PRINT April 1996

Flanagan’s Wake

On January 4 BOB FLANAGAN succumbed to cystic fibrosis, the disease with which he had struggled all his life and that eventually became central to his art. In the following pages, Dennis Cooper’s remembrance of the artist appears alongside DEBORAH DRIER’s 1994 interview, conducted in the hospital-room installation visiting hours at the New Museum in New York, and several excerpts from Flanagan’s Pain Journal.

BOB FLANAGAN AND I met in the late ’70s. At the time he’d published one thin book of gentle, Charles Bukowski–influenced poetry entitled The Kid Is the Man (Bombshelter Press, 1978). We were both in our mid 20s, born less than a month apart. I was sporting a modified punk/bohemian look and hated all things hippie-esque. Bob looked like one of the Allman Brothers: thin, junkie pale, with shoulder-length hair, a handlebar mustache, and an ever-present acoustic guitar that he’d occasionally strum while belting out parodies of Bob Dylan songs. His style put me off initially, as mine did him, but I found his poetry amusing, edgy, and odd, and his clownish, sarcastic personality belied a deeply submissive nature.

There was a new, upstart literary community forming around Los Angeles’ Beyond Baroque Center, where Bob was leading a poetry workshop. I had met the poet Amy Gerstler in college, and she and I began to hang out at Beyond Baroque in hopes of meeting other young writers. After a few months of hunting and pecking through the crowds, a small, tight gang of us had begun to form, including, in addition to Bob, Amy, and myself, the poets Jack Skelley, David Trinidad, Kim Rosenfield, and Ed Smith, artist/fiction writer Benjamin Weissman, and a number of other artists, filmmakers, and the like. We partied together, showed one another our works-in-progress, and generally caused a ruckus in the then-dormant local arts scene.

Very early on, Bob told us he had cystic fibrosis, and that it was an incurable disease that would probably kill him in his early 30s—if he were lucky. But apart from his scrawniness, his persistent and terrible cough, and the high-protein liquids he constantly drank to keep his weight up, he was, if anything, the most energetic and pointedly reckless of us all. At that stage, Bob’s poetry only obliquely described his illness, and barely touched on his masochistic sexual tendencies. In fact, it took him a while to reveal the details of his sex life to his new chums. I think the fact that my work dealt explicitly with my own rather dark sexual fantasies made it relatively easy in my case, and I remember his surprise and relief when I responded to his confession with wide-eyed fascination.

Bob was working on the densely lyrical, mock-humanist poems that would later be collected in his second book, The Wedding of Everything (Sherwood Press, 1983). He began to encode within his poetry little clues and carefully offhand references to S/M practices, and, gradually, as his vocabulary became more direct, the sex, and in particular his unabashed enjoyment of submission, humiliation, and pain, were revealed as the true subjects of his work.

Writing was difficult for Bob. One, he was a perfectionist. Two, with his sexual preferences finally out in the open, he was more interested in talking about and enacting fantasies that had largely played themselves out in daydreams and in private autoerotic practices. It was around this time that Bob met Sheree Levin, aka Sheree Rose, a housewife turned punk scenester with a master’s degree in psychology. They fell in love, and, profoundly influenced both by her feminism and her interest in Wilhelm Reich’s notions of “body therapy,” Bob changed his work instantaneously and radically. For the rest of his life, Bob, usually working in collaboration with Sheree, used his writing, art, video, and performance works to chronicle their relationship with Rimbaudian lyricism and abandon.

Bob began to live part-time at Sheree’s house in West Los Angeles, along with her two kids, Matthew and Jennifer. Bob was an exhibitionist, and Sheree loved to shock people, so their rampant sexual experimentation became very much a public spectacle. It wasn’t unusual to drop by and find the place full of writers, artists, and people from the S/M community, all flying on acid and/or speed, Bob naked and happily enacting orders from the leather-clad Sheree. During this period Bob published two books, Slave Sonnets (Cold Calm Press, 1986) and the notorious Fuck Journal (Hanuman Books, 1987). He also began an ambitious book-length prose poem called The Book of Medicine, which he hoped would explore the relationship between his illness and his fascination with pain. At his death, the work remained incomplete, though sections had been used in his performances and have appeared in anthologies.

I was programming events at Beyond Baroque in those days and, as we were all interested in performance art, I organized a night called “Poets in Performance,” in which we tried our hands at the medium. Bob and Sheree’s piece involved Bob, clad only in a leather mask, improvising poetry while Sheree pelted him with every imaginable food item. It was such a hit, and Bob was so thrilled by this successful merging of his fetishes, his art, and his exhibitionist tendencies, that he and Sheree began doing similar, increasingly extreme performances around town. Perhaps the most famous and influential of these works, Nailed, 1989, began with a gory slide show by Rose and concluded, after various, highly stylized S/M acts, with Bob nailing his penis to a wooden board. The performance made Bob infamous, and he was subsequently asked to perform in rock videos by Nine Inch Nails, Danzig, and Godflesh, as well as being offered a role in Michael Tolkin’s film The New Age. Nailed also interested Mike Kelley, who later used Bob and Sheree as models in one of his pieces and wound up doing several collaborations with the duo.

Coincidentally, interest in S/M and body modification was growing in youth culture, especially after the publication of Modern Primitives (RE/Search), which profiled Sheree’s life as a dominatrix. Bob was a hero and model to the denizens of this subculture, even as he found much of their interest to be superficial and trendy. Bob was always and only an artist. He never cloaked his masochism in pretentious symbolism, nor did he use his work to perpetuate the fashionable idea that S/M is a new, pagan religious practice. His performances, while exceedingly graphic and visceral, involved a highly estheticized, personal, pragmatic challenge to accepted notions of violence, illness, and death. For all the obsessive specificity of his interests, Bob was a complex man who wanted simultaneously to be Andy Kaufman, Houdini, David Letterman, John Keats, and a character out of a de Sade novel. So his performances were as wacky and endearing as they were disturbing and moving. For example, at the same time he was making a name for himself as a shockmeister, he was performing on Sundays with the improvisational comedy troupe The Groundlings, in hopes of fulfilling his lifelong ambition to be a stand-up comedian.

By the early ’90s, Bob’s physical condition was worsening. He was having to hospitalize himself before and after performances just to get through them. He and Sheree proposed a performance/installation piece to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, which was accepted and became Visiting Hours, a multimedia presentation comprising sculpture, video, photography, text, and Bob himself poised in a hospital bed acting as the work’s amiable host and information center. Visiting Hours was popular and critically well received, eventually traveling to the New Museum in New York and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1993, RE/Search published Supermasochist, a book entirely devoted to Bob’s life and work. Also that year, filmmaker Kirby Dick began to shoot a feature-length documentary film about Bob and Sheree entitled Sick, which will be released this fall.

There was some hope during this period that Bob might be able to have a lifesaving heart and lung transplant, but, after months of tests, it was determined that his lungs had deteriorated too much to allow him to survive the operation, and he began to accept that he had maybe a year left to live. He and Sheree concentrated on visual art pieces, some of which were exhibited at Galerie Analix in Geneva and at NGBK Gallery in Berlin. The duo collaborated on a last installation work, Dust to Dust, which Sheree is currently completing, and Bob kept a year-long diary of his physical deterioration, Pain Journal, which will be published in the future. Even as most of Bob’s life began to be taken up with stints in the hospital and painful physical therapy, he was still on the scene, frail but good-natured, using his omnipresent oxygen tank as a comical prop just as he had once used his acoustic guitar. Right after Christmas, Bob went into the hospital one final time and died on January 4, 1996. In the 15 years I knew him, Bob grew from a minor poet into a unique and profoundly original artist who accomplished more than he ever imagined he could, and whose loss, predictable or not, is one of the greatest difficulties those of us who knew and loved him have ever had to face.

Sheree Rose is in the process of setting up the Bob Flanagan Foundation, which will use all future profits from Bob’s writing and art to fund grants for artists with physical disabilities and/or artists whose subject matter is too controversial to appeal to conventional organizations that distribute grants. Sheree Rose can be reached by E-mail at