Monday, November 5, 2012

Joe Brainard Part 3 - Some questions for Ron Padgett

Joe Brainard & Ron Padgett
c.1989, photo Patricia Padgett

Ron Padgett is the author of numerous books of poetry, memoirs, and translations. He was in Joe Brainard’s first-grade class in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They became friends in high school in the late 1950s when Ron started a little magazine called The White Dove Review and asked Joe to be the art editor. They remained close friends until Joe’s death in 1994. Ron collaborated several times with Joe on books and wrote a memoir entitled Joe (2004). This year the Library of America published The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, which Ron edited. After reading it, I had a few questions for him, which he was kind enough to answer by email.

Q: Did you and Joe Brainard share poems as you were developing them?

A: Joe wrote mostly prose. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we showed each other new pieces, partly because we were the main audience for them, along with Ted Berrigan and Dick Gallup.

Q: There has been some confusion about the last several years of Joe’s life. If I understand what you wrote, as well as an interview with Kenward Elmslie, Brainard still created art, but he didn’t paint or make art for sale. In addition to his extensive reading, he did designs for his friends’ books and made drawings that he gave away. Is that correct?

A: Yes, he did do some book art and some drawings. Also, recently I discovered a large manila envelope that contained hundreds and hundreds of pieces he had collected for collages, as well as some partly finished collages, which he mailed to himself from New York to Vermont, intending to work on them. Although he didn’t, and although he had withdrawn from the art market, he didn’t stop thinking about art.

Q: Edmund White suggested that Joe stopped making art because he stopped taking speed. I sensed that his inner compass changed. Can you comment?

A: Taking speed gave Joe the energy to make a lot of art in a short time. He made art before speed and after speed. His reasons for slowing down were complicated.

by Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett
illustrations by Joe Brainard

Q: I wondered if Brainard was afraid that his canvases couldn’t capture that elusive “nowness” as well as his other work. Maybe he felt that his technical abilities couldn’t render that pure presence he sought?

A: I’m not sure what you mean by “nowness” and “pure presence.” He was just disappointed by his oil paintings. No one else was.

Q: By nowness I meant his ongoing desire/struggle to capture the present moment. I felt that he was writing about this all the time, but perhaps most directly in I Remember and in the piece entitled “Right Now.”

A: Ah, that nowness. Yes, you’re right in the two instances you mention, but I don’t think he was always going for nowness. He was going for something concrete: visually beautiful, fresh, amazing art works.

Q: Brainard did emphasize being present and kind. Was Allen Ginsberg an influence in this way? As far as you know, did Joe ever study or read about Buddhism?

A: He never studied Buddhism, and any reading about it would have been casual. A number of his friends were Buddhists. But I think Buddhism had a very small influence on him, an indirect one at most.

I'm Not Really Flying
I'm Thinking

Q: Brainard seemed to be an artist who was queer, but not a queer artist. In his work and his writing, his sexuality arrives in waves. It feels like a constant background, but not always a foreground. Do you agree?

A: Yes, I do.

Q: His parents seem mostly absent from the memoir and this new book. Was he ever out to them? Was the relationship strained?

A: He never told them he was gay, fearing that it might upset them. But when his father learned of Joe’s sexuality (after Joe died), he didn’t seem upset at all. The relationship wasn’t strained, but, as I understand it, communication in the Brainard family tended to remain on an everyday, superficial level.

Q: Did Joe sit down and say, “I have to work now, I have to write a poem,” or did he just write when it struck him?

A: His diaries show that he often set work schedules for himself.

Envelope and unfinished collage made by Joe Brainard. Image courtesy Ron Padgett

Q: When did he recognize that he was a writer and an artist?

A: From early childhood he knew he was good at art, though I doubt that at the age of, say, seven, he said to himself, “I am an artist.” His writing came later, when he was around nineteen.

Q: You already explored his life extensively in your memoir. Did the process of editing his collected writings change your view of him?

A: It made me realize that he was even more brilliant than I had thought.

Q: Do you have a different sense of his lasting contribution?

