John Wilcock column header

The Column of Lasting Insignificance: March 29, 2008

The diaries that follow, are ones that I wrote
and handed out in Soho thirty years ago.
Along with many others, they appear in the serialization of Manhattan Memories on this website.

Other Scenes — John Wilcock's Secret Diary

Other Scenes — John Wilcock's Secret Diary

Saturday, March 10, 1978: Leo Castelli muttered something about me tying him up with the Shah’s art collection in my last newsletter.  Later I met him walking down West Broadway with his famous Dalmatian Paddy (as patrician as Leo himself).  He was accompanied by a startlingly beautiful, frizzy-haired blonde and her BP male escort.  Leo asked why single him out among all the dealers who sold to the Teheran Museum of Modern Art and who had helped him assemble its vast collection of contemporary art which at this very moment the Ayatollah is demanding be covered up to its eyebrows.

At Landmark Milly Brower introduced me to painter Jean Davidson who said he’d just acquired a 1750 square-foot loft at 19th and 8th Avenue.  Milly said she’d been deafened most of the day by police sirens.  “The police have just bought a new one from Federal Sign & Signal,” she said, “that is guaranteed to penetrate buildings.  They want people to be aware of their omnipresence.”  New ambulance sirens, explained Milly, tested at 110 decibels, almost double what’s comfortable.

Milly’s old house — from ’52 to ’64 — was an $85-a-month carriage house at 132 East 27th Street, whose two 10’ x 16’ rooms were connected by a spiral staircase.  In which William (The Recognitions) Gaddis met his wife and Norman Mailer offered me my first joint back in 1955.  (I declined).  Milly, whose green, yellow, and lilac blouse (“an explosion in a diamond factory”) was purchased at an off-season sale in Palm Beach, stood in sharp contrast to the plain, black number worn by Landmark’s bubbly Victoria Oscarron.  Her solitary touch of color — scarlet lipstick — recalled Kurosawa’s movie High and Low, in which a single puff of orange smoke interrupted an otherwise totally black-and-white movie.

Cynthia Mailman, in from verdant Staten Island by VW bus, confessed she’d been invited to take part in a March 30th panel at Landmark on the “art and technology aspects” of contemporary images.  It had mysteriously been titled “The Literal Image” into which Cynthia’s stark rear-view mirror images would seem to fit.  Henry Rose whose recent celebrations to mark the 11th anniversary of his The Old Reliable Fish House (in Provincetown) was marred by a citation from the health inspector recalled for us Some Famous Openings we’d all attended.

The kitchen was filled with melodious chimes from Dennis Oppenheim’s visionary Tune Towers, which, as he suggests, would do a lot to civilize the drab industrial reaches of New Jersey.

Segueing into evening parties I met up with Vernita Nemec, Sharon Wynbrandts, and Marty Fine who’s trying to soften his image as a loft lord.  He promised to hire Sharon to paint what he described as “the mirrored hall of Versailles” in his elevator at 644 Broadway.

Sunday, March 11, 1978: A few gallery openings but it didn’t seem worth turning out on a bitterly cold day.  Sometimes I think that instead of subsidies there should be grants made to artists to perform some honest-to-god real work.  There are far too many paintings, sculptures, and artifacts of all kinds already, and who needs more?  Another bit of philistinism which always seems to provoke people is my suggestion to sell all the masterpieces from the world’s museums to eager private collectors and replace them with the excellent reproductions that constantly seem to fool the experts.  That way some of the mystique could be removed from “art”, the museums could become educational — their presumed major function — and all that expensive security, not to mention insurance would become superfluous.  Or more probably become the responsibility of the paintings’ proud owners who would doubtless guard their possessions at least as well.

Friday, May 5: Everybody’s a performing artist these days, whatever else their specialty might be, and there was grim evidence of this at the Grand Street opening of Bill Rabinovitch’s paintings, some of which looked like a medley of Picasso and Matisse. But while the deceptively mild-mannered Rab welcomed his friends upfront, the menacing Ear Inn Mob took over the rear room to yodel, spin metal balls around glass containers (the sound of centrifugal force?) and act generally like a bunch of clowns. Fleeing home to my TV set I observed Channel 5 News was over at the New York Times interviewing Sovietologist Harry Schwartz. As he spoke, a procession of lady journalists passed back and forth behind him — a presentation that looked suspiciously as though it had been choreographed (probably by m/e Abe Rosenthal) to bolster the paper’s image as a champion of women’s rights. Which, some critics complain, it definitely is not. Of course, certain malcontents claim that the main thing wrong with poor old Abe is that he never found the time to get stoned on some excellent ganja during his struggling years as the Times’ man in India. And that if he had he wouldn’t have started his reign as m/e by commissioning a slanted, full-page attack on the ‘dangers’ of the killer weed.

