Keith Haring’s “Red” (detail), on view at the Gladstone Gallery through July 1.1982-1984. Gouache and ink on paper. Complete work 106 3/4 x 274 inches (271.1 x 696 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
(First published on the DI/AV on May 9, 2011 and re-published today in memory of Randy Shilts. Keith Haring is one of the 100,000 Americans and one million people world-wide who had died from AIDS-related illnesses by the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, a presidency largely indifferent to their plight. Bush died on Saturday, World AIDS Day, at the age of 94. And the band played on.)
NEW YORK — “These are markers,” Bill T. Jones was telling me. We were at last Wednesday’s opening for the Gladstone Gallery’s ambitious exhibition of the three mammoth works Keith Haring painted in real-time during a series of performances by the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company in 1982, as well as two long display cases packed with drawings taken from Haring’s notebooks, including a couple of dozen sketches of penises, most poignantly several under which the artist has written, “Drawing penises in front of Tiffany’s.” Jones looked from tableau to tableau, reflected, and added: “I’m a marker.” Only Bill T. Jones can say this without seeming ostentatious or self-important. What he meant is that, like Haring and like the affliction they shared, the one ultimately succumbing and the other surviving, still here, he signified the artistically audacious and personally daring gestalt of a certain New York epoch. Where he was being unfair to himself, though, was that his tone implied the word *was*, and of the three iconic signifiers of the ’80s NY art scene I encountered last Wednesday meandering from Gladstone’s vast Chelsea gallery near the Hudson to the intimate Rattlestick Theater on Waverly Place, where Suzanne Vega was holding court as Carson McCullers, or pretending to, Jones was the only one who was of his time without being trapped in it. That said, with this courageous exhibition, Barbara Gladstone has liberated Haring from the sanitized version that has been passed down to us in the two decades since his death from AIDS-related illnesses in 1990, at the age of 31. If Jones is “Still / Here,” thanks to Gladsone, Haring is here again, in his full unadulterated glory.
It’s not that Haring’s animated tableaux don’t appeal to adults as well as children — they do. But I suspect my own fascination with them is in large part nostalgic, because they recall the at least surface innocence of that period in Greenwich Village, a sort of resurrection of the down but not out Beat spirit of New York in the ‘50s after the anarchic disarray of the ‘60s and the downer of the ‘70s, with its taint of corruption and its tint of soot. Jones danced, Haring made figures who danced — cartoons that managed to be simultaneously hip and naive, innocent rather than ironic — and Vega sang of an innocent neighbor child (his name was Luca, in case you’ve forgotten), beaten by his parents. Even the monotone vocal delivery and accompanying a-musicality of “Tom’s Diner” didn’t prevent that anecdotal anthem from being playful, a romp in an older Manhattan — the diner — seen through the eyes of a hip young singer, perhaps slightly jaded but still able to appreciate the scene she was describing. This was when irony still seemed a novelty.
But wait. Look more deeply at Haring’s murals painted for Jones’s 1982 shows and you see a serpent extending from the prolonged body of one of the dancers. Consider the dozens of drawings of penises, apparently including at least one of his own (one ageing original hipster at Wednesday’s opening, picking a penis to pose by so his friend could take a photo, passed on one which Haring noted was a a true depiction of the author’s, erect, saying, “Not accurate.”), and, being told earlier in the day by another survivor about what John Giorno wrote about having anonymous sex with Haring in the subway bathrooms of New York while others watched, one also has to recall the moment it all came crashing down in a shower of T-cells, and Haring’s death at 31 of AIDS.
