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|Sunday, June 19th, 2016|
|Do Artists Go Where They Are Loved?
This artist was miserable. He had never quite gone to the heights career-wise that he felt his art had achieved and that he, therefore, deserved. The art world is the epitome of "Many are called, few are chosen."
A lot of artists give up on the art world, on pursuing exhibitions and many give up on making art. And while each person's misery is unique, the lamentations of being passed over all do start to sound as consistent as church bells.
The artists who do stick it out and stick around the art world are the ones who go where they are loved. The gallery that wants to show you for the most part is the gallery you stick with. If things start rocking and rolling for you and other galleries want you, well, love from above almost always wins. It wins because there is love there, too.
But this artist was miserable because he "held out for a better gallery"
. He was wanted... but he did not go where he was loved. He held out for a better gallery, made great work, played the game but never got chosen (to hear him lament, to hear his sad words spoken)
But he HAD
been chosen. A gallery he felt was beneath him had chosen him. That road not taken, though, doesn't really ever haunt him because his ego insists it was never even a consideration, never a possibility at all. The BEST
was all this artist wanted, was all his ego would let him pursue. Of course, that "good"
gallery he thought he was born to show in, well it is now closed, long gone. Actually the gallery that wanted him has closed too. But the hundred possibilities that a show there would have created are worse than dead, they are never-born.
So when you hear the miserable artists lamenting the absence of a career, you might dare ask them "Why didn't you go where you were loved?"
I say "dare"
because the uncorking of the unthinkable is something that takes courage to initiate.
|Friday, June 17th, 2016|
|Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016|
|Agnes Martin Retrospective at LACMA reviewed...
Agnes Martin show at LACMA better minimal painter than all the dudes. You gotta be in a certain mood for this show, though. You gotta want to get your elitist on, that's it, you check your populism at the door on this one.
But I watched Robert Irwin putt-putt thru the LACMA Galleries this afternoon and noticed he got real close (closer than the marked line on the floor allows but he was with Govan so nobody said shit), and he stared and stared at almsot every one of them as close as he could get and I tried that and appreciated them more without the edges. Wish she had been like the art fair darlings of today making nine hundred foot canvasses where you could lose yourself in the field she lay.
She is really the opposite of digital art, and thus the opposite of all art today. She has no ideology and the inherent politics in the act of artmaking are about liberating the self - viewed now in utter terror in this era of everybody asking "which side are you on?". Think about it... she demands the long stare, the commitment, the suspension of the threat of walking on after seven seconds that every viewer carries with them.
LACMA could sure help the experience by banning strollers, groups of tourists, teenagers, old people looking for the bathroom and millenials with their goddamn selfie sticks. Anyway, there, two thumbs up for the queen of the graphite line and pastel perfection.
Oh and now I will be gauche and remind you that I am in a movie with Agnes Martin (separate scenes completely, but really)
called ART CITY SIMPLICITY
where she steals the show with liberating words for all artists and then I do my glib smack thing. Anyway, go be an elitist at LACMA and then drop seventy bucks at their cafe on bread and two salads, smiling the whole time because you are a graphite-line loving member of the elite, nod to the other elites, drop the mic and uber home.
|Friday, April 8th, 2016|
|My Merle Haggard Story
So I took this girl to Vegas and I really wanted to impress her. This was 1995. We checked into the Frontier Hotel because they were centrally located on the strip and had the best rates. That place is long gone. Not the most lavish, but the best location to see as many different things as there were to see there.
So I ask her what she wants to do. She is terrified of gambling (except she was dating me, what a long shot bet, right?) and sure, wants a nice meal and to see whatever there is to see here. Not a wild party-er, not really a "Vegas Type" but playing along for one trip, and I'm doing my best to make it romantic and fun.
"Do you want to see a show?"
"Oh, no. No."
"There's lots of stuff to see..."
"No, I am not into what Vegas is going to show... if it was Van Morrison or Merle Haggard, someone great, sure, but not a Vegas show."
Okay, okay, let's go for a walk."
So we decided to walk up the strip. After a half mile or so we chanced upon a two-hundred foot marguee in front of one of the casinos, it might have been the Riviera or the Sahara, don't exactly recall, but do recall that every casino had a big marquee with big names out front, the real stars were right here and you could almost touch 'em and most definitely catch them live and in person here.
So on this two-hundred-foot-tall marquee were 60-foot tall letters:
It was a sign. Literally and metaphorically. We both laughed. The next morning I called and made reservations. We dressed up. She was nervous to be "doing it right" I was nervous to make sure she had a good time. We got a good seat and the opening act played. They played and played.
Then they played some more. Then they admitted that they were actually Merle's band and that he was a little under the weather. I was quite bummed, the magic of that laugh we had just had to pay off somehow.
Finally, after 90 minutes of this band dragging themselves thru numbers and taking requests and suggesting maybe it was time to do one of the songs they had played again with each member playing a different instrument, he staggered onto the stage. He was fucked up out of his gourd. They put the guitar around his neck and he growled into a song, oh boy, this was actually sadly laughable. He played a few more songs, raw, sloppy, rough. Then he apologized for "being under the weather" and played a sad, slow song. He was sobering up and that miraculous angelic voice began to rise and fill the auditorium and then it leaked into our souls, all of us, the whole theater just burst into warm tears. I don't even recall what the song was but everyone was crying - and yet everyone was happy to be moved to tears by the melody that voice delivered.
By the time he had made it thru the set he was blaming the casino for giving him booze in his suite and then expecting him to finish early so they did not have to pay the ushers overtime. But he was sobering up and he played on. It was uplifting in the way churches wished each service could be. We left hours after we should have... had the set started on time. But we left feeling alive. There was no need to gamble or seek thrills, to walk back in the warm night air after having heard that voice live made the simple sidewalk feel like an escalator of bliss.
That girl and I had a good run for a few years and we are still friends now and you wonder, does the joy of that voice still ring around in our heads and uplift? Did it drop us onto a higher plane? Was it all just a momentary buzz or did we transform from staggering sloppy blubberers to redneck angels for good? I should hope the latter. You really want to go bat for art and vouch for its power when it leaves entertainment behind and changes the entire world for you in a few touching songs.
|Wednesday, March 9th, 2016|
|ETERNAL SHADOW (The Long Sunset of Walter Hopps)
There is a picture somewhere of the day I met Walter Hopps. It is me and Walter, Michael McCall and Steve Seemayer. It was Seemayer’s camera and I think he handed it to the security guard to shoot the picture. The pic is somewhere in a box, ine day I will dig it up and plaster it all over the internet and try to mooch off the legacy of Hopps and be all “oh yeah me and Walter, blah blah blah,” well instead of being what the British would call “a predictable little cunt”, I will give it to you straight about the Hopps I encountered. And if I find the picture and Seemayer is not in it than he will at least get the photo credit.