A: This question would have made him smile. In one of his writings, admitting that he had trouble liking Courbet, he added something like, “Someday I hope to understand his ‘contribution.’” He was making fun of highfalutin language. As for lasting, Paul Auster has written that I Remember will endure. I tend to agree, but really I can’t predict future taste.

Q: Do you think there is enough correspondence to do a volume of the letters of Joe Brainard?

A: Easily.

Q: Do you feel that with the Collected Writings, you have finished your work with this material?

A: Gathering Joe’s huge correspondence would be exhausting. I’m leaving that to a younger person, someone with more stamina than I have.

To learn more about Ron Padgett visit

All art works by Joe Brainard used by permission of the Estate of Joe Brainard and courtesy of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

Joe Brainard Part 2: Interview with Matt Wolf

Joe Brainard, 1964

Matt Wolf is a young New York filmmaker. He has made a documentary about disco producer Arthur Russell and a fictionalized account of the artist David Wojnarowicz. An editor that I know mentioned that Wolf had made a documentary about Joe Brainard. So I wrote to Matt, and we had the following email exchange.

Q: How did you come to know Joe Brainard’s work? Why did you decide to make a film about him?

A: Years ago I was in a bookstore with an artist named Colter Jacobsen, and he recommended the memoir-poem I Remember to me. Immediately as I started reading, I was amazed by the poem, which recounts hundreds of childhood and universal memories. I was struck by the self-deprecating and charming voice of its writer—the artist Joe Brainard. A few weeks later I was looking at my bookshelf, and I realized that somebody had actually bought me a biography of Brainard for my birthday—Ron Padgett’s Joe: A Memoir.

Ron is an acclaimed poet in his own right, and he was also Joe’s longtime close friend. His book loosely mirrors the structure of Joe’s poem, replaying memories from their childhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, up until Joe’s premature death from AIDS in the early 1990s. I was really moved by Ron’s book, and after browsing through the University of Pennsylvania’s audio archives, PennSound, I found some great recordings of Joe reading I Remember. I really wanted to do something with this audio, Joe’s incredible poem, and Ron’s affecting biography. So I made this film, but I didn’t want it to be a conventional biography.

I Remember 
by Joe Brainard

Q: What reading is his voice taken from?

A: The recordings are taken from several readings. One in Calais, Vermont, in 1970; another at St. Mark’s Church in New York in 1971; and a later recording from a Giorno Poetry Systems record that was released in 1974. You can listen to the full recordings online at

Q: Do you have a favorite passage from I Remember?

A: Not really. The accumulation of all the memories and the rhythm of the entire piece are what appeal to me most.

Q: Have you read The Collected Works of Joe Brainard, edited by Ron Padgett?

A: Yes, it’s an amazing collection of writing that gave me an even deeper and warmer impression of Joe than I already had.

Q: Do you relate to his story about being an emerging gay artist in New York City?

A: Definitely. This isn’t the first queer biography I’ve made. I made a film about the avant-garde cellist and disco producer Arthur Russell, and as a college student I made work about the artist David Wojnarowicz. I see Brainard within that shared history of New York queer artists who died prematurely of AIDS. Since I’m only 30, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be a queer artist in New York through different eras, particularly the 1970s and 1980s.

Joe Brainard
photo by Wren de Antonio
production still,
I Remember: A Film about Joe Brainard
courtesy The Estate of Joe Brainard

Q: Where is the film being shown?

A: The film is screening in film festivals and at museums. It was commissioned by the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and has since screened around a lot. Coming up, it will be showing at the Liverpool Biennial in the UK and later in the winter at SFMOMA. We also had nice screenings at the Kitchen and the NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 in New York, as well as the gay and lesbian film festivals in Los Angeles and New York.

Q: Do you plan to make other films about Brainard, Padgett, or the New York School of poets?

