WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT, it’s kind of presumptuous for someone to declare that your memorial is “what you would have wanted,” when probably what you really would have wanted was to be there for it, basking in the praise and chuckling at the euphemisms.
There are very few times when anyone could dare speak for Glenn O’Brien, but I feel confident saying he would have both approved of and attended the glamorously depressing memorial for him held earlier this month at the SVA Theater in Chelsea. For one, the evening was more akin to a greatest-hits tribute than a parade of black crêpe. This was planned not as an evening of cherry-picked memories to elicit tears and laughter, but an abbreviated marathon—like a 10K, say—of readings of pieces that O’Brien had authored over five decades of being a raconteur.
“Glenn would have hated having people get up and tell stories,” explained Gina Nanni, his Hitchcock-blonde widow, afterward. “He would have gotten up at every one and yelled, ‘That’s not how it happened at all!’”
How it did happen was that the writer (and frequent Scene & Herd contributor) Linda Yablonsky and Nanni corralled thirty-six speakers who aligned with O’Brien’s myriad stints, tastes, talents, and moments (and he had more facets than a flawless Tiffany brilliant-cut). The speakers—including Vincent Fremont, Carroll Dunham, Lynne Tillman, Jerry Saltz, Hailey Gates, Anne Kennedy, Joseph Kosuth, Andy Spade, and dozens more—either chose or were entrusted by the evening’s two executrices with a selected (and condensed) piece of O’Brien’s writing.
The five hundred or so people in attendance were a testament to the wide net that O’Brien, who was born in Cleveland in 1947 and died in New York in April, cast loftily across the worlds of art, music, fashion, media, and film. Chloë Sevigny, Fabien Baron, André Balazs, Barbara Gladstone, Olivier Zahm, Joshua and Ben Safdie, Claudia Gould, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin, Alan Faena, Ian Schrager, Anne Pasternak, Chris Blackwell, Sam Shahid, Roberta Smith, Ted Muehling, Tara Subkoff, Danny Fields, Alison Sarofim. And that’s not even including the artists: Richard Prince, Nan Goldin, Larry Clark, Will Cotton, Dike Blair, Billy Sullivan, David Salle, Julian Lethbridge, Dan Colen, Adam McEwen, Jean-Philippe Delhomme, Hanna Liden, Peter McGough, Marilyn Minter, Blair Thurman, Collier Schorr, Rita Ackermann, Ouattara Watts, Haim Steinbach, Jayson Musson . . .
After an introduction by Yablonsky, Fremont—who was on hand for O’Brien’s start in publishing in the early 1970s, working for Andy Warhol’s Interview as an editor/writer—began the show with a 2016 artforum.com piece about the Warhol photographer Billy Name: “I wanted to live in those pictures and hang out with the stars.” Next, Christopher Bollen (playing O’Brien) and John Giorno (playing Warhol) reenacted a 1977 interview that O’Brien conducted with Warhol (and which the former brilliantly edited into sterling Andyisms).
There was an impressively wide array of texts. Three speakers read from O’Brien’s 1980s Artforum column “Like Art: Glenn O’Brien on Advertising,” including one from 1987, performed by Esquire editor Michael Hainey, about the ridiculously unsexy ads for condoms during the AIDS crisis. From Paper in 1997, Colter Rule read a piece on what we could expect if O’Brien were crowned king, and Joan Juliet Buck read about the disrespect (fiscal and otherwise) accorded to writers. From O’Brien’s 2011 book How to Be a Man, Richard Hell and Christopher Wool read his directions for using vulgar insults correctly, and Laurie Simmons read his directives on how to be a host. Eric Goode read a poem from a posthumously published book, Ruins with a View. The show was closed with brief and moving remarks from his two sons, Terence and Oscar.
“Even though we all know the writing, it was so enlightening to take in the enormity of his achievement,” said Jeffrey Deitch. “He’s one of the great humorists of our time, and it’s very rare that someone can write so well about music, art, fashion, politics, and so on. I came out saying that Glenn O’Brien is our Baudelaire—and when people want to understand what it was like in New York during this period, they will read Glenn’s writings.” (Is he our Nostradamus too? Deitch read from a 1990 piece in which O’Brien predicts that Donald Trump will be the president.)
At a dinner after at the Bowery Hotel, I heard again and again that O’Brien’s passing felt like the end of an era—the end of a culture that was in, about, between, from, to, for, and by downtown New York. Of a culture that began a half-century ago with the birth of Warhol’s Factory and reached a kind of zenith in the 1980s in Lower East Side nightclubs and SoHo galleries and cooler-than-you magazines like Interview, Paper, and Details (and this one). Of a culture that was then decimated by AIDS, decentralized by the internet, and displaced by the metastasizing financial industry, not to mention upstaged by the new professional creative class (a vicious spiral in a voraciously upscaling New York epitomized by, say, the Bowery Hotel itself).
Indeed, you could argue that this world died some time ago, that only our illusions of it live on in holdouts like O’Brien, who weathered the transition so well by playing the artful twentieth-century man of letters while delivering the twenty-first-century Pro goods. With several once-prominent magazine people both speaking and in the audience (names withheld to protect the delusional), the night also felt like a memorial for the Day of the Writer itself, another profession rendered redundant by the ongoing extinction of Printasaurus Rex and the millions of SEO-savvy pancreatives who can just do stuff for free on their phones during the boring parts. And with the art and fashion worlds having been reduced to globally nomadic trade shows that must be grammed, tweeted about, and sold, who has time to read anyway?
The irony is that O’Brien was among a handful of people who helped lay the framework for today’s social media, which is, after all, just unmediated media. The simple idea behind Interview was to publish (more or less) what people really said, just like the idea of Pop was to celebrate what people actually saw. Insofar as some of the Downtown Baroque that O’Brien helped invent might have been esoteric to many, O’Brien was to the Twitter-born as exoteric as Simon Cowell.
So, in the end, O’Brien was a writer who was so much more than a writer—and a New York fixture who was truly, in the end, a man of the world and who managed, in the end, to transcend all of it and be, in the end, Glenn O’Brien.