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the column of lasting insignificance...
—for February 13, 2016 by John Wilcock

Now Available in Print!!

John Wilcock: New York Years, Book One

A comic book history of the rise of the 1960s underground media.
by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall

Don't let a real-life comic strip sneak by unnoticed. This one's too unusual (and brilliant) for that!

http://www.ep.tc/book



* * *

Manhattan Memories

Chapter Fourteen:
Around the Art Scene (part One)

Party Circuit

It’s always been my contention that artists are the most significant people in any society, the folk who were able to predict the future albeit in some hard to fathom visual imagery that—usually they could not, or would not explain. Poets, it seemed were so often to be seen as artist’s satellites (pilot fish?), expressing themselves in words as elusive as the images they echoed. The whole ensemble was a bit like trying to decipher the ramblings of the Delphic Pythia or the ambiguous predictions of the Cumaean sybil. The truth appeared to be in there somewhere, but how could it be separated from all the extraneous material?

Having no drawing or painting or poetic skills whatsoever, I was nevertheless drawn to these mysterious beings in the hope that some of the mystique would rub off on me and thus I, too, would be able to be ahead of the game.

I ran a cartoon once showing two paintings on a gallery wall talking to each other, expressing amazement about the pretentious things being said. And that’s the way I so often felt about art critics. In a recent Art News appraisal of a show by sculptor Carle Andre, for example, the reviewer wrote:

...peripheral vision cannot perceive everything in one glance, so the mind’s eye renders uniform what is actually diverse. This is how Andre engages his viewers, forcing them to analyze their perceptions, weed out deceptions, and experience complexity expressed in its simplest terms.”

What he was talking about was some blocks of wood in two corners of the room and a set of copper plates on the floor.

Almost everybody covering the art scene writes like that. Oddly enough, I never found anybody—at least not in those glorious Soho days—who shared what I came to think of as “my beat”. The only other writers around were basically reviewers or critics. The newspapers, art magazines, and other periodicals didn’t write about the social aspects of the art scene—just about the art—whereas I felt that although I knew little about art, I was learning a lot about artists.

A true artist, I came to believe was a person so obsessed with a vision, that nothing short of total incapacitation would prevent the dream from being fulfilled. Money was rarely a problem before the late 1970s and few artists would have placed it high on their list of priorities. The main thing was to present the vision.


Happenings

One of the most interesting developments in the ‘60s art scene was the arrival of Happenings, so-named by the heavily-bearded Allan Kaprow whose earliest events took place in lofts, studios, classrooms, even train stations,  only later moving into galleries. What was a Happening? The gratifying answer was that nobody knew until the actual performance. What they did, museum director Jeremy Strick subsequently explained, was to “blur the line between art and life (inviting) spectators to be active participants in the artistic process”. One critic complained that when a Happening was good it was hard to tell and when it was bad it was horrid.

A student at John Cage’s New School class and later a UC professor, Kaprow had begun as an abstract painter, a devotee of Hans Hofmann, but soon moved into the as-yet unnamed “performance art”. His first event in 1959 directed viewers into specified seats in three adjoining rooms where they watched a girl squeezing oranges, an artist lighting matches and an orchestra composed of toy instruments. From the beginning, happenings were wildly popular, especially to art lovers bored with the monotonous inertia of abstract expressionism, and within the next few years Kaprow directed more than 200 of them, leading a movement that was emulated by many other artists.

A much quoted review by the New York Times’ Grace Glueck referred to the phenomenon as “a makeshift hit and run theater” and detailed the events of one such event as a man in flippers soundlessly reciting Shakespeare; another in a white smock noisily collecting and emptying a bag of junk; a trombonist playing My Country ‘Tis of Thee; a girl laden with tools climbing a ladder; a man shoveling sand from a cot in which he alternately lay down; and a housewife kneading dough atop a table.

Needless to say, this “unstructured spontaneity” appealed to me immensely and I attended as many happenings as I could although one stands out above all. This was Flowers (May 1965) staged by Robert Whitman in a spacious loft where two rows of ‘spectators’ about ten feet apart sat facing each other in hard-backed chairs.

