Forces Affecting an Artists Career: A Reading by Francie Lyshak
Francie Lyshak March 25, 2014
My relationship to the people at The Bar and Bill Rice’s studio began in the mid-70s. I came to New York with Richard Morrison (my best friend and a fellow visual artist), Randy Wilson and Geri Burke (who were both dancers.) Richard introduced me to The Bar, which was a meeting place for an amazing community of artists. I’d go there in the late afternoon, drink and hang out with a few different people, including Bill Rice. Bill was a completely remarkable and amazing man, a wonderful artist, great painter and a thrilling actor. He allowed me to exhibit my paintings in his studio. Richard curated the shows. I had a one-woman show very early on of my craziest, most over-the-top early work. (Invitation below.) That show was filled with giant Amazonian women who were falling off of cliffs, running, stabbing people, stabbing themselves and ripping out their body parts. The suffering and the agony in those paintings was a projection of my inner self in full display. These were very big paintings, six feet tall and three feet wide. It was madness that I did them at all. They had zero commercial value. I think I collected my inner torments and poured them into my art. While I was doing this I was able to function moderately well in a job and in relationships. Although I have to say my romantic relationships were pretty disastrous.
There was one other show at Bill’s studio in 1988, where I exhibited a different series of paintings. They were about my then lover, a man named James. It was a show that gave evidence of my obsession with this man. Of course it was a relationship that ended very badly. He was an addict and he was unavailable. He was also a charming and handsome man, the first man that ever made me feel adored. I knew that I had to paint these paintings. It was a psychological necessity for me. It allowed me to reach into a very deep internal state that acted as an antidote for my depression.
One of the little snippets of memory I still have is from The Salon/Saloon show in 1985 at Bill’s studio. It was a massive show with many artists who later became well-known in the arts, such as Chris Wool, Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Robert Gober and Jack Smith. The opening was filled to bursting. The mood was bacchanal. That’s when I was introduced to David Wojnarowicz’s work. I remember seeing his photograph of buffalo diving off a cliff. That’s the image I remember the most from the exhibition. It is permanently lodged in my brain. I think I identified with the buffalo.
David Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar both came to Cape Cod to Larry’s summer home. Peter did some photography there. Larry and Richard had lots of friends visiting each summer. Ulla Dydo and Eddie Burns, who are both important Gertrude Stein scholars, were there. Bill Rice came often. Tony Nunziata, the singer/actor was there frequently. And there were many others, Elyce Berson, Cathy Campbell, Montana, Marylou Fogarty. Of course, I was a regular guest.
Also I have a strong memory of Gary Indiana’s work. I sat in the audience in Bill’s backyard at Gary’s play, The Dog People. I was so fascinated, stimulated and taken by the production that I did a painting in honor of it, called Dog Woman.
Another really powerful memory came from watching performances by Bette Borne and the Bloolips. It was brilliant theatre, as was the work of Jeff Weiss and Jack Smith. The theatre in the East Village was incomparable. I’ve never seen anything since then that provided anything close to the thrill or amazement of those performances. I would compare those shows only to premiere performances at the Metropolitan Opera or the American Ballet Theatre because there were always moments of perfection. It was the best of the best.
I think the forces that hurt my relationship with this community were several. One was that I was heterosexual and the animal in me knew that I had to go somewhere else to hunt for a partner. By virtue of my youth, I was driven to find a lover; and all my efforts in that community had failed completely. So I knew I had to look in other places. That takes you away.
Also I had to work a job. Soon after I came to New York City, in the mid-70s, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working as a secretary. Also I realized that my odds of becoming a financially secure painter were next to nothing. So I decided to go back to college in order to become a professional. I went to school to study art therapy with the idea that I would end up in the mental health field. Part of that training involved getting psychotherapy for myself. That was time-consuming and it’s forced me to look at certain aspects of my behavior that were counterproductive–like pursuing unavailable men and an unhealthy habit of substance use.
All of these changes began to put me a little out of step with that community. I was more engaged in other things. I had school papers to write. I was examining myself and trying to change the course of my life, in a way that would lead me away from depression. So I’d say that for health and financial reasons, I became less involved with The Bar and that lifestyle. I was trying to save myself. The bar scene, as well as my mating behavior, was harming me. So I did somewhat drift away from that community–although I never stopped painting and I stayed very close to Larry Mitchell and Richard Morrison. I did have some ongoing contact with that community; but times had changed by then. The AIDS epidemic had wrecked havoc on the community. I’m talking about the 90’s now.
I’d like to say something about what brought me to do these interviews. I started doing these interviews because I began to regret the fact that I had become isolated from my artist friends. You see Larry Mitchell and Richard Morrison, my best friends, had died and they had helped me feel connected to that community. So when they died, I felt lost and alone. A wise acquaintance suggested that I might want to reconnect with my artist community. So I decided to do these interviews. Also, as a consequence of Larry and Rick’s death, I realized that the members of this community were disappearing and some of them were gone. I knew that this time period was an important historical moment in the arts culture of our generation. There was an evolutionary force happening in the arts, particularly in New York City. The cumulative force of these East Village artists had a significant effect on the arts during the 70’s and 80’s. So I decided it was a worthy project. I begin to document what I could about that time in the form of gathering oral histories or written commentary by these artists that I admired.
When I was doing these interviews I was also struggling with self-doubt about my own art career at the time. Of course, that was a side issue. I can now say that this side issue was addressed in the process of doing these interviews. I think that self-doubt is very common for artists. After all, we live in a culture that does not reward art production or our artistic sensibility; so many of us are probably filled with some degree of self-doubt. In the process of doing these interviews, I discovered a fountain of information about the forces that influence artists and artists’ communities. The contributors to this project talked about the external assaults that undermine an artist’s contribution to the advance of the arts. After all, the vested interests in the art world are invested in keeping their privileged position. New competing artists and new ways of thinking are a threat. So established power brokers have every reason to resist or neglect unfamiliar contributions. I don’t see this as a conspiracy. Rather it is the unfortunate outcome of the inherent self-interest that is in the nature of being human. In any case, I want to highlight some of the jewels of commentary that are contained in these interviews.
For example, Brad Ellis talks about ‘time.’ During the AIDS epidemic many artists were taken away from their careers because they were the only ones left to take care of their friends and lovers. Brad talks about being a caregiver and its effect on his career. In my case, every time I choose to be with friends or family I am acutely aware of how this is taking time away from my art production, my time spent researching, networking, etc. These are the difficult choices, between ambition and relationships, that we have to make on a daily basis.
Joe Voitjko spoke eloquently about the privileges or disadvantages that come with class and money and how this can affect an artist’s career. After all, many of us do stand on the shoulders of our predecessors. If they lend us a helping hand by a placing us into a social milieu that is full of resources (such as collectors, contacts, teachers, art world connections) then of course we have massive advantages over those who come to the art world empty-handed. Without money an artist must get an income, often doing exhausting work that is a drain on their talent and can eventually wipe out their creative output. Joey also talks about the importance of personality. The art world is a highly competitive arena. Without extraordinary chutzpha and relentless perseverance, an artist easily slips into obscurity despite their level of talent.
Lavinia Coop talks at length about the AIDS epidemic, how it savaged the community. An artist can’t manage an art career when they are fighting for their life—although David Wojnarowicz made a heroic effort to do just that. Health and energy is a major resource to launch and to maintain an art career.
Steven Harvey talks about geographic location, specifically the East Village, a location that has been a magnet for artists for many decades leading back to the 30’s. It is well known that there are hubs of creativity and it is difficult to maintain an artistic practice in an isolated setting that provides little or no encouragement for the arts. Artists’ communities provide immeasurable support for artists’ careers.
Ray Dobbins talks about timing. After all an artist’s audience has to be ready to embrace a new viewpoint. He talks about how his audience became increasingly ready for his new radical gay theatre performances during this period of East Village theatre history. He also describes how this work was dismissed initially by the critics.
In other words, an artist’s accession to commercial success or failure is not simply a measure of their talent. That point of view is a myth that is perpetuated by the media and it serves to calcify the hold of the status quo on the arts. The truth is that commercial success or failure is the outcome of a complex mixture of advantages or disadvantages associated with personality, class privilege, geographic location, financial and time resources, health, perseverance and the vagaries of the fashions of the times. An artist has very little control over many of these factors and only some control over a few of them. The artists in these interviews helped me to see my artwork and myself in this larger context and I thank them so much for that.