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Before The Empire Strikes Back — New York City’s Lost Public Art

Is “public art” oxymoronic? Can the work of fierce individualists be embraced by the masses? Gotham yields no easy answers.

Staffers call the massive mural over 30 ROCKEFELLER PLAZA‘s reception desk the “Wailing Wall,” because its bland allegorical figures and enervated cityscape veil a clash of ideologies. In the depths of the Great Depression, John D. Rockefeller Jr. had a newly minted skyscraper to rent out. Pushed past his loathing of modern art by an aesthetically adventurous wife, the Uber-capitalist commissioned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera — who wore his Communist politics draped about him like a matador’s red cape — to paint an allegory: Man at the Crossroads. Slave to the bottom line, Junior rationalized that “[Rivera] seems to have become very popular just now and will probably be a good drawing card.” Indeed, 100 tickets were sold each day to view the master’s blossoming Technicolor illumination of humanity’s advancement through science and proletarian labor.

Then the head of a “great dead man” materialized on the wall.

It’s doubtful any preliminary studies portrayed Lenin’s visage, but since the Rockefellers already owned Rivera’s sketchbook from Russia — filled with scenes celebrating the Worker’s Paradise — this tribute should not have been a shock. Ordered to efface the outrage, Rivera refused, proposing a portrait of Lincoln as counterbalance and fatefully adding that otherwise he “should prefer the physical destruction of the conception in its entirety.” Rockefeller’s agents took the artist at his word, paid off his contract, shrouded the nearly completed fresco from view, weathered a year of free-speech protests, and finally, one midnight, had workmen chop the painted plaster off the wall. A lesser muralist shortly plugged the void.

Rivera gave the Rockefellers their money’s worth 70 years ago, but frightened by a bit of propaganda, they exchanged his masterpiece for the sepia pall that has hung over their lobby ever since. After a pleasing stroll across the Queensboro Bridge, a livelier lobby can be found in the Queensbridge housing project’s JACOB RIIS COMMUNITY CENTER, 10-25 41 st Avenue. One July afternoon, a visitor encountered kids painting posters, a piano recital attended by local seniors, and workmen refinishing a sidewalk. Over the entrance to the gymnasium, a 40-foot mural foreshadows this vibrant community: it includes scenes of a child sketching, a cellist surrounded by dancers, and a workman jackhammering con­crete. Philip Guston, who allied a deep social conscience to his fecund brush, completed this WPA project, Work and Play, in 1940. Under the minor ravages of the elements and a few blunders by a restorer — “some of the faces are sweet and syrupy; Philip’s faces had Renaissance solemnity,” says his longtime dealer David McKee — lie Guston’s bedrock themes and forms. His trash can lids, work shoes, and angular, entwined limbs soon morphed into the lush matrices and intensely modulated hues of his majestic ’50s abstractions before bursting forth, recognizable once more, in the monumental cartoon paintings of the ’70s. Unfortunately, by 1965, Work and Play was forever lost to Guston — he agonized that it looked “Terrible!” after “some commercial artist” retouched it: “I want the whole thing obliterated.” Original photos prove this an overreaction from an emotional creator. It’s just dumb luck that bureaucratic inertia preserved this wonder wall, which reveals Guston’s grounding in 15th-century frescoes while simultaneously unveiling the originality that will propel his legacy at least as far into the future.

2004 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about lost public art in New York City

Now march back to Manhattan, downtown, to community’s antithesis. Surrounded by a dark-windowed megalith abutting a squat, black courthouse, 1 FEDERAL PLAZA has all the charm of detention hall in the school basement. In 1979, the General Services Agency commissioned Richard Serra to erect one of his elegant, space-torquing metal slabs across the windswept cobblestones; two years later, he bisected the plaza with 120 feet of two-inch-thick, 12-foot-high, Cor-Ten steel. Immediately, many of the federal employees developed a Hobbesian hatred toward the rusty barrier they had to circumvent daily — it was nasty, brutish, and long, and they wanted it gone. Others, however, found Tilted Arc‘s pitched, concave side quiet and warmly enclosing; its flip side provided a seemingly infinite recessional that was profoundly American — utilitarian materials opening vistas that welded disparate forces together. Throughout years of court battles, Serra was adamant that offers of relocation meant death to his site-specific sculpture. But in 1989, the forces of aggrieved conservatism finally pulled the trigger. Like Rivera’s mural, Tilted Arc was destroyed under cover of night, 72 tons of scrap hauled to a government motor pool in Brooklyn. It had been given barely eight years — an eyeblink for radical art — to gain wider public appreciation. Today you’ll find curlicue formations of lime-green benches set in purple concrete. We all paid for, and got, a penetrating work of art; many tax dollars later, we’re left with an abandoned Barney set.

So lastly, trudge up to 101 SPRING STREET, the cast-iron home of the Judd Foundation, partially obscured under weary scaffolding. In one corner of this minimalist shrine, which is practically lost amid Soho’s frenzied mercantile bustle, stands a slight but monumentally engaging sculpture. Using no glue or pins but only the inexorable grasp of gravity, Carl Andre has stacked eight salvaged bricks on edge, exposing the brand name embossed on their faces: EMPIRE. Patina’d with crusty mortar and paint, they teeter precariously, verging on collapse since the work’s 1986 inception. Christened Manifest Destiny — a mordant title under Reagan, now made truly scary through W’s cowboy antics — the pitted red clay and worn inscriptions are reminiscent of the exhumed detritus of many an overreaching empire.

Quick — catch it before it falls.  ❖

 

2004 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about lost public art in New York City

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Prison Memoirs: The New York Women’s House of Detention

On October 13, 1970, the FBI ar­rested Angela Davis on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder stemming from her alleged role in the Mann County courthouse shootout. Before being extradited to California — where she was subsequently acquitted of all the charges — Ms. Davis was imprisoned for nine weeks in New York’s Women’s House of Detention. The following excerpts from her forth­coming autobiography describe some of her experiences in the city’s prison.

When the wailing of the sirens tapered off and the caravan began to slow down, I realized that I was somewhere in Greenwich Village. As the car turned into a dark driveway, a corrugated aluminum door began to rise and once again, crowds of photographers with flashing lights jumped out of the shadows. The red brick wall surrounding this tall ar­chaic structure looked very familiar, but it took me a few moments to locate in my memory. Of course; it was the mysterious place I had seen so often during the years I attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, not too far from there. It was the New York Women’s House of Detention, which stood there at the main intersection in the Village, at Greenwich and Sixth avenues.

While the car was rolling into the prisoners’ entrance, a flock of mem­ories fought for my attention. Walk­ing to the subway station after school, I used to look up at this building almost every day, trying not to listen to the terrible noises spilling from the windows. They were coming from the women locked behind bars, looking down on the people passing in the streets, and screaming incomprehensible words.

At age fifteen I accepted some of the myths surrounding prisoners. I did not see them as quite the crimi­nals society said they were, but they did seem aliens in the world I inha­bited. I never knew what to do when I saw the outlines of women’s heads through the almost opaque windows of the jail. I could never understand what they were saying — whether they were crying out for help, whether they were calling for some­one in particular, or whether they simply wanted to talk to anyone who was “free.” My mind was now filled with the specters of those faceless women whom I had not answered. Would I scream out at the people passing in the streets, only to have them pretend not to hear me as I once pretended not to hear those women?

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The women did not even notice that a new prisoner had been thrown in with them. Except for the woman who continued to pace, they each found places at the table in the day room and sat separate from one another, as if there were a mutual agreement that they would all re­frain from invading the others’ turf.

Later I learned that these women received Thorazine with their meals each day and, even if they were completely sane, the tranquilizers would always make them uncommu­nicative and detached from their surroundings. After a few hours of watching them gaze silently into space, I felt as though I had been thrown into a nightmare.

I had loudly protested being kept in 4b (the mental ward) from the very first day. I didn’t belong there — or had I been judged a mental case? The officer said I had been placed in 4b not because I was psychologically unsound, but for my own safety and to keep me from disrupting the life of the jail. I was not persuaded. At last the call came announcing the arrival of the lawyers. Going to meet them was my first opportunity to walk through any part of the jail at a normal hour — when the prisoners were not locked in or sleeping.

When the iron door was opened, sounds peculiar to jails and prisons poured into my ears — the screams, the metallic clanging, officers’ keys clinking. Some of the women noticed me and smiled warmly or threw up their fists in gestures of solidarity. The elevator stopped on the third floor, where the commissary was located. The women who were wait­ing for the elevator recognized me and told me in a cordial, sisterly way, their words sometimes reinforced with their fists, that they were on my side. These were the “dangerous women” who might attack me because they didn’t like “Communists,” had I not been hidden away in 4b.

Regardless of why the women in 4b had been placed there, they were all being horribly damaged. Whatever problems they had had initially were not solved, but rather systematically aggravated. I could see the erosion of their will taking place even during the short time I spent there.

In the cell next to me lived a white woman somewhere between thirty and forty-five years old who had lost all contact with reality. Each night before she fell asleep the cell-bloc shook with her screams. Sometimes her rantings and ravings filled the air long after midnight. Her vile language, her weird imagery be-speckled with the most vulgar kind or racial epithets made me so angry that it was all I could do to prevent myself from trying to break through the steel and concrete that separated her cell from mine. I was convinced that she had been placed there inten­tionally as a part of the jailers’ efforts to break me.

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When I saw this pitiful figure the next morning, it was clear that her sickness was so far advanced — some stage of schizophrenia — that she was beyond the reach of argument. Her illness had become a convenient ve­hicle for the expression of the racism which had grown like maggots in her unconscious. Each night, and even morning before breakfast came, she went through a prolonged ritual which took the form of a violent argument with some invisible figure in her cell. More often than not, this figure would be a Black man, and he would be attacking her with a kind of sexual perversity which would have been inconceivable had not her own verbal imagery been so vivid. She would purge this figure from her cell with a series of incantations. When her imagined attacker assumed some other position, it brought about a corresponding change in her incantations.

One morning in the day room, Barbara, the young Black woman from the cell directly across from mine, broke her habitual silence to tell me she had refused her daily dose of Thorazine. It was very sim­ple: she was tired of feeling like a vegetable all the time. She was going to resist the Thorazine and was going to get out of 4b. She knew about my own attempts to get out, and if we were both transferred she said she would like very much to be my “cellie” in the main population.

In the cell next to Barbara’s was a very young white woman who ap­peared to receive larger doses of Thorazine than any of the others. One day when she was not so spaced out, she wanted to know if I could help her with her case. (She was back from court and evidently had not been drugged so she would look more or less normal for the judge.) When I asked her about her charges, tears streamed down her face as she said repeatedly, “I could never do anything like that. I couldn’t kill my own baby.”

She didn’t understand where she was and had no comprehension whatever of the judicial system. Who were her friends, she wanted me to tell her, and who were the ones who wanted to put her away? She had been afraid to talk to her lawyer, for fear he would tell the judge. Now she was thoroughly crushed because a doctor who had sworn himself to secrecy had just taken the stand and divulged everything she had told him. All she wanted now was just a little Thorazine. She wanted to get away, forget, get high.

Perhaps the most tragic or them all was Sandra — the teenager charged with arson. She was one of the women who had been in the receiving room the night I was ar­rested. I had noticed then that her hair was coming out in patches and had assumed that she had ringworm. My first day in 4b, she came out of the cell for meals. The second day, she ignored the key unlocking her cell gate at mealtimes. She silently and systematically pulled her hair out by the roots. From that day on, whenever I saw her, she was sitting quietly on her bed, yanking her hair by the handful. By the time I left, she was as thin as a wishbone, and all that was left of her natural was a few clumps of hair on one side of her pitiful hairless head.

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A little more than a week had passed when the warden informed Margaret (Margaret Burnham, one of Ms. Davis’ lawyers) that I was to be moved. Sure enough, the very next day I was told that I was about to be transferred to another part of the jail. I protested being bounced back and forth like a Ping Pong ball; but actually I didn’t mind the move, thinking that I was going into the regular population. I had no idea that my longing for some degree of seclu­sion was about to be overfulfilled. The main population I thought I was ­about to enter turned out to be a hurriedly improvised special isolation room separated from all the corridors on the sixth floor.

I decided to dramatize the situation by declaring myself on a hunger ­strike for as long as I was kept in isolation — I would hold my own on this side of the walls while things got rolling on the other side. Through the grapevine I learned that there were women all over the jail who were carrying out a hunger strike in sympathy with mine.

On the tenth day of the hunger strike, at a time when I had per­suaded myself that I could continue indefinitely without eating, the Federal Court handed down a ruling enjoining the jail administration from holding me any longer in isolation and under maximum security conditions. They had decided — under pressure, of course — that this unwarranted punishment was meted out to me because of my political beliefs and affiliation.

There was little time to learn my way about (the main part of the prison) before all the cell gates were locked, but some of my neighbors gave me a guided tour of my 8 foot by 5 foot cell. Because mine was the corner cell — the one which could be easily spied on from the officer’s desk in the main hallway — it was also the smallest one on the corridor; the double bunk made it appear even smaller. The fixtures — the bed, the tiny sink, the toilet — were all ar­ranged in a straight line, leaving no more than a width of two feet of floor at any point in the cell.

The sisters helped me improvise a curtain in front of the toilet and sink so they could not be seen from the corridor. They showed me how to use newspaper wrapped in scrap cloth to make a seat cover so the toilet could be turned into a chair to be used at the iron table that folded down from the wall in front of it. I laughed out loud at the thought of doing all my writing while sitting on the toilet stool.

Lock-in time was approaching; a sister remembered that she had forgotten to warn me about one of the dangers of night life in the House of D. “‘Mickey’ will be trying to get into your cell tonight,” she said, and I would have to take precautionary steps to “keep him out.” “Mickey?” Was there some man­iac the jailers let loose at night to pester the women?

The sister laughingly told me she was referring to the mice which scampered about in the darkness of the corridors looking for cell doors not securely stuffed with newspa­pers.

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It became a nightly ritual: placing meticulously folded newspapers in the little space between the gate and the floor and halfway up the gate along the wall. Despite the preven­tive measures we took, Mickey could always chew through the barricade in at least one cell, and we were often awakened by the shouts of a woman calling the officer to get the mouse out. One night Mickey joined me in the top bunk. When I felt him crawling around my neck, I brushed him away thinking that it was roaches. When I finally realized what it was, I called for the broom — our only weapon against him. Apparently mousetraps were too expensive, and they were not going to exterminate.

Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo­ obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other. In response, imprisoned men and women will invent and continually invoke various and sundry defenses. Consequently, two layers of existence can be encountered within almost every jail or prison. The first layer consists of the routines and behavior prescribed by the governing penal hierarchy. The second layer is the prisoner culture itself: the rules and standards of behavior that come from and are defined by the captives in order to shield themselves from the open or covert terror designed to break their spirits.

In an elemental way, this culture is one of resistance, but a resistance of desperation. It is, therefore, incapable of striking a significant blow against the system. All its elements are based on an assumption that the prison system will continue to survive. Precisely for this reason, the system does not move to crush it. (In fact, it sometimes happens that there is an under-the-table encouragement of the prisoners’ subculture.) I was continually astonished by the infinite details of the social regions which the women in the House of Detention considered their exclusive domain. This culture was contemptuously closed to the keepers. I sometimes wandered innocently through the doors and found myself thoroughly disoriented. A telling example happened on my second day in population. A sister asked me, “What did you think of my grandfather? He said he saw you this morning.” I was sure I had misheard her question, but when she repeated it, I told her she must be mistaken, because I had no idea who her grandfather was. Besides, I hadn’t had any visitors that day. But the joke was on me. I was in a foreign country and hadn’t learned the language. I discovered from her that a woman prisoner who had come by my cell earlier in the day was the “grandfather” to whom she was referring. Because she didn’t seem eager to answer any questions, I contained my curiosity until I found someone who could explain to me what the hell was going on.

A woman a few cells down gave me a fascinating description of a whole system through which the women could adopt their jail friends as relatives. I was bewildered and awed by the way in which the vast majority of the jail population had neatly organized itself into genera­tions of families: mothers/wives, fathers/husbands, sons and daughters, even aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. The family sys­tem served as a defense against the fact of being no more than a number. It humanized the environment and allowed an identification with others within a familiar framework.

In spite of its strong element of escapism and fantasy, the family system could solve certain immedi­ate problems. Family duties and responsibilities were a way in which sharing was institutionalized. Pa­rents were expected to provide for their children, particularly the young ones, if they could not afford “luxury items” from commissary.

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Like filial relationships outside, some sons and daughters had, or developed, ulterior motives. Quite a few of them joined certain families because the material benefits were greater there.

What struck me most about this family system was the homosexua­lity at its core. But while there was certainly an overabundance of ho­mosexual relationships within this improvised kinship structure, it was nevertheless not closed to “straight” women. There were straight daugh­ters and husbandless, i.e., straight, mothers.

Since the majority of the prisoners seemed to be at least casually in­volved in the family structure, there had to be a great number of lesbians throughout the jail. Homosexuality is bound to occur on a relatively large scale in any place of sexually segregated confinement. I knew this before I was arrested. I was not prepared, however, for the shock of seeing it so thoroughly entrenched in jail life. There were the masculine and feminine role-playing women: the former, the butches, were called “he.” During the entire six weeks I spent on the seventh floor, I could not bring myself to refer to any woman with a masculine pronoun, although some of them, if they hadn’t been wearing the mandatory dresses, would never have been taken for women.

Many or them — both the butches and the femmes — had obviously decided to take up homosexuality during their jail terms in order to make that time a little more exciting, in order to forget the squalor and degradation around them. When they returned to the streets they would rejoin their men and quickly forget their jail husbands and wives.

An important part of the family system was the marriages. Some of them were extremely elaborate — with invitations, a formal ceremony, and some third person acting as the “minister.” The “bride” would prepare for the occasion as if for a real wedding.

