Anthology Celebrates a Storied Era of New York Artists Who Broke Boundaries
Alfred Leslie's The Last Clean Shirt, with subtitles by Frank O'Hara
Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives
In just a little over six hours, the total running time of the four programs of shorts, most from the 1960s, playing over three days at Anthology in its "Inventing Downtown" series, it's possible to see new universes being created during an especially fertile epoch of New York artmaking. Presented in tandem with the exhibition "Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965," which opened on Tuesday at New York University's Grey Art Gallery and runs though April 1, the Anthology retrospective spotlights the efflorescence of experimentation among those who grew tired of waiting to be anointed by the cultural gatekeepers uptown.
Many of the artists featured in "Inventing Downtown" broke away from the confines of the studio entirely and/or picked up different tools. One of those as skilled with the paintbrush as the camera is Alfred Leslie, who rose to prominence as an AbEx painter in the 1950s. By the end of that decade, he would co-direct, with the photographer Robert Frank, the giddy, freewheeling Pull My Daisy (1959; not in the Anthology show), a film featuring a cast of Beat and art-world luminaries and a foundational work of New American Cinema, a movement that, defined by its disregard for Hollywood convention, coalesced mainly in New York in the late 1950s and early '60s. Leslie's own downtown loft doubles as the set of Pull My Daisy; for The Last Clean Shirt (1964), he went outdoors, filming from the backseat of a convertible that motors around Cooper Square and up Third Avenue. This puckish work repeats the same scenario three times: A white woman (Ruth Cazalet) and a black man (Richard White), identified in the closing credits as "the doctor and his wife," get into the car; for about ten minutes, he drives and she talks incessantly in gibberish Finnish. In the initial segment, her words are untranslated; in the second and third, "subtitles" are provided by Frank O'Hara. Brilliantly absurd and exacting, the text consists primarily of lines repurposed from O'Hara's poems (like the ending of "Naphtha": "I am ashamed of my century/For being so entertaining") or of exquisitely tossed word salad like "for a hunk of chewed-up bagel bestiary I organize." With its recurring action and unanticipated language, The Last Clean Shirt, each episode of which concludes with the Charles Otis r&b nugget of the same name, makes sense of nonsense, and vice versa.
I found myself fixated on the impeccable oxford that the New York School poet himself wears in the warm fifteen-minute portrait USA Poetry: Frank O'Hara (1966), directed by Leslie and Richard O. Moore and filmed just a few weeks before O'Hara's outrageously early death, at age forty, from injuries after he was hit by a jeep on Fire Island. Here the writer is gloriously alive, smoking, typing, talking on the phone, stroking the cat that hops into his lap, working on a script with Leslie, reading five of his poems in full — each one evincing his marvelous cataloging of everyday delights and more rarefied pleasures.
Dionysian diversions also abound in "Inventing Downtown." For Meat Joy (1964), first performed in Paris and later staged at the Judson Memorial Church — the preeminent Greenwich Village site of so much avant-garde activity, where some of the footage of this work was filmed — Body-art trailblazer Carolee Schneemann assembled eight nearly nude men and women to writhe onstage in a manner that suggests Busby Berkeley updated for the Age of Aquarius. In the erotic mayhem, raw chicken, sausages, and paint are rubbed onto or applied to bodies, the orgiastic frenzy deliriously in contrast with the bubblegum pop of Millie Small and Lesley Gore heard on the soundtrack. The piercing juxtaposition of sight and sound also gives much of Schneemann's Viet Flakes (1965) its power: A collection of atrocity images from the Vietnam War, sourced from newspapers and magazines, is scored to a dense audio collage consisting in part of micro-samples of Top 40 hits (the opening bars of Jackie DeShannon's "What the World Needs Now Is Love," half a line from the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out"), their titles and lyrics incongruous with the still images of the horrors ravaging Southeast Asia.
The carnal abandon that animates Meat Joy also defines, at least in its concluding minutes, Kusama's Self-Obliteration (1967), Jud Yalkut's far-out chronicle of Pop-art pioneer Yayoi Kusama. Contrary to the title, the artist is shown furiously creating and generating, painting on all manner of canvases (including a semi-erect dong belonging to one of the score of gyrators at a discotheque groove-in) and adorning flora and fauna (not least remarkably compliant kitties) with polka dots, one of her trademark flourishes.
Less overtly libidinal but just as anarchic is Flower (1963) by Robert Whitman, a high priest of Happenings. In this piece, originally staged at 9 Great Jones Street, a woman, tormented by sleep that won't come, tosses and turns on a bed on the floor; mounds of paper and clothing scraps become diabolical playthings; performers (including postmodern-dance demiurges Trisha Brown and Simone Forti), clutching their satin garments, warily circle one another. In a later interview, Whitman noted that he wanted to film Flower so that he would have "just enough to remember." Thanks to the Anthology retrospective, those who weren't at those various Lower Manhattan lofts and alternative exhibition spaces over five decades ago — and even those who were — now have an abundance to commemorate.
Anthology Film Archives
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