I knew it was a big deal to meet Walter Hopps then and I was glad to be wearing a California Angels baseball cap that night because idiot McCall was capless and not representing his loser Dodgers all shaggy then with his outdated mullet haircut in 1994 or 95, it was at the second DADA festival, and when I say DADA it don’t mean the important art movement I mean the Downtown Artists & Developers Association, which put on these huge “Downtown Lives” exhibits back then. The first one was in a giant industrial building on Alameda just south of Seventh by where the old Christmas tree lot was. This one was in that round subterranean outdoor mall on Figueroa and Seventh where the Target is now. In fact, if I walked over there I could show you the store – a spacious store – where this Dada show took place.
So in walks Michael McMullet with this stiff kind of guy, looked like a cross between Hunter S. Thompson and a wax figure of Dan Rather. There is all sorts of activity, it is one of those openings where everyone is saying hello to each other and talking about themselves and ignoring the art on the wall. You know, the group show hell that Hopps is kind of to blame for inventing, really. So all I can ask Hopps about is his health. The dude is only discussed in two terms – vibrant and reverent. But to me he seems to be a somnambulist on autopilot. After asking him a third or fourth time he says “I’m as good as I’m ever gonna get again.” He reminded me of every acid casualty I’d ever met. His drug had been speed, he’d disappear for days. McMullet had that “walked thru the fire” air about him so they were a perfect team – seen it all, done it all, screenprinted teeshirts summing it all up in a slogan.
Years later, actually a surprising number of years later, when I read that he died, front page of the LA Times, that’s a benchmark few get, I saw Llyn Foulkes, he sat down at my table in a restaurant and I asked him if he had heard the news... his expressive face turned into a vulnerable frown and he took off his glasses preparing to cry. When I said it was Walter he gave me a look like who the fuck cares. “Oh fuck Walter, he was the first starfucker, he started the whole celebrity thing in the art world, that the artist has to be a rock star, he wanted that so that he would be looked at like a god...” he went on and on, if you have ever heard Llyn rant, you know how it went from there.
All of this made me want to sponsor McCall’s tribute to Hopps, wearing his suit, passing out his money, acquiring a conceptual collection that was actually tangible. It was funny to see purported art world bigshots stare blankly when Walter’s name was mentioned – ah but the smart ones and the amazing artists, they knew. You can’t teach people shit these days, they have to find out for themselves. There are just too many ordinary people in the art world now and its people like Michael McCall standing as the apocalypse now in their way.
So I wasn’t there and that is my story and Llyn was there and that is his story, or at least my reporting of his story. But the motherfucker got a page one obituary in the LA Times and that means something. There is a legacy there and it is nice that Michael McCall has a proper haircut now and is making sure that people understand that Walter Hopps was there for the birth of the art world as we know it and that he held the baby and cooed at the baby and took the baby in the car while he went to score speed and that the little toddler picked up some of Walter’s admirable traits and a few of his bad habits as well. And that baby grew up to be an adult and we all want to be friends with the art world and acting like uncle Walter often makes the art world befriend us more quickly. And that is what you call a legacy and none of us are going to get an obituary on page one of the LA Times because the LA Times isn’t going to have page ones any more when we die, and life goes on and the art world that Walter tied to raise, that adult will get old and die too, one day. And Walter’s imprint will live on in some other weird way, he changed us all while he spent his days more interested in fixing that craving than in raising that child, that art world, us, we are the art world, in a way, he raised us, left us with a 57-inch-centerline and a love of flashbulbs standing next to Ed Ruscha and all those other swinging dicks of Venice he stroked up and down. All petering out now, but Walter will be the last pecker they all recall, he’ll have a legacy for inventing curating no matter how fickle history gets, he and Stiegletz are the white-walled wonders of history, memorable in perpetuity, thru thick or thin, peter out or peter in.
|Monday, March 7th, 2016|
There is a car alarm going off way far away. I can barely hear it. Maybe it is a mile away. It sounds like a bird chirping. When I was a kid this one guy we thought was a goofball got a car alarm. It was explained to me that if the car was broken into that a loud alarm would sound and that the kid had a pager which alert him to the break in. This is 1980 or thereabouts.
My brother Joe is a mechanical genius and he theorizes that the alarm is controlled by a motion detector of some sorts. This kid worked at the local movie theaters at the La Mirada Mall. We drive by his parked car and passenger side front and back roll down our windows and start rocking the car. Sure enough the think starts blaring out a siren. We laugh and laugh and drive around to see what happens and sure enough, the kid comes running out with two of his co-workers. We are laughing and laughing.
They go back in. We drive by a little later and do the same thing. Sirens! We drive off and back around in time to see him and one other guy from the theater walking, not running.
Yeah, i can recall announcing that the car alarm was the stupidest invention. The pager served as an irritant to the purchaser. Wouldn't you know it, the companies got rid of the pagers and left the loud alarm to irritate everybody EXCEPT the car owner.
The birdchirp alarm has now stopped. A train is rolling by, with its sad wailing horn, perhaps a romantic sound to some but one night five years ago a train in my neighborhood tested its horn for 25 minutes straight just after 3:00 AM. All romanticism was drained from the sound. Same effect 25 seconds of a car alarm has on anyone.
|Friday, February 5th, 2016|
|My Sixth Street Bridge Story
Well I was thinking back and thinking back even further and I drove past it every day for the past few years and now its gonna be gone and I kept thinking that I had a good story about the Sixth Street bridge, maybe not the best story but certainly better than all the maudlin bullshitters who never even thought about the structure until the city announced it was being torn down. Suddenly it is the jugular vein of cultural heritage that tied the neighborhoods together oh bullshit, I saw one exactly ONE photo posted on the internet of the Sixth Street Bridge taken by someone regular in a car with the skyline in it. A few old professional shots scattered here and there but only Linda Gamboa posted a shot from the passenger seat of a car in what looked like 1985 or so of the road and the bridge headed toward the L.A. skyline and it was crooked and a little blurry and perfect.
So if Linda is writing about her memories of the Sixth Street Bridge, I’m sold on the authenticity of her prose all of it sight unseen. Everyone else, all your boo hoo hoo seems a little more about you boo hoo hoo-ing for yourself or even worse, for actually not having ever noticed the Sixth Street Bridge until the day they announced the demo was on the way. For me, I have saved the eulogy. I got a good kick out of that bridge and that good kick was forever always with me and so that bridge has been with me for more than half my life now so when they said they were tearing it down, well the vivid memory was still there. So there won’t be crying or celebrating or making a big deal because for a few weeks many years ago that bridge was mine.
In 1988 I would go to underground clubs like religious people go to church. The weekends centered on these places. But how to find out where they were and if they were worth going to. There were so many complications back then. There was no Social Media invitation. There was word of mouth. To find out about the clubs you had to do a variety of things in different ratios, sort of like a recipe. You had to go to parties... which means you had to find out where the parties were. It was a vicious cycle that started on Thursday mornings. Calling around, hitting a few bars on Thursday night, hitting a few late night diners. “Hey man what’s going on this weekend?”
