Heike through gay square dancing. As he notes below, he lived in southern New Jersey at the time of his diagnosis with AIDS. These days he’s located in the panhandle of Florida, still square dances, is involved with his long-term partner Doug Landreth, and is very much involved with the world around him both as a political activist and gay activist.
From a Brian Heike Facebook post dated July 8, 2020 (used with permission):
Going through some old file folders, I ran across some old bloodwork labs from 1995. The past jumped off the page at me and stirred up memories of a time when my life was on the line, back when those results every three months (or less) filled me with dread. One particular report stood out. My t-cells. This report had my second-lowest t-cell count. 80. A couple of years earlier when I was battling cryptosporidium (an intestinal parasite found in drinking water) and my life was hanging by a thread, I was down to 60 helper t-cells. When I was diagnosed with cryptosporidium, my doctor told me that with my low t-cell count I would never recover from the parasitic infection. My weight was down to 130 pounds. I looked like a stiff breeze would blow me away. I asked him what the treatment was for people with more robust immune systems, and I asked how much that treatment cost. He told me that the treatment was a round of Humatin and Flagyl, which would run around $250. I told him that I’d spend that much in a gamble for my life. Miraculously, the regimen worked, and the crypto did not kill me.
My t-cells remained under 150 for somewhere between three and five years. I was diagnosed with AIDS. I went on disability, declared bankruptcy (those papers were also in these files), turned in my leased Subaru, and prepared myself for death. I would not go without a fight, however. I went to support groups. I volunteered for the AIDS Coalition of Southern New Jersey, a local AIDS service organization. I got on the board of the South Jersey Council on AIDS. I became a Commissioner with the Philadelphia EMA HIV Commission. I attended AIDSWatch and CARE Days on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, lobbying (educating) senators and congressmen (and women) about the disease and fighting for continued Ryan White funding for pharmaceuticals and programs to help people living with AIDS. I lost many friends. Many of them were far braver than I. Many of them were far more effective fighting for the needs of people with AIDS. For some reason I survived. I am one of the lucky ones who made it into the age of protease inhibitors and the cocktail of drugs that finally beat that virus into submission. Newer drugs are keeping me healthy and alive now.
I think of my experiences over the last 34 years of being HIV+, and then I think about the situation the world finds itself in now with the coronavirus. There is a difference. Back in the 1980s and early1990s, AIDS was a death sentence and there were no survivors. It was universally fatal. Covid-19 is not. HIV is only spread by body fluids and requires intimate sexual contact to become infectious (or blood transfusions or sharing needles). Covid-19 spreads far more easily and can kill far more quickly. The fatality rate is low, but over time those numbers add up. There were over 130,000 deaths in this country from Covid-19 in the first four and a half months of the pandemic. And after a few weeks where cases seemed to be dropping, the virus today is exploding again.
Brian Heike (self-photo; used with permission)
I refuse to allow this virus to take me down after having fought so hard to survive AIDS. Of course, there is only so much I can do to prevent myself from becoming infected. I also have my partner Doug’s life to consider. Can you imagine what a blessing it would have been had a face mask been all that was needed to prevent the spread of AIDS? We would have JUMPED at that. Easy peasy. So WHY are people balking at doing something so simple and easy that can save lives? Our president and his administration are playing a dangerous game with people’s lives. They have minimized the impact of the pandemic and fought the idea of face masks for far too long. We went from Trump saying it would end after five to fifteen cases to seeing over four million Americans infected at this point in time. Numbers in the southern US, coast to coast, are skyrocketing.
So, I beg people to take precautions and to wear masks. Keep the recommended six feet away from other people. Don’t be complacent. You don’t want to sicken and die, and you don’t want friends or relatives to succumb to this disease. BE SURVIVORS. Take this advice from a survivor of another plague that killed millions.
Covid-19: the tragedy that defines our era, from the 76,500+ deaths it has caused so far (May 7, 2020), to the shelter-in-place guidelines across the world that have shut down the world economy, to the mishandled response by the federal government that has exposed the danger of finding yourself saddled with an incompetent malignant narcissist in charge of the crisis at the national level.
