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Notes on Defacing History

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.”

I’ll get to “the untold story” a bit later. But one may well ask: Just what did Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) deface? As the catalogue for the show notes, he “first came to prominence tagging New York City streets with the epigram SAMO© in the late 1970s, and entered the art world at its early 1980s intersection with street art, hip-hop, and punk. His graffiti-inflected Neo-Expressionist paintings swiftly brought him art world acclaim, which the artist both courted and found oppressive. . . .” 

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.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Death of Michael Stewart, 1983. Acrylic and marker on sheet rock, 34 × 40 inches, framed (86.4 × 101.6 cm). Collection of Nina Clemente, New York. © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artester, New York. Photo: Allison Chipak. © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2018. Used with permission.

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.)

Haring_MichaelStewart_USAforAfrica

Keith Haring, Michael Stewart—USA for Africa, 1985. Enamel and acrylic on canvas, 294.6 × 356.8 cm. Collection of Monique and Ziad Ghandour. © The Keith Haring Foundation. Used with permission.

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.

Changing Lanes

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 than  Santa 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 own  family.

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.

SW
Spring Cleaning SW (Scoured), 2015, watercolor, 9 × 4.5 inches (© Lester Q. Strong; all rights reserved)

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.

Turner-SW
Turner SW, 2003, mixed media (watercolor/ink), 12 × 9 inches, (© Lester Q. Strong; all rights reserved)

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.

 

Abingdon Square Secrets

Abingdon Square Park: These days an exquisite little oasis in New York City’s Greenwich Village, more a triangle in shape than a square, bounded on the north by West Twelfth Street, on the east by Eighth Avenue, on the west by Hudson Street, and on the south by the point at which Hudson and Eighth cross. From early spring to late autumn, it’s a riot of color: the chartreuse and green of leafy trees, shrubs, and grass; the yellows, oranges, pinks, purples, whites, browns, reds, and lavenders of jonquils, tulips, roses, chrysanthemums, and many other flowers that bloom along its paths during the warm months of the year.

However, despite all its beauty, I was reminded recently that the park hides a few secrets not so easily discovered by the casual visitors who might claim its benches as temporary refuges each day during nice weather from the hectic traffic and activities going on all around them in this country’s biggest of cities. The occasion of that recall: reading André Aciman’s 2013 novel Enigma Variations, which is set in New York City and whose last chapter is titled “Abingdon Square.”

Aciman, of course, is the author of Call Me by Your Name, the 2007 novel set in Italy and adapted into the highly acclaimed 2017 movie of the same name starring Timothée Chalamet as a seventeen-year-old named Elio and Armie Hammer as a young man in his late twenties named Oliver. At the center of the story is the summer romance and love affair between the two, carried out discreetly, to be sure, but not so discreetly as to go unnoticed by those around them who can read the signs of two people falling in love.

The romance Aciman recounts in “Abingdon Square” takes place during the winter between a middle-aged man—nameless in this chapter but in earlier chapters called Paolo, Paul, or Pauly—who’s the editor of a magazine or journal having to do with opera and a much younger woman writer named Heidi whose article he turns down for publication. Despite the rejection, the two meet for coffee at a place on Abingdon Square, “just across from the little park,” and continue to meet there and at another nearby restaurant over the course of several weeks, or perhaps several months since the time span’s not completely clear. The story is told from the man’s point of view, and what is very clear is his indecisiveness about pursuing the affair to a sexual conclusion. Over the course of his indecisiveness, he sends and receives emails from and has imaginary conversations with a former male partner named Manfred he lived with for many years (and a central character in an earlier chapter of the novel) who has moved to Germany. This is one secret in the story since the woman he’s romancing never learns about Manfred. But the real secret is revealed only at the story’s end, when the reader learns the character also happens to be married to a woman named Claire.

If this seems confusing, it is. It’s probably meant to be confusing. After all, the title of the novel is Enigma Variations, and its chapters are intended to evoke the confusions, hesitations, and lack of clarity we all encounter in our lives and interactions with ourselves and other people.