A: I’d never say never. At the moment, I’m very busy finishing a film that I’ve been making for four years. It’s a feature documentary based on Teenage, a book by the British author Jon Savage. The film, like the book, is a prehistory of the teenager and looks at youth culture before WWII. It should be out early next year.

production still, I Remember: A Film about Joe Brainard
courtesy The Estate of Joe Brainard

I Love Joe Brainard

In the case of Joe one wants to embrace the pansy, so to speak.
—John Ashbery


I love Joe Brainard. He was an artist and writer who gave to everybody the permission they needed. That includes the permission to use the simple declarative sentence. You can read thousands of these sentences in the recently released book The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard, edited by his longtime friend Ron Padgett. ( Brainard’s most famous written work was the prose poem “I Remember,” which is included in its entirety in this volume. By the end of the book (or just the poem), you will probably love Joe Brainard too. I love this book and will refer to it for the rest of my life.

Joe Brainard took the everyday experience and made it exceptional. He reminded us in all kinds of ways that being alive and kind right now is what really matters. At first reading, some pieces seem simple, even naïve. On rereading, I am not so sure I know what he meant. Even in recalling moments from his past, he was bringing us back to living more fully in this moment. Joe Brainard was a skinny speedy tanned Buddha in an unbuttoned white shirt.

He moved to New York as a young man in the early 1960s, at a time when art and poetry were not so separate. In the beginning, he had to sell his own blood to make ends meet. He was without guile, a skilled draftsman and a freewheeling poet. He was unafraid to mix everything up. Influenced by Gertrude Stein, his writing seemed almost unconscious, but never tedious. He reminds me of the artists Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollock. Not with his visual art, but in his being. The writing and collages just poured out of his unconscious. Had he a less perceptive eye and sensitive ear, he might have produced ramblings or easy realism. But with his hand and eye, all the expressions were art emanating from a deep true place.

Madonna and Child

Brainard was an intuitive artist, not a conceptual artist. With the exception of a few antiwar, pro-McGovern posters, he was not a political artist either. Indeed, he shied away from politics. He didn’t try to place himself in a social or a political context. That would be somebody else’s job. Although his homosexuality can be seen everywhere, I am not sure he would have called himself a queer artist, but more likely an artist who was queer. The art came first. His sexuality was omnipresent, but only occasionally in the foreground.

A few years ago, the Tibor de Nagy gallery held an exhibition focusing on Brainard’s sexual art, called The Erotic Work. (Unable to see the show, I ordered the catalog.) While his erotic work is meant to be sexual, it is never pornographic. Or maybe I should say, I wish pornography could catch the sweetness that Brainard did. But then it wouldn’t be pornography, would it? He favored white briefs. I only know one friend who can get away with white briefs in middle age. (And he does look good and boyish in them.) But I love white briefs all over again.

Untitled (Tattoo)

Early 1970s

Brainard never learned to drive a car and wouldn’t light a gas stove. It took me until I was 30 to drive a car. (And the truth is, I only learned for love.) And I almost blew up a house lighting a gas stove when I was a teenager. I never lit another. So, I also love Joe Brainard for sharing those normal mechanical ineptitudes.

I never met Joe Brainard. I don’t think I knew who Joe Brainard was before 2001, seven years after he died. Like his writing, his retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum woke me up and also confused me. The show that Constance Lewallen curated was a triumph of openness. She caught Brainard’s generosity and extended it.

At first I didn’t relate so much to his representational work. Generally, I favor abstract or conceptual art. My favorite piece in the big show was Prell, a magnificent collage based on the unnatural green of Prell shampoo. It was like an exploded Cornell box with a touch of acid for good measure. (Turns out it was speed.) And many of his smaller collages created a mash-up that beautifully reflected the middle of the 20th century through the 1970s. I understood his appropriation of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy cartoon character. But the paintings? They bothered me, because they didn’t seem to turn over any new ground. Apparently they also bothered Brainard, because when he compared himself to painters as strong (and as different) as de Kooning and Sargent, he found himself lacking. He stopped painting and exhibiting in the late 1970s.

Untitled (Good n' Fruity Madonna)

If Nancy Was a Painting by de Kooning

There has been a lot of speculation as to why Joe Brainard stopped painting. Some have said that he stopped making art, but that isn’t accurate. Ron Padgett said he continued to make art, think about art, and design book jackets for his poet friends. He also said that Brainard was happy during this period. He mostly read books and saw friends. Although he didn’t promote his art from the late 1970s onward, he didn’t stop being an artist. Brainard’s former lover, the actor Keith McDermott, says that he was “the opposite of look at me.” I love that.

Joe Brainard maintained a close relationship with writer Kenward Elmslie from the time they met in the early 1960s until Brainard’s death in 1994. During that time, Brainard had numerous affairs and was also with McDermott . Yet he lived with Elmslie every summer in Calais, Vermont. In his poem about Joe entitled “Bare Bones” Elmslie wrote,
Our M.O. evolves
Four months together in Vermont,
June to October.
Rest of the year, delicate but tenacious bonds.
We cohere, summer to summer,
Despite caesuras, rifts and dumplings,
Once each, luckily staggered.
Maybe the old-fashioned word “companion” fits. Like having a mostly summer companion? And McDermott was his autumn lover? This elastic definition of relationship probably appeals to many gay men. It may have been possible because Elmslie was relieved of the monotony of earning a living (his grandfather was Joseph Pulitzer). It’s easier to play outside the rules if you don’t have to put on a tie and show up at the office every day. Brainard found his patron and then found his own success in selling his work. But by all accounts, he had no earthly understanding of money. I love him for that too.

In a recent videotape, poet Ann Lauterbach also talks about permission in Brainard’s work. Right now, for me, that permission is about innocent sexuality as well as the simple sentence. He never seems jaded, still loving male sexuality with the enthusiasm of the recently out young man. I really love feeling that again.

Joe at Gem Spa, NYC
around 1970

The thread I picked up through Brainard’s diverse mediums was the elusive nowness. Ron Padgett also described it as “seeing what is really there.”

In his piece entitled “Right Now,” Brainard writes,
(It is not my purpose to bore you. It is my purpose to—well, I want to throw everything out of my head as much as possible so I can simply write from/about what “is,” at this very moment: Right Now!)
He concludes the piece,
Feet: looking real hard at feet right now I am wondering “why toes?”
That is what took me a while to understand with his paintings. Maybe he felt that his technical abilities couldn’t render a pure presence as well as his other work. Maybe that is what fellow poet and friend Frank Bidart called his “radical purity.” Brainard’s work was so immediate, it was as if it were channeled more than created. The artist Robert Mapplethorpe called one of his own exhibits The Perfect Moment, but now Mapplethorpe’s work looks more like artifice, just reconstructions for the camera. Brainard was bringing us back into a perfect moment of our own creation, gently, sweetly, and full of love. I want to see those paintings again. I think I might love them now.


All art works by Joe Brainard used by permission of the Estate of Joe Brainard and courtesy of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York.

More resources on Joe Brainard:
A site devoted to the work of Joe Brainard.
A site build to celebrate the publication of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. Of particular interest are the videos posted by several of his close friends.
This is a selection of pieces from an issue of the journal Pressed Wafer devoted to Joe Brainard.
His lover Keith McDermott writes about their relationship.
A video tribute to Joe Brainard on the publication of his Collected Writings.
This is a collection of sound recordings of Joe Brainard reading his work.
The gallery that represents Joe Brainard’s estate.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Searching for Bohemia

And Remembering Barton Lidice Beneš

Barton Beneš
courtesy The North Dakota
Museum of Art
Death is a great catalyst for remembering, for trying to make sense. My friend Kristina recently told me that the artist Barton Lidice Beneš, a longtime friend of her family, died in May. I found the obituary in the New York Times and thought back to the brief time I knew him in the early 1980s. He was one the funniest men I ever met. He was also one of the first committed artists that I ever knew personally. I saw him a few times in New York and in Southern California and spent an entire night staying up with him in his studio while he created a magical world. Chemicals fueled some it, but most of it was some inner turbine whirring away. That one evening in 1981 symbolized nearly everything I wanted to find outside the narrow confines of my sheltered upbringing. Like most things, it’s about context. That’s something Barton understood better than anybody, especially in his later work.

