PRINT March 1994


I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist in which a face appears
— Frank O'Hara, “In Memory of My Feelings”

I DISTRUST NARRATIVES OF ORIGINShere is where my desire began—but I repeatedly feel compelled to concoct them.

1977: a college sophomore, naive, addicted to obfuscation, I visited the Jasper Johns retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art with my friend, a violinist with the eyes of a Bellini Madonna. Before this exhibit I’d seen little contemporary painting. But I loved transcendence, and I loved the Bellini-eyed violinist, and I wished to impress her by unfurling my art-historical intuitions in front of masterpieces. I wanted to be straight, to be a guy. Could the museum help?

Together we rode the Johns show like a Tunnel of Love. We clutched each other; we talked about the pilgrimage of our perceptions. The frothy discourse we generated glued us together, made us feel a couple. How often, in those years, I grew hysterically verbal in the presence of a woman I loved and wished, in my own queer way, to court. And how in retrospect I detest those flights of fancy, even as I recognize that without the sympathies of women whose intimacies I pretend were mere preludes to my eventual coming out, I’d never have tapped those wishes I now, with false confidence, disregarding ambiguity, call “queer.”

And yet—a contradiction?—a few weeks before seeing the Johns retrospective, I’d stumbled into a genial shrink’s office and spoken for the first time about what I humorlessly called my “homosexual feelings.”

Today I’m curious about how one Johns painting in particular summarized the paradoxes of my position vis-à-vis “art” and “desire” (I can’t explain the gaps and antagonisms between these two seemingly neighborly terms). The painting that galvanized me was In Memory of My Feelings—Frank O’Hara, 1961, a work I consider influential within my own history primarily because it prompted me to read O’Hara, whose exuberant fluidity and candor would push me toward the gestures I now consider my own and could not bear living without. But even before I’d read O’Hara—even while, in the Whitney, I stared at the Johns painting, my companion as rapt as I—the terms of my engagement with art were permanently shifting. Although I viewed this painting within a threadbare regime of transcendence; although I scoured its surface, as if it were a Rembrandt self-portrait, for signs of how I might improve my soul; and although I assumed that Johns was part of an enviably straight cultural program, In Memory of My Feelings secretly fed me intimations of a quite other mode, uncloseted and rhapsodic, a mode I am still trying to attain.

In 1977, though, it was not the possibilities of gay figuration that excited me. Now, with hindsight, I can willfully decode Johns’ works, but back then I didn’t linger over the possibly queer significance of his numbers, targets, balls, skin, his allusions to Hart Crane and to Tennyson (the master of “In Memoriam,” so apposite to In Memory of My Feelings). It was because the painting was abstract that I solemnly worked myself into white heat. Beholding this canvas, I was at once greeting queer feeling and—in retrograde motion—refusing all premonitory traces of that identification. Desire’s fulfillment, then, lay in seeking refuge from the figure and from representation. I decided it was wonderful to love paint’s voluptuous accretion, to read—minutely—the brushstrokes for signs of foiled, thwarted interiority. The jism of paint! I found in Johns what I would also relish in Mark Rothko: a nebulous field that would tolerate my extremes of projection, my excesses of interpretation.

Yet Johns’ art is rigorously antisentimental, just as O’Hara’s poetry displays his “feelings” but is critical of mystified ideologies of the self. Though I poured my own “feelings” into In Memory of My Feelings, the painting now seems to me rather drab and silent. I must have deciphered a hidden glamour in its laconic gravity; I must have appreciated the fork and spoon, dangling; I must have loved the way these dining utensils topped or supplemented the two-part canvas (mysteriously hinged in the center), reminding me that life was material, plain, oral. Certainly I must have relished the painting’s playfulness. . . . Honestly, I can’t remember. Now, looking at a reproduction, I can’t even decipher the letters—numbers, too?—on the canvas’ lower-right-hand corner.

Still, the painting, as I reconsider it now, suffuses me with elegiac impulses. O’Hara died in 1966; the painting dates from 1961; I first saw it in 1977. Now, in 1993, I appropriate it as a memorial for O’Hara—as the melancholy afterimage it might always have tacitly implied it would become. Read against an unspecific abstract field, the phrase “In Memory of My Feelings,” stenciled at the bottom of the canvas, reports emotion’s death and disappearance: how impossible it is to be sincere, and how grievous the impediments that thwart any artist who tries to depict desire without dissimulation! O’Hara did his best to ignore those impediments; he threatened to bring us closer than we’d imagined possible to the taboo Jerusalem of “feeling.” And that is why the spectacle of his insouciance and of all its fond, revolutionary corollaries seems now, more than a decade after the advent of AIDS, and nearly three decades after his death, so irretrievable and utopian. In 1993, looking back at the various scenes (Pietà scenes, Fire Island accident scenes, hospital scenes, bedroom scenes, tearoom scenes, museum scenes) now splayed for me like spokes around this painting’s hub, I want to say: Think of all I didn’t know in 1977; think of how this painting might have counseled me, if I’d known how to listen to it; think of what this painting refused, with its magisterial abstraction, to tell me!

Sixteen years after the retrospective, I write these sentences in memory of my heterosexuality. There is much to memorialize; it will take a lifetime. I write today in memory of 1977, when I hadn’t yet given up seeking apotheosis in the artwork’s surface. I write in memory of my delusion that in front of a painting one might dissemble a love affair. I write in memory of a time when I surrendered to a painting’s mesmerism in order—perversely—to lay claim to my own fugitive interiority. I write in memory of the hinges—as if one could open the canvas and find nested within it an ulterior, “sincere” painting. I write in memory of O’Hara, and of the power of words (but only if they refuse compromise) to unlock the competing narratives of what happened in 1977, before I’d named my desires. I write in memory of the art that helped me to find the names, and also helped me to forget them.