When I told my AIDS survivor friend that I was considering publishing Haring’s sketches under which he has written “Drawing penises in front of Tiffany’s,” (part of his 1978 series, “Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks”), juxtaposing them with the fact of his dying of what Prince called the big disease with a little name, my friend suggested I would be stigmatizing Haring, and by inference other gay men who died of AIDS. In other words, I would be saying, “This is what all their penis fancies lead to.” Perhaps, if the art in question was called, “Drawing penises in front of the subway restroom,” but what’s jarring here is the tragic transformation signified by the Tiffany’s context and framing. When Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edwards’s 1961 film) stands in front of the famous Fifth Avenue display window after a night of partying staring winsomely at diamonds while eating her croissant and coffee one early New York morning, the route that might open that window for her is sleeping with wealthy men. When Keith Haring stands in front of the same window some 20 years later, the baubles, bangles, and bright shiny beads he’s dreaming of will (probably; the exact reason he contracted AIDS was not divulged) ultimately serve as the instrument of his death. Both Holly and Haring arrived from small towns with Big Apple dreams, but oh how the booty of those dreams — of the free lifestyle celebrated by Golightly and pursued by thousands of Hollys and Harings afterwards, perhaps inspired by her story — had changed! And as far as stigmatization goes, well, look at the way society treated each: Holly was lionized — never mind that her means were greased by a lighter form of selling herself; and Keith, or at least the larger social strata which encadred him, gay men, was stigmatized — never mind that unlike Holly he wasn’t using others to get rich, he was just a guy who wanted to have fun.
Keith Haring, “Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks,” 1978. Graphite on paper. 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (21.6 x 14 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.
Are Haring’s drawings of penises in front of Tiffany’s great art? In my view, no. (But, as a colleague here at the DI pointed out to me, who am I to judge?) Viewed with the awareness that he would die of AIDs a decade later, do they make a powerful statement about a prodigious artist, and about how the consequences for innocents who arrived in New York with the dream of living an artful life changed so direly over the span of just two decades, and about the death of innocence? Absolutely. (And even without this social context, when juxtaposed with Haring’s later, technically more sophisticated and graphically more involved and intricate work — as we’ve done on this page — they do in fact help complete the portrait of the artist.)
Contrast this tribute with Suzanne Vega’s “Carson McCullers Talks about Love,” a shallow homage to a complicated artist which takes absolutely no risks in what was billed as an effort to understand the author of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “The Member of the Wedding,” and other work that played its own part in signifying an earlier era. McCullers championed misfits, and in probing her story, one would have hoped that Vega would have taken a deeper look at the personal idiosyncracies that informed her oeuvre, particularly ‘Heart,’ and made it ring so true. Vega not only avoids exploring these facets — including McCullers’s sexual ambidextrousness – but after making the decision to go with a generic southern accent, she can’t even bother to develop its nuances. Every line has the same cadence, except when she flubs one, which is frequently. The lyrics of the dozen or so songs are trite, which almost has the effect of trivializing their subject; how can one treat a personality whose chief talent was verbal lyricism with such one-dimensional language? The evening appears to have had a director, Kay Matschullat, but desperately needs a dramaturge. Vega’s fascination with McCullers seems to have started with seeing her photo on a book jacket — “She looked like a wise old child,” the singer recalls in a short introduction spoken as herself before dawning a wig and the unfortunate accent — but her stage portrait doesn’t really delve deeper than that one dimension. In effect, Vega has become the man standing outside the window of Tom’s Diner. She has not ventured inside the restaurant, leaving us to wonder if she really sees her subject. One gets the feeling that we’re beholding a sanitized version of an artist, McCullers, who was anything but. Consequently, she has taught us nothing new about the author; we leave the theater no more enlightened than we were coming in.
Barbara Gladstone, the owner of the Gladstone Gallery, could have gone the same route. She could have just presented the three large works on paper Haring painted during the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane performance, which, lustrous and enjoyable as they are, would simply have confirmed the Keith Haring we already know, the one who’s art is safe enough to put on coffee cups. But she clearly didn’t want to just profit from the artist — she wanted to serve him and enchance his reputation and the public’s appreciation of his authenticity and understanding of his art. Personally, on a visceral level, I was repulsed by the penis images. But as an art maven recently returned from France, where the performing arts at least still have some intellectual heft and pose difficult questions, to a New York — New York City, skyscrapers and everythang! — where the lively arts (at least as manifest in what I’ve seen) rarely seem to go beyond the surface any more, where the former town crier the Village Voice is a shadow of its former self, where the spectators don’t seem to know the difference, and where the majority of the artists who populate the Chelsea galleries seem to be so lightweight, and most of the curators not to know the difference, I celebrate the opportunity to get to know an artist I thought I already knew even better, and I applaud a gallery owner’s caring enough to provide the opportunity
From the exhibition Balthus, running through January 1 at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland: “Le Chat au miroir III,” 1989–1994. Oil on canvas, 220 x 195 cm. Private collection. Copyright Balthus.