As an escape from all the dismal news on TV these days, and all the anxiety about the future course of the pandemic, my husband Dave and I have allowed ourselves one of the few respites open to people by taking one- to two-mile walks each day, in our case around our neighborhood of Morningside Heights on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, walks that have stimulated memories and feelings of what I love about this area where I’ve lived for the last forty-two years.
Here is a rundown of some of those memories and feelings:
∎One of my first encounters with Morningside Heights occurred several years before I lived here myself. I moved from my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in September 1968 to pursue graduate studies in philosophy at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. In the early 1970s I took a seminar with Hannah Arendt titled “The History of the Will.” At the end of the semester, she invited the seminar members toa party at her apartment. Of course I attended. All these years later I remember being at the party very clearly, in her quite large multi-room apartment, which was on Riverside Drive, overlooking Riverside Park, the Hudson River, and the Jersey shore across the river. What I couldn’t remember was the exact location or address of the building where she lived, although I thought it might have been on the north corner of West 109 Street, just a couple of blocks from where we now live. Last week Dave and I were walking north on Riverside Drive from West 96 Street, and when we reached West 109 Street I looked at the address of the building on the north corner, which read “370.” At home I typed “370 Riverside Drive, NYC” into my computer’s search engine, and was shocked to see a Wikipedia article immediately appear on-screen with Hannah Arendt as the first listed notable resident of the building. It seems not just Arendt, but the building itself has quite a distinguished history.
∎ Another notable resident of the area: Alice Neel, a famed, if controversial, portrait painter, who lived at 300 West 107 Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan from 1962 to her death in 1984. I lived in the neighborhood for the last six years of her life, and I certainly passed that building on occasion. Alas! I never met her. I didn’t even glimpse her on the streets. But I love her art.
∎ The building where Dave and I live had its own notable resident as well, at least for a few years after I moved here: a painter by the name of—improbable as it sounds—Rackstraw Downes. Born in England, educated there and in this country, he is known for his plein-air, realist style. I used to see him on the sidewalk occasionally, standing as he painted at his easel. He’s still alive, although no longer living in our building, and represented by the Betty Cuningham Gallery, located down on Rivington Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
∎ One more famous person I know of who lives in my neighborhood: André Aciman, author of the2007 novel Call Me by Your Name, which was made into the highly acclaimed movie of the same name in 2017. Aciman is the author of a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction, and in one of his non-fiction works titled Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere, there are several chapters involving New York City, where he and his wife live and raised their three children. It was while reading the chapter titled “Empty Rooms” that I suddenly realized he was describing the neighborhood where Dave and I live, writing about waiting at the corner of West 110 Street and Broadway for his eldest son’s school bus to arrive in the evening, visiting the nearby Starbucks, and walking along West 110 Street to go home. I love Call Me by Your Name, and have read nearly all of Aciman’s books. But will I ever meet him? For that matter, does he still live somewhere between Hannah Arendt’s apartment and mine? I hope the answer to both is yes. But as of yet the questions remain unanswered.
∎ Moving on from people to places: The next stop is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. The building is huge, magnificent, but like the medieval cathedrals in Europe a long-term work-in-progress. Around twenty-five years ago I watched another phase in its construction (an addition to the tower at the nave’s southwest corner), which came to an end when the funding for the project ran out. Inside, the cathedral contains memorials to firemen who lost their lives on the job and to those who have died of AIDS, fourteen themed bays that honor professions and human endeavors, gorgeous stained glass windows and hanging tapestries, and a Keith Haring tryptic cast in bronze and covered with white gold. Outside, it has a large Peace sculpture/fountain, a Biblical Garden, and walkways winding through a number of lawns. It also has three peacocks named Harry, Jim, and Phil that wander at will through the cathedral’s grounds. Phil is all white, so the image of the peacock that accompanies this blog entry is either Harry or Jim, sunning himself in the Biblical Garden. One last note on the cathedral: Every year in the fall it holds a Blessing of the Animals to honor St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and (in modern times) ecology. The cathedral has animals of all kinds brought in to be blessed, and neighborhood people often bring their pets. My first time there, I learned one thing I’d never realized: The animals are brought into the church for the blessing, so watch your step. They seem to regard the floor as their toilet.
