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Frank O’Hara: He Made Things and People Sacred

It was 3 a.m. of a Saturday night on Fire Island, pitch black on the beach except for the head­lights of a disabled taxi and those of another jeep headed its way, sloughing through deep ruts at maybe 25 miles an hour.

Frank O’Hara, one of nine tem­porarily stranded passengers, stood alone off in the darkness, his companion and friend J.J. Mitchell wasn’t sure just where. Within inches of the crippled taxi, the second jeep churned past. Evidently O’Hara was just turning to face a blaze of its lights when it ran him down.

Panicked, Mitchell rushed to him. O’Hara stirred, then muttered something. He was in a rage. His delirious fury made it hard to hold him still during the efficient relay from jeep to police boat to ambulance to tiny Bayview Hospital in a place called Mastic Beach. There he subsided, however, and was examined, then laced with innumerable stitches. The doctor was encouraging: contusions, gashes, shock, and a badly smashed left leg, but nothing ostensibly lethal.

Then around dawn O’Hara’s blood pressure fell. Pints of rare RH-negative blood began arriving at the hospital by police car every few minutes. The exploratory operation that afternoon, when enough blood was on hand, revealed a partly ruptured liver and some damage to the kidneys, among other things: The liver, now a good deal smaller, was sewn shut; the kidneys were left for later.

Meanwhile, the New York art world was collectively thunder­struck. In 15 years as a poet, playwright, critic, curator, and universal energy source in the lives of the few hundred most creative people in America, Frank O’Hara had rendered that world wholly unprepared to tol­erate his passing.

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So Much Grace

The next day, Monday, July 25, the day of his death, he seemed to be holding his own, even improving. A very few friends were let in to see him, a few seconds apiece. In his speech at the funeral two days later, Larry Rivers, incensed at fate, said O’Hara “lay in a bed that looked like a large crib” and that he resembled “a shaped wound.” He said he had always expected Frank to be the first of his friends to die, but “romantically,” somehow, voided by his generosities and done in by his methodical excesses, not shattered by a jeep on a white sand beach. Willem de Kooning found O’Hara in terrible pain. “When I spoke his name he opened his eyes and he said, in that way of his, ‘Oh Bill, how nice!’ With such elegance! He had so much grace, that man, even through all the delirium and agony.”

At about 8:50 p.m., very suddenly, he was gone. He was 40 years old.

The sketchy obituary in the Times next morning barely mentioned his poetry, focusing on his role as an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, responsible for the recent Motherwell and Nakian shows. It also rehashed the notoriety of a certain nude portrait of O’Hara (after Gericault, plus combat boots and erection) done by Rivers 11 years ago. The account of O’Hara’s funeral, in Thursday’s Times, led off with an exaggeration of people’s shock at Rivers’ speech, proceeded to misspell 10 of the 25 names it mentioned (uncorrected in later editions) then invented the presence of “many bearded, tieless friends of Mr. O’Hara,” a funny thing to lie about.

Nor did the Times note poet and dance critic Edwin Denby’s remark that O’Hara had been America’s greatest living poet; nor did it refer to poet and art critic Bill Berkson’s eulogy: “Frank was the most graceful, quick, courageous, sometimes terrifying intelligence. Often, no matter how intimate or involved you might be, you could only begin to imagine what and how much he was feeling. It was electric, full of light and air and blood, amazing, passionate, and full of sense. As a poet, a genius, just walking around, talking, he had that magic touch: He made things and people sacred…”

Indian Sutras

Rivers, in his speech, said, “There are at least 60 people in New York who thought Frank O’Hara was their best friend.” Before the funeral, Reuben Na­kian had a member of O’Hara’s family attach to his coffin a terra-cotta sculpture from the se­ries “Voyage to Crete” — work that had moved and excited O’Hara in his preparation of Na­kian’s show. After the funeral, Allen Ginsberg stayed to intone Indian sutras over the grave. Ginsberg: ”I never realized un­til now how attached I was to the presence of that man on Earth.”

His friends, in attempts communicate the breadth of their loss, almost inevitably allude to Guillaume Apollinaire. It’s a na­tural. Both poets were patron spirits of the avant-garde liter­ature, painting, theatre, music, and dance — indeed, the sensibility and moral vision of their times. Both had enormous per­sonal charisma. Both revised the aesthetic assumptions of poetry, leaving poetry changed. And both died horribly, at the height of their powers, leaving life changed.

Another dark parallel, one that O’Hara himself might richly have appreciated, takes in Jackson Pollock. O’Hara’s first major work of art criticism was a book on Pollock, a massive retrospective of whose work he was just beginning to assemble when he died — two weeks short of the 10th anniversary of Pollock’s death, also in an auto accident on Long Island. The two men’s graves, in the little cemetery of the Springs, are a few yards apart.

Such references correspond to a certain essence of the man. O’Hara’s life was measured out in a sort of endless homage to his heroes — the great exemplars of personal and artistic integrity like Pollock, Franz Kline, and especially Boris Pasternak; the ­revolutionaries of poetic attitude and style like Apollinaire and Mayakovsky, and the forms of emotional identification, the movie stars like James Dean, Carole Lombard, and so many others, whom he celebrated bril­liantly without embarrassment and with only the slightest, functional trace of irony.

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Every Area

This attitude of reverence and enthusiasm may in part account for the virtual mystique O’Hara generated around himself, for it extended into every area of his life, attaching to whatever and whomever he found in the least admirable or delightful — and triggering responses so intense his oldest friends do not affect to understand them. Everything about O’Hara is easy to demonstrate and exceedingly difficult to “understand.” And the aura of the legendary, never far from him while he lived, now seems about to engulf the memory of all he was and did.

Little is generally known about his early life, except that he was born in Baltimore on June 27, 1926, and raised in Grafton, Massachusetts, serving with the Navy in the Pacific from 1944 to 1946, when he entered Harvard. The one member of his family to whom he was close, a younger sister (now Mrs. Maureen Smith of Brooklyn Heights), respects his unwillingness to speak of those years.

In the spring of 1949, when O’Hara was a junior at Harvard, John Ashbery was a senior. As an editor of the Harvard Advocate, Ashbery had published some of O’Hara’s first literary efforts (mostly in prose) but knew of him only by his reputation as a hotshot intellectual with something of an undergraduate following. One afternoon in a bookstore, Ashbery heard a voice behind him airily expounding on the then almost totally unknown French composer Poulenc. Fascinated, he eavesdropped. The voice said: “Let’s face it, ‘Les Secheresses’ is much greater than ‘Tristan.’ ” Ashbery instantly turned and introduced himself; and their friendship was joined. “That,” he recalls, “was the sort of thing NOBODY said in those days. It didn’t matter that he was wrong.”

O’Hara’s first visits to New York, while finishing at Harvard and getting his M.A. at University of Michigan (where he also won the prestigious Hopwood Award for poetry), were suitably auspicious. In Ashbery’s Jones Street apartment and at gathering places of what would be known as the New York School “Second Generation” painters, he met Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, James Schuyler, Jane Freilicher, Mike Goldberg, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and scores of other young artists and poets, all engaged in a kind of vertiginously euphoric life and activity which O’Hara’s presence seemed just naturally to grace with point and inevitability. He was the first of the young New York poets to start reviewing for Art News (to be followed by Ashbery, Schuyler, and Barbara Guest) and in the fall of 1951 he was hired by the Museum of Modern Art, a tenure he was never, save for one two-year hiatus, to relinquish.

Exclamation Point

Frank O’Hara’s body was small and lean — classically “bantam” — and was topped by a face organized around a preposterous Roman nose, like a falcon’s beak. He had a smallish, sensuous mouth; a high, freckled forehead, and limpid blue eyes of a certain hypnotic charm. His every movement bespoke will and self-assurance, poise, and a kind of unmannered courtliness. His physical presence in a room was like that of an exclamation point on a page. That presence quickly became one of the most sought-after, and one of the most freely granted, in the city. The painter Helen Frankenthaler says personal invitations to parties in the ’50s often carried the information “Frank will be there” — the ultimate inducement to attend.

O’Hara seemed to be every­where at once. He attracted no­tice even on the Olympian heights of “The Club” on 8th Street, fabled clearinghouse of the New York School. De Kooning recalls: “I liked him immediately, he was so bright. Right away he was at the center of things, and he did not bulldoze. It was his manner and his way.

