David Armstrong. Photo: Ryan McGinley.


THE FIRST, most distinctive thing about David Armstrong you noticed upon meeting him was his voice. It had not so much an accent as a sort of wistful cadence. It sounded like a mother comforting a child she is preparing to suffocate with a pillow.

I met David in the summer of 1981 in Provincetown. He was staying at the home of a man named Paul Johnson, a sparkly-eyed clammer whose house had many areas of old wallpaper that David used to beautiful advantage in a number of his classic photographs. The first thing I noticed about Johnson was that he had a tattoo. (In 1981, not everyone had a tattoo, no “normal” people had tattoos. Now normal people have tattoos on their necks.) Paul’s was an apple, underneath which was written in that old-timey tattoo cursive the name Eddie. It was on his wrist. It couldn’t have been covered by a sleeve. The other thing was, it had faded and blurred in that way that meant it had been there a long time. Do you understand what I mean by describing this to you?

David lived at that time in New York where, I knew from the legend that preceded him, he was an exhibited photographer and knew all the important punks and New Wavesters. He was tall, kind of disheveled, and not exactly punk or New Wave looking. I remember finding this odd. A New Wave look at that point seemed to me a very important thing to have. I think for David it was a discarded trope. In the same way, odd as it is, he seemed so much older than I, even though he was twenty-seven, and I was twenty-one. This was not just because of his mantle of New York experience. It also had to do with his finely honed knowledge. At that point, I had met and savored old queans who talked about Garbo and Dietrich like they knew them personally. David could talk about the court of Marie Antoinette and the Romanovs like he had been there.

From Artforum, February 1981. Ad for Diego Cortez's “New York/New Wave” at P.S. 1. Photo: David Armstrong.


Later that fall, David came to visit us—Mark Morrisroe, Stephen Tashjian aka Tabboo!, and me—in Boston, where we were living at 85 Park Drive. He brought a box of 16 x 20" black-and-white prints that perhaps he had been storing in Boston someplace, or maybe he was still printing at the Museum School on the sly. In any case, it was the first we’d seen his work other than the full-page picture of Evan and John Lurie that had been used as the advertisement in Artforum magazine for Diego Cortez’s “New York/New Wave” exhibition at PS1. There weren’t as many opportunities for publishing images then. Everybody and their brother didn’t have books of their photographs, and there was no Internet.

The visit lifted the veil on his genius. This was work that stood among the masters. I liked it more than Robert Mapplethorpe and almost as much as Diane Arbus. I had not yet discovered Peter Hujar. I had not yet discovered Bronzino for that matter. David inculcated me in his work, as well as to Guido Reni—the history of portraiture pervades Armstrong’s art. It didn’t really matter what I thought. I was a kid from the sticks beginning my second year of art school. He seemed charmed by my adoration, though, and I appreciated being taken seriously.

David, I realized almost immediately upon hearing of his death, was the least judgmental person I had ever known and—considering his milieu—the least elitist. One of his best friends and divine models was this wretched girl who was a real “thief and a shitkicker,” to borrow a phrase from the movie Female Trouble (which was a common thing for David to do). This girl could have stepped out of a Reynolds painting; she had a face like a porcelain doll and would have taken the gold out of your teeth while you were still breathing. David loved her and loved the people she stole from. It didn’t occur to him to alter his opinion based on morals. This is not to say he never said an unkind word. In fact, he was at his most delightful when he did. Which was quite a bit come to think of it, before I paint him as Peg o’ My Heart in his absence. I’m quite sure he wouldn’t like that. However, he didn’t care what any one did or who anyone “was” or, for that matter, if they were beautiful or not.

We took a walk through the Fens to a package store for a bottle of gin. At twenty-two, I still thought in terms of “drinks”: a gin and tonic, a gimlet, maybe it came later but a negroni. As we left the shop, having purchased a fifth with pooled funds, he said, “What are you waiting for?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Crack that bottle, I want a swig!” Of warm gin? I thought. No mixer, no ice, no lime?! He handed me the bottle. Ugh. I drank it anyway. Just to be cool.

I could tell you more stories about how he made my life a more interesting place. So could a thousand people who were his friends. Everyone who ever knew him knows they encountered someone really extraordinary. He was a hard worker, although he gave the impression of being constantly in repose. The work really speaks, whistles, sings, mourns, and cries out for itself. I have attempted over the years to copy it and found it can’t be done.

When I was young and he was twenty-seven I thought of him as old; I’m now fifty-four, and he’s dead and seems even older. Funny how that works. All I can say in closing is: If you never met him, you got screwed.

Jack Pierson is an artist living in New York.

David Armstrong. Photo: Ben Grieme.


