Glenn O’Brien and the Avant-Garde That Lost

Glenn O’Brien. Photo: Patrick McMullan
“The things I miss aren’t there; the things I miss aren’t anywhere.” —Apostolos Georgiou, Artforum

Three Sundays ago I went to the Frank Campbell Funeral Home for a beautiful closed-casket viewing of the great writer-impresario-thinker Glenn O’Brien. As I walked around, I looked at who was there and felt a little awestruck. Almost every person was some sort of brilliant, gifted, driven, special or terrible in their way and important to the giant scene that formed New York as we know it — and romanticize it — now. I saw Richard Prince, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Gladstone, Gavin Brown, John Currin, James Nares, Duncan Hannah, Max Blagg, Clarissa Dalrymple, Bob Colacello, Edit DeAk, Walter Robinson, Lisa Rosen, Christopher Wool, Warhol personages, and O’Brien’s last muse and wife, Gina Nanni. A walking dream or living mythology, it was a kind of ragtag cross-generational School of Athens of the New York avant-garde. All struck me as noble gypsies and exuded such sophisticated chic that I felt in some great ultracool backroom of yore — the ones I never went to and only ever read about.

As I watched all this at Campbell, a melancholy thought took hold of me. I’m not even sure what it means — only that it’s been going through my head ever since. I thought, “This is the avant-garde that lost.” Before you get all angry with me, let me say, yes, I understand that the avant-garde flame has seemed to go out at least once in every generation since the term was first used to describe artistic radicals in the 19th century; and that especially since the end of punk, there has been a sort of endless drumbeat of complaining that radical culture is no longer possible (given, you know, late global capitalism). But for a couple of hundred years, fire-eating generation after fire-eating generation of vanguard, underground, combative artistic movements arrived on the outskirts of contemporary culture and made their mark before dissipating; the generations I saw gathered at Glenn O’Brien’s memorial arrived, made their mark perhaps closest to the center of that contemporary culture, and yet no clear successors followed them.

When I looked around, I may have thought, “This avant-garde lost,” but perhaps what I really meant was “lost by winning.” I admire all of these people — even those whose work I don’t like, who’ve done terrible things to me or ones I love. Most of them I only ever knew at a distance. I came to New York in 1980 and by then all the pheromonal essences that had mixed and remixed a million times in the 1970s were set to erupt into a whole new art world. All these players knew, fought, worked, took drugs, stayed up for days, got arrested, and had sex with one another. Even though many were lost to AIDS and drugs, this was a living remnant of those who changed the world. I was never envious of any of them. Almost all of them were self-made and paid for whatever they got with their minds, souls, talent, passion, and bodies to form this extraordinary downtown organism that actually became central to the whole culture. I once asked a close friend who was part of this scene why she did heroin back then. She said, “Because that’s what we were all doing then.” That’s how much total dedication these incubators of new cool required. It wasn’t easy to break out of the 1970s with something that could make good on the 1960s and then blossom in its final stage in the 1990s.

What has followed is quite fascinating. The New York avant-garde has always contained many metaphorical mansions, overlapping and parallel avant-gardes. The one I’m talking about is only one of them, albeit a big one. I don’t mean that these people and their ideals lost. On the contrary, these people represent a kind of total victory! The values that they invented, embraced, and fought for have subsequently become so ingrained in the culture, so mainstream in every way — from music and art, to lifestyle and design, to food and fashion — that it’s nearly impossible for this sort of underground army of volunteers to form now. The kind of underground that most of us moved here to be a part of once-upon-a-lifetime ago; the one we all had to be part of or not be part of anything. Above all, the imperative to ecstatic and eccentric self-expression — to be yourself, and to not let anyone make you pretend to be otherwise — is no longer just a niche value, cherished by a band of weirdos. It is the overwhelming message of American culture today.

Of course there are still avant-gardes all over in New York right now. Ditto in other cities and countries. But nowadays these avant-gardes are instantly either eclipsed, calcified into hipness, absorbed, bought up, spit out, resold, recycled, and erased by the wider culture. It’s almost impossible for fragile underground scenes to grow, get nurtured, and take root, especially when we move at light speed. The numbers of artists and people in the art world are so enormous, trends spread so fast, the rents in New York and other art cities so high, the pressures to succeed and information so overloaded that these sorts of sick, strong, beautiful, useless, highly creative, artistic vampire families mingling over 3,000 nights becomes harder to sustain than ever.