With all the marriages, the seeking or trysting places, the scheming which went on by one woman to catch another, the conflicts and jea­lousies — with all this — homosexua­lity emerged as one of the centers around which life in the House of Detention revolved. Certainly, it was a way to counteract some of the pain of jail life; but objectively, it served to perpetuate all the bad things about the House of Detention. “The Gay Life” was all-consuming; it prevent­ed many of the women from devel­oping their personal dissatisfaction with the conditions around them into a political dissatisfaction, because the homosexual fantasy life provided an easy and attractive channel for escape.

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On a cold Sunday afternoon a massive demonstration took place down on Greenwich Avenue. It was spearheaded by the bail fund coali­tion and the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis. So enthusiastic was the crowd that we felt compelled to organize some kind of reciprocal display of strength. We got together in our corridor, deciding on the slogans we would shout and how to make them come out in unison — even though we were going to be spread down the corridor in different cells, screaming from different windows. I had never dreamed that such powerful feeling of pride and confidence could develop among the sisters in this jail.

Chants thundered on the outside: “One, two, three, four, the House of D. has got to go!” “Free our Sisters. Free Ourselves,” and other political chants that were popular at the time. After a while, we decided to try out our chants. It was far easier for us to be heard through the windows by the people outside than it was for us to be heard by ourselves, separated as we were by the thick concrete walls dividing the cells. Although our slogans may not have been transmitted in the most harmonious style, we managed to get our message across: “Free the Soledad Brothers,” “Free Erika,” “Free Bobby,” “Long Live Jonathan Jackson.”

While the chants of “Free Angela” filled me with excitement, I was concerned that an overabundance of such chants might set me apart from the rest or my sisters. I shouted one by one the names of all the sisters on the floor participating in the demon­stration. “Free Vernell! Free Helen! Free Amy! Free Joann! Free Laura! Free Minnie!” I was hoarse for the next week.

As the demonstration moved into full swing, an officer unlocked the gate to our corridor and shouted to us to stop all the noise. We refused. They sent a captain to try to halt the demonstration. She approached me in my cell to say there would be sanctions for all of us if we did not calm down. Our exchange was heat­ed. Within a matter of minutes, a confrontation had brewed. Shouts began to come from across the hall — the sisters in the next corridor had decided to join. There was noth­ing this captain could do to make us acquiesce; every word she uttered kindled our combativeness. The more militant we became, the less confident she became, and finally she left the corridor in defeat.

As long as there were demonstra­tors outside, we continued our chants. Even after they left, the floor was throbbing with excitement. We were proud of the staunch position we had taken vis-a-vis the bureau­cracy. In this atmosphere of triumph, it was a cruel letdown for us to discover that the Supreme Court in Washington had just denied our appeal, and that I would soon be extradited to California.

That night, still hot with the ardor of the demonstration, locked up in the darkness of their cells, the women staged a spontaneous de­monstration of support. “One, two, three, four. We won’t let Angela go!’ Five, six, seven, eight. We won’t let them through the gate!” Shoes were banging on the cell bars; chants grew louder. An officer tried meekly to calm them down but had no success. A very vocal sister who was in one of the adolescent corridors was told to keep it quiet, but when she refused and all the sisters came vociferously to her aid, the officers hit her, knowing that all we could do was scream. They dragged her away to 4a — the punitive isolation unit. Frustrated by our inability to help her, we called out threats and beat even more loudly on the bars of our cells.

Someone noticed a sympathetic-looking white couple on Greenwich Avenue staring up in wonderment at the building, which was shaking with the clamor of protests from our floor. We called down to them that a sister had just been beaten and was proba­bly being put through the third de­gree down in the hole. We were bold that evening. We shouted out loud and clear the names and ranks of the officers who had pulled her from her cell. We asked the couple to call the underground press and as many Left organizations as they could to let them know that we were expecting an even more severe crackdown. (I later discovered that they had spent the evening contacting everyone they felt could help us.)

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With the receptionist on one side and the librarian on the other, I walked slowly through the prisoners’ gate onto the cold cobblestones of the courtyard. My anger gave way to pangs of regret at having to leave behind all my friends locked up in that filth. Vernell … Would they drop that phony murder charge? Helen … Would she go home? Amy … so old, so warm … What would happen to her? Pat … Would she write her book exposing the House of D.? And the organizing for the bail fund … Would it continue? Harriet … So committed to the struggle — would they continue to try to break her will?

The police van was waiting in the courtyard, the same van they had used to take me to court. Through the heavy grill on the windows, I could see nothing in the darkness. But suddenly, as the van rolled through the courtyard gates, I heard a thun­derous burst of shouts of support. I could not figure out how so many people had learned I was being taken away that night. Later I found out they had come in response to the calls made by the white couple on Greenwich Avenue. Not a single light illuminated the gigantic courtyard of the Tombs. All I could see was the outline of a collection of cars parked in the center, and the shadows of human figures moving back and forth between the vehicles. The atmosphere was reminiscent of postwar spy movies. A dozen white men swarming around their unmarked police cars, nervously awaiting the end of this transaction, this histrionic ceremony of repression unfolding under the dim glow of flashlights.

New York removed its handcuffs and California produced theirs and locked them around my wrists. ❖

Copyright 1974 by Angela Davis. From the book ANGELA DAVIS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY Random House, Inc. A Bernard Geis Associates Book

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES

Abstract Baseball

Earl Weaver was the perfect baseball manager. A bantam without the athleticism to make it in the Show, he had a numbers runner’s smarts that made his Orioles perennial contenders. His pre-computer-age secret was a collection of 3×5 cards on which he plotted the stats of all his batters against opposing pitchers, and vice versa. Weaver had excellent instincts, and knew that in baseball (which, after all, employs managers not coaches) numbers and bodies both count.

Bodies also count a lot in fine art, but sport has rarely been depicted in that particular field. For every Greco-Roman discus thrower or Bel­lows boxing canvas, there are thousands of ren­derings of Christ. Contemporary art gives us Kiki Smith’s defecating figures and Sensation’s “Dead Dad”; sports, meanwhile, have been left largely to flaccid hacks like LeRoy Neiman.

Since the early ’90s, however, artist Janet Cohen has been getting at baseball’s bottom line in a series of evocative conceptual drawings. In her most recent show, at the Clementine Gallery (through May 13, 526 West 26th Street), her works appear to be little more than patches of stray marks. But take a closer look, and even a casual fan soon realizes that the blur of black scratches are actually handwritten baseball no­tations: S’s, B’s, and K’s. These are mixed with similar notations in red. The blacks and reds are densely layered and sometimes obscure each other as they clot into four hazy groups that roughly define the corners of a rectangle. The artist has printed at the bottom “Minnesota at New York 5.17.98 New York Wins 4-0.”

Huh? So? The second drawing is similar, though more spare, entitled “Montreal at New York 7.18.99 Yankees Win 6-0.” More drawings follow, providing an increasingly complete pic­ture of the two games. The red and black nota­tions become more explicit, revealing additional information: players’ names, numbers of hits, errors. By the seventh variation, what die-hard Yankee fans have known all along is explicated in a caption: These are abstractions of David Wells’s and David Cone’s perfect games.

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But Cohen goes beyond mere scorekeep­ing, charting where each pitch crosses the plane of the strike zone. Black for the home pitcher, red for the visitor, each pitch is consecutively numbered and annotated. The result­ing drawings become anti-targets, a record of pitchers striving to avoid the bull’s-eye that any major leaguer could park in the bleachers. One could spend an “unmanageable amount of time” (as broadcaster Michael Kay might gripe after a typical three-and-a-half-hour Yankee game) finding nuances and subtleties that, like the game itself, leave both a solid record and an evanescent aura.

For instance, the drawings inform us that both games were perfect. Yet we can tell which pitcher is the slob — individual black B’s drift haphazardly from the mass in Wells’s triumph. Meanwhile, dapper Cone keeps his pitches tight and economical, with even the farthest off the plate enticing a batter to K.

In separate, inning-by-inning drawings of Cone’s game, a sense of the ever more exacting groove he is working emerges: His black marks are terse and spare, even as the red plottings of the Montreal pitcher Javier Vasquez hemorrhage on the page of the second inning, when the Yanks hammered him for five runs. By the sixth inning Cone needs only five pitches, while a valiant Vasquez struggles to contain the earlier damage, needing only nine of his own to shut out the side. A minor red flurry in the eighth chases Vasquez, and the ninth drawing is monochromatic, black graphite inexorably counting off Cone’s final 11 pitches.

These drawings are absent a climactic roar, but they are rich with reflection, with the ob­scuring drizzle of April, the muggy haze of Au­gust, and the crisp clarity of October. So perhaps in Janet Cohen, baseball, which is ultimately unquantifiable (no matter how hard Bill James tries), has found its perfect artist.

2000 Village Voice article by R.C. Baker about Janet Cohen's conceptual drawings about David Cone and David Wells perfect games for the Yankees

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ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Still Krazy After All These Years

Of all classic comic strips, George Her­riman’s Krazy Kat was the most bril­liantly formulaic. For over 30 years, the daily installment climaxed more often than not wi1h the strip’s eponymous star taking a well aimed brick on the head. You might call it a “riff” if you were inclined to be musical.

Krazy Kat — which ended as a strip during World War II and has now been anthologized for the first time in decades by the team of Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell, and Georgia Riley de Have­non — is based on an eternal triangle, a setup that confounds conventional animal (if not necessarily human) behavior. Kat loves mouse and is, in turn, adored by dog — thus establishing an equilibrium based on longstanding obsession and mu­tual misunderstanding.

The strip is a rondo of unrequited love. Ignatz, a spindly splenetic mouse, despises Krazy; his greatest pleasure is beaning the hapless Kat with a brick. For Krazy, however, the brick is proof that Ignatz cares: “L’il ainjil, he has rewarded my watchful waiting,” Krazy beams after being conked. The doggedly faithful Of­fissa Pupp, hopelessly in love with the oblivious Kat, jails Ignatz after each assault. Thus, in a sense, every cliché comes true and all the characters get what they want. Krazy Kat, many commentators feel obliged to observe (as they don’t, for example, of War and Peace), is a fantasy.

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No less than Charlie Chaplin, its only pop rival for the affection of Jazz Age aesthetes, Krazy Kat synthesized a particular mixture of sweetness and slapstick, playful fantasy and emotional brutality. The strip acknowledges life’s school of hard knocks and then negates it. Herriman’s quintessential image is Ignatz crowning Krazy with a brick — the trajectory marked “zip,” then “pow” (or sometimes “bop”) as the missile bounces upwards off the back of Krazy’s head. The image is as visceral as a drawing can get — the monomaniacal mouse is into his Walter Johnson-like follow-through, while Krazy is knocked forward at a 45-degree angle by the force of the blow. A bump is never raised, yet as Krazy pitch­es stiffly toward the earth, a dotted line culminating in a little heart issues from the Kat’s forehead. Usually, the fantastic vista of Coconino County, Herriman’s version of Monument Valley, can be glimpsed in the background.

If Krazy Kat was one strip that never ducked the violence inherent in the term “punch line,” it owed considerable charm to its subject’s personality — the Kat’s ro­mantic optimism, philosophical ram­blings, amiable propensity for ukulele-­accompanied song (“There is a heppy lend, fur, fur a-wa-a-ay”). The strip has no mystery greater than that of Krazy’s sex. Most observers assume it is female. In one 1920 Sunday page, the Kat even carries a banner for women’s suffrage (Ig­natz is thinking he’ll support the movement until he discovers who holds the placard aloft: “I’m for no ‘party’ that has that ‘Krazy Kat’ in it”).

Unlike Krazy, Herriman refused to commit himself. “I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl — even drew up some strips with her being pregnant,” he wrote. “It wasn’t the Kat any longer; too much con­cerned with her own problems — like a soap opera. Know what I mean? Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a spirit — a pixie — free to butt into anything. Don’t you think so?” His certainty is less than overwhelming.

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Herriman’s mystical sense of his cre­ation is epitomized by a 1917 Sunday page in which the Kat asks a Ouija board who his enemy is, receives the answer I-G-N-A-T-Z, and refuses to believe it, stomping the Ouija board (which, of course, turns out to belong to Ignatz) into a crumpled accordion. In an often reprinted box at the bottom of the page, Herriman apologizes to the spirits on Krazy’s behalf: “You have written truth, you friends of the shadows. Yet, be not harsh with Krazy. He [sic] is but a shad­ow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. We call him ‘cat,’ we call him ‘crazy’ yet he is neither.” Herriman goes on to conclude that even after Krazy passes into the shadows, “you will under­stand him no better than we who linger on this side of the pale.” Is Krazy then a sphinx without a secret?

This spirit of Krazy-ness governs every aspect of Coconino County. In marked counterpoint to the strip’s rigorous for­mula is its delirious, insistent flux. Herri­man’s attitude toward his graphic details was one of jazzy insouciance. Not only was the Krazy Kat logo a mutable, unsta­ble design but, in blatant contradiction of the continuous action, panels typically alternate between day and night (the lat­ter often signified by a crescent moon resembling a decrepit mobile fashioned from a warped Frisbee).

Albeit taken literally from Monument Valley (where Herriman spent much time after the mid-’20s), the landscape of Co­conino County was wildly fluid, shimmer­ing more drastically than the most extravagant mirage: One typical strip opens with Krazy and Ignatz talking on a hill­side, the second panel places them in a suburban yard, the third further up the hill, the fourth on a drawing tacked to a wall, and the fifth against some nonde­script horizon. The sixth and final panel finds the pair back in the yard, standing by a wall from which Ignatz meaningfully extracts a brick.

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At once crude and delicate, Herriman’s line seems almost free-associational in its spontaneity. Actually, his drawings are masterpieces of dramatic economy, achieving miracles of individuation and expression through body language and suggestive absences. Less is usually more: Because Ignatz has no mouth, for exam­ple, his eyes become beacons of preter­natural alertness on an otherwise blank face. Like Paul Klee’s, this work often looks like inspired doodling, but don’t be fooled; as much as it celebrates Herri­man’s quasi-automatic drawing, the Abrams anthology emphasizes his canny vulgar modernism. From the late ’30s on, the dailies are full of referential gags — ­characters address their creator, make their own drawings, or use erasers to alter reality. In one 1940 strip, Krazy heaves a brick against the side of the frame — it ricochets like a banked billiard ball up and off the top of the frame to slam her on the head. In another, Ignatz makes strategic use of a black brick, having suc­cessfully predicted the placement of the strip’s all black frame.

In the mid-’20s, Herriman’s fanciful Sunday layouts were standardized to give newspapers greater flexibility in running them. As Herriman chafed under this new formal, the authority figure of Of­fissa Pupp came to the fore; even so, the layouts of the late Sunday pages have the sort of impacted, tightly integrated cur­vaciousness — not to mention burnt, sandy colors — of classic SoCal bunga­lows. Although some of the more extrava­gant Sunday pages are wordless (one 1918 example is an extended, chilling riff on trench warfare), Krazy Kat is as dis­tinctive for its use of language as it is for its other particulars. Krazy speaks with a kind of stage Yiddish accent, tempered with miscellaneous Sam Wellerisms: ‘”Oh what a unheppy ket I am these brickliss days-oy-yoi-yoi!” Offissa Pupp special­izeh in ineptly highfalutin (often self-­pitying) speeches: “Krazy burns a late candle tonight — I trust it attracts neither moth nor mouse.” Only Ignatz, as the reality principle (he’s also a householder with a large family), speaks relatively plain English.

Krazy Kat counted Willem DeKoon­ing and Jack Kerouac among its fans; the strip was always a cult writ large. When Herriman died in 1944, it was only being syndicated in 35 newspapers, as com­pared to the more than 1000 that carried Blondie. Indeed, William Randolph Hearst was Herriman’s incongruous patron; he liked the strip and he kept it going. (According to McDonnell, O’Con­nell, and De Havenon, he even forced Herriman, humble to a fault, to accept a raise.)

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As Herriman ‘s creation is widely held to have been the greatest of comic strips, theories of Krazy Kat abound. Gilbert Seldes’s pioneering 1922 appreciation (reprinted in the Abrams book, it first appeared in Vanity Fair) compared Her­riman to the Douanier Rousseau. For Seldes, Krazy was a combination of Don Quixote and Parsifal (with Ignatz his ma­lign Sancho Panza, if not Kundry). Twenty-four years later, when the strip was posthumously anthologized, e.e. cummings furnished a suitably high-­toned introduction. In his view, the “humbly poetic, gently clown-like, su­premely innocent, illimitably affection­ate” Krazy was nothing less than the spirit of democracy itself struggling against the excesses of individualism (Ig­natz) and the stupidity of society (Offisa Pupp).

More recently, Arthur Asa Berger has seen the strip as an existential parable; by Franklin Rosemont’s anarcho-surreal­ist lights, Krazy Kat is “utopian in the best sense, signifying the imaginative cri­tique of existing values and institutions, and the presentation of imaginary alter­native societies.” There is also a belliger­ent view that Krazy Kat has no meaning. In reviewing the 1946 anthology for Partisan Review, Robert Warshaw saw the strip as inspired nonsense, comparable to Lewis Carroll: “We do best to leave Krazy Kat alone. Good fantasy never has an easy and explicit relation to the real world.” (Although Warshaw admired the strip’s “fresh quality of pure play,” he expressed a decidedly Partisan anxiety over its “complete disregard of the stan­dards of respectable art.”)

The Abrams book provides material for some new theories. Herriman was a notoriously private person and particu­larly vague about his background. (On his death certificate, his daughter main­tained that his parents had been born in France; colleagues used to refer to him as “the Greek.”) With some difficulty, McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon have researched Herriman’s background and confirmed the long-standing rumor that he was of African descent: Born in New Orleans in 1880, Herriman was clas­sified as “colored” on his birth certifi­cate, and his parents were listed as mu­lattos in that year’s census.

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Catholic and French-speaking, the so-called “colored Creoles” of New Orleans were a tight-knit, sophisticated elite, de­scended from “free persons of color” who emigrated from the West Indies. Al­though the 10,000 or so who lived in New Orleans in the late 19th century were mainly professionals and shopkeepers, their position rapidly eroded with the in­stitutionalized segregation that followed the end of Reconstruction. Indeed, it was just at this time — around 1886 — that Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles, where his father found work as a barber and a baker. In 1900, George rode the rails to New York City. By 1903, he was on staff at the New York World.

McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Have­non suggest Krazy Kat’s distinctive patois might be a memory from the Creole quarter of New Orleans. That’s scarcely the only aspect of Coconino County the revelation of Herriman’s background throws into new light. One wonders about the folk stories Herriman might have heard as a child, and Krazy’s vaunted Egyptian heritage now seems like some­thing more than a casual conceit. “Re­member Krazy, my child, you are a Kat — a Kat of Egypt,” she’s told by Kleopatra Kat in one 1919 Sunday page, which also gives the origin of the mouse’s custom “to crease his lady’s bean with a brick laden with tender sentiment.”

In view of Herriman’s origins, the per­sistent comparison of Krazy Kat to the rhythm and spontaneity of jazz takes on an added resonance. The comics and jazz appeared on the American scene at roughly the same time. But how many comics shared Krazy’s distinctive formal mixture of sweetness and rough-and­-tumble, consistency and improvisation. Jazz, as Franklin Rosemont points out, was full of “crazy cats.” Jelly Roll Morton, another Creole given to fantasy and hyperbole, was only five years younger than Herriman. It was he who saw the riff as both jazz’s background and foundation.

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“Krazy Kat was not conceived, not born, it jes’ grew,” Herriman is quoted as saying. His admission is startling both for its equation of Krazy with Harri­et Beecher Stowe’s Topsy and for its echo of James Weldon Johnson’s state­ment about the ori­gin of “the earliest ragtime songs.” Johnson, another Herriman contem­porary, published his novel The Auto­biography of an Ex­-Colored Man two years after Krazy’s spontaneous debut. In fact, Krazy Kat did jes’ grow out of the cracks of anoth­er Herriman strip, The Dingbat Family (a/k/a The Family Upstairs, for the Dingbats’ unseen nemesis). The strip published on July 26, 1910, contains an incidental gag: the Dingbats’ cat had his bean honked by a brick-wielding mouse. Eureka!

The relationship between this cat and that mouse soon became a sort of sub­strip beneath the main action; in late 1913, they were spun off into a comic strip of their own. Thus, the Kat was an eruption from below — not just from the underworld of The Dingbat Family and the lower depths of American popular culture but also from Herriman’s uncon­scious. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo — ­which is dedicated to, among others, “George Herriman, Afro-American” — ­uses that concept of Jes Grew as a meta­phor for jazz (and popular culture in general).

From the first, Herriman’s comic strips revolved around compulsive eccentrics — ­one wonders if he wasn’t the most com­plex of them all. His love for Monument Valley, his identification with indigenous Indian culture, his fondness for western Stetsons — not to mention Krazy’s sexual ambiguity and unrequited passion — take on a certain poignancy in view of what must have been an ontological insecurity regarding his own identity. Herriman’s most African feature was evidentally his tightly curled hair — it’s striking that, in virtually every photograph, he’s wearing a hat.

Does Krazy Kat then exorcise the sort of gut-twisting anxiety and guilt engen­dered by passing for white in a segregat­ed culture? Are these brickbats signs of love? Is Coconino County an American utopia? Denial, raised to the sublime, is what Krazy Kat is all about.❖

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat

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Legs McNeil: Teenage Hipster in the Modern World

Cool in an Uncool World

Two years ago, standing on a pier jutting into Delaware Bay, I told Legs McNeil, the “Resident Punk” of Punk Magazoon, the most moral thing I’ve yet said in my journalism career.

Legs and I were in Wilmington, Delaware, for the “First Annual Sleaze Convention.” Legs was the “Con Special Guest Star.” This owed to his then-inflating reputation for doing nothing much but drinking, eating in McDonald’s, watching television, and reading comic books. Those days Legs’s professed only goal in life was to sing the theme song from Eva Gabor’s TV show Green Acres before a packed house at Madison Square Garden. He had also been known to take an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, look out on a perfectly clear city night, and say, “Wow, you can see Nathan’s from here.”

This was very impressive to the organizers of “Sleaze Con,” a group of Delaware weirdos who edited a magazine called the Daily Plague. Legs was the embodiment of sleaze, a true citizen of the Modern World. They treated Legs and me to an annotated tour of an all-night supermarket. All nine brands of pork rinds were identified and labeled. A boys’ choir sang recipes for “mock apple pie” off a box of Ritz crackers. Later, Richard Nixon sugar packets were passed around. It was all “random American rot,” the Sleaze Con people said.

Now Legs and I were waiting for Godzilla. There was some hope the great beast would raise his head above the electric green waters. After all, the entire state of Delaware is the personal playground of the Du Pont family, and the city of Wilmington puts up signs on Interstate 95 saying, WELCOME TO WILMINGTON, THE CHEMICAL CAPITAL Of THE WORLD. These factors seemed to produce a unique environment. Not long before Sleaze Con, the Wilmington city fathers paved over the decaying downtown streets where blacks hung out. Shiny malls full of potted oak trees and contemporary supergraphics were put in. The idea was to get white people to shop downtown, and that worked, but there was a problem. The development was overrun by Mall Monsters, a mutant strain of huge cockroaches. Supposedly swollen to an incredible girth by the concentration of test-tube runoff in the area, the giant bugs were the scourge of Wilmington’s urban renewal plans. Baskin-Robbins employees reportedly got plenty of overtime sweeping the roaches away with push brooms.

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Legs and I, both hypersensitive to the thickening rumble of the apocalypse, took the insects as a sign. Our sources had informed us that there was enough witch’s brew in the Delaware River to make a comfy home for any Oriental radiation monster that no longer got high off the atomic surf in the Sea of Japan. Legs and I felt that if we watched the water long enough, things would begin to cook. The air would get dank and expectant. The water would begin to crash against the hulls of supertankers. Soon the trumpeting ring of raging foam would begin to form. And then, there he’d be — ­Godzilla, sardonic and magnificent, the soul of the Modern World, the patron saint of the postatomic age. Just sitting there, staring at the smelly water, made Legs and me feel like Wise Men, searching the skies for the right bright object.

But Legs, with an attention span as long as a manic-depressive’s fingernail, got bored. He bought a six pack of Rolling Rock and drank it all, just the way he always did. Soon he was raving, screaming his usual shit about teenagers taking over the world. Shut up, I told him, yelling was spoiling the vigil. Fuck that, Legs said, he wasn’t waiting for Godzil­la, like some asshole in a play. He was taking matters into his own hands. Seconds later he jumped off the pier and disappeared into the murk. Next time l saw him was a minute lat­er. He had his spindle arms wrapped around a piling. Bright algae was smeared across his face so he looked like a messy kid eating a blue ice. After I helped him onto the dock, he looked at me with a desperate horror that had my socks going up and down. “I saw things down there,” he said. “I saw things, but I didn’t see him. I didn’t see Him.” Then Legs collapsed. I had to carry the jerk back to the Lord Della-Warr Motel, the hooker­-infested joint where we were staying. It was then, as I recall it, with Legs over my shoulder like a harpooned carp, his spittle dripping on the back of my knee, that I said my most moral thing. I said, “Legs, you asshole. I am not doing this story on you. I am not taking the responsibility for making you famous.”

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Teengenerate

It wasn’t until later that night, only after he had rolled out of bed, located a Sleaze-Con groupie, taken her back to the motel, and was interrupted fucking by members of the Blondie band who broke into his room and threw ice cubes on his kitty back, did Legs get the gist of my meaning. Those days I was working in the Felkerian salt mines for New York  magazine. The Felk, frothing to finger still another trend, sent me to “identi­fy” punk, the crest of which was then beginning to media crash. Legs liked the idea of New York magazine, he thought it was toney.

Back then Legs was devoting most of his ferret energy to becoming “famous.” He used to crawl around the beer­-dripped floor of CBGB, biting people on the calf. When they looked down, Legs would be there with a shit-eating grin on his face. “Hi, I’m famous,” he’d say, and scurry away. After the Godzilla incident, however, Legs and I weren’t so tight. He’d see me on the Bowery and shout, “There goes the guy who didn’t want to take the responsibility for making me famous.”

Legs will never believe it, but I held off for love, because there’s something about Legs McNeil I really love. I used to think that someday I’d write a novel with Legs as the leading character, and the book would contain everything I know about living in the Modern World. Legs’s character would be similar to the one Ray Milland plays in the Roger Corman film X — The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. In that movie Milland is a doctor who discovers a special serum that enables him to see “what others cannot see.” In the beginning Milland has fun. He cheats at cards and looks through blouses. But eventually he sees too much. He sees the center of the universe, the driving force of the galaxy. “No one,” he says, “should see so much.” The last scene in the film takes place at a revival meeting. The harrowed and half-crazed Milland tells his problem to the brimstone preacher, who says, “If thy eye offends you, pluck it out.” Milland does.

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Talking to Legs has always given me the ghostly feeling of being with someone who knows too much for his own good. In Legs’s case, it is knowing too much about the true horror of his generation. That, as it turns out, is a road to madness.

Legs could have avoided this if he didn’t have such a crazy desire to be cool. Legs has got to be cool, or Legs isn’t anything at all. Once Punk ran a contest asking readers to write in why they were punks. The best reply came from somewheres in Queens. It said, “I’m a punk because I’m cool and I ain’t got nothing to show for it.”

That was Legs. He grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut, a suburban town that has DENTIST written all over it. The streets in Cheshire are neat and Waspy. The kids go to college and have fathers like Jim Anderson. Legs’s life, however, did not follow that pattern. He lived across the railroad from the manicured lawns, in the hollow of swamp bog. His father died of cancer when he was two months old. Before that, his grandfather blew his head off in the family chicken house, and his grandmother committed herself to a mental institution. Throughout his childhood Legs always asked his mother where his father was and why his grandmother’s house had bars. His mother worked as a secretary to make sure the McNeils would always have a home in Cheshire. But they never really belonged there. Legs’s face tells you that. It is a shanty-­Irish face, the kind that rides a forklift in Fall River, Massachusetts. But Legs wasn’t born for the treadmill. He felt a tiny artist’s pitter-pat in his cholesterol-influxing heart and wanted desperately to have something to show for being cool.

To Legs, teenagers were the coolest. All the Archie comics he read and TV he watched in Cheshire told him that. He saw how the big kids drove cars and took chicks to the Fillmore blasted out of their gourd. He figured that must be what cool is. But by the time Legs got to be a teenager, in the early 1970s, everyone was telling him he was too late. All the cool stuff was over. The Summer of Love, acid, battling the government, splitting for the Coast, none of that was left.

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Legs couldn’t believe it. Waiting all this time to be cool and getting gotz. There had to be something to break him out of Cheshire, something cool to call his own. The radio and everything else were still jammed up with the flotsam and jetsam of another generation. Crosby, Stills, and Nash, my asshole — Legs knew a burnt-out case when he heard one. He tried glitter rock, but he couldn’t make his butt fit the French cut.  And everywhere they were talking about how this new batch of youth had the “new seriousness”; how kids today only wanted to get good grades and be corporation lawyers. No doubt, Legs thought, these have got to be the uncoolest times ever to come down the pike.

Desperate, Legs dommied up in his room overlooking the swamp and proceeded to go into one of the longest wigstretches on rec­ord. II ow could a cool person be cool in an uncool time? It was a skull buster and Legs schemed far and wide. He went out into the stratosphere, the zoneospbere, the goneos­phere, and the way-goneosphere. When he came back and dug what he had brought back with him, it knocked him under the bed covers for another two weeks. Cool, Legs psyched out, is an arbitrary thing. Anything could be cool if you say it is. Hitler said hating Jews was cool, so the German teenagers said, hey, lets stop painting our toenails and go hate some Jews, it’s cool. That nugget buzzshotted Legs’s gray curls. So he stayed home another week and spun out another mess. He furthermored, it wasn’t so much the things you thought were cool that made you cool, it was the feeling of being cool — ­when you know you’re cool — that really made you cool.

This month-long head session gave the teenage McNeil a blueprint for action. In­stead of apologizing for being born too  late, Legs railed against his smug ’60s-loving eld­ers. “What do you love?” he demanded. “Pot, long guitar solos, battling the govern­ment, wearing bright colors, being mellow? … Well, I hate all that. All that sucks and is uncool.”

“And what do you hate?” Legs went on. “Television, burgers, drinking, violent beha­vior? … Well, I love all of that. I declare these things to be mine. I appoint liking Ho­gan’s Heroes and McDonald’s to be cool. I love America, too. I love everything about Modern America, the long freeways, the whole bit. Any country that produced Eddie Haskell has to be cool.”

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Legs’s coolness cosmology was, of course, total reaction. But anyone without his brains buried on the Upper West Side has to realize the necessity and logic of it. I mean, the kids have to dance. But who would have figured Legs’s coolness would turn out to be brave? By deciding the Modern World was his Godhead, Legs decreed that, in order to be cool one had to be hip to how to live in such a contemporary landscape. It was a task an entire generation had called impossible, choosing instead to label the Modern World “plastic” and cuddle themselves in the fantasies of “going back to the land.” Legs had picked a rough road to ride. But at least it was convenient. To be cool, Legs wouldn’t have to go to Mexico and get the runs under a volcano. Nor would he have to give pennies to belly-swelled babies in Calcutta. Legs grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut. His muse was all around him, inside and out.

It didn’t take Legs long to realize there were other disgruntled, would be cool teenagers who shared his search for the hip. There was John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn, his buddies from Cheshire. They wanted to be cool, too, albeit without Legs’s manic desperation. Better adjusted to the middle class, they dug Legs because he did reckless things like talk the local high school into giving him money to make a class film and then get expelled for spending all the bread drinking. One night, when the three friends were driving down the Wilbur Cross Parkway with nothing to do, Legs grabbed the wheel, swerved the car across three lanes of traffic, and drove it into a ditch. Then he jumped into the back seat, stuck his nose into the crease, and started whimpering about how he was having a “coolness freakout.” He needed an outlet for his coolness or he’d commit suicide.

To save Legs’s life, Holmstrom and Dunn decided to move to New York and start a magazine. At first Holmstrom wanted to call the mag Teenage News because they were only interested in teenage issues. But it was eventually changed to Punk because Legs was a big fan of a Dictators song, “Weekend.” It goes: “Eddie [Legs’s real name, sort of — his actual name is Roderick Edwin McNeil. He took Legs because he loves Ray Danton] is the local punk / throwing up and getting drunk/ eating in McDonald’s for lunch.” Dunn, a budding capitalist who compared Punk‘s mimeograph machine to a Carl Sandburg steel mill, became the publisher. Holmstrom, a genius cartoonist, and Harvey Kurtzman disciple, made himself editor. Legs, however, couldn’t figure out what to call himself. He couldn’t draw and had no head for business. Finally he decided on “Resident Punk,” a combination “secret agent”/ Alfred E. Newman title calculated to make him a legend by age 19.

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At last, Legs was cool. It was mid-1975, the beginning of the CBGB punk emergence that Punk would help turn into a national media phenomenon. Legs was key on the scene. Any night you could see him standing in front of CBGB, a loose cigarette hanging from his lower lip, two punkette groupies on either arm of his leather jacket — the one with the rips under both armpits — cutting a wicked figure.

Those days Legs’s brain cooked like a burning idea factory. On the Bowery he met other suburban kids who had suffered the uncertainty of cool through their early teenage years. Kids who had also racked their brains for an answer to the question: How to be cool in an uncool time. Many of them, like the Ramones, the members of Blondie, and the Dictators, had come to the same conclusions as Legs and thrown themselves headlong into study of the Modern World. Legs spent those early CBGB nights discoursing on Bullwinkle Moose and TV commercials with Joey Ramone. To Legs, these conversations had the momentous freshness of Mao and Chou revealing their similar passions for ideas by the light of one candle in a cave.

One night Legs found out that he, Joey, and two members of Blondie had all had the same dream. They dreamed of Monty Hall saying, “Well, would you trade your life for what’s behind that curtain?” After that, Legs knew that his generation, the first ever to grow up completely within the Modern Age, had acquired a huge collective subconscious. The power and vastness of this concept made Legs burst with creativity. Often he would sit in the back of CBGB, listening to the Talking Heads sing “Don’t Worry about the Government” and make up his “Famous Persons” interviews for Punk. Legs did straight Q-and-As with “personalities” like Boris and Natasha and the cast of Gilligan’s Island. He treated people like Carl Betz as if they were real. Which they were, to Legs. Once he said “I am exploring an alternative environment. It’s love a world like ours, but not quite. It’d the kind of place you could wake tomorrow and think you’re home but actually you’d be just part of the boot heel of some asshole in another galaxy.”

I remember the day Milton Glaser came by my desk and picked up an issue of Punk. He thumbed through it, looking at the hand-printed features (it was Holmstrom’s master stroke that made Punk the best magazine of neo-literate times — he made the whole thing look like a comic book; that way he could print the theory of relativity and kids would read it), the illustrated interviews with Lou Reed, Legs’s craziness. Glaser sat down, visibly shaken. “These guys could put me out of business,” he said. If Punk worried Milton Glaser, I knew here was something big.

This was the beginning of my appreciation of punk as a spectacularly American way of cool. How fabulous to have something new to dig after years of mealy-mouthed postmortems in Berkeley. All that baloney by drones like Norman Plodmorris about the essence of the 1970s and here it really was. I loved that the Ramones’ first record was made in 18 hours and cost only $6000. Figures like that cut away the flab of indecision. So did the music. The Ramones song “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around with You,” which has the lyrics, “I don’t wanna walk around with you/ I don’t wanna walk around with you/ so why you wanna walk around with me?” boiled away any other, superfluous ideas I had about high school cool. It was all I needed to know about adolescence in general. It was as if the Ramones, none of whom were named Ramone, were saying to the dull sixties establishment: “See, we can express ourselves fast, cheap, and good. We’ll tell you about our own experience as teenagers, and it will be real.”