“HI, DOLL,” was David’s usual greeting when I saw him. “Hi, doll,” or “my dear darling,” or, if he was feeling inclined toward the black-and-white cinematic, a crooning “fix the kids a drink, George” (this is a line from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), or just as often, some trademark Davidism such as, “I’ve just spent Christmas in a deep and probing excursion into the world of emotional extortion and psychic depravity—good times.” It occurs to me now that David was the only friend whom I greeted with a kiss on the lips. It wasn’t sexual—I wasn’t his type. It was a soft peck, an intimate reminder that the family of slightly damaged orphans we had all become was, for an hour or an afternoon around David, complete.

The question of biography is a loaded one when evaluating the work of artists—particularly photographers such as David, who relied as much on formal structures as the intimacies he created with subjects in the temporary safety zones of his camera frame. He made no attempt to hide his personal connections to what he shot—from the friends and lovers he photographed in his hauntingly candid and restlessly raw images from 1970s and ’80s downtown New York and Provincetown to his light-fueled portraits of young men taken in the 2000s at his brownstone at 615 Jefferson Avenue in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. I’ve always thought that David’s work was about time: how he manages to unfreeze the still image, to let it drift a few seconds forward and backward in his lens, like he was capturing breathing or the charged air around his sitters. It isn’t timelessness but time, stretching and bending, that gives his prints their lasting life.

In his black-and-white photograph George in the water, from 1977, it is the direct heavy-lidded stare of the young man with his mouth slightly open that seems to wave and recede in front of the viewer far more than the ocean in which he is submerged. David’s biography, like most, was filled with loves and losses—only his hits came earlier and quicker, as a survivor of the raging death toll of the ’80s. I remember admiring his photograph of a handsome young man lying on the floor, arms folded around his head and looking up coyly at the camera, in his 2012 book Night and Day, and David saying: “That’s Kevin, my first BF in New York, at Palm Beach Towers right after New Years 1978. He was the only boy who ever really loved me. He succumbed to the ‘gay cancer’ in 1983 shortly before his twenty-fifth birthday.” I can’t speak to David’s biography. I met him long after those nights and days, after he left New York for Boston and Europe and returned a decade later to the city. But I can give a sense of the gorgeous, feral poet whose eye had been trained on those minutes and years.

David Amstrong, George in the water, Provincetown, 1977.


I met David in 2000, when New York had not yet entirely given in to the nostalgia of the tougher, meaner, and seemingly more authentic eras of downtown bohemianism in which David had a leading part. Even then, he struck me as an endangered animal, not only for enduring drugs and AIDS and the vicious carnival of art-world favoritism (we are, I’m afraid, least kind to photographers), but because he was simply so unlike any other human I’d ever met, vulnerable and resilient and so sure of predilections and curiosities and the itching improvisations of his mind and the constellation of poets, artists, writers, and film scenes that made up his emotive palette. To me, David didn’t seem to come from a series of places but time periods: the Whartonian 1900s, Tennessee Williams’s 1950s, two dashes of East Village 1980s, the reclusive Emily Dickinsonian 1860s while a war blazed somewhere south. If pushed, he could tell wonderful, deranged stories about his youth in Boston and Manhattan—about Nan Goldin, Cookie Mueller, Joey Gabriel, his lifelong soul mate Lisa, about friends jumping out of windows, OD-ing, or surviving on their humor and wits. Those names and stories of downtown New York seemed so much more alive and potent than ones of Warhol’s factory because they were red-blooded, not yet silvering into myth.

I might have been a romanticizer of David’s early days, but he wasn’t. He never turned his back on the present. Unlike many artists of his generation, he never closed the door to drift in a wilder, cloistered past that no longer existed. It might surprise only those who didn’t know David how many young friends he had. We collected around him naturally, and he simply became one of us. His brain was faster, his cultural references more kaleidoscopic and fleet-footed, but he had a dark, boyish humor and the rare inquisitiveness of someone who can be shocked by a bit of good gossip as if he hadn’t heard anything like that happening before.

His humor, now that was something to behold. I think maybe that was the glue that held the family we assembled around him together. He enjoyed the decay in the roses. I remember him telling me why he picked his particular bedroom in the country house in Bovina he shared with two friends. When he first toured the house, which had previously been owned by what sounded like an over-breeding Hells Angels’ biker gang, he went into an upstairs bedroom and saw that a child had written in crayon on the wall: “I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, MOMMY, I WANT TO DIE.” That had to be David’s room. He decorated it with a motley of fringed pillows and brocaded fabrics like his own bordello for one.

When I think of David, he is always perched on a sofa—especially in the last year, holed up at his devoted best friend James’s house in Manhattan. David walked gracefully. He was tall and agile and surprisingly strong in his thick black glasses. but there was a constant sense he might tip over at any moment into the closest, softest chair. He reminds me of a skinnier, far more benign King Sardanapalus lounging on his ornate divan in the famous painting by Delacroix, except instead of golden elephants and a harem of nude women around him, it would be one-eyed porcelain dolls and scurrying cats. That’s how he would meet the flames (likely caused by one of his Newport Menthol Golds). David had the ability to seem like he was always in need of an ambulette (a favorite word of his) but that he would never actually die. I don’t think, even when the end came rushing, any of us thought he would.