My parents were transplanted from rural landscapes to the suburbs of San Francisco after the war. They sought education and jobs in the big city, yet were rooted in early 20th-century agrarian life. I don’t mean to say that they were conservative exactly, but they had some of the strengths, prejudices, and fears associated with growing up on the farm. They valued art but didn’t necessarily understand it. We began to travel when I was about nine, and we saw art in Washington, New York, and Montreal. At home, there were framed photo reproductions of Picasso, Braque, Monet, and Winslow Homer paintings that were windows for my young mind. Was that a phone cord in Picasso’s Still Life with Antique Head? Why was a rock red in Girl with Dove? I remember a trip to SFMOMA where we saw Ed Kienholz’ Back Seat Dodge ’38. My father couldn’t explain it. I wasn’t interested in the sexual content as much as the beauty of the car itself. Only later would I begin to understand the, uh, context.

Still Life with Antique Head
Child with Dove

The only original piece of art I remember at home was a small painting of a rural winter scene painted by my great grandmother. This was one of the very few items that made it across the long trek from Saskatchewan to Oregon and then to my parents’ house.

When we were kids, my sister and I spent most of our free time drawing. We rarely sat together, though, and we imagined entirely different lives. She suffered from severe asthma, and her pieces were realistic and mostly depicted disabled kids drawn in profile. Mine were chaotic stories, although eventually I settled down to drawing modernist residential floor plans and elevations. One day, I figured out how to cut construction paper and make three-dimensional sculptures that fit together sort of like Eames cards, but in Calderesque shapes. My memory is that I gave one of them to my mother as her birthday gift and she was disappointed. She rarely gave praise or criticism. She specialized in a kind of silent but constant ever-so-slight disapproval, like a light rain. She wanted fit and brilliant children, and we didn’t quite measure up.

As a family, we saw a Claes Oldenburg show at the Berkeley Art Museum around 1971. I am not sure what my parents thought of all those melting devices, but they knew enough not to scorn it. I was transported. In high school, I would visit the building often, staring at the thick Hans Hofmann canvases. My first framed art poster was from a show of Hofmann’s.

My friend Catherine’s father wrote art criticism and knew Roy De Forest, and another friend, Adam, had a De Forest in his dining room. His family also had a Richard Linder in the living room, a Platner side table, and a Clayton Bailey ejaculating on the hearth. We played Bobbie Short Loves Cole Porter on the hi-fi. Oh, I loved his house almost as much as I thought I loved Adam! As a kid, I spent more time at Eric’s house, because we rode bicycles everywhere. Later, he even went to architecture school, but after we started high school and stopped riding kid bikes, we didn’t have much in common. I still remember his mother with oversized sunglasses and her own paintings and batik pieces influenced by their talented friends. His family was close to Harold Paris, a well-known local sculptor. It was in their house I first saw odd shaped Bertoia chairs and abstract paintings on tile. In their backyard was a ceramic monstrosity that Paris had created. The story was that Eric’s parents agreed to store the sculpture for Paris, and over time the kids climbed on it and a few protuberances broke off and moss began to cover the base. When Paris saw it, he was horrified. Apparently he brought over the Berkeley Art Museum curator Peter Selz, who loved how the piece had seasoned. All was forgiven. Even at a young age, I knew art was one way out.

A sculpture by Harold Paris - similar to the one that we
climbed on as children in Eric's backyard.

This was the life I wanted when I moved to San Francisco in January of 1977. Instead, I mostly floundered in college and enjoyed what any 20-year-old might in San Francisco of the late 1970s. But it wasn’t until I wrote a paper on Louis Kahn that I began to have any idea of what path to follow.

In the first year or two at San Francisco State, I met my pal Kristina in acting class with Jack Cook, who was a serious actor but kind. He had known Kristina’s grandmother on the stage in New York, and she got special treatment. She came from an acting dynasty and was definitely not like the other kids. I loved that about her.