The hipness of this idea pulled my coat no end. Like Legs said, “We don’t care what no one says. Sure, things are supposed to be shit now. But, fuck it. We’re here and we’re gonna have our fun. We’re gonna be cool.” The audaciousness was super; Legs and his buddies were reinventing cool before my eyes. They were accepting the crap of the Modern World, all that mind rot, and they were celebrating it, not protesting against it. What a brilliantly existential decision! How modernistic a concept!

I thought back to all the philosophizing I’d once read about what was hip and what was not. And dredged up an old quote from Norman Mailer. Big Norm said, “For Hip is sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle … ” Who else was Legs? This described him and his fellow punks to a T.

It was early 1976, the Five Spot, where so much bop was played, had just closed for the last time. It was replaced by a clothing store called the Late Show, which catered mostly to the CBGB crowd and played Ramones records constantly over its booming speaker set. I made this a sign. And envisioned a whole generation of hipsters lurking along the Bowery in black leather jackets. A collection of wise primitives making incisive comments about a culture nobody even wanted to admit existed. To me, it was very moving.

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Legs McNeil and the Obsolescence of the White Negro Theory

Legs became the spokesman, such as it was, for this new generation of hipsters, partially by default, since most of the band members were into catatonia, and partially due to his zeal for self-promotion. Legs would sit under the Fonz poster in the “Punk dump,” the storefront “office” he, Holmstrom, and Dunn kept underneath the approach ramp to the LincolFcarlinn Tunnel, and pontificate for the pop-culture reporters. About hippies he said, “A bunch of yin wimps. Woodstock was a hip capital pajama party.” About glitter rock, he said, “Homosexuality shouldn’t be pushed on 15-old kids.” About the future of visual expression, he said, “I think movies should only be thirty minutes long and be in black and white. Kids don’t have the concentration for more.” About himself, he said, “Every time I look in the mirror it’s like watching a home movie.”

One of the classic Legs McNeil interviews appeared as part of an August 1976 Voice article by Frank Rose. Rose was trying to decipher punk’s effect on the supposedly large issue of “butch,” a term Frank described as “self-conscious masculinity.”

At the time, Legs was on a search-and-destroy mission against disco, which Punk had described in an editorial as the source of “everything wrong with Western civilization.” Legs said disco was the creation of synthesizers, a fact he claimed left the limp shit devoid of human energy and turned listeners into “zombies.” Disco, Legs asserted, was an uncool Communistic plot invented by jaded grown-ups to rob teenagers of their naivete. But more interesting and inflammatory was Legs’s conjecture that disco was the product of an unholy alliance between blacks and gays. Neither of these groups was currently in favor with Legs, and he routinely called them niggers and faggots. If Legs was the next big thing, as Lester Bangs and others suggested, then Rose was worried about this.

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Rose’s story had Legs saying all kinds of apparently reactionary and reckless things like, “Punks are normal people, that’s what we are, normal. We’re not a bunch of perverts” … “Punks are like — the guys know they’re guys and the chicks know they’re chicks” … “David Bowie is really sick. He’s such a faggot” … Also, about blacks, he said, “We’re not really racist …. We’re just into our own thing. It’s like saying to Italians [why don’t you like] Polacks?”

Rose concluded, not incorrectly, or surprisingly, considering the evidence he was given, that Legs was a blue­-collar poseur who saw life as “giant high school.” Legs’s racism and gay-baiting, portrayed as borrowed from Irish bars in Ridgewood, were simply attitudes to fill in the image of a man’s man. This seemed true enough on the surface, but I couldn’t help feeling that in Rose’s rush to tenderly put Legs and his punk crew down as still another potentially brutish terror a gay man in New York has to contend with, Frank had taken McNeil’s quotes far too seriously.

I thought back to a night at the 82 Club. The Dictators were playing. Punk had run a “Punk of the month” contest. Readers were asked to send in pictures of themselves proving they were more punky than anyone else. One Ronald Binder won three months in a row. He sent in low-angle pictures of himself eating chains. Sent telegrams threatening to blow up the Punk camp if he didn’t win. Holmstrom said, “Wow, we got to give it to this guy. He’ll kill us if we don’t.” Still, no one had ever seen Ronald Binder in the flesh. Until that night at the 82. Binder came over to Holmstrom and said, “Hi, I’m the punk of the month.” One look was enough. Binder was maybe five feet tall, he weighed plenty. He looked completely harmless. Holmstrom was beside himself. “My God,” he said. “I thought you ate dead babies for breakfast … This is terrible. Don’t tell anyone who you are, you’ll make us look bad.”

Binder seemed hurt by Holmstrom’s abuse. He went off in a corner and hung his head by the 82’s Ukrainian wallpaper. He stayed there until Legs, who had seen the whole confrontation, came over and said, “Don’t let it get you down. I’m a fake, too.”

This was no surprise. Self-mockery has always been Legs’s meat. He wore his leather jacket as a cocoon of fakery. He was to a real street punk as Goldberg’s is to a pizza pie: a witty but not particularly faithful parody. Legs has never been tough at all. He weighs about 110 pounds. He couldn’t break his own nose. As a macho aggressive, he’s never been confused with a tiger fighting for his mate. That, of course, was the whole joke, the ironic core of the coolness.

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But this didn’t make Legs a clown. To me, his self-mockery recalled the way Thelonious Monk plays the piano or Earl Monroe dribbles the basketball. With those two there has always been a tension between the dead seriousness of technique and the ironical understanding that in the scope of the universe all those hours developing a style like no one else might mean nothing. They could drop a bomb on you. You could get hit by a truck. The only sane way to deal with this looming spectre of random destruction was to have a sense of humor about yourself.

This, I figured, was the key to Legs. No matter how ardently he argued his perceptions about the world, he didn’t want to be held to them. For him, proselytizing was technique, but none of it was hard and fast. It was Legs’s hipster nature, I thought.

But it also caused problems. If Legs was a hipster, and CBGB a hipster scene, where were the blacks? I can’t remember seeing more than three or four black in any CBGB crowd. Not one punk-rock band has been dominated by black musicians. No CBGB band even seems to borrow firsthand from traditional R&B or blues sources. The only noticeable influence down at CBG are the fall-down guys who drift over from the Men’s Shelter. This, coupled with Legs’s remarks about how “blacks have their culture and we have ours,” seemed to contradict everything I know about white hipsters.

Everything I know about white hipsters, theoretical-wise, comes from Big Norman’s famous essay, The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster. And I knew I’d have to go to the woodshed with Mailer if I wanted some enlightenment on this Legs puzzlement. Written in 1957, Norm’s essay says the hipster was a man who realized “our collective condition is to live with instant death by atomic war.” This fact was particularly distressing to white men ticketed for two cars in the garage and a neat hedge around the lawn. With the threat of death haunting every moment, middle-class striving seemed a waste of time. According to Mailer, the only sane thing to do was “to encourage the psychopath in one’s self, to explore that domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory of planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat … ”

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This road, especially for the passel of Brooklyn-Queens Jews and Texas gays who felt compelled to take it, was totally uncharted. A guide was needed, and in the Negro these searching whites found one. Spades had been living with the knowledge that they could be wiped out at any given moment for 350 years. Mailer called this “living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy.” He also said the blacks had produced an entire culture based upon living on the edge. They traveled light, spoke a secret and flexible language, gambled, and wore orange pants with green shirts. It was living on the brink, but their constant state of “psychopathy” had also produced the wondrous jazz, the perfect “orgasm” of brinksmanship.

Hipsters, or whites who recognized the descending sword for what it was, understood and dug the brilliance of the blacks’ achievement. “So,” says Big Norman, “there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night, looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existential synapses of the Negro and, for all practical purposes, could be considered a White Negro.

I was a White Negro for the better part of my consciously hip life. Probably still am. I worked as a porter at the Port Authority Bus Terminal so I could do a black man’s job. I began smoking Pall Malls because the blacks did. Along with my other White Negro friends, I lived at the Brittany Hotel on 10th Street. When Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf brought their blues band to stay at the Albert, we supplied them with smoke.

We hung around with as many jazzmen as would have us. Major Holley, who played bass with Roland Kirk occasionally back then, was our buddy. He knew we were just another bunch of hopeless Queens Mezz Mezzrows looking for a taste of the millennium, but he was sweet and let us play our game. In return we would sit ringside at the Five Spot and, when Holley soloed, we’d shout, “Major, you so fucking good, they ought to make you a general.” Once, the Major must have been bugged because he put down his bass during a Jazz Interactions concert, went to the microphone, and said, “Damn, I am all tuckered out. So let’s meet and greet Jake the Snake, who will provide us with some meal ticket in the meantime.”

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I didn’t want to go onstage, I had never even held a bass before. But my buddies pushed me to it. I picked up the big momma and plucked it a couple of times. Then Roland Kirk turned to me. With the cigarette smoke around his beret like gauze, three fat horns stuck in his mouth, and wraparound sunglasses across his blind eyes, Kirk was a vision of boogie hell. But it was okay. He said, “Shit, sounds black to me.”

This, I have always felt, was one of the crowning moments of my life. But Legs would not buy it. Explaining why spades were cool and worth imitating was a pointless conversation to have with Legs. As pointless as trying to explain why Dylan going electric was important, as pointless as explaining why getting arrested at People’s Park was both useless and consummate at the same time. Legs simply refused to comprehend why my generation of hipsters dug blacks. He would not even accept such seemingly irrefutable black-coolness raps as George Carlin’s schoolyard scene. Carlin said put a bunch of white kids and a bunch of black kids together and after a week the whites will be talking like the blacks. But none of the blacks would be saying, “Golly, gee, we won the big game.”

To Legs, blacks were mostly on the radio, making the rotten disco music he hated, or in the first three pages of the Daily News sticking 9mm guns into people’s chests. He said he had “no guilt.” The only other thing he’d say about blacks involved a bizarre theory about why listening to their music was so repugnant to him. He said that because of “racism, or whatever,” most blacks didn’t get on the radio until they were 30 or 40, so they always sang about 30- and 40-year-old concerns. He said this was alien to him. If all blacks were teenagers, like the Jackson Five, singing “like A­ B-C, One-Two-Three,” that would be all right with him. Otherwise, blacks didn’t interest him in the least.

This troubled me. Racism, or whatever, is understandable, even poetic, in the mouth of a blue-collar worker or a southern sheriff — it’s an integral part of their worldview. But this attitude of racial indifference coming from a hipster hit a discord. If Legs McNeil were a hipster and he didn’t think blacks were cool, my universe was about to go into a tilt.

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Actually, I had been busting my brain with certain notions about the apparent de-emphasis of blacks in the Hip and Square cultures respectively for some time.

Mailer’s essay was better than a nice sum-up of ’50s attitudes. He predicted the ’60s, too. Norm drones on in The White Negro about hipsters relentlessly seeking their “orgasm,” which I have always taken to mean the sexual­-emotional act or state that would give meaning to their “psychopathic” position on the edge between oblivion and the security of the middle class. For me — and I assume this is true for most White Negroes of my generation — the entire ’60s experience was an “orgasm.” After all, what were hippies if not white kids acting like spades? It horrified me when sign-wavers chanted about “student as nigger” and the rest of that. But there was a basic truth to it. We were smoking dope, being casual about sex, pretending poverty so we might be niggers.

Blacks, not surprisingly, were aghast at this national insanity. They might hang around Hippie Hill for some white pussy, but they had to be wondering why people with money were trying to act like niggers. Once, when I thought I was a dope dealer, I got ripped off in a Stanyan Street apartment by a black guy. I was supposed to pick up 10 keys of Michoacan from the guy. But as soon as I got into the room, he stuck a gun in my ear and took the $750 my friends gave me. He tied me up so I wouldn’t “even think” about following him and put a Jimi Hendrix record on the box. Then he looked at me, like this is just too easy, shook his head in sympathy, and said, “You know, I just don’t understand you people. Don’t you know this is dangerous?” Then he split. A few minutes later a paste-white chick with drugged eyes and matted hair came out from behind an Indian-print curtain. She squinted into the red light bulb, said it was cold, and lit the stove. After she untied me, she said, “Doug is really a dynamite guy, he just gets wild sometimes.”

I don’t know what I was expecting: to sit down with the ghetto guys, talk about the impending shadow of night, and have them say, “Hey, we’re all in the same boat, welcome aboard”? It was never going to happen. Knowing handshakes and slick words didn’t make you cool. Besides, the “psychopathy” in the blacks that we admired was not calculated to produce white-man-lovers or even very nice guys. You could dig their orgasm, feeling passionately about the plight that made them crazy men, but you had to be wise. Wise that getting next to them was like cutting your own throat.

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Also, sometime in the early ’70s, blacks began doing things that might be considered uncool. Their horrendous affectations of the worst parts of the hippie movement were embarrassing, no lie. Talk of astrology and wearing medallions didn’t fit the image of the existential hero. What were the Temptations doing singing about “Psychedelic Shacks”? I felt like grabbing black kids with Robert Indiana LOVE pins stuck to their double knits and saying, “Don’t do it. Don’t go down that road. It’s shit. I know.” This was distressing. Blacks acting crazy, like psychopaths, made sense: being black drove you crazy. But blacks acting dumb was another thing; these were the people who were supposed to understand the secret of the 20th century.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. When you have Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in a movie made by blacks, when a WBLS destroys WWRL in the ratings, when macho singers get pushed out of the foreground by violin strings, it’s pretty clear. The Nat King Cole element of black culture is overrunning the James Brown segment. Black culture is redefining itself in a middle-class mode. This, of course, is the blacks’ right as Americans. In this country all immigrants — even ones who were brought here in chains — are allowed to become consumers.

But this produced a serious dilemma for White Negroes. If ghetto blacks were simply too dangerous to deal with, the middle-class ones, with their “crossover” concerns, were no longer compelling. George Jefferson wants the same things as my parents; his cleaning lady steals, too. This is not acceptable. It brings to mind the old hipster saw about blacks with seemingly white values: “What an Oreo. He’s not a spade at all.”

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Doing a little cultural cross-referencing, I dug that so-called “Squares” had also made a shift on black people. During the civil rights time in the ’60s, when the closet Commies and liberal types still had pull in showbiz, media blacks pretty much got the Eleanor Roosevelt treatment. Between them, Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones produced more guilt through dignity than a million Jewish mothers could through nagging. But now, it’s almost as if the guilt-exorcising Squares are saying, “Well, we gave these guys their chance. We highlighted their struggle. What did they do? Gave us Rap Brown, the ungrateful loudmouth, and mugged our grandmothers.”

Therein, I think, is the basis for the elevation of the Italian-­American in the mass media. With a self-propelled reputation for toughness and the supposed ability to call their Uncle Vinnie at the drop of a confrontation, Italians are perceived by black-fearing Squares (as well as black-fearing hipsters) as the only group of whites capable of fending off the onrush of “them.” How many times have you heard the joke, “Well, I guess this is a safe neighborhood” while walking by Bella Ferrara? If you’re dumb, that means Italians don’t like “yoms” much and are willing to fight them on their own physical terms. Blacks know this, and they also know Italians are some cold-blooded motherfuckers (what they didn’t know they saw in the Godfather movies, which were big in the black ghettos), so they stay away. This set of pseudo-facts is so ingrained in the public consciousness, it is no surprise that many of the TV cops — Baretta, Petrocelli, Delvecchio, and Columbo — are some have-been Italians. Who else can be depended on to keep the blacks in their place?

To facilitate this myth-making, the media moguls have imbued Italians with much of the “soul” that used to be the exclusive property of blacks. This is quite clear in the seminal work of revisionist racial theory, Rocky. You’ve got to figure Stallone knew what he was doing, I make him that cynical. He portrays Rocky as a guileless but lovable blue-collar plodder who has an indomitable spirit. The major black characters, the champ and the female TV reporter who interviews Rocky, are both seen as slick, hollow hustlers. Stallone’s attitude toward blacks is similar to that of Americans toward Commies in the fifties: they’re smarter and sneakier than us, so we have to stick together and be pure of heart.

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A White Negro, even a disillusioned White Negro, watching the meat-packing scene in which noble-savage Stallone pleads to the middle-class black reporter, “Just don’t take no cheap shot, please,” is stunned by the manipulation of racial images since the ’60s. It is almost as if whites have been given the message: You don’t have to pretend to like “them” anymore. Now, to whites, blacks are either the faceless unmentionable or just another creep trying to take your job. Either way they are better off forgotten.

Eyeballing all this, Legs’s indifference to spades was more understandable. Legs is a hipster who takes his input from Square sources. If TV tells him Italians are cool, he may adopt their way of saying “fuck you” — a short, blunt blast as opposed to the sultry, many-syllabled “fuck you motherfucker” of the blacks — but he’s not taking the whole thing. Catholics are far too earnest for a hipster like Legs; that’s what he’s trying to get away from.

But blacks have never even entered his mind as a role model. How could he dig jazz when the radio no longer plays jazz? Blacks had essentially been wiped out as a compelling cultural force before Legs ever got a chance to appreciate them.

But the more I dug, the more I realized blacks would have been irrelevant to a ’70s hipster like Legs anyway. The old White Negro looked to the blacks to lead him through a landscape that was in the midst of total change, due to the introduction of the atomic bomb. That was 25 years ago, when the apocalypse was a new idea and truly existed as a meaningful force only in the minds of a few “urban adventurers.” America still operated by pre-atomic rules. Buildings were still made out of bricks; people still read books, ate in real restaurants, and had families.

Now, of course, much of the above is gone. America has adjusted in profound ways to the spectre of the apocalypse. Now we have throwaway television, throwaway burgers, throwaway housing. None of it has the permanency of the pants your mother bought an inch too long so they’d fit next year. The society has caught up to Hiroshima. We are living, as Legs and I learned at the Sleaze Convention, in a fully fleshed-out post-atomic world. Everything we touch, eat, and see has the singe of doom on it. So Legs doesn’t need anyone to tell him secrets; he knows the score in this world as well as anyone. He needs no guide; he’s on his own.

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Orgasm, Where Is the Orgasm?

Today, two years after we waited for Godzilla and I declined the responsibility for making him famous, Legs McNeil is in my kitchen, telling a tape recorder why the teenagers did not take over the world. 1977, Legs says, was a terrible year. Punk almost went broke. John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn battled. Holmstrom claimed Dunn’s grandiose ambitions to make Punk another Rolling Stone within a year overextended the magazine’s meager resources. Legs figured John was the talent and Ged was the business, and in that case you got to go with the talent, but it hurt him to have to make the choice.