∎ Another major institution near where we live is Columbia University. My college years were spent on the slopes of the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and my elementary school in Albuquerque was two blocks from the main campus of the University of New Mexico. Both campuses were huge, and it took me some time to become used to the more compact main campus of Columbia. Nevertheless it has its own wonders: the colorful azaleas that bloom each spring, a bridge that spans Amsterdam Avenue between West 116 and 117 Streets with views extending for miles uptown and down and displaying a number of sculptures, including one by Henry Moore. For weeks around Christmas and New Years, lights cover the trees on the West 116 Street walkway through campus from Amsterdam Avenue to Broadway, providing a fairyland feel that virtually blocks out the sense of being in a major world metropolis with all its scurry and hurry. One of the really spectacular art shows I saw there was of Francisco Goya’s Caprichos series, all eighty of them. It was just me and maybe five other people wandering through the show. What an experience!
∎ Then there’s the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a neighborhood institution. On one of my visits back to Albuquerque I was visiting a friend when another friend of his stopped by. When the other friend found out where I lived, the first words out of his mouth were “Ah, the Hungarian Pastry Shop.” It seems he lived in New York for a short while, and frequented the place all the time. Sometimes I wonder if its fame has managed to spread to Europe as well. Its baked goods are certainly as tasty as any I’ve had anywhere, including Europe.
∎ Finally—because this blog entry has to end somewhere—there’s Symposium restaurant, one block south of Columbia. Its traditional Greek food is excellent, and its enclosed back patio is where family and friends gathered in March 2014 for Dave’s and my marriage. We consider its owner, his family, and those who work there as part of our extended, chosen family. Feelings like that about businesses you deal with are what make Morningside Heights feel homey, a place where you feel relaxed and wanted, not just an area you point to on a map.
I once told someone I felt like the three sisters in Anton Chekhov’s play of the same name who lived a provincial life in Russia and were always longing for a life in Moscow. Well, I made it out of the provinces of the United States to one of its capital cities, and love the life I have here. The friend said, “But you would have made a life for yourself if you’d stayed in Albuquerque.” My reply: “I know. But it wouldn’t have been the life I’ve had here.” I’ve tried to share some of the reasons for that feeling in this blog entry.
The second half of 2019 has meant the second halfof the Guggenheim Museum’s year-long look back at the work and artistic legacy of famed—and controversial—American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, its overall title: “Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now.” The first half was an in-depth look at Mapplethorpe’s own photographic output via images from the museum’s holdings of his work. The second half, on view at the museum through January 5, 2020, examines the influence of his work on that of other artists over the decades.
I wrote about the first part of the show in my April 2019 blu sunne blog entry “Cheating Death: A Riff on the Life and Legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe.” More recently my husband Dave and I traveled back to the Guggenheim on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for a viewing of the exhibition’s second part. Alongside a selection of Mapplethorpe’s own photographs, it showcases work by six other individuals in the Guggenheim’s collection: Nigerian/British photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, South African photographer Zanele Muholi, American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon, and American photographers Lyle Ashton Harris, Catherine Opie, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya.
From this small list, it’s clear that Mapplethorpe’s artistic influence extends well beyond American shores. It’s also clear that the documentary aspect of his work as a queer artist whose photography examined, made publicly manifest, and even celebrated parts of what could be called the “queer lifestyle” is still alive and well today in the work of these six individuals, all of whom are gay or lesbian.
One of the best known among the six is Glenn Ligon, represented in the show by his 1991-93 piece Notes on the Margin of the Black Book. The words “the Black Book,” of course refer to Mapplethorpe’s 1986 publication of the same name, which contains ninety-six highly erotic photographic studies of black men. Ligon himself is black, and as a conceptual artist it’s no surprise that he chose Mapplethorpe images from that book as the springboard in this conceptual piece for a dialogue between images and comments by assorted individuals on issues Mapplethorpe’s work helped introduce to contemporary cultural and even political discourse, the main issue being, in the words of the Guggenheim press release on the show, “the ways race and sexuality shape the visual field.”