One night we took the ferry to the house in Sausalito where she rented a room and watched the bay from under a flokati rug. Hers was not a typical student life. On the wall was a strange piece of art with smiling faces and towers and a black background. I was focused on abstract art at the time, but the collage didn’t look like something you saw in a student’s room. Kristina told me about her aunt meeting an artist in New York named Barton Beneš and how he just became part of the family. An extended family of jesters of all kinds floated in and out of Kristina’s family’s ramshackle redwood house on the beach in Malibu, and one weekend Barton was there telling funny stories about drugs, sex, and art. Maybe I was 21? He had a way of rolling all of his fables and foibles into a long monologue that I adored. He could have been on the radio. One story I remember from the beach weekend was about sticking acid up his ass and the trip he went on only to crap the pill out undissolved a few hours later. I would meet other folks in that house who were more famous, but his was the life I imagined—if I had been brave or talented enough.

courtesy Ezra Stoller (c) Esto

Westbeth, Barton’s home, when I first saw it in 1981 or so, did not look quite as pristine as it does in Ezra Stoller’s photos for the architect Richard Meier. The former Bell Labs building in the West Village was converted to state-subsidized artist studios. Hard to imagine in this day of antigovernment ranting. The neighborhood was still dodgy, and the building felt a little institutional and fortress-like. But once inside Barton’s apartment, you were in an enchanted chamber. You could see the Empire State Building in the distance, but there was so much else to examine that you hardly looked out the windows. This was during the era Barton was working with rubber stamps and transcribing rambling letters from his mad Aunt Evelyn in Florida. He loved it when people took interest in his art, and to the chagrin of his dealers, he gave much of it away. We talked about architecture, and he gave me a column dreaming of being a colonnade, part of his Aspiration series. (Another piece in the series was a pencil eraser dreaming of being a pink pearl.) He also gave me an apron with a portion of a letter from Aunt Evelyn that read, “THIS ONE NEIGHBOR SAID THAT SHE NEVER SAW SO MUCH DIRT AS THERE WAS NEXT DOOR THAT EVIDENTLY THE NEW RENTERS NEVER VACUUMED OR DUSTED, AND THE POOR THING DIDN’T KNOW THAT SHE WAS TALKING TO SOMEONE ELSE NOT CLEANING” He inscribed the piece “for my friend Kenny. Clean up!” Who told him that I was a terrible housekeeper? (He also rubberstamped some cleaning brushes with the same excerpt.)

Column Dreaming of Being A Colonnade
from the Aspiration series 
My letter from Aunt Evelyn

I don’t remember what we talked about that long night. I worked on my own projects with paper, thread, glue, and scissors. He could inspire anybody. We smoked opium (is that possible?), and at some point there was a brief sexual interlude, but it wasn’t dramatic or odd. It was all of a piece. He talks about this time and before in the documentary Gay Sex in the 1970s. It is classic Barton. It was the tail end of that dreamy time.

Later, he would use shells and woven money, both materials that his lover Howard Meyer had worked with. This was before AIDS changed his life, took Howard, and also dramatically changed his art.

Following Howard’s death in 1989, Barton didn’t do much work for a few years, and then after he cut himself by accident, he started making pieces with his own HIV-infected blood. The resulting show, Lethal Weapons (there is a documentary of the same name), traveled across Europe and created widespread hysteria. In liberal Sweden, the health officials required that his blood be heated to 160 degrees before it was shown. But in North Dakota, of all places, the North Dakota Museum of Art didn’t worry about it. An important bond was formed with the rural museum. His fame as a political artist grew. But like most artists, he was just working with the material of his life.

Lethal Weapon Series, Essence, 1994
courtesy Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Later there were reliquaries, often created with castoffs from celebrities. He knew several, but he didn’t chase them. They just fell for him and the worlds he made in art. It was as if he had to return to humor, even if death remained the theme. Everybody sent him stuff. Toenail clippings, ashes, napkins, and cigarette butts. Kristina’s grandmother swiped jellybeans off President Reagan’s desk in the oval office. Everybody Barton met ended up working for him. This era of his work is beautifully covered in the book Curiosa: Celebrity Relics, Historical Fossils, and Other Metamorphic Rubbish.