Simple stuff when you would see someone who dressed like you, fucked up but ridiculously fashionable in ways that would only be validated by high school kids dressing that way five or ten years later.
And you would go to parties to dig up what was happening after the parties. That is all the first and second party were for, besides the food and the occasional phone number. There was always something else, some other thing happening that made the party but a stepping stone. Once in a while it was a great party and all bets were off. But rarely. A lot of the time it was not even the right party. Got chased out of a few of those. So it was always a long search. Some people were out there jonesing for a fix. Others were dying to get laid. We were just in search of a place to go where nobody had ever been, an idealized setting where a few hours could happen in a manner that allowed not an iota of jaded judgment to occur. The underground was a respite from Happy Days
telling us we had missed the 1950s and every ponytailed fuckhead telling us we had missed the 1960s and every early punk rocker telling us we had missed punk when it mattered and on and on and I think this shit is still going on, ask a 23-year-old. The underground was the antidote to a culture that insisted we didn’t belong, that we had just missed it, that our Saturday nights were irrelevant. Well, fuck Studio 54 was all that drove my brain on the weekend.
Some clubs you’d hit and be disappointed and others the sun rising was the saddest moment, because you knew it was over, the greatest time you ever had that you’d probably forget and that is what made it even better. The underground was better than any drug because every Saturday night drama reads better on a stage you never imagined until the very darkness that enveloped it all up and disappeared.
Some friends seized upon an idea one day that was a gold mine. Such a gold mine that we didn’t share it with anyone ever. We would just do it and it cut thru so much crap. And in doing this we got clued into the underground. There was only one ATM in Downtown L.A. in 1988 after the sun went down. Really. It sounds like there might have been horse carts and mule-pulled buggies to complete this scenario, but no, there was not. There was one ATM outdoors working after dark in Downtown L.A. in 1988 and it was the B of A in Chinatown. There was a steady stream of people stopping by here to grab cash. You could take one look at people and know if they knew where anything cool was that night. There was an art to asking. People were forthcoming if they didn’t think you were trying to mug them. They were most talkative when there was a line. One time I stood there pretending to be getting cash out so the others could interrogate this dude who we knew would be hip to it all.
You know, for everything the internet did in breaking down barriers of communication, the decentralization of it all destroyed the underground. Ninety percent of the underground clubs would not have withstood a picky Yelp review. Five selfies by different folks all Instagrammed in one night from some of those places would have killed the allure completely. Something about the silence and the privacy – things that were frustrating when you were not in the know all seem now to be the things about the underground that were what we treasure about those days and nights if we can recall them at all.
So one night I was at a party downtown, hanging out, drinking pretty good beer, wondering if maybe this was all that it would amount to when this one guy I ran with came in. It has been almost thirty years and I cannot recall his fucking name and it drives me crazy because we tore up the town together for a few years, hit and miss and I just cannot recall his name. So NoName saw me and walked straight over. This guy was usually a lot cooler, the observant type. He’d walk in and walk around and look and stare and I learned a little from watching him but this time he walked right over to me. “You want to help me do an underground club tonight?”
Well, let’s put this question into perspective. You like beer, help me make a brewery tonight. You like sex, help me open a whorehouse tonight. You like free drugs, help me run a smuggling operation tonight. This one question cleared the fog away for me with a radical simplicity. I had been chasing this elusive need to be somewhere cool and exclusive and here was a man who was going to build it himself. “I’m in, let’s go.”
We drove in his pick up truck with two guys in the back. It was still legal back then, legal to sit in the back of the truck back then. He gave me the game plan. He had called a college radio station on Monday and got on the air somehow and asked the radio host “Were you the Cassette Deejay at that Saturday afterhours club under the sixth street bridge?”
The deejay asked NoName what was a cassette deejay. He said it was the hippest thing in England to deejay cassettes on a boombox in tunnels under bridges “I asked the guy if he was hip to this and he was all oh yeah oh yeah, I thought they were just called deejays and he asked me what my favorite club under a bridge in London was.”
Well this info is all piling up, it is the first I had heard of clubs under bridges in London and cassette deejays. “Where did you hear about all this shit, man, did you go to London recently?”
I asked him, excited about this whole new scene. We were at a red light on Seventh Street at Alameda heading East. He turned and looked me in the eye and said “I made it all up.”
He had a glimmer in his eye. He was a taciturn guy, this was the most I had really ever talked to him despite hanging out on the scene around him for over a year. He barely smiled, but then he smirked, “I created a club in my head and then I promoted it on the radio for free by hyping it as being cool like the English club scene.”
The light turned green and we motored onward toward Santa Fe Avenue but time for me had stopped. The car was going in slow motion as my brain frenetically tried to update reality with all this new information. You could create something out of nothing and call it art and call it hype at the same time. And it was apparently about to start.
We got to the tunnel under the Sixth Street bridge on Santa Fe, it is right where the incline has begun, semiturcks can make it up and down this part of the street but if it were pouring rain you’d stay dry under this little slice of concrete for hours. He parked the truck away from the tunnel though and he did not have to explain why. He was already planning his getaway. You see, they didn’t call them underground clubs because they were sexy or in a basement literally under the ground. They were underground because they were all illegal and the city fathers unleashed the police on them. It is different now, there are lots of clubs, bars, places to go, maybe even too many. They are all legal and quite boring. Just being at an underground club meant you were breaking the law. Sometimes the Vice Squad would send in under covers. Other times the owner of a legal bar would drop a dime and the police would show up en masse. One time a helicopter circled overhead when they shut down the New ClubHouse and everyone behind the bar got arrested and hauled away. Other times they would just knock on the door an hour before the club was supposed to start and tell you they were watching and maybe y’all did not want to get arrested.
Whatever it was, the game of cat and mouse saw an endless supply of mice getting fucked up every weekend in establishments that had not passed a fire inspection, did not have a liquor license, were not vetted by the business licensing bureau, had not bribed the city councilman to get the permits to operate a club. In all the time I spent in underground clubs there were not one-tenth the problems that popped up in legitimate clubs. But the city and the county and the state never made a dime off of the underground clubs and so their pit bulls with guns were always prowling. The busts happened, you got frisked, they took your pot if you had any, they cuffed you if you had anything harder than weed. They got all testy and hyper macho cowboy if anyone was found with a gun. One time I got frisked and walked out and the girl I was with was two people back in the line and someone ahead of her had a piece on them. It took a half-hour before she got out and they practically strip searched her right in the doorway . The guy with the gun was hogtied on the floor and she practically had to step on him to go over him to get out the door and we walked to a bus stop because they were impounding everyone’s car and she was tugging at her bra the whole way to the bus bench they had so thoroughly grabbed at what they thought were weapons.
