The American Sublime
Living and Dying as an Artist
When I hold these essays in my hand I can feel the heat rising off themthe intense, baked terra-cotta heat of longing and desire, or the headachy, sobbing heat of grief writhing on the mattress, pounding it like a defeated wrestler. And I can feel the simple, blunt fact of the heat of human presenceof eyelashes brushing the pillowcase, of breath held, heart bursting, of another head on the pillow, drinking it all in, a bit stunned by such voluminous and cruel information but observant nonetheless, memorizing the moment.
Longing, grieving, observingthese are three gerunds that imply an object. Whom are you longing or grieving for? Whom are you observing? For these are essays devoted to another person now dead, once loved and admired and necessary and now painfully missed but partially forgotten.
In some cases the writer nearly effaces himself or herself and turns a bright, objective light on the dead subject (John Berendt on the landscape architect Bruce Kelly for instance); the tribute here is research and reportage, lucidity itself, held up like a clear pane through which the accomplishments of the young artist can be seenwithout distortion or occlusion, virtually unmediated by another temperament. The very professionalism of such an essay is an offering to a life cut short.
In other cases (Alexander Chee on the painter Peter Kelloran, say, or Ramsey McPhillips on photographer Mark Morrisroe), therelationship was intensely personal and cannot be deferred or distanced. In both instances the writer of the essay was young, susceptible, and in love with the subject as soon as they met; and, as we can see, a love affair that is still alive, ongoing, and tender (as an injury is said to be tender) contains conflicts as well as resolutions, hidden wounds as well as open celebrations. The story has not come to a peaceful end. It's apparent that Alex Chee is still in love with Kelloran's blue hair and weathered leather jacket, just as McPhillips's memories of Mark Morrisroe's bum leg and strident claims to be the son of the Boston Strangler go on existing in a medium undefined by time.
Most of these memoirs, however, are about a specific time, one that Benjamin Taylor calls "the sunlit late seventies." Many of the subjects in this volume were different from the people one meets now. They were eccentrics, sometimes geniuses, who believed in immortality more than public relations, in quality hard won more than a lucky hit, in originality rather than reruns, re-treads, sampling, and "appropriations." They were young men who were intensely serious about their art, whether it was poetry, film, painting, puppetry, or dance. They'd come of age, for the most part, after Stonewall and took their homosexuality in stride if not for granted. Sometimes it was the central theme of their work, although sometimes it was peripheral. But what they did not deny was desire itselfincorrect, irrepressible, anarchic: artesian.
I suppose we should never forget that the one social milieu that was open to the homosexual in the period before Stonewall was the bohemianand this acceptance defined much of subsequent gay artistic history. The whole idea of making artof setting up shop in workaday America and declaring oneself an artistwas as unthinkable to most Americans of that epoch as was sexual dissidence. In the 1950s (I'm speaking of the generation that preceded the subjects of these essays), American poets and painters had to break with society before they could begin to do their work. This radical break with convention, this deliberate choice of the status of outsider, was also a break with America's two most venerable activitiesgetting and spending. Most artists were poor, but at least there was a tradition then of honorable poverty amongst artists and intellectuals.
Not for a moment do I want to play down the homophobia of the New York Action Painters, who were mostly male and hoped to prove they could be as macho as the most red-blooded American manat a time when practicing an art was still considered effeminate in the States. But that homophobia was specific to New York (two of the leading Bay Area figurative painters, Paul Wonner and Theophilus Brown, had become lovers and open about it by 1960). And in any case the next generation, the one that included Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Rauschenberg, was primarily gay, though none of them advertised it and some went to considerable lengths to conceal it.
Moreover, the Beats were extraordinarily gay-friendly. Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were fearless about their homosexuality, and Jack Kerouac could be had. Ginsberg harked back to the manly, democratic queerness propounded by Whitman. The Beats consoled themselves for their years of poverty, obscurity, and freakishness by comparing themselves constantly to Blake and the romantics (just as Blake had compared his contemporary Henry Fuseli to Michelangelo). The Beats also aligned themselves with Buddhism, which seemed to confuse all distinctions in an exotic nihilism.
In the 1950s I attended a strict, English-style boarding school that, luckily for me, was just across the street from an art academy for college-age and postgraduate students. Although it was against my school's rules, I constantly slipped across the street in the late afternoon and visited the studios and even dorm rooms of the painters, weavers, sculptors, and stained-glass makers. They liked me because I was arty and a bit desperate for their approval. I quickly learned not to chatter while looking at their canvases but to stare and grunt knowinglyor to say nothing. With them I'd listen to Indian ragas, American folk music, Bach, and Scarlatti. We'd drink espresso and even rotgut wine, they'd show me reproductions of the latest de Koonings or Klines, and they'd even lend me English translations of Jung or The Songs of Maldoror.
