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Saturday, July 24, 2010

12 Last Days of the Soviet Union: Day Seven-Too Many Churches (traveling to Vilnius)


St. Anne's Church

Church of the Holy Spirit

The Ducal Palace at Trakai

Too Many Churches
by Douglas Messerli

After our stay in the hotel in Leningrad, where, even on the best of days, the elevators operated very slowly and the rooms were always overheated and dirty, and especially after our unpleasant train trip, we were all delighted by the towering, modern building where we were to spend some nights in Vilnius. I believe the hotel was what today is called the Radisson Bleu Hotel Lietuva, but I don't remember the name at the time of our stay. The first thing my roommate and I did was to take showers.

Upon inspection, soon after, the entire city of Vilinus seemed well-kept and spotless, a tourist's delight.

We were toured briefly through the Old Town, where the Jewish quarter was quickly pointed out to us. It seems hard to imagine so many important figures having lived in such a small area, but I'm sure it was a crowded few blocks even in the days that Vilna was described as the Jerusalem of Europe. Many of our group wanted to see more, but we were hurried away during our visit to the city, time and again, to inspect numerous churches and cathedrals. There are some 40 churches in Vilnius.

One evening three or four of us were invited into a Lithuanian home for dinner and to speak to the elderly couple. The couple with whom we were dining seemed quite literate and appeared to enjoy literature, so I bravely asked whether there any young innovative Lithuanian poets. Both husband and wife, quickly answered, "Oh, no. Lithuania is a very traditional country."

Of course, this couple might have mentioned Tomas Venclova, although by that time he had already immigrated to the US; or they might have looked to the past of Oscar Milosz, Henrikas Radauskas, or the great Abraham Sutzkever, but it was obvious that they were disinterested in poetic adventurousness.

On one day, however, we did catch a sense of a distinct change in the air. Our Lithuanian guide was explaining to us that until very recently, Lithuanians had not been permitted to speak their own language, which, we had been proudly told by several Vilnius citizens, had its roots in Latin and even had connections to Sanskrit. The Guide continued, with a list of other restrictions put upon them by the Soviets, including the closing of several of their beloved religious sites.

Suddenly, one of two Russian Guides, stood up and went forward, speaking quite harshly, it was clear, to the Lithuanian speaker. It was apparent that the younger girl was being told not to continue criticizing the Soviets.

The Vilnius Guide smiled and continued on with her catalogue of gripes. Clearly, she wasn't one little bit afraid of the ramifications. Perhaps that was the first time we all recognized that the Soviet Union would not last long, that its power in the Baltic States, at least, had already crumbled. We were all aware that only three months before The Baltic countries had met to create the Assembly of the Baltic Independence Movements and created The Baltic Council, and this small confrontation was one of its effects.

On another day, we were taken for a day trip to the nearby Trakai Island Castle, built in the 14th century. As we passed a woods just outside of Vilnius, many of our group asked whether or not if that was famous woods where a number of Jewish citizens had hidden and attempted to resist German occupation. Mightn't we be able to stop for a few moments by the side of the road? No answer.

Later that evening, when we were taken to yet another cathedral, several individuals in our party complained. "Not another church," a couple of them shouted. "Not another!" Some of their ancestors had lived in the Vilna Ghetto, and they were desperate for a different perspective.
Our feisty tour guides simply smiled.

Yet, despite the refusal of our Guides to deal with the painful facts of the past, most of us did feel a sense of new possibility here in this lovely small city. Even the air seemed warmer than the cold stones of Leningrad.

Los Angeles, July 22, 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

In the Mood (on Larry Rivers and his Autobiography)


Larry Rivers


Rivers, "The Bedroom"

Larry Rivers with Grace Hartigan's hat
In the Mood
by Douglas Messerli
And I said "Hey, baby, it's a quarter to three
There's a mess of moonlight, won't-cha share it with me"
"Well" he answered "Baby, don't-cha know that it's rude
To keep my two lips waitin' when they're in the mood"


Larry Rivers, with Arnold Weinstein What Did I Do?: The Unauthorized Autobiography (New York: HarperCollins, 1992)

As I mentioned in My Year 2003, in February 1996 I visited Arnold Weinstein in New York City to discuss the Sun & Moon publication of his play, Red Eye of Love. At that time Arnold presented me with a copy, evidently on Valentine's weekend (for he drew a big heart upon the title page, dedicating it to "Doug, N. Y. Poet in L.A."), of Larry Rivers's What Did I Do?, a book which, as Larry read from his handwritten copies, his close friend Arnold had typed into the computer, querying Rivers throughout those several months in 1991 about comprehensibility and style.

For years after Arnold had presented this book to me, it sat unread on my bookshelf until this year (2009), as I determined to write on Larry Rivers, who died on August 14, 2002. It was time, I decided, to take the opportunity to get to know this artist better.

I met Rivers only twice: while he was reinstalling his History of the Russian Revolution: From Marx to Mayakovsky in the Hirshhorn Museum galleries in the 1970s, an occasion I doubt he would have remembered, and at Arnold's 1996 party. But Rivers apparently knew nearly everyone in the New York art scene, and, accordingly, we had many shared acquaintances outside of Arnold Weinstein; I felt, somehow, as if I'd known him for years.

That may be simply a delusion arising, however, from now reading his autobiography, for there is something so disarmingly personal and revealing about this work that by the time one is finished reading it, one has the sensation of intimacy with the artist. For What Did I Do? is not simply an account of Rivers' achievements—although he certainly makes clear what he feels he has accomplished, or, at least, attempted to accomplish through his art—but is a study in a failed man, a crazy, often drugged-out, macho-maniac, who left his first wife Augusta and their children (her son from a previous relationship, Joseph, and the son they produced together, Steven) alone for nights in their Bronx apartment, while he played Baritone Saxophone gigs at numerous jazz and other night spots, boozing with his friends (when he wasn't sick from his hits of heroin) and seeking out the pleasures of other, usually younger women. The only difference in his treatment of his second wife, Clarice, is that he, a bit older, spent a few more nights in their Southampton home or their Chelsea apartment. As a recognized artist, he no longer played music as often, but his drug-taking, drinking, and general carousing did not cease.

There is, of course, a great deal of macho-performance in Rivers's recounting of these acts, and sometimes it appears almost as if he were listing his heartthrobs, male and female (painter Jane Freilicher, poet/curator Frank O'Hara, poet Jean Garrigue [who, after becoming pregnant, had an abortion performed upon her by another, better known poet, Dr. William Carlos Williams], and numerous other women—including his own sister and his mother-in-law, Berdie), to impress himself and readers that he lived a fascinating life. Yet, the sensitive reader often cringes at just these passages, for deep down, we perceive, that Rivers is not only terribly unsure of himself, but, as many of his artists friends recognize, dramatizes with blustering braggadocio to make himself loveable in their eyes. His cock-sucking episodes with his dealer John Bernard Myers, can be seen a kind of desperation in the younger artist to get ahead, to "put himself on the art map." And, although even the artist makes certain we comprehend that many of his insecurities stem from his youthful awkwardness (a thin boy with a long nose, a nearly green tinge about his skin) and his Jewish immigrant upbringing, we also know that there is just enough truth to his bad-boy Rimbaud behavior to truly make Rivers an adventurous rouge.

On the good ole boy side of his personality, we also recognize his love and support of his children, his affection for his wives and friends, particularly Clarice, fellow jazz performer-artist Howard Kanovitz, Weinstein, and, in particular, O'Hara. Although Rivers makes it quite clear that he is heterosexual, we might well agree with W. H. Auden that there are no homosexuals, just homosexual acts, given the immediate attraction between O'Hara and Rivers. Upon their very first meeting the two find themselves at evening's end in an intense kissing session. And throughout their friendship, and despite Rivers's attempts to cut off his services, it is clear that he "sucked Frank's cock" fairly often. One of the major admissions of his failures was Rivers's inability to stand up to Clarice regarding her dislike for Frank's current boyfriend J. J., which meant that Frank was not invited every weekend, as he might have liked, to their Southampton house. Indeed, the one fatal weekend when O'Hara was killed by a beach buggy on Water Island occurred after Rivers had made up an excuse to keep him and J. J. away. The scene Rivers remembers after his moving account of O'Hara's death and funeral serves as cold comfort:

I'm reminded of an event that combines the absurd with the incomprehen-
sible. About three weeks before Frank was killed on Water Island, he was
visiting me out in Southampton. It was early July. I was married to Clarice
and reasonably busy with marriage and her. Gwynne was almost two, and
another child was due the first week in August (we named her Emma Fran-
cesca). Frank, alone with me in the house, poked his head into the dark, and
said, "In the mood for a little blow job?"—which hadn't happened for years.

I pondered the question.

What was I pondering? "Why not?" I said.

When Frank died I found myself absurdly comforted by my decision to
comply. Why? So he could take one less disappointment to the grave.

...What difference would any of these things have made to the disappearance
of a soul?

Rivers' unstable behavior may be at the center of this book, but his autobiography is also filled with hundreds of gossipy tidbits about the art, music, and literary worlds—enough to sustain anyone for years to come (i.e. who was married to whom and who didn't and did grow up with fabulous wealth).

But more importantly, What Did I Do? speaks volumes about Rivers' own art and makes clear that this so-called "pop artist" was serious in all the art historical references. He truly loved Ingres, Bonnard, Monet, David and hundreds of other artists, dead and alive, nearly as much as he loved life and his hundreds of friends. Rivers wasn't merely "pop," for he was mothered by a long tradition of visual artists who, despite his everyday failures in life, gave sustenance, putting him "in the mood," so to speak, to create his powerful figurative canvases and sculptures.
Finally, I realize just how nice it has been to know Larry Rivers for all these years, even if the friendship has only been one of the head.

Los Angeles, February 12, 2009

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Man of Many Smiles (on the death of Robert Shapazian)


A Man of Many Smiles
by Douglas Messerli
I read in the Los Angeles Times this morning of the death of a friend, Robert Shapazian. According to the obituary, Robert died in his home of lung cancer on Saturday, June 19th.

I had not seen Robert for a very long time, but had spoken of him just a few weeks earlier with his friend, Robert Dean. Dean said of nothing of Robert's illness, so either Robert himself did not know he was ill or had determined to keep it from the public.

For the last ten years Shapazian had worked as the director of the famed Larry Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, who sells to such notables as Douglas Cramer and Eli Broad (both of whom I mention elsewhere in this volume). Not able to purchase such "blue chip" art, I have visited this gallery only once, upon the 1995 opening of the new building designed by Richard Meier. This year the gallery was expanded.

However, I had come to know Robert quite well before he became Gagosian's director, primarily through his position as director of artist Sam Francis's Lapis Press in Venice, which, from 1984 to Francis' 1994 death, published a wide range of literary and art texts including Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard's study of Duchamp and works by Julien Grac, Pasqual Quignard, Harry Mathews, and Georges Bataille. While I am sure Robert served well as an art director, he did not have the temperament to be a happy publisher. He was quickly frustrated with what he saw as interferences and absurd demands of authors, translators, and, particularly in his case, the press' artist-owner. Trying to keep carefully within budgets, Robert was thwarted time and again by Sam and his artists and authors addition of expensive elements of design to each book, which made the Lapis books truly beautiful, but also financial disasters.

Every few weeks Robert would telephone me to ask, in a voice filled with frustration and pique, had I ever encountered this or that problem? Often I had, but it wasn't my situation in which he was particularly interested in discussing, but his own dilemma, his dramatic sufferings. Indeed, it was Robert's sense of grand drama and his slightly agitated feelings of disorder in the world, that made me so enjoy our conversations. Robert was, as some might say, "of the old school"—as a young man, after earning his Bachelor's degree at the University of California Berkeley, he had gone on for his Masters and PhD at Harvard in pastoral poetry and painting of the Renaissance. He had traveled widely, and was particularly fond of Mali and other African sites. The disorderly confines and often boisterous activities of a publisher's office were, I am sure, in opposition to his sense of order and social decorum.

At the same time, Robert had a good sense of humor, and often laughed along with me when I responded to his irritations. Speaking with him in person, I noticed that he often smiled at his own petulant statements, like a slightly naughty boy being quite pleased with himself.

He cared a great deal for younger writers, and helped one writer in particular to come into print. In 1998 we published Christopher Spranger's book of aphoristic writing, The Effort to Fall, after Robert had brought the manuscript to me. "Now I want to help you publish this," he conspiratorially whispered, "but you musn't tell the young writer. You won't sell any copies, but it needs to be published. It's that good!" And it was.

Robert also built a large collection of experimental photography, much of which he left to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The newspaper obituary shows a picture of the smiling Shapazian with four members of an African tribe, giving me a glimpse of another of his personalities, and marking the fact that Robert was a man of many smiles.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2010