Archive for November, 2011


The Flow

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For me, the Fluxus art movement of the nineteen-sixties, stands next to the American surrealist cause–Joseph Cornell, Marcel on 14th Street, etc–as one of the more continually compelling moments in contemporary art. As the subject of the beautiful show at MOMA, an institution not ignorant of the fact that, at its heart, Fluxus wasn’t interested in institutions at all, one also feels a certain sadness looking at the work, given that Fluxus was about shared impermanence–the art work that disappeared after it was produced, or as it was being produced–and museums are about things being fixed, identified, the vitrine. But I do not mean to be unkind about this show, which not only saddened me but inspired me to think of my being a viewer as a kind of performance, a concept that was first introduced to me by the artist and musician Kim Gordon, who once asked how an onstage interview I’d done had gone; she called it an interview-performance. And she was right to identify it as that because after you get up there in a nice suit or whatever, clutching prepared questions–the so-called script–with lights and what not on you and the subject, it is a performance, and I remember how, after Kim asked me about the conversation, I started thinking how any number of activities could be identified as a performance, you know? Laying in bed in Northampton one snowy night, I started to conceptualize what I called paper performances–that is, little words and maybe just scratches on pieces of paper that would amount to a writing performance, I don’t even know if this would include a dream or whatever, but I liked thinking of writing as a kind of pirouette, the pencil as an instrument. Or a beautifully worn pink toe show. Fluxus took it’s name from the Latin, and means “to flow.” Inspired by John Cage’s “chance” compositions of the nineteen-sixties, the Lithuanian-born artist, George Maciunas, organized what is arguably the first Fluxus exhibition at a gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side that basically challenged artists to come up with stuff that was as indeterminate and far reaching as Cage’s sound/non-sound. Macuinas’ manifesto was a gorgeous poem of defiance: “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual,’ professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, he wrote. He went on. “PROMOTE A REVOLUTIONARY FLOOD AND TIDE in art, PROMOTE living art, anti-art, promote NON ART REALITY to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dillettantes [sic] and professionals.” Here, here! I wondered if Macinuas would be my performance boyfriend and walk me through the show, so taken was I by his ideas, even though our love would be otherworldly: my performance boyfriend died in 1978. Still, I have been known to fall for this kind of crankiness–it offsets my charm and likability and prevents people from exploiting either: the audience gets excited and scared when you have a “mean” boyfriend. I know in my heart George would have no problem being that for me: he was a Scorpio, born on November 8th. But let’s leave astrology aside for the moment; it is too fixed. When you walk into the show, there’s a hilarious Macinuas film that consists of famous names–Warhol, Ono (Yoko was one of the very first Fluxus artists and is represented in the MOMA show with a lovely meditative film of her eye opening and closing but mostly closing) and other artists. I don’t know if my performance boyfriend meant the film as a kind of put on, but I was amused by it, as was my companion for the afternoon, the author Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, appropriately fetching as always, this time in a red dress. And I wondered after I found the little Jonas Mekas movie seen below what Sharifa might have looked like cooking dumplings with George in the movie–my performance girlfriend with my performance boyfriend, both in an activity or performance that pre-dates Rirkrit Tiravanija’s noodles by some thirty years–since she is, after all, a movie star, if the definition of a movie star is someone you want to look at all the time, that is, a person who is capable of generating feelings all around not necessarily through speech but through gestures, and companionable silence. We broke that silence when we laughed at several of the pieces in the show, which are difficult to describe because that is the nature of Fluxus; description is too bourgeois in the face of so much spirit; it would block the flow. In any case, I remembered, while looking at various pieces–I was intensely admiring of a set of photographs of an audience flying paper airplanes–of an art work I had seen long ago, when I was a boy. It was created by the British-based artists Gilbert and George in 1971 and they called it a postcard sculpture. On it was a drawing of the artists looking out a window at the falling snow, and it said, in part: “As we began to look we felt ourselves being taken into a sculpture of overwhelming purity life and peace a rare and new art piece…Thank you for sharing this moment with us.” The Fluxus show was like being taken into a sculpture not so much of overwhelming purity–you can’t have that feeling in a museum–but an atmosphere of a rare and new art piece of my own creation, and it had to do with words as a limiting element. As I’ve said, Sharifa and I didn’t speak much at all while we looked at the significant ephemera, and it occurred to me that that moment in time, of not speaking and with emotions flowing, was exactly where I wanted to be, and was the threshold of where I am now: of sharing moments no one should pay for. Not with words. Not with avoidance. Not with recrimination. Not with regret. Not with anything short of presence. This evening, walking home after a performance, I stopped into the St. Marks Bookstore; I was not weighed down by my silence; only words can do that to me these days. Silence permeates my thinking because its a way of not obscuring my internal mise en scene. I was looking at magazines when the young man behind the information counter asked how I was, they hadn’t seen me in a while, where was I, in Massachusetts, oh, I was teaching? His mother had dropped out of Wellesley where I was teaching, they had a little money for me, the book I had produced had sold a few copies, could they have more copies, ten or fifteen to sell, wait, they had a check to pay me for what they’d sold. And on the walk to the register I saw people I’ve known for years even though they’re old because I didn’t want that boy’s enthusiasm to be minimized by the breath of pleasantries I didn’t want to exchange if exchange is the word when somewhere deep down you know the people you’ve known for years don’t actually like you. And at the cash register the lady asked if the store had ever given me a discount, another gift, and I thought of my performance ghost of a boyfriend, George, and how this exchange about something I’d published and let out into the world with a minimum of control–you can’t call me a distributor, you can’t call me a museum–was such a proud moment for me because the experience of publishing that book resulted in these thoughts and exchanges, that boy behind the counter who’d always looked as if I’d upset his day, suddenly becoming, with a smile, my new mean performance boyfriend with a heart of gold in his mind let alone body, and how his attention gave me the strength to avoid those people who never liked me anyway but I would feel obliged to talk to and be polite to anyway because it’s in my mother’s DNA, which is to say mine, and the anger about that social falsehood is all mine, but in any case how Fluxus were these moments, how “Thank you for sharing this moment,” was it to remember and almost forget and then memorialize and walk away from this flow of feelings?


One Poem for My Spiritual Godfather, Lester Young

Upon approaching someone he loved, Lester Young greeted them with: “How are your feelings”?

Nat Hentoff produced the attached clip. Lester is the second soloist. He named Billie not Lady but Duchess. He called Billie’s mother, Sadie, Lady, but Billie preferred that moniker, and took it.

Billie called Lester Prez, short for President, because he was, to her, the best. And part of his greatness is his extreme humility, his body folding into itself, a leaf barely balancing his own extreme, muted feelings.

Billie was the butch to his femme. And then he’d be the butch to her femme. I know it.

Count Basie called Billie William. See what I mean? When Billie died, Basie moaned, That poor girl. See what I mean?

Some of the men in this film Billie slept with, like Ben Webster, the first soloist. It was the way she made friends. Sometimes she held on to them. And then not. And then they’d make music in a film together. The musician’s life: itinerant emotionalism.

Net Hentoff told me that when they shot this film, Billie showed up with a number of gowns. No, no, lady, he said. It’s supposed to be like a jam session. And so she put this outfit on.

He surrounded her with horns because her voice was a horn, a horn much beloved by other horn players.

Clearly, she would have been an extraordinary film star–holding back, kissing some Joe with open eyes, so “don’t care-ish,” in attitude, which is what the elders called her when she was a little girl. A Fosse creature before Fosse.

Owen Dodson told me that Billie used to call him Teach, because he was a professor.

I cannot watch this film without welling up with tears and desire. Collaboration: the ultimate dream. To be replaced by other moments. The penultimate dream.

Lester and language. When one or another of his cronies would invite him to dinner, Lester would ask: “Can madam burn?” meaning can she cook?

When Lester said he desired something, he said he had big eyes for it. “I had big eyes to be in Basie’s band.”

He loved language. You could do so many things with it. Change a mood. Like music. Bend it into something else. Because it was music.

Lester called the diminutive Pee Wee Marquette, the MC at Birdland, “Half a motherfucker.”

Lester said, once: “Due to the uncertainties [of this or that] we decided not to.”

Which is just about it, isn’t it?

Nat Hentoff told me that when they shot this film, Billie and Lester hadn’t been on speaking terms for some time. But when they made the music, they remembered.

I never said to Nat Hentoff: How could they forget?