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One Brief, Scuzzy Moment

From top: Art dealer Gracie Mansion, 1985; graffiti artist Lady Pink; a Stephen Lack show at Gracie Mansion's first gallery, which occupied her apartment bathroom.  

It happens that for about three months, David and I insistently sought each other’s constant company, for differently confused reasons, and mostly in Paris. We said rotten things about each other in public, and in the course of our folie à deux, David wrote many deranged letters to me, and I to him. I disposed of his a year later. He, ever the pack rat, hung on to mine while assuring me he’d burned them. We later made up, but the crux of David’s resentment is that I never valued his paintings as highly as his writing. We had basic disagreements about art. David believed that children are natural artists and their spontaneous expression is what an adult artist should approximate as closely as possible. I like children just fine, but that’s horseshit. As David was probably the pick of the litter as far as Neo-Ex-slash-graffiti-art went, he also exemplified—not always in his work, but in his attitude—what I found lazy and self-absorbed about most of the artwork produced by the “movement.”

After David’s death from aids in 1992, a curator at the Grey Art Gallery asked my permission to display my deranged letters to David in a vitrine. I refused. I pointed out that I myself wasn’t dead yet. I had a great fondness for David. I won’t claim that I miss him the way I miss Cookie or my best, best friend, Dieter Schidor, Fassbinder’s last producer, who suicided shortly after his HIV diagnosis. Among the dead, we all have our empathetic priorities. I am sorry David’s gone.

Some of the gallerists in the new scene were arguably more interesting than the painters. Amid the places where Neo-Expressionism defined the style, Gracie Mansion and her partner, Sur Rodney Sur, stood out. Gracie’s instincts and shrewd taste (Peter Hujar, Marilyn Minter, Stephen Lack) deserved, and got, her a lasting career in the biz. I’ve always respected her as a pioneer, ever since she launched her first “gallery” in her apartment bathroom. I wasn’t always crazy about her early choices. At one of her shows, Gracie greeted me as I looked at something very disagreeable on the wall. “What do you think?” she brightly asked. “Oh, Gracie, I can’t help it, I think it’s a piece of shit.” She whooped. “I don’t think it’s the worst piece of shit,” she said. “You should see who I’m showing next, you wanna see shit. The pictures will get better, I hope, or they’ll get really bad and he can make a fortune and blow it on heroin.”

Pat Hearn also occupied a higher class of startup art dealers. She had panache and daring, beauty and good breeding, but the rarest thing Pat had, in preternatural abundance, was grace. I adored her. I don’t think Pat would mind my revealing that our cordial acquaintance ripened into friendship by accident, when we showed up at the same Debtors Anonymous meeting.

Colin de Land, who opened American Fine Arts, was the only matchingly brilliant figure Pat should have married, and she did, and now they’re both dead, first her, then him, and nobody who knew them has ever gotten over it. Colin looked like an especially jaded, paling gigolo and card sharp. I’m hardly the only person who ever offered him a blow job in his place of business. I may be the only person who never gave him one at one time or another, though once he married Pat, that was that.

Colin and Richard Prince invented an artist named John Dogg, and put up a well-received show of his work at Lisa Spellman’s 303 Gallery. (A lot of people still believe that I was John Dogg. I wasn’t. Colin and Richard came up with the ideas, and one or the other “made” the work—Goodyear tires and other store-bought objects. That was one show where presentation was, literally, everything.)

In 1985, the Village Voice offered me a job as senior art critic. This made my life easier and lousy at the same time. I now had to actually enter all those galleries instead of peeking in the windows. At times, the only tangible perk was having the chump for a fifth of vodka whenever twenty more phonies had flattered my ass off in the course of a working week.

The East Village was a small quadrant of what I had to “cover,” and I was a bit slow to realize that a fresh constellation of galleries there (Nature Morte, Cash/Newhouse, International With Monument) were showing art much more to my liking than the inflatable children’s toys of the waning Neo-Expressionist craze. This second wave favored conceptually crisp work by artists fluent in several media: Robert Gober, Gretchen Bender, Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley, and Jeff Koons.

But year two at the Voice brought a distinct slackening of interest in the art world, art, artists, and, frankly, the sound of my own voice. It was also the year when all the galleries began fleeing the East Village. The rents kept soaring, driving some places out of business, while galleries that were making plenty wanted much larger spaces for their money, in one of the two real power centers of the art world, Soho and 57th Street. The East Village had already become a zoo, and NYU would go on to plant some ugly dormitories down and unleash thousands of rich kids whose idea of art was grazing the streets and poking into boutiques while asserting their pathologies by screaming into cell phones. But hey, shit happens.

And, as it happens, that’s also the most succinct word to describe my third and final year as the senior art critic at the Voice. The job was powerful for one reason: Besides the Times, the Voice was one of the few places shows were reviewed when they were still up. You could move the merchandise while it was out on the rack. And I had become scramble-headed by the parasitic opportunism that too many artists, dealers, and collectors disguised as friendship, deep respect, or even sexual interest. In fairness to some who were my actual friends, my own bad behavior, triggered by the several drugs I took, got infinitely ickier thanks to having this job—which was basically to judge them in public. Of course, some of those lovely friends dropped me like a used paper towel right after I quit. Which, when I started publishing novels, they all learned to regret.

I still live in the East Village, but now I live in a luxury neighborhood, thanks mostly to an insignificant hiccup in the long burp of art history that created a seismic shift in the history of New York property values. (You knew it was all finished when the methadone clinic moved out.) While this has left the squalor of my apartment building completely intact, an architectural pentimento of former times, being able to get a deli delivery at four in the morning is among many happy improvements that hiccup left in its echoing wake.

I’m not prone to much sentimentality, but you should treasure your own history, however weird it is. William Burroughs once told me, “People like us are lucky because every shitty thing that happens to us is just more material.” So I wouldn’t miss the New Museum show for anything. I want to remember the many people I love who are gone and remind myself how much I love the ones who are still here. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: If you live long enough, you even get fond of people you thought you hated.