“There was a good-omen feeling about him.”

Delmore Schwartz had given O’Hara his first professional poetic acceptance in 1950, taking a poem for Partisan Review and strongly encouraging the young poet who was to outlive him by two weeks. His first book, A City Winter, was published in 1952 by John Myers at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, then virtually the only showcase for the overshadowed young talents of the “Second Generation” — among them, Miss Frankenthaler, for whom O’Hara’s effulgence of creative and emotional excitement “smacked of Paris scenes in the ’20s, their principle of passionate involvement with one’s comrades. As the circles and dimensions of our thing grew, everybody had moments of feeling intensely close to Frank. He climbed into your life.”

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Secret Continuum

Ashbery: “He gave you the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club with him, as if you had hooked into some big, secret continuum of life. Frank had a personal kind of idea about things, which made you feel you could think independently too.”

Ginsberg: “His feelings for me seemed to vibrate with my feelings for myself. I think he saw my ideal self-image; he articulated it and made it sound right.”

Berkson: “If you were one of Frank’s friends, you were given a grand permission to be direct and interesting, to be full of ideas and feelings.”

Collaboration, a direct extension of O’Hara’s mode of living, is a good metaphor for the manner of his relationships — an intimate competition in which each participant goads the other toward being at his best. Among the artistic collaborations: poems with Ashbery, Koch, Berkson, and the French language (before he learned it); the famous “Stones” lithographs with Rivers; painting-collages and the book “Odes” (Tibor, 1960) with Mike Goldberg; comic strips with Joe Brainard; “Four Dialogues for Two Voices and Two Pianos” with composer Ned Rorem; the movie “The Last Clean Shirt” with Al Leslie (shown at the New York Film Festival), and innumerable others. In his life, something of the same impulse was everywhere at work — ­to the ultimate dismay of some friends. Not everyone could cope for long with a mind that leapt at everything and missed noth­ing. Berkson: “I never heard Frank say ‘I don’t know what I feel about that.’ He could sum­mon a response, not just an opin­ion but a real emotional re­sponse, for anything.”

Goldberg: “If you were close to him, Frank forced you to live at a terribly high intensity. You were always scrambling to keep up with him. He ran through people; almost everyone fell by the wayside at one time or an­other. It was his incredible ap­petite for life…”

If O’Hara had a motto, it was perhaps his own summary of his approach to poetic composition: “You go on your nerve.” Or, meaning the same thing, a line of Pasternak’s: “It’s past, you’ll understand it later.” At any rate, O’Hara was not always tolerant of friends whose nerve failed them, who looked back. On rare occasions, drunk at some late hour, he would mount titanic and vituperative personal rages. He could instill misery and dread to the same extent that he habit­ually evoked affection and joy. Yet, in the words of a young poet who knew him, “No matter what he did, he never lost that movie-star quality, in the best sense. He never seemed less than glamorous and heroic.” Most people saw, at very least, a certain “rightness” to even his wildest tirades, perhaps because, as Goldberg says, “Frank almost always concealed the side of him that was deeply hurt and suf­fered; you only knew it must be there.” So his anger had the inexorable “justice” of a vol­cano. And when he demanded a return on the love he usually lav­ished, it had, with whatever an­guish, to be credited.

Tactic of Survival

For a man who, in the words of one friend, “indulged every feeling he ever had,” this may have been the simple tactic of survival.

If “other people,” Sartre’s Hell, were O’Hara’s element and atmosphere, other people’s art was his constant source of inspiration and delight. Jewish Museum Director Kinneston McShine, who worked with him at the Modern, speaks of O’Hara’s “amazing clarity” in instantly perceiving the special, most in­teresting aspect of any work. Painters, poets, and musicians speak of the quality of his con­cern. He was, on the pattern of Apollinaire, “a poet among the painters,” an artist whose do­main was all of art.

Elaine de Kooning: “He had a sense of what painters are after, he helped you see what you wanted to do.”

Rorem: “What amazed me most about Frank’s interest was that he really wanted you to be good, he really wanted to like your work.”

Ginsberg attributes to O’Hara’s persuasive enthusiasm his own first whole-hearted appreciation of the poets Peter Orlovsky, John Wieners, and Gregory Corso: ”He had the genius’s insight into other genius, plus total lyrical sympathy and magnanimity.”

And perhaps no poet since Apollinaire was the subject of so many portraits.

It is generally agreed among the current crop of young “New York poets” that whatever sense they may have of common identity, and of identification with the older, established poets, is due largely to O’Hara. Certainly his loft at 791 Broadway — as, earlier, his apartment on East 9th Street — was a depot for poets re­gardless of age, clique, or stylis­tic allegiance. Koch: O’Hara acted as though “being an artist were the most natural thing in the world.” Also, he acted as though the art and literary scenes were really for artists and poets, any artist and any poet who wanted to move in them. He held parties expressly for the purpose of bringing peo­ple together; at one such he in­troduced dozens of young writ­ers to the venerable Italian poet Ungaretti. His personal, direct (never patronizing) warmth had a way of melting one’s feelings of intimidation at the threshold to his world. Now, it seems, all that may be gone forever.

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Uncanny Ability

Unquestionably O’Hara’s continuous involvement with others hurt his own poetic production, though to balance it he had the uncanny ability, as Koch tells it, “to write while other people were talking, or even to get up in the middle of a conversation, get his typewriter, and write a poem, sometimes participating in the conversation while doing so.” Moreover, there was in principle no absolute cleavage between his social and artistic spheres. To a degree more radical than that of any poet before him, O’Hara made his whole life, his milieu and experiences and friends, the raw subject matter of his work.

To Donald Allen’s endlessly influential 1960 anthology, “The New American Poetry” (in the assembling of which he was a main force and arbiter), O’Hara contributed 15 poems and a “statement on poetics” which reads in part: “What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations I try to avoid, goes into my poems… My formal ‘stance’ is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of what I know and can bear without hatred… It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or, conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.”

Human Perceptions

As it is written, O’Hara’s poetry is tough, dazzling, supple and fast, very funny but incipient with the deepest feelings, aglimmer with linguistic and human perceptions, and subject at any moment to lyric eruption or the breakthrough of intelligence.

Ashbery: “His poetry, more than anyone else’s, reconciles all sorts of conflicting material. In it, things exist in a sort of miraculous emulsion.”

Ginsberg: “Of course he had a tremendous sensitivity for style, for chatty campy style and also for real high style… He was at the center of an extra­ordinary poetic era, which gives his poetry its sense of historic monumentality… And he integrated purely personal life into the high art of composition, marking the return of all author­ity back to person. His style is actually in line with the tradi­tion that begins with Independ­ence and runs through Thoreau and Whitman, here composed in metropolitan spaceage architec­ture environment.

“He taught me to really see New York for the first time, by making of the giant style of Mid­town his intimate cocktail en­vironment. It’s like having Cat­ullus change your view of the Forum in Rome.”

O’Hara’s major books are “Meditations in an Emergency” (Grove, 1957), “Lunch Poems” (City Lights, 1964), and “Love Poems (Tentative Title)” (Tibor, 1965). His reputation, as Ted Berrigan suggests in an article in the current East Village Oth­er, will probably ultimately rest on such poems as “Second Aven­ue,” “In Memory of My Feel­ings,” “For the Chinese New Year (and for Bill Berkson)” and “Rhapsody,” but already a handful of his short poems, em­bodiments of unique and perhaps unprecedented ways of thinking and feeling about things, seem destined for a kind of immor­tality — e. g., “The Day Lady Died” and “Why I Am Not a Painter.” His best plays include “Awake in Spain!” and “The General Returns from One Place to Another.”

And much of O’Hara’s work is yet to be published, exactly how much is not immediately clear.

O’Hara did not, while he lived, win a very extensive poetic reputation. For one thing, his preference for the “commercial” world of art over the academic “community of letters” cut him off from the latter’s well-oiled media of (relative) fame. The New York Times, as it has again so eloquently indicated, is innocent of poetry unless informed of it through proper channels. Beyond that, O’Hara deliberately neglected measures, such as simply sending off his work to the prestige magazines or using his influence with larger publishing houses, by which he might effortlessly have ascended into a more general view. In the early ’50s he published frequently in Poetry, for example, but never since 1956.