Text by & copyright Paul Ivan Winer Ben-Itzak
Art by Balthus from the exhibition Balthus at the Fondation Beyeler, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn (see captions for copyrights)
Today AVID offers a dialogue between PBI’s time-traveling memoirs of growing up in the U.S. and assimilating in France and the work of Balthus, on view at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland through January 1 and, from our archives, Ruth Asawa and Ben Shahn. Like what you’re reading? Please subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for $36/year or make a donation by designating your PayPal payment to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us there to learn how to pay by check. This one goes out to Linda, in memory of Bill Clark. The excerpt below, from PBI’s “Cross-Country/A Memoir of France & the U.S.,” is titled “Prelude: Two-and-a-half with a bullet,” and is 90% revised from an earlier version.
“He’s here again: the man with the child in his eyes.” — Kate Bush
“We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.” — Wallace Berry, “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three” (George Braziller, New York, 1963. Illustrated by Ben Shahn)
“Songs to aging children come / Aging children, I am one.” — Joni Mitchell, “Songs to Aging Children Come,” from the film “Alice’s Restaurant”)
Mom is crying over the wooden loom that divides the dining room from the kitchen in our San Francisco Edwardian, as the fog over Noe Valley evaporates outside the window. I look up at her from the black-speckled yellow linoleum floor.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?”
“President Kennedy has been ass-ass-i-na-ted.”
This is my first conscious memory. (Although as my old creative writing teacher Joyce Carol Oates recently pointed out on French radio, what we think are direct memories are often memories of memories, retained by constant replay. The best teachers’ lessons are meted out over a lifetime. Which is not to say that Oates wasn’t already meting them out in 1980. After I submitted a short story in which I confessed to committing “slow suicides,” she handed me an essay she’d written, “The Art of Suicide,” not a how-to-manual but a critique of famous self-immolators: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath….Her main point was that as one can’t desire a void, for the Suicide – she used it as a noun – the wish “I want to die” is really a stand-in for something else: “I want you to love me,” “I want to you to listen to me….” Three years later another Princeton professor, Robert Fagles, would walk into Tragedy class one afternoon with a Washington Post article about a college student who had killed himself after reading the Oresteia… in his translation. Holding the clipping in one hand and tapping the book gently with the other and looking each of us in the eyes, he declared, carefully enunciating each word in his tender, resonant cadence: “I want to be sure you understand what this tale is about.” When I interviewed Fagles about his new Oedipus translation the next year for the Times, he would explain: “Oedipus had to be burned to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.” My own thinking on the ultimate existential question – Albert Camus called it the only question — has evolved, following the 2015 Paris suicide of filmmaker Chantal Akerman, who once built a play around the letters between Plath and her mother, to consider the possibility that when an artist chooses to end her life, it may just be a creative way to formulate a period. Or to breach a threshold. And that we should allow these liberators of our own souls their franchise.)
As childhood memories go, I have only two of my parents together before they split up when I was 12. An electrical storm is rattling our isolated house off Bohan-Dillon Road in rural Northern California, and Dad is late returning from a visit to the Pomo reservation, reached only by a treacherous mountain road. When he finally bursts in, drenched, Mom clutches him desperately, like a fisherman’s bride embracing an errant sailor presumed lost to the sea’s caprices. (From the reservation I also remember a succulent pig roasting on a dripping spit and the Great Chicken Pox Epidemic of 1969, which started with the Indian children and terminated with my baby brother’s pink-speckled body dangling from my mom’s arms. Now that I’ve shared Jordan’s most intimate moment of affliction — to cop a term from another Princeton prof. — here’s mine: Being bitten on the penis by a tic while climbing the cliffs above the totem pole guarding the Timber Cove Inn, which explains my aversion for going cepes hunting with my neighbor in the South of France five decades later.)