Catherine Opie is a tenured professor of photography at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), is on the board of the Andy Warhol Museum, and has served as a member of the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the board of overseers at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles among other institutions.
Opie’s photography spans a number of genres, among them portraits and landscapes. However, neither her professional resumé nor the references to art history she often incorporates into her work prepares one for the startling rawness one can encounter in some of her photographic images—for example, in her 1993 photo titled Dyke. A self-image with her back turned to the camera and the word “Dyke” tattooed on her neck, she is re-purposing a homophobic slang epithet often used to denigrate lesbians in order to reclaim a proud space for herself and her lesbian community in the world at large, much as the LGBT community has done in re-purposing the word “queer.” Perhaps even more transgressive are two selfies not reproduced in this blog entry (but included as part of the Mapplethorpe exhibition) in which she claims a space for herself and others who have participated in queer leather BDSM culture: Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) and Self-Portrait/Pervert (1994), in which words and drawings are cut into the skin of her back and chest.
Moving trans-Atlantic, the work of South African visual activist Zamele Muholi seeks to empower women as well as promote the visibility and welfare of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex communities in South Africa and internationally. The commentary about Muholi’s work indicates the photographer identifies as nonbinary in gender, where the pronouns “they” and “their” are substituted for “she” and “her.”
Siphe, Johannesburg is part of the series Somnoyama Ngonyama (translated as “Hail the Dark Lioness”), self-portraits in which the artist appears as alter egos, often with a Zulu name. Cultural historian Maurice Berger wrote of the series: “The self-portraits function on various levels and pay homage to the history of black women in Africa and beyond. . . . They reimagine black identity in ways that are largely personal but inevitably political. And they challenge the stereotypes and oppressive standards of beauty that often ignore people of color.” The series was published as a book with the same title in 2018 by Aperture.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode was born in 1955 in Nigeria into a prominent Yoruba family that fled to England in 1966 after a military coup that led to civil war in his homeland. He was educated in Britain and the United States. While living in New York City attending graduate school at Pratt Institute, he became friends with Mapplethorpe, whom he described as an influence on his work. He moved back to Great Britain in 1983, where he died in a London hospital on December 21, 1989, of a heart attack while recovering from an AIDS-related illness.
The influence of Mapplethorpe can be seen clearly in Fani-Kayode’s Every Moment Counts II, with its memorably erotic image of a nude black male’s backside in the grip of the fingers of a hand coming up from below. With those fingers, however, along with the white mask held above the the man’s neck or head, he moves well beyond anything Mapplethorpe attempted, into an exploration of Yoruba religious symbolism. The piece appeared in the book titled Ecstatic Antibodies (Rivers Oram Press, London, 1990), and the title of the photo also references the feelings of those living with AIDS in the period before the introduction of antiretrovirals when the disease meant certain death.
The work of Lyle Ashton Harris ranges from photography to videos to collage to installation art to performance art, including occasional collaborations with his brother, film director Thomas Allen Harris. The brothers were born in New York City, and after their parents divorced they spent much of their childhood in both New York and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. From his time in Tanzania, he has said he found it important to his development as an artist and a black man to be in a country where black people were in positions of power. And from an early age he and his brother, both of whom are gay, experimented in the safety of their mother’s home with gender and their own sexual identity through drag, which they consider important to their artistic development.
In Harris’s early Americas Tryptich series (1987−88), he appears in wigs and whiteface. According to the Guggenheim press release, the tryptich “offers multilayered ruminations on—and subversions of— ethnicity, gender, and sexual desire.” Throughout his career he has used his work to explore the social and cultural impact on his personal identity as a black man who also happens to be queer.