It is in that sense I mean there is no New York avant-garde anymore. The same goes for Los Angeles, London, and Berlin. Everything is merged together. Each city shows similar artists, sells them to the same collectors, works with the same curators and museums. The same galleries are in the same art fairs at a time when the fairs are so expensive that it’s impossible to use them to experiment or take chances. Back-to-back art-fair busts can cost a gallery a quarter-of-a-million dollars in losses in ten days. And yet even though gallery foot traffic is at a trickle and more and more sales happen online and on the road, megagalleries keep expanding and even many Lower East Side galleries are already on their second-larger spaces. Never mind that curators and collectors who are in the same city forego gallery shows (!) and instead try to catch up in two days at an art fair in Hong Kong, Basel, Miami, New York, or London on their way to the next biennials. It’s a system no one likes, yet galleries can’t opt out because not doing fairs means sitting out this global economy. All this has led to many artists being spread way too thin — and work suffering. This can instantly be seen in the atrocious high-cost Met roof installation of Adrián Villar Rojas, a usually good 37-year-old who has been featured in scores of big shows and who is currently working on at least two or three other such projects to be staged in L.A. and Austria. By the same token, I love Albert Oehlen’s work but his just-closed Gagosian show of giant paintings was pure product. This isn’t an avant-garde; it’s an economy.

It was not always this way, as the memorial reminded me. I only knew O’Brien at a distance; in fact, I have only three stories about him (all short, none that interesting). In the 1980s, I knew a lot of the people who knew O’Brien. But it never occurred to me to get to know him; it was out of the question. I felt like a less-formed organism, a rougher one. I was in rooms with him a lot, and we’d stand together in groups of people at parties. But we basically only said hi to one another. That was that and as I felt it should be.

But one day in 2008 I picked up the phone and it was O’Brien. OMG! I was flabbergasted as he told me that he’d just taken over Brant Publications and was trying to re-form Art in America and asked if I’d like to be a contributing editor. I’d written for the magazine from 1991 before becoming the critic for the Village Voice. I told him I’d love to be a part of anything he did. Then he told me all the other writers he would be reaching out to. It was an amazing list. Many of them were part of that 1970s and 1980s core. I kept saying yes! But then I said, “Glenn, I want to tell you something. This will be the last time you ever call me about this. We will never speak about this again. You will not follow up. I will never be asked to be part of this again. We will act like it never happened.” He was taken aback and insisted otherwise. I told him that I loved my work but that once he reached out to all of those other writers and then told them that he was also asking me, that they’d school him that I wasn’t “cool enough for this crew.” He laughed, protested, kept saying that it wasn’t so and that we’d speak again in a week or so and we’d set the whole thing up and that he couldn’t wait. I told him, “We will never talk about this again. You will never follow up. I love that you asked me, Glenn.” And that’s exactly what happened. We played in different leagues. I loved mine but wasn’t in his.

More recently, I remember being stupefied as I watched him out-cool Jay Z in that notorious “Picasso Baby” video where Marina Abramovic and a bunch of other celebrities danced and sang with the rap star. I did too. And even though I didn’t make it to the music video’s final cut, that didn’t stop much of the art world from getting in a twist because I’d written about how much I loved dancing barefoot with Jay Z. To all the commenters I’d plead, “But you never complained about Glenn O’Brien doing this, though.” They’d say, “That’s different.” They were right. O’Brien, in a perfect black suit, white shirt, and sunglasses, took a seat on a bench next to Lawrence Weiner, who was smoking. When Jay Z launched into song, approached them to coax them to their feet like all the rest … nothing. Glenn sat there, watching, bemused, interested as a spectator at this performing idol. I felt I’d looked for a second into the behavioral codes of Warhol’s factory.

Which may be why I was so thrilled last year when he emailed to ask if he could do an hour interview with me for his last TV show, Tea at the Beatrice With Glenn O’Brien. Of course I said yes! Instantly. Which seemed to amuse him. (“Was that uncool?” I wondered.) When I walked into the West Village restaurant for my shoot, I saw a gorgeous woman, naked except for a thong. That was unexpected. I walked into the next closed-off dining room where there was a big crew getting ready. After a bit I saw Glenn eating by himself at a round banquette, walked up, and he said,“Oh, did you say hi to Naomi? We just finished taping.” No one had ever said anything like that to me in my whole life. I was behind the magic curtain. For this shining second I felt the contortion of the space of all those mystical backrooms that I always imagined. And I ran back and got my selfie.

Glenn O’Brien and the Avant-Garde That Lost