My other memory of Mom and Dad together is of them hiking on a mountain above the Tamales Bay ranch where Hans and Dina Angress (her family hid him out in Holland during the war) hosted their annual herring festival with the dozens of children they’d adopted: Smoked herring, pickled herring, barbecued herring, fried herring, herring-shaped bread, salt-water herring taffy. (When the herring festival wasn’t on, we’d beg mom to stop at the Stewart General Store across from Fort Ross, an old Russian bastion overlooking the ocean, for beef jerky.) Dad in his broad tan cowboy hat is carefully explaining something to Mom, not looking at her, as she purses her lips and stares down at the dry brown weeds. (They would separate soon afterwards.) I resume flirting with a mulatto girl from a local school I retrieved every year on the volleyball court, not the first mulatto girl I’d fall in love with.
Balthus, “The Blanchard Children,” 1937. Oil on canvas, 125 x 130 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris. Donation of Picasso’s inheritors, 1973/1978. © Balthus. Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau Blanchard.
My courting of Christine LaMar that same school year, 1972-73 (also when my first cat, Kristen, was mauled to death by the O’Neils’ German Sheppard), was confined to stare-out contests across the aisle of the 24 Divisadero, until she blindsided me one morning by boarding the bus at Market wearing dark glasses. Deciding it was time to up the ante, I dedicated my first, handwritten novel, “The Problem Cops,” about a police duo who took on racial problems, to her. I also dedicated my ping-pong victories to Christine, announcing to my brother Aaron and best friend Eric before every match over our basement table: “I dedicate this game to Christine LaMar. If I win, I will be __ and __ . If I lose, I will be….” By the time Christine broke my heart by announcing that she was transferring to another school, I was able to declare, through tears not abated by a buttermilk donut, “If I win, I will be 187 and 9,” my final tally. It took so many dry-runs to summon the courage to call Christine and ask her out that I still recall her phone number as faithfully as Jenny’s (from the song: 867-5309): 587 – _ _ _ _. When in 1994 we organized a reunion for Rooftop – our alternative public school, one of the city’s first, was relegated to the roof of another school — I was devastated to learn that Christine had told the classmate charged with calling up other alumni that she wouldn’t be coming, as she couldn’t remember anyone. I did: Besides Christine, Monica Woo, Maura Iaconi, and Kathy D., skipping up to Jackson Park for our lunch break in a red sweater and white skirt, a beret holding back her straight brown hair, and with whom I used to exchange the kind of teasing that among 11-year-olds is another form of flirting. (Also from the lunch breaks, I recall the most popular teacher, Ernie Baumgarten — who often came to school wearing the mask of our mascot, King Kong — laying on the grass with his ear glued to a transistor to follow the Watergate hearings. At the reunion, in a Fort Mason barrack overlooking the bay, after catching up with some of us, now in our ‘30s, Ernie would commiserate, “I know that many of you are still struggling.”) I’d fall for Kathy again eight years later, in 1981 – I remember the year because we saw “Atlantic City” together, Burt Lancaster ogling Susan Sarandon bathing her naked arms with lemon juice – when she was bobbing her hair and, as often seemed to be the case that year in Noe Valley, weighing her sexual orientation. (Though this observation may be my way of processing her lack of romantic interest in me.) When I next had news of Kathy, she was trundling Agnes DeMille around Greenwich Village and living at the aging choreographer’s pad at 11th and 5th, in the same building where Duchamp schemed up R. Mutt and turned a toilet into art. When I last saw her, in 1991, it was at the memorial service for her brother, who had killed himself. Her eyes were as luminous as ever. The only Rooftop girl I ever kissed was Kerry Baum, who with Gio Coppola, Francis’s son, had formed the school’s Bopsy Twins. I’d later interview Gio’s brother Roman – who’d produced one of the first films to exploit ‘70s nostalgia, “The Spirit of ’76,” in which Olivia d’Abo time-travels back to the era and falls in love with David Cassidy – and open my interview with his mom, Eleanor, on her “Making of Apocalypse Now” documentary, by conveying my condolences on the loss of Gio, killed after being bopped on the head by a mast while sailing with Ryan O’Neal’s boy. Another Rooftopper, Chris Perry, would grow up to be the first person I knew to die of AIDS, which I learned of while doing a story on the Quilt in 1991 and discovering his name on a panel.
