Unquiet Americans

New York

Left: Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, and Geoffrey O'Brien. Right: Glenn O'Brien (at microphone) and the TV Party Orchestra.

The downtown underground resurfaced in Manhattan last Wednesday, though (sigh) only for the night. At 192 Books in Chelsea, the line between fact and fable grew dim as Harry Mathews read the sex scenes from My Life in CIA (Dalkey Archive Press), his new autobiographical novel.

Mathews, author of Cigarettes and other gems, has been a part-time Parisian for many years—long enough to have been suspected of being an American agent by the French intelligentsia. His new book chronicles his life in the 1970s as a frog version of the unwitting spy in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana. Arriving at the bookstore in a trench coat and brown fedora, the debonair dean of experimental fiction certainly looked the part.

Alex and Ada Katz were in the front row. “Painters are my best readers,” Mathews noted. “They don't get hung up on the significance of content.” The reading was as droll as its author, and it did nothing to dispel lingering suspicions that Mathews was actually a spook. Things got especially complicated during the Q & A when a man identifying himself as “Winthrop Dulles” insisted that his grandfather, Allen Dulles (founding director of the CIA), had always wanted to thank the author for the “extraordinary job he had done in Laos.”

And the evening was still quite young. Nonetheless, the sonic youth, Kim Gordon, left the opening of “Afterall” at apexart shortly after Jutta Koether concluded a performance that painter Charline von Heyl affectionately described as “Schönberg on acid.” British-born Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, and the show's curator, thought it more like “the return of Nico.” Koether, with a gold “bio-shield” on a chain around her neck, interspersed spoken excerpts from the recent novel by the Reena Spaulings collective with painfully loud trills on an electronic keyboard. It was, said performance pioneer Joan Jonas, “just like a performance in a gallery.”

Esche imagined the exhibition, which also has stuff by Jeremy Blake, Kenneth Anger, and Richard Wright, as a 3-D version of issue seven of Afterall, the semiannual art journal he coedits with Thomas Lawson and Mark Lewis. Though it was Cay Sophie Rabinowitz's brown and yellow “love” slicker that diverted people's attention, Esche advanced the belief that only the darkest, most degenerate art could possibly hope to effect any change in the winds prevailing now.

Left: Glenn O'Brien, Christopher Wool, and Charlene von Heyl. Middle: Joan Jonas. Right: Jutta Koether.

That theory seemed to bear itself out at the Glenn O'Brien/Paper Magazine party for TV Party: The Documentary, screened earlier that night at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It was so amazing,” said Gina Nanni (Mrs. O'Brien). “Jerry Stiller stood up at the end and yelled, ‘This movie should be in the Smithsonian!’” (Like Stiller.) Graying hipsters came to NA on West 14th Street—that's not Narcotics Anonymous but the new name for the old Nell's—to celebrate their original appearances on O’Brien’s TV Party, his punk-era cable-access show.

Broadcast from 1978 to 1982, and directed with amateur-hour stealth by Amos Poe, the weekly show was one of the first live call-in shows on cable. (But who had cable then?) It was the first to feature downtown personalities like Chris Stein and Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddie, and the still-dewy-eyed Jean-Michel Basquiat as regulars (with fabulous musical guests); the first to feature on-air pot smoking and really foul language; and the only “cocktail party that could be a political party,” as the deadpan O'Brien put it. This was, in short, anarchist central, recording the downtown performance scene as it happened. See it and weep.

Watching the TV Party Orchestra (Walter Steding with Stein, Lenny Ferrari, Armand, James Chance, and Robert Aron) at the NA party, not just alive but playing better than ever, evoked more than nostalgia for a darker New York, where the bottom line never got in the way of raw talent. Yet DJ Spooky (Paul Miller), who arrived from the Chris Ofili opening at the Studio Museum with two art babes on his arm, heard only “a simulation of a simulation.” But hey. Isn't that what happens when you come so late to the party?