But what are the secrets the “Abingdon Square” chapter of the novel brought to my mind? They had to do with AIDS.

IMG_0593

Abingdon Square Park, July 2019 (photo by LS).

In May 2007 I interviewed writer Andrew Holleran for a magazine feature story [“Shifting Ground,” A&U, August 2007] in that park. During 1980-1981, Holleran had been part of the legendary gay male writers group The Violet Quill, whose members included such celebrated gay writers as Edmund White and Felice Picano. Holleran himself was the author of several novels, a collection of short stories, and a book of essays on AIDS. In January 2007 he had received the Barbara Gittings Award in Literature for his novel Grief  from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Round Table of the American Library Association, and the night before the interview had received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle, the association of lesbians and gay men in publishing. He also had a second book of essays on AIDS scheduled to be published, which Da Capo Press eventually brought out in 2008 under the title Chronicles of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath.

That lovely spring morning we sat on a bench in Abingdon Square Park discussing his writings, his awards, and of course AIDS. Asked how he felt having survived the last quarter-century of the plague, he answered: “I feel incredibly lucky. I’m sitting here now on this beautiful day in May, looking at these beautiful tulips in the sunlight.” What was known to both of us, but not apparent from anything visible that morning, was the nightmare that had played itself out in the surrounding area from 1981 through the late 1990s as it became one of the major early epicenters of the plague. A focal point of that nightmare was the late lamented St. Vincent’s hospital, only three or four blocks away from the park. Today the hospital is long gone, turned into a large condo development. But it once housed the city’s largest AIDS ward, memorialized in plays and movies like Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

What neither of us could have known at the time is that nine and a half years later, on December 1, 2016, the city would dedicate its New York AIDS Memorial Park at St. Vincent’s Triangle, across Seventh Avenue from the old hospital location, with its magnificent eighteen-foot steel canopy sculpture, itself composed of smaller triangles within triangles in remembrance of the gay men lost to the epidemic, and overall intended to commemorate the 100,000+ New Yorkers lost to the plague over the years.

New York City AIDS Memorial Park Sculpture at St. Vincent's Triangle

New York AIDS Memorial Park sculpture at St. Vincent’s Triangle in Greenwich Village (User: Fulbert-Own work; licensed for use under CCBY-SA4.0).

Today the face of AIDS in this country has changed almost unrecognizably from that spring day in 2007, let alone from the era during which the AIDS ward at St. Vincent’s played such an important role in the epidemic. From a disease seen as primarily afflicting white, gay men, it has moved heavily into minority populations. New infections have fallen dramatically, along with the death toll over the years as new medicines to control HIV’s damage to the immune system have been been rolled out. Preventive medicines have come into use. Above all, the hysteria so rampant over the disease from all sectors of society—but especially among members of the homophobic right-wing happy to condemn all gay people to incarceration or worse because of the disease—has died down. Truly, as suggested by the title of my story about Andrew Holleran, in regard to AIDS we live on shifting ground.

Still, what remains elusive is a cure. To that we should add the need for an effective vaccine that could stop the virus from infecting anyone, as we’ve succeeded in doing with polio and measles among other viral diseases. If and when that day comes, the ground related to AIDS will feel solid again in a good way, closing a miserable chapter of history played out for far too long.

Now wouldn’t that be cause for celebration?

Cheating Death: A Riff on the Life and Legacy of Robert Mapplethorpe

My husband Dave and I went the other day to the Guggenheim Museum, on Fifth Avenue at 89 St. in Manhattan, to see its exhibition of work by the bad boy of American photography Robert Mapplethorpe, who died at age 42 in 1989 of AIDS-related causes. Titled “Implicit Tensions: Robert Mapplethorpe Now,” it’s a year-long look at what the Guggenheim on its website calls Mapplethorpe’s “groundbreaking” images and his “complex legacy in the field of contemporary art.” Part 1, running from January 25 through July 10, 2019, focuses on Mapplethorpe’s large corpus of work. Part 2, which runs from July 24, 2019, through January 5, 2020, will focus on his legacy, combining selections of his images on view alongside work by other contemporary artists in the Guggenheim’s collection.

Quite a few books have been written about Mapplethorpe and his photography. But looking at the exhibition, I was reminded especially of one book about him—in my estimation by far the best: Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera, a memoir by his sometime lover, close friend, and collaborator Jack Fritscher. Fritscher’s book is not just a memoir with facts, dates, and descriptions about Mapplethorpe’s life, but offers an insider’s fascinating glimpses into the personal and psychological dynamics of an individual who did so much to help shape the artistic and pop culture we know today. Like Mapplethorpe, he was a citizen of the 1970s’ gay demimonde of leathersex, drugs, and discos before the age of AIDS. Unlike Mapplethorpe, he survived the plague physically unharmed. But like anyone who saw many, many of their friends perish because of the disease, he was clearly deeply marked by it. On page 14 of Mapplethorpe, he describes the book as follows: “This biomemoir is a survivor’s document.”

Fritscher holds a doctorate in American literature, and over the years has been a prolific writer. Early on he turned his literary talents in a personal direction toward the subject matter that interested him most as a gay culture critic, historian, and social activist. The founding San Francisco editor-in-chief of Drummer magazine, which targeted gay men with an interest in leather culture, he gave Mapplethorpe his first cover assignment, a leathersex photo that appeared on the front of the fall 1978 issue, number 24. And his memoir makes clear that he was important in helping Mapplethorpe define and promote his public image. “I helped him create himself” is the way Fritscher put it near the start of the book.

Returning to the Guggenheim exhibition, what do the photos on view there show us about Mapplethorpe’s work, his reputation, his influence, his life? First, like all of his photography, they are in black and white, a nuanced black and white palette, to be sure, but no color, nothing to distract from their stark, visually arresting content. Then there are the images of tulips, roses, and other flowers; the images of well-known individuals like Louise Bourgeois, Andy Warhol, and Patti Smith, among other celebrities; the images of nude white and black men, sometimes alone, sometimes in each other’s arms; the images of men in leather, and at least one image of a woman so accoutered: the female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon; the selfies of Mapplethorpe himself, mostly in leather, at other times suggesting a drag persona; and the occasional image of a skull, with or without Mapplethorpe attached.

As we walked through the exhibition, Dave noted the three-dimensional quality of the images, remarking: “If Mapplethorpe had lived, I wonder if he would have moved on to sculpture.” Good insight, Dave! As Fritscher noted in his book, Mapplethorpe took up the camera because he had embraced the “pop culture concept of photographic art as immediate gratification in a society living in the fast lane. Sculpture, his major at Pratt, or painting, took too long.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t three dimensionality in his photos that made him a famous, or rather an infamous, cultural icon. It was in part another pop culture fascination: sexual innuendo. His photos of flowers were sensually provocative. His nude black and white males were sexually suggestive. His men in leather (including himself) were both sexually suggestive and often more than a little sinister. His drag selfies were sexually outré in a disquieting way.

Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1980, gelatin silver print, 35.6 × 35.6 cm. Solomon R, Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 93.4289. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

 

This was no accident. Mapplethorpe was obsessed by sex. According to Fritscher, he called himself “a male nymphomaniac” who couldn’t get sex out of his mind. Most of his images were saturated with sexual initmations, apparent to even the most casual viewer.

Mapplethorpe cut quite a swath through the art world of the 1970s and 1980s, mingling with the rich and famous, admired and celebrated for his elegant if often outrageous photographic take on the world of gay leathersex and kink as well as the sexual allure of black men, white men, and black and white flowers. Equally, he was vilified and attacked by the anti-sex, homophobic social and political right-wing. His photos and lifestyle drove such people into a frenzy of disapproval. I would also argue that his AIDS diagnosis in 1986 and death from the disease in 1989 simply sealed his reputation among that segment of the population as an artist to be opposed at all costs. Think of the (successful) pressure put on the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC, in 1989 to cancel the posthumous exhibition “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,” or the (unsuccessful) obscenity suit the next year aimed at closing the same show in Cincinnati. He not just promoted a queer lifestyle, he had been infected by and died from a sexually transmitted virus homophobes believed all gay men deserved to die from because, in their view, by indulging in gay sex practices gay men brought the disease on themselves.

How times have changed. The day Dave and I were at the Guggenheim, the exhibition had its fair share of families with children and the Mapplethorpes on view contained their fair share of the very kind of images the homophobes had denounced so vociferously thirty years before. Homophobes still exist in the world. But no one that day—or any other day during the show that I know of—was protesting it or picketing the museum. Somehow, someway, over the decades, attitudes about sex, the nature of beauty to be seen sometimes in dark places, even the willingness to accept the dark places in our own psyches seem to have changed, changes doubtless due in some measure to the influence of Mapplethorpe’s work.

And what of AIDS? There was not much in the exhibition to indicate it affected his work, and not much anywhere else I’ve been able to track down, although he did photograph a skull or so, and a selfie of himself holding a cane topped by a skull late in his life. He was no Keith Haring, whose confrontation with AIDS was a big motivator in his work.

Jack Fritscher’s memoir indicates Mapplethorpe did not so much deny he had AIDS as ignore its effects, at least as long as his health permitted him to do so. From the start of his career, he had other things on his mind, chief among them the pursuit of fame. “I want my story to be told around the world,” Fritscher’s book quotes him as saying. In other words, he wanted to become a legend, and in that aim he certainly succeeded. On the other hand, as Fritscher commented, he lived so furiously in the fast lane that he practically courted death at a young age. Fritscher again: “We both knew he would lead a fast, brief life. . . . If AIDS hadn’t got him, something else would have.”

Nevertheless, because Mapplethorpe died of AIDS, the disease haunts his legacy—and in more ways than just the manner of his death. Knowing he would die, he carefully crafted the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, one of whose principal functions—aside from promoting his artistic legacy—is to fund AIDS research and residential treatment facilities.

Robert Mapplethorpe
Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1985, gelatin print, 38.7 × 40.5 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Gift, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation 96.4372. © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

As a provocateur, a photographer, a legend, a philanthropist, he has left his mark on the world. How best to sum up my encounter with Mapplethorpe at the Guggenheim? Perhaps one way is to note the contrast between two of his selfies on view in the exhibition: Self Portrait, 1980, and Self Portrait, 1985, the first taken before the AIDS crisis, the second before his formal diagnosis but when he must have realized he was sick. In the 1980 image, he wears the sultry look of a young man on the make, hoping to accomplish great things. In the 1985 image, his hair has thinned and greyed and he’s both in and out of focus. What are his thoughts as he stares into the distance? In one  memorable conversation he told Jack Fritscher “You can’t cheat death . . .  but  you can cheat life.” How? “By not living,” he told Fritscher. Mappletorpe didn’t cheat life—in the time given to him he lived it to the full. But I think in a way he did manage to cheat death. Isn’t the work into which he poured himself still alive today? Does it show signs of being forgotten any time soon? Clearly not to the people who still throng to his shows so many years after his passing. I’m one of those who can’t stop looking at his photos because they continue to speak to me in so many ways. And as long as his art speaks, something of him remains alive. It’s the immortality of the artist.

All direct quotations from Mapplethorpe: Assault with  Deadly Camera are used by permission of the author.

For anyone interested in reading about Robert Mapplethorpe and his milieu, Jack Fritscher’s memoir is highly recommended. To read it online or purchase a copy of it for your library, visit the website http://www.jackfritscher.com.

Remembrance: A Deserving Bit of Forgotten AIDS History

Sometimes the past overtakes you in a very personal way, and you regain something you never knew you’d lost.

A recent evening, reminiscing with a friend as I look through the year book for my high school senior  year. The pictures and people seem as long ago and far away as anything out of the Star Wars movies—actually the real-life time frame is well over a decade earlier than the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977—when I turn a page and come upon a photo of the members of the Creative Writing Club I belonged to that final year before I graduated and moved on to my college years. And lo! there I am standing between two other young men, the shorter (to the left) named John Lair, and the taller (to the right) named Bruce Karcher.

I had a history with both, but while I wasn’t surprised to see John in the photo, I had no recollection of Bruce attending the same high school, let alone being in any of my high school classes or clubs.

Let me describe this another way. John I remembered well. We palled around our senior year, not just because we were friends and in the same German and music classes, but because  for a glorious few months he was my first boyfriend. Until the affair fell apart.

Bruce, on the other hand, I remembered from elementary school, especially sixth grade, where we had the same teacher and sat near each other in class for part of the year. I was obsessed by a jacket he wore and wanted one like it for myself. When I asked him where he had bought it, he answered from a men’s and boys’ clothing store his grandmother owned. It was located not far from my family’s home, so I talked my mother into taking me there, where I was told all the jackets like the one Bruce wore had been sold, and no more were expected in.

John, Lester, Bruce 2

John, Lester, Bruce (detail from Lester’s high school year book Creative Writing Club photo)

Looking at the year book photo, another memory jumped to mind: I was born and reared in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but for many decades now have lived in New York City. I’m a writer and journalist, and for several years in the 1990s wrote a monthly column titled Gay Arts Beat that appeared in various lesbian/gay publications around the country, among them the local Albuquerque lesbian/gay newspaper. During a trip back to New Mexico sometime during the 1990s, I had supper with the editor of that newspaper where for some reason the name of Bruce Karcher came up. Bruce, I was told, had been active in both the local gay and theater communities, but had died in 1989 of AIDS, which the editor described only as “a horrible, painful death” without offering any specific details.

So Bruce had been gay. Staring at the photo in the year book, I suddenly realized that if John had been my first boyfriend, Bruce had been my first crush. After all, how many straight boys eleven years old obsess about another boy’s clothes? It’s just that my awareness of being gay didn’t happen until a year later, when I was twelve and hitting adolescence. One year I’m focusing on an attractive boy’s clothes, the next I’m focusing on attractive boys. I had many crushes in seventh grade.

So I decided to research Bruce to see what I could find out about his life and his death.

One of my journalism tools is a subscription to newspapers.com, an online research archive that gives one access to the back issues of thousands of newspapers in the United States and Western Europe. So I visited the site, typing in the name Albuquerque Journal, along with Bruce’s last and first names (in that order), the word “Obituary,” and the year 1989. And there it was on page 37 of the June 6, 1989, issue. In part the obituary read:

KARCHER—Bruce Henry Karcher died on Monday, June 5, 1989 after two and one-half years of love and productivity following his diagnosis with AIDS. Bruce wished to take this final opportunity to affirm two things: his satisfaction and pride in having been born, lived and died as a gay man in this time and secondly, his deep love and appreciation for his mother and the many wonderful members of his extended, chosen family who have been there with unconditional love and support throughout his life, but most especially after his diagnosis with AIDS. . . .

Several phrases in the above bear repeating: “his satisfaction and pride in having been born, lived and died as a gay man in this time” . . . “his deep love and appreciation for his mother and the many wonderful members of his extended, chosen family who have been there with unconditional love and support throughout his life, but most especially after his diagnosis with AIDS. . . .” In a time when gay men, especially those living with AIDS, were feared, vilified, and demonized by many during the darkest time of the medical crisis, Bruce was a very lucky man, and clearly he knew how to appreciate the love he received during his illness and give it back in the form of a very lovely acknowledgment in his obituary.

Since visiting my year book and realizing that Bruce was a classmate of mine in high school, I’ve asked myself why I didn’t remember him when we were in the same Creative Writing Club for an entire year, when he was even standing next to me in a photo of the club members. Well, I don’t recall having any classes with him during those years, so perhaps our paths crossed nowhere else but that club during my senior year. Then, too, there was my affair that year with John Lair—the other young man standing beside me in the photo. I was probably too besotted by John to notice anyone from my (what seemed at the time) distant past who simply pulled no emotional weight with me any longer.

Still, the mysteries of my psyche aside, it’s great to be able to salute here someone who in my eyes was through his courage and pride one of the lesser-known heroes of a very dark time.

Reza Abdoh: AIDS, Rage, Theater

I recently traveled east from Manhattan on New York City’s No. 7 subway line to the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in Long Island City to see the show Reza Abdoh. A gay Iranian-American auteur of some note in his day, Abdoh died of AIDS-related causes in 1995 at age 32 in New York and is little known today. But during the 1980s and 1990s he was one of the Wunderkind writers and directors of American avant-garde theater and videos, with titles to his credit like Father Was a Peculiar Man, The Hip-Hop Waltz of Euridice, The Law of Remains, Quotations from a Ruined City, Bogeyman, and The Blind Owl, among many others.

At his death, Abdoh insisted he didn’t want any of his plays staged again. So the exhibition is a remarkable feat of curating that brings to vivid life his work in all its glory—and, for that matter, all its infamy—by means of taped videos of his work, written scripts of his plays, newspaper reviews of his plays, photographs, and accounts of his life and background.

A jumble of adjectives comes to mind when describing the exhibition: raucous, loud, moving, overwhelming, thoughtful, startling, jarring. Several words do not come to mind: relaxed, calming, peaceful. No doubt this assessment reflects Abdoh’s own life experience and personality. Born in Tehran in 1963, he had two brothers and a sister (he was the oldest). His family had money, and when the Khomeini regime came to power in 1979 his father fled first to London, then eventually to Los Angeles, taking his three sons with him; his wife and daughter remained in Iran.

This was not a happy household in L.A. Reza’s father has been described as “a total man’s man,” a business man, big in build, at one time a boxer, very macho. Early on there was trouble between Reza and his father over Reza’s wish to study violin, and eventually over the young man’s homosexuality. Then, soon after moving to Los Angeles, the father died, leaving the three sons penniless.

It was a hardscrabble life for a while for all three children. According to his brother Salar, Reza found a place to live in West Hollywood, and was heavily into a gay lifestyle. To make ends meet, he worked as a night manager at a hotel for a while, as a manager in a restaurant, even as a hustler. He never did become a violinist, but he wrote poetry, tried writing novels, then drifted toward theater. And it’s there that his true talent lay, both as a playwright and director.

By 1983 he was directing plays in Los Angeles, doing his own take on classics like King Lear, King Oedipus, and Medea. He was also doing some videos and short works of his own. But by 1990 he was writing and directing the first pieces for which he became internationally famous: Father Was a Peculiar Man, The Hip-Hop Waltz of Euridice, and a workshop of Bogeyman. He became bicoastal, living in New York and directing his plays there, as well as in Los Angeles. In the 1990s he formed his own theater company, Dar A Luz, and went international with his work, with performances in Montreal, Barcelona, Granada, Vienna, Munich, Frankfort-am-Main, Hamburg, and Paris.

Jan-Deen_Reza-Abdoh_Bogeyman_024

Reza Abdoh. Bogeyman. 1990. Photo by Jan Deen.

Reza Abdoh was becoming very famous indeed, at least within the avante-garde theater world. And while he wanted success, it’s clear his pieces, even toward the end of his life, were not cut from the cloth of happiness. His brother Salar said in one interview: “He worked like a madman.” The Los Angeles reviewer Charles Marowitz wrote of Bogeyman that it exhibited “the unmitigated quality of Abdoh’s inferno. It is unbelievably savage.”

And the sources of that inferno? Undoubtedly they had something to do with his encounters with a disapproving and on occasion brutal father, who found Reza unacceptable as a son in just about every way possible. Equally it had to do with the pathologies of a society he found mean-spirited and in denial of its own mendacity. But perhaps its most immediate spur was having to live so intimately with AIDS before the era of effective meds, when it was a sure death sentence. We’ve seen something along these lines elsewhere: the rage of David Feinberg in Eighty-Sixed, of Larry Kramer in The Normal Heart, of Paul Monette in Borrowed Time and Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, among other literary works. In Abdoh’s plays, however, it took on particularly brutal twists.

