Edit deAk (1950–2017)

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Portrait of Edit DeAk, 1981. Courtesy of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Collection of MOMA and MFA, Houston.

I FIRST MET EDIT DEAK IN 2000, in a place she lovingly dubbed the “salt mines.” The salt mines, to be exact, were the studios of Donald Baechler.

Baechler’s 1980s paintings were a massive influence on me, so after college, when I went to apprentice with him, I was already super excited—but imagine my surprise when this subterranean sphinx rolled out of the wings.

Edit was like a 1920s film starlet. Someone who could use the word darling perfectly. She had a wonderful Cleopatra haircut that was a deep, fiery maroon. She spoke in a “Hungerican” accent in an incredibly deep and brassy vocal range that could scrub the wax out of your ears. Her ideas would quake your mind and finish in laughter. She spoke in riddles, and you would be judged on your responses to her poetic concoctions. If you could play . . . your head was spared.

Words were her playground, her fireworks display. Slangwiches were what Edit served for dinner, lunch, and breakfast. A mixture of observation plus humor melted mundane words and yielded nicknames for all of us, and she renamed the world around us. I was “Fuzzy” not only because of the unruly beard but because I made nonsensical noises all the time. Baechler was, of course, called Maestro: the don of the salt mine’s denizens. She herself was Edito. An assistant who wore ripped shirts and was always on ladders—she called Tarzan. But the best act of naming came to her when she mistakenly opened another assistant’s mail, which contained a dainty slender ladle . . . that’s when James Franklin was quickly nicknamed “Princess Ladle.”

Edit really valued the hangout. She was a historian. She had seen styles come and go. Her job at the salt mines, other than being a muse and court poet, was librarian. Often, a line from a book or piece of ephemera in Donald’s massive collection could launch Edit into telling a story, but soon one story sprouted into two, and on and on, until a shrub of stories got all laced up, and in between our laughter, we’d discover it was time to head home.

Who (and what) were these stories about? Well, Donald Baechler, Rammellzee, Rene Ricard, Peter (her husband), her Wooster Street loft, Ingrid Sischy, Peter Schuyff, “Francisco Clemeta,”* her hairdresser, James Nares, Jack Smith, her favorite uncle from Hungary, “Uncle Mustache,” her Cadillac she couldn’t really drive, Alan Vega, Basquiat, Warhol, as well as Art-Rite, Artforum, Art Random, and Printed Matter, to name a few. 

At the salt mines, Edit’s relationship with Maestro was humorous bordering on the absurd. Well—hell! It was a Beckett play. Edit couldn’t hear and wore a hearing aid that was constantly falling apart and buzzing. Donald mumbles. Edit never heard mumbling, so Donald would have to repeat his previous sentence, sometimes twice, now screaming. Edit would scream back in her bass tone. Seeing Donald and Edit exchanging concepts in this manner was like watching a grammar-school band in slo-mo. Very soothing. Misunderstandings abounded—which was perfect for Edit’s poetic riffing skills: more meanings meant more stories. And what would an employee who couldn’t hear do? Answer the studio phones, of course, screaming loudly, “Hello! I am deaf!” And most of the time she would pronounce it “death” to get a second laugh.

I remember one particular story that made an impression on me was about her friend—the cutting-edge pioneer of Hip-hopisms—Rammellzee. A kindred spirit to Edit, no doubt, because of his own obsessions with language. In his paintings, sculpture, raps, and graffiti, intergalactic battles that stretched back through time and space took place against the standardization of alphabets forced on present society by fourteenth-century monks. Edit wrote a comprehensive article about Rammellzee’s wild style theories and practices in a May 1983 Artforum article, “Train as Book.”

To accompany his performances, Zee created elaborate shogun-style armored outfits made of repurposed hubcaps, children’s toys, and costume jewelry. Edit mentioned that one day he roller-skated into her apartment on Wooster Street wearing one of these outfits with a backpack full of fireworks launchers, and left seven years later.

I was lucky enough to hear Edit’s personal cassette recordings of her and Rammellzee talking about his work. These recordings gave me an entirely enriching view of Rammellzee’s art. You think Peter Halley’s semi-idiotic* texts are jam packed! Zee’s language was as theoretical as it was electrified by 1980s street culture, and armored to take no shit from anyone, anywhere. A funky backbeat lexicon logic that no one else could compete or keep up with—that is, other than Edit deAk.

The librarian knew that I was particularly hooked on the Rammellzee stories. So, one day, while salt-mining* she hit me with this cartoon. She and Rammell were in Italy. It was night, and they had broken into the Colosseum ruins. Oh my God! Zee was at high volume, seething with visions of history of the mighty gladiators who fought and died in this very arena; with his eyes full of tears, he pulled off his ring and whipped it into the center of the dark Colosseum.

“That’s how cool he is! That’s how possessed!” she told me.

In later years, I think it was truly difficult for this purest of punks to navigate the fact that many of the horses she had bet on had now become wealthy New York Institutions. Finding herself becoming frequently allergic to making public appearances, she would stay home and watch La Femme Nikita on TV, or a PBS special on seals. It’s a difficult question: How does a rock star/punk/anarchist keep their edge? Or city for that matter, in the face of money? That’s why I feel deeply lucky to have been a part of the Workfarce* at Donald Baechler’s studio, when I was to meet this amazing figure who chronicled her magical, wild exploits of a New York long gone and whitewashed. Her wildness outlived literally everyone’s. 

That was what drove the psychology behind her regular, over-the-top statement, “I have wanted to die for years.”

Well, you finally got your wish, and I return to you. May the farce* be with you, always, Edito!

[Asterisks signify Edit-isms]

Brian Belott is a Brooklyn-based artist whose new theater-based performance piece will appear this fall in Performa.