His reluctance to be bothered with literary renown bespeaks the confidence of a man who knew he had it coming. But, more than that, it testifies that the locus of his ambition lay elsewhere. O’Hara affirmed, in an essay on Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak’s (and his own) “belief that the poet must first be a person, that his writings make him a poet, not his acting of the role.” And what is the alchemy by which a poet is first a person? An O’Hara line: “Grace/to be born and live as variously as possible.”

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To the Harbormaster

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

— Frank O’Hara

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OUT TO LUNCH

We all know lunch hour isn’t actually for eating lunch; it’s for running to the bank, going shopping, or throwing back a few midday business shots. In the case of Frank O’Hara, it was for poetry, and his might have been the best use of those precious 60 minutes in the whole dreary history of the corporate custom. Tonight, The Poetry Project closes its season with a 50th anniversary reading of Lunch Poems, O’Hara’s cult-y, occasionally smutty, and more often than not beautiful little posthumous tome that occupies the 19th spot in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s beloved “Pocket Poets” series. In just the type of large group reading that O’Hara himself loved, more than 30 contemporary poets gather to recite the entire book. You can pick up a new commemorative edition of the work by San Franciso’s iconic City Lights bookstore.

Wed., June 11, 8 p.m., 2014

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Censorship: The Sequel, Starring Andy, Rocky, Philip, and Moses

“Here in New York We Are Having A Lot Of Trouble With The World’s Fair,” wrote Frank O’Hara in the opening to a 1964 poem.

In a letter to fellow poet John Ashbery, O’Hara explained the personal anger behind his verse: “In preparation for the World Fair, New York has been undergoing a horrible cleanup . . . All the queer bars except one are already closed, four movie theaters have been closed (small ones) for showing unlicensed films like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. . . . The fair itself, or its preparations, are too ridiculous and boring to go into, except for the amusing fact that Moses flies over it in a helicopter every day to inspect progress.”

The gay poet was referring to Robert Moses, who had spent the previous four decades building highways, bridges, tunnels, parks, housing projects, and other structures that define, for good and ill, much of New York City’s landscape to this day. But overseeing the World’s Fair would be Moses’s swan song: The 76-year-old power broker had been marginalized by New York’s Republican governor (and 1964 presidential hopeful), Nelson A. Rockefeller, who disliked Moses for both professional and personal reasons. But “Rocky” loved abstract art, and had asked architect Philip Johnson to include cutting-edge murals in his design for New York state’s circular pavilion (which is now a theater next to the “Tent of Tomorrow,” that rusty ring of suspended cables and steel towers that you can still circumambulate today).

Into this triumvirate of egos bustled a fourth, Andy Warhol, the central player in the Queens Museum’s engrossing historical survey of a dramatic, if little known, instance of artistic censorship in the Big Apple. When the up-and-coming Pop maestro was invited to contribute an artwork to the fair, he characteristically asked around for ideas; at a dinner party, the host, a painter friend of Andy’s, reportedly suggested, “The Ten Most Wanted Men! You know, the mug shots the police issue.”

Although he loved the concept, Warhol hesitated at first, worrying “But Robert Moses has to approve it or something,” before concluding, “I don’t care, I’m going to do it!” Shortly afterward, he obtained a 1962 NYPD pamphlet entitled “The Thirteen Most Wanted,” one of the many artifacts on view at the Queens exhibition. (How such an odd number — redolent of bad luck — was chosen over the more obvious 10 or a dozen is lost to history.) Rap sheets note that these were hardcore bad guys, wanted for murder, grand larceny, assault, and other crimes.

Warhol’s proposal, surprisingly, was approved, but when the coarse black-and-white mug shots, each roughly four feet tall, were actually arrayed across the pavilion’s exterior wall, reality proved unpalatable to his powerful patrons. As art historian Richard Meyer points out in the current exhibition’s catalog, the mural can be seen as “a transgressive image of desire. Certainly, various forms of outlaw masculinity, and of rough trade in particular, appealed to some gay men, including Warhol . . . there were laws against homosexuality, sodomy, and so literally your desires, once actualized, were criminalized.”

Meyer adds that the mural, through its daisy chain of faces and profiles, creates “a circuit of gazes; you could imagine men looking at each other,” in effect creating a 20-by-20-foot mural of gay cruising in a very public space. But even if the fair’s organizers didn’t tumble to such coded imagery, they had other concerns: Seven of the pictured felons were of Italian descent, and Rocky was not about to alienate one of New York’s largest voting blocs. Additionally, labor groups were preparing protests because the work force at the fair was, for the most part, all white. Poet Martin Espada captured the mood of many minorities who felt shut out of the economic boom promised by the event’s boosters: “The beer company/did not hire Blacks or Puerto Ricans,/so my father joined the picket line/at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion, New York World’s Fair,/amid the crowds glaring with canine hostility.”

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If the governor couldn’t easily halt civic protests, he could take down an artwork he had bought and paid for (and didn’t particularly like aesthetically, being no fan of what he viewed as the simplistic themes of Pop art). He ordered Johnson to tell Warhol the mural had to go. Rocky was no philistine precursor to the Tea Party (“Rockefeller Republican” — socially liberal, fiscally conservative — was not always a pejorative in the GOP), but he did suffer from the arrogance of inherited wealth. His attack on artistic freedom continued a family tradition: His father, John D. Rockefeller Jr., ordered Diego Rivera’s fresco chopped off the walls of Rockefeller Center in 1934. According to historian Richard Norton Smith, one of the primary reasons was the Mexican muralist’s depiction “of syphilitic microbes, symbolic of diseased capitalism. The old man thought the picture was obscene. That’s the word he used.”

Unlike that notorious case, the wrangle over the Warhol mural went almost completely unnoticed in press coverage of the fair’s attractions, which included Michelangelo’s Pietà, on loan from the Vatican; Walt Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride; and the IBM pavilion, described by the New Yorker as “The most beautiful building at the fair, containing a variety of demonstrations of the mechanics of computers.” Warhol at first offered to replace the mug shots with 23 identical portraits of Robert Moses; Johnson did not appreciate the irony. Instead, it was agreed that the mural would be covered in silver paint, a minimalist void submerging outlaw desire amid the family-friendly entertainment. The Queens exhibition includes terrific Billy Name photos documenting the aluminum-foil–covered walls of Warhol’s Silver Factory; years later, Warhol looked back on that era of his career. “It was a perfect time to think silver. Silver was the future. It was spacey. Astronauts wore silver suits . . . And silver was also the past — the silver screen. Hollywood actresses photographed on silver sets. And maybe more than anything else, silver was narcissism. Mirrors were backed with silver.”

Warhol ultimately silkscreened his “13 Most Wanted” onto individual 4-foot-high canvases; they now glower defiantly from the walls at the Queens Museum, a short walk away from their original setting. Despite pompadours and wide lapels, these images feel startling fresh. Perhaps, in their multiplied, mechanical realism, they signaled the end of the postwar era, of the metaphysical abstractions that Rocky loved, and helped inaugurate the America we live in now, where computers simulate reality and the limitless cruising ground of the Internet represents the full flowering of the sexual revolution. As O’Hara says at the close of his prescient poem: “We are happy here/facing the multiscreens of the IBM Pavilion. We pay a lot for our entertainment. All right/roll over.”

13 Most Wanted Men: Andy Warhol and the 1964 World’s Fair
The Queens Museum, Flushing Meadows Corona Park
April 27–September 7, 2014
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POEM PICS

Conceived in 1951 by Peter Grippe, director of renowned graphic-arts workshop Atelier 17, 21 Etchings and Poems was published in 1960, an era of collaborative ferment between artists and writers. (Painter Alfred Leslie’s multi-contributor compendium of art and text, The Hasty Papers, was also released that year.) A painter and sculptor as well as a printmaker, Grippe etched an intense graphic replete with mushroom cloud for Dylan Thomas’s “The hand that signed the paper felled a city,” while Franz Kline’s slashing abstraction starkly complements Frank O’Hara’s succinctly titled “Poem.” This exhibition includes all 21 etchings, and though Ben Nicholson’s image for Sir Herbert Read’s “Tenement” was printed sideways, the lithe cubist line work overpowers the publisher’s mistake.