Saturday, May 6: Tried to call my friend Catherine about her apartment to find she now has an unlisted number. What a dumb thing to do! Who on earth do these unlisted paranoids think is going to call up and harass them? Surely communication should be a two-way thing with people being refused telephones to make outgoing calls if they are not prepared to receive incoming ones.

On WBay, original Larry Rivers drawings were being sold for a dollar apiece. They are color Xeroxes made by the artist to benefit the Little Red Schoolhouse. Rivers, one of the first major artists to see the potential of the color Xerox, made some of his early experiments at the Soho Media Co-op whose director, Buddy Wirtschafter, has taken the art of forging party invitations to new heights.

A charming show of ‘books’ you’ve never seen before was intriguing visitors to Franklin Furnace: books on rollers…on strips of paper inside bottles…in moebius loops, on scrolls…even a ‘Helicopedia’ on its way to becoming a bicyclopedia. The viewer sits on a stool inside this and reads the words on a cylinder that revolves around the head. Pedals to turn the cyclinder automatically have still to be added. Filmmaker Kay Hines (who sneaks me into Guggenheim openings when the museum forgets to invite me) is also a writer but admits that her words in the show aren’t getting much attention. Form over substance and all that.

Sunday, May 7:  The Robert Freidus gallery on Lafayette Street is actually somebody’s luxuriously furnished apartment, so openings there always have the aura of intimate parties. Today the roof was open, displaying a selection of sculptor Jay Kelly’s constructions, most of which drip, squirt, or spray water. The artist, who makes simple sundials that look like metal spinning tops, tripped and scattered a bagful of ice cubes all over the floor which diverted my attention from a comely lady who had just told me that her name was — no kidding — Skye Vermont; a poet, as who wouldn’t be with a monicker like that. At the Broome Street party later, somebody told me I’d missed yet another of Sharon Wynbrandt’s performances (she’s doing seven, on successive Monday nights) at her White Street loft. “You should certainly have come this time; she was nude.” Sharon turned up at the party and amplified: “Yes, it was lovely. I did my Dance for Red Laser and Trumpet with the laser beam caressing my body all over. My children were in it, too.” Next, I got into conversation with an actress who said she worked part-time as assistant cook in the executive dining room at one of the networks. “Boy,” she said, “talk about naked power; I’ve seen it all.”

Monday, May 8: Screw’s Al Goldstein is about to launch a monthly tabloid, Death, which will have honest obits, listings of the lowest rates for funerals, and articles aimed at the terminally ill. “It’s the only publication in existence devoted to the subject,” explains the Printz of Porn, “and it definitely will be bizarre.” Uncle Al, just back from photographing the cemeteries of Switzerland, was about to leave for LA to have dinner with Hugh Hefner as I arrived at his barricaded 14th Street office. He pointed to his latest acquisition, an ornate coffin with which he co-stars (dressed as an undertaker) in the commercial he just shot to appear on his cable show, Midnight Blue.

Tuesday, May 9: In response to my card, Catherine called to explain that having an unlisted number was a hangover from the time when she had appeared on the cover of a national magazine. Now she was struggling as a freelance writer and had recently sold a piece about “Foods of the Future” which had made her feel strangely optimistic. I asked if I could come over and take a look at her apartment as I was thinking of moving into the same block, and she said sure, make it tomorrow.

An unprecedented fivehour opening took up most of the evening at the Shepherd Gallery on E 84th Street. Guests roamed through four rooms cluttered with paintings and sculptures of Victorian England: horses, landscapes, fairy paintings, portraits, and numerous works by seven rebellious young artists who came to be known as the pre-Raphaelites (1849-53).

“I love that period, it’s so romantic,” sighed lovely Rozelle Cooper, who works for Barry Friedman, a dealer so exclusive you must make an appointment to see his wares. Ms. Cooper said that seven of her personal collection were in the show and pointed proudly to her name in the catalog.