Also, the CBGB rock scene had disintegrated before Legs’s eyes. Many of the first-generation bands, the ones Legs thought spoke for him — Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie, and the Dictators — got recording contracts and went away on tour. Legs was all for that. Hipster punks knew that the popular culture created them. And they were determined to do something — anything — to make their mark on it. The bands, Legs and Holmstrom figured, were the best bet to express “teenage” obsessions. The media never seems to outgrow its need for rock and roll. Sooner or later, Legs thought, the punk bands had to become the next big thing.

But once Joey Ramone and Chris Stein went out of town, Legs had no one to discuss Jerry Paris with. His fellow hipsters were disappearing. Everyone cool seemed to be. Who else but Handsome Dick Manitoba would go around blustering about how he could break Buddy (Nature Boy) Rogers’s figure-four leg vine and then get himself flattened by a drag queen like Wayne County? What a punk. But now he wasn’t around. The punk bands were diving into the nexus of the popular culture they worshiped like the sun, hardly ever to bubble up above the Hot Hundred again.

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Those who came to replace them were a drag. Legs hated the British punks. They came humorless, snarling the same anti-establishment rant of the Animals a dozen years before. Don’t things ever change in England, Legs wondered. The youth is always discontented. They always hate the government and punch each other about soccer. Rockers aren’t supposed to care about sports, especially soccer. The Brits also brought bleached hair and a pile of punk paraphernalia. Legs saw what was happening. Punk was becoming a movement of mindless followers. Anyone who stuck a safety pin in his nose could be a punk.

This offended Legs’s hipster nature. He never really quite decided whether he wanted punk to turn into a ’60s-style movement or not. But now he’d be sitting with Joey Ramone, and some Westchester kid would come and say, “Hey, you’re Joey Ramone. Hey, I’m a punk, too. I got a band. We cut up our cocks onstage.” Then Joey would make with his Martian reflex and say, “Why do you do that?” The kid would say, “Because I’m a punk.” And Legs would know that Hip cannot be a movement. Because if Hip is a movement and everyone’s the same, that’s not cool. Like Big Norman said so long ago, ” … and, indeed, it is essential to dig the most, for if you do dig, you lose your superiority over the Square, and you are less likely to be cool … ”

Legs understood coolness isn’t something that comes easy. His cool had been achieved through spiritual agony, which led him to the basic precepts about how to be hip in post­atomic America. The Brits’ egalitarianism was all wrong. First of all, they knew nothing about America. They didn’t watch the same shows, they ate weird things. And in their knee-jerk rebellion they offered a bunch of asshole kids who did nothing to try to deal with their existential place in the universe a chance to be as cool as Legs. Now Legs says, “I hate this punk thing these days. The kids at CBGB aren’t cool. They don’t have any opinions about anything. They just sit around saying, This place sucks,’ This place is beat.’ They all smoke pot and wear stupid clothes. It’s just like the fucking hippies. Just like them.”

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The anguish Legs McNeil suffered being the “Resident Punk” of a movement he had come to hate — no man knows. But he did the only thing he felt he could do: He threw himself headlong into the job as a protest. He drank more, offered more diatribes about the foul influence of faggots, and directed manifestos at the invading British. Weeks went by “out of control.” The drinking ravaged his already beleaguered liver. He slept at a different frumpy “groupie’s” house every night. Their names he did not remember. In his haggard look and dedication to the task at hand, Legs reminded one of the lead character in Diary of a Country Priest. One time, while a French reporter was asking him to compare the Three Stooges with Laurel and Hardy, Legs spewed forth a three-foot curtain of blood and phlegm.

From everywhere, uncool people who didn’t get the joke besieged him. Once, a burly idiot from Ohio wielding a pearl­handled switchblade came into CBGB looking to dethrone Legs as “Resident Punk.” Legs had to hide in Phebe’s among the off-off Broadway failures. It appeared that Legs would soon fulfill John Holmstrom’s blithe and oft-repeated prophecy: “Legs has to die young. Look at his eyes. Can’t you see it? That’s what makes him so romantic.”

One week Legs’s older brother, a hot-dog ski pro who Legs always thought was as cool as James Bond, came to town. The brother took one look at Legs and asked Holmstrom, “What’s wrong with my brother?” John, who had been trying to get Legs to eat something for weeks, said, “I don’t know, I think he’s going crazy.” The brother said something had to be done. According to Legs, “One minute I was upstairs, drinking. They called me down. An hour later I was on my way to the nuthouse. It happened just like that. They didn’t commit me. I signed the papers myself. But they said it wouldn’t be too good for me if I didn’t. After all, I knew they could get everyone in this city as a character witness against me.”

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Legs was in the bughouse only for a month or so, but that was long enough for his roommate to kill himself. Every day the doctors dragged Legs to “creative” encounter sessions. He could hardly keep from cracking up every time one of the fright-wig ladies in the white smocks read their poems, usually about “the beauty of fucking nature or how they wanted to kill their mothers.” Legs read no poems, but the doctors loved him. “They really thought I was an interesting case,” Legs says. “They wanted to keep me there forever. They said I had a unique outlook on life. They kept poking me, wanting to know why I thought everything was so funny.”

Legs signed himself out. Staying there wouldn’t have done anybody any good, he says. The doctors didn’t understand a word he was saying. Actually, the shrinks should have saved their breath. Big Norman said 20 years ago a “psychopath” hipster makes a bad mental patient because he is “ordinately ambitious — too ambitious ever to trade his warped brilliant conception of his possible victories in life for the grim if peaceful attrition of the analyst’s couch.” Big Norm, of course, knows what Legs’s problem is: He ain’t come.

Norm says, “Orgasm is his [the hipster’s] therapy.” And it takes a hipster from the ’60s, whose orgasm did come, over and over for three Tantric years, to dig the sadness of Legs’s coital interruptus. Who knows why Legs’s brand of punk failed to sustain itself as a meaningful hipster force? Probably the punk-hipster vision was too intellectual for most modern teenagers to relate to. Instead of offering the solid psychology of broadside rebellion against parents, legs advocated the elusive psychopathy of dealing with the fearsome swell of Modern America by celebrating it. This is a difficult and ultimately unhappy way to think. Especially for someone as bright as Legs. For him, saying Modern America is great is just more of the joke. But it’s hard to keep laughing when you walk into a supermarket and hear the clerk singing “You Deserve a Break Today” and you know that the McDonald’s jingle is the only song in the whole world he knows the lyrics to.

That’s why I guess I didn’t want the responsibility for making Legs famous. I must have sensed defeat back on the dock waiting for Godzilla. But if Legs and his buddies are the direct descendants of me and my pre-hippie friends, we can sympathize with the bad hand the Bowery Boys drew. They really should have had the spades to show the way. They really were born too late.

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Now Legs is “Resident Punk” in name only. These days Punk comes out infrequently at best, and Legs is talking about moving on. So many things have changed in two years, Legs says with a beer-sodden nostalgia you expect from someone who carried the hippie coffin down Haight Street. “l don’t even want to be famous anymore,” Legs says. “I mean, being famous is neat and all, but I wasn’t making no money. It’s dumb to be famous without something to show for it. That’s why I hate People magazine. Those people are famous for doing stupid things. Now I only want to be famous for doing cool things. That’s what I want to do, cool things.”

Legs’s current cool thing is a band, Shrapnel. He manages them and is their “spiritual leader.” The association began when Legs was in the bughouse. The Shrapnels, five teenage rock and rollers from Red Bank, New Jersey, then calling themselves the Hard Attacks, had read Legs’s “famous persons” interviews and found them intense. They also liked the time they saw Legs pass out in CBGB’s after making still another speech about teenagers taking over the world. They called Legs every day he was in the hospital, begging him to take them on. Legs thought about it for a while, asking the kids pertinent questions like, “If you had all the money in the world, what 10 movies would you make?” They described 10 war films full of fire, destruction, and Armageddon, all of it done in Frank Frazetta style with Venus Paradise color.

Legs recognized the modernistic values in such thinking. He decided that a “war band” was just what New York rock and roll needed. Living in New York was sort of like that anyway, he thought. Everywhere are contending platoons of ethnic groups, looking to aggrandize territory and goods. The fucking Bowery already looked like a B-52ed Nam village. Besides, war expressed Legs’s frame of mind. His cool was under attack from Brits on one side, the dumb CBGB kids on another, and the snotty “punk as art” Soho creeps on the other. The time had come for the true American teenager to stand up. Legs read that Dali said war was “a heightened state of awareness.” If that’s what the moribund punk hipster scene needed to fight miasma like disco, so be it.

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Now, after a few months of woodshedding with Legs, Shrapnel may be the only rock and roll band outwardly advocating World War III. They appear onstage wearing army fatigues and carrying models of M-16s. They use sandbags, cardboard tanks, and mock incendiary bombs as props. They sing songs entitled “Get the World,” “Girls and Guns,” “Special Forces Boy,” and “Cro-Magnum Man.” Their lyrics include stuff like, “I’m fresh from a Vietnam hangover / I got nothing to do / So I’m going to a Texas tower / and rain bullets down on you/ down on you.” Their lead singer, who was 10 years old during the Tet Offensive and looks Like a suckling-pig version of Legs, yells “Hey, you, asshole creep, I bet you were against the war,” and drinks out of a canteen.

Clearly, this is an idea with limited commercial possibilities. How do you hype this band? “Hey, kids, get with Sgt. Rock Rock!” or “Listen to the Curtis Le May Sound!” What do you say about a band whose most melodic song is called “Combat Love”? It is almost as if the Vietnam War is another of the ’60s things Legs feels deprived of. But it’s consistent with his hipster view. The group’s best song, “After the Battle,” which Legs wrote, tells the story of a soldier who gets lost from his platoon in the middle of a firestorm. “Guys,” he screams. “Where are you? Are you out there? Littlejohn, Kinch, Kowalski, anybody?” Kinch and Littlejohn and Kowalski, of course, were members of the platoon on Combat, the television show. It’s just like Legs to call out for pop­-culture characters when he’s lost in the Modern World.

Perhaps only the apocalypse itself can be Legs’s orgasm. But Shrapnel makes him happy, that’s good enough for me. We’ve always been kindred spirits, two white boys trying to be cool. And no matter how seemingly disgusting Legs gets, I prefer to see him poetically: the man who tried to be hip in an unhip time. Besides, it’s kind of funny to watch Legs and the Shrapnels in the band’s one-room apartment on St. Mark’s Place. The kids sit around in their dog tags, reading Soldier of Fortune magazine and singing “Hey, hey, we’re the Shrapnels … We like to Shrapnel around.” Legs says, “I like these kids because they’re real teenagers. The way teenagers should be. They’re normal, they like to read comics, watch television, and get drunk. Being with them makes me feel cool. I kind of look out for them.”

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Legs McNeil as a daddy, the mind boggles. But there is a certain tenderness in the way Legs gives his kids advice on how to be cool. The other day he was telling his guitar player, “Don’t go out with Catholic girls. They never fuck you until a year after they get out of Catholic school. I know.” Legs also takes the Shrapnels up to Connecticut, where they play “army” together in the swamps around Legs’s mother’s house. They split into two squads and fight to take the bridge over the Farmington Canal. Legs says, “My guys are good. They are so fucking good. They’ll wait in a bush for two hours. I’d put my guys up against an A-team Green Beret outfit any day.”

Personally, I like this image of an aging Legs McNeil playing army with his teenage kids. I see him sneaking around the edge of a brick wall, lying low in the tall reeds fertilized by the bodies of so many other soldiers before him. Then he bursts out into the line of murderous enemy fire, his toy gun waving, his high-pitched voice screaming “budda­-budda-budda” like some wild, degenerate manically cool Holden Caulfield. ❖

Categories
ART ARCHIVES FRINGE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Money and Art Marry: Scull Sale at Sothebys

I was in a house the other day, well stocked with art objects, where the latest prized collection of the collector was a hunk of raw beef, embalmed in a block of plastic. It looked revolting and consorted awkwardly with chinoiserie, impressionist paintings, Greek pots. and Columbian figures with which it was surrounded. But the collector told me it wouldn’t rot, and so I imagine it could be taken in a number of ways: from the spiritual aspect — corruption suspended in incorruption — to the coarsely material, an emblem of soaring beef prices and hence the satisfactory state of soybean futures, in which the collector had been briskly trading. Behind all this it could even be taken as a totemic prayer to the Almighty for a return to the great bull market of 1968. At any rate, the essense of the artist’s joke seemed to be about money and the value of commodities, whether artistic or bovine.

Eccentric or highly-strung artists sometimes get irritated by the com­modity fetishism and financial pyramiding inseparable from their trade. An Austrian painter announced a while back that he would be photographed on successive days slicing off portions of his penis with a razor. Photographers gathered and the promised amputations took place. After three or four days the man bled to death. A friend of mine who later went to an exhibition where these photographs were on show reported that they excited no unusual interest.

Apart from Robert Rauschenberg, trim as a biscuit in a light tan velvet suit, no prominent artists were present for the much touted Scull sale at the Parke-Bernet galleries last week, though dealers would have been delighted to lend them a razor, there being no artist like a dead ar­tist to accelerate the value of his work. Crowding into the third floor auction rooms were more than 1000 people to watch a purely financial operation. The terms of the spectacle can be briefly outlined.

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Over the last decade or so, and par­ticularly in the early ’60s, taxi-fleet owner Robert Scull has amassed in his apartment and warehouse a large collection of modern American pain­tings. These cheaply bought treasures have always been dear to his heart, and a source of constant pleasure to him and Mrs. Scull. In 1965 he sold 12 of them for $165,000. In 1970 he sold four more for $197,000. At the latter auction he bought back a Rothko and a Johns since he decided that not enough money was offered. For a seller this usually means he pays the auction house five per cent on the buying in price, gets the pictures back, and lives to sell another day.

By 1975 the Sculls decided the time was ripe for another testing of the temperature. The art market, after all, thrives on exchange. If there were only four Warhol pictures in the world, each of which had been bought for $1000 in 1960, and none of which had been sold, there would be uncer­tainty and confusion about the state of the Warhol market. A sale of one of these Warhols for $50,000 pleasan­tly dissipates the confusion. As Mr. Scull has himself remarked, “art has achieved the stature of a solid com­modity” — evidently the successful sale of some of his commodities would leave the Scull warehouse in­ventory in even more splendidly solid state than ever.

Scull accordingly did a deal with Sotheby Parke-Bernet, Inc. Since neither side is forward with figures, it is necessary to make some guesses, but this is the broad picture.

The conventional procedure used to be that a seller would place his piece of art in an auction. To prevent sale of his commodity for too low a figure, injurious to pocket and self-esteem, also depreciatory of outstanding stock, he would put a reserve figure on the picture. Very often he would put a high reserve on, and the auc­tion house would accordingly put on a high estimate — i.e., the ball park figure they let it be known they thought the picture might fetch — the reserve being about two-thirds of the estimate. If the picture had to be bought in by the auction house for failing to meet its reserve, the auc­tion house would pocket five per cent of the buying in price, instead of 12 ½ per cent — if the picture had been sold — and would return the com­modity to the seller.

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Recently the Sotheby Parke-Bernet worked out an altogether more relaxing system, involving a preliminary guarantee to the seller. In this procedure the auction house guaranteed that the Sculls would receive — to make a guess — $2 million less commissions for the 50 pictures they were putting up for auction. In general such an arrangement soothes the nerves of the seller. If he were in­volved in other financial transac­tions, or (to hypothesize some imaginary seller) even under finan­cial pressure, the guaranteed sum could even be used as collateral. The seller is not prompted to put high reserves on each of his pictures, since the pictures are now regarded as a commercial unit, a global reserve is put on their total value, and a sliding plus or minus scale goes into operation.

Thus let us say that Sotheby Parke-­Bernet guaranteed Scull $2 million. The low estimated price they actually put on the 50 pictures was $1,850,000 and the high estimated price was $2,509,000. Let us say that the global reserve figure was $1.5 million, although it could well have been higher. Now the first picture in the sale was by the only woman in the sale, Lee Bontecou; the low estimated price was $8000. It sold for $7500. Let us assume that it had been sold for $5000, below an expected reserve price; the auctioneer need not necessarily buy the picture in, since the next picture might go for a sum in excess of the estimate, thus re-averaging the reserve scale.

If, of course, the entire collection fetched less than $2 million, then the auctioneer’s commission would in­crease — taking in the 7½ per cent guarantee commission as well as the 12½ per cent selling commission in order to reduce the deficit against the guaranteed sum promised the seller.

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However, speaking now in the sim­ple terms of a one-picture sale, the auctioneers might decide to buy the picture in. In this case they retain the picture, and can sell it the next time they feel the market is riper. So let us say they have bought in a picture for $100,000. They charge the seller 12½ per cent auctioneers’ commission, plus a guarantee com­mission of 7½ per cent. In all, therefore, the auctioneers get a slice of $20,000 plus the actual commodity: and the seller gets his guaranteed $80,000. At this point, terrible bayings of rage can be heard from dealers, whose business lies in inventory and who say that the auctioneer’s func­tion is merely to be an entrepot, not another dealer in thin disguise, gradually accumulating an inventory of his own.

It is impossible to know what precise deal Sotheby Parke-Bernet and Scull made. One can assume that an elaborate system of sliding per­centages was laid out. If, for exam­ple, the pictures had fetched, say, $4 million, one imagines that the auc­tioneer’s cut would correspondingly have decreased from 12½ per cent, since the 7½ per cent guarantee commission could have already become inoperative.

So here we are at the auction. Everybody hopes it will go well: Sotheby Parke-Bernet because they have guaranteed Scull about $2 million; Scull because he has a lot of other pictures in his warehouse and has his artistic entrepreneurial macho to consider; the dealers because it is always nice if a whole new generation of gilt-edged artistic commodities have come into cir­culation. The artists hope for the best too, since — if they are fortunate enough to be still alive — dramatic selling success for an early work will help to promote later output.