Once we’d debarked from the 24 and scaled the six flights of stairs to Rooftop, school would start with Morning Circle, a chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” followed by share-time. (I’d soon be studying auto-harp at his son Jodie Guthrie’s house,
Balthus, “The Card Party,” 1948-50. Oil on canvas, 140 x 194 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Balthus.
forcing my instructor to teach me “Your Daddy’s Home,” and, later in Paris, would chow down with Woody’s daughter Nora.) At one Morning Circle, a long-haired, freckle-faced kid named Aaron Burg divulged, “I had dried cat food for breakfast this morning. It’s actually quite good!” Another Aaron, my brother, signed his school picture to me that year, “Love, Aaron W..” And yet another would help launch my show-business career. A reporter for an about kids, by kids local t.v. show, “Whatchamacallit,” Aaron Wolf anchored a segment on Rooftop in which he said all we did was sit around reading comic books. (Actually, we made them. And Super-8 movies about vampire-heroes set to the theme from “Mission Impossible.” And tape-recorded Watergate spoofs in which I played Nixon: “Mitchell’s thinking of spilling the beans.” In 1985, regaining consciousness in the emergency room after passing out in the Herod-scale sunken mosaic bathtub of my dad and step-mom’s home while immersed in Swiss bubbles from her shop, Common Scents – I’d been nervous about a first date with an older woman, or maybe it was Kennedy’s bullet, the dread that anything can end when it’s only just begun — when the good-looking doctor asked me who the president was, I answered, “It’s not Nixon, is it?”) When “Whatchamacallit” refused to let us rebut, we decided to start our own show, What’s New With Kids?, which ran on radio station KPOO. (If you don’t like the news, make some of your own.) This lead to my being invited to audition for a new t.v. show, Kidswatch, and this oracular rejection note: “You seemed more like the brains behind the talent than an actual on the air personality.” But the Wolfs weren’t through with me yet. In 9th-grade drama, Aaron’s dreamy sister Naomi would play Roxanne to my Cyrano before she went on to play Rasputin to Al Gore, turning him into a girly-man with the image make-over that inadvertently launched a war and landed me on the front-page of France’s Communist paper, leading an American contingent demonstrating in Paris against the Iraq invasion in 2003.
From the Arts Voyager archives: Ben Shahn, “Civil Rights March.” Copyright Ben Shahn.
Despite retaining all this minutia (I left out Inca Robbins’s nose-ring, marching with my mom against the war in 1966, and betraying the 25th Street Gang for the Jersey Street Gang, lured by Roxanne Sanchez), I have no other memories of my parents together from this period. Which is not to say I don’t have other charged souvenirs from the year we spent in Timber Cove in 1969: Knocking Aaron unconscious for four seconds; Aaron and I erecting our own fort in a cluster of trees overlooking the Pacific, and the set of Children’s Encyclopedias we stowed there getting water-logged; our discovering a typewriter in the secret attic that ringed the house; the towering redwoods outside our room’s window whose foliage I made into faces; Aaron whining “Lemme go to sleep!” when I would not stop talking; looking under the bed for simians from “Planet of the Apes”; and obstinately refusing to return to school after glimpsing the slip of Mrs. Klein, who taught the lower grades in our little red schoolhouse of 40 kids. (I also associate a leather belt with this memory.)