Sat., March 3, 6:30 p.m.; Tuesdays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. Starts: March 3. Continues through April 29, 2012

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The New Poetry

Influenced by Frank O’Hara’s avant-pop sensibilities, West German Rolf Dieter Brinkmann’s most influential book, Westwärts 1 & 2, was published shortly after his death at 35, in 1975. It included this poem, translated into English for the first time by Yale professor John MacKay. The celebratory “O!,” one notes, is shaped equally like a piazza, and like a void.


Hymn to an Italian Square

O Piazza Bologna in Rome! Banca Nazionale Del Lavoro and Banco Di Santo Spirito, Pizza Mozzarella Barbiere, Gomma Sport! Gipsi Boutique and Willi, Tavola Calda, Esso Servizio, Fiat, Ginnastica,

Estetica, Yoga, Sauna! O Bar Tabacci und Gelati, wide rear-ends in Levi’s Jeans, breasts or tits, everything firm, clamped in, Pasticceria, Marcelleria! O little sidelights, Vini, Oli, Per Via Aerea,

Eldora Steak, Tecnotica Caruso! O Profumeria Estivi, Chiuso Per Ferie Agosto, o Lidia Di Firenze, Lady Wool! Cinestop! Green Bus! O lines 62 and 6, small change! O Avanti green! O where? P.T. and Tee Fredo,

Visita Da Medico Ocultista, Lenti A Contatto! O Auto Famose! Ritz crackers, Nuota Con Noi, o Grace! Tutte Nude! O Domenica, trash, plastic bags, pink! Vacanze Carissime, o Nautica! Skin, back, tanned

thighs, o spot of oil, Ragazzi, Autovox, gravel! And Oxford, Neon, Il Gatto Di Brooklyn Aspirante Detective, melons! Walls! Cunts! Garlic! Grated Parmigiano! O dim Minimarket Di Frutta, Istituto Pirandello, Inglese

Shenker, shutters! O yellowbrown dog! Around the corner Banca Commerziale Italia, fleas, air brakes, BP Coupons, Zoom! O Eva Moderna, Medaglioni, Tramezzini, Bollati! Aperto! Locali Provvisori! Balconies, o shadows

with oil, leaves, Trasferita! O Ente Communale Di Consumo, on the wall! O strictly-closed Bar Ferranzi! O quiet on the streets! Guerlain, dogturd, Germain Montail! O Bar Fascista Riservata Permanente, Piano! O soldiers,

Operette, revolvers against the hips! O Super Pensione! O shape of beast! O Farmacia Bologna, wrecked corners of houses, Senso Unico! O Scusi! O Casa Bella! O Ultimo Tango Pomodoro! O Sciopero! O Lire! O shit!

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Paris in the ’50s

There is more and more to say about Guy Debord; one can scarcely walk through the bohemian district of the bookstore without toppling a stack of biographies and gossip. Perhaps it’s an apology for not noticing in a timely fashion how incisive was his description of daily life, political domination, and their entwined fate. Perhaps it’s simply an attempt to skim some cash off the widening Situationist cult. Either way, it’s good that Debord occasionally gets to speak for himself.

Semi-memoir Panegyric opens, “All my life I have seen only troubled times, extreme divisions in society, and immense destruction; I have taken part in these troubles.”

This is Debord in a shot glass: serenely high stakes, resignedly delighting in what he would elsewhere call “the work of the negative,” buoyed by an incomparable command of classical rhetoric. It’s Proust’s “For a long time, I went to bed early,” with time, that wayward and sensual substance, returned to history, the nightmare from which Debord wished to awaken as urgently as any habitué of the 20th century.

“Such circumstances would doubtless suffice to prevent the most transparent of my acts or thoughts from ever being universally approved. But,” he continues, “I do believe, several of them may have been misunderstood.” That’s Debord too, defensive ruffian who can’t stop smoothing his imago. Just as well. Otherwise it’ll be burnished for him until his howlings are just another gold record in the Rebel Yell hit parade. And so, rather than go down as someone who happened to find himself in the Sorbonne’s 1968 occupation a year after publishing Society of the Spectacle to minimal acclaim, Debord would rather devote a chapter of his final book to booze. “I have written much less than most people who write, but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.” The latter claim, at least, seems true; I am happy to report Debord has made more of it than, say, Charles Bukowski. “Very soon I grew to like what lies beyond violent drunkenness, once that stage is past: a terrible and magnificent peace, the true taste of the passage of time.” Said flavor flits through this newly fancified reissue and that’s plenty, amid the blurry photographs and hokum about a burnt archive that comprises the “new” material (the old material can be found freely at ,chez.com/debordiana/english/panegyric.htm). It’s no surprise that the great thinker of symbol management knew his way around a sentence; in the best of worlds, the pleasure of reading would be a kind of awakening.

John Ashbery may find himself in the same review with Guy Debord as an umbrella finds itself on a dissecting table with a sewing machine; at best, we can place them both in Paris in 1955, one lurching down Rue Lacenaire, the other lunching with Giacometti. There is less and less to say about Ashbery, as with the pyramids. There he stands: astonishing, irrefutable, and inexhaustible. Nonetheless it seems certain more will be said, even while he remains alive and implausibly productive. His advantage over the pyramids is that he occasionally makes one look elsewhere. This volume forms a triptych with Other Traditions and Reported Sightings in gathering his prose; one reads as much for the easy delight of Ashbery’s mind-motion as the education in 20th-century aesthetic traditions, with a slant toward the French and avant-garde; Pound’s ABCs of Reading but disemboweled, i.e., without the asshole.

Ashbery’s prose shares the peculiar friendliness of his poetry, yet remains at once less personal and more direct. He sojourned as a Raymond Roussel scholar, and the related pieces are among the loveliest, as are his defenses of Bishop, Berrigan, and Jacques Rivette. It’s not clear if they need defending now; then one arrives at all-but- unknown John Wheelwright, “a sophisticated, aristocratic Marxist writing way-out poetry in Boston in the thirties,” whose early death Ashbery ranks as “the biggest secret loss to American poetry” until that of his friend Frank O’Hara—about whom he is unfailingly eloquent, even when ribbing O’Hara’s “Parisian artiness.” It’s anxiety of influence as real sweetness.

If he’s occasionally off the mark in opinion, it’s less often and better put than the rest of us; I’d rather read Ashbery’s undervaluing of Witold Gombrowicz than some contemporary’s rave. “One waits to see more of Gombrowicz,” he wrote, “if he is not on the present evidence a very satisfying novelist, he is at least not an easy one.” This was something one could say in the
Times Sunday Book Review, in 1967.

On occasion, Ashbery broaches his own poetics; for many this will be the sparkle. There’s a hilarious gem in his banter-as-interview with Kenneth Koch, wherein he proffers his poems as “just a bunch of impressions.” If there were hidden meanings, after all, “someone might find them out and then the poem would no longer be mysterious.” On such simplicities is literary history diverted. In a talk on the New York School (a brand name for which he has little patience) he makes some rather odd claims in a plain manner: “New York is really an anti-place, an abstract climate.” This is a fine account not of the city but of Ashbery’s own unmistakable, unlocatable metropolism. That’s in March 1968; the centrifuge of modernity is becoming a tilt-a-whirl. “Our program is the absence of any program,” he notes, the kind of simple slogan made for painting on the walls of the university.

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The Octopussarian Drugstore Cowboy

Sitting in his loft, Alfred Leslie cackles as he recalls his first solo exhibit, in 1952, which included a highly abstract Self-Portrait with “Fuck You” scrawled across it. Critic Manny Farber labeled him “a Bronx drugstore cowboy who loves to thumb his nose at the polite art public.” In 1964, an anonymous audience member was even more succinct during a screening of Leslie’s film The Last Clean Shirt when he “dropped his pants and mooned the screen.”

With shaved head and strong build, the 77-year-old Leslie, a gymnast and artist’s model in his youth, betrays no loss of the piss ‘n’ vinegar that has fueled a half-century of what he once termed “octopussarian impulses”—the drive to express himself not just as a painter but as a writer, filmmaker, set designer, and even tunesmith.

Leslie developed his painting chops during the heyday of abstract expressionism while learning about theater from exiles who came to New York to escape Nazism. He met practitioners of Brecht’s theater of engagement and confrontation, in which “people shout at you, and harangue you from the audience—that was their shtick.” In 1959, he confronted the public with his groundbreaking indie film Pull My Daisy, gorgeously photographed by Robert Frank as if through scrims of black, white, and infinite gray. Adapting an unproduced Jack Kerouac play, Leslie silently filmed the action in his ramshackle painting loft, and then had Kerouac dub the voices of a Who’s Who of Beat-generation “actors” playing themselves. Allen Ginsberg gyrates like a spastic shaman in front of splattered rectangles on the studio wall; Gregory Corso chugs an early-morning beer and flicks a hand toward Fourth Avenue outside, mouthing—in Kerouac’s grumbling voice—”Nothing out there but a million screaming 90-year-old men being run over by gasoline trucks, so throw the match on it!”

Daisy is full of serendipitous gems made possible by Leslie’s process: The engineer kept the mic open on Kerouac at all times and during a break caught the Beat king free-associating, “Up you go little smoke,” as he dragged on a cigarette. That unscripted line makes luminous a scene in which a sleepy child reaches up for a wind chime. The film celebrates the Beats’ Dada-esque rebellion against the stifling conformity of the Eisenhower years, while unconsciously documenting a dress rehearsal for the cultural revolution of the ’60s.

Continuing his acclaimed abstract painting and Pop-presaging collage work (a selection of which is on view now at the Allan Stone Gallery), Leslie next reached a tentacle toward literature. The Hasty Papers, the one-shot literary journal he published in late 1960, was a “democratized, egalitarian, choral work.” Characteristically blunt, Leslie solicited literary luminaries from John Ashbery to William Carlos Williams, promising to divide any profits evenly among contributors. Illustrated with paintings, drawings, and photo montages, the writing jumped from poetry by Joel Oppenheimer to father of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer’s treatise “Industrial Society and the Western Political Dialogue.” Ashbery and Terry Southern kicked in comedic plays; Fidel Castro’s legendary 1960 U.N. harangue —the American naval base at Guantánamo particularly galled El Commandante—and the Eisenhower administration’s rebuttal are transcribed in full. Reviews of the Papers were mixed: Retrograde art critic Hilton Kramer sniffed, “How inelegant for a painter to do this”; Leslie’s friend Bill de Kooning enthused, “Geessus Les, vot the hell, it’s a snapshot of us all!”

Two years later, although the high priest of abstraction, critic Clement Greenberg, had proclaimed “there is nothing left in nature for plastic art to explore,” Leslie began a series of monumental full-frontal nude Grisaille paintings. Working large-scale and in a hyper-real style, Leslie sought “direct testimony” challenging what audiences perceive as the “pure truth” of photography.

Which didn’t stop him from making another movie, in 1964—the provocative, absurd, and sometimes melancholy Last Clean Shirt. Shot from the backseat of a convertible as a mixed-race couple drives up Third Avenue, the 10-minute take (demarcated by an alarm clock lashed to the dashboard) is looped three times. First, the white female passenger speaks a nonsensical language; next, poet Frank O’Hara supplies rueful subtitles (“If we were all flowers, and someone stepped on us/someone else, maybe even God, would at least think/That’s too bad.”); finally, the driver’s dissociated thoughts spill out: “jellied aluminum bathtub.” “Elke Sommer.” As the Vietnam War escalated, Leslie says, people saw “an American soldier [on TV] firing an M-16 into a man’s head” while voice-overs told viewers “something entirely different, and the people believed it.” Leslie wanted Shirt to force the question “What the fuck is going on?” because “to most people, reality is nothing more than a confirmation of their expectations.”

Then came the fire.

It’s disturbing to flip through a catalog of Leslie’s work and find paintings captioned Destroyed, drawings—Destroyed, films— Destroyed. On October 7, 1966, shortly before he was to exhibit at the Whitney Museum, Leslie escaped with his son from an inferno at his Broadway studio. Almost 39 at the time, he has spent the last 38 years on two tracks: making new art, and recovering his lost art.

Earlier that year, his friend and collaborator Frank O’Hara had been run over by a beach taxi on Fire Island. Homeless and nearly destitute after the fire, Leslie gave up filmmaking and began merging his ideas into “painted stories,” beginning with Killing Cycle, paintings about O’Hara’s death. A flood of water-colors, charcoal drawings, and paintings followed; an oil exhibited in the 1973 Whitney Biennial, The Telephone Call, depicting O’Hara prone before the jeep that killed him, was labeled by the indefatigable Kramer “the single most repugnant work so far installed.” The Loading Pier (1975) quotes Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ through its dark, shallow stage-setting and the angled gestures of the mourners. Yet the bathing suits and cutoffs worn by Leslie’s female pallbearers conjure O’Hara’s earthy humanity and the absurd circumstance of his death.

There have been many paintings since, plus a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2002, Leslie released The Cedar Bar, an orgy of appropriated film footage—Hollywood musicals, Holocaust documentaries, hardcore porn—combined with voice-overs from his reconstructed 1952 play about the legendary artists’ watering hole and the eternal war between creators and critics. (The original manuscript went up in smoke in ’66.) A sinister cabaret clown opens the show by gibbering, “Artists are a vulgar and stupid lot,” followed by such stalwarts as de Kooning waxing insightfully on the meanings of art. Jackson Pollock’s shade is summoned through an old Twilight Zone episode about a 19th-century cattle rustler transported to ’50s New York—he can’t cope, and you just know it’s gonna come to a bad end.

Leslie has outlived his bad ends—O’Hara’s death, the fire, critics’ excoriations—all because, back in the ’50s, he looked at his cameras, typewriters, stage sets, and canvases and “saw it all as one fucking piece.” A tad vulgar, sure. But never stupid.


Leslie’s show, which includes daily screenings of his films, continues at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street, through December 22.

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High Anxiety

I saw a “counselor” for a couple of months when I was 15. I’d been sent to her after being designated a “troubled” teenager—I’d missed some “important” appointments with adults, came from a “broken home,” and had no friends. I was troubled, and the news that I would be talking intimately with this attractive and friendly woman once a week was very welcome to me. It was, in fact, a monumental relief. The 50-minute hours I spent with her flew by, and I was always eager to see her again. Naturally, I fell madly in love with her. And just as naturally, it seemed at the time, she was impelled eight weeks after my first session to move to a town some four hours away, where, she told me, they needed her. I never saw her again. So much for counseling, I said to myself, quietly denouncing (for a while, and without quite knowing it) psychotherapy, transference love, and the hope of ever being anything other than “troubled.”

Fifteen years later, I was a bona fide drug addict, hustler, and compulsive gambler. Finally, in late 1997, to avoid suicide I checked myself into an outpatient rehab center, and they sent me to a psychiatrist and to group therapy. The psychiatrist was extremely helpful—for $150 an hour, she listened to me with a concerned expression and then prescribed Prozac.

Between her fee and the cost of the medication (and the fact that I’d stopped hustling, and was a long way from having health insurance), I could afford to see her barely often enough to keep the pills coming. The group therapy was interesting and often amusing—we were a lively collection of urban gay drug addicts. But I lasted only a couple of months there: I seduced a member of the group, and in our next meeting, he announced our indiscretion and we were both immediately and permanently booted out. I argued that we hadn’t been told that we weren’t allowed to have sex with each other (we hadn’t), but the leader of the group insisted that we should have known better. Oh well, I told myself—therapy is just not for me, and I took my Prozac and moved to the country.

Where I gradually grew healthy, calm, and bored. But I’d kept the lease on my apartment in Manhattan, and after a year and a half I moved back to the city. Six months later, I ran into a beautiful young man I’d known for a decade who’d been dating an ex-boyfriend of mine for much of the time I knew him. They had finally split up, and the winds of fortune, for once, were blowing my way. I fell in love with him, for real this time, and he returned my love. We agreed after a while, for various reasons, that some therapy would be a good idea for both of us, and we separately went about finding the right person to see once or twice a week.

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. When I began to see my psychotherapist a year ago, I was far from miserable. I had some “issues”—I needed to make more money, I wanted to feel more committed to the bizarre concept of monogamy, I sometimes felt anxious, and I wanted to resolve some questions about my parents and my childhood. I wanted, in short, to be happier than I already was, and I wanted to be a good, long-term boyfriend.

Now I see my psychotherapist three times a week—his monthly fee (greatly reduced from the norm according to a sliding scale that takes my income into account) is almost exactly the same as my rent. The weekday hours I spend with him (and traveling to and from his apartment) are hours away from my office, the one place where I make any money. I’m a far worse boyfriend now than I was six months ago—distracted, distant, often cold. I’m much more anxious than I’ve ever been before, and happiness is far more elusive for me now than it was in the past. The other night I woke up with my first migraine and spent several hours vomiting and trying not to think of my parents; thinking of them lately, in the daydreamy, gloomy way in which they come into my mind, makes me feel even worse than I’m already feeling. A few days ago, I fainted after dinner. I’d been talking about therapy, and my mind had wandered for a few seconds to the vague, dark specters of my mother and the man I thought was my father. As it turns out, and to complicate things further, we’ve probably got the wrong guy in the paternity department after all these years.

I asked my mother a year ago why she supposed my father had refused to speak to me for more than 15 years. Is it just because I’m gay? I asked her. No, she said, I don’t think that’s it. He doesn’t think you’re his child. Well, am I? I’m not sure, Mom said.

I spoke to the man I grew up believing to be my father last week for the first time since I was 17. Mom was right—he doesn’t believe he’s my father. He admitted that it might have been better to tell me this a long time ago, but he didn’t want to say anything against my mother. If it turns out that he is my father, then, he said, he owes me a big apology. He agreed to a blood test if I opt to arrange one. I don’t know why my mother didn’t mention any of this before I brought it up to her at the age of 34. I asked her two weeks ago for a brief biography of my first year of life, and haven’t heard from her since.


Such are the gifts, for me, so far, of psychotherapy.

Toward the end of her 1981 book Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Janet Malcolm reports on the last of her many intimate conversations with “Aaron Green,” a disguised New York psychoanalyst. He had compared analysis several times to surgery, and Malcolm asks him why he is so attached to that analogy. “Because it’s so radical,” he says. “Because it indicates how impersonal and intimate analysis is. Because it tells you that it is not a casual procedure, that it is serious and dangerous, that it is dire.” I know there’s a difference between five-times-a-week classical psychoanalysis and the mere three-times-a-week psychotherapy that I’m putting myself through, but his radical analogy, and his use of that awful word “dire,” have me, for now, in their grip. One of my many strange fantasies while in therapy has been to be hospitalized for an extended period. For what? I’m a healthy, reasonably socialized, reasonably happy person—or at least I was before I went into psychotherapy.

I keep going back for more psychotherapy—and recently asked for that third weekly session, rather than just two—because I have a minimal but persistent faith that I will eventually get better, and will finally be better off than I was pre-therapy. I want some insight. Malcolm’s “Aaron Green” again: “Insight isn’t superficial—it isn’t simply learning something mildly interesting about yourself. It is becoming yourself.” So I guess I’m trying, with the help of psychotherapy, to become myself. I didn’t expect it to be easy or entertaining or cheap. But I wish I had been better prepared for the degree to which psychotherapy has been wreaking havoc on my brain and my body. I’m eager to learn how to feel feelings; I’m just alarmed at the price I’m being asked to pay to do so. I thought psychotherapy would be, above all else, interesting. Instead it is, more than anything, dire.


Rick Whitaker is the author of Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling and The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara: Reading Gay American Writers.

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Listings

ART

JULIAN LAVERDIERE Having co-conceived the twin towers of light, an artist who understands the power of the ephemeral and the ephemerality of power turns his attention to the perils of superpowerdom in “Goliath Concussed,” a show of symbolic anti-monuments. Three opalescent replicas of Napoleon’s tomb perch on dragster tires worthy of a demolition derby. A giant lantern, poised like a missile, has a Moorish lining. But pride of place goes to the cornerstone eagle from the demolished Penn Station. Replicated by digital casting, this avenging bird hurtles in centrifugal orbit, flinging its heft around (as Chris Burden did a while ago in an airborne bulldozer) and narrowly missing the walls. THROUGH MAY 24, Lehmann Maupin, 540 West 26th Street, 212-255-2923. (Levin)

TONY OURSLER His poltergeist projections, which have long since gone over the top into the realm of hysteria, apparition, and psychodrama, go a giant step further: into the dubious hyperspace of Internet-era intimacy. His latest object and image phantasms—which sport isolated facial features exaggerated by computer and projected onto trefoil or toroid fiberglass heads—woo us with winks, pouts, haiku, murmured nothings, or hostile desperation. He calls them “Caricatures,” but they’re something other than that. Think of them as grotesque emanations of the manipulative, flirtatious, jilted, exhibitionistic, collective virtual psyche. THROUGH JUNE 7, Metro Pictures, 519 West 24th Street, 212-206-7100. (Levin)

DANCE

AMY MARSHALL DANCE COMPANY The beauty of shows in downtown venues is discovering choreographers referencing, reinventing, and discarding styles as they emerge from under their elders’ wings. Amy Marshall, who performed with Taylor 2 for four years and David Parsons for a year, dances with her own troupe in her Gustav’s Wedding, Vertigo, and Sentido de Mujer. “My choreography is a reflection of the classical roots of those choreographers, rather than experimental theater,” she says. Her style shares the clarity of Taylor’s and Parson’s vocabularies, but adds emotional and dramatic nuances. THURSDAY THROUGH SATURDAY AT 7:30, Puffin Room, 435 Broome Street, 212-343-2881. (Mattingly)

SPLITSTREAM Artists carving their own niches in the performance world share the program: Witness their combinations of old and new, borrowed and bent. Paul Matteson, who graced stages across the country while dancing for David Dorfman, teams up with Lisa Gonzales, Jennifer Nugent, Karinne Keithley—all incredible performers—for his Failing Me Now. John Jasperse Company veteran Miguel Gutierrez presents I Succumb, performed by Anna Azrieli, Michelle Boule, Abby Crain, Jaime Fennelly, and Tarek Halaby. Luciana Achugar and Levi Gonzalez present Worthless Limbs. TUESDAY AT 7, Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street, 212-924-0077. (Mattingly)

FILM

‘CZECH HORROR AND FANTASY ON FILM’ The distinctive Czech taste for black humor, the grotesque, and the folk-visionary informs this two-weekend series, which mixes the Kafkaesque political cinema of the ’60s with a healthy selection of movies by puppet surrealist Jan Svankmajer. The phantasmagoric ’70s cult film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders shows Sunday in a new 35mm print. OPENS SATURDAY, THROUGH MAY 25, American Museum of the Moving Image, 35th Avenue and 36th Street, Astoria, 718-784-0077. (Hoberman)

‘DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY’ Guy Maddin takes one of the oldest stories in movies and very nearly reinvents it as a silent—or rather Mahler-scored—feature. The look of the film—a dance performance shot on Super 8 through what might be an anamorphic snow globe—is powerfully seductive. This enraptured composition in mist, gauze, and Vaseline isn’t campy but it is funny—as well as overtly erotic, willfully archaic, and beautifully convulsive. OPENS WEDNESDAY, THROUGH MAY 27, Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110. (Hoberman)

‘A WOMAN IS A WOMAN’ Jean-Luc Godard’s idea of a musical is, of course, the idea of a musical. Starring Anna Karina (as a stripper who wants to have a baby) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (as an eager-to-oblige slacker), in color and scope, it’s the grande folie of Godard’s early career. The print is new and so are the subtitles. OPENS FRIDAY, THROUGH MAY 29, Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110. (Hoberman)

MUSIC

BLACK KEYS Ralph Carney’s nephew Patrick C. plays a drum’n’bass-era Mitch Mitchell to Dan Auerbach’s Jimi Hendrix, and who needs Noel Redding? Not these guys from Ohio. Auerbach could be a Stevie Ray Vaughan with more garage-pop in him—a flavor more apparent on the duo’s Alive debut than its blues-hewing Fat Possum follow-up. With the Legendary Shack Shakers and Darediablo. THURSDAY AT 7:30, Mercury Lounge, 217 East Houston Street, 212-260-4700. (Christgau)

