Stuff of Dreams

Rhonda Lieberman on the Uranian Phalanstery

Left: The front door of the Uranian Phalanstery. Dorothea Baer Tyler, cofounder of the Uranian Phalanstery, with codirector Mehdi Matin. (Except where noted, all photos: David Velasco)

AS HISTORY IS ERASED BY DEVELOPERS, I walk around downtown in a constant state of loss, always wondering about the few pockets of aura that remain. Last week, on a brilliant sunny Friday, I had the chance to enter a bohemian time capsule. Soon packing up, after remaining basically unchanged since 1974, the Uranian Phalanstery on Fourth Street in New York is like the interior of a moldering Joseph Cornell piece the size of two crumbling brownstones. (One has electricity; one has water.) The buildings are crammed with every kind of spiritual icon, art, tchotchkes, toys, esoteric books, personal artifacts, and some garbage.

Richard Tyler, along with his wife, artist Dorothea Baer Tyler, founded the Uranian Phalanstery as an “anarchist utopian commune for practitioners of art and cosmology.” They believed in “documenting every moment of time.” Attracted to the NY jazz scene, in 1957 Tyler moved into one of the buildings, then a Hungarian synagogue, as the “Shabbos goy.” When the shul left in 1974, the Tylers transformed it into an “Orphic lyceum,” a gnostic-artist congregation and Fourier-inspired “phalanx” that was hopping until 1983, when Tyler died (of face cancer, which he documented as well). Through the 1970s, they celebrated each pagan festival with jazzy happenings (including “planetary dancers” who personified heavenly bodies in masks and cavorted to the “music of the spheres”). They ran a Tibetan burial society and a printing press (the Uranian Press, which sold chapbooks from a pushcart in the Judson churchyard). They cast runes; did Tibetan healing tattoos; and wheat-pasted FREE TIBET signs all over the city, “early, in the ’60s.” All of this performance, meditation, and practice informed by a mélange of esoteric traditions that converged on “the singularity,” as codirector Mehdi Matin put it, and “going within.”

The altar-filled “music room” was the first hit of what was in store. Through a corridor papered with sacred texts, past a soiled plush unicorn, the dark, artifact-packed basement reeked of mildew. It was like Geraldo opening Al Capone’s vault, but with hippies. Shining flashlights, we stood at the pushcart itself, near an old-timey arcade magician. You could spot groovy signage on the wall: URANIAN PRESS, and, in corny Wild West–style letters: AGENTS WANTED (what they called their twenty-two board members). One Uranian tract envisioned a “schizophrenic bomb.” Matin glossed: “Phalanx is a Roman strategy of military. . . . [Richard’s] ideal agent would be so psychologically balanced as to appear to be normal.”

Matin is earnest, young, disconcertingly cute.

Behind the press, he pointed to a cot covered in faded mod fabric with a primitive-looking mask at its head: “He died in this bed. And those are his ashes.” In an urn on the chair nearby.

Left: A letter from Timothy Leary. (Photo: Fred Tomaselli) Right: redartprojects’s Maureen Sullivan.

In the Cornellesque ambience, it seemed weirdly apt that Tyler’s remains “remained” in his disused workspace. Once Uranian headquarters, the basement was now a shrine to Tyler, a cave-size scrapbook: every wall and ceiling collaged with personal artifacts, photos, medical prescriptions, news clips, artwork, letters people sent him (one from Timothy Leary, Ph.D., on the letterhead of the IFIF—International Federation of Internal Freedom), pages of esoteric texts, and vintage ads. (I looked up and a Cass Elliot poster smiled back at me: FLOWER POWER.)

Near a collection of tattoo paraphernalia (and cancer meds), under a quote from Leviticus forbidding tattoos, an impromptu tabletop altar displayed small animal skeletons rotting on cardboard: a little bird with bony wings decayed near gag nose glasses and an incense burner.

A section of ceiling was papered with masks, each customized with a plastic schnoz.

“These were here before his face was eaten away?” asked Maureen Sullivan from redartprojects.

“He actually died in this room, too,” added Matin.

“Hence the vibe.”

Matin, a gnostic painter, described himself as an apprentice of Dorothea, whose art and spiritual “ripeness” he spoke of with great respect. “It’s karma . . . fragments of death and rebirth. One of my favorite books is The Hobbit. The original title is There and Back Again, and that’s how I feel, like Tyler magnetized (people) to them, drew everyone in . . .” We had an intense conversation about “now-ness.” He enthused about lucid dreaming, Castaneda, whirling dervishes, and never missed a beat as tour guide:

“See that sandwich?” He pointed to a fake cheeseburger in a plastic bag. “Claes [Oldenburg] gave him that.”

Left and right: Inside the Uranian Phalanstery.

Almost nothing has been thrown out since 1974, and the Uranian mission “to document their lives through art” can look rather hoarder-ish, the line between Art and pathology agonizingly slim.

“Have you seen the show Hoarders?” I ask.

Matin shuddered. “I had to help her throw out a lot. A lot of newspapers.”

Everywhere I looked, something crazy caught my eye: a pile of big fuzzy tigers huddled under a synagogue ornament, a life-sized cyclops mummy slumped in a ratty armchair near an old coat hoisted like an empty scarecrow with a Star Wars mask-face. A bathroom completely covered with Hindu deities. Elderly piñatas faded underfoot. Dusty altars and installations everywhere merged into a mishmash of sacred and silly mashups.

Dorothea lives “upstairs,” said Matin. “You walk past [her room and think], She’s still hoarding.” He’s been here for seven years.

“How has it been living here with these vibes?”

“For me?” he asked, completely surrounded by chaos. “I like very stoic environments, very minimal. I’m from a bourgeois background. And this cured it.”

When I left, I thought about Matin and “Dor,” living so unflappably amid the relics and rubble, like a gnostic Harold and Maude. Left intact, the Tylers’ happening Orphic lyceum became a mausoleum. Now it is literally disintegrating matter, like Tyler himself. The mystic practitioners who celebrate the masks of the flesh also cultivated consciousness of its evanescence. From its heyday in the ’70s through its “ripest point in ’83” and beyond, the counterculture clubhouse has reached the end of its life cycle. What first seemed like hoarderish weirdness struck me as a profound performance piece, like an NYC real estate Tibetan sand painting: two buildings, filled with life, first “documenting every moment” then decaying into dust.

“The work will be archived,” said Matin, and the buildings will be sold, to pay a tax lien. Death and taxes: eternal verities.