NoName parked the truck so that he (or he and I if we were both lucky)
could simply walk to truck and flee supposing the police descended. He drove a beat up old Datsun. All of this would work in his favor – if he made it to the car it looked so un-hip, so non-descript that a clean getaway was not only possible, it was probable. And if he got busted and hauled in, it was legally parked and he could get out a day or two later and get over to it and drive it away. Once your car got impounded you were racing against a ticking clock, there were daily fees. Downtown used to be a place you could tuck a car away for a few weeks and come back to it. Leave the windows open and the doors unlocked so the occasional crackhead could rifle through it. Worst thing I ever heard happening, besides the occasional homeless person taking a dump in the car was a guy finding a junkie OD’s in his car and dead already for three or four days. So NoName had already scoped everything out and had a plan, I could tell by the way he parked. The guys in the truck bed didn’t have papers, they were the last two people who the cops were going to waste their time on if they were busting a club full of underground kids. NoName had thought of everything. We got out of the truck, crossed Santa Fe and approached the tunnel. It was about ten at night. NoName said a few things to the guys in Spanish and pointed, they walked off on their errand.
Up drove this other guy. He was an asshole. I can’t remember his name either. He was one of those guys you would see on the scene and be like “Oh, he’s here, he’s such an asshole.”
People certainly said that under their breath about me enough times. It’s human nature. There is chemistry with everyone you meet, just sometimes it is really bad chemistry. I saw him years later and he was still an asshole. He had that whole superior air about him and that sneer and the way of not talking to you. And then he would be all laughing and small-talking with other people you didn’t know. There is tension in every scene. Chemistry, energy, vibes, biorhythms maybe I don’t fucking know. He didn’t like me and I didn’t like him. No violence, just mute mutual repugnance. I saw the boombox and knew he was the Cassette Deejay. He handed NoName an aluminum baseball bat. NoName handed it to me. The Asshole took his boombox and a folding table down to the end of the tunnel, right by the river. So I’m standing at the entrance to the tunnel to the LA River under the Sixth Street Bridge on Santa Fe Avenue in a black leather biker jacket holding a baseball bat. The two guys from the truck bed come back pushing a trash dumpster. NoName is barking directions in Spanish as they line it up with the tunnel. He tells me to stand back. The two guys tip it over. Trash spills everywhere. He talks to them a little more and they begin creating a pile of trash at the entrance of the tunnel. To get in the tunnel now you can either climb over a disgusting pile of trash or you can walk through a tiny little aisle in front of which NoName and I are standing. The Asshole has been loading boxes down into the tunnel. The two guys from the truck walk down into the tunnel too and disappear. It is pitch black down there but your eyes adjust.
NoName doesn’t really talk much. I’m an idiot chatterbox to fill the space but I know to play it cool, that the vibe is heavy. The idea of me as a bouncer is absurd. The idea that I could crack an egg with that baseball bat is ludicrous. Down in the tunnel I hear music. The Asshole is the world’s first Cassette DeeJay even though the trend has already been announced on radio. NoName’s plan is manifesting. At least we are about to see how many people listened to the radio show he called. A little before eleven four girls appear from the side street around where NoName had parked his truck. They are dressed in what they think looks hip and underground, bad discotech glitter on black. NoName tells me “stay here” as he walks up to them. Well I want to talk to the hot chicks too. It dawns on me that NoName is a master of compartmentalization. Everyone in this scenario is separate. The two undocumented guys. The Asshole DeeJay, now he is bringing chicks to the club to make it “fun” but is he paying them, giving them free drinks? I will never know because he excluded me. There were times in my life that this realization would have made me resentful, hurt, emotional, perhaps acting out because of it. But this whole adventure is making me respect NoName. There was a management style. I took it in like you take in the smell of the popcorn as you walk into the theater lobby. There was much to be learned.
The trash doesn’t really smell and the first group who walk up sort of kick around the idea of walking thru it or over it. They finally walk up. It is three guys and a girl. NoName lays it out simple: Its five bucks and all the shots of tequila you can drink. The first guy hands him a twenty. NoName looks at me and makes a quick jerking motion for me to move out of the way. The guy takes a step in, impulsively and stops, “Where’s my change?”
NoName is cool “Get it from them”
he says, pointing at the three companions. I look at them and begin waving my hand in and the three of them pass him up and he looks at me and then at NoName and then sprints in to catch up to them. NoName smiles at me “That was good, keep ‘em moving,”
he laughed. Having change for that guy was not our problem. This is the underground, your very presence here is all the customer satisfaction you should ever expect.“Is this the Surge Club?”
asks a particularly bold woman. I wish I’d had a camera and taken a picture of some of the get ups. The eighties were a transitory time. Not everyone played dress-up well. The synthetic look took time and commitment. I maintained a simple punk appearance because it was easy. So many people tried to be elaborate and failed. And going out to clubs was pretty much dressing up for Halloween. They start to arrive. NoName’s four girls was a masterstroke as none of the first few clumps of folks have left, the guys are happy with booze and potential pick-ups. And still the trash does not smell.
Cars are slowing down “Is this Surge?”
NoName nods so discretely that half of them repeat the question as a yell, and still they cannot tell if he has nodded yes or no. They park anyway and they part with their five bucks. When nobody is around I ask him “What’s Surge?”
He tells me that was the name of the London underground club that started the whole Cassette DJ craze and that this was the L.A. branch of the same club. Had he forgotten that he had just told me he had made the whole thing up? Was he so well-rehearsed that he was just re-rehearsing all this? None of it mattered. I just stood there with a baseball bat, the muscle for the first and only time in my life, and watched the master collect the money, basking in the light of the bulb which had turned on over his head in the conceptual cartoon panel illustrating this story in the minds of everyone who will ever hear of it.
After the bars closed at 2 AM was when things got hectic. More people were coming and they were already drunk, bold, eager to get in, full of reasons why they shouldn’t pay. NoName told one guy trying to push thru “He’s cracking skulls on request tonight”
and gestured to me. But when a group of serious-looking homeboys walked up he told me “Lay the bat down. Set it down and step on it.”
They came up, he gave them hugs and handshakes and let the clique walk down the long tunnel into the darkness of after-hours ecstasy for free. He gestured for me to pick the bat up again, the conductor of this orchestra. Maybe they were the real muscle, maybe they were packing, but there was no maybe about who was conducting. Six really young guys walked up with their own twelve pack, “Five bucks each and three beers”
They hesitated. “There’s tons of chicks down there, lotta hot ones.”
That sold them on it. NoName handed me two of the beers that he had collected, saying “Chug the first one, nurse the second.”
The beer helped. The people looked cuter after that second one but NoName reminded me that this was the night time, that the good people had all gone to bed, “Keep that bottle close in case you need to break it on some jerk’s face,”
he said in that bland matter-of-fact voice that made taking orders easy because they were not barked, because they were wise suggestions, because nobody else who was an expert on the underground ever opened their fucking mouths.
