John Vaccaro in 2007. Photo: John Sarsgard.


FOR THOSE UNFORTUNATE ONES, like me, who never had a chance to experience the Theatre of the Ridiculous in its heyday from the mid-1960s to the early ’70s in New York City, it is difficult to know fully how crucial director John Vaccaro was to that movement’s unconventional, disorienting, and defiant queer vision. The two other key figures of the Ridiculous—Charles Ludlam and Ronald Tavel—were both playwrights and essayists who reflected on their work and on the broader implications of this radical theater. Their writings provide fantastic evidence of both their wacky and inventive stage plays and their occasionally divergent views on what makes their theater ridiculous. Vaccaro, on the other hand, gave relatively few interviews during his lifetime, suffered from respiratory problems for decades that hindered public appearances, and was apparently less concerned than his former collaborators with consolidating his reputation as a leader of one of the most innovative movements in postwar North American theater. In the absence of extensive accounts of his own perspectives and sufficient visual documentation of the productions, we are forced to rely on the words of others to get some sense of how Vaccaro’s stagings lent the Ridiculous structure, charged it with dangerous energy, and stylized its provocations.

Vaccaro arrived in Manhattan from Ohio at the end of 1961 and quickly fell into the orbit of Jack Smith. As he later told playwright Kenneth Bernard, Smith was possibly the most important influence in his life, with “[t]his whole Maria Montez Arabian Nights thing… that drew us together.” Vaccaro performed as the White Bat in Smith’s grandiose film Normal Love (1963–65) and embodied The Lobster in the artist’s live performance Rehearsal for the Destruction of Atlantis, 1965, presented as part of Jonas Mekas’s seminal New Cinema Festival at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque. At the festival, Vaccaro also offered his own performance, Rites of the Nadir, described by Mekas as an “exercise in Artaud theater.” Vaccaro acted in other plays as well, appearing in works by LeRoi Jones and Frank O’Hara put on by the New York Poets Theatre (later the American Theatre for Poets). If Vaccaro learned from Smith the dramatic power and visual arrest of drag performance, he likely developed his directorial flair and freewheeling approach to the written word through his experiences of James Waring and Alan Marlowe’s productions for the Poets Theatre.

Throughout his directing career—which includes the early works with Tavel and Ludlam from 1965–67; eight of Bernard’s productions from 1968–1984; and assorted pieces by Jackie Curtis, Rosalyn Drexler, Tom Eyen, William Hoffman, and Tom Murrin from the early-’70s to the late-’80s—Vaccaro developed a reputation for brief, compact plays that provided a base for a frenzy of visuals, music, and moments of improvisation. He was known to aggressively provoke his performers, pushing them to the edge of their physical, mental, and vocal limits to solicit raw, wounded performances of great intensity. In his 1968 production of Bernard’s The Moke-Eater, Vaccaro “had his actors screaming from the word go.” In the end, Stefan Brecht notes in his indispensible Queer Theatre (1978), “the audience looked bewildered, disgusted, in fact sort of genuinely frightened.” As Vaccaro himself claimed, “In order to be cruel to the audience, you have to be cruel to yourself.” And indeed Vaccaro performed alongside the actors in a number of his early efforts with the Play-House of the Ridiculous, all the better to fuel and direct their energy.

His productions took on American pop culture, parodied gender norms and sexual mores, and tended to subordinate the individual to an alternately horrifying, hilarious, and perverse social world. “The height of drama was always man versus himself. […] I was more interested in the world versus itself. I didn’t give a shit about man.” One unexpected way in which Vaccaro sidestepped “man” was through his highly influential use of glitter makeup. His performers’ faces were typically white paste masks with select colored areas and plentiful amounts of glitter surrounding the heavily outlined lips and eyes. Spectacular and glamorous, tacky and artificial, Vaccaro’s makeup served, at least in Brecht’s poetic assessment, as “a suspension of the faces as in memories of the defunct.” No longer functioning to humanize the performers, these glittery faces were simply another way for Vaccaro to confront his audience with the seductive yet haunting tackiness of their own world. “Glitter was the gaudiness of America… and it was pretty. […] I used it because it was shoving America back into the American faces.”

Humiliating his actors and terrorizing the audience, Vaccaro’s practices might seem another universe from contemporary triggered-happy, safe-space-seeking North American theatergoers. “Your group was totally open to anybody everybody,” Bernard told Vaccaro in 1997. “I mean there couldn’t be a more democratic, all-accepting group of people. It didn’t matter what your sexual, racial, ethnic identity was. You brutalized them all.” Being bombarded with disturbing glamour, juvenile humor, ingenious ridicule, and unspeakable perversion might just be the wakeup call we need today. About Vaccaro’s 1973 production of Bernard’s The Magic Show of Dr. Ma-gico, the Village Voice’s Michael Smith wrote: “It’s like a slap in the face from a beauty.”

