I am very grateful to Lynn Gumpert at the Grey Art Gallery, and all of Frank’s lovely friends, most especially Joy Episalla, for inviting me to think and talk about Frank’s writing today, which I find a very odd thing to talk about indeed because while Frank was enormously in love with language, and was as deep a reader of a given text as anyone I have ever known, he was suspicious of words or should I say more specifically talk. Talk is different than ideas, which Frank loved, because ideas, for him, usually led to action, whether that action be political, or aesthetic, or sexual, whereas he left conversation to others, he was a born listener at the dinner table and in the meeting hall, but it was at home I knew him best, and it was at home at his beautifully laid beautiful table, complete with his delectable food and friends, all of which was another aspect of his art, the creation of a home, that I would observe Frank sitting back, more bemused than not, as he listened to what other people had to say while he served more wine or food or simply looked at the moths flying in and out of his home in Deposit, New York, as the dinner candles burned themselves out but Frank’s friends didn’t.
I met Frank through the painter and writer Betsy Berne and it’s in reading the chronology that accompanies “Toxic Beauty,” that I see it must have been 1992 or so when we met officially but I recall we met before that, sometime in the late nineteen-eighties, and I recall I was wearing a dress, and it was at Peter McManus, the little bar near Dance Theatre Workshop, on W. 19th Street. It was after a Karole Armitage performance, I think, and the great Joseph Lennon was dancing then and he introduced me to Frank, who had such a beautifully broken nose I could barely stand it, his eyes were so bright behind that broken nose, and his smile was crooked, too, his entire face was off center but perfect, and as I talked to him a little shyly in that bar and everyone talked Frank just laughed and said nothing but a great deal was said in any case through Frank’s body language, the way he leaned against the bar and everything was interesting and everyone was interested in him even as they pretended not to be because that has always been part of New York’s social style: not being interested. Still, when it came to Frank, that attitude wasn’t true, most people were interested in Frank because he was beautiful and out of reach, or should I say bigger than any small talk.
His presence is abundant and real in the interviews and artist statements the editors have included in the catalogue for his show, and it’s in those interviews that we learn something about the facts of his life. He was born in Stuyvesant Town, not too far from here, in 1953; when he was four or five his family moved to Long Island. On Long Island he lived near water and collected butterflies and then moths; he spent summers in the Adirondacks, and the natural world was his rightful home. As I say he collected butterflies as a child, and in one of the first interviews included in the book he says that collecting those flutterings was his first lesson in mortality: his friends objected to him killing such beautiful free things. The Vietnam War was outside. Inside, Frank was becoming an artist whose major theme was mortality, the ephemeral, life’s permanence being impermanence. Meanwhile, he worked hard to pass and did pass as a butch overachiever. He excelled in high school, and went on to study psychology and art at Yale. I didn’t know about his interest in psychology but of course that makes sense given his acuity when it came to deciphering someone else’s speech, and what they might mean about themselves. In any case, Frank, as a young man, was becoming an artist , and as he wrote in one or two artist’s statements, he was drawn to Agnes Martin, and to Joan Mitchell’s work, and I didn’t know that, Frank didn’t have time to tell me that, but I am grateful to know how drawn he was to the lushness one can find in understatement, like the best conversationalists. And it wasn’t until I looked at the book accompanying Frank’s show, that I realized most of his close male friends had something to do with words, that Jim Self was his partner in writing movies, and he was so intensely admiring of Brad Gooch and Greg Bordowitz and worshipped Michael Boodro, it’s funny what you can’t see until you can see it, which is to say the various patterns in Frank’s world, where language played such a part in his daily life, and loves. I loved Frank’s Wellington’s, and the fact that nothing made him happier than to have a man look at him in his Wellington’s. But I’m exaggerating there, talk is cheap, let’s just say that Frank like being looked at as much as he loved listening to people he considered experts in their field, and I remember one of the tremendous fights we had about how he felt I wasn’t working hard enough as a writer, didn’t I know time was passing, and I didn’t know time was passing because I was younger than him and his illness was never real to me because he had more energy than anyone I knew, including all those people who talked and talked. Reading the interviews and various short statements in the catalogue, I’m struck by things I didn’t know about Frank but we shared anyway, such a love of writing, and understanding that Frank O’Hara was the paradigm for a kind of nineteen-fifties queeny talk that was the rage even in the late nineteen eighties when I met Frank, I was never at any good at archness and I think archness in any case made Frank uncomfortable but I think he was fascinated by my ability to articulate loving him and being annoyed by him in the way you can be when you care about someone. And I cared about Frank, I was too young to understand his fears, and when I tried to talk to him about those fears his incredible strength seemed to recede from his handsome frame, we only talked about where he came from emotionally speaking once, it was in Battery Park city and I gave him a book to give his mother, who was ill, and it just wounded him, that he had spoken the truth about himself to someone who heard what he couldn’t say. In a way, I blame Frank for these imprecise words because he’s given me permission to say them, saying in one of his artist’s statements that everything is autobiographical and so there, Frank, here I am having the last word but not really, your work is the last word, and your supporting texts are the last word, and the people who love you and shall always love you are your words, their talk is never cheap when it comes to remembering you and I hope I haven’t said anything you might make me go and rewrite because you wanted to understand, precisely and critically and lovingly, what it was, exactly, I meant to say and often with love and something akin to passion