Blond Charmian Stirling had arrived in New York for the first time only a few hours earlier. She said she was here to draw half a dozen portraits which usually took about six hours apiece. “Men fall asleep and women look worried when being drawn,” she added. Painter Walter David and I discovered we had a mutual friend, Sam Middleton, another black artist who lives in Amsterdam. “He influenced me a lot,” Walter confided. “I’ll always remember his horizon painting — a thin blue line across an otherwise blank canvas. Who influenced Sam? Well, Romaire Barden for one. Miro probably, and…oh Matisse. And they must all have been influenced by jazz. Walter was wearing a red blazer, checkered shirt with tie, and neatly pressed slacks.

“Last night I had on T-shirt and jeans,” he said. “Thelonious Monk once said, ‘We don’t play the same music so we don’t have to dress the same.” Colette, who has always been uniquely attired at any event at which I’ve seen her, never dresses the same. Tonight she sported the Victorian punk look with pink jacket, Chinese print dress, shimmering pink shoes and bloomers. “I’ll be on view in Fiorucci’s window on 59th Street next week,” she revealed.

Wednesday, May 10: Douglas Durst, whose family owns most of the midtown property between 40th and 47th Streets, never goes anywhere without his pocket CB, so most of the time we visited with Catherine on W43 St, he kept getting calls from his assistants working on renovation projects in the area. The Durst Organization operates about 500 apartments so I jumped at the chance to inspect one occupied by my friend in company with the man who’s already her landlord and might become mine. We sat in her cozy garden pad, sipping jasmine tea, smoking, and talking about how interesting it was to watch an area develop and undergo rehabilitation. Across the street, about three-quarters of the heavily-subsidized Manhattan Plaza are theatrical types and many of the area’s old churches are being converted into theaters.

“It’s pleasant, it’s vibrant and it’s an area that’s almost ready for its own newspaper,” Catherine commented. “Why not come and live around here and start one?”

In the evening, the first person I met when I crashed MacMillan’s party for the John Gruen biography of Giancarlo Menotti was the program director of WNCN, Matt Biberfeld, who observed he felt a bit out of place but was there because Gruen did a weekly talk show (about dance) for the station. “WNCN is what painters turn to when they get to their studios and begin work,” declared painter Jane Wilson, Gruen’s wife. Gruen himself, joyfully greeting friends, said he thought he had rotten billing on the invitation for the party. It had emphasized MacMillan, the Schirmer company, and Menotti in huge type, mentioning the author almost as an afterthought. “I grabbed the head of the company as he went by,” the velvet-suited author joked, “and thanked him for inviting me to my party.”

“Ooh,” chorused publicists Raye Linday and Ricka Canter, “that would be Mr. Hagel he was talking about. He’s chairman of the board and travels around in limousines a lot. He’s very rarely seen, in fact, tonight is the first time we’ve ever met him. What does he look like? He’s a small man who looks a little like…ha, ha..a bookkeeper.”

Thursday, May 11: Back in the news once again is the Village Voice whose editor Marianne Partridge has apparently been axed without warning, causing the usual staff upheavals and divided loyalties. Of course, what the paper really needs — apart from being physically split into different sections — is a completely new, slimmed-down staff and a whole new direction. But then who could work with Murdoch and his sycophantic lieutenants, most of them strangers to the very city they’re supposed to be covering? One almost infallible rule is that a publication has a specific lifespan and it is difficult, if not impossible, to turn it round and get a new readership once its natural life has ebbed away.

Cosmopolitan was about the only exception to this rule in recent years; Esquire, for example, was not.  (Another iron-clad rule about publishing that Murdoch has mastered, is that there is always room at the bottom — i.e. any publication that has even more degraded tastes than the already-existing lowest one, is bound to be a success.)

Sentimentalists think fondly of earlier Voice days when Ed Fancher was publisher, but they overlook the fact that — in the grand tradition — publishers are invariably rip-off artists who get rich underpaying their writers while constantly pleading poverty. All the publishers I have ever known in New York—Fancher, Lyle Stuart, Barney Rossett, Ralph Ginzburg, Bob Guccione, Arthur Frommer, Michael Goldstein have been like that, and they’ve always been courted at the beginning by writers who’d give anything (and willingly accept nothing) to have their names in print, and then reviled their ‘benefactors’ later on. It’s almost as though Goldstein at the Soho Weekly News had decided that, seeing as it was inevitable he’d be hated eventually, he might just as well be as unpleasant as possible to begin with, and still rip everybody off in the way that publishers always have.

John Wilcock is currently visiting Rome