The Third Person
Ceramic, glaze, catalyzed polyurethane, epoxy resin
4 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches; 11 x 11 x 11 cm
OPENING THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 6:00 – 8:00 PMSeptember 5th, 2015
By Jonathan Gold
LA Times Published September 5, 2015
The first time I met the rapper Eazy-E in 1988, he was slumped low in an office chair, black Raiders cap jammed firmly over his curls. The glowering teenager at his side was MC Ren. I’m fairly sure it was Eazy’s first encounter with the mainstream press, but he flowed from “on the record” to “off the record” to “on background” with the fluent ease of a Washington pol. (Much of his album “Eazy-Duz-It” took the form of imaginary press interviews.) In its way, N.W.A was — and still is — custom-tailored for the demands of the media.
N.W.A’s canny self-identification as a ruthless Compton street gang was close enough to blur the line between fantasy and experience. The detailed first-person accounts of robberies, sexual assaults and drive-by shootings made equally uncomfortable both the people who thought N.W.A might be putting them on and the people who were pretty sure that they weren’t.
The formula was the stuff of hits. If you were driving around Los Angeles in 1987, “Boyz-N-the-Hood” may have been the soundtrack to your summer whether you wanted it to be or not; merry vignettes from the life of an urban gangster, written by Ice Cube and drawled in the high, cartoonish voice of rapper Eazy-E. If the car booming the song drove too fast for you to catch the rhyme, the song’s tinny, elemental backbeat cut through the air like a tracer bullet. If you were around the corner, the tinkly two-note keyboard riff was designed by its producer, Dr. Dre, to be audible for several blocks. (What Dre wanted to do, he once confessed, was to create a signature, a sound so distinctive that he’d always know when people were bumping one of his tracks in their cars.) If you didn’t have your own copy of “Boyz-N-the-Hood” on a cassingle or a mix tape, you could always find it on the radio station KDAY, where it probably only seemed to be on permanent repeat. “Boyz-N-the-Hood” was the first legitimate hip-hop hit to come out of L.A. Did you know what a “six-four,” the 1964 Chevy Impala favored by South L.A. car clubs, was before that summer? You probably did not.
How short a time N.W.A was together in its classic configuration, the one with Dre, Eazy, Cube, Ren and Yella. How brightly it burned. How quickly it consumed itself.
But the appeal of N.W.A’s streetwise nihilism never quite went away. If you have been paying attention over the last month or two, you know that N.W.A is back. Planes have been tracing the word “Compton” in the skies, in honor of the birthplace of the sound. Dr. Dre, the first hip-hop billionaire, co-endowed a school at USC. A video-intensive run-through of N.W.A songs during Ice Cube’s set at the recent BET Awards underscored the group’s relevance in the age of Ferguson and Baltimore, not incidentally reminding everybody of his career before the “Friday” franchise. Also the inevitability of “Straight Outta Compton,” a hit movie whose billboards are designed to resemble Parental Advisory stickers slapped onto offending albums, a movie that has everyone talking once again, if only for a nostalgia-soaked moment, about Compton’s most famous sons.
Twenty-seven years later, N.W.A — the actual band, not the abstract idea of the band — is still polarizing. The raw spot in American culture that N.W.A rubbed up against remains oozing and sore.
Take the group’s full name, which derives its power from its use of an epithet that a huge percentage of its audience is simply not permitted to say. In early interviews, MC Ren took full advantage of the disparity, goading reporters, including me, into repeating a word many of them simply were incapable of even stammering. If you rose to the bait, you were a racist. If you didn’t (I didn’t), you were a wuss. There was no middle ground. From that very first interview, Dre stuck me with a nickname, “Nervous Cuzz,” that he would continue to use for the next half-dozen years.
Generations of type-A white males have confused their response to the N.W.A conundrum with actual bravery. There’s nothing brave about it. They just took the bait.
If you tried to separate N.W.A from the context of the Compton streets, you were a fool, but if you treated them as actual gangbangers, you were a rube. If you objected to the breathtakingly violent sexism in the lyrics, you were a prude. If you didn’t, you were a monster. As a chronicler of N.W.A, I was frequently invited to debate anti-rap activists like C. Delores Tucker, but even then I knew there was no way to come out ahead. Even the group’s official acronym, which includes periods after the N and the W but not the A, seemed engineered to make newsroom copy editors scream.
It must be conceded: This is an awkward time to be celebrating N.W.A’s fairly specific legacy, even if the revival does coincide with #BlackLivesMatter and the aftermath of Ferguson.
The complex issues of racial and gender politics raised when the band was a going concern have become only more complex in the last 25 years — nobody has ever quite forgotten about Dre’s 1990 assault on TV host Dee Barnes, which has been brought up constantly in the days since the movie’s release.
N.W.A’s survival strategy was to stand above the fray, calling themselves “street reporters.” As with the journalists writing about them, the morality of their narratives was not their problem.
“We don’t tell no fiction,” Ice Cube told me in 1989, “so N.W.A can’t get any harder unless the streets get harder, know what I’m saying? If somebody blows up a house and we see it, we’ll tell you about it. … [You] wouldn’t run a picture of a baby getting its head cut off; N.W.A wouldn’t do a pop song.”
“We’d look stupid trying to be political,” added Ren.
This was pure, uncut nihilism set to Dre’s funky beats. N.W.A’s aesthetic of total rebellion, its insistence on offending everyone and flipping its middle finger at everything, took the barbaric yawp of punk rock and raised it by orders of magnitude. It was a brilliant performance. The Sex Pistols never did this half so well.
The big-bank-take-little-bank shenanigans that made up so much of the N.W.A legend — Ice Cube once called them ghetto LBOs — came to seem less amusing when they began to involve actual body counts. (As many of the financial games as the movie includes, sometimes at the expense of plot or actual character development, it left out quite a few.)
As a young journalist infatuated with the possibilities that lay within Cube’s hyperarticulated tenor and Dre’s minimalist funk, I had to stop covering gangsta rap for a while. I still loved the music, but my job had begun to involve more time in courtrooms than in recording studios, and I got tired of writing music stories that included the phrase “surrendered to police.”
Because you never knew what direction a particular story was going to take you. A casual Ice Cube quip in a Times profile I wrote of the Dre-produced group Above the Law provoked a brawl at a music convention. Dre’s house half burned down during a story I was reporting, but he barely thought it was worth mentioning. A boat cruise in the marina ended up as something like a floating brawl, and a squadron of police copters accompanied us back to the docks.
Snoop Dogg’s bodyguard shot an armed man who pulled a gun on the rapper just a few hours after I’d talked to him. There were rumors of beatings, robberies and people being hung out of high windows, and general misbehavior shocking even to somebody who had spent the better part of a decade reporting from backstages and tour buses.
But N.W.A’s unambiguous message, summed up in Ice Cube’s memorable phrase “F— all y’all,” has never been more pertinent. It is what Southerners are saying when they stick Confederate battle flags on their trucks in 2015. It is the essence of Internet culture. It may as well be the motto of the surging Donald Trump campaign.
And it is probably why, a quarter-century later, I am compelled to write about N.W.A again.September 5th, 2015
September 3rd, 2015
SEPTEMBER 10 – OCTOBER 29, 2015
A True Tale, 2015
Thread on canvas, 84 x 50 inches
10 September – 24 October 2015August 31st, 2015
Los Bar, an art installation and bar by four artists in residence at the MAK Center in Los Angeles, is a replica of the famous Loos Bar in Vienna. The original bar’s marble, brass and onyx accents have been recreated in cardboard, rubber foam and paper.
By MARISSA GLUCK
NY Times Published: AUG. 27, 2015
It’s a hot August afternoon, and four artists-in-residency at the Los Angeles outpost of the Vienna-based MAK Center are surveying the damage to their collaborative art installation. Empty liquor bottles are everywhere, a banquette needs repair and the paintings lining the wall need to be straightened. This Saturday-afternoon assessment is a weekly ritual after the previous night’s debauchery at Los Bar. Their project, built in the garage of the midcentury architect Rudolph Schindler’s 1939 Mackey Apartments, where the artists are housed for six months, is a 0.65:1 scale replica of the famous Loos Bar in Vienna.
The four artists — Andreas Bauer, Christoph Meier, Robert Schwarz and Lukas Stopczynski, hailing from Austria and Germany — play host to L.A.’s eclectic art world every Friday night. Unlike the typical studio tour, visitors guzzle PBRs and sip schnapps (purchased by donation only) while enjoying the rotating programming. One Friday, it was a mariachi band squeezed onto a minuscule stage; another, it was the artist Chiara Giovando tattooing patrons in the back of the bar.
The installation was constructed in the garage of the MAK Center’s Mackey Apartments. Credit Los Bar
Yet it’s the bar itself that is the main attraction. The four used cheap, everyday materials to reproduce what is officially named the American Bar. Built in 1908, the architectural gem — a stripped-down but refined space that anticipated Modernism in its simple geometry — was designed by Adolf Loos, who was, fittingly, Schindler’s one-time mentor.
In the artists’ translation, the marble coffered ceiling is made out of cardboard. Brass and wood handrails are recreated with foam pool noodles. A backlit onyx wall fixture is reimagined with paper, glue and sawdust. The artists purposely built the installation quickly and cheaply. “We bought a nail gun at Lowe’s that can shoot 500 nails,” says Schwarz, still in awe of its efficiency. “We wanted to translate not just the materials but also an American way of production,” adds Stopczynski.
The artists were inspired by America’s DIY aesthetic, as well as Hollywood’s history of set design. Yet the project still feels distinctly European. Citing the relative orderliness of bars in their temporary city, “we wanted all the clichés of a European bar. You can smoke inside. It’s loud. It’s nasty,” Meier explains.
The four, who met when they moved to L.A. for their residency in April, relish their weekly bartending duties. “We’re guests here and now we’ve become hosts,” says Stopczynski. The signature cocktail, named for France’s high-speed train, TGV, is a strong combination of tequila, gin and vodka, served in a glass atop a weighty concrete plinth.