Marc Siegel teaches film studies at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main in Germany.

Max Ritvo. Photo: Ashley Woo.


MAX,

We die. You did, who seemed to have believed this fact. That we are of the nature of dying means that what happened to you in August in Los Angeles is that you went ahead of us. If too far ahead.

I froze on a Brooklyn sidewalk the moment I realized I would no longer be chanting your name as I had for months with everyone in our temple: “Max Ritvo . . . Monastic Senjin . . . May they heal all their ills.”

Did you hear, before you died, that Senjin’s last words were “I’m ready”? I have wondered if you were ready, who wrote:

When my heart stops, it will be the end of certain things,
but not the end of things itself.

Sure, my smile is useful, but a chair is useful too.
In the end, I love chairs, and I love dogs,
and I’ll be chairs, and I’ll be dogs
and if I am ever a thought of my widow
I’ll love being that.

To me (a stranger), of course, this is what you are now: the poem. In it, you have rewritten a line I love, by Robert Duncan, into a full first person: “The source of the song will die away.” In the heart of your writing there is a revision of the tense of thought as well, the “continual-thought-of-dying” (Ingeborg Bachmann). The first words of yours I read were about your future death in retrospect:

When I was about to die
my body lit up
like when I leave my house
without my wallet.

What am I missing? I ask
patting my chest
pocket.

and I am missing everything living
that won’t come with me
into this sunny afternoon

This vertigo I feel at the sense you were, when writing, “dead already, in an immemorial past” (Maurice Blanchot) comes from the movement of your impossible traversal of past by future perfect. It serves the same purpose that Jacques Derrida attributed to our tendency to speak, as I am here, to the dead as if directly: “to traverse speech at the very point when words fail us.”

To practice, in language, the dead’s relation to time: an injunction to try to live here where, as you say, “we’re always so close to living.”

Abraham Adams is an artist based in New England.

Mladen Stilinović, Artist at Work Again, 2011. At Ludwig Museum, Budapest, 2011. Photo: Boris Cvjetanovic.


“La Pologne, la Pologne. Isn’t it terribly cold there?”

“Pas du tout,” I answer icily

THIS IS THE DEDICATION Mladen Stilinović wrote me in his artist’s book Energetic Action, comprising newspaper cutouts of political meetings in former Yugoslavia, reprinted on the occasion of his 2010 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. The quote is by Polish poetess Wisława Szymborska: two lines of mordant irony and deceptive simplicity.

Stilinović loved poetry. He loved Polish poetry especially. He wrote his own poems, though he rarely published them. He also loved colloquial language: “One must put an end to it. (Whateva’). Let me be,” went a line from one of his early collage works. He loved to imitate political slogans in his titles: Attack on my Art is an Attack on Socialism and Progress. He took down authorities and playfully occupied the space: Work is a disease – Karl Marx.

It’s very difficult to write about Stilinović and not slip into his style of short, trenchant phrases. How astute and humorous they are, how efficient in keeping us vigilant. “Language is pain. Language is possessed by ideology,” he said. The text of another work: An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist.

Since the beginning of his career began in 1970s Zagreb, he never stopped questioning conventions—whether in collage or photography or film. His notorious artist books began as an open edition: As soon as he would give one away, he would produce another.

There is no art without laziness, Stilinović claimed, teasing both socialist and capitalist obsessions with work and money. He was always opposing social norms, both in the East and in the West, examining his own human and artistic status while remaining obstinate toward any authority. He was proud to be an autodidact. Stilinović’s works are mainly simple in their execution—handwriting on cardboard, paper, plates, cakes—meticulously engaged with poverty, death, money, economy, and pain. Money is the only language everybody understands.

Mladen Stilinović, An Artist Who Doesn’t Speak English is Not an Artist, 1992, acrylic on artificial silk, 54 3/4 x 38 3/5".


He loved potatoes, a simple ingredient. “There are two kinds of art: potato art and cake art,” he told curator Dan Byers and me during a conversation at e-flux during his New York exhibition there two years ago. “New York is full of cake art.” When the lecture adjourned, slices of cake had been carefully placed on the stairway of the gallery.

I have no time is another of his artist books, filled with repetitions of the titular statement. It sounds like a mantra for our age, but Stilinović found it an outrageous and dangerous mode. Stilinović and the art historian Branka Stipancić, his partner in life and art, were always generous with their time. In their apartment on Ljudevit Posavski Street in Zagreb, where Stilinović used to organize his exhibitions, they would meet with artists, curators, students, friends, visitors—these rituals were particularly important for young local artists and curators. We learned so much from them. We laughed, we discussed, we listened, we asked many questions, we wanted to know more about the past, we shared, we worked together, we drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. Stilinović was taciturn—sometimes or even mainly—with a canny smile under his mustache, a distinctive sense of humor, a strong charisma and warm humanity.

Szymborska’s poem is called “Vocabulary.” Stilinović left the title out, though I am sure he considered it a good one. He also omitted the poem’s central verses. They resume so well the complex and multilayered relation to language, East-West, power and politics. I hardly think this was an accident, or that he simply had no time: Stilinović was a master of voids, of mordant irony, and deceptive simplicity.

“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?” she asked, and then sighed with relief. So many countries have been turning up lately that the safest thing to talk about is climate.

“Madame,” I want to reply, “my people’s poets do all their writing in mittens. I don’t mean to imply that they never remove them; they do, indeed, if the moon is warm enough. In stanzas composed of raucous whooping, for only such can drown out the windstorms’ constant roar, they glorify the simple lives of our walrus herders. Our Classicists engrave their odes with inky icicles on trampled snowdrifts. The rest, our Decadents, bewail their fate with snowflakes instead of tears. He who wishes to drown himself must have an ax at hand to cut the ice. Oh, madame, dearest madame.”

That’s what I mean to say. But I’ve forgotten the word for walrus in French. And I’m not sure of icicle and ax.

“La Pologne? La Pologne? Isn’t it terribly cold there?”

“Pas du tout,” I answer icily.

Ana Janevski is associate curator in the Department of Media and Performance Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Alan Vega, 1980. Photo: Ebet Roberts.


“Screams at:
03:33
03:59
04:38
06:15
08:11
09:24
09:50.”

“imagine just playing this , like casually like ppl would listen to Beyonce and shit”

—Comments on a YouTube video of Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop”

THERE WAS NOTHING CASUAL ABOUT ALAN VEGA, who died last summer at (what turned out to be) the age of seventy-eight. An artist, musician, provocateur, and all-around wild man, Vega was best known as the vocalist for the lightning-bolt-channeling Suicide, who in the late 1970s gave Frankenstein-life to the extraordinarily loud, harsh breed of synth punk that not only inspired others to take up the genre, but arguably spawned new wave, industrial, dance punk, and electroclash, and influenced countless diverse acts as well-known and beloved as Bruce Springsteen and as obscure and overlooked as Years on Earth.

The incandescent warmth of Vega’s unhinged-Elvis-style croon lent a soda-fountain sweetness to partner Martin Rev’s open-heart-surgery synths, most famously in the epic “Frankie Teardrop,” in which, over an electronic cicada-drone throb, and punctuating his whisper-spoken narrative with tortured shrieks, Vega starkly limns the travails of a not-yet-of-voting-age Vietnam veteran who shoots his family and himself over money woes. “We’re all Frankies,” Vega concludes. “We’re all lying in hell.”

Suicide, “Frankie Teardrop,” 1977.

In fact, having fought his way out of blue-collar Bensonhurst, the Brooklyn native spent little time reclining: Suicide put out five full-length studio albums, around and between which Vega built for himself a solo career. He collaborated with, among others, Alex Chilton (who would later be celebrated for his own undersung band, the power-poppy Big Star); Lydia Lunch, Genesis P-Orridge, and the Cars’ Ric Ocasek. Additionally, he continued to make artwork, as he had done before Suicide’s genesis, creating paintings, light sculptures, and works made from detritus he found in the street, much of it to more immediate acclaim than he initially received for his music, and none of it earning him an axe thrown in his face, as his work with Suicide reputedly had.

He continued to provoke to the very end. “Life is boring,” he told Noisey a few months before his death. “Right now, I want to get rich. That’s all.” When he died, the public learned that he’d shaved ten years off his age, presumably in an attempt to battle the still-dominant music-biz bias against anyone who’s needed the services of a razor for more than a decade. Consciously or not, Vega resisted the culture of infantilization that has increasingly infected American civilization in recent years; his work was consistently adult, marked by aggression and knowingness, not passivity and innocence. In creating something entirely new, he didn’t attempt to ignore the old; rather, he acknowledged it, then tore it apart, reassembling it into something at once glowing and ugly. Late-modern capitalism posits youth as simultaneously eternal and fleeting, a thing only just gone, that must be continually recaptured; Vega’s work looks only forward, evocative of that which can never be captured to begin with, only sought forever.

Polly Watson is a musician, editor, and writer based in New York.