New York

Neke Carson, Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1972,  acrylic on canvas, 21 1⁄4 × 19 1⁄4".

Neke Carson, Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 21 1⁄4 × 19 1⁄4".

Neke Carson

A conceptual artist walks into a gallery. He says, “Take my art—please!” When the dealer doesn’t, the artist snaps a picture of him and goes on his merry way. So what’s the punch line of Neke Carson’s Time Wasting Event, for which he documented the four years and ten minutes he spent between 1971 and 1975 fruitlessly showing assorted people his work? On the day he was finally offered a show, at the René Block Gallery, he declared the piece finished, since he would no longer be wasting his time. But seriously, folks, since the late 1960s Carson has created unconventional and ebullient performances, interventions, drawings, paintings, wild comics, and designs for even wilder inventions. The Mitchell Algus Gallery’s impeccable survey of Carson’s works from 1949 to 2018, “Glam Conceptualism, Interventional Performance, et aliis rerum,” netted the slippery spirit of this artist who has never “careered” so much as “careened” from idea to idea, medium to medium. Carson has referred to his seemingly endless supply of creative fuel as “my line,” his elastic mind the sole connective tissue for his rousing and unpredictable life’s work.

Amid the self-seriousness of early performance and body art, Carson’s impish élan was a cleansing breath. Chris Burden taking a bullet, Valie Export getting a garter tattooed on her upper thigh, Lee Lozano boycotting women: radical classics, to be sure, but gravitas doesn’t have to be a downer. In January 1972, Carson sauntered into the Sonnabend Gallery during the presentation of Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, and—wearing a spiffy suit and bow tie—tripped the light fantastic to Acconci’s “beats.” Consider it a diptych: one jerk dancing on the art while another was jerking off as the art. The title? Retrospective, because why not project a little posterity into the here-and-nowness of a gesture? For Dandruff Exorcism, 1971, the artist would squat inside a gallery or museum and shake the flakes out of his hair and onto a piece of black paper—conducting a giddy tête-à-tête with the likes of, say, Jackson Pollock, an iconoclast in part for painting his canvases on the floor, transforming it into hallowed ground. When Carson performed this routine uninvited at the Leo Castelli Gallery, the dealer was not amused. “Would you mind doing it someplace else?” he asked. “Well, I’m going to the Guggenheim next,” Carson replied. (Boom boom).

If some blue-chippers couldn’t recognize the value of the artist’s oddball oeuvre, others certainly did. When he founded Rectal Realism in 1972—a movement of one (naturally), leaving two extant works—Andy Warhol agreed to sit for him. A videotape of their session lays the process bare, as it were: Warhol sits patiently as Carson—wedding tackle in his left hand and a paintbrush stuck where the sun doesn’t shine—bobs up and down in front of his canvas, dropping his head between his legs, glancing back up at his subject, then again between his legs. More shocking, perhaps, than Carson painting the portrait using only his anus is how very like Warhol it looks.

A brain is not a brand; it is a living, seething, feeding thing, and like any true artist Carson allowed his to roam freely. He drew comics for National Lampoon magazine; he tried (and failed) to become a jockey. He imagined a skirt that looked like the scalp of Richard Nixon, and a machine to help dead birds fly again. The early 1980s saw his Glam Conceptualism period, during which he launched LaRocka Modeling Agency, introducing some of downtown New York’s most fantastic creatures into high fashion. (The artist even made a brief cameo as a club manager in Slava Tsukerman’s eternally stylish film Liquid Sky [1982]). Each canvas in his series “Fictitious Fruit,” 2015–18, features a single piece of produce. Some he painted after actual fruits, others after plastic ones; he even threw in the odd vegetable for fun. Carson allows the viewer to decide what’s real and what’s not, thus serving up a wry metaphor, perhaps, for an artist’s fate in this world. That he has yet to be celebrated by every major museum proves that the joke is on us.