The L.A. project ends when the foursome’s residency does, in mid-September. Closing night will not only feature some of their previous performers but also a wedding. Stopczynski, with his long hair and scruffy beard, was ordained online and plans to perform the ceremony.
The artists hope to build more replicas of Los bar, playing with scale. Their dream site? After the Lilliputian proportions of the Mackey garage, London’s massive Turbine Hall inside the Tate Modern museum, of course.
Mackey Apartments, 1137 S Cochran Ave, Los Angeles, CA,August 27th, 2015
By Charles M. Blow
NY Times Published: AUG. 27, 2015
When Donald Trump’s security escorted the Univision anchor Jorge Ramos out of a news conference on Tuesday, I decided that I was officially done.
Maybe I should have been long before that.
Maybe I should have been done the one and only time I ever met Trump and his first words to me were a soliloquy about how black people loved him, and he was the most popular white man among black people.
Maybe I should have been done when Trump demanded to see the president’s birth certificate.
Maybe I should have been done any number of times over the years when Trump made any number of racist, sexist comments.
Earlier this month, Politico rounded up 199 of his greatest — and vilest — hits. Here are just a few from the magazine:
9. “I have black guys counting my money. … I hate it. The only guys I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes all day.” (USA Today, May 20, 1991)
23. “Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, ‘Can you believe what I am getting?’ ” (“Think Big: Make it Happen in Business and Life,” 2008)
32. “… she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” (ABC’s “The View,” March 6, 2006)
35. “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” (Twitter, April 16, 2015)
117. “Rosie’s a person that’s very lucky to have her girlfriend. And she better be careful or I’ll send one of my friends over to pick up her girlfriend. Why would she stay with Rosie if she had another choice?” (“Entertainment Tonight,” Dec. 21, 2006)
121. Arianna Huffington is “a dog.” (Twitter, April 6, 2015)
Need I go on? (Thanks, Politico!)
Maybe I should have been done when Trump announced his candidacy this year with an attack on Mexican immigrants, saying:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best — they’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems … drugs … crime … rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
The Ramos episode wasn’t worse than these; it was just the last straw. A member of the media who dared to raise a truly substantive issue, even out of turn, was dismissed and removed. And yet the band played on. The live coverage continued. In that moment, I was disgusted at Trump’s contempt and the press’s complicity in the shallow farce that is his candidacy. Trump is addicted to press, but the press is also addicted to him, and the entire spectacle is wide and shallow.
(Ramos was allowed back in and permitted to ask his question. I had to see this later, because when he was ejected, I stopped watching.)
Yes, the Republican Party created this Frankenstein of hatred, hubris, narcissism and nativism, but the media is giving it life.
The never-ending, exhaustive, even breathless coverage of every outrage that issues forth from this man’s mouth is not news. Every offense and attack is not news.
Every morning that Trump rolls out of bed and calls in to a news show is not news.
Covering a political phenomenon as news is one thing. See the coverage of Bernie Sanders. Creating a political phenomenon and calling it news is quite another.
I reasoned in a 2010 column that Sarah Palin was no longer an elected official and wasn’t seeking elected office, and was therefore not worthy of constant attacks. But more important, the attacks were elevating her profile, not diminishing it. As I wrote:
“This is it. This is the last time I’m going to write the name Sarah Palin until she does something truly newsworthy, like declare herself a candidate for the presidency. Until then, I will no longer take part in the left’s obsessive-compulsive fascination with her, which is both unhealthy and counterproductive.”
I kept that promise. The only other time she appeared by name in one of my columns was in a passing reference to her speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2013. This column is only the second reference.
The same is true of Trump. The constant harping on him only helps him.
He is different from Palin in 2010, however. He is not only running for office, he’s leading in the polls among Republican candidates. He can’t be ignored. But coverage is not the same as drooling over the daily shenanigans of a demagogue.
I will cover Trump as he addresses issues with specific policy prescriptions and details, like answers to the question Ramos asked.
Until then, this man is not worthy of the attention he’s garnering. We in the media have to own our part in this. We can’t say he’s not serious and then cover him in a way that actually demonstrates that we are not serious.
Is he an easy target for righteous criticism? Of course he is. But is he aware that criticism from the mainstream media is invaluable among certain segments of the political right? Of course he is. Is he also aware that he’s getting more free publicity for being outrageous than he would ever be willing to buy? Of course he is.
The media is being trolled on a massive scale and we look naïve and silly to have fallen for it, even if he draws readers and viewers. When people refer to the press as the fourth estate, it shouldn’t be confused with a Trump property.
Allow me to share one more of Trump’s quotes from Politico:
89. “My brand became more famous as I became more famous, and more opportunities presented themselves.” (Amazon.com, 2007)August 27th, 2015
In Charles R. Rushton’s 1991 black-and-white portrait, Agnes Martin (1912–2004) sits in a wooden rocking chair in the left third of the frame, beside the white cement wall of her New Mexico studio. One of her canonical six-by-six-feet canvases hangs low to the ground next to her, its horizontal pencil-edge bands running out of the picture to the right. She’s dressed like a plainclothes nun, in comfortable white sneakers, flannel pants, and a collared shirt under a dark cardigan buttoned to the neck. Her hands are set on each armrest with a square assurance that recalls Gertrude Stein, and the photo’s spare formality is reminiscent of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s 1871 portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1. These elements suggest the perfect stillness associated with Martin’s profoundly absorbing minimalist abstractions and her devotion to painting the uniform square through an exacting process over half a century. Yet there are two subtle disruptions to the calm, details sometimes cropped out of the picture’s bottom edge. That rocker! Those sneakers!
Is it our assumptions about Martin that create her apparent contradictions, or is it the other way around? She has endured the critical paring knife inflicted on all “pure” painters who insist the real world is far removed from their work: We love the smooth, monochrome skin but we also want to get to the juicy pulp, the bitter seeds. Nancy Princenthal’s brisk biography Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art neatly lays out the incongruities: the Martin who insisted that nothing was more important to her than the ocean yet lived most of her life in the desert; Martin the ascetic guru, subsisting through the winter on hard cheese and walnuts and homegrown, preserved tomatoes, yet also the margarita- and steak-loving life of the party who, meeting the president and first lady to receive the National Medal of Arts award in 1998, “appreciated [Hillary Clinton’s] personality”; Martin the disciplined practitioner who woke up early every morning to paint, and who admitted, “I don’t get up in the morning until I know exactly what I’m going to do. Sometimes, I stay in bed until about three [in] the afternoon, without any breakfast.” She even had an unlikely passion for fast cars: At the book’s start, we have Rosamund Bernier’s image of Martin “flying” down the dirt road in New Mexico at the wheel of a “white BMW sedan,” and near the end, in the last year of her life, we find Martin in a “spotless” E320 Mercedes. Her art dealer, Arne Glimcher, in turn, discusses her “reckless” habits on the road (she didn’t believe in Stop signs), and recounts going eighty miles per hour with Martin in the passenger seat asking him, “Why are you driving so slow?” What’s clear here is that, despite her apparent serenity, Martin was driven.
Nowhere in Martin’s life is the tension between stillness and its opposite thrown into sharper relief than in her schizophrenia, a subject we learn much more about through Princenthal’s nuanced documentation. The artist’s acute catatonic episodes were short-lived but traumatic ruptures in her artmaking; she experienced paranoia and aural hallucinations—what she called her “voices”—throughout her life. Her illness may have been the context for many of her contradictions, and even her deliberate, laconic parables of art. But Princenthal dismisses the familiar myth of the mad hermit, working without recognition or conscious agency. We realize, instead, that Martin has never really left our consciousness. Particularly not in New York in the past decade, since Catherine de Zegher’s 2005 exhibition at the Drawing Center brought her into the mystical company of Hilma af Klint and Emma Kunz, and since the Dia Art Foundation made a sustained commitment to Martin, one of the only women artists permanently on view at Dia:Beacon, in a triumphant suite of galleries. Lynne Cooke curated an important group of focused exhibitions there from 2005 to 2009 and edited a related anthology of essays and artists’ talks. In 2013, Jutta Koether staged a feverish performance lecture on Martin at Dia Center for the Arts in New York City.
This summer brings more reminders of Martin’s extraordinary practice, which stretches in measured seriality from her first solo exhibition at the Betty Parsons gallery in 1958 until her death in 2004. There is the Tate Modern’s retrospective (the catalogue has a few revelations, including a 1966 portrait of Martin by Diane Arbus and a brief survey of Martin’s reception in Europe, where just twenty of her large-format paintings exist in public collections). Phaidon has reprinted Glimcher’s lush 2012 homage to Martin and their thirty-year dealer-artist relationship, Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances, complete with facsimiles of her handwritten notes, Polaroids from Glimcher’s studio visits in New Mexico, and impeccable reproductions of her drawings and paintings on oversize square pages. And one of Martin’s gnomic parables of love and beauty has just been published as an artist’s book, Religion of Love, edited by her good friend Richard Tuttle, who also provided illustrations. Along with Princenthal’s biography, these are only the latest reincarnations of an artist who claimed that she’d “been on the planet many times before, as men as well as women, and also as children.”
This is one more contradiction, between separateness and communality: If Martin’s Delphic concision in her paintings suggests a world apart, she nonetheless insisted that she had already returned many times over to be a part of this one—of America, specifically, the country she settled in and quixotically wandered through, claiming to have visited every contiguous state. It’s a place where she worked as a hard laborer, teacher, and artist; where she lived in poverty and became very rich. In fact, hers are the great, stark contradictions of America itself, a landscape defined by ocean and desert, urban drive and pastoral stillness, capitalist appetite and Calvinist restraint.