I cannot tell you that it was hard work, because the first night of Surge was fun. I had been to the clubs, the holes in the wall, the squats, sat in chairs and stared, leaned against walls and tried to start a conversation, hung out through godawful music, all just to be there. But this night I was missing the whole actual club but seeing every miniscule detail of the desire to be there, to be in the tunnel. I had the keys to the kingdom and did not care to jiggle the lock. The hardest thing was not helping up this one drunk girl. It was late. 4:30 AM. She was blotto and wanted in free. NoName had let plenty of women pass but this one was a little belligerent and loud and she walked away from her date, a pretty square guy, and then darted straight into the trash pile. She fell face first after a few steps and then tried to crawl up it, like a desperate mountain climber. She was wailing. The square guy was still standing at the entrance with his hand in his pocket ready to pay the admission for both of them. I walked over to her and tapped the back of her calf with the bat, “Hey there’s shit in there, human shit, dog shit, you’re getting shit all over you!”
What do you say to someone in this state? It was all the motivation I could think to say. She flailed for another few seconds but stopped. “Johnny come help me...”
the date darted over. I whispered to him “There’s no shit in there, man, no shit at all.”
He was relieved and grabbed her by the waist and pulled, falling straight back on his ass but getting her out of the garbage pile. They walked into the night to some car they had parked up the street.
At the very first glimmer of light in the sky NoName asked for the bat. He handed me a huge wad of bills and told me that the two illegals were each stationed in the river on either side of the tunnel down a quarter mile or so and to go tell one to get the other to both go to his car. “Can I get a ride, man?”
He looked almost confused, “Go get a chick in the tunnel, taxis will be here when the sun comes up.”
I walked down into the tunnel, it got thick with people and cigarette smoke. I was crunching styrofoam cups beneath my feet. My eyes adjusted. Near the end was the Asshole with a boombox on the card table. He was making out with a chick. A huge bottle of tequila was on the table along with some cups. I picked up the big bottle, “That one’s dosed,”
said the Asshole, breaking away form a smooch, suddenly concerned about me, maybe selfishly wanting to keep the dosed shit for himself but I took it as a shred of humanity from this previously contemptible fuck. I flinched and set the bottle back down. He grabbed an unopened bottle and handed it to me. I filled a cup and slugged a good bit of it. Rotgut but burning smooth like it was supposed to.
Walking out to the edge of the tunnel the slightest predawn light was bright enough to show the guts of L.A. in all their functional beauty. The concrete channel, stretched eternal on my left and right. Across the grey riverbed was a matching forty-degree angle slant. Above was the bridge, slung up, over and across into East LA where it became Whittier Boulevard, hit Soto, cruised through the barrio and beyond so long that it ended up damn deep into suburbia almost within a mile or two of the house I had grown up in. I signaled to NoName’s guy, he might have been fifty yards from the tunnel, a lookout. He grabbed his friend and left. The tunnel was a bit emptier. The Asshole was drunkenly consolidating boxes of tequila bottles and cups and the last thing I wanted to do was get dosed and the second to the last thing I wanted to do was help him so I did not break my stride, chugging down the tequila and getting to the top of the tunnel alone, where I smelled the huge pile of trash for the first time as I passed it. It smelled much worse now that it had been out for hours... there was definitely some type of shit in it.
|Saturday, January 23rd, 2016|
|Mark Ehrman Sent Me On My Way...
Echoing the timing of Darby Crash dying the day before the shocking murder of John Lennon, author Mark Ehrman died from a longterm illness the day before David Bowie's passing earlier this month.
I barely knew Mark Ehrman but he wrote an article about me that proved quite critical in my personal and professional development. I first knew him, or at least knew who he was, at the Onyx. Now this was a coffee shop that deserves its own book, its own HBO series. It was bohemian Los Angeles in the first half of the 1990s. Mark was in the middle of that scene, enmeshed. He wrote freelance and landed some nice gigs. One of his most authentic pieces was a drive along with a junkie on what it was like to score heroin in Los Angeles. That piece appeared in Playboy
around the time Pulp Fiction
had put this notion into mainstream consciousness. He had one foot in the zeitgeist, a finger in the wind, an eye on the future and a hand on the pulse of the underground.
The first time I ever heard the term "trust fund" it was from a young woman at the Onyx pointing to Mark across the room and saying "if you ever want to know who in L.A. is a trust fund baby, ask him."
Instead, I had to ask her what a trust fund baby was. But see, he could really suss that stuff out, his eyes and ears were sponges; he had a piercing glare that was equal parts Rudolf Valentino and Shaggy from Scooby Doo along with being a world-class eavesdropper.
He interviewed me for the LA Times Calendar
section in 1993 about my then-nascent Coagula Art Journal
. It was the first real media attention the magazine had ever gotten. Somehow in our talk he mentioned that at one time he had been the deliveryman for the Honor Store. He had always looked familiar over a cup o black joe at the Onyx. I told him that working for the Honor Store was much more awesome then publishing an art world zine and that I should be interviewing him which he indicated made him suspicious that I was hiding something in deflecting praise to the interviewer. Mark was a quick read though and saw it as a genuine sentiment so he indulged me with a few good tales from those days.
Basically the Honor Store was an open cardboard box filled to the gills with candy bars, potato chips, any junk food you can imagine. At the top of each Honor Store was a box with a coin slot. You were asked to put in what you thought was fair. You were on the honor system. First thing I asked him "Was the junk expired?"
It was "long expired"
he told me. How did the company get around that? The guy who owned it found no statutes to giving away food; and it appeared to pretty much be one guy who bought - or was given - expired food in bulk and his employee Mark stuffing the "goods" into boxes and driving the containers around. He would concentrate on factories, places with lunch rooms, break rooms. Young Ehrman would show up at a warehouse, a factory, an assembly line and offer the box of goodies to them free of charge and then arrange a date to bring a fresh box. Maybe the box had a phone number to call to replenish it, it has been many, many years. So Mark spent a good chunk of the late '80s driving all over Southern California to the most generic, unsexy work rooms around. I just had to know, having had my share of lose change expired cookies and peanuts from the Honor Store in a few break rooms... did the damn thing make any money?"Tons"
he said. He actually got philosophical about it for a minute. That the Honor Store made money taught him that most people were decent, if perhaps a little naive. And that motivated his journalistic pursuits to find the edge, the darkness. Years later even his tamest book, a how-to on living as an Ex-Pat (he passed away in Spain)
had at its core that need to wander away from safety, security and the mundane normalcy he saw delivering those boxes of stale irresistibles.
His article came out in the L.A. Times Sunday Magazine
in November of 1993. At the time, this was a huge deal, it got tons of attention. There was not a dispersed internet, everyone who read at all read the Times
and the Sunday Magazine
. Ehrman had originally said he wanted the piece to get in the Calendar Section
. He claimed that the Arts Editor had a say over articles appearing in that section and had nixed it going into print. When he took it to the View Section
. Basically the View Section
was the potpourri of articles that did not rigidly fit into Sports, Arts or Metro... you'd get a lot of recipes and handicapped athlete stories there. He found out that Times
editors could nix stories about the subject they oversaw appearing in other sections. They also had editing privileges. If a big rock concert made the front page, Robert Hilburn got to make sure a photo of Bob Dylan appeared above the fold instead of Jerry Garcia. When Walter Hopps died it was news, but it was front page news because of Christopher Knight.