As Charles Marowitz wrote for TheaterWeek in his review of Bogeyman: “With AIDS as his subtext, and death as his pretext, Abdoh has looked hard and deep into his own terror and reproduced the lineaments of his own despair. He has found parallels between his own mortality . . . and the cruelty of a society that encourages a brutal psychopathology as a normal way of life.” By means of disorienting stage sets, multimedia visual and sound effects, and sensory overload, along with subject matter like BDSM, sexually and racially charged stage action, and provocative language and text elements, his productions were a form of assault on the audience intended to wake it up to the nightmarish quality common to so much of our daily life in the contemporary world that it’s mostly taken for granted.

Did he succeed in his aim? Well, people responded to his productions. Some audience members in Los Angeles, like Bette Midler, walked out of Bogeyman, while others demanded their money back. Still others threatened to call the police and/or the mayor to complain about the production. Whether they responded in the way Abdoh wanted is another question. Many times violence and assault can close us down rather than open us up.

I’m not the first to point out that Abdoh’s work is one-sided in its commitment to the horrors of modern life. In his review of Abdoh’s theater piece Tight Right White titled “Artaud You So” for the Village Voice, Michael Feingold described the play in terms of Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” writing: “Abdoh apparently believes that rubbing our faces in the hidden hatreds as vehemently as possible is a step toward curing them. He certainly knows how to carry out the procedure . . . [but we] are entitled to be skeptical about the possible results: it’s hard to imagine that unconstrained negative forces, once let loose, will provide any positive spiritual results. And if spiritual results are not the point, it’s hard to see what all the negativity is for.”

It’s too late to redress the wounds of an earlier generation enraged about and eventually decimated by AIDS. But the work of Reza Abdoh, fueled at least in part by the despair he felt over his own collision with the disease, suggests a way of dealing with rage-producing situations that doesn’t alienate others but contributes to finding solutions to the underlying conditions that cause the rage. Just think how rage fueled the AIDS protests in the 1980s and 1990s that led to the medical research required to achieve the medical breakthroughs which helped alleviate the ravages of HIV to everyone’s benefit. Rage is not something to be celebrated for its destructiveness alone. Its value lies in its ability to lay bare the reasons for its existence in order to eliminate the need for it. Abdoh in his rage produced very powerful theater. Is it just possible that it might have been even more powerful if it had woven into it a thread of hope?

 

Reza Abdoh is on view at MoMA’s PS1 through September 3. PS1 is located at 2525 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101; for directions and hours, go online to moma.org or call 1-718-784-2084.

Also consulted for this blog entry: Reza Abdoh, 1999, Daniel Mufson (ed.), The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, and London, UK; and the Reza Abdoh section of Mufson’s personal website danielmufson.com.

“The Boys in the Band”, AIDS: Looking to the Past, Moving Toward the Future

 

My husband Dave and I recently saw the current Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band at the Booth Theatre. Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the play’s 1968 original off-Broadway run, it’s considered a ground-breaking piece of theater. First opening approximately a year before the Stonewall Riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village, which itself was a direct precursor to the worldwide Gay Liberation movement that soon followed, it has been described by the Associated Press as “One of the few plays that can honestly claim to have helped spark a social revolution.”

To say that the play is beloved by many people gay and non-gay alike is an understatement. The night Dave and I were there, punch lines were anticipated by much audience laughter and clapping even before they were delivered, and the curtain bows by the cast were greeted by loud applause and a standing ovation. It was also a performance to love as Jim Parsons (playing Michael), Zachary Quinto (Harold), Matt Bomer (Donald), Robin de Jesus (Emory), Andrew Rannells (Larry), Charlie Carver (Cowboy), Brian Hutchinson (Alan), Michael Benjamin Washington (Bernard), and Tuc Watkins (Hank) gave it their all. If the original cast in 1968 ran some risk of ruining their acting careers by playing openly gay characters, I think it can safely be said that the members of this cast have only enhanced their own careers by these performances. As at least one small segment of pre-Stonewall gay life comes spectacularly alive for 110 minutes on stage in all its witty humor, not-so-hidden pain, overt heartbreak, and clear solidarity in the face of all the homophobia these friends confronted in the world around them (and even in themselves), one can only applaud the strength it took to live a gay life in those difficult times.