  • David Armstrong. Photo: Maciek Kobielski.

  • Self-portrait by David Armstrong.

  • David Armstrong.

A lot of those who knew David well have said that he taught us how to live more freely, to be better selves. That might sound like a trite sentiment, something to say about an overzealous guidance counselor and not a man who considered Edith Bouvier Beale a role model. But in David’s case, it is absolutely true. Can life be an art? That notion cheapens life, not art. But David did make thinking and loving and an appreciation of failing beauty into a certain art form. Here, as an example, is an email he wrote me in June 2013:

I can think of nothing closer to paradise than lolling on the lawn there with you discussing the decline and fall of Miss Lily Bart between the years of 1905 and 1907, a story as old as NY. Lately I have been thinking she gives it all away with one phrase during her first interview with Selden at his flat in the Benedict: “I fear I’ve been about too much.” I’m afraid she had. Her two other killer lines are again, of course, to Selden, though each further and further down the spiral: “Where does dignity end and rectitude begin?” and (my personal fave) “We resist the great temptations, but finally it’s the little ones that bring us down.” GODDESS!!!!

He is talking, of course, about The House of Mirth. He is also talking about an aching, unapologetic connection to the art that he loves—the reason, for all of the noise and money, we hold these forms sacred and meaningful in the first place. David taught us that. Today, everyone has curated their lives down to the final, over-styled inch, but David’s curated life was one built from the deep, free depositories of literature, poems, film clips, romantic missions, dead sprays of Queen Anne’s lace, days watching the blur of the city, the scent of smoke and vetiver, his friends. Now that he has gone beyond the golden door, we are left with his life of photographs and our lives with him. We were so lucky, so fucking lucky, to have done time with him.

Christopher Bollen is a writer and editor in New York. His second novel, Orient, is out by HarperCollins in April 2015.

Arthur Mones, Marjorie Strider, 2001, gelatin silver photograph, 10 1/2 x 13 1/2", Photo: Estate of Arthur Mones.


It took me several viewings (and getting over my aversion to reading wall text) before I realized that it wasn’t a cherry in the mouth of Marjorie Strider’s 1963 Girl with Radish—that’s how indoctrinated I was in the fine visual tradition of Hot Chicks Mouthing Fruit. But when the radish finally broke through my colonized vision, everything about it—from the puny phallus of its root extension to the promised violence of its crunch—disrupted the flat femininity on which so much contemporaneous Pop art had relied. In the work of her male contemporaries such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann, women’s mouths were pretty much vehicles for lipstick and compliance; Strider gave Girl a bit more bite. Like the onion that Bette Davis famously chomped as a means of deflating her enemies in All About Eve, that radish was the perfect kiss off.

When Strider died last August, she left behind a body of work that was varied in form but unified in strategy: With a stealthy sense of humor her art pushed back against visual, material, and political confinement. Her painted reliefs of busty bikini models and ripe vegetables put pressure on the boundary between painting and sculpture, but they also pushed against decorum by brazenly shoving themselves into viewers’ spaces. In the process, Strider’s sculpted boobs and fruiting bodies called the bluff of scopic privilege; they dared viewers (usually in the presence of other viewers) to touch, to implicate themselves tactilely in bodies that they thought they already dominated through vision.

  • Marjorie Strider, Girl with Radish, 1963, acrylic on laminated pine on masonite panels, 72 x 60".

  • Marjorie Strider, Building Work #1, 1970, colored plastic foam. Installation view, White Columns, 112 Greene Street, New York, 1970.

Strider intensified her fascination with salience when she began working with colorful polyurethane foam—a substance that appealed to her because of its monstrous capacity to expand and develop on its own. She whipped up concupiscent mounds of it and made it bubble out of domestic consumables: brooms and bags and boxes of stuff, all gushing with toxic weirdness. She sometimes chose products whose packaging featured images of men wielding tools: a box of Arm & Hammer baking soda, for example, or a bag of Kingsford “hardwood” charcoal briquettes, on whose label a man works a steak with a fork. Such works made clear that muscles and metal prostheses (be they hammers, forks, or, for that matter, sculpture’s precious welding irons) would be useless against her Ooze. When Strider led colored foam through the openings of dilapidated buildings in the early 1970s, it was like discharge from a wound. When she foamed up museums’ staircases and facades, it seemed more like a demonstration of strategies for political takeover: In dealing with institutions, the Ooze seemed to show that resistance to power need not be explosive; it can be soft, decentered, slow, and implacable—like a slime mold. For an artist who learned the hard way that working with certain kinds of plastic can damage a body (at one point she had to change foam formulas because of the debilitating rashes she was getting), it makes sense that Strider would connect her viscous structures more legibly to ecological catastrophe, as with Flying Boat, 2003, in which dollops of tar-black foam cover a speedboat and entrap sculpted seagulls.

