PRINT Summer 2007

Jeff Perkins

Guy de Cointet, Espahor ledet ko uluner!, 1973. Performance view, Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles, 1973. Billy Barty.

I HAD A STUDIO on Main Street in Santa Monica in Ocean Park, where there was a little artist community at the time. One day I heard a knock at my door, and there was Guy standing there, and his eye was huge. Somebody had walked up to him on the street, a total stranger, and punched him. Just smashed him in the face. He was really upset. I think he had a beautiful little storefront in the Venice Circle then, but he wanted to move into my place immediately. So I said yeah. He moved in that day and stayed for about four months. He was smoking Gauloises; he always ate very French, very simple. To me he was culture.

By that time we had already collaborated on a piece, his very first publication in 1971, a newspaper called ACRCIT, which featured an overview of ciphers. Pages were laid out in braille and Morse code; one page had a magic square and another a Muslim curve; there were a couple of puzzles and some backward writing, which he could do with incredible facility. When he asked me to contribute something, I went to Sam Flax in Westwood and found an aerial view of palm trees in Los Angeles, which he made into a spread. This image, to me, represented the city: flatness and palm trees, which were imported, just like Guy, into California. Now, I think Guy made this newspaper because he was ready to make a statement, to say, “I am here. I exist.” But, of course, he couldn’t help his sense of irony, which dictated that he publish the thing anonymously. I mean, he didn’t even sell the newspaper. He just went out and surreptitiously put it in the racks of different bookstores.

I once heard that Guy grew up in a castle and came from a French military family—that his father was a general, and his father’s father a general, going all the way back to Napoleon. But Guy always hid behind different characters. Not long after making the newspaper, he wanted to do performance, so he asked me if we could go to the Screen Actors Guild together to find someone to play the part of his main character, Qei No Mysxdod—which is Guy de Cointet in code. He was looking for a girl to play this person, and we looked through books and books of child actresses, but for some reason he wasn’t pleased with anybody. About two weeks later, he called me to say he had found the right actor: Billy Barty, this famous little person. Guy was elated. Billy didn’t know what was going on and didn’t care. The performance took place at Cirrus Gallery in Los Angeles, courtesy of Jean Milant, and Billy stood by a blackboard and a table with all Guy’s books on it. Billy just introduced himself: “Yes, I’m Qei No Mysxdod. I’m passing through town, on my way to Benakhor, but I want to present my most recent books. Does anybody have any questions?” And so he took questions. It was scintillating.

As Guy made more performances, he became more confident, which meant more playful. I saw Tell Me in September 1979, at the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, which was really funny: Three women were talking to the objects around them, speaking in a soap-opera style. They used trivial parlor language, like characters on Sex and the City—“Olive, everybody knows Emily is crazy about Peter and vice versa” and “Mary, are you interested in Arthur?”—but their sentences were often incomplete. What was funny to me was that, while they sounded like cheap paperbacks, it was really a sophisticated play on art. It was art, yet it was art making fun of itself. Guy’s writing was always a bit of a ruse in this way, too. I deciphered some of his first book, A Captain from Portugal, 1972, which read in part, “I have no heroes, I have no dreams . . . I’ve discovered eight varieties of antelope.” When I told Guy I couldn’t decode it all, he just said, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.” That was his game: He was into the mystery of language, of puzzles, of objects taking on lives of their own. Guy would place all his strange sources in play, in various forms—whether publishing, theater, himself—and then let the audience figure it out.

Jeff Perkins is an artist who lives and works in New York.