In addition to the 100 or so people with real business on their minds there are about 1000 who have come along for the show — smart folk mostly. There is little panache to the horde as it fights through a picket of taxi drivers who are protesting Scull’s confiscation of the surplus from poor taxi drivers and his re-in­vestment of some of said surplus in poor artists — an arrangement which leaves Mr. Scull very rich, some ar­tists richer then they were, and the taxi drivers as rich or poor as taxi drivers will always be.

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Actually there are few things in life more depressing than an up-market art crowd: dealers in grain futures don’t get ideas above their station; somehow the tincture of aesthetic bathes every big occasion in hypocrisy, as though a napalm salesman kept asking you to admire the color of the flames. And there is something depressing about art auc­tions too: as if hundreds massed to watch some unsatisfactory sexual encounter — abundant foreplay; a mood of expectancy; then one person who wants it to stop and another who wants it to go on. In a minute or so it’s all over, and only the price to pay.

Why then is the auction groupie such a common sight? I suppose because it is somehow a pleasant enactment of the business process. You couldn’t get a smart crowd down at the New York Stock Exchange to watch a big trade in Campbell’s Soups, which lost ⅛ on the day of the auction, and closed at 51¾. On the other hand you could watch a Warhol Campbell soupcan painting sell for $12,000, at its high estimate, and then discover that Scull originally bought it for under $100 from Leo Castelli galleries in the early ’60s, thus realizing 12,000 per cent profit on his can. Thus people can have a good laugh about capitalism and celebrate it too.

The auction gets under way. There is bidding on closed circuit TV from the outlying rooms, and lines open to London and Los Angeles. The com­modities are dragged onto the stage; the auctioneer quacks rapidly, and off they go. There is a little stir at the third lot: this is a cushion of sculpted urethane foam from the hand of John Chamberlain, executed in 1967. It looks a little dirty, as urethane foam so often does, and it seems that no such foam-object has ever been of­fered at auction before. The estimate is between $4000 and $6000. The bid­ding is slow, and limps to a halt at $1400.

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One would like to inspect the per­son who has ventured $1400 for the urethane foam, but as always at auctions, unless you are on top of the bidder, it is impossible to know who it is. The onlookers are in a constant lather of ignorance. And even if you see the bidder, do you really, really know what he is up to? Is he a private buyer, or a dealer, buying for a buyer, and if so is the buyer Japanese or Texan. Or is he a dealer, who is in some form of cahoots with the auctioneers? On such occasions there is generally enough insider trading going on to keep the SEC in business for decades.

We press on. Everyone is waiting to see what happens to de Kooning, There are three: the first — one I don’t like — goes for $180,000. We are armed with a form sheet, supplied by Parke-Bernet, which lists previous record prices for the artist concer­ned — a sort of Benthamite approach to art criticism. De Kooning’s previous personal best has been $45,000, so he had done splendidly tonight. The auctioneer looks happy, and the next two de Koonings, both of which I would very much like to have, sell for $60,000 and $80,000, well under their estimates.

Near where I am standing a man has been vainly bidding. He preser­ves the proper impassivity in defeat. Then the Jasper Johns Double White Map comes up. This picture represents a high point in the sale: it has been estimated at between $150,000 and $200,000. My man bids, with a little nod of the head. There are other bids. He keeps on nodding. He is still nodding at $200,000. Unseen at the other end of the gallery, someone else is nodding also, solemn-faced, in the constipated etiquette of the auction room. My man goes on nodding until $240,000. Somewhere the other man shakes his head. My man allows a relapse of his features into a minute rictus of pleasure. He has got it. His wife kisses him: then he is all sternness once more, amid a little ripple of applause. It turns out that he is Ben Heller, who has recen­tly sold a Jackson Pollock to Australia for $2 million. He finally shows all his teeth to Fred McDarrah, who tells me that Ivan Karp, who was the dealer for most of these artists originally, is listening to the Mets game through an earphone.

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On and on we go: a bored pall descends. Everyone realizes it is a matter of listening to a cash register for an hour. Johns’s beer cans sell for $90,000. Barnett Newman fetches high prices, someone exhibiting great confidence in the art restorer’s skill, since one of them has been damaged in transit and is not even in the room. Oldenberg goes for less than expected. The pictures flash by: there goes Warhol’s soup can: here come Warhol’s flowers. They go for $135,000. More applause. It’s the last big buzz of the evening. Suddenly it is all over: 50 pictures have been sold for $2,242,900.

The Sculls appear for the press. He is aggressive — Maecenas at the market, instead of in his tower; she is in evident distress. She stands nose to nose with Rauschenberg, framed nicely for photographers. “It’s disgusting, horrible” she keeps saying. They totter off down stairs, and finally a gray Checker cab bears off the Sculls, her head cradled in his lap.

Certain points have been proved. Pop art — or ‘important contemporary American painting’ as the auc­tioneers like to put it — can fetch good prices, and has made the transition from a speculative commodity to gilt-edged. Fifty dealers and private buyers, half of them from Europe and half from America, have made what they regard as good investments, Sotheby Parke-Bernet, contrary to some reports, are well pleased. They have made something over $200,000 on the evening’s activity. Scull has received a check for around $1 million. One Sotheby Parke-Bernet source tells me that five pictures were bought in. The SPB p.r. people categorically deny this.

It’s true that the artists have not made any immediate cash on the evening: but at least their penises, in the case of the living males involved, are intact. ❖

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Andy Warhol: Famous All Over Town

PITTSBURGH — The best souvenirs at last weekend’s opening of the Andy Warhol Museum might have been the T-shirts that said “ANDY VOLUNTEER.” Smacking of vintage superstar monickers, they also suggested some kind of military deployment. as though half the city of Pittsburgh had suddenly enlisted in the Warhol Reserves. And, if the A-list celebrity onslaught forecast for the three-day extravaganza never really materialized, what of it? The anonymous Warhol militia turned out in force.

For days in advance, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had rumored a glut of boldface people; crisis was even reported in the limousine sector, since the museum opening was scheduled for the same weekend as the Schenley High School prom. Would Diana Ross, said to be jetting in on her own plane, settle for a Pittsburgh Yellow Cab? What about Mick Jagger, Liza Minelli, and Madonna? How were they going to get around? Outside Rosa Villa Dinning (sic) Hall, a Family- (that family) style linguini palace across from the museum on the city’s north side, a couple of fans braced themselves for a Cindy Crawford sighting. “When Cindy comes, I’m going to run in and kneel and beg,” said Greg Bukowski. “She’ll probably just spit on you,” predicted Bukowski’s buddy John Handal. “Then you can take a picture of her spitting, and I’ll save the spit, Bukowski replied.

In the end Cindy Crawford joined most of the big star invitees in sitting out the Warhol party: loyalty in some circles is apparently billable by the hour. Still, the hundreds of folks who lined Sundusky and General Robinson streets to watch guests arrive for Friday’s $300-a-plate benefit dinner seemed ecstatic with even low-level celebrity astronomy.

“If a thousand people come, obviously 900 are not going to be brand names,” observed one paparazzo. In truth there were plenty of heavy hitters from society and the art world: Doris Ammann flew in from Zurich, Anthony d’Offay from London, and entire US Air flights were sardine-tight with dealers and curators from New York. Among the painters on hand for Friday’s black-tie dinner were Roy Lichtenstein, Francisco Clemente, Brice Marden, and Ross Bleckner, who dressed down in blue jeans and spent the evening jockeying to get cute boys moved to his table.

Although Pittsburgh is the nation’s 18th most populous city, its probably closer to the third or fourth in terms of wealth, and the city’s society ladies seemed to use the occasion as an opportunity to crack the vaults for high-wattage gems. “Normally, people would never wear jewelry to go to the North Side,” said an estate lawyer for a Forbes 400 family, as one saurian dowager staggers into the museum under the weight of a diamond-and-ruby parure. “The invitation said valet parking, though, so I guess they thought it was safe.” Better still, the society ladies may have felt it was fitting to honor Warhol by sporting their finest. It isn’t every painter, after all, who dies with 25 Cartier bracelet tucked in a drawer.

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The museum, housed in a renovated 1911 beaux arts building, opened on a cool, lovely evening in the former steel town, now known as a city of bridges and one of America’s most amenable places to live. Things were a bit different in Andy Warhol’s childhood, when the mills along the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers blacked the skies with soot, and furnaces along Second Avenue spewed tongues of fire. Over the course of the weekend, visitors would have a chance to take the Warhol Tour and visit the house-next-to-the-house on 73 Orr Street where Andy and his two brothers were born (asphalt shingles, two floors, single water closet in the basement, wretched poverties that probably looked good to Andrei and Julia Warhola at the time), the neighborhood where he was reared (set in a dreary valley know as “the Rut”), the church where his family worshipped (St. John Chrysostom, Byzantine rite Catholic), the high school where he was a star art student (Schenley High) and the department store (Joseph Horne Co.) where, as a window dresser, he launched himself into the world. What they wouldn’t get is any clear sense of how a talented Ruthenian-American kid with jug ears and a bulbous nose charted a trajectory that could carry him out of his class, out of Pittsburgh (he always claimed it was McKeesport), away from the ghetto of sexual stereotype (let’s do him the favor of remembering he was gay) and onto the face of pop (not Pop) culture, which was always Andy’s natural milieu.

They would see parts of a compendious collection that includes almost 900 paintings, 77 sculptures and collaborative works, 1500 drawings, 400 black-and-white photographs, Poloroids, photobooth strips, illustrations, 608 time capsules, the full run of Interview magazine, 2500 audiotapes and videotapes and scripts, as well as his diaries, datebooks, correspondence, and films. “It’s a relief to have so much of the work in one place so it can be properly preserved,” said Soho dealer Holly Solomon, as project architect David Mayner attempted to explain the difficulties of conserving a collection that includes fragile gold-leaf drawings, 3-D Xography, and Warhol’s nearly animate wigs.

Although many of Warhol’s early films haven’t been out of the vault in years, his Empire and Kiss played continuously throughout the weekend. “When are they going to play my films?” Warhol perennial Taylor Meade bleated, adding slyly that “twelve hours of the Empire State is a bore, my dear: I mean, one bird flies by every two hours.” Meade was one of the few Factory stalwarts to appear in Pittsburgh.

True, Ultra Violet was on hand, as was socialite Jane Holzer (she lopped the superstar prefix Baby from her name some 25 years ago). But some fans were disappointed not to see (and hear; it’s an audiovisual experience) Viva or Joe Dallesandro or Jane Forth or Donna Jordan or Brigid “Polk” Berlin or any of the surviving superstars whose infamous speed rants and pneumatic egos went a long way toward defining Warhol’s skewed worldview.

“They probably thought they’d be turned into puppets,” said Billy Name, the Factory denizen who legendarily spent two years in a closet at Warhol’s loft on Union Square. (Actually, it was a darkroom, Name’s a pho­tographer, and everyone knows how long it can take to develop pictures when you’re shooting methamphetamine.) Name and Ul­tra Violet were the weekend’s stars by de­fault, turning up incessantly on local television, compulsively presenting themselves for interviews. “Any museum is better than no museum,” declared UV, née Isabelle Du­fresne, on opening night. Taking no chances on anonymity, she’d pinned a half-­dozen rhinestone pins spelling ULTRA to her pleated purple dress. “Warhol is the imperialist artist of America,” said Ms. Vio­let. “As long as America will stand, Warhol will stand. If America will fall, Warhol will fall.”

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You could just as smartly invert the for­mulation; either way, both Warhol and the Warhol have the feel of permanence. “Recycling old buildings to show art is very im­portant,” Agnes Gund, chairwoman of the Museum of Modem Art, told the Times, in a near paraphrase of Jane Jacobs’s famous remark that “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings; new ideas must use old buildings.” The single-artist museum, com­mon enough in Europe, is still a novelty here. And any museum of the Warhol’s scope is rare. “Here we are with Andy in his tomb,” said Taylor Mead. “His temple, his heaven.” As a monument to social transformation, the Warhol Museum is an unexpectedly stirring place. For decades, Andy Warhol’s father was a laborer at the Jones & Loughlin steel mill, source of the wealth behind the great Philips Collection in Washington, D.C. Andrei Warhola was so poor that he resoled his children’s shoes with rubber tires during the Depression and left instructions at his death that his $1400 life savings were to buy Andy two years at art school. Now the “bohunk” millworker’s son from “the Rut” has his own museum in the city of Scaifes and Mellons.

“Can you believe all this?” asked George Warhola, a nephew of Andy’s who runs a North Side scrap yard. Warhola had just finished touring the building with Richard Gluckman, the architect charged with con­verting the old Frick & Lindsay building. “It puts chills in my body,” said Warhola. To a large extent the people of Pittsburgh seemed to share the feeling. By late Sunday evening, over 8000 visitors had stood in line for hours to enter the handsome terra­cotta museum. Some may have even stopped at the fourth floor vitrine in which a clipping from an ancient edition of Art Direction magazine presents Andy Warhola as a “young man on his way up.”

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“Rich folks coming through,” quipped a policeman on Friday night as Palm Beach multimillionairess Molly Wilmot teetered past on Betty Page spike heels and a Schia­parelli-pink Chanel. “I love it,” said Wil­mot, fluttering her three-inch nails. “It’s a real fest.”

Close behind Wilmot was Dennis Hop­per, whose arrival elicited almost as much excitement from the curbside crowd as that greeting Pennsylvania governor Robert Ca­sey. Hopper’s film ouevre may have reached a special plateau when he played Taylor Mead’s stand-in during the filming of the Warhol’s 1963 Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of (much of which was set in the “shark infested lagoon” of the Beverly Hills Hotel). In Pittsburgh, Hopper modestly edged his way through the crowd wearing an Armani dinner jacket that set off his mottled parchment complexion. “Isn’t that what’s his name, the guy from Easy Rider?” gasped Karen Huebner. “He looks pretty good,” said her date, “for someone who almost died.”

Hopper was followed into dinner by Pee­wee Herman, Debi Mazar, Ann-Bass, John Richardson, Michael Chow, and John Wa­ters, each receiving a commemorative Andy Warhol Museum watch from a volunteer who murmured, “Here’s your 15 minutes.” Rolling back a cuff to strap on her time­piece, Fran Lebowitz told one pesky report­er that she’d never really liked Warhol, the artist, and hadn’t much cared for Warhol, the man. Aside from professional sour­-pusses, the crowd seemed unusually giddy. “This is a room of 1000 egomaniacs,” shrilled the museum’s director Tom Arm­strong, surveying a huge rectangular tent illuminated by neon centerpieces of War­hol’s profile, each bearing a little card that read: ANDY FOR SALE ($400 plus tax). Sud­denly the Duquesne Club waitresses broke from the wings in flights carrying dessert plates laden with lemon mousse and choco­late cookies, Andy’s name written on each in fudge.

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“Timing, that’s the way to become a great artist,” said Taylor Mead. “Andy didn’t care what he did, as long as it was the right time.”

Chatting merrily, guests at Mead’s table speculated about Warhol’s notorious “Oxi­dation” pictures, painted with urine on treated canvas. “Some are Mick Jagger, I think,” one guest opined. “Some are Bianca. Some are Halston, too.”

“How can you tell whose piss is whose?” asked Barbara Allen de Kwiatkowski, the phenomenally wealthy socialite who started her career as the back-issues clerk at Interview.

“Get up close and sniff,” a tablemate replied.

Just then someone remarked that Mary McFadden had wandered into the men’s room, Fortuny-style tunic, Elizabethan hair­line and all. “She spent quite a bit of time in there,” the man said. “It was accidental, I think.”

At a service bar across the room sat a garish floral centerpiece featuring lilies, some bleary carnations, and a can of Camp­bell’s soup. Hardly anyone remembers that Cambell’s soup is owned by the Dorrance family of … Philadelphia, “Bitter rivals” as the Post-Gazette later put it, “who get the last laugh in the land of Heinz.” Such in­dustrial trivialities didn’t faze Teresa Heinz, the late senator’s wife, though. “Enjoy your evening,” Heinz, a Carnegie Institute trust­ee, instructed a crowd so boisterous that the mayor of Pittsburgh and the governor of the state both failed to silence them. “And remember that tonight we are all works of art.”

“Just don’t tell artists to suffer,” mut­tered Taylor Mead. “Don’t ever suffer for your art.” Suffering was transcended as Andy Warhol was apotheosized in Pitts­burgh to the sound of drunken laughter and the electronic chittering of a register haul­ing in cash. As party defectors drifted to­ward the Andyland exit, many stopped first at the gift shop to stock up on Warhol postcards, Warhol catalogues, Warhol post­ers, Warhol bios, Warhol notepads, and spe­cially boxed $24.95 Warhol T-shirts. While art collector Paul Walter wrote a check for his haul of Warholiana, I asked shop man­ager Jim Spitznagel what was the biggest seller so far. It was a T-shirt, he said, the one with an image of Marilyn Monroe’s lips repeated four times, in four colors, lips part­ed and full of desire. “Love Your Kiss For­ever Forever,” it’s called. ❖

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Andy Warhol: A Museum of His Own

PITTSBURGH — It’s Friday the 13th, and the Andy Warhol Museum is opening with a three-day party this city is going to remember. Warhol was never exactly God in New York, but he just became a saint in his own hometown. Pittsburgh loves Warhol. I mean loves. Nobody cares if this wasn’t always the case. This weekend, the King of Pop is ascending to his rightful throne, and there will be fireworks, literally, over the Allegheny. Warhol, of course, is dead, which is what you must be to receive the highest recognition any artist can get in this country: a major contemporary museum of your own.

The buzz is audible even at LaGuardia, where every flight to Pittsburgh is over-booked. Dealers and gossip columnists are winking at one another on the plane: the art world’s going to Pittsburgh! You can tell the Warhol people from the “real” people right away. But is wasn’t so long ago that Warhol was one of the real people. In Pittsburgh, that’s the boy they remember. The one who is soon to become an idol for every young artist, and every young queer in town. The drag queens, we are told, are dressing for the occasion. This time, Warhol is reinventing Pittsburgh, rather than abandoning it. He’s back for the long haul.