Strider was one of several women artists—like Pauline Boty, Rosalyn Drexler, and Elaine Sturtevant—who first gained prominence in the era of Pop, only to be pushed aside as male artists were given center stage. That she managed, over the last ten years, to press back into art history’s eye is cause for celebration. That she passed away so soon after her reemergence is cause for lamentation, not least because her insights and experiences—many of which had yet to be mined by art historians—passed with her. It is thus also a call for action, for us art historians to think much more carefully about the artists and opportunities that we ignore for all the wrong reasons. The longer we wait to recover them, the less time we will have to learn from them.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at the Pennsylvania State University and a regular contributor to Artforum.

Nan Rosenthal. Photo courtesy the Estate of Nan Rosenthal.


I HAD THE PLEASURE of Nan Rosenthal’s friendship for about thirty years. Her wit and witticisms remain with me, as fresh as ever. We often consulted on art-world matters of shared interest, over a landline phone or in person. It was hard to keep our attention on the job rather than drift off into a laughing match, following one ironic observation with another. Some of the laughs were silly, others not so silly. The best bits of humor—the not-so-silly laughs—usually came at the expense of illustrious colleagues, and maybe unfairly. We didn’t think it was unfair at the time. Perhaps more than anyone I’ve known, Nan could see into souls. She could pinpoint what was right or wrong about a person, and then reduce the matter to a witty phrase. Officially, Nan will be remembered for her various writings—on Yves Klein, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer, and many others. These have entered the art-historical canon. Her friends will recall her wit, but this was of the moment and thoroughly contextual. It can’t be recorded and shouldn’t be.

I met Nan in 1984, in connection with a College Art Association session she was planning. She needed to add poststructuralist theory to the mix of presentations she had assembled. She had enlisted a well-respected theorist, who then dropped out. Nan recruited me as a replacement. In that pre-Google era, I can’t imagine how she found my publications, which were in a number of obscure journals. Yet, to encourage my participation, she tailored her invitation to my own special interests. This turned out to be a bit of an act. After the conference, she admitted that she had taken a chance without knowing much about me. This first encounter was a demonstration of Nan’s professional skills (perhaps elements acquired during her early years as a journalist), which would have served her well in many lines of work. One quickly perceived that she was intelligent, amusing, cajoling, thoroughly charming. But most of all, she was resourceful—so if something needed to be done, she would figure out how, prevaricating as necessary. I think this was all part of Nan’s professional smarts, her canniness.

Nan was a perfectionist, not only with respect to the details of scholarly documentation and curatorial practice, but especially concerning any public performance, where directness and clarity were required. If she chose someone to do something, it would have to be done as she would do it—perhaps with some anxiety but in the end perfectly. This fact corresponds with the experience of a number of younger professionals who had the good fortune to serve as Nan’s assistants and interns over the years, particularly during her curatorial stints at the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nan was totally nurturing, but she also set the highest standard and could be severely critical when things went awry. One way or another—to put it in neutral terms—she would induce people around her to meet her standard. In this regard, she was a great teacher of both art-historical and curatorial matters and also of professional protocols. From Nan, I learned more about how my field was operating than I had learned from the graduate faculty responsible for my degree. Like her humor, much of what Nan taught me shouldn’t be repeated.

Nan was a person of enthusiasms, and she would put her faith in people who seemed right to her, then she would create a network of such people, who would profit from knowing each other. I was one of numerous younger colleagues with whom Nan chose to collaborate and, through the collaboration, to instruct. In many respects, Nan was my closest art-historical colleague, even though the arc of her career largely removed her from academic work, bringing her into the museum, where she was involved more with artists and collectors. Through Nan, I first met many of the artists about whom I would come to write, as well as some of my favorite curatorial and art-historical colleagues, and even some of my future students. Nan shared her contacts and friendships extraordinarily generously—in collaboration rather than in competition. Her humor could be wicked, but it was private—a brilliantly modernist form of venting. To the contrary, her professional life was marked by its openness and a generous sharing of responsibilities.

Artists respected Nan for her remarkable care in both curating and writing. In turn, she revered works of art and the artists who made them. During her New York years she became especially close to a number of major figures, including Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Chuck Close, and Joel Shapiro. Her husband, Henry Cortesi, a bachelor until age fifty-four, proved an ideal match for Nan’s wit. Not only did he share in these many friendships with artists, but his marriage to Nan brought her the highest level of happiness.

Richard Shiff is an art historian and Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin.