new york city Archive

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Tilda

These notes were written on the occasion of Tilda Swinton being awarded a medal in honor of her work at the 38th annual Telluride Film Festival.

I first met Tilda in a world that no longer exists. That constellation was called the Bowery Bar, and its primary astronaut was a man named Erich Conrad. In that pre-9/11 atmosphere—it was the June, July or August before that momentous event; love stuck to the Bowery Bar booths that summer like bare knees—New York thought everything was possible, and so did Erich Conrad. At Beige, the party he’d hosted at the Bowery since 1994, Conrad facilitated the crowd’s shy and big energy by opening the space to the superficially divergent worlds of fashion, film, and journalism, and then standing back to watch what happened. Inevitably those various disciplines, and the artists behind them, found one another in the glow of Beige’s continual disco beat, but only if you listened.

The throwaway theme on most of those Tuesday nights was that one was not alone in this world, certainly insofar as one’s aesthetics were concerned. Liquor might help you find the rest. Tilda doesn’t drink, but I do, and it was a combination of liquor and nerve—or nerve made plucky by its pickling—that I said to her, approaching her booth, “Tilda Swinton! We’ve been looking for you!” (The “we” I was referring to included a close friend of mine; at the time we were making a series of documentary portraits of performers we admired. Tilda was on that list.) Fortunately for me, Tilda was sitting next to her close friend Jerry Stafford; he knew my work, which made me, perhaps, at second glance, a more socially acceptable lunatic. “You’re the man who wrote about X,” Jerry said, naming a fashion editor we were both close to, and Tilda beamed, and said, “Somebody invite Hilton to my screening,” and I sat down, and the conversation, thus begun, continued and continued for days and months and years, all the way into the now and beyond, in the cosmos of our shared imagination.

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Roslyn Dexter

One of the very best exhibitions you can see in New York just now is on the corner of 57th Street and 8th Avenue, at the Hearst Building, and it’s free. There, on the building’s street level, one can view work by the late artist Andy Warhol, who, for many years, earned a living as a commercial artist, sometimes doing illustrations for the Hearst-owned Harper’s Bazaar. Warhol’s Hearst show illustrates how the artist’s popular work, and “real” art, sometimes converged, and in 1964, during the time Warhol’s fame as a “fine” artist grew and grew, he publicized/”photographed” young artists and other up-and-comers who were making a significant contribution to New York culture in a photo booth–the same machine he took Ethel Scull to, and had her perform for, so he could create his incomparable 1962 portrait, “Ethel Scull 36 Times,” which remains one of the best images about portraiture–the art of being seen–ever produced. In the Hearst piece, one finds several of Warhol’s then associates–the late curator Henry Geldzahler, a soulful Larry Poons, and poet Sandra Hochman. Particularly striking is Warhol’s take on the artist and writer  Rosalyn Drexler, whose name I first recall seeing as a credited writer on an early Lily Tomlin special. Drexler has always distinguished herself as an artist who is not restricted by form. Whether working as a novelist, sculptor, painter or performance artist (she has also wrestled for a living, an experience she captured in her fine 1972 novel, “To Smithereens”), Drexler inspires by her sheer invention, and productivity. She came of age when male contemporaries like Warhol were making a name for themselves, but she wasn’t restricted by the lack of imagination and verve the art world showed and continues to show when it comes to women artists. As I looked at Drexler’s self-presentation in the Warhol piece, I wondered what the art world would make of the dark-haired beauty if she came along now. To pretend that that rarefied world is increasingly not an extension of fashion is absurd, given how a number of today’s older artists who outlast their economic value are being jettisoned by gallerists who feel they’ve outlasted their time, and how those social fixtures who once dressed this or that table are absented once they fail to amuse. In the art world, mess and confusion and self-discovery–the very stuff of art making–is out, as are discussions of difference that threaten to add calories of thought. As with any society based on hierarchy, where the status quo and fashionability are sometimes protected and upheld by those who have the least to gain from it–gay people, people of color, and so on–today’s art world replicates the normative family structure, wherein the patriarchy dictates those rules that the mother carries out: keep the gallery tidy, and the insurrectionists out. Currently, institutions are feared, not challenged, and dissent leads to expulsion. In her work as a thinker, Drexler breaks rules to remake them in her own fleshy image.


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Amazement (for Kevin)

Today, I was visiting friends in the West Village. One friend in particular. The windows were open. Gray mist, happy thoughts, transitioning from one home to another. Suddenly, the sound of cymbals and chanting on Fifth Avenue, we poked our heads out the window, and then a memory: Kevin following the Hare Krishna parade every year. He went on his own. Sometimes the weather was mist. He’d smoke pot in Washington Square Park, where free food was given out, and look on in amazement as the dance of life danced. Sometimes he joined in.