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PRINT October 2017

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Glenn O’Brien

Glenn O’Brien on TV Party, New York, 1979. Photo: Bobby Grossman.

IN AN AGE OF TASTEMAKERS, trendsetters, influencers, consultants, and that most pernicious of hybrids, “creatives,” to talk about how cool Glenn O’Brien was is also to acknowledge how diminished this term has become. But O’Brien was very cool, and he achieved this status at a time when the word was still both contested and marginalized. In the remarkable half century since he arrived in New York as a wholesome kid from Cleveland, O’Brien didn’t so much report on culture as actively create it.

I was young enough to know O’Brien’s legendary byline years before I knew him. The downtown scene back in the 1970s was particularly adept at minting its own personalities. Much of the art that was created then is now widely known as a matter of history, but sadly this esoteric social alchemy has not stood the test of time. So it is hard to convey now, but there was a period when O’Brien and some of his buddies, like Richard Prince and Jean-Michel Basquiat, were famous to all of us even if no one else had heard of them yet. And O’Brien’s stature as a writer allowed aspiring critics like me to imagine that we could create more than just words on a page on the back of an ad.

I eventually met O’Brien as many did: when he wrote about me. As part of the circular logic of downtown culture, a new magazine called New York Talk hired a bunch of big-name writers like O’Brien to launch its first issue. The trick for this gig was that not only would O’Brien discuss a new writer he was discovering, but that fresh face would also contribute a piece on him. I failed miserably. O’Brien’s story was hilarious, forcing me to laugh out loud about myself in a way I’ve never enjoyed so much since, and so uncannily insightful that it would make me wonder how he could know me so well from the half-hour phone conversation that had been our only preparation. My piece had none of the humor, grace, or intelligence of his; it was ham-fisted and ingratiating in the most pathetically sycophantic way. I never knew O’Brien to suffer fools, and with swift brevity he let me know that I had written garbage. But he did so with the encouragement that he knew I could do better.

From that point on, O’Brien became my mentor, my standard-bearer, and (when absolutely necessary) my audience. Over the years, I worked with or alongside him in the pages of Artforum, High Times, Interview, Paper, and, finally, Maxim, during his brief tenure as editor at large there. A fair, quick-witted, and inspired collaborator, he nonetheless liked and expected a certain advantage. A mutual friend of ours recently told me, after someone took his photo, “I wish I could remember not to grin. O’Brien was so good at that.” O’Brien had the game face of a guy who remembered not to smile in photographs and who kept his implacable calm at all times, exhibiting a critical distance he wore as intimacy, in the same way that his natty couture was, slyly, his most punk attribute.

Yet a competitive passion lurked ever so quietly behind O’Brien’s stoic mien, as I found out when we were on a TV game show created by the artist Mark Kostabi called Title This. The contestants would compete to title Kostabi’s paintings, with their suggestions subject to the approval of a studio audience. The stakes were relatively low: twenty dollars for each winning title—perhaps a lot for the usual assortment of art critics, musicians, and poets that Kostabi invited to play, but surely chump change to a writer as successful as O’Brien. But of course he always won, often considerably more than the rest of us combined. On those rare occasions when he didn’t, O’Brien would cajole the audience, belittle the character and intelligence of his opposition, pout, and finally mutter with resignation, “I guess it just went over their heads.” And when, fed up, I once accused him of being greedy, he looked at me in disbelief: “Not at all,” he corrected me; “I just like to win.”

The last time I saw O’Brien was toward the end, when he was kind enough to join me on a panel I was moderating about the great photographer and documentarian Henry Chalfant, whose photos of graffiti on the New York subways from the late ’70s and early ’80s helped spread the movement globally. Though clearly in tremendous pain, and dulled around the edges by medication, O’Brien still came up with the most insightful and funny memories to describe this long-lost era in our city’s history. After the talk, with his typical casual disdain, he told me, “I hope I wasn’t too boring, Carlo; I almost fell asleep up there.” Not for the first time, O’Brien had said something that left me speechless, and that I would only find an answer to long after he’d moved on. No, you were far from boring—you have always been the coolest guy in the room, and you always win at everything.

Carlo McCormick is a critic and curator based in New York.