I never got laid at the academy, but I felt that out of all these men wearing their hair long, their trousers paint-stained, arrayed with bits of Indian finery and round, black glasses such as those Le Corbusier wore, one of them might just put out one day. No one had a viable defense of homosexuality back then, and all those artists respected Freud and Jung, but if psychiatry wasn't invoked they would take a neutral, let's-not-be-uncool stance toward homosexuality. They never talked about women as objects, domestic or sexual, and seemed alive to the individuality of their friendseveryone, that is, who wasn't a square or a member of the detested bourgeoisie.
In the 1970s a new gay bohemianism appeared, though it wasn't called by that label; it is this bohemianism that is half-glimpsed in several essays in this collection. This movement sprang up in New York and San Francisco, the two cities where most of our subjects lived or ended up. This milieu was compounded out of the Beat and hippie movements, out of cool, jazzloving, heroin-shooting New Yorkishness, out of the new gay liberation movement and the New Left in general. Like their predecessors, these gay artists thought that living differently was a condition for making artliving wildly, wickedly using drugs, dressing bizarrely embracing poverty, substituting day for night. And many of them considered promiscuity a given, one of the continuing adventures necessary for stimulating, even lacerating, the imagination. "We have become the people our parents warned us about," was a popular slogan of the day. Of course my highly colored description would have struck the participants as ludicrous, since their verbal style was cool, ironic, jokey.
Perhaps in Europe, at least Catholic Europe, few artists would have felt they had to reject conventionality in order to make art. For them, high culture wasand isall too annoyingly an ornament of the grande bourgeoisie, the smug expression of what Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian novelist, contemptuously called the Old Masters and located in hateful Salzburg. Art was a national industry in most European countries, not a weird act of rebellion as in America. Artists were acceptable figures in the European city, whereas in the States an acceptable artist was only a best-seller or a box office hit. In America only money in other words, could redeem such a bizarre personage. Although American bohemians might look for heroes toward a largely imaginary Europe (the nineteenth-century Europe that had created bohemianism), they would have been surprised to see, for instance, a certain group portrait of the French surrealistsclean-shaven and wearing coats and ties, resembling brokers more than explorers of the unconscious.
I just want to underline what so many of these essays allude toBrad Gooch on Howard Brookner, Philip Yenawine on David Wojnarowicz, Sarah Schulman on David Feinberg and Stan Leventhal, Randall Kenan on John C. Russell, Ramsey McPhillips on Mark Morrisroe, Felice Picano on Robert Ferro and Michael Grumleythat for the generation of gay artists of the seventies and early eighties, the old bohemian ideal was still going strong, a spirit that seems to have vanished from the world for good now. As Gooch points out, someone of his generation would have felt bad if he hadn't recognized the music of Busoni; today a sophisticate rejects a boyfriend for not having seen all of the episodes of Rhoda.
The subjects of many of these essays united in their work and lives high and low culture (John C. Russell's plays blurred "the boundaries between Roland Barthes and Tiger Beat magazine, between Peter Brook and Entertainment Tonight") and fused mainstream ambitions with subculture strangeness (Scott Burton's chairs were shown in major museums all over the world, but he and his lover John were covered with tattoos and piercings, and Scott could be spotted wearing either Savile Row suits or S/M grunge). Joe Brainard, as Keith McDermott explains, was generous to the point of saintlinessa serious eccentricity in a society that worships greed and encourages selfishness. David Feinberg, Sarah Schulman writes, wrote carefully structured novels such as Eighty-Sixed, but he thought nothing of giving a "dying party" during which he had the bad taste nearly to die in front of casually socializing friends.
Of the people mentioned in this book, I knew Bruce Kelly Joe Brainard, Howard Brookner, James Merrill, Henry Post, Maurice Grosser, Harry Kondoleon, John C. Russell (a student of mine), Paul Monette, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Scott Burton, Warren Sonbert, and Stan Leventhal. I suppose it's a sign of how small the gay arts scene was that I met so many of these men. Also, it may reflect on how many years I lived in New York (from 1962 to 1983). All of these men (except Merrill) went to the bars and could be cruised or chatted up. I had a brief affair with Joe Brainard before Keith did (and Keith and I lived together for several years). Robert Ferro and Michael Grumley were members of a writers' club I belonged to. One of my ex's, Chris Cox, hung out with Brad Gooch and Howard Brookner after I moved to Paris in 1983. Howard filmed me in New York for his last movie, in which I read a chapter from Brad's novel Scary Kisses.