Balthus, “The Cherry Tree,” 1940. Oil on wood, 92 x 72.9 cm. Roman Family, London. Copyright Balthus.
The upper grade teacher and principal, Mr. Cash, was run out of town at rifle-point after holding all the kids with brown eyes after school one day and all the kids with blue eyes the next to teach them about racism. (Which is not to say that racism was confined to rural California. Back at Alvarado School in Noe Valley the next year, 1970, I remember our work on the schoolyard mosaic mural – supervised by Ruth Asawa, the Japanese-American artist whose World War II imprisonment had taught her the importance of education – being interrupted one afternoon by the cry “A fight, a fight, a nigger and a white!”)
Balthus, “La Rue,” 1933. Oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Thrall Soby. ©Balthus. Photo: 2018. Digital image, Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. Note the thick-licked, drugged-looking Black – or Arab — man assaulting the white girl, as everyone else goes blithely about their business.
From Timber Cove, I also remember plastering wine bottles with papier-maché to turn them into candle-stick holders as Christmas presents for my parents, and walking into the woods to chop down the biggest Christmas tree we’d ever had, so tall we had to carry it lengthwise to get it through the doorway. And Linda Murphy, our first teacher at Fort Ross, with her shoulder-length curly blonde tresses, handing out plastic blue raincoats the same Christmas and leading us in singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” And clinging to the mountainside along a narrow path teetering over a creek at the end of the year picnic, thinking that’s the first life I owe when I didn’t slip and plunge into the water.
I remember how privileged I felt when Miss Stettner, my kindergarten and second-grade teacher back in Noe Valley, came to visit us in Timber Cove. I have a distinct memory of her fording the rocks along the coast with her boyfriend in her knee-high black boots. (Retrieving Miss Stettner in 1991 teaching at a school where I was working in the after-school program, I would betray her request not to tell our common charges that she’d been my teacher, which she then denied. Joan Baez would have a similar Thanks for making me feel old reaction when, during a 1987 interview, I told her how my mom had introduced me to her at my first concert, by Bob Dylan, when I was four.) I remember refusing to traverse the field that lead to George Bohan’s house, even in my brand-new bicycle, because it was infested with wasps. And playing with our astronaut doll, Matt Mason, in an arroyo where we also discovered Pomo arrow-heads. (Our pacifist parents wouldn’t let us have GI Joes or even cap guns. Back in Noe Valley, my best friend and his little brother had solved this dilemma by torching GI Joe and launching him from the roof of their garage.)
From the Arts Voyager archives: Ruth Asawa, “Nude.” Lithograph, 1965. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
I remember returning to the woods to find the makings for a kipa for Cousin Jane and Martin’s wedding at the Timber Cove house, transformed into Fontainebleau West with all of Jane’s parents, step and birth, flown in from Boca Raton. (10 years later my mom’s young cousin, divorced from Martin, would in her turn guide me to another threshold. Seeing Camus looking out from the orange cover of Germaine Brée’s biography on the bookshelf of her Greenwich Village high-rise, and strolling on the Prospect Heights boardwalk with Jane — coquette in an orange blouse tucked into a short late-summer white dress — and her older friend Earl, a Hemingway biographer, the week before I started Princeton made me feel like I’d intellectually arrived. Even if finding a copy of “Mein Kampf” on the desk of my new roommate, Gordon Humbert Jones