DASHBOARD CONFESSIONAL Say what you will about Dashboard’s emotive fans (my two cents: they’re dorks!), but singer Chris Carrabba has created a large-scale concert experience unlike virtually any other: He submerges himself in audience sing-along the way grunge frontdudes once dived into moshpits. And if you think lyrics like “your hair is everywhere” from “Screaming Infidelities” are too heavy, just consider the fact that he may well be singing about his cat, and we’re projecting our romantic dysfunction onto him. THURSDAY AT 8, Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey Street, 212-533-2111; FRIDAY AT 8:30, Village Underground, 130 West 3rd Street, 212-777-7745; SATURDAY AT 9, Maxwell’s, 1039 Washington Street, Hoboken, New Jersey, 201-653-1703; SUNDAY AT 8, Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, 212-219-3006. (Catucci)

FM KNIVES+A-FRAMES+DAN MELCHIOR If the nasally giddy and glammy and gripping hyperpop on Useless & Modern by Sacramento’s FM Knives had come out of Belfast in 1979, it might’ve beat the debut albums by the Stiff Little Fingers and Undertones, and definitely would’ve equaled the one by Starjets. Seattle’s A-Frames, who Thurston Moore is a big fan of, and who sound like the early Stranglers imitating early Kraftwerk, do two-minute staccato science-punk with lightning bolts sticking out and words about atomic particles and electric eyes. Fourteenth Street curmudgeon Dan Melchior chronicles ladies’ underwear and J.G. Ballard in rants that could pass for Mark E. Smith in a Mississippi Delta rest room. FRIDAY AT 8, Pianos, 158 Ludlow Street, 212-420-1466. (Eddy)

STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS+DEAD MEADOW Calling all indie-poppers, acidheads, prog geezers, and girls from Queens named Vanessa: SM & the Js’ latest non-statement unreels whorls of epic guitar and babbling-brook melodies perfect for basking in live. “(Do Not Feed the) Oyster” even ends with a concert-ready, applause-encouraging, rave-up outro. The darkly pastoral psych-metal threesome Dead Meadow may be from D.C., but they’ve expanded their minds way beyond straight-edge local post-punks Fugazi. With Azita on Thursday. WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY AT 8, Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Place, 212-777-6800. (Catucci)

MASTODON+DYSRHYTHMIA+CEPHALIC CARNAGE+ UPHILL BATTLE This lineup could be metal’s future. Atlanta foursome Mastodon set lickety-split progcore to pachyderm-thick riffage and ferocious words about trilobites and sea monsters. Steve Albini-produced Philly trio Dysrhythmia churn out a heftily long-winded instrumental math/fusion/Zappa/Mahivishnu rock with no less gravity for its zillion attractive paradiddles. Denver’s vomit-vocaled grind-prog weirdos Cephalic Carnage can’t decide whether songs should last 20 seconds or 20 minutes, but know backwards stuff, spoken-word parts, silent interludes, and acoustic passages about cannibalism belong in there. Santa Barbara’s more orthodox Uphill Battle also scream a lot, albeit through time changes that Meshuggah and Converge beat them to. THURSDAY AT 8, Downtime, 251 West 30th Street, 212-695-2747. (Eddy)

JACKIE MCLEAN He turns 72 on Saturday, but he’s still the baby of the Harlem-bred bebop brigade, an early acolyte of Charlie Parker who had his own sound from the beginning. A caustic, radiant player, he made common cause with the New Music in the ’60s, creating with Grachan Moncur a valuable repertory and even recording with trumpet player Ornette Coleman, before disappearing into academia, making only periodic visits to Manhattanland. His Christmas weeks at the Vanguard are the stuff of modern legend, so call this sighting Christmas in May, a birthday present from an ageless wonder. WEDNESDAY THROUGH SUNDAY AT 8 AND 10, FRIDAY AND SATURDAY ALSO AT 11:30, Iridium, 1650 Broadway, 212-582-2121. (Giddins)

TED NASH A reliable saxophonist and clarinetist associated with the Jazz Composers Collective and several big bands, Nash has, as the leader of club gigs, taken the zeitgeist tack of appearing with various ensembles—in this instance, two in the same week. One might have thought Odeon would be enough, but the personnel for Still Evolved (Wednesday and Thursday only) suggests two visits may be warranted for the fun of it: Marcus Printup, who’s still evolving for sure, and the JCC’s primary rhythm team. Still, Odeon is the ensemble that’s carved its own territory, buoyed by Wycliffe Gordon’s tuba, spiced by violin and accordion, charmed by a book of old and new, and an attitude of agreeably raucous dignity. WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY AT 9 AND 11, Village Vanguard, 178 Seventh Avenue South, 212-255-4037. (Giddins)

BOBBY SHORT During an L.A. trip a few weeks back, the entertainer fainted in front of the Louis Vuitton shop. He must have seen a price tag, because there can’t be anything wrong with a man who just started year 35(!) at this posh venue as if popped out of a champagne bottle. Of course, he tootled “Just One of Those Things.” Since he added the horn section, he’s gotten even better. At this point in his performing life he is, in Porter’s shiny phrase, “the quintessence of joy.” TUESDAY THROUGH SATURDAY AT 8:45 AND 10:45, THROUGH JUNE 28, Café Carlyle, 35 East 76th Street, 212-570-7189 (Finkle)

‘AN EVENING WITH LINDA THOMPSON’ It was 17 years between solo albums for the former Mrs. Richard, and while the first one could have been livelier, the reason was that unlike Richard she sensed how much she needed a collaborator. Her vocalist-guitarist-songwriter son Teddy proved just the man for the job. He’ll back her at this show, which picks up on her celebrated 2002 Fashionably Late. MONDAY AT 8, TUESDAY AT 7, THROUGH MAY 21, Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette Street, 212-239-6200. (Christgau)

PHOTO

RAY K. METZKER These 15 vintage prints from Metzker’s first public exhibition—all made in 1957 and ’58, during his first years at Chicago’s Institute of Design—are not just exceptionally confident for student work, they find the artist already in command of the visual vocabulary that defines his work to this day. Like Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, both early influences, Metzker mines the rich, layered territory between representation and abstraction. His pictures, mostly urban street scenes, pivot around reflections, disjunctions, shapes, shadows, and light without ever feeling self-consciously arty, and there’s not a bad one here. THROUGH JUNE 27, Laurence Miller Gallery, 20 West 57th Street, 212-397-3930. (Aletti)

‘SYLVA’ With 65 pictures both classic and contemporary, this show of tree photographs is both seasonally appropriate and immensely satisfying. Cleverly, Meyerowitz mixes the idyllic and the eccentric, juxtaposing Zeke Berman’s tabletop maple-twig contraption with Susan Derges’s photogram of a leafy branch on a running stream and Jeff Whetstone’s camouflaged Deer Hunter perched high on a tree with Judy Dater’s famous shot of Imogen Cunningham coming across as a nymph-like nude on the other side of a thick trunk. There’s pleasure in profusion here (look for Gus Powell, Sally Mann, Ruth Bernhard) and a welcome woodland respite for the weary gallerygoer. THROUGH MAY 31, Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery, 120 Eleventh Avenue, at 20th Street, 212-414-2770. (Aletti)

THEATER

‘A BAD FRIEND’ Jules Feiffer, deeply missed at this paper, is famous for his work in eight panels, but his latest foray into political tragicomedy derives from only one: the House Un-American Activities Committee, whose notorious hearings in the McCarthy era proved once and for all that congressmen don’t need a pen of Feiffer’s acuity to turn them into a cartoon. Instead, Feiffer’s new play focuses on the damage blacklisting stirs up in an early-’50s Brooklyn family. Jerry Zaks’s cast features Larry Bryggman, Jonathan Hadary, and Jan Maxwell among its luminaries. PREVIEWS BEGIN THURSDAY, OPENS JUNE 9, Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, 212-239-6200. (Feingold)

‘BOOBS! THE MUSICAL—THE WORLD ACCORDING TO RUTH WALLIS’ They called them “party records.” You hid them in the back of the phonograph cabinet, and only played them, for selected guests, when you were sure the kids were asleep. Their double-entendre treatment of sex and its variants may seem anodyne in these days of Comedy Central, but the nostalgic patina they’ve acquired may make them look like wit next to today’s gross-outs. Ruth Wallis, still with us, was their preeminent practitioner; this revue of her songs, compiled by Steve Mackes and Michael Whaley, won’t bring back repression, but may give smut a welcome touch of class. IN PREVIEWS, OPENS MONDAY, Triad, 158 West 72nd Street, 212-239-6200. (Feingold)