The history of the gay arts scene in New York and San Francisco during the seventies and eighties has yet to be written, though any history must now take into account the following essays. It was a period and a movement as vital and influential as any other artistic moment in postwar Americaand one of the few that was both a social and artistic phenomenon. It was a time of interlocking love affairs and friendships, of a slowly emerging sexual identity, a time when gay bookshops were thriving community centers (instead of declining and disappearing porn dispensers as they are at the dawn of the twenty-first century). It was a time when intellect and accomplishment were almost as prized as physical beauty, when certain hot writers, painters, and filmmakers would cause a stir when they entered a bar or gay restaurant, when gay writers didn't yet teach on remote campuses (no university wanted them), when they lived in Manhattan where they supported themselves as advertising copywriters, as gallery employees, as magazine and book editors (even editors of porn magazines), as fashion models or actorsor with welfare and unemployment benefits they'd somehow scammed. Warren Sonbert lived off grants as an avant-garde film director. They seldom came from artistic or intellectual backgrounds (dancer and choreographer Joah Lowe was the son of watermelon farmers from Henderson, Texas, and his case was in no way atypical). These gay artists were sophisticated men with their ears to the ground, alert to signal events in all the artsthe emergence of Robert Wilson's visually sumptuous "operas" or of Charles Ludlum's campy updates of classic plays (his Camille was a crucial event in New York theater history, as were Ethel Eichenberger's drag performances). Of course the gay aesthetic was not shaped just by gay art; everyone in the arts, straight or gay, was influenced by the continuing evolution of George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet (Balanchine was arguably the only undisputed genius working in New York in the second half of the twentieth century). Balanchine may have been notoriously heterosexual, but his greatest apologist, Edwin Denby, incidentally, happened to be gay.
Interior decoration, theatrical lighting, fashion, graphicsall the facets of contemporary design impinged on the gay consciousness and emanated from it. The breakdown of distinctions between the pure arts and the applied, between the seriousness of high art and the sensory blandishments (or assault) of rock music, discos, or the bathsthis breakdown had already been foreshadowed by camp in the fifties and sixties, with its confusion of genres, its enshrinement of old movies, bad actresses, and failed glamour.
The younger gay artists of the seventies and eighties had their elder statesmen. James Merrill set an unreachably high standard of excellence by integrating his own gay experience (loves and friendships) into his superbly eloquent and all-embracing poems and finally into his book-length epic, The Changing Light at Sandover. As one of the heirs to a brokerage firm he was also able to fund a foundation that made many small grants to poets and novelists, many of them gay. Richard Howarda powerhouse who'd translated dozens of books from the French, who'd written a massive critical study of forty-one contemporary poets, Alone with America, and who'd won the Pulitzer Prize for his own versewas tireless in promoting the talents of his friends, straight or gay (he arranged for my first novel to be published, for instance, and I am only one person among many he helped). Virgil Thomson, who'd lived in Paris for fifty years and written two operas with Gertrude Stein, had an apartment in the Chelsea Hotel where he entertained musicians, poets, and painters. Chris Cox worked for Virgil, arranging his archives for Yale, and through Virgil, he and I met Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, the ultimate gay artistic couple. (Virgil himself went to great lengths in public to deny his own homosexuality, which was ludicrous, since everyone was hip to him.) John Ashberywho'd won all the prizes for his enigmatic poetrywas the link between younger gay poets of the ever-growing New York School (Brad Gooch, Tim Dlugos, John Ash) and the older founding generation of such gay poets as Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler. No matter that Ashbery himself rejected the label "gay poet" as too limiting (just as Elizabeth Bishop had refused to be defined by her sexuality or even her gender).
All of these people could be met in the meltdown of gay bars or prowling the lobby of the New York State Theater or at readings at Three Lives Book Shop. Many of them formed couples, short-lived or enduring, but there was an unspoken prejudice against fidelity and domesticity, which was too close to Mama-Papa coziness to seem bohemian. And just as promiscuity is nature's way of spreading advantageous genetic mutations, by the same token the sexual and social confusion of gay artistic Manhattan or San Francisco was the quickest, surest way of maximizing contact and consolidating alliances.
This world died out with AIDS. In the late eighties magazines liked to publish full spreads of photos picturing all the talent wiped out by the disease, but what these photos didn't suggest was that a way of life had been destroyed. The experimentalism, the erotic sophistication, the prejudice against materialism, the elusive humor, the ambition to measure up to international and timeless standards, above all, the belief that art should be serious and difficultall this rich, ambiguous mixture of values and ideas evaporated. It's a world that a few novelists have tried to preserve (Felice Picano in Like People in History, Brad Gooch in The Golden Age of Promiscuity, I myself in The Farewell Symphony), but the whole period is crying out for a lively, detailed, multifaceted social history.