But Ehrman persisted. He did so, he told me in a subtle put-down, not because he cared so much about the article itself (and by extension my magazine and me)
, but as a FU to the Calendar Section
arts editor at the Times
. It turned out that nobody got an editorial say over the Sunday Magazine
and so he hustled the story hard to them and they bit, the story got published to the consternation of those who did not find my efforts to be of editorial consequence. Instantly the buzz was on for the magazine in L.A. and I never looked back. In fact, the success that my publication enjoyed in part because of Ehrman's piece was a huge motivation in my choice to get sober.
Years later in AA, amidst the stories of bottoming out, I would tell the short tale of having had my first taste of success in life, of validation from the outside world and that was what motivated me to see if sobriety could accentuate the new good feelings. In a meeting in Silverlake one night someone asked me if I would start the sharing and my "script" ran thru my head. I was thinking of the narrative of it all when Ehrman walked right through the door! Wow talk about your pink cloud kismet. He was perfectly on time, the room had just gotten settled. But he took no seat. He walked in a circle looking at every person in the room and then walked out. My assumption was he was going to grab a coffee and be right back but the girl seated next to me sneered, "That guy's a reporter, he comes in to look for celebrities, fucking parasite."
Oh. Every goofy impulse in me leaned me over and I mumbled, "That dude's the reason I got sober in the first place."
It did not compute with her and I did not press it because his little twirl into the back room didn't bother me one lick. H was doing his job, he was scouting the room, plenty of celebs made their way to that meeting, this is L.A. and that's how the town rolls.
And Mark Ehrman rolled with it, pulling up things from its underbelly that the decent, hard-working folks wanted to read about from the safety of the break room. Rest In Peace.
|Friday, January 22nd, 2016|
|Well you're just too clever now, aren't you...
Another "friend" on FaceBook has a maudlin rant about leaving FaceBook, here is his phone number, none of you are real unless you contact him the old fashioned way, even though phones are not face to face. I bet in 1909 there was some guy who pulled out the cord and announced he was sick of phones and the phone company and that any man who should want to address him should ride his horse over to the good man's estate and address him face to face. I bet anything he had a phone reinstalled by the same phone company before 1912.
But back to the present day. The man has longwinded observations of what FaceBook is REALLY doing. How he cannot partake of any website that uses his information and he delivers the scintillating observation that FaceBook is using the information provided by users to feed to advertisers. Wow. He told us what we have known for years, but he told it to us in a way that puts him at the center of the universe.
You can overthink so much these days. And when you do you are almost always wrong. This guy cannot find a way to "master" FaceBook, to be the center of it. You see FaceBook works diligently to prevent anyone from mastering it. So the critique is that "IT MASTERS YOU" and those who cannot exist in a universe in which they are not the masters must then retreat form this force.
Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but Facebook is not divine. It is not perfect. It is not even that intelligent. You see, FaceBook cannot master FaceBook. This company keeps making it up as they go along. Now, for some, maybe even for most, that would be a critique, right? But for me, little old disorganized me, it is a compliment. You can be valued at half a trillion dollars and you cannot get your shit together? Sign me up!
Now don't go truther here on me. They are not part of the illuminati and their software protocols have no elders. They are just Facebook - they are like a printing press, a giant free printing press where you can create pamphlets and let them out into the world and the world is protected form you spamming them like a fucker.
Oh yeah we all hate to be spammed but we get righteous when FB does not let us spam away when we want to. FaceBook will not let you use it as a constant megaphone. Sorry, chump, you ain't that interesting.
Email and MySpace did too little about Spam too late and the biggest attraction of FaceBook is that the communiques from people are legit. There is almost no spam on it. You cannot use FB as a database which makes it impossible to form a calculated and focused attack. Attack for what? For your spam, dummy. Oh, so you say you will never spam anyone, well, FB says "Why take that risk".
So you have this environment where you are basically either just trying to stick out (conniving wannabe spammer) or you are just genuine (unfocussed talent).
Why would anyone not want to be on FB? They are a private person. Great. DOn't be on FB. They are worried about stalkers or past relationships? There are privacy controls but, yeah, sure, ditch it. But the people who are demonstrative about getting off of Facebook, who make speeches and quote Alvin Toffler or Isaac Asimov are the people who, it seems to me, want to get hold of some secret throttle on FB to be sure their messages are getting some dominant positioning. The uncertainty of it all scares them. THe uncertainty in FB scares them a little and the uncertainty that their own majestic opinions being expressed are perhaps not quite that different than a bowl of cold soup on a counter after you have gone back to work from your lunch break.
FB is not the only internet service selling your info to advertisers but so what? Oh your sacred precious information - what, you like rap music and you like to ski and there are ads targeted for hip hop culture consumers and travel info to ski lodges. Gosh, you are so unique and special and awesome how dare someone reduce you to your superficial purchases. One irony is that the FB doesn't really even get things right. I am in the art world and therefore have a lot of gay FB friends and Jewish FB friends. for many years my status was "engaged" to the woman who is now my wife. My FB ads featured NO ads for the art world but plenty for gay-firendly businesses and lifestyles and for Jewish holidays I did not even know existed. There were more ads for companies wanting to design my Katubbah than anything else.
See, all completely useless because the algorithm is like someone eavesdropping at a bar that you know is eavesdropping but you just do not care. This FB friend today got up and made a big speech about the eavesdropper and is going home to drink alone. And if you surf the internet for shoes or Palm Springs you can bet that FB will have ads for all sorts of stuff related to those visits even after you buy your pair of shoes or reserve that hotel room. It is innocuous, it is the guy at the bar who heard you talking about the Lakers and a half hour later tries to get into the conversation by bringing up Kobe Bryant while you had been complaining about traffic around the Staples Center because there was a game last night.
Thump away on your chest, please, thump away. FB is a polite printing press and you are sulking because it will not let you pamphleteer. You'll be back. And you won't been know why you aren't bitter anymore. You have been schooled in spamming by FB, the site that cured spam when no one else could or would.
|Tuesday, January 19th, 2016|
|That One Gallery
Remember that one gallery?
They call it that because they can't remember. And in a way they don't want to remember. They remember who showed there, they rattle off the names and if you were there you remember those shows and probably which pieces sold, if anything did, and there was that one show you can even recall the placement of the pictures, the red one was up front by the door and the blue one that your date liked was further back and why did they bother hanging two blue ones, it kinda ruined the show. And the artist went on to have a show at that bigger place, remember? Yeah you remember that place. Until you are asked, "What was the name of that bigger gallery?"
Complete blanks are the predominant color of the landscape when it comes to art history. There aren't holes, it isn't Swiss cheese, there are blanks, they're different than holes. Blanks are composed of matter and memory, they happened and they still might even be pertinent to the contemporary dialogue. And every once in a while, almost always when looking at some artist's CV, you see the name, the blank is filled in and the memories trickle about, watering the cactus.