Last, but hardly least, in this overview of the artists showcased in the exhibition, there is Los Angeles-based Paul Mpagi Sepuya. He’s known as a portrait photographer, a category that for him has a few sub-genres: studio portraiture, fragmented kaleidoscopic collage-like images, and “darkroom mirror” images that are often self-portraits mediated by a mirror that captures him or body parts as the camera shoots into the mirror. For this show the Guggenheim has chosen to display Darkroom Mirror (OX5A1531), in which Sepuya crouches naked, his face hidden behind his hand and the camera that is taking the photo. Sepuya’s bio on the Guggenheim’s website quotes the photographer as saying that his interest in the darkroom has to do with “both the historical origin of the photographer’s craft as well as the privileged yet marginalized site of queer and colored sexuality and socialization.” He doesn’t use professional models for his photography, but instead friends, lovers, peers, and members of the queer community to explore the intersections where desire—especially queer desire—can collaborate and meet creatively.
My April 2019 blu sunne blog entry concluded with the observation that, as long as Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography still lives in people’s imaginations, something of him remains alive. Likewise it could be said that, as long as his work influences other artists, something of him remains alive and vital in cultural discourse. Most of the artists described in this blog entry name Mapplethorpe outright as one of the principal influences on their work. But it doesn’t take words to recognize that influence—it’s apparent to the eye in what they’ve produced, especially in terms of erotic/BDSM/queer/race content. However, all of them have pushed artistic boundaries in their own distinct directions: politically (Zanele Muholi), religiously (Rotimi Fani-Kayode), the intermingling of text with image (Glenn Ligon), performative (Lyle Ashton Harris), and cross-references to art history or other artistic genres (Catherine Opie, Paul Mpagi Sepuya).
I’m reminded of a Mapplethorpe quote Glenn Ligon uses in his Notes on the Margin of the Black Book: “They [Mapplethorpe’s photos of nude black men] were taken because I hadn’t seen pictures like that before. That’s why one makes what one makes, because you want to see something you haven’t seen before; it was a subject that nobody had used because it was loaded.” The intense interest still generated today by Mapplethorpe’s work in the art world and among the general public, as well as the intense interest shown in the work produced by the six artists included in this show (and others who are pushing boundaries in their work), makes it clear that there is a huge hunger out there for something new, and it may be “loaded” for all of us.
We do live in interesting, exciting, albeit anxiety-producing times, don’t we? It’s the gift we receive—and the price we pay—for our curiosity and very human desire to experience something new. It’s the gift we receive—and the price we pay—for a living, dynamic culture.
Sometimes two different crises meet up in odd ways at the same unfortunate moment in time. I was reminded of just such an event recently after visiting, then researching, a current stunning exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City titled “Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story.”
However, this exhibition is not about Basquiat’s graffiti or his fame as an artist. It centers on his 1983 painting The Death of Michael Stewart, informally known as Defacement,which commemorates the death in the same year of a young black artist in Manhattan at the hands of New York’s Transit Police and the subsequent charges of a cover-up by police and city officials. The city was roiled by this incident for years, as it was more recently by the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island at the hands of police. In both instances, none of the officers involved when brought to trial was found guilty, although the city paid the families of both men millions of dollars in compensation ($1.7 million for the Stewart family; $5.9 million for the Garner family).
Michael Stewart was black and an aspiring artist; Basquiat was black, and already a world-famous artist. The police said they arrested Stewart for writing graffiti on a New York subway wall. People who knew him disputed the charge because Stewart was not known for doing any graffiti. However, it should be noted, Basquiat gained his first notice in the art world specifically for his graffiti art. According to the exhibition’s guest curator Chaédria LaBouvier’s introductory catalogue essay, “Defacement: Moment, History, and Memory”: “Numerous friends recall how, for the rest of the artist’s life, when discussion of Stewart’s death arose, Basquiat would repeat the refrain, ‘It could have been me.’” He closely identified with Stewart, and it’s easy to see why.
The Death of Michael Stewart shows in graphic visual form just what it was about Stewart with which Basquiat identified: a black figure on either side of which stand two police officers with clubs in hand ready to strike the central black figure. One policeman has his teeth bared, and the faces of both suggest rage. The black figure stands helpless, either without arms raised to protect himself, or perhaps without any arms at all. Nor does he have feet with which to try running away.