III, next to his neatly folded ROTC uniform made me wonder exactly where. No torching Gordon Humbert Jones III and tossing him off the roof of Princeton Inn College.) And making another kipa in the woods with Tracy Wedemeyer, who had been my girlfriend ever since we had neighboring cribs at Marin General, and the confidences we exchanged under our makeshift wedding bough. “You pick your nose too!?” (When Aaron married a Catholic girl in 1992, the red-nosed priest would let them install a kipa in the altar and crush the sacramental wine glasses with their feet. Which accommodation didn’t prevent four Jewish boys, me, Jordan, Eric, and my mom’s first ex-boyfriend Ralph – Jordan had once burst into the bedroom and cried “You’re not my daddy! What are you doing in my mommy’s bed?” – from squirming uncomfortably when the priest began talking about the blood of Christ.) At nine, after Tracy’s family moved to Berkeley, I’d buy her a plastic engagement ring at Mr. Mopp’s. At 13, I’d have my first date as a teenager with Tracy, trying the old stretching arm around the chair and back maneuver, prompting her to lean forward in her seat in the theater where we were watching Tina Turner or Anne-Margaret bathe herself in baked beans in “Tommy,” on a double-bill with “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Where, yet another Guthrie promised, “You can get anything you want…’ceptin’ Alice.”) From the playmate who used to bite and scratch me up (“Come with me to Nursery School,” published in 1970, features a photo of Tracy using her feet to defend her swing from a pair of boys under the caption: “It’s important to take turns. Can you tell whose turn it is now?” and another of me determinedly climbing up a tree),Tracy had metamorphosed into a svelte, bronze-skinned California Girl with long straight blonde hair. When I last had news of her, she was married to a CBS Records vice-president and living in Venice Beach. When I last saw her, it was my 14th birthday, and we were both perched on the cusp of adulthood.
Balthus, “Thérèse,” 1938. Oil on carton on wood, 100.3 x 81.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, with William S. Lieberman, 1987. ©Balthus. Photo ©2018. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence.
For my third birthday, Tracy’s father Bill had given me what is now the oldest object I still possess, Ben Shahn’s illustrated book of Wallace Berry’s poem “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three”: “We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.” To which Bill had added an equally poignant inscription: “Years from now, you will learn of this event…. It often brings sadness, and perhaps despair, to the minds of some men, to witness the deeds of others. There are times when the goals of men seem to be so opposed to that dream of men that some of our minds hold, that indeed man seems lost. That this little book exists is a ray of proof that from this despair, beauty can still be born.” The dedication is signed “Bill, Patty (Tracy’s mom), Tracy, Bill again (her kid brother), and Breathless,” Breathless being the Wedemeyers’ Saint-Bernard. (And a sobriquet I now realize, in Francophile retrospect, may have been inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 film, at a 2003 Paris screening of which I was the only one in the audience to laugh when Jean-Paul Belmondo exhaled cigarette smoke after he’d already expired.)
Oh Breathless, where are you now?
Child is the father of the man: Ed Winer and his three sons Aaron, Jordan, and Paul behind the house on Bohan-Dillon Road, Halloween 1969. (The red strips of felt are for devils.) Photo: Eva Wise (then Winer).
(Art from the exhibition Architecture and Design in Chicago, coming up this fall at The Art Institute of Chicago. Artists should not be implicated in the opinions expressed below.)