Sometimes you forget that one gallery and you forget that one artist but you remember that one show. It changed the way you look at painting or it turned you off of the idea that there could be redemption in Pop Art or you saw a celebrity at the opening who you will forever thus associate with that stupid stick figure drawing by that one guy at that one gallery. More often you forget that one gallery and that one show but you do remember the artist. All you recall is that he or she did show there. Maybe you are at a red light in the passenger seat and you nudge your friend, bored behind the wheel, and he looks over and you point "See that second building from the corner, the yoga studio?"
He looks over and you tell him that is where someone who now shows at museums had a show way back when. It is always better if it was that famous artist's first show, but the bigger the artist, the more important the second, third, fifth and seventh solo shows become. You don't need to be in physical proximity though. Any trigger can bring up the question. You see a bald guy in a nice suit and he looks like the guy who ran that one gallery who gave that one artist who is big now their first solo show and you turn to your date and you ask "Do you remember that one gallery?" And the bald guy walks by, oblivious to his place in history, even though he isn't the guy who made history.
And history is all it is besides a real estate lease. History is an empty bottle, long drank, drunk done, hung over, recovered and moved on. It is rare someone would consciously recycle one of these bottles. Oh, some physical spaces are taken over by another gallery but a space that can hold an art gallery can also hold an art studio and the lower the rent of the gallery the more likely it is to become a private studio once the lease is up and the game is lost. and of the rent stays the same and another gallery opens there you can bet the proprietor hears every so often a question along the lines of "Wasn't that one gallery here before you?"
And then, even when nobody can remember the name of that one gallery, someone will explain why it closed. Divorce. Wife was funding husband's hobby of playing gallery. Drug problem, had to go to rehab, family cut off the funds. Thought they had an eye and instead of playing the game they just picked art they liked and bought ads and then closed, embittered that there is a game instead of purity. But the one reason you hear a lot (when you really get into it, get talking about why that one gallery closed)
goes something like this: an artist moved on, moved up, and while they did not expect that artist's loyalty they suddenly realized that they were in the same spot and... (now this is the worst, the darkest revelation)
they realized that they always would be in that spot.
You remember that one gallery because there was never champagne sweeter served there than on the first day they opened. They set the bar and could never even do a chin-up on it. Artists move up and down, there are cycles that if you watch will make you believe in biorhythms or cosmic forces aligning. But galleries are hard-pressed to take even one small step up. The cement dries so hard so fast that the length of the red carpet you roll out on opening night is like the height chart on the side of every mugshot. You might get uglier, you might get exonerated, but you never get any bigger unless you get lucky, and you only get lucky when all the other galleries have left town.
The only way to create that type of luck, then, is to last. They can't forget a space's name when they ask where the openings are at tonight and someone mentions that space. The art world expands in dizzying, rapid advancements and then it contracts in merciless purges, black holes eating stars that cannot escape. Galleries big and small go POOF into the night. Non-profit spaces and artist collectives are not spared. The ones that last are not necessarily tougher, better or more intelligently managed. They are usually just luckier and when it gets really dry, really deep into a recession, many just close because the whole contraction has been a buzz kill.
The spaces that last, the galleries whose names are still on the building when you drive by racing to pick up the dry cleaning or are dawdling with old friends on a stroll after a nice meal, those spaces are the lifers. They have nowhere else to go. The art they show is not any better or worse than the art shown by the hundred galleries that kept regular hours until six months after a stock market crash or other depressing market calamity, a real estate boom that priced them out or a lover's spat that stopped a cash spigot. The lifers waddle on, rarely thinking about that one gallery, you remember it, right? But even the lifers pause when they realize that the path they have been walking on is a circle, stuck on the same level they were on the day they got that first listing in the art gallery guide.
So it takes a lifer to last and it takes luck to ever move up the food chain. You just can't eat a fish bigger than you but you can get bigger by nibbling on the corpse of that dead whale - just never be too too close when that bigger fish knows it is dying and is taking those last flailing bites. It is dangerous to be too little around anything big and desperate.
Once a little luck lands your way and you feast at the feeding frenzy that is a proper downsizing (proper when you survived, tragedy when you closed) there will be scant rewards, but you may as well enjoy them. The biggest reward to moving up is to meet all the people in the art world that would be at that one gallery if it was still open... but instead they are at your gallery, because that one gallery is closed. And if you are doing it right at your gallery it is forgotten. The artists come and go, the press comes and goes and the money comes and goes, but their forgetting is one of the two rewards of lasting and the only other reward to lasting is that nobody will ever stand in your gallery and ask you if you remember that one gallery and be referring to you.
|Monday, January 18th, 2016|
I had an uber driver today who was a rabbi. I knew it was going to be a unique ride because when the app announced the driver it was my very first "Shmuel". I've had lots of Hectors and a few Fernandos and plenty of Brandons but this was a unique name among the roster. He also drives Lyft. It took a few miles for him to reveal his other job, not Lyft, Rabbi-ing. He dressed the part - long beard, hat, keychain with an indeterminate (by this Catholic boy) Hebrew letter on it.
Why app-driving? Well, he is young and unmarried. He is not doing this to find a bride, but rather doing this until he does so. His mission seemed to be to just impart his truths and wisdom on riders and receive from them as much growth as might come in a conversation. He explained a few basics in our forty minute drive. Yes, Jews are the chosen people, as reported. Why is this? Well, their souls were carved from G-d's throne if I understood him properly. I was in a good mood and was not challenging things. So you see when you are this close to G-d, you can confidently spread the light of his wisdom to everyone, not by conversion but rather by deeds, acts and examples.
I asked him if Bob Dylan was a rabbi. Short version of his detailed answer was "not exactly" and more like Bob was a "Good Jew" enlightening humanity, as spreading the light is basically what Jews were put on earth to do - and according to him, we ALL benefit. He seemed quite pleased to learn from me that Leonard Cohen, whom he correctly recognized as the author of "Halleluiah
", uses the slash line spelling for G-d in his printed lyrics.
I didn't bring up touchy stuff with him because one, I am not going to be tacky in person, I do that in print enough with a purpose, there is no purpose in agitating what is basically a business transaction with a social possibility. "Why not make the most of it?" is my attitude with every driver. He was using waze but traffic was light and we took quite a simple route home from my meeting in Santa Monica.
He was an intelligent guy (I say this for those who might assume that those with convicted leaps of faith are somehow ignorant or obtuse, the very stance of that assumption being as or more obtuse than the simple faith held by many)
and fretted for the world, for the future of the world, of civilization, of culture. I hold similar views but while he frets, I just kinda don't give a fuck. When I am around young people I don't play the dystopic doom and gloom boomer game of predicting the world ending the day my generation dies. That is pretty much my only policy of imparting "hope" to people who will be here after I'm gone. So many atheists I know have a pet cause that drives them with a religious fervor and when questioned about why they recycle or protest or donate they talk of future generations benefitting from a world they helped create. Anything that you work toward that takes place after your death is "life after death" which is also known as religion.
So instead of me mimicking religion and partaking in an "act" that somehow has a domino effect of helping a billion unborn souls live in lusher vegetation with fresher air, I say why not impart hope upon those very souls who will be breathing after my last breath. Point out that the world is a good place and that the chaos you read in the news and the tension you feel in the street is temporary yet will always be there. The day they solve the current headline crisis there will be another to take its place... and yet things will get better. And if that is a lapsed Catholic carrying the light of G-d's wisdom to elevate all of the world, or even some of it, well then maybe I am a good Jew at heart.
I told the rabbi about the funerals of Bob and Murray and Sue. The three Jewish funerals I have been to. Each one talked about the deceased, centered on the deceased. In Catholicism a funeral is where they just have a typical mass and there happens to be a box in the aisle at the altar. Murray Schiff was a painter and I let out tears when the rabbi at Murray's funeral said "He was not a religious Jew, he was not an observant Jew but he was a CULTURAL
Jew and that might be a higher calling, none of us can say, but we can
therefore say that Murray was a good Jew." I cried in my pew there (apologies if they don't call it a pew, if it walks like a pew and talks like a pew, this Catholic Boy will have to call it a pew)
. Crying for Murray and also thinking that everything my brain had been programmed with in Catholicism was basically "Fuck you if you don't go to church on Sunday, the box at the foot of the altar during just another mass that doesn't concern you is all you are, from dust you came and to dust you shall return". There was no way a priest would ever acknowledge that the deceased pursuing painting instead of going to church was, at least rhetorically, a possibly better way to have spent his or her life.
But I didn't pester the Rabbi with my reality, I wanted to know what drove him as he drove me. We're all just working out what to do before we die and some of us have hallucinations of what happens after we die and we all live with that ticking clock and base our lives on books or recycling or telling kids they are not going to die from global warming the day the last baby boomer croaks.
Five Stars, Rabbi.
|Monday, December 28th, 2015|
|Ellsworth Kelly, Vampire Slayer
Ellsworth Kelly posing at his Gemini GEL opening, August, 2001.
Ellsworth Kelly died Sunday. His death came just a few days short of making it to 2016 but the math will be accurate when you look at the dates on the museum placard next to his painting. His unique, groundbreaking art is owned by almost every art museum of significance in the world. He made radical simplicity a monumental endeavor.
I was a big fan of Kelly’s work for years right up until the moment I detested his ouvre. His peaceful outlines of space and saturated hues were blissful until they became the checklist-checking wall-filler asserting that a collection was "historically thorough" in whatever McMuseum one would find them in. It was once exciting to turn a corner and see a shape’s simplicity sing with pure color. It became a shrug to pass yet another one on the way to reading a wall label of something that didn’t readily announce its presence with a sigh.
This is not a case of the jadeds, either. The work of his from the early 1960s that would mix colors with each other always seemed fresh; there was one at the new Broad Museum I saw a few months ago that reminded me of the heights Kelly reached. But the over production of his goddamn shapes and more shapes, filled in with Hoboken housewife designer colorshades just reverse-multiplied his legacy into a less prestigious place - a great one should really know that the ugliness of commerce stains things. Great work strangled into mediocre repetitiveness by the market and the international curatorial tug of overproduction that turns every great presentation of simplicity into simpleminded one-percenter wall decor.
But I had a soft spot for anyone who changed the way art could be perceived and was excited to go to an otherwise rubberstamped show of his when a friend assured me Kelly would be present at an opening of his prints at the Gemini Gallery on Santa Monica Boulevard in 2001. Of course prints on paper were the most offensive commercial venture in all of it. The man’s strength was in delivering subtlety in scale – an almost impossible thing to accomplish – bombast and serenity, the visual art equivalent of the Marshall Plan, a good big thing. When the framed shapes were shrunk down to paper all the impact of their delicate color was sucked away as if a leech had been attached to the once great notion of this artist’s eye.
The reception that afternoon was crowded and there was the master standing in attendance, smiling as he greeted well-wishers. I had taken the liberty of dressing for the occasion by wearing a kitschy teeshirt with an old Saturday Evening Post
cover illustrated by Norman Rockwell. What artists of Kelly’s generation did in eviscerating the maudlin, sentimental patriotism of Rockwell that coated the visual culture of the United States in a sticky-sweet ooze from sea to shining sea well into the 1960s is a triumph which is lost on the world today. And Kelly was one of the most extreme in the field, perhaps the most extreme visual artist this side of Barnett Newman and Agnes Martin in his use of reduction without elimination as a way of finding (and more importantly delivering)
a painting’s essence and its essence alone. The tidal wave of possibilities that radical American art delivered basically drowned the beach head established by the post-Ashcan domination of Rockwell et al. It was an obliteration of Americana that mirrored changes in the larger culture. It really was a war and Ellsworth Kelly really won it. He won the war of what art should look like.
So I made sure to wear that shirt to the opening just to see if it would set the old guy off. He was talking to an acquaintance and I asked if I could take their picture. He was smiling and complying when he noticed the shirt and he wasn’t having it. “I’m gonna smile for your picture and then I’m going to tell you why that shirt of yours has to go!” I clicked the camera and acted dumb. Kelly schooled me, he told me that art like Rockwell’s was what had been wrong with America, that Rockwell was a jingoist and that his art bred conformity and that conformity bred fascism. He was animated and serious, detailed and not smiling any longer. Much more than I had bargained for. He told me he did not have any more time for me and walked away. A half hour later he saw me and was incredulous “You’re still here? Can’t you take a hint?” and again he just walked away. I wasn’t offered a defense in his home court. But later as I was making my way to the door he smiled and said “I hope you dress better the next time I see you”. It was a peace offering from the top. The shirt went to Goodwill less than a year later.
I look at the date on the photo and it is 8-11-01... a month before the world changed forever, a month before the type of blissful freedom Kelly manifested in his work went up in smoke forever. The last month of America and its poet of purity was as feisty as ever.
I was at dinner with friends tonight when someone brought up the news of Kelly’s passing. I told this story and Carol Diehl, who lived near Kelly, pointed out that the artist lived quite close to the newish multimillion dollar Norman Rockwell museum in upstate New York. That must have gnawed at his craw, putting the stake through the heart of the American Empire in his prime only to see the vampire blink and rise so many years later. What if Kelly was the other side of the same coin though? America seen as a faceless, soulless corporate oligarchy decorated with meditations on the simplest forms and fascinating colors in order to never deal with the world it impacted. Pair that with Rockwell’s cloying narratives sermonizing about the character expected of a people in a nation where the leaders do not share their basic values. The two of them, Kelly and Rockwell, enemies yet neighbors, vampire and vampire-slayer, antithetical Americans reflecting the strides and the strife of the country. Old Ellsworth would hate being mentioned in the same breath as Norman, but you can bet Rockwell would share the disfavor and turn over in his grave even a little bit more.