What has prevailed after the demise of this splendid period is a new queer Puritanismthe appearance of many gays who want to marry, to adopt, to blend in, and to become virtually suburban. In the arts an edginess, a quirkiness, even a violence has given way to stylistic blandness. Gay fiction has now become a wading pond for minor talents to dabble in; the novels often sound transcribed from the film scripts they long to become: novel as novelization, Publishers, who recognize that few gay novels can be expected to sell more than twenty thousand (or even ten thousand) copies, are now content to throw dull genre fiction out into the world and let it sinkor paddleunaided. Gay bookshops are closing down (from seventy-five two years ago to fifty now), and most of the serious gay literary publications (with the exception of the James White Review and the Gay and Lesbian Review) have stopped publishing. A tackiness, a sort of steroid-injected sex-shop conformism, has replaced the old transgressiveness of gay art.
At the movies more and more gay characters are appearing, but they are either adolescents struggling to come out or side-splitting dragsor beautiful men dying horrible AIDS deaths. In other words, in Hollywood acceptable gay characters either aren't yet gay or are holy-fool cross-dressers or are soon to be dead: pre-gay; not really gay; or soon to be no longer gay.
What isn't being shown are gay men in a gay world, people as fully expressed socially as sexually. We never see two gay friends, two gay buddies; at the cinema the gay's only function is to come out, camp it up, and die (or murder, in the case of The Talented Mr. Ripley).
The essays in this book mark a voidthe collapse of a creative world that flourished in the recent past and the end of the promise these gay artists were never able to fulfill. What if Warren Sonbert or Howard Brookner were still making movies? What if Robert Ferro (or Allen Barnett or Tim Dlugos) were still writing?
Into one essay after another in this anthology the word immortality creeps in uneasily; the idea is that all this sufferingthe poverty and public fear and contempt and the long agonies of a brief life cut short by AIDSwould be redeemed if only the artist's work would turn out to be immortal, or at least widely known right now. Four different essays mention the obituary pages of the New York Times, as though that paper were the absolute measure of fame. But was Rimbaud's name mentioned in the papers at the time of his death? Was Van Gogh's? Conversely; no one could have been more famous at the end of his life than James Gould Cozzens, but no one reads him now. Nor Giambattista Marino, the most celebrated poet of the Italian Renaissance. Nor Ivan Bunin, the Russian short story writer, who won a Nobel Prize in the 1930s but is completely; and unjustly; forgotten now.
I suppose we could ask if anyone's reputation is secure today. Was Andy Warhol the last painter whose name became a household word? (And is it any accident that he was a master of self-promotion?) Maybe more titles are published now than ever before, but this very proliferation means only that fewer and fewer copies of each title are read by everyone literate. In France and England the literary prizes are such media events that a handful of books are discussed and read by "everyone" every year, yet in America there is no comparable prestige or concentration or attention. In America we have many great writers but few great readers (France has the opposite problem).
No, America (despite its cult of celebrity) has become a country not of lasting celebrity but of ephemeral cults, enclaves, fanzines, and Web sites. We're always shocked when we discover (usually too late) neo-Aryans in our midst, the child prostitution rings, ashrams full of urine drinkers, body modification clubs, and fisting seminars, the Halley-Bopp suicide sects and S/M boot camps. The arts in America are just as fragmentedby region, even language, as well as by the fault lines of identity politics. The quintessential American moment occurs when the poet laureate of New Hampshire is introduced to the leading literary guru of Silicon Valleyand they've never heard of each other! The entire literary scene has lost its coherence. No wonder the public is confused. Immortality?
Any project that attempts to come to terms with artistic expression arising from AIDS must confront a host of questions. Is a collection of essays such as this one only serving to marginalize still further what is already a minority subject (and enterprise)? What about quality? Surely an essay by someone with AIDS or about someone who died of AIDS isn't necessarily good; as a recent discussion on this subject in France put it, "One cannot confuse the question of homosexual visibility with the question of literature." And then what about an essay that presents a point of view that strikes one as weird, or even possibly offensive?
I haven't even begun to answer these questions to my own satisfaction. I do know that I was never concerned to censor the essays as they came in. As the editor of this anthology I commissioned most of the authors, although many of them were suggested by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, which sponsored the entire project. I am especially grateful to Patrick Moore, the director, and Randall Bourscheidt, the president. They helped me on a nearly day-to-day basis.
As I read straight through the essays in this book as a totality and not in a piecemeal fashion, I am moved by the feeling and intelligence and the seriousness about bearing witness to those who have died. To my mind, at least, this is a tribute both to a vanished sense of artistic vocation and to the enduring and transforming beauty of friendship.