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In my ongoing quest to understand why Chicago persists in pulling me despite the insupportable levels of car pollution and ingrained segregation, I recently received an unexpected assist from the book exchange box of my Southwestern France village, in the form of “The New American Poetry,” a compendium published by Grove Press in 1960. Edited by Donald M. Allen, the Evergreen Original offers more than 200 poems from 44 poets, including most of the Beats and several notable precursors, with the regrettable omission of Diane DiPrima. I’ve thus been able to read, for the first time not counting a San Francisco public access t.v. spoof in which I interpreted Tiny Tim interpreting several verses, Part One of “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s panoramic tour of the flip side of Eisenhower’s America as seen from the underbelly of the California Zephyr as it races from Oakland to Chicago. Not surprisingly — given the way the bread-crumbs seem to be turning up these days — this particular copy bears the ex-libris of “Robert Eberle, Communication, Redwood Hall, Stanford University,” the man to whom I indirectly owe my first job in journalism. It was Eberle who transformed the mission of the traditional campus PR office from that of shill to legitimate news service. His model was quickly adopted by other universities, so that by the time I got to Princeton, my work study gig at the university’s Communications Office entailed real reporting. I don’t know how Eberle’s copy of “The New American Poetry” made its way across two continents and one ocean to the plastic glass-enclosed shelves outside my local post office, but it was as if, having got me started down this dubious path, he was now pitching in 40 years later to help keep me from hanging up my plume for good by reminding me that, having been spawned by the San Francisco of the Beat Generation, I was standing on some noble shoulders, and had no right to let a little thing like occupational obsolesce make me give up the ghost. Even the (auto)biographical notes at the end of the book evoked this heritage:
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Probably was born in New York about 1919 or thereafter. He seems to have been transported into France in swaddling clothes, saw the white mountains of Alsace from a balcony, and returned to the States sometime, years later, to distinguish himself in the upper grades by outstanding achievement in the art of flatulence. After that the record is none too clear. It seems he returned to France during World War II and had some underhand connection with the Free French and the Norwegian Underground. After the War he may have written two unpublishable novels and a doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne which should have been titled Histoire du pissoir dans la poésie moderne. It also seems fairly certain that he reached San Francisco overland about 1951, built a bookstore, and began to publish the Pocket Poet Series.” (When last seen, bookstore, publisher, and Ferlinghetti were still promoting alternative literary approaches, the latter having celebrated his 99th birthday by coming out with a new, presumably longer, memoir.)
The book ends with “Prayerwheel / 2,” by David Meltzer, a man my mom dated after she broke up with my dad, and which terminates:
Gone is the giant Bond sign.
Is anything ever gone
to the poet who works up everything
eventually? Somewhere, without mind,
Love begins. The poet begins
to examine the dissolution of Love.
The sea continues. We continue
talking, growing nervous, drinking
too much coffee.
From the exhibition Architecture and Design in Chicago, coming up this fall at The Art Institute of Chicago: Peter J. Weber. Prairie School Skyscraper, Chicago, Illinois, Perspective, 1910. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Bertram A. Weber.
And to take us back (by virtual California Zephyr, the fabled Amtrak train) to the Wind-blown City, and the epiphany with which “The New American Poetry” furnished me, here’s how Lew Welch brings his “Chicago Poem” home:
Driving back I saw Chicago rising in its gasses and I knew again that never will the
Man be made to stand against this pitiless, unparalleled monstrosity. It
Snuffles on the beach of the Great Lake like a blind, red rhinoceros.
It’s already running us down.
You can’t fix it. You can’t make it go away.
I don’t know what you’re going to do about it,
But I know what I’m going to do about it. I’m just going to walk away from it. Maybe
A small part of it will die if I’m not around
feeding it anymore.
What I love about this poem is that it’s an assemblage of pinhole views, with the reader invited to fill out the rest of the universe, based on his own experience and how the author’s references resonate with him. And then there’s the vernacular — “I don’t know what you’re going to do about it, But I know what I’m going to do about it” — which smacks of the epoch without being confined to it.
Among the positive additions humans have contributed to the Chicago landscape is its architecture. Above: Bertrand Goldberg, Marina City, Chicago, Illinois, Perspective Looking West, 1985. The Art Institute of Chicago. The Archive of Bertrand Goldberg, a gift from his children through his estate.
Concretely, this poem made me realize that what draws me to Chicago (besides the richness of its literary and artistic legacy) is what the terrain came with — Lake Michigan and the Chicago River — while what subsequent generations of Chicagoans added to the landscape (or what they retained; many of the former architectural marvels have been destroyed or simply left to rot, supplanted by soulless Trump behemoths) is more doubtful.
But given that the Black people whose ancestors helped build Chicago are now being chased out (250,000 of them in recent years, according to data cited by the Chicago Reporter) by the relentless privatization policies of mayor Rahm Emmanuel — echoing the gentrification practices being produced in New Orleans and anticipating those planned for Puerto Rico by what Naomi Klein has called the “disaster capitalists” — do any of us, especially white people who pretend to have a liberal conscience, really have the right to “walk away from it”?
What are you going to do about it? And I?