‘MOLLY’S DREAM’ A waitress has a fantasy, and discovers that love is just as likely to go haywire in dreams as in reality. Maria Irene Fornes’s 1968 play with songs has had workshops and showcases, but until now never a full New York production. I published it in 1971, but who ever listens to me? Daniel Aukin’s production, with music by Maury Loeb, features Matthew Maher, Patrick Boll, Toi Perkins, Dominic Bogart, and Bo Corre as Molly; David Neumann choreographs. IN PREVIEWS, OPENS FRIDAY, SoHo Rep, 46 Walker Street, 212-868-4444. (Feingold)

‘MONDO DRAMA’ Oh, what are those two Drama Department scamps, Douglas Carter Beane and Christopher Ashley, up to now? The boys who told you kiddie TV was a sparkling planet for escapees from the country-club set have decided that the world of culture deserves an Italian ’60s-style “shockumentary” exposé. Their prurient intercessor for the evening is, naturally, a stand-up comedienne—Caroline Rhea. Whether the campy approach will provide genuine shocks or just WASP-party joy buzzers remains to be seen. IN PREVIEWS, OPENS MAY 22, Greenwich House Theatre, 27 Barrow Street, 212-239-6200. (Feingold)

WORDS

MEGHAN DAUM “Memo to New Yorkers: this is what I found: a twelve-hundred-square-foot, five-room apartment. The rent in Prairie City: five hundred dollars.” So advises the narrator of Daum’s recently published, semi-autobiographical novel, The Quality of Life Report, who leaves Manhattan in search of peace (and more space) in the Midwest, only to become “a one-woman army of cultural imperialism.” Memo to readers: Daum admits loving her new home in Nebraska—but always keeps in mind that New York is just a short flight away. TUESDAY AT 7:30, Barnes & Noble, 4 Astor Place, 212-420-1322. (Meyer)

‘FRANK O’HARA: A CELEBRATION’ The late Joe LeSueur lived with the New York School poet par excellence for over nine years, and his recently published Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara is exactly that: intimate riffs on dedicated lines, or a man’s life as commentary to finished poems. Listen to poets, friends, and relations (from David Lehman to Hettie Jones) read from O’Hara’s work, gaze at the longtime MOMA employee’s favorite paintings (or slides thereof), and perhaps learn why LeSueur deemed Yukio Mishima a “size queen.” THURSDAY AT 7:30, New School, Tishman Auditorium, 66 West 12th Street, 212-229-5488. (De Krap)

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Buried Alive

Taylor Mead unplugs an appliance so I can get in the door. The apartment has a single working electrical outlet, on the wall behind the refrigerator, right next to the entrance. It’s a classic tenement flat: two small rooms, tub in the kitchen, gentrification imminent. The first thing I notice is the narrow foam pad where the 77-year-old Mead sleeps, on the floor between the fridge and the bathtub. In his 23 years in this apartment, he has never owned a bed, but until recently, the foam pad was wedged into the smaller second room next to a hillside of undifferentiated junk. Now that room is empty and slats are visible across the back wall where all the plaster fell down. The former Warhol “superstar” shows me the termination notice ordering him to leave by October 7, “as you are committing or permitting a nuisance.” They cite “floor to ceiling garbage,” the fire hazard, the vermin. Now the date’s come and gone, and he’s worried. He’s on a fixed income. Where would he go? Besides, he’s lived in 30-odd New York apartments and this is the one “most suitable.”

“They claimed that I was spreading bedbugs around the building,” Mead says. He admits that his place was infested with cockroaches, “but I’ve never had bedbugs.” Decades ago, he occasionally stayed in Bowery flophouses, so he thinks he knows a bedbug.

Mead is a poet, painter, writer (On Amphetamines and in Europe), and above all, an actor with an impish persona. He won an Obie for his performance in Frank O’Hara’s The General in 1964, and he’s made well over 100 films, beginning in the ’50s with Beatnik obscurities like Too Young, Too Immoral and The Flower Thief. He met Andy Warhol in 1963, immediately starring in the Pop artist’s Tarzan movie (as Tarzan) and beginning a friendship he now remembers with a certain dyspepsia.

J. Hoberman once labeled Mead “the first underground movie star,” and he was part of the truly “indie” scene—the one with no crossover potential, no residual check, and no Hollywood remake. For Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys, for example, he got $200 and a trip to Arizona. Mead is luckier than most, however, because he grew up well-off, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and gets $700 a month from his father’s estate. The rent on his decrepit pad is a miraculous $265. He seems to like money as much as the next person; he just can’t marry his art to it. This despite beginning his adult life as a stockbroker trainee.

When Mead moved to Ludlow in 1979, to what had been a friend’s apartment, the street felt dangerous and creepy. “The old landlord, Joe, said, ‘Since I’ve heard of you, you can stay.’ Then he sort of used me as a panache to interest people in the building. But after five years, the explosion [in real estate] came. He didn’t need me anymore.”

Artists change the ‘hood with their “panache,” then have to leave. Old story. But there’s a larger point to be made. Taylor Mead is the kind of artist who may not show up on the scene ever again. This is not just someone with a total disregard for ordinary comfort, but someone with a complete inability to make a life outside of impulse and the aesthetic that springs from impulse. Mead’s old compadre, Jack Smith, the visionary auteur behind Flaming Creatures, comes to mind as another who would have been radically incapable of, say, setting up a pension plan. Or much of any plan. And this is no longer a city where one can live without a plan.

Mead is lucky. Amy Wallin, who produced and directed his revival of The General early this year, spent seven long days in August, with a friend, shoveling out the apartment. “It took us a couple days before we even saw part of the floor,” says Wallin. They went through every single paper and stored archival items in plastic bins. Then on September 4, exterminators came in, ignored the garbage Wallin had bagged, and took Mead’s clothing, books, electric piano, and God-knows-what and threw it into the backyard.

Mead happened to return with two young filmmakers, William Kirkley and Crystal Moselle, who’ve been filming him over the past two and a half years for a documentary called Excavating Taylor Mead. They helped him carry things back up the five flights. But they all got tired after a couple of hours and decided to finish the next day. By then, the bags were out on Ludlow Street. Mead couldn’t tell which ones were his, and “I wasn’t about to be seen digging through garbage.” He thinks it will take him years to figure out what he lost. He can’t find all the videotapes of his films now. Or his home movies. Or the beautiful letter Allen Ginsberg sent from India. He’s clearly upset, then chuckles, “That’s how I edit.”

For someone who’s had such an eventful and star-crossed life, Mead owns very little. A radio. A small TV. A VCR. There is no furniture to speak of, but he did just acquire a coffee table discovered in the backyard September 4. Mead also found his toaster oven again. He doesn’t use the stove. Years ago, he thought there was a gas leak and had it disconnected. A flannel shirt hangs on the oven door. More clothing hangs from a gas pipe near the ceiling. He does not have a closet. His own paintings—loose figurative stuff—decorate the walls. Then there’s a Western vista, actually a Marlboro ad, a newspaper centerfold. “To get some space,” he explains. He suggests that we head across the street to the Pink Pony for the interview. There’s no place to sit here. He does not own a chair.

“One of my excuses for not totally keeping the place anti-septic is I’ve had a broken hand the last couple years,” Mead says, as he wraps a splint around his right forearm. He fell down the 14 steps outside his apartment on millennium eve, 1999—his 75th birthday. Shattered his elbow. He’s had three surgeries.

At the door, he goes over a checklist he keeps atop the refrigerator to consult each time he leaves the apartment: “Splint. Keys. Money. Snacks . . . ” Mead eats and drinks free at a number of downtown establishments that recognize his hardcore boho credentials. He’s a night person. During the wee hours, “after the dogs are walked,” he visits seven Lower East Side parking lots to feed stray cats. Then he usually hangs out at some watering hole till closing time, and goes home to watch TV, usually falling asleep around five. He has two cats at home. There used to be seven. Until recently, his floor—those parts visible, at least—was covered with cat litter.

“We had to almost use a jackhammer to get that litter up,” says Wallin. “It had hardened onto the floor. We had to use a crowbar.” Though the matter of Mead’s eviction is still unresolved, she plans to install carpeting, and get him a couple of small tables. He’s never had a table. Mead also informs me, his misgivings evident, that Wallin may be buying him a bed. And he isn’t sure he’s ready for that.