What is depicted could not be more stark: a moment of terror for the black figure, who has no way to defend himself from the brutal beating that is about to take place. And at least one message Basquiat means to convey could not be more clear: It is a terror that haunted Basquiat himself, and perhaps haunts every black man in this country: helplessness in the face of police brutality, where you can’t defend yourself, no one else can come to your aid, and no one will be held accountable in the courts of law. What is less obvious about the painting is the anger out of which it was incubated—and not the anger so clearly written on the faces of the police officers in the picture. LaBouvier in her essay notes that Basquiat in 1985 confirmed anger “as an ongoing and primary source of his work.” The Death of Michael Stewart is an eloquent example of that anger made manifest.
Aside from LaBouvier’s essay, the show’s catalogue contains several others: “The Man Nobody Killed” by the Guggenheim’s Artistic Director Nancy Spector; “The Art of Basquiat Belongs to the People” by cultural historian J. Faith Almiron, and “Black Like B.” by writer, musician, producer, and cultural critic Greg Tate. Also included is a section titled “Recollections,” which contains reminiscences by people who knew Basquiat and/or Stewart and their milieu compiled by LaBouvier. Each of the essays and recollections explore the cultural context of the Basquiat years, delving deeply into Manhattan’s Lower East Side art scene in the early 1980s, but also into the issues of racism and police brutality— in essence telling “the untold story” behind The Death of Michael Stewart.
However, on viewing the exhibition, another untold story became apparent to me, marginal to the central issues that gave rise to Michael Stewart’s murder, to be sure, but still worth some notice.
Not all the art in the show was by Basquiat; not everything was, strictly speaking, even art. or at least was not originally conceived as art. The latter includes posters, flyers, and cards created to announce protest rallies, benefits to raise money for the Michael Stewart legal defense fund, and reproductions of newspaper articles about Stewart’s death. Two such items especially caught my eye: Keith Haring’s large 1985 painting Michael Stewart—USA for Africa, and a protest flyer designed by David Wojnarowicz. They caught my eye for one reason: Both Wojnarowicz and Haring were gay and already living with AIDS. Haring died of complications related to the disease in 1990, and Wojnarowicz in 1992.
Keith Haring and Basquiat were friends—friendly enough, in fact, that Basquiat painted The Death of Michael Stewart on a plasterboard wall of Haring’s New York City studio. When Haring later moved out of that studio, he cut the painting out of the wall, had it framed (it still resides in the same frame), and hung it over the bed in his apartment. Haring’s own tribute to Stewart was painted in his famous free-wheeling cartoonish style, showing a naked Stewart, colored dark brown, with hands in cuffs and being strangled by pink-colored hands descending from above. (Note: This is only a partial description of the painting, as can be seen by glancing at the reproduction accompanying this blog entry.)
Clearly Stewart’s death shocked Haring. According to New Yorker art critic Peter Shjeldahl, in an article about the Guggenheim show published in the magazine back in July 2019: “Stewart’s death illuminated for many of them [members of the 1980s’ New York Lower East Side art scene], as if by a flash of lightning, the persistent violence of racism in the wider society. Haring took to telling friends, with bitter wonderment, that he’d been arrested four times for marking [i.e., for graffiti], yet, as a sassy but nice white lad, he was always let go with, at worst, offhand insults to his unconcealed gayness.”
It’s not clear that Wojnarowicz knew Basquiat, but he was shocked enough by Michael Stewart’s death that he designed a poster put up around town announcing a Union Square rally to protest what the poster described as Stewart’s “near-murder” by the Transit Police. LaBouvier in her essay speculates that Basquiat must have seen the Wojnarowicz poster “as the composition of Defacement, executed afterward, is nearly identical to the yellow poster.”
Be that as it may, in 1983, in New York City, men and women of all colors and sexual persuasions came together to protest and denounce a terrible injustice. The Guggenheim’s show “Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story” and its curator Chaédria LaBouvier have brought to light details of an important event that should not be forgotten, especially today in our current political and social climate where it’s clear that racism and police brutality are still malignant forces in this country that must be confronted and hopefully defanged.
To end this blog entry, a few further observations: Here, indeed, two worlds brush shoulders: the activism centered around the issue of police brutality involving minority communities, and that centered around AIDS. Or perhaps I should say the world of incipient AIDS activism since in 1983 the really big AIDS protests and demonstrations were still to come. Nothing makes their meeting quite as clear as two large headlines that appeared on the same page of the December 1985/January 1986 issue of the East Village Eye newspaper and are reproduced in the show’s catalogue:
EAST VILLAGE GROANS UNDER AIDS SCOURGE
THE MAN NOBODY KILLED: MICHAEL STEWART, 1958-1984 [sic]
But I wonder. AIDS and the protests over Michael Stewart’s death were contemporaneous. Were they linked in any other way? I can think of one similarity, and the word to describe it is “defacement.”
The defacement of the truth about the death of Stewart through cover-ups by police and city officials has already been described. But in its early years the AIDS crisis was also defaced in its own way by federal officials during the Reagan administration who refused to take it seriously, responded with indifference when health-care professionals across the country asked for funding to deal with the disease, and watched with indifference as the homophobic religious right targeted gay men with their politics of hatred, fear-mongering, and discrimination.
The face of the AIDS epidemic is very different these days. The disease has not been eradicated, but giant strides have been made in bringing it under control. Can the same be said for racism and police brutality in this country? Hardly. But I’d like to ask: Are there lessons to be learned from the the history of AIDS and gay rights struggles that could be applied to the problems addressed by “Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story”? Maybe, maybe not. But I throw the thought out for consideration.
“Basquiat’s Defacement: The Unold Story” can be seen through November 6 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10128. Highly recommended.
Opera, theater, books, activism, painting, photography, politics, old friends (mine), old partners (mine) and current husband (mine), art exhibitions: Through my blu sunne blog I’ve covered a variety of subjects, usually linked in some way to the AIDS epidemic. In this entry I’d like to change lanes and explore a topic very personal to me that has little if any relation to AIDS.
In my first blog entry, “Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts,” I described myself as both a writer and a visual artist. What I didn’t mention is that I was born and reared in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I lived the first seventeen years of my life, went to college in Santa Fe for four years, then moved for graduate school in 1968 to New York City, where I’ve lived ever since. Virtually all my writing, and certainly all my visual art, have been carried out as a resident of New York. But my imagination is rooted in New Mexico.
When I say “rooted,” I mean both my verbal and visual imaginations in the work I produce seldom escape at least a passing reference to the desert colors, mountain vistas, and Native American/Hispanic architecture with which I grew up. Some of New Mexico—White Sands National Monument and Tent Rocks National Monument, for example—have an almost otherworldly quality. But I have in mind more the everyday realities of living in the state. I grew up in a modest six-room house in Albuquerque, a tract house that made for comfortable living, to be sure, but nothing out of the ordinary in terms of tract housing. Yet it was spectacularly situated: a front-view to the east of the 10,500-foot Sandia mountains, and a back view to the west of gorgeous sunsets nearly every evening I lived there. College in Santa Fe was a somewhat different story. Located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, a few miles south and east of the city’s main plaza, the school was surrounded by natural beauty everywhere you looked—not just the Sangre de Cristo mountains, but the Jemez mountains; orange-red-gold sunsets you couldn’t miss from the large plate-glass windows facing west in the dining hall where we all ate every evening at supper time; clear, deep-blue skies on sunny days (most days were sunny in the semi-arid desert climate), and the entire Milky Way splayed across the sky at night since the area of Santa Fe around the college was not yet polluted by city lights.
Then there was the adobe-style architecture, not in the Northeast Heights of Albuquerque where I grew up, but at the University of New Mexico campus not too far away, in some of Albuquerque’s suburbs, and certainly in Santa Fe, where the architectural code requires buildings to be designed in one of two styles: Native American Pueblo or Territorial.
How can I convey the impact of a New Mexico heritage on my writing and visual images?
Let’s start with my writing. The hotel central to one piece of my fiction had its start from afternoons I sometimes spent in downtown Santa Fe, sitting in the lobby of the historic La Fonda Hotel on the plaza soaking up its quintessential Pueblo-style architecture, Southwest furnishings, and paintings on the walls celebrating elements of Native American culture. The fictional hotel I imagined in my story was not the La Fonda, but in my mind at least it evoked a Southwest ambience. It was situated in a village much smaller thanSanta Fe, but also surrounded by mountains and a populace that produced woven blankets, pottery, and wood carvings similar to the items produced by the Native American and Hispanic artisans of Northern New Mexico. Need I add that my imagination felt quite at home in this imagined physical and psychological setting for the story I had to tell?
Another piece of fiction took its start from three Southern New Mexico locations: Truth or Consequences (yes there is a town with that name in New Mexico’s Sierra County), Silver City, and Las Cruces. In this story the Native American and Hispanic influences in the state are quite muted, although “Santa Fe Style” does make an appearance in one of its chapters. But the mountains and a large copper mine near Silver City play important parts in the story, as does a certain “cowboy” attitude expressed by one important character, an attitude I witnessed in a few members of my ownfamily.
Turning to my art, I have always loved bold colors. No doubt this is related to my childhood living among the bold colors of the desert Southwest: the bright summer sun; the “purple mountain majesties” of New Mexico’s Rocky Mountain ranges; the deep azure skies with their white, fluffy clouds drifting overhead; the brilliantly colored sunsets; the gold-brown adobe colors of the Native American pueblos and Spanish mission churches; the vivid blue and turquoise paints on so many gates, doors, and window frames of homes in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, but also in other parts of the state. It shows up in the pieces of art I’ve done directly related to New Mexico, and also in others having nothing to do with the state.
An example of a piece directly related to the state: Spring Cleaning SW (Scoured). This watercolor, done in 2015, is an ironic comment on the spring winds that scour the desert with the dust kicked up during what is usually a very dry season of the year. No clear images can be made out, but the colors emitted by the dusty haze are suggestive of something . . . something . . . well, something very Southwest during a Spring dust storm, anyway.
A piece of art whose origins have nothing to do with New Mexico: Turner SW. A mixed-media watercolor with ink completed while in London during 2003, it sprang from a visit to the Tate museum and a long while spent in the rooms of its J. M. W.Turner Collection. I don’t remember if it related to any specific painting, but I do remember being obsessed by the art of this wonderful British colorist—I couldn’t wait to return to the hotel room and produce something along the lines of the vibrant, almost hallucinatory effects he achieved in so much of his art. As for the silver tree I placed in Turner SW, I don’t think it came from Turner. Instead it resembles a large, dead tree—perhaps a cottonwood—that I drove past on most of my visits back to Albuquerque over the years. The tree is now long gone, but my tree commemorates the forlorn beauty that made it so memorable to me.
I’ve lived in New York City far longer than my twenty-two years in New Mexico. I love New York and feel no urge to relocate back to my home state. So I’ve asked myself: Why does my Southwest background have such a hold on my imagination? After all, New York is an exciting place to live. It’s the locale of many novels and movies, and potentially of many more. It’s a dynamic metropolis with many visual experiences worthy of commentary via any of several visual art disciplines. In fact, I’ve produced some art based on my New York experiences. Still, my imagination regularly returns to the desert Southwest. Why?
Recently I came across the translation of a comment attributed to the French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” It occurred to me: My life in New York has its exciting moments, but by and large it’s been a work-a-day existence of writing, editing, paying bills, riding subways and buses, dodging traffic and bicycle riders as a pedestrian when crossing streets, cooking, and cleaning my apartment. New Mexico as a work-a-day experience is so far in my past it has dimmed in memory. Perhaps that distance has set my imagination free, even added an element of mystery and romance to a place I have so little to do with on a daily basis any longer. In that case, I owe a debt of gratitude to New York for the groundwork it provides in allowing me to explore and express a part of myself that to me feels very precious and beautiful. What more can an artist ask for from everyday life?
Note: There is at least one thing more an artist can ask for on a daily basis in relation to artistic practice: a good personal relationship with a partner or spouse. A topic to be explored in another blog entry.