The lights went out and for a few moments the darkness was punctuated with nervous coughs from those apprehensive about what might happen next. When the lights went back on three or four tall, slim women  identically dressed in close-fitting, sleeveless frocks were casually circling the room, apparently with no clear agenda. They wandered slowly and wordlessly doing simple things such as looking out of the windows, pausing before they turned, exactly the kind of prosaic actions likely to lull the viewer into inattention.

But wait! Weren’t all those simple dresses the same identical blue a few moments ago? Now it seemed some appeared to be green and others were half red. It gradually dawned on the audience that the ladies were unveiling different layers, so that eventually each was wearing a different color. It was done so subtly and unobtrusively that hardly any of us noticed the change actually taking place.

* * *

              

So what my Soho diaries came to report in the Seventies was pretty much what happened on “the scene” and although this might appear to be a narrow focus, it really wasn’t. To begin with, many of these people—the artists, poets, writers, playwrights, moviemakers—included the brightest minds of the western world, and secondly, while Manhattan was the global headquarters of this genre, the attitudes, viewpoints, and reasoning were pretty much the same there as among artists anywhere. Which is to say that concepts, ideas, and obsessions were more important than commercial considerations.

Yet almost inevitably, “art” and “commercial art”—hitherto distinctly separate categories—had fused. There had always been artists working in advertising who were as good, if not better, than whose who were elevated to gallery status, and now it became clear that it wasn’t talent that made the difference. Warhol’s sketches of shoes for one. These sketches were soon regarded on a par with his more famous work, not surprising seeing as he reputedly was earning $60,000 a year as a “commercial” artist in the days when a good salary might have been less than half that.

Glaser
Milton Glaser  

In my opinion, one of the best artists in America was and still is the indisputably commercial Milton Glaser, best known for his much-emulated I Love © New York logo although his work encompasses so much more from book covers to restaurant designs, from posters for arts festivals to beer cans.

“New York”, he wrote in one of his books, “has always been a driving force in my life. I've received a tremendous education here. I've had access to things that I would never have had access to any place else. The challenge of competition, the high levels of expectation, and many of the best and most interesting people in this field make New York irresistible as a place to accomplish things".

Glaser’s thoughts about an artistic life in the world of marketing make interesting reading.

Our culture, he asserts, “is obsessed by the new. This obsession is driven by economic interests. So as a teacher I can say you must remain open to fresh possibilities. At the same time you must be critical not to simply accept what is new without an historical frame of reference. Much of what is produced, driven by advertising and fashion, is basically ephemeral concerned with novelty. If you are in the design field you have to understand this ephemeral characteristic. There's a lot of work that signals the moment and has no other ambition. It doesn't aspire to become a permanent part of human history. Novelty has always been, and will continue to be, an aspect of work.

"The nature of the professional life means you are constantly working with people you don't know. As in all relationships, there are good ones and bad ones. Through the years I have come to believe the personal relationship with a client is central to the quality of the work produced."   

Dear friends,

Like most writers, I'm the worst possible hospital patient. A day or two Is okay and for some people, maybe longer. But don't let he/she fool you, most writers are perpetually writing their story, no matter how much they seem to be paying attention. (Probably only other writers understand this particular human failing).

After more than 18 months since my stroke, I seem almost ready to return to work. An Important letter I must not forget was from a lady with a delightfully short three or four letter name asking for a subscription. Her letter sadly lost, but for a subscription, pay what you like. —JW

...

John Wilcock
Ojai, CA 93023

The announcement that after the tax reforms of 1986, gifts of art to museums declined by 50% caused me to muse once again on the relationship of art to money, The greed of big time art collectors seems to be highlighted by their lack of generosity when they can’t get a tax break, all of which raises thoughts about what the function of museums is actually supposed to be.

At present they are virtually private fiefdoms of self-described ‘experts’ who seek constantly to expand their domains. Leaving aside the whole question of the good that could be done with the huge amounts of money that museums manage to ensnare, it seems relevant to consider what kind of an art education the smaller museums offer.

Obliged to specialize to some extent, to stay within budget, their range is small, sometimes especially so. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if they were to present a wider picture of the world’s art by showing copies of everything regarded as important? I am probably not the first person and will certainly not be the last person to suggest this. Copies? You sneer. Yes, because first-rate copies are indistinguishable from the real thing—often even by experts, as is constantly being proved.

Sell the masterpieces to the highest buyers. Let them pay for the insurance and the guards to safeguard these precious artifacts. Rich moguls who fork out millions for famous paintings sure as hell aren’t going to let anything happen to them. And the huge sums they have paid could be used support to both artists and museums.

Artists Who Never Came to Moscow
Thomas "King" Forcade

In November 1978, Tom Forçade—"the Howard Hughes of the underground"--invited the manager of his Soho bookstore over to his West Broadway apartment and, while he was talking to his wife Gabrielle, went into the next room and shot himself—with the .32 pistol that he had punctured copies of his magazine with several years before. I heard the news while at Tom's magazine, High Times, and rushed over to St. Vincent's hospital to find him unconscious and on life support. He'd been a heavy user of quaaludes  in recent weeks but nobody could really explain this sudden drama. He left no note. "Who knows what devils he had inside him", remarked Rex Weiner, and we recalled the number of times he'd fired all the staff, pulled the phones out of the wall, closed down the magazine, or made some similarly dramatic gesture, only to revoke it later. He had been abrupt and abrasive but brilliant, loath to waste time with anybody who was unwilling or unable to match wits with him. He'd been feared and admired, and had created around him a truly alternative society—plus a magazine with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. He had donated thousands to LEMAR (and hired a plane to send us down to its Washington conference). He had financed Alternative Media magazine and was planning to restructure High Times so that the profits would go to Underground Press Syndicate. He was 34 years old.

Two years before, while attending an underground press conference together in Ann Arbor we had gone for a ride in his immense black Lincoln car only to be stopped on suspicion—Tom always looked suspicious—by a motorcycle cop. "Can I see your driving license, sir?" the policeman asked. "Sorry", said Tom, "don't have it". "Well then", said the cop, "what about some identification. A letter or something?" Tom sat firm, polite but uncooperative, denying that he had identification of any kind. It was a tour de force. The policeman was nonplused but amazingly he gave in and waved us along. I had never seen anybody face down a cop before.

Two days after his death, Gabrielle organized a farewell party at the 34th floor restaurant in the World Trade Building to which Tom had made tentative plans to move his office. A score of underground press 'names' along with dope lawyer Michael Kennedy, LEMAR's Keith Stroup, Punk publisher John Holmstrom and writer Ron Rosenbaum came to pay tribute. Gabrielle took the elevator up to the observation platform and threw Tom's ashes from the roof—"the highest place we could find".

There were parties every weekend in the '70s, filling the vast Soho lofts which artists had discovered a decade ago. These huge spaces—formerly occupied by the light manufacturing companies that had deserted Manhattan in droves—could hold three or four hundred people and few artists had 400 friends. So, in effect, if you heard about a party, you were invited. Hired bouncers were a rarity. The question was, how to discover where the parties were? Obviously some organization was needed, hence the genesis of the Party Circuit.

Our crowd used to meet in Fanelli's on Spring Street early on Saturday evenings. Everybody who trawled the art gallery openings that afternoon had nuggets of information to contribute. Some had actual invitations, if not from the host then at least from a reliable friend or colleague.

But much of the talk was speculation: Susan F's opening had been a lavish one, she would surely be having a party as she did last year? We all knew where she lived on 23rd Street whose address Ray agreed to check out. Shelley was compiling a list of possible locations, confirmed or otherwise, further away. Everybody hated to go uptown merely on chance: if it was a dud tip or a bad party, all that time had been wasted on the bus or subway which could have been spent on a surer thing. Shelley, a keen cyclist, was a key man because he could make the rounds of distant addresses and report back to switchboard with up-to-date assessments of places as far afield as Riverside Drive—an area rich in expansive apartments but whose gatherings were usually sparsely attended (for good reason) .

Jack and Andrew were more methodical, marching up and down the key Soho loft streets—Greene, Wooster and Mercer—in search of signs in doorways ("Meg's blast, 3rd floor") or even following people from the nearby stores carrying bags of ice. Marvin, a literary type, had a whole set of different sources and he would often provide insight into a milieu unfamiliar to the art crowd. These parties would often be smaller, requiring a more discreet approach by obviously uninvited 'crashers'. One learned to have a name or two to drop if one's credentials were questioned by the hostess. At the classier parties, Robert was an expert in reading names on the invitation list upside down and could reel off the name to the receptionist before she checked it herself.

Although the hard core of the group remained the same, it ebbed and flowed with the input of many other informants. Sometimes the party host himself would call us to spread the word about his projected bash; other times a casual tipster would give us an address on the understanding that he could call in to get information on other occasions.

Addresses always needed physically checking out because so often they could be duds: locations that turned out to be parking lots, "pay parties" or those with an early conclusion. And, of course, parties where uninvited guests were unwelcome—and especially dozens of uninvited guests who'd clearly gotten the word from the now-notorious Party Circuit.

So central "switchboard" usually meant me at home with the telephone (nobody had cell phones in those days). When Shel or Jack or Andrew or any one of a dozen others called in with a report, I'd quiz them as to the party's accessibility, size, and approximate duration, passing the updated report on to subsequent callers. By about 11pm I'd close down the "switchboard" and set off myself for what was theoretically the cream of the crop, a location or locations where the rest of the gang would rendezvous.

At Susan F's party referred to earlier, for example, we all arrived just as she interrupted the dancing to introduce a Chicano poet who turned out to be terrific—all aphorisms and allusions of meetings and greetings, and a continuous flow of narrative, the ideas cascading as fast as the action on an Indian street. Then he had the chutzpah to take on Shakespeare, conducting an imaginary dialog with the great wordsmith—high flying literary stuff indeed for a Saturday night dopers' party which more usually had no formal entertainment. After that, long past midnight, we were all off to a bigger bash just around the corner at the stylish loft of an adorable dancer/art designer. And so it went, weekend after weekend.

One Monday night, after leaving Doubleday, where Willie Morris had been autographing his tome about James Jones, we all went on to the Drake Hotel for a Playboy party which proved to be astonishingly dull. Most of the action was upfront but we were sat in a back room where Vanessa observed: "I love the way they give the crashers a room to themselves". Said Marvin: "If it wasn't for the crashers, this party would be severely under-populated".  I couldn't imagine what was keeping me there unless it was the delicious aroma of Vanessa—mercifully unaccompanied by her boring husband—whom I had informed  was the woman I most wanted to be trapped on a desert island with. Then, the dullness escalating, a new arrival announced that he'd just been to see Woody Allen's Interiors—a coffee table movie if ever there was one. This impelled Marvin to quip that for tonight at least he was "chairman of the boredom".

Sometimes the parties were a curious mix, a benefit for migrant farm workers, for example, where there was enough food and drink to feed most of Central America. On the way there I said: "Maybe we all ought to kick in a few bucks a week just to know we have a place to go on dud nights".

"An artist's club" said Art Guerra. "A place where artists could give their parties after gallery openings."

"It should have backgammon" suggested Jessica. "It could just be a place to hang around and have coffee".

"Maybe even a live-in super to look after it", I added, "Some homeless bum who needs a free pad and doesn't mind people in and out all the time".

All were agreed that even $10 a month would be a bargain for one hundred of our friends to be members of a private Art Club. All we needed was a friendly landlord who needed to make a rep as an art patron. Surely loft-lord Marty Fine would agree?

...

NEXT:
Chapter Fourteen—Around the Art Scene (continued)
Manhattan phone book
JW'S Secret Diary

Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.

...

comments? send an email to John Wilcock


also available on amazon.com...
Marijuana—The Weed That Changed the World


National Weed (1974, issue #3)
.

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Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my book, and thank you. —JW

===========================

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- Complete column archives: 2006 - present

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Week of August 29, 2015

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Manhattan Memories: Introduction.
Week of August 8, 2015

- column archives: 2006 - present



in the press...

Now on Boing-Boing!
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The New York Years - Issue 3 The New York Years
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John Wilcock at the New York Times

It was the first handwritten letter I'd received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I'd never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.

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A Guide to Occult Britain

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Manhattan MemoriesManhattan Memories
An Autobiography
by John Wilcock

"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."

-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner