Monday, May 7, 2018
FEATURED ESSAY: MARTHA KING
[This essay is a chapter in Martha King’s memoir OUTSIDE/INSIDE … JUST OUTSIDE THE ART WORLD’S INSIDE, forthcoming this October 2018 from BlazeVOX Books.]
Monster is not spelled the same in French as it is in English and it has a Frank meaning in French. Frank O’Hara, art critic, poet. O’Hara monster of prodigious talent, our urban dancer, man about our town, a wreck and a maker. A Fred Astaire. A Toulouse-Lautrec. Even casual acquaintances could feel his “our” about New York City. He lived in the glamorous swirl the gifted lonely can invent in a great city.
One story told says that when his loft was filled with enough people, he could leave the main area, close a door, and concentrate on writing. This could only work for someone who could shape his personal life into a work of art. All divisions. And none. Some painters have worked in a studio salon. Frank could write a poem in a subway car, and remember to hold the twenty-fifth line in his head until he reinvented it.
I never knew Frank as well as I wanted. Baz had known him since his first stays in New York. How could he not? Baz was everywhere then, and so was Frank. Frank knew everyone so Frank knew Baz.
Back when Baz first knew him Frank worked at the Museum of Modern Art as a sales clerk in the little bookstore right by the front entrance. The museum had an apprentice system then: curators-in-waiting had to put in time doing scut work, regardless of how fancy a school they’d attended. Harvard? Fine. You can sell postcards and catalogs. The museum store was a hole in the wall right by the front door and postcards and catalogs were about all they stocked, plus tickets for the movie theater which was down in the museum’s bowels where subway rumbles went right through the soundtrack. Frank used to save movie tickets for Baz, for which you had to pay extra, and even better, he’d smuggle him in to save him the front door admission fee. This was relatively easy to do because MOMA was attached at the back to the Whitney, and the Whitney charged no admission. To go back and forth between the two, you passed though a guarded turnstile paying nothing on the way to the Whitney, but showing your MOMA ticket stub to re- enter MOMA’s sanctuary. Frank kept extra ticket stubs in a drawer and all one had to do was take a walk around the block, enter the Whitney, and voila.
By the time I met Frank, we were living on 2nd Avenue and had two kids. Baz was no longer a teenager, and Frank was well beyond clerking in the store. He was a rising MOMA staff member who had curated exhibitions. He was a published poet with a coterie of followers. He was into everything going: painting, poetry, film, performance, theater, dance. He was buoyed by public attention and publicly driven mad by love rejections. He fell in love hard and often and everyone would hear tell about it. He bewailed his big nose and receding chin. He bewailed his appearance, which was certainly skinny, but clearly arresting, hawk-like and piercing. He bewailed but he preened wearing a jacket so it hung in an absolute fit from his shoulders. He was gaga for a blond California beauty, but not for dreamboats with empty heads. He might whine about his own life, but then he’d prod Baz to make intelligent calculations to protect his work and himself. I realized that meant he did so for himself too. What might seem like abandon, his willingness to give sway to his enthusiasms, was actually monitored. Frank wasn’t self-destructive; he was ambitious in the best way. With no sentiment whatsoever he arranged for people to meet simply in pursuit of what might happen. He liked to see things happen. When Frank talked he drove right to the center, where the energy was. He was funny about art-world hangers on too; they were as acceptable as seaweed to him, while Baz was often driven into rages over their uncommitted behavior.
In the early sixties, Frank visited Basil’s studio, at first occasionally and as Baz’s work picked up, more and more often. Now when Baz went up to MOMA, he would pay to get in and Frank would leave his curator’s office upstairs so the two of them could eat lunch together. Two or three times, while I was still working at Random House, I’d take off from my office just over on Madison and come along too. Frank’s favorite place for this was Larre’s, a cheap white-tablecloth French restaurant serving mostly organ meat entrees for just a few dollars. I happen to love kidneys, sweetbreads, brains—legacy of my mother’s cooking. I also liked Frank’s smarts, his agile talk, and I loved his interest in Baz.
But Baz was cautious. We’d get a late-night phone call from Frank, an invitation to come over to his place, to meet these people, to do that thing, and Baz would almost never go. Even before the presence of babies in our household meant I couldn’t respond to impromptu invitations, he’d decline on behalf of us both. He was wary he said of “entanglements.” I was ticked off by his reticence. Frank wasn’t putting moves on him, it wasn’t that at all. It was Baz, fearing exposure.
During Baz’s breakdown, just after our second daughter, Hetty, was born, we saw almost no one. But even then Baz didn’t back all the way away from Frank...he’d phone him. He’d initiate meetings. Then, in the pits of 1964, Max, our Second Avenue landlord, offered us another apartment. We were paying $84 a month for our 8th floor place, and we were two months behind in the rent. Our apartment windows cleared the rooftops of the surrounding six-floor walkups. Out back was a wide stretch of building tops punctuated by water towers, with open air all the way over to Broadway, a landscape that has been elegantly painted by Lois Dodd, who still lives two blocks over. Dramatic sunsets sent long angled shadows across the tarred tops and their water towers. You could watch clouds. The apartment Max offered was the exact duplicate of ours but on the 4th floor. There, every window looked onto brick wall airshafts, except the back ones, which had a view of another building’s windows six or seven feet away. We could have this one for $41 a month. Or, as I saw it, horrified, for lack of $43 bucks a month we would live with no sun.
Because of rent control the empty apartment in the dark could fetch no more than $41—it had been $38—but Max stood to pull in $100 more each year if he could flip us. If we refused, well, we should expect to pay him the $168 we owed on Monday. In cash. Or we’d see the marshal’s notice on our door on Tuesday.
Baz went over to Broadway to see Frank. Could someone float a loan? The next day, Frank called, met Baz downtown, and gave him cash. Not a loan. A gift.
Frank told Basil: “Larry Rivers wrote a check for me. He said you’re not supposed to know where this came from. Larry knows you’re a proud man. Of course I’m telling because I think you should know. But don’t ever let on.”
By 1966, Hetty was still too young to qualify for the free day care at Church of All Nations—and that made Mallory ineligible too as the program was intended to enable low-paid mothers to work. I’d found a small galaxy of oddballs who looked after little kids one way or another and I had gotten a job. I was working for Mrs. Burl Ives three days a week. Baz was picking up better temporary teaching assignments—a semester here, a six-week session there. The steadiest was a public service project for ghetto kids, a job he got on the recommendation of the sculptor Sylvia Stone (then married to Al Held). Before long, he was a part-time adjunct at Cooper Union and an Adult Ed art instructor for the Board of Education. Life was beginning to look up financially. Artistically too. In the old Anderson Theater Basil’s painting had began expanding. From that weird beginning when he sat on our couch and inked circle after circle on typewriter paper, he’d developed huge visceral shapes: soft abstracted body parts, vegetables, sea creatures. The paintings glowed with face-like forms that melded, dissipated, reshaped. They distorted dimensions and incorporated elements that normally would be separated. There came to be so much momentum in his evolving work that Frank would joke, “Another retrospective, King?”
By 1966 when Baz was excited about a new group of work, he’d call and Frank would be over. Baz was inventing a self that could exist in contradiction. That could marry romance and terror. The works were awkward and sometimes in-your-face aggressive. There was uneasy vigor below his beautiful painterly surfaces. In short, the paintings showed disturbance everywhere. Some gallery dealers Baz invited to look were unnerved, frankly uncomfortable. One woman who was not unnerved told Baz straight out she liked what she saw but since it wasn’t American and it wasn’t European she didn’t know how it should be placed. She stayed to look for a long time and Baz has many times regretted not going to see her again and making her a friend. Her comment gave him his first solid external definition: “mid-Atlantic.” Decades later the poet Nathaniel Tarn would use exactly the same terms, neither American nor European. He would say about himself and Baz, “we Atlanteans.”
For his part, Frank began telling Baz it was going to take him a long time to grow into this new work, and that a long time would also be needed to open a place for it in the art world. He shouldn’t look for a gallery exhibition at this stage. His work needed to be in a back room, somewhere insiders meet. It might be five years —more! —before time would be right for an open show. Time invested in developing an audience as much as time for Baz to develop. Could Baz handle that? After all, this work was an expedition. It needed support, quiet conduction, ripening. Could Baz give himself the necessary patience? Over at the studio, Frank had given him a thorough grilling about that.
Baz and I both grinned as he reported the conversation to me. It had already been hard! Would waiting, with Frank’s interested support, be hard? Frank was a glorious audience. Baz would come home from their encounters glowing.
Finally, one summer weekend we invited Frank for supper at our apartment. He and Joe LeSeur, no longer lovers but close friends, lounged together on our India print day bed. Joe said that I reminded him of Patsy Southgate, a loved and protected figure in their circle.
Then Frank said, “Baz, there are times when a person just needs money. You need to paint and not worry about Martha and the kids. When I get back from Fire Island, give me a call. We’ve got to do something to get you some money.”
I was clearing the dishes away and heard this from Baz after they’d gone. I’d been rankled by the Patsy remark. Was I being asked to follow yet another impossible model? Don’t take an interest in me in order to change me, I thought. But I probably didn’t look as suspicious as I felt. In truth I was also wondering if Frank could help me learn how to write about art. And I had been pleased because I’d made cassoulet—home-cooked white beans, rosemary, chicken, Polish sausage bits. We had a cheap slightly vinegary white wine which set off the sweetness of the beans and I could tell Joe and Frank hadn’t expected to be so well fed.
What Frank had said to Baz meant he saw what I saw. It meant this is not an illusion. Might actual money come from this promise? We held off saying too much. In truth, I had trouble imagining acceptance; I thought this was something that happened to other people. Baz, on the other hand, believed Frank could do exactly what he said. Turn up a patron, a grant, a much better teaching job. To interest people in seeing new work and talking about it was the normal road to becoming a well-known painter back in those days. Perhaps it still is.
We were back at 57 Second Avenue after one of our beach weekends in Connecticut with Gavin and Athena. Sated as usual. Toasted and sandy. Waiting in our oven-hot hallway, hanging onto beach gear, holding a sleeping child apiece, and listening to that rum-pot elevator slowly clanking its way down the big shaft way. I was, as usual, bracing myself for our apartment—dingy walls, peeling woodwork, crumbly floors. One never knew what even a brief absence would do—would there be a wave of cockroaches? The elevator doors opened on three people. Frank O’Hara’s friend Joe LeSeur, with our downstairs neighbors Frank Lima and tall beautiful Sheila Baikul—she was at the time a sought-after Vogue model. All three of them in tears.
“Frank is dying,” Sheila said.
“Frank was run over on Fire Island.” Was Joe saying that?
They were running somewhere.
What do you mean? There aren’t any cars on Fire Island.
Just little red wagons. Run over? Please, I have a job to get to Monday morning; we have kids to put to bed. This has to be all wrong.
Later that night Frank and Sheila came up to our apartment to tell us it was no mistake. O’Hara was now in a hospital in the city. It was a beach buggy that hit him. A beach buggy is a jeep, a lethally heavy vehicle, not a little red wagon. On Saturday the first hospital, the one in Patchogue, didn’t believe it either. The medical staff there were habitually cynical about homosexual fights on Fire Island and confident in their knowledge of queer life: fags lie and dramatize. So Frank hadn’t been immediately treated for his deep internal injuries. Now he was in intensive care and complaining to Larry Rivers that the multiple tubes and drains in his body were “horribly unaesthetic.”
The next day he was dead.
Frank was gone, dissolving as he vanished, dissolving the connections he had spun all through the downtown world, poetry, art, dance, theater—leaving many people beached, unmoored, disbelieving. Leaving Baz. Leaving me. Dissolving all the futures he didn’t live to do.
Martha King was born Martha Winston Davis in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1937. She attended Black Mountain College for three months as a teenager, and married the painter Basil King in 1958. They have two daughters and four grandchildren. Before retiring in 2011, Martha worked day jobs as an editor and science writer. She also edited 2+2 chapbooks with Susan Sherman in the late 1970s and published 31 issues of Giants Play Well in the Drizzle, a free zine, 1983-1992. Currently she co-curates a long- running prose reading series with Elinor Nauen at the SideWalk Café on the Lower East Side. See basilking.net.
Her books are:
Women and Children First, 2+2 Press, 1975
Weather, New Rivers Press, 1978
Islamic Miniature, Lee/Lucas Press 1979
Monday Through Friday, Zelot Press, 1982
Seventeen Walking Sticks, (with art by Basil King) Stop Press, 1997
Imperfect Fit: Selected Poems, Marsh Hawk, 2004
Little Tales of Family and War, Spuyten Duyvil, 1999
Separate Parts: Six Memory Pieces, Avec, 2002
Seven & More, (with art by Basil King) Spuyten Duyvil, 2006
North & South, Spuyten Duyvil, 2006