Martin was an incomparable editor of her own work. Her creative process was not so much economical as merciless: Princenthal quotes Martin’s explanation that early in her career “I just painted and threw them away and painted and threw them away until I got at the place where I felt I was doing what I felt I should.” Glimcher also dispels the myth that Martin worked slowly and minimally. In fact, “she painted almost daily,” when she wasn’t suffering from her illness; the compactness of her oeuvre is due to the fact that “she destroyed most of the works she produced,” shredding them with a mat knife.
She was also an incomparable narrator of her own life, despite her wariness of biography’s role in art; but here too she was constantly revising. Princenthal’s book’s most vivid (and, at times, parafictional) passages quote the artist’s own words, including this astonishing recollection of her birth: “I can remember the minute I was born. I thought I was a small figure with a little sword and I was very happy. I thought I would cut my way through life victory after victory. Then, they carried me into my mother and half my victories fell to the ground.”
Martin was born into a family of homesteaders in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in 1912 (she became a US citizen in 1950), and some of her early recollections “seem borrowed from Little House on the Prairie,” Princenthal astutely observes. As a child, she collected postcards of famous paintings, which she copied—the first glimpse we have of her calling. She worked as a driver for a young John Huston and as a cook in a lumberyard, where “she remembered baking twenty-five pies each morning.” Obtaining a teacher’s certificate in Washington state, Martin ventured to New York in 1941 and enrolled at Teachers College, where the majority of her classes were in studio art. She left shortly after, working a number of jobs in various states before arriving in New Mexico in 1946, where she met Georgia O’Keeffe and Betty Parsons. Martin’s account of spending time in the company of the grande dame O’Keeffe anticipates how others would later describe visiting Martin on her mesa: “Georgia was . . . very intense and exciting to be with, but she drained me. When I left the room for a few minutes, I just had to lie down, right then and there.” In the ’50s, Martin lived in near poverty in Taos, in a place without indoor plumbing but with a great studio, where she began painting in earnest.
At the age of forty-five, still a year from her first New York exhibition, Martin moved back to the city at the urging of Parsons, living with her briefly before moving into an illegal studio in Coenties Slip near the Fulton Fish Market on the East River. Her neighbors were Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, Lenore Tawney, Ann Wilson, and Jack Youngerman. She occupied a huge loft whose spare furnishings included a bathtub in the bedroom and a rocking chair; she and Kelly had breakfast together every day. In 1966, she participated in the Robert Smithson–curated exhibition “10” at Virginia Dwan Gallery, along with her fellow Abstract Expressionist–generation colleague Ad Reinhardt and a younger crew of emerging Minimalist artists; while “flattered” to be a part of the show, she felt detached from their scene, explaining, “my paintings are not cool.”
Martin abruptly left New York in the summer of 1967, after a series of traumatic events that included the untimely death of Reinhardt, the loss of her loft, and a schizophrenic episode that led to her being committed to Bellevue’s mental hospital, where she underwent electroconvulsive therapy.
Again following a current of the American experience, Martin moved from the ’60s sociability of the New York art scene to the desert-scale wilderness found in ’70s Land art. (One fascinating, if underexplored, aside in the biography concerns Martin’s interest in Earthworks and her unrealized plans for a Zen garden.) Princenthal makes clear that Martin “left” artmaking for just four and a half years, rather than the oft-cited and more biblically symbolic figure of seven. Regardless, it was an intense period of withdrawal: “I am staying unsettled and trying not to talk for three years,” Martin wrote of her plan. She drifted through the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and the American Southwest in a white pickup truck, sleeping in a camper. (She subsequently described these eighteen months as “a camping trip.”) And she continued editing the story of her wanderings years later: “I thought I would withdraw and see how enlightening it would be. But I found out that it’s not enlightening. I think that what you’re supposed to do is stay in the midst of life.”
She ended up in the remote town of Cuba, New Mexico, in 1968, where “she secured a lifetime lease, at ten dollars a month, for fifty acres.” (Her voices had told her not to buy property.) She was fifty-six and, Princenthal writes, “had no telephone and no electricity; rainwater was collected for drinking.” She began building a studio out of adobe and logs, hefting huge stones. As she embarked on this project, one akin to those of the first settlers of the American West, her reputation at the center of an intellectual engagement with postwar abstraction reached its acme back East. Her “return” to art was signaled by a major survey exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in January 1973; one of her paintings graced the April cover of Artforum that same year, and, among several public talks, she delivered a four-thousand-word lecture from memory at the Pasadena Art Museum. By 1975, she was showing with Glimcher at Pace Gallery. A few years later, her lease broken by the landowner, she moved south to Galisteo, a town that would grow to host a thriving arts community. She remained in New Mexico, painting and tearing up the roads, until her death at the age of ninety-two. Her final works return to some of her earliest motifs—basic geometries and gray bands, washes of dusty and overcast color, and the ever-present straight-edge pencil line—suggesting an unwavering perception among wavering visions.
Princenthal has done a heroic service in scouring the glut of sources—reviews, documentaries, interviews, previous publications—for the brightest quotations and strangest anomalies. She strings these together into an engaging narrative interspersed with formal descriptions and bibliographic exegeses of Martin’s paintings, drawings, writings, and single film. Understandably, this leads to some repetition—quotations and ideas sometimes reappear without being developed. You don’t have to know anything about Martin to enjoy this book, though, and I mean that as a compliment. Princenthal’s tone is assured and reassuring; I trusted her, even when I wished she had taken a few more risks in her analysis. (She is kind to everyone who has written about Martin, and qualifies her own conclusions as speculative.) The book generally moves chronologically—the account of Martin’s childhood is riveting, and art geeks will love the anecdotes of ’60s New York—but certain topics continually interrupt the flow (as they do in life itself), most notably Martin’s schizophrenia.
Princenthal’s book offers the frankest discussion to date of the artist’s diagnosis. It examines the shifting perception and treatment of mental illness in the US during Martin’s lifetime, and also the rarity of her condition, which afflicts only 1 percent of the population. In Princenthal’s telling, schizophrenia is central to Martin’s story, even if she sometimes managed to ignore it. But we should not pathologize the painting by directly linking its formal qualities to her illness. She didn’t work when she was suffering from her voices—she would “sit in her studio or at home in her rocking chair and wait,” as one friend remembers—which makes the extreme editing of her paintings that much more remarkable. We do see schizophrenia’s effect in her working process: Her illness forced her to seek out solitude. And it entailed a constant negotiation between what Princenthal calls “vision and thought”: timeless perceptive understanding versus time-bound agitations of the mind. As Jonathan Katz writes, “For Martin, art is an act of willful forgetting, of turning the mind away from thought and back toward perception.” Perception held an interpretive power, unlike her hallucinations, to judge and shape a picture’s experience.
Princenthal is more cautious on the subject of sexuality. “Martin is said to have had romantic relationships with two women artists: Chryssa . . . and Lenore Tawney,” she hedges. She lets others make explicit proclamations. Jack Tilton is quoted as saying that “everyone” knew Parsons and Martin were lovers in the ’50s. (Still, as Princenthal points out, Martin’s name is not mentioned once in Parsons’s interview for the Archives of American Art.) And at a 2012 symposium, Martin’s lifelong friend Kristina Wilson said that she and Martin were also lovers in the ’50s. Martin denied being a lesbian, though. She was an isolationist, refusing to be attached to anyone or any cause; sometimes she even refused a signifying pronoun altogether, referring to individual women with the distant “they.”
Martin’s refusals can best be cast in terms of what they repressed or elided: appetite. Her incredible self-discipline, bred from a strong Calvinist streak, extends beyond intimacy. She was a consummate baker, but she put herself on extreme diets when working so as not to have any distraction. “Sometimes I’ll eat one thing, like bananas, and anytime I get hungry, I say, ‘Agnes, have another banana’ and that’s it, I won’t eat any more,” she told Glimcher. On another visit to her studio, he noted that she was “only eating Knox gelatin mixed with orange juice and bananas.” She defended her parsimoniousness in a lecture at Yale University in April 1976, in which she explained, “In the studio an artist must have no interruptions from himself or anyone else. Interruptions are disasters.” Lest we mistake this for artistic entitlement, we should remember that interruptions, for her, included uninvited voices—”disasters” without exaggeration. She also spoke of appetite as a universal experience, another common ground pushing against her separatism: “There is a great hunger and thirst in all of us for the truth whether we are aware of it or not,” she stated. “To think oneself unique is the height of ignorance. Appetite is of course positive but sometimes in moments of weakness we have an immense yearning to escape.” In place of appetite, Martin celebrated devotion—or drive—the feeling that makes artwork and “literally carries us through life, past all distractions and pitfalls to a perfect awareness of life, to measureless happiness and perfection.”
An unexpected and alluring source of Martin’s sense of devotion goes undeveloped in Princenthal’s book. As an undergraduate researching the artist, Princenthal wrote Martin a letter. Martin sent a long letter back, encouraging her, among other things, to read Walt Whitman. This was not the reply Princenthal had hoped for; like Martin’s statements on art, it signaled a redirection (a misdirection, even) into the poetic ether. But Whitman, America’s champion of sensual, democratic fraternity and self-celebration—a poet who is above all about appetite—was an intriguing choice.
Certainly, Martin’s reference to Whitman has to do with nature, which, paradoxically, was the very thing that let her ignore the outside world and paint; one of her works, as if in acknowledgment, is titled Gratitude. Even in the city, Martin sought out some form of nature to clear her mind, once telling a reporter, “The best thing to do when you stop painting . . . is cross the Brooklyn Bridge.” While most of her works are untitled, a number of early abstract canvases have names evoking landscapes and their objects (she claimed friends helped title them): The Peach, Desert Rain, Buds, Wheat, A Grey Stone, The Tree, Leaves. This, in contrast to the surprising Hallmark lilt of some of her final titles, including Lovely Life, Happiness, Little Children Loving Love, and Affection. Seen through a Whitmanesque lens, the arc of her titles, from nature to absence to sentiment, is not so much contradictory as revealing of an enduring drive for universal communion within the creative self, a continual push and pull between abstraction and metaphor. This tension is part of modernism, but its optimism makes it particularly American.
Maybe, too, Martin admired Whitman’s open embrace of the sublime, despite scolding him in a 1981 text for taking too much personal credit for his expressive perception. After all, ecstasy and agony coexist in her descriptions of her art, despite its order. “All my paintings are about joyful experiences.” And: “Only joyful discoveries count. If you are not making them you are not moving.” We know a little better now the extreme difficulties Martin withstood to reach that joy, how it had to be measured from the other side: “A sense of disappointment and defeat is the essential state of mind for creative work,” she lectured in 1973. “There’s a lot of failure. I’ve said that the ability to recognize failure is the most important talent of an artist.” Such perceptions were her constraint and her freedom—that double-edged sword she wielded her whole life.August 25th, 2015
Ricky Swallow, /SKEWS/
September 12 – October 24, 2015
Happy Holiday, 1999
Acrylic paint and graphite on canvas
Through October 13, 2015August 21st, 2015
September 10th 2015 – October 31th 2015
Opening reception on Thursday, September 10th, 6-9 pm
Frances Stark, who has a Warholian penchant for collecting characters, especially men, with her muse Bobby Jesus (in braids) and his friend Aiookhai El-Bey, a.k.a. “Dubb,” in her studio in L.A.’s Chinatown.Credit Andy Freeberg
BY NEGAR AZIMI
T Magazine Published: August 18, 2015
The artist Frances Stark has been known to insist that she is a writer. It’s true that she is the author of many essays, which have been anthologized twice and are marked by a witty, stream-of-consciousness style full of surprising digressions, connections and confessions. It is not uncommon, for instance, for her to reveal that she has taken a pause of a few months in between sentences. But her insistence on being a writer is perhaps also related to the fact that her artwork is marked by a dense, literary quality; she tends to gravitate toward idiosyncratic, unexpected forms of self-expression, from annotations of poetry to conversations in chat rooms to rap, which she refers to as an emancipatory form of autobiography.
To art audiences, Stark is perhaps best known for the work she made for the Venice Biennale in 2011, borne of her experience in the virtual rooms of Chatroulette, an online social portal introduced to her by her students at the University of Southern California, which she used over a period of months to have conversations and virtual sex with men of diverse ages and shapes from around the world. The resulting feature-length video, “My Best Thing” (the title is a reference to one of her lovers’ pet names for his penis), turned the transcripts of Stark’s exchanges with two of the men into conversations spoken by hokey avatars resembling semi-nude Playmobil characters. The topic shifted from hammy erotica to lofty ruminations on creativity to discussions about the Arab Spring, which was unfolding at the time. One of the Biennale’s most talked-about works, the film attracted a steady stream of visitors, myself included, who lingered in its darkened room for suspiciously long spells, captivated by its alluring combination of charm, intellectual rigor and sexual charge.
“My Best Thing” earned Stark a reputation as an artist with little regard for personal boundaries (or, as the art critic Jerry Saltz put it, as an artist who made high art from a “masturbatory tryst with a younger man”). Her popular Instagram feed (@therealstarkiller), which often feels a lot like her art, offers another window into her personal life; on an average day, it might include an image of text messages on her phone (“Everyday I’m hustling,” she writes to her son, Arlo, 12. “LOL,” he responds); a doctored image of the front cover of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” featuring the rapper Sean Paul; and a picture at an L.A. party of herself, Arlo and Bobby Jesus, a young Chicano with long dark plaits whom Stark calls her muse (“Impossible Demographic #thrasher”).
Youthful at 48, Stark hides behind long choppy bangs and has a shy, tomboyish affect only occasionally undercut by astonishing erudition. Many of her artworks rely on complicated backstories involving chance meetings that often take on mythical qualities — how, for instance, in 2010, on a flight from New York to L.A., she met Skerrit Bwoy, then a leading practitioner of “daggering,” a frenetic Jamaican dance style that incorporates wrestling and dry humping, and later staged a performance with him for Performa 11, in which he daggered her, to the shock and confusion of the assembled.
Another such origin story takes place one sunny day in an L.A. skate park in 2012, when Stark spotted a handsome man who was reading a book called “The Art of Seduction.” She struck up a conversation with him about the book, which she recalls made her think of the 18th-century writer and adventurer Giacomo Casanova, whose memoirs she was reading at the time. The two became friends of a sort; when the man, Brandon Martin, texted her weeks later to say that he’d just spent five days in jail on false charges, she, more than a little curious, picked him up at a Metro station and drove him to a friend’s house. At some point during their encounter, Stark had the idea to include Martin in an audio project for which she had been commissioned by the Frieze Art Fair. When they finally met to work on the piece, he suggested his friend Bobby could handle the recording.
The resulting artwork, based on Stark’s encounter with the two young men, was titled “Trapped in the VIP and/or In Mr. Martin’s Inoperable Cadillac.” Stark has an unusual speaking voice, a semi-stoned drawl that is both laconic and vulnerable-sounding, and an ability to listen to people very intently. The threesome’s meandering conversation about race and life in what Bobby referred to as “planet hood” touched on Martin’s impounded car, chronic run-ins with the police and the culture of lynching in the American South — and was installed, with the pitch-perfect sense of social critique that Stark’s admirers have come to expect, in the sound systems of the Frieze BMWs that ferried V.I.P.s to and from the art fair.
Stark, in other words, is an artist who is not afraid of being difficult. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that she exists in that rare Bermuda Triangle of being simultaneously feted by fellow artists and critics (it is not uncommon to hear that she is someone’s “favorite” artist) while remaining relatively unknown to a larger public. Although she is represented by four major international galleries and has two midcareer retrospectives at major American museums this year alone, her work does not bring in the astronomical sums associated with many of her contemporaries, or even, as she wryly observes, some of her former students at U.S.C. At a time when artists are encouraged to produce large, digestible objects for collectors’ homes, Stark persists in producing works — at a slow pace, no less — of extraordinary nuance and complexity. “She’s not exactly making easy-to-sell paintings,” agreed Ali Subotnick, who is curating Stark’s upcoming retrospective at the Hammer Museum at U.C.L.A. “People like artists to produce the same thing over and over, and Frances is constantly changing.”
It is hard to think of any artists who do not somehow mine their personal lives for material, but for Stark, art feeds back into life until it, too, is remade. In the three years since they met, she and Bobby Jesus have become almost inseparable. (“Bobby” is his real name; Stark came up with “Jesus.”) She takes him to exhibitions and parties and has made several works drawn from his life story. After spending time in her orbit, he has ambitions to be a gallerist, and Stark is currently helping him secure a space in an old furniture factory in South Los Angeles. She describes him with an impressive range of terms including friend, confidant, sometime studio help and muse. (“I’m a single mother and Bobby is a brother to my son and we all live together,” she recently wrote to me when I inquired about the nature of their relationship. “Yes Bobby is handsome and sexy and 20 years younger than me and the reader can project on us whatever they want.”) Bobby Jesus, for his part, calls his relationship to Stark a kind of “education,” and his newfound environment “The House of Frances,” like a fashion line.
Of course, there are many women who have made art from their most intimate relationships or sexual exploits. One might think of the artist-writers Sophie Calle, who has revisited letters from jilted and jilting lovers, and Chris Kraus, who diarized her obsessions to thrilling effect in the autobiographical novel “I Love Dick.” But Stark herself admits that her own stance toward Bobby Jesus and the other men she has been inspired by can seem strikingly mannish (“or whatever the female term for womanizer is,” she jokes). Stark’s universe is populated with characters — her lovers, her students, the young disadvantaged men she invites to her studio (a couple of whom have robbed her), her son — whom she supports or “feeds,” and who eventually become her raw material. It is hard not to think of Andy Warhol, who also cultivated a vivid cast of players to star in his dramas, both in real life and in art — treating his Factory as a kind of living social experiment. “People have suggested that it’s exploitative,” Stark confided to me one day about Bobby Jesus. “But he’s aware of what he’s doing. And he wants to be a star.”
Stark has long been interested in the vexed questions of wealth and class, especially as they manifest in the art world where, she says, quoting a friend, everyone works “one-percent adjacent.” She grew up with working-class parents (her father was an electrical engineer; her mother worked for a phone company, plugging in the wire connections “like Lily Tomlin”). As a teenager, Stark describes herself as a “kind of punk rocker”; she was voted “most spirited” in junior high and, at 14 or 15, tattooed a peace symbol on her ankle with a sewing needle, as a way “to wrap my head around the dawn of the Reagan area.” At 21, she set a motorcycle land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, her second time on a street bike. She points out that this was well before Rachel Kushner’s novel “The Flamethrowers.”
Her greatest influence might have been the late artist Mike Kelley, with whom Stark studied at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and who better than any other artist captured the dark, angsty spirit of American suburban youth, which included album covers, processions, videos and creepy sculptural assemblages of toys. “He seemed like a rock star basically,” she said in a presentation she made in honor of Kelley in 2014, “but like, insanely intelligent, and also the work had to do with class issues that kind of came up for me.” After graduating, she held various odd jobs, including working at Macy’s in Atlanta in the men’s section selling Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren (“five out of 10 transactions were theft-related”); chauffeuring the artist Sigmar Polke around Los Angeles; and, with fellow artists Sharon Lockhart and Marnie Weber, painting the walls of Mel Gibson’s Malibu mansion to look faux-old.
There are moments when Stark and her work can seem a welcome antidote to an over-commercialized, gimmick-strewn art world — to represent, as Janet Malcolm once wrote of the avant-garde, “the conscience of the culture, not its id.” But when we met earlier this year at her home, one-half of a classic midcentury modern-style house in South Pasadena stuffed with books and art and comfy chairs, I found her suffering what appeared to be a low-grade nervous breakdown. She had been sick for two weeks and was despairing over at least half a dozen things, including her own ambivalence about her upcoming retrospectives (“What does it mean to be retrospective?”) and her place in contemporary culture. “I’m almost 50 years old and still having to do cartwheels and jumping jacks to get people’s attention,” she said. “I’m exhausted and psychologically falling to pieces. I’m broke, too. Why am I broke?”
It is hard work, being a hero. Such concerns will be familiar to Stark’s admirers; her art bristles with anxieties and self-doubt. Her early works were mostly quiet, ephemeral gestures that spoke to their own fragility. In the early ’90s, for example, she painstakingly copied out the annotations she had found inscribed next to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in a secondhand copy of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land and Other Poems”; separated from the poem itself, the delicate hieroglyphics on drawing paper had a melancholic, ghostly air. She has made collages from her own junk mail, gently raising questions about what constitutes “value” or “waste,” and often equivocates over just how much to expose or disclose (2008’s “The New Vision” was a crudely drawn self-portrait of the artist pulling up her skirt to expose a pair of leggings). “She’s probably the most narcissistic artist I’ve ever worked with,” Subotnick admitted, “but also aware of how that narcissism is integral to her work. She’s not afraid to put anything out there.”
Last December, after disagreements with U.S.C.’s administration, and following a $70 million donation to the university by the rapper Dr. Dre and his associate Jimmy Iovine to create a new Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation, Stark quit her job as a tenured professor at the Roski School of Art and Design. By the time I visited her, the drama involving the university and two of the world’s most iconic music moguls had taken on the noirish undertones of Polanski’s “Chinatown.” Naturally, Stark had already incorporated the ordeal into her work, in the form of a video piece made for the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, to which she had given the appealingly cumbersome title, “Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free.” When I asked her about the piece, she admitted that many critics hadn’t grasped the thickly referential and morally serious work’s meaning at all. “I wasn’t that crazy woman who had sex on the Internet anymore,” she explained.
Still, she shows no sign of compromising. A few months later, I saw her again in Venice during the Biennale. She looked resplendent in a canary yellow dress and happier than I had ever seen her. Her solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago had been well-received and, most satisfying, all of her U.S.C. students had followed her lead and dropped out; the plight had even made the news. She was planning her next work, she added: a “pedagogical opera” set to rap, and based on “The Magic Flute.”
Thanks to John RubeliAugust 19th, 2015
Didion in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, in April, 1967, reporting the story that became “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” “That piece is a blank for me,” she said later.
Photograph by Ted Streshinsky
BY LOUIS MENAND
New Yorker Published : August 24, 2015
In the late spring of 1967, Joan Didion, accompanied by a photojournalist named Ted Streshinsky, began making trips from Berkeley, where she was staying, to Haight-Ashbury, to do research for a piece on the hippies for The Saturday Evening Post. Didion was thirty-two, and she had been a magazine writer for eleven years. She and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, had moved from New York City to Southern California three years earlier, and, in March, 1966, they had adopted a daughter and named her Quintana Roo, after an area on the Yucatán Peninsula.
In the summer of 1967, the Haight was a magnet for people looking for a place to do drugs. Didion hung out mainly with runaways and acidheads. She met people like Deadeye, a dealer, and his old lady, Gerry, who wrote poetry but gave it up after her guitar was stolen. Deadeye tells Didion he is looking for a ride to New York City. She shows him a sign offering a ride to Chicago. He asks her where Chicago is.
She meets Jeff and his fifteen-year-old girlfriend, Debbie, who has run away from home. Didion asks them about their plans. “We’re just gonna let it all happen,” Jeff says. She meets Steve, who says, “I found love on acid. But I lost it. Now I’m finding it again. With nothing but grass.” She meets Vicki, who dropped out of Laguna High, “because I had mono,” and followed the Grateful Dead to San Francisco. She meets a Hare Krishna named Michael, whose brother-in-law explains that “if everybody chanted there wouldn’t be any problem with the police or anybody,” and a five-year-old named Susan, who takes LSD and informs Didion that she is in High Kindergarten.
Didion got plenty of material, but she had no idea how to make a story out of it. Under deadline pressure, she decided to create a verbal montage of scenes from the Haight. She chose a phrase from Yeats’s “The Second Coming” for the title, and, in September, “The Hippie Generation: Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” with photographs by Streshinsky, was a cover story in The Saturday Evening Post. An editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Henry Robbins, encouraged Didion to turn the piece into a book. Nine months later, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” appeared as the title essay in her first collection of nonfiction. It is the phrase everyone knows Joan Didion by.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a classic of what was later named the New Journalism. Didion used a vernacular voice that mimicked the laid-back aimlessness of Haight speech. More New Journalistically, she adopted a Haight personality. She blended into the scene; she internalized its confusions. She gave readers the sense that she was putting herself at risk by reporting this story, that she might get sucked into the Haight abyss and become a lost soul, too:
We drink some more green tea and talk about going up to Malakoff Diggings in Nevada County because some people are starting a commune there and Max thinks it would be a groove to take acid in the diggings. He said maybe we could go next week, or the week after, or anyway sometime before his case comes up. Almost everyone I meet in San Francisco has to go to court at some point in the middle future. I never ask why.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is not a very good piece of standard journalism, though. Didion did no real interviewing or reporting. The hippies she tried to have conversations with said “Groovy” a lot and recycled flower-power clichés. The cops refused to talk to her. So did the Diggers, who ran a sort of hippie welfare agency in the Haight. The Diggers accused Didion of “media poisoning,” by which they meant coverage in the mainstream press designed to demonize the counterculture.
The Diggers were not wrong. The mainstream press (such as the places Didion wrote for, places like The Saturday Evening Post) was conflicted about the hippie phenomenon. It had journalistic sex appeal. Hippies were photogenic, free love and the psychedelic style made good copy, and the music was uncontroversially great. Around the time Didion was in San Francisco, the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and soon afterward the Monterey Pop Festival was held. D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the concert came out in 1968 and introduced many people to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar. Everybody loved Ravi Shankar.
Ravi Shankar did not use drugs, however. The drugs were the sketchy part of the story, LSD especially. People thought that LSD made teen-age girls jump off bridges. By the time Didion’s article came out, Time had run several stories about “the dangerous LSD craze.” And a lot of Didion’s piece is about LSD, people on acid saying “Wow” while their toddlers set fire to the living room. The cover of the Post was a photograph of a slightly sinister man, looking like a dealer, in a top hat and face paint—an evil Pied Piper. That photograph was what the Diggers meant by “media poisoning.”
There was nothing unusual about finding, at the core of a life-style trend of which the use of controlled substances is an integral feature, a group of full-time dropouts. Seven years earlier, the sociologist Ned Polsky had gone to Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side to study the Beats. He found the same mixture Didion found in San Francisco: runaways and people who, when he interviewed them, rehearsed the Beat mantras. Having a job is selling out; politics are a drag; and so on. What they all had in common, Polsky concluded, was drugs. Only a small proportion were addicts, but a Beat’s day was basically about buying and taking drugs.
And there weren’t that many of them. Most of the people who walked around the Village looking like Beats in 1960, like most of the people who walked around San Francisco or Berkeley or Cambridge looking like hippies in 1967, were weekend dropouts. They were contingent rebels. They put on the costumes; they went to the concerts and got high; and then they went back to school or back to work. It was a life style, not a life.
Even if you factored in the contingent leisure force, the hippie counterculture was small. The sensationalized press coverage of the period has left a permanent image of the late nineteen-sixties as a time when everyone was tripping or stoned. In 1967, when Didion’s article came out, only one per cent of college students reported having tried LSD. In 1969, only four per cent of adults said they had smoked marijuana. Recreational drug use soared in the nineteen-seventies, but the press was no longer interested. The whole thing had stopped being sexy.
Didion presented her article as an investigation into what she called “social hemorrhaging.” She suggested that what was going on in Haight-Ashbury was the symptom of some sort of national unravelling. But she knew that, at the level of “getting the story,” her piece was a failure. She could see, with the X-ray clarity she appears to have been born with, what was happening on the street; she could make her readers see it; but she couldn’t explain it.
In the preface to the book, she noted that no one had understood the article. “I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point,” she wrote. A few years later, in a radio interview on KPFR, she blamed herself. “Usually on a piece there comes a day when you know you never have to do another interview,” she said. “You can go home, you’ve gotten it. Well, that day never came on that piece. . . . That piece is a blank for me still.”
People liked the collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (though it was not, at first, a big seller). People were intrigued by “Play It as It Lays,” Didion’s second novel, which came out two years later (though it got some hostile reviews). Mainly, though, everyone was fascinated by the authorial persona, the hypersensitive neurasthenic who drove a Corvette Sting Ray, the frail gamine with the migraine headaches and the dark glasses and the searchlight mind, the writer who seemed to know in her bones what readers were afraid to face, which is that the center no longer holds, the falcon cannot hear the falconer, the story line is broken.
Didion created the part—she was a master of the author photo—and she could have played it right up to the final curtain. But, after “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “Play It as It Lays,” she completely reassessed not only her practice as a journalist but her understanding of American life, her politics, and even the basis of her moral judgments. She decided she wanted to get what she had failed to get with the hippies. She wanted to get the story.
Tracy Daugherty’s “The Last Love Song” (St. Martin’s) is a biography of Joan Didion written partly in the style of Joan Didion, a style of ellipses, fragments, and refrains. This is not what you ideally want in a biography. The point of a biography is to reveal what’s behind the ellipses. Daugherty operated under difficulties, though. He was unable to persuade Didion to coöperate, and it’s obvious that many people close to Didion refused to talk to him as well.
That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t thorough. He had access to Didion’s papers, housed at Berkeley, and a large amount of information was already out there. For someone with a reputation for being guarded and tongue-tied, Didion did a lot of promotion. She went on book tours and submitted to profiles. She did radio; she did television; she talked to Publishers Weekly. It added up.
She also wrote obsessively about herself—not only in her memoirs, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the death of her husband, and “Blue Nights,” about the death of her daughter, but in reported pieces and in personal essays, which she started producing almost as soon as she started publishing. (She eventually got bored with the genre and gave it up. “I didn’t want to become Miss Lonelyhearts,” she said.) She once delivered a lecture called “Why I Write.” She began by pointing out that the sound you hear in those three words is “I, I, I.”
Much of “The Last Love Song” is therefore an intelligent and elegant paraphrase of things Didion has already said or written. There is some sniping from the odd acquaintance or estranged friend, but revelations weren’t in the cards. The “real” Didion Daugherty shows us is just the obverse of the image: ambitious (hence the anxiety), controlling (hence the brittleness), and chic (hence the Corvette).
You could work up a dichotomy here, but it doesn’t get you very far. Didion and Dunne made an excellent living as Hollywood screenwriters and script doctors. They lived in Malibu and then in Brentwood Park, O.J.’s old nabe, and were part of the Hollywood talent élite. Dunne’s brother Dominick was a producer for movies and television; their nephew was Griffin Dunne, the actor. And Didion knows something about fashion and style—she began her career at Mademoiselle and Vogue. But there’s no reason that any of this should be incompatible with one day writing about death squads in El Salvador.
John Dunne was a gregarious man, a social drinker and a raconteur, and he and Didion worked up a sort of Penn and Teller routine. One sang, the other mostly didn’t. They rarely gave separate audiences. If you asked to speak to one, you almost invariably spoke to both, even on the telephone. “I was at first surprised that John Dunne sat through most of the interview and did nearly all the talking,” Susan Braudy wrote after interviewing Didion for Ms., in 1977. Didion’s explanation is that she isn’t a talker; she’s a writer. “I’m only myself in front of my typewriter,” she finally told Braudy. There is no reason to doubt this. The person we’re interested in is the person on the page.
It’s a common mistake, in assessing Didion’s work, to interpret her sensibility as a reflection of the times—to imagine, as Daugherty puts it, that she has “always spoken for us.” That’s certainly not the way she has presented herself. In a column she started writing for Life in 1969, she introduced herself as “a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.” She’s not like us. She’s weird. That’s why we want to read her.
Didion came from a family of Republicans. She was born in Sacramento in 1934, a fifth-generation Californian. Her father started out in insurance, speculated in real estate, and ended up spending most of his career in the military, a very California trifecta. Turned down by Stanford, Didion attended Berkeley, in an era when campus life was socially conventional and politically dormant. In 1955, she won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle and spent a few months in New York City. A year later, she won a similar contest at Vogue, and she moved to New York in the fall of 1956 and began her magazine career there. Leaving home, she later said, “just seems part of your duty in life.”
Didion worked at Vogue for ten years. She continued to write for Mademoiselle, and, in 1960, she began contributing to The National Review, William F. Buckley’s conservative weekly. She wrote pieces about John Wayne, her favorite movie star, and, in the 1964 Presidential election, she voted for Barry Goldwater. She adored Goldwater. It was hardly a surprise that she found Haight-Ashbury repugnant. Her editors at the Post understood perfectly how she would react. They designed the cover before she handed in the piece.
Didion’s transformation as a writer did not involve a conversion to the counterculture or to the New Left. She genuinely loathed the hippies, whom she associated with characters like Charles Manson, and she thought that the Black Panthers and the student radicals were both frightening and ridiculous. She found Jim Morrison kind of ridiculous, too. Polsky, in his study of the Beats, had dismissed the theory, endorsed by some social critics in the nineteen-fifties, that disaffected dropouts are potential recruits for authoritarian political movements. Didion never rejected that theory. She thinks that dropouts are symptoms of a dangerous social pathology.
What changed was her understanding of where dropouts come from, of why people turn into runaways and acidheads and members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, why parents abandon their children on highway dividers, why Harlem teen-agers go rampaging through Central Park at night, why middle-class boys form “posses” and prey sexually on young girls—and, above all, why the press fixates on these stories.
Didion later said that her period of self-doubt began around 1966. “Everything I was taught seems beside the point,” she wrote in Life in 1969. “The point itself seems increasingly obscure.” She had said something similar in her piece about the hippies: “We had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing.”
Most readers would have had a hard time knowing exactly what rules she was talking about, or what “the point” was that everything seemed beside. She probably didn’t have a very clear idea herself. Her moment of insight came in 1971 or 1972, during a summer visit with Quintana, then five or six, to Old Sacramento, an area of the city reconstructed to look like downtown Sacramento, where Didion’s father’s great-grandfather owned a saloon, circa 1850.
She began telling Quintana about all the ancestors who had once walked on those sidewalks, and then she remembered that Quintana was adopted. Quintana had no relationship to Old Sacramento and its sidewalks and saloons. And this thought made her realize, as she put it later, that, “in fact, I had no more attachment to this wooden sidewalk than Quintana did: it was no more than a theme, a decorative effect.” Looking back, she decided that this was the moment when the story she had grown up with—“the entire enchantment under which I had lived my life”—began to seem foreign.
Didion described the Old Sacramento episode in her book about California, “Where I Was From.” That book, with its grammatically pointed title (the phrase, of course, is “where I am from”), was published in 2003, but she had tried to write it thirty years earlier. She decided to wait until her parents were dead.
She also changed her publishing venue. She began writing for The New York Review of Books in 1973, at first about the movies, but increasingly about politics. Her editor there, Robert Silvers, was one of the people not interviewed by Daugherty, and this leaves a major hole in the biography. For Silvers was the key figure in Didion’s journalistic transformation. Her books “Salvador” (1983), “Miami” (1987), and “Political Fictions” (2001) are all based on pieces she wrote for him.
In 1988, after she and Dunne returned to New York, she began writing for The New Yorker as well. Daugherty didn’t interview her editors there, including Robert Gottlieb and Tina Brown. Yet many of the essays in the nonfiction collection “After Henry” (1992) and important parts of “Where I Was From” were first published in The New Yorker. (Full disclosure: you are reading this piece in The New Yorker.)
“Where I Was From” is the central book in Didion’s career. The subject is American self-deception. The California version has to do with what Didion calls “the crossing story as origin myth.” This is the legend of the pioneers in covered wagons who trekked across the Rockies and settled the state, the men and women who made the desert bloom—Didion’s ancestors. It’s a story about independence, self-reliance, and loyalty to the group. Growing up, Didion had been taught that for the generations that followed the challenge was to keep those virtues alive. There was always a new wave of settlers ready to sell out the pioneer spirit.
After the Old Sacramento moment, Didion came to see the whole pioneer mystique as bogus from the start. The cultivation of California was not the act of rugged pioneers, she decided. It was the act of the federal government, which built the dams and the weirs and the railroads that made the state economically exploitable, public money spent on behalf of private business. Didion called it “the subsidized monopolization” of the state.
Big business had always run California. First, there were the ranches, then the corporate agribusinesses, and then, after the Second World War, the aeronautics industry, Boeing and Douglas, Lockheed and Rockwell. Defense contracts and government-funded infrastructure kept these businesses flush. Everyone else was a pawn in the game, living in a fantasy of hardy individualism and cheering on economic growth that benefitted only a few.
Social stability was a mirage. It lasted only as long as the going was good for business. When conditions got cheaper elsewhere or defense contracts shrank or mergers became appealing, the plants were shut down, workers were laid off, and the middle-class dream vanished in the smog. “This process,” Didion wrote, “one of trading the state to outside owners in exchange for their (it now seems) entirely temporary agreement to enrich us . . . had in fact begun at the time Americans first entered the state, took what they could, and, abetted by the native weakness for boosterism, set about selling the rest.”
When the social structure starts to crack is when the dropouts and the delinquents and the crazies turn up. These are not people who don’t know the rules. These are people who can see, without understanding why, that the rules no longer make sense. But, once people like that are thrown out of the system, once they become druggies or panhandlers or abusers of various sorts, no one wants them back in. They get scapegoated. Individual moral failure is taken to be the problem. It can’t be the system.
Part of wagon-train morality was leaving the weakest behind to freeze in the mountain passes. Survival, not caring, is what Didion thinks that ethos finally boiled down to—“careless self-interest and optimism,” the California mentality. California’s answer to the problem of broken people was to build more prisons to put them in.
Didion’s most famous work in this mode is “Sentimental Journeys,” her article on the Central Park Jogger, which appeared in The New York Review in 1991. “Sentimental Journeys” is not really about the crime—the beating and rape in Central Park, in 1989, of a young white professional named Trisha Mieli—and it’s not about the trial of the mostly African-American teen-agers who were supposed to have confessed to it. The article is really about the coverage.
There were 3,255 reported rapes in New York City in 1989, some of them horrific. The press and the politicians seized on the Jogger story, Didion thought, because they saw a way to make it into an exemplary tale. The key to that story was that Mieli, although terribly battered, survived. Her personal fortitude could be made a symbol of the fortitude that all true New Yorkers display when the healthy frictions inherent in the city’s “gorgeous mosaic,” as its mayor, David Dinkins, called it, spin temporarily, if tragically, out of control. Nous sommes the Jogger.
Didion argued that Mieli’s story was milked to distract attention from the city’s underlying problems—specifically, the decay of its economic base, a condition that had been laid bare by the stock-market crash of October 19, 1987, Black Monday. “Stories in which terrible crimes are inflicted on innocent victims,” she wrote, “have long performed as the city’s endorphins, a built-in source of natural morphine working to blur the edges of real and to a great extent insoluble problems.” (Son of Sam may have performed a similar role in the nineteen-seventies, the “Bronx is burning” decade.)
Didion thinks that this is why the press latches on to stories like the Jogger’s. It’s not because those stories tell us who we are. It’s because they don’t. They leave unexamined and untouched the class antagonisms and economic failures that are the underlying causes of socially destructive events. Personal stories feed the American illusion that the system is never the cause of anything. Those stories are always about fortitude, character, loyalty to the group.
The journalistic nut of the Jogger piece is the case of Laurie Sue Rosenthal. She was the mistress of an assistant city commissioner for elevator and boiler inspections, a man named Peter Franconeri, who happened to own an apartment at 36 East Sixty-eighth Street, between Madison and Park, and a house in Southampton. On the night of April 26, 1990, Rosenthal called her parents, in Queens, from the Sixty-eighth Street apartment and said she was being beaten. Sometime after that call, she died. In the morning, Franconeri rolled her body up in a carpet, put it out with the building’s trash, and went to work.
The story did get into the papers, but officials downplayed the significance. “There were some minor bruises,” said a spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. A police officer complained to a reporter about Franconeri, “Everybody got upside down because of who he was. If it happened to anyone else, nothing would have come of it. A summons would have been issued and that would have been the end of it.”
Essentially, it was. Laurie Sue Rosenthal was determined to have suffered an accidental death from the combined effects of alcohol and Darvocet. Franconeri pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and got seventy-five hours of community service. The suspects in the Jogger case got sentences of five to fifteen years, for crimes including a rape that, it turned out, they had not committed. But the Central Park suspects did not belong to what Didion called “the conspiracy of those in the know, those with a connection, those with a rabbi at the Department of Sanitation or the Buildings Department or the School Construction Authority or Foley Square, the conspiracy of those who believed everybody got upside down because of who it was, it happened to anybody else, a summons gets issued and that’s the end of it.”
“Sentimental Journeys” was a brilliant interpretation of the Jogger story, and an impressive display of journalistic intuition. Didion was right to suspect that the accused teen-agers were wrongly convicted, something that was not established until 2002. She was wrong to suspect, though, that the city was on the rocks. Her hunch was that a shift from manufacturing to financial-services jobs was unsustainable. It did look that way for a while. But after 1992 the market took off, real-estate values along with it, and the city has not looked back. It is no longer fear of violent crime that is driving the middle class out of Manhattan.
Didion has always disliked interviewing. This is partly a matter of temperament: she doesn’t think on her feet; she thinks in front of a keyboard. But it’s also because she is convinced that you don’t learn anything from interviews. “It doesn’t matter to me what people say to me in the interview,” she has said, “because I don’t trust it.” She considers reporters who fetishize the personal interview vacuous. “In any real sense,” she wrote in a piece on the best-selling books by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, “these books are ‘about’ nothing but the author’s own method.” She prefers documents, and most of her political journalism is based on a careful reading of newspaper stories, press releases, hearing transcripts, and the like.
This makes her later work, particularly the pieces collected in “Political Fictions,” which treat subjects like the Iran-Contra affair and the Starr Report, seem a little more like literary criticism than like reporting. Didion was an English major at Berkeley at a time when close reading was the gold standard in literary analysis, and Daugherty suggests that those methods stuck with her. She has said as much herself.
There is a small but immitigable fallacy in the theory of close reading, though, and it applies to political journalism as well as to the reading of poetry. The text doesn’t reveal its secrets just by being stared at. It reveals its secrets to those who already pretty much know what secrets they expect to find. Texts are always packed, by the reader’s prior knowledge and expectations, before they are unpacked. The teacher has already inserted into the hat the rabbit whose production in the classroom awes the undergraduates.
Didion interprets the political text of American life according to a set of beliefs about disparities of wealth and class. She arrived at those assumptions worthily: by analyzing her own education and experience. And that’s what she sees when she reads the newspaper or follows a campaign. She is never less than amazed by the willingness of everyone in the press to pretend, in the name of keeping the show going, that American life is really not about money and power.
In 1988, she covered Michael Dukakis’s campaign for President. Dukakis was having “regular guy” problems running against George H. W. Bush, a Connecticut blueblood who had somehow managed to trans-class himself into a self-made Texan. It was just the sort of non-issue issue that Didion thinks has completely divorced electoral politics from the needs of the actual electorate. To address the guy gap, Dukakis and his aides came up with the plan of having the candidate, whenever his plane landed somewhere, play catch with his press secretary on the tarmac. Reporters duly filmed this performance, often in hundred-degree heat, to be shown on the evening news. It was, as Didion wrote, “a repeated moment witnessed by many people all of whom believed it to be a setup yet most of whom believed that only an outsider, only someone too ‘naïve’ to know the rules of the game, would so describe it.”
She thinks that this is how what she calls “the permanent political class”—the press, the talk-show experts, the campaign strategists, the political parties, even the candidates themselves—has rigged the game. Everyone knows that what you see in politics is fake or confected, but everyone’s O.K. with that, because it’s all been focus-grouped.
One topic that Didion does like to talk about is writing. “I learned a lot of fictional technique” from script writing, she explained to Hilton Als, in an interview in 2006. And the novels are screenplay-like. She told Als that she became impatient with “the conventions of writing,” like description. Her scenes tend to be story-boarded—this character is here, that character is there. The main action is the dialogue.
You can see from the deftness and precision of that dialogue why she and Dunne were in such demand as script doctors. Although Didion’s novels are lurid enough, much of the speech is comic, in a gimlet-eyed, dead-end sort of way. But the books are literary caterpillars, texts that seem to be seeking their ultimate realization in the form of a motion picture.
The fiction has been influential: Bret Easton Ellis, who went to college with Quintana, is a sworn disciple. But Didion’s nonfiction is what sets her apart. Daugherty thinks that it was the Vogue years that made the prose Didionesque, and this seems right. Didion is the quintessential magazine writer. Her books are short. “I always aim for a reading in one sitting,” she told Als, and that is how people normally read magazine pieces. The job of the magazine writer is never to give readers a reason to stop before they reach the end.
The No. 1 sin in print journalism is repetition. Pages are money; editorial space is finite. Writers who waste it don’t last. Conditions demand a willingness to compress and a talent for concision. The ellipses and the refrains that characterize much of Didion’s writing are methods of economizing the exposition and managing the reader’s experience, ways of getting the reader to participate in the job of making sense of whatever it is, hippies or someone who once wrote about hippies, that the writer is trying to think through. ♦August 18th, 2015
The exterior of Skateland U.S.A. Credit Craig Schweisinger
By SAM SWEET
NY Times Published: AUG. 13, 2015
Craig Schweisinger opened the doors to Skateland U.S.A. on Saturday, Nov. 16, 1984. High schoolers mingled with gangbangers and roller skaters who took their choreography seriously. A sign reading NO CAPS — NO COLORS greeted attendees at the door.
Everyone was required to pass through an airport-style metal detector Schweisinger installed as part of his permit arrangement with the Compton Police Department. Schweisinger hated the local cops in the Los Angeles County city, and preferred to use his own security detail composed of neutral enforcers from the neighborhood. His system of order was predicated on mutual respect: He gave it to every street kid who came in, and they returned it to him in kind. Being tough was an occupational necessity; being fair was his choice.
In a city Balkanized by gangs, Skateland became a refuge. Schweisinger thought the skating business could be successful. He didn’t imagine that within few months his rink would become the most important hip-hop venue in the history of South Los Angeles.
When he opened Skateland, all Schweisinger knew of rap was that it was what his clientele wanted to hear. A balding, 38-year-old former surfer, he grew up in nearby Torrance, where he went to dances at the Rollerdrome to listen to the music of the Pendletones, soon to become the Beach Boys. In the four years he operated Skateland, Schweisinger would be the only white face regularly seen in the club that gave birth to a local group called Niggaz With Attitude.
1950 North Central Avenue started its life as the Woodley Lewis Sportsman Bowl. In 1962, Lewis — a Compton native who had been among the first players to break the color barrier in the N.F.L. — took the money he’d earned as a star defensive back for the Los Angeles Rams and invested in a 36-lane bowling alley with an attached restaurant and cocktail lounge. Its opening marked the first wave of black entrepreneurship in Compton. Lewis proudly hung an award plaque sent to him by Chivas Regal. In 1963, his establishment was the brand’s highest-grossing merchant in South Los Angeles.
Next door to the Sportsman Bowl was the Dooto Music Center, an entertainment complex established by Walter Williams, known as Dootsie. Williams amassed a fortune as a record producer — for the Penguins, whose 1954 single “Earth Angel” became a doo-wop standard, and then for a string of local black club comics, including Redd Foxx, George Kirby and Sloppy Daniels, all of whom released their first LPs on the Dooto label. Dootsie’s complex was a combined recording studio, film and television production facility and 1,000-seat auditorium. He envisioned a black-operated entertainment conglomerate: Compton’s own NBC.
The prosperous future that Williams and Lewis intended for southern Central Avenue didn’t survive the 1965 Watts riots. Compton escaped the arson and looting that ravaged neighborhoods to the north, but it couldn’t withstand the psychological fallout. The middle class fled Compton in the late 1960s, decimating business at the bowling alley. Lewis was subsequently arrested for bookmaking in 1970. Shortly thereafter, the inside of his Sportsman Bowl was destroyed in a fire of mysterious origin. Dootsie relocated his investments to Mexico, leaving a young Compton hustler, Lonzo Williams, to operate Dooto’s as a nightclub, while copper thieves gradually stripped the vacant Bowl for every inch of pipe and wire.
The Bowl lay dormant until the late 1970s, when Schweisinger — then a budding commercial real estate agent with an eye for investments — was invited to take his first look inside, armed with a wide-beam flashlight. A series of sunlit cracks spread like white veins across the domed ceiling. When Schweisinger turned his beam onto the floor, he saw a lake of stagnant water covering all 36 lanes, the polished floorboards contorted like the tracks of a roller coaster. From the mud that coated the old cocktail lounge, he excavated Woodley Lewis’s Chivas Regal plaque.
The property offered 40,000 square feet on three acres, and the asking price had dropped to $300,000. Schweisinger calculated that within a few years, he could turn a profit just by renting out the parking lot for truck storage. In the meantime, he fielded plans from prospective operators. The one idea he kept hearing was for a roller rink. Skating was hot, but no one from the neighborhood had the start-up money to make it happen. Conversely, nobody with financial credentials wanted anything to do with Compton.
Though he lived with his family in the Orange County suburb of Westminster, Schweisinger was at ease in the inner city. Growing up in the South Bay, he worked shifts in the grocery store his father owned on Avalon and Imperial, two blocks north of the flash point of the 1965 riots. On the second night of unrest, the Schweisingers were glued to the television. Helicopter coverage showed dozens of looters running from their store with sides of beef, sodas and anything else they could carry out. Schweisinger’s father, Fred, had to turn away from the screen.
V&F Foods burned to the ground that August along with many of the other businesses along Avalon. The Schweisingers’ insurance company classified the riot as an insurrection and refused to cover the damages. The only thing that survived was an unopened barrel of pickles — “Too heavy to loot, I guess,” Schweisinger recalls. He rolled the charred barrel back to Torrance, and the kids on his block ate kosher dills for the rest of the summer.
Fred Schweisinger thought his son was crazy to gamble on commercial property in Compton. To make his case, Schweisinger took his father on a reconnaissance mission to World on Wheels, a former bowling alley on Venice Boulevard that was converted to a roller rink in 1981. Schweisinger hadn’t gone skating since the days of the Torrance Rollerdrome. World on Wheels was another planet. To the local, predominantly black teenagers, it was more than a skating rink: It was a nightclub in orbit. The D.J.s played music unknown to pop radio. On weekends, hundreds paid cash at the door to be part of it.
Word spread that Compton was getting its own rink. A World on Wheels veteran named Jerry Woodard offered to be the floor manager. Kevin Mallett, a promotions manager at the pioneering hip-hop radio station KDAY, offered free on-air advertising. Eventually, even Lonzo Williams came over from Dooto’s to investigate. Knowing how important music was to the skating experience, Williams extended the services of the fledgling D.J. team he managed. In order of age, the World Class Wreckin’ Cru consisted of 16-year-old Antoine Carraby, a.k.a. D.J. Yella; 17-year-old Marquette Hawkins, a.k.a. Cli-N-Tel; and 18-year-old Andre Young, a.k.a. Dr. Dre.
KDAY’s programmer and leading on-air personality, Greg Mack, paid to install a broadcast line so he could host “The Mack Attack” live from the floor of Skateland on Saturday nights. Schweisinger’s older employees warned against bringing in the rap crowd, saying it would ruin the skate business. He had no choice; he needed income from the concerts to stay afloat. Soon Compton’s first fledgling rap acts were rolling through: Mix Master Spade and Toddy Tee, Rodney-O and Joe Cooley, Uncle Jamm’s Army. Those shows were so popular that Mack started bringing out the big rap stars from the East Coast. EPMD, Queen Latifah and the Real Roxanne all played Skateland on early visits to Los Angeles.
The biggest show in Skateland history was Jan. 2, 1987. Eric B. and Rakim had one single to their name — “Eric B. Is President” backed with “My Melody” — but the Long Island duo was already revered on both coasts. Skateland’s official maximum capacity was 1,720. That night, it let in 3,000 and had to turn the rest away. Schweisinger was amazed at the nervousness New York rappers betrayed backstage. “We safe out there?” Schweisinger recalls Rakim asking, referring to what he’d heard about street life in Compton. “Out there, I don’t know,” Schweisinger said. “In here, you’re safe.”
The year Skateland opened, there were 212 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County. By 1988, that number was pushing 500.
One hundred and fifty blocks northwest of Skateland, World on Wheels was imploding. Its midcity location, once an advantage, had become its downfall: It was surrounded by territory claimed by three rival Crip groups, and its immense unfenced parking lot offered quick escapes onto two busy boulevards, Venice and Pico. By 1986, the gangbanging outside the rink overshadowed anything that happened inside it. Drive-by shootings made the venue inhospitable to non-gang members looking only to skate or dance.
Because Skateland was nestled deep in Blood territory, the property wasn’t subject to the turf wars that plagued its competitor. Despite the official “no caps, no colors” policy, the crowd was typically a sea of red. But in four years, Schweisinger experienced only two shootings: once when a member of Mix Master Spade’s crew accidentally discharged his gun in the D.J. booth, and once when a local dealer was jumped at the entrance gate while picking up his kids from a Sunday skate.
On show nights at Skateland, Compton police officers and L.A. County sheriffs patrolled Central Avenue, waiting to shake down carloads of teenagers. Inside, Schweisinger’s security detail carried firearms in case of emergency. Though no gun was ever confiscated, the metal detector did its job; each weekend ended with a shoe box full of carpet cutters, surgical scissors and nail files.
After concerts, Schweisinger and his crew would spend hours cleaning the rink, which was inevitably littered with chewing gum, crushed Pepsi cups and a slick of melted “curl custard” — every kid in Compton wanted a Michael Jackson perm. Schweisinger let his employees and their friends hang around through the long cleanup. One of the regulars was Eric Wright, a young dealer who lived a few blocks from Dr. Dre, near Kelly Park in southeastern Compton.
Wright had designs on owning a record label. While the rink was cleared of debris, he and Dre played records and improvised raps in the D.J. booth. In the wee hours, when work was over, bottles of E&J brandy were mixed with leftover Pepsi, and domino tournaments began. “I’d never seen dominoes played like that,” Schweisinger says. “They slapped them down so hard it nearly broke the [expletive] table. I still like the taste of E&J because of those nights.”
Musical alliances, like gangs, were forged based on geography. Dre’s cousin Sir Jinx had a group called C.I.A. with his Inglewood neighbor, a 17-year-old named O’Shea Jackson who called himself Ice Cube. Soon Cube and Jinx were skipping the lines at Skateland as part of Dre’s entourage. Eric Wright enlisted Cube to write the raps for a New York-based group he was managing called H.B.O., or Home Boys Only. When the East Coasters scoffed at lines about ’64 Impalas and gang signs, Dre convinced Wright to perform the song himself.
Wright wasn’t naturally musical, but he knew Compton. As Schweisinger puts it, “Dre was always Dre, and Cube was always Cube,” but Wright put on a pair of wraparound shades and suddenly became Eazy-E. At Skateland in the fall of 1987, Eazy performed the song H.B.O. had rejected, “The Boyz-N-The Hood.” C.I.A. opened, and Cube stole the night with a rhyme called “My Penis” set to the tune of Run-DMC’s “My Adidas.” The rink roared its approval.
“The Boyz-N-The Hood” was such a hit within the neighborhood that Dre, Eazy and Cube merged their crews to form a super group that specialized in the music beloved by the Skateland crowd. Initially, the collective involved about 20 rappers and D.J.s, but eventually the core was whittled down to Eazy, Dre, Cube, Yella and a teenage associate from Eazy’s block named Lorenzo Patterson, a.k.a. MC Ren.
In March 1988, Schweisinger hosted their first concert together as Niggaz With Attitude. The local papers labeled their music “gangster rap,” but no one in N.W.A. was in a gang. They didn’t wear red, or blue. They wore black.
“The fuse was always lying around,” Schweisinger says. “I was always hoping it wouldn’t get lit.” A single police incident on the premises would endanger the conditional use permit Compton City Council had reluctantly granted him. He understood from working for his dad’s store that burglaries, fights and assorted insurance claims were the cost of operating in a poverty-stricken area. At the outset, he figured that if Skateland lasted a year, he could consider himself lucky. That he made it four years without serious incident was a miracle. Every year he stayed open, he felt he was pushing his luck.
By 1988, the street scene in Compton had become more vicious than anything Schweisinger had seen before. The local dealers were making more and more money, and a few of Schweisinger’s employees had been caught stealing from the till to support their crack addictions. For Schweisinger, the last straw came after a local drug kingpin held the entire staff hostage over a paper bag containing $15,000 in cash; it had disappeared from his locker during a private skate lesson. Schweisinger gathered his employees and told them that no one would be held accountable as long as the bag and its contents were returned. Later that night, he received an anonymous phone call. The bag had been dropped in the bushes in front of the rink. He listed the property the following month, just as Eazy-E’s first full-length album was hitting stores.
Skateland closed for good after a concert by Tone-Loc on Christmas Day 1988. The following January, Schweisinger drove down to Mexico to sell 500 pairs of used skates to a rink in Tijuana. That spring, the debut album by a group of his former teenage associates would forever change the meaning of the name Compton.
Schweisinger became a councilman in Westminster, and later in Henderson, Nev., where he lives today. He never saw Eazy or Dre again, though he would occasionally pay Ice Cube a visit if he was playing Anaheim. “If I could get word I was from Skateland,” Schweisinger says, “they always, always let me in.”
At 1950 North Central, the facade that Woodley Lewis built still stands, as does the fence that Schweisinger erected to curtail drive-bys. The rink itself is now used as a storage facility for Kizure Products, a prominent vendor of curling irons, hot combs and other hairstyling tools. Schweisinger’s son, Todd, keeps a number of the old neon-hued Skateland posters on the wall of his office at Clemson University in South Carolina, where he teaches mechanical engineering. His students refuse to believe he ever met Dr. Dre.
In the back of Schweisinger’s closet in Henderson hangs his blue manager’s jacket. At Skateland’s peak, he had satin jackets made up for everyone who worked on the crew or D.J.ed there. On one occasion, they drove to World on Wheels to check out the competition and to skate. Schweisinger entered: a balding blond guy in his 40s, surrounded by a team of black teenagers. While they were lacing up, a gangster leered at them. “Oh, y’all from that Blood rink?”
“No,” Schweisinger said. “We’re from Compton.”August 14th, 2015
Hexenhaus und Pilz mit vier Kugel (Witch’s House and Mushroom with Four Balls)
Painted aluminum, wood, polyester and paint
Overall: 67 x 86 x 86 inches; 170 x 218 x 218 cm
Through August 29, 2015August 10th, 2015