Untitled, 2011
courtesy Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Barton didn’t like to leave the apartment except by limo. Once, when I phoned, he asked that I bring him a melon scooper—as soon as possible. He had to have it that night for a piece he was working on. The market was only a block away from where he lived, but of course I was happy to oblige. He breathed art—he couldn’t stop creating it. In the end, his most famous single piece of art was the apartment itself. He willed all of its contents (and his own ashes, which will be in a pillow on the bed) to the North Dakota Museum of Art, where the incredible three-dimensional collage will be resurrected. This will be enough reason to travel there.

Barton's dining room table
courtesy The North Dakota Museum

Barton's front door
courtesy The North Dakota Museum

Barton's bed
courtesy The North Dakota Museum

Every day, I look at the collage he gave me and think of it as a talisman for the career I was lucky enough to find. It wasn’t exactly Bohemia, but it wasn’t a corporate life either. That evening I spent with him was a generous encouragement that I wouldn’t understand for many decades.

Barton died at age 69. I imagine somewhere he is laughing about that magic number.

There will be an exhibit of Barton’s work entitled The Thrill of the Hunt at the Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York City from October 11 to November 10, 2012. His memorial takes place on October 1.

There are several articles about Barton. Here are a few.š/Beneš.htmlšHagman/Hagman.html

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

More Than One Comic in the Village

Remembering David Rakoff

Even though I have recognized myself as gay for close to 40 years, I am still finding layers of internalized homophobia. One of them has to do with ironic gay humorists. When David Rakoff passed away, he was often compared to David Sedaris. When I read Rakoff’s book Fraud a few years ago, I thought that he wasn’t nearly as funny as Sedaris, and I didn’t read further. As with Daffyd, the Welsh fairy in the TV sketch show “Little Britain,” there was only one gay in that village: there could only be one funny fag essayist, and I thought it was Sedaris. That was the layer I uncovered last week.

Rakoff was a different kind of writer. Not as many laughs as Sedaris, but more layers. By his last book, Half Empty, he was really good—serious, biting, funny, but also sweet. Not sweet to right-wingnuts, but sweet with compassion for the suffering of others who do not wish anybody ill. He incorporated sadness into much of his work. He probably loved the attention that laughter brings, but he was willing to wait and work for a thoughtful, multifaceted essay to emerge, not just the quick laugh.

My favorite essays in this third book are the last two. In “All the Time We Have,” he describes what it is like to see his therapist, who is dying—the therapist who helped him leave behind dead-end jobs (which did give a fair amount of material) and write full time. And then “Another Shoe,” about the beginning of his own demise. Here he writes openly but without self pity about the beginning of his last journey. What he wants is not to eat a room full of éclairs, but to just go about his business. Last week, I had lunch with someone who is in the middle of his cancer treatment, and he told me much the same thing. He was tickled when people were yelling at him again, because that meant he was working and things were almost normal. He yearned for “normal.”

Rakoff became known to thousands of listeners of the radio show This American Life for his mostly soft voice and great timing. I think the show’s host, Ira Glass, mentioned that Rakoff could use cleverness as a substitute for intimacy. I am not sure it was a substitute. When you hear him read, it is very intimate. Just publically intimate.

I’ve included below a link to a collection of favorite Rakoff stories that This American Life assembled. At the bottom of that page is a video of him on stage. You can see and hear his timing and grace, even though he is quite ill. He would say in interviews that he wasn’t handsome. In the video, he mentions that he doesn’t dance anymore. Then with his left arm useless, he finishes by dancing around the stage. He couldn’t have been more beautiful.

The photograph of him as a teenager about to pull an emergency alarm is so endearing. He is full of mischief and full of love.

He wrote that his perfect age was 47 to 53. He died at 47.

I wish I had started listening sooner.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Postcard from the Pines

One thing I figured out about Fire Island right away: isolation costs more. A few short miles from Long Island, the sandbar known as Fire Island requires that any good consumed by a human being be brought in by ferry. That includes everything from fuel for hot water to chilled Bandol Rosé. This kind of glorious isolation can lead you to hit “empty,” a state that my fellow blogger Charlotte Moore talks about in a recent post (see It will also empty your wallet. But for many of the summer inhabitants at the gay male end of Fire Island known as the Pines, the isolation leads to a desire for some of the action of home. Shed a few clothes, shed your inhibitions.

Our pool

There is one dusty, sandy, and sometimes (after a storm) muddy street called Fire Island Boulevard, used by access vehicles and the rare truck. Every other street is a narrow boardwalk winding through clusters of pine and bamboo. Housecleaners, repairmen, and delivery boys ride little Cushman scooters, but almost everybody walks at least a few miles a day on these endless planks that are always in a state of semi-disrepair. This is one of the greatest charms of the Pines. Just about every house feels like a secret compound.

As soon as you board the jitney at the Sayville Train Station to take you to the ferry, you know this is a summer camp of some kind. The wild-eyed driver sports swimming trunks, a tank top, flip-flops, and tattoos, and he doesn’t bother with a seat belt. He turns up the volume on the disco beat, and everybody is ready to roll.

After two days, most visitors to the island have been to all of the bars and hot spots. The restaurants are not memorable, but the Pines Pantry is surprisingly well stocked, given that it has a captive market. If you want to go out to dinner, you can catch a “water taxi” to Cherry Grove, which is similar to what we used to call an “E” ticket at Disneyland. After a few moments on the short journey, I was worried that our little boat would break into a thousand pieces.

On the way back, we heard stories of waves crashing over the captain. Cherry Grove does not have the same orderly, cedar-sided modern houses as the Pines. The retail area has honky-tonk, slapped-together ambiance. At Cherry’s on the Bay, a tree covered in red lights pierces the tent that serves as the disco/bar. Drag queen entertainer Hedda Lettuce points out that the tree is better dressed than she is. Everybody is talking about Liza Minnelli’s appearance at the Ice Palace disco and subsequent sightings. Unlike most folks, she gets her own Cushman/Popemobile or “Lizamobile.” One friend who attended her show observed that after her performance, she saw two drag queens dressed like more decrepit versions of her, and she uttered, “Dear God.” It must be hard to find yourself in Cherry Grove performing a few songs only to be confronted with poor male impersonations of your fading self. Joni Mitchell has fared so much better in this department. Hedda Lettuce referred to the weekend as “Lizapalooza.”

Liza Minelli in her "Lizamobile"

A day in the sun and the salt water makes guys out here randier than usual. Since Fire Island is so absurdly expensive, older men, who may be bald and chubby, are quite common and even welcome. (Although at the “shareathons” that take place each year in New York City, some people with a lease freely state that they don’t want “fatties.”) Younger men are willing to take 1/16th of a 1/8th share and share a room with somebody they barely know. Or they attach themselves to older prosperous men. The natural environs where men seek each other out have been described in great detail several times in queer literature of yore so I won’t go into that.

One topic of conversation was whether Grindr would kill the turf between Cherry Grove and The Pines. Seems unlikely. While all the testosterone informs a lot of fantasies and realities, there are also numerous couples and other folks who are just looking to find that quiet empty, the isolation that was the original draw. For them, discos, drugs, and multiple hook-ups are history. The area around the ferry landing does feel like a flashback to the late 1970s and early 1980s to us middle-aged folk. But then the weekend ends and the temperature drops. Even the waves got calmer.

For me, the “empty” has something to do with the temporal nature of the place. As soon as someone finishes a multimillion dollar house here, it begins to disintegrate. The salt, rain, and bugs devour these wood boardwalks and beautiful modernist homes. When everything is closed for the winter, the storms come and occasionally take a house or two away, and according to some reports, are taking the island itself away. Last winter, the famous Pavilion dance club burned to the ground. By next summer, a new one by architectural firm HWKN should be up, and there will be another place to celebrate “tea.” When everything quiets down, you hear the cicadas, birds, an occasional vehicle, a distant boat, and then a sound like trains on the track. But there is no train here. That sound is the bouncing of roller bags as somebody walks to the ferry to return home.

A modernist collage

A more recent house

An early house in the Pines

Image of the new Fire Island Pines Pavilion
Courtesy HWKN Architects

This spit is 31 miles long and somewhere between 520 and 1,300 feet wide. It can’t last. But for a few days, it’s bliss.