The Andy Warhol Museum is exquisite, beyond expectations. Designed by New York architect Richard Gluckman, its a vast industrial warehouse that has been turned into a $12.3 million art palace. Inside, there are six expensive spaces; a film theater; an archive floor; an addition for offices; and storage space for the thousands of Warhols in the museum’s collection. As we gaze at Warhol’s soup cans, we can glance out large windows with views of the surrounding industry that once engulfed the artist. The place is perfect.

The important questions, difficult as they are to remember throughout three days of social climbing, tours of Andy’s Pittsburgh, and a family-oriented street fair, have to do with the creation of this museum. The art world is celebrating Wahrol’s ascendancy into the pantheon, but has the artist really been let through the pearly gates? Why does he need to be isolated in a museum of his own? Was Warhol a leper, or a genius?

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Having a museum designed just for your own work must be every artist’s dream — that is, after your estate gets rejected by the Museum of Modern Art. One-person institutions are generally considered to be tacky vanity showcases: Norman Rockwell in the Berkshires. The problem with the solo museum is that the work is removed from any art-historical context, and the artist is isolated from his or her peers. The danger for Warhol is that he’ll be become singular, a potential aberration.

At first, the museum seems to lift Warhol’s reputation sky high, but there’s something bittersweet about the flight. The art is smartly installed in more or less chronological order, with a little piece of everything; the museum owns about 3000 works, and only around 500 are on display. One begins to wonder if this is the best of the lot. One also has to wonder why all these Warhols were up for grabs.

The Andy Warhol Museum is brought to us by the three cultural organizations: the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, the Dia Center for the Arts, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. “No one is quite clear how this triumvirate is going to operate. It’s never been done before,” says Mark Francis, who four and a half ears ago began as the director of the project, until Tom Armstrong (ex-director of the Whitney) was given the title, brought in to raise the additional money. Francis was renamed curator. “It’s a better description or what I do,” the good sport says. Now’s he’s the resident Warhol expert.

I want to know who’s in control. “We’re one of the Carnegie’s constituent museums,” he explains, “but we’re administered independently.” In Pittsburgh, it would be impossible to create a major institution without the Carnegie’s blessing. (Warhol was shrewd enough to have painted the patriarch’s portrait.) “The people who had the collection needed the people who knew how to make a museum,” says the curator, as if it’s a ménage a trois made in heaven. “Having three boards is difficult,” he admits.

The art came from the Warhol estate (owned by the Foundation) and Dia, the only American institution that carefully and thoroughly collected Warhol in the ’70s. “There’s a low percentage of Warhol’s work in New York museums,” the curator asserts. “The Modern has the gold Marilyns, and private collectors own some major works, but the Europeans really collected him early on. Warhol’s been considered a serious artist in Europe for the past 25 years,” says Francis, who is English. Here, Warhol’s reputation remains shaky in an art world that currently thinks everything after Abstract Expressionism is controversial.

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Now that Clement Greenberg’s dead, certain critics and curators will try to reinvent formalism. (Talk about “boring,” to cite Andy.) One might easily argue that Warhol needs a museum of his own to secure his position in the history of art — not an easy task. The Pop movement has been largely disowned. “Pop’s a loaded term,” says Francis. “It’s reducible to something ephemeral, as if people can’t distinguish between a can and a painting,” he adds, with disgust. “Pop is about the transformation of these sources into art.”

One of the most fascinating parts of the museum’s collection is a trove of Warhol’s source material, on display in glass cases on every floor. (The archive also contains the artist’s “time capsules,” cardboard boxes of things he collected, which were dated and stored.) In proximity to the Mao paintings, one of which is a monumental 15 feet tall, we see a tiny photo of the chairman clipped form one of his books; it looks like a Warhol! Warhol’s graphic skills are lauded in his museum, not buried like a dirty secret. To understand the art, one must first appreciate Warhol’s facility to reproduce what he saw and then move further into the imagery. Mao wallpaper is a far cry form the chairman’s portrait on the cover of his little red book.

This retrospective offers a definitive look at Warhol, despite complaints from the crowd that some of his greatest hits are missing. It doesn’t matter. There’s more than enough to see and lots of years for the museum to keep collecting. (“The Norton Simon has 200 Brillo boxes in its base­ment,” says Francis with envy.) There are revelations in this show, especially on the sixth floor, which alone makes an unexpect­ed argument for the importance of the art­ist. We begin with a room full of early draw­ings, sketches, and illustrations, mostly from the ’50s, that I suspect few people have seen. We meet the private Warhol and the commercial Warhol, when his talent was just beginning to be put down on pa­per. If anyone has any doubt (not to men­tion qualms) that Warhol was gay, here’s the evidence. I’m not talking about a style or sensibility, I’m talking about erotic and romantic images of men: in one particularly tender drawing, he decorated an erect penis with flowers, wrapping the gift with a rib­bon around its middle.

Warhol wasn’t exactly in the closet (where many of his contemporaries still re­side), but he never made his personal sexuality public. “Drella,” as some called him, was never embraced as a homosexual artist. Gayness, at least when it’s upfront, can still be a disadvantage for male artists; for lesbi­ans it’s virtually fatal. Warhol seemed to play, quite happily, the role of the asexual. He was a man with no country and no sexuality. It was an act that obviously worked — while he was alive. But one won­ders, now that he’s gone, if it’s possible to speak openly about the artist’s sexuality. Mark Francis doesn’t want to. “I’m not into agendas,” he says.

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Let’s go back to the imagery on the sixth floor, where an early-’60s room of soup-can paintings, Coca-Cola canvases, telephones, and factory-box sculptures takes us right to the core of Warhol’s radical intervention into art history. There’s a story, one of countless, that goes like this: Warhol initial­ly painted two versions of his world famous Coke bottle. One was drippy and moody, while the other was flat and clear. He took them both to his friend, documentary film­maker Emile de Antonio (who credits himself with the discovery of artist Frank Stel­la) and asked him which he liked better. “D” went with the flat version, which is in the museum — and the rest is history (no one knows where the other one is). A few early soup-can paintings, however, are quite evocative; one shows a squeezed Camp­bell’s can spurting up a phallic stream of soup. A group of Warhol’s later “Oxida­tion” canvases, made with a combination of paint and urine, are oxidizing on the top floor of the museum.

We’re supposed to take the elevator to the seventh floor and walk down the stairs, just like Barneys or the Guggenheim. One of the museum’s coups is an installation of Shadows (on loan from Dia), which has been shown only once, in 1978, the year it was made. Fifty-five glossy canvases, from a series of 102, wrap around the room like painting-wallpaper, creating an arena for viewers in the middle. The image (a detail of a photograph taken in Warhol’s studio), repeated throughout in different color combinations, is entirely abstract, which is what makes the series an unusual event in War­hol’s career. Shadows is dramatic, but it’s one of the artist’s least moving and most schematic works.

The amazing discoveries to be made about Warhol are in the varieties of his serial “reproductions,” many of which, of course, were not mechanical reproductions at all. We can scrutinize the works, distin­guishing silkscreen images from hand-paint­ed stencils from paintings that look like silkscreens. The confusion is brilliant. It’s like any confusion between life and art, or between what is genuine and what is not. Warhol was the first painter to play with these issues. Today, we all assume that nothing’s real and everything is, potentially, art.

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Warhol’s particular genius lay in his abili­ty to select what is ordinary to everyone, everyone except the factory laborer who actually makes the item, and turn it into art. He had the Midas touch. Yes, as a person he was obsessed with the rich and famous (not unlike the rest of the world), but his aesthetic was entirely democratic. “A Coke is a Coke,” Warhol once said, “and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.” A small painting of a sheet of S&H green stamps looks, at first glance, as unremarkable as the real thing. But it’s a noteworthy, beautiful, painstakingly de­tailed homage.

What makes Warhol’s endeavor so com­plex is that any work can be read at least two ways. Is his well-known series of Elec­tric Chairs pro or con capital punishment? Should we celebrate the company that brings us Brillo, or the proles stuck using those brutal scrub pads? Warhol came from the latter group and spent his life trying to move up and away; the museum is trying to celebrate both ends of his life — in the War­hol tradition. At one dinner, each table has a bouquet of products from Heinz, Brillo, etc., as if this were a corporate convention.

It is Warhol’s range of works — not the fanfare — that fills the museum with electric­ity. Here’s an artist who didn’t do the same thing all his life, who allowed his obsessions to blossom. A room with silver helium-filled balloons takes us back instantly to the ’60s, when art could be just plain fun; you can enter this installation and have a pillow fight with perfect strangers. A complete col­lection of Interview — Warhol’s vehicle to the stars — is on display, and his movies, a critical part of his enterprise, are well-inte­grated into the retrospective. Many people first entered Andyland through his experi­mental movies. On the first floor, there’s a comfortable screening room (which showed films continually all weekend) and upstairs Kiss plays, endlessly, in a dark side room, as if it were a moving image — precisely what it is — hanging on a wall. It may be the most successful integration of film into a gallery experience, ever. Walking down, floor by floor, we meet Elvis, Jackie, Ethel, a room full of skulls that, much to my amazement, do not seem the least bit cliché. His collaborations with Basquiat, including a series of painted, ready-made punching bags, are his least in­teresting objects, but their existence feels poignant: there’s a connection between the artists that has less to do with their tragic deaths than how they each lived their art. The ground floor, which shows the late portraits and self-portraits, is the weakest section. Not that I wouldn’t take any one of these paintings home, it’s just that they don’t reveal much about the artist, or his subjects. (Picasso made a lot of bad work, too, and he’s got his own museum.)

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Warhol has never looked so good, or so significant, which is exactly what a retro­spective exhibition should demonstrate. When we see more, rather than less, the body of work must get richer, more compel­ling. Scholars will feast on this museum. Just the glass boxes holding innumerable things, such as party invitations, auto­graphs, rock ‘n’ roll albums, tape recorders, and a personal letter from president-elect Richard Nixon inviting Warhol to make rec­ommendations to his cabinet, offer a de­tailed picture of the artist and his milieu. Warhol not only looks original, but surpris­ingly contemporary, like the most influen­tial artist of the last few decades. He looks like he deserves his own museum. The im­pact of Warhol’s work on American culture was hard and fast, but this museum is going to slowly carry this work into the future, for posterity. The gatekeepers, in the end, have no choice. ❖

Categories
ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Denny O’Neil: Writing Seminal Comics in the East Village

EDITOR’S NOTE
Much has gone missing in 2020: facts, civility, partying, and, here in the Apple, the annual New York Comic Con. The convention was supposed to take place within the glass and cement confines of the Javits Center from today until Sunday, but has moved, thanks to Covid-19, to a pixilated screen near you.

Another blow: the larger comics realm lost one of its heroes in June, writer Dennis O’Neil. In a short autobiography that appeared in DC Comics’ Showcase #83 (June 1969, featuring his new sword and sorcery character, Nightmaster), O’Neil wrote, “Born May 3, 1939, St. Louis, MO. Parents weren’t aware that my first name is derived from that of a Greek god, Dionysius — god of revels, fantasy, and making-a-fool-of-oneself. Parents weren’t aware, but oh me, oh my, they were prophetic.” He also notes that he had a “usual midwestern childhood, which included large doses of make-believe, fueled by movies and — yep! — comic magazines.” In college, O’Neil studied English Lit, creative writing, and philosophy, then spent time in the Navy, making “the world safe for democracy by deluging the enemy in mounds of press releases.” After discharge he spent time hitchhiking around the country, and ultimately returned to the “Show Me” State to work as a reporter.

But in the mid-1960s, O’Neil’s interest in comics was rekindled when a friend, comics editor Roy Thomas, suggested he take the Marvel Comics writer’s test, which consisted of filling in blank dialogue balloons from a few Fantastic Four pages. O’Neil was soon writing scripts for Millie the Model. But, as the pseudonym he began using — Sergius O’Shaughnessy, cribbed from the name of the fighter-pilot protagonist in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park — portended, O’Neil was seeking higher planes of storytelling. Around this time he moved to NYC’s East Village, where he began writing the stories that would place him in the pop-cult pantheon.

Anyone who has seen Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy on the big screen has witnessed the villainous exploits of two O’Neil creations: Ra’s and Talia al Ghul. Both came out of O’Neil’s and artist Neal Adams’s reboot of the Batman franchise in the early 1970s, which replaced the campy glow of the 1960s TV show with noir grit.

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O’Neil’s East 2nd Street digs influenced his characters’ looks and attitudes, most prominently in his run on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow title. Beginning in April 1970 (#76), O’Neil brought the cosmos-roaming Green Lantern down to earth, where the Robin Hood–esque Green Arrow schooled him in the ways of crooked landlords. The masterful Adams enhanced O’Neil’s street-level script with dead-on depictions of dilapidated tenement buildings and boarded-up businesses. In one of the most famous panel sequences in comic book history, a black Everyman confronts the lofty Green Lantern, matter-of-factly noting, “I been readin’ about you. How you work for the blue skins, and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins. And you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with — the black skins! I want to know how come? Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!” Living in the East Village, O’Neil had seen plenty to convince him that intergalactic crime fighters were not the answer to America’s ever-pressing social problems. And so his superhero answered, “I . . . can’t.”

But ever the optimist, the writer soon sent the superhero duo to battle greedy mine owners, crooked judges, racist cult leaders, and other villains of the Nixon era. O’Neil always hung his heart on the sleeves of his characters, one reason his earnest scripts have transcended their time. (The GL / GA run is perennially reprinted.) And certainly, the evil the heroes confronted back then has never gone out of fashion. O’Neil’s own struggles with alcoholism probably colored his ground-breaking plotlines dealing with drug addiction, which won many industry accolades and a proclamation from the office of then mayor John Lindsay. In a later tale, Green Lantern is almost blown to bits when a Weather Underground–style group destroys a townhouse; Adams’s imagery is very similar to newspaper reports (including those here in the Voice) of an actual event that took place on West 11th Street.

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

In addition to photos of the blasted dwelling, that March 12, 1970, issue of the Voice also included the headline “Armies of the Night: Drilling for 1972,” for an article about protests against the Vietnam War and concerns over a possible second term for Nixon. In a 2018 interview, O’Neil noted that early in his career, the Village Voice was “sort of my community paper,” and one could wonder if the writer was recalling that Voice front page when he quoted Mailer’s Armies of the Night in GL / GA #79: “Deliver us from our curse. For we must end on the road to that mystery where courage, death, and the dream of love give promise of sleep.”

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No doubt the Village itself and the Voice (of which Mailer was a founder) influenced O’Neil’s worldview. While Marvel unabashedly set tales of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, and other super beings in New York City (even the outer boroughs), DC was more reticent, with Superman flying around “Metropolis” and Batman prowling “Gotham.” There was precedent for this: Perhaps the most noir of New York settings are found in Will Eisner’s Spirit masterpieces, which the Brooklyn-born writer and artist set in “Central City.” Still, when Eisner introduced his raw-fisted, wise-cracking crime fighter’s arch-nemesis, The Octopus, in 1946, the tale closed with the evil mastermind lighting a cigarette on the corner of 43rd and Times Square. O’Neil similarly elided settings, evoking the ramshackle neighborhood he called home in a scene where a wounded Green Arrow cannot find a working payphone. In his own creations, free of any DC backstories, O’Neil favored reality, landing a character such as Nightmaster on the bandstand of “The Electric Band Aid in the East Village.”

Knowing what a fan the comics virtuoso was of his home turf and its “community paper,” we thought we’d see if the Voice card catalog scored any “O’Neil, Dennis,” hits.

Alas, only one, and it’s a pan. As everyone knows, always more fun to read. —R.C. Baker

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s Indigo?!?

By Dennis O’Neil

March 21, 1977

SUPER-FOLKS. By Robert Mayer. Dial. $8.95, $3.95 paper.

Someday soon somebody will produce the Great American Comic Book. Surely, there is an ambitious, post-McLuhan kid somewhere who recognizes the essence of the superhero form, the instant mythologizing of contemporary events through the telling of extravagant lies, and is ready to perfect it as cartoon narrative or music or film or even as prose. According to the promotional material accompanying Robert Mayer’s novel SuperFolks, the people at Dial believe Mayer is that kid. They’re wrong.

Not that Mayer is hopelessly inept. With seasoning, he could be pretty good; there’s no reason why he couldn’t write a decent Batman or Spider-Man script, for instance — and, in fact, while a reporter for Newsday, he did write 1/25th of the 1969 spoof, Naked Came the Stranger. But in Super-Folks he has virtually ignored that potential and has opted to be simultaneously cute and relevant. What he’s attempted to do is use superhero conventions in a double-thrusted satire of society and of the comics themselves. Unfortunately, his insight into his first subject is banal, and he has only a dilettante’s knowledge of his second. The result is the kind of smarmy hipness that characterized the godawful Batman television show of the mid-1960s.

Like the writers of the television show, he begins with a fairly standard plot, a variation on the “lost powers” theme. Superman — called, for some forlorn reason, “Indigo” — has hung up his cape and is living the life of a bedroom-community patriarch under the alias David Brinkley. (Everyone in Super-Folks is famously named, not the happiest of comedic inspirations. Brinkley works for a metropolitan daily headed by Punch Rosenthal; he has encounters with a beggar, Nelson Rockefeller, and a  detective, Kojak; his nemesis is the deadly chemical Cronkite, from the planet where he was born to Edith and Archie, before being adopted on Earth by Franklin and Eleanor. And so on.) Gradually Brinkley realizes that he has not lost his superhumanity, as he had thought, and finds himself drawn into a confrontation with the arch enemy every superhero must have.

Not bad, taken simply as the sort of tall tale all superhero stories basically are, and Mayer should have concentrated on realizing it. But he isn’t content to be a storyteller; he has larger, or at least different, ambitions. His opening sentences announce his intentions: “There were no more heroes. Kennedy was dead, shot by an assassin in Dallas. Batman and Robin were dead, killed when the Batcar [sic] slammed into a bus carrying black children to school in the suburbs.” This is the ploy he uses throughout the book, juxtaposing the real and imaginary, and letting the consequent absurdities make his satirical points.