Director Joe Mantello should also be applauded. He never appears on stage, but his sure hand as a director clearly comes in part from his years as an actor, and is evident in every part of the production.

Boys in the Band

All that being said, it was surprising to me to find that the first thoughts I had when deciding I wanted to write about the play had to do with AIDS.

Did I say AIDS? The Boys in the Band, 1968 version, appeared over a decade before the outbreak of the epidemic, and has no AIDS content. How could it? Yet for me the play carried a certain, albeit somewhat elusive, relationship to AIDS in its wake. At first I thought it had to do with the fact that of the nine original cast members, five of them are known to have been gay—Kenneth Nelson (played Michael), Leonard Frey (Harold), Frederick Combs (Donald), Robert La Tourneau (Cowboy), and Keith Prentice (Larry)—and all five died of AIDS-related causes. But that made no sense. Just because five gay men played unhappy, in some cases even self-destructive, gay men in a play did not mean the characters they played had anything to do with their real-world selves. Indeed, all but La Tourneau went on to distinguished careers in the performing arts as actors, and/or directors, and/or playwrights. Happily, life for most of them did not imitate art.

No, the connection between the play and AIDS was not a direct line, even if some of the actors in the original production later died of the disease. Instead, I’ve come to realize, the affinity I sensed had to do with the social impact of both the play and the disease. The Boys in the Band “helped spark a social revolution” because for once very public venues—in this case theater and film—took on the pain and anguish of a despised minority—gay men—and treated the subject with compassion and insight. The characters in the 1968 play were taken out of the shadows of most people’s conception at the time of what gay men are like and given real-life dimensions. It can also be argued that the play helped gay men to reshape their own feelings and attitudes about themselves by providing them with a mirror that allowed them access to an underlying anger about their social and legal oppression: hence providing one of the sparks that set off a revolution.

The critical reception of the play and movie both were for the most part positive. The reaction of the gay male population was, and to some extent continues to be, ambivalent. But seeing the play now, so many years after Stonewall, it’s clear to me the distance we’ve all traveled in our feelings of self-worth—if we’re gay men—and of respect for the experience of being gay—if we’re not. Gay rights laws, marriage equality, gay adoptions, GLBT characters on television and in the movies, GLBT figures in sports. . . . Homophobes still exist and preach their poisonous doctrines, but in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and other parts of the world their grip over social attitudes has weakened considerably in the decades since The Boys in the Band first premiered, due in large part to the social revolution the play helped to spark.

Likewise AIDS has played its part in that revolution. Ghastly as the epidemic has been—and the death and suffering it has caused has few parallels in the history of health crises—it has promoted two outcomes beneficial for the LGBT community: (1) greater visibility to the world at large of the GLBT population as tens of thousands of gay men living with the disease were forced to come out to family, friends, and work colleagues; and (2) the legacy of AIDS activism, by which I mean not just the activist pressure that led to major advances in treating the disease, but the media visibility activists offered to the public at large of the LGBT populace caring for it own, challenging the governmental, social, and medical establishments to take notice of its needs and respond meaningfully to them, and its success in getting those needs met. As former U.S. House of Representatives member Barney Frank (D-MA) has commented: “That reverberated socially, and I can tell you it reverberated politically too.”

Nothing I’ve written here may be that new to many of those reading it. But in the political climate we’ve recently entered, with a regime in Washington hostile to LGBT rights and at best indifferent to the health needs of the general population, let alone those of special-needs populations like people living with AIDS, reminding ourselves about where we came from and what we’ve accomplished may well help us navigate our way through an uncertain and perhaps perilous future.

 

Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band is playing at the Booth Theatre in New York City through August 11, 2018. Highly recommended. Crayton Robey’s 2010 documentary Making the Boys, available through various online sources, is also highly recommended for insights into the history of the play and movie.