Art After Midnight: The East Village Scene was this great book that I read when I was in college. I was at Brown from ’84-’88, and it was published in 1986. The book had Kenny Scharf on the cover, but this was the image was on the back, a photograph now famous by the amazing 80’s artist Tseng Kwong Chi. It is a fantastic early group “selfie”, Kwong Chi is the Hong Kong-born American photographer who took great (and queer) conceptual and political pictures of himself in a Mao suit throughout America and the world, among other bodies of excellent works—sadly he died of AIDS-related causes in 1990. He also was an important part of his community, fellow traveler friends with the East Village, Warhol, and fashion worlds and more, and took their photos in addition to pictures of himself with his colleagues and other stars. Here, it is his community, the same that made me realize what it could mean to be free, queer, and an artist and compelled me to become what I am today.
Art After Midnight was a great, chatty, tell-all book with a lot of photos. It talks about the punk rock revolution and CBGB’s, and how Ann Magnuson, who’s in the front of the book, started her Club 57, where Keith Haring and Scharf and John Sex would hang out. Then there’s McDermott & McGough, who completely inspired me as an artist when I saw the 1996 Whitney Biennial, they were first in, as totally out, queer art–that you could do that. And Joey Arias, who’s still around and doing incredible performance. This was the book that, in college, made me want to come to New York and be an artist. Or be a cartoonist and be secretly, hopefully, an artist too. I would look at that image over and over again, dreaming about coming to New York. The original image was cropped in the book–this is from the original photo that had the backdrop on it, and the wall, and the tiled ceiling. This is one of those paintings that are raw, but it kind of had a life of its own, and I didn’t want to mess with it. I was very instantaneous, like the moment they took the photo. When I was painting it, it felt like they all had their tongues out, like they’re licking their lips. I wonder if Tseng Kwong Chi said to them, “Okay you guys, lick your lips and smile!” I’m thinking the picture was taken in a flash of an instant and they’re all camping. They were the ones that inspired me.
After graduating, I did come to NYC, where I first worked for an art magazine Contemporania, which lead to a job at Robert Miller, back when it was an excellent gallery on 57th, and Cheim & Read were the directors. When I was working at Miller, they showed McDermott & McGough. I worked the front desk, and they would always flirt with me, and they invited me to a dinner at The Ritz. They were friends with the chef that was featured in Interview Magazine, and we had dinner in a screened-off portion of the hotel’s kitchen. It was a totally vegan, twelve-course meal. Incredible. And then we walked down Fifth Avenue as they kindly tried to seduce me into coming back to their East Village apartment. And I politely declined.
Well, we became friends, and fast forward from 1989 to 1999, when Andrew and I lived on 46th Street where we had a meltdown because our dog died, there was a brothel underneath us and we had to move out. it was totally depressing. But our friend Chivas Clem ended up living in the apartment underneath us, and our mutual friends McDermott & McGough ended up living in our old apartment. It’s one of those neat things about being an artist is that you could champion people and then you actually get to know them and hopefully be their friend.
Apprenticeship. The East Village ‘80s, to me, was the ultimate. And then when I graduated–it was that recession with President George senior had just come into office–and the East Village was over by the time I came to New York. And so many died because of AIDS, so many people, tragically. But then the ones that are still around, like Peter McGough, he’s amazing, but I treat him as an elder. In a good way—not for his age, but for his experience
Because of the 1987 Whitney Biennial, with the painting “A Friend of Dorothy,1943,” that had the sissy/pansy words and then the “Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Three Boys… and One Tub, 1937” paintings that were so totally out, and very, very queer. And really, I was in high school, thought, “Oh my god, you can be totally out and be a popular artist and do all these things in a deeper, more intrinsic way than Hockney.” I was so happy to get to be friends with him. I’m sad I never got to meet Keith Haring or Basquiat, or all those other people. It was amazing to end up working at Robert Miller Gallery—because I also remember when Mapplethorpe died. I was traveling around, right before I came to New York. I remember distinctly being in Rome and opening up a Vogue and seeing that, “Oh my god, Mapplethorpe is gone.” Basquiat had just died. I ended up working the front desk for the gallery that had Mapplethorpe and Basquiat, and I got to meet his dad, Gerard Basquiat, all these people that made we want to become an artist—and then I became one!