The idea might seem original to those who believe culture is the stuff taught in college literature courses. But those whose taste is more eclectic, who can cherish William Gaddis and Garry Trudeau equally, will find it awfully familiar —after the comic strips of Trudeau and Jules Feiffer, the science fiction of Samuel R. Delany and Phillip Jose Farmer, Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and, of course, Lenny Bruce’s nightclub routines. In short, it’s been done — originally and arguably best by Bruce — and Mayer has nothing new to contribute.

Mayer’s choice of satirical targets js as unoriginal as his literary device: suburbia, the mob, Abzug liberals, Buckley conservatives, conspiracy theorists, adolescent sex — it is as though Mayer were assembling Johnny Carson one-liners for a Modern Language Association stag party.

Despite Mayer’s failure as a social commentator, he still might have produced a funny book if he’d been able to be amusing on comics. But he seems unfamiliar with the subject, as if he hadn’t read a comic in the last 10 years. For the costumed world-saver set is no longer defined merely by extrahuman abilities and Boy Scout ethics. Mayer’s version of Superman hang-ups and hassles would lampoon the Superman concept only if the original hadn’t long since done the same. Benton and Newman could get laughs by portraying the Man of Steel as a nebbish because when their musical Superman was on Broadway comics were relatively unsophisticated. Now, however, superhero scenarists routinely give their characters a full catalogue of interpersonal and existential anxieties; their readers have come to expect them. Again, Mayer’s gimmicks are too familiar to be entertaining. If Super-Folks fails as satire and as humor, what’s left is for it to succeed as a thriller. Here, Mayer is almost a winner. He does write a hell of a climactic fight — grand, cosmic violence with a splendid twist ending. But this doesn’t begin until the last fifth of the novel and that’s way too late. Preliminary skirmishes, to delight us with the hero’s feats and to establish the possibility of the villain’s eventual triumph, are lacking, and since much of the art of the grandiose lie is in the building of anticipation through tantalizing hints at the punch line, this is fatal. Mayer shows us a lot of David Brinkley (Clark Kent) and not enough Indigo (Superman): he emphasizes the cocoon at the expense of the butterfly. Consequently, his climax is too isolated to be satisfying. So, in the end, it is as flat and disappointing as, well, a comic book without cartoons.

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

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ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Man Behind the Monsters

The Man Behind the Monsters

I first looked at Famous Mon­sters of Filmland back in the sixth grade. Remember: the dark night of our prepubescent souls really arrived at 11 p.m. Friday nights, when Roderick came on and hosted Shock Theater with his assistant, Igor, the personification of what would happen to us if we didn’t sit up straight in class. Our monster club had its weekly meeting on Friday nights, and at one meeting vice-president Brent Griffiths held aloft a pulpy, picture-strewn maga­zine pinched firmly between the thumb and forefinger of his warted chartreuse monster gloves, and said, ”Gentlemen, note this.” We gathered around. As we read the synopsis of The Crawling Eye, a film we’d seen together a few weeks before, and looked over the many stills from Them and It Came From Be­neath the Sea, we knew as inexor­ably as Carl Denham’s hunch about King Kong that here was something significant, something larger than life. 

Today, Famous Monsters of Filmland is the oldest, best monster magazine in the world. It and three other horror comics — Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella — stir deep, deep in the dark, still heart of every complete newsstand and sell for a buck apiece. Nearly three million people read them every year: they are translated into Ger­man, French, and Spanish and are the living embodiment of the most ghoulish publishing empire in the world: Warren Magazines. 

Despite all this big news, I have been waiting to talk to founder and publisher James Warren for 15 years. I walked into the lower east side building along with two delivery boys who were both eating sandwiches. Checking the directory, I found out that, yes, Captain Company, Warren’s mail-order Disneyland of Monsterdom, was also on floor seven. With two boys in the elevator, everything smelling of hamburgers, I thought, “Mundane, mundane, won’t you fellows cease? I’m on my way to meet, in one form or another, the Maker. This is not your ordinary day.” I’d skipped lunch myself, anticipation overwhelming flesh. Face it, I’m going to the source.

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He’d already put me off twice. The first time he was seeing his distributor in St. Louis; the second time I’d called he’d said, “The hell you are! Why, yes, of course. No. not now, we’ve got a deadline. Eerie people are sleeping on the couches. I slept here last night myself and I’m leaving for France at four. Come Wednesday. I’ve got some stuff will knock your eyes out…”

I closed my eyes when the elevator stopped, took what breath I could, and stepped off into Warren’s realm. The lobby is small and tastefully strange. Several poster-size covers from Creepy and Eerie are framed on the wall. There is a red vinyl sheet with “Red Carpet” printed on it, and on the little black marquee behind the receptionist it says: “Welcome today to” and then my name. They’re ready for me.

When I say my name the girl jumps up and opens a door. “This way. Would you like some coffee?”

“Yes.”

We walk past another secretary and into the inner sanctum: Warren’s office. He comes around his large, strangely cleared, L-shaped desk in a thin tie and light blue denim-like sportcoat. He looks like Mort Sahl cleaned up.

“I’m…”

“Who cares, Ron?” He pumps my hand and starts asking me questions. He talks very fast, asking me about myself and my old monster club. “There are hundreds now — yours must have been one of the first.” He nods when I tell him my favorite horror films: still The Crawling Eye (“wasn’t that a great ESP sequence?” he adds), The Body Snatcher before I saw it again. And Dracula’s Daughter, especially the opening and the bridge scene. There is something about Warren’s enthusiasm in interviewing me and talking about these films that puts me on his side before I really want to be. It reminds me of the personal newsletter quality of Famous Monsters, the letter section of which is jammed with notes and photos from readers dressed as their favorite monsters. “Wanted: More readers like Eddie Carbunkle.” And then the photo of Eddie dressed up to look like a 14-year-old weeping lesion.

Finally Warren settles down a little and says, “Okay, shoot, what do you want to know?” I want to know why a grown man would start a monster magazine. And I’m going to be, I remember, hard nosed about it.

Directly behind him on the wall hangs a handsomely-framed six-foot poster of the daughter of his imagination: Vampirella. Actually a combination of Vampira and Barbarella, Vampirella struts about, star of her own continuing series magazine, bat on finger, in high-heel boots and thigh straining, nipple-contoured costume. Originally from the planet Drakulon, where everybody drinks blood as part of the normal diet, she now wanders through picaresque adventures on earth, taking blood substitute to prevent her blood-lust from taking over. When it does, however, she metamorphoses into her bat-persona and latches onto the nearest evil-doer’s jugular. Her life size poster is available from Captain Company for $2.98.

Warren’s entire office seems caught in the schizoid split between New York executive and Captain Company kitsch. One wall is almost covered with his magazine covers: it is a monster fan’s dream (nightmare?) newsstand. The covers — bright, multi-colored, usually air brushed renderings of a charging crowd of neanderthals, or a girl in the worst part of a tattered bikini being carried away by the real creature of one of the lagoons, or a Frank Frazetta Vampirella, her arms skyward, breasts jutting, pelvis thrust and shadowed — are a great part of Warren Magazines’ appeal. It is the covers of the three Warren horror-comics that have given them such prominence in the art-comic world.

The office bookshelves are full of his magazines, deluxe zombie masks that go for 40 bucks from Captain Company, many glossy, coffee-table books about comics, pulp and comic art, and monster films. A three-foot-tall inflated blue hand clenches by itself in the corner. One wall is smattered with photos and awards that he has received over the years; at 43 he is already considered, even as an independent (“Warren Publishing is not one of the big syndicates, one of the ‘big-money boys’ ”), the number-two man in the entire comic industry, right behind Carmine Infantino, head of National Periodical Publications (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel). There is a photo of Warren looking serious in an aviator’s cap, standing on a tank in Israel, where he went last fall to see how it was going. There is a photo of Warren looking amused, standing next to the “Ackermonster,” Forrest J. Ackerman, the editor of Famous Monsters. There is a photo of bachelor Warren looking sunburned, standing next to an unidentified woman beside the red-striped Warren helicopter somewhere in Greece.

Born in South Philadelphia, the same area that gave us Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Eddie Fisher, James Warren was the only child of immigrants who both worked at the clothing store his father managed. Warren developed an overactive imagination as a child because his parents left him alone all day, and at night he’d listen to the radio and draw pictures of the heroes he fantasized. “I’d stay up until 10 or 11 with my parents’ blessing, as long as I got up to go to school: I became a night person. When I wrote stories, drew monsters or supermen, my parents encouraged.”

Warren spent his 25-cent-a-week allowance on comic books until he got a job at a newsstand where he worked until midnight and consumed every comic that came his way. That was World War II. What did he read? “The new comics: Superman and Batman, the great literature of the times. And I read The Spirit, by Will Eisner, which formulated a lot of my present thinking.” Warren is bringing back The Spirit as a Warren magazine this year.

World War II printed itself indelibly on his mind as he listened to the radio and longed desperately to fly a P-38, a huge model of which he now has in his apartment. “When Korea broke out,” says Warren. “I broke my mother’s heart and enlisted. Tanks. By God, I was gonna get some war stories of my own.”

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HIs war experience, like all things imagined too heavily ahead of time, was disappointing. He returned aimless and restless, lived at home and read Variety, compulsively, “to fantasize that I had something to do with show business.” For three years he worked as assistant advertising manager for Caloric Range Company in Philadelphia, and when Playboy appeared in 1953, Warren watched Hefner’s success and in pipe-dream envy formulated a plan.

After all, he was a businessman, wasn’t he? Wily, profit-oriented, raised on the newsstands? So he quit Caloric and started a magazine called After Hours. “It was a poor imitation of Playboy, one of the first… it showed… girls with naked breasts.” He was promptly arrested, fingerprinted, and booked by the candidate for district attorney. SMUT PEDDLER APPREHENDED! Warren lowers his voice just a little now and leans across the desk as if still embarrassed by the incident. “The headlines were the largest in Philadelphia since Japan surrendered. I was also indicted in Elizabeth, New Jersey, because, as I found out later, the guy was running for office there, too. That was the only issue of After Hours. The case was eventually thrown out. “But that was the low point of my life,” War­ren recalls. 

Already an avid student of culture (he had been right all along with After Hours), Warren was amazed when horror films stopped scaring kids in the mid 1950s. Television had already made some seriously in­tended monster flicks miss and fall into the ever-widening margin of campness. Shock Theater had added, right in the familiarity of our own homes, a spoofiness to horror films — even Frankenstein — that they would never again completely shake. Warren found kids laughing in monster matinees where 10 years before they had only drawn sketchy breath between clenched teeth. It is time, he thought, for a magazine on the monsters from films. 

When he tried to get the money for the first issue of a magazine with the longest title in the country, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Warren was repeatedly told three things (Warren tells this part of the story with the relish all men who have succeeded use when they speak of early oppres­sors, and he gestures, counting the items on his fingers): 1.) It will never sell; there’s no market; 2.) The title is too long; and 3.) You’re nuts. But he scrounged up the funds, and in the winter of 1958, a one-shot magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by Forrest J. Ackerman, appeared on the stands. I was 11 at the time, and my close associate Brent Griffiths (wherever he may be) was part of the reason that FM’s first printing sold out.

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From the beginning, Famous Monsters has been a fanzine, con­cerned with its many readers, pub­lishing their names and addresses for pen pals, their photos, their photos dressed as Dracula (or his victim), sponsoring monster quizzes; and Ackerman, known as the Ackermonster, Count Ackula, Forry, and 4-E to his many fans, gets thousands of letters daily. The magazine still consists, as it did when I first read about The Crawling Eye, of horror flick synopses and stills from the films. There are also features on how make-up men create apes, wolves, and victims of radia­tion out of ordinary, you know, peo­ple. Tributes to newly dead horror stars appear with stills and lists of their films. 

The Ackermonster has a lust for puns that has made the magazine the most pun-ridden in the world. Headlines, captions, stories, even elegies of actors writhe in the agony of watery double-entendre. “Mirdraculous Discovery!” “He nibbled on things a man was not meant to gnaw.” Grave robbers really dig people. Yechcetera! Yechcetera!

Warren estimates his average audience to be 11 ½ years old, but the fan mail spans four generations. In a recent contest for the youngest and oldest readers, the winners were four days and 93 years old respectively. 

“A large group of our most devoted fans seem to be about,” and he looks at me the way one looks at something one has created, “your age.” Many of the people now in their late 20s who were early FM fans have gone on to work on horror films, and Warren has an impressive list of sound technicians, make-up men, and even producers who thank the magazine for some part of their success. Bill Mohalley has been reading it since he was 13, and wanted to work for Warren after reading the first issue. He’s now art director of FM.

Famous Monsters has had as many imitators as Playboy over the years, but the stability of format and layout, and Ackerman’s ungodly collection of over 35,000 stills, have defeated attacks by the erratic and cluttered fly-by-night competitors. The most serious threat now is a tabloid called The Monster Times, started by two people who used to work for Warren. It covers the same route Famous Monsters does, with added features on comic book heroes and monsters. Castle of Frankenstein is by far the most scholarly and analytical of the monster film rags, but it comes out so erratically as to be negligible.

Warren’s other three magazines, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, are the ones under competitive assault. Both small entrepreneurs and large outfits like Cadence Industries (Marvel) are fighting for the weird comic audience: Vampire Tales, Dracula Lives, Tales of the Zombie, Crypt Terror, Weird Fantasy, Shock, Crypt of Terror, Scream, Nightmare, Psycho, Tales From the Tomb, and many others all bite, claw, and scratch for newsstand space. But so far none has really been able to match the superlative cover art and the consistently high level and daring of the Warren magazine graphics. “Art is first with me,” he says, “and then graphics.” Warren is regarded as a maverick, and his habit of recruiting the best artists from all over the world and then giving them total freedom has paid off.

“Here, come here, look at this.” Warren motions for me to come around the desk. He points to a photo taped to the desk drawer. “You know who that is? That’s Stan Lee of ‘the big money boys’ (he means Marvel), and every time I start to get lazy I look at him. Hell, no, I don’t consider any of these imitations compliments! There is only so much horror room on the shelf and they cut into it.” Warren has already defeated Lee’s The Haunt of Horror and Monster Madness, and Warren and Lee came to the edge of a lawsuit a year ago when both of their magazines came out the same month “coincidentally” featuring a female vampire named “Satana.”

Then James Warren makes the golden announcement: “Now, want to see Captain Company?” Out two doors and down a short hall we enter this warehouse of ghoulish delights. All four of Warren’s magazines have only one advertiser: Captain Company, and the last 12 or so pages of each issue teem with ads from this largest monster-oriented mail order house in the country. At one time or another I have wanted everything they offer, and the stuff ranges from the edifying to the very limits of bad taste, “Make-up accessories! Fangy evil teeth! (Outsized incisors to tear people’s hearts out.) Scar Stuff! Vampire Blood! Ugly Kit!”; “Mystery package — do you dare buy it?”; “Hong Kong Gorilla” — seven feet tall, vinyl; monster posters; t-shirts (“Folks will lose their lunch when they see you in this shirt!”); monster books and monster films. As we stroll through the aisles it’s like being backstage for a simultaneous production of every horror film ever made. We pass bins of masks, hands, and feet. Warren stops from time to time. He picks up a “Glow Werewolf” kit and points to the well-known brand name. “See, we send out quality stuff. When some kid saves his money to buy the werewolf, we at Warren think he should get his money’s worth.” I am giddy from being surrounded by such great junk; I covet all of it. Warren rolls up a poster and hands it to me; my eyes must have done something, because he says, “As a momento.”

On one side several aisles of Captain Company resemble a library, and Warren points out stacks and stacks of the back issues of his magazines. Current and back issues of his live and dead magazines (he’s had several cease publication) are offered for sale, and sometimes the prices show that even magazines published in the ’60s are now collec­tors’ items. Famous Monsters of Filmland takes up most of the space. There are now over 105 issues, many completely unavailable. Issue number one has sold for $100. Next we come to Spacemen (1960), 10 issues, “Ahead of its time, it dealt with spacemen of the past and pre­sent”; Wildest Westerns (1961–63), a kind of famous cowboys of film­land; Help (1960–65) a personality lampoon, “a magazine for tired minds,” which Warren worked on with Mad’s Harvey Kurtzman; then three one-issue photo balloon maga­zines based on horror films: Curse of Frankenstein, The Mole People, and Horror of Party Beach, all 1964; and then Creepy (1964–present); Eerie (1965–present); and Vampirella (1967–present). In the mid-’60s Warren put out the most unlikely of his menagerie of maga­zines: Blazing Combat, a black and white war-art comic featuring the master artists of his other magazines, but in a new format. “Bold realism of battle fury! Illustrated front line action!” It lasted only a few issues. Leafing through a copy it seems no more gory than the axe­-ident prone pages of Creepy: “But,” Warren says, “it shows the real, the gory side of war. The whole country was thinking about Viet Nam and… well,” he smiles, “a little ahead of its time.” Back issues of Blazing Combat are rare and go for more than triple the original price.

Warren confesses that without a family he does tend to treat his staff as one. He knows all the wives’ and kids’ names and birthdays; every employee gets his own birthday off. In fact, everybody works his own hours. (Talking to his secretary alone, she told me Warren himself works 15–18 hours a day. He is the first one in and the last one home, spending many nights at the office.) Warren Publishing is his fantasy made fact, his life. “I want people who like what they’re doing, and letting them work when they want insures that. If they don’t feel like coming in, they shouldn’t.”

On my way out we pass the coffers of monster pins adjacent to Captain Company and in a seizure of boldness I say, “Could I…”

“Of course,” he says, and he’s quickly dipping into the piles of Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, and Vampirella pins.

“Thanks.”

“Good luck.”

Descending to the street I madly latch all seven pins to my coat and rattle out, berserk, to grab a taxi.

That night at a cocktail party, miles away, when I pinned Frankenstein to the coat of a friend of mine who teaches English at a private school, his eyes flew into that particular conflagration I shared, that torchfire, that sympathy for the monster we all know as youth.