Leo Fitzpatrick: The Kid Stayed in the Picture

Leo Fitzpatrick owes everything to his friends. One of the first was Ryan McGinley, now a photographer whose work hangs in the Whitney, but back in the day just another skinny skater kid from Jersey hopping turnstiles with Fitzpatrick, five bucks in their back pockets for a day in the city. Two dollars for train fare; three for a meal of soda and chips or iced tea and cookies. Then Washington Square Park or Astor Place or the Brooklyn Banks, on the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge, “the oldest running, most famous New York skateboard spot,” as Fitzpatrick calls it. “I remember telling kids in my town that I’d go to New York on the weekends, and they were like, ‘What? Why would you do that?’ I’m like, ‘Why aren’t you doing that? It’s right there!’” He and McGinley were on the same wavelength. “We would be the New Jersey guys coming to New York, and New Jersey guys always get hated on, so you stick together.”

Next was the old guy who showed up on the scene one day. “Why is this fifty-year-old guy riding a skateboard and hanging out taking pictures of everybody?” Fitzpatrick remembers thinking. But when Larry Clark asked him to be in a movie called Kids, full of sex and drugs and teenage rage, Fitzpatrick said yes. In a cast that included then-unknown future stars Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, Fitzpatrick is the first person you see, his character, Telly, so hard to love that the first time Fitzpatrick met Roger Ebert, the critic confessed he wanted to slap him in the face. The 1995 cult classic would prove a thorny gift for Fitzpatrick, a high school dropout from a blue-collar home, but Telly led to other acting gigs (The Wire, My Name Is Earl), enough to keep him solvent enough to hang, anyway. His crew — rising young artists like McGinley, Dan Colen, Dash Snow, Nate Lowman, and Terrence Koh — made not just art, but headlines in the gossip pages for their late-night, drug-fueled, graffiti-tagged misadventures.

“Leo’s what I always imagine hanging with a poet would be like,” Lowman tells me. “He was always the guy without the job, the opposite of a professional.” But now, however improbable it seems, Fitzpatrick — the forever kid — has somehow magicked a life that feels grown up, as co-director at the Marlborough Contemporary Gallery in Chelsea, where his new group show, “Feedback,” has drawn critical acclaim.

“I think if I’m lucky I’ll get to be a part of New York’s history, like guys like Taylor Mead or Rene Ricard,” Fitzpatrick says. “People I grew up looking up to, who sort of walk the line — nobody really knew what they did. They just did a lot of different things and they know a lot of cool people. Guys like John Lurie. They’re not famous, but they’re legends.”

The day before the opening at the Marlborough, Fitzpatrick celebrated his fortieth birthday. He didn’t have a party, just dinner with his wife, Chrissie Miller, though given his pre-adult vibe one might have expected Chuck E. Cheese’s. He eats like a kid, pizza and Coke, and dresses like one, too. A hint of the Telly drawl lingers out of the side of his mouth. At the gallery he was clad in black Dickies, a suit for a guy who’d rather not wear a real one. “His job in the art world makes perfect sense, but at the same time it’s also hilarious,” Lowman told me. “I mean that in an admirable, astounding way. It’s impressive and kind of magical.”

Trump-channeling artist Martha Wilson and Fitzpatrick at Marlborough Contemporary

At a bar in the gallery’s front stood Martha Wilson, the seventy-year-old artist behind one of the city’s key avant-garde spaces, the Franklin Furnace. She offered guests bottles of Pacifico while wearing an acid-orange wig meant to evoke Donald Trump. A photograph of hers hung at the gallery’s rear, taken decades ago, of a boyfriend. She’d dressed him as Marcel Du-champ. The idea was to emasculate him a bit, she told me, to turn the power. The space’s two floors host more than seventy works from the past five decades, each honoring a loose theme about collaboration. A Richard Prince piece is meant as a troll, a joke the artist recorded with the sculptor Robert Gober, not for sale. On a far wall hangs a record of all the drugs Clark, the Kids director, ever took, listing some fairly staggering amounts. The animating spirit is of intimacy, a notion that’s “very Leo,” to cop a phrase Lowman used to describe his friend’s own artwork. “I do everything to impress my friends, really,” Fitzpatrick told me.

It seems to be working. “There’s something about this show that feels like the best reflection of all these years that he’s been learning and absorbing in this very quiet way,” says Colen. “He had no education. So he learned from his friends in a very systematic and direct way. It wasn’t, like, an accident.”

A real job, a wife, a baby at home. It all seems a bit like adulthood. Until recently Fitzpatrick had no health insurance, and so he used a trick his mom learned working switchboards at a hospital. “She’s the one that told me if I ever got hurt and it was an emergency to just go to the hospital and give them a fake name.” His cribbed the name of a skateboarding hero. Most injuries he fixed with superglue. Even a cut through his scalp healed that way. “You just squeeze, and squeeze,” he explained, pinching his flesh and an imaginary tube of glue. And then you skate some more. But one time he was hit by a car. He lay in the hospital for a week, under a fake name. They nearly had to amputate his leg. Every time they’d call him by his pseudonym, he’d get excited, forgetting it was meant to be his.

Leo Fitzpatrick as Telly in Larry Clark‘s 1995 film, “Kids”

Fitzpatrick loves his mom. She let him do Kids, despite the sex. Didn’t flinch when he quit school after ninth grade to skate. She’s tough: worked as a maid most of her life and raised five kids after leaving Fitzpatrick’s dad, a janitor. Both parents came to the U.S. from Ireland in their teens, but his dad was bitter about what America gave him. Still, Fitzpatrick says, his siblings turned out great.

By the time Fitzpatrick hit his twenties, McGinley was starting to make a name for himself while studying photography at the School of Visual Arts; his stoop on 7th and A became the nexus for a burgeoning crew of hotshot young artists, some born to privilege, their lives assiduously documented by way of one another’s work. Journalists loved them, comparing the scene to the heyday of Warhol’s Factory, with Snow as the group’s unofficial mascot and muse. He came from the famous de Menil clan, the first family of the American art scene, modern-day Medicis. Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, was always around, the actor in a group of artists: at Lit, where he started to DJ, and Max Fish, a bar that hosted some of his early attempts at curating. In those small shows you could see the roots of “Feedback,” to date the largest he’s ever done.

Lowman describes his friend as someone with “the least traditional education of anybody I was really close with, but the one who read the most books.” (“I hated reading,” says Fitzpatrick, “until I found the right books.”) When the two got close they were living across from each other on the Lower East Side, on Attorney Street. Lowman was “confused,” he says, “an artist trying not to be an artist.” Between acting gigs, Fitzpatrick met him for coffee, lending him poetry, a genre Lowman hadn’t read since college. Those afternoons took on the air of readings, as did the company.

Leo (11:36 PM) October 1, 2001 by Ryan McGinley

Along with Hanna Liden — another artist who used to share McGinley’s stoop — Fitzpatrick and Lowman co-founded the Home Alone gallery, first in Tribeca, then on the Lower East Side. Liden and Lowman were busy with their own art, so Fitzpatrick found himself running the operation, and enjoying it. Research, even emailing. Being wrong for the part. “I can get away with things,” he says. He’s heard that artists answer his emails because of how wrong they are, sent from a personal account with something goofy in the subject line. He likes having a role with his friends. “Before we started [Home Alone], I was just the actor in the group,” he says. “[Not] even a successful actor.”

“Ryan and I were trying to be artists, and Leo was trying to be an actor,” Colen recalls. “But he was always really fascinated by art. Always a fan.”

When he wasn’t acting, Fitzpatrick was educating himself. The late experimentalist Colin DeLand was an early mentor, co-founder of the New York Armory Show as well as the gallery American Fine Arts. “Colin had an open-door policy. He didn’t judge people,” Fitzpatrick says. Stepping into AFA, he felt comfortable being wrong. He came with another friend, Brian DeGraw, a musician in a band called Gang Gang Dance, who hung out at AFA with everyone else. “It was like small-town U.S.A. but in New York,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “A small scene within a bigger scene. Everybody was dating everybody. Everybody would go to hang at Pink Pony and Max Fish and AFA. I didn’t consider myself an AFA kind of person, even though I hung out. I was shy. I was on the outside.”

For Fitzpatrick, a guy whose identity is so bound up in his friendships, New York seems like a friend he’s starting not to know. In 2009, Snow died of a heroin overdose; in June, so did Benjamin Cho, the influential designer and DJ who “knew everyone.” Fitzpatrick’s fellow skaters and Kids co-stars Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter are long gone: Pierce took his own life in 2000, while Hunter died of a cocaine-induced heart attack in 2006. “I would say 90 percent of my friends are alcoholics and/or drug addicts,” Fitzpatrick says. “They’ve either gotten sober or passed away or something like that, but it’s weird when you realize a lot of your socializing revolved around bars and those kinds of things.”

Conversely, his East Village stomping grounds seem to be teetering on the brink of respectability — and thus demise. We pass a sign advertising cauliflower and kale, and Fitzpatrick scoffs. He lives off pizza, Coke, and cigarettes. Double-fists coffee in the morning. Sounds happy talking about the dead body he and his infant son encountered in Tompkins Square Park one morning. Food is “fuel”; no point sitting down or getting precious. “I like not having to tell them what I want,” he says of why he eats at a diner. Even in the old days, he liked to hide, DJ’ing while everyone danced. At one of his recent openings, he tended bar. But his neighborhood has started feeling foreign, with all the drunk brunch kids disturbing the peace on the weekends. He talks about moving upstate, chopping wood. “I’m not sure the city is built for longevity, as far as, like, a person’s psyche is concerned,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m relevant enough.” He shrugs.

His son is a new friend. The title of the show at the Marlborough came from a performance piece from the 1970s, by the artist Dennis Oppenheim. The photo of the performance on display at the Marlborough depicts two bodies, the artist’s and his young son Erik’s. Their backs are bare, covered only with two long, twisted lines, one apiece. They are drawing with marker on each other. Below the image comes the explanation: I originate a movement which Erik translates and returns to me. What I get is my movement fed through his sensory system. The piece is called A Feed-Back Situation. “It’s like the ultimate bonding experience you could share with your child,” Fitzpatrick says. It captures his theme, his obsession with intimacy. “It’s really kind of sentimental.”

Fitzpatrick, third from left, first gained attention as the sex-crazed Telly (far left) in Larry Clark’s Kids in 1995.

Even being antisocial is about being social. He likes being alone at the party: DJ’ing, bartending. He found that solitude young. Weed and alcohol made him more awkward around girls, so he went straight-edge for a few years. Then Kids came out and some things got worse. Telly is his inverse, driven to intimacy out of an absence of feeling. He sleeps with girls as conquests, and ruins the life of the one we’re meant to care for most, played by Sevigny. Fitzpatrick was a virgin when they shot. “I was already so awkward. Didn’t know how to talk to girls, I didn’t know anything. And then this movie made me seem like this evil guy,” he says. Having people “know and judge” him before they’d met could feel like a “handicap,” even once the emotion wore off. The judgments just changed. “Oh, this actor guy now wants to be a gallerist?” he deadpans. “Like, how cliché can you get?”

He’s too old to get on a board regularly, but he plans to buy one for his kid, probably on Canal Street. The shops near him have dried up. He tells me this matter-of-factly. If he has a religion, an imaginary friend, for hard times, it’s the one he found young. “Some people see a handrail as just a handrail,” he says. Skateboarders see it as a path, physical and metaphysical. “How do I manipulate this thing to do something cool on it? How do I take the few resources I have and do something cool?

“You look at